“Land Sick” by Brian Friesen


Bernice lifted the tea cup to her lips and gazed through the cafe window while her sister copied phone numbers onto a white slip of paper – work phone, cell phone, the salon, the tennis club, several other clubs. Outside, sunlight filtered through the leaves high above the crowded street. People rushed by or lingered on the sidewalk, waiting for the streetcar. Small, round wafers of light drifted over the row of tables along the wall just outside, over the cars and people passing by. A woman with a large potted cactus strode past the cafe, dust motes trailing behind her. The flecks of dust made sunbeams in her wake that hung in the air behind her, even after she turned the corner and followed the street that sloped down toward the Willamette River.

The dizziness passed over Bernice again. She closed her eyes for a moment to hold it at bay. Her sister, Elizabeth, didn’t seem to notice. Her tea trembled in the white, porcelain cup. She had lived on the river too long. Too many months turning into too many years. This frantic spinning in her head might keep hanging on like this. For days, maybe. She had packed her bags that morning and left. Bill was on his own now. For a few days. Or maybe longer. His insulin would run out in less than a week, and he probably wouldn’t even know where to go for more. He’d actually have to think about it, and climb up the ramp, and step onto dry land for once.

Elizabeth passed the slip of paper across the table. “There you go Bernice. If you can’t reach me at the office or any of these other places, then I’m not reachable at all. The cell phone is just for emergencies.”

Bernice. People back home, at the marina, called her Bernie, but that wasn’t bothering her  so much anymore. And not being bothered was starting to bother her. It’s not like the name Bernie was any shorter than the name Bernice, or any easier to say. That was the whole point of familiar names, wasn’t it? Convenience. It was the same with Marge from the middle marina. She wanted everyone to call her Mar, and she practically demanded it, saying, “Go ahead and leave off the ‘g’ next time, honey.” And then there was Doris.

Everyone called her Dory. What was wrong with these people?

A name was a treacherous thing. Everything else grew from there. She had read all about it in a magazine recently. Good economic standing could often be traced back to certain successful-sounding names. Names were likely to affect intelligence quotient. Your name was often the first impression in new relationships. It determined the kind of people that would be attracted to you and even the quality of your relationships as they went along. Nicknames weren’t the problem. It just depended on what the nickname was, or what it suggested. Men named Richard who used the familiar name Rich grew up more  financially successful. There were statistics to prove it.

How different it would be down on the river if she had become friends with a Margaret or a Doris. You would never have tea in a downtown cafe with Mar or Dory.

When Bill had convinced her to move onto the boat almost five years ago, she had tried  politely to hold their new neighbors to the name Bernice, but the name Bernie had stuck. What a stubborn, masculine name. It put people on the defensive, as if she were an insolent, presumptuous woman who needed to be put in her place.

At least now, for the next few days, or weeks, while she was living with her sister,Elizabeth and the newest husband downtown, she could listen to people say her real name for a change.

Elizabeth picked up her cup by its thin handle, steadying it underneath with a saucer in the other hand. Elizabeth asked if she was OK, maybe tea had been a bad idea so soon after arriving, maybe they should take their time, let her settle in a little before they tore up the town.

“No,” Bernice said. “It’s good to be anywhere as long as it is up on dry land.”

Bernice brought the cup of tea slowly to her lips. A blue and green streetcar hissed to a stop outside and the doors opened. A young couple outside stood up from their table, both of them fishing through their pockets. Bernice dropped her cup into the dish with a clink.

Elizabeth asked if everything was OK with Bill.

Bernice looked out the window and told her that Bill was fine, just about to start a new job. They had both decided a short vacation for her was a great idea before the position started.

The woman outside tossed several coins onto the tabletop, grabbed the young man’s arm and pulled him through the door of the streetcar just before it closed. The train hissed as it rolled out of sight.

Bernice was on vacation. That was what she called it – coming downtown. A vacation. That was the label Bill had come up with earlier that morning when Bernice had packed her bags and called her sister, looking for a place to stay. He said that a vacation was a great idea, just what was needed.

She called in sick at the office in St. Helens where she worked two days out of the week. So these were sick days as far as the accounting firm was concerned. Sick days. Vacation days. Days to decide what to do, whether to quit her own job and join Bill, or whether to let him go alone. He was starting the new job with the boat brokerage the next week, a position delivering boats by water up and down the coast. And he couldn’t make these trips on his own. All this meant that they would spend even more time down on the water instead of less.

Bernice let out a sigh, and gazed out the window. “Oh, Elizabeth, it’s just so good to be up on land, having tea in the city again, things happening all around, away from that floating trailer-park.”

“Take your time with it all, Bernice,” Elizabeth said. “We can talk whenever. When I’m not around, I’m always near a phone.” Elizabeth reached for Bernice’s hand across the table, her eyes wrinkled with concern. “I’m glad you knew you could come to us.”

Bernice looked into her sister’s eyes. “I’m on vacation, Beth. Really. Just for a few days. Don’t try to make this into something it’s not.”

They grew silent for a while. The glass of the window radiated the heat of the afternoon sun. Perhaps Bernice had overdone it a little by wearing the heavy sweater. Elizabeth had on a thin blouse and a skirt too short for someone as old as she was. The blouse looked like it might even be made of silk.

On the other side of the glass, a man in gray rags staggered up to the table, scooped the change into his palm, and stepped away. A coin rang as it hit the sidewalk and rolled out into the street. The man bent down at the waist and picked it up. Elizabeth didn’t seem to notice any of it. Funny. Of all the things Bernice had seen since arriving downtown this morning, that homeless man seemed the most familiar, his loose stride, the slow meandering way about him. He could have been someone from the marina, a liveaboard, Bill even, minus the boat to live on and their savings account, her meager paychecks, her inheritance.

Bernice’s sister stiffened and looked at her watch. She’d forgotten something at the office. She would have to go back, but she wouldn’t stay there for long. She slid a single key across the smooth, glass tabletop and told Bernice to go ahead and make herself at home up in the apartment. She asked if Bernice wanted her to show the way back to the right building.

Bernice shook her head and reached for the key. She said she would stay and finish her tea. Elizabeth leaned across the table and put an arm around Bernice’s shoulder. Their cheeks touched for a moment. Bernice caught the heavy scent of her sister’s perfume, the same old stuff, that officious, secretarial kind of smell. The blouse was made of silk. Either that or rayon.

Then Elizabeth stood up straight and looked down at her. Bernice turned to face the window again.

Elizabeth took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Bernice, I tell you what. I’ll give you some space.

I don’t want to crowd in when you need some room to breathe. You let me know when you want to talk again.

Jeffrey and I can head out of town for a few days if you’d like, if you need some time to yourself. We’ve both got plenty of vacation time of our own. I gotta go. Just let me know. I’ll see you, OK?”

When Elizabeth had passed out of sight down the sidewalk, Bernice stood up and walked toward the bathroom.

Most of the tables on the way were empty. Several people huddled close, speaking softly. A photograph of the Portland skyline and the Willamette River hung on the wall behind the register counter.

The floor began to rock under her feet. There it was again: the dizziness. She tried to correct her balance and then overcompensated, placing her hand on the shoulder of a woman sitting at a table. Bernice pushed off the shoulder and grabbed onto the back of an empty chair behind her. The woman turned around, giving Bernice a cold look.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” said Bernice. She breathed deeply, walking quickly to the bathroom door, grabbing one empty chair after another along the way. She locked the stall door and sat down on the toilet, her eyes closed, her head spinning, and then began to rock back and forth on the seat – slowly at first, and then faster – trying to make the spinning stop, trying to tell herself that land sickness wasn’t the same thing as home sickness, that it was nothing compared to seasickness, and that Bernice was a lovely name, an elegant name, her name, and it would be so good to hear people say it again.


Bill would run out of insulin in a couple of days, and then he would call her for help, probably, since he didn’t know where she went to pick up refills after the old pharmacy in Scappoose closed down. Probably, he wouldn’t even remember to take it while she was gone. But Bernice wasn’t going to call him about it. He could call her. He had the number. If she called on the first day, it would mean that she was checking in on him, or updating him on her arrival. It would confirm to him that this was indeed a vacation.

She called Dory instead. Twice on the first day. She made the first call right after arriving downtown. Bernice had been waiting for her sister in the apartment lobby, sitting in a high-backed chair against the wall, her bags stacked in a row beside her. A security guard, a man older even than she was, sat behind a tall, oak counter beside the elevators nodding to those who came through the glass doors from the street outside. After he had glanced sternly in her direction for the third time, Bernice stood up, opened her address book, found Dory’s phone number, and paced over to the pay phone booth across the lobby, pulling the smooth glass door closed behind her. She kept the call short, told Dory she and Bill were separated, and that she didn’t want anyone to know, that she would call back again in the evening if she got a chance, that she was fine, and that, no, she didn’t want her to go give Bill a piece of her mind.

A couple of weeks ago, Dory opened the hot dog stand on the fuel dock for the annual summer run of Polish foot longs and local sauerkraut. She had painted a new sign for the stand that read “Let’s Be Frank,” and then hung it on the front of the red and white-striped condiment cart. Dory knew the marina news, at least the news of found romance, dwindling romance, or lost romance, and what people were saying about it. During the rest of the year, when she wasn’t making hot dogs and doling out advice on the fuel dock, people came to her boat to talk.

Dory insisted (with a wink) that she wasn’t a chain smoker since she never lit a new cigarette off the red coal of the previous one. She always used a lighter to get the next one going. As she puttered around the fuel dock, she lit cigarettes. Sometimes she had several going at once, balanced on the rims of several ashtrays among the tables where she had several different conversations going. Bernice once saw Dory stab out a cigarette absentmindedly on the top of a fuel pump over by the only official non-smoking table on the fuel dock.

You could always count on Dory. She would be on the back deck of her boat moored several slips down from the fuel dock, or she would be at the hot dog stand. She would be ready to talk. She would be smoking. She would have a can of Red Dog nearby, warming in the sun or gathering drops of rain.

Bernice had only spoken to her a dozen times since moving aboard. She couldn’t stand all the cigarette smoke, and Dory didn’t take a shower every day, either, but Bernice was intrigued enough to watch and listen at a distance. Dory treated everyone the same. Names and background didn’t seem to matter. The rich kids cruising through on their speed boats and the alcoholic bachelors at the marina all got the same hot dogs from her at the same price. Dory’s sense of equality came across as effortless. If only Bernice could get through the

cloud of tobacco smoke to listen and learn, unless it was the kind of thing you couldn’t learn but needed to be born with, or the kind of thing that came from ignorance rather than thoughtful consideration.


Bernice made the second call to the marina later that first day downtown, after Elizabeth had served her and Jeffrey a quiet dinner of noodles and vegetables with tofu. “Comfort food,” Elizabeth said with a half-smile. Jeffrey asked if Bernice needed any money. She shook her head and excused herself to go out for a walk and then stopped at the pay phone downstairs in the apartment lobby.

The security guard sat behind the counter, his head bent forward. He snored once loudly and then sat up straight, but his eyes soon began drooping again.

When Dory answered, Bernice whispered into the receiver. “Hey, it’s me.”

A cigarette lighter flicked once on the other end. “Talk to me, sweetie. I’m dyin’ here.”

“Bill and I had a fight,” said Bernice.


Sort of. They had never fought like this before, throwing things, raising their voices, but Bill turned it into a kind of game. Bill could laugh his way out of anything, and he usually got Bernice laughing too.

They were never supposed to stay on the water. That had been their agreement from the beginning. They were supposed to just try it out for a little while in order to save money. But a little while had come and gone and then Bill had been laid-off and out of work for several years until he had found this recent boat delivery job.

Then, yesterday, after Bill poured the holding-tank chemicals into the toilet on the boat and splashed them all over her one and only evening gown, Bernice just lost it. She had smelled the chemicals and discovered several big holes in the bottom of the dress where the stuff had eaten through. They hadn’t used the toilet on the boat in years since they had turned it into a closet for hanging up their clothes, the nicer clothes they never wore anymore. Why would he need to pump those rancid chemicals into the holding tank when it was empty?

Bill answered, saying he was cleaning out the boat a little, getting it ready for the trip to Newport where they would switch boats for the delivery to California. He thought maybe they could go on a short cruise downtown before the new job started, visit some nice restaurants before the long trip down the coast. She abruptly reminded him that now she would have nothing to wear to a nice restaurant thanks to him and then marched over to the dresser and pulled the boat ignition keys out of the drawer and threw them out the hatch and into the river and thanked him for letting her in on his plans. She went into the aft cabin for her purse and said she was going for a drive into town to spend some more of her own hard-earned money. That’s when Bill strutted over to the key box by the main hatch, pulled the car keys out and threw them outside into the river, too. He even smiled after he did it as if out of relief, or maybe just awkwardness. Neither of them had ever done this kind of thing to each other before. They were in uncharted territory.

Bernice started throwing more things into the river: a couple of screwdrivers, Bills deck shoes, a bag of corn chips, the TV remote. Bill was still grinning and she started smiling a bit too, which made it worse, dissipating the anger she wanted to feel. She turned to face him, narrowed her gaze, and called him William, which only made them both laugh. Bernice had to leave and go for a long walk down the dock in order to stop smiling, in order to call attention to the seriousness of what had just happened.

Later, Bill took the dinghy downstream and came back with a few things that were light enough to float. He even brought back the bag of chips. The boat keys were on a bright yellow floating key ring, so he got those too. But the car keys weren’t. She spent the better part of the evening searching through the boat for her spare car keys, but they never turned up.

The next day, Bernice packed her bags and stood silently by the main hatch with her arms folded while Bill flipped through the channels on TV. The future of their lives hung heavily in the air around them. That’s when Bill said the word vacation.

The security guard was snoring loudly. Bernice told Dory about the fight, about Bill throwing the keys into the river, about how he had laughed at her. “It took me two trips up the ramp this morning, by myself, to get my bags over to the gate where the cab was supposed to pick me up. I don’t know what I would have done if someone had seen me. Do people know? Has Bill talked with anyone?”

Dory’s lighter scratched over the line. “I haven’t told a soul, sweetie, though I think people heard me on the phone with you earlier and know something’s up, so yeah, pretty much everybody knows. And pretty much everybody knows that Bill doesn’t know they know about it but nobody’s saying anything.” The lighter flicked again. “To Bill, I mean.”

Bernice told her about the insulin, wondering out loud if Bill would remember to take it, wondering if she should call home.

“Listen girl. If you’re going to do this, and let him know you’re serious, then you need to really do it, you know? If you don’t mean what you say, then who will? You know what I mean? You want me to have Mike stop in and check on him?”

“No, you’re right Dory. He needs to know that this isn’t some vacation.”


Elizabeth and her husband left for the beach. At night, alone in the unfamiliar apartment, Bernice left the TV on and tried to sleep on the couch. At night was when Bill seemed to need her the most. During the day, he usually had the energy to put a good face on things. Bernice stayed awake imagining Bill sleeping on the boat without her.

She was the one who gave him his insulin shot late at night, after he had fallen asleep. Bill hated needles. He usually slept right through it. Recently, it was getting harder to catch him in deep sleep since he was getting up to pee more in the night. She lay there waiting, watching his chest rise and fall, his body twitching. Sometimes he would pretend to be sleeping and when she reached for the needle, he would start whimpering or humming a mournful song.

The common bathroom in the upper marina was fifty yards down the dock. He had gotten to where he couldn’t make it that far, and he was tired of walking up and down the dock all night. He relieved himself in the kitchen sink now, in the galley, rinsing it out afterward with hand soap. In the morning, Bernice wiped the dry spots of urine from the floorboards and the counter top. It bothered her at first, but not anymore. She didn’t say anything about the spots, or the smell in the sink. It was hard enough for him. He usually had a tough time going back to sleep after getting up to pee. If Bernice rubbed his back he would drift off  more quickly. Sometimes they would make love in the dark, but more often, they would lie there and talk, sometimes until the sun came up.


Bernice kept close to the phone on the last day of Bill’s insulin supply, in case he called. She turned the black leather couch to face the TV and watched Perry Mason, then Murder She Wrote, then Oprah, hoping to hear the phone ring each time the credits rolled.

Late in the afternoon, the clouds hung heavily in the sky outside the tall windows, almost black along their bottom edges. According to the weatherman, the wind would carry the storm clouds east before they could drop their rain.

When the drums started pounding somewhere in the streets outside, Bernice removed her glasses and pulled the binoculars from a peg where they hung on the wall by the window. Her sister had called again that morning from the coast to warn her about the peace protest, but she had already heard about it on TV.

What do you call it anyway, she wondered. A march? A protest? A peace walk? A rebellion? Democracy?

What did you call it? Everything depends on what you call it.

Several city blocks were visible through the tops of the trees, and between the buildings, the river hung like a dark ribbon weaving through the city blocks and wrinkling faintly in the light breeze. From the apartment, every time she looked, the color on the surface of the river always seemed to multiply the effects of the sky above. The river carried a deeper blue, a duller gray. Some mornings, the surface shattered its reflection into a hundred dancing suns. People paid good money for a view like this; for a view of something they  wouldn’t want to get close to if they knew how foul and green the water really was.

Looking out the window, the dizziness came over her with renewed strength. Bernice found that if she got too close to the window, even sitting on the black leather couch to look out, the floor tilted down toward the river, and she had to close her eyes to make it stop. But she did OK while looking through the binoculars. If she wanted to see the streets below, she had to walk right up to the windows and look down through the binoculars. During the day, there were people everywhere. The homeless. Businessmen and women. You could tell a lot about them by what they carried, or how they carried themselves, their posture, the quickness of their pace, their confident weaving along the crowded sidewalks. You could even guess their names and probably not be too far off. Some men still yielded to the women, letting them go first off the curb when crossing the street, but mostly, people kept clear of one another.

The drums were getting louder. The streets were strangely empty.

Just below her building, riot police began to arrive. She had to lean into the window to see them. On TV, the news said that police were prepared to use tear gas and pellet guns.

The sun started to push through the clouds. It looked like the weatherman would be right for once.

Bernice stood up on her toes to better see the street below. She leaned into the glass and waited.

Dozens of riot police climbed out of several black vans, pouring out one by one like the impossible number of circus clowns jumping out of impossibly small cars. Clowns. She had never thought of the police in this way. They looked more like clowns pretending to be soldiers. Or ants. Call them cops. Pigs. The Fuzz. She sensed her own perceptions shifting slightly under the different names that came to mind. Law enforcement. Police force. Portland’s finest. How strange and laughable they looked through the window high above the street in their tight formations. Toys. They were like toys, or pawns. They fanned out in groups of five or six, lining the intersections along the parade route.

Light began to spill into the streets. The tone of the gray river shifted and deepened into blue. Cloud-shadows climbed from the streets, over the trees and buildings, and then fell back flat onto the pavement again. The pounding of drums came louder through the closed windows and echoed off the surrounding buildings.

Bernice held her breath. Half a dozen blocks up the street, the first of the marchers rounded a corner. She lowered the binoculars for a moment. A river of rippling color poured slowly around the corner and over the gray concrete, swallowing the staggered yellow traffic lanes. Her head began to sway. She lifted the binoculars back to her eyes and swept them up the street and away from the marchers to where police on motorcycles passed back and forth across the parade route. Red and blue lights spun  dimly under the glare of the sun. Several banners waved from open windows high above the street. People leaned out into the air. Heads above and heads below all turned toward the sound of the drums. Bernice watched them.

Then she paused. Something familiar about the man approaching the march from the opposite direction. His arms hung heavily with a stack of books, shoulders bunched up under the weight of them. At first, she couldn’t place him, a face from another world, another life. Her head lightened and her body began to sway – the dizziness coming on even with the binoculars. She pressed her palm against the window frame to hold herself still.

Then it hit her. From the marina. What was his name? That guy always loafing around the fuel dock. Met with the others for coffee in the morning. Fisherman. Sloppy clothes and hair. What was his name? The guy looked exactly like him: the untrimmed beard, the thick canvas pants and flannel shirt, cloth wrinkled into a web of shadows in the bright sunlight. What was his name? The resemblance was amazing. But no. That guy rarely left the docks except to putter around in a rowboat or to go buy booze.

But it was him, even though it couldn’t possibly be. He would have just spent the morning with Bill over coffee. Only hours ago. They would have been laughing together. Bill might have even confided in him. Christ, what the hell was his name?

But no. It couldn’t be him. It might be his unkempt hair and un-ironed clothes, but he had all those books in his arms. The only thing he ever read was the paper and the tide tables. Everyone knew that. And everyone knew his name. It was on the tip of her tongue.

The guy became even less like himself when he stepped down off the curb and into the river of colorful clothes and banners, his head nodding to the rhythm of the drums, his face smiling. That settled it. There was no way. But she watched him. There were children there beside him. What were children doing at a protest?

And there were older folks in wheelchairs. The man balanced the books in one arm and handed something to a child next to him. No, the child was handing something to him. A woman next to the children seemed to know him.

The soft carpet tilted under Bernice’s bare feet and her head rocked violently. The window seemed to fall forward in front of her. She leaned into the glass and a force like a windless wind pushed and pulled her down toward the crowded pavement. She shut her eyes and listened to the drums until the ground felt firm again and then she lifted the binoculars back to her eyes.

The first marchers had moved out of sight. Only the top of the liveaboard’s head would be visible now. Where was he? Where were the children? What was his name? Her gaze swept back and forth over the crowd of college students and monstrous puppets, the gyrating dancers and drummers, but she couldn’t find him.

Bernice turned away from the window and collapsed into the black, leather couch near the window and rubbed both hands over her eyelids. Had he followed her here? Was it really him? Or was the real guy just back at the fuel dock, where he always was, fishing?

The drums stopped. The second hand on the clock above the kitchen counter rolled around the face in a smooth arc. The crowd below roared loudly. Sirens blared. Bernice looked up at the spinning ceiling.

She made her way over to the counter, eyes closed, and reached for the phone. The room tipped again and she grabbed the edge of the countertop. She reached for the phone a second time.

The drums sounded again, but sporadically, and then stopped altogether. Or it might have been gunshots.

Bernice dialed. Even with her eyes shut tight, the darkness rocked back and forth. When Dory picked up, Bernice tried to speak slowly, tried to calm her trembling voice.


“Yeah sweetie? You OK?”

“Dory. How can I get back? I can’t get back to him. I can’t go back on what I said. What are we going to do? Bill and I can’t just laugh our way out of everything all the time. If you are really paying attention, you can’t just smile at everything.”

Bernice held the mouthpiece away from her face, breathing deeply. The noise of the crowd began to fade outside.

Dory flicked the lighter on. “Listen, Bernie. How long are you gonna drag this thing out?”

“What do you mean, me dragging it out? Dragging what out?”

“You know what I mean, Bernie. You’re pretending you’ve really left him, and making it all sound so complicated. You guys are crazy about each other and you know it. I haven’t seen Bill crack a smile since you left. Do you know that Bill took your boat out this morning? When was the last time you guys did that? He did a little trip around the island. One minute, he was heading south and then a few hours later, there he was coming up the channel from the north, and he stopped by the fuel dock to fill the tanks. He bought a couple of hot dogs.”

“But I’m not making it complicated. It is complicated. Love and romance isn’t enough.”

“You might think about calling him, honey.”

“Wait. You’ve been talking to him, haven’t you? I can’t believe you!”

“Bernie, wait a minute.”

“My name is Bernice, you got that?” She paused, shaking. “You and everyone else down there disgust me, but especially you, Doris! You and your goddamn hot dogs!”

Bernice hung up the phone and grabbed her purse, letting the door slam behind her on her way out. While she was waiting for the elevator, she remembered the man’s name. Larry. That was it. That was his name. But what did that matter now? What the hell did she know about the guy?

In the lobby, Bernice felt the security officer’s eyes on her as she stumbled out the large glass doors and into the crowded streets where the march had become a jumbled mass of people moving in different directions. She clipped the sunshades onto her glasses kept moving and let the tears fall and no one stopped to ask her if she was OK or even took notice.


Bill called later that evening. Bernice was waiting by the phone. He asked how the time away was going.

“It’s the worst vacation I’ve ever had,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said, “we’re giving vacations a bad name.”

After a long silence, he told her he missed her. He asked her if she would like to go out for breakfast in the morning. He wanted to let her know that he was going to drop the boat delivery job if that was what she wanted. They could even consider moving back on land like they had originally agreed, or at least go out more in the evenings to places on land. He said he was planning to bring the boat down to the downtown waterfront tonight and walk up the street to see her in the morning if she would have him.

Bernice told him to come on up as soon as he arrived, no matter how late. She would be up.

They were both silent for a moment, and then Bill spoke again.

“You’re probably getting more sleep, at least, now that you don’t have me keeping you up at nights.”

“No, Bill. I’m not sleeping well at all. I’ve been so land sick.”


Late in the night, out on the couch in the dark living room, Bernie realized that she hadn’t asked Bill about the insulin. She made her way out of the guest room and into the living room and dialed home. The phone hummed its calm tone through the receiver. No answer. She hung up and tried again. Nothing. Not even the answering machine. So he really had left, pulled the phone cord out of the jack next to the shore-power outlet on the dock. She dialed again and let it ring over and over, holding the phone in one hand and pulling the binoculars off the peg with the other. The phone rang and she looked out over the dark patch of the river by the waterfront until her eyes hurt from the pressure of the binoculars. She hung them back on the peg where they swung, bumped the wall twice, and then grew still. Bernie went over to the couch and listened to the ringing in the receiver, switching ears when one of them began to ache, gazing out the window toward the broken line of the river below. She imagined the miles of phone lines and cords that began at the phone by her ear ended finally at the jack by their empty boat slip, the home for their home, where  her potted flowers were still resting along the edge of the floorboards in the dark night air above the water.

After a while, Bernice hung up the phone, put on one of her sister’s heavy coats, took the elevator down to the street, and headed down the hill toward the river. Maybe it was the darkness of early morning, or the black roof of the sky studded with stars, or the quiet  streets, or maybe the thought that she would be back aboard the boat soon, but when she  looked down the slope of the hill toward the river, her eyes were steady. She waited for the  dizziness to spin the buildings and the streetlights around her, but it never came.



Brian Friesen recently completed an MA in English at the University of Alberta where he was a recipient of the James Patrick Folinsbee Award for Creative Writing. Brian has published stories and poems in several northwest publications. He has been an editor and writing instructor both inside and outside the university, and was the producer of a bi-weekly literary radio show for Golden Hours at Oregon Public Broadcasting. He is currently living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children.

“Belle Mere” by Stefan Kiesbye


‘Creating a better future starts with the ability to envision it,’ was written on the poster in the
admissions office. The picture showed the open ocean at dawn, and with a little imagination it
looked like Buffalo’s downtown marina. If you went up to the lighthouse, Lake Erie seemed just
as vast as the sea.

I had a job sitting in a booth and giving information to visitors and prospective students, who were all eager to imagine their dorm life, the parties, the jobs they would get after graduation. It was already August and I had been offered to stay on as a junior advisor. While my own future still seemed foggy to me, my present had started to take shape. The year before I had finally finished my degree in American Studies with the help of my mother, who had paid my debts so I could enroll again. I had an apartment, an old car, and a counselor. I was twenty-eight.

Our office had no windows, but during lunch break, I sat on the blue or brown chairs of the
cafeteria and stared out the window where the students were walking by and talked to each other about the classes they were taking. They were guys from the Bulls team, who had to make up for missed or failed classes, and girls with the tiniest tops and pierced belly buttons. They knew they had a place in life nobody could take away from them, because their parents were proud of them or even not so proud, but they all knew that college was their time. They discovered sex and lots of sex and they giggled as they told their friends who they had been making out with last night and everyone’s mouth had whipped cream smeared all over from eating this huge college cake that was their life.

Maybe it was the poster that reminded me of Grandma. When my grandparents were still alive, Grandma often told fairy-tales to me she had learned in her childhood in Europe, but none as frequent as “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs.” After my grandfather’s death, she moved into our house in Kenmore. Many nights she would pack a bag and beg my father in her old language to take her away, to leave the house behind and escape. We wouldn’t survive until we kept moving.

When Grandmother was a young woman in East Prussia and heard the rumors of the Russian army advancing, she packed all her things and took her two kids and left the village where her family had lived for five generations, and – her husband shot dead in the early years of the war – she didn’t stop until she reached the ocean.

Even in the New World, she never lost the feeling that she had to escape, and when she grew old, my parents often left the house at night to search for her, who was meandering among the houses in North Buffalo. In later years, grandmother managed to go downtown. Maybe she took the bus, maybe someone felt that she was lost and gave her a ride. The police found her in LaSalle Park, opposite of the Lighthouse. When the police found her, they didn’t understand what she was asking them. By then, she had unlearned English, which she had been able to speak fluently, and I often laughed at her dark-sounding sentences. She would keep telling me fairy-tales in her language, and I understood them, because I had listened to them so often.

Mike, my counselor, had a basement office with lots of pillows and strange items such as Whiffle ball bats, stuffed bears and Barbie dolls, boxing gloves and tennis rackets. Every Tuesday and Thursday I came to see him. He worked at the community center, which I had visited two years before to do a variety of tests, from Myers-Briggs to aptitude ones. I was living hand to mouth, had lost my apartment and my job as a gas station attendant. The social workers had suggested counseling to “sort things out,” and the center was paying most of the charges. At first I had no idea what counseling was to do for me. I knew my life was a mess, but I’d always felt that I was able to manage, that my failures in jobs and in college were only due to not finding the right thing. But I liked the idea of having a person to talk to. Usually I was talked to; it always seemed that I was listening to others without adding anything to the conversation. But Mike was paid to listen to me. I liked the fact that he received money for this. If listening to me bothered or bored him, at least I wasn’t wasting his time.

Mike had curly dark hair, which was thinning in the front and back. He was short, a bit pudgy, and wore a smile that I often wanted to take off his face. It was a Garfield smile, coming from behind gold-rimmed glasses, the smile of a fat, self-satisfied cat who has a solution or a smart answer to everything. Mike sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, and I heard the minutes ticking away. He sat quietly, contemplating the next meal or his evening and I was supposed to do the talking. I had lots to talk about, years of a post-adolescent period with days measured in beer, pot, TV and dead-end jobs, divorced parents, and money problems, but when I got into those topics he interrupted me.

“What are you so afraid off?”

“What do you mean?”

“What are you so afraid off?”

“I’m not, well, I’m afraid I’ll have no job…”

And then my speech failed me, and it felt as if I were going far away. He let me sit like that for a while, then asked what was happening.

The truth was that the better I was doing on the outside, the more depressed I felt. It felt as if the relative security I had gained over the last year invited schools of piranhas into my thoughts. Disaffected, my mother said, I had been, spending time observing rather than connecting, but if I was more connected now, I also felt weakened and anxious.

“Do you know “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs?”

He didn’t laugh as I had feared, didn’t even flinch. “No,” he said.

“I’m not sure it has anything to do with anything, but somehow it does. I just don’t know how.” And then I told him the fairy-tale of the young boy who, in order to marry the King’s only daughter, goes to hell to steal the devil’s three golden hairs. On his way, a ferryman asks the young hero why he has to row to and fro without ever being released.

The young man finds his way to hell, and the Devil’s grandmother takes a liking to the beautiful boy and promises to help him. When the Devil comes home at night, she pulls out his hairs in his sleep. The devil, getting angry at her, is calmed by her assurance that she only pulled his hair because she is having nightmares. And she asks the devil what the young man has told her about the ferryman. The devil answers her, and the young man, hidden under a bench, listens carefully.

So when the young man returns to the ferryboat, he tells the man to put the oars into the hands of the next client, and he’ll be free.

The ferryman thanks the young man, and it is the King who, after angrily agreeing to the
marriage, and thinking of how to secretly get rid of his daughter’s bridegroom, comes to the ferryman and asks to be set over the river. The ferryman puts the oars into the King’s hands, jumps onto the shore and runs away.

“Why are you telling me this?” Mike asked, but not in a nasty way. He asked it matter-of-factly, he wanted to know.

“The fairy-tale isn’t about the ferryman, but he is the last character shown in the tale, and
somehow he seems more haunted, more important than anybody else. The King is punished for his vanity, the young man marries the princess and lives happily ever after, but what becomes of the ferryman?”

“What do you think?”

The question had bothered me as a seven-year old and it bothered me again. I had never been more than a few weeks away from Buffalo, and even though I could not imagine my future in this city, I also couldn’t leave. Where had the ferryman gone? When had he gone far enough to feel that he would never have to go back to the ferryboat? When did he feel safe? How had the ferryman managed to leave the only place he’d ever known?
I shrugged my shoulders.

“I had a dream about my father,” I finally said. I threw that sentence at him the way you throw a stick for a dog to fetch. I’d had the dream every other night, and sometimes would wake up trying to scream. I was naked and my father about to rape me. He was smiling, there was no aggression visible on his face, only smiling lust. But I was afraid of telling Mike about it. I wasn’t in the mood for crying or going into my problems. At the same time I didn’t want to steal his time. I got those sessions for next-to-nothing and I felt guilty whenever I wasn’t really using them.

“What kind of dream?”

“He fucked me.” I had woken up that morning with a scream blocking my throat.

“How did he do that?”

“I’m not going to tell you.” He fell silent, sat quiet across from me until I said, “He held my legs apart, as if I were a woman, and whispered something nice.” I didn’t stop, just blurted
everything out. When I was done I felt ridiculous and humiliated.

Mike came over to where I sat. He spread my legs and smiled and rubbed his crotch against my ass. We had an agreement that I could scream and shout and tell him to go to hell, but unless I said ‘stop’ he would continue with his role-plays. When he started to moan softly and I saw his big grin, I wanted to tell him to fuck off, to leave me be, but I couldn’t. He played out my dream and had his way with me and I couldn’t say a word.

Sunday evenings I spent watching the X-files with my mother. She had lost weight in the years after the divorce. Her jaw jutted out, the skin wound tight over her cheekbones and forehead. Her already fine hair had thinned, and she looked windswept at all times.

She had stayed in the family home in Kenmore and replaced the minivan with a Honda Prelude. Her coats had grown shorter and shorter, and she wore dresses again. While my father had married again in ’96 – I could not think of him other than as a husband being cooked and cared for – my mother was in her third relationship with a married man.

“Convenient,” she once had said, laughing. “You don’t have to drag them around to everything.”

Most Sundays, Mom ordered pizza and we ate and watched TV. She asked about my work, I asked about her job as a real estate agent, and by eleven, we had nothing left to tell one another. I slept either in my old room, which she used for painting, or drove back to my apartment on Lexington. Rarely she gave me a hug. Then her hands grabbed me, and since she was a small woman, I had a hard time avoiding her body coming too close to mine. She sighed repeatedly and she held me until the silence between us grew awkward.

“Have you heard of your father?” she asked one night just as Moulder was wading through chicken slime in a food factory.

“No-o,” I said.

“Does he not call?”

“No, that’s not it.”

“So what is it?”

“I’m just never home.”

“Huh,” she said, looking at her next bite of pizza with disgusted eyes. “Is he ever writing you?”

The past year I had not returned any of my dad’s calls, had not answered his two letters, not even opened them. “He lives in East Aurora.”


“He could drive over,” I said.

“I guess.” She sounded pleased with my answers.

I felt loyal to my mother in Kenmore, her fake late-Victorian townhouse, but I admired my father secretly for leaving her. Or rather, I was glad for him. Mom had chosen Dad back in ’69, I was sure, not the other way round. Yet the moment he gave in to her, she assumed she could have done better, for which goal we achieve is worth our efforts?

Dad had struggled for twenty-two years, although he’d been no victim. He’d been happy to be rejected by his wife, to take a lover, to be greeted back – since Mom only acknowledged his worth if proven by successful affairs – and to be rejected again out of jealousy and contempt. It had almost been a perpetuum mobile, a self-powered machine. Only when the fights became violent – I remembered Mom with a screwdriver in her hand and hurling a crystal vase at Dad – had this engine broken down.

“How’s your stepmom?” Mom’s voice had grown squeaky and energetic over the years. I couldn’t remember if her voice had ever been fuller, or if she had never spoken loudly enough as a housewife to bring out the squeaks.

“Okay. I haven’t seen them in a long time.

“Will you tell me why?”

“Another time.”

For the rest of the evening she pouted, keeping quiet or answering my questions with one-liners. I had always felt strangely older than my parents, more mature even as a teen. Of course they had more money, better homes and cars, but Mom, angry I didn’t use her as a confidante, reminded me of a small kid who doesn’t get to stay up late.

That night, when I left, she stood by the entrance in black pants and a black velvet jacket with golden borders, closing the door, against her custom, before I had gotten into my car.


Mike said it couldn’t hurt to visit my father. I had asked him if it would help clear up what those dreams were about, but he wouldn’t say. “It can’t hurt,” was all he told me.

My Dad was not an imposing man, but had luck with women. At least that’s what he wanted me to believe. When he divorced Mom, he got married again right away. My stepmother, Nancy, was Mom’s age, but smaller. She wore a lot of make-up and dark suits; she was the principal of an elementary school in East Aurora. Her auburn hair she combed every five minutes, as if she had to straighten it out in order to hide a bald spot, though she wasn’t balding.

My father was an insurance agent, but one who’d made it. He never had to go to his office anymore, but had hired a manager. He traveled to insurance meetings of the New York State chapter and worked out of his home. He had taken up hunting, yet I had a hard time imagining him with a gun and clad in orange garb – there had never been a gun in our house in Kenmore. Dad had also taken up golf, which was easier to understand, yet equally loathsome in my mind.

He had sounded excited on the phone when I told him I would come to visit. “How do you get here?” he asked.

“I have a car.”

“What kind?”

“A Chrysler.”

“Good cars.”

“An ’86 Horizon.”

“That’s not so good.”

“I guess.” It might seem strange, but I loved the car and was disappointed by his reaction.

“Will it make the trip?”

“It’s only an hour.”

“Alright. Sorry. We’re looking forward to you coming.”

I never liked arriving, not anywhere. I love going on trips, but even as a kid I wanted to keep on driving, even beyond our destination. The car was a safe haven for our lives, the confines of the Chevrolets and later the Lincolns seemed to turn us invulnerable. They turned us into a family. Once we arrived, we’d be scattered, left to different duties, pleasures and responsibilities.

When I got out of the car in my father’s driveway, I tried to shake off the disappointment. My dad’s house, the one he’d bought after the divorce, was part of an aging subdivision that now, after ten or fifteen years, was loosing the stark looks of new developments. The trees had grown respectable, and the lawns, though still ten notches above Buffalo average, had lost their pedantic hue.

The house was big, but none of the monsters that were going up around Buffalo that year. It tried to look ‘solid brick’ or ‘English country house.’ I didn’t even know if country houses looked like this in England, but the goal of the architects had been clearly to make people forget that they lived in a subdivision in upstate New York.

Dad appeared in the entrance in dark leather slippers, his graying hair cropped short, his eyes behind the glasses beaming. He was almost a foot shorter than me, but held himself erect and was proud of his good looks. He took short steps toward me, like a woman who has difficulty walking in a tight, long skirt. He put his arms around me and pressed his head to my chest, hugged me closer and then reached for my face to plant a kiss on my cheek.

That’s how he was. He’d always done these elaborate greetings. All my friends in high school, especially the female ones, were hugged and kissed. European style, he told me when I said that other parents didn’t make such a fuss. His mother, who lived with us until her death when I was a sophomore, had come from Germany to America. Dad was four at that time, and she refused to speak German with him. She wanted him to grow up American, and he couldn’t remember any of the words of his childhood.

“Come in,” he said and put his arm under mine, leading me past the three-car garage to the kitchen door. He was wearing a three-piece suit.

Nancy was cooking in high heels and flower-patterned stockings, which looked strange on a women of fifty-two cooking in her own kitchen.

“Hi Don.” She smiled and came over to hug me too. “Dinner is almost ready.” She blushed as if she had said something inappropriate.

“Sit down,” Dad said. “Can I take your jacket?”

“I’m fine,” I said. We’d always sat in the kitchen, it seemed, when I was a kid. The living room had been something to show to guests or to watch television in, but no place to talk. Whenever there was family business to take care of – planning of a trip, discussing my grades, discussing my girlfriends’ virtues or lack thereof – we sat around the kitchen table, sauces and mashed potatoes drying on our plates.

“What are you guys dressed up for?” I asked.

“We have to go to a dinner at the Ferroa Club – business,” my dad said, a frown hiding his pleasure at feeling important.

“But we wanted to have dinner with you first,” Nancy added. When she was done cooking, she took off her embroidered apron. She wore a purple blouse, and you could see her black bra shining through just so, and I blushed. For the rest of our dinner, roast beef and beans and herb potatoes, whenever she addressed me, I kept my gaze on her eyes and mouth.

Before they left, Nancy led me upstairs. “I’ve prepared our guest room for you. Have a look. Where’s your bag?” Her fingers combed her hair, her high-heeled feet swayed helplessly on the thick carpet.

“I’ve got some things in the car. I’ll get them later,” I said, having only a brown bag from Wegman’s with another shirt and socks in the passenger seat.

“Here it is.” She stopped in the door frame, stretching out her arm in a proud gesture. “We’re so glad you’ve come,” she said.

Two chocolates sat diligently on my pillow, and the small room smelled fresh and crisp, as if bed, closet, desk and lamps had been perfumed. “Feel at home,” Nancy said. “We’ll talk tomorrow.” She kissed my cheek goodbye, then held her own up to me. She did it gingerly, like a woman who knows that her make-up will have to last an entire evening.

I always liked when people didn’t go out of their way to please me, and she was glad I had come, but didn’t expect me to make her day. She’d never had kids of her own, and it showed. I was a guest, not a child. I thought her cheek was beautiful.

Belle mère. Did the French like stepmothers better than Americans did theirs? From the fairy tales I remembered listening to as a child, stepmothers were evil, harassing children and getting rid of them. Cinderella was a first wife’s child and was treated with scorn and jealousy. Snow White was assaulted and nearly killed by her witch stepmother. Yet belle mère? Did the French realize that stepmothers were younger and more beautiful? Or did they know that mothers were taboo for fantasizing adolescents, stepmothers however not?

Belle mère. Nancy looked vaguely similar to Mom, short, not slim, yet the sharp lines that sometimes gave my mother a tortured look were missing. Nancy’s eyes were gentle, quick as a squirrel’s, and her slightly rounded shoulders and few extra pounds she wore lightly. They exuded a sexy comfortableness, not the burden of accumulated age. She was spreading, not fading.


When Nancy and my dad were gone, I watched television at first, making sure they didn’t come back to pick up a forgotten gift or pillbox. Then I went through the whole house and stood a long time in their bedroom. It had a king-size bed, with a mattress and box spring so high, it seemed uncomfortable to get in and out of the bed.

There was a vanity, and the closet doors were all mirrors. The carpet was a brownish pink, and vanity and bed were of auburn wood. The room smelled stuffy the way a furniture store smells; no body smells lingered, only the faint odor of my father’s aftershave.

I went to his office in the basement, and I spent some minutes in what seemed to be Nancy’s room. The sparse furniture was made of blonde wood, and the giant desk was filled with books on pedagogy and accounting.

Whenever I came to a family’s house, I got excited. I still felt that way in our old house in Kenmore, and at friends’ homes, and I felt my skin prickle there in the empty house. Stories I’d read as an adolescent in borrowed and dog-eared books seemed to materialize. Stories of tender cousins and lonely aunts, of boys turned into men by longing widows and understanding housewives. Only I didn’t want to be reminded of them in East Aurora. The excitement opened you and also made you helpless. Pot can do that to you, and when you’re with the wrong people, it freaks you out.

Yet against better judgment I searched the bookshelves in the living room and found two old acquaintances, two small volumes entitled Orchid Nights, and More Orchid Nights. I read them again, all of the stories, which hadn’t left me since I was thirteen and looking for a Playboy calendar I knew my father had been given by a business associate. It was distressing how little my fantasies had been altered by girlfriends and affairs, and how strangely intact and satisfying the world of the fantastic encounters of the Orchid Nights still seemed.

Later, I got my bag from the car, then showered. I watched the Mets lose to the Braves, ate some cold roast beef and went to bed.

I was still lying awake on the unfamiliar, too soft mattress when my dad’s Lincoln pulled into the driveway.

Moments later I heard it knock gently on my door and he came in.

“Are you sleeping?” he asked.

“Almost,” I said and switched on the little lamp on the nightstand, pushing the two books under the bed, but not quickly enough for my Dad not to notice.

“What are you reading?” He sat down on the edge of the bed and fished for the books. “I like those too.” He smiled as he leafed through Orchid Nights. “The one with the schoolteacher is my favorite. “Emily” it’s called.

Where the boy does it with his new teacher, in the summer. Yeah, I like that one.”

I didn’t say anything, hoping he would leave. The stories were mine, stolen many years ago for secret pleasures, and they belonged to the flushed-cheeks boy who filled the empty space on the shelf with Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I didn’t want to hear my dad’s opinion on sex, didn’t want to think that he was thinking of boys and schoolteachers while sleeping next to Nancy.

“When you were little,” he said, “and we would come home late, we’d always go to your room, you mom and I. Sometimes you didn’t wake up, but you would smile at our voices with your eyes closed and answer our good-nights in your sleep.”

I looked at my father, who put the books on the nightstand. His hand came to lie on my chest. “Good night.” He pursed his lips in a blown kiss. “See you in the morning.”


“So, what are your plans for today?” Dad asked at the breakfast table. There had never been a morning in my childhood that started past eight o’clock, and neither had this one. He had knocked on my door and shouted boisterously that the breakfast was ready.

My father’s question meant he didn’t figure in whatever plans I had made. Mornings he kept like a checkbook to himself, and only in the afternoon was he ever able to dispense some of his time.

Nancy had cooked eggs and bacon and made waffles, and she looked tired and sweet in a black satin robe.

Her brown legs were bare, her feet stuck in black plush slippers.

“You want to help me with the groceries?” she asked.

“If you two are leaving, I’ll put in some time in my den,” my father said, satisfied at how easy he had escaped.

In the car, a new Toyota Camry, Nancy asked if I would mind going to the mall with her. “Would that be boring for you?”

“Which one?” I asked.

“The Galleria. In Buffalo.”

“It’s a long drive.”

“Do you mind?”

It was a strange ride. Buffalo was my city, yet in Nancy’s car, I felt like a visitor, a tourist. Nancy’s perfume was something light, yet spicy, and it lent the Toyota a luxurious ambiance. For the first time in years, I saw the city through someone else’s eyes, and I immediately wished it were nicer. Whatever I was missing in my life, status, good moods, charms, Buffalo didn’t have either. And although both of us were hoping to get out of where we were stuck, we didn’t accuse each other of not having reached our goals yet. Yet now I was glad that we didn’t stop downtown, didn’t have a closer look at the crumpling or boarded-up buildings. I was glad we went to the mall and its expensive copper light.

“I need some comfortable shoes,” Nancy said. “Sensible ones. And a coat for the fall. My old one looks shabby and your dad doesn’t like when I look shabby. I won’t take a long time.”

Nancy’s figure displayed a laziness that comes with age and desk jobs and responsibilities. They wear at your flesh, soften it. Yet her position as a principal caught her soft body like a safety net. Nancy looked assured and fond of herself.

“What do you think of those?” she asked, putting a mauve-stockinged foot into a brown patent leather shoe. Her feet looked tired, like pudgy kids, angry and pouting.

“They’re nice.”

“Should I get them in black?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think?”

“Brown, black – why don’t you try the red ones there, maybe?”

Nancy really went to the rack I pointed to and asked the clerk to bring a pair her size.

“You like them?” She wiggled her foot for me to see.

“Sure. How are they?” I was embarrassed that she wanted my opinion. I’d never advised anyone on their clothes, and Nancy was my father’s wife.

“I’ll take them.”

We left the store, and she took my arm as if I were dear to her and she proud to be seen with me. We went to Banana Republic and she insisted on buying me a beige sweater that was real soft. “You look so nice in it,” she said.

“I don’t know. I don’t wear turtlenecks, not really.”

“You don’t like them?”

“No, it’s just…”

“I like you in it. You chose my shoes, and I’ll choose a sweater.” In that moment she looked old, a bit more like Mom, and I couldn’t help but feel like a kid, and for a moment I wished I hadn’t come. She also bought boots for me, yellow ones, which she insisted everyone had these days, and when we sat down for lunch at the Pizzeria Uno, I had lost my appetite.

She ordered wine, and in the green, red and brown darkness of our booth, her eyes sparkled. She had small hands, nicely padded hands and fingers, and her nails were done in dark red. She told me about her work, the children’s sicknesses, angry parents and the East Aurora mafia, who let no one from outside town use their parks and golf courses. Our pizza came, and Nancy drank more wine. Her cheeks flushed and she took off her thin cardigan and was wearing a sleeveless shirt. I saw where her bra cut into her flesh and stared at her bare arms.

“It’s nice to have you with us,” she said.

“Umh,” I mumbled.

“We’re old enough to get around this stepmother-stepson thing, aren’t we? It’s nice to see Helmut’s son.”

We had met at the wedding of course, and two or three other times, but never alone.

“Are you seeing someone?” she asked. “You should bring her over. Helmut was very upset when you hung up on him and didn’t answer his letters.”

“I’m not seeing anyone.”

“We don’t have to talk about that.”

“Did he send you to the mall with me?”

“No, that was my idea.”

“The pizza is pretty bad.”

“Do you want to go somewhere else?”

“You mean, not eat this?” I pointed to my plate.


I laughed. I wouldn’t have had the money to pay for wine and pizza, and now she suggested dumping our food and pay again somewhere else. “Okay,” I said.

She paid and walked ahead of me out of the restaurant. Without touching me, she went to the car, and I got in next to her.

“So, where do you want us to go?”

I laughed again. This freedom shocked me, and I couldn’t come up with anything. I knew places like the Great Wall, Pano’s, and Mykonos, but I couldn’t imagine Nancy in those places.

“You like hot-dogs?” I asked.


“At LaSalle Park, there’s a Ted’s. Near the Peace Bridge.”

Nancy put the car in gear – it wasn’t an automatic – and she turned onto the 33 and drove downtown. Maybe it was the wine, maybe the fact that I started to feel more comfortable next to her, but Buffalo didn’t look as shabby as it had on our arrival. It was still the same decrepit steel-town, yet sitting in the Camry, I saw the Peace Bridge and the run-down Westside through more benign eyes.

Seagulls greeted us in front of Ted’s. The benches outside were spotted white and black, and the air smelled of garbage, late summer warmth, and echoed with the birds’ angry voices. In the stark dining-room, I poured vinegar over Nancy’s fries, and she said she liked it.

“This is fun,” she said. “I’ve never been here.”

I nodded.

“Why didn’t you call? Were you angry at him for marrying me?”

It would have been convenient for me to say yes, see her face cloud and lighten up again, to turn this into a pancake of a movie-scene, warm and fluffy. Yet I shook my head.

“What’s wrong?”

How can you tell your father’s wife that you’re having a dream about him, a dream in which he rapes you, and that you hate the way he touches you? She likes to be touched by him, lives with him every day, and you don’t even know whether your dream is memory or a mirage.

What I did remember was my mother sleeping naked and myself crawling into bed every morning after Dad had left for work. I remembered weekend mornings when they were both naked and laughing at my curiosity. That is what I remember: my mother laughing at my small hands that seek out her dark nipples, my father watching and laughing too. My mother lifting me over her belly with its soft skin and deep navel over to my father, who received me and stuffed me under the covers next to him. I remember having to massage his back and legs, and his obvious pleasure, his groans and moans, his hairiness. I hated having to touch him so I could stay with them in bed.

Back in the car, Nancy looked at me concerned because I hadn’t answered her question and maybe because I looked older now and like the bust that I was. I gazed at her mauve legs, and her auburn hair might as well have been dyed. I looked into her brown, quick eyes which seemed to understand, if only because I wanted them to.

I put my head in her lap, and she put her fingers in my hair and was quiet. God, she was quiet and didn’t move, held me without a word, held still as long as I had my head next to her small belly, until I grew self-conscious and sat back up. “Thanks,” I said.


My father sat at a desk at the far end of the living room, college football muted on the screen.

“I thought you had gone off into the sunset and left me.” He laughed and embraced me like I’d seen coaches embrace their prize-fighters after a victory. We had a whiskey, the manly afternoon drink, and I told him about the fairy-tale I remembered from my childhood. By that time I was asking myself why I had come and how I had ever expected to find out if my dreams were just that, dreams, or if they were memories. I wanted to talk about the past and didn’t know how to bring it up.

“Do you know “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs?”

“Where did you and Nancy go?”

“Do you?”

“What is it? A story?”

“A fairy-tale. Grimms’ tales.”

“Why? Was it fun to go shopping? Nancy is a great shopper.”

“Dad. The tale. Grandma read it to me.”

He looked at me, he suppressed a laugh, waited for me to say more, to explain myself.

“She told it again and again.”

He didn’t remember the fairy-tale, but he wanted to understand, although he didn’t. We heard Nancy’s busy feet in the kitchen. She was baking Pillsbury cookies we had picked up on our way home.

“We’re – don’t take offense – we’re worried about you. No, no, please, we know you can fend for yourself, but not hearing from you was hard.” He came over to where I sat in a green overstuffed armchair and put a hand on my arm, a hand that looked like mine with its long fingers and slightly crooked nails.

“I don’t like the way you touch me,” I said.

He stepped back, his face drawn, shocked. He was hurt, but didn’t attack. He sat back down and stared at the carpet in front of him.

“The fairy-tale,” he said, cautiously, as if he expected me to jump him.

“It’s about a boy born in a lucky skin, and to marry the King’s daughter, he has to go to hell and get the Devil’s three golden hairs.”

“I’m not sure we have that book.”

I groaned, feeling more and more stupid with every word I said. How could I talk about fairy-tales no one in my family remembered anyway?

“Is that the reason?”

“The reason for what?” I asked.

“I talked with Nancy about you. Often. She really likes you.”

“What reason?”

“That story?”

“For what?”

He sighed. “We’re just old and worry about you.”

“The reason for what?” I shouted.

“You have to…I mean everyone needs a job, a place to live…”

“The fairy-tale.”

“I want to understand, but…what is this story about?”

“You freak me out,” I said. “You give me the creeps.” And then I became too afraid of what he might have to say or what he would ask and that in the end I would be laughed at again, and I ran up the stairs, got my things and rushed to the entrance.

He stood there, small, a slight man with graying, impeccably cut hair, trim, wealthy and hurt.

“I don’t comprehend. What did I do?” he asked. Nancy stood in the kitchen door looking at me, my stepmother the principal, looking out into the school corridor with professionally concerned eyes.

I needed my silent exit, I felt I needed my stoic silence to be able to walk to my car, but on my way home to Buffalo, I knew that I was left with an empty feeling, that of a fighter who didn’t try. I had everything going for me, but how can a child talk to his daddy when the child is twenty-eight and the father fifty-four and no one remembers? It was this: I couldn’t talk to someone who did not exist anymore. The six-year old did not exist and the thirty-five year old was gone. He didn’t know what tale I was talking about, for him it had never existed.

I had been afraid to stay one moment longer in my father’s house, for if I had uttered one more word in my dad’s presence, I would have believed in his ignorance, believed that what had been important to me only existed in my crooked mind.


“It didn’t work,” I said to Mike and told him about the weekend.

“What didn’t work?” he asked.

“It. The weekend. I couldn’t speak. I’m talking about kid’s tales and ferrymen and my dad thinks I’m nuts. I couldn’t say another word. I didn’t have a voice.”

Mike went to a corner of the room, picked up two pairs of boxing gloves from behind a few Raggedy Ann dolls, and threw one of them at me. He carefully took of his gold-rimmed glasses. Without them, his eyes looked big and helpless. Mike looked like a mole, pudgy, furry and soft and blind.

I punched him, he punched back. I hit him, he hit me back. I got angry; I was taller than him and threw punches that I thought should make him wince, but he punched me, and it was me who cringed. He seemed to enjoy this, his smile was carved into his face. He hit me harder until I stood against one wall, only blocking his punches. My voice was a squeak when I said, “Leave me alone.” I thought of the ferryman when he put the oars into the greedy king’s hands. What had he said? What had broken the spell?

Mike stopped and looked at me intently. Then he asked, “Who said that?”



Stefan Kiesbye is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl (Low Fidelity Press, 2005). His stories have appeared/are forthcoming in Hobart, The Stickman Review, Pindeldyboz, and Stumbling and Raging, an anthology edited by Stephen Elliott. He lives with his wife Sanaz in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.skiesbye.com