Molly Jacobs and Sarah Phipps (aka Sally Jacobs)

Molly and Sarah, two girls who in their youth

“may have given their end of town a swinging

reputation,” Garland says, “but if they hastened its

decline, they at least broke the cheerlessness of it.” (p.63)

Grown up, grown old, they would while away

their time, playing cards. “Sarah would get mad

at Molly, and say: ‘I shan’t tell you where I hid

the kerds. I hid them behind the old chest,

but I shan’t tell you.’” (Mann, p.55)

 

Grown up, grown old, having played

the hand they were dealt—they lay together

(Molly and Sally Jacobs) in tattered rags

pulled up over their chins—they lay together

 

in their bed through the cold winter

days and nights—the snow fallen and

falling through what was once a roof—

lying there in each others’ arms—

 

barely moving, only slightly disturbing

the smooth white blanket

that covered them.

— James R. Scrimgeour

From Voices of Dogtown: Poems Arising Out of a Ghost Town Landscape, Loom Press, 2019

 

 

What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race

Frank Littleton looked at the men around the table. Six of them, all wearing shirts they’d once worn in jobs in the city or for going to funerals or fundraisers. Collars spread open. Sleeves rolled to the elbows. Men he’d known and liked for years, some since they were boys sucking on summer peach pits and laying pennies on railroad tracks.

He felt care-worn. Knew they could read it on his face. As he looked up at each of them, quick as cats, they looked away. Their furtive eyes on one another but none on him. Continue reading What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race

Watching Nadal on TV

Paul, a slim man, in his fifties, not much of a talker, is sitting in a chair beside a hospital bed in a cramped bedroom in a mid-priced condo on the east coast of Florida. The room seems dark to him. The chair is utilitarian and uncomfortable. Cold-chromed steel tubing with a flat fake-wood seat and a straight back. No place for a person’s arms to come to rest. Not a chair meant for sitting in for long.

His shoulders are slumped forward. He is looking at the bone-frail woman in the bed. Continue reading Watching Nadal on TV

The Man in the Mirror

There were some men that Bertrand could not stomach. Tommy Bahama was one of them. Bertrand could see him down in the back yard, in his lemon yellow Polo shirt, collar up, maroon sweater, draped over his fey, weak-looking shoulders, and loosely knotted in front. The sight of the man was enough to raise his gorge.

Bertrand carefully drew the bathroom curtain closed and stepped back from the window. The movement caused barely a ruffle, just enough to coax a breath of Cape Cod Fog from the air freshener on the sill. He was sure he had gone unnoticed. Continue reading The Man in the Mirror

The Bright and Shining Cities on the Hill

Thomas Hobbes paid good money for the boat. One hundred euros. He bought it, an outrigger, from a young man, a native of the island. A man named Paolu. The boat was serviceable and could be easily repaired. Paolu had thrown in the few simple tools he might need. For free.

He bought a sail too, and two weighted twine nets from another man. An older man. A fisher. A muscled and bent man with a strong, black back. Continue reading The Bright and Shining Cities on the Hill

Dialogue On the Way to Grandma’s House

Dialogue On the Way to Grandma’s House

My daughter is in the back seat of the Volvo. I can see her eating a peanut butter sandwich. She is her car seat. Her face is in the rearview mirror.

“Why are we going to grandma’s house?”

“Because it is Mother’s Day.”

“But she is not my mother.”

“No, but she is my mother.”

“When is Grandmother’s Day?”

“I don’t know.”

“Could it be tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why?”

“Because you have to go to school.”

“Why do I have to go to school?”

“Because you like school.”

“What if I didn’t like it?”

“But you do.”

“What if I didn’t?”

“You would still have to go.”

“What if you die when I am in school?”

“That is not going t happen.”

“But what if?”

“Honey, it is not going to happen.”

“What if I die when I go to school?”

“You are not going to die when you go to school?”

“How do you know?”

“I just know. You are a little girl.”

“But what if?”

“It is not going to happen.”

“Would you be sad?”

“I would be so sad that I would cry forever.”

“What is forever?”

“A long, long time.”

“How long?”

“The longest, longest, time in the whole world.”

“In the universe?”

“Yes. In the universe?”

“When will the universe die?”

“Never.”

“How do you know?”

“Einstein told me.”

“How does he know?”

“He worked it out in school.”

“Oh.”

Myra and Mose

Myra is sitting on the other side of the bed. The side closest to the window. The blinds are open. The thin morning light falls across her cotton nightdress in bands like an inmate’s prison garb. A few of Mose’s books are on the floor. Scattered, lying in disarray.

Her books are neatly stacked on her table, with her glasses, beside the reading lamp. The books, both of theirs, are overdue at the library. He had been reading The Confessions of Nat Turner. She hasn’t read any of hers in a while. She can’t remember when. The thought has ceased to cross her mind. Continue reading Myra and Mose

Is God Dead? No He’s Just Busy

God was late. He missed dinner.

“Marvin, where have you been, young man?” said his mother. “Dinner is cold, and your father couldn’t wait. He ate and He’s in his room working on The Book.”

Marvin has been auditing a class in Practical Applications of Advanced Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech. Three days a week with an afternoon lab on Saturdays. Continue reading Is God Dead? No He’s Just Busy

The Coffee Lover

Porter sits on the back porch steps. At Maureen’s. He is waiting for her. For her to come out. For her to bring the coffee she is making.

The air is cool, and a blanket of mist covers the tops of the white pines, blocking his view of the water, which lies down the steep sandy slope behind her house.

He brought pastries from home. It is Sunday morning. He has not read the Times yet. It lays folded on the stair next to him. They will read it together later. Maybe walk to the beach. Continue reading The Coffee Lover

The Death of A Good Man, All In All

The funeral service for the late Herman Kaminski was not well-attended. The Riverside Chapel in Mount Vernon was near enough to the Cross County Parkway for a quick on and off for mourners up from Manhattan or down from lower Westchester. It also offered an ample parking lot as well as a compassionate understanding of the religious traditions in a Jewish memorial service. For no extra charge, they provided the services of a Rabbi, one Arthur I. Shankman, who spoke with the bereaved family before the service. His fingers interlaced in front of him, he asked Kaminski’s two sons for any remembrances they wanted him to mention. They declined. Continue reading The Death of A Good Man, All In All

An Early Supper at Café Les Enfants Perdus

I sat at a table at Café Les Enfants Perdus in the 10th along the Rue des Récollets. Fonseca, the proprietor, with whom I was well acquainted, approached the table. He carried two glasses of Kir au Vin Blanc. He set one in front of me.

“May I sit,” he asked. I nodded.

He took the chair opposite me so that he retained a view of the kitchen. This allowed me an unhindered view of the window onto the street. He raised his glass. I did too.

There was a chill in the air. The Paris spring was slow in coming.

“Mr. Marchand”, he said. His voice was hoarse. Perhaps he had been at the races that afternoon but I had not seen him there. “Please forgive this intrusion. I have seen to it that your soup and fresh bread will be out in a moment.”

“Thank you,” I said. Fonseca was not an overly gregarious man.

“Are you comfortable? I can put up the heat if you wish.” I told him no. There was no need.

“Very well,” he said. “And your wife. She is well?

“Yes,” I said.

“She is a lovely woman. A woman of great taste and beauty. Will she be joining you this evening?”

“No. It is Wednesday. We have our meals apart on Wednesdays. She works late and then sees some friends of hers from the States. I have to get to work myself.

I write in the evenings. The room on the Rue de Seine is most quiet in the evening. I have found that I work best after an early supper. I work until I think I have reached a point where I understand what the story is about and I leave it to settle a bit in my thoughts before returning to it the next evening. It works well for me. I can hear the river and I will walk along it on my way to our apartment. Perhaps I will bring home a bottle of Sancerre. There is a shop near the Bataclan that stocks the finest wines in the city

“Can I bring you another Kir?”

“Yes. Have you the escarole this evening?”

“I am sorry. It did not look good to Franco. He purchased several bunches of Swiss chard instead. I hope it will be to your liking.”

Fonseca inherited the café from his brother Bernard, the oldest of the three. Bernard suffered a mortal wound in a skirmish in the Dardanelles. He told the young nurse who had cared for him that he wanted to leave all of his possessions to the younger Fonseca. Bernard carried the license to the café and the deed to the family home in a leather pouch under his tunic. He gave the pouch to the nurse and asked her to deliver it to his brother. She did this.

Being a beautiful woman, disgusted with the war, she found the younger Fonseca to be a man of integrity and some mirth. To his pleasure, she had learned to cook at her mother’s side and soon she became indispensable to Fonseca who had little facility in the kitchen. After a while they married, though the marriage did not last long.

The aperitif was working and I found myself growing hungry.

Fonseca got up from his seat. He had some difficulty. He complained of an arthritic hip. “Your hip,” I said.

“It is bothersome. I am old for this work.”

He returned from the kitchen with the soup and a piece of bread. “Bon Appetit,” he said.

I told him thank you and he returned to the kitchen.

The breeze off the river had picked up. It came in through the open windows facing the street. I thought I might go fishing in the morning.

 

 

The Woman in the Silver-Grey Mercedes

The woman was driving a sleek, self-assured, silver-grey, late-model Mercedes convertible. James Connaught could not make out the model number as the car passed by in the HOV lane heading north on I-84 toward Boston or, more likely, Providence. But he could certainly see who the woman was. It was early afternoon on a warm Friday and he was in a seat by the window, mid-way back on the driver’s side of the Bolt-for-a-Buck bus on his way home from New York to Boston. He had travelled into the city for a business meeting.

He knew her. Had seen her last less than three hours earlier. She was still wearing an onyx-black silk blouse she was wearing then, and her hair, closely resembling the same luxurious material, was pinned back with a silver clip at the nape of her neck. Her makeup was flawless. She was Zumba-thin and had an aura of cold, practiced composure. As if she were meditating in a meat locker.

James put down the book he was holding. His pulse quickened. His breathing sped. She was taping her fingers on the steering wheel, her head nodding in time to the sound system that encircled her.

The rage he had felt earlier that afternoon swelled once again within him. Then, she had been sitting across the table from him, in a comfortable room with the door closed, a folder in front of her, which she did not open.

He had asked her, he remembered, “What is going on?” To which the Mercedes woman had said, “You know exactly what is going on. We are letting you go.” And, with not another word more spoken, she left the room, with only a nod to Monica or Musette, the HR person who was there to clean up the mess.

He looked at Ms. HR, his heart plummeting with unanticipated sadness, as if he had just witnessed the death of a loved one, or as if a verdict had been read to him in a dark, Kafkaesque courtroom on an undisclosed charge with an undisclosed sentence. As if they expected him to be silent and to somehow accept that what was happening had been of his own doing, and that they were blameless and without the power to undo it and make it any different, and that he should try to understand their unfortunate and innocently impotent predicament.

As if he would then walk out of the room and down the hall past all of the office doors that were closed tightly, the office doors that were once ‘always open.’ The doors that hid the maleficent conspirators from bearing witness to the trouble they had wrought and with which they bore only a distant and quotidian relationship, tapping their pencils on their desk blotters, waiting impatiently until their temporary but necessary ordeal would be over and they could once again be opened.

And he did as they had planned. He signed the papers that had been placed before him and he walked out of the room and down the hall, stifling an insistent urge to knock on those high-ranking doors and ask for an explanation or better yet, an apology.

He walked to his desk and found a box someone had put there and he filled it with his few belongings, sitting, knowing that everyone knew before he did what was to happen that day, and when they should go out for coffee and a smoke or, if they needed to be at their desks, when not to raise their heads or to glance away from their computer screens, or cough or make any sound at all that would draw his attention to them and risk having to speak to him.

These people, the very same ones who had sat with him in a meeting that morning and who ate cinnamon-raisin bagels with cream cheese and drank Dunkin’ Donuts coffee out of paper cups with him, and had known full well what would transpire later that day and said not a word, nor had given a look of acknowledgement of what would come to pass nor of what bullet, at the end of the day, they will have been spared.

His access to the computer server had been denied. They had made sure, in their premeditated efficiency, that he could not retrieve any of his files. As though he no longer existed to them; as though he had no longer had any value, perhaps never had, except in the generation of billable hours.

He sat on the bus, alone. He felt the urge to vomit. Around him were crumpled Burger King wrappers and pizza-stained napkins on the floor; the grime on the window beside him, left by other men, other women, who had leaned against it leaving their greasy mark as the only evidence that they had once been there. Around him, the odor of the lavatory and the smell of his own acrid sweat like onion breath.

The Mercedes had flown by. James was left with the weight of the future on him and the inescapable, unfathomable, thought of what he would do now, a man just past sixty-two, with a mortgage and bills to pay, and a wife and child waiting at home for him.

The Good Life of Avrum and Chava

Avrum and Chava own a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home in North Ossining, not far from the maximum-security prison down by the river. They have 2.5 acres, iron gates, their own artesian well, and biodegradable, earth-friendly deer fencing protecting their garden.

Avrum is a retired lawyer and Chava is a former social worker for the department of corrections at Sing Sing, where they first met.

In their fifty years together, they have led cautious, well-organized lives. They are vegans, fermentationists, grow their own fruits and vegetables. They use no plastics. They stopped using aluminum pans and deodorants years ago. They have no cell phones or a microwave. Their home is rid of mold, lead, polyfluorocarbonate aromatics, errant asbestos fibers, and radon.

They look like two well-pressed Dickensian waifs from Bleak House. Each of them is thirty pounds under weight. They consume no more than 800 calories per day and walk eight miles each morning to remain in strict calorie balance.

Their yoga instructor finds them existentially intimidating.

When they turned fifty, each assessing their risks, Avrum had a prophylactic prostatectomy and she a precautionary hysterectomy and full bi-lateral mastectomies.

They are friendly and sociable, literate, kind, careful, and caring people.

One recent evening, they were heading north on the West Side Highway after attending the final performance of the entire Ring Cycle at Lincoln Center when they were sideswiped by a gypsy cab with its lights off and were sent careening into the guard rail. When their front and side airbags deployed, given their light weight and small size, they were instantly crumpled and suffocated.

At the moment of their death, they are surrounded by a halo of warm mauve light.

A reassuringly back-lit vision of a sixty-something woman with neatly trimmed hair, a string of pearls, and a tastefully tailored white pant suit, appears before them.

She speaks slowly in a vaguely mid-western accent, “Don’t be alarmed,” she tells them. “Just try to relax. You’ll be all right. I promise.”

They look at one another, unsure.

“You are not dying or dead. You have been granted a reprieve; a permanent stay of execution so to speak; a lifetime dispensation.”

“Why us?” Chava asks.

“To tell you the truth, we don’t offer this to everyone. You’ve both lived exemplary lives of service, chaste, positive thoughts, and quiet restraint: Model citizens. No felonies. Frankly, just what we are trying to encourage.”

Avrum asks, “Wait, we’re not dead? Isn’t this Heaven?”

“No,” she tells him, “We did away with the heaven idea eons ago. It just wasn’t giving us the kind of results we were looking for. I don’t have to tell you about the present state of affairs: debauchery, gluttony, sloth, tax-fraud, sexual harassment, drones.”

“What if we take this offer, what happens next?”

“Well, nothing changes. Everything stays the same. You just agree to maintain your lifestyle. You stay forever just as you were fifteen minutes ago before the crash. We need folks like you to set an example for other couples.

“Nothing changes? Our bank account?”

“The same.”

“Investments? Health insurance?”

“The same.”

“Same. My God, think of all the books, movies, bar mitzvahs, operas. No pressure to do anything you don’t want to for-ever. You just agree to let us use your names and testimonials in a little subtle internet advertising promoting The Good Life and the launch of our new product line.”

“Think of it. Your home will be free and clear after the mortgage expires. Of course, you’ll need to have the wiring upgraded and the appliances repaired, replace the boiler, the roof when needed, you know the usual maintenance every hundred years or so.”

Sensing their hesitation, she adds, “I know this will work for you. For you both. What do I have to do to make this deal happen?”

Silence.

“Look, not to rush you but if you just put your thumb prints right here, you are free to go. You’ll never see me again.”

Chava and Avrum look at one another. He reaches gently for her hand, “I’m in,” he says, “Let’s take it.”

“Congratulations, Avrum. This is so you!”

“Wait,” Chava says. “What if we decide not to take the offer? I mean, what happens if we say no?”

“Well, no one has ever actually said no before. I guess you just get the usual, you know, one last meal of your choosing and then, well, it’s lights out.”

“A last meal?”

“Yes.”

“Chava, what are you saying?” Avrum whispers.

“Shush! What could we have?”

“Anything!”

“Anything?” Chava, lowers her eyes. “Well,” she says quietly. “Could I have three eggs, scrambled, wet, homefries, and wheat toast, no wait, make that pumpernickle toast, with butter.

Arum looks at her. He is aghast. “Chava, don’t do this!” he implores.

“Is that all?” The woman asks, looking toward Avrum.

Avrum shakes his head, “ Nothing for me.”

“Can I have a side of bacon, too?” Chava says.

“Of course.”

“And a regular coffee, light and sweet?”

“Chava, bacon, yet? Please!”

“Oh, Avrum,” she tells him. “ I’m sorry. I love you. I do. We’ve had a good life. What more could I ask for?”

She looks into Avrum’s warm grey eyes, smoothens her hand against his rough cheek and turns to the woman in white.

 

 

 

An Incident at Camp Bullis, TX, 1949

Margaret Donnelly, the administrator at TenderNest Assisted Living, tells Hector that his mother has not eaten breakfast for going on three days.

Each Saturday morning, Hector makes the drive from Bozeman to Billings to see his mother. Two hours each way, less if the weather is clear; more if there’s snow on I-90. His job keeps him in Bozeman. He works lift maintenance year-round at Big Sky. He calls it ‘Big Money.’ Continue reading An Incident at Camp Bullis, TX, 1949

Summer Solstice

Mid-day, and the sun is high. It seems to pause in the sky. There is little shade in the park. Mackenzie watches the woman cross the street. He knows her. ‘Helen,’ she told him that first time she came to run her dog on the patchy grass of the field by the tennis courts. After she left, he’d repeated her name to himself so he would not forget it. Continue reading Summer Solstice

Mel Williamson’s Holiday Surprise

The idea had come to Williamson so clearly, so well formed, and with such perfect attention to launch detail that it could not possibly fail.

He was in love. Love struck. Smitten. Knee deep in love. Floating on a river of love.

He had first seen Cindy at Sylvia Johnson’s pre-December pre-Christmas party. Sylvia had invited all of her friends at the library and all of her husband’s down at the town Water Department, Office of Cross Connections and Backflows, to her annual holiday gathering. Continue reading Mel Williamson’s Holiday Surprise

The Periodic Table

Revson and I went to a lecture together at the Y on 92nd St. I had suggested it to him and I bought the tickets, as he had recently fallen on hard times.

We took our seats in the front row of the lecture hall. The subject was The Periodic Table, Primo Levi’s memoir as an Auschwitz survivor. And, since Levi had recently been found dead at the bottom of a long stone staircase, under very uncertain circumstances, the room was overflowing with anticipation. Continue reading The Periodic Table

Sally Ann Finkelstein for President

Sally Ann Finkelstein turned sideways to the mirror. She swayed slightly, smoothed her hand gently over her tummy, tucked a curl of silvery hair behind her ear, and checked her teeth for lipstick stains.

She was a pleasant looking woman. Pleasant enough. Though perhaps more in appearance than in manner, given the effect she had on some, though she meant neither insult nor harm. Continue reading Sally Ann Finkelstein for President

The Woman Next Door

Benson was awakened by the sounds of the woman next door leaving for work. It was cold and the rain had turned to wet snow, at least it had at 3 a.m., when he’d gotten up to pee.

Their apartments were close. They shared a thin gypsum-board wall between them. He knew she could hear him during the night as he fumbled for the light in the dark and then flushed the toilet. The intimacy of this embarrassed him though there was nothing else he could do.

Continue reading The Woman Next Door