Modern American Tale

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The story of two wandering souls.

Submitted: August 26, 2016

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Submitted: August 26, 2016

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1

 

The flame sparked up from the match. Brand tilted his head and squinted at the end of the cigarette. He tentatively had the flame lick at the dry tobacco. He drew on it. The tip glowered sending an acrid smoke in his mouth, throat and lungs. His body, virgin to it, responded with fits of coughing. He didn’t take a second drag but passed the cigarette to Tyrone. He spluttered in the crook of his arm. Tyrone expertly pinched it between his forefinger and thumb, drawing and puffing the smoke against the cherry to make it redder. The two of them crouched behind lifeless, sun-yellowed and almost leafless bushes.

This was the summer of 1996 and he was twelve years old. Dusk was setting on the two boys, in Tyrone’s backyard. Tyrone’s mother usually came back late from work. She took the bus downtown and the traffic was always horrid on the way back. Brand’s mother would park her car in their cracked concrete driveway in a few minute and that’s why they chose Tyrone’s backyard. Tyrone had filched a cigarette from his uncle Deon. He was used to do it, when his uncle passed out on the sagging couch. Brand believed him now as he was spitting his lungs out. Tyrone looked at him, his half-closed eyelids against the smoke. Tyrone handed the cigarette back. Brand waved him away. He took a gum out of his pocket and chewed it emphatically.

There were fictitious firearms laid on the wooden fence behind them. They played soldiers all day long with some other kids from the block. They decided on a different battlefield every day. Sometimes it was Brand’s backyard even though he hated to have other people going through his house. But most of the time, they would settle on the foreclosed house at the end of the street. Its doors and windows were boarded up. The lawn and weeds had grown knee-high. Its backyard was used for dumping unwanted implements, dishwashers, battered TV sets or piles of debris from a house some guys in the neighborhood was renovating.  They offered handy cover when the battle raged. In the background, they could sometimes hear real shots fired two blocks away.  The kids played there until a fire hydrant was cracked open.  They then ran back to the streets, stripping their Tee-shirts. Some went through the spewing water with skateboards, other used their bike, and other just ran through it. Older teens were throwing a football over the spurts, their long football jersey reaching to their knees. When the first parent was spotted, everyone would scuttle to their houses.

The block was calm now; no more kids’ voices could be heard. Tyrone was not crouching anymore. He laid, his back against the fence, with the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. His wrists rested on top of his knees. Brand was listening anxiously for the slamming of her mother’s car door. But all he could hear was the traffic on the thoroughfare, the honks, the rumbling of engine, and sometimes the screeching of tires. He remembered some years ago when people had taken to the streets. Three men had been arrested for high-speeding on the highway. They had been then restrained with excessive use of violence. The policemen had been caught on camera, charged and acquitted. The acquittal had sparked six-day of rioting. There had been true pandemonium: lootings, arsons, confrontations, a lot of people had died. He remembered vividly the footage of this white man, thrown out of his truck, beaten down with bricks. That had been the very first day. It had started with injustice and ended up in injustice. His mother had kept him home, the army had been sent in and a month later life had taken its course again.

“Brand, I’m home”. He could see his mother calling him from their shabby patio with its dead flowers and the blades of grass growing through the cracks. She was standing between  the two dying palm trees flanking the width of their parched lawn. She was dressed in her work outfit.  Sweat stained her armpits against the beige color. It was a sweltering day, a day you had to breathe hard to catch some air. The sky was orange, then pink, then blue. Some stars could already be seen overhead. He sprayed the deodorant heavily over his clothes. He slung his weapon over his shoulder then hooked a thumb in the strap. He nodded to Tyrone then got up. He waved to his mother and hopped over the low chain-link fence dividing the two properties. She smiled tenderly to him, and led him inside a hand over his shoulder.

 

2

 

There she was staring into the crackling and sizzling logs aflame behind the chimney glass doors. The base of the flames was blue and dancing along the entangled heap of wood. They were red, swinging and licking at the blackened stone of the fire place. The rain was pelting against the great latticed windows. This was a dreary October day when the sky hangs low over the treetops. She was sitting in a stretching position, her leg extended perpendicularly. She couldn’t see the lake outside. The view was blocked by a thick curtain of raindrops. The majestic Normandy clock chimed ceremoniously. She lifted her blue eyes to its face and her hands positioned arabesque-like. It was three p.m and not a sound could be heard in the wood-paneled living-room.

Tiva was twelve years old at the time. In half an hour, she would hear Jean-Jacques’ soles squeaking on the wooden floor. He would stand, both black leather-gloved hand knitted in front of him. She would stand up. He would ask if she would need any help with her bag. And she would once again say no. He would open all the doors for her all the way to the car and pompously wait for her to climb inside. Her mother was still in bed. She rarely got up before four on a Saturday. A glass and a bottle were missing from the mini-bar. And Nina, the maid, had overlooked the untouched but ashy cigarette balanced on the edge of the ashtray. Tiva threw it in the fire, she liked Nina. She went to the window and managed to make out the pool guy’s van in the driveway. She wondered how he could work in such a rainy day.

Bordering the gravel path, she could see, in her mind’s eye, the well-trimmed lawn and the round-pruned box trees dotting it. It then slumped gently toward a lake, specially dug for landscaping sake. Its reedy shores sheltered a whiteness of swans. Her father had offered her a male and a female. When out on the lake, on the small green and paint-flaking boat, the mansion towered above the whole estate. It was surrounded by a thick conifer forest. The fog always clung to their branches. The dwelling was almost a castle. It was the slightly shrunk version of a house; her parents had visited in the South-West of Ireland. She never had the chance to see this for herself. Her father was often away, closing deals in every corner of the world. She knew that he wouldn’t be there when the curtain would drop. No one would be there to see the volley of ballerinas taking over the stage. Among them, his daughter, her hair yanked back tightly, performing her changements, her pas de chat, no he wouldn’t be there, he did not even promise.

He chose her name. His family had been mixed up with Native Americans at some point. She didn’t know what business he was in. Maybe it was alcohol, cigarettes or casinos. She had no idea. When he was home, she would just hope for a walk in the grounds, an outing on the lake with Georgie. He was a fire-brown and black German shepherd. He brought him back from Germany six or seven years ago. Her father had often been to Europe around that time. He had also brought back a complete collection of leather-bound fairy tales books. They stood on a specially-carved bookcase that was also her headboard. Her bed was a four-poster. Veils were hanging all around her and staved off mosquitoes during the humid and sweltering summer days. The lake enticed them by swarms. Plush toys, some as tall as she was, were lined up against the pink wall-papered wall. The doorways were outlined with raw stones. Some of them shipped from some dismantling castle in Bavaria. One of them opened on a semi-circled balcony with marble bulwarks. Ivy was weaving its tendril and vine leaves all over the red-brick façade up to the guardrail. From up there, she could see, on a lucky day, the end of the lake. There was an old fishing cabin made of clapboards with a disused pontoon. There had never been a fisher. And if a boat had once moored there, it was probably now resting muddily underwater.

Another look at the clock and the hands were joined, as if there were now just a single one. Their unity and  loneliness brought tears to her eyes.

 

3

 

The worn basketball court failed to reflect the neon lights overhead. A large red carpet had been laid under the phalanxes of empty folding chairs. The bleachers were folded back against the wall. On a dais was a lectern. A brass plate with the embossed emblem of the school, a tiger, was set in its center. A microphone had been set, at the ready. But there was no speaker yet. A lonely technician made some test with the microphone. His voice crackled. He tugged at the cable. The crackling stopped. He then taped the cable to the stand. The walls used to be white. The skylights filtered the gray light of an overcast day. Bustling voices were muttered by the battered entrance doors. Edward stood alone in the middle of the gym. The orange and blue pennants flagged disconsolately in the stifling interior. His ears were assailed by the cheers and laughter of students when he opened the door for a quick, pre-ceremony, cigarette.

Outside a flow of student was wearing the traditional blue gown and mortarboard. Some of them wore quaint sunglasses even though the sky was gray as lead. Edward leaned on the wall, lit a cigarette and watched them. They were talking restlessly and excitedly. The parents stayed in the background conversing good-heartedly, grinning, laughing, proud. The event took place at the beginning of June. Every year Edward had to prepare the gym. He would receive leave not to clean the classes in the early morning. All through the day, he worked tirelessly until the moment the school principal stepped in with the faculty, taking charge. He could see them now advancing from between the cafeteria building and the administration one. All the teachers and monitors who were laughed at by disrespectful students all the school year round were now cheered warmly. Some whistled shrilly with two fingers in their mouth. Other hooted wildly. They formed a guard of honor as they strode to the Gym. Edward quickly crushed his cigarette under his foot and opened the doors wide. When the last parent would have crammed into the hall, he would be free to go and start cleaning the untended to classes.

Brand walked in meekly looking for an empty chair. He found a spot next to the aisle and Latisha Morris. He would not have to step on toes and over legs when his name would be called. Latisha ignored him. He didn’t mind it. He only regretted Tyrone wasn’t sitting next to him. He thought about his friend locked-up in a youth detention center. He had been caught after holding-up a Korean shopkeeper. He was away for a long time now; he would have never graduated anyway. The principal broke his train of thoughts by coughing into the microphone. He was an old, work-tired, man in his sixties, with a worn-out beige suit. His blue eyes looked sad between his thick glasses. The white of his hair was dirty and greasy. He made a short introduction, thanking the parents, the teachers, the school’s employees and congratulating the pupils. He then proceeded to call each of them. On hearing his name, Brand felt as if the whole gym was looking at him. He hoped he would not trip up the dais but nobody cared, a band of rowdy boys in the back were getting all the attention. He was given a crumpled scroll and was hugged by each of his teacher then went back to his chairs and waited for the end of the ceremony.

When he stepped outside, a sunray was desperately trying to pierce the plump bundles of clouds. Deron, one of the rowdy boys, gave him a high five on his way out.

“Whaddaya up to Bran’?”

“I dunno man, think, I’m a head back home”

“C’mon man, ya can’t stay home tonight, tonight it’s the party” he pushed an imaginary dumbbell. “Yo, Kendell, Brand need himself a graduation party, whaddaya say?”

Kendell was tall and gaunt. His gown was gaping on his frail frame. He spoke in a soft voice.

“I say we take him with us, my man, we gonna hook ya up with some pussy, my man”

Brand was blushing inside. He felt someone tapping on his shoulder and turned around. It was his mother. She had said she would try to be here. She could never leave her work early. She was dressed in a purple dress, with purple tights, a pillbox hat. She had her hair bobbed. Cheap, fake golden earrings dangled from her earlobes. She smiled toothily. Her lips were daubed with cherry lipstick.

“I’m so proud of you my boy” she extended both arms to him. He looked sideways. Deron and Kendell were watching. He nodded but didn’t move. She moved closer. He tried to evade her embrace even though he badly wanted her to give him a kiss. He embraced her anyway. As he did so Kendell and Deron left laughing. He cut the embrace short.

“Are you okay m’ boy?”

“Yes ma, ’m fine”

“Let’s go back home, I’ cook you a graduate meal.” He looked at the two guys walking away. They looked almost out of reach now.

“I can’t Ma, there’s a party tonight”. Disappointment was written all over her face. She nodded while looking at the ground.

“I won’t be home late Ma, I promise” She nodded again. He gave her a peck on the cheek, thrust his scroll in her hands and rushed off. There she stood alone for a long moment. When she saw that no one around came to talk to her, she walked back to her car.

“Hey, yo Deron!, Deron!” He caught up with them on the parking lot. The clouds had turned black. His figure was reflected clearly in the tinted car glasses.

“Where the party at?” Deron flashed him a toothy grin. He slapped on Brand’s panting shoulder. In a few minutes, they were driving on the boulevard. Kendell’s father station wagon was an antiquity. The loudspeakers were missing their grating. They could be stopped anytime for the absence of a rearview mirror. The car squeaked at each red light. The floor was strewn with Styrofoam cups. It looked like Kendell’s dad made a point of visiting every possible fast food restaurant. The faulty air vents could not blow away the thick layers of dust. Nor could it provide life-saving cool air. Only Kendell could roll his window halfway down. The thick, unbreathable, smoggy air failed to make its way inside. They had taken off their mortar boards and were sweating heavily. The heat did not manage to sour their moods  and they talked heatedly about their future.

“Dis nigger be done with school for ever. I’m a find myself some work.” Kendell turned the volume. The repeated beat made the dust fly inside the car. “ What ‘bout you, Bran’? Dey say, you is real bookish” Once again, Brand failed to blush. He was indeed a good student, it came naturally to him. But he didn’t tell them he would join community college. He had been selected for a scholarship and would start at the end of August. His mother had almost fainted when he had given her the letter.

“I dunno man, I thinks I’m a get a job too”

“You’s too brainy, guess t’must cost a lota greens” Deron whistled. “ Dis frien ‘o mine, he’ be home tonight, he say he got some job for me”

“Can’t you hook me up, nigger?”

“Yo dad wouldn’t like it Kendell”

Kendell parked the car in a concrete driveway. Kendell and Deron lived in the same block, it looked like his but they were two or three miles distant. There was a battered letterbox with an overflowing trashcan next to the sidewalk. The water-sprinkler sprinkled feebly at the yellow- brown lawn. Music was already being played, it came from the backyard. They walked along the hedge toward the back of the house. There was an inflated swimming-pool with two lanky guys in it. Both of them had a piece of blue fabric knotted around their head. One of them had a long cone-shaped cigarette at the corner of his mouth. Brand couldn’t make out the tattoos on their brown skin. They were sipping from green glass beer bottles.

“Here they be! De honored student” The two of them guffawed. “Yo deserved it fellows” He passed the joint to Deron who took a deep hit. “Yo Kendell, crank up that sound skinny-ass, I’m a cook dem burgers. Homies, the bitches be home soon” Brand knew Lincoln,  Deron’s brother. The word was on the street that he held up the Korean with Tyrone. Kendell and Deron sat down in long chairs and passed the joint among them. Brand just stood there, still in his gown, not knowing what he should do. Lincoln went behind the barbecue and started up the fire.

“Yo, m’man, cheer up, get me a beer and get one for yaself”

“C’mon Reggie , don’t be hard on the kid. Yo’, Bran’ how’s Tyronne?” He was flipping burgers and didn’t look at Brand. It was him who had talked Tyronne into it. He was sure of it. It was easy to influence him. Tyronne liked what shone. School was hard for him. He counted on Brand for assignments, gave hell to the teachers. He didn’t belong there. Lincoln had needed a wing man; someone to hold the scared shopkeepers at gun point while he had plundered the cash register. Little had he known about the alarm system. On seeing them, the Korean guy must have triggered it off. On hearing the police sirens, they must have rushed off in opposite directions. The cops had chosen Tyronne’s way. And now he was behind bars while Lincoln was enjoying freedom in the backyard of his late uncle. And he was at it again. Deron had not mentioned his name, but this friend of his with the job and all was Lincoln for sure.

“Hey ya dumb o what?” Brand was seething with rage. He opened the cooler against the swimming-pool. He took two beer bottles. He threw one to bathing Reggie. He opened his and sat in the lawn. “ Yo I’m talkin to ya”

“I ain’t got no news Linc”

“Hope, dey let him go soon” Brand looked at his bottle and imagined himself hurtling it at Lincoln. He didn’t do it. Lincoln could have ducked under and find cover behind the open lid of the barbecue. And he could also have whip out the gun which he had slid under his waist band when he had got out of the pool.

They smoked, drank and laughed his bad mood away. They made a heap with their gowns and caps. They set fire to it. Brand in the haze of booze and weed stared at it, fascinated. He didn’t think about his mother working extra to pay for the gown. Nor did he think about her alone tonight, channel-surfing, waiting anxiously for the floorboard to squeak his arrival. Some girls arrived later on. The music was turned louder. Pipes were out and weed crackled in them. He felt his head spinning and had to lie down in the grass. The smog and the afternoon clouds had made way for a clear summer night with its shiny shards of stars. He was trying to drink from his bottle when he felt a hand probing at his crotch. He raised his head. Latisha Morris was rubbing him hard and looking at him.

“Dey all inside, better get to it now, soldier.”

He woke up the next day on the couch. Latisha was fast asleep curled into a ball in her corner of the couch. He rubbed his face in his hands. The house was a mess. Empty beer bottles were lined up on the low table. The scant furniture of the room was upended. There was a burger with a half-moon shaped bite in a plate. Some beer had been spilt on the shaggy carpet. His bare feet squelched in it. The curtain-rod was holding to the wall from a single end. Brand dressed up and opened the barred screen door to the garden. Patties were still sizzling on the barbecue. Embers were still glowing from their bonfire. The swimming-pool had been emptied of its water. The lawn chairs were lying helter-skelter. He walked out of this battlefield. He walked home. He swore never to see any of them again.

 

4

 

A table for three was set in the wood-paneled dining room. It was a long mahogany table, covered by a pristine satin cloth. Soup plates were stacked on dinner plates. Sets of silverware forks and knives flanked them. There were two types of crystal glasses in front of them. Flickering flames danced on top of silver candlesticks. At the center of the table was a fruit bowl filled with round shiny red and juicy apples. A decanter was set on a small table in which a dark red wine was breathing away. Smells of roasted meat were coming from the nearby kitchen. The Normandy-clock sounded the hour.

Tiva was at the window again. The sky was clear. However, she could see a mass of inky clouds advancing from the west. Earlier, she had taken a walk in the grounds with Georgie. She had felt the incoming storm. The air had been sticky, heavy and warm. Georgie had been uneasy whimpering as they had neared the lake. Now it was impending. Hunter’s and sons Pool maintenance was in the driveway again. Lately, it had seemed to her as if the workman had been living here. Her mother was always out of sight when he took care of her beloved indoor pool.

In a few minutes, she wouldn’t be alone. She was on the look-out for the black limousine to pass the gates at the end of the road. He was coming back. He hadn’t been able to make it at her graduation party. Only her mother had been here. When she thought about it, it had been the second time she had come at her school. It was her mother who had decided she would be a boarder. The school had only been a few miles away. She had pretended it would make her grow up. Jean-Jacques had commuted for her every week end. The graduation had been a disaster. Her mother had been late. Jean-Jacques had ushered her inside. She hadn’t been able to walk alone. Her phone had rung during the dean’s speech. Everyone had watched her stagger out of the room. She had passed out in the limo and Jean-Jacques had driven the two of them back home.

She could see dust now, swirling after the limo. She wished Hunter’s van to go away. She knew her father would see it. As Jean-Jacques maneuvered the car into the garage, she heard hurried steps down the mahogany staircase and a door being slammed. Disheveled John Hunter ran in front of the window. He climbed into his van and drove feverishly away. The dark clouds were reaching above the gates as he passed them. She heard her father footsteps as he made his way to the living-room. She rushed to meet him at the door. He embraced her long and tender.

“How are you doing princess?” He was wearing a white silk scarf. His blue eyes glinted from the chandelier’s light. His sandy hair was dressed in a wave above his forehead. His smile was charming as ever. Even though, he spent most of his time in planes, he didn’t have the bulging paunches her friend’s father sported. He was dressed elegantly in a latest-fashion three piece grey suit. He kept holding her, sweeping her up her feet and whirled her around gently. “Where’s your mother, princess?” “Upstairs” “You go and get her. I’m going to change clothes. Let’s meet for dinner in five minutes”. He gave her a high five and left the room.

She knocked at her mother’s door. She heard her muffled voice and opened the door. She was sitting at her dressing table, looking in her mirror and combing her long blonde colored hair. She was wearing a black negligee, one strap of it off her shoulder. Next to her compact was a glass of whisky with floating ice cubes. She didn’t so much as look her through the mirror. Her nose was crooked. She blamed her father for it. He had refused at first but she managed to convince him of the need for a nose job. It went badly. He didn’t do enough to talk her out of it or so she said. She kept staring at her face, mechanically running the comb in her air. “Dad’s here mom and dinner’s ready” “I’ll be down in a minute” her voice was cold and unhappy. She knew she would never forgive her for the few unshedable pounds plumping her thigh and lower belly. Tiva shut the door and went downstairs.

At dinner, Tiva and her father had a long conversation. Two thorny roses had been put into glasses of water, next to where she and her mother were eating. He offered her a true pearl necklace for her graduation. Her mother stayed silent but Tiva knew she was seething with jealously. She nibbled on the chicken. She dried the decanter of wine by herself. She sat flippantly in her negligee and was showing part of her crotch. Jean-Jacques and Nina looked away. She repressed belches behind her napkins. She snorted at everything he said. Her eyes were glassy and sleepy. Suddenly, her father said: “ You see, princess, your mother used to be just like you, now look at her, this Hunter has turned her into a witch, and a whory one at that.” Tiva waited anxiously for her mother’s reaction by rubbing the stem of the rose. She pricked her finger and a tiny bubble of blood popped out. Her mother guffawed loudly, gave her father the finger and walked unsteadily out of the room.

 

5

That summer, his mom was overjoyed. She had been afraid he would come back every day in the early hours as he had done after his graduation party.. He had squinted from the mild sun in his face. He had smelt of tobacco and alcohol. She didn’t want the last man of her life to bail out on her like the others. She knew that boys were attracted to summer days. Days when the light started to linger in the evening. Days when it was warm outside and when it felt great to have drinks on terraces. There were invitations not to work or look for some; invitations not to go back home ever again.

When he told her that he would be looking for work for the summer, she couldn’t be happier. He spent evenings, afternoons or mornings flipping burger at a local fast food joint. When he came back, teens from the block would entice him to stay out. There were no more cops and robber games. Throwing a football was not an option anymore. They would play basketball at the corner court. Well some of them did. Some others were getting high in the dying sun. The world was upside down. They woke up at five in the afternoon. They spent the evening and the night out. They went home early, they didn’t want to stumble on their parents having breakfast at the kitchen table before going to work. But not Brand. They would whistle to him. He would wave them off in a friendly way. She didn’t ask for money but he gave her some anyway. That made her proud.

When he wasn’t working, she was afraid he would go out. But when she came back she found him as she had left him. He was reading, sprawled on the old couch, a pile of books at his feet. He would make library runs. He spent his summer devouring authors she didn’t know. There could be no harm in books she thought. It was further proof of his desire to enroll at the local community college. All the paperwork had been taken care of.  He would start classes at the end of August and would be the first man of her family to go to the university. He wanted to study sociology. She hadn’t any clue what this was.

It wasn’t like high school. It looked as if he wasn’t in class all day long. She would find him home, reading, writing, looking at tables, figures, diagrams and pie charts. He didn’t say much. She tried to coax him into telling her about a girlfriend or even friends but he only grunted. He went to bed late, he woke up early. Some days he wouldn’t go. She made Anita at work check up online to find if he had classes or not. She couldn’t find the info. During her break at work, she called. It took her almost her entire break to get someone on the phone. There were no classes today. She thanked the secretary and got back to work light-heartedly.

One night, after dinner, they were both watching TV. Some politicians were putting the pressure on some international organization. There was talk of disarming a country. She didn’t really pay attention. She was taking a nosedive. She was waiting for the weather forecast.

“This is bullshit” he startled her. She blinked awake.

“What did you say honey?”

“Nothing ma, that’s nothing really.” She saw the opening. She asked him how were things in college. Things were fine. She asked about exams. Exams were scheduled for next month. Did he like it over there? It was fine. The classes were crowded. Some teachers were lousy. It wasn’t what he had expected but it was okay, really. Did he have a job in mind? Not really, he just liked studying. That was fine with her. There could be no harm in studying.

He did great in his exams but didn’t boast about it. She received a letter. He was all As. She threw a party to celebrate. She invited Anita and her daughter. Ignacia wasa  true beauty. She had long straight black hair. Her skin was the color of tobacco. She had black glinting marble for eyes. She was the same age as Brand. He came home that night. He didn’t notice the three women. He didn’t see the pennants strung through the kitchen. He didn’t pay attention to the table. There were tortillas under tin foil, bowls of salsa and guacamole. He loved Mexican food. He didn’t even smell it. He walked to his room engrossed into a leather-bound red book. She ran after him. He agreed to come. He ate silently. She did all the talking. She talked about college, the grades, the books. She talked about Ignacia, about her being single. He didn’t see her blush. He was looking absent-mindedly through the window to the winter-beaten garden. They walked them to their car. They waved until it turned at the corner of the street. She saw that Ignacia had slipped him a piece of paper. She saw him throw it in the garbage when he got into the kitchen.

She came back one night. The days were stretching a little longer. He was sitting on the carpet, his back against the couch. He was watching TV intently. He didn’t hear her coming home. He looked the same as ten years before when he watched the riots live on TV. He was muttering to himself. She could see his jawbone tensed under his skin. His fists were clenched, his wrists rested on his knees. He cursed loudly at something that was said on TV. He hit the floor with both fists. Their eyes met. He wasn’t the little boy from ten years ago. There was rage in his eyes. It disappeared quickly when he saw her. He turned his head away. There was a stranger in her living-room. There may be some harm in reading after all.

 

6

 

The key fitted perfectly into the hole. Tiva followed the man. He was drowning her in details about the place. She could see everything he talked about. The view was, indeed, beautiful. A large sliding window gave onto the balcony. The city was stretching downward in a gentle slope to the glistening Pacific’s wavelets. It was a sober apartment. The owner was probably an architect. There wasn’t a single unused space. Every piece of furniture was cubic or square. The lampshades were too. All of them were black. The walls were white. There seemed to be no appliances. They were concealed in specifically-designed nooks.  When he left, she sighed loudly.

It looked perfect for a new beginning. It was all so different from home. School had been so similar to home. There would be no curfew. There would be no one to check on her room. There would be no one to tidy it for her. She could leave the place when she wanted to. She didn’t have to tell anyone. She could turn on the big screen TV at full blast. She lived on the last floor. The apartment below her was untenanted. She opened the fridge, it was marvelously empty. She would have to go to the grocery store. It felt grand. Tonight she would eat alone. She wouldn’t have her mother in front of her. They wouldn’t be sitting at both ends of the long table in the dark dining-room. There wouldn’t be this icy and aching silence in the air.

Her father had bought the place. He did it for her, she knew that. But he also did it because it was sound investment. The dancing school was three-bus stops away, the city center just down the slope. She could always take the taxi if she felt like coming home. But she knew she wouldn’t fly back. Not in a long time. Her mother had said she would come. She knew she would. She didn’t want to think about it. His father had promised to. But she knew he wouldn’t. Nina had cried when Jean-Jacques had loaded her suitcases. He had waited patiently. It had seemed as if Nina would have never let go. Georgie had whimpered. It had been heart-breaking. She had told him he wouldn’t be happy where she was going. There were no swans to chase.

She was determined to have boys there soon enough. Their absence through her schooling had left a hollow place inside. She needed some filling in. She wished she could have a party tonight. She could hardly wait for the courses to begin. She knew she would meet wonderful people. This was one of the best schools in the country. Renowned ballet dancers taught classes for full semesters. Her stomach warmed at the thought of a porté with a charming and muscled dancer. He could be French. They could apply to the Opera de Paris. They could make their own petit rat. She blushed and laughed behind a cushion. She felt numb by the long flight. She did a full body stretch work out. She sat on the couch. She looked around.

There were so many things to do. She didn’t know where to begin. She knew she should put away her clothes. They were packed into four suitcases. The realtor had brought them up there. He was panting when he reached the door. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The sun was basking the balcony. She sat on a chair outside. She could hear the sounds of the city welling-up to her. Her apartment was perched on a hill dotted with tennis-courted and swimming-pooled villas. It was a glorious day but a thin grey veil shrouded the sky. The sun was warming her cheek. She closed her eyes to it. She could feel her white skin burning under it. She hadn’t had anything to eat since morning. She wasn’t hungry. She felt sated, tasting freedom for the very first time.

 

 

 

7

 

The door was locked. It was unusual. She went into the backyard. The back door was also locked. She let herself in. She asked if anybody was out there. Her voice echoed in the empty house. She made the tour of the house carefully. She expected to find an intruder behind every door. Brand should have been here sitting on the couch. He would have not looked at her. But the couch was hopelessly empty. She reached his voicemail. She hung up. She was panicking. She went to his room. There were no posters or stickers on the door or the walls. His bed was made as in the hospital. It was neat, not a crease on the surface.  On his black leather desk blotter was a stack of a few sheets of paper. The pen-holder held two well-sharpened pencils. There was not a speck of dust on the desk.  The green carpeted floor was void of any rumpled pants or dubious sock in balls. She was relieved not to find a letter lying on the pillow.

It was mid-February and the nights came early. She had no idea where he could be. She tried to kill time with some TV. She cooked herself some potatoes but couldn’t eat any. She could hear the ticking of the clock. The chatter on the TV was lulling her to sleep. There had been marches all over the country. It was war once again. She dozed off once or twice but woke up with a start. She decided to go to bed when she heard the front door. There, he was. He was wearing his glasses and was dressed as he had been this morning. He gave her a peck on the forehead. He went to the kitchen without saying anything. She followed him there. He was rummaging for something in the fridge. She leaned on the door while he was preparing and eating a sandwich. She was waiting for an explanation.

“What the matter?” he munched the words between a bite. “I was worried sick m’boy. Why you didn’t call?” “Dead battery” “Where have you been all day?” “On campus” “It’s a little late to be back from there boy” “Monday’s late night at the library” “I can smell lie. I been married to ya father” “Never knew him, dez nothing to forget” He screamed these last words at her. “You still under m’roof doncha forget it!” “I been to the protests” Silence followed. He took a sip of Coke from his can. “Protest? Whatcha protestin for?” The sleep-inducing piece of news came back to her. The banners, the mounted cops, the swarm of people teeming down the avenue, peace symbols painted on cheeks, slogans chanted chorus-like, it was all over the TV. She found it hard to believe he had been in the middle of this. He got up; put his dishes in the sink. As he was going out of the kitchen she grabbed his arm. “You different? I can tell” “Everybody changes ma” He kissed her on the chick and thumped upstairs.

After the incident, he resumed his steady lifestyle. He was home when she got back. She chalked up the march to a passing whim. One night, she got him to talk about what he studied. He told her he was feeling great about his studying human behavior, their culture, their way of life. With each lesson he felt a better man. She felt glad about it and told him she would mind the dishes. He went up to his room and closed the door behind him. He lay on his bed, hands clasped behind his head. He couldn’t tell her he also had the growing feeling that this was vain. The more he studied, the more he picked up the same pattern. The story was always the same and it ended up with a new evil to fight against. He felt useless behind his book. The high-minded sentiments proudly displayed at the rally were short-lived. Soon they were bound to find a reason to hate again.

A few weeks later the first images came live into his living-room. Missiles roared and lighted up the Iraqi night. They came exploding down into plumes of smoke. The image was blurry and greenish. Baghdad fell some three weeks later. A thin layer of dust settled on his books, as he spent his day watching the news on TV and reading the press reporting the invasion. He needed to play his part. He needed to give his share in eradicating evil.

 

 

8

 

“No wonder I smell like perfume, I work with women all day” he did a bad imitation of a fake laugh. Tiva was curled up in a ball on her bed. She could hear him talking through the door and  see the light of the city scattered around the black sky. There was a tear-drenched tissue crumpled in her fist. “Tiva, open the door, will you? Be a good girl” Each of his word lumped her throat even more. The silence settled in. An icy breeze blew through the open window. She heard him limping away. The tears started to roll down her cheek again.

She was entangled in her quilt. The pale light of dawn was stroking her face. She felt numbed by the cold and the lack of sleep. She closed the door to the balcony. Mascara’s had streaked down her cheek. It had caked her eyelashes. Her blue eyes looked wan in the dimly-lit room. When she came into the living-room, he was lying on the couch under a rug. He snored lightly. His shoes were at the foot of the couch. The room was reeking with alcohol and tobacco. She made herself a cup of coffee as silently as she could. She tiptoed to the bathroom. She turned around and looked at him. Locks of graying hair fell over his wrinkled forehead. The lids were shut on his bright blue eyes. He was sheltering them from the rising sun with a fist. She could see the nicotine stain on his thumb and forefinger. There was an overloaded ashtray spiked with the butts of rolled cigarettes.

She locked the door behind her. She let the scalding water running long over her jaded body. When she came out, the rug was in a ball at the foot of the couch. There was still the imprint of his head on the fluffy cushion. But he was nowhere to be found. Now was her time. She hurried to her room, took her handbag and rushed to the door. Keys were jangling behind it. She stopped short and there he was in the doorframe as he pushed the door open. In his hands was some French bread along with a buttery-stained bag which smelt of croissant. “I hoped, we could at least have breakfast together” “I’ll get it at school” she looked anywhere but at him. He laid everything on the kitchen counter. He came and stood in front of her. “Won’t you at least look at me?” She didn’t bat an eyelash and folded her arms. He turned around brutally. He punched the palm of his hand. “You’re impossible!” he exclaimed kicking the bar stool for emphasis. His black silk shirt was yawning over his slim figure.  “What can I do? Am I to stop working because there are women in my line of work? I’ve been in this business all my life; I can’t get out of it just to please you. Dance is all my life”

And so was hers but she didn’t say anything. He was blocking her way out. “Dancing is all right, cheating is different” she whispered. “You are making things up, Tiva. It was just a business date nothing more.” “I was just a business date once, look where it’s led me” “I love you, here’s the difference.” “For all I know, there might have been a dumb Tiva before me, someone who waited all night long for you to come back. A Tiva you shunned at work. A Tiva you came to when you didn’t have a new girl to try out” “You’re insane you know that?” “I’m not , I can’t bear being hurt anymore, leave the keys in my pigeon hole at school , don’t ever call up, don’t ever call me, we’ll just be back to what we were: pupils and teachers.”

The sun was piercing through the buildings. It lighted the entrance to her building as a limelight. The cold air burnt her lungs as if she were breathing for the first time. She walked down the sidewalks to her bus stop. Darell had been her very first. The party she had dreamed up on her first day there had never happened. Darell had offered extra-classes. She was less experienced than the other girls. They became close and one night he had taken her back to her place. He had been very gentle. Darell used to be a professional dancer. His ankle and shinbones had been broken down to smithereens during a rehearsal. He would never dance again. He had had time enough to become famous and was a choice recruit for the dancing school.  He had started to come back late at night, to make up excuses not to come and see her. He would wake her up in the middle of the night drunk as a pig and swear she was the only one. But the rumor had it that he was a notorious philanderer. She overheard conversation when the girl thought she was having a shower. Last night she had looked at his phone. She hadn’t had to read through all the messages.

 

9

 

It had always been difficult to make him do something outside. When Tyronne was around, it was easier. But he had never wanted to play any sports. The track team had tried to sign him up in high school but he had always refused. He took after his father. He was lanky and very slim. He could eat burgers every day  without thickening an inch. She was always on the look-out when she ate something. Her buttocks sucked up everything she ate. He hadn’t changed since he had been a kid. His torso was well defined, his belly was flat.  He needed more muscles to appear manly. But he didn’t seem to care. He swallowed shakes, spent his days on the couch. His only work-out was climbing up the stairs to go to bed.

And yet something had changed in him. In addition to his heavy reading, he was now exercising on a regular basis. He would run every day, do pushups using the worn, tree-branch in the backyard and crunched his belly into sit-ups. It started to show. His diet had changed too. There was no more late pizza order, or the frantic spooning of an ice-cream carton in front of a movie. They used to go eating to the local burger joint every Sunday. But now they went shopping for some greens. Sometimes, she tried to listen through his door. She was sure he was praying. It pleased her. He had always refused to be immersed in water, it had scared him. She had offered him a bible. She thought it had been shelved forever, but was happy to see it on his bedside table.

His meals were timed as well. He took them at a precise hour. He took his time to chew on his food. He laid his forks down between each bite. She was desperate for some pop. He drank up one gallon water bottle a day. It filled their unused garages.  He cropped his hair very short on the side. He read his books sitting straight up on the couch. He didn’t sprawl on it anymore. He gave up baggy pants, too to wearing belts and close-fitting polo shirts. He used his sneakers for working out only. He sported now sturdy black leather shoes. He polished them up to a shine.

She welcomed this changing. He was no longer late; he would always pick up his phone. His test scores for his first year at the university were very good. He didn’t go and find a work for the summer though. He spent all his days working out in the backyard. He set up dumbbells and barbells. He grew thicker by the week. There was a part of her little boy that was wiped away forever. He didn’t cuddle anymore, didn’t kiss her warmly, just the odd peck on the cheek when they met in the morning. He was silent most of the time.

One Sunday, they were patiently queuing up to buy their now traditional greens, when two men burst into the supermarket. They were armed. A guy stuck up the cashier and ordered him to fill the bag. The other one threatened the clients.

“C’mon, empty that wallet bitch that’s right” he was robbing everyone at the cash register. He pointed the gun to her “Yo, granny get me that dough, move it”

“Don’t give it to him ma” his voice was calm and poised. He put a hand over hers. He didn’t want her to open her purse.

“Yo, nigger, what’s the deal? Ya want a taste o dis?” The robber flaunted his gun at him. He was fast. He seized his weapon, in the blink of an eye. He twisted his wrist and strangled him with his powerful arm. The other guy was caught off guard. He swore, took to his heels, skidded on the wet floor and crashed onto a yellow sign. He left his bag behind him as he got up and hurried through the sliding door. The police came by and cuffed the criminal. He had fainted under the strain of Brand’s hold. The police slapped him in the back. “I just did my duty”. There was no cheerfulness or pride in his voice. It sounded to her as an empty husk. It scared her.

On their way back, he didn’t say anything. He thoroughly cleaned the vegetable at the kitchen sink. She looked at him. It was as if nothing had happened. She stopped him on his way out.

“Are you okay, m’boy?” He looked at her through lifeless and hollow eyes.

“I couldn’t be better ma.”

 

10

 

The white noise of the jet engines failed to lull her to sleep. Guiltiness haunted her. She knew she should have come back East the preceding Christmas. Instead, she had stayed with Darell. He had invited his usual circle of friend. They had drunk countless Burgundy bottles. She had been sure they hadn’t been able to tell between white and red at the end. Her whole place had been filled with the acrid and thick smoke of their cigars. It had taken many airings for it to recover from the dreadful and clutching smell. He had come to bed at dawn, barely able to get it up but eager to do it anyway.

Now he was dead. When her mother broke the news to her it had stunned her. She had tried to remember about the last time she had seen him. She couldn’t believe it had been barely a year ago.  From the window, she could see the moon bigger than usual. It was easier to look at her maimed face. Her pallor lit the empty row where she was sitting. It was one of these night flights that allowed you to sleep on board and ward off jet lag.  But all she did was looking at the plane curving its way above States she had never visited.

Jean-Jacques was waiting for her. She hugged him long. It was the very first time. The old chauffeur held her tight. In the dawning day, the country roads leading to the mansion were curtained with a thick fog. The waking sun was too weak yet to probe though its mysteries. They passed the opened gate and followed the winding path to the shrouded house.

“What happened to the façade?” “Your mother had some of her friend redecorate it” “Was there something wrong with it?” “She said it needed some refreshing”.

As she stepped out of the car Georgie came out to greet her. He wasn’t dancing on its hind legs as he used to. He just rubbed his drooling chops against her hands. She didn’t mind.  His muzzle had whitened. His behind was sagging.  “Why is he sleeping outside?” “After your dear father passed away, he howled in the dead of the night” “My father was here?” “He was taken ill after a trip to Singapore; he didn’t want you to worry.” “You mean he got ill in Singapore” “No Miss, he was fine when he came back. His health declined quickly after his first night here. They think it was Typhoid” “Wasn’t there a vaccine or something?” “I am afraid your father had been too busy to keep his vaccinations up to date. Miss I had the deepest affection for this man, my sincere condolences.” For the second time she gave him a long hug and a light kiss on the cheek. She felt she needed to be strong.

Her mother wasn’t up yet. She spent most of the morning catching up with Nina. They cried a lot, then started laughing. All in all it was good to be home again. Around noon there was still no sign of her mother. So she went for a walk in the grounds with Georgie. The dog lagged behind. Time and life hadn’t been kind to him. Tiva regretted her foolishness even more. She should have taken care of both of them. She should have been there when she could. Instead, she had stayed West with lying, cheating and crooked Darell. The promising sign of suns of the early morning had turned into ominous dark clouds. A howling wind whipped at her face. Summer was failing. She approached the outskirts of the forest. The towering yew trees and ivy-woven oaks didn’t let the light through. The forest had been and still was a frightening place to her. She always shivered when she looked into its dark infinity.

There was a lonely oak standing majestically a few yards away from the forest. It had been selected by her father for the setting up of an old-fashioned swing. Mooring ropes had been tightly tied to one of the boughs and threaded into a pierced varnished wooden plank. When he came home they would always end their tour of the swans and the grounds with the swing. She could still felt his hands pushing at the small of her back. She could still hear herself giggling to him to push harder.

The first drops of rain made them go back home. She let Georgie in through the kitchen door. He was exhausted by the walk and seemed to be crawling. She didn’t expect to find her mother there. When their eyes met she felt her old stony stare. She went to kiss her dutifully. Her skin was all made up and cold.  “What’s that dog doing inside?” “Mom it’s raining, he can’t stay in that dog house. He’s too big for it.” “My house, my rules” “Isn’t it my house too?” “You left” “This is not what he’d have wanted” “Don’t you dare talking about him now. After all he did to me.” Hatred was all over her face. Tiva was leaving the room “Stop right there! I’m not finished with you. You are to leave tomorrow after the funeral. You are not to come back here. The apartment is yours you can keep it. Your daddy has provided you with a monthly allowance. I’m sure it‘ll cover for your tuition. If it doesn’t, I couldn’t care less”. She left without saying a word. She could feel her glare behind her back. Georgie stayed behind as if he didn’t want to get her in trouble even more.

 

11

His burial wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Only a few people were gathered around the gaping hole. She was sheltered under Jean-Jacques’umbrella. The thin drizzle beaded his coffin lightly. His parents weren’t around, of course. She had never known her grandparents on both sides. His best friend was missing, his business associates too. Mrs. Foster, his personal secretary was here. She dabbed at her eyes with a white handkerchief. Her mother was seated on a folding chair on the side of the hole. She sobbed fake sobs and hid her untearful eyes behind too large black shades. It made her nose looked thinner, smaller but it was still crooked.

When they lowered the coffin, her mother made as if she would jump on it. She was stopped by the undertaker’s employee. They took turns at shoveling dirt on the wooden lid. Mother and daughter stood next to each other and shook a few hands. They whispered condolences to their ears. As Jean-Jacques shook hands with her mother, Mrs. Foster came up to her. She hugged her, told her how much her father had loved her. She ran her hand through her hair motherly, gazed at her with a sad smile. She assured her that she could come to her if she needed any help. The mourners walked away. Tiva’s mother climbed back into the car. Tiva looked at the grave-fillers, until the ground was even.

Jean-Jacques drove them back. There was an icy silent in the car. She knew her mother was staring at her behind her glasses. Her sobbing had stopped, her jaws were clenched. She was probably coining a hurtful thing to say to her. Tiva looked away at the drizzle turning into pelting rain. As they passed through the familiar towns leading to the estate she was saying goodbye. It was a day of parting. It was a day of sorrow.

When Jean-Jacques drove the car to the garage, she wasn’t surprised to see Hunter’s van in the driveway. It was as if it had always been there. The back doors were opened. She could see the stereo-equipment, the dumbbells and iron, the suitcases ready to be unpacked upstairs. She didn’t say anything and neither did her mother. Once inside, her mother was greeted by a man dressed in a tweed jacket and a bow tie. In his hands were sketches of rooms with different furniture. He talked excitedly to her mother. He made large gesture with his hand. He leafed through a color chart and laid it against the wall.

She went upstairs and said goodbye to her room. Her parents had had arguments over it. Her mother had coveted the room and it would soon be hers. She didn’t give her the pleasure to have it sooner. She spent the rest of the day packing, locked up in her bedroom. In the morning the first rays of sun slanted through the half-closed shutters. She opened them and took the view in for a last time. She went downstairs and looked for Jean-Jacques but couldn’t find him. She went to the kitchen, Nina was busy scrambling eggs. At the kitchen table, Hunter was behind his newspapers. He was stripped to the waist in an open dressing gown. He was wearing worn trunks. One of his feet was on a chair. It offered a dangling hairy show that gave her nausea.

She turned to go away but she heard a rustle behind. “Morning!” He gave her a big smile. He had a bristling mustache. He overacted a yawn and a stretch. “Did you sleep okay?” “Where is Jean-Jacques?” Nina’s shoulders jerked up and down. She was sniffling. “I’m afraid he left this morning. Do you need anything?” “He was supposed to drive me downtown. I’ve got to rent a car.” “There’s been a change of plan; I thought your mother would have told you. I’ll be taking you downtown. I need to get some supplies for a customer. We thought he’d be better to save a trip.” “I’d rather have Jean-Jacques to drive me there”. “Well, then I think we’ve got a problem. See, the old frog’s been fired this morning”.  She couldn’t bear hearing this cuckoo singing this hateful song. “Well, then it seems I have no choice” “No, you don’t”. “I hope your van’s big enough, Georgie’s coming with me”. She didn’t say anything and left the room.

She knew he hated Georgie. The dog had chased him on countless occasions the first times he had come here. Then he had been locked up in the garage when Hunter came to tend to the pool. Georgie had seen more and more of the garage. She brought all her packages down. There were several boxes and suitcases. She waited for Hunter in front of his van. She turned to have a look at the house for a last time. The curtain moved behind a window when she looked at it. It must have been her mother. Hunter came outside in shorts. His checkered shirt wanted buttons and his hairy chest puffed out of it. Hunter growled when he saw him. “Easy boy. Is that all you have?” “It is” “Well” he opened the back doors to its van. It was full of cleaning equipment, plastic pails of chemicals, nets, brushes. “Looks like we’re gonna have a problem here”. There was barely enough space for Georgie and a suitcase. She left most of her belongings behind. They would end up in the trash. The house would soon be brainwashed of any trace of her. Her pictures would be replaced by Hunter’s children from his two preceding marriages. She felt good  in knowing that this cliché couple would never have children of their own. George crawled inside, she helped him up.

He drove fast and carelessly. He cut lanes, didn’t use his indicators and gave the finger when honked at. He glanced lewdly at her bare legs sheathed in a mini-skirt. He undoubtedly dreamed up scenarios where she would blow him while driving. They reached downtown and the car rental. He didn’t help her to get her dog and suitcase out. She was leaving when he called her through the window “It’d be bad for you to show up one day, so don’t ever come back”. He drove away screeching his tires.

 

12

One day he went to the mall. His mother needed a bunch of olive branches to bring to  church the next Sunday. On his way in, he was stopped by two soldiers in uniforms. They had white caps and blue coats. Their thin waists were girdled with a white belt. They had sky-blue pants with long red stripes on the side. Their coats didn’t sag under the weight of the medals and ribbons pinned to their chests. They didn’t seem to sweat despite of the heat wave. He saw them from a distance. He couldn’t miss them. They were whispering to one another as he approached. They talked to him for five minutes. They asked him questions about his future career. He wasn’t able to give them any. He didn’t get into the mall when the conversation was over. He instead took the bus downtown.

There he was given information and a date to pass some tests. The next Sunday he went to church with his mother. She was upset because she had promised the preacher about the olive branches. They went home and had their traditional Sunday’s vegetables. The next day he didn’t go on campus but take the bus and pass the tests. He came up with an impressive score and was to report to boot camp in a month. A month later, he wasn’t home when she came back. She instinctively went to his bedroom and found the dreaded letter.

Dear Ma,

Don’t be upset, I don’t want you to be sad. Know that your son loves you very much. But I can’t go on like this. I feel like I’m going nowhere. I need somewhere to look forward to. You’ve been loving and perfect but now it’s time for me to soar. I won’t be home for three months, don’t you worry I’ll write soon. I know you’re proud of me but I’ll make you prouder I promise.

Your son. Brand.

 

She knew this day would come and she didn’t even cry. She wasn’t surprised and just sat on his bed reading through the letter again and again.

*

They were yelled at by a man in a short-sleeved shirt to step out of the bus. They were made to line up and stand at attention. They told them to sit down. They were read the rules about desertion, dress code, and not obeying the orders. He felt entranced. He kept listening at the harsh and bellowing voice. They aysired on and on. They were given clothes and dirty laundry bags. They filed up for a call. The phone didn’t have time to ring twice.She pounced on it calling his name. He told her that everything was all right. He was in down South. She would receive a letter soon She felt relieved but only for a time. When he hung up she got the measure of his enlistment. It meant going over there; the country where so many had already been killed.

As far as he could remember, his hair had never been shorter. They shaved it completely. They took them to their rooms. They were instructed how to make their beds. He was already used to it. They changed into their new clothes. His roommate didn’t say anything. He just slid into bed. He could see the contrast with the whiteness of the sheets. He did the same. The pillow felt smooth on the fresh skin of his head. He curled up into the crisp and cold sheets. He was asleep in an instant.

*

It was a sunny summer day. The band was playing lively tunes. The families were seated on bleachers under a scorching sun. The tarmac shimmered. It gave off smelly fumes.  The band was greatly cheered with applause. The recruits approached in orderly lines to the rhythm of the music. They were wearing khaki shirts. A blue coat man headed the columns with a red flag. An instructor was in front of him, sawing his collarbone harmlessly with the back of a saber. The parade passed in front of the bleachers. The crowd cheered warmly once more. The band stopped playing to highlight the cheers.

She had taken the train early in the morning. She followed his instructions in the second letter she had received. She was wearing a cap and light clothes. She was sweating heavily and started smelling. She was eyed suspiciously by a fat woman on a scooter. The phalanx shouted an oath and broke ranks. The boys were handshaking. The people on the bleachers rose up. They walked in a wave toward the disbanded groups. She followed the movement. She couldn’t find him among so many people. They all looked the same. People were hugging. She felt a light tapping on her shoulder. There he was, he had grown taller, thinner and he was sterner in the face than ever. She didn’t know what to do. He hugged her sweeping her up off her feet. There was her boy again.

 

13

She drove west, taking her time. She had to stop every two hours. She had to put Georgie in a box. They told her it was mandatory for his safety. She hated listening to his whimpering. He was licking at her fingers when she extended a hand to the folded backseat. Even though the inside of the car was cool, she could smell his animal scent. He was an old boy. She stopped at diners. They would refuse him. She‘d take way her food and the two of them would eat on the parking lot surrounded by trucks and trailers. Some of the drivers whistled at her as she got in. It was difficult to find a motel that accepted pets. She spent two nights in the car. She didn’t sleep well for fear someone would attack them.

She sat on stairs leading to roadside restaurants. Georgie laid his head on her lap. He closed his eyes with each stroke of her hand on his paw. Little boys made detours not to face him. She convinced them to stroke him. He gave them his paw with difficulty. The stifling air was hard on him. She had a steel dish. She filled it with water. He lapped it up while laying on the dirt ground. He couldn’t lower his head anymore. His loins ached. She tried to massage him. He walked straighter afterwards but long walks were an ordeal.

The landscape became drier as she approached her destination. It had been all green and luxuriant. Now it was arid, the earth was red. The sun was high in the sky. It had been hours since she had crossed another car. A red light started blinking on her dashboard. The oil temperature was too high. She stopped. Another light blinked on the dashboard. She could see smoke coming out of the hood. The cool AC air had already escaped. Georgie was starting to pant, his pink-ham tongue coming in and out between his two lower canines.  There was an emergency phone number on a sticker on the windshield. She looked at her phone, no signal. She had passed a sign a few miles before indicating a city nearby. She locked up the car. Georgie and she started walking under the dazing sun. The longer they walk the longer the distance between them increased.

They found a small township at a crossroads. Tumble-weeds were motionless in the airless atmosphere. There was a gas-station with a creaky signboard reading open. She crossed the road. It was empty on all side. Only a few cars might go through every day. On both sides vapors shimmered against the horizon. Georgie was way behind. He would catch up in a few minutes. She didn’t want to stress him up. He would try his best but she didn’t want to exhaust him.  He was panting, his tongue reached down to the burning asphalt. She was proud of him anyway. He had walked more than during their numerous stops combined.  An old man in blue overalls, a baseball cap and a stubble was behind the counter. There was an old cash register, the types that rang when opened next to him. “Is there a phone anywhere, my car’s broken down” The old man didn’t say anything and pointed to a booth. She dialed the number she found on the windshield. She looked through the window Georgie was about to cross the road. She could hear the tone of the phone. In the background, muffled by the interior, she made out the sound of a honk. She looked up; Georgie was in the middle of the road. He turned his head. The heavy body of a truck flashed in front of her eyes. Georgie’s body rolled to the side of the road. The truck didn’t even stop. She didn’t move. Now she was truly alone.

 

14

“I’d leave this place”. This is what he said when Johns asked him what he would do if he were given a million dollar. “Not an option, you got to stay in this fucking hell” The guys all laughed. Brand ignored them and focused back on the thick book he was reading. He had been here for only two months and he already hated the place. At first, he had felt thrilled when they had all met up at the air force base. Guys had kissed their girls away, a few had hugged their children long, most of them had shaken hands with their fathers. It had looked like summer camp, with bigger guys among younger ones. For most of them, their last summer camp had been less than three or four years away. He had had no one to say goodbye to.

He had stayed a few days with his mother. She had managed to take some time off. It had been as usual. They had been silent, she had cooked tons of fried food. He had barely even touched it. He had maintained his healthy habits and had kept in shape like a madman from dawn to mid-morning.  She had had Anita and Ignacia over again but as before, the fire had not caught his eye. Someone had told her at work that most of the guys had gotten married before going there. They had watched their car driving away from the porch. He had left on a cold morning. He had taken a bus to the center of the country. They had been all flown abroad.

They had massed around the opening back of the plane. They had been excited to see what it had been like. Their first outing had been uneventful. It had been as if all the horrors they had heard had been bullshit, some kind of disinformation distilled by mainstream media. But the horrors had soon shown themselves. They had been coming back to their base when the armored vehicle in front of him had exploded. Pieces had flown high in the air and the vehicle had gone into flames. He had hesitated to go out, they had been briefed about ambushes with sharp shooters waiting for them to step outside. It had been only a split-second of hesitating. His hand had already been on the door handle.  He hadn’t known the guy in the turret. When he had been rolled him into the makeshift surgery room under a tent, he had seen only a trunk with a bloody head on top.  They had been there two weeks and the feeling of safety, of doing a good job, of weathering the ugly war had vanished instantly.

The tide had been reversed and there had been barely an outing without being shot at or IEDed. Brand was afraid. There was ten months to go. He kept repeating himself that with each second, he was closer to leave. But he had this terrific feeling that each second was getting him closer to death and the odds were high. When he put his armor on, these words hammered in his head “Here it comes. I’m bound to be the one today.” He chanted it in his head obsessively. Everything spelt out danger, furrows on the roadside, glaring children, abandoned houses.

He had become great friends with a guy from Alabama. They had shared an interest in novels and had talked about literature in their free time. They had stayed away from their platoon. Brand used earplugs to muffle the sound of the explosions outside. Nelson had been very religious and had managed to drag Brand to the chapel. Not two days ago, Nelson had been blown to pieces, he had insisted on taking the turret. The eighteen years old he had replaced had taken the front seat, it had saved his life, the boy had only lost a hand.

It had never rained once since he had arrived. The heavy sun weighted as much as their equipment. They couldn’t find a way to cool themselves. Everything was ruthless in this country, its people were ungrateful. They hosted the very men who had killed Nelson and hundreds of other guys. He hated this place. He wished them good night. He didn’t like Johns and his questions. He couldn’t stand his racist comments “they are only jokes” he said. Johns was from Alabama too. He and Nelson had been included through a criminal waiver. They had been offered to redeem themselves making tours abroad. There would have been more sense into staying in a penitentiary back home. He had traded weekly visits with his mother for a purple heart that the army would send her. It seemed that was what they would eventually get, a purple heart, a bleeding soul or both.

 

15

She couldn’t pay for the tuition. She knew it from the start. She spent long days in her apartment. The shutters were shut all along. Darell had come knocking. He must have driven over to see if there were lights. He talked to the door. It told him to fuck off. She was thinning. She didn’t eat a thing. There seemed to be no end to her sleeping. She was sheathed into a black plaid on the white leather couch. She woke up in the middle of the night. She stared at darkness and plunged in it again.

One morning, she decided she had enough. She flung the shutters open. She let the cold morning air scouring the whole place. She let the sun stroke at her livid skin. Lively sounds from the street came up to her place.  She plunged herself into a hot bath. She curled up in a ball inside the roomy tub. Her head was under the water. It was warm and safe. She felt she could hold her breath as long as she would. As if an unseen lifeline provided her with air. Then she surged out of the water and screamed at the top of her lungs, not minding the neighbors.

She went out into the streets. She didn’t have anywhere to go and it filled her up with a sense of an  unlimited freedom. She walked at first. She went faster until she was running down the slopes. There seemed to be no stopping her. She felt as if she could run till sun down. There she was on the concrete pathway winding through a patch of sand, among hundreds of other people. She was focused on her breathing, staring at an invisible point in the distance.

That week she had an ad published for private dancing lessons. That was one thing her mother couldn’t take away from her. She was contacted by a south side holiday centre. She rode the bus through endless streets. She got off in front of a shabby parking lot. Its asphalt was cracked. Most of the shops had been foreclosed. There was only a liquor store with strong-looking iron bars streaking its windows. Right next to it was the holiday centre.

She pushed the door open. It was stuffy and musky inside. A plump black lady was typing at a keyboard. It looked like a gym with tatami mats piled up along a wall. The back wall was mirrored. A handrail ran along its center. There were squares missing from the false ceiling. Bare bulbs were hanging from threads. She felt hopeful about the place right away. This paradoxical hunch made her close the door behind her.

She was hired to give classes twice a week. It would be late at night. Did she have a car? She‘d better have. Buses didn’t ride after eight and there was no way she could walk home. Where did she live? That was sure a long way. She could manage to find a car. The black lady was pleased. Why did she want to come and work with them? Because they needed her. The black lady looked strangely at her. How much for a lesson? Money wasn’t the issue, what you can afford would be enough. Again, the black lady looked at her over the glasses perched on her nose. She shrugged, smiled. When Tiva left, she hugged her. .

She started the lessons. The kids were wonderful. They didn’t have any slippers. She called Darell one night. He would give her leftovers from school if she accepted to go to dinner with him. She accepted. He tried to see her to her door. She refused. He called her names. But she came back with a bagful of slippers, and the girls were baffled. She told them they could keep them. They all hugged her after class. She gave some private lessons to kids closer to her neighborhood. She managed to save enough to buy the kids from the community centre comfy leotards for training. She was a new Tiva, happier than she had ever been, happier than she would ever be.

 

16

This was a different day.  For the first time, the sky was gray. The soldiers went to and fro in the camp, palm upwards, wishing for cooling rain. They didn’t seem to mind the rockets, they were wearing T-shirts darker at the armpits. It was hotter than ever as if the camp was surrounded by walls of fire. He feared to go outside, even more so because it would mean wearing his armor. There would be no air in the vehicle. He would have to go in the turret. This was the worst spot. Most of the guys who had died had been in the turret. The speeding vehicle would blow air in his face, it would ease the hellish temperatures.  He was leaning against a wall hoping to see raindrops speckling the white pages.

His reading was stopped by the belching of a siren. The peaceful soldiers walking to the chapel or to the john darted here and there, as a shoal of fish disturbed by the throwing of a rock in its middle. They tried to find shelter wherever they could. He saw Johns creeping under the gasoline truck. He didn’t move. The rocket crashed into an antiblast wall shaking everything around. He was sent to the ground. He instinctively protected the top of his head with both hands. Then there was silence. Everyone picked themselves up. Johns crept out of his mastermind hideout. He took to reading again and merely turned the page.

Before they went out, the guys would gather in a circle. They would pray. Nelson had rekindled a faith his mother had tried to inflame. Nelson’s death had snuffed it all away. If there was a God, this morning’s rocket would have crash on the gasoline truck. The words of his leader failed to redden the embers of his dying beliefs. They shouted their war cry and headed to their vehicles. The clouds were darker now. There was no god to kick them raining. He had lagged behind so the turret was waiting for him. 

They rolled past the rolls of barbed wires and reached a dusty road. It was bordered by thirsty palm trees not unlike those in the backyard back home. Smaller paths dovetailed from the main route to lonely groups of houses with flat roofs. Then the route unfolded into the heart of the city with similar flat-roofed buildings as far as the eye could see. Along the road were piles of rubbles and trash. The insurgents liked to hide their explosives in there. They were often close when they triggered the charge. Most of the time you were too stunned to run after them and they would disappear into the labyrinthine streets. If you were far from the blast it was your job to chase them. He only saw locals when he kicked their door open. He would find broods of crying children huddled behind a crying mother.  No wonder they hated them.

It came unannounced. He felt a jarring and excruciating pain in his left leg. There was a constant whistling in his ear. He was on the ground. He saw the dark sky. It wasn’t as black as the thick smoke pluming out of the vehicle. He saw Johns rolling on the sand. He was surrounded by two guys with fire extinguisher trying to put him out. The medic seemed to be shouting something to him. He looked around. It had been his day. Before passing out, he felt warm raindrops trickling down his cheeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PART 2

1

She is behind the door. She can hear the phone ringing. She fumbles for her keys in her large handbag. She can’t find them. She’s dancing on the threshold. She can hear them jingling somewhere. The lights on the street have long been stoned out. It’s a moonless night. As soon as she slides the key in , the phone stops ringing. It may have been him. She feels sad. She didn’t know how to use a computer. She could have bought two with all the money he sent her.

She picks up the phone anyway. The relentless tone rings in her ear. She sits next to it. She wants it to ring again. But the house is silent. She doesn’t want to have a shower. She doesn’t want to miss it. She grows weary. She climbs up to his bedroom. She’s hoped to see him lying in his bed countless times. But he isn’t here. She watches the news. She’s gotten interested in what the President says. He keeps repeating they are winning. She prays for an early return. She stares at the phone from time to time. She wills it to ring. But it doesn’t.

Two weeks before there was a knock on the door. She was doing the dishes. She ran, her arms in the air, the suds trickling down. It was one of the guys he had left the graduation ceremony with. He wanted to know where he was. She told him. The look on his face changed. He thanked her and left. She envied this boy’s mother. He was home at least, walking freely in the sunny day. Death wasn’t hanging to each of his step.

Her eyes stings but she blinks them awake. She’s watching a news channel. This is her only way to catch a glimpse of where he lives. She secretly hopes there would be some type of reels. He is so bright; they would pick him up for the interview. All they talk about is some area secured by the military. Life seems easy there and safety everywhere. She hopes to see him, at least just in passing.

Ignacia asks after him. She can’t give her an answer. She doesn’t want to show it. So she says everything’s fine. He is doing great. He is serving his country. Ignacia gives her a lucky charm pendant. She doesn’t have any address to send it to him. He takes after his father; leaving without an address.  She feels shut out. All she wants is a little word from time to time. He is supposed to have a three weeks break. She wouldn’t know when he would come home. She wouldn’t have time to prepare a proper welcome. She thinks he doesn’t want a proper welcome.

As she turns the TV off, the phone starts ringing. She’s still lost in her thoughts. She doesn’t react right away. She springs up from her armchair and runs as fast as her old limbs allow her. She calls his name. There is an icy, emotionless voice speaking to her. It sounds as if it is reciting a lesson. She listens to the voice. Her throat lumps with each second. Her heart seems to stop beating, her breathing seems to stop working.  The voice concludes with comforting words that are hollow and hateful. She hangs up. She can’t feel the tears rolling down her cheek. She keeps staring at some point in the emptiness of the house. She sighs with relief; at least he is alive.

 

2

The last six months have been truly blessed. She thought she would never go out from the dark pit she had slowly slid into. Witch each event, she went deeper, Darrel, her father, Georgie… Her lessons at the community center have given her great pleasure. The kids love her and she loves the kids. Some of the parents hang around, invite her over. She joins them for Sunday lunch, after church. These are truly wonderful time. Everything is simple and sheer kindness.  They don’t have much but they give her the best they can. She brings flowers, bottles of wine. Once, she had to spend the night , she had had too much to drink. When she drove back to her place in the early hours of the morning, she wasn’t able to wipe the smile off her face.

The community center is overworked. It is used for different purposes, meetings, counseling, AA, you name it. She always has to wait for her turn with all the girls swarming around her on the full parking lot. The street is busy with people commuting but never stopping in the vicinity. Only the liquor store seems to attract people who would have otherwise driven through the neighborhood.  She chats the time away with Anthony. He is an old grizzled sixty-something who wears the same striped and stained shirt every time she sees him. He used to be a boxer, there are large gaps between his teeth, he has large paws for hands and always laughs at the top of his lungs. His wife died ten years ago and he says he is getting bored home alone. He is the community center bouncer and sits his days on a steel folding chair. He proposed his service when a group of young men, blue scarves tied in a knot around their head, had taken up residence on the parking lot. They shouted to everyone who came around, smoked big rolled-up cones, whistled at the women, opened an unlimited tab at the liquor store and fleeced frail-looking and lonely men.

Of course, Anthony wasn’t the one who made them go away. A police car happened to drive by as the group was rounding him up. The group scattered when they saw them. Anthony talked to the police. The police agreed to cruise by when the community center was open. They never came back. Anthony likes to brag that he gave them a good beating. He aims a right jab at an invisible young thug who, afterwards, has his nose broken and sees two of his teeth fly away followed by a trickle of mixed blood and saliva. He used to be a bus driver when he wasn’t competing at the four corners of the state. They had to let him go because a vicious hook had left his right eye blind. This last part is believable for his eye is veiled and blue, at odds with his beady black left one. There’s always a crumpled brown bag under his chair.

He asks her if the lesson will be longer tonight. His breath smells of booze. He knows perfectly well the lesson lasts for an hour and a half. He’s just doing small talks. There’s an awkward silence. The two of them look at the passing car on the thoroughfare. The kids keep arriving; most of them on foot. They’re already dressed up there’s no locker room inside. Anthony highfives the little girls, asks them questions about the show. He can’t get any answers for them. He scares them. He asks Tiva about it. She tells him the story. He’s never heard about it. He says he’ll be glad to come inside and have a look but he is supposed to be looking out.

A bunch of people in suit comes out of the building. They don’t even look at them and walk to several newly-bought cars. “Them from city hall” Anthony says shaking his head then spitting in disgust. “ Dey come over here, once a month. Dey talk’bout two hours and nuthing be done. Them’s just promises an’ promises.” Tiva looks at the car as they squeeze in the heavy traffic. The black woman, Yolanda, cheers her and the girls with her familiar warmth. She teases Anthony about the brown bag at his feet and punches him in the arm. “ Ain’t done nuthin’ missus” then he explodes in a wheezing guffaw.

When they come in, tables and chairs are still in the way and everyone gives a hand to put everything away. The lesson goes well. Tiva can’t say a bad thing about them. They are disciplined, attentive, hard-working. She never plans enough ahead. She often finishes with a dance of her own, showing them difficult moves such as butterflies, battement en ronds, Grand jetés. The girls are gazing and gaping at her. They clap their hands frantically. Yolanda is always there to watch and claps the loudest. She bows when she’s done and the girls surround her hooting and giving her high-fives.

As parents come to pick the girls up Tiva puts away the old stereo with the crackling loudspeakers they use. She always has a last look around for any stray pieces of equipment. The room should be left bare and clean for the next event the center will house. Tiva stretches. Yolanda is pushing tables against the wall. There’s someone here with her, an old wiry black man with a white beard. He’s wearing a khaki jacket with a peace sign drawn in his back. They arrange big thermos of coffee and hot water, with piles of white plastic cups, napkins and teabags.

On her way out Yolanda hugs her again. The old black man looks at them behind his cap. It is pinned with badges and hides his eyes away. As she pushes the door a pungent cloud of smoke stings at her eyes. There is quite a throng out there. Anthony is like a fish in the sea. The brown bag is no longer under his chair. It is handed around. Some of the guys are in wheel chairs. She crosses the parking lot to her car wishing to escape the hateful smoke that reminds her of Darell. When she turns left, she can see more of the crowd through her headlights. The traffic has thinned and she can get on the road smoothly. On her way back home she keeps thinking about it. It seemed as all of the guys were missing a limb.

 

3

There is a thin layer of light. Everything is cold inside. He must be in his room. The A/C must be blowing full throttle. It must have been a bad dream. It felt real in a cottony way as if he were drugged all the way. There was someone slapping gently on his cheek telling him to stay with them. There was a glaring light overhead. There were beeping sounds. There was a rush all around him. There were voices, people shouting but it all came muffled to his ears. Then blackness, a very long, endlessly-feeling darkness which the layers of light rend open.

His eyes are trying to adjust to the room. A source of white and warm light is coming from his left. He can see that the lights are off. He tries to move his head but he is still druggy from his dream. He can feel something thrust up his nose and down his throat. He can’t speak, he can’t call out. He is unable to move as if he were a thousand pounds, unable to fight off gravity. He doesn’t recognize his room. He must have passed out. Some guys might have managed to smuggle in some booze or a little to smoke. He must have had a go at it. He can’t remember a thing. All he wants to do is get his left knee a good scratch for it is itching like hell. But he can’t move. Darkness comes creeping on again and he can’t will his eyes to stay open.

When he wakes up again there’s someone talking to him. He has a surgical mask as one of the guy in his bad dream. He must have drunk a good gallon of pure alcohol to feel so heavy. He can’t make out what the guy is saying. He should take off this goddamn masks off. He can’t resist falling asleep again. Light comes creeping again, in and out for what seems an eternity. Sometimes, there’s no one in the room. Some others there are nurses who try to talk to him but their words are unclear.

One day he can hear the doctor. He tells him the story. It has the same beginning as the one he thought he dreamt up. The ending is now unfolding. A large piece of shrapnel flew around , tore up the Humvee, shot upward through his turret and severed his left leg mid-thigh. Flames roared through the vehicle, only Johns managed to get out but he was badly scorched. Brand was sent flying in the air, that’s what saved his life. They maintained him and flew Johns over along with him. Johns was unresponsive, kept alive by an entanglement of tubes shooting in and out of him. He passed away. He didn’t see it coming. The only feeling he had was his skin burning to the bones.

Brand has suffered some burning too, part of his right flank and back. There would be marks. The doctor leaves him to rest. His waking time improves. They take the tubes off him. He asks after his mother. Would he like her to come? Not really. But she comes anyway, at first she is unable to speak properly, sobs gets in the way. What have they done with her baby?

She is brought back to the moment he breathed his thirst. The day was very hot. The doctor made her lie down for a week. It was imminent. She didn’t dare moving. The baby may need some more waiting. Then, the jarring pain, the cramps all over her belly, she was whisked away by a neighbor to the hospital. When Brand was out, her first instinct was to count if no fingers or toes were missing. Now, the country has taken his leg from him. She can’t blame God for him to be lying there.

She pats him on the hand. He squeezes it, her sobs are less frequent. The doctor comes in. They talk about the future. She screams at him. Is there a future for him now? Brand finds the force to tell her to calm down. The doctor tells him to calm down. There’ll be some rehabilitation. He assures her he can do it back home. In a month or two, Brand will be flown home. He’ll stay in a special facility, where he’ll learn to walk, sit and stand up again. The key word is self-reliance. She has to go away. She was only given a few days to come and see him. She kisses him frantically on the forehead chanting “Ma boy, ma boy, ma boy”.

In the two months before going back home, he starts seeing different psychologists. They all have different methods. They believe he should try all of them. They are complementary. They make him do something weird with his eyes, they talk a lot and he is fine with all of this. What he can’t take is the treatment the psychiatrist prescribes. “ Can’t take it boss” “It ‘ll make you feel better Brand” “What does it do exactly?” “It raises the level of serotonin in your brain, you’ll feel better” The shrink stares long into his eyes, Brand doesn’t flinch, he knows the guy’ will see it. He looks straight at him “Ya the doc , boss” he grins. “You’re making the good choice”. The pills end up under his tongue and down the toilets when he is alone.

It’s hard at first to get up by himself. He has his new leg now. It looks great, carbon fiber and all. At first it’s difficult to walk with but he’s improving. He can go have a pee by himself. He is flown closer to home. This is a sunny flight. His eyes fall upon his leg fitted in his shorts. It all comes back through a flashback from the recruiting to the outing. He joined because he needed to brighten his horizon. He needed a beacon of light in the foggy peaceful sea is life had become; the boring routine, the feeling that today was yesterday’s copycat. The beacon is behind now. It failed to shed light on a treacherous reef jutting out of the sea as a lonely rock in the desert. He is back now to the darkness of a raging sea. There are no bolts of lightning to chisel the curvy and charred clouds. It is all inside of him and there seems to be no outlet to let it go. He can’t let it go. He has put too much of him in it to let it pass.

4

She is very late this afternoon. Everybody on the road is conspiring against her. People are going slower than usual. The headlights are turning red on spotting her car. She drums frantically on her steering wheel. The day is clear. Cars are going seaward. These are the first days of summer. Opening the window would feel great but is hazardous in such a heavy traffic.

She finally gets to the community center. Anthony and Yolanda are joking. They are laughing very loud. Yolanda is smoking a cigarette. No time for hugs, she waves at them quickly but is stopped by Yolanda’s voice.

“Oh! Tiva I wanted to see you”

“Can’t it wait?” Her hand is already on the handle, she taps at her watch with a finger.

“That’s okay. The girls can wait” They have a show in a few months, she has adapted it, there aren’t enough girls to play the parts. They’ll play the most important scenes. A classic, a girl falls asleep next to the Christmas tree after dinner. A fairy tale ensues.

“Plus, you can have an extra hour tonight, the vets are not meeting before seven thirty.” She didn’t know at the time they were vets. The community center houses so many gatherings, it could have been anything. They usually wait outside like zombies, talking in low voices but not saying much. Only Jack, the guy with the cap full of badges goes to one group to the other with stale donuts or cups of coffee. He is the only one smiling. He is the only one who is not missing a limb.

“They’re a little short on hands tonight” Anthony explodes into his now usual whizzing guffaw. It turns into a cough and he doesn’t mind that Tiva is here because he gulps from the brown-paper wrapped bottle. Tiva giggles politely, rolls her eyes upward and stares at Yolanda.

“As I said some of their sponsors can’t make it tonight, what would you say if the three of us cover for them?” she draws a circle in the air engulfing the three of them. She’s about to refuse when it strikes something inside her. There were several times when guys knocked at her door. They were giving parties and would she like to come? She always refused. She couldn’t that night, some work to catch up with, a relative was visiting, she had to get up early the next morning. These handy lies were just a way for her to protect her loneliness. Loneliness protects her, it is safe, there’s no one around to ruin her in any way. And yet, every time she closed the door after refusing an invitation, she was faced with the clock and almost empty apartment without any trace of life in it. There were no crumbs left on the kitchen counter, there was no underwear strewn around the bedroom floor, towels were neatly hung over the railing.  There was never anything on TV and she was never hungry enough to cook.  She would stare at the unlit screen munching at an apple, then go to bed where she would not find sleep with the echoes of the parties down the hall. “Okay, I’ll do it” she says at least she’ll have someone to eat with.

She uses the extra-hour to film the girls performing. She shows them what they’re doing wrong. In her hurry, she didn’t have time to go to the bathroom and excuses herself. She doesn’t know what it means to be a sponsor. If it makes her feel as good as giving dancing lessons, she would sign up again.  She hears the girl screaming. She rushes out of the bathroom. They are huddled together. A dark figure is towering in front of them, the man is dark to the skin. He has shorts on and a prosthetic leg shooting out of one of the short’s cuff.

“Is is the Vets from Iraq’s meeting?”

 

5

Specks of dust are flying through the lights. Chairs have been arranged in a circle. The men are next to each other. One is missing a leg, one both, so he doesn’t need a folding chair. Some are passing stumps through their hair. Some are just burnt, so badly that she can see the sheen of their skin. The bulbs are reflected on them.

She leans against a table with Yolanda and Anthony on her side. They’re not joking anymore. Everyone looks grave. Jack is in a chair mid-circle. He does the talking as always. The men only say their names. Hi I’m Peter, John, Thomas, Brand, Simon, you name them. Jack gives them the old bullshit. How he sees a lot of courage in this room. No kidding, she thinks, they’re soldiers. They all look down afraid to look at each other, afraid to remember. They’d like to re-member. She gives herself a whipping mental slap for indulging in Anthony and Yolanda’s questionable sense of humor.

Not one of them would like to share, they have given enough. The early-comer is black, he’s about her age. He keeps looking down at the floor as Jack is spewing out his platitudes. He looks like he doesn’t know why he’s come. He takes a pass when it’s his turn to speak, as most of the guys do. Soon enough there’s an awkward silence, Jack can’t patter enough to cover it.  He finally claps and clasps his hands and asks them to join him in prayer.

“Oh! Lord! Look down on these poor children of yours who have suffered for your glory” Tiva can’t help looking around at the bent faces. She hasn’t prayed for a long time. Back at school, she piously attended the mandatory masses. She didn’t feel good or bad afterwards. She felt strange at listening to a message of piety surrounded by gigantic paintings, chandeliers, stained-glass windows, heaven-bound ribbed-vaults, golden crosses, marble steps and statues. The paradox led her not to believe. Her father’s fate as well as Georgie’s has made her a stray.

Yolanda and Anthony have closed their eyes, they have strange struggling faces as if the words are meant for them. “ Look at these young ones whose lives and bodies have been forever shattered for a higher calling, the will to bring peace and light to a world plunged in darkness by the bloodless hearts of some evil men” Now she looks at the early comer.  He is sneering. He doesn’t snort because he’s too polite but he’s visibly seething. “Lord! Give them strength to overcome their bodily pain, heal their souls for they too have been maimed” He says Amen to that as well as the others. Then he looks straight at her. She looks quickly away blushing at her being found.

Jack gestured them to the makeshift buffet. From what he told before the meeting began, she is supposed to hand drinks and food around, share a few words, do some shoulder-tapping, there-thereing them into accepting their sacrifice. That’s what she does, zigzagging in and out of the thin crowd, helping some out. They don’t seem willing to share even though they are full with hot coffee and donuts. The trick has failed and all they give are quiet thank-yous. She just stands there with the tray in her hand. She thinks she just wants to go home to wash herself from the day’s lesson and the night’s sorrow. She feels as if her recent happiness has been punctured open. She could even call Darell for some comforting arms. She sees the early comer , he hasn’t moved from his chair. He sits there, his arms folded as the sulky boy who didn’t want to go to the party.

“May I offer you something?” she feels dumb because her tray is empty.

“That’s okay, thank you, ’m waiting for someone”. She is about to give up but can’t accept to be shut out like that. She was asked to do something for these men and intends to do it.

“If you need anything_”

“Don’t worry I can manage all right”

“I mean if you want to talk about it” she can hear despair in her voice, while she expected it in his.

“Got a shrink for dat, I sees him twice a week, nice of ya to ask” There’s some honking outside. He wriggles on his chair , she offers a hand but waves it off.  He gets to his feet and out through the glass door. She watches him through the door. He lights a cigarette before steeping into an old car next to an old woman at the wheel. She gives him a light kiss on the cheek. He doesn’t kiss her back, he just looks down straight into the many lights of the avenue. The car crawls slowly to the stop signs, and after a minute of no traffic, disappears into the night.

 

6

She parks her car into the underground parking lot. When the elevator whooshes by the second floor, she can hear a bunch of people talking lively. She feels exhausted, she won’t mind their banging bass she would feel under her feet. She would have bits of parties reaching up to her bedroom through the window every time someone would step onto the balcony for a smoke. She feels dirty and sticky. The badly-insulated community center felt like an oven. She wants to wash off the lesson into a scalding bath. She opens the door and looks into the room thanks to the lights from the street. She needs to get a cat, a black one with piercing green-eyes that would slip in and out of her legs to greet her.

No sooner has her bag reached the couch that there’s a knock at the door. If it’s Darrell she won’t open. The need for his arms back at the community centre was just a foolish relapse. There was no them anymore. Who is it? Benny from the second floor and would she like to come down to his party?  Earlier on she was hopeful with the VA meeting. She was convinced it would do her good. But the faces of sorrow and their unfriendliness froze her. She understood but she felt so helpless, unable to bring them a hint of comfort. She’s afraid she’ll be a killjoy at the party, she smells fiasco even in the guy’s name. But she accepts, she’ll be down in half an hour.

She is fresh, perfume is hanging around her. Her hair’s done, she feels beautiful but doesn’t really care about it. She slips a bottle of wine out from the rack, a remnant of Darrell she is ready to throw to the dogs. There’s a sticker with a price on it. She’ surprised he hasn’t come back for it. She peels it off and flicks it off into the bin.

The party is not what she expected. There’s no loud music but some jazz is quietly playing from the overhead loudspeakers. A table is set in the dimly-lit living-room. The silverware is glinting, someone has placed a bunch of anthuriums in a vase as a center piece. The guests are sitting on a corner sofa. Bottles of champagne are sticking out from a pail bristling with crushed ice. “Hey everyone, this is Tiva from upstairs” Benny looks slick. He has hollowed out cheeks, a hawkish nose, an artificial tan, and bulging muscles under his close-fit shirt. His blond hair suits his blue eyes. He must be somewhere in his twenties. He has a close-clipped copper beard.  The others look swanky, well-dressed, articulate and educated for now. They hold their tapered glasses at the stem. They let the bubbly liquid swishing around in their mouth before swallowing it. Some of them disappear on the balcony, other in what should be Benny’s bedroom. The door is different from the other. It is heavy, it is oak, it has a brass and somewhat oversized keyhole. Benny hands them a big key every time. They are talkative, mostly about themselves. They talk at a fast pace as if their words are tumbling out from their mouth.

She tells them about her job, about the kids and the lesson. They would love to do the same .They change subject. They want to plan a trip out to Hawaii, Tiva gets outside for some fresh air. She’s blushing from the sips she’s taken, she knows it from the light chill breeze stroking her cheeks.

“Where is it that you work?”Benny says sliding the door behind them. She explains, points somewhere east. He can’t see it. She feels that he doesn’t want to. The rest of the night follows its course, a lot of wine bottles are opened, hers too. Benny seems to know all about this Nuits-Saint-Georges and thanks for treating them like princes. The combination of exhaustion and alcohol makes her very sleepy. There are two women sitting on each side of her. They turn their backs to her, talking to other women. The glasses are now held by the ball, sentences turn into slurs. She wants to go home. Every time she tries to leave, Benny comes back and makes her talk some more. People are leaving to clubs, other parties, somewhere to make the night linger. She follows the last couple out. Benny is at the door. He kisses her. She lets him. She doesn’t really know why. The embrace gets hotter, she breaks free. Not tonight. He gives her another kiss and closes the door behind her. When she slips into bed, she just wants to clear her head. Somewhere in the building, she can hear a woman overmoaning , she thinks it comes from Benny’s, but chases the thought away. He is such a nice boy.

 

7

 

 There is no real follow up with Benny. He invites her but the crowd is always there and he always tries to get in her pants when the party’s over. She thinks it’s for the best, she doesn’t like his cocksureness anyway. She hates the winks he gives her when driving his red sports car out of the parking lot. She can’t stand his probing hands every time he wrenches a kiss from her. Nor can she stand the way he barges into the conversation she has with his male friends as if she owned her. She‘s just looking for a little affection.

There must be some other girls. She often wakes up in the middle of the night startled by the moaning. He must be a sex god of some kind. She doesn’t want to find out. She just needs a pair of arms and he happens to be handy. He doesn’t come up and scratches at her door the way Darrell did. He always invites her over and she ends up by accepting because she is afraid to miss out on something. Every time she drives over to the community centre, she hopes they’ll need her to cover for a missing sponsor. They haven’t asked for her again. The meetings are less frequent; she thinks they are held somewhere else.

Tonight the sky is grading orange, pink, white then blue. It outlines the dark figures of the thirsty palm trees bordering the avenue. The last rehearsal goes smoothly. They have piled up chairs to represent the Christmas tree. Every girl in their costumes knows their part. When they leave, the whole place is a mess. There are costumes to fold up, hi-fi system to put away, some sweeping to do because of the sequins on the linoleum. Mid-way through , Anthony begs her good night when he sees she only answers to his questions with murmurs.

She finally switches off the light. She has to drop the keys at Yolanda’s before heading back home. When she steps out there’s a bunch of guys sitting on the hood of her car. She locks the door and jerks it to make sure that it’s bolted. She goes to her car and beeps it open. The parking lot is empty; the night is dark as ink. Only a few cars are cruising down the avenue. The three men turn around and look at her approaching.

“Looks like ya stuck here, Miss White” Tiva sighs. “Could you move away from my car?” “Or what?” “Nothing, I just want to get home” One of the guys comes standing right in front of her face. She feels a knot in her stomach; she can’t look him in the eye. “Thinking Mr. Black cock gonna have a nice little white quail for dinna, whaddaya say boys? Down for some nice piece of ass”. She can’t see a way out; she is paralyzed and looks at the ground. “Doncha worry Miss White, we gonna be real gentle witcha” The two other guys come at her. She tries to run away but one of them jerks her back with her pony tail. She kneels to the ground, she pleads, cries. “Look at dat ma boys de bitch’s all on her knees ripe for the sucking”. They laugh out loud. They are hidden from view by the car and the poor light.

They are working at their zippers when a white Mustang drives into the lot. The guys shades their eyes from the full headlights, they can’t see who’s driving the car. Tiva doesn’t react, she keeps pleading and pleading. The door opens; she can’t see a thing, all she hears is a metallic footstep approaching. “Want some help guys?” “Yo, mind ya own bizness nigger” “We ain’t need no fucking help, get da hell out”. It happens fast, she hears a scuffle, the sound of a punch, a crushed jaw and vicious Mr. Black Cock falling to the ground, his mouth all gory. There are threats, insults, the sound of metal on the asphalt, the cracking of bones and hurried footsteps. “Are you okay?” Tiva thinks it’s still part of the brawl; she doesn’t look at the man who just spoke. All she can see is the weird leg that doesn’t match the other one set into a roomy white basketball sneaker.

 

8

The police come around. They cuff him, he spurts a last bloody insults that will be held against him. They force him to duck his head to get in. Tiva has to make a statement first thing in the morning and Brand too. They look at the car moving away with its flashing lights on and a single whoop of the siren. Tiva is still shaking; Brand looks at the ground then at the avenue then back to the ground. Would she want a drive home? She doesn’t want to go. Got any folks around? The question sounds silly when he says it. He can’t take her to his place. His mother would make a fuss about it. He doesn’t want to feel embarrassed as when she has Ignacia over. She tells him to just drive anywhere.

He knows that that woman who manages the community centre lives only four blocks away, not very far from his place. The ride is very silent. Tiva weeps lightly. He doesn’t know what to say, he smokes endlessly to prevent any talking. He pulls over the curb by Yolanda’s house. It looks as if the whole city was built by the same contractor in cahoots with the same architect; the same two storey house with walls as thin as cardboard, the bars guarding the windows and the cheap quality vegetation that suffered a slow death under the ruthless sun.

It takes a while for Yolanda to stop what she is doing and come to the door. When she sees Tiva looking whiter than usual, she hurries to unbolt the screen door and the iron-wrought gate. They come in. Yolanda lives alone. Her place is poorly-furnished the walls are coated with wood giving it an eighties feel. Tiva sits on the sofa. The right seat has caved in from many a lonely sitting. The TV is on mute and there’s a gin and tonic with waltzing ice-cubes on the glass-topped low table. Its feet are buried into the shaggy carpet.

Yolanda brings her a glass of water and offers him a seat. He wants to go away quickly but she has none of it. They tell her what happened.

“Dose goddam lazy asses, ain’t nothing better to do than walk ‘round the hood an’ bully our poor Tiva.” She turns to Brand “ Ya did good here kid, giz me hope to see bright respectable young min still walkin’ the hood” “I’m tellin’ ya diz guys dey’re no man, lookatcha ya only half a min an’ ya give ‘em hell. What were ya doin’ over dere anyway?” He tells her that he thought the meeting was on tonight. She tells him that the meetings are off for now. Yolanda offers him a beer but he waves it off, he is on his way. Half-way to his car, he hears Tiva’s voice. He turns around. She runs through the untended front yard scorched grass. She hugs him. She looks tiny against his bulk. She leans her cheek against his torso. He can’t bring his arms to embrace her. After a moment, she lets go and thanks him. She hurries back to the house. He looks at her getting in. He lights a cigarette and drives away.

As he walks out of his car, he sees his mother squinting into the black street. When she spots him she lets go of the curtains. When he gets in, she pretends to be busy in the kitchen. He tells her the meetings are suspended for now. He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t feel like eating and goes up to his room. On his desk there is a neatly-folded white paper bag. He opens it and takes out the brown transparent pill-filled plastic tubes. There‘s a label with his name on it. He locks the door and opens the tube. He takes out a pill. He rummages at the top of his closet. He finds his sleeping bag, unroll it and uncover a gallon plastic bottle. He uncorks it and lets the pill fall among all the others.

The next morning Yolanda drives Tiva to the community centre. She is no hurry. She just needs to be at the station before noon. Yolanda is going to ask Anthony to stay longer. She asks if Tiva would like to take some time off. She refuses. The show is in a week, she just can’t cancel because of some assholes. Yolanda makes her turn and gets into the parking lot. Tiva’s windshield has been shattered. The side mirror lay crushed by their respective flat tires.

“Looks like I’m gonna need another car” she says with a weak smile.

 

9

 

The show is a huge success. A dais has been laid at the back of the room. The backstage are set outside; the girls go in and out through the fire exit. Even though the sound is sometimes creaky and a blow fuses, the audience cheers the girl for a long time. Two of them go backstage looking for Tiva. She can’t stop laughing when they drag her on stage. They all bow together. She is invited to someone’s house for a backyard barbecue.

One of the girls is Jack’s granddaughter. He doesn’t sport his khaki cap but a cook apron and a chef’s hat. She is warmly congratulated. Her hand is pumped by countless other hands. She sits in a long chair and sips at a cocktail Yolanda has brought her. It is badly mixed and she suspects she is trying to get her drunk. Yolanda is jumping from group to group, her booming laugh making heads turn. The girls haven’t changed and they chase each other in the garden.  She closes her eyes and lets the sun burn at her face.

The light and the warmth are cut by a shadow. She winks against Jack’s towering figure. He wants to know how she is. He thanks her for bringing joy to his granddaughter. Would she be back next year? Tiva sure will be. What with the meeting? Not enough turnouts. We should do something about it. These guys can’t dance or won’t dance. What about something in the wilderness? She means like camping? They were soldiers; they sure do need something more thrilling, something to put some butterflies or knots inside their stomach. Any ideas? What about kayaking?

A month before, Benny knocked on her door. She was surprised because it was only ten in the morning. One of his friends bailed out on him and he needed a partner for kayaking. They went out there. The rapids were scary at thirst, with their boiling-looking water. She felt too frail to paddle. Benny took care of it. He was stripped to his waist; he was a looker for sure. He handled the ride painlessly. He let Tiva do it. She managed all right. He didn’t try anything that day. He knew how to be a nice boy.

And so after the barbecue’s over, she stays longer at Jack’s. His granddaughter is overjoyed. They spend the night planning the trip. They would need sponsors. They already had Yolanda’s drunken nod. Anthony was a yes for sure, if they arranged a little get together at the community center afterwards with supplies from the next door store. They call every vet on his list only four will be there. They rent a minivan and set the trip for the next Sunday.

“Why do you do all this?” “What do you mean?” “You know, helping us out, what’s there in it for you? “ You’re right; selflessness is coming in short supply these days”. She hesitates as if she’s probing the depths of her heart, then she says “I guess, it makes me feel good about myself” He smiles, the crows feet furrows some more and he hugs her long. They eat leftover, watch some games on TV. It feels home and yet is not.

The next Sunday she rides the bus again. Her car is still in the shop. When she arrives the van is already parked in front of the community centre along with other cars. She is glad to see Brand’s Mustang. The day is very hot. Spraying water will do them good. When she gets in, Yolanda is at her desk with Bermudas short and her thick waist bulging over it. She has on her bikini bra supporting her generous breasts. Anthony wears the same clothes. He is being teased by Jack and the boys. He smiles and takes swigs from a steel flask. The atmosphere is lighter, nothing compared to the heaviness and Jack’s solemnity of the previous meeting.

They climb up in the van and they sing songs on their way North. After an hour or so they finally reach the spot. The river is calmer here, it forms a pool which tapers at the end, where the water starts to speed up. The business is done in a small pine wood shack. People go out with yellow life vests inflated round their necks.  A teenage with its face sprinkled with acne is helping with the launching and the handing of the paddles. Jack does the talking and comes out with his arms ringed with flashy vests. The teenage boy gives them some advice. Jack has one jacket too many and looks for Anthony. They find him in the van, the flask lays empty and open onto his stomach. They shake him awake. He doesn’t want to go, he never liked water, always been afraid of it, he can’t even swim properly, he’ll watch over the van while they will go and have fun.

There’s a glitch in the duos. Someone has to go out there alone. Tiva’s up for it but her partner is missing a hand. The only way is for Brand to ride a single kayak. The teenage boy helps him in. Tiva looks at him with his helmet strapped tight around his head. He starts paddling to the middle of the pool. He is radiating. Tiva climbs in with her partner “Sorry to let you do the paddling miss but lucky for you I ‘m not some fat ass like Jack” “ I heard that” Jack said giggling. Yolanda is teaming with an arm amputee. She barely fits into the circular hole with its rubber flaps, her stomach can’t seem to make it. Her partner really wants to help her out, he tries paddling with a hand but can’t give it thrust enough to push the boat away. He looks dejected at first but as the boat is being sucked away in the current and the boat start bobbing around he is hooting like a college boy. Jack is bringing up the rear singing old army songs. The first stretch of river is smooth , only Yolanda gets stuck on a reedy bank between two rocks, it takes her partner a tremendous effort to push the boat away but they are back in the middle of the stream.

Brand is like a fish in the sea. Tiva sometimes loses sight of him because of a bend in the river. The water starts boiling and whirling, the boats are now jumping over small waterfalls. The group shouts with glee as they clear the obstacles. The navigation is getting trickier. Now she needs to plant her paddle firmly in to take sharp turns. Brand has slowed his boat and he is now in full view. At some point he whirls around in some type of eddy and she can see that he is perspiring heavily. He hacks at the water to steady his course, paddling left and right. He is nearing a waterfall. A sign has been planted between green mossy rocks reading: “ The sheer drop” with the drawing of a boy, his eyes shooting out of his orbits in a cartoonish way. Brand’s boat is lurching now at queer angles . Tiva looks behind , everything seems to be smooth. “Goddammit! The guy’s gonna capsize!” She hears her partner, she turns around and sees brand’s boat flipping as he clears the waterfalls. “C’mon miss, we’re gonna see if he’s okay. Tiva starts paddling like crazy, they jump over the waterfall. Brand’s boat is upended in the pool and it is floating around as a hollow husk. The yellow plastic hull is contrasting with the black water.

Tiva squishes out of her boat and takes a dive inside the pool. The current is weaker but she can feel something tugging at her legs from deep within. She fights it, reaches the boat, takes a deep breath and goes under. She can’t see a thing but she tries to push the boat. She is too weak. The poor boy is going to drown. She feels his arms groping this way and that. She tries another push and she feels the boat flying upward. She goes back to the surface and can see him coughing up water. She understands that he has managed to flip himself around. The others have jumped into the pool and are paddling to them.  Brand is panting heavily; he looks at Tiva in the water and says in a week water-choked voice “Thank you”.

When they reach the base downstream, Jack is outraged. He yells after the teenager boy who has come to trail the boats back to first base. It was supposed to be safe, child’s play. He tells him Brand could have died, how can they be so greedy as to let a poor cripple go to a certain death?

“Hey, Jack that’s enough. The kid’s not to blame, I‘ve already been closer to death anyway and the one who sent me didn’t take the blame” Brand says, stabbing a cigarette into his mouth, as he walks over to the van whose side door are opened with Anthony’s drunken feet dangling out.

 

10

 

When he parks before the closed garage door, his mother is keeping watch again behind the curtain. “How was it?” He didn’t have time to think about it. When he capsized into the pool, he was plunged again into darkness. The same one he had plunged into after he had seen Johns dancing around in flames. He panicked not because he was unable to breath but because he was going through the events again. He was back there under the dark sky, he heard the explosion again. From deep within the river, came the voice of the medic muffled and impenetrable. The only difference was that he could move. He churned the water around, squirmed like a worm to escape the nightmare. Then the azure sky, the rock-walled gorge and Tiva. He guesses they are quits and yet he feels like he has acted like an ass with her. He didn’t speak to her on the way back, didn’t get in for the little lunch sandwich they were to take together. He just drove away.

“It was fine” he says managing a smile which satisfies his mother. Up to the moment where the boat flipped it was great. He no longer felt the need for legs. All that mattered were his arms. He felt great propelling himself on the water, unimpeded with no limp. He could no longer run, let alone ride a bicycle and there he found it. While he was paddling, he was thinking that he could come here every day just to feel his body whole again; the boat was as good a pair of legs as any. What he has loved is the feeling of unbounded freedom. He could have paddled all the way down the river, all the way downtown and south, even though he knew that water got scarcer and scarcer downstream. Now, he thinks that he can buy himself such a boat, tie it on a gallery on the roof of the Mustang and drive over to the ocean. The little paunch he has grown and his sagging biceps would get sturdy again in no time. He might even try and quit smoking. He got the habit from a guy back at the rehabilitation center. They were both leg amputee and they did the exercises together. Their schedules were the same, they took their meal together, watch TV in each other’s room. “Would you like one?” He hadn’t smoked since the graduation party. “ They keep the stress away, really, they do”. And so, they made frequent trips out in the garden for a walk over cigarettes. When they parted, he couldn’t do without them, they really seemed to take the stress away.

“Actually, it was great” now revealing his big white teeth. His mother eyes are twinkling with unshed tears. He kisses her on the cheek and he goes upstairs. This is a big step for him. He hopes that it’s a new beginning. Now, the nightmares at night, the startled waking with his mother looking through the half-open door wringing her hands with worry are going to be history. He will never snap at her again as he has done this morning. Since he’s come back, she has changed her work shift so as to be able to cook him a solid breakfast every morning. She always cooked for four and waited for him to finish up his plate. He doesn’t know why, but it gets on his nerve to see from the corner of his eye her watching his every move. “Quit that” he said this morning banging the table with his fist. There was also a problem with the kid next door. His TV was plugged to loudspeakers and he played his day away with war games. At first, he could handle the explosions, the ratatatat of an automatic rifle; he thought he’s just a kid. Then one day, he went to his door, rang and waited for the kid to come down. As soon as he opened the door, he armlocked him and banged him against the door. He told him that if he heard one more bullet, he would shoot him dead. The kid was terrorized. He would cross the street if they happened to walk on the same side.

Once, he went with his mother to their traditional Sunday shopping. They went to their usual mall, there were only a few shoppers there and so the parking lot was used by young men who came here to show off their wheels. They usually just stayed there, with the bass booming out of their trunk, their girls sat on the hood and they would make the cars bounce through some hydraulic system Tyrone was so fond of. But today was different, they were there to make the engines rumble and they raced each other on a short stretch. They were coming out of the mall when a car backfired. He didn’t hesitate. He jumped on his mother and took cover behind a nearby car. She was pleading to let her go but he kept her tight against his torso, telling her to shut up. This cost him an earlier trip to see his shrinks.

Once a month, they all meet to review his progress. It is very easy to con the psychiatrist. The guy is not very interested in his job and just asks him if he takes his pills regularly which he says he does.

Then, there’s the eye woman, as he has come to call her. She makes him do exercises with his eyes, it is supposed to alleviate the heavy burden he bears (her words). She moves her finger to and fro, left and right and asks him to tell her about the explosions. He hates it. Then, she wants him to think about something pleasant, he doesn’t really know what to tell her everything seems so black. There’s one thing he tells her, his days with Tyrone, when they were kids or the beginning of high school when they tried to pick up girls and got badly routed by them.

The psychologist is the toughest. Brand tries to drown him under symbolism, Shakespearean metaphors, Gloucester-like feelings of seeing but feelingly but it doesn’t work. They go through the event over and over again. One day he snaps, “ain’t you supposed to make it all go away?” “Only by reliving it over and over again can you make it part of you”. “ It’s not part of me, see” he points at his leg. “It is now even though it’s gone, it’ll be here forever funny isn’t it?”. Brand gets angry, he thinks the fool is trying to get him crazier than he is. “ Are you feeling blue?” He’s not feeling blue but blacker. The days before leaving for the army were grim but not as dark as they are now.  What the doc loves is field trips, most of the time they don’t sit face to face in his office among the full bookshelves and the divan. The doc picks him up at home and they drove out of the city. Their trip takes quite a long time. Brand knows that he will spend the whole day out on these occasions. They stop at an ancient famous resort which was built around a lake. The lake is growing thinner every year and a lot of houses have been abandoned. There are carcasses of trailers which the wind has filled with sand as evidence of passing time. There are signs pointing to the beach but there’s no water to be seen.

It’s always sweltering. The ground is all white sand and the ruthless sun crushes you against the grains which in turn reflect the heat back to you. After five minutes, the two of them are drenched and dripping with sweat. The doc likes to walk among the paths that grid the forlorn and caved-in trailers. There are rubble and junk littering and bordering the paths. It is eerie. He flew back some months before but he couldn’t imagine that there was a similar-looking hell so close to home. As they make their way through the dilapidated shelters, the shrink points out to old garbage bags buried under the sand. “This is not what you think it is, you’re safe”. They keep on walking but now Brands stops him. “Watch out doc!” There’s a red wick coming from the side of the path and sinking to the middle of it. “Well, C’mon Brand there’s nothing to be afraid of.” The doc pulls at the cable, Brand is already taking shelter behind a trailer. The doc turns around and holds the cable in the air with a slipknot at the end “You have to trust again, you’re not there anymore, you’re here, you’re safe” “Are you crazy? D’ya mean to tell me you came all the way down there before to plant that cable? This is sheer madness you should go and talk with one of your colleague” The doc laughs like a madman. “Well this is the type of reaction I was looking for; now let’s go eat.”

The doc’s right in the end, he is less apprehensive when he goes out. He doesn’t look suspiciously at swarthy bystanders the way he used to. He doesn’t look behind his shoulder or left and right expecting to see some men squatting on the side of the road ready to trigger their hellfire. The only thing the doc fails to do is help him to chase the darkness inside him. Every time he looks at his leg it itches somewhere. He scratches again and again at the metallic and cold artificial calf but to no avail. The itching is still there and his frustration is growing with every itching but unscratchable spot.

 

11

 

The dancing season is over. The performance was played again. It was brilliant. Tiva is sad, she went there twice a week. It gave her something to look forward to, something different from the dull and technical lessons she gives to other kids. Their villa look the same with the tennis courts, the swimming-pools, the Mexican gardener, the orange shingles, the pristine white walls and the neatly-mowed lawns. The basements have been fitted into dancing- rooms, they are bigger than at the community center.

Tiva would love to go back there and is always looking for an excuse. Jack calls her one night, a sponsor was away for a couple of weeks. She jumps on the occasion. She is happy to make the long and traffic-jammed drive to the community center. It feels like family to her. Anthony is guarding the door on his folding chair. There is Jack’s blue pick-up truck parked in front of the liquor store. When she opens the door, she is greeted by Yolanda’s throaty laugh. It must have been a joke Jack just told her. She is happy to be away for the night. Benny won’t come over for once and she won’t have to pretend she is sleeping.

There’s one thing she has noticed about Benny. He could be a real jerk sometimes. He likes to make jokes on people just to have his crowd laughing. She also realized that even though he is a beautiful guy, there’s something impish about him. She used to be tiny. It worried her mother sick to have such a tiny daughter. She needed her to be tall. So they went to see a doctor. He managed to get her growing. Her mother was satisfied. Tiva was thankful to her some years later when she reached the required height for enrollments in her last school. She is topping a 5,5 and Benny is barely taller than she is. It didn’t strike her at first because she always finds people taller than she is. But as he keeps making jokes and comments she sees him for what he really is, an impish jerk.

She now leaves his party before there is a chance they find themselves alone. Once, he was very drunk and he tried to have a go with her on the balcony while the others were drinking champagne inside. The full moon was glinting in his eye and he had a wolfish grin on his face which stretched every time she pushed him away. She was saved by one of the girls who went out for a smoke. From this day, she no longer opens the door when he comes knocking. If he is already drunk, he tries to impersonate a woman voice to make her laugh or buy her trust. He doesn’t know it but now she thinks he is an impish and creepy jerk. She even thought about moving but she couldn’t let go of the place. Her dad bought it to her and she is not ready to give it away.

So, she feels great at being among true friends. She helps Jack to arrange the chairs, the vets come in one by one. The session is as lousy as before but the trip out kayaking has created a bound between them. A core has been formed and they are always there. Brand is here tonight. He waits for Jack to finish his show and he is glad to be able to talk with Tiva, he thanks her again. “You don’t need to thank me” “Yes, I do” “You saved yourself” “You gave me a push” “Okay, then, take me to dinner” she says it with Yolanda around. The woman giggles at that and teases Brand “Looks like ya found yourself a nice girl mister”. Brand feels fire in his cheek, he knows he is smiling foolishly but can’t wipe this off his face. “What about tonight?” he says. “You got a date Mister” she says imitating Yolanda’s voice and winking at him. He watches her going away with her platter full of donuts.

They meet on the parking lot. Yolanda drums her fingers in the air for a goodbye. “I’m taking my car” she says with a smile. He gives her the direction and they follow each other on the way. The traffic is sparse. They play in it. He overtakes her, she overtakes him. At a red light, she makes faces to him in her rearview mirror. He still has the stupid grin carved on his face. The sun is nowhere to be seen and yet its light lingers in the air. Everything is still yellow from it.

They take a booth. It is suffused with an overhanging light with a red lamp shade. Tiva goes for a cocktail, he treats himself with a beer, he feels it’s a special day. They read through the laminated menus. “There are so much dishes that I’m pretty sure nothing is freshly cooked” “Take what you want it’s on me” “So you are a true gentleman” “Did you doubt it?” “Never, I was just curious what could crack this shell” she says it outlining an imaginary carapace with a finger in the air. “Never been the talkin’ type” “That’s real piece of news” she smiles warmly. She’s beautiful; he can’t believe he’s sitting with her over drinks. There must be some kind of catch but he is ready to stumble and fall.

“I’m telling you my mother could be a real a pain. She’s tracking my every move” he says excusing himself and killing his phone tone. “Been a while since I last spoke to mine, she’s a bitch” He is shocked by what she just said, he looks confused. “Sorry, but that’s the way” “She gave you life” “Not sure she really had this in mind on the first place, there’s always something underlying with her.” “How do you mean?” “I’m pretty sure, she wanted to have a hold on my father, with a baby in the way there was no way he could get rid of her” “That sounds a little heartless” “My mother all right” she smiles sadly. “What about your father?” “He passed away” She looks down at her fiddling fingers, he is working up a sweat, he feels like he’s losing control, he thinks he’s fucking up. “Jeez, I’m sorry” “My name’s not Jeez” she said giggling. He mentally sighs. “What about your father?”  His mask of relief crumbles into a taut face. His jaws tense up, and his brow knits into a frown. “Brand, are you all right? We don’t have to talk about it” “We do” he says briskly “The bastard‘s left my mom before I was born, it is so cliché and yet he’s not in the picture” he laughs at his own joke. “I’ve never seen him, he’s probably dead for all I know, that’s the only revenge I can take on him, I guess” Tiva doesn’t know what to say, she looks at him, he is staring at something in the restaurant. “I remember when I turned ten; my mother offered me an old watch. She told me it was his, that it was the only thing he had left behind, and that she felt I should have it. There was some kind of tradition in his family, you know, passing it from father to son. I went into the garage and smash it with a hammer, I pressed it into a vice, I might even have spat on it. Our time together was over. Now that I know the truth, I can say that it has never truly begun.”

She listens to him. She’d like to reach over and embrace him, kiss him maybe, but the table looks like an impassable hurdle. His cheery face has turned into such a steel and resolute façade that she doesn’t know what to do. She feels the night is dead now. Nothing could have made it worse. “Excuse me sir” There is a father and his son talking to Brand. “I’m sorry to bother you, but we’ve noticed your prosthesis and the Purple Heart pinned to your T-shirt” Brand looks down as if he was surprised to see it there. “We wanted to tell you, we are proud of you for what you did for this country” Brand’s face shows no sign of calming, it hardens even more. “Brand” Tiva says but she knows he can’t hear her. He speaks in a soft voice “I hate this heart, I hate this leg that’s not mine, you’re proud of me? For what?  I’m no hero sir. And son this” he points at his artificial leg “this is no way to live, dying or losing a limb for your country is no way to live.” He looks away; the father mumbles words of excuses and leaves. Tiva is paralyzed, she feels like anything she’d say could make him snap. He looks like a steaming kettle. Big drops of perspiration are trickling down his face. He gets up. “Have a nice night Tiva”

 

12

 

He tells his shrink about it. He laughs out loud. He doesn’t tell his mom but he tells her about Tiva. “ Is she ya girl ma boy?” “No, I mean mom she’s just a friend” “She should come here sometimes, so I can have a good look at her” But he doesn’t do it. They see each other after each meeting, Brand feels great about it. Anthony teases him about her. She‘s just a friend. And yet, before falling asleep, he can’t stop building up scenarios of a future with her. He does the same in the morning and asks himself what he thought so appealing in reading. Books are piled up untouched on his desk. In the morning, he sits under the back porch and chainsmokes thoughtfully. Meeting days are the longest ever.

Today is longer than usual. It’s his mother’s day off. She wants to do tons of things. He just wants to kill time before tonight. He doesn’t listen to her when she harpers on and on. He looks at the burning cherry as if it held some answers to his questions. “You smoke too much son, it smelled of cigarettes in your room, I don’t want no smoking in the house” “I won’t do it again Ma I promise” “D’ya want somethin’ special for lunch?” he waves her question away. “You boy seems to be stuck up dere all day” she says leaving and pointing at the sky.

The meeting is boring until donuts time. “No nights out tonight I’m sorry” It feels like a punch in the stomach, he hopes it doesn’t show. Her face lights up with a warm smile and she whispers “I’m gonna cook for you, we’ll go to my place”. A heatwave goes through him from head to toe. There seems to be no end to the meeting. People want to talk tonight, Jack is unstoppable and it’s late before the lights are out. He follows her car in the dense traffic up town. He manages bends on the steep hill leading to her building. She points at an empty parking space in front of the building. When he steps out he can hear peals of laughter and some music coming from an apartment. A big SUV rumbles up the street and screeches with a sharp turn down the underground parking lot. Brand wonders how the driver could reach the pedals, let alone get a clear view of the road behind the wheel.

Tiva waves him in. She feverishly calls for the elevator. Her eyes travel from the digital floor indicator to the parking door. “Is everything all right?” She smiles to him. He can hear footsteps from behind the parking door. It opens on Benny with shopping bags in the crook of his elbows. “Hey, Tiva what’s up?” He sizes up Brand, his gaze stops on his leg. Tiva thinks she should have taken the stairs. Benny juggles with his bag, frees a hand and extends it to Brand. “Say, what are you to up to tonight?” Nothing, just having dinner, maybe watch a little TV. “Look at you two, a modern couple” They’re not a couple, just friends, Brand needs to clarify. “Tell you what, why don’t you two love birds have a little drink with us, ten minutes, my place , don’t be late” He leaves going up the stairs before Tiva has no time to come up with an excuse.

It is lively inside when Benny opens the door for the both of them. The same crowd is here, once again sitting in the corner couch around the low table. There are two empty spots on the couch in the middle of everyone. This is where they sit. “ Hey , Tiva , you secretive thing, why have you been hiding him?” one of the girls Tiva hates more than the others says.  She smiles politely, Benny is agitated handing drinks over, looking like a grasshopper manning the barbecue, refilling drinks, going to his room for a minute or two. “Where did you guys meet?” They tell them all about it. “ So you ‘re in the army?”

But Brand doesn’t answer. He just gets up and goes out to the balcony. There’s perfect silence when he does this. Then it’s awkward because everyone looks at Tiva. Out there, Brand feels as if someone is pushing on his chest, as if there were a heavy load cutting his breath short. He lights a cigarette to ease the tension. He starts tapping on his thigh in the patterns he has been taught.  “Is Robocop okay Tiva?” Benny chuckles. But she doesn’t answer she just wishes she could get the hell out.  “Don’t listen to him Tiva, I think he’s great. What is that accent of his? He’s not from around here?” “What do you mean by around here?” “You know, uptown” “Yes he’s not” “You found yourself a nice gangbanger, heard they were rough in bed” Nina is Benny’s best friend; they grew up together not very far from here. She works for a famous fashion designer. She gets up before Tiva can answer and whispers something into one of the guy’s ear. They walk together to Benny’s room, she slips Benny’s big copper key inside the lock and the two of them disappear. Tiva looks outside and sees that Benny’s talking with Brand. There’s a heavy, thick smoke between the two of them.

Suzanne is a new addition to the crowd and Tiva thinks she won’t be for long. She starts talking to her as Tiva is pouring herself a glass of wine in the kitchen. “I knew I should have stayed home tonight” Tiva can’t help smiling. “I sure hope we took the stairs but Benny got to us first” “I live on the first floor, I just moved in.” “And I live on the third, it’s nice to meet you” “Is it always like that?” “Yes, it won’t be long before they all head out to wherever they want to go and Benny makes a pass at you” Suzanne is all smiles. She has auburn hair and emerald eyes. There’s a hint of freckles sprinkled on her nose. “Sounds like I’m going to leave early then” they clink glasses and laugh good heartedly. “This is the first genuine laugh I had in this place” “No surprises there. I sure as hell don’t want to know what’s happening behind that door” “I guess Benny’s must be keeping all the ashes of his trophy fucks neatly sealed up into glass jars”. Benny and Brand are still on the balcony. It looks like Benny’s doing the talking banging his chest, showing muscles, pointing somewhere east, slapping Brand on the shoulder.

“I need to find a good excuse to leave, I could drink wine till I puke” “You may pass out and you’d be an easy prey for Benny” They‘re laughing again. “Oh my, did you see how small he is? He looks like a dog, you know, these tiny dogs that do all the barking, a German shepherd could cross their way, there he’d be showing teeth, snarling and tugging on his leash to strangulation.” Tiva laughs again, even though she has Georgie on her mind for a brief moment. They are cut short by Nina’s appearance in the kitchen; she’s holding her head backward, a piece of toilet paper on to staunch the flow of her bleeding nose. She is followed by the guy; he is dripping with sweat and can’t stop speaking. “You know, she’s had a little too much booze, actually we got a few drinks before coming and she can’t handle liquor that much. The silly thing has bumped into the door. I always tell her the same thing at work, you shouldn’t drink that much, you shouldn’t do everything in a hurry and just look at her, she ‘s speaking to me over her shoulder and she can’t mind the door jamb, bang, goes her nose, but that’s okay it doesn’t look swollen, it’ll be okay, huh girl…”

She sees Brand getting inside, he looks pale, he rushes to the first door he sees, opens it, shuts it goes for another and finds the bathrooms.  Tiva goes after him but the door is locked, she knocks on the door, wants to know if everything’s all right. Benny has followed him inside and he is talking behind her “Don’t know what happened, we were having a real nice talk, with some pot on the side, the guy looked stress, and bam he rushes inside. Hey! Tiva your boyfriend ‘s odd, you know that”. She can hear Brand retching and coughing behind the door. She can hear the door being unlocked and there he is, eyes glinting with tears a faint smelly smell on his breath, he is quaking and large drops of perspiration are beading his forehead and upper lip. “I think we’re gonna go home” “That’s right got get rammed by your nigger” She doesn’t answer to that and neither does Brand, she is sure he didn’t even hear Benny.

 They get inside her place. He sits on the couch tapping on his thigh. He looks at something on the ceiling. He doesn’t answer her. He trembles, pants and sweats. She embraces him and tries to lull him to peace. He breaks away from her and stares at her. He looks truly lost. She tries to embrace him again but he is afraid. She gets up and plugs her phone to some portable loudspeaker. It is a soft tune with acoustic guitars and light drums in the back. The voice of the singer is mellow and soothing. She hands out a hand to him. He looks at it uncertain. He takes it, almost reluctantly. She draws him upon his feet and they gently start dancing, going slowly round and round the living-room with the city lights for spotlights. He calms down, in place of stress he now feels exhausted as if he’d run all day long without stopping once. He lays his head on her shoulder and let her guide him to wherever she pleases. The party is dying down there. She can hear the front door being slammed regularly. Brand is about to fall asleep, his body feels heavier and heavier with each step. She can hear these moans again, it looks like Suzanne wasn’t  such a nice girl after all.

 

 

13

She wakes up. The orange sun filters through the window. Brand has vanished from her arms. She calls him out. No answer. She looks for him. All she finds is a note scribbled on a pad. He doesn’t want to see her again. It’s for the best for the both of them. He doesn’t want her to look for him. He won’t be coming back to the meeting. He wants her to forget his phone number. She can’t let him go. Jack told her about such cases. When vets break off ties unannounced it didn’t bide well.

She grabs her keys. The morning air is hellish. All the way to the community center, she is behind a truck spewing exhaust as a factory chimney. Her way is hindered by red lights. A firetruck overtakes her, sirens bugling and lights flashing. Nobody is at the community centre.  She tries the door but it won’t open. Some blocks away there is a plume of smoke rising above the rooftops. It is curling up in the morning , it is black as coal. She rings Jack again, she couldn’t reach him in the car. He finally picks up. He fumbles through his paper and gives her the address.

She dials it in her GPS. It’s only a few blocks away. She drives over there and gets closer to the firebox. The police have set up barriers to ward off the curious bystanders. Firefighters are spraying water on a burning house. A middle-aged woman is held back by a couple of policemen. She is shrieking something she can’t understand. She falls to the ground and tries to wriggle out. A doctor manages to shoot her with something she thinks is a sedative. She subsides quietly, her stare is blank but she can read pain in her eyes.

She can’t see the number of the house, it is swallowed up by the flames. She could see them through the broken window panes. There’s a group of people talking not far from the barriers. “Sorry to bother you, do you know where Brand Johnson lives?” And from the look on the man’s face she guesses. She looks at the old woman, his mother drooling on the sidewalk, whispering something she can now understand: “ Ma’boy, Brand”.  Her grizzled hair lies on the dirty sidewalk and she looks somewhere in the distance. It reminds her of Brand’s gaze the night before. She should talk to her, tell her all about what happened but she knows Brand’s mother would not understand, not now, not ever.

Epilogue

 

He wakes up with a start. Tiva is asleep on his torso, she looks so pretty and at peace. He looks around the place lit by the dawning sun. He manages to slip Tiva away from him. She doesn’t wake up. He glances at the city outside, it looks so foreign to him, he hardly believes they live in the same city. There’s a huge mirror affixed to the wall next to the window. He stares at himself for a long time then gazes at Tiva. Her body is so well-curved by years of dancing. The blonde hair, the blue eyes he can’t see, the perpetual smile on her face that makes her so special are nowhere close to the image he just saw in the mirror. And so he leaves a note on the kitchen counter trying to be as silent as possible. The door closes on a discreet clicks and he is out there in no time. He drives through the city early traffic.

There is something hollow inside of him. He pats his pocket for a cigarette but he must have forgotten them at this asshole’s place. All his talks about showing the world who’s the boss, his aggression, the violence it all brought him back to the place he hated. He showed his muscles to prove his point that America had an endless stock of able men to guide the country to victory. Brand failed to ask him why he never enlisted but he realizes that he already knew the answer. Then he made him talk about how he lost his leg, the weed made him queasy, the outside became stifling, the fucker enjoyed watching him losing it. He stops at a gas station and buys himself a whole carton of cigarettes.

His mother has already left when he lets himself inside the house. He hasn’t eaten anything since yesterday’s lunch but he doesn’t feel like taking anything. The drowsiness he was seized with the night before is still there. He climbs up to his room and removes his prosthesis. He takes him a long time to unstrap it and hops to his bed. He  knows he’ll fall asleep right away when his head will touch the pillow. He feels like a cigarette, his mother doesn’t like his smoking inside, but there will be plenty of time to air the room before she comes and so he sparks the lighter alive.

*

She can’t find the courage to go and talk to his mother at the funeral. Jack is here too. The poor woman is so distraught that Tiva doubts she knows who everyone is. The army has sent someone. The guy in uniform chats with Jack as Brand’s mother is guided by friends to a nearby car. Tiva decides on the spot that she will not teach at the community center anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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