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“Eyes Like the Moon” by Mark Tulin

“We share the refrigerator space,” Mrs. Lindy said while opening the Frigidaire. “This section is yours, that’s mine. Mahsa and Jordan have the middle shelf.”

I nodded my head in approval.

“You seem like a nice person, Karl. But if you’re noisy, keep people awake at night or throw loud parties –you’re out.” She pointed her crooked finger to the front door.

We walked up the creaky steps to the bedrooms. My room was spacious with plenty of windows overlooking a large oak tree. Sunlight shone in the room to give it a bright, clean feel. There were old hardwood floors and a mattress that had seen better days. A few steps down the hallway was the bathroom that we’d all share.

Mahsa, a sophomore at Penn, had the room at the other end of the hallway. She was Persian, and, according to Mrs. Lindy, she was shy and soft-spoken. “She spends most of the day at school, and comes home late at night and goes straight to her room. You hardly know that she lives here.”

Jordan had the middle room. He had just finished his degree at LaSalle and was working as a psychiatric assistant at a local hospital. Mrs. Lindy thought he was very handsome. “If I were any younger,” she said, “I’d go after Jordan. That’s for sure.” 

Once we got to the bathroom, Mrs. Lindy said firmly, “We do our business, clean up the tub and toilet, and get right out when we’re finished, ‘cause somebody is always waiting to get in. No dillydallying, you hear?”

I agreed to the terms and put down a security deposit. My expectation was simple. I would have a quiet room where I could write, go to the library every day and have a kitchen to make simple meals.  The TV in the living room was old, but the reception was sufficient.

I went to the Regional Library every morning like clockwork, researching my stories and using the library computer. I wrote all my fiction longhand at first, going through three or four marble composition books every week. When a story was where I wanted it, I typed it on the library computer and then put it on a flash drive. I returned home and watched the news on TV while I ate a Trader Joe’s salad. My young life had been uncomplicated, thanks to a $30,000 inheritance from my Uncle David, who died from cirrhosis of the liver last year.

After a particularly productive day of writing at the library, I was relaxing on the couch while watching the 6 o’clock news when the phone rang. A crying female’s voice was at the other end. “Who is this?” I asked.

“It’s Mahsa,” she said through her cries. “Is Jordan there?”

“No, this is Karl.  I’m the only one home.”

“It’s awful, just awful. I’m in so much pain!”

I didn’t know what to say.

“They pulled a tooth,” she mumbled. 

“Pulled a tooth?” I repeated.

“Yes, I didn’t know who to call.”

“Where are you?” I asked. “Do you want me to pick you up?”

“I’m at the Temple Dental School,” she mumbled through her cheek, which was surely stuffed with cotton gauze. “I’m okay. I just needed to talk to someone.”

“I’ll drive down there and get you,” I said.

“No, please don’t. Tell Jordan that I’m okay. He’d be worried about me.”

When she finally calmed down, she told me that she had two wisdom teeth pulled. She blamed herself for eating too many sweets and not having good dental hygiene. She kept saying that she did it to herself.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” I commiserated.

“You don’t understand,” she corrected. “I never eat sweets. It’s only when I moved to this country that I started to eat candy. Why did I do it?”

When Jordan came home from work, I told him about the phone call. “Where is she?” he asked. 

“Downtown, I think. Mahsa said she was getting on the subway and then the 66 bus.”

Jordan waited for her in the living room while I went to my bedroom to read. She got in late, and I could hear their footsteps as they walked up the stairs to her bedroom. Faint crying and whimpering could be heard in the silence of the evening. Jordan’s voice was patient and supportive. I assumed that he was comforting her, helping to alleviate the emotional pain.  I listened to the two talk for a while, and then there was a strange silence. Soon her bed squeaked, and I could hear the sighs and moans of their lovemaking. I fell asleep by the time they were done.

The next morning Mahsa and Jordan knocked on my door. I had only seen her in passing, but now she stood in plain sight. She had a pretty brown oval face, dark and exotic features, long glistening black hair with a slight curl, and deep-set brown eyes that took my breath away. Understandably, Jordan couldn’t take his eyes off of her either.

Mahsa apologized for the frantic phone call yesterday. “Thank you, Karl, for putting up with my childish behavior.” She smiled as much as she could with a sore gum.

“Don’t worry, Mahsa. We all have our moments.”

I invited them to sit on the full rattan chair under the tacky picture of a small country town in Italy. They took my invitation and quickly opened up to me. She talked about school and felt homesick for her family in the Middle East. Her father was a banker, her mother a housewife, and she had two younger sisters and an older brother. “My father is a wonderful man,” she said, showing me a picture of him standing in front of his bank. “He believes in my dream of designing modern homes in our country.” 

I could feel the power that her father had over her. Her loyalty to him and the debt she had to repay for his generosity was unmistaken. Jordan related about his job on a psychiatric unit with severely mentally ill patients.  He talked about their strange behaviors, the voices they claimed to hear and their sad personal lives. Mahsa looked lovingly at Jordan’s lips while he spoke.

“What does your name mean, Mahsa?” I asked, changing the topic.

“’Like the moon,’” she said.

“She’s beautiful ‘like the moon,’” Jordan interrupted, and he pulled her closer.

When I was born,” Mahsa said, “my mother looked into my eyes and saw the moon.”

“Eyes ‘like the moon,’” Jordan repeated, giving her a long, tender kiss that made my face turn red.

In the next few months, I had many conversations with Jordan. I soon understood what Mahsa liked about him. He was charming, and he knew a lot about music. He wanted to write songs, and he studied the great lyric writers like Dylan and Lennon. He told me that it wasn’t Mick Jagger who founded the Rolling Stones, but Brian Jones. And it wasn’t Brian Wilson who wrote the lyrics for all the great Pet Sounds songs, but a jingle writer named Tony Asher. When he wasn’t speaking of musical trivia, Jordan was talking about Mahsa, and he recounted in detail a recent night they had together:

“We were caught in a summer rainstorm at Burholme Park. I covered Mahsa’s shivering body with my arms as we slowly made our way down the grassy hill. I watched the raindrops drip off the ends of her curls and tasted the rainwater on her silky face like I was lapping up delicious wine.  

“She bit my upper lip to draw some blood and told me to kiss her harder as the thunder and lightning rocked the ground where we stood. We were oblivious to everything except each other as the moon peeked out from the dark rain clouds.”

“Mahsa’s moon,” I said. Jordan nodded and continued:

“‘Bite me harder,’ Mahsa demanded, no longer shy and soft-spoken but self-assured and hungry for me like I had never seen her before, Karl.

“We fell to our knees on the grassy knoll where she let me take off her blouse and unsnap her bra. I kissed her hard, perky breasts and devoured her tasty nipples. We lay there wet with passion, soaking in our young bodies, and we enjoyed every moment as if the next would be our last.

“We continued to hold each other as we walked down the rain-soaked street under the blurry street lamps, stepping in puddles, getting soaking wet until we finally arrived our front door. You and Mrs. Lindy were away somewhere, and we had the house to ourselves. ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ she whispered. I felt her breath on my chest and could feel her desire, Karl. It was as if I were at the center of a volcano and it was ready to pop. ‘Whatever you want,’ I said. ‘I’m not forcing you to do anything.’ I was just happy to stroke her skin, Karl. Honestly.

“She wanted to taste me, to have me inside of her, but she felt guilty. She knew how angry her father would get if she ever betrayed him. She feared becoming an outcast in her family and her culture if she had sex with a non-Muslim man before marriage, especially with a Jew. Right then and there, I knew that I was the wrong person for her, not part of her dream or her life’s story. I was an obstacle in her path. But I couldn’t help myself.

“The rain stopped and the clouds cleared. There was the beautiful moon hanging from the sky as if it were there only for us. It was the same moon that her mother saw in her eyes when she was a newborn baby. Her eyes closed.  She unfastened my belt and reached into my pants. Her fingers trembled and were cold. She cried and said that she couldn’t do it anymore. I said it was okay, and that it didn’t matter. She grew silent and moved away from me, inching to the edge of the bed. When I tried to get closer, she pushed me away…  

The rest of the story ended abruptly as Mrs. Lindy walked in the house. Jordan walked upstairs to his room, and I turned on the news. Later that night, I was in the kitchen talking with Mrs. Lindy. As she was opening a can of Chicken of the Sea tuna she told me that she noticed something going on between Mahsa and Jordan. “I know she’s beautiful and sweet, but I’m worried that they’re going to get carried away.” 

I didn’t tell Mrs. Lindy that they were already carried away. “They’re just friends,” I lied with a straight face.

The next night, Jordan worked the overnight shift at the hospital. Mahsa came downstairs and wanted to know if I would take her out for a drive in my new sky blue Karmann Ghia. She needed to take her mind off of the pressures of school for a while. After a few minutes of driving down the Roosevelt Boulevard, she surprised me by asking “Can I drive?”

Before I could say anything, she moved closer, nudging the back of her head against my chin while her little brown hands clutched the VW steering wheel. Anyone else I would have declined their request to drive my prized car, but I couldn’t resist Mahsa.

We drove around in circles that whole night until we ran out of gas. It didn’t matter how many times she scraped the tires against the curb or barely avoided hitting parked cars, just as long as her enchanting fragrance was wafting under my nose.

“Do you like me?” she asked.

I didn’t want to tell her the truth because of Jordan.  “Yes, as a friend,” I said.

“How much?”

I was silent, afraid of where this was going.

“Well, you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t like me so much.”

“Why?” I asked

“Because you’ll get hurt.”

She looked up from the steering wheel, and a tear fell from her eye. “I’m going to hurt Jordan, too. He doesn’t know it. Please promise me you won’t tell him.” 

She was so beautiful, I didn’t want to believe that she could hurt anyone. I thought she was playing me, and I smiled, giving her the impression that I wouldn’t be duped into believing such nonsense.

The next day, while I was at the library, Jordan startled me by sitting at my table. He looked extremely upset. I thought someone close to him had died. “What is it, Jordan?”

“She was too scared to tell me, Karl,” he said, his eyes glassy.

“She just got up and left when I was at the hospital, moving to the far end of the city somewhere, and trying to forget I ever existed. I found a letter on my pillow. It didn’t really say much. She just apologized for leaving so abruptly and not telling me why. She said that it was better that way, that she wasn’t right for me and that I should marry someone of my own kind. She said ‘I enjoyed the time with you’ in big capital letters.”

He handed me the letter. There was no return address or phone number where Mahsa could be reached, just the scent of her perfume. For a moment, I imagined her brown eyes gazing at me and her soft, gentle face waiting to be kissed.

“It happened so fast,” Jordan kept muttering to himself.

When I got home, Miss Lindy was pissed that Mahsa didn’t give her a month’s notice. “I’m going to keep her security deposit,” she snarled under her breath. “Serves me right for not checking her references.”

For the next few months, Jordan and I talked about Mahsa all the time. We even went to her school and hung around expecting to see her, and Jordan kept reading her letter trying to find some hope – a remote chance that things were really not over. I knew it wasn’t healthy for him to hold on to her and feel as awful as he did. He began to focus on his work more and more, taking as many extra shifts at the hospital as he could get. His obsession with work was so consuming that I rarely saw him anymore.      

I spent another year at Miss Lindy’s boarding house. Eventually, the money ran out, and I had to get a real job. I gave up writing for a while and moved back in with my parents. I took evening classes to become a social worker and met a dark-haired Israeli woman in grad school who very much resembled Mahsa. We married after graduation, settled down in a trendy suburb of Philadelphia and had two children.

I lost touch with Jordan but heard that he had graduated from medical school and that he was doing his residency in psychiatry. I also found out that Mrs. Lindy had passed away from complications of diabetes.I wished that I had known sooner, because I would have liked to attend her funeral. 

I haven’t forgotten my time at Mrs. Lindy’s boarding house and the beautiful exchange student, Mahsa. Sometimes I look up at the sky when there is a full moon and see Mahsa’s eyes staring down at me. I wonder if she married a strong Persian man like her father or fulfilled her dream of designing homes in her little town outside of Tehran. I could only imagine how beautiful she still must be.

© Mark Tulin

David Herrle and Megan Volpert Rap on Marilyn Monroe and Debbie Harry – 1976-book interview clip (2016)

(This is an excerpt from the 2016 SubtleTea interview about Megan Volpert’s 1976. The full interview can be accessed here.)

David: A fascinating passage in 1976 reveals an unflattering assessment of Marilyn Monroe:

The other day, I found myself embroiled in an argument with my father-in-law concerning the intellectual abilities of Marilyn Monroe. He said she was above average in the smarts department and I said she probably wasn’t. At first, his main warrant for this absurd claim was that we should take a look at her husband because Arthur Miller wouldn’t marry a dummy.

Though I’m a Garbolator rather than a Monroebot, I think both underestimation and overestimation of Marilyn are bad. Sure, Saul Bellow said she “conduct[ed] herself like a philosopher,” but undermining terms such as “childlike sex goddess” (Gloria Steinem), “child-girl” (Norman Mailer), “beautiful child” (Capote) and even “baby whore” (Pauline Kael) have been dominant since her demise. Not that Marilyn was a deferred Atwood or Streep, but I trust Sarah Churchwell when she calls her “a greater Gatsby” and pierces the Dumb Blonde perception: “The biggest myth is that she was dumb. The second is that she was fragile. The third is that she couldn’t act.” Contrarily, you perceptively ask: “[I]f she was the total package and couldn’t maintain, what chance do the rest of us schmucks have?” This happens to echo Steinem on Marilyn: “How dare she be just as vulnerable and unconfident as I felt?” Basically, Marilyn offends you for not taking advantage of her advantage:

So if I give her the benefit of the doubt, I’m trapped with a version of history where a woman who was empowered by both her body and her mind could’ve had all the success of which she dreamed so ambitiously, but instead allowed herself to be subjugated to the position of sex symbol until coping with the emptiness inside herself required so many drugs that she torched her own rise to stardom and died in the weakest way at the least opportune moment…I’d rather believe she was a little too dumb to handle it and she just lost control over her own trajectory. I don’t want to believe that Marilyn Monroe was a picture of the consummate professional, full of intellect and common sense, who nevertheless cracked.

Might both “greater Gatsby” and Dumb Blonde be true? As for Marilyn’s (questionable) suicide, Sexton and Plath also killed themselves, so were they “too dumb” to deal?

I really like Churchwell’s metatextual projects, and though I ultimately didn’t read most of her book on Marilyn Monroe, the way she went at the subject – the nature of apocrypha itself – was very inspirational to me when I was waist-deep in Warhol research. Monroe died long before I was born, so all I ever have to work with will be under or overestimation, even out of the mouths of people who did actually know her. But I enjoy the second-handedness of most information, the way it mutates over time. We’re left with a kind of Pascal’s wager, where I prefer to gamble that she was sort of dumb so that I don’t live in fear of the implications for myself. Because I’m not dumb.

Nor do I think Plath or Sexton were dumb. I admire Sexton’s work particularly. You might argue that they were rather too smart to deal, not too dumb. That’s a perk of being a writer instead of an actor: you’re writing your own history in your own words. There is a cornucopia of archival material for both writers to convey with constancy and consistency how they felt about life, whereas there is comparatively little material directly out of Monroe’s own mouth, and she is not as articulate as those two writers. The chapter on Monroe doesn’t argue that you’d simply have to be dumb to kill yourself. There are some suicides that I would condone, though they tend to be more in the line of euthanization for physical pain than solely for emotional suffering, for example Hunter Thompson’s suicide.

In Making Tracks Debbie Harry said that she “always thought [she] was Marilyn Monroe’s kid.” Even dubbed the “punk Marilyn” (Mick Rock saw more Marilyn than punk), Debbie brought “the whole Hollywood/Marilyn sensibility to [rock],” according to Chris Stein (the Lindsay Buckingham to her Stevie Nicks), and she wanted to be “a mysterious figure that’ll never be able to be truly defined,” echoing Marilyn’s stated desire “to stay just in the fantasy of Everyman.” 1976 presents a fundamental contrast between Marilyn and Debbie: the latter is “in charge of herself” and “campily capitaliz[ing] on her own sex appeal to drive [Blondie’s] image into record sales,” has “actual brains” and excels at puckish duping of fawning males. Later in life Debbie stated the obvious: “Certainly, 50% of my success is based on my looks, maybe more, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.” Well, duh. As Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote, “Beauty is not a matter of what you are, it is a matter of what you look like.” Might physical beauty be its own sort of genius, as Wilde said? Isn’t love of foxiness more than acumen understandable?

I’ve wanted to talk about Monroe and Harry side by side since the Warhol book, where I could not find a way to do it to my own satisfaction. So much of that chapter of 1976 is a kind of deleted scene from that other project. In fact, the surplus of thoughts and residual understandings I had during that Warhol project in some sense made 1976 easy pickings among all the other years I could have chosen. It’s no secret that I’m working on a book about Bruce Springsteen right now, and in many ways these books are three of a kind, though they are in no way a proper trilogy.

But you asked me about physical beauty. Warhol, having none himself, sought ceaselessly to collect and then reproduce the foxiness he found in others. Where 1976 openly discusses physical beauty, it’s often as an absence, for example in the chapter on Richard Avedon’s political portraits. I understand that many people think of Springsteen as super hot, but I’m not one of them, and most of those people would likely agree with me anyway that his unusual voice has an ugliness that is the real seat of his rise to celebrity. It’s easy to agree with Wilde because physical beauty on a natural level can be a straightforwardly evolutionary prospect. I also admire people working in fashion, photography, or other arts fields where one is expected to be gorgeous, for the upkeep that maintaining gorgeousness obviously requires – foxiness as a kind of acumen. It’s a skill set, and I do love drag queens. But then eating disorders, expensive cosmetic surgery, and so on. I get through life mainly by displaying acumen, but I’d be foolish and not very feminist to disapprove of Debbie Harry’s good looks or how she used them.

more information on Volpert’s book here


David Herrle interviews Patrick Symmes, author of THE DAY FIDEL DIED: CUBA IN THE AGE OF RAÚL, OBAMA, AND THE ROLLING STONES

(This interview also is featured at Bookolage.)

According to the late dictator Fidel Castro, the Revolución Cubana’s legacy was almost blameless, constructive, justifiably defiant and positively epochal rather than dystopian and fated for failure. However, besides ever-intrusive government, the quest for mass social justice requires drastic actions, so it’s easy to find Fidel’s denials of civil-rights abuses, executions and intolerance incredible. 

On the other hand, adopting an either/or take on the man is lazy, since we’re all susceptible to armchair diagnoses and essentializations. One mustn’t doubt that Fidel was an impressive, suave, profound and smart person. Also, he cannot be considered without considering Cuba itself, since for more than half a century his personality (real, perceived and fabricated) has “spoken” for the nation he wrested from Batista, a ruler who shared more similarities than differences with the more gregarious rival. 

An astute handler of this subject and equipped with some worthy first-hand knowledge of Cuban life (previously told in depth in an excellent Harper’s Magazine article called “Thirty Days as a Cuban”), Patrick Symmes has achieved in The Day Fidel Castro Died: Cuba in the Age of Raúl, Obama, and the Rolling Stones, an intellectually/politically honest portrayal: fair enough to admit favorable points and not to demonize irresponsibly, yet wise enough to resist belief in the regime’s careful charade.

When Viking proposed an interview between me and the author, I accepted with some apprehension, fearing yet another fawning take on Fidel Castro and romanticization of collectivist dictatorships in general. I needn’t have hesitated. Smoothly written and of perfect compact length, The Day Fidel Castro Died has earned my appreciation, respect and endorsement. Please enjoy our exchange.


For fifty-seven years every blown lightbulb was the work of the Americans.
– The Day Fidel Castro Died

DAVID: In Castro: A Graphic Novel Volker Skierka observes that Fidel’s story is “so true that one couldn’t invent it without it seeming implausible.” Despite the inconvenient truths of Fidel, his heyday rattling of history is remarkable, even cinematic. In your book you aptly quote Hamlet’s Hamlet: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.” (Think Touch of Evil’s Tanya: “He was some kind of a man.”) How do Fidel’s attractive style, intellect and articulation strike you? Why are eclectic, clever rogues so compelling? Tell us about your preparative approach to, as you put it, “the singularity that is Fidel.” 

PATRICK: He was transgressive, in the beginning. A young lawyer from the best schools, married into a top family, yet he grew a beard and risked his life in battle rather than accommodate himself to that system. The kids who grew up with him actually feared him, because he was so strong-willed, so devoted to his own exceptionalism. It was easy to hope and believe he would usher in a new era of freedom; the vast majority of Cubans and even many Americans supported him by January 1, 1958. But over time the transgressive appeal faded: he cracked down on dissent, long hair, rock and roll, private stores, one thing after another that alienated people. Yet, by constantly flowing and adapting – Soviet when he needed to be, champion of Africa, denunciatory environmentalist – he always had a new way to captivate, justify, and even thrill. But you can’t sustain faith for decades, and whole generations disappeared while nothing ever changed. The uniforms, slogans, and even names are mostly the same today as in 1959. What was once captivating to millions became tired and hypocritical long ago. I was stunned – almost no one important showed up for his funeral! 

DAVID: You think Fidel “should have died young and left a beautiful corpse” in order to be “purified by distance” rather than grow old gracelessly. Meanwhile unctuous Ignacio Ramonet includes him in “the pantheon of world figures who have struggled most fiercely for social justice and with greatest solidarity came to the aid of the oppressed.” Yet you (rightly) write that “he became the dictator he’d rebelled against, the problem to his own solution.” Did Fidel make any significant difference against social injustice and oppression? Is Cuba worse or better off because of the Castro regime?

PATRICK: Certainly the social programs of the Revolution had a broad impact: mass literacy, access to a doctor even in rural hamlets, the promotion of black and brown Cubans to sectors of education and social acceptance that were closed. But of course, many countries achieved mass education without mass surveillance. Many countries today have universal health care, but also elections. And in the meantime, so many other sectors of life simply degraded. Havana is a disaster, physically – at least two houses a day fall down in the city, and whole neighborhoods are abandoned due to collapsed roofs and hurricane damage that isn’t fixed even a decade later. The system is paralysis. You can’t even get basic medicines anymore. I still don’t know how to weigh one against the other: the declared intent to help the poor and disadvantaged was valuable, but it didn’t have to come at this cost, where more than 10% of the population fled. The United States exacerbated the problem, but I think it is clear now that the problem began in Cuba, with Fidel’s conflation of himself with the nation. 

DAVID: Fidel likened his social vision to Christ’s multiplication of the loaves and fishes, which is laughable, given the food shortages/rationing exemplified by your passage about a Cuban family’s monthly seafood allotment being “only one fish each – usually a dried, oily mackerel.” Yet, you do admit some promising relaxation effected by less orthodox Raoul Castro. What is your prediction for Cuba? Is sincere amity between it and the U.S. possible? Mustn’t communism be eschewed to launch and maintain a Cuban renaissance?

PATRICK: Prediction is a dark art, but here goes. I think they can and will lose the communism, but keep the Castro. What I mean by that is that, once Raúl passes, the Revolution is just another movement, a political party. Communism is not central to its survival in the future. That’s why Raúl, with the greatest reluctance and constant retrenchment, has relaxed economic controls, allowed widespread self-employment, and facilitated an unprecedented business boom. The core doctrine is not communism, but Fidelism, the idea of the Revolution as a historic mandate. Survival is all. Remember that experiments with privatizing food production began in 1961 – just one year after the nationalization of all farms!

Fidel was always the ideologue, while from the beginning Raúl actually organized the army and ran the machinery of state, seeing the numbers. He’s pragmatic. As long as it doesn’t conflict with his ability to control society, he tolerates economic changes. I think that’s the model for the future. After he dies, the party will continue to rule, but slowly, eventually, I expect them to let go of the economy. The U.S. won’t be able to resist that for long, and I expect the embargo will be forgotten as soon as American companies sense they are losing big opportunities there. As Fidel always feared, that will lead to an independent population, demands for increased pluralism, and even elections. This could take many, many years, but I fully expect to see a member of the Castro family leading a revolutionary party in elections for president of Cuba someday – once all the old crimes are forgotten. Raúl’s daughter Mariela, highly educated, and his grandson, a dimwitted security goon, are both likely candidates. And of course Fidel had five acknowledged sons and illegitimate offspring all over the island. 

DAVID: At the Bay of Pigs the men of doomed Brigade 2506, blindly trusting the CIA and American military might, paid dearly for the flinching White House’s abandonment. This created disillusionment that, I think, helped eventuate “Pepe” San Roman’s 1989 suicide. Tell us about your claim that “the fundamental failure at the Bay of Pigs was not tactical, it was moral.”

PATRICK: I meant that as an accusation against my country, America. The moral failure was believing that America had the right to invade Cuba, to decide things by bombs and sabotage. The Kennedy brothers knew it was wrong; that’s why they tried to hide the American hand, and abandoned the 2506 Brigade rather than launch a US invasion. Among the exiles themselves, the moral failure was more complex: they were blind to the popular support the Revolution had attained, but at least it was their own country they were invading.

DAVID: In extreme contrast to their music having been banned in Cuba in the 1960s, the Rolling Stones (who certainly won’t leave beautiful corpses) first performed in Havana in 2016, which was seen by many attendees as fruit from President Obama’s historic outreach. Far from gushing over brave rapprochement, you say that Obama wielded an ultimate weapon: “treat[ing] the island as normal.” Please explain.

PATRICK: Fidel always claimed the mantle of history and used a kind of histrionic style that placed Cuba at the center of world events. That was true in 1959, 1961, and 1963, but no matter how much the propaganda repeats it still today, Cubans know that the island is weak and left behind. Obama called the Castro bluff. He bypassed their central symbol – no handshake or meeting with Fidel –while showing he was utterly unafraid or unimpressed by the Revolution. He spoke directly to the Cuban people about the value of democracy and human rights, live on national television. Without actually lifting the embargo, he sent an incredibly strong signal to Cubans about the future, telling them to bet on economic changes and a welcoming U.S. Now Trump has renewed the exchange of hostilities and accusations, which I fear has shattered that clear vision of where the two countries were going. 

DAVID: I know of some Americans packing giveaway items (travel-size shampoo, toothpaste, etc.) to be doled out to people they’d encounter on their Cuban vacation. Is this a tactless fad of “slumming” interlopers – and, if so, is such condescension noticed by the folks down there? By the way, why is Cuba such a novelty for many Americans?

PATRICK: Back in the 1990s, a woman burst into tears when I gave her bar of soap. I have never once had a Cuban complain that it was condescending! I find only well-fed Westerners feel guilty about this kind of thing. Nowadays soap is widely available, but only in the dollar stores, at hard-currency prices that few Cubans can afford. So give, and give freely – even a pair of old shoes will find a use. As to the second question, one novelty for Americans can be how American it feels. You can still see the old American brand names on 60-year old signs, the cars are famously American, Havana is full of old American-built hotels, and Cubans themselves have longstanding ties to us, from long before 1958. And of course, the veil of hostility and politics makes all of that seem more exotic and unknown. I feel like I’m a blockade runner when I’m in Cuba. The Canadians are just feeling regular. 

DAVID: Another novelty is Che Guevara, whom Fidel called “an indestructible moral force,” neglecting the man’s atrocious, hypocritical, Stalinist ways. Alberto Korda’s famous merchandized Che image still delights the ignorant or enthralled, though he would’ve had them silenced or executed at La Cabana prison – and he certainly was anti-Rolling Stones. How do you view popular lionization of Che?

PATRICK: The more I learned about his real actions, the more disturbed I became. But eventually I burst out the other side of my cynicism and said, dammit, there is something really important at work here. His image is vastly more influential than the Cuban Revolution itself. I’ve seen peasants in Peru cry as they discussed “the Che” and what he did for them. The historic inaccuracy of that is one thing, but the yawning need for a hero impressed me. People had to reinvent Che, because Latin America has produced so few real champions for the poor. He was the one who actually had the good sense to die young and leave a beautiful corpse. 

DAVID: I compare Che to Saint-Just, the bloodthirstiest devil of the French Revolution, which, like the later major “egalitarian” revolutions, involved social-justice warfare, bitter secularization, property theft and belief in extreme remaking of humanity. Only the American Revolution avoided reprisals, atrocity, police statehood and denial of human nature – and it still hasn’t been duplicated. Why is this? Are potential Nazi Germanies or Jonestowns lurking in all utopians’ genes?

PATRICK: I think that DNA is lurking in all of us. We’re a social species, but I’m impressed with how violent we can become, so quickly. The utopians are convinced they can act on the world. The American founders were afraid of that; they hemmed us in with divided powers and checks and balances. I’m afraid I’ll have to subscribe to the traditional Burkean view that gradual change that reforms institutions works better than radical overthrow of the whole orders. I hope Cuba has careful, steady change over many years, but most Cubans will tell you they are ardiente, or fiery. They may come think they can change everything at once. 

DAVID: Perhaps the most important thing you learned during your Havana residence was Cubans’ fortitude in spite of a police-state environment and deprivation: “In the midst of this suffering, the dignity and pathos of ordinary Cubans struck me deeply.” Tell us more about this. And what do you think of the long trend of defection and the recent spike in emigration to the U.S.?

PATRICK: I’ve learned that the best people live in the worst places. It creates solidarity and fellow feeling even amid deprivation and struggle. But Cubans are smart enough to read the wind, and many rushed to America just before the open immigration policy ended. Enormous numbers are still leaving the island for Central America and really anywhere they can get, because they think they will live better abroad than at home. It’s going to continue.


Visit Patrick’s official site here.
David Herrle is a freelance writer and founder of SubtleTea.

“Nobody’s House” by Lauren Buckingham

I saw him again today. I’m afraid of him. There’s just something about that man, the way he looks at people, the way he looks at me. I know he wants to hurt me. I can’t let him.

I peel back the curtains and take a look out the window. I can’t see him now, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. I hope he isn’t.

I close the curtains again, shutting out the blinding white-gold rays of sunlight, shutting out the world outside my window. I remember how I used to love this window. It was the reason I chose this room for my studio when we first moved in.

I think back often to those first days here in this house. I didn’t expect to like it here at all. I never wanted to move here, that was Doug’s idea. He grew up out in the country, he said it would be good for the kids, they would have room to play, they’d be out of the city, away from all the predators and pitfalls that came along with city life.

I still don’t like it. I’ve tried to, I really have. I think I managed to convince Doug that I like it here, and for a while I managed to convince myself, but that was before our new neighbor moved in. After I saw him, the spaces seemed a lot wider, the dusty roads more desolate, and the quiet air even eerier.

I close the curtains and sit back down at my easel and try to focus on the canvas in front of It’s not finished, not even close. All it looks like now is a series of shapes and lines. That’s my favorite part of the creative process, the early stages when I can see something starting to take shape but no one else but me knows what it will be. It’s like my little secret, at least for a while.

My project at the moment is a close-up of a lemon, sliced in half, seeds and all. Why a lemon? Why not? That’s the beauty of modern art, it can be random and not make any sense. Just like life.

I squint harder and hold the picture I took in the kitchen closer to my face. I try to study the finer points of the fruit, the lines, the pores of the skin, the pointy off-white seeds, the varying shades of yellow.

All of a sudden, a loud crash sounds from outside. Startled, I looked up and arise from my chair. I don’t want to look out the window, but I have to. I ease back over to the window and slowly slip my fingers underneath the curtain. I peek out the window but I don’t see anything. Not at first, anyway. I look closer and that’s when I see it.

Relieved, I see the tree in our yard. That’s all it was, nothing more, nothing less. It’s been windy out today, the wind must have knocked it over. I suppose I’ll have to go out and pick it up, or I could just wait until Doug gets home. If I did that, he’d probably want to know why, and if I told him he’d just laugh at me and tell me I’m being silly. Or, he would take me seriously and ask me if I took my medication today.

He does that, sometimes, whenever I seemed a little bit off. He doesn’t come out and say it, of course. He’ll say things like “Are you feeling all right, Gemma?” or “Did you take care of things?” That’s the one that really gets under my skin. Of course, he doesn’t mean it to, he never does. He means well, I know that. He just wants what’s best for me.

I hold my head up. I’m going to be brave. I’m going to go out there and clean up the yard. If I see him, I’ll just go back inside, lock the door, and put a chair in front of the door.

I grab my green hoodie from the back of my chair and settle myself into it. I shut the door to my studio and I head to the garage to grab a rake and a trash bag.

Outside, I can see the tree branches strewn haphazardly throughout the front yard. It’s a mess, but I’m sure it won’t take long to clean up. Like many things, it looks much worse than it is.

Just as I bend down to start cleaning the branches, a voice calls out behind me. “Gemma?”

My heart skips a beat. I turned around. It’s him. He knows my name. How does he know my name? Then it occurs to me. I don’t even know his name.

“W-what are you doing here?” I manage to stammer.

He laughs and his face settles into a complacent smirk. “What do you mean, what I’m doing here? I’m your neighbor. I’m just trying to get acquainted, you know, be neighborly.” He starts pacing towards me.

I shake my head, but I can’t speak. My throat feels like it is closing up more and more with each step he takes.

“Come on, Gemma, let’s be neighborly.” He grinned. He moves closer, his hands outstretched and spread apart. Sweat drips down his ruddy face, and his beady eyes gleam with wicked delight.

“No…” I feel the word slip past my lips, but I can’t hear my own voice. I back away from him, but he is still coming closer to me. I turn around, I try to run, and I feel his hands grip my waist. He tries to pull me to the ground, but just as I’m about to fall, I grab hold of the rake.

“Yes, Gemma, you and me…” He whispers, in a low, menacing purr.

“No!” I shout, this time so loud I hear the echo of my voice.

I pick up the rake, and I swing at him. The edge of the rake strikes his temple. He smiles at me, as though he hadn’t felt the blow at all. He tries to lunge at me, but I hit him again, I hit him harder and harder, over and over. He screams, he cries, he tries to fight back, but it is no use. I’m the powerful one now. I watch him grow weaker and weaker until he finally collapses to the ground, never to get up again.

It takes a few moments for me to realize what I’ve done. His battered lifeless form lies sprawled on the ground, his reddish blonde curls streaked with blood, his face left barely recognizable by the rake. I’m shocked. I’m horrified. I just wanted him to leave me alone. I never wanted this.

As I look at the scene in front of me, I start to tremble. I’ve killed him, I realize. Now what do I do? It was self-defense, I tell myself. It was, wasn’t it? I hit him so that he would leave me alone, so that he couldn’t hurt me.

I stare down at my hands, then at his bloodied body, and back at my hands. There is not a scratch on me. I’m not injured, there’s not even any blood on me, no evidence of what he tried to. It’s my word against his. And he’s not talking. He’ll never talk again.

Overkill. That’s what they’ll call it. I can’t go to the police. They wouldn’t believe me. I could end up in prison, or even sentenced to death. A chill runs through my body. I can’t let that happen. My kids can’t grow up without a mother. I can’t handle prison. I don’t want to die.

I’ll have to get rid of the body. There isn’t any other way. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I know I have to. The trash bag. Of course. That’s where I’ll put him.

I stoop down, gather up the bag and pull the crinkly black plastic around him. I carefully stuff him into the bag, and next I do what I came out here to do in the first place. I finish picking up the leaves and branches, now bloodstained, and toss them into the trash bag as well.

I notice how tidy the yard looks, once I’m done cleaning up. If someone were to drive by right now, they would have no idea what just happened. Of course, people seldom ever drive by here. There’s only two houses on this stretch of road, our house and his house. Well, it was his house. I suppose now it’s nobody’s house.

I drag the plastic bag into the garage. Oddly enough, it’s not as heavy as I feared it would be. I don’t know where I’m going to hide the body, somewhere out in the desert, maybe. But I can’t right now. I can hardly think, and the kids will be home soon. I’ll do it tomorrow, when I have more time, once I figure out where I can put him so no one will ever find him. For the time being, I place him in the trunk of my car.

As I turn to go back inside the house, I pause and take one more look at my car. It’s hard for me to believe that there’s a dead man in there, and that I killed him. Maybe I’ll never fully believe it. Or maybe it will sink in when I have to bury him. I don’t know. All I know is if that I want to get through this, I have to keep going. And going.


“This is delicious, Gemma. Nice job,” Doug remarked, later that night at the dinner table.

“Thank you,” I respond in a quiet voice.

Somehow I managed to pull myself together long enough to make dinner. Actually, it served as a comfort to me, something to focus on, to keep my mind off of what I’ve done. I still can’t believe that the same hands that made dinner for my family tonight killed a man just hours before. But I don’t regret it.

Doug looks up from his plate. “Did you hear we might be getting a new neighbor soon?”

I drop my fork, and I can feel my pulse race. But, how? No one knows who’s dead yet. Do they?

Doug chuckles. “Don’t look so surprised, that house has sat empty for almost a year. I didn’t think it would be long before they found a buyer.”

“But –” I manage to say. “That man…”

“No, it’s not a man who bought it,” Doug continued. “She’s a single mom, with two kids about the ages of ours.” He looks over at our two children and said, “You’ll finally have someone else to play with out here.”

“No,” I say. “I met the man who was living there. He moved in a few days ago, he used to walk by here all the time. Haven’t you seen him?”

He stares at me, puzzled. “No. There’s been no one living there.” He paused. “Gemma, have you…?”

I shake my head. I don’t know what to say.

“Excuse me.” I bolt from the table, and hurry out to the kitchen. I dig into my purse and grab my keys. Trembling, I head to the garage and pop the trunk lid open. I hoist the trunk lid up. Inside, I see the plastic garbage bag, with weeds sticking out the side of the bag. I tear open the bag and sift through the weeds, leaves and branches.

No dead body.  And no body at all. No blood, either.

I look around the garage and I see the rake, clean and also free of blood. As if it never happened. I turn around and race out of the garage, back into the house, past my family still seated at the table, so accustomed my unpredictable ways that they barely notice. I run to the bedroom and open my dresser drawer.

I smile, as I pick up my pill box and take a look inside. Today is Wednesday, I remember that much. I notice today’s dose is still there. I see M, T, F, S and S are still there, too. I haven’t taken my medicine in nearly a week.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Things happen when I don’t take my medicine. Or, rather, they don’t happen. Things don’t happen, but I think that they do.

I reach for a water bottle, toss a pill in my mouth, and take a huge gulp of water before the acidic taste of the pill can burn my tongue. I feel the tablet slide down my throat, and I take another gulp of water for good measure.

“Hello, reality,” I murmur aloud. “I’m on my way back…”

“Unread Harvest” by Mathias B. Freese

(This is an excerpt from Freese’s new memoir, And Then I Am Gone: A Walk with Thoreau.)

I am disappointed to find that most that I am and value
for myself is lost, or worst than lost, on my audience. I
fail to get even attention of the mass. I should suit them
better if I suited myself less. I feel that the public demand
an average man,—average thoughts and manners,—not
originality, nor even absolute excellence.
—Thoreau, Journal

Whenever I am under considerable stress, my gums become impacted and decay sets in. Having found a dentist, I discovered that I needed root-canal work and four crowns put in. Disheartening. Stress goes straight to my mouth. I have endured gum disease and bone loss.

I was not in good spirits for my recent dental treatment, and restoration required me to lie on my back for over an hour. At the checkout desk, two women sat at their stations as I approached to pay part of my bill. Jenny, the office manager, ended up revealing that she enjoys traveling and has been to New York. Michelle, the other woman, joined in, and in the three-way conversation I regaled them with my love for the Big Apple, how digestible food is not to be found in Alabama – which Jenny agreed with wholeheartedly – and how I missed my hometown dearly. I am an urban man in the boonies.

The conversation became animated, had me babbling and made me feel alive. It brightened my day and erased my former low spirits. Good conversation with others can do that. I shared my background as a New York City cab driver, an English teacher, a shrink, and an author of several books, promising each woman a copy by next appointment.

I also spoke of the Viking cruise down a French river Nina and I took in August of 2016. We docked at several French towns, and most of our navigation was done at night. One town guide was a young man, maybe in his late twenties. I engaged him as he showed us the sights, and when I discovered a synagogue, he was more than willing to bring the group in and make the arrangements to get access. Across the way from the synagogue’s door, high up on a wall, was a marker citing the capture of Jews in the area back in the Nazi era. Eventually, as we strolled I learned that the guide was a singer, but not an ordinary one. He revealed that he had a high falsetto voice and that he was studied in music. With encouragement by me and others who had learned of his other talent, he agreed to sing for us in a nearby courtyard. He settled down, he settled in, he clasped his face in his hands, and when he was ready his astonishing voice adorned the area like melancholic roses spread across a wall. Passersby and cyclists stopped, a woman curiously looked out her window. Later on, when we were about to embark on our ship, he sang a farewell song. It was an entirely blissful way to experience not only France but one another, our shared humanity.

We met another French guide named Pierre Brunel. When I returned to America, I sent him a copy of I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust. He has never replied to me. Perhaps my book was not to his liking.

Pierre was leading a group of us through a French town when he spontaneously addressed everyone about his family’s history in the area. His mother’s family had rescued a Jewish doctor and his wife, but the wife was captured and gassed in Auschwitz. The doctor survived with the dogged help of Brunel’s family, though some family members were killed. After the war the doctor continued to treat the Brunels for over forty years. Brunel was inordinately proud of what his family had done. I drew him aside to see if I could engage him, garner more details, since I had written two books on the Holocaust.

After some talk, he reached into his shirt and removed a necklace with a large silver Jewish star on it, which he said was a constant reminder of the event. I was stunned and moved. I shared with him my admiration for his brave family and told him of my background, followed by a promise to send him a copy of my book when I returned to the States.

I revealed this riveting story to Jenny and Michelle, and they were quite taken by it, as I had been. Leaving the office, I felt renewed by having shared some tales of fascinating human beings and brightened by those who were willing to listen to me. I am thinking now of the trademark line of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski: “The Dude abides.”

When readers explain to me why they will not review my book, I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust, I have noticed, in some instances, that the two stories they do like are what I call “Anne Frank” efforts. That is, the stories are safe and give humanity a free pass, playing on the cello strings of the human heart. Most of my stories are idiosyncratic, gritty, graphic, savage, caustic, and satirical.

They take no prisoners. When the head of a Jewish studies program wrote to me that she “shuddered” upon reading my other stories, I found that schizoid. In a world in which we now have beheadings, her dainty perspective and head-up-her-ass attitude are hard to take. She is an intellectual wuss.

Films are much more graphic than books, but books incise into the mind in a different way. So, here is a Holocaust educator who has circumscribed what she reads, to admit and accept only what is safe. In Terrence Des Pres’s book The Survivor, about the concentration camp experience, he graphically describes how camp guards made some Jews eat their own shit. It happened. Learn from it. As a writer, use it. Don’t flinch. Or get out of the Holocaust experience as a writer.

If I were to write a story in which an inmate has to eat his own shit, I wonder if it would be rejected immediately. Of course it would. It would make her “shudder.” My literary imaginings bother her more than beheadings.

Another writer and educator, barely containing her rage, complained to me that she had no time for fiction about the Holocaust, that we should spend more time taking down the stories of survivors, become memoir recorders, assisting them in encapsulating their experiences.

I have no problem with that at all, but in the same breath she castigated Holocaust fiction as a waste of time at this time in history. Holocaust as memoir, Holocaust as remembrance—is that all there is? So no more Primo Levi, no more Elie Wiesel, no more Olga Lengyel. No time for explication and exploration, or interpretation. (I am a staunch Jew. I make trouble. I wear no Star of David on my neck, but I have always dreamed of having a question mark fashioned to take its place.)

I must say judgmentally that I experience such responses as a kind of moral cowardice. I have no need to defend my book or explain its contents. When you mine for gold, digging produces slag, detritus. When you explore the heart of darkness, you make things messy and muddied, conflictual, and, for these days’ weak-minded readers, aggravating and annoying. However, it is the search that always counts. My mind wanders back to 1958 to a Contemporary Civilization course at Queens College. The instructor began to speak about Karl Marx, and one of the undergrad women got upset with the mere mention of his name. The teacher went up to her seat and said, “Karl Marx … Karl Marx … Karl Marx … Karl Marx” in an attempt to desensitize the student, I imagine, to the very sound of the name. And so it is with mentioning the Holocaust.

When I receive these responses, I feel soiled by human beings who want the Holocaust neatly wrapped up, literally ended or tidied up – or just not written about at all. Underneath is a need to be safe. And my Jewish brethren are as guilty as anyone else. It is the dark and nether consequence of resistance to put out of conscious mind what is nettlesome, frightening, scary, and personally repulsive to bear under the scrutiny of awareness.

In short, it comes down to fear. I wrote in another context that fearlessness leads to authenticity in writing. I stand by that. I am so old that authenticity in living is still a vital principle to live by or struggle to attain. And when I come across prissy responses to my book I don’t relate to them well, for they are foreign to me. I’m naïvely taken aback that people don’t want to see, and yet I spent years dealing with the unsaid in my clients. So, I have determined that if my book is to be read I must give it away, which I am doing in certain cases: to Holocaust museums and centers, Holocaust studies programs, instructors, and the like. After all, I am into sharing what I own and what I feel and what I can write about without an inordinate concern about marketing and making royalties.

Apparently, any book on the Holocaust nowadays, like the Jews in the 1940s, is met with indifference. Ho-hum is the response. An ennui has settled in and, like a miasmic swamp, occludes efforts to understand again and again what the Holocaust is. One of my lifelong learnings is that human beings are a shabby lot. I have no expectations of man because my own fellow man lacks the slightest realistic expectation of himself, except to make money and fuck. Kazantzakis said it well on his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

I may like to get bruised or kicked in the ass, to perseverate in this agony, or I don’t really give a damn. I do have a measure of hope. I hand out my book for free, like a business card, just to share: “Hey, brother, I can spare a dime.” To be read is all that I require; to be asked a question is a wonderful chakra, something to behold. It is the teacher in me. At my age I experience what Erickson called “generativity,” the need to give what wisdom one has attained to the young or to those who are willing listeners.

And there is also the asbestos-like silence. I have mailed out over one thousand queries, and more than a handful to reviewers who have read my earlier works. And they don’t nibble at all. In my imagination they feel not to reply is not to be involved with a foul subject, or one that makes them shudder, equivocate, or flee; whatever, the motivation what I am left with is silence from previous supporters.

It is deafening. You might label this “Holocaust aversion.” Human beings rarely ever face what they are capable of, something evident in the long-lingering dislike of Freud. Some “well-meant” individuals want to protect survivors from the very horrors they have experienced. How self-servingly odd.

In education, reading readiness, if I recall correctly, has to do with the child’s ability at a certain age and grade to be introduced to reading or to another level of reading. I suspect Holocaustphobes are not “ready.” Many of us cannot advance beyond Anne Frank’s outside-the-concentration-camp experience. (More than a few historians feel that Anne Frank’s diary is not part of Holocaust literature.)

Psychologically, many human beings suffer, with regard to the Holocaust, from arrested development. I have let out the genie from my powder keg. A writer can never control the consequences of what he says in print, the misinterpretations, the misunderstandings, or the lack of nuanced reading. Henry Thoreau, when Margaret Fuller read your “The Service” for The Dial, she complained, “I cannot read it through without pain.”

I also sense that I have touched upon several taboos. I am well aware that I rarely censor myself or hold back what I have to say. That is, I don’t send my work out to the cleaners. I am not a safe person to be around, in any case. Some people cover holes with stones; I unearth them for a look-see, call it characterological.


“The Haunted Shed” by David Aronson

(Read the SubtleTea interview with Aronson here.)

When I was a little kid, I loved ghost stories. Whenever I found myself in a library, ghost stories were the first things I looked for, and I read as many as I could get my hands on. As an adult, I don’t really understand what the appeal was, because nine times out of ten those tales of headless women and sleepers having the blankets pulled off of them by invisible hands in the middle of the night, would scare the living-bejeesus-shit-stuffing out of me. And then, I would obsess over the stories, re-assembling the most terrifying details in my imagination over and over again for days on end.

One would logically assume that this is not the kind of experience that a child would willingly subject themselves to, or repeatedly seek out, yet that’s exactly what I did.

The psychologist in me would like to think that these frightening stories and images were symbols representing traumatic, fear-inducing, real-life events that were floating around in the murky grotto of my subconscious, and that the compulsive reading of ghost stories was an unconscious attempt to stimulate the repressed fears in order to process them. It was a primitive form of cathartic therapy.

Yeah – that works.

One book in particular occupied a large portion of my childhood awareness. It was entitled Fifty Great Ghost Stories and I purchased it at the elementary school bookmobile. It was very thick and every one of its detailed and highly descriptive stories took place in the late 19th century.

The Victorian era was a world I was already familiar with from reading the Sherlock Holmes adventures by Arthur Conan Doyle, and it was very easy for me to get lost in the book’s Gothic landscape of crushed velvet and heavy drapery, shadowy corridors in dark mansions lit by candelabras, domestic servants and horse-drawn carriages, and young squires returning home from tours of the continent.

It must have been the end of the school year when I bought the book – fifth grade I believe – because I spent a large portion of that summer immersed in the gloomy, macabre world that it evoked. I sat in my room with the curtains drawn, reading and wallowing in stagnant pools of both romantically-tinged melancholy and garden-variety depression, alternating with overwhelming and uncontrollable feelings of being really creeped out.


It seems I was a Goth kid before there even was something called Goth; before the Cure purchased their first tubes of black lipstick and nail polish. It was a psychologically unhealthy situation to be sure. A lot of my depression grew out of a difficult and largely unsuccessful transition to a new school and new neighborhood where I felt like a complete outsider, and staying inside reading morbid ghost stories in isolation was not doing anything to improve my emotional state.

Halfway through the summer something shifted, and I was able to pull myself out of the house and into the sunshine. I sought out what few friends I had in the neighborhood and spent my time in communal play, like a healthy, well-adjusted child is supposed to, but my preoccupation with ghost stories still lingered.

There was an empty field near my house that my friends and I spent a lot of time in. It was actually rather small, but to our child’s perspective, it seemed enormous. The field was flanked by trees which blocked the surrounding suburban tract housing from view, and we could imagine that we were exploring in some forgotten wilderness far from civilization.

At the edge of this field stood a large shed. The shed had a small window and a door that resembled the front door of a house, which made it easy to imagine that someone, some hermit-like being, might actually live there, or had once lived there, since the shed seemed as if it hadn’t been used in years.

In a very short time, we had constructed an entire mythology around the shed and its imagined former inhabitant. We tried to satisfy our fevered curiosity by peeking in the window, expecting to see ancient but still intact tables and chairs and a bed, but the view was completely obscured by dust and dirt and cobwebs.

There was something eerie and unsettling about the big, house-like shed, and my friends and I were both fascinated and scared of it at the same time, and the summer passed with the shed’s mystery persistently skulking about the periphery of our young minds.

Then, on a cloudy day late in the summer, when signs of autumn were just beginning to harsh our Tom Sawyer barefoot buzz with the threat of a brand new school year, something happened which amped the shed mythos up to War of the Worlds panic proportions.

My friends and I were farting around in the field, looking at the clouds and chasing butterflies and putting grasshoppers into jars, when a gnarled, rickety and very thin old man suddenly materialized behind us, seemingly out of thin air, startling us and making us jump.

The man had an extremely wrinkled face, like a desiccated prune that had fallen into the back of a cupboard and been left to fossilize, and his beady, yellow eyes exuded an aura of malevolence.

“What are you doing here? You don’t belong here!” he shrieked. His raspy, high-pitched voice was strangely asexual; it could have belonged to either a man or a woman, and the queerness of it sent shivers up my spine.

“You shouldn’t be here! Get out of here!” he screamed, with all the hysteria of someone defending themselves from mortal danger. He moved towards us with a shaky, spastic gait, and swung his cane at us wildly like someone batting at an attacking bee, and we stumbled all over each other like the Three Stooges to get away from him.

Later that day, our imaginations went into overdrive. The old man had been so bizarre and evil and freaky…so inhuman…his voice so otherworldly…like a wailing banshee… And hadn’t he just appeared out of nowhere? There could only be one explanation. It was the ghost of the man who had once lived in the shed. Yep. That’s what it was alright.

So hungry were we for something strange and mysterious to occur in our bland, sanitized, suburban world that we didn’t even entertain the notion that it could have been a real flesh and blood person who we simply failed to notice sneaking up on us; some crotchety old coot that we’d never seen before because he usually stayed inside his house watching game shows on TV and eating soft foods that wouldn’t foul up his dentures and who needed to vent his spleen over being old and weak and impotent. Nope. It was definitely a ghost.

We stopped going to the field after that. We were too spooked, and for a while we re-hashed the story of our encounter with the ghost of the shed, each time embellishing it with more ghostly, supernatural details, giving ourselves an adrenaline rush to equal any preteen sugar high. But like any addictive activity, our tolerance level soon peaked, and the story just wasn’t scary anymore. And besides, school was starting, bringing with it newer and bigger stimulations.

But there was a part of me that didn’t want to give up the ghost, so to speak, and so I started making up stories. I told my friends that I’d been walking past the field and seen the ghost of the old man, illuminated by a supernatural light, inside the shed folding clothes, or something ridiculous like that; that I’d seen him wandering around the field, digging something up with a shovel, or possibly burying something with a shovel. I can’t remember all the silly stories I concocted, but I’m sure that the details came straight out of Fifty Great Ghost Stories.

I don’t think my friends ever really believed me. They were tired of the ghost game. But I got so involved in my own stories that I actually began to believe them. It was a strange kind of self-hypnosis, and for years afterwards, in my mind, I was convinced that I had actually seen a ghost in or around the shed in the field. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that the spell wore off, and I thought back to that summer and said to myself “Oh yeah. I made all that shit up.”

It had been my longest sojourn in the land of the unliving, and although I made a few brief visits as a teenager, like the time I had strep throat and spent a week with a high fever, reading nothing but ghost stories and listening to the Doors’ Strange Days, their darkest album, and putting myself into a very disturbing head-space, my eagerness to go there diminished, and by the time I was a young adult, I had no more need or desire for walking those gloomy corridors.

My inner psychologist feels that in some strange way, I must have identified with the ghostly protagonists of those stories. After all, they were unhappy, earth-bound spirits trapped in some stressful or traumatic situation, and that’s exactly how I felt in the fifth grade: trapped.

Nowadays, when I go to the library, I usually peruse the occult section for books on astrology and my other various esoteric interests, and I often flirt with the idea of cracking open one of the many books of true ghost stories. All those ghostly women in white, wringing their hands and searching for their lost children; the little boys and girls peering forlornly out of the windows of the rooms where they were murdered; the brave young men defending buildings that no longer exist – they’re all whispering to me “Come back, David. We miss you…”

Perhaps I’ll have a chance to visit them on the day that I die, making a brief stop in their tragic shadow-world, before my soul moves on to the next adventure.

– 2006

“Ten Thousand Lakes” by Kimberly Peterson

Kimberly lives in Ontario, Canada.


An arthritic hip brought me here; water aerobics and swimming laps acting as the panacea to replace the failure of physiotherapy and massage. Self-doubt flutters around in my rib-cage like a trapped moth until I see the braces and surgical scars of the other women waiting for class. I belong in this group.

I read the posted signs, mostly the usual fare: Swim at your own risk; No diving. A few stand out, one which outlines three lanes for swimming laps and one for everything else. Another sign explains proper pool attire. The diagram singles out the modest swimwear that Muslim women wear and lists allowable fabrics: nylon, spandex. Not very welcoming. Do other materials contaminate the pool? I wear a two piece swimsuit somewhere between the skimpy bikinis of youth and Muslim modesty.

I am encouraged by the words of a classmate with hip pain following my path. “Months of physiotherapy with no improvement. After whiplash, I swam every day. The water healed me.”

Alternating between aerobics class and swimming laps, I cherish the clean scent of chlorine. While I lumber along on land, like a seal my body slices through sumptuous ripples slurping against the concrete border. I relish the strength in my arms that thrusts me forward.

I seek the rejuvenation, the harmony of body and surroundings, portrayed in a picture mounted above the pool’s shallow end. A youthful woman arches her back as if to cup the crescent moon while air bubbles surround her. She trusts the air in her lungs to lift her to the surface after her dive.

Today, I occupy this harmonious place until a woman cuts across my lane in clear violation of pool rules. I’m plunged back into my aching hip and the cool water. How selfish. On the shallow end of my next lap, I notice the concentration on her face, her modest swimsuit, that she is buoyed by both a floatation belt and pool noodle while she struggles to dog-paddle along the wall. Another lap and I am forced to stand up as we nearly collide. Although irritated, I smile.

This provides an opening for her. She asks me how I float on my back. I am unable to explain this, I just fall onto my back and the water supports me. She asks how I propel forward in this position. I demonstrate the lemniscate shapes I carve in the water with my hands. She shares her story of emigrating from an arid land of conflict with three young children. Shortly after they arrived in this country, they encountered their first pool with a slide. Her three-year old, believing all slides end in the sand, managed to squirm away to race down that slide. Although she could not swim, she plunged into the deep end and miraculously dragged him to the surface to hand him to safety. She cannot explain how she managed this. When the water began to swallow her, she thought, Allah, I am not afraid to die, but now is not my time. I still need to raise my children.

She woke up in the intensive care unit at the beginning of another journey, this one a month-long path to return home. She tells me, “People see dying as difficult. Death comes easily, the challenge lies in living.”

“So brave of you to return to a pool, but why?” I ask. “Water holds the power to harm or heal. Now that we live in a land of ten thousand lakes, I must learn to swim as an example for my children.” Her accent hints at struggles beyond learning to swim. I recall imagines of cities reduced to rubble, of families fleeing down dusty roads only to find barbed wire borders blocking the path to safety. Why begrudge her a few feet at the end of my borrowed lane?

On the way out of the pool, I stop to read the eight by ten-inch plastic-coated sheet titled “Pool Configuration Lane Options” buried amongst a multitude of other instructions. Difficult to find and confusing to read for anyone new to the language. As I pay more attention to the languages spoken around me, my hip pain diminishes in significance. I watch for opportunities to help newcomers find buoyance in their adopted home. The immigrant women I encounter remind me that to receive the rejuvenation offered in a land surrounded by thousands of lakes, you have to wade into the water.    

selected BOOKOLAGE book reviews

Bookolage is the sister site of SubtleTea, featuring review of new/current books. Follow Bookolage on Twitter here.





Special interview: Nick Bunker, author of YOUNG BENJAMIN FRANKLIN – THE BIRTH OF INGENUITY


mini-review of ELEVATION by Stephen King

CREATIVE QUEST by Questlove w/Ben Greenman





mini-review of SEA PRAYER by Khaled Hosseini





















David Herrle reviews THE ACADIANS by Angel Uriel Perales

The underground Georgian poet/spoken-worder Mikel K wrote one of the best lines ever: “People are defective.” Right on, K, right on. Not only is this fundamental defectiveness self-evident, but it’s always been and always will be presented by artists of all kinds, which can get pretty tiresome if one tends to tune in to the basic atrociousness of Earth and feels the burden of the unbearable heaviness of being. However, just as yet another Titanic show or movie must contain the morbid core facts and the inevitable sinking, the goodness in the art lies in how it’s shown and how the story is told.

The people in Angel Uriel Perales’ The Acadians (Rumrazor Books) are defective. They aren’t all devoid of decent qualities, but almost all of them, some more than others, aren’t really likable. “Do these characters end up being despicable to each other?” Perales asks in a recent poeticdiversity interview. “Do they seem like I plucked them all out from a basket of deplorables? Yes.” The book is a collection of paralleling and intersecting character sketches or vignettes that form a brief but memorable debut novella. As a fan of coincidental/subplot fiction such as Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, Burt Hirschfeld’s Fire Island, Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, William Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together, Hugo’s Les Miserables and some Dickens stuff, Edgar Lee Masters’ poetic Spoon River Anthology, as well as Julien Duvivier’s Tales of Manhattan, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, Altman’s Short Cuts and Gosford Park, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel and other anthology films, I was receptive to The Acadians from the outset.

At the beginning of Grand Hotel a Dr. Otternschlag says, “Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” Finally, after the interwoven situations, encounters and consequences of the characters are shown for close to two hours, the doctor morosely remarks, “A hundred doors leading to one hall. No one knows anything about the person next to them. And when you leave, someone occupies your room, lies in your bed. That’s the end.”

Similarly, in The Acadians a prologue-like opening section’s establishment of a pastoral Louisiana setting gives readers an implicit reminder to remember the here-and-gone nature of humans against the backdrop of impersonal perpetuity, the ultimate interchangeability of individuals who rise and fall in “suburbia primordial”:

…Flowers in the median, flowers grow and die in the median. The lawn mowers break down and need to be replaced. The mail boxes eventually sag or become loose on their bases and need to be tightened or replaced. Mail carriers drink and get old and have heart attacks and die and need to be replaced…

…The wind, nothing to be said about the wind, the wind blows like the wind blows.

Later, near the end of the book, embedded in a sullen quasi-denouement, the “suburbia primordial” motif shows up again, following a bottle of Mexican Coke from someone’s hand to its burial under canal silt years later, continuing the theme of cyclical existence: “Wildflowers in the fields, wildflowers grow and die in the fields unseen.” I wish this had been put in an actual epilogue, but the epigraphed final stanza of Charles Lamb’s wistful “The Old Familiar Faces” really ends the book, its final line summing up every human life: “All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.”

Within this larger existential context appear comparatively tiny episodes full of desperate emotion, sleazy duplicity, petty striving, caprice and entropy. Parochial bluster and desire, failure and demise. After all, “the wind blows like the wind blows.” Perhaps to emphasize the brevity of individuals’ dreams and affairs, most of the text is narrated in present tense, a choice I might’ve avoided. I’ve never been comfortable with present-tense books, except for Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Tom Robbins’ underrated Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (which also is told in second person, no less), so my bias against it is not specific to The Acadians. I just think the “immediacy” thing works better for poetry.

As I mentioned before, most of the characters aren’t very attractive. For instance, Grady is an unscrupulous check pusher who was crippled by a motorcycle accident ultimately set into motion by his shooting a buck in its backside one morning. Now, in his infirmity and depression, he indulges in a nasty porn habit in spite of his dead dick. The porn isn’t necessarily nasty, but the habit is. Let’s just say that the narration about Grady and his behavior physically repulses me. There’s much interesting psychoanalytical stuff surrounding his impotence and his incorrigible disrespect for women. First, there’s a pastime of using pages from porno magazines as shooting targets (first with a gun, later with arrows): “He annihilated all those old playmates with his little Roberts rifle.” Then there’s a dream of black snakes dropping on him from a tree, and a black snake emerging continuously from his (dead?) mother’s mouth “forever.” Finally, of course, who doesn’t think a motorcycle represents a potent penis?

Swinish Grady is cared for by resentful Evie, who’s horrified to realize her imprisonment: “I’m really stuck with him now. I can’t leave now. Fuck my life.” Yet…she gets off on giving Grady penile injections, mounting his erection “fast and mercilessly” and pretending to be bored even though ecstasy is the actual result for her. Eventually, Evie takes advantage of Grady’s disability and her role as caregiver to become qualified as an LPN, to improve her own life, not his.

Teenager Dottie is fucking Ernie Willits (a really winner, I say infinitely sarcastically) behind the back of “The Mademoiselle,” her enviable older sister. The story begins soon after anal sex between Dottie and Ernie, and there’s a blush-free description of her method of accommodating him: “[S]he had to imagine she was squeezing a turd out.” Though she grits and bears it, without hope of orgasm for herself, Dottie has more than one soft spot (ahem) for Ernie, which is shown with perfection in these lines: “She wiped herself and looked at the paper and saw a weird mixture of brown and white spume and froth but no blood. A wave of affection for Ernie washes over her.”

They both fear accidental pregnancy and even have a premonition of its inevitability, but the somewhat dimwitted couple continues having unprotected sex anyway. “They don’t stop fucking because they are both fuckers and fucking is what fuckers do.” Of course, Dottie gets pregnant. I’ll just say that things don’t end well for the triangle.

Also fucking Ernie is Seraphine (also referred to Sara and Sarafina), a “mulatta” who is driven by drug addiction to have sex with the “bastard.” Drugs are a factor in her being Grady’s mistress as well, but she has a romantic history with “the Grady man,” though her love has dwindled since the motorcycle accident paralyzed him:

She loved the feel of his motorcycle between her legs. She loved his blow and his cocaine. She loved to blow him on blow again and again until he blew out his back speeding around that bend. Then Sarafina could not blow Grady again. But she could bug him about the blow that was left…With every visit Grady would grab her tits and kiss her and make some jokes and they would do some blow but her feelings were gone.

Her degradation ever increasing, Seraphine ends up in Delcroix Island and resorts to thieving and scavenging. Next she drifts over to the Iberville Projects, where a pimp named Remy “Rotgut” Gautrot thinks she’s horning in on his whore territory and “making his girls come up short.” By the time Seraphine gets to Houma, Rotgut has her maimed, and she’s thrown into an estuary to drown. One of the best parts of The Acadians is a harrowing sequence of Seraphine’s lucky survival.

Perhaps the most problematic character in the book is Dr. Muhammad Ismail Afridi, popularly known as “Dr. Easy.” Not only is he attractive to women (Evie, for one, is enamored of him), but he’s adept at a deception that at first seems benign and softly self-defensive but is twisted into a chilling strategy later on. Afridi’s knowing “how to play the dynamics between two worlds” warps into a psychological situation in which “multiple universes rage war inside him. He is conflicted by religious ideologies, some ingrained from childhood, the rest imposed by culture and collision and hate.” Earlier in the book Perales makes a blunt statement against the veracity of Christianity, which is true to his unapologetic, bare-wire atheism, and he also refuses to tiptoe around the subject of Islam, writing “Islam is also all bullshit.”

Bullshit or not, Islam dominates today’s news cycles, since it seems that its terrorism in many parts of the globe has bumped up to the nth degree. With each almost daily – if not daily – Islamist atrocity, an alarming number of people cling to denial driftwood, refusing to admit that the problem lies within the ideology itself. Perales turns this on its head and does what I suspected was coming when Afridi was first introduced in the book. After what might be an inadequate transition in attitude, he entertains a fantasy of picking off highway drivers with a rifle and causing “murder and mayhem,” letting the urge grow and grow toward realization. While riding in his car, fawning Evie repeats the familiar politically correct mantra when she assures him: “Don’t worry not all Muslims are terrorists.” Meanwhile, we know his actual inner desire. The duplicity of countless jihadist moles is presented quite chillingly in this line: “This perfectly innocuous statement crawled under his skin and he began to see the cursed woman as haram, spoilt meat, and traveling in the car with her made him sick.”

Another woman who’s attracted to “Dr. Easy” is Jenny/Genevieve/”Genevieve from the block.” Falling into pregnancies with the wrong men again and again, mother of a mentally retarded or autistic son, Terry, and a bit of a loser, Jenny has her own deadly attitude transition – except this one is deadly for her and no one else. The catalyst is disappointment over the Doc being sweet on Evie at the hospital: “Something destructive burned a hole in Jenny’s fat chest, some internecine war, and she could feel all the grace escaping from her.” With suicide on her mind, Jenny’s despair provides us with what is probably the warmest passage in the book. She falls asleep in her running car in the garage, the toxic smoke fills the air, and her son Terry interrupts the inevitable because he wants his mother to read him a book about Pinocchio:

She looks at her child with blood-rimmed eyes, her sweet, lovable, innocent child, who just saved her life, her dumb, retarded, maybe autistic, wonderful child, touched as he is, who only wants her to read to him about The Terrible Dogfish, touched as he is by the finger of God.

The second warmest part in The Acadians is made up of three lines of Grady’s Freudian black-snake/mother dream: “Mother, catch my eyes. His mother laughs. She lets go of his arms and laughs.” I’m not sure why these lines affect me so much, but they do. What I really like about Perales is his ability to go from the perverse to the tender so smoothly.

Speaking of tenderness, the only wholly likable character in this “basket of deplorables” (or bucket of defectives) is Father Noé-Cyr, who, though he secretly considers Grady’s quadriplegia to be just comeuppance for his crime (particularly a bounced check with which he’d stiffed the church), is just a genuinely kind man. Concealing his homosexuality for obvious reasons, he’s attracted to a parishioner named Charlie Rochefort but never acts on his lust. Perales turns a cliché on its head again by sparing the Father the usual hypocrisy and, worse, pedophilia. Instead, we learn of his past experimentation with his cousin Benny, which isn’t a pride-worthy memory. “They learned to touch and explore each other barely moving,” goes the flashback narration, metaphorizing his current “paralysis” of identity and desire.

Father Noé-Cyr provides the third warmest passage in the book. After he hears Evie’s confession, he (or the narrator himself?) says, “May you accomplish all that your little heart desires. Dream too much and bind your senses. Get thee far away from home until that faraway is your home.”

The Acadians also showcases Perales’ taste for irreverent humor, and the whole book does have a strong comedic vibe. For example, the Deerpants Training Hospital’s full name is As the Deer Panteth for the Water Dispensary for the Infirm (taken from the Bible’s 42nd Psalm). Also, short author/narrator asides are interspersed throughout the book: “A Word About Karma,” “A Word About Prayer,” “A Word About Islam,” “A Word About Ben & Jerry’s Cake Batter Flavored Ice Cream,” “A Word About Mitsou, the Singer,” A Word About Joe,” A Word About the Vixen 21 Motorcoach” and “A Word on the Omnipotency of God.” Most of the Words are humorous, such as bashing the batter-flavored Ben & Jerry’s as tasting “like shit,” but the one that denies God’s existence stabs with a profound, disturbing statement: “We are alone. We are afraid.” As if that’s not enough to shake the soul, I was left with the grim notion that some of us might die, as one of The Acadians’ characters does, while watching the shitty 10,000 B.C. remake.

“20 Questions” by Rachel Belth


“You’ll have to guess who we saw at Kohl’s.” This is how Mom greets Dad today when he comes home from work. She leaves it at that for now. She’s still browning the meat for the chili.

“Okay!” he says, pecking her on the lips. He sets his lunchbox on the counter and goes into the study where Rebecca and Caleb are studying. He watches over their shoulders momentarily and sorts the papers on his desk until dinner.

Mom flips the piece of frozen ground chuck. The raw meat sizzles as she scrapes off the top layer of browned meat with a spoon, a rhythmic clack against the bottom of the skillet.

It’s my job to make the cornbread. If I start the moment we finish unloading the groceries from the car onto the kitchen laminate, it will be finished just in time to eat. I work two ingredients at a time, briskly to the pantry for flour, sugar. Take them back and grab baking powder, salt. Again for cornmeal, vegetable oil. To the fridge for eggs, milk. Whip with a wooden spoon, pour into the glass baking dish, scoot Mom aside to slide it into the still pre-heating oven.


At dinner, everyone’s quiet, the clink of silverware the only sound. Mom leans forward on her hands to shift pressure to a new part of her lower back; Dad leans back in his chair. Rebecca sits on both knees so she has farther to slouch, resting her head in her hand. She watches indifferently the curl of steam rising from her bowl.

Caleb is wearing a bright-green Bobby Labonte T-shirt. He habitually keeps a stash of NASCAR magazines and used Kleenex next to his spot at the table. He almost reclines while he eats, his entire right bicep parallel to his plate, fist to temple. His placemat is strewn with cornbread crumbs and drops of chili. He has opened one of the magazines next to him, occasionally turning a page with his greasy thumb.

Dad tries to break the silence. He looks at Mom across the table and says cheerfully, “Bill Deitsch gave me some more work today.”

I never understand why he thinks we’re interested about his time at work. I have never met any of his coworkers; I have only their names to imagine what they look like. I imagine Bill Deitsch to be a cheerful, gray-haired fellow. Maybe because “Deitsch” rhymes with “peach.”

“Good,” says Mom. She also does not know how to respond when Dad talks about work. She stares, expressionless, at a knot on the oak table.

Rebecca looks at me over her glasses. I roll my eyes in reply. Dad is staring at his bowl, so he doesn’t notice we’re making fun of him.

He tries again. “I’ll be testing a new radio. Greg Cantrell might be helping me.”

I imagine Greg Cantrell to be intense, a man who lives on the balls of his feet.

Mom takes a bite of chili, concentrating on the knot. And another bite. “Will that be a problem,” she says finally, the words so hard to come by that they don’t have the energy to form an actual question.

Rebecca coughs, a single faint thing, just a reminder of her presence. Caleb flips a magazine page.

Dad thinks and says, “Testing the radio or working with Greg Cantrell?”

Mom pauses, spoon midair, as if she had asked the question out of obligation to make conversation, as if she had asked it without knowing what she was asking or caring about the answer. “Working with Greg Cantrell.”

I sigh and lean back in my chair.

Dad takes a couple bites, thinking. “I think it will be alright. He’s getting a little better…at working with people.”

Caleb reaches for seconds, spoons the chili, with his elbow still on the table, dribbling sauce on the hot pad beneath the skillet. He drags the bowl back to his place.

“Is there math today?” says Dad, looking at Mom. He holds the raisin container to his chest, one hand inside, massaging the raisins apart and dumping them on his salad. He turns to Rebecca. “What kind of dressing are we having?”

“Ranch.” She stabs a piece of romaine with her fork. It’s a tradition of theirs, to have the same salad dressing, a tradition so old no one even tries to remember how it started.

“Rebecca and Caleb have math. It’s on your desk,” says Mom.

“Can I open the Doritos?” says Caleb.

Mom nods. “Okay.”

Caleb goes to the pantry. I neatly cut another piece of cornbread, press it against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, savoring the grainy sweetness. Finally, Mom looks at Dad and says offhandedly, “Oh, you still need to guess who we saw.”

“Right.” Dad’s face brightens, though he doesn’t actually smile. He sets down his fork. “Where did you say you saw them?”

“Kohl’s,” says Rebecca, sitting a little straighter. “We saw two people.”

“Let’s see…someone from Westridge?”


“Someone from North Park?”


“Someone from our Sunday school?”

“Yes,” says Rebecca.

“Well…” I say.

“One of them is from our Sunday school?”


“Is this person a male?”


“Is she married?”

“Does she have kids?”

“How many kids does she have?”

“Dad. It has to be a yes-or-no question.”

“Oh, right.”

Mom chortles softly.

“So, does she have more than three kids?”

“More than four?”

“So, four kids?”

“Four kids…in our Sunday school…are the kids in the youth group?”

“Are some of the kids in the youth group?”

“Some of the kids in the youth group…four kids…in our Sunday school…the Kraffts?”

“Which ones?”

“Mrs. Krafft.”

“And Anna?”


“Mrs. Krafft and Amanda!” he says, smiling as if this is a delightful surprise and leaning back in his chair.

“Very good. How are they doing?”

And before long, we fall back into the relative silence of spoons against bowls.