The essential function of a home is shelter—a place to feel safe and warm and dry. This winter we learned just how fragile our homes are and how much our shelter depends on the interconnected systems snaking underground and overhead, delivering heat and water and fuel and power throughout the city.
A once-in-a-generation storm, starkly beautiful, kept us indoors for days. Snow fell. We delighted in its novelty; the crunch under our boots, the cold glitter of frozen water on the lake. Forgive our ignorance. Ice slicked the streets. Lights went out. Taps dried up. The heat seeped through our walls as we huddled under coats and blankets, too cold to sleep.
Our devices, so high-tech and modern, lost their links to the web that envelops us all. We couldn’t work or call loved ones to tell them we were all right. We grew thirsty. We grew tired of eating out of cans—tuna and soup and beans—camping food. We grew weary of wrapping and re-wrapping our pipes with towels, warming them with hair dryers, praying that they please don’t burst.
We didn’t dare complain because we were lucky. Others suffered. Others died. Like our homes, we are fragile, dependent on interconnected systems. Those systems failed us—two hundred and ten people lost their lives. We don’t dare complain. We are lucky.
Katerina Tsasis is a marketing consultant and writer based in Austin, Texas. Her essays have been published in the New York Times and Spillwords. When she’s not working, you can find Katerina making art or out in nature.
“It’s Christmas Eve, George. Why are you so down?” asked Steve, friend and fellow colleague at Allerton General Hospital.
“I wish I could feel the spirit of Christmas. With all the long hours I’ve been putting in, I haven’t been able to appreciate the true meaning. It’s bothering me.”
“Midnight mass will change that. Listening to the traditional carols by the choir and orchestra, and you’ll feel like one of the three kings. It does it for me every year.”
“Perhaps…what time will you get to church?”
“11:30. I have to get a good seat, you know. My brother and I will meet you in the narthex.”
“See you there.” They parted ways at the hospital parking garage.
George Corwin and his longtime friend Steve were medical interns at the hospital for the last two years, taking up residency for their doctor licenses. George worked in the children’s wing, assisting the pediatricians on staff, while Steve supported the OBGYN physicians in the maternity wing. It was 9:30 p.m. and George’s plan was to get home, grab a quick bite, shower, and head to church, but had to make a stop at the super shopping center to pick up a few baby items for the church’s infant drive.
Along the route, George viewed many shop storefronts showcasing the signs of the season. He saw displays of faux white snow, reindeers, snowmen, and sparkling white lights festooning the glass frames. The holiday decorations did little to alter his cloud of melancholy.
He arrived at the All You Can Shop super center at 10 p.m. and the only parking available was by the auto shop on the side of the building. He pulled into one of the spots, rushed through the automatic doors, and made a mad dash toward the baby aisle, dodging a swarm of restless last-minute shoppers and a multi-colored, twinkling lighted Christmas display, featuring an inflatable, six feet tall Santa. He grabbed a pack of onesies, rattles, and diapers, as if he were on a time sensitive shopping mission. The jaunt lasted twenty-four minutes, twenty of it on a long checkout line that extended into women’s sleepwear. He exited the store, got to his vehicle, and popped the trunk when a man approached him from the woods beyond the parking lot. George quickly slammed the trunk and took a few steps back with clenched fists and an elevated heartbeat.
“I am sorry to bother you, Sir. Would you have some towels? My friend’s lady is having a baby and we need linen,” rasped the soiled face, bearded, weather-beaten man that wore a torn, hooded sweatshirt, and tattered faded jeans.
“A woman is having a baby? In the woods? Why isn’t she at the hospital?”
“We are homeless, we have no money. Please, there isn’t much time.”
George paused a moment, searched the man’s features for clues of deceit, and came up empty.
“Uh, I think I may have a few towels in the trunk,” George stammered. Please, step back, I need some space.” The man respectfully obliged. George pushed aside the shopping bags and dug in the back, behind a few cardboard boxes and retrieved two worn, but clean towels. “Here you go,” he said, skeptically handing them over.
“Thank you,” the man said softly, and scurried back into the woods. George watched him disappear between the moonlit trees and into the wild, chilly, Southern night. With curiosity peaked, George wrestled with the notion of following the man. He slowly crept over the curb and took several leaf crunching steps until he parted branches to follow the trail made by the man. He turned back to see the store lights and made a mental reference point to track his way back. The man was still visible from the glow of the parking lot lights but his silhouette was fading. George quickened his pace but remained undetected.
Suddenly, the man broke into a run. George pursued in a jog until he saw a small fire made from branches toward where the man was heading. He turned back to see a faint glow of the super center. Suddenly, he heard a woman screaming over several people trying to comfort her. He remained out of sight as the man approached the expectant mother. George pulled out his cell phone from his jeans pocket.
“Steve, a homeless woman is having a baby in the woods behind the All You Can Shop. Get down here,” he urged, in a voice just above a whisper.
“What? Are you kidding me?”
“I’m not kidding. A woman is having a baby about a quarter mile south of the store. Get down here quick. You might be able to help.”
“I just got out of the shower. It’ll be about twenty minutes before I get there. Are you sure about this?”
“I am watching it right now. I will meet you on the side by the auto shop. You’ll see my car. Hurry.” George ended the call and watched as the woman’s screams intensified. He quickly retreated to the parking lot to meet Steve. Minutes later, Steve and his brother Carl arrived in an SUV. They got out, with Steve holding his doctor’s bag, and Carl holding a box of linen and cloths.
“Through here.I hope we can help her.”
George led them into the woods when an impulse halted his progress. He ran back to his car, popped the trunk and retrieved the bag of newborn items he had bought from the store.
They rushed into the woods and within three minutes, were within earshot of the group of vagabonds. The pregnant woman was no longer pregnant as she clutched her newborn boy, now wrapped in a blood-soaked towel. The meek turned to find the trio encroaching on their area.
“We work at the hospital. Can we help?” shouted George. The man closest to the woman, whom they learned was the father, motioned them forward. They closed in to see the woman in tears, tenderly showering the baby’s head with kisses. The fire’s flicker illuminated her damp features. Carl offered her fresh linens while Steve asked to tend to the new mom. The woman handed off the baby to George for his examination.
“Our baby will give us strength to live our lives better. He is our hope,” she exclaimed, wiping her wet, glossed face.
“We will make it. I will get a job and we will find a place to live. I will be a good father to our child,” reassured the new dad, tenderly stroking her stringy, oily hair.
An aura of peaceful tranquility ruled over them until one of the homeless gently hummed “Silent Night” on his harmonica. The new dad knelt beside his mate for an extended embrace. George softly swayed the baby in his arms in rhythm with the melody, and studied the infant’s smiling, easy slumber. He returned the baby back into his mother’s arms and watched misty eyed as he felt the love between the new family. He reached for the shopping bag and laid the infant items before them.
The three men wished the homeless group good tidings and made their way back to the parking lot.
“12:30, looks like we’ve missed the midnight mass,” said George.
“But it looks like you found your spirit of Christmas, my friend. Why don’t we get together tomorrow for the Christmas morning mass?” asked Steve.
“Sounds great,” George beamed. “Merry Christmas, Steve. Merry Christmas, Carl.”
“Merry Christmas, George.”
George drove home with an opened moon roof, intermittingly stealing glances at the clear, star filled sky with the wonderful reflection of the night that smiled on his Christmas wish.
* * *
Jon Moray has been writing short fiction for over a decade and his work had appeared in several online and print markets. When not working and being a devoted family man, he enjoys sports, music, the ocean, and SCI-FI/Fantasy media.
This evening, Szra isn’t thinking of G, or what happened when he found out about her past, or how much she trusted him, or if shopwindow glass stands for reflection, as in a mirror, or is synonym for brittle, sharp, hurting.
Streets in Olgavy intersect at perpendicular angles. Angles are always right — not the turns. Szra knows. She’s turned wrong many times in the city she calls home.
Here, shopping arcades are in the sunlit boulevards. The rich, touristy, in straw hats haggling with hawkers, the local crowd in shady corners.
Szra, due date imminent, begins determining baby names as she crosses the Broadway — it could be Alex, Joye, Menr — if future is kind, her child will learn to live with either of them. She steps into JoyLand Mall; sweeps away the jarring thoughts and enters the Kikini Grocery and All megastore.
Szra isn’t forgetful; she’s jotted down a shopping list, takes it out from her bag. Just as she remembers things from her past like postcard images — the bulbous eyes, handheld mirrors, and tin butter containers. They haunt her everywhere. She skips the racks of imported cosmetics because of the tins, also the pet food shelves with the dog’s protruding eyes.
She rolls the shopping cart past tourists who consider this therapy, past decorative flower bunches, a middle-aged couple arguing over crochet or knit bikini.
‘Aye, why don’t you just go ho-o-me?’ A tall man with putrid breath, jutting yellow teeth, hollers; stretching the last word to almost a whistle, even as he swipes an American credit card at the kiosk.
Home? Szra knows the sort, what they mean. She pays with soiled cash and walks out.
She lingers in front of the shop windows, in front of Burger King, sees her reflection in the glass. Notices the loud video playing, the gaudy colors of the youngster’s shirts as they bend over the steel railing or come up the escalator like rising up in life. She is a youngster who hates Malls. If it weren’t for these fast-sprouting-social-gathering-places, she’d never have met G. Yet she visits as if pulled by attraction, her eyes searching for something she cannot name.
Stopping before the Calvin Klein window, she wonders what it’d take to buy something for herself. Wonders if G was splurging on his new girlfriend this moment somewhere here. How she hates herself for thinking of him, again.
Gathering her shopping bags, she snatches herself away and out in the bustling street. Makes her way past giant posters of Hollywood stars, neon lights, and stalls where toasted buns are being halved, smeared with generous dollops from rusted-at-the-corners smuggled-in foreign butter containers she used to pry open for her father before deveining the shrimps in their stall at the beach. Just before the tsunami. The white men demanded, ‘Got something? Fresh, exotic? Show us!’ Wasn’t only the shrimps that were on display for sale. The buyer and she would soon be in the same ventilation-less room for as much time as he’d have paid her father for.
Bulbous eyes watch her as she climbs the Portuguese villa’s spiraling wrought iron stairs, clutching the railing to balance her increasingly heavy body, feeling a tad dizzy. ‘Eighteen minutes’ he barks. He keeps time when the girls are let out. At other times, he’s pinning numbers to the rooms and handing out chits of paper to the connoisseurs of ‘tropical life’.
A man strolls past, groping her back when she’s unlocking her room. She’s used to these now, after years of catering to roving tourists idea of cheap relaxation.
Inside her room, it is pitch dark, except the glow of the tiny ornate handheld mirrors she’s collected over the years — silver ones, tempered glass-framed, ivory carved.
Mirrors — Mum used to say — they’re afterlife passages.
Only if Szra could find the one in which G and she are trapped forever, together, like in a selfie, the glitzy lights of Bargain Shop in the background.
* * *
Mandira Pattnaik’s work has appeared in Best Small Fictions, Bacopa Literary, Press53, Citron Review, Watershed Review, Passages North, DASH, and Timber Journal among others. Pushcart x 2, Best of the Net and Best Microfictions nominated, her work has received high commendations in Litro Contest 2021 and CRAFT Contest 2020.
You won’t say it a third time because you know she isn’t there.
The door closes and you still feel the handle in your palm. It’s a touch memory.You think of it and realize every time you touch a door from now on you’ll think of the empty house.
The floor creaks and you step past the foyer.You’ve always hated the groan of the wood.And you hate yourself for not fixing it.You promised you would.
Something that sounds like water dripping emanates from the end of the hall.Maybe the half bathroom sink.Otherwise, it’s soundless.You’ve never experienced this level of quiet before, not in this house.
Janie isn’t on the phone or walking up the staircase with a basketful of laundry.Stella isn’t singing loudly or running up and down the hall with her tap shoes on.Those scratch the floor, you always say.Stella tells you, you ought to see me tap.
And Mick, your three-year-old, isn’t laughing when he sees you, or running to you and hugging your leg before punching your scrotum with his curled up, preschooler fist.
Instead, it’s like a tomb, like a mausoleum.The only thing dead is your marriage you realize as you set your messenger bag on the table near the bottom of the stairs.And you realize you had been forbidden from putting your bag there in the past.“It’s ugly”.And you feel a sense of pride in being able to do that.
The water is still dripping, and you make a mental note to look at it later.Janie has left a kitchen light on.For a moment, you think she is still there, and you walk down the hall hopeful yet guarded.
If she’s there, you’ll smile sheepishly and say you’re sorry, ignoring the pain she’s caused you, too.If she’s not there, you’re pretty sure there’s still a pint of cookies n’ crème ice cream in the freezer.
She’s not there and you turn the light off as it’s not dusk yet.You look for a note on the counter, the dining table, and the refrigerator.There is nothing other than what was already there.A pizza place menu, a drawing Mick did, magnets you picked up on the last family trip (this one the Smithsonian).
Maybe you should have left, you think then.And you feel embarrassed, like someone is listening to your head, an invisible entity ready to write an unauthorized biography of your thought life.
A half-eaten banana lays on the counter near the sink.That would be Mick’s.You absently pick it up, breaking off the brown exposed part, and eat the rest. You feel close to your son, though he could be far away.
Janie, you say again.Knowing she’s not there.Not hiding, not anywhere near you.
Her mother’s parents live three hours south, and you think she’ll head there.You picture them living in the guest house Roger always offered them.Never you; Roger never liked you.
You see the message light flicker on the machine.You wonder why they didn’t call your cell, and you realize Janie could have left it on the machine itself, bypassing a phone call which would risk your answering it.
You hit the Play button and brace yourself for Janie’s voice.Or Stella’s; she liked to leave voice memos like that.
But you hear a real message.It’s the dental office reminding you of your upcoming root canal.You realize your life feels like a root canal: drilled down, excavated, and maybe hollowed out.And very painful.
You open the refrigerator to see if there’s food, not even surprised you feel hungry despite everything.
Some leftover Chicken Lo Mein sits in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid.It will do and you heft it from its shelf and put the whole thing in the microwave for a minute and thirty.While you wait, you look at the backyard.
The wind blows the wooden swings on the playground set you put up two years ago, and you imagine Stella on it.Mick is too small but tries anyway.
It seems wise to ask yourself where it all went wrong.But you know.
It wasn’t a surprise. You talked about it.Janie talked about it.And in their cavernous bedrooms, Mick and Stella heard about it.You miss them then just as the microwave sounds.
But you only stare at the backyard.
* * *
Jim Mentink’s publication history includes short fiction with Bending Genres, Pangyrus Literary Magazine,Mono, and New World Writing and forthcoming, The Woolf.
Additionally, he had the privilege of being invited to workshop at the Writers in Paradise conference in 2019, and was granted art residencies with Hewnoaks (2015) and Wildacres (2019).
Jim is a current member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.
I crawl into bed with my book and read until, eyes fluttering, I turn off the light and wait for sleep to overtake me. Sometime later, I become aware of her presence, a murky figure sliding across a darkened floor, guided by the narrow beam of light from her phone.
Broad shouldered and wide-hipped, with thick, dark hair that falls past her shoulders. my wife, though well proportioned, is not a small person. I am reminded of this as she collapses next to me. Rippling waves, rolling tremors, travel toward me across the mattress. As she reaches for lotions, medications, a tissue, the phone slips from her hand. Untethered, the yellow light from the touchscreen wavers, dances across the ceiling, along the walls. Invariably, the light finds its way to my shuttered eyelids.
After a minute, she rises again, exhaling sharply with an annoyed huff. Hunched along the edge of the bed, she tugs at the covers, yanks at them with a resounding snap. Sheets and blankets drag across my face, my torso, leaving my skin exposed to the cool air. Sliding between the sheets again, she tosses pillows aside, emphatically, as if to ensure they will not find their way back to her later in the night. I sense them airborne, feather laden missiles, incoming, landing on me as I seek cover.
And then, at last, she settles. Soon I hear steady breathing, those familiar soft snores. I stare at the ceiling, open eyed, glancing anxiously toward the clock, once, twice, wondering how long I am to remain in this state of awake exhaustion.
Some hours later, the curtained windows begin to reveal themselves in gray silhouette. My wife’s phone comes to life, abruptly startling us both into consciousness. She takes her wakeup soundtrack seriously, putting considerable thought into programming it. It’s usually something from the Nineties; lately she’s been partial to The Lemonheads.
I hear her moan and stretch and she rolls toward me.
I feel the weight of her body against mine. Fingertips, hair, breasts press across my chest, warm and soft. As sleep slowly clears from my head, I am reminded of my great good fortune, how lucky I am that this woman has chosen to spend her life with me.
We steal these few moments before the day begins. Inhaling deeply, I take in her familiar scent. It is the smell of home.
* * *
Alan Winnikoff is the author of two novels, “The Weekend” (Books To Go Now, 2017) and “Not Sleeping” (Crowsnest Books, 2021).
Winnikoff lives in the Hudson Valley and is the owner of a public relations and social media firm in New York City.
—Thereis no crime of which I cannot conceive myself guilty… Goethe
I’m in no hurry to leave the close-spaced security of the bus. So, I lean back in my seat and wait until everyone is out. Then I walk to the front, take two steps down—back in the “real world.”
After four years, three tours in Iraq, and two days of military psych-docs attempting to drive out the bad times with clever talk and good intentions, I am discharged—officially cut loose from a surreal scene of free-fire zones and indiscriminate killing.
I am uncomfortable in the uniform, a costume that has defined me for so long—now meaningless. I am a phantom in an empty coat. Brutal scenes, cataloged in heartbreaking detail, have no place here. It is clear that in this place I am lost.
The low hum of the idling Greyhound mixes with the fumes of diesel fuel to fill the air with noisy poison. A skinny panhandler wearing a camouflage T-shirt sits crumpled, like lost luggage, outside the depot. One of those forgotten people living a half-life just beyond anybody’s caring.
At his side, a wrinkled square of cardboard—a kind of faded-brown American business card. Scrawled across the front is the familiar graffiti, “Out of Work.” One look at this guy and I know he’s finished. The whole story is right there in his eyes—like looking at the floor of the ocean.
He looks up at me as if I could save him.
Standing just out of range of a streetlamp, I watch the shadows of tree branches move along the empty avenue. Almost every night, I come to stare at this vacant lot on the corner—the spot where the Lighthouse Baptist Church once stood.
One drunken Saturday night in 1985 my father, lonely for God, broke into the little wooden sanctuary and doused the whole place with gasoline. Then he took a seat in the front pew, lit a Lucky Strike, and burned the son-of-a-bitch down around his ears.
My father spent most of his life in a rage. When the whiskey was talking, the old man raved about “search and destroy” patrols wiping out entire Vietnamese villages.
There was a time when I believed my father was a hero. There was a time when I believed in simple right and wrong. There was a time when I believed in all of the “Necessary Illusions.” Enough to put my soul on the line. Enough to go out and confront things I didn’t understand.
Bent under the weight of things that can never be set straight, I slide a shaky right hand inside my jacket pocket and retrieve a half-pint of I.W. Harper. I raise a toast to the Lighthouse Baptist Church.
Somewhere a lost dog howls. I step from the curb—a windblown bird into the crazy night.
Room 105 is hot. Shades and curtains drawn. Fractured light from the muted television. The air conditioner hums but puts out nothing.
I stand naked, staring at my flickering reflection in the bathroom mirror. My hair is growing fast, and I haven’t shaved since the day I became a civilian. I do not recognize myself.
I turn on the water, bend over, and drink from my hand. I let the water run through my fingers and watch in a trance—round and round and down the hole. Feeling a little lightheaded, I turn off the water, walk into the bedroom, and sit on the edge of the bed.
Each day I draw a new plan in my head. I imagine impossible strategies that I will carry out before tomorrow. I try to picture blueprints for a cause. Something pure, that will fill this hole inside.
I’ve lost track of time. I no longer feel any obligation to the clock.
I wonder how “time” became so goddamn important. Humans trying to stamp order on chaos. And then, once we’re on the clock, we spend the rest of our lives worrying about how much time we have left before we’re dust—clicking the remote control, desperately searching for a sacred channel that will save us all.
I lie back in bed and close my eyes. I try to empty my brain. I wait for the thing that I can feel coming.
In a half-sleep, I can feel the emptiness that stretches out from my body in every direction—360 degrees of nothing—as dead as a disconnected phone.
I open the back door to my mind, and dream-walk through the wreckage scattered across the floor of my memory. A dark room of unrecognizable images. My brain is out of control. Dreams have become one with the dreamer.
I wake up in a sweat. Someone is knocking hard at the door. Still confused, I stumble, naked, across the room, unlock the door, and throw it open.
Standing in the night rain—five men. All dressed in the same strange uniform—white coats down past their knees, black shirts, and military-style berets with an official looking silver badge on front. Two of them are noticeably young—grim, steely-eyed boys armed with short-barreled, pump-action shotguns.
The man in front has a graying beard and seems to be the leader of the group. He raises his right hand, takes a short step forward, and says, “Sir, I arrest you in the name of the Virtuous Circle.”
Unshaken, I stand in the open door and stare past the group into the empty, rain-slicked streets—mute. The traffic light at the intersection blinks yellow.
The honcho points toward the two men stationed to his left.They move quickly. One takes out handcuffs and secures my hands behind my back. The other slips a over my head.
Raindrops cool my bare body as I’m led across the motel parking lot. I am helped into the back of a van. The doors slams shut. Rain comes down harder, clattering against the metal roof, drowning out any other sounds. For the first time in years, I can breathe out.
When the hood is removed, I am standing alone on a small stage in what appears to be a long-neglected theater. Totally dark, except for a single footlight directed at my face. The two shotgun-wielding kids are positioned on the floor directly below me.
I can make out an audience of silent, shadowy figures standing with arms raised above their heads in a mock-religious pose. The air is hard to breathe. I have the strange feeling that I have played this scene before.
The recognizable voice of the bearded leader comes out of the dark.
“The defendant may now voice his plea.”
If my heart were made of stone, I could resort to the fine art of denial and deflection. I could say that I was just doing my job. I could say it was all about getting even. I could say how fucking tired I was—because I could never let up. Constantly wired together tight, because there was no way to tell the enemy from the innocent civilians, until eventually, they became one-and-the-same.
But for me, there is nothing left except the desire to be finished.
I’m about to speak when the quiet is interrupted by a sharp, metallic click. The flare from a cigarette lighter draws my attention toward the balcony. Caught in the light from the flame, the outline of a man’s face. Eyes on fire, he lights a cigarette.
He looks down at me and nods a greeting.
I have an unexplainable urge to smile, but I just nod in his direction. Tick… Tick… Tick… nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no falling to the floor and crawling inside myself.
I glance down at my nameless accusers—back up toward the burning face in the balcony.
FLASHBACK—the face of a young boy humming to himself as he plays alone.
With some effort, I manage to say the word.
Instantly, and in sync, the armed guards rack their shotguns.
The cigarette lighter clicks closed.
The room goes completely dark.
* * *
DB Cox is a Marine Corps veteran and blues musician/writer from South Carolina. His poems have been published extensively in the small press, in the US and abroad. He has published five books of poetry: Passing For Blue, Lowdown, Ordinary Sorrows, Night Watch, and Empty Frames.
Sandy pulls her silver hair into a ponytail. It may not be butter blonde anymore, but it still swings with the same buoyancy as when she was 21. She tugs on her skinny bermuda jean shorts and tight, tie-dyed T-shirt embossed with an elephant cavorting on the beach that reads “dancing in the sand.” She slips on white Nike knock-offs with cushioned soles and ankle support and views herself from side to side in the full-length mirror.
Slim as ever—youthful first impression if you don’t focus on her sun-wrinkled face that carries most of its seventy-one years, or the beginnings of a shoulder hunch, or her knobby knees, one of which slants increasingly inward causing her to lean slightly to the right. Sandy successfully evades the entirety of her mirrored reflection, seeing only what sustains her.
She grabs a water bottle and heads for the pavilion in the park, seven blocks from her row house apartment on Townsend Street in the center of town. She’s still crazy about dancing, infusing her body with music and unleashing its kinetic energy into sound waves. That’s never changed in fifty years since she first surrendered to the corporeal rapture of an all-out, all-night rock-concert boogie. Friends, jobs, and dreams have come and gone, but dancing remains as essential as air and food.
Rich is already swaying to the bluesy beat on the dance pavement at the foot of the outdoor stage. Sandy’s hips begin undulating as she approaches, building to a vigorous grind, feet precision-choreographed to the 4/4 beat, arms swinging, shoulders and head bobbing. Lost in 1971, gorgeous, young, amplified in the spotlight cast by a sea of smoldering eyes.
Rich peels off his plaid cap, smooths back thinning salt-and-pepper hair, and slaps it back on. They swing close together, then swirl away and circle back, fully immersed in the sensual, pounding drumbeat, wailing guitars, and growling, feral vocals.
This is how they met seven years ago—careened into one another on this very spot.
”Match made in heaven,” he laughed and grabbed her hand.
They’ve danced together ever since. Sometimes they get it on at her place afterwards, a last dance of sorts. But less so these days. Rich is twelve years younger, and looks it, though not to Sandy. That part of him remains invisible.
Tonight Rich’s eyes wander to a woman dancing alone behind them. Sandy rarely notices what doesn’t nurture her reality. But this woman persists in her mind—like an aggravating needle prick—thick around the middle, chunky middle-aged calves, not as free and nimble as Sandy. No style, hair cropped, no grace, average ability to keep time.
Rich grazes the woman as he shimmies past, accidentally perhaps, and Sandy makes a sudden pirouette, ponytail a twirl. “Follow me!” she calls, beckoning him. They weave as one through bodies in motion, like two stars in a binary solar system locked in orbit. She forgets the lonely woman.
Next week, Rich is there before her as usual, but not alone. The lonely woman fingers a mouse-colored strand of hair, engrossed in his words. He leans closer, glancing briefly at Sandy, rocking to the sultry beat. The lonely woman rocks with him.
Sandy swiftly dissembles indifference, shoving down a ghastly, long-buried scream. She begins gyrating, limbs heavy and stiff, oscillating arms suddenly wrinkled like old leather, knees aching.
The lonely woman isn’t special—ordinary in fact, homely even—and yet she’s not dancing alone. Sandy’s thirteen again, ungainly, un-liked, unpopular. She’s seventy-one. She’s nothing at all. Why don’t they ever love her?
The beat builds, and Sandy squashes back tears, thrusting solo through the music, through grief, releasing what she’s seen, remembering only what’s needed to keep time, keep moving. An older man in a red baseball cap gazes intently from the side, foot tapping. A younger man in biker boots, helmet in hand, beholds her too from the audience on the lawn.
Sandy surrenders to their regard, erasing anguish in the pulsing rhythms, dipping, weaving, strutting, shaking, down and dirty, lost in motion, in the moment. She’s center stage again, all eyes feasting in admiration, in her command.
* * *
Sidney Stevens is an author with an MA in journalism from the University of Michigan. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including The Woven Tale Press, Hedge Apple, The Wild Word, Finding the Birds Literary Journal, Viscaria Magazine, OyeDrum and The Centifictionist. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Newsweek, The Dillydoun Review, New Works Review, Sure Woman, and Nature’s Healing Spirit, an anthology from Sowing Creek Press. In addition, she’s had hundreds of nonfiction articles published in print and online, and has also co-authored four books on natural health. Learn more at www.sidney-stevens.com.