Category: The Journal

The Phone Rang in the Middle of the Night

by Barbara Zapson

I am a night person and a late sleeper, which is something I’d looked forward to all my working years. My husband, on the other hand, is usually asleep by 9:30 and wakens about 8 AM. We have phones in every room of our one-bedroom apartment (including the bathroom), and the ringing often awakens me out of a sound sleep.
___After a few years of being loudly woken up before I was ready that was turning me into a grouch, my husband decided to mute the bedroom and bathroom phones to keep me happy. He could answer the ringing phones in the kitchen, dining room or living room. Then, for some reason, during the pandemic, he decided we needed all the phones ringing “in case of an emergency”!
___“What kind of an emergency can we have?”, I asked. “Our parents are no longer living, our children are all grown, for goodness’ sake even our GRAND children are grown, so leave the phones muted”, I said.
___“You never can tell, Julio answered.” “Maybe a fire or one of our neighbors has a problem, or one of our grandkids is in trouble and afraid to tell their parents.”
___“A fire or a neighbor’s problem would cause a knock on the door or the doorbell to ring, and our grandkids are more afraid of me than they are of their parents! Do you remember what one of them said about me ‘yelling at him with my eyes’?”
___The argument was dropped for a few weeks. I had several weeks of peaceful mornings and he had a happy wife. Then it started again with “It could be any kind of problem or emergency!” I finally gave up and told Julio, “OK, OK, you win! Unmute the phones!”
___The phone did not ring early in the morning for four days. On the 5th day, it rang in the middle of the night. Needless to say, we both nearly jumped out of our skin. The call went something like this: “This is the Social Security Department calling to tell you that we found someone fooling around with your Social Security Card. Please press 9 to speak with a representative.” Of course, we hung up. The next day at 5 A.M. the phone rang again, and that call was from an insurance company, threatening to end our insurance and repossess our car! We do not own a car.
___But it was the call from China, in Chinese, at 3 A.M., mentioning Bank of America in English, that finally convinced Julio there was no reason to keep the phones ringing overnight or early in the morning.

Marty and Margo During the Pandemic

By Allan Yashin

Margo wondered how many more nights Marty would be spending sleeping on the ferry instead of next to her in her apartment in Greenpoint. Yes, the vaccine had started a slow rollout, but everything seemed tentative…and if it was effective, how much longer until Marty felt the hospital he worked in would no longer leave him at risk of contracting the virus…and so, give it to Margo also.
___Was it really 6 months since he had been home? Time felt so elastic…the days sped by…the weeks dragged on. Talking and zooming had sufficed for their relationship…and perhaps Marty felt better able to settle for that since he also felt the satisfaction of knowing he was doing the right thing by working at the overwhelmed hospital.
___But Margo didn’t have that sense of accomplishment in her life. No, zooming in for her. Meetings at the corporate real estate office she worked for were joyless sessions of handwringing at the horrid state of affairs of the present and foreseeable future, with prospects of greatly diminished incomes for all.
___So, combine that with Marty gone…and what did she have? Hard to quantify…but emotionally it came up definitely on the red side of the ledger. And so. Margo began to wonder…maybe it was time for her to walk on…put Marty and real estate behind her. And to be honest, at this point, she wondered how much Marty would really care. Yes, Margo felt this was the time to look for something new and nourishing in her life, God knows, whatever that might be.
___And then she heard a knock on the door. It took Margo out of the thoughts swarming though her head and directed her to wondering who it might be. She couldn’t remember the last time someone was at her door. Oh, yes, it had been the building superintendent, ringing her doorbell to let her know he was leaving an announcement advising that composting efforts in the recycling room had been halted due to concerns regarding the virus.
___This was no doorbell ring, but a knock…and there it was again. Margo did the wise thing…don’t open the door until you’ve looked through the peephole to see who it might be. After all this was New York City, not Kansas. But when she moved the little metal cover and peered into the hallway, she saw nothing. She thought whoever it was must’ve left already…couldn’t have been very important, or perhaps they realized they had come to the wrong apartment.
___But then she heard the knock again. What was that? How could it be? Who was out there hidden from view? She unlocked the door and opened it…to find? A tiny man standing there…why, no bigger than an elf.
___Before Margo could think of anything to say, the elf held up his hand and piped up in a little voice. “Here…it’s a present to you from Marty.” And he handed her a bag and dashed off before the thought of a tip even occurred to her.
___She held the paper bag in her hand. Before she opened it she already knew it was an everything bagel and lox because she had smelled that glorious smell a million times before. After all, this was New York City not Kansas.
___And inside the bag, nestled close to the still warm bagel, was a note from Marty, written on stationary embossed with a drawing of Santa on his sled, clearly purloined from the Pole…green collar theft.
___“My dearest Margo…there’s no way I can express how very much I miss you. Every night when the ferry takes me to the Navy Yard I think of our first date there, and I long to be with you. This bagel and lox is a token of my love for you. Please put it in your freezer, so that we can share it together when I’m able to be back home with you again.”
___Tears formed in Margo’s eyes…and she didn’t think it was from the onion on the bagel. How stupid of her to doubt Marty’s love for her. Of course, she would wait for him. And how romantic to send that bagel so she could freeze it and they could eat it together. Such a delicious smelling everything bagel too. Oh, yes, and that combination of the lox, cream cheese and onion. If there truly is a Jewish heaven, this must be what they serve there.
___And as Margo’s eyes teared…and her mouth watered she thought “Freeze it? What the hell, he’ll never know. I’ll buy another one tomorrow.” And she ripped open the bag, settled down on the couch with her bagel and started to binge-watch Friends for the millionth time …imagining Marty was there with her.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me At All

by Doris Well

Image by Marjorie Newnham

Sara was eight years old. She read this poem by Maya Angelou, a poet whom she respected and loved.
___But Sara was frightened. Her school had been shut down. Everyone in the street was wearing a mask even though it wasn’t Halloween or Carnival or Purim. They stood apart from one another when they talked. Her parents wouldn’t let her watch the news but she heard the ambulances screaming down the street and she knew something was wrong.
___What would Maya Angelou do in this situation? What advice would she give Sara?
___Maya had a magic charm up her sleeve.
___The only thing up Sara’s sleeve was a skinny arm. Nothing up her other sleeve either. Maybe Maya would suggest that Sara also write a poem.

Sara’s poem
Where is my magic charm?
What will keep me from harm?
Maya, I’m not strong like you.
What do you think I should do?
I know you’re not near me
But can you hear me?

___Just then Sara felt a breeze, smelling of lavender, rub against her cheek. When she looked in the mirror she saw her own face, not Maya’s, but it looked different. It was calmer than it had been for weeks.
___Sara folded up Maya’s poem and put it up her sleeve.

On the Verge

By Antoinette Carone

Two days before he died, Julian experienced a surplus of energy. Not like a power surge, it was really more of a gradual build-up. He barely noticed it at first.
___It started around eight o’clock in the morning, right in the middle of his second cup of coffee. He had the impression that someone was stroking his hair, and this enlivened him.
___Years ago, when he was a child of five, his mother would stroke his hair when she woke him up or when she picked him up after kindergarten. Many years after that, his would often stroked his hair when they made love.
___Now it was an alien yet familiar sensation, like an almost forgotten secret greeting. His mother had died ten years ago. His wife, three years later. His mother, of course, stopped running her hand over his hair when Julian was about thirteen and wouldn’t stand for any “baby stuff.” His wife – well, the last time was just after her diagnosis. Then she couldn’t bear to be touched.
___So at eight-thirty in the morning, two days before he died, Julian’s spirits were uplifted, although he didn’t bother to search for a reason. He felt like working. He walked into his studio and began to paint. He was working a study of a house, but he could never get it right.
___The house was made of yellow brick, an unusual kind of brick, but often used in parts of Appalachia. Most important to Julian, the painting was asymmetrical. One could see part of the house from the street, but half was obscured on the left by an overgrown hedge. A bay window occupied the center of the field of vision. A small portico extended it on the right.
___Julian had no idea how this image had originated. It felt like someplace unexplored. He wanted to enter but didn’t know how.
___The walk from the street to the portico was barren, stark in its emptiness. The ochre of the brick and the dusty brown of the yard rendered the painting too monocratic. Julian decided to add color. He roughed in a rose bush beside the entryway. He filled the space under the bay window with white and purple irises. It was lost on him that his mother’s name was Rose and his wife’s Iris.
___Julian painted all that day, and all the next, stopping only when the daylight did. He liked natural light. He died believing he was on the verge of something new.

 

The Imperfect Child

Ann watched Joshua quietly playing with Legos. It was a good day. He was calm and content. No tantrums. Thankfully, they were becoming fewer and farther between. No medication. Just creation of structure and a calm environment.
___Joshua was a beautiful little boy. Light brown hair. Dark brown eyes. He was a difficult child and had been from birth. He had cried for the first six months of his life. Loud noises, stiff fabrics and too much activity going on around him caused him to be irritable.
___Ann loved him. Beyond reason, according to her husband. When Joshua was two, Joe wanted Ann to put him in daycare and go back to work. Ann’s instincts rebelled. She felt she could do better than daycare.
___Nevertheless, Joshua went to nursery school five mornings a week. He was tired when he got home, so became easier to manage. Unless he was overtired. Then he was hyper, bouncing off walls.
Joe had a hard time coping with this bright little boy diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. It took Ann two hours to coax Joshua away from toys, into his bath, out of his bath, into bed, and then to have “one more story.” Joe began leading a separate life. No girlfriend. He just became absorbed in his hobby. He set up a photography studio and worked until late each evening.
___Ann took care of Joshua. She helped with homework. She took him interesting places on Saturdays.
___Joe was disappointed in Joshua. He didn’t like pictures or baseball. He liked climbing and especially building with Legos. He liked taking things apart and putting them back together. He could focus for hours on end and could not be distracted. All part of ADD. Joshua was not the child Joe had wished for. Joe felt his life should have “been free to overlook this sadness.”
___Ann embraced the sadness of an imperfect child. She saw Joshua’s joy in building, in making connections from disparate things. Sadness and imperfection are, after all, part of life.

The House Was Full of Surprises

By Mary Blas

Twas the third week of “lockdown” when all through the house,
Surprises abounded—thank God, not a mouse!

Julia sat wondering where the day went
Mentally calculating if time’d been well spent.

The U.S.A. jigsaw she’d found in a cupboard
Lay halfway completed—‘cept for those states more inward.

The cleared linen closet revealed massive treasure—
Soap gifts of yore for her new bathing pleasure.

Ice packs and toothpaste, and shampoo—all new!
Paper towels, toilet paper—she found quite a few.

More soap and wet wipes, alcohol, braces,
A grabber for reaching stuff stowed in high places.

Her earlier trips to the new Trader Joe’s
Paid off in spades—with boxes in rows of

Basmati, linguini, ramen and coffee,
Flour and sugar, and sweet caramel toffee.

Sauces in cans, bottles and boxes
Mixes and mixers (even two missing soxes).

Julia breathed deeply—and sighed long and soft.
All those years of her shopping had finally paid off!

 

Spring Ahead!

Spring had come to the South Bronx in 1950! The school day over, we shed our outerwear as soon as we hit the pavement outside St. Peter & Paul elementary school. Liberated from our rigid desks and the grind of the multiplication table and the Baltimore Catechism, we flung schoolbags and jackets at our waiting moms and dashed up the block ahead of them. The first warm rays of sun promised an extended afternoon of fun and our mothers wisely let us run. Wheeling well-worn baby carriages, they turned to each other to gossip and enjoy this respite from housework and shopping. Soon enough they’d be home preparing supper—for now they strolled at leisure—one eye on their racing children, the other on their companions.

Spring brought a season of ritual—both secular and religious. St. Patrick’s Day, Holy Week, Palm Sunday, and Easter were spring events. But May was a special month–the month devoted to Mary. The Sunday after the second graders made their First Communion was followed by the May procession in honor of the Blessed Mother. Each child in the school brought a white flower to the 9:00 AM Children’s Mass to adorn the statue of the Blessed Mother. One special child would place a crown of flowers on Mary’s head. Mass concluded with a procession of all the schoolchildren—led by the second grade girls in their white First Communion dresses—a vision of tiny brides in white veils! The scent of gladiola, carnations, and roses filled the air as we filed out of church singing “Bring flowers of the rarest, bring flowers of the fairest, from garland and woodland, and hillside and dale…….”

It’s 2021 and spring is here again! Like my younger self, yearning to run from a repressive schoolroom—I long to leave the pandemic prison of the past year. The warm days are coming. My mahjongg-turned-walking group is anxious to resume the weekly mahjongg game. My writing group longs to write at the same table, up close and personal! My family hope to spend time together in the country. We’ll celebrate Passover and Easter plus three spring birthdays! But, unlike my seven-year old self, I will not race ahead this spring. I’ll be listening to the doctors for the go-ahead. And then, I hope to race into life—fully and finally!

The Red Bath

by Maureen Johnson-Laird

When my mother worked as a house cleaner, she was often given the keys to apartments. She went to one of her regular jobs one dreary Monday morning and let herself in through the front door. The couple who owned the apartment were usually both out at work so she was surprised when, she heard a loud gurgling noise coming from the bathroom.
___“Anyone at home?” she called out. No reply.
___She put her ear close to the bathroom door. Yes, there was a definite gurgling sound.
___She rapped on the door loudly.
___“It’s me, Sully,” she shouted. Still no-one answered. She got out her cleaning materials to start work, but after a few minutes she decided to check the bathroom again.
___She opened the door cautiously and then took two steps back. A naked man, his eyes closed, was lying slouched in the tub and the bath water was bright red. She recoiled in shock, and tried to regain her composure. She risked a quick glance to see if he had slashed his wrists, but his hands were under water. She was nervous to touch the man’s body, so she stared at him for a long time, wondering what to do.
___Eventually, she lifted one of his arms and peered at his chest to look for any sign of a wound.
___The body stirred. The man awoke with a terrific start.
___“What are you doing, Sully? Can’t you see I’m in the bath?” he said.
___“Sorry, Sir. I thought you were dead.”
___“I must have fallen asleep while I was reading,” he said.
___“Why is the water red?” she said.
___“Maybe it’s because I was reading a red book,” he said. He started feeling around in the water with his hands. He held up a slim tome with a red binding that was dripping with soapy water.
___“Is it a thriller?” Sully said.
___“I borrowed it from the library. It’s a novel about a hemophiliac.”

A Subway Story

by Elizabeth Haak

It was the tail end of the morning rush. The No. 6 uptown subway car was full. Close to the pole stood a thin woman with bleach blonde, stringy hair that hung down to her shoulders. She wore fire-engine red lipstick and a pensive smile. Her guitar was strapped across her flat chest.  An empty coffee cup protruded from the pocket of her denim jacket. We all thought we knew what was coming. But we were unprepared for the screechy off-key sound that issued when she opened her mouth. It quivered in the stuffy air in search of a melody. Half-awake riders straightened up. Readers lowered their folded newspapers and raised their eyebrows. Straphangers craned their necks toward the source of something that sounded more like a cat fight than a Broadway love song, or a rock ’n roll hit.
___A deep voice from the other end of the car boomed, “Miss, I will pay you not to sing!”
___All up and down the car, heads nodded in a consensus unusual among strangers. A woman with a Metropolitan opera tote bag on her lap said, “I’ll chip in.”
___A man in a black fedora who’d been startled awake began to rummage in the inside pockets of his camel hair coat and said, “Me too.”
___She stopped in mid-screech and looked disappointed. Perhaps she thought she had a gift to share and now she was deprived of giving. But then folded bills were passed down the aisle to her. She brightened. She probably collected more money by not singing than she had hoped to get when she started out.
___The subway screeched to a halt at 42nd Street. As passengers rushed out, she murmured, “Thanks. God bless.”
___I forgot about that ride until a year or two later. At the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue, I thought I saw her again. It was hard to tell with the blue mask covering half her face. She sat on the sidewalk, strumming “This Land is Your Land.” I stopped to listen. She played riffs and variations on the tune with practiced ease. She made no attempt to sing—didn’t even hum. I dropped a fiver into her cup. She looked up and said, “Thanks. God bless,” without missing a beat.
___Where are all those subway serenaders now? The brothers who sang “This Little Gospel Light of Mine” a cappella? The blind guitarists, the hip hop rappers and blues artists? Not singing in the subway anymore.

Dumb Luck

by Roberta Curley

There is God
Aka ‘coincidence’ to some
There is blood family
There are ancillary helpers
Friends, strangers
There are beasts of magic
Dogs and cats

Loving bliss commingles
In this checkered mix
Luck perches in the wings,
Taking long naps, then zing!
It awakens bollixed up in its
Own marionette strings

 

Nature on Mute

New Yorkers are tough.

We need to be.

We’re battened down for battle.

Covid stalks our every gasp.

Suspect vapors penetrate NYC breezes.

In the film “Hiroshima,”

Charred faces and seared spirits reign.

Covid carries invisible armaments.

Silently marching forth,

The virus blitzes us.

It hammers sick and old,

Begs young and robust join the fold.

Nature’s gone berserk.

Alert the mothership…

Or head for the Catskills.

 

Spill the Beans

I always fantasized becoming a screen-queen.
My name is Francine McQueen which rhymes with
Corrine and Nadine.

I imagined legally changing my full name to:
Francine Corrine Nadine.
Ironic that they all rhyme with screen-queen.

I envisioned moving to tranquil Aberdeen and
Living in a thatched cottage with a lawn chockfull
Of everything green.

In my happy hovel, I’d hoped to hoard baggies
Of glassine — filled with multi-colored
Lentil beans. How keen!

Those undervalued beans would help comprise
My research team. I’m actually a quite mad
Scientist – and a drag queen.

My beans were too multitudinous for my
Ivory marble tureen, too precious for my
Undependable latrine

No clogging Aberdeen’s sewerage machines,
But an experiment: a novel mixture of lentils
And hot sauce – topped with a squirt of Listerine.

Some declare my concoction obscene, yet
Chefs tout its satiety value AND
It polishes one’s teeth clean!

We Three

by Danielle Boursiquot

They vibrate between my vocal chords, but I never let them pass my lips.
I don’t write them down, for fear of losing the last thin thread of hope to some soul snatching ether.
My cloak of secrecy weighs on these clandestine visits to memory. I imagine my last steps thundering across a flaming threshold when it finally comes time to call their names. But it does not happen this way.

 

Heart Pierced by A Sword (The Girl)

I thought after everything, I needed a mark
Adornment from the thing earned or the thing survived
The embrace of silk, slipping
The weight of a crown, falling
But ink on skin
a declaration,
a confession,
a prayer
all rolled into one
A wordless thing to say to you:
You were named for the one carrying both the scar and the sword.

 

Iron (The Boy)

At the turning of the tide I paused for a sign.
I stood in the quiet space
away from roaring water, trembling earth,
The hungry blaze growing with every desperate gulp of air
I closed my eyes for the vision, but it remained black, blank, then fluorescent white.
I listened for the heartbeat, craning to decipher a message in the rhythm:
It faded more the harder I listened
And the lines deepened in my empty hands.
You were named for the one forged in flames.

 

Unidentified, Unsober, Fall Spirit (Gender Unknown)

I fell hard while climbing my way to you
I swallowed sound and coughed up the primary colors of what you could become
I took backward steps while reaching to our future, trembling before our fate
The soles of my feet bled from the barefoot miles walked on someone else’s back
I rode in the shadows of my conviction, silent, hoping that I would be seen by someone recognizing me as yours
You were named for the dance between the light and the dark.

 

“We have names
that she dares not breathe.
We live in an orb of silence.
Joining hands, we signal her.
She knows who we are”

A Night Terror for Nick

by Desiree Browne

Now I lay me down to sleep,
And dream of the of the boy I couldn’t keep.
His lips forever gone from mine
But he gon’ hear all about himself this time.

Standing tall and strong, I’ve tears no more.
I’m telling him the reasons it shoulda been me
Showing his pasty ass the door.

Outside our circle of light there’s a flash,
Now I hold a cigarette with a long, long ash.
I press the cig into his skin,
His eyes beg me not to do it again.
I go to make just one more burn
But snap awake, and my stomach does a turn.

Was that inside my heart all along?
I’m scared of me
But I don’t know for sure
That dream girl was wrong.

 

And This Is How You Love Me

I knew he liked me because he shared his music with me, and I knew I really liked him when I
realized he loved music deep and wide the way I do. His mix CDs brought me Black Starr; we
swapped our favorite recordings of the standards we learned in jazz class; I explained how
Rachmaninoff lulled me to sleep some nights and that Prince woke up something inside me that
was ferocious and unafraid. We sat down, opened our CD books and played our hearts for each
other.

A heady adolescent summer mellowed to occasional check-ins as adults, even after he got
married. Still, when I think of what I love most about being in love it’s just that—love. The
frenzied pace of swapping mix CDs and download links for the music that feels so intensely
yours, played with the speakers turned all the way up and the car windows rolled all the way
down. As an adult, I long for the electricity of teenage infatuation tempered by hard-earned
wisdom. I want to watch my baby’s eyes light up when talking about the book that changed
everything. I want to see you hug parents, childhood friends, the dog you grew up with. Have
you gotten so lost in the work that feeds you, you didn’t call when you said you would? I can be
mad for a minute, but then I’ll want to hear what you were working on, how far you got. Does it
feel good? Are you proud of yourself?

And I want you to know that if I open my kitchen to you, I’m letting you sample of a little bit of
what’s closest to my own heart, like the love of my grandma who got up at 7 am on Sundays to
cut open coconuts for their milk because canned wasn’t good enough for her family. The look of
wonder on my mom’s face as she bookmarked new recipes from Bon Appetite and then
presented them to her friends at the wine club meetings she modeled after her mother’s bridge
club. Of my father who can’t cook much but always cut my peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches—always on toast—into quarters for me. The love I have learned to carefully
prepare for myself: a Sunday dinner for one, soundtracked by an album on vinyl I think you’d
really like.

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