by Elena Schwolsky, Workshop Leader
“It has been exactly a year,” Sarah thought as she glanced at the calendar from Valdez Insurance Inc. held to the fridge by a magnet. The magnet was one she had bought on one of her vacation trips—it had tickled her at the time. “The only normal people are the ones you haven’t met yet” it proclaimed—black letters on a white background that had yellowed during its time on the fridge.
___“More true now than it was when all this started,” she thought, gesturing around her tiny kitchen as if “all this” was somehow contained in the hodgepodge of mismatched appliances, Formica counters, and clutter of tchotchkes that crowded the kitchen where she had made her morning coffee for over 30 years.
___Nothing in the kitchen had changed in this year. The toaster still worked only when it wanted to. The refrigerator sounded like an outboard motor when it cycled on and the stove required a long wooden match to light the burners. Oh, but she and Nate had whipped up some tasty meals in this kitchen. Well, there was something that had changed–– Nate was no longer here. Sarah wondered if their love and deep friendship would have survived quarantine together––or the isolation of being in their own separate spaces. But Nate had left, just before all this.
___There was a before, though it seemed long, long ago––but so far, no real after that Sarah could hold onto. Yes, she had managed to get her two shots and had celebrated briefly––pouring herself a rum and coke and imagining herself on a tropical island—even asking Alexa to play some cumbia music and dancing around the living room with an imaginary partner.
___So much in her life was imagined now—what a hug from her dear friend Deenie would feel like after all this time, how it would feel to walk on the Avenue without a mask covering her smile. She wondered if she even knew how to be with people in real life anymore, make small talk, laugh at a joke. Was it like riding a bike—just get on and pedal—or would she have to learn all over again?
Sarah sat with her coffee in her chair by the window. The garbage had finally been picked up, but patches of dirty snow still dotted the curb and trash was strewn up and down the block.
___The storm was over, and they had survived–– worn, battered, ragged at the edges. How much they had learned was still unclear. And what would happen next––a complete mystery.
The grey blue of a sliver of sky visible between dusty brick walls
The yellow of a tulip curling into itself
The magenta of the tiny buds on the tree outside the window
The filtered gold of the sunlight behind the shades
The distant song of unseen birds
The milky beige of her morning coffee
The clank of the spoon on the saucer
The smell of garlic from her neighbor’s kitchen
This narrow slice of the world was all she had
Shrinking from one day to the next in a relentless test
Of her ability to subtract.
What would be left when she finally opened her door?
By J.P. Swartelé-Wood
Eleanor knew she would have to leave out much of what she wanted Eddie to know about her after she was gone. Over the past three years she had broached the subject of vital information he would surely need—or maybe even want—if she were the first to die.
___Even thinking about Eddie on his own in the old house, oblivious as he was regarding its plumbing and heating, the quirks of odd sounds that meant nothing and would remain meaning nothing because inaudible to him as he would probably ever remain resistant to wedging his hearing aids into place—yes, Eddie on his own, at a loss even to find the toolbox—oh, it would be grim and she felt for him.
___Would she look down from heaven or up from hell and pity him? Or maybe an afterlife she might find really did exist would allow her to whisper, in ghostly fashion, “Eddie, call a repairman. Face the facts. Be glad, you have cash to pay him.”
___The first of the two suitcases was almost full. Only add the last three years of their joint tax returns, a checkbook, photocopies of Eddie’s medical records and of course, Eleanor’s life insurance policy that should serve as a big fat cushion of cash, $750,000—more than either of them had ever dreamed of possessing.
___Next, she reached for the dark blue leather suitcase, Aunt Chrissy’s from her college days. Eleanor opened it and did a quick calculation of which mementos, letters, notebooks, and diaries she could safely leave for Eddie’s eyes.
___As for easing his heart, she had already a cardboard box half-filled with her photos and letters from the boys and men—some from her long-ago youth, some from recent years—who had enraptured her and frustrated her over those years. All those engagements and attachments that, if Eddie were to learn of them, would surely break his heart. She knew herself to be at times disloyal, but she did not think herself cruel. In two hours, she would have the cardboard box full and could heft the lot out to the backyard. Newspaper, kindling, and matches were all in place. What a bonfire it would be!
A Day at a Time
The rain had stopped before dawn. Lydia had now no excuse to cancel her visit to her new neighbor a mile or so along the track to the village. An older man, maybe sixty to Lydia’s forty-six, but agreeable in a sort of Solid-Citizen way. Although these days what fit that description was becoming ever harder to describe and, Lydia had concluded, even harder to find.
___His name was George Harrison. He chuckled at the many jokes he’d been subjected to for not being the George Harrison. “No, can’t sing a note. Never learned an instrument. I can dance a bit, that’s about it. I like to dance. Do you like to dance?”
___Lydia was unaccustomed to this kind of banter with its hint of a possible invitation to spend time together on the dance floor. What came immediately to mind for her was the flash of a mirrored globe, revolving on the ceiling. Scenes from a distant disco past. This George Harrison seemed reasonable. Maybe not a solid citizen, but not a scoundrel either. She could be a casual acquaintance, invite him for coffee and cake—innocuous—and why not try out again, after seventeen months of mourning John’s cancer-ridden departure from this life, to get to know a man, just a little?
___Lydia had met George two days earlier and smiled when he waved and walked on toward his rented cabin. Then turned back and called out to her, “Do drop by. I’d like some company.”
___She had pulled from the freezer the apple cake she made every three weeks or so. It was thawing, the rain had stopped, she had argued with herself the pro’s and con’s of “dropping by” George Harrison’s cottage. Maybe he would have gone for a walk, or off to the supermarket. That would be best. He would not answer her knock or the ring of his doorbell. She could put the one-half cake, carefully wrapped in waxed paper, into the small package bin on his doorstep, tape a note to say, “Sorry I missed you, George Harrison. Cake in the bin. Enjoy. —Lydia Crouse.”
___Then she could pick up today where yesterday had left off. That would start another no-risk day.
by Sandy Santora
The Battle of Stalingrad. The storm. This months and months long battle between Germany and Russia was one of the turning points in World War II.
___It occurred between August,1942 and February,1943, and ––after countless defeats for Russia–– their strategy was finally effective against Germany.
___Russia’s top general, Zhukov, brilliantly encircled Germany’s weak point to their stronghold, gathering momentum. The German general, Frederick Paulis, was ordered by Hitler to stand firm and not retreat.
___This decision would draw the Germans to the streets of Stalingrad for house-to-house fighting. It was no match for the Russians. But they were no match for the Russians who were noted for their combat in one-to-one confrontations. Eventually the Germans were trapped and the consequences dire.
___Against the direct orders from Hitler, Field Marshall Paulis (newly promoted) surrendered to the Russians and it marked the beginning of the end for Germany.
___Many historians have their opinion on the turning points of the war.
___This is mine.
Tina had no idea that she would go from the adoring wife to a man she trusted with her life and happiness, to a woman filled with a broken heart and fear for her life.
___Her growing doubt about John was always pushed into the recesses of her mind but today it caused a nagging feeling to surface and, with it, trepidation for her being.
___John had told her late last night that he wanted them to go to their summer cottage located deep in the forest in Maine.
___It was November and his excuse for going was that he needed to meet with the mayor of the town to discuss something to do with building a restaurant in the area. It needed the approval of the county board members.
___Tina would not have thought this trip meant anything sinister, but just that morning she saw it–– the reason John had been working late, missing dinner and pulling away from her affection.
___She saw his emails. Why she had scanned and then spied on his emails?
___“I can’t believe I’m doing this. Why am I so suspicious?” The thought gave her a chill.
___But there they were–– love letters written every morning for weeks from her husband to email@example.com.
___The notes between them were so intense. Tina felt her heart sink with hurt and anger. Then a worry began to grow.
___“He wants to go to the cottage, in the woods, away from anyone close by,” Tina thought. “Why doesn’t he just ask for a divorce?”
___Then It then dawned on her. Just a couple of months before they had both taken out life insurance policies–– for a million dollars each.
___Later, packing to leave for their trip to Maine, Tina called a friend. John did not know where she lived. Then Tina left her apartment to hide from the man she had loved forever and save herself from his intentions.
Where is the Light
Where is the light?
Has it been hidden for these too many years?
Does it shine where we cannot see it?
Does it shine while we sleep?
Oh, a glimmer is passing through quickly – hold on to the seconds it appears.
It’s moving more slowly now.
Yes, we can see the shine peeking through the maze of darkness.
Oh, light keep appearing so we can feel that sense of satisfaction within ourselves.
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.
How does this story end?
He kept trying to get a date with her–– not once, not twice, but for a few years. They would get together as friends but had never even held hands. Of course, when they danced, they would hold each other, as this was in the days of close dancing and they had become dance partners, having coincidently always frequented the same places. Or was it subconsciously on purpose, for one, or both?
___“I can’t go out on a date with you, you are like a brother to me and you’re one of my best friends! You know ALL about me, my strengths, my weaknesses, my life, she always answered when he asked her to go out on a real date with him. “How could I ever DATE you?? Where is the MYSTERY? The challenge?”
___Why does there have to be mystery or challenge” he wondered? Isn’t being close friends a good reason to start a romantic relationship?” To him, it was the best reason.
___This situation went on for about five years. He was her confidante during a few small (or not so small) challenges in her life, like when she lost her job, when she found out a guy she was dating was married, or when one of her children didn’t call her for a week or two. She went to him to vent, for advice, or for a little sympathy, all of which he was very good at supplying.
___One night, they ran into each other at a club. When the club was closing, they were in the middle of a conversation.
___“Why don’t we finish this conversation over breakfast?” he said. She accepted his invitation. Of course, in her mind, this was not a date. After breakfast he insisted on taking her home by cab, saying “You can’t go home alone at four in the morning!” Once again, she accepted his invitation, and he hailed a cab.
How Do We Stop World Destruction?
Insurrection and looting
Old diseases arise
Is God telling us we’re bad in his eyes?
The Earth explodes
And there is more.
Famine, plagues, tsunamis, disease
Is there no staunching the rising seas?
How do we stop global destruction?
Can’t anyone shed light on
what has become a worldwide plight?
Can humans survive with all the deception,
Is it too late for human correction?
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.
by Doris Weil
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.
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.
Manuel was considered small even for a Mexican boy. He was eight years old and lived with his parents and two sisters on an avocado farm.
___He was enrolled in a Catholic school. His family was poor but because he was so serious about his studies he was granted a scholarship. His mother was insistent that he go to school every day and study hard.
___He would wear his uniform; a starched white shirt and navy shorts. When he came home he would change into work clothes to help his father pick the avocados. He only had one uniform, which his mother washed in the evening and ironed in the morning.
___In December, his teacher, a nun, taught the children about the origin of Christmas. It was about a baby whose family was forced to travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth. He was born in a manger surrounded by animals because there was no room at the inn when his mother’s labor started.
The teacher taught that three kings, guided by a star, came with expensive presents. But also, poor people came to see the child. They brought simple gifts; one boy gave the child his drum.
___Manuel wondered what he would have given this wondrous child if he had been in Palestine at the beginning of the first millennium. He couldn’t afford to go to the local tienda to buy a gift.
___Then his whole face lit up as he realized what he would have brought: a basket of ripe avocados which the Holy Family could enjoy that evening for Christmas dinner.
A Bad Diagnosis
Even though she had half expected it, Maria gasped when her doctor gave her a life threatening diagnosis.
___He outlined a plan of treatment but she hardly heard it. “Later” she said to herself, “Later I’ll process this.”
___She went home, got into comfortable clothes and made herself a cup of tea.
___She had always thought about problems by talking out loud. “Okay” she said to her cat which was lurking about. “What does this mean? How does this make my life different?”
___“Of course,” she continued, “I will have to make time for visits to the clinic. But what about the rest of my day-to-day activities?
___Maria knew people who, in this situation, had made frantic plans to do everything on their bucket lists. She knew others who turned inward and basically resigned themselves to the worst outcome.
___She sipped her tea and felt that she didn’t have to make any decisions right away. She would wait and see how she felt after the regimen started.
___But she did make a promise to herself: “I’ll try to figure out what’s important to me to keep doing and which people I want to keep in my life. I won’t radically change my activities. But perhaps I’ll take a few more risks (not medical of course) and plan some adventures I’ve always wanted to do sooner than later.
___Maria felt much calmer as she made herself another cup of tea and cut herself a large piece of the cake on the kitchen counter.
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.
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 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!