"Making Up" by Dick Carmel

I am alone on the plane. No wife. No kids. No deals. Going overnight for the funeral and a visit to my cousin, Mary Lou. I've avoided this visit for years, ever since her "accident,” her family winking at the word. I'm a lawyer who prefers analyzing deals, crafting contracts, and tracking negotiations. I have a hard time with make-believe. When I read fairytales to my kids, I pretend I believe, but the last time I lived in imagination was before law school. These days I want to understand how things work, instead of how they might. One reason I never let Uncle Morry know I was in town was that I was uncertain whether I could successfully pretend I bought the story. The other reason was my unease for not meeting with Mary Lou that fateful night. But my wife, Valerie, expects me to attend the funeral, and my memories, reawakened by my uncle’s death, demand it. I won't see Uncle Morry, as the casket will be closed, but I will see Mary Lou. Ask forgiveness for not having answered her call for help so many years ago.

I'm tired of flying to the deal of the month – the hotel for sale in Dallas, empty projects in Houston between the building booms. Odd, that a funeral should be a welcome change. I have nothing to work on, nothing to read, and no way to avoid reflection. I won't attempt to fabricate my uncle's appearance, or fantasize his voice, or recreate verbatim my discussion with Mary Lou on that ancient night. Instead, I will seek the essence.


Here I am at the apartment on the Gold Coast, where my uncle, aunt and their two children live.

There I am as a teen, during a visit to my uncle's home in Florida. My Uncle Morry: a man who never smiles; who barks commands like a sergeant.

Then I summon-up my family's visit to Florida, when we escaped the snow and I learned what my uncle already knew: the ocean breeze helps us forget all fear of the future. We were on the pier at my uncle's home on an island near Miami. Uncle Morry was talking sex. My dad knew better than that. He hinted sometimes, but never said the word or even the euphemisms. Like how the Jews avoid the name of God. He has a name, but you never speak it aloud. Uncle Morry was breaking the rules. Maybe he didn't even know them. The afternoon sun had dried the lawn. A breeze blew toward us from Biscayne Bay, carrying the smell of wet salt. I looked across the water, empty of cruisers and therefore waves. Uncle Morry was staring without expression, as though he had such discussions every day, down at the edge of the pier, watching boats should they appear, studying the resultant waves. It could be a ritual, like a martini at dusk. I realized my presence was irrelevant. My uncle wanted to live in memory. I understood, even then, that reflection is best done in private.

Uncle Morry whispered about how he had been fooling around on a pile of straw, his hand between the farm girl's legs, pulling down her pants.

I can't remember the exact sound of Uncle Morry's voice, but I do remember he was usually barking orders at his wife and kids or yelling at his partner on the phone. Uncle Morry had my attention, talking sex in the heat of the sunset. I had my hand against my forehead, sheltering my eyes against the setting sun and any need to respond. He said they did it without condoms, frowning, uncertain if I had ever met that word. He said he didn't knock her up, and avoided the clap, then looked to see whether I knew those words, as well. It occurred to me that he could have been shooting blanks. Even at 14, I knew how to pronounce supposition. 

Consider this. Uncle Morry and Aunt Sophie had two kids, Danny and Mary Lou, each adopted at different times, neither looking like the other, much less their adoptive parents. They had the best of both worlds, children of millionaire Jews but able to pass as Gentiles if required. Danny and Mary Lou were both spoiled, but in different ways. Uncle Morry gave Danny whatever he wanted, but first Danny had to ask. Mary Lou got gifts she didn't know existed. Understanding the characters makes sense of a scene.


These pieces of the past, somewhere over Alabama, so fragmented they barely qualify as memory, surprise me by their persistence. Have I succeeded in being different than Uncle Morry? After law school, marriage, my kids, I rejected memory. Now, I must acknowledge I was neither the author nor the audience on those visits. Just a bit player. Even so, I want to understand. If it were all part of a play, then the final act should contain two scenes – the death of Uncle Morry, and this visit to Mary Lou. I try to pin a date on her call for help, but it has sunk to the depth of games in the streets when I was a kid, my wedding day, my wedding night. Memory meanders. When you return to the site, the footprints are gone.

Mary Lou lived two blocks from the apartment were Val and I lived. I often passed by her walk-up across from the fancy hotel, but I never visited, never called, never even considered the proximity of her existence. I only knew she was there in the abstract, unrelated to my daily life. Then, on that midweek evening of a mid-summer month before we moved to the suburbs to have our kids, Mary Lou called. I had just arrived home and was changing into sweatpants and a pullover, ready to relax, when the phone interrupted, and she announced her name along with a nervous laugh. I asked what was new, as though it had only been a few weeks since we last spoke. When Mary Lou pleaded for a meeting, I could have asked if something was wrong, invited her to come right over, suggested she wait while I spoke to Val, or did Mary Lou want to meet nearby for a coffee or a drink? I could have said almost anything that might have changed destiny, assuming destiny is susceptible to change, but instead I had left my lawyer's mind at the office and forgotten about alternatives. Or was it that I was unconcerned about anyone else?

Instead, I suggested Friday night, allowing Val enough time to shop and prepare. Mary Lou repeated her request to see me sooner, typical Mary Lou. Immediate Gratification was her other name. After the call, I approached Valerie in the kitchen to give her the news about Friday night, but I failed to say enough to alert her to the ring for help underlying the telephone call. Maybe I didn't know they were warning bells. Perhaps I did but ignored their clang. When Friday arrived, Mary Lou didn't show up. The irresponsible child of a doting millionaire. 

The next day, Cousin Judy called from Miami. She was a transplanted Chicagoan who had moved to Florida to pick up a New York accent. Unless she had picked up the accent first, and then been forced to move there. Mary Lou’s own accent might have explained why I missed the subtext in her call. Judy reported "she" broke her back while climbing into "her" window. Who, what window, where, how, why, were the obvious questions. Without mentioning Mary Lou's name, Judy said that she wanted to surprise her folks, found a ladder and was climbing up to her room. Okay, now it was obvious. That explained the empty chair at the Friday night table, but not the fairytale about her climbing in. Mary Lou was used to doors.

She has been paralyzed ever since. My mother has mentioned her progress, or its absence, over the years, but I never wrote or called her or Uncle Morry. Not that I didn't care. Instead, I was afraid of the verdict. Now I am visiting that other country, invited by my uncle's death, forced to ponder any connection between whatever Mary Lou needed and her sudden flight to Miami. Cross-examining myself, I concede it might not be a mere failure to recognize a connection; rather, it could be a deliberate refusal to see any link. On redirect, why did she choose the ladder? The doorbell would have been sufficient surprise.


The Julia Tuttle Causeway surfs from the mainland to Miami Beach, level with Biscayne Bay, daring the waves every other hurricane as it hop-skips the intermediate islands. Uncle Morry's home is on one such island, protected by a gated entrance complete with a guard and electric arm. But Death had arrived by water, dripping its way up from the pier.

When I arrive, Danny and Aunt Sophie are in the living room, surrounded by family, friends and Howard, the Black retainer who, in his early 60s, followed Uncle Morry to Florida 30 years earlier. Howard does not clean house or cook meals, but he knows how to mix a martini, drives within the speed limit and has 40 years of service. Danny beckons on seeing me, his usual glass in hand, the same red cheeks and puffy eyes, sitting in the corner of the room, surveying the scene. If I join Danny, I am in for some whiskeys and water, whatever it takes to keep him calm. I go to one of the empty chairs that surround Danny like a barrier reef and say I will have whatever he is drinking, determined to avoid the usual argument. I sit on the edge of my seat, ready to move away if he is past his fifth drink, or to lean back if he is just starting. When I tell him that his father had offered to set me up with an office and some business if I ever moved down to Florida, I regret my words. I have no idea what Uncle Morry might have promised Danny, who reaches for the drink Howard brings for me, says he would have preferred independence any day, empties my glass in a gulp, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, waves the empty glass at Howard, and complains about his father's constant scolding. I say I never heard Uncle Morry raise his voice. But that wasn't true. I was there when he yelled at Aunt Sophie, or cursed the gardener, or argued with any of his tradesmen. What was true was that my uncle had never shouted at me. Uncle Morry had a voice like crushed gravel rattling in his throat, so the threat was always there, but I had never been bruised by the dust.

Danny leans forward, cheeks almost as flushed as his nose, his tongue thickening his words. I put a hand on my cousin's arm. Two months older, I have always been able to stop Danny this side of a fight. I tell him that his father had always expressed his love for him, which makes Danny slump back in his chair, eyes moistening, denying that his father ever told him any such thing.

It is time to visit Mary Lou. Danny directs me to the top of the stairs, flashing the blackened teeth that come from using dentist money for booze. Mary Lou's second-floor bedroom has a brightly curtained window overlooking the bay. I see sails moving against the sky. Clouds overhang the water like leftover smoke from an Everglades fire. Only the top rung of an imaginary ladder fails to finish the picture. Mary Lou is propped-up in a double bed that exaggerates her thin frame. She is under a yellow, cotton blanket meant to disguise her destruction. Once slender, now she is withered, the blanket draping her legs and her chest, but the part of her body that shows is tanned, her face vibrant, her hair bleached. Howard must carry her outside to lie in the sun every day. She surprises me by smiling. We could be at her parents’ apartment for a long-ago Thanksgiving or following a mid-winter drive from the snow to the sun. Or as though she was arriving in my apartment for Friday night dinner with something to tell and on legs with the strength to say it.

She greets me without referring to our broken date years before, or to her father's death, or to my decades-long absence, making it easier than I deserve. She waves away my apology, smiling and patting the edge of her bed by her teddy bears. I sit next to her, saying I have often thought about the night of her call, which is a lie. I hadn't started until halfway through the plane ride, but I believe I should have thought about it, which means that it will become true if I work at it. I tell her I should have invited her to come right over, my belief growing stronger, a seed now watered into recollection. Mary Lou tells me how ashamed she was when she made that call, prompting me to claim the guilt as solely my own, against my professional instincts. I touch the blanket on her legs, aware she is unable to feel my hand.

Mary Lou says she never blamed me, and that her father never blamed her for what she did. She tells me her father used to come to her room and sing to her. Uncle Morry had usually barked, even when he whispered, regardless of whether he was sharing a remembrance of his first sexual experience, giving unsolicited advice, or telling how his banker had made him apologize to a secretary he had insulted. I could reconstruct many tones of Uncle Morry's voice, but not how he sounded when he sang. It would take an extraordinary effort, but Mary Lou believes it, and that seems to comfort her. She places her hand over mine, squeezes, surprising me with her strength. She must exercise daily, her hands denying company to the rest of her body. She tells me that when her boyfriend came down after the accident, she told him to go home. What was the point? She stares at her shrouded legs.

Although I am a lawyer who takes pride in my eloquence, I now fumble, admitting I never thought there might be a boyfriend. The words erupt without any forethought. That's no way to practice law.

She smiles and asks me, what did I think? She doesn't say why. So, I must figure it all out on my own.


The cemetery is above ground, stone walls stacking tombs high above the sea-soaked soil, avoiding the risk of leaching, offering the deceased a view of the pastel skyline of the city, even, for those at the top of the stack, the sight of the ocean beyond. As in the case of the real estate that supports my standard of living, the customers pay for location. When the ceremony concludes, I wait until the departure of the family and friends' limousines – the Bentleys of the newly rich, the Jaguars of money outliving every recession, and the Cadillacs of the rest of the crowd. Then I drive my rental back to the airport and catch an earlier flight home, ready to meld the sense of past and present. I can't be certain my interpretation of the script will be right, but if it goes unchallenged it will become the truth.

As an officer of the court and minister of the law, I know that at the time of Mary Lou's call, long before legal abortion, couples relied on the pill, or a condom, or even early withdrawal to avoid the issue. The introduction of a boyfriend to the cast has propelled Mary Lou's play to its finale. She must have been pregnant. I must acknowledge that truth and consider the further questions. Had I seen her at once, or if Mary Lou herself had waited for our Friday night dinner, had I possessed that empathy, or she that patience, had she then detailed her crisis, what would I have said? Would I have assured her of her father's forbearance? Would I have told her of a father who himself once had sex in the straw? Would she have avoided failing at suicide and succeeding at paralysis? I am eager to close my eyes when the plane takes off. If I look within, reconstruct the scene, restage the set and rewrite the dialogue, my imagination will prevail. I will become the hero.


I am at home from work, following another triumph. What is the weather? How am I dressed? Which deals have advanced, or at least avoided disaster? My call.

It is still raining, but the mid-summer sun breaks through the clouds, providing a setting seeking a rainbow. The rain drools down the windowpanes. My view is too high above the trees to see their tops, unless I look down while pressed against the window, or step out onto the balcony and lean over the railing. Why not? My shoes are already wet from my walk. As I turn away, a startle of light demands my attention. I stand motionless, lest my movement, even so far away, smother the rainbow's breath. At that moment, the phone rings. When I answer, I hear a voice that permits alternative recognitions, each as likely valid as the other but, as I am the playwright, so it must be her.

"Mary Lou?"

"I hope I'm not interrupting dinner." Her voice is devoid of both hope and appetite. 

I sniff the mushroom soup and brisket. When it rains, Val cooks winter meals. "Just got home." I shrug my Burberry onto the bench in the foyer. 

"Jerry, I need to see you."

She needs. Her needs are at the root of her estrangement from her father. Uncle Morry is used to command and supplication. He dispenses favors to his children as though he is the rabbi and they the rabble. I have witnessed these children at their father's altar throughout my youth. I have not seen Mary Lou for years, not even when she moved to Chicago to study art and rented an apartment a few blocks from my own. Now she is on the phone, announcing need.

"If you want some cash, I'll be glad to cover you until your dad can send a check."

"Not that. I need to see you."

I am anxious to change out of my wet clothes, but she is family. "Why don't you come right over?" I could suggest we meet at Butch McGuire's bar a few blocks away, but on a Wednesday night the crowd is warming-up for the weekend. The Pump Room is across the street from Mary Lou's apartment, but I have already removed my tie one-handed while on the phone. I could invite Mary Lou for Friday night dinner, and let Val demonstrate her skill at roast chicken, but Mary Lou's voice does not have a Sabbath tone; it has the echo of a deathbed prayer. After we hang up, I go to the kitchen and give Val the news. She smiles without question and sets another place. Considering the menu, I feel better about my decision. The meal will be split three ways. I have never been a fan of brisket.

Ten minutes later, the doorbell sounds. I ring her up. I hang Mary Lou's coat in the closet and escort her to the sofa left over from my single days. I offer her a drink.

"I'd better not. My father will kill me. I want to tell you while I'm sober."

Mary Lou does not look like she has been drinking. She has managed to escape the example of her brother. Whether she has a substitute vice is hidden by a long-sleeved blouse that shields any scars on her arms. But the visit probably has nothing to do with her reputation as a teen. She is clear-eyed, and her nose is dry. Then, why is she squeezing-out her words as though afraid she might be unable to complete the sentence?

"Okay, you talk, I'll drink." I look away from Valerie's scowl. 

"I don't know where to begin."

In my experience, that means she knows exactly where to begin, but is uncertain from which direction. “Why don’t you tell me what you need, then we can discuss how to get there."

"What I need is an abortion." She reaches for my glass, grabs it out of my hand and drains the scotch. "My Dad will kill me."

"Know who the father is?"

Val frowns. But what is more appropriate? Condolences? Congratulations? Talk about the Cubs? Fatherhood would be at the top of Uncle Morry's list, once we make the call.

"You could get married. If you knew who, I mean."

Val glares again, as she does whenever I am witless. She is the civil side of our union.

"Or you could give it up for adoption. You were adopted yourself." As though out-of-wedlock birthing were hereditary.

Valerie is out of her chair and approaching me.

"Or keep it, raise the baby. Your family can certainly afford it."

There. I've outlined all the options before Val can shut me up. Now, I merely need to fill-in the details when Valerie sits down.

"He'll kill me."

Again, with the killing. Yell, maybe. Nothing more dramatic than that. "Why, because you didn't use a condom? You should have been on the pill."

"I was away for the weekend. I forgot."

That was my cousin, all right. Needy. But forgetting what she needed.

"Did he ever tell you the one about him in the hayloft?" Probably not, but she should get to know her father beneath his shouts.

We call Uncle Morry from my apartment. I let Mary Lou tell the story. I can hear my uncle's voice pinging from the headset like radar seeking its target, but Mary Lou's shoulders, which press into her ears at the start of the call, relax during the diatribe. At the end, she is crying, but smiling, still afloat. She hands me the telephone.

"Would you put her on the plane, Jerry?" Uncle Morry says. There are no thanks, but no curses, either. My uncle is whispering without hint of a bark.


I press my eyes even tighter, determined to capture my uncle's tone, the timbre of his voice, the softness of his words. I can now hear all of that, create this new reality, and shape the truth to a better resolution. I grow calm, rewriting the dialogue, reworking the words, detailing the movements, coloring the costumes and peopling the stage. My head is beginning to ache. I fight the temptation to relieve the pressure by opening my eyes. If I keep them closed longer, squeeze even tighter, and with the utmost sincerity, I might yet see my uncle sing.


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A native Chicagoan, Dick Carmel's writing has been published in Typehouse Literary Journal, Akashic Books' Monday Are Murder, Chicago Literati, birds thumb, Mash, Travel Today Magazine and the Northwestern University Law Review. He has also written two novels (both unpublished, but he is still trying). Suffering from either eclectic or haphazard taste, his favorite authors include Elmore Leonard, Tobias Wolff, Jennifer Egan, A. E. Home and Rupert Thomson. Carmel has a BA degree from Northwestern University and a JD degree from the Northwestern School of Law. Widowed, he has two children and two grandchildren – all better-looking than he is.

Posted on July 13, 2018 .

"The Open Door" by Neerja Raman

The door is open. 

Why is it open? What is in there, past the open door?

Arms folded on my chest, stooping as if to block the world, I march across our front lawn and stand on the sidewalk. I stare at the house opposite ours, which has been vacant for months. 

It looks occupied, but I don’t see a moving van or cars in the driveway.

Did they fly in? 

Someone inside flips a switch, and a bright light streams through the open door.

“Jeena! Dinner is ready. Where are you?” I hear my mother call, but I don’t turn back.

Winter is setting in. It is also getting dark, and I am alone on the street. 

The cold settles in my heart makes me wrap my arms—it is only forty degrees, and not windy either. Anyway, I like cold weather. It is in my genes, my father said—his genes. He instilled a pride in me, in my physical ability to withstand any storm, any snow, any hail, any wind, any hazard that Nature might bring my way. 

So, this shivering, this unusual tremble, this blocked chest is not about the cold outside.

I continue to stand and look.

The open door is a magnet of possibilities. Its promises entrance me.


One month back, I wouldn’t even have noticed, let alone cared about an open door.

But it’s different now. I am different. Dad is gone, and he has left me frozen inside. Dad never taught me that cold can come from within. He only taught me how to brave the Nature outside. 

His heart had never felt alone, atilt, or adrift.

The open door radiates a hope that beckons.

What sort of people leave their front door open so anyone can walk in? How long will they leave it open?

It is unusual in America for a front door to be wide open, late in the evening, where the custom seems to be doors that are closed. If I walk up to a house, ring the doorbell, and someone opens the door, I already know, though I cannot see this, that they have inspected me through the piece of glass set in the door somewhere at adult eye level, high above my head.

“Jeena, stand away from the door when you ring the doorbell, far enough for them to see you,” Mom has instructed me, because in my excitement, often I forget and lean into the door—as if to teleport myself through. 

It’s not only front doors that are closed. When I go for a sleepover to my friend Anna’s house, she closes the door to her room so her mom and dad can’t walk in or look at us as we play.

“Why do you close the door, Anna?” I used to ask. “We are not doing anything that your parents can’t see.”

“No, Jeena. We need our privacy,” Anna would say with an assurance I wished I had. “And they don’t want to hear our noises, anyway.” 

Anna is my best friend, and we giggle and whisper though we can be as loud as we want because of the closed door.

I notice that Anna’s parents close their bedroom door too. Anna’s elder sister is in high school, and she keeps her door closed when she is in there. Her door has a handwritten piece of paper taped on that says, Keep Out

It is different in my house. Mom and Dad did not close their door, and I was not allowed to close mine. They said privacy is not about closing a door. Even at night, they left their door open. I remember crawling into their bed, right in between them. They didn’t mind, and I loved it. We went into one another’s room whenever we wanted. We didn’t close inside doors except to go to the bathroom. In fair weather, or on weekends when we were home, even the front door was left open. “It’s good for cross ventilation.” At night, or when out, we closed it and then we looked the same as others in the neighborhood.

Houses in America are designed so doors can be closed without affecting access to common areas. A typical home has a corridor with rooms going off on one or both sides so each person can close the door behind them. “Just like a hotel,” Mom says. “What is the point of having a house, a home, a family if we shut ourselves off in our rooms?” She doesn’t subscribe to American notions around security or privacy. “What is the privacy for? You need privacy from strangers or when you shower and change clothes, but why do you need privacy to lie in bed and read a book? Listen to music?” 

Dad was born in Michigan, but he agreed and said we had nothing to hide from one another. Open doors must have been customary where Mom grew up in India because Mom is a pretty private person in other ways. For example, Mom and Dad didn’t kiss in public as I have seen other parents do. The most they did was hold hands when they thought no one was looking. Dad sometimes sneaked a peck on Mom’s cheek, and she blushed red in spite of her dark skin. It was almost a game they played, their own secret game. Mom’s ideas about privacy are her own, and Dad loved her just the way she is. And I loved my dad best and saw her only through his eyes.

So, I don’t admit it to anyone, but on Saturday afternoons, when we were home together, when I was in my room, I wanted my door open. The soft breeze that wafted through our house carried sounds that connected our family and made us special. It was as if an invisible thread wove through our bodies—fine yet strong in a flexibility that allowed us to be independent without being unsociable. I could hear the clattering of Mom’s utensils in the kitchen, my dog Zeena’s snoring in the yard, and Dad practicing his music on the living room piano. We had a bond in our family that withstood distance, separation, and the cold.

I close my eyes and recall his music. An open door reminds me of us—as a family. It helps me summon the inner warmth that binds us.


I remember the man who visited us last month when Dad was on a trip. He knocked on our door and when Mom opened it, he asked, “Are you Mrs. Maya Mann?” and when she said, “Yes, I am,” he said, “May I come in?” The man wore a dark suit and carried a briefcase. He was from the State Department. He showed identification and asked to sit in the living room. He said he would not be long. When he saw me, he asked to meet with Mom alone, but she said it was fine for me to be there. If she had known what was coming, she might have agreed with him, but with Mom, I don’t always understand how she thinks.

“Mrs. Mann, I am sorry to have to do this, but I must inform you that Mr. Jerald Mann’s vehicle was ambushed in Pakistan yesterday. He was traveling to a remote village. It was a routine assignment—security inspections and audits. We had no warning that he was in any danger. It was unexpected, and we have initiated an inquiry.” 

“How can that be? He called me yesterday.”

The man took official papers out of his briefcase and handed them to her.

“I am sorry, Mrs. Mann.”

He let himself out the door, and Mom sat unmoving, staring at the papers. I don’t think she remembered I was still sitting there.

After the man left, I sobbed, pummeled her body to get a reaction, and threw a tantrum. 

“How could he? How could Dad die and leave us alone?”

Mom seemed to come out of shock and held me tight. “Shh,” she said. “Shh.”

She was not crying. 

I did not understand. “Is he gone? Gone-forever gone?”

She nodded and crumpled the papers to the floor. Still no tears. In my rage and confusion, I turned on her.

“You! It’s your fault. You didn’t love him. If you did, you would have stopped him from going to dangerous places. I hate you.” I thrashed out of her embrace.

I said a lot more. I don’t recall how long I ranted. Along with my grief, hurtful words poured out uncontrolled; how I had never seen her display affection publicly; how she wouldn’t stop him from going away. She said Dad’s job brought him fulfillment. She knew it was unsafe, but she had no right to stop him. She said their love was sacred but private.

What about me? Did she even love me?

She sat in place till I calmed down. Then I ran to my room and slammed my door shut. She did not follow me or knock on the door. I realized my mistake and opened the door, but the moment had passed. 

At night, I heard her sobbing herself to sleep. Every night. Night after night. She needed me but I did not know how to help. I froze when I thought about a future without Dad.

Last night, I found the courage to crawl into her bed and hold her tight. It started the thaw. She talked. She told me that while she had thought about returning to India, she had now decided America was our home. 

“Would you prefer that, Jeena?” she asked. “I want what is best for you. Jeena, you are my reason for living now.” Then she held my face in her hand, looked me in the eye, and said my outburst was healthy. That I shouldn’t feel bad about what I had said. She was glad I could express my anger, sense of betrayal, and feelings of loss. “Dad loved you very much, Jeena. And he loved me too. He loved us enough to last seven lifetimes.” That’s what she said—it’s the Indian in her. And she told me what she meant by seven lifetimes.

“Your dad will always be with you. He lives inside and around. What you have to do is close your eyes and call him.” 

And that’s how I can hear Dad practicing the piano. Even though he is dead.


But when I am with Anna, when she comes to my house for a sleepover or to do homework, I close my bedroom door because I understand it’s the American way and I want to be an American. Mom doesn’t say anything about it.

There is no contradiction in my mind. So what if Anna’s habits differ from mine? She is her own person and so am I. I look like Dad except I have Mom’s dark hair, and his hair was gold. I know this because sometimes when strangers assume I’m white, I don’t correct them. When they call me Jane, I let it go, though I am proud of my name. Dad said small slipups don’t reflect the true person. Mom said I am American whether I am brown or white. 

They are both right.

But since Dad died, such little things make me anxious.

That is why the open door has me transfixed. It is the door to our new neighbors. They must have moved in during the day when I was in school. If I walked into the bright, warm kitchen, what would happen? 

Who are these people? Will they welcome me or will they think I am strange to visit uninvited?

I drop my arms, square my shoulders, take three deep breaths, and ready myself to face the world. I march up the driveway, to the front door. 

“Hello. Anybody home?” I yell as I press the doorbell on the wall.

I am not cold anymore.

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Writer, technologist, and unabashed geek, Neerja Raman’s short fiction has been published in several periodicals, and she received an honorable mention in the Katha Fiction Contest (2017) for her short story “Garden of People.” She has also authored essays and other nonfiction published by Information Age Publishing. Her book “The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making: A Seven Step Spiritual Guide” is available on Amazon. Her debut novel is “Moments in Transition: Stories of Maya and Jeena”, also available on Amazon. Raman was inducted into Women in Technology International  Hall of Fame.




Posted on February 8, 2018 .

"The Land That I Love" by Jory Pomeranz

Each colonist was allowed three personal articles, and each had to be able to fit in the palm of a hand. They were reminders of life on Earth. As time passed, new generations revered these objects, their peculiarity and their contradictions. What use was a pocket watch to a day longer than twenty-four hours? Except it was a pretty contraption, winding up to make a musical sound: tick, tick, tick, tick, tick...

Posted on January 17, 2018 .

"World, Backwards" by Gina Willner-Pardo

I hate her, that girl. She can’t be trusted. She wants my things. She stole my red pants and some of my mail. And my car.

“She wouldn’t steal from you, Betty,” Everett says.  

I always shake my head at him. “You don’t know her like I do,” I say.

I love that Everett.

“I know her pretty well,” he says.  

I laugh, because he is a kidder, that Everett. 

He visits me every week. He takes me for rides in his car. We drive through Sunrise Harbor and look at the houses. “Aren’t they beautiful?” I say, and Everett says yes, they are. He says he and his wife—the new one: I can’t remember her name—might move here someday. I would love that. I would love knowing he wanted to be near me.  

Men like me.

That girl—the one I hate—stole my car. I should call the police or something.

I am an excellent driver. I have been driving since I was thirty. Not before that, because Morris taught me right after we got married. I got married late. I don’t remember when. An old maid: I know that much. But Morris wanted me. I don’t know why.  

He made a lot of money, but he was hard to be married to. Very hard. He wore underwear at the dinner table and was crude.  He was so young when he died. I don’t remember how old he was. It was so long ago. I have been alone for so long. It’s like I’m a virgin again, all closed up down there.

I’m ninety-three. I tell everyone. They all say I don’t look it. They say I have beautiful skin and pretty, curly hair.

When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself. Or in pictures. “Is that me?” I ask Everett when we look through the albums.  

I was never much to look at.

I think maybe Morris was homosexual. I think that was it. He shouldn’t have married me, if he was.  

That girl who stole my car. Dawn. That’s her name: Dawn. She is terrible, terrible. She disconnects my phone. And steals my pants. I had red pants, and now they’re gone. She took them. I know she did.  

I’m going to talk to a lawyer or something.

She—that Dawn—hired the girls. All the girls in the apartment all of a sudden. Little Oriental girls, cooking, buying the food, giving me pills. They want to go downstairs and get the mail, but I won’t give them a key.  

They sleep on the couch, next to my chair, where I sit all night. I don’t sleep. I watch television and stay awake, to make sure they don’t go through my mail or steal things. I watch Maury Povich when he’s on. I love that Maury.

Those girls want to walk down to the mailbox with me, but I tell them no. Orientals stand too close. 

I’m waiting for the letter from Publishers Clearinghouse, with the check. I already know I’ve won: the letters said. If I let the girls go down to the box, they’ll steal the check.  

I have to be so careful.

Dawn says I haven’t won.  

I can’t wait until I get the check: six million dollars, the letters said. I’ve already decided I’m going to give some of it to Everett, and some of it to Ian. My grandson Ian. He is adorable. Darling. And so handsome, if he would just get rid of that chazerai on his face.    

I won’t give her a dime, that girl, that Dawn. Not one dime. I will tell her, You made my life a living hell. Nothing for you.

One of the girls is all right. She’s beautiful, and she does things without my telling her. She cleaned the patio so I could sit out there. I can’t remember her name. I can’t remember any of their names. They come and go. But I like that one, the one who cleaned the patio.

“I can’t stand that Dawn,” I tell Everett when he comes up for coffee after our ride.

Everett goes to the bookshelf in the den. He finds a book and brings it to me. He sits on the couch. I like the way he feels next to me: warm, big. He smells like life, like a man. I think maybe he will kiss me. I remember all that, a long time ago, before Morris said no more, he was done. I’m not too old for it. Ninety-three isn’t so old.

Beard. That’s the word. That’s what I was trying to remember.

“Look at this,” Everett says, opening the book. “Do you remember this?”

A girl in a long, white dress. Holding flowers, but ordinary, plain. I like it when girls are beautiful.

“Is that me?” I ask.

“That’s Dawn,” he says. “That’s the day we got married. We were married for almost twenty years.”

I don’t know who ‘we’ is. “That’s not Dawn.”

He turns the page. The girl standing next to a boy with chazerai on his face. “Ian!” I say.

“That’s me. Dawn and me. Ian wasn’t born yet.”

Not born. Where is everyone, before they are born? Some people say in Heaven, waiting. That’s not what I think. I think everyone is nothing, dust. There’s nothing before or after. You just disappear.

I look at him, then back at the picture. “That’s not you!”

“Yeah, it is!” He laughs, so I laugh, too. Men like it when you laugh at their jokes.


Dawn keeps having my phone turned off. She says it’s to protect me, that people are trying to take advantage. I know it’s really to keep everyone away from me, so she can get all the money. I tell her she’s ruined my life, the way she is.

She’s the one who stole my car. I should call the police or something.

What she did was, she asked if she could borrow the car, and I said all right. I should have known better. I knew she was up to something. But I wanted to help. She said her car was in the shop. I wanted to be helpful. That’s the kind of person I am.  

Give me back my car!” I screamed when I figured out what she had done. And then “It’s mine!  Give it back!” when she started to explain about the forms.

“I don’t have any forms!” 

“The DMV sent them—”

I never got any forms!”

She’s ruined my life.

I should call the police.


When Everett drives me around Sunrise Harbor, I love to look at the trees. They are magnificent, so tall. One tree can shade two houses! Magnificent. I can’t remember their names. I tell Everett that when I was driving, I didn’t have time to look at the trees, because I had to keep my eyes on the road. But now I notice them. You miss a lot, when you’re the one driving. But I don’t tell her that. Dawn.

“How old do you think they are?” I ask him.

“Pretty old.  Maybe a hundred years.”

I think he’s told me this before. A hundred is old.

“Some bristlecone pine trees live for thousands of years,” Everett says.

“That’s impossible!”

“No, really, Betty. I swear.”

“Not these,” I say. “What are these?”


“That’s right,” I say, showing him I know things, too.

There are deer on the golf course, and wild turkeys, and geese. The turkeys walk slowly across the street, pausing in the middle sometimes, not for any reason. The cars slow down. Everyone waits. I talk to the turkeys and the trees. They’re my friends now. In my head, I talk to them. I don’t tell Everett that, or Dawn, or the Orientals. It’s nobody’s business.

I don’t play golf, but I wish I did.  Golf is for rich people. Men. For a long time, Jews weren’t allowed to play. Now that’s different, I’m sure. I’m sure they would let me play.

I’ve been a Jew all my life. I’m proud to be a Jew, but they don’t talk much about Heaven. “Who knows?” everyone said when I was little and asked. Everyone: Mama, who died so young, Papa, who didn’t talk much, except to tell me I wasn’t much to look at. The rabbi.  

When no one talks about it, you stop believing, after a while.

One of the girls—the one with a cross on her neck--watches shows on my TV. I let her.  Sometimes I listen. Now I say to Everett, “Did you know that some people think Jesus was a Jew?”  

I want him to be shocked at how much I know, but he says, “Yes.  That’s true.”

“I never knew that!” 

Everett laughs. “I think you did.”

I don’t like how he says it. Like he’s smarter than I am. And the way he was about the trees. Sometimes he’s a know-it-all. I don’t like that. But he’s a doll, that Everett. I think he likes me. I think we might have been married once. Maybe I left because I didn’t like the way he talked to me, thinking he always knew the most.

“You’re my friend,” I say. Feeling shy

“Yes,” he says, taking one hand off the steering wheel to pat my hand. “Your ex-son-in-law and your friend.”

“I bet Dawn hates that you’re my good friend.”

“No,” he says. “She doesn’t mind at all. She likes that we stayed close.”

“You don’t know her like I do,” I say.


It bothers me about Jesus being a Jew. Maybe that means the goyim are right, that I have to believe all that chazerai. Maybe if I believe, then it’s not nothing, before and after. Maybe it’s another place, Heaven, with trees and sky. Big trees, even older than here.

But I don’t know how to believe, after not believing all my life. It’s too hard to change, now.  

So maybe everyone else will go to the other place, and I will disappear. 


I used to walk every day. I walked fast, up and down hills around the golf course. Now the girls want to come with me. I tell them no, there’s not enough room on the sidewalk for two people together. I say they can follow me, if they want: it’s a free country, I can’t stop them. But now I don’t walk. I don’t like the idea of being followed, of someone watching.


Dawn comes to my apartment. She sits down and says, “How are you?”

What kind of a question is that? How am I.

“Terrible. The days, they’re…I watch TV.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Dawn. I want my car. I want it back. I want you to get it and bring it back,” I say, in the voice that gets things done.

She looks down. Her hands rubbing against each other in her lap. Nervous. Shifty. “I can’t. I just can’t.”

I want my car!”

“This is what we can do,” she says. And then something about a doctor. An appointment.

“I don’t need a doctor,” I say. “I’m ninety-three! What do I need a doctor for?”

“If the doctor says you can drive, I will give you back the car,” Dawn says.

Something in the future, bright, a hope. A light to walk toward. Like the other light, the other one I see sometimes.

“I don’t know what a doctor has to do with it. I am an excellent driver.”

“They don’t like for you to drive if you’ve fallen—”

“I’ve never fallen!”

“In Safeway. Twice.”

“It was nothing. Someone helped me up. I sat on a bench. It was nothing! I was fine!”

“It’s not nothing—” 

Goddammit! I want my car!”

She stands up. Leans over, kisses me on the cheek.  

“The appointment is on Friday. Ten o’clock. I’ll pick you up.”

That damn Dawn. She makes my life a living hell.


At night, sometimes, there is a light. Small and sharp, a pinprick, a burning star just above the TV. I feel an urge to get out of my chair and walk to it. It vibrates, changes shape. It is like a mouth the way it moves, about to speak. I want to walk to it, but I don’t. Someday I will.


I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about the doctor, about how he will tell Dawn to give me back the car. The look on her face. “I told you!” I will say. The doctor will say, “She is an excellent driver,” and look hard at Dawn, as if to add, You should know this, and Why are you bothering me with this chazerai?

I hope the doctor is a man. I don’t like women doctors. The way they think they know so much. The way they touch you. Men are better, the way they touch. Men like me. They always have. Except for that one, the one with the glasses. The one I married, you know, the husband. I can’t think of his name right now.


In the early morning, the sky is white. The news is on TV.  Those men—one white, one colored—are laughing about something, the weather. I don’t see what’s so funny. They shouldn’t laugh so much.

Then one of the girls is touching my shoulder. “Mrs. Berner? It time to get up,” she says and I shake her away and say, “I know!”

“Dawn come soon,” she says and at first I thought she meant the morning, but the sun is high now, the sky blue. 

In the shower, sitting on the plastic chair, I remember: an appointment, the doctor, getting my car back. I feel an almost-forgotten thing: joy. Getting the car, but also a reason to go out, a new man to talk to, the look on Dawn’s face when he tells her I’m right and she’s wrong. I scrub my arms hard, and my thighs, to be clean for him.  He will notice. It is important to look nice for men. 

She comes at 9:30. Dawn. She is wearing pants and a black sweater. Her pants are blue, but that doesn’t mean anything. She might have the red ones in a drawer at her house. Or in a box. Somewhere hidden, so I won’t know.

I lean forward in my chair to put on my shoes, and Dawn says to the girl, “How are you, Joyce? Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?” and then the girl starts going on. She is hard to understand: that accent. I sit up and say “You don’t have to talk to her” to Dawn, who blushes red.  

I don’t want them talking. Plotting.

On the way to the car, she asks, “Can we hold hands?” and I hold mine out. Hers is warm and dry. Did we ever hold hands before?  I can’t remember. I don’t need to hold her hand, but I don’t mind it.

At the doctor’s office, she tells me to sit in one of the chairs, but I don’t like her taking charge. I push in front of her and tell the girl at the desk to wait while I fumble for my wallet, my card. I think she and Dawn are exchanging a look. “Don’t look at her,” I tell the girl at the desk, and then, “I’m ninety-three.”

She is very young. She looks like a little girl. Her arms are the color of candy, not chocolate, that other kind I can’t eat anymore because of how it sticks.  

“You take your time,” she says. “It’s all right.”

When I give her the card, she looks at that thing on her desk that is like a TV and says, “Ten o’clock. Have a seat. The doctor will be with you in a few minutes.”

Dawn reaches for my hand, but I don’t take it. I don’t want anyone seeing.

She reads a magazine while we wait. “Modern Maturity.” I hope the doctor asks me to read for him. I am an excellent reader. That should convince him.

When the lady opens the door and calls my name, Dawn stands up, too. “I don’t need you,” I say. “You stay here.”

Dawns sits, after giving the lady a look. Always looking and thinking I don’t see. She makes my life a living hell.

“How are you, Mrs. Berman?” the lady asks me in the hallway.

“I’m all right,” I say. “Are you the nurse?”

“I’m Dr. Mahoney,” she says.

I feel my chest caving in, everything sagging toward the middle. Disappointed. “I want the man,” I say.

“I’m just as good,” she says, taking my arm. “You’ll see.”

I pull my arm away. “I don’t like this. I want another doctor. Someone else.”

“Just come in here and talk to me for a minute,” she says. “Just for a minute.”

She asks nicely. We go into a room. An office, with a desk and a chair. No bed to lie on, with the white paper that crinkles.   

Sitting down, I hope we can talk about Dawn, how she makes my life so miserable. How I am an excellent driver. How those Orientals touch everything in the house and steal my pants. Or maybe it was Dawn. I can’t remember.

“I want my car back,” I say, in the voice that gets things done.

The woman who says she’s a doctor has short, wavy black hair. She wears glasses, and one of her eyes looks in the wrong direction. I think that if she’s a doctor, she should get that fixed. I don’t think she’s married.  She doesn’t look very good. Men want you to be pretty.

She says, “Can you tell me what day of the week this is?”

What kind of a question is that? “I don’t care about that. I want you to give me back my car!”

“Mrs. Berman,” she says, “What time is it?”

I look at the clock over her head. “A little after twelve,” I say, even though that doesn’t seem right.

She asks me other questions—things I don’t remember now—and she seems like a nice lady, so I answer. It is like we are having a conversation. 

Oh! Who is the president?  That was one of them. “Obama!” I say proudly. He’s such a doll.  He should wear blue shirts, though. The white ones make him look too dark.

The lady smiles.  “Do you know who’s president now?” she asks, but I ignore her because I already said.  

“I want to show you something,” I say. I fumble with my purse. I have a picture of that boy—that darling, darling boy with the chazerai on his face—that I keep to show people.

“Mrs. Berman?” she says. “Can you spell ‘world’ backwards?”

I’m still hunting in my purse, not finding what I was looking for.

“Mrs. Berman?” she says again, and now I stop.

“Please spell ‘world’ backwards,” she says.

I snap my purse closed. “What kind of a question is that?” I ask.

“Do you want to give it a try?” she asks.

I sit perfectly still for a moment, thinking about ‘world’.  I think of a round, blue ball—smooth, like a marble—spinning in blackness, swirling in space.  Blue like water, like the shirts I want that man to wear.  I can’t think of his name.  

We’re all there. Spinning, swirling. Everyone. Everyone I know. If Everett were here, I would tell him that, and he would smile and say, “That’s right, Betty,” as if he were the teacher and I was the best student and he was proud of me. 

I can’t think about the world, about the trees, the animals. Everyone I know. Even Dawn. I can’t think about it anymore. It makes me cry to have it in my head. Everything I’ll miss.

“Mrs. Berman?” the lady says.

“I want my car,” I say, in the voice that gets things done. 

She says something else, but I don’t pay attention. Above her head, I see that light, like the one over the TV at home. Moving like a mouth, like lips about to speak. Bright. I almost get up and go to it, just to see it better. I think for a minute that it’s Jesus, and I want to tell him that I can’t believe, it’s too late for me to believe, but maybe he’ll take me anyway, because we’re landsmen, we’re mishpucha, really, because I tried to be good, I really tried.  

But it’s not Jesus. It’s someone else.

The lady reaches out and touches my hand. “Your daughter loves you very much,” she says.

“I am an excellent driver,” I say, but softly, because I want to hear what the light is saying.


Gina Willner-Pardo has written short stories published in Berkeley Fiction ReviewPleiadesThe South Carolina Review, and Whetstone, which awarded her story “Accident” the John Patrick McGrath Memorial Award (1999). She has also written seventeen books for children, all published by Clarion or Albert Whitman. Gina’s book Figuring Out Frances won the 1999 Josette Frank Award, presented by the Bank Street College of Education, to honor a book of “outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally.” 
Gina has a BA in English from Bryn Mawr College and an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley. She has studied with James Frey. When not writing or reading, Gina enjoys running, hiking, kayaking—and she makes a mean blueberry custard pie.

Posted on December 12, 2017 .