"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 .