In this issue, we are featuring two longer works of fiction instead of the usual Far Flung and Boroughing sections. Our writers took the opportunity to respectively explore the exotic and the familiar, whether encountering an ancient tribe or taking a drive through an anonymous suburban neighborhood.
–Jeremy Liss, Creative Editor
By Chana Tolchin
My mother is more nervous about it than I am. When I leave the house every morning for synagogue, I hear her footsteps pulsing against the kitchen floor, resonating with all the thoughts she suppresses behind the line of her lips. Two children in Israel, God knows what might happen… Her brow softens only when Esther calls from her apartment in Jerusalem, and she nestles into the corner of the counter, cradling the phone in the crook of her neck. I’ll be on my way out the door and my mother will look up, tip her gaze in my direction, and smile with a slow sadness – Joshua, you’re an almost-man.
I spend the majority of my time behind the wheel of our old blue station wagon, circling South Rock. Sometimes I intentionally pass my home and accelerate down Freemont Avenue. I like to watch the houses and storefronts of the town spin like a kaleidoscope into the disappearing blur.
It happens on one of those days that my foot is on the brake and my mind is skidding off the road, scanning for stories. With two-dozen eggs on the passenger seat, I discover that everyone in South Rock looks the same. The men look like matchsticks in their white collared shirts and identical bobbing black hats, and the women all wear heavy skirts to their ankles, their cheeks furious with heat. I join the current of cars on Freemont, wondering why everyone is hiding amongst each other. I steer toward the driveway, curious to know if I myself am indiscernible in a crowd.
There are screeches and honks and a tumble of glass and eggshells is shattering around me. A screen door creaks somewhere in the distance and then the treetops spin and my arm is blossoming with pain…
Of course, my mother blames herself.
“It’s such a busy street,” she repeats, perching on the edge of my hospital bed even as I assure her that there’s nothing wrong with me beside the bruises. Her fingers all cling together in her lap and her headscarf is slipping down toward the lines on her forehead.
“It’s so dangerous. I shouldn’t have allowed it.”
I watch her eyes linger on one wide purple bruise, stamped like a miniature footprint across my forearm.
We sent the car off to the mechanic but there is still the same list of errands as always. I take to circling South Rock by foot, sticking to my familiar route even though it now takes double the time. Buses with billows of smoke and hazy profiles in the windows clamber down the highway. As I watch them, I wonder about the lives of these shadow-people and what they might be thinking when they look out their windows at South Rock. I wonder about other things, too – Esther’s voice that always sounds like music when she calls, our little brick house on the corner of Freemont Avenue and Frances Street that faces the busier of the two, and how maybe it’s possible for a person to spend their entire life turned toward the wrong direction.
Sometimes, after one of these long bouts of thought, I return home to unpack whatever I’m carrying. Then I crack open the door to my father’s study and slip inside. I stare at the rows of musty, leather-bound books and picture my father at the battered wooden desk, his beard tracing across the faded symbols, his mind absorbing the works of the sages. This is a place for thoughts to solidify, to settle into beliefs. I always step slowly away, closing the door behind me.
While Esther grows bigger my mother ricochets between elation and fiery concern.
“If I was there I would – another kick? Oh, Estie! Everything all in its time! You will tell me not to worry but I do, and especially now to raise a child. If something happened… promise me that you will never, never ride the bus.”
I wake up that morning to my mother’s end of the phone conversation. I’ve overslept, and I’ll have to recite the morning prayers alone for today. For a moment I lie in bed with my eyes closed, simulating that feeling of empty time. I listen as my mother sends Esther our love and releases the phone.
My youngest sister Rachel tiptoes into my room and says something in the direction of my ear. Through a sliver of one eye I observe her face against the window, the rusty haze already settled around us for the day. I sit up, take a moment to re-process her words, and ask her to tell Mommy that I’ll take care of it. She skips away and I wonder if she ever feels lonely, older siblings always leaving, coming back, leaving again.
I walk down the steps in my flannels, scraping my slippers with a noise like the slow rustling of pages as I shuffle into the kitchen and heave the slippery plastic hard with one hand. Navigating the drips, I kick open the back door and step into the heat when something catches my eye. I cross the driveway and lower the bag into the can until I hear the satisfying crunch. Then I turn and squint toward the corner of the sidewalk, where a girl is standing with her back toward me, waiting for the bus. She’s wearing khaki shorts, sandals, a t-shirt. Carefully, I lean my shoulder against the side of the house, trying not to look like I am watching anything in particular.
A usual gaggle of long-sleeved, long-skirted young women are approaching the corner. The girl turns to smile at them. The women hurry by, eyes on the ground.
From where I am standing, shielded against the wall of my house by the shadow of a small awning, I see the girl clench her fist around something she is holding. It is rectangular, and brown, with glinting gold symbols. A prayer book.
A thick rush of air slides past me and I watch the bus come and then go, disappearing into the stream. The corner of the sidewalk is empty again except for the pole with the bus sign on top.
“Joshua. There’s something I need to say.”
My mother removes a vegetable knife from the counter, dropping it into the suds of the sink. I can smell tonight’s chicken soup boiling restlessly on the stove.
“In just over a week, you will be on you own, halfway across the world from your father and me. It’s not as safe in Israel as it is here – I need to know I can trust you. There’s already been one accident…”
“Mom. Don’t worry so much about me.”
She smiles half-heartedly, the rest of her face barely registering a change.
“I’ll be safe. I promise I will.”
The blade of the knife tips in the water and then falls, settling beneath the foam.
I keep track of the girl for another couple of days. I always spot her easily; her hair glints gold in the sunlight in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Not in South Rock, anyway.
Today she is standing in a line of matchsticks.
Then she boards the bus and rides away.
Later, the mechanic calls to say that the station wagon is all patched up.
“Tough piece of work,” he says into the phone.
I walk over, sign a couple of forms, then hop in. I turn on the radio and drive home, feeling strangely unsettled as I pass by the people walking on the side of the street. I had forgotten how small they look from behind the wheel.
“Sixty minute backup on the GWB,” says the voice on the radio, as I drive past the cleaners and the bakery.
“Bus flipped over on the bridge – freak incident. Five dead, injuries still being numbered.”
I find the dial with my fingers, turning it slowly so that the volume increases.
“Driver, dead, appears to have been intoxicated.”
The car moves from tar to cement. I steer into the driveway, eyeing the bruise on my arm.
“Officers are lifting passengers from the windows of the vehicle.”
I park the car and step out into the familiar heat. As I near the front door, my gaze wanders toward the empty sidewalk corner.
The air around it lingers with flecks of gold.
CHANA TOLCHIN is a sophomore in Barnard College. She can be reached at [email protected] Photo by Flickr user bricolage.108.