Issue 2, Spring 2007


By June Michaels

Walking on the opposite side of Amsterdam. Cutting through the crowd with a certain urgency. Her gait was wide, the child running to keep pace. The child’s hair was furious, his face fixed on hers, his mouth jabbing at the air like an excited dog come to see his master. She’s given him an ice cream and he waves it about in the air as if it were a baton. As he watched them he fingered the smooth barrel of the gun. It was in him like a wish. The steel, as steel is, had no warmth. After all those hours in the café, suffocated by the black wool of his trousers, the ugly sun banging down on them. He ran his finger over the circumference of his mouth and resumed following them down the avenue. Sir, the check, said a man behind the consultant’s back. He ignored the voice and walked on. The avenue was so busy the consultant could only catch glimpses of the woman. She appeared from behind ill defined talking faces for seconds at a time and then disappeared again, like the air behind the spokes of a spinning wheel. Would her naked feet kick out in reflex in the event of being choked, arch like wild wings, and then fall limp as if their existence was contingent upon a life spirit? The consultant wound his way through the crowd. His stomach was ill. It had been so for some time. As they turned off the avenue the child stopped and began to wail. His face trembled and went red, and then exploded with horrible tears. His ice cream had fallen to the ground and begun to melt there under the relentless July sun. At first the woman knelt down next to him and brushed his cheeks. But then after she saw that her comfort was no good she became frustrated and slapped his mouth with the back of her hand. Stunned, the child hid his face inside the woman’s legs. Veiling his shame in the clerical gray folds of her skirt. Pressing his tantrum against her stockingless outer skin. Perhaps tears rolled down her white legs, ending like frozen serpents in a pair of dirty tennis shoes, though the consultant was too far away to make out such superb detail. But the child stayed there for some time, nearly inside her, this in the unselfconscious way that children are, mixing desire and familiarity, shame and shamelessness. Finally she picked him up. With his small, fat arms wrapped loosely around her neck they started down Vermillia. The consultant waited for them to get some way ahead and then continued to follow them. He counted the stoops they passed and noticed the way the heat of the asphalt on the street caused the air to ripple. In the back of his mind was a vague acknowledgement of gravity, how heavy things are doomed by their very natures to straddle the earth. They got to the end of the street and stopped. The woman put the child on his feet and faced the opening to the last apartment, rummaged indelicately through her leather knapsack. For a moment she looked up and surveyed her surroundings and seemed to notice the consultant, who was leaning against a lamppost some fifty paces in the distance, still watching. He felt her gaze and looked away. And when he turned back they had already disappeared. An old man holding a sickly, mud-brown dog in his arms was walking in the middle of the street. My wife was on the Australia disaster, he said, coming up to the consultant. Do you know it? No, said the consultant, seeing past the old man, his eyes fixed instead on the place where the woman had stood a minute ago. The Australia was a ship that went down off the coast of Nassau in the summer of seventy-eight. Sixty people died, he said. My wife was on that ship. My wife, Anna. The dog could barely open its eyes and when it so much as moved its head a little, it was not obvious that it was doing so of its own volition. Is she dead? said the consultant. No, no, said the old man, she is still alive, living somewhere, wherever she is. The consultant turned away from the old man and continued up the street. The small hand pistol, as small as it was, weighed him down so that he walked with a marginal limp. As he passed one apartment the smell of lilacs hit his nose and he thought about the house he grew up in. He had not been to that neighborhood in years.

He waited a long time before knocking. And when he did so, it took a long time for the door to open. During that interlude he went inside his pocket and gripped the cold steel handle of the pistol. He saw that the old man with the dog was watching him from the foot of a dilapidated stoop across the street. Knock louder, shouted the old man, gesturing at the door. When the door opened the child appeared, holding it wide with curiosity. The woman was approaching from a long, shade-drenched hall, wiping her hands on her sides. She came and put her hands on the child’s shoulders and looked at the consultant with a bored face, two misshapen dots for eyes, as if she were expecting him. The woman was ugly. Her mouth was swollen, her pale forehead damp from the heat, her cheeks sunken like flat balloons. Her whole face seemed to hang precariously on a skull by a single thread and if the consultant could find that thread, he could pull on it and that expressionless face would fall at his feet. He stood there motionless and watched her. After a long time she said, Who are you? The consultant said nothing. What do you want? she said. He stood there and looked at her in silence, her hollow face, the pathetic way her belly protruded from her olive top and sagged over the lip of her skirt. Her ugliness pleased him and he almost smiled. And the child clung to her leg, staring past the consultant, out into the street where no cars passed by. Suddenly she displayed a look of fear. He watched it, this expression, and wanted to satisfy it. She said, I don’t know you, you will have to leave, and began to close the door. But the consultant stepped in the way and forced it cracked. He was not surprised that the strength he needed was less than the struggle she put up. Something in her acquiesced. Or there was no will in her. Or the will was to allow him passage. His hand pressed flat against the door in preparation for another sudden burst, and he looked at her. The child began to wail, as if he could replace the woman’s will with his own. He cried in a pathetic, dirty way. And then he moaned her name, mama, again and again until it had no meaning. I am sorry, said the consultant. The woman stared at him. Her fear was not sloppy, not uncontrolled. She had felt it before, perhaps a long time ago. The consultant wanted more from her, a gesture of life perhaps. A wish to be left alone. A need to resist. I’ll go, he said, and left her there in the doorway, clutching the child. When he got to the park the sun was setting. The bay was calm and murky. He took the gun and pointed it out over the water and shot it over and over again. This time he wanted to poke a hole in the sky, make it bleed. He wanted to feel the recoil and know that his heart was still beating.