Homeless

You love your work. You’re thankful every day that you get paid, even though the donations trickle in slowly and the funding gets cut year after year. You still have a salary and you’re still doing something important. Something you care about. Something that moves people. You are in the very kernel of life, eighty-thousand leagues below the sea and down deep to the center of the earth. You have two children and a partner and you love them all. There are good days and bad days, because life isn’t perfect. But when your fortieth birthday rolled around, you were happier than you’d ever been in and you wondered whether people could see it on you, on your lined face and in your tired eyes. Happiness, joy, you’ve come to realize, are quiet things for you, and you experience them in the pit of your belly and the tips of your fingers and in the peace that falls on you when your head hits the pillow and you smell the familiar body of the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with stirring beside you.

Two weeks after you turn forty, you get the assignment. You accept it, because you’ve never turned one down before. You will do your best, but you’re not sure how to begin. You make the usual phone calls. You do the necessary research. You watch the episodes of the better TV shows that involve these people whose lives you’re supposed to start showcasing. You get lots of help. But when you walk to the metro that whole first week you’re more aware than you’ve ever been before. Your eyes have been opened. You see them everywhere, lurking, smoking, talking, even laughing. You see them going into stores and buying things. You notice that they have cellphones. You see them near churches. You see them rummaging in their bags and baskets.

You don’t approach them on your own. You’re too scared. Too nervous. You feel superstitious about them. They are your black cats and ladders and umbrellas inside the house. They threaten to shake you out of your joy. They’ve already begun, without knowing it.

The couple you speak to, the pair of them, have been handed to you on a silver plate by a charity who wanted to help you. You’re grateful to the charity, to their contribution, which feels strange since normally it is the other way around with charities. They’re grateful to you, usually. The couple they’ve supplied are perfect for your story. They’re around your age but look like your parents, they have health problems, they are coherent and can be recorded. You go with them everywhere, that first day. You took with you a wad of five dollar bills in your pocket, anticipating the need to get them to cooperate with you. You’re surprised. They talk to you as if you’re a tourist to their world. They’re eager to show you around, share their complaints, explain their situation, but they don’t ask for a thing in return. It’s another upside-down situation – you’re the tourist, but they’re asking you to take the sound-bite photograph of them. They trust you with their lives. The man lets you hear him begin to cry in the soup kitchen as he worries about his partner’s health, and you wonder if you would feel the same responsibility in his place, caring for this woman with no teeth. The woman looks at the man, concerned at his expression of emotions, so rare and untried, and you wonder whether you would worry about another man’s feelings if your legs hurt all the time as much as hers do.

You are brought into reality by them, and it is painful, a red-hot poker to your guts. When you fall into bed that night, your partner rolls away from you and mutters that you smell of smoke. You sniff. You showered, but didn’t bother washing your hair. You were too tired. You imagine the couple, stretched out on the sofa bed in your living room, piled under duvets and heads resting on clean pillows. They aren’t there, of course. They’re in their tent underneath the highway overpass, where you left them earlier. You left them where you left the job, somewhere else, to be resumed and returned to tomorrow, when you’re ready to leave your home again.

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This story was inspired by this news story on NPR’s All Things Considered. It is entirely invented and bears no real relation (besides that imagined) to the reporter or the subjects of the story.

Some Everydays

Wadi’ah sat under the table, tying and untying her father’s shoelaces. He was speaking English, a language she knew the contours of and could recognize, but didn’t understand. She knew that he was talking to a sahafi from a radio program from America. He told her that talking to the sahafi might help, that he would tell the people in America that they needed help, to please help everyone who was struggling. He had made Wadi’ah promise to be quiet during the interview, and she’d promised.

And now she was under the table. Wadi’ah hadn’t expected was for the sahafi to be a woman, in jeans and a long-sleeved black shirt and short, graying, uncovered hair. The woman’s shoes were similar to Wadi’ah’s father’s. They were tennis shoes, grey with a blue stripe. One of the laces was untied.

Wadi’ah slid, as quietly as she could, across the dusty floor. Her mother wasn’t around to clean anymore. Her father said she wasn’t coming back anymore. He’d cried, and she’d cried too, but she still was certain, somehow, that he was wrong.

She lifted the woman’s white laces up off the floor. The woman’s leg was very, very still, and she said something in English that made Wadi’ah’s father laugh. Wadi’ah loved her father’s laugh because it was very loud, like a donkey braying. It made her nervous for a second now, though, because she thought that maybe he would look under the table and see that she was holding the woman’s laces, but he didn’t, so she tried to tie the woman’s shoelaces tightly but without the woman feeling it. When she finally managed the last bit of the knot without the whole thing falling apart, the woman’s leg twitched, and Wadi’ah scuttled back towards her father’s feet.

There was a bang. The door of the house had slammed open. It was Farouk. He was yelling, shouting, like he had so many times before. Wadi’ah lifted her arms up, almost on autopilot, and sure enough, her father swept her up from under the table, at once.

The shelling began in the street as he ran downstairs to the tiny cellar they had built under their house when all this began. Farouk pushed the sahafi woman in front of him and heaved the cellar door shut behind him. The woman whispered something and Farouk hissed, angry. Wadi’ah’s father slapped his wrist in the dark. Then he spoke in Wadi’ah’s ear, so softly that only she could hear it.

“You saved her life, you know. If you hadn’t tied her shoelace, she’d have fallen and never gotten in here. You’re a good girl, my Wadi’ah, you’re a good girl.”

“Will Ama come back to us now I’m good?” Wadi’ah asked.

Farouk hissed at them to be quiet again, and the sound of shelling and the stomps of soldiers grew closer. Wadi’ah knew she couldn’t ask any more questions now, so she hushed. She’d have plenty of time to ask about her mother again later.

 

Stories from the News – Episode 1

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become an NPR junkie. I listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered almost every single day. I also recently discovered On the Media and listen to every week’s episode on iTunes, as well as NPR’s TED Talk podcast.

Beyond getting my daily dose of “what’s going on in the world” that way, I also get to hear interviews with authors who I never would have heard of otherwise, musicians whose music I don’t like but whose words inspire me, and series on topics that I wouldn’t be exposed to in my regular day-to-day life. Often, the stories I hear inspire me and give me ideas and things to think about. But what I don’t do often enough is write those ideas down.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Today I heard a piece that just sparked my mind and made me want to cry and laugh all at once. Whether or not a good piece of flash fiction will emerge from it is yet to be seen – but the important thing is, I’ll have recorded both the story that created a rush of feeling in me and I’ll have tried to write down some of what it made me think of. Here we go. The link below will bring you to the page with the NPR news story that I listened to. Below it is the piece of flash fiction that arose from it.

“The ‘Other Audubon’: A Family’s Passion”

______

“It’s been days. I’m worried about her.”

“At least she’s taking exercise today. That’s something.”

“Yes, but she insisted on putting on her purple dress. The one she always said that he liked.”

“And so we mustn’t say anything about it. No, not another word. If we don’t talk about him, she’ll forget about him in time as well. The important thing is that she’s out of bed again. Hush now, dearest. I think I hear her coming downstairs.”

She’d been downstairs for a while already, listening at the door, clutching at the handle of her parasol. She bit the inside of her cheek and felt the blood pool in her mouth almost at once as the old wound opened again. Every night it closed up, and every day she found a way to worry it ¬†open again. She wouldn’t complain about it to Mama, though, because then the doctor would come, and she was sick and tired of his patronizing eyes and the way he looked at her in her shift, nothing but her shift, whenever he was there.

“Are you ready, love?”

“Yes, Mama.”

They left the house by the back door. She wanted to go out into the fields, but Mama wouldn’t let her yet. She was too pale yet, she said, and too frail. Maybe when she got stronger, in a few days. Perhaps then. She regretted, now, the fuss she’d made, putting on the purple dress and staying in bed for days. She didn’t love him all that much, really, it wasn’t about him, it was about Mama and Papa trying to protect her all the time. She knew she was frail, she knew she was sickly and small and weak, and she hated it. She could never be passionately swept up by a man like the women in novels were, and she wanted so much to be a heroine at times. The closest she ever got to being a heroine was her fits of hysterical tears and the chokes she got afterwards, when she couldn’t breathe and they fetched the damned doctor.

A whistle sounded just as Mama tried to usher her inside and she looked back. It wasn’t him, which she knew was what Mama had feared. No, it was a bird, one of the beautiful Phoebes, and she could swear that it was winking at her, promising something. In a moment she would know what it was, if only Mama waited one more second – but no, she was ushered inside and whisked back into bed to have a bowl of broth so that she could get strong again.

Radio [Flash Fiction]

Jacky listened to the radio every day. He listened to it as a boy, hiding his transistor under his pillow so he could hear the rock music they played after ten. He listened to it as a teenager, sitting in his room and smoking cigarettes with his friends, and they would strum the air and yell at his parents whenever they tried to offer snacks and soda. He listened to it in college and grad school, often tuning to the classical stations because the sway of the music helped him concentrate. He listened to it as an adult and heard about the Berlin Wall coming down on the night that he met his future wife.

Twenty-two years later, he was still called ‘Jacky’ by everyone he knew, even though his state ID card and licence said ‘John.’ And he still listened to the radio. At this moment, he is listening to NPR and the familiar voices which have been around for half his life. He is lying in bed, alone at the moment, listening to the nurses pattering back and forth in the hallways. He tries to speak but can’t muster up the energy. He tries to move his arm and reach the call-button, but he fails at this as well. It has frustrated him in the past days, and he has felt, for the first time in his life, the urgent need to jump out of his skin.

But he has found a way to deal with it. The trapped feeling, he knows, will drive him mad if he allows it to take over. So he doesn’t. Instead, he listens to the radio that his daughters and his wife insist on leaving on by his bedside at all times. They know how much the radio has always meant to him, and he is thankful.