by Sondra Friedman
Sondra Friedman lives in Washington state. Her short fiction has appeared in Inkwell, So to Speak, Forge, Slow Trains and The Pittsburgh Quarterly Review Online. Currently she is completing a collection of short stories and a novel.
In March, the phone calls started. Sharon's mother only called when she needed to push. This time she was pushing Sharon to see a psychologist because of the sound of her voice. Her mother knew its every timber and detected a tinny off-key note over the telephone, three thousand miles away in her condo in Florida. A short, assertive woman, she wore jangling jewelry and made up for her lack of inches by talking in high decibels.
Mother had a name and a number and she was pushing it. "His name is Dr. L. J. Lewis. I don't know what the 'L' stands for but the Meltzers met his uncle at a canasta tournament," she announced into Sharon's answering machine. "Brains run in the family. Call him, will you?"
No one trigger made Sharon's voice quiver. It may have started with the military surge in Afghanistan and the feeling of impotence that comes when soldiers are sent to battle. Or just a feeling of impotence in general, as she sat, cross-legged on the floor, staring at her toes, thinking about why she did what she did and if what she did was worth doing. Why shower? Did refugees from Afghanistan squander gallons of water a day to smell clean? Why eat? In Sudan, three meals were for militants on a raid. Why teach art? In Haiti, a paintbrush could not stop a child from being forced into slavery as a restavèk. Did the world need her to teach, and if not, what was her purpose? She'd negotiated four weeks of unpaid medical leave but would soon have to return to her classroom or lose her job. This was week three and she had no answer.
"Stop being melodramatic, Sharon." Mother again. "Pick up the phone. It's getting late. I know you're there."
Like yesterday and the day before, Sharon passed the day in her flannel nightgown, rummaging through stacks of newspapers she'd collected for a class collage. Her teeth, she brushed. Her hair, she did not. It was red, curly, sometimes wild, and currently closer to feral.
Her two cats took turns jumping off the green sofa from the Mift Thrift shop down the street as she leafed through the international section. Here a portrait of Raki, a slave of age seven, whose Haitian "monsieur" beat him daily with a rock. There a photo of four Zimbabwe girls, arms roped around one another—rape victims.
Sharon studied the pictures, clipped them, and stored them in her memory. Behind her thoughts, in the caverns where synapses met receptors, loomed a photo gallery. The gallery had started with a long rectangular room, then evolved into two rooms then four then eight that split off into countless arteries and ventricles.
On the gallery's white walls hung the newspaper photos along with a portrait of her grandparents, donning wool coats and hats. Ida and Albert had escaped the Breslau pogroms and fled a year before the Nazis invaded. Her parents rarely talked about it, but once, when she went with her father to see her grandparents' graves, he told her about her aunts and uncles killed in the camps. It's a worrisome task to live in a world where hate breeds in corners, he'd said.
"Whatever it is you're doing, just stop." Her mother's voice on the machine took on a staccato tone. "I know you're there, Sharon. Please pick up the phone. It's your mother."
How long could she avert? To destroy was suicidal and not an option in her mind. She needed a third coordinate. Not to avert or destroy, but to witness. To witness human atrocities and capture them, frame them and preserve them in a gallery beyond MoMA proportions.
The phone trilled. This time her father came on the machine. "She's threatening to come out there," he said in his nasally way, being a man of perennial allergies and a long-standing aversion to phones and relationships dependent on wires—having had a short brush with electrocution as a boy and being convinced that one day, soon enough, he'd be jolted back into submission. "She's got a ticket reserved," he added. "A bargain for half price, it's a red-eye flight. She could be there as soon as tomorrow. Shari, do you hear me?"
She grabbed the telephone. "Dad," she panted, "tell her I'm fine. I'm busy is all. She knows how I get when I'm overworked. Tell her I'll call her Dr. Lewis in the morning. Dad?" Sharon meant to add something. Her father was such a nervous man, even more so since the September eleventh bombings. He'd been an engineer known for his ability to anticipate problems and devise safety solutions. But the way he'd agonized over each project sent his blood pressure into the two-thirty zone. That's when mother pronounced, "Enough," and they retired to Florida. Two weeks later, the bombs hit. To this day, he refused to enter high-rise buildings.
"You don't need to worry, Dad," she added, listening to him breath, knowing he'd gone into the garage to talk to her alone. "I've got a topsy-turvy project underway here. Tell her it's like the fungi in the forest sculpture I did. Remember how I spent a week in Seward Park for that one? Remind her."
"I don't know."
"I'm fine, swear it. You still there?"
"I am. Are you sure you're okay?"
She saw no need to call Dr. Lewis. She'd already created a lucid picture of him in her gallery. The Dr. Lewis of her making had grave eyes and the watery face of a fish swimming in a pond, cheeks sagging and jowls jiggling.
"I can help you." Her Dr. Lewis would speak in a low, raspy voice that sounded like sandpaper scraping an unobliging block of wood. She would tell him about the gallery and how she maintained it and which pictures it contained and about this photo she found of an Iraqi girl who lost her family in an air raid. How she felt beholden to this girl, a survivor. How she'd been letting her down despite her greatest efforts to be optimistic. It seemed the only strategy was to live in tune with a world that devours itself and calls that survival of the fittest. She would outsmart them all. She would eat nothing.
"Food nourishes the soul," Dr. Lewis with his fishy eyes would tell her.
"That's what my mother says."
"You should listen to her sometime."
"I have more patience for my father."
"Then reach out to him."
"I already did."
In section C, page eight, she found a photo of an Afghani man in a Kabul refugee camp, wrapped in swaths of bright clothing, face blistered from sleeping in the sun.
"Dear Dr. Lewis," she composed a mental letter as she cut. "Do you know what it means to own a gallery of human cruelty? I can't leave the pictures alone because I am their keeper."
Dr. Lewis wouldn't prescribe anything. He couldn't start her without knowing where the roots of the thing lay, and the thing was a grey, indescribable beast. "You are depressed," he might tell her. "Not in the clinical sense—in the human sense. That is not anything I can prescribe away."
In the kitchen, she filled her brown mug with water. Flakes of old tea leaves floated to the top. Out the kitchen window, she noticed a hard rain beginning to fall. "I don't think I'm here by accident."
"None of us are," the doctor would tell her, tilting his head, hair jutting out to the side like a fluffy brown fin.
"They gave me the gallery to be its caretaker."
"Perhaps they did."
"Then how can I leave it?"
"Perhaps it will leave you."
"It's all hypothetical."
"Yes, it is."
She stared out the window. She appreciated Dr. Lewis with his big, slippery face. The rain fell and she imagined herself a fish in a bowl. Dr. Lewis the big fish. They were being watched by the generations above, waiting. In their fish bowl, they made a fine study.
"One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish," danced into her head. A verse by Dr. Seuss, a much better doctor. "One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish," she repeated for Dr. Lewis.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what that means."
"It means nothing. That's the point."
The doctor nodded, cheeks shimmering, eyes glistening. "So this is helpful?"
Out the kitchen window, she could see that the sleet had turned into snow. She opened the window with a shove and called out: "One fish, two fish."
"Red fish, blue fish," a voice answered from below.
On the sidewalk, one floor down, a man with a gray wool cap peered up at her. She couldn't tell if the man was real or from a photograph she'd clipped, stored, and now animated by accident. It had been days since she'd spoken to anyone face-to-face.
"Who are you?" she said.
"Your fairy godfather." He reminded her of a professor she once had in graduate school, wool cap, glasses with wiry frames, white goatee and high cheekbones, holding a brown, beaten case. Leaning his head to one side, as her professor used to do. It's about function serving form, her professor used to say, though we think it's the other way around. No, she'd argued for the sake of it, it's form that gives way to function. Everything starts perfect, then grows comprised.
"Make a wish," said the man on the ground. He was skinny, leathery, frail and aware of it.
"Jews don't wish, they survive."
"You can have two wishes in that case. One, you survive, and two, you—?"
"You tell me you're real."
"I am. Come down. I'll show you my hands." He put the valise on the ground and raised his hands up to the sky, as if he were catching snowflakes or creating them.
"I don't know you from Adam."
"I love that expression. Come on, I'm in town for one night before I go back home. There's a song I want to play for you. I wrote it on my way here."
"I can't leave. I have a gallery to tend."
"Anyone there now? It's late for visitors."
"There's more pictures to hang. Every second, a new photo forms. Yesterday, a college boy shot his two roommates. Two days ago, a man imploded himself on a bus in Tripoli. Who knows what's next."
"That's why today, we dance." He pulled a violin from his case and began to play. The music sounded melancholy at first, dirge-like and faltering, then suddenly playful and familiar. Snow fell in fat chunks, thickening and brightening the dark sky. How was it that a mere change in temperature turned something wet and sticky into temporary crystal?
"Do you know what comes after the red fish, blue fish?" She called out as he played. "Black fish, blue fish. They call it a plot-less story."
"Wish, wish, wish for fish." He strummed wildly on his violin.
"Are you really out there?"
"Fish are here to hear our wish."
"Do you exist?"
"Here I hear a wishful fish wishing to be a fish-ful wish."
"Can you stop the snow? I want to see your hands. Can you please stop playing, please?"
He put the violin down and looked up at her soberly.
"Why do people kill?"
"I thought we were singing a duet about a fishing well?"
"I thought you said you were God."
"Your fairy godfather—a drunk, singing sap of a godfather. Come on, it's wondrous out here. I've got one night before I have to head home. My wife has stage three lymphatic cancer, what can I say? They give her three months. Thirty years together and it's down to three months. Dance with me, please, while I'm still all here."
"But you're a figment of my imagination."
"Your imagination must be gigantic. I'm alive and freezing my buns off. If you don't come down soon, I'll have to run away to stay warm. So, what do you say?"
She studied the snow-speckled street, then glanced back inside the gloomy apartment. The night sky was a seductive, startling blue with its white dots teasing down. Each second, escalating. She left the window, made her way through the maze of newspapers and headed down the steps to the street below, dressed in her flannel nightgown and a pair of purple rain boots.
"Just in time." The man had wretched breath—he had been drinking all right. His eyes were bloodshot and he was older up close, wrinkles riveting the corner of his mouth and creating paths down his cheeks. He clutched the violin with red fingers and put his chin to rest on the cherry wood body.
Cold and unforgiving as it was, she drank the air, let the snow dissolve in her hair and lips, and moved into the white night. He played. She twirled. He played, she whirled. She wasn't wrong to come out. His was a sad-happy melody that made her feel as if he had written it with her in mind. This is dedicated to the girl frolicking in the snow, who knows what waits upstairs when the dance is over.
He played and danced until they both began to shiver. The sky had darkened to an inky black. The white flakes slowed their pace as if unable to keep up. Pulling the violin away from his chin, he bowed his head, while the last of the snowflakes decorated his gray wool cap. "I should go. She'll know if I didn't sleep and she'll worry. I don't want her to worry. I'm eliminating all worry, even the word. See? It doesn't exist any longer." His eyes were wet; they were small eyes really.
"I know of no such a word." She tried to snap her fingers but they ached with numbing coldness.
"Goodnight, in that case."
"You, too." She had the urge to kiss him with her mouth open. But he bent down to zip his instrument into its leather case. The coldness suddenly became unbearable and she found herself rushing to her door, fumbling with the keys, her fingers numb and clumsy with the lock.
"Don't put a sad picture of me in your gallery," he called out to her as she stepped inside. "I don't want you to remember me that way. There's no future in that kind of photo."
But she already had the picture of his wife embedded in the back of her head: An intelligent looking woman with the narrow, dried face of a chemotherapy patient, a scarf wrapped around her head.
"When fish wish, they swish, swish, swish," the man said as he backed down the sidewalk.
She decided his wife wasn't the type to cry, but anyone could see sorrow in her eyes.
"They swish until they find their wish." He continued walking backwards away from her, disappearing into the dark, snow flurries filling his footprints.
"Are you still watching?" He began to skip, kicking sprays of white into the air. "We're only good when gleeful. Here's the picture to hang in your gallery." Snow flew in an arc and he whistled.
She made a square with her two hands. "Click, click."
"You got me."
"It wasn't so hard, was it?"
She was about to shut the door. "What?"
"To come down." He waved and turned away, a retreating figure, disappearing into the cityscape. She missed him as soon as he disappeared out of sight.
Up the steps she went, into the ransacked room with its papers and photos, the cats purring from the bathroom, drinking toilet water since she'd neglected to feed them. The phone started to ring.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Shari."
"Mother, it's the middle of the night."
"Well, it's morning here and your father gets up at the crack of dawn, you know, to take his tea and hear the news. I keep telling him it's the same reel at 7:00 a.m. as 6:00 a.m. but he doesn't listen. All these years, habits become like oxygen, you know; he can't get through the day without them. Are you listening?"
Sharon crawled into bed with the receiver. Her cats climbed beneath the covers and nestled beside her. Charmin, the fat one, got there first and rested his head in her armpit. Fandango, the little tabby, settled for her hip. "I'm here."
"I wish I could get through to him. He's hardwired, sweetheart. You know what I mean? I really didn't call about that, though."
"I just thought I'd see if you made any progress with Dr. Lewis. He's supposed to be handsome."
"So that's what it's all about."
"Darling, no, it's about you and that sound in your voice. But I am hungry for grandkids! Your brother's taking forever and, well, I always thought you'd make a natural."
She shut her eyes and felt her head throb at each temple. The cats' fur felt warm beneath her fingertips. "There's nothing natural about me, mom."
"Don't be silly. Try Dr. Lewis, he's highly recommended. Besides, you might like him."
"I will, mom, don't worry. In fact, you can forget the word 'worry' even existed."
"Don't be silly. What else would I do if not worry?"
She pictured the man with his violin case, skipping down the sidewalk, whistling to the night air. His face was cragged and eyes forgiving. One way or another, he would find his way home. For now, snow. She could see it with her own eyes.
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