PEGGY RAMBACH

 

Keeping a Light
(excerpt)
by Sophia Maurasse

“Mommy, I need to pee,” said Manouska. The voice of my six-year old sister woke me up from a daze. Six hours had just passed. This was not strange. Only when I heard those words did I begin to feel the weight of the mattress on my back and the hard tile that was no longer cool against my chest.

During the past three months, they had never stopped shooting. But most of the time the noise was at a distance, far enough away that I could venture to play in the rooms full of windows, pretending that it was just part of the usual background as it replaced the honking and loud engines of the cars during the day and the frogs at night. It was always there.

Today was different. Not the usual shot followed by another in the daily wartime conversation that I had slept through many nights before. This was much angrier and I could no longer distinguish the different sounds - like hail on a tin roof, an angry neighbor pounding on the front door, or little clicks between big bangs.

From the hallway, between the open door of the bedroom and the bookshelf, there was nothing to see, only sunlight when I lifted my head and turned to the left, the first sunny day in weeks. Still, none of this was out of the ordinary. We had been preparing - it was ingrained in us - between the walls, underneath the mattresses, on the floor. Yet, now that the shooting had stopped and we waited for the next round, Manouska had forgotten. My mother reminded her. “Stay where you are and do it.”

Manouska lifted the mattress and stood up. It didn’t matter that the walls were riddled with bullet holes. She had to go. I followed. If it happens to her, it had better happen to me too, I thought. But it didn’t. She sat on the commode like she would have on any random day.

I stood in the baby blue tiled bathroom, staring at the plastic shower curtain, trying to remember the words to the Lord’s Prayer, knowing that only one wall separated us from the bullets. Too scared to pray or focus, I waited between the sink and the toilet and she finished before I could recall anything. We made our way back to the hallway, the shooting resumed, and I kept staring at the open room door.

Then, above the gunshots and missiles, we heard our neighbor scream. “Ma people, ma people, ma people,” she wailed, and screamed that her four-year old had been shot dead. I supposed that that kid, too, had stood up when she shouldn’t have, that one of those holes in the walls and curtains had brought her death. My father crawled over to my mother “Why didn’t you take the kids and leave? I had told you to do so.”

For the first time in the seventeen years he had lived in Liberia, he seemed to have remembered that it was not his home. He forgot how he had ridiculed my mother when she had pulled me out of school and taken me to that big, white American Embassy building to get American visas for the whole family. He forgot how he had laughed at her when she had packed our suitcases and filled the van with gas in case we could not take the plane from Monrovia but had to drive across the border. All that was lost to him, as he understood that there was no way out.

The smell of gasoline began to fill the hallway and my father told us that they had shot through the gas tank of the car. I couldn’t believe that they were outside, because they sounded like they were already in the house. And when I began to burrow even closer between my mother and sister, the soldiers started shouting again. “Erebody git ouside, git ouside!”

We all stood up and ran to the bedrooms, each grabbing a single object. We had been prepared for this. My mother had packed a small bag with essentials for each of us to carry. Yet, when we all met outside, none of us had a bag. I had only grabbed my glasses with the huge plastic frames, my godmother her ornate crucifix, my sister her backpack filled with hair ribbons and her favorite red belt.

Outside, I could feel the thick, green lawn between my toes and reaching up to my knees. I was barefoot and so was Manouska. We were both carrying our sandals in our hands because we had not had time to stop and put them on. We walked across the yard to the nearest house. It was right next door, and yet I had never set foot in it. It didn’t matter now.

I entered an open white living room space without any furniture in it, just bare, dirty feet and bodies, people crouched on the floor, all clumped together like little mounds of brown flesh draped with raggedy clothes. I found my own corner, sat on the floor cross-legged next to Manouska and I looked across the room at the owner, a tall, slender, black man, who announced who had been shot or killed - as if one of us could have done something. My godmother, who had worked for as long as I could remember to fix cleft palates with Operation Smile, had nothing with her but that crucifix.

When we all settled in our space, I saw him. Kwame sat on the floor, only wearing white shorts, with his long, skinny legs straight in front of him. He turned to the side, revealing his bloody skin, big red strokes running from his shoulder to his lower back. I could not see the holes I knew the shots had made, just blood. I could not reconcile his silence with his wounds. No tears or complaints. He was alive and I wondered what he must have felt.

I knew his name like I’d known where this house was. They had always been here. And today was the first time I truly saw them both. I had seen him play and run around the yard with the other kids. He’s going to die, I kept thinking. He’s going to die. There is no way. There is no way. There were no ambulances, no one to rescue him.

We waited for the shooting to stop once more. And when it did, the soldiers told us to leave. We had to. The rebels were on one side, the government soldiers on the other, and we in the middle.
I hadn’t been outside in months because my mother feared what the soldiers would do to me. I didn’t think about them. I read The Arabian Nights and made skirts and shirts for Manouska out of the old curtains. And at night, I listened to stories about Po’ Boy and the clever Spider.

I finally put on my sandals and made sure Manouska had hers. We had to walk because driving was out of the question. On the street, there were no cars, just the soldiers lying in the grass, by the sidewalk, manning “checkpoints.” My mother had made me wear my godmother’s old jeans every day for months because my usual shorts and t-shirt outfit somehow made me a possible target. Now, I wore the shorts, but wore my godmother’s jeans on top, just in case. They were meant for her large body so my mother used some needle and thread to make them fit my ten-year-old frame. But, as we walked down the street looking for a place to spend the night, the thread gave way, and the jeans slid down.

As we passed each checkpoint and the soldiers ordered us raise our hands in the air, I could only raise one since I the needed the other to hold up my pants. But the soldiers never seemed to notice. Instead, they noticed my father. His lighter complexion and beard had also worried my mother, yet she had not thought of a way to fix this. So as we crossed an intersection, one group of soldiers stopped us. “You rebel, come ‘ere,” a soldier ordered. He made my father stand aside, apart from the rest of us.

By the time we were stopped, Manouska was too tired to walk and had to be carried, and my father had begun carrying her backpack for her. The soldier seized the bag from him and after going through the pastel colored ribbons, he found the red belt and held it up as evidence. My father was a rebel. The red belt proved it.


Coffee Girl
(excerpt)
by Tauheed Zaman

I stand swaying in the subway car as it pulls into the station. The sliding doors open with a hiss and I am the first one out. I weave around people on the escalator and breathe in the cool air. I walk down the street and my darkly shined shoes seem to float an inch above the cracked sidewalk. I feel a breeze pull at the ID badge around my neck. It swings nonchalantly over my rumpled button down and khaki pants. I pass other people and wonder if they notice it. I hope they do. I hope they wonder about the lives I am going to save that day. I hope they wonder about my scintillating nightlife. I am a man’s man , a woman’s man, a man about town. All this is a detour on my path to greatness.

It is the second month of medical school, and every morning I walk through Chinatown on my way to the hospital. I step over puddles and candy wrappers along Temple Place. I glance at the neon signs in the restaurant windows. Shopkeepers yank open the galvanized storefronts, and I barely wince at the squeal of unoiled pulleys. I turn the corner of Temple and Washington. I pass two old Chinese women along the way. They walk slowly and hand in hand, wrapped in heavy winter coats and bright scarves. I notice the folds of skin at their eyes and wisps of hair that escape their caps. The hair seems translucent, and so like my grandmother’s – was her hair so white last time? – that my breath catches at my throat. I walk on, to the corner where an aproned man fries meat for breakfast sandwiches. I smell spices mixed with the sour scent of garbage. The scent grows transmuted, somehow, between the crisp air and my senses, and seems to grow sweet.

Then I am standing in a saffron-scented kitchen, watching oil sputter at the edges of a frying pan. It is a warm afternoon and I am waiting for a sari-covered arm to reach in and pluck hot bread from the oil. The mango tree outside the window casts shadows on our waiting hands, mine small and brown, hers bigger and adorned with curlicues of henna. Then I hear the rumble of an approaching truck, and with the trumpet of its horn I am jolted back to my walk. I fold my arms against the cold.

 

Out of My Head
(excerpt)
by Diane Stevens

The first thing I knew about it, I was sitting on the edge of my bed, blinking. My husband, Ed, sat by me. An EMT stood a few feet away, looking at me with an intent, inquisitive gaze. Another EMT stood by him. A firefighter or two and a police officer hovered in the doorway. It looked like some kind of big bust. Apparently I was the suspect.

“Do you know what happened to you?” the EMT asked. He was a few steps ahead of me: I was still figuring out that something had happened to me. I had the distinct feeling of joining our program already in progress.
“No, I don’t,” I said. In retrospect, I wish I had said, “I’d like to ask the audience, Regis,” but it was far beyond my reach at that moment. My baseline wits were still slightly beyond reach.

“We think you had a seizure,” he said.
Did not, I thought, but said nothing.
“Have you ever had a seizure before?”

I was reminded of one other time when I’d come to and found myself the focus of sudden medical scrutiny. In that case, I had passed out in the cafeteria at work after a lunch spent with four guys obsessively discussing the nationally televised gruesome fracture of Joe Thiesman’s leg. Partly because it felt way too hard to explain and partly because some as-yet dimly illuminated corner of my mind realized that this was not the same thing at all, I merely said “No, I haven’t.”

“Do you know what day it is?” he asked.
I gave this a good think. There were seven possibilities. I mentally auditioned each one. None seemed more likely or less likely than another. It was a strange feeling to find myself utterly without an opinion on this question.

“No, I don’t,” I said. I was beginning to sound like a witness at a Congressional hearing: I do not recall at this point in time… Apparently I had answered some early round questions correctly: What’s your name? Do you know where you are? I have no recollection of this, but Ed tells me it’s so. I was stumped in round three.
I got onto the gurney under my own power, inwardly grumbling Shit. Do we really have to do this? Another strange feeling: being carried backwards, semi-reclined, down my own staircase. An ambulance was parked in the driveway, and I was loaded in. It was cold and I was shivering uncontrollably. The EMT asked again if I knew what day it was. I did not. He started an IV. Ed appeared at the ambulance door and smiled, visibly relieved. He told me this was because I now looked pissed off, but like I might actually be ok.

“Hi honey.”
“Hi. You gonna follow us in the car?”
“Yeah. See you there.”

He headed up the driveway toward the garage. The sky was just beginning to show pink at the horizon. The big oak behind the garage was silhouetted on a background of grey-blue. Somewhere in my head a cluster of stunned, flailing neurons reconnected, and suddenly, I remembered.

“Oh! I know! It’s Saturday. Well, Sunday morning.”
Welcome back to the river of time.

 

The Mill
(excerpt)
by David Ferrone

Every once in a while someone claims to hear a voice coming from the canal. The hunch turns into a paranoia that someone is drowning. They call the police and when they drain the canals, all they find are old tires and shopping carts covered in black mud.

If you listen hard enough, you can hear anything coming from water. For me, it is the sound of a hundred kids on a wooden roller coaster. I can hear the giggling voices as the cars climb up to the top of the rise. Then as the track drops off, the pitch and volume increases and I can hear the screaming. Sometimes I hear actual words. The townies from my childhood are taunting me with a cruel rhyme. And now just as then, I feel angry and humiliated, and when I listen harder they go silent. This makes me even angrier. Soon I begin to speak to myself.

Who would hear me anyway? The bedspread manufacturer that used to cut the checks downsized to a few looms and some maintenance workers in one small part of the mill. They defaulted on the property taxes and the city seized the buildings. Now the city leases it back to them and anyone else willing to pay.

Like me. When I enter my shop I see a track overhead that was used to transport bags of wet fabric as big as my dad’s old VW. There is a fan in the corner that was used to exhaust the moist air from the dryers. There is dirt everywhere. The dust piles up on the surface of the brick walls. The dust is a combination of dead skin, cotton fibers, and animal droppings and it drapes over the fluorescent lamp shades. It hangs down like moss and drops off in clumps when I accidentally hit the lampshade with a broom.

The few remaining workers don’t seem to like me too much. I steal air hoses and lampshades from the abandoned parts of the mill that they’ve seen in my space. We both know that they don’t belong to me. They don’t belong to them either, but they’ve been working in this building since before I was born. Sometimes a maintenance worker will approach me from the opposite end of the long hallway that spans the building. I can hear the footfalls before I can see him. To save electricity, every other fluorescent light in the building has been turned off. So, the hallway goes from pitch black to bright light every ten steps and neither of us is in the light at the same time. Sometimes I can see him but he can’t see me and sometimes it’s the other way around. The craters on his face are the aftermath of every insult hurled at his complexion in high-school. I am taller than him but I slouch so that we are actually at eye level when we pass. I spit out a hello without looking him in the eye and he only stares back at me.

School has not started yet, so I have no place to sleep and nothing to eat. I fast until I can actually feel the insides of my cheeks start to fall inward against my teeth. When I rise from sitting on a stool at my workbench I get dizzy. I buy some Twinkies and a Coke from the vending machine and I work until 4 A.M. when I am so tired and hungry that it stops me thinking altogether.

I sleep in the office that was built by the last tenant. The drywall that was used to build it is half as thick as a standard sheet so when you punch it your hand goes clear through to the other side. I scoop my papers off the desk and put them in the drawer. I lie on my side on top of the cracked faux wood laminate top and I bend my knees up to my chest, figuring that the rats won’t be able to climb up the side and nibble at my face.

Sometimes I practice what I will say when I run into her again. I will explain what I have been working on all this time and how I have done it all without her and how I am not like I was when we were last together. Then I’ll tell her a joke that is perfectly witty and her eyes will shine with admiration.

Author, Peggy Rambach, runs creative writing workshops in community education settings for the Healing Arts in health care, correctional facilities, ESL programs and immigrant support centers as well as offering assistance with lesson plans in professional development presentations for middle and high school teachers. She teaches memoir writing in medical schools as part of the curriculum in Narrative Medicine and Medical Humanities. Ms. Rambach is conveniently located for teachers, students and participants from throughout New England including the Vermont (VT) cities of Bennington, Burlington and Montpelier, the Maine (ME) cities of Portland, Gardener, Kennebunkport and York, the New Hampshire (NH) cities of Portsmouth, Concord, Manchester, Dover, Nashua and Rochester, the Massachusetts (MA) cities of Boston, Newburyport, Amherst, North Hampton, Salem, Beverly, Lawrence, Lowell, Haverhill, Gloucester, Plymouth, New Bedford, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, Rockport, Hyannis, and Falmouth, the Rhode Island (RI) cities of Providence and Newport and the Connecticut (CT) cities of New Haven and Hartford.