Fiction

Still Tender, acrylic gouache, by Rae Dumont

Dreamers

He’s damned handsome, her son Elias. Mona’s heart skips a beat. Lean and muscular, he has a spring in his step. She stands back from the window a little; it annoys him to catch her looking at him. Memories hang between them, intrusive, persistent.

 

Gregorian chants fill the room, the pure voices ethereal, without sadness. Elias glances toward the house, stops in the path. The early graying at his temples makes him look thoughtful. Or maybe that’s only her hope. She clings to such hopes, to her elusive dreams for him. She finds his favorite jazz channel and wonders why he came today. Months have passed since the last time.

Outside, he bends over the low stone wall beside the path. He lifts a stone, turns it this way and that, brushes it with his fingers, puts it back just so. The summer he built that wall he was home from college, working with stone for a landscape architect. It took weeks before he was satisfied with the wall’s graceful curve. He tore the wall down and started again until it was serene and perfect.

He is so much like his father, Mona thinks, with that relentless attention to detail. She met Yemani at a refugee camp and remembers his meticulous care with the mangled leg of an Eritrean child. After another bombing raid, scores of children had come for refuge. This boy’s leg could not be saved. Mona held the child while Yemani worked; he checked, and checked again that his surgical instruments were all organized as he wanted them. They all knew the field hospital’s supply of anesthesia was rapidly dwindling.

The amputation was swift and clean. Mona was awed by his skill. Someone whispered that the young Eritrean surgeon was trained at Great Ormond Street in London. Tall and almost gaunt, with copper skin and finely chiseled features, Yemani was everywhere at the camp, answering questions, dealing with emergencies.

A starry-eyed, newly minted child advocate, Mona had joined the international Eritrean Relief Association as tiny, oppressed Eritrea struggled for independence. She had felt virtuous actually doing something, not just sending funds. Within weeks she felt only like an intruder, a voyeur of calamity. Her skills fell flat against the mute stoicism of wounded and brutalized children. The war raged on.

 

She shakes herself back to the present. Elias has Yemani’s features and his strong, narrow hands. He has Mona’s brown and wavy hair. She watches him shift another blue-grey stone until it fits perfectly. He straightens and walks under the arbor toward the entrance.

At the door, at an excited girlish pitch, she calls out, “Elias, how very good it is to see you.” She throws her arms around him. With her hands still on his shoulders she steps back to look at him. “You look healthy. And I must say, I like the stubble…”

He beams, picks her up and spins her around. “My tiny little mommy!” he laughs. “What’s for dinner? Something smells awesome.”

 

After dinner, they linger in the dining nook. The red-and-orange Guatemalan napkins are rumpled, the empty plates stacked. The evening sun is warm and bright at the bay window. A riot of late-summer flowers competes for garden space. Birds chase each other from the feeders.

“Listen,” he says, “Chet Baker.  ‘Love for Sale.’ Amazing, right?”

“Hmm. Lovely. His trumpet sounds like honey.”

“That haunting bass line totally changes the mood.”

“It does, but I like your version even better. When your horn moans, with only hand drums to answer it.”

“You remember that? Jamil nailed what I wanted there. I don’t know anybody else who can get tablas to ‘talk’ like that.”

These are safe subjects, things they both love. But why did he want to come and see her, why now? She asks only: “Still playing at that downtown café?” He nods.

“Has the new singer learned to blend in, or is she still acting the diva?”

He chuckles. “You know, once a diva, always a diva.”

“Playing your own compositions?”

“Yes, we do several of my pieces now. People seem to like them.”

“Nice. And the apartment, it’s working out?”

“Well enough,” he says.

Almost casually, she ventures: “And Cecilia? Have you seen her lately?”

Cecilia, such a beautiful child, with Elias’s dark eyes and bronze skin, her mother’s halo of red curls. The girl is quick and sweet as a young cat, and already fierce.

“Nope,” Elias sighs. “Amanda won’t allow visitation. The hypocrite told the judge I have an anger problem! I told you about the stupid restraining order, right? She’s a fucked-up bitch.”

Mona cringes at his flare-up. “That was ten months ago, wasn’t it? You’ve had another court date since?”

“Well, yeah, l did have a court date.”

“Good. What’s the plan?”

He stares out the window.  “I missed it. I had a major gig that I could not refuse. I talked with somebody at court to say I couldn’t make it.” He avoids her eyes, shifts in his chair.

“And?” Mona holds her breath.

“They claim they never got my message. I’m still waiting for a new date,” he frowns.

She starts to open her mouth and stops herself. How could he drop the ball again? His own child, and he hardly fought to see her… In Mona’s world, everything revolves around the child; everything revolved around Elias….

Hoping she sounds calm enough, she asks, “What are the conditions for weekly visitation? Is Amanda going against the court order?”

“It’s all bullshit. They want me in AA or something. Imagine. That’s hardly my problem, as you know. Amanda made that up, and the judge fell for it.”

She has an impulse to scream that he’s an arrogant fool, blaming everything on others. She chokes back a lecture on growth and self-examination. She knows better than to pressure him; she also fears his explosions.

She loves him so much. Too much? Or does she only love the Elias she imagines he could be…?

“You Don’t Know What Love Is”  plays on the radio. Such rich minor harmonies. But John Scofield’s version has a driving, disturbing pulse, a haunting distortion on the electric guitar.

She shivers. Her head hurts. When the restraining order was first issued, she ‘d suggested that Elias request visitations in this house. She is, after all, a well-respected child psychologist. He had bristled, “No way! That’s humiliating, my mom supervising me!”

This too is like Yemani. Pride spilling into anger. The last time she saw Elias’ father was when she told him she was pregnant. He had gazed at her intently, hands on her shoulders. Then, eyes boring into hers, he asked her to follow him deep into war-torn Eritrea with his child.

She had recoiled; he grabbed her shoulders so hard she was suddenly terrified. She had never intended to stay in this place, she only came to help for a few months. And he expected her to follow him deep into the mountains with the Eritrean Liberation Front? They would go hungry; she would have to shelter her baby from Ethiopian bombs.

She panicked and ran from Yemani, crying. She ran from the war zone. She ran from the man she loved. She ran all the way to Boston, created a home for her child, a life for herself. And she vowed never to run from anything again, never to be caught off-guard, and never again to get in over her head.

Here she sits now with the son she raised alone, and she misses her granddaughter. Mona had never seen much of Cecilia to begin with; Amanda was too suspicious of her mother-in-law. She was a brittle, hollow, and frightened young woman, and she sensed that Mona saw right through her veneer of sophistication, her studied friendliness. It didn’t matter how hard Mona tried to welcome her. Elias, as usual, had believed his exuberance and charm would make everything OK. He would clear a path into forever and make Amanda whole.

 

Mona steers them back to safer ground. Elias slowly relaxes enough to tell her about a new project he has in mind, becoming more animated as he elaborates.

Mona drifts into her own thoughts. Suddenly she hears “Mom?”

She was remembering other plans, other dreams. How much did she miss? Her wine glass is barely touched; his is empty; so is the bottle.

“Sorry,” she says. “I was thinking. Tell me that last bit again?”

“Gosh, am I that boring?” he huffs. “Well, here’s the bottom line. I want to help the kids in my neighborhood. They don’t have much going for them.”

“No, I guess not.”

“They drop out of school, or they can’t find work, so they hustle drugs.”

“I was hoping I was imagining that.”

“Get real, Mom.” He frowns. “Sometimes there’s gunshots in the housing projects.” He looks at her. “Oops, sorry, shouldn’t have said that. You have that look again.”

She tries to wipe the worry off her face.

He says, “See? That’s why I don’t mention certain things, you worry too much. I’m fine. I know how to be safe.”

“I try my best to trust that, honey.” She manages a small smile. “So, what is your idea?”

“You know I have a knack with kids, right? You’ve seen me….” He leans across the table. “I want to start something for these kids to get excited about, enough to keep them off the streets.” He pauses. “Remember the Harlem Boys Choir?”

“Yes, of course. They were amazing.” They also had enormous resources, donors, and public acclaim back then.

“Nothing quite that big,” he quickly clarifies. “Just after-school music. There isn’t even a music teacher in this district. I see groups of kids around the basketball court every day, listening to music, tapping out the beat, making up moves, singing along.” He stands, demonstrates some moves to a rhythm in his head, snapping his fingers. “I bet they’d love to do more, you know? Set up actual performances. I have the contacts to make that happen. I would teach them and make them better at what they do. I’d help them make the program all their own, their own sound.”

She considers. What a good idea. “Where would you get instruments?”

“I’d do mostly voice and percussion at first. Bang on trash cans if we need to. Then get friends to donate old instruments. We’d soon make money from concerts, and …”

“Hmm- ” She waits. He sits across the table again.

“My friends could teach voice, percussion, trumpet, whatever; a legit music program. But…” he looks away, “I will need funds to pay them, to start out.”

Is a request coming her way? Interested, careful, she asks what sources of funding he has looked into.

He says, “That’s just it, I applied for three grants; they all turned me down. They want to see a track record first. A track record before you get start-up funds. Catch-22.”

“I see, frustrating. Would the school be interested in working with you?”

“Dunno.” He fidgets. “The guidance counselor thinks it’s a great idea. Even offered to talk with the principal three months ago.”

“Oh nice. Can you check in with him again?”

“Well… That guidance counselor is a she. And we haven’t talked since the last time I saw her. At a bar in town.” He looks at his hands. Says nothing. Bites a fingernail. “I’m not sure she’d want to talk to me again,” he says so softly she barely hears him.

“What are you saying?”

“I dunno, Mom. Don’t bug me. She seemed interested in me. We went out. We had a drink. I don’t remember too much else.” Pause. He looks at the sunset. “Next time I went to that bar, the owner said something nasty about watching myself.” His jaw clenches. “Asshole.”

She freezes. This is all too familiar. “Was that –?” She scrutinizes him, takes a breath. “Sorry, Elias, I’ll have to ask this straight out. Were you off your medications again? I wish I’d—”

“And what would you have done, mom? You know the drill. Once I get ramped up, I don’t want to hear about it. Life feels great at first; there’s nothing I cannot do.” He looks at her darkly. “I know, I know. There’s always the crash afterward. You don’t have to remind me.”

She makes herself as still as she can. She cannot comfort him and nothing good comes from pointing out certain patterns. Or from inquiring about doctor’s appointments. Can she blame him for wishing he were different? For wishing he didn’t need treatment in the first place…

“Anyway,” he says into the silence, “this is a good thing I could be doing. A chance for those kids, and a chance for me, too. I am positively certain that I can make it pay for itself. Who knows, we could even strike it big with performances in another year or two.” He chuckles.

She feels sad, looking at him. He squirms under her inquiring gaze. He adds: “I thought about a loan, but the bank isn’t going to look at it. You know, with my credit score and all. But, like, maybe you could loan me the first few months? Until the income starts rolling in?”

Here it is, his ask. She has been waiting for it. He names a sum. She tries not to gasp. This would be many months of her income. She remembers other loans. Many loans over the years, sometimes repaid, more often not. But in all that time, he has never requested a sum so large. Is he still manic? He sounds passionate, persuasive. Could this dream actually work? Her thoughts swirl.

She still has nightmares about the time she refused him. He had called her in the middle of the night afterward, crying, desperate, sobbing, “Nobody believes in me!” His speech was slurred, he was barely coherent. She was so alarmed that she threw a sweater over her pajamas and drove frantically to his apartment. At three in the morning, she banged and banged on his door. Finally, she found the spare key on the fire escape, under a broken pot. He was sprawled out on the couch, his breathing shallow. She shook him; his eyes did not open. A glass had spilled on the carpet, next to an empty bottle of Percocet.

She dialed 911, screamed into the phone. She splashed cold water in his face, couldn’t remember the right things to do. She kept shaking him, talking to him until the ambulance arrived.

Can she bear to see him so desperate again? Can she deny him this dream and live with herself? She loves her work. She doesn’t really have to retire. Even if she lost that money, she could still get by. If he succeeds at last, it will be more than worth it.

Her head swims. She still hasn’t answered him. Her eyes drift to a framed photograph of a little girl taken years ago in the refugee camp. Big eyes brilliant with tears, cheeks hollow, lips pressed together. Elias follows her gaze. He has heard about the children, heard some of her stories.

It was Mona’s first week there. Dozens of ragged, weak, and hungry children had stumbled into the camp that entire day. They had lost their parents in the mountains across the border. Volunteers fed them as best they could, sheltered them from the brutal sun; they bandaged and sutured and comforted. That night, Yemani found Mona crying outside the big tent. They had not spoken before, but he stopped and sat on the ground next to her. He quietly told her of his people’s resilience, and of their struggle. She had clung to his words.

She looks at her son again, his son. “I’m still thinking,” she tells him. The new idea has merit. What if he could put his art, his intelligence, and his energy at the service of these kids, and reach outside himself? Maybe, immersed in a task greater than himself, he would find his own way, find stability. He might at least have fewer crashes. He has a vibrant creative spirit when his mind isn’t fighting demons. Would it free him from his demons, to give these kids a chance?

She loves the sweet boy inside the tortured man and does battle with herself; she stares off to keep her thoughts to herself until they take shape. She is aware that he has been pacing, but she mustn’t be impulsive, she must think clearly, she must stay calm. She massages her knees under the table.

He stops pacing, suddenly furious. “If only you’d kept my father in our lives, Mom. He would believe in what I am trying to do here…”

Startled, she puts a hand on the table. “Elias, you know that’s…”

His voice is hoarse, facing her. “But no, you had to go it alone. I bet he’s out there somewhere, at some godforsaken outpost of Doctors Without Borders.”

She stands up before him. “But I’ve told you he didn’t –”

“You never even told him he had a child on the way, come to think of it, did you?” he growls. “I can just picture it. You got pregnant and you rushed back from the refugee camp to raise me in the so-called safety of America, as you like to say. Without consulting him. Like you never consulted me.”

“That’s not how –”

“You never gave me a father, Mom.” He towers over her, raging. “And you made goddamned sure I could never find him. I’ve asked you about him a million times, and all I ever get is some vague stuff…”

“But I have no idea where –”

He’s not listening. His fists are clenched. His jaw is clenched. “Did it occur to you how selfish that was? Did it?”

His voice breaks. Abruptly, he sinks into the rocking chair, head in his hands. In the shocked silence, the stereo plays “The Enchantment.” Bela Fleck’s metallic banjo dances over the carpet of Chick Corea’s gorgeous chords. An unlikely coupling this, a banjo and a Steinway grand. Their profound, flawless dialog murmurs and soars. Magic like this is only born from deepest listening.

How apt, she thinks. The time is long past to break her enchantment with dreams and wishes. Something snaps deep inside of her. She hears it resonate inside her head, like the twang of a broken string. She turns to Elias, hunched over in the rocking chair. She stifles a sob.

They will never break free of this dance until she faces reality. She cannot magically make him whole and well. Outside, darkness settles on the garden. The secret remedy is an illusion. Another loan for another worthy project does not make a breakthrough. She cannot lead Elias out of the darkness to which he keeps returning. She can’t persuade him to follow his treatment. He, and only he can decide, take charge of his path. She may not like his choices, but they can only be his choices.

He comes back to the table. “I’m sorry Mom, I suppose that wasn’t fair.” She looks at her hands, notices some age spots.

He hesitates, and repeats, “I am so sorry. I really am.” He glances at her. She nods.

Miserably, he asks, “About the project, can you help?”

Her heart sinks. She shakes her head. “You’ll have to do this on your own, Elias. It wouldn’t change anything, another loan. I wish it would.”

He exhales sharply.

Before he can protest, she says, “You can do this, Elias, you can. But it has to be yours, done your way. I’m afraid I’ve kept you from growing all this time, by helping too much. It wasn’t helping. I realize that now.”

“But–”

She interrupts, holding up her hand. “I love you, son…And it’s late, and I’m very tired. You’d best go…”

He stands stock-still. She hides her tears. He collects himself with difficulty. Finally, he stands to go. He nods. “Yeah, I get it, I think,” he says very slowly. His lips tremble.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. He tentatively kisses the top of her head and lets himself out. She hears him kick at gravel outside.

She turns off the stereo. “I am so sorry too…” she whispers into the night.

 

See the Desert and Die
by Ann Saxton Reh
August, 1980. When Anthropologist Layne Darius comes to Arabia to study a nomadic tribe in the Rub-Al-Khali desert, she also has a personal mission—to find out why her mother vanished here eight years ago. Falling in love with diplomat David Markam complicates her search, but her sympathy with a group fighting for social reform makes her the target of someone desperate enough to kill. “Ethnographer Layne Darius challenges… the repressive Saudi government and the country’s unforgiving cultural restrictions... to discover deeply troubling truths about the disappearance of her mother. A sinuous, compelling novel.” — Anne Da Vigo, award-winning author of Bakersfield Boys Club “With great sensitivity and nuance, Reh . . . deftly weaves political turmoil with emotional tumult.” — Kirkus Reviews Available from Amazon or from your independent bookstore. Other books in the David Markam Mystery Series include Meditating Murder and the forthcoming A Killing in Kasauli. Read more about them at www.annsaxtonreh.com

Bio

As a pediatrician and a family therapist, Rae Dumont has witnessed hardship, loss, and love. She writes of wisdom and foolishness, struggle and resilience—and is fascinated by complexity in all things. She strives to help her readers feel deeply, smile sometimes, and keep up hope.



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