Fiction

Back When We Dreamed Together of Catching Clouds, photograph by Marilyn Johnston

The Broom Maker

Anurse in pink scrubs breezes into the old man’s room. “It’s time for your pills, Albert.”
 
Why do these people keep calling me Albert? My name is Ahmed. I don’t need any pills, he thinks.

 

In the hallway, Flora weeps. Her father didn’t recognize her today and just seemed annoyed by her presence. On her way to the next room, the nurse pats Flora’s arm and suggests that she and her siblings write stories about their father’s early life to read to him when they visit. “Sometimes this helps folks remember things. But if not, it gives you something to do while you’re here, a way to connect and entertain him.”

Flora is dubious. She hasn’t written anything longer than a grocery list or Christmas card in decades. But the project gives her something to focus on over the next week as she crafts what she hopes will be an engaging and memory-jogging story. She decides to write about an episode from her Depression-era childhood when her father brought home a broom-making machine—the core of a whole new and somewhat desperate enterprise to earn money to feed their family of nine. It was a pivotal time for her. She and her younger brother became junior broom-makers, and some of the money they eventually made paid for her school supplies and clothes so she could continue her schooling instead of dropping out. She wants to convey what his broom business had meant to her, how his gumption and perseverance had gotten them through the worst days of the Depression. She labors earnestly on the memoir, and then, with some trepidation, reads it to her father during her Sunday afternoon visit.

As Flora finishes reading, she searches her father’s craggy face for some spark of recognition. “Do you remember the Broomworks, Pop? When we were cleaning out the attic I found that beat-up old broom, the first good one we made. Mama saved it all those years…”

            Why is this lady yammering about brooms?  

What he remembers is his mother sweeping the floor of a dingy, cramped basement apartment. His uncle sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store on a street teeming with shoppers and horses. Pasted in the window was a small sign reading “Member, Yemeni Grocers Association of New York.” Those were the first words he remembered trying to read in English, because the sign was at his eye level. He “helped” Uncle at the store every day after school until his mother got home from her job sewing dresses. Suddenly he becomes agitated.

“I need to go home for dinner, but these people won’t let me leave,” he says, speaking for the first time in weeks.

“But Pop, you live here now. I’ll walk you to the dining room and sit with you. They’re having fried chicken and green beans—and chocolate cake for dessert.”

I want my mother’s kibbeh and falafel and baba ghanoush with fresh pita from uncle’s store. And dates for dessert. 

“Pop, would you like to go to the Fourth of July parade tomorrow? Like you used to take us when we were kids? We always loved watching the parade with you.”

No, no parade!

            The only parade he remembers is the one his mother took him to the day they lost each other. He heard the rousing rhythmic toots and thrums of a marching band approaching, but couldn’t see it. Mother was chatting with Uncle’s wife, so he let go of her hand and wriggled through the throng to the front of the crowd just as the flamboyant drum major strode past, swinging his white baton, followed by rows of trumpeters, tuba players, drummers. Several older boys were trotting alongside the band and he joined them, propelled by the thrilling pulse of the music vibrating in his chest. He didn’t know how far he had run before noticing that he was surrounded by strangers, that he couldn’t see any of his family, that he had no idea where he was. He turned around to walk back the way he’d come. Surely they were looking for him; they would find each other. But they didn’t.

Eventually, the last of the parade marched past and the crowd thinned. He walked up and down the street, not recognizing anything or anyone. He had never been to this part of the city before. A police officer asked if he was lost. “No, my mother is lost. I’m looking for her.” The policeman asked more questions, then took the boy to a building where a woman asked him the same questions. “I am Ahmed,” the boy said. But he didn’t know his address. The woman said he would stay in this place while she looked for his mother. They fed him and a group of other children some tasteless stew and put him to bed on a cot in a room with seven other boys. No one spoke his language, but some talked to each other in a language he didn’t recognize. He whispered to Allah in his mother’s tongue, begged him to bring them together again. But days and weeks went by and his mother did not come.

One morning, the woman told him he would go on a journey to meet his new family.

“No, I have a family! You must find them!”

She explained there were people far away who were waiting to give him a new home. She would take him and other children on a train to meet them. He heard someone call it the “orphan train.”

No, I’m not an orphan!

But they didn’t listen. They put him on a long train pulled by a noisy steam engine belching smoke. They rode for days past farms and fields and forests, rolling farther away from his mother every hour. The train made several stops and, at each one, some of the children were taken away and did not return. Finally, the train stopped at a small station with a sign that read “Gompers, Kansas.” The woman led the remaining children out onto the platform where a group of adults clustered, craning to see the debarking passengers. A man with a red face and white forehead and a woman with an anxious expression scanned the row of boys and girls lined up for inspection like livestock. The couple walked slowly back and forth, examining the small solemn faces. The woman stopped and pointed to him. “We’ll take this one. What is your name, boy?”

“Ahmed,” he says, but they don’t understand.

“We’ll call you Albert.”

The couple loaded the boy onto a horse-drawn wagon and brought him to a square white farmhouse where he would live until he married and started another family of his own. Now this strange lady wants to take him to a parade. At first he does not want to go, but then he reconsiders. Maybe he will find his mother there. She must still be looking for him.

“All right. Let’s go to the parade,” he says.

Flora’s face brightens. “Oh, good! Just like old times.” She pats his gnarled hand, sure the festive occasion will bring back happy memories.

 

Silent Sisters
Profiles of the Short Lives of Karen Carpenter, Patsy Cline, Cass Elliot, Ruby Elzy, Janis Joplin and Selena Quintanilla-Perez
by Ellen Hunter Ulken
With raging talent and heartfelt bonhomie, these twentieth-century American women sang their way to stardom. All died before the age of 36. Within separate chapters, one for each celebrity, the book reveals their triumphs and tragedies, the details of their final hours, and explores the notion that frantic, constant, touring schedules may have contributed to the anxieties and dramas surrounding their early deaths. Through these illustrated pages, the reader will become familiar with these outstanding singers and their music. Endnotes, bibliography and discography are given for each subject. Ellen Ulken began writing later in life as a retired person. In 2005, she wrote Beautiful Dreamer, The Life of Stephen Collins Foster. Through Arcadia Publishing, in 2009, along with Rebecca Watts and Clarence Lyons, she contributed to a history with pictures and captions of Peachtree City, Georgia, where she lives with her companion, Jerry Watts, MD. Silent Sisters: Profiles of the Short Lives of Karen Carpenter, Patsy Cline, Cass Elliot, Ruby Elzy, Janis Joplin and Selena Quintanilla Perez was published in 2014. She and Jerry are members of The Peachtree City Writer’s Circle, The Friends of the Peachtree City Library, The Peachtree City Garden Club, and three historical societies. Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, or your independent bookstore.

Bios

Elinor Davis was born in Iowa and had a peripatetic childhood. After finishing a sociology degree and realizing she had no marketable skills, she studied nursing "to fall back on." Based in Northern California, she is now a writer/editor specializing in healthcare topics. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous U.S. and international publications.
Marilyn Johnston is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. She proudly teaches in the Artists in the Schools program; she lives in Salem, Oregon.

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