185 / 365 – Awake

He heard her rustle in the dark.

You awake? he said.

She rustled again. I can’t sleep, she said.

Me either.

He watched the fan turn on the ceiling. It seemed to chop at the street light that leaked through half-baffled window.

You’re really going? she said.

I have to, he said. I signed up. Maybe it was stupid but I signed up.

Why?

We’ve —. I told you.

You say different things.

I don’t know. Where I’m from, people are going. I don’t know.

There are so many other things —

I’ll be back.

What if you’re not? Lots of people aren’t coming back.

I’ll be back.

What if —. She said, Not everyone is coming back … whole. All the way back.

I’ll be back.

He looked at the ceiling. I’ll bet my friend John went.

John?

The Indian guy, the center on our team. The one that should have gotten the scholarship to the U instead of me. Those guys, his people, they get the shaft, and they always go, first out the gate to fight anyway.

I’ll send you what I earn. I don’t think it’s shit but I’ll send it to you. For the rent.

I don’t want the rent! she said, her voice rising into something like a wail. You always … Why do you do this? Always making this into some … trivial little issue. As if it is.

 

184 / 365 – The Airfield

FINN TILLARY

We worked from a place called Bagram Airfield. People seem to have heard of it. I asked someone what he thought it was. He said, “It’s an airport, isn’t it?” It’s like a city. It goes on for miles. You can go out and get fast-food, like a hamburger. There are Afghan civilians on it. You walk down the street and they chatter at you, in their shreds of English, trying to sell you things you could take back home, if you ever get out. There’s a prison there somewhere, someone told me. Someone told me the name comes from an ancient city that is somewhere nearby, but I never saw anything ancient, except fake stuff the guys on the street were trying to sell. If there was an ancient town there, it’s been forgotten now. Now everyone knows “Bagram” is this big place where all the Americans come and go, where the army works from.

Someone told me it was first built in the 1950s, during the Cold War. President Eisenhower came there once. People like to remember when the presidents visited. I guess because you can’t believe anyone would ever choose to fly out to such a godforsaken place.

So we built it, and then I guess during the 80s the Soviets used it, too. And then when we started up the war again after 9/11, we took it back over. All the big foreign countries have used it, and none of them have ever been able to get control of the country. Nobody seemed to like it when I pointed that out. You don’t want anyone noting the fact that your whole mission might be wrong and stupid.

183 / 365 – Crickets

SARAH BERGMAN

It’s in the late summer that the nights are like this, quiet with crickets. When we came out from Boston, some of my old friends emailed me with worries and asked, “How are you? Are you OK?” Like I had gone to the moon. And sometimes I felt like I had, lying there, sleepless, wondering, looking up at the ceiling, while Erik slept. The sun comes up late now. The days still seem long, but that’s because the light’s been stolen from the mornings. Even the birds sleep later, quiet then in the trees around the house. At five in the morning it’s dark. It was just me and the crickets, the soft and steady hiss of crickets.

People asked me, “How can you stand it?” But on nights like this, that was the easy part. Even if I couldn’t sleep, the crickets made a peaceful sound. No carhorns yelling at echoing up through the narrow streets from blocks away. No sounds of yelling as the bars close, women yelling especially, and you wonder if you should get up and make sure no one is in trouble out the front window. Or cracks and pops that you can’t quite tell what they were but you can’t go back to sleep because you’re not sure if they were guns, and if they were guns how far away. We’re so far away from anything, you don’t even hear traffic on the east-west highway. Nobody comes through here, which is why my friends were so worried. But as I lay there and listened to the crickets, it’s also why I knew that it was loss traded for something worthwhile. I didn’t have to go to the front window wondering if a bullet might crash through it into Leah’s room. She was somewhere safe now. She would be OK here. The crickets told me that.

182 / 365 – Dunking

FINN TILLARY

Boys and girls weren’t friends, not that I remember. But we were. We played basketball, one on one. I wasn’t so tall then, in third or fourth grade, and Laura was tall already. She already had those strong legs, that would make her a good runner. Sometimes in the summer if she wasn’t working she wore shorts and when she jumped I’d look at those strong legs, amazing long legs. Neither of us could quite dunk, but she could get closer. She was always practicing. I rode my bike over there. She had a basket on a pole over near the barn, in a corner of the drive. It wasn’t the greatest court. It wasn’t paved. A strip of hard bare ground that would turn to slop when it rained hard, splash mud all over you if you tried to dribble on it. We tried that once, got our shoes and our legs and our jeans all muddy. Her mother said she was going to “tan her hide.” I wasn’t sure what making your skin tan was supposed to be bad. That court was tough, too, even when it was dry. It had gravel and rocks in it here and there. Sometimes you’d be dribbling and the ball would suddenly shoot out sideways. She was always quickest to jump for it. I had a better court at my house but neither of us ever wanted to play there. My dad would come home from work sometimes and want to play against us, and he wouldn’t stop until he was winning. He was taller than us by at least a head so it was pretty easy for him to block anything, or even to shoot over our heads. Game over when he was ahead and then he’d quit and go inside.

We never played during the college or the pro basketball season. We only had outdoor courts and it was no good once the snow started. It was a summer and fall game. It’s amazing, now that I think of it, that I ever became a basketball player, and that she never wanted to. I think I started playing because of her. I liked being there with her, bumping together to guard the basket or to shoot over each other. Later he parents kind of freaked out when we started going out and they knew we were touching each other and stuff. Somehow I guess they thought kids didn’t do that, just sat apart with their hands on their knees in the dark when they went out to Jericho Theater or when we went down to the lake to go swimming together in the summer. Maybe people did that back when they were growing up but probably only if they were weird.  What did they think would come of it, all those years we played together, especially basketball, playing so hard against each other late on summer afternoons. I keep wanting to ask Mr. Nilsson about that, but then I don’t. He misses her and I know he feels bad for how it went the last time he saw her. Not good to remind him of  that time when they were kinda stupid.

181 / 365 – Tattoo

DAGNY KIELLAND

John came home this weekend with a new tattoo. It’s not his first one. The first two he did were hidden, one on the back of his shoulder where he always has a shirt on, and one on his left ankle. He always has boots on, or mostly always, so nobody would see that. But this one was big, and lots of colors and lines flowing down his upper arm. I screamed at him. I guess everyone is getting tattoos, it’s not such a big deal. My mother would totally blow a gasket if she saw that. My father would too — well, he doesn’t blow up so you can see it. But he probably wouldn’t talk to John, or me, for awhile. Just scowl at us over dinner. I said, “Oh great, that’s one more thing I’ll get to hear about.” My mother is pretty much mad at me already about just about everything. All the things they did to me and I screwed up the chance to go to college and got married to early, and to John of all people, and when he went off west to work I think they were feeling better about it, but now I think she knows that I’m a mess, just sitting here in town with John 200 miles away and getting into way worse trouble than I ever did in high school. I keep talking about moving out west with John, even though he tells me there’s nowhere we could live, everything is too expensive because of all the guys out there working in the oilfields, and he won’t have me living in that trailer where he lives with those two other guys. He won’t even let me see it. The two times I’ve gone out there we’ve stayed in a motel. I’ve been begging him, I don’t think I can survive this if I’m here and you’re gone all the time. My dad doesn’t want me to go. He says he hears the stories and it’s no place for a woman to go. Now when he sees that tattoo he’s going to say, “See, what did I tell you.” I just can’t win at this.

 

180 / 365 – Summer House

SARAH BERGMAN

My mother called last night, to let me know they’re renting a house by the shore in August and could Leah and I come. Sometimes lately I think she’s getting old, or else it’s just that it’s got her all convoluted because her daughter has a broken family and she doesn’t what to do about it or how she needed to act, as if she needed to do anything. How does it work if I show up with her granddaughter but no husband? Am I even allowed to travel and take Leah away from this state out in the middle of nowhere that she’s never even visited because it must be so foreign? I started to say that I wasn’t sure I could come because of the cafe, wasn’t sure how I would get away for a couple of weeks, wasn’t sure I even could afford it. And then she changed the subject to my nieces. Sometimes I think this cafe reminds her of her grandfather, who had a business making pickles on the Lower East Side in New York. They lived in a little tenement somewhere there and they did all they could do to get away from there. Getting up to Boston, getting into an Ivy League school, they did all they could to put my great-grandfather’s pickle shop behind them. And here I am again, living in a poor little town in the middle of nowhere and making food for the farmers. It’s like I’m returning to poverty.

It wasn’t anything she said. It never is. Sometimes I’m not sure she even means it. But by the end of it I felt like a failure, and I wondered whether I wanted to go. Both of my parents are getting old, my father especially. He’s four years older than she is. He’s getting quiet as he gets older, so I never talk to him on the phone. They’ve always lived far away and I want Leah to be able to remember them, who they were, how much they did for her. But I could imagine sitting around at a summer house by the shore northeast of Boston, everyone talking about their happy, successful lives and all the great things they’re doing and their kids are doing and me sitting there, talking about … what, a cafe? Out in the middle of North Dakota? It’s like I’m in a place they can’t even imagine, a place they didn’t know existed until I inexplicably decided to give up everything I’d always known in Boston and come back here. For Erik. And hasn’t that turned out great, and now I’m stuck here. God, I don’t even want to get into any of that with them. So maybe it’s good that I can’t imagine how I could afford to go, or who I could get to work some at the cafe so I could.

Still, my heart pulls. When I was growing up, my grandparents, my grandfather who escaped the life of pickles on the Lower East Side, they used to rent a house by the shore in the summer. A lot of the old summer estates have been broken up now. The houses once sat on these sprawling properties and then the children built houses on the land when they inherited it, and then people started renting them out. This was never the Cape, but even so, when they were huge estates, summering out here was not the kind of life that was exactly open to Jews. Later, by the time he was working at Harvard Medical Center and these places were getting older, and they could afford it, they would get the same house every summer, and my parents would pack up my sister and I and we’d be out there all summer. When I think about my childhood, especially when I was in middle school and high school, that places is about the only happy memory I have from that time. The place they used to rent, there was a stand of woods on the property and I found a path through them that went to a little cove that was like a private cove. There was never anybody else there, not even boats coming into it to harbor. My sister wouldn’t come there with me — the woods were dark and you had to practically crawl under a few downed trees to get to it, and it used to scare me, too, but I loved going to that cove so much I’d screw up my courage and force my imagination to stop and hurry my way through the half-hidden path out to the cove. There was a little scrap of beach there and when it was sunny I’d sit in the sun with a book and hear the water and the circling gulls and just feel peace in a way I’ve hardly ever felt it in my life. Sometimes rain would blow in and I’d duck under the cover of the pines that stood along the shore there. It was my own little cove and it was like heaven to me, a kind of heaven I’ve never known anywhere else.

My parents are renting that same house this year, and at first my heart leapt to go back and see it. I imagined taking Leah there, packing a picnic lunch, stretching out on the sand with books, sitting together quietly, talking now and then. In an instant I imagined a whole trip out there and immediately I felt that old feeling of peace wash over me. And then almost as quickly, I remembered how my sister used to tell my grandmother that I was sneaking off to that place, as if there was some reason I was not supposed to go there, which there wasn’t. My grandmother was probably the most calm person that’s ever been in our family, never seeming to worry about anything, or at least not going on incessantly about it if she did. She used to just smile at me whenever my sister did that. But I could hear it all again. I imagined getting up and getting Leah ready to walk over there and my sister starting in on it all over again. Oh, not that place again! Of course Sarah would want to go there. There was a much nicer beach somewhere else. Never mind that it’s probably crowded with people trying to look more beautiful or successful or rich than each other, whatever it is. But she’d be able to make it sound appealing — she’s in advertising after all, it’s what she does. And in no time my nieces would be going on about how they wanted to go there, how the other beach sounded boring, and Leah would of course be wanting to go with them. They’re sixteen and eighteen and they live in the city and so whatever they’re doing is always cooler than whatever she feels like doing. And so in an instant I felt heavy and deflated and I didn’t want to go at all, and so I was telling my mother it would be difficult. Instead of being able to have the happiness and calm that I remember, it would be everything but that.

And knowing my sister, when she finds out I may not come, she’ll have her girls email Eva. Aren’t you coming out? You’re going to miss a great time! And I’ll have to find a way to go, or I’ll have to send her without me. This is how it always works. Always what’s good for the family, and it’s always painful for me. I should be getting used to this after fifty years, the hope and then the disappointment. But it gets me every time.

 

179 / 365 – Aid/e

FRED VANEK

This aide is kind to me, Karen. Sometimes she leads us in singing songs. I don’t know all of the songs. I didn’t listen to the radio much when I first came over. The music was so strange, and the language too. I struggled all day to speak English, so I didn’t want to hear more of it at night. But she lets me sing Czech songs too, sometimes. Nobody ever joins in, but Karen tries, or pretends to try. “I can’t remember those words!” she says, but she tries.

There was a girl like her, when I was making my way back, during the war, coming back from Russia to Czechoslovakia. Mostly I traveled at night, tried to keep to woods, away from towns. But I had to beg from strangers, for food, sometimes for water. When I was still in Russia, and Poland, I couldn’t believe how generous people could be, me wearing a German uniform. I didn’t speak any Russian, but they gave me a little bread, even sometime a little sausage, and nobody had any meat in those days. I couldn’t believe that people would share with a soldier wearing a uniform of the country that had destroyed their country. But they did. That’s what poor people do. They see you need something, and they share, even if it means they didn’t get a square meal.

I think I was in Poland. The family spoke Polish, and I could speak a little Polish. In the army, we used to call the Poles dogs, and even my father didn’t like dealing with them much. There was a small farm, that looked like it was in better shape than most of the farms there. The house was painted. I had been in the barn overnight and there were  a lot of animals. There was a quarter moon, plenty of light, and I had gotten water from their well and retreated back to a grove at the far edge of their pasture. I was hungry, but I had also heard cracks of guns going over here and there nearby and I wasn’t sure where to go. In the morning I heard a sound and I looked and there she was, this girl, coming across the pasture with a cloth in her hand. She came straight to where I was. I hid back behind some shrubs and she called to me softly, “Soldier, soldier. Are you still here?” Then she said it in German. I thought it was a trick. Why would a Polish girl help a German soldier, after all we had done to their country? There was no way she would know I was Czech and I had been forced into the army. But people were like that. I thought the same thing, too, when I was passing through that part of Russia that had once been part of Poland and where all the Poles lived. They helped me out, too. Even Russians. People had more sympathy that you were starving than what terrible things you might have done in the past to survive. An old man said to me once, when he was sharing some potato soup with me, “Everybody who has survived has done some terrible things.” It was like being forgiven by Jesus, that’s how I felt when he said that. It lifted this burden I was carrying on my back. People were so kind, like this girl in Poland. She gave me some bread and it was warm and fresh. I hadn’t had fresh bread in … it seemed like years. And there was butter, and I hadn’t had that either. She sat with me and smiled and I had that bread. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I felt like I was going to make it home, and survive, and this was the best food I had tasted, and all because of this kind girl.

Sometimes when I am with Karen, I think of her. It’s almost like she is here with Karen. It’s funny how that happens. People are more than just the body that is sitting with you, smiling at you, talking to you. Sometimes I talk to people and I feel like I am also talking to other people I’ve known before, as if they’re all present in this one woman. I know it sounds crazy, and everybody thinks I’m crazy. That’s why they make me live in this place. Everybody except Finn. When I say crazy stuff like that, he smiles. I ask him if he thinks I’m crazy and he says, “No. Sometimes I think you see things that I don’t. And even if they’re not real, it’s good to think about.” Finn is my friend. Like Karen. They are good people. Really, all the friends I have.