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A Shark Story

published in New Ohio Review Online's 2021 Winter Exclusive

 

 

High Traffic Area (Snapshots)

published in 2013 in The Idaho Review, volume XIII

along with stories by Rick Bass, Kent Nelson, and Yasmina Madden, among others

 

The Swimmer

published in 2008 in The Idaho Review, volume IX

along with stories by Alyson Hagy, Melanie Rae Thon, and Mark Jacobs, among others

 

 

Greta on the A Train

published in 2016 in Able Muse, print edition #22

 

There were no free seats on the A train, so the actor got a firm grasp on a pole, shrugged his daughter a little higher on his hip, and willed her not to squirm. Next to him, the dancer slipped her hand around the same pole, her pinky finger not quite touching his thumb. The temporarily unemployed bartender, who had gotten a seat at the previous stop, glanced up from the magazine article she was reading, about a �relentlessly self-critical�* movie star, and caught the worried look on the dancer�s face. As the subway doors slid shut, two notes of music sounded weakly from the far end of the car.

The actor laughed and nodded at something that the little girl, leaning close to his ear, was whispering. The dancer, slim and balanced, hovered a concerned hand behind the toddler�s shoulder. Watching her, the bartender thought she resembled an actress mentioned briefly in the article, an ex-lover of the depressed movie star. Down the aisle, the pair of murky notes was repeated, then followed by four more. 

The actor�s body was lean and jangly, like a cowboy�s, his hair just starting to gray at the temples. The dancer had straight brown hair that landed below her shoulders, and eyes that seemed to absorb everything without reflecting anything. The bartender thought now that the dancer resembled a secret service agent (or maybe the ex-lover actress playing a secret service agent), the way she watched the other subway riders - attentive, wary, outwardly impassive, tightly coiled. The string of six notes came again, played tentatively on a lone harmonica. 

The actor widened his stance as the little girl began to squirm. �Greta, stop,� said the dancer; then, to the actor, �you better let her down.� The bartender stood up and motioned to the actor to take her seat. The third time through, the six notes gained confidence and clarity, resolving themselves into the beginnings of �O Come All Ye Faithful.�

The actor sat, shifting Greta onto his lap, then slid her down onto her feet, so she was standing between his knees. �We don�t usually take her on the subway without the stroller,� the dancer explained to the bartender. �No problem,� said the bartender, curling her fingers around the pole. It was the second day of October, a little early for Christmas carols.

The actor tousled the toddler�s hair and smiled up at the bartender, �Thanks.� The dancer reached down and straightened the pink barrette that had flipped backwards over Greta�s forehead. The bartender searched for her place in the magazine. The next six notes of the song resonated along the train, �joy ful and tri um phant.�

The actor hooked a finger through a strap of Greta�s overalls and let her reach out and clench a fistful of the dancer�s pant leg. The dancer shot the actor an anxious smile. The bartender looked up and caught a glimpse of the harmonica player. He wore a battered fedora, an oversized pea-green coat, and a nubbly gray wool sweater.

The actor slid forward to the edge of his seat, staying close to Greta as she let go of the dancer�s pants and instead looped an arm around her knee. The dancer bent towards the child and as she did so her public radio book bag slipped off her shoulder and landed in the crook of her elbow. The bartender had meant, for years now, to learn to play the harmonica; she admired its portability. Above a gray-stubbled jawline, the musician looked to be somewhere in his forties, and as if none of those years had been easy.

The actor flattened a steadying hand on Greta�s back. The dancer straightened tentatively - standing tall made it impossible to keep her own hand on Greta - and shifted the beige book bag back onto her shoulder. As the dancer stood, the bartender saw Greta suddenly hear the music, saw her round little body sharpen, her attention spin into focus. The harmonica player advanced along the train, his left hand cradling the instrument to his mouth.

The actor had lifted his right heel ever so slightly from the sticky floor of the subway car and was now keeping time with the harmonica. The dancer scanned the nearby passengers, but gave no indication that she heard the carol. The bartender watched the toddler, who, knee-high to the crowd of winter-coated adults, couldn�t see where the song was coming from. The tune tripped on the high G, paused, and began again from the beginning.

The actor leaned in closer to Greta, who responsively leaned back into him, but whose eyes and ears did not slip from their search for the music. The dancer now glanced in the direction of the song, unconsciously following the invisible thread of her daughter�s attention. The bartender tried to remember what it had been like to be that small to the world, but couldn�t. �Oh come, all ye faithful. . . .�

�Joyful and triumphant,� the actor joined in with the harmonica and sang to Greta. The dancer widened her eyes hard at him. The bartender wasn�t sure if the message was angry scold or embarrassed entreaty. The harmonica player emerged, closer now, from behind a clump of nearby riders.

The actor had to move quickly to keep hold of Greta as she lunged triumphantly towards the musician, arms outstretched toward the shiny harmonica she could finally see, high up in his hands. The dancer moved quickly to catch her, too, though not as quickly as a secret service agent would. The bartender slid her magazine into her backpack and turned to watch the musician. His right hand rested lightly on the bony shoulder of a ten-year-old boy.

The actor pulled Greta back between his knees. The dancer let go of the pole and moved her hand to the railing above the actor, her knee bumping against his. The bartender felt a clutch of pity for the bony boy, who kept his eyes fastened to the subway floor. He held out a hat towards a man in a long black coat reading the sports section of The New York Post.

 �To Be-eth-lehem� the actor sang, lowering his voice to a stage whisper and moving his mouth a little closer to Greta�s ear. The dancer sighed and tried to look comfortable. The bartender was surprised at the depth of the lanky actor�s tenor. The musician glanced in their direction, unsure whether he had heard someone singing.

The actor laughed as Greta, her eyes still glued to the harmonica, whisper-sang back to him, �To Be-eth-elem.� The dancer shifted her weight uneasily from one leg to the other, but �Bethelem� made her smile. The bartender smiled, too; she had never been able to carry a tune. The black-coated man turned the page of his newspaper without looking up at the boy or his hat.

The actor saw the man�s head-down page-turn and slipped his hand into his pocket. The dancer frowned; they didn�t usually support subway peddlers. The bartender rarely gave money to performers on the subway either, in spite of her affection for the three elderly Mexicans who wore cowboy boots and played their mariachi songs on unamplified guitars. The musician brought the harmonica back to his lips.

The actor looked at the coins he had pulled from his pocket. The dancer wanted to know what had prompted this. The bartender patted the front pockets of her jeans, as if she believed there might be something in them. Across the aisle, an elderly lady in a worn coat and a smart black hat dropped a coin into the boy�s upturned fedora.

Lying in the actor�s palm were a quarter, two nickels, a dime, three pennies, and a purplish smudge of lint. The dancer reached down and picked out the lint. The bartender told herself that the next time she saw them, she would give the Mexican trio several dollars. The boy showed no reaction to the lady�s donation.

As the train pulled into 125th Street and grated to a stop, the actor closed his fingers around the coins, as if rethinking his impulse. The dancer looked away down the length of the subway car and brushed her fingers against her thigh, as if by not looking at the lint as it fell she wouldn't be littering. The bartender watched the purple fuzz make two somersaults along the seam of the dancer�s pants, then come to a stop and cling there, just above her knee. The harmonica player nodded almost imperceptibly to the lady, who nodded just as slightly back, the short veil on her hat bobbing neatly above her forehead.

The actor looked at his fist. The dancer glared at the lint, then sighed and flicked it off her pants onto the floor. The bartender watched the perfectly manicured, pearly pink polished nail flash against the black wool trousers and launch airborne the ethereal bit of purple fluff. The harmonica player's hand tightened ever so slightly on the boy's shoulder, propelling him forward.

As the doors slid shut and the train jerked into motion, the actor reached out, "Um. . . ."  The dancer pulled her shoulders back but kept an eye on the actor�s outstretched hand. The bartender followed the purple fluff as it landed on the floor, tumbleweed-bounced two or three times, and disappeared beneath a seat. The boy stepped towards the actor.

As Greta�s eyes alighted on the boy, the actor quickly slipped his finger back through the strap of her overalls. The dancer looked ready to pounce. The bartender wished she had anything in her pockets. The boy lifted his eyes and saw Greta.

The actor dropped the meager fistful of change into the hat. The dancer�s gaze bounced between the boy, the girl, and the coins tumbling into the black fedora. The bartender almost laughed out loud as she watched Greta connect the boy to the man to the harmonica to the music, and giggle elatedly up at him. The harmonica player nodded to the actor.

The actor smiled too broadly back at the harmonica player, glanced quickly up at the dancer, and let his eyes land back on Greta, who sang to the boy, �to Be-eth-elem.� The dancer saw that Greta�s barrette had tumbled over her forehead again, but didn�t reach down to fix it. The bartender looked at the boy, saw his Howlin� Wolf t-shirt and black jeans, worn, clean, a size or two too big for him. The boy smiled at Greta.

At 145th street, as some passengers disembarked and others simultaneously pushed their way into the car, the actor lifted the toddler back onto his lap. The dancer slid into the seat beside him. The bartender swung around to the other side of the pole to make room for the harmonica player and the boy to pass down the aisle. �Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation. . . .�

 �Sing in exultation�� the actor hummed, flipping Greta�s barrette back into place. The dancer glanced after the boy, who was holding out his hat to a cluster of tourists leafing through their Playbills. The bartender watched him move on towards a pair of young women wearing scrubs and earphones. As they shook their heads no, the harmonica player slipped his instrument into his pocket, and when the doors opened at 168th Street, he and the boy stepped out onto the platform.

The actor�s hum faded to silence as Greta waved goodbye at the closing doors, then dropped her head onto his shoulder, slipped her thumb into her mouth and shut her eyes. The dancer tucked her hair behind her ears, first right then left. The bartender sat down across the aisle. The musician and the boy, slowly climbing the platform stairs, slid past the windows, then disappeared from view.

When the train pulled into 181st Street, the actor stood up, settling Greta securely on his hip. The dancer looked around their seats, making sure they hadn�t forgotten anything. The bartender thought again how she resembled the actress in the article she had been reading.

�Good-bye,� said the actor.

�Good-bye,� said the dancer.

�Good-bye,� said the bartender, pulling her magazine out of her backpack.

The movie-star had this to say: �I always think, What if you just took your hand off the wheel, and slowly, over time, it all went away, and your life became about, you know, �Is the mail here yet?� I always think about that.�*

  

* Parker, Ian. �Why Me?� The New Yorker. September 8, 2008: 48-57. Print.

 

 

A Shark Story

published in New Ohio Review Online, 2021 Winter Exclusive

 

 

High Traffic Area (Snapshots)

published in 2013 in The Idaho Review, volume XIII

along with stories by Rick Bass, Kent Nelson, and Yasmina Madden, among others

 

 

The Swimmer

published in 2008 in The Idaho Review, volume IX

along with stories by Alyson Hagy, Melanie Rae Thon, and Mark Jacobs, among others

 

 

Home ] Map ] Photos ] Words & Images ] Read the Prologue ] The Author ] Reviews ] Awards ] Po Polsku ] Links ] Shop ] Contact ] On the Road Again ] [ Fiction ] Working with MSF / Doctors Without Borders ]

 

by bicycle across Mongolia, China & Vietnam