Issue 26

The Russian word for summer, leto, is amost the same as the word for the year. Maybe the ancient Russians marked the passage of years by the summers. Even by the modern international standards, this year is half over, about to fall off some temporal cliff to join its siblings in the hip of history.

As the years go, it could have been worse. The Year of the Beast didn’t materialize on 6/6/06. It could have been better. The US could have won against Ghana. If you favor excitement over stability, or if you prefer adventure over comfort, you are probably equally dissatisfied with the first half of the current year. But here is the event to cheer you up: issue 26 of Vestal Review. A great summer read, a cool feast to the eye. Something you may remember leto after leto. Enjoy.

Copyright © 2006 Mark Budman

 

Everyone Out of the Pool
by Robert Lopez

The closest thing to tumbleweed in New York City are the people.
I say this out loud to the woman next to me because I think she is from Arizona.

Whenever it starts to rain I think end of the world. Whenever the telephone rings or someone calls me by name I think Leonidas at Thermopylae or Custer at Little Big Horn.

What this speaks to I try not to think about.

Don’t try to trick me into being happy, is what the woman says back.

We are in a museum when we say this to each other. This particular room in the museum has windows for walls and you can see the weather from anywhere inside it.

This is not just me talking, I say. I pause a moment and then keep talking about the weather until I hear myself say, One bolt of lightening and it’s everyone out of the pool time.

I think I’ve known this woman for years. I think we met in college and have tried for years to get away from each other. The problem is one or the other of us has nothing better to do at any given time. Then I think we came to New York two months ago to help the poor, or feed the poor, something with the poor.

The trouble with me is I think too much and don’t know anything.

I don’t know why this is, though I suspect it’s my own fault.

Outside the rain is coming down like it’s angry with someone. Like someone had made fun of the rain’s mother.

We are sitting on a bench surrounded by twenty giant speakers arranged in an oval. From the speakers a children’s choir sings in a foreign language that might be Latin. When you walk from speaker to speaker you hear a different voice, which is why it’s in the museum, I think. When you are outside the oval, you can’t distinguish one voice from the next. To me, the voices all sound the same, even the different ones.

The woman next to me is looking out the window, watching the passersby tramp through gaping puddles, watching the rain like she’s never seen it fall down before.

This is when I say something about the homeless, something that sounds like at least they’ll have a bath today. Why I say this is because I don’t know how she’ll react and I’m curious.

Between the choirboys and rainfall the woman can’t hear me, though, and from the look on her face I can tell she’s making her mind up about something, something that might include leaving me here on this bench to go play in the rain, eventually finding her way west to feed the poor of Tempe or Phoenix or wherever it is she’s from and that maybe if I’m lucky she’ll call when she gets there.
Copyright © 2006 Robert Lopez

 

It’s Not Your Hat
By Cate McGowan

“That’s my hat.” Your accuser’s black hair frizzes in a calamitous scribble-she really needs the hat more than you.
“No, it’s mine.” A lie. The words, monosyllabic, feel wrong rolling off your tongue. But it’s January Upstate; it’s finders keepers. You lie again-“It’s mine.”

But it’s not. You found the hat yesterday abandoned outside the English Department. Black wool, pod-shaped, a flowered cotton lining sewn inside with crude fever stitches. You pulled it low over your forehead and tromped home in the snow, glad you had something new, something warm.

*****

The next day, your first week back from break, you attend French 201. You hate the French and their abstract words, but you need the credits to graduate. You’ve put off this class until your last semester. It lasts for hours. Outside during a break for coffee and cigarettes, everyone stomps around on the arctic sidewalk; they blow smoke and vapored air. The little bitch with wiry hair approaches you. She points at your open bag, where the hat peeks out like a scared animal.

“That’s my hat.”

“No, it’s mine.” You jerk at your bag’s loose flap, pull it over the chapeau. “It’s mine.” You stand taller. You aren’t cold anymore. She persists.

“I lost it yesterday.”

“Sorry.”

“Let me see.” People stare as bitchy antennae-haired girl’s voice shrills. “Let me see!” She grabs for your closed bag. But you catch her dark eyes, square her gaze and pretend you’re strong. She stops her advance and uses reason. “I saw the lining. A friend did that.”

“No, this is my work.” Another lie. You walk out of arm’s reach, pull out the hat, plop it on your head. Break’s over. The hat’s hot in the stuffy room. You’re ashamed, cornered, but you keep up the front. The gray professor rambles on in French about declensions and past pluperfect. Parlez vous shit.

The girl sends out glaring death rays from behind you. She sighs meanly. You wish you’d said you’d found it.

You don’t know why you didn’t.

You go shopping after class. A bell trills, incandescence embraces you as you enter the shop, and the East Indian lady, wrapped in her bright scarves and the scent of curry or something that smells like a balmy night, looks up and, as always, says something kind.

“Good to see you today.” In the back, you fold a Tree of Life tapestry into your bag-the pattern’s similar to the hat’s lining.

At home, you cut a large square from the stolen textile, center on a perching turquoise bird. You rip out the girl’s lining, sew the hat with new, silken stitches.

The next day, you drop the French class. You seldom step foot on campus for fear of running into the girl. You don’t graduate for another year. You hide the transformed hat in your bottom bureau drawer where it will sit for years. Funny, but you cannot throw it out.
Copyright © 2006 Cate McGowan

 

Light of Day
by Joanne Comito

You wake up thinking of water. You open your eyes and squint; the sun is unrelenting, shining in through the front window, hard and bright. Every inch of your body feels pummeled and tender and you wince as you sit up.

You don’t see him at first, but you catch his smell—stale smoke and sweat. Every inch of the filthy room, the hard dirty floor where you slept, is exposed, and you feel overcome by nausea. You touch your cheekbone — it feels warm and raw and you wonder if anything’s broken but it doesn’t matter right now as much as the water. You stand, swaying and dizzy, breathing slowly till your head clears, and then you start moving.

As you drink, you imagine yourself stepping into the midday sun, taking the car, just leaving. You see yourself as a normal person, a person who wakes before noon, a person whose body is clear and smooth and painless. There are the keys; it would be easy, you think, and you feel suddenly buoyant with possibility. You see your purse and your pulse quickens, but you stop first and look, to make sure he’s sleeping. Just quickly, you steal a look, and he’s still lying there, heavy and unmoving, near the couch. There’s something funny about the way his body looks, though, and quietly, you move closer.

He’s so still. You lean in, folding over him to listen, to watch his chest. Breathe, Billy, you think, poking at him now with one finger. He just lies there, stiff almost, and then you see it—the gun, just a few feet away. You can imagine its feel, its cool smoothness in your palm, and now your heart is beating fast, so fast you can’t think. You try to go back, to make your mind work, but it’s not coming, and you start muttering, “Oh Jesus, Oh God, Billy, wake up, please wake up!” You’re trying to turn him over to see where the blood is, to find a bullet hole, but he’s so heavy he falls back with a small thud and you lay your head down on his still chest, begging him to please, please just wake up.

That’s when the hand grabs you and you rear back in shock. It’s him, alive, that face laughing up at you. “Fooled ya, didn’t I?” His breath is foul with last night’s gin and his eyes are small with scorn. For a minute you’re stunned and still but then relief, sweet and fast, shoots through you. Your body slumps down next to his, you feel him breathing, feel his warmth, and you think, of course, he’s warm. Of course.

He grabs your arm, hard. “Say it.”

“I can’t live without you,” you answer. He loosens his grip, laughing again, and you lie there, your eyes closed against the hard light of the sun, knowing that it’s true.
Copyright © 2006 Joanne Comito

Tertsa
By Bruce Holland Rogers

During our visit to Crete we stopped by the home of our old friend Nemos in Tertsa. His wife told us that he was visiting the graves of his parents. We drank coffee while we waited, and when Nemos arrived we ate a little something and sipped raki that Nemos himself had distilled. We talked pleasantly of old times, and it wasn’t until we stood to go that Nemos spoke of his parents.

When the old couple were too feeble to care for themselves, Nemos and his wife had brought them down from the mountain and into their home, not dreaming of any trouble. The couple had been pious and respected all their lives, but taking them away from the village of their birth seemed to have been a mistake. Nemos could not remember a time when they had ever raised their voices at one another, but now in their son’s house they warred constantly. Whether the window should be open, how strong to make the coffee, whether the bed should be made with the pillows on top of the coverlet or underneath—all manner of trivia were matters for loud and bitter contention all day long. Even with the door of his office shut, Nemos would hear their voices at the back of the house. He found it hard to concentrate on the medical articles he was editing. But what could he do? His sister and brothers were all unsuitable as care givers. He resigned himself to his fate.

There came an afternoon when his wife was out on some errand and Nemos went into the kitchen to make his lunch. Much nearer to his parents’ room, he could hear not only their voices, but their words. The subject of their disagreement was, as always, something of no consequence, and Nemos was shocked to hear his father refer to his mother with a coarse word. Yes, his mother answered, I am a whore. I lay with every man I wanted while you tended the grapes. She began to name them. Six names. A dozen. Then Nemos heard his father begin to shout the names of village women he claimed to have had in the vineyard. They went at this, shouting names back and forth, recounting the intimate attributes of their supposed lovers, saying names that Nemos had not heard for years, going house by house through all the nearby families, falling silent only after Nemos, embarrassed at the thought that they might come discover him, had crept back to his office. He could not believe any part of their confessions had been true, but after that day and for several years until his father died and his mother followed a month after, there was peace in his house.

Copyright © 2006 Bruce Holland Rogers

Disintegration
by Kelly Spitzer

Mother

He refuses to go to the party. He says: It’s a weeknight. We can’t keep the kids up past their bedtime. He always says stuff like that, like living in the country rules out getting a sitter. So I go without him. I leave straight from work, carpooling with my boss to the banquet room at the dinner club. Edward drives. He rolls down the window, slings his elbow over the sill. In baritone, he sings “Young at Heart” the entire way there. “You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams” over and over, his voice melding with the windless, chirping night.

Father

Past midnight, her boss’s truck drives up and my wife hops out. She carries cake in one hand, gifts in the other, and as she showers, I go through them one by one. Ten-year pin, pen set, paperweight with a butterfly on top. The last item is tucked in tissue paper inside a glossy black bag. I peek, see a company coffee mug. Folded into its center is a pair of green flowered panties with the word Wednesday stitched across the front. In the bathroom, I fling back the shower curtain, hold them up. She looks at them, at me, her eyes folding, unfolding, diurnal flowers in bloom.

Daughter

Dad picks us up from school and in the car, he presses his mouth into the phone and says: Are you with him again? I know he’s talking about that man from work who sits on the edge of Mother’s desk and makes her laugh. When I come into her office he pats my head, and once, I ducked and ran off. Next, Dad says: I’m taking the kids. He promises me and my brother a trip to Portland, but an hour later he stops, buys us Cokes and a bingo game. In the motel room that night, I call numbers to myself until they run out.

Son

At home, I run up the stairs and open the front door. All the lights are out, and I have to blink until all the sunshine leaves my eyes and I can see again. I find Mommy sitting at the kitchen table, her eyes wet from cutting onions. Daddy points at me and Sis and says: Wait outside. In the yard, I drag my toes though the sandbox and watch a spider crawl up the kitchen pane. The curtains are drawn, but I wonder if it can see inside anyway, and if it can, what it sees inside all that silence.