Stains

Her wrists burn in the icy water. But the water must be cold if she is to get all the stains out. She folds the leg of the jeans, rubs the layers of heavy denim together. With the bar of harsh laundry soap she scrubs the spots over and over. The water darkens with blood. She twists the jeans, wringing out as much water as she can, sets them carefully beside the sink.

When she lifts the tee shirt a small piece of curled, white skin floats free of the jagged tear, rises to the surface. She swallows, takes a deep breath.

When the clothes—a pair of shorts, a pair of socks, the tee shirt, and the jeans—are all in the washer she sits down at the kitchen table. She’s never been good at waiting. “Go home,” they told her, “there’s nothing you can do here. We’ll call you.” She stares at the clock, not sure if she wants the hands to move faster or slower. Should she call one of her friends to wait with her? She couldn’t bear to make small talk, couldn’t concentrate on anything but the pictures that fill her mind. The image of him—grey, unconscious, his dark blood seeping through the bandage, seeping into the white sheet of the hospital bed. No, she will wait now as she waited seventeen years ago for his birth. Alone. She sees the baby with snowy hair, the five year old in an over-sized hockey uniform, the fourth-grade wise man in the school pageant… thinks of all the hopes she had for him.

She goes to the washer as soon as it stops. There is a circle of red-tinged suds on the inside of the lid. She puts the clothes into the dryer, then with an old towel scrubs the enamel lid. She rinses the towel again and again; when it is clean, she hangs it over the tap to dry.

In the kitchen, she fills the kettle and sets it on the burner. She spoons tea leaves into a small brown pot and takes a china mug from the cupboard. When the tea is ready she sits for a moment holding the warm mug in both hands. She drinks two cups but in a few minutes she is thirsty again. Worry parches her mouth, it’s always been that way.

She learned to keep a pitcher of water and a glass beside her, the nights she sat up with him when he was sick. With every illness he ran a high fever. When he was a baby and she help him in her arms in the rocking chair all night she wished that she could absorb the heat from his body into her own. Wished him cool – well again – sleeping in his crib with the white quilt tucked around him. When he was three or four, the fevers made him delirious, made him babble nonsense, reach to pluck imaginary balloons from the air. She thought then that when he was older, after he’d had all the childhood diseases, everything would be all right. If only this was as simple as a bout of croup or measles.

The fear has been with her for a long time. She realized that when the doorbell rang at 4 a.m. She awoke instantly, went to the door, saw the police officer standing there. “… Your son – there’s been an accident…” She knew then that, somehow, she’d been waiting for those words.

Noon. He’d be getting up about now if this was an ordinary Saturday. He’d come into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, his hair rumpled, wearing only his wrinkled jeans. He’d go to the fridge, take a drink of milk straight from the carton. She’d say, “For Pete’s sake, can’t you get a glass?” He’d shrug, both of them knowing she wasn’t upset about the milk but about his hangover, his boozing, his friends… A Saturday ritual that had been going on for a year now. Today – there is only the faint hum of the dryer and the ticking of the clock.

When she takes the clothes out of the dryer she spreads them on top of the machine, inspects them carefully, satisfies herself that there is no trace of stains. She folds them and puts them in his dresser. Except the shirt. She takes the shirt to the sewing machine. The gash is so long – from the shoulder almost to the hem – that it distorts the beer logo printed on the chest. Of course, he has other shirts – a red one, a soft silvery-grey one, a black one that makes him look even blonder than he is – lots of nice shirts; but he prefers this one. A stretched tee shirt that shows the world he is a beer drinker – a man.

Booze erases his shyness, gives him confidence. She should have praised him more when he was younger, criticized him less, helped him to have a better self-image. She knows that now. Maybe then he’d have excelled at something – school, sports, drama – wouldn’t have needed to booze to make him feel important.

In the sewing room, she takes a cardboard box from the top shelf. She must find material to match the shirt. She turns the box upside down, spills hundreds of odd-shaped scraps onto the floor. She sifts through them carefully, picks up, then rejects, five or six. Finally, she finds a piece of soft cotton that matches exactly the faded blue of the shirt. She pins it carefully in place under the tear and starts sewing. The machine’s zigzag stitches pull the edges neatly together. The mend will be almost invisible. But there is still three centimeters left to sew when the telephone rings.

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Two Kinds

My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.

“Of course, you can be a prodigy, too,” my mother told me when I was nine. “You can be best anything. What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter, she is only best tricky.”

America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She had come to San Francisco in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. Things could get better in so many ways.

We didn’t immediately pick the right kind of prodigy. At first my mother thought I could be a Chinese Shirley Temple. We’d watch Shirley’s old movies on TV as though they were training films. My mother would poke my arm and say, “Ni kan.You watch.” And I would see Shirley tapping her feet, or singing a sailor song, or pursing her lips into a very round O while saying “Oh, my goodness.”

“Ni kan,” my mother said, as Shirley’s eyes flooded with tears. “You already know how. Don’t need talent for crying!”

Soon after my mother got this idea about Shirley Temple, she took me to the beauty training school in the Mission District and put me in the hands of a student who could barely hold the scissors without shaking. Instead of getting big fat curls, I emerged with an uneven mass of crinkly black fuzz. My mother dragged me off to the bathroom and tried to wet down my hair.

“You look like a Negro Chinese,” she lamented, as if I had done this on purpose.

The instructor of the beauty training school had to lop off these soggy clumps to make my hair even again. “Peter Pan is very popular these days” the instructor assured my mother. I now had bad hair the length of a boy’s, with curly bangs that hung at a slant two inches above my eyebrows. I liked the haircut, and it made me actually look forward to my future fame.

In fact, in the beginning I was just as excited as my mother, maybe even more so. I pictured this prodigy part of me as many different images, and I tried each one on for size. I was a dainty ballerina girl standing by the curtain, waiting to hear the music that would send me floating on my tiptoes. I was like the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with holy indignity. I was Cinderella stepping from her pumpkin carriage with sparkly cartoon music filling the air.

In all of my imaginings I was filled with a sense that I would soon become perfect: My mother and father would adore me. I would be beyond reproach. I would never feel the need to sulk, or to clamor for anything.

But sometimes the prodigy in me became impatient. “If you don’t hurry up and get me out of here, I’m disappearing for good,” it warned. “And then you’ll always be nothing.”

Every night after dinner my mother and I would sit at the Formica topped kitchen table. She would present new tests, taking her examples from stories of amazing children that she read in Ripley’s Believe It or Not or Good Housekeeping, Reader’s digest, or any of a dozen other magazines she kept in a pile in our bathroom. My mother got these magazines from people whose houses she cleaned. And since she cleaned many houses each week, we had a great assortment. She would look through them all, searching for stories about remarkable children.

The first night she brought out a story about a three-year-old boy who knew the capitals of all the states and even the most of the European countries. A teacher was quoted as saying that the little boy could also pronounce the names of the foreign cities correctly.

“What’s the capital of Finland?” my mother asked me, looking at the story.

All I knew was the capital of California, because Sacramento was the name of the street we lived on in Chinatown. “Nairobi!” I quessed, saying the most foreign word I could think of. She checked to see if that might be one way to pronounce Helsinki before showing me the answer.

The tests got harder – multiplying numbers in my head, finding the queen of hearts in a deck of cards, trying to stand on my head without using my hands, predicting the daily temperatures in Los angeles, New York, and London.

One night I had to look at a page from the Bible for three minutes and then report everything I could remember. “Now Jehoshaphat had riches and honor in abundance and…that’s all I remember, Ma,” I said.

And after seeing, once again, my mother’s disappointed face, something inside me began to die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations. Before going to bed that night I looked in the mirror above the bathroom sink, and I saw only my face staring back – and understood that it would always be this ordinary face – I began to cry. Such a sad, ugly girl! I made high – pitched noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror.

And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me – a face I had never seen before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so that I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. She and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts – or. rather, thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what I’m not.

So now when my mother presented her tests, I performed listlessly, my head propped on one arm. I pretended to be bored. And I was. I got so bored that I started counting the bellows of the foghorns out on the bay while my mother drilled me in other areas. The sound was comforting and reminded me of the cow jumping over the moon. And the next day I played a game with myself, seeing if my mother would give up on me before eight bellows. After a while I usually counted ony one bellow, maybe two at most. At last she was beginning to give up hope.

Two or three months went by without any mention of my being a prodigy. And then one day my mother was watching the Ed Sullivan Show on TV. The TV was old and the sound kept shorting out. Every time my mother got halfway up from the sofa to adjust the set, the sound would come back on and Sullivan would be talking. As soon as she sat down, Sullivan would go silent again. She got up – the TV broke into loud piano music. She sat down – silence. Up and down, back and forth, quiet and loud. It was like a stiff, embraceless dance between her and the TV set. Finally, she stood by the set with her hand on the sound dial.

She seemed entranced by the music, a frenzied little piano piece with a mesmerizing quality, which alternated between quick, playful passages and teasing, lilting ones.

“Ni kan,” my mother said, calling me over with hurried hand gestures. “Look here.”

I could see why my mother was fascinated by the music. It was being pounded out by a little Chinese girl, about nine years old, with a Peter Pan haircut. The girl had the sauciness of a Shirley Temple. She was proudly modest, like a proper Chinese Child. And she also did a fancy sweep of a curtsy, so that the fluffy skirt of her white dress cascaded to the floor like petals of a large carnation.

In spite of these warning signs, I wasn’t worried. Our family had no piano and we couldn’t afford to buy one, let alone reams of sheet music and piano lessons. So I could be generous in my comments when my mother badmouthed the little girl on TV.

“Play note right, but doesn’t sound good!” my mother complained “No singing sound.”

“What are you picking on her for?” I said carelessly. “She’s pretty good. Maybe she’s not the best, but she’s trying hard.” I knew almost immediately that I would be sorry I had said that.

“Just like you,” she said. “Not the best. Because you not trying.” She gave a little huff as she let go of the sound dial and sat down on the sofa.

The little Chinese girl sat down also, to play an encore of “Anitra’s Dance,” by Grieg. I remember the song, because later on I had to learn how to play it.

Three days after watching the Ed Sullivan Show my mother told me what my schedule would be for piano lessons and piano practice. She had talked to Mr. Chong, who lived on the first floor of our apartment building. Mr.Chong was a retired piano teacher, and my mother had traded housecleaning services for weekly lessons and a piano for me to practice on every day, two hours a day, from four until six.

When my mother told me this, I felt as though I had been sent to hell. I whined, and then kicked my foot a little when I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Why don’t you like me the way I am?” I cried. “I’m not a genius! I can’t play the piano. And even if I could, I wouldn’t go on TV if you paid me a million dollars!”

My mother slapped me. “Who ask you to be genius?” she shouted. “Only ask you be your best. For you sake. You think I want you to be genius? Hnnh! What for!Who ask you!”

“So ungrateful,” I heard her mutter in Chinese, “If she had as much talent as she has temper, she’d be famous now.”

Mr. Chong, whom I secretly nicknamed Old Chong, was very strange, always tapping his fingers to the silent music of an invisible orchsta. He looked ancient in my eyes. He had lost most of the h air on the top of his head, and he wore thick glasses and had eyes that alwys looked tired. Vut he must have been younger that I though, since he lived withhis mother and was not yet married.

I met Old Lady Chong once, and that was enough. She had a peculiar smell, like a baby that had done something in its pants, and her fingers felt like a dead person’s, like an old peach I once found in the back of the refrigerator: its skin just slid off the flesh when I picked it up.

I soon found out why Old Chong had retired from teaching piano. He was deaf. “Like Beethoven!” he shouted to me: We’re both listening only in our head!” And he would start to conduct his frantic silent sonatas.

Our lessons went like this. He would open the book and point to different things, explaining, their purpose: “Key! Treble! Bass! No sharps or flats! So this is C major! Listen now and play after me!”

And then he would play the C scale a few times, a simple cord, and then, as if inspired by an old unreachable itch, he would gradually add more notes and running trills and a pounding bass until the music was really something quite grand.

I would play after him, the simple scale, the simple chord, and then just play some nonsense that sounded like a dat running up and down on top of gargafe cans. Old Chong would smile and applaud and say Very good! Bt now ou must learn to keep time!”

So that’s how I discovered that Old Chong’s eyes were too slow to keep up with the wrong notes I was playing. He went through the motions in half time. To help me keep rhythm, he stood behind me and pushed down on my right shoulder for every beat. He balanced pennies on top of my wrists so that I would keep them still as I slowly played scales and arpeggios. He had me curve my hand around an apple and keep that shame when playing chords. He marched stiffly to show me how to make each finger dance up and down, staccato, like an obedient little soldier.

He taught me all these things, and that was how I also learned I could be lazy and get away with mistakes, lots of mistakes. If I hit the wrong notes because I hadn’t practiced enough, I never corrected myself, I just kept playing in rhythm. And Old Chong kept conducting his own private reverie.

So maybe I never really gave myself a fair chance. I did pick up the basics pretty quickly, and I might have become a good pianist at the young age. But I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different, and I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns

Over the next year I practiced like this, dutifully in my own way. And then one day I heard my mother and her friend Lindo Jong both after church, and I was leaning against a brick wall, wearing a dress with stiff white petticoats. Auntie Linds daughter, Waverly, who was my age, was standing farther down the wall, about five feet away. We had grown up together and shared all the closeness of two sisters, squabbling over crayons and dolls. In other words, for the most part, we hated each other. I thought she was snotty. Waverly Jong had gained a certain amount of fame as “Chinatown’s Littlest Chinese Chess Champion.”

“She bring home too many trophy.” Auntie Lindo lamented that Sunday. “All day she play chess. All day I have no time do nothing but dust off her winnings.” She threw a scolding look at Waverly, who pretended not to see her.

“You lucky you don’t have this problem,” Auntie Lindo said with a sigh to my mother.

And my mother squared her shoulders and bragged: “our problem worser than yours. If we ask Jing-mei wash dish, she hear nothing but music. It’s like you can’t stop this natural talent.”

And right then I was determined to put a stop to her foolish pride.

A few weeks later Old Chong and my mother conspired to have me play in a talent show that was to be held in the church hall. But then my parents had saved up enough to buy me a secondhand piano, a black Wurlitzer spinet with a scarred bench. It was the showpiece of our living room.

For the talent show I was to play a piece called “Pleading Child,” from Schumann’s Scenes From Childhood. It was a simple, moody piece that sounded more difficult than it was. I was supposed to memorize the whole thing. But i dawdled over it, playing a few bars and then cheating, looking up to see what notes followed. I never really listed to what I was playing. I daydreamed about being somewhere else, about being someone else.

The part I liked to practice best was the fancy curtsy: right foot out, touch the rose on the carpet with a pointed foot, sweep to the side, bend left leg, look up, and smile.

My parents invited all the couples from their social club to witness my debut. Auntie Lindo and Uncle Tin were there. Waverly and her two older brothers had also come. The first two rows were filled with children either younger or older than I was. The littlest ones got to go first. They recited simple nursery rhymes, squawked out tunes on miniature violins, and twirled hula hoops in pink ballet tutus, and when they bowed or curtsied, the audience would sigh in unison, “Awww, and then clap enthusiastically.

When my turn came, I was very confident. I remember my childish excitement. It was as if I knew, without a doubt, that the prodigy side of me really did exist. I had no fear whatsoever, no nervousness. I remember thinking, This is it! This is it! I looked out over the audience, at my mother’s blank face, my father’s yawn, Auntie Lindo’s stiff-lipped smile, Waverly’s sulky expression. I had on a white dress, layered with sheets of lace, and a pink bow in my Peter Pan haircut. As I sat down, I envisioned people jumping to their feet and Ed Sullivan rushing up to introduce me to everyone on TV.

And I started to play. Everything was so beautiful. I was so caught up in how lovely I looked that I wasn’t worried about how I would sound. So I was surprised when I hit the first wrong note. And then I hit another and another. A chill started at the top of my head and began to trickle down. Yet I couldn’t stop playing, as though my hands were bewitched. I kept thinking my fingers would adjust themselves back, like a train switching to the right track. I played this strange jumble through to the end, the sour notes staying with me all the way.

When I stood up, I discovered my legs were shaking. Maybe I had just been nervous, and the audience, like Old Chong had seen me go through the right motions and had not heard anything wrong at all. I swept my right foot out, went down on my knee, looked up, and smiled. The room was quiet, except fot Old Chong, who was beaming and shouting “Bravo! Bravo! Well done!” By then I saw my mother’s face, her stricken face. The audience clapped weakly, and I walked back to my chair, with my whole face quivering as I tried not to cry, I heard a little boy whisper loudly to his mother. “That was awful,” and mother whispered “Well, she certainly tried.”

And now I realized how many people were in the audience – the whole world, it seemed. I was aware of eyes burning into my back. I felt the shame of my mother and father as they sat stiffly through the rest of the show.

We could have escaped during intermission. Pride and some strange sense of honor must have anchored my parents to their chairs. And so we watched it all. The eighteen-year-old boy with a fake moustache who did a magic show and juggled flaming hoops while riding a unicycle. The breasted girl with white make up who sang an aria from Madame Butterflyand got an honorable mention. And the eleven-year-old boy who was firts prize playing a tricky violin song that sounded like a busy bee.

After the show the Hsus, the Jongs, and the St. Clairs, from the Joy Luck Club, came up to my mother and father.

“Lots of talented kids,” Auntie Lindo said vaguely, smiling broadly.

“That was somethin’ else,” my father said, and I wondered if he was referring to me in a humorous way, or whether he even remembered what I had done.

Waverly looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. “You aren’t a genius like me,” she said matter-of-factly. And if I hadn’t felt so bad, I would have pulled her braids and punched her stomach.

But my mother’s expression was what devastated me: a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything. I felt the same way, and everybody seemed now to be coming up, like gawkers at the scene of an accident to see what parts were actually missing. When we got on the bus to go home, my father was humming the busy-bee tune and my mother kept silent. I kept thinking she wanted to wait until we got home before shouting at me. But when my father unlocked the door to our apartment, my mother walked in and went straight to the back, into the bedroom. No accusations, No blame. And in a way, I felt disappointed. I had been waiting for her to start shouting, so that I could shout back and cry and blame her for all my misery.

I had assumed that my talent-show fiasco meant that I would never have to play the piano again. But two days later, after school, my mother came out of the kitchen and saw me watching TV.

“Four clock,” she reminded me, as if it were any other day. I was stunned, as though she were asking me to go through the talent-show torture again. I planted myself more squarely in front of the TV.

“Turn off TV,” she called from the kitchen five minutes later.

I didn’t budge. And then I decided, I didn’t have to do what mother said anymore. I wasn’t her slave. This wasn’t China. I had listened to her before, and look what happened she was the stupid one.

She came out of the kitchen and stood in the arched entryway of the living room. “Four clock,” she said once again, louder.

“I’m not going to play anymore,” I said nonchalantly. “Why should I? I’m not a genius.”

She stood in front of the TV. I saw that her chest was heaving up and down in an angry way.

“No!” I said, and I now felt stronger, as if my true self had finally emerged. So this was what had been inside me all along.

“No! I won’t!” I screamed.

She snapped off the TV, yanked me by the arm and pulled me off the floor. She was frighteningly strong, half pulling, half carrying me towards the piano as I kicked the throw rugs under my feet. She lifted me up onto the hard bench. I was sobbing by now, looking at her bitterly. Her chest was heaving even more and her mouth was open, smiling crazily as if she were pleased that I was crying.

“You want me to be something that I’m not!” I sobbed. ” I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!”

“Only two kinds of daughters,” she shouted in Chinese. “Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!”

“Then I wish I weren’t your daughter, I wish you weren’t my mother,” I shouted. As I said these things I got scared. It felt like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out of my chest, but it also felt good, that this awful side of me had surfaced, at last.

“Too late to change this,” my mother said shrilly.

And I could sense her anger rising to its breaking point. I wanted see it spill over. And that’s when I remembered the babies she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about. “Then I wish I’d never been born!” I shouted. ” I wish I were dead! Like them.”

It was as if I had said magic words. Alakazam!-her face went blank, her mouth closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room, stunned, as if she were blowing away like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle, lifeless.

It was not the only disappointment my mother felt in me. In the years that followed, I failed her many times, each time asserting my will, my right to fall short of expectations. I didn’t get straight As. I didn’t become class president. I didn’t get into Stanford. I dropped out of college.

Unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be, I could only be me.

And for all those years we never talked about the disaster at the recital or my terrible delarations afterward at the piano bench. Neither of us talked about it again, as if it were a betrayal that was now unspeakable. So I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable.

And even worse, I never asked her about what frightened me the most: Why had she given up hope?

For after our struggle at the piano, she never mentioned my playing again. The lessons stopped The lid to the piano was closed shutting out the dust, my misery, and her dreams.

So she surprised me. A few years ago she offered to give me the piano, for my thirtieth birthday. I had not played in all those years. I saw the offer as a sign of forgiveness, a tremendous burden removed.

“Are you sure?” I asked shyly. “I mean, won’t you and Dad miss it?”

“No, this your piano,” she said firmly. “Always your piano. You only one can play.”

“Well, I probably can’t play anymore,” I said. “It’s been years.”

“You pick up fast,” my mother said, as if she knew this was certain. ” You have natural talent. You could be a genius if you want to.”

“No, I couldn’t.” “You just not trying,” my mother said. And she was neither angry nor sad. She said it as if announcing a fact that could never be disproved. “Take it,” she said.

But I didn’t at first. It was enough that she had offered it to me. And after that, everytime I saw it in my parents’ living room, standing in front of the bay window, it made me feel proud, as if it were a shiny trophy that I had won back.

Last week I sent a tuner over to my parent’s apartment and had the piano reconditioned, for purely sentimental reasons. My mother had died a few months before and I had been bgetting things in order for my father a little bit at a time. I put the jewelry in special silk pouches. The sweaters I put in mothproof boxes. I found some old chinese silk dresses, the kind with little slits up the sides. I rubbed the old silk against my skin, and then wrapped them in tissue and decided to take them hoe with me.

After I had the piano tuned, I opened the lid and touched the keys. It sounded even richer that I remembered. Really, it was a very good piano. Inside the bench were the same exercise notes with handwritten scales, the same sedcondhand music books with their covers held together with yellow tape.

I opened up the Schumann book to the dark little piecce I had played at the recital. It was on the left-hand page, “Pleading Child.” It looked more difficult than I remembered. I played a few bars, surprised at how easily the notes came back to me.

And for the first time, or so it seemed, I noticed the piece on the right-hand side, It was called “Perfectly Contented.” I tried to play this one as well. It had a lighter melody but with the same flowing rhythm and turned out to be quite easy. “Pleading Child” was shorter but slower; “Perfectly Contented” was longer but faster. And after I had played them both a few times, I realized they were two halves of the same song.

The Sniper

The long June twilight faded into night. Dublin lay enveloped in darkness but for the dim light of the moon that shone through fleecy clouds, casting a pale light as of approaching dawn over the streets and the dark waters of the Liffey. Around the beleaguered Four Courts the heavy guns roared. Here and there through the city, machine guns and rifles broke the silence of the night, spasmodically, like dogs barking on lone farms. Republicans and Free Staters were waging civil war.

On a rooftop near O’Connell Bridge, a Republican sniper lay watching. Beside him lay his rifle and over his shoulders was slung a pair of field glasses. His face was the face of a student, thin and ascetic, but his eyes had the cold gleam of the fanatic. They were deep and thoughtful, the eyes of a man who is used to looking at death.

He was eating a sandwich hungrily. He had eaten nothing since morning. He had been too excited to eat. He finished the sandwich, and, taking a flask of whiskey from his pocket, he took a short drought. Then he returned the flask to his pocket. He paused for a moment, considering whether he should risk a smoke. It was dangerous. The flash might be seen in the darkness, and there were enemies watching. He decided to take the risk.

Placing a cigarette between his lips, he struck a match, inhaled the smoke hurriedly and put out the light. Almost immediately, a bullet flattened itself against the parapet of the roof. The sniper took another whiff and put out the cigarette. Then he swore softly and crawled away to the left.

Cautiously he raised himself and peered over the parapet. There was a flash and a bullet whizzed over his head. He dropped immediately. He had seen the flash. It came from the opposite side of the street.

He rolled over the roof to a chimney stack in the rear, and slowly drew himself up behind it, until his eyes were level with the top of the parapet. There was nothing to be seen–just the dim outline of the opposite housetop against the blue sky. His enemy was under cover.

Just then an armored car came across the bridge and advanced slowly up the street. It stopped on the opposite side of the street, fifty yards ahead. The sniper could hear the dull panting of the motor. His heart beat faster. It was an enemy car. He wanted to fire, but he knew it was useless. His bullets would never pierce the steel that covered the gray monster.

Then round the corner of a side street came an old woman, her head covered by a tattered shawl. She began to talk to the man in the turret of the car. She was pointing to the roof where the sniper lay. An informer.

The turret opened. A man’s head and shoulders appeared, looking toward the sniper. The sniper raised his rifle and fired. The head fell heavily on the turret wall. The woman darted toward the side street. The sniper fired again. The woman whirled round and fell with a shriek into the gutter.

Suddenly from the opposite roof a shot rang out and the sniper dropped his rifle with a curse. The rifle clattered to the roof. The sniper thought the noise would wake the dead. He stooped to pick the rifle up. He couldn’t lift it. His forearm was dead. “I’m hit,” he muttered.

Dropping flat onto the roof, he crawled back to the parapet. With his left hand he felt the injured right forearm. The blood was oozing through the sleeve of his coat. There was no pain–just a deadened sensation, as if the arm had been cut off.

Quickly he drew his knife from his pocket, opened it on the breastwork of the parapet, and ripped open the sleeve. There was a small hole where the bullet had entered. On the other side there was no hole. The bullet had lodged in the bone. It must have fractured it. He bent the arm below the wound. the arm bent back easily. He ground his teeth to overcome the pain.

Then taking out his field dressing, he ripped open the packet with his knife. He broke the neck of the iodine bottle and let the bitter fluid drip into the wound. A paroxysm of pain swept through him. He placed the cotton wadding over the wound and wrapped the dressing over it. He tied the ends with his teeth.

Then he lay still against the parapet, and, closing his eyes, he made an effort of will to overcome the pain.

In the street beneath all was still. The armored car had retired speedily over the bridge, with the machine gunner’s head hanging lifeless over the turret. The woman’s corpse lay still in the gutter.

The sniper lay still for a long time nursing his wounded arm and planning escape. Morning must not find him wounded on the roof. The enemy on the opposite roof coverd his escape. He must kill that enemy and he could not use his rifle. He had only a revolver to do it. Then he thought of a plan.

Taking off his cap, he placed it over the muzzle of his rifle. Then he pushed the rifle slowly upward over the parapet, until the cap was visible from the opposite side of the street. Almost immediately there was a report, and a bullet pierced the center of the cap. The sniper slanted the rifle forward. The cap clipped down into the street. Then catching the rifle in the middle, the sniper dropped his left hand over the roof and let it hang, lifelessly. After a few moments he let the rifle drop to the street. Then he sank to the roof, dragging his hand with him.

Crawling quickly to his feet, he peered up at the corner of the roof. His ruse had succeeded. The other sniper, seeing the cap and rifle fall, thought that he had killed his man. He was now standing before a row of chimney pots, looking across, with his head clearly silhouetted against the western sky.

The Republican sniper smiled and lifted his revolver above the edge of the parapet. The distance was about fifty yards–a hard shot in the dim light, and his right arm was paining him like a thousand devils. He took a steady aim. His hand trembled with eagerness. Pressing his lips together, he took a deep breath through his nostrils and fired. He was almost deafened with the report and his arm shook with the recoil.

Then when the smoke cleared, he peered across and uttered a cry of joy. His enemy had been hit. He was reeling over the parapet in his death agony. He struggled to keep his feet, but he was slowly falling forward as if in a dream. The rifle fell from his grasp, hit the parapet, fell over, bounded off the pole of a barber’s shop beneath and then clattered on the pavement.

Then the dying man on the roof crumpled up and fell forward. The body turned over and over in space and hit the ground with a dull thud. Then it lay still.

The sniper looked at his enemy falling and he shuddered. The lust of battle died in him. He became bitten by remorse. The sweat stood out in beads on his forehead. Weakened by his wound and the long summer day of fasting and watching on the roof, he revolted from the sight of the shattered mass of his dead enemy. His teeth chattered, he began to gibber to himself, cursing the war, cursing himself, cursing everybody.

He looked at the smoking revolver in his hand, and with an oath he hurled it to the roof at his feet. The revolver went off with a concussion and the bullet whizzed past the sniper’s head. He was frightened back to his senses by the shock. His nerves steadied. The cloud of fear scattered from his mind and he laughed.
Taking the whiskey flask from his pocket, he emptied it a drought. He felt reckless under the influence of the spirit. He decided to leave the roof now and look for his company commander, to report. Everywhere around was quiet. There was not much danger in going through the streets. He picked up his revolver and put it in his pocket. Then he crawled down through the skylight to the house underneath.

When the sniper reached the laneway on the street level, he felt a sudden curiosity as to the identity of the enemy sniper whom he had killed. He decided that he was a good shot, whoever he was. He wondered did he know him. Perhaps he had been in his own company before the split in the army. He decided to risk going over to have a look at him. He peered around the corner into O’Connell Street. In the upper part of the street there was heavy firing, but around here all was quiet.

The sniper darted across the street. A machine gun tore up the ground around him with a hail of bullets, but he escaped. He threw himself face downward beside the corpse. The machine gun stopped.

Then the sniper turned over the dead body and looked into his brother’s face.

The Michelle I Know

Rob was late. And last night he’d gone to the after-game dance. With Vanessa.

Michelle turned over. The hospital bed was hard and confining. The entire back of her neck felt like one giant pillow crease. She rubbed it and as always, her fingers crept upward to explore the terrifying bleak landscape where her hair was supposed to be. She didn’t have the energy to pound the pillow good and hard. Even if she did, she’d probably knock the intravenous needle out of place and then she’d have to lie there gritting her teeth while nurses poked and jabbed to set another IV.

It wasn’t fair. Sometimes she felt so tired and sick it was even hard to lift the remote control for the TV.

Her clock radio said it was 7:27. Maybe Rob wasn’t coming. She wasn’t much to come to. Not any more. Even after the other kids quit showing up, he’d stuck it out. Once he’d even smuggled in his mom’s poodle pup to break the monotony. But now maybe he was having second thoughts.

All Michelle could see outside the fourth story window was cottony orange light dissolving into darkness. In the distance a siren screamed, drew nearer, then passed beneath her window. If she got up, she’d see blood-red lights flashing below and people hurrying into Emergency, all softened by the winter fog. Sometimes the fog got so thick it looked like you could walk right out the window and keep on going. Michelle’s mouth quirked. In reality, it would be more like plunging down-gown flapping about her, IV monitor and pole and bottles all set to smash on the sidewalk. How much would it hurt, before … ? But that might be a quick escape.

The guItar started playing again. Michelle relaxed a bit and fidgeted with her earrings. One of the holes in her left ear was kind of sore. She sighed and took out the tiny purple triangle, feeling for a safe spot on the bedside table. If her earlobe got infected, Dr. Warkentin would give her major heck.

She closed her eyes and tried to let the music wash away her frustration. It was total boredom, being in hospital for almost two months.

Probably she was turning into a turnip. Or some kind of squash. No wonder Rob wasn’t here. Vegetables weren’t the greatest company. At least the music made everything more bearable. This was the third day. Or was it only the second? Time got pretty blurry, cut off from her normal life.

The soft scuff of rubber sales on carpet, the faintest swish of clothing told her that Brenda, the evening nurse, had come in. “Hi, kiddo,” came the cheery voice. “Anything I can do for you?”

Eyes still shut, Michelle shook her head. She’d had it with hospitals. With routines. Needles in her arms. Chemotherapy that left her feeling like something a pulp mill spat out.

Brenda’s voice prodded at her. “Your friend’s late.”

Michelle looked dully at the young nurse. “I don’t think he’s coming.”

“Oh hush!” Briskly the older girl straightened the untouched pile of magazines left by the occupational therapist.

“I bet-”

“Watch out for my earnng.” Michelle tensed, then heard the predictable thkk sound of a tiny object hitting the carpet.

“Sorry.” Brenda stooped. “I’ll put it in your top drawer, okay? Now. Your friend. I bet the fog’s keeping him.

When I went out at supper it was like walking through whipped cream.”

Michelle smiled faintly and waited while Brenda took her pulse and temperature, then checked the drip from her IV bottle.

Brenda patted her hand. “Cheer up. Doctor says your blood counts are super. You’re on your way to remission, kid, and you know what that means.”

“Yeah,” she said sourly. “I get to go home and wait six months before I have enough hair to do anything with.” It would be heaven to go home, though. It seemed ages since she’d been someone, with thick dark hair that swished against her cheeks. Who had lots of friends, and clothes that fit right. Who felt like the world was hers.

Now it was safest not to hope.

Brenda tossed her straw-coloured braid over her shoulder, then placed her hands in her uniform pockets. “You’ll feel lots better once you’re home. But you may not want to leave us … ” The nurse’s voice lowered. “You’ve got an admirer right here in our midst and he thinks you’re gorgeous.”

“Yeah, nght. Tell me another one.” Michelle shifted and the IV pole rattled.

“Honest. It sure isn’t me.” Brenda indicated her comfortably padded waistline. “If I ever get a boyfriend I’ll know I’m dreaming.”

“At least you’ve got hair.” What she really meant was that Brenda had a face that was … friendly. The kind that was sure to draw people to her but it would sound pretty sucky to say it out loud.

“So have you,” Brenda countered. “Where is it, stuffed in the drawer
with your washbasin?”

To be exact, the wig was stuffed in the drawer under the washbasin. Mom bought it when her hair first started thinning. It was awful. The colour was right, but that was all. Any way you looked at it, it was fake hair-like what you’d see on a Barbie doll.

Michelle glared at her skinny arms, mottled with bruises and needle scars. “It’s gross,” she muttered. “It’s too hot. And prickly. Who cares, anyhow, with a death sentence hanging over your head?”

Brenda swished across the room to get a handful of clean straws from the cabinet. “Cases like yours go into remission for years now, Michelle,” she said firmly. The way she said it, it sounded like she knew exactly how it felt to lie there at 3:00 a.m., scared cold, and faking sleep as the night shift crept in with flashlights to check the IV and write on the chart. “We had the cutest little guy in here once-he never came back, so we all started thinking maybe he didn’t make it. But Doctor says she sees him every now and then, skateboarding and riding his bike like a maniac.”

Michelle fell silent. In the hallway came the clatter of rolling wheels. Sour-faced Mrs. Begbie paused in the doorway, leaning heavily on her IV pole, her own bald head covered by a turquoise hat with wild feathers. “Nurse,” she wheezed, “can you get someone to bring my pain shot?”

Brenda glanced at her watch. “I’ll go check on it for you, Mrs B.”

Bored, Michelle flicked the TV switch. But that drowned out the guitar. She flicked it off and the screen went blank. Just like she felt. Visiting hours were almost over. Rob wasn’t coming.

Suddenly Brenda was back. “C’mon-I’ll take you to see Claude. Your admirer. Keep your friend guessing a little, huh? ”

Michelle inspected the cool clear tubing that fed sugar water and sometimes, chemo into her arm. “I don’t feel like it.”

“C’mon, go for it! Put on your wig-you can model it for Dr. Hernandez. He’s at the nursing station.”

Michelle groaned, then sat up because there was nothing better to do. But she left the wig in the drawer. “This Claude. Is he bald like me?”

“Right on. And he thinks you’re gorgeous.”

“Oh sure.” Wearily Michelle swung her legs over the edge of the bed and let Brenda put slippers on for her. Her knees were bony. And the skimpy hospital gown was too much-even a mannequin would drop dead wearing it. She slid one arm into the hot-pink dressing gown Brenda held ready, but even that looked gimpy with one sleeve dangling because of the IV.

“Glamour!” Brenda’s eyes teased her.

“What’d you do with my mink, throw it down the laundry chute?”

“Yep.” Brenda’s strong arm came around Michelle’s waist as she pushed up, grasping the IV pole “And I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. It shrank.”

Dr. Hernandez, the young resident, looked up and waved as they inched down the hallway. Michelle waved back, then remembered. Rob hadn’t come.

“And here’s Claude.”

Michelle took one look and wished she could turn and run. Except she was too tired.

Claude was old enough to be her father. His arms were bruised like her own. His bald head gleamed with shiny flesh. A guitar lay in his lap.

Dizzy with exhaustion, Michelle sank into a visitor’s chair. Some admirer. What was he, a dirty old man? See if she ever listened to Brenda again!

“So you’re Michelle.”

“Yeah,” she mumbled and looked away.

“We’re all pretty proud of Claude,” Brenda said. “He’s been in and out of this place for eight years now, and each time he comes back, we learn something new.”

Eight years? And she’d thought eight weeks was torture. “I can hear you in my room,” Michelle said hesitantly, since they obviously expected her to talk. “It helps.”

Light glowed in the man’s dark eyes, and suddenly his face was beautiful. “I taught myself to play in this joint,” he said “Drove everybody nuts.” His right hand, splinted to keep the IV needle in place, strummed the guItar with a caressing stroke. A flurry of notes scattered.

“You?” said Brenda. “Never.”

Outside, a train rumbled past. Michelle fell silent. Ironic how hospitals ended up in the noisiest parts of town. Ironic how she, once with everything going for her, had so quickly been thrust on a shelf, forgotten, and now by Rob, too. Once cancer cells got their claws into you, none of the old rules applied. You were totally at the mercy of doctors and nurses. And the disease.

“It’s not so easy, eh?” Claude’s soft voice startled her.

Quickly she forced her face into a polite mask No point in grasping for the sympathy of somebody just as sick-probably forty, and bald besides. Brenda had disappeared; she guessed it was either be polite and talk, or else try getting back on her own. “No,” she said. There was a long pause. Claude’s bound fingers gently plucked the guitar. “You’ve had leukemia for eight years?” she burst out.

“Eight years. A long time. It’s been pretty hard on the family. But I’m lucky. Most patients my age don’t last.”

Michelle looked cautiously at Claude, whose shiny bald head had odd bumps and ridges just like hers, who lacked eyelashes and eyebrows. Just as she did. “Do you ever feel like-” She broke off, then barged ahead after a steadying breath: “Like sometimes you’d rather die than be poked by one more needle?”

Claude looked beyond her, out at the night sky. “Sometimes,” he said at last. “But we were each given a life. You don’t throw that out like garbage.”

“I hate it!” Sudden tears trickled down Michelle’s cheeks and she wiped at them furiously. “How I look. How I feel. I hate everything!” She sniffed hard, blew her nose, but couldn’t stop.

“Yeah, it gets that way sometimes.” Claude’s fingers coaxed more notes out of the guitar, sending music spilling into the hallway. Michelle rested her cheek against the ridge of the bedside table. “I’ve been there,” he went on. “But you know, we’re all in this together.”

“Not my friends,” she said bitterly.

“You have to be strong inside,” he said. “Don’t waste yourself fighting the wrong things,”

Michelle traced her fingertip along the hard tabletop. At least this man was better than sour Mrs. Begbie, or Mr. Morris who let himself be wheeled around like a big doll. This man had dignity. Did she?

“Michelle?” Brenda’s voice penetrated. “I found this guy wandering around the hallway. Is he somebody you know?”

Rob! He stood there in the doorway, still bundled up in his jacket, his face tense.

With a great effort Michelle wiped her eyes. “Hi,” she mumbled.

The music stopped. A warm hand rested on her shoulder. “Remember. You’ve got to fight it.”

She managed a wan smile. “Yeah.”

“Sorry I’m late,” Rob said. “That fog’s impossible. I practically had to get out and put my nose on the street just to see the lines.”

“Your attention please.” The cold voice of the intercom spoke with dismissive finality. “Visiting hours are now over.”

“Shush!” Brenda waved her hand at the speaker in the ceiling. “Quick! To your room!”

Shakily Michelle stood up, leaning on her IV pole. Rob moved in to help her. He smelled like fresh air. Which meant she must smell like … the hospital. Sick. Grimly, she kept her legs moving and her grip tight on the pole; she’d already learned how hard it could be to get back up after a fall. But visiting hours were over and now Rob would have to go. Her eyes blurred.

“Who was that guy?” Rob asked.

“He’s been sick for eight years.” She knew she was wobbly, but it felt as if Rob had just shuddered. Walking took so much of her energy that she couldn’t say more. Her bed, freshly made up, looked like heaven. Wearily she sank onto it.

But Brenda was drawing the curtains around her. Rob was pulling up a chair. “She says I can stay half an hour if I promise to be good,” he whispered.

Brenda winked and disappeared.

Suddenly Michelle didn’t know what to say. Here was Rob, late because of the fog. But his face was still tense and his eyes were guarded. “How was last night?” she mumbled.

“Okay,” he said indifferently. “We won the game.”

They were not nn the same wavelength. Needing to be doing something, Michelle reached for her mirror and studied herself. Her shiny bald head, the hony ridges where her eyebrows had once been. She yanked the wig out of the drawer and pulled it on. Loose hairs caught in her right earring. Furtively she glanced at Rob. “Well?” she demanded. “Am I still ugly?”

Rob sighed.

Might well forget it. Who wanted a bald girlfriend who couldn’t do anything but cry? “I’m ugly compared to Vanessa.” She couldn’t help the waspish note that sliced into her voice.

“What’s the deal about Vanessa ?” Rob’s fingers tensed as they dangled between his knees. “I only went for something to do. Vanessa’s boring, okay? The whole stupid dance was boring. What else do you want to know, what we-”

“Sorry.” She felt heat creeping into her face. “When you were so late, I guess I thought … ” Out of the corner of her eye she watched him. His jaw was tight, but his green eyes were intent on her. “And then because I’m so ugly and everything, I thought … Oh forget it!” She pulled the wig off and threw it. It landed on her IV bottle and dangled there rakishly.

Michelle bit her lip. It looked so awful she nearly cried-to think she’d hoped Rob might like her better with the wig on. But it didn’t look just awful, it looked-awful. So awful that … A giggle escaped.

Suddenly Rob lurched to his feet. He bowed to the IV pole. “Allow me, madam, may I have this dance?”

Michelle laughed out loud.

Rob grinned.

Michelle clapped a hand over her mouth, trying to keep her voice down, for suddenly she couldn’t stop laughing. But she couldn’t let herself get carried away. It was all very well for noble Rob to come to the hospital every day to see poor Michelle, who was so sick with leukemia, but …

“You shouldn’t feel like you have to come here all the time,” she mumbled. “It’s no fun for you. I mean, you’ve been fantastic, really fantastic, but I don’t want you to start hating me because I’m such a … ” She swallowed hard.

Rob had to be set free. It wasn’t fair to expect him to be the knight in shining armour. She had to have the strength to let him go.

“Michelle.” His voice was quiet; solemnly he lifted a few strands of hair from the wig, rubbing them between his thumb and fingertips. “What we’ve got-it’s based on a little more than hair, you know?”

She hiccupped, hardly daring to believe what she was hearing.

She had to change gears, fast. Deliberately, she rubbed her hand over her bald head. “Well, at least this never gets tangled.” She gulped in a deep breath. “How do you think it would look with flowers painted on it?”

Miraculously, Rob was still there. He was even laughing, and his incredible, world-stopping grin was dawning in his eyes. For the first time in months, Michelle felt a real smile swelling inside.

“Now that’s the Michelle I know, Rob murmured. He leaned closer.