Jun 092011
 

Abby Frucht and her son, Alex, in Peru

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Laurie Alberts

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Here’s another first for Numéro Cinq, a novel written by two people at once. Not an unheard-of proposition, but unusual and intriguing. Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts are old friends and colleagues at Vermont College of Fine Arts, both eminent and prolific authors. I met Laurie when we were at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980; Abby I’ve known since 1994 when we started teaching together at VCFA.  In summer 2010, tired of writing in solitude and looking for a way jazz up their friendship even at a thousand miles apart, Abby and Laurie decided to write a novel together.  A year of emails, phone calls, debates, flat out arguments, jibes, jokes, frustrations, confessions, and absolutely no-regrets later, they have three hundred pages.  On top of having fun, they love the characters they’ve created – Noor and Jaycee’s funny, twisted story, their impromptu adventures, their awkward, fateful friendship. The two chapters presented here are consecutive. The first was written by Abby with Laurie’s advice and editorial input, the second by Laurie with Abby’s advice and editorial input. Laurie and Abby will give a lecture about collaboration and the writing process at this summer’s Vermont College of Fine Arts residency.

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Chapters from a Collaborative Novel

By Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts


JAYCEE, 2010

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“You are deceiving, yes, that you were born in New York City?” Frieda insisted.

Jaycee’s seatmate on LAN flight # 2513 Miami to Lima was a doe-eyed paralegal who, although she lived in Lima with her husband and their six year old son, travelled to and from Miami once a month to touch base with her boss’s overseas clients. Mainly she advised migrants, immigrants,  students with expired visas, and naturalization applicants who found themselves detained.  She was perfect for the job.  Despite the flight being a red eye – it had left Miami at seven p.m. and was due to arrive in Lima after four in the morning – the wide-awake Frieda seemed determined to take Jaycee under the wing of her gregarious generosity.  But even though Frieda’s insistence that Jaycee couldn’t possibly have been born in New York City was meant to be a compliment, it only hurt Jaycee’s feelings

“I don’t know,” said Frieda, pressed for ideas about where Jaycee appeared to be from if she’d been mistaken all her life about being born in New York City and moving to Vermont when her dad got famous enough to quit his day job.  “Hungary?  Bulgaria!” Frieda guessed, laughing with mischief and delight.  Jaycee was mortified.  She’d always known she looked like a girl in a kerchief with child-bearing hips thriving on a diet of hard, green potatoes from burlap sacks, but no one had ever said as much.  Still she only played along, saying, “Me?  Bosnia-Herzegovina?” not wanting to turn her seatmate away.  Not many people took to Jaycee like Frieda did.  It was as if Frieda thought she recognized Jaycee from a previous flight on a different airplane, or, better yet, as if they knew each other by sharing a whole other plane of existence, like in addition to being airline passengers on their way to Lima, they were dolls side by side in a toy chest somewhere, their mouths pin-tucked in red embroidery thread, silenced until the here and now.  Besides, Frieda was pretty.  Jaycee had always longed for a pretty friend, especially because, being home-schooled, she hadn’t known many girls her age at all.  The pretty ones had tended either to ignore her, or worse, to be extra kind.  Even the plain girls viewed her with uncertainty, perhaps seeing their worst fears manifest in her coarse, pebbly, hand-knitted sweaters, and that tic she was trying to get rid of of scrunching her eyebrows.  This had to do with her glasses, she thought; the little wire-rimmed spectacles chosen by her father, which criss-crossed all things seen and unseen.

“You fly many times too?” Frieda asked, blinking doll-like in wonderment.  In addition to her wedding band she wore a large, pronged opal, both rings on one finger.  Otherwise she was unadorned except by nature and classic taste in simple clothing: a brushed linen blazer, slacks, and trim boots.

“I’ve only flown three times,” Jaycee answered.  Once to an uncle’s funeral, once with her dad to a book fair in Cleveland, and much more recently a half hour flight to that saintly two day conference at which Hil had been a guest in creepy Chautauqua.  She had never seen her uncle before she faced him in his coffin, and in Cleveland she’d sat at a cafeteria table selling stacks of Hil’s chapter books to kids her age who looked desperate to escape their well-meaning parents and hang out at the mall.

“You and your families have a hobbies?” Frieda asked. In general her English was easy on the ears, the only notable flaw her confusion of the plural for the singular, like when she said of her marriage, “My husbands I trust him maybe too much.  But the only other choice is kick him out of the houses.”

“Trab-a-hey at park histo-ri-ca,” Jaycee plodded, ashamed of herself for having failed to bone up on her miserable Spanish.  It seemed rude to speak English just because Frieda spoke it so well, so Jaycee hoped to appear as if she were trying to meet her half way.  Only what could be worse than to mix and match her misbegotten syllables with pidgin English and sidestep Frieda’s question along the way?  Did she have hobbies?  She wasn’t sure.  It was hard to tell hobbies from normal activities when you worked as the events planner/docent/craftsperson/story-teller/role-player not to mention babysitter at your dad’s Park Historica for a supposed living.  Was picking wool a hobby?  Was kiln firing a hobby or was it part of her job?   How about running the lambs amid the drifts of fallen maple leaves with the kindergarten visitors?  Was that a recreational activity or was it only her so-called life at Hill Winds?

But did she even have a life?  The idea she had a family gave her the willies.  She never thought of them as being a family, she and her parents and the sixteen-going-on-fifty-one farm cats and the scores of dead mice.  “Do you have hobbies?” she asked Frieda.

Frieda arched her velvet brow.

“Oh, yes, I have hobbies!” Frieda said.  She seemed surprised to be asked.  Perhaps she hadn’t been asking Jaycee about hobbies at all.  Maybe her English was worse than it sounded.  Maybe Frieda had asked her, “Do you have babies?” or, “Do you fuck cabbies?”

Jaycee paused in her thinking, pleased by her own vocabulary.  She never used the word, fuck.  Although she’d heard the old Buddhist, or was it Taoist, saying, that no matter where you go, you’re still your old boring self (or maybe it was Alcoholics Anonymous who said that, she thought, recalling her bygone fiancée, Rick, coming home from a meeting reciting lines from the “Big Book”), she intended to prove the saying wrong.  She would not remain her modest, too obedient self, perfumed in Eau de Lanolin and Essence de Milk.  She longed to misbehave.  Would she enjoy being bad?  Or would she prefer to spend the rest of her days teaching second grade field trippers how to candle eggs?  There seemed to be no middle ground.

Saying she wanted to click on some photos of her husband and son, Frieda scrunched over to dig for her phone, the opal sputtering like embers when she thrust it past the zipper of her carry-on.  “Oh wait,” she remembered.  “Phones on airplanes not allowed!  But my families, yes, for our hobbies we bullfight.  I give you my cards,” she added, printing out her home telephone number before handing over an elegant, linen stock business card that read in gold lettering: M & G : Consultores y Constructores Asociados SAC, Abog. Frieda C. Amez Carbajal, along with the impressive title, Director Gerente.

“You have card?” Frieda asked.

Jaycee said no.  Bullfighting indeed.   It tickled her to suppose that despite the countless differences between her and her comely seatmate with the broad, open brow and fresh, warm smile, Frieda, like Jaycee, had learned to be wary of bulls in the pasture.  The closest things to bulls at Hill Winds were two placid, draft oxen of the Randall Lineback breed, trained at the yoke since five months old.  They wouldn’t trample you if you crawled underneath them and poked fun at where their testicles would be if only they weren’t castrated, but the gaggles of schoolchildren Jaycee led through the split rail fence to pet them (no cameras allowed) appreciated her pretence of fear.

“Yes.  We love to do that,” said Frieda obtusely, and then without another word she dropped off to sleep, her head on Jaycee’s shoulder.

Jaycee didn’t dare fidget, not even to get up to go to the bathroom.  At least she wouldn’t be required to explain her own reason for travelling to Peru, which seemed flimsy now she was on her way.  She was to visit Enrique Escobar Castillo, whom she had known for a year when they were fifteen and sixteen years old, respectively.  Enrique had somehow been expected to be a girl.  He was among three exchange students in Montpelier, Vermont that year, and was considered fortunate to have been matched with the unusual Emorys.  Jaycee pitied him for it.  The other exchange students stayed with families that sent their kids to real school.  After less than a month of Jaycee’s mother’s home-schooling, Enrique caught on to what he was missing.  Learning English, for one thing, since Jaycee’s mother insisted they struggle to communicate in Spanish.  In protest, he refused to complete the cemetery lesson which had been Jaycee’s favorite of her mother’s annual excursions.  You learned a lot about demographics simply by reading the headstones, like how many babies people had because so many babies died, and all the women who died in childbirth and the men who were killed in wars, and the waves of deaths from flu epidemics and whole families gone in a single day from fire, murder, measles, or food poisoning.  Enrique was crushed to see the chalky little markers used for infants, since he was already counting on fathering at least five kids.  The graveyards in his town went up, not sideways, he added via hand gestures, and it gave him the shivers to step on the graves.  He longed for a regular teacher, intramural sports, the American school cafeteria lunches of which the other exchange students bragged when he saw them at gatherings, and what he seemed to imagine were mile-long chalkboards.  Too, there would be senoritas.  So although he kept on living at Jaycee’s house, he was spared the home-schooling and allowed to attend U 32 in East Montpelier, his dark head gleaming with bright-eyed excitement, already on the lookout for the mother of his children.  He and Jaycee maintained a cousin-like fondness, or, at least, what Jaycee imagined it would be like to be hot for your own cousin who hardly knew you existed.  This trip, she supposed, was to atone for all deeds they had never performed together and all things they had never even tried and failed to say to each other.  But these undone things might not come to much, she feared.  Really, her parents should be the ones to atone, for keeping their daughter the way they’d kept her, her hair heavily parted like Emily Dickinson’s and no TV in sight.  Still they’d paid for Jaycee’s airfare, her dad handing over his public library card for use at ATMs.

“This is a public library card, Dad,” she had said.  “You use library cards in ATMs?”  She honestly didn’t know.  Neither did her father.  “Uhhh…,” he said, until her Mom broke in with, “Give me his wallet.  Let’s hope he still has his debit card.”

In their shared agitation over her trip, her addled parents treated her like she was first in the family going to college….although she never did go to college.  She had never even taken her GED.  But at last, at least, she would be seeing the world.  And the world would see her.  She tried to move her eyes without waking Frieda, glancing along the aisle past the heads of sleeping passengers to where the airplane’s oval window covers were pulled firmly shut.

In exchange for her work as Events Planner and everything else at the ragged stretch of pasture with six outbuildings that passed as HILL WINDS LIVING CHAPTER BOOKS INN AND ENTERPRISES for fifteen years, she received room and board (or as her bygone fiancée, Rick used to called it, “cot and potatoes”), the ungainly family Buick to drive, and, now that Hill Winds wasn’t faring as poorly as expected in this rocky economy since the tourists who might otherwise have toured castles in Ireland came there instead, a paltry monthly allowance of which the value fluctuated with less predictability than the numbers of visitors.  There’d been several improvements, like the opening of the gift shop, The Maple Jug, which was managed by Mrs. Emory, who did little but chat up the customers from her perch behind the register and delegating all grunt work to Jaycee.  Although they were finally booking tours to the optimistically scheduled opening of the set for MABEL’S STIRRUPS, which like all Hil’s books featured the Living Chapter Book logo cross-stitched on the cover, Jaycee’s purchase of the props, cue cards, soundtrack, costumes and accessories hadn’t so much as been authorized yet. The park’s daily or overnight visitors, along with the trained minstrel (that would be Jaycee) role-played the stories.  Aside from writing his books and sketching the few, crude, woodcut-like drawings with old-fashioned captions that appeared on their pages, Hil kept the accounts, grumbling about how lucky Jaycee was for not needing to deal with an actual salary.  Since she was never paid actual wages, she never had to deal with taxes.  And though she’d built up no Social Security and acquired no credit rating, it was true she never wanted.  She thought of her life in just those words, never wanted, words she might include in the Hill Winds brochure describing the village idiot.  It was foolish to want, when you had all you needed.  For instance, she’d never really needed to accompany Enrique to Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream with the other high school kids, had she?  “Why pay for your cavities when you can get them at home for free,” her mom said.  “Besides, we could churn ice cream here if we wanted,” making Jaycee stay home and starch aprons instead.  Enrique fit in better with the other Vermont kids than Jaycee did, and all of them knew it.  She didn’t blame him for that.  She’d enjoyed setting his plate at the rough hewn kitchen table and crossing his path amid the baskets of spindles crowding her parents’ living room. Twenty years later, she and Enrique still wrote shy letters back and forth.  Jaycee, who had nearly married Rick when she was in her early twenties, still considered herself lucky to have avoided that fate, even if Rick had been more relieved than she was when they gave up hoping for any chemistry to happen and finally called things off.   Plus there’d been that tussle with a teacher chaperoning a school group at the Inn, which made for disarmingly agreeable memories even though it still hurt where he’d bitten her toe.  How pathetic to be getting by on memories, when there were more years ahead of her than there were behind.  Enrique was way more experienced than she was in all sorts of ways.  Widowed young, he had two of his five planned kids already and managed a row of new high rise apartments across from El Parque del Amor in Miraflores, Lima, which overlooked the cliffs dropping into the Pacific.  The name meant Love Park, Jaycee knew from her guidebook, and it featured an oversize statue of two lovers engaged in what was clearly a prelude to heavy petting.  “We can get you on FACEBOOK,” she remembered him saying in one of his letters.  “We can chat all night.”

Jaycee punched open the ashtray on her seat arm, looking for the remains of a long departed passenger who had been lucky enough to be a smoker before they knew smoking killed you.  Facebook?!  She wasn’t even online.  It had been all she could do to persuade her dad to authorize the purchase, by cash, of the old, used Gateway, which didn’t even have a disc drive.  What did Hil want?  That they hire a flock of scribes to do publicity?  At least he was growing more malleable with age, she thought, reflecting on the peculiar thing Hil said to her last night when she stepped outside her house.  He was sitting on the stoop, spit-polishing his shoe buckles.

“Uhhh… I do feel that we might have considered this setback yesterday or the day before,” he said.

“Considered what setback, Dad?” she asked, holding open the door with one hip while dragging out her luggage, which had no wheels, in preparation for her early morning airport van.  It was silly to set the luggage on the stoop before going to bed – what if it rained? – but her house was so small that she needed to put out the luggage in order to sweep the floor.

Instead of answering her, her father rose and wandered onto the property, which Rick once dubbed, The Compound, toward where a boulder, Yam Rock, balanced ever more precariously balanced on an eroding hillside.  The leaves were still on the trees, but still the trees looked sparse, as if preparing themselves for a desolate winter.   In the sketches in Hil’s books – Together the Siblings Snow-shoed to School, the caption might read – the bare trees looked stronger and more cheerful than they looked at Hill Winds, and the snows were bright with warmth where they blanketed the outbuildings.  But her dad had the flu all through last February, so it had fallen to Jaycee to shovel, plow, stoke the stoves, repair the snowshoes, do the sugaring, and make the shopping trips to town when her mom’s feet were hurting.

“What setback, Dad?” she called.

She meant, whichsetback in particular?  All of the above?  Or were there setbacks she didn’t know about yet?

But the old man just kept drifting along until eventually he bumped straight into the clothesline, from which hung a few sleep shirts and two of Jaycee’s nightgowns.  Then he backed up, paused, and aimed right for the nightgowns, causing one nightgown to fall to the ground.  He’d used to joke with his daughter by clowning like this, reversing his direction as if he were a car, shifting to neutral before revving recklessly forward again, but tonight the performance was antic and sad, and, now that she thought of it, wasn’t it always?  Finally she shouted, “Good Night, Dad!  See you in two weeks when I get back from South America!!” in hopes that, a week from now, when Hil realized Jaycee hadn’t been around for a couple of days, he might remember where she was.  Then she stepped back into her puny kitchen, taking the broom with her from where it leaned against the railing.

Not until the plane touched ground at Jorge Chavez International Airport did Frieda stir, lifting her damp head off Jaycee’s shoulder.  Amid the bustle of deplaning and catching up again briefly at baggage after rushing for a ladies room, the only thing the new friends had time for was Frieda’s photo.  It showed Frieda, Frieda’s good looking husband, and their little boy, Hugo, posing in an actual bullfighting ring waving red capes at an actual bull with bows on his horns.

“Oh my god!  It’s a class you take! Like ballroom dancing?”

“Yes.  Bull fighting is a super activities.”  Frieda smiled.

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After customs, Jaycee dragged her luggage over to an official looking box that she could only hope was an ATM.  She had used one in Montpelier as practice, once, and with the fifty bucks it gave her, plus some scrimped-up allowance, she’d succumbed to her only vanity, having her hair colored at Super Cuts.  Her hair had gone grey before she turned thirty, but in the three years since, she had managed to keep her old lady frizz a secret even from her mother.  Now she wished she’d made the leap and had her jagged eyebrows waxed as the beautician had suggested.

Jaycee hesitated, worried the machine would baulk at her attempts to solicit her parents’ money from it.  She had enough cash to last her a day, but it seemed important to learn right away that she would succeed in this crucial, inelegant task.  Though she had hoped that when she hit foreign soil, she might escape the running commentary of her parents’ imprecations, so far they still cluttered up her head.  Don’t put the debit card in the slot for receipts.  Shield the keyboard from view when you punch in your PIN.    Hide the money in the money pouch but not when anyone’s watching.  Jaycee glanced right and left.  Aside from a handful of arriving tourists wandering around with backpacks and bleary, four a.m. expressions, the vast room was nearly empty but for a lady in a shower cap pushing a trash bucket.  The sad thing was Jaycee’s parents hadn’t even said those things.  Their imprecations, this time, were her invention.

Spanish or English, the ATM asked?

She pressed the button for English.

Soles or dollars?

Her finger hovered over the button for twenty soles, the smallest sum offered, equivalent to roughly seven dollars, and then darted to the button for five hundred soles before settling on the one for two fifty.  The machine appeared to think about it a minute, but in the end it dealt the money like a smooth hand of cards. All in all she was pleased.  It was easier to get money from this grimy monstrosity than from her dad.  She dragged her luggage outside to a funny little stall selling sundries in the dark, but decided to wait for Enrique’s advice on some moony looking cheeses with buttery rinds.  She bypassed some Cadbury bars and a packaged twist of dough incorrectly labeled CRUELLER, and selected a candy bar – nougat probably – whose label she couldn’t decipher.  With both hand, the shopkeeper snapped the bill taut and scanned it for flaws with acute perspicacity.  Everybody in Peru checked both sides of all bills for counterfeit, Jaycee soon learned.  Maybe even the thieves who robbed the tourist busses paused before fleeing, to vet their catch.  Pairs of thieves worked the airport, according to the U.S. State Department Travel Advisory she’d downloaded at the library.  Or worse, the cabbie drove you to a devastated outskirt and threatened to leave you crouching amid the rabid feral dogs if you didn’t fork over.  But Enrique had been thoughtful to arrange for a hotel driver, who stood at some distance waving a sign containing her name.

She pressed her face to the window of the cab, determined not to fall asleep on her first unbroken dawn in what really did look like the world, that is, the vast, sepulchral, but strangely bustling place she’d half expected never to discover on leaving Vermont.

Peeling posters flapped on pitted walls.  Hunks of concrete lined the road where it swung along cliffs overlooking a beach on which black waves swirled past a flimsy pier.  Through the tall glass doors of Hotel Tiki could be seen a clerk asleep on a vinyl couch comprising the miserable lobby.  Jaycee gave him her name, feeling so heavy with sleeplessness all of a sudden that she found herself eyeing the shiny orange couch.  What was taking so long to give over her key?  Was there a problem with her reservation?

No, everything was good, the desk clerk answered.  But then why did he go on standing there, fingering the key on its wooden anchor, unwilling either to hand it to her or lead her up the scary, open stairway to her room?  Around them vibrated the waning pulse of the next door nightclub at closing hour.  Maybe he wanted his tip in advance, seeing as her luggage had no wheels.

“Es problemo? Necessito sleepo pronto.  Yo morte.  If no sleep, I’lldie,” she insisted, thinking about how basic her feelings became when she needed to try to speak them in Spanish. “Domage,” she tried.  “Necessito domage!  Et aqua aussi,” confusing her two half-languages with a third invented dialect.  I desire a wet egg, she might be saying.  The clerk nervously eyed his 1950s style telephone, a more contemporary style than in Jaycee’s parents’ house.

“I’ll call the room,” he said inexplicably.  Why should he call her room when she wasn’t in it yet?  But the phone rang just once before the faintest, scratchiest memory of Enrique’s voice answered.  Indignation seized her.  What was Enrique doing there in her room?  Were they to consummate their non-relationship before it was even daylight enough to look twice at each other?  Outside, an old dog nosed the stoop.  The clerk lunged for it seeming to shoo it away, then slipped it a treat from inside his pocket.  Upstairs a door opened and down came the sounds of Enrique’s bare footsteps, familiar to her from when, at fifteen years old in her parent’s house, she’d lain awake eavesdropping on his midnight forays to the kitchen for snacks.  At once she was boldly ashamed, dilated with longing.  She raked her hair with trembling fingers and leveled at the stairway the cousin-like expression she wore when opening his letters, a face that might conceal, until they were safe upstairs, her wells and spouts of sentiment and physical need.  His smile was unchecked, and when he lifted her luggage with one hand, she felt sure that her reasons for making this journey were not as flimsy as she’d feared.  To think they’d soon be sharing a twin bed together like in the photos in the guidebook of this vivid, dark city, a city far away from everywhere. They climbed the open stairway floor by floor until they reached a small rooftop courtyard with rubber matt flooring and a rocking-bench with a striped canopy.  The tops of neighboring buildings loomed on all sides and the nightclub went quiet from one second to the next.  Now that Jaycee stood under the night sky with him, the idea about remaining the same person no matter where you went seemed sadder, dumber and less accurate than ever.  She couldn’t wait to find out who she soon would be.  It was like when she was making herself come via what was so far the only method that had ever really worked for her, which was to lie on her stomach on her cot in her room in Vermont and rub her clitoris in circles against the lumpy mattress through the telltale threadbare sheet, knowing she would soon burst free of whatever struck her at that moment as being the most pathetic thing about her.  Except that this time, instead of lying there afterward dreading her return to her usual self, a return that happened in stages not unlike the open stairway descending past the levels of Hotel Tiki, she would lie in Enrique’s arms and find that she was changed for good, no matter if they ended up being seriously in love or just shared two wild, adventurous weeks together learning how they felt about each other.

Enrique had reached door 401 and waited for her to join him before going inside.  It was the only door up there.

“We have the tallest room, no?” he boasted.  She recalled her urgent tangle with the teacher at Hill Winds, the chaperone she’d led to his room one night when the last of the school kids had been persuaded of Lights Out.  He had acquitted her pear-shaped figure, her nipple-heavy breasts, all the aspects of her person that despite her sheltered upbringing, she had learned to disparage. She felt the same thing due to happen again now, only sweeter and more lasting, the sky tipping overhead, the smell of car exhaust thick in what nevertheless felt like pure, dizzying oxygen.  Enrique needed no key to lead her into their room.  There were two twin beds, one of which was unmade.  On it perched a young woman primly clothed in petites, shoes on, too old to be one of Enrique’s daughters.  Twenty two or twenty three, Jaycee guessed in a flash, the knowledge thudding flatly inside her skull.  The girl’s name was Amanda.  She had a thin brown face whose eyes fixed on Jaycee with a ringing kindness, like the jingle bell eyes on the stuffed toy moose at The Maple Jug. There would be no place to hide from such a knowing, cheerful sympathy.  Not even the shower, with its drain in the center of the bathroom floor, included a curtain.

“Amanda is becoming my wife,” Enrique grandly explained.

He lifted Jaycee’s suitcase onto a slatted luggage table, gently nudging aside Amanda’s extra panties, a pair of tiny, black lace boy shorts folded neatly as gloves.  There is a certain age when a woman must be beautiful to be loved, and then there comes a time when she must be loved to be beautiful.  Who wrote that, Jaycee wondered?  The only thing for sure was she’d learned it from one of her mom’s home-school lectures.   All cities are far awayfrom somewhere, she admonished herself with a shudder, recalling, as if it had happened forever ago, her arrival on this rooftop and all of the joy she’d been poised to accept.  Even Montpelier, for all the years she’d been trapped there, was far away from somewhere else.

“So you have one whole bed,” Enrique reassured her, motioning to the untouched Alpaca blanket, the bed flush against cinderblock painted in thick red gloss.  Jaycee couldn’t make sense of the reason he gave for him and Amanda being here in her room.  Either the fancy apartments he managed went bust or he had been fired.  The children were at their grandmother’s house.  Jaycee undressed herself under the covers, forgoing the babydoll nightie she’d found in a Montpelier consignment shop and mended in secret, a task that had excited her sexually.  For a moment she flashed back on her old flannel nightgown with the faded nosegays she’d left trampled in the grass after her dad knocked it off the clothesline.  It grieved her to think of it lying there soaking up grass stains.  But while Enrique was in the bathroom, Amanda rose to tuck her in, caressing the blanket with genuinely soothing affection.  Maybe it was one of her duties at home – tucking in the maiden aunts.

“You’re pregnant?” Jaycee saw.  “Gravitos?” she added, reinventing the word off the top of her head.

Amanda bobbed her head brightly as Frieda might, meaning as much yes as she might mean no, being sweetly accommodating by default.  It was like joining a support group, coming to Peru.   Or maybe it was Be-Kind-to-Fatties Month in all of South America.   Jaycee shut her eyes on a first twinge of hunger, although no smell of breakfast, and just a crack of dawn, parted the curtains.  When she woke a while later it was to hear the kitteny mews of Amanda and Enrique having sex.  By keeping still enough she heard every suck and slide.  Yes, this was her chance to do new things …but it hurt that this first outrageous experience required her lying in rigid silence with her ankles pressed together.  The sex sounded important, like they were committing themselves to a long, shared project.  She had to wonder how she knew this, which was more than just knowing, from the smallest bite, that the nougat she had purchased at the airport stall and unwrapped in the taxi was something she had never eaten before. She pulled herself up to chew two Pepto-Bismol tablets and sip from the water Enrique had thoughtfully provided, squinting at a scrap of paper – a receipt for three soles – on which he’d stood the bottle to remind her to pay him back for it.

She’d reimburse him by paying for supper later that day at the cliffside mall in Miraflores. He would not be going with her on their planned tour to the rainforest.  He and Amanda were moving in with his mom to save money, he said.  To reimburse him for the tour, which he had booked in advance, Jaycee had to visit two ATMs, one near the arcade and the other outside an upscale kids’ clothing shop, since she owed him too much to withdraw so many soles in one transaction.  In kindness to Jaycee, Amanda walked ahead of them.  Despite her cheap, slutty clothing, the girl had a finishing-school deportment of the kind you’d learn from nuns.  She wore narrow eggplant-colored flats, of which the scuffed, dented toes, in pointing straight forward, called attention to her path being always plain before her.  In contrast Jaycee was duck-footed, as if of contrary minds as to where she should be going.  It reminded her of childhood, wishing Hil wrote science fiction instead of historical.  The girl lugging the maple syrup bucket would be long gone by now, replaced by a tomboy who zapped her parents with gamma rays.

“Only why am I paying your cancelled trip?” she asked the shrugging Enrique, although it didn’t feel like money when she handed it over.  Anyway it was her parents’ money.  Who cared what happened to it?  She slid the few remaining soles into her pocket where she kept the Pepto-Bismols.  At least she wouldn’t get travelers’ diarrhea, which set her apart from the other tour-goers she met up with some days later in Puerto Maldonado to travel via skiff along the Tambopata River.

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The guide, whose name was Carlos, had lost his prized motorcycle to a thief at an outdoor rock concert in a clearing at the border with Chile just a week before, and he was still angry enough about it that he feared he might behave in a nasty way, he said, apologizing in advance to the small gathering of tour-goers waiting for their skiff to be made ready.  You couldn’t tell how old he was.  The only thing you knew was he was younger than he looked.  He carried binoculars, never letting go the strap when he passed them around to whichever of the tour-goers (that would be Jaycee) hadn’t thought to bring any, and he shared his copy of BIRDS OF SOUTH AMERICA only by holding it arm’s length away from him, scared it might drop overboard.  He seemed to treat the book like a diary, composing lengthy notes including hand-drawn maps and sketches in the margins of its pages. Aside from Jaycee, the only others on the tour were two overweight men in their thirties from Italy named Raphael and Antonio, who dressed all in white except for the caps of opposing soccer teams, neither team Italian, Carlos noted right off.

“Do you have all your passports?” he asked again, and then, “You all have yellow fever vaccination papers?”

Jaycee hadn’t been vaccinated.  There was a clinic in Puerto Maldonado, Carlos reflected, but since the serum didn’t start protecting you until two weeks after it was injected, there was no point in going back for it now.

“Do you have cash?” Carlos asked, in case the guards at the entrance to the wildlife preserve required paying off.

“Some,” said Jaycee, not revealing how little “some” was.  She had only the equivalent of maybe twenty U.S. dollars, not even enough to tip him at the end of the tour unless he really was nasty.  Besides, she expected she’d need every penny of it.  The reason she had so little money was that the ATM in the glassed-in booth at the first bank she stopped at in Puerto Maldonado, a booth flanked by two cops drinking Inca Colas while watching a string of assorted parades march around the village square, didn’t recognize her PIN.  It was the evening before the tour.  She had walked from her hotel at the outskirts of town.  She liked it there. The region had a dusty frontier aspect, swarming with motorcycles and miniature taxis like large yellow insects.  She saw no reason to venture further up the muddy river.  There was a three-toed sloth in a tree above a chipped swimming pool, and on the riverfront lay piles of junk with toddlers playing on them, which suited her because it was real life.  If she had enough money, she’d have rented the room another few nights and walked around town partaking of the national sweet tooth, tasting all of the different ice cream novelties, layer cakes, gelatins, and candies for sale on every street.  At home the closest she came to sweets was syrup and jam.  But the hotel took only cash and the ATM at the second Banco was the same as the first: it wouldn’t give her any money.  Instead it flashed a message: Funds Declined.  She typed the six digits in again but not a third time, having learned in Montpelier that if you punched in the wrong number three times in a row, it swallowed your card instead of spitting it out.  Next morning she remembered her mother zipping a second debit card into Jaycee’s money pouch, but she couldn’t remember the PIN and anyway it was time to catch the tour.  The acronym, PIN, wasn’t up to the task of conveying a new personal identity, she thought.  Certainly her dad’s PIN was nothing worth feeling James Bondish about; it was the dull 101689.

“One hundred and one thousand, six hundred and eighty nine what? Blueberries?” she’d asked him, guessing it was an unwritten chapter book title.  But Hil only shrugged, hoping to hide that he couldn’t remember.  When had her dad gone so batty?  Too late, thought Jaycee.  By this she meant that it was too late to forgive him for the times he’d humiliated her, like at that awful pious conference in creepy Chautauqua where he told her not to let on they were even related, much less father/daughter, crossing arm-in-arm the threadbare lobby in that fire-trap Victorian haunted hotel.  He was using her for shock value.  People must be taking her for his scandalously young mistress, she had realized too late to call him Dad in public.  Now she wondered what PIN or code name she might conjure for herself if she ever required a real secret identity.  The misspelled crueller came to her, pastry and perversity.  She blinked, satisfied, accepting a dollop of sunscreen from Raphael and Antonio.  There was something woebegone about the men’s relationship, as if their Peru trip were a last ditch experiment in staying a couple.  Heads touching in tender collaboration they cropped and edited countless photos on a shared new silvery digital camera.   There was a photo of the driver of the skiff, his bashful wife and their chirpy baby boy dwarfed by an oversized life jacket, of the gold-digging boats with their carpeted ramps, and of the first capybaras, world’s largest rodent, that they spotted on the riverbank.  The photos of the boxed lunches were as artfully made as the pictures the two men took of each other, as if they planned to decide later on, in private, which memories were worth keeping.

“That’s a toucanet,” said Carlos, pointing with his binoculars to a bird-like shape in a distant tree, then flipping to the page in the Peterson’s guide so they could see what it looked like.  In addition to the trip upriver, the tour included Room and Meals at a lodge in the rainforest, Welcome Drink, Nocturnal Hike, Dawn Visit to Clay Lick, and Swim with Caimans.

Swim with Caimans? Jaycee wondered next day, pulling on her pilly, long-waisted bathing suit with the misshapen cups.  Caimans were alligators!  And her butt cheeks stuck out.  “Just swim where I swim,” Carlos said at the river, and then, later that night, “Be careful.  Don’t touch the tree trunks you don’t see what’s on them,” while probing the home of a funnel-web spider with a pencil eraser.  There was a lady from California once who touched a poison dart frog and died a week later.  “Only she brushed one finger against one tree trunk. Just step where I step,” he told Jaycee, which was how she ended up at the door to his room along the row of staff dormitories once the night hike was over: by following his flashlight along the cross-sectioned tree trunks that formed a footpath in the dark.

“Well then, come in,” he might have offered, but instead he just sputtered his flashlight at her before stepping aside with what looked like true deference.  How humiliating. Was this how women threw themselves at men?  Without even knowing they were doing it?  His room included all the creature comforts Jaycee’s room was missing.  Cascades of mosquito netting hung at the window and over the bed, the sheets tucked up tight according to either the rules of his employment or his personality.  You didn’t flush your toilet paper down the toilets in Peru.  You stuffed it in a bin.  He kept his bin neatly lined, and not too smeary with crap like in a lot of public restrooms she’d been in so far.

“All the rooms have soap and pillows. You been cheated!” he said when she told him that her room had neither, just bare mattress ticking.  “You must have been brought to the inactive bungalow.”

It was he who had led her there on the first day by mistake, they remembered.

She felt sandy, well-oiled, and either too old or too young to be climbing on top of him.   And her breasts were so heavy, so pendulous.  And she would rather lie under him than on top.  And she would drink his sweat.  She would catch it on her tongue.  Her eyes would sting from his salt.  She hoped his eyes would stay open the whole time and not veer away.

“Do you have condoms?” she asked.  He did.

“How about we take maybe one and half a second to get to know each other first?” he asked with evident humor while unbuttoning his shirt, seeing as she’d unbuttoned only her own.  He put his face and five fingers between her thighs, and when she finally gave up trying to come, he was hard enough to plunge inside her, which meant, she realized, he hadn’t been before.

“Where did you learn your English?” she asked some minutes later, meaning how do we all learn anything?  She felt oddly alert for this time of night, but with only a few things inviting her attention – the way of the scrim of the mosquito netting backlit Carlos’s shoulder, the call of some animal thing on the riverbank seeming to promise Parooo, Parooo, with a deep, rolling R the way its countrymen said it.  Of course she wasn’t turning into another person, yet, but nor did she dread going back to her room.  She felt all primed up, and even a little emotional.  She would flip onto her belly when she was alone and fuck the bed until she covered her mouth to scream.

MY English?” he asked, and then he dug in a drawer and started grooming her eyebrows with mute concentration.

“I don’t have enough money to tip you,” she confessed.

Hurt, incensed, he pulled his hands away, the comb stuck in her eyebrow.

“For the tour, I mean!” she apologized. “The ATMS weren’t working in Puerto Maldonado!”

She even gave him a kiss.  She had never insulted a man before.  She pictured him making note of her gaff in his bird guide.

“Those ATMs in Puerto Maldonado they always work perfect,” Carlos said.  Mollified, he pulled the comb through the one brow, regarding his handiwork dubiously before starting on the next.  “When you get to a phone, you need to call the help number. You do it collect.  Did you tell your card people you come to Peru, maybe?  Cause if you don’t they don’t know it’s you, for sure.”

“Yes,” she answered. Rick had said something years ago about needing to tell them if you suddenly found yourself trotting the globe (Oh sure, she’d thought, that would be me) and somehow she’d remembered.

“Did you check the machine to make sure it service your network?”

“I didn’t at first, but then the hotel told me.”

“Puerto Maldonado is one shipshape town,” Carlos considered.  “It’s the new beginning.  If they don’t give you your money in Puerto Maldonado, then there is something the matter with your money.”

Jaycee had to agree, recalling her walk along the bustling little lanes. All the storefronts rolled open even at night, and the dentists and lawyers in plain view, and the families eating supper in their shops with the TV on, the scrubbed kids in plaid school uniforms balancing full plates on their knees.  Kids got out of school late there, way after dark, and skipped home along sidewalks lit by the open storefronts.  It still gave her a pang to have seen them so happy.

Jaycee fastened her bra, lifting each breast and then letting it find its own center of gravity.  There was a mirror on the wall.  Despite Carlos’s care, her hair was corrupt.  A hornet’s nest.  She pulled Carlos’ towel from where it hung in the bathroom and tucked it over her arm to bring back to her room.  She took the soap from where it balanced on the edge of the sink but she would leave him the wrapped bar on the window sill. He had a good clean smell.  It wasn’t for her to take that away from him.  Maybe, innately, she was of broader experience than she had ever imagined, like she was her own doppelganger, as if in addition to dipping candles at Hill Winds, she’d been dispensing with one night stands all her life like an everyday heartless American girl with a PIN, sunglasses, tweezed eyebrows, and passable sex appeal…but she had to admit she doubted it, looking down at the bunches her t-shirt made when she tucked it in.  There had to be something worth giving and taking from these sorts of encounters, but the soap and the towel weren’t it.

“Maybe because you don’t tip me and because of my motorcycle being stolen, you will do something else very nice for me,” Carlos remarked as if reading her mind. “Deliver to my sister Lilianna in Lima her wedding present from me.  I can give it to you when we get back to Puerto Maldonado.  You fly right back to Lima after there, yes?  You’re not like other tourists heading for Cuzco.  Our Italians they suspect you are KGB.  Maybe they’re right.”

“I’m not going to Cuzco,” Jaycee said.  “I don’t like ruins.  How long have you been working as a tour guide?  You’re good at it.”

“Only the weeks they call me for.  And for another tour outfit I do it the same, paid by number of tourists.  How about it?  Bring my gift to Lilianna?”

“Sure,” she said.

.

.

“Is your mamacita ella esta aqui?” Jaycee asked.

She stood on one foot at a rented phone in an internet stop in a heavily trafficked outskirt of Lima, her other foot on her bags to protect them from toppling.  Frieda’s embossed business card was in her hand.  There was a jumble of wooden school desks with pencil troughs carved into them like on the desk she’d learned her alphabet on at home, and people clacking away on unstable keyboards amid spools of power cords.  Outside on the road marched another parade, the hats bigger than armchairs.  Even though parades were like weather here, people still paused to watch and to catch the blue corn candies thrown into the crowd.  The topmost, and heaviest, of Jaycee’s bags was the zippered Mini Mouse bag that Carlos had packed with his sister’s wedding gift, but which Lilliana had refused to accept, washing her hands of her brother, she pantomimed in the doorway after Jaycee was dropped off by the cab to deliver it.  Jaycee was nonplussed, since the contents of the bag had spoken so highly of Carlos’ character when she’d looked through it on the flight from Puerto Maldonado, placing the generous array of gifts on the empty seat beside her before rewrapping them in the same crumpled newspaper.  There were two miniature paintings of jungle scenes with frames spray-painted gold, two tall, imposing, similarly painted plaster candlestick holders and a matching vase.  Also two bottles of dark Cuzqueno beer and on top of all that, one of the tempting, traditional cheeses Jaycee had been admiring, the rinds bursting with buttery ripeness, the cheeses baking in their own heat, melting back into custards and creams.  The cows in the dairy where the cheese was made had names, Carlos had told her.  They were called in for milking one by one.  There was Ida, Elvira, Claudia, and Odette.  Black ladies in hats, Jaycee saw in her mind’s eye.

Frieda’s little boy, Hugo, who had answered the phone, quickly put on his father.  Jaycee remembered the good looking man in the photo in Frieda’s cell phone, in all earnestness waving his bullfighting cape.

“Esta Freida acqui?” Jaycee asked a second time.

Frieda remembered Jaycee at once.  “I fell asleep with my heads on your shoulders,” she said.  “The least we can do is give you someplace to sleep.”

It would be just for one night, Jaycee said.  Her plane departed Lima for Miami late next night, and she would be in Vermont by Monday evening.  She had enough for a bus to the airport, that’s all.  Her debit card was “es rotos,” she explained.

Hugo loved having house guests, Frieda replied.  Jaycee would sleep in the little boy’s room that night, and they would build him a special, maze-style tent using all of the living room furniture covered by clothes-pinned bed sheets.

After writing down the street address for Frieda’s house, Jaycee called the international assistance number on the back of the malfunctioning debit cards and was told that the accounts showed “insufficient funds.”

“What should I do with them?” she asked the operator, putting out of her mind for the time being her dad’s obscure musing on her front stoop: I do feel that we might have considered this setback yesterday or the day before.  There must be money somewhere out there or maybe even a credit card, she assumed, for paying major household and Hill Winds bills, the bills her dad took care of.  Leave it to Hil to have gone all these years without giving her a peek at the family ledger, allowing his own daughter nothing more than a handful of bills to buy role-playing props.

“You can cut the cards in pieces if it makes you feel better than just throwing them away,” the operator said.

In Hugo’s room at Frieda’s she zipped the cards back in the money pouch and put the pouch in her luggage.   Frieda asked Hugo to please draw Jaycee a map of their house, the little boy’s specialty.  The rooms were every which way like piles of blocks with no actual hallways, just doors that led to doorways and doorways leading past doors.  There were very few windows, heavily draped.  The nook was in the bathroom, Frieda said.

“The nook?” Jaycee wondered, her brows coming together as she studied her map.

“The washing machine,” Frieda said.

Jaycee gathered her ample laundry out of her bag, passing the husband, Arturo in one of the narrow archways.  He wasn’t quite as appealing as he’d looked in the photo – too gangly – but he was kindly and given to bashfulness.  What could Frieda have meant when she said that she trusted him “maybe too much?”  He seemed more harmless than a fly, first showing her to the cabinet where they kept the detergent and laundry softener and then leaving her to herself in the damp pink bathroom.  In a dish at the sink lay Frieda’s opal ring with the splintery fire.  Jaycee slipped it past her knuckle, then slid it right off and placed it back in its dish.  Later she regretted not having taken a long enough moment to regard the lovely object on her own hand as the sound of the clothes washer sloshed gently around her.

For supper there were four bowls of soup, tumblers of freshly pressed mango juice, chicken cutlets with rice, and an extravagant assortment of tinned layer cakes called King Kongs.

“No cuys,” Frieda promised, reassuring Jaycee that they’d be eating no guinea pigs that evening.  Had Jaycee by any chance been driven past a plaza surrounded by giant purple buildings anywhere in Lima, the shy Arturo wanted to know?  Arturo had been to such a plaza once, he said, but he hadn’t been able to find it since.  He worried he had suffered a delusion, he said with Frieda helping Jaycee to make the translation.

Jaycee answered that she had been to such a plaza.  Mammoth purple buildings featuring rows of ornate windows surrounded a derelict square with drugged-out teens hanging out in it.

“That’s the Plaza Dos de Mayo but that’s blue, not purple,” Arturos said.  He really must have been dreaming, he added with dismay.

“Or maybe it looks purple at four in the morning,” Jaycee proposed.  Frieda flashed her another doe eyed smile.

Much later that night, when everybody had been asleep for a while, Hugo got up, padded into his bedroom, woke Jaycee with a child-slap and told her, crying, that he wanted to sleep alone in his own bed.  So she crept around until she found the living room, lifted a few corners of the crazy maze tent and, not finding a couch to sleep on, she crawled under the tent the way Hugo had shown her when they’d constructed it together, curling on the carpet beneath a low-slung overhang of billowy sheet..  It wasn’t a very soft place to sleep, but when morning came, she didn’t want to get up and face her very last day before going home.  What rock didn’t look like a yam, she’d often thought.  By the time she crawled out, Freida had brewed coffee and the husband, Arturo was folding Jaycee’s laundry to be carried to her in a neat stack.  A pair of underpants was missing, she learned when she was dressing.  It was her most nicely trimmed pair.  She checked the washer, the rooftop clotheslines, her luggage, and even inside her jeans.  But she didn’t dare mention it.  When it was time to meet her bus, she stood the gold candlestick holders on the kitchen table to either side of the bottle of beer, noting for the first time how crudely Carlos’s wedding gifts to his sister were fashioned,  the plaster lumpy and misshapen under the thickly sprayed paint.

“Thanks for all of your kindness.  And for your tent,” she added to Hugo, handing him one of the jungle scene miniatures.

Hugo nodded eagerly.  Arturo blushed beet red.  “We hope very much we see you again,” said Frieda.

.

.

Because Jaycee had no money left to pay for even so much as a bus ticket when she arrived at the airport in Burlington, she spent her last remaining nickels to call her mom to come get her.  It was chilly for October, so she waited inside, dozing off on a bench.  Her mom’s foot was too numb to do any driving, so she was sending a driver.  It was the stupid diabetes.  It was her mom’s own fault, for being so fat.  Jaycee dreamt the Michael Jackson amputation song dream she’d dreamt before.  Foot by foot, one two three, abc baby, knee by knee.  Not until Jaycee’s name was paged did she jerk awake and see a slender Indian lady standing none too patiently before her.

“Uhhh. .. Are you the car?” Jaycee asked, and brought herself up short.  It was her dad who said Uhhh all the time, not her.

The Indian lady said no, she was not a car.

“But you’re the driver,” said Jaycee.  She reached for the pocket in which she kept her crooked spectacles when she couldn’t bear to wear them, still uncertain as to whether it was better to stumble around half blind or watch even her own thoughts coming and going.

“I drove here, yes, if that’s what you mean.”  She glanced at her wristwatch, her arm dusky with down.  How did such a heavy, athletic looking wristwatch appear so regal, so womanly, Jaycee wondered?  But having needed to bypass the Au Bon Pain in the Miami airport where she had bought the delicious brie and cranberry baguette a week and a half earlier, she was way too hungry to muster a kind word for game-playing cab drivers with chips on their shoulders.  “I just want to be sure that my parents have paid you. I don’t have any money.  I slept through breakfast and then I couldn’t buy lunch.”

“Your parents need to be told what is too much to ask.  It’s not my place to do that,” the lady warned.  She took hold of Jaycee’s bag, but Jaycee wrested it away in time to drag it out the door.  Those were some mean boots the lady was wearing.  She kicked some blown leaves sideways, stomped on an upended coffee cup, then kick-glided toward parking.  Her pea coat was littered with pine shavings.

“I’ve arranged for social services to visit with your folks,” she told Jaycee when they had exited the airport and were snaking toward the highway.  “My name is Noor Kahn. I’m not a social worker.  I’m not an elder care worker, and I’m not a driver.  I own a therapeutic horse farm.  You might know it; your dad sure does.  You shouldn’t have left your folks in their condition for someone else to feel obliged to look after them. They haven’t paid their bills.   There’s no hot water.  The electricity’s shut off.  We’re lucky it’s not January.  There’s food in the pantry on credit but there needs to be somebody able to cook it, not to mention wash dishes.  Your mother’s in a twist about having no television service.  Your father’s never upset by anything, is he? There are blankets for warmth and it’s not my place to draw the line at candles.  The wood stove is clogged.   There’s some wood for your stove but not very much.  I assume that the smaller house is yours.  What was that smell coming out of your bag before we threw it in the back?  You’re not the only one starving.”

Jaycee answered simply “queso,” leaving out that she’d chosen the Miami Customs line at which the official appeared to have a head cold, in hopes he wouldn’t smell the cheese and take it away.  She intended to eat it alone in her kitchen.  She would stuff herself with it later than night, then go to bed without brushing her teeth, dreaming of it.   “We didn’t have TV before 1999!  The stove is clogged?  How ‘bout the eighty eight thousand cats?  Starved?” she hoped.  But it was Hil’s pride and joy to maintain that stove.  Daily he scooped out and carted the ash.  Weekly he sandpapered inside the window, brushed the creosote from the pipe, and climbed up to clear it of any debris.  His devotion to that stove was a chronic annoyance, second only to his devotion to his books and to his daughter.  The heavy part in Jaycee’s hair was his longest-term project, but he would gaze on it again over her dead body.  It hung loose now, unevenly sun-bleached and inadequately brushed.  How was it a woman with pine shavings on her pea coat kept her hair so smartly styled, so bluntly, sleekly layered, she wondered of Noor?

Noor pulled the truck up next to a bakery outlet.  “They have day-old loaves,” she said, handing over some cash and keeping the engine running for heat.  “And you’re not the only one broke,” she added.  “I keep waiting for manna to drop from the sky.  Instead I get cheese.”  She waved a hand at the air.

In Jaycee’s haste to buy bread she knocked a plastic bag of cinnamon buns off a shelf and dropped some quarters on the floor when she was handed her change.  She remembered the name, Noor Kahn. She remembered throwing up in the composting toilet when she was a girl, the vomit foaming in the bowl.  Noor Kahn, daughter of … not much more than bruising and a broken wrist, a newspaper had written as if chastising the hit and run accident victim for not being flattened like her friend, Pauline.  There had been some uncertainty surrounding the tragedy.  What was it, exactly, Jaycee tried to remember?  Pauline had been pushed straight into the ground but her dad had been thrown … nearly impossible for a car to roll over a twelve year old child while  …  at the velocity as calculated by … Something queasy like that.  And why had the Indian girl survived, when the others had died?   “Because she was dark,” Jaycee’s mother had mused illogically.  She blended in with the night.

The clerk found a plastic knife, a handful of napkins, and a paper plate, which Noor spread out on the truck seat.  Already she’d fetched the cheese from the luggage in back and for a minute, as if the women were friends or at least not antagonists, they sat admiring the lunar glow it cast.  On some fields beyond the windshield stood a smattering of cows (Oprah, Bessie, Althea, and Coretta) who hadn’t been encouraged to go inside.  Jaycee gazed at the amicable herd of females, miffed at herself for starting off on such rotten footing with Noor.

“Good of you to come get me,” she finally said, but when Noor didn’t soften, Jaycee added, “How was my trip?  Nice of you to ask.  But you know what they say.  Wherever you go, you aren’t not there.  Or something like that.  And then you come home. Nobody asks you what comes next.  No one talks about what you are when you’re home except maybe even broker than they are.”

Noor barely blinked.  With true grace wielding the clumsy knife, she tended only to the prospect of lunch, dinner, snack, whatever.  At first, it was as Jaycee had imagined, the press of the blade being fought back against by the bloat from within … but then the rind popped open and in addition to the white ooze melting forth, there came a gritty dusting of whitish powder and the ragged, cheese-smeared margin of a plastic bag.

“Holy Schist,” said Jaycee, her goody two shoes vocabulary getting the better of her.

The pretty Noor placed her hand on Jaycee’s arm, as if they really might be friends or at least coconspirators, and Jaycee, startled speechless by the other woman’s touch, lowered a fingertip to the gritty powder.

.

——————————————————-

.

.

NOOR, 2010

.

“Fuck me!” Noor said.

“Holy schist!” Jaycee exclaimed.

“What did you say?”

“Holy Schist,” Jaycee repeated, reddening. “You know, schist, metamorphic rock. It’s something my mother taught me to say instead of shit. Okay, holy shit!  I can’t believe I took that through customs in Miami.”

Noor couldn’t believe it either. Why wasn’t this innocent ignoramus on the news right now, being shackled and led away for hiding a pound, maybe pound and a half of a suspicious gritty substance in her suitcase?

“I can’t believe you got the smelly cheese through, let alone this,” Noor said. “Jesus. Do I want this stuff in my truck?  NO.” Noor glanced through the side window and swiveled to look behind them. Not likely Burlington cops were on the lookout for two thirtyish women in a pickup with a Horses Help People sticker on the rear bumper and dog hair on the seats. Dog hair and and roughly a pound of white, snowy, Andes Mountain High.

“Well what do you think I should do with it?” Jaycee wailed, scrunching her furry eyebrows and wincing as though about to be spanked.  Noor winced too, imagining the homely creature slung over some perverted loser’s knee.

Noor swiveled to stare at her before turning back to the road. “What is it about you and your family? Why do you all keep involving me in your problems, expecting me to solve them?  Turn it over to the cops, throw it away, snort it, do what you want. Just don’t get me thrown in jail for the rest of my life. I do have a life, by the way. Do you?”

“I’m really sorry,” Jaycee said. “I had no idea it was in there. I don’t even know what it is.  And no, not really. Not including last week I don’t. Have a life. Holy Schist.”

Feeling a little guilty for her outburst, Noor licked the very tip of her index finger, touched it to the grit, and rubbed just the barest amount along her top gum as she’d seen people do in movies. She hadn’t liked coke when she tried it in college – didn’t like the way it jangled her nerves and made her taste metal in her mouth, though the metallic flavor might have come from whatever the coke had been cut with.  And this stuff was pure, uncut, the scree of it sharp and hard to the touch.  Damn.  The silly Jaycee was right.  It really was schist. Noor’s gum tingled and went numb and her heart jumped just the slightest. “It’s cocaine,” she said. She didn’t even bother trying to calculate what this much cocaine might be worth. A lot, anyway.  But they would call it a kilo, not a pound.  Whoever they were.  She remembered a film she’d seen in high school about the terrible conditions of the Indians who grew and harvested the coca leaves in the Andes, and what a tiny percentage of the drug’s value they earned by their labors. Something about them chewing the leaves to dull the cold hard work Also, something about all the chemicals that were used to cook the coca leaves and render them into the pasty white crumbles – kerosene, benzene, one of those zenes and sulfuric acid or rat poison or something.  She put her fingertip to her gums again, trying to rub it back away.

“People drink coca tea, Jaycee was saying “So it couldn’t be all bad, could it? They serve it to dull the altitude sickness in wimpy backpackers.”

Stupid girl, Noor thought, but pointed out, “This isn’t tea,” with more patience than she felt. “Besides, even the tea is illegal to bring into the country.”

“You tell me,” said Jaycee. “I can’t just throw it away, what if some kid finds it?  Oh my god, what if Carlos – he was the guide at the rain forest park who asked me to bring it – I mean the cheese, I thought it was a cheese, to his sister in Lima – what if he comes looking for his stuff? I never would have brought it into your truck if I knew what was in it, I swear. Holy Schist. He could find my address through the tour operator. Holy Schist! But wait a minute. Maybe they have Enrique’s address, not mine, since he’s the one who made the reservations. But wait. No, I had to give it to them at the lodge. My address. So they do. He does. Carlos knows where I live.”

“What about the sister?  And who’s Enrique, and please don’t say ‘Holy Schist’ again. It’s inappropriate for a person your age. Say ‘Holy Fuck’.”

“Holy Fuck,” Jaycee repeated.

“Who’s Enrique?” Noor repeated.

“Just a guy. Our high school exchange student. Forget it. But Carlos’ sister, Lilianna, wouldn’t even let me in her door. She said she washed her hands of her own brother”– Jaycee mimed Lilianna’s emphatic hand washing motion– “and now I know why.  She wouldn’t even take the funny painted candlesticks. I gave them to Frieda but she said that she wanted me to keep them.  So I left her one and took the other for myself.”

“I doubt very much your Carlos is going to come looking. And you could just tell him they took away the cheese at customs.” Frieda? Noor thought – Carlos? Enrique?  – the peculiar Jaycee had made more friends over ten days of travel abroad than she’d managed to make over decades in Montpelier.

Forgetting how hungry they both had been, they sat for a while in silence, eyeing the now empty pasture before them and wondering when the cows had filed over the hill. They reached for the bread simultaneously, wrestling with a chunk of it as if it were a wishbone. Jaycee won, breaking off the larger piece. “We could sell it,” Jaycee said. “God knows my family needs the money.”

Whoa! Not as innocent as she seemed.

“You could do that,” Noor said, chewing her bread hunk thoughtfully. “What do you mean ‘we’?” she added, choosing that law-abiding question over the more dangerous, more shocking question that crossed her mind: What do you mean your family needs the money? I need money too.

Jaycee grabbed another heel of bread and tried to scrape some of the smeary cheese from the back side of the wheel without ingesting any illicit white stuff.

“What does that cheese taste like, anyway?” Noor asked.

“Like a barnyard.” Jaycee stopped and stared at Noor. “I don’t know anyone who could help me sell it.  If you help me, I’ll give you half the money.”

Damn straight you would, thought Noor, but she answered, “You’re nuts. You ought to go flush it down your toilet or something.  Except knowing your house, the water will probably be shut off by the time you get there.”

“But it would be such a waste to get rid of it. All my parents’ stupid cards failed on my trip. Insufficient funds. You saw what the house was like. I could get them some help. Don’t look at me like that. It’s true. I’ve never had any money of my own. Don’t you think we could find someone to sell it?  I’d ask my old fiancé but Rick was into alcohol, not drugs, and anyway he’s probably in the army now.  At least I don’t think he was into drugs.  I don’t want to talk to him. Not after he called me the escaped spinster from Sturbridge Village.”

“Wrap it up,” Noor said, meaning, not Jaycee’s lament but the cheese, “so I can get us on the highway without having that stuff spill all over my truck.”

Jaycee dutifully repackaged the cheesy coke, slid it back inside the zippered Minnie Mouse bag, and sat drumming her hands on her knees.  Noor found the exit to I-89 South and merged with traffic, thinking about what half the money could do to help with her business. Dan took care of most of the household expenses but New Horizons Therapeutic Riding center was supposed to be self supporting, which it most definitely wasn’t. The name didn’t help.  She had never been big on New Horizons, which struck her as being too generic and touchy feely, like half the brochures on the Hunger Mountain Food Co-op bulletin boards, but she’d inherited it from the woman who had run the business before her. The only alternative she could come up with was Better Than Meds Equestrian.  Or Equi-Librium, which provided a nice nod to establishing balance, but had a whiff of horse tranquilizer about it.

“What would you name a therapeutic riding center,” she asked Jaycee out of the blue.

Without blinking, Jaycee shot back, “The Stable Equestrian It’s a pun.  Get it?  Stable?”

“Huh. Naah, sounds like the riders never get out of the stable. But not bad.” Would a snappy new name make a difference? With more help, maybe Noor and Dan could finally afford to go on vacation and let someone else take care of the place for a week.

“You work too hard.  You put your body under too much stress,” the fertility doctor had scolded, adding that they might finally consider in vitro, since they’d about exhausted their chances with the fertility drugs. It could pay for that. But it probably wouldn’t be enough money to build an indoor arena.  She would still need to bundle up the kids in winter and lead them in circles through the snow and slush.

“This windfall drug is my only chance,” Jaycee interrupted Noor’s musings. “It just dropped into my lap. I’ll never get another chance like this.  If I don’t sell it I’ll never get to leave Hillwinds again. Don’t you know anybody?”

Gerry Wilcox, Noor thought, despite herself. Gerry’d had a crush on her through high school. He was a kid who flunked his classes because he didn’t try, talked about switching to a tech school and never did. She had been a girl on track for college and med school.  She never would have given him a glance but they were in the same gym class for two years running and he used to make her laugh, mimicking thick-bodied, glowering Mr. Boswell’s peculiarly high voice and bulldog lower lip. “Ladies!” Boswell would sneer at the boys, “The girls in the class can climb the ropes faster than you can,” oblivious to insulting the girls, and Gerry Wilcox would stick out his lip and go falsetto. Noor had even agreed to go to a deli with Gerry once; he bought her a root beer and a petrified looking, plastic wrapped cinnamon bun. But when he’d asked her if she’d go out with him, she’d lied and said her parents would only let her date Pakistani boys.  She told him she felt honor bound to her parents’ wishes for the next two years – though there weren’t any other Pakistani kids in the school — so as not to hurt poor Gerry Wilcox’s feelings.  The term ‘honor bound’ had done the trick, spooked him for sure, as if he feared she’d be stoned to death if she so much as ate lunch with him.  But still he flirted and complimented her shiny black hair and grinned at her in the halls. Then she was off to college and would see him around town on holidays and vacations– driving a tractor, then a backhoe, then on street corners hanging out smoking cigarettes looking way too thin and older than his years. Through the old high school grapevine she’d heard he was a dealer.  He’d know what to do.

Noor took the Montpelier exit, dodged downtown, headed out route 2 along the river lined with scruffy mill homes, then cut onto Gallison Hill Road with its vintage  colonial capes and headed north toward Towne Hill Road.

“Listen,” Noor said as she pulled up to Jaycee’s driveway. Lights off in both houses, she noticed. She knew the electricity was cut but the Emorys hadn’t lit even a kerosene lamp to welcome their daughter after her week and a half away. “Can you give me a few days to think about it? Just hide it somewhere safe and I’ll get back to you.” She got out and opened the tailgate so Jaycee could drag her bag onto the grass. She stopped herself from telling Jaycee she ought to get some sleep. What was it with her, needing to take charge of everybody’s wellbeing all the time?  That was something she was going to have to fix.  But it was a funny thing to change about herself when she was trying to have a kid. She forced herself to get back in the car without checking on the elderly Emorys. They were their daughter’s problem now.

Noor had a cancellation between two and three thirty the following day so she decided she’d take Luna, her newest therapy horse, out for a trail ride.  She needed to make a decision – not that riding allowed you to think of much else but riding, but it always settled her, attuning her to an animal through her body and instincts rather than through her mind. The horses got bored in the ring, moving so slowly, rarely even getting a chance to trot.  They had to endure the bad balance and herky jerky motions of their disabled riders.  The older horses didn’t mind as much but Moon Pie was going to need to be retired by next summer, Noor feared, and she needed to have an up and comer, which was Luna, a Connemara/ Morgan cross who had once been a child’s event pony but had enough arthritis in her hocks that she could no longer jump. Still, as the weather got crisp Luna got a little too spunky for the kids; she needed real exercise and Noor had the time today to give it to her.

Luna perked up when she was led over to the mounting block outside the ring instead of in the ring as usual.  Noor mounted, standing for a moment in the stirrups and then gently dropping her weight into the saddle to protect Luna’s back muscles as she and the horse headed down the driveway. A breeze riffled Luna’s red/brown mane and fallen leaves made little whirlwinds; Luna pretended to be skittish but she was just feeling good. Noor rode the mare on a semi loose rein, asking her to stretch down and forward into the bit.  They walked the half mile on the shoulder of Jenson Road, then cut through a break in the stone wall that bordered the Currans’ farm.

The cornfields were harvested and although the manure was piled along one side, it hadn’t been spread yet. Luna picked up steam but Noor took up full contact on the reins and insisted she walk, then hold to a slow trot as they made looping serpentines through the crackling corn stubble. As always, Noor was surprised to see the wasted corn – broken ears on the ground, spilled kernels. She wondered if as much was lost before mechanical harvesting. Didn’t the Old Testament demand the corners of fields and the gleanings be left for the poor. She was sure there was something like that in Quran too, if only she could remember the verses. Here the only gleaners were the Canadian geese coursing southward, fueling up for their travels.

When Luna was sufficiently warmed and suppled, Noor let her break to a big extended trot down one side of the cornfield, brought her back to a slow trot with half halts to settle her, then gathered her into a canter. There was such a thin line between controlling and harmonizing with a horse. Of course the rider gave the cues, chose the direction and speed, but the unpredictability of all horses and their oversized-rabbit nervous systems gave riding that frisson of risk that Noor loved. Still, the ideal, the dream, was to enter a partnership of gentle leadership, not domination, and to follow the animal’s rhythm so closely that you imagined, for a moment, you were one.

The mare snorted and pulled, asking to be allowed to go full out, that flattened gallop that always felt to Noor like going into overdrive. They rounded the second corner of the field and Noor let her rip until halfway down the field Luna began to fade, blowing and huffing, not fit enough to cover that much ground so quickly.  Noor chided herself for chancing stress on the mare’s hocks, gnarly from her cross country jumping days. But Luna loved speed. Noor asked for a trot, then a walk, bringing the mare down smoothly. They exited the field along a tractor road, then veered off onto a logging trail that cut into the woods. The leaves had half fallen off the deciduous trees and splattered the trail with reds and yellows that would turn brown underfoot in a few more weeks but for now carpeted the trails with reflected light. She walked Luna for another half mile, then returned the way they’d come, passing farm equipment – a tedding rake and an empty red metal hay wagon left as though discarded — and a deflated mylar balloon escaped from some child’s birthday party caught in the crotch of a tree. Luna ignored them all, her head dropped, her ears moving gently, relaxed, checking out the sounds in all directions without focusing on potential dangers.  When Noor was brushing the sweat marks out of the mare’s thickening winter coat, she decided – she would contact Gerry Wilcox. And she wouldn’t mention any of it to Dan. Either the decision had come to her gradually under the radar while she was riding, or all at once when she was done. She never could tell. She had decided on Dan’s marriage proposal by riding, too, never quite sure how she’d come to it.

Dan – she barely saw him anymore and when they made love it was for the sole purpose of attempting to get her pregnant – sex according to a schedule determined by ovulation. As a large animal vet you’d think he could make it happen – he had plenty of success with bulls and cow, mares and stallions.  But you had to have four legs, she supposed, to succeed with Dan. He was up and out of the house sometimes three or four nights a week for emergencies – cows with prolapsed uteruses (“uteri,” she imagined  Dan correcting) horses with colic, sheep with the bloat, and so on. In their first years of marriage she’d gone out with him on night calls, loving the mysteries of dimly lit barns and the soft grinding of cows chewing their cud, their frozen breath hovering above their pink nostrils. Now she couldn’t stand most of the dairies – they kept their cows in cow concentration camps – big coverall buildings with screens for ventilation. The cows were never pastured anymore so that every acre could be used for the corn turned into silage or hay fermenting in huge white plastic bales that gave the herd a permanent case of stinking diarrhea. All in the name of efficiency.  Many of Dan’s equine clients were repugnant in other ways – the dressage queens, spoiled women with money who didn’t have the sense not to over grain their horse into colicking, or hand-treated them with horse cookies and organic carrots into nippy, ill-mannered beasts. She and Dan, sitting up drinking cocoa in the wee hours, used to laugh about them. Now Dan often slept in another room so he wouldn’t wake her when his pager went off, and talked about switching to doctoring small animals, since pets were where the real money was.  He joked you could earn more money balancing the acidity in a guppie gut than breeding a prize-winning Holstein.  She knew it was unfair of her to judge him for wanting to make the switch when he’d already been kicked in the knee twice by recalcitrant cows and broken two ribs from a run in with a fractious stallion. But she’d fallen in love with him as a large animal vet, one of a dying breed, and didn’t think much of the pet vets who made big money off brushing the teeth of schnauzers and selling all kinds of unnecessary vaccinations against diseases the indoor dogs would never come in contact with anyway. It was unfair to judge Dan for anything – if they had a child the much shorter hours of a small animal vet would allow him to spend time with their kid — and he wouldn’t be crawling home at four in the morning after performing barn surgery in February, exhausted and cranky and too wired to sleep before heading off again in his mobile vet truck. When he did have time off he wanted to go white water canoeing or mountain biking; sadly, though he’d ridden  with Noor when they were dating, he no longer wanted to have anything to do with horses after hours.

It wasn’t that he disapproved of her therapeutic riding business; he just believed that the amount of time she put into it and the considerable expenses of maintaining the elderly horses should be equaled by what she contributed to the family financially — were two a family? – and, though he didn’t say it, through housework and cooking.  It wasn’t enough for her contribution to be only justifiable in terms of the greater social good. He really wasn’t all that different from a Pakistani husband it turned out; he was just evolved enough not to express his dissatisfaction openly.

“And if we had a kid with a disability, wouldn’t you want it to have a place to go for help?” she countered.

“You know I’m not big on rhetorical questions,” Dan had said, lacing up his work boots in the mud room. “Let’s have the kid first before we worry about it being disabled.”

Dan: raised on a dairy in Wisconsin. Prematurely graying blond hair, blue gray eyes, tall and rangy – her brother Ahmed once accused her of marrying Dan because he looked so American. So un-Pakistani, he meant. So unlike us.  “You think it will make people stop asking where you came from?” He’d hit a shared nerve. Hadn’t people always thought they had the right to ask, “Where are you from?” As though she had a duty to tell them. It used to be, “Oh, a cute little Indian girl.” Now it was something more freighted and suspicious. “You ain’t one of them Al Qaedas are you?” the feed store owner had asked.  Or, the former flatlanders, the PC Montpelieir-oids, overbearing in their solicitous empathizing — “It must be so tough for you lately.” And, a propos of nothing, “The invasion makes me ashamed to be American,” their bumper stickers reading “PEACE” spelled out in letters formed from crescents, crosses and Jewish stars.

Had she married Dan because he was so American? If so, the relief she’d found in escaping the emotionality and dutiful daughter obsession of her parents eleven years ago had come to oppress her now. Dan wasn’t into nuances. He liked square corners, carefully measured doses of medicines and affection, a clean ship. He had none of the Pakistani tolerance for the contradictory.  Her parents saw no inconsistency in wanting her to go to med school and earn good money while expecting her to subsume her desires to those of a dominant husband – hadn’t her mother done it herself?  As practical as Dan was he’d never want her to take the risk of helping to sell that windfall-in-the-cheese-wheel. But he’d like the money. She’d have to tell him it was a gift from a New Horizons donor or a bequest from some old aunt in Lahore. The idea of keeping a secret from Dan was, shamefully, almost as appealing as the money itself. Secrets were the weapon of the passive-aggressive, she knew. And Noor had an even bigger secret: she wasn’t sure if she wanted kids anymore. Maybe she only liked them as her clients, in one–hour increments, when she could be sure she had something to offer and she didn’t have to fear losing them through miscarriages or accidents. Though neither of the miscarriages had been her fault, it seemed to her as though they had. Dan thought that was nonsense — instead of grieving over lost babies he hardened himself, referring to them as fetuses (feetii, she imagined herself mistakenly correcting him),as though they were something a cow had dropped in a field.

Before Noor went looking for Gerry Wilcox she went online. A half kilo or so of cocaine from Peru was apparently worth about $45,000 on the street.  Noor beat back a tiny nudge of disappointment. $45,000 wasn’t enough, a voice in her mind intruded, before she managed to block it out. And that was on the street, after whoever would sell it had taken his percentage and she’d divided the remains with Jaycee.  Most likely what they had was 80 percent pure but it would be cut to 20-40 percent pure before selling by the dealer, who would use any number of benign white powders: lactose, laxatives to stretch the drug or baking soda to make it into Crack.  She figured that whatever price they came up with had to leave Gerry or whomever they finally settled on a chance to get a payoff. Gerry was the only one she’d trust not to take advantage of her ignorance. Of course, who knew how he’d changed in fifteen years?  And how to get in touch? She couldn’t call him, unless she got one of those “burner” temporary cell phones like the drug dealers on TV used.  Why not?  But did he even have a phone number? A home?  Maybe he was in jail.by now.

The last time she had seen Gerry was two years ago. She’d just parked her car in the center of Montpelier, in the lot near the train trestle over the Winooski River. Gerry was standing by the train tracks, smoking a cigarette and talking to an unsavory looking guy in a fatigue jacket.  Noor waved hello and Gerry had called out to her – “Hey Noor, what’s new-er?” a silly thing he used to say to her in high school, just to see her frown. His conversation partner nodded his head at her and walked off. Noor asked Gerry how he’d been.

“Can’t complain,” Gerry said. “Look at you. You gone off to law school or something since the last time I seen you?” When he grinned his face took on familiar, sexy lines, nearly dimpled. The endearing Gerry Wilcox grin.

“Nah, just an appointment with a lawyer.” Noor felt unaccountably embarrassed to have Gerry see her dressed in crisp black slacks and a pea coat with a carefully knotted scarf, instead of her usual jeans and barn boots, and toting a leather briefcase her grandparents had given her father when he got into medical school at Dartmouth, a case in which he used to carry anatomy and physiology texts and tiffin tins of her mother‘s aloo gosht stew.

“You getting divorced from the Ken doll so you can marry me, huh?” He laughed a phlegmy smoker’s laugh, revealing an incisor gone missing since their one and only accidental high school kiss. She hoped he wouldn’t hawk a loogie. But he drew a wadded paper towel out of his pocket and spit into it, folding it discretely. “If he’s Ken, that makes me Midge,” she said, accepting his little dig about the fact that she hadn’t married an Asian or a Muslim man, after all.  “I don’t think they’ve done a Paki Midge yet, do you?”

“Dunno,” Gerry said, throwing his cigarette onto the railroad cinders by the tracks. “I’ll have to ask Taylor. I think they got a Michelle Obarbie in the works.

Noor laughed. “Who’s Taylor?”

Gerry’s six-year-old daughter, it turned out; she lived with her mother in Burlington. He did some “business” up in Burlington and so saw his daughter pretty regularly.

“Are you divorced?” Noor asked. “I didn’t know you’d been married, Gerry.”

“I ain’t been. What about you? Got any rug rats of your own?

“Just horses and dogs,” Noor said. “I’ve got a therapeutic riding farm for disabled kids.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I heard something about that. Made me proud. Good for you, good for you.”

“What are you up to these days, Gerry?”

“A little this, little that. Nothing too legal.” He grinned again. “We ought to get a burger sometime, sit down and ketchup, you know?”

“Call me,” Noor said, knowing he wouldn’t.  And then she’d hurried off to an appointment with the lawyer who was helping her incorporate her nonprofit business, as Dan had insisted.

She started with the phone book, running a finger down the Wilcoxes, and was surprised to see that Gerry in fact not only had a landline but an address on Barre Street, in the old factory housing across from the feed store. Some of these houses had been painted up with unusual combinations of gray and chartreuse or maroon and mustard, mimicking the exotic colors of the finely detailed Victorians on the better streets of Montpelier. But the junk in the tiny, crowded yards, the sagging porches with clotheslines, the two sets of doors and the multiple metal mail boxes gave them away as hard up.

Noor called Gerry on Saturday while Dan was making barn calls, using her Tracfone “burner” at eleven in the morning. He’d always liked to sleep in, she remembered, kicking herself when it was clear the call woke him. She needed him clear-headed, not with a morning hard-on.  She cringed at the image — she wasn’t in the habit of imagining men’s bodies in compromising poses, not even Dan’s. She’d never even managed a decent sexual fantasy. Oh, the unshakeable legacy of the Muslim Desi.

You want to see Me?” he mumbled.

God, why was she taking on this fool’s errand?

“No, no, that’s okay, I mean…” Gerry said. She heard scrabbling noises and imagined him sitting up in bed, knocking a clock or a water glass off a bedside table as he tried to get his bearings. “Okay, I’m just, you know, surprised to hear your voice.”

They agreed to meet at the stone tower in Hubbard Park in half an hour. Noor hoped no one she knew would be in the park at 11:30 in the morning – just the usual dog walkers with their good citizen dog poop baggies in hand. She drove straight to the park, left her truck in the lower lot and walked the shortest trail up from the frog pond to the tower, an empty stone garrison about ten feet square with zig-zagging stairs leading up to an open viewing stage with crenellated walls about chest height.  From there she could see Camel’s Hump to the west, the distant trail cuts of the ski areas, the chapel tower at Vermont College to the east, and the roads leading to Berlin and Barre to the South. The view to the north was blocked by trees. The foliage was past peak – more browns and yellows than reds, especially on the higher hillsides – and the air held a chill.  It was the kind of place if you stood still enough you might see a gray fox run by but then you never did.

She wanted to be there first so she could see Gerry coming and so, if anyone else showed up, it would look like an accidental meeting.  She needn’t have worried. Gerry was ten minutes late, huffing up the trail with a lit cigarette in hand which he tossed before heaving himself up the many stairs, metal treads ringing under his boots. His hair was still damp from the shower but his jeans were holey and his cough rough.

“So what’s the big deal?” he asked between sputters.

“You need to quit smoking,” Noor advised.

“Uh-oh, my old high school honey drags me out to the wilderness to lecture me on my health.”

“No, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.” She decided against reminding him she’d never been his honey, even if one time in eleventh grade she’d let him kiss her. It was unintentional — he went to peck her cheek after the deli “date” and she’d turned her head the wrong way.  It had scared her because his lips had felt just right — cushy and forceful — and for an instant she’d wanted him to kiss her for real but then she’d said “Whoops!” and went on as though it never happened. She knew now what she hadn’t been able to identify then: Gerry was both sexy and unsuitable, which made him more sexy, which made him more unsuitable, and so on.

Gerry recovered his wind and looked about at the view of city, fields, forests, and distant peaks spread out in a near 360 degree panorama. “I ain’t been up here since high school,” Gerry said. “I forgot how nice it is. So?”

Noor glanced around furtively, searching for approaching hikers on the spokes of trails emanating from the tower.

“Oh, hush-hush, eh?  Hey, ANYBODY WANT A SPLIFF?” he shouted into the woods. She slapped him on the arm and he laughed, his eyes crinkling into the deep folds of a hard-living man.

“I’ve got a business proposition for you,” Noor said.

“Oh yeah? I like the idea of a proposition. Too bad it’s business.”

Noor ignored the flirtation. “Well, this friend of mine” – funny to think of Jaycee as a friend – “just got back from a trip to South America and she discovered that somehow she’d gotten a…well, a wrong package in her luggage. It looks to be about a half a kilo or so – of Peruvian cocaine.  Pure,” she added, shaking off the odd shiver of pride she felt about the purity of the stash.  “Granulated.   True Grit.”

“You ask’n me to the movies, now?” Gerry said, shaking his head and whistling. “Jezum Crow. A half a kilo uncut?” Now he was whispering too.  “And you don’t think whoever lost this package ain’t going to come looking to get it back?”

“I don’t think so. She asked me if I could help her sell it and you’re the only one I could think of who might know where to start.”

“Big endorsement of my character. You think I got the cash to buy that much coke off anyone?”

“No…I just thought you might, you know, know someone.  You’d get a cut, of course.”

“And you would too, right?”

“Well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?”

“Little Noor Kahn with the homework always done and the Ken doll husband is selling coke.” Gerry shook his head.  She couldn’t tell if he were mourning her downfall or enjoying it. Either way it made her shiver out there on the tower, watching something moving among the trees. Squirrel? No, it was a gray fox, a flash of pewter trimmed with pale rust around the neck, belly, and inside its oversized dingo ears, like a faded version of its redder cousin. The fox stood stock still a moment before darting out of sight again. Maybe she’d dreamt it. This whole experience was surreal.

“It’s just a one-time thing.  There won’t be any more of it,” Noor said, puzzled by that faint voice of regret again. What did it mean by telling her $45,000 wasn’t enough? Well, it wouldn’t be $45,000 after everyone got their cut. It wouldn’t even be $22,500. So how much would she get, exactly, when — if — it was all said and done?  She ignored the urge to ask Gerry. They hadn’t even weighed it yet. Still, she ought to know what the reward was going to be for taking this big of a risk. She could see the headlines: “Do-gooder Gone Bad” or maybe, “From Horses to Horse.” Except horse was slang for heroin, not cocaine. She was a drug naïf.

“’Course it’s a one time thing,” Gerry said. “You wouldn’t want people thinking you’re a low-down sleazy dealer like me, right?”  The Gerry grin, only mocking now.

“I’m sorry, Gerry. This was a big mistake. I said I’d try and I’ve tried. I’ll tell her no. I didn’t mean to insult you.”  She was relieved to have it out of her hands now. She couldn’t sell the stuff for Jaycee. Fine.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me think.”  Gerry lit another cigarette, held it between thumb and forefinger, and gazed away toward Camel’s Hump.  “How much does your friend expect to get for this … product?”

“I don’t know.  She has to weigh it.”  She’d seen an old fashioned metric scale that made her think of the scales of justice in the Emorys’ house, unsuccessfully wiped of sunflower husks. Never mind; she could pick up a postage or kitchen scale and keep the Emorys out of it.

“Here’s the deal, little Noor Kahn. I’d never have the cash to buy it off you. But I might know someone who would. He’s a meth cooker up in Burlington. He might want to get his hands on some good quality blow to sell. I’d have to get back to you.”

“Gerry, how would I know that this guy wouldn’t just, you know, take the product and run off with it?” Unspoken between them – how do I know you won’t?

“You’ll just have to trust me, won’t you?”

Strangely, she did. “Okay.” If the cocaine got stolen she’d be back where she was before meeting Jaycee. Okay.  Fine.

Gerry shook his head. “Damn, I never expected to see you trying to set up a deal. I mean, I thought you was better than that.”

“It’s for fertility treatments,” she improvised. “We’ve been trying for three years. You know how much that costs?” Why did it matter to her that Gerry didn’t think as well of her as he had ten minutes ago?

Gerry shrugged. “Yeah. That’s a good reason, I guess. How come everyone who don’t want a kid’s got ‘em already, and the ones that want them can’t get them? Taylor was an accident but now I got her I love her. Won’t Ken doll pay for the docs?”

Noor sighed. “Dan went into debt for his equipment — mobile digital radiography machines ain’t cheap.” Aint? She was copying Gerry’s idiom, trying to make herself fit in with him, or maybe trying to suppress the snobbery that never let her take him seriously when they were kids.

“You could adopt,” Gerry said.

“That costs a ton too.”

Gerry sighed.  “Okay, I’ll see what I can do. I’ll call you when I got something.”

Noor grabbed a piece of paper with her temporary cell phone number written on it and pushed it toward Gerry. “Don’t call my house phone about this, please. Use the burner number.”

He looked her up and down, not lasciviously, but taking her measure in a way that made Noor avert her eyes, then folded the paper and tucked it into his back pocket. “You been watching your cop shows, eh Little Noor Kahn? And you ain’t told your husband.”

Noor pursed her lips. “I’ve got kids coming for riding sessions soon. I’ve got to get going. But thanks, really.”

“Always on the run.”

Noor smiled apologetically and started down the zig zag steel staircase.

“Wait,” Gerry called to her. “Wait. I got to have a sample, enough for me to check it out before I call the guy, and then if he’s interested, I got to give him a taste.”

Voices were coming closer. Two women, calling their wayward dogs.

“Call me on my tracfone and tell me where to meet you,” Noor called up. “I’ll have to go to my friend’s first to get the stuff.”  She hurried down the rest of the stairs, setting up a hollow ringing.  The women – a lesbian couple, maybe, as one woman had a butch cut — were using those plastic ball thrower sticks, shooting tennis balls into the woods and across the dried weeds in the clearing by the tower. A border collie whipped in a blur of black and white in front of a lumbering golden retriever.  A placid scene, while she’d just made – she hoped — the first and last drug deal of her life. That’s all it took, a couple of minutes of conversation, to step over the line from being a clean nosed good citizen to being a felon.  Anyone could do it.

Hurrying back through the woods to the frog pond, Noor forced herself to be honest about the situation. She was using Gerry.  Even if he stood to make money, he’d be taking a risk, and she was leveraging his old crush on her to get what she wanted. And then, what about the people who were going to buy the drugs and use them?  She’d be harming them too. But it wasn’t like it was crack and people were selling their babies to get it, it would be recreational, for people with too much money, right?  All the people who went to med school instead of veterinary school would do it at parties.  People who could afford to burn holes in their noses and send their contaminated dollar bills back into circulation when they were done sniffing.  Even Jaycee had probably been high herself a bunch of times without even knowing it, just from tallying the cash register receipts at the end of a hard day at Hillwinds.  Except they probably didn’t allow a cash register at Hill Winds.  Maybe an abacus, Noor thought.

Noor got no answer when she called Jaycee on the tracfone from her parked car in the lower Hubbard lot, just a recording saying the phone was no longer in service. She pushed down a moment of panic when she wondered if Jaycee hadn’t disappeared with the cocaine to sell it on her own and take off somewhere, But of course, it was the unpaid phone bill.

After her riding sessions, barn chores and a quickie dinner of leftover pot roast heated in the microwave — Dan was out on a call so she left him a note and a plate to reheat – she headed over to Jaycee’s in East Montpelier. The driveways of both Emory houses were empty.  Noor considered leaving a note on Jaycee’s door with her burner number, but steeled herself and knocked on the Emorys’.  She could hear a thumping within and then Mr. Emory turned the knob.

“It isn’t Halloween again, is it?” he asked cheerfully.

A circle of yellowed tatting in hand, he looked past her at the truck. He almost always had something in his hand when he answered the door, Noor had noticed.

“It’s me, Noor, Mr. Emory,” she said but saw no recognition in his eyes.

“Ah, you’re a dusky princess.”

“Don’t be stupid, Hil,” Mrs. Emory shouted from somewhere unseen. “Let the girl  in.”

“I’m just looking for Jaycee,” Noor said, unwilling to enter and get caught fixing cans of beef stew again.

“Uh, uh yes, Jaycee,” Mr. Emory mused. “Where is that girl?”

“She’s over at Hillwinds,” Mrs. Emory shouted. “She’s closing up.”

“Thanks, thanks a lot,” Noor called out and then patted Hilary Emory’s hand which still rested on the door knob. “Nice to see you, Mr. Emory.” She backed away and made her escape. But not before he followed her out with that scraggly tatting and dirtied it up by swabbing just one of her headlights with it. Why one? She wondered. Why not both headlights, or neither?  But there was no sense trying to make sense of Hilary Emory.

To Hillwinds then. Fine. Or was it Hill Winds? she wondered. That weird little tacky history park north of town. She hadn’t even made the connection that first time Mr. Emory had shown up by her mailbox. She’d been too old to be taken there on school trips like some of her friends’ younger siblings, and since she was never the kind of kid who made out with boys in their cars, she hadn’t gone with a gang and broken into the park in high school. Instead she had been up in the tower in Hubbard Park with a couple of girls and a bottle of peppermint schnapps a friend had stolen from her parents’ liquor cabinet – Noor’s parents, good Muslims, didn’t drink. So she’d never been to Hillwinds Living Books Village before. Poor sucker Jaycee – she not only lived a few yards from her parents’ door but apparently she also ran their business for them.

She had to turn west on Towne Hill Road, then head north on County Road – averting her eyes as always from the huge maple on the crest of the hill – passing Morse Farm where in a few months the cross country ski trails would be groomed and then in spring the sugar house steaming – several miles out toward Calais. A few signs, a few turns, and the double gate to Hillwinds stood open. Jaycee must still be here, if her parents actually knew where she was. But there was the Emory’s ugly beige Buick and one broken down yellow school bus in an otherwise empty parking lot. Why hadn’t Jaycee just driven to the airport and parked there since her parents didn’t drive, Noor wondered. Who knows? Maybe she couldn’t afford the parking.  Or never got her driver’s license and didn’t drive on highways. Hill Winds was pretty in a hokey sort of way: fields, cross rail fences, a couple of oxen grazing, and the dim glow – kerosene? – coming from a little store front bearing a sign: Maple Jug Mercantile. The walls of the porch near the door were pasted with old fashioned advertising from the mid-nineteenth century. Jaycee, dressed in a long gingham dress, an apron, and a silly-looking bonnet could be seen within, fussing with something on a shelf.  Noor knocked on the glass. Jaycee startled, as if it were inconceivable that anyone would show up at the Maple Jug Mercantile. When she saw Noor, Jaycee smiled broadly and beckoned her in like a long lost sorority sister and not a mere acquaintance attempting to help her sell a shit load of coke. She was wearing little round metal framed spectacles, part of her costume, Noor supposed. She was sure that Jaycee hadn’t worn them the day Noor picked her up.

“Hey!” Jaycee enthused. “I’m almost done here.”

Inside, the store was meagerly stocked: modern pint and quart cans of maple syrup shared shelf space with faceless corn cob dolls, toy rolling hoops, and men’s suspenders. Little jars of ointments and tonics on the windowsills caught the late afternoon light. Noor stood next to a small brightly chromed pot belly stove from which emanated moderate heat while Jaycee closed an old fashioned ringing till – so they did have a cash register, of sorts — and turned down the kerosene lamp. It sputtered out. Jaycee struggled out of the bonnet and apron and frock, revealing maroon velour leggings that sagged in the nap-worn knees and tightened over her wide, child-bearing hips, and a shrunken mock turtleneck that showed how little elastic remained in her bra. Noor wasn’t sure which outfit looked worse. Jaycee hung her Hillwinds duds on a hook inside the shop door, but continued to wear the little wire rim granny glasses, not part of her costume after all. Noor suddenly wished she were on a school trip to Hillwinds and not about to be forever entangled in a criminal bond with this odd duck. Jaycee shut the damper on the stove, bundled herself into what must have been her father’s hand-me-down wooly sweater coat, and ushered Noor out the door, padlocking it behind them. They walked side by side toward their cars past the broken down bus, which gave Noor goose bumps. Maybe there were school kids still up on the property, abandoned like their bus.

“Hillwinds looks a little quiet, or is it just late in the day?” Noor wondered aloud.

“Both,” Jaycee said, glancing across the dirt road that separated the few outbuildings and the barns and field from the Maple Jug and the parking lot.

Nope, Noor thought, following her glance, no forsaken school kids in sight.

Jaycee continued, “It probably costs more to keep it open than it brings in once foliage season peaks, though I did sell that marble kit today. Finally. Make your own marbles. In case you lost yours, I guess.”

We could get one for your dad, Noor didn’t say.

Jaycee sighed. “I really should stay another hour but what’s the point? Did you talk to what’s his name?”

“I did. He doesn’t have the money to buy it himself but he knows someone who might. He needs a sample. He said the guy has to have ‘a taste’.”

“I’ve got it at home,” Jaycee said. “C’mon.”

Noor waited while Jaycee got out to lock the double gates behind their cars. Jaycee pulled one gate shut, then when she reached for the other the first gate swung open again. Noor squelched her impulse to get out and help.  Finally, Jaycee succeeded at a task that she must have done every day, and Noor followed the beige Buick back to the Emory houses.

They entered her little frame house, a smaller, sparer reproduction version of the ancient cape her parents inhabited. She struggled out of her lace-up boots and put on fuzzy moose slippers so old they had dreadlocks, leftovers from the mercantile five Christmases ago, Noor guessed.

“Would you like some tea?” Jaycee asked.

This isn’t a social call, for god’s sakes, Noor grumbled silently. It’s just business. But she said yes to the tea, unable to deny Jaycee a once in a lifetime chance to be hospitable, an opportunity to make up for the ride home from the airport and her parents’ demands while Jaycee was in Peru. And, Noor knew she was getting an awful big share of the proceeds just for making the connection. If the deal worked out.

The electricity still off, the living room was dim in the late afternoon.  It held a tired-looking off white canvas couch, a couple of saggy armchairs, some now useless standing lamps, shelves of books, and a steamer trunk serving as a coffee  table holding a blackened kerosene lamp, all in a space about the size of a horse stall.

“We have to weigh it,” Noor called to Jaycee who’d disappeared into the kitchen.  “I brought a postal scale.”

Noor sat down on the couch while Jaycee bustled in the kitchen. She heard the water run, the clatter of a tea kettle. She got up to peruse the book shelves. Numerous Hilary Emory kids books took up one long shelf. She drew a book from the shelves because of its equine title. The cover of Mabel’s Stirrups showed a young girl with shiny auburn hair in profile, patting the nose of a pinto horse leaning over a pasture gate to sniff her. So Hilary did picture books as well as young adult chapter books. She flipped through the pages, checking out the horsey content, then stopped at a full face illustration of Mabel, who wasn’t Mabel at all but Pauline. The same quirky raised eyebrows, the luscious russet hair, the green gold eyes, the lovely curved lips of Noor’s long dead friend. Noor’s heart sped up and she felt shaky. Like cocaine, without the feel-good part of it.

Jaycee appeared bearing a tray holding two cups with saucers, a miniature glass milk bottle, and a sugar bowl.  A couple of dubiously rough hewn cookies, like dog biscuits, sat on another saucer. “I’ll fetch you a spoon,” Jaycee said, “then I’ll get our gold mine out of its hiding place so –.”

“I knew this girl,” Noor interrupted.

Jaycee leaned over her shoulder to look at the book. She smelled of liniment and horehound drops.

“It’s Pauline,” Noor said, as matter-of-factly as if Pauline were sitting right in the room with them, waiting for her tea.

“Yes,” Jaycee said. “My parents used to pay her to keep me company.”

Noor set the book down on the coffee table and took a seat on the couch. “That was you then. I knew she got paid to babysit a girl our age.”   How could she have forgotten that name, Jaycee? Pauline had pronounced it J.C., like Jesus Christ, with the emphasis on the second initial, not JAYcee, the way this one and her parents said it. But Noor had worked hard to forget everything that Pauline had said, to forget Pauline herself.

“I thought she was so cool,” Jaycee mused, sitting beside Noor and running a hand over the book cover. “And so pretty. My father took a picture of the two of us, then cut me out to show the illustrator what he wanted Mabel to look like. That was you in the accident,” Jaycee said. “I realized that already but I didn’t want to bring it up. You were the little Indian girl that survived.”

“Pakistani,” Noor said. “Yeah, it was me.” Noor felt a great deadening come over her.  “But I don’t remember any of it, just walking with Pauline and her father after play rehearsal. A car coming. I do remember it was the day after Halloween, because Pauline had taken my candy home with her the day before, and when we got to her house we were going to sort through both bags to trade our favorites. It was November 1, ’88.”

“My father wished I looked like her. No, probably he wished I was her,” said Jaycee.

Noor shrugged. If she had Jaycee for a daughter she’d probably wish the girl  looked like Pauline too. But she pitied Jaycee, disregarded by her own father in favor of her far more appealing babysitter. Noor’s mother once told her that she and Pauline had a different sort of beauty. Pauline was the all-American girl, only sultry for one so young – she’d be trouble,  Noor’s mother said — and she, Noor, would be small-boned and exotic among the clumsy Americans. Noor had felt that her mother was trying to console her, but she hadn’t envied Pauline’s beauty; she’d reveled in it, been proud of her friend. Pauline was the pretty one; Noor was the smart one.  Jaycee was the no one. Noor wondered if Pauline had ever learned that her face had been appropriated by Hilary Emory.

“That’s strange,” Jaycee said, stopping with a laden sugar spoon hovering over her cup.

“Strange?”

“The date. November 1, that’s 1-1-1-8-8.  Right?  November 1, ’88.”

What a weirdo. Was the woman autistic or something? Thinking numbers instead of about Pauline and her beautiful auburn hair.

“Cause that’s, wait a minute, let me get it to be sure.”

Jaycee ducked into the room that must have been her bedroom to rummage around for a minute or two.  She came out bearing one of these traveling money pouch things, a card and a scrap of paper.  “My Dad’s debit card number   1-1-1-8. This is the card that showed ‘Funds Declined’, the reason I was out of money in Peru.”

A creepy coincidence. Or as Pauline would have said, a Co-ink-ee-dink.  But who picked a PIN number beginning with three ones, Noor wondered?  The same person who kept the PIN number with the card.

“Maybe he was in love with Pauline or something and wanted to commemorate her?” Noor asked. Ewwww. Creepy old guy, not a coincidence at all.

Jaycee shrugged. “Very strange.”  She got up quickly from the couch, knocking her baggy velour knees into the steamer trunk and sloshing untouched tea into the saucers.  “Oops,” Jaycee said. “I’ll go dig out the cocaine. I’ve got it hidden in my basement in a pickle crock.”

Noor waited, sipping at her cooling tea, while Jaycee slap-footed down the stairs. Pauline used to talk about the weird girl she had to “babysit”, a girl their own age, maybe older, who lived in a house full of spindles and looms and half-finished woolen bedspreads, with a gross outhouse full of spiders. A girl with no television, no crushes on boys, a girl who didn’t know anything about music except what you could tootle out of a wooden recorder. Noor had wanted to go over there with her one night but Pauline’s mom had nixed it, intuiting perhaps that the two of them would have excluded Jaycee, rolling their eyes and making poorly veiled jokes at the girl’s expense. Pauline had a secret mean streak that had thrilled Noor. How absurd that Emory had used her face for Mabel’s Stirrups – Pauline had hated horses. She used to laugh about the girls who drew pictures of Black Beauty in their notebooks. At that time Noor had been indifferent to horses, hadn’t developed a feeling for them until after the accident, after her injuries had healed and she’d turned into a pre-teen agoraphobic, cringing at loud noises, afraid to walk on sidewalks or roads. Her parents came up with the idea that she should do something physical, something to build her confidence and had decided riding lessons would be the thing. Her father had ridden horses as a young man in Pakistan. Noor had protested but finally complied, as she always complied with her parents, and it wasn’t until she was brushing the enormous beast at her first lesson, then sitting on its back with a silly grin that she realized she’d forgotten to be frightened.

Noor got up and retrieved from her car the postal scale and the zip lock baggies she’d purchased, separately, in a fit of paranoia, at two different discount stores in Berlin.  It was quiet at the Emory seniors’ house. She ducked back into Jaycee’s and pulled the curtains, caught off guard by how clean the curtains were,  how free of dusty cobwebs, unlike the ones in the parents’ house.

“Maybe we should lock the door in case your parents show up,” Noor cautioned.  “Your dad, I mean,” knowing that Jaycee’s mother hardly ever left her chair.

“Good idea.” Jaycee was waiting with the crumbly drug, which appeared more yellow than white under Jaycee’s poor lighting, encased in plastic. The cheesy crust had been peeled away, and the perforated plastic bag replaced with another bag, which sat securely inside a Tupperware container. Jaycee had proved more adept than Noor expected.

“Please don’t tell me you fed that cheese to your parents,” Noor said.

“Buried it in my compost pile. I tried really hard not to lose any of the coke. There will probably be some pretty happy earthworms though.”

“Did you try any of the coke?”

“No.”

The package weighed out at one and a quarter pounds, more or less. They weighed an equivalent empty gallon zip lock bag and subtracted that weight. Carefully they measured out a little baggy for Gerry and one for the unknown meth cooker in Burlington. That still left over a pound and three ounces. With Gerry’s cut and the seller’s, they could each end up with something like 15,000 dollars if Noor’s research was correct. Enough for in vitro, or to keep her farm running a year or two longer.

“What will you do with your share?” Noor asked Jaycee. “I mean, if the sale goes through.”  It was the first real question she’d ever asked Jaycee, she realized, not counting the stuff directly about the deal or a new name for her horse business.

It was getting dark. Jaycee used a tissue to wipe the soot from the blackened chimney of the kerosene lamp, lit the wick and did the same for another lamp on a small sideboard near the kitchen.

“I don’t know. Pay bills? I don’t really know what I want to do with it. It’s not all that much money when you think of it,” Jaycee confided, as if she thought maybe Noor hadn’t figured that out.

“Have you ever lived away from your parents?  You could rent a place or put down a down payment.” Don’t get involved, Noor chided herself, but she couldn’t help asking.

“No. I should’ve made my escape before they got so decrepit. Now it’s too late. They need me, as you know. Hey, I lied a minute ago. I did try some. I stayed up all last night. It was fun and then it wasn’t.”

Noor smiled. “That’s kind of how I felt about coke when I tried it in college.”

They sat another moment looking at their futures laid out in plastic bags on the steamer trunk. Noor picked up the two little bags for Gerry.

Jaycee said, “Do you want to go with me to visit Pauline’s grave? I’ve always wanted to pay my respects – my father wouldn’t let me go to the funeral, I don’t know why. He thought it would upset me too much, I guess. But I’d like to see where she’s buried.”

Noor took a deep breath.  She’d only been to the grave once herself.  She’d missed the funeral because she was in the hospital with her own injuries.  Pauline’s mother had moved away with Pauline’s little brother soon after the accident.  She didn’t even know to where. Sometimes Noor still thought about tracking them down, but what could she say, I’m sorry your daughter and husband died twenty years ago and I’m still standing here knocking at your door? She’d tucked it away into that dark box, something like the black, metal edged steamer trunk holding Jaycee’s tea tray and now the coke, the same box where she put her thoughts about her parents in Pakistan, her brother’s sketchy new interest in radical websites, her relatives, that whole other side of her life. It was the same dark place that she’d packed away the two miscarriages, the repeatedly failed attempts to get pregnant after them, the part of her that wondered if she’d made a mistake in marrying Dan. And now this frumpy woman with funny little glasses wanted her to open the trunk and dig through its contents as though she were pulling out summer clothes in April.

“I’ve got to go,” Noor said, stuffing Jaycee’s question about the cemetery into the truck with everything else. “I’ll let you know what my contact says.” She gathered her things, pocketing the two little baggies for Gerry and slid the book with Pauline’s picture into her bag, so she could look at it in private.

Jaycee unlocked the door and peered out. “The going is good,” she said. “Hey, you’re Pakistani. Don’t get caught with that stuff. They might think you’re trying to raise money for Jihad. Like in Portland, you know? Car bomb little old Montpelier.”

Nope, not as naïve as she pretended, Jaycee, or maybe just naïve enough to not realize how insulting that was.  But probably true.  Noor thrust back the little scale. “Here, you keep this in your pickle crock. Just in case.”

Jaycee smiled and shut the door. Noor walked down the three steps to her car. Before she turned her head to back down the driveway she caught a glimpse of Hilary Emory standing behind his house in his underpants.  He was peeing into the dead garden.

—Abby Frucht & Laurie Alberts

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Laurie Alberts is the author of three novels, a short story collection, two memoirs, and a craft of writing book. She lives in southern Vermont on a small farm with her husband and daughter and teaches in the Vermont College MFA in Writing Program.

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Abby Frucht won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize in1987 for FRUIT OF THE MONTH, which along with four of her novels will soon be released as e-books by Dzanc Books’ new rEprint series. Her essay, FRIDAY, TUESDAY, SCARDAY, WEDNESDAY, will be anthologized in Serving House Books’ Surviving Ourselves, and her new collection of stories, EDWINKA BRUNHILDE AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS, will be published next year by Narrative Library. She has been a mentor and advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts for more than 16 years.

  2 Responses to “Chapters from a Collaborative Novel — Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts”

  1. Abby and Laurie,

    This was delightful! I don’t use cocaine, but I am thoroughly hooked on Jaycee and Noor. Hope to be able to read more soon. Thanks, dg, for sharing this.

    Jeanne

  2. I’m hooked too! Can’t wait to find out how Jaycee and Noor fare with their stash, and looking forward to more of Frieda, Enrique and Carlos, perhaps.

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