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Mary Bess Dunn / Monique Hayes / Birute Putrius Serota

"Orphanage Nun, Lhasa" by Ladislav Hanka


 Color of Hope


Mary Bess Dunn



After six weeks of comfort casseroles and widow’s fare, that first lesson was the worst. Watching Jan’s skirt billow, Lee Anne feared her own would cling.

“Ballroom dancing starts out with a simple one, two, three,” Jan assured the class.

They were a small group of timeworn men and women with nothing much in common but the name tags hanging from cords around their necks. As a boom box played familiar music, they watched Ardio and Jan demonstrate the waltz.

The man beside Lee Anne introduced himself as Arthur. He wore a pin-striped shirt and lace-up shoes that seemed to make him taller than the men who’d chosen turtlenecks and loafers. “Shall we?” he asked and held her to him sooner than she might have wished.

Standing eye to eye, she felt clunky in her church shoes, and her best blue suit felt staid. Through all the layers of silk-lined jacket and starched, white blouse, she could feel his fingers guide.

They began to circle the floor. She held her breath and set her sights on one—a metal folding chair, and two—the wall clock, and three—the table where she first signed in. She and Arthur moved together, beyond each benchmark, to wider and wider spaces until, when she’d managed not to scuff his shoes, a breath escaped. Along with doubt. Who am I to dance so well?

Arthur leaned in close. “What was that?”

When she didn’t answer he asked her if she recognized the waltz.

“It’s ours,” she said. Then she blushed and pushed away to explain. “Ours, like here—here in Tennessee.”

He grinned, showing teeth that had not lost their shine. “Of course,” he said, “the Tennessee Waltz.” He spun her around, then flung her out at arm’s length, and, tethered there, she felt her heart let go.


She thought of that first night now, while opening a package of control-top panty hose and laying them on the bed beside her green chiffon. It was Friday afternoon. She had cleaned the house, fed the violets, and paid the bills. Only now would she allow herself to imagine dancing the waltz, the mambo, and the cha-cha-cha. All the steps she learned in the 12 weeks since Harry’s death.

She walked into the bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub, and turned the water on full force. Tonight’s class was the last. Ardio and Jan had promised refreshments and live music and encouraged everyone to bring old friends to meet the new. She sprinkled bath salts and kept thinking. No old friends meeting new for this lady—her old friends would surely say it was too soon.

Deceit was never her intention. Every time her lifelong friends Jean and Sally stopped by with casseroles and pies, she meant to tell them. She meant to explain how, eight days after Harry’s funeral, a salesman called.

Inching into the tub, she knew she could not tell her friends how she’d been crouched in her Harry’s leather chair, thinking that from his chair her own chintz chair looked puny. Instead, she would tell them how this man Ardio started into his spiel. Not wanting to be rude, she let him go on and on about how dancing was the tonic for what ails you—life’s natural pick-me-up. Eight lessons for the price of four. He was so enthusiastic, she promised to consider his offer.

Consider it she did, experiencing a newfound spurt of glee in the process. She realized she wanted to dance, had always wanted to dance. Over the years she had asked Harry to take her downtown and find a place with music, even the Knights of Columbus party might be fun. But he would look at her with those weary, blue eyes and frown. Slumping car sales, he’d say. Too tired, he’d say. And she would feel accused.

She touched her toe to the tub’s stopper. Looking back, it seemed that once she gave up the hope of dancing, she started aging. So many years passed. Besides the thinning hair, the belly pooch, and flesh that looked forlorn, she lost her spunk. She started watching more TV and bumming rides instead of driving. Most often—dressed in shapeless shifts and house shoes—she stayed in.

No, she thought, climbing out of the tub, she had not told her friends what she’d been up to. But she thought they should have noticed just the same! If not her honey highlights or ruby rouge, at least they could be more persistent when they asked about her dropping out of Friday-night bridge. But good manners prevailed. No one pressed her for details, and by the time the lessons were over, she and Arthur had learned each others’ moves.

“Feel the beat,” he said, leading her around the dance floor with a grace he claimed was hers and she felt light.

She dried herself and walked naked to the bedroom. Arthur had been a widower for years. Dancing in his arms, she found herself admitting Harry had been gone only a few weeks. Arthur squeezed her waist and drew away slightly. “Despair is easier, you know. Less work. Instead, you have chosen hope—congratulations.” He dipped her backward before suggesting they sign up for future classes.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll invite the girls for lunch, she thought, preparing herself with body oil, powder, and underwear the color of nude. I’ll tell them about my lessons.

She slipped the green, gauzy dress over her head. She fluffed her bangs, took a slight breath, and moved in front of the full-length mirror. Rubenesque, not fat, with perfect ankles. She turned but even as the green chiffon swirled around her legs, she felt the doubt. It moved her, this doubt, taking her across the room, to the bedside table where an antique pewter frame held Harry’s photograph.

This was her most cherished picture of him. Fresh-faced and cocky, dressed in fatigues, headed to the Pacific. She glanced at her watch, then blew a speck of dust from the glass, thinking it was late. She’d better go.


The next day Sally and Jean marched into the dining room where Lee Anne was arranging chicken salad on china plates for their lunch.

“Honey, did you also know you left your door wide open?” Sally asked.

“Anyone could walk right in,” Jean added.

“But look who did,” Lee Anne said, spreading her arms and hugging first Sally then Jean, wishing she felt something more than dread.

“Don’t you watch the news?” Jean asked. With red hair and penciled eyebrows, Jean was an unattractive woman who wore expensive clothes.

“I’m trying not to,” Lee Anne said, motioning them toward the table.

Sally coughed. She’d been sneaking cigarettes for years. “I would rather watch Wheel of Fortune than the news, but George is addicted to CNN.”

Lee Anne said, “Maybe we should turn the TV off and go find things out for ourselves.”

They sat together at the table, and Lee Anne poured iced tea.

“So, how are you, Lee Anne?” Sally looked over the top of her tortoiseshell glasses. She had developed a fondness for the details of disease and seemed disappointed when Lee Anne answered, “I have managed to survive.”

“Getting into some sort of routine will help,” Jean said.

“I don’t think it’s routine I need.” Lee Anne chewed a bite of salad and stirred her tea. She was working on her words, in case she decided to tell them how Arthur had admired her green chiffon. The color of hope, he said.

“These things take time,” Sally said, shaking her head.

“What things?” Lee Anne frowned.

“Moving on,” Sally said.

“Moving!” Lee Anne sat straighter. “A body needs to move, needs to get the circulation flowing. Needs to dance.”

Sally shot a glance at Jean. “I haven’t danced in ages.”

“I made Charlie dance at the Jones’ son’s wedding that time,” Jean said.

I danced last night, was the only thing Lee Anne could think to say—but she didn’t. She stood up. It was time for pie.

“I suggest you walk thirty minutes a day—that’s all the moving they say you need,” Sally said.

Lee Anne set a cherry pie and her mother’s heirloom pie knife on the table. Her heart was racing. Should she tell them how she pushed the couch and her chintz chair up against the wall and put the TV in the closet with the rug? How she bought a CD player off the shopping channel and got the dance CDs for free? How she left Harry’s chair right where it was?

“A morning in my garden works for me,” Jean was saying.

Gardening. Walking. Jean and Sally—her sensible, respectable friends. Well, so was she. Raised that way. Raised to know her place and wear it proudly. Lee Anne remained standing, her hands fisted at her side. Doubt had returned. Hope seemed a frivolous pursuit. What was wrong with her? The mambo for Christ’s sake. Her ears burned with guilty chatter. Who did she think she was?

Lifting her mother’s knife, she thought she knew.


The moment they left she started cleaning. Baseboards, grout, the crystal chandelier—the more neglected, the better. Penance has its price—she cleaned for hours.

Two weeks later she was still scrubbing. She’d started on the junk drawer when the phone rang. As usual, the caller ID was blinking Arthur’s name. She kept working. Rubber bands, pizza ads, plastic bread ties—by the time she dumped them all, the ringing stopped. She slammed the drawer with her hip. It was ten in the morning. Early yet. Jean would pick her up for bridge at six.

She started cleaning the cookbooks, wedding gifts she rarely used. Harry liked his dinners plain. She wiped the cover of her Joy of Cooking and thought of his last meal. Chicken breast, potatoes, and canned peas. Jell-O for dessert with decaf coffee. If he had known it was the last meal of his life, would he have wanted something different?

She looked out the open door where green nubs of early crocus dappled the yard. She set the cookbook on the counter and flipped it open to a recipe that covered one whole page. “‘Bouil-la-baisse,’” she read slowly and smiled. She liked the way the word blossomed in her mouth. She liked its rhythm.

She couldn’t say why, but she stepped to the center of the room, slid her hands in the pockets of her polyester pants and eyed the yard. Then—thump—she heard it. Thump, thump, thump, she felt the beat. One, two, three. Her house shoes tapped the linoleum and her fingers fluttered. One and…lifting her arms, she embraced the empty air and glided past the Joy of Cooking, past the stove.

“BOUILLABAISSE,” she repeated louder. Not loud enough, however, to miss the car door slam or Arthur shout hello. Just loud enough—she hoped—for him to hear.



A semi-retired education professor, Mary Bess Dunn is currently focused on launching her second career as a writer. Her work is featured or is forthcoming in Sanskrit Literary Journal, Quiddity International Literary Journal and online in Stone’s Throw Magazine.   

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To Travel to the Stars

Monique Hayes


            They were seven when they found out that the sun would eventually die. It’s not the kind of thing you ask about. Moreso, it’s not the kind of thing you ask your father about. They found it out from the usual way—a speech. Kelly and Kimberly Cotton, born two minutes apart, are apart by only inches now, the smooth blue carpet against their bare limbs, with an occasional bumpy patch felt through their clothing to remind them that they’re on solid ground. Above are the stars, precise, planned by their father’s careful design.

There is no need to ask Tristram Cotton about the sun when he’s controlling the heavens nine hours a day in the Ptolemy Planetarium, so named for its presence in Alexandria, Virginia. The landmark is the only place where the legacy of Thomas Jefferson lags behind ancient Ptolemy’s. Because of this, Kimberly thought Monticello was a dessert with whipped topping up until she went to school. Kelly thought similarly, though she had the good sense to keep it to herself.

“Aquila, listed in Ptolemy’s forty-eight constellations, is the eagle who carried thunderbolts to Zeus in Grecian mythology,” narrates Tristram. “Aquila sits to the right…”

While their father plans his presentations, and their favorite janitor Getty moves along the margins, the girls lay on the floor and think fondly of the firmament.

“How’s the volume, Getty?” asks Tristram over the microphone.

“Good, chief,” assures Getty with a thumbs up.

“Did you find anything good yet, Getty?” calls over Kimberly, lifting her head.

“A wrapper with Whatchamacallit on it,” replies Getty. “Have they really run out of names for candy?”

Getty pats his stomach, and from a distance, his white hair resembles a snow cap. The girls giggle. They could always entice a gem out of Getty.

“Kimberly, Kelly,” says Tristram. “Let Getty do his work.”

“Fine,” says Kimberly, flopping back down on the floor.

 Ptolemy’s is where the stars go to sleep and reawaken by switch. Planets become stars too, with pretty decorations, the ridges of Mars and the rings of Saturn, their orbs emblazoned under the eaves of the dome. Ursa Minor remains the least intimidating bear ever. Andromeda melts into pinks and purples, her curves cloaked by the colorful cosmos and bordered with blackness. They only have the planetarium and its treasures to themselves on weekend afternoons. Underneath, their thoughts rarely run similarly, but when they do, it is to a single person.




Kelly turns to see her sister in the shadows, Kimberly’s cheeks looking like freckle-covered supernovas. The brown spots go in no set direction and they seem to shift when Kimberly breathes. She’s often thought that her own freckles resemble her mother’s, but Kelly’s not close enough to know. Her mother Lindy called her radiant once when Kelly, wearing her azure nightgown, woke her up. They used azure for Kelly’s benefit, because she was born colorblind and it’s the blue she saw the best. Kelly had to touch the fabric to recognize the ruffles and scooped neck of her sleepwear. Since she couldn’t tell if she looked alright, she relied on her mother’s compliments.

Lindy would never hear of not buying Kelly different blue clothes, in shades Kelly couldn’t separate. She thought all children deserved all colors. With Lindy gone, Kelly no longer parts her cyan curtains, uses the cornflower bone china at Thanksgiving, or likes the word cerulean rolling off her tongue. She worries about car shopping already at the age of eleven, despite all the reds and greens she will view correctly on the street. There would be a whole rainbow of automobiles. Who is going to tell her what makes her look radiant on the road? Her advisor is as invisible as the air, with no color for her to cling to.




“I know a kid with a puppy named Zeus,” whispers Kimberly.

“Hopefully, his dad didn’t try to eat him,” whispers Kelly. “Like how Zeus’ dad tried to eat him?”

“That’s sick,” says Kimberly, turning away from her.

The running joke among Kimberly’s friends is that she didn’t need a brother to gross her out; she has Kelly. Kimberly was left alone in most of her girly pursuits once they hit first grade. The last joint extracurricular activity they tackled was ballet in Ms. Pritchett’s beginner’s class. While Kelly lobbed jellybeans into her mouth during jete practice, Kimberly lengthened her legs and counted in her head. In the studio mirrors, she saw the other girls in a circle doing the same, stretching as they moved toward the center where Ms. Pritchett was the red-haired sun to their pointy-toed planets. It wasn’t the color of Ms. Pritchett’s hair that made her think of the sun, since Tristram had red hair too; it was that Ms. Pritchett looked old enough to die at any second. Tristram called the exercise heliocentrism. Kelly called it a waste of time. Kimberly called it dance. It was a way to connect without physically touching someone. She didn’t think it was possible, not in a home with Lindy’s persistent forehead kisses, a host of handshakes between her father and fellow scientists, and a swarm of hugs from visiting relatives.

But Kimberly remembers when the hugs stopped. Tristram wouldn’t give any hugs to his girls. The caterers served small triangular sandwiches, crumbly brownies, and slices of cheese that Kimberly couldn’t swallow. Her aunts kept giving the twins food as if the funeral had reawakened their appetite. Kimberly refused to go up with Kelly during the ceremony. There was no chance that Lindy would reawake. She couldn’t talk to an urn, just like Tristram couldn’t talk to the two of them. Hours later, she scurried by her father sleeping on the couch. He had red stubble on his raised chin. His arms were stretching towards the urn seated on the glass table in the living room. Kimberly stalled for a moment and then slipped away to the patio. The full moon hung far off, like a grooved spotlight. Her pink unitard was swathed with porch light, anyway. She was six and tutu-less but that didn’t make the dancing any less. She saw the urn, grey with its graceful curves, and tried to match its grace. Her mother never got the chance to watch her dance so she had to make it good. Kimberly spun, kicked, leapt towards the light. The soles of her feet flew over the gold floor of the patio. Her heart thundered above the tiles. She finished, holding her hand up to the sky, waiting to be embraced. The wind stroked the hairs on her fingers and then fell still. Kimberly let her body fall to the ground, and hugged herself.

Kimberly releases a long sigh, nudging her sister’s shoe with hers.

“Do you remember any ballet steps?” says Kimberly.

            Putting her arm under her head, Kelly blinks at the now moving, incredibly white Milky Way.

            “Yes,” replies Kelly. “I don’t want to, but I do.”

            “Do you remember the exercise where…..,” starts Kimberly.

            “I don’t want to talk about it,” interrupts Kelly.

            “Nobody ever wants to talk,” whispers Kimberly. “You or Dad.”

            “You don’t have to…at planetariums,” says Kelly.




Which is why I like it, thinks Kelly. This place is the only spot in the world where her father makes sense to her. At home, he will read the backs of microwave dinners instead of asking how their days were, or park them in front of the TV so he can review coordinates in the dimly lit den. With his telescope angled near his ear and a Copernicus poster next to his computer, Tristram disappeared in a structured room as the uncontrollable universe whirred on outside on its own. Kelly accepted it as typical after the first two years. So she decided to deal with the loss of Lindy in her own atypical way.

            Lindy left a collection of botany books in the living room next to Tristram’s mythology anthologies. With her papergirl money, Kelly bought herbs, but only the ones with names she could pronounce—rosemary, sage, and saffron. Kimberly suggested adding flowers since they hadn’t given Lindy any flowers during the funeral like most of their relatives. Kelly humored her and was rewarded eight weeks later when they bloomed in the backyard, fireflies that were in flight landing on the curled white carnations. Kelly stood with her watering can among the new bits of life. She loved the rolling curves of her roses, the dip of the daffodils, and the lilacs continuing to sway in the lulls of spring. Every piece was changing.

Encouraged by these growing buds, she turned to the last book she had yet to open. The first page held a hedge maze. She browsed through the sculpted bushes and the wily walls with wooden doors until she reached a page with ivy. Tucking her feet under her lap, she stared at the ivy, suffocating shredded bark, dangling like thick, green nooses as people walked next to them. Kelly shut the book speedily. Her lungs clenched inside her chest. She went inside, pressing her digital watch to light her way past the perfectly segmented plants. She looked back at the garden, silently crying. It changed too, as if it were a picture of a numb night.




“Cronus’ wife Rhea lied and hid her son Zeus away so he would escape death, substituting the baby with a rock that Cronus swallowed whole,” narrates Tristram.

Kimberly touches her throat. Her pulse quakes between her painted fingernails and the top of her thumb. Lindy often had to fake her way through hospital visits, seemingly whenever the girls came into her room. She pretended her diabetes pills were vitamins and got away with it since there was always orange juice with them and the girls simply saw the juice as a second source of vitamins. Her head scarf, full of sewn comets, became a “gift from an astronaut”. When the girls asked what she did at the hospital every day, she curtailed the conversation and asked what they were learning about in kindergarten.

“I made a dove out of paper,” shared Kimberly one day.

“You did?” cried Lindy. “Can it fly?”

“I can’t fly it at school,” admitted Kimberly. “But maybe at home!”

“You girls should ask your father to make one, and the three of you can have a flying contest,” suggested Lindy.

“He’ll give us a speech about air travel again,” groaned Kelly.

“He’s so scientrific,” agreed Kimberly, though incorrectly.

“Scientific,” said Lindy. “And that’s okay. Anyone who gets to travel to the stars as much as possible can’t be all science.”

“But they’re fake stars,” said Kelly.

“When you guys were babies, you didn’t know the difference,” said Lindy. “Couldn’t you pretend?”

“I have a big imagination,” said Kimberly with a nod.

“My imagination is bigger!” said Kelly.

Lindy chuckled, Kimberly watching her IV tube rustle against the crisp white sheets. She overheard a nurse yesterday talking about her kidneys going. Kimberly had no idea if kidneys were necessary or if they could be replaced like fingernails. Lindy said not to worry and they believed her.

“You guys will pretend I’m there, too, won’t you?” said Lindy.

“Or we’ll wait until you come home,” suggested Kimberly.

“Yes,” says Lindy, letting each girl hug her from the side. “Or you could wait.”

At five, Kimberly ate up every word like it was the truth, like Lindy would live as long as the Earth  Five years since, she knows she was gullible for gobbling up a lie.


“Zeus’ daughter was Athena, goddess of wisdom and war,” continues Tristram. “According to a myth, Perseus was placed in the stars by Athena after Perseus saved the princess Andromeda from a sea monster.”

            Kelly raises her knees as the white lines of Perseus form their namesake on the left side of the dome. Her father’s namesake was a knight, Tristram being a different take on the name Tristan. She refused to ask for the whole story, because she was afraid she’d be disappointed. What if Tristan didn’t get to Isolde in time? What if he met a monster that he couldn’t beat? The truth is that all of them were beaten by a foe only Lindy had to face, and she lost to her illness.

            Kelly’s battles were miniscule in comparison, and she discovered that she had to change her armor one day. Passing pretzel stands and wristwatch vendors, Kelly elected to charge the castle by herself. The castle held tons of clothes and one saleswoman typing away at a calculator. It held peek-a-boo lingerie and granny panties, and most importantly, training bras. How can you train body parts, she asked her friends. You’re preparing for bigger breasts, they told her. But she didn’t want bigger breasts and she definitely didn’t want to train herself to accept them. Worse were the weird sizes, the alphabet becoming in some strange way applicable, and the crazy-named collections, from the odd sounding Playtex to the intriguing Wonderbra. Then, there was the all-important question. To stuff or not to stuff?  Kelly simply grabbed the first small, black bra she could find and draped it against the check-out counter.

            The saleswoman behind the counter had stained teeth and wore a cowl sweater that seemed stuck to her neck. Two white hairs crept out of her largely brown bun.

            “Hon, this looks too big for you,” said the saleswoman. “Did you try it on?”

            “No,” admitted Kelly.

            “Is this your first one?” asked the saleswoman.

            “Um,” said Kelly, her voice dropping.

            The saleswoman smiled. Her green nametag, reading Alicia, shone under the fluorescent lights and Kelly hated that she noticed her imperfect teeth first.

            “I didn’t know who to bring,” whispered Kelly. “My sister doesn’t have anything to show yet, and plus she has dance practice. My dad…well, I can’t talk to him.”

            “I know just the thing,” assured Alicia.

            “Could…could it be blue?” asked Kelly.

            “Sure,” said Alicia.

            Alicia ushered her to a changing stall and went to fetch her first fated bra. Kelly rammed her hands into her pockets and whistled the theme from Star Wars, Lindy’s favorite movie and Tristram’s favorite movie to debate. She was thinking about the Ewoks when Alicia returned and she was thankful the bra wasn’t furry or cutesy like them. Kelly removed her hands and took the bra.

            “Let me know if there are any problems,” said Alicia, winking at her and shutting the curtain.

            Kelly twirled the bra twice and sighed. This had to happen eventually, and well, she was the older twin. She tossed the shirt to the floor and started to situate the bra over her frame. For some reason she couldn’t understand, she almost didn’t want it to fit. She almost wanted there to be a problem and for someone else to be back there with her. Instead, the bra fit beautifully. Her body was as cooperative as it could be.

            She returned to the counter and gave it to Alicia, who eyed her with curiosity. Did watching a girl come in alone make Alicia curious? Kelly was also curious, if Alicia was a mom, if Alicia was judging Kelly’s mom for not being there. Kelly looked up hopefully, ready to explain, ready to clear her mother from any perceived wrongdoing. Tears fell to the top of the counter and it took Kelly awhile to realize that they were hers.

            “I’m sorry you had to help me,” whispered Kelly.

            “Oh, honey,” said Alicia, walking around the counter and taking the girl in her arms.

            Kelly sobbed against Alicia’s chest. She guiltily guessed if she would be as developed and became more ashamed for staring at another woman’s breasts. She sighed deeply in the wet fabric, her quiet battle cry.


“The sea monster was defeated by Perseus when he pulled out the head of Medusa, which turned the sea creature into stone,” says Tristram.

Kimberly hears the squeaking of the seats while Getty goes around and trashes the debris of day trips to Ptolemy’s. The hunt is more interesting than her father’s speech to school children about how the gods landed in the sky. Blinks, yawns, or even scratches of the nose were indicators of the kids’ boredom. Kimberly saw them without fail in the different corners of the shadowy planetarium over the years. Once Saturn lost its luster and Neil Armstrong made his lunar landing, kids were either nodding off or apathetic to the astronomical adjustments above their seats.

She outgrew one of the activities where she had the most fun. Every Friday in third grade, her favorite gym teacher Mrs. Vane would retrieve an old parachute from the supply closet. It looked like a large, multicolored mushroom. But the color wasn’t what she liked most. Twenty pairs of arms would lift, come down, and repeat the method to gain momentum so that when they ran under, the parachute would fall onto them. Kimberly sat in its folds, crushed and content. The space was as warm as she thought a womb might be. It was the warmest she’d ever felt.

One Friday, she was interrupted, by the head of her father. She instinctively glanced around for her group of friends, crawling towards her under the cloth. Tristram appeared next to her instead.

“Come out,” said Tristram. “Kelly’s with me.”

Kimberly stared at the red, green, yellow, and blue sections of the parachute. The yellow part decorated half of her forehead. Ms. Vane blew her whistle and the rest of the children removed themselves.

“I leave for Richmond in an hour, and the baby-sitter’s already there,” said Tristram.

“Why can’t we go with you?” asked Kimberly. “It’s the weekend.”

“This isn’t Ptolemy’s. I can’t have you two there while I’m talking to the Astronomical Society,” insisted Tristram. “I can’t pretend you’re not there.”

“You do it at home,” said Kimberly, shrugging.

Tristram arched his eyebrows, lifted a piece of the parachute to show a peek of light, revealing Kelly’s red sneakers. Her father bit his lip and ran a hand through his red hair.

“I’m not taking you anywhere when you say awful things like that,” said Tristram softly. “You apologize.”

She didn’t. In fact, she kept her silence from the gym until they got home. Rather than see him off, which Kelly dutifully did, Kimberly retreated to her room and shut the lights off. Somehow, on her ceiling, Lindy had contained celestial glory. Dozens of glow-in-the-dark stars dotted the area, throwing citrus-colored rays onto her little limbs and her bow-covered socks, which Lindy knitted three weeks before she died. The whole family helped with what Lindy called “the Cotton Sistine Chapel”. Lindy directed where the stars should go, the three females teasing Tristram about being relieved of that responsibility. Tristram laughed so hard that he almost toppled off the step ladder. Kimberly and Kelly took turns holding the ladder, supporting their father as he made outer space in Kimberly’s tiny space. When they were done, Lindy doused the lights and started a chain of “ooohs” and “aaahs”. Kimberly said “thank you” to Tristram and he playfully tugged her white hoop earrings, which looked near neon under the new nighttime.

 It was comforting being in the dark. She believed she spent two-thirds of her life in it. She paraded around the planetarium, sure, but she was also in a position where she never fully saw her father or her mother. Physically or emotionally present, one of them was always missing. She missed seeing them together. Because of that, in that moment, she thought he was never coming back. She didn’t mean to hurt him if that was the last time she saw him. Dragging her blanket to the living room, which Tristram made a habit of sleeping on since the funeral, Kimberly went to bed on the couch and let her eyes droop shortly after they locked on Lindy’s urn. This time, she was the one being awakened by Tristram’s tender ruffle of her hair, though she kept her eyes closed.

Tristram sniffled, tucking the blanket firmly around Kimberly’s torso.

“I don’t know how to raise you two alone,” whispered Tristram. “I’m sorry.”

Kimberly shut her eyelids so tightly her eyelashes started to hurt. The pressure next to her body left, signaling Tristram exiting the room. Kimberly opened her eyes and saw two shiny flashes from his shoes before he disappeared.

Now, in the planetarium, she can barely make him out either, the white grainy beam from the projector blinding her vision.

“Can you see Dad?” asks Kimberly.

“You’re the twin with the good eyes,” teases Kelly.

“Sometimes I see Mom, especially in here,” says Kimberly.

“Me too,” says Kelly.

The twins exchange smiles, linking hands. Both of their faces move towards their father. He is stacking paper and ready to turn off the projector.

“Come on,” says Kimberly. “I have an idea.”


            Tristram moves a pencil beside the projector-warmed paper, then takes off his glasses.

            “Thanks, Getty,” calls over Tristram.

            “I saw a Peep in here, and it’s not even Easter,” shares Getty.

            Getty leaves as Kimberly and Kelly stand on either side of Tristram’s chair. Their father looks between them.

            “Dad,” says Kimberly. “Is the sun really going to die?”

            He momentarily strokes the beginnings of a beard he’s growing and sighs.

            “Yes,” answers Tristram. “But the good news is that we won’t be here. It’ll be alive for a long time.”

            Kelly touches the projector gently while Kimberly rests a hand on Tristram’s shoulder. They both know that this is the best way to get him to talk, to peel the layers and see what drifts. Maybe their mother is floating in those drifts, hovering in the silences they shared, and now basking in the ebullient rays of this effort.

            “We’ll be in the stars,” says Kelly.

            Tristram smirks until he smiles.

            “Yes, we will,” says Tristram.

            Taking three pieces of spare paper, Kimberly starts to fold, crafting similar wings, beaks, and full bodies until she’s made three doves the size of meteoroids. She gives the other two to Tristram and Kelly.

            “What’s this?” asks Tristram.

            “I remember,” says Kelly. “Mom wanted us to have a flying contest before she died.”

            “Oh,” says Tristram.

            “We don’t have to,” says Kimberly.

            They frown as Tristram stands and peers at the door.

            “Let’s make it quick,” says Tristram.

            The girls eagerly pull him to the center of Ptolemy’s, stars lining every edge of their private world. Paper doves sail in the atmosphere, and not surprisingly, Tristram’s bird reaches the highest heights, but flutters to the floor right after the girls’. After they touch ground, the girls find their shoulders touching the palms of their father’s hands. The three of them stare at the now empty heavens with wonder.


Monique Hayes received her MFA from the University of Maryland College Park. Her work has appeared inPrick of the Spindle, Prima Storia,Children, Churches and Daddies,andBirmingham ArtsJournal.


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Becoming American

Birute Putrius Serota


This is how it began.  Our American sponsor, Mr. Jankus, whose belly strained the buttons of his brown pinstriped suit, met us at the train station and shook my father’s hand heartily.  “Mr. Matas, welcome to Chicago,” he boomed in an American-accented Lithuanian, a cigar planted loosely on his protruding lower lip, sending small puffs of acrid smoke signals into the Chicago gloom. 

His wife, Adele, a tight-lipped woman wearing a hat like a plate of flowers, smiled, blinking nervously as she escorted us to their blue Studebaker.  My parents, my brother and I stood there in our wilted refugee camp clothes, donated by St. George’s church.  The parish had sent boxes of used clothes to the displaced persons camps in Germany after the war, and their members had agreed to sponsor Lithuanian families wishing to immigrate to Chicago.  My parents and brother squeezed into the back seat and I sat on my father’s lap.  Our cardboard suitcases were swallowed up in the trunk.

 Mr. Jankus drove to the South Side, a blue-collar neighborhood filled with Negroes, Gypsies and new immigrants from Eastern Europe, pointing out the various factories where my father might find a job.  “Work in Chicago is as plentiful as pigs in the stockyards,” he grinned, the cigar bobbing up and down as he talked. 

 I was four years old and clutched my father’s hand as we stepped out of the Studebaker to see the storefront that was to be our new home.  Mr. Jankus unlocked the front door and we stepped inside a large room with shelves along three walls.  It smelled of mold and stale tobacco.  The only windows were the streaked and dusty storefront windows; the rest was a dark cave with one light hanging over a wooden table.  Two beds and a dresser stood forlornly at the back of the store.  An old stove hunched next to the sink in the corner, by the tiny bathroom.

We all stood in the room, holding our cardboard suitcases, disappointment shrouding us.  My brother, Petras, scowled at me, as if it were my fault, but no one said a word until Mr. Jankus tried to cheer us up by telling us that the church found a used refrigerator and it was coming tomorrow.  His wife handed my mother a bucket with rags, soap, brushes and a can, which she explained was used for cleaning windows.

“Missus,” she instructed.  “You pour a bit of this Glass Wax on a rag and make circles until you cover the window.  Then you let it dry and wipe it off with a clean rag.  She demonstrated by smearing the pink cloudy liquid on a small section of the window.  My mother studied this perplexing ritual.

Afterwards, Mrs. Jankus went to get a bag of groceries and showed my mother how to use the can opener for the canned soups and the intricacies of lighting a gas stove.  Her husband told my father how lucky we were to have Lithuanians to help us out.  When he came to America in 1914, no one helped his parents.  “Hardly no food on the table, and everyone worked the stockyards, even us kids.   You read that book, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair?”

My father shook his head.  He had been a teacher in Lithuania, and he read a great deal, but he had not read that book.

“It’s different now.  The unions cleaned the stockyards up.  Maybe I could fix you up with a job there,” said Mr. Jankus, the folds under his chin jiggling slightly.  He held his brown fedora hat in one hand, while he scratched his short gray hair.  “Nobody fixed us up with a job or a place to live when we came to America.  No sir.  We at St. George’s remember those days, so we said we weren’t going to let that happen to you DPs.   You’ll meet the Vitkus family.  Those DPs live right down the street.”  He pointed out the streaked front window.

My father thanked him and shook his hand. 

“Mr. Matas, call if you need anything,” he grinned with the cigar clenched between his teeth.  “This is a great country here.  You work hard, you can make it here.  Ain’t that right, Adele?”  His wife nodded, as she held her purse in the crook of her elbow.  “Nice meeting you all,” she nodded to my mother, closing the door behind them. 

My father looked both grateful and burdened by the help he was receiving.  He turned to my brother and I to explain how our sponsors were from an earlier emigration from Lithuania at the turn of the century, who came as immigrants looking for economic opportunities.  “I want you to remember this,” he said looking into our eyes with such seriousness.  “We are not immigrants.  We are exiles.  Never forget that.  We fled to this country until the Russians leave our country.  Then it will be safe to return home.  It won’t be long now.  The Free World will never stand for an Iron Curtain across Europe.”

My brother and I nodded.  We didn’t know we were exiles.  We knew we were Lithuanians, and displaced persons and now we were exiles too.  This seemed serious, but we weren’t sure why. We went to unpack our suitcases.  My brother complained under his breath.  “This place doesn’t look any better than the DP camp we left behind in Germany.  I thought America was rich.”

 “Mama, I want to go back home, to our camp,” I whined.  “I want to go to the Danube to catch minnows in my bucket.”  I looked around the scary and lonely store.  It was smelly and dark with nothing on the shelves to sell.  If this was America, I hated it.  I held on to my mother for comfort until I noticed a gaggle of children with their faces pressed to the front window, straining to see who had moved into the old store.

There were two Negro boys, one young girl with dark eyes and long tangled hair, and she had two younger girls with her.  All three girls had gold earrings in their ears.  When they saw my brother and I, they smiled, waving as if they wanted us to come out and play.  My older brother, Petras, was curious about these children.  He looked at my father to see if he had permission, but my mother whispered “Gypsies,” and I could see by the look on her face that she didn’t like them.  My father chased them away from the windows, while my mother wondered what she could do to make this room private.  Newspaper would have been fine but we didn’t have any.  She pulled out the tin can of Glass Wax and some old rags, which she tore up.  “This will cover the windows,” she said.  My brother and I were told to smear this pink liquid onto the windows while she went off to open cans of soup for our supper.  We had hardly finished a row of cloudy circles, when one of the Gypsy girls returned and pressed her face against the glass.  Her nose flattened and she blew up her cheeks and looked so funny that I had to smile.  She stuck her tongue out and smiled back, so I stuck my tongue out and we made faces at one another.  Soon they were all back and we were all making faces at one another.  I drew a face on the window with the Glass wax and the Gypsy girl clapped.  Soon my brother and I were laughing so hard that my mother came over to chase the children away and we finished smearing the windows.

That night I slept curled into my mother in one narrow bed, while my father slept with my brother in the other one.  We still had our khaki GI issue blankets that the soldiers had given us at the camp. The night seemed long and lonely and I felt a long way from home, even if the only home I had known was a refugee camp. I woke in the middle of the night feeling the bed shaking.  My mother was crying into her pillow.  

“Mama why are you crying?” I finally asked.

My mother wiped her eyes on the blanket.  “I’m thinking about my mother and father who were left behind in Kaunas,” she whispered.  “I’m worried about them.”   

“Tell me again about your house in Kaunas.”

“We had a very pretty home with many rooms that were filled with light,” she whispered the familiar story in my ear.  “We had china teacups and silver candlesticks.  We had flower boxes in every window filled with geraniums.”  I listened to her describe the furniture in every room, the woven linen, the lace curtains.  It soothed us both to think about those rooms.

When I opened my eyes in the morning, I thought I was back at the DP camp.  It took me a moment to realize that I was at the store, but I was surprised to find the gray and dingy store transformed by a rosy glow.  The sun was rising through the bubble gum pink of the smeared windows, bathing the room in a rosy glow like a fairy tale spell.  The sheets on my bed glowed, as did my mother’s sleeping face.  She no longer looked tired and worried.  In this light, she looked young like a girl.  The gray and dank storefront had been magically transformed.

  I woke my mother to show her.  She squinted in the bright light.

“Irena, go back to sleep.  She turned over, away from the window, a mountain of a shoulder, indifferent to everything.

I couldn’t go back to sleep.  This was a magic hour.  I turned my hands back and forth and saw they were glowing.  I lifted my bed cover and found that it looked enchanted, as did the white tablecloth.  A man walked by outside and I could follow his giant, dark pink shadow across the large windows.

That morning my brother and I ventured out into America to look around and see what it looked like.  Two story brick apartment buildings lined the street and at the corners stood a few small stores like ours. One sold fruits and vegetables while another sold newspapers and magazines.  We went to the end of the block and found the Negro boy who had looked in the window yesterday.  His name was Lovey.  Soon the tangle-haired Gypsy girls appeared and they were all speaking words I didn’t understand.  I pointed to myself and said “Irena” but no one could pronounce it.  “Ee-REH-nah,” I said slowly and they dutifully tried to repeat it.  The oldest girl pointed to herself and said “Marlena” while the younger ones said “Delphina” and “Seraphina.”  They pulled us with them down the block where they were playing hide-and-seek in a trash-littered lot they called a prairie.  An old tree had fallen and we climbed that tree like busy ants. 

Every day, we ran around the neighborhood with the Gypsies like a pack of wild dogs, climbing fences, jumping from garage roof to roof, playing tag in the cinder alleys.  I often tripped and fell, bruising my knees on the cinders, crying while my mother tried to pick them out of my bloodied knees.

My father counted himself lucky because another Lithuanian got him work at the Nabisco factory, instead of the dreaded stockyards, while my mother got a job cleaning office buildings downtown.  There were other Lithuanians at each job who would help them.  My father worked the day shift, while my mother took the evening shift, so that one would always be home to care for us.  By the next week my brother enrolled in the Precious Blood Catholic School down the block, got his uniform and left for school.  I started kindergarten and in the afternoons I stayed with Mrs. Vitkus, who lived across the street from the church in a one-room attic we had to climb with a ladder.  Her daughter, Magda, was older but she played with me like it didn’t matter.  Her brother Algis, who the kids called Al, never wanted to play with me, but he followed my brother everywhere. 

Lovey, who lived in the large stone apartment building next door, was in my kindergarten class.  His brother Charlie started walking to school with Petras who started to call himself Pete. The nuns started calling me Irene and so did the kids on the block.

Before I met Lovey, I had never seen a Negro boy before.  I kept examining him as if he stepped out of a storybook. One day my brother and I were playing jacks with Charlie and Lovey on the stoop in front of their apartment when Lovey asked my brother why part of his little finger was missing.

“Explosion in Germany,” he said in his halting English.

“Did the Nazis shoot it off?” asked Charlie, looking excited.

Pete rubbed the nub where his finger used to be.  He tried to explain how he was playing in a field that had old ammunition, broken tanks and even a Meseerschmitt fighter plane.  He used to play war games with his friends.  They collected grenades, flare pistols and all kinds of war stuff.  One day he found an old Nazi helmet with a bullet hole in it. They fought in the old trenches, throwing stuff at one another.  One of his friends threw something at their trench and it went off.  Something came flying at him and sliced through his finger and scraped by his leg, leaving a gash.”  Pete told this story with plenty of miming and explosion sounds.  Then he pulled up his pant leg to show the scar on his leg.  “I go to hospital,” he said proudly.

Charlie and Lovey had that soft look on their faces like they were looking at a miracle, like it was the stigmata or something.   Saint Pete of the missing finger, already a war veteran.   I hated Pete’s missing finger.  Sometimes he poked it in my face when he wanted to tease me.

At the end of October, Lovey told me to find a costume because they were going trick or treating.  I didn’t have a costume.  He was dressed like a cowboy with chaps and a gun strapped around his waist.  My brother dressed like a soldier wearing his Nazi helmet with the bullet hole.  Charlie was pirate with a scarf and eye patch.  Magda’s brother, Al, wore one of Pete’s extra Army shirts.  Magda had to stay home.  The Gypsies came as themselves. The Gypsies were the wildest kids I had ever seen.  The girls had liquid, dark eyes, matted hair and pierced ears.  They wore full skirts and jewel-colored blouses that were patched or ripped in a dozen places.  I wondered why their mothers didn’t scrub their dirty necks the way my mother did.  I loved how wild they were, but I was careful because they could cuss you out or bloody a nose if they got mad.

 Lovey could see that I was upset about not having a costume, so he brought me into his kitchen and took a box of cereal and emptied it in a big bowl and then he cut out the tiger mask on the cardboard box and put a rubber band on so I could wear it.  Lovey always took good care of me.  He gave me a paper sack and taught me how to say trick or treat.

The streets were dark and filled with children dressed in costumes and masks.  I saw monsters and witches and princesses.  I felt scared and excited.  The wind was hissing through the elm trees as we went from house to house.  Sometimes we got candy, apples or pennies.  I had never seen so much candy.  Every time I got a piece of candy, I ate it quickly before anyone could change their mind and take it back.  By the time we had circled two blocks, I had a stomachache and Marlena laughed at me while Delphina shivered with cold.  She asked to wear my gloves, the blue ones my mother had knitted with the tulip pattern.  I gave them to her and didn’t realize until it was time to go home, that she had taken them home with her. I knew that my mother would scold me if I came home without them so I went to knock on her door to get the gloves back. A large woman came to the door wearing a long lace dress with a sweater over it.  She had many bracelets on. There was a smell of spicy cooking in the kitchen.  When I asked Delphina about the gloves, she lied saying she had given them back to me.  She said I must have lost them.  Marlena said, “but I saw you…” Delphina elbowed her in the side and Marlena shut up.  Suddenly four women gathered around Delphina like protective shell around a pearl.  The large woman growled in a foreign language and slammed the door shut.  “Dirty DP,” I heard the girls shout through the window as I walked away.

I was really mad.  On the way home I met Lovey and told him Delphina took my gloves.  He said to wait in front of our store while he went to the Gypsy home.  It was cold but I waited and waited as I watched jack-o-lanterns winking on porches and ghosts and goblins run the streets.  The wind whooshed through the fallen leaves making them dance madly in the street.  I was about to give up and go face my mother’s wrath when I saw Lovey walking down the street, smiling with his straight white teeth and laughing eyes as he pulled my blue gloves out of his pocket.  “There you go, princess.”  I was so shocked and grateful that I hugged him and we both laughed.  Suddenly my store was a great castle and Lovey had rescued me from the ogre.  I saw how his soft eyes shone with pride.

By Christmas English was starting to gather itself in my head.  It wasn’t as hard as I thought. Sister Mary Constance, kindergarten teacher at Precious Blood Grammar School, said I was a quick.  My father brought home a small Christmas tree and we made stars and snowflakes out of white drinking straws.

Mr. Jankus brought over brought over a cooked ham and a box of second hand clothes from St. George’s. I got a blue wool coat with a missing button.  It had a funny smell that my mother said was mothballs.  My mother said she had loved to dress elegantly before the war.  She had worn high heels and a fox-collared suit in Lithuania.  “It was how I caught your father’s eye, at the radio station where I worked.”

On Christmas, we each had one present under the tree.  My father got a new tie, my mother got a rhinestone brooch, my brother got a stamp album with a large envelope of stamps, and I got a Negro boy doll with a stripped shirt and overall shorts that I had been admiring down at the drug store.  I called him my Lovey doll.  I told my mother I would let Magda play with it but not the wild Gypsy girls because they might break it.

On New Year’s Eve of 1949 I was about to have my first party with the Vitkus family.  All day my mother had been cooking and the smell of ham was mouth-watering. Earlier, she had made an apple cake and was now humming Lithuanian songs as she peeled potatoes for a kugelis. My father came in the door, dragging the cold in behind him.  He bought a bottle of whiskey and some soda.

“It smells so good in here.”  He laughed and patted my brother on the head.

My mother wiped her hands with her apron.  “Like the old days.”

He nuzzled her neck. “You look beautiful tonight, Dora.” 

“Aw, don’t exaggerate,” she laughed and pushed back an errant strand of hair.  I could see she was pleased.

My brother and I had spent the morning making paper chains to hang around the front of the store, which we called the dining room.  I was excited because my friend, Magda would be coming over with her brother. 

The Vitkus family came over that evening. Mr. Vitkus wore the woolen jacket with the frayed shirt that he always wore.  His wife had on her navy wool dress with an amber brooch.  After dinner, the parents played cards and talked politics over highballs. Mr. Vitkus drank too much and began to curse the Communists again.  “The French, Danish, and even the Russians went home after the war, but we Lithuanians couldn’t go home.”

My father slapped a card down on the table.  “We were no different than the rest of the Eastern Europeans.”

My mother took the cigarette out of her red mouth. 

Mr. Vitkus scooped up all the cards on the table.  “Fascists on one side and the Communists on the other, with us in between.  Bombs raining down.  How did we manage to come out alive?”

My father reshuffled the deck.   “We’re finally moving.  I found an apartment in Hudson Park. There are many Lithuanian DP’s moving there.”

Mrs. Vitkus smiled and looked at her husband, Jurgis.  “Maybe we can find a place there as well.”

Tears welled in my eyes as I realized we would be leaving Lovey, Charlie and even the Gypsies.  Pete had the same stricken look in his eyes.  None of us could stand any more change. 

“I’m not going,” I announced. 

My parents looked at me.  I could see their puzzled expressions.

“Why, Irena,” asked my father? 

 “I have friends here.”

My mother waved her hand in dismissal.  “Who? Those dirty Gypsies, bah. They’re nothing but trouble.  A bad influence.  Running wild ever since we moved here.  I don’t like it.”

“What about Lovey?” I pleaded.

My mother shrugged. “You’ll make new friends and besides Magda and Algis might be moving there as well.”

“I’m not leaving,” I said, on the verge of tears. 

 “You’ll be fine, Irena, you’ll see,” said Mrs. Vitkus. 

I went over to the window to sit with Magda, hugging my Lovey doll and scratched a peek hole in the dried pink film on the windows.  I scratched another hole for Magda and we both watched the snow falling in thick clumps from the sky.  We watched as the snow piled up on the sidewalks, on the cars, and the trembling bare branches of the elm trees.  We could see the lights in the other apartments and houses across the street.  The night was still and cold.  We sat there for a long time until we heard the bells of Precious Blood Church ringing in the New Year through the South Side of Chicago.  Somewhere outside people were cheering and blowing horns. It seemed all of Chicago was celebrating, but I felt so sad.   It was 1950 and the war and the refugee camps of Europe seemed far away.  My parent’s home in Lithuania was behind an Iron Curtain. We had started our new life in America and it was safe here. But on this night I felt the sadness coming down on me like the snow piling up outside.

While kneeling by the window, my knee began to hurt. Though long healed, I could still sometimes feel those cinders my mother hadn’t managed to take out when I had skinned my knees.  When I looked closely, I could still see those cinders, submerged below my scared knees, like black pebbles beneath ice. 


Birute Putrius Serota grew up in Chicago and now lives in Santa Monica, California.  She has published short stories in numerous literary journals and in an anthology.   Several short stories have been optioned for short films by Columbia College in Chicago.  She has also published translations of Lithuanian poetry and is currently writing a novel.

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