QUESTION: A departure – as fiction or non-fiction – tell a story in any medium, integrating these four elements: an 80-year-old (man or woman), a ball, a ravine, a taxi-cab.
It’s another cold morning. He watched the icicles on the outside of the tent begin to drip tears as he waited for the water to heat on the camp stove. Weak tea and 5-day old bread for breakfast. He missed the breakfasts his wife would prepare – sliced cucumber with laban arabi, cheese, eggs and fava beans. But she was gone and so were her breakfasts. Now his life and tent were shared with a family of strangers who was also waiting to be exported to another country who didn’t really want them.
He was old now. He had seen more than eight decades pass with the same eyes that now saw a rabble of little children playing with a football outside. The ball was mostly flat, but that did not deflate the enthusiasm of the children. He use to watch his grandchildren play football in the street outside their home most afternoons after school. Sometimes he would be asked to adjudicate when a goal was followed by accusations of cheating or offside. He made it clear to his daughter’s youngest children that he could be bribed with a hug or a kiss on the cheek if they wanted his decision to go their way.
But all this was in the months before the bombing.
The house the family had lived in had been lived in for twelve generations. It was his house now. He was head of the family and responsible for three generations under its roof.
They all worked hard to bring in enough money, raise the children and set aside dowries for the younger girls. But eventually, there was never enough money. The army colonel took it in return for promises of protection. This meant he often drove his taxi for consecutive shifts every day until weariness overtook his body. He would rest one day and then do it all over again.
The struggle to survive and keep the family together seemed never ending. There was no way forward and no way back. The war saw to that. But they were surviving and not everybody he knew did. Then one day the army came down their street. Evening prayer was over and the men were in the front room talking politics while the women talked about the men in the kitchen.
There was no knock on the door, just a rabble of men with guns and shabby uniforms storming into the house. At first, the old man was confused – the noise, the screaming, the shouting, the guns pointing at him. It was too much to make sense of.
All the men were rounded together. At first, the old man was pushed into the group, but the colonel made him sit with the screaming, crying women. The other men were taken outside and loaded into trucks. Their bodies were found two days later in a ravine. The way their corpses were huddled and the mass of raw bullet holes told the tale of how they died.
Now the family’s situation was dire. The women cried hysterically for days – no husbands, no fathers, no brothers, no sons, no protectors, no future. While the women grieved the old man worried about how he would look after his family alone. He prayed to his God for help and he worried.
God answered the old man’s prays six weeks later when the army bombed his house.
As he sat in the tent with his weak tea and stale bread he thought of the broken bones of his wife, their daughters and their grandchildren among the rubble. How could God save him and let the best part of his life die? If God were truly merciful he would have made the colonel wait until he was home from the market before unleashing his bombs. If God were truly merciful he would have allowed him to be in heaven with his family instead of being alone in the world waiting to be sent to a country that didn’t really want him.
Our delicate balances
For me, I was behind a liquor store on the west side of Louisville, south a bit, past King’s. I’d pull up just past the drive-thru window but not blocking the padlocked gate. A few raps on the fence and the old man living in the outbuilding reluctantly emerged to key the lock and pull the chain through.
A suspicious kindness was shared and I went about my business of carrying in one ladder to lean on the adjacent building and then carrying in the hooked ladder, the cooler, and the rope. The rope was tied to the cooler and up I’d climb the leaned ladder with the rope and the hooked ladder and hook the hooked ladder to the catwalk.
With one foot on the hooked ladder, then two, me and the rope and the hooked ladder would swing back and forth, forth and back. I’d climb up onto the catwalk as the ladder steadied. Hand over hand, hoisting the cooler and posting the billboard high above the ragged landscape of discarded liquor boxes maybe thirty or forty feet below.
A misstep would likely take me somewhere more pressing than the red neon glow of the Krispy Kreme on wide wide Dixie Highway. I’d been planning a “Hot Now” since I started my shift as taxis made rounds bringing overindulgent fares home at closing time.
We all have a ball with our delicate balances, mere inches between a day’s work and a day’s failures.
“Good?” the police officer asked, leaning into the taxi window.
Hamid had a mouthful of meatball sandwich, hastily chewed and put the sandwich onto the paper spread over his lap.
“Yes, yes,” he said through the mouthful. Nodding through the chewing.
“Great. Move it on buddy,” the officer said, and patted the roof of the car. “Thirty-minute time limit.”
The taxi driver raised his hand, nodding and fumbled for the keys. Turned the ignition, and the little red elephant on the keychain swung against the miniature pocketknife, and the beads on a leather thong.
He checked his mirrors and swung out into the erratic mid-afternoon traffic. Hamid’s pinky finger was a pearl-shell color. His daughter Anahita, tiny, with nails the size and shape of butterfly scales had miniature versions of his own broad, thick nail.
Her small fingers took his hand and she held it down on the kitchen floor the night before. Her small knees kept his fingers steady, and he chuckled while she earnestly stroked on the varnish.
The iridescent nail reflected the sunshine through the windshield. Hamid wrapped the rest of his sandwich in the paper as he drove, hummed a lullaby he whispered to Anahita as her eyelids drew down.
Last night as she fell into sleep, her hand relaxed, and a small ball dropped from her hand and rolled across the floor. Hamid smoothed the blanket over his daughter, and bent to pick up the soft ball filled with glitter suspended in some kind of fluid. The particles sparkled in the bedside light, and now in the cab, he felt the little ball in the shallow pocket of his sweatshirt.
A call came though from the base, and he swept the radio up, responded and took the next right turn to his fare.
The man was stooped, his overcoat too heavy for the weather and his mouth hung open just a little, brow creased, as though he had been interrupted and was surprised by that interruption. He had a satchel and large suitcase beside him on the curb.
Hamid tucked the cab beside the man and got out to help the man with his bags.
“I can do it myself,” the man said loudly. He was once a tall man. Over six feet, but age had melted him, his face now netted in wrinkles.
“I got it. I got it,” Hamid said with a little deference.
“I can do it,” the man barked, louder, and peevish. “Just open the damn trunk.”
He waved his hand impatiently toward the rear of the cab.
“Of course. Yes,” Hamid hastily opened the trunk and watched as the man struggled to heave the suitcase into the back of the car. He swung the satchel in after it, and turned his back on Hamid, walked around the cab and got into the back seat.
“Where does the rain come from?” Anahita had asked. She left small greasy prints on the windowpane.
“Do you feel the wind?” Hamid asked her back as she studied the shower, then nodded.
“Well the wind breaks the clouds into tiny fragments, and that is the rain,” he said.
“Like the sparkles in my ball?” she asked with a slight lisp from a missing tooth, or the rattle of her voice on the thin sheet of glass.
The ball lay forgotten, yet connected to her, just near her left foot.
The man was morose, and sat stooped in the back as Hamid slid into his seat.
“The train station,” the man croaked.
Hamid nodded and tapped the meter. He slipped the cab into drive, and prepared to pull into the road when the man’s stern voice interrupted him.
“Where did I say we’re going?” the man demanded.
Hamid put the car back into park, and swung around to look at the passenger.
“Where?” the man said again. A small bit of spittle was caught on the corner of his mouth.
“Sorry sir?” Hamid asked.
“Do you not understand English?” the man said. “Trraaainnn stayyyshun,” he said. “Train station. Move.” He grunted and sat back into the seat.
Hamid turned back and faced the road. He put the car into drive again, and started for the station.
There was little traffic beside the station entrance. Hamid eased behind a minibus disgorging a mass of teenaged passengers.
The man got out from the back seat, and walked around the cab, kneading something in his hand. Hamid thought it was his fare, and he opened the trunk for the man and stepped away.
“You think I can’t do things for myself?” the man demanded. He pumped his closed fists that were cramped like dead spiders in dusty corners.
“No sir,” Hamid said, glancing at the man’s agitated fists. “I mean yes, sir, of course…”
“I am perfectly able to look after myself,” the old man said in a wavering voice. “I have plenty of life in me.” He opened his vast hand, and Anahita’s sparkling ball lay in his palm.
“I can still throw like a young man,” the man said, and heft the ball over the road into the dark of a ravine beside the station.
Hamid speechlessly watched the arc of the ball as it tracked, flashing in the light into the shadow of the trees and dark cleft in the land.
“Get my bags out,” the man barked and slumped against the side of the car. All his frustration seemed spent.
Hamid carefully lifted the bags from the trunk and placed them beside the passenger. The older man studied the bags, pulled a wad of dollars from his pocket and thrust them toward Hamid.
“Thank you sir,” Hamid said, smoothing the bills neatly, folding them into his pocket. He could tell the amount was underpaid, but asked if the man needed help into the station.
The passenger turned his back, wrapped his hands around the satchel straps and pulled the handle of the suitcase. Walked off, with the big case trundling after him.
The cab radio burbled, and Hamid got back into the car. He looked across toward the ravine as he answered the dispatcher, and pulled away from the curb into a sudden sunshower of tiny, glittering raindrops.
Photo: New York, July 1948. “Young boy tossing a ball on a city street.” Photograph by Cornell Capa
She had the dream again, but it was different this time. She’d gone for a walk at the trailhead, that wide ravine with the banks of blackberry bushes still choked with the sere tall autumn grass that the mower missed.
There was a gleam of late afternoon sun in the sky and as she idly searched the veiled land, she caught a glimpse of something shiny in the thicket. A quick flash and it was gone.
She smiled. Tricks of nature.
She stopped, retraced her steps but the twinkle was still there. The brambles were off-putting, but the sparkle piqued curiosity, and she thought as she always did. It could be hidden treasure!
Chuckling she waded over the uneven path to take a closer look. A spider web caught in a ray of sun?
There was more dead grass than bramble and easier to push through the natural barricade than she had thought.
After a few wicked scratches she found panes of glass in a window glistening in the sun.
She saw her wrinkled face reflected. Eighty years old, she thought with a grin and still not old enough to know better.
She pulled a tissue from her jacket pocket and rubbed the glass. She was looking at the inside of a small shed. I must be dreaming.
She saw a dress, no, not a dress, by God, but a gown confected of shimmering fabric, seeming like a sun-drenched cloud, hanging on a dress form.
Oh, my! And just where would I go in that and me in my hiking gear?
It might belong to someone. Ya think? This is ridiculous!
But it still wouldn’t hurt to take a look…
The door was very slightly ajar and the threshold looked freshly swept. There was no soil to block the free opening of the door. But the gown, though it looked fine in the sunshine, was probably a mess anyway from wildlife shredding it for nests.
Ridiculous, she thought again, but she turned the knob and pushed into the small room.
Oh, how lovely! Not rags at all. The dress looked perfect!
There was a small table nearby with a pearl necklace and earrings on it and some truly gorgeous gleaming white satin heel shoes, the vamps set with sparkling stones.
Wonder who makes this brand? She picked up one of the pumps to check the label and burst out laughing.
Her name was etched on the insole! She quickly turned to the dress and looked at the inner lining of the scooped back. Sure enough, there was an embroidered label with her name sewn on it.
She sank down onto a small bench by the table and stared into space puzzling out this mystery. Her eyes wandered over the gray cedar beams of roof and walls and finally to the floor planks.
She started when she noticed an envelope in a shadowed corner of the room. Perhaps she had trod on it when she walked in, kicked it aside unknowing and failed to see it.
She walked over, picked it up, opened it and pulled out a note.
Sorry I was late, but the ball is this evening. Try on the dress. I will take care of the rest.
Oh, how the time warps when anticipation turns our insides to butterflies, flit, flit, flittering.
How it happened wasn’t clear, but suddenly the dress was on her and she was headed for the door—hair up, earrings, necklace and shoes agleam, her bundled hiking clothes and boots tucked in the backpack slung from her arm.
She exited the shed to find the taxicab waiting. It glowed orange in the fiery light of the setting sun.
And then she was at the Dreamland Ballroom, waltzing and whirling with the other dancers in the half-light cast by the mirror ball, radiant with undimmed joy.
My thighs stick to the seat beneath me, and I use my skirt as a brief fan. Queasiness stirs in my stomach, and I squeeze the small rubber ball in my hand.
My twin sister, Ana, had wanted to meet me at the airport, but I had refused.
The taxi driver exits the freeway, and the noise from the open windows subsides. The woods wind around the Highland Park homes, and I miss the grasses and trees along the Volga River in Russia, my home for eighty years.
Ana left Russia sixty years ago. She had taken a job as an au pair in Chicago until she found love and started a family of her own.
I stayed behind and changed the sheets for the tourists in the fancy hotels of Kostroma. Mom fell ill with cancer, and I bathed her and eased her pain with syringes. Dad showed signs of dementia, and I held his hand and walked with him along the river. Sometimes he would call me Ana, and I would hide behind closed eyes, but I called for her, too.
Ana, where are you? When are you coming home?
When both mom and dad were gone, I walked the ravines near the Volga River… alone.
Ana, where are you?
Today, the taxi driver winds through the wooded streets and my eyes follow the Highland Park ravines. My hand clutches the small ball, and I recall that last summer with Ana. We sat with girlfriends on rocks in the shallow ravine along the Volga and played the familiar game. Ana tossed the ball to each girl, who in turn, revealed a secret from her love life. I had still never kissed a boy, and Ana had gone all the way.
For years, the ball rested on my nightstand, at first a token of hope, and later, a reminder of what may never be.
Ana called several weeks ago to say that her husband had died. “Will you please come?”
I had hesitated with an answer.
Now, as the taxi pulls into the driveway, I squeeze the ball harder. She never came home. Too much time has passed. Maybe I should not have come.
Then I see Ana in the doorway. She smiles at me through the tears. “Sonia, you came! You came!” The driver opens my door as she makes her way down the driveway and grabs me in her arms. “You came.”
I let myself fall into her arms. I let go of the ball. The waiting is over.
NEXT WEEK’S QUESTION: What is the most serious dilemma facing the children in your country today?