Samuel Strong Dunlap by Sarah Dziedzic

Dr. Dunlap stood on a small stage in the Coney Island Museum and peered out at the small audience seated in mismatched wooden folding chairs that had gathered to hear his lecture on Charles Willson Peale.

“I have to confess,” said Dr. Dunlap. “I’m a physical anthropologist. I’m a little out of my element. I hope you’ll bear with me.” He scratched his head and chuckled to himself.

A staff member of the museum played with the light switches until only one overhead beam shone down on Dr. Dunlap. He was tall and broad and wore a khaki shirt tucked into khaki trousers. His glasses had wire rims and his hair was the color of a faded and downy hen’s nest. He was old with a deep solid voice and he carried himself like a spacious and well-staked canvas tent.

He shared the stage with a cage from the Wonder Wheel, two funhouse mirrors, and a preserved scene from a shooting gallery in which dark-skinned hobos were villains. Above his head was a sign for an old roller coaster that said in large red letters The Twister.

He squinted up at the light above him and took a step forward on the stage. The light hit him from behind and revealed him in silhouette. He put his hands in his pockets and planted his feet.

“Thank you for inviting me to talk about Charles Willson Peale. Not many people get to talk about their relatives like this. I’m fortunate in that way. Now, he was my great, great, great––how many was that?” He peered out at the audience and kept his stance. “Three greats I believe it is. Great, great, great grandfather. And if we brought him right up to today, he would fit right in. He was interested in politics and gardening and biology and art. He always seemed to me like he would be a pretty nice guy to have around.”

Dr. Dunlap moved to tap the computer beside him to view to his next slide. He looked over his right shoulder towards the projector screen and the light that filtered through his beard cast an orange glow below his jaw.

“Peale had a beautiful hand. Which is why his first job was copying letters. Though he is better known as a painter. He studied with Benjamin West. West painted this portrait.”

He paused thoughtfully. “Peale must have been about eighteen here. Not yet married.” He stood admiring the portrait of Peale as a young man with a tawny wave of hair framing his delicate face, his left hand gracefully holding a quill.

“You’ve all seen some of Peale’s most famous paintings. He painted Washington and he painted Jefferson. Let’s see if I have those here somewhere.” He tapped his computer again, passing through a number of portraits of Peale as an older man with bright eyes and wispy grayed hair.

“Darling,” he said casually, looking out towards the crowd, “did I put those other portraits in here?” A woman in the front of the audience smiled helplessly, her blond hair reflecting some of the light from the stage. “My wife is an artist,” he said, looking into the rows of chairs where people stirred in the darkened room.

“Ah, here we are. I always thought this was a beautiful portrait of Thomas Jefferson. And of course, here are his portraits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They brought back quite a few pieces for Peale’s Museum.”

He cleared his throat. “One of Jefferson’s longest correspondences with Peale concerned a botanical issue—Jefferson was having trouble cultivating his geraniums. He asked Peale for help. They were both very dedicated gardeners. In fact,” he took a step back and the rims of his glasses flashed in the light, “Peale always used the Linnaean taxonomy in his museum. Part of what made it the first natural history museum. Up until that point, collections of natural objects for the public’s consumption were billed as, well, oddities or unnatural mysteries.” He paused, glancing around the room at the fading signs that said Coney Island Freak Show and Live Freaks. “But I’m getting ahead of myself with the museum.” He turned to his computer to move back to the early slides of Peale.

A photographer entered the room and made his way to the front row and sat down noisily.

Dr. Dunlap did not look up from his computer and spoke softly to himself. “Let’s see. Here we are! Peale married a wonderful woman, Rachel Brewer. That was in…that was in 1762. And, get a load of this.” He stretched out his fingers in emphasis. “She bore him ten children. I can just imagine what a wild household that was. Especially later when they had the incident with the bear.”

He cleared his throat and looked back towards the screen. “Here is the Peale house. For those of you who know Philadelphia, that’s Third and Lombard.” A few people nodded.

“He began by collecting specimens of plants and animals. And he was fond of painting and preserving the things he collected—or was given. And this,” he said, getting louder, “this was another way the household was unique. Peale trained his children in these practices too. The girls as well, which was rare at the time, for them to receive such a scientific education.”

His voice softened. “I like to imagine a little workshop with all the kids around. Some of them painting, others sketching or searching for the right phylum and class from the books in Peale’s library. Some cleaning the hide of a specimen. Peale, he actually made a lot of developments in the field of taxidermy. Most of his specimens were later destroyed in a fire, but a few of them remain. Just imagine that. A 200 year old stuffed squirrel!” he boomed. “He also made improvements to the physiognotrace and the polygraph. He exchanged some letters with Jefferson about those too.

“But,” he continued, “Peale’s son Raphaelle did most of the taxidermy for the museum. He was very good. But all those years working with arsenic and mercury eventually poisoned him. He spent the last twenty years of his life suffering from delirium. Very sickly. He produced some gorgeous still-life paintings during that time, though.” He gestured toward an image of a painting with a boy sitting next to a tall potted plant. “Here’s his brother Rubens with a fine looking geranium. You know, geraniums were new to North America then. They came to Peale and Jefferson from Europe. Via South America. So growing one this healthy was tremendous news to the scientific community.”

He moved to the next slide. “Raphaelle really perfected his technique. His paintings almost look like photographs. Darling, are these watercolors?’

His wife smiled and shook her head. “They’re oil.”

“Oil. Of course. Here’s Cutlets and Vegetables. And another one of his paintings, Cheese and Crackers.” He looked at the painting for a few moments. “He really wants you to just be part of the cheese, you see. It’s a phenomenological type of thing.”

The photographer began to photograph Dr. Dunlap and the shutter of his camera sounded loudly.

“This is Still Life with Orange and Book. He was fond of using oranges in his still-lifes. He was rather entertained by his own mastery of the peel.”

A chuckle spread through the room and there was one delayed guffaw.

“He was also a first-class ventriloquist.” He nodded silently, out of stories about Raphaelle.

“Rembrandt was the real painter, though, after his father. One of his first official tasks in service to his father’s museum was to help excavate the mastodon. They got word in 1801 that some bones had come to light. And he traveled with his father upstate to sketch their findings. The skeleton was complete all but for a missing left tibia, which they were able to construct out of plaster. Using the right tibia as a model, of course.”

The audience waited silently for him to continue. Some sipped bottles of beer from the bar downstairs and had started to leave the room occasionally to find a bathroom, creaking on the old floorboards as they walked down the hall.

“Peale had the idea to exhibit the assembled skeleton in his museum. And this caused quite an uproar in Europe. It was fashionable in Europe at the time to assume that North America was an inferior place. This big set of bones gave a lot of Americans the feeling that they had a real fighting chance out there. Big animals to match the big ideas. Something like that. But regardless, the mastodon was good for the museum business.

“Now, here’s about the only image we have of what Peale’s Museum looked like. Peale himself painted this.”

Dr. Dunlap indicated a painting where an old man held back a curtain to reveal a long hall lined with books, assembled bones, stuffed creatures, and drawers and drawers of ordered specimens.

“He looks a little creepy here, doesn’t he? Kind of peeking at the people in the museum hall and peering back at us at the same time. But it gives you a sense of what the space looked like. And if you’ll note,” he moved closer to the image, getting in the way of the projector and then readjusting his position, “it’s got gas lighting. It was the first building in Philadelphia to have it.

“Oh, and off the right side of the painting, you can see the mastodon skeleton as it would have been displayed. Peale had the idea to set up the family dinner table under the skeleton, so they often had their dinners beneath the mastodon.”

The photographer rose to leave and his chair scraped against the wooden floor.

“The family also kept a collection of live animals as part of the museum. So you can just imagine what it would have been like for all those kids to grow up with peacocks perched around the yard and maybe a snake or two in the sitting room. They kept a black bear for a time. They raised it from a cub, of course. But one day it batted Rubens around and Peale had to shoot it.” He shrugged his shoulders slightly. “But Peale got Raphaelle to stuff it after that.

“Another one of Peale’s sons, Titian, was a great naturalist. He was Peale’s youngest son. He traveled with the Wilkes Expedition in 1738 and—what’s that, darling?”

His wife gestured at him.

“What did I say? Oh, 1838. I’m terrible with dates. So, the Wilkes Expedition explored the Pacific. That was quite a big deal back then, to explore the Southern Seas. People thought that the North and South Poles were entrances into the core of the earth. You could walk right into the poles and there would be another civilization living there. But they didn’t make it that far north or south.

“By that time the museum had been moved to Baltimore and Peale’s sons had taken over its care. It had a pretty good run. It eventually suffered from competition with Barnum, who…Barnum was totally into freaks. And Peale was against that kind of thing. It had to be honest. It couldn’t be a fraud like…a mermaid. It had to be real.” He bent one of his knees and put his weight on his left foot. A few people shifted in their chairs.

“But Peale died in 1827. He lived to be 85 and was active up until the end. He outlived three wives and was on his way home from wooing a fourth when he came down with pneumonia—the old man’s friend, they call it.”

He scanned the audience. “Now, I’ve probably kept you all here much longer than you thought. Maybe we can end with that.”

The audience clapped, and Dr. Dunlap stood, feet planted. “I think I need to have a beer or something,” he said.

Patty Cake by Andrea Dixon

My grandmother is Rubylene Patricia Williams Webster, though everyone called her "Pat." My grandmother is full of life, always twittering about her home, handing out decrees to be executed by her husband, Hosea, by her children, by her grandchildren, by her friends and family. My grandmother is a boss. It is a quiet, somewhat soft power my grandmother had over her world. She constantly gave instructions, but rarely demanded a thing, when calling out "Hosey, be sure to trim the azalea bushes." She is of average height for a woman, all butterscotch-colored skin, with beautiful elegant limbs, hands and feet, which despite her hard work retains an ethereal grace, corns and all. She spent her days pacing about a tuberculosis clinic near the local hospital, and then a public housing project, where she completed paperwork, and took on headaches. After a long day's work, she walks into her suburban home, gently opening and closing the screen door, yelling as my seven-year-old self rushes past her. "Don't slam that door!" she calls out. When the door inevitably slams, she issues a loud shriek, though she says no word in particular.

The electric flytrap glows blue in the darkness of the den, where her husband, her Hosey, sits watching the flickering of the big screen television (one of three in the home) and hearing loud death-cracks of ill-fated insects. Hosea, a tall handsome dark-skinned man, even with wrinkles surrounding his features, his eyes turning pale blue with age, has made a portion of dinner, and she will make some sides, or at the least, plate the meal. Though they are both at home, they will not eat together. Hosea eats either at the minibar, or on the couch, while she eats at the breakfast table, watching him. It is summer, and it is hot, sticky-hot.

Pat is known as "Patty Cake" to her grandchildren and she adores them, though she has little time to enjoy them with her work. Her relationship with Hosea is rocky at best. They married young when Pat was 20 years old. This was a disaster for her family, the Williams family, as she was heading off to college when she became pregnant. Pat went off to college for a single semester, before returning home to get married and give birth. Her flirtation with Hosea developed quickly, and this birth, the birth of my mother, is struck by complications. My mother is a big baby, and she was born breech. The problems leave Pat in the hospital for weeks, recovering from the bleeding. This daughter is spurned immediately by the family. She is unexpected, and in many ways, unwanted, as with her dark complexion, she integrates the Williams family. The Williams were a light-skinned well-to-do family in Mobile, Alabama, a city as Southern, color-struck, and segregated as American cities get. Mobile's history includes a group of black, religious and political leaders meeting Martin Luther King Jr. at the airport demanding that he take his freedom-fighting elsewhere. It is in this city, one of the first major slave ports in the States, where Pat was born, lived and died.

With a child and a husband, and a slew of siblings living locally, Pat began adult life in the city of her birth. As a grandmother, the way I know her, Patty Cake is biscuits cooking in the oven, smothered in Alga syrup, brimming with Crisco. She is the framed images of her parents, Big Daddy and Mama Dea, on her vanity. She is trips to Disney World, one every couple of years, darting ride to ride, never tiring, chasing me, her first grandchild, one cruises, as I fight her grasp. Patty Cake is my first and best coffee, and "Daughter, let this grand-baby have a sip! She loves coffee! It's mostly sugar and milk anyway!" She is the silk robes and kimonos on her back, and the gold, leather slippers on her feet. She is thonged sandals, a particular love of hers, and coral-colored nail polish, appropriate for fingers and toes. She is the squirrels she feeds while seated on outdoor furniture, offering bread to them, spraying repellent on me: "You know how the skeeters love you, Andi!" She is me, kneeling at her bedside, rubbing her feet as she drifts to sleep, table lamp on throughout the night. Patty Cake is red velvet cake, and Cheerios, both of which existed in abundance in her home. Patty Cake is sheer stockings, a white skirt-suit, and white lace, which she wore to church every Sunday, to sit on the ladies' board, usually arriving a few minutes late. She is leather-bound Bibles, and daily devotions. She is the Pope's annual Christmas celebration on television, and a perfectly made bed. "Don't you get on my spread... I just made this bed up. Did you make your bed?" She is late-night arrivals to their Mobile home, pulling into the driveway around midnight, hugging, kissing, laughing. She is gumbo, Heart's chicken, honey, biscuits, and salty-sweet fried corn, on the stove. She is Patti LaBelle on the stereo, gladiolas in a vase, and those neatly trimmed Azalea bushes along the drive.

She is clean, chlorine-bleached sheets, rose potpourri, and greasy curling irons. She is spic and span, and whirring dishwashers, shoes never worn, clothes never worn, guarding her stash from her three daughters. "Daughter, don't you take my shoes. I haven't even worn that one! What do you have behind your back?" She is dentures, and Poli-Dent, artfully inserted and cleaned, rarely found outside her mouth. Patty Cake is long summers spent before the television, pitter-pattering around the house, back and forth from the refrigerator. She is sandy-brown sew-ins, and twin-sized, though differently colored moles, one beside each nostril. She is a squishy tummy, perfect for a pillow, and back rubs with rubbing alcohol for summer's end mosquito bites. She is diluted apple juice, and stomach aches, and meds for ulcers, we think... She is the butterflies in her stomach, hospital visits, and trips to Atlanta, for diagnosis at Emory University Hospital. She is surgery, after surgery, cutting her innards to achieve... something... She is vomiting bile and blood in her final months and days, retching without speech as tubes enter and exit her body. She is a wink to her daughters as she struggles to communicate. She is the result of one survived bout of colon cancer, and the defeat of ovarian cancer, the defeat of butterflies. She is the tears at the funeral home, her grandchildren crouched outside, comprehending, or not, her loss, swatting at mosquitoes and tears. Her grandchildren sit bounded by tall Mobile grasses on a concrete stoop, me between two younger cousins. My arms wind about them, squeezing their shoulders, cooking in their ears, as good granddaughters do. And now, she is the memories we share around kitchen tables, invoking her name, red-eyes crying and open hearts laughing.

Pura Vida by Danielle Lupkin

It wasn’t until the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college that I really traveled. It was a trip to Costa Rica—the product of ridiculous scheming and loose planning by me and my college roommate, Valerie. We wanted to speak Spanish and volunteer. We also wanted a story to tell.

Through my father we were put in contact with the friend of a friend who lived in Costa Rica. An American named Barry, who climbed trees for a living and who offered to let us stay with him. I was surprised we escaped our parents’ clutches with so little information.

After a brief stay in San Jose, the smoggy congested capital of Costa Rica, Valerie and I made our way to Puerto Jimenez. This small dusty town—about a 10-hours drive from San Jose—is fairly quiet by day and a little more rowdy by night. It sits along the route to Corcovado National Park so it acts as a stop-over for all the eco-tourists. The vibe in Puerto Jimenez feels even more laidback than the rest of Costa Rica. A sign painted on the side of a building echoes a common local saying: “Pura Vida.” Literally translated, this means, “pure life’ but many Costa Ricans say it to reflect a free-spirited attitude—a life where, for example, being on time is not necessarily a virtue.

With barely an address in hand, we had our taxi drop us off in the middle of town. We looked around to see if there was any way we could find Barry’s house on our own. I decided to test out my classroom Spanish.

I approached a young dark skinned, dark haired boy. “Hola. Conoces un Americano se llama Barry? El vive aqui in Puertio Jimenez.”

“Eh...BAW-ree?” He looked puzzled. “, si...Baw-ree...” He raised his arm and pointed up the dirt road and to the right.

We approached what looked like a cabin at a sleep away camp. We knocked at the front door and peaked in through the adjacent screened window. Nobody answered. We didn’t know Barry so we were reluctant to yell for him.

“Do you think he forgot?” Valerie leaned up against our huge duffel bags, trying not to touch the dirt and sand that lightly coated most of the canvas.

“I have no idea.” I shook my head and smiled. I wondered if this—the trip, coming to Puerto Jimenez, traveling with Valerie—was a bad idea. It was hot and humid. The backs of our knees dripped with sweat.

After a few minutes a mud-splattered jeep screeched to a stop in front of us. A man in the open back seat smiled at us and jumped out, his flip flopped feet creating a cloud of dust as he landed on the ground.

Barry was young, late thirties, early forties perhaps—his true age masked by tanned skin and salty sun-stained hair and the pura vida of an ex-patriot lifestyle. Without words or much movement, he simply radiated “happy-go-lucky.”

“Aha! Hello ladies! You made it! I’m Barry, welcome to Costa Rica!” He kissed both of us on the cheeks and went toward the front door. He pushed it open. It wasn’t locked.

Valerie and I smiled and looked at each other as if to say, “Oh yeah, this guy is nuts.”

He barely asked for our names and didn’t offer to help us with our luggage. We took this as silent acknowledgment that we over packed. Or maybe that man and woman are created equally in the jungles of Costa Rica. Or, maybe, that Barry just didn’t notice.

No sooner did we arrive and Barry show us where to put our things did he leave again.

“Well, girls, welcome. Mi casa es su casa. I’ve got some clients I’m taking up the big tree so I’ll see you later. Not sure if I’ll be back tonight or not. Have fun!”

“Oh...o.k.” I was a little surprised he was leaving so soon.

“If Harry calls, just take a message and tell him I’ll call him back later.” And with that Barry got back into the jeep that had been waiting outside and was gone.

“Oh my god, he’s ridiculous.” Valerie started to laugh but I couldn’t tell if she was amused or worried. “And who is Harry?”

“Ha! If my dad could only see who Barry turned out to be.” I looked around unsure if I should actually unpack anything. Were we really going to stay here?

Barry’s house had all the aspects of a typical suburban home: bedrooms, beds, kitchen, working appliances, living room, chairs, tables, a bathroom with running water. But it was barely a secure structure from outsiders or the elements.

That night, while Barry left us to house sit, we had some visitors.

As if with scripted cues on the set of a horror movie, an array of Central American bugs, insects and reptilian species came out to play.

“Um, that’s a snake! I really think that’s a snake.” I was standing on our bed pointing through the doorway to something that just slithered under a chair in the living room.

“What? Where?”

“Over there. Under the chair I think.”

Valerie froze mid step. Her eyes darted from the chair to the doorway and scanned the bedroom we were in. Overhead something lightly crept across the mosquito net.

“Eeh! I think that’s a spider...”

I’m not usually the squeamish one but this was too much. “Oh, I can’t stay here tonight!”

With shrieks and spastic movements, Valerie and I grabbed our passports and toothbrushes and ran out of the house. Had we needed to lock the door we probably wouldn’t have. We walked towards the center of town and checked into a motel for the night.

The next day, after both Barry and Valerie and I returned to the house, we purposefully did not mention the night’s excitement. Even though we thought Barry was crazy, we also wanted him to respect us and not call us wimps. Shortly, though, Barry didn’t call us anything. He didn’t talk to us. He stayed in bed for 2 days straight, sequestering himself under a mosquito net.

Valerie and I became suspicious. Our eyes conveyed a telepathic discussion of whether or not Barry was suffering through a bout of malaria.

“I don’t know exactly what malaria looks like but I’m gonna guess he has it.”

“Malaria? Malaria?!" Valerie was getting crazy. “How could he not tell us he has malaria? What if we get it? There are mosquitoes everywhere!”

I am usually much loved and sought after by mosquitoes so, like Valerie, this worried me as well. So on the third morning we asked Barry if we could come in to talk to him.

Through the tiny holes of the netting we could see his sweat run off him in tributaries emptying out onto the already repellent-stained sheets. He looked terrible.

“Barry, o.k., so we were wondering if, well, have malaria, right?”

“Kind of but it will pass. It’s just like a really bad flu. I’ll be fine.” And that was all he said about it. Like everything else in Barry’s-tree–climbing-door-unlocked-world,” it was no big deal.

“No worries, man. Pura vida.”

After Barry recovered from “the flu,” we tagged along with him and his motley crew of friends—a bunch of grown-up hooligans—to a beach house named “La Tortuga” whose geographic whereabouts I never knew. (I’m sure it could be identified by locals if ever I wanted to return.) Unfortunately, I got my period during this excursion and I was without any sort of feminine hygiene products. That is, except for the coffee filter one of Barry’s friends handed to me and with a stupid grin said, “You could stick this up there.”

The rest of our time in Puerto Jimenez and Costa Rica consisted of a variety of exploits. There were runny banana milkshakes with no ice because Valerie was scared of getting sick from the water, lots of gallo-pinto for breakfast and lunch, smelly sticky bug repellent, washing dishes in exchange for a place to sleep just to say we had done it, arguments in the rain on dirt roads at night, Valerie’s first kiss with a dark but pretty local who adopted the enigmatic Anglo-nickname of “Sixxer”, sleeping precariously near active volcanoes, weak attempts at hitchhiking, and lazy efforts at volunteering which found us at a tiny rural hospital where Valerie assisted in medical related matters and I did desk work for all of two days.

I am not sure if we accomplished the goals we had made as we took off from California at the beginning of the summer. We did have fun or it’s how I remember it. Valerie and I still talk and sometimes refer to our absurd trip to Costa Rica. But all I have to say to make her smile is, “pura vida, man, pura vida.”

B&H Dairy by Svetlana Kitto

I walk into B&H Dairy and squeeze myself along the narrow aisle between the tables lining the wall and the stools lining the counter. The small deli restaurant is loud with people, the radio and the clattering of plates and bowls. As usual, Raffi, the cook and maĆ®tre d’ of sorts, an immigrant from Pueblo, Mexico, has a couple of things going at once on the grill: an omelet, a grilled cheese sandwich and some breakfast potatoes. He covers the food with a large aluminum foil container, which he then covers with a plate—he has a system in place. Up and down the counter are couples and friends laughing or in eye-locked huddles. I haven’t been to B&H since I moved uptown a few months ago and am happy to be back.

“You!” Raffi puts his hands out in a simulated hug. He wears a black Yankees cap turned to the back.


“Where you been?”

“Oh, you know, around. I don’t come to this neighborhood that much anymore. I’m so glad you are here I thought maybe you quit.” I throw my backpack under the counter on the tiny dirty ledge, and take out my notebook and pencil.

“Naw, I didn’t quit. The boss was giving me hell though.”

“Yeah I came in and there was this guy I had never seen before at a time that I expected you to be here. So I got worried. What was he giving you hell about?”

“Naw he tries to find things to get mad at me about when business is slow. It’s too bad because it’s not my fault.” He says it as if he almost wishes it were his fault just to make the guy feel better.

“What’s he like?”

“The boss? He’s an Egyptian guy.”

“How long has he been the owner?”

“Not long. Before it was Polish guys.”

“And before that?”

“Jewish guys. Lots of guys! There’s been about a hundred owners! That’s the problem.”

“Wow. How long has it been here?”

“Since 1942. And too many owners.”

He moves down to an older Latina lady with a big plastic flower in her hair and a long gray braid sitting at one of the tables against the wall. All along the wall above the tables are framed displays of rows and rows of miniature blue, green and red pitchers. It took two years before I noticed them. Raffi hands her a paper plate stacked with their signature homemade challah bread from behind the counter. She takes it: “Gracias.”

“Que mas senora?”

“Es todo.”

“Todo.” He tallies up the bill and rips out the check and hands it to her.

“Son nueve juntos.” He winks at her and lifts his chin.

“Gracias, Raffi.”

All of the specials of the day line the wall above the grill opposite the counter on laminated cards tacked up with tape in different pastel colors: SPECIAL SPINACE BLINTZES; SPECIAL FRESH MOZZARELLA SANDWICH; SPECIAL FLOUNDER CASSEROLE WITH CUP OF SOUP; SPECIAL FETA CHEESE OMELET. And then the list of soups that changes from day to day: FRIDAY’S SPECIAL: LIMA BEAN; MATZOH BALL; SPLIT PEA; TOMATO; HOT BORSCHT; VEGETABLE. In the summer they have cold pink borscht with dill, just like my grandmother’s.

Raffi sees me writing and knocks on the counter.

“You see this counter? The countertop is from the seventies.” He reaches his arm over and under it. “But underneath it is the one from the forties. They just put this over it.” He turns around and ladles some borscht into a small bowl.

“Bread and butter?” He says to a young woman behind me with glasses.

“Yes,” she says.

He slaps some margarine on two thick slices of challah and passes the soup and the bread over the counter to her. She barely looks up from her reading to grab the food from his outstretched hands.

“What do you want?” He lifts his chin at me.

“Oh, a hot chocolate would be great.”

“Hot chocolate.” He turns around, takes out a Nestle packet from the box, drops the powder into a mug and fills it with hot water from the coffee machine.

“They say the menu hasn’t changed since it opened, only the prices.” He smiles to himself as he wipes up the hot chocolate on the counter under my mug.

Next to me a young man with hair in his eyes slips into a stool. “Grilled cheese with tomato soup please. Classic,” he says to the girl he is with.

“Bread and butter?”

“Nah,” he says.

“Do you like the food?” I ask him as he puts some bread on the grill.

He widens his eyes in seriousness. “I love it.”

“You do?”

“Oh yeah. The soups!”

“The soups. Which?”

“I like the split pea. The lentil.” He plops the tomato soup in front of the kid with the beanie. “Sandwich is coming,” and he nods his head to the grill where the sandwich is cooking under a plate.

“I used to eat the split pea twice a day.”

“Who makes the soups?”

“The Polish lady comes a couple times a week to make it.”

“There’s a Polish lady? Where?” I look down the aisle into the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where there are a couple of young Latino guys working.

He shakes his head at me and laughs. “She’s at home!”

Another kid on my left side is digging into a tuna melt with American cheese.

“How’s the sandwich?” Raffi asks wiping down the counter.

“It’s the best sandwich I ever had in New York.” He pauses between bites. “This is my first day in New York, so…”

Raffi laughs and shakes his head. “What are the soups?” The girl sitting on the other side of the boy on my right asks.

“They’re right over your head, lady.”

“Oh my god, the soup is four dollars but the soup and lasagna is 8.50?”

“Yeah, what do you think?” Raffi says.

“That’s so much, I thought it would be like two dollars more!”

“We wouldn’t make any money that way!” He only laughs. He never gets mad.

“Oh no, I made a mistake!” He runs over to his omelet and flips it with a spatula. “That’s not right.” And he starts it over again. “Forgot to put the tomatoes and the spinach in with the eggs, man!” He lifts up the messed up omelet and motions to me. “You want it senorita?”

“Oh no, I ate. Thanks.”

“But it’s on the house!”

“No I just had dinner. But you can give me something else if you want! Like that key lime pie is calling my name.” I nod at the glass case of pies.

“You’re smart!”

“Not too smart.”

“No, you’re not too smart.” He winks and slides a piece of pie at me when no one’s looking.
In comes a gaggle of NYU girls all in different colored tights. They take the big table in the back. All of them order macaroni and cheese, except for one who orders soup, and “extra butter” on her bread.

“Extra butter? Wow,” Raffi shakes his head. They burst into laughter.

An older guy with gray hair creeping out from under his beanie squeezes past me. He wears an oversize dark sweater and pants that are too big for him.

“Hey,” he says.


“Whatcha doing, writing a book?”

“You could say that.” He has pink warts all over his right cheek. His eyes are so blue and his pupils so small he looks like he is blind. I can’t really tell where or what he is looking at. His teeth are brown, pointy shards. I am scared of his breath but he doesn’t smell like anything.

“I been coming here since the seventies.”

“Wow. What was it like in the seventies?” He slides into the stool next to me and puts his bag down again.

“There used to be all Jewish guys who worked here.” He looks behind the counter as if they are still there. “They would all laugh and make jokes. They were all like him.” He looks at Raffi. “Except Jewish. Now it’s Mexicans who work here. You know, that’s how it works. Whoever is at the bottom rung of society runs the place. He keeps this place together. You gotta have a guy like that running your business.

“There was this one Jewish guy I remember who worked here. He could throw his voice. He was a ventriloquist. He would throw his voice all over the place and confuse the hell out of everybody!

“And when the guys would tip big, the guys behind the counter would call him jumbo jockey. You know like how you bet big on a jockey. You following me?”


“Okay, well anytime someone would tip big the waiter would say jumbo jockey real loud and everyone working would stop what they were doing and bow as the guy left! Every last one of them would bow and go, ‘Jumbo Jockey!’

“It was all Jewish guys then. Then Puerto Ricans. Now Mexicans. That’s the story of old New York.” He turns to the front door and looks out the window. “And out there, used to be all Vaudeville. Vaudeville theaters. And other places like this. Tons of places like this. Now this is the only one.”


“But it was also a dangerous shithole.”


“But there was always something going on on the street. Music, performances, people being crazy. But it was fucking dangerous like you wouldn’t believe. I used to run up and down the streets late at night just to keep myself from getting harassed by some numbnuts criminal. But it was fun. It was different. You heard of TNT?”


“No! TNT were the pressure points. They put the police, this was before Giuliani, this was Mayor Koch. That asshole. He put police on the street 24 hours a day to clean up all the drug points.

“Before the Vaudeville, it was Yiddish theaters. All up and down Second Avenue here. This is one of the only places that is still around from them days!”

“So you’ve been coming here all this time?”

“Oh yeah. They got the best soup.”

“Raffi was telling me they have a Polish lady who comes and makes it.”

“Oh yeah. They used to have another Polish lady. She had a scarf on her head. She was straight off the boat man.” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “She was better!”

“I remember there was this young, really pretty Polish girl who used to work here. I haven’t thought about her in so long. Do you know who I’m talking about?”

“Nah. Don’t think so.”

I wave my hand at Raffi. “Raffi do you remember that girl who used to work here? The young one who was really funny and pretty?”

“About four years ago?” Raffi asks. “She wasn’t that pretty. Not as pretty as you.” He winks at the man in the beanie, who smiles at me.

“No she was this really unforgettable girl. We all loved her.” I look down at my hands embarrassed. “So is it a different group of people who come here now?”

“Oh yeah. The neighborhood’s changed so the people who come here are different. More yuppies and students. It used to be so cheap man. Back in the old days you could get a bowl of soup and a hunk of that challah bread for a dollar. You could eat all your meals here just fine.”

“Raffi said they never changed the menu. I guess that means it’s always been vegetarian.”

“No, no. It’s not vegetarian. It’s called B&H Dairy see?” He points to the menu. “They serve fish here and eggs too. Just no meat. Which is great for me because I’m vegetarian. The Jewish guys who started it they wanted a place that was kosher, do you know what kosher is?”

“Meaning a rabbi blesses it and—“

“No, no! People always get this wrong. You don’t gotta have a rabbi blessing it for it to be kosher. Just no meat in where they serve dairy also.” He pauses. “See that grill?” He points to the grill.


“No bacon, no hamburger has never been made on that grill. Not ever. Most places they say they got vegetarian items but they cook their veggie burgers on the same grill that they cook their burgers and crap! That’s why I like this place. They still got the best soup in New York too.”

“You think so?”

“Oh yeah, without a doubt! Without a doubt.” His glacial blue eyes turn back to Raffi. “And him. He’s just like all them Jewish guys.”

“Isn’t that funny? How did that happen?”

“I don’t know man. When they stop having guys like him it won’t be New York anymore.”


“Well it was good to talk to you. My name’s Joe by the way.”


“Take care Lana.” He takes out a dollar and leaves it on the counter. “Night Raffi!”

“Hey, where’s the Jumbo Jockey?” Raffi says smiling.

“Eh, wise guy.” He looks at me and blushes. “Hey man, that’s 15 percent!” Joe shuffles out of B&H with his back hunched and his raggedy coat hung over his arm. He looks old and young at the same time. I stare after him wondering where his home is, what it’s like.

Raffi shakes his head at me.

Persian Day Parade

760 Washington Ave., Brooklyn by Sarah Dziedzic

I go into the Washington Avenue Religious Store and hear a woman say hello. Her back is to me and she faces a mirrored wall. “Hello,” I say to her, and she doesn’t turn around. I’m afraid to take my eyes off the back of her head and I stare at her, blinking, as I adjust to the indoor light. Incense is burning on a small altar and I hear music playing about love for Jesus.

I walk past this store on my way to Prospect Park or when I’m trying to get to the Botanical Garden on Saturdays before noon when it’s free. It’s right after where Grand merges with Washington, past the weird triangular parking lot by the gas station whose air machine has been broken since last fall.

A man sits behind the counter and talks on the phone. His chair is short and I can only see his head and the top of his shoulders. He works here, but his call doesn’t look like business. He speaks quietly beneath the sound of the music and laughs loudly. There is a black and white Pekingese laying on the countertop, asleep.

I walk to the back of the store and pass a small basket of wrinkled brown roots on a shelf behind the counter. John the Conqueror roots bring luck and virility to those who possess them. I eye the man behind the counter—if he has one of those roots I might be drawn to him. He is good-looking: clear brown skin and wide eyes, thin with large hands. I stare a little longer until I know I’m not wild for him.

The floor is tiled in linoleum and the shelves along the walls are galvanized steel. The shelves in the back hold prayer candles and incense. There are candles in honor of St. Michael, St. Anthony, The Infant of Prague. The descriptions on these candles are written in Spanish on one side and English on the other. There’s a yellow candle that says Control with a picture of two big blue spiders in a web. A black and red candle for uncrossing love spells says Reverse Reverse with two arrows. A white candle pictures a black cat, back arched, and brings good luck to gamblers. There’s also a zodiac candle and a lottery candle, a love candle and a money candle. I pick up the love candle.

I was talking to a guy at a party last weekend. He kept trying to explain that he was good at skiing but he couldn’t find the way to say it modestly: it was easier than he thought it would be––it was really hard but he caught on fast––moguls weren’t all that fun anyway. And while he was babbling I brushed my arm against his sweater and it was so shockingly soft. I wondered why he was wearing something that looked so plain but was like walking through a field of milkweed in the fall when the shells open and send their seeds out on downy white tufts. I stared into the pale gray and he put his hands in his pockets uncomfortably. When he gave up on his story I blushed and couldn’t think of anything to say.

I hear the man on the phone say, “Joan? She’s in the back. I’ll tell her.” I put the candle back on the shelf.

At the very back of the store is a blue and white printed curtain. I try to peek behind it but it looks more like an office than the sort of secret chamber I was expecting. More linoleum tiles and steel shelves. A table that looks like a desk. I go closer to it and hope I move through it without effort, like I am in the jungle and standing in front of a waterfall that hides a magic passage.

The man hangs up the phone and I circle back and read the items on the shelf opposite the counter. Lavender water, rose water, eucalyptus water, holy water. Sometimes my grandmother’s friends go to the Vatican and bring back a vial of holy water for her. She used to take me into her room and put it on my forehead and make the sign of the cross. Now she has trouble walking and so she sends me into her room and directs me from her green upholstered chair in the parlor: “On my dresser, open the second drawer! There’s a little red box with the cross! Isn’t it a pretty box? Now bless yourself!” I don’t bless myself. I look at her jewelry box and fix my hair in the dresser mirror while I shout back to her, “Ok! Yes! Ok!”

The shelves are dusty and the tips of my fingers are dirty from turning over all the candles in my hand, Spanish to English. My back is to the counter but the man says towards me, “Are you looking for something in particular?”

I turn around. “Do you recommend anything for protection when traveling?”

“Traveling… Well, that’s St. Michael.” He opens the back of the counter and reaches around in its shelves. It’s glass and full of prayer cards, a few plain felt dolls, small brown amulets. The dog is still laying on top of it and I start to pet it. I like it when animals are asleep. When my cousin died last spring, the funeral home printed prayer cards with his picture on them. It felt like a souvenir: I made it through the wake of Charles D. Clark.

Joan comes out from the back of the store and stands beside me. He asks her, “What do you recommend for traveling?”

“Sacred heart.” She turns to me. “You are traveling?” Her hair, her skin, her eyes are the color of cinnamon. She wears glasses with thin silver frames.

“My parents are traveling. They are traveling in Nicaragua,” I add quietly.

“In Europe?”

“In Nicaragua. Central America.” The dog moves under my hand. It turns to face me and sits down again. The woman who greeted me in the mirror gets up and sits down on a stool next to Joan. She looks bored and is eating candies wrapped in gold foil.

“Oh. What do they do there?” Joan asks me.

“They are retired but they’re building a house there.”

“A house? That’s wonderful.”

“On the Pacific.”

“They are looking to the ocean then.” She smiles. Her hair is short and moves in waves across her head. “Are they Catholic?”

“My mother.”

“She will believe in the sacred heart. Catholics believe in the sacred heart.”

My mother told me once how the priest used to come to everyone’s house to bless their Pascha baskets: the bread, pysanky, kielbasa and butter molded in the shape of a lamb. He wore his velvet robes and hat and filled the house with smoke from his thurible while he chanted the blessing in Russian. My mother was so scared of him that she ran and hid behind the front door as soon as he came in. When my grandmother found her she dragged her out to the kitchen up to the stooping back of the priest and waited for him to finish with the basket and to pray for her little girl.

Joan says to me, the man and the woman from the mirror: “Was a cruise ship passing by Barbados. Two thousand people on this ship. A wave come right over the ship and all but two people die.”

When I was little my dad used to meditate and I asked him why. He said that when he meditated he was more aware of the world. I asked what that meant and he told me that before I was born he was driving home from a party with my mother, aunt and uncle when all of a sudden he slammed on the brakes and swerved off the road in front of an overpass. As the car stopped skidding, a truck flew off the other side of the overpass and landed in the road in front of them right where the car would have been if he had kept driving. I asked him how he knew and he said he didn’t know it––he just did it.

“Are you from Barbados?” I ask Joan.

She nods and says again, “Sacred heart and Guardian Angel.”

I look at the counter beside the dog where the man set the prayer cards. “Is it ok that they’re there and I’m here?”

“Sure. Say the prayer. The prayer’s on the back.” Joan walks back towards the candles and I watch her blue and white checkered shirt as she moves between the shelves. The store is bright with daylight that comes in through the front windows that face northwest, but it changes each moment as the sun falls lower.

“Can I also have a porcupine quill?” I ask the man. I see the open box through the glass.

He looks at me and smiles. “A porcupine quill? You know, very few people know what these are.”

The woman from the mirror asks, “What do you do with a porcupine quill?”

He says, “You write with it,” and looks at me a little sideways. “Do you write with it?”

"No, I don't write with it. But I keep it around. I had one but I gave it away last night. I wanted to replace it right away." He takes one from the box and hands it to me. The inner end is dirty with the porcupine's flesh.

I leave my things on the counter and return to the shelves. I look at a section of soaps in plastic bottles for Luck in Relationships, Luck with Money, Potent Spells, Breaking Spells. One is called Ghost Chaser and is the color of a robin’s egg. A package of garlic hangs from the shelf above it. Five bulbs. I pick up the Ghost Chaser and return to the counter.

“Do you have something that’s the opposite of this?”

He looks at the bottle and then up at me. “The opposite?”

“Yeah, I don’t want to chase ghosts away. I want them to be welcome.”

He smiles again and leans back in his chair. He laughs but faces me carefully, aligning his shoulders with mine. “Well, now. What are you talking about? Who are you trying to reach?”

I tell him, “There’s a boy who died a long time ago and he’s buried next to the tomb of Ulysses Grant in Manhattan. There’s a little monument to him. I’ve always wondered how he died.” I wonder how close he is to me when I’m there, or how close he is to me when I’m not.

The woman from the mirror steps closer to the counter and says loudly, “Sounds like you need the Ouija Board!” According to the Ouija Board, mine is the oldest soul in the family and my sister’s is brand new. My father and his best friend fought in the Union Army together and my mother came from Budapest. No one wrote out the family tree until two years ago but we’ve had these readings from the Ouija Board since I was born.

“Wow,” he says. “I must have walked by that monument a hundred times and never seen it. Sounds like you need to contact him. You’ve got to talk to her about that.” He nods towards Joan who is in the back of the store. She passes through her curtain.

I’ve never tried to contact a ghost before. I say, “I mean, I don’t want to disturb anyone who I shouldn’t disturb. But I’d like to see what he’s seen.”

He shrugs as if ghosts aren’t easily bothered. Like to conjure a spirit is as much of a disturbance as asking someone at the table to pass the bread. “See what he’s seen…” he repeats. “No, you talk to her.”

I walk to the front of the store and wait for Joan. There are display racks with pamphlets and chapbooks. Most of them are about winning the lottery and bringing luck. There are two copies of the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses and a guide to the saints. A few other people are in the store and I want them to leave. I read my horoscope for February. Pisces. Everything is so clear to you that you won’t even have to search for your numbers. They will find you. 8-1-0.

Joan walks up to the counter and I hear the man say, “She has someone she wants to reach.”

“Who she want to reach?”

“She tell you. She tell you.”

I pretend to read my horoscope again and look out the window. This is where all the Jamaican restaurants are. There’s one place with an upstairs dining room that’s like a tropical tree house. The stairs are as steep as a ladder and the ceiling is so short it’s hard to stand upright. But the walls are painted like an island paradise: palm trees, parrots, ocean. It’s hot there and it feels like summer. I take dates there—when I go on dates. If he doesn’t like it I won’t see him again. If he does I take him home.

I turn from the window and put my horoscope back on the rack. I go back to the dog. It lifts its head and I pet it.

“You are American?” Joan asks me.


“Where you from? Upstate?”

“No, from Pennsylvania.”

“You with these girls here?” She looks at three girls who are smelling the soaps and laughing together.

I shake my head.

“Come here. You tell me who you need.”

I squeeze between by the girls and walk to the end of the counter and stand next to a peace lily. I tell her the story. “There’s a little boy who I’ve always been curious about. He died in 1797 and he’s buried by the Hudson River in Manhattan. There’s a little monument there that calls him an amiable child. He is right next to a tomb for Ulysses Grant who was a president.” I’m rushing.

“The president...” She looks at me out of the corner of her eye.

I start fidgeting with my shoes and my voice sounds far away. “I like this place because it’s the two of them there. Two monuments.” I suddenly feel silly for walking here to ask this. “I want to know about the little boy. I want to know how he died.”

“Oh, he an old man now,” Joan says and nods. “He an old man now.”

I never thought of him aging, and I don't completely believe it. “I guess that’s right,” I say slowly.

She takes a step closer to me. “He had a liver problem.”

“The liver? He was sick?”

She looks over my shoulder and speaks slowly, her eyes focused on something distant. “He had a liver problem. His parents had corn fields.”

I grew up in corn fields. “His name was St. Clair Pollock.”

“His family was wealthy. He died sudden.”

“Does he know General Grant? Do they interact?”

“They do… They do… They do…” She is smiling and her tone changes. I hear her and my head feels likes it’s full of smoke. The Monsignor came to my cousin’s wake to say the funeral prayers and it lasted over an hour. It was a little room and he and two other priests from the church shook their thuribles back and forth while he sang in prayer. The room was hazy with incense and one by one my great aunts started to cough: Aunt Cora, Aunt Annamae, Aunt Dot. “They do… They do…” I look away from her and stare at the shelves of candles through the leaves of the peace lily. “They do… They do…”

I can barely see through the smoke. “They do?”

“They do… They do…”

Her eyes look darker brown than before. I feel very far away from her, like we are losing one another in the smoke. “That makes me happy,” I hear myself say. My words are slow and heavy.

“They do… He love kids. Grant love kids… His foot was swollen when he died.”

She grabs my arm and I look at her fingers above the crook of my elbow. She laughs. “See? I can’t do this now. It’s like I get drunk with this and I can’t get out. You go meditate and you will find him. We are just in this world for god. God directs us.” She lets go of my arm and takes a step back. “Do you meditate?”

“Not often.”

“Well, you meditate and think on him and he will come. And you can come back here too.”

“I can meditate here?” I glance at the curtained room in the back, the waterfall.

“You can do it at home. Come back here if you want.”

I touch her arm. “Thank you. My name is Sarah.”

“What month you born, Sarah?”

“March. March 1st.”

“Uh huh. Uh huh. I February 20th.”

The man at the counter calls to Joan. “So what did you find out?” The woman in the mirror gets up from her chair and looks down the counter towards us.

“She born in March. She a Pisces too.”


“The boy had a liver problem. And his parents were wealthy.”

The mirror woman shouts, “Of course they were wealthy. You gotta have money to be up there by a president!”

Joan adds, “They had corn fields.” She walks back to her room.