by Nancy Ludmerer
What the Rejected Animals Did During the Flood
Hunkered in caves, rued the day they were born, looked back in anger, sued Noah for age discrimination, second-guessed their elevator pitch, dove deep, looking for buried treasure; climbed acacia trees, built rafts of cicada shells, put out fires, leapt frog-like in ever-widening semi-circles, missed and mourned the chosen ones.
Wages of Love
Thin salty gravy pooled around the remains of brisket on the pink-and-white platter, a hunting scene, irresistibly close. I reached my slice of challah, brought it up sopping, only to elicit a sharp “rude girl!” from Poppop as his hand slapped mine. Nana’s blue eyes went fierce above her crooked nose, her pale skin the softest I’ve ever felt. Her voice cut glass in the silence (for my tears fell noiselessly). “Don’t hit her, she’s six, you can’t hit her.” Nana’s back had begun to curve, natural with age, but her disjointed nose was anything but natural, broken and badly set by a family friend, an over-the-hill surgeon, when Poppop, who loved boxing, stepped in too close while demonstrating a move. All that happened years before I was born, and it would be years before I questioned it, before I came to remember it as if I were there.
Major lived next door, shaggy black cocker, droopy-eared, stubby-tailed steed of my dreams, who alone understood my sorrow, living dogless and scrawny, with lank brown hair and eyeglasses, always dropping things. My other love was my cousin Gary (fourteen years to my nine) until the family picnic where he dropped to his knees in the dewy grass and crooned “how are my two prettiest cousins?” to Candee and Lydia, dimpled six-year-old, scene-stealing twins. After I threw up during the car ride home, a sordid mix of potato salad and apple juice, I bathed and combed and begged to visit Major but my parents said no; Mr. Friedlander, Major’s dad, was ill with cancer. When Mr. Friedlander died, I wept because Major would be moving. Mother said I was hardhearted, caring more for an animal than a person. I couldn’t deny it, and my heart grew harder still.
Bella left while her mother was at the beauty salon getting a touch-up. At ten years old, Bella knew the subway stop, 23rd and Ely. She knew the green railway trestle. She knew the way from the subway station to the scrap metal yard where her gentle, upright father worked every weekday and every other Saturday, when he did the books. Bella wasn’t going to see him, not really, but his co-workers in the yard. Rough men with magical names: Willy, Chili, and Grub.
She knew these were not their real names but what they called themselves and each other at work. Willy quoted Shakespeare: “Oh that this too solid flesh would melt” while blowtorching a chassis and “out damn spot!” while bleaching scrap. Chili wore a neckerchief imprinted with red chili peppers and heaved heavy equipment like it weighed nothing. Grub stuffed his rubber boots with newspaper before wading in the yard’s muck and flood. Bella loved these men and their names. She longed to speak knowingly to each about something important to him. They had been so kind to her always, even letting her assist their work.
She forgot that the men didn’t work on Saturdays. There was only her father, visible through the window of the trailer, his head bent over his books. The door was open and she went in quietly, thrilled to surprise him. Beside him, leaning over, a woman in a tight zebra-striped dress, her arm draped around his shoulders. His hand cupped her rear.
He must have sensed her presence.
“Why Bella, this is Zee. She does inventory.”
“Zee?” she asked stupidly.
“Short for Zena,” the woman said, smiling. She went to a file cabinet and opened a drawer.
Her father cleared his throat. “Does your mother know you’re here?”
Bella nodded mutely, the first of many lies.
Nancy Ludmerer's fiction appears or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, New Orleans Review, Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2022, Best Spiritual Literature 2022, Litro, and other journals. Her fiction has been translated into Spanish and read aloud on public radio, and since 2020, her stories have won prizes from Masters Review, Carve, Pulp Literature, Streetlight, Gemini, and Orison Books. Her short memoir “Kritios Boy” (Literal Latte) was cited in Best American Essays 2014. Nancy’s debut collection, Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, is the 2022 winner of Snake Nation Press’s Serena McDonald Kennedy Prize for fiction. Nancy practiced law in NYC for many years and continues to live there with her husband, Malcolm, and recently-adopted thirteen-year-old cat, Joey. Twitter: @nludmerer