Three out of nine days, writing for William Talbot was a joy. The other six days his time would be better-spent fishing. This typically gorgeous morning in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, Central Mexico, where the air strokes the skin like a lover, started out one of the joy days. But then the telephone rang. A low down bedroom whisper asked for him by name. He thought she might be one of his students. “We need to meet right away. You have information I’ve got to have.”
Couldn’t be about her grade. After the university back home refused to give him tenure he quit and came down here to teach tourists, hoping to connect for romance. He did not give grades. “What information?”
A sharp intake of breath carried over. “On a foreign phone? No way.”
He visualized a tall and willowy brunette spy with a classic bob, short of lip, long of bone, and with knowing eyes. He cleared the morning tequila phlegm from his throat and dropped his voice down into the gravel-in-tin-bucket range. “What’s your name?”
She lowered her voice an octave and the image took on a high-arching upper lip and a game under bite.…
Mary Burk didn’t have much on top so she had to work her booty. Fourteen years old and still no period. Her mom told her breasts wouldn’t really develop until that happened and in the meantime, she should make do with what she had.
“When Aunt Flow is late,” her mother told her, “It means you’ll be taller, and thinner than your classmates, and then those boobs will come on like gangbusters and if they don’t there’s always plastic surgery.”
Mary wondered if any of her friends had mother-daughter talks like the ones she had with Ellen. That’s what Mom wanted Mary to call her now.
“So we can be girlfriends, right?” Ellen said. “Now let me show you how to move that ass.”…
The grass had all turned brown. Snow, crusted gray by car exhaust, hugged the curb. A blare of shift change whistle blew at the factory a few blocks away; 5:00 pm and the gloaming of evening had already fallen. From his bedroom window in the rectory, Father Francis watched the cold breeze tug at a lone leaf on the tree in the front lawn. His own heart felt like that leaf. He went down the hall to the kitchen to heat water for tea. Although he’d only turned forty-six earlier that month, days after his mother’s death, he walked with a slight limp. The rectory was as quiet as a tomb.
At the sound of the factory whistle, Sister Katherine glanced up and looked outside the convent’s basement window. Above the rooftops, she could see the plume of smoke from the factory’s chimney against the ink-wash sky. She paused at the ironing board in the laundry room where she was pressing the nuns’ habits. The globe on the ceiling threw white light. A glimpse of her ex-husband entered her mind, and she shook it away. In the convent’s small chapel directly above her, she could hear Mother Superior’s quiet voice leading the rosary, followed by the answering chorus of the other nine nuns. …
My grandmother sat on the toilet seat. I was on the floor just in front of her.
She brushed my brown curly hair until my scalp hurt.
“You got your grandfather’s hair. Stand up. Look at yourself in the mirror.”
My hair looked flat, like someone had laid a book on it overnight.
I touched my scalp. “It hurts.”
“You gotta toughen up, Aiden. Weak people get nowhere in this world. Your grandfather was weak. Addicted to the bottle. Your mother has an impaired mind and is in a nuthouse. And your father, he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong.” She bent down and stared into my face. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous. I smelled coffee on her breath. She pinched my cheeks.
I reflexively pushed her hands away.…
On my morning run, I met a boy with a flute case. I was jogging up Highland when he flagged me down and asked directions to the library. He told me his school was closed because of a bomb threat. Then he started swinging his flute case forward and back.
“I’m the only boy in school who plays. I get teased all the time,” he said.
The boy was tall and thin with wet hair that fell over his face. He looked to be around twelve. I noticed he wasn’t wearing a backpack. I paused the timer on my watch.
“I think it’s cool that you play the flute,” I said. “It’s different.”
I kneeled down to retie my laces.
“Why are you running?” he asked.
“To get better.”
He swung his case a little too close to my head. “Better how?”
I was training for a race. But I was trying to get better in other ways. I didn’t feel like telling the boy about this.
Suddenly we heard police sirens in the distance. The boy’s eyes widened. He hugged his flute to his chest and took a step back.
“I’m not giving it to you!” he yelled.
I rose and held out my hand to calm him.…