A Short Story by Michael Varga
(Winner of the Glimmer Train Magazine Fiction Open 2014; published in Glimmer Train Issue #95 in November 2015)
“I’m still on hold,” Felicia announced to Maria and Giorgio. They stared at her from the kitchen table in the Comma’s house in Springfield, a suburb of Philadelphia. It was the third week of February in 1979. Winter had broken, a clear sun shone down, melting the dirty remnants of earlier snowfalls, forcing rushing waters to cascade forward, swirling down and around, a gray slush dripping down the sidewalks, into the streets, disappearing into the sewers.
“She’s on hold. On hold!” Giorgio repeated for Maria, over-aspirating the h’s to make sure his wife got it. Maria’s hearing aid was whistling softly as they waited for some news—any news—that they could latch onto and feel good about. In that day’s Philadelphia Inquirer, a tiny four-sentence article had appeared that Giorgio had missed entirely when he went through the paper early that morning. As Maria was reviewing the paper with scissors in hand, ready to cut coupons, she saw the tiny headline: “Chad Erupts In Strife.”
Ever since Madison had gone to Chad, those four little letters C-H-A-D, were everywhere. Actors on television, football players, even a reporter’s byline seemed to be by Chad somebody or other. But the article was about the faraway place where Giorgio and Maria were convinced their son was starving and sick, on the verge of death.
CHAD ERUPTS IN STRIFE
Paris, February 22 (AP) — N’djamena, the capital of the sub-Saharan country of Chad, was overrun today by Libyan-supported rebels seeking to topple the government of General Felix Malloum. Sporadic outbreaks of fighting among Muslims and non-Muslims were reported throughout the city. Western diplomats advised their nationals to leave Chad immediately, and the government of France commandeered several commercial airplanes to facilitate evacuation of French nationals. The exact whereabouts of President Malloum are unknown, and the U.S. Embassy has been closed.
The article left the Commas with so many questions. They were trying to read between the lines: if the capital was overrun, what did that mean for people like Madison, living in southern Chad? If Muslims were fighting with non-Muslims, did that mean they would not attack Christians? What was a non-Muslim? If nationals of other countries were told to leave Chad, what was the United States government doing about its citizens, particularly the Peace Corps volunteers? What did it mean that the U.S. Embassy was closed? Just for today? For good? Where had the American diplomats gone?
For as long as anyone could remember, Maria Comma had a severe hearing problem and had worn a hearing aid that seemed to help her inconsistently. It was a small transistor that sat in a plastic molding in her ear that she could manipulate to raise or lower the volume of her world. She tended to keep the volume level set high, which often produced a constant whistling sound from the hearing aid that no matter how many times others would remind Maria that she was whistling would lead her to snap back: “You don’t know what it’s like. You can hear!” And the whistling served as a constant undercurrent in most Comma conversations.
Maria was wont to shout since her own internal sense of sound was faulty; clearly she was not able to gauge how loudly she was speaking. Even with a series of hearing aids, she had difficulty understanding what others said, and for some years there was a running joke in the family, since whenever she had not heard something clearly, rather than ask what had been said or for someone to repeat the remark, she would ask, inexplicably, “Who died?” Other family members then, when mishearing something, rather than asking what someone had said, would simply say, “Who died?” and everyone would burst into laughter. Of course, such jokes were deemed inappropriate when someone had actually died.
Maria Comma was a short, heavy, good-natured woman who believed that life was to be enjoyed. Despite a life that had not been easy, she had created a happy home for her two sons and her husband. Although money had always been a problem, she spent whatever she had to make the family’s life memorable. It had been a perennial argument throughout the marriage with Giorgio that they had no savings due to what he considered his wife’s irrational spending habits.
Giorgio, who had quit school at the elementary level when his own father could no longer work to support the family’s eleven children, had spent a hard life as a tailor, crouching down beside a parade of other immigrants’ families who saved and prospered and lucked into making a better life in America than he had. He had always hoped that one day something would happen that would free him from the life of measuring hems and stitching zippers. (Maria had played the state lottery from the day it began, hoping for a miracle. But it had never happened.)
Tailoring was a noble profession, but it was hard work, and as synthetic fabrics became more popular and permanent press became the norm, the demand for the services of a good tailor fell off markedly. Despite that—and his poor health—Giorgio planned to keep working for as long as he could since he complained to the boys that Maria didn’t know how to hold on to the money he earned. “It burns a hole in her pocket if she’s got it. Gotta spend it. Can’t save it. Gotta spend it.”
Now aged sixty-one, Giorgio had suffered a series of heart attacks in his thirties and forties, which led to two bypass operations. He interpreted the doctors’ admonitions that he had to reduce stress in his life to mean that he had to avoid confrontations. With customers. With his wife. With his sons. Therefore, every time something happened that got his blood boiling, he would say, “Got to nap. Got to nap.” And he would disappear for hours, closing up the shop or skipping a family dinner. He told himself this was his way of extending a life that could end at any moment, given the weakness of his heart.
There were bad bouts of angina even after the bypasses and the naps. He’d suffer through these, complaining his heart was on fire, with Maria wiping his forehead with cool towels and his sons reading aloud to him from Dickens or Hardy with the hope of taking his mind off his chest pains. (Madison, the poet, acted out all the parts and brought to life the whole spectrum of characters. Giorgio loved when Madison read to him. Jefferson, the older son, read in a dull monotone that put Giorgio to sleep in a page or two.) Their reading at least drowned out the whistling of Maria’s hearing aid.
When Felicia, Maria’s younger sister, had come that morning to take her grocery shopping, Maria asked her if she had seen the article about the war in Chad.
“Why do you call it a war?” she asked.
“What is it, then?”
“It says the Muslims are fighting. Let them kill each other. What do we care?”
Maria winced. Felicia had this way about her that she always knew better than everyone else. She held strong opinions and was not shy about sharing them widely and loudly. She seemed to expect everyone to simply agree with her point of view, and her tone often indicated that she would brook no disagreement. Most relatives opted not to argue with her. Normally, that’s what Maria would have done. But this was about her son—her baby! —and it was important to clarify what might be happening in Chad.
“It’s not just the Muslims who are fighting. Here. Read it again.” Maria pushed the newspaper at Felicia, who looked at the article and repeated aloud, “It says ‘outbreaks of fighting among Muslims and non-Muslims.’ But I don’t think that means Americans are part of it. Why would they fight with Americans? Is that what you’re thinking?”
“We don’t know what to think,” Giorgio sighed. Felicia stood up and went to the telephone on the kitchen wall. She lifted the receiver off the hook.
“What’s the number?” she shouted out.
“The number for what? The Inquirer?”
“No, not the newspaper. Let’s call the Peace Corps. Washington. They have to tell us what they know. They must know something.”
Felicia had now been on hold for more than a half-hour. She wondered if anyone would get back on the line. Whoever had answered the phone had said they knew nothing about any problems in Chad, but would go ask. Go ask whom, she wondered. Giorgio and Maria stared at Felicia as she held the receiver at her ear. Felicia just kept shaking her head.
Maria noticed that the candles she had lit earlier that morning in front of the Blessed Virgin Mary statues in the kitchen had now gone out. She retrieved her box of candles from a kitchen drawer and lit another one and pushed it in front of the largest plaster statue. Beside the toaster, she had created a little altar with six statues of the Blessed Virgin in various sizes and colors. On the head of the largest one, she had wrapped a piece of palm from last Easter’s Palm Sunday service. Maria blessed herself and moved toward the kitchen table.
“I’m going to cook something,” she announced.
“We can’t eat now,” Giorgio answered.
“Let her cook something. It’ll make the time pass,” Felicia answered.
Maria took another match and lit the gas oven. She opened the refrigerator door and removed a round tin of dough. She cracked the can open on the side of the sink and began parceling out the dough on a cookie sheet to make muffins. Giorgio kept staring at Felicia as she moved the telephone from one hand to the other, from one ear to the other. He thought of pushing a chair over to her so she could sit, but before he could act she was talking to somebody.
“Yes? I’m still here,” she barked back. “Where did you think I would go?”
“Giorgio stood up and pushed a pad of paper and a pencil in front of Felicia. It was normally kept there on the kitchen counter to list groceries that needed replenishing. Felicia could read, “Eggs Orange juice Peanut butter” on the top sheet. She shook her head at Giorgio as she continued to listen on the phone.
“Well, that’s not good enough. Somebody has to know something.” She listened again for a few seconds and then she hung up.
“They say they are looking into it. They are aware of press reports of trouble in Chad but they have nothing to tell us at this time. They suggested we call back this afternoon.”
“But if the embassy is closed, then who’s there to help Madison and the others?” Maria wondered aloud. “Could the government just abandon them like that? That’s not possible, is it?” She said a bit too loudly.
Giorgio stood behind his wife and began massaging her shoulders. He whispered, “I’m sure Madison’s okay. They wouldn’t just leave him there.”
“Shall I call our congressman? Get some political muscle behind this?” Felicia asked, already pulling the phone off the hook.
“No,” Maria said. “All those politicians won’t give a damn because it’s not their child who’s over there. Call Jefferson. He’s right there in Virginia. He can go to Washington and stand in front of somebody’s desk at the Peace Corps office and make some noise.”
Felicia retrieved her purse and pulled out a little gray address book. She carried it over to the counter. As she did so she dropped an envelope on the kitchen floor. Several twenty-dollar bills fell out and she folded them back into the envelope. She picked it up, saying, “You know, I really don’t understand the bank. I went there this morning like always. They know I’m coming to cash my check and yet I had to ask again for clean money. None of those dirty, worn bills. They know that. Do I have to raise it every time I go in there? Maybe I should move my account to another bank. Some other bank would be happy to have my business.”
Maria shook her head at Giorgio and he sat down. Maria continued dolloping the muffin dough onto the cookie sheet, opened the oven door, and slid it inside. Felicia dialed the phone again and announced, “He’s not home. It’s the machine that’s answering. Shall I leave a message?”
“No, he’s at the office. Call his office. Call him there.”
“Okay. Just a minute.” She scanned her little address book and redialed.
When someone answered she said, “Is that American Life and Casualty? Jefferson Comma, please.” She twirled the cord while she waited, and then said: “Jefferson? This is your Aunt Felicia. How are you? I’m up at your folks’ place. Sorry to disturb you at work. Your mom, dad, and I were hoping you might have more success with finding out about the war in Chad.”
She held her hand over the receiver. “He didn’t see anything about Chad in his newspaper.”
Giorgio handed her the article and she read it to him. Jefferson said he would try to make a few calls but that he doubted that pestering the government about Madison would prove helpful. He reminded them that when they thought Madison wasn’t getting enough to eat, how worried they had been, and then Madison had written about how much food he had. He said it was unlikely that whatever Madison was going through that they could do anything to help him. When Felicia told Maria and Giorgio what Jefferson said, they knew that he was probably right but that would not stop them from worrying.
“But we can’t just pretend like we don’t know there’s a war in Chad?” Maria moaned, louder than was necessary.
“He’s in the Peace Corps. He’s there for peace. That should count for something in a war,” Giorgio declared.
“I don’t know why you let him go to God-forsaken Chad anyway. I mean, if he had been my son, I certainly wouldn’t have let him,” Felicia proclaimed as she turned on the faucet at the sink and started filling it with soapy water to wash the scattered dishes piled there. Maria stared out the kitchen window at the barren yard, speckled with clumps of snow and muddy puddles where the snow had already disappeared. They’d both heard this lecture before from Felicia, about how they should’ve stopped Madison.
Felicia had married young and was widowed when her husband of less than a year was “taken up” in a freak tornado as he was installing a fence outside a factory in Ohio. Felicia seemed never to have recovered from the shock of losing her husband before she could even get used to the idea of being married. She never dated again and she never had any children of her own. She had shown great interest in the Comma boys and had been actively involved in the boys’ lives as they went through grade school and high school. She was there for all the birthdays and the graduations and had been a genuine support to the family. It was just that she believed in her way of doing things, and had little tolerance that others might see things differently. When the boys each went away to college, Felicia’s contact with them diminished and she didn’t feel she understood either one of them as adults.
Jefferson had wanted to become a doctor but discovered he wasn’t comfortable with the sight of blood. When he first started his premed studies and had to do an internship at a local medical center, he would faint every time he saw blood. This happened even when he wasn’t the one drawing the blood, or even involved in the particular care of a patient whose blood was in sight.
Finally, a professor told him his aversion to blood and the fainting spells would make it impossible for him to be successful in any medical pursuit. Better to give it up now, while he was still young. There were a thousand other interesting professions he might pursue.
He abandoned the medical program and immersed himself in computers, learning how to program and even debug mainframes that stumped many others. However, as satisfying as that may have been to Jefferson, Maria could sense that he was not happy. The family would have pooled its meager resources to help Jefferson get some counseling and perhaps become a physician. But after he failed his first physics course at university and his uncontrolled fainting, Jefferson’s rage against the family—complaining about the “substandard” high school program he had graduated from—left the family with little idea of how to help the elder son. Before the family could even figure out what might be done Jefferson had switched majors. He became tight-lipped and seemed to disengage from the regular concerns of the family. Ever since, there had been that aloofness with Jefferson. He visited rarely and called infrequently. He seemed to be spending his life in some sort of anguished daze over how his life had turned out.
Neither Maria nor Giorgio had ever felt as close to Jefferson after one visit while he was earning his degree in computer science. Jefferson had been drinking heavily that night, and sitting around the kitchen table, he started to tell his parents how he had awoken from a dream convinced he had to kill them. Not only them but Madison as well. “If I’d had a gun, if there’d been one in the house, I would have slaughtered all of you.”
The fact that their son had such thoughts, contemplated such possible actions as killing the family, led both Maria and Giorgio to feel unsafe around their elder son. Even more than the murderous thought itself, they could not understand why Jefferson would have told them. Why didn’t he keep that to himself, if he had such a horrible idea? They couldn’t look at him, even in their happiest moments, without for a brief second thinking how it might have ended in some tragic news story of a deranged son massacring his parents and brother. “There must be something loose in his head” was the way they explained it to each other. Although once they got over the shock of the idea, in a perverse twist of humor they laughed to each other that Jefferson would have been able to kill only one person because the sight of the blood would have made him faint before taking anyone else’s life. They never told Madison about Jeff’s boast. They weren’t sure what he might do in reaction to his having possibly been murdered by his brother in his sleep.
Felicia was disappointed when Jefferson abandoned his medical studies, but through some contacts in Washington she had been able to help Jefferson latch onto his first and only job—as a computer programmer for an insurance company. She had been at a loss how to help Madison. She wanted to help him get his first real job, too, but he didn’t seem interested in following some sort of regular career. He was always talking about his poetry and traveling. What kind of career is suited to a poet who wants to travel? That stumped Felicia.
When Maria broke the news that he was joining the Peace Corps and heading off to Chad, Felicia grabbed her sister’s shoulders and began to shake her, “Chad! Chad! What the hell’s that? You must stop him. You can’t let him do this. You’ll never see him again! He’s a little baby! He’ll die over there. What was the point in going to college, just to get mixed up in things he doesn’t understand in Africa? Blacks ought to go there, help their own. Not Madison. Let him go to Italy if he wants to travel. Uncle Louie could probably use some help in the vineyards! For God’s sakes?! Maria, I can’t believe you’re letting him go, just like that!”
Maria pulled away from her sister’s grasp, straightened the collar of her dress, and quietly said, “Felicia, I was upset at first, too. I had to get the encyclopedia to find Chad, and then I couldn’t find it. Madison showed me where it is but our encyclopedia is so old that it was called something else before. Felicia, you didn’t have any children. If you had been a mother, you would understand that you can’t—after a certain point—stop your children from doing what they want. Not if you want them to be happy. Madison wants this.”
Felicia could not put those two ideas together: that Madison’s happiness was somehow tied to his going off to some unknown country in Africa where he would certainly find a lot of hardship and pain. The logic seemed way off to Felicia, but from then on she kept her mouth shut about Madison’s African adventure. Until today. Now that strife was apparently tearing Chad apart, it seemed the time to remind Giorgio and Maria that she had argued that they never should have let him go. If he was injured, or worse—killed—she could say that she had done what she could to have stopped it from happening.
Just then, the door swung open and in walked Felicia and Maria’s baby brother, Mario.
“For God’s sakes,” he said, “I’ve been trying to call you for more than an hour. Who you been yappin’ to?”
“Good to see you too, Mario,” Giorgio said. “Not working today?”
“Come on in. I’m making some muffins,” Maria said, trying to sound cheerful and untroubled. She winked at her brother, nodding her head in Felicia’s direction, trying to convey the tenseness of the situation with her sister. Mario was a good-looking man with a thick pompadour that made him look like he should be paired in some high-style dance competition.
“How about a cup of coffee or some hot chocolate?” Mario pulled off his leather jacket and sat down at the table. He pulled out his pack of cigarettes and lit one. At the smell of smoke, Felicia turned away from the dishes in the sink.
“I thought you were trying to quit,” she said.
“I am trying. I just haven’t succeeded yet,” Mario laughed. “Yeah, okay, Maria. Let’s have some coffee and a muffin or two. You’re not opening the shop today, Giorgio?”
“I was, but we had some news about Madison and I thought maybe I would keep it closed today. Just two suits I need to finish.”
“I’m not opening the barbershop. Want to go to Atlantic City. Feeling lucky today. How about you folks? You want to come?”
“Mario,” Maria said, “there’s a war where Madison is and we need to stay by the phone and wait to hear if he’s okay.”
“Who’s going to call you?” Mario asked.
“Washington,” Felicia shouted out. “We’re waiting to hear from Washington.”
“Well, lah-di-dah! Jimmy Carter himself going to be calling, I bet. Isn’t that right?” he said sarcastically. “Be sure and ask after Miss Lillian. She was in the Peace Corps, too, you know.” Mario purposely pronounced it “corr-pp-sss,” drawing out the p and s, knowing it would rile his sisters, who were always correcting him. “And don’t forget about Rose-a-lin first lady and little Amy.”
Maria took the muffins out of the oven and put a dish in front of Giorgio and Mario.
“We don’t know what’s happening in Chad,” Giorgio explained. “The Inquirer says that people are fighting there.”
“Not much you can do about that from here, for God’s sakes,” Mario said. “Look, if Giorgio’s not working today, and I’m not, and obviously Felicia, you’re not. What do you say we get in your car and drive to Atlantic City? Visit a couple casinos. Be good for you. Take your minds off Madison and Chad. Win a few bucks.”
Felicia finished washing the dishes and joined the men at the table. Maria sat down as well and started buttering a muffin. She remembered that it had been quite a while since they had gotten away to the seashore, and Maria loved playing the slot machines. She was tempted by Mario’s suggestion. But how would that be, to go off and gamble while Madison might be in trouble a world away?
“You said the Peace Corps wants us to call them back this afternoon They’re not going to be calling us?” Giorgio asked.
“That’s right. Now, Jefferson might call if he finds out something,” Felicia said.
“Come on, you all know you want to go to Atlantic City with me. It’s probably your lucky day, too.”
Mario stood up and tossed his cigarette butt out the door.
Felicia turned to her sister, “What about the groceries?”
“We can shop another day. It doesn’t have to be today.”
Giorgio nodded and said, “All right, I’ll get the car keys. Let’s go.”
“You only want us to go with you because they won’t let you smoke on the bus, isn’t that right, Mario?” Felicia asked.
He shook his head with a broad smile on his face. “All right, you caught me. But it isn’t just that I want to smoke. I want to be with my sisters and my brother-in-law, too. Been a while since we did something together. Something fun. You got an answering machine for the phone, don’t you?”
“Cut the song and dance, Mario,” Maria said lightly. “But I want us all to say a prayer for Madison before we go.” She stepped over to the corner where the statues of the Blessed Virgin stood next to the toaster, the candle flickering in front. Felicia knelt down behind her sister, and Giorgio and Mario knelt down in front of the refrigerator.
Maria cleared her throat and blessed herself. “Heavenly Father, we ask you to bless our son, keep him safe, and protect him from all dangers. Now and forever. Amen.”
The others answered with their own “Amens,” but before they could rise Mario quipped, “You better tell God which son you’re praying for. Otherwise, he don’t know if it’s Jefferson or Madison. Tell him it’s the one living with the darkies.” He laughed out loud, but Felicia just glared at him.
Maria added, “And let us be lucky at the casinos, too, dear God. It’s our turn to win something.” She blessed herself again, blew out the candle, retrieved her purse from her bedroom, and led the foursome out to the car in the driveway. Mario was already lighting up another cigarette and Felicia was fingering her envelope of clean money.
“How about a loan, sweet sister?” Mario said as he pinched Felicia and slid into the car’s backseat. Felicia didn’t laugh as she got in and slammed the door shut.
“I’m not loaning you anything,” Felicia snapped at him.
“Okay. Okay. I got my own money. But I’m tellin’ all of you: this will only be fun if we terminate any mention of Madison or Chad or Africa or war. You got me?” he asked. He bent forward toward his sister in the front seat, touching Maria’s shoulder. Her hearing aid started to whistle and she asked, “Who died?”
“Not Madison,” Mario answered without thinking. “That’s the last mention of him until we are back in this driveway—maybe two hundred or three hundred dollars ahead. It’s this family’s lucky day, I’m tellin’ you.”
Giorgio twisted the steering wheel and pulled the car into traffic. He prayed that Mario was right and that Madison hadn’t been caught up in the Chadian civil war, but everything he knew about the world told him that his son was probably smack dab in the middle of trouble and there was nothing anyone here in America could do about it. In his head, he cursed the Peace Corps. But in his heart he knew his son, the poet, had followed some deep internal voice that told the boy he had to set out on a path unlike anyone else’s. Chad was his destination. Chad was now part of the family narrative, and there was no telling how the story would end.
Giorgio’s angina kicked up and he could feel his worry about his son was hiking his blood pressure. Normally he would take a nitroglycerin tab, but he was already behind the wheel in the middle of traffic and he didn’t want Maria to know he was in pain. Rather than nap as was his usual option when he felt this tightness in his chest, today he would go to Atlantic City and trust that Mario was right about this being a good way of not thinking about his son. Not thinking about that place a half a world away. Not thinking about Muslims killing non-Muslims. Not thinking about Chad erupting in strife.