Sample Story

I’ve enrolled Standing on the Corner of Lost and Found in the Kindle Direct Program which stipulates that you can’t have any book content on your website.  It’s a 90 day trial that I thought was worth a shot.

So, I’ve taken down the prologue and in its place, I’ll be posting some of my short fiction.

Here is a sample. It was originally published in paper plates, a Canadian Lit Mag.

The Landlady

Miranda stood at the curb looking at the house, a house similar to many of the others she had lived in before, those dilapidated two-family houses with heaving front porches, wide doorways and peeling paint.  This one was a faded yellow trimmed with dark green that leaned to the left. She had never lived in a house that wasn’t sinking in one way of another.

It was her second year of law school.  The student housing, with its crowded dormitories and annoying roommates, left her gasping for air. With the housing allowance allotted to her as a student on full scholarship, Miranda saw one rat hole after another but she was determined to live off campus.

Discouraged, she stood in front of the one place in the classifieds that had to be a mistake, a bargain rent she could almost afford, including utilities.  The last listing in her price range. She walked up the stairs to the front door and rang the bell. Miranda heard a rattling of slats in the window blinds and slow thumping steps moving toward the door. An elderly woman appeared.

“Hello, dear.” Miranda extended her hand. The woman grasped it firmly with one hand, holding the cane handle with the other.

“Mrs. Polanski? I’m Miranda Stone. I called you this morning to look at the apartment for rent.”

“Come in. I was boiling water for tea. Make yourself comfortable while I fix tray. I’d like we should talk before we go upstairs.”

Miranda’s eyes followed her and she walked slowly through the living room and dining room to the kitchen doorway. Her back and shoulders were ramrod straight, despite the limp. Dressed in navy wool, she had white hair upswept into a twist held by a pearl comb. Cameo earrings dangled from her earlobes.

The living room had overstuffed blue velvet furniture. The backs and arms were covered with heavy brocade print scarves.  On the coffee table was a foreign-language newspaper. A grand piano stood on the other side of the room; the keys were yellowed and chipped. The closed top, covered with lace, displayed sepia-toned pictures in ornate frames, two silver candlesticks, paperweights, and a collection of porcelain dolls.

Many of the dolls couldn’t keep their eyes open; their bisque faces were discolored; their legs were cracked, and some had broken fingers. Most were international dolls dressed in costume, but in the center was a delicate ballerina, surrounded by a row of dolls holding musical instruments.

Photographs hung on one wall. Each stiffly posed unsmiling face had its own frame. The eyes of a young girl seemed to be looking straight at Miranda. She shuddered, backing away from the morbid faces and hit her ankle on the end table. As she rubbed it to massage away the pain, she looked again, this time noticing that the individual frames were encased as a group in a large, rectangular frame. Beneath it was a wide ledge holding a row of candles.

Mrs. Polanski called out, “Miranda, dear, please come help me with the tray.”

She walked through the dining room quickly looking at the table and the crowded china closet.  Maybe, Mrs. Polanski was an antiques dealer, she thought.

The kitchen was also old-fashioned, but there was no time to look around. Mrs. Polanski gestured for her to pick up the tray, eager to get back to the living room.

She sank heavily into the chair, wincing as she lifted her bad leg onto the ottoman. “Ah, doing simple things can sometimes take so much, “she said.

“Are you in pain?”

“Ah, not pain. “She waved her hand. “Just ache. Bad hip from fall.  Sometimes even sidewalk has hidden trap,” she laughed. “Have some tea. There is sugar and lemon.”

Miranda poured the tea into the tall glasses on the tray. She held one out, her fingers at the rim, the glass steaming. Mrs. Polanski held it as if it were a glass of ice water. She took a sugar cube and placed it inside her cheek, taking a sip. “Ah, good. I made butter cookies. Take one. Please.”

Miranda bit into the cookie, sinking her teeth into a buttery sweetness she’d never tasted before.  The cookies were still warm from the oven.

“Well, Miranda. You are here to see about the apartment. So let’s not beat about the bush. I never did quite understand this American expression but… so. I would think smart girl like you would think why so cheap. A palace it isn’t. But nice enough with plenty of space. This is situation. The house is big. I don’t need to rent upstairs but I don’t like it empty.  I like to know the creaks I hear in the night belong to someone I know. So money is not so important as who is up there.”

She paused to take a sip of tea. “A couple from the medical school just moved out.  Nobody ever stays put anymore. Darling children. Helped me out sometimes. Not too much, but sometimes.”

Nodding, Miranda said, “You can’t expect to do everything you used to.”

Mrs. Polanski looked her over.  “You are young thing to be living alone. With me, it’s something else altogether. How old are you if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Old enough,” she laughed shaking out her ponytail, her blonde hair now reaching below her shoulders. “Do I look older now?”

Mrs. Polanski smiled, holding a palm to each cheek. “Oy, a mature woman I have here before my eyes.” She had a beautiful face, her eyes a sharp blue, her ruddy skin, heavily wrinkled but rosy.

“Ah, not so young, you think!” Mrs. Polanski smiled. “Your family here, yes?”

Miranda smiled. “No. No family here. I am on scholarship and need a quiet space to get my work done.”

“It’s lonely having no family around you, she muttered. “Another cookie?”

“Thank you. Just one more. They are delicious. Then, may we take a look upstairs?”

“Of course. You are here for business, not to vaste time with old woman.”

“Oh no, Mrs. Polanski. I’m just curious to see what the apartment looks like,” she said, hoping she didn’t blow her chances.

“Okay. We talk business. Upstairs, the layout is same. Living room, dining room, bedrooms, kitchen, and back porch. It’s furnished. Not full like this, but my own furniture. Long time ago, my son lived there and he left everything. He is modern and doesn’t like old things. My tenants before like it furnished for no extras and it was easier than trying to get rid of. Is that a problem?”

“It’s furnished?” Miranda opened her eyes wide. “No, it’s not a problem since I don’t own a single thing,” she laughed.

“Ah, a girl at the start of life. Good. My main thought is to have somebody I like up there. I need someone quiet. But I was once a young girl, too, and a pretty one so I was told, so a boyfriend is okay. Just not to live.  Love is life’s big treasure.”She paused, lost in her own thoughts for a moment. “But I decide who lives in my house. Gnug, enough, you want to see?”

“Yes, please.”

She reached into her pocket. “Here is the key. I’ll save my leg the stairs. One key for both doors. Take your time. Then you ask questions when you come back down.”

Miranda took the keys and darted up the stairs. Opening the top door, she walked into a living room with an old couch, chair and a coffee tables etched with deep scratches. The walls and windows were bare. Unlike the downstairs flat, light streamed in through the large front windows. Looking out the window at the narrow street and closely connected houses, she saw only a little boy riding a bike with training wheels. Despite the warm day, there was no one sitting idly on front porches. Not like home where that is all they do.

The first bedroom was empty but the back room had a desk set against a window overlooking a small yard with flowerbeds.  A picture of a smiling young boy and girl standing in front of a farmhouse was on the desk. The other walls had bookshelves jammed with books and papers, some in English but many others looked German or Polish and have the curvy scroll of the newspaper she saw. Sliding her hand across the nicked desktop, Miranda imagined how good it would feel to live by herself. Finally. The flat was five blocks from school and only twenty-five dollars more than her stipend.

She locked the door and ran down the stairs.  Mrs. Polanski’s door was ajar, so she knocked before walking in. Still sitting in the chair, looking up at the pictures, she was lost in thought.  She said softly, “My brother Georgie, now, he could have been a lawyer.  So smart and such a good talker.”

Aware that Miranda was back, she smiled at her, “You darling girl, your mother must kvell, must be so proud of you, her daughter to be a lawyer. So, you like?”

“Like it? I love it! It’s more than I ever hoped for. But there is a small problem.”

“Yes?”

“As reasonable as the rent it, it is twenty-five dollars a month more than my housing allowance so I would have to pay the balance during the month from my job at the library. I get paid…”

“Maybe,” Mrs. Polanski interrupted, “instead, you help me sometimes. Nothing too much.  Pickup my medicine, a few things at the market. Help like that.”

Miranda nodded. She needed every dollar she earned.

“So good. We have no more problem. We have deal. I like you, my shayna meidele.”

What does that mean, shay mei…?”

“It’s a compliment in Yiddish language.  I was born in Poland so I speak Polish, also a little Russian and German, but my mama spoke Yiddish to me and that is what she called me.  It means pretty girl, Miranda. Shayna meidele.”

Miranda smiled and sat back in the chair.

“We’ll have more tea to make deal.  I want no lease because if it doesn’t work out like we think, I want no trouble.  We just part friends.  All right, then, raise your glass for tea toast. Miranda Stone. Velcome.”

****

Half dozing, Miranda jumped to the thud of the cane, tapping on the downstairs ceiling. Sprawled out on the living room chair, she fought to keep her eyes open to focus on the case she was to present to the class in the morning. She must have dozed off. Jarred by the tapping, she woke up and saw it was only 9:30. Thank heavens she woke me, Miranda thought.

This was how Mrs. Polanski, or Lena, as she now insisted upon, called her. A couple of taps meant come down. If Miranda didn’t come it wasn’t a problem. But if Lena really needed help or for Miranda to run and errand or do something the next day, she phoned.  Most of the cane taps were for company, with invented excuses to bring her down.

Miranda slipped a sweater on over her t-shirt. A half hour, then back upstairs, she thought. Lena was at the door. She was still dressed. Miranda saw tears drying on her face.

The candles, sitting on the shelf beneath the photo wall were lit as they were every night and the teakettle whistled from the kitchen. Looking at the piano, Miranda saw the ballerina was gone and there was a farm girl with thick braids in its place. How many dolls could she have, Miranda wondered.

“Come, kinde, have a cup of tea with a lonely old woman.”

As was their routine, Miranda would fix the tray with whatever she had to go with the tea while Lena sat in her big chair facing the pictures. Everything was prepared—the tea glasses, sugar for Lena, lemon for Miranda, and for tonight pound cake.

Settled with her tea, Miranda asked, “Lena, you were crying. What’s wrong?”

“Were you learning?”

“Trying to. I have a presentation to make for my 11:00 class and I’m falling asleep over it.  Tell me a story to wake me up. Please!” she laughed, begging her.

“Ah, you remind me of my boychuk, when we lived in Cracow, begging me for stories and songs because he didn’t want to go to sleep.” Lena began to sing a lullaby in a rich sweet voice.  When she sang, it was always in Polish. Miranda closed her eyes, listening to the soothing melody, so unlike the sounds of her childhood.

She smiled when finished. “Ah, my children loved that song.”

“Children?” Miranda repeated.  Lena only told Miranda what she wanted to. Miranda would ask questions and Lena would talk about whatever she wanted as if she didn’t hear her. Miranda could never ask her what she really wanted to know, how she came to America, whether she was in Europe during World War II, what happened to her family.

But even less probing questions remained unanswered. Why were there sometimes different dolls on the piano, how many did she have, why was she always rearranging them, and where the son who used to live upstairs. Lena ignored them and only heard what she wanted to.

“Ya, the children’s favorite song. It’s a Polish folk story, “ Lena said. My children loved my singing, ‘Sing more,’ they would say. ‘Please can I sit in your lap?’ My sister, Hannah, was a teacher, too. She didn’t have a voice like me. But she danced.  Very graceful, my Hannah.”

Lena was looking at the pictures on the wall, faces illuminated by the candles. She traveled somewhere far from here. Miranda took a sip of tea, suddenly needing to get away, suffocated by the wretched smell of the yellow candles, wanting only to get back upstairs to her books, her cheeks blazing hot as they always did when she needed to bolt.

Lena finally spoke.  “We used to take the children to a walled garden for recess. Inside was magic. Gardens of all kinds, Miranda. Old trees, good for hiding games, one with a sturdy limb the children could sit and dream on. I tried to plant a garden here,” she said gesturing toward the back of the house. “But never same. Different earth. Different light. I grow good flowers. Special roses. Green thumb, some say. What this means green thumb? Idiotic American talk. The irises I grow are close to home garden but the rest,” she waved her hand, dismissing them, “just flowers.”

Miranda, nodding, concentrated on slowing down her breath, relaxing the knot in her stomach.

“Back to story, I would calm children with story before it was time to go home. Make up fantastic stories of horses that could fly, magic fairies in the forest. They would call out the names of their favorites, but each time I tell new because I make up.”

She continued, wistful, “That garden. So beautiful. My husband proposed marriage to me there. Ah, so young and in love, thinking life would always be sweet, just as at that moment. A cruel joke,” she spat.  Waving her hand to dismiss Miranda, “It’s late, work hard but be happy girl.”

She closed her eyes, signaling the end of the tea party. Miranda gathered up the tea tray, tiptoed to the kitchen and then back past Lena, whose slackened face was pale. Miranda hesitated at the candles. Lena let them burn out each night. They were flickering low in their glass jars, safe to leave.  She locked the door handle and went upstairs, eager now to tackle Bowman v. State of Ohio.

***

It was a sunny Saturday morning, warm for late October. Too beautiful to spend in the library with a study group, she mused. Miranda was on the back porch finishing her coffee when she heard voices in the driveway.  She couldn’t hear what Lena was saying but her tone was irritated. Maybe she was talking to a repairman.

She went back inside, rinsed her cup, grabbed her books, and went down the stairs onto the front porch. The man that she must have been talking to was unloading packages from a minivan parked in the driveway.

He smiled at her, “You must be Miranda,” he said, extending his hand.

She looked puzzled.

“All her talk, talk, talk, and I bet she never mentioned me. I’m her son, Benjamin.”

“She mentioned a son when I first looked at the apartment. But I never thought…”

“That he lived in town,” he finished her sentence. ”Yup, right here with a wife and child. My sister moved away. Lives in Colorado. But then you don’t really count until you have a candle,” he mumbled.

“Excuse me, what did you say?” Miranda asked.

“Oh, nothing.” Benjamin replied.

“She doesn’t really talk much about her family.”

Benjamin was slight, had dark curly hair, sharp blue eyes like Lena’s and the same ruddy complexion. He grabbed up the shopping bags, leaving the tools on the porch. “Let me get this in before she refuses the meat telling me it’s spoiled because I was too slow.”

“Nice meeting you, Benjamin.”

“You, too.” He paused. “Listen, Miranda. I’m going to give you my phone number if anything comes up. Got a pen?”

She opened her backpack and pulled out a pen and notebook. “Okay, shoot.” Miranda wrote it down on the inside cover.

“Keep it safe,” he said. “And don’t ever hesitate to call. My wife’s name is Ruthie.” He held the screen door open with his knee.

Miranda held the door while he picked up the third bag. Once he was in the house, she stood on the porch for a moment waiting to hear voices, but all was quiet except the rustle of the bags.

She looked at her watch and sprinted down the stairs across the grass. She had ten minutes to get to the library.

****

Classes were over for Thanksgiving break.  Miranda had put off her mother, who wept for her to come home, promising everything would be different, that it wasn’t fair, cutting them all off like that.  They needed her.  Reluctantly, she called her mother to let her know not to expect her, holding the phone away from her ear, trying not to listen to the railing on the other end.  She decided if she had to acknowledge the holiday at all, she would go home with one of her study partners, Robin. They decided to wait to travel Thanksgiving morning to avoid the traffic.  And one less day of family time, whether it was hers or not, was fine with Miranda.

Robin and Miranda caught a Billy Crystal movie to celebrate the break from school.  She was still smiling as she turned the key in the front door. Lena’s door was partially opened. She was chatting with someone. Good, she won’t need anything from me, Miranda thought.

“Ah, Miranda, you’re home,” she called out. “Come in and say hello to Harriet.” Lena smiled. “We went to a farmer’s market. Bought too much. Here take some fruits.”

“No, thank you, Lena. I’m going away for the holiday tomorrow.”

“Then take for your family.  Harriet, she’s a beautiful girl, yes?”

Harriet nodded.

Miranda took the bag Lena pushed into her hands. “If I don’t see you, I hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving and I’ll be back Sunday night.”

“Good-bye!  Safe trip!” Lena called out gaily.

Miranda went upstairs, packed her bag, watched some TV and went to sleep. She woke up to a foul smell. Grabbing the clock, she saw it was 3:10. The smell was nauseating. It was far worse than those candles. The stench wasn’t that of a fire, but something was burning.  Oh my God, she thought, if the house isn’t on fire yet, it will be.  I’ve got to get out.

Miranda’s heart pounded hard and fast. Her breath was shallow. She stepped down on the cold floor and wiped bead of sweat from her forehead. Grabbing her jeans, she missed the leg hole but finally managed to get them on.  What should she do?  Call the police? The fire department?

“Ayahahahahahaha.” A slow cry. It didn’t sound human, more like a feral cat, and it was coming from downstairs, from the front of the house.

Benjamin.  He said to call anytime. Yes. His number? Where was it? Inside the cover of one of her notebooks.  Miranda turned the backpack upside down. All the books fell to the floor. One by one, she opened the front covers, looking. There. With trembling fingers, she dialed.

One ring…two..three…four.  What should she do if they didn’t answer?  She let it ring and ring. Finally, there was a sleepy hello on the other end. “This better be good.” A male voice.

“Benjamin?” Miranda asked

“Yes, who is this?”

It’s Miranda. Miranda Stone, your mother’s tenant. There is a terrible smell coming from downstairs and weird sounds and banging and I don’t know what to do.  Should I call the police? I’m afraid to go down but what if the house if on fire?”

Benjamin sighed. “It’s okay.  Don’t panic. I’ll be right over. Ten minutes. You did the right thing by calling me. Listen to me carefully, Miranda. Don’t call anyone. Get dressed and go downstairs, in case there is a fire. If you don’t want to go in, just wait for me outside.  I’ll be right there.  Don’t call anyone, you hear me?”

She nodded.

“Miranda, are you still there? I’m going to hang up and come over. Answer me.”

More noise, then, a crash.

“Yes. Please hurry,” she whispered.

Missing the cradle when she hung up the phone, she left it, zipped up her jeans, threw her books back in the bag and grabbed the suitcase she was going to bring to Robin’s. She went down the stairs three at a time.

The door to Lena’s flat was closed. Miranda stood in front of it for a long minute before knocking. Forget it.  She didn’t want to go in anyway. She was safer on the porch. Dropping her things, she cupped her hands around her eyes, pressing close to the window. The slats of the blinds were open just wide enough for Miranda to peer in.

Lena’s long white hair hung loose, flowing to her waist. She was in her bathrobe. There was a wagon in the middle of the living room.  It was lined with a blanket, the paperweights from the piano and her purchases from the farmers market — apples, potatoes, and bread. Lena was methodically dressing the dolls an gently placing them into the wagon. Miranda couldn’t hear her but she could see she was talking to them.

Behind Lena, it looked as if all the dolls that were standing on the piano had been swept off in a single motion. Maybe with the large stick that was lying on the floor.  There were heaped on the floor, broken into pieces. Arms and legs were separated from their bodies. There were gouges in the porcelain, and the doll on the top of the pile had smoking hair.  That was the terrible smell.  She had set the doll’s hair on fire.

Lena ignored the jumbled mess. She cradled the dancing doll in her arms. Miranda could hear her now. She was singing that Polish lullaby.  The only word Miranda could make out was Hannelah, which Lena kept murmuring. When the song was over, she put the doll on the floor by the wall of photos and covered her completely with one of the scarves from the couch as if she had just died. Her motions were calm and steady.

She the looked at the dolls in the wagon, smiled sadly at them and said clearly, “Come, kinde, I keep you safe now.” She pinned up her hair in a single motion and took off her robe. She was fully dressed.

Benjamin pulled up, shutting the headlights off as he turned into the driveway.  He was at Miranda’s side in an instant. “Where are we?” he asked. “Is the wagon prepared for escape? Has the dancer died? Watch the front door,” he said, wearily.

Miranda looked at him, her mouth wide open. “She’s done this before?”

“Many times. She won’t remember in the morning, though. It will only be a dream, just like all the others.”

At that moment, the door opened. Lena turned to face the wagon, her fingers to her lips, motioning to the dolls to be quiet. She turned around and jumped when Benjamin put his arm around her but his gentleness quieted her. He said something in Yiddish to soothe her. Turning to Miranda, Lena gripped his arm, whispering in Yiddish. Her tone implied instructions.  She spoke straight at her but without a hint of recognition in her eyes. Miranda understood that she was a stranger who must be trusted. Lena put the wagon handle in Miranda’s hand and turned with Ben to go back into the house.

Before they did, he said quietly,” Don’t believe it when people tell you about survivors. There were a few but most are walking shadows living between two worlds.” He looked down at the old lady, clinging to him, “Frozen to us, saving what little is left for the rest of the world. But,” he kissed her forehead, “one day I finally understood.

They disappeared into the house. Miranda sat on the porch a long time before she went up to bed, listening to the sounds of Benjamin sweeping up the remains of Lena’s foiled rescue.

***

When Miranda returned from her Thanksgiving holiday, Lena wanted to know how her family had liked her fruits. Benjamin expected her to move out as the others had, but Miranda had no desire to leave her landlady. She lived in the upstairs flat of Lena’s house through that year, the remainder of law school, and her first job, long past the time when it was all she could afford, having found something she hadn’t known she was looking for.

A young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains woke up, not far from Goethe’s beloved Weimar, in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald.  He was finally free but there was no joy in his heart. He thought there never would be again.

Elie Weisel, The Perils of Indifference, Millennium Lecture Series, April 1999

 

 

The Landlady was  first published in paperplates

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