Books for Prisoners

This summer, the Faith in Action committee of St. Edward’s Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA will collect books for a small library that an Episcopalian prison chaplain keeps for prisoners in Lancaster.

The committee is looking for donations of Bibles, devotionals, inspiring biographies, etc. Paperbacks are preferred, but hardcovers are accepted. No fiction is needed because prisoners can read that on Tablets. Here are some of the types of books the committee is looking for:

  • Bibles: large print, children’s, comic book Bibles
  • Inspirational Christian stories and meditations, such as the following:
  • Healing Neen: One Woman’s Path to Salvation from Trauma and Addiction by Tonier Cain
  • Carried by Faith: From Substance Abuse to a Life Filled with Miracles by Sue L Hamilton
  • Heart of a Champion: True Stories of Character and Faith from Today’s Most Inspiring Athletes by Steve Riach
  • Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and the True Story of Redemption in the Modern South by Courtney Hargrave
  • Doing Time with God: Stories of Healing and Hope in Our Prisons by Bill Dyer
  • Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul: 101 Stories of Hope, Healing, and Forgiveness by Jack Canfield
  • Prison Saved My Life by Louis Dooley; Heidi Gruber O’Very
  • The Man I Was Destined to Be: Addiction, Incarceration, and the Road Back to God by Michael Tandoi
  • Knockin’ Doorz Down: A Story of Breaking through the Darkness and Finding Redemption by Carlos Viera
  • Doing HIS Time: Meditations and Prayers for Men and Women in Prison by James Vogelzang
  • Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in Their Youth to Become Stars by Gregory Zuckerman
  • Recipes for a Sacred Life: True Stories and a Few Miracles by Rivvy Neshmana

NOTE: Duplicates are okay, so don’t worry about others donating the same book. If you can find any of these in Spanish, those would be welcome, too!

A bin will be available in the church narthex for book donations during May and June. If you’d prefer to give money to this project, make checks out to “St. Edward’s Episcopal Church,” note “Books for Prisoners” on the memo line, and drop off at or send to:

St. Edward’s Episcopal Church

2453 Harrisburg Pike, Lancaster, PA 17601

THANK YOU!

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Launchpad Prose Finalist: Russian Tropics

RUSSIAN TROPICS

A short story

by Libby Sternberg (copyright Libby Sternberg 2021, published in the three-story collection From Here, written as Elizabeth Malin)

A SUDDEN SWIRLING breeze blew the sheer curtains by the veranda in a wild dance, and she had to rush to keep the wind from knocking over a delicate vase of Oriental design on a tall wooden stand by the door. Such foolishness to place it there, but Mister Jasperson liked the way the light picked up its deep hues.

She thought all this in Russian, her native tongue, as she moved the stand and its delicate contents to the corner where they’d be safe. Safe, too, from partygoers later that evening. Or perhaps not. She took the vase off its stand and moved it into a glass shelved china cabinet, carefully closing the door, just as the clock in the parlor chimed three in the afternoon. It seemed to come from far away, even though just a hallway and three walls separated them, but she closed her eyes, letting the soft gong trigger memory.

 A snowy evening, dim and gray. A fire roaring to keep her boudoir warm. Her father coming in with a gift for her after he’d returned from a trip to St. Petersburg. The clock chiming, the same velvety percussion floating through the hallways as if time itself were reaching out to tap them gently on the shoulders. Warning them.

That was the last time she saw him. While she’d been still recovering from fever, her mother had bundled her up and given her to the care of her uncle Fyodor, and they’d crossed endless miles of snow-covered fields in a fast-moving sled until the snow melted and mud prevailed and, oh, she had trouble remembering it all, only the awful, gaping sense of loss and fear and hunger. Her parents, absent. Her home, in the past. Comfort and ease, gone. Even the last gift her father had given her—a silly stuffed bear—no more. They’d carried only clothes and jewelry and some other things of value. And by the time they’d reached Istanbul, her Uncle Fyodor had taken most of the valuables and used them, she now assumed, for bribes and payments to get them away from the murdering revolutionaries.

She’d seen him one night in their tiny hotel room, prying the diamonds and rubies from her small tiara, the one she’d worn to court. He’d looked up, embarrassed. His hand had shaken. “Little one, fear not. I shall buy you a new crown some day. Write your mama now.”

And write she did. Letter after letter.

Dear Mama,

When will you and father join us?

No one had ever answered.

First, it had been on to Sicily, then up to Paris, and then to London, and finally, finally, on a ship to America. At each stop, she’d thought they’d stay and begin what she’d assumed would be the long wait for her parents to find her. And each time they moved on, she would say, “But, Uncle Fyodor, how will Mama and Papa know where we’ve gone?” And he would look at her with such warmth and pity and pat her head and say something like, “They will always know where you are, little one. Their hearts will know. But go write them now just to make sure.”

Dear Mama,

It is so hot here in this country of Florida. So hot that I think how much I want to be on a frozen lake midwinter, and you know how much I hated the long winter. If you kiss this letter, know that your lips touch me, as I have dropped several tears on it already. When will you come?

And yet, here in this wild and tropical land, in 1933, she still tried to put together pieces of why they’d stayed. Her Uncle Fyodor, bless his soul, had died almost as soon as they’d stepped off the boat. He’d contracted a cough on the journey. And it was but a mere five months later that he was gone. In between gasps, he’d told her he’d intended them to land in New York but something had gone wrong and….

She asked him, on his deathbed, why hadn’t her parents come, too.

And he’d patted her hand—too tired to raise his to her head now—and said, “They loved Mother Russia, little one, and I could only travel with one of you. Your brother and sister—too small,” as if she should understand. Loved Russia more than they loved her? How was that possible?

She was fourteen when he died in early 1920. Now, she was nearing thirty. A Russian princess. Unmarried. Alone. Unloved. Lucky to be alive. Was she?

She watched storm clouds way on the horizon, gathering over the sultry water like a snowy army ready to march. More wind blew. Strange gusts that hurried, then calmed. Weather was coming. Stillness followed by churning. Stillness…then rampage.

She couldn’t help it. She waited. After all these years, she waited. Hoping they’d gone to Paris where so many Russians had settled, or New York. She wrote to refugee centers, Russian enclaves. And she still wrote to them.

“Alexia, did you put the flowers in the parlor? Mr. Jasperson said he wanted the orchids moved there.” Rose, the housekeeper, stood in the doorway, her voice carrying no judgment and yet all judgment.

She turned and smiled, almost curtseying. “I am getting them now. The wind is blowing the curtains.” She spoke in simple sentences, her words still heavily accented. Mr. Jasperson liked her accent.

“Change into a fresh uniform, too, before the guests arrive,” Rose added as she passed her. “Your black one with the white lace.”

Black silk and white lace. The finest things she owned, and they belonged not to her, but to her employer. She’d escaped one commune to live in another, she thought as she rushed to the parlor, the big “living room” on the other side of the house that covered its entire length yet was still not as large as the entry hall to their home in Chelyabinsk. But in this land of wide windows and blowing curtains, clacking shutters and blinds, it felt as large as the ocean.

When she’d lost her uncle, she’d been frozen by fear. They’d been staying in a cheap hotel, so hot it felt as if a fireplace blasted its warmth at them every moment of the day and night, and you could never move far enough away from it to cool yourself.

Uncle Fyodor had been trying to get in touch with someone ever since they’d docked. A Mr. Welch or Walsh, a friend of a friend of a friend of a cousin of a brother of an aunt…it was so confusing, the chain of acquaintances and relatives. This Mr. W owned …stores, restaurants, banks? She didn’t know. All she knew was that her one protector was fading away, and she counted every second as a cocoon against the Horrible—the moment her protector would be gone. In those awful days, she no longer mourned her family. She was consumed by the present fear of losing Uncle Fyodor.

And lose him she did. Gone on a breeze, like this one, a rushing storm coming in from the east, winds so fierce they took rooftops off, and she sat trembling, holding his hand long after its warmth had perished with him.

But this new catastrophe meant she was no longer alone in her despair. A fresh group of refugees was created by the storm—homeless, without loved ones, in mourning and sorrow. Just like her. Authorities found her and found a home for her. At first, an orphanage where she was set to work in the laundry, exhausting days, bad food, and sleepless nights. She began picking up the language then, and she married.

Dear Mama,

I met a man at the orphanage church. He is big and stout with red hair. He brings me special foods and always asks how I am doing. I tell him of you and father and little Pytor and Magda. And he listens so well, even when I forget and start to speak in Russian. When you get here, perhaps you can live with us…

Rob Saxon, a man with dreams. She did not love him, but, oh, she did love being loved by him. He protected her, made sure she was comfortable, and he only got angry when no baby appeared in the years that followed. Five years. In a small bungalow by the water’s edge where he would fish when he wasn’t using his boats for other things. Running liquor she found out after he didn’t come home one night. He’d gone down in another storm.

The storms always brought change, she thought as she moved the delicate orchids to the airy parlor. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.

***

“Alexia, we’ll have to move the bar inside. Bring the punch bowl. Jorge will get the cart.”

She nodded to the housekeeper and went on to the veranda to start bringing the crystal bowl, not yet filled with sparkling liquid, inside. Hugging it to her gray uniform, she stole another glance at the darkening sky. The army of clouds had advanced. Now it loomed large over the opening to the cove, with only the smallest strip of blue sky in hasty retreat. The wind had picked up, too. So much so that even her stiff skirt danced about her ankles as she walked.

But still, she smiled. It was exciting, was it not, to face the storm?

She moved the heavy bowl to the table in the dining room, its starched white linen cloth caught by the breeze so that the corners flapped as if waving to the room. Four at a time, she moved the glasses, too, until, at the very end of her mission, she watched as the light white cloth on the outdoor table floated away, toward the sea, caught on the wind. No one was there but her. Rose had disappeared to the kitchen; Jorge had not yet come to execute his task.

Off and away the cloth went, sailing over the lush green lawn and the roiling water, so dark and fantastic that it no longer looked real but like something from a painting. She would not tell anyone where it went, and she was confident, in the party bustle, that Rose would not miss it until much later, and then she would be embarrassed not to remember what happened to it and say nothing.

As she placed the last of the punch glasses on the indoor table, she noticed from the corner of her eye that Jorge had entered and now silently moved the bar cart inside, careful not to upset any of the bottles. She scurried to help him, but he shook his head. His manhood would be diminished by aid from a woman. Such a proud man! About her age, with language skills worse than hers. She often felt sorry for him. She suspected it was this pity that kept him from going after her. It was her weapon.

After Rob Saxon had died, she’d thought she would once again be thrown to the wolves. She’d briefly contemplated returning home. The country surely would have calmed down by then. She found a tiny community of other Russians. She started attending the Orthodox church, and she supported herself by cleaning houses. When the bungalow was sold by the bank because payments were due, she moved into a small room, not unlike the one she’d occupied with Uncle Fyodor, and she waited, hoping to meet another Rob, or find another Uncle Fyodor, or hear from her family that they were at last coming. She wrote letter after letter home, telling her mother where to find her, then telling her, no, stay where you are because I will come to you, and then going back to her original plan.

Her idea to go back to Russia was stymied by her own fears. She learned of Lenin’s death. She knew what any change of leadership meant—death, fear, violence. She could not go back now, not until things settled again, until tempers cooled. Where would mother and father have hidden? Or would they have made some bargain with the revolutionaries? Father was good at bargaining. That was the fate she’d settled on, with her strong, capable father giving up land and houses, offering to supply his guidance as the young leaders took over the new duties of governing. Surely they would have seen how valuable his talents were. Surely that would have saved them. She became ever closer to some in the little congregation, especially a woman her age, Ludmilla. Beautiful porcelain skin, dark hair, blue eyes. Cheerful and fun.

She liked Ludmilla so much that she confessed to her one day her royal background and her desire to return home for her parents. She confided her hope that her parents still lived and prospered, they with their important skills, they would surely be necessary in the new Russia.

And instead of sympathy, she received…cold shock. “You!” Ludmilla said, pointing a shaking finger at her. “You, all of you! You killed my Ivan, my Dmitri, my Sasha!” she cried, rattling off names she’d never mentioned before. Names, Alexia discovered as Ludmilla rambled on, of the girl’s brothers and father and beloved fiancé. They’d been killed by the Tsar’s soldiers in a courtyard, with nothing to defend themselves but broomsticks and shovels, Ludmilla screamed. And screamed. A wail so intense, so frightening, that Alexia knew she would act on it. Deport her, perhaps—telling American authorities she was here without proper documents? Alexia was never sure if Uncle Fyodor had handled all that correctly. Alert Russian authorities to come for her here in America? It was possible. Those murdering savages would roam to the ends of the earth to stamp out her line. And now, it was the Ludmillas of the world who controlled the guns, and she who had nothing but a broomstick.

She felt just as unsafe in her little Russian enclave as she had on the journey with Uncle Fyodor. And she knew she’d never go home.

Dear Mama,

How I long to hear from you. I can only imagine how difficult things must be. But you must know that I have a comfortable home here and will welcome you—all of you, even our cousins and distant aunts and uncles—once you find your way out of the country. I hope you’ve been safe and fed well, and that my brother and sister will remember me when we meet again. Please, try very hard to leave. You will love this land as much as Russia…

But, another storm blew in, not as fierce as previous ones, but big enough to rattle the windows of her little boardinghouse, to cause damage her landlord didn’t want to fix. So she kicked out her tenants, Alexia among them, and closed. Alexia hoped Ludmilla would assume she had perished in this latest rain.

Again, Alexia became a nomad, but this time she was grateful. No need to explain to Ludmilla why she would no longer show up at church. No need to tell anyone anything. She was safe in her anonymity.

It was at that time that she’d gone to the fortune teller. Ludmilla herself had recommended her, had claimed she’d helped her see a brighter future. Desperate for the same predictions, Alexia had visited her, as well, going into a dark closet of a room in the back of an apartment near the fish stalls. The place had reeked of rotting fish, and she’d nearly been sick. The woman had looked at her palms, had tsked and hemmed and hawed and finally said:

“You were born in storm. Storms will guide you. Love will find you in a storm.”

But the next wind blew her here. She’d cleaned the Jasperson estate for the weeks leading up to the storm because their regular maid had gone off to marry. Mr. Jasperson, Rose had informed her, was unsure whether to bring someone on full-time or to keep using her on an as-needed basis.

But Alexia, buffeted by so many winds by now that she was strong and bold, had told Rose that if Mr. Jasperson wanted to hire her, he had better do it soon because she had two other offers she was considering. Within the day, she’d gotten the job.

Of course, by then Mr. Jasperson had noticed her. He’d commented more than once on how pretty she was—her blond hair like wheat, he’d said, her figure like a sculpture, her bearing like royalty. He’d encouraged her to go swimming from the dock and had even paid for a swimsuit. He’d watched her, she knew. Puffing on a cigar, hand in his blue linen jacket pocket, clear brown eyes staring from a pale face framed by light brown hair now beginning to thin. He was nearly twenty years her senior, never married—rumors flew as to why that was so—a tycoon who’d made his money in “this and that.” As far as she could tell, he’d dabbled in anything that would make him money, from selling fine art to investing in films to opening hotels and running factories. Rose said most of his money had come from a factory selling kitchen gadgets, things you needed no matter what, Rose said, even when money was tight.

Mr. Jasperson was nicer than Rob, sweeter. He smiled more, for one. He loved to laugh. And he could sing. When he had friends over, he would often be at the piano while one of his guests played, and he would sing beautiful songs in foreign languages—Italian mostly, she recognized. And she knew they were opera arias, even if she didn’t know the names of the pieces or the operas themselves.

Once he sang in Russian—an awful accent, many mispronunciations—and she’d tried very hard not to giggle as she’d gone in and out of the room serving this and taking away that. He’d noticed. And afterward, after all the guests had gone, after Rose was abed and Jorge to his own home, he’d sat on the veranda in the sultry night and reached for her hand.

“You are of the Romanov family, are you not?” he’d whispered into the air, blowing smoke toward the sea. “Perhaps a distant relative?”

But she had learned when to speak and when not. So she’d said nothing. She’d thought of Ludmilla and wondered if word had carried here through some invisible communication, the telephone perhaps, or a wire, or even strangers delivering flowers and food.

He’d looked up at her, his eyes shining in the torchlight surrounding the patio. “You’re trembling. Don’t be afraid, Alexia. We’re both refugees, you and I. I can take care of you. Dear girl, marry me.” He’d been very merry that night, but in a forced way, drinking heavily, which was not his habit. Had someone broken his heart?

She’d remained still. And again, no words passed her lips. By this time in her life, she’d determined she wanted to marry again—but this time, for love. She didn’t care about material things as long as she was comfortable, as long as fear didn’t lurk by her door. She wanted love, the warm, embracing sunshine of it, everything that had been ripped from her when her uncle had ripped her from her bed to escape.

So she said nothing to this man, wondering what she should do. She pondered running away. But then she thought: he wants you, Alexia, so give yourself to him. You’ve done it before with a man you didn’t love. And then you can still wait for the man who will marry you and you will love. The one who will come with the storm.

On another warm night—the nights in Florida were always so warm, so snug and hot, sometimes unbearably so—she’d been bold. She’d slipped into his bed, under cool satin sheets, and she’d waited for him, waited to give herself to him.

When he’d come in and seen her, in the shadows, not turning a single light on, when he’d seen her in the blue moonlight, he’d inhaled sharply and said, in a shaking voice: “You think this is what I want?”

And he’d made love to her, but it had been a task, an act not of love for her as much as gentle pity. She’d seen on his eyelashes the crystal drops of tears when she’d left his bed, and she’d been red-faced with embarrassment for weeks after until he finally put her mind at ease.

“Come, sit,” he had said after breakfast out there on that veranda, with warm, silky breezes coating the air with the salty taste of the ocean. She’d looked to and fro, and he’d assured her Rose was in the kitchen and wouldn’t disturb them.

“It saddened me to get crossways with you,” he’d begun, looking into her eyes with such concern she feared he’d cry again. “I didn’t mean for you to think that I expected…favors. So I will offer the proposal again along with this promise. If you agree to marry me, Alexia, I will accept that alone as your gift to me, along with any kindness and simple affection you can muster. I do not expect physical devotion but I would expect discretion. Don’t answer me now. And whatever your answer, your secret and employment are safe.”

That had been one year ago. And since then, she’d dusted and swum and lived in comfort in this house, in a small room off the kitchen. She’d done her job, she’d enjoyed his parties, his food, and she’d wondered how long she’d have to wait until a love came along, a love blown in by a storm. Would this be the one?

She’d wished she had someone to talk to about Mr. Jasperson, but she was afraid to confide in Rose and certainly wouldn’t divulge anything to Jorge, and she’d stopped going to church. She lived her quiet comfortable life, happy to feel secure on this raft floating in time, each second to the next, wondering… She had written to her mother, of course.

Dear Mama,

A very sweet man has asked for my hand in marriage. But I’ve not accepted, waiting now to hear from you. I do not think I love him. I do not know. I wait for a sign. If you came and met him, perhaps you could tell me what to do…

The pace picked up as the party time neared. Caterers arrived to work under Rose’s direction with the food, and a barman came to mix and serve drinks. A pianist sat at the baby grand and started playing. Alexia recognized him not as a hired help but as a friend of Mr. Jasperson’s, a man who was often about, sometimes staying over. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.

But as she moved silver trays of caviar and cheeses and fruits and cakes to this table or that, as she followed Rose’s instructions to turn on this light or turn off that one, as she tied back curtains and closed shutters, the storm built.

Sunset was now hidden behind the swarming clouds, and rain began to pelt the house and grounds as if someone were deliberately attacking them with barrels of water. The phone rang again and again, and finally, after only a half dozen guests had arrived, Mr. Jasperson himself came into the parlor, dressed in such a dapper way, as always, in pure white linen, a little wrinkled from the damp, but smelling clean and bright, a soft blue shirt and matching handkerchief in his pocket. He looked around and said to no one in particular, “I’m afraid this is it for the duration, darlings. Everyone else is too cowardly to strike out.”

That seemed to make things merrier, however. And once his announcement was out of the way, the pianist struck up a rousing tune, all banging and fast syncopations, and a couple danced.

She remembered to change into her good uniform, and was pleased to see him smile at her when she reentered the parlor in black and lace, a fresh cap pinned to her hair. Someone wondered if they should turn on a radio to hear weather reports, but Mr. Jasperson said there was no point to that since they weren’t about to escape the weather, were they?

With so few to tend to, he insisted that the servants indulge themselves, as well, so Rose and Alexia and Jorge, as well as the catering and bar staff, all joined in a champagne toast to the “twilight” and were told to eat their fill.

It was near midnight when the mood changed from frivolity to apprehension. So fast was the transition that she realized it had only been a veneer of jollity that had coated the night prior to this moment, with the looming fear just below. The lights went out, and then there was a deafening crash and glass splintering. They all ran to the veranda to see that a chaise longue had been thrown by the wind into a window. But if this weren’t foreboding enough, they also saw that one of Mr. Jasperson’s neighbors had lost his roof—or part of it. The section facing the ocean had peeled away, and slate pieces were blowing round and round in a vortex overhead, as if called upward by an unseen wizard’s hands. 

Mr. Jasperson hurried through the wind and rain to the neighbors’ place before anyone could stop him, and a few moments later, he returned, drenched and rumpled but with the elderly couple who lived next door under his wing.

“This place is a bit sturdier,” he said in explanation to the surrounding crowd.

And Alexia wondered: Do I love him after all, this hero?

The party was over, or at least the devil-may-care part of it. They still rallied as one, but this time with boards and nails, sealing up windows to keep shattering glass away, and Rose was told to fetch candles and kerosene lamps for the parlor. Once Rose and Alexia had a comfortable glow going, Mr. Jasperson proceeded with more announcements.

“No one is going home until this passes,” he said calmly. “And we’ll all huddle together here, in this room. Food is plentiful. Drink in abundance. And my library is available to all,” he said, gesturing to the many bookcases surrounding the walls. His voice almost demanded calm, and she knew everyone took some measure of comfort from it. He’d changed into a dry jacket and still looked every bit as stunning as he usually did. Alexia’s admiration grew.

His friend sat at the piano again, this time playing softer, sweeter melodies aiming to soothe, Alexia thought. Others relaxed on couches and chairs. Some read, some dozed. But a fretful unease settled on them, and it reminded her of the times on her journey when she’d wondered when it would be over. Even if it were a horrible ending, an ending seemed preferable to the waiting.

As she watched Mr. Jasperson, Alexia realized two things: she’d never uttered his first name, and she loved him. He was so strong, so gentle, so capable and honest and good. And he’d asked to marry her. How foolish she’d been to demur! She could hardly wait to give him her answer now, but he never seemed to be alone. Her heart was bursting with the realization, and she wanted desperately to share it with him, the object of her attention. The fortune teller had been right: the storm had blown in her love.

***

About three in the morning, when the clock tolled its gentle score once again, she thought she finally had her chance. Most were sleeping. The winds seemed to be abating. The night watch would soon give way to the hope of daybreak.

Alexia awoke from a light slumber, shaking free of a shawl someone had placed on her shoulders as she’d slouched in a chair in the far corner. Perhaps he had put it there, looking out for her as he’d always done. She rose on rabbit-quiet feet and glided through the room of sleeping souls, searching, letting her eyes adjust to the dim light of one kerosene lantern in the middle of the table.

She didn’t see him, but she heard him, humming, in the next room. The veranda! Of course, he would be there, facing the storm boldly, fearlessly, a centurion guarding his charges.

She hurried to the door, and yes, he was there. He was still now, hands in his pockets, staring at the churning sea and buffeting rain. Her heart pounded as she started to take one last step, a ballet dancer ready to leap to center stage, to take her place in the spotlight, where she’d always belonged.

But then…another guest intruded, coming from a chair, languorously rising, like the dawn itself. She recognized him. His pianist friend, a bit younger, and sadder, a man who’d always seemed to her to be stealing some of Mr. Jasperson’s cheer, warming himself by it. And he crossed to him, placing his hand on his arm.

“Paul,” he said – Paul! That was his name! Paul Jasperson. She’d heard him called that, of course, but she’d never said it. She mouthed it in the night air. Paul. “I can’t delay. My train leaves in the morning. At least, I assume it’s still a go.”

“I know.” Mr. Jasperson—Paul—straightened, as if this were a blow. And she realized this party had been a going-away fete for the guest, his friend.

“I…wish….” Paul said, and his voice was so slow and mournful, each word its own universe, that Alexia felt a catch in her throat, as if she were saying the words.

I… wish. They were filled with all the longing she herself had always felt, the hope and fear and body-twisting ache of yearning for love and home. I wish, Mama, that you would write back. I wish you could be here with me to share this wondrous land, to see what I have seen, to hear and taste…

“I wish you didn’t have to go,” he said, and swallowed.

Yes, oh, yes, how she hadn’t wanted to go. She’d wished she could have stayed with her family. She’d wished the world in its storms didn’t rupture and break and shatter things. That tenderness was valued, that even enemies could stand in awe of it and leave it be, a thing as delicate and beautiful as the orchids Mr. Jasperson loved.

And then, to Alexia’s astonishment, the two men embraced, and she felt, hidden just beyond the sheer curtains, envious, wishing it was her enjoying that moment of purest affection, of strength and…passion.

“What will you do?” the man asked Paul.

He shrugged. “Live.”

The other man laughed bitterly. “Is it living to be without me?” When Paul didn’t answer, he went on, his words cutting her. “Like that little Russian princess, you mean? Pretending? For God’s sake, Paul, we might not be able to live in the open, but we can live together.”

At that, Paul’s head turned, and she could see his eyes shine in the light. After a pause, he said. “Don’t make fun of her. She still thinks…she’ll find them.”

“Good god, man. You still waste postage on her letters?”

“Every single one,” Paul responded.

“Letters to the void.”

“Maybe.” He paused again. “I like to think of them as prayers. I can’t and won’t stand in their way.”

Eternity passed.

Dear Mama, she saw herself writing, I thought you were still alive. I thought…this man loved me, body and soul. Oh, Mama…

Her fist flew to her mouth to choke the sob that gathered there. Who knew this secret she’d cherished? Who’d given it away? Who’d betrayed her, embarrassed her, humiliated her?

She swayed with the acceptance of this truth, the breath knocked from her chest.

She stayed until they left the veranda, leaning against the wall, sliding slowly down until she crouched, as if hiding.

She was hiding. She’d been hiding all these years, first from the Bolsheviks, then from the Ludmillas, and always from the truth.

She swallowed a thousand tears. She lived a thousand lives. She wondered how her family had died and hoped it had been quick. She thought of Paul knowing…and knowing she’d refused to believe they were gone, and how he’d protected her from that. Prayers, he’d said. What had she prayed for in those letters?

And then she crept outside and lay on one of the chaise longues herself, as still as she had been when uncle Fyodor was dying, living in each second so as to forestall the worse thing yet to come in the next second, floating once more on that barque between unknowables, exhausted from the effort not to see what was ahead.

 The air calmed. The day began to break, a thin pink ribbon of a saving battalion of light come to rescue them from the armies of the dark, raging night.

Her eyelids fluttered, she dozed again and then woke in full sunlight.

Mr. Jasperson stood by her chair.

They’ve all gone home,” he said to her. And he offered her his hand.

You and I are refugees, he’d said.

She looked into his eyes as she stood.

She was of royal lineage. They often married with no love.

And maybe this was a different form of love, after all. His heart and body would never belong to her. Great pity for him swamped her, and she wanted to protect him with the gentle sweetness he’d shown to her. They could cling to each other, refugees, on their raft of pure tenderness. Perhaps that had been her prayer, to find a fellow exile like him.

Yes, she said to him in Russian, I will marry you. I will keep your secret if you keep mine.

He understood…something…he smiled, whispered her name, and kissed her hand.



           

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Let Women Sing (like women)!

By Libby Sternberg

During a live-streamed funeral service for a beloved Episcopal minister in our community, two startling voices rang out in the nearly empty church—the voices of women singing. Not just singing but singing as women, with warm tones, even small vibratos.

Listening to those sweet voices felt like a balm during a sorrowful service, and I realized, as I waited for each hymn just to hear them, that the reason it was so refreshing was because the one area where women’s voices continue to be suppressed in the modern church is in music ministry.

Suppressed might seem like a strong word, considering the fact that nearly 40 percent of the ministers in our national church are women now, and women fill many roles on the altar, including singing in praise bands and folk groups.

But in adult choirs, women are still often expected to sing like boys, to use straight tones in adult choral music, even straight tones in solos and small ensembles. The message is clear: If you don’t sound like a boy, or try real hard to sound like one, your mature woman’s voice isn’t so welcome in this space.

I know some choral directors might object and point out that it’s easier for straighter voices to blend. That’s true, but when we’re talking about mature women’s voices, we’re not talking about “warblers,” voices with vibratos so large they could be mistaken for trilling coloraturas. We’re usually talking about a warmer sound with some vibrato, contrasted to one where the singer has to expel all the breath in her lungs to get out just a few straight-sounding notes. That’s not healthy singing.

The mainline Protestant churches trace their musical heritage back to a time centuries ago where male voices dominated, a misogynistic era in church life where women were not just “less than” but one step away from being considered witches.

The male voice was so prized throughout the ages, in fact, and female ones deemed so unworthy, that boys were castrated to retain their pure, otherworldly soprano and contralto tones. Castrati were still alive in the early twentieth century.

If you’ve ever heard a male contralto (or countertenor), you can usually tell immediately it’s not a woman’s voice, even though the vocal range he sings in is the same for the female vocal part. It’s a strangely asexual sound, with virtually no vibrato. A woman singing an alto part would be hard-pressed to emulate it, even if she could rid her voice of any lingering vibrato.

This fetishizing of the boy soprano sound should stop. We’ve kicked out most of the vestiges of the church’s sad sexist history. Let’s get rid of this last bit, too.

While much beautiful music was written for boys and men’s choirs, churches are not museums where art has to be presented in its original form. We use modern instruments, after all, to play old works. Why not use “modern” voices to sing old works? That is, let women sound like women. Stop telling them to sound like boys.

A musical acquaintance of mine who sings in a national choir, one that does residencies in cathedrals all over the world, recounted this story to me:

“After one of our services, the head verger spoke to me and said how delightful it was to hear adult women’s voices. He greatly appreciated the warmth of healthy, mature female voices and felt they added a great deal to the worship experience.”

To that I say: Amen. 

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Our 2020 Holiday Letter

Dear Friends and Family,

This past year, we scaled mountains, swam oceans, ran marathons, skied, skydived, painted masterpieces, composed symphonies, and cooked amazing award-winning dishes using the new fryer/steamer/toaster/blender/artisanal teapot we invented and patented.

Not really.

Actually, we just picked up a bad habit. Zooming.

We started Zooming sometime in March, but over time, the habit grew. We Zoomed with family in groups, with kids alone, with kids with grandkids, with business associates, with choir members, with volunteer boards. There was no Zoom too obscure or no reason for Zooming too outlandish. We even Zoomed wearing…a tiara.

We have become very familiar with the interrupted thought as the mic cuts out when someone else starts speaking. Don’t ask us what we meant to say. We’d already forgotten it by the time we heard the “What?” from other Zoomers. Just assume it was brilliant.

Other than Zooming, we FaceTimed. But only with our kids.

We also went to the beach a few times. We only went when COVID restrictions allowed us. Really.

We bought masks – sequined ones, Penn State and leopard-print ones, and plain ole blue ones. We wore them everywhere.

We bought hand sanitizer in the big containers. Now that it’s available in small containers again, we grumble every time we have to refill one of our small vials from the big bottle.

We bought toilet paper responsibly. We are not hoarders.

We gained a few pounds, but our doctors assure us this is weight from our longer hair since we’ve not been to a salon in months.

We watched some shows on Netflix. Don’t ask what they were. We’ve already forgotten. Maybe that’s what we were trying to talk about during Zoom sessions before being cut off by others talking.

We spent too much money on jigsaw puzzles.

We’ve perfected the lemonade martini, the dirty martini, the raspberry martini, and threw out the lemon/ginger/cayenne martini.

We’ve discovered we like wine in a box.

So, that’s our year! Can’t wait for 2021!

The Sternbergs

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Book Review: “The Order” by Daniel Silva

In Israeli spymaster Gabriel Allon, author Daniel Silva created a highly sympathetic character who is melancholy, strong, unafraid, and defiant. In many ways, he mirrors the Jewish homeland he represents: unwilling to tolerate one more drop of genocidal blood on his watch after the Holocaust and acts of terror have ripped his family apart. Those who follow Allon in the series Silva crafted can’t help admiring and rooting for him as he uncovers and fights everyone from Irish terrorists to radical Islamists bent on destroying what they cannot conquer.

Thus it is a deep disappointment to encounter a book in this series that falters on virtually every level — the mystery is predictable, the thriller elements not at all suspenseful, and even Gabriel Allon’s attractive qualities seem somehow muted by the weak storytelling. Yet that is precisely how I felt after reading The Order, the latest of Allon’s exploits.

A quick summary of the plot: A Jesuit priest contacts Allon to investigate whether the latest pope has been murdered (instead of succumbing to a heart attack). No surprise, he has been. By a fanatical ultra-conservative bishop who heads a fanatical ultra-conservative Catholic group that intends to align with other conservative political forces taking power in Europe, forces that hate Jews and Muslims and immigrants in general, and stir up national pride while not providing good governmental services. By the way, I’m giving nothing away in this summary. You’ll figure all this out pretty quickly since none of it is hidden.

The story feels as if it’s supposed to be a warning to readers that dark forces could overcome the world again if we’re not vigilant. To avoid this fate, we must throw in our lot with the liberation theology Jesuit who, despite his saintly outlook and liberal broadmindedness, isn’t keen on letting priests marry.

If the story was predictable and trite, the writing didn’t always rise above it. It felt rushed at times and imprecise. A woman is described, at one point, as wearing cat’s eye glasses that make her look academic. Um, nope, those glasses would make you look like a fashionista. Horn-rimmed spectacles, maybe a la Harry Potter, might do the trick for the intelligentsia look. I’m surprised an editor didn’t flag that.

What I found most disappointing in the book — even disturbing — was Mr. Silva’s anti-Christian theme. It’s perfectly fine to enumerate the sins of Christianity, especially Catholicism, regarding the treatment of Jews (especially during and after the Holocaust when some church leaders helped Nazi murderers escape to South America). What’s not so fine is devising a plot that seeks to blow up core beliefs of Christianity. Mr. Silva seems bent on saying to Christians: hey, what you believe in? It’s all a lie.

Sorry to say but I’ll give a lot of thought to whether I’ll buy another book in this series.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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Book Review: “Short Stories by Jesus”

Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus is simultaneously a provocative, frustrating, beautiful, tedious, and compelling work.

This analysis of the parables of Jesus by a Bible scholar takes a fresh look at these tales through the minds of those who first heard them. How would Jesus’s first audience react to his narratives about lost sheep, a pearl of great value, a prodigal son and a good Samaritan? What was their understanding of the world and of the people Jesus talks about? Did they see things differently than we do now? Spoiler alert: Yes.

This is why the book is so provocative and beautiful. Levine painstakingly defines words and how they were used throughout the Bible, where similar stories appeared, how certain storytelling devices were common (so many involved two sons, a rich man, vineyards, etc.) in order to help you feel you are there with those first listeners, hearing the stories for the first time with your understanding of what they knew.

Her impressive scholarship leaves you in awe as well as frustrated. As she went through example after example of mentions of the word “merchant” or “pearl” in ancient history and the Bible, I was impatient to move on. A summary would have sufficed for general audiences.

Where Levine shines is in provoking you to consider new looks at these well-worn tales. Her analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan still has me mulling it, seeing it afresh, understanding that the answer to Jesus’s question– Who is your neighbor?– in that story is much deeper than you might think.

Similarly, her pulling apart of the “lost” parables (lost sheep, lost coins, lost son) forces you to view yourself not just as among the lost but as the seekers — what, she forces you to confront, are you seeking, what have you lost, that you would tear up the world to find?

In the parable of the pearl of great value, you’re left to ponder what is it you want so badly that you’d happily give up all your fortune to own?

Her other great accomplishment in this book is alerting Christian readers to the sad history of parable interpretations that have more than a whiff of anti-Semitism to them by ignoring the rich Old Testament history of messages of love and acting as if Jesus’s parables teaching the “way of love” were explicit rebukes to Jewish law.

“If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of ‘Jesus came to fix Judaism, so therefore Judaism–whatever it was–must have been bad,’ then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way.”

Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus

At times, it feels as if Levine strains to look beyond obvious interpretations of the stories as she seeks to find some new view that will turn the parable on its head. That seemed particularly true in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee and the widow and the judge. Her journey to find something different in these tales had me wondering if Jesus would go to such lengths to obscure a text’s plain meaning. Sometimes the obvious understanding might be the right one.

The merits of this book far outweigh the faults, however, and I heartily recommend it to those interested in Jesus, the Bible, and life in general. The book is available at all major etailers, including Amazon.

The Good Samaritan by Vasily Surikov

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her books can be found here.

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What is Church?

Since the pandemic hit, many churches, including ours, haven’t been fully opened. First, they were closed entirely, and services were only virtual, with a minister praying and preaching to an empty space.

Now, they are sort of, kind of open. Our church hosts two Sunday services, live-streaming one, but everyone wears masks, including the priest when administering communion, and the “music” service consists of a lone cantor singing hymns solo while the congregation is admonished in the printed program not to join in.

I’ve written before about how I missed church during the times it was completely shut down, a surprise to me because I’d contemplated for quite some time how church should be much more than a building. I resisted the notion that organized religion, with its churches and cathedrals, was the true church, and then I discovered, when I couldn’t access those structures, how meaningful they were to me.

Now, however, as our bishops continue to urge us to socially distance and won’t let us completely open the doors to our buildings for all the gatherings churches host, I’m wondering and wandering again, going back to my original thoughts about what church should be. Thanks, bishops, for leading me back to this place of discernment. Or maybe I should say, “be careful what you wish for.”

Wishing for congregations to be ultra-safe means we’re now scattered, connecting with each other through Zoom meetings, newsletters, phone calls, and those live-streaming services. That, in turn, means many people — not just me — might be wondering about the real meaning of church.

Sometimes, I’m clearer on what I think it should not be. I don’t think it should be a political rally or anything like it. I’ve written about that, too, several times. (Here and here.)

I don’t think it should be merely social gatherings for those attending. Yes, I miss the social coffee hours, parish pot lucks and choir dinners and all the rest. But it isn’t just that.

It isn’t just taking canned goods every week to the food drive either, as important as those communal acts of mercy are.

Now I’m back to thinking church is more about all the things we’ve been called to do during this pandemic, the things I mentioned above — the phone calls, the notes, the newsletters, the Zoom meetings, the small but meaningful contacts with each other that lift us up as individuals, make us feel loved.

Because love is what the church is really supposed to be about. Loving our neighbor. Loving God.

As we show our love for one another, I believe it creates ripples in the wider community. So, that person you call to offer an encouraging word to might do the same or help a neighbor and that person, too, might be inspired to pass it on, all unconscious acts of charity started by one little pebble of love tossed into the wider pond.

You don’t need a building for that.

Libby Sternberg writes in a variety of genres, including Christian fiction. Those books include Fall from Grace, In Sickness and in Health, Kit Austen’s Journey, and Mending Ruth’s Heart.

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Book Review: “No Man’s Land” by Wendy Moore

by Libby Sternberg

When I was growing up, all the doctors in my life were men — from our general practitioner to specialists. I first encountered a female physician after having children. Our pediatrician at the time was a wonderful woman who combined medical science with an artful understanding of being a mother herself. She was a blessing.

415uc5fpgTLThe way for her and other women doctors was paved by physicians like Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, the two physicians at the center of No Man’s Land, an informative look at how difficult it was for women to be accepted in the fiercely male world of medicine.

The two women came of age during the UK suffragette movement in the early 1900s, with Anderson even serving jail time for some of her protesting activities. This was how these doctors met, in fact, during suffragette meetings and protests. They soon became friends and professional colleagues, eventually living their lives together as a couple.

Because men controlled staff appointments at hospitals, the women doctors were barred from those jobs by small-minded doctors who didn’t want women among their ranks. Murray wrote an article in the New Statesman in 1913, justifiably angry at this practice, especially when men of lesser abilities effortlessly rose in the ranks:

“Staff appointments are professional prizes. They are made by the council or governing body, generally consisting entirely of men, upon the advice of a medical staff composed entirely of men. They are usually given to men.”

Shut out of hospitals, they started their own together, a small facility catering to women and children, an area to which most women doctors at the time were relegated, regardless of their expertise.

Then…World War I began. While the suffragette movement was put on hold during those fearsome years, Murray and Anderson understood that medical care for the wounded would be such a paramount concern that they could finally be accepted by male colleagues and join the fight to save lives.

Still, it wasn’t easy. They had to battle stiff resistance among hidebound medical officers and prove themselves by setting up their own hospitals in France, financed by donations, many of them from sister suffragettes.

They started two such facilities, one in Paris and one closer to the coast where wounded men were eventually transported back to London, and showed they were more than equal to the task. They did so well, in fact, that eventually Alfred Keogh, the most senior physician in the British Army at the time, asked them to set up a military hospital in London to deal with a surge of casualties expected from an upcoming push on the front.

Thus the Endell Street Military Hospital was born. From spring 1915 to the end of the war and beyond, Murray and Anderson ran the hospital with a staff of all women. All employees and volunteers, from physicians to anesthetists to nurses to orderlies, were women. Murray’s organizational skills had the facility humming in record time, and Anderson’s surgical skills meant they operated on a record number of patients per day during high casualty initiatives at the front (think of every battle name of that war, from Ypres to the Somme and more, to imagine the flow of men under their care).

No Man’s Land takes you through this war — military, medical, and societal — in small details. All physicians, including Murray and Anderson, had to grapple with new wounds caused by new killing machines. No clear-through bullet holes but grisly shrapnel injuries resulting in fractured bones, mustard gas burns that scorched lungs, shell shock, and the ever-present infections that might take a life in an era before antibiotics.

No Man’s Land leads the reader up to Armistice and beyond, when the hospital took in civilian patients, too, now sick and dying from the “Spanish flu.”

While women gained a (limited) right to vote during this period, the struggle for female physicians persisted. Men returning from the war eased back into their jobs, pushing out women who’d been handling them. And male doctors’ attitudes about women in their profession rebounded to their original peevishness, shutting out female physicians once again from staff positions.

This lasted a long, long time, as my childhood attests, when almost all doctors were men and women were nurses. Societal change is a long, hard slog, and No Man’s Land demonstrates how difficult it is to change minds and hearts even when evidence of change’s benefits stares one in the face.

 

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Book Review: “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter

By Libby Sternberg

The 1918 flu pandemic afflicted 25 percent of the American population, killing 675,000 of them, mostly the young and otherwise healthy. One of the infected survivors was the writer Katherine Anne Porter, a Colorado newspaper reporter. She used her experiences to write the devastatingly evocative novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

The tone of this book can be summed up in one word: feverish. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Miranda, awakens from a troubled dream in which “Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen.” tumblr_n1zvthnTvl1ttt4i5o1_400

This sense of impending doom threads through the episodes of this long short story. After rousing from her confusing dream, she heads to work where she fights off the efforts of an aggressive Liberty Bond salesman. From there she deals with the chauvinism of the time on the job, where she and a fellow reportress are relegated to covering theater and society news—even though a sports writer would prefer reviewing plays in her stead. She keeps her mouth shut about her unpopular anti-war views and her dislike of the stories she’s assigned because of her gender.

The beacon of light in her life is her Texas-born beau, Adam, a strapping young man in uniform, ready to be sent to the front. They meet for meals, go dancing, attend the theater, pause as funerals pass in the street (“’It seems to be a plague,’ said Miranda, ‘something out of the Middle Ages.’”). Miranda wonders why her head aches and nothing seems as real as it should be.

She simultaneously yearns for and is afraid of loving Adam:

There was only the wish to see him and the fear, the present threat, of not seeing him again; for every step they took towards each other seemed perilous, drawing them apart instead of together, as a swimmer in spite of his most determined strokes is yet drawn slowly backward by the tide. “I don’t want to love,” she would think in spite of herself, “not Adam, there is no time and we are not ready for it and yet this is all we have–“

Readers see her delirium slowly wrap her in grim sickness, and one is sometimes confused as to what is happening and what is febrile dream, a technique that makes Porter’s experience of the flu jump off the page to create a lump in one’s throat.

After she finally collapses, Adam tends to her in her boarding house, and they share a tender confession of love.

When Miranda presses Adam to reveal his feelings, he gently puts his face against hers, and then says: “Can you hear what I am saying?…What do you think I have been trying to tell you all this time?”

As he cares for her, they both recall a spiritual:

“‘Pale horse, pale rider,'” said Miranda “(We really need a good banjo) ‘done taken my lover away–‘” Her voice cleared and she said, “But we ought to get on with it. What’s the next line?”

“There’s a lot more to it than that,” said Adam,” about forty verses, the rider done taken away mammy, pappy, brother, sister, the whole family besides the lover–“

An ambulance whisks Miranda to the hospital where she suffers through pain and more nightmares, death a whisper away. During her recovery, she sees fireworks outside the hospital windows. The war is over. As to Adam? His fate is summed up in the spiritual and Biblical passage from which the book’s title comes.

While a melancholy tale, Pale Horse, Pale Rider places the reader in a small microcosm of American history in ways no sterile nonfiction retelling of this period could. The reader learns, for example, that men didn’t like their army-issued wrist watches, thinking only sissies wore them, and that a Liberty Bond cost $50 while a lowly female reporter only earned $18 per week. These details, along with Porter’s haunting fever dream style, bring the past alive for today’s readers.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Visit her website at http://www.LibbySternberg.com 

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Short Story: Love in the time of COVID-19

by Libby Malin Sternberg

Lila would smile at me as if we shared a secret, her dark eyes staring at mine, unblinking, the corners of her rose-pink mouth lifted up just a millimeter, as if to ask, how funny the world is, isn’t it, Rudy?

She was in her twenties, and I was only eighteen, and we did share a secret. My Uncle Pete, owner of four Pizza Rustica shops around town, had come up with a scheme.

“We offer the test for free,” he explained one night. The empty room of his flagship pizzeria on Old Town Road, the one with a bar and a brisk weekend business, smelled of fried food and onions, as he leaned against the countertop. Lila had already cleaned the empty tables, and the cook had left an hour ago. We were only here to count the money and tidy up.

The test he mentioned was the one for the coronavirus or Covid-19 or Chinese flu, as Pete called it. We were shut down for we didn’t know how long, and takeout business might be brisk, but it didn’t pay the salaries of the serving staff. Uncle Pete might be hard-nosed about profits, but he was no villain. He wanted to give some money to his laid-off workers. This restaurant, the only one of his four, accounted for a good 80 percent of Pizza Rustica’s profits, and most of those had been from from the bar.

photo-1515890435782-59a5bb6ec191I followed these things closely. I was going to be a business major at Penn State next year. If I ever got to finish high school. It was shut down along with everything else.

Lila, one of Pete’s servers, hired just before the quarantine, nodded enthusiastically from her perch on a nearby stool. She spoke English with a thick accent, something Slavic, I think. Her hair was a waterfall of auburn ripples that seemed to glow like spun gold in the right light, and every light was the right one around Lila.

“Uncle Pete,” I managed to sputter, “we don’t have no tests. We can’t offer them for free or for sale.”

He just shrugged. “Don’t matter. We take a swab and send them on their way, telling them results aren’t in for another two weeks. By then they know if they have it anyway. No harm, no foul.”

Again, Lila nodded, this time even more enthusiastically. I just shook my head. I was used to my uncle’s schemes by now. I’d been working here since I was twelve, first bussing tables and washing up, then as a cashier, then a deliveryman when I got my license, and most recently as assistant manager. The title was pure b.s., but Uncle Pete didn’t have any kids, and he wanted to help me get ahead. He said it would look good on my resume.

“They’ll know,” I protested. “Somebody’ll tell.”

The fear of the authorities never deterred Uncle Pete. He’d looked the other way when a bookie set up shop in the corner of his place for a year, and police believed him when he said he was as shocked as they were to find a racket in his establishment. He’d also gotten wine from a place in Connecticut for a few years, going around the state’s liquor licensing regulations. He’d not been caught on that game, and had only shut it down when he found a way to get the stuff cheaper legally. I sensed disappointment when that happened.

“I do the swabs,” Lila was now saying. “I did some nursing.”

My eyes widened as I stared at her. All I knew about her was that she had a boyfriend who picked her up every day in his gleaming white Tahoe, and that she was beautiful. As beautiful as an angel.

“Somebody’ll tell,” I repeated, looking at her, hoping she’d see the folly of this. “They’ll know it’s a fake. The news has been talking about how hard it is to get these tests!”

Uncle Pete straightened and crossed his arms. “That’s the point, Rudy. When the market on something is tight like that, you always know somebody somewhere is selling it on the side. We’re just taking advantage of that entrepreneurial spirit.”

Exasperated, I nearly shouted, “But we’re not buying anything. We don’t have the tests! It’s irresponsible! It’s nuts. It’s risky. Someone could get hurt by this.” Met by impassive stares from Pete, I added, “And how’s it going to make you any money if it’s free anyway?”

“You have to order four Specials to get it. And the price of those just went up 20 percent.” After a beat, he went on, as if I wouldn’t get it. “We get all the takeout orders this side of town, and we’re selling our most expensive items.” Specials were things like our lasagna and veal parmesan platters or our largest pizzas plus salads and appetizers.

“Good thinking, boss,” Lila said and stood as well, straightening like a long-legged bird about to take flight. Today she wore skin-tight denim pants and two-inch heels—how did she manage to stay on her feet all night in those—and a red T-shirt with something in Cyrillic across her breasts on it that, to me, seemed to read, “Love me, Rudy.”

I shook my head. Could I even continue to work here? Then she turned to me. And gave me that smile.

****

Uncle Pete s didn’t advertise his testing scheme, but he had an amazing network of people he spread the word to. Within a day of this plan, we had a bustling takeout order business at the flagship site, triple what we usually did, all the high-end orders, four at a time, sometimes double.

I’d ring up the orders and grab their plastic. Lila would take customers into the bar and do the swab. By the time she was done, I’d have their orders on the counter ready to go.

She sported white clothes now for this new job. White skirt and camp shirt or white jeans and tee, her bundle of hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, and oversized glasses I’d never seen her wear before perched on her nose.

The evenings were warm, with spring nipping at our hopes, the scent of hyacinths in the air, and I selected old love songs for the ambient music. Frank Sinatra crooning about seeing you again, Doris Day purring about sentimental journeys, Ella Fitzgerald humming about the man she loves.

The man Lila loved would pick her up every night at midnight, his face as grim as death, his arms muscled and tattooed, his voice a gravel road. “Ready, babe?” he’d say, and it was only the slightest tinge of warmth in his tone that gave away the idea that he might – might – just love her as much as I did.

Every evening when I showed up for work, I cherished two dreams. One, that Uncle Pete would stop this ridiculous plan, and two, that Lila’s boyfriend would not come to pick her up and I’d take her home instead.

I was never quite sure what would happen on that drive home, but was sure it would be something wonderful.

****

A week into this business venture and we were so busy that Uncle Pete brought one of our regular cooks back in part-time to help out the senior one he’d kept onboard during the quarantine. If this fellow, Gus, wondered what was up with “nurse” Lila escorting folks into the bar for a moment, he didn’t let on.

I lived in fear that the authorities would barge in on a raid, some lab-coated, pistol-waving patrol of public health officers, to cart us all off to jail.

But hope tamped down that fear. Hope that Lila would smile at me. Laugh with me. Even – as happened last night as the room emptied – jokingly twirl around in a dance with me to the tune of “I’ve got a crush on you” before Boyfriend arrived, quickly breaking free when his shadow darkened the door.

She smelled of roses, something faint, something I’d never noticed before. Her soap? Perfume?

That night I dreamed of buying her that perfume, even after finding out it would empty my college savings account.

****

The next day, Uncle Pete expanded his venture. For every five Specials, he’d throw in a roll of toilet paper for an extra three bucks, and the test was still free. When I asked him why wasn’t the toilet paper free, too, he looked at me like I was the stupidest man on earth. “I pay for that, Rudy,” he said. He wasn’t paying for any of the “tests.”

As the days wore on, my anxiety crept up, and every time the bells over the door announced another customer, I feared I’d see those uniformed health officers of my nightmares.

They didn’t show up, but more discerning patrons did. Some insisted on knowing why the test results would take so long. I had no answer, but Uncle Pete, always around, quickly responded, “You want fast results, go get those government ones. Half of ’em are no good anyway, you know.”

It was around this time that Lila started wearing a name tag with her white ensembles, which had grown to include a white shirt dress and a white jumpsuit. The tag read: Lila Milchek, O.D.S.

I asked her what the initials stood for and was rewarded with a smile. “Something in my old country,” she said.

Only three days now remained in the quarantine, and as we were about to open for the afternoon, I asked Pete what he’d do about the missing test results at that time.

Without a word, he pulled a typed letter from his pocket and handed it to me.

“Dear Valued Customer,” it read, “By now you should know, if you are symptom-free, that you do not have the Chinese flu. Those of you with symptoms will have gone to the doctor, as we advised. We are happy this quarantine is over, and sad to report that our testing company, Ajax Dynamics, went out of business and absconded with all the swabs. Since the test was free, there is no need for a refund, but we generously offer you a free large soda with every large Special pizza you order…”

“Ajax Dynamics?” I asked, looking at him over the paper. “Absconded with the swabs?”

“I’m going to post that here, on the counter, in laminate. And hand it out to some people I recognize who got the test,” he said, with not a hint of shame or embarrassment.

The bells jangled, and I looked up, expecting to see Lila, wondering if she had a new white outfit to dazzle us with today, but it was a customer.

And another and another and another after that.

Lila didn’t come in that night. Or the one after.

****

Now the ambient music I chose was Puccini, lush arias about death and doomed love. Lila was in the hospital, desperately ill.

Uncle Pete actually closed up shop, worried that she’d contracted the virus, that his scheme had had deadly consequences, the spread of which we’d yet to realize.

The verdict came in a phone call from the boyfriend a couple nights later. His name was Roger, it turned out, he was a car mechanic, and Lila’s real name was Mimi.

“Tuberculosis,” Uncle Pete said in a hushed tone after getting off the phone. “It’s just TB.”

Just TB?

A cascade of events then overtook us. It turned out everyone she’d come into contact with needed to be told and possibly tested. Many of them got the COVID test too, while they were at it, so that special offer of Pete’s turned out to be valid, after all.

Not a one complained or let out a word about Pete’s tests, or if they did, they were dismissed, because we never heard a peep from anyone about it.

As for Lila?

She didn’t make it. She contracted the virus after all, somewhere else since none of the customers tested positive, and her underlying condition meant she was in the at-risk category.

Roger let us know weeks later. He came in for a pizza, his face as grim as death, and now the gravel in his throat seemed real, as he gave us the bad news.

“She tried, you know? Knew she was sick, but she tried to make it here and wanted…” He stopped, choking up, and I never found out what she wanted, but I knew it wasn’t me.

****

That week, I changed my major at Penn State, to undeclared, and began an online Intro writing course, our first assignment an essay about lost love.

“Lila would smile at me as if we shared a secret,” I wrote, “her dark eyes staring at mine, unblinking, the corners of her rose-pink mouth lifted up just a millimeter, as if to ask, how funny the world is, isn’t it, Rudy?

Copyright 2020 Libby Sternberg

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