Thursday, August 27, 2009

"The Twins." Gone but not forgotten.

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”—Hermann Hesse


There were over 26,000 trees in Central Park before the 18th of August. Now there are a few hundred less, though there are still quite a few lying where they fell, most of them facing toward the east, having been hit by 70 mph winds roaring across Manhattan from the west. Some are standing tall, seemingly oblivious to their amputated limbs and the fate that awaits them. Others have completed the transformation and lie with their brethren in steaming piles of mulch. A sweetly fermented air hangs over the north end of the park.

The Mister and I live a block from Central Park at the north end above 96th Street. The night of the storm at a little after ten o’clock the first flash of lightning had us stop what we were doing, put down the book, turn off the computer. Reverting to childhood anticipation, we shut the lights in the apartment and stationed ourselves at the windows in the front room that overlook the onion tops of the Russian Church directly across the street making a fine mis-en-scene for stormy theater. Our big black cat, Sidney Vicious, conceding the signs, shot under the bed. Delighting in the escalating rain and the sharp, thunderous cracks after spidery displays of lightning, The Mister still finds my insuppressible shrieking funny. The downpour came faster and heavier. Windows rattled. Soon a Mt. Sinai building that looms over the skyline a block away disappeared behind the pitch-blackness. An eerie resonance, almost like cannon roar, exploded out of sync with the expected thunder after a lightning flash and we agreed: this is pretty damned powerful. We stared at the slender trees on the pavement below, seeing them bend with the wind, each one bowing in line with the others and we began to fear for their wellbeing.

Before we knew it the storm was over. The trees below straightened. All had rejuvenated from the experience. We thought.

In the morning, alerted by an e-mail from a friend and neighbor who had walked her dogs early, I headed into the park with my camera. I didn’t take it on, the extent of the damage, noticing first the fallen limbs and branches clustered outside the entrance to the park on Fifth Avenue. Further in the devastation became painfully clearer. From then on, day after day I saw such splendid trees, grown tall and seemingly only vulnerable to threats like Dutch Elm disease and the Asian Longhorn Beetle, torn apart. Park trees have been felled in isolated incidents due to infestation, but the walker breathes a relieved sigh because it’s prevention at work. But so many had fallen to the ground in a tangle of limbs so topsy-turvy one could not tell one tree’s branches from the others toppled alongside and on top of each other. Raw craters abounded, left gaping from a wind so forceful it uprooted the trees that had once stood there. While some familiar trees in the east meadow were either uprooted or torn asunder I was relieved to see the two The Mister and I had claimed for ourselves still standing across the path from each other, their branches still entwined at the tips. Mine is the huge American elm and his is the slightly younger London plane. My elm had lost only a few branches from what I could tell, nothing life threatening.

The media did not forgo the 9/11 references that pop up in every local newsworthy calamity. “It seems like Central Park was essentially the ground zero,” said David Wally, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Upton, N.Y., on Long Island.

But the sight of the two trees I considered solely mine since they were saplings—I call them “The Twins”—first planted under the shade of the pine trees on the rocky hill some 40 years ago—gave me a start. Initially I could not even recognize them, so mauled were they. It was like an angry god had reached down and rent their limbs, dumping them like giant matchsticks to be buried under thickets of severed branch. Already the leaves on those branches were silver-colored and dead. I wept without restraint. After awhile I noticed that the trunks on both, even the more mauled of the pair, seemed in good enough nick. Spinning positively, I hoped they could be saved.

After viewing the devastation in the rest of the north end, The Great Hill area especially, I held out for a more hopeful outlook for my trees. The Great Hill, the area around West 106th Street, lost several dozen trees. The New York Times reported that, “Some of the trees—pin oaks, red elms, tulip trees—dated as far back as the turn of the last century. At 100th Street and Central Park West a chestnut tree, recorded as having been planted by Frederick Law Olmsted more than 150 years ago, suffered storm damage and was to be felled.

Since the storm I have made daily treks through areas of the north end, sometimes ducking under the ubiquitous yellow caution tape draped across footpaths and stone stairways, or wrapped around clusters of wounded trees like discarded party streamers after a particularly wild blowout. The refuge-like silence that usually welcomes a contemplative wanderer like me to the area that is known as the north woods has been ruptured by a sonorous growl, ratcheting off rocky outcroppings, drowning birdsong and the familiar flush of waterfalls. If one didn’t know better, there might be reason to be fearful; that just around the familiar curve of a wooded path that I am following is a formidable deterrent, a beast unlike any other, one to be avoided at all costs.

Instead, I continued exploring, humming along to the John Cage-like dissonance of the music of tree-eating machinery surrounding me.

On some of those walks, either alone or with The Mister, as one does after a public calamity of any sort and we tend to be more approachable, we had many informal conversations with strangers. A woman I met on that first morning in the aftermath told me how surprised (and upset) she was to see so much destruction. She lived only a few blocks below the storm’s path and so out of range of the full impact. Her first reaction was that Mayor Bloomberg had reacted heavy-handedly after the death of a man a few weeks ago from a falling tree limb, and ordered any potentially dangerous tree felled. We kvetched like old neighbors about their mayor in true New Yorker style and then focused our attention on her two adorable mutts. The younger of the two, just a pup, was rescued while she was on vacation in The Virgin Islands. She and her husband simply cut him down from where he was hanging as bait for dog fighting! A man we met at The Great Hill accompanied us as we walked back home, relating to us the far wider devastation in Riverside Park, that the park was closed and how cars were smashed in the street. We parted around the lake at 104th on the West Side but he hesitated a few yards ahead of us, turned, and trotted back to direct me to a raccoon in a tree branch he thought my camera should not miss.

Days later, an article in the New York Times shattered the hope that “The Twins” would be spared: “This is the saddest part to me,” said the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, as experts gave little hope to two damaged yellow buckeyes, in the horse chestnut family, that still towered over thickets of downed foliage but seemed destined for the wood chipper.”

Notwithstanding my sadness at this news, I was surprised that I had not actually known the proper name of the trees: yellow buckeyes, in the horse chestnut family. They were always just my two trees, “The Twins.”

For over forty years I have sought out these trees for many reasons and for no reason at all but just to see them growing on the edge of the field. Two spindly saplings are pictured in a black and white photograph I have somewhere. I was a much younger woman then and married for the first time. It was not a good marriage and the turmoil that came out of an ill-conceived union often sent me on lost walks in the park. Then the north woods were not considered safe ground. I was careless, thoughtless, or brave in those days—whatever you want to call it—and I often banged through the undergrowth of the north woods demonized after any number of noisy, tearful arguments. By the time I had returned to “The Twins” my soul had restored, at least until the next round of conflict. They would always be shelter for my personal storms.

Married now to The Mister for over 20 years, I won’t say there weren’t any number of agitated walks necessitated by the struggle to get to know each other early on, but they dissipated and were replaced with countless walks side-by-side in the part of the park we love best. We began to think of “The Twins” as an old married couple, secure in each other’s company, content with their fit. In all seasons they have never wavered from each other’s side, not in the over abundance that spring brings nor the harsher days of winter.

New trees will be planted, it says on the Central Park Conservancy site. A child today will grow up with a tree or trees that become dear to his or her heart. I found a Greek proverb that happily summed it up for me: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
Before and After the storm on August 18, 2009
Central Park, East Meadow

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Corner shop, it's the last one down…" fairalldanzmusic

"There's a constant drip and trickle of life that goes into one's awareness…"—Mike Leigh


When the Mister and I first got together yonks ago we introduced each other to our favorite filmmakers. In that brief halcyon of dating, before we bravely bit the matrimonial bullet, we saw, first off, Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire and Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. I was instantly hooked on Leigh who was new to the U.S. at the time (or at least new to me) and we searched out every film of his that we could find on video (Remember, this was yonks ago). The moment a new one came out here we rushed to see it, never disappointed.

There was a time in our travels between here and the UK when it suddenly occurred to us that in every social and familial situation we found references to any one of the Mike Leigh films. I don’t recall which of us actually said it, but at some point we came to the same conclusion: We were, indeed, living in a Mike Leigh World. Which, of course meant we had to write a song. And so we did.

Paul Fairall singing Mike Leigh World. Lyrics and music by Paul Fairall and Linda Danz. Recorded in a 19th century farmhouse at Chatham, New York in the Hudson River Valley on August 13, 2009.


Got it all but the kitchen sink
Sweet dreams for everyone
Johnny thinks that he’s all alone
When there’s class war
In the living room
In a flat and you’re all knocked up
Two doors down and one floor up
Corner shop with the shade pulled down
Sweet dreams for everyone

We’re all living in a Mike Leigh world
And it’s high hopes for everyone
We’re all living in a Mike Leigh world
And it’s high time my old son

Put it all on the mantelpiece
Sweet dreams for everyone
Abigail’s in her party gown
And in the mean time
She’s on her own
In a flat and you’re all knocked up
Two doors down and one floor up
Corner shop at the end of town
Sweet dreams for everyone

We’re all living in a Mike Leigh world
And it’s high hopes for everyone
We’re all living in a Mike Leigh world
And it’s high time my old son

Take it all from the working man
Sweet dreams for everyone
Penny saves for a rainy day
When the clouds burst
And wash it away
In a flat and you’re all knocked up
Two doors down and one floor up
Corner shop it’s the last one down
And there’s no place for anyone

We’re all living in a Mike Leigh world
And it’s high hopes for everyone
We’re all living in a Mike Leigh world
And it’s high time my old son

Caravan of dreams
Parked on the street
Looking so neat and tidy
Sitting out in the shed
You’ve gone to bed
A bottle of wine gone to your head
Baby’s gone to bed

We’re all living in a Mike Leigh world
And it’s high hopes for everyone
We’re living in a Mike Leigh world
And it’s high time my old son

© fairalldanzmusic on our myspace page.

Monday, August 17, 2009


The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”—Friedrich Nietzsche

Been walking around in a kind of dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah melancholy lately; wrapped in displacement by ill-fitting, ephemeral thoughts. Could be that I am a Leo, sun-signing on the beach of aging. Or, that life moves so fast now, and I have finally learned to move more slowly and so am left gawping in the interim before I adjust again.

When I was a kid it was television, then color TV; handwritten letters and thank you notes, and then a man walked on the moon. Fast forward to Facebook and Twitter and conspiracy theories about the moonwalk—that it was played out on a Hollywood soundstage, one small theatrical step for man, one politically milked event for mankind. And fewer heartfelt thank you notes originate now beyond the implied haste of e-mail or are left before an audience on Facebook . I don’t know anything about Twitter, beside it having a limit of 140 characters in a message, er, tweet. But handwritten notes of thanks for, say, a dinner lovingly prepared for friends, or some little gift sent—through the post—rarely occur because one has to write them, and then, gasp, mail them. What may be good for the environment and the life of trees has actually produced mountainous junk heaps of discarded computers. Though dumped in other countries, of course, far away from here. Happily there are still a few of us relics of the Snail Mail Age around, but we are disappearing.

No thank-you notes in the mail mean fewer recognizable faces employed at the post office these days. Customer lines at the Third Avenue station on the Upper East Side are longer now. Postal employees retire and are not replaced. Toni is one of those clerks still working and she sums it up: “It’s the Internet.” Toni and I have been sharing pleasantries for years, some of it kvetching and more of it the flashing of personal indicators: her son has grown up in our conversation, problems with his schoolwork when he discovered the guitar and now he’s graduating from high school. My life has changed since I lost my job and Toni always asks about our music. I wonder how long it will be before one more casual conversation with a neighborly human being is missing from my life.

We had been contemplating a Park Slope venue on Friday evening. A friend who is a drummer was playing in Brooklyn and the proximity to the Chipshop was tempting indeed. Ummm, fish and chips washed down with a cool shandy. But I hesitated, because of the dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah-ness. I was missing something and though I didn’t know what it was at the time, I was not ready to ignore what it was that I was missing. Know what I mean?

The Mister never denigrates my self-indulgent despair when it happens. He listens; the prominent brow of Aries suitably furrowed. Then he says, “Pecker up, lad.” And I do. Or rather it does, metaphorically speaking.

I wasn’t in the mood for more alienating hipster crowds that make me feel like a stranger on the planet, a tourist in my hometown. We went with the original plan: Coney Island’s Burlesque By-the-Sea. We would head for a meal in Brighton Beach first.

The young, very pregnant woman panting heavily on the B train nearly derailed our plans. Thinking I was seeing things, I tried not to stare at her until I overheard the older woman with her. “I can see she wants out!” And catching my wary eye she informed us—cool as you please—that the young woman was in labor. We exchanged smiles. I watched as an unborn baby girl did a little womb dancing for her very uncomfortable mother. The young woman’s mother proudly exclaimed that she was a grandmother six times over, “…and I’m only 45. Had enough grand daughters. Counting on my sons to bring me some boys.” The Mister and I whispered in agreement that we would not dessert her and her mother if she were to give birth in the subway car. A wild imagination had me unconsciously fingering the shawl I carry prepared for the artic temperatures of air conditioning. I would become that prairie doctor, ready to swaddle a newborn. She continued to prod her daughter to, “Breathe, breathe, we are almost there.” One male passenger looked decidedly nervous and I admit I was relieved when she told me they were headed for St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, which was the next stop. She was impressively calm beside her volcanic daughter, chatting amiably and we wished them well as she guided her onto the station platform, telling me it was good for her daughter to walk; that if her water broke in the street she would call an ambulance.

The rest of the long ride was uneventful and we kind of basked in the feel good of the earlier moment. In Brighton we went straight to our favorite Russian café, The Ocean View under the El on Brighton Beach Avenue. Smoked fish, cold borscht crisply laden with sweet slivers of red beets and cucumber and a mound of fresh fried potatoes covered in a variety of mushrooms and sprinkled with fresh dill fortified us for our walk along the boardwalk to Coney Island. The last time we were here was in the fall with our good friends from Leicester. It was nippy and nearly deserted then and we got to huddle over shot glasses of vodka in the Café restaurant Volna.

The August heat had brought out the crowds, a dazzling array of ethnicities. Mostly families, there were also many older couples and children everywhere fighting the torpor that comes from having spent many playful hours in the sun. Lively chatter everywhere around us rose above the cry of seagulls, the music that never fails to cheer me up. Being wheelchair bound was no hindrance to a pair of young lovers gazing out to the sea.

Ahead the lights of Coney Island drew us into a bigger crowd, a heaving, playfully boisterous crowd. “Hit the freak. HAHAHAHAHAHA!” The raspy-voiced recording looped over and over: “Hey lady. You in the tight pink shorts. C’mere. HAHAHAHAHAHA!” Shadowy figures bent over fake automatic weapons shooting paintballs at the darting figure in the pit below.

We were in Coney Island. A stop in Rudy’s Bar & Grill for an antidote of vodka was in order before the evening’s performance of Burlesque-By-the-Sea. Rudy’s is a twilight zone of memory and present with only a bit of the future lurking in some hipsters who sit quietly and warily at a table and have not yet claimed the place as theirs. Bikers and biker chicks abound. Grandmothers bustle past the teenage boys in the requisite low-slung baggy cargo shorts. A bottle-blonde muscleman is a dead ringer for Joe Pesci. Another man, small and dark-skinned, his lean arms roped with snakey veins, wanders through the bar crowd selling rosary beads. A father cradles his boy in his arms and dances with him, twirling him around while mother watches. Salsa music blares and a bald-headed woman shimmies alongside a multi-tattooed man. One customer’s request for piña coladas is met with a gruff response from the barman: “I don’t use the blender at night.” “Gimme a Bud—a big one,” gets a much speedier reaction. The Mister and I are treated to a free round by another barman because we never asked for it, as the hapless woman next to us mistakenly did. “But, I thought you were supposed to give me a free one on the third round, no?” He wasn’t having it and made sure she knew it was at the discretion of the bartender. And there up on the wall behind the bar, among the huge collection of photographs of vintage Coney, a moldy dust jacket from the book: Ruby. The Gem of Coney Island, neon beer signs and the obligatory warning to pregnant women is a faded color photo of Richard Nixon clasping a reluctant Pat to his side.

On the boardwalk the crowds ignore the late hour and little kids are whizzing around amusement rides in the kiddie park that used to be Astroland. For fifty cents you could see a one-hundred-pound rat! Think of it, what can you do these days for fifty cents? “Save Coney Island” T-shirts are everywhere but Coney seems to have saved itself. Rough little theater groups perform on makeshift stages, applauded by huge friendly crowds as performers comically play out Depression-era scenarios of failed mortgages, lost jobs and repossession by greedy bankers.

The scheduled fireworks start late and we agree that we’ll have to miss the burlesque show this time. We’re on Coney time, after all. But we’ll be back. The fireworks, a decidedly very low-tech affair brought back more fond memories than anything Macy’s has ever elicited as the
ooohs and aaahs chorused around us. Sleepy children slumped in strollers, oblivious. One mother explained that they had been on the beach since that morning and smiled indulgently as she rocked her son back and forth. Another woman, extravagantly manicured, described the filet-o-fish she’s had earlier. “I hadda throw out the fish. That’s how bad it was. Fries so greezy it was up in my nails. I stuffed them into the bread and had a potato sandwich!”

We had one last stroll along the boardwalk, listening for strains of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime from a small but live orchestra.

It’s not all bad, this New Agey communication. I have friends on facebook who enjoy life and friends who enjoy life and can still take the time to discuss life’s lesser moments like the destruction of hundred year-old trees on a broad boulevard in Barcelona. We don’t ignore the plight of carriage horses in Central Park and can link to friends who rescue horses on a sanctuary in the Hudson River Valley. We can write about our causes and report on political demonstrations we’ve attended. We can be happy for each other’s country when it gets something right, like the recent Supreme Court decision to hear the case of Troy Davis, an innocent man on death row.

But sometimes the human voice, the handwritten note or, even better letter are what lifts the spirits. Drifting away from the late-night crowds only just beginning to make their way home the last song from the karaoke bunch on the boardwalk lingers behind us. You just cannot imagine Stevie Wonder singing: “I just e-mailed, or I just twittered…” No, it can only be, “I just called to say I love you.”


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Of two sisters one is always the watcher, one the dancer.—Louise Glück



LIFE is unfair.”

Diane turned cautiously from her mother’s sharp rebuke, avoiding what might have come next. She pressed her chin into her breastbone, biting her tongue. She’d already tempted fate by questioning the unfairness of it all, but that hand of fate could pack a wallop if she didn’t just zip it immediately. There is nothing she can do about it now. She fingers the soup can-sized rollers in her hair. It had taken her all morning to carefully section her fine straight hair, demanding patience she had very little of. If only she looked like Sandra Dee she’d get a boyfriend like Bobby Darin who was a lot better looking than Frankie Russo.

Not that she has a boyfriend. Not that she’s even allowed to have a boyfriend. That’s what the argument was about last night. The Shrimp had tracked Diane and Frankie to the playground. Her little sister Suzie was called The Shrimp—among other things—because she was so tiny. Anyone who didn’t know guessed she was much younger than her ten years. Diane should have raced from the grasping, juiced up boy as soon as she heard her mother yelling from their first floor window into a courtyard already emptied of kids who had come when they were called. And when her little sister peered into the cement barrel tunnel on the playground and urged: “Better get home for dinner. Mommy’s gonna kill you,” she should have been nicer to Suzie, not screamed at her as she sped away from them. She should not have yelled, “You suck!”

Her mother’s expression twisted from annoyance into rage as her youngest delivered the reason for Diane’s lateness. If her father had not been there, resigned under the desultory plume from his cigarette, staring at an empty dinner plate, then Diane surely would have felt her mother’s hand across her cheek. Instead, he tossed the cigarette into the sink on his way to the refrigerator. “She’s boy crazy that one!” Her mother stabbed a finger at Diane. “She’ll wind up like that…that Sharon.” A familiar hiss escaped as he popped the tab on a can of Rheingold and halted her rant. He looked at Diane. “You are too young for a boyfriend.”

Now Diane’s Saturday is ruined. “You want to be a grown up?” her mother challenged. “Then take your sister to the dentist.” At least this time she had been spared her father’s mantra: “Yours is not to reason why. Yours is but to do or die.” Well, she was dying, that’s for sure. Whatever she might have been doing was far better than what she had to do now.

“You aren’t going out like that, young lady.”

Diane had painstakingly ironed the ruffled bands on her prized “angel” shirt, which stopped just at her midriff, leaving a bare patch above her favorite pair of pedal pushers, cinched at the waist with cute little buckles. Her mother’s sting still on her skin, she tossed the offending blouse to the floor and replaced it with a plain pink button front, sleeves rolled to the elbow. Out of sight, she will flip the collar up and pull the shirttails into a knot, freeing her tummy. Her Keds shine whitely with a fresh coat of polish. She’s pulled her useless hair into a tight ponytail until it hurts. Even teased within an inch of its life it has no body. Suzie stares dolefully from the foot of her bed, one of two identical single beds in the claustrophobic room they have always shared. “It…your hair…looks better like that.” She had no privacy, no privacy at all! Diane shot back: “You suck.”

“Hold her hand crossing the street. Especially on Northern Boulevard.” Diane prodded her sister through the front door and into the courtyard mumbling, “If she’s so worried about you why doesn’t she take you?” Susie’s lower lip puckered. “We could walk.” “Well, of course we could walk, stupid. We are walking.” Diane held out the coins her mother had given her. “Save on carfare,” she mimicked, “you have nothing better to do with yourself so walk there.” “I mean,” Susie piped, “we could walk back, too.”

They exchanged a conspiratorial look. This had happened before. They could be arguing, screaming like banshees one minute, punching, and pinching each other. Then something would happen to bring it all to a stop, some way of getting back at her.

Ahead, slouched onto a bench as if he was joined to it, sat Frankie. Older than Diane by a few years, he pretended not to see her. He plucked the cigarette pack from his sleeve and tapped it onto the back of his hand. “Hey there, little one.” He winked and ran the palm of his hand over slick black hair. Susie giggled and lowered her eyes. “Come on,” Diane urged, pressing her sister’s delicate shoulders, sneaking a glance at Frankie who was still not looking at her.

They picked up the pace from there to the schoolyard at the top of the walk. A few of the neighbor boys were chucking a basketball, but the handball courts were empty. Diane pulled The Shrimp from the low-slung chains looping brown-patched lawns. Because their apartment’s first floor windows eyed the stoop entrance and overlooked benches where tenants congregated, the family quarrels were public theater, their mother’s harangues legendary. Airless summer nights drew the colored kids to the schoolyard with their parents and older brothers and sisters. Diane’s heartbeat fell in with the conga drums and she’d lie in bed imagining the women dancing, the street lights on their skin like flickering candles in the dark, humid night. Until her mother, not content with screaming at them, decided enough was enough and stormed up to the schoolyard. The drums would go quiet. Diane counted off the steps it took before her mother was far enough away from the dancers to be meaningless again and the drumbeats resumed, along with Diane’s sleepy smile.

• • •

Susie meandered in lopsided dreaminess ahead of her older sister’s watchful eye as they traipsed along 48th street heading for Sunnyside. It always struck Diane that not far from the impersonal complex of public housing, there were neat yellow brick homes in comforting rows along a street shaded with trees at the far end, kids’ bicycles tilted into wrought iron banisters. Her mother’s parting reprimand ringing in her head, Diane took her sister’s hand at the crossing on Northern Boulevard. It was a no man’s land of auto dealerships and ill-defined structures split by the broad boulevard. Determined drivers whizzed past them. Safely on the other side, Susie wrenched her hand from Diane’s grip and sprinted on spindly legs in crisp cotton shorts, putting some distance between them. The sight of the Empire State building on her right in the far distance reassured Diane. Next year she would go to a public high school in Manhattan. She’d passed the test. It was a dream come true. No more of this babysitting. She’d have friends and dates and drawing classes and way too much schoolwork.

Susie slowed, squatted and pretended interest in some scrap on the sidewalk but Diane knew that the train trestle ahead spooked her. It was a foul and scarred strip of grimy wall, weeping with blistered paint under a skeleton of iron pilings and train tracks encrusted with pigeon shit. The stench of urine on a hot summer day hurried even those hardened pedestrians. “’Fraidy cat,” Diane jeered and then laughed to soften the blow. Susie turned. Her shoulders were drawn under her ears. Her brow was deeply furrowed, her eyes looked darker and older in her small face. “I’m not!” she cried. Diane laughed again. “You are so.” But she hurried to her sister and in an unconscious move they clasped hands and when Diane shouted, “Run!” they tore under the train trestle, hollering for all they were worth as a cloud of pigeons burst from their path.

The other side brought them to a canopy of trees, alongside a chain link fence woven thickly with ivy. Wooden cottages, cheerily painted, nestled alongside two-story brick homes, front doors shaded with green-and-white striped awnings. Embellished iron gates led from the sidewalk to shady places behind the houses. White wooden porches graced red brick homes and flowerpots hung from hooks. Hydrangea bushes ballooned in front gardens, blossoming violet and blue, lavender and pink, depending on what bit of iron or copper was buried at their roots. Sunlight dropped through the trees onto the pavement, splashes of light from a natural palette. The complex of low-storied houses called Sunnyside Gardens was a paradise to Diane. A few steps up from the street and you were in a landscaped garden so private you could hardly believe it. Lace curtains billowed out from open doors. White morning glories, like wedding bells, shivered when you touched them.

At Queens Boulevard Diane grabbed Susie’s hand again. It was always tricky getting to the other side of the broad, congested road and Diane took no chances as they hurtled across one way, stopping under the viaduct looming above them, before they took their chances again on the other side.

The dentist’s office was up a flight of stairs in a narrow two-story building on a quieter avenue behind the boulevard. The waiting room was a small, nondescript area just outside the office. Dr. Tucher stood in the doorway between the reception area and the examining room, expecting them. His smile was hard to describe. Like it came with his face and never changed. He smelled clean and his hands were always cold. The few straight-backed chairs were old, and so were the magazines piled onto a rickety table in the corner. In the winter, the radiator gurgled and steam coated the window. Today a fan perched on the radiator in front of the open window whirring softly. Diane had never recalled seeing any other patients and she slumped into a chair, prepared to wait.

He spoke softly, not exactly gently. “Come along.” Susie passed under his arm and when he put a hand on her shoulder she flinched. Dr. Tucher urged her, “It won’t hurt, and you’ll be right as rain.” Diane called after her, “Hey, peanut.” Susie turned, her look disengaged. “It’s not that bad,” Diane crooned. They disappeared behind the closed door.

Diane was glad not to have to be in that chair today. Everything about the experience was off putting. The office equipment, all of it a nauseatingly pale translucent green like she imagined the color of sea slugs. She hated the feel of his cold hands prodding the inside of her gaping mouth. They smelled abnormally clean. Her mother was usually with them but after awhile Diane was relieved when she’d disappear on errands for the duration. Her mother was a bit too flirty with the doctor who let his hand linger on her arm sometimes. She and her sister would joke later and call him ‘Dr. Touch Her.’ And that gas mask. Ugh. The first time he placed it over her face she reacted so strongly that he looked distraught and worried allowed that he had somehow hurt her. He carefully explained that the gas would make it painless, even make her feel good. She was not persuaded and instead endured the long needle he’d had to shoot into her gums to anesthetize a compromised tooth. Susie would be distracted with the silvery balls of filling he let them play with.

Diane dropped a thin pile of magazines onto her lap. Life magazine. All old issues. She put an issue of National Geographic back on the table. Her annoyance returned. Not even a current copy of Seventeen. Jack Paar squinted from a cover of Life. Her dad called him the Pinko, or rather, that Pinko. She slid it back onto the table. Here was Debbie Reynolds on the cover of Life, in Spain. She’d like to go to Spain someday. She was surprised to see Marilyn Monroe next. It was an old issue of the magazine but one Diane had never seen. Flipping through it she saw an article about a young woman in Japan who was called a ‘commoner’ and how she was marrying a Prince. So, it could happen. Diane held her breath as she slowly tore Marilyn’s sexy image from the magazine. She folded it carefully and slid the page into her pants pocket.

There was no clock in the waiting area. Diane fidgeted irritably. Her little sister was so little and even more maddening than ever. She hated sharing a room. They were so different. Everything about her life, her dreams, had to be secreted in her diary and then even that was not safe. Diane bristled, recalling with anger the day she arrived home to see Susie, surrounded by her friends on the stoop, reading aloud from that diary, its lock cleanly cut from the covers. Exasperated, Diane pictured their reward after this. A treat at the ice cream parlor on the corner, thank you mother. They would have to walk home but it would be worth it. She might have suggested the White Castle—mystery meat her dad called it—but Susie was the one getting drilled and she would want ice cream.

The door clicked open. Susie, head lowered, slipped quickly past the doctor. “Okay there?” she asked. He assured Diane she was fine, that she was still feeling the affects of the gas. “You’re taking the bus?”

Outside Diane started for the ice cream parlor. Susie stood still, looking around her like she was lost. “What’s up?” “I don’t….” “You don’t what, want ice cream?” Diane crouched down to look at her sister more closely, see if her jaw might be swollen. But apart from that vacant look, she seemed fine. “Peanut?” she urged, “Are you sure?” Then resorting to her father’s precocious nickname she whispered, “No ice cream for the zinzemeier kartuffel glazer?” Diane reached for Susie at her waist, aiming to hoist herself back up. Her sister’s body went rigid, as if a thunderbolt had shot through her. “Get off!” she shrieked, her face reddened and clenched. Diane, stunned, straightened up. “Okay, okay. Sheesh, you’re touchy.”

After a few silent moments Susie murmured, “Bus” and she clasped Diane’s hand.

They rode home in silence. Diane stared out the window. Next year she would go to a public high school in Manhattan. She’d passed the test. It was a dream come true. No more of this babysitting. She’d have friends and dates and drawing classes and way too much schoolwork.

LAUGHING GAS is an original short story by Linda Danz.

STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. ©August 2009.