Gone in Translation

The house strains against too many occupants and a hot, hard wind. A white man of 40 with no socks but shoes, next to him a white woman with dark streaks on her apron and flour on her arms. A white boy with bandages and a stick. A white girl whose knees are black with grime—I have her neck. The picture is captioned by number and location. The chapter’s theme is not “family” or “white” but the sucked landscape of the 1934 Dust Bowl. All face the camera but two chalky babies, who taste the dirt as though they know the dust unrolling around them is the point. The dog strains toward the surface. Drought careens over shack and carcass; dust wends in sleek, arid ditches past every vanishing point.

I close the book. Ketti is coming. I am a technical writer, and I teach people to read. I am a volunteer, a low-level attendant in the marriage of literacy to welfare. Ketti is my student. She is black. I am white. We are both about 30, and we are both dyslexic. For two years we have been meeting twice a week at Shabilsky’s, where for 40 years more, Paulina Prszybylski has been serving ice cream and sandwiches to old Jewish men.

Ben Medofsky is a daily customer. He shakes his head at what he sees out the window, checking it against what he remembers of South Portland, Ore., before the freeways.

“The Sixth Street synagogue—there,” he says. “Gone.” He looks at his watch. He is waiting for a young woman who calls herself G, who says she’s a dancer and strike organizer, and who has arranged to interview him here. Ben helped make the CIO in ‘34, and the AFL. He was harassed because he was IWW. His wife was clubbed in their home by the police and became deaf.

“You want this spaghetti water?” Luis yells to Paulina from the kitchen. She uses it to starch her aprons.

“Toss it,” she says. Her white restaurant shoes are permanently untied because her feet are permanently swollen. Paulina is 69 and the last of the original Prszybylskis, a family whose name was phonetically translated to Shabilsky’s for the awning, menus and thick, oval platters. She sighs past a sign in the window: 21 Days Left. In less than a month, the restaurant will close forever. It is being annexed into the rest of the block for a franchise superstore.

“Connect the words to the picture,” I say to Ketti. “O-t-t-e-r. Say, An otter.’”

The illustration, like many in adult-literacy texts, looks smirky and uncomfortable. A penciled cross between a squirrel and a dachshund holds a sign in a clown-gloved paw. “A history! An hour! An apple!” Landlocked, deformed, the otter is supposed to be perky but squints in a surprisingly miserable way.

Ketti’s brows press down in effort. She looks as if she’s trying to suck the print through her pupils. “Don’t say it before I try to read it,” she reminds me gently. She memorizes everything she hears. She can’t help it.

Ben’s nurse, Janine, pushes through the glass door. She comes to find him here because he won’t go to the clinic anymore. She asks for coffee at the counter.

“Order me a hot fudge,” he yells to her, “no nuts.”

“You got that right,” Janine says.

“Another comedienne,” Ben says. He has prostate cancer.

Janine takes a blood-pressure cuff out of her backpack. Ben’s eyes go back to the TV mounted high in the corner behind the counter. It’s always on.

“Circle the main verb and underline the subject,” I say. “‘Example: Beavers live in colonies, one or more family groups to a lodge. Example: A family usually consists of a mated pair and two sets of offspring.’”

Ketti pulls my library book across the table. It falls open to the picture.

“That horseshoe,” she says, “flaps at an unlucky angle.”

“Maybe,” I say.

Maybe I have an uncle in this photograph, one of 30,000 Depression-era Farm Securities documents. Maybe this is a picture of the hushed-over relative, the problem kin for whom genealogical nostalgia is forfeited.

The subject here is inheritance: what runs in the family, what is molecular and predisposed, carried in blood and bone, heritable like blood pressure, height, weight and learning disabilities. The subject is visible skin, invisible things beneath it and the weight of the things deeded to us from the outside because of our hue.

I have been looking at the farm picture because of a cousin, not a first or second one but removed, third or fourth. Last winter she sent out a laser-printed holiday letter with a snapshot of herself: 60-ish, flower-printed and hopeful on the steps of the Mormon genealogical library in Salt Lake City. She is hugging an accordion file. She has devoted herself to a history project inspired by the kind of family-tree software you can purchase at Wal-Mart and is hunting everyone down. Scrapbooks and rotten envelopes have been loosened from bi-coastal storage; unwanted bibles and packets of nameless photos have been jettisoned into the cousin’s den in Iowa.

She thinks there is a “we” pictured in one of those famous Farm Securities photographs—gleaned from the nose in this photo, the hands in that, this child, that house, a horse, a forehead, a pair of boots. She says my last name, Small, is a translation of the Polish—originally Maly. The cousin describes the tabular kinship chart she’s drawn, the branches and roots of which burrow back to the old country. She wants to do the whole thing in needlepoint.

Before I write back, I find the photo to which she refers in the library. It does look “familiar.” But at least in part because you see these pictures so often in American history textbooks. They seem to say everything about sharecropping, famine and erosion. And lately they’ve had a new life selling things: insurance, pesticides, lawn chemicals, mortgages. “Wish I’d had a Beauty Mist Humidifier!” a balloon over a desiccated farmwoman is likely to say.

We must be at enough distance from the severity of the original moment that the picture may rehydrate itself, shuck its early, craggier meanings and go back to work as a cartoon, the way Janis Joplin s disembodied voice has been summoned from the grave to sell cars for Mercedes Benz.

Am I related to these people by blood, by culture, or both?

I haven’t before now been interested in genealogy, but my cousin’s letter makes me think of a conversation I heard between my grandmother and her sisters when I was eye-level with people’s elbows.

“Now Josip Maly—he was Klan,” I heard my grandmother whisper.

I didn’t know what Klan meant, but I knew it was something very bad. My grandmother was a weaver, and I was sitting under her huge floor loom, looking up through an acre of thread. I connected the K in Klan with the front end of my own name and a terrible possibility. What if the T sound at the end of Kate was the only thing that kept bad things from flowing out of me and poisoning other people? Klan: The word shuddered in my mouth and pinched my tongue with the stone lips of clam. My negligible last name, Small, became damp and heavy with shame by association, like a drowning kitten tied to a brick. Ever since, when I am in the vicinity of the word Klan, I always see—I am seeing it now—my head pushed through the tight warp of my grandmother’s loom, my throat pressed upon by stiff, wool cord. I never said any of this to anybody. The whispering meant it was something you didn’t talk about.

“Why did your people start out in Mississippi?” Ketti asks me at Shabilsky’s.

“They saw Kosciusko on the map and thought they’d find a little Warsaw there. They were wrong. The town was named for an army general who directed the construction of West Point, who was granted estates, a pension and the rank of brigadier.”

“My mother was born in Kosciusko,” Ketti says. “So was my grandmother.”

I smile at this thing in common because I have assumed for us some other ones: dyslexia, for one; our names, for another.

“You’re a Katherine, right?” I ask.

“No, you’re a Katherine,” Ketti says.

“Then what are you?”

“Kenyatta.” She spells it. Slowly, so that I’ll learn it.

“Hey,” Ben says. “Oprah Winfrey is from Kosciusko, too, you know.” He’s right. Ben watches a lot of “Oprah.”

“Underline the subject,” I say. “‘Musk glands in both sexes produce a liquid used in perfumes.’” We keep reading about beavers. We order Cokes. I am supposed to help Ketti prepare for a class in which the students will pretend to operate a restaurant. We are supposed to write a resumé, role-play a job interview, practice being waitresses and bus boys. We are supposed to finish our workbook in two weeks.

Ben is parked at his corner table. Paulina and Ben have a 20-year-old hostility pact. When Paulina is in the kitchen, Ben calls her a Nazi collaborator behind her back because her family survived in Krakow during the war, a stone’s throw from Auschwitz.

“They knew and they did nothing,” Ben mutters.

Paulina’s parents had a small village farm in Poland. They died during the war, and their children sold milk to soldiers. Those children came here in steerage. They landed in Nova Scotia, crossed Canada and went south.

But Paulina doesn’t like Ben because he comes every day but he never leaves a tip.

The dancer who didn’t show up a few days ago does and introduces herself as G. Her head is shaved, and her eyes are sharp and dark. She walks fast and weighs about 90 pounds.

“What kind of dancer are you, anyway?” Ben says.

“Exotic,” G says.

“A stripper?” Ben asks, “Where?”

“Two blocks from here.”

“There goes the neighborhood,” Ben says. He waves her away. She waits a few minutes at the counter, then leaves. Ben and Luis, the dishwasher, don’t like each other, but they talk about G as soon as she’s gone.

“I guess that’s why they call Oregon the Beaver State,” Luis says.

“Shut up,” Janine says.

“Well, I just don’t see how a bunch of skinny girls in fishnets is going to union up,” Ben says, “and Underplush—what kind of name is that for a decent establishment?”

Ketti, Ben, Paulina, Luis, G, Janine and I live in Portland, Ore., a town sliced by rivers and freeways, a moist, mossy place still surprised by unemployment and housing shortages but ready to insist that welfare recipients prove they are engaged in activities that increase their employability. For 10 years Ketti has cleaned houses in Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland three buses away from where she lives. But in the last two years, she has developed a pain in her spine that won’t go away. She has been to doctors but has no health insurance and, having ruled out anything life threatening, doesn’t seek other treatment. She can’t bend over.

“What does it feel like?” I ask.

“The ache is dark blue,” she says. “The ache is shaped like a figure 8.” Ketti and I have access to extra color. I see pink after I eat spinach. Ketti says milk has a rust-colored taste and the silky weight of mercury. I taste sounds; she hears shapes. When we compare these kinds of notes, we whisper.

I give Ketti a worksheet and go back to my picture. Like many dyslexics Ketti and I take a great deal from images—we are translators at the same time that we doubt a picture’s surface candor. Today something floats up from the farm photograph, from beneath the stumps, milkweed and broken rakes, lurking in the kicked jars and snapped wheels: a stench, pulsing through the sockets in the wall, in the steam rising from laundry, congealing around an unseen hood.

“You’re making me seasick,” Ben says from his table. I am rocking a little.

Paulina changes the number in the window.

For five days the stripper tries to get Ben to talk to her, but he won’t.

Ben tries to get his coffee warmed up, but Paulina ignores him.

Paulina’s Chevy Citation gets towed from the alley where she has parked for six years.

Ketti and I alternate the literacy workbook with the Oregon DMV handbook because Ketti has to prove she’s taken a driver’s test, even if she fails. I point to a picture of cars A, B and C poised between arrows, driving urgently around the curves of a suburban rotary. “Who has the right of way?” I ask.

“Looks like a cold front coming in,” Ketti says.

Paulina changes the number in the window.

When the sign says 12 Days Left, the stripper comes in again. She’s wearing a T-shirt that says “Bad Girls Like Good Contracts.”

“My two cents?” Ben says as soon as she comes in the door. “You want to organize, do it. But don’t count on anything. That ship sailed. They won’t treat you like a heroine. And a bunch of strippers— excuse me, exotic dancers—people won’t give you the time of day.”

“Why are you being such a jerk?” G says.

“Get a real job,” Ben says to her. “And you—” he points at Ketti, “get any job.”

Ketti smiles. “Well, that’s an improvement,” she says to me.

“How?” I say.

“He’s talking to me.”

Usually Ben waits for her to leave before he rants. Ben watched the first wave of African-Americans come to Portland to build ships for Kaiser in the ‘40s. He organized many of these people. But he saw a second massive black migration in the ‘60s, much more characterized by un- and underemployment. Ben is a union man, but he still thinks of welfare as wasteful public assistance. He doesn’t, however, think of Social Security as welfare. Nor does he view unemployment compensation or workers’ compensation as welfare; he believes he is entitled to those benefits because he worked for them.

G leans over his table and gets in his face. “Who died and made you Rosa Parks?”

“Because of nice, ordinary people like me,” Ben says, “there’s a labor board and the Fair Labor Standards Act. We made Social Security in 1935.”

“So how come I’m not good enough to organize?”

Ben stares at the rings in G’s nose. He scowls. “Okay. Fine. Free speech is one of the foundations on which our democracy rests. But a little constructive criticism: Stop with the tattoos and the hardware all over. I know what I’m talking about. Now what you want is your collective bargaining.”

Janine applauds.

G sits down to take notes.

Ketti orders a sandwich.

Paulina changes the number in the window.

The sign says Nine Days Left. We eat spaghetti and watch “Oprah.” The show is about “emotional intelligence.” Oprah’s guest expert describes the outcome of a study begun 30 years earlier. We see videotape of a researcher seated in a room with a 4½-year-old child.

The researcher places a marshmallow on a plate before the boy.

“You can eat that marshmallow right now,” the researcher says. “But if you wait until I come back, then you can have two marshmallows. If you don’t want to wait, you can eat the first marshmallow, but you won’t get the second one. “This exercise is repeated with other children.

The researcher follows these children for 20-plus years. Generally those who resisted the temptation to eat the first marshmallow have better grades, higher test scores and bigger incomes, and stay married.

Generally all of the divorced, unemployed, jailed, drug-addicted, alcoholic are in the group that grabbed the first marshmallow without waiting.

Nobody at Shabilsky’s says anything. We all know that we would have eaten the first marshmallow.

“What if you’re hungry?” Ketti finally says.

“What if you didn’t have breakfast?” G says.

“What if you have a sweet tooth?” Paulina says. She’s diabetic.

The children were preschoolers at the Stanford University School of Education daycare center.

“What about everybody else?” I ask.

“What a crock,” Ben says.

Then the real-estate attorney for the franchise superstore comes in. He smiles with a lot of teeth.

“Soon you’ll be able to get 63 flavors of ice cream here,” he says to everybody.

“Who needs 63?” Ben says.

“I need about four,” Janine says.

The lawyer orders a half-decaf cappuccino, dry.

“We don’t have that,” Paulina says.

The lawyer gives Paulina a check for $34,000. It’s not nearly enough. But there are people who can’t afford to delay gratification, who know that you don’t turn down a sure thing in a world so slippery.

“I’ve seen that lawyer at the club,” the exotic dancer says. She’s sitting at a booth with a laptop and a huge glass of water.

Somehow the lawyer has sucked all the air out of Shabilsky’s. Then Paulina reads it in our faces: All of a sudden we’re all on the same side of something.

“There are other lawyers,” I say, though I don’t know any.

“We could make a petition,” G says.

“Stand in front of the wrecking ball and all that,” says Ketti.

“Kids,” Paulina says, “I’m tired. I want to retire. What would we be saving?”

Shtetl,” Ben says. “That’s what we’d be saving.”

“You’re right,” she says, but her face says another thing, and we know it’s over. All the other customers have long since stopped coming in.

“Nobody likes a countdown,” Ben says.

“Nobody likes to watch something die,” says Janine, the oncology nurse.

Two days later Ketti shows me an agency memorandum. I scan it for a reprieve, but it says public-assistance recipients must gain proficiency in standard English or become good readers in two years. It says public-assistance recipients will be fingerprinted. It says our time is up. We are on chapter three of our workbook.

“Say the forms of ‘to be,’” I say:” be, am/are, being, was/were, been.”

“She be busy,” Ketti says, smiling. “There is more music in this grammar.”

“Music is important,” Janine says to us over the back of her booth. She pours hot butterscotch on a dish of pralines-and-cream.

“‘Because it don’t mean a thing,’” says G, “without some fine bada-bing.”

Swing,” Ben says. “It’s swing.”

“Like, duh,” G says.

Ketti and Ben order grilled sandwiches, onion rings and peach ice cream. They are ordering as much food as they can so that Paulina will make a little money.

“Circle the main verb and underline the subject,” I say. ‘“The beaver’s coat, consisting of a dense, fine underfur, is tan to dark brown above, paler below.’”

“I’m tired of beavers,” Ketti says.” I want to read about something closer to home.”

Paulina replaces the ketchup bottle on Ben’s table.

Ben leaves a tip.

Ketti goes to her caseworker and says she wants a copy of her file. She gets this and brings it to me.

“‘Probably Fragile X,’” I read from the box marked Assessment.

Then Ketti goes to the library. She comes back with a book.

“‘The syndrome is so named,’” I read from it, “‘because a small area of the X-chromosome has a tendency to break.’”

We learn that X-linked disorders manifest more clearly in boys because boys have only one X-chromosome. Girls have two X-chromosomes, but even though the “good” one might override the “bad” one, one of the two X-chromosomes in every cell is inactive. In these females, the book says, Fragile X causes a language disorder called cluttering.

It’s likely she has “congenital word blindness,” Ketti’s file says. And in addition to spelling characterized by order errors, left and mishandedness, stammering, headaches and eye pain, she, like some other dyslexics, “seems to have defects of the sense organs.”

The book says learning disabilities run in families. The child of an affected parent has a 50-50 chance of inheriting dyslexia.

“My parents don’t have it,” I say. “Do yours?”

“My mother reads. My grandmother didn’t. I may assume my great-grandmother didn’t, either, but that’s different.”

“How?” I ask.

Ketti smiles. “Baby, you’re just a little bit slow, and I don’t mean dyslexia. I mean slow like every other Marsha-damn-Brady in the U.S. of A.”

Jan,” I say. “It was Jan. She was clumsy, and she had glasses.”

“Yeah, well, boohoo,” Ketti says.

Ketti means of course that her great-grandmother didn’t read because she was a slave. And she’s pointing out another thing: Nobody ever wrote Fragile X on my file. Nobody made a file for me at all.

In fact my disability was and is subtle, partly because my parents tended it at home with a lot of time and attention. It is impossible to overstress my good fortune there. When I ate peanuts and said “Green” —when I pointed left-handed to my father’s radio and said it sounded like salad dressing—my parents told me that I had secret, infra-red seeing, infra-blue and infra-yellow. And so I have the privilege—and I choose that word for all of its class and race connotations—of finding it odd that anyone would call my dyslexia a “disability.” My parents kept me innocent, a gift there is no repaying. But that innocence has kept me ignorant, and I choose that word, too, for its class and race connotations.

It is heresy to say from within the pedagogical arm of public policy that I wouldn’t want not to have my dyslexia. I know that plenty of other people who have it would be better off without it, or at least with a milder form, like mine. But my dyslexia has facilitated a kind of exertion, without which I would feel lost, for making and looking at sentences. That tug and strain is as fundamental to me as gravity.

The training I got for tutoring dyslexics, while admittedly minimal, approached this condition as if it were a defect that needed to be excised or changed—like a harelip.

I would miss my dyslexia badly if it were gone. Text just isn’t only text. The white spaces between words, between letters—even the seraphs on different fonts—mean. Printed language presents almost three-dimensionally. Sometimes everything in a word doubles—not just its letters, but its weight and intensity—as message. Sometimes when I am very tired, I feel bombarded. Letters are mosquitoes I want to fan away, but they are enclosed around my head within a bowl. They flash and strobe; they pile up like thousands of dead ants on the surfaces of my eyeballs. Yet when writing goes well for me, it feels as if I have painted dots on a balloon, and as I blow up the balloon, the dots, my words, expand away from each other, held but lifted by helium. It is such a fine pleasure, with a little pain underneath, like the tingling under a scab as it begins to pull away from healing skin. An itch like carbonation.

I ask Ketti if she wants to write.

“Write? Sister, I want to read. I want to read and read and read.”

“‘Fragile X disorder is a common cause of mild mental retardation,’ “G reads out loud. She stops.

“No, it’s okay,” Ketti says.

‘“These children are often recognizable by their large heads, prominent ears and long, narrow jaws.’”

Everyone looks at Ketti and me.

“Jaws not very long,” Ben says.

“Small heads, too,” says Janine.

“Tiny ears,” Paulina says to Ketti. “Not yours, honey,” she says to me. “Yours are pretty big.”

“So you’re not retarded,” Ben says.

“Thank you,” Ketti says.

G taps the page. “You know what this is?” she says. “This is name-calling.”

Ben shudders. Janine looks at him carefully.

“You know what it reminds me of?” Ben says. “It reminds me of what Hitler’s propaganda people said. That was their kind of talk.”

“Yes,” Paulina says. “It sounded so confident.”

Paulina and Ben sigh in tandem. They look old.

Four Days Left. Everyone orders marshmallow parfaits. Ketti and I throw out the workbook.

Bialy jak kreda,” Paulina says in Polish.

“White as a sheet,” Ben translates.

“Do you speak Polish?” I ask Ben.

“Does the pope?” he says.

Stary jak swiat,” Ben says.

“Old as the hills,” Paulina translates.

Ketti looks up from her library book. She and G are reading about synesthesia, which means “extra sense.”

“It’s a name for our sense-crossing,” Ketti says to me.

I pick up the book. All babies have it, I read, but as the brain develops, multisensory connections go away—sense responses part ways. That is what’s supposed to happen. In the brain of a normal person, information from single-sense zones flows one way into a multisensory zone. There are routes going back again, but for most of us, those roads back are blocked.

“Backward and forward,” Ketti says to me.

I hear these words, and I feel a feathery brushing of gold in the small of my back.

“Bright,” I say, and, “soft/heavy.”

Ketti nods and smiles and holds my gaze. The TV commercial behind us tastes like mustard. Paulina’s voice sounds pointed. The turkey sandwich on my plate is round-flavored. The page is shedding light up.

We have three days. I start writing my own captions for the farm photograph. I itemize things on unpictured shelves and what might be behind the house.

Paulina puts the Closed sign in the window, but we all stay until midnight.

In my notebook I refer to the unmentioned uncle as “you.” My gaze fixes on the leathery boy away from the others. I heap upon him the future waiting in the gun and the torch and the rope coiled by the pump. I avoid the dog. I summon the outline of cloth, blank slices for eyes, a blood smell in its cotton warp. Grease and gasoline rise to the surface, crumbs and string, the pleas for mercy, the dog shot for barking.

G, Janine and Ben play canasta. Every time Ben gets a lousy hand, he takes a shot at G. “Appearance is important,” he says, “and if you don’t mind my asking, what’s that thing in your face? Oy, your tongue too—you could be nice-looking.”

You meet my eye but do not anticipate me, I write to the boy in the picture.

Light and dark lose their edges. Your shirt and ears have bleached themselves into the grass. After you are dead, a chemical firm will dump its mercury into your waters.

“How do you say child?” I ask Paulina.

“Dziecko,” she says.

“What color is the word?” G asks.

“Silver,” Ketti says.

Ben loses another game. “By the way,” he says to G, “a little hair wouldn’t hurt, if you don’t mind my saying so. This bald thing you got going, it’s like Dachau already. How is that good for business, is all I’m getting at.”

On the morning of the last day, I get a postcard from my needle-pointing cousin.

“Guess what,” she writes. “That photo I told you about? It’s not us. Dang!”

Just like that, the document I have been gleaning for threads of proof is yanked out from under my own genealogical embroidery.

“Too bad,” Ketti says. “You were getting attached to him.”

“Yes,” I say.

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m sure somebody in his family did something bad to a Negro. Sorry there’s no Rodney King video.”

I probably look hurt.

“Honey, try to hold on to all the meanings of ‘hood. Nice and ugly.”

Shtetl,” Paulina says.

Ben looks up. His eyes agree.

They’re right. It’s better to stay a little haunted. Anybody anywhere can become the tired, hungry Poles in Krakow, going about the hard business of living a stone’s throw from mass murder. We’re all so much closer to it than we know.

“And, anyway,” Ketti sighs, “whoever he was, right there, at that moment, he’s just a pale little boy.”

G comes in and plunks a boom box on the counter. She pushes in a tape and dances. This scrawny girl with pencil legs in frayed jeans jigs her goodies to an Eastern European Klezmer band. She laughs and dances like a sapling, both weightless and rooted, like a tree in Colorado somewhere, with white bark and hard, shiny leaves. What mesmerizes us is the expression in her hands, their peculiar flexibility and long, tapered fingernails lacquered in opal.

We clap.

She shrugs and unplugs the machine.

This is when we find out Ketti is a song database—a walking jukebox. She sings “Wild Thing,” “Tiny Bubbles” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” She knows all the words to all the verses—she can’t help it. Her face is as incandescent as chords from a church organ. When she sings “Moon River,” Ben stands up, and with a pristine, aged formality, he takes Paulina’s hand.

They wend very slowly through a waltz learned in childhood. It is heartbreakingly lovely.

Ben sits down heavily and buys G a strawberry malt. “Quit this, already,” he says to her, “what you’re doing at that place.” He’s talking about her job.

“You never looked at dirty pictures?” She says. She turns around and stares him down.

“Oy,” Ben says. “You could call this ‘sitting shiva,’” he says, “or you could call it watching a train wreck.”

The restaurant is closed, and Paulina is selling everything at Shabilsky’s. She’s going to Palm Springs for a few weeks, then getting some dental work done.

G buys the boat-shaped sundae dishes. Ben buys the long-handled spoons. Ketti buys coffee mugs. Janine buys the neon sign. I buy a Formica-topped table with a boomerang pattern.

Thank You for 44 Years, a sign says in the window.

Luis pulls a burn can to the alley and loads it with paper, gas and a broken chair.

Ben hands everybody a skewer and breaks out a bag ofmarsh-mallows. “Eat as many as you want,” he says. “I got three bags.”

Paulina holds up her palms and considers the long lives of her hands, pinked up over the flame.

“I don’t even like marshmallow,” Ben says.

“Me, neither,” G says.

“Can’t stand them,” Paulina says.

“What is marshmallow made of, anyway?” I ask.

“You don’t want to know,” Janine says.

“Give me s’more,” Ketti says.

Luis drops his apron in the burn can. The smell of charred sugar is beautiful and curls around us. The marshmallows turn black and spark.

“Now this is shtetl,” Ben says.

“What’s shtetl?” Ketti asks.

“It’s not the same thing as neighborhood,” Ben says.

“It’s this,” Paulina says.

“It’s green,” I say.

“Nope,” Kenyatta says, with sugar in her mouth. “It’s a whole lot of aqua-blue.”

About the Author

Kate Small

Kate Small’s work has appeared in Nimrod, Boston Review, Madison Review, Chelsea, Other Voices and “Best New American Voices,” a Harcourt anthology edited by Tobias Wolff. She is the recipient of the Lorian Hemingway Prize, the Vogelstein Foundation Grant and National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

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