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   a    n o t e    t o    j a k e

--- A R I E L   D J A N I K I A N

First Place Winner of the The Phi Kappa Sigma Fiction Prize, 2004 at the University of Pennsylvania
Judged by Amy Bloom

The Concert
Jake left the public junior high for a boarding school in Massachusetts. We did not see him until five years later on the street. He tapped my mother on the back and said, excuse me Mrs. Bennett? Oh Jake we never would have guessed it was you, my mother had said. When she pinched his cheeks, he did not pull away. He scratched the back of his neck when he told us that he wanted to be a doctor like his parents. My mother made me measure up beside him because he could not say by exactly how much he had grown.

We were waiting outside the ticket booth to see my brother play the Trocadero. The line of people curved back around the block. We watched from the balcony and tried make out every word of the lyrics. When the concert ended the crowds came out again onto the sidewalks. Jake met up with Ben that night and they stopped by at one friendís house and then drove to anotherís. When they pulled in at two to eat fast-food hamburgers in our living room, Jake said that he remembered it all.

He came back on Fridays for the next two months and he and Ben would listen to jazz CDs downstairs. Ben would play along on the guitar and Jake would play on the piano. You could hear them from across the porch and across the lawn and even further out than the sidewalk. Our next-door neighbors said that they loved to hear the boys and that they did not mind the noise at all. Ben had a real musicianís ear; he could play anything. Jake never hit the right chords, but that would not stop him.

My mother asked for a copy of his senior picture because she liked to have our friends up on the refrigerator too. If she had not asked him for that picture then, maybe it would not have caught her eye so immediately when they printed it in the city paper, August 23rd.

If he had not stood behind us the night that Ben played the Trocadero, then we would have only known him as a little boy. If Jake had gone to the private school two blocks away from his house, then Ben would have gone through the first eight grades without him. If we had never moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia, then we never would have known a thing about it. Even so, it is that same picture, just in black and white. I have it in my hands. Hold it up; it is the same.

Ben and I visited our mother for the same long weekend in September. The first thing Ben did was to throw out the article that our mother had saved, paper-clipped together on his desk. He read it slowly and then folded it up into one tiny square. I told him not to do it. He dropped it into the kitchen garbage can. He could not even look at me directly, and then he went into the bathroom and let the water run.

We did the dishes that night because Mom had cooked and set the table. When we finished, Ben shut off the faucet and stood over the sink. He reached his arms up and braced himself between the two hanging cabinets. When he stood back, we saw the wet marks that his palms had left on the wood. He wiped them away with a paper towel. You know, he said, in all my life, I have never touched that space. Isnít that funny? He reached up again, into the area high above the sink and ran his middle finger along the edge between cabinet and wall. I have lived here all my life and I have never once touched here, he said. I reached into the opening between the toaster and refrigerator side. And what about this? I said.

Ben went to bed and I locked the windows and the sliding-glass door. The remote control had no batteries. I stood at the cable box and the picture flickered and flashed white and the sentences stopped short as I pressed the channel button over and over. Sometimes I would speak out loud, under the noise of the television. I heard Ben turn on the shower upstairs and walk to his bedroom and back again. The papers were in the trash lined with creases. They did not even print his name at first. At first, they only called him The Hospital Chiefís Son.

This Way On The Main Line I
They need two cars just to fit everyone. Ben drives one with Jake in shotgun and three other guys in the back. They block both lanes down Montgomery Avenue and throw pennies at high speed back and forth through the open windows. Sometimes one of them will shout and pull his arms in. Fuck, donít get too close, they sometimes will say.

They stop to get milkshakes at a gas station that stays open all night. Ben only drinks half and nails a stop sign near the tennis club with the rest. The styrofoam bursts. Nice shot, says the kid in the middle seat. They all bring CDs to play, because there is nothing but crap on every station. Jake skips some songs and some he plays twice. He is constantly taking silver disks in and out of their plastic cases.

Everyone cuts the turns on Kelly Drive; it does not matter. At the grandstands, people have parked the best they can behind the hedges. They walk right up to each car pulling in to see who has come. They check bumper stickers for high school affiliations. Yo man, they say whether they know them or not. Two girls jump out of the back of a packed mini-van where they had crouched for the ride.

There is beer in the trunks and pot in the glove compartments. A guy from Jakeís seventh-grade science class asks him who the hell would want to freeze their ass off in Massachusetts anyway. Itís not so bad there, he says. One girl hugs him. Jake only knows a few people. Ben tells him that Elli became a real jerk and that Jess never gets with anyone, then he goes off to listen to some new CD in someone elseís new car.

Jake climbs the stands and looks out over the street. He looks at the way the concrete bridge arches over it. When a car passes through the whole thing lights up. Four people sit on the wall, each with one leg over the side. Jake leaves his beer on a ledge next to a pile balled up gum wrappers. He can see everyone below, wondering around. Thereís one girl so loud that he can hear every word she says. Her friends keep putting their hands on her face. He watches how they hold her shoulders.

Someone hands Jake a beer in a red, white and blue patterned cup. Must be left over from the fourth of July, Jake says. When a cop car passes they duck down low in the stands. When four kids from the Catholic school light up magazines with their cigarettes, Ben tells Jake that they should get the hell out.

Jake takes shotgun again and one kid gets left behind. It is after twelve and yellow lights flash at the intersections. Go, Jake says. Ben looks both ways down the empty street. Right, he says, and hits the gas too hard so that the car jumps forward. Jake slaps the dashboard with his palm.

This Way on the Main Line II
Here are some things that you have to know about the suburbs: They begin at City Line Avenue and end the first sign of horse shit. If you try to ride your bike two blocks without a helmet, someone will pull over and let you know that, really, you shouldnít, really. There are four synagogues, one farmerís market, seven elementary schools and nothing but two-hour parking anywhere you go. If you jump off a lawn chair, you can fly to the neighborís; if one day the cat climbs the hill to the train tracks, it may never come down again.

It is one month later on Montgomery Avenue and Ben and I are in the car too. We are going to pickup the new porch furniture that our mother ordered last week from a garden store. Two wicker chairs and wicker swing. They are the nicest mint-green, she had told us. In the greenhouse pots of flowers hang from the ceiling and bags of dirt lean against the walls. The teenagers behind the counter do not help us carry the furniture and a loose piece from the base of the swing scratches Ben above his elbow. We get into the car. Damnit, he says. I hold his arm and look at the rough line of skin. There is no blood.

Ben flips the visor across his window to block the sun. We stop for pizza slices on the way. Ben eats with one hand and steers with the other. The cell phone keeps ringing but itís no one important. Ben says that itís going to be hell getting everything arranged on the porch. I hold my hand against the glare coming off the glass and put my feet up onto the dashboard. There are three ways to get back to our house from the main shopping center and we can never figure out which one is the fastest.

Is Jake picking you guys up tonight, Ben?
No, heís not coming back until Tuesday.
Where has he gone?
To upstate New York for a camp reunion.

When There Was Only Skin And Bone
I was six and I thought that I could swim too. I was not allowed to sit near the deep end but when my mother went to the snack machine, I dropped into the pool. My goggles filled with water but I kept my eyes open to see. The pool was very clear; the others kicked past over my head.

My back had scraped against the concrete of the pool floor. I waved my hands but I could not keep them pointed to the surface. I could not stay in one place, or even keep close to the wall. Ben and I always had contests to see who could hold their breath for longest, but I would cheat and breathe through my nose.

Of course, I could not call out to the blurry figures above me. Of course, you cannot talk to people from inside the pool. If the water comes in and fills your lungs then it should feel the same as always. Cup your hands, my mother always tried to teach me. I kicked my leg and it scraped hard against the concrete. The water in my goggles burned my eyes but I would not close them.

My mother brought me into the looker-room and put me under the shower. She had Ben on her hip while she dried my hair and she asked me what I had been thinking so many times. Ben cried so loudly that people left that section of long wooden benches. I can still remember the way that the noise echoed off those tiled walls and the way that Ben opened his mouth and screamed for no one but himself. I yelled at him to shut it up and I can remember the feel of the water too.

Jakeís foot slipped on the pebbles that covered the ground. There were many people there who saw. The three closest had dived with their mouths open, yelling for him. They thought that he might have knocked his head on a jutting portion of hard bank somewhere on the way down. The article called it a final act of friendship. They used to swim there as children and the edge had never scared them. The other summers, they swam at just that place.

When the water swirls with that motion there is no buoyant force to push against. Even when your legs kick very hard, even when your arms move wildly. Even very strong arms. The water comes down from high and pools. They found them lodged against a rock twenty feet down. Thrown back against a rock with three other bodies, they did not carry downstream.

The Service
All I have to do is lie face-up on the dining room table and already the house has unfolded into something smooth. There is no need to punch at the walls. There is no reason to knock over the stack of ceramic plates. The doors of the corner cabinet are open. Stand on the folding chair with your face too close to the light bulbs in the chandelier. This is what a forehead feels like when itís hot.

If there was no such thing as suffocation or organ systems or cells that use oxygen to make energy to feed your brain; if there was no such thing as cause of death; no tangle of veins or electric current; nothing of soft tissue that gives to the touch. If the system was only cleaner, then our stomachs would not have to turn at the thought of mud in his lungs.

I can tell you that the only man to ever save a personís life was Albert Einstein. The one who made duration into something real. And if the grid of space and time stretches out like the checkers on the tablecloth, then there is no such thing as a surprise. If I had known I would have told Jake long ago so that he would not have to say, I wish that we had never come here. I hate it when people have to say, I wish that I had never come back.

March, 1991
Jake and Ben play catch with a tennis ball and gloves. Ben wears his red sweatshirt and the glasses with the dinosaur band to hold them on. Jake snaps the twigs off the trees. The aluminum slide reflects the sun. The bars feel warm when you hold them and swing and squeak if you swing out too hard. When they wash up before lunch, they toss handfuls of water across the kitchen and Jake almost falls off the stepping stool, laughing. They are coming down the hallway, always moving at a half run.

They pull the blanket down to the foot of the bed and drape it over the backside of a chair. Jake has pretzels in his pocket that he got from the jar in the kitchen. They take sweaters out of the drawers. A storm is coming, Ben says, get ready for the storm. They throw another blanket over the first. The fort collapses but they build it up again. Inside is very dark. Jake puts on Benís glasses and it makes the walls look closer. He takes the glasses off and everything looks right again.

Jake feels the pillow on his cheek and how the air gets warm. He lets his lips make the cloth wet in a circle. He breathes in the same breath sometimes with the blankets hung all around them. In class he had spelled a word wrong on the blackboard and his teacher circled it and did not erase the board until lunch. Ben is very still. The telephone is ringing in another room.

His father will come at five-thirty to pick him up and will let him turn the dials of the radio. He will sit at his chair for dinner with the mail and pens and pencils in the blue coffee mug behind him. When it gets dark his mother will make sure not to switch off the lights in the hallway and he will stand under the shower with a washcloth over his eyes to keep out the soap.

Jake reaches up and touches the sheet above him where the light from the window glows through. He listens to the sound of cars passing by on the road outside. They are people like his father, coming home from work.

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