EMILY ANDERSON ULA
SHORT FICTION: SECOND PLACE
I wrote this story after visiting a dying man. It was my first time meeting him, but others were there to say their final goodbyes. I didn’t speak the language fluently, so in many ways I felt like a child, forced to fill in the gaps with intuition. I wrote the first few scenes over and over without fully understanding where the story was leading. My thesis advisor challenged me to “keep pressing the ending.” However, I didn’t get it quite right until years later, when I became a mother and rediscovered the almost-paranormal connection between mother and daughter. For some reason, these characters stayed with me and have turned up in many other stories, which I have been compiling into a linked collection.
Avery doesn’t remember this place. She was just a baby the last time they visited. On the drive from the airport, she notices the lack of trees along the gray city streets, the sidewalks crowded with pedestrians, the cage-like doors lining the shop fronts. Her mother sings along with the radio, which she never does when her father is in the car. Before the trip, her mother brought out a photo of her great Uncle Florim and Aunt Drita and reminded her how to address them in Albanian, the words for aunt and uncle, Halla and Daja. In the picture, her uncle has thick, dark hair and a handle-bar mustache, accentuating a noticeable frown. Avery thought he looked sad or perhaps scared. “Is it because he knows he’s going to die?” Her mother laughed and said he wasn’t sick when the picture was taken. It was his wedding day.
Avery’s parents argued about whether she should go to New York. “You’re taking our daughter to see that man?” her father asked.
Soon, they ascend a steep driveway and arrive at a sallow building overlooking the train tracks. Humidity wraps itself around Avery’s limbs as she gets out of the car. She’s never met a dying person, and as they enter the complex, she asks, “What will we say to him?”
Her mother takes a deep breath. Avery hangs behind her mother’s slender body as they exit the elevator on the third floor. At eight years old, she’s nearly as tall, inheriting her father’s height and his sloped, Germanic features, but her mother’s olive skin and dark hair. She feels awkwardly aware of her body, and she senses her mother feels the same—that she doesn’t want to enter the apartment, although they’ve come all this way.
“Zamira!” Halla Drita cries, touching Avery’s mother’s face with affection. She doesn’t look at all like the woman in the photo. She’s heavier, and her hair has thinned enough to see ripples of brown dye on her scalp. One of her eyes seems to be slipping down the side of her face, like a teardrop.
“Oh, Halla, you’re an old woman!” Avery’s mother teases in Albanian as they exchange kisses. On the plane, her mother explained how she lived with Halla and Daja for a few months when she was a girl, when Avery’s grandparents went to the old country to care for a relative.
“Come and kiss your Halla!” Drita cries, pulling Avery toward her. She playfully cups her hand over Avery’s mouth, then holds her by the shoulders at arms’ length. “Beautiful, beautiful! Her skin has turned lighter, thanks God!”
Avery greets her aunt in Albanian. She isn’t fluent, but she knows basic words and phrases. When she was younger, she would pick up random objects around the house—a clock, a banana, a pair of socks—asking her mother to say their names in Albanian, and she would repeat them in slow, careful syllables until the words came naturally. Her father has asked them not to speak Albanian when he’s around. But sometimes Avery does it anyway, saying something funny to make her mother laugh and watching her father’s face for signs of jealousy.
As they enter the apartment, smells of paprika paste and camphor bring indistinct pictures to Avery’s mind, fading before she can pin them down. Strange wooden crosses, dried garlic cloves, and stuffed animals with large button eyes hang above the doorways. A superstition, her mother whispers, to keep evil spirits away. Somewhere a fan is blowing, and the air tastes sweet and wooded, like Catholicism. Drita leads them into the living room and gestures for them to sit on the sofa, which is draped with a floral bed sheet. The curtains are drawn, and the only light comes from a small lamp in the corner. There is a small television with antennae perched on a shelf across from the sofa, turned to the news without any sound.
Drita sets a large platter of food before them on the coffee table. There’s prosciutto, melon, sheep’s cheese and whole stalks of green onion. “I expect you’ll want to see him?” Drita asks.
Avery’s mother hesitates before nodding.
Drita disappears down a dark, narrow hallway and emerges after a few moments, Daja Florim’s lean body draped against her like a velvet curtain. One of her hands clutches his narrow waist. With the other, she wheels an oxygen tank. Florim’s feet drag against the carpet with each forced step, turning inward, like those of a marionette. Drita helps him into the armchair and places his hands nicely in his lap. A little gray dog parades into the room with a yawn and arranges itself at Florim’s feet.
Daja Florim stares ahead at the shelf mounted to the wall.
At first it seems he’s watching television, but his head begins to droop and wander. Avery watches him from behind the shield of her mother’s body. His eyes have sunk into deep, dry beds. They have a soft, sleepy look about them, until he startles, and they become viciously alert like those of a prehistoric bird.
Avery notices her mother’s hand trembling as she rises to greet Florim. “Daja, do you remember Avery? She was very small last time.”
“Some days he’s confused,” says Drita. “It’s the new pills.”
Avery’s mother bends to kiss both his cheeks and motions for her daughter to do the same. Florim does not take Avery’s hand, so she quickly kisses the side of his head, near his hairy temple. She can hear the air swishing through the little pipes up into his nostrils. He smells of urine and bouillon cubes. As she draws away, his sunken eyes grow large and fix on her as if she were a ghost.
Avery hurries back to her place on the sofa beside her mother and inhales her familiar sandalwood scent. She wishes they were home, alone. Sometimes her mother lets her skip school, and they lie in bed together, eating Lucky Charms from the box and watching old movies. “Don’t tell your dad,” she says. “It’ll be our secret.” This is a game they play when they’re alone, or when Avery’s mother slips into her bed at night. “Tell me a secret,”
her mother says. Avery tells her she has secret powers—that sometimes she can make things move using only her mind, like the blown glass globes hanging in the corner of her room. How the other girls in her class don’t invite her to birthday parties. “Now tell me a secret,” Avery says. Her mother says sometimes she feels scared for no reason. That Avery’s father doesn’t understand her. She writes letters to someone she used to love.
The dog, called Nicolas, has hopped up on the couch. Avery pets him, noticing clumps of honey, or perhaps peanut butter, matted in his fur. “Everyone born in this country likes dogs. You want him?” says Drita. She laughs, without waiting for Avery to respond, then turns to Avery’s mother. “How is Brian, good?”
“Busy with work. He’s sorry he couldn’t make it.” This is a lie. Avery’s father refused to come with them. Yesterday, her parents sat in the car parked out on the street, like always, so Avery wouldn’t hear them yelling. From her bedroom window, she watched the way their hands moved behind the glass as they spoke, sharp and quick, like birds pecking the ground.
Daja Florim has remained silent, the same haunted expression on his face. Avery quietly asks her mother if he can speak. Her mother laughs and repeats the question aloud to Drita. “Yes, he talks. But sometimes too tired. Today is bad day.” Drita places her face close to Florim’s, a hand on his collarbone. “Why don’t you say hello to Avery? Isn’t she beautiful?” He looks around the room and into his lap. Drita strokes his head. She takes a green onion from the platter and places the root into his mouth so the stalk protrudes like a cigarette.
When the decanter whines on the stove, Drita rises to fix Turkish coffee and returns with two steaming espresso cups and a handful of peppermints for Avery. Halla Drita and Avery’s mother switch to Albanian, stealing glances at Florim. Avery pinches her mother’s arm, a signal meaning she’s ready to leave. Daja Florim is scowling at her, his mouth gaping. The onion has dropped into his lap, leaving a thin, elastic trail of drool. She leans closer to her mother and slips her hand beneath her gold bangle bracelet, pressing her fingertips against the soft skin of her wrist, her quick pulse.
Soon, Drita announces Florim needs to rest, and she helps him back to the bedroom. “Please can we go now?” Avery whispers. Her mother has promised to take her to dinner in the city. Then they’ll spend the night at her cousins’ house in Queens.
“Just a little longer, I promise,” she says, smoothing the frayed strands of hair from Avery’s ponytail. When Drita returns, they fall naturally back into their chatter, while Avery pulls on the fringes of the candy wrappers, watching them unfurl as the peppermints fall into her lap.
Nicolas watches intently from the arm of the sofa, cocking his head at the sound of crinkling plastic. As soon as he gets the chance, he dives at the pile in Avery’s lap. With quick jaws, he manages to snatch several candies and make off with them down the hall.
“Goddamn you, Nicolas!” Drita shouts. “Avery can get the dog, yes? He’ll be sick.”
Avery follows Nicolas down the hall. He darts into the darkened room where Florim is sleeping. She slips in through the half-closed door and army-crawls beneath the bed, where Nicolas has spit the peppermints into a little pile so he can work on them one at a time. He swallows the first and bares his two teeth as she inches closer. “I’m only trying to help,” she whispers, but he refuses to give them up. In his haste, the peppermints lodge in his throat, and his little body begins to heave. “Now look what you’ve done to yourself.” Avery grabs his snout and uses her finger as a hook to extract the candies from his throat. Nicolas coughs and runs off ungratefully into the hallway.
Avery emerges from under the bed and surveys the room for a place to dispose of the slobbery mints, finally deciding on a wooden cigar box on the nightstand. Daja Florim is still sleeping, his mouth opened wide, revealing gold molars. The bedsheets cling to his bones, pinning him down. His large nose is arched toward the ceiling, and the light from the window fills the hollows of his eyes. Avery counts the seconds between each of his breaths. Suddenly she feels large and unafraid, standing over him. She touches one of his hands, which are folded across his sternum, yellow with blue, raised veins and tufts of hair sprouting from his knuckles. His skin is softer, more buoyant than she expected.
“Poor Uncle,” she says, placing her hand to his forehead, mimicking the tone her mother uses when she’s sick. “Does it hurt?” Daja Florim lets out a small, animal sound and opens his eyes. He blinks at the spackled ceiling.
Avery holds very still.
Florim’s brow furrows as he gains awareness of her presence, and he struggles to lift his head from the pillow. He catches hold of her wrist, his body trembling as he tightens his grip.
Avery is surprised by his strength as he pulls her in, close to his face, desperate. “Please, Zamira,” he whispers, calling her by her mother’s name. “Please forgive me. I’m sorry.”
He looks like a frightened animal, and she can’t turn away. The moment seems endless, his long nails digging into her arm, his stale breath on her face. Suddenly, she hears her mother’s voice in the hallway. “Avery? What are you doing in there?” Florim releases her, and Avery turns around abruptly as her mother enters the room. “Everything alright?” Avery nods. “Go help Halla clear the plates. I’d like a moment alone with Daja.” Avery leaves the room, catching one last glance of Florim’s ghostly eyes.
Instead of helping Halla, she lingers in the hallway, examining the red crescent marks Florim’s fingernails have left on her arm. Through the crack in the door, she watches her mother standing over the bed. Her shoulders are shaking, and there are tears in her eyes, because she’s crying. Only she isn’t crying, she’s laughing. Looking down into the frightened eyes of the old man. “You can’t hurt me anymore, Uncle,” she says. Avery watches a tear form in the crease of her uncle’s eye and roll slowly down the side of his face until it slips into his ear canal, leaving a barely noticeable gloss, like the tracks of a snail.
On the way home, Avery will replay this moment in her mind, trying to get the details right. For years, she will dream of her uncle. Sometimes he is menacing, reaching out from the bed to grab her, to slap her across the face or guide her hand beneath the blankets. Sometimes he can rise from the bed and dance, like the grandfather in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Other times, he is just a wisp with large, lonely eyes, and her mother is there, laughing at his pain, threatening to smother him with a pillow. She won’t be able to forget the look on her mother’s face, even more haunting than her dying uncle. When she is thirteen, Avery will be left to comfort her father, after her mother asks him for a divorce and walks out of the house with the same expression of mockery and quiet defiance. Her father will sit on the stairs of the entryway, asking Avery what he missed. Why didn’t he see this coming? He’ll look at Avery like a pleading child, and the memory of her frightened uncle will return. She’ll think of telling her father about this day, about Uncle Florim.
How some secret part of her has known all along. Instead, she’ll only sit next to him, tracing the swirled pattern of the carpet with her fingernail. They’ll stay like this, silent, helpless, until the house darkens, neither of them bothering to get up and turn on the lights.
Emily Anderson Ula earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from The University of the South, Sewanee. Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, The Blood Pudding, and Cagibi (forthcoming). She is currently working on her first novel, as well as a collection of short stories. Emily lives in Templeton, California, with her seven-year-old daughter, Scarlett.