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Memoirs

Two Women

© By Martha McMillen

I. The crawling woman (Egypt)

This image blots out every other thought in my mind.  She won’t go away.  Ever.

It was in the market place of the Khan el Khalili that I first saw the woman who was able only to crawl among the populace on her hands and knees.  She crawled past others who accepted her as if she were just another basket or cart of vegetables.  Since she was always there, she appeared to be no more than that.

The Khan is an amazing place, ever changing, yet changeless.  The people there are busy, yet timeless.  The bearded ones play their board games and drink coffee.  Women shop.  Some men work their magic with gold and silver for the many foreigners who come to be amazed and amused.   The odors of spices and humans, the raucous call of the muzzain, and the endless lines of people shuffling past the stalls keep the place feeling like a bee hive – whose denizens are always buzzing, yet slowly, purposely, taking their time, as if it’s always going to be that way.

I don’t know if the woman was born a cripple, or if someone saw to it that she became one.  Every man knew that she was easy to catch.  The child she bore, no man would admit to fathering.  How she managed to give birth in the Khan el Khalili, I’ll never know.  How strange a place to deliver an infant girl…  When I saw her, the tiny creature was attached to her mother’s neck, and she clutched the mother’s hair with a desperately instinctive grasp, knowing even then that to let go was to be lost.

Day by day, the crawling woman arched and bent, wriggled and scrabbled around the market, stopping here and there to rest; and while taking the baby down to nurse, she reached up with one boney arm to beg.  I couldn’t watch, and I couldn’t stop watching.  It was unimaginable.  Over the years, I can barely stand my own imagination’s visions, thinking of the time she spent and how she spent it keeping the infant alive.  How did she do it?  How long was she able to do it?  If she died, what would have been the life of such a child?

I told you in the beginning that the image won’t go away.  It won’t, I promise.

II. The sacrificial woman (Bulgaria)

The other woman comes to me in dreams.  But her story was first told to me when I came to visit the convent and abbey in the countryside just outside of Kazanlak.  It is the story of the sacrifice of a real woman, a nun, who gave her own life away.  Her act was the affirmation of her faith.  It was her whole life’s purpose.  In making this sacrifice, she imprisoned herself in a stone niche in the outer facade of the abbey and instructed that they shut the iron grill that covered the niche from top to bottom, pressing her in tightly to immobilize her body.  As she stood there, a small drip of water was forced into the space above her head, and slowly, slowly, it dripped away by the hour and the day and the week – for how long I can’t imagine.  At first, the water appeared to do no harm, and then, very slowly, each drop of water felt as if it pounded into her brain as surely as a nail into a crown of thorns.  Did she scream her way, I wonder; or was it a silent scream that preceded her death?  I know she gave it as her greatest gift.

Martha McMillen is a world traveler, esteemed educator, writer, and raconteur based in Chicago.  She is a longstanding contributor to Artsforum Magazine.

Copyright © 2014 by Martha McMillen.

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“No Business like Show-Business… in Stara Zagora”

© By Martha McMillen

© Illustrated by Dennis Stillwell Martin

3:49 p.m.

The performance is supposed to begin at four o’clock.   I wonder if I am in the wrong place? Only two of us are seated in the audience.  A guy comes in with a small electronic keyboard and starts looking for a light so he can see

Illustration © 2009 by Dennis Stillwell Martin.

Illustration © by Dennis Stillwell Martin.

his music.  An ominous looking metal box appears, along with a one-by-two foot lighting board, with four hefty guys huffing and grunting disproportionately to the size of their load.  They set up on tables in front of the stage.  Another guy, over on the side, keeps playing with his video light and blinding the three people who have arrived; so they decide not to be seated after all.

3:57 p.m.

I’m excited.  Three minutes to show-time!  This is supposed to be a serious play about the origin of the universe; but, for some reason, eight high school kids appear on the stage and begin rehearsing Bulgarian folk music in the jazz idiom.  While they are rehearsing, the microphone technician tries out the four giant mikes in turn, speaking loudly enough to drown out the jazz rehearsal.  He is successful. Rehearsal is finished.

3:59 p.m.

One minute to show-time. There are now four people are in the audience – including me. The sound man tries to drive us away with more-than-the-eardrum-can-bear, pumping the volume of some very heavy metal up to excruciating decibels to make certain we know that there really is a sound system here.

4:15 p.m.

Fifteen minutes past show-time.  Now there are about thirty people in the room.  Some are seated.  The rest are greeting friends and touring the stage areas.  Some are bringing their espresso in from the lobby bar and looking for tables.  No one seems in any rush to start a performance.  Could it be that I have come on the wrong day?   My reading of Cyrillic does need work.

4:31 p.m.

Someone comes out to announce something very important in Bulgarian, but I can’t make out what it is.  No one is listening or responding to him, so I guess that the announcement is not about fire in the theater, cancellation of the performance, or running out of espresso.  He just keeps speaking amidst all the chaos, and nothing is going to stop him.  It must be okay, because he keeps smiling.

Two new guys with video cameras walk in front of the announcer and start talking loudly as they point to the audience and wave to friends.  They aren’t drawing as much attention as they would like, because they are competing with the speaker on the stage, the sound man twisting his knobs, members of the audience walking around talking to each other, and the keyboard guy’s continued search for a light.

The video reporters saunter across the stage and start filming the thirty people who are walking and talking in the audience; and then they find me!  The lights are blinding.  A foreigner always makes for an exciting shot, but there’s no use overdoing it!  Then, the videographers get into an argument with two members of the audience who object to being left out of the movie in progress.  They all stop, wave arms, shout, and stomp around the apron.  Everyone is a director.  The camera guys, laughing, just walk away from the offended patrons, leaving them to carry on their diatribe about being left out of the film.  But they don’t go far, returning to cross the stage regularly every two minutes.  Presumably, shooting in this manner this is more fun than standing still.  I wonder why they don’t just wait to shoot the play, if it ever appears.

The man who is making the speech comes back with renewed vigor and tries to be heard above the din.  Plucky little soul!  I find out from a friend that he is the head of the jury who will judge the acts in this three-day festival.  Just think of it.  Three days!  He and a new friend on stage now do a five minute spiel, and the audience begins to suspect that something is going to happen.  They begin to sit down.

4:45 p.m.

Something does happen.  Fifteen to twenty people enter the room and begin rushing around.  Some have furniture.  Some have props.  Some have pieces of sets.  Three of them are looking for a lightbulb for a lamp which is now hanging down between the legs of a tall ladder placed on center stage.  Sadly, they unscrew an obviously dead light bulb.  They pass it around from one to the other shaking their heads at such workmanship.  Someone says it probably came from Poland.   Someone brings on a wooden cross with strings attached to a plastic tent so that God can come in out of the rain.

4:55 p.m.

I have been here almost an hour.  There is still no sign that the theatrical performance is about to begin.  The guy with the lamp poses on stage dramatically and sighs as he gazes longingly at the ceiling fixture in the center of the room.  If only he could reach up there!  Hanging up there in a tantalizing array of color are at least 65 light bulbs.  A veritable treasure trove!  However long he gazes, the replacement bulbs are still out of reach.  What to do?  He tries his broken bulb again.  Now he takes the lamp apart piece by piece.  Maybe it’s the lamp!  The pieces all fall out on the floor.  People begin leaving to get a snack in the lobby.

5:00 p.m.

Someone has found a light bulb!  Oh, how grateful I am to see this sign of progress.  The lamp is restored and now actually works!  The original searcher is gratified so much that he tries it out ten or twelve times for the audience, gives us all a real thumbs-up sign, and retreats.  He is smiling.

5:08 p.m.

Show-time!  God and a friend show up with a terminal case of overacting.   I know in a very short time that there is no cure.  In spite of all of their efforts, there is no audience reaction during the first half hour.  Most of the patrons are drinking or talking to each other and aren’t giving God a second thought.  God’s friend turns the infamous lamp on God, hoping this will call attention to the show, but since the bulb is so weak the overhead stage-light masks the effect.  No one can tell if the critical spot-bulb is on or not.   The lighting guy is basking in his success.  After all, it is working!  The sound guy is jealous beyond words.

God keeps drinking something from a bottle in a paper bag and getting more and more disturbed, if that is possible.  Now God is trying to retch up something significant – or to force it out the other end.  I think it’s the Earth.

I don’t want to be here anymore.  Three hundred years under the Turks and thirty years under the Russians have taken their toll.

Martha McMillen is an educator who has worked in many different parts of the world.

Dennis Stillwell Martin is an artist, musician, and teacher; he is also a longstanding contributor to Artsforum Magazine.

Text © 2005 by Martha McMillen.

Illustration © 2009 by Dennis Stillwell Martin.

Editor’s note: The city of Stara Zagora is situated in central Bulgaria; as of 2011, it had a population of over 138,000 people.

Illustrator’s note: The author refers to “a lamp hanging down between the legs of a tall ladder…”  This forms the basis of the “A” symbol in the drawing:  It is the symbol of anarchy, which is exactly what this account of showbiz describes.

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Our Wonderful World

© By Karen Zey

I am stuck in front of a row of sagging book spines on a bottom shelf.  They’ve sat untouched for years: 18 reddish-orange volumes of Our Wonderful World, An Encyclopedic Anthology for the Entire Family, published in 1957.   I’m in the midst of one of those virtuous home projects: a day of de-cluttering.  The musty pages contain mostly defunct information—yet I can’t bring myself to throw them out.  Just a glance at the faded gold titles takes me back to the childhood experience of expanding my world beyond the neighborhood where I grew up.

In the pre-Google era, books offered the answers to many questions.  If you wanted to research anything foreign or scientific for a school project, you put on your shoes and walked to the library.  If you wanted to explore the world beyond the little suburban house where you lived, you sprawled on the couch on a rainy afternoon and pored over page after glorious page of Our Wonderful World.

Volume 5, page 4: “We live at the bottom of an ocean of air, which in many ways is like another ocean of water.  The weight of the hundreds of miles of air upon our bodies can be compared to the weight of the ocean water upon fish who live in the depths of the sea.”

In 2004, A. J. Jacobs, an Ivy League graduate and magazine editor, published a book about his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  He documented his quixotic feat in his New York Times best-seller, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. It was an intellectual enterprise, a reflection on knowledge by someone already immersed in the world of letters.  In 1962, J.W. Baxter, a high-school graduate and salesclerk at Mitchell Photo Supply in Montreal, wanted to nurture a quest for knowledge in his three young daughters, including me.  In our modest bungalow in Pierrefonds, there was little reading material beyond the evening paper, Reader’s Digest and a few Nancy Drew mysteries.  Dad decided we needed an encyclopedia set.

One Sunday morning, he asked me, the eldest, to go with him downtown to pick up a present from a work colleague: a second-hand set of encyclopedias called Our Wonderful World. I was thrilled.  A car ride beyond my neighbourhood was a major outing, and time alone with Dad was precious.  The store’s bookkeeper, Eunice, lived in an old apartment on Sherbrooke Street, right in the heart of the city.  Dad referred to her as a “spinster,” from a well-to-do family.  The word sounded regal to my nine-year-old ears.  I put on my Sunday-best dress, clipped my hair back with barrettes, and listened to his gentle reminders about good manners when visiting.

I remember sitting stiffly on the edge of Eunice’s blue brocade chesterfield, keeping my hands nestled in my lap, and gazing with awe at the strange surroundings of that downtown world. The high ceilings, the curlicue legs of the antique tables, and the swirls on the pastel patterned rugs were all so different from the brown wall-to-wall and chunky shapes of our own living room.  I knew we were getting something special, and that these volumes would reveal things that I hadn’t yet imagined. I felt a burst of love for my dad for taking me along on this city adventure, and for thinking I was smart enough to read an encyclopedia.

Volume 15, page 109: “No true frog has the poison glands, or parotoids, found on the shoulders of true toads.”

Our Wonderful World came with its own compact, two-shelf bookcase.  Dad told me that photos of us, his three daughters, inspired the gift from Eunice.  Perhaps this childless woman had yearned for some small connection to those family scenes of smiling innocence: three little sisters in ruffled bathing suits, standing ankle-deep in a lake; three little sisters in homemade, red-velvet Christmas dresses, perched on a bench; and after receiving her gift, three little sisters in ballet tights posed with pointed toes before a small bookcase of encyclopedias.  Three little dreamers ready to leap into the air.

Those books were mesmerizing.  They were not staid reference tools, like Britannica, Colliers, or World Book.  Our Wonderful World was aimed at a junior audience, with volumes organized by theme.  Many section titles sounded more like names of stories than factual summaries: “Plants that have Travelled;” “Pirates and Outlaws;” “Music from the Sea.”  A more exciting world than mine beckoned from those pages.

Volume 18, page XII: “If you are interested in what is beneath the surface—about those things which shaped Our Wonderful World into its present form, here is the story.”

There I sat decades ago, absorbed for hours in joyful discovery, the world expanding before me.  Here I am now, trying to winnow a lifetime’s accumulations down to essentials.  What should I do with these aging volumes? I think of my father and the decision is easy.  I move on to another bookcase and an old university textbook: Introduction to Educational Psychology, 1975.  Maybe I’ll be able to part with this one.

Karen Zey is a part-time educational consultant and full-time student of life, whose essays and stories have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, the Vaudreuil-Soulanges Gazette, and The Globe and Mail.  She is a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation and lives in la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Québec.

Copyright © 2013 by Karen Zey.

“Our Wonderful World” was originally published by The Globe and Mail on December 3, 2013 under the title “Untouched Wonders.”  It is reprinted in Artsforum with the permission of its author.

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“I Hear the Choppers Coming”

A War-Resister’s Story

© By Jules Tindungan with Melina Giannella

“I hear the choppers coming / They’re flying overhead / They come to get the wounded / They come to get the dead.” (Army marching cadence)

The war didn’t end when I left Afghanistan in April of 2008.  It didn’t end when I jumped out of the window of my barracks room in the middle of the night and ran to meet the cab that drove me to the airport.  It didn’t end when I wore my uniform for the last time, saluting my brother on his graduation day of officer training.  “Never again, sir,” I told him, before catching the next Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Canada.  It’s almost a cliché now to say that war changes a man.  It’s one of those sad romantic truths.  Sadly, I can still hear the choppers flying away carrying my dead battle buddies and the sleepy mechanical pops of automatic rifle fire.  Even five years on, the ghosts of dusty charred bodies lying in the dirt on top of an obscure mountain — one I can only remember as “Hill 2314” — continue to haunt my dreams.

Like most other veterans that have been up close and personal in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, I’ve been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  The symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, general loss of interest in life, avoidance of social situations, irritability, outbursts of anger, and even loss of memory.  Unlike my comrades, however, I am not entitled to veterans’ benefits.  I do not have free access to mental health care.  This is because I am currently AWOL.

In 2005, at the age of seventeen, I signed up to join the United States Army.  I thought I was making a mature decision, but I was so young that I needed to get my mother to sign a consent form to start my basic infantry training at Fort Benning, Georgia.  There I learned the basics of soldiering, weaponry, radio communications, and parachuting.  In February of 2006, I was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina as part of a reconnaissance detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division.

When I was deployed to Afghanistan in January of 2007, my understanding of war was still based on the books I had read and movies I had seen as a teenager.  At the time, all of the media in America was focused on the war in Iraq, and so I wasn’t prepared for what I would be encountering on my first combat missions.  Our Forward Operating Base (FOB) was at the end of the Earth, in eastern Afghanistan, and it was aptly named “FOB Wilderness.”  At times, I felt like Kevin Costner in the film Dances with Wolves.  Our tiny base was surrounded by snowcapped mountains.  Villages could be seen off in the distance and the call to prayer could be heard in the twilight hours.  We split our time patrolling the river-ways in armored Humvees and walking along steep mountain ridges, stalking an enemy that always seemed to be just out of reach.  One soldier described the war as 90% boredom.  Days passed in which all we accomplished was securing a bridge, or huddling behind the sand filled ‘HESCO walls’ of our outpost cleaning weapons.

Nonetheless, the remaining 10% of that war can be categorized as sheer madness.  Our intelligence was usually wrong.  We often raided homes in search of high value targets, discovering instead that the person we were looking for had been living in Pakistan for years.  We’d gather human intelligence, or “HUMNT,” from the locals, who gave information, more often than not, that was based upon personal or tribal vendettas.  When they pointed the way, we followed, bringing with us the fury of millions of tax payer dollars’ worth of munitions and ordinance.  Gun battles were often fought on the slopes of mountains and in the tall grass of farmland.  Each “TIC” (“Troops in Contact” is how we referred to engaging with enemy forces) was easily won with our capability to call for artillery or helicopter support.  We had lost one member of my platoon in a complex ambush, but we had killed 30.  If the game was, “Who had the highest body count?” we won; but if it was, “Who could gain support from the local population?” we were surely losing.

On one occasion, when we tracked the movements of an enemy group that attacked one of our mounted patrols, we discovered that the same village that had been hiding them from us had earlier assured us of their support.  When we killed this enemy group in a firefight, we were ordered to strap their mangled naked corpses onto our vehicles with ‘Paracord’ and drive through the town.

By the time we returned to Fort Bragg in April of 2008, my vision of the war had split in two:  there was the war that I thought I would fight in — the war of honor, of respectability, of heroes.  And then there was the war that I actually found myself in — one of chaos, of illegal orders, of the needless loss of civilian life.

When I was brought in to speak to my commander about retention, I was told my options were to either re-enlist with a cash bonus or finish my contract and get “stop-loss’d”* until after the 82nd Airborne returned from its next combat rotation.  After a year of slowly building disillusionment with the conflict, but feeling at the same time locked into my role as a soldier, I asked to be re-assigned to do “H&A” ops (humanitarian aid) or to Civil Affairs.  “Peace Corps shit?” my commander asked?  Without hiding his disgust at my suggestion, he promoted me; and I was made a section sergeant in his headquarters platoon.  I was in no way religious, or opposed to the idea of self preservation in principle, so I didn’t quite qualify as a conscientious objector.  I chose instead to neatly organize my gear, pack a small bag with a single change of clothes, and write a sentimental note to my roommate instructing him to keep my Xbox.

For 30 days, I hid in southern California.  For a time, I even avoided speaking to my family.  When, finally, I got a hold of my cousin, Charlene, she told me everyone thought I was dead.  My father believed the Army was covering up my death like they did with Pat Tillman, the famous Army Ranger football star.  Not wanting to cause any more pain, I agreed to see my family for the last time as a free American citizen at the U.S Army officer course graduation ceremony for my older brother.  I gave him his first salute and also my last salute to any commissioned officer of the U.S military.  The next morning, I was officially declared a deserter, and I was seeking asylum in a foreign country.

Around the world, in Europe, in the U.K., Australia, and in the U.S., thousands of young men and women have made the decision to be absent without leave, and some are speaking out against the atrocities and horror they’ve witnessed in this war.  A much smaller number are currently seeking refugee status in Canada, including myself.   There is a line in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, popularized during the Vietnam era:  “What if they gave a war and no one came?”  Canada, in the nineteen sixties and seventies, opened its borders to American draft evaders and active duty G.I’s.  A report by the BBC estimates up to 125,000 draft eligible young men came to Canada during that time.  Undoubtedly, this had a tremendous effect on the United States’ ability to maintain a military presence in Southeast Asia.

To date, however, no war resister since the start of the “Global War on Terror” has been granted refugee status or a successful spousal sponsorship in Canada.  But in a recent Federal Court of Canada ruling, Justice James Russell spoke strongly in favor of our arguments, granting me a new trial.  The ruling established that there are ample third party sources documenting breaches of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan and Iraq by U.S. military personnel over the past decade — a fact that has not been acknowledged by NATO governments.  Going further, he said that the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the system under which U.S soldiers fall, does not meet the grounds of fairness in trying moral and political resisters during courts-martial.

For some, like Iraq War veteran Kim Rivera, it was too late.  In September 2012, she left Canada willingly to avoid the deportation order that awaited her.  She returned to the U.S. with her husband and four children, two of whom were Canadian-born—only to be ripped from their arms and sent to a military prison.  During her court-martial, Rivera was not allowed to defend her decision to go AWOL on grounds that the Iraq War was illegal, or that there have been Geneva Conventions violations in Afghanistan.  At her court-martial — just as at every court-martial of a U.S soldier who went AWOL and spoke out against the war — Rivera was made an example of.  Her commander chose who sat on her jury, and her judge shared the same chain of command as her commander.  In the words of Justice Russell, the system “fails to comply with international standards of fairness.”

War resisters in Canada have seen some minor victories:  two non-binding motions of support have passed in Canada’s Parliament, and a number of high-profile Canadian politicians, authors, intellectuals, and members of the business community have supported our right to stay.  But, for us every day is an uphill battle.  Not only must we contend with the physical and mental anguish that accompanies serving in war, such as PTSD, substance abuse, and the challenge of finding steady work; but we also struggle with being immigrants in a foreign country, leaving behind not only our families, but our former identity as well.

Army indoctrination and American military culture forces you to view soldiering not as just a job, but as a way of life.  I was walking away from the honor and respect of my fellow comrades, my community, and my country.  These were my friends, my brothers in arms: people who had, like me, fought and killed and felt death alongside us.  To many of them, my decision must have seemed so irrational.  One comrade wrote me a strongly worded email, essentially asking, ‘Why had I betrayed them?’  After exchanging rapid-fire emails into the night and well into the morning, he ended with, “I may not agree with your decision, but you will always be my brother.  We shed the same blood in the same mud.”  Later that month, I received news that he had been killed in action in Farah Province in Afghanistan, in the very deployment I went AWOL to avoid.

I have witnessed more than few war resisters snap under the pressure of being here.  I’ve heard our existence described as a legal limbo — without access either to our veterans’ benefits or to the benefits to which residents of Canada are entitled.  I choose, rather, to look at it as an extension of my deployment.  Indeed, we are still soldiers serving a purpose higher than ourselves.  We may not be walking the mountainside, risking our hide, but we still come under fire for what we’ve chosen to do and what we’ve chosen to say.  We risk character assassination from a government that ceaselessly challenges our claims.  Never before in my life have I ever felt more necessary to a cause.

For us “49ers” (one Vietnam veteran gave us that name as to differentiate war resisters who go AWOL within the U.S. from those who cross the 49th Parallel to Canada), we believe we follow in same traditions of Vietnam era draft dodgers and deserters.  On one hand, we view the choice to desert the U.S military as completely selfish; to save our sanity and preserve our conscience.  On the other hand, we suffer selflessly in the cause of bringing an end to the war.

Jules Tindungan continues to seek asylum in Canada as a permanent resident.  In February 2013, the Federal Court of Canada granted him a new hearing before that country’s Immigration and Refugee Board.

Copyright © 2013 by Jules Tindungan.

*Editor’s note: The term “stop-loss” refers to a policy initiated by the U.S. government during the First Gulf War (1990-91) that entails the involuntary extension of a military service member’s active duty status.

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H  U  M  O  U  R

A Prosecutor’s Diary

© By John Arkelian

© Illustrated by Linda Arkelian

They say that truth is stranger than fiction.  Well, here’s conclusive proof of just how strange the truth can really be…

When an accused person is released from custody on bail pending his trial, an effort is made to impose conditions which will, hopefully, keep him out of trouble in the interim.  An enterprising prosecutor proposed, and the presiding judge imposed, the following innovative bail condition for a recidivist accused of trafficking in a substance held out to be hashish, namely, that he not be in possession of licorice (licorice being the chief ingredient in the trafficker’s counterfeit narcotic).  Who said that creativity is dead in the courts of the land?

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A man earnestly explained to the judge that he had had his charges

Courtroom Who’s Who: “Smooth Operator” — This sly fellow turns every situation to his advantage. Agile, shrewd, and a formidable flatterer, he is a born opportunist.  Illustration © by Linda Arkelian.

transferred from Newfoundland to Toronto on the theory that drugs, and hence drug offenders, were commonplace in the big city, and that persons charged with drug offenses would be apt, as a result, to be dealt with leniently.  When the prosecutor asked for a sentence of two years less a day, the accused realized that his expectations of leniency were misplaced and requested that he be returned to the Rock, where he had been “offered a year.”

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A provincial court judge was well-known for his repeated use of the catch-phrase ”Have I heard you?” Whether those words were solemnly intoned or sprang lightly from the tongue of their author varied according to their intended meaning.  Sometimes the question was purely rhetorical and no response was called for.  On other occasions, the question was impatiently repeated in fast succession until the desired response, namely, a contrite “Yes,” issued from the lips of the harried prosecutor.  From time to time, the sense was not interrogatory at all; rather, the phrase could on such occasions be freely translated as, “I have heard you, so please be quiet.” “Hearing,” of course, need not constitute either “understanding” or “agreeing” — quite the contrary.  A practiced ear may discern a remarkable wealth of meaning in so few words.

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A criminal lawyer sought leniency (in the form of a non-custodial sentence) for her client upon his conviction for trafficking in a narcotic.  She cited his relative youth as a factor in his favor.  The judge replied that “Little acorns grow into big oak trees.” Counsel conceded that such indeed was the way of the world, but added that her client was, after all, “still a little acorn.”  The judge smiled thoughtfully and replied, “Not any more,” before sentencing the man to jail.  It seems that not only lumberjacks relish their work.

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The mark of a born opportunist is the ability to seize the advantages inherent in his situation, whatever that situation may be.  A man accused of possession of cocainefor the purposes of trafficking pleaded guilty at his first appearance in court (an exceedingly rare course of action for anyone facing such a serious charge).  He was sentenced to six months.  The supposed cocaine later analyzed as 90% pure heroin, an even more serious drug, and one which would have attracted a much more onerous sentence.  By “expiating his guilt” before the chemical analysis was complete, the accused demonstrated that he knew a bargain when he saw it: a savings of 18 months with no money down.

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Not so long ago, in less enlightened times, federal regulations prohibited smoking only on short domestic flights.  (Non-smoking air travelers were left to suffer the indignities of second-hand smoke on longer hauls.)  A federal policy memorandum identified two categories of potential offenders on the passenger aircraft routes affected by the limited ban on smoking.  The first were “sneaky smokers,” furtive opportunists who were apt to cease and desist if confronted by the sky patrol.  The second group was the more problematic of the pair, for these were “defiant smokers,” creatures of principle (as well as habit), whose determination to inhale airborne carbon particles and other trace elements was unlikely to be deterred by dirty looks, verbal abuse, or even direct physical confrontation.  When considering which of the two groups of potential offenders to target, a decision was taken to nail the true believers.

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In the midst of an impasse in court, a certain provincial court judge asked the prosecutor, “What is the perfect judge to do?” When the prosecutor replied that he had yet to encounter a perfect judge, the presiding judge modestly proclaimed that, “This is as close as you get.”  Clearly, perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

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A certain criminal lawyer was regarded as insufferable by all whose paths he crossed in the courtroom.  One could overlook the man’s all too obvious

Courtroom Who’s Who: “Jumper” — This fleet-footed fellow has a tendency to leap out of witness boxes when provoked and to flee the scene at incredible speed.  Illustration © by Linda Arkelian.

lack of advocacy skills, but his whiny demeanor and insistent determination to never use fewer than 500 words to say what could be said in five made the poor fellow an unwitting pariah.  The moment of truth came when he appeared for a client in a preliminary hearing involving several co-accused who were jointly charged with drug offences.  Each of the co-defendants had their own lawyers, all of whom jumped ship in the opening moments of the proceeding by waiving their clients’ right to a preliminary hearing and agreeing to have them committed for (later) trial — in a panicked effort to avoid enduring the unwanted company of their dreaded colleague.  Not even the prosecutor’s whispered plea, “Please don’t leave me alone with him,” deterred their headlong flight.  The matter went ahead with its captive audience — prosecutor, judge, police, and court staff.  What no one could have foreseen was that the unbearably loquacious lawyer’s own client would share the general consensus that this was not to be endured.  While the lawyer was in excruciating full flourish, questioning his client in direct examination, said client suddenly broke under the strain.  He leapt from the witness box and raced out of the courtroom.  The court clerk was the first to react, shouting “Jumper!” at the top of her lungs – an alarum that was enough to rouse the bemused police officers.  They sprinted off in hot pursuit; the rest of us just hid our relief at the temporary interruption of our agonies.

The author is a former Federal Crown Attorney.  He was present for all of the foregoing forays into the Twilight Zone.

Linda Arkelian is a ballerina, artist, filmmaker, and teacher.

Text © 2006 by John Arkelian.

Illustrations © 2006 by Linda Arkelian.

Editor’s Note: The foregoing totally true tales, collectively titled “A Prosecutor’s Diary,” first appeared in our hard-copy magazine (Artsforum, Issue #14, Summer/Fall 2007).  They are reprinted here for the merriment of those readers who might never otherwise suspect what humor can be found in the unlikeliest of dour and dry places.  (July 2012)

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“Adios Nonino”

(For Irving Sussman)

© By Kathryn Sussman

The hot Florida sun on Grandpa’s shoulders.  The slippery, slimy feel of the flats of my feet on top of them.  The strength of his hands as he holds me, erasing the possibility of failure.  Squatting, my long spindly legs all in a hunch, then straightening them completely and I stand tall, tall on Grandpa’s shoulders.  He’s walking around in the pristine crystal pool and I am his trophy.  So proud.  The ocean sounds powerful.  Salty.  The sun is starting to set; it is reflecting off the buildings; and the blades of grass around the side of the pool are hard and will prick like little needles into my toes when I run over them later.  Fast so that the lizards don’t crawl on me and get me, and I take a huge breath in.

I sit on the edge of his bed, my torso twisted around so that I am facing him.  He is having a good day.  His nurse Julia is spoon-feeding him.  “She’s lovely.  My granddaughter,” he barely manages to whisper to Julia between small bites of ice cream and butter tart.  Julia is a little too rough.  She should have known him just five years ago. She would never be rough to such a generous man. He would give away anything of his own to anyone who even hinted at liking it.

“Do you need anything?  Do you need any money?”   The words he never fails to utter when I visit, when all of us visit, crackle out of his mouth. He is struggling to keep his eyes open and focused in my direction.  I hand selected the pastry fifteen minutes ago from the Jewish deli on Eglinton.  The one he has always loved so much.  They make the softest challah in the world.  He was president of the temple for two terms.  He was the oldest MBA student the University of Toronto had ever had when he had gone back to school. At ninety-one, he has not ceased to be a remarkable man.

“Jump, Kathy. Jump!”  And so I jump.  And I’m falling, falling.  My heart sinks in a rush.  When my body hits the water, it’s like jumping into a boiling hot bathtub from being out in the wind.  I sink.  Sink down and hold my breath and giggle out loud.  Then I let out a little scream and I’m swimming up up up to the top of the pool.  I hear Jenny having her turn on Grandpa’s shoulders and then I laugh out loud and make splashes.  I go sit on the edge.  Grandma comes and wraps a huge worn brown towel around me.  She rubs my arms so that I am cozy warm.  I know that after the sun dries me on the cot I will stretch out on, my black bathing suit will be hot hot hot again and I will be going upstairs for milk and mandelbrot.  Later there will be a fancy dinner at a restaurant.  I’ll have the chicken fingers and fries and will sneak packets of sugar which I will open and pour into my hands under the table.  When no one is looking I will lick my palms.  Tomorrow there will be more fun at the pool and a shopping spree.  We will model all the pretty new clothes for Grandpa before it’s time to go back home.

His hands are still warm and long, thin and elegant.  The way they have always been.  Age cannot change these immutable things.  Only, his gold wedding band rests loose on his finger now, and there are deep purple bruises.  I look over at the TV in the corner of the living room where he resides.  CNN and some celebrity being lynched again.  It’s on mute.  I had to ask Julia to mute it when I arrived.  It was so loud I couldn’t hear myself speak.

I give my grandfather’s large hand a squeeze.  I close my eyes and everything is just the way it always has been.  It feels the way it always did.  My grandfather knows how to hold a woman’s hand.   He knows to pull the car around and drop the ladies off at the door.  He knows to leave luncheon five minutes early to go round and pick the car up again so that it is waiting for us when we walk out onto the street.  He knows to come around and open our doors for us.  He keeps us warm.  He always has.  When he opens his eyes, it’s clear he knows the secrets.  He has opened his eyes many times today.

When my grandmother died a couple of years ago, we hired an ambulance to pick up my grandfather, who was already bed-ridden, and take him to the hospital to say good-bye to her.  She had been pretty far-gone at the time, and had been moaning, a primal call for her mother for days.  But when we wheeled his bed beside hers and put her hand in his, she relaxed.  She was peaceful.  After sixty-three years of marriage, it was the last time they would ever touch.  It was the last time they would see each other.  The family was gathered around them.  The most painful and most profound moment of all of our lives.  When it was time for him to be taken back home, the last thing he said was, “I don’t want the party to end.”

I lean over you and wipe your mouth with a dry cotton cloth.  I tell you the frivolous things.   My back is getting better.   My Ph.D. applications are finished.  My writing is coming along.  It’s not what I want to say.  But it is a distraction.  A way to exchange something pleasant with you.  A way to not focus on the pain.

Grandma is waiting in the car, and we go inside together.  My little hand cradled in your large warm one.  The sap-tasting museum has samples lined up in mini Dixie cups all along a large rectangular table.  Every sort of syrup: light, medium and heavy, all 100% pure.  A dream come true.  All different thicknesses and grades.  No one is looking.  It’s just you and me, and you let me swig back as many as I want, and the best part is that you swig them back right along with me.  We clear off that whole table, you and me.  Must have been fifty cups, Grandpa.  Oh you made me giggle.  What fun!  And we never did tell Grandma.  It was our own secret fun.

He’s making the groaning sound.  Time to shift his position.  Julia will put him on his side.  “I’ll get going now, Grandpa. I’ll let you have a rest,” I say to him.  I pull my hand away from the warmth.  Reluctant to leave.  I don’t want to go.  I don’t want to stop touching that hand.  “I love you, Grandpa.”  “I love you too, sweetheart,” he whispers to me, and with a sudden gesture of strength, he reaches for my hand, brings it to his lips and kisses it. I’m still his little princess.  He is still my grandfather.

Kathryn Sussman is a writer and teacher based in Toronto.  A regular contributor to Artsforum, she recently earned her doctorate in English literature.

Editor’s Note:  The author wrote this memoir in honor of her grandfather, Irving Sussman, who passed away in December 2008.  It takes its title from Astor Piazolla’s famous composition, “Goodbye Grandpa.”

Text © 2011 by Kathryn Sussman.

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“Cadillac Sam”

© By Martha McMillen

Illustrated by Dennis Stillwell Martin

By the time I arrived in Egypt as an instructor with the Fulbright program, I thought I was ready for anything.  Wrong again.  Nothing could have prepared me for the cultural adjustments, environmental adaptations, and interpersonal accommodations I’d have to make.  In 1990, Egypt seemed exciting, colorful, and curiously seductive – but veiled.  As an outsider, you could never really get beneath the surface.

“Cadillac Sam” illustration (c) by Dennis Stillwell Martin.

After a few days in Cairo, to let my circadian rhythms adjust, I left for my post in Port Said.  In the 1990’s, this was said to be the only port city in Egypt where a woman, even a foreign woman, could safely walk the streets alone at night.  Well, I could put up with a few remarks now and then about my strange appearance, a few requests from children to pat my blond hair, and some very few crude noises, the meaning of which was extremely clear.  One of the first phrases I learned in Arabic was, “Allah hears you!”  When I used it, quiet descended.

As I met the staff at the university, I immediately became aware of the difficulty of understanding the Arabic pronunciation of English.  Although my university colleagues were quite competent linguists, they rarely had spent time speaking with a native speaker, and expressions like, “Wow, that’s a cool view!” or, “I have to put my brain in gear before engaging my mouth,” sent them into trills of laughter.  I learned to be extremely amusing, without even trying.

As my first task in a new country always involves finding a flat, the real job is to find the finder of flats first.  It was then that I met him: ‘Cadillac Sam.’  I think it was because of the very large letters on the glittering blue sign, the only thing in English on the whole parkway.  Imagine that – a sign in English!  It attracted me immediately, as it was meant to.  It happened that Sam had once been in the States for two weeks and saw a sign just like it.  It turned him on.  He copied it down to bring home.

You might suppose that Cadillac Sam had some Cadillacs on offer.  But no, there were none in sight.  But a sight it was.  And so was Sam!  Imagine a large shaggy lion – shades of the Oz stories!  This lion had a wonderfully huge bumpy nose, much more nose than a lion ought to have, with black and gray hairs growing out of his ears and nose, and big scary eyebrows.  Embedded right there, almost buried in the center of this bushy nest were two sparkling blue blue eyes!  He didn’t have to speak.  The eyes spoke for him, and I understood him.  Those wonderful windows!  I looked again, and saw that Sam had no neck.  Just a shaggy nest resting on shoulders that spread across the shop, an acre of striped fabric, banded in gold edging.  Sam wasn’t tall.  Not even medium.  He was short, more pear-shaped than round, and his large hands were surprisingly soft and beautiful.  His shoes were strictly Western-made and peeking below his sleeve was a hefty gold wristwatch.  Very French.  He wore shades in the afternoon and carried a very official looking Italian briefcase on all of our visits to find a flat.  An international bon vivant!

In his shop, Sam had collected very select bales of used clothing from every country in the world.  I was mightily Intrigued.  I tried on a coat from France.  It was made for a trade showing in the world of fashion and would have cost thousands of dollars back home.  After some hard bargaining, I could have had it for $20 cash.  I moved on to a bale of sailor hats, actually knit caps for cold weather from the Russian navy.  Not my style.  I could have stayed a week and never noticed time passing with Sam urging me on to even greater discoveries.  I drew the line at trying on the hairy things, but Sam was not in the least offended.  In fact, he became quite friendly and offered to serve as guide in my flat-finding enterprise.

“Cadillac Sam” illustration (c) by Dennis Stillwell Martin.

We made a date to begin the search.  I thought that this was downright hospitable of Sam, even though he muttered a lot and most of what he said behind his bushy beard was incomprehensible.  As we searched the littered streets one afternoon for a suitable apartment, Sam’s muttering got worse.  He kept repeating the mantra “Sonnu Abbich.”  I quickly memorized it, guessing from its frequent use that I’d be needing this important expression often.  Then, one evening, Sam’s temper revealed itself as several cars aimed at us and increased their velocity as if to knock us into Allah’s kingdom-come.  “Sonnu Abbich!” he exclaimed at the errant drivers.  It was then that I realized that the words were Sam’s own version of ‘son of a bitch.’  And I was right!  I used the phrase often.

And then we found it.  It was affordable, beautiful, and had an unparalleled view of the Mediterranean from the front terrace – and from the side, the Suez canal.  Perfect.  From this corner apartment, you could see into the courtyard of the blinding white building across the way, revealing all the comings and goings of the “secret police.”  It actually wasn’t much of a secret.  If I knew about it, so did everyone else.  My Egyptian friends said little about the place, but their circumspection told me much.  No one went in there voluntarily.  They didn’t seem to have long expensive trials here.  No Johnny Cochran lawyers, CNN, or maybe even justice.  But it’s quick.

I was very lucky to find the apartment.  It had three bedrooms and three bathrooms.  When the cleaner, who was ordered by the landlord, came to work, she did the bathrooms first.  And, I learned a novel cleaning technique.  First, you take a huge pan of water, throw it against the walls, and let it run down everything till it’s all flooded and dripping.  Then you apply a squeegee, pushing the water vigorously down the walls, the floors and ultimately, the drains.  Never mind the clothes hanging on hooks, the towels on racks, the cosmetics now all dripping with brackish water.  Everything dries out sooner or later.  Inshallah.

When I first saw the apartment, I was thrilled.  They asked what color I wanted the paint and I said, “White, just paint it all white.”  They did.  These guys were true products of the literal mind.  The walls were white.  The ceilings were white.  The marvelous old mahogany dressers and beds were white, the chairs were white, the night stands were white.  I arrived in the nick of time to prevent the dining room table from taking its ghostly coat of color from a very exuberant Ahmed, who smiled and shook with laughter at the craziness of the American, who just loved white.  Strangely enough, after I hung navy blue drapes (which were sheets in disguise), put up batiks from Bali, and suspended various silk rugs, it looked downright regal.  And, I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  The doorbell rang many times, and unbidden “guests” appeared who   requested a tour of the apartment of the “White American,” whose decorating was spoken of all over Port Said as being tres chic.

After a few days, I noticed there was a flaw in the treasure Sam had brought into my life.  This apartment was equipped with everything – including a constant stream of drivers below, who passed my corner honking.  Honking.  Always honking.  Honking your horn is an art form in this country – an important skill in driving, and in proving your manhood (and virility).  Every boy masters it by the age of two or three.  Fathers spend hours letting their little sons practice their honking.  The rules state that you must honk at every corner, no matter how insignificant.  Everyone has to know that you intend to come through – no matter what.  Otherwise, you might have to slow down on your frantic trip to nowhere.  In a place where time seemed so irrelevant, I never understood the frenzy.

Driving on the roads was frightening.  I noticed that no one seemed to observe that real (or imaginary) line down the middle of the streets, the line that allows one driver go in one direction while another goes the opposite way.  When passing another car, while you are in the center of the narrow road, you honk.  No matter which side you are on you honk – so that the other driver will ‘jump over,’ out of your way.  Hopefully.  Perhaps he won’t ‘jump’ in front of you as you pass him.  It’s the Egyptian version of ‘chicken.’  There were more than a few dead bodies along the highways.  Yes, fellahin who died with surprised looks on their faces, surprised at their own inability to guess which way to ‘jump.’  The only difference between the Egyptian version of ‘chicken’ and the American one is that Americans tend to neglect their honking for talking on their cell phones.  But then, Americans take Viagra and don’t need so much honking to prove anything.

Sometimes, during the night, when cars came through the corner by my flat and honked to wake me up, I’d say, “Thank you for sharing that.”  There really was no night on my corner.  Each one passed with many honks, swear words, screams, and shouts, which brings me to my special revenge.  On my next trip to the States, I bought 100 bumper stickers saying, “Honk if you love Jesus,” and began to paste them on bumpers.  But only after dark.

After I got to know Sam better, I found that he was not only a flat-finder, but a friend, and a philosopher.  Among other things, he taught me what “IBM” really stands for.  He said that “I” is for Insh Allah, which means, ‘if God wills it to happen.’  “B” is for Bukra, an expression for ‘tomorrow, or the day after, or whenever.’  “M” is for Malish, a truly useful word meaning, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter anyway.”  So, if God wills it, it will happen tomorrow or whenever, but if it doesn’t, it won’t matter.  I could live with that.

Martha McMillen is an educator who has worked in many different parts of the world.

Dennis Stillwell Martin is an artists, musician, and teacher.

Text © 2005 by Martha McMillen.
Illustrations © 2009 by Dennis Stillwell Martin.

Illustrator’s Note: This story really describes a character, a personality.  One illustration is a personification of the author’s description.  The other is an adaptation of a wall painting from King Tut’s tomb.  Sam is in a ’56 Cadillac – a metaphor, since he didn’t really have one – with the car’s logo flanked by two vultures.  At the lower right are three hieroglyphic symbols, which, phonetically, spell SAM.

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