~~This story previously appeared in Passages North (2007)
Leah, a grad student in psychology, was telling Kuncewicz that his daughter was a survivor, moreover a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder.
“She’s only five and half,” he told her, “she’s a perfectly normal kid.”
“Age has nothing to do with it," she responded.
He knew Leah was right. What else could explain this burning-bus obsession his daughter had? She was on the yellow school bus when the fire started. Bus 18. The modern flat-faced bus, now out-of-commission, that transported her to kindergarten. She insisted it was a diesel and was probably right. She had already befriended most of the drivers.
Most of what Kuncewicz knew about the fire came from the local weekly. A photo, too, with caption, though the bus looked undamaged to him. His daughter, whom he and his soon-to-be ex-wife called Jiffy, made him read it to her every night for three weeks straight. The details were sketchy, but this is what they knew: The bus was en route to the high school and it was early in the morning, still dark. To add to the confusion, a thick fog had rolled in from Lake Erie and refused to burn off. The driver smelled something and quickly evacuated the bus. There were only about twelve high schoolers (Jiffy was the only kindergartner that day--a significant detail the reporter missed), and most of them had to be shaken out of their slumber and dragged out. They didn’t use the emergency exit because no one could locate it in the dark. Actual flames only appeared after they were all lined up on the soft shoulder. The fact that no one could see anyone else because of the fog kept the students in line. Only one student, a senior girl who left her backpack full of homework assignments on the bus, cried.
“What do you make of all this club business,” Kuncewicz asked Leah, who was about to spend her first full night in his bed, something he had been working towards for weeks. “She’s taken over the porch,” he said. “It looks like she’s set up an altar dedicated to the bus--the news photo glued to a piece of Plexiglas that’s propped in the middle of the room. She even set up a row of flashlights to shine on it, because I wouldn’t allow the candles she wanted.”
“Don’t you dare criticize her,” Leah said. “She’s obviously working something out.”
“I have no intention of interfering,” Kuncewicz defended, well aware that even the slightest disagreement might tip the balance away from her staying. “I’m really... mostly... just curious.”
Jiffy had already designed a logo for the club, a stylized front of the bus with a huge stop sign sticking out. A bright red mane of flames surrounded it. Earlier in the evening, before Leah arrived, she had shown her father pages full of uniforms she designed for club members--skirts or overalls for girls, pants for boys, all with the burning bus logo.
Kuncewicz knew this about Leah--she was a child of divorce as well as the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivors. They met a few months back, when he and his wife of ten years split up. His wife had already moved out of the house and he needed a signature on some forms for Jiffy’s school. It might have been permission slips or parent sign-up sheets or something, and not wanting to face her at her new apartment, he figured he’d drop them off where she worked, at the art department of the branch campus of the state university. He couldn’t, of course, be expected to know that she was in the middle of a Life Drawing class--he couldn’t be expected to consult a copy of her syllabus, even though a draft of one was still taped to the wall behind their computer. The secretary didn’t say come back at a better time or just leave it here and I’ll make sure she gets it. She just pointed in the direction of the studio and went back to processing words.
Kuncewicz’s wife thought he planned the whole thing. She was right in one sense, though--if he’d have known he might have. What pissed her off so much, was the way he kept gaping at the model and stuttering when he simply should have explained himself, dropped off the forms, and exited. Or maybe he shouldn’t have shown up at her place of work in the first place. But there he was, and there was Leah--spread out on some flowery fabric draped over the dais. Her black hair was sleek and glossy close to her head, wildly charged filaments at the tips. It was almost like some untamable animal clinging, over the edge, quaking for dear life. What took Kuncewicz’s breath away, though, were the tiny gold balls that pierced her nipples. He would have turned away immediately--he was not normally prone to voyeurism, not at least when others could watch him in the act--but he was trying to figure out where that laser glint of light was coming from. (Kuncewicz, who was accustomed to nipples that ranged from pink to brown, occasionally with a thin sticky coating of breast milk.) By the time he figured out the source (spotlights) and the refraction (gold), it was too late. His wife and all her advanced drawing students were glowering at him. Leah remained blissfully ignorant of the entire exchange.
Unbelievably and fortuitously (at least Kuncewicz thought so at the time), he ran into Leah an hour later. He was standing in line for decaf in the school cafeteria and that quivering pelt of hair brushed against his arm as he reached for a pack of sweetener. She flicked it when he said excuse me, but a curled tip still somehow managed to dip into his cup. It was only when he clumsily ripped a napkin from the dispenser and tried to dab the curl dry that he recognized her as the model.
She spoke first. “Wait, I know you, I thought you were the department chair,” she said. “Or maybe the Dean.”
“Yes,” he gulped, unsure whether she had thought that until his wife or one of her students had set her straight--or whether she still thought it. Or perhaps she was waiting for corroboration. In either case, he continued to fumble through the cleanup that she insisted was unnecessary, even a bit annoying, and said nothing, mostly because he was gazing at her breasts, now safely ensconced in bra (or perhaps not) and red turtleneck, searching for telltale signs of those piercings.
“Let’s grab a seat,” she said
Kuncewicz looked at her to nod agreement and noticed that she was wearing gold balls in her ears. Those same ones, he wondered, transferred from body part to body part, depending on the social (and/or psychological) situation?
They only sat together for a few minutes, just long enough for their coffees to cool, long enough for her to provide him with the short but crammed version of her whole grand-daughter-of holocaust and child-of- divorce-survivor story. She also revealed that she was especially on edge (emphasis hers), because she had to come up with a research topic for her Master’s thesis by the next week.
“It’s gotta have something to do with the survivor thing,” she said as he squeezed out of his seat, brushing against that tendriling hair again, as she turned to see him off. “It’s so much part of me I couldn’t see going in any other direction. Now, if I can only manage to wow my advisor.”
Two weeks later, Kuncewicz was reading a file that Leah forgot to close-out when she was last over. What the hell do I know--he was thinking half out loud--bipolar affective disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, organic brain syndrome, Cumulative lifetime trauma scale, Antinov life crisis scale--How the hell can that wow anyone, even in the field. I took my share of psych courses, it’s all bullshit. Just some guy’s constructed reality forced onto the rest of us. I’ll take the teachings of R.D. Laing over the whole lot of them--God bless schizophrenia. Kuncewicz, at least in his current recollections, had dabbled in it--LSD on a blotter, mescaline, peyote buttons. A handful of dorm friends who slipped briefly into paranoid delusions, voices, suicide attempts-- leading him several times to the edge before taking a step back. That was lifetimes ago and though he was not nostalgic for it, he was working hard to dredge up material he could use to engage Leah in deep conversation, something he felt the incipient relationship needed.
He recalled the time right after graduation when he took a position as an aid at a psychiatric hospital run by Quakers. This wasn’t long after Vietnam and he tended to view all friends as heroes. He was trained on his shift by several Conscientious Objectors who stayed on after their required service ended. The first week, he was assigned to Electro-Convulsive Therapy--meaning that he and one of his fellow aids (Quaker) had to hold down the flailing limbs of patients administered an unfathomable voltage through what looked like plastic coated jumper cables. This as the gentle-voiced psychiatrist (Quaker too) counted solemnly to three (one inner light...two inner light...three...). Kuncewicz once asked him why he thought the treatment worked. We don’t really know, the psychiatrist responded, without a trace of irony or embarrassment, but we surmise that the depressed patient is feeling overwhelming pangs of debilitating guilt. The electricity seems to provide punishment for whatever he was feeling guilty about. At the time, Kuncewicz bought the psychiatrist’s analysis, though he was also beginning to formulate his own theory based on the notion that the electric shock induced an epileptic seizure, which, to Kuncewicz who was reading a lot of Dostoevsky at the time, was as good as saying that it brought on a mystical state.
Before he could further pursue his theory, though, Kuncewicz was switched to the overnight shift, and soon after, pummeled, slapped, kicked, spat upon and crushed by an obese, foul smelling, filthy, drug-abusing, child molesting teenage girl responding to voices. According to her chart she was supposed to be on suicide watch, but the presence of Kuncewicz sitting in a chair outside her open door and falling asleep into a copy of The Idiot set her voices off. That was Kuncewicz’s final flirtation with psychology; bloodied and humiliated he handed in his immediate resignation and began a series of jobs waiting on tables for the years intervening until his marriage. Recalling this, Kuncewicz realized that these long stashed recollections had indeed taught him something about posttraumatic stress, though the term was never used back then. Sitting there, peeking into Leah’s data base, he grew excited and energized, eager to offer his expertise, eager to prove that he could keep up with her.
Kuncewicz’s soon-to-be ex-wife arrived in the middle of his snooping. “What are you mumbling about?” she asked. He quickly closed out the file and removed the disk, nervous that he’d unknowingly left some sign of having been there.
“Nothing,” he shot back. His wife, of course, had no idea that the two of them were seeing each other, that Leah was soon to spend weekends. She had dropped by to use the computer to prepare her next-semester syllabi.
Jiffy had disappeared, after greeting her mother, into the bedrooms, searching for potential club decorations and paraphernalia.
“Where’s Jiff?” his wife asked. ”I think we’re going to have to stop calling her that. It’s ok for kindergarten, but for first grade, we should go back to Jessica, maybe Jessie, but certainly not Jiffy. Not if she expects to be taken seriously.”
“She’ll be ok,” Kuncewicz said, “she’s just playing,”
His wife playfully tried to edge him away from the computer, pressing her thigh partly against his, but mostly against the chair. (They had been getting along much better since the split.) “What’s that--some new reading program for Jiffy? Why don’t you just admit that you need my help.” she said. “I bet you haven’t even figured out how to install it.”
Kuncewicz didn’t respond, but he did slide off the chair and stood behind her, looking over her shoulder. In seconds she was dazzling away at the computer--installing, changing fonts, attaching clip art, saving texts, transferring them then compressing them to e-mail some her students. She went at it like a madwomen, a natural at the keyboard and screen, clicking away like a rodent scrabbling over rafters. She even managed to get in a few games of solitaire and hearts.
The whole time Kuncewicz watched, his arms using the chair back for support. The scent of her shampoo was still fruity enough to form a tangible nimbus around her head. He inhaled it deeply and it made him shudder. He wanted to talk to her about something, anything to distract her from the flashing monitor and the bells and squawks announcing new wins and high scores. To engage her he began to read from a front page article in the paper about an art teacher at a Catholic high school who was fired when it was discovered that he modeled for a local artists’ group. It was unclear from the article which was worse, posing nude or sketching others who were.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find models,” his wife said. “The list the secretaries give me is useless. Most of the girls these days will only do it draped, and what’s the use of that. If I want them to draw drapery, I can bring in curtains. Or slipcovers. Even the men want to wear jockstraps. I think we’re facing the end of life-drawing as we know it.”
As she said this, she began to caress the mouse, rubbing her thumb and pinkie along the slick ergonomic sides. A year before their split-up Kuncewicz had figured out that this was a signal, albeit pre-conscious, that she was feeling sexy.
“You certainly had no trouble finding a model the time I dropped by,” he said.
“What are you talking about?’ she said at first. Then she giggled. “Oooh, that’s right, the girl with the pierced breasts. I don’t know what became of her, her name disappeared from the list.”
“That was sure something, wasn’t it,” Kuncewicz blurted, realizing that he was probably coming across a bit too enthusiastically, a bit too oafishly. But she just cleared her throat, as if she had cut off listening before his comment, and entered another round of hearts.
“What were their drawings like?” he asked.
“Not particularly interesting,” she said. “In fact, they were no different from all the other drawings they do--they begin with the outline and then fill it in, almost like they never got out of the coloring book stage. They seemed completely unaffected. I don’t know whether they see something like that all the time, or whether they were just too shy and self-conscious. If anyone was affected it was me, not them.”
“What do you mean?” Kuncewicz asked. He was standing behind her at this point, watching her continue to win hand after hand, even managing to get all the hearts as well as the black queen without really trying. He placed his hands on her shoulders and began to knead gently. She twitched a bit, a twitch, he thought, into the flow of the kneading.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “I mean it was pretty strange going up to her to adjust the lighting. She kept asking me to turn up the heater and each time I caught sight of those gold balls--”
“Did they go right through the nipple?” he interrupted.
“Yes, they did. And they must have been specially made for that kind of piercing because they had balls on either side and they were angled differently.”
“Do you think things like that are more widespread than we thought?”
“How should I know,” she said. “I know that I’m not surprised any more when I see someone with a tattoo.” She went on to describe at length a student in her class who turned in a paper claiming that tattooing was the only true art of the nineties. Kuncewicz, meantime, was thinking about Leah, feeling somewhat relieved to be discussing her with his wife. He was even thinking that their discussion could almost qualify as an admission of the affair, a confession. To a skilled therapist anyway. At the very least, her presence wasn’t a complete secret between them. Leah was here, in the room, occupying a privileged place in both of their imaginations. Kuncewicz’s massaging became more rhythmic and at the same time more gentle, his fingers continually reaching to include new territories. The more gentle and caressing his touch, the more confused he became.
“My breasts got all tingly whenever I looked at her nipples,” his soon to be ex-wife said. “I think I was even a little turned on.”
Kuncewicz almost lost it. He wanted her desperately. It had been almost half a year. At the same time, though, he wanted Leah just as much. No, more. The thought of having both of them together crossed his mind. As well as the thought of watching them doing it together.
“The only time I felt anything like that was when Jiffy was nursing and her little tongue would lick me.”
Jiffy, who had been rummaging through her closet, heard her name and rushed into the living room. She saw both of her parents leaning over the computer and quickly squeezed her head between her father’s forearm and her mother’s shoulder. She mounted his bent thighs, twisted and wormed her way onto her mother’s lap.
Kuncewicz suspected that it was really Jiffy who attracted Leah, not him. It’s not that he wasn’t good-looking--he certainly was good-looking enough--it was just that Jiffy seemed so much more intriguing. her perpetually knit brow, her look of resigned consternation, her willingness to engage all adults in conversation on their terms, her sloppy sunstreaked curls. Even her clinginess had a certain allure. Thus, Kuncewicz dragged her along shortly after he first met Leah, hoping to run into her again. Several times he treated Jiffy to Saturday lunch in the cafeteria where he first talked to Leah, and three times already they had played subdued games of hide and seek and peekaboo in the library stacks and study carrels: he was determined to bump into Leah, daughter in hand this time.
And they did, literally. Jiffy was running away from her father who was hiding his eyes somewhere near the collected works of Carl Jung. She was weaving in and out of the stacks while he was counting, “one Jabberwock...two Jabberwock...” (Jiffy was into various children’s versions of Through the Looking Glass at the time, insisting on having it read to her by day, playing videos at evening, and shrieking awake from nightmares at night.) Searching for the best hiding place, she decided to scale the protective walls of a nearby study carrel just as someone (who turned out to be Leah) was rising up to a stretch. They knocked heads gently and giggled. Books thumped onto the floor, papers swished, a laptop clunked. Jiffy and Leah were already fast friends by the time Kuncewicz (“ten Jabberwock...Here I come...”) wandered over.
It wasn’t long before Jiffy told Leah the story of the burning bus. Leah, in turn, told Jiffy about a long crowded train ride her grandmother had taken. “The train didn’t burn up,” she said, “not like your bus. But it was so crowded that some people had to sit on top of others. And it was freezing and pitch black like the dead of night.”
“Were they going on a trip,” Jiffy asked, becoming captivated.
“Oh, it was a trip all right,” Leah said, “a real scary trip.”
Jiffy snuggled in closer, grabbing hold of a bunch of Leah1’s hair and combing her fingers through it. Kuncewicz, fearful of where Leah’s story was leading, tried to break their concentration by re-stacking books and straightening up spilled pages. “Okay, Jiff, “he said, stopping there because he, too, found himself interested in the story. “Why don’t you ask about the cars,” he said. “Were they hopper cars or gondolas or boxcars?”
“They were cattle cars, I think” Jiffy said.
“How do you know that?” Kuncewicz asked.
“She knows because she has a good imagination,” Leah said.
A few minutes later they were sitting in the cafeteria where they first met. Jiffy was sitting at the far end of the table, digging into a bowl of frozen yogurt, trying to mash down the swirly mound with a plastic spoon.
“I wasn’t sure how you were going to tell that story, you know, considering she’s such a kid,” Kuncewicz said.
“I believe you should always tell the truth to kids,” Leah said. “If you’re honest with them, they’ll appreciate it. They can tell when adults condescend to them.”
“But the Holocaust,” Kuncewicz seemed a bit exasperated, and to further emphasize his point, he turned his head to watch his daughter. Her face was smeared with brown goo.
“My gramma told me everything, even when I was younger. I could handle it. Kids just need to work it out on their own level.”
“But how do you present all that brutality and suffering?”
“Cinderella’s step-sisters chop off their toes to fit into the glass slipper,” Leah said, raising her voice, “Isn’t that right, Jiffy?”
“Yeah,” Jiffy responded, “and the crows peck out their eyes.”
“What are you talking about?” Kuncewicz asked. “What version is that?”
“There’s more to fairy tales than Disney,” Leah said. “Do some digging, you’ll be surprised.”
Kuncewicz reined in his exasperation. He recalled why he came to campus in the first place. He’d been feeling sorry for himself because his wife was leaving him, and now that he was sitting across from Leah he was feeling better.
“My gramma wasn’t just a passive victim,” Leah said. “After the camps were liberated she ran her own camp--for German collaborators and soldiers. In the part of Poland that used to be Germany. All with the blessing of the Polish government. She had a thousand people under her control, and some were just civilians. All but a handful died of typhus, but Gramma says she would have gassed them all anyway. She dressed just like an SS man, only she wore a skirt because she said it was more comfortable. And she rode around on a confiscated SS motorcycle. She used to tell me about the time she was whipping a German farmer that her security force arrested. She knew he was innocent, but she kept on lashing him, until her assistant grabbed the whip out of her hand. “I couldn’t stop myself”, she said. “Even though I knew it was wrong. This is for what happened to me at Auschwitz, what all of your Nazi pigs did to us.”
Kuncewicz listened carefully, not noticing that Jiffy, too, had rejoined their end of the table and was staring blankly at both Leah and him.
“She was a hero,” Leah said. “She used to tell me all about her camp every time our family got together. My mom and dad always tried to shush her--or blame it on the Manishewitz.”
“I’d like to spend some time with Jiffy today,” Leah said.
Kuncewicz was still groggy. “Sure, I guess,” he answered.
Leah was shifting around, squirming under the sheets. “I think her case might make interesting reading.”
Kuncewicz didn’t bother to figure out what she was driving at, that she was, in essence, seeking permission to include his daughter in her research. He was occupied, wondering whether or not those gold balls (some other ornament?) were still piercing Leah’s breasts. He couldn’t believe that he hadn’t noticed the night before when they were going at it in bed. He castigated himself--how could he possibly have missed it? Was it simply that they both undressed in the dark? Was it that during sex her breasts were always positioned away from him--too far to comfortably reach? Her back to him most of the time, and when it wasn’t her feet? Or was it his own reluctance to feel around for them, afraid he’d encounter slick cold steel instead of the spongy elasticity he was used to. And if he had found them, rubbed across them, then what would his touch accomplish? He remembered the squeal of pain when he accidentally touched the stud in Jiffy’s newly pierced ears. The bit of dried pus when they became infected and he and his wife took turns swabbing them with solution--accompanied by more screaming.
“I think I’d like to administer The Antinov Stress indicator test. It’s not at all invasive. Besides, she likes me and I already have her trust. We’d need the whole afternoon. Without you.”
Kuncewicz sat up. “You don’t think she’s that bad. Do you?”
“No, but I’d still--”
“I mean if I thought it was anything serious, I’d get her professional help,”
“Well, let’s just wait and see what the tests reveal,” Leah said. “I certainly know how I would have fared.”
“You?” Kuncewicz asked. “What traumas have you had?”
“Don’t tell me you forget,” Leah said, slipping out from under the wrapping sheet and gliding, naked, across the floor, flicking her hair as she went. At the bedroom door she pivoted dramatically to face him. “Remember, I told you all about my gramma and Auschwitz.” She paused, “and my mom and dad--about how they split-up when I was a kid..”
Though Leah’s long hair had neatly divided itself over each of her shoulders and coiled down her front covering the better part of both breasts, Kuncewicz thought he noticed a twinkle.
“That test I’m planning to administer to Jiffy, you know, the Antinov one...he and my gramma were friends back in Lodz, in Poland. They were in the camps together. He ended up in Tel Aviv after the war.”
“Huh,” said Kuncewicz.
Leon Antinov--he’s the head of his own institute there. You know--Tel Aviv--Israel--anybody home there...?”
Kuncewicz’s thoughts were spooling out in too many directions for him keep track of Other glares and reflections (the window, the hall light, the clock, Leah’s slick hair and nails) distracted him--it all seemed to him like some gigantic strange attractor, like a collapser of consciousness, like a fractal, overwhelming in its dazzle of organized confusion.
“I think they were lovers, even though my gramma denies it. I like to kid her about it, she still turns red as a beet.”
“What exactly do want to do with Jiffy? Kuncewicz asked.
Leah was already halfway down the hall, about to enter the bathroom.
Kuncewicz rolled out of bed and followed her to the door. He waited for the flush and waited further for a splash of water, the friction rub of towel. He remembered that Leah had left her jeans and shirt draped over the shower curtain (he couldn’t recall where her underwear was). When he heard what he thought was the staticky whoosh of hair through a shirt opening and a decisive snap, he cracked the door, moving it slowly to allow her to voice objections. Kuncewicz expected to hear a peremptory, “hey!” or even a breathy “gimme a minute,” but instead heard a sort of chirpy “umm-hmm.” When he pulled the door completely open and looked inside, he saw Leah gazing at herself in the mirror. Her head was tilted to the side and she cradled a bunched-up towel below her breast.
“What do you think?” she asked, not averting her gaze from herself.
Kuncewicz shivered, though he, at least, was partially dressed. He wasn’t sure what to say; he was simultaneously gazing at: a beautiful naked woman almost fifteen years younger than he was, who had (for some mysterious reason) chosen him, or more likely, had allowed him to touch her; he also saw his soon-to-be ex-wife as she had dreamily glanced up to him out of her nursing trance, the nipple still moist and erect, Jiffy’s lips still pursing and unpursing in her sleep as her head, using her mother’s beast as pillow, made an ever so slight indentation in it; and finally, there were any number of Renaissance Madonnas, carefully centered in the mirror’s silver frame--head, upper body and child uncropped, the fluorescent light casting a gleam onto her dark hair, her fingers just about to squeeze the infant’s tiny nub of a penis. None of these images sported gold balls.
“I can see why you’re in demand as a model,” Kuncewicz blurted out, confused. Now that he was seeing a proliferation of Leahs, all of them unpierced, unpunctured, unperforated, he questioned whether or not they ever were adorned. He was afraid that he might have imagined the whole thing--that first time he walked in on his wife’s drawing class. What if it had been some sort of trompe-l’oeil, caused by what--photo spots, perspiration, blond or even silver highlights in a few strands of misplaced hair? Was his wife even paying attention when they later discussed Leah, or was she just playing along like she used to--their well-established precursor to sex? Somehow, he was thinking, it always, always, came back to babies.
“Why do you say that?” Leah asked. She was still exploring different ways to hold the wadded towel.
“It’s obvious,” he said, and when she didn’t respond, “looking at you I could imagine what Botticelli must have felt or...Caravaggio.” Kuncewicz didn’t know where the second name came from, and for a moment feared that it was the name of some designer scent, or even some hair-product.
“Caravaggio,” she said, pouting her lips as she unscrunched the towel and wrapped herself in it. “You’re so much not Caravaggio that I can’t believe you said his name.”
Not knowing what she meant, relieved, Kuncewicz lowered the toilet seat and then himself onto it.
“You’re not the first one to say that,” Leah said. “In fact, that’s how I started modeling in the first place. This woman ran after me in the parking lot at Kroger’s. She claimed she could tell from the way I moved that I was exactly what she needed for her work. I told her that I never even thought about modeling and that I was busy with graduate school and all. But she kept insisting. I thought she was a sculptor from the way she talked about this muscle and that muscle and how perfectly they slid into place. But she was a painter.”
“Did you end up posing for her?” Kuncewicz asked.
“Sort of...it was just about the time we met. She made me feel too creepy. I saw her again a few times. I felt like she was watching me--you know, she talked about seeing me on the tennis courts, rollerblading through the park, working out in the gym. God, I wonder what else she saw. And I thought I was having such a good semester, she almost ruined it. Retroactively, if that’s possible.”
Kuncewicz took a step back out of the glare. He was thinking that he couldn’t fully reject the idea that this artist, this painter in reckless pursuit of Leah, might, in fact, be his soon-to-be-ex-wife. But he didn’t pursue the topic further.
Leah was in the shower when Jiffy came skipping up to the door. Kuncewicz had made sure to lock and chain it the night before, wanting to make sure that if Leah did spend the night, then neither Jiffy nor her mother could walk in on them. He could hear Jiffy’s frantic helloing accompanied by her quick raps on the window, as he yelled into the impenetrable fog of the bathroom and clicked the door shut.
Jiffy sensed the presence of someone other than Kuncewicz and immediately began searching, even before giving her father a greeting hug. She checked first among the paraphernalia of her Burning Bus Club in the enclosed porch, nervously peeking behind posters, lawn furniture, and curtains. When she was satisfied that no one was hiding there, she checked to see if anyone had tampered with her setup. Kuncewicz observed her through the French doors as she inspected each brushstroke of poster paint, each line of magic marker, each solidified outgush of white glue. What would she have done, he wondered, if she spotted some irregularity? And how could she even tell at this almost forensic investigative level? He was sure, though, that she would be able to detect, process, interpret or speculate on the tiniest bit of evidence.
Watching her page through her practice sheets of logos, arrange and rearrange the flashlights and carefully calibrate the angle of the Plexiglas with a Xerox of the original article taped to it--Kuncewicz felt a deep sense of pride in this child, his daughter, his only child, if he didn’t count the one that miscarried a year before Jiffy was born. Kuncewicz couldn’t even remember if they learned its sex. He had considered it simply a trial run, the body checking out its systems and getting them in functioning order before producing the real thing, Jiffy. Although his wife had always agreed with his explanation, Kuncewicz thought he had recently heard her once talking on the phone, mentioning something about stillbirth. This was right before their official split, before she moved out, into a nearby apartment complex. In the ensuing confusion and disorder, Kuncewicz failed to ask her which terminated pregnancy she was referring to, hers or some friend’s.
Kuncewicz tapped lightly on the window. Jiffy, who was hunkering down over one of the new placards she was preparing with glitter-glue and markers, looked up at him. Her face was expressionless, blank; she neither smiled nor frowned, neither off-putting nor inviting. Kuncewicz thought that she might be seeing only her own reflection in the glass, that she was right not to respond to him, since she really wasn’t seeing him. He decided to open the door.
“Daddy, no, you can’t come in here,” Jiffy said. Her voice was breathy and urgent. Not desperate, though, Kuncewicz thought, not bothered and certainly not desperate. She might have used the same tone to let him know that she was getting into her pajamas or preparing a surprise drawing for him.
“Why not, Jiff?” he said. He took a small step over the threshold, waiting for her reply. When she didn’t respond immediately, he entered fully. He wanted to crouch down on the floor close to her. He wasn’t sure what he’d say to her--he thought he knew better than to ask about the club, though he wasn’t sure why or when that topic had become taboo. He simply didn’t see what there was to discuss, and he was certainly afraid to sound disapproving.
“Because that’s what I think,” she said.
“Why?” Kuncewicz said.
“Because I don’t want you to come in, Daddy,” she said.
“Why?” he continued, and suddenly he had an odd sense that their roles had been reversed, that he was babbling on like his daughter had a few years back--that constant stream of whys seemingly asked for their own sake, out of some childish obligation to get the bottom of things, not really caring whether or not there was a bottom. So while Kuncewicz pressed on with his whys, Jiffy provided her own string of evasive responses. Not because she didn’t know the reason, but because her role in this interchange demanded that she raise the stakes each time.
“Because it’s only for people on the burning bus.”
“Why is that Jiff?” Kuncewicz asked. “Why can’t other people come.”
“Maybe Leah can,” she said. “Because she’s a girl.”
Kuncewicz slowly backed away from the room, giving his daughter the opportunity to invite him in. She bent over a piece of construction paper, her nose almost dipping into the crayon shavings she was herding into puddle of glue. She didn’t look up.
Leah was still in the bathroom, though the door was wide open. Kuncewicz stood outside watching her braid her hair. It was sleek and shiny and the already braided part of it dipped down into the sink like a coiling boa as she finished folding in the separate strands. It shook as she snapped the rubber band over its tip. Then, after linking the belt on her jeans and tugging at the sleeves of her sweatshirt, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a small notepad and some vials that she arranged along the sink. Kuncewicz was certain that she would follow this with an alcohol swab and a needle, but his first thought was that she was about to give herself an insulin injection. He remembered how his wife suffered from Gestational diabetes during her pregnancy with Jiffy. But he also recalled that she used pre-measured, disposable needles, thus avoiding all that preparation and mess, and for a moment Kuncewicz worried that Leah might be injecting herself with something else.
Jiffy was still out in the Burning Bus Club. Kuncewicz entered the bathroom and clicked the door shut.
“What are you doing?” he asked,
Leah ignored him, digging deeper and coming up with a marking pen and some labels. It was only after she settled them down on the sink that she turned to face him. “I’m almost ready for her,” she said. “Even before I begin with the questionnaire, I need to determine the level of Cortisol excreted in her urine.”
“What?” muttered Kuncewicz.
“It’s always significantly higher in PTSD subjects,” she said. “But it’s never been tested in children. This is going to be groundbreaking.”
Kuncewicz heard Jiffy slam shut the French doors to the enclosed porch. He heard her skipping through the dining room, getting closer. He heard her knock into the chair as she always did, and then shove it forcefully out of her path. Leah was smiling, an eager and winning smile, not so different from Jiffy’s old one. Kuncewicz grabbed hold of the door handle, a large brassy gold ball, cold to the touch.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Typically, for me, a story (this story) urges itself into being when several seemingly unrelated strands of experience begin to braid together. In the case of “The Burning Bus Club,” my five-year old daughter was in a minor school bus accident and it was something she talked about incessantly for a few weeks. We had a kind of sun room (called a 3-season room here in Ohio where I live) that we called “the club.” At the same time, I was reading a few books on the Holocaust for a course I was teaching, most notably Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners and a very strange book by the journalist John Sack , An Eye for an Eye, about Jews seeking revenge. Added to that, I was working on a series of poems (abandoned) about working in a Psychiatric hospital right after college and having to hold down patients who were receiving electro-convulsive therapy. Finally, my wife was teaching a drawing class at a local university and would, at times, describe the models she hired—by the time I began the story, I wasn’t sure whether or not the piercing part was true or not, but I never bothered to check.
ABOUT LEONARD KRESS
Leonard Kress has published fiction and poetry in Passages North, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, Crab Orchard Review, American Poetry Review, Atticus Review, Harvard Review, Barn Owl Review, etc., and most recently, The Swarm and Writing Disorder. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Living in the Candy Store, and Thirteens. Although he lived most of his life in Philadelphia, now he teaches philosophy, religion, and creative writing at Owens College in Ohio and serves as fiction editor for Artful Dodge.