America is…

This month’s writing prompt at the write practice is to write a short story with America is …. as the prompt. I am only trying to base flash fiction in the States because all I know is what I see on the television. However, in honour of this prompt and because it the the day for Americans to celebrate their Independence from colonial rule, this is a short story I wrote a five years ago which is geographically accurate, cemeterially correct and has some aspect of hisorical accuracy to it. It was the first time I left what I knew but I didn’t finish it. Completed below:


 “Is it the same Lazarus that we see in Luke 16, 19 to 31as a beggar at the drive of a rich man and the Lazarus that we know was a friend of Jesus and brother to Mary and Martha, whom we meet in John 11, 1 to 44. That ladies and gentlemen is your homework, I will accept it in any form and you can work in groups of three. We meet again two days time, Wednesday,  at eleven o’clock with your spectacular pieces. Class dismissed!” Professor and Right Reverend Clarence Hortense-Montague had spewed theological idea on top of religious fervour amid patriotic jingoism and finished on a pinnacle of befuddlement.


At least that’s what the new students attending Union Theological Seminary all seemed to think; thus uproar ensued as sixty 1st year students of Religious Conflux and Chaos tried to find people to work with, as each triplet was created they moved off. Finally I was left with a bespectacled small guy and a bloated pretty girl. Me, my excuse was this damned contraption the world likes to call a wheelchair, and the less obvious reason of being socially phobic and extremely shy. “Hi, I’m Dan. I guess we have to go together whether we like it or not. Computers are my thing but Dad’s a minister and I got a scholarship here,” as he spoke he was moving down towards the front of the class where I was sitting and he held out his hand to shake mine.


 “Well that’s peachy, we end up with someone not committed. I bet people looked at me and thought I was lazy, so they didn’t want me, Miss Blobby Bots. I am Naomi Benkelmann, also a scholarship case but because of my brilliant command of the Old Testament. Let’s go and get coffee and discuss our very first assignment I am already brimming with ideas.” She thrust her hands forward and grasped both mine and Dan’s into a kind of pact shake.


They looked at each other then to me, I could tell they wanted me to speak; to explain who I was, what I was there for. I was frozen, my mouth was clamped shut, hands were mid air where the shake had finished. The familiar creep of blood to my face and the internal tremors, I was paralysed by the thought of speaking, I should be used to this feeling by now but it gets me every time.


“Whatever,” said Naomi “C’mon, coffee and cake is needed, now!” And off she trotted.


 “Are you okay? Will I push you? Or something?” Dan blurted out, doing extraordinary movements with his arms like windmill blades.


 It was enough for me to smile a little at his gawky acrobatics and launched my wheels towards the exit. We caught up with Naomi in the cafeteria queue, she already had her coffee and slab of ‘Death by Chocolate’ cake. Dan, still trying too hard, offered to help but I rebuffed his help by moving towards the drinks vending machine. It’s at times like this that I am remind how little the non-wheelchair using world know of my life. Having seen off Dan I needed his help, the coin slot was too high up but I was too proud to ask so rejoined the line of people waiting for food and eventually came to their table with a bottle of water.

Naomi, mouthfuls of cake ignored began to discuss Lazarus. “There are loads of different ways we could do this assignment but because he said we could present in any way this is my cool idea! Lazarus was in the New Testament, he was resurrected. I think we should resurrect him again. That way we can ask him if he had been a beggar first! What do you think?”


The forgotten mouthfuls were spitting at us as she talked but the nonsense she spoke forced me to speak; “Look I don’t like people so I don’t talk much. But even I have to speak out now. You cannot seriously expect us to bring forth this Lazarus man like Jesus did in the Bible. Are you some kind of witch? And I am Cissy Milford, scholarship for using a wheelchair, wanting to learn and being prickly,” as usual when my mouth got started it said too much.


Naomi seemingly ignored my outburst and continued, “ I am fascinated by the New Testament because being Jewish it does not exist. Jesus was a prophet not the Son of God and I have a thirst to know were we right to ignore him. This project ties in with my ongoing work. We need to recreate the day that Lazarus was resurrected.”


Dan started now, “I have a program that can tell us the weather conditions and the moon placement and stuff like that and I know where Lazarus is buried.” He sat back smugly as we both stared at him.


I thought Naomi was going to throttle him as she thrust forward in her chair towards him, grabbing his shirt, cake spluttering all over him “Where?” She was like a possessed creature, her face purple with the effort, eyes bulging. I think she stopped breathing but I can’t be sure.


“Why right here in New York City, at Beth-Olom Cemetery in Queens. I don’t know how it got here but the body is buried in a plot. I swear.” Dan was scared, not unsurprising as he was pinned down by Naomi.


 “We’ll go!” she stated, letting go of Dan and rising “C’mon!”


 She was definitely leadership material as she strode out with the two of us following on. The nearest subway station was five blocks away but I still had to negotiate the lift down to the ground floor, the separate exit for chairs and it took me about ten minutes to accomplish this, no doubt Naomi was wired on the sidewalk waiting, I thought. Dan stayed with me throughout. I figured he hadn’t had many dealings with us disabled folk and was embarrassed by my useless legs. I made a mental note to myself to let him off the hook later in the week but for now it was nice to have doors held open.

The subway, although wheelchair friendly (I loved America for it’s statutes and laws on disability) still took time to get to the relevant line, purple 7 to Queens getting off at 61st and Woodside. First though we were to get on the number 1 local line at 116th Street Station by Columbia University and transfer at Grand Central.


When we arrived in Queens we gave up on the public system and got an accessible cab to the cemetery on Cypress Hills Street. Naomi picked up the tab for the cab fare. Let her think I’m poor, I thought as a wave of self-pity crushed down on my spirit, why do people equate disability with the downtrodden.


Beth-Olom Cemetery was framed with a spiky metal fence and huge imposing gates; two Stars of David flanked each gatepost. Graffiti covered the gateposts; anti-Semitic and pro-Semitic side by side. To the front there was a mausoleum with Leipzig in large letter above a strong oak door. “Ignore that.” Dan spoke, “This way, now the plot itself is overgrown with ivy but you can clearly see the name Lazarus.”


He led us down a path to the left and in a long half circle curve we followed, the further we went the more overgrown it became until Dan stopped. A small mound of ivy was indeed covering a headstone and Lazarus was the only word you could see. Behind the grave was a large granite altar that dwarfed the whole row but the ivy had begun to entwine the base and in a few years this giant sacrificial area would also be hidden.


Naomi and Dan were huddled by the altar with a laptop open waiting for it to load. I wondered should I tell them how uncomfortable I was. I was getting used to Naomi and Dan but all these dead people and ghosts I didn’t know them and I was feeling intimidated by them. I reached down towards the grave and tugged at a little piece of ivy, it came away but was still attached so I pulled again and some more came loose. Still affixed so I yanked and this time a good long thread of ivy came away. Sailing ropes, I remembered, this is like pulling sailing ropes.


When did I last sail, before the accident anyway so at least four years ago. It was the August before school started and Jen and I went with the guys to their place on Michigan. Sam and Kyle taught us both how to wind and winch ropes, it was great. I got so brown, and wore a halter neck dress in the evenings to show off my back.

Too painful to think back to when I was whole, when my body worked. In temper I pulled and pulled until I was breathless the silent tears blinding my eyes. Dan appeared from behind the gravestone, “What’re you doing, Cissy? Here, let me help you.”


“I don’t need your help. I don’t need anybody’s help. I’m out of here. Good luck!” I turned quickly causing a flurry of gravel to land on the grave mound.


Turning to look at it I noticed the name was clearer with the removal of ivy, “Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887. Hey Dan you brought us to the wrong Lazarus – this one’s a woman”


“Shhh, don’t tell Naomi. Let her find out on the Web, I’ve just set a page loading for her which will fill in the gaps. This woman was a poet, she wrote the Statue of Liberty poem about huddled masses. I just worked it out, we did a field trip here a couple of years ago, that’s why Lazarus was so clear to me. Believe me I am not looking forward to the moment”


“Ai! Ai! Ai! Dan what is this?” Naomi was in full swing, “Oh my! Oh my! You have wasted my time. What will I do? What will I do?” She started walking in a tight circle rubbing her hands over and over.


OCD I thought immediately. When you have a mental disorder yourself you read endlessly about others to make yourself appear more normal than them. “Naomi, it’s okay. We’ll go get cake and coffee and talk some about it, Come on!”


“Dan, you need to guide Naomi along and talk to her about this Lazarus, explain who she is” I was always better able to cope with my disabilities when helping others with theirs.


Jen and I had joked that if I was sent as a missionary to Leper colony in the bible I would thrive in such a desperate place helping those around me. My goal was always to do God’s work in Africa, but my dreams were dashed by the accident. Images of blood splattered windows, mangled burning metal, Jen’s screaming face twisted in pain as she was cut from the wreckage and the face of the medic telling me my legs were crushed and they needed to amputate.


The slide show was interrupted by Naomi wailing indecipherably, but definitely Yiddish, Dan was comforting her and trying to move her along. The wringing hands were still in constant motion. Maybe a full blown attack. I could hear Dan like an encyclopaedia reciting the poet, Emma Lazarus’ biography, I think I heard most of the lines to her sonnet, “The New Colossus”. I wondered how we can recoup this loss of a day and proceed to give a good, no an excellent presentation as we walked slowly towards Jamaica Avenue.


Dan had moved on from her poetry to her Zionism as we arrived at Esco Coffee Company. Naomi perked up at the smell of coffee and ordered carrot cake, two Danish and a brownie. I had another water and Dan got a bagel and a sandwich.

“Okay,” I started, a little shakily, “We need to start again.”

Naomi interrupted, “So Emma Lazarus wanted the separatist Zionist Israel, she was a pioneer, mmm.”


This was so unfair we had trundled along slowly because of Miss OCD and now she was taking over again. As she became stronger I felt my own strength depleting. Wallflower again, only my inner voice could speak. What was it about these Amazonian women that rendered me paralysed and stupefied, I could follow the conversation and in my head say what I would want to come out of my mouth but in reality either something really out of place would come out, or just a sound like ‘blarrf’ or most usually nothing at all.


Sam was the first person apart from family and Jen to take the time and wait for me to answer, he made it an art form, waiting over two hours for the reply to the question, “Shall we dance?” The music had stopped and the band packed up by the time I squeaked a little yes followed by a garbled apology. I missed Sam, and Kyle and Jen. Everything changed after the accident, we all had gone into it with bits wrong with us and came out either dead or with big things wrong, Jen my best friend since forever, was gone. She lasted until the ambulance but went into VT, the line was going up and down in a regular fast rhythm but they couldn’t shock her back to normal rhythm. By the time she reached hospital she was asystole, a long continuous green line and loud interminable F♯ explained to us that she was no more. I grieved more for Jen than for my legs, I wished her back, I lost my Faith for a whole year.


Sam died as well and I hardly noticed, boyfriends are transient but friends are forever. What would Jen do? I thought to myself. How would she deal with Naomi? She would be honest, straight to the point and be nice. Okay let’s try that. “Naomi, we only have two days to complete the assignment. Deadlines seem to be an issue for you so if we sit here and plan for awhile, share the workload and then meet again maybe this time tomorrow. We should be back on track.”


“I think we should capture the spirit of Emma Lazarus and use that in our piece, also use the other Lazarus’ as well. What do you both think?” I completed my first speech and was sitting back breathing shallowly.


Dan spoke “I agree, Naomi, I think you should deal with Emma because..”


“Because I’m Jewish, look the part, go on”


“No I was going to say, because you were fascinated by this woman and it might help those other projects you mentioned,” Dan grinned at me as he finished.


“That would be good, I want to concentrate on the Lazarus that caused Jesus’ downfall, and if you could do the parable Lazarus we have it covered. I think we should dress appropriately, maybe the Statue of Liberty for Naomi, rags for you and a shroud for me. What do you think?”


“Actually you have a good point, what about we write a play of the three Lazarus’ meeting in heaven. We could introduce bits of the facts but the real story will be the interaction between the characters.” Naomi suggested. And we agreed to head away and contemplate, get into character was how she put it.

There was a message from Kyle on the answer phone when I got back to my apartment. ‘Ciss, it’s me Kyle, I took some stuff. I don’t feel too good. Sam was my best friend and you didn’t even cry. Why didn’t you cry? Ciss, I really don’t feel good this time. Call mom for me, please.’


Always the same, Kyle was hugely messed up, I’d ring Mrs Chapman and let her know but first, something to eat and how to handle the text. Three hours later, exegesis complete I rang her. She was crying, she was always crying, I passed on the information for Kyle and let her repeat “we tried you know, Cissie, we did try” at least twenty times before I hung up. Kyle and I were messed up but I felt better after the crash, the wheelchair gave me an extra barrier, people forgave me and instead of looking at me like I had two heads, they turned away, they avoided me, it was great.



The following day the meeting was a great success, I talked, Naomi listened and Dan acted as buffer and ‘Devil’s advocate’. Dan typed as we spoke and at the end of the meeting the assignment was complete. He printed the copy for the  professor and then copies for all of us with our lines bolded and suggested stage movements.


One month later we presented our “assignment” to a packed auditorium. The buzz of being on stage was amazing for all of us. The applause at the end, deafening. We agreed to keep creating stuff, each of us bringing our unique talents, I have been talking a lot more and even answered a question in class. Kyle is still in a bad way, he doesn’t ring anymore.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. 
Emma Lazarus

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