Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Please help me welcome Laura Lee Romage and her short story, "Ibina":

            She slowly sat up on the side of the bed grimacing at the pain in her joints.  The apartment was cold and dark.  She glanced at the clock to check the time.  It was eight o’clock already, yet very little light came in the window.  She stood up and stretched and then shuffled to the window.  The sky was gray and cloudy and it looked like rain, not much different than the last couple of days or maybe even the last couple of weeks.  It was late winter; damp and dark.

            Ibina was alone—always alone, but not lonely.  It had been years since Saul died, so many years she couldn’t remember how many, too many years to count rolling one into the other.  It is easy to lose track of time when you have nowhere to go or nothing to be on time for.  Still, she was not lonely; she had her cat and her memories to keep her company.

            She lumbered to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, washed her face and then began to comb her hair.  “My good woman, you look so old,” she said to her reflection.  “Where has little Ibina gone?”  She gazed into her own eyes.  They were still so blue, still as blue as when she was a ten year old girl with long braids and smooth pink cheeks.  Those eyes knew everything about her.  People often commented to her that she had the bluest eyes they had ever seen.  When she was younger, men would tell her that her eyes had bewitched them.  Ibina chuckled at the thought. 

            She finished combing her hair and looked down at the comb; gray, white, and silver strands wove themselves amongst the teeth of the comb.  She remembered how thick and brown her hair used to be.  Now it was thinning and she could not see one single brown strand left.  “The price of getting old,” she sighed, “old and gray.”

            She continued with her morning routine, taking off her night gown, folding it neatly and placing it at the foot of the bed, getting dressed and making the bed up and fluffing the pillows.  Mew came out from under the bed.  He rubbed up against her legs purring.  “Good morning to you too, Mew,” she said.  “Let’s see if there’s something good to eat.”  The big, gray cat ran in front of her and jumped up on the window sill in the kitchen.

            Ibina always said the same thing, “something good to eat,” even though the something good was the same oatmeal she ate every morning; soft, gray oatmeal with brown sugar and milk.  It was the breakfast her grandmother had made her every morning when she was a girl.  She missed her dear bubbie!

            After eating her oatmeal, pouring the left over milk into Mew’s bowl, and cleaning up the kitchen, Ibina changed her slippers for her shoes and put on her thick wool sweater.  Then she put on her heavy gray coat and her old hat with the faded blue flowers.  She went to the closet and took out the bag she had knitted years ago from Saul’s old woolen socks.  She used this bag to store old grocery bags in to carry bread to the birds in the park.  Locking the door behind her and putting her keys in the big coat pocket, she left her apartment building and walked along the back alley of the shops that lined the street.  She went to the dumpster behind the bakery and collected up bags of bread and bagel scraps.  She was very careful to find a few good bagels that were wrapped in clean plastic. She stuffed as many bags of bread as she could in her big wool tote bag, except for the one small special bag for Old Joe.  She put the good bagels in that bag and placed it in her pocket.  Old Joe was a homeless man she felt sorry for.  His daughter had kicked him out because he was becoming so forgetful. Once, he left a pot of soup boiling on the stove, almost setting her apartment on fire.  Ibina was thankful for her own apartment.  She had lived there for well over forty years.  Saul was smart choosing that apartment those many years ago, because it was rent controlled.  He did not know then how much this choice would help her in her old age. 

            As Ibina walked towards the park she thought about when she first moved to her neighborhood.  Back then it was much cleaner and all the shops did a bustling business.  She thought about how happy she was that it was so close to the subway stop.  She would be able to get home safe after working all day and arriving home in the dark.  She also liked the fact that the park was only two blocks away.  She appreciated that more now than she did then.  Back then she was too busy working to have time to sit in the park, but now that she had nowhere else to go she loved to sit in the park and watch the people and feed the birds.

            Coming to the park entrance, Ibina saw Old Joe.  He was shuffling along with a newspaper folded up under one arm.  He had an old pork pie hat on over the top of a night watchman’s cap.  It was stained and full of holes.  His coat was missing some buttons, so he had made himself a belt with a few old pieces of cloth tied together and wrapped around his waist.  He wore mismatched gloves with some of the fingers missing, leaving his old gnarled hands raw and cold.  His scruffy gray beard was matted and dirty.  Ibina felt so sorry for him.  “Hello there, Joe.  How are you this morning?” she asked as she handed him the special bag of bagels.  She knew that some people would think she was giving him garbage, but it was better than some of the things she saw him eat.  She wished she was able to bring him food from home, but she barely had enough to feed herself.  She had to make the food last the entire month until the food stamps came again. 

            “I’m fit as a fiddle, Miss Ibina.  Thank you for your kindness,” said Joe, grinning his toothless grin as he pulled a bagel out of the bag.  Ibina knew he was not as fit as a fiddle and wished his daughter would bring him back home.  As he gnawed on the bagel, she waved and wished him a fine day, then she headed off to the fountain to feed the birds. 
            The pigeons were already gathered around the old fountain.  It was not in use any more and the basin was filthy with bird feces, rotting leaves, old candy wrappers, and coffee cups from the shop across the street.  The city cleaned it out from time to time, but it seemed a futile effort.

          Ibina sat down on the bench in front of the fountain and opened the biggest bag first.  She took out the bread pieces one at a time, tearing them into smaller pieces before tossing them to the birds.  Some of the larger pigeons would fly up and sit right on her knee or her shoulder.  They would perch on the metal arms of the bench, tilting their heads to the side and looking at her; they would blink their eyes and coo.  “Good morning to you too, my little friends,” Ibina cooed back at them.  “Enjoy your breakfast.” 

          As she continued to toss out bread, she watched the usual crowd walk by scowling as they glanced her way.  She thought to herself that if only they would take the time to feed the birds they would not be so cross.  A lady walking by with a small child rolled her eyes at Ibina.  “Can I feed the birds?” The child asked.  The woman grabbed him by the arm and pulled him closer to her. 

          “No, you are not feeding nasty pigeons!” The woman growled, yanking the child’s arm and dragging him along with her. 

          “Please, Mommy!” wailed the child.  “I want to feed the birds!”

          “Here,” said Ibina to the woman, “here is a small bag of bread.  Let the dear boy feed the pigeons.”
“No you dirty bag lady!” yelled the woman, “You homeless people disgust me!”
          “But I’m not homeless,” said Ibina quietly, her face fading into sadness.  “I’m just feeding the birds.” She sighed and looked after the woman and the child who was sobbing as his mother hustled him off down the sidewalk.

          Ibina had gotten used to people calling her a bag lady and assuming she was homeless just because she fed the birds, just because her coat was a bit old and her hat a bit shabby with its faded blue flowers.  She sighed heavily.  “It’s not a crime to be poor,” she whispered to the birds.

          After every scrap had been tossed, she shook out all the crumbs as best she could.  Tiny sparrows gobbled them under her feet.  She then folded the bags and put them inside her old gray tote bag, hefted herself to her feet, brushed off the front of her coat and looked up at the sky.  The sun was starting to peek through the clouds and that gave Ibina a bit of a lift.  Smiling, she made her way farther into the park, walking around the outer path.  As she walked along, she noticed that the tulips were starting to poke up through the mulch in the flower beds. 

          Ibina liked to spend the morning walking the perimeter of the park and stopping to greet the cart vendors and the other park regulars.  She especially looked forward to chatting with Stella, the woman who had been selling flowers in the corner by the duck pond for the last twenty years or so.  Ibina loved to smell the different types of roses. They all had their own unique fragrances.  Stella’s roses were the nicest, most beautiful in the city.  The ones at the supermarket seemed artificial in comparison.

            After chatting with Stella, Ibina walked on down to Tony’s hotdog cart.  “Good morning, Tony!” she called.  Tony was an old Italian man; old and short, with a crabby disposition.  He looked up at Ibina and silently saluted her, then went back to putting hotdogs into the steamer to cook before the lunch crowd swamped him.

            Ibina smiled and walked on.  All morning she walked and stopped to chat and walked and stopped to chat.  Pretty soon the workers from the nearby office buildings started arriving; some with lunch in a bag from home, some buying hot dogs from Tony, and some with their bags of take-out from nearby restaurants.  This signaled to Ibina that it was time to start heading home.  As she walked along in the direction of the park entrance she heard some loud shouting and laughing.  She glanced around, but could not tell where the noise was coming from.  She walked on.  After a few minutes the voices grew louder.  She could hear them behind her, so she turned around to see what was going on.  A pack of boys was running and laughing.  Some of the boys were on skateboards and were cutting close to people, scaring them.  Experience told her that they were out to mug someone.  She picked up her pace and tried to put some distance between her and them, but an old lady is no match for teenagers, especially when some of them had wheels. 

            Ibina was afraid they would run her over.  She tried to move to the side to get out of the way just as one skinny redhead whizzed by her on his skateboard.  “Watch out you old bag lady!  Next time I’ll run you over!” he shouted. 

            “Yeah, move!” yelled another skateboarder in a blue football jersey.  His face was full of pimples and spotted with blood where he had picked them.  He spun around on the board and then stopped abruptly in front of her.  “Give me your money, Grandma!” he sneered.  His teeth were yellow and he gave off a foul odor. 

            “I don’t have any money, kid.  Leave me alone,” Ibina said firmly, trying to keep her composure. 

            “The hell you don’t!” he shouted just inches from her face.  His breath smelled like rotten meat.  “Give me your fuckin’ purse, hag!” he spit at her.  Ibina tried to say no, but he was already grabbing at her tote bag. With one hand he pulled on the bag’s strap and with the other he punched her hard in the face.  Stunned, she stumbled backward and fell to the ground.  As her eyes focused themselves all she could see was the backs of those punks as they took off with her bag.  All she could hear was their sinister laughter.  All she could think about was getting home.  When those kids found out that all there was in that bag was some wadded up paper bags and bread crumbs she was afraid they would come after her and hurt her more.

            “Are you all right, ma’am?” asked a young lady in a maid’s uniform.  “Did they take your purse?”

            “My purse?” questioned Ibina.  “No, not my purse just my bread bag.  They only have my bread bag.  I need to go home.” She was shaking and trying not to cry.  The woman helped her to her feet.

            “Do you need me to call the cops or anything?”

            “No…no,” said Ibina quietly, “I just need to go home.  I’m alright.”

            “I don’t think you are alright.  Your eye doesn’t look so good.  I think you are going to have a black eye.” 

            “Please, no,” said Ibina. “I’m going home.”

            As Ibina slowly walked toward home the young woman stood silently watching her. “Poor thing,” she said softly.  

            Ibina walked toward the direction of the park entrance.  She felt her face and her eye, it hurt and things were getting blurry.  She heard loud voices yelling something about dirty homeless people.  She started to panic and tried to walk faster, but there was a crowd gathering and it was blocking her way.  She could see those kids and although they were blurry, she knew it was them and she could tell they were kicking someone. People were telling them to stop and someone was saying, “Call 911 for the cops.”   Then they were gone…the boys were running away.  “Stop those punks!” someone yelled.  “Call an ambulance!” someone else cried.  Ibina turned around and walked the other way.  She was confused.  She turned left and just started walking as fast as she could.  She came to the end of the sidewalk where a dumpster sat with trash spilling out of it. 

            “Oh, no,” gasped Ibina, “this is not the way home.”  She turned around and headed back.  She heard the wail of sirens.  Panicking, she walked faster; she bumped into a man who was rushing the other way. 

            “Watch it, lady!” he growled.

            Poor Ibina, she was exhausted and confused.  Just then someone took her arm.  “Help!” she screamed. 

            “Don’t worry, Miss Ibina,” said a deep, calm voice.  It’s me, Officer Charles.  “You can’t walk this way.  It’s a crime scene.  Old Joe has been beaten and he’s not doing so good. What happened to your eye?”

            “Joe?  No.  Joe?” stammered Ibina.  She started to cry. 

            “I’m sorry to tell you that.  I know he’s your friend.” 

            “Oh, God, no!” cried Ibina.  “I have to get home!” 

            “Miss Ibina,” said Officer Charles, “What happened to you?  Do you want me to take you to the hospital for your eye?”

            “No, please, no,” she sobbed, “I want to go home.”

            “Then you will need to go that way and around,” said Office Charles, steering her in another direction, away from the entrance close to her home. 

            Ibina slowly made her way down the sidewalk.  She could hardly see.  When she got to the end of the sidewalk she went out of the park gate and on to the sidewalk running outside the fence.  She could not make out where she was, so instead of taking a turn she walked across the street and down the block.  She walked to the next block and turned right.  This would have been the right direction, but in her confusion she made a left at the next block, taking her farther from home.  She spent the next few hours walking around and around and going farther away from her apartment.  Exhausted, her feet aching, she sat down in a doorway and sobbed. 

            “Please, God,” she prayed, “Help me to get home.” 

            Someone in the building looked out at her from an open window. 

            “Excuse me, ma’am, are you alright?”

            “I’m lost and I want to go home,” cried Ibina.

            “Where do you live?” asked the stranger looking down at her.

            “Franklin Street,” said Ibina, “I live on Franklin Street.”

            “Well, if you just go around this corner and keep going straight, about 10 blocks or so, you will come to Franklin Street and be in front of Franklin Park.  Is that where you want to go?”

            “Yes,” said Ibina, looking up at the window, “Thank you!” Although the face was just a blur, she could see that it was smiling.

            Immediately she stood up, walked around the corner and kept on walking.  It was getting dark and Ibina was scared.  She didn’t know this area.  She could not remember if she had ever been down this way.  She probably had, because she lived in this same area for over forty years, but she just couldn’t remember.  Her face hurt, she could barely see, and she was hungry.  She had a headache and her feet hurt from so much walking.  Finally, she reached the park.  She turned left and crossed the street.  As she walked along she could hear people laughing and talking.  She saw yellow tape stretched across the park entrance.  In all her confusion she forgot about Old Joe.  A renewed sense of fear welled up in her.  She walked quickly, as fast as she could go.  She was afraid those kids would see her and come after her.  It was so dark out! 

            “Miss Ibina,” someone called.  “Miss Ibina, what are you doing out this late?” 

            “Huh? Going home!” she cried.

            Then she was there, in front of her building.  She knew the steps and the bricks of the staircase.  Exhausted, she struggled up the steps and fumbled with her keys.  As tears started in her eyes she said to herself, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.”  The tears ran down her cheeks anyway.  Her blurred vision made it hard to find the keyhole.  She wiped her coat sleeve across her eyes.  “Stop crying, Ibina,” she told herself.  Finally, she got the key in the keyhole and opened the door.  She hurried down the hall to her apartment.  She had trouble with her door lock too, but finally was able to get the door open.  She slipped inside to the dark room.  She had not planned on being out so late and coming home to the dark was disorienting.  Mew rubbed against her legs, making her jump with fright.     

            “Oh, it’s just you, Mew!” cried Ibina.  “Thank, God!” She fumbled her way to the couch and the end table where she turned on the lamp.  She fell on to the couch. The coolness of the dark apartment relieved the terror she had felt.  Alone in her sanctuary the heavy sadness fell like a blanket upon her; the dam burst and the tears cascaded down her like a waterfall. 

            As she sobbed uncontrollably, Mew jumped on to her lap.  Unconsciously, Ibina patted her old friend.

            “Oh, Mew, she sobbed, “They beat him…those punks beat Old Joe!  Ibina cried long and hard until she fell asleep, still in her old gray coat and with Mew still on her lap.

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