by Jacob M. Appel
Artie Kimmel and I have worked the border together on Christmas Eve for each of the past eight years, because Artie’s an agnostic Jew from Brooklyn, and because I haven’t spoken to my sister since she shacked up with my ex-husband. Our long holiday night at the customs station has become something of an annual tradition between us, almost a religious ritual. I prepare honey-glazed ham with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, to be washed down with a mug of non-alcoholic eggnog, while Artie hooks his portable VCR into one of the security monitors. Not many drivers cross from Canada into Vermont on Christmas Eve—at least, not on Highway 19 between St. Gabriel and Danby Hollow—so we can usually enjoy Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life without interruption. If anybody does pass through, it’s likely to be an American tourist who’s gotten lost on his way to the ski resort at Mount Sabine, or a pack of local teenagers, smashed as lords, taking advantage of the lower drinking age in Quebec. On a blustery, snow-ravaged night like tonight—when even the plows and salt-spreaders haven’t made it this far into the countryside—we’re not likely to encounter another human face before daybreak.
A frigid gust follows Artie into the office. He props his shovel against the filing cabinet, then spreads newspaper across the pine boards and stomps the snow from his fur-topped boots. Flakes cling to his beard, his eyebrows, the great barrel of his belly. “So much for Global Warming. If that’s not another Little Ice Age out there, you could have fooled the long johns off me,” he says, wiping sweat from his forehead with his orange wool cap. I get a kick out of how “fooled the long johns off me” sounds in Artie’s heavy Jimmy Durante accent. “Maybe it’s acute global cooling,” he adds. “They say the Nineteenth Century Minimum came on without warning.”
I don’t know much about Little Ice Ages or Nineteenth Century Minimums, but I’m willing to trust Artie’s opinion. He’s not only a first-rate border agent, but he’s also the most talented art-glass blower in Franklin County, as well as head docent at the local historical society, so he knows more about most things at thirty-four than I know about anything at forty-seven. If he told me we were actually slipping back into the nineteenth century itself, I’d probably believe him. The truth is that, except for the security cameras mounted on the eaves, our little colonial-style headquarters has hardly changed since my French-Canadian grandparents migrated south. Last year, Chief Crowley even found a sheet of unused three-cent stamps at the back of her supply closet.
“You’ve outdone yourself, Phoebe Laroque,” says Artie, surveying the bowls of green beans and candied yams and chestnut stuffing crammed onto the folding bridge table. “This is truly a feast fit for royalty.”
Artie offers this same praise every year—and every year his words flush warmth through my cheeks like a pitcher of red wine. “Merry Christmas, my dear heathen friend,” I say, grinning, raising my mug of fake eggnog. “Bon appétit!”
“To the chef!” answers Artie. He taps his mug against mine—gently, like Eskimos nuzzling noses. “To the Julia Child of the North!”
He’s not drunk, just enthusiastic. I wish I had one-tenth of his energy. Even when I was thirty-four and happily married to Neal—or when I thought I was happily married to Neal—I never loved life like Artie does. Not with that much gusto. I suppose if I’d been born beautiful—externally beautiful, like my sister, Valerie—I might have found such an intense joy in daily living. Or if I’d had children of my own. But things haven’t turned out that way. Not even close.
Artie sloshes around his eggnog, gazing into the mug as though seeking liquid wisdom. “It’s hard to believe it’s been another year,” he says.
I set down my own mug on the tabletop. “Does Julia Child have time for a smoke before we dig in?”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” answers Artie, “but I’ll come with you.”
He’s been on my case for months to quit, ever since a former professor of his at Middlebury was diagnosed with emphysema. That afternoon he smoked his last Marlboro Light on the pedestrian promenade of the Ethan Allen Bridge, and tossed the half-empty pack into the gorge, hoping I might do the same. I couldn’t, of course. But since Artie Kimmel is probably the only living soul who’d actually offer me a lung if I ever needed one, I can tolerate his well-intentioned badgering. He’s even willing to brave the elements again, so I won’t have to smoke alone.
The wind has picked up since nightfall—a fierce, penetrating wind as loud as a sawmill—and it’s hard to distinguish the falling snow from the blowing snow. Up here, we call this sort of gale a “fishbowl cleaner,” because the wind against your bare skin feels like steel wool used to scrub glass tanks. Drifts already rise waist-high beneath the drainpipes, and the visibility is so poor that the floodlights along the checkpoint don’t even reach the nearest pines. Nobody will come through tonight. It will just be me and Artie—unless you count Henry Travers appearing as the Angel Clarence, showing Jimmy Stewart how worthwhile his life has been. And couldn’t we all use a dose of that? I turn my back to the wind, hoping to light my cigarette—but it won’t take. Then Artie crowds beside me, his arms raised, sheltering the flame from the storm. Soon enough, my lungs are filling gratefully with carcinogens.
“Thanks,” I say. “For a heathen, you’re a darn good friend.”
This is a running joke between us, a Christmas Eve routine we’ve lifted from Fiddler on the Roof. It’s funny because we’re both as secular as Super Bowl Sunday, although Artie’s a confirmed agnostic, while I like to hope there’s something out there that’s larger than ourselves—though Lord knows it’s sometimes a challenge to believe that. What’s remarkable is that Artie and I actually discuss these questions. After a decade married to Neal, I don’t have a clue whether my ex-husband believed in God or an afterlife or the transmigration of souls. In any case, Artie usually responds with a quip like: “You’re a good man for a gentile, Phoebe Laroque.” But tonight, he remains silent and chips at the ice-glazed steps with the toe of his boot.
“You okay?” I ask.
“So there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you,” says Artie. “I’ve come to a sort of realization.”
“A good realization?” I ask. “Or a bad realization?”
“That depends,” answers Artie. “I think I’m in love.”
My first reaction is that he’s in love with me. This is something we’ve never spoken about before—mutual intimacy of any sort. Maybe we’re both too shy. Or maybe we’ve sensed that romance might disrupt the delicate harmony we’ve achieved. Also—to be quite honest—tubby, red-faced Artie Kimmel, as much as I savor his companionship, isn’t exactly the knight in shining armor that a single woman fantasizes about. He must be a foot shorter than Neal.
I’m not sure what to say, so I take a deep drag on my cigarette.
“Here’s what happened,” says Artie. “I was out in the studio, trying to repair the pyrometer on the annealing kiln, when this college girl from SUNY Plattsburgh wanders behind the house, calling me by name. You’re not going to believe this, Phoebe Laroque. She’s driven all the way from upstate New York because she’s seen photos of my cognac chalices and Zanfirico beads on the Internet—and she has a crush on me. A twenty-two-year-old pottery major from Schenectady!”
“That’s wonderful,” I say. “You must be flattered.”
I feel like a previously-healthy patient who has just been diagnosed with terminal leprosy—I won’t really register anything else Artie Kimmel tells me. I’m careful to conceal my face behind my collar flaps.
“You’re not going to believe this part. She actually calls her drive up here a ‘pilgrimage’—as though I’m J.D. Salinger or something,” says Artie. “I should admit upfront that she’s not the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen. Between the two of us—and please don’t quote me on this—she looks a bit like a young Charles Laughton. But she really likes me. And let’s face it: I’m not exactly Gary Cooper.”
My entire scalp has gone numb. It seems an outrage that Artie Kimmel has fallen in love with someone else, that someone loves him and no one loves me.
“I took the girl to dinner at the Black Lion Inn,” says Artie—naming the only upscale restaurant in Danby Hollow. “Her name is Dover. Like the sole.”
“And you fell in love with her?”
My words sound less like an inquiry, more like an accusation.
Artie Kimmel says nothing. Instead, he stares at me peculiarly, as though he’s strangled this love-struck coed and buried her corpse under his woodpile.
That’s when the headlights appear. Two small bright clouds poking their way through the darkness. Then the vehicle emerges from the squall, a rolling crate coated in frost and rime. It’s one of those low-riding, foreign-made sedans you’d hire from a rental company, not even four-wheel drive. No chains either. Only lunacy or genuine desperation could inspire someone to attempt a border crossing on a night like this. The car—it’s got Ontario plates—limps to a halt at the security barrier. Artie taps on the hoar-tinted window, and after a long, uncomfortable delay, the glass lowers in starts. Behind the wheel sits a dark-skinned young woman, her mouth shielded by a knit scarf, long black hair cascading over her shoulders. She slides a green passport out the half-opened window, revealing a tiny hand with fuchsia-lacquered nails. The white light against the white snow makes it difficult to see much of her face.
Artie flips through the passport and passes it to me. Our visitor is a twenty-eight-year-old citizen of Pakistan on a tourist visa.
“You chose some night to be traveling, Miss Khosa,” says Artie.
Homeland Security has ordered us to make small-talk. It’s part of the job. Terrorists, apparently, have poor cocktail party skills.
“Mrs. Khosa,” she corrects him. “I am a very safe driver. Always very careful.”
She sounds either annoyed or nervous—it is hard to tell.
“What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?” asks Artie.
“I am coming to look after my mother-in-law in the hospital,” says Mrs. Khosa, her accent British and tightly-manicured—almost as though she’s in pain. “She and my father-in-law have suffered an automobile accident on the way to Montreal.”
Artie nods. He seems far less focused than usual—and he returns the woman’s passport without asking any of the essential security or tariff questions. He hasn’t even bothered to pan a flashlight across her backseat. Mrs. Khosa could be hauling kilos of uranium-235 insulated with cocaine bars, for all we know. But I suppose that’s what love does to a person: You’ll risk the welfare of the entire nation—maybe the welfare of the entire free world—to tell a coworker what happened on a dinner date.
“Okay, Mrs. Khosa,” says Artie. “Welcome to the United States.”
That should be that—but Artie, smitten as he is, is still unable to ignore the blizzard that has enveloped us. I sense he’d like this woman to vanish into the gloom, yet instead he asks, “Are you sure you’ll be all right driving in this weather?”
A long pause follows. At first, I assume our visitor is thinking, weighing personal safety versus familial duty, but then I hear her struggling for breath. “I’m not feeling very well,” she finally says, her voice markedly softer than before. “I need a hospital too.”
Even my heartbreak—if that’s what I’m feeling after Artie’s revelation—doesn’t prevent my border patrol instincts from kicking into gear: I flip on my own pocket flashlight and illuminate the woman’s face. It’s far worse than I could have imagined: her skin is a sheaf of pustules, raised blisters like a million little bee stings. No curve of her face is spared—the eruption disfigures her eyelids and follows the coils of her ears. The scarf around her lower face has fallen loose, exposing sore-stippled lips.
I’ve only seen pustules like this once before. On the training video.
“Jesus-fucking-Christ,” I say. “This can’t be for real.”
The driver answers me by collapsing face-forward onto the steering wheel. The vehicle responds with a short, urgent honk.
“Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is,” I say to Artie.
He removes the cigarette from my fingers and takes a deep drag.
“It isn’t,” he says, frowning. “Unless you think it’s smallpox.”
* * *
Chief Crowley is incommunicado, on a ten-day Mediterranean cruise with her daughters, so I phone district headquarters in Burlington. It crosses my mind that I may be interrupting somebody else’s holiday tradition, maybe even a deep personal confession or an annual romantic tryst, but a case of smallpox isn’t the sort of report you can postpone until the dayshift. When I tell the duty officer, Sergeant Steinhoff, why I’m calling, she first insists I’m mistaken and then falls momentarily mute—and in the background, I hear the courtroom scene from Miracle on 34th Street, Jerome Cowan asking Henry Antrim, “Do you or do you not believe this man to be Santa Claus?” Sergeant Steinhoff’s supervisor, Captain Pritzger, instructs me not to let the victim exit her vehicle. We are all under official quarantine, he declares, until he can send up a HAZMAT squad. Obviously, with eighteen inches of snow on the ground, that won’t be anytime soon. In the interirm, suggests Pritzger, our duty is to interrogate Mrs. Khosa about her most recent personal contacts.
“He says not to bring her inside,” I warn Artie, “and to question her thoroughly.”
Artie looks up from where he has deposited our unconscious patient on Chief Crowley’s black leather sofa. “That’s what I love about working for Homeland Security,” says my coworker, as he swabs the incapacitated woman’s forehead with a damp dishtowel. “We’re always one step ahead of the curve.”
Mrs. Khosa is a slight, sharp-featured creature with thick eyelashes and a long, sinewy neck that makes her look a bit like a heron. Even without her pock marks, she could never have been mistaken for pretty—and this makes me feel for her. I can’t help wondering if her husband remains in Pakistan, giving backrubs to her sister. Maybe her premature death is the good fortune he’s been waiting for. That’s when it first strikes me that we may very well die—all three of us. I don’t remember what the precise survival rate is for smallpox—usually I do crossword puzzles during the training videos—but my instinct is that it’s not very promising. And Homeland Security doesn’t even issue us goddam masks anymore, because Danby Hollow is considered a low-risk crossing. All I can do is rustle through the coat closet until I find a pair of musty bandannas, which will have to serve as makeshift air filters. When Artie and I wrap them over our mouths—his red, mine blue—we look like a pair of hyper-patriotic bank robbers.
“So what now?” I ask.
“I guess we should begin with the interrogation,” says Artie. He turns to the limp body and asks, “So Mrs. Khosa—if that is your real name—is this your first attempt to smuggle smallpox across the border?”
I can’t explain to you why this is funny. It probably isn’t. But at that moment, it strikes me as absolutely hilarious.
“So you’re taking the fifth, are you?” continues Artie, pacing the pine boards like Perry Mason. “It’ll go easier for you if you tell us everything, Mrs. Khosa. Now think carefully before you answer this next question: Is all the smallpox you have with you inside your body, or do you have more of it concealed elsewhere?”
“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” I say. “We’re really going to die.”
Artie throws up his hands in mock-disgust. “I can’t get anything out of her,” he says, but his gallows humor shifts rapidly into outright anger. “She’s a sick woman, you know. A human being! Did those bureaucratic nitwits in Burlington mention anything about sending an ambulance with their HAZMAT team?”
“I’m sure they’ll send an ambulance,” I say—though I’m not.
“I keep thinking I could put her in the pickup and drive down to St. Albans,” says Artie, “but it’s not like that’s going to do her much good. Those morons would probably just quarantine the entire hospital until they could send up their lousy HAZMAT team. Or lock-down the entire city.” He crosses to Chief Crowley’s desk and braces his chubby arms on the back of her swivel chair. In the next room, our Christmas dinner remains on the table, ham and beans and cranberry sauce all piled high and inert as though petrified by nuclear winter. Outside, snow continues to fall.
Artie disappears into the front office and returns with the ham platter. “I suppose we might as well eat,” he says. “You have prepared a feast.”
“At least we’ll die on a full stomach,” I say.
“Don’t talk like that, Phoebe,” he answers. “Nobody is going to die.”
One glance at the cadaver-like figure on the sofa undermines any comfort that my coworker’s words might offer. While Artie carries our meal into the chief’s office, I rummage through our patient’s handbag. It’s possible to reconstruct her story from its paper trail: a computer print-out of her in-laws’ itinerary in Canada, a Western Union telegram, the stub of her plane ticket from Karachi. There’s also a wedding photograph and a second group portrait of the couple’s four children. All girls. It appears that the parents of the husband were en route to visit another daughter when they drove off the Interstate just north of Duxville, and that Zahida Khosa has come to tend to their wellbeing, while her husband, a pediatric dentist, stays behind to earn a living. Where the other daughter is now, there’s no way to discern. Other than documents and photographs, all the handbag contains is an emery board, a hairbrush and a intricately-carved wooden giraffe. Probably a good luck charm. I find that I’ve judged Zahida Khosa by the contents of her purse—and that I like her immensely. “It’s going to be all right, Zahida,” I say, taking her clammy hand in my dry one. “We’ll get you back to your daughters. Somehow.” She groans in reply, squeezing my fingers—a flicker of promise in a sea of delirium.
Artie and I consume our meal one course at a time, emptying the bowls and trays in the order he has retrieved them. Ham. Next string beans. Then potatoes. It’s as though we’re taking part in a carefully-choreographed ceremony, although for the life of me, I couldn’t begin to explain our behavior. We’re halfway though the candied yams when Zahida Khosa awakes with a violent jolt. “I must go,” she declares, but in a distant, groggy voice. “My mother-in-law is waiting for me at the hospital. She’ll be frightened.” Something in the way she says this lets me know that her father-in-law has been killed in the accident. My own father shot himself while I was in high school—the shock still feels fresh to me, the moment that cleaves my life into halves—so I can almost forgive the fatherless Mr. Khosa for his philandering. Almost.
“You’re very sick, Mrs. Khosa,” says Artie. “Please lie down until the doctors arrive. If you need anything, we’ll help you.”
Zahida makes no effort to get up. I offer her another cool compress, but she shakes her head defiantly. Instead, she retrieves the brush from the end table and attempts to untangle her hair. Then she makes the most remarkable request: “Tell me a story,” she says. “Please, Mani. Tell me a bedtime story.”
“The fever is making her hallucinate,” says Artie, still chewing on a mouthful of yams. He feels her forehead with the back of his hand. “Yeah. She’s burning up.”
“Poor darling,” I say. “I wish we could do something.”
I remember when my own sister had pneumonia as a second grader, and I skipped field hockey practice to read to her from Mary Poppins Comes Back. That was the summer after we lost Papa and I was terrified that Valerie would die too. But she didn’t. She recovered well enough to earn her nursing degree and to steal my husband out from under my nose—so well, in fact, that she now has the gall to deny that she wrecked my marriage. That’s what makes it impossible for me to forgive her: Not that she was screwing Neal behind my back, but that she doesn’t even possess the decency to admit it. She wants me to suffer the additional humiliation of pretending that their relationship was entirely proper until the divorce papers were inked, while we both understand that this is an outright lie. And although my name is not Mani, and I know nothing of Zahida Khosa’s childhood, I sit down beside her and start to tell her a bedtime story.
“I was also a married woman once, just like you,” I say, “to the first man who ever asked me on a date….”
I tell the delirious woman everything: How one night after the break up, I’d gone to hurl myself off the Ethan Allen Bridge, but had merely vomited over the railing instead. How Val and I visited Mama’s hospice room in shifts, so I wouldn’t have to lay my eyes on her. How my sister will phone at ten o’clock, as she’s done every Christmas Eve for the past eight years, and how Artie will inform her I’m taking a nap. I even reveal to our visitor how much I loved Neal—which I admit I did, maybe too intensely—how his warm body made the cold world tolerable. I realize I’m not saying any of this for Zahida Khosa’s sake, but for Artie’s. I want him to hear what he’s missing out on—to feel guilty for preferring Dover Sole.
When I’ve said all I can bear to say, I tuck my patient’s damp hair behind her discolored ears and kiss her gently on the forehead. She is out cold. I can sense the tears stinging at the corners of my eyes, but I don’t wipe them away.
Artie, who has listened attentively during my story, rises abruptly and walks to the window. “Still snowing,” he says, matter-of-fact.
“Why don’t you see if you can get a weather forecast on the TV?”
The office television belongs to Chief Crowley. It’s a black-and-white Zenith that her daughters left behind when they went away to college. Artie adjusts the rabbit ears and flips though the channels. We can just make out the sound through the static.
It’s a CBS News special report: “Smallpox in Vermont.”
The network runs an archive photo of our stationhouse on a warm summer afternoon and then cuts to footage of the ongoing blizzard. It’s the same story on the other major networks: talking heads discussing incubation periods, lethality indices, patterns of dissemination. A man in a bowtie insists this “incident” has all the makings of a full-scale terrorist attack, while a retired lieutenant colonel argues that human error at a Russian research facility is probably to blame. Every few minutes, the news anchor reminds viewers that nothing has been confirmed—that it may be twenty-four hours before the authorities can reach our distant border outpost, that even the military helicopters can’t get through the whiteout. Homeland Security has lost touch with us, he adds; our telephone lines have gone down. I reach for Chief Crowley’ desk phone and check for a dial tone, but it appears the news networks have called this one correctly. My sister will not be phoning at ten.
Artie flips off the TV. “Wow,” he says. “So much for a quiet holiday.”
I feel like I’m on one of those television reality shows—suffering in isolation as the entire planet watches. I wonder what my sister is thinking. Whether she feels guilty.
“I never finished my story,” Artie says. “About that girl from New York.”
I cut him off before he can unburden himself. I’ve already done enough listening duty for one evening. If I’m going to be exterminated in a bio-terror attack—or whatever this is—I don’t owe anybody a painful emotional crisis before my painful physical death.
“You’ll tell me later,” I say. “After we’ve seen the movie.”
Then I pop the tape into the VCR and watch Jimmy Stewart rescue Bedford Falls from Lionel Barrymore’s gluttonous bank. I want desperately to escape into the film’s predictability, but it’s more-or-less impossible to distract myself from reality with Zahida Khosa whimpering and thrashing on the nearby sofa. I wonder if this poor woman has ever seen It’s A Wonderful Life. I wonder if she’d enjoy it.
* * *
“Maybe you should call her,” suggests Artie. “She is your sister.”
I’m attempting to coax Zahida into taking a sip of ice water, but everything I pour against her slack lips dribbles down the corners of her mouth. “You heard the man,” I say testily. “The phone lines are down.”
“I didn’t mean tonight,” Artie explains. “I just meant, in general.”
I sense that my “bedtime story” has genuinely gotten under Artie Kimmel’s flesh—that, if nothing else, he feels guilty for preferring Dover Sole to me. But I’m frustrated that he won’t even take sides in my clash with Valerie—that he wants to remain neutral, to appoint himself goddamn arbitrator. How the hell would he like it if Miss Dover Sole shacked up with his brother? If ten years of his pent-up qualms and suspicions proved true. More than true—so true they almost seem false. If every time he looked back on his Thanksgiving dinners and family celebrations, he had to rethink what was going on during his spouse’s long absences from the table. That’s what I want to demand of Artie Kimmel: To ask him who the fuck he thinks he is to referee my family conflict. But instead I take a deep drag on my cigarette and say, “I’d rather drive down there tonight and cough some of my smallpox in her direction.” Not that I’d really do anything that evil. As much as I can’t forgive Valerie, she is indeed my sister.
I offer Artie a Virginia Slim. Under ordinary circumstances, Chief Crowley would have my head for lighting up in her office—but these are far from ordinary circumstances. The rational side of me wonders if there aren’t still precautions to be taken, if we shouldn’t stay as far away as Zahida Khosa as possible. But somehow, her very presence makes our fate seem irreversibly determined. Artie must sense the same thing, because he lights my cigarette and then his own.
Artie lets our patient’s arm fall limp onto the cushions. “It’s a thready pulse, but it is a pulse,” he says. “At least my college first-aid course is paying off.”
“Is thready bad?” I ask.
“It’s all relative,” he answers. “The bottom line is that she needs a doctor.”
Artie folds Zahida’s arms across her chest. They rise gently with her shallow breaths. “I didn’t speak to my brother once for nearly six years,” he says. “When I moved up here after Middlebury. But then 9-11 came along and I decided there was too much hatred in the world already, so I called him.”
“What did you fight about?”
“Nothing. Everything,” says Artie. “Mort was nineteen years older than I am. He paid my way through school—and he expected I’d come back to Brooklyn and help him run the family business. High-end Prostheses. Limbs, jaws.”
At first, I think Artie’s joking. About the limbs and jaws. But he’s not.
The entire room is suddenly still. Deathly still. Even the wind has died down to a low, hostile moan in the distance. I watch Artie staring at our bedridden companion, his chin resting on his fleshy mitten of a hand. I realize that if Artie Kimmel loved me and not Dover Sole, I probably would end up phoning Valerie. Life works that way, one contingency feeding into another. I’m about to say something to this effect to my coworker, just to test the waters, when the phone rings. In my imagination, the console appears to jump off the chief’s desk, like the rotary devices in Warner Brothers’ cartoons, triumphantly announcing the restoration of service.
“I’m very glad I called Mort. He had an MI the following summer,” says Artie, as he picks up the telephone receiver. Then his tone hardens and he identifies himself to the caller. “Officer Arthur Kimmel. Border Patrol.”
Artie faces the wall while he listens, saying little—an indication that the caller far outranks Captain Pritzger and the Keystone Cops of Burlington. I sense he does not want to be interrupted. When he hangs up the phone, he appears relieved.
“Good news,” he says to me. “They should be here in under an hour. And they’re sending an army medical unit.”
That means we’re not going to die. I don’t think. Already, I’m worrying about the cigarette smoke in Chief Crowley’s office, and what will become of the leftover stuffing, and whether, if I am quarantined, this will count as sick leave.
“Do you hear that, Mrs. Khosa?” asks Artie. “You’re going to make it.”
Zahida’s vacant eyes stare up at him. She hasn’t made it.
* * *
We’ve decided not to phone back the national guard generals to let them know that Zahida Khosa has died. Somehow, we both sense that it is better to let them discover this on their own—to give our new friend’s lifeless body a few more moments of tranquility before the prodding and jabbing begins. Soon enough, she will no longer be Zahida Khosa at all. Just the woman who died of smallpox. And Artie and I will either be the other two people who died of smallpox, or the pair who were quarantined, but got lucky. A thought flashes across my mind that they will place Artie and me on an island together, just the two of us, like lepers or victims of a mutiny. “At least Zahida’s not going to be locked away somewhere like Typhoid Mary,” I say. “How long do you think they’ll keep us in isolation—assuming we don’t get sick?”
“Probably a few weeks to be safe,” says Artie. “And for what it’s worth, Typhoid Mary—Mary Mallon—didn’t even carry typhoid. It was a mistaken diagnosis.”
I slide a cylindrical throw-pillow under Zahida’s neck, letting her beautiful dark hair stream free. The breadth of Artie’s knowledge never ceases to impress me. “Two weeks isn’t very long,” I say—which is true. I had imagined we’d be locked away together for months. “You can handle that long away from Dover.”
Artie shakes his head. “I sent her home,” he says.
“Back to Plattsburgh?”
“Plattsburgh. Schenectady. Wherever,” says Artie. His face has turned a deep crimson—blotched with purple—and his voice surges with a fiery intensity. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Phoebe Laroque. I was out at the Black Lion Inn with this devoted girl who seemed genuinely in love with me…and I wasn’t the slightest bit interested.” Artie pauses nervously, as though deciding whether to keep going. I’m not sure where he’s headed, so I smile encouragingly. “That’s the big realization I came to,” he continues. “I wasn’t in love with her because I’m in love with you.”
I don’t have a chance to respond. Instead, as quickly as he’s confessed his love, Artie begins enumerating his shortcomings. “I know I’m not the wealthiest man in the world—forget the world, I’m not even one of the wealthiest men in Danby Hollow,” he says. “And God knows I’m not handsome. Or likely to change the course of Western Civilization. And I realize there are probably men out there who are all of those things—and would like very much to date Phoebe Laroque. But even an overweight glassblower with a civil service job is entitled to some happiness, isn’t he?”
I’ve been waiting for this moment ever since he’s mentioned the girl named Dover, but now I’m not ready to say yes. I want to say something that is neither yes nor no, but somewhere in between—full of warmth, yet noncommittal. Unfortunately, the occasion calls for a more decisive verdict.
Artie begins making his case again—and that’s when I first hear the rumbling. A murmur that swells into an angry mechanical gallop. “Do you hear that?”
“Please, Phoebe,” says Artie. “At least, hear me out.”
I walk to the window and peer into the darkness. The snow has tapered to flurries and the HAZMAT team is rolling over the bridge in a squadron of heavily-plated vehicles that resemble armored personnel carriers. One by one, they stop in front of our tiny cabin and maneuver their way into a circle. I’m expecting a high-ranking civilian in a well-tailored suit to demand our surrender through a bullhorn—like in the movies—but the phalanx of identical creatures who emerge from the vehicles are dressed in futuristic white jumpsuits and say nothing. They enter the office in pairs, two approaching me, and two approaching Artie, and another to examining the lifeless woman. My coworker cuts short his confession. One of the men asks me a question, but I’m too dazed to hear it. “Are you all right?” he asks again.
I nod. “She’s dead,” I say. “She has four young daughters.”
“What is your name?” the man asks.
“Her name is Zahida Khosa,” I answer. “She’s from Karachi. In Pakistan.”
“Your name?” repeats the man.
And then, across the room, one of the white creatures lifts his visor, revealing a middle-aged male face with a bushy black moustache. “Chicken pox,” he says.
Never has a voice sounded so decisive, so unequivocal.
“What?” asks his companion. “What are you doing?”
“It’s chicken pox,” says the first man—clearly displeased. “It’s the wrong rash.”
That’s the cry that runs down the line. It’s the wrong rash. The wrong rash!
Poor Zahida Khosa is still dead, of course. So is her father-in-law. And her family back in Pakistan will be celebrating two funerals, not one. Her four daughters will have their lives cleaved in halves forever. Artie Kimmel is still staring at me over the dead woman’s body, his round, hapless face waiting for words of hope. But the rest of the world is already moving on, changing channels, looking forward to their next Christmas Eves with their families. I could look forward like this too—I could spend my next holiday at my sister’s house with Artie Kimmel at my side, but somehow I know I won’t do that. It will just be me next Christmas, I suspect. Me and Jimmy Stewart and the ghost of Zahida Khosa, defending the borders until the last.
Jacob M. Appel’s eighty published short stories have appeared in such journals as Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Nebraska Review, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Threepenny Review, and West Branch. His prose has won the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review’s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant. Jacob has taught most recently at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. He can be found at jacobmappel.com.