The bodies are everywhere. Women, children, the elderly.
Seth is transfixed as the 60 Minutes correspondent opens with an introduction to the war in Syria, which flows into interviews with rebels fighting the current regime and families eking out an existence in a shattered land.
“Hey, it’s on,” Seth shouts without turning his head from the paused, pre-recorded image on the big screen TV parked on the living room wall.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Miranda says. Do you want red or white wine?”
Seth’s finger lingers over the remote as he hears Miranda rummaging in the cupboards for something in the kitchen.
“I can’t find the corkscrew. Have you seen it?”
“Haven’t touched it. Is it in the dishwasher?” Seth is anxious to continue the show and his hand twitches on the remote. Almost every Sunday evening they wrap up the weekend watching 60 Minutes. They drink wine, fast forward through the commercials, and slow down for the good parts before heading off to the bedroom for small talk or light reading. On occasion, there is tepid sex—usually with the light out—before drifting off to sleep.
“Are you sure you don’t know where the corkscrew is? And you never said if you wanted red or white.”
“Yes, I’m sure. If I knew where it is, wouldn’t I tell you? You pick the wine, and I’ll drink it. How’s that sound?”
“Okay, that’s if I ever find anything to open the damn bottle with.”
Seth’s tempted to push the Play button to move the evening along.
Miranda places two open bottles of wine on the small table wedged between a pair of expensive leather recliners, returns to the kitchen for the glasses, and then slumps on the chair. “I couldn’t make up my mind what kind of wine to open so I brought both.”
“Ready to watch?”
“Yup—oh my gosh, I forgot the coasters.”
Seth’s finger stops one millimeter above Play.
Miranda jumps up, heads to the kitchen. Seth hears a drawer open, and Miranda returns with the coasters. She pours each a glass of red. “So what are you waiting for? Let’s watch.”
Seth raises an eyebrow at her. Are you kidding?
The scene shifts to the desert: desolate, parched, windblown. The camera lens focuses on a movement far away. It’s impossible to make out what it is. The distant image turns into a steady stream of refugees. The line stretches to the horizon, and as each keffiyeh or hajib-clad person trudges by the camera, they kick up a small dust cloud. Many carry battered suitcases or bags, or small children, or both. One man on crutches with a crude backpack carries his son on his shoulders.
“I’m going to get some of that good cheese I picked up at Whole Foods. Do you want some?” Miranda asks.
“Nah, I’m good.”
The correspondent is at a Syrian-Turkish border crossing, a sad unmarked finish line which is really just another start line for the refugees. Seth learns these people have spent four days walking across a waterless patch of sand to get to Turkey. Several of the Syrians are interviewed in front of a Red Cross tent.
One man named Radwan tells his story in Arabic with a voiceover in English: “My whole family was killed in rocket attack. This boy I carried, he is all that’s left of my neighbor’s family that was also killed by rocket. He says, ‘take me’ so now he is my family.”
A woman refuses to give her name saying, “It means nothing now.”
The correspondent brushes sand from his multi-pocketed vest. “Why not?”
“They raped and killed my daughter right in front of us. I wanted to kill myself but my husband says ‘we must live to remember and honor her.’ I say no, I will only live so I can kill those who defiled my daughter.” She looks directly into the camera. “I know who did this. I know who you are, and Allah’s will shall prevail.”
“More than one million refugees have fled across the border to refugee camps like this,” says the correspondent. “And there is no end in sight.”
Seth realizes he has been leaning forward in the recliner as if the TV had a gravitational pull. He turns the TV off and sags into the chair, released from the force of what he had seen. “Wow.” he says to Miranda in the kitchen. “I can’t believe people treat each other like that. What a total mess. It seems like there should be something we could do to help them. No matter what, the next time I hear somebody complain, myself included, I’m just gonna say ‘Syria.’”
“Hon, what’d you say?”
The next day at work, Seth’s cell phone buzzes with a text from Miranda as he shuts his computer down for the day.
“Can u pick up baguettes at bakery on way home?”
Petit Francais, a French bakery smelling of cinnamon and sugar, is four blocks away, and in the opposite direction of the bus stop. This means he’ll miss his normal bus and will have to catch one a half-hour later. Which also means he won’t be able to show up until midway for his dart league. This is so Miranda; always an oddball request sending him searching for an obscure item in the local supermarket even the store clerks can’t track down.
“Can it wait til tomw?” he texts back. “I’m gonna be late for dart league.”
“Hoping to have it with dinner 2nite,” Miranda responds.
Seth begins typing a snarky response but then a calming voice in his head settles him: Syria. He types, “Okay. Syria.”
Miranda: “Thx. What?”
Seth: “Never mind.”
Seth and Miranda finish eating dinner, half the baguette sliced on a cutting board near the salad bowl. She is still in her black dress and makeup. Miranda is the vice-financial officer at a large insurance company and loves the perks: expense account meals, jetting to the home office, and company retreats. They sit, sated, with empty wine glasses, and Miranda goes through email on her phone, which is never more than arms-length from her, even in the bathroom.
“So, what is the deal,” she asks, “with that text message?”
Seth puts the newspaper aside and wipes the newsprint that has come off on his hands with a napkin. “What text message?”
“You know—the Syria one”
“Oh, that one.”
“What was that all about?”
“I was angry about being late when so many people in Syria are in worse straits.”
Miranda gives Seth an are you off your rocker? look and clears the table. “Don’t you have some kind of dart thing going on tonight?”
“It’s half over so I’m going to skip it.” The last few days at work, in between programming for a client’s new payroll system at the firm where he works downtown, Seth slipped in a little internet research on Syria. Nobody cares about a few billable hours here and there, anyway. “I have some stuff I need to do so I’ll be upstairs if you are looking for me.”
Seth opens the bedroom walk-in closet door, snaps on the light, and moves to the back of the closet. The air is redolent with sandalwood, Miranda’s favorite perfume. Unfolding a small stool they keep there, he stretches toward an upper shelf and retrieves a shoebox tied shut with red ribbon. Seth cradles the box under his arm, takes it to the bed, and flops down. Sifting through the pile of family photos, he comes to one creased at an end and yellowed with age. Grandpa Izaak is leaning on a horse-drawn carriage and Grandma Adina is holding a baby—Seth’s grandfather. Seth flips the photo over and the simple caption says, ‘Poland, 1938.’ He doesn’t know the full story, but is aware a Jewish organization sponsored their emigration to the United States in 1939. You three were so lucky. Call it good fortune, fate, or God’s will. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is doing something.
A week later Miranda lounges in the recliner in yoga pants and tank top, scrolling through her iPhone. “Hey Seth, we have an email I wanna ask you about before I delete it. I thought it was kind of spammy but wasn’t sure.”
Seth puts down the bowl of Ben and Jerry’s. “Which one?”
“It was from some kind of organization. At first I thought they wanted a donation but it looked like they were responding to an email you sent.”
“Oh, that one. Yeah, don’t delete it.”
Miranda puts the phone closer to her face and scrolls. “Geeks Without Borders? You have to be joking. It’s not April Fool’s Day, is it?”
“No, no, it’s a real organization,”
“What do they do? I’ve heard of Doctors without Borders, but not this one.”
“It’s a lot like that only for IT people. There’s a ton of demand for computer work in all sorts of third world countries: website development, network support, programming. Stuff like that. You could be way out in the middle of nowhere or in the city. It sounds kind of cool.”
Miranda cocks her head as if she’s a bird listening for worms in the ground. “So, are you thinking of doing something like that?”
“I don’t know. It was just something I was checking out. That’s why I sent an email.”
He wants to share more about his job and how unfulfilling it is. Seth’s tired of ones, zeros, and bytes that help rich people get richer. He wants to help people who are starving, don’t have a roof over their head. Past discussions with Miranda about ‘meaningful jobs’ have batted down his thoughts under a volley of advice straight out of the Harvard Business Review. She seems so rooted in career and advancement. Had she always been that way? Was there something he had missed? Or is it him—has she been moving forward all these years while he’s been standing still? A memory comes back to him of a canoe trip they took after they started dating. Only in this altered version, he is on an island and he sees Miranda sitting in the stern paddling the canoe with great skill. Miranda maneuvers the canoe to shore, sets her paddle down momentarily and says, “jump in.” She doesn’t hand him a paddle, in fact there is no other paddle in the canoe, and then they are back out in the current. He knows Miranda wants what she thinks is best for Seth, but does she really know? Maybe they have evolved through the years like one of those branches on an anthropological family tree depicting a split in human evolution that Seth saw in a National Geographic.
“And where do I fit into all this?” Miranda asks, “While you’re in Somalia, Syria or Timbuktu.”
Seth pauses for a few seconds. “You fit. Kind of. I really haven’t sorted all this out yet. I’m still in fact-finding mode.”
Miranda says, “Keep me posted on our pending move to Swaziland. Okay?”
“It’s something I’m looking into at this point.”
Miranda gets out of the chair, rolls her head to work out a kink, and wanders into the kitchen with her wine glass. “Shouldn’t we be checking this out together or talking about it?”
Seth drops the empty ice cream bowl in the sink with a clunk. “We are talking about it. Do you think you’d want to go?”
“Well, I’m not sure where we’d be going to, but truthfully: no. I’ve got my hands full right here. My CEO just got ousted, the company may merge. When I come home, my boyfriend is contemplating moving to some equatorial country with shaky internet service.”
“Not all the countries are equatorial.”
Miranda’s phone hums with a text message. She scans it briefly and without missing a beat says, “I don’t think you heard what I just said,” before she taps a response. She touches the ring-less finger on her left hand. “You seem more committed to Syrians than you are to me.”
He is mindful their friends have asked, “So when are you two going to tie the knot?” It doesn’t seem like that much time has passed since they collided during a pick-up ultimate Frisbee game. His knee hit her mouth, and to take care of the swelling she held a cold beer bottle against her face at the local tavern. Seth tenderly soothed her as they sat on the wooden bench in a quiet corner, the smell of ten thousand cigarettes embedded in the rough paneling. She laughed at his witty jokes—not an easy task with the increasing numbness from a succession of chilled beers clamped to her face. It had been a long time since they had gone out for drinks and joked around. He has no clear explanation for it but as he thinks of himself now, it is like his boyish joy for life has eroded and left a quiet, brooding core. A life of missed opportunities.
“I haven’t made any commitments,” says Seth.
Miranda puts the phone down, looks at Seth and says, “My point exactly.”
The reservation had been set three weeks in advance at Angelo’s Chophouse with Max and Chloe. Chloe is Miranda’s former college roommate who lives across town, but they rarely get together because of their busy schedules. Seth gets along fine with Max even though they are very different; Max runs a cabinetmaking shop and is quite precise—he folds his napkin with a crease that could cut a dinner roll. Seth’s casualness seems to annoy people at times; his idea of dressing up consists of wearing a shirt with a collar and putting on shoes with laces instead of his purple Crocs that Miranda keeps threatening to throw out. Tonight, they are celebrating Chloe’s promotion.
“I can’t believe they finally promoted a woman at your office,” Miranda pronounces. “That place is just a rat hole of male dirt bags.”
Max and Seth sit glumly.
“I know, I was just shocked, and I could just see a bunch of the men’s jaws drop when they announced it.” Chloe and Miranda clink wine glasses.
Their dinners arrive, and Max slices into a porterhouse steak as big as a catcher’s mitt.
“Hey, this is medium-rare, and I asked for it to be medium.”
Chloe pulls his plate towards her to inspect the meat. “Let me see. It looks okay to me, but send it back if you want.”
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” Seth says. “Why don’t we swap dishes? I’ll eat your steak.”
“If I wanted seafood fettuccine, I would have ordered it.” Max pulls his plate back from Chloe.
“No, really, the seafood fettuccine is excellent here. You should try it.”
“I don’t want it,” Max insists.
“It’s got lots of scallops, shrimp, and salmon in it.” Seth stirs the fettuccine so he can reveal the ingredients for Max.
Miranda grips Seth’s forearm so hard he can feel her fingernails digging in and little white semi-circles form where the blood is squeezed out.
“Not interested!” Max barks.
The couple at the next table turns and stares and an approaching waiter does an immediate about-face.
“Whatever. Syria,” Seth lobs back.
Miranda kicks Seth in the shin under the table.
“He says he wants to send it back,” Miranda hisses, her teeth clenched so tightly together it’s a miracle she can speak.
Chloe and Max glance at each other with a puzzled look and Chloe says, “Syria? Did you just say Syria?”’
Miranda lets out a breath. “Never mind.”
“I want to hear what he means by ‘Syria,’” Chloe says.
“Seriously?” Miranda sits back, removes the napkin from her lap and places it on the table.
“Me too,” says Max.
Seth tells them about the 60 Minutes episode and how awful he felt witnessing the line of refugees. “I could set up a computer network to process the refugees faster, cook, change bandages, haul water. Anything.”
“Are you really thinking of quitting your job and moving overseas?” Chloe asks. “Miranda, are you in on this too?”
Miranda looks at Seth. “Definitely not.”
Max puts down a roll he’s gnawing on. “I read there are terrorists mixing in with the others, trying to infiltrate countries. The refugees need to be carefully checked out so some suicide bomber doesn’t slip through.
A buzzing starts in Seth’s head. “So a million people get stuck in these camps in case one terrorist might slip through?”
“How is quitting your job going to save a million people? Chloe has re-entered the fray. “You can’t be a martyr.”
“I’m not talking about saving a million people, I just want to help. Seth waves his fork around and bangs it on the table. “These are people, they’re not widgets!”
“Maybe we should change the topic,” Miranda says. “I can’t get over how good my mushroom risotto is.”
The car ride home is silent. Miranda maneuvers the car into their condo parking space and turns off the engine. And sits.
Seth asks, “Aren’t you going to get out?”
“What has gotten into you, Seth? I just don’t get it.”
“You mean the meal-swapping thing?”
Miranda lowers her head so it’s resting on the steering wheel. “What else would I be referring to? That and this new-found obsession with Syrian refugees.”
“It’s not an obsession.” Seth fiddles with an air conditioning vent. “I’m just curious about it and concerned. There are people out there that are really hurting.” He realizes it is warm in the car and wishes cool air was flowing from the vent.
“Couldn’t you keep it simple and help out the homeless downtown? Serve them soup or teach them how to write computer code.”
“Ha, ha. Very funny. It’s not the same.”
“But you’d be helping, and you’d be home at night. And—we’d be together.”
Seth looks at Miranda as if she’s somebody he recognizes but can’t quite place. “It’s different though. The people in these war-torn countries have seen the worst of humanity.”
“What about the Navajos, Nez Perce or Seminoles? Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee and all that?” Miranda is rising to the occasion with a quick recap of the little she retains from high school history class. We screwed them over pretty good and they’re right here in America—at least the part we took from them.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Please do. That’s all I’m asking.”
Two weeks after the Angelo Chophouse incident, Seth directs two moving men into the living room.
“Over here, guys. Those right there.”
The movers pick up one leather recliner, haul it down to their truck and return for the second one. The chairs were his-and-her presents to each other three Christmases ago.
One of the movers says, “So what’s the deal? These chairs are in perfectly good shape.”
“Yeah, I know.” Seth leans his hand on the chair. “I wanted to get as much money for them as I could when I donate them.”
“Give ‘em away?” The mover mops his brow with a red bandana. “Me and the wife would love these.”
Once the movers are done, Seth shuts the door and closes his eyes. He imagines the money buying food, medicine, a bed to sleep on. Seth picks up the Geeks Without Borders brochure from his desk, shoves it in his pocket and heads to work.
The dart gods are kind to Seth this evening, and his teammates all want to buy him a beer. As the evening wears on, they drift away with “Big day at work tomorrow—I should probably head home” or “Wow. It’s later than I thought.” Soon it’s just Seth and his buddy Everett at the bar with ESPN SportsCenter blaring in the background.
Miranda has made it clear to Seth that most of his friends aren’t good enough for him. It’s not like he has special traits elevating him above the rest of them. Good enough for what? What exactly does a friend have to be? She refers to many of them as knuckle-draggers. Take Everett—he works in the city planning department, and there is nothing wrong with that. It isn’t as if he hangs around with a group of apes, eating nuts off the forest floor.
They stare at the TV. Everett blurts out, “Carrie and I aren’t doing so hot.”
Little men in shorts are chasing a soccer ball around a field and never seem to catch up with it. They look sweaty and frustrated, and for a moment Seth sees Everett and him on the field with them. “What do you mean? You guys are great together.” He traces his finger across condensation blooming on his glass.
“We always argue about stuff. Crazy things like if I cleaned my hair out of the shower drain or if I washed the vegetables.” Everett absent-mindedly slides his coaster down the bar. “I feel like we’re in some kind of rut. I want to climb out but don’t seem to know how to. You and Miranda have your shit together—how do you guys make it work?”
Seth stares into his beer. It doesn’t reveal a clear view of the inner workings of relationships. “I don’t know. Communication I guess.”
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” Everett opens and closes his hand like it’s a mouth talking. “Women—it’s all about the chit-chat, right? Maybe Carrie and I need a vacation to get things back on track. What about all those cool vacations you used to take, like when you went to Paris?”
“Used to but don’t anymore. No time for it I guess.” Paris had been amazing, and Miranda was in between jobs. He had a lot of vacation built up so they unplugged from the nine to five and free-styled. They took long walks down tree-lined boulevards. Miranda mangled the little French she taught herself from Rosetta Stone when they poked their heads into neighborhood patisseries and high-end boutiques. One night, they just rode the metro aimlessly like two kids on an amusement park ride. There had been other trips too, but the memories of all of them seemed distant, blowing away like grains of sand in the wind. Seth thinks about trying to grab each particle as they whirl around, but he realizes it is futile.
Seth Ubers home and enters the apartment. The bedroom light is on, and he takes a long, satisfying piss in the bathroom, and tries not to miss the bowl before heading to the bedroom—momentarily delaying what promises to be a not-fun conversation.
Miranda is sitting up in bed reading a book. “I guess someone stole our recliners.” She continues to read her book. The lamp with its long arm and shallow triangular lampshade casts a glow on her face.
“Nobody stole the chairs.”
“Well,” Miranda folds the book on her chest, “they didn’t just walk away.”
“I donated them.”
“What? To who?”
Seth stands at the foot of the bed, afraid to touch it as if he might get an electric shock. “To a needy organization.”
“Which needy organization? The Salvation Army?”
“Save a Syrian.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
He finds the courage to sit at the end of the bed. “No. They came to pick it up this morning. They take all sorts of donations and then sell them to pay for Syrian relief.”
Miranda puffs air from her mouth that ruffles her bangs. “What’s gotten into you? We didn’t discuss this—those chairs cost thousands of dollars. Seth, honey, couldn’t I have just written a check to—what’s that organization’s name again?”
“Save a Syrian.”
Miranda sits farther up in bed. “How much does a Syrian cost?”
“Actually,” Seth feels flushed, “we can help a family of four with meals, shelter, and medicine for a year for what they can get for those chairs. It’s not just the money, though. It’s the sacrifice.”
“I’m starting to feel like a refugee in my own house. Are you saying I have to sacrifice part of my living room to save some Syrians I don’t even know?”
“No, well kind of. Miranda, don’t you see how good we have it? We don’t have to worry about anything really. Food, water, shelter, the threat of death, rape or whatever. It’s not much in the grand scheme of things. Besides I ordered something new and less expensive for us to watch TV on.”
“An oversized bean bag chair that can fit us both. It’ll be great.”
“A bean bag chair? Am I back in my college dorm again?”
Miranda snaps off the light and rolls over to go to sleep. “This conversation is over. Since you’re making a sacrifice, go sleep in the guest room tonight.”
Seth stands in the blackened room for a minute; the darkness provides a momentary sense of tranquility. He feels for the brochure in his back pocket, finds his way to the closet, and grabs the shoebox with the photos.
What are you doing? Miranda asks.
“Just getting something I need.” Seth enters the dim hall, pulls the bedroom door shut behind him, and walks toward the light in the kitchen. It’s so bright it’s as if he’s in the desert, and even though it seems to expand in all directions, he knows the way.
Originally from the suburbs of New Jersey, Ken worked for the Forest Service in Alaska for 40 years. He writes short stories during the long, dark winters. His fiction has previously appeared in Cirque, Red Fez, Underwood Press, and Poor Yorick. The story, “Enola Gay,” published in Red Fez, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020.