Joshua Karabish


I received a letter from his mother stating that he was dead. When and where Joshua had died, it didn’t mention, and the letter itself came by regular mail, not express courier. It did, however, contain a request: if I had the time or money to spare, would I be willing to pack up his belongings and send them to her by third-class economy mail? If I didn’t have the money, continued Joshua’s mother, would I be so kind as to donate the items to Opportunity House, a charity that helped people in need?

And if Opportunity House was too far away and I didn’t have the time, means, or funds to bring the items over, then I should just head to the closest garbage dump and dispose of Joshua’s belongings there. In short, wrote Joshua’s mother, I should get rid of his things as quickly as possible in order to avoid inconveniencing either myself or the owner of the house in which I rented a room.

Then, after expressing her humblest regrets that Joshua had been nothing but a failure and a fool, his mother said she was sorry if her son had done anything in life to cause me offense or harm. These last sentiments, read the letter, were to be conveyed to Mrs. Seifert as well, the woman in whose house I lived and where Joshua had also stayed when he was alive.

When I conveyed the news to Mrs. Seifert, she said she’d long suspected that Joshua had been unhealthy, and perhaps not quite right in the head.

“That’s why I kept telling you not to associate with him,” she said.

Indeed, in the initial stages of my acquaintance with Joshua, Mrs. Seifert had warned me outright to keep my distance. But whenever he visited me at the house—always giving this excuse or that, before staying to chat at length—I never turned him away. And afterward, when for one reason or another, he didn’t want to leave, he would end up staying over in my room. For my part, I just never had the heart to turn him down.

Joshua had a bulbous head. And eyes that seemed on the verge of taking flight from the sockets where they nested. And a mouth that was perpetually agape. Add to these features his manner of speech and the things he would say, and I felt guilty about keeping him at arm’s length. Even Mrs. Seifert never responded with a “no” or “don’t” whenever Joshua approached her about something. In the end, after several conversations with me, as well as Mrs. Seifert, he officially became my roommate and we agreed to split the rent. He and I would each make monthly payments directly to Mrs. Seifert—such were the terms that Joshua, myself, and Mrs. Seifert settled on.

When I helped him move his belongings from his old apartment to my room, the other people he lived with seemed pleased. I wasn’t too surprised. He’d stated baldly that they weren’t fond of him, and through subtle and not-so-subtle means had tried to eject him several times. This was one of the reasons he’d stayed over in my room so often before he moved in. He didn’t get along with any of them. He was the odd one out, he said.

They were rough fellows. They enjoyed football and boxing, watching violent movies on TV, and listening to hard rock. In contrast, Joshua was refined and gentle. He preferred poetry, classical music, opera, and other things they couldn’t stand. I saw for myself how they would put on loud rock music, play ball indoors, and bellow loudly while watching sports on TV. At least, such was my impression the four or five times Joshua had invited me over. And I knew firsthand how much he loved poetry. I’d met him at an evening poetry reading, in fact. He came only to sit in the audience, and it was clear from his body language that he wanted to avoid interacting with anyone.

Unlike the other people reading that night, I’d gone up to the podium to recite not my own poetry, but that of Keats. I explained that I wasn’t a poet and therefore felt capable only of reading poems written by someone else. At this, Joshua’s face lit up and his mannerisms expressed a desire to get to know me. Thus began our acquaintance. He declared he held me in high esteem. Unlike those self-proclaimed poets reading their own poems despite their work being lousy, I wasn’t a phony, he’d said.

It was only after he became my roommate when I surmised that the people from his old apartment disliked him for reasons other than their differences in taste. Rather—and this was far from trivial—their dislike was due to the disease he suffered from. The shape of his head and the abnormality of his other features weren’t simply traits he’d been born with; they’d been caused by this illness he’d long had, whatever it was. I also finally knew why, back then, he’d fail to show up at my place from time to time. Most likely, he’d become so familiar with his condition that every time he felt a severe attack coming on, he’d recognize the symptoms beforehand and know if he’d be able to visit or if he should shut himself away in his apartment.

Once he became my roommate, I learned, whether I wanted to or not, that this illness had tormented him secretly all the while. Using his poetry writing as a pretext, he would always urge me to go to bed before him. Eventually, I found out that as he slept, he would often moan in pain. He was likely aware of this problem and didn’t want me to witness him groaning in his sleep. In fact, before he officially became my roommate, when he’d stay over, he’d also refuse to turn in first. After he moved in, he must have suspected I knew about his clandestine groaning because he then told me that he was frequently plagued by bad dreams.

He was finally forced to reveal everything when his ears began oozing a mucus that stank like a rotting mouse carcass, and his nose began dripping a foul, fishy-smelling blood. This happened several times. He tried, initially, to give the impression that he’d eaten something that disagreed with him, or that he’d caught a chill.

“To be honest, I’ve been sick for a while,” he told me in the dark early hours, just before dawn. I’d caught him mopping up blood from the floor—it had spilled from his nostrils as he’d rushed to the bathroom. “It’s why I’ve always been afraid of being alone. But I know there isn’t a single soul who’d ever truly try to understand me. No one, that is, but you.”

He implored me not to tell anyone, especially not Mrs. Seifert. He said he’d been planning for some time to confess everything to me.

“I need a friend who’s willing to accept me, despite my condition,” he said.

Fear had always stood in the way of his desire to tell me all—maybe I wouldn’t want to keep living with him, and maybe I wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore. So he’d kept putting it off, until that fateful night when I’d caught him cleaning up all that blood.

“You’d have found out somehow, one way or another,” he said, pleading, “so allow me to make the most of the present circumstances to ask for your kind understanding.”

I granted his request. Naturally, Mrs. Seifert didn’t know that much about Joshua because he and I lived in the attic, while she lived below. And due to her old age, it was fair to say that Mrs. Seifert never ventured into the attic anymore. According to the agreement we made when I began renting the attic room—the terms of which were extended when Joshua officially moved in—I was responsible for keeping the entire floor clean. This included the room where I stayed, my bathroom, and an old storage room no longer in use. Since Mrs. Seifert trusted that I was doing a good job, she left it all up to me.

But inevitably, Joshua became a nuisance after a while. After coming clean about his condition, he never feigned nightmares or an upset stomach again. And whenever he felt a severe attack coming, he’d let me know. And when the attack came, he’d writhe and moan all night. And more often than not, that mucus would ooze from his ears again, and that blood would drip from his nose.

Although he was constantly apologetic, he was open now about how he managed his condition. He also kept me informed about his medication, the treatment he was undergoing, and everything the doctor said. According to the doctor, this disease would afflict him for the rest of his life. The medicine he took every day, along with the regularly scheduled light-therapy sessions, were merely to prevent the illness from getting worse. And these measures didn’t come without side effects either, he’d add: potential balding, blurry vision, muffled hearing. And, always, he would emphasize that it wasn’t contagious, and therefore I had no reason to fear his company.

When his illness wasn’t acting up, his conversation was pleasant and cheerful. He’d tell stories about his long-dead father and his mother who was always falling sick. Apparently his mother was more than seventy years old. In addition to receiving social security benefits, she often received help from Joshua’s older sister Cathy, who worked as a high school teacher in Pittsburgh.

After getting his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh five years before, Joshua had returned to live with his mother in Beaver Falls, where he’d gotten a job as a hospital janitor. He’d decided that once he’d saved enough to live on for two years, and if Cathy would help him a little, he would stop working in order to continue his studies at Indiana University, here in Bloomington. He’d get an M.A., and afterwards, he would look for a job more to his liking.

Apart from telling me his life history, he’d often talk about the pleasure he took in reading and writing. Once, I asked if he thought his poetry would get published someday. He seemed to hesitate before telling me that if it did, well, he wouldn’t want it to appear under his own name.

“To be a poet—I mean a real poet—you have to meet two requirements,” he said. “You must write good poetry, and you must have a certain appeal. I may be able to write good poetry, but as you yourself know, people laugh at me because I’m ugly and fundamentally uninteresting. Let’s say I start calling myself a poet—supposing that I do have the talent to become a poet of the ‘real poet’ kind. People simply wouldn’t believe me. Or they’d ridicule my poetry the same way they make fun of me. And that’s why, if I manage to reach old age someday [what does he mean by that, I thought] and have the leisure to write some good poems and select a few for publication, I’d pretend that they were written by someone who was dead and that I’d discovered them. Perhaps, in this way, a person might gain posterity after they passed away—as the finder of such poems, even if no one knew about them in life. People would believe that I was their discoverer. I’d be content if I could publish my poems this way—and if in this way, people recognized the merit of my work.”

Just before fall break, he told me he was going home for two weeks to see his mother, and perhaps he’d try to look in on his sister too. A few nights before his departure, he expressed his indecision about whether he should bring all his poems with him or none at all. Or whether he should leave some poems behind, but take the rest to Beaver Falls. If he brought them all, he worried that, well, if he did get the chance to write, he’d just rehash what he’d already written because he’d feel compelled to read over his old poems. But if he didn’t bring them, who knew? He might lack the inspiration to use this vacation to write. During his deliberations, I refrained from giving any opinion.

At last he decided to leave the poems he considered his best work, and bring the rest to Beaver Falls. He reasoned that bringing his best poems might weaken his resolve to do even better. But he would also reread the poems in the batch he was leaving behind so that his desire to compose even better poetry would remain alight.

Thus, after telling me to take good care of his poems, he went home to Beaver Falls.


In the end, he didn’t come back and he didn’t give word—not even after I’d sent him several letters. As I said before, his mother’s note was all that arrived, bearing the news of his death. As for his mother’s request, naturally, I was more than happy to carry it out. His clothes and books, his typewriter, his tape recorder, along with several cassettes—I would pack them up and send them right away, of course.

There was just one thing. As I glanced through the batch of poems he’d left behind, I felt drawn to read them and reluctant to include them in the package as well. I finally decided to send everything except the poems, which I’d mail later.

I was heading out to send the items when Mrs. Seifert revealed that Joshua hadn’t paid any of his rent.

“I couldn’t bring myself to demand it, and I didn’t want to tell you,” she said.

Not having the heart to let Mrs. Seifert bear the expense, let alone Joshua’s mother, I offered to step in. My thoughts were, first, it would be better if Joshua’s mother didn’t get wind of the situation (at this, Mrs. Seifert declared herself in full agreement). And second, since I was responsible for Joshua moving into her house, I should be the one to pay off his debts. After all, I’d only had to pay half of my usual board while Joshua had been sharing my room. At this, Mrs. Seifert declared herself in complete opposition. She said even though I was the reason Joshua had come to live there, I shouldn’t take on debts that should be his to bear.

“I don’t think he had the money,” she said. “He’d always assure me he’d pay me later—that he was bound to receive a windfall someday, and then he’d be able to pay what he owed me with that.”

After a while, a steady stream of mail began to arrive for Joshua, from his health insurance company, his doctor, the hospital, and the Southern Indiana Center of Radiology. Whenever a new letter arrived, Mrs. Seifert would always tell me to forward it on to his mother.

“I bet they’re all demands for payment,” she said, “for the medical costs that weren’t covered by his health insurance.”

What if she was right? Poor Joshua’s mother, I thought.

Life went on as usual until the day I came across a flyer for a poetry contest. It was being held by the Modern Language Association, a New York-based organization of literature and language scholars. Submissions of poetry collections were open to all. Eligible entries would be assessed by a jury chaired by the MLA president and composed of internationally acclaimed writers—specifically, Allen Ginsberg, Antonio Buero Vallejo, and Christine Brooke-Rose—as well as an MLA member yet to be announced.

I read on. The first-prize winner would be awarded a certificate and ten thousand dollars at their international convention’s closing ceremony on December 31, at the Hilton on the Avenue of the Americas in New York. As for the winning poetry collection—it would be published by Dell, and the author would retain copyright. Also included on the flyer were details about the prizes for the runners-up.

I had to admit Joshua’s poems were pretty good—they’d slipped my mind until that moment. But even if I did enter them, the likelihood they’d win was low. So after rereading the whole batch several times, I finally stowed them away in a drawer, with the intention of sending them to his mother. Someday.

Then one night, I woke with my throat so hot it felt as if it were on fire. There was a pain in my nose, as if leeches had crawled up my nostrils, and my ears were buzzing and felt swollen inside. Trust me, it’s not contagious. That was what Joshua would constantly assure me when he was alive. But how could the disease not be contagious given the all mucus leaking from his ears and the blood trickling from his nose?

What I was experiencing now corresponded exactly to Joshua’s description of his very first attack. Then I recalled how my late roommate would keep food and drink in the very fridge where I kept my own. How could he not have infected me? I also remembered how often I’d used the bathroom immediately after he’d spent a long time inside, where he’d probably been cleaning out his ears and nose. After he came out, the bathroom often smelled like rotting fish. Again, how could I not have caught it? And why would his previous roommates have tried to kick him out if they hadn’t been scared of getting the disease too? And I knew a few of these roommates had moved out before, under this pretext or that—why would they have gone through such pains to avoid Joshua? I began to tremble in fear.

The next day the pain vanished on its own. Perhaps it would be best, I thought, to send Joshua’s poems to his mother right away. Just so I wouldn’t have to come into contact anymore with these old belongings of his. They were probably contaminated. Yet, as I held the poems in my hands, I felt an overwhelming urge to reread them. So I did—all of them—intently, with a growing sense of awe. Since my symptoms had completely disappeared, I was inclined to again postpone mailing the poems to Joshua’s mother.

However, in keeping with Joshua’s own experience, the pain I felt would come and go. In the initial stages of his disease, he’d told me, the pain only came at night, but by the morning, would vanish on its own. It was why he didn’t take it seriously for such a long time: every morning he’d wake up and, well, any discomfort he’d felt would be gone. See? Wasn’t I exhibiting the same symptoms? Wasn’t I leaning toward dismissing them? Hence, after an attack came and went for the second time, I made two decisions.

First, I would type out Joshua’s handwritten poems so I could reread them if I wanted; the originals I would return to his mother. I would do this right away. Second, if I was still suffering from these attacks by next week, I would call a doctor. In fact, why not see a doctor now? The answer was obvious: because the next day I’d feel fresh as a daisy. Such being the case, I felt hesitant about going to the doctor.

The first decision seemed simple enough to carry out. But as it happened, after typing out the poems, I felt uneasy about sending the original manuscript. What if his mother wondered why I hadn’t sent it before, with his other things? What excuse could I give? Wouldn’t you know it, before I could figure out an appropriate alibi, my ears suddenly grew hot and my nose began to hurt. This was promptly followed by dizziness.

I was inclined to conclude that Joshua’s illness had spread to me. That very night I put the handwritten manuscript into a plastic bag with the intention of never touching it again, and of taking it to the garbage dump in the morning. After disposing of the manuscript, I immediately phoned Dr. White, Joshua’s old ear-nose-and-throat specialist. Unfortunately, he was busy that entire week and could only see me the following Wednesday.

After I threw Joshua’s manuscript away, I was assailed by pain every night. Worse still, as the weekend approached, the pain began to persist, perching on me all day long. Again it happened, sticking around all day rather than occurring just at night. Again the same symptoms—identical to those that had afflicted Joshua more than one and a half years after the onset of this disease, when he had been working in Beaver Falls.

I phoned Dr. White again, only to discover he was out of town. I then pored over all the doctors listed in the phone book and found out he was the only ENT specialist in the whole of Bloomington. There was one in Martinsville (about twenty-five miles away) and another in Ellettsville (also around twenty-five miles away). Two more were fifteen miles away in Bedford, and there were some in Indianapolis, which was roughly fifty miles from Bloomington. I didn’t have a car, so in the end I decided to wait until Wednesday. And as I waited my rage grew. How dare Joshua do this to me! Why didn’t he confess everything when he first stayed over in my room? My terror at having caught his disease, along with my fury, refused to abate, and was nourished by continuous pain. It was under these circumstances that I resolved to type out a neater version of Joshua’s poems and send the collection to the MLA. As the poet’s name, I would give my own.

All Tuesday night I couldn’t sleep a wink. From fear. The next day’s examination at Dr. White’s office took a long time. At last, with a smile on his face, the doctor informed me that my ears, nose, and throat were all perfectly fine. At this, I recalled that Joshua had been told to get an x-ray at the Southern Indiana Center of Radiology. I asked whether I shouldn’t get a scan done. When the doctor said “No,” I asked whether I shouldn’t go to the hospital—for I remembered that Joshua had been told to undergo regular light-therapy treatments there. Once more, the doctor opined “No.” When I asked whether I should come back, he answered, still smiling, well, if I wanted any further check-ups, I should by all means return in a year. I enquired whether a year was too long. No, he said. Unless anything happened. And then he assured me nothing would happen. So I went home, stunned.

Meanwhile, the pain raged on, at night and in the middle of the day. Wherever I went, my mind was haunted—by that disgusting liquid that used to seep from his ears and that foul-smelling blood from his nose. I was frightened and furious. If I was still sick in two weeks, I made up my mind to phone Dr. Bournique in Ellettsville. Wouldn’t you know it, before two weeks were up, the pain had vanished. But two weeks after that, it resurged, with greater intensity than before. Finally, I phoned Dr. Bournique. He said he could see me two days later at 8:30 in the morning.

Worried about being late, I was forced to order a taxi and stay one night at the Carmen Hotel in Ellettsville. And after the examination, I was proclaimed to be in good health. And in this way, my pain continued to wax and wane, until I resorted to visiting a doctor in Indianapolis. Of course, as I had no car, I had to spend the night before the appointment in a hotel. The results were the same: I was healthy.

The days rolled on as usual, and all the while as usual, the pain came and went. And during that time I visited three different doctors to ask if, perhaps, I hadn’t caught some undetected illness that was causing the pain in my head. All the doctors confidently pronounced me healthy. I forgot about Joshua’s poems until one day in November when I received a letter from the MLA. My presence was requested at the convention’s closing ceremony: the jury had picked me as one of the winners.

I found it hard to sleep after getting this piece of news. I recalled the letters addressed to Joshua, sent by the health-insurance company, hospital, and radiology center. Mrs. Seifert had been right about what they were, of course. My own health insurance had refused to reimburse me for the full cost of treating whatever was infesting my head and throat—at least, as long as this illness wasn’t a by-product of another disease infesting the rest of my body as well. It was possible that Joshua’s contract had different terms, but perhaps his insurance company only covered up to a certain amount, meaning that Joshua was responsible for paying the rest.

So, after some thought, I made a long-distance call to his mother. If there were any bills still outstanding for Joshua’s treatments during his time in Bloomington, I told her, I was prepared to think about how they might best be settled. She replied that, indeed, Joshua did still have debts in Bloomington, but I needn’t trouble myself: Cathy was paying them off in monthly installments. Furthermore, his mother continued, Cathy had written to the relevant university student health services, in both Indiana and Pennsylvania, requesting a fee remission for any treatments Joshua had received from them before he died. It looked as if they were going to grant her request. Then Joshua’s mother expressed her unbounded gratitude for my concern. On behalf of her son, she conveyed her humblest regrets and apologies that Joshua had wound up inconveniencing me so.

In the first weekend of December I received another letter from the MLA. Enquiring whether I had received the first letter, and why hadn’t I responded, the Executive Secretary of the MLA herself informed me that my accommodation arrangements were ready for confirmation. All I had to do was choose between the Hilton or the Americana, the letter continued. The owner of both hotels was more than happy to let me stay a full week for free.


The air was frosty, and snow was threatening to fall the night I took a walk on Kirkwood Avenue, past Joshua’s old place. On the top floor, in the room where Joshua used to stay, the lights were on. Who lived in his room now and whether Joshua’s old roommates were still in that apartment, I had no idea. I turned onto South Walnut Street and entered the Artists’ Meeting House, which was located underground.

Someone stood at the podium, reading their poetry. When they were finished, the audience clapped. Then someone else came forward, introduced themselves and the poetry collection they’d published, and proceeded to recite their poems. The audience clapped again. Following this, another person took a turn. And as before, when I’d first met Joshua, everyone was welcome to come forward and read. Aren’t you going to recite anything, asked two or three people who seemed to recognize me. My reply was “No.”

“What about someone else’s poetry?” asked one of them. My reply was “No” again. As before, all the poems were awful. But unlike before, I wasn’t going to read anything—not my poetry or anyone else’s.

When I left to go home, before the gathering had ended, the snow was falling fast and thick. If Joshua were still alive, I thought, how he’d sneer at those poets. He might even be leaving for New York at this month’s end to recite his own poems, which he’d claim were written by someone else who was dead. But Joshua was gone now. And at that moment, a thought suddenly surfaced: supposing I did fly to New York to read his poems which I’d passed off as mine, and I dedicated them to him—citing this reason: that it was he who had fanned the flames of my desire to write those very poems. After all, if Joshua were still alive, he’d have refused to take responsibility for his own poetry. Now that he was no more, what was wrong with shouldering the responsibility myself? He would still be celebrated—not as the poems’ discoverer, but as the person who had inspired the poet.

Despite much inward debate, I was unable to rid myself of the sense that taking credit for Joshua’s poetry wasn’t right. But I also knew it wasn’t possible to withdraw the entry I’d already claimed to be my own work. I felt ashamed of myself. It was freezing and the snow was vicious, but I had the urge to throw off my coat, fling off my shoes, and run home—just so I’d fall sick and have an excuse not to go to New York. Indeed, I almost did take off my coat, but then I thought how such an act would not only be stupid, but pointless as well. Whatever I did—even if I were driven to suicide—my guilt at pilfering Joshua’s poetry could not be erased. Let my conscience be tortured; I couldn’t deliberately inflict torture upon myself. In any case, someone had to take responsibility for those poems. Joshua didn’t want to. It was up to me to bear it, then. Even if Joshua’s mother or anyone else discovered that he was the poet, I would do everything in my power to prove them false.

That night another attack struck. This time, the pain was more severe than usual. And then—yes, then—blood began to drip from my nose. Its stench was foul. As foul as the blood that had dribbled from Joshua’s nostrils. I swore silently to myself: he had some nerve infecting me with his disease! Then I cursed myself for my foolishness in letting Joshua stay with me. Secretly though, I felt a certain elation at having an excuse to see Dr. White again. The next morning I called him to explain my condition, and it ended with him asking me to come the next day. Meanwhile I gulped down cold-and-flu tablets, and by midday I felt healthy again. I privately wished that my nose would resume bleeding, but my wish wasn’t granted. The results of Dr. White’s examination were the same as before. My ears, nose, and throat were fine, he told me. And my nosebleed had been caused by nothing but the bad winter air.


The Executive Secretary finally resorted to calling me long-distance. She asked if I’d received the two letters and hoped very much that I would attend.

Caught off guard, I could only reply, “Yes, I’ll come.”

When she asked me to tell her briefly about myself, I complied. When she enquired where I wanted to stay, I answered, “The Hilton.”

Then she asked what date I wanted to arrive, to which I replied, “I don’t know.”

“What about the twenty-sixth?” she suggested.

“Sure,” I said.

Before she hung up, I took the opportunity to ask where I’d placed in the competition.

Her response: “Oh, it’ll be announced at the ceremony.”


Christmas came, followed by December 26th. I woke that morning feeling refreshed. I looked out the window at the pristine landscape. The weather was very fine. I proceeded to remain holed up in my room.  

A little before ten o’clock, I called New York long-distance. “I’m sorry, I can’t attend. I’m sick,” I said.

“In that case, come tomorrow, or the next day. There’s still time. The ceremony’s only on the thirty-first. You will try to make it, won’t you?”

“Of course, of course,” I replied. But in the end, I didn’t go. My excuse didn’t change: I was sick.

New Year’s Eve came and I couldn’t sleep a wink. I kept pacing back and forth in the attic. It seemed to me as if Joshua was trailing my every step. I felt anxious and terrified. At 1 a.m. I turned on the radio to listen to the news. There was no coverage of the ceremony. Then, tuning in to the stations with round-the-clock broadcasts, I listened to the news every hour on the hour, and there were still no reports about the event. The whole time, I felt Joshua behind me. And a few times I caught a whiff of that familiar scent, mucus and blood, permeating the air.

Finally, on January 1st, during the eight o’clock morning news, the convention’s closing ceremony was given time on the air. Heart pounding, I listened. First prize went to John Kerouack from Oblong, Illinois; in second place was Allen More from Boulder, Colorado; and in third place was Judith Anderson from Boise, Idaho. Then the newscaster reported the works previously published by these people, and also which individuals had won prizes before this. And then, last of all, came the honorable mentions: first, Nina Vlastos from Derby, Connecticut; second, Larry Zirker from Marietta, Georgia; and third, me—whom the reporter described as “a foreign college student who was unable to attend.”

A third honorable mention. I was glad. So my crimes against Joshua weren’t as terrible as I’d feared.

That same day I urged Mrs. Seifert to accept money from me on Joshua’s behalf.

“He was my motivation. He fueled my desire to write. Now I’m going to get fifty dollars for my poetry.”

She refused the money.

“How on earth could someone like him inspire anyone?” she exclaimed. “I’ll say it again, young man, don’t feel guilty about letting him into this house. And don’t go searching for ways to make yourself feel better. That money is yours by right, and you should spend it sensibly, not on nonsense.”

Less than one week later I received a manila envelope from the MLA containing congratulations, a certificate, and a fifty-dollar check. That same day I went to the bank, then sent a check to Joshua’s mother, along with an earnest note, asking if she would take the check, for without her son’s help in writing those poems, I would never have won.

With her profuse thanks, she sent the check back.

I know that Joshua liked writing poetry, but I also know he was just plain stupid. Not like Cathy, his older sister. When she got done with middle school, she was already able to stand on her own two feet. And when she got done with high school, she was able to help me out. Also, I’ve read Joshua’s poetry, and I may be stupid myself, and ignorant about poetry, but I don’t think Joshua’s poems are any good. After Cathy expressed the same opinion—that Joshua had no talent at all when it came to poetry—with her consent, I destroyed them all.

Thus read his mother’s letter, or part of it anyway. Not only that, in addition to returning my check, Joshua’s mother had slipped in another, made out to me for forty-five dollars. The accompanying note read as follows:

Please accept this check from Cathy in exchange for any costs incurred in packing and sending Joshua’s things. Apologies for the delay. It’s only recently that Cathy’s financial situation has improved.

To Mrs. Seifert, Joshua’s mother wrote a separate letter, enquiring whether Joshua had left behind any debts. If so, Cathy would be able to pay them.


Budi Darma

Budi Darma is one of Indonesia’s most esteemed writers. A novelist, short-story-writer, and literary critic, he is the author of three novels, several short stories, and several essays in literary criticism. Among the national awards he has received are the Jakarta Arts Council Prize for Best Novel, the Jakarta Arts Council Prize for Literature, and the Indonesian Government Arts Award. International honors he has received include the Southeast Asian Writers Award (or S.E.A. Write Award) and the Mastera Literary Award. He holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Bloomington, Indiana, and is a Professor at the State University of Surabaya.

Tiffany Tsao

Tiffany Tsao is a literary translator and writer. Her translations have been awarded the PEN Presents and PEN Translates prizes. She has translated numerous Indonesian works including Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus (Tilted Axis Press, 2019), Dee Lestari’s novel Paper Boats (Amazon Crossing, 2017), Laksmi Pamuntjak’s novel The Birdwoman’s Palate (Amazon Crossing, 2018), and the story “Caronang” by Eka Kurniawan. She is also the author of The Majesties (Atria Books, 2020) and the Oddfits series (Amazon Crossing 2016, 2018). The Majesties was long-listed for the 2019 Ned Kelly Award. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from UC-Berkeley.

Copyright (c) Noura Books, 1980, 2004, 2016. English translation copyright (c) Tiffany Tsao, 2020.