Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2021    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Summer 2021


Diana Akhmetianova

Michael Kozart

Emily Hancock
Catching Tadpoles

Anastasia Carrow

Ronita Sinha
Leaving Behind

Travis Lee
A Mermaid's Garden

Broderick Eaton
Ann, Without

Olivier FitzGerald
The Woodfall Home

D.E. Hardy
Media Studies

Ashleigh Catsos
Black Beans

Parker Fendler
Three Dollar Ticket to Happiness

Elizabeth Lyvers

Jeffrey S. Chapman
The Bikini

Mary Tharin

Joey Porcelli
Parachute Drop

Writer's Site

Ashleigh Catsos

Black Beans

Remove your shoes or leave! The sign on the front door was handwritten, accented with crudely drawn stars and what looked liked bits of brightly colored confetti, and an exclamation point at least three times the size of the text. But the entryway was loud beyond the aggressive punctuation—the paint on the door, tacky from recent refreshing, was a blazing red; a dog barked incessantly from a room within. MariaSofia hadn’t mentioned a dog.

Alison knocked several times. She pressed the doorbell. The only indication she’d been heard was a distinct change in the barking in both volume and timbre, and the addition of a new sound—squawking, cawing—from yet another interior room. MariaSofia hadn’t mentioned a bird either.

Alison’s phone buzzed from somewhere in her bag and she dove for it, fumbling.


“Alicia, hi. It’s MariaSofia.” The woman’s voice was flustered, but authoritative. “You’re there? At my apartment?”

“It’s Alison—sorry, and yes. The doorman sent me up. You said 3A?”

“Terrific. I’m in the neighborhood, but I can’t seem to find my car.”


“So excited to meet you. I’ll be there soon, dear. Just go on in.”


Alison was at a point in her life where she was eating black beans straight from the can. She was new to the city, sharing a one-bedroom so small that she and her roommate had resorted to bunk beds. At twenty-five, she needed a job, direction, some meaning. She thought about calling the woman back, mumbling an excuse. Instead, she removed her boots. She tucked them beside a pair of intensely yellow clogs, and nudged the other hallway shoes into neatness. The door jingled as she pressed it open. She was greeted by the smell of onions and garlic, essential oils and the distinct must of old carpets. The animals, yet unseen, cried out with renewed enthusiasm.

When Alison responded to the Craigslist ad, MariaSofia had self-identified as eccentric; the word did not do her justice. A statue of a pot-bellied elephant stood just inside the door, multiple arms raised as if in greeting. Each surface in sight was covered with wooden and ceramic masks, skulls, rich fabrics—and mail. Piles of mail. Everywhere Alison looked was cluttered, chaotic—but cultured. A large poster of Barack Obama—iconic, stylized “Hope” in red, beige, and blue—hung on the wall.

The barking continued.

To Alison’s left was a long tiled hallway leading, she guessed, to the kitchen. To her right was the living room. It was a large space with an even larger rug, folded at the ends to fit. More masks, more clutter. Plants and flowers, stacks of large, tasseled pillows where another person might have an armchair—and in the far corner of the room, a Christmas tree.

It was April.

The decorations were intact, and lovely, but the tree was long dead. What few needles clung to the branches were brown and crunchy; the floor was littered with the rest. The trunk in its metal base lilted sadly to one side, and the ornamental topper—not the typical angel or star of Alison’s youth, but a glittering glass polar bear—looked in immediate danger of crashing down.

Alison didn’t know whether to laugh or run or document the bizarreness of it all with an Instagram post—when she was reminded of the presence of the bird. Not six feet away, in a metal cage on the floor, it emitted a high-pitched shriek loud enough to make her ears ring. It was big—a parrot or something—and looked directly at her, rapidly bobbing its blue head and blinking its eyes.

“Hi,” Alison said, attempting soothing tones. “Nice bird.”

She backed away to the opposite corner of the room, where she found a desk, a half-eaten Mounds bar, a computer. The screen was peppered with Post-its, each a handwritten reminder—Dientes 2pm and DO YOUR TAXES DAMMIT! and also, You deserve to be happy.

Alison sat down at the desk, as far from the bird as she could be while still in the same room, and waited. She thought often of fleeing, and each time recalled the ad and the prospect of twenty-five dollars an hour. When the front door finally opened, the bells and beads and baubles that dangled there announced the arrival of her newest employer. Alison stood to greet her, but MariaSofia didn’t give her the chance.

“Stop everything,” she commanded from the door. “The tulips are blooming.”

Born to expats in Mexico City—a white woman with a Mexican heart, she’d say—MariaSofia lived by her whims, and her inheritance. The name on her birth certificate—Anne—lacked the flare she demanded of life, so she’d simply made up a new one. Two names pressed together, imbued with her adopted heritage and a flourish of the tongue. While she never legally changed her name, her friends knew her only as MariaSofia.

She had a lumbering, uneven gait, rocking side to side with each step.

“Bad hip,” she explained. “From a bad horse.”

“Oh, wow,” Alison mumbled. “What happened?” She’d never been on a horse.

“He got spooked and bucked me off.” The woman sighed. “It was a long time ago.”

Despite the old injury, MariaSofia was surprisingly spry for her age—Alison guessed late sixties—and for her shape: pear. She smiled widely as she guided them toward Riverside Drive, toward the tulips.

“You never know how many days you have,” she told Alison, panting slightly. “When it’s mild like this, the bloom might only last a few.”

She had graying hair, highlighted reddish-brown. Her puffy purple coat was unzipped to let in the warming weather and swung behind her like a cape, beneath which she wore what Alison could only describe as a muumuu. Billowy, breezy, floral print. Pulled over that was a soft, pink cashmere sweater. On her feet: a pair of purple UGG boots identical to a pair spotted in the hallway outside her front door—but in better condition.

“Do you speak Spanish?” MariaSofia asked her.

Alison was embarrassed to admit she’d forgotten what little she’d learned in high school. “Un . . . poco?” she stumbled.

MariaSofia graciously bustled on as if she hadn’t heard.

They slowed at the corner of 91st and Riverside. MariaSofia held open a gate, Alison passed through, and the two women entered a secret garden of luscious plant life—and quiet. The buzzing of bees and birdsong masked the squeal of traffic. The scent of flowers masked the city stench. They sat on a bench facing a bed of pink and blue and yellow. MariaSofia closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

Just a few hours earlier, Alison had opened her eyes to an unfamiliar room, in the bed of a stranger. Now she found herself sitting beside one. The morning, the taste of cheap tequila and stale cigarettes on her tongue, had left her empty, but the warmth and the garden and the woman on the bench—her unabashed delight in beauty, in literally smelling the flowers—filled her with an excitement like first-day-of-school butterflies, and longing. She wanted this colorful woman to like her.

“Can you tell me a bit more about the position?” she asked timidly.

MariaSofia kept her eyes closed, and pursed her lips. “Don’t make yourself small on my account.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Ask like you deserve an answer. No apologies.”

“Okay.” Alison repeated herself.

MariaSofia opened one eye to peek at her. “We’ll work on that—and your Spanish.” She gave Alison’s knee a reassuring tap. “This will be fun. I need help with emails—I’m terrible at typing—and with bills, stuff like that. I can be forgetful.”

“Oh,” Alison said, remembering. “Did you find your car?”

MariaSofia shook her head. “But I’m sure a parking ticket will.” She seemed remarkably unbothered as she went on. “It’s just one day a week. You’ll have plenty of time for your other pursuits.”

“I don’t really have any other pursuits,” Alison confessed.

“You have sex, don’t you?”

Alison felt her face get hot. “Yes,” she admitted.

MariaSofia nodded, satisfied. “You can tell me all about it.”

The dog was only a little thing, brown and shaggy, but he made himself known. He barked and snarled as he tug and spun on the leash, as his owner’s arm swung madly from her shoulder.

“Don’t mind Jefe,” MariaSofia told her, leading him from a room in the back of the apartment, fastening his leash to the closest doorknob. “He’ll get his walk soon.”

He had sunk his teeth into everyone in MariaSofia’s life at least once, she told Alison, but she wouldn’t part with him. She was convinced that the spirit of her dead husband was lodged inside that dog and it was her role to protect him—however begrudgingly—when no one else would.

“He guarded the temples of Sri Lanka,” she’d say to justify his terrible temperament. He didn’t; his breed had, but Alison didn’t question her. She would come to learn that her employer spoke often like this, with grandeur and hyperbole, rolling her r’s whenever she got the chance.

“But do mind him,” MariaSofia went on, stopping at the elephant statue to rub its belly. “The remover of obstacles. My dear Ganesh.” She peered into its face, wrinkling her nose fondly, and then turned to Alison. “What obstacles would you have him remove for you, Alicia?” she asked.

“It’s actually Alison—”

MariaSofia chuckled, unapologetic. “How about I call you Al?”

“Sure,” Alison replied—and while she would have expected to feel annoyance, she was warmed by the nickname. “Sure,” she said again. She gestured to the towering pile of unopened mail. “Want me to open these?”

“Eventually,” MariaSofia said. “Aren’t you hungry?”

One day a week, Alison did her best to keep her employer out of trouble. She tracked her bills and credit card statements, responded to emails—texts, too. She patiently walked the neighborhood in search of MariaSofia’s frequently misplaced Prius, and appealed her many parking tickets. She memorized her online usernames and passwords for those frantic phone calls whenever MariaSofia misplaced the master sheet of personal data—often at inconvenient times for Alison, like first dates, or in the middle of the night. With this strange woman in her life, each day was an adventure. But as she quickly discovered, what MariaSofia desired in her, more than anything, was an enabler.

“Tell me it’s okay to give Barack all of my money,” she commanded Alison in the days leading up to his reelection. Or grabbing the remote mid-sentence while dictating an email: “There’s a Law & Order: SVU marathon on USA!”

Her moods followed the weather. On rainy days, she’d nap while Alison sifted through the never-ending stack of papers, filing things away in folders marked Keepers and Africa. On sunny days, MariaSofia would declare, “I feel like a latte, don’t you?”

They would sit outside a café on the bustling street, sipping thick foam from French coffee bowls, a chocolate croissant between them. The servers would brush crumbs to the sidewalk and ask cheerfully, “Is this your daughter?”

MariaSofia would chuckle as she produced her Amex. “No, she’s my friend.”

“I feel guilty,” Alison confided to her roommate. “I’m being paid to drink coffee.”

“At least you’re being paid. Maybe she’s lonely.”

“Yesterday we had a photo shoot for her parrot.”

And there was the Christmas tree.

“I just couldn’t bear to take it down,” MariaSofia explained, eyes on the stark branches. “January is so dreary.”

“And February,” Alison agreed.

“March, too. And then I didn’t want to get those needles everywhere.”

“Do you have a tarp? We could wrap it up to carry it to the elevator—”

“That sounds exhausting.” MariaSofia dropped her weight into the sofa, added a dramatic sigh. “Doesn’t that sound exhausting?” She propped herself against a pillow, cupped her chin in her hand. She nodded. “Let’s throw it out the window.”

Alison reminded MariaSofia that she lived in a third-floor apartment on a busy—and wealthy—Upper West Side street. There were very few homeless people in the neighborhood, little trash; its residents didn’t appreciate mess.

“And it’s probably against the law.”

But MariaSofia was already clearing her way to the window, pulling ornaments off the tree in a cascade of needles and brittle branches.

“Don’t worry, Al,” she cooed. “We’ll say I have dementia.”

When the police arrived, Alison was instructed to hide in the bathroom. MariaSofia hummed as she shuffled to the front door. She spoke to the officer in Spanish and Alison heard the two of them laughing, then the door jingled closed.

“What happened?” Alison asked, peeking around the corner.

“Oh, he was adorable!” MariaSofia beamed. “And wouldn’t you know it?” She patted her chest proudly. “He has family in Mexico City.”

MariaSofia employed two other people: a grumpy, grey-haired handyman from the building who helped her hang, move, or paint things whenever the mood struck; and a tiny middle-aged, Mexican woman named Juana. She’d been with her for years, doing the shopping and cleaning, and wrestling Jefe from MariaSofia’s side so that he could relieve himself out on the sidewalk and not, for once, on the expensive antique carpets. But her calling card was her black beans.

Juana made the most delicious black beans, texture like melted chocolate, in big batches simmered for hours on the stove. (Alison would carry leftovers home in mason jars for the next eight years.) She served them slathered on homemade tortillas, fresh from the pan and topped with her signature green salsa. On occasion, she poured pulpy glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice. She never joined them at the table, but would pause—briefly—in her work to chat. The older women delighted in teaching Alison simple Spanish phrases—like pase la aspiradora (“vacuum”), planche la ropa (“iron the clothes”), or el pendejo (“motherfucker”).

Alison always brought the laptop to the dining room table where it sat ignored. MariaSofia chewed with her mouth open and moaned in pleasure with every bite while offering Alison advice on anything from cold remedies—Swallow half a clove of raw garlic at the first sign of symptoms—to personal grooming—Don’t cater to the preference of men. Pubic hair is there for a reason.

MariaSofia was already feeling under the weather when Bella flew out the window.

She had taken the parrot out of her cage so Juana could clean it, and neither woman noticed that the window, tossed open to let in the crisp fall air, had been left that way.

Alison arrived to find MariaSofia in tears, frantically calling her friends and neighbors, urging them to be on the lookout for her beautiful blue bird. The day was spent creating and hanging flyers up and down the street, big flashy text and one of the pictures taken by Alison with MariaSofia’s professional camera and its overkill specialty lens: Bella looking demure with her head tipped, posing on an Oriental rug, her orange-rimmed eyes vacant and probing at the same time.

MariaSofia mourned her parrot, and cursed herself. She led Alison in a tearful ceremony where they burned sage and wrote their desires on slips of paper. They took turns reading from them aloud. I want Bella to come home. I want Bella to be happy.

“I want her to fly free,” MariaSofia added, wrapped in curls of sage smoke.

“Bella?” Alison asked. “You want Bella to fly free?”

MariaSofia was uncharacteristically quiet, subdued. “And you,” she answered finally.

Alison didn’t know what to say.

They sat outside in the chilling weather. Alison sipped her latte. MariaSofia’s foam, untouched, receded into the creamy base. When it came time to pay the bill, Alison reached for her wallet; for the first time, MariaSofia let her.

“Such a good daughter,” the server commented, and neither woman corrected her.

The following week, MariaSofia clutched her stomach for the entirety of their time together before finally falling asleep on the couch. Alison paid the bills and closed the door softly behind her.

The pile of mail at the door expanded beyond the usual windowed envelopes to include cards and flowers, fruit and soft things: blankets, slippers, robe. The note on the outside of 3A about shoes was amended to include negative energy and Jesus—Leave them both at the door. MariaSofia rarely moved from the bed. The emails she dictated to Alison were no longer about making plans—no cruises, or Hamilton tickets—but making peace.

“She’s dying,” MariaSofia’s niece told her, finally. “She doesn’t want you to know.”

But she had known, all along, in her gut.

“How bad is it?” Alison asked.

“She has cancer, Al. I’m sorry.”

“How long—?”

There was a pause, and Alison heard the woman cry quietly into the phone.

“You should probably start looking for another job.”

They went on pretending: in their relationship, death didn’t exist.

Juana cleaned up the vomit, cleaned up the shit. Juana continued to prepare MariaSofia’s favorite foods, scraping plate after untouched plate into the garbage. And Juana was the one to bathe her, dress her.

Alison, though she knew what was happening, was kept in the dark. She still reported to work once or twice a week to email and sort and file. At some point, she stopped paying herself from the envelope of petty cash in the desk.

It was a Wednesday.

MariaSofia had been vomiting all morning. Juana had yet to arrive.

Alison knocked softly on the bedroom door. She heard grunts and groans, water running. Jefe, for once, was silent.

“Don’t come in,” MariaSofia moaned. “I’ll speak to you from here.”

Alison grabbed the laptop and stationed herself on the floor.

“I’m right outside the door,” she called. “Want me to read your emails?”

No answer.

“Can I help? What do you need?”

“Don’t come in.” MariaSofia’s voice was thin, but her words sounded thick. Tongue dry, lips cracked. Alison heard the toilet flush, followed by painful heaving, more moaning. “Just go.”

Instead, Alison pushed the door open.

MariaSofia was in her bathroom, a crumpled ball on the floor, loyal guard dog at her ankles. Bunched-up paper towels encircled them, and someone had covered the tile with a layer of Jefe’s pee pads to try and mitigate the mess: the vomit, tears, urine, feces.

Her legs were grossly thin, sticking out from the filthy robe like toothpicks. No longer a pear. Her head was bald, her skin so gray it was almost translucent, crinkling like Saran. Alison stood at the doorway, gawking helplessly, as Jefe turned to her with a growl.

“Go,” MariaSofia said again.

There was so much Alison wanted to say; she wanted nothing more than to leave. She had never seen it before, not in real life. Not like this. Her friend was dying.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, finally, and moved to leave—as Jefe lunged.

She felt his hot breath at the back of her leg, registered a sharp pain as his teeth made contact with her thigh. She yelped and kicked blindly back with her other leg, feeling her sock hit soft body, shaggy fur, and he released her, taking skin and the fabric of her pants with him. She retreated to the hallway, Jefe to his post.

“Al?” MariaSofia called.

She sounded so weak.

“It’s okay,” Alison assured her, though it wasn’t. She was shaking from adrenaline, and a gash in the back of her pants revealed a streak of blood. “It’s okay.”

“I can’t do it anymore,” MariaSofia whispered, turning her cheek to the cool tile.

“I know,” Alison told her, as she realized she was crying, too.

No one acknowledged Alison at MariaSofia’s celebration of life. Family and friends gathered over troughs of tacos, cheese congealing as the Mariachi played and people tried to dance. Alison stood by the food. She filled a paper plate with tortilla chips—store bought, already stale—and ate in tiny bites until the salt burned the corners of her mouth. She watched MariaSofia’s sons receive hugs and condolences, saw one look her way. When she waved with greasy fingers, he averted his eyes.

Two days later, MariaSofia’s niece called to tell Alison that the locks had been changed on the Upper West Side apartment, and that Jefe had been put down.

Alison got to work making a big pot of black beans—lots of garlic; onion; two bay leaves; hours of simmering—and cried herself to sleep.

Long after she gave up on New York, Alison imagined Bella cruising through Central Park. Flourishing in freedom. Flying high over the common pigeon, screeching as she soared. A streak of blue on a tourist’s snapshot, a blur so brief they might, in later inspection, think it was a plastic shopping bag taken hostage by the breeze—or maybe just a smudge, a fingerprint, on the film. They’d gather their friends to retell their adventures of the Big Apple and rifle through the glossy stack, and struggle to describe the photograph in their lap. They would look at it and pause—Huh, how strange—before writing it off as insignificant, a mistake; and while they’d move it off to the side, they wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to throw it away.

Ashleigh Catsos is a storyteller. She studied Theater at Connecticut College and worked for several years as an actress and playwright in New York City. Her children’s musical Molly Bloom-Lately has been nationally produced, most notably at the Walnut Street Theater and Gallo Center for the Arts. Her poem Water: unsafe to drink can be seen in the July 2021 edition of Berkshire Magazine. Her first novel is forthcoming. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband, son, and dog. For inquiries, please contact Carolyn Savarese at The Kneerim & Williams Agency.

Dotted Line