Questions by Cezarija Abartis

Keep your courage up, Paula once rather pompously advised her mother. Mother had been in the middle of a crying jag, which careened into a rant. Why doesn’t the government tax all people fairly? Why can’t they make a safe car? Why does that chemise dress cost so much? Why is Jackie Kennedy so slender and pretty when she just had a baby? Why does Mrs. Hacklander let her daughter run around in those skimpy shorts? Why is Mr. Gully a drunk? Why does his brother waste money at the racetrack? Why is Grandma such a nag and a bitch?

Her mother’s eyes sidled away. “Courage,” she snorted. “Easy for you – you’re a child with not a care in the world.” She flicked a finger at a speck of dust on the kitchen table.

Her mother was not being accurate. Paula had a lot of cares. She worried about getting an “A” in algebra, so that she could take Algebra II, so that she could take Trigonometry, so that she could go to college, so that she could get a good job and have a good life. Her mother was wrong, dead wrong. Paula had lots of cares, but she knew that her mother was sad and angry. She patted her mother’s hand. “There, there.”

It was all she could think of saying. “There, there.” Tears trickled down her mother’s cheeks. She slapped the table . “What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a complainer? Your father doesn’t talk like this.” She rubbed her brow. “It’s as though there’s sand and rust in here, drifting around.” She wiped at her tears. “Now tell me a joke.”

Paula could remember only, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Her mother let out a rewarding laugh, as if Paula were brilliant and original.

Afterward, Paula wondered what the survival value of depression could be and why that gene or temperament had  persisted in the population. But it was too late for her mother. There was no survival for her. She had a fight with Grandma and then shot herself with Grandpa’s revolver, got out of the race for good. Leaving a husband and Paula and her brother and a lot of questions. Much later, Paula wondered if chickens wanted to be human, what was on the other side, if suicide was a mortal sin, why Evan married someone else, why Andrea got cancer, why Caroline divorced Eric, why soldiers died, why she could not forgive her mother.

Paula went to college and then to graduate school, but she didn’t get the answers to all her questions. She did, from time to time, revel in the memory of her mother’s wavering, long, musical laugh.

Cezarija Abartis’ “Nice Girls and Other Stories” was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Pure Slush, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is

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