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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

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Deb R. Lewis

Dear Uncle Vanya,

I don't suppose you have ever heard of it, but I have left America at last and now write to you from the most amazing city in the New World. New Prague is far, far to the north on the American continent, and if Mother Russia does not clutch me to her vodka breast when I return home, I will flee to here directly.

How do I convey it? New Prague, as far as I can tell, belongs to no particular country and I don't know how it got its name, because it looks nothing at all like that old Czech crossroads. New Prague is handsome but isolated, as with all magical kingdoms, and appears on no map. I am not sure how I got here. I fear that, like El Dorado, it will disappear when I turn my back -- never to be found again.

Strike what I said about the United States: Americans do smile all the time, yet they aren't the happy little idiots as they would have us believe. American smiles exist only to insinuate themselves into your generosity -- like a carpet merchant's grin as he pleads with you to buy his ragged remainders. No, that country holds very little for me. At home at least, we frown when we are miserable.

New Pragueans smile all the time, too, but their smiles arise sincerely. "But why are they happy?" you'll ask, "Is everyone wealthy?"

No, I tell you, it has nothing to do with material prosperity, equality, or even justice. I believe their happiness rides upon the public transit system. You see, Uncle Vanya, it is all about the buses.

You know how certain old women are, the ones who cry every holiday for the ones they have lost? Let them lose a pet at the age of six and they weep for it during the candlelit winter days of their seventies. In the unlikely event that their entire family for four, even five generations (if there are great-great grandchildren) have gathered round in the best of health, they will still interrupt dinner's grace to weep for the dead canary of yesterday, not once, but at every change of season and at every gathering. "Poor Canary!" they will weep. "He is not here to see all this. He is not here to share it with us!"

They are also the ones whose arms ache, bone deep, to hold a child, a baby. During adolescence, one purposefully sacrifices a cousin to her arms in order to squirm free of her embrace. She urges every young couple along her street to settle down and have babies so she can watch them, hold them. She will walk up to anyone with a baby -- Ivan the Terrible, for instance -- and ask, among sixty-three other questions, if she can hold the little one (which is her only reason for engaging anyone in the first place). Sometimes she reaches out in such earnestness you think she will snatch the child and run, and yet -- always, tearfully, at the end of a long uncomfortable silence, she hands the child back to the concerned hands of its parents.

Well, here on the buses -- for some reason they seem to prefer the slow, elephantine buses to the sleek, efficient trains -- on the buses, every fourth seat or so holds one of these women. And if you sit next to her, she simply embraces you and pulls your head to her bosom. For as long as the ride lasts, she holds you and rocks you like a child, or breathes words of comfort into your ear. Even I, a foreigner who can speak about three words of their language, can understand what she says.

While these huggers dress in no special way -- they don't appear to be in the public transit authority's employ, in any case -- everyone seems to know who they are and what to expect of them. So imagine my surprise the first time I unknowingly sat next to one! I had taken very little notice of her before she gathered me in and held my head in her arms. Thinking she was addled, I played along and stayed put as she held on to me. I fancied myself generous at first, and as the blocks lumbered past, I fancied I was the very definition of patience.

Well, perhaps you will laugh to know that by the time we got to my destination, I had tearfully melted, then finally wept aloud as she hummed and rocked softly, and murmured what, in her language, must be words of comfort. At some point I dozed off, for when I woke it had grown dark and though the streetlights had not yet lit, the windows of the houses and shops were beginning to glow pale and yellow like the moon that had just risen sleepily against the cobalt sky.

When I rose to leave, finally drawing myself up to take in her rounded nose and audaciously red headscarf, I didn't know what to say in my own tongue, let alone how to convey whatever I might arrive at in the local dialect. You especially would have dismissed her as homely, but she was a lovely old sea sponge. She was so old and worn by life that her eyes squinted the way Siberians squint against the cold -- only much more pronounced as her eyes crinkled with beautiful warmth and she smiled at me. I felt bereft to leave her, but it was clear she would remain on the bus.

The bus driver sat patiently as I stood trying to convey my sense of gratitude. I even -- and it hurts now to confess it --tried to press some of their strange currency into her hand, but I could not convince her to take it. She smiled and patted the front of my coat, then seeing tears again in my eyes she stood and took my hand.

As she led me to the parting doors at the back of the bus, many eyes fell upon me -- some warmly amused, some solemn, but all in some way sympathetic -- certainly the passengers knew I was not from among them. She ushered me out, pausing to pull the collar of my coat more closed with a last soothing word. I felt so like a small boy that I half-expected her to find string mittens up my sleeves and put them on my inept hands. Then she turned back to her seat. The bus doors sealed shut behind her and left me lost among the snowflakes, fallen under a spell of wonder.

Do you know that kindness begets kindness? I could not repay this woman in any way. Such an experience behooves one to act out of compassion toward those he meets. The effect on the city is a melting and all-pervasive sense of compassion -- something gentler even than the plastic of goodwill. I confess to have lingered here for several weeks, riding the buses all over town, and sometimes it makes me tremble!

Somehow, I never see the same woman twice -- there must be hundreds, even thousands in this city! -- and yet they all feel vaguely like the first woman. I see now how it is, what it means -- heaven help the women like these in our own country, if they don't each one live alone in a house that has suddenly become much too big for their hearts to bear. Call me sentimental and wonder at the change in my cynical heart -- I could pull my hair just thinking about the terrible longing and how I have laughed at it. What would it do to us to carry this in ourselves? If every lonely woman had someone to hold and nobody ever went lonely? How do I carry this within my own heart?

I suppose the reason even seasoned travelers, like you once were and now I am, have not heard about this place is because, having arrived and seen it for oneself, one grows unwilling to leave. Part of me regrets the very act of writing to you -- if I am so honest -- even though I have not sent this letter yet and may throw it on the fire at any moment. I fear, Uncle, that this moment is as fragile as childhood. If I send this, Uncle Vanya, speak of it to no one -- most of all, me.

I cannot stay much longer; with each passing day I fear something is going to come along and ruin it, and my heart cannot take even the slightest change. And so, when I do depart, I plan never to speak of this place again for its own safety, and hopefully, to arm myself against pining for or even thinking of it, never to dwell on it for more than an instant.

Yours truly,

More information about Deb R. Lewis can be found at her egomaniacal website, which she often neglects, claiming that she is "busy."