Mother

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Neil Moralee, Watchers in the Wood, flickr Familiar by Dorcas Casey

Neil Moralee, Watchers in the Wood, flickr, Familiar by Dorcas Casey

Walking her dog beside the wood one afternoon in July, Maja noticed for the first time a black mattress in a clearing of trees. The mattress was tucked inside the canopy of green leaves, almost indetectable. The week before she had seen a huge pumpkin there. It looked fresh and it wasn’t Halloween. She had thought at the time it was odd. Pumpkins of course didn’t grow in a Florida wood.

She stopped to observe the clearing. The clouds were gathering. The trees and vines and undergrowth was taking on an intensified darkness like it did on a rainy Florida day in summer. Her dog sat her little white bottom on the warm asphalt of the street, unfurling her long tail and sniffing the wind which sure smelled to her of the rain drops and wet street and wet earth to come.

Twenty years ago, her mother had flown down from Pittsburgh to be her with her for the delivery of her first grandchild. Maja was due on Halloween. When he didn’t come on time, they tried all kinds of silly tricks – walking backwards, primrose oil, eggplant parmesan, driving down a bumpy road. A week later, Maja had still not delivered and her mother had to go home on her return flight.

The night before she left, she entered Maja’s room where Maja was getting ready for bed. Abel was still at work.

“Maja,” she said, pointing a long nailed finger at her, her face framed by the darkness of the room, the only light being at the light on Maja’s dressing table where she sat, removing her earrings. “I know you have delayed the child on purpose! Don’t try to hide that from me now, girl.”

Maja, mute like she had always been over her mother’s extreme paranoia and superstitions, said nothing. Eventually her mother drifted from the room.

Maja shivered that night in her bed to think of it, the tightness of her swollen belly indeed hers and hers alone, thank God. Her mother’s absurd accusation she had prevented the birth reminded Maja of her loneliness growing up, her fear.

When Maja moved to Orlando with Abel, she had been grateful for the very odd climate, the exotic green an over exuberant lushness. It reminded her nothing of home, the cobbled and slightly frail seeming streets, the huddling of old dark buildings and homes so close to one another, the grayness of the days fall until late spring. She had gone back for her mother’s funeral right before Justyn’s tenth birthday.

In the wood there was something over the black mattress, something standing there, large and hunched. In the place that seemed to be its face, Maja observed the dark penetrating eyes, the ugly open maw. Was it a person or a tree? She had a horrifying thought it was some form of her mother. She gathered herself and made her way to her porch.

She knew she should call the police, or someone. But she would let the mattress set out there for the night.

Justyn was safe in his liberal arts college up in South Carolina. He would have laughed good naturedly at his mother’s belief there was someone in the woods.

How much that had cost her, she had thought, that laugh of his, its nurturing and its preservation.  It had been well worth it.

She went inside her three story townhome and locked the door.

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Beautiful Ones

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Solomon Church 07, Dan Tantrum, flickr

On Good Friday Mama and I saw the blood dripping from Jesus’ cross. The cross hung from the church ceiling with wires at the front of the sanctuary. It hung over the communion table where Daddy in his robe broke a big round flat cracker and said Jesus’ words to his congregation: “This is my body, given for you.” Where he held up the silver cup and said “This is my blood shed for you.”

Mama and I sat in the front, our usual place. While Daddy passed out the plates of crackers to the ushers to take to everybody, the choir stood in the balcony behind everybody and sang some of my favorite hymns.

“On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame.” Some of the voices of the choir were very wavery. They were very old. A lot of the ladies hugged me after the service. Some even brought me a candy or cookies they had made.

A cluster of fat drops of blood fell from the cross and dripped on the white cloth pressed out by Mama the night before.

Mama stood up, shaking. She let out a tiny cry. She whispered to me “Did you see that?”

I nodded. I did see it. I put my arm around her and helped her out of the church. Recently, Mama had been seeing things at church, and I had too though I was trying to be strong for her. Mama wasn’t as strong as I was.

We hightailed it out. The ladies in the pews would be wagging their heads and clucking, gossiping, especially the ladies who had made it a big point to wear all black on Good Friday for Jesus. These same ladies would look like iced cakes and Easter eggs on Sunday. The men would draw up their brows and grow stern and pick at their hands and mustaches and wonder what they should do.

Early the next morning we had to drive Mama to the Florida state mental hospital in Chattahoochee.

“I’m sorry to tell you, your Mama has schizophrenia,” said the doctor, for some reason looking directly at me. Maybe he wanted to treat me like a grown up so I could believe I would understand it. He laced up his fingers across his white doctor coat and leaned back in his chair behind the army green desk.

Daddy and I were sitting in the doc’s office on the other side of his metal tank. The nurses had taken Mama down the hall to help her change.

“No,” I said. “She saw blood. It was Jesus’ blood coming down from the cross in Daddy’s church.”

“She shouldn’t be seeing these things, Shawna. She’s ill.”

Daddy didn’t stand up for me, he didn’t say These things are real. He didn’t say I preach about them every Sunday. And I preached them on Good Friday.

And I didn’t say And I saw it too. I saw the blood Jesus shed. It dripped down high from the cross and splashed on Daddy’s communion table.

I didn’t say it because I wondered if the doc would call me a crazy bones and lock me up. Besides, I had to be Mama’s protector. I couldn’t be crazy.

The Doc took us down to Mama’s room where a nurse was shooting her up with something. Mama would never have been caught dead in the clothes she was wearing, not even just to hang out around the house. She was drooped over, barely holding herself up.

“Why are they making her more tired?” I asked the Doctor, looking up at his big granite face, not really know if what I said meant anything.

The Doc let me go in and give her a hug. I took her in my arms and it was almost like I was the Mama. Her hair smelled like it did more and more recently, unwashed, wild, like an animal’s who slept out in the woods.

Daddy took me home when we got back from Chattohoochee. He dropped me off and went to the church to finish up some business for Easter Sunday.

Pony and Todd were out back when I got home. They were boys from the tracks and overpasses who slipped in through our back fence. They were always around to make me laugh if I was lonely. It was almost magic the way they showed up just when I needed someone. And I was nice to them even though they could do bad things. Mama had taught me Jesus loved everyone.

Pony had a burlap bag holding something big and wiggling around. They had both been huffing paint, their mouths were ringed with the white. Their lips were always red and chapped.

“Shit, Shawna, bout time,” said Pony. “Ma got stashed away in the loony bin.”

I hadn’t said anything. I don’t know how he knew. I had half a mind to haul off and whop him.

In Orlando Daddy bought us a house that backed up to a railroad track. It used to be orange groves but there was still one orange tree in our backyard which pops out tough dry fruit. No one eats them. They’re kinda gross. The fruit falls and molds and rots in the grass, turning green. Pony, Todd, and I throw the rotten fruit at each other, the dried mold flying up in little puffs from our clothes.

We used to crawl through the fence to the tracks and follow the tracks where the women sell their bodies on Orange Blossom Trail and the pornographers sell whatever they want. I heard a news person on the tv say the tracks have a reputation like the killing fields of Texas because the sounds of murder are covered by the trains just like they were by the oil rigs in Texas.

I have no idea now why Daddy bought us this house but at the time I didn’t think much of it. It was an exotic adventure compared to my life in a small town in Arkansas. I’m pretty sure Mama and Daddy had no idea who I hung out with or where I went. They knew I was happy and occupied. They had bought me a bike so I could get around places. Kids weren’t often in too much danger back then. And our house and other houses just sat on this kind of edge that backed up against something dark. They weren’t super fancy but they weren’t poor people’s houses either. No one seemed to worry. Besides, the only people who were killed were the homeless.

It turned out the contents of the burlap was a baby. I was shocked Pony could lift the sack his arms and body were puny like Alfalfa but he was wiry from living on the street and scrapping. He and Todd often ripped people off and pulled schemes to eat, find supplies to huff, pad out their living quarters in cars in a scrapyard or in the underdeveloped woods between neighborhoods.

“We stole this baby,” said Pony. It was always him speaking for the two of them. A train screeched past on the other side of the fence, creating a dry wind of metal on metal and dust pouring through the cracks. The baby, startled, started to scream and pump its fists.

“Shut up, baby!” shouted Pony, bending over to yell in its face. “Shut the fuck up little stupid baby!”

Todd toppled over on the grass, his raspy laugh gaining hold on his throat.

I kind of didn’t care they stole from stores or people’s pockets but I couldn’t tolerate this.

I picked up the baby.

“We’re putting the baby up for ransom,” said Pony.

“You’re clueless.”

I walked into the house with the baby who was nice and chunky in my arms, like the huge sacks of oats they sold at the feed store in Arkansas. The two of them followed me in and draped themselves across the table where Mama served us waffles for breakfast with strawberry syrup.

“We were going to tie you up and make you a sex slave,” said Pony.

I didn’t like the way he was looking at me. I couldn’t be sure they weren’t serious.

“Now your Mama’s gone and Daddy’s always away, we can do whatever.”

I put the baby on a little couch next to the kitchen and kicked Pony boy in the nuts. I cracked Todd’s shoulder with a cast iron skillet. They flew out the back door, wailing.

The light was fading from the sky and it was getting dark. The cicadas were out in force. It sounded like one was just on the outside of the back door.

It made me sad Mama couldn’t help me with the baby. She would have liked to. I found soft cloths and safety pins and changed its diaper. I put her in an old tshirt of mine, one that was too small for me. It was soft and smelled like softener. I found an old sippy cup Mom had kept and warmed some milk.

I fell asleep with the baby in my bed. I missed Mama but I wasn’t as lonely as I had been when she started checking out on me at night when Dad was at the church late, working. She had stayed in the living room, silent, no tv, the fading light invading the cracks of the room. It made me feel strange and sad, all at once. She hadn’t always been that way. We used to play Operation, my favorite game.

“Mama, at least turn lights on,” I would say, and I would turn a light on. I made us dinner. Later I put her to bed. I never told Daddy about these nights. I didn’t see any reason to. In the morning, she was Mama.

When Daddy got home it was almost midnight. I had fallen asleep on my bed with the baby. I would tell him all about it. He would know what to do just like he always did.

But he didn’t come up to my room. I heard him crying. He was in the living room and I could hear the loud cries all the way in my room. I had never heard my Dad cry.

I walked down the stairs with the baby. I had decided to name her Leanna.

“Daddy,” I said, “Are you alright?”

Leanna was passed out on my shoulder, sucking her thumb.

“I’m alright sugar, just a rough day,” his voice was wavering in a way that made me not sure of what to do.

“Daddy, some bad boys in the neighborhood stole a baby. We have to get her back home.”

“Do they have her?” he said. I thought maybe his eyes were too jammed up with tears to see her. She was right there in my arms.

“No, Daddy, she’s right here, with me. Don’t you see her?”

“No, Shawna. Look, I’m in no mood. Go to bed now, ok? We’ll talk about it in the morning, I love you, sweetie.”

The shadow of the branches moved over the white blanket on my bed, the white blanket Mama said was really a cloud that would take me to a castle if I wanted, or a beautiful beach, or high up on the mountains. I saw the blood, Mama, I say to her out loud. I knew she could hear me. She had told me people with similar thoughts can communicate with each other even when they are not together. She had told me people who love each other can meet in the air in their dreams.

I hoped Mama would meet me. I knew the bars at the insane asylum wouldn’t hold her. She would be proud of me for saving the baby and beating the bad boys. She would tell me she and I could see things others couldn’t. Sometimes even the friends we know that others can’t see are still not good for us. We need to find better secret friends. And she would say not to trouble Daddy, I could save Leanna on my own.

I wanted Jesus to suffer me to come to him. I wanted to sit in his lap. I wanted him to see Leanna, to tell me what a beautiful baby she was.

I wanted him to slip through the cracks of my back fence to be with the sinners and prostitutes on Orange Blossom Trail, the paint huffers and murderers.

I wanted him to come down from the clouds. I wanted him to bless us with a beautiful light. I closed my eyes and could feel his warmth.

I asked him to bless Mama and Daddy.

And I asked him to bless me too.

liquid asylum

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Oakwood Cemetery, Austin, by kissingtoast, flickr

We think you should know, but you do, don’t you, dear ones, ones who have passed on, ones who now live in the street, ones who have killed and molder in prison, ones who live in underground spaces forgotten under cities until money and children and food go missing, until abandoned houses are destroyed, until libraries parks and public places reek of unseemliness, we will never leave you, the representatives of who you were before you were placed on operating tables, drilled clean through your skull, hammered through your eye socket, shocked with insulin and electricity, precious memories flying, shrieking, from your skin, old personalities, pleasures, predilections lingering saddened, forlorn, in corners of the operating room.

See? The doctors and nurses and orderlies said. We don’t have to put them in cages. Look! We don’t have to put them in straight jackets. No longer the padded cell! And yet we said to you, we pointed this out dear ones: Your tongues are now so jammed in your mouths you can barely speak.  They congratulate themselves, the nurses, the doctors, the orderlies while you convalesce in the infirmary. There are cigarettes outside behind the surgery, there is wine and beer on breaks, a cake to celebrate the next hundred batch, and sex in the janitor’s closet. And finally, families can bring their smiles to the common areas and feel relieved for they are not pretending.

We the spirits of this place, the spirits that gathered when the town said We will build buildings for a keeping of those not fit to live among us, we those spirits want you to know we have been watching you and know you, the real you and not your spirit of violence and destruction, of hate, but the one you can’t remember now, the one born of God, the one who must exist somewhere, the one you hope will be recaptured, the one who will get married again, the one who will help you regain the respect of your children and community, the one your your mother and father believe will break through the face you present, the blank mind, the addled tongue, the hand that drifts up uncontrollably to pat the space on your head where a drill bored through, the drill taking you though it didn’t care, not really, leaving you sensitive to light and noise, any loud noise, any disruption to a mellow day which nowadays means just about any sound.

And for those of you who became like power plants with nothing but current running through, for those whose bodies veins were flooded through with insulin over and over, you were just as fucked. We have your memories up here on a shelf. You may never get them back but we keep them and send them back in little batches like molded leaves rotting on trees, memories of leaves, veiny outlines, lace.

When you come back in your mind to us no matter where you are, the flophouse, the prison cell, the cardboard box, the bungalow with a picket fence, we know you want the whole thing back, what you were, or, more accurately could have been. You are with us in spirit and we meet you in the air while you are drift in your dreams, we meet you to try to help you find what you are looking for.

In your mind you go back to the place where you lost yourself, you go back to your old bedlam, you come home to us, your home you never intended to feel as home and yet it was the site of this terrible new self you were born into, and there is no place like home my dear ones for here we keep who you were, you will find it here, we promise, if only you return, to make yourself whole among us again, to confront your executioners as they say.

It is not as haunted as tourists say, you know that, those foolish people who want to give themselves a shiver spending a night in restraints. Idiots. We have half a mind to show them real fear, but it would be a waste, alas.

You were the real beauty and the romance, my how we miss you, our beautiful, broken ones. Bring your old and weary bones to lie here again and let us give you back your old self. Your memories await. So too the tears you cannot cry being too feeble to feel. We will give you your self to you whole, along with your pleasures, as well as a deep and lasting sleep if you come to us and find your home once more in the bosom of health. It did not happen the first time, the wholeness, the health, but let us try again. Please.

 

Wild Animal

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hailey-kean-111977-unsplash

Hailey Kean, unsplash

The door that always used to creak up in front of me while I sat in the hall of the manse was heavy and dark. It moved like an old grandfather. It created a shadow over my face, blocking the light of the hall light. It kept me in the dark for hours. Until it wanted me to leave. Then it slammed shut, waking my mother, waking my father. My sister slept.

Why don’t you want to sleep in peace? said my adopted mother. Why don’t you stay in your room with your sister? She was awake now standing over me in her curlers and robe. Why do you sit in the hallway half the night like a hyena?

I thought of that later, wondering if my eyes glowed in the dark, wondering if whoever was opening the door to cast me in darkness was hoping to see my glittering eyes. I wondered if it was my dead birth mother. The one who gave me life. I wonder if she was wild too.

When I went to a friend’s birthday party with my mother and sister, I tore into my friend’s gifts and opened them myself. I couldn’t wait. Like a wild animal, my mother said, shaking her coiffed head. She apologized profusely to the child’s mother. In a dress and everything, she said to me, later in the car, jamming in the lighter with a pointy red nailed finger.

I sat beside the door that night and consulted the dark blocking the light, its nonseeing coolness a relief after so much scrutiny. You could do anything in the dark, say anything. Be who and what you wanted. I could take the heads off my dolls, stab them. I could pinch a boy, make him cry. I watched for my birth mother again. She would have to be a ghost. She was dead. She had hung herself in the dark. In the dark of her lonely house far away from my father.

I know I make my adopted mother sad. My Rangerette boots that will never be so clean as she hoped. Digging with my grandfather in the garden for Easter eggs. He, a wild animal himself, encouraging me, boisterous and loud. The two of us just on the other side of feral and he my adopted kin. Maybe I wasn’t too far gone after all.

I could have been anything, my mother said to me, confronting me the day before my divorce was final, talking to me with Dad and my sister in the therapist’s office. You always thought you were so special, always thought you could be more. But you were always so wild, couldn’t keep your mind on anything. Now look at you.

I know she considered me not technically hers.

That night, I sat on the floor of my newly acquired empty apartment, my default shelter. I am not sure there had ever been any options here. Does a dog choose its course? I watched through the sliding glass door the moon setting over the lake. I watched with my glittering eyes. I would not sleep for years.

Ms. Myska Rebel Mouse

Kittens and Cats, a Book of Tales (1911), flickr

Kittens and Cats, a Book of Tales (1911), flickr

This morning I revised a story I wrote loosely based on the Mouse Woman tradition of the Haida Gawaii native people of the Canadian Pacific Northwest. My Mouse Woman is more of a silently influential citizen whereas the original Mouse Woman was a kind of fairy godmother or even spirit guide between worlds. Here, in a more human manifestation, she shows her village there is a rhythm to life and death that is mysterious, feral, and not to be disrupted. She has her own rhythm, hence “rebel.”

Her plight is similar to mine in terms of unusual sleep patterns that can sometimes find one at odds with the rest of the world. But Ms. Myska teaches us to be ourselves. I wrote this three years ago and wanted to revise it and bring it forth again as I once more find myself in a struggle but am still seeking redemption through a celebration of individuality and acceptance.

https://brokenwriterblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/507/

witch in the woods

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Mike Kniec, To Grandmother's House We Go, flickr

Mike Kniec, To Grandmother’s House We Go, flickr

I went to a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. Often I took a path that cut through the woods, a path that connected our small campus to a street of high end shops in town. In the heart of the woods there was a little bridge arching over a small brook. Beside it there was a stone cherub. When I was unhappy senior year, I often sat beside the brook to quiet my mind. Changes would be happening soon upon graduation. Life would no longer be as simple as cramming for tests or writing papers. I had to find work. And I did not know where I might find work. And I didn’t want to go home.

Over my college years, I had become distant from my parents, my father and stepmother. They didn’t often visit at school, not even when other parents came. And they didn’t always help me get home when I didn’t have a ride for holidays, except for Christmas. When I was younger there had been other problems as well though I hadn’t remembered them until I spent long quiet hours in dorm rooms, empty, echoing halls. Was I a young woman with a bad attitude? Or had I encountered neglect, even abuse? I couldn’t know. I just felt home was dark and unknowable.

Thanksgiving my senior year I walked through the woods alone. I was a Halloween baby which means I had turned 21 and since I was alone I felt I owed it to myself to buy a drink. Not even Max was here with me, my boyfriend since freshman year. He also lived in Florida and found himself on campus over holidays. But he went to Myrtle Beach with a friend. On Friday of the break, I sat on my bridge having had a white Russian at the bar. I felt the moss on the brick, soft to the touch and under my stockinged legs. The time between the pink sky and utter darkness had become my favorite time and in these woods there was always a dove to serenade me, or an owl or whippoorwill. I wished the cherub was real, still I was glad for its stone presence. Something about it comforted me.

I sensed a pre-mature encroaching darkness but when I looked into the woods I noticed it was only a darkness limited to a particular shape. As it neared I could hear clinking and clattering, like a wooden windchime. I made out skirts which swished among the leaves. And a very high pitch of hair, a nimbus surrounding the face above which floated a high ruff accentuated with clattering ornaments. The woman held a long staff of a particular shape. When she neared it looked vaguely like a giant pestle. She wore circlets of bones and skulls on her neck, wrists, and waist.

“Waste of time,” she said, “waste of a girl.”

“What?” I said, hoping I didn’t hear what I thought I heard.

“Don’t waste my time. I was going to say something helpful to you. I know you’ve been loitering around here, but I resent wasting my breath.”

She walked past, her skirts dragging on the footpath. She smelled of roasted meat, dirt and damp leaves, unwashed skin, tallow, smoke. Likely one of the crazed homeless like we have in Florida.

“I remember your babcia, your sweet little Polish grandma” she said, “And you. I remember you when you were a girl and your babcia cared for you.”

I said nothing. I let the whippoorwill speak. It was getting cooler. I had a strange taste in my mouth, like something was deeply wrong. Of course there was: How could she know me? Yet somehow I felt I was also expecting someone dark to show familiarity with me, a stalker, a murderess. I felt my blood coursing.

“You don’t know me,” I said, in defiance of the bones which clattered on her frame.

“You babcia made huge batches of pierogis every summer and took care of you and your brother and sister. She taught you about plants and flowers and placing plant offerings on the alter for the ceremony for the Feast of the Assumption. Remember? You have abandoned your ways with the Virgin Mary.”

“I remember.”

“A waste,” she said. “You will never be your babcia.”

“She’s dead, I don’t want to go home. Mother is dead too, long ago.”

“You are spoiled. I should have boiled you up in the pot when I had the chance. I should have taken you and chopped you up and eaten you.”

“The red ribbons tripled on my wrists for the Feast were my babcia’s protection against the likes of you.” I said, practically shouting now, so much louder than she was being with me. I shivered. The cream of the white Russian was not resting easy on my stomach.

“But you forget, I also eat adults. You appear to be sweet meat. I’ll bet your flesh tastes bitter.” She ran the black tips of her fingers along her tongue. “You’re a bitter, stupid girl. Who cares if your step mother abused you? Who cares if she only cares about her own birth children? Go home and pray I don’t find you or I will take away one more waste of a life and be nourished. Be glad you’re even alive. Be glad every day I allow it.”

I stepped away. I backed away not taking my eyes from her. Then I turned and ran.

When I got back into my dorm, the dark empty, echoing halls, I checked behind me before closing the door. There was no one.

I didn’t mind the rest of my holiday alone in my room. The food in my minifridge was a comfort. I made soup and tea with my kettle.

After graduation, I took a menial job shelving books at the library. It was all I could find. I lived with my father, stepmother, and stepsisters.

It was a while before I went to graduate school. Eventually, I found a job as a librarian.

I had my child baptized in the Polish Catholic church and made a beautiful offering of hawthorn, wheat, and roses at the Feast of the Assumption. I promised Mary I would not forget my faith and tied red ribbons around my child’s wrist to protect her from boginki, forest spirits who would take her away or hurt her.

At thirty I was diagnosed with bipolar depression. The faith of my childhood and reawakened faith of my young adult years became extinct with the medications. I felt I had lost some critical link to my mother and my babcia. My life was no longer as sad, scary, and uncertain. But it also was no longer as interesting. It was flat and strange, a foreign territory.

With my diagnosis, I had to assume my encounter with a cannibal witch was some delusion of my illness.

And yet, I don’t feel I would be the person I am had this thing not happened.

One week when my child was away with my husband’s family, I stayed off my medications to see how I would feel. All I felt was deeply confused. I could not accomplish a thing and I did not sense the witch of my babcia’s bedtime stories or the Virgin of her faith.

Nevertheless, I remembered Baba Yaga’s lesson to be grateful.

I returned to my medications and never strayed from them again.

Laughy Taffy Daffy God and Country

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What Lies Above by Kinga Britschgi, deviant art

What Lies Above by Kinga Britschgi, deviant art

It was Memories of Laughy Taffy Daffy God and Country Day and Mrs. Seidelbraun had a major issue: She could not manage to extricate herself from the bed. Soon Taffy Day participants would be flooding the streets, floating good spirits balloons, spewing fireworks from their mouths, doing midair acrobatics with the aid of their combat-sadness-anti-gravity-boots.

On days like this, the air turned butter it was so smooth, the sun was a creamy smear in the sky, neighbors greeted each other with kindly salutations, even those who on non Taffy Days dreamed secretly of administering unnoticeable but painful papercuts over slights, grudges, micro aggressions. People baked for their neighborhoods, the smells of sugar and pastries filled the air. There was hugging and laughing and handing out candy. And of course there was taffy pulling, greased pole climbing, pig calling. Years ago, there had been a brief memorial for The Town of Daffy Day residents who had given their lives so that everyone could be Happy, but really, that part of the day started to become both boring and super triggering. And so they made do with laying flowers on the one memorial in the town: A water feature of an upright gun holding a helmet.

Every year had become worse and worse for Mrs. Seidelbraun. The first year she recognized painful gravitations on Memories of Laughy Taffy Daffy God and Country Days, she managed to make it down the elevator of her high rise apartment, down to the street of festivals, parades, and bacchanalian frivolities. She didn’t laugh exactly but she didn’t exactly frown either. She played it off and no one was none the wiser, including Flora who managed to be offended at every affront to festivity. They had decorated a float together, full of paper flowers and young girls from a local ballet company pirouetting on tippy toe as the truck pulled them through a street raining with confetti. She even managed to eat a Happy Hot Dog beside which Mr. Happy was administering his annual contest of Happy Hot Dog Stuff Yourself Silly. She put mustard and ketchup and relish on it, a sign to Mr. Happy she was still A OK. A Good Girl though she was 40.

That was a couple of years ago. Last year, she made significantly less progress. She pushed herself up to standing in her studio apartment and slid her feet into her dilapidated old slippers and shuffled over to the window overlooking the street. Sshh shh sshh went her feet, the only noise in the apartment though the marching bands down below were beginning to warm up and people wearing the combat-sadness-anti-gravity-boots were whirring by, practicing their maneuvers in the air. Prayers were being sent up to heaven on balloons with strings of flowers attached. Prayers that said “Only happiness,” “only peace,” “no triggers,” “trigger warnings please.” “please be happy always and keep us all happy.” She knew what the slips of prayers said. She helped copy them from the Community Suggestion Book for Wellbeing. Flora would be upset with her for staying inside. She hadn’t pulled it off, getting to the street. And she was right, Flora had called the next day, upset and angry.

In a way she had been glad she wasn’t even going to have to face Flora this year, at least not on the day of the event. She would simply have to admit the truth: Her bed held her fast as mud in a deep bog. It would not release her, it had sucked her energy, her strength. When she closed her eyes she saw terrible things, she heard terrible and agonizing cries and explosions and pops. She tasted blood, dirt, gun powder, fear. And yet, she couldn’t open her eyes for long, she kept falling asleep again, or falling into visions, into nightmares or waking nightmares. She saw friends she knew bloodied and missing half of their faces, their eyes and limbs torn away, children running in the streets crying and naked. The sky was exploding and there was fire, as if this place were a very deep hell. Buildings had crumbled and were splitting, tumbling like large giants laid low, groaning in agony. She cried out but no one heard her. She had not discovered a way out. All day, she had dreamed of the past, or maybe some distant time in the future, maybe sometime soon.

 

 

Mother’s Day in the Land of Operant Practices

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St Nicholas [serial], 1873, flickr

Within the Kingdom there is a land. It is called the Land of Operant Practices. More than a hidden away place, it is actually quite out in the open. There are telltale signs of the citizenry, knowing exchanges, tacit agreements. This isn’t witchcraft nor is it a kind of backdoor eugenics. It has more to do with the nurture and training of a certain set aside people, a bootcamp of sorts, a training of a race of super people which begins at birth.

There is compensation of families by the state if a participating family can show need but mostly, the program is billed as a patriotic duty. And only a few are selected, those with a certain predisposition and personal history. After all, a country of 100 percent super people would be chaos as no one would serve the super people, no one would nurture them and subvert their own needs to support their tender egos. They are super but the downside is they demand a kind of manic loyalty.

The operant practices are as follows: Embrace parenthood, but know one’s work is never done until the dross is burned away, until the wheat is separated from the chaff and a Super Person emerges. And as this is accomplished and the parents move through the ranks of the program with a growing child, there are greater and greater accolades to recognize success, parties given, trips booked away with other Super Child Families, discounts at designer clothing stores, free nights at gourmet restaurants, exclusive country club membership, free luxury cars, spa vacations.

There is a kind of need that all babies in the kingdom have and that is the need for unconditional love, to gaze into a parent’s eyes and have the gaze returned, to be rocked by a parent late at night to soothe crying or to be allowed the space to calm down alone when too much touch overstimulates. It is that perfect attunement that babies need so much, crave, must have to feel safe. While the ability to provide this exists to a certain degree in almost all mothers save a few, the mothers of the Super People are actually more attuned to how they themselves feel rather than the child. A crying baby all night deep in the night most nights is uncomfortable for everyone but especially to the mother who succeeds at the extreme level of Operant Practices. It is an affront.

Most mothers in the program make it because they themselves have had ambivalent mothers, or mothers who for whatever reason felt ill equipped though they want so desperately what others have: To be a good mother, to have a family. It is hard for some mothers to deal with messy feelings, and so, their eyes slide away when their infant seeks to make eye contact, or they hold and touch their baby less though you would have to be a program scientist to detect these subtle cues, at least at the infant stages.

As the child grows there are such things as temper tantrums in the grocery store, jealousy over brothers and sisters, acting out behaviors at school – performing below one’s ability, causing trouble. Of course there are many more examples, all of which point to being a typical child. When it comes to Super Child Families, there is a policy of zero tolerance for these undesirable, typical behaviors. To be honest, there is some flexibility. After all, this is a program designed by humans so absolute zero will hardly ever be achievable.  When the program is working at maximum capacity to effect the greatest societal benefit, there is more emphasis on Desired Behaviors. The child receives the message that to receive the most attention, it is beneficial to focus on Super Child behaviors. This is the level of Beneficial Practices.

Parents who succeed at this level of the program tend to be those who sometimes literally freak out if their child is less than Perfection because their child is a reflection of who they are. The outcomes in a situation like this are Young Adults who become leaders, who start businesses or rise quickly in corporate structures, politics, religion, nonprofits. They are charismatic, self promoting, influential. Though sometimes there is a lack of conscious awareness why they are doing what they are doing. And sometimes there is a sense of lack, deep down, but they are not aware of it. Therefore, at times deep in the night or at critical times like midlife there is suffering. Their relationships are often shallow and they can create confusion and heartbreak among those who expect the normal flow of reciprocal work relationships, friendships, romantic bonds.

For Super People, there is a vampiric need for a kind of fuel Adult Typicals received in their growing up years. It is more of a psychic fuel, fuel only produced in Citizens under conditions of unconditional love and acceptance. In these Adult Typical families there is a high tolerance for a variety of behaviors albeit conditioning through the natural give and take of learned consequences. There is attention given not only to Desired Behaviors but Undesired Behaviors. These children are seen, attended to. In the case of Super People, there is often a cold, hard ignoring of a child suffering through whatever their lower nature is commanding them to do, therefore training them to be superficially compliant but also less self aware. When Super Children become adults they want the psychic fuel Adult Typicals have received.

For society to benefit maximally, Super People naturally couple with Adult Typicals to have their needs met. Such pairings are almost always cause for celebration for the support of Super People. This pairing means a benefit to society because of the blossoming and enabled function of those among us who are Super. Unfortunately, those to whom they are married are drained of their psychic fuel, sometimes they get sick and die. But there is always another source of fuel and another and another, a never ending line ready and waiting to serve.

And we have to think of the larger vision.

Thank you, Mothers, who play their part in supporting the Kingdom. Your efforts are recognized and appreciated and will be especially rewarded in the next life of Good Martyrs.

The Land of Absolutes

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Chimney Pot Papers, 1919, flickr

Chimney Pot Papers, woodcut Fritz Endell,1919, flickr

There is an interesting place called the Land of Absolutes. I would like to be able to tell you about every aspect of this land, but alas, for the storyteller to be heard, she must be believed. I will provide a sketch along with an example family from the town to give you some rough idea. You will hardly believe it. It is better than a ride at Disney.

In the Land of Absolutes, there is nothing in between. There is no person that is in between. To live in Absolutes, you must be so tall, you are the tallest of humans who have lived on the planet, or so small so as to be the size of a little mouse. If you are going to be fat, let’s do this right, round yourself out, roll around like Violet Beuregarde! If you are going to be skinny, be invisible when you turn sideways. When you yell, yell all the way, when you talk gently, talk so soft that someone needs to get right up to your mouth to hear you. They might not even hear you at all!

When you are political, march every day for your cause. Carry signs. Bash people over the head with them. Punch the opposition. Carry weapons. Go to jail. When you are apolitical, sit at home and stare at the dust particles filtering through the air in a shaft of sunlight slanting in. Count the particles. Make note of them. Make a chart. Compare the number of particles from day to day and see if the numbers correlate to anything. Leave your tvs alone, a sad gaping eye in your living room. Pretend the outside world does not exist. Order your groceries delivered, your clothes, your shampoos and soaps, your sex toys, your love, your religion, your peace. Be quiet and uninvolved. Keep to yourself.

You know what people do when they aren’t either all the way tall or all the way short? All the way fat or all the way skinny? All the way political or all the way uninvolved? They can’t exist long in the Land of Absolutes. Imagine it. Where are they going to find clothes? How are they going to find food? It’s either packaged for tiny mice sized people and twig people or huge tree sized people or barn sized people. When the in between people are out and about in the Land of Absolutes, they get bashed over the side of the head or swept along in the latest political riot. When they knock on the door of the apolitical they never receive an answer. There is a hush still as the grave.

The “in betweens” as they are known are really tourists, looking for a place to exist. They make do. Often, they are observers. Actually, nowadays as migration patterns have set in and people move from town to town looking to escape Absolutist policies and public life, they have founded communities for themselves. It is not possible for In Betweeners and Absolutes to cohabitate or be in relationship. Their separate communities, with guards and their own fly over helicopters, curfew hours, checkpoints, ensure there is some measure of peace. Though sometimes there is an attempt to mingle.

I tried mingling once, getting out there. I wasn’t finding anyone in my community with whom I wanted to settle down for a while. I wasn’t looking for a Bond, which is what they are calling it nowadays. More like something a little more tuned down. A Mutuality with Happy Consequences and Occasional Challenges But Overall Happiness. There is a kind of person I always tended to be attracted to in the Absolutes and that is the tall tree-trunk kind of a person with big opinions, someone political and passionate, who does not get their love in the mail. I met him in a town square one night at a rally. He was so gorgeous. And so ambitious. Nothing he did was halfway. How very Absolute of him. I was attracted immediately.

What I didn’t know about the Land of the Absolutes is a rule that applies to them: All things must be done absolutely. As an example, what that means in family life in the Land of Absolutes is a strict obedience to the rules laid down by an iron fisted matriarch or patriarch from time immemoriam.

On our first date I ate at my new love’s house. The family was served plates by another family who worked for them, some of the thinnest people I had ever seen. I have seen needles thicker. These thin people laid plates of meat, potatoes, and vegetables in front of us. It is amazing these thin people made such gorgeous, delicious looking food. It looked like food they never ate.

We commenced to eating. Now, I happen to love potatoes. Imagine my joy when a white, fluffy potato was found in front of me, next to the succulent meat and buttery vegetables. I lovingly lavished it with butter, salt, pepper, sour cream. I was starving. I took a bite, looked around and smiled, just in case I needed to say something or listen. But everyone was eating. I took another bite, and another, and another! I ate it all! How tasty!

Suddenly, there was a dead silence, no clanking utensils against plates, no scraping with the labor of cutting meat, not even the tinkling of ice in a glass. I looked up. They were all staring at me! These huge people! What did I do?

“We eat everything in rotation here,” said my love. “This is crazy, the way you are eating!” he crashed his hand down on the table so the dishes and utensils clattered. He was yelling and I was scared. When he had been yelling about politics or people he didn’t agree with, other people, I had found it funny. Now, it terrified me. Everyone in the room was huge, staring. Their heads barely fit under the ceiling. I marveled at the table. How did they find enough wood to build it? “You will fill all up on your potato and won’t have room for the other things on your plate! Are you even sane? Do you even know what you are doing? Are you even a grown up?” There was growling then and leering, baring of teeth. I backed slowly away, and made it through the door. I ran all the way home, I don’t know how. I am hardly an athlete.

In my own house later, the moonlight shifting through windows in a room I’m sure contained dancing dust particles, I pulled out the photo album of my childhood. I flipped on the light and turned to the page of my three year old self who had buried her hands deep in her birthday cake. She had stuffed her mouth and the icing had stained her lips blue. Her head was tipped back and she was smiling. Her mom was holding her on her lap and smiling. The dad I knew who took the picture was smiling as well. Though you cannot see him in the picture, I know he was there and how he looked at his little love.

 

semaphore

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massimo ankor, flickr

Massimo ankor, flickr

How to explain the skinned elbow. It wasn’t like the time Miska hopped up on top of the bar to dance and had fallen, some of the guys coming to her rescue.

No, this was Berta home alone with her frozen dirty martini, underestimating her body’s ability to absorb the alcohol on no carbs. But also, self medicating when her midlife boyfriend reunited with her and her fear of abandonment set in.  Overweight, middle aged Berta, divorced from a 20 year marriage to a doctor, grateful for a man’s expressed interest in her even if it was only for the easy sex. And it was always hard for Berta to know the difference: Was he just interested in the sex or did he have a truly vested interest? And did it matter any more? Was she supposed to care?

How to explain the loose skin at her elbow when she showed for girls night out. An hour before, standing at her sink, a sudden sensation overwhelming her and a slow, slow tipping of her body like she had heard cows tip at the slightest pressure at night while asleep. She couldn’t stop herself. She tried, but she kept going down, to the kitchen linoleum, her midlife boyfriend having told her only hours before it made him really hot to watch a woman emerge from a bathtub. She had been secretly grateful he had yet to see her creaking up to standing from her townhouse tub and she had wondered what would happen when he finally witnessed it.

She had lain on the kitchen floor when the dirty martini laid her low. She absorbed the humiliation. Of course, she would never tell. But what if she had been forced to alert someone because of broken bones, or worse? She would have rather died. And she thinks: She probably just would have died. Before calling. Before texting. Just died.

My Second Self

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Trees by Ivan Constantin, flickr

Twin Trees by Ivan Constantin, flickr

The rooms of my townhome were lonely when my son left for university, those rooms absent of his intelligent yet feral boyishness, the male version of everything I could possibly pour into him in the time available to me. Yet he had always been his very own person. He had his own humor, his own style, his own way of seeing the world, his own way of moving through it.

On the day he left, I had put everything I could of mine into his car, everything he cared to take – my old guitar my parents gave me years ago, a clothes’ steamer I had just bought for myself but that he liked using, food, drinks. I stood with my dog on my balcony while he drove away. I cried while descending on me was a new feeling, something alien and unwelcome.

The only other times I had something close to such a feeling was several years previous, a month after separating from my husband, having scrambled to get funding to rent a loft apartment. How empty I had been. And I slept on a pile of comforters in my bedroom until my furniture arrived. Years later, the sense of emptiness returned when I was diagnosed with cancer. The loneliness of treatment was immense and impenetrable, like a silent judgmental father, watching, waiting, providing no answers or guarantees.

In summary, as I sometimes saw it on my darker days, the middle years of my life had seen me without my spouse, without my health, without my son.

I felt sorry for myself when my son left. I considered myself to be dull and banal for even feeling this way while I also thought of my son driving away to be with his friends. I looked up “empty nesting” on the computer and found descriptions of the dangers: depression, weight gain, loss of purpose, a messy house, a messy appearance.

I would have to force myself to do things, no one would be around to know if I cleaned the kitchen, made my bed, even fixed my hair and makeup. I would be doing things only for myself. And like many of my friends, I had grown up within a subculture of expectation. My ex had always told me, in criticism, that I was “externally motivated,” never one to do much unless someone would be around to witness the outcome.

That night, I closed down the house, shutting the downstairs bedroom door, the door to the room that I had thought to make into my study one day but it was still a bedroom. I wondered why I even bothered to close the door. But I always did that, even if there was no reason to protect someone’s privacy or keep anyone away. I generally liked closed doors inside a house. On the second floor, I turned off all the lights except for one I kept on through the night, one beside the sofa. I turned off the electric fireplace and blew out the candle.

On the third floor, I closed my son’s bedroom door and my own bedroom door, settling into a night in bed beside the blue light of the computer, a somewhat sad state of affairs maybe but it wasn’t so bad either. There was no one to consult with and I could watch whatever I pleased, or browse the web, or write a story if I couldn’t sleep. I could stay up and leave the light on until all hours.

Before I knew it, the hour reached midnight and I was hungry. I pulled on a robe over a matching gown, a set I had bought as consolation for seeing a child off. I slid my feet into house slippers, also a recent indulgence. I would make cocoa. I hobbled down the stairs on arthritic knees made worse by the chemo of years previous.

When I reached the second floor, the floor housing the living room and kitchen, I spotted something surprising, just out of the corner of my eye. I could have sworn it was a woman, tall and blond, large and solid, stepping down the stairs to the guest bedroom, her hair brushed back like mine, her elbow bent as if she were carrying something in her hand, a hot mug of tea or milk. She looked just like me, I mused, for a moment.

I scurried to the landing, there was no one, nor were there signs there has been anyone. But I could swear she was wearing my peignoir set but in a darker color, the other set I ordered, and she wore slippers, like mine. Was she carrying a cup of cocoa?

I summoned my dog to accompany me to the first floor, but she stood on the upper level and watched me as I motioned for her. I relented, going on, making my way down.

I opened the first floor bedroom door quickly, as if to quell any dread or hesitation. But there was nothing. No one. I checked the front porch. It appeared someone had been sitting on my outdoor sofa, though that happens sometimes. People will come and sit there because they find it inviting. I arranged the cushions back to where they were.

I checked the garage. It was open. I had left it open when I went out to do errands earlier that day! Anyone could have easily accessed the house!

Yet if anyone wanted to harm me, they would have done it by now.

I closed the garage door. Maybe whoever it was had appreciated the extra toothbrushes and toothpaste, the towels and soaps I kept in the ground floor bathroom.

That I wasn’t more bothered puzzled me. That I actually was more interested in being of use to someone, more interested in that than in my own safety alarmed me slightly, but actually not that much.

What had been the most painful thing, years earlier when I landed in my empty apartment midlife? What had given me the sense of landing in a painted concrete mausoleum? What had made me feel dead and ineffectual, invisible to the outside world, no more use than a corpse? That sense of my own disconnectedness and uselessness! No one needed me!

And now, someone needed me!

I wondered if she would speak to me or at least write to me if I jotted down some questions. I threw a load of towels in the wash so they would be fresh. I began a loaf of bread.

It was about 1 a.m. I lay down on the sofa. I awoke to the alarm I had set for the rising dough.

The woman was sitting in the chair opposite. She had been watching me doze off, my small dog in the crook of my arm.

My dog began to growl, a sound she rarely made. She wasn’t much of a watch dog. And how had she missed this woman coming into my living room?

“Who are you?” I said. “What do you want with me?”

My earlier thoughts about helping her were displaced by my current alarm at her proximity. She had come into my space when I was vulnerable. What had she planned to do? I had thought she was exactly like me, but on closer inspection, she was much younger, she could have been my daughter. She could hurt me, I thought. She looked physically very strong.

She brought her hand to her mouth, mimicking eating. She wanted the bread I was making.

I had her lie down on the sofa while I put the loaf in the oven. Her hair was fine and long like mine had been at that age. She had no ring on her finger though by the time I was her age I was married and pregnant.

“Where is your family?” I said to her, hovering over the couch like an attendant nurse. I handed her a cup of juice, leftovers of my son’s favorite drink.

She drank but did not answer, only laid down again. When the loaf made a hollow thump under my nail, I took it out of the oven and wrapped it up in a tea towel. I handed it to her, along with the bottle of cranberry juice. She took it and went downstairs but by the time I hobbled down to the ground floor, she was gone, leaving the front door open a crack, the same carelessness I had shown in leaving the garage door open.

Who was she, this young woman who didn’t care to close my door or care what I wanted, who didn’t speak?

I checked the toothbrush in the bathroom. She had used it. I could smell the shampoo and soap, sense the dampness of the room.

She had left wearing my gown and robe, a pair of my slippers. I remembered the story of a friend who had previously been homeless, how he was forced to move from place to place at night so no one was wise to him. Why hadn’t she stayed? Did she not believe I would protect her?

Yet I felt less lonely. Less useless. Less dead. I would leave the door open a crack for her the next night. The morning after, I bought more flour and yeast and oil. I would add cranberries and nuts to some loaves and cheese and herbs to others. Maybe there were other homeless people who wanted my bread, others who could use it to stay full and warm at night. I stocked up on gallons of juice and water.

At the oncologist’s that afternoon, I was told my recent test showed rampant issues.

The cancer had returned.

Very soon, I would die.

sister

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girl, before 1823, public domain

girl, before 1823, public domain, Barbara, flickr

Sister, do you remember when, scared in the old manse in Texas, you and I whirled and whirled through the hallway during a thunderstorm? Do you remember when I left you in the hall so I could go find our mother? I remember what she said to me when I entered her dark room: Where is your sister? Why are you not taking care of her? Why did you leave her alone?

Sister, do you remember when, many years later, you held my hand while I had my hair buzzed off? Do you remember when I was sick, when I had cancer? Do you remember going to my appointments and asking questions when I was weak? Do you remember begging relatives to come to my surgery when everyone seemed to have better things to do? Had I died you would have arranged my funeral, you would have seen me honored.

I wanted to say to our mother then, when I survived: Here is my sister, Mother. She has taken good care of me. She has not left me alone. I will always be in debt to my sister. She loves me. And I love her.

for National Siblings Day, April 10, 2019

wife of the synchromystic

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Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult

Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult, currated by Dana and Greg Newkirk

Linda was new to it –  goblins, Bigfoot, ghosts, witchcraft, Tarot cards. She had married into it. She had met Rob at the seminary where she had served as a secretary and he had been a student.

One day, when they were home and he was studying, they received an email from an old friend who had begun to coin himself a synchromystic: Things were suggesting themselves, said his friend. His friend had received a note from a man describing beings in his yard, beings with large, round eyes, beings similar to a sighting reported fifty years ago at another location but connected to it by an underground cave system.

That night, she baked sugar cookies in the shape of large domed head. She used shiny licourice pieces for eyes. She cut plump three toed feet cookies like the shape of the footprints the writer of the note had seen around his house. When Rob came into the kitchen and saw what she had done, he smashed the cookies with his fists, despite the hot pan. This was serious, he said, and he was going with his friend to check the cave where dark shapes had been seen.

She actually hadn’t been aware she meant it in fun, though maybe she had, she couldn’t be sure. Certainly when he was buried in studying predestination, atonement, salvation, sanctification, she was on more certain ground and she understood him as well, so much like her father and her father’s father. She wasn’t sure what had happened, and she didn’t relish finding herself in a cave with his newfound zeal.

The next night, she did find herself in a cave where the locals said dark beings emerged from an old defunct mindshaft. She was there, in her old hiking boots and a sweater, the air having been cleared with sage and an evoking call to the goblins. What in the world would her father have said? He had died and was lost to her, she acknowledged to herself with a great sadness like a hole opening up in her and swallowing all thoughts. It was the strangeness of this that made her miss him most, this most unexpected turn of her marriage.

They sat at the lip of the cave overlooking a drop down into the trees. And the light was fading and all the familiar sounds of her Kentucky were being parsed for hints of the extraterrestrial, the alien, the spiritual, whatever wanted to speak. It was decided she should participate in the “Spirit Box,” the thought being she was a virgin to the process and would have fewer preconceived notions. She would wear noise canceling headphones attached to a constantly scanning radio, the idea being that spirits use electronic frequencies as a means of communication.

Rob had developed a hardened expression for her since he picked up on the idea she might be making fun of him. He had not smiled, except around his friends. He had rarely touched her, except to help her climb. Would he be pleased she was helping? She was not sure. She was worried of course, and felt a tightening in her stomach. How about what my stomach is communicating to me? She wanted to say to the cave of men but of course dared not.

“It will take a while to get used to this,” instructed Rob’s friend who was holding the earphones. “Listen for a while before letting us know what you hear. If something or someone is trying to make contact there will be a pattern.”

Of course she was somewhat familiar with this, having transcribed many meetings as a secretary, having taking dictation. She appreciated that she was given the opportunity to wait before being expected to report.

The headphones descended, soft and snug around her head. It was cool outside and she had worn her hair down, a light jacket over her sweater, jeans. In a way it was like hiking and camping, no different than when she was in high school with her friends and they scared each other with stories and local legend. But had they really believed anything then? Or was this just an excuse to scream and hold hands and hug and share a time which was fast disappearing before them? Adults doing this voluntarily doing this struck her as odd and slightly pathetic.

Then she heard it, a voice from the Spirit Box that sounded strangely deep and resonant, like her father’s. “Kill,” she thought she heard it say. “Kill him,” it said. Then: “Kill Rob.”

She took the headphones off and trembled. She shook her head. “I can’t,” she said.

“It’s a little disorienting at first,” said Rob’s friend, but just try it one more time. “It would be really helpful. It’s ok if you feel a little bit apprehensive, it’s normal.”

She relented to having the headphones slipped back over her head, having caught a glimpse of Rob’s hard, foreign stare across the cave, illuminated by the lantern. He had never looked at her like he did now, like he might murder her.

There was silence, on the headphones, only static like white noise, then a loud booming voice: “Kill him!” Then more static. Then at last an unmistakable instruction: “Push him out!”

It was her father, warning her!

She stood up, walking over next to Rob at the lip of the cave overlooking the drop. She did not let on. She had the Spirit Box attached to her jeans with a clip and the soft headphones covered her ears.

“Kill him!” commanded the voice. “Kill him before he kills you!”

“Dad?” she said. She saw Rob’s face grow even angrier, his brow furrowing deeply, his jaw set. She was still making fun of them, pretending the spirit of her father was contacting her.

He reached for her but his friend put a hand on his shoulder to stop him and shook his head “No.”

“Kill!” said her father. “Now!”

Rob’s eyes glowed and burned. He wanted her to die.

Without warning she shoved his shoulder and using his surprise to her advantage, pushed. He fell from the mouth of the cave and disappeared, screaming, down, down, his friend, in shock, holding her arm, lest she fall after him, the white headphones glowing around her neck like the primitive necklace of a matriarchal tribe.

bird in the throat

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aimee-vogelsang-106103-unsplash.jpg

photo by Aimee Vogelsang, unsplash

The frozen ones were being filed into the main waiting area of Sister Anne’s Home for the Elderly, some walking, some riding in chairs like long expired royalty, irrelevant, abstracted. It was luau day and leias were draped about residents’ necks some of whom experienced this as a niggling irritation of plastic on flesh, others, oblivious in wool – blankets and cardigans – despite the Florida heat outdoors – felt nothing and waited for food or for relatives to leave and tv programs or afternoon naps to begin. Sister Susan draped their regal and melting stone frames with plastic flower necklaces stabbing them with her brilliant toothy smile, willing them to life if it killed her, her five inch silver cross dangling over where her belly would have held a baby and where Mary held the immaculately conceived baby Jesus.

Greta, frozen despite herself, was not dead yet she wanted to scream though all she suspected that emerged from her throat was a panicked cheeping, the cry of a desperate baby bird. How ineffectual and undignified! And in her younger days, her long, toned legs, swaying to cheers with her girlfriends on cool high school football nights, their skirts moving in unison with their steps, their hips, their impossibly high kicks. How glorious it had been!

And yet, here was Sister Susan approaching her with a bright fuscia flower leia. “You bitch!” she cheeped at Sister Susan when the nun automaton helped straighten her hair after the plastic flowers had caused disorder.

In Greta’s room, far away from the deceptively bright and clean area open to visitors, Sister Susan occasionally neglected Greta’s sheets, taking advantage of Greta’s inability to communicate. When her sheets stank of urine Sister Susan would taunt her: “Little baby! Helpless big grown up baby!”

Stick ’em in the left side, stick ’em in the right, come on mighty Vikings, let’s fight, fight, fight!”

After the games, under the bleachers, Konrad Bengston, the cardamom smell of him, like the woods, overnight summer campouts and fires, bracing green pines closing in and watchful. Konrad’s strength a match for the trees themselves.

There would be Hawaiian pizza for luau day, the sickly sweet smell of canned pineapple and cheap ham, combined with the smells of bleach and buckets of purple industrial cleaner splashed on the floor, swished around with a dirty string mop. The surface effect suggested cleanliness. The reality, microscopically, and in most every sense, was squalor. In a deeper spiritual sense the walls cried hypocrisy, the cries of those who died at the hands of the neglectful, the killers of the barely living, murderers of faded daisies almost dead in a glass.

A stranger had started to visit Greta on these once a month occasions of a Hawaiian fete, a man claiming to be her son, but she knew it was not her son, her Bernhard, her Teutonic knight, assisting her after Jurgen’s death. The strange man had abducted her and moved her to Florida, far away from her beloved Minnesota. He said it was about the  warmer weather, the ease of finding an affordable care facility. Stranger Bernhard, a vaguely familiar person on the surface, with a character made menacing by its strangeness. Imposter Bernhard.

She had begged him, imposter though he was, not to place her at St. Anne’s but he had told here he couldn’t manage work and caring for her. She had broken down crying on the day he dropped her off. She had pulled at him, gripping his arm while the nursing attendants freed him from her deceptively strong hands.

Desperation, fear, has its own strength, she mused later as she remembered pulling Konrad Bengston from the cracking ice with a long pole, and she, laid out like an angel, distributing her weight evenly, stretched towards him. The joy of seeing him horizontal on the surface when he pulled himself out made her cry. And the two of them rolled away from the gaping maw of his near death and ran to her house which was closest. It was a happiness like no other joy short of giving birth to Bernhard, now lost to her.

The imposter sat before her, waiting distractedly for his Hawaiian pizza while he tap tap tapped on his little phone, such an undignified activity for a man of his age. This supposed Bernhard. The real Bernahd had been the child of Greta and Jurgen Hoffman, Jurgen the man she married at the urging of her family, the more fit Konrad having been called away to war.

Greta had no words for the Bernhard she labeled Bluebeard given the sonorous tones of his voice, the blue shadow of his presence, dark and imposing. “What have you done with my son?” she demanded every time he came to visit though what came out was “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!” Helpless immature avian cries.

“Now, now,” he would say, patting her had, his fatuous gaze mocking her.

He might as well have put a wiggling worm in her beak.

The tomato sauce on the pizza had a heavy smell, like salt, like blood. It was the same tomato sauce they used on the spaghetti for the theme Venice Vacation and the meatloaf for Southern Style Summer. Bernhard would never have eaten such things yet there was this madman, shoveling a huge piece of pizza pie into his his eager maw, grunting and nodding as he chewed. Trying to feel jovial about Hawaiian Holiday? Or in actuality feeling jovial? Were his teeth filed to points like her picture book of Bluebeard from her childhood? Was his face blue with a dark tattoo? She shuddered at his thick fingers grasping for his second slice. She couldn’t watch him.

“Eat up, Ma,” he said, smiling, some stray sauce lingering on the corner of his mouth.

“I wouldn’t trust that one,” said Ruth, the ghost of a resident who used to organize pinochle when they lived on the lower floor that housed the more independent residents. Ruth as a ghost was a bit like Ruth as a living person. Greta could hardly tell the difference apart from the skin peeling at unexpected places, the edges of her face, the top of her hands. She had a habit of peeling it away with her nailed hands, as vain in the afterlife.

Ruth sat in the empty chair beside Bluebeard and played with his hair.

“There’s a breeze in here, Ma,” said Bluebeard, unwittingly reacting to Ruth’s phantom fingers. “Here, let’s get you covered up a bit more,” and he reached over to pull her shawl up higher, up to her ears so that the woolen scratchiness felt like a brillo pad  in the close warmth of the room.

“No!” the tiny bird screeched, scrambling to fly loose of its fragile cage, its heart pounding against her delicate frame. He would kill her! He wanted to kill her! Smother her. Then he would take her money. What had the man done with her Bernhard?

In legend, Bluebeard was serial killer Gilles de Rais. Did serial killers spare their mothers? A man who tortured then sat on child victims, laughing as they died could scarce be counted on for an moral scruples whatsoever. Then again Gilles craved young flesh, like the craving one develops for veal once it is savored.

Bluebeard sat down on a highbacked wooden chair across from her, a medieval carved piece likely donated and a mismatch in the room. It sat in the center of everything, dark and imposing among sun washed beachy themed low uphostered pieces. It held the whole of his frame quite comfortably. He propped his feet up on the low, scuffed Queen Anne table, something Bernhard never would have done.

“Maudit!” screamed Ruth into his ear and pushed her peeling hand against the toe of his boot. Accursed. She spoke in her mother’s tongue when alarmed.

Bluebeard shifted and uncrossed his legs, removing his feet from the table, not letting on the unexplained force against his foot. A madman gives nothing away.

The first time he came to see Greta at St. Anne’s, Ruth mockingly genuflected at the doorway, and when he sat, genuflected deeply on her wobbly old phantom knee, the flesh flaking, her eyes cast to the floor. “That’s not your Bernhard,” she said to Greta, at last looking up, grinning, “that’s the man who ate your Bernhard.”

He folded a second piece of Hawaiian pizza and shoved it into his bearded face.

She sometimes prayed Konrad had died in war. She didn’t hear from him when it was over. She prayed this because to die with dignity for one’s country was preferable to dying like this, this wasting away, this humiliation.

And she was ashamed to admit to herself she didn’t think much of Jurgen, her husband. Bluebeard did have some of his features, though in mock exaggeration, his bulbous nose overwhelming the lower half of his face or at least putting up a stiff competition with his full red lips pursing out between his beard and mustache. In Jurgen, such features had been more subdued, refined though otherwise Jurgen made few impressions in his life. Not much of a physical man, he was mild and quiet. She wondered sometimes if he knew she had been secretly in love with Konrad. She had no way of knowing. Maybe Bluebeard was her punishment.

“I can make this bastard go away,” said Ruth, “at least for a time! I’ll scare the shit out of him!”

“Cheep! Cheep cheep cheep!” she said laughing and slapping her knee. What a pair they made, a bird and a ghost!

Had Ruth known her in high school, she would have participated in the dirty cheer her friends chanted in the locker room after the game, all of them passing around cigarettes and flasks, doing up each other’s hair, falling out laughing:  We are the best team all the others suck! Let’s go mighty Vikings rah rah fuck!” 

Before she became a woman with a bird in her throat she had taught Ruth the dirty cheer and Ruth did the cheer moves for her right there in the common room. And Ruth added her own words now on special days like luau day, shaking her imaginary pom poms and bopping Bluebeard on the head with them: Mighty Ruth and Greta all the others suck! Old ladies rock the world, rah, rah, fuck!

the language of flowers

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The Language of Florwers, flickr

The Language of Flowers, or, floral ensembles of thoughts, feelings, and sentiments – Internet Archive Book Images, 1869

She knew she was getting over him when she threw his shriveled dead flowers in the trash. They had been drying in the sun on the bookshelf next to the window. When she had received them she put them in a cream china vase, a wedding gift from long ago. She had received a life and home from someone else back then as a bride and now in her townhome life of temporary lovers on the outskirts of town she received flowers not from a husband, but from a friend who is a man.

She put the flowers in one of her favorite vases and displayed it on the black table in the middle of her living room, taking a picture for him, showing her friends and her sister. She then moved the flowers to the top of the fireplace where it half obscured the tv and she welcomed the intrusion. That was before he came over for the last time.

When things began to fall apart only a week after she received the flowers, this the landmark of their three months together, she moved the flowers out of her line of sight, over on the kitchen counter, though at that time the flowers were still opening and drinking in water. She kept them there because she didn’t know if the man would call again. She couldn’t bear to get rid of them altogether. Maybe there was still hope. She called him. She received no response.

She moved the flowers over to the window, on the bookshelf, an out of the way place. But she couldn’t throw them out, not quite yet. Soon a pizza box was set beside the flowers, a used box which needed to go out with the garbage. Dried flowers drifted to the kitchen floor, a floor which needed to be swept and mopped. There were a lot of things she needed to attend to after the breakup. She tried to reach him again, No response.

She replenished her kitchen with the little money she had left, picking up a basil plant she loved to have on hand, a little indulgence. The  bag clerk at the store had asked her what it was and sniffed it deeply.

At home, the woman put the basil plant next to the vase of drying out flowers, on top of the pizza box, its simple plastic container holding a plant that would last her the summer.

The man’s flowers dried and drifted down. They became ugly.

She watered the basil and put some fresh leaves in a dish to make it more fragrant and flavorful.

Someone else called her and showed her kindness, another man. She felt: What usefulness, drying flowers? There is no call.

She threw out the dried flowers into the plastic bag in the garbage container and shoved them down so their stems broke. How much she had felt for this person. Tomorrow she would clean out the vase. Tomorrow she would put soap into its creamy cavity as well as warm water.

Maybe when she got her house cleaned up and her sink fixed she would make a meal for  the new person. But for now she would let him treat her. She would leave her house behind for a couple of hours. And she would try to forget about this man, whom she loved.

She held the vase and felt its coolness in her palm. Its smoothness was like a good love that should only hold living things. It was a beautiful vase she got for her wedding many years ago. It had always been one of her favorites. It didn’t matter it had served another purpose in a previous life. It was still hers. To do with as she saw fit.

Quote

International Women’s Day

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International women's day

German poster for International Women’s Day, 1914. The poster was banned in the German Empire.

A little less than a week after International Women’s Day, I still would like to participate by re-posting a story of mine about a woman’s abuse by her significant other. This is a critical topic at a time we are recognizing women’s rights.

I think I am going to read this tonight at a local reading. It fits the word requirements. And I also think because of its detailed dialogue and descriptions it will be easy for an audience to follow.

Thank you for following my post, the link is listed below. If this is a repeat for you: I have made improvements. Thank you for your support and for reading.

 

via the pleasures of not stirring

Die, Chanlina

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IMG_20190312_130705_949.jpg

Rob Potter, unsplash

Sometimes when we get together at “Mommy and Me,” we talk about what happened that summer at the beach in that huge house by the ocean. We usually don’t refer to many of the details directly, they are still puzzling, and painful. We just laugh and talk about what a pain it is to potty train our little ones when toilets are known to haunt. “Isn’t it hard enough?” One of us we’ll sort of do a faint little laugh, more from relief that we are acknowledging something difficult than experiencing something that is genuinely funny. At that point, there is usually more grabbing for the wine or extra food, depending upon one’s choice of comfort.

Talk to any one of us individually and you will witness for yourself the fracturing nature of a shared experience, a shared experience of encountering unexpected darkness. You will witness pained expressions and hesitations and the trailing off of answers and explanations of events.

But first, let me start by orienting you to what things were like when we were younger. Do you remember playing a slumber party game called Bloody Mary? You probably played it gathering round the bathroom mirror with a friend, candles lit, spinning and chanting louder and louder Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary! And then looking for a glimpse of the terrifying witch in the mirror. What’s more you could be maimed, have your eyes torn out, appear on the other side with the witch, go insane, die. Dare you summon Mary Worth back from the afterlife? The mirror was her portal.

I don’t know about your slumber parties growing up, but at our slumber parties, we had one person who knew the rituals and the stories about spirits who could be summoned, who passed things along to us and told us what to do. For us, this person was Aideen Campbell. It was Aideen who told us about the witch Mary Worth. We didn’t have youtube and Instagram, we didn’t relay messages and pictures and information that way. We only had word of mouth and the more connected you were, the more you knew. In my group of girlfriends which also included Mandy, Heather, Rachel, Courtney, Julie, and Shannon, Aideen was that source of information.

Besides that, Aideen was different than the rest of us. For example, her mother was busted for shoplifting even though her father was as rich as Croesus. While it appalled my mother, a proper southern church going lady, it made Aideen all the more intriguing. Aideen’s mother had gone to jail! My mother’s friends never did anything by comparison. Their excitement over the least little thing was depressing.

All of us hung on every little thing Aideen said. What’s more, she wore makeup before any of us was allowed to, smoked, got access to booze through her older sister, had boyfriends first, kissed them, did other things too, things we knew we weren’t supposed to do. So when Aideen also showed us, at our hang outs and get togethers, things that were new and unfamiliar, things like Bloody Mary, she had us spellbound. When I told her our youth pastor said “do not turn to the spirits of the dead,” because that’s what it says in the Bible, she laughed, little puffs of cigarette smoke escaping her nose and glossy lips.

“That girl isn’t a Christian,” said my Mom to me once after she found out who all was going to one of our parties.

“She goes to the Catholic Church,” I said, which was true. Aideen said she went with a family in her neighborhood because her mother and father never did and she wanted to go.

“She’s not baptized and confirmed,” said Mama. “That wouldn’t even pass muster for most good protestants.”

This was back when the fashion icon was Madonna, the pop singer, and all of us wore rosaries with our bustiers or tshirts and mini-skirts. Sometimes it didn’t even seem to matter, all the rules of the church. We only relied on each other for the real spiritual information, the real spiritual access and experience.

My mother was forced to give up her principals when she was diagnosed with cancer. Her hold on me loosened, whatever hold she had by the time I was twelve and going into the seventh grade. When I was asked to go to the Campbell’s beach house for the summer, she gave in rather than completely agreed. She knew girls from other good homes were going there too so that gave her some comfort.

When I was packed and ready to go, my mother held my hand and made me promise to be good. “I’ll be praying for you,” she said. “Maybe you can find a church to go to there.” My father hugged me, told me not to worry about Mama, she was sick now from the chemo but she would feel better and starting to heal by the time I was home in the fall. He told me what Mama couldn’t say: Have a good time.

Mr. Tommy the Campbells’ driver picked me up first, then Mandy, Heather, Courtney, Rachel, Shannon, and Julie. I felt closest to Mandy, who went to my youth group at the Presbyterian Church. After picking all of us up in the family van, Aideen told us there was someone new who would be joining us, someone who would begin school with us in the fall.

Her name was Chanlina Chea. Aideen told us that she and her mother fled Cambodia when her father was killed. Chanlina had only been a baby. We didn’t know much about Cambodia, only what our parents happened to mention when they were talking about Vietnam.

Chanlina’s mother was going to drive her to the house and we would meet her there. She and her mother are very close she said so it was a big deal that she would be allowed to come at all. When we started asking questions, Aideen just rolled her eyes and put on her headphones.

When we got to the huge old beach house mostly hidden from the road by trees and dense tall bushes, Esmerelda, Aideen’s childhood cook and nanny, came out to greet us. This, we all knew, would be the extent of our adult supervision. And Mr. Tommy had a gun, we all knew. He was there to protect us, to drive us around and peruse the grounds.

He was a strange man who rarely spoke, but he made us feel safe and we didn’t feel we had to change who we were around Mr. Tommy. Looking back I realize he was a long suffering servant of Aideen’s parents though of course he was not unpaid. His gifts in return, were silence and loyalty.

Esmeralda was her own bird. She was gentle and animated and fawned over us and insisted that we eat what she provided, and always second helpings. She was a kind and sweet woman and I never asked myself at the time whether she had a life of her own outside of our activities.

We brought our things in and Aideen directed us to the basement, a huge lounge space her parents had let her decorate and furnish as she pleased. She had painted the walls purple and on top of that had painted huge magenta flowers with thick twisting vines. There were two long pink velvet sofas with all manner of pillows and our beds were tucked into walls, like little caves, and hidden by sheer curtains tied back with muslin bows. The basement had its own kitchen and bathroom. The only thing Aideen didn’t include that most of us would have was a television set. Instead, she had bookshelves built in.

“I don’t watch television here,” said Aideen and grabbed a book and sat in an egg shaped rattan chair that was suspended from the ceiling. She spun it around with her foot. Chanlina was already in the basement, we had greeted her when we made our descent. She sat in the other egg chair on the opposite side of the shelves. She laughed and spun too, like Aideen.

Someone turned on a jambox, played a cassette – The Cure, Duran Duran, The Motels. Aideen passed out the beers she managed to smuggle away as well as packets of cigarettes. We opened windows high up on the wall facing the ocean and heard the waves crashing against the beach in the black night.

“We’ll go out later,” said Aideen, “when the moon rises.” She liked to turn her head when she smoked and let the smoke out so it rose in slow curls.

We pulled each other up to standing and danced in the candlelight to The Motels’ song about a never-ending summer. None of us said it but we were all watching Chanlina to see how she fit in. Would she dance like we did? Would there be something odd about the way she behaved? Could she laugh and have fun? She seemed to be having a good time and she had a nice way of dancing, like a fluid sea creature. She was more womanly than most of us who sort of bopped around. Aideen picked up a pillow and swatted her. Chanlina laughed and picked up a pillow from the couch and hit her back. Good sign.

We went outside. The moon was a huge yellow disk hanging over the undulating waves. We ran down to the water and splashed each other though no one was swimming. It was hot so we didn’t care we were wet. We walked along the beach, shining our light on sand crabs and the occasional jellyfish. When we got back to the shore in front of the house, there was a fire in the middle of a circle of Adirondack chairs. Mr. Tommy had built it for us and left us a cooler of drinks, along with a table loaded with supplies for s’mores. We loaded up wire coat hangers with marshmallows along with plates of graham crackers and Hershey bars. We grabbed Cokes and took a seat.

“I’ve asked Chanlina to tell us a story,” said Aideen when we settled in and began to toast our marshmallows. “It’s probably the weirdest story I’ve ever heard.”

The fire crackled and the breeze lifted our hair and brushed our cheeks in little puffs. The moon was brighter and higher in the sky and cast an eerie glow on the sand and water.

Chanlina began: “This is a story about a girl who haunts school children in Japan. Have you heard of it?”

We shook our heads no, all except Aideen.

“A boy that works with me and my mother in the restaurant, he told it to me.”

The waves came up gently on the beach, crashing on the shore in tiny claps. Chanlina’s black hair and dark skin set her apart from us. Her accent leant her an air of authority.

“If you think you are ok, you are probably wrong,” she said. I wasn’t really sure what she meant by this. Was this generally the way someone in Cambodia started a ghost story? Or was she just saying something from her own personal experience?

“When I was a baby,” she continued, “my father was killed for wearing glasses,” she said.

We remained silent, and still, not quite knowing what to say.

“The government in charge thought he was an intellectual. They thought he would question them and cause problems. Many people were put to death for wearing glasses.”

Of course, we had never heard of such an absurd, random way to die.

“Now my mother and I live here. We live alone.”

Aideen lit up a cigarette from a pack she kept in pocket, punctuating the silence with the little “clink” of her lighter.

“The spirit ghost of Japan is named Hanako-san. Her story shows anything can happen to anyone.”

An old couple walked up not far from our circle and nodded and waved. They were wearing tennis shoes and knee high athletic socks and floppy hats. They asked us how we were and we told them fine, thank you, like we had been taught.

When they passed, Chanlina continued. “Hanako-san died when she was hiding in a toilet stall at her school. She was playing hide and seek with her friends. Americans dropped bombs on her city. It was World War II. Everyone in her city was killed.”

For some reason, I thought of the hair floating down on my mother’s shoulders after a few weeks of chemotherapy. I always tried not to think about what would happen if my father’s chipper predictions didn’t come true and instead my mother died.

“Remember Ms. Bray showing us a film of the mushroom cloud?” said Aideen. Ms. Bray had been our history teacher. “Remember when she told us that the ones who were vaporized had their organs boiled? Their bones turned to charcoal.”

Mandy and Heather put their marshmallows down on the ground. The rest of us were holding onto our coat hangers awkwardly, the marshmallows forgotten. Only Courtney was loading her graham crackers up with melted marshmallows and chocolate.

“To this day, the spirit of Hanako-san haunts the hallways of schools in Japan,” Chanlina said. “but especially the bathroom where she died.”

“I told Chanlina we’re going to summon her at the Devil’s School,” said Aideen. Aideen was the only one who wasn’t making s’mores. She was always on a diet even though she just turned thirteen and didn’t need to be on a diet. She was smoking again, and smoke trickled through her nose.

“The Devil’s School?” said Mandy. She was often intent on keeping Aideen in check or at least asking the necessary questions. No doubt, she would write about this later tonight in her journal.

“Annie Lytle Elementary,” said Aideen, practically smiling, “Or, as it was known back in the day, school number 4.”

How strange to have schools known simply by numbers, when all of them now are given names. I thought of other times when people were given numbers instead of being spoken to their names, like in the Holocaust when each person in the camps had a number emblazoned on their arms.

“What’s so special about it?” said Heather, trying to sound cool, taking a cigarette from Aideen and pretending she knew what to do with it. Her ratted out short red bob and kohl eyes made her look like a slightly more punk Mollie Ringwald.

“I know this one,” said Courtney, having stuffed a large portion of a s’more sandwhich in her mouth. She was trying to talk but her words were coming out funny and we laughed. When she had swigged down some coke, she said “The principal was a cannibal and ate kids.”

“Well, you would know about eating, now wouldn’t you?” said Julie. We fell out laughing.

“Is this going to be really scary?” said Shannon nervously. She picked up a piece of her hair. She always twirled her hair when she was nervous or thinking about something, like an essay on a test. “Maybe I’ll stay here tomorrow.”

“No way, Shannon.” said Aideen.

“I’ve heard you can hear kids screaming,” said Courtney. “And there’s a tree growing up through the auditorium floor where the roof was burned away by a fire.”

Aideen picked up a coat hanger and slid a couple of marshmallows on the end. She told me once she liked to burn them because that took away some of the calories. I had no idea if it was true, but she was always skinny, so there was the answer I guess. “Tell us how we summon Hanako-san, Chanlina,” she said.

“Well, we have to go to the girl’s bathroom,” said Chanlina, “to the third stall. Then, someone has to knock three times on the door like this,” and Chanlina wrapped on the armrest of her Adirondack chair three times. “Then you sing this tune…” and Chanlina sang a song to the tune of a nursery rhyme: “Hanako-san, Hanako-san, would you like to play today?”

Chanlina was quiet for a bit, letting us think about this.

“What happens next?” said Rachel. She was a little more matter of fact about things, not easily caught up in emotion.

“If you see Hanako-san, who wears a red skirt, white blouse, and her hair tied back, she will grab you with her black fingers and drag you down through the toilet and into hell.”

We were quiet and still for a moment. Even Courtney stopped at this, hesitating mid re-load of a marshmallow onto her coat hanger.

“Oh yeah, right!” Julie said, breaking the silence, laughing. She never believed anything about bloody Mary or anything. In fact, she had said she hoped to see Mary in the mirror one day. She’d like to kiss her shriveled up witch lips.

Shannon was laughing too but quieter, nervously, the clump of hair in her fingers going at a furious pace twirling around and around.

“I don’t believe in hell,” said Rachel. “I think we all just disintegrate into the ground. We don’t go anywhere.”

“But what about heaven?” I said. I couldn’t think like this. What would that mean for Mom?

“Heaven neither,” said Rachel. “Nope.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Aideen. “We’re all going to meet Hanako-san third stall bathroom toilet, tomorrow, Devil’s School.” And she grinned at us, pulling a burned marshmallow from her hanger and putting it in her mouth and licking her fingers.

“Whatever,” said Rachel, pushing herself up from her chair. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Oh me too!” said Julie, always looking for the slightest opportunity for mutiny as long as fun was involved.

Shannon stood as well, probably wanting to get away from the conversation around the fire. And she also probably knew there would be light, simple chatter between Rachel and Julie, nothing too challenging, though Julie could be a bit harsh.

“Enjoy,” said Aideen. “We’ll be praying for your souls,” and she laughed.

The next day, Aideen made good on her promise and had Mr. Tommy drop us at the abandoned school. It was beside a highway overpass so that the passing cars and trucks made loud swooshing noises. It was encompassed by a chain link fence and had the appearance of a sad, old person, dripping with dead vines, the few hollow windows not boarded looking like eyes and the entry a gigantic black maw. The front was graced by huge white columns whose tops were weathered and grey. The old brick of the walls was blackened in places, red still in others, in some places nearer the earth painted with graffiti, some pornographic.

An old man sat on a crumbling step. He was thin and shriveled and wore a baseball cap and long pants and long sleeves though it was ninety degrees. “Death tryna’ come out of this here place,” he said, wagging a finger at Aideen. How would he have known she was the ringleader? “But death, he ain’t never getting’ out. That’s ‘cause death, he locked up in there.”

“We’re going to summon a spirit,” said Aideen.

The old man just looked at us as if we were barely visible to him. “You ladies, I’m Alfred, but I can’t be helpin’ you none.”

“I’m not sure I want to go in,” said Shannon, predictably. I didn’t want to either, truth be told, but I wasn’t going to say anything. I could always count on Shannon to say exactly what she was feeling.

“Here, hold my hand,” said Mandy. And Mandy grabbed her hand but waited for someone else to take the lead.

Aideen and Chanlina went first, walking past the old man on the steps, followed by Julie and Heather and Courtney, Mandy and Shannon, then me and Rachel.
Our feet fell on a disintegrating wood floor once we were past the peeling threshold. It was dark in the entry even though it was bright outside. We turned on the flashlights we brought from the house.

“This way,” said Aideen and we crossed through a hallway where the sun shown in through huge gaping spaces where windows once were. Tendrils of vines pushed in the openings like fingers. Plaster had fallen away from the walls, exposing brick underneath. Trash and debris lay at the bottom of the walls and in the corners. And on all the walls were scribbled layer upon layer of graffiti, up to the ceiling in some spots.

“The whole building feels like it’s crying,” I said.

“It’s practically shouting,” said Julie.

“It looks like homeless people have been here,” Mandy said. There were piles of tins and broken bottles.

At the end of the hallway was a concrete stairwell that looped back on itself. “The bathroom’s up here,” said Aideen and began to climb.

“Wait!” said Courtney. “I think I hear screams! Shh!” and she put a finger to her lips. We stood still. Nothing. Then she began to laugh. “Just kidding!” she said.

But Shannon wasn’t so sure. “Shouldn’t we call Mr. Tommy on the walkie talkie?” she said.

“Shannon!” scolded Aideen.

When we got to the top of the stairs, Aideen disappeared into a pink door frame, though the paint had worn off in places. The girls’ bathroom. Leaves had fallen in through the smashed windows and filled the sinks and floor. The once white walls were gray with mildew and in places the plaster had come off, revealing the brick beneath. The stalls teetered on their hinges and a couple of stalls didn’t have doors. We stood in a little entry area, all eight of us packed in and not wanting to go into the space between the line of sinks facing the toilet stalls.

“I don’t even think a ghost would want to hang out here,” said Courtney.

“Spirits are everywhere,” said Chanlina. “But they won’t speak unless we speak to them.”

“Rachel,” said Aideen, “Since you don’t believe in all of this, why don’t you call on Hanako-san?”

“This is so stupid, but ok,” she said, shuffling through the leaves. Wind blew through the palms outside the window and we could hear the clacking of the long fronds and also the mournful sounds of cars whooshing past on the highway.

“Don’t forget,” said Aideen, “third stall.”

Rachel turned to us and put a flashlight under her face, rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue. We all laughed of course, though a bit quieter than when we laughed at Courtney’s prank on the stairs. Well, everyone laughed except Shannon who was by now frozen. Mandy was quiet too, probably out of respect for Shannon.

“You have to turn out your light,” said Aideen.

She turned her light off and Aideen motioned us to turn our lights off.

Sunlight filtered through the broken panes of the window.

Slowly Rachel knocked on the stall door. Knock, knock, knock. Then she sang: “Hanako-san, Hanako-san, would you like to play today?”

We all stood there for what felt like an hour but it was probably a few seconds. No sound, no slowly creaking stall door, no ghoul in a red skirt. Rachel did not get dragged down into the toilet and to hell. Rachel shrugged her shoulders and shuffled back through the leaves.

Then there was a loud pop. We screamed. The door from the third floor stall opened and smashed into the sink, breaking the porcelain.

Shannon wailed and shook. Mandy put her arms around her. The rest of us silently quaked in fear, huddled together tightly.

“Should we get Mr. Tommy” I said, my teeth chattering with the words.

“No fucking way, Lisa” Aideen lashed out but I felt something desperate in her words.

We waited again.

Nothing.

“This place is falling to pieces,” said Julie, breaking the silence. “What a shithole.”

Heather chuckled.

“Yeah, and not a thing to worry about,” said Rachel even though she didn’t sound as confident as before. She broke away from the huddle to stand closer to the door frame where she placed a foot on the tile wall and stretched her leg, affecting nonchalance.

Our exit from School Number Four was more somber than our entry had been, though we were mostly relieved the ordeal was finished and there was probably nothing to worry about.

Still, something had happened.

“Do you think that door was bound to fall off like that?” said Courtney, “Or do you think….” She didn’t finish her thought.

“I was actually hoping to meet her,” said Heather. “Personally, I think the door crashing scared her.”

No one laughed, not even Rachel and Julie.

“Well, thanks for the memories, Devil School,” said Aideen, spreading her arms out as if she was making a speech. She began to sing: “We love you Hanako-san, oh yes we do. We love you Hanako-san, and we’ll be true. When you’re not with us, we’re blue. Oh Hanako-san, we love you.” And her song reverberated off the disintegrated, graffiti walls, a faint echo returning to us.

At the bright threshold, the old man in the baseball cap sat on the stairs. “I done told you now, chillrun. You done seen death. I can tell. You scairt!”

We let his chiding follow us out past the chain fence where Mr. Tommy waited for us in the van. None of us spoke then or later that night as we quietly put on our pajamas and crawled up into our beds so strangely nestled into the wall.

In the dead of night when the only sound was the surf lapping up on the shore in little claps, there was the loud crash of the bathroom door against the wall. A dark figure, Chanlina, stumbled out and stood in the middle of the room weeping.

“Chanlina, what is it?” said Mandy, emerging from her bed, trying to put her arms around her to comfort her. But she jerked away.

“I want to go home!” Chanlina screamed. “Take me home! Mr. Tommy take me home!”

No one could figure out what had happened, only that something had happened in the bathroom. We all asked her questions and tried to get her to calm down but she kept getting more frantic.

Aideen went upstairs to wake Esmerelda and Mr. Tommy. We fetched Chanlina and stood in the kitchen and told our caretakers what had happened that day, about the story Chanlina had told us and what we had done at the Devil’s School.

Chanlina sat at the table, inconsolable. Esmerelda brought her milk and buttered bread, but she would have none of it.

Chanlina went home to her mother.

As the days and weeks past, the beauty of the beach and monotony of the waves took away the strangeness of our summer’s beginning, like a water’s current softening a sharp rock. Although I felt guilty for putting Chanlina out of my mind, it wasn’t long before the eight of us were back to the way we used to be before a stranger was in our midst. And since we left off pursuing ghosts, the last time we would ever do this, I thought more about my mom and actually felt compelled to read from the little Bible she gave me and say a prayer for her. According to Dad, she was doing better.

When we got home in the fall, we received word: Chanlina was dead. She had fallen into a coma and doctors could not find the reason.

One night, she just slipped away.

First published in Demonic Household. Under the title: Hanako san of the Toilet.

Eastertide on Old Cheney

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Raped house by Florian L., flickr

At Eastertide when the moon sets over the lake of Old Cheney Highway the Easter bunnies walk out of the bougainvillea on their hind legs to join the risen ones, who, ancient and young, dance noiselessly, gape in windows, eat candies, and murder the complacent. The undead hoard: former humans and creatures, witches, natives who were infected by white men, criminals, slaves, children who worked the celery fields, babies murdered by their mothers, drug addicts, the mentally ill, the homeless, death row inmates electrified or killed by lethal injection at the Florida State Prison. Many had grown up with songs of Easter, the trappings of wealth and elaborate parties and champagne. Some had not been as privileged and had grown up in meaner states. None had been missed or glorified or given their due. No, quite the opposite. They pop open plastic eggs with gummy fingers and drop chocolate candies into their maws and tear the heads off of candy bunnies and chickens. Nom nom nom they say, chewing. Nom nom nom……If a concerned homeowner comes out to protect his property, they make short work of him too. Nom nom nom…..blood mingling with chocolate dripping down chins. Most people know on Eastertide to stay indoors at night on Old Cheney Highway. And the alligators are there to help if a project seems too big, storing flesh under the banks of the lake until it rots. Nom nom nom…Don’t be a hero on Old Cheney the evenings at Eastertide. Nom nom nom……nom nom nom…..Stay inside and eat your candy Easter morning.

Dirty Bird

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Sorrowful Tree’s Soul by Natalia Drepina, Deviant Art

Now Katinka was the most efficient housewife in the village. Before the sun had risen overhead, she had finished the laundering and had set the bread out to rise. Her kitchen and rooms sparkled, and the hearth cracked with a bright well fed fire. It was her habit to air her home in the spring as she worked. One day, in flew a brown striped bird with a pink beak and a white breast. The tiny lark perched upon the back of a dining chair.

He then said: “You will have to do something about that husband of yours, Stefan, surely is cheating on you with the great and beautiful Georgeta, and everyone knows it. They talk of her beauty and her youth and how tasty she must be and how your husband is enjoying the fruits of two trees.”

“He is not, you naughty bird!” said Katinka, grabbing a broom and chasing the bird around her little wooden house.

But the bird escaped her broom; he perched himself out and landed long enough to chirp about the various sexual feats of Katinka’s beloved.

When she finally managed to oust him, she sat on her chair beside the hearth and cried. She cried so much that she made a salty soup with her tears, which she then put in the garden for the deer.

That night, in their marital bed, Katinka asked her husband, “Have I ever given you cause to be unfaithful?”

“No, of course not, my love,” Stefan assured her. “There is none more beautiful in all of the world to me. You are the only one of my heart, now and forever. You should not trouble yourself with such things.”

The next day, Katinka was hanging out fresh laundry. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a brown striped bird bounding from branch to branch. Finally, it landed in her basket.

“I hope those wet clothes soak you so that you are damp and miserable,” said Katinka.

The bird only cocked its head to one side as it looked at her.

“Do you not remember that you were the bearer of evil news regarding my husband?” she said. “It was a falsehood. Were I not a kind woman, I would crush you and bake you into a pie.”

“At this very minute,” said the bird, “the king has entered the palace, the rowing has commenced across the moat, the snake is crawling its way to its hiding home.”

“That’s it!” cried. She threw a blanket over the basket, trying to catch the nasty animal, but it spirited away to the forest.

This encounter left her breathless and visions of what the animal was alluding to drummed through her head. How could it be possible? She believed her husband in everything he said. She was a good wife to him and had never even burned a piece of toast. And she was still one of the most beautiful women of the village, no small thing for a woman of her age, only a year younger than Stefan himself.

She made him ciorba that night for dinner, his favorite. She took extra care with the ingredients, adding the kefir that brings the tartness to the dish and whets the appetite. She wore a frock that complimented her figure and brought out the rosiness of her complexion. She brushed her hair a hundred times and wore her best combs. When she served Stefan the ciorba, she took care to bend so that he saw the beauty of her bosom and would catch the sweet scent of her perfume.

“You are beautiful tonight, my queen, and you have prepared my favorite meal for me. Whatever is the occasion?”

Katinka only smiled and sliced a generous piece of lipie for his plate. She watched him consume his dinner and then he took her to bed. They were happy as a man and wife and she could not be more satisfied that all was as perfect as the day they wed. “Nasty old bird,” she thought. “Tomorrow he will be bird pie, bird stew, bird bread. What is the meaning of all of his chatter?”

The next day she had to go to market. She was out of milk and butter and flour and she wanted to buy a string for his little bird neck. She would catch him and feed him to her husband who would be none the wiser. That would teach him.

On passing through the market she chanced upon the lovely Georgeta who was buying a wheel of cheese. She had the chance to observe the lass who seemed sweet and innocent enough, not at all the picture of debauchery painted by the filthy bird. It was just birds like this, thought Katinka, who created so much misery in the world. How many tears have I cried over his lies? I tell you, one teaspoonful is too much.

She built the bird a snare and to lure him, a mound of seeds. The next day, she found him in her trap, proving he can only be the bird brain she thought him to be.

When she pointed this out, he said, “But I have done nothing against my nature, Katinka. I have sung what is in my heart to sing. I have eaten the seed that my stomach craves. Mark my words: By next moon, you will be out in the cold and a new bird will fluff her feathers in your nest.”

And with that, Katinka wrung his little neck and put him into a pie and baked him in the oven, so displeased was she with the little thing. “I just hope the taste is not as bad as his words,” she thought. But the taste was as succulent a pie as she had ever made and her husband praised her and stuffed his face. He was passionate in bed with her that night, more passionate than he had ever been and she was pleased as a wife and could not help but smile at the memory of it the next day.

She found she missed the creature, however, oddly enough, missed the way his accusatory remarks had stirred her. Her life felt flat, somehow, plain. When her husband came home she was as dull as a worn pan. “What has happened to you?” he said and for many days thereafter he inquired after her missing beauty, charms, youthful demeanor. “Where is my fair bride?” he said one day and it struck her that he saw only the surface for he did not ask: “How is the heart of my beloved?”

And so doubt struck her for the first time since Stefan had declared himself her faithful husband. The bird had sung one note which now reverberated louder in her mind since taking the little creature’s life for their dinner. Stefan seemed to sing several notes which clashed: One a denial of his trysts, another his claim of an exclusive love for her, and yet a third his concern with appearances only and not the depths of her heart. This made it impossible for her to see him with a singular heart. What had happened to her dear, loving husband?

That night she collected tears silently by the bowlful and put them in the garden and the bowls outnumbered the deer necessary to take away her pain.

First published in One Thousand and One Stories

Birthday Post: Mary Wollstonecraft at the Kitty Cat

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the prostitute by Joana Coccarelli, flickr

the prostitute by Joana Coccarelli, flickr

It’s my birthday! I am 51, one year over the half century mark, and I’m not quite sure how I survived, but here I am and thank you for joining me.

There are some pieces I’ve written in my life that have gotten me into trouble with my conservative Christian subculture. I was born into this subculture and I married into it, though now I find myself on its fringes, and am no longer attached to it through matrimonial ties. That being said, the deeper values I’ve tried to convey in my fiction are those of the human spirit, those of faith, hope, and love.

I channeled Flannery O’ Connor’s Wise Blood for the general feel of some of this. She is my hero though I don’t think she would have any truck with a piece involving the time travel of an 18th century feminist to a whore house in current day Nevada. She had a great deal to say about the nature of fiction in her brilliant Mystery and Manners. She brought her Catholic faith to bear in the development of her esthetic and her argument for the use of the world we apprehend through our senses, the world we engage with every day.

I got the idea for the setting from the HBO special called Cathouse. Of all the places Christ himself would have been, it would have been among people who sell themselves or who are sold. Barring that, I placed Mary Wollstonecraft here, authoress of Vindication of the Rights of Women. She herself was a fairly liberal person in her time and I was happy to see her getting along so well with the ladies of the Kitty Cat once they sat down to tea. The end notes refer to sections I lifted from Vindication so that Mary and her new friends could have a chat about issues that concern them.

This piece was first published in Serving House Journal. I feel I finally hit on how to publish this when I found a place that was engaged with the discussion of ideas. My work is fantastical, not necessarily the work of “real life” even in its less time travely bits. One editor at a journal who rejected this said the following: “I doubt you’ve even gone to a whore house. You don’t know anything about it.” Ha. Ok. But my work is fantastical and still a good world in and of itself, one I have created whole cloth. I am glad this found a home.

The gorgeous collage is one I found on flickr and now wish I could put on my wall. What lush colors. Celebratory. Exactly how I want my work to feel. Enjoy.

Mary Wollstonecraft at the Kitty Cat

Mary Wollstonecraft and her thoughts about equality had little to do with Peggy Shams, the madam of Kitty Cat Ranch, the provider of what her customers affectionately called tenderloin, nice gams, a fresh piece of meat. Peggy had never heard of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a late eighteenth century document setting forth a cogent argument for the education and humane treatment of women.

Though Peggy had been an ardent student of history as a girl, she had ironically and unfortunately missed the reading and study of this very piece of literature. And yet, when Mary introduced herself at the doorway of Peggy Sham’s empire, requesting tea, Peggy thought: “This is a strange one, but who am I to turn her away? What right do I have to exclude someone based on the century one comes from, the clothing one dons, the way one talks?”

Peggy had no idea that this woman would have torn her whorehouse to pieces with a few deft strokes of her pen. She was only all too anxious for a closer examination of the convincing virginal getup, the elaborate folds of the dress lifting in the Nevada breeze. The woman’s ladylike composure against the burnished yellow haze of the desert and the lilt and play of dirt devils was exquisite, breathtaking in its unexpected juxtaposition.

“Please, yes, do, come in,” said Peggy, squeezing her own hands together as if to wring from her body knowledge of proper etiquette. “We haven’t started our tea hour yet, but do have a seat and I’ll call the girls out.”

The woman drifted into the room and seated herself upon the Victorian fainting couch Peggy had just purchased. This, thought Peggy, was a fortuitous sign. At the very instant she, Peggy Shams, madam of Kitty Cat Ranch, was trying to bring decency to the flesh trade and thus ensnare a wider range of customers, a real lady, a class act, was sitting on her sofa, a diamond offered up to her on velvet.

“In tea, my dear,” she heard herself saying, “What is your pleasure?”

“Oh, most certainly Earl Gray,” replied the woman as she removed her gloves.

Wasn’t she a specimen, thought Peggy excitedly as she ransacked her brain, trying to remember what her last name was exactly. Mary Woollycroft, something like that, something Mayflowery, very Plymouth Rocky, starchy pilgrim.

“Kitty Cat Ranch is a fascinating moniker for a tea room,” said the woman. “Though feline animals are indeed often associated with women, it is good, I believe, to keep the tea room free of unaccompanied male intruders, as their presence can disrupt intelligent, enlightened conversation among female companions.”

“Er, yes,” said Peggy. She would have to be careful with this one. She sensed, oddly enough, she was only there for the tea. “This intelligent and enlightened conversation you’re talking about – I have always thought that the girls here could learn from someone like yourself, you know, a real lady who is also well spoken.”

“Oh, you are an educational establishment as well as a tea room? What a fine idea!”

“Well, on Wednesday afternoons, we have tea, girls only,” said Peggy, pulling out the electric pot she would use to warm the water. “The rest of the time we educate, especially the ones with no experience. This pertains mostly to the young men. The girls themselves are usually quite knowledgeable.”

“I am glad to hear of your educated women,” said Mary. “I cannot say enough for the acquisition of knowledge for the improvement of the status and character of our sex.”

“Do you mind, ever so much, if I took a look at your frock?” said Peggy, extending her dimpled hand and pulling her guest up to a standing position. This was a vision in white, this angel adorned in gossamer folds of fabric which flowed out from a satin empire waist – the waist, so concealing, yet so feminine – the folds so airy they formed a meringue around the sweet arms and shoulders and the skirt as long and drifty as a bride’s.

The purple carpet of the Kitty Cat has never been caressed by anything so pure. This was a sign that all of her business plans and strategies were accurate, that America was ready for a new kind of whore, a new kind of fantasy. “Virgin in the parlor, whore in the bedroom,” she blurted out as if an eruption had occurred in her brain.

“What?” said Mary, looking alarmed, taking a step back from her hostess.
Peggy placed her hand over her mouth as if to restrain a mild attack of mid-afternoon reflux.

“Oh excuse me please! It must be my tummy,” she said.

Mary retired to her place on the couch while Peggy clomped across the parlor to a door painted purple. “I will summon the girls.”

The office was a room walled off from the parlor by painted particle board with a cracked door and a pass-through window where customers paid for services rendered. Peggy pressed a worn black button which activated a shrill bell and then she returned to the parlor. She could hear the tread of the girls in their platform pumps, those gargantuan elevated shoes whose effect was to slow the girls down, to make movement and freedom impossible, to give the body the appearance of length, to signify the identity and class of the wearer.

“No more!” said Madam Peggy. She managed to pull off the exclamatory remark as a cough.

There must be some other way, she thought to herself, some other seductive yet more virtuous footwear that would thrill the hearts of men without solely reminding them of corruption. The kinds of people who expected her girls to wear this gear were the kind she didn’t want to deal with anymore. She pictured all those sleazebags: beefy gods with woefully outdated mullets, drunken pond scum with money to burn, virgin dorks, sad, horny couples. “Phew” she said, as if coughing out these bodies from her very own mouth.

“Would you care for a piece of licorice?” said Mary from the parlor. “It seems you have a case of mild dyspepsia and I find the confection to be of utilitarian value in addressing this bothersome ailment.”

“Oh, no thank you. I must ready the parlor for our repast.” Peggy thanked Jesus for the movies her mother used to make her watch, movies based on classic books by Henry James, Jane Austen, Marcel Proust. That’s how she knew about a “repast,” though she wished she could look it up real quick, to see if she had used the word properly.

From her post at the tea table, Peggy observed Mary’s face as the scantily clad girls filed in. They wore flowered hats, fishnet stockings, silk corsets and garters, patent platform stilettos, push up bras and boas. The woman didn’t blink. When the girls had all seated themselves, Mary commenced speaking.

“I regret I may be sorrowful company for your merry gathering,” said Mary. “I confess I am downcast over inequalities between men and women, inequalities I wrote about over two hundred years ago. I see the licentious dressing which the sensualists are bribing you to wear for their own pleasures. I have witnessed how, in times past, such attention to sensual pleasure disables the development of the nobler sensibilities and inhibits the enhancement of the powers to reason.”(1)

The girls stared at the strange little woman from under the plastic flowered brims of their bonnets.

“You know, Ms. Woollycroft,” said Peggy, “I have often thought to myself – haven’t I girls? – that we could learn to be a little more modest, like Mary is suggesting here, and maybe read some more on our off hours, you know, get educated.”

She handed a cup of Earl Grey to Mary and plopped in three lumps of sugar, an uncharacteristically generous serving, and a dollop of full cream.

Then she scrambled to her office and wrote, on a piece of paper: “Finishing school; purification of footwear; virgin whore – theme, incorporation of?” The girls lined up at the tea cart to fill their cups. Peggy scrambled back out to the parlor and snatched away the sugar and cream.

From her office where she was stowing away the fattening items in a mini-fridge, she heard one of the girls, nicknamed Army Amy, speaking to Mary Woollycroft. “You need one of these newfangled things I ordered from TV, Ms. Mary.” Army Amy was their oldest “girl.” She was a veteran of the Persian Gulf War. She had been a nurse and she was pretty in a tanned, toned, bottle-blond type of way. “I got a new contraption that will give you orgasms like you wouldn’t believe,” said the Army nurse “It will sure take away those blues we’re talking about. I had four orgasms – four, count them – before coming to work today.” The girls who were listening to this clapped and laughed.

Peggy hightailed it out of the office. Many of the girls were in various states of sloppiness, having thrown off the refined postures of “high tea day.” They slouched, their legs were spread. A couple of them who were bending to laugh were gathering their breasts into their bras. “Ladies!” said Peggy, her fury manifesting itself in the hardness of her eyes.

There was a silence, and then Mary, who sat in the center of the room, started to speak as if addressing a room of women gathered for a formal lecture on some topic.

“I should like to steer clear of an error in talking to all of you, an error which many respectable writers and speakers have fallen into. That is, that of addressing women as ‘ladies.’ I would prefer instead to address you as ‘women’ in order to avoid portraying us all as the frivolous sex, to be ridiculed or pitied by the men who endeavor by satire or instruction to improve us. (2) A gentleman drinking spirits at a taproom in town directed me to your establishment as a place to have tea today, but now I see I have been led here by Providence for some higher purpose. If this purpose is not achieved in the course of one afternoon, and something tells me it will not be, I will return until all have all been enlightened as to the cause of our discontent as women and of our failure to improve our status.”

“I mean no frivolity in my use of the term ‘ladies,’ Ms. Woollycroft. I mean no insult,” said Peggy. “I was thinking of gracious women who take tea and mind their manners.”

“Manners and morals are so nearly allied,” said Mary, “that they have often been confounded; but, though the former should only be the natural reflection of the latter, yet, when various causes have produced factitious and corrupt manners, which are very early caught, morality becomes an empty name.”(3)
“I get it,” said a long, lean blond stretched out across a faux leopard skin chaise lounge. “The manners you don’t like are the ones we fake at these fucking tea parties.”

Mary raised her brows at this, fixing a steady gaze on Peggy, as if some sort of explanation or apology would be forthcoming.

The girls all doubled over in raucous joy. They’ve never had someone to ally with them against Madam Peggy, except Kansas, the long, lean blond who just attached the f-word to this girls-only, cocaine and alcohol free social event with their frumpy overseer, squashy as a dumpling. The only reason Kansas got away with anything is that she made the most money for the Ranch. She cost $1500 an hour and up while the others’ rates hovered somewhere around one thousand.

Madam purpled. She could not let the girls see how this antique broad’s trump had infuriated her.

“It is acknowledged that the female sex spends many of the first years acquiring accomplishments,” said Mary. At some point, thought Peggy, it would be time for all of them to get their asses back to work. “Meanwhile,” said Mary in a sonorous, oblivious tone which crawled around on the sensitive patches of Peggy’s brain, “strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty and to the only way women can rise in the world – by marriage. And this desire makes mere animals of them, when they marry, they act as such children may be expected to act: they dress, they paint, and nickname God’s creatures. Surely these weak beings are only fit for the seraglio!”(4)

“Goddamn, I knew I was in the right place!” said Kansas. The girls fell out again. A spring was coming unwound in them and a couple of them bounced on the couch and a few had to rise to stretch out from laughing cramps. Army Amy blew tea through her nose.

“This is not a Turkish seraglio!” said Peggy, pounding a fist on the back of a storage bench where they kept the chains, in the off chance a man wanted to be enslaved. “I offer health care to you girls! I listen to your problems! I treat you like a mother would her very own children!”

“If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism,” said Mary, “their mother must be a patriot and a lover of mankind.5 Such language as I have heard today from these women does not reflect even a respect for self. I blame this on poor instruction.”

“I do love mankind,” said Peggy. “And I am a patriot, to the last!”

“Furthermore,” said Mary. “Women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.”(6)

“Our former manager, Rusty Felton,” said Kansas, “we were all friends with him. Me especially.”

“Our tea is running overtime today.” said Peggy, glaring at the girls and avoiding eye contact with Kansas. This had not gone quite like she had expected, although she was still undecided about what had happened. She felt uncomfortable, unsettled, and reached for a little container of nitroglycerin spray she kept in her pocket to ward off oncoming angina. She didn’t know if she had heart trouble, really, or if it was anxiety. She covered both with an amply supplied medicine cabinet.

Madam clomped back to the office and pressed the bell, signaling the girls it was time to go back to work. Customers would be arriving soon and the girls were to go to their rooms to ready themselves. Peggy sat at her desk, staring at the notes she had scribbled earlier. She craved something sugary.

Before the nighttime desk clerks arrived, she would hide herself beside the filing cabinet and eat a candy bar, catching the nuts in her skirt, cramming bits of chocolate into her mouth with her nails. She heard the tread of the girls’ heavy footsteps. She heard the creak of the fainting couch as Mary rose to leave.

Peggy rushed to see her guest out, not quite sure why she was so anxious to see her again, to reassure herself of the continuance of their relationship. “Are you going to come again sometime, Ms. Woollycroft?”

Mary nodded, her cool blue eyes appraising her but not unfriendly and she turned and stepped out into the desert of Nevada, reddened by the setting sun.
In the darkness of her room that night, Peggy plopped down on a squeaky cot she inherited from her grandmother. She felt her body melt into the thin mattress and drift as she heard her granny’s speeches in her head.

“You dress like a whore!” she had said when she was alive, when she, Peggy, was young and played poker at her Daddy’s bar where she scammed men out of their money. “You look like a hooker! Go get that willow branch, go get me that switch. I won’t rest until I’ve applied it to your bottom. I won’t rest until I’ve raised the guilt in you like a welt. I made mistakes with your Mama, but I won’t make them with you!”

On Sunday mornings, the old woman dragged her to church to have Satan taken out. When Peggy prayed out loud that Satan would come out all by himself so she didn’t have to go, her grandmother ordered her not to blaspheme: “Not on my time, you don’t. Not on my watch!” Her granny saw something deep in her, something dark and inextricably wound around her heart, a blackness like a tumor.

When the old woman died, it was like all the life and starch were taken out of Peggy. She dropped out of high school and spent the rest of her senior year lying on her mother’s hip, while her mother watched the classic movie channel and ordered pizzas. Finally, her mother said she couldn’t support her anymore. It was hard enough to squeak by on what she was getting from alimony payments. Peggy left home and started hooking and making lots of money. Later, she became a madam.

During the ten years she waited for her boss to leave, or die, she sat at her kitchen table over microwaved dinners, dreaming of starting a gentlemen’s club, a really classy one, with no poles or elevated dance floors, and no garish furniture like the eyesore of a purple leather sofa that snaked its way through the parlor. The club would be named something different, she didn’t know what, but it would be graced with deep leather seats, mahogany tables, and long, luxurious white curtains like the ones in some of the more expensive night clubs in New York and Los Angeles.

The girls would wear modest clothes, would look like girlfriends or even potential brides.

“Virgin whore,” she said, thinking of Mary Woollycroft. With this thought came the memory of the woman’s accusations: that Peggy was running a Turkish seraglio; that she did not respect the girls because she called them “ladies;” that she was unpatriotic, which to Peggy was the very worst of denouncements. She was no one if not a lover of America, a free country allowing voters to do whatever the hell they wanted and allowed her to run a business.

“Mary Woollycroft is the resurrection of my grandmamma,” thought Peggy in the darkness of her trailer on the edge of the desert. A shyness crept over her then, a necessity for cover so deep she lifted the mattress of her bed and crawled onto the springs. She pulled the mattress over her and felt the weight of it press into her like the weight of a man, something long since forgotten.
At six a.m. her alarm went off. Peggy lifted off the mattress part way.

At first, she could not remember how she had got like that. Had someone come in? Had she hidden? Had someone tried to smother her? She tried to get up, but her robe caught on a spring and she had to tear it to pull it loose. She felt like she had been smashed in by a fence post.

Then she remembered the previous night’s memories of her granny. She shivered as if the woman was tromping down the hall, waiting to snatch her out of her room and drag her down to the pastor who would clunk her on the head. Satan and Granny had been neck on neck. If it hadn’t have been for Granny, there wouldn’t have been Satan, and if Jesus hadn’t come, Satan would have laid low too.

Peggy lay on top of the mattress and listened to the wind whip around the sides of her house. She felt free and clean, swept out and ready for the next thing, and she thought of the sounds of her office – her very own office, with no one to boss her around or gross it up. She thought of her adding machine, its comforting clicking, the coffee machine – its dripping and wheezing – the odd beeps and hisses of the credit card machine.

What did her grandmother know, really, what did anyone know? Wasn’t her grandmother dead? Weren’t her bones lying in a casket? Did her mouth speak? Did her hand flail with a switch?

When Peggy arrived at the Kitty Cat, she came upon Mary Woollycroft in the parlor drinking tea.

“It’s good to see you, Ms. Woollycroft,” she said. “But this is a busy day. Maybe you can come see us again next Wednesday on our tea day, 4 p.m. sharp. We would love to have you and the girls enjoyed you immensely.”

“Thank you,” said Mary. There was something in her face that was different. She didn’t look as abstracted and checked out. Her eyes glittered intensely and her jaw had a set look.

“Yes, we’re getting all new furniture, a new look, a new name,” said Peggy. “Lots of hard work to do, not much time for chitchat I’m afraid.”
“Thank you for your invitation for next week, but I think I’ll stay,” said Mary. She sipped her tea.

Peggy stared at her.

“You have not represented yourself genuinely,” said Mary, nestling the cup in its saucer. “You have led me to believe you are helping these women.”
“That is exactly what I am doing,” said Peggy. Her heart was racing like it used to when her granny yanked her out of bed.

“You are not being of assistance to any of them in the least. I have spoken with some of the women pursuant to their arrival this morning and have learned that you are contributing to the demise and slavery of a significant portion of our numbers. You should know your history, Ms. Shams. If you did, you would know who I am and why I have chosen to remain.”

“I know my history better than anyone.” “You speak another untruth, Ms. Shams.”
Peggy sighed and clomped off to her office. She was sick of this tiresome broad, just as sick as she was of her vinyl pumps sliding off her heal. It was time for leather, all new leather everything – leather shoes, leather purse, leather wallet, leather coat, leather desk chair. She threw her notebook down beside the phone. She had sketched out some nice dresses for the girls, retro sixties, sexy housewife. When the girls came in, she had them come into her office so she could measure them.

“What’s this for?” said Kansas. “Your own good,” said Peggy.

“I got the whole industry for my own good. I can call your old boss and get the fuck out of here.”

“Do you see how they treat me, Ms. Woollycroft?” Peggy shouted to the woman through the open door. She was sure Mary was listening. “And me, taking care of them and all and making sure they never want for anything.”

“You’re some kind of sugar teat, all right,” said Kansas. Kansas bent down to Peggy’s face, for the older lady was on her knees getting a measurement of the working girl’s slim hips. The smoothness of the girl’s sex-enhanced skin brought beads of sweat to Peggy’s little soft mustache.

“Now you listen here, you mother fucking bitch,” said the girl through clenched, pearly teeth. “Don’t touch that woman. If she wants to drink tea the whole goddamn day, you give her tea. And if she wants to talk to us, you better let her talk. And if she doesn’t like you or agree with whatever it is you’re doing here, whatever it is you got going up in that little noggin” – Kansas wrapped on Peggy’s forehead with her knuckles – “you fucking deal or I’m outta here.”

Kansas stood and made a sharp one eighty turn as if she had come to the end of a modeling platform and was heading back down the runway.

Peggy fell back against the file cabinet, her legs spread before her, her knees puckering beneath her tan stockings. “Slut!” she screamed inside her head.
She would never get anywhere if she had this to work with, this disrespect, so much hatred and ingratitude. She would have to work fast and hard to get her new concept underway, but she knew she could do it.

The words “Manifest Destiny” were taped to the inside of the handle on her phone. She knew she had the skills for something great. She knew she had business acumen, vision, toughness. And besides that, she had the right beliefs. She knew there was no evil, only God, and He had ordained this for her, this new kind of vision, had laid it out like a map. Men needed this guilt-free service, and in its wake, marriages would flourish. This was something God could get into. He was a Utilitarian, if nothing else.

It would take a year of going along, business as usual, keeping the girls happy and healthy and fed, and then she would hire young, attractive, smooth-talking recruiters and cull the colleges for students, kids desperate enough to sell their bodies to pay for their tuition and designer clothes. She would build a nest for them, with furniture they recognized, and a place where decent men would feel comfortable. She would make it like home, a home for everyone.

Ms. Shams.” A voice croaked from the parlor. “I would like some more Earl Grey tea.”

They were out of Earl Grey, thought Peggy. How had they run through it so fast? The old bag had messed with her head so much she must have made too many pots. But Peggy remembered Kansas’ snarling threat. She had to keep this prima donna of theirs happy.

“I’ll get us restocked, don’t you worry Ms. Woollycroft,” said Peggy, pulling herself up from the floor. “I just have to run to the store. It’s a pretty good ways down the road, so I’ll be back in about an hour.”

“Oh, and some more cream,” said Mary.

Son of a – Peggy thought. “OK!” she said. She grabbed her purse and stepped outside, onto the threshold. She slammed the door on the vision of Mary in her parlor. “Bitch!” she said out loud.

“God bless you!” said Mary, through the hollow vinyl door.

“Damn,” she said, more quietly now as she crunched along the sidewalk of pebbles. It was an hour until they opened and she would just get back in time to start dealing with the customers and then she would have to put up with this woman whom she’d invited to come back and hang out. What had she been thinking? And why had Mary become one big stubborn demanding heifer?

She peeled off from the gravel lot onto the road. The five o’clock sun stabbed murderously at her eyes. Peggy lowered the sun shade.

When she got to the store, she was a perspiring mess. The air had gone out on her, and Peggy added “new car” to her mental to-be- purchased list, along with leather accessories, a bed fit for a queen, a truckload of rocks. She paid for the tea and cream. She had just enough cash left over for a snack at the ranch, for a candy bar and coke from the machines plastered with signs that read “Client Use Only.”

On the drive back, she spied a familiar looking man in black, loping along the shoulder. She pulled up to him. Perhaps he was heading to the Ranch and if he had been drinking at all, could be easily conned once she showed him the girls and got him into negotiating prices for services. When she had come alongside of him, she recognized the side of his puffy face and the Johnny Cash getup he liked to don on Friday nights, including a black leather hat. It was the former owner, Rusty Felton.

“Well, Russ,” she said, “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Give me a ride,” he said. He was breathing hard, with his mouth open, and he squinted as if walking was giving him pain.

“Where you going?”

“Kitty Cat.”

“You a paying customer?”

“Sure.”

Peggy’s chest tightened as he crawled into the passenger seat. He didn’t buckle up, but she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t give a flying fig. She pulled onto the highway.

“What brings you back?” she said after a long pause. The sky was a violet purple now with streaks of red and pink. There was nothing out here but dirt, sky, and a range of faraway mountains.

When he didn’t answer, she looked at his face. He had aged, in just two weeks. Less sex, she thought. A man like that, having been bolstered so long by a satisfied appetite collapses in on himself.

“I thought you had some hot offer outside Vegas,” she said.

“Fell through,” he said, looking out the side window.

Peggy pulled up behind a huge dark dump truck whose contents were covered by a vinyl tarp. It was going about 35 miles per hour and in front of that was an RV. She had spotted the RV a mile or so back on a curve. She was trying to judge whether she could get around both of the vehicles and get safely back on her side of the highway in time.

“You get some fancy visitor at the Kitty Cat yesterday?” he said. “A gal in some old timey get-up came into the bar where I was. She was looking to have tea and I sent her your way. I hope you took care of her.”

“So who you going to see at Kitty Cat?” she said, ignoring his question. She swerved out from the dump truck, but then had to swerve back into her lane again to avoid an oncoming semi.
“Kansas.”

Peggy pressed in the lighter. This called for a cigarette. “You can’t afford her, Rusty.” “I’m gonna to take her with me.”
“What?” Peggy slammed on the breaks just in time to avoid hitting the dump truck which had stopped suddenly. The RV in front of it had slowed to pull off onto a county road. Peggy’s bumper had missed the dump truck’s worn black fender by a foot.

The dump truck burbled up to a start and lurched ahead. Peggy followed, not bothering to pass now. She returned the case to its safekeeping by her breast.

“Listen, if you think she’s going with you, you’re crazy,” she said. “You’ve got nothing for her.”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” he said, as if he had not been severely insulted. “I got love.” He rolled his window down partway and the dry breeze ruffled his thinning hair.

“Oh my God!” said Peggy. “Oh Lord help us!”

“That’s right,” he said, sitting up on his seat and turning toward her. “I want to love Kansas, love her like she’s never been loved, in a decent way. We were just talking about it on the phone.”

Kansas was supposed to be getting ready for her clients, and here she was, talking on the phone to this putz. It was that Woollycroft broad with all her speechifying and pretty ways. She had set this up, the bitch. As soon as this thought launched itself, Peggy felt a rush of fire on her flesh. Grandmamma! I’m sorry Granny, she almost pleaded aloud to the hot wind.

“We’re going to get married,” Rusty went on. “We’re going to start all over and have a normal life. She’s never been loved for who she is. She’s giving me the chance to do this, and she loves me too. Did you ever think you’d hear me say that, bad as I am? Did you ever think I could love someone and they could love me?”

“This is outrageous! Oh this is just hilarious!” She pulled hard on her cigarette and spewed a plume of smoke. She tossed it out the window and sparks flew past. She jammed the lighter back in. She tore at the top button of her blouse and jammed her hand into her bra, searching for the cigarette case. The lighter popped back out and she held it to her cigarette and breathed heavy on its tar-filled offering.

“She doesn’t love you and you don’t love her,” she said, smoke coming out of her nostrils and the sides of her mouth in little bursts. “You want to know why? Let me tell you why. There is no love, that’s why!”

And then the black hull of the dump truck was upon them in the headlights and there was a screech of metal and the sound of a million tiny stones falling from the truck ahead like coins from a slot machine. They fell into the car, mixing with bits of glass from the windshield. And then they filled Peggy’s mouth, her eyes, her blouse. They made a pillow for her head and a leg rest for her feet. They were pink, roseate, striated with gray.

Rusty fell out of the car. The rocks, having pressed down on the door handle in some fortuitous way, and Rusty, being that he was unbuckled, rolled over the shoulder of the road and onto the dry, barren earth. He jumped up and stood for a moment, shaking nervously. Yet he was strangely calm, as if he had not just been in a crash and nearly lost his life.

And then it dawned on him that the former owner’s presence at the scene of the accident might look suspicious, might look like he was trying to get his old job back. A rolling tumbleweed gave him opportunity. He grasped hold of it and, using it as a shield, effectual enough in the partial darkness, crept toward the Kitty Cat.

Endnotes

1 Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Project Gutenberg Etext

– No. 3420.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.

Thousand Page Book of Grim Facts

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Experiment by Still ePsiLon, Flickr

Experiment by Still EPsiLon, flickr

Mark had never met a girl like Trina. He was new to school, Bradford Middle School, to be exact, and she friended him first, in the cafeteria, sitting beside him when he was sitting alone, her nails colored with a chipped black polish he noticed first thing, not looking up at first, her hands gripping her tray as he looked up from his book, trying hard not look a loser who was doing what he was really doing: Reading a book during lunch. My name is Trina she said and he said My name is Mark. And he got a full look of her hair and face, her kohl lined eyes, deep glossed lips, the nest of black hair springing up evenly around her head and dotted with stars and little falls of tinsel, he couldn’t tell exactly, he had never seen anything quite like it. She wore fingerless gloves, a torn jacket, a lace skirt, boots.

“You gotta stay away from that Potts girl,” said his grandma when he got home and told her about his first day. He was at the table with the same book he had been reading at the cafeteria: The Thousand Page Book of Grim Facts. His grandfather had given it to him not long after his father had died and Mark and his mother came to live with them in Starke, Florida.

“Why do I have to stay away from her, grandma?” Mark had wanted Trina to come over next day. They were going to go over The Grim Facts book.

“Cause she and her Mama are witches. Live out there in the woods under the oaks in their car with the alligator and bear. Homeless but want for nothing. Special powers n’ such. Devil stuff.”

“Leave him ‘lone, Violet,” said Grandpa. “He can have any friend he wants over here. Jesus got not truck for bias.”

Grandma clucked, shuffling around her kitchen, like she did when she wanted to talk back to Grandpa but he had given her an unassailable position. She was nothing if not religious.

Mark took advantage of the moment to take his cookies and milk to his room along with the Grim Facts. He sat down with his stash on the floor and spread it out before him. The Grim Facts book: The best present he had ever been given. The things no one else had said when his father had died. It was not like he couldn’t look some things up on line. But to have them printed on paper and given to him was like Grandpa having taken the time to give him a perfect Hallmark card. No one had wanted to talk much about the truth of how his dad died except Grandpa. “May you always know the facts, son,” Grandpa had written on the inside cover. “Love, Grandpa, Christmas 2017.”

An excerpt from Sea Worthy magazine was found in the chapter in Electric Shock Drowning: “Captain David Rifkin and James Shafer conducted extensive testing of all aspects of ESD for a Coast Guard study in 2008, including exposing themselves to low-level currents in fresh water. ‘Anything above 3 milliamps (mA) can be very painful,’ Rifkin said. ‘If you had even 6 mA going through your body, you would be in agonizing pain.’ Less than a third of the electricity used to light a 40-watt light bulb — 100 mA — passing directly through the heart is almost always fatal.” *

That day at the lake in Arkansas, Labor Day weekend, was the worst in Mark’s life. He and his family were having a picnic with their dog Chip. A young girl had jumped into the water off the end of the dock and was screaming. His father jumped in to help her and both of them died because of electricity leaking from a boat. A man pulled their bodies out with a long hook grounded with a rubber handle so as to not be electrocuted himself. They were laid on the shore and people tried to help with mouth to mouth and chest compressions. But Mark knew inside his father was gone. He looked nothing like himself, so passive and lifeless. That was not his father at all.

It was like his dad to be thinking only of someone else, this young girl who was in pain and frightened. Mark touched the entry of this description in the Grim Facts book. It was getting a little worn looking where he touched it. He tried to imagine what it would have been like for him, this experience of being shocked and in pain, but he couldn’t force himself to. Something stopped him from thinking about it all the way though in the chapter the levels of pain were clearly outlined per milliamp, every milliamp right up until death.

Maybe another time he could force himself to imagine it fully. It had only been a few months since this had happened and many days it didn’t even seem real. Sometimes he thinks his dad would never have guessed he and Mom and Chip would be living with Grandma and Grandpa in Starke, old death town, he would say, because of the infamous three legged electric chair at the prison. His dad would probably have laughed at the irony of their situation.

Would his dad’s spirit fly down from his grave in Pine Bluff to watch over them? Mark believed this every night though nothing about his current beliefs supported much in the way of ghosts and spirits. Nor were witches or any special powers they may have a part of his belief system which is why he ignored what Grandma said about Trina and her mom. Just an old lady scare tactic to get people to stay away from the fringes and go to church. Then Mark felt guilty for feeling unkindly to her. Her cookies were really good and crispy, just the way he liked them.

Trina was making a regular habit of coming over after school. She seemed to like his Grim Facts book and was able to talk about the Starke electric chair chapter, having been a resident of the area for an undetermined amount of time. To compensate her for her invaluable anecdotal contributions, Mark had his grandma make them sandwiches, which also gave his grandma the chance to see nothing untoward was happening in her house while his mother was away at work. Grandma could come into his room, unannounced, and put her mind at rest. And Trina, Mark suspected, was hungry. She always seemed to be, as she shoveled bits in with her fingers with the chipped nails.

“You get to see some things in the woods here,” said Trina, looking at the picture of Raiford Prison, home of Old Sparky. “Spirits so restless and they like to shake you to death. Meanest lady I ever met, met her as a spirit, she killed four men, including her husband and son, wandering around the cemetery where they put her ashes after they fried her brain good on Old Sparky.”

This was a little rough talk for where Mark came from, but it didn’t bother him. Most people were so proper Mark felt he could never see clearly enough to decide how he felt about everything, what he was thinking, what questions he may have. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said.

“You come to the wrong town, then,” said Trina. “There’s a whole society of them here. They believe in you,” she said, and smiled, a piece of pimento cheese having stuck to the corner of her mouth. “You kill people, they’re gonna hang around some.”

“Let’s write to Wayne Doty,” she said, feeling freshly inspired and pulling a pen from the cup of writing utensils on his desk. Wayne Doty had recently been in the news for requesting to die by the electric chair. “Don’t you want to know what he’s thinking?”

Mark conceded it would be interesting research and so they wrote:

Dear Mr. Doty,

We are writing this letter to you to ask you a question. Could you help us? We are doing a project on execution. We don’t know of anyone who has died by electrocution. Why are you asking the state to die by electrocution? Are you worried about execution or being electrocuted? Are you worried that what happened to Pedro Medino or Tiny Davis might happen to you?

Thank you for answering our questions.

Sincerely,

Curious students at Bradford Middle School

They felt it best not to use their names of course, not even first names. And being so anonymous allowed them to be a little braver and ask about botched electrocutions – fire springing from Pedro’s head and Tiny, profusely bleeding. Doty was not a man you wanted to rile and had a reputation for being extremely dangerous. They mailed it using Trina’s mother’s mailing address she kept with a friend. Mark’s grandma would have hit the roof.

In a couple of weeks they got a response:

Dear curious students of Bradford Middle School,

I am honored by your curiosity and happy to answer all your questions about my personage. I wish I had me some children of my own but being what I am, I know it is best I remain a single, fatherless man. I want you to obey your Mamas and your Daddies and even though my Daddy was bad seed, there is lots of good out there for you to listen and obey, so do what Mr. Doty says, ok.

It is my right as a citizen of these United States to chose the means by which I die. Ain’t no one else killed who I killed but me and I regret I killed but I pro’lly kill again given who I am and that I ain’t never had no love from family and killing comes natural.

What I seek little chillrun is to help the families of the people I killed feel at peace. Also what I want is the release of spiritual freedom. I want to feel the spirit lifting from me at last, releasing me from the world, and I want to seek that by means the state can kill me most expeditiously, through the electric chair, even if it is not a perfect means. I want to let go, finally and most completely.

Your friend,

Wayne Doty

They were reading this at the house where Trina and her mother received mail and bathed and cooked their dinners. They were sitting in the afternoon light of the living room with the Thousand Page Book of Grim Facts. Mark had turned to the chart for the effects of AC current on the body in fresh water:

Probable Effect On Human Body
1 mA – Perception level. Slight tingling sensation. Still dangerous under certain conditions.
5 mA – Slight shock felt; not painful but disturbing. Average individual can let go. However, strong involuntary reactions to shocks in this range may lead to injuries.
6-16 mA – Painful shock, begin to lose muscular control. Commonly referred to as the freezing current or let-go range.
17-99 mA – Extreme pain, respiratory arrest, severe muscular contractions. Individual cannot let go of an electrified object. Death is possible.
100-2,000 mA – Ventricular fibrillation (uneven, uncoordinated pumping of heart). Muscular contraction and nerve damage begin to occur. Death is likely.
2,000+ mA – Cardiac arrest, internal organ damage, and severe burns. Death is probable.
Source: OSHA

“Look at this,” he said. He pointed out the chart. “They say Dad experienced about 100 milliamps.” He felt himself a little unmoored at this point, as if he didn’t have a body. He stared at the space ahead, an empty bookshelf. Where were the books? What was this place?

Trina took the book from his hands and put it beside her on the floor. “Maybe we should think about other things,” she said. And she leaned over and pulled Mark’s face close to hers. She kissed him, holding his mouth on hers. He felt her nails on his neck and breathed in her outdoor smells – sunshine and sky and oak leaf. Her gloss tasted like strawberry.

When she sat back in the patch of sunlight he noticed the trails of miniscule particles floating in the beams slanting down through the window. Maybe that’s all spirit is, he thought, maybe there is some left when we move, we go from place to place, when we die, a trace. He wanted to kiss her again. She felt very much alive. He tasted the faint note of berry on his mouth. The gloss was sticky and sweet and would surely linger through the fading day.

He tasted berry on his lips that night when he met Trina at the entrance to the Florida State Prison Cemetery. He couldn’t be sure, but as they held hands and looked through the bars of the iron gate he could have sworn he saw wisps of beings traipsing among the graves as if waiting for a bell to chime and the doors to swing wide and let them loose into the night.

* “ESD Explained,” by Beth Leonard. http://www.boatus.com.

The Steinway

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Susan Sermoneta, flickr

Susan Sermoneta, flickr

This Valentine’s Day, I am engaging in a writing mini marathon. I am exploring the joys and trials of love.

But sometimes love isn’t always what it is portrayed to be in popular culture. My brilliant friend Terin Miller offered his insights when I was bemoaning my own challenges in this department. I said on a public post, somewhat facetiously, that writing is really my only one true love. And here was his response: “If you love anything, truly, it is romantic. Not mellow-dramatic, false, or artificial. Do not confuse pathos or even desire with romance. Real romance involves your heart. Not just your brain. Or even just your hormones. There is nothing wrong with loving writing. Or words. Or love. Or language. It is a means of expressing romance with life.”

What is your romance with life? Is it the love of your children? Your partner? Your pet(s)? Your garden? Your love for making dishes or going out with friends? Your travels? Pastimes?

My story of the man with the Steinway was written about twelve years ago. It is in some ways a junior effort though in some ways I think it is just as strong if not stronger than other work to date. And it never published. But I like it anyway. Like a love, it is graced with flaws. But I only have rose colored glasses for my man with the Steinway piano. The piece is a longer work to be savored at leisure. Happy Valentine’s Day.

The Steinway

I found the Steinway in a consignment shop. It was dull, black, the paint rubbed off on the corners, a few scratches here and there. The logo was written out in gold letters below the symbol of the pedal lyre. I bought it because of its resemblance to the piano of my childhood.

As boys, my brother Greg and I had both taken piano lessons. My early attempts were halting and clumsy and eventually ceased altogether when the reward and punishment system my mother had set in place for me became ineffectual: five pennies for each fifteen minutes of practice, three pennies subtracted for every day of missed practice.

For a while, I managed to play half-heartedly and make a modest amount of money without giving up baseball. However, I eventually shut down, and I think what did it was not just my realization I was bored (the incentive-based program reversing itself), but the repeated scene of my brother, leaning forward, his left foot back, in proper position, his fingers delivering notes into the air, liberating them from the strings – legato, staccato, tenuto – while my mother, as if in loving adoration and response, rolled out apple pies, Chicken ala King, rump roast, Beef Wellington, biscuits with sweet cream butter.

He could play up to six hours a day. This bath of notes had a way of silencing us, trapping and gentling us as if we were caught and fattened in a web. We had a wrap around porch and when it was warm, we sat outside in the swing and the rockers or else my sister and I played checkers at the card table while my father read the paper and waited for dinner. Sometimes my father and I took our gloves and threw a baseball, but no matter where we went on our property, we could still hear my brother playing.

My father never said anything and neither did I, and he never complimented my brother and this gave me a sense of peace, as if Greg was not better than my sister and me. But I stopped playing the piano anyway. My brother didn’t have a jar of pennies as incentive to practice. Early on, he told our mother to take his jar away, he didn’t need it, he played for himself only and earning pennies for something he already liked to do was pointless. This pronouncement of both supreme freedom from monetary incentive and from the ordering of the household promoted him, in my mind, to the status of a god and I knew that, in this area at least, I was merely human.

The Steinway arrived on a hot October Florida day. It entered my house shrouded in a faded purple quilt and bound with rope. The plastic wheels of the cart, large as plates, shushed and squeaked over the carpet. It was lowered by four men and exhaled a breath of discordant notes. The men unbound the rope and removed the quilt. It sat before me, a black, hulking presence absorbing light, a contrast to the French antique sideboard which my wife Lena had placed there as a complement to our dining table.

I sat down before it and opened the cover to reveal the keys, the ivory now yellow and dull, but classic, rare. I struck a key and a string responded in a tired way and then I struck the C major chord, the only one I remembered, and a cacophony of complaints issued forth, the notes warping and wavering.

I began to doubt my earlier certainty that it was fate that I should have this dusty instrument in my house, that I should tune it and learn how to play it. My current mid-life desire to try again that which had eluded me before, but which was attractive nonetheless, was perhaps another incarnation of all that was wayward and impractical and ridiculous in me.

“Why can’t you choose something a normal man would do?” said my father, of my decision in a major and I knew what he meant: business, engineering, law. My brother, had he been able to make money as a pianist, would have been exempt. By the time of my decision, he had already failed.

“Your poems were sweet when you were young, Richard,” said my mother. “But how are you going to raise a family?”

They needn’t have worried. I became a normal man. Though I majored in creative writing to spite them (and to their credit, they paid my tuition), I failed to write anything beautiful or insightful, failed to earn anything from my writing at all.

Instead, I sold real estate and got married and had a family. Now I live in Orlando, Florida where my wife is an attorney. For years, while my parents were still alive, they could say at church “Richard sells real estate.” I would stay up deep into the early hours of the morning, wrestling in weakness with grievances and fears, whole dark selves frozen.

I closed the piano lid. The tuner could be called tomorrow. I had found a good one through a woman who teaches at the college, a woman who was going to offer me beginning lessons. I was tired. Now with the Steinway sitting mute and solid in my living room, I felt my weight slipping downward as if succumbing. I climbed the stairs to the bedroom.

The palm-shaped blades of the fan in our bedroom spun lazily. I closed the blinds, but didn’t take the decorative pillows off the bed. My wife was always after me to put them back on after I had removed them and so they would stay. I lay among the beaded fabrics and the decorative feathers and felt myself drift into sleep.

When I awoke, the house was dark. No one was home. I had arranged for the kids to go to their friends’ houses after school in case the piano was delivered late. I had an hour to listen to the blade of my knife slice through the flesh of vegetables, to get the water up to a boil, to open wine.

My wife Lena had been extremely successful right out of law school, had had the type of intelligence and prowess that had landed her a job with a prestigious firm. On my worst days, I felt outstripped, but consoled myself with the flimsy theory that successes happened at different times and that right now, the children needed me.

My role was to shop and make meals, to pick the children up after school and secure their clothing and school supplies. Emily, our eleven year old, was a budding ballerina, and Giles, nine, liked sports, almost any sport, but he liked it in an easygoing, rather than competitive way.

Emily was her own self-disciplined being, and reminded me of her uncle and mother both. I often told her her uncle would be proud to see her dancing to many of the musical pieces he had learned to play. This seemed to please her and she smiled with her mother’s beautiful mouth and her mother’s green eyes sparkled back at me.

She often gave me a hug because she believed I was sad when I mentioned her uncle. By now, she knew he had felt the pressure and recurring physical pain of performance and had died from an intentional overdose. Though my brother had died in this way, I knew him to be the greater man, and I’ll admit a part of me was glad he was not alive to prove it.

When Lena got home and saw the changes I had made to accommodate the piano, she registered her protest. “You have moved the sideboard under the window. That’s not a good place. It’s about a million miles from the dining room table.” We had a large front room that accommodated both a dining room and living room area. We had never been able to agree upon the division and arrangement of tables and chairs.

“I made chicken. I think you’ll like it.” I handed her a glass of chilled white wine. “Try this Pouilly Fuisse.”

“The lamp you put on it doesn’t go. It’s not a lamp for a sideboard.”

“You can get us another.” I took the wine from her and slid my hands over the silk of her blouse. I felt the metal clasp of her bra.

“That piano is hideous.”

“Where is Lena?” I said, and kissed her on the cheek. It is a game we used to play when we were first married and I believed myself capable of loosening her to laughter, to good humor.

“Lena is here, but don’t think it’s going to happen, not now.”

I pulled her to me and kissed her full. I felt with my fingers along her neck and shoulders, searching for the places I knew were sensitive.

“The kids will be coming soon,” she said, turning, bowing her head. She pushed against my shoulders and eased herself down to the floor. She seemed weaker, more diminutive, without her heels, her stockinged feet flat against the tiles.

When my lessons began, I came home from work during my lunch hour to practice. I began to like the freedom and solitude to work as slowly as I needed to. One afternoon, as I was playing a scaled down version of a Chopin piece, composed for beginning students, I detected movement on the porch.

“Come in,” I said, from my bench, certain it was someone we knew who was politely waiting until I finished playing to ring the doorbell. It was Carrie Stewart from down the street. Her family and mine had been a part of each other’s lives for many years, and in fact Lena and Carrie’s husband, Gray, had gone to high school together.

“Can I listen?” she said.

“Sure. But there’s not much going on, I’m afraid. A whole lot of bad playing.”
She sat. She chose my grandmother’s channel back chair. This had always been a favorite of mine, but I was intent on not commenting or engaging in conversation. If this was how she saw fit to waste an hour, I would not make myself responsible for her entertainment.

I played my scales and simple pieces calmly and slowly. I remembered my brother, his back erect, and as he grew, his shoulders broad, his body a square within the larger square of the piano, his fingers working through the lines, stumbling, repeating, slowing, then smoothing the line down like a brook works over a pebble.

The waltzes and scherzos and sonatas adapted for beginning piano players were simple straightforward pieces, but over the months with Carrie as my audience, I learned to coordinate both hands, to refine the sustenance of the notes by use of the pedals, and to control the volume by the amount of pressure I applied to the keys.

There were nuances I had not taken into account when I had first learned the piano, nuances that I had not thought were important to learn. Certainly I had offended the ears of my teacher, but I was trying to take greater care.

Carrie maintained her place behind me at the same time every day, slipping out at some point near the end of the hour. Maybe she waited on the porch until I was finished, until she heard me shut the music back into the piano bench. The vain part of me wanted to believe this. But then just as likely, she could have been listening as she walked home, the music drifting out over the street, following her.

One day, after several months of attending my practices, she rose and stood near the piano. I stopped playing. She let her fingertips drift over the keys. “It takes so much faith, to do what you’re doing” she said. “We know what our lives are by now, and still you’re doing this thing.”

“I’m just playing scales.” I took care not to look at her, to not make contact. She should not read too deeply into anything, must not read anything at all.

“You don’t have to do all this. I think it’s wonderful.” And she left, closing the door behind her softly as she did every day.

I didn’t want to ask her what she getting out of listening to scales and something dull and repeated or a song practiced over and over, until mastered. I didn’t want to feel responsible for her feelings and the significance she was placing on what I was doing.

For once in my life, something as intriguing as a woman was concentrating my energies, moving me through my day. And yet, her presence there, day in and day out, was liberating me from previous anxieties about my inadequacies. When I made so many mistakes, especially when I was first learning a piece, her lack of response, her lack, even, of a sound, was confirmation that mistakes were not as terrible as I had believed them to be when I was a boy.

Eventually, she began to tell me things on my practice days, and I became a sort of confessor for her. She was careful not to talk too much so that I still had the majority of the hour to play. And in the years I had known her, she had never been the kind of woman to burden people with too much of herself, but these things she said made me feel more intensely for her, though I loved my wife.

Perhaps I was a kind of priest because my relative silence and remove did not discourage her, did not tend to influence her to look upon me coldly, but spurred her on, somehow, to be open and honest. She may have sensed that I did not want to hurt her, but that I did not mind her being there either, that I was concerned for her in a way that would not lapse into romance.

One day I thought it might be a good idea to clarify things with her. I turned to her on my bench. She was working on her needlepoint, a pastime that seemed ancient. I sometimes caught glimpses of her handy work as she left the living room – lush nosegays of roses, filigreed crosses, an autumn harvest.

“I don’t think it would be a good idea to read into anything here,” I said.

“What do you mean?” She looked at me with an even gaze and yet her lids had fluttered when I spoke, either at my tone or her surprise at what I said, or maybe just the surprise of the break in our usual routine.

“I mean that this could become something.”

She bent her head to her work. I watched her find the place for her needle. Her composure held. I returned to my music.

As time went on, I began to play longer and longer into the day. I found ways to arrange my schedule to accommodate the longer practice hours. It went on for two years like this, with Carrie as my audience, and at some point, her confessions seemed to revolve around her suspicions that my wife Lena and her husband Gray might be having an affair.

Gray and Lena had gone to high school together and had partied with the same crowd, and now they worked in the same firm. We had been friends with them for a long time, although in the last year or so, I noticed Gray had become more proprietary with my wife as we sat together at the kitchen table.

They told inside jokes and he flirted with her. When this first began happening, I would slip into the role of an observer, frozen in my anger and alarm, plotting what I might do if he should take it further. Carrie would slip out to our living room, which was quiet and formal in a way that she might have found comforting. I avoided following her, although I knew I would rather avoid this exchange at my own table.

I stayed instead, feeling my presence there was essential. If I kept the topic on high school reminisces, Gray would be gone soon, purring out of the driveway in his Porsche, his wife tucked away in her bucket seat, buckled down.

I was sorry I could not reassure Carrie that her suspicions about Gray and Lena were ill-founded. What I was witnessing in my own house had become cause for alarm. I was perplexed about how to handle it. I felt that Gray may be just trying to bait me into acting defensively and I didn’t want to play into his hand.

If it turned out this was more than a game, played out for my irritation, and that Lena and Gray were having an affair, I wanted every opportunity to retaliate bodily and his presence and provocation provided the perfect occasion and excuse.

When Lena and I first entertained them socially when they moved into the neighborhood we seemed to be well matched and enjoyed each other. Our children enjoyed being together and we often traded off weekend cookouts at each other’s houses.

Gray and I had something in common with our interest in baseball and other sports. Our sons both played on the same Little League team. Carrie was bolder in those days too. At dinner, she would join in our conversation and Lena would ask her questions, drawing her out and making her feel comfortable.

And then, things started happening between us until the patterns were beyond anyone’s willingness to assert control or make changes. Perhaps things started when Gray was hired at Lena’s firm and Gray and Lena spent more of our couples’ dates discussing their cases, switching the pairing off and leaving Carrie and I alone together.

Gray also had become almost surly, though he had always been loud and jocular. It was the drink, most likely, and we all, except Carrie, started drinking as if the world was going to curl up and swallow us whole the following morning.

I began to play the piano while Lena and Gray drank and talked about work. Carrie would follow me to the living room, bringing her needlepoint. She would bring it in her purse as if she anticipated a need for it. At some point, I gave up my role as observer, protector.

I considered the possibility that my wife may be baiting me too, that she wanted a reaction to this animal pawing at her and licking his chops. If so, I disappointed her many times. I wondered how I could find out if they were having an affair, whether I could ask her directly, whether she would be honest with me.

Our relationship had become brittle, though I desired deeply that it would not be so. I did not know how to approach it without breaking things altogether. I suppose I hoped, futilely, that whatever dalliance was taking place under my own roof was nothing but a game, or, if it went further than this, was something Lena would get over like a bad virus.

The situation seemed to bear down upon me as swiftly and as certainly as a train on its appointed track. It kept me up late at night, wondering what to do, checking through Lena’s purses and briefcase and clothing for evidence. When I had tired of my search, I sat before the Steinway and laid my hands on the keys, their enamel off-white like teeth. I imagined myself playing as I moved my fingers across their surfaces.

“What are you doing?” said Lena, finding me one night in the dark, sitting before the piano. She snapped on the overhead light.

“I think it’s obvious. I’m laboring in obscurity.”

“It’s three in the morning.”

“I know. I couldn’t sleep.”

“You never sleep.”

“That’s not true.”

She retied the sash of her robe. What I had loved about her was her use of extremes, to see only “never” and “always.’ I had considered this a sign of passion, that along with other things. What I had come to realize was that she had an unwillingness to admit that adversity was usually not a permanent condition. Her pronouncements on the state of things were informed by whatever her needs were at the present moment and she had little patience in waiting for tides to turn.

“I’m going to warm some milk,” she said, retreating through the door to the kitchen. “Want some?” I followed.

She poured milk into a saucepan and turned up the fire on the eye. She stirred it until it steamed and then poured it into two mugs and added some sugar. She sprinkled some cinnamon on top. She had created this drink for my insomnia, using the ingredients her mother used to add to her Cream of Wheat, but when she made it for me this time, she was rough with the stirring and then slung the spoon into the sink.

“Do you remember when we went to Tarpon Springs?” I said. “You know, when your Mom was alive and took the kids?” This was a trick I had used to bring her back to me, to soothe her anger, or get her to keep talking so I could get to what was bothering her. I brought up old memories, or even recent ones, neutral things to discuss.

I had learned that small things such as her careless handling of a utensil, the closing of a door just a bit more firmly than usual, the whip of a hot sheet fresh out of the dryer – that these all meant something, and that it was my job to figure out what the meaning was.

“Do you remember that bar shaped like a boat and that huge fish tank?”

“All I remember was that sorry museum about the history of sponge diving.”

“Yeah, like JC Penney manikins wearing Greek costumes and sponge diving gear.” I did my best stiff manikin pose.

She snorted, and took a careful sip. “You were like an idiot with those sponges for the kids, buying them all shapes and sizes, and then they hardly looked at them.”

“I’m a good idiot.”

I was the clown. I had to not mind. There was something to uncover, but by the time I had thought of the next thing to say, she had put her half-empty mug in the sink. I reached out and felt the silk of her nightgown peaking out under the robe.

“I remember all that stuff,” she said, as she leaned with her hip against the edge of the counter. “But I think we have other things to talk about, like how much money we need, like how crazy it is you’re spending so much time on that thing in the living room.”

“What do you want me to say? We’re just in a bit of a dry spell, and what does it hurt, learning to play the piano?”

“We’re always in a dry spell. Emily needs braces and we need the porch fixed. I’m embarrassed to have friends over now because a part of it is sagging. Summer camps need to be paid for, next year’s school tuition.”

“Calm down. It will work out, it always does.”

“I feel overwhelmed and you just seem so calm all the time. I don’t know what to say anymore.”

She whipped past and I made an attempt to grab her arm, to draw her to me and assure her, but her body eluded me.

I climbed the stairs to our bedroom. “Lena,” I said, when I had closed the door. It was dark and she was already under the covers. “I need to know something, and I want you to be straight with me. Are you having an affair?” I sat on the edge of the bed, bracing myself.

In the shadows I saw her rise up from her pillows. “What are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about. You and Gray. Maybe there is something going on that you should tell me.”

“Oh my God. Don’t project your guilty conscious onto me!”

“Guilty?”

“Now who’s playing stupid? You and Carrie. I know that she comes over here every single day.”

“Nothing is going on,” I said, standing. “Nothing.”

“Don’t get your knickers in a wad. I don’t have time for this. I have a huge case tomorrow. Please.” She arranged her pillows and settled back into them.

I slept on the couch that night. The next day, I had a call to make at Claudia’s, my piano teacher. When I pulled up to her antebellum mansion on Princeton Avenue, I noticed that it looked as old and tired as I felt. And yet it was a rare commodity in this city bent on making everything new.

We usually met at the college for piano lessons, but when she learned that I was a realtor, she invited me to her house, which she wanted to put on the market. Though the house and yard needed restoration, it was the kind of house that would sell well with just the right buyer.

However, I learned right off that she already had already sold the house for me for a cool 1.8 million and I would get 50,000 for doing nothing but filling out the paperwork and showing up at the closing. She didn’t want to talk about it.

She wanted to talk about our piano lessons. I crossed a knee over the other as I sat in the armchair by the fireplace. My heart was flipping. I would not let her know that I could not think about the piano.

“I want you to play this nocturne by Chopin,” she said, getting up, and picking up a piece of sheet music, Chopin’s opus 9 no. 1. “After you learn the piece, learn the notes, when you begin to put yourself into it, there are special instructions you must regard. You must listen to me, or you’ll mess it all up.” She slapped the music, as if I’d already done something to shame the piece.

She went to the piano and laid her hands upon the keys, pulling her fingers down over them. And then, she began to play somewhere in the middle range a soft piece that had the effect of a dream spun by gossamer threads, complex, interwoven.

“It is important in the nocturne,” she said, continuing to play, “To think about pulling from the keys as much beauty that there is. Think about yourself as the artist. You are to bring speech, a song from the strings. You must give of yourself,” she said, leaning into the piano and closing her eyes. “You must give all of your body, all of your attention like an artist bringing to being a beautiful painting stroke by tiny stroke. These notes of Chopin’s each have been placed with much care. We see, when we hear it played well, with love, the ideal beauty that is Chopin’s.”

When she had finished her instructions, I thanked her and left. I stood at the iron fence which separated the yard from the busy street just beyond. I had done research on the property and had learned that the original boundaries had encompassed acres upon acres of pasture and orange groves.

I remembered our trips to Mt. Dora when I was a child, our sacks filled with oranges, our scratched and sticky fingers peeling back the skin, my tongue breaking through the juicy filaments of the flesh.

A line of anise flanking the fence swayed with the breeze from the passing cars. I imagined the destination of the drivers and their occupants: the grocery store, pharmacy, movie theatres, malls.

There was no one at home. Lena had left a note on the kitchen counter: “Kids spending the night out. Fridge bare. Carrie and Gray coming at 7. Picking up steaks.” It was still an hour or so before my wife would be home and we’d need to get ready for company.

I sat down to the piano with nocturne. A note fluttered down from the pages. It was written in Claudia’s scrawl: “We are born knowing everything and spend the rest of our lives remembering what it is we already know.”

I put the note on top of the piano. Claudia often wrote cryptic notes in my music for me to puzzle over later or discuss. I moved my hands over the keys, but I knew, from the notation, that it would take me months to learn just the basics of the piece and that it would take much longer to play it in the way Claudia described.

And yet, I didn’t worry. Something about the note that was sitting on my piano assured me. The piece would come in time. I had to trust my body and my fingers to follow through and eventually learn the correct movement as I played it again and again.

I had heard and seen my brother learn challenging pieces over and over again, and though he was a quicker study, what had mattered, it seemed, was a trust that any piece could be mastered eventually. Claudia’s encouragement was to trust a native instinct, something we are born with, but have forgotten because of doubt and fear.

I put the nocturne away for a moment and pulled out an adaptation of another Chopin piece I had recently mastered. I imagined Lena picking up the steaks at the grocery and I imagined the piece guiding her home to me. I wanted it to be for love for her that I was learning to play the piano. I wished it impressed her that I played because I had run out of things to do.

I imagined, in my mind’s eye, her pulling those shapely legs into her car and placing the steaks onto the seat. My father had warned me about her: “It’s in the eyes,” he said. “Restless.” This was two months before he died, when I took her to see him. He was in the hospital, recovering from a heart attack. This was all he could bring himself to say about her.

I called the kids where I guessed they might be staying for the night, and they treated me like some sad sack they had to reassure before they could get back to the popcorn and movies and video games or whatever it was they were doing. Our presence together on the nights when Lena worked late was essential to me, somehow, and without them, I felt vulnerable, like a wild animal without its pack. It assured me to hear their voices on the phone, even to hear their exasperation with me.

After playing the piece through several times, I broke down and opened a bottle of wine, lit candles and turned on the local jazz station. Lena would be home any minute and I knew what it took to get my wife in bed and I was fooling myself with Chopin and quiet songs. I drank a couple of glasses of wine. I had been too soft, too forgiving. I had earned half a year’s salary in one day, goddammit.

“Welcome home,” I said when she walked through the back door. I took the grocery bag and put it in the refrigerator. I handed her a glass of Cabernet.

She was wearing her cream blouse printed with gold rings and horses, a classic blouse she wore with pearls and a navy wool skirt. She knew how to dress for the judge and the jury, was an expert in personas and angles and argumentations.

I kissed her mouth. Her lipstick tasted like cake.

“What’s all this?” she said. The candles and the jazz playing on the sound system were unusual occurrences.

“Fifty thousand dollars,” I said. The power of this truth made my mouth water. I wanted to rip the silk shirt off of her. I wanted to scatter the pearls to the far corners of the kitchen.

“Wow!” she said, giving me an enthusiastic hug around the neck. “That’s what you made?” I nodded and she took a sip of wine, watching me.

“It was a 1.8 million dollar sale.” I took the glass from her and drew her into an embrace. I kissed her.

She pushed off from my chest and touched her lips to mine with an emphatic peck.

“I want to take a bath,” she said.

I nuzzled her hair.

“Could you run a vacuum?” she said.

She twisted in my arms. I let her go.

I turned my back to her and opened the cabinet for a glass. I poured a scotch. She grabbed the bottle of wine and climbed the stairs, her feet padding on the carpet. I heard the pipes click with the rush of water into the tub.

I should have gone upstairs. I should have taken what was mine. I should have wreaked havoc at the first suggestion of a “vacuum.” The urge to empty the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag onto Gray’s usual chair shot through me, but then Gray and Carrie were at the door as I was suctioning up debris in the hall.

“Isn’t this a sweet picture,” said Gray. “An enlightened male. You’re making me look bad, man.”

“I think you’re doing just fine on your own.”

“All right, you prick, where’s the liquor?”

“It’s a full moon tonight,” I said. “The jackal’s here.”

“Cut it out, Richard!” said Lena, shouting down from the top of the stairs. She had bathed quickly. “Help yourself to the drinks everybody, I’ll be down in a minute.” Gray went to the basket on the countertop where we kept a jumble of liquor choices. I watched Carrie’s eyes following him.

Lena came down and kissed everyone.

“Well,” I said. “Now that I’ve done my duty for a bit, I’m going to sit down to the piano.” I raised my Scotch to everyone as I backed out through the door.

“A toast, everybody,” said Lena. “My husband just made a $1.8 million sale.”

As I left the room, I heard her explaining my windfall. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to embrace her. But as I walked away, I knew she was being my public Lena. She was loving me with the only resources she had left, with a cushion of people between us and no expectation of sex, just my appreciation and adoration.

I opened an intermediate piano book and began playing one of the pieces I knew well. I would play until I was calm. I would play until I couldn’t hear Gray yammering.

We often cooked out when they came over, so I knew it was only a matter of time before Lena and Gray went outside with their drinks to preheat the grill. In the meantime, I would build a wall of notes between myself and the things I didn’t want to confront.

I heard Carrie slip through the doorway off the hall and sit in her seat. Lena shouted out that she and Gray would be sitting on the back porch. It was quiet now in the house, except for the piano. The sun had gone down and the light over the music reflected brightly off the paper. I imagined Carrie in the gray light behind me. I played almost every piece I had mastered.

When I had played myself out, I laid my fingers upon the keys. “The thing about music, as about anything beautiful or grand,” said Claudia to me once, “is that it must end.”

As I sat there, hunched over on the seat, I smelled air from outside. Gray and Lena must have left the door open. It was difficult for me to move. The furniture sat about me like stones. Something, I felt, had shifted. Something had changed in the atmosphere. I sensed it was the kind of change that occurs after an act of violence or a cataclysmic natural event. There was no escaping it, this discovery of whatever it was.

“Does it seem really quiet in here?” I said to the darkness, to Carrie, unable to think of anything else to say.

I heard her rise from her seat and come up beside me. I felt her hand, light as a girl’s, on my shoulder.

I stood and turned to face her.

She kept her place beside the piano, her face illuminated by the piano light. “I have been coming to see you for a very long time.”

I was silent.

“Do you feel something for me?”

I picked up her hand. It was small and delicate in mine, like a small bird. I caressed it and held it to my mouth. I held it against my cheek. I said nothing.
She yanked her hand away. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she swiped at them. She turned and left for the kitchen and I followed, wanting to hold her to reassure her, but knowing I should not, that this would only prolong what was inevitable.

I opened the door and we went out onto the back porch. There was a large moon in the sky. The steaks lay cold and hardened in their fat on the China plate near the grill. On the silvered lawn, there was no sign of Gray or Lena. Shadows from the oak cast illusive shapes. The oleander at the boundaries of the yard danced, their flowers nodding. An overripe globe fell from the orange tree. A gasp cut through the wind, and then a tiny cry, private and raw. Gray’s body was pressed against my wife. They were standing against the oak, on the far side of the trunk. I could see them now, their bodies separating from what was a dark space though they remained entangled.

I stepped out into my yard. I sprinted to the tree and yanked Gray from my wife. He stumbled and fell while Lena collapsed as if she had a cramp. Carrie ran up behind me and grabbed my arm and I threw her off. She fell to the ground. I stood, watching Gray struggle to rise, but I couldn’t leave Carrie there on the grass.

“Shit,” said Gray. “Give it a rest.” He pulled up his pants which had been at his ankles. He rubbed his fist against his lip. He told Carrie to go to the car.

Lena wrapped her mussed up clothes around her. She scurried inside.

Gray walked through my house. I followed. He sat on the steps of my front porch and tied his shoes. I wanted to rip his hair out at the root. I wanted to smash his forehead against the porch railing.

“Now let’s just check facts,” he said. “Carrie comes to your house – your house – for no apparent reason other than to listen to you play scales and tinker with a few little pieces on your piano. OK, now, if I had any other wife, I might have deep, deep suspicions. But Carrie, oh please,” he snorted.

“So I have no reason to worry, you know? But the thing about it is, Bach, that two weeks ago, I had to leave work and pick up one of our kids from school and take him to the ER. You see, that’s because he broke his arm on the playground and no one could find my wife. That’s because she was with you. So you see what my problem is? Do you see why I can’t have this? You blow my mind, you fucking weirdo. What the hell is wrong with you?” He stood and walked down the steps.”

“So this is your excuse?”

“You need a touch of reality, dude.” He turned to face me and as he did so, he was smiling. “Your wife is well known. Do you know what I mean?” he said and turned back to his car, back to his wife who was witnessing this from the passenger seat.

I punched him in the back. He tripped down the sidewalk, raising his hands as if in surrender.

After the Porsche had roared away, I turned off the lights and climbed the stairs. In the bedroom, Lena lay facing the window. She was too still to be asleep.

“I heard you,” she said. “You and Gray.” She rolled over and sat up. Strands of hair were matted to her face.

I opened the chest of drawers and pulled out a t-shirt.

“You know, now would be a good time to say something,” she said.

I couldn’t breathe.

“Just so you know,” she said, “Since you apparently aren’t going to ask, we did it because we had been drinking and I felt like it and I had forgotten all about you. We didn’t even think you’d be coming out. You and Carrie.”

As I dressed, I felt a stiffness in my body, but I would not look at her, would not acknowledge her.

“Gray told me she’s been coming over to listen to you play piano. He says she’s not capable of an affair. I’m sure you wish I were more like her, more, let’s see, what’s the right word, simpler, self-effacing. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. Hell, I don’t even give a shit anymore. I don’t even want you. I haven’t wanted you for a long time.”

She flung herself back on the bed and pulled up the covers. I slammed the door shut and the window rattled down the hall. I slept in my son’s room. I thanked God he and his sister were with other people for the night.

I had a thought that perhaps every parent has at least once, but that I’ve had many times recently: That our children would have been better served by others. I continued to have this thought as Lena moved out and we began divorce proceedings and custody battles.

A few weeks before my divorce was final, I mastered that nocturne, the one by Chopin.

Dark Hearts

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goandgo, flickr

heart by goandgo, flickr

Continuing on with Valentine’s Day celebration is a stark little story called Dark Hearts. It is amazing how much pathos exists in life and in stories when the subject is economic disparity. More than heartache, the despair of falling short and not being able to take part lives long and cuts deep.

Dark Hearts

It was Valentine’s night and Vicky only had fifteen dollars. When Jim her husband passed out, she told her daughters she had an errand to do and they were to go to their rooms without disturbing their father.

It was a freezing New Hampshire night, the temperature hovering somewhere around zero. The drive was icy and the Corolla was almost cowering it seemed, begging her to be left alone under its blanket of snow. But she scraped the hood and windows clean and ran the engine. She took off down the drive. She arrived at the grocery a few minutes before the 9:00 close.

She swept through the doors of the brightly lit market, the place as strangely cold as the outside but in a different way. She wheeled the cart to the front of the store where the boxes of candy hearts and stuffed bears had been that morning. They weren’t there. They were tucked off to the side, out of the way, by the wine. A big sign over the table said “40% off our everyday low prices.” Still, it wasn’t enough of a discount. She couldn’t buy each of her girls her own heart of chocolates and her own bear.

There were a couple of boys standing nearby gawking at the table of extravagant after-thoughts.

This, Vicky said to herself, was an opportunity. The only one, short of shoplifting.

“Yeah, my girlfriend would kill me if she knew I was buying her Valentine’s stuff on sale,” one of them was saying, the tall one with a protruding Adam’s apple and light fuzz on his lip.

And at that point, Vicky enacted her plan.

“But what would your girlfriend think if you brought her sparkling wine?” she said brightly. She knew of some cheap stuff she could let on that she was going to buy for them, wine they could not buy for themselves, being so obviously under age. She could let on she was going to buy it for them and they would think they owed her.

“I’ve always had a fantasy,” she said, getting between the boys, threading her arms through theirs. “I want a double valentine. Do you know what it is I’m saying?”

The boys nodded and laughed with their newly minted voices.

“I think I would like that,” she said, “very much.” She gazed steadily into the eyes of the one with the fuzzy lip. He looked older, like he could be the leader of the two of them though not the leader of many more.

“Why don’t we all meet in the bathroom?” she said. “I’ll bring something to drink. How about that?”

They started quaking and laughing nervously.

“But first, you have to do something for me.” She pressed herself up against the leader. “I want both of you to ask me to be your valentine. I want a bear and a heart and a balloon from each of you. Do you think your girlfriends would mind?”

“I think we’re not going to tell ‘em, lady,” said the fuzzy peach lip and they both laughed some more, with a skittery, tremulous quality to their voices.

“Leave my valentines with the cashier. I’ll get wine and I’ll see you in the bathroom.” She kissed the one to seal it.

As soon as the boys made the purchases and disappeared into the men’s room, she grabbed the hearts, animals, and balloons from the cashier and took off in the Corolla.

At home, the smell of spaghetti sauce still sweet and cloying in the air, she found Jim sitting at the table.

“You were out,” he said.

“The store was having a sale on valentines.” She didn’t care what he knew or how he felt. She had hoped he would be asleep and that the girls could have an evening with their gifts but she had left the purchases in the car just in case.

“How come you have money for something like that?” he said. He slammed his whiskey glass down. “Let me see this bullshit.”

He went out to the car and tore open the door. He pulled out the balloons, candy, and bears. He ripped at them, flinging them about the yard, the chocolates flying, one of the bears falling into a ditch, the balloons drifting down in tatters.

“Why do you always like to make me feel like a monster?” he said. “But you know, you’ve never been nothing but a whore since the day I met you.”

She would leave in the morning when he was still getting over what he’d done to himself. And when her girls saw the chocolates, the punctured balloons, and bears drowning in the snow, they would go and not make a fuss.

Amy

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SONY DSC

Bright side by Ben Raynal, flickr

There are significant moments in everyone’s day that can make literature. That’s what you ought to write about.
— Raymond Carver

Moments of literature do not have to be actual moments of a writer’s life, but moments that could be a part of anyone’s daily life. Raymond Carver is one of my favorite writers of short fiction and he makes profound use of realistic elements. Here is a tiny story for your Valentine’s Day told in the style of realism. Love to you, and happiness.

Amy

He stood at the foot of her son’s bunkbed. She had slept there the night before, her son being grown and in college. He had been dating her for about six months, but had not succeeded in getting her to sleep the entire night with him. She slept alone.

She reached out and touched the name stitched on his shirt. He kissed her lips. She wore only gloss. He liked that.

“I want to make you some coffee,” she said.

Her hair was mussed up. He wanted to forget his scruples, drop his pants, and climb right into her child’s bed, but he was running late.

“I don’t have time.” It was cold outside. He had to get the truck started. “OK, make me coffee, would ya? And chop, chop.” He patted her bottom.

She would pour him a steaming pint in his big thermos with cream and sugar and he would drink from it slowly to make it last. He would make sure everyone noticed its presence too, clinking it down here or there.

When he came back into the house, she was on the kitchen counter, kneeling, stretching for a bag of sugar.

“Watch it now, baby,” he said, trying to scold her, though he had caught a glimpse of her dimpled thigh under her nightshirt. He knew he would remember it all day. He pulled her down and retrieved the sugar. She took it from him with her icy, thin fingers.

“Let’s get married,” he said.

She didn’t look up to meet his gaze. She held the bag over the mouth of the thermos. As he watched a seemingly endless white stream fall into his coffee, he felt a pressure on his chest.

“Yes,” she said. When he looked up, he saw that she was watching his face, was not watching the sugar, was smiling in that way she saved for things that secretly pleased her.

Valentine’s Sugar Water Love

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A Bird in a Gilded Cage by Jeanne, flickr

A Bird in a Gilded Cage by Jeanne, flickr

Oh lady, how is it you are caged again despite the tatters of your plumage, evidence of former loves’ ravishing and broken promises, cheeping meekly your protest and your cause fading as it is among desert blooms in a noonday heat under a new lover’s burning interest. The gilding on the wires, the prettiness of the perch were the wild proclamations of love you accepted despite yourself. And you tasted without wisdom the pink sugar water in the little bowl, delicious but without nutrients.

Are you no different from the old text’s version of you blaming you for lust of the eyes and desire for possession, the taker of the fruit, the ruination of the world? If so you have been tricked by becoming a possession yourself, a possession of the man who only proclaims but does not understand, the worn out troubadour intent on his fame but not married to the idea of actual love.

Dear Lady: How is it you never remember that the ones who declare their greatest love early, a morning mist disappearing in the late morning sun, convince themselves and maybe some small part of you that this time it is life and not death? No matter that you said you would never be trapped by anyone who did not care to know your treasured secrets, tender details, beating heart.

Take heart. You know you are finding your strength when, after the bloom falls from the rose, your thoughts and feelings rise up, those old girlhood bones, causing your suitor to blink, stumbling in your blinding light. How he had not anticipated the murder of the scrim of the false lover’s reality. How he underestimated the individual he has enslaved behind it.

She has a will and a conscience and a mind and needs! How awful these stabs to his eyes! How cruel the world of women he thinks, how cruel and ungrateful this one! he says. No appreciation of the gilded cage, the golden perch! The thing has escaped, is flying outside, around and around, wild and uncivil, its leg uncuffed and the sugar water left behind in the bowl.

 

Mrs. Pompidou

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honesty by only alice, flickr

honesty by only alice, flickr

Mrs. Pompidou was troubled again. The traffic jams in her hair were becoming quite the nuisance. When Mr. Pompidou passed, it was quite beside her to know how to deal, what with all the gridlock among her roots, the accidents on the bridges and arches of updos whose structures were collapsing under her aged, weakening hair. She needed a miracle, she needed a sculptress with an investment in lacquer and confidence in engineering with a certain “je ne sais quoi” to ease her troubled mind. She missed her beloved Henry who would wrap her hair in the evenings and help her sit upright in bed in the mornings, blowing on her curls and byways to get the traffic flowing again, making appointments for her when it was time for repair. She had found little respite from her sense of loss and spent some time in the mornings by her rotating fan, remembering his gentle ministrations.

She was 80 she didn’t mind telling Molly Popkins who wheedled and fussed over her at the Curling Salon. Dear Molly, whose hair was more like a train slightly derailed, one half of her hair cut short and the other suspended in free fall, a giant blue waterfall. Mrs. Pompidou had read in the magazine she picked up from the grocery every week that there was a lot less respect for symmetry in hairstyles these days. “It’s too matchy match” complained the world super model whose middle aged body looked more like a woman of 20, the middle aged model who donned her belly button in a very public self-promoting lingerie clothing line. “Matchy match” had become an anathema though Mrs. Pompidou had grown up in an age of classic architecture, an age in which jarring others with a sense of disproportion was impolite at best, insane at worst.

Yet Leyla Pompidou has decided to disturb the salon with her own sense of immediacy, of a worsening crisis on her head. There was a part of her that was even a little happy to create her own train wreck when she showed up unexpectedly, her rusting Chevrolet sputtering forth protest, and Leyla, tiny body and all purse, nails, and hair, clomping across the hot Florida asphalt in her cream block heels. She liked the effect it created when she pulled the door to its fullest, hyperextending it as if it were a double joint, stirring the bells to jangle in shrill alarm.

This was critical, the way she entered, the way they all started, for her hair could never be allowed to relax and they should all be on alert. She had felt the ghost of her Henry speaking to her from his portrait over the mantel, telling her to please stay the Leyla he had always known, his “petite chou” and she would be damned if she was about to let him down now. It was in her hair, French tips, and screaming orange lips she would remain despite the waterfalls around her, the sloppily drawn glosses, unnatural colors, despite Molly Popkins’ lectures. “It is time for a change, Mrs. Pompidou,” she would say and so Leyla was deeply suspect of the sink, deep conditioning treatments, long toothed combs like saber tooth tigers threatening to take her starch.

She was able to freshen her French tips with Mrs. Byrd while she waited for Molly to help her, Mrs. Byrd who understood, whose age Leyla guessed to be around sixty and whose husband had died trying to trap nonnative game in the Everglades. Mrs. Byrd understood the importance of classic beauty in the face of the wilderness, in the face of changing times. She spoke under her breath about the changing shapes and colors of nails, for the worse, she said, the colors of bruises and burned suns, shapes like sickles.

“Let’s wash your hair today,” said Molly when Mrs. Byrd had done and Leyla was clawed and properly manicured.

“I object, you know that ma belle.”

“It’s time,” said Molly and she called for an assistant to help, to help seat Leyla in a reclining chair by a sink and assist Leyla in staying still for the procedure.

“Oh no, oh no!” said Leyla. “My Henry would not approve! Oh how you are treating me! He will blow through this door tonight and destroy everything! You are warned!”

And then she felt the trickle of warm water work like fingers through her roads and beltways, her tall buildings and tenement blocks. She heard the cry of her people as they were funneled down the sink, though some managed to make it out of the flood altogether and bounce upon her shoulder and down upon the floor, scattering and skittering hither and yon across the floor.

“I am worried about you Mrs. Pompidou,” said Molly Popkins. “There could be bugs in here. At Curls we want to help you. Don’t you think that’s what your Henry would have wanted?”

“Oh not like this, not like this!” Mrs. Pompidou began to worry about the glue on her lashes. Just how undignified was she becoming? And to suggest she had bugs in her hair! To even think such a thing! Henry had always attended her appointments, to make Mrs. Pompidou happy, to take her out for dinner afterwards, and a trip to her favorite consignment store for a few antique baubles. Henry, so stately and strong, sitting, waiting for her with his legs crossed, wearing his smart suit, his Wall Street Journal snapped out and open before him. He owned some cane fields and they had wanted for little though they were by no means rich. Yet he would never have stood for this. And who would rebuild what they had built together – the updos upon updos, the fragile intricate weave delicate and strong?

They sat her up and put a towel to her head. “Henry, Henry!” she said extending a pointy nailed finger to indicate some man framed by the window beside the door. Molly motioned the man over and Leyla saw it was only a boy waiting for his mother, a long tall teenage boy she knew from church. “It will be alright, Mrs. Pompidou, it will be alright even though Henry is with God now. You’ll see.”

“Oh you young people know nothing!” she snapped, though she instantly felt guilty and so patted the young man’s hand in reassurance. “Of course you’re right, and how silly of me, a crazy old woman. You see, I’ve just lost all my people. I’ve lost all my roads and infrastructure.”

“Shall we rebuild, then?” said Molly, hopefully, and she began to blow out Mrs. Pompidou’s clean hair while the boy returned to his chair. Molly embarked on the process of cement, of lacquer, of shoveling up, dry setting, soldering. She built mile after mile. She stood on a block to reach the top, to create spires, curls, finials, flowers. It wasn’t the same as when Henry had lived and yet when she returned home again and set a cup of warm tea before his portrait, she felt a warm flush in the house, a glow, his approval.

She had forgotten her bauble. She rushed off in the Chevy.

Rhonda

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This post contains mature subject matter.

skeleton by maria teresa adalid, flickr

skeleton by Maria Teresa Adalid, flickr

Marie spends her days drawing blood from women whose veins hide behind layers of subcutaneous fat, cells furiously hoarding water. The women come to The Clinic to finally and once and for all time Lose Weight.

Marie wears the soft dusty rose scrubs of nurses and staff, a pair of scrubs which are now deliciously loose against her skin. Though they are a few sizes smaller than when she first started working there, her progress is ongoing, even though she has surpassed her initial Goal. Soon it will be time to order a pair in a size she hadn’t worn since the eighth grade. She feels light and frail and powerful all at once.

She has only been working as a phlebotomist for a few months and whenever she makes a successful blood draw on the first try, she relishes the prospect of telling The Doctor who never seems to tire of hearing of her accomplishments, however small. Like when she finally made Goal Weight.

When they rang the bell for her after Weigh In that Best Day of All Days, signifying her Victory, all of the staff and other patients came out of cubbyholes, offices, and the officer manager played Alicia Keyes over the sound system the song “Girl on Fire,” the music video on every screen and the staff sang it for her loudly and cheerfully, arm and arm. The Clinic manager handed her a gift basket of candle, water bottle, diet powdered instant soups and lemonade.

But the best part of all, The Doctor gave her a huge hug after their exit interview. It was long and warm and sweet, and he held her tight against him like this was the reward for finally having A Body, A Real Body. On her way out she had almost gotten to her car but decided to come back and asked to speak to the doctor. She explained she was recently divorced but had trained as a phlebotomist in order to support herself. She wasn’t sure what made her flush more in front of him: That she had confessed to being recently divorced or that she was so bold in propositioning herself for a job. In a few weeks, there was an opening.

In the first few days, whenever she had made a successful first draw, she met him between patients with the vial of blood though he had told her repeatedly to take it directly to the lab. He still smiled at her anyway and took care of it himself, the contents of that draw necessary to understand clients’ status in the world of Health and Happiness.

Soon she would understand what to do with the blood and the true nature of his feelings, he told himself. He was used to crushes and usually found if he gave someone a little attention first he could gently transition them into realistic expectations. Perhaps it was how vulnerable they had been with him, coming to him as they were initially in their distress, and allowing him to help. He found it created a bond which he didn’t find altogether unpleasant but there were moments of discomfort.

“Thank you,” he would say gently and touch her on the elbow which unbeknownst to him she had creamed with a $150 jar of stem cell moisturizer, wrapping it in plastic wrap for absorption, preparing for the following day when he will touch her there. “Just remember to take this directly to the lab next time,” and he would smile, disengaging himself.

“You like that doctor,” says her roommate, Rhonda, who is a skeleton. “You got the hots for him.”

Rhonda lives in the closet beside Marie’s front door. She likes the confinement when alone but bursts out as soon as Marie crosses the threshold. She is not too bad looking as far as skeletons go. She has some of her long blond hair and she had Marie buy her false eyelashes and a padded bra.

Some of Marie’s boyfriends have enjoyed having sex with Rhonda. You would think this would not be the case since she is all bone, but it just goes to prove the very thing Marie’s mother has told her all along: Men just want something to rub up against.

When Rhonda has seduced her dates into the bed, Marie waits until their groaning ceases. She waits in the kitchen while she writes in her food diary what she has eaten and how many minutes she has exercised and at what intensity level and whether the exercises were cardio or anaerobic.

Always the men who have fallen for Rhonda’s ploys and dirty invitations, who have fallen into bed with her, leave with their eyes downcast. They do not come into the kitchen to say good bye to Marie. Their self-abasement saves Marie the trouble of having to break it off with them.

“You want to screw him,” says Rhonda of Marie’s feelings for Dr. Wideman. This is after Ricky had fled the apartment, practically in tears. Marie is pretty sure he’s never had sex with a skeleton. She’d known him since grade school. He’s even been a student at the seminary.

“I wish you’d stop seducing my friends.” She checks her Maintenance Plan. It is time for a boiled egg. “Would you like an egg?”

Rhonda is smoking her Pall Malls. “I’d like a stack of pancakes with bacon on top and syrup drizzled all over.”

Marie puts on the coffee. She slips in some decaf though Rhonda would want the straight stuff but she wants to go to bed. She’d been noticing the deepening of the lines around her eyes and mouth when she stayed up for one of Rhonda’s chats.

“I want you to go to this man tomorrow and I want you to say ‘I want to fuck you,’ just like that, right into his ear.”

“I can’t use that word.”

Marie gently lowers a brown egg from the fridge into the boiling water with a kitchen spider. The egg clinks lightly against the bottom but holds together. She puts in another egg for Rhonda in case she changes her mind. Rhonda knows Marie doesn’t keep pancake mix or bacon or syrup. House Rules.

“One time I used that line on a man, I got him right away. He cleared his desk. We did it again the next day, and the next. He gave up his girlfriend. We did it so many times he lost his job.”

Marie sorts her mail while Rhonda smokes, putting letters in her tiered wall system – read, pay, respond – and placing catalogues in a little basket she keeps below. Now that she is almost of a fashion viable weight, shopping for herself is enjoyable.

Marie pulls each egg out with the spider, placing each in a milk glass bowl passed down from her grandmother. She puts one before Rhonda, one at her place and puts a plate in the middle for the peel and a silver salt shaker, also her grandmother’s.

“I don’t want this,” says Rhonda, pushing the bowl away, causing the bottom to catch on the plastic cloth protecting the cherry wood table, nearly toppling the egg.

Marie puts the egg in the refrigerator for tomorrow and returns the salt to her spice rack. The salt had been for Rhonda. Sometimes the extra seasoning helps Marie stick with the diet but she doesn’t generally advocate salt or salty products at The Center. To help clients navigate this for such things as eating eggs, she recommends a no sodium stone ground mustard to mix into the mashed up cooked egg to make a kind of egg salad.

She herself forgoes even this, relishing instead the plain fleshy cooked white outer meat, just a bit more set than a well steamed flan, and the yolk rich and chalky, forcing her to drink a glass water to get it all down. The slight pain and deprivation seemed right somehow, and cleansing. Oh and that long hug from Him on that Best Day of All Days!

“When you get the doctor in the room,” says Rhonda, leaning into the table, her forearms flat against the plastic cloth, “Put his dick in your mouth.” And she inserts her middle finger between her teeth. “But take care to use your lips!” And with her other hand she encircles her teeth with her forefinger and thumb to simulate lips. “Hahaha!” She cackles, slapping her bone hand down hard on the table, and bounces up and down in her chair so that it clacks and scrapes against the tile.

Eddie the apartment manager had come by one night when they were up talking like this saying neighbors were complaining. They said it sounded like Marie was moving furniture at 2 in the morning. Marie had only opened the door a crack so he couldn’t see inside, so he couldn’t see Rhonda.

“Well take it easy will you, ok?” he said, softening after she explained, contrite, that yes, she was moving a few things. She closed the door gently to prove she meant to be the perfect, perfect neighbor. Besides, he was always nice to her. He had helped her move in. And he was always asking after her in a way that made Marie feel better, like she had a family member close by, though she couldn’t have him in because she couldn’t be sure of Rhonda.

“Time to party,” says Rhonda, pushing back from the table and clacking across the kitchen in her heels. She slams her closet door. Soon Marie can hear a riot of bones as Rhonda masturbates.

Marie puts a pot of water on for chamomile tea. She decides not to risk the coffee with her sour stomach. She would not be able to eat her egg until Rhonda calms down and goes to sleep. Her orgasms were always numerous, loud, and lengthy as she moans and slams against the walls of the closet.

When at last she hears Rhonda snoring she peel hesr treat, her delicious evening meal, the Doctor had said.

“The egg is a gift to yourself,” the Doctor had told her that initial meeting when he explained the basics of the diet to her. “It is the perfect meal, along with the vegetables I have listed for you on your plan. You will be so happy you found this little miracle worker. And you will be happy you have found all of us, at The Clinic. We will all become your very best allies.”

On that day of The First Day of the Rest of Her Life, she was thanking her guardian angel for guiding her into how to spend a portion of the settlement from the divorce: On a Plan to Get Her Body Back. Those hazel eyes of his stirred something deep in her, not just a heart skipping way but also in a stirring in her hips. She knew with everything that was within her he saw her beauty, he was going to help draw it out, unveiled, naked, dewy, made young.

The Doctor reminded Marie of her pastor when she was young and went to church with her family, on the days they took communion: “And Jesus said ‘Take, eat, all of you, this is my body which is broken for you. As often as you eat of it you do so in remembrance of me.” The Doctor had that same benevolent, beatific quality as her pastor, but her pastor had never been able to help her with her real problem, which was her inability to stop eating.

The egg feels good on her teeth as she bites through the flesh and straight through to the yolk. She drinks ice water, really cold “to shock the system” he had told her though in her nursing training she had never heard anything about the benefits of the temperature of water in the body, though Jesus did say something about lukewarm water. He didn’t like it and said he would spit it out.

Rhonda is still asleep when she leaves for work the next morning, which is usually the case. Marie had stayed up late the night before to launder her new, smaller rose colored scrubs, a pair she has decided to finally wear to show to maximum effect her more streamlined body. Now she is a size six. At her Goal she was a size ten which, according to the Doctor was average and healthy for her height and build. What the Doctor and most men didn’t know, however, that to a woman size six was most desired of all the sizes, no matter the supposed health and desirability of other larger sizes at whatever height.

She had bought a new soft burgundy cardigan to wear with her new scrubs. She curls her hair and sets it high on her head. She takes even more care with her makeup, jewelry , and perfume. This is the day something would happen. She isn’t sure what, but she would get closer to him, close enough to feel the heat of him rise from his muscular frame. He would start to learn, really know, how she feels about him, and she feels most prepared to show him, what with this smaller body and the clothes to match.

But he doesn’t come to work that day. She feels faint and has to sit down. During the couple of weeks leading up to her final “reveal,” she had sharply curtailed all carbs and drank water constantly. Coupled with her frantic, almost manic, vertiginous climb to her best self for this Special Day, she was disorientated. The other nurses coached her to put her head between her knees. One of them drove her home while the other followed behind in her car.

“Is everything ok?” says Eddie at his office door as the nurses walked in, guiding Marie between them.

They explain the situation to him and agree to let Marie stay in his office while she recovers enough to be on her own. “Please feed her something,” one of them said. “I think she feels a bit weak.”

He takes her in gently, holding her by the elbow with one hand the waist by the other. He is a large man, but not unpleasantly so, the kind of man The Doctor would have attempted to diet down a bit, but he seems comfortable with himself. Marie feels the soft plushness of him as he guides her to sit on the couch under the window.

“I am worried about you, Marie,” he says gently. “Can I call you by your first name?” He had always called her Ms. Stapleton.

She nods.

“Would it be ok if I made you something?”

She nods again.

He softly claps his hands together, happy for the order. In his kitchenette, he warms a pot of cheddar bacon potato soup that he had made for himself the night before. He puts it on a tv tray along with a side of saltines.

Everything on her plate is such a No No, thinks Marie. She would never had eaten this on her own. But somehow with Eddie, she didn’t feel overly uncomfortable.

“Here, I like to put a little extra cheese on the top,” he says, and sprinkles some shredded cheddar on her soup with his big soft thick fingers.

She hesitates, her spoon hovering over the impossibly loaded bowl of fat and carbs, but then, diving in, she takes a sip.

“See, isn’t that nice?”

She doesn’t answer but takes another sip and another. Salty, fatty, buttery, cheesy, potatoey. Yum, says her body.

He turns on the tv for her. A news program about the traffic in the city, then the weather.

What if she had met Eddie earlier under different circumstances? Would she have children by now? Would she be fat with happiness and comfort? Would she be yelling at their kids and chasing them, worrying over them? Would she be nagging and arguing with Eddie but would they laugh about it later and make love or be tense some nights but know, overall, things would be fine? Would they be poor but happy with it and go to church as one big happy scruffy mess?

When Eddie takes her back to her apartment he asks her if he could call her. She nods. “Maybe you would like to go see a movie.”

She loved the movies. It had been a long time. She had been afraid of the smell of the fattening, delicious popcorn.

As if reading her mind, he says, “I’ll bet you love popcorn.”

She smiles, the first time he’d ever seen her smile.

“We’ll get a big tub of it and put it right between us.” He says, pleased with himself. He says he will call her to set something up for the following weekend and touches her shoulder. “Call me if you need anything before then, ok? And I mean, anything, Marie.”

When she is inside her small cluster of rooms, she leans her back against the door. How different this day has been from what she had anticipated. But she isn’t upset, just a little shocked.

A warm glow emanates from her sheers, the still early hour of the working day, just past noon, an hour she isn’t usually home to witness. She could indulge in a movie on television and work on her needlepoint. Or she could read a book. It amazes her to think she isn’t thinking about food – what to eat or what she couldn’t eat. All she wants to think about is what she can actually do, things she enjoyed doing in the days she wasn’t worried about Being the Best Version of Herself.

And there is quiet. No banging around in the closet. She opens the door. There is nothing. She closes the door. It is once more a place for guests to hang their coats.

We Awake

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girl, ocean, brush by

girl, brush, ocean and window by Jacopo Ramei, flickr

The tide pushes through the bottom of the door where we sleep on our mattresses. The water fingers our hair. It rises to the level of our windows and pulls us to sea where we rock upon the mournful waves, the seagulls distant and crying, our nightgowns soaked and sticking to us, our bedclothes heavy. We roll over, pressing our faces into saturated pillows.

We sleep through the day, the sun burning our throats, our foreheads, our lips. At low tide, the water leaves us on the beach. The crabs fashion the tresses of our hair and pinch our ears, but we dream of overprotective aunts and punishments. Our mother is crying but we can barely move or open our eyes.

It is dark again and a cool black wave, gently and firmly as a father, moves us into our room. We hear the gentle heaving sighings of waves, of giants, rumbling over, making us feel small and when we open our eyes, finally, to the night, we are not in water at all but are wakeful, dry, and blind.

First appeared in Corium Magazine

Bluebeard’s Kingdom

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ice hotel by isen majennt, flickr

Ice Hotel by Isen Majennt, flickr

One day the world turned to ice. The world melted for a time but the melt pouring into the oceans at such a rate that currents were interrupted. And then the earth did what it did, its pendulum swung and froze continents and the waters between continents, gobbling up terra firma, crops, grazing pastures, cities, suburbs. Snow fell at alarming rates, power grids shut down, famine swept Europe, North America, and the East. Only parts of the southern hemisphere were spared.

Governments disintegrated as the raw fight for survival took the place of societal structures and what rose in its place: Kingdoms, monarchies, ruled by those adept at knowing what to do in the roughest conditions. A group of convicts, having escaped when the shutdown of electric power reversed locking mechanisms in prisons, were found to be most one of these most resourceful and quickly rose to power.

One such man was Bluebeard. A leader among his peers and greatly feared by even the most brutal, he established his kingdom in Northern Europe, having conscripted the vast gang of his brotherhood as his henchmen. He envisioned for himself a vast dominion and began creation of his ice kingdom, drafting those who had worked in ice in commercial and artistic projects in the Old World to build his palaces.

As for the average person, there was chaos and starvation, desperation. The world fell into famine. Crops and stores of crops soon disappeared. Children were given chunks of ice to suck on when hungry and soon that became their sole consolation. In the early days of the Global Freeze, when money had value, those who had saved money were able to send family members further south to an uncertain but perhaps better future. Those who could not afford to do so or who were too old or infirm to travel stayed and bartered with whatever was left them: furniture sold for wood, matches for canned goods, sex for dried meats. It even happened in some families that it became necessary to sell children.

One such child had been Helene Goode. In fact, her brother and sister had previously been sold as stopgaps, her father having held onto her as long as he could. But at last, even her usefulness to him did not outweigh the desperate needs of his stomach and the cravings of his wife. And so they sent her on her way in exchange for something more valuable than money: a whole reindeer, a steel and flint, a cord of wood.

Helene was only thirteen when she was paraded into the courtyard of Bluebeard, a chain around her waist, tied to other girls like they were a daisy chain she used to make in summer for her sister Anna. Anna is here somewhere, thought Helene, and despite the pulling and tugging of the girl in front of her and behind, she began to look around, as if Anna at that very moment might be wandering the ice cobblestone streets. And where was her brother Henry? She could not imagine. Of what use would he be here? All that had concerned him in the Old World was a wooden car he pushed around the house, making car noises, pushing air through his pursed lips, drooling a bit. She smiled when she thought of it.

“What are you smiling about?” said the Talent Collector, coming up beside her with a whip she held in her hands. The Talent Collector had grabbed her arm when her father led the reindeer away to their shed. She had put Helene into one of several huge woven cages along the back of the sleigh, her mother crying and calling out to her, handing her a necklace that had been her grandmother’s.

“I’ll take that,” the Talent Collector said, grabbing the necklace with a greedy hand from where she sat on the driver’s bench. She stuffed it into the folds of her dress and Helene never saw it again. It was her grandmother’s cameo. “Your mother just feels guilty she sold you,” said the old woman, heartlessly, and cracked her whip over the animals who jolted to life.

It had been her family’s fortune that Helene had worked in ice every year, had received a special dispensation from regular schooling and had received scholarships to make the trips. Young though she was, her time as an intern in polar Sweden shaping ice sculptures and also as an assistant at local competitions fetched for her parents’ survival through the winter. The old woman could be as nasty as she wished.

Helene only prayed the extent of her talents had not been common knowledge: the unnatural pace with which she molded her creations in ice, her communion with and understanding of water.

Helene had known the ice was coming, she knew of snow. She knew it before it was being broadcast, when it first hit Europe. It was a creaking in her bones, a roaring in her ears. She was most sensitive to it, at night, lights out, and she felt it, heard it approach, nearer and nearer.

When she had helped build ice hotels and theme parks for rich tourists, she had only heard singing, music, the sound of bells – some deep and sonorous and rich, some light and tinkling. But when the ice was approaching on the whole of the earth, it was in her ears, the whole of the orchestra playing at once in a riotous cacophony. When it invaded her days as well as her nights, she began worrying for her mother and father, her brother and sister.

Standing before Bluebeard in his palace of ice, his massive figure clad in the skin of a bear, she saw beyond the throne something that would give her life purpose beyond survival: blocks of ice composing the walls of the court were blocks of frozen children.

“We do it to preserve them,” said Bluebeard, his face crisscrossed by a deep blue tattoo, giving his light blue eyes a washed out appearance, a sense of laser penetration. “Maybe some day we’ll learn how to use these creatures again, or eat them,” he said, laughing, throwing back his fur clad head and bearing teeth filed to points.

Somewhere in these blocks was Anna, Henry. She cast out her thoughts to the blocks but in return received nothing back. Silence.

She had never encountered this before. In Bluebeard, she had a formidable opponent. He ruled even her thoughts.

But ghosts also came to her from water, ghosts of people who had died at the hands of currents and accidents in ice. Working in Sweden had taught her she could find the burial ground of lost children and pets though she would never reveal what led her there, only that she had happened upon them when exploring.

She bid her time until even Bluebeard gave over his evil schemes to night. She convinced the guards she had night repairs to make in the ice. Ice workers were given the benefit of a lantern and a few rudimentary tools. She stood on the massive floor stained to look like an intricately carved ornamental rug and she called out to her sister and brother: Anna! Henry! She called out to them again and again, her breath pluming up in the light of the lantern.

A ghost in water sound was unlike any other pure ice sound. It was a low bassoon, though in the case of children, often a high flute. The sounds of these ghosts in ice had often reminded her of Prokiev’s Peter in the Wolf recording her mother used to play for them in which the bird song is a high flute and the grandfather is a low grumpy bassoon.

It was then, upon summoning them, that the ice gave over what they contained: two flutes trilling and climbing in distress and alarm. Anna and Henry!

She ran to where they cried out, one not far from the other and it was as Helene experienced in other times of spying the dead frozen in ice: Their musical screams from dead blazing faces, faces trapped in shock and alarm. It was an odd combination though Helene had become used to it and began thinking of it as another way all of life communicates though most never hear it.

“I will get you out!” She promises them. Anna is in an ice block only a few blocks from Henry, frozen as if she were in mid stride and trying to say something at the same time. Henry, a few ice blocks away, was frozen on his knees as he pushes his wooden car.

Helene wanted to break down from her grief but her experience seeing people and animals this way helps her remain calm before children who needed comfort.

In her bed of ice that night in the worker’s quarters where she was afforded a mattress and covering of bear fur, she cried silently to herself over what she knew: There would be no life left for her Anna and Henry. She had been enabled to hear people frozen in ice but that didn’t mean they were still alive. They were simply trapped. It was a state of unendurable misery. She made her plans for the tyrant who had made easy sport of innocents.

The next morning, Bluebeard was sitting down to breakfast, his favorite: blueberry pancakes with the wheat from fields he was harvesting in the southern hemisphere, blueberries that grew aplenty in his crops. Mid bite, he froze. Yes, literally. A sheet of water leapt from the buckets held over flames for the purpose of his laundry and ablutions and froze him in a solid wall of blue and white crystalline wonder, his pointed teeth bared, his laser blue eyes held in shocked amazement.

Helene thanked the servants for entry into the dining hall and requested a pancake. She folded it and put it into her mouth. Heavenly. The servants would have been given gruel. She used their befuddlement to command them to make all servants the luxurious breakfast. They did so, as ordered, digging deep into Bluebeard’s larder, and a long line filed in to pile their plates high with a rare treat and to gaze at their frozen, malevolent king. And no one knew quite what to make of the girl who, with a wave of her hand, commanded a sheet of water fall on this ravenous oligarch and freeze him to death. But they knew it would be a very fine day.

And at the command of Helene, ice blocks of children were exchanged for ice blocks of henchman, and children were laid to rest in memorial gardens of ice painted to resemble flowers.

Helene could hear music again. It sounded of water. It sounded of home.

Valentine Says Goodbye to Christmas

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christmas tree farm by washington state department

Christmas tree farm by Washington State Department of Agriculture

It was that time of year again when evergreen trees were brought in from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington to be sold in Orlando, Florida to loving families who would decorate their arms with lights and chains of beads, glass ornaments, homely and sentimental ornaments, ornaments collected from trips and black Friday sales and school and church craft shows, regifted gift ornaments, white elephant ornaments, grandmother’s ornaments, Christmas wedding shower ornaments, estate and garage sale ornaments, ornaments from the Winter Park Art Festival, the Orlando Museum of Art, Disney, the flea market.

Valentine Halle was a prominent socialite in town who, every year, could make several trees last for almost an eternity, until the end of February, ignoring all pleas of her husband and family to strip the trees bare and put them on the curb already. But according to Valentine, to do it too soon would be a little like prematurely putting old family members out to pasture. Almost every year she just couldn’t bring herself to do it until at last her family lured her away on false pretenses and arranged for someone to bring the holiday to a close.

Trees were not much different from people in that they wanted to live a long life. Only a few people seemed to care about a tree’s desires and one of them was Valentine. If we were to understand trees a bit more, however, they may have one limitation: The tendency to impute purely unselfish motives to people. Yet their faith was born fully formed and never died, continuing even beyond the cutting at Christmas as trees stood in stands of water, beneath skirts. And that was the real reason people wanted trees as decorations in their homes – the faith the trees had in humans – though most people did not realize this, only felt it somehow, like feeling the effect of a dream but not being able to recall what it was upon waking.

It was thanks to migrating mockingbirds, gossipy chatterboxes, that trees further north on tree farms came to know of Valentine’s reputation. Charlie, Jamal, Tina, Fiona – Balsam and Fraser firs – had been spied standing in the cool shadows of the living room, front entry, children’s nursery, and those were just a few of their numbers known to have lived at Valentine’s house. Furthermore, Valentine’s reputation as an excellent cook and hostess were reported upon by mockingbirds, keen little buggers, who could smell delicious fragrances from the kitchen and who spied well coiffed ladies and gentlemen and their children streaming in and out of the house. In fact, as far as Christmas trees were concerned, Valentine’s home was considered one of the best ways to finish out one’s life.

How long the people of earth have relied on them, the trees said, conferring about this together on the farm, the older, taller trees teaching the younger ones, all of them growing together. They would all be cut down for varying purposes and at various times, and yet they shared their history and the meaning of it: For as long as the winter solstice was celebrated all over the world, the deep green boughs were brought into homes. And as time went on, the custom transferred into a way to celebrate the life of a religious figure. Entire trees were cut down and brought inside. These legends were passed down through communities of trees so all would know their noble and sacrificial purpose.

It was February of the year Amicia the Fraser fir had found a place in the home of Valentine Halle. And it was time for Amicia to come down. She had been chosen for a special place beside the fire in the living though not so close her needles became dry. It was a cherished position though each tree had its function: Ichiyo the twelve foot Douglas greeted visitors in the entry, Livia the Noble entertained the now grown children in the nursery, adult children who continued the tradition of sleeping there Christmas Eve, except now they drank wine and spoke of their friends and colleges and days past.

In the living room where Valentine and Thomas each sat in their own chair, silent in the evenings after all the parties, Amicia observed their quiet dynamic before the fire, Thomas with his paper and his pipe, Valentine with her embroidery, the grandfather clock against the wall by the entryway a silent father, approving and dozing until it startled to life and sputtered the passing of time on the quarter hour.

Valentine’s reputation had held through Amicia’s experience and true to everyone’s word, Amicia had lasted beautifully for three months with few needles dropped to her skirt beneath.

Alone after Thomas had gone to bed, Valentine pulled her chair up to Amicia. She spoke to her then in a language Amicia had quickly absorbed.

“Thomas is taking me away for my birthday tomorrow,” she said. She held an ornament in her fingers that was dangling from a branch, a Lenox figurine, a bottle of champagne in a bucket signifying the turning of the New Year. Tears fell down her cheeks. “I know when I come back, you will no longer be here. Our daughter will take down everything. But I struggle. Time goes on. My children have grown and are leaving me. Holidays remind me of what was but also what is no more.” And she looked into the fire, her face wet with tears.

Amicia knew what it was like to lose family to their purpose. Ever so gently she shifted so she could reach the top of Valentine’s head with a branch. She stroked it gently, reassuringly, until she had calmed.

Thomas came into the room, having changed into his pajamas, robe and slippers.

Amicia straightened, not letting on she had made an exception to the rule of remaining impartial to human suffering.

“It’s time for bed, my dear,” Thomas said gently to his wife and he helped bring her to her feet.

When Amicia was thrown to the curb the next day, crushed by the garbage truck, then thrown into the city dump, she dreamt of Valentine.

She thought proudly as her branches and trunk disintegrated in the mound of waste that she had served her purpose.

The one mystery of course is that she had crossed the divide.

As she felt herself disappearing, she felt an animal, a bird or a squirrel, pick a cone from her decayed branches.

And as she felt grateful the world would know the compassion and faith of her progeny, she felt able to let go.

Isaiah 55:12 The Message. “So you’ll go out in joy, you’ll be led into a whole and complete life. The mountains and hills will lead the parade, bursting with song. All the trees of the forest will join the procession, exuberant with applause.”

r.e.m. 2

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oliver henze large

Experiment by Oliver Henze, flickr

Notes: In a writing workshop with Laura Lee Bahr at the Kerouac House in College Park, Florida, participants brought written accounts of their most vivid dreams in order to work them into stories. The workshop was entitled “In the Language of Dreams.” One of my favorite exercises involved using the phenomenon of synesthesia to depict a dream narrative. Synesthesia is an unusual connection of the senses, such as seeing colors when one hears a sound, hearing sounds when one sees an inanimate object or colors, smelling colors or sounds, etc. I have already written one such example in a previous post entitled r.e.m. 1. Here I have written r.e.m. 2. I hope to write more as I remember my dreams from my present life and from my past. Maybe you would like to write the contents of your dream using synesthesia. I challenge you to try it and let me know what you think.

When you awake in the reverberating silence of the dead night you remember the deep crimson anger of your ex, the burnt meat hunger for your life. He is on his way to get you in his gray silent stealth. When you step out into the hall, there is his silhouette framed in the door to the living room, his limbs hot tar menacing, shimmering in the light behind and to the side.

You must by half measures approach, first grabbing a figurine friendly as pink on your lonely days. It is on the hall table and you think it could serve as your ally with which to bludgeon the void at the end of the hall intent on nullifying you, then you think better of it, recognizing the power of long knives rubbed together for the effect of the silver invasion of the body white heat through the belly. And so you grab them instead.

The red arrow intent to kill is no part of your soft purple disposition, your mother soft purple, a little blue, a little indecisive, Blue in Green pensive. You must press a bone corset to your back. With the kid gone it is now only you, only you to save what you have this little harmonious honey smelling house shedding past lives, your income dependent existence, contingent mother purple life, Mozart’s Lacrimosa days with Jesus who is plum peaches proud of you.

But Jesus doesn’t want you to die, not because of your ex’s resentment heavy, death certain as millstone drowning, torture by crushing, him and you.

But your ex has left your home by the time you enter the living room, shotgun style shape, backdoor directly facing front, knickknacks from lifetimes past standing at attention like disarrayed soldiers in cabinets and curios against the embrace of walls.

There is a line of elderly women, silent question marks, filing through, back door to front, taking a short cut from church. Should you shut your doors and force this line of gray green stream of hobbling but certain pebbles, bent knees and hunched frames, to walk around the outside of your house?

Surely this stream has found its most natural least resistant route. Would you want the question marks to break over the unevenness of your lawn, thrown off by the syncopated rhythm of roots, uneven resistant sod, hidden wells the deep voices of male voices chanting brown and merciless? You have nothing against the raisin wizened feet yearning for the concreteness of blue even.

When the stream dies, a young woman, a bright pink cotton candy bird, flies in, intent on taking something precious from your depleted honey house which is shedding its skins of former lifetimes. You tighten your bone corset as she flies from object to object, sending puffs of light candy scent from her wings, her attention the disappearing melt of candy floss.

And yet you, by comparison, are a wide open midlife ancient sea whose value had become diluted, whose salty tidal undulations are nonplussed regarding the bright and shiny, the new and fresh. Soon these things too will be overtaken, rusted and sighing.

She spirits into your house, ultravioletly jagged, picking up the few shells of your belongings, a crystal biscuit barrel, a milk glass pitcher, a silver cake stand, a china tea cup. You do not recognize her chocolate hair or robin’s eggs eyes, her spirit a puppy’s, not unkind but aggressive.

Teletype incessant she fires at you as she picks up your belongings: Can I have this? What about this? Would it be alright if I took this? Until most dissonant of all, yellow white clashing, one note off of each other: A Spanish sword demand she take your cream colored porcelain vase inscribed with a bright blue double happiness.

You, the ocean, spit up onto your shore an alternative: a smooth piece of driftwood, an immense antique book containing a story with a pink red happy ending, a chocolate cherry love tale suitable for her age, the double happiness beyond her wisdom, but the book offering the ideal for her, the cosmetic appeal of pages with script regular as a ticking clock, the pictures dancing from the flat white.

Candy floss girl settles into smooth salt taffy and signs your notebook – A guest book? A list of contacts? A signature book? She forms her large loopy Beethoven’s Eroica letters, pulling and pulling and pulling notes from the orchestra, the strings, woodwinds, brass, drums, larger and larger and larger.

When she finishes forming her letters, you see the marks that signify your identity, the soft purple mother love of your nature, the chaotic strands drawn together like a neat package tied with a bow, a package hidden and mysterious, secret. “Margaret” it says, your own self blowing against your face, the breeze against your face gentle and mild, your morning at last blossoming into your pale summer.

the pleasures of not stirring

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Turkish Delight Baklava

Turkish Delight Baklava by Jeremy Brooks, flickr

The Florida sun is setting across the parking lot and blinding the eyes of the customers along the western facing stand up bar in the grocery eat in restaurant. Amir and Nada are replenishing the chickpea patties, hummus, tabbouli salad, tzatziki sauce, and fresh baked breads in the display case to be ready for the evening shoppers.

The bell clings against the door. In walks Ms. Dashel. Amir had always felt guilty since Ms. Dashel had become a customer. Her first visit to the Mediterranean market had been with Ulysses Sallas, a notoriously demanding man, a local chef in town who shopped there for specialty ingredients. Amir felt in some way that the store had become a trap to hold Ms. Dashel to something against her will.

She sits in her usual spot in one of the free floating tables, plunking down her satchel and grocery bag on an adjacent chair. She orders a Turkish coffee.

She hardly makes eye contact but she has the dark wild gaze Amir has noticed since the woman starting visiting the store on her own.

Though her eyes that first visit had been a soft, twinkling brown as she floated around on the arm of her new boyfriend, Mr. Sallas, Amir would have sworn her eyes had turned color. He had noticed in recent times they are black with flashes of white shards, as if her eyes were now the obsidian of his homeland.

As in times before he wants to reach out to her and physically reassure her but of course his faith prevented it. He retreats to the counter with her order and begs his wife to speak to her.

Nada is a kind a woman but more reserved than her husband. She believes people’s business should be their own. But Amir was kind to everyone and out of respect for his heart she would do what she could.

“There is a huge bruise on her arm,” says Amir, in whispered tones behind the counter while Nada grinds the coffee. “It looks like that brute has grabbed her.”

Only last week Mr. Sallas had come in and yelled at Nada for poor technique in the preparation of his coffee.

Amir always suspected Ms. Dashel believed herself to be Mr. Sallas’ one and only. Amir had noticed she filled her bag up with things normally stocked by the offensive orospu çocuğu. She was probably running his errands while he was sleeping with someone else.

The delicate Nada carefully sets the ornate demitasse cup and saucer down in front of Ms. Dashel so as not to startle her. Ms. Dashel stares at the blank table at nothing in particular. Nada notices on her exposed upper arm, bare because of her light pink sleeveless sundress, a deep purple bruise the length and width of a thick long finger.

“May I sit with you, Ms. Dashel? I am so tired,” she says, hoping Ms. Dashel will understand her intrusion as a request for a favor rather than a display of pity.

“Yes, dear,” Ms. Dashel replies in an abstracted tone. “Please make yourself comfortable,” but she stares at the table as if her beloved coffee had not been set before her.

“Ms. Dashel,” says Nada, “do you mind me observing that pink favors you. It is a lovely dress you are wearing.”

Ms. Dashel makes eye contact with the lovely Nada whose deep brown eyes gaze at her steadily and compassionately as the eyes of Umay. She bends to bring the tiny demitasse cup up to her mouth. Nada notices a little quiver in her left eye, a faint tick along the outer crease.

“Will you be buying groceries from us today, Ms. Dashel? We are so happy to have you here,” says Nada.

Ms. Dashel applies a tiny gold spoon full of sugar to the dark offering and take another sip.

“When we have coffee at the diner,” says Ms. Dashel, “I don’t stir my cream. He always says it is stupid,” says Ms. Dashel, finally. “He believes I am stupid, even in the little ways.”

“Who says this?” says Nada, knowing the answer but not wanting to appear presumptuous.

“Ulysses Sallas.”

Ms. Dashel applies the rim of the deep blue demitasse cup to her fading painted lips. “He laughs at me.”

Nada can only imagine. She remembers vividly Ulysses, a large man, a rope of a ponytail down his back, demanding she start over with his Turkish coffee. She had felt the back of her neck burn as she stood at the stove with the ibrik, willing it to build more foam as demanded of her.

“I want to tell you a secret about stirring,” says Nada, gently, carefully covering her hand over Ms. Dashel’s frail bird claw.

“There is a certain pleasure to be had in not stirring. Let me tell you about those pleasures. First of all, it is beautiful to watch the cream enter the coffee and swirl around, isn’t it, yes? Also, you never know what each sip will taste like. Will it be creamy? Will it be dark? Life is a mystery, and there are some of us who enjoy mysteries and beauty.”

Ms. Dashel’s hand had warmed under Nada’s touch. She retrieved it and put it into her lap. She pushed her spine up against the back of her chair. “You are right,” she said.

That afternoon Ms. Dashel used Mr. Sallas’ credit card to buy Turkish delights for the market employees and their families. She had Nada wrap special boxes for the children and tie them up elaborately with bows. Then she had Amir cut the card in half with the shears he kept behind the counter.

At closing time, she and Nadir and Nada devise a plan:

She would leave town for the beach, using cash only. When she speaks to Ulysses for the last time, she would pretend she didn’t know how the rampant credit card charges occurred. She would be having her last cell phone conversation with him – which she would have by airplane mode to avoid him tracking her.

She would stay at the beach for a month or longer. She would start her life elsewhere to avoid Ulysses’ anger, she would sell everything she had, Nada would help her. It didn’t matter anymore, she would be safe. The night she would say good bye to him, she would be looking out on the ocean from her campsite with her dog, a box of Turkish delights beside her, her favorite kind, large pink chunks of rosewater.

*The inspiration for Nada’s thoughts come from a wonderful little lifehacker article called Why You Shouldn’t Stir Your Coffee.

sur s’dey chh’nam t’mey, hello year new

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Messy, Sodanie Chea, flickr

Messy, Sodanie Chea, flickr

Starbucks chocolate mint coffee for breakfast, the last of the bag in the freezer since the Christmas before. She was now going on $15 dollars in the account since Christmas week when she forked over the promised last one hundred for the concert ticket promised her son. She was praying to some god her Plenty of Fish date tonight was the paying kind. She was counting on it. It was dinner.

Once she had dated a man who had used a coupon their first date and then expected her to split the cost. Mean little life. There were times she felt she was hanging on like a tick on life’s back. Not at all like the genteel mannered life of her upbringing, her white rich mama having adopted her from Cambodia and trained her in the way of proper southern ladies. Her mama had assumed after the divorce she was being wined and dined, that rich men were courting her. Let her assume, thought Chanthou.

She had changed her name back to Chanthou Seng. Her son retained his father’s surname, Rouse. She had been Georgia Abernathy as a child, heaven forbid, then Georgia Rouse, married.

She touched the picture she recently taped to the refrigerator, a picture of a Cambodian woman handing over her baby to an American soldier in a helicopter. The copter was on the roof of a hospital and the mother was saving her child from horrors and likely death under the Khmer Rouge. Chanthou had ripped it from the page of an old magazine at the library. She had no pictures of her family.

The coffee grinds in the Mr. Coffee filter inside the basket still smelled a little like mint chocolate, like some old forgotten dream. She retrieved a china mug from her long ago Christmas wedding shower. She wanted to smash it. But she had an affinity for beauty and could adopt a cold objectivity for sentimental objects when it served her.

The wedding ring quilt she had given to her dog. It was some cheap mass produced western looking thing they probably made in her country or some other place with no unions, ten hour days, women fainting and falling out. It was a delicious feeling when the small white pet began to tear at it with her teeth and paws.

Her son was up finally, on his way to work a double. He was tall, dark, the skin and facial features of home. He was so much taller the top of her head fit under his chin. He would never know she had only $15 dollars to her name until the month’s alimony came through.

She received a text from a man she hadn’t met yet who would meet her out for tea, and, she hoped, some of the restaurant’s Thai offerings, like the Satay Satay Salad or the Thaiger is Crying Sandwhich. Yum. Are you ok with beards? he said in his text. Cause right now I look like Santa. Something about that completely cracked her up. She smiled. She told him so.

When she received a text from her ex the day before, something having to do with their son, he had said something hilarious, and she cried. She would not have confessed this to him of course. But despite her bitterness, she found the old laughter both poignant and painful and no less a kind of miracle. The icy slim blond who was her replacement wouldn’t tolerate much of a rapport between the two of them so she keeps it brief. She needs her monthly aid and would not cause trouble.

How much fun when she was young. In college, climbing in the campus fountain, dancing with her friends. I don’t give a fuck she had shouted for the whole quad to hear and her friends had repeated after her, laughing, all of them soaked and twirling around, three a.m., no campus security. She remembered what she felt like when she said that, something she would never have said before when she was a foreign daughter with white rich Christian parents.

That’s what she felt now at the prospect of meeting Santa. And he had joked with her that she should sit in his lap.

She had a feeling he would pay.

And if he didn’t, she would make her escape.

Christmas Cake

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Christmas Cake from Cornwall

Christmas Cake from Cornwall by Ramones Karaoke, flickr

He liked the feel of her in his hands, like risen dough he mashes down and forms again when he is on the job as a pastry chef. She is large, so much larger than most women he has seen, and so fair.

Secretly, to his family and friends she was his big cinnamon, that is what he called her, using a synechdoche in which a part represents a whole, in this case, the sweet smell of her and kindness representing her oversized sweet yeast bun type body. He was no small creature himself and when he met her and slept with her, he felt a kind of echoing satisfaction in his bones, through his blood and flesh.

He brought to her sweet confectionary: chocolate covered strawberries, cheese cake, chocolate ganache, banana bread, baklava, cream cheese iced red velvet. He loved to watch her consume his offerings with abandon, to observe her big red glossed lips, her cheeks smooth and creamy, her plump, baby like fingers shoveling in bites of his creations.

And yet. There were times when he felt it might be more appropriate for her to wait. Why did she always have to eat a piece of what he brought her on the selfsame day? What was wrong with her that she didn’t have the restraint to put something in the freezer, to wait for an occasion to bring out and share it later at an event?

He wasn’t sure what event he had in mind exactly. She was clearly on her own, divorced, hanging out in coffee shops while he worked all night, jabbering with musicians and reading her poetry and sending him pictures on her phone. She had her little white dog and her adult son at times. She was no longer a socialite but a burnt out star.

Still, she could have used some restraint.

But she clearly loved him: “Dear Charles, you are the best, the most brilliant! The night we spent was beyond compare. Remember that waiter? hahaha! You made short work of him, my beautiful god!” This is the kind of thing she would text to him by phone and he would erase it with one click of his generous strong finger, preferring instead to talk to her the next day on his way home from work.

For the holidays, he made her a huge Christmas cheesecake, topped with a strawberry swirl glaze, red and green candies, a yellow chiffon cake side dyed with a green checkerboard pattern of tiny green trees. He had to work on Christmas Eve but stopped by to give her the cake and wish her well.

Her face was tear stained when she opened the door, he could see that. Her son had preferred to stay with his father for the night. And she was alone.

She took the cake from him and set it on the counter. She embraced him in thanks. She insisted he sit down for a moment. She had made coffee.

She took the cake from the box and placed it on a silver stand and exclaimed over it and kissed him again.

He sipped her coffee, she knew how to make it just the way he liked, straight, smooth, and dark.

And yet, she took a silver cake cutter, a holdover from a different life, and sliced right through the heart of his cake, the artfully swirled puree, the tenderly created trees.

That plump, baby hand on the silver server, the lifting of a piece right from the Christmas heart of it all and the ungracious plopping of it onto a plate, the insertion of a large bite right into her fat face.

He couldn’t take it anymore.

He told her he had to leave.

In the crisp and biting air, alone on the front step, he knew: On the morrow, he would be free.

 

*

You may also enjoy my Christmas story “Santa Baby” published in the UK journal Use Your Words: here.

You may also enjoy reading my story “Cocoa Beach Christmas,” here.

“Santa Baby” is racier, while “Cocoa Beach Christmas” is most definitely rated G.

Thank you for reading and Merry Christmas!

Flashnano Day 10: Write a story in the form of a test

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dip pen and inkwell by jasonc photography, flickr

dip pen and inkwell by jasonc_photography, flickr

Here is a test to determine readiness for achieving competency as a literary fiction writer in the United States of America in the 21st century. The method to test the margin between competence and popularity and/or critical success has yet to be determined. Again, the parameters of this test are merely to determine potential competency in the field of creative fiction writing.

This test is based on the anecdotal experiences of the author of this test and could be deemed less than scientifically rigorous. But given the popularity of readers and test takers who self select tests in magazines and online, we decided to put together a series of tests based on varying demographics and experiences each with the goal of helping the readers determine for themselves answers to the mysterious questions often googled such as: What does it take to be a literary fiction writer? Google, we realize, is the much more interactive cousin of the Magic 8 ball, and so we thought: Why not help the reader be more interactive with himself/herself as he/she goes alongside a mentor of sorts, a working writer, as he/she interrogates the soul regarding one’s capacity for literary endeavors?

In addition to this, we offered to pay the book allowance of each test creator for one month, a small sum which many writers cannot afford given the cost of rent, food, and helping other writers and artists who themselves are hungry and without shelter.

Further, we must disclose we are supported by advertising dollars – big pharma, chain retail, political candidates – but do not endorse ads and links that appear on the site.

We want to do our best to help you decide whether you can be an artist. Please let us know your score below and what you thought of this experience.

Test for Artistic Competency: The Middle Aged Divorced Housewife, given certain conditions listed below

This test may be relevant for you if: You are a woman in her 50s, divorced after 20 years of marriage more or less, were married to a conservative who threatened to leave you if you try to work outside the home and were raised by religious conservatives who have always hated that you are a writer and discourage rather than encourage you. You make no money from your literary endeavors but are living on a wing and a prayer.

  1. Imagine this future scenario and ask yourself if, repeated over and over in a host of variations, you can handle it without becoming an alcoholic, or at least a nonfunctional one: You go to a bar to hang out with “really fun people” according to the social meet up site on the internet, all of them highly successful working professionals. You begin talking to a seemingly pleasant man who is about your age. He has come to several group meetings, has salt and pepper hair and beard and a Phd, and teaches history at a local private boarding school. You stand at the bar and talk while you enjoy your drinks. When he asks what you do and you say you are a writer he says: Are you successful? If you make no money from your writing but you are published in literary journals, how do you respond? If you defensively argue bullshit about how art has no monetary measure because its worth is in the non-monetized value to humanity, you are a romantic but also a fool in America. Trust me he will walk away and tell the rest of his monetarily wealthy friends you are a real loser. This is a no win situation, so don’t feel sorry, sister. Have more booze and take your credit card away from where it is sitting on the bar then later hoodwink the bartender into believing he’s got a tab going for you. Order another G & T. It’s so busy he’ll get too flustered and forget. Order as many as you can get away with. In so many ways, you can’t afford to be at this gig, but you were trying to be Dorothy Parker. Give yourself 0 points. It’s a wash.
  2. Add up the number of friends you have now, before you seriously start writing, friends you have now before you even begin posting your writing, publishing it, friends who want to go out with you, aren’t jealous of you or who treat you strangely, friends who like you because they understand you, or at least able to “handle” you. Now take that number and subtract an equal number less one from that. That’s how many real friends you will have left when you start publishing as a literary fiction writer, friends who believe you don’t have anything to say, who don’t believe you suck, who don’t believe you to be full of shit. (This perhaps assumes you will be relatively “unknown” which applies to almost all working writers in the United States today. However, if circumstances change and you develop groupies, friends won because of fame don’t really count in this equation unless their loyalty is proven through ups and downs. This is not part of the current equation because the test does not solve for virtual improbabilities.) I hope you were paying attention in grade school because now we will deal with the addition of a negative number. The one will be added to a negative 10 which is the number of writing friends that will be won and lost over the course of your training and development, friends lost through petty arguments, jealousies, and competitions. However, add 30 to this negative number if you are able to pull off going to a low residency or full residency writing program. Add the same number if you can’t afford it but get involved in the local writing and artistic community as well as the writing community online. If you do both and your attention is divided, the final total number of writing friends and acquaintances of this equation is still a solid 21. If you indulge in unrelated social media arguments and rants – political or otherwise – take away at least 5 friends.
  3. Repeat the steps in #2 but solve for the number of supportive family members, with some variations added: Add up the supportive number of friendly adult family members you have now, before you seriously start writing, posting your writing, and publishing in literary journals and magazines, adult family members who want to hang out with you, don’t treat you strangely, adult family members who like you because they understand you, or feel they are at least able to “handle” you. Now take that number and subtract an equal number minus one from that. That’s how many supportive adult family members you will have left when you begin publishing as a literary writer. Again, it is good you were paying attention in grade school because now we will deal with the addition of a negative number. The one friendly member remaining will be added to a negative 1 which is a retroactive situation in which a previously divorced spouse left you, partly because he hated your writing, so it is a wash, darling. When your child grows up to be an adult and if he/she feels proud you are a writer, consider yourself a diva. If you have more than one child, and/or nieces and nephews who grow up to become adults and proud of your writing, you are blessed.
  4. If you plan on compromising your writing to please your friends and your family, take away all points in 2 and 3. It is not looking good for you, sister. But if you say: Come what may, I will write according to my voice, I will follow what it tells me, I live in a free country and no matter what, I will say what I believe through my stories, you may keep whatever gains you have made in equations 2 and 3. If a few of these gains drop off because of your exercise of freedom, you will not have lost anything, in fact you may gain which leads to the next test question.
  5. If you exercise your voice and speak regardless of risk to career opportunities, dating opportunities, marital status, social life, family approval, religious sanction, legal protection, your soul may be crushed down so that you feel you are operating in the negative numbers for soul vitality but you may – at that point – begin reaching the ground floor of your artistic competency. It is a subjective judgement how much one has sacrificed to reach this ground level competency, but nothing less than total sacrifice in at least a few areas most citizens believe are critical for well being and stability is what is necessary. The only way to know for sure if you will become a competent literary writer in the United States of America in the 21st century is to start writing. If your effort and passion equal infinity, the chances are good you will become a competent writer. You may at least learn how to spell a few words and meet a few nifty people.
  6. Actually, since you are a woman and mostly likely by now have experienced a phenomenon wherein no one cares about your words written or spoken, you have to learn to deal in extreme invisibility scores. You will see a huge downward spiral into the abyss of negative soul points. Give yourself at least negative 30. That said, you are your own most powerful weapon for in your invisibility and absence of indulgence from others you stand the highest chance of all demographic groups of achieving a greater than normal levels of competence. In fact it is surmised by the test creator that you are likely on the edge of a kind of an invisible greatness as contradictory as that may sound. Nonmonetary value you have in spades my friend. Wear it as a laurel on your head. Know this: It is very unlikely the male colleague, the husband, the boyfriend will even notice. In fact your written words will be invisible to them or obscured. Soul crushing is your effectual pen. Bleed it and speak.

Flashnano Day 9: Write a story containing a song lyric

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Image from The Pride of the Household, 1900, flickr

Image from The Pride of the Household, 1900, flickr

She had come late to making biscuits. Divorce. Cancer. A child left for college. She had come late to keeping flour on hand. Buttermilk. Cold butter. She had cooked a lot of gourmet in her married years, and been on too many fad diets. And now it was just her and the dog. And later this weekend a stranger who wants to meet her, sleep with her, the last of his kind, she imagines.

She turns on youtube music starting with her mid life music crush John Prine singing with Kacey Musgraves on a cruise ship. “Mind your own biscuits,” is the heart of the song. She smiles at Kacey and John singing and strumming and gives her dog a treat she keeps in the crystal biscuit barrel, a very expensive gift from her marriage.

She doesn’t make the biscuits fancy, cutting butter through the flour, rolling the dough out and creating a round with a cutter. She melts the butter into the buttermilk, mixes this all in with the dry ingredients and plops a spoonful of dough onto the parchment.

She doesn’t know how it happened to her, her life like this. She couldn’t even afford to fix her oven. She baked her biscuits in a small oven on the counter. What had happened to her dreams of hosting her family around dinner tables. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t even clean her house anymore, a place not even associated with her former life except for the occasional visitation of her son.

She slept with the strange men for free. She wasn’t even sure why. It occurred to her one day she was cheating herself, risking herself, and for what. Not even for a little compensation. All so she could pretend to feel better, pretend to forget. She should have charged them. For that she would put grape jelly on her biscuits when they were done. To take an edge off. Pretend she was special, she was love.

She knew how to take the pictures so she looked better, thinner. She would send the pictures to them to satisfy them, entice them, and hear them say they were interested. There had been a time she didn’t have to pretend and she wanted that feeling back, of having power. One of them had become so convinced she had tricked him into her beauty, he had brought a gun to the hotel where they met.

She had once polished her silver. Brought her whole silver tea seat and dishes passed down from gradmothers to a tea party at her son’s school. There had been enough silver to hold all the cookies and biscuits and scones.

What was she doing now, she didn’t know. Ruined, said Mama. Indeed, her younger self knew so many things. Thought she knew love which now she realized was only approval.

The biscuits looked done. She pulled them out, put a couple on a plate, a chipped plate with palm trees from a set she had purchased from a department store one Christmas to decorate her Mama’s table handed down to her, the antique purchased in Texas before she was born. How much perfection there was then, and the Murano glass candle holders containing the white tea lights.

Only briefly she had earned a living before she married and that not too much higher than the minimum needed to get by in her town. Now no work experience, and her looks faded, her age telling. What was there but biscuits. And on good days chili with good meat. On other good days, casseroles.

She holds a chunk of biscuit down for her little white dog who sits on the floor beneath the little makeshift oven. She feels her little mouth grabbing for the bread. There is just this, then. And she marvels she is still alive. Her dog’s little tongue, licking up the butter, feels good on her skin.

She had taken to calling her dog Biscuit, which was not her name. It didn’t seem to matter.

Flashnano Day 8: Write a story involving the police

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on danse

on danse by Raul Lieberwirth

Here is the scene that has informed my romantic imagination since girlhood: Father and Mother, in the living room, dancing to Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” Father still in police uniform, his hand upholding Mama’s delicate hand in his as if cradling something delicate and pure, his other hand enclosing her waist.

He sings the words directly to her and she smiles at him as if this is the first time he has ever sung words about two lovers dancing until the night became a brand new day. The soaring orchestra, Neil Diamond’s gravely voice, the poignant, wistful tune. Most of the time, Father in all his uniform trappings – the loaded police duty belt, his heavy shoes – produced a cacophony of squeaks, but I never noticed this during “September Morn.” It was like the two of them were born of air.

This is how they ended every day when Father came home after work. Before dinner. Before he said hi to me, my sister, or my brother, before he took the dog out, before he tasted what was on the stove.

Mother dressed for his arrival too, a full skirted dress, heels, makeup, smoothed down hair.

My parents have been married for forty six years. When I was young and used to watch them dance I thought I would want a husband like Father.

I still want a husband like my father. But it has not happened for me. Or maybe I could never figure out to be more like my mother to get a man like my father.

These days it gets to be demoralizing to eat every single meal alone, something I would never have envisioned for myself when I was young. Of course, I eat watching movies or the news. But sometimes I try to eat at my table without turning on the television or checking social media. However, by the time the next meal rolls around, I have given in.

This morning I decided to go to a restaurant close to me I had never tried before called The Breakfast Club. It’s a diner that only serves breakfast all day long.

After situating myself in a booth, I saw a man sitting by himself at a table in the middle of the restaurant, the only other person who was there alone. The room was noisy with couples, people from work, families.

I watched his face. He seemed to be the kind of man to be embarrassed for not many reasons at all, just something I felt I picked up in his demeanor. And his face was red. But that could have been because he worked in the sun. He was wearing work boots like many of the men there.

I caught his eye. He had a not unfriendly face, white hair, fairly athletic build. He broke eye contact but I knew he caught me looking at him.

I myself am middle aged, not bad looking, though no longer young.

He never came by my table. Nor did I pluck up the courage to go say hi to him.

I left the restaurant, but interestingly, he walked out not far behind me.

I yearned for the courage to turn around and simply say something but I felt I couldn’t.

When I was inside my car, I knew I must listen to “September Morn.”

I opened sunroof and let the music flow out into the sunny, cool day.

I saw him glance at me on the way to his car. But I still couldn’t bring myself to introduce myself.

On the way home, past trees and neighborhoods as my car took me further away from that spot where I noticed another’s loneliness that was equal to mine, a place I could not reach out to be vulnerable, I felt my sense of failure, of feeling trapped.

As I listened to Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” over and over and over, I felt I would always live in memory of my father, in a bubble, a dream, I would keep recalling those moments of watching them dance as if I were caught in a loop, observing their young glory, their victories, their dignity.

I took note of how messy and chaotic my house had become, the telltale signs of an insomniac, a depressive.

I should clean up, I thought.

And I thought to make note of the time and the day I had eaten at the restaurant so I may return next week, just in case.

Flashnano Day 7: Write a story that takes place at a famous location

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egypt by rocor, flickr

Egypt by rocor, flickr

In the Valley of the Kings, the two women, one older, mild aged but well preserved, and the other younger, pretty, blond, yet with a slightly sad face, rode in the tram to the tomb of Seti I. In front of the tomb, they sat in an appointed dining area – a little stall with small metal tables and collapsible chairs – to await the tour. Rene tried, for the hundredth time in this country to get them to put something in her coke to make it cold, but it was handed to her tepid, the bubbles scratching at her throat. She sipped the liquid through a straw, watching the whirls of sand and dust spiral up into the air and brush against the limestone banks.

Her much younger companion, Chloe Bruce, pulled her glass bottle of water from her backpack. The top of her head was decoratively banded with a wide headscarf and her neat dark blond hair tucked into a low ponytail. She was travel chic, a Talbots model look, though Rene was sure whatever the child wore this is the impression she would make. Also, there was the coolness in her eyes, the pert mouth that almost never said anything.

How unlikely it was Chloe had pursued morturary science though the young lady did have a kind of remove with which she gazed upon the world, a sort of mask. Maybe that attitude and demeanor was well suited. And maybe something about the keep of the dead had fascinated her because her parents had passed in a car accident when she was in college. Rene took her in during summers and holidays and gave her a place to be when she was home.

Rene didn’t have children of her own. She had helped watch Chloe when she was a child, she had been good friends with Chloe’s parents.  She had taken her to see the opera Hansel and Gretel when it was playing downtown. She bought the child a record player and a vinyl recording of the classic Englebert Humperdink masterpiece. Rene remembered fondly the lullaby from her childhood: “When at night I go to sleep, fourteen angels watch do keep.” She hoped the lullaby and the rest of the recording may come to mean something to the young woman one day.

“I want something to eat,” said Chloe, “I’m starving.” She pulled out a 5 pound Egyption note from her Channel bag and ordered a falafel sandwich from the little cart. Apparently the man who worked the cart kept the warm sandwiches from the drinks, in their own compartment,  though Rene doubted her coke had been insulated at all. Nothing seemed to matter here. You could order all you wanted and there would be smiling and nodding and you would get exactly what they wanted to give you.

Chloe ate hurriedly, shoveling stray bits of cucumber and tomato into her mouth and licking the excess tahini from her fingers. At least the camels were not here like they were at the pyramids, their handlers pressing hard to sell rides around the ancient structures, flattering, wheedling, offering to take “American dollar.” And the Valley of the Kings was fairly quiet and clean because of this, and had probably been an ideal place for the ancient people to hide the riches their pharaohs would need in the afterlife. The tombs were tucked into the folds of the white and pink cliffs where the earth held the ancient secrets of a civilization and a deep faith their leaders would meet with the eternal.

How crass we are now, thought Rene, enjoying a cigarette while Chloe threw away her sandwich wrapping and reapplied her lipstick. We no longer give the same care and attention to our lives, much less our deaths. Groups of tourists passed, desperate figures, some wearing socks with sandals, mounds of white flesh, fanny packs.

When David was alive, he used to hold her hand when they sat out on their back patio every evening, drinking wine. “My queen,” he would say. And they gazed upon the opulent garden they had built within a budget, but still, there was a fountain and tall swaying bamboo, tropical flowers. They took turns making dinner. Maybe it was not having had children that made their devotion and relaxation possible, she wasn’t entirely sure, but she didn’t understand when her other married friends complained. They had only been through one bout of desperate fighting and despair, when he had wanted children but she had not. She could not explain her feelings and he had left her alone one night, enraged, aggrieved. He returned the next morning, held her, and they never breathed another word about it.

She and Chloe descended the stairs of Seti’s tomb, the elaborately decorated walls with carved figures and mythological creatures paralleling their descent down further and further beneath the ground. In the huge room where Seti’s sarcophagus would have lain was a deep blue star filled domed roof. The artists, said the tour guide, had provided Seti with a view of the gorgeous night sky, while the many workers preparing his tomb filled his rooms with furniture, gold, food, wine, linens, jewelry, statues, furniture. The deep blue of the domed ceiling inspired Rene to think of Hansel and Gretel’s evening prayer. To think these ancient people really believed they needed to give their dead kings something to gaze upon.

The guide also said that a raid on the tomb orchestrated by the priests seeking money to gain political power stripped the pharaohs of their sacred and eternal powers.

In the cool ride back to the motel, in the nice car they had hired to treat themselves, Chloe said, taking off her scarf and rubber band and shaking her hair: “I’ve stolen from a dead person before.” The comment jarred Rene, as if the car had suddenly ridden over a sharp dip in the road.

“I was starting my internship at the morgue. This girl no one had claimed was being handed over to the city. She was wearing a necklace with a ruby.” Chloe pulled her hair back and secured it again with the rubber band. “I wasn’t sure how she could have afforded it. It looked like she stole it so I slipped it off of her and wore it out that night.”

The tour guide had said it wasn’t just the priests who had stolen from the pharaohs with their organized raid. Little by little, the common people, the ones who supported the afterlife preparation industry, took from the tombs in order to make enough money to support their families. They worked themselves to the bone and often were paid an insulting amount. Resentment had built up given the disparity.

Rene observed her young friend. She seriously doubted she was committing Hansel and Gretel’s evening prayer to memory if she ever listened to the record at all. What was death to her. What was life. What was dignity. She wasn’t quite sure. She had always wondered what it would have been like for Chloe to deal with death so much having lost her own parents but her mentors said she always handled the loved ones of the deceased with such poise and grace. And yet, the coldness of an act like this, although on the other hand it had a strange logic too, like that of a child.

As the car bumped along, Rene ran her fingers through Chloe’s long ponytail, something the young woman still allowed her to do. She was not her child, and yet, in some strange way Rene had been a kind of mother. She was not sure she had guided her or made any contribution. Then again she thought, what are we  but masses of colliding particles, even to our own offspring.

That night she closed her eyes and imagined the faith of the Egyptians and their ceremonies.

She heard the crinkling of a chocolate bar wrapper. Chloe, getting into the candy they had collected at the market. “Would you like a piece of chocolate, Rene?”

 

Flashnano Day 6: Write a story in the form of a folktale. “A Tale of Two Men”

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photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, flickr

photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, flickr

1.

There once was a man who lived in a pine forest. Every evening, he laid a woman’s nightgown beside him in his big iron bed. Every evening, he set two extra places at his broad table. Every week, he bought food and clothing for the family he did not yet have. He bought toys for the child, jewelry for his wife.

Every night he prayed to his god fervently: “God, please give me a wife I can love and cherish, please give me a child. I am prepared to be your humble servant in all things related to these matters. I am a man, full of love. I will love my wife as my own flesh, my child as the flesh from my wife’s womb.”

One morning, the man woke to two tiny feet pressing against his shoulder. A baby! The man praised his god. He clothed the baby in the garments already bought for the child and gave him the milk stored in his home.

But he was puzzled how to present the child to the town since he was unmarried. He knew he should trust god and bravely and simply said, when anyone asked: “This is my new baby, praise god! I was alone in the world and god has seen fit to grant me a son.”

Adoption laws being what they were, everyone shrugged, congratulated the man, and went on about their own hectic lives. The man would know soon enough how hard it was to be a father and if he had strength enough for it he deserved the fulfillment of his prayers, for good or ill.

One night after the child had gone to sleep, the man sat on his porch. The pines creaked and the sound of the wind soughing in the bows amplified his loneliness and he prayed: “God, you brought me a miracle. You see how I have handled what you have seen fit to give me. If a bad father gives a stone to the son who asks for bread, how much more will you give?”

Carried along on the wind was a sound barely distinguishable from the soughing of the pines. It was a woman crying. The man searched his porch, but he could not find the source. He went out into the woods and there among the shadows was a woman, dressed in a white gown, shivering.

“Where have you come from?” said the man, putting his heavy wool coat around her shoulders and lifting her from the forest floor so she would not further damage her tender feet.

“I have given you a child,” said the woman, “a child I had no means of supporting. And now please sir, I wish to hold my son.”

The man’s heart filled with pity and with something else besides for the woman was very beautiful and young.

“You may hold your son for as long as you wish. I will make it possible for you. I will give to you whatever you require.”

And seeing there was no ring on the young woman’s finger, he made her the bride of his heart and did not question anything, only praised his god for his good fortune. When the woman slept in his bed, holding her son, the two the image of peace and warmth, he knelt all night in the wood in wonder.

2.

There once was a man who was tired of his wife. It was well known how many errors she had committed, and the number of errors was well past her ability to make up for them, even if she began engaging in acts of contrition the first moment he expressed his discontent and worked continuously, around the clock.

His wrath had built up. Number of laundry baskets not completed per day. Number of times the dishes were stacked in the sink. Number of times she was with her foolish friends rather than at the market. Number of times she was late getting the children to school. Number of pounds she had gained since their marriage. Number of times she did not attend worship services. Number of times he had come home from work to see her face and hair in their natural state. Number of times she had indulged in her projects and made cold meals rather than cook. Number of times she expected him to help her while she pursued her education. Number of times she disappointed his extended family.

And so, she became a terrible wife among those who worshiped his god, became an outcast and despised.

He prayed: “Oh god, why have you given me such a terrible wife? As a young man growing up, I tried to do the right thing, and yet you did not see that I was worthy of your favor?”

He prayed this at night, on his knees, in the living room, so that his wife heard, though their children slept the sleep of the innocent. It frustrated him how much they forgave her.

Being a man of ambition and righteousness, he knew the ways of the unrighteous and what would eventually befall her. Here is what he knew: The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.

Frustrated with his god, he existed in the house with his wife, neither praising nor belittling her, pouring his love and attention onto his children so that even if she became an angel to them, he would be even more perfect.

As it happened, she became wayward and ruined and he was enabled to be rid of her in all good conscience in the sight of his community.

“Thank you, God,” he said, “for this opportunity to start again.” And all the man’s wishes were granted, according to the dictates of his god.

Flash Nano Day 5: A story that takes place on a Monday

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Art Gallery by Richard Potts, flickr

Art Gallery by Richard Potts, flickr

It was Monday night at the art gallery downtown. Mel Jenkins, fat, manic depressive, weird fiction writer, had brought Lollie Kyle to be her friend at the event.

Rarely did anyone accompany her to her own readings, neither her former husband or current nonwriting friends or dates, though she had made some friends in the arts community whom she greeted when she was out.

Sometimes she was jealous of husband and wife teams who sat together and sold books, usually the husband’s, and as much as she had wanted something like this when she was married, it was simply beyond the parameters of the marriage. Her ex hated her writing for one, and well, that was a problem. And her psychiatrist blamed her fat on their divorce. Luckily someone else was now dispensing her med scripts.

It was highly unlikely someone like Lollie would hang around Mel voluntarily. Lollie was skinny, tiny, social, wore gorgeous clothes, had long, straight dark hair, bright eyes, an infectious laugh.

At the art gallery when Mel introduced the sprite of a woman to her friends, she was grateful to Lollie for not saying the real reason they were hanging out together: Mel had hired Lollie to take her to an outpatient procedure, had hired her off of a caregiver website. Mel had to hire her because she had no one to take her – friend or family – to the embarrassing procedure, a colonoscopy, something she had to take care of earlier than usual having survived breast cancer a few years before.

She knew her friends and contacts at the gallery were surprised she was with someone so apparently beautiful and together like Lollie. Mel experienced a certain power, like the kind she had when she was younger and more beautiful and skinnier, married to a doctor, before she had been diagnosed and put on drugs that made her fat. She had thought herself beyond such artificialities. But maybe not. People seemed to notice her more and she glowed a bit in the attention.

As it turns out, Lollie lived in her neighborhood, so all Mel needed to do to pick Lollie up for their night out together was drive around the block to her door. Lollie was drinking, had put something strong in her thermos, the smell of it filled the car. Lollie was giddy and laughing. She was wearing the same ballet shoes she had worn at the outpatient clinic the day they met, the ones with wide ribbons crisscrossing on her delicate feet and ankles, displayed with jeans rolled up and cuffed. The doctor had noticed the shoes and stared at Lollie in the pre-procedure interview when Lollie was sitting with her in the prep area and not letting on she was hired, pretending she was Mel’s friend.

Mel had thought the doctor cute. Oh well, she also thought. So much for that. It was the downside of having a beautiful caregiver.

Mel had made some unfortunate choices in what to read that evening at the gallery. It happened sometimes. It was the moodiness and lack of judgement. She sometimes wondered if she didn’t have other things wrong with her, something that affected social abilities, the abilities to read others. Though often as a writer and a writer of weird fiction she almost always told others she didn’t care what anyone thought of her work. She had been tired of defending it to such people like her conservative ex and her family.

But then, that Monday night, having read her one piece about an alien who seduces a man – a piece that actually reads as a disturbing, serious story about mental illness – she wondered: Had she gone too far? Most definitely, yes. Her reading was met with a strange kind of complete, withdrawn silence.

Afterwards, when the crowd was mingling and talking, Mel returned to a table where Lollie was sitting with an organizer of literary readings. Lollie was flirting with him and they were laughing. Lollie laughed at her, said she hated the story, that it definitely was not the kind of thing she read. “Aliens!” she said. The event organizer laughed.

Mel and Lollie walked to the Irish bar next door to the gallery. Lollie kept drinking til she got pretty stone drunk. They sat in chairs outside the bar. Lollie hit on a much younger guy standing outside smoking and she bummed cigarettes off of him. One drink was enough for Mel. She was driving and hadn’t eaten all evening and her stomach was sour from nerves from the reading.

The young man eventually went away and Mel managed to talk Lollie out of yet another round. In the parking lot, Lollie smoked and pulled down the front of her jeans to shoe Mel a tattoo on her belly. Lollie may have well been the alien. Mel had not seen a body so small like that since she was in grade school.

She managed to get Lollie home. When she pulled up to the curb of Lollie’s townhome, Lollie said: “Do you have any oxy?” Mel managed a shocked response: “I don’t know,” she said. “Good night.” And luckily Lollie got out and got inside without involving Mel’s assistance.

Mel had time to think of this the next day. Had this been a kind of unspoken pact between them? The reason why Lollie hadn’t blown the cover of the real nature of the relationship?

It occurred to Mel that there was kind of an unspoken quid pro quo Lollie had orchestrated: She knew Mel’s desperation and she knew the flattery necessary to score free oxycontin. She knew Mel would perhaps have leftovers from cancer treatments and surgeries. Lollie probably did this kind of thing all the time as a caregiver.

Mel put one bottle of expired oxy in a bag and included a note: “This is it. I will not give you more, so don’t ask again. Don’t tell anyone I gave you this.” She hung it on Lollie’s front door

A couple of days later she received a text from Lollie complaining the strength of it wasn’t high enough. She ignored it and hoped she never saw Lollie again.

One afternoon when Mel was taking her dog outside her townhome, an hour which saw her unkempt, unshowered, her hair pulled up on her head and wild as an over-risen round loaf of mountain bread, Lollie pulled up next to her in her red SUV, smoking, calling her name.

Mel almost didn’t know who it was the inside of the truck was so dark and the day so bright. “Mel! Melanie Jenkins!” Lollie called out from behind the wheel. “I’m moving today, Mel! Going to Texas, wish me luck!”

Mel acquiesced and wished her well.

“I need you to review my caregiving on the site, so I can get more jobs,” said Lollie.

“Ok,” said Mel, though the thought of having to be so dishonest sickened her. She wasn’t sure if she would really do it.

And then Lollie was off, barreling down the narrow road between the houses and the woods.

It was perceptively quiet without Lollie and with the new thought that she was leaving. Lollie didn’t seem to be happy in Mel’s hometown anyway.

Mel’s little white dog sat down on the warm pavement, stretching her neck and sniffing. The trees seemed to move a little, as if taking a breath.

Flashnano day 4: A story that takes place in a hot room

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kennan street parlor by

kennan street parlor by Bradley Fulton, flickr

It was hot in Grandmama’s apartment where we gathered for the family tradition of testing the corpse. Grandmama always liked it hot and never wanted any of us to act on her behalf to ensure there was a fix to the heat level in her particular suite of rooms. She always said, it is good for my circulation and supports my tropical sensibilities. She had the complexion of Martha Washington, a regal American bearing that suggested nothing of anything having to do with tropical climes or a constitution able to endure such. And there she was dead in the dining room, laid on the table, in the manner of our long line of southern ancestors.

“Horrible, just horrible,” said Mama beneath her breath while she poured a drink from the sideboard. My sister and I had been pressed into hopping on a same day flight from our respective colleges because of the body lying in an airless room, having been assisted to another realm of existence by a death doula. My ministering daddy was there of course, to press the holy oil onto her forehead and heart, to lay the family coins on her eyes. He was Grandmama’s only son.

Mama wasn’t amenable to such barbaric customs she called them. “Cremate me, right away,” she said while for once she offered each of us a whiskey though we were beneath the legal age.

“When I die they will carry me out feet first,” said Grandmama when she and I were making sugar cookies in her tiny kitchen, her blue veined arms and hands, delicate as china, working over the dough and helping me shape it into little balls. “You want to know why?” I could always count on Grandmama to tell me the truth. “So I don’t look back and take you with me, so I don’t drag you down to the grave.” And she wiped off the residue of dough on her hands and took a long sip of her now cool oolang tea.

Grandmama would have thought it rebellious that Mama wore bright orange to a deceased’s household, foolhardy even given the dead’s propensity to call people who did not present themselves in shadow in the traditional black. But no, Mama not only wore her favorite billowy bright orange chiffon dress, and the flashy burst of flower earrings with the rhinestone tendrils trailing down and her slingbacks. Devil shoes, Grandmama had said.

My sister and I tended the kitchen, distributing cups of punch and plates of little sandwiches Grandmama’s maid Effie had made that morning. When it came time for the traditional mirror ceremony, all of us – cousins, aunts, uncles – gathered round, though it meant nothing now that a death doula was qualified to declare the end of life. But Daddy insisted. It is what Grandmama would have wanted, he said while everyone looked on, Grandmama laid out so beautifully on the table, her silver hair swept back, her face as serene and lovely as I’d ever seen it. Mama rolled her eyes. I could see her across the room from where I stood beside Grandmama’s body.

Daddy held the small mirror in his hands, the oval one surrounded by little gold filigreed loops. He had instructed my sister and I and the cousins to gather on either side: “When I hold this mirror up to her mouth, you are to tell me if you see any breath on the mirror. We cannot bury your Grandmama while she is still alive.”

My cousins were all younger than my sister and I and my aunts were extremely concerned that my father was creating nightmares with his insistence on this antiquated tradition. Daddy was pretty intense however, though unlike grandmother he took things less seriously. He was just trying to show a younger generation old Southern customs. And he thought kids were too sheltered for their own good. In our family, ghost stories at Christmas were as important as gifts themselves, and from the time you learned to speak, you were expected to speak of the dead in story form, however rudimentary. Mama would tip a little extra bourbon into her eggnog on those nights.

Daddy ceremoniously lowered the mirror to Grandmama’s mouth while the kids kneeled keeping their eyes level to the table top so they may spot any errant breath upon the reflected surface. We all froze that way for some moments, the heat ticking through the radiator pipes. From the corner of my eye I could see Mama slip out onto the balcony overlooking oaks draped with Spanish moss, filtering the dying pink light. She lit a cigarette and let a plume drift around her magnificent head of short golden hair.

Soon it would be time for me to sit in airless rooms at the college far away, the weather there stricken through with winter’s frost, listening to concepts just beyond my grasp. How I wish for the simpler times when Grandmama and I had tea, when she told me of her times of adventuring in Alaska, and saying the Lord’s Prayer when an intruder invaded her home. She had bitten his arm when he lunged at her and, alarmed, he jumped from her third story apartment.

By a vote of silence all cousins had apparently decided Grandmama was truly dead.

I couldn’t be sure but when we left Grandmama to be alone with the doula I felt a faint pressure on my arm. Was that Grandmama’s hand? I doubt she would try to pull me to the grave. Knowing her though, she was surely yanking my chain.

I love you Grandmama I said softly, smiling at her antics, and stepped safely across the threshold. I looked back at her body on the table, regal as a queen. She ruled her household with iron but there was a softness too.

When I started writing fiction a few years later, I would never write of a living person without writing of a dead one too, or at least the shadow of the dead. My creative writing professors had no truck with stories outside of strict realism.  By now, Daddy had gone to be with Grandmama and I had a baby at home and a husband too. I lit a candle and incense for them both every day and let the fragrance waft into our humble apartment while I conjured up the dead just like Daddy had taught me to do while my baby dreamt a peaceful sleep of the living and the innocent.

Be damned with them I can only imagine my Grandmama saying of my professors. I risked low grades, but somehow it didn’t matter. I wrote of the dead lying on door frames between chairs, families waiting for bodies to rot to ensure death, ghosts haunting southern estates reminding my ancestors of war and injustices, petty grievances and sorrow, ghosts who loved still and wanted to be of comfort to those they left behind.

Mama might even like some of these stories I thought sometimes, perhaps foolishly. Still, I hoped so. I brought her bright sweaters when I visited her at the home. One day I might even give her a bound copy of what I had made or better yet, read to her my gift if she was willing to hear.

Or we could simply drink whiskey in her cozy apartment and look out on the green of the woods beyond her window, deep and silent, and watch the light fade.

 

 

Flashnano day 3: Write a story involving mud

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I am entering rougher terrain in order to try to finish the writing prompts for flashnano, almost a month after the event. The quality of stories will vary, some being more cohesive than others, some more developed in terms of concept and voice than others, some more exciting and gripping than others. I am thinking of some of these as being sketches for later characters and stories or even nonfiction pieces I’d like to develop. Some may never see the light of day again. Thank you for reading.

end of by Eddi van W.

end of by Eddi van W., flickr

I had never seen a woman use a mud mask until my sister and I slept over at a friend’s house. That was when we lived in Arkansas where our father was a minister. My mother didn’t use masks, or at least not around me and my sister and brother.

My friend’s mother was a kind woman, civic minded, political, intense. She was married to a wealthy successful man though there was often something silent and dark about him. He hunted and my father didn’t like to hunt. He drank, my preacher father did not.

I wish I could remember more about why my friend’s mother came into the room where all the girls were sleeping. Were we being loud? I don’t remember. Was she upset about something? I don’t recall. I only remember the shock of seeing her transformed, standing in the doorway the light behind her, her face obscured behind the mud mask, her gaze now alien and removed.

She was always kind to me when I was young and in the years after, even after my family moved from Arkansas and lived in another state, even through my college and married years. For birthdays and holidays, I always received a card scribbled in her tiny, almost indecipherable script.

She was nice to me too when she came to eat lunch with my family when we lived in Florida. I can’t remember the infraction I had committed as an adult child to inspire my parent’s silence toward me at that table on that day, but my friend’s mother was most visibly distressed over the disparity of attention lavished on the adult children. I felt it in her darting eyes and the shifting in her seat. For her it had been an experience of unnaturalism.

I think of her as a little darting bird like the kind you find who distracts you mercifully when you look out into the trees seeking solace or praying for relief.

I don’t know how a mud mask fits into this little story other than to perhaps point to the reality that she was always only ever herself.

But maybe the compulsion to make neat and tidy those elements of a story which rightfully exist randomly is undertaken by the same type who seek a too ready oneness with romantic partners and peers, those who are the pleasers and the insecurely attached.

No matter, what my friend’s mother shows is that there are people who exist for you even if you have not asked for them and even if you think you scarcely deserve them but there they are, seeing you. And sometimes that is all you want: a witness.

 

Flash Nano, day 2: A story that takes place in a bathroom

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Photo by Emily Austin, unsplash

Misha had thought to kill herself only hours before, lying in the deep bath of what a wealthy friend derisively called a “tract home.” She had been preparing for the well heeled event, a cocktail party with her husband’s colleagues, partners in the medical practice. Every year, around the time of her birthday, she felt herself slipping below the rim of reality as if she had slipped beneath the skin of the surface of a warm bath and was looking up at the world and its players, distorted and menacing. She thought she was screaming, but no one could hear anything. In a moment she would have to relinquish her soaking when the water turned cold. Then there would be the fixing of her hair, the straightening of her dress, the application of makeup, and the selection of jewelry.

What would she talk to these people about? And the women were all so stark and regal, proper doctor’s wives. She never lost the baby weight. That feeling of her self consciousness oppressed her. Planning on ways to kill herself did not help either, as if she were her own judge and jury, and sided with the sophisticated medical crowd regarding her value as a human.

At the party, things were as anticipated. But she found her solace in the locked bathroom where she let the water run from the faucet long and in a soothing little torrent. She used the brass stopper to close the drain and watched as the sink filled and the excess water spilled into the overflow holes. When she turned off the sink, she played with the water with little twirls of her hands. Maybe she should die in the bathtub, slashes deep and long in her flesh, the blood red and warming her as her body cooled. What if her child found her though. No, maybe there was something not so jarring in appearance.

What she didn’t realize was that there was someone in the toilet stall. A young yellow haired woman emerged, thin, a before pregnancy body, a black spaghetti strap halter dress hanging off of her like a dress hanging on a hangar. Her eyes were blotched with errant mascara and her hair mussed a bit as if she had been sitting on the toilet holding her head in her hands.

Misha remembered the night of her marriage. It had not been quite what she had anticipated. All the build up, the move from Minsk, the ceremony arranged by Rob’s parents in the United States. Misha so concerned to be beautiful, according to her advertisement on the Russian bride site, her parents and brothers and sisters and whole family crying before her trip overseas but wishing her well. The vodka, wine, cranberry juice, black bread, the gift of salt, the old sad songs for the loss of a daughter to her groom. After the ceremony in an empty white church devoid of the embellishments of her country’s faith, she remembered the lightweight veil on her head and realized what she had always wanted as a girl: To feel the orthodox bridal crown. She sat in the hotel bathroom, the first night of her married life and felt the sting of tears. What was wrong with her? She chastised herself. She thought of her parents, how happy they were, she tried to be happy too.

“How can I help you?” Misha said to the sniffling young woman, but the girl ignored her and dabbed at her eyes with a linen napkin from the stack provided by the sink. “Here, dear one, let me give you a hug.” The girl acquiesced and Misha felt the racking of her sniffles against her chest and her birdlike shoulders in the folds of her motherly arms. Where had she come from? She hadn’t even noticed anyone slightly under the age of thirty. The youngest couples were not that young, all of them having survived medical school and residencies and made it into partnership.

“I have to go,” said the girl, and twisted out of her grasp and slipped through the door.

Misha, who herself had only, hours before, been crying silently as she lay in the deep water of the tub, could not find the child among the mix of people when she emerged from the bathroom. At least she had been given the chance to be of comfort and she did feel a little lighter.

That night, she slipped out of her dress, took off her jewelry and lit candles around her tub.

Rob kidded her she would turn into a prune. She kissed him on the mouth. His eyes registered surprise. She had been withdrawn from him some weeks.

She slipped into the warm water all encompassing and primordial. How beautiful to hold herself in this way, suspended, and know she would come up for air.

Ms. Myska tries for love

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Mme E. by Emmanuel25, flickr

Mme E. by Emmanuel25, flickr

It had become Ms. Myska’s tradition to allow herself one month of the year to date through the interwebs. Signing up on a dating site involved a creating of a profile which she completed with relish and a certain glee, hoping her prospects would catch her tongue in cheek style, her humor, her joie de vivre. She spoke of her love for art, for the beauty of nature, the necessity of good stand up comedy, her passion for the eating of chocolate hazelnut spread, the patting of her soft dog while enjoying the breeze on her porch. Her initial offering netted an overall positive response and she was off to the races.

This particular month, in the month between Halloween and Thanksgiving, her first date was a military man who had exciting, interesting things to tell her over their salmon and broccoli: his work in search and rescue, his knowledge of Chinese and Russian intelligence, his concern for a wave of immigrants about to cross the border. But he also told her how easy it was for him to pick up women, how he could sit at the bar and they would just flock to him. There was no one at this restaurant bar. Eighties rock music reverberated throughout the empty chain restaurant dining room and the salmon was a little bit dry though she discretely slathered it with butter sauce. The barkeep was drying glasses and putting them away for the night. Ms. Myska’s date had lied about his age. He was actually more than a few years older than she. She could see it in his hair and frame and hands.

The military man convinced her before their second date to take down her profile and date him exclusively, that he was a great catch and well worth it. Another man she had been messaging on the site, a man slightly unhinged but who had been entertaining her nonetheless, got angry with her when she told him she was deleting her account for someone else. He flung a tirade of angry texts at her, telling her she had betrayed him though they had never gone out. He predicted that by the third date, she would be moving her stuff in with this person and making wedding plans. Ms. Myska’s heart began to race. She had no intention of moving in with anyone. And here’s the other thing: She was no good with a stranger’s anger, not this explosive and intense kind of anger, and seemingly without much foundation.

Because of dealing with this other man’s angry texts and the doubts it raised in her, she was late to her second date at another chain restaurant/bar and almost didn’t go. But she made it with apologies. Almost as if the dating gods had turned against her for this, the charm had drained from the military man altogether. His face appeared weary and drawn. His age was more revealing in the light. And she listened to a one hour tale about his lucky numbers and how he intuits them and uses them to bet and play the lottery, how lucky he is as if he were pretty much invincible. She supposed in a certain light on other dates this show of bravado sealed it for the uncertain as if he were a magic lucky teapot. The determinism of the numbers crushed her as did his seeming unwavering faith in himself. The fried chicken pieces at this second restaurant, a different restaurant than the first but almost interchangeable in a way inspired in her the following image: A very long tunnel with small round doors in the walls, each containing a lecture, a bland restaurant item, an angry political person, a disappointed man.

The next day she broke up with him over text. They had only seen each other twice. He called her a child for not breaking up with him face to face and he implied she was one of these “crazy ass women” he’d been seeing as of late. She asked him how insults fit into his self-presentation as a gentlemen. Then the doors to that particular slammed shut. Wham.

Her next prospect was an elementary school cafeteria manager who after one date convinced her to take her dating profile off the website, the profile she created after the military man dressed her down like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. She and the cafeteria manager went out for tapas at a Brazilian restaurant. She liked the way they spoke fluidly of food and recipes and restaurants and ingredients. She liked his hands, nice, big, warm looking, and his height. They laughed and talked and went for ice cream. They hugged when the date was over. They hit it off so they both took down their profile.

Then he didn’t call her. Confused and puzzled, she confronted him. He responded he was following some sort of “rule” for not calling her. He was angry she was upset. And he seemed angry by the second date over delicious blackened fish sandwiches. She was trying to be cheerful and funny but she felt his scowl and withdrawal and later that night it depressed her and she broke up with him. She kept remembering the way he walked to his car after their meal like he was leaving a house on fire when really nothing was burning. She was only standing beside him waiting for a reassuring hug or something to clear away their early days of trouble. Down this corridor there would be the mournful tears of someone crying for the love she could have given but it was unwanted. She broke up with him in the middle of the night when she knew he would be asleep.

She met a man on a motorcycle. They met out for oysters. He had a heavy silver skull ring for each finger and a salt and pepper goatee. He smiled at her and they sat at the bar chatting comfortably. She hadn’t planned on it but she asked him to take her around town on the back of his Harley. She didn’t even have a helmet which is as bold as Ms. Myska had ever become with her own safety.

It was an inky, starry night. She knew instantly she loved him or could love him.

A few days later his mother died after a long and painful illness. Ms. Myska felt him slip away into things he must handle, though she tried to help him best she could and she tried to be supportive. She went to the funeral home, leant an ear and what she believed was her sympathy. She liked the way he included her right away. She liked the way he took her out and seemed to want to know some things from previous experiences in her relationships. Knowing him and the people he rode with was like knowing a larger family.

But there was another side that snuck in too, a sadism that caught her mouse heart off guard though she tried to chalk it up to his grief. In the short amount of time a bond formed, maybe it was she in her sympathy, a chance to be useful in a way she wanted to be, useful and helpful and good. She had given a lot of herself, her feelings, her care. She was, she thinks now, a bit of an idiot but in the moment that this happens, this bonding, her dedication always seems to be for some cause, as if love were a god to be served exclusively and everything and everyone is sacrificed on the altar. With the last and final man for the year, it had something to do with the rumbling of the motorcycle, her body pressed up against him, her arms around his waist, his little hat, the rock music, Tom Petty, the air.

But eventually after she had done what she could and what she thought she should do out of respect for his grief, he hated her too.

Ms. Myska deleted her account.

The deeper truths are in the green dark mystery of the woods across the street. You cannot give up pursuing this mystery, not even for a moment, she thought, in the quiet, no military histories on tv, no man banging around making something in the kitchen, no full set of skull rings falling on her black iron Neiman Marcus side table she bought from ebay. How the woods have missed her, the sky. Her dog’s small dark and bright eyes, watch her and wait for the moment she will tear her eyes from the lonely and dissatisfied and take her for a walk.

flashnano 2018: day one, “father”

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marty hadding, flickr

marty hadding, flickr

Put the tiny cup to my lips, father, and I will drink the grape juice, the blood of our Lord. I am too weak to grasp it myself and cannot lift my head from the pillow.

Your kindly, knobby fingers I know so well, and the freckle by your ring finger. The bells of your church in Arkansas years ago when I was a child, the bright green lawn, the white of the walls beyond the gold cross suspended from the ceiling with taut wire. At the front of the church I sing with my friends “So My Sheep May Safely Graze,” our voices reverberating, mother on the second row where she always sits. You in your red velvet chair behind the pulpit. I know where you keep a glass of water, on a shelf just below the Bible, a secret shelf.

Do you remember when I went with you to give a last communion to an invalid lady? You served her from a velvet lined burgundy kit containing the juice and wafers, Jesus’ body. When we were sitting in the car later in front of her house, I stared hard out of the window, afraid to look at your face because you said I was strong. Tears stung my eyes. When you asked me what was wrong I said will that lady be alright? You said nothing. Our experience became a sermon illustration.

I try to speak to you but my words cannot make it into my mouth my body has become slowed and lazy with the sedatives, the morphine.

I love you, father.

You hold my hand, you tell me where to go, you tell me where I will meet you. You ask me to reserve a place.

FlashNano 2018: On Your Mark… FAQ

Nancy Stohlman

FlashNano 2018

It’s that time a year again, folks: FlashNano! And if you’ve never heard of FlashNano before now, it’s the annual challenge to write 30 flash fiction stories in 30 days during the month of November, now in its 7th year!

The idea originated in 2012 as a spin-off from National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWRiMo): the challenge to write a 50,000 novel in a month. That challenge is fantastic and you can find out more here.

But FlashNano is the flash fiction lover’s answer to NaNoWriMo—the thrill of generating lots of material and the solidarity and the contagious energy of mad creation: sprinting, crawling, agonizing and celebrating throughout November with our novel-writing friends.

Join us!

Frequently Asked Questions

How do we join?
Declare it so.
Go buy some new pens and notebooks.
Join the mailing list (if you haven’t already) if you would like prompts emailed to…

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lips

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woman wearing eye covers by Amadeo Muslimovic, unsplash

She had a date, Ms. Myska. A miracle, really, considering it had only been a month ago that she lay on the operating table awaiting anesthesia, uncertain if cancer would take her down with her uterus.

And here she was, healthy as a new chick, sitting across the table from a smiling man with retro looking glasses, a man who knew how to choose a restaurant, to order, to talk. It hardly felt deserved, actually, Ms. Myska being somewhat shy, somewhat of a scurrying mouse, somewhat worried about her problems though she put on her best face.

Still, her face was betraying her. Sangria was the culprit. Sulfites, likely, in the wine. She began to feel her bottom lip plump out into a perfect rectangle and she wondered if the man saw, though thankfully the lights were dim.

She hoped she didn’t seem awkward talking to him because she was trying to talk while worrying. But to Ms. Myska worrying and doing something else at the same time was like walking and chewing gum.

The hysterectomy, the next phase in her fight against cancer, a fight to stay one step ahead of the reaper, saw her experience with a new drug. And it plumped out her lips and caused them to be red and chapped. This had been an unexpected. Though the swelling seemed to come and go – some days she felt she was over it, and some days her lips seemed to be stretching the boundaries of her skin – she was resigned to the permanence of the situation and sometimes observed the phenomenon with curiosity, like a scientist, or sometimes with horror, like a Japanese citizen in a monster flick, shaken to the core by a walking lizard exploded beyond all reason in size and ferocity.

As she watched her date order their tapas she hoped her lips did not cause her to blurt out any of her presently closely guarded feelings and thoughts. Here were a few: “Hey, you are even cuter than I imagined.” Or: “What would it be like to kiss you?” Or: “I think it’s really sexy when a guy knows how to order. Total hotness.”

Her lips had a serious side too. They wanted to say things like: “How come your other relationships didn’t work out?” Or: “Tell me how you feel about being a widower.” Or: “Do you snore loudly? Do you have flatulence? Would you mind if I did on occasion? Or minded if I enjoyed burping very loudly? Would you mind if I occasionally struggle with insomnia? I talk to my dog constantly, is that a problem? I sometimes cry, unprovoked, is that a big deal? Messy house? Financial messes?”

Instead she said: “I love making coconut shrimp. Yum.” He was a cook too and they compared notes.

When they were off to their cars at the top of the garage under the inky sky, they hugged goodnight.

It was only later, in her car, driving home, that she realized he had turned his head sideways to kiss her.

She was glad her lips had not picked up on this. Her lips only realized it later, with her brain.

She liked him.

But she was glad.

 

 

Nettie

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Let death find you alive by Kara Hamms, flickr

Let death find you alive by Kara Harms, flickr

There is something wrong with Nettie, who lives at the edge of town. There is something wrong with Nettie who walks beside the trees. There is something wrong with Nettie whose dress once pure is coated with a dark liver colored stain. There is something wrong with Nettie, no one has seen her little dog in weeks. There is something wrong with Nettie, her hair has ratted. There is something wrong with Nettie, they say she walks in the woods naked at night. There is something wrong with Nettie, kids hear her scratching at their windows. There is something wrong with Nettie, someone found her in a tree, gripping the trunk of it in her thighs. There is something wrong with Nettie, when the moon is full, she walks beside the highway. There is something wrong with Nettie, some say she ate a man, homeless, her teeth, sharp and ruthless. There is something wrong with Nettie though she was once one of us. There is something wrong with Nettie, but her former husband and children turn as if embarrassed, aggrieved. There is something wrong with Nettie, and no one will say what, exactly, and no one will do anything. There is something wrong with Nettie, she climbs the sky every night riding a rough stick and wearing a red cap over hair matted with sticks and rocks she collects sleeping on the ground. There is something wrong with Nettie, and maybe, one day, she’ll die.

Ms. Myska’s Kintsugi

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etsy kintsugi by

Kintsugi by Abigail Moses, etsy store, JoStarrCo, link below the story

Ms. Myska’s upcoming operation had altered the course of her daily thoughts and interaction with the world. The surgeon told her he would use robotic arms to go into her womb and extract her cancerous uterus. Always before learning of such she had a mousy nervous way, an odd way, that people noticed and remarked upon, albeit through veiled observant glances and uncomfortable laughter. And now, Ms. Myska’s nerves had sent her over the edge. In fact, she had come to believe she could interact with the insensate world, something she kept a secret but something she felt nonetheless.

It started with her fear of death. Mrs. Malvoline, at the weekly Bible study luncheon, had told her when learning of the upcoming procedure: “Well you know Mitzy Bowzer had that done, all fancy Dan, the surgery modern as a toaster, and she lost her bowels from between her legs. Slipped right through.”

This during the chicken salad salad sandwiches at a table mounded with fruit in the center around which the ladies chattered about their families and their diets.

Ms. Myska laid her croissant sandwich down on her plastic plate and held a napkin to her lips.

Greta Malvoline had not known of or could not have guessed Ms. Myska’s feverish sweats in the middle of night, her nightmares of being chased through the town by robotic arms that could move in 360 degree rotation, arms that played with her hair, put things in her grocery basket, made her meals – gourmet style – far superior to her humble culinary efforts. And now, in waking life, arms would take the organ that had once held her baby.

The room where twelve ladies sat around the luncheon table in the church, twelve ladies strong, good as the twelve apostles, was too close for Ms. Myska, the now cloying odor of fresh baked bread and fruit overwhelming. She grabbed her purse and scurried to the door. Outside the church at the memorial garden where the cremated remains of former parishioners sat in jars. She felt sick but she wanted to show respect for the dead.

“Oh earth,” she said, “If I die, will you hold me?”

Even Ms. Myska knew she was being a bit dramatic. The surgeon had reassured her he had performed thousands of robotic surgeries without mishap. And the upside was a quick recovery.

She felt a breeze then, a caress. The leaves rattled “yes.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. She had her answer, then. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like this was a reassurance.

She must think of something pretty to be buried in, she thought, looking around at the colorful urns where others’ ashes were stored. Were jars standard or could she choose a favorite?

She thought of her great grandmother’s ginger jar. When she was a girl she had brushed against the pie crust table where it was displayed. The jar broke into many pieces. Rather than scold her, her great grandmother had gathered the pieces and glued them back together, teaching her about the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi. “The Japanese believe, my little one, that a repaired vessel is even more beautiful because it is the scars that show uniqueness and beauty. Artists often highlight the cracks in a repaired piece of pottery using gold. It is a lesson in resilience. A repaired vessel is a sign of soul.” And her great grandmother gently brushed her cheek with a crooked and withered finger.

One of the items Ms. Myska procured for herself after her great grandmother’s death was the repaired old ginger jar. Ms. Myska’s mother, a practical woman, was in the process of tossing her odds and ends. The jar was sitting on top of a pile of old books and newspapers. Nula spirited it away. “That’s useless, you know,” said her mother. Nula ignored her. She kept her magic jar in her room beside her pet rock Harry and her matryoshka doll collection.

The afternoon of the earth’s reassurance, she was happy to not return to the ladies who by now were commencing a study and discussion of the Messianic prefigurings of Jesus. It had nothing to do with her. The irrelevance of this arcane type of scholasticism coupled with a stomach heavy with a rich lunch inspired her departure. To stay might have brought about drowsing during the lecture, adding yet another incidence of eccentricity to her reputation.

At home, she retrieved her great grandmother’s blue and white ginger jar from the china cabinet. She kept it in the place where the little interior light of the cabinet could highlight it. If she looked carefully, she could see the places where her grandmother had lovingly glued the pieces back together. She placed it on her dining room table and sat before it.

“Little jar,” she said, “Will you hold the ashes of my bones when I am dead?”

She couldn’t be completely sure, not when she thought of it later, but she could have sworn she heard the lid of the jar rattle lightly against the lip. Maybe it was just her nervous agitation upsetting the table slightly and disturbing the jar, but it seemed perhaps she had her answer.

Ms. Myska buzzed about the kitchen making her dinner of chili beans and cornbread and feeding her dog. It took a great deal of time for the beans to cook and though it was early afternoon she anticipated a late night dinner.

On the porch she sat with her needlework. The sky was busily forming and reforming clouds as she followed the pattern for the large splashy peonies on the printed canvas. It was pleasurable to push the colored yarn through and know that this was her only chore for the afternoon. Years ago she had entertained her husband’s – now ex husband’s – clients with elaborate parties. Years ago she had raised a teenage son. Years ago she had scurried around a library large as a city block looking for patron’s requests. Now all that was required was the simple tent stich. Her tiny white dog sat beside her on the small porch swing.

She had a sudden worry for her. Who would care for the little thing were something to happen?

“Sky,” she said, “Will you watch over my dog Belle when I’m dead? Watch over her to protect her? Protect her as a mother?”

The clouds bowed up then forming a perfect circle like a mother’s arms. Miraculous! Ms. Myska had never felt so close to the sky and she stayed outside on her porch until the summer storm blew her indoors.

That evening, the whole of her house bathed in gold while Ms. Myska ate her supper. It was as if it were a crack in an artisan’s pot that had been repaired with gold. The whole of her life was a history of her scarring and repair and for the first time in weeks Ms. Myska lay in her soft bed with her dog at her feet and slept without nightmares.

Go here to acquire Abigail Moses’ wonderful work of art above “Kintsugi.”

Meeting Medusa

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BW faces by J.

BW faces by E.

A woman walked into the salon. Mateo, a new hairdresser, observed what appeared to be separately dyed chunks of hair, each strand moving independently so that the whole had an effect of a dark crazy nimbus around her face. For some reason, no one seemed to notice, but he was working on the rougher side of town now, having struggled to find an opening. Maybe a lot happened without notice or comment.

No doubt he would be assigned to the striped headed woman being that he had more of the walk in clients. As he finished with the client in his chair he briefly mused on the challenge of his afternoon: This once trendy way of dying large swaths of hair in contrasting colors to jarring effect was going by the wayside, and thank God. He had seen it work for a few regal beauties. But for the average person: Quel dommage!

He tried to honor the customers who wanted extreme hair dyes, but he always found himself secretly compromising with expressed wishes when it came to actually applying color. He always told himself they would be amazed at how becoming his magic would be and they wouldn’t mind he altered their plans ever so slightly. And usually, he was correct. A few light streaks in strategically located places around the face and crown and they looked ten years younger, brighter, smarter. And no walking around town with a Ringling circus tent for hair, not on his watch.

At last he had the wild haired woman – whose name he learned was Willa – on his chair, hair bouncing on her head long after she sat still. He grabbed for his readers on the dresser of his station. He needed them to do the detailed work he expected of himself. Having situated them on his nose he saw something most unexpected: Willa’s hair was full of life because her hair was indeed alive. The chunks of hair weren’t individually dyed, they were each an independently writhing and hissing snake! Mateo jumped in alarm as if bitten. His heart was racing. And he almost fell to the floor. But he maintained enough composure to hold up a finger indicating “just a moment” as he raced to the bathroom.

He threw up his lunch, the leftovers from the dinner his partner, Ray, had made him the night before. His throat and nose burned and he washed out his mouth and splashed water on his face. He gazed at himself intently in the mirror. Often when he did this he could imagine Ray’s soft brown eyes looking back at him. And he saw them now, encouraging him, believing in him. He needed this job. Desperately. The whole of their lives hinged on his resourcefulness.

He stole out of the back door of the shop and drove to the bait and tackle to fetch a container of crickets. From years of fishing with his dad, he knew where to buy them and he knew from Ray, who kept their garden, this is one thing many of the nonpoisonous ones liked to eat. Ray kept for them a beautiful garden full of plants they used every day, roses, citrus. But Mateo’s father had cut off all contact.

In the back room at the salon, he managed to get all the crickets into a hair dryer cap, having sealed off the tube that attached to the dryer. And then he worked the cap over Willa’s head, trying not to think of anything but Ray’s soft brown eyes, even as the snakes were whipping his hands and arms. And at last, there was less and less movement under the cap as the snakes sated themselves. Willa seemed happier and more satisfied too. Now he could talk to her in peace.

“How did you come to have snakes for hair?” he said, watching her face, trying to determine what was going on.

But Willa didn’t speak, or she was unable to tell him. She looked at the floor.
He brought her the lemonade Ray made for him every day specially with lemons from their garden. He was right in guessing this would help. When she seemed open to talking, he arranged to make special visits to her home for what he jokingly told her was “the cricket cure.” He saw her smile, just a little, and he knew he had a client.

He and Ray began visiting every Saturday, bringing their little dog Matt Junior.
Until one weekend, they arrived at her home to discover her head was full of hair instead of writhing serpents. And at last Mateo found out the cause of the poor woman’s affliction: She had been attacked on a Sunday as she was coming back from church. The attacker must have been watching her for some time and knew her schedule and when she would be most vulnerable. He dragged her out into the garden, and her house, being remote from neighbors, meant no one could hear her or see what was going on. She was raped in her garden. And her grief in the months following resulted in an unruly head.

It had been a year since the tragedy and Mateo and Jay were helping her to feel like herself again.

The first day of Willa’s normal hair, Mateo smiled in the good lady’s sunny kitchen, a glass of wine in one hand and a handful of Willa’s healthy hair in the other. “It’s time to get back to gorgeous,” he said, and he put down his wine and began to section off her hair for his signature radiant style.