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.
New Micros Releases today, August 28, 2018!
A new collection of very short stories selected by Flash Fiction editor James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro.
- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: WW Norton & Company
- ISBN-10: 0393354709
- ISBN-13: 978-0393354706
To say I cut my teeth on the Norton flash fiction anthologies would be an understatement. I remember reading Flash Fiction Forward in a hammock in Costa Rica circa 2008–as I was in the middle of an MFA and creating and editing my first anthology of flash fiction with Fast Forward Press–and just marveling at the scope and vision of editors James Thomas and Robert Shapard. I, of course, proceeded to read all their previous anthologies, then assigned them in my classes and workshops. Some of the stories in that book, like “Consuming the View” by Luigi Malerba (and reprinted in Flash Fiction International), continue to haunt…
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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.”
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 Ringing 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 Jay 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.
I love this…
Just before Julie’s morning break, the security monitor flashed on a girl with black hair and kohl lined eyes. Julie zoomed in on her to get a better look.
The customer stood at the ladies’ jewelry counter, perusing a turnstile of watches. She then summoned Rosemary to unlock the clear plastic case. A few minutes later, she slipped a watch into her jacket pocket.
Julie was just about to alert her undercover shopper when the girl stopped and looked up at the camera. It was Chloe. Behind the dark hair and goth makeup was the face of Julie’s own child. Julie stroked the monitor with her fingers. Chloe hadn’t been home in a long time.
As if in response to Julie’s touch, Chloe shot her the bird. She then stormed off to the womens’ hosiery department. She slid the watch into a ladies’ pantyhose sleeve, holding it up so her mother could see what she was doing.
“Do you want me to go down there and handle it?” This was Julie’s boyfriend, having watched the events from the security room. He had been a witness to many such scenes between his girlfriend and her daughter, but nothing was ever stolen. Things were merely rearranged.
“Leave it,” she said.
The divorce had created a new child, someone Julie didn’t recognize. To make matters worse, her ex rarely called, and when he spent time with Chloe, it was to let her know her mother was a whore.
By the time Julie arrived on the floor, Chloe had gone. She tipped the watch out of the sleeve and held it in her hand until it was warm. It was deceptively heavy.
First appeared in decomP magazine.
A woman was feeling lonely, desperate. In fact, that’s what her young lover told her: She was lonely and desperate. That was a year ago. And no dating since. And since then the gynecologist had showed her a picture of something in her uterus, the scope light making it appear as a large shining globe like the top of an alien’s head, half of a crystal ball. She was old enough to have given birth to her young friend, and she did give birth to a man only a bit younger than he. And now she would have to give birth to her uterus to be rid of the foreign body growing inside her.
She remembers telling the young man when they broke up: When you are alone paying your own bills and worrying about fixing your own house and taking care of your health, feelings are a bit different, life is harder. You’ll see. Asshole. Well, she didn’t call him that, but she wanted to. He still lived with his parents, to her shame, among piles of books and hoards of cats.
Brother Lawrence Bible Verses 4 You promised to deliver daily Bible verses by text, every day for 40 days. Part of the course was to write in a journal and by the end of it track spiritual growth. Before this scheme, she had thought she might start writing letters to herself or composing texts to herself, some which might be Bible verses. In her letters, she would say the things she wanted to hear from others but didn’t – reassurances, promises of love, apologies. She would pretend to be others and sign their names. She needed to feel better, somehow. And she would do anything.
But the Brother Lawrence thing seemed so much more direct. Sure, Bible verses were connected in some ways to dark memories of her upbringing, but she wouldn’t have to put forth as much effort to think of them and send them to herself. It was a service she could receive for once and perhaps it could feel more like a gift. Now that she was divorced and without prospects, she wasn’t beyond sending flowers to herself at Valentine’s, for example, but at what cost. She had grown tired. And now she was sick. And in need of an operation.
The site did not send her any texts.
She called Brother Lawrence, the customer service line listed on the site. There was some music on the hold line, Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” How many times had she been to church and listened to the organ arrangement. She had even sung it in a church choir. And now it was coming through static on the Brother Lawrence help line.
“Hello?” said a wavering voice, finally, picking up the call. It sounded like an older woman.
There were no formalities to help the situation and so she proceeded. “Look I signed up to receive your Bible verse texts, which I think is a wonderful service. But I haven’t received a verse yet.”
“We are just a nonprofit aiming to do our best,” said the woman and there was the sound of a chiming clock behind her.
“Isn’t it automated so that once I sign up I begin to receive verses?”
“I don’t know.”
There was some silence between them.
What more could be said.
“Thank you,” said the woman and hung up.
Maybe the older woman on the helpline had been hinting that they needed a donation to activate the verses.
The money required to get her uterus out, alien head and all, mitigated against charitable donations.
Yet another nothing is for free moment. And so she rejoined the dog eat dog world, got over her depression, got rid of her uterus, went back to the gym, took her life back, went back to school and eventually got a job.
A few months later she received a text from Brother Lawrence: “God loves you.”
After a housewife spends hours before a glowing box pressing buttons, her hands sweating, her legs and arms weakening, her pupils dilating and contracting, fluids streaming from every orifice, she goes about her tasks which do not involve punching buttons or looking at a glowing box. These tasks, by comparison, cause little reaction. She goes back to her occupation before the box as if returning to an essential fire. Her life crashes down around her, her family leaves, her house disintegrates and is taken away, and eventually someone takes the box away. She spends the rest of her life dreaming about the times she sat before the box. She dies and is put into a box. The box that had been her glowing box becomes a black box piled on top of other boxes nourishing the soil with mercury, chromium, cadmium, and lead.
First appeared in The New Absurdist
She had long since forgotten what it felt like to have a man’s eyes on her. She was forty-two, still passable for her late thirties, but had grown used to the fact that men weren’t going to look at her when she walked into a room, that she would be ignored no matter her capabilities, her joie de vivre, her “soul.” How she laughed to herself to remember her past reassurances of older female friends when they mourned their changing looks. These reassurances, she knew now, would have seemed as specious to them as her beliefs about the “soul” itself. How could she have known that so much of happiness was tied to what she had once thought was superficial?
One morning a year after her baby was born, she took the metro to the D.C. Mall. She wanted to spend a quiet day in the National Gallery looking at paintings, letting the silence and the beauty change her or refresh her in some way. She and her husband had lived in Gaithersburg for a few years but she had rarely followed through with her plan to get away from the house, to entertain herself with this rare private indulgence.
She closed her eyes as the train sped away from the station. She settled into the jostling car as it whirred along the rails. She was grateful that even the small decisions involved with driving a car were not hers to make, that at least for a while, there was little reason for vigilance. As the stops rolled by one after another she had to rouse herself to pay attention.
And that’s when she saw him standing by the door opposite. She hadn’t been sure what made her look at him, of all the men standing in the car, with their identical suits, grasping their briefcases and newspapers. He was watching her. She met his gaze. He did not look away.
Was he really looking at her? she wondered. Maybe she was mistaken. She turned, saw the car was filled with people reading, dozing, talking on phones. She resumed watching his blue, almost gray eyes. He smiled at her then, just a small turning up of his lips. He knew what she was thinking. It made her uncomfortable to think he knew something about her just from this one gesture and yet she felt something in his gaze that was innocent, that was merely curious, intensely curious.
She had to think about her breath and to make herself focus on her metro stop. When it arrived, she pushed herself up from her chair. She lurched forward. How very unattractive, she thought. She felt her face burning. She looked at his face once more before stepping out of the car. He was still watching her. He was still smiling. She stood on the platform while the doors closed and he did not let his eyes move from her face.
She wanted to cry. She liked him. Or she liked the idea of him, that’s what she realized later when she thought about wanting to cry as she stood there watching some stranger being pulled away from her. He was curious and he was handsome and there was something shy in his gaze too, something that made it safe for her to like him, and she wished she had stayed in the car and hadn’t been so true to her plans.
Years later, when she thought of the day the man had looked at her, she realized a part of her feelings of loss about becoming invisible had been about a lost identity but also a great deal had been about something else, that something that would never return to her in the shape of her yearning, in the empty space that is left when she finally became no one and everyone, both at once.
first published in Atticus Review
More than twenty dark humor stories ranging from hilarious to deadly each portraying a household item with a mind of its own. My story Hanako-san of the Toilet is deadly! Take advantage of the special pre-order Kindle price of $2.99. Today is the last day at this price. Release date is set for August 10. Get your scary/funny summer read!
Driving back from dropping off her son at camp outside Hampton, Tennessee, she turned off onto the road leading to the cabin. It was the week of the 4th and frankly the time had been less than hoped for.
The cabin was tucked back in dark woods, remote, still. The inside paneling was dark. The cabin was equipped with a wood burning stove and an upstairs loft with a bed. There was limited wifi and not much in the way of cable.
Since her divorce she and her son had developed nocturnal habits with their electronic equipment – he with his video games, she her social media and movies – but in the dead of night here there wasn’t much to do and not much to entertain him. She knew she had contributed to this way of being, this spoiled way, and she had spoiled herself too in constant escapism. It had been the guilt that had perhaps entered in between them and made her a different kind of parent than she might have been.
She hadn’t noticed the gas gauge. She was almost on empty. It was growing dark and before long the car’s GPS fell off of radar. There had been flooding and she had to gun it across a flooded run running as rapidly as a small creek. She was scared and shaken. And alone. Her son had helped her find the cabin initially by using the map system on his phone. Luckily she started to recognize landmarks and used her memory to help guide her choices.
At the cabin, the leaves of the wood were the kind that becomes their most intense green right before darkness. There was a porch around the cabin. Along the front it was tiny and screened in, an airless room. Along the side it was open and big enough to house a small jacuzzi tub, the one compensation. She suited up and took the cover off of the tub and stepped in and was lulled for a moment. And then she worried about what may be watching her, what she couldn’t see – animal, human.
She went inside, locked the door, drew the curtains, and started a fire in the wood burning stove even though it was a warm night. She would sit on her towel in her wet suit and dry out. She was able to contact the dating site she just couldn’t stay on it forever. Only a couple of people had sent her messages but only the bare minimum of what had become the usual. Hi. or Hey. or sometimes Hey gorgeous. or worse Hey sexy. Would she ever get to the point of responding to Hey sexy. She hoped not.
She had planned to write her fiction. She wasn’t feeling imaginative. She was feeling dull and useless. In a little bit she would need to scrounge up dinner.
She took a few pictures with her camera phone for the site. Why not. Her hair was brown and short now because of the chemo. Only a few years ago she had what seemed like a more photogenic quality. Now she looked more her age. She wore heavy black framed glasses that even looked a bit stylish with their heaviness. She had done a series of black and white photos wearing her glasses and a necklace set she had bought when she was married, one from Talbots, a silver mother of pearl set. She was selling herself online now as Ugly Betty which sometimes netted her responses like You’re not ugly! and You’re hot why are you saying you’re ugly! Sometimes people were funny which made her feel better. Sometimes she wondered if that was her only goal.
She had even gone so far as to see if anyone living in the area would want to meet out, something she’d seen guys do. So many guys came to Orlando on business and wanted only a one time or short term dating situation. Or who knows maybe they said that and were actually married. These were the sort of behaviors she had become accustomed to.
A log fell. She propped it back up with the poker and put in a fresh one from the iron basket beside the stove.
There wasn’t anyone in proximity to where she was it seemed. With the difficulty of getting through the woods it was best. And as far as staying put, the cabin was not as comfortable as she’d hoped either with hard wooden chairs in the kitchen where she’d have to sit if she wanted to write at a table. She missed her padded high back chair in front of her narrow and cheap but elegant rustic Queen Anne writing table at home, hardwood and only stained. It was ironic to be away from home on vacation and miss the things you had.
As she had many times she reminded herself since divorcing she was here for her son, this had been the main goal. She had successfully dropped him at camp, though in a fashion typical for his age he hadn’t wanted her to hang around. She sensed this at least. She had brought the dog as an excuse, to save face for them both, so she could leave. She had not become one of those hot cool moms. She was chubs at this point and she felt he might be ashamed of her but she didn’t pursue it with him. Ugly Betty was an apt name. She could have done some things about her state. She couldn’t get motivated.
Really, all she wanted as an Ugly Betty was to meet a man who wasn’t so overly dependent on his ego that he could be a companion. She pictured him smiling at her and giving her a side hug when they were out. He would be proud of her even though she wasn’t perfect. He wouldn’t be perfect either – average looking too, average build or even chubs like her, it was ok, even desirable in some ways. She wanted to have the sense he protected her, or could if she needed this. He would have a bit of a personality combined with a kind of sober realism. He wouldn’t flirt too much with other women when they were out or stare because he understood her feelings and wanted to value them, wanted to be the man she wanted. He wouldn’t see her as a short term opportunity because she had been sick.
Had she had a man like that maybe she could get help with things. The day before, the day of the fireworks, she wasn’t sure how to use the celebratory explosives and her son wasn’t sure either. They had tried shooting them off in a tiny side yard that was barely a clearing apart from the trees and underbrush. She had registered her son’s disappointment. Some of the fireworks were faulty, the rest just simply lackluster. She had bought them somewhere. A discount store which is where she buys everything now, even clothes, canned foods, dishes, and towels.
Ugly Betty’s man would have rounded the fireworks up in Georgia on the way up, big, loud explosives that would take off the tips of fingers if you didn’t know what you were doing. The silence and stillness of the woods would be penetrated with their force. He would show her son how to do everything, letting him take over and feel like a man.
It made her feel good to imagine her man with her now. In fact she got up to make him dinner. When her son wasn’t with her she had to fight with herself to find reason to make the effort. Her man was sitting there, on the couch now, having fiddled with the television antenna. He was watching her backside appreciatively. He liked the way she looked, he had often told her. He liked her Rubenesque figure, her dark eyes, her full lips.
She stirred the garlic and anchovy paste into the olive oil warming in the pan. She had come with plenty of food in the cooler, plenty to feed her son, who ate huge amounts. This would be something her man would appreciate, be grateful for, her resourcefulness. She would make spaghetti and hot crusty bread.
She put the spaghetti pot on full of water. “You know you have to bring it to a boil first before adding the salt,” she said to her dog because her man was engrossed in something he was reading in the paper they had picked up on the way in. “That way you don’t get pock marks on the bottom.”
Never again had she thought she would meet anyone else who might be able to benefit from what she had accumulated over the years, an intimate knowledge of the kitchen’s secrets.
She felt invigorated now, enough to open a bottle of wine she had indulged in to celebrate the successful drop off of her child. She put it on the table covered with the red checked tablecloth she had brought from home, along with other festive décor for the holiday.
She fed the dog who was wearing her Fourth of July bandana.
Her man would hug her appreciatively when she was finished cooking, would smile at her with his twinkling blue eyes, and after dinner they would enjoy themselves in the hot tub under the inky night sky, listening to the few remaining fireworks, smelling the gun powder drifting through the trees.
She wouldn’t think about what was looking at her through the trees.
She would think about what she sees.
I am appearing in this publication by Battle Goddess this August. Dark humor stories featuring items found in your household! The stories progress from light and soft to dark and gory. Let’s just say, my story falls somewhere near the end of this spectrum! I am happy to appear with friends here, an anthology edited by the highly creative Valerie Willis. Don’t forget to pre-order now to take advantage of the special pricing. Time is closing in. Projected paperback release date: August 10.
There is a short term pricing offer for pre-orders if you are a Kindle user for $2.99.
By Emilio Carrero
On a soccer field I met my childhood best friend. Our elementary school was mostly white, and we were the only Spanish kids standing on the field that day. We were the last two picked.
As a kid I never realized this fact: the two of us were oddities, a brown Puerto Rican and a white Mexican roaming the hallways. We were familiar to each—the both of us quiet, hardworking, and stumbling to navigate between our Spanish cultures and American culture. But we were also different. I was better than Pepe at soccer and I spoke better English. I knew this, as a kid, because the white kids were nicer to me. They eventually picked me regularly to be on their team.
I remember resenting Pepe for not speaking better English, for embarrassing me around the other kids to the point that I distanced myself from him…
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Sissy Day stood at the microphone under the arbor of Dot Backson’s home on Rosemary Beach. The sprawling Key West style two story had been selected by the Florida Grey Gardens Society of Women for its first annual conference “In Defense of Freedom: An Examination of the Lives of Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale.” On this late Friday afternoon in September, Sissy was waiting for the conference attendees to settle, to get their drinks and snacks and find a chair. She was opening the conferences bedecked in a white floppy sunhat, the style worn by Big Edie when she sits on her bed in the disintegrating home in East Hampton and sings “Tea for two” in the documentary film Grey Gardens. She also wore the 1940s style swimsuit Big and Little Edie both wore when they sunbathed on their porch. And she wore a kaftan tied around her waist in homage to Little Edie’s fashion flair and the Grey Gardens’ fashion principal that clothes designed for an intended purpose are not functionally confined to the original purpose.
Mimi Carroll looked on approvingly at the costume. She had also chosen to start the conference wearing something very much of the sensibility of Little Edie, especially, and found it a relief since losing her hair with cancer treatment, she could don a teal linen swath of fabric on her head, the tail of it going down her back like a ponytail with a matching strand of yarn tied at the nape of her neck. She had been told by the others upon their arrival that it set off her brown eyes. A long articulated gold earring pierced through the fabric just over her right ear moved in flowing, serpentine motion and flashing in the light of the setting sun. She wore the big round glasses Little Eddie wore when she sunbathed.
Jules Carpenter, Mimi Carroll’s assistant, was a little less impressed with the women adorned like street people when they were so much wealthier than she was. “White people,” she thought, as she took note of shirts worn as skirts and pinned with costume jewelry pins, white block heels with bathing suits, head costumes that could have passed as religious head coverings and yet there was no religious reason for them and except for Mimi, they were not a cover for baldness. She was given to understand that all of these fashion quirks and more on display before her were a part of the sensibility of Jackie Onassis’ aunt and cousin who became destitute after Phelan Beale, husband of Big Edie, father of Little Edie, abandoned the house and the women. Even the film subject seemed very white: How a mother and daughter became poor and destitute and crazy. It was a little more than that, though. This pair had rich relatives. So maybe it was a commentary on how these two could have stooped to this level when their family was so rich and famous. It was hard to figure. Yet the women at the conference seemed to embrace the poor, crazy pair. Jules was going to try to sneak out to pick up her whiskey at a liquor store she spied in town. Note to self, she said to herself.
The only person the first speaker Sissy Day knew from her small home town was Grace Alan. The meeting had been arranged through social media and most of the ladies in attendance were from Orlando. “Whore,” thought Grace Alan of Sissy, watching her tap the mic under the arbor of sea grapes, trying to get everyone’s attention. She hated her guts. Sissy had slept with her best friend’s husband. Nothing had come of it, but Grace’s friend had cried when she found hints of the affair and Sissy’s late night texts. But Grace loved Grey Gardens too, and she had once loved Sissy as a best friend can love. And she had been in Sissy’s Bible study, but certainly that was over. People found out. But probably most people here didn’t know about her, guessed Grace, probably no one does. We’ll see what happens she said to herself, maybe something will have to be made of it here, and she adjusted the pin that held the fabric of the sweater she had made into a skirt.
Within a short walking distance of the thirty ladies or so that gathered on the veranda and front lawn of Dot’s Rosemary Beach home breathed mother ocean, the tides advancing in maternal interest and care and receding with the aloofness of maternal unfeelingness and self centered old age. Advancing to love and caress the shore, receding to let the shore dry in the sun abandoned and malnourished. Big Edie had used her maternal power to keep Little Edie dependent and Little Edie gave up her dreams of pursuing Broadway. That is, at least, one version, the gravitational pull version, the force of the moon mother on the tides of behavior version.
Stay tuned for more on this story….
They all want to see the gators tucked back in the brackish waters she navigates in the tour kayak through the glades. Take me to them they say but then they hunker down when eyes, snout, jaws, emerge from the murky water where armor like bodies search for sustenance, prey. Or they are a bit more relaxed when the gators, spotted up on the shore, bask in the sun, seemingly content for the day, or afternoon. They take pictures of their massive bodies, along with creatures hovering above them in trees – owls, a nest of baby birds. Sometimes if they are quiet and still, which she encourages on her tour, for the best chances to see wildlife, they may spot a bobcat, or even sometimes a panther, through the dense mangroves.
There are all assortment of creatures she points out to them – possums, pelicans, egrets, cormorants, raccoons, heron, sea turtles, snakes, osprey. She tells them of the fishing tour they can take for snook, snapper, red drum, sheepshead, and more, tours which can include the cleaning of the fish and a meal with either cooking provided or cooking instruction. She doesn’t tell them she could also provide them with instruction on catching and cleaning possum, for example, and a lesson on her granny’s recipe handed down since early settlers, possum n’ taters. It was safer to stick with a conversation about cooking fish. Though to loosen the mood when they saw a gator, she gave out the recipe for fried gator tale bites with mango chutney. She could get a little chatty sometimes, but mostly when she was trying to make her passenger comfortable.
She doesn’t talk about the time she lost her balance when she was alone in the kayak and a gator clamped down on her arm with its massive jaws. The beast rolled her and the salt water invaded her nose and mouth and her screams mixed with his deep and primitive grunting. In her anger and panic she thought of the dens of rotting meat gators keep just below the outcroppings of shore. She managed to stab it in the eye with the hand not under control of its grip and extract herself from the bloody water. She nearly lost her arm and required three surgeries, but it was repaired, not without nerve damage and scarring. But she didn’t talk about it, unless compelled to by a curious tourist, though sometimes she lied. The truth was bad for business though she always coached her clients on how to behave in this wilderness.
She covered half her body with a tattoo, a gator stretched out, his tail along her back, his body over her shoulder and his head on the arm that had been crushed. She had him decorated with flowers and butterflies. She didn’t allow herself much time to worry or think, just went back to work as soon as she could. She was learning what it was like to support herself without a husband, not in the way she had been raised, but in the way she was learning to survive.
I am listening to Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman. She analyzes myth and stories showing what they can teach us about ourselves. In her analysis of Snow White, she points out that each character is an aspect of the self. I wrote this particular piece when I first became interested in retelling fairy tales. I had just read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and wanted to try my hand. In this piece, I do not go into a detailed retelling but this is the idea behind this voice piece which explores a bit of modern day jealousy in the literary world. Let’s say it takes the saying “murder your darlings” in a different kind of direction. Flash fiction writer Kathy Fish posted a flash fiction exercise this past week having to do with voice which you can find here and I thought….oh, so that is what I was trying to do. What would the voice of each of your favorite characters sound like if you retold a fairy or folktale through their perspective?
There was never a time I knew Anoushka when she was not in some sleepy-eyed phase of a delayed bloom. Yes, she was much younger than I was and much more beautiful and far more talented. I felt some inexplicable responsibility to protect her though at the same time, I wanted her to wake up and not rely on me. It was becoming so that I was constantly reminding her of her talents just to keep her going. Yet she remained untried in the real world and I grew weary. I wanted her to ply our trade, to finish her stories, to submit them for publication, to suffer.
And while I haven’t wanted this mother’s role of reassuring her and encouraging her in her writing, I have found myself taking up this mantel. Maybe there has been something to gain by my being her friend, OK, call me creepy if you want, call me a sycophant, call me a desperate, middle aged lady who’s flattered that this twenty-something would want to be friends with me, someone who is – what – not hip to the scene or whatever it is they’re saying these days.
And no, I’m not a lesbian. I’m happily married to a man, thank you very much. I’m happy most of the time, that is. OK, let’s just say I’m happy enough to get by, alright. But one can still have beautiful, young friends, can they not? Yet I grew weary of the dewy youth on this one as I waited for her to break out of her writing virginity, to publish the product of her labors. She secretly gloated that she was much better than I, better than most. So out with it, I said. If she demanded so much from me by way of reassurances to her ego, do I not have a right to insist she pop the publication cherry?
It was her lethargy I craved to kill, but as my weariness grew, other aspects to her personhood and our relationship became vulnerable to my vicious fantasies. I wanted to be rid of the very idea of her and of our friendship. I could not afford the ambition she siphoned off with her need, her expectations that I love her for her looks and her humor and her youth and as if that weren’t enough, her cracker-jack ability with the words which came rolling off of her, spinning out as a beautiful vine of roses from fertile soil, as if there were never a phenomenon more natural.
The market supports and encourages those of her ilk, who take beautiful cover photos, who will not make waves, whose writing, above all free of what may disturb or unsettle, or at least not to an inordinate degree. You can see how, my readers, this may be a problem for me, admitting already as I have that I am: a) jealous, b) covetous, c) ambitious, and d) of the murdering persuasion as it applies to the murdering of one’s literary “child.”
You can only imagine my narratives. You can only imagine my look behind the podium given what you can guess of my age, given what I covet enough to abolish. Other writers would not be as forthright as I. I have seen many a female writer who will swear they have never felt competition with any other female writer and yet they cut and undercut other women like a scythe mowing a hayfield. It happens. Men don’t know it. They are the compassionate hunters who can’t believe some woman has sent them out to cut out a heart.
So here was how I murdered her, so to speak, my gorgeous literary darling:
1) The corset binding. I forced her to gaze upon what was inconsequential to the writing itself: Her looks. I emphasized over and over how beautiful she was while she drew herself to the mirror and away from her desk. I cinched in her waist and she was mesmerized by her own proportions. By my manipulation of her waist size, she almost ran out of breath as she was overcome by a sense of the futility of self-expression in light of her growing dedication to her physical form.
2) The poisoned comb. I infected her thinking with faint praise, going in deep to kill the root that would poison the bloom, once and for all. If this had been successful, she would be like the women who yearn to write but who finally give up because of self-doubt.
3) The poisoned apple. At this point, she had found others who were wise to me, clever girl, so this step was the trickiest of all. I was determined that she must see me eating from the same fruit, as it were, and so I told her: “You can be a writer and have it all. Don’t listen to what people say about giving up the life of wife and mother to dedicate oneself to one’s art. Choose as I have chosen. See, I have done so, and it hasn’t killed me!”
These are only half-truths because my children are estranged, my husband sleeps on the other end of the house, my career consists of shredding up budding artists at the women’s college to whom I feed poisoned apples. My creative output consists in enumerating these tales of my passions, my crimes, but I’ve found the market responds, for grist and the gristle can be literature as long as it’s beautifully spun. The market eats almost anything in a pretty package, and Anoushka does too, chomping down on the succulent flesh of my tempting suggestions, taking the bait, wedding a man who loves only her beauty. After a while, he can’t even stand the sound of her voice.
A tiny shoe sat beside the white line of the road. It sat breathless as the cars whooshed past. Will someone stop to pick it up? Is the lady standing at the bus stop waiting for her opportunity to cradle it in her hands, to kiss its soft tongue?
– My life has not begun said the shoe to no one in particular. I am not ready to die. He thought of his troubles as he lay beside the painted white line.
– I have it worse, said the line. I have never been in contact with a living being.
What a ridiculous white line, thought the shoe at the same time recognizing his dependence. No one would run over him since he was close.
– Why would you need what I have? said the shoe. You never die. You are renewed with white paint. You help the cars, the beasts.
– You have held a place of privilege, said the line. Now you will see what it’s like to be the rest of us.
– What are you talking about, the rest of us?
– The anonymous. The merely dutiful. Or worse, the forgotten. You’ve thought yourself special, I can tell.
– I have not.
– You’ve thought yourself indispensable. Now you’re like trash. You think that woman over there wants you because some other woman has? The first woman in your life only wanted you because you helped her son. That other woman over there is old. You probably remind her of something painful, like a child who has grown and gone astray or a child she has lost.
– How do you know so much? You’re a line.
– I’ve seen enough.
– You’ve seen the bottoms of tires.
– I’ve seen people die.
– Then that makes you the font.
– Of what?
– Wisdom, you idiot. It’s a cliché. When you’re out among people, you hear these things.
– See the specialness creeping in again.
– I have no such pretentions. I’m about to be squashed, besides.
– And then you’ll only experience what the rest of us feel, the random nature of life. How some are chosen to be one thing and some another. How some live on, some die.
– You make me feel so much better.
At that moment, the lady from the bus stop rescued the shoe. There had been a break in traffic. She sat on the bench and cradled it in her palm.
The line looked on. He was jealous of the shoe, but he would not admit it. To admit his jealousy would not change his duty to be a line. Some thrive on admiration for simply being what they are.
– Special boy, he muttered to himself, but his whisper was drowned by shushing of tires.
First appeared in The New Absurdist
Glowing Octopus by ccarlstead, flickr
Book passage to the South Pacific where Jacques Cousteau made his mark. When you charter your boat to find your octopus you will discover, in fact, that they use the same tanks, much of the same equipment, designed by the inventor of the Aqua-Lung. His name and methods are sacrosanct. He has shown you this way to love. Watch and listen. Ask questions. Pay attention. Be aware. This is the mark of the lover.
While you wait for passage discover what it’s like to be an octopus by learning to breathe underwater. Enroll in a scuba class. Begin to learn now that to prepare to meet an octopus you will have to learn a way that is the opposite way of being terrestrial. Your feet are crazy long, you have no peripheral vision, and your breathing makes you sound like a monster. To enter a portal requires transformation and patience. You will also learn of possible injury from the process of the dive and even death, and yet, you do it for love.
Sit on the edge of the chartered Opunohu boat in the blue crystalline waters off the coast of Moorea. Hold your mask as you flip backwards off the edge into rolling waves. At last, you have entered your own sweet blue planet, the tropical reefs of French Polynesia, in search of your love, the Giant Pacific Octopus. At last you will have an encounter with an alternate reality, another form of consciousness. At last you will reach across the vertebrate divide to know and be known.
Like all who are pursued and truly desired, your octopus will be illusive. Know that and be patient. She is the master of disguise and changing skin. She is invisible though right before you. She is silent, immobile, watching you as you move over the reef looking for her. You may find evidence of her dinner of scallops and if you are so lucky, an arm full of suckers protruding from her den. If you are polite, and move away, she may come out to greet you the next time you visit. Your acceptance of her need for privacy strengthens her to be brave. If you are slow in your motions and patient on your subsequent visits, she may even take your arm and show you around. She may even introduce you to her friends.
A lover bears gifts. Do not visit bereft of certain tokens of affection. Toys are gifts for an octopus, for the intelligent creature loves a challenge. Do not bore your octopus! Several examples of good toys are as follows: screwtop jars, bottles, plastic screw apart Easter eggs or balls, various video cameras she will enjoy dismantling and dragging into her den. Do not arrive without a crab in a jar or a piece of shrimp in a Mister Potato Head or a lobster in a trap. Watch her with admiration as she springs her food from the trap and devours it, tasting it as it passes from sucker to sucker and into her mouth in the center of her warped star figure.
When you have formed a bond of trust with the object of your love, submit yourself to her curiosity. Do not shudder as those naturalists and artists of the past. Surely this is not in the lover’s nature, to be repulsed. Instead consider the light suctioning kisses a sweet tasting of your skin, her silken tendril arms moving over your arms and shoulders the gentle exploration of new love, the rapid changes in skin color pleasurable blushes, the pulse of ink and exit a flirtation, the regard of the dark slit eyes the all knowing all loving gaze of the divine.
You could keep a lover if you wish. Some do. In a large fish tank emulating the ocean. She will want to be by the television. And if she can, she will get out and eat the leftovers on the counter and sink. She will crawl onto your shoulder and head and watch tv. She will cheer on your team. She will watch your favorite shows. If you feed her, if you entertain her, if you love her, she will never leave.
This loosely references the work of Sy Montgomery, and in particular, The Soul of an Octopus. The documentary Aliens of the Deep was also a helpful source.
At five in the afternoon in December the dark skin of night closes in over day. Across the street from Sabina’s townhouse the last glimmer of gold, the fire sky, simmers through the pines, the scrub oak, the palms, and she wishes to hold onto that moment of the final sun forever, a diamond in her hand, its flash, its promise. But of course there is no stopping the night. It shuts down a liveliness in her as if it were the coming of age itself, as if it were death itself come unbidden.
He would have called her melodramatic, “he” being her ex, of course. She would have said she was merely acknowledging her reality, this sense of being subject.
And so she plowed through on this Monday, with her experience, in this melodramatic frame, wondering this: What to provide her son for his dinner when he begins his week with her. When the earth shuts down, this is no small task. The weeks her child is with his father she eats only leftovers, scours the crisper and cabinets for anything that would serve as a food source. She is juggling bills and doctors and medicine and a crumbling house and car. She eats things past their due date, sometimes way past. One time she got sick.
When it is time for her son to spend Christmas week with her she knows if she appears desperate or unorganized, she risks losing contact. She must address her responsibilities as dark skies threaten to sap her and so she takes a risk: She texts her son asking him for to pick up carryout on his way home from soccer practice.
“Does your ex think you unfit to parent?” This from her therapist months ago when Sabina was ordered to come off of a controlled substance for anxiety. She was strung out and barely able to carry a thought from one sentence to the next. She sometimes forgot words altogether. And yet this one word rammed through her: unfit. The word reverberated in her skull with no pill to protect her. This seemed unfair, outrageous, even, that she is both required to be free of a substance and then criticized for her withdrawal. After all, she and her eighteen year old had been through worse – the threat of her death and chemo treatments – and come out together, it seemed.
She left her therapist, sent her a text and asked her about that word – “unfit” – but then didn’t really try to understand her therapist’s return text, just told her she wasn’t going to see her anymore. Sufficiently vague. And when the sky fell early the following winter, there was no pill to guard against the effects of that hour of darkness.
Though she could speak this December, “unfit” would never leave her. And it unnerved her that her ex might see the text to her son to help her secure food. Would he see this as “unfit?” It is amazing how many things come out in a divorce, over a conference table, a smooth blond wood surface in a room across the street from the fountain Sabina described in her first published piece which her then husband proudly framed for her and hung on their wall. And yet, years later, at the mediation: All the small slights, the things told in confidence, trotted out, the hurts.
But there is also this: Had she not bought real maple syrup for her husband and son when she was married? And after the divorce, when she bought an imitation brand to save money so she could buy pancake mix too, and health insurance, her son spoke of his friend’s house, where he ate “real syrup.” This became for her a secret symbol of families who had not been broken, and almost all families in her son’s conservative Christian school were still intact, a school where Sabina now felt like a pariah though she had once felt close to many of the women, where she had even been involved.
Somehow Sabina knew the Jesus of the Christian school would have actually been eating imitation syrup with the tax collectors and sinners, the broken, the unwashed people scrounging to eat in the face of powerful ruling religious classes.
And at the outset of her son’s soccer season this year, coinciding with early darkness and regrets, her son greets her after a game on the sidelines and calls another woman his mom. Why do all the dramas of our lives get enacted on fields? Is there so much intensity there, invisible, that we slip into it whether the field be in the shape of a rectangle or diamond? And though there are things that are redeemed, there are also things lost on fields never to be found again.
Still, Sabina’s contest has always been with the sky, not a person nor a disappointment related to a person, not a field nor a disappointment related to a field. And so, she faces the murdering night on this Monday of Christmas week, waiting for her son to bring sustenance, determined to serve pancakes with syrup even if she must boil brown sugar and water over a meager stove for want of money, the little bit of money having been transferred to the carryout and the stores for the gifts under the tree.
First published in Writing in a Woman’s Voice
She laid a dime next to the tiny white snail eggs, laid it right there in the dirt at the bottom of the terrarium. She and her brother had named their snails Harold and Maude, with prompting from their mother who now watches with wonder her daughter’s delicate fringe of lashes, the fall of auburn hair, the small fingers once smaller but still delicate.
“Shall we take a picture?” says the mother, which had been the plan all along, but in the quiet morning with the sun streaming through the window and the tank with the beta fish, the golden pathos stems gracing the water, the stick insect clinging to a shelf beside the cat, it is nice to say the words, to recognize the steps of recording and observation and perspective for others and as a reminder to the self: This is what once was.
The daughter nods and takes the camera from her mother. She looks through the viewer and aims, clicking to capture an image of the tiny eggs in the soil. A butterfly dances by, a tortoiseshell they were housing in the cool of the old fashioned larder. “Quick,” says the daughter, “let’s open a window!” And the mother cranks the window over the fish bowl and they gently coax it to fly through. It flies out over the spring grass peaking through wet dead leaves. It flies through trees, their branches pushing out green buds.
for my friend Jen
“I hear my own voice saying each word I type. I do not allow the naysayer to have any voice at all.” —
by Jan Priddy
Karen Karbo spends twenty minutes each morning ranting on yellow pads of paper before she begins her real writing for the day. William Stafford famously began his days by writing an aphorism and then the draft of a poem. In his book of writing advice, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo warns against writing with a pen, erasing a mark, and that we should use lined paper with green lines. He also writes that he hopes he doesn’t teach others to write, “but how to teach yourself to write.”
My first creative writing teacher, Sandra Dorr, described being stranded in Europe and completely blocked from writing by her interior nay-saying voice. We all hear that voice. It tells us that our writing is hopeless, clunky, too specific or too general, without purpose or meaning even to ourselves. Personify the critical voice the way Jamaica Kincaid does briefly…
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This must be the least favorite part of your body,” said the manicurist, rubbing a rose scented cream into the woman’s hand. The manicurist’s eyes traveled up to the woman’s neck and rested on her face. “In fact, your neck and whole right side is damaged.” The manicurist gave her some cream to take home.
The manicurist was not exaggerating. On the back of her wrist was a long purple scar where she had surgery to remove a ganglion cyst. It looked like some kind of upside down suicide attempt. There was a puckered white patch on a knuckle where she burned her hand ironing her husband’s shirt on his first day of work. Her pinkie had suffered third degree burns from the hot glue gun when she was helping her son make Gandalf for a Tolkien diorama. There was a slash on her neck where her thyroid had been removed. There was a sprinkling of hypopigmentation on the right side of her face, a result of pregnancy that no amount of makeup could hide.
She used the cream. It worked. She looked nothing like herself. She freaked out. She slashed the back of her wrist and the base of her neck. She burned her knuckle with an iron. She covered her pinkie with hot glue. She dotted her check with household bleach. She took herself to the emergency room and said she had been tortured, and no, she did not know her assailant.
First appeared in 52/250
In the grey green woods at dusk, the smell of smoke and crackling of fire, we all make our way silently through the trees their dark musky bark, the brown smell of the humus undergrowth. There is a choir singing green notes and purple, round and droll, heavy, singing hymns I know from childhood, yellow girlhood, people dressed in white their clean smell dull as a communion wafer. At last we arrive at a large man seated at a long table, a man pressed from a jello mold. He accepts the bowls of soup we bring him each of us offering a deep brown fragrant bowl we have filled from a moaning cauldron. This man we have come to worship and serve.
Pick up the hymnal I am told, the red ones with a musical staff the long line of a funeral procession, the notes like mourners marching. I don’t want to sing the songs I once loved in yellow pink girlhood for now the songs have gone grey and dank as wet stone.
There is a car on the edge of the woods whose engine makes a sound like red, like let’s go, but there’s nowhere for me to sit. My happy parents, their laughter orange and dancing, their clothes sweet and tart as lemonade, and cool as an orangesicle, look at me while I beg them in black frantic white panic tones jagged as razor wire to take me with them. The car speeds away, dirt rising in its wake like miniscule dust fairies ascending and falling to the ground again, silent as rain, quieter even, a dry feeling like white.
Say your prayers at the banishment window. Whisper your secrets to me at the banishment window. I will wait for you mornings, at dawn, at evenings, dusk, at the banishment window. I will hear your pleadings to join us, your proof of your reform, but the extent of your involvement will take place at the banishment window. On my side of the banishment window, there is a place for me to sit, but on your side, only rough wall, where you stand, where you will always stand when you see me until we bury you in the potter’s field.
You might wear our clothes, but the extent of our talk will be at the banishment window. You might secure our degrees but don’t think you can fancy talk your way past the banishment window. Have children if you like but they will stay with you out there at the banishment window. Your spouse too: banishment window. In fact, let us know if you’re bringing a whole family and friends, and we’ll have more listeners at the banishment window. But just because there might be more people out there than in here, don’t think you can outnumber your way past the banishment window. When we speak Christ into your life we will meet you at the banishment window. When we curl our lip at your choices or the color of your skin, for sure it will take place at the banishment window.
Sometimes creatures, sometimes fire, sometimes winds, sometimes floods, sometimes people off of their heads out there might take you down whole on the other side of the banishment window. Could you just keep it down, please. Just keep it down ok? We’re trying to pray in here. How do you think our prayers will be made effectual if you keep interrupting us? Chillax and we’ll meet you at the banishment window in the morning.
It has been well known for quite some time that on the outskirts of Munir, a city that could well be considered a test city for its heretofore untapped source of fuel, the bodies of the useless women currently are housed. We use the term “bodies” to denote that for all intents and purposes, such women as these are barely alive by today’s standard of living and for all intents and purposes will soon be dead, either through despair or other natural causes induced by such. And we say “useless women” to mean that such unfortunates have no use in our mainstream consumer society and must therefore be removed in order to fulfill their highest potentialities: The usage of their bodies as an alternative fuel source, their heroic sacrificial contribution to our community.
We have found marginalized groups have the highest wattage output per kilogram and though findings remain uncertain, we surmise this must have something to do with the epic operation of the soul that is crushed and aggrieved. Having observed the transfer of energies of suffering beings into ghost forms upon death, we are determined to tap into this energy surplus and use it to the good use of the operation of our fair city.
Our future alternative fuel source are the bodies of women who die naturally in our community center designed to house them, women who have lived well past their prime, those women who, in life, have been neglected by husbands, who, by sheer neglect or harsher means, express their displeasure as well as women considered burdens by their offspring where once they were considered vital sources of nurture. These women have cadavers that will burn most efficiently and we will see to their disposal as we honor them for such, giving flags and medals and ceremonies for families, large mass punch and cake gatherings with balloons.
Unless such women have managed to overcome the barriers against them and build a world for themselves based on talents apart from chasing male providers’ affections and the nurturance of children, midlife women often find themselves at a place we provide: A death house we call Sunny Meadows to signify heaven though we do not by any means indulge in the practice of euthanasia. In addition, we attempt to meet the essential needs of our residents of Sunny Meadows while practicing restraint in the spiritual fulfillment mandates for housing a human being, realizing the energy potentials would be compromised should happiness be complete.
We are not beyond taking women or any beings for that matter who, lost to despair, are searching for a place to exist, beings who have lost functionality in our free market including but not limited to politicians and activists labeled “nasty,” beauty queens labeled “pigs,” actresses labeled “overrated,” pre-menopausal women who bleed, violated women labeled “liars.” We anticipate the bodies of all such marginalized women and others whose psyches are crushed by the current oligarchy will make excellent sources of fuel in our alternative energy program and we anticipate in fact an uptick in fuel reserves to get us through times of famine, that is, more benevolent future regimes, should that eventuality become realized.
When evil flourishes, either privately on the personal level in homes – between family members, a husband and wife, children and parents – or when it flourishes in our public sociopolitical machine, we are operating in the black and so we say, unofficially, of course, may evil reign, yet it always does. It is simply a matter of degree and so this method of securing this previously untapped fuel source is flawless.
Published in S/tick
For Kimberly Townsend Palmer
A person should know she was she was driving over the train tracks, should be able to feel it under the wheels, Monique told Carl as she packed her white hat back into its box. Carl was sitting in her bedroom watching her as she changed her clothes.
“Three deaths, baby,” she said to him about recent train related incidents. The city had installed rubber casings on the tracks so drivers hardly registered the feel of the rails. The point was to make it easier on everyone’s suspension. Trains had been silenced too. No more trains blowing at the crossroads. And now people had died or been hurt because they didn’t know they were on the tracks. There had been no warning, no communication from the train.
She remembered with a shiver having barely escaped an oncoming train when she was with Aimee one afternoon. They were taking their sons and their classmates on a field trip. They had not known they were crossing a track, had not heard a train, until they were just past. Looking back on that day, she realized someone must have driven through the gates and broken them. Probably some drunk rich white kids because it was only in wealthy neighborhoods that “quiet zones” were established.
She had not told Carl about that day with Aimee. And now the silence with which Aimee eventually accepted her death from cancer seemed like that smooth ride over the tracks. She cried hot tears and Carl nuzzled her hair. She talked through things with Carl again, things she had said before, that Aimee hadn’t wanted any of them beside her when she was at the end of her illness, not even her husband and children. She wanted no one to see that last husk of what she had become. She had wanted to go quietly, without a fuss. Monique had not been allowed to be with her either. Aimee’s body had been cremated and put into a box.
Aimee was the only white woman Monique had ever been close to. She had been a pistol right after the diagnosis, had believed God would heal her because she wanted it that way, had come to her son’s baseball games hobbling on feet blistered by chemo. But when it was clear she would not live she instructed Monique to wear her Easter hat to the funeral. Aimee had always told her there were doves on Monique’s Easter hat, but they were simply high peaks of white chiffon. Monique had honored Aimee’s wishes and had worn the hat but she vowed to herself, while she sat in the white people’s church, not to make any more white friends.
First appeared in Trainwrite
On Saturdays, Mama set me down in front of the churn. On summer days, she set me on the porch to look out upon the woods, to look for fairies and woodsprite, to keep the woodland green at bay, she said, lest it overtake the house and we be lost. On winter days, I set inside not far from the stove but far enough that a witch’s spell that come down through the flue would not frustrate my efforts. The spell would come on account of Ms. Maybre, Mama would say, the spinster, who casts spells such as that of the butter witch. On account of that happening, we gotta stick the poker from the fire in the butter and break the witch’s back and get the butter going again.
I always wondered if she meant Ms. Maybre would have a broken back. But Ms. Maybre did seem to be the type of lady to be a witch and because of that, the Dempsey kids loved to play some tricks, just to get her ire going. Which is probably why we got butter spells going on us. We pulled tricks like stringing up a can of water over her door, dressing her cats up in the rags mama kept for washing down the house, hanging ghosts up in her yard from torn sheets, tying a scarecrow around the broom she kept by the door like it was flying it like a witch.
Mama said the inside of her house smells like a musty smoke house from the solid pig fat she buns as candles. She had been there once to check on her, witch or no witch she told us, and Daddy, at the dinner table. She hadn’t seen Ms. Maybre for weeks. It was her Christian duty, and there was Ms. Maybre, half naked from the waist up, drinking from a mason jar in front of the fire. Mama says she was drinking the moonshine she made from the pressure cooker on the stove with the copper wire run through, she was drinking the devil’s drink.
“Ms. Maybre,” said Mama to the old witch, “I worried about you when I haven’t seen you none, at all, not even to see you get your mail at the end of the road.”
“I drank the potion and went up the chimney. I flew over Grandfather on my corn broom with my red cap.” (Grandfather was a mountain not far from where we lived.)
She talked like the devil, said Mama. She was frothy with spirits. Mama put a shawl around her and laid her out on a cot she kept beside her stove. She set beside her and put a cold cloth on her head but hours later, Mama had fallen asleep for when she woke, there was no Ms. Maybre, only a cat, black as midnight, staring at her with white eyes, white as the yarrow she kept in a jar on the table in summer.
What Mama had concluded was that the cat was Ms. Maybre. “I swanee, I never seen nothing like this cat. It knew me inside out, like a person would. I held my cross around my neck,” and at this time in the story, she would show us how she clutched at the cross pendant Daddy gave her, “and I backed out the house.”
One Saturday, I gave baby Emma the handle for the churn. We call her baby Emma because even though she is grown up a bit, and in grade school, she is still the baby. I say to baby Emma, “On St. Patty’s, an old witch sends a butter spell down the flue and breaks up the churning. You let me know if the fat won’t come together and we’ll break a witch’s back.”
I left because I wanted to meet my friends at Sliding Rock.
When I came home, Emma was setting in the rocker next to the fire. Her normally blond hair was black and her brown eyes were white and she looked old and blind. She cried and pointed at me because I had left her alone. Mama and Daddy had gone into town, she said, and everyone else had gone away. The butter wouldn’t churn and she didn’t know how to break the witch’s back.
My heart was racing, I stoked a fire in the dying wood stove. What had happened to Emma? I jammed a poker into the coals. I pulled the paddle out of the churn and thrust the poker inside. It hissed and a whippoorwill lapsed into its nighttime song, almost in relief. Emma’s hair returned back to its soft blond and her lovely eyes the deep brown of a pond in moonlight. I held her tight and asked her to forgive me. She just nodded, but said nothing. “I’ll make you honey toast. And milk,” I said. “Let’s not worry now,” which is something Mama often said although it never often worked. I was surprised to hear myself saying it.
By the time Mama and Daddy got back with goods from town, the butter was churned and dinner set out. My other brothers and sisters were there too, in response to the dinner bell I had rung for them, summoning them back from adventures in the woods.
That night, sleeping under the eaves in the room I shared with my sisters, something woke me. A crooked old woman stood in the door frame. Was that Ms. Maybre? She made no sound, but glided to the head of my bed. She reached a claw down to my mouth and put her other claw to her pursed lips, instructing me to be quiet and still. Her finger smelled like the burning embers from the fire. She lifted it then and swiped through the air. I felt a whoosh and closed my eyes. When I could open them again I saw the roof was no more and I gazed up at black sky full of stars. She put her finger back down on my lips to quiet me and gave the shushing sign with the other hand. She then pressed her charred fingers down on my eyelids until I knew nothing but black.
The next morning at the mail boxes down the road, Ms. Maybre gave me a knowing look. I couldn’t be sure that she wasn’t the same woman as the night before. I kept to myself like the good girl I had read about in a book as a child. I never knew that girl to be me but I certainly wasn’t a no-count either.
– for Valerie Willis
In the Lakota legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, a beautiful apparition wearing a white buckskin dress decorated with porcupine quills approaches two men. She carries a pipe bag embroidered with the symbol of the four directions. One man, upon seeing her, expresses a desire to lay with her but the other man advises care and respect due to her sacred nature. However, the greedy man gets exactly what he wants until there was nothing left of him but a pile of bones in the grass. The White Buffalo Calf Woman explains to the remaining man that what his lustful companion had yearned for was only her beauty. His demise lay in his unwillingness to know her spirit.
My grandmother would sit before the fire in our house which backed up to the Wekiwa state park in Apopka Florida and tell me and my twin sister this story over and over. The purpose of this story has not always remained clear. When we asked her, finally, why she was telling us this story once more she explained: There are many interpretations and uses of the story, she said, but you should learn that a man should show respect for a woman’s spirit. The Buffalo Calf Woman gives us strength even though she came to the Lakota.
And then my grandmother laid down upon the couch because she liked to be near the stove where she makes little corn cakes for us, cakes she feeds us with squash juice and honey when we come home from school. Often my grandmother reminds us of our heritage: We are descended from a relative of Georgia Rose, a full Cherokee, who married a Seminole.
In our room at night, we talk about this story Grandma tells us and try to discern what it must be saying. No man seems to care about us. There are many men who have said they want to lay with us and we are only fifteen. There are many guys our age who want this and older guys too and when they admit it to themselves they want not just one of us but both at the same time. A couple of men have tried to pimp us out. They are greedy, like the lustful man in the story, and they do not know what is inside, our spirit. They want what they want.
Still our grandmother has taught us a lot and we try to listen to her. My mother married a white man much to her disappointment and now that my mother has cancer, Father is gone, gone, off to Texas without a penny left to give his dying squaw, to save her life.
We have crosses and dreamcatchers, Native American dances and hip hop, prom and religious ceremonies, native costumes and Juicy Couture. Grandmother holds it all together and yet she grows weaker. “You girls are going to have to handle the guns and take care of this place. You are going to have to drive and share the car and take care of your mother. As for your father, girls, I will have to say: It is expected.” She lay her head down at last as if that final confession had taken her last breath.
That night, my sister and I built a fire in the fire pit. We put on our ceremonial dresses and braided our hair and interwove feathers. We put paint on our faces and burnt bundles of sage. We had done this many times, when we were bored, lonely, when grandmother had to go to the hospital, when our mother was diagnosed, when our father left us alone and our mother wouldn’t get off the couch for days. It was what we knew, this turning slow circles in the way we had been taught, but slower. We danced a man’s dance but in a woman’s way. We were turning and we were thinking through our plan. Here was the story of the hunt, the way the weapons were prepared, the way we were to feed our family, this is how it would happen, how the buck would be approached, how it would die and we would live. We had talked over it in the moonlight shining through our bedroom window, the feathers in our dream catchers caught lightly by air blowing through the vent.
“Come to Wekiwa State Park,” we said to the men in online exchanges. “Walk to Sand Lake and sit there and wait until the park closes. We will meet you at midnight. We will build a fire and make you feel good.”
That was all we said. Well, we made arrangements for letting them know what they were getting and for how much. We found the men to be pliant, but not all of them followed through, and some of them, when they followed through, would not drink with us and so it wasn’t safe to continue and we disappeared into the woods, leaving them stranded. But somehow, we would make them pay, pay for what they are doing to us, what they are doing to my mother through my father and his white man Porsche while my mother is left with the cost of radiation, chemo, surgery.
We got better at it. Drinking became part of the deal. No man liked being called a woman and so we goaded them: Drink, drink, we said. And then we slipped Mama’s oxy, powdered, into their beers. And then we danced, turning, slowly around the fire, circling, ever closer, putting the buck in our sites. We kissed each other and he began to drink. We touched each other and started taking off each other’s clothes. Drink, drink, we said. Yet when these men stood to touch us, they would lurch back and collapse. It was the drug, taking effect. We would wait until they were immobile and then we dressed. The fallen man would keep long enough for us to raid his wallet and run away, through the moonlight, through the woods once inhabited by natives who fed on alligator, through the fields now deserted.
On these nights, a woman rose up out of the grasses. Her hair was white and adorned with feathers and she wore a white calf skin dress. She was mother to us every night and we made our escape.
He was at it again, thought Sylvie, her husband talking of Her, the alien, the dream alien, and this of all times, with dinner guests to witness it, this being Thanksgiving no less, the table set the day before, the house cleaned last Sunday, the afternoon light bending in perfect golden shafts over their cleared place settings, the room smelling of warmth, mellowed perfumes, buttered dishes, wine, coffee. A pale pink rose petal had fallen from a low bunch of flowers gathered in a centerpiece and was tinged a slight brown against the cream fabric. Almost nothing was amiss.
Their guests were young, coiffed, and beautiful, supremely educated, their clutches firmly settling into the world. When they were at Abbie and Jake’s house this past summer, Sylvie had overheard her young handsome husband Brad speak of an alien having visited him in a dream to extract his semen. It was such a brief conversation sliver that folded back into the larger noise of the party that it did not hit her, the cut of it, until she turned the lock to Abbie’s tiny half bath, and then she felt her head turn heavy and she sat upon the commode, gripping the sink. Had he really said that? She asked him about it on their way home. He just shook his head, his eyes glazed over, but for Brad that could mean he just didn’t want to talk about it.
And now here it was again.
“She was there, beside me, last night. Sylvie was asleep and I tried to wake her.”
“Oh yeah, I’m sure man, I’m sure you tried to wake your wife to tell her about the sexy alien babe,” said Jake. “You must be a baby daddy by now. They got your semen last summer.”
“What? What is this?” This from Rakesh who taught at the college. He and his fiancé were holding hands under the table but let go at this unexpected turn. They were newly arrived from India.
“We grow ’em rare over here,” said Jake.
“There are gods, there are other beings,” said Rakesh, trying to be helpful. “Perhaps this is what is happening to you.”
“I don’t know,” said Brad. “I’m just saying, this woman was with me last night, an alien. This was the same one from before.”
“Why I never heard – ” said Abbie. “Sylvie, is everything all right?”
The room was starting to shift a bit, Sylvie could feel it, they leaned in, their elbows pressed hard against her table, the floor length curtains sentries, the chandelier oppressive.
Sylvie tilted a dinner knife, unused and abandoned, so that it reflected Brad’s image. His head appeared football shaped, his neck bulbous.
“This feeling I have, it is like a unification,” he went on. “It is beautiful. I feel whole. I have a second life in that place. It is my real life, my actual life, my soul.”
“For fuck’s sake, man,” said Jake. He had known Brad since they were children. They ran an accounting firm together.
Sylvie retreated to the kitchen. Abbie followed. She held Sylvie for a while. She then poured her friend a glass of water. She asked Sylvie some questions, none of which Sylvie could answer. The dinner guests trickled away and Sylvie managed not to cry, not even for Abbie. Sylvie prevented Jake from calling the hospital. Abbie and Jake finally went home.
Sylvie sat up in bed that night while Brad drifted off. The shifting shadows from the trees outside created dark spaces and light. “Be gone,” she said, touching Brad’s forehead while she spoke, for she loved him no matter the alterations of his attractions, adventures, grotesqueries. “Be gone,” she said. “Mine.” And there was not a sound but the shifting leaves.
In my small North Carolina town where I kept a house with my grandma and ten cats, we read of the funeral procession of the late renowned evangelist through our small mountain community. It was a rare day my grandma felt like leaving the house anymore, but she insisted on propping herself on the curb in her favorite “outside chair” to take in the pomp of the procession and to rest her eyes on the hearse carrying her dear one who touched her at a rally and said words to her and prayed for healing for her failing heart. She was going to Jesus, she said, due to the one man on earth who has been the most like him.
It wouldn’t be easy. I would need to take her to our desired spot early in the morning, drop her off, and find a parking space somewhere up the mountain. The procession would follow the main road through and we were somewhere up the mountain on a little tributary of a road. And walking for my grandma would be inconceivable. It was also cold.
“Are you sure, Grandma?” She was bending over clawing kibble into King Frederick’s bowl, a Balinese, who gratefully mewed in response.
“Lookie here, Doreen, if I die up here on this mountain seeing the sight of that man, God take me.”
That’s what she always said when she was expressing her hell-bent determination to do something: “God take me.”
The service itself was for family alone. This was the one chance for average people like me and my grandma to witness and pay some sort of tribute. I was going out of respect for Grandma. Some of my friends weren’t as excited by all of this.
One of my friends, Keith, said: “I’m glad he’s dead, the bitch.” This was because “the bitch” in question had tried to influence law makers against gay rights in North Carolina. Other friends of mine were upset he hadn’t done more to curb gun purchases. Many of these friends have moved on to Asheville and do things like sell their wares in the River Arts district, attend massive drum rallies and protests, participate in wild events such as the annual Topless Rally. Nowadays we keep up day-to-day through Facebook. They’re not that far away but caring for Grandma is nonstop. One or two come over sometimes, and when they do I watch her talk quietly to herself as she watches the TV while we sit in the front room, chatting. She only talks to herself when she gets upset.
Mission accomplished though, the day of, Grandma, clothing layered up, chair firmly in place on a curb, blankets on her lap and over her shoulders, a thermos of hot cocoa, a packet of graham crackers and a chocolate bar, her favorite snacks, and all before the police begin the sweep of the street, the barricades, and crowd control, just in time to scoot up a side street and find a parking place, albeit way up a mountain where, if you kept walking up, the street turned into a gravel path which lead you straight up to the mountain peak. The rush of a stream beside the road was soothing, I was tempted to collapse on a boulder, at least while Grandma was entertained, but I forced my legs to propel me down the hill. It had been a while since I’d done much walking and my thighs began to burn.
I myself liked the evangelist Keith calls a bitch. I used to babysit a couple of his grandkids when they visited over the summer holidays, taking them rock hopping and to the pool, taking them for ice cream. I almost never saw him, except a time or two in his study when I came inside to fetch the boys from their rooms. He knew I was there and had a smile for me, and a wave. He kept his door open. He seemed to be the kind of man that would do that, be intensely focused, but keep the door open for a child, or his spouse, or one of his grown children, and even a relative stranger like me. I didn’t know much about what he believed. That never really mattered much growing up, only that I did what my parents and grandparents wanted me to do. I didn’t attend church in college or much afterwards. I thought it would be good to believe something, I just couldn’t decide how I felt about it all. When grandma tried to convince me to believe it was Jesus that had healed her, that seemed as just a good an explanation as any. But really it seemed most likely that she believed it was the evangelist was responsible. Had the cardiologist done much more? Hardly.
I found her in the place I left her, all squinched up in the beach chair with a wool cloche jammed down on her head, purchased in a day and age when she had more hair and it likely sat up on her head a bit more primly. She sported ear muffs that wrapped around the wool of the hat and because of that hardly touched her ears but I guess she appreciated the psychological sense of extra protection. Between all that and her cataract glasses I couldn’t even see her face, just her nose, chin, and bright coral lips she colored that morning in preparation for The Funeral of That Man. Since the healing, he had ever only been That Man, and this had never been in reference to any other man, not even Grandpa. She had even insisted on wearing her green chiffon dress, but somehow I talked her out of it, asking how Jesus’ Man would feel if she got sick watching him being escorted to the pearly gates? All that progress lost? She relented finally and I pulled her wool slacks and jacket on, a high fashion ensemble from the days she and Grandpa used to dress to fly overseas. I had to put a few stiches in it the night before to draw the pieces closer to her body and keep out the cold, she had lost so much weight.
She reached for me and grasped my hand in her firm bony one.
“Grandma, we need to get some gloves on you,” I said.
“I know, I was just eating my grahams. Yum,” She said and gave a little girlish chuckle.
An officer came up to us. “Ma’am,” he said to me, putting a hand on my arm, “You’re going to need to get behind the curb here.”
Grandma reached out for him. “My son,” she said, “What do you think about all of this?”
“I think it’s amazing, ma’am. What an amazing man.”
“Oh I think that too!” And I heard the quaver in her voice and I knew she was starting to cry.
The officer graciously held her hand for a minute. “Now you put on your gloves young lady. I’m sure that’s an infraction of some kind and I don’t want to have to take you to the pokie on such a big day.”
Grandma laughed as he went down the street, placing people where they should be. “Oh, I know it might not be right to laugh at such a time,” she said, “but what a buster that one is. What if you dated someone like that, Doreen.”
As if it was as easy as ordering a cheeseburger. I’ll have that one medium rare, please, with a big easy smile and a knack for charming grandmothers.
The police motorcade was beginning to make its way through. The chattering of the crowd died and the rumbling of motors reverberated in my chest. Grandma put her gloved hand in mind. I stood beside her chair, a space someone had mercifully made me along the street lined with thousands for miles, apparently. I could tell this was going to be a very emotional day for her. I had never seen a funeral procession. It was very somber and the occasional familiar person dotted throughout the crowd, people I had known in my life prior to becoming grandma’s full time keeper, were uncharacteristically quiet and still, people I had known from bars in town, parties at homes flowing with booze and weed, women I had known from my parents’ church who talked incessantly even during the quiet parts of the service, their voices sussurating over the hushed tones of the organ during communion. They all stood with tongues ceased in their mouths as if some sort of numbing gas had stunned them momentarily. Not even the children there were moving or talking, a rare phenomenon in a community that lavishes its attention on the young. And then a brigade of riders on horses passed us following soon after the dark black hearse. People threw flowers down on the street so that it rode over stems, crushed roses and lilies. Grandma threw the clump of violets we gathered that morning from the pot that sat inside by the window.
When the hearse was just past us, out popped a man from the crowd in a black face mask, his clothes black. He was on the street and wearing combat boots and had just escaped the grasp of police on foot though horses were bearing down.
“Good riddance!” he shouted, and a streak of red paint lifted up from a bucket in his hands, and the paint smeared the street and doused the flowers but missed the hearse, the intended target. Everyone gasped and shouted, confused. The police locked him down, almost immediately.
That night, Grandma prayed for the man with the paint.
And that was when I began to wonder just what it was she believed.
“Pray for your enemies and those who curse you,” she said to me when she sensed I was observing her through the cracked door of her bedroom. “It’s in the Bible, Doreen. Good night, child.”
I closed her door softly and went to the kitchen to fix my nightly herbal tea. The African violets which sat in the window had suffered an assault in honor of the evangelist. I fetched the growth food from under the sink and dotted it in the soil with a syringe. Only a few tender leaves remained and the rest was a waste of shorn stems.
I would never really understand grandma, not completely, even though we had spent many hours together. That’s what I came to realize as the steam rose in the kettle. We are, in the end, each of us on our own.
I poured the boiling water in my favorite mug and, cupping it in my hands, went to the porch. The fireflies were circling among the trees, luxuriously blinking. A dove cooed. The sweet smell of mountain laurel drifted in on a breeze.
I would die on this mountain too, just like grandma, just like the evangelist. I’m not sure who would be around to bury me, but it didn’t seem to matter, somehow. Besides, in that moment, I still had grandma in my care. I guess what it all amounts to are moments. When there are no more moments, there is the end – death – and that is all. Something about that made me feel grateful, that it was this simple. To my grandma this would have seemed bleak. But it was my secret to savor on this dark porch. The ground is what will meet me. And I will embrace it like an orphan daughter her parent.
Check out my new flash piece in a fabulous UK literary magazine Use Your Words. Merry Christmas! — Meg
· Santa Baby ·
by Meg Sefton
There is a man I see from the dating site I call Santa. He calls me Cupcake even though I asked him from the beginning to call me by my given name. He did once, in a text, but ever since, it’s been “Doll” or “Cupcake.” I wonder if he even really knows my name anymore. When I first started dating five years ago after my divorce from a twenty-year marriage, I had been overwhelmed and appalled by trying to date midlife, things were so different when I met and dated my ex. Plus, I had been raised and married into a religiously conservative subculture and when I started dating again, soon learned how sheltered I had been for most of my adult life.
Santa hangs Christmas lights from the roofs and eaves, ancient oak trees, and palms in the wealthiest suburb of…
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Daddy drove us nine hundred miles to Florida the Christmas after Mama passed. It was just me, Daddy, and my little sister Lulu. Daddy said there wasn’t anything in Florida that wasn’t all around the world and that was Christmas love and reindeers and Santa. He didn’t want to see snow, he said, or get a tree or eat turkey. These things reminded him of Mama and he needed a break from feeling sad. He said she would have wanted us to go to Florida for Christmas. In fact, he said, she probably knew what we were up to right now and it made her happy.
When I wasn’t keeping my sister occupied with books and games of eye spy, I was watching the landscape change from naked trees and gray skies to thick grass and fat palms and I was watching for Mama to see if she was watching us drive to Florida. Maybe she was traveling beside us, just outside the window. I looked for her in the shadows of green. I looked for her in the marshes beside the freeway. She would wear her white linen gown, the one with the satin bow I had learned to tie when I was three years old. She would wear her hair long, like she did before the sickness took it. She loved the outdoors. It made sense I saw her a few times, walking along in the trees, touching the head of a tall white bird in the marsh, a place she would sink if she were a real person and not a ghost.
The camp was a place called Cocoa Beach. I had wondered if that meant the water would be made of chocolate. I had visions of me and Mama and my sister rolling in waves and waves of cocoa. Dad would be sitting on the shore, reading his paper as usual. We would bring him cups of cocoa and he would pretend to drink it just like he did at our tea parties. He would finally join us and mama would flee away, not wanting to cause him pain because she was a ghost and it seemed like ghosts knew everything.
We camped in a spot surrounded by twisted trees and bushes with red berries. It looked like God put his finger down and stirred things up, but it was really the wind and soil that made them the way they were said Daddy. While he set up the tent, he let us go to the beach and put our toes in the water which was not cocoa. The sand was crushed shells and scratched my feet but it didn’t hurt. When a wave crashed, bits of shell rubbed up against my legs. My shoulders felt warm from the sun. I put my diving mask on and dunked my head under the water, looking for Mama. Not far away I saw the tail end of a white gown flowing in the water but then a wave took me down and by the time I stood up, I could see no one. I went under again and all I could see was the strange grey green sea.
Lulu was scared of the water and so I had to hold her like Mama used to, on my hip. She could swim but I knew it was the moving water that worried her and she clung tight. When the waves started slapping her bottom, she kicked and screamed. I took her back to the shore and held her hand while we walked back to the campsite. My stomach was all in knots because I thought she might cry to Daddy about the waves and spoil things but she just sat on the picnic bench and sucked her thumb. I brought a towel and wrapped it around her.
That night by the camp fire, Daddy read about the baby Jesus. All I could think about was whether Mary would get cancer and leave Jesus. Then I remembered Mary weeping for Jesus on the cross. I didn’t feel so sorry for him that he was poor and there wasn’t room for him in the inn. And I didn’t care about Easter and Jesus dying. This was Christmas. I kicked some sand into the fire.
“Katherine Elizabeth,” daddy said like he does when I’m in trouble.
He sent me to the camp restrooms to get ready for bed. There was a lady in the stall beside me who had blue veins running through her feet like Mama did right before she died.
“Where is your campsite?” I asked her when I came out of my stall but she just kept washing her hands over and over. I couldn’t see her face. Her hair hung down like Mama’s used to hang when she let it free. “Are you Mama?”
She looked up at me then. She had dark eyes and a face with deep lines around her mouth. She only wiped her hands on a roll of cloth that went round and round through a machine.
Daddy was silent in the tent. He didn’t sing to us like Mama would have. I knew I shouldn’t say anything about the lady and about whether Mama was in Florida. He promised Santa would find us no matter where we were but of course I knew Santa was a made up story. But how come so many grown ups believed you would never die? Was Mama an angel now?
When Daddy and Lulu were asleep, I slipped outside the tent. The moonlight made our campsite white. Little puffs of air blew against my face and the shadows moved with the trees.
I spoke with Santa then. I asked him for my old Mama back – the one who could still lift Lulu on her hip, who could sing us to sleep without stopping to catch her breath, who made us fried chicken and biscuits. I asked Santa if my Mama was here. I asked him these things even though he was supposed to be an old made up story for children.
There was only the sound of the crashing chocolate waves. How Mama would have loved that, that I imagined them as cocoa. She would have played along, filling up a pot and putting it on the fire, doing magic and making real chocolate. She would have kissed me for my dream of the dark, sweet, milk sea. There was a sea somewhere like that and Mama was waiting for us, with Peter the wolfhound who died soon after she died, heartsick my dad told us. He was licking up the ocean. She had gone there to prepare a place for us. We would never be apart again and Daddy would watch over us always.
I stuck a dried up flower from a palm tree in the sand. Daddy said people didn’t really notice the flower of the palm but he said the most interesting things come and go in secret. I put some rocks around the base to hold it up and then at the top I tied the ribbon Mama had given me. It was white and satin like the ribbon in her gown. The dried up palm flower looked like a Christmas tree. I would leave it out all night, just in case.
There were lots of people she used to sing for but now with the thyroid surgery, her voice had changed. She could talk, and whistle, but she couldn’t sing which was why the song of the caged parrot down the street inspired a sense of loss she would not have been able to describe had someone cared to ask. Whenever she walked her dog she would hear it. She had always wanted birds – finches, or even a parrot or cockatoo, – but now it looked likely, because of the cancer invading her body, any bird she may adopt now might outlive her.
A man in town sold pet health insurance and she was beginning to make her plans. She wanted her son to have her little white dog and knew he would need money to take care of her. He was not old enough to pay these expenses on his own. And a parrot was out of the question at this point. They could live to be 100 or more and she would be dead at 46.
She felt it, no matter what people said, no matter how much they told her to have a positive mindset. Buying a parrot now was an act of faith bordering on the ridiculous.
Every morning the parrot chirped from the third floor balcony down the street where she walked her dog. The bird was a part of how the real estate company was staging the property, he was part of their plan to sell the new orange painted homes.
Not far away, a woman was mauled by a black bear as she walked her dog. The cancer was about the same thing. What difference did it make, she would be gone, taken by something – whether it emerged from the forest – a madman or bear – or a malignancy in her body that grew until she succumbed. She hoped, at least, in the case of the woman confronting the bear, the dog managed to get away.
Which was why she sat across from the desk of the pet insurance agent. She signed every paper. She paid. She set up a plan for payments. The agent had no ring. She asked him to lunch. They ate nicoise salad in a restaurant where unlit chandeliers and stained glass panels hung from the ceiling. He said he had old movies on reels at home they could watch. He said they could dance to music on his jukebox.
A shaft of light poured in through the basement window where they were dancing. She was not expecting this. She considered asking him to draw up a separate policy for a parrot. The agent had nice leather shoes, smelled of bergamot oil, had a curl against his ear.
first published in beakful
We always sang a song to the fields on the bus on the way to our middle school and at the time, I wasn’t really sure how any of us came to know it, given that we were a bunch of white kids. For some reason, I thought it was a spiritual, or something from a spiritual. Even as a young girl then, I always thought there was something sad about the song, like I knew it wasn’t mine to sing or I worried there was something wrong about a white girl who wore Izod shirts and Ralph Lauren barrettes who would sing: “Now it was down in Louisiana, just about a mile from Texarkana! In them old cotton fields back home.” I only knew about slaves and cotton back then. But I finally learned when I was older and moved away from Arkansas that it was a rock song sung by some white guys and also various white guys before them.
I assumed we were treading on forbidden territory with such songs, territory I was made aware of almost daily when I was the new girl at my school, one of the few white girls in my grade. Daddy had moved us from Columbia, South Carolina where me and my brother and sister lived in a white neighborhood and went down the street to go to school with white children. At this new place, things were quite different. Like, at recess a big group of the black girls in my grade got in our faces and chanted “White cracker, white cracker, you don’t shine, betcha five dollars I can beat your behind!” I was scared, and fascinated too. I never knew you could be hated and taunted like that just because you were a white girl. They still let me play hopscotch though and jump rope. I was really good at Lemon Twist and practiced incessantly at home so there could be at least one thing I could be better at than the girls whose skin was darker, whose homelife I never knew, who taught me the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, and who loved it when I stole the basketball from them at practice.
Mama and Daddy had a maid named Maimie, a black lady who cooked for us and though the housekeeping was marginal, which Mama never seemed to mind, her cooking was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. I never told Mama that she could never cook like Maimie, but I think she knew it and would tell Maimie how she wasn’t sure what she would do if she wasn’t around to save us. She looked after us too, us kids, me, my brother, and my sister, and whatever kids we dragged in with us, and sometimes a stray dog or cat or two. I don’t know how Maimie did it, but I respected her that she wasn’t into housework. It’s like she said: I cook, I wipe up the counters, and sometimes I go fetch a kid or animal, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be wonder woman. The one thing though I know was a bummer for Maimie was that Mama expected her to polish the silver, constantly. I never understood that, but first thing, as soon as the box fans in the kitchen and front rooms were on and breakfast was under way, Maimie would be there by the sink, one of our old cloth baby diapers in hand, rubbing away with the polish until the silver gleamed.
“Child, child!” She said to me, one night, late, after everyone was in bed, and I was asleep in my room. “Maimie done need your help now! I don’t want you to say nothing to your Mama about it neither.” I put on my clothes and went with her into the night under the moon and stars. We lived in the country and our neighbors had farms. My Daddy was a preacher so we didn’t have much land but there wasn’t a building or a stop light for miles.
“I need you to drive me to take this food to the dance on the other side of Cherry Hill. You be a good girl, now and set on up there behind the wheel like I seen you do with Ms. Millie.”
Ms. Millie was the sweet old soused spinster who taught me to drive even though of course I wasn’t the legal age being I was only eleven. Maimie sometimes cooked for her too. And Maimie knew about my driving my friend Chad’s old Chevy. We drove off the road on his property. We did that and he taught me to play cat scratch fever on his guitar. I had hopes he liked me but he liked my sister.
Maimie had too much dirt on me so that I couldn’t refuse helping her and so she just sat back like a queen while I inched along the dark road. She always had the men in her life drive her, whether it be Gustus or Daddy or the Reverend at her church.
“Gustus is gonna have the bus there where all the children can hang out,” she said. I didn’t question Maimie when she told me what to do. There was something in her voice. And being that I wasn’t sure what was happening, I felt reliant on her, like she was my parent in this other world.
Gustus was Maimie’s son. He was the only dark skinned person on the bus in the mornings and he drove all us white children, never a word spoken, a hello or good bye, or a sit down and shut it. I sometimes wonder what went through Gustus’ mind while we sang spirituals and rhymes that mostly the black girls sang at school while they huddled in a circle and danced, making the white kids look stupid and clumsy and way less cool.
“You be a good girl, you hear?” Maimie said. “You’re going to black town now, little sister, it’ll put some Africa in your bones.” And she laughed.
“Why you laughing, Maimie?” I said. “I’m not scared. I go to school with lots of black kids.”
“You ain’t heard of no ghosts then, the ones we brought with us over on the slave ships long ago, that’s right and voodoo spirits and spirits of people who died in slavery or hanging from ropes in trees. But children ghosts are the scariest of all.”
“Then why ain’t you scared, Maimie?”
“You know not to say ‘ain’t,’ June bug.”
We were downtown at Main Street where lights only blinked because it was too late for traffic.
“Go on child, down on past the track.” She was pointing with her long bony finger, the one she used to crimp pies and test temperatures of hot milk.
“I’m used to it, chile, all the time, I carry some ghosts around with me and talk to them. You think I’m just talking to myself. No way, sweet Michelle, I keep in contact. Mmm hmmm.” Maimie liked to call me sweet Michele. She said my named reminded her of the Beatles song Michele, my belle. I wasn’t named for the song, but I always thought it was cool Maimie was in touch with the Beatles. I asked her once if she knew Rapper’s Delight and she started singing: “I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip-hop, and you don’t stop the rock it to the bang-bang, boogie say ‘up jump’ the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.”
We arrived at a field with bonfires and a big stage up front. There were sounds I’d never heard before, so many drums, and people wearing colorful clothes, bouncing and twirling and shimmying as if they were mainstage of a massive parade.
“Now see what the black folk do, you see what we do,” said Maimie, pointing out a place to park. “And you thought Maimie was just a boring ole house slave runnin’ a rag ’round your Mama’s silver.”
“I never said stuff like that,” I said, feeling defensive, wounded.
“I know that chile, I’m just messin’ with ya.” It was like the girls who messed with me at school, calling me a white cracker and threatening to beat my behind, although they never did.
Maimie took me to the bus where some kids were hanging out, most of them younger and in the pajamas, lying down for bed. I found a longer bench near the back. Maimie gave me some food, a little package she had worked up, with snacks. She brought me a blanket and a pillow.
“You’re not to leave, you hear?” she said.
I was worried. I didn’t know anyone. And I was worried about how all these black people would feel about me being here. And I was worried about the ghosts Maimie told me about, a big secret she kept when she was with me, in the white world with me and my family.
“Are there really ghosts, Maimie? Ones that hang around all the time?” I asked, settling down on the bench while Maimie fluffed and arranged my pillow.
“There are,” she said. “But they’re not going to worry you, honey, no way. Maimie was just giving you a hard time now, come on up in here and lie down.”
She left me there, saying she was going to dance with some of her friends under the harvest moon, but said she’d be back, and wake me up, and we’d go home, and my parents would be none the wiser.
I could hear the drums outside, but it was quiet with all the windows closed and the door closed. I could hear the other children on their benches, breathing and sighing in their sleep. It was strange to think in a couple of hours Gustus would be driving me to school in this same bus. He would pretend nothing else happened with it in his off hours and he would be same old boring Gustus though I was sure he was out there dancing with Maimie or maybe even playing the drums. I sat up watching the swirling figures in the distance until my eyes grew heavy and I lay my head on the pillow. I dreamt of dark ghosts ascending over the swirling colorful mass of bodies and I dreamt also of smaller dark bodies, ghost children, indistinct and diaphanous, racing over plowed fields where Maimie’s kin, hunched over with sacks dipped low to the ground, had once bloodied their fingers on cotton bolls.
In addition to Flash-Nano, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo for the month of November. I plan to dig into my young adult horror novel. (I will explain more as the project reaches the end of the first draft.) You may find me on the NaNoWriMo site under my name Meg Sefton. If you decide to join in, let’s be “writing buddies.” Best wishes.
A coolish Friday late October days before children would traipse down our streets in costume, knocking on doors for candy, a Florida black bear scratched its back on a palm tree in front of the townhome adjacent to the townhome I share with my mother. As I sat by the window reading my morning paper I observed its black mass emerging from the green curtain of woods, stopping by the palm presumably before going on to look for unsecured garbage.
“Ma, come look,” I said as the bear bumped the tree first with its rear, then stood to full height, about a third of the height of the street light beside the palm. At this time of day, neighbors would begin to emerge with their dogs or get into their cars parked alongside the street and down the block to go to work, take their children to school, pursue morning workouts at the Y.
Ma was shuffling around in my kitchen, that reassuring sound of her slippers grazing the tile while she fixed a pot of oatmeal and fed the dog.
“Remember I told you, Ma, they should have left that magnolia tree and lamppost that at night looked like the meeting place of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus. And now, here we have a scratching post for wild creatures who would just as soon eat our children and dogs.” I hated the palms they used to replace the magnolias, the branches of the latter scattered down the street the day after they mowed them all down. The palms didn’t fit, were too stocky and awkward and obscured the light from the lampposts with their long finger-like fronds. And yet, I didn’t attend HOA meetings in which these things are most likely discussed. I paid my fees only to be unbored and unbothered.
“I will go and talk to the thing,” my mother said, standing over me as I sat at the window. In her fragile hands, she cupped a steaming mug of hazelnut cream coffee, her favorite in the morning.
“You will do no such thing, mother,” I said, using the fuller “mother” to express my firmness and authority. I know she was referencing her skill with animals but this was over the top, ridiculous.
“A bear is not a dog,” I sad.
She had once soothed a loose Rottweiler intent on attack on one of our morning walks. She grabbed my arm when she saw the dog coming and pulled me down to the ground with a strength that defied her diminutive stature. “Down!” she said “Roll up!” she said and I followed her orders and example and there we were, two women curled up on someone’s lawn, a dark creature licking our faces. Ma slowly uncurled, offering as she did so, a treat she always kept in her pocket, offering it underhanded with eyes averted singing a very low and tuneless song about the majesty of dogs and their protectiveness and power and love.
“What was that?” I had asked her afterwards.
“What?” she said.
“That song? Where did it come from?”
“The poor thing seemed happy with my treat,” she said, not answering my question. “We sure got out of a little pinch there didn’t we honey, the Lord be blessed.”
“I can go talk to this bear, so lost and turned around, you’ll see, the dear thing” she said, setting her hazelnut coffee carefully down on a coaster at the dining room table where I sat, a table we had arranged by the window with a light and a pair of comfortable chairs, perfectly suited for a spinster daughter and her aged mother.
“It will go away,” I sad.
But it didn’t. My mother sat for a while, but the thing didn’t move. It sat too, as a matter of fact, squashing the expensive groundcover under its enormous rear. I had only recently secured the phone numbers of my neighbors and started calling them, telling them what was happening. Someone said they would call animal control.
Until Mom moved in, I knew no one, life being what it is with computers and livestreaming movies and air conditioned environments and all of my excuses. Ma had met people hand delivering homemade butterscotch bars and introducing herself and inquiring about the inhabitants within and hence everyone loved her and by proxy, me too, but only because my mother was the one true human.
“I will sing to it now,” she said and brushed past me and opened the door to our second story living room, high up from the bear, and so, safe still. She began to sing a croaky tuneless melody about the sleepiness of bears under the stars of black Florida nights, the soft undergrowth of pine needles and loamy earth where the bear can nestle down and sleep, the nuts and seeds and ants and possums the bear can find for its meals which nourish its coat and fill its belly, the current unavailability of people food due to the new locked trash cans provided to the residents by Seminole County, the glory of a bear in the wild vs. its trapped status in civilization, the family of bears under the trees away from roads and men and their cars – a place to belong, a place to call home, a place to protect its offspring and see they are cared for. And then began song in an operative bent, tuneless still but somehow modern, a song about the treachery of mankind, the evil men do, the noble savage that has been abandoned for Machiavellian schemes, how mankind out of bitterness for itself has devised its own traps and aims that nothing should be truly free, not a blade of grass, or a bee in its comb, or a bear on an adventure.
This went on now for what felt like hours but it must have only lasted minutes for still we waited for animal control. Meanwhile, the bear occasionally reared up to its full height and sauntered over to our balcony, its balustrade just out of reach of its paws which didn’t swipe, only slow undulated as if the bear were stirring honey on a lazy, hot day, as Ma sang her truth, the bear’s truth, the neighborhood on lockdown. Every now and then it gave a little roar accompanying the solo.
I could only imagine what my neighbors thought, but I couldn’t at the same time. By now, they loved her unconditionally and she was the elder among them who cared for them and their children and parents. I pretended to look at my paper but in a way that afforded me a view of the street.
And then finally, my mother sang to a it a lullaby, a bear sleeping song of how wonderful the bear will feel after its delicious meal from the forest. With that, the bear sauntered off into the trees, a final bellow as if to say “You are a wise and good old woman.”
My mother stepped in from off the balcony and closed the door. She shuffled past me where I sat with my paper, pretending I hadn’t listened to her, and witnessed what happened, and been embarrassed among the neighbors whom I had not taken the time to know or care about.
“Now what’s your pleasure for your oatmeal, dear, the cinnamon, butter, and walnuts as always?”
I laid the paper on my lap and merely nodded.
If you like writing flash fiction or want to try your hand, join me for the month of November! The challenge is to write a flash fiction piece for every day of the month in response to a prompt. If I come out with several total during the month of Flash-Nano, I’m happy, but it is definitely a good incentive to make a start and have some fun! Here’s the site.
We are what is left when everything from the accident is carried away – the driver, the smashed car, the branches from the bush that crumpled thin metal. We are the detritus, the pieces, the bits – the piece of reflector, the broken glass of the windshield, the broken cross dangling from the rearview. The bush the car crashed into was as crushed as the frame. The conclusion of the police was that the young man was drunk. But we know it was a deer. He swerved to avoid a deer. But he died. The deer lived.
The mother who came to collect pieces of us the day after had it right. This is what she told the police, that her son had swerved to hit an animal, but his intoxication level had been a more solid forensic indicator. It was a deer, or a cat, or a squirrel. The boy loved animals, she said. She told it to the ground, she told it to the bits of debris.
We are a reflection of stars and lost dreams and yet should we be able to tell the story of that lonely boy riding through the night in the city of lakes at Christmas we would tell the truth only a mother’s heart knows: The purity of her son’s heart, that, drunk though he was, was responsive to the natural world even in a city like ours where people careen around lakes without their licenses because of last year’s DUI, believing they can save the world despite themselves. The law does not allow for the best of what someone could possibly be but more often what is the worst.
A mother’s heart is not law. We are testament.
For my brother
Fall was Ms. Myska’s favorite Little League baseball season. Her son used to play in the neighborhood league. He had long since graduated and moved to another city and yet there she was, working the concession stand, having kept a key. Not only that, she tidied the field and toilet, picked up the trash, wiped down the metal bleachers. The city janitor assigned to the park had been shooed away by a smiling Ms. Myska and the young mothers were also summarily dismissed when they tried to insist that she should be sitting outside, enjoying the weather. She merely smiled and turned the oil on for the fries, made the coffee. For all they knew, she kept a cot in there, they said to themselves.
By the end of each season the players and their parents had always developed a strange fondness for the rodent-like woman who scurried from task to task, never speaking much, never making much eye contact. They would have been surprised to know she remembered their concession preferences, knew their faces and voices, knew whether they were confident, shy, slow, smart, funny, knew who their friends were, knew their family members, beloved and otherwise.
Little did they know that each summer, when they were vacationing, she was scurrying to the store for the secret ingredients to her chili. Making the chili every year made fall her favorite season for baseball. Who could resist a good chili on a cool evening? No one, and certainly no one who had tasted her version, contained as it was in a tiny bag of corn chips, the corn chips serving in lieu of pasta, the small bag a portable meal, ready to eat with a spork.
Nor did they know of her harvest moon night when she turned cartwheels in the field and tilted her head back and sang her full-throated songs. Other mysterious women, bodies worn from giving life and sustaining it, joined her, dancing, singing, drinking wine, running the bases and laughing until they ran up into the night sky and they transformed into other beings entirely, birds and butterflies and delicate moths. At daybreak, they became human again.
The season after she died, a young mother found a chili recipe in the cash box. “Make it with love,” the instructions said, “and you will be blessed.”
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.
A couple of months ago, my son noticed a change in me. He said, “Hey Mom, what’s wrong with your eyes?”
I was no longer able to hide it from him, the full throttle visitation of my manic depressive illness, the illness I secretly called my black bitch, a nod to Winston Churchill’s “black dog.” This time, my bitch was frustrating my concentration and numbing my senses. The last time she pounced on me this hard my son was a baby.
I didn’t answer him but he knew. He was a smart boy and knew about me taking the medications, knew how much the illness had cost me and his father, knew it was the kind of thing that could become dangerous.
When I got up from the sofa, he followed me into the kitchen. I opened the fridge and poured him a Coke. He was staring at the knife block. When I first told him why I was on meds, he started asking me and his dad about all the ways a person could kill himself.
I knew it was vital I get ahold of myself right away, that I send that slathering hound back to a dark corner with a bone. So I took his chin in my fingers and moved his face gently to mine. “Hey,” I said. His eyes slild away. He didn’t want me to read him. “Hey,” I repeated softly and when I caught his gaze, I looked at him as steadily as I could manage, right into those light blue eyes and said, “I would never do that, son. Never.” And then I took him in my arms and I held him for a minute.
And then he went off to play.
“Bitch,” I said, under my breath. And for a moment, I was free.
First appeared in A-Minor Magazine under the title “Needful Words”
Our vantage point for the total solar eclipse was a mountain top in north Georgia. Darren insisted on driving down from Tennessee to meet me on my way up from Florida though I had originally planned on watching it alone. I was early to the lookout, having scrambled over that last purchase of rock face, breathing hard, sweating. I didn’t want to be with him at the site the whole time. I wanted to carry out some of my plan alone although of course for the actual phenomenon, he’d be here with me, long legs stretched out, resting, assured, the climb having cost him nothing.
The rolling landscape below seemed to have drawn breath, the contrast between green trees and shadow sharpening even since my sitting down and taking out my binoculars. The color of the sky had intensified as if it were the abyss of the ocean. There were no clouds and I noticed the birds were silent.
I did not want to be here with him, especially not alone. I would not have always said this when we were younger, when we both lived in Florida, when we were in middle school and high school. There had been a kind of silly camaraderie between us. And then a bit of a romance though I broke it off, being too absorbed in my studies and plans. “You broke his heart,” my mother said when he slipped into a coma before graduation. Though no one really knew why he became ill my mother’s words stuck with me being that they were both true and not true at the same time and had the power of a crucible. Before I left for college I visited Darren several times a week to talk to him and read to him while a machine helped him breath. When he woke several months later, I went to the hospital to visit. What hit me were his screams and inaudible complaints echoing down the hospital corridor. It was worse than the silence and again I felt selfish, self-concerned, but worried too. What was wrong? What would happen? No one spoke to me. I couldn’t go into his room to see him.
He recovered. He was fully functional again, eventually, even went to college. Rumors had it he had brain damage given that his tendency to make things up, to “get creative with the truth” had become vastly exaggerated. I was not in touch, however. At the time I only considered how his hurting made me feel, and by that time, I had begun to have challenges of my own, black shadows of depression, inexplicable highs. I was private and protective and I didn’t want to see someone who may handle me less than delicately.
I heard him climbing the mountain before I saw him. I could hear him walking along the path below in this newly silent world. It was like when he appeared to me many years after his coma: I, newly divorced and diagnosed with cancer, dealing with an angry son had been open, curious about my friend. The silence surrounding me during chemo had become an intense fog, friends had drifted away, some out of fear and some having been the friends with whom I had merely partied. And there he was, on the phone, talking to me like I had never left and he had never become ill. Admittedly, the attention from a man was soothing as well, as the chemo had taken my looks. He remembered what I used to be.
“Hiya, hot pants,” he said, that last scramble involving a climb on all fours. I wanted merely to watch the darkness spreading over the valley. I wanted merely to listen to the cicadas – to screech or remain silent – the verdict was still out. How little could I say and still be here with him.
He twisted down to sit and gave me a quick side hug with his massive arm. He was warm but not dripping with sweat like I had been. I was glad I arrived soon enough to look cool.
“Whatcha been up to?” he said, gulping down a water bottle from his pack.
“Nothing, Darren. Just waiting.”
I was over the cancer, thank God. It had involved strange and convoluted experiences with treatment. My hair was back but my appearance had finally caught up to my actual age. I was all of forty nine, and feeling it too.
He said, “Did you know we’ll be able to see millions of little half eclipses in the shadows of the trees?”
“You don’t say.”
He took another deep swig of water. The wind mercifully caressed my skin.
When he first started talking to me again after a twenty five year sabbatical, he spent hours describing in minute detail the horrors of living with his ex wife Debbie and her child, a boy of about eight. They also eventually had a child together, a daughter.
“I plan on looking at the sun,” I say. A squirrel skitters up a pine just beyond the rock. I don’t want to indulge him. After this, I would drive down to Birmingham to meet my son and his father and stepmom to get him installed in his new dorm room. I wanted to keep this short.
“There are cultures that believe that the sun and the moon are fighting it out,” he said, shading his eyes. “Some even believe it’s actually a time of resolving old fights.”
That’s rich, I wanted to say. In the depths of my chemo treatments, our long distance conversations over the phone had wandered into territory I could never have guessed when we first took up, when first he had presented himself as the well rounded, traveled, accomplished man.
By the time the fissure in his self presentation occurred, I was having frequent experiences with mental confusion and the highs and lows of my moods had intensified. And I was lonely, so lonely. I remember where I was the first time I heard him paint a picture of himself that shocked me: I was in the kitchen of my parents’ home. They were letting me borrow the home for the summer as they were away and it was a shorter drive to my chemo treatments than from my townhome outside of town. “Debbie accused me of sexually molesting the kids” he said. “Can you fucking believe that?”
To whom was I speaking? I remember thinking. I had no idea. Though we were long distance and his job would keep him from making spontaneous trips down, I could feel my chemo imperiled heart beating hard when he described the number of times he was picked up by the police and his incarceration in the local jail before his hearing. He was manacled he said to a huge man, accused of rape. “That bitch Debbie,” he said. “At first it was supervised visits, and then: nothing. What a bitch.”
I managed to end the call and get out of the house in the sweltering heat to walk my dog around the retention pond across from my parents’ place. I was sick. By this time, he knew a great deal about my life. I had emotionally begun to lean on him. And I had confided in him regarding my problems with child rearing.
And yet over the months, he had managed to convince me, somehow, that the accusations had no foundation, and to remind me there had been no actual conviction. And against my better judgement, I believed in him. Part of it, I think, was the effect of the chemo, my inability to hold onto facts and ideas for very long. And part of it, maybe, was that I felt I owed it to him to consider it, his innocence, maybe it was the old guilt working on me that I had left him when he was ill. And maybe he knew it. Another thing he knew was how much I needed a friend. I wanted to believe perhaps because at the time I felt I had to believe.
And so now, he we were. He checked his watch for the total eclipse countdown. An impulse arose in me at that moment to kind of shove him a little with my shoulder, as in a friendly gesture, and see what happened. The drop off to the trail below from the overhanging face was several hundred feet. I shrank back in horror from my own thoughts.
“You know there is no way he is innocent,” said a friend who ran a daycare. We were out to celebrate the end of treatments. I hadn’t confided in many people because I was afraid that once more I had been duped by the liar I had been friends with as a kid. “A guy doesn’t just lose all contact with his children,” said my friend. My single friends always liked to remind me how sheltered I’ve been, having been married for twenty years.
We were having dirty martinis, a drink I yearned for during treatment. It reminded me of the ocean of my good Florida, of my life. My friend and I had been close since I graduated college, longer than I had been friends with just about anyone, except Darren. It took that moment with her and a moment on the phone with Darren to clear my mind. Darren said that the judge who had been so friendly to him at first, someone he had known around town, wouldn’t even speak to him after the trial. “And why is that?” I said. “Because when she heard all of the evidence, it sounded convincing, like I had done it,” he said. Something in his voice sounded confessional. An eighteen month confessional. That’s what my cancer had been. Someone else had wiped their dirt on me. And he had lied and the lie threatened my sense of safety and safety for my son. Maybe this was his revenge for what he said had been my abandonment.
How had I wound up on this rock with him, this rock that would witness the rapid cessation of heat and light? How had I let myself become guilted into contact once more?
That criminal thought occurred to me again, that of giving him a little shove, like giving him a pretend friendly nudge, and watching him fall off the cliff as I feigned shock and innocence.
But of course I wouldn’t actually do something like this.
Instead, I said, “The sun and the moon, always at war. Interesting.”
Once upon a time there lived in Numbskull Village an unusual little girl named Flower. Now this particular Flower was unlike all other girls in the village in that she was such a simple thing, she believed everything anyone ever told her. Even though this was Numbskull Village, almost everyone knew you could never trust anyone one hundred percent of the time. They knew this because one night when they were partying, some of them saw shadows on a cave wall and believed people who walked in front of the fire became bigger, ergo you could not trust people because you could not trust them to remain the same size.
But Flower was an anomaly and as she grew, she continued to say things like “a rose is a rose is a rose,” thereby demonstrating her belief in her teacher’s interpretation that “a thing is what it is.” Flower also said things like “Jesus loves me” without a hint of doubt and this is because other people she respected and admired told her this was true and besides, Jesus’ statue stayed the same size Sunday after Sunday and therefore Jesus could be trusted to be who he said he was.
One day, some boys got together and decided to have a little fun. They decided to stick it to this Flower babe and give her some love poems. Yeah! That’ll get her going! They said, slapping each others’ butts. Well, actually, they decided to have the girls write the poems. They requested that the girls phrase the lines in such a way as to evoke a mad passion. They said: Put just enough in there about Flower to make her believe she is the recipient, OK? So, you know, do girls smile? Put some stuff in there about smiles. Do they have hearts? Oh yeah, put that in there too. Also, bunnies. Girls love bunnies.
Then one of the smartest of the girls – which in Numbskull isn’t saying much – spoke up and said: So what happens when she believes these poems were meant just for her? What happens when she falls in love with you? What will you say then? The smartest of the boys said, Well let’s just say we give these poems to all the girls and even to some of us guys, that way it’ll look like we didn’t give them just to her, it’ll look like everyone got these poems, you know? Hence, The “Well-Meaning” Poets Society was born. (And they used air quotes too, in referring to themselves, and it made them feel funny and they bought beer and bashed their heads against boulders.)
So Flower took all of the poems the postman gave her and ate them all up, she gobbled them down whole. She really did. They were like sugar candy, like hot lava rocks that blew her socks off, that steamed her little hot tamales. Her parents didn’t need heat all winter and the snow melted from around the base of the house so that bulbs shot up early and the flowers bloomed. And when spring came, Flower couldn’t contain herself anymore. She had to go out and find her own true Love. She went searching, searching, everywhere, but she only saw mirrors on all the Numbskull faces. What had become of her Love? But she had not written the poems, had she? So why did she only see herself? That’s when one mirror told her she was mistaken to think she was special. When that mirror spoke, it sounded like it could have been the one who wrote the poems because he made reference to the unspecialness of a billion black bunnies.
And so, inevitably it seems, her heart broke. She ran through the village and up the hill to her tiny house. Her parents held her as she cried and cried. They had waited for this Moment. They knew it was coming and now they thought they could relax a little and help teach her by Hard Experience what all the other children seemed to know. She would likely become something less like a Hothouse Flower and more like a Dandelion or Weed.
But that which is called a Flower by any other name would still be as trusting and they were not to change her. In fact, she grew only more Hothouse-gorgeous as the bitterness poured down and off and around her and flooded the town, fertilizing crops, drowning fields, providing new homes for water birds and their babies, and bringing people from villages all around to swim in their beautiful blue lakes and marvel in the wonders of a village no longer called Numbskull but instead “Miroslava” which means “peace and glory.”
First published in State of Imagination
Using one of my pen names, Quenby Larsen, I created a memoir style blog “How to be Alone.” I created the site over a year ago and this most recent post this past spring. In this and other posts, I explore my struggle with illness, but especially, mental illness, a struggle which seems to inevitably inform my fiction. May God bless you in your fight, whatever fight it might be, for all of us are engaged in something. I hope you will visit “How to be Alone.” Maybe it could be a comfort to you or someone you know. Maybe it could serve to show that really, we are none of us alone. Sincerely, Margaret
I’ll have to admit that recently, I haven’t been as comfortable spending time alone being quiet. I believe this largely has to do with midlife circumstances that are not all that unusual though not necessarily a given for everyone at this stage – having a child preparing to leave home, adapting to life as a single person, grappling with health issues and family problems, facing regrets and limitations. Added to that has been the turmoil of a new government: The fear and anxiety it has created regarding the welfare of the earth, the sick and elderly and young, threats from menacing foreign powers to name a few. I feel attached to a roller coaster I cannot afford to be riding. I know many of us feel this way. What’s your stress level right about now?
Last summer, I titrated off of klonopin, a controlled substance used to treat anxiety as well as psychotic symptoms. My challenge is the former and I had managed to be drug free after much physical and emotional havoc. Then a new president was sworn in who would by his actions and words began to create cause for concern for many, and for me, triggered the depths of my anxiety. I had to finally admit this week: I needed a partial dose of klonopin again if I was going to sleep and get back to a regular routine.
It is hard for me to admit my limitations. As a girl growing up in a pastor’s home, a pastor who share what he believed and spoke for justice and peace, I was always told I was strong. After this past inauguration, when I heard my fellow concerned citizens say things like everyone must do their part every day all the time to deal with the upheaval and threat on every front, I agreed with them on the one hand. And yet, on the other hand, there have been times when I’ve had to say, wait a minute, I have to stop. And sometimes I have to stop to tend to my child. Yet more recently, honestly, I’ve had to stop, or at least walk away for a while, to tend to myself.
The thing I’ve noticed about anxiety is that it’s like the action of the waves coming up along a beach when there’s a storm approaching. The waves start to pile one on top of the other, crashing more chaotically on the sand, disrupting the relatively regular ebb and flow of the tide. It’s a collective effect of the force of building waters, the weight of building incoming waves that increase and punish the coast. I have to stand in the gap of what builds when the chaos overwhelms. For me this has become having to take a pill. Once the storm goes past a certain point, I am lost and doing well only to remember my life preserver – take my pill again, call my nurse psychiatrist.
This is a hard lesson to learn. I remember the words of my father: Meggo, you are strong. And yet, these are the times I haven’t felt this way at all.
Besides taking a pill, something else I’ve felt absolutely critical when I have felt overwhelmed are times of silence, silence from the news, silence from corresponding, silence even from music. And yet this has only been a recent development. Recently I’ve escaped the anxiety that silence brings, the regrets and bad memories, the negative emotions about so-and-so, the flotsam and jetsam of a brain littered with old unfinished business. When the pain from this is excrutiating? Turn up the television, turn on the radio or youtube, listen to a book livestreaming, watch a movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Get busy.
For three years after my divorce, up until quite recently, I dated, met people online, kept myself insanely active socially. When my child was with his father, I couldn’t stand being in the house alone. And this is what that amounts to: I couldn’t stand being with myself. Talk about psychic noise. I had failed my parents getting a divorce, I had failed my son, I had failed me, I had failed extended family. And then, probably partly because of my lifestyle which started with marital difficulties, I got sick with two diseases, cancer and diabetes, not to mention the ongoing challenges of bipolar, and so I failed myself in the most fundamental way imaginable. I was on a collision course with myself and though my life is calmer now I still feel the effects of that collision, that storm, the beach is still littered and road repair is needed.
I used to read quite a bit. I used to write a lot more. I had ambition not long ago I think. I used to rarely watch television. The world was a refreshing break from so much silence and contemplation rather than an escape from what has felt like forced silence and separation. And yet, I think we sometimes make the choices we know that we should make even if they cause us pain. A choice to remain on the outskirts of town has given me the chance to get used to being alone, has given me space to begin to heal and figure out how to conduct myself and structure my time, to make a plan. I am vaguely remembering who I used to be and what I used to dream about, and that I actually used to dream. Cancer treatment can rob you of memories, of dreams, of a sense of self. So can experiencing extreme psychic pain. So can mental illness.
I am sitting on my bed now that I decided to get to replace my old bed. The old bed reminded me of divorce, of cancer. The new bed doesn’t look anything like my old bed. I liked my old bed, but I like this one much better. It is my new cocoon containing my new dreams, my new self, the place I lay my body down in recognition of my weakness, in recognition of my pain, in sorrow for my sins, in hopes of returning dreams, in expectation of stories read and enjoyed and inspirations to come, new friends to be made, old friendships to re-establish, family among whom to re-fashion roots, a world to think about and engage, letting no detail slip by but rather holding each in my heart as an object of concern and prayer and re-imagining.
Deep in winter during the Little Ice Age, a frosty, bitter Empress Anna Ivanovna of Russia whose cheeks were like hams, commissions a palace of ice, the blocks carved from the frozen river and sealed together with water. It was to stage the humiliations of her broken heart – her uncle Czar Peter the Great having orchestrated a cruel imitation of her wedding purely in jest just two days after the ceremony and her husband dying two months after. Anna begged for new prospects for marriage. Peter turned away all future suitors.
As she remembered the dwarf ceremony her uncle had arranged as a way of mocking her wedding ceremony, she ordered the servants and artists to construct a thirty three foot high, eighty foot long ice palace. She would humiliate a man who had loved and lost someone, a Catholic, an infidel. They had been so happy and he so devastated when she died. Love was not possible said the dictates of Anna’s frozen heart and certainly he deserved the grief he received from choosing a wife outside orthodoxy. He would be an example of ill-fated, misguided love.
Up went blocks of ice, a bridal suite of an ice mattress, pillows, a frozen clock, and outside, a frozen tree with frozen birds, a frozen elephant inside which a man sat blowing a trumpet. Anna had chosen a servant woman to marry the broken hearted nobleman. She was old and unattractive. They were to sleep naked in the ice palace on the ice mattress. Though the lovers survived the beastly treatment of the Empress, the servant woman died several days later of pneumonia.
It is said to this day, though I’ve never visited this particular part of the world, nothing grows on the site of the palace during the warmer season. No grass, nor weeds. Only a flowering bush of roses where the broken couple huddled together in the palace, having purchased a coat from a guard and survived the night out of mutual compassion and care.
Anna was the worst ruler in Russian history. She hated lovers, Catholics, the physically disabled, the ethnically “undesirable.” She meted out her misery on others. A biography of her life is hard to come by for reprints are not desired and so copies are rare. There is nothing more to say.
Back when the sky stayed the blood red all day, when the beasts in the undergrowth ate gardeners and sunbathers, when workers came to hotels rising up from the scrub from which they had always lain and slit the throats of sleeping tourists, when the rumbling of the hurricanes did not stop but shook the earth in constant tremors, when we held our infants tight for fear, when we cried in the dark and ran from falling trees, when live wires threatened our walk to stores bereft of goods, when our computers were good for nothing but as paperweights and a place to drape our soaked clothes, when rumor had it our president was in an underground facility at his vacation address, when gas generators poisoned families because people didn’t know how to use them and there was no one to take them to hospitals, when it hailed afternoons in summer, when our children went to bed crying and woke up in terror, when there were no more leaders, when there were skirmishes and death among us over food, candles, matches, the dead walked out of the sea and dwelt among us and made it their course to banish the divide.
He jumped off the train and went into the station, the conductor in the gray cap. He was shriveled and hunched, like a shrimp. It didn’t seem to Julie he’d be capable of doing much more than riding up and down the rails, taking tickets, but he always had a coin for Buddy, a penny the train had squashed between Mt. Dora and Winter Park. Buddy fingered the oblong copper and put it to his lips as if it were a thick shaving of chocolate. Julie slapped his hand. The heat rising up from the pavement made her short.
On Wednesdays, she and Buddy came down to the station. They stood on the tracks and waited for the rails to vibrate with the motion of the oncoming train. It made Buddy coo to feel the shimmying metal tickle the soles of his feet and he put his face next to the track, his baby flesh on the forged steel. Julie tested herself to see how long she could wait before she pulled him off, how long she could stand it. She knew it was wrong to tempt fate this way but it felt as if the palm trees and the bushes and the sun itself held her. And then one time she saw the light of the train and she quickly, with a pounding chest, snatched him by the waist.
After the train stopped, the shrimp man came to where they were standing. He had eyes with uneven patches and he seemed to be watching her through a pool of opaque pebbles. She thought he was going to say something, but then he gave Buddy a coin and brushed his cheek with a curved finger.
Julie liked wearing clothes from the thirties and forties. She shopped online and found dresses with flouncy sleeves and slingback shoes with open toes and platforms. She liked vintage hats and wore them to the station when she brought Buddy. It was not a place she was likely to see anyone from the Country Club or anyone her husband Frank knew. Frank asked her why she didn’t go to Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdale’s. She liked looking like ladies from old movies, she told him. Her mother died when she was thirteen. Though sometimes her husband Frank wished she were like other women, he liked the way she wore things only dead people had worn. People didn’t invite them to many parties and if they did, they kept their distance and talked about them behind their highball glasses. Her mother died in a boating accident. Her father had been driving the boat. This was what happened and this was what people knew. That and the fact that her mother was from money and had lots of it. Now her father drove all over town in a restored Model T.
Julie took Buddy to the roses when the train wasn’t due. He pricked his baby fingers on the thorns. She read the signs which told them their names: Louis Philippe, Belinda’s Dream, Old Blush, China Doll, Clotilde. Sometimes he grabbed a fistful of petals and she slapped his knuckles. An old man usually watched her from the bench. He watched the seam on the back of her hose and he smiled when she bent to slap the baby and her rear jiggled. He wanted to reach out and grab her but he knew she was too fine for him, too fine, that much he knew, though he wore his Agua Brava and a linen suit, crumpled as a napkin. She knew he watched her. She didn’t care. It was better than the college boys who whistled at her under their breath and told her what they’d like to do with her right there in front of Buddy, his pie face intent on the pink petals in his sweaty palm. She watched the boys, her eyes following them while her body stayed still. She stood in the rose garden until they were well past.
Last Wednesday Julie wore her hat that was open at the top. It showed the hair she had dyed a bright auburn. Buddy wore the coveralls with the choo choo. The suitcase was hidden in the bushes. It was vintage with straps like belt buckles. After the train pulled up, Julie scooped something into the suitcase. At that time of day, Julie had the privacy to do whatever she wanted. There was no one at the station. The train ran by the provision of the federal government. When the pebble-eyed man died, someone else would replace him, someone equally infirm. It didn’t matter who took the tickets. No one was there to buy them. There were no bags to lift or arrange in the rack over the seat, no ladies to hoist up the stairs.
Julie expected to ride that day. She had come from a different time, before Buddy, before Frank even, before modern clothes made women look like men, like whores. She wanted to take the train to Hollywood. She wanted to be in the movies. She wanted to be a star.
The shrimp man tore her ticket. “Where’s the boy?”
“Resting,” she said, as she lifted her bag into the overhead rack.
He gave her the pressed coin. She put it to her lips, blotting her lipstick. “You keep it,” she said. He turned. The back of his neck was a hollowed out place.
She closed her eyes and felt an ache in her belly. She drifted between the pain and her dreams. She was walking in a warm rain on a California beach. She stood in the shower. She would not think of the boy. She would not think of Frank.
They got her in Mt. Dora. The shrimp man had seen the first red drop fall from her bag onto her hat brim and blossom into a dark peony. He stood in the back and watched the incessant dripping of blood, like rain falling from trees. They would have to replace the seats. He called ahead to the next station to alert them as he slumped on his bench in the caboose. He felt for the paperwork for his retirement in his jacket. It was in there somewhere.
First published in Colored Chalk
When they marry, they have a double. It is her box-spring and mattress. She bought it with her mother who taught her how to shop scratch and dent, to decorate with little.
They take it with them to Vermont where he teaches college and she works in the library. A river runs by their window. Birds perch in the tree outside. She makes stir fries and soufflés and stews. She writes thank you letters. She smoothes the wedding ring quilt over the small expanse of their mattress and straightens the dust ruffle. There is no money for paint but she hangs sheers on the windows. At night she lies in bed and wonders how she will sleep while – she finds out years later when she knows more about men, knows about her man – he dreams of other women. While his dreaming goes on unabated, she thinks of their next meal, how she will shop for it, and when she finally can’t sleep, she gets up, empties trash cans, has a beer. They are young; their bodies are thin, almost pubescent, though they are in their twenties. Their love is small. It is more on the surface. It has little depth. But in the double they make do. They are lithe.
Things are different in the next town. This is where it gets rough. She is not interested in a baby and they are very, very busy. He is getting his PhD. She is chasing an ambition to know God. She is getting a Master’s at the seminary. When he protests, she reminds him of their first date and what he said he liked about her: She had goals. They live in the seedier parts of Denver, in the only available apartment they can afford. She cries for the simple beauty of their place in Vermont, and maybe something else, but it seems the narrow bed accommodates only so much, either visions of beautiful girls and delicious meals or visions of beautiful girls and delicious texts she devours whole. At this stage, she is not much of a housekeeper or cook. As if in rebellion, the plumbing under the sink breaks several times, the halls stink with boiled cabbage, the twisted vine on the balcony yields only one flower. Yet they see Leadville, fly fish in the South Platte, make it over icy passes in their tiny Japanese cars, camp in the desolate Rockies under the stars, ride through mountains on bikes.
They are more tired and yet she makes sure they celebrate holidays, makes sure they have parties. They are around more people with children who don’t always understand the delay in what is supposed to come next and why she would sit in classrooms of men training for something most women don’t do. When she is not full of energy and stress, he finds her on the double, stretched out in an inexplicable bout of near catatonia. When he finds her there after a day’s work he is filled with fear and talks her out of it, away from it, whatever brink she’s on. Eventually she gets on meds, he takes care of her, and she gets moving again and she doesn’t need him as much. But he has no one either, not really, he’s on his own, but she doesn’t see that. Thin love and depression causes her to see him in only one way — how he can help her or how he can hinder.
In a wooded college town in Florida, he’s up for tenure. The women there are more beautiful than ever, than any other town in which they’ve lived, yet he feels a sense of peace about it somehow, as if he’s not so tempted, as if his dreams are not so wayward. He’s going to have a baby, a son, and he lives in a beautiful house, an old wrap around clapboard house with a yard big as a lake, a “piece of land”,” he brags. “Every man’s got to have his piece of land.” By now, she’s convinced she’s not a theologian, but she knows she’s something. How could she not be something? She makes peanut butter cookies with honey and vegetarian noodle dishes. She watches deer outside her window and a new flock of sheep down the road. Before the pregnancy, she drinks scotch on the porch, sometimes in her nightgown. No one is watching, there is so much land and that gives her freedom. When she knows she’s having a baby, she switches to iced tea. She watches the birds on the telephone wire. She walks to the pecan orchard across the street and down winding roads of broken down shacks and grocery stores. When she returns, she sees a black snake crawl out from the bushes beside the house and slither down to the foundation. It is mesmerizing, beautiful.
An interior designer helps her find a scratch and dent queen size that will follow them for years. She admits it fills a space with a presence, though it is too ostentatious for her husband’s taste, but now they are making separate decisions. She sees him almost never and she must do what she must.
He gets used to it, though, as a necessary evil, but also simply as a necessity. The bed is big enough for their baby and eventually, she buys the baby a little bed adjoining theirs and she can nurse him in the middle of the night. She spends hours on the bed, looking at their child. Their big bed is big enough for a big dog that loves to lounge and although it is not big enough for the four of them at once — dog, baby, father, mother — it’s big enough for failed plans and forgotten dreams, for tears and bitter fights, for cold refusals and private physical love, for family times in front of the television, for random naps during the day, for a scared child seeking the comfort of his parents, for a sick child seeking to watch cartoons and fall asleep. When the big dog must be put down, a smaller dog takes its place. It crawls on their backs while they sleep and on their pillows and there is not much worry or fuss about this. When there’s been a bad night of too little sleep or restlessness, they chalk it up to the needs of their child, and, later, when the child is grown and doesn’t wake them in the night, to the pressures of the day or to the pressures of the times in which they are living.
They are planning for a king size. The pool of worries and unmet desires and fears and depths of their prayers has widened. The unspoken desires and unmet needs pass between them. Their child, coming in to say goodnight, makes them forget for a while. So does an early nodding off so that the other must pull off their glasses, make them roll over, turn off the television and lights. They want one of those beds that will accommodate the late night movements of the other without disturbance of the sleeper’s sleep, the dreamer’s dream. They no longer have to dream the same dream, or fill the same space as in the early thin love days. There is no worry about this. Is this good or is this bad? There is no consensus.
First published in The Dos Passos Review