It was in the wild, uncultivated woods beside the Veterans of Foreign War Memorial that a girl went missing one day after high school. The undergrowth, the twisting trunks of oaks, the Spanish moss did not give up their secrets. The girls’ parents appealed fruitlessly to the uncompromising green sameness.
A strict Lutheran from Slovakia wanted a pure farm life for his family. He purchased land to grow celery in what is now known as Oviedo, Florida. According to legend, both laughter and wailing of ghost children can be heard in the neighborhood where once lived the righteous migrant family.
On holidays, when memories are persistent and overgrown, ghosts descend on Dementia Retirement Village where residents remember happier times. On the simulated town square, Ms. Annie speaks of a lover never returned from war. She does not speak of her childrens’ father. They are unhappy; she, oblivious, free.
It was said global warming caused the global freeze as warm waters interrupted currents. The world was turning to frozen earth and snow, the sea, frozen water. My parents, desperate to feed us with quickly draining resources, sold me to a talent collector. I was to help build Ice City.
On All Hallows’, witches swing on electric currents like ballooning spiders, shifting from place to place, their belongings on their backs – potions, books of spells, cats – riding their besom brooms. At gatherings, the thinning veil and a ritual incantation, a single candle in the night, allows their company with spirits.
It started happening at her most frail moment in the chemo ward, the drip in her arm dosing her into semi-consciousness: The flickering lights, the unfurling of a dark presence in the hallway, bony finger beckoning. One day, she stood apart from herself and joined the darkness, floating, cold.
Harvest moon, mousy witch Nettie and her little dog, both donned in black, scamper up the hill to Temple, not for services, but for gravesites. Enchanted, corpses rise. Old Mrs. Stein, offers a finger to the little beast. Next day her daughter discovers her mother’s ring by the grave.
Build your candy houses, dear hags, to draw hungry children Hallow’s Eve. Say your prayers, dear wee ones, you may be delivered come All Souls’. Board your houses dear parents, keep danger at bay. Tis the sugar will kill them, lured away by candy skulls, forest deep, sugar house.
Even in Florida, the Winter Queen comes in October. Mom and dad drink, argue, get stoned. A child has an overnight. In the closet. “I love you,” says the Snow Queen her breath billowing in the narrow light. There are cold kisses, icy fingers. “I should kiss you to death.”
Imagine Alicia, novice mortician, fevered klepto, having extracted the ring from Mrs. Nováková’s corpse, waking in the dead of night to bony fingers round her throat, crushing her windpipe. The corpse exits the smashed window, abandoning sheets of skin on the glass.
Broken-down bar doll, middle-aged, desperate, faded beauty.
“Hi,” his crooked smile the bait. “A kiss for your soul,” he said, black wings unfurling, claw wending round her, almost met his quota.
“A sluagh!” she exclaimed.
He took her in dark flight.
Here is a little project I’ve been thinking about for a while. This is a rough introduction. I would like to post in installments but I am not used to that. Hopefully more will be on the way. I know roughly where I’m going. Other flash work may interrupt these posts at times but I would like to be fairly consistently posting to the project. If I don’t do that please forgive me, lol. My young Comforters are always in my thoughts. Cheers.
The night my father killed me, I saw stars. At first I thought the stars were just behind my eyelids when he cracked my skull with an axe.
But then I realized they were the stars of the night sky and I was flying, shrieking, in pain and agony and fear, my skirt flapping in the wind, my sweater hanging from me like wings, tearing past veils – dark, light, and soft – and I began to be aware of a curious collective presence as soft as my mother’s soft-worn dresses hanging in her wardrobe.
I realized I was floating in a dark night sky. I felt the pain ebbing away from me as it would when Mama would smooth my hair with her fingers.
And now, I was being carried by a feathery presence – or was there more than one? – lifting me, carrying me through mists and vapors, caressing my eyes and cheeks with soft sweet smelling tongues until the dried blood on my flesh softened and melted away.
I felt a little softer on the inside too and I was no longer shrieking or crying. But at the thought of my father with my mother, brother, and sister caused me to cry out as if whatever pain he was causing them he was causing to me too.
A face emerged from the darkness, a young face of a girl about my age, a girl whose eyes were filled with tributaries of blood so that her milky blue eyes looked like veined marbles of the most precious kind, the one we would have wanted to win.
“My name is Rachel,”she said, taking my hand, “We will see to your family.” I loved her immediately.
In the distance, the moon shone over the sea. We flew closer to the dark waves, which rose in huge swells.
“You will understand all of this in time,” Rachel shouted over the sound of the wind in our ears, the waves. “But first there is someone who needs us.”
She pointed to a tiny white cooler rising on the swells of huge waves. There was screeching, a baby’s cries. I could hear them, even over the storm.
“She has just died, Fannie.”
We swooped down together. We dove into the wave where the cooler was bobbing along the crest. When we emerged, Rachel grabbed it. As we hovered over the swells she had me hold the bottom while she retrieved the tiny wet frightened child.
“I thought you said she had died,” I said.
“Yes, but we are going to help her rest.” And she gave the child her pinky finger to suck and the child at last quieted and drifted off to sleep. “Welcome to the Realm of the Comforters.”
The night before All Hallows’ Eve, the heavy oak door creaked open while I sat in the hall of the church manse. It moved like an old grandfather, obscuring my face and body in darkness. The dark had a voice. It called to me, a preacher’s daughter, two months before the age of my confirmation. It said Brynn Violet, we have come for you.
Why was I drawn to the hall every night, wearing my white cotton gown, like a bride of Christ? The thick air of the Florida night laid heavy in my nose and mouth. The ocean kicked up breezes, billowing salt air into the curtains down the hall, illuminated by the moon. My back felt sweaty against the bead board.
The open door kept me waiting for hours and hours in its shadow. When it wanted me to leave, it slammed shut, waking my mother.
“Why don’t you sleep?” she would say, standing in the light from the room she shares with my father. She would stand over me in her curlers and robe. “Why do you sit in the hallway all night like a wild hyena?”
There was whispering only I can hear, women’s voices, reciting something over and over, like a prayer, though I couldn’t make out the words. A shadow of a long-nailed hand appeared to poke mother’s curlers. I wanted to laugh but I was scared so I slunk away to my room while her words stabbed my back: “I wish I had never adopted you.”
The spirits of the dead had come for me the night before All Hallows’ Eve though my father, a minister in the Purify Church movement, has banned celebrating the holiday from our island.
My adopted mother often reminded me my biological mother was a witch. The Church had tried to drown her beyond the reef of Marathon Key to test her. It had been a stormy, dark day and she disappeared into the waves. Word had it she was still alive, that the devil had saved her.
There were constant reminders of the practices of my female ancestors, ancestors as far back as my great, great, great grandmother, Maria Fuentes, who escaped the violence of the Mexican Revolution and immigrated to the United States with Grandfather Alberto.
Grandmother Maria, housekeeper of the wealthy Warren family on Key West, had survived the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. For the holiday, she and Grandfather Alberto were visiting relatives on Islamorada. When a category 5 hurricane hit, she was swept out into the bay. Later she was found exactly where she had started, clutching a small robed statue that wielded a grim reaper’s scythe, Santa Muerte, a demon’s object, my mother always reminded me.
“What she sacrificed for her devil worship was her husband’s life,” my mother always instructed, “Your great, great, great grandfather.”
Yes but she and her baby, the baby in her belly survived, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
By the time I was in high school The Purify Church Movement was purging all people of foreign descent, people who were brown skinned. Only my status as an adopted daughter of a white evangelical minister saved me.
In the hallway at night, Grandmother Maria sent word that I would be protected. In the darkness I was in her embrace. I let my nails grow long and sometimes stood to look at myself in the mirror, the silver tarnished from the salt air. I tapped on the glass. Grandmother Maria tapped back, smiling, hair dark and wild like mine though she wore a death mask.
On Halloween the year of my confirmation, there was a little dark rabbit in our yard, a swamp rabbit nibbling the saw grass.
“Shoo!” I said though I wanted to make the rabbit my friend. I had been tasked by my adopted mother with keeping rabbits away. I was thinking I could convince her I wasn’t a witch. I was thinking since rabbits are a witch’s familiar, I could show her I thought they were dirty, nuisance creatures and I wanted nothing to do them.
“I’ll be back,” he said as he darted away. But how could he be speaking? I wondered.
One day when I was cleaning the church after school, a woman wearing a wide brimmed hat and carrying a burlap bag found me in the kitchen. Her skin was the same color as mine which had become rare. She wore a long braid down her back. She appeared to wear the clothes of a gardener or farm worker. Likely she was indispensable to a rich and powerful person.
She took my hands in hers. “These things belonged to your Grandmother Maria. Put them in a secret place and pray to The Bony Lady, our dear Santa Muerte. She has brought me to you so have faith. And she loves our Jesus.” I realized she may be assuming I had adopted the faith of my parents and wanted to reassure me.
She gave me a quick hug. Her hair smelled like the outdoors. She left me in a shocked silence.
When I got home the house was empty. I hid in my closet with the burlap bag. What I found was a massive statue of a painted skeleton woman wearing a robe and carrying a long blade at the end of a staff. She stood on a huge mound of skulls.
I sat with my back against the opposite wall and studied her. Then I perused other contents in the bag. There was a little book of prayers and instructions, a bottle of liquid called Florida Water, and five candles, each a different color.
I cleaned The Bony Lady according to the instructions in the book. I lit a candle and spoke to her using one of the prayers. I thought of the woman’s words “She has brought me to you so have faith.” I felt a little frisson of power transfer to me as I looked into the stark skeletal mask of the Lady’s face. I also thought what the woman said about The Bony Lady loving Jesus. Somehow, I don’t think my parents would see it that way.
That night I dreamt I was in a mangrove swamp. The mud held me tight. I fought it but I was beginning to sink. The dark rabbit who had invaded our yard sprung past. He shouted at me to hurry up and follow. The earth loosened its grip and I trudged behind dropping heavy mud from my feet and gown.
We went deep inside the arcs of the mangrove roots. I became small so I was able to follow him. “Where are we going?” I said. The aerial roots overhead looked like arcs of a cathedral.
Without turning he said “You are to become my bride.” And I could hear his teeth smack against his lip.
His bride? I felt as if I cannot breathe but still I followed him until we reached a little home deep in the mangrove swamp. The floor of his home was covered with leaves. The walls and ceiling consisted of mangrove branches and mud.
I was to be married here? Where was my mother? My father? Who was to marry us?
I woke with a start, shivering and sweating. No one was awake. I checked on Santa Muerte in my closet. She was still there. No one had discovered her or taken her. I sat down cross legged and lit a candle.
“Dear Lady, what is happening to me?” It was All Saints Day. I do believe she had become my saint and intercessor.
She stared at me, stern and uncompromising, but not distant. Her stillness was like the compassionate copper Christ, a statue anchored in a reef off Key Largo, the Christ of the Abyss.
“Please help me,” I implored her.
The next day the swamp rabbit was in the yard again.
“Shoo! Shoo!” I said, lunging and stomping my foot so that it hopped to the edge of the yard.
A dark cloud passed over. It stood on its hind legs. “Come with me, ride on my tail. I will make you my bride and save you from death.” Then he scampered away into the hedge.
That night I dreamt the hare took me deep into the mangrove swamp again. I had become skilled at walking through them, I did not sink or get stuck.
“You are becoming a woman,” the rabbit said, stopping to admire my progress. “It won’t be long now before we will be married.”
As if on cue, a crow flew down, the sun gleaming off its feathers. In its beak was a huge strand of raffia.
“Hold out your hand now,” said the rabbit. “We will measure you for the handfasting. You will be bound to me for your wedding night.”
And the crow flew around my right hand, binding my wrist tightly. With the rest of the raffia he bound me to the rabbit’s leg.
“The crow is our parson. Now you are mine, Brynn Violent!” he said, hopping off into the mangroves. I followed my captor at the other end of the tether. My head was in peril as I tried to duck quickly under the aerial roots. I had been tricked!
I awakened in a sweat. I leapt into my closet. I lit a candle for The Bony Lady. “Thank you, thank you!” I said, “You saved me!”
The danger was real now, it was not a dream. A dark crow landed on my windowsill with a long strand of raffia in its beak.
In the prayer book beside The Lady a page was dedicated to All Souls Day or Dia de Muertos. I picked it up and read out loud: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.”
Just then Mother burst into the room. She opened my closet to find me with my shrine. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “What in the world are you doing?”
It was decided by the Church I must be practicing witchcraft and would be tested in the waters off the reef of Key Largo. The test was severe: A chain around my ankle, tied to a huge stone. If I were truly a witch, I would escape. If I died before anyone could save me, it would probably be for the best. I practiced the folk religion of drug lords and prostitutes.
I sank to the bottom of the ocean, the heavy rock landing hard on the ocean floor and shaking the chain, yanking my ankle. I had never felt so alone, so scared. Though down on the ocean shelf, a few hundred feet from the abyss, it was beautiful and separate from the evil above.
In my heart, I began to pray something I had memorized: “Lady, My Most Holy Saint Death, I declare myself filled with love and devotion for you, and I surrender myself to you. I recognize myself as your subject and recognize you as my queen.”
The chain loosened from my foot and slipped away. I kicked as hard as I could, past the Christ of the Abyss, rising to the surface, where I was hidden from the boat by the waves. I swam a good distance, careful when I came up for air that I did not stick my head up too far above the surface.
And this is how I escaped both the rabbit and The Cleansing. I found passage to Cuba and then on to Mexico.
I became a bruja, or witch, and people sought me out for my power. For the Day of the Dead I always gave my Bony Lady flowers and gifts. I practiced white magic out of respect for the Christ of the Abyss. I prayed for the safe return of my biological mother. And I told my daughter of the stories of the magic arts of her grandmothers.
Florida Fall Ball 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. At Halloween, she gave each of them a candy she knew to be their favorite.
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 Ms. Myska died, a young mother found a chili recipe in the cash box. “Make it with love,” the instructions said, “and you will be blessed.”
My name is Dyta and my husband and I moved over here from Poland when we were newlyweds. I was excited to live in the States because I had these beliefs like so many young Polish people I knew at the time: That Americans were so kind and so friendly and that unbelievable things happened here, just like in the commercials. It took a while for my American husband to convince me my beliefs were naïve and ill-founded. Had he known me as a youth in Poland he would have seen too why it was so important for me to believe only positive things about people. I was one of those students who was teased and harassed by peers, females as much as males. I truly believed America was the chance to start over and a chance for others to see me in a new light.
I did find a sense of liberation when I audited a fiction writing class at the University of Central Florida soon after arriving and settling in. I found that the students were interested in me simply because I was Polish and now living here. Everything was interesting to them so that I could be the greatest dullard from Warsaw for all they knew but because I was an exotic dullard I had more value than I did at home. The novelty would wear off though I didn’t let myself think about that at first. I was enjoying my new writing class and using my imagination fully, as if someone, or the circumstances, had given me full permission and encouragement and I poured out all of myself for the first time.
I found a group of girlfriends from my class. We were happy people, the four of us, and hopeful and young. We all seemed to enjoy each other and be at the same level in this artistic hobby that was new to all four of us: crafting fiction. We went out frequently, talked on the phone, we compared our stories, nervous as we were to share them with the wider class. For years this went on between us and we grew in our writing as we married and had families.
As is true to life I am learning as I get older, cracks always show, don’t they. I became sick, so sick in fact I had a hard time concentrating on my work and keeping up with my friends who were getting into journals and being accepted to graduate school. I had breast cancer, stage three. My husband was so supportive of me at that time, and bless him, was being patient throughout so we may begin a family when the treatment had finished. I felt like I was falling more and more behind in my life, was losing more of his interest as my looks fell apart and I became more of a patient.
My friends, busy with their lives and I assumed trying not to be sad, avoided seeing me or talking to me. I felt I had hit upon something dark in this country. People were friendly and bright when everything was going well. But people ignored what they didn’t want to know or see and this included sick people, even their friends who are sick. I began to feel a certain way about my new friends that started my deep rift with them. It made me yearn for some of the old ways of my people. We were used to sadness, took it in stride, even to the death, mourning beforehand what we were afraid of.
I realized too I was just as guilty of shallowness. I had loved my new friendships for that wave of a bubble of good feeling they gave me, not for anything deeper or more meaningful. It had suited me. But now with no hair, no abilities, little humor, things were quite different.
It was unfortunate that after my recovery, I divorced from my husband. Too many things had happened, or not happened, between us, and we didn’t survive the illness and the aftermath. He just seemed to lose interest.
A few months later as I was growing my hair back and beginning the transition to life, one of the members of the writing group, Evie, called to inquire about the beach house I had shared with my ex’s family. She left a message on my phone: Do I still own a share in the house? If so, could we go there as a group sometime? Maybe we could all do some writing and sharing our work?
I’ll have to admit I was a little irritated. Evie had not inquired about how I was feeling. She had not made any attempt to see me while I was undergoing treatment. But I was also still in the mode where some of my feelings were discounted by my sense that I must still be learning about this culture. Furthermore, my leniency had really entered in with chemo brain. It was hard to separate out reality still, to make sound judgments, and so I tried to withhold judgements as much as possible, while at the same time experiencing frustration. And Evie was married and had her first baby. She was perfectly healthy and publishing, had been accepted into a prestigious MFA. It took a few more months before I was able to return her call.
When we got together again for the first time since I started treatment, I thought I could sense both the condescension and the competition. Was I writing again or was I up to it? Self publishing certainly was for the declasse wasn’t it? And who didn’t know about the hierarchy of journals? To sell yourself short to the bottom rungs was to doom your career to the eternal stagnation of the unknown. Do I have a platform? I definitely need a platform or I would never be taken seriously.
Tacia caught me in the bathroom where I was refreshing my lipstick. She was drunk, something that never changed. “You sure are a HANDSOME woman, aren’t you?” And she laughed, leaning into me, observing her smile in the mirror, she was usually pretty taken with herself. She was not giving me a compliment. It occurred to me I had been magically transported back to my school in Warsaw again. I had far less hair, though. It was now just a very short mannish length. And I had more wrinkles, more flesh.
At the table, I drank my wine, as much as I could and still manage to make it home.
I determined I would give Evie the key but would not go. I envisioned myself alone at home with the cat feeling more peace knowing the group was out of town plotting literary maneuvers while I wrote modest pieces and prayed for inclusion somewhere. Besides I had come to enjoy my afternoons working shelving books at the bookstore. Once I had allowed to let them use the house, I would never feel obligated to again. I don’t even know why I felt obligated in the first place but for some reason I did, maybe because early on, when we were all seemingly close friends I had foolishly said something to them about sharing a time away together at the beach.
In Slavic mythology, places beside water are not always safe. There are female spirits there who are sometimes mermaids or sirens who lure men to their deaths. They are the souls of those who have either had evil committed against them and so they bring about more evil and tragedy or they have committed suicide and live on as the undead, in misery.
I am not saying I would wish anyone evil. But I do know myself well enough now to know I think I know better what lurks inside the hearts of men and women. I am not as naïve as I once was. And I’m not as naïve about myself as I once was. I know of what I am capable. But also as well I respect my level of tolerance.
I am not saying Boginki or Rusalki exist anywhere, but who is to say they do not. Having known about them from childhood and reflecting on my disappointed feelings as an adult, I have more sympathy for those mythological beings who act out of passion, out of rage.
I stay away from people who do not know me or wish to know me, who do not wish to walk with me in my darkest moments. They do not wish to know me in my darkness. Trust me, they do not. I yearn for my old mother Poland some nights. I think of how foolish I once was. I wonder if I should have married and allowed my husband to take me away from all the things I had ever known. But Mother Poland and my family are with me always in both my brightest and my darkest heart. America is a pale imitation of a culture, of a medium for life, though she is mine now in all my loneliness. She is my ugly stepchild. But still, she is mine, and I hold her dear.
I found a motel on St. Pete run by a quiet German couple. Earlier that day upon my arrival to town, I had deposited the money from the policy with no fanfare.
At check in I wore the black of a widow. I was very quiet, subdued, some might even say I seemed to be appropriately mourning.
On my first evening I wore to the pool a conservative kaftan, had a drink from the bar only at the cocktail hour and only one.
The police had questioned me a few days ago when he died but only to rule me out, had made note of an alibi.
There would have been only the one motive, though a considerable one, the sizable life insurance policy.
After the questioning, I had to survive the duties – the mourning wife, funeral director, hostess and I was surprised I had it in me to be so cold and unfeeling. But all I had to remember was my husband’s iron grip on my arm, the bruising, the years of indignities, and I was a woman of steel. Before I left town I paid the death expert, my white knight.
At the beach my first sunset there, how good the warm breeze felt on my cheek as I followed the path between the dunes, the setting sun on my back, the knowledge of the money tucked away in my account, my German hosts polishing my car in the lot.
There was a little brick hut apparently for storing beach equipment along the path. And beside it, a small concrete outcropping where five smooth black cats lounged.
What did they know? I thought to myself, amused. Very little.
On the beach as the sun fell I must have drifted asleep.
I woke up in the darkness to mewling and purring beside me. The cats, I thought.
One had pressed its lips to mine. I couldn’t move. It had taken all my breath, its yellow eyes penetrating the dark.
I woke, gasping for air. It had been a nightmare.
I sighed in relief and returned to my room. The next day, a group of them waited for me outside my door. I could barely pass to get breakfast.
I was not able to stay at St. Pete without the cats following me, more and more of them. It made me feel conspicuous and self conscious. And of course people looked at me.
I moved to another beach town further north and stayed inside most of the time but found they clustering near the door though I never fed them. They followed me when I went to to the grocery or to town, crowding in, harassing, mewling, hissing.
It’s been months now and I’m half crazed. To be honest, I hope to die.
At night, Billy sits with Brother John and the guys at their WAR house in the Panhandle as they watch the videos of the National Socialist Party. Billy always sits on the scratchy green tweed sofa that reminds him of his Granny’s but Brother John’s smells like earth and rain and the chocolate smell of mildew.
It is Hitler’s birthday. Mother Beulah has made a Nazi cake in the colors of the flag. She sets it on the oilcloth. Her arms are exposed and giggling like Granny’s. He imagines them soft to the touch. In the center of the sheet cake she had written in a thin chocolate scrawl: Happy Birthday, Hitler! Mama Beulah has arthritis and her hands weren’t steady but Brother John doesn’t fault her.
Billy gets a corner piece of the cake, where the piped chocolate icing has bunched up and there is a tiny SS bolt. Everybody is grabbing for the plates and tiny plastic forks. He pulls himself through sweat drenched boyhood, some bigger bodies too, shoving, the guys cackling and laughing. Mama never made a big cake like this. His birthday was on Halloween. She put a candle in a jacko-lantern. He blew it out. There was no one around.
Every night after dinner, they watch the videos of the Hitler youth in the Old Country, before The Second World War. They talk of the racial consciousness of the boy in the video who plays the drum so hard in the Hitler youth band, who looks like a live Little Drummer Boy from Billy’s nighttime book in the guest room at Granny’s. One of the guys, usually Grady, whose sideburns are so wide and long they’re almost a beard, always says that drummer kid’s got his shit together.
Grady wears black boots with red laces. Red laces mean something. Billy’s boots are red with black laces. If he grows up good in the movement and succeeds, he’ll get his blood laces and black boots.
Billy sneaks downstairs after the salute. The salute is when they stand and put an arm out to the Nazi flag on the wall and Brother John sings the anthem he plays on a disc, a song about a pure white America. Brother John can’t sing and doesn’t always know the words but everyone has to put on a German helmet from the bin. No one smiles. You have to make her eyebrows bunch up and your eyes shaded. You have to sing very loudly. When it’s over you have to say, very loudly, White Power!
One time they’d burned an American flag in the woods when the Klan came for speeches and a cross burning. They had a punk Nazi band, definitely the kind of thing his stepfather hated, the sounds clashing like a car accident, screeching guitars, the band leader’s deep growls that didn’t sound like words. A force took a hold of Billy’s body and he thrashed about with the brothers in the heat and inky darkness, their bodies slamming into each other, girls watching from the fringes, silent and slouching, smoking.
He deserved to go to jail, it was true, that time living with his Mama and new Daddy. He held up a store with some friends and fired shots though no one got hurt. When he got out, only Brother John was there to make bail, along with Grady and a couple of guys his age, punk ass kids like him who were no longer wanted by their parents. His stepfather handed him over. He didn’t see his Mama again. He didn’t see his Granny. He didn’t hear the songs his Granny sang to him in a wavery voice at night about going to sleep, not worrying his head.
There is a mission that night of the cake, a ride along, and he is forced to go and he didn’t know about it. He is wrenched up from his bed by Brother John, his arm clamped by the same grip that held him sometimes against his will when secret things were happening, secret things even the other boys didn’t know about.
There is a group of them together in the pickup truck, the crickets and night frogs screeching, an owl its loud “hoo” insistent. They bump along in back, Grady and another older guy, and another kid his age. John is driving. The grand wizard has joined them, the wizard who always insisted from podiums in speeches they were about nonviolence. Billy asked him once after a ceremony about the noose patch on his robe. The wizard merely glared at him, his face severe under a pointed hat decorated with stars.
When they get to a house in the woods, there are some other skinheads there already with sawn off shotguns. They busted in and hauled out a black man and laid him out behind the truck. The man’s wife runs outside, screaming. A skinhead with a the big fat gun they called The Judge cocks the piece against her skull. The skinhead bending over the black man has a chain over his shoulder.
“You two boys, you young’uns!” he says pointing to Billy and the other young kid in the back. “Time to step up and be men.”
“You heard him now,” says Brother John. “Time to get out now and earn your laces! Time to see something, be someone.”
The man with the chain tells the other boy to run the chain around the hauling hitch. Then he gives Billy the rest.
“It’s in your hands, son. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Billy thinks only of Brother John. Billy has no one. Nowhere he belongs. He would get his red laces and even the older guys would think he was a bad ass Nazi and no one would treat him like a baby.
Brother John and Grady hold the black man’s ankles who is kicking and screaming. Billy puts the chain around them. Brother John hands him the lock. “It’s on you, son.” he says. “Let’s clean everything out now. Be a man.”
While the man kicks and Brother John yells at him, Billy hears his Granny’s gentle wavering voice singing Mary Poppins’ lullaby: “While the moon drifts in the skies, stay awake, don’t close your eyes.”
He clamps his hand over the lock and sprints into the woods, the undergrowth slapping his jeans, the thick night air flowing over him like warm water, the throats of the tree frogs cheering him.
“Billy!” he hears Brother John call, but he is racing through the night and is soon at the highway and can’t hear them at all.
The one thing Florida hares appreciate the most is a lone woman and her daughter, a lone woman desperate to see her daughter matched. In fact, the marsh hare of the Keys, named S.p. Hefneri for playboy founder Hugh Hefner, rather overshoots himself with conquests which is to be expected. Often when a daughter goes missing detectives check the protective briers, dense clumps of magnolia trees, and the mangroves along the shore. These are the places where the handsomely sleek hare with dark brown fur and greyish white belly makes his home. And what the little playboy lacks in size he more than adequately makes up for in charm and persistence. Many a young lady has become ensnared.
S.p. hefneri meet women of the island on their garden patches. “Wanna play?” they say, “wanna come out and play?” Usually the hare of the Lower Keys are nibbling a piece of sawgrass or clover, their eyes gleaming with predatory spirit, their mouths secretly watering with the capture of a young woman. Their endangerment has them thinking irrational mating outside the species. They sit in yards, the sound of the surf burrowing into their long ears , the breeze ruffling their coats, their noses twitching to the smell of salt, dead marine life, and fresh grass. They hop. They hop some more. They spring about, stretching their sleek bodies for the benefit of their observers, admiring young women so they hope. Someone will take note. That is their confidence.
Hugh number 121 observes wife number 16 come into the yard. Only 150 of the S.p. Hefneri exist on the island but this one is not worried. What a wonderful tail she has, he thinks. He will make her his. What a wonderful ride she will enjoy on his tail.
“Stop eating our sawgrass. Mother is not pleased,” the black haired beauty Brynn Violet scolds. She has a nice fire in her dark brown eyes. He knows she has only made an excuse to come outside and talk to him. In typical hare fashion, he says to himself, “She is in love, she is entranced, she protests in abundance.”
In fact, Brynn Violet’s mother, being a religious woman, had been worrying the hare was a portent of a hurricane. It was a witch’s familiar, she reminded her daughter. “Go out there and tell the tatty thing to go away.”
The old mother was old enough to remember tales of her great, great grandmother swept out to sea by a category five, when people were whipped about like rag dolls and drowned in the bay. She had survived it, and the only explanation: She was a witch. Brynn Violet’s great grandmother and grandmother were also said to be witches, with nary any patience for Christian fears about about hares and black magic.
In fact quite a few female ancestors in Brynn Violet’s family could enter the form of a hare and were keepers of other familiars suck as crows and magpies. Her mother reminded Brynn Violet that all of them died eventually, they were not all powerful, lest the child fall prey to what those poor on the island were susceptible to – practices and beliefs, evil, shortcuts to hard work.
“Take a ride on my tail,” the hare says. “Let me take you to my home where you can stroke my warm coat and drink my tea.”
She refuses him. And again he comes the next day and she refuses him yet again. On the third day, however, she breaks down at last and leaps on his tail. Her mother, observing what is happening, races from the house. But she cannot catch them. Police and detectives cannot find them. Another island daughter, taken prisoner.
When Brynn Violet returns home on her own conniving and strength, she tells her mother the tale of how the dirty thing tried to make her his sixteenth wife; tried to force her to entertain the wedding party of a crow and magpie by having her cook the wedding feast. She managed to steal large bundles of mangrove twigs just outside the window and make a huge doll standing by the hot stove, cooking wedding stew and tea.
It was later told in town the impatient hare approached the doll, ordering it about, and lopped its head off in frustration thinking to goad his soon to be bride into action. When the twig head rolled off, the hare cried out in shock, alarm, and grief.
“I was so alone,” Brynn Violet says to her mother when she was safely tucked away at home, enjoying her mother’s best stew. She cries as she describes how demanding the hare was and how the crow looked at her with black eyes, how the magpie cocked its head and pecked her arms and hair.
“Well you are home now,” says her mother, kissing her on the forehead.
And that is how the clever Brynn Violet, who is named for the island of Islamorada, meaning purple island, restored herself to her happy life with her mother in their humble abode by the sea.
There was once a troll man, half troll half human, who was a very unhappy little man. He had grown up around giant trolls but he himself was small, and he had such small, small hands so that everyone commented, even as he got older. He felt so keenly his deficiencies that he vowed always to overpower others by demeaning them, just as he had been demeaned. He found, to his tortured crooked heart’s delight, his tactics succeeded with his marks, and they grew ever smaller, at least for a little while. They spluttered about, angry, defending themselves. He only laughed along with others whose spiritual deformity brought them out of the wordwork to participate in crimes.
The twisted thing took advantage of a generous and spirited country and demeaned everyone along with the support of bullies. The beautiful things about the country – its gorgeous invitations to those seeking shelter – were soiled by the meanness and depravity of a man simply too weak to admit how small his small hands made him feel. He studied the small hand men ways – their treatises and warfare, their bellicose suppression of their citizens, the way even with small hands, they could bring a shadow of darkness and pollution on a susceptible population made gullible by their weakened understanding of themselves and their inability to feel how great they were already.
He created an army of the dispossessed using the language of the dispossessed. He used this language to create an illusion that he understood, an illusion the dispossessed bought into, that if they only yelled and chanted for him and showed the toxic troll he was their friend he would bring them power. This is how he did it, what he said in his words to them: “Look at my hands, he said, they are small, I understand you, don’t I?” And those who had felt overlooked at last felt seen, though by a grand wizard but it was of no matter. It was a joyous occasion. So they all made tshirts printed with tiny hands clapping and wore them proudly.
When you hate yourself, you put people in cages, that’s what you do. And when you hate yourself you divide a free people off from each other and create a bifurcated nation: the purple people being a combo of red and blue – two colors of the national flag – are the shit while all others being yellow, red only, brown, and so on are just not quite as purple, you know? Just not quite up to being in the Tiny Hands Clapping Nation. In fact, the name had been changed from We Are All Free People Here to Tiny Hands Clapping For Purple People.
A few brown people however, women, in fact, considered by Troll Tiny Hands to be a threat to his plans to embolden hatred, reminded the world of the greatness of what had been the We Are All Free People Here Nation.
It still remains to be seen what will become of the imperiled free state, but three heroines stand larger than a tiny troll with tiny clapping hands and those who would clap alongside. In fact their voices were followed up by more hatred from the troll because unfortunately for trolls, who tend to be very stubborn, they just aren’t very creative. Or brave.
There is a link to an old story of mine below. It was first published in the Australian journal Pure Slush then I posted it on a blog I started years ago using a pseudonym. I no longer post on my old blog but I wanted to share some of my early work here.
Like many Floridians, I have always loved the ocean, and birds, and fish. It is a tale of love and loss too. Thank you for traveling to my old site. Have a beautiful week.
via lady bug
I have written a retelling of Baba Yaga, set in modern day Florida. My use of Eastern Orthodoxy as the setting for the tale and their traditions and heavy reliance on the natural world for ritual and beliefs made a good backdrop for the entry of the Baba Yaga. A young woman ventures from her home in Florida where her grandmother has shown her the bounty of nature and its healing properties and uses in religious practices and goes out into the wild woods of Florida, a wilderness with which I feel an affinity, being that I am practically native.
When I had finished writing the story, I realized I wouldn’t have been able to write it had I not helped myself as well as the reader become fully immersed in the natural world. We are just not as well versed in so many aspects of the outside world, nor are other readers. Context becomes vital in order to grasp the full meaning of what it means to encounter a witch in a story and not via a movie screen or video game.
I intend to write another draft of my story this fall and hopefully eventually publish it. I have a private online writers’ group I started this summer called Word Warriors. I plan to share my story in a couple of weeks. Let me know if you would be interested in participating in a three to four month intensive in the coming months, fall and winter. I hope what I learn from my feedback with my group is what I can use to improve my project and continue re-envisioning it.
Here is an excerpt from this wonderful blog post….I am so glad I discovered this blog tonight. I hope you will explore it. Peace.
“Recently I read Sara Maitland’s book From The Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales where she writes, ‘Forests to the [early] Northern European peoples were dangerous and generous, domestic and wild, beautiful and terrible. And the forests were the terrain out of which fairy stories, one of our earliest and most vital cultural forms, evolved. The mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forest are both the background to and source of these tales…’”
Fairy tales are filled with the dark forest. One of the very first fairy tales that I can recall having been read to me was that of Hansel and Gretel, whose very father takes them deep into the forest to leave them there to die. Forests run throughout all of the Northern European fairy and folk tales. These forests are places of peril and triumph for the protagonists. Maria Tatar, the German folklore and children’s literature scholar at Harvard University, wrote, “Forests are sublime and dangerous, full of mystery, magic, terror, and monstrosity; an enchanted place where anything can happen. On one hand, [the forest] is a site of threats, the precinct of monsters—the wolf waiting for Red Riding Hood, the witch for Hansel and Gretel, the briars covering Sleeping Beauty’s castle—but it’s also a place where abandoned children can take refuge: Snow White flees to safety in the forest…
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It was chipped plate day. Benevolence sorted through the painted stoneware set on the shelf and yanked out one that was had a nice size chip on the edge. Namaste-nighttime- greeter would like it or she would throw the whole thing in the trash – plate, leftover chili, noodles, cheese, sour cream.
Last night, Kadin had knocked on her door on his way to his bedroom, and in a goofy manner, almost as if nothing happened between them earlier, said “namaste.” He wasn’t much of a “namaste” guy, had argued for the election of the bellicose, unhinged political candidate though he wasn’t old enough to vote. No, it was a joke. He was mocking her of course.
Earlier he had grumbled about having to take out the trash and the dog. When she started to think about how it made her feel, she sent him her special version of the shake down text. They were on different levels of her townhouse – she, on the third level in her bedroom, watching on her computer the series about debunked methods of gathering forensic evidence, and he, on the second floor, tucked into his xbox game of formula one. The meds she was taking for cancer prevention hobbled her and she wasn’t coming down to talk to him. So she sent the text. He would just have to deal. He had enough of a conscience to come up and work it out with her.
He was too old to punish. She didn’t want him to leave her permanently or ignore her or withhold like what happened with her own parents.
No, she had the art of reasoning on her side, her verbal abilities, and if the going was especially rough, tactics of guilt and manipulation. But the chipped plate seemed a good enough little satisfaction on her end. He would never know, of course. But she would: That she had a choice of what to serve his meal on, a whole, perfectly good plate, or one with a chip. Here ya go, little namaste king, she thought, handing him the leftovers he had quietly protested her making for him. Her funds were low for the month. They would have to be careful. He didn’t care. He decided to pout anyway? Whom had she raised? He was twenty years old. He would learn soon enough. Namaste. She smiled.
While she was in the kitchen, she was drenched, sweating. It was July. Florida. The air conditioning bills can sky rocket and often things break so the AC companies rake it in. Winter times, she shuts everything down and watches the power bill dip. It really was the little things. She was getting old which shown in these small pleasures.
She was drenched and so makes a joke about carrying around the box fan to help her through the weather and menopause. Namaste boy gets a little crazy, says wow, isn’t she getting like a bit explicit.
I’m not talking about my sex life she said. He could handle it. He was twenty. Well, maybe that was a little much so she added, My hormones brought you into the world and they also almost killed me with cancer. Besides, she wanted to say, changing your diaper was quite the raw and unfiltered experience in reality, if you want to talk explicit.
He would learn soon enough, wouldn’t he: the unexpected vicissitudes of life, the need to eat leftovers, learning maybe temporarily to be poor, learning he won’t be served just what he wants and when. She had not completely spoiled him. But guilt – mainly, the divorce – had slowed down some of the teaching.
When he went to work later, his summer delivery job, in thunderstorms in a city full of car crashes from severe weather, power outages, blown out traffic lights, she turned her phone on to charge. In case he needed her.
Namaste, she thought.
In the fall he would be gone to school to live off campus with his friends. She was giving him a great deal of her furniture. He was already interviewing for next summer’s internship and would probably not be back.
Her heart was so wounded. But of course this was so right.
What had she left undone? Everything, it seemed.
But maybe he would think it natural to take the chipped plate for himself, leave the whole plates for others. He would never see it as a punishment perhaps. She knew he had confidence to not see it as a lesser position.
Only the clock kept her company, and her little dog’s snoring. It was the fifth day of July and some were still shooting fireworks down the street. How quiet it would be come August.
It was the Fourth of July. Daryl and I were on a road trip to the Florida Panhandle with Daryl’s brother Jimmy and Daryl’s friend Cliff who brought his girlfriend Caroline, someone I also knew from college. It was about a five hour drive from Orlando, and there was drinking and reminiscing and moments of silence sitting in the surrounding presence of old songs from playlists, music we knew from high school and college. We had all gone to high school together and then the University of Florida where many of our classmates went.
The guys were Sigma Chi. I was a little sister. And Caroline was Sweetheart. All the guys in the fraternity then and even now at reunions and games make a big deal out of how Caroline was even more beautiful than their most legendary Sweetheart, Faye Dunnaway.
When we got to St. George’s Island, Cliff and I went down to the beach. We vowed to unpack the car later. We were buzzed and didn’t want to do anything so sober minded.
“I’ll fall asleep in my clothes, I don’t care,” said Cliff, smiling with that signature grin of his, those perfect white teeth, those dimples.
We plopped onto our low beach chairs and opened cans of beer as the sun set over the water.
The others were up at the house. They were unpacking the car like responsible adults. They threatened that our clothes wouldn’t be there later when we came up for the night. We may find them scattered on the beach for the sea turtles to use for their nests.
I knew my husband Daryl wouldn’t mind spending time with Caroline while I was down on the beach with Cliff. He had always had a thing for her. As far as a I knew he had never done anything about it. And then he married me. Sometimes I think it made it even more exciting to him to fantasize about the thing just beyond reach. In that way, we each allowed each other some latitude. I think he knew how I felt about Cliff though I wished sometimes he showed jealousy, just a little. Daryl said I was a girl most guys considered a friend.
“Look at that duck,” I said, pointing to the waves. A large dark bird floated over the green gray surf. It had a long neck and beak. Its call was high pitched and strained. “What’s a duck doing out there?”.
“That’s not a duck, you goof, it’s a loon,” said Cliff.
It landed on the beach. The sun set behind it and the spray from the waves hung in the light.
“Lordy,” said Jimmy who had come down from the house. His feet were pressed into the soft sand beneath his weight, his calves bowed back, knees buckled. He drank straight from the Maker’s Mark, holding the neck just below the red wax at the lip. “What the hell?” It would be a long night with Jimmy.
The bird pushed itself up with one foot and lurched forward. The other leg was curled against its body, as if it were maimed or deformed. The creature flopped forward then rolled back onto its good foot. Every few feet it sat and cocked its head, surveying the beach and waves.
“Where’s Daryl?” I said.
“With Caroline still,” said Jimmy. I was sure they had no clue.
I stood and wobbled a bit in the soft sand.
“Whoa there,” said Cliff.
I steadied myself for the climb up to the house, humiliated by my own body but trying not to think about it much. I found Daryl and Caroline sitting on the deck, eating chips and dip, their feet pressed against the slats of the rail as if they were twins taking comfort in their mirroring behavior.
“Honey, you’ve got to try this dip Caroline made,” Daryl said to me. “It’s amazing. What is it?” He looked at Caroline for confirmation. “Buffalo Chicken dip? You cook it in the slow cooker. Genius, right?”
I didn’t answer and I didn’t step out onto the deck as if doing so would make me complicit with something. I could care less about the dip. If I had a chance later, I would throw it in the ocean.
“There’s a loon on the beach,” I said. “Maybe we should call the county.”
Daryl got up and slipped on his loafers. He stood, straightening his clothes, readying himself to play hero. “You sit here,” he said, indicating his chair.
“Dip?” said Caroline. Her impossibly long and tanned legs were now crossed elegantly at the knees.
“No thank you,” I said. Why we had all these people here with us was beyond my grasp. I’m pretty sure it had been Daryl’s idea. And I didn’t like to be with him when he was bored. It reminded me of all my failures.
I heard Daryl in the kitchen flipping through the phone book.
“I thought it was a duck at first,” said Caroline, “but then it was so fat.”
The sun was low, just a sliver of orange. The bird came closer to the beach chairs and Jimmy began making trumpet noises with his mouth. He often did this to tease our dog or draw attention to funny people and situations.
“No one’s answering,” said Daryl. “I say let nature take its course.”
I took the phone book to one of the bedrooms and slammed the door. I found a woman who would come get it. She said it happens all the time. The loons get caught in a storm during their migration and can’t make it to a place where they can rest.
The bird had made its way to the brambles between the houses. I was worried it might make it to the road. I emptied the outside trashcan so I could use it as a container. As I approached, it lunged at me and tried to peck me with its long beak but I managed to get the trash can over its body.
When the bird woman arrived, she put her gloved hand into the overturned trash can and coaxed the loon into the metal cage. She lifted the cage onto the truck. When she got in and closed the door, I wanted to call out to her. I wondered what it would be like to drive around all day saving birds.
I fell asleep that night, fully clothed, reading in bed. I got up early the next day, before anyone. If we had been at home, Daryl would be up checking stock quotes, flipping on CNN. He hardly spoke to Caroline, hardly looked at her. That night he curled up with me in bed, nuzzling his nose in my hair like he used to. There was something to his intentional neglect of the object of his lust and his uncharacteristic attention to me, or at least this was uncharacteristic as of late. Probably it was guilt and probably guilt for nothing other than his errant thoughts and fantasies. I didn’t really care to get into it.
The next day the ocean was flat calm like a tray, the air still and close. Daryl was being solicitous, had offered to pack the car. I stood by the water. He would chatter all the way home as if we were acquaintances. He started acting this way after he began working late, after the doctor told us we couldn’t have a baby.
I stood on the beach at a line of foam. I wondered what it would feel like to move into that amniotic brine, to have the lips of the water enclose my skin and hair, to swim out past the waves and the sandbar until I floated out over the abyss.
A version of this first appeared in 971 MENU
Walking her dog beside the wood one afternoon in July, Maja noticed for the first time a black mattress in a clearing of trees. The mattress was tucked inside the canopy of green leaves, almost indetectable. The week before she had seen a huge pumpkin there. It looked fresh and it wasn’t Halloween. She had thought at the time it was odd. Pumpkins of course didn’t grow in a Florida wood.
She stopped to observe the clearing. The clouds were gathering. The trees and vines and undergrowth was taking on an intensified darkness like it did on a rainy Florida day in summer. Her dog sat her little white bottom on the warm asphalt of the street, unfurling her long tail and sniffing the wind which sure smelled to her of the rain drops and wet street and wet earth to come.
Twenty years ago, her mother had flown down from Pittsburgh to be her with her for the delivery of her first grandchild. Maja was due on Halloween. When he didn’t come on time, they tried all kinds of silly tricks – walking backwards, primrose oil, eggplant parmesan, driving down a bumpy road. A week later, Maja had still not delivered and her mother had to go home on her return flight.
The night before she left, she entered Maja’s room where Maja was getting ready for bed. Abel was still at work.
“Maja,” she said, pointing a long nailed finger at her, her face framed by the darkness of the room, the only light being at the light on Maja’s dressing table where she sat, removing her earrings. “I know you have delayed the child on purpose! Don’t try to hide that from me now, girl.”
Maja, mute like she had always been over her mother’s extreme paranoia and superstitions, said nothing. Eventually her mother drifted from the room.
Maja shivered that night in her bed to think of it, the tightness of her swollen belly indeed hers and hers alone, thank God. Her mother’s absurd accusation she had prevented the birth reminded Maja of her loneliness growing up, her fear.
When Maja moved to Orlando with Abel, she had been grateful for the very odd climate, the exotic green an over exuberant lushness. It reminded her nothing of home, the cobbled and slightly frail seeming streets, the huddling of old dark buildings and homes so close to one another, the grayness of the days fall until late spring. She had gone back for her mother’s funeral right before Justyn’s tenth birthday.
In the wood there was something over the black mattress, something standing there, large and hunched. In the place that seemed to be its face, Maja observed the dark penetrating eyes, the ugly open maw. Was it a person or a tree? She had a horrifying thought it was some form of her mother. She gathered herself and made her way to her porch.
She knew she should call the police, or someone. But she would let the mattress set out there for the night.
Justyn was safe in his liberal arts college up in South Carolina. He would have laughed good naturedly at his mother’s belief there was someone in the woods.
How much that had cost her, she had thought, that laugh of his, its nurturing and its preservation. It had been well worth it.
She went inside her three story townhome and locked the door.
We think you should know, but you do, don’t you, dear ones, ones who have passed on, ones who now live in the street, ones who have killed and molder in prison, ones who live in underground spaces forgotten under cities until money and children and food go missing, until abandoned houses are destroyed, until libraries parks and public places reek of unseemliness, we will never leave you, the representatives of who you were before you were placed on operating tables, drilled clean through your skull, hammered through your eye socket, shocked with insulin and electricity, precious memories flying, shrieking, from your skin, old personalities, pleasures, predilections lingering saddened, forlorn, in corners of the operating room.
See? The doctors and nurses and orderlies said. We don’t have to put them in cages. Look! We don’t have to put them in straight jackets. No longer the padded cell! And yet we said to you, we pointed this out dear ones: Your tongues are now so jammed in your mouths you can barely speak. They congratulate themselves, the nurses, the doctors, the orderlies while you convalesce in the infirmary. There are cigarettes outside behind the surgery, there is wine and beer on breaks, a cake to celebrate the next hundred batch, and sex in the janitor’s closet. And finally, families can bring their smiles to the common areas and feel relieved for they are not pretending.
We the spirits of this place, the spirits that gathered when the town said We will build buildings for a keeping of those not fit to live among us, we those spirits want you to know we have been watching you and know you, the real you and not your spirit of violence and destruction, of hate, but the one you can’t remember now, the one born of God, the one who must exist somewhere, the one you hope will be recaptured, the one who will get married again, the one who will help you regain the respect of your children and community, the one your your mother and father believe will break through the face you present, the blank mind, the addled tongue, the hand that drifts up uncontrollably to pat the space on your head where a drill bored through, the drill taking you though it didn’t care, not really, leaving you sensitive to light and noise, any loud noise, any disruption to a mellow day which nowadays means just about any sound.
And for those of you who became like power plants with nothing but current running through, for those whose bodies veins were flooded through with insulin over and over, you were just as fucked. We have your memories up here on a shelf. You may never get them back but we keep them and send them back in little batches like molded leaves rotting on trees, memories of leaves, veiny outlines, lace.
When you come back in your mind to us no matter where you are, the flophouse, the prison cell, the cardboard box, the bungalow with a picket fence, we know you want the whole thing back, what you were, or, more accurately could have been. You are with us in spirit and we meet you in the air while you drift in your dreams, we meet you to try to help you find what you are looking for.
In your mind you go back to the place where you lost yourself, you go back to your old bedlam, you come home to us, your home you never intended to feel as home and yet it was the site of this terrible new self you were born into, and there is no place like home my dear ones for here we keep who you were, you will find it here, we promise, if only you return, to make yourself whole among us again, to confront your executioners as they say.
It is not as haunted as tourists say, you know that, those foolish people who want to give themselves a shiver spending a night in restraints. Idiots. We have half a mind to show them real fear, but it would be a waste, alas.
You were the real beauty and the romance, my how we miss you, our beautiful, broken ones. Bring your old and weary bones to lie here again and let us give you back your old self. Your memories await. So too the tears you cannot cry being too feeble to feel. We will give you your self to you whole, along with your pleasures, as well as a deep and lasting sleep if you come to us and find your home once more in the bosom of health. It did not happen the first time, the wholeness, the health, but let us try again. Please.
This morning I revised a story I wrote loosely based on the Mouse Woman tradition of the Haida Gawaii native people of the Canadian Pacific Northwest. My Mouse Woman is more of a silently influential citizen whereas the original Mouse Woman was a kind of fairy godmother or even spirit guide between worlds. Here, in a more human manifestation, she shows her village there is a rhythm to life and death that is mysterious, feral, and not to be disrupted. She has her own rhythm, hence “rebel.”
Her plight is similar to mine in terms of unusual sleep patterns that can sometimes find one at odds with the rest of the world. But Ms. Myska teaches us to be ourselves. I wrote this three years ago and wanted to revise it and bring it forth again as I once more find myself in a struggle but am still seeking redemption through a celebration of individuality and acceptance.
I went to a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. Often I took a path that cut through the woods, a path that connected our small campus to a street of high end shops in town. In the heart of the woods there was a little bridge arching over a small brook. Beside it there was a stone cherub. When I was unhappy senior year, I often sat beside the brook to quiet my mind. Changes would be happening soon upon graduation. Life would no longer be as simple as cramming for tests or writing papers. I had to find work. And I did not know where I might find work. And I didn’t want to go home.
Over my college years, I had become distant from my parents, my father and stepmother. They didn’t often visit at school, not even when other parents came. And they didn’t always help me get home when I didn’t have a ride for holidays, except for Christmas. When I was younger there had been other problems as well though I hadn’t remembered them until I spent long quiet hours in dorm rooms, empty, echoing halls. Was I a young woman with a bad attitude? Or had I encountered neglect, even abuse? I couldn’t know. I just felt home was dark and unknowable.
Thanksgiving my senior year I walked through the woods alone. I was a Halloween baby which means I had turned 21 and since I was alone I felt I owed it to myself to buy a drink. Not even Max was here with me, my boyfriend since freshman year. He also lived in Florida and found himself on campus over holidays. But he went to Myrtle Beach with a friend. On Friday of the break, I sat on my bridge having had a white Russian at the bar. I felt the moss on the brick, soft to the touch and under my stockinged legs. The time between the pink sky and utter darkness had become my favorite time and in these woods there was always a dove to serenade me, or an owl or whippoorwill. I wished the cherub was real, still I was glad for its stone presence. Something about it comforted me.
I sensed a pre-mature encroaching darkness but when I looked into the woods I noticed it was only a darkness limited to a particular shape. As it neared I could hear clinking and clattering, like a wooden windchime. I made out skirts which swished among the leaves. And a very high pitch of hair, a nimbus surrounding the face above which floated a high ruff accentuated with clattering ornaments. The woman held a long staff of a particular shape. When she neared it looked vaguely like a giant pestle. She wore circlets of bones and skulls on her neck, wrists, and waist.
“Waste of time,” she said, “waste of a girl.”
“What?” I said, hoping I didn’t hear what I thought I heard.
“Don’t waste my time. I was going to say something helpful to you. I know you’ve been loitering around here, but I resent wasting my breath.”
She walked past, her skirts dragging on the footpath. She smelled of roasted meat, dirt and damp leaves, unwashed skin, tallow, smoke. Likely one of the crazed homeless like we have in Florida.
“I remember your babcia, your sweet little Polish grandma” she said, “And you. I remember you when you were a girl and your babcia cared for you.”
I said nothing. I let the whippoorwill speak. It was getting cooler. I had a strange taste in my mouth, like something was deeply wrong. Of course there was: How could she know me? Yet somehow I felt I was also expecting someone dark to show familiarity with me, a stalker, a murderess. I felt my blood coursing.
“You don’t know me,” I said, in defiance of the bones which clattered on her frame.
“You babcia made huge batches of pierogis every summer and took care of you and your brother and sister. She taught you about plants and flowers and placing plant offerings on the alter for the ceremony for the Feast of the Assumption. Remember? You have abandoned your ways with the Virgin Mary.”
“A waste,” she said. “You will never be your babcia.”
“She’s dead, I don’t want to go home. Mother is dead too, long ago.”
“You are spoiled. I should have boiled you up in the pot when I had the chance. I should have taken you and chopped you up and eaten you.”
“The red ribbons tripled on my wrists for the Feast were my babcia’s protection against the likes of you.” I said, practically shouting now, so much louder than she was being with me. I shivered. The cream of the white Russian was not resting easy on my stomach.
“But you forget, I also eat adults. You appear to be sweet meat. I’ll bet your flesh tastes bitter.” She ran the black tips of her fingers along her tongue. “You’re a bitter, stupid girl. Who cares if your step mother abused you? Who cares if she only cares about her own birth children? Go home and pray I don’t find you or I will take away one more waste of a life and be nourished. Be glad you’re even alive. Be glad every day I allow it.”
I stepped away. I backed away not taking my eyes from her. Then I turned and ran.
When I got back into my dorm, the dark empty, echoing halls, I checked behind me before closing the door. There was no one.
I didn’t mind the rest of my holiday alone in my room. The food in my minifridge was a comfort. I made soup and tea with my kettle.
After graduation, I took a menial job shelving books at the library. It was all I could find. I lived with my father, stepmother, and stepsisters.
It was a while before I went to graduate school. Eventually, I found a job as a librarian.
I had my child baptized in the Polish Catholic church and made a beautiful offering of hawthorn, wheat, and roses at the Feast of the Assumption. I promised Mary I would not forget my faith and tied red ribbons around my child’s wrist to protect her from boginki, forest spirits who would take her away or hurt her.
At thirty I was diagnosed with bipolar depression. The faith of my childhood and reawakened faith of my young adult years became extinct with the medications. I felt I had lost some critical link to my mother and my babcia. My life was no longer as sad, scary, and uncertain. But it also was no longer as interesting. It was flat and strange, a foreign territory.
With my diagnosis, I had to assume my encounter with a cannibal witch was some delusion of my illness.
And yet, I don’t feel I would be the person I am had this thing not happened.
One week when my child was away with my husband’s family, I stayed off my medications to see how I would feel. All I felt was deeply confused. I could not accomplish a thing and I did not sense the witch of my babcia’s bedtime stories or the Virgin of her faith.
Nevertheless, I remembered Baba Yaga’s lesson to be grateful.
I returned to my medications and never strayed from them again.
It was Memories of Laughy Taffy Daffy God and Country Day and Mrs. Seidelbraun had a major issue: She could not manage to extricate herself from the bed. Soon Taffy Day participants would be flooding the streets, floating good spirits balloons, spewing fireworks from their mouths, doing midair acrobatics with the aid of their combat-sadness-anti-gravity-boots.
On days like this, the air turned butter it was so smooth, the sun was a creamy smear in the sky, neighbors greeted each other with kindly salutations, even those who on non Taffy Days dreamed secretly of administering unnoticeable but painful papercuts over slights, grudges, micro aggressions. People baked for their neighborhoods, the smells of sugar and pastries filled the air. There was hugging and laughing and handing out candy. And of course there was taffy pulling, greased pole climbing, pig calling. Years ago, there had been a brief memorial for The Town of Daffy Day residents who had given their lives so that everyone could be Happy, but really, that part of the day started to become both boring and super triggering. And so they made do with laying flowers on the one memorial in the town: A water feature of an upright gun holding a helmet.
Every year had become worse and worse for Mrs. Seidelbraun. The first year she recognized painful gravitations on Memories of Laughy Taffy Daffy God and Country Days, she managed to make it down the elevator of her high rise apartment, down to the street of festivals, parades, and bacchanalian frivolities. She didn’t laugh exactly but she didn’t exactly frown either. She played it off and no one was none the wiser, including Flora who managed to be offended at every affront to festivity. They had decorated a float together, full of paper flowers and young girls from a local ballet company pirouetting on tippy toe as the truck pulled them through a street raining with confetti. She even managed to eat a Happy Hot Dog beside which Mr. Happy was administering his annual contest of Happy Hot Dog Stuff Yourself Silly. She put mustard and ketchup and relish on it, a sign to Mr. Happy she was still A OK. A Good Girl though she was 40.
That was a couple of years ago. Last year, she made significantly less progress. She pushed herself up to standing in her studio apartment and slid her feet into her dilapidated old slippers and shuffled over to the window overlooking the street. Sshh shh sshh went her feet, the only noise in the apartment though the marching bands down below were beginning to warm up and people wearing the combat-sadness-anti-gravity-boots were whirring by, practicing their maneuvers in the air. Prayers were being sent up to heaven on balloons with strings of flowers attached. Prayers that said “Only happiness,” “only peace,” “no triggers,” “trigger warnings please.” “please be happy always and keep us all happy.” She knew what the slips of prayers said. She helped copy them from the Community Suggestion Book for Wellbeing. Flora would be upset with her for staying inside. She hadn’t pulled it off, getting to the street. And she was right, Flora had called the next day, upset and angry.
In a way she had been glad she wasn’t even going to have to face Flora this year, at least not on the day of the event. She would simply have to admit the truth: Her bed held her fast as mud in a deep bog. It would not release her, it had sucked her energy, her strength. When she closed her eyes she saw terrible things, she heard terrible and agonizing cries and explosions and pops. She tasted blood, dirt, gun powder, fear. And yet, she couldn’t open her eyes for long, she kept falling asleep again, or falling into visions, into nightmares or waking nightmares. She saw friends she knew bloodied and missing half of their faces, their eyes and limbs torn away, children running in the streets crying and naked. The sky was exploding and there was fire, as if this place were a very deep hell. Buildings had crumbled and were splitting, tumbling like large giants laid low, groaning in agony. She cried out but no one heard her. She had not discovered a way out. All day, she had dreamed of the past, or maybe some distant time in the future, maybe sometime soon.
Within the Kingdom there is a land. It is called the Land of Operant Practices. More than a hidden away place, it is actually quite out in the open. There are telltale signs of the citizenry, knowing exchanges, tacit agreements. This isn’t witchcraft nor is it a kind of backdoor eugenics. It has more to do with the nurture and training of a certain set aside people, a bootcamp of sorts, a training of a race of super people which begins at birth.
There is compensation of families by the state if a participating family can show need but mostly, the program is billed as a patriotic duty. And only a few are selected, those with a certain predisposition and personal history. After all, a country of 100 percent super people would be chaos as no one would serve the super people, no one would nurture them and subvert their own needs to support their tender egos. They are super but the downside is they demand a kind of manic loyalty.
The operant practices are as follows: Embrace parenthood, but know one’s work is never done until the dross is burned away, until the wheat is separated from the chaff and a Super Person emerges. And as this is accomplished and the parents move through the ranks of the program with a growing child, there are greater and greater accolades to recognize success, parties given, trips booked away with other Super Child Families, discounts at designer clothing stores, free nights at gourmet restaurants, exclusive country club membership, free luxury cars, spa vacations.
There is a kind of need that all babies in the kingdom have and that is the need for unconditional love, to gaze into a parent’s eyes and have the gaze returned, to be rocked by a parent late at night to soothe crying or to be allowed the space to calm down alone when too much touch overstimulates. It is that perfect attunement that babies need so much, crave, must have to feel safe. While the ability to provide this exists to a certain degree in almost all mothers save a few, the mothers of the Super People are actually more attuned to how they themselves feel rather than the child. A crying baby all night deep in the night most nights is uncomfortable for everyone but especially to the mother who succeeds at the extreme level of Operant Practices. It is an affront.
Most mothers in the program make it because they themselves have had ambivalent mothers, or mothers who for whatever reason felt ill equipped though they want so desperately what others have: To be a good mother, to have a family. It is hard for some mothers to deal with messy feelings, and so, their eyes slide away when their infant seeks to make eye contact, or they hold and touch their baby less though you would have to be a program scientist to detect these subtle cues, at least at the infant stages.
As the child grows there are such things as temper tantrums in the grocery store, jealousy over brothers and sisters, acting out behaviors at school – performing below one’s ability, causing trouble. Of course there are many more examples, all of which point to being a typical child. When it comes to Super Child Families, there is a policy of zero tolerance for these undesirable, typical behaviors. To be honest, there is some flexibility. After all, this is a program designed by humans so absolute zero will hardly ever be achievable. When the program is working at maximum capacity to effect the greatest societal benefit, there is more emphasis on Desired Behaviors. The child receives the message that to receive the most attention, it is beneficial to focus on Super Child behaviors. This is the level of Beneficial Practices.
Parents who succeed at this level of the program tend to be those who sometimes literally freak out if their child is less than Perfection because their child is a reflection of who they are. The outcomes in a situation like this are Young Adults who become leaders, who start businesses or rise quickly in corporate structures, politics, religion, nonprofits. They are charismatic, self promoting, influential. Though sometimes there is a lack of conscious awareness why they are doing what they are doing. And sometimes there is a sense of lack, deep down, but they are not aware of it. Therefore, at times deep in the night or at critical times like midlife there is suffering. Their relationships are often shallow and they can create confusion and heartbreak among those who expect the normal flow of reciprocal work relationships, friendships, romantic bonds.
For Super People, there is a vampiric need for a kind of fuel Adult Typicals received in their growing up years. It is more of a psychic fuel, fuel only produced in Citizens under conditions of unconditional love and acceptance. In these Adult Typical families there is a high tolerance for a variety of behaviors albeit conditioning through the natural give and take of learned consequences. There is attention given not only to Desired Behaviors but Undesired Behaviors. These children are seen, attended to. In the case of Super People, there is often a cold, hard ignoring of a child suffering through whatever their lower nature is commanding them to do, therefore training them to be superficially compliant but also less self aware. When Super Children become adults they want the psychic fuel Adult Typicals have received.
For society to benefit maximally, Super People naturally couple with Adult Typicals to have their needs met. Such pairings are almost always cause for celebration for the support of Super People. This pairing means a benefit to society because of the blossoming and enabled function of those among us who are Super. Unfortunately, those to whom they are married are drained of their psychic fuel, sometimes they get sick and die. But there is always another source of fuel and another and another, a never ending line ready and waiting to serve.
And we have to think of the larger vision.
Thank you, Mothers, who play their part in supporting the Kingdom. Your efforts are recognized and appreciated and will be especially rewarded in the next life of Good Martyrs.
There is an interesting place called the Land of Absolutes. I would like to be able to tell you about every aspect of this land, but alas, for the storyteller to be heard, she must be believed. I will provide a sketch along with an example family from the town to give you some rough idea. You will hardly believe it. It is better than a ride at Disney.
In the Land of Absolutes, there is nothing in between. There is no person that is in between. To live in Absolutes, you must be so tall, you are the tallest of humans who have lived on the planet, or so small so as to be the size of a little mouse. If you are going to be fat, let’s do this right, round yourself out, roll around like Violet Beuregarde! If you are going to be skinny, be invisible when you turn sideways. When you yell, yell all the way, when you talk gently, talk so soft that someone needs to get right up to your mouth to hear you. They might not even hear you at all!
When you are political, march every day for your cause. Carry signs. Bash people over the head with them. Punch the opposition. Carry weapons. Go to jail. When you are apolitical, sit at home and stare at the dust particles filtering through the air in a shaft of sunlight slanting in. Count the particles. Make note of them. Make a chart. Compare the number of particles from day to day and see if the numbers correlate to anything. Leave your tvs alone, a sad gaping eye in your living room. Pretend the outside world does not exist. Order your groceries delivered, your clothes, your shampoos and soaps, your sex toys, your love, your religion, your peace. Be quiet and uninvolved. Keep to yourself.
You know what people do when they aren’t either all the way tall or all the way short? All the way fat or all the way skinny? All the way political or all the way uninvolved? They can’t exist long in the Land of Absolutes. Imagine it. Where are they going to find clothes? How are they going to find food? It’s either packaged for tiny mice sized people and twig people or huge tree sized people or barn sized people. When the in between people are out and about in the Land of Absolutes, they get bashed over the side of the head or swept along in the latest political riot. When they knock on the door of the apolitical they never receive an answer. There is a hush still as the grave.
The “in betweens” as they are known are really tourists, looking for a place to exist. They make do. Often, they are observers. Actually, nowadays as migration patterns have set in and people move from town to town looking to escape Absolutist policies and public life, they have founded communities for themselves. It is not possible for In Betweeners and Absolutes to cohabitate or be in relationship. Their separate communities, with guards and their own fly over helicopters, curfew hours, checkpoints, ensure there is some measure of peace. Though sometimes there is an attempt to mingle.
I tried mingling once, getting out there. I wasn’t finding anyone in my community with whom I wanted to settle down for a while. I wasn’t looking for a Bond, which is what they are calling it nowadays. More like something a little more tuned down. A Mutuality with Happy Consequences and Occasional Challenges But Overall Happiness. There is a kind of person I always tended to be attracted to in the Absolutes and that is the tall tree-trunk kind of a person with big opinions, someone political and passionate, who does not get their love in the mail. I met him in a town square one night at a rally. He was so gorgeous. And so ambitious. Nothing he did was halfway. How very Absolute of him. I was attracted immediately.
What I didn’t know about the Land of the Absolutes is a rule that applies to them: All things must be done absolutely. As an example, what that means in family life in the Land of Absolutes is a strict obedience to the rules laid down by an iron fisted matriarch or patriarch from time immemoriam.
On our first date I ate at my new love’s house. The family was served plates by another family who worked for them, some of the thinnest people I had ever seen. I have seen needles thicker. These thin people laid plates of meat, potatoes, and vegetables in front of us. It is amazing these thin people made such gorgeous, delicious looking food. It looked like food they never ate.
We commenced to eating. Now, I happen to love potatoes. Imagine my joy when a white, fluffy potato was found in front of me, next to the succulent meat and buttery vegetables. I lovingly lavished it with butter, salt, pepper, sour cream. I was starving. I took a bite, looked around and smiled, just in case I needed to say something or listen. But everyone was eating. I took another bite, and another, and another! I ate it all! How tasty!
Suddenly, there was a dead silence, no clanking utensils against plates, no scraping with the labor of cutting meat, not even the tinkling of ice in a glass. I looked up. They were all staring at me! These huge people! What did I do?
“We eat everything in rotation here,” said my love. “This is crazy, the way you are eating!” he crashed his hand down on the table so the dishes and utensils clattered. He was yelling and I was scared. When he had been yelling about politics or people he didn’t agree with, other people, I had found it funny. Now, it terrified me. Everyone in the room was huge, staring. Their heads barely fit under the ceiling. I marveled at the table. How did they find enough wood to build it? “You will fill all up on your potato and won’t have room for the other things on your plate! Are you even sane? Do you even know what you are doing? Are you even a grown up?” There was growling then and leering, baring of teeth. I backed slowly away, and made it through the door. I ran all the way home, I don’t know how. I am hardly an athlete.
In my own house later, the moonlight shifting through windows in a room I’m sure contained dancing dust particles, I pulled out the photo album of my childhood. I flipped on the light and turned to the page of my three year old self who had buried her hands deep in her birthday cake. She had stuffed her mouth and the icing had stained her lips blue. Her head was tipped back and she was smiling. Her mom was holding her on her lap and smiling. The dad I knew who took the picture was smiling as well. Though you cannot see him in the picture, I know he was there and how he looked at his little love.
How to explain the skinned elbow. It wasn’t like the time Miska hopped up on top of the bar to dance and had fallen, some of the guys coming to her rescue.
No, this was Berta home alone with her frozen dirty martini, underestimating her body’s ability to absorb the alcohol on no carbs. But also, self medicating when her midlife boyfriend reunited with her and her fear of abandonment set in. Overweight, middle aged Berta, divorced from a 20 year marriage to a doctor, grateful for a man’s expressed interest in her even if it was only for the easy sex. And it was always hard for Berta to know the difference: Was he just interested in the sex or did he have a truly vested interest? And did it matter any more? Was she supposed to care?
How to explain the loose skin at her elbow when she showed for girls night out. An hour before, standing at her sink, a sudden sensation overwhelming her and a slow, slow tipping of her body like she had heard cows tip at the slightest pressure at night while asleep. She couldn’t stop herself. She tried, but she kept going down, to the kitchen linoleum, her midlife boyfriend having told her only hours before it made him really hot to watch a woman emerge from a bathtub. She had been secretly grateful he had yet to see her creaking up to standing from her townhouse tub and she had wondered what would happen when he finally witnessed it.
She had lain on the kitchen floor when the dirty martini laid her low. She absorbed the humiliation. Of course, she would never tell. But what if she had been forced to alert someone because of broken bones, or worse? She would have rather died. And she thinks: She probably just would have died. Before calling. Before texting. Just died.
The rooms of my townhome were lonely when my son left for university, those rooms absent of his intelligent yet feral boyishness, the male version of everything I could possibly pour into him in the time available to me. Yet he had always been his very own person. He had his own humor, his own style, his own way of seeing the world, his own way of moving through it.
On the day he left, I had put everything I could of mine into his car, everything he cared to take – my old guitar my parents gave me years ago, a clothes’ steamer I had just bought for myself but that he liked using, food, drinks. I stood with my dog on my balcony while he drove away. I cried while descending on me was a new feeling, something alien and unwelcome.
The only other times I had something close to such a feeling was several years previous, a month after separating from my husband, having scrambled to get funding to rent a loft apartment. How empty I had been. And I slept on a pile of comforters in my bedroom until my furniture arrived. Years later, the sense of emptiness returned when I was diagnosed with cancer. The loneliness of treatment was immense and impenetrable, like a silent judgmental father, watching, waiting, providing no answers or guarantees.
In summary, as I sometimes saw it on my darker days, the middle years of my life had seen me without my spouse, without my health, without my son.
I felt sorry for myself when my son left. I considered myself to be dull and banal for even feeling this way while I also thought of my son driving away to be with his friends. I looked up “empty nesting” on the computer and found descriptions of the dangers: depression, weight gain, loss of purpose, a messy house, a messy appearance.
I would have to force myself to do things, no one would be around to know if I cleaned the kitchen, made my bed, even fixed my hair and makeup. I would be doing things only for myself. And like many of my friends, I had grown up within a subculture of expectation. My ex had always told me, in criticism, that I was “externally motivated,” never one to do much unless someone would be around to witness the outcome.
That night, I closed down the house, shutting the downstairs bedroom door, the door to the room that I had thought to make into my study one day but it was still a bedroom. I wondered why I even bothered to close the door. But I always did that, even if there was no reason to protect someone’s privacy or keep anyone away. I generally liked closed doors inside a house. On the second floor, I turned off all the lights except for one I kept on through the night, one beside the sofa. I turned off the electric fireplace and blew out the candle.
On the third floor, I closed my son’s bedroom door and my own bedroom door, settling into a night in bed beside the blue light of the computer, a somewhat sad state of affairs maybe but it wasn’t so bad either. There was no one to consult with and I could watch whatever I pleased, or browse the web, or write a story if I couldn’t sleep. I could stay up and leave the light on until all hours.
Before I knew it, the hour reached midnight and I was hungry. I pulled on a robe over a matching gown, a set I had bought as consolation for seeing a child off. I slid my feet into house slippers, also a recent indulgence. I would make cocoa. I hobbled down the stairs on arthritic knees made worse by the chemo of years previous.
When I reached the second floor, the floor housing the living room and kitchen, I spotted something surprising, just out of the corner of my eye. I could have sworn it was a woman, tall and blond, large and solid, stepping down the stairs to the guest bedroom, her hair brushed back like mine, her elbow bent as if she were carrying something in her hand, a hot mug of tea or milk. She looked just like me, I mused, for a moment.
I scurried to the landing, there was no one, nor were there signs there has been anyone. But I could swear she was wearing my peignoir set but in a darker color, the other set I ordered, and she wore slippers, like mine. Was she carrying a cup of cocoa?
I summoned my dog to accompany me to the first floor, but she stood on the upper level and watched me as I motioned for her. I relented, going on, making my way down.
I opened the first floor bedroom door quickly, as if to quell any dread or hesitation. But there was nothing. No one. I checked the front porch. It appeared someone had been sitting on my outdoor sofa, though that happens sometimes. People will come and sit there because they find it inviting. I arranged the cushions back to where they were.
I checked the garage. It was open. I had left it open when I went out to do errands earlier that day! Anyone could have easily accessed the house!
Yet if anyone wanted to harm me, they would have done it by now.
I closed the garage door. Maybe whoever it was had appreciated the extra toothbrushes and toothpaste, the towels and soaps I kept in the ground floor bathroom.
That I wasn’t more bothered puzzled me. That I actually was more interested in being of use to someone, more interested in that than in my own safety alarmed me slightly, but actually not that much.
What had been the most painful thing, years earlier when I landed in my empty apartment midlife? What had given me the sense of landing in a painted concrete mausoleum? What had made me feel dead and ineffectual, invisible to the outside world, no more use than a corpse? That sense of my own disconnectedness and uselessness! No one needed me!
And now, someone needed me!
I wondered if she would speak to me or at least write to me if I jotted down some questions. I threw a load of towels in the wash so they would be fresh. I began a loaf of bread.
It was about 1 a.m. I lay down on the sofa. I awoke to the alarm I had set for the rising dough.
The woman was sitting in the chair opposite. She had been watching me doze off, my small dog in the crook of my arm.
My dog began to growl, a sound she rarely made. She wasn’t much of a watch dog. And how had she missed this woman coming into my living room?
“Who are you?” I said. “What do you want with me?”
My earlier thoughts about helping her were displaced by my current alarm at her proximity. She had come into my space when I was vulnerable. What had she planned to do? I had thought she was exactly like me, but on closer inspection, she was much younger, she could have been my daughter. She could hurt me, I thought. She looked physically very strong.
She brought her hand to her mouth, mimicking eating. She wanted the bread I was making.
I had her lie down on the sofa while I put the loaf in the oven. Her hair was fine and long like mine had been at that age. She had no ring on her finger though by the time I was her age I was married and pregnant.
“Where is your family?” I said to her, hovering over the couch like an attendant nurse. I handed her a cup of juice, leftovers of my son’s favorite drink.
She drank but did not answer, only laid down again. When the loaf made a hollow thump under my nail, I took it out of the oven and wrapped it up in a tea towel. I handed it to her, along with the bottle of cranberry juice. She took it and went downstairs but by the time I hobbled down to the ground floor, she was gone, leaving the front door open a crack, the same carelessness I had shown in leaving the garage door open.
Who was she, this young woman who didn’t care to close my door or care what I wanted, who didn’t speak?
I checked the toothbrush in the bathroom. She had used it. I could smell the shampoo and soap, sense the dampness of the room.
She had left wearing my gown and robe, a pair of my slippers. I remembered the story of a friend who had previously been homeless, how he was forced to move from place to place at night so no one was wise to him. Why hadn’t she stayed? Did she not believe I would protect her?
Yet I felt less lonely. Less useless. Less dead. I would leave the door open a crack for her the next night. The morning after, I bought more flour and yeast and oil. I would add cranberries and nuts to some loaves and cheese and herbs to others. Maybe there were other homeless people who wanted my bread, others who could use it to stay full and warm at night. I stocked up on gallons of juice and water.
At the oncologist’s that afternoon, I was told my recent test showed rampant issues.
The cancer had returned.
Very soon, I would die.
Sister, do you remember when, scared in the old manse in Texas, you and I whirled and whirled through the hallway during a thunderstorm? Do you remember when I left you in the hall so I could go find our mother? I remember what she said to me when I entered her dark room: Where is your sister? Why are you not taking care of her? Why did you leave her alone?
Sister, do you remember when, many years later, you held my hand while I had my hair buzzed off? Do you remember when I was sick, when I had cancer? Do you remember going to my appointments and asking questions when I was weak? Do you remember begging relatives to come to my surgery when everyone seemed to have better things to do? Had I died you would have arranged my funeral, you would have seen me honored.
I wanted to say to our mother then, when I survived: Here is my sister, Mother. She has taken good care of me. She has not left me alone. I will always be in debt to my sister. She loves me. And I love her.
for National Siblings Day, April 10, 2019
Linda was new to it – goblins, Bigfoot, ghosts, witchcraft, Tarot cards. She had married into it. She had met Rob at the seminary where she had served as a secretary and he had been a student.
One day, when they were home and he was studying, they received an email from an old friend who had begun to coin himself a synchromystic: Things were suggesting themselves, said his friend. His friend had received a note from a man describing beings in his yard, beings with large, round eyes, beings similar to a sighting reported fifty years ago at another location but connected to it by an underground cave system.
That night, she baked sugar cookies in the shape of large domed head. She used shiny licourice pieces for eyes. She cut plump three toed feet cookies like the shape of the footprints the writer of the note had seen around his house. When Rob came into the kitchen and saw what she had done, he smashed the cookies with his fists, despite the hot pan. This was serious, he said, and he was going with his friend to check the cave where dark shapes had been seen.
She actually hadn’t been aware she meant it in fun, though maybe she had, she couldn’t be sure. Certainly when he was buried in studying predestination, atonement, salvation, sanctification, she was on more certain ground and she understood him as well, so much like her father and her father’s father. She wasn’t sure what had happened, and she didn’t relish finding herself in a cave with his newfound zeal.
The next night, she did find herself in a cave where the locals said dark beings emerged from an old defunct mindshaft. She was there, in her old hiking boots and a sweater, the air having been cleared with sage and an evoking call to the goblins. What in the world would her father have said? He had died and was lost to her, she acknowledged to herself with a great sadness like a hole opening up in her and swallowing all thoughts. It was the strangeness of this that made her miss him most, this most unexpected turn of her marriage.
They sat at the lip of the cave overlooking a drop down into the trees. And the light was fading and all the familiar sounds of her Kentucky were being parsed for hints of the extraterrestrial, the alien, the spiritual, whatever wanted to speak. It was decided she should participate in the “Spirit Box,” the thought being she was a virgin to the process and would have fewer preconceived notions. She would wear noise canceling headphones attached to a constantly scanning radio, the idea being that spirits use electronic frequencies as a means of communication.
Rob had developed a hardened expression for her since he picked up on the idea she might be making fun of him. He had not smiled, except around his friends. He had rarely touched her, except to help her climb. Would he be pleased she was helping? She was not sure. She was worried of course, and felt a tightening in her stomach. How about what my stomach is communicating to me? She wanted to say to the cave of men but of course dared not.
“It will take a while to get used to this,” instructed Rob’s friend who was holding the earphones. “Listen for a while before letting us know what you hear. If something or someone is trying to make contact there will be a pattern.”
Of course she was somewhat familiar with this, having transcribed many meetings as a secretary, having taking dictation. She appreciated that she was given the opportunity to wait before being expected to report.
The headphones descended, soft and snug around her head. It was cool outside and she had worn her hair down, a light jacket over her sweater, jeans. In a way it was like hiking and camping, no different than when she was in high school with her friends and they scared each other with stories and local legend. But had they really believed anything then? Or was this just an excuse to scream and hold hands and hug and share a time which was fast disappearing before them? Adults doing this voluntarily doing this struck her as odd and slightly pathetic.
Then she heard it, a voice from the Spirit Box that sounded strangely deep and resonant, like her father’s. “Kill,” she thought she heard it say. “Kill him,” it said. Then: “Kill Rob.”
She took the headphones off and trembled. She shook her head. “I can’t,” she said.
“It’s a little disorienting at first,” said Rob’s friend, but just try it one more time. “It would be really helpful. It’s ok if you feel a little bit apprehensive, it’s normal.”
She relented to having the headphones slipped back over her head, having caught a glimpse of Rob’s hard, foreign stare across the cave, illuminated by the lantern. He had never looked at her like he did now, like he might murder her.
There was silence, on the headphones, only static like white noise, then a loud booming voice: “Kill him!” Then more static. Then at last an unmistakable instruction: “Push him out!”
It was her father, warning her!
She stood up, walking over next to Rob at the lip of the cave overlooking the drop. She did not let on. She had the Spirit Box attached to her jeans with a clip and the soft headphones covered her ears.
“Kill him!” commanded the voice. “Kill him before he kills you!”
“Dad?” she said. She saw Rob’s face grow even angrier, his brow furrowing deeply, his jaw set. She was still making fun of them, pretending the spirit of her father was contacting her.
He reached for her but his friend put a hand on his shoulder to stop him and shook his head “No.”
“Kill!” said her father. “Now!”
Rob’s eyes glowed and burned. He wanted her to die.
Without warning she shoved his shoulder and using his surprise to her advantage, pushed. He fell from the mouth of the cave and disappeared, screaming, down, down, his friend, in shock, holding her arm, lest she fall after him, the white headphones glowing around her neck like the primitive necklace of a matriarchal tribe.
She knew she was getting over him when she threw his shriveled dead flowers in the trash. They had been drying in the sun on the bookshelf next to the window. When she had received them she put them in a cream china vase, a wedding gift from long ago. She had received a life and home from someone else back then as a bride and now in her townhome life of temporary lovers on the outskirts of town she received flowers not from a husband, but from a friend who is a man.
She put the flowers in one of her favorite vases and displayed it on the black table in the middle of her living room, taking a picture for him, showing her friends and her sister. She then moved the flowers to the top of the fireplace where it half obscured the tv and she welcomed the intrusion. That was before he came over for the last time.
When things began to fall apart only a week after she received the flowers, this the landmark of their three months together, she moved the flowers out of her line of sight, over on the kitchen counter, though at that time the flowers were still opening and drinking in water. She kept them there because she didn’t know if the man would call again. She couldn’t bear to get rid of them altogether. Maybe there was still hope. She called him. She received no response.
She moved the flowers over to the window, on the bookshelf, an out of the way place. But she couldn’t throw them out, not quite yet. Soon a pizza box was set beside the flowers, a used box which needed to go out with the garbage. Dried flowers drifted to the kitchen floor, a floor which needed to be swept and mopped. There were a lot of things she needed to attend to after the breakup. She tried to reach him again, No response.
She replenished her kitchen with the little money she had left, picking up a basil plant she loved to have on hand, a little indulgence. The bag clerk at the store had asked her what it was and sniffed it deeply.
At home, the woman put the basil plant next to the vase of drying out flowers, on top of the pizza box, its simple plastic container holding a plant that would last her the summer.
The man’s flowers dried and drifted down. They became ugly.
She watered the basil and put some fresh leaves in a dish to make it more fragrant and flavorful.
Someone else called her and showed her kindness, another man. She felt: What usefulness, drying flowers? There is no call.
She threw out the dried flowers into the plastic bag in the garbage container and shoved them down so their stems broke. How much she had felt for this person. Tomorrow she would clean out the vase. Tomorrow she would put soap into its creamy cavity as well as warm water.
Maybe when she got her house cleaned up and her sink fixed she would make a meal for the new person. But for now she would let him treat her. She would leave her house behind for a couple of hours. And she would try to forget about this man, whom she loved.
She held the vase and felt its coolness in her palm. Its smoothness was like a good love that should only hold living things. It was a beautiful vase she got for her wedding many years ago. It had always been one of her favorites. It didn’t matter it had served another purpose in a previous life. It was still hers. To do with as she saw fit.
A little less than a week after International Women’s Day, I still would like to participate by re-posting a story of mine about a woman’s abuse by her significant other. This is a critical topic at a time we are recognizing women’s rights.
I think I am going to read this tonight at a local reading. It fits the word requirements. And I also think because of its detailed dialogue and descriptions it will be easy for an audience to follow.
Thank you for following my post, the link is listed below. If this is a repeat for you: I have made improvements. Thank you for your support and for reading.
Sometimes when we get together at “Mommy and Me,” we talk about what happened that summer at the beach in that huge house by the ocean. We usually don’t refer to many of the details directly, they are still puzzling, and painful. We just laugh and talk about what a pain it is to potty train our little ones when toilets are known to haunt. “Isn’t it hard enough?” One of us we’ll sort of do a faint little laugh, more from relief that we are acknowledging something difficult than experiencing something that is genuinely funny. At that point, there is usually more grabbing for the wine or extra food, depending upon one’s choice of comfort.
Talk to any one of us individually and you will witness for yourself the fracturing nature of a shared experience, a shared experience of encountering unexpected darkness. You will witness pained expressions and hesitations and the trailing off of answers and explanations of events.
But first, let me start by orienting you to what things were like when we were younger. Do you remember playing a slumber party game called Bloody Mary? You probably played it gathering round the bathroom mirror with a friend, candles lit, spinning and chanting louder and louder Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary! And then looking for a glimpse of the terrifying witch in the mirror. What’s more you could be maimed, have your eyes torn out, appear on the other side with the witch, go insane, die. Dare you summon Mary Worth back from the afterlife? The mirror was her portal.
I don’t know about your slumber parties growing up, but at our slumber parties, we had one person who knew the rituals and the stories about spirits who could be summoned, who passed things along to us and told us what to do. For us, this person was Aideen Campbell. It was Aideen who told us about the witch Mary Worth. We didn’t have youtube and Instagram, we didn’t relay messages and pictures and information that way. We only had word of mouth and the more connected you were, the more you knew. In my group of girlfriends which also included Mandy, Heather, Rachel, Courtney, Julie, and Shannon, Aideen was that source of information.
Besides that, Aideen was different than the rest of us. For example, her mother was busted for shoplifting even though her father was as rich as Croesus. While it appalled my mother, a proper southern church going lady, it made Aideen all the more intriguing. Aideen’s mother had gone to jail! My mother’s friends never did anything by comparison. Their excitement over the least little thing was depressing.
All of us hung on every little thing Aideen said. What’s more, she wore makeup before any of us was allowed to, smoked, got access to booze through her older sister, had boyfriends first, kissed them, did other things too, things we knew we weren’t supposed to do. So when Aideen also showed us, at our hang outs and get togethers, things that were new and unfamiliar, things like Bloody Mary, she had us spellbound. When I told her our youth pastor said “do not turn to the spirits of the dead,” because that’s what it says in the Bible, she laughed, little puffs of cigarette smoke escaping her nose and glossy lips.
“That girl isn’t a Christian,” said my Mom to me once after she found out who all was going to one of our parties.
“She goes to the Catholic Church,” I said, which was true. Aideen said she went with a family in her neighborhood because her mother and father never did and she wanted to go.
“She’s not baptized and confirmed,” said Mama. “That wouldn’t even pass muster for most good protestants.”
This was back when the fashion icon was Madonna, the pop singer, and all of us wore rosaries with our bustiers or tshirts and mini-skirts. Sometimes it didn’t even seem to matter, all the rules of the church. We only relied on each other for the real spiritual information, the real spiritual access and experience.
My mother was forced to give up her principals when she was diagnosed with cancer. Her hold on me loosened, whatever hold she had by the time I was twelve and going into the seventh grade. When I was asked to go to the Campbell’s beach house for the summer, she gave in rather than completely agreed. She knew girls from other good homes were going there too so that gave her some comfort.
When I was packed and ready to go, my mother held my hand and made me promise to be good. “I’ll be praying for you,” she said. “Maybe you can find a church to go to there.” My father hugged me, told me not to worry about Mama, she was sick now from the chemo but she would feel better and starting to heal by the time I was home in the fall. He told me what Mama couldn’t say: Have a good time.
Mr. Tommy the Campbells’ driver picked me up first, then Mandy, Heather, Courtney, Rachel, Shannon, and Julie. I felt closest to Mandy, who went to my youth group at the Presbyterian Church. After picking all of us up in the family van, Aideen told us there was someone new who would be joining us, someone who would begin school with us in the fall.
Her name was Chanlina Chea. Aideen told us that she and her mother fled Cambodia when her father was killed. Chanlina had only been a baby. We didn’t know much about Cambodia, only what our parents happened to mention when they were talking about Vietnam.
Chanlina’s mother was going to drive her to the house and we would meet her there. She and her mother are very close she said so it was a big deal that she would be allowed to come at all. When we started asking questions, Aideen just rolled her eyes and put on her headphones.
When we got to the huge old beach house mostly hidden from the road by trees and dense tall bushes, Esmerelda, Aideen’s childhood cook and nanny, came out to greet us. This, we all knew, would be the extent of our adult supervision. And Mr. Tommy had a gun, we all knew. He was there to protect us, to drive us around and peruse the grounds.
He was a strange man who rarely spoke, but he made us feel safe and we didn’t feel we had to change who we were around Mr. Tommy. Looking back I realize he was a long suffering servant of Aideen’s parents though of course he was not unpaid. His gifts in return, were silence and loyalty.
Esmeralda was her own bird. She was gentle and animated and fawned over us and insisted that we eat what she provided, and always second helpings. She was a kind and sweet woman and I never asked myself at the time whether she had a life of her own outside of our activities.
We brought our things in and Aideen directed us to the basement, a huge lounge space her parents had let her decorate and furnish as she pleased. She had painted the walls purple and on top of that had painted huge magenta flowers with thick twisting vines. There were two long pink velvet sofas with all manner of pillows and our beds were tucked into walls, like little caves, and hidden by sheer curtains tied back with muslin bows. The basement had its own kitchen and bathroom. The only thing Aideen didn’t include that most of us would have was a television set. Instead, she had bookshelves built in.
“I don’t watch television here,” said Aideen and grabbed a book and sat in an egg shaped rattan chair that was suspended from the ceiling. She spun it around with her foot. Chanlina was already in the basement, we had greeted her when we made our descent. She sat in the other egg chair on the opposite side of the shelves. She laughed and spun too, like Aideen.
Someone turned on a jambox, played a cassette – The Cure, Duran Duran, The Motels. Aideen passed out the beers she managed to smuggle away as well as packets of cigarettes. We opened windows high up on the wall facing the ocean and heard the waves crashing against the beach in the black night.
“We’ll go out later,” said Aideen, “when the moon rises.” She liked to turn her head when she smoked and let the smoke out so it rose in slow curls.
We pulled each other up to standing and danced in the candlelight to The Motels’ song about a never-ending summer. None of us said it but we were all watching Chanlina to see how she fit in. Would she dance like we did? Would there be something odd about the way she behaved? Could she laugh and have fun? She seemed to be having a good time and she had a nice way of dancing, like a fluid sea creature. She was more womanly than most of us who sort of bopped around. Aideen picked up a pillow and swatted her. Chanlina laughed and picked up a pillow from the couch and hit her back. Good sign.
We went outside. The moon was a huge yellow disk hanging over the undulating waves. We ran down to the water and splashed each other though no one was swimming. It was hot so we didn’t care we were wet. We walked along the beach, shining our light on sand crabs and the occasional jellyfish. When we got back to the shore in front of the house, there was a fire in the middle of a circle of Adirondack chairs. Mr. Tommy had built it for us and left us a cooler of drinks, along with a table loaded with supplies for s’mores. We loaded up wire coat hangers with marshmallows along with plates of graham crackers and Hershey bars. We grabbed Cokes and took a seat.
“I’ve asked Chanlina to tell us a story,” said Aideen when we settled in and began to toast our marshmallows. “It’s probably the weirdest story I’ve ever heard.”
The fire crackled and the breeze lifted our hair and brushed our cheeks in little puffs. The moon was brighter and higher in the sky and cast an eerie glow on the sand and water.
Chanlina began: “This is a story about a girl who haunts school children in Japan. Have you heard of it?”
We shook our heads no, all except Aideen.
“A boy that works with me and my mother in the restaurant, he told it to me.”
The waves came up gently on the beach, crashing on the shore in tiny claps. Chanlina’s black hair and dark skin set her apart from us. Her accent leant her an air of authority.
“If you think you are ok, you are probably wrong,” she said. I wasn’t really sure what she meant by this. Was this generally the way someone in Cambodia started a ghost story? Or was she just saying something from her own personal experience?
“When I was a baby,” she continued, “my father was killed for wearing glasses,” she said.
We remained silent, and still, not quite knowing what to say.
“The government in charge thought he was an intellectual. They thought he would question them and cause problems. Many people were put to death for wearing glasses.”
Of course, we had never heard of such an absurd, random way to die.
“Now my mother and I live here. We live alone.”
Aideen lit up a cigarette from a pack she kept in pocket, punctuating the silence with the little “clink” of her lighter.
“The spirit ghost of Japan is named Hanako-san. Her story shows anything can happen to anyone.”
An old couple walked up not far from our circle and nodded and waved. They were wearing tennis shoes and knee high athletic socks and floppy hats. They asked us how we were and we told them fine, thank you, like we had been taught.
When they passed, Chanlina continued. “Hanako-san died when she was hiding in a toilet stall at her school. She was playing hide and seek with her friends. Americans dropped bombs on her city. It was World War II. Everyone in her city was killed.”
For some reason, I thought of the hair floating down on my mother’s shoulders after a few weeks of chemotherapy. I always tried not to think about what would happen if my father’s chipper predictions didn’t come true and instead my mother died.
“Remember Ms. Bray showing us a film of the mushroom cloud?” said Aideen. Ms. Bray had been our history teacher. “Remember when she told us that the ones who were vaporized had their organs boiled? Their bones turned to charcoal.”
Mandy and Heather put their marshmallows down on the ground. The rest of us were holding onto our coat hangers awkwardly, the marshmallows forgotten. Only Courtney was loading her graham crackers up with melted marshmallows and chocolate.
“To this day, the spirit of Hanako-san haunts the hallways of schools in Japan,” Chanlina said. “but especially the bathroom where she died.”
“I told Chanlina we’re going to summon her at the Devil’s School,” said Aideen. Aideen was the only one who wasn’t making s’mores. She was always on a diet even though she just turned thirteen and didn’t need to be on a diet. She was smoking again, and smoke trickled through her nose.
“The Devil’s School?” said Mandy. She was often intent on keeping Aideen in check or at least asking the necessary questions. No doubt, she would write about this later tonight in her journal.
“Annie Lytle Elementary,” said Aideen, practically smiling, “Or, as it was known back in the day, school number 4.”
How strange to have schools known simply by numbers, when all of them now are given names. I thought of other times when people were given numbers instead of being spoken to their names, like in the Holocaust when each person in the camps had a number emblazoned on their arms.
“What’s so special about it?” said Heather, trying to sound cool, taking a cigarette from Aideen and pretending she knew what to do with it. Her ratted out short red bob and kohl eyes made her look like a slightly more punk Mollie Ringwald.
“I know this one,” said Courtney, having stuffed a large portion of a s’more sandwhich in her mouth. She was trying to talk but her words were coming out funny and we laughed. When she had swigged down some coke, she said “The principal was a cannibal and ate kids.”
“Well, you would know about eating, now wouldn’t you?” said Julie. We fell out laughing.
“Is this going to be really scary?” said Shannon nervously. She picked up a piece of her hair. She always twirled her hair when she was nervous or thinking about something, like an essay on a test. “Maybe I’ll stay here tomorrow.”
“No way, Shannon.” said Aideen.
“I’ve heard you can hear kids screaming,” said Courtney. “And there’s a tree growing up through the auditorium floor where the roof was burned away by a fire.”
Aideen picked up a coat hanger and slid a couple of marshmallows on the end. She told me once she liked to burn them because that took away some of the calories. I had no idea if it was true, but she was always skinny, so there was the answer I guess. “Tell us how we summon Hanako-san, Chanlina,” she said.
“Well, we have to go to the girl’s bathroom,” said Chanlina, “to the third stall. Then, someone has to knock three times on the door like this,” and Chanlina wrapped on the armrest of her Adirondack chair three times. “Then you sing this tune…” and Chanlina sang a song to the tune of a nursery rhyme: “Hanako-san, Hanako-san, would you like to play today?”
Chanlina was quiet for a bit, letting us think about this.
“What happens next?” said Rachel. She was a little more matter of fact about things, not easily caught up in emotion.
“If you see Hanako-san, who wears a red skirt, white blouse, and her hair tied back, she will grab you with her black fingers and drag you down through the toilet and into hell.”
We were quiet and still for a moment. Even Courtney stopped at this, hesitating mid re-load of a marshmallow onto her coat hanger.
“Oh yeah, right!” Julie said, breaking the silence, laughing. She never believed anything about bloody Mary or anything. In fact, she had said she hoped to see Mary in the mirror one day. She’d like to kiss her shriveled up witch lips.
Shannon was laughing too but quieter, nervously, the clump of hair in her fingers going at a furious pace twirling around and around.
“I don’t believe in hell,” said Rachel. “I think we all just disintegrate into the ground. We don’t go anywhere.”
“But what about heaven?” I said. I couldn’t think like this. What would that mean for Mom?
“Heaven neither,” said Rachel. “Nope.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Aideen. “We’re all going to meet Hanako-san third stall bathroom toilet, tomorrow, Devil’s School.” And she grinned at us, pulling a burned marshmallow from her hanger and putting it in her mouth and licking her fingers.
“Whatever,” said Rachel, pushing herself up from her chair. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Oh me too!” said Julie, always looking for the slightest opportunity for mutiny as long as fun was involved.
Shannon stood as well, probably wanting to get away from the conversation around the fire. And she also probably knew there would be light, simple chatter between Rachel and Julie, nothing too challenging, though Julie could be a bit harsh.
“Enjoy,” said Aideen. “We’ll be praying for your souls,” and she laughed.
The next day, Aideen made good on her promise and had Mr. Tommy drop us at the abandoned school. It was beside a highway overpass so that the passing cars and trucks made loud swooshing noises. It was encompassed by a chain link fence and had the appearance of a sad, old person, dripping with dead vines, the few hollow windows not boarded looking like eyes and the entry a gigantic black maw. The front was graced by huge white columns whose tops were weathered and grey. The old brick of the walls was blackened in places, red still in others, in some places nearer the earth painted with graffiti, some pornographic.
An old man sat on a crumbling step. He was thin and shriveled and wore a baseball cap and long pants and long sleeves though it was ninety degrees. “Death tryna’ come out of this here place,” he said, wagging a finger at Aideen. How would he have known she was the ringleader? “But death, he ain’t never getting’ out. That’s ‘cause death, he locked up in there.”
“We’re going to summon a spirit,” said Aideen.
The old man just looked at us as if we were barely visible to him. “You ladies, I’m Alfred, but I can’t be helpin’ you none.”
“I’m not sure I want to go in,” said Shannon, predictably. I didn’t want to either, truth be told, but I wasn’t going to say anything. I could always count on Shannon to say exactly what she was feeling.
“Here, hold my hand,” said Mandy. And Mandy grabbed her hand but waited for someone else to take the lead.
Aideen and Chanlina went first, walking past the old man on the steps, followed by Julie and Heather and Courtney, Mandy and Shannon, then me and Rachel.
Our feet fell on a disintegrating wood floor once we were past the peeling threshold. It was dark in the entry even though it was bright outside. We turned on the flashlights we brought from the house.
“This way,” said Aideen and we crossed through a hallway where the sun shown in through huge gaping spaces where windows once were. Tendrils of vines pushed in the openings like fingers. Plaster had fallen away from the walls, exposing brick underneath. Trash and debris lay at the bottom of the walls and in the corners. And on all the walls were scribbled layer upon layer of graffiti, up to the ceiling in some spots.
“The whole building feels like it’s crying,” I said.
“It’s practically shouting,” said Julie.
“It looks like homeless people have been here,” Mandy said. There were piles of tins and broken bottles.
At the end of the hallway was a concrete stairwell that looped back on itself. “The bathroom’s up here,” said Aideen and began to climb.
“Wait!” said Courtney. “I think I hear screams! Shh!” and she put a finger to her lips. We stood still. Nothing. Then she began to laugh. “Just kidding!” she said.
But Shannon wasn’t so sure. “Shouldn’t we call Mr. Tommy on the walkie talkie?” she said.
“Shannon!” scolded Aideen.
When we got to the top of the stairs, Aideen disappeared into a pink door frame, though the paint had worn off in places. The girls’ bathroom. Leaves had fallen in through the smashed windows and filled the sinks and floor. The once white walls were gray with mildew and in places the plaster had come off, revealing the brick beneath. The stalls teetered on their hinges and a couple of stalls didn’t have doors. We stood in a little entry area, all eight of us packed in and not wanting to go into the space between the line of sinks facing the toilet stalls.
“I don’t even think a ghost would want to hang out here,” said Courtney.
“Spirits are everywhere,” said Chanlina. “But they won’t speak unless we speak to them.”
“Rachel,” said Aideen, “Since you don’t believe in all of this, why don’t you call on Hanako-san?”
“This is so stupid, but ok,” she said, shuffling through the leaves. Wind blew through the palms outside the window and we could hear the clacking of the long fronds and also the mournful sounds of cars whooshing past on the highway.
“Don’t forget,” said Aideen, “third stall.”
Rachel turned to us and put a flashlight under her face, rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue. We all laughed of course, though a bit quieter than when we laughed at Courtney’s prank on the stairs. Well, everyone laughed except Shannon who was by now frozen. Mandy was quiet too, probably out of respect for Shannon.
“You have to turn out your light,” said Aideen.
She turned her light off and Aideen motioned us to turn our lights off.
Sunlight filtered through the broken panes of the window.
Slowly Rachel knocked on the stall door. Knock, knock, knock. Then she sang: “Hanako-san, Hanako-san, would you like to play today?”
We all stood there for what felt like an hour but it was probably a few seconds. No sound, no slowly creaking stall door, no ghoul in a red skirt. Rachel did not get dragged down into the toilet and to hell. Rachel shrugged her shoulders and shuffled back through the leaves.
Then there was a loud pop. We screamed. The door from the third floor stall opened and smashed into the sink, breaking the porcelain.
Shannon wailed and shook. Mandy put her arms around her. The rest of us silently quaked in fear, huddled together tightly.
“Should we get Mr. Tommy” I said, my teeth chattering with the words.
“No fucking way, Lisa” Aideen lashed out but I felt something desperate in her words.
We waited again.
“This place is falling to pieces,” said Julie, breaking the silence. “What a shithole.”
“Yeah, and not a thing to worry about,” said Rachel even though she didn’t sound as confident as before. She broke away from the huddle to stand closer to the door frame where she placed a foot on the tile wall and stretched her leg, affecting nonchalance.
Our exit from School Number Four was more somber than our entry had been, though we were mostly relieved the ordeal was finished and there was probably nothing to worry about.
Still, something had happened.
“Do you think that door was bound to fall off like that?” said Courtney, “Or do you think….” She didn’t finish her thought.
“I was actually hoping to meet her,” said Heather. “Personally, I think the door crashing scared her.”
No one laughed, not even Rachel and Julie.
“Well, thanks for the memories, Devil School,” said Aideen, spreading her arms out as if she was making a speech. She began to sing: “We love you Hanako-san, oh yes we do. We love you Hanako-san, and we’ll be true. When you’re not with us, we’re blue. Oh Hanako-san, we love you.” And her song reverberated off the disintegrated, graffiti walls, a faint echo returning to us.
At the bright threshold, the old man in the baseball cap sat on the stairs. “I done told you now, chillrun. You done seen death. I can tell. You scairt!”
We let his chiding follow us out past the chain fence where Mr. Tommy waited for us in the van. None of us spoke then or later that night as we quietly put on our pajamas and crawled up into our beds so strangely nestled into the wall.
In the dead of night when the only sound was the surf lapping up on the shore in little claps, there was the loud crash of the bathroom door against the wall. A dark figure, Chanlina, stumbled out and stood in the middle of the room weeping.
“Chanlina, what is it?” said Mandy, emerging from her bed, trying to put her arms around her to comfort her. But she jerked away.
“I want to go home!” Chanlina screamed. “Take me home! Mr. Tommy take me home!”
No one could figure out what had happened, only that something had happened in the bathroom. We all asked her questions and tried to get her to calm down but she kept getting more frantic.
Aideen went upstairs to wake Esmerelda and Mr. Tommy. We fetched Chanlina and stood in the kitchen and told our caretakers what had happened that day, about the story Chanlina had told us and what we had done at the Devil’s School.
Chanlina sat at the table, inconsolable. Esmerelda brought her milk and buttered bread, but she would have none of it.
Chanlina went home to her mother.
As the days and weeks past, the beauty of the beach and monotony of the waves took away the strangeness of our summer’s beginning, like a water’s current softening a sharp rock. Although I felt guilty for putting Chanlina out of my mind, it wasn’t long before the eight of us were back to the way we used to be before a stranger was in our midst. And since we left off pursuing ghosts, the last time we would ever do this, I thought more about my mom and actually felt compelled to read from the little Bible she gave me and say a prayer for her. According to Dad, she was doing better.
When we got home in the fall, we received word: Chanlina was dead. She had fallen into a coma and doctors could not find the reason.
One night, she just slipped away.
First published in Demonic Household. Under the title: Hanako san of the Toilet.
At Eastertide when the moon sets over the lake of Old Cheney Highway the Easter bunnies walk out of the bougainvillea on their hind legs to join the risen ones, who, ancient and young, dance noiselessly, gape in windows, eat candies, and murder the complacent. The undead hoard: former humans and creatures, witches, natives who were infected by white men, criminals, slaves, children who worked the celery fields, babies murdered by their mothers, drug addicts, the mentally ill, the homeless, death row inmates electrified or killed by lethal injection at the Florida State Prison. Many had grown up with songs of Easter, the trappings of wealth and elaborate parties and champagne. Some had not been as privileged and had grown up in meaner states. None had been missed or glorified or given their due. No, quite the opposite. They pop open plastic eggs with gummy fingers and drop chocolate candies into their maws and tear the heads off of candy bunnies and chickens. Nom nom nom they say, chewing. Nom nom nom……If a concerned homeowner comes out to protect his property, they make short work of him too. Nom nom nom…..blood mingling with chocolate dripping down chins. Most people know on Eastertide to stay indoors at night on Old Cheney Highway. And the alligators are there to help if a project seems too big, storing flesh under the banks of the lake until it rots. Nom nom nom…Don’t be a hero on Old Cheney the evenings at Eastertide. Nom nom nom……nom nom nom…..Stay inside and eat your candy Easter morning.
Now Katinka was the most efficient housewife in the village. Before the sun had risen overhead, she had finished the laundering and had set the bread out to rise. Her kitchen and rooms sparkled, and the hearth cracked with a bright well fed fire. It was her habit to air her home in the spring as she worked. One day, in flew a brown striped bird with a pink beak and a white breast. The tiny lark perched upon the back of a dining chair.
He then said: “You will have to do something about that husband of yours, Stefan, surely is cheating on you with the great and beautiful Georgeta, and everyone knows it. They talk of her beauty and her youth and how tasty she must be and how your husband is enjoying the fruits of two trees.”
“He is not, you naughty bird!” said Katinka, grabbing a broom and chasing the bird around her little wooden house.
But the bird escaped her broom; he perched himself out and landed long enough to chirp about the various sexual feats of Katinka’s beloved.
When she finally managed to oust him, she sat on her chair beside the hearth and cried. She cried so much that she made a salty soup with her tears, which she then put in the garden for the deer.
That night, in their marital bed, Katinka asked her husband, “Have I ever given you cause to be unfaithful?”
“No, of course not, my love,” Stefan assured her. “There is none more beautiful in all of the world to me. You are the only one of my heart, now and forever. You should not trouble yourself with such things.”
The next day, Katinka was hanging out fresh laundry. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a brown striped bird bounding from branch to branch. Finally, it landed in her basket.
“I hope those wet clothes soak you so that you are damp and miserable,” said Katinka.
The bird only cocked its head to one side as it looked at her.
“Do you not remember that you were the bearer of evil news regarding my husband?” she said. “It was a falsehood. Were I not a kind woman, I would crush you and bake you into a pie.”
“At this very minute,” said the bird, “the king has entered the palace, the rowing has commenced across the moat, the snake is crawling its way to its hiding home.”
“That’s it!” cried. She threw a blanket over the basket, trying to catch the nasty animal, but it spirited away to the forest.
This encounter left her breathless and visions of what the animal was alluding to drummed through her head. How could it be possible? She believed her husband in everything he said. She was a good wife to him and had never even burned a piece of toast. And she was still one of the most beautiful women of the village, no small thing for a woman of her age, only a year younger than Stefan himself.
She made him ciorba that night for dinner, his favorite. She took extra care with the ingredients, adding the kefir that brings the tartness to the dish and whets the appetite. She wore a frock that complimented her figure and brought out the rosiness of her complexion. She brushed her hair a hundred times and wore her best combs. When she served Stefan the ciorba, she took care to bend so that he saw the beauty of her bosom and would catch the sweet scent of her perfume.
“You are beautiful tonight, my queen, and you have prepared my favorite meal for me. Whatever is the occasion?”
Katinka only smiled and sliced a generous piece of lipie for his plate. She watched him consume his dinner and then he took her to bed. They were happy as a man and wife and she could not be more satisfied that all was as perfect as the day they wed. “Nasty old bird,” she thought. “Tomorrow he will be bird pie, bird stew, bird bread. What is the meaning of all of his chatter?”
The next day she had to go to market. She was out of milk and butter and flour and she wanted to buy a string for his little bird neck. She would catch him and feed him to her husband who would be none the wiser. That would teach him.
On passing through the market she chanced upon the lovely Georgeta who was buying a wheel of cheese. She had the chance to observe the lass who seemed sweet and innocent enough, not at all the picture of debauchery painted by the filthy bird. It was just birds like this, thought Katinka, who created so much misery in the world. How many tears have I cried over his lies? I tell you, one teaspoonful is too much.
She built the bird a snare and to lure him, a mound of seeds. The next day, she found him in her trap, proving he can only be the bird brain she thought him to be.
When she pointed this out, he said, “But I have done nothing against my nature, Katinka. I have sung what is in my heart to sing. I have eaten the seed that my stomach craves. Mark my words: By next moon, you will be out in the cold and a new bird will fluff her feathers in your nest.”
And with that, Katinka wrung his little neck and put him into a pie and baked him in the oven, so displeased was she with the little thing. “I just hope the taste is not as bad as his words,” she thought. But the taste was as succulent a pie as she had ever made and her husband praised her and stuffed his face. He was passionate in bed with her that night, more passionate than he had ever been and she was pleased as a wife and could not help but smile at the memory of it the next day.
She found she missed the creature, however, oddly enough, missed the way his accusatory remarks had stirred her. Her life felt flat, somehow, plain. When her husband came home she was as dull as a worn pan. “What has happened to you?” he said and for many days thereafter he inquired after her missing beauty, charms, youthful demeanor. “Where is my fair bride?” he said one day and it struck her that he saw only the surface for he did not ask: “How is the heart of my beloved?”
And so doubt struck her for the first time since Stefan had declared himself her faithful husband. The bird had sung one note which now reverberated louder in her mind since taking the little creature’s life for their dinner. Stefan seemed to sing several notes which clashed: One a denial of his trysts, another his claim of an exclusive love for her, and yet a third his concern with appearances only and not the depths of her heart. This made it impossible for her to see him with a singular heart. What had happened to her dear, loving husband?
That night she collected tears silently by the bowlful and put them in the garden and the bowls outnumbered the deer necessary to take away her pain.
First published in One Thousand and One Stories
It’s my birthday! I am 51, one year over the half century mark, and I’m not quite sure how I survived, but here I am and thank you for joining me.
There are some pieces I’ve written in my life that have gotten me into trouble with my conservative Christian subculture. I was born into this subculture and I married into it, though now I find myself on its fringes, and am no longer attached to it through matrimonial ties. That being said, the deeper values I’ve tried to convey in my fiction are those of the human spirit, those of faith, hope, and love.
I channeled Flannery O’ Connor’s Wise Blood for the general feel of some of this. She is my hero though I don’t think she would have any truck with a piece involving the time travel of an 18th century feminist to a whore house in current day Nevada. She had a great deal to say about the nature of fiction in her brilliant Mystery and Manners. She brought her Catholic faith to bear in the development of her esthetic and her argument for the use of the world we apprehend through our senses, the world we engage with every day.
I got the idea for the setting from the HBO special called Cathouse. Of all the places Christ himself would have been, it would have been among people who sell themselves or who are sold. Barring that, I placed Mary Wollstonecraft here, authoress of Vindication of the Rights of Women. She herself was a fairly liberal person in her time and I was happy to see her getting along so well with the ladies of the Kitty Cat once they sat down to tea. The end notes refer to sections I lifted from Vindication so that Mary and her new friends could have a chat about issues that concern them.
This piece was first published in Serving House Journal. I feel I finally hit on how to publish this when I found a place that was engaged with the discussion of ideas. My work is fantastical, not necessarily the work of “real life” even in its less time travely bits. One editor at a journal who rejected this said the following: “I doubt you’ve even gone to a whore house. You don’t know anything about it.” Ha. Ok. But my work is fantastical and still a good world in and of itself, one I have created whole cloth. I am glad this found a home.
The gorgeous collage is one I found on flickr and now wish I could put on my wall. What lush colors. Celebratory. Exactly how I want my work to feel. Enjoy.
Mary Wollstonecraft at the Kitty Cat
Mary Wollstonecraft and her thoughts about equality had little to do with Peggy Shams, the madam of Kitty Cat Ranch, the provider of what her customers affectionately called tenderloin, nice gams, a fresh piece of meat. Peggy had never heard of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a late eighteenth century document setting forth a cogent argument for the education and humane treatment of women.
Though Peggy had been an ardent student of history as a girl, she had ironically and unfortunately missed the reading and study of this very piece of literature. And yet, when Mary introduced herself at the doorway of Peggy Sham’s empire, requesting tea, Peggy thought: “This is a strange one, but who am I to turn her away? What right do I have to exclude someone based on the century one comes from, the clothing one dons, the way one talks?”
Peggy had no idea that this woman would have torn her whorehouse to pieces with a few deft strokes of her pen. She was only all too anxious for a closer examination of the convincing virginal getup, the elaborate folds of the dress lifting in the Nevada breeze. The woman’s ladylike composure against the burnished yellow haze of the desert and the lilt and play of dirt devils was exquisite, breathtaking in its unexpected juxtaposition.
“Please, yes, do, come in,” said Peggy, squeezing her own hands together as if to wring from her body knowledge of proper etiquette. “We haven’t started our tea hour yet, but do have a seat and I’ll call the girls out.”
The woman drifted into the room and seated herself upon the Victorian fainting couch Peggy had just purchased. This, thought Peggy, was a fortuitous sign. At the very instant she, Peggy Shams, madam of Kitty Cat Ranch, was trying to bring decency to the flesh trade and thus ensnare a wider range of customers, a real lady, a class act, was sitting on her sofa, a diamond offered up to her on velvet.
“In tea, my dear,” she heard herself saying, “What is your pleasure?”
“Oh, most certainly Earl Gray,” replied the woman as she removed her gloves.
Wasn’t she a specimen, thought Peggy excitedly as she ransacked her brain, trying to remember what her last name was exactly. Mary Woollycroft, something like that, something Mayflowery, very Plymouth Rocky, starchy pilgrim.
“Kitty Cat Ranch is a fascinating moniker for a tea room,” said the woman. “Though feline animals are indeed often associated with women, it is good, I believe, to keep the tea room free of unaccompanied male intruders, as their presence can disrupt intelligent, enlightened conversation among female companions.”
“Er, yes,” said Peggy. She would have to be careful with this one. She sensed, oddly enough, she was only there for the tea. “This intelligent and enlightened conversation you’re talking about – I have always thought that the girls here could learn from someone like yourself, you know, a real lady who is also well spoken.”
“Oh, you are an educational establishment as well as a tea room? What a fine idea!”
“Well, on Wednesday afternoons, we have tea, girls only,” said Peggy, pulling out the electric pot she would use to warm the water. “The rest of the time we educate, especially the ones with no experience. This pertains mostly to the young men. The girls themselves are usually quite knowledgeable.”
“I am glad to hear of your educated women,” said Mary. “I cannot say enough for the acquisition of knowledge for the improvement of the status and character of our sex.”
“Do you mind, ever so much, if I took a look at your frock?” said Peggy, extending her dimpled hand and pulling her guest up to a standing position. This was a vision in white, this angel adorned in gossamer folds of fabric which flowed out from a satin empire waist – the waist, so concealing, yet so feminine – the folds so airy they formed a meringue around the sweet arms and shoulders and the skirt as long and drifty as a bride’s.
The purple carpet of the Kitty Cat has never been caressed by anything so pure. This was a sign that all of her business plans and strategies were accurate, that America was ready for a new kind of whore, a new kind of fantasy. “Virgin in the parlor, whore in the bedroom,” she blurted out as if an eruption had occurred in her brain.
“What?” said Mary, looking alarmed, taking a step back from her hostess.
Peggy placed her hand over her mouth as if to restrain a mild attack of mid-afternoon reflux.
“Oh excuse me please! It must be my tummy,” she said.
Mary retired to her place on the couch while Peggy clomped across the parlor to a door painted purple. “I will summon the girls.”
The office was a room walled off from the parlor by painted particle board with a cracked door and a pass-through window where customers paid for services rendered. Peggy pressed a worn black button which activated a shrill bell and then she returned to the parlor. She could hear the tread of the girls in their platform pumps, those gargantuan elevated shoes whose effect was to slow the girls down, to make movement and freedom impossible, to give the body the appearance of length, to signify the identity and class of the wearer.
“No more!” said Madam Peggy. She managed to pull off the exclamatory remark as a cough.
There must be some other way, she thought to herself, some other seductive yet more virtuous footwear that would thrill the hearts of men without solely reminding them of corruption. The kinds of people who expected her girls to wear this gear were the kind she didn’t want to deal with anymore. She pictured all those sleazebags: beefy gods with woefully outdated mullets, drunken pond scum with money to burn, virgin dorks, sad, horny couples. “Phew” she said, as if coughing out these bodies from her very own mouth.
“Would you care for a piece of licorice?” said Mary from the parlor. “It seems you have a case of mild dyspepsia and I find the confection to be of utilitarian value in addressing this bothersome ailment.”
“Oh, no thank you. I must ready the parlor for our repast.” Peggy thanked Jesus for the movies her mother used to make her watch, movies based on classic books by Henry James, Jane Austen, Marcel Proust. That’s how she knew about a “repast,” though she wished she could look it up real quick, to see if she had used the word properly.
From her post at the tea table, Peggy observed Mary’s face as the scantily clad girls filed in. They wore flowered hats, fishnet stockings, silk corsets and garters, patent platform stilettos, push up bras and boas. The woman didn’t blink. When the girls had all seated themselves, Mary commenced speaking.
“I regret I may be sorrowful company for your merry gathering,” said Mary. “I confess I am downcast over inequalities between men and women, inequalities I wrote about over two hundred years ago. I see the licentious dressing which the sensualists are bribing you to wear for their own pleasures. I have witnessed how, in times past, such attention to sensual pleasure disables the development of the nobler sensibilities and inhibits the enhancement of the powers to reason.”(1)
The girls stared at the strange little woman from under the plastic flowered brims of their bonnets.
“You know, Ms. Woollycroft,” said Peggy, “I have often thought to myself – haven’t I girls? – that we could learn to be a little more modest, like Mary is suggesting here, and maybe read some more on our off hours, you know, get educated.”
She handed a cup of Earl Grey to Mary and plopped in three lumps of sugar, an uncharacteristically generous serving, and a dollop of full cream.
Then she scrambled to her office and wrote, on a piece of paper: “Finishing school; purification of footwear; virgin whore – theme, incorporation of?” The girls lined up at the tea cart to fill their cups. Peggy scrambled back out to the parlor and snatched away the sugar and cream.
From her office where she was stowing away the fattening items in a mini-fridge, she heard one of the girls, nicknamed Army Amy, speaking to Mary Woollycroft. “You need one of these newfangled things I ordered from TV, Ms. Mary.” Army Amy was their oldest “girl.” She was a veteran of the Persian Gulf War. She had been a nurse and she was pretty in a tanned, toned, bottle-blond type of way. “I got a new contraption that will give you orgasms like you wouldn’t believe,” said the Army nurse “It will sure take away those blues we’re talking about. I had four orgasms – four, count them – before coming to work today.” The girls who were listening to this clapped and laughed.
Peggy hightailed it out of the office. Many of the girls were in various states of sloppiness, having thrown off the refined postures of “high tea day.” They slouched, their legs were spread. A couple of them who were bending to laugh were gathering their breasts into their bras. “Ladies!” said Peggy, her fury manifesting itself in the hardness of her eyes.
There was a silence, and then Mary, who sat in the center of the room, started to speak as if addressing a room of women gathered for a formal lecture on some topic.
“I should like to steer clear of an error in talking to all of you, an error which many respectable writers and speakers have fallen into. That is, that of addressing women as ‘ladies.’ I would prefer instead to address you as ‘women’ in order to avoid portraying us all as the frivolous sex, to be ridiculed or pitied by the men who endeavor by satire or instruction to improve us. (2) A gentleman drinking spirits at a taproom in town directed me to your establishment as a place to have tea today, but now I see I have been led here by Providence for some higher purpose. If this purpose is not achieved in the course of one afternoon, and something tells me it will not be, I will return until all have all been enlightened as to the cause of our discontent as women and of our failure to improve our status.”
“I mean no frivolity in my use of the term ‘ladies,’ Ms. Woollycroft. I mean no insult,” said Peggy. “I was thinking of gracious women who take tea and mind their manners.”
“Manners and morals are so nearly allied,” said Mary, “that they have often been confounded; but, though the former should only be the natural reflection of the latter, yet, when various causes have produced factitious and corrupt manners, which are very early caught, morality becomes an empty name.”(3)
“I get it,” said a long, lean blond stretched out across a faux leopard skin chaise lounge. “The manners you don’t like are the ones we fake at these fucking tea parties.”
Mary raised her brows at this, fixing a steady gaze on Peggy, as if some sort of explanation or apology would be forthcoming.
The girls all doubled over in raucous joy. They’ve never had someone to ally with them against Madam Peggy, except Kansas, the long, lean blond who just attached the f-word to this girls-only, cocaine and alcohol free social event with their frumpy overseer, squashy as a dumpling. The only reason Kansas got away with anything is that she made the most money for the Ranch. She cost $1500 an hour and up while the others’ rates hovered somewhere around one thousand.
Madam purpled. She could not let the girls see how this antique broad’s trump had infuriated her.
“It is acknowledged that the female sex spends many of the first years acquiring accomplishments,” said Mary. At some point, thought Peggy, it would be time for all of them to get their asses back to work. “Meanwhile,” said Mary in a sonorous, oblivious tone which crawled around on the sensitive patches of Peggy’s brain, “strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty and to the only way women can rise in the world – by marriage. And this desire makes mere animals of them, when they marry, they act as such children may be expected to act: they dress, they paint, and nickname God’s creatures. Surely these weak beings are only fit for the seraglio!”(4)
“Goddamn, I knew I was in the right place!” said Kansas. The girls fell out again. A spring was coming unwound in them and a couple of them bounced on the couch and a few had to rise to stretch out from laughing cramps. Army Amy blew tea through her nose.
“This is not a Turkish seraglio!” said Peggy, pounding a fist on the back of a storage bench where they kept the chains, in the off chance a man wanted to be enslaved. “I offer health care to you girls! I listen to your problems! I treat you like a mother would her very own children!”
“If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism,” said Mary, “their mother must be a patriot and a lover of mankind.5 Such language as I have heard today from these women does not reflect even a respect for self. I blame this on poor instruction.”
“I do love mankind,” said Peggy. “And I am a patriot, to the last!”
“Furthermore,” said Mary. “Women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.”(6)
“Our former manager, Rusty Felton,” said Kansas, “we were all friends with him. Me especially.”
“Our tea is running overtime today.” said Peggy, glaring at the girls and avoiding eye contact with Kansas. This had not gone quite like she had expected, although she was still undecided about what had happened. She felt uncomfortable, unsettled, and reached for a little container of nitroglycerin spray she kept in her pocket to ward off oncoming angina. She didn’t know if she had heart trouble, really, or if it was anxiety. She covered both with an amply supplied medicine cabinet.
Madam clomped back to the office and pressed the bell, signaling the girls it was time to go back to work. Customers would be arriving soon and the girls were to go to their rooms to ready themselves. Peggy sat at her desk, staring at the notes she had scribbled earlier. She craved something sugary.
Before the nighttime desk clerks arrived, she would hide herself beside the filing cabinet and eat a candy bar, catching the nuts in her skirt, cramming bits of chocolate into her mouth with her nails. She heard the tread of the girls’ heavy footsteps. She heard the creak of the fainting couch as Mary rose to leave.
Peggy rushed to see her guest out, not quite sure why she was so anxious to see her again, to reassure herself of the continuance of their relationship. “Are you going to come again sometime, Ms. Woollycroft?”
Mary nodded, her cool blue eyes appraising her but not unfriendly and she turned and stepped out into the desert of Nevada, reddened by the setting sun.
In the darkness of her room that night, Peggy plopped down on a squeaky cot she inherited from her grandmother. She felt her body melt into the thin mattress and drift as she heard her granny’s speeches in her head.
“You dress like a whore!” she had said when she was alive, when she, Peggy, was young and played poker at her Daddy’s bar where she scammed men out of their money. “You look like a hooker! Go get that willow branch, go get me that switch. I won’t rest until I’ve applied it to your bottom. I won’t rest until I’ve raised the guilt in you like a welt. I made mistakes with your Mama, but I won’t make them with you!”
On Sunday mornings, the old woman dragged her to church to have Satan taken out. When Peggy prayed out loud that Satan would come out all by himself so she didn’t have to go, her grandmother ordered her not to blaspheme: “Not on my time, you don’t. Not on my watch!” Her granny saw something deep in her, something dark and inextricably wound around her heart, a blackness like a tumor.
When the old woman died, it was like all the life and starch were taken out of Peggy. She dropped out of high school and spent the rest of her senior year lying on her mother’s hip, while her mother watched the classic movie channel and ordered pizzas. Finally, her mother said she couldn’t support her anymore. It was hard enough to squeak by on what she was getting from alimony payments. Peggy left home and started hooking and making lots of money. Later, she became a madam.
During the ten years she waited for her boss to leave, or die, she sat at her kitchen table over microwaved dinners, dreaming of starting a gentlemen’s club, a really classy one, with no poles or elevated dance floors, and no garish furniture like the eyesore of a purple leather sofa that snaked its way through the parlor. The club would be named something different, she didn’t know what, but it would be graced with deep leather seats, mahogany tables, and long, luxurious white curtains like the ones in some of the more expensive night clubs in New York and Los Angeles.
The girls would wear modest clothes, would look like girlfriends or even potential brides.
“Virgin whore,” she said, thinking of Mary Woollycroft. With this thought came the memory of the woman’s accusations: that Peggy was running a Turkish seraglio; that she did not respect the girls because she called them “ladies;” that she was unpatriotic, which to Peggy was the very worst of denouncements. She was no one if not a lover of America, a free country allowing voters to do whatever the hell they wanted and allowed her to run a business.
“Mary Woollycroft is the resurrection of my grandmamma,” thought Peggy in the darkness of her trailer on the edge of the desert. A shyness crept over her then, a necessity for cover so deep she lifted the mattress of her bed and crawled onto the springs. She pulled the mattress over her and felt the weight of it press into her like the weight of a man, something long since forgotten.
At six a.m. her alarm went off. Peggy lifted off the mattress part way.
At first, she could not remember how she had got like that. Had someone come in? Had she hidden? Had someone tried to smother her? She tried to get up, but her robe caught on a spring and she had to tear it to pull it loose. She felt like she had been smashed in by a fence post.
Then she remembered the previous night’s memories of her granny. She shivered as if the woman was tromping down the hall, waiting to snatch her out of her room and drag her down to the pastor who would clunk her on the head. Satan and Granny had been neck on neck. If it hadn’t have been for Granny, there wouldn’t have been Satan, and if Jesus hadn’t come, Satan would have laid low too.
Peggy lay on top of the mattress and listened to the wind whip around the sides of her house. She felt free and clean, swept out and ready for the next thing, and she thought of the sounds of her office – her very own office, with no one to boss her around or gross it up. She thought of her adding machine, its comforting clicking, the coffee machine – its dripping and wheezing – the odd beeps and hisses of the credit card machine.
What did her grandmother know, really, what did anyone know? Wasn’t her grandmother dead? Weren’t her bones lying in a casket? Did her mouth speak? Did her hand flail with a switch?
When Peggy arrived at the Kitty Cat, she came upon Mary Woollycroft in the parlor drinking tea.
“It’s good to see you, Ms. Woollycroft,” she said. “But this is a busy day. Maybe you can come see us again next Wednesday on our tea day, 4 p.m. sharp. We would love to have you and the girls enjoyed you immensely.”
“Thank you,” said Mary. There was something in her face that was different. She didn’t look as abstracted and checked out. Her eyes glittered intensely and her jaw had a set look.
“Yes, we’re getting all new furniture, a new look, a new name,” said Peggy. “Lots of hard work to do, not much time for chitchat I’m afraid.”
“Thank you for your invitation for next week, but I think I’ll stay,” said Mary. She sipped her tea.
Peggy stared at her.
“You have not represented yourself genuinely,” said Mary, nestling the cup in its saucer. “You have led me to believe you are helping these women.”
“That is exactly what I am doing,” said Peggy. Her heart was racing like it used to when her granny yanked her out of bed.
“You are not being of assistance to any of them in the least. I have spoken with some of the women pursuant to their arrival this morning and have learned that you are contributing to the demise and slavery of a significant portion of our numbers. You should know your history, Ms. Shams. If you did, you would know who I am and why I have chosen to remain.”
“I know my history better than anyone.” “You speak another untruth, Ms. Shams.”
Peggy sighed and clomped off to her office. She was sick of this tiresome broad, just as sick as she was of her vinyl pumps sliding off her heal. It was time for leather, all new leather everything – leather shoes, leather purse, leather wallet, leather coat, leather desk chair. She threw her notebook down beside the phone. She had sketched out some nice dresses for the girls, retro sixties, sexy housewife. When the girls came in, she had them come into her office so she could measure them.
“What’s this for?” said Kansas. “Your own good,” said Peggy.
“I got the whole industry for my own good. I can call your old boss and get the fuck out of here.”
“Do you see how they treat me, Ms. Woollycroft?” Peggy shouted to the woman through the open door. She was sure Mary was listening. “And me, taking care of them and all and making sure they never want for anything.”
“You’re some kind of sugar teat, all right,” said Kansas. Kansas bent down to Peggy’s face, for the older lady was on her knees getting a measurement of the working girl’s slim hips. The smoothness of the girl’s sex-enhanced skin brought beads of sweat to Peggy’s little soft mustache.
“Now you listen here, you mother fucking bitch,” said the girl through clenched, pearly teeth. “Don’t touch that woman. If she wants to drink tea the whole goddamn day, you give her tea. And if she wants to talk to us, you better let her talk. And if she doesn’t like you or agree with whatever it is you’re doing here, whatever it is you got going up in that little noggin” – Kansas wrapped on Peggy’s forehead with her knuckles – “you fucking deal or I’m outta here.”
Kansas stood and made a sharp one eighty turn as if she had come to the end of a modeling platform and was heading back down the runway.
Peggy fell back against the file cabinet, her legs spread before her, her knees puckering beneath her tan stockings. “Slut!” she screamed inside her head.
She would never get anywhere if she had this to work with, this disrespect, so much hatred and ingratitude. She would have to work fast and hard to get her new concept underway, but she knew she could do it.
The words “Manifest Destiny” were taped to the inside of the handle on her phone. She knew she had the skills for something great. She knew she had business acumen, vision, toughness. And besides that, she had the right beliefs. She knew there was no evil, only God, and He had ordained this for her, this new kind of vision, had laid it out like a map. Men needed this guilt-free service, and in its wake, marriages would flourish. This was something God could get into. He was a Utilitarian, if nothing else.
It would take a year of going along, business as usual, keeping the girls happy and healthy and fed, and then she would hire young, attractive, smooth-talking recruiters and cull the colleges for students, kids desperate enough to sell their bodies to pay for their tuition and designer clothes. She would build a nest for them, with furniture they recognized, and a place where decent men would feel comfortable. She would make it like home, a home for everyone.
Ms. Shams.” A voice croaked from the parlor. “I would like some more Earl Grey tea.”
They were out of Earl Grey, thought Peggy. How had they run through it so fast? The old bag had messed with her head so much she must have made too many pots. But Peggy remembered Kansas’ snarling threat. She had to keep this prima donna of theirs happy.
“I’ll get us restocked, don’t you worry Ms. Woollycroft,” said Peggy, pulling herself up from the floor. “I just have to run to the store. It’s a pretty good ways down the road, so I’ll be back in about an hour.”
“Oh, and some more cream,” said Mary.
Son of a – Peggy thought. “OK!” she said. She grabbed her purse and stepped outside, onto the threshold. She slammed the door on the vision of Mary in her parlor. “Bitch!” she said out loud.
“God bless you!” said Mary, through the hollow vinyl door.
“Damn,” she said, more quietly now as she crunched along the sidewalk of pebbles. It was an hour until they opened and she would just get back in time to start dealing with the customers and then she would have to put up with this woman whom she’d invited to come back and hang out. What had she been thinking? And why had Mary become one big stubborn demanding heifer?
She peeled off from the gravel lot onto the road. The five o’clock sun stabbed murderously at her eyes. Peggy lowered the sun shade.
When she got to the store, she was a perspiring mess. The air had gone out on her, and Peggy added “new car” to her mental to-be- purchased list, along with leather accessories, a bed fit for a queen, a truckload of rocks. She paid for the tea and cream. She had just enough cash left over for a snack at the ranch, for a candy bar and coke from the machines plastered with signs that read “Client Use Only.”
On the drive back, she spied a familiar looking man in black, loping along the shoulder. She pulled up to him. Perhaps he was heading to the Ranch and if he had been drinking at all, could be easily conned once she showed him the girls and got him into negotiating prices for services. When she had come alongside of him, she recognized the side of his puffy face and the Johnny Cash getup he liked to don on Friday nights, including a black leather hat. It was the former owner, Rusty Felton.
“Well, Russ,” she said, “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Give me a ride,” he said. He was breathing hard, with his mouth open, and he squinted as if walking was giving him pain.
“Where you going?”
“You a paying customer?”
Peggy’s chest tightened as he crawled into the passenger seat. He didn’t buckle up, but she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t give a flying fig. She pulled onto the highway.
“What brings you back?” she said after a long pause. The sky was a violet purple now with streaks of red and pink. There was nothing out here but dirt, sky, and a range of faraway mountains.
When he didn’t answer, she looked at his face. He had aged, in just two weeks. Less sex, she thought. A man like that, having been bolstered so long by a satisfied appetite collapses in on himself.
“I thought you had some hot offer outside Vegas,” she said.
“Fell through,” he said, looking out the side window.
Peggy pulled up behind a huge dark dump truck whose contents were covered by a vinyl tarp. It was going about 35 miles per hour and in front of that was an RV. She had spotted the RV a mile or so back on a curve. She was trying to judge whether she could get around both of the vehicles and get safely back on her side of the highway in time.
“You get some fancy visitor at the Kitty Cat yesterday?” he said. “A gal in some old timey get-up came into the bar where I was. She was looking to have tea and I sent her your way. I hope you took care of her.”
“So who you going to see at Kitty Cat?” she said, ignoring his question. She swerved out from the dump truck, but then had to swerve back into her lane again to avoid an oncoming semi.
Peggy pressed in the lighter. This called for a cigarette. “You can’t afford her, Rusty.” “I’m gonna to take her with me.”
“What?” Peggy slammed on the breaks just in time to avoid hitting the dump truck which had stopped suddenly. The RV in front of it had slowed to pull off onto a county road. Peggy’s bumper had missed the dump truck’s worn black fender by a foot.
The dump truck burbled up to a start and lurched ahead. Peggy followed, not bothering to pass now. She returned the case to its safekeeping by her breast.
“Listen, if you think she’s going with you, you’re crazy,” she said. “You’ve got nothing for her.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” he said, as if he had not been severely insulted. “I got love.” He rolled his window down partway and the dry breeze ruffled his thinning hair.
“Oh my God!” said Peggy. “Oh Lord help us!”
“That’s right,” he said, sitting up on his seat and turning toward her. “I want to love Kansas, love her like she’s never been loved, in a decent way. We were just talking about it on the phone.”
Kansas was supposed to be getting ready for her clients, and here she was, talking on the phone to this putz. It was that Woollycroft broad with all her speechifying and pretty ways. She had set this up, the bitch. As soon as this thought launched itself, Peggy felt a rush of fire on her flesh. Grandmamma! I’m sorry Granny, she almost pleaded aloud to the hot wind.
“We’re going to get married,” Rusty went on. “We’re going to start all over and have a normal life. She’s never been loved for who she is. She’s giving me the chance to do this, and she loves me too. Did you ever think you’d hear me say that, bad as I am? Did you ever think I could love someone and they could love me?”
“This is outrageous! Oh this is just hilarious!” She pulled hard on her cigarette and spewed a plume of smoke. She tossed it out the window and sparks flew past. She jammed the lighter back in. She tore at the top button of her blouse and jammed her hand into her bra, searching for the cigarette case. The lighter popped back out and she held it to her cigarette and breathed heavy on its tar-filled offering.
“She doesn’t love you and you don’t love her,” she said, smoke coming out of her nostrils and the sides of her mouth in little bursts. “You want to know why? Let me tell you why. There is no love, that’s why!”
And then the black hull of the dump truck was upon them in the headlights and there was a screech of metal and the sound of a million tiny stones falling from the truck ahead like coins from a slot machine. They fell into the car, mixing with bits of glass from the windshield. And then they filled Peggy’s mouth, her eyes, her blouse. They made a pillow for her head and a leg rest for her feet. They were pink, roseate, striated with gray.
Rusty fell out of the car. The rocks, having pressed down on the door handle in some fortuitous way, and Rusty, being that he was unbuckled, rolled over the shoulder of the road and onto the dry, barren earth. He jumped up and stood for a moment, shaking nervously. Yet he was strangely calm, as if he had not just been in a crash and nearly lost his life.
And then it dawned on him that the former owner’s presence at the scene of the accident might look suspicious, might look like he was trying to get his old job back. A rolling tumbleweed gave him opportunity. He grasped hold of it and, using it as a shield, effectual enough in the partial darkness, crept toward the Kitty Cat.
1 Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Project Gutenberg Etext
– No. 3420.
Mark had never met a girl like Trina. He was new to school, Bradford Middle School, to be exact, and she friended him first, in the cafeteria, sitting beside him when he was sitting alone, her nails colored with a chipped black polish he noticed first thing, not looking up at first, her hands gripping her tray as he looked up from his book, trying hard not look a loser who was doing what he was really doing: Reading a book during lunch. My name is Trina she said and he said My name is Mark. And he got a full look of her hair and face, her kohl lined eyes, deep glossed lips, the nest of black hair springing up evenly around her head and dotted with stars and little falls of tinsel, he couldn’t tell exactly, he had never seen anything quite like it. She wore fingerless gloves, a torn jacket, a lace skirt, boots.
“You gotta stay away from that Potts girl,” said his grandma when he got home and told her about his first day. He was at the table with the same book he had been reading at the cafeteria: The Thousand Page Book of Grim Facts. His grandfather had given it to him not long after his father had died and Mark and his mother came to live with them in Starke, Florida.
“Why do I have to stay away from her, grandma?” Mark had wanted Trina to come over next day. They were going to go over The Grim Facts book.
“Cause she and her Mama are witches. Live out there in the woods under the oaks in their car with the alligator and bear. Homeless but want for nothing. Special powers n’ such. Devil stuff.”
“Leave him ‘lone, Violet,” said Grandpa. “He can have any friend he wants over here. Jesus got not truck for bias.”
Grandma clucked, shuffling around her kitchen, like she did when she wanted to talk back to Grandpa but he had given her an unassailable position. She was nothing if not religious.
Mark took advantage of the moment to take his cookies and milk to his room along with the Grim Facts. He sat down with his stash on the floor and spread it out before him. The Grim Facts book: The best present he had ever been given. The things no one else had said when his father had died. It was not like he couldn’t look some things up on line. But to have them printed on paper and given to him was like Grandpa having taken the time to give him a perfect Hallmark card. No one had wanted to talk much about the truth of how his dad died except Grandpa. “May you always know the facts, son,” Grandpa had written on the inside cover. “Love, Grandpa, Christmas 2017.”
An excerpt from Sea Worthy magazine was found in the chapter in Electric Shock Drowning: “Captain David Rifkin and James Shafer conducted extensive testing of all aspects of ESD for a Coast Guard study in 2008, including exposing themselves to low-level currents in fresh water. ‘Anything above 3 milliamps (mA) can be very painful,’ Rifkin said. ‘If you had even 6 mA going through your body, you would be in agonizing pain.’ Less than a third of the electricity used to light a 40-watt light bulb — 100 mA — passing directly through the heart is almost always fatal.” *
That day at the lake in Arkansas, Labor Day weekend, was the worst in Mark’s life. He and his family were having a picnic with their dog Chip. A young girl had jumped into the water off the end of the dock and was screaming. His father jumped in to help her and both of them died because of electricity leaking from a boat. A man pulled their bodies out with a long hook grounded with a rubber handle so as to not be electrocuted himself. They were laid on the shore and people tried to help with mouth to mouth and chest compressions. But Mark knew inside his father was gone. He looked nothing like himself, so passive and lifeless. That was not his father at all.
It was like his dad to be thinking only of someone else, this young girl who was in pain and frightened. Mark touched the entry of this description in the Grim Facts book. It was getting a little worn looking where he touched it. He tried to imagine what it would have been like for him, this experience of being shocked and in pain, but he couldn’t force himself to. Something stopped him from thinking about it all the way though in the chapter the levels of pain were clearly outlined per milliamp, every milliamp right up until death.
Maybe another time he could force himself to imagine it fully. It had only been a few months since this had happened and many days it didn’t even seem real. Sometimes he thinks his dad would never have guessed he and Mom and Chip would be living with Grandma and Grandpa in Starke, old death town, he would say, because of the infamous three legged electric chair at the prison. His dad would probably have laughed at the irony of their situation.
Would his dad’s spirit fly down from his grave in Pine Bluff to watch over them? Mark believed this every night though nothing about his current beliefs supported much in the way of ghosts and spirits. Nor were witches or any special powers they may have a part of his belief system which is why he ignored what Grandma said about Trina and her mom. Just an old lady scare tactic to get people to stay away from the fringes and go to church. Then Mark felt guilty for feeling unkindly to her. Her cookies were really good and crispy, just the way he liked them.
Trina was making a regular habit of coming over after school. She seemed to like his Grim Facts book and was able to talk about the Starke electric chair chapter, having been a resident of the area for an undetermined amount of time. To compensate her for her invaluable anecdotal contributions, Mark had his grandma make them sandwiches, which also gave his grandma the chance to see nothing untoward was happening in her house while his mother was away at work. Grandma could come into his room, unannounced, and put her mind at rest. And Trina, Mark suspected, was hungry. She always seemed to be, as she shoveled bits in with her fingers with the chipped nails.
“You get to see some things in the woods here,” said Trina, looking at the picture of Raiford Prison, home of Old Sparky. “Spirits so restless and they like to shake you to death. Meanest lady I ever met, met her as a spirit, she killed four men, including her husband and son, wandering around the cemetery where they put her ashes after they fried her brain good on Old Sparky.”
This was a little rough talk for where Mark came from, but it didn’t bother him. Most people were so proper Mark felt he could never see clearly enough to decide how he felt about everything, what he was thinking, what questions he may have. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said.
“You come to the wrong town, then,” said Trina. “There’s a whole society of them here. They believe in you,” she said, and smiled, a piece of pimento cheese having stuck to the corner of her mouth. “You kill people, they’re gonna hang around some.”
“Let’s write to Wayne Doty,” she said, feeling freshly inspired and pulling a pen from the cup of writing utensils on his desk. Wayne Doty had recently been in the news for requesting to die by the electric chair. “Don’t you want to know what he’s thinking?”
Mark conceded it would be interesting research and so they wrote:
Dear Mr. Doty,
We are writing this letter to you to ask you a question. Could you help us? We are doing a project on execution. We don’t know of anyone who has died by electrocution. Why are you asking the state to die by electrocution? Are you worried about execution or being electrocuted? Are you worried that what happened to Pedro Medino or Tiny Davis might happen to you?
Thank you for answering our questions.
Curious students at Bradford Middle School
They felt it best not to use their names of course, not even first names. And being so anonymous allowed them to be a little braver and ask about botched electrocutions – fire springing from Pedro’s head and Tiny, profusely bleeding. Doty was not a man you wanted to rile and had a reputation for being extremely dangerous. They mailed it using Trina’s mother’s mailing address she kept with a friend. Mark’s grandma would have hit the roof.
In a couple of weeks they got a response:
Dear curious students of Bradford Middle School,
I am honored by your curiosity and happy to answer all your questions about my personage. I wish I had me some children of my own but being what I am, I know it is best I remain a single, fatherless man. I want you to obey your Mamas and your Daddies and even though my Daddy was bad seed, there is lots of good out there for you to listen and obey, so do what Mr. Doty says, ok.
It is my right as a citizen of these United States to chose the means by which I die. Ain’t no one else killed who I killed but me and I regret I killed but I pro’lly kill again given who I am and that I ain’t never had no love from family and killing comes natural.
What I seek little chillrun is to help the families of the people I killed feel at peace. Also what I want is the release of spiritual freedom. I want to feel the spirit lifting from me at last, releasing me from the world, and I want to seek that by means the state can kill me most expeditiously, through the electric chair, even if it is not a perfect means. I want to let go, finally and most completely.
They were reading this at the house where Trina and her mother received mail and bathed and cooked their dinners. They were sitting in the afternoon light of the living room with the Thousand Page Book of Grim Facts. Mark had turned to the chart for the effects of AC current on the body in fresh water:
Probable Effect On Human Body
1 mA – Perception level. Slight tingling sensation. Still dangerous under certain conditions.
5 mA – Slight shock felt; not painful but disturbing. Average individual can let go. However, strong involuntary reactions to shocks in this range may lead to injuries.
6-16 mA – Painful shock, begin to lose muscular control. Commonly referred to as the freezing current or let-go range.
17-99 mA – Extreme pain, respiratory arrest, severe muscular contractions. Individual cannot let go of an electrified object. Death is possible.
100-2,000 mA – Ventricular fibrillation (uneven, uncoordinated pumping of heart). Muscular contraction and nerve damage begin to occur. Death is likely.
2,000+ mA – Cardiac arrest, internal organ damage, and severe burns. Death is probable.
“Look at this,” he said. He pointed out the chart. “They say Dad experienced about 100 milliamps.” He felt himself a little unmoored at this point, as if he didn’t have a body. He stared at the space ahead, an empty bookshelf. Where were the books? What was this place?
Trina took the book from his hands and put it beside her on the floor. “Maybe we should think about other things,” she said. And she leaned over and pulled Mark’s face close to hers. She kissed him, holding his mouth on hers. He felt her nails on his neck and breathed in her outdoor smells – sunshine and sky and oak leaf. Her gloss tasted like strawberry.
When she sat back in the patch of sunlight he noticed the trails of miniscule particles floating in the beams slanting down through the window. Maybe that’s all spirit is, he thought, maybe there is some left when we move, we go from place to place, when we die, a trace. He wanted to kiss her again. She felt very much alive. He tasted the faint note of berry on his mouth. The gloss was sticky and sweet and would surely linger through the fading day.
He tasted berry on his lips that night when he met Trina at the entrance to the Florida State Prison Cemetery. He couldn’t be sure, but as they held hands and looked through the bars of the iron gate he could have sworn he saw wisps of beings traipsing among the graves as if waiting for a bell to chime and the doors to swing wide and let them loose into the night.
* “ESD Explained,” by Beth Leonard. http://www.boatus.com.
This Valentine’s Day, I am engaging in a writing mini marathon. I am exploring the joys and trials of love.
But sometimes love isn’t always what it is portrayed to be in popular culture. My brilliant friend Terin Miller offered his insights when I was bemoaning my own challenges in this department. I said on a public post, somewhat facetiously, that writing is really my only one true love. And here was his response: “If you love anything, truly, it is romantic. Not mellow-dramatic, false, or artificial. Do not confuse pathos or even desire with romance. Real romance involves your heart. Not just your brain. Or even just your hormones. There is nothing wrong with loving writing. Or words. Or love. Or language. It is a means of expressing romance with life.”
What is your romance with life? Is it the love of your children? Your partner? Your pet(s)? Your garden? Your love for making dishes or going out with friends? Your travels? Pastimes?
My story of the man with the Steinway was written about twelve years ago. It is in some ways a junior effort though in some ways I think it is just as strong if not stronger than other work to date. And it never published. But I like it anyway. Like a love, it is graced with flaws. But I only have rose colored glasses for my man with the Steinway piano. The piece is a longer work to be savored at leisure. Happy Valentine’s Day.
I found the Steinway in a consignment shop. It was dull, black, the paint rubbed off on the corners, a few scratches here and there. The logo was written out in gold letters below the symbol of the pedal lyre. I bought it because of its resemblance to the piano of my childhood.
As boys, my brother Greg and I had both taken piano lessons. My early attempts were halting and clumsy and eventually ceased altogether when the reward and punishment system my mother had set in place for me became ineffectual: five pennies for each fifteen minutes of practice, three pennies subtracted for every day of missed practice.
For a while, I managed to play half-heartedly and make a modest amount of money without giving up baseball. However, I eventually shut down, and I think what did it was not just my realization I was bored (the incentive-based program reversing itself), but the repeated scene of my brother, leaning forward, his left foot back, in proper position, his fingers delivering notes into the air, liberating them from the strings – legato, staccato, tenuto – while my mother, as if in loving adoration and response, rolled out apple pies, Chicken ala King, rump roast, Beef Wellington, biscuits with sweet cream butter.
He could play up to six hours a day. This bath of notes had a way of silencing us, trapping and gentling us as if we were caught and fattened in a web. We had a wrap around porch and when it was warm, we sat outside in the swing and the rockers or else my sister and I played checkers at the card table while my father read the paper and waited for dinner. Sometimes my father and I took our gloves and threw a baseball, but no matter where we went on our property, we could still hear my brother playing.
My father never said anything and neither did I, and he never complimented my brother and this gave me a sense of peace, as if Greg was not better than my sister and me. But I stopped playing the piano anyway. My brother didn’t have a jar of pennies as incentive to practice. Early on, he told our mother to take his jar away, he didn’t need it, he played for himself only and earning pennies for something he already liked to do was pointless. This pronouncement of both supreme freedom from monetary incentive and from the ordering of the household promoted him, in my mind, to the status of a god and I knew that, in this area at least, I was merely human.
The Steinway arrived on a hot October Florida day. It entered my house shrouded in a faded purple quilt and bound with rope. The plastic wheels of the cart, large as plates, shushed and squeaked over the carpet. It was lowered by four men and exhaled a breath of discordant notes. The men unbound the rope and removed the quilt. It sat before me, a black, hulking presence absorbing light, a contrast to the French antique sideboard which my wife Lena had placed there as a complement to our dining table.
I sat down before it and opened the cover to reveal the keys, the ivory now yellow and dull, but classic, rare. I struck a key and a string responded in a tired way and then I struck the C major chord, the only one I remembered, and a cacophony of complaints issued forth, the notes warping and wavering.
I began to doubt my earlier certainty that it was fate that I should have this dusty instrument in my house, that I should tune it and learn how to play it. My current mid-life desire to try again that which had eluded me before, but which was attractive nonetheless, was perhaps another incarnation of all that was wayward and impractical and ridiculous in me.
“Why can’t you choose something a normal man would do?” said my father, of my decision in a major and I knew what he meant: business, engineering, law. My brother, had he been able to make money as a pianist, would have been exempt. By the time of my decision, he had already failed.
“Your poems were sweet when you were young, Richard,” said my mother. “But how are you going to raise a family?”
They needn’t have worried. I became a normal man. Though I majored in creative writing to spite them (and to their credit, they paid my tuition), I failed to write anything beautiful or insightful, failed to earn anything from my writing at all.
Instead, I sold real estate and got married and had a family. Now I live in Orlando, Florida where my wife is an attorney. For years, while my parents were still alive, they could say at church “Richard sells real estate.” I would stay up deep into the early hours of the morning, wrestling in weakness with grievances and fears, whole dark selves frozen.
I closed the piano lid. The tuner could be called tomorrow. I had found a good one through a woman who teaches at the college, a woman who was going to offer me beginning lessons. I was tired. Now with the Steinway sitting mute and solid in my living room, I felt my weight slipping downward as if succumbing. I climbed the stairs to the bedroom.
The palm-shaped blades of the fan in our bedroom spun lazily. I closed the blinds, but didn’t take the decorative pillows off the bed. My wife was always after me to put them back on after I had removed them and so they would stay. I lay among the beaded fabrics and the decorative feathers and felt myself drift into sleep.
When I awoke, the house was dark. No one was home. I had arranged for the kids to go to their friends’ houses after school in case the piano was delivered late. I had an hour to listen to the blade of my knife slice through the flesh of vegetables, to get the water up to a boil, to open wine.
My wife Lena had been extremely successful right out of law school, had had the type of intelligence and prowess that had landed her a job with a prestigious firm. On my worst days, I felt outstripped, but consoled myself with the flimsy theory that successes happened at different times and that right now, the children needed me.
My role was to shop and make meals, to pick the children up after school and secure their clothing and school supplies. Emily, our eleven year old, was a budding ballerina, and Giles, nine, liked sports, almost any sport, but he liked it in an easygoing, rather than competitive way.
Emily was her own self-disciplined being, and reminded me of her uncle and mother both. I often told her her uncle would be proud to see her dancing to many of the musical pieces he had learned to play. This seemed to please her and she smiled with her mother’s beautiful mouth and her mother’s green eyes sparkled back at me.
She often gave me a hug because she believed I was sad when I mentioned her uncle. By now, she knew he had felt the pressure and recurring physical pain of performance and had died from an intentional overdose. Though my brother had died in this way, I knew him to be the greater man, and I’ll admit a part of me was glad he was not alive to prove it.
When Lena got home and saw the changes I had made to accommodate the piano, she registered her protest. “You have moved the sideboard under the window. That’s not a good place. It’s about a million miles from the dining room table.” We had a large front room that accommodated both a dining room and living room area. We had never been able to agree upon the division and arrangement of tables and chairs.
“I made chicken. I think you’ll like it.” I handed her a glass of chilled white wine. “Try this Pouilly Fuisse.”
“The lamp you put on it doesn’t go. It’s not a lamp for a sideboard.”
“You can get us another.” I took the wine from her and slid my hands over the silk of her blouse. I felt the metal clasp of her bra.
“That piano is hideous.”
“Where is Lena?” I said, and kissed her on the cheek. It is a game we used to play when we were first married and I believed myself capable of loosening her to laughter, to good humor.
“Lena is here, but don’t think it’s going to happen, not now.”
I pulled her to me and kissed her full. I felt with my fingers along her neck and shoulders, searching for the places I knew were sensitive.
“The kids will be coming soon,” she said, turning, bowing her head. She pushed against my shoulders and eased herself down to the floor. She seemed weaker, more diminutive, without her heels, her stockinged feet flat against the tiles.
When my lessons began, I came home from work during my lunch hour to practice. I began to like the freedom and solitude to work as slowly as I needed to. One afternoon, as I was playing a scaled down version of a Chopin piece, composed for beginning students, I detected movement on the porch.
“Come in,” I said, from my bench, certain it was someone we knew who was politely waiting until I finished playing to ring the doorbell. It was Carrie Stewart from down the street. Her family and mine had been a part of each other’s lives for many years, and in fact Lena and Carrie’s husband, Gray, had gone to high school together.
“Can I listen?” she said.
“Sure. But there’s not much going on, I’m afraid. A whole lot of bad playing.”
She sat. She chose my grandmother’s channel back chair. This had always been a favorite of mine, but I was intent on not commenting or engaging in conversation. If this was how she saw fit to waste an hour, I would not make myself responsible for her entertainment.
I played my scales and simple pieces calmly and slowly. I remembered my brother, his back erect, and as he grew, his shoulders broad, his body a square within the larger square of the piano, his fingers working through the lines, stumbling, repeating, slowing, then smoothing the line down like a brook works over a pebble.
The waltzes and scherzos and sonatas adapted for beginning piano players were simple straightforward pieces, but over the months with Carrie as my audience, I learned to coordinate both hands, to refine the sustenance of the notes by use of the pedals, and to control the volume by the amount of pressure I applied to the keys.
There were nuances I had not taken into account when I had first learned the piano, nuances that I had not thought were important to learn. Certainly I had offended the ears of my teacher, but I was trying to take greater care.
Carrie maintained her place behind me at the same time every day, slipping out at some point near the end of the hour. Maybe she waited on the porch until I was finished, until she heard me shut the music back into the piano bench. The vain part of me wanted to believe this. But then just as likely, she could have been listening as she walked home, the music drifting out over the street, following her.
One day, after several months of attending my practices, she rose and stood near the piano. I stopped playing. She let her fingertips drift over the keys. “It takes so much faith, to do what you’re doing” she said. “We know what our lives are by now, and still you’re doing this thing.”
“I’m just playing scales.” I took care not to look at her, to not make contact. She should not read too deeply into anything, must not read anything at all.
“You don’t have to do all this. I think it’s wonderful.” And she left, closing the door behind her softly as she did every day.
I didn’t want to ask her what she getting out of listening to scales and something dull and repeated or a song practiced over and over, until mastered. I didn’t want to feel responsible for her feelings and the significance she was placing on what I was doing.
For once in my life, something as intriguing as a woman was concentrating my energies, moving me through my day. And yet, her presence there, day in and day out, was liberating me from previous anxieties about my inadequacies. When I made so many mistakes, especially when I was first learning a piece, her lack of response, her lack, even, of a sound, was confirmation that mistakes were not as terrible as I had believed them to be when I was a boy.
Eventually, she began to tell me things on my practice days, and I became a sort of confessor for her. She was careful not to talk too much so that I still had the majority of the hour to play. And in the years I had known her, she had never been the kind of woman to burden people with too much of herself, but these things she said made me feel more intensely for her, though I loved my wife.
Perhaps I was a kind of priest because my relative silence and remove did not discourage her, did not tend to influence her to look upon me coldly, but spurred her on, somehow, to be open and honest. She may have sensed that I did not want to hurt her, but that I did not mind her being there either, that I was concerned for her in a way that would not lapse into romance.
One day I thought it might be a good idea to clarify things with her. I turned to her on my bench. She was working on her needlepoint, a pastime that seemed ancient. I sometimes caught glimpses of her handy work as she left the living room – lush nosegays of roses, filigreed crosses, an autumn harvest.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea to read into anything here,” I said.
“What do you mean?” She looked at me with an even gaze and yet her lids had fluttered when I spoke, either at my tone or her surprise at what I said, or maybe just the surprise of the break in our usual routine.
“I mean that this could become something.”
She bent her head to her work. I watched her find the place for her needle. Her composure held. I returned to my music.
As time went on, I began to play longer and longer into the day. I found ways to arrange my schedule to accommodate the longer practice hours. It went on for two years like this, with Carrie as my audience, and at some point, her confessions seemed to revolve around her suspicions that my wife Lena and her husband Gray might be having an affair.
Gray and Lena had gone to high school together and had partied with the same crowd, and now they worked in the same firm. We had been friends with them for a long time, although in the last year or so, I noticed Gray had become more proprietary with my wife as we sat together at the kitchen table.
They told inside jokes and he flirted with her. When this first began happening, I would slip into the role of an observer, frozen in my anger and alarm, plotting what I might do if he should take it further. Carrie would slip out to our living room, which was quiet and formal in a way that she might have found comforting. I avoided following her, although I knew I would rather avoid this exchange at my own table.
I stayed instead, feeling my presence there was essential. If I kept the topic on high school reminisces, Gray would be gone soon, purring out of the driveway in his Porsche, his wife tucked away in her bucket seat, buckled down.
I was sorry I could not reassure Carrie that her suspicions about Gray and Lena were ill-founded. What I was witnessing in my own house had become cause for alarm. I was perplexed about how to handle it. I felt that Gray may be just trying to bait me into acting defensively and I didn’t want to play into his hand.
If it turned out this was more than a game, played out for my irritation, and that Lena and Gray were having an affair, I wanted every opportunity to retaliate bodily and his presence and provocation provided the perfect occasion and excuse.
When Lena and I first entertained them socially when they moved into the neighborhood we seemed to be well matched and enjoyed each other. Our children enjoyed being together and we often traded off weekend cookouts at each other’s houses.
Gray and I had something in common with our interest in baseball and other sports. Our sons both played on the same Little League team. Carrie was bolder in those days too. At dinner, she would join in our conversation and Lena would ask her questions, drawing her out and making her feel comfortable.
And then, things started happening between us until the patterns were beyond anyone’s willingness to assert control or make changes. Perhaps things started when Gray was hired at Lena’s firm and Gray and Lena spent more of our couples’ dates discussing their cases, switching the pairing off and leaving Carrie and I alone together.
Gray also had become almost surly, though he had always been loud and jocular. It was the drink, most likely, and we all, except Carrie, started drinking as if the world was going to curl up and swallow us whole the following morning.
I began to play the piano while Lena and Gray drank and talked about work. Carrie would follow me to the living room, bringing her needlepoint. She would bring it in her purse as if she anticipated a need for it. At some point, I gave up my role as observer, protector.
I considered the possibility that my wife may be baiting me too, that she wanted a reaction to this animal pawing at her and licking his chops. If so, I disappointed her many times. I wondered how I could find out if they were having an affair, whether I could ask her directly, whether she would be honest with me.
Our relationship had become brittle, though I desired deeply that it would not be so. I did not know how to approach it without breaking things altogether. I suppose I hoped, futilely, that whatever dalliance was taking place under my own roof was nothing but a game, or, if it went further than this, was something Lena would get over like a bad virus.
The situation seemed to bear down upon me as swiftly and as certainly as a train on its appointed track. It kept me up late at night, wondering what to do, checking through Lena’s purses and briefcase and clothing for evidence. When I had tired of my search, I sat before the Steinway and laid my hands on the keys, their enamel off-white like teeth. I imagined myself playing as I moved my fingers across their surfaces.
“What are you doing?” said Lena, finding me one night in the dark, sitting before the piano. She snapped on the overhead light.
“I think it’s obvious. I’m laboring in obscurity.”
“It’s three in the morning.”
“I know. I couldn’t sleep.”
“You never sleep.”
“That’s not true.”
She retied the sash of her robe. What I had loved about her was her use of extremes, to see only “never” and “always.’ I had considered this a sign of passion, that along with other things. What I had come to realize was that she had an unwillingness to admit that adversity was usually not a permanent condition. Her pronouncements on the state of things were informed by whatever her needs were at the present moment and she had little patience in waiting for tides to turn.
“I’m going to warm some milk,” she said, retreating through the door to the kitchen. “Want some?” I followed.
She poured milk into a saucepan and turned up the fire on the eye. She stirred it until it steamed and then poured it into two mugs and added some sugar. She sprinkled some cinnamon on top. She had created this drink for my insomnia, using the ingredients her mother used to add to her Cream of Wheat, but when she made it for me this time, she was rough with the stirring and then slung the spoon into the sink.
“Do you remember when we went to Tarpon Springs?” I said. “You know, when your Mom was alive and took the kids?” This was a trick I had used to bring her back to me, to soothe her anger, or get her to keep talking so I could get to what was bothering her. I brought up old memories, or even recent ones, neutral things to discuss.
I had learned that small things such as her careless handling of a utensil, the closing of a door just a bit more firmly than usual, the whip of a hot sheet fresh out of the dryer – that these all meant something, and that it was my job to figure out what the meaning was.
“Do you remember that bar shaped like a boat and that huge fish tank?”
“All I remember was that sorry museum about the history of sponge diving.”
“Yeah, like JC Penney manikins wearing Greek costumes and sponge diving gear.” I did my best stiff manikin pose.
She snorted, and took a careful sip. “You were like an idiot with those sponges for the kids, buying them all shapes and sizes, and then they hardly looked at them.”
“I’m a good idiot.”
I was the clown. I had to not mind. There was something to uncover, but by the time I had thought of the next thing to say, she had put her half-empty mug in the sink. I reached out and felt the silk of her nightgown peaking out under the robe.
“I remember all that stuff,” she said, as she leaned with her hip against the edge of the counter. “But I think we have other things to talk about, like how much money we need, like how crazy it is you’re spending so much time on that thing in the living room.”
“What do you want me to say? We’re just in a bit of a dry spell, and what does it hurt, learning to play the piano?”
“We’re always in a dry spell. Emily needs braces and we need the porch fixed. I’m embarrassed to have friends over now because a part of it is sagging. Summer camps need to be paid for, next year’s school tuition.”
“Calm down. It will work out, it always does.”
“I feel overwhelmed and you just seem so calm all the time. I don’t know what to say anymore.”
She whipped past and I made an attempt to grab her arm, to draw her to me and assure her, but her body eluded me.
I climbed the stairs to our bedroom. “Lena,” I said, when I had closed the door. It was dark and she was already under the covers. “I need to know something, and I want you to be straight with me. Are you having an affair?” I sat on the edge of the bed, bracing myself.
In the shadows I saw her rise up from her pillows. “What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. You and Gray. Maybe there is something going on that you should tell me.”
“Oh my God. Don’t project your guilty conscious onto me!”
“Now who’s playing stupid? You and Carrie. I know that she comes over here every single day.”
“Nothing is going on,” I said, standing. “Nothing.”
“Don’t get your knickers in a wad. I don’t have time for this. I have a huge case tomorrow. Please.” She arranged her pillows and settled back into them.
I slept on the couch that night. The next day, I had a call to make at Claudia’s, my piano teacher. When I pulled up to her antebellum mansion on Princeton Avenue, I noticed that it looked as old and tired as I felt. And yet it was a rare commodity in this city bent on making everything new.
We usually met at the college for piano lessons, but when she learned that I was a realtor, she invited me to her house, which she wanted to put on the market. Though the house and yard needed restoration, it was the kind of house that would sell well with just the right buyer.
However, I learned right off that she already had already sold the house for me for a cool 1.8 million and I would get 50,000 for doing nothing but filling out the paperwork and showing up at the closing. She didn’t want to talk about it.
She wanted to talk about our piano lessons. I crossed a knee over the other as I sat in the armchair by the fireplace. My heart was flipping. I would not let her know that I could not think about the piano.
“I want you to play this nocturne by Chopin,” she said, getting up, and picking up a piece of sheet music, Chopin’s opus 9 no. 1. “After you learn the piece, learn the notes, when you begin to put yourself into it, there are special instructions you must regard. You must listen to me, or you’ll mess it all up.” She slapped the music, as if I’d already done something to shame the piece.
She went to the piano and laid her hands upon the keys, pulling her fingers down over them. And then, she began to play somewhere in the middle range a soft piece that had the effect of a dream spun by gossamer threads, complex, interwoven.
“It is important in the nocturne,” she said, continuing to play, “To think about pulling from the keys as much beauty that there is. Think about yourself as the artist. You are to bring speech, a song from the strings. You must give of yourself,” she said, leaning into the piano and closing her eyes. “You must give all of your body, all of your attention like an artist bringing to being a beautiful painting stroke by tiny stroke. These notes of Chopin’s each have been placed with much care. We see, when we hear it played well, with love, the ideal beauty that is Chopin’s.”
When she had finished her instructions, I thanked her and left. I stood at the iron fence which separated the yard from the busy street just beyond. I had done research on the property and had learned that the original boundaries had encompassed acres upon acres of pasture and orange groves.
I remembered our trips to Mt. Dora when I was a child, our sacks filled with oranges, our scratched and sticky fingers peeling back the skin, my tongue breaking through the juicy filaments of the flesh.
A line of anise flanking the fence swayed with the breeze from the passing cars. I imagined the destination of the drivers and their occupants: the grocery store, pharmacy, movie theatres, malls.
There was no one at home. Lena had left a note on the kitchen counter: “Kids spending the night out. Fridge bare. Carrie and Gray coming at 7. Picking up steaks.” It was still an hour or so before my wife would be home and we’d need to get ready for company.
I sat down to the piano with nocturne. A note fluttered down from the pages. It was written in Claudia’s scrawl: “We are born knowing everything and spend the rest of our lives remembering what it is we already know.”
I put the note on top of the piano. Claudia often wrote cryptic notes in my music for me to puzzle over later or discuss. I moved my hands over the keys, but I knew, from the notation, that it would take me months to learn just the basics of the piece and that it would take much longer to play it in the way Claudia described.
And yet, I didn’t worry. Something about the note that was sitting on my piano assured me. The piece would come in time. I had to trust my body and my fingers to follow through and eventually learn the correct movement as I played it again and again.
I had heard and seen my brother learn challenging pieces over and over again, and though he was a quicker study, what had mattered, it seemed, was a trust that any piece could be mastered eventually. Claudia’s encouragement was to trust a native instinct, something we are born with, but have forgotten because of doubt and fear.
I put the nocturne away for a moment and pulled out an adaptation of another Chopin piece I had recently mastered. I imagined Lena picking up the steaks at the grocery and I imagined the piece guiding her home to me. I wanted it to be for love for her that I was learning to play the piano. I wished it impressed her that I played because I had run out of things to do.
I imagined, in my mind’s eye, her pulling those shapely legs into her car and placing the steaks onto the seat. My father had warned me about her: “It’s in the eyes,” he said. “Restless.” This was two months before he died, when I took her to see him. He was in the hospital, recovering from a heart attack. This was all he could bring himself to say about her.
I called the kids where I guessed they might be staying for the night, and they treated me like some sad sack they had to reassure before they could get back to the popcorn and movies and video games or whatever it was they were doing. Our presence together on the nights when Lena worked late was essential to me, somehow, and without them, I felt vulnerable, like a wild animal without its pack. It assured me to hear their voices on the phone, even to hear their exasperation with me.
After playing the piece through several times, I broke down and opened a bottle of wine, lit candles and turned on the local jazz station. Lena would be home any minute and I knew what it took to get my wife in bed and I was fooling myself with Chopin and quiet songs. I drank a couple of glasses of wine. I had been too soft, too forgiving. I had earned half a year’s salary in one day, goddammit.
“Welcome home,” I said when she walked through the back door. I took the grocery bag and put it in the refrigerator. I handed her a glass of Cabernet.
She was wearing her cream blouse printed with gold rings and horses, a classic blouse she wore with pearls and a navy wool skirt. She knew how to dress for the judge and the jury, was an expert in personas and angles and argumentations.
I kissed her mouth. Her lipstick tasted like cake.
“What’s all this?” she said. The candles and the jazz playing on the sound system were unusual occurrences.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” I said. The power of this truth made my mouth water. I wanted to rip the silk shirt off of her. I wanted to scatter the pearls to the far corners of the kitchen.
“Wow!” she said, giving me an enthusiastic hug around the neck. “That’s what you made?” I nodded and she took a sip of wine, watching me.
“It was a 1.8 million dollar sale.” I took the glass from her and drew her into an embrace. I kissed her.
She pushed off from my chest and touched her lips to mine with an emphatic peck.
“I want to take a bath,” she said.
I nuzzled her hair.
“Could you run a vacuum?” she said.
She twisted in my arms. I let her go.
I turned my back to her and opened the cabinet for a glass. I poured a scotch. She grabbed the bottle of wine and climbed the stairs, her feet padding on the carpet. I heard the pipes click with the rush of water into the tub.
I should have gone upstairs. I should have taken what was mine. I should have wreaked havoc at the first suggestion of a “vacuum.” The urge to empty the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag onto Gray’s usual chair shot through me, but then Gray and Carrie were at the door as I was suctioning up debris in the hall.
“Isn’t this a sweet picture,” said Gray. “An enlightened male. You’re making me look bad, man.”
“I think you’re doing just fine on your own.”
“All right, you prick, where’s the liquor?”
“It’s a full moon tonight,” I said. “The jackal’s here.”
“Cut it out, Richard!” said Lena, shouting down from the top of the stairs. She had bathed quickly. “Help yourself to the drinks everybody, I’ll be down in a minute.” Gray went to the basket on the countertop where we kept a jumble of liquor choices. I watched Carrie’s eyes following him.
Lena came down and kissed everyone.
“Well,” I said. “Now that I’ve done my duty for a bit, I’m going to sit down to the piano.” I raised my Scotch to everyone as I backed out through the door.
“A toast, everybody,” said Lena. “My husband just made a $1.8 million sale.”
As I left the room, I heard her explaining my windfall. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to embrace her. But as I walked away, I knew she was being my public Lena. She was loving me with the only resources she had left, with a cushion of people between us and no expectation of sex, just my appreciation and adoration.
I opened an intermediate piano book and began playing one of the pieces I knew well. I would play until I was calm. I would play until I couldn’t hear Gray yammering.
We often cooked out when they came over, so I knew it was only a matter of time before Lena and Gray went outside with their drinks to preheat the grill. In the meantime, I would build a wall of notes between myself and the things I didn’t want to confront.
I heard Carrie slip through the doorway off the hall and sit in her seat. Lena shouted out that she and Gray would be sitting on the back porch. It was quiet now in the house, except for the piano. The sun had gone down and the light over the music reflected brightly off the paper. I imagined Carrie in the gray light behind me. I played almost every piece I had mastered.
When I had played myself out, I laid my fingers upon the keys. “The thing about music, as about anything beautiful or grand,” said Claudia to me once, “is that it must end.”
As I sat there, hunched over on the seat, I smelled air from outside. Gray and Lena must have left the door open. It was difficult for me to move. The furniture sat about me like stones. Something, I felt, had shifted. Something had changed in the atmosphere. I sensed it was the kind of change that occurs after an act of violence or a cataclysmic natural event. There was no escaping it, this discovery of whatever it was.
“Does it seem really quiet in here?” I said to the darkness, to Carrie, unable to think of anything else to say.
I heard her rise from her seat and come up beside me. I felt her hand, light as a girl’s, on my shoulder.
I stood and turned to face her.
She kept her place beside the piano, her face illuminated by the piano light. “I have been coming to see you for a very long time.”
I was silent.
“Do you feel something for me?”
I picked up her hand. It was small and delicate in mine, like a small bird. I caressed it and held it to my mouth. I held it against my cheek. I said nothing.
She yanked her hand away. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she swiped at them. She turned and left for the kitchen and I followed, wanting to hold her to reassure her, but knowing I should not, that this would only prolong what was inevitable.
I opened the door and we went out onto the back porch. There was a large moon in the sky. The steaks lay cold and hardened in their fat on the China plate near the grill. On the silvered lawn, there was no sign of Gray or Lena. Shadows from the oak cast illusive shapes. The oleander at the boundaries of the yard danced, their flowers nodding. An overripe globe fell from the orange tree. A gasp cut through the wind, and then a tiny cry, private and raw. Gray’s body was pressed against my wife. They were standing against the oak, on the far side of the trunk. I could see them now, their bodies separating from what was a dark space though they remained entangled.
I stepped out into my yard. I sprinted to the tree and yanked Gray from my wife. He stumbled and fell while Lena collapsed as if she had a cramp. Carrie ran up behind me and grabbed my arm and I threw her off. She fell to the ground. I stood, watching Gray struggle to rise, but I couldn’t leave Carrie there on the grass.
“Shit,” said Gray. “Give it a rest.” He pulled up his pants which had been at his ankles. He rubbed his fist against his lip. He told Carrie to go to the car.
Lena wrapped her mussed up clothes around her. She scurried inside.
Gray walked through my house. I followed. He sat on the steps of my front porch and tied his shoes. I wanted to rip his hair out at the root. I wanted to smash his forehead against the porch railing.
“Now let’s just check facts,” he said. “Carrie comes to your house – your house – for no apparent reason other than to listen to you play scales and tinker with a few little pieces on your piano. OK, now, if I had any other wife, I might have deep, deep suspicions. But Carrie, oh please,” he snorted.
“So I have no reason to worry, you know? But the thing about it is, Bach, that two weeks ago, I had to leave work and pick up one of our kids from school and take him to the ER. You see, that’s because he broke his arm on the playground and no one could find my wife. That’s because she was with you. So you see what my problem is? Do you see why I can’t have this? You blow my mind, you fucking weirdo. What the hell is wrong with you?” He stood and walked down the steps.”
“So this is your excuse?”
“You need a touch of reality, dude.” He turned to face me and as he did so, he was smiling. “Your wife is well known. Do you know what I mean?” he said and turned back to his car, back to his wife who was witnessing this from the passenger seat.
I punched him in the back. He tripped down the sidewalk, raising his hands as if in surrender.
After the Porsche had roared away, I turned off the lights and climbed the stairs. In the bedroom, Lena lay facing the window. She was too still to be asleep.
“I heard you,” she said. “You and Gray.” She rolled over and sat up. Strands of hair were matted to her face.
I opened the chest of drawers and pulled out a t-shirt.
“You know, now would be a good time to say something,” she said.
I couldn’t breathe.
“Just so you know,” she said, “Since you apparently aren’t going to ask, we did it because we had been drinking and I felt like it and I had forgotten all about you. We didn’t even think you’d be coming out. You and Carrie.”
As I dressed, I felt a stiffness in my body, but I would not look at her, would not acknowledge her.
“Gray told me she’s been coming over to listen to you play piano. He says she’s not capable of an affair. I’m sure you wish I were more like her, more, let’s see, what’s the right word, simpler, self-effacing. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. Hell, I don’t even give a shit anymore. I don’t even want you. I haven’t wanted you for a long time.”
She flung herself back on the bed and pulled up the covers. I slammed the door shut and the window rattled down the hall. I slept in my son’s room. I thanked God he and his sister were with other people for the night.
I had a thought that perhaps every parent has at least once, but that I’ve had many times recently: That our children would have been better served by others. I continued to have this thought as Lena moved out and we began divorce proceedings and custody battles.
A few weeks before my divorce was final, I mastered that nocturne, the one by Chopin.
Continuing on with Valentine’s Day celebration is a stark little story called Dark Hearts. It is amazing how much pathos exists in life and in stories when the subject is economic disparity. More than heartache, the despair of falling short and not being able to take part lives long and cuts deep.
It was Valentine’s night and Vicky only had fifteen dollars. When Jim her husband passed out, she told her daughters she had an errand to do and they were to go to their rooms without disturbing their father.
It was a freezing New Hampshire night, the temperature hovering somewhere around zero. The drive was icy and the Corolla was almost cowering it seemed, begging her to be left alone under its blanket of snow. But she scraped the hood and windows clean and ran the engine. She took off down the drive. She arrived at the grocery a few minutes before the 9:00 close.
She swept through the doors of the brightly lit market, the place as strangely cold as the outside but in a different way. She wheeled the cart to the front of the store where the boxes of candy hearts and stuffed bears had been that morning. They weren’t there. They were tucked off to the side, out of the way, by the wine. A big sign over the table said “40% off our everyday low prices.” Still, it wasn’t enough of a discount. She couldn’t buy each of her girls her own heart of chocolates and her own bear.
There were a couple of boys standing nearby gawking at the table of extravagant after-thoughts.
This, Vicky said to herself, was an opportunity. The only one, short of shoplifting.
“Yeah, my girlfriend would kill me if she knew I was buying her Valentine’s stuff on sale,” one of them was saying, the tall one with a protruding Adam’s apple and light fuzz on his lip.
And at that point, Vicky enacted her plan.
“But what would your girlfriend think if you brought her sparkling wine?” she said brightly. She knew of some cheap stuff she could let on that she was going to buy for them, wine they could not buy for themselves, being so obviously under age. She could let on she was going to buy it for them and they would think they owed her.
“I’ve always had a fantasy,” she said, getting between the boys, threading her arms through theirs. “I want a double valentine. Do you know what it is I’m saying?”
The boys nodded and laughed with their newly minted voices.
“I think I would like that,” she said, “very much.” She gazed steadily into the eyes of the one with the fuzzy lip. He looked older, like he could be the leader of the two of them though not the leader of many more.
“Why don’t we all meet in the bathroom?” she said. “I’ll bring something to drink. How about that?”
They started quaking and laughing nervously.
“But first, you have to do something for me.” She pressed herself up against the leader. “I want both of you to ask me to be your valentine. I want a bear and a heart and a balloon from each of you. Do you think your girlfriends would mind?”
“I think we’re not going to tell ‘em, lady,” said the fuzzy peach lip and they both laughed some more, with a skittery, tremulous quality to their voices.
“Leave my valentines with the cashier. I’ll get wine and I’ll see you in the bathroom.” She kissed the one to seal it.
As soon as the boys made the purchases and disappeared into the men’s room, she grabbed the hearts, animals, and balloons from the cashier and took off in the Corolla.
At home, the smell of spaghetti sauce still sweet and cloying in the air, she found Jim sitting at the table.
“You were out,” he said.
“The store was having a sale on valentines.” She didn’t care what he knew or how he felt. She had hoped he would be asleep and that the girls could have an evening with their gifts but she had left the purchases in the car just in case.
“How come you have money for something like that?” he said. He slammed his whiskey glass down. “Let me see this bullshit.”
He went out to the car and tore open the door. He pulled out the balloons, candy, and bears. He ripped at them, flinging them about the yard, the chocolates flying, one of the bears falling into a ditch, the balloons drifting down in tatters.
“Why do you always like to make me feel like a monster?” he said. “But you know, you’ve never been nothing but a whore since the day I met you.”
She would leave in the morning when he was still getting over what he’d done to himself. And when her girls saw the chocolates, the punctured balloons, and bears drowning in the snow, they would go and not make a fuss.
There are significant moments in everyone’s day that can make literature. That’s what you ought to write about.
— Raymond Carver
Moments of literature do not have to be actual moments of a writer’s life, but moments that could be a part of anyone’s daily life. Raymond Carver is one of my favorite writers of short fiction and he makes profound use of realistic elements. Here is a tiny story for your Valentine’s Day told in the style of realism. Love to you, and happiness.
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.
Oh lady, how is it you are caged again despite the tatters of your plumage, evidence of former loves’ ravishing and broken promises, cheeping meekly your protest and your cause fading as it is among desert blooms in a noonday heat under a new lover’s burning interest. The gilding on the wires, the prettiness of the perch were the wild proclamations of love you accepted despite yourself. And you tasted without wisdom the pink sugar water in the little bowl, delicious but without nutrients.
Are you no different from the old text’s version of you blaming you for lust of the eyes and desire for possession, the taker of the fruit, the ruination of the world? If so you have been tricked by becoming a possession yourself, a possession of the man who only proclaims but does not understand, the worn out troubadour intent on his fame but not married to the idea of actual love.
Dear Lady: How is it you never remember that the ones who declare their greatest love early, a morning mist disappearing in the late morning sun, convince themselves and maybe some small part of you that this time it is life and not death? No matter that you said you would never be trapped by anyone who did not care to know your treasured secrets, tender details, beating heart.
Take heart. You know you are finding your strength when, after the bloom falls from the rose, your thoughts and feelings rise up, those old girlhood bones, causing your suitor to blink, stumbling in your blinding light. How he had not anticipated the murder of the scrim of the false lover’s reality. How he underestimated the individual he has enslaved behind it.
She has a will and a conscience and a mind and needs! How awful these stabs to his eyes! How cruel the world of women he thinks, how cruel and ungrateful this one! he says. No appreciation of the gilded cage, the golden perch! The thing has escaped, is flying outside, around and around, wild and uncivil, its leg uncuffed and the sugar water left behind in the bowl.