Tag Archives: fiction

Facing Off With Fitzgerald: Part II

I used to be a stingy bastard. I still am, to be frank. Is frankness still acceptable in polite company? As a youth fresh out of high school, having sent my graduating class off with a scandalous valedictorian speech that was a little too frank for boomer parents, I set sail for San Francisco in my freewheeling 1980 Rabbit. That Rabbit was a beast to look at, but it ran, and it was easy enough to fix.

I was too stingy to buy anything newer. I was too stingy to pay for motels or diner food. I bought cans of Vienna sausages and ate them off toothpicks, along with whatever else I could spear: grapes! mushrooms! gherkins! I traveled down the coastline by day, wasting hours walking on beaches, and slept by night, the passenger seat cranked and flung back as far as it would go, and my legs cramped against the floorboard. I had a blanket and a pillow, and clean clothes for the morning. I was very particular about my clothes. This was something I could never get my wife to understand, which is why I fired her as my laundress within a week after we were living together. The professionals could clean and press the collars properly, for god’s sake. But that’s another story. The wife didn’t have much training in that area. She has her skills, and collars aren’t one of them.

I hung my shirts at night and let the sea air work out the wrinkles, and then did the best grooming I could manage once the glow of sun broke through the trees. As somebody who grew up swimming in the northern Pacific, I thought I could take early morning swims in the ocean. I did once or twice, but if you’ve never swum off the Washington or Oregon coastline, you won’t understand how frigid it can be first thing in the morning. Sixty degrees Fahrenheit seems a warm, distant memory come to think of it.

Long about Gold Beach, I ran out of steam. Literally. I couldn’t move on without a good breakfast of real food or a laundromat. Plus, the water pump was leaking. This stingy bastard rented a room for the night at one of those beach-front strip motels called the Americana or some such, the kind of place where the TV worked, but the maid didn’t. I made myself a peanut butter sandwich and ate an apple in anticipation of the Jerry’s diner I’d seen on the way in.

The next morning, I had an epiphany. It was an epiphany that stuck with me, and one that I understood better the older I was. There I sat, scarfing down ham, slugging down coffee and milk, when a filthy man dressed in his entire wardrobe, even though it was June, walked in the door and dropped a pile of filthy blankets and a military issue backpack near the restrooms.

“No way!” the waitress yelled with unnecessary force. “This is the third day. I’m going to call the cops if you drop your shit in here again.”

“I just want a cup of coffee to go,” the man said. He fumbled around in his pocket for change. “How much? Is this enough?”

“It’s $1.50. All you have here is $.85. So, no. No coffee to go.”

By that time, I was irritated with the yelling. Clearly, the woman wished to bring the restaurant patrons into her self-righteous bitchery. Maybe they were supposed to be her witnesses.

“For fuck’s sake, just give the guy a cup of coffee,” I said. I didn’t need to shout for my voice to carry. The high school dictators, Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Brown, realized that when they turned off my mic during my valedictory. It all came from the diaphragm.

“I can’t just give him coffee,” she retorted, but her voice went down a notch.

“He’s with me. Whatever he wants goes on my ticket,” I said. “Unless you’re into denying paying customers or hating on the homeless.”

“I just want a cup of coffee to go. I’m not with anyone,” the man said.

The waitress spun on her heels and grabbed the carafe from it’s burner. She sloshed it into a Styrofoam cup, then slammed the carafe back down with so much force I was surprised the glass didn’t break. She stuck a plastic lid on the cup.

“Coffee to go,” she said. “Now pick up your shit and go.”

People with bad tempers rattled me. Believe it or not, neither of my parents had bad tempers, not even my mom, who did whatever the hell she wanted to. I’m guessing that was why she was always so happy. My dad just wanted to keep the peace. God, my parents disgusted me. But people with bitchy temperaments bothered me more.

The man left his coffee on the counter while he slowly gathered up his things. He shrugged on his enormous green pack, picked up his blankets, and when everything was is in its proper place, he took hold of the cup.

He turned to me before he walked out the door. His eyes were bloodshot, but steady, and they bored into me. “You shouldn’t talk to ladies like that, especially ones that work as hard as she does,” he said. “And just so you know, my home is the world. I’m a natural man, and as a natural man, I have the right to pay for my own coffee and come and go as I please.”

When he plunked his change on the counter, he smiled at the waitress. “He’s just a kid. Cut him some slack. And thank you, ma’am. You have a nice day.”

“I’ll try. Tomorrow, leave your stuff outside. Nobody around here’s gonna steal it.”

“Maybe, maybe not. It’s all I have in the world.”

“I hear you,” she said, and she sighed heavily.

The dynamic between the waitress and the vagabond mystified me. Yeah, I said I had an epiphany, and I did. What you have to understand is the guy wasn’t unique in my eyes. He resembled all the shiftless men I regularly witnessed at the Greyhound bus station in my youth. We went there frequently, my dad and I, to pick up my mom after she’d taken off for who-knows-where, to visit friends or lovers; or to attend art fairs or polyamory conventions. I don’t know if there’s such a thing, but if there is, I can guarantee my mom’s been.

What struck me was this: I’d spent way too much of my life hating my mom. But, despite appearances, I realized she was like this man–a man I was willing to go to bat for. Like him, she didn’t have the same constraints as the rest of the human population. The world was her home. She was a natural woman, and she came and went at her own whim.

I didn’t stay long after I’d finished my breakfast. I had too much to think about. Somehow, I had become a natural man, too. My home was the world, or what I could reach of it by car. I wasn’t sure what it all meant yet, but some integral piece of me shifted that day. And I knew I had to move on as quickly as possible–as soon as I could get my clothes washed and a new water pump in my car.

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Face-Off With Fitzgerald, Part I

Through the years, I’ve never had much time for reading, unless the material could provide me with useful information. That’s why I’ve got to thank Miss Hopkins for junior AP English, where I was forced to read literature. No, hers wasn’t the first English class I took. I should swap my words around a little: nobody forced me to read anything until Miss Hopkins’ class. Up until junior year, I skimmed fiction and read salient points about the books in Cliff’s Notes, then made certain to debate every salient point in class, much to the distress of my teachers. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to learn. I did. That was the point. It was all about efficiency, as well as winning arguments.

In order to win arguments, I cut through all the bullshit, rather than getting bogged down in evocative language. This may sound like a lot of hot gas to you, but I assure you I’m not proud of my shortcuts. I’m just very aware of my constant impatience that drives me to cut corners. Miss Hopkins would have none of it. The first time I tried to force her into a debate, she told me, That’s nice, Little Grasshopper, but if you want to have an intelligent discussion, you’ll need to read the source text.

First of all, nobody calls me pet names, not even my mom. My wife can get away with it these days. Back in high school, where wife and I met, she didn’t dare initiate conversation with me, let alone call me names. After that bout of unexpected condescension from a priggish spinster [for all to witness, including future wife], I spent the night reading the assigned book, The Great Gatsby. I don’t think I impressed Miss Hopkins with my assessment of the text. Look, I’m sorry, but Fitzgerald was just wrong. Nobody needs to go back to the quiet life because the American Dream is dead. The quiet life, as evidenced by so many, IS the American Dream. That’s what it’s about. That kind of peace gives sons the impetus to leave the quiet life and create and build new lives, if not worlds, which then leads their grandchildren or great grandchildren to seek out the peaceful life once again. It’s all one grand cycle that some would seek to disrupt.

Carraway—or Fitzgerald—you were definitely wrong. For that reason, I’ve read your story about ten times now and still own my original dogeared, marked-up copy. Your story begins this way:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

My own story begins about the same way, just nix the word vulnerable.

In my younger [redacted] years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. We were outside, still wearing paint-smeared garb, relaxing in the shade of his cleanly painted carpentry shed. The shed was where the two of us would go to escape my mom and the assorted small ones known to me as siblings or half-siblings. None of us really knew. Well, we could guess by the looks which lover had fathered whom. But that was about it.

My dad rolled up a joint like the artist he was and lit it. Despite his generous nature, he didn’t pass it to me. On my sixteenth birthday, he’d passed it to me for the first time, and I’d hated the passive sensations it induced so much that I’d never accepted it again. I had no regrets over trying it. It made me understand why my dad needed it. He leaned his head against the now dry, blue paint coat I’d helped him slap on the shed.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world aren’t as strong as you. As soon as you begin to criticize others, you will discover you aren’t the strongest man around, and you’ll get the crap be at out of you.”

“Not a problem. You’re the one who raised me as a pacifist. I don’t get in fights.”

He chuckled with his dry, smoky breath. “Don’t lie to yourself. You aren’t a pacifist. I, personally, can’t wait for the day you realize that.”

I suppressed a laugh. My dad didn’t need to know the truth. I’d discovered a long time ago I wasn’t like he was and wouldn’t work his organic vegetable patch or milk his goats to make organic feta forever; I wouldn’t go to anti-Bush/anti-war/end-the-embargo/Greenpeace marches without his prodding, even though I’d done it without complaint to stay the hell away from my mom and her kids.

Instead, I smiled like the cat who all but disappears except for his grin. I knew I wasn’t a pacifist, but I also knew I didn’t need to fight to have my own way in the world. That’s the way it was, and it might have continued that way for all time.

That’s the start to my story: just like Nick Carraway, with lessons to learn. There the similarity ends. My advice came direct from my pothead dad, who lives the quiet idealized life his generation longed for. He doesn’t have to wear the Che shirts his friends wear. Nope, not when he can maintain control over his existence with no pretenses. See, he wasn’t and isn’t a pacifist, either.

Sometimes, appearances can be deceiving. What are appearances for?

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Is Truth Beauty, or Beauty Truth?

trepanation

Valerie had long desired a trepanation cure. The pressure that pulsed outward at her third eye spoke to her: Yes, yes, yes, it thrummed, and, Free, free, free! After several years of inquiry into the matter, she came to the conclusion that she was finally ready to take the plunge. She didn’t know why she’d put it off so long. The Trepanation Advocacy Group she’d joined along her path of personal evolution was composed of truly enlightened individuals. Each story differed, but the consensus was in.

Trepanation allowed the third eye to open its heavy lid, revealing universal truths, as well as personal truths. The group discussed their visions over Cokes—no need any longer for wheat grass and green tea once the third eye was open! All health, all soul, all body became one through the hole in the head.

But it was Joanna’s ethereal story of meeting her personal guardian angel on the planet Pluto that pushed Valerie into making the appointment. There wasn’t a dry eye in the Burger Barn lobby when Joana had finished telling of how the angel, whose name was Rembrandt, fluttered to her on the back of a brown moth. Moths were sturdier than butterflies, the angel explained to her. Angels riding butterflies was an urban legend that God had repeatedly debunked in bulletins, but He couldn’t convince some that angels didn’t ride butterflies. Aside from being fragile, butterflies couldn’t be tamed properly, and their riders never quite knew what kind of loop-de-loops they would perform in flight. God also couldn’t convince some that Pluto was actually a planet and not any mere rock, no matter how many times He had tried to explain that His categorization methods were not the methods of humans.

Here was the heart of the story: Rembrandt engulfed Joanna with his numerous wings and gazed at her with his multiple and complex eyes and whispered in her ear: In His schema, you are Categorically Free Spirit. You are like the butterflies who perform their loop-de-loops at their own whim and discretion. You aren’t meant to be ridden, but to ride the backs of others. He then let her go, and her consciousness flew back to earth, shooting through the atmosphere and, like a solar ray, reentering her body through the hole in her head.

Without the trepanation, Joanna could neither have let her consciousness go, nor gathered it up again. Valerie wanted to experience that. Her consciousness desired to travel the cosmos. It was weary of being a homebody. It wanted to experience the glowing light, love, and beauty that only trepanned people could. The universe was a veritable mass of glowing love lights, according to the enlightened ones.

The medical trip to Mexico City, where there was a neurosurgeon who would perform the drilling, began like a vacation, the thrill of it trilling in Valerie’s soul. She’d had to take medical leave from the graphic arts company where she worked, and there was no guarantee she’d have a job when she returned, even though the surgery would make her a better artist. As a draftsperson who primarily designed logos for not-so-sexy companies, such as tax brokerage and law firms, she understood that drilling a hole in her head would release her to understand the cosmic importance of such businesses. This understanding would thereby allow her to design spiritual symbols for them that they would adore without being conscious of precisely why.

The day before surgery, she visited the Chapultepec Zoo to become one with the animal world. With her arms wide open to give room for her lungs to breathe, she inhaled the fresh fragrance of manure. Then, she meandered languidly through the park to become one with nature in a way the children chasing colorful balloons and shouting mysterious words in Spanish wouldn’t because they thought only of cake and ice cream. And how much more would Valerie understand what lay beneath it all after the hole was drilled in her head? The thought of being enlightened more than others—and she was by the very nature of having chosen to be trepanned!—filled her with smug, yet benevolent feelings toward the poor little brown Mexican children. If only they knew the truths embedded in the earth where they played….If only, but, no, she couldn’t think of it. They would grow up to be ordinary and do ordinary things and never recognize truth symbols, let alone create them, unless they were trepanned.

“This is the world the way it was,” she said aloud so as to permanently capture the image in her mind. “It will never be this commonplace again.”

Back at her hotel, her head buzzed with dizziness after she downed her last glass of fresh vegetable juice. After that day, she would be able to maintain her health off Cokes and burgers slathered in special sauce, which were decidedly better than the salads and juice she’d subsisted off of for the last several years.

Dizziness aside, it was difficult to pinpoint the moment when everything changed from positive to negative. For a start, she couldn’t sleep at all the night before her scheduled surgery with Dr. Aurora. When she finally arose from the stiffly bleached sheets on the hotel bed, her head had gone from dizzy to stuffed-up. Her sinuses pulsed and pounded, and she instinctively knew that the hole in her head would only let out the pressure beneath her skull, and wouldn’t begin to help the sinuses.

When the cabdriver deposited her at the trepanation clinic, she wasn’t at first leery of it, despite her head congestion. Potted plants waved in the breeze by a quaint gate, which opened onto a shady courtyard decorated with river rocks. Once inside the operating room, however, she found herself staring at a tray of hand-crank drills that looked exactly as if the surgeon had ordered them from an eighteenth-century medical equipment catalog. Surely, they were simply for display, she reassured herself, but she wasn’t to know. Before she saw his face, Dr. Aurora had covered her mouth and nose with a sickly-sweet-smelling pad. Darkness consumed her, and her dreams led her down hand-cranked paths, rolling in front of her bare feet. She shivered and shook with delirium, and yet, she walked down the path because it was the only direction she could see to step.

Then she awoke, and rather than the lightness that others claimed to have felt from the holes in their heads, she felt only a searing pain. Lightning flashed behind her eyeballs, and she instantly rolled over and vomited. Her head was so heavy she couldn’t hold it up. Eventually, she gave into the desire to sleep forever in a black and heavy place. Where were the glowing lights, the love? Where was her guardian angel?

“I’m here, Jane.”

“I’m not Jane,” she muttered.

“You are Categorically Jane.”

She rolled over in her sleep, and there he was: a small black troll of a beast with shriveled wings.

“Come, give us a hug, Janie,” he said. “I have so much to tell you.”

“I can’t move. Too heavy.”

He hopped on top of her and flopped his arms around her. “I’m here to reveal reality to you. Are you ready?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“No, not really.”

And then the visions of truth began: images of hunched black creatures in shadows, of darkness, death, and writhing people covered in sores. There was no enlightenment, only endarkenment, if such was a word.

“Stop, please, stop. Where’s my consciousness, hell?”

“Hell? No way! You’re here on earth, Janey, my girl.”

“Lightness, love. Truth. Where is it?”

“Enlightenment, don’t know what that is.” He wiggled a little on top of her and pinched her waist. “I know what lightning is. And gamma rays. I love gamma rays.”

She tried to throw him off her back, but she was too heavy to move. “Please, I beg you, go away. Bring me back to myself.”

“So soon, Janey? Don’t you have any pressing questions?”

“Do you travel around on brown moths?”

“Urban legend!” he shrieked. “I use a spaceship shaped like a comet.”

“Go away!”

Because her eyes were closed, and the world was generally dark, she didn’t see him go. She felt his pressure ease off her back; she even felt it leave the room. But the shadows didn’t leave her for a long time while she slept and slept with no sense of time or dreams. A long time later she opened her eyes–and the world appeared normal.

“Why don’t you turn on the lights?” she asked nobody in particular.

“¿Como?”

Through the dim shadows of a warm summer night, she saw the figure of a nurse bustling around. As she tried to focus, the searing pain in her head belatedly woke up. Never mind, she thought. Never mind.

Before she checked out, she accepted the pain meds the surgeon’s assistant offered her; she never did see Dr. Aurora’s face. Would the searing pain ever subside? she asked him.

“Pain is a gift from God,” he said. “Truth an even greater gift.”

She didn’t smile or thank him. Instead, she popped a pill. She had a flight to catch. Was it possible for the world to appear even more broken and gritty than before–even more commonplace? She popped another pill on the flight home.

She popped another one the first time she spotted a hallow-eyed demon in the food court of the mall. Another pill slid down her throat on her first day back at the office, where she worked tirelessly at exposing truth. From under her fingers, demon horns sprouted from twisted lawyer faces. When she lost her job, she went on the state health insurance so she could keep buying her pain meds.

When she could no longer afford the Burger Barn, which didn’t accept food stamps, she turned to freelance, but for some reason, nobody was interested in the calligraphic words she painted for them over and over, swirling in between ugly brown moths:

Enlightenment, don’t know what that is!

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Embrace the Cardboard Troglodyte

Rose finally convinced me to travel to the Capital with her for a shopping extravaganza at the mall. Truth be told, I’d avoided the proposed trip for almost a year and a half, even though Rose, along with my other friends, gushed over the 80% off sales they hit there. I couldn’t have cared less, really, except that my children did need shoes. While I doubted the 80% off claims, I was still reasonably certain that the price-to-quality ratio of shoes found at the Capital Mall would be better than could be found in our pauxdunc town. So before I sent the kids to my mom’s house for the day, I drew outlines of their feet on paper and folded the little paper feet into my purse. As an opposing force to me, Rose preferred shopping with a crowd and, hence, forced her two eldest boys to make the trip with us. Her other four kids she, too, sent to my mom’s.

Rose was an enthusiastic woman who embraced motherhood right down to her physical appearance. Side by side with her, it didn’t appear that I had birthed multiple children as she had. After all these years, I hadn’t managed to add a single inch to my hip measurement, and that was not to mention that I retreated from being an overweight, energetic mom. I don’t know what it is about women who pack pounds on the general hip region. They run around as if fueled by the EFAs stored there. Oh, yeah, and they make me dizzy. As soon as Rose and I entered the mall, I realized my mistake in making the trip with her instead of going solo. She would drag me around like a recalcitrant child, as she always did. She reminded me of my mom. To this day, I’m not certain why my mom never believed me when, as a child, I complained that the mall gave me headaches. The piped-in synthetic fragrances and new materials were enough to knock out the heartiest, even Rose, who suffered from sinus problems. Yet, Americans still continued to crawl all over the malls, twenty-odd years past their 1980s heyday. What did they think the mall would accomplish for them? Good God above, please let the 80% off myth be true just this once! Maybe that was it.

Rose had already decided that her errands were ten times more important than mine. She ran off in one direction, and then another, as if somebody had fired a Go! shot, but she didn’t know where the fabled finish line waited. Her sons were soon caught in her tailwind and drifted off with her; I didn’t try to keep up. That’s not exactly true. I did at first. Rose needed to visit formal dress shops–her eldest son was to be married in May. He couldn’t manage to feign interest in what his mom would wear to his wedding, but she did all the feigning for him. He was simply along for the ride with a to-do list from his wife-to-be, which I guessed he would not do. He was the type of young man who gave compliant murmurs, and proceeded to do whatever he wanted. In fact, after compliantly following us to various shops that would ostensibly have fulfilled his to-do list, but where he purchased nothing, he slunk off toward the bookstore with a mumbled excuse.

I wished I could be like a compliant young man who wasn’t. For some reason, Rose insisted she needed me to help her pick something that would slenderize her. Rose never listened to me, regardless, and that was part of the pretense. She needed somebody along who would listen to her, not somebody who would advise her. I was, therefore, to feign interest and pretend I had no needs of my own. Her second son was in this for new soccer cleats and would get his heart’s desire if he followed his mom around long enough. As for me, my desires ran to quickly ferreting out suitable shoes for my children. Afterwards, I would find it pleasant to sit on a bench, drink coffee, and stare at the odd cross-section of people who passed through the mall.

Despite the direction-less stumbling around, the three of us managed to find the main plaza. This was the place to be because it had maps of all the shops and eateries, which were centered around an enormous fountain that appeared to be an Aztec pyramid. Rose, true to form, ran down the wet fountain steps as a short-cut to the formal-wear store she wanted. Although I tried to run down the steps, too, I slipped on the top step and realized that what was simple for Rose might be deadly for me. I would come crashing down and, possibly, crack my head on one of the decorative rocks. I took the long way around, hoping I would catch sight of Rose on the other side. To my chagrin, I couldn’t see her or remaining son, not down any of the mall corridors.

At first, this turn of events annoyed me. Rose was an annoying shopper, but she was my best friend, as well as my ride back. I shrugged. She hadn’t exactly waited for me. We both had cell phones and could find each other later. Remembering the paper feet tucked in my purse, I studied the list of stores until I found the Shoe Emporium on one of the maps and headed in that direction. I never did find it in the maze of stores and eventually stopped short by a healthcare booth in the center of a corridor because I recognized one of the two women who were helping people choose health plans there. Back when I was in my twenties and still had hopes of a writing career, the woman and I had joined the same critique group. She was a woman of mysterious charm, no doubt owing to her enormous smile. She stood smiling between two cardboard cutouts that represented the healthcare options. One cutout was of a cartoonish mad-scientist, wearing a monocle and a white doctor’s jacket. The other depicted a hunched-over woman who resembled a Disneyesque old crone.

“Pat?” I shouted at my old friend.

The woman squealed, ran over to me in her signature three-inch spike heels, and caught me up in a hug. She was nearly sixty, yet smelled of perfume that cried out her remaining attempt at sex appeal. Her cheeks glittered with gold dust.

“Wait one minute,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

I watched her sashay over to the next booth, which was filled with gold bling. She waited on some young gang-bangers there, turning on the charm for them. She had always dated younger men, but these “men” were practically boys. Aside from that, during a group chat with some of our other writer friends, I’d learned the young men weren’t falling for Pat anymore. When somebody dared to ask her why she didn’t date men her own age, she claimed men her age were boring and conservative, two of the worst traits a human could possess, in her not-so-humble opinion. Somehow, she’d given my boring life and libertarian views a pass a long time ago. We were artist friends, soul mates. The same martyr blood beat in my veins that beat in hers. Or so she thought.

Back at the healthcare booth, she engaged me in conversation on the typical subjects for discourse among old friends: writing, politics, and universal healthcare. Whenever we stumbled on a controversial topic, she would mysteriously find she had customers at the bling booth and sally off in order to avoid confrontation. After a while, this annoyed me, and I directed a point-blank question at her about the healthcare plans she was selling (healthcare and bling–aye, what writers have to sell for a living!). She already understood that being forced to pay into a corporate health plan enraged my normally calm self. But because I had to have a plan by mandate, I asked her about the options.

On a national level, there were two: I could have care with the Troglodytes (as represented by the mad scientist) or with the Gobernadoras (as represented by the bruja). The Troglodytes were a group of conservative, anti-abortion males, whom Pat despised. The Gobernadoras were traditional curanderas who would provide abortions at their own discretion. Ah, abortion–that was a controversial subject for most people. Pat ran off to her bling booth before I could manage to form any words. The other healthcare woman, quiet up to that moment, gave me a pitying look.

“Don’t worry, the Troglodytes are outlawed in this state,” she informed me. “But it’s the national law to tell you they’re available as an option.”

“I don’t understand. Why would one of the two options be outlawed?” Better still, why were we just hearing about this now?

“It’s part of the culture here. The Gobernadoras are considered to be the protectors of society, and so they sued to keep it that way. They’re the ones who decide whether an abortion is necessary when they divine the baby’s heart post-birth. They’ve been protecting society here for hundreds of years. We don’t need outsiders to take that role from us.”

I swallowed. I’d heard of such things, but when I’d written up reports on the local medicine tradition back in college, I was only allowed to cite the propaganda. According to the official documents, the native herb ladies were Holy Healers who didn’t involve themselves with divining. I shook away my unease as I stared at the mad scientist. Then I studied Pat, whose cackle of laughter assaulted my ears, even though she directed it at the young man examining one of her gold watch bands. After all these years, Pat and I were nothing alike. Writing was no longer a career I longed for, and I wasn’t certain why I’d remained a member of various writing group forums. I liked Pat; that was why. She was my sixty-year-old friend who was destined for loneliness. I liked her, as well as the other writers who moaned and groaned about the sorry state of publishing and the world.

By contrast, Rose never moaned and groaned and, yet, I was nothing like her, either. She directed her energy toward happy endeavors. Likely, her happiness was owing to never choosing to wear spike-heeled shoes. She wasted far too much money on shoes, but her choices ran to expensive exercise wear. Pat clicked back over to the health booth, the smile and gold dust intact on her face. She handed me our state healthcare pamphlet, which detailed the one available option. I pretended to absorb myself in reading the fine print, but thankfully, my phone vibrated. It was a text from Rose, sent to me and her missing son. If others had joined us on this shopping trip, she would have sent the message to all those who couldn’t keep up with her mad sprees. MEET ME AT ROMANO’S! she shouted at her son and me in text.

Unlike both Rose and Pat, I directed my life toward banal endeavors, such as shoes for the kids. Sometimes, though, I needed what others barred from me, and not because it was barred, but because I didn’t prefer to have old crones examining what I brought into the world. Therefore, I needed my own friendly troglodyte, even if I had to leave the state to find him. An overwhelming desire to embrace the mad cardboard scientist washed over me. I determined to snatch him up and run away with him, and I smiled to myself as I imagined Rose’s amusement at discovering my cardboard health provider sitting next to her at our lunch table. I also imagined him ordering a dish not on the menu, and recommending I do the same. Troglodytes were like that.

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She Had Three Babies

The woman known as Jewel, or Jaden’s wife, gave birth to three babies. Two were fat sleek boys who could walk within days. The third people often forgot about because the babe was a scrawny girl, a wild howling thing that disappeared inside cubicles and cylindricals unknown to even her mother. The wild child loved geometry and the way it allowed for three dimensions. Flat spaces were much more difficult to crawl inside, or this is what she claimed when search parties discovered her. Friends and family tried to protect Jewel from the wild girl, and this was difficult, as the child held a fascination for her complacent mother, but only when her mother wasn’t looking for her.

“I have three babies,” Jewel often whispered, over and over, while lounging on her sofa.

“You have two,” Jaden corrected her because even he forgot about the geometry of the living room, how it created rectangulars and polyhedra. “If you have a third, where is she?”

Jaden thought he was so smart, but most males did, especially those who believed themselves to be born teachers, full of all manner of things they had to inform her of. Her sons were the same as their father. Good God were those fat, sleek boys full of themselves and things to know.

“She’s in my hat,” Jewel said. But Jewel’s sarcasm blew right over the top of her husband’s head.

“Why don’t you wave a magic wand over it?”

Jaden’s sarcasm didn’t wash over Jewel’s head. She knew when he mocked her, when they all mocked her.

“She doesn’t want to go to school, so she hides.”

“Maybe she would come out if you were a better mother.”

“I’m perfect. I’m everything she wants. It’s you she doesn’t want. She hates you and school and all the teachers at the school.”

“Hire a governess to teach her at home, then.”

“I won’t fall for that, Jaden. You can’t fool me. She’ll go to the family school.”

Jaden didn’t threaten to have her locked up as he usually did. Why did they all have to lie to her about her daughter? Why did they have to protect her from the best part of her life? If only Jewel could drag herself from the couch, lower her limp white legs to the Turkish carpet and step lightly, her anklets jangling. She couldn’t go anywhere without anybody within hearing distance knowing about it. For years, she’d thought about finding a pair of clippers and cutting through the jangling things, but she had yet to find the motivation. Instead, she imagined herself dancing on the carpet as she had done more than five years ago when her parents had sent her to seduce wealthy Jaden who lived on the hill above town. In her fantasy, her thin white feet lightly touched down, and her delicate ankles made music, just as they had done for Jaden. Jaden had found her enchanting, carrying her off to his chamber that night.

Less than a year later, the three babies arrived–the two fat boys, and their scrawny sister with her red face and cloud of angel white hair. Jewel was virtually a child, herself, and carrying three babies had nearly killed her. She’d never been the same, had turned into this complacent wretch, never knowing where her daughter was.

She had three babies. And where was the scrawny girl?

“Where are you, my third child?” Jewel called out.

She sighed. There were too many hiding places, too many crawl spaces. The little clown was her favorite, yet she drove her to distraction. She thought of dancing. She closed her eyes with a cool cloth dripping down the sides of her face. She removed the cloth and poured wine into a glass from a silly crystal decanter. The decanter didn’t change the nature of the wine, which was like currants and blackberries and cinnamon and all kinds of heaven. With a deep breath, she held the fragrance inside her nose and mouth. Then she drank it down in a few gulps.

“My scrawny child, don’t play the clown with me! Come out, come out, wherever you are!”

From some distant place, Jewel heard a howling, giggling echo. Was the child outside? She took down another measured portion of wine, which slipped like a warm spirit down her throat and into her stomach. It wasn’t like a warm spirit, but was one.

“Put your feet down,” it told her. “Your child’s in the cylinder of the well. She’ll never be able to climb out if you don’t help her.”

The spirit strong in her belly, she set one foot, then another to the carpet. If she stepped very carefully, her bells would barely toll her plight. So she minced her steps. She minced toward the balcony door, through the breezeway, around the lattices, to the courtyard. From deep within the well, she heard the giggling echo.

“You won’t find me!” the little voice howled.

“I’ve already found you, my little girl,” Jewel said as she leaned over the opening and looked down.

Darkness confronted her. She picked up a pebble and threw it in and heard it splash down deep below.

“That’s not nice,” the little girl shouted. “Don’t throw stones at me.”

“Why don’t you come out of there, and I won’t throw anything at you any longer?”

“No, Mama! You have to come get me.”

Jewel looked back at the house. She thought of Jaden, who was, no doubt, in his office conducting dictation and business–a flat, two-dimensional world of meaningless figures on paper. She imagined dancing for him, his carrying her into his chamber. She always did what she was told. She jumped to her parents’ commands, to Jaden’s. Why shouldn’t she also obey the little girl, who giggled and called to her Come get me; come get me!

And so she jumped, and when she splashed down, her weightless figure sounded as a pebble would, a plink, and then she descended into the cool ripples of water to meet her scrawny child with her damp white cloud of hair.

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