The Ashtray

A low rumble buzzed in the little dog’s chest. His wet obsidian eyes watched the young man moving about the room gathering items and folding clothes to be placed in the suitcase lying open on the bed. Gary Hoover didn’t pay the terrier mix no mind; he knew the dog took its cue from its mistress. His mother got the dog when Gary was three; she called the mongrel her second son.

Like any other day, today found Lisbeth Hoover installed in her favorite armchair with the dog wedged between the ham of her thigh and the armrest. One massive hand with fingers splayed across the dog’s back lent comfort to the agitated beast. The other held her trademark Marlboro, and the candy dish on the table beside her overflowed with ash.

“Peppy don’t like whatch yer doin’,” Lisbeth said.

“I can’t do it nowhere else,” Gary replied.

He considered pulling the curtain across the wire strung from one side of the living room to the other. His father put up the makeshift divider when they moved in to the miniature apartment. He had secured the heavy gauge wire he brought home from work with eyebolts in the burgundy walls.

“Looks like a whorehouse in here,” Lisbeth had complained.

“Yeah…well…”

His father never finished his sentence. He never finished looking for a job that would pay for an apartment where Gary could have a real bedroom. He also never finished his marriage or his promise to teach Gary how to pitch a baseball. The only thing he finished doing was leaving bruises on Lisbeth’s face and arms. Gary was five when they had moved in, six when his father left.

That was the day Lisbeth sat down. She sat and smoked, watching the sun come up and continuing long after Gary had gone to bed. His ample mother smoked and became a mountain of flesh spilling over the chair, conforming it to her shape. Every few years, a new chair had to be found in a secondhand store and dragged home because they didn’t own a car and had no friend’s willing to haul it for them. Lisbeth and Gary ended up on some kind of assistance because his mother couldn’t work. He really never did know why.

What he did know was that their life was as secondhand as the chairs his mother ruined. Food stamps, government cheese, turkeys and hams from the Catholic Church every Thanksgiving and Christmas, clothing and shoes from the Salvation Army. Fist fights behind the school for wearing items recognized by their former owners. The fabric of their existence reeked with the smoke of failure not unlike the flowered upholstery covering his mother’s latest acquisition.

the-ashtrayThe only nice thing they owned was the carnival glass candy dish his father’s mother had given Lisbeth on her wedding day. As a toddler, Gary earned a hard smack to this pudgy hand the first time he ever reached for the dish. His blue eyes, level with the table where the dish sat, never released the brimming tears. He could stare for hours at the amber glass shimmering with rainbow iridescence, and often did, falling asleep in front of the table on which it stood as if reluctant to abandon a sacred shrine.

His grandmother would cover him with a blanket. His mother started using the candy dish as an ashtray. His family was told to find someplace else to live, and Gary never saw his grandmother again. At least they were allowed to take the ashtray with them as they began the house-hopping journey that led them to this place.

The beautiful dish couldn’t contain the quantity of ash Lisbeth deposited within its fluted borders. Even she knew it wasn’t suitable for the purpose to which it had been condemned. Gary always emptied the dish two or three times a day without being asked or thanked. He would barely have it back in place before another inch of spent tobacco would drop off. Sometimes it would land on the table or chair, and once on Lisbeth’s threadbare dress, and burn an abstract pattern into whatever it touched.

Less mesmerizing than the carnival glass was the never-ending smoke curling upward from the tip of Lisbeth’s cigarette. It trailed through the bird’s nest of grizzled hair framing his mother’s face, staining the gray yellow, before it moved on to touch the doilies, lampshades, and ceiling with its filthy fingers. His mother, ensconced in the arm chair in the dark corner of the red room with the shades pulled and smoke wreathed about her head, presented a glimpse into hell.

“What’s this fancy school got you think you need so bad?” Lisbeth asked. She ran her big paw over Peppy’s head, stretching his eyes until the whites showed and yanking his ears.

“I earned me a place with my good grades. You’d of known if you’d come to graduation.”

“In what—this piece of shit dress? All I ever had I gave up for you. I was the one that stayed, remember?”

What Gary remembered was every bitter word his mother used to fight his father for not being the man she loved. He waited for the familiar version of events to spill from Lisbeth’s slack mouth.

“I didn’t ask for his sorry hand in marriage. That was my daddy’s doing when he learnt you was on the way. I coulda been a soldier’s wife, going to fancy military balls and wearing long dresses and pearls. Your daddy, your real daddy, was a marine.”

Gary’s hands trembled as he buckled the straps in the suitcase then closed the lid and locked it.

“I’m going to study mathematics at the university, and I got a job at a warehouse loading trucks to help pay,” Gary said.

“Well you be sure to send notice of your highfalutin self to your daddy living over in Coyle with his new wife and kids.”

The young man stood with his suitcase gripped in one hand, a bus ticket in the other. He wasn’t sure how much of what his mother said was true or which man she spoke of. His eyes were trained like a pointer’s on the only door leading out of their firetrap apartment. He tucked his ticket under his arm, walked to the door, opened it, and said, “I’m leaving for school now, Momma.”

“I see that, Son.”

Another caterpillar of ash crept from Lisbeth’s cigarette.  She watched it fall on the growing pyramid in the beautiful ashtray.

Neighbors

It starts with a funeral.  Why does it take great tragedy to bring people together, Cathy Higgins wonders as she stands in line with her husband, Jake, waiting to hug Mr. Robertson’s son, Dan.  The line of mourners trails all the way from the casket, around the sanctuary, and out the door of the church.  Cathy pulls at the front of her blouse trying to puff some air into the collar sticking to her neck.  She wishes they could inch a few steps forward into the shade of the roof overhang.

A week ago, Jake asked Cathy if she’d seen Mr. Robertson mowing his yard or pottering around the outbuildings on his property.  She hadn’t, and as luck would have it, when Jake left for work that evening, he saw Dan mowing with his father’s tractor.  He pulled into the driveway, shouted and waved to get Dan’s attention.

“Hey, we haven’t seen your dad around for a couple of weeks, and we’re wondering if he’s okay.”

Dan shook his head; his crooked smile told the story.  Jake called Cathy on his cell as he drove on to work to report back the sad news.  For some reason, Cathy called her family to tell them, not that any of them really knew Mr. Robertson beyond the fact that he was the neighbor.

Air conditioning blasts from the open double doors of the church.  Cathy can feel it now that she and Jake are within range of the building.  They really should shut the doors in between people, she thinks.  It would stay cooler inside and not waste electricity and money.  Her laughter escapes as breath expelled from her nose at the weird thought.  She’s always thinking odd stuff like this; probably the result of growing up and hearing such admonitions regarding the closing of doors when the air is on and refrigerators when they are running.

Jake waves to someone ahead of them in the line.  He taps Cathy on the shoulder and gently takes her by the arm.  She scowls for a moment when she understands they are jumping line to join whomever Jake spied.  It is Fran Mencer whose backyard is perpendicular to the Higgins’s.  Her home faces the side street as does Mr. Robertson’s who lived next door to Jake and Cathy.

“Hi,” Fran says in that long drawn out way that conveys I’m so glad to see you, but I hate that it’s under these circumstances.  The light in her eyes is at odds with the grim smile on her face.

She and Cathy hug, and the line jumping is forgotten.  At least by Cathy who is relieved to run into someone she knows.  She went to school with Dan Robertson, but they traveled in different circles, and neither she nor Jake ever met his sister and brother.  The Higginses don’t even know if there are spouses to be consoled.

“Can you believe this?” Fran says.

“Was he sick?” Cathy asks.  “We hadn’t seen him out in the yard for a couple weeks, so we thought maybe he’d gone on vacation.”

Fran shook her head.

“He’d been in the hospital for a while.  Declined rapidly.  His old heart finally gave out.”

“Oh, boy.  I wish I’d known.”

“I tried to call you a couple of times, but your line was disconnected.”

Cathy’s eyebrows knit for a moment, and then she says, “Oh, we let our landline go several months ago.”

A thought flickers through Cathy’s head:  the yards aren’t so big that one couldn’t walk to a neighbor’s house with important news.  In the next second, her eyes widen and a knife stabs her heart.

“When I lost Buddy this past spring right after Pop passed, I pretty much went to bed for the summer.”

Oh dear Lord…how did we not know that Buddy and Pop died this spring, Cathy thinks.  Her husband and father in the same yearPlay it off or admit we didn’t know?

“Oh, Fran, I’m so sorry,” Cathy says, trying to cover all her bases.

How many times had she meant to walk across the yards and visit Fran?  Tea and a chat was always the invitation.  Cathy cannot discern what Jake is feeling beneath the shock on his face, but her stomach is heavy with the lead of guilt.

After talking with Dan Robertson, reminiscing about his dad, hearing how things are not going well in the absence of a will, and offering final condolences and goodbyes, Jake and Cathy leave hand in hand.  They look at the blacktop sprinkled with curled leaves dried from end-of-summer heat, falling before the autumn frosts have even arrived.  Neither speaks on the short trip home.

They change out of their dress clothes and wander outside to sit in lawn chairs, instinctively looking toward Mr. Robertson’s home.  Funny that we never called him by his first name, Cathy thinks.  Maybe because he was the oldest in our little neighborhood.  She and Jake always thought of themselves, Fran and Buddy, and Mr. Robertson as the neighborhood.

Their neighborhood:  not a sidewalk in sight, no fences between the yards, homes built on old farmland.  Deer still migrate through the yards as they hopscotch from cornfield to cornfield, foxes sneak through on their dainty paws, and hawks wheel in the endless skies above.  Fancy allotments with two and three thousand-square foot homes are popping up peripherally.

The Matulevich family lives across the street from Cathy and Jake.  Not a lot of contact past the occasional friendly wave, but Mr. Matulevich’s brother lives three doors down on the same side as the Higginses, and he is quite friendly.  He used to till the garden for Cathy every summer with his Bobcat until she gave up gardening for watercolor painting.

Across from Mr. Robertson are Clarice and Al Robertson, no relation, in the triplexes lining the side street.  They were there long before the Higginses built, permanent renters, and Cathy usually runs into one or both of them at garage sales every summer.

But so many other families come and go from these homes that Cathy and Jake gave up trying to learn who they were.  Still, unfamiliarity doesn’t prevent waves, smiles, and pulling cars out of snowdrifts when necessary.  That’s just how it is in this part of town that is somewhere between the suburbs and rural living.

img_20161030_173746250_hdrA month or more passes with Jake and Cathy falling back into the routine of work and lawn care for him and tending the house inside and out for her.  Always so much to do and never enough time to do it.  And then Jake comes in the house one day after putting his tractor away for the season.

“Fran is out back push mowing the yard.”

Cathy lays down the laundry she is folding and follows her husband outside.  They walk across the length of their backyard and two-thirds of Fran’s before finally reaching her.  These plots really are quite spacious, Cathy thinks.

“What are you doing?” Jake asks with laughter and gentle reprimand in his voice.

“I know, but I took some pain pills before I started and thought I’d work in patches,” Fran laughs in reply.

Jake offers to cut the yard however many times are needed until the November rains come.  The trio chats a bit; they end up inside Fran’s house with coffee, and they chat some more.

This time, Cathy thinks, we will be good neighbors.

Wishful Thinking

wishful-thinkingFinally Arthur sat down. With walking stick clenched in his hand and face turned toward the brilliance of morning, he rested on a moss-covered tree stump. A scent like fine tobacco and fresh melon drifted on the breeze, and leaves like discarded candy wrappers swirled at his feet. Beads of moisture dotted his forehead. He removed a handkerchief from his vest pocket and ran it over his face, pushing it up under the brim of his bush hat.

He signed and scanned the open field on the edge of the woods from which he had emerged moments ago. The sound of birdsong greeted him and nothing more. Arthur couldn’t remember how long it had been since he last saw the group, since Sherri the activity director’s nasally voice kept calling to him to hurry up, stay with the group, quit lollygagging. She hustled them along the trail like a herd of ancient elephants.

Arthur’s cheeks swelled with the childish, naughty thought that he had slipped the leash. His lips parted, and his unrestrained mirth escaped, startling the birds to silence. A weathered hand quickly stifled his laughter; he didn’t want to alert Sherri and risk recapture. He didn’t even feel guilty as he imagined her panic when she discovered he was gone.

Outdoor trips were rare, and Arthur planned to enjoy every moment of his freedom. His body, usually stiff with pain, found comfort on the craggy stump. He stretched his legs, licked his lips, and whistled the songs of the birds he’d heard when he first sat down. The sweet symphony further cheered his heart. Being lost pleased him.

But he wasn’t really lost. He was right here, right now, living life to its fullest in the simplest of ways.

“Arthur. Ar-thur! Quit daydreaming, and please find your seat on the bus. Everyone is waiting for you.”

Sherri’s nails-on-a-chalkboard voice cut through his reverie. She stood before the wicker rocker where he sat in front of the door at Bayberry Assisted Living, fists on her hips, tapping her foot. Arthur lurched forward with a grunt and a groan, pushing himself upward from the unsteady chair. He shuffled toward the bus full of residents staring at him with blank eyes from the smeared windows.

Today, today I will find a way to get lost, he told himself.

A First Good Day

Some of the new swings are seen. A total of 11 new swings have been installed. SWINGPARK - The new swing park near the corner of East Brady and North Water Streets beneath the N. Holton St. Bridge on Wendesday, July 23, 2014, included newly designed swings that are a collaboration between the City of Milwaukee, the Brady Street BID #11, and the grassroots organization beintween (Òin betweenÓ). Beintween installed swings at the site in Fall 2012. When the swings fell into disrepair, they were removed by DPW in Fall 2013 as a safety precaution. The agencies worked together to redesign and rebuild the swings using recycled materials including rubber tires, metals and wood. A total of 11 new swings have been installed, including a set of baby swings and a metal swing that is ADA accessible. The cushioned ground beneath the swings has also been replaced with shredded rubber tires, and new lighting has been installed for a safer experience. Photo by Mike De Sisti / MDESISTI@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

Angie sits on a swing, swaying gently and trying not to catch her skirt in the chains. Her flats are placed firmly on the shredded rubber mulch, the new favorite material to cushion falls at the playground. All around her children laugh and squeal, running from swings to slides, rock wall to climbing rope, sand box to wooden fort. Mothers cluster on benches in the shade of meager trees, some pushing a stroller with a drowsy baby back and forth, back and forth. A trickle of sweat slides between Angie’s shoulder blades.

She’s not sure where she fits in. Part of her identifies with the little girls playing house, carrying their baby dolls by the neck in the crook of their arms. They sequester themselves in the tower of the fort until the little boys invade wielding invisible lights sabers and threats of feeding the dolls to the Sarlacc. Angie has experience disrupting homes. As for the prom princess mall mavens, the only thing they have in common with Angie is the fact that they, too, have given birth.  She is smart enough to know that this alone does not make her a mother. There’s more to it. A lot more. Probably what these women sitting around the perimeter are doing. But she cannot tell what that something is.

Her eyes burn and drop to the toes of her scuffed black flats. Heat reddens her face as she imagines what these women would think if they knew how many miles she walked to wear the soles of her shoes thin, or how short her skirts were in comparison to her long navy blue one sweeping the surface of the playground. Fireworks of yellow, red, and orange flash behind Angie’s closed eyes. Sunlight caresses her cheeks with the warmth of a mother’s hands as she tilts her face upward. A woodpecker’s tap on her shoulder interrupts her solitude.

“Angie?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Gloria Freshley stands to Angie’s right, clasping a briefcase handle in both hands. The social worker nods and gives her a head-to-toe once over.

“Very good. Remember what the judge said, okay?”

“This is not a reward for my good behavior, and the Mendenhalls are being generous by letting me see Chloe.”

“Exactly. Keep that in mind, and this will go smoothly.”

No mincing words with Gloria. Angie takes a breath to speak. Questions contort her face, but Gloria blinks slowly once in lieu of shaking her head. All the queries, arguments, and debates drift toward the thick clouds stacked across the sky.

“Here they come.”

Angie watches her three year-old daughter toddle between a man and a woman, her chubby hands held in one of their own. Their approach slows when the little girl navigates the concrete curb surrounding the playground, stops to watch the children play, and grabs a handful of sand to work between her palms. Mr. Mendenhall shares a smile with Chloe as he wipes her tiny hands with a handkerchief pulled from his back pocket. There’s something reassuring to Angie that her daughter lives with a man who still uses handkerchiefs. From beneath locks of long, brown hair, Mrs. Mendenhall’s eyes scan the playground. She’s a soldier on point acknowledging the enemy without giving herself away.

Indecision about the next twenty minutes muddles Angie’s thoughts. All she knows is that she doesn’t want to waste time thinking about her feelings. Analyzation comes later. For the next twenty minutes, earned by nineteen cocaine-free months, she will talk to Chloe and watch her play without touching her. She must remember to thank the Mendenhalls for taking care of Chloe and allowing this meeting. She must also remember to leave first. The last is her own stipulation, an old habit from her days on the streets to hide her true emotions.

Chloe staggers toward Angie who smiles at her daughter’s defiance to hold the Mendenhalls’ hands the last few yards. There are no words or expressions when Chloe totters past to explore the swings behind her mother. A bitten lip brings the taste of salt and rust; Angie’s mind scrambles to pin down a reaction to her daughter’s lack of recognition.

“Swings are her favorite,” Ted Mendenhall says to soften the blow.

“I should know that,” Angie replies.

“You do now,” Karen Mendenhall says.

The four adults sit at a picnic table. Their conversation contains praise for Chloe. No promises are given, no condemnation expressed. The offer to meet again in six months lightens the tension etched in the lines around everyone’s eyes except Chloe’s. She blows kisses over Ted Mendenhall’s shoulder as he carries her back to the car; his free hand holds his wife’s.

“That went well,” Gloria says. “I’ll call you a week before the next meeting to see where we are.”

Angie stands in the center of the playground trembling, unable to contain the smile aching her face. Suddenly, she realizes that she is the last to leave . Laughter and tears flow freely from the eighteen year-old as she enjoys the first good day she’s had in a long, long time.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 17

Writer's Soul 17If you’re like me, you have to build up to writing, ease into it. To wake up and start writing is like jumping out of bed and going to work without coffee.   There are people who can do this; God bless their perky morning souls. I approach things a little differently by creating a positive work environment and attitude for myself. This is achieved with a cup of hot tea and reading my Bible. The simple activity sets the stage for the rest of my writing day.

Then I take a few minutes to mentally organize and deep breathe. I rid myself of negative thoughts and focus on the positive. As a writer, one of the most negative things I encounter is writer’s block. I can feel the ideas in my head, but I just can’t get them out. I accomplish this by acknowledging that I’m not truly blocked. Rather, I’m giving in to fears, doubts, and insecurities. Being able to say this makes the fears, doubts, and insecurities manageable, and I can move on. Also, I stop guilting myself for what I may or may not be as a writer, and I stop playing the comparison game. Once I’ve dealt with these issues, I’m free to write.

One of the most important things I’ve learned since I took up writing is to keep my equipment simple. All I need to create literary brilliance is a single subject notebook and a pencil. I choose a pencil over a pen because they make noise as they move across the paper. This light scratching is satisfying to my brain and is proof writing efforts. I see and hear my progress. Another technique that helps with this process is to sometimes write on lightly textured paper such as a sketch pad.

I write in capital letters. It took some getting used to, but by doing so, the process slows down my writing and focuses my attention at the same time. My ideas actually flow better. As new ideas pop into my head, I write them in the margins of my notebook.

One of the hardest things to conform to is a writing schedule. You would think making your own hours would be bliss, but I find as my own boss, sometimes I have the tendency to not take my writing seriously. I become lax beyond the point of flexible, and my writing suffers. When I set a schedule and stick with it, choosing the time of day that works best for me, I am more productive. Of course, I allow for emergencies in my life and some flexibility, but I don’t allow myself to get too far off the schedule I created.

As for social media, it took me a while to learn to not be controlled by it. Author platforms are good, but when you spend all your time maintaining them, you’re not writing. Not to mention the rising stats are addictive, and the minute you tell yourself you’ll only be on a minute, you’ve wasted thirty minutes playing. Remember: writers write; they don’t build reputations on what they’re going to do. Resolve this issue by scheduling the time you’ll spend maintaining your social media, and again, stick to it.

Another trick I use to nudge my writing along is the daily word goal. It’s effective, but I learned that when I write what needs to be written, completing a scene or story in fewer words, I still consider myself successful. In other words, I write until I’m finished. I’ve been surprised how long or short a handwritten portion turns out to be when typed. Coming short of the goal isn’t failure as long as I’m writing.

That’s when I reward myself with chocolate, a cup of tea or coffee, pleasure reading, napping, calling a friend, cooking, taking a walk. I warn against using social media or television as a reward because they lure one away from focusing.

Also, I do not punish myself for not meeting my writing goal. There are already too many negative thoughts bombarding my head, negative influences toward my writing from outside, and my resistance will pounce on these to keep me from writing. The goal is writing. The quantity is negotiable.

I keep one main project to work on, usually my novel, and resist the urge to put too many irons in the writing fire. However, I also maintain a notebook of other writing projects I’d like to work on in case I need to switch things up. Sometimes I need a project while waiting for a response to a research question or if my main project becomes heavy and I need a small break. Alternative writing includes journaling, blog posts, letter writing, flash fiction, and short stories. I use caution when setting aside my main writing project for a period of time, making sure it’s for a valid reason such as research, time to think and/or reflect, or major upheavals in my life. I know when I truly need a break and when I’m just sloughing off.

In short, I found what worked for me. Good writing habits take time to establish, so I never quit. I carry a notebook with me everywhere, have one in every room of my house, and write on the run. If I mess up, I start again. My resistance battles me along the way, but I am stronger. Resistance tells me these methods are weird, lame, and ineffective. I do them anyhow.

The easiest thing I do for my writing is be present. I simply put myself in a chair at the table with a pencil and paper. Then I made this process enjoyable by scouting out the best location in my home where I can be the most productive and tailored it to my needs with music, silence, windows, shade, snacks, and beverages. Sometimes I change locations to keep from stagnating.

One of my writing jump starts is to write twenty different words on index cards (the first twenty that come to mind or twenty things that interest me), turn them upside down, take one from top of stack, and free write for ten minutes. I do this for twenty days as a warm up and repeat as needed until I trust myself to jump into my writing day without assistance.

Another is my list of ten. In three minutes, I write down a list of ten things I did yesterday. In ten minutes, I free write about one of the things I did on my list. If nothing grabs me, I choose number three. A month of this particular warmup helped me set healthy routines. Keep in mind that these simple exercises are like mental stretching. No athlete competes without first stretching. True, it can be boring, it isn’t pretty, but it does massage your brain into creative mode.

I never forget good ole visual or audible writing prompts. Some of my best writing has been jumpstarted by a picture or piece of music. The funny things is, when I went looking for a pretty picture to write about or music to put me in the writing mood, I couldn’t find anything. Then there are pictures I wouldn’t have looked at twice and music that crossed my path that flashed a story through my brain so quickly I knew I had to put it down on paper. Don’t discount any source of inspiration.

Making myself accountable to others is effective for meeting my writing goals. I chose a writing buddy who will encourage me to stick to my goals and help me address why I might not be. I’m careful not to compare what I am doing to what my buddy is doing, and I don’t swap work with them. My buddy should have a different writing buddy to help manage his writing goals. In that vein of thought, choose wisely with whom you share your writing. He or she should be able to provide constructive feedback because poorly given feedback can knock you off your focus.

Based on my own personal experience, I don’t read writing books while I’m writing, especially the how to variety and those on writing style. I find them to be distracting because I try to incorporate all the wonderful new ideas I’m reading into my writing, and they don’t all fit. They don’t all belong, and they can hamper my writing if I’m not careful.

Most of what I learned about creating a writing life came from Heather Sellers’s book Page After Page. Some of it came from other inspirational sources. I’d love to hear what works for you and your writing, your process, and your thoughts on what I’ve written. Remember, feedback is what we authors live for.

Now You See Me

Thank you to my dear friend, Irfan Nabi, for supplying the amazing photo inspiration for the flash fiction below.  The moment I saw his picture, a story began to form in my head.  In this case, it’s a love story told in reverse that circles back on itself.  I hope you enjoy it.

Now You See Me

Monsoon RainsWithout looking at him, she watched him walk away. A pause in the rain provided the perfect opportunity to see his reflection slip out of her life. To watch him walk away from all they had been together. Away from her.

His words lingered in her ears. The reverberation of a church bell signaling doom. So beautiful, so mournful. She goaded him to say more just to keep him in her presence if only for a moment longer. She begged him to stop shouting, her own admissions used against her. He never would have said a word, but she could not let it go.

She confessed her insecurities to him. Her age, his youth. Her wisdom, his beauty. How could they be compatible? He never mentioned it to her. Never once broached the subject she barely kept suppressed beneath a façade soothed by external remedies. Lotion, powder, blush. Her known deception extended to the roots of her colored hair.

Love came easily to them. To him. He never saw the relaxed state of her body, the body given to her after three children and years of an unhappy marriage. She could not relax inside, and that, too, he pretended not to notice.

They dined at her apartment. He cooked for her delicacies she had only dreamt of, fed her with his hands. Nothing measured, everything given in excess. Spices and friendship blended perfectly to satisfy all hunger and thirst for life. Soulmates.

Another invitation to coffee. He called her on her cell; she wondered how he obtained her number. They talked for hours like close confidants before she even said yes. Where to meet? He knew just the place. Knew she would love it. And she did.

A chance meeting outside the building where he worked. He insisted she join him and his friend for lunch. She declined with a head tilt and a smile, and instantly missed him for some strange reason. When he caught up to her, she believed his explanation about the friend excusing himself.

Introduced by a mutual friend at a party celebrating someone’s birthday, they found themselves with glasses of champagne in hand. Standing about, chatting. Nervous laughter preceded the invitation to leave, to seek quiet and coffee. It was just coffee, but she enjoyed herself more than she had in years. His lively conversation cheered her in this country where she did not live.

She stayed with a friend already working in the country. Together they located a suitable apartment while she decided what she wanted to do with her life. Right then, all she wanted to do was breathe. Days turned into weeks turned into months.

Divorce finally prompted her to flee, to seek the freedom she craved and the happiness she deserved. She left behind grown children with the assurance to return and the promise of souvenirs. Okay, maybe grown but not mature. All three saw her off at the airport with hugs and kisses but not tears because they knew she would return to them. What could an exotic country hold for her, provide her with, when they were her very existence?

– – – – –

He turned to look at her one last time, imploring eyes willed her to lift her head. But his reflection had already slipped beyond the edge of the puddle, and she did not see.

Pause and Effect

Jetty

Every now and then, she gives herself the small pleasure of the freedom to breath. This decision toward independence is the zipper separating her responsibilities from her desires; the two halves fall away.

Only then is she able to see clearly the obstacles in her life. They don’t always approach head on, and she must look to the right and the left to see what blocks her journey.

When she clears her horizons of the minutiae of daily routine, her existence reorganizes into a system of priorities. The hazards of life recede, her vision focuses.

The path of her life is steady, extending toward a ribbon of hope. She can grasp it for herself now as there is plenty for her future. In doing so, she combats the crumbling edges of false perceptions and keeps the rolling tide of disappointment at bay.

Inspection of herself and her life grounds her. Dreams take flight and possibilities are realized. Reordered, she continues in the role of woman, wife, mother.

~~~~~

Thank you to HBSmithPhotography for the amazing photograph.

Amphibious Fantasy

The rainforest is his favorite. A small slice of Heaven plunked down in the middle of his urban existence. The big cats are impressive, and everyone goes crazy over the elephants, but for Zach, the rainforest display at the zoo trumps them all.

He stands before the glass-fronted cage holding blue poison dart frogs. Three of them. Their shiny skin, unrealistic in royal blue, renders them plastic replicas of themselves. Until one moves. The frogs are active during the day unlike the lazy wolves that refused to cooperate. Zach really couldn’t blame them; he wouldn’t have left the safety of his cave to be gawked at by a bunch of fourth graders.

He understands the sleeping wolves. Even now he can feel his eyelids descending as he watches the frogs. Sounds of the rainforest are piped throughout the building: calling birds, buzzing insects, chattering monkeys, flowing water, growling leopards. It’s enough to make anyone want to take a nap. That’s exactly what Zach would do if he could pass through the glass and curl up in the window box display with his beloved frogs.

He has no fear of the poison on their skin. Somehow, he would become one of them. A superhero, of sorts, who uses the poison to get rid of the bad guys. The little frogs would help him like the bats do when Batman needs them. Besides, blue poison dart frogs bred in captivity aren’t poisonous like those living in the wild.

Zach continues to stare past his reflection in the glass. He chews the pull string on his hoodie, soaking it and gnarling the plastic end. Maybe he Blue Dart Frogscould be The Blue Dart. His outfit could be the same shade of blue as the frogs but without the speckles. And no capes. Capes are dumb. He would have a mask, though. A black one across his eyes. He imagines his face above a well-muscled, adult body wearing just such a getup.

A tap to his shoulder signals that it’s time to move on. He nods and smiles at his teacher, Ms. Schaeffer, allowing the whole class to drift past. Then he resumes staring at the frogs. Ms. Schaeffer doesn’t notice; she’s too busy flirting with the security guard trailing the class. And the tour guide, aware of her tenuous hold on the kids’ attention, doesn’t stop spewing rainforest facts or she’ll lose control. Zach already knows everything she’s telling them. He slips back to daydreaming.

A little blue dart frog poison on the breading of the corndogs Jaxson Michaels favors would put an end to the bullying. He’s pretty sure the whole school would be grateful when the sixth grader gasped and fell off his chair. He almost laughs at the image of Jaxson flailing on the floor. His grandma’s face surfaces before his eyes, scowling and shaking her head.

Zach’s breathing quickens. The thoughts of killing upset him. He scowls at his reflection then taps the glass to make the frogs move, a major taboo. No one witnesses his transgression, but he looks around all the same. The people milling about are parents with children. His class is nowhere in sight.

Like poisonous blue magnets, the frogs draw Zach’s attention once more. He considers sitting beneath the cage, leaning against the wall, to fall asleep to the rumble of thunder that has joined the other rainforest sounds. The clicking of heels speeding in his direction means Ms. Schaeffer has discovered his absence. Zach will tune her out when she scolds.

Blame it on the frogs, he thinks, but just don’t mess with The Blue Dart, lady.

~~~~~

Thank you to Michelle Smith of Just4FunPhotography for providing the beautiful picture of blue poison dart frogs.

The Way I See It

window-shopping-rosita-larssonI have watched you from this window for so long that I have to wonder how often you can go on looking and never seeing. I’m right here in plain sight.

Always the same routine with you: every day searching for something that is right before your eyes, stopping to observe as crowds hustle past.

I see it in your blank face, your empty expression, the way you stare. You want something more, something to quell the dissatisfaction. But you don’t even know what that something is. Your reflection shimmers with desire as you stand there.

If only you weren’t so frozen, unable to move beyond this prison not of your own devising. You let yourself be used, positioned for everyone else’s happiness at the cost of your own. Now you’re on display for the entire world to see, all the while pretending you are invisible, hidden away on the top floor, safe above the masses below.

From every angle you are visible, from inside and out. And you don’t even know I’m watching. If you could just tip your head up or tilt it down, a bit to the left, maybe the right, you would see me there as rigid as a soldier yet at ease. Patiently waiting. And never touching, we would share a smile and know that everything will be all right.

Instead, you fix your hair, straighten your clothes, stand at perfect, stylish attention, retreat within. It’s time to move on; tomorrow, we will repeat the whole process.

~~~~~

Thank you to my dear friend, Rosita Larrson, for allowing me to use her beautiful photography as a visual writing prompt.  This particular photograph, “Window Shopping,” can be found at Rosita Larrson, fineartamerica, in the gallery titled Mannequins Display Windows Reflections.

A Vision in Red

I woke up this morning thinking about the red glass rabbit. The memory must have ridden in on the tail end of a wild night of dreaming because I haven’t thought about her in decades. In my mind, she still holds center court among the animal figurines sitting on my great aunt’s kitchen windowsill in Tennessee.

My great aunt never hesitated to let me play with what I believed were her most treasured possessions. For this reason, I took great care not to break any of the inch and a half tall animals in the collective herd. There was a goose and a deer among the group, but my favorite was the solid red, blown glass rabbit with two miniscule dollops of white glass for eyes. She was perfect.

Red Glass RabbitThe red glass rabbit starred as the heroine in all my adventures played out on the kitchen table. She forever needed rescued by the other animals led by her boyfriend, the deer. I’m pretty sure I named him Bambi; I don’t recall what I named the rabbit. Every scenario, in which I imprisoned her in a tiny basket, ended with her being declared queen, a title she graciously accepted.

Occasionally, her liberation depended on the assistance of my great aunt’s salt and pepper shakers. There were four of them, two couples of different size, reminiscent of the man on the Cream of Wheat box and Aunt Jemima. These shakers are the type of item labeled Black Americana today and are found in antique stores and probably homes south of the Mason/Dixon line. I could be wrong about that, though.

During one summer visit to my great aunt’s home, I was horrified to discover that since the last year, someone had chipped the ear of the red glass rabbit. My great aunt didn’t seem as upset as I believed she should have been. She said either she, or my great uncle, or her mother probably knocked the rabbit off while washing dishes. My thoughts fluctuated between relief that it wasn’t me who caused the mar and appreciation that the damage could have been so much worse.

My great aunt broke up housekeeping several years ago after my great uncle and her mother passed. She sold the home and large items in Tennessee, bestowed smaller goods upon close friends, packed up the rest, and moved back to Ohio. It was good to have her home. I asked about the salt and pepper shakers because I trusted their size ensured they survived until my adult years. Unfortunately, my great aunt had already given them away.

I never inquired about the red glass rabbit. I knew in my heart the tiny treasure had disappeared long ago. Before I stopped playing with my own collection of animal figurines, the red glass rabbit probably had her ears and toes chipped until she appeared in a sorry state. Or perhaps one tumble into the depths of the empty kitchen sink was one too many, and she had to be discarded.

Does it matter that my great aunt probably doesn’t even remember owning such an item?  Does anyone reading this even care? Who can say? All I know is that somewhere in time, a very talented glassblower created a beautiful red glass rabbit that brought immeasurable joy to a little girl.

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