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.

Too Tired to Rest

too-tired-to-restThe reel of unseen dreams flickers her eyelids as the man who has slipped into her room watches. A crescent smile glides across his face like a canoe trailed by ripples of worry. Deep within her consciousness, she senses his presence, and the blue eyes marred by clouds of age slowly open.

“Hello, Grandma.”

One, two, three seconds pass as recognition surfaces. Her face, soft as worn flannel, bunches around her eyes and mouth.

“Hello, Freddy.”

Her equally soft hand pats his sandpaper chin.

“I know I haven’t been to visit you as often as I should, but…”

“No apologies, sweet boy. You’re here now.”

“I came to spend Shabbat with you, Gram.”

The old soul leans forward in her bed, peers out the window.

“Seems a little early yet,” she says.

“Well, Mom says you’re asleep by seven, and the summer sun sets so late.”

“Cheeky devil,” she chuckles, again patting his face. “Go ahead and light the candles. Fetch my shawl from the drawer—no, that one, Freddy, the next one down—and I’ll say the blessing.”

Fred complies with her request, draping dark blue silk around her head and shoulders. Daylight blasts hot and bright through the windows of her room in the nursing home; her white crowned head swathed in navy gives the appearance of the moon in the night sky. He lights two candles in cut glass holders, and the sun withdraws its spears behind linty clouds.

Elsa Cohen breaths as deeply as her ravaged lungs will allow; she wheezes like a broken bellows, drawing withered hands above the dancing flames, the ancient prayer she recites flowing like new wine. When she finishes, she looks up into her grandson’s drum-tight face.

“Why so troubled, Freddy?”

“I don’t know, Gram. I’ve been feeling kind of…melancholy lately?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Well, no.”

Elsa pushes the shawl off her head, smooths the fabric around her shoulders.

“It’s just that, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat lately either, Gram.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“No, that’s just what people say when they’re giving you time to collect your thoughts and tell what’s on your mind. Spill it, Freddy.”

“Oh…uh, well, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat because…because it’s really hard to do in today’s society, you know? I mean, living in America and all, well, people don’t stop, like, working and stuff at sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday.”

“Oh gosh, people don’t even stop on Sunday anymore either.”

“That’s true.”

“I remember when you were little that gas stations and stores were closed on Sunday, and all the good people went to church, and everyone rested.”

“We live in a ‘round the clock kind of world these days, Gram.”

“That we do. How’s that working for you, Freddy?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you visited three months ago—”

“Ouch.”

Elsa waves him to silence.

“You said you and Margaret were so exhausted with long hours at work, running errands, shuttling the kids from here to there.”

“Well, I don’t see how taking a whole day off to do nothing is going to help any of that, Gram. Wouldn’t that just put us more behind?”

“Do more on the other six days. Totally run yourself into the ground. Or you could save up all your Shabbats until retirement and lay around doing nothing for ten years.”

“Gram, be serious.”

The old woman chuckles until she coughs. Fred leans her forward and delivers firm pats to her back. Her nightgown is a floral landscape across the sharp ridges of her shoulders. Once settled against her pillows, she continues.

“You have to decide for yourself, Freddy, why you do or don’t do these things.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me what to do?”

“What fun would there be in that? Besides, there’s no guarantee you’d do it just because I say so.”

“It was so much easier when Grandpa was alive. We all met for dinner at your house and followed his lead.”

“Fredrick—Shabbat hasn’t gone by the wayside just because your grandfather died. Everything that is good about it is still with us. My goodness, dear boy, for one so educated, you sure are stupid.”

Fred can’t keep from laughing at his little grandmother’s spoon-blunt words cutting him sharply.

“Okay, Gram, I get it.”

“Are you sure? Because I could spell it out for you. Use pictures and small words.”

He kisses her forehead like she is his child.

“I love you, Gram.”

“I know, Freddy. Now take that box of candy over there your mother sent me—she knows I can’t chew caramel and nuts anymore—and go home to your family. Rest, my boy.”

Elsa snuggles into the blankets her grandson pulls up over her chin. Her eyes flicker as the dream scenes resume, and she is asleep before he crosses the room to leave.

Being Strong for Melinda

trial-or-tribulationSharon and Robert have spent many dark and lonely hours, separated from each other, asking for the things they believed were right and good. Too many times they listened to doctors whose explanations left them staring and openmouthed, their minds weighted down with things they struggled to comprehend.

Endless dashes to the hospital turned into a permanent stay for their only child. She looks like a little caterpillar cocooned in blankets, bandages, and wires from a host of monitors. Robert calls her his baby bug waiting to emerge with new wings.

Prayer requests make the round on social media. Praise reports are given when their daughter rallies. Many drop off when her condition lags. The weak and faithless have no explanation for this decline. They cannot explain why they couldn’t get Melinda healed, make excuses for God as if He needed them. All of it wears on Sharon and Robert until they pray for release for their beloved child because that must be what God wants for her, right?

With heavy hearts, tears amassing in their eyes, they claim they are willing to accept this for their baby girl. Each buries a duplicitous heart beneath stoic faces and solemn nods of the head. They just want to quit, for this to be over. They never speak of it anymore. In fact, they’ve stopped talking to each other at all. The constant company of the Women’s Bible Study Group and Men’s Fellowship doesn’t allow for much private conversation between them. Such good people, these men and women, who stay with Sharon and Robert 24/7, praying audibly non-stop.

Sharon slips away to the ladies’ room. She does not turn on the light, locks the door. The sound of breathing in the dark room scares her for a second, but whatever harm might be done to her by the owner of the breathing is preferable to what is going on with Melinda. Especially if it ends her.

“Sharon?”

She jumps and laughs wildly.

“Robert? What on earth are you doing in the ladies’ room?”

“It’s the only place the guys from church wouldn’t think to look for me.”

More deranged laughter, shared, from the emotionally and physically drained parents. Robert sighs but does not reach for his wife. Neither move to turn on the light.

“I’m so tired, Shar.”

“You, too?”

Robert’s voice dips and rises uncontrollably.

“I just want this…I just want…”

“I know, dear. Me, too.”

Their hands meet in the darkness, instinct guiding their palms and fingers into place. But they do not draw closer to each other.

“I want to quit, Shar. No—I have to quit. I’m done. I’m finished, and I got nothing left.” He pauses to draw a deep breath. “I was in here working up the nerve to tell you.”

“Rob, that’s why I came in here.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“When, Robert? Between entertaining and performing for the people from church—God knows I love them, but I really just need them to go home—to holding in my emotions every time the doctors tell us Melinda isn’t progressing as they’d hoped? You won’t even meet my eyes anymore.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But I was afraid if I looked at you, you’d see how scared I am—”

“—I’m scared, too—”

“—but I don’t have any answers for you, Shar. You know, I’m supposed to be the strong one and all that.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, honey. I never expected solutions to this. Not from you, anyhow.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“Is it? Because we’re off the hook, but I suspect we wanted our prayers answered in a specific way we’re too afraid to admit.”

“Can I turn on the light?”

Robert flips the switch before she consents setting off a round of watery-eyed blinking.

“Well, that’s better,” he jokes.

They step closer and melt into an embrace. Sharon cries against his shoulder as he runs his hand over her hair.

“I’m not really okay with losing Melinda,” his wife says.

“I know.”

“I feel so guilty for saying that. Like I’m less of a…”

“I understand, Shar. Really, I do.”

“So, now what?”

“Now we quit pretending. We’ve got to.”

“Agreed.”

“And if Melinda…if she…”

“Dies.”

“Yes, if…then we’ll figure it out together. Just the two of us.”

“But it doesn’t have to be just you and me, Rob.”

“I know. I meant all the church crowd.”

“They mean well—and quite a few have been helpful. Sincere.”

“That’s true. But when this is over, whatever over may be, it’s just you and me, and you and God, and me and God to work through this.”

It’s Sharon’s turn to sigh.

“Is this where we were supposed to be all along, Rob?”

“You mean if we hadn’t let all the hoopla get in our way?”

“Yes,” she chuckles. “Just trusting. Shutting up and trusting that God’s got this under control.”

“That’s a hard and scary place to be.”

Sharon nods and leans her forehead against Robert’s.

“I can’t promise I won’t be sad,” he whispers.

“You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. Just don’t be afraid.”

“I’ll try, Shar. For you.”

“No, babe. For you.”

All the prayers they cannot speak radiate between them. A knock on the restroom door precedes, “Sharon—come quick. The doctors have been looking all over for you. Sharon?”

Melinda’s parents, raw and exposed, striped down to the soul, brace each other with hands to the shoulders.

“I don’t know where they are,” says the muffled voice on the other side of the door.

“Well we have to find them now. They need to know Melinda has opened her eyes and asked for them,” a male voice joins in.

Gasps of shock from the people on the outside are lost in bursts of laughter and tears of relief from Robert and Sharon within.

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.

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.

Regal and Waiting

“Hey there, big kitty, how you doing…c’mon, sleepyhead, wakeup….Cinnamon?”

The boxy head pops up; icy green eyes scan the human face on the other side of the bars. Recognition never comes, and all enthusiasm fades as the cat’s eyes glaze over with disappointment and disinterest.

The woman standing there checks the card on the stacked metal cages that hold cats from the local rescue. Surprise flashes across her face when she reads that the large cat with a most inelegant head is indeed a female. Cats are usually defined by a slightly feminine grace, even the males. The girth of this particular feline is impressive.

She is appropriately named. Her fur is deeper than butterscotch or peanut butter, and while she would fall into the category of orange tabby, her coat is a dark, two shade variation of rusted pine needles. Her profile card says that she is nine and her former owners surrendered her because they didn’t want her anymore. Surrendered; the softened, politically correct term for abandoned, guaranteed not to inflict guilt upon an owner. No one forced them to give up the animal.

The profile cards admit when owners move, develop allergies, have a child of whom the animal is jealous, or returned to the rescue because he or she didn’t get along with earlier acquired pets. Cinnamon’s tag clearly indicates that she is no longer wanted.

Other people stop by the cages, read the cards, and cautiously poke their fingers through the bars to scratch behind an ear or under a chin. Cinnamon returns to her nap just beyond the reach of the grasping fingers; she is oblivious to the kind words and prying eyes.

She has seen this all before on the faces of these humans who stop by to look at her and her fellow rescues. Their eyes search first for the kittens or at least the young cats a year old or less. Then they read the cards on the cages, making mournful noises in their throats over the rescued strays. They compare each cat to one they’ve known at some time or other (This one looks like Lucky, only bigger or Doesn’t that one resemble Jane’s cat, Dartmouth). They cheer victoriously when a cat allows itself to be petted; more so should the slinky creature meow as if for their pleasure. They chuckle at funny names bestowed upon the cats (Witherspoon, Merlin, or Chairman Meow).

Cinnamon doesn’t care about any of this, but then neither does Ziggy in the bottom, left-hand cage. They continue napping, lending to the aloof reputation that cats enjoy and proving sullen, dog-loving boyfriends correct when they claim cats aren’t as nice or cuddly as dogs. Cinnamon does not need or want to go home with the young women dating these idiots. In fact, she doesn’t need anyone, or at least that’s what she wants you to believe.

Sometimes, during the hours she spends at the pet store in the small room with a glass partition, she wonders in cat fashion how long she’ll be here. And where are her owners? Why never crosses her mind because it isn’t her fault. She does wish the store employees wouldn’t prop open the door to the room. The store can be quite noisy, especially on the weekends.

A Dash of CinnamonOn the days that Cinnamon graces the public with her wakeful presence, her peridot eyes, and her expressionless visage, she likes to sit upright in her cage with tail wrapped around her front toes. From this position, she regally dispenses judgment like Bast. Go ahead and assess me if you dare. Her countenance would lead one to believe that she could read thoughts.

If she could, she would find humor in those running through the head of a man who really wants another cat but doubts the two he has at home would get along with her. His boys, both under two years of age, can be quite rambunctious at times. They would probably torment Cinnamon relentlessly as she attempted to nap. He imagines a scene in which Cinnamon rises like a disturbed lioness that tears into his precious fur babies with tooth and claw. Yes, perhaps, he’ll leave this one for someone else.

Then there is the young couple with two toddlers in tow. The mother, pregnant to the point of bursting, repeatedly corrects the children rattling the lock dangling from Cinnamon’s cage. The temptation is too much, and the mother must remove her offspring who tries to climb the front of the cages. She calls to the father who lingers a moment in the glass room, considering Cinnamon for adoption until a vision of a black lab playing with his grade school-aged children passes through his thoughts.

A little girl, who has been promised a cat for her birthday, complains to her anxious parents that she couldn’t rename the dumb, old cat because she probably wouldn’t learn her new name. She balls her fists on her hips and shouts Muffin. Cinnamon ignores her. When the child says Cinnamon, the cat’s head moves. The little girl stamps her foot, shouts I told you so, and dissolves into a tantrum of tears. She is dragged, screaming, from the store.

One woman passes up the opportunity to adopt Cinnamon because she fears cat fur would stick to her cabernet colored suede couch. An elderly couple decides against the option because they worry about who would take the cat in the event she outlived them. Another couple admires her, but their children are grown, and they want to start traveling; finding someone to watch the pets is such a chore.

No matter. Cinnamon is not in a hurry to go anywhere. Her owners might return at any minute. Maybe tomorrow.

One by one the lights in the warehouse-sized store begin to go off for the night. The staff scurries to finish sweeping and arranging displays. They grab coats, purses, keys, and lunchboxes. One calls out goodnight to the rescue cats. Then it is dark and silent, except for security lights and the bubbling of tanks in the fish department.

Cinnamon stares into the darkness, searching for movement in the aisles of pet food and toys. She doesn’t move for thirty minutes or more. It would feel so luscious to be able to escape her cage for a few moments, to stretch and roll along the floor, to prowl the quiet store. She curls into a ball under the wooden shelf in her cage and falls asleep contrary to her nature.

In her dreams, there is a person who visits the store for the express purpose of taking her home. Perhaps it’s a man, maybe a woman, but either way the voice is kind, soothing. This human is gentle with her, only saying her name in the long, drawn out way a human does when he or she is calling for someone. This individual doesn’t scold harshly when she is caught sleeping on the couch or lapping puddles off the shower floor. Cinnamon isn’t expected to curl up on a lap or play with kittenish toys. But this person is always within reach, reading the paper on the floor and laughing when Cinnamon decides to plop down on the pages, or sitting on the basement steps and inviting her to share the space. Most importantly, this person is patient. Patiently waiting for Cinnamon to relax enough to bestow even a fiber of trust. However long it takes, this person will wait, and he or she will recognize success when the sandpaper kiss of a tongue caresses the back of a hand just once.

Paws twitch and eyelids flicker. Cinnamon chatters in her sleep.

Across town a widowed woman said goodbye to her beloved cat today. Tomorrow, she will visit the pet store in search of another to help her work through her grief. Probably an older specimen for they are usually calmer, more settled. She is partial to orange tabbies.

Apple Seeds

Warmth from the sunbaked, terracotta tiles radiates through the bottom of his thin-soled, canvas shoes. The old man eases himself into a wrought iron chair beneath the jacaranda tree. He slips a pen knife from his pocket; he isn’t supposed to have it, not after Crazy Effie threatened one of the orderlies with her nail file during breakfast. Now they’re all supposed to cut their sausage links with a fork or spoon. This place, this rest home for the retired, treats them like imbeciles. He chuckles to himself as he watches his friend, Wade, drooling as he sits strapped into his wheelchair, napping in the sun. Maybe some of us are, he thinks.

It will be a cold day in Phoenix when he allows them to remove his pen knife from his possession. It’s nothing special. No insignia from a branch of the service or Boy Scouts graces the mother-of-pearl sides. It’s just a nice knife he bought at Woolworth’s when there was still one at the mall. He thinks there might have been a matching razor with it but can’t say for sure. He’s used it to open everything from letters to wounds. Years of grime need to be wiped from the space where the mother-of-pearl meets the metal. Hell, maybe it’s not even real mother-of-pearl.

Apple SeedsHe removes a green apple from his sweater pocket. The bulge caught the eye of every resident he passed, making them wonder what he had smuggled out of the dining room. Green apples are his favorite, and the pretty Hispanic girl who runs the dining room, Gina or Tina, he can’t remember which, always keeps a few in the cooler for him. She knows he likes them cold; he must make more of an effort to remember her name.

Carefully, with much consideration and turning of the apple over and over in his hands while worrying his dentures with his tongue, he decides where to make the first cut. The vibrant green skin breaks with a crisp snap and a soft spray of juice as he slices along the entire curve of the apple. He licks the tartness from his thumb. With a gentle twist, he separates the halves.

Two seeds pop out onto his lap. He draws his knees together to catch them before they fall to the greedy earth hiding between the tiles below, enticing with the promise of life. He knows what the seeds do not: nothing disruptive, certainly not an apple tree with a vast and reaching root system, would ever be allowed to flourish here. Both seeds are pinched between his forefinger and thumb, and then placed gently on the tip of his protruding tongue.

The old man enjoys the bitter-almond taste of the seeds. He always chews them. While most people, especially his lazy grandchildren, only eat the flesh of the apple, the old man consumes every part of it except the stem. He savors the acrid taste of the seeds as he cuts a slice from one half of the apple, eating it off the thumb on which it is balanced, his knife held securely in the same hand. Another seed is visible but trapped in its pocket. A little surgery with the pen knife frees it from its fibrous prison. This seed is bigger because it did not have to share space with a sibling.

His wife once told him the taste of the seed was from the cyanide within. It seemed like a fact she would know, so he never questioned her on it. From then on, he made a point of eating every seed especially if she was watching. I’m building up my tolerance and recognition of cyanide in the event that someone tries to poison me, he had teased her. She retorted that if she wanted him dead she would use the cast iron skillet on his head while he slept. Their wicked sense of humor shocked most people, even their friends.

He wonders how many apple seeds he’d have to eat to escape this place. It’s so beautiful, Dad, his daughter had said, with flowering trees and benches, shuffle board courts and walking paths, a chess club and whirlpool. Who had she been trying to convince? One little tumble down the front porch steps and the next thing he knew, he was an inmate at Buena Vista Acres. His daughter believed she was doing him a favor moving him to Arizona to be near her. As if a fifty minute drive was near her. He might as well still be living in Ohio for all that he sees her.

If he could see anyone right now, it would be his wife. He crushes two more seeds between his back teeth, the ones that are still real. More of the apple is consumed, more seeds discovered. More memories flirt with the edges of his mind. The white walls of the main building shimmer with early morning heat, the brightness nearly blinding him even though his eyes are averted. Bittersweet and tart, apple seeds and life. The core of his existence chewed away to nothing. He will not let it poison him. He kisses the stem and flicks it into the bushes.

As he returns to his room for a nap, he waves to Maria, the dining room attendant. Maria, just like his wife. He smiles to himself, proud at having found a way to remember her name.

Coffee

CoffeeLeonard Summerscale sat like a mannequin in the center of a roomful of chattering diners. Knives and forks slaked against plates, ice swam brightly in glasses of water. Waitresses called orders to the cook before they were halfway back to the kitchen. Above the din of lunchtime in the city, the bell on the door chimed. Only then did Leonard’s face reanimate, as the scarecrow with red hair threw his arm up and navigated his way to where Leonard sat.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Reverend.”

“No problem, Len, none at all. Your message sounded so urgent. What can I do for you?”

“Please, have a seat,” Leonard said, indicating the chair opposite him at the two-seat diner table.

Reverend Bast slid into the grease-slicked, padded chair. The red vinyl cushion released a squeak and a puff from a tear near the edge. Leonard busied himself flagging down one of the waitresses performing an awkward ballet through the narrow aisles; a balancing act of three plates occupied the length of each arm.

“The service is usually much better, much better.”

“Don’t fret, Len. It is lunchtime.”

“Leonard, please.”

“Of course, I’m sorry.”

The harried waitress in a rumpled, powder blue uniform finally appeared at the table. She placed a menu in front of each man, shoved her sagging ponytail off her shoulder, and wiped the back of her hand across her nose.

“What’ll you have, Reverend? There’s a ten percent discount for men of the cloth.”

She jabbed her pencil in the direction of his collar.

“Well, lucky you,” Leonard said. “That should save you a few pennies.”

The Reverend’s eyes scanned the a la carte section of the menu as he mentally replayed Leonard’s voicemail. He was sure invite you to breakfast had proceeded his congregant’s request to talk.

“I’ll have the poached egg on rye toast, black coffee, please.”

As the waitress scribbled on her pad, Leonard waited with fingers steepled. He paused long enough to draw the young woman’s attention, making eye contact with her, before he spoke slowly, deliberately.

“I’ll have two eggs fried hard, and I do mean hard, with the yolks broken, brown, crispy edges, the whole nine yards. Please encourage the cook to properly season the eggs; I should be able to see the pepper flakes but not the salt. Shredded hash browns, toasted thoroughly but not swimming in grease. The ham steak? Is it sugar cured or country style? Oh, no matter–you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. Wheat toast, hold the butter, cut from corner to corner. Is there mixed fruit jelly on the table? Very good. And decaf coffee. Be sure it’s a fresh pot. I know how long the decaf sits around in a place like this. Also, please bring real cream or at least milk. I despise those little plastic containers of oily, faux cream.”

The waitress shifted her weight from one foot to another. She chewed the inside of her cheek before smiling and saying, “You got it.”

The Reverend straightened jelly packets in the swiveling caddy as Leonard tsked at the waitress’s retreating back. He turned a conspiratorial look upon the Reverend and said, “Well, let’s see how much of that she gets correct.”

“I thought you’d been here before,” the Reverend asked.

“Oh, only a few times with co-workers. They chose to dine here. It’s not the sort of venue I’d normally patronize.”

“So, what can I do for you, Leonard?”

“Yes, the real reason we came. Now I know we haven’t been in your congregation long, and by we, I mean myself and Mrs. Summerscale–”

“–lovely woman, so very helpful in the nursery–”

“–and while we agree with the majority of your theology–”

“–oh, well–”

“–there are a few minor points I’d like to discuss on another occasion, still, I believe we made the correct choice in churches to attend.”

Leonard folded his hands across his stomach and leaned back in his chair. The Reverend remained silent for ten seconds until he understood it was his turn to speak.

“We…do enjoy your presence, and that of Mrs. Summerscale.”

“Ah, Mrs. Summerscale. What a tactful segue you’ve provided, Reverend, for it is the subject of my dear wife that brings me here today.”

Leonard gazed toward the water-stained ceiling tiles and puffed his cheeks, his customary gesture when preparing for a long discourse on a topic of interest to no one but him. His efforts were halted momentarily by the arrival of their coffee followed by several moments of fussily arranging his cup and saucer, requesting an orange coaster to indicate to passing waitresses that he preferred decaf, and polishing his spoon as if for inspection by a Marine Corps drill sergeant.

Clouds of milk lightened Leonard’s coffee to an acceptable shade of taupe, placating the man to his previous state of calm. His voice achieved a stunning decibel of self-importance as he said, “Have you ever really considered coffee, Reverend?”

“I know I’m pretty worthless in the morning before I’ve had mine.”

Leonard’s eyes rose from his cup to contemplate the patches blushing the Reverend’s freckled cheeks. His uneven smile and softened expression conveyed the verdict of I know, I know. The Reverend thought to mention that Mrs. Carrick, the church secretary, always had a fresh pot ready for him prior to Sunday service, but he let it go.

“The average American adult drinks around three, eight-ounce cups per day. That’s 382 billion cups of coffee consumed in America alone every day. I suppose that makes me below average, eh Reverend?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Leonard. You’ve done marvelous things since joining the Board of Elders.”

A twitch in his left eye brought Leonard’s finger to the rescue. His hand in front of his face muffled his sigh.

“I only require one cup of coffee a day, and decaf at that. So many people are dependent upon the addictive qualities of caffeine to sustain them. But for me, coffee is a cup of warm reassurance that I shall succeed at whatever I set my mind toward for the day. That is to say, I don’t require coffee, Reverend, I enjoy it.”

“Indeed. How lucky for you.”

Another pause ensued as Leonard waited patiently for the Reverend to say something, anything, of relevance to the conversation. He came to the young man’s aid with, “As an unmarried man, you couldn’t possibly know the sheer joy of having your wife responsible for providing a fresh pot of coffee every morning. Such is the pleasure that Mrs. Summerscale brings to my life.”

“It’s the simple things, like drinking coffee together, that solidify a marriage. Or so I’ve heard.”

“You miss my point, Reverend: while I enjoy the coffee, what solidifies my marriage, any marriage for that matter, is the consistency with which the ritual is conducted. Therein lays the quality of any relationship. Do you understand?”

The Reverend twisted sideways in his seat.

“And when that consistency is disrupted–well!”

The Reverend twisted in the other direction, mostly to avoid Leonard’s hands thrown up in frustration but coming across the table with the rapaciousness of an eagle’s talons.

“Play nice, fellas. You’re breakfast is here.”

The waitress who placed their food on the table was not the one who took their order. This woman, with face haloed in bad orange foundation and crusted scabs of concealer, smacked down plates of food and topped off their coffee cups with the practiced movements of a seasoned professional. Her abrupt behavior brooked no complaint as the matriarch of the herd lumbered off to refill the cups of other customers, supervising the younger waitresses as she moved, her hosiery sagging around her ankles.

Both men obediently bowed their head to pray. Leonard’s head remained in the position of supplication long after the Reverend said Amen. When he opened his eyes, he caught the Reverend with fork in hand, spearing his first bite.

“You’re a young man yet, Reverend. What are you? Twenty eight, thirty tops?”

“I’m thirty five.”

A waved hand and gravelly snort dismissed the comment.

“See–young yet. Must be that peachy complexion beneath those constellations of freckles. One might even say peach fuzz.”

Leonard barked a laugh around a mouthful of food at his joke and set himself to coughing until his face reddened and his eyes watered. The female elephant, continuing her crisscross migration through the diner, delivered three hearty thumps to Leonard’s back as she passed.

“Thank you, Madam, thank you.”

The pair resumed eating in silence. The Reverend finished his meager breakfast. He sat with a napkin draped over his crossed legs while Leonard, only half way through his meal, restarted his conversation.

“I’ve established some basic but essential points for you, Reverend, and although I’ve applied them to marriage, if you take time to review what I’ve said at your convenience, your earliest convenience, you’ll see that what I’ve instructed also applies to life.”

The Reverend, whether willingly or unwillingly he did not know, remembered nothing Leonard had said prior to his choking fit. He had, however, managed to track the progression of a toast crumb from the corner of Leonard’s lips, into his mustache, watched it disappear once into his mouth, reappear on the tip of his tongue, and miraculously land in the opposite corner where it rode up and down with the movement of Leonard’s chewing.

Leonard mistook the Reverend’s intense concentration as interest and enthusiasm.

“But it is with much hesitation that I must admit to you as…well, if not my spiritual counselor or close confidante…then as a somewhat significant figure in my life that all is not well between me and Mrs. Summerscale.”

“What seems to be the problem?” the Reverend’s mind directed his mouth to say.

The crumb had fallen to Leonard’s chin. The Reverend rooted for it to hang on.

“I can’t quite place my finger on it. Mrs. Summerscale and I have been married for thirty five years, so I’m quite attuned to my wife’s quirks. Still, this event of which I shall inform you came quite out of the blue.”

A knuckle swiped across his chin came to rest on Leonards’ greasy lips. He meant to look thoughtful but only succeeded in redepositing the crumb to the hairless divot on his upper lip. The Reverend clenched his jaw; surely an indication of real concern.

“Exactly two weeks ago, Tuesday, Mrs. Summerscale arose promptly at 5:30 AM and donned her robe as she always does. Then she went to the kitchen to prepare my breakfast. All was well. I finished my bath, shaved and dressed, and descended to join her. Mrs. Summerscale had already placed my oatmeal and cream on the table. She had even stirred in half a cup of dried currants, a pleasant surprise as they are my favorite.”

A sharp intake of breath on Leonard’s part pulled the crumb back to his bottom lip. The Reverend’s brow creased, and his troubled congregant pressed on.

“Just as I was enjoying my first bite of oatmeal, the coffee pot gurgled, indicating that it was done brewing. Peripherally, I watched Mrs. Summerscale retrieve a cup and saucer from the cupboard and prepare my coffee.”

Lips pressed together then pursed shifted the crumb to Leonard’s upper front tooth. The Reverend leaned forward and pointed.

“Now just a moment, Reverend. I haven’t finished my story.”

“Please go on.”

“Mrs. Summerscale approached the table where I sat, and she…she arranged the cup near my right hand as I prefer.”

Leonard’s voice wavered with distress at the memory. The crumb, taking on a life of its own, worked its way across several teeth, moving in an eastward direction, before popping back into the bristles at the edge of Leonard’s lip. The Reverend pressed his balled fists into his mouth.

“And that’s when I saw it.”

The Reverend nodded wildly.

“My coffee was a muddy shade of black.”

“I’m sorry?” the Reverend allowed to slip from behind his bony knuckles.

“Yes, it’s true. You heard me order my coffee today with cream, or at least milk, so you are aware of how I take it. But then so isn’t Mrs. Summerscale aware, abundantly aware, of exactly how I take my coffee. Imagine my utter shock at looking into a cup of plain black coffee served by my wife. I asked her what was the meaning of this, and do you know what she replied? She said, ‘Oh isn’t that how you take your coffee?’”

“I don’t understand.”

“Reverend, really? For thirty five years Mrs. Summerscale has prepared my coffee to perfection. It is a–to what shall I liken it–an intimate knowledge of my very self, a dance between principle partners? For her to suddenly forget, or worse, become quite negligent and offer me a cup of coffee on the other end of the taste and shade spectrum? Why this can only indicate some gross aberration in foundation of my marriage. God forbid I entertain the thought, but do you suppose Mrs. Summerscale is having an affair?”

The Reverend smacked the table with both palms, fingers splayed, causing the dishes, silverware, and salt and pepper shakers to jump in unison. He threw back his head and laughed uproariously for five minutes until the redness in his face surpassed the color of his carroty hair.  All other sound and movement in the diner fizzled to quiet and stillness.

“Oh–Oh really–really, you are too funny, Leonard, too–damn–funny. You old fool. You pompous, cheap, old fool.”

Leonard’s mouth sagged like a mastiff’s; his head turtled into his shoulders at the unwanted attention directed toward himself and the Revered. The Reverend wiped his mouth, neatly folded his napkin, and stood to leave.

“By the way, Leonard. You have a toast crumb stuck in your mustache.”

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