The Truth in History

Tim Eady’s father worked for Mrs. Burton during the winter months when the construction crews were laid off. Occasionally, Tim’s father landed inside work hanging cupboards or finishing baseboards. This year, all the new homes were completed on time inside and out. The first flakes of snow saw the departure of a handful of families for Florida or one of the Carolinas, seeking work to tide them over.

Tim’s father would have gone, but his mother said it made no sense to pull Tim and his two sisters out of school for three months. The girls had started third and fourth grade in the fall. Tim was in his junior year. Besides, his mother expounded, Tim could hunt again this year, and they’d be near family come Christmas. Not to mention Florida never had snow for Christmas, and what’s Christmas without snow? Tim’s father grew up with fireworks in Charleston for Christmas, but he just shrugged his acquiescence.

Mrs. Burton lived on the outskirts of town and drove a faded, red Ford pickup. She wore a plastic bonnet over her hair whenever she went out, rain or shine. Every day found her in heels and pearls with a lace hankie tucked beneath her watch band on the underside of her wrist. When Mr. Burton died, she went right on living at their farm instead of selling and moving in with her sister in town. From the porch of her home she fended off foreclosure and potential suitors with Mr. Burton’s double-barreled shotgun. She also grew shrub-sized, pink begonias in wash tubs on that porch.

Canning, gardening, and tending chickens kept Mrs. Burton involved, as she called it, and gave her purpose in life. She also baked and attended Bible study, joined missions’ teas and volunteered at the library, participated in the fair and collected clothes for the migrants who worked the lettuce farms every summer. Much to her shame, she could not sew, but a few frenzied days of her clicking knitting needles produced some of the finest afghans to ever grace the back of a couch.

There were no animals in her house save only a yellow canary in a cage in the living room. The bright little bird never sang until the day his mate died, and then he chirped his fool head off every waking moment of the day. Mrs. Burton thought this morbidly hilarious. She had one of her church friends make a double-layered cage cover of black fabric to place over the bird when she needed it to shut up. She wasn’t unkind to animals. She just believed they belonged outdoors. She fed hundreds of strays and wouldn’t kill a snake in her yard. In autumn, when the corn grown on her land leased by others had been harvested, she walked boldly among the cattle let out to graze the stubbled fields.

the-truth-in-history

Winter on the Farm by Guy Whiteley

Tim’s father started with fence repair, and since there were miles of fence, he was guaranteed steady work. But his father wasn’t the one to prolong a job just to draw out a paycheck. Tim hunted the woods skirting Mrs. Burton’s fields and occasionally stopped to talk with his father when he worked the fence closest to the woods. A sharp crack in the distance always brought his father’s head up and a smile to Mrs. Burton’s face. Then she’d drive the truck back in the direction of the shot, stopping to pick up Tim’s father, and together they’d find Tim and the deer he’d killed. She waited in the truck while Tim and his father loaded the deer in the bed.

“Now Tim, you put plenty of them newspapers down under that doe when you hang her in the barn. At least an inch thick. Sprinkle saw dust on any blood that soaks through, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Rake it up and throw it all in the burning barrel with the paper and guts when you’re through, son.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then she’d drop his father back off wherever he’d been working and drive Tim to the barn where he’d dress the deer. There was a handy block and tackle setup with a crank handle for hauling the deer up toward the rafters. Tim supposed Mr. Burton had rigged it for getting heavy stuff up to the loft. Mrs. Burton brought him hot tea and sandwiches, the same delivered to this father, and when the job was done, she’d drive him to Fulmer’s to have his deer processed.

As a reward for feeding the family, Tim’s father allowed him time off from helping with chores to tan the hides of any deer he shot. Mrs. Burton graciously let him use her barn as a workspace. It took Tim a few tries, and a lot of trips to the library, but through his trials and errors he became skilled at producing supple, quality leather. That Christmas, everyone in his family and Mrs. Burton received moccasins. The following year, he sold his hides and earned such a reputation that hunters began bringing him their hides for tanning. Tim’s father let him keep the money he earned, so Tim made sure his father saw him spending it on jeans and shoes for school, fabric for his mother to make his sisters’ dresses, and books for the three of them. Reading was the only thing he had in common with the girls.

When the fences were done, Tim’s father worked in and around the barn. Tidying and repairing kept Mrs. Burton’s farm neat as a pin which always humored Tim because she was a bit of a pack rat. At least the newspapers in the empty stalls were stacked neatly as were the towers of plastic flower pots from the nursery. If she had one of something, chances were she owned at least a dozen of whatever it was. Radios, all in working order and dusty, lined the shelves next to the wood chipper. Scythes and shovels stood like troops at attention five deep against the walls of her garage. More canning jars than she could use in a lifetime even if she broke half of them waited patiently in the cellar next to coils of chain covering the floor and shoe boxes full of different sized knives. But Mrs. Burton wasn’t stingy. From her own personal stores she’d supply whatever need demanded filling.

“Ain’t you worried about rats around here, ma’am?”

Aren’t, Tim—and no. The threat of death keeps them at bay.”

Tim assumed she meant the smell from his hides, and he worried that her comment had been a request to tan them elsewhere. He’d meant drawing rats all over the farm with the promise of hiding places and knew they were attracted by the smell of a fresh kill, not repelled. He let it go when she hinted at a pair of fur-lined slippers.

That year’s wood supply diminished quickly when the weather turned for the worse, and Tim’s father had to drag downed trees from the woods. They worked together bringing the logs in to the barn where his father sawed them into manageable pieces and split them. Tim stacked it on the back porch, sneaking a peek in the kitchen windows where he could see Mrs. Burton sitting at her kitchen table writing out recipe cards. On his third trip from the barn to the porch, he felt a twinge in his throat and a flush of heat on his cheeks. He straightened from piling wood and swiped the back of his glove across his forehead, moving shaggy, wet bangs from out of his eyes. As he did so, he made eye contact with Mrs. Burton who waved him in. She met him at the back door and led him by the arm to sit at the kitchen table.

“My boots, ma’am.”

“It’s just snow and sawdust. Nothing that won’t wipe up.”

Then she put her cool hand on his sweaty neck to draw him forward. He blinked like a toad in a hailstorm when she pressed her dry lips against his forehead and held them there for half a minute.

“Mm…hmmm… You’re fevered.”

Tim sniffed hard to no avail and employed his coat sleeve to stem the flow of what felt like hot water dripping from deep inside his head. The heavy canvas raked his nose but absorbed nothing. Mrs. Burton had turned to the stove to make chamomile tea, but even without seeing she knew to grab the box of tissues and place them on the table beside Tim.

A few minutes later as the kettle whistled, the indeterminate voice of Tim’s father rang out. His footfalls pounded the steps and back porch, preceding a woodpecker’s rap on the glass pane of the back door.

“Come in,” Mrs. Burton called.

“What’re you doing in here, boy? I been calling for you.”

“He’s got a fever.”

“That so?”

“Yes.”

Mrs. Burton’s word was final, and Tim’s father finished cutting and stacking wood on his own.

“He don’t mean to be hard,” Tim said as he sipped his tea.

“He could take unemployment like other men do.”

“Naw, he couldn’t, ma’am. Pride won’t let him.”

“Mm…hmmm,” Mrs. Burton said into her own teacup. Then, “How are your studies going, Tim?”

“Good, ma’am. I got a B+ in Algebra and an A- in English.”

“How’s your Science and History?”

“I’m working a solid B in Science, but History is kind of boring.”

“And what grade does boring translate to, Tim?”

“A C-, ma’am.”

“Oh, Tim,” she said, placing her hand over his, “History is too important to forget.”

“It’s all just memorizing dates and the bad things people do to each other.”

She cooed like a dove behind her slim hand, and Tim understood her to be laughing at his assessment of History class.

“Yes, well, I suppose it’s the way History is presented that makes it interesting or not. Why don’t you slip off your coat and boots, bring your tea, and we’ll sit in the living room?”

Tim had never been in the inner sanctum of Mrs. Burton’s home. She never forbade him from entering; none of the jobs she had for him ever took him beyond the kitchen. She settled him on a love seat with a mound of embroidered pillows and a red and blue afghan. Tim’s size twelves stuck out, and he overlapped his feet to hide the hole in his sock exposing his big toe. A dull thud permeated the frosted windows; Tim’s father was splitting chunks of freshly sawn logs.

“Everyone remembers history differently, Tim.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Burton paused her rocking chair to trace her finger through a fine silt of dust on an end table. She frowned and rolled the gray film into a ball to be flicked away with her thumb.

“Did you know I used to keep this house spotless? Spotless without a single thing out of place.”

Tim couldn’t, and wouldn’t, contradict her for he had nothing to compare to except the twine tied bundles of magazines bordering the room and baskets of yarn on every available surface not taken up by a knickknack.

“Mr. Burton insisted on it. Said his mother kept a spotless house, and so would any woman fit to marry. Guess that means I wasn’t fit for marriage to Mr. Burton.”

“But you said you did keep it clean, ma’am… or do.”

“I tried at first, but my efforts always fell short. Mr. Burton could only remember how perfect his own mother was, and it’s that history that came between us.”

Tim shifted on the loveseat. He slurped tea and waited to receive whatever Mrs. Burton would say.

“Then there’s the history of excuses I made when I couldn’t be seen in public because the bruises Mr. Burton left showed up on my arms or face. Only so many times a woman can wear long sleeves in the summer or walk into an open cupboard door.”

“Ma’am?”

Longing glances toward the barn couldn’t will Tim’s father to fetch him home. All he could do was watch the windows darken with twilight. The sky thickened with clouds promising snow that night.

“I always said the dusting wasn’t going anywhere, so what’s the rush? It’d be there when I returned from grocery shopping or running errands. But Mr. Burton wanted it done now o’clock.” She chuckled at the joke. “And the pendulum of his fist always swung on time. Sometimes in the middle of the night for no reason.”

Tim coughed until his chest rattled. He had no place to expel the viscous secretion, so he pretended to sip tea and deposited in the cup.

“So I dusted, and I cleaned, and my fingers and knees went raw from my attempts to please Mr. Burton, and people called me eccentric. Said I was too particular about my house and that it was too clean for a body to feel truly welcome. That’s the history people in this town remember.”

“Ma’am, it’s getting on dark, and my father will just about be done, I’m sure.”

“There’s a light in the barn, Tim.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She licked her lips and said, “Do you think I’m eccentric, Tim?”

“Ma’am?”

“I thought I might as well live up to their opinions of me.”

“Whose, ma’am?”

“Oh, you know. Those gossipy, ole biddies at church. I started by saving newspapers because they’re so harmless and absorbent. That’s how I justified it to Mr. Burton, by making newspaper seem useful in more ways than one. He didn’t care as long as the house was dusted. Then I save wooden thread spools, bread wrappers, and twist ties because they were easy.”

Tim thought of the coffee cans of said items stacked on the kitchen counters.

“Did you know there’s a bedroom closet upstairs chock full of peanut butter, pickle, and mayonnaise jars?”

“No, ma’am. I did not.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I suppose them rocks lining the flower beds were part of it, too?”

A nightingale laugh trilled from her lips, and the passion of memory glowed in her eyes.

“Exactly, Tim. I’d forgotten the rocks. And see how easy it is to mix up the real stuff with the useless? You’re such a smart boy to remember.”

Her praise solidified them in unwanted knowledge. Tim sat forward and placed his teacup on the coffee table.

“You’ll remember my history when I’m gone, won’t you, Tim?”

“Where’re you going, ma’am?”

“I don’t care if you correct them in their erroneous beliefs; I just need one person to know the truth.”

“What truth is that, ma’am?”

“I hated dusting. Can you do that, Tim? Can you remember my history the way it really happened?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A soft silence fell between them, ruptured by Tim’s father poking his head in the back door and calling out.

“Hey, boy—I’m warming the truck, so get your stuff and c’mon.”

“Yes, sir,” Tim called back.

He and Mrs. Burton stood at the same time. She carried both cups into the kitchen and set them in the sink. With her back to Tim she said, “The only paper I never saved was the one with Mr. Burton’s obituary in it.”

Tim jammed his arm into a coat sleeve and asked why not.

“I didn’t have to. Everyone remembered for me, told me about it all the time. They never found his body, you know. They dragged the lake come spring where they thought he’d gone in, but they never found it. That lake is so big and too deep. Three in one, really.”

“What was he doing on the lake, ma’am?”

“Trying to save some little kid who’d fallen in.”

“I thought he was ice fishing. Did the kid die, too, ma’am?”

“Huh? Oh, no… I guess I was wrong. I saw a red and blue knit cap on the ice as we were driving by and figured it belonged to some kid out there skating who should of known better with the thaw making places thin. I drove back to town as fast as I could and went straight to the fire department, but it was too late. I couldn’t remember where he’d gone in. Mr. Burton was lost.”

A headache and stuffy ears made it hard for Tim to think. Finally, he asked, “Where were you coming from that day, ma’am?”

“I don’t understand? What do you mean, Tim?”

“When you and Mr. Burton were driving by the lake, where were you coming from?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t suppose, but you remember everything else so well, ma’am.”

“Very good, Tim. We must keep our histories truthful.” She took a deep breath. “From the hardware in Austinville.”

“Why over there, ma’am, when we got a perfectly good hardware in town?”

“Because the road back took us past the lake, Tim.”

“What did you buy in Austinville, ma’am?”

“Matches, Tim. I had a lot of stuff in the burning barrel that needed burning that night.”

Three honks from the driveway told Tim to hurry up. He zipped his coat and shoved his feet into his boots without tying them.

“You take tomorrow off, okay Tim?”

“Yes, ma’am. My mom’ll make sure I don’t escape the house for school or work once she finds out I’m sick. I’ll be laid up with Vicks all over my chest and a hot water bottle tucked in my side. She still gives me baby aspirin, but at least I get ginger ale and popsicles.”

Mrs. Burton smiled at Tim’s mother’s doctoring skills.

“Well, it sounds reasonable to me.”

“I’ll see you when I see you, ma’am.”

“Goodbye, Tim.”

Mrs. Burton watched Tim and his father out of sight. In the morning she’d take a bag of horehound over and see how Tim was faring.

Gold Plated

The following short story was based on the visual writing prompt of the swamp.  While everyone in my writing circle wrote lovely stories, mostly fantasy, that would delight readers of any genre, I took one look at the picture and decided upon a different tale.  I’ll withhold my comments on why I wrote what I did until after you’ve read this piece.  I want your unbiased opinion toward the story, so please be sure to leave feedback in the comments section.


Golden Swamp

Gold Plated

Zach stomped into the clearing and threw his book bag on the ground with all the force he could muster. He proceeded to kick it hard, heedless of the laptop inside. Two more kicks landed the black canvas satchel on the edge of the marsh.

Frickin’ parents,” he screamed, straining his chest with the force.  It was the closest his upbringing would allow him to swearing.

He collapsed on the damp leaves, his legs crossed awkwardly beneath him, the sound of blood rushing in his ears, and sat perfectly still until his heart stopped racing and his ragged breathing slowed.

Feelings of self-pity began to sting Zach’s eyes, but he refused to indulge in tears. Instead, he stood to retrieve his book bag from the water. Soggy homework, folders, and the papers he had stolen that morning from his father’s desk were removed and littered across the forest floor. He inspected his laptop for damage. Moisture hadn’t seeped into the computer case which had been shielded between his algebra and chemistry books. The books had not fared so well; water leached an inch into the pages, darkening the edges all around.

“Whatever,” he mumbled, stuffing the laptop and ruined books back into the bag.

Zach slung the bag over his shoulder and took several deep breaths. For the first time, he observed his surroundings. The beauty of the golden foliage sickened him.

“Looks like freakin’ King Midas has been here. Too bad it’s so wet. This place would look great going up in flames.”

His mouth curled upward in a lopsided sneer, and his fingers caressed the lighter in his pocket.

The blaze would have been spectacular. Even though there wouldn’t be any witnesses, these events had a way of producing detailed accounts. People would be enraged when their forest succumbed to destruction at the hands of an unknown arsonist. They would swear they had seen the culprit and go so far as to describe him. Ripped jeans, a dark hoodie, both arms tatted up, and multiple piercings would be just a few of the descriptors they used when speaking with the local media about the tragedy. They would mention the exact brand of designer sneakers worn when the vandalism took place. Someone would inevitably mention that drugs were involved…probably.

The worst liars would make subtle remarks that cast aspersions on the perpetrator’s possible ethnicity.

Zach sighed, his anger spent. He brushed leaf litter from the front of his school blazer and swiped the sides of his mud-crusted dress shoes in a patch of grass. Then he pulled his iPhone from his pocket to check the time. He still had an hour before he had to meet Kevin at the library to study for the AP Chemistry test.

One more deep breath enabled him to set out for home where his parents, oblivious to his delayed arrival, would be absorbed in their own pursuits. The scent of decaying leaves reminded him of a smell somewhere between the cherry tobacco in his father’s pipe and his mother’s compost heap. A small flame of resentment flared in his heart, but Zach refused to let it take hold.

“Let ‘em divorce,” he said. “See if I care.”

Moving Day

Thunderstorm_in_sydney_2000x1500Thunderstorms of a Noachian proportion blast the city for three days, washing the sun from the sky. White water eddies cluttered with trash swirl around the tires of cars abandoned until the deluge subsides. Undulating sheets of rain reduce all human activity to that of water-logged muskrats scurrying from building to bus stop and back again.

When the skies finally clear, the ancient apartment building smells like books stored in the basement. Tenants prop open their doors with fans to shift the staleness from corner to corner, never allowing it to settle on the pages of their lives. Cycling dehumidifiers placed by the landlord lure the saturated air with the promise of stagnation in the too-small reservoirs.

Joel’s fingertips rest on the windowsill; his eyes scan the street three stories below. Part of him wants to go downstairs to search for the movers’ truck. They were scheduled to arrive at nine that morning but probably couldn’t find a place to park out front. For all he knows, they’re circling the block or double parked, ticketed, and arguing with a cop. His fingers drum impatiently, and he sighs. His own lack of punctuality over the years has not made him lenient toward other people’s lateness.

Another stack of books is removed from the shelves, the void outlined in dust, and absentmindedly placed in a cardboard box. All week things he’d rather be doing kept popping into his head, but he doesn’t have the leisure of avoiding the chore, and no one else is going to do it for him. The zip of duct tape brings Kirsten from the bedroom. Her eyes are red and swollen.

“Can I help?”

Joel kneels to press the duct tape along the seam of the cardboard flaps. When he looks up, a forced smile twists his mouth sideways.

“I got this.”

“’Cause you know I’ll help. It’s not like I wouldn’t or something.”

“I know.” He stands and places his hands on her arms. “It’s why I love you.”

A quick peck to her forehead conceals his cringe at having misspoken, but now he’s afraid his kiss also sends the wrong message.

“You don’t have to be here right now–or stay–if you don’t want.”

“I came out ‘cause I thought you’d enjoy some tea, but I’ll go back if you want.”

“That’s fine, tea is fine.”

She shuffles to the doll-sized kitchen, the slap and scuff of her slippers grating on Joel’s already frayed nerves. Gray sweatpants and hoodie render her dancer’s body shapeless. Her unwashed hair is pulled into a sloppy ponytail, exposing her long neck as she stands at the sink filling the kettle with water. Damn he loves the sight of her neck. It was the first place he ever kissed her, right where the long, sable strands stopped and the micro fine, colorless ones began. She had been wearing a ponytail then, too.

He could spend hours making love to her neck alone, her warm flesh goose-pimpling beneath his parted lips, and the sweet scent of lily of the valley residing behind her ear. Being with Kirsten felt like standing in intense, bright sunshine, and looking at her like viewing diamonds of light dancing on water until his eyes teared, the pain so sweet. He believed he possessed something truly worth having when he held her in his arms; he was free and bound all at once in his love for her.

Joel’s eyes close like a stage curtain dropping on the memory.   He remains motionless for several seconds listening to the click and ragged woof of the burner. When his body sways, his eyes flick open. Dizziness on the fringe of his senses is replaced with the claustrophobia of the stuffy living room crammed with packed boxes of his stuff.

“The tea should be ready in a jif.”

He nods at Kirsten and wanders about the room gathering the last few items that defined his space in their home. A high school swimming trophy, the book on Albert Einstein he is currently reading, a chipped clay dinosaur he made in first grade, the teak kaleidoscope Kirsten gave him for Hanukkah, a Lego pirate, his Call of Duty video game; all these items are cradled in his arms. Again he looks out the window wondering where the hell the movers are.

“Where’s your favorite mug?”

Kirsten searches the cupboard where it should be and all the ones in which it was never stored, opening and slamming the doors shut, making little noises in her throat every time she doesn’t find it.

“I already packed it, but I know right where it is.”

“Never mind; you can use mine.”

Gathering clouds and the return of soft rain diminishes the light in the narrow room, fuzzing the crisp edges of the long shadows. Joel listens to the patter against the windows, his thoughts disturbed by the remembrance that she doesn’t have a favorite mug. Another lie.

Kirsten removes the kettle from the burner when the metal begins to tick and hiss with the strain of the boil inside. The simple process of drinking tea will draw them together one more time when all Joel really wants is for Kirsten to leave so he can focus on packing. Anything would be better than the haphazard orbit they’ve danced for the past three weeks, tactfully avoiding each other but never able to escape the other’s pull.

A few dunks of the tea bag and Kirsten plops down on the loveseat with both legs tucked beneath her. She splashes the hot tea on her hand and winces with childlike poutiness. The mug intended for Joel stands alone on the countertop. He can feel a bee swarm of bitterness rising in his chest as he dumps the gathered items in his arms on the countertop next to the tea. He knows Kirsten wants him to join her on the loveseat, but he resists her wishes. Much to his surprise, he has to resist his own as well.

To drink the tea means he’s yielding his will to hers, but he doesn’t know what to do with her simple offering. It’s just tea, though; green tea with jasmine, his favorite tea in her pretended favorite mug. The unspoken request for forgiveness swirls upward with the coils of fragrant steam.

The thing is, Joel wants to forgive Kirsten. The knotted rope of muscles between his shoulders would finally be eased; his stomach would stop roiling like a bad chemistry experiment. And how many times has he heard in life that forgiveness is as much for him as it is for the other person? Countless. Just do it, he thinks and chuckles at relationship advice coming from a Nike ad.

Kirsten reaches between the loveseat cushions to retrieve the remote. She points it at the stereo releasing Monica’s voice into the room. Angel of Mine fills up every ounce of space not already taken up by moving boxes and furniture. Joel’s shoulders sag, and his weight shifts to one hip. When she pats the space beside her, he obeys.

“More than anything–no wait–I just want, hope rather, that we can part on…if not good terms exactly, um, happy?”

“Friends? You want us to leave as friends, Kirsten?”

“Well at least friendly. Kind to each other would be nice. There’s no reason anymore to be angry or bitter. Not now that you’ve decided to leave.”

Joel seriously considers a scalding gulp of tea to keep from saying what he truly wants to say and to keep the conversation from deteriorating into an argument. Monica has given way to Marvin crooning about sexual healing.

“You’ve conveniently made this my fault because I decided to move out.”

“I don’t believe this is a matter of fault, Joel. I’m not pointing fingers or laying blame.”

“No, Kirsten, that’s not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“Just forget it, okay?”

He stands too quickly, spilling tea on his cargo pants. As he pauses to brush at the blossoming stain, she jumps up to follow and runs into his bent back, dousing his ratty cardigan with tea.

“Ow–that’s still hot!”

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.”

Her hands join his in trying to wipe away the liquid, but he pushes her away bodily with his arm.

“Never mind, Kirsten, I’m gonna have to change. It soaked through to my t-shirt.”

“But your clothes are already packed.”

The stupidly obvious statement silences him; he stares at her as if she suddenly grew scales on her lovely neck. With exaggerated precision of movement, he walks to the boxes stacked three high. The top two are removed with great flourish, and then Joel pauses to make sure Kirsten watches.

“Look, honey, they can just as easily be torn open.”

He grabs the doubled-over, duct tape handle he fashioned and rips it from the box removing a great deal of cardboard with it. The ragged scar across the edges will be difficult to reseal. All manner of clothing is flung about the room until he locates a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The neat freak in Joel stalks past the mess without stopping to pick it up. He heads for the bedroom with Kirsten in tow.

“Joel–I can fix this. It’ll be okay.”

“You can’t fix this, Kirsten. It’s ruined.”

Janet calls from the stereo reminding him that’s the way love is.

He tosses his clean clothes on the dresser then sheds the drenched cardigan and throws it at her feet, turning his back on her to remove the rest of his clothes. When he faces her, she has his sweater, pants, and shirt clutched in her arms, pressed to her face. Her muffled voice comes to him edged in tears.

“It’s not ruined, Joel. It just needs cleaned.”

Cool air makes his skin prickle; he feels like a fool in just his socks and underwear. A shiver makes him cross his arms. She lifts her face from the soggy bundle.

“And I can sew on another button where you lost one, put some Fray Check on the cuff where it’s unraveling. Please let me fix this.”

Every fiber of his being wants to beg her for forgiveness, no longer caring that the blame has shifted to him. He accepts it willingly, never questioning how he came to be the one needing to explain his actions.

“It’s just that that sweater was my Grandpa Joe’s. I’m named for him, you know.”

“I know.”

“He wore that thing every day of his life. I can still smell him on it.”

“That cologne he wore?”

“Yeah. It was like his signature scent or something. His calling card before he entered a room. And his sweater…”

“I get it, Joel. Really, babe, I do.”

“My Grandmother Judith made that sweater for him. It’s been around for like–ever. It’s endured a lot.”

“And it’s well made. That’s why it’s survived.”

“Exactly.”

Kirsten tucks Joel’s shirt and pants under her arm. With the clothes pressed against her body it’s difficult to properly fold the sweater, but she does. The precious garment is placed on the dresser, the ordinary clothes dropped. She stand before him for so long that he doesn’t know what to do next.

Instinctively, his arms pull Kirsten against his chest where his skin quivers at her presence. His mouth seeks her forehead, her cheek, her earlobe. Joel slips outside of his own body, watching his hands sneak under the draw-string waistband of her sweatshirt, caressing her back as they move upward. He sees with his fingers that she isn’t wearing a bra.

Luther tells him all that matters is here and now. So Joel submits to the sacredness of the moment, the opportunity to occupy the same space as Kirsten, the chance to reknit the warp and weft of the fabric of their life together. Time stops, and the morning is lost to work more satisfying than packing boxes.

There is no before, no after, only rain drumming a cadence on the roof of their building, the sound dulling Joel’s consciousness as he sinks into the softness of Kirsten’s embrace. He spirals downward toward sleep, aware of the sensation overtaking him until his body jerks. The buzzing cell phone vibrates on the hardwood floor, demanding attention.

A missed call is followed by three rapid-fire texts. Joel slips from the tangle of Kirsten’s arms and legs, twisting on the bed to pick up her cell phone where it fell when she undressed.

Emilio: Hey babe is he gone yet

Emilio: Call me when the jerk leaves

Emilio: Are we on for tonight

Joel’s thumbs work at punching out the message: screw u Emilio

Plastic and tidbits of circuitry fly in every direction when the cell phone hits the closet door.

“Hey!”

Kirsten sits up in bed and points at the debris of her new iPhone freed from its hot pink paisley cover.

“What the hell are you doing, Joel?”

“You’re worried about your damn phone right now?”

“What the hell else should I be worried about right now? Oh, how about the fact that my boyfriend has gone psycho?”

“Unbelievable, Kirsten; you are just so freakin’ unbelievable.”

Joel grabs his tea-stained, damp pants from the floor and jams his foot into one leg, hopping around on the other foot.

“This is so typical of you, so typical, and I am so tired of being your computer geek patsy. How cliché for the principal dancers to fall in love with each other.”

“What–What did you say? You’re muttering, Joel.”

He spins around and loses his balance, his feet tangled in both empty pant legs as his knees crash into the bed, and he lands on his outstretched arms. His face is only inches from hers. Kirsten laughs and places her palms on either side of his face.

“Oh, Joely.”

“No–don’t you Joely, me.”

“It was just a cell phone, honey; I don’t mind, although I do feel bad since you paid for it.”

“How could you? This isn’t even about the stupid phone, Kirsten.”

“Then why don’t you tell me what it’s about? And why don’t you either put your pants on or lay back down with me?”

Her arms assume the fifth position as she reclines on the bed, but her legs are in second beneath the covers. Disgust contorts Joel’s face, and he pushes himself upright.

With his back to her, he finishes dressing. A sneaked look in the mirror on the bedroom door reflects her image with drawn up knees and her chin resting on her crossed arms. Wide-eyed, innocent Kirsten has returned.

“Joel, I know I’m not perfect–”

“You got that right–”

“–but I believe what we have together is worth saving.”

“That may have been true at one time, but I’m not so sure now.”

“If you’re not sure, then why leave? Why make a hasty decision you’ll end up regretting?”

“Because I don’t want to stay here and end up regretting us.”

“Is that your final decision?”

Joel sits on the caned chair by the window. The torn seat gives under his weight but does not break. His eyes search the view outside, his back still toward her, as Tina asks what’s love got to do with it.

“Kirsten, I have allowed this to play out for so long, that I don’t even know what I’m looking for anymore. I want–I need–a sign or something to tell me what am I supposed to do?”

Joel squints when sunlight slices through the partially drawn bedroom curtains. He stands to lift his face toward the brightness like a sunflower. His chin drops to his chest as the squeal of brakes on the street below signals the arrival of the moving van.

A Fresh Perspective

banyan-tree-shoppingI started the following short story several months ago, and while I had an idea of how I wanted the tale to begin, I honestly wasn’t sure how it should end.  So I let it sit, worked on other writing projects, and forgot about it.  I came across this piece five days ago and still didn’t know how things were going to turn out for my protagonist, but I felt more inclined to take the journey with her.  I’m pleased with the outcome, and I hope you will be, too.  Enjoy!

A Fresh Perspective

The Three Baers

Stacey Baer closed the door of the cab as a sheet of rain slammed the side of the vehicle. Victory over the weather cheered her considerably until she saw the congested roads ahead. She groaned and opened her brief case removing a small laptop. The long trip home would be well spent marking portions of the deposition she took today. As she worked, her cell phone rang.

“Baer,” she answered.

“Stacey, it’s Doug.”

“So help me God, if you cancel on me—”

“Babe, this dinner is just as important to me as it is to you.”

“Obviously not, Douglas.”

“I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

He hung up without waiting for her reply, trusting that she would give him another chance. Whether or not she forgave him wasn’t his concern.

Stacey tried not to obsess about being stood up again. Instead, she turned her thoughts to dinner and the fact that nothing had been defrosted. Perhaps there was still a carton of Chinese in the fridge. Forty-five minutes later, she unlocked the door to her apartment and walked into the smell of cooking.

“Mom?” she called.

“In here, honey,” Golda Baer replied.

Stacey found her mother in the kitchen pulling a roast chicken from the oven. A platter of latkes and bowl of warm applesauce had been placed in the middle of the table.

“Grab some plates and pour the wine,” Golda said.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

“Making dinner, what does it look like?”

“Doug and I made reservations at Piatto.”

“Well, he called and cancelled your dinner plans.”

“Did you listen to my messages again?”

“No, I answered the phone when he called. Now sit down and let’s eat.”

Stacey slammed her briefcase and purse on the countertop. “Mom, I love you, but you cannot keep making these intrusions into my life. I gave you a key to my apartment for emergencies.”

“This is an emergency. I’m trying to feed my unmarried daughter who always eats alone, and when she does eat, it’s takeout.”

“Yes, well, I really just want you to leave,” Stacey said. “Mom, did you hear me? Please put down the chicken and go.”

“I don’t understand this. I just want to have dinner with my daughter.”

“You don’t respect me or my choices, so… ”

“What? You choose to be single and take every meal by yourself? That’s not healthy. I’m being kicked out because you chose a putz for a boyfriend?”

Stacey walked to the door and opened it. She couldn’t look at her mother when Golda passed.

– – – – –

Theo Baer tapped decorative finish nails into the chair he was reupholstering. He heard the door to his workshop open and his mother call out Hello.

“Over here, Ma,” he said with nails held between his lips.

“Theo, what on earth are you doing?” Golda asked.

“Finishing this chair, what does it look like?”

Golda harrumphed. “That old thing? I thought it had been thrown on the trash heap years ago.”

“Do you remember the chair?”

“Of course I remember it. How could I forget the chair your father died in?”

“Yes, well, I thought you would remember it as the chair he spent so much time in while he was alive,” Theo said.

“I remember he watched endless baseball in that chair while I raised you kids.”

“And he read bedtime stories to me and the girls every night,” Theo offered weakly. “I wanted to surprise you by fixing it up.”

“Oh, you surprised me all right.  Surprised me by leaving a perfectly good job as a stock broker to become a carpenter. I should have named you after he whose name shall not be mentioned. How do you expect to support your family playing at this?” Golda gestured to Theo’s saw-dusted covered clothes. “Besides, that fabric is the wrong color.”

“What do you mean? I took a swatch of the old fabric with me to choose. It is twenty years old. I did the best I could.”

Golda waved her hands to dismiss her son’s comment. “That’s not the point. Green was never the right color for that chair to begin with. You should have asked me and I could have told you blue would have been a much better choice.”

“Well, I‘m asking you now, Ma, to please—just leave.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“What wrong? Ma, I can’t take your constant criticism anymore. Or your disappointment. Nancy totally supports my decision to take over Dad’s furniture business.”

“Nancy gave up grad school to open a flower shop,” Golda said.

“Please, Ma, make sure the door latches on the way out.”

– – – – –

Gwen Baer was exhausted after a night of grading test papers. She turned back the covers and was about to slip into bed when she heard the doorbell ringing insistently. With a groan, she dragged herself downstairs to the front door.

“Momma, what are you doing here at this hour of the night?”

Golda brushed past her youngest daughter and looked around. “Are you alone?”

“Of course I am. Who did you expect to find here?”

“Well certainly not your husband.”

“Ex-husband, Momma. Rick is my ex now,” Gwen sighed.

“You didn’t waste any time relegating him to that role, now did you?”

“What did you expect? We are divorced.”

“Never mind. I came by to make sure you made it home okay.”

“You can see that I did.”

“This neighborhood isn’t so good, Gwenie.”

“Momma, we’ve been over this several times. I couldn’t afford the house I shared with Rick after the divorce.”

“But you can afford to go out every night?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve been getting reports at temple that you’ve been burning the midnight oil and not coming home. They tell me you’ve been sleeping around.” Golda whispered the last two words.

Gwen laughed. “So a few old biddies at temple have been gossiping about me? What do I care?”

“You should care about your reputation, little girl. Come home once in a while and sleep in your own bed.”

“Good grief, Momma, you make me sound like a slut.”

Golda shrugged and whined an I don’t know in her throat.

“I’m just saying that a fast girl won’t be looked at twice by a suitable man. You do want a husband, don’t you?”

“No, Momma. I just got rid of a husband who cheated on me all six years of our marriage. Being a good girl didn’t save our relationship,” Gwen said.

“That’s no reason to go sleeping with so many other men.”

“Who said I was? No, forget it. I don’t want to know.”

“And why is your nightgown so short? Who are you trying to catch, Gwenie?”

Gwen grasped handfuls of her hair and screamed through clenched teeth. “That’s it, Momma, you have to go. Now, please.”

“Is someone upstairs, honey?”

“No. I just need you to go and take your judgmental condemnation with you.”

Gwen stormed back upstairs without waiting to make sure her mother had left.

– – – – –

Golda sat on the subway alone, her handbag clutched on her lap. She crunched a peppermint, and then searched her purse for a comb to rake through her hair.

Two teenage boys shared the car with her. Their pants were low on their hips exposing plaid boxers, their expensive sneakers unlaced. Every other word out of their mouth was a swear word.

“Hey—quit that cussing,” Golda snapped.

“Mind your own business, old woman.”

“I tried to mind it, but they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.”

She rambled on and on about her unappreciative children until the boys became annoyed. They shook their heads at the crazy old lady talking to herself. She was such an easy target sitting on the seat alone, not paying attention. They mugged her for four dollars and a gold Timex watch.

As Golda sat in the now empty subway car, stunned and bruised from being roughed up, she wondered what the hell was wrong with kids these days. Their parents ought to be ashamed at the way they disrespected their elders. Why Golda herself would have died if her own three children had ever behaved in such a fashion.

She pulled her cellphone from her inner coat pocket. Little monsters didn’t think to check there, she thought. Stacey’s number was dialed first, and then Theo and Gwen were conferenced in.

“I’m making brisket and honey cake for dinner on Friday. Be there at 5:30 on the dot.”

Three voices chorused Yes, Mom, and then she hung up.

“They’re good kids,” Golda said to her own reflection across the aisle. “They just need some direction.”

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