Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Richard

There was always a plate of buttered toast at breakfast. Sometimes she’d fix eggs and bacon, or sausage and pancakes, sliced tomatoes and, when there was enough money in the grocery tin, thin slices of salty country ham, curled up around the edges, fat glistening. But there was always a plate of buttered toast. Half a loaf, perfectly brown, perfectly buttered, towering high in the middle of the table like a yeasty crown.
Breakfast, she’d call, and kids would tromp down stairs, shirts halfway done, hair still wet. They’d shove the feast into their mouths, yelling at each other between bites, complaining of bathroom indignities and trading pinches beneath the table. Then they would disappear in a whirl of dust kicked up by the tires of the school bus, carrying away their noise and mischief and holding it tight until 3 o’clock.
When the children had grown and gone, the plate of toast continued to appear every morning, though most mornings it was accompanied by oatmeal or cold cereal and cream. Richard sat at the head of the table and chewed silently, clutching his hat in one hand so he could rise with the last swallow. HIs wife rattled pots and pans and tried to fill the space left by her children’s voices. She regularly let out heavy sighs, wanting to say something and not having anything to say, breathing out her discontent into the room.
They were alone, but they were not lonely. They learned to talk about things other than report cards and football games, trouble on the bus and teenaged dating. They remembered that they fell in love with each other first and, to their surprise, did it all over again. They held arthritic hands and kissed wrinkled cheeks and read aloud to each other from matching easy chairs.
The morning after his wife died, Richard walked down the stairs of their house and sat at an empty table for the first time in forty-seven years. He realized, in a terrible rush of regret and sadness, that he had no idea where she kept the toaster.
Grief is a funny thing. You can make a terrible racket and push it down and away and hammer away at it until you drown it out. Or you can wrap your arms around it like a lover, and wear it around like a black and terrible robe, losing yourself in the heaviness of the burden. Richard encased himself in grief. He boarded up windows and shunned visitors, left dinners and cards to pile up on the front porch and trip up anyone who dared ring the bell. His Salisbury Steak Sentry, his Hallmark Guard; he fought his neighbors with their own good intentions.
The children had all moved away and did not bear witness to his unraveling. He answered the phone when they called and said all the right things, Yes, yes! I just went out last night! Yes, yes! Of course I’ll come for Christmas! Then hung up the phone and sank down lower in his chair and wept.
And just when Richard starting eyeing his belts in a different way, and questioning the ability of certain light fixtures to bear his weight, the letter came. The script on the front was old woman scrawl, but he recognized in it the young woman he once knew. His hands trembled when he opened it, and the message made him suck in his cheeks and hold his breath until he nearly forgot to breathe again.

So sorry for your loss. Will be there at Christmastime, would love to see you again.
-M

He carefully folded the letter, returned it to the envelope, and put it in his back pocket, where it burned like coal. He felt himself blush, to have something that had touched her hand in such an intimate place. It felt like a secret, like a horrible, wonderful secret.
Richard rushed to the kitchen and began tearing open cabinets. He pushed past mason jars of green beans and the yellowed deep fryer (when had they ever used that?) and finally, in a low cabinet by the stove he found the toaster. He plugged it in, pulled a questionable loaf of bread from the pantry and began feeding the slots. One by one, until the bread bag was empty and toast piled high on a plate. He sat down at the table and slowly, deliberately, began to eat.

Would love to see you again.

He was going to need his strength.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Cole

He hadn’t meant to laugh at her, he’d only been going along with the other men. He’d seen her earlier that morning, stretching before her run. She took her time, unaware that she was being observed. She looked strong; her muscled legs and broad back and long arms that reached over head then arced down to her feet as if in prayer. She finished stretching and opened her face to the sky before she started a slow jog away from him. She was beautiful.
When she appeared later, coming down the street much faster than he might imagine she could run, she took his breath. Then she clumsily crossed the street and he saw her face redden and the laugh stuck in his throat. He looked at his worn boots and his calloused hands and knew the hardness of his face and did not fault her for crossing.
His father named him Cole, and it suited him. His mother had wanted to call him Jeremiah and in denying her the name, Cole’s father cut the tenuous thread that kept their marriage together. His mother packed her belongings and left before dawn six months after he was born. She took the dog and left the child.
Cole and his father lived in a rented house at the edge of a small West Texas town. They were white men in a town of brown men, and Cole learned early on to blend in. His father went to work on the oil rigs before Cole left for school and came home after he’d gone to bed, if he came home at all. Cole fixed himself suppers of beans and cornbread, leaving a bowl loosely covered with a tea towel for his father on the the kitchen table. His father was never a father, and Cole was never a boy. They were simply men who lived with different sized versions of themselves.
His father taught him to work hard and long hours, to build a ridge of callous on the palms of his hands, the hallmark of manual labor. Cole was a decent student, but inconspicuous; boys teased the smart kids mercilessly. Everyone knew they’d never leave town, and to aspire to something greater than drilling foreman on a rig was to invite ridicule. He harbored a secret love of books, smuggled home under his jacket and read by flashlight under the covers of his bed.
When he was 12, Cole started going with his father to the rig in the early morning, before school. He worked all day through the summers and over Christmas break. By the time he was 15, he was a floorhand, picking up slack from the roughnecks and fetching coffee and cigarettes for the derrickman. The men gave him grief and his father cuffed his head at every opportunity, but they liked him. He kept his mouth shut and eyes open and saw his future, crude stained and hard.
It wouldn’t be a bad life, and he resigned himself to it.
One day when he was 17, six months from graduating high school and taking a full time job on the rig, he was met at his front door by the derrickman, hat in hand. His father was dead, crushed by a falling pipe rack. Cole clutched the copy of The Grapes of Wrath he held under his jacket as the derrickman said, “I’m sorry, son.” He never finished the book.
After the funeral, he walked home and packed a small suitcase. He tucked his father’s pocketknife and silver belt buckle and best boots in among his clothes. He cashed the small check from the drilling company, and found another thousand dollars bound by rubber bands in his father’s sock drawer.
Cole walked to the bus station and slid fifty-six dollars through the window to a woman the color of old newspaper. “I guess you know where you’re going,” she said.
He did not hesitate in his answer.
“California.”
                                      

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Second Verse

Margie had tried every diet out there. The Scarsborough Diet, Atkins, Flat Belly, Wheat Belly, Hawaiin, Paleo, Gluten-Free, Fat-Free, Low Cal - you name it. She’d started dieting in the early 80s when a friend passed her a handwritten copy of The Cabbage Soup Diet after Jazzercise class.
“Eight banana milkshakes on Day 4? Are you sure?,” she’d asked her friend.

“And all the cabbage soup you can eat!” her friend replied with glee.

It turned out that Margie could only eat a minimal amount of cabbage soup before her farts forced her to isolate herself from friend and foe alike. She did lose seven pounds that week, so it wasn’t a total loss.
The diets always worked; she’d drop twenty pounds, buy a new wardrobe, then promptly gain thirty. She went from self loathing to maniacally enthusiastic with dizzying speed, and soon her friends learned to just smile and nod whenever she began talking about the latest diet fad. Oh, you know that Margie!, they’d say to each other and roll their eyes. They didn’t really mind that little bit of craziness, because everyone loved Margie.
It was hard not to. She walked into a room like a gift, wrapped up in a velour sweatsuit and a dozen bangle bracelets. She wore too much makeup and too much hairspray and laughed too loud. She was a little embarrassing at times. She ordered her food in the accent of whatever country the dish originated in - Mexican for enchiladas, Southern for fried chicken, Chinese for lo mein noodles. Margie was a born and bred midwesterner (“You can take the girl out of the Heartland, but you can’t take the Heartland out of the girl!”, she liked to say), so the accents were always cringeworthy. But she charmed everyone with a smile and a wink, and no one seemed to mind too much.
Margie wasn’t married, and her friends could never quite get the full story of her past. “There was a man,” she’d say, lowering her voice to a whisper and cutting her eyes. But she never said more, and when pressed she’d change the subject. What kind of man could have that effect on Margie?, they wondered, and agreed that regardless, he didn’t deserve her.
Margie belonged to the local Lutheran church, she volunteered at the hospital and was a reading buddy at the elementary school. She hosted a monthly supper club and was at Jazzercise twice a week, without fail. She had a host of friends and a full schedule, but still went home to a cramped apartment she shared with her bichon frise, Malcolm. Malcolm had been her mother’s until her death, and Margie inherited the dog along with the apartment. He was an ancient and grizzled ball of fur, who seemed to wake just long enough to eat and use the bathroom. Too old to handle stairs and too lazy to play, his toileting was contained to a small square of astroturf on the balcony. Every day when Margie woke, she stared at the dog on his pillow, trying to discern if he was breathing. Every day she would think, “Oh, he’s dead!” only to be startled by a sudden, ragged snore. She was always a little disappointed.
Margie was, despite outside appearances, terrifically lonely. At home, she led a painfully mundane existence - eat, take Malcolm to the bathroom, watch TV, try to sleep. She’d complained to a young mother in Jazzercise about her sleeping problems and been shocked when, the very next week, the woman came to class with a small cello bag of Xanax and a pill bottle full of marijuana.
“This will fix you up!,” the woman whispered.
Margie hadn’t known what to say, so she stuffed the drugs in her purse. She sat them on the counter and stared at them for a long time. She didn’t even know how to smoke marijuana! Didn’t you need to make it into cigarettes? She had some post-it notes, but had a feeling that wouldn’t work. After an extensive search on the internet and repeated viewing of a You Tube video from a young man named weedman420, she fashioned a rudimentary pipe out of a soda can and tin foil.
She nearly vomited after inhaling. Weedman420 had suggested a deep, hard, fast draw on the ‘pipe’, and Margie always followed directions. She’d never even smoked cigarettes, so the sharpness of the smoke penetrating her lungs was unexpectedly painful. The second puff was considerably easier, and by the fourth she downright digging it.
She scrambled eggs and made chocolate milk and giggled at Malcolm twitching in his sleep. She had a sudden and overwhelming urge to dress him up like Elvis Presley and spent thirty minutes trying to make a wig out of clothespins and felt before she forgot what it was that she was doing.
There was a noise. It was a not unfamiliar sound; the sound of a person trying not to make a sound. Margie stood perfectly still, the hairs on the back of her neck at attention. She could hear her own ragged breath and willed it to be quieter. Stop beating, heart! Stop breathing nose! Stop rushing, blood! She thought she heard the sound again, but wasn’t sure. She became convinced, standing there in her living room, that someone was in the apartment. Someone other than her and her comatose dog and Weedman420, frozen on the computer screen.
She had to get help.

                                      

Monday, October 6, 2014

First Chapters

The men have been here since before dawn, and they break for lunch well before noon. If it is hot, like today, they will find shade under the magnolia tree in the front yard. If it is cool, like it will be before this job is done, they fold down the tailgate of the work truck and sit side-by-side like birds on a rail.
They are men of indeterminate age, all brown from heritage or work, unclear until you hear them speak. They open their Igloo coolers in the shade of the tree and set out the items, eyeing their neighbor and judging the happiness of the home based on the content of the cooler. One man unwraps a wad of foil to expose golden, greasy, glistening fried chicken from last night’s supper. Clearly, he is loved. Bread and butter sandwiches and August’s tomatoes, thick slices of ham on white bread, wrapped in wax paper with neatly folded seams. A half dozen noses wrinkle in unison at tuna fish.
Peanut butter between saltine crackers and fried pies and carnitas and tortillas. Long draws from mason jars filled with sweet tea or glass bottles of coke. There is half a yellow cake with chocolate icing that one man pulls from his cooler like a magician. The paper plate it’s on strains and it looks like it might give way under the weight, but then it is safe on the ground. The bringer of the cake cuts it into generous slices and the men eat it with their hands in silence. It is likely the best cake ever eaten under a magnolia tree.
There are never leftovers. Wrappers are folded inside of wax, inside of foil, into packets and back into the coolers. The men never litter; they pack away trash with the same care their wives and daughters packed the feast. With gratitude.
Some of the men smoke. They take long draws on short cigarettes and pick bits of tobacco from their lips with their fingertips. Someone tells a dirty joke and, even though they’ve all heard it before, the men laugh. One of them leans back against a tree and pretends to sleep.
A young woman with a sharp face is jogging and catches sight of them. She makes quick judgments and crosses the street before she reaches them, being careful not to make eye contact. The men laugh, and she thinks they are laughing at her. They are.     


Carolyn hated to run. She hated the tight feeling in her chest when it was cold, and the feeling of running through pea soup when it was hot. She hated her breasts smashed tight to her chest and yet still managing to bounce enough that she wanted to wrap her arms around them. She hated the swish swish swish of her thighs fighting each other with every step.
“You should take up jogging,” her therapist said. “It will alleviate stress! Release those endorphins!” The therapist was a whippet of a woman, not a day under seventy, with beef jerky skin and teeth that were too big for her mouth.
Because she knew that she had to do something to pull herself back from the edge, and because she was far too mundane to try sex or drugs, Carolyn started running. The therapist was right - for an hour every day, running emptied her mind of everything. She hated running so much, it took all her will just to get one foot in front of the other. She could concentrate on nothing more than the square of asphalt under her.
It was on this square that her eyes were focused when she approached the men. She glanced up for a moment and there they were; sprawled out on the lawn, brown and sweaty and laughing. Carolyn had split second internal battle between street smart woman who always crosses the road to avoid a group of men and liberal white privilege guilt dictates I should never judge based on stereotypes. In the end, fear overruled guilt and she cut hard to the right to cross in the middle of the street. She came off the curb awkwardly and stumbled, just missing a fall. She heard the men laugh and felt her face flush. She ran faster, silently shaming herself home.
She was nearly calm by the time she reached the front door of her apartment, though she knew she’d replay the scene over in her head countless times over the next week. It was a habit she couldn’t seem to break, even after all the therapy. Did I really do that? What do they think of me? Do they think I’m a bad person? It was an obsession that had cost her friendships, jobs, and countless romantic relationships. Apparently, constantly rehashing the most inane conversations is not a turn on.
Carolyn unlocked the door, went inside, and lay on the living room floor, exhausted. Her cat, Winchester, promptly walked over and sat on her chest. “I hate you,” she glared at the cat and he glared back. If cats were capable of getting a tiny middle paw finger to stand up, Winchester would be flipping her off. The cat had been another fantastic suggestion from the therapist. “A companion!,” she’d said, after Carolyn had mentioned a childhood pet.
The pet had been a dog and, as Carolyn learned approximately fifteen minutes after having the cat - cats are not dogs. Cats are, in general, assholes. The dog she’d had as a young girl had been named Velveeta, after her favorite cheese and seminal ingredient in most of her mother’s dishes. Velveeta followed Carolyn around the house and slept at the foot of her bed, and ran to the end of the driveway every day to meet her as she got off the bus from school. One day, Velveeta wasn’t there and her mother shrugged her shoulders and avoided eye contact. “She just ran off, honey,” was all she’d said.
It wasn’t until Carolyn’s thirtieth birthday that her mother sat her down and told her the truth.
“Mail truck, honey,” she’d said. “Poor Mr. Olsen ran over her and broke her whole back end. Your daddy had to hit her with the shovel three times before…”
“Jesus! MOM!” Carolyn burst into tears, “It’s my birthday!”

She sat in her therapist’s office the next day, telling the story and crying until her nose ran. When the therapist suggested a pet it seemed like a perfectly wonderful idea (and a far better one than running). Carolyn went to the humane society and picked Winchester from the caged rows of desperate felines. The man at the desk had her hold the cat in one hand and a sign proclaiming, Going to My FUR-ever Home!, in the other, as he took a Poloroid. He blew on the picture and fanned it, then hung it on a corkboard with a hundred other such photos. In each one, the new owners looked excited and the animal looked relieved. In Carolyn’s picture, she looked scared and Winchester looked pissed. It was a harbinger of things to come.
The first night, the cat sat by the front door and wailed. Each time Carolyn tried approaching him, he hissed and scratched at the air. By three in the morning, she found her self lying on her belly, inching toward him with a palm full of tuna fish. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty. Here, you little asshole.” She inched closer and closer until the cat finally gave in and ate the tuna. He didn’t miss the opportunity to nip her palm when he was done. It was the most intimate moment they would ever share. Carolyn believed in forever homes - or furever homes - which is why, two years later, she lay on the floor with a cat’s ass in her face.
She pushed the cat off her chest and walked into the kitchen. There on the drainboard was one glass, one plate, one bowl, knife and fork. One spoon rested on a permanent brown stain on the counter by the coffee maker. They were the tools of a solitary person, never worth the effort to put away. She filled the glass with water from the tap, drank it down, and turned the glass over to dry. In the fridge she found some questionable Chinese food, three beers, and a hard boiled egg. She ate the food standing in front of the fridge and drank the beers on the couch while watching reruns of Full House. Not for the first time, she wondered how those homely little kids turned out to be such lovely women. Borderline ugly, really, she thought, then immediately felt guilty. She sat through two episodes and then turned the television off. It was Saturday - her day off - and shouldn’t she be doing something productive?
Shouldn’t she be out with friends? Or getting ready for a date? Or doing anything except getting half drunk with her cat? She stared at the door, willing someone - anyone - to knock.

And then someone did.