Left Out

My newest story is available in the Fall Issue of So to Speak, a publication of George Mason University. I’d love to know what you think. http://sotospeakjournal.org/left-out/

Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf

garden

 

We compared favorite first lines. This one needed a whole paragraph. Who else but Virginia Woolf could make leaves sound so sensual?

 

From the oval shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or, the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear. Instead, the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface, and again it moved on and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves. Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July.

MONTANA NUN

In my first guest post, the one and only Ed Valfre shares one of his incredible image stories from Ed Valfre’s Dreamland. If you haven’t already liked this site on Facebook, do so now. It’s like ice cream. http://on.fb.me/19y11qN

In the middle of Montana is a retired nun. Every morning she goes to Nell’s Cafe, sits in the same seat and orders extra crispy bacon, dry toast, a soft boiled egg and a coffee. She is considered to be about as exciting as a cabbage sandwich. Not one of them know about the alligator that took her leg in the jungles of South America or how she scammed the gun runners in Sierra Leone and saved those children. She has seen things none of them can even imagine. Her life isn’t a secret. It’s just none of them ever asked.

Teeth

photo

Jamie is playing around in the bathroom again. He’s trying to remember…how much time does it actually take to brush teeth?

Hmmm…don’t remember because haven’t actually brushed in weeks. Maybe months. Put in lots of time at the bathroom sink though. Mostly stare at self and judge decay. Can’t really see it, only the yellow stuff on top.

He takes out the toothpaste, puts some on his finger, smells, and smells again.

Smells like…cherry suckers. The kind you get at Halloween. Aren’t suckers bad for teeth?

He takes out a fluoride tablet sent home at the time of the visit with the evil, horrible dentist and wets it with his forefinger and thumb. Smashing and grinding it into a paste on the bathroom counter, he mixes it with toothpaste to make it smooth.

Open mouth to look at cavities. One, two, three, four, five. Are there any teeth left without fillings? Evil, horrible dentist will find more, always finds more. Drill, drill, drill with mouth cranked opened as far as it can go without breaking jaw.

He moves his jaw from side to side to make a clicking noise only he can hear.

Jaw already broken.

Will Mother miss him if he stays in bathroom all night? Too busy working, talking on phone, reading newspaper, petting dog with dog breath. Does he have dog breath? Jamie exhales into his palm in front of his nose. Smells like hot dog dinner. His specialty, hot dog. Can make all by himself in microwave.

Jamie takes out his toothbrush and brushes the tablet/toothpaste on the counter until the bristles are coated with the thick fuchsia cement. He starts to brush his teeth. Back and forth the brush moves, harder and harder, until it kind of hurts but he keeps going. Blood from his gums leaks out of the corner of his mouth but it looks pretty much the same as the cherry toothpaste and the pink fluoride tablet.

Will mother notice fresh breath? Didn’t notice bad breath but maybe now she’ll notice. She’ll see gleaming white/red teeth and say, “My doesn’t your breath smell nice.” Then kiss you goodnight. Maybe.

Just White

The day Diondre Wilson left this world, she stared at the perfect white square across from her bed and projected a movie of her third birthday. She had no projector, of course, nor did she have a computer, but her mind stored all the images she needed to replay in full color. She had no trouble staying awake today. She’d told her mother she’d take the pain over oblivion.

Her mother was in the bathroom, washing out the paintbrushes she’d used to paint the wall. Her baby needed that plain white square and she was going to have it, hotel charges be damned. Her fingers glided through the bristles again and again. She wanted to make sure the brushes were clean for their next stop, a town in Florida called Vero Beach. If the brushes weren’t clean, the paint wouldn’t go on smoothly.

In order to make it all the way down the coast without Diondre getting too exhausted, they stuck to the easy-to-reach small towns, provided they had a motel with the requisite bed facing a blank wall, a big window, and an ocean breeze. “You want a drink from the minibar?” Mom asked. Hang if she was going to worry about money now. She’d never be able to pay the hospital bills anyhow since the insurance was cancelled.

“Do they have lemonade?” Diondre asked, without shifting her eyes from the square.

“I’ll go down to the coffee shop and get some. It’s just about time for lunch anyway.”

Diondre rewound a little because of the interruption, not that she ever thought of Mom as an interruption, and went back to the Tiki birds in the room where they sang and spun. “In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Lounge,” the birds sang, over and over with brightly glued feathers and beaks that clacked open and closed.

It was the first time she’d ever been to Disneyland, and the exotic bird room/ride, whatever you call it, is where she’d taken her nap. She’d fallen asleep right in the middle of the song. When she woke up, they were outside and Mom had bought her pink cotton candy. The wispy, sticky swirl was bigger than her head. She could taste it now, a sweet pinkness that wasn’t cherry or strawberry but a flavor all its own.

By the time she swirled around, showing off her Mickey ears with a pointed princess hat, Mom was back in the motel room with chicken soup, toast, and lemonade in a covered cup with plenty of ice. The taste of the lemonade was sour and sweet at the same time so Diondre knew it was homemade. She really didn’t care about the soup but it made Mom happy when she ate real food, so she forced a few bites down. She must have a fever because cold felt good and hot felt not so good.

She sucked up a tiny, round ice chip through the straw and held it in her mouth until it dissolved, leaving a cold spot on her tongue. It felt so good it almost made her cry. But Diondre didn’t cry anymore. It was a waste of energy. Besides, she could get real pleasure out of a piece of ice melting on her tongue. That was the kind of thing Diondre noticed.

Mom came out of the bathroom with the paint can and the brushes. She packed them into a burlap shopping bag labeled Just White, the shade of paint they chose from paint chips Mom brought home from Dunn Edwards. It wasn’t a muted cream. It didn’t have a hint of a pale yellow or blue or anything else. It was Just White, the perfect shade of nothingness. It almost sucked you inside.

“Tell me what you’re watching today,” Mom said, polishing off the toast herself. She was wearing her lavender shirt with a little embroidered butterfly at the neckline, the one Diondre always said looked so pretty on her.

“Shi Shi’s wedding. Tom and Junie are just coming down the aisle spreading red petals from a little basket on the white runner. Everyone is laughing because they’re concentrating so hard.”

“Oh, I remember that. What a lovely day. I wonder if Shi Shi’s had the baby yet. I guess somebody would call us if they had.”

“I think I’m gonna channel flick. There’s a day I want to see.” The pain was creeping up on her. She could feel a tightening in her chest and all her bones felt alive. “Mind if I just watch by myself for a while?”

“Sure thing, Bunny, I’ll put away the painter’s tape and tidy up the room.” Mom kissed Diondre’s forehead to make sure the fever wasn’t too high. She got a small towel and drenched it in cold water, then wrung it out and laid it on the fragile little head with matted curls. Diondre didn’t even seem to notice.

She barely looks half her fifteen years was the thought that kept playing in Mom’s mind. She didn’t even get to go on a date. Mom put the leftover lunch in the mini-fridge in case Diondre wanted some later. She walked out to the patio and smelled the ocean. The sky was pure blue, not a cloud, an airplane, or even a power line, just blue that stretched clear down to Miami, if you could see that far. Mom had learned not to see further than a day out.

Diondre thought about her plan to make it to Key West, as far south as it was possible to go. She imagined the water would have healing properties like the German spa in Anna Karenina. The ocean would be all around her and visible from almost any road. If she could just soak her defective body in those waters, who knows what might be possible. She didn’t know if Mom believed her but she was willing to go along with it anyway. Here they were.

The square was coming into focus. She felt disembodied, as though she had become the images in her mind. Instead of watching the past, this time she wanted to see her future. It would be a place where she could chase a puppy and wear a long lace dress. Mom would be there with her arms open wide and a big, real smile stretching her thin cheeks into handles she could almost grab onto. Her dad would be there too, resurrected from his self-imposed exile in the land of the healthy.

In the background the ocean purred and the late afternoon light made streaks on the wall that stopped just short of the square. With a trance-like grace she’d not felt for years, she left the sheets behind her and moved to the square. Inside was a brilliant blue sky, not unlike the one outside the motel window. Horses appeared shaking their manes impatiently. Mom and Dad each held out a hand next to a speckled mare. Diondre had always wanted to ride, more than anything. She would have even signed up for another few surgeries if it meant she could ride, even once. Clearly the time had come at last.

Mom came inside and saw the empty bed. She ran into the bathroom, but Diondre wasn’t there. She looked on the other side of the bed to see if the poor thing had fallen and as she raised her head, a flickering caught her eye. It was the square.

It had a concave quality, like it actually receded into the wall. She perched herself on the edge of the bed and stared into it. The longer she looked, the clearer the picture became. It was a meadow filled with flowers and, in the distance, Diondre was riding a horse. She turned and smiled at her mother, quickly, then rode away, becoming smaller and smaller and smaller until she was completely out of sight.

 

The “Short Short” is a style of fiction under 1500 words in length. Just right for our current media whirl, n’est-ce pas? 

 

 

 

 

Scrubbing Out

Bathroom shower smallI’m scrubbing the toilet with a round brush that has green and white bristles for getting under the lip of bowl. I think the two-toned color is just for my benefit, not the toilet’s. Lysol Toilet Bowl cleaner is very effective at removing stains (my stains or his stains?) but it clings so tenaciously to the side of the bowl that it has to be scrubbed off with the brush. I’m thinking this makes it a high-maintenance cleanser. Maybe Barkeep’s Friend would work just as well.

I experiment in the second bathroom as the Lysol bottle is empty anyway and I forgot to buy more. I’m still not used to keeping track of these products as Maria used to just leave a sticky note. I dump some of the powder into the second bowl and scrub around with the brush. The powder doesn’t cling to the side of the bowl, it sinks to the very bottom and slides down into the abyss. Clearly this is not an improvement over the Lysol. What did my mother use? Probably Ajax. She thought Ajax solved all of life’s untidy problems.

I go back to the first bathroom and start working on the shower. The aroma from the chemical cleaners make me feel a little sick in that confined space but it has to be done every week and everyone knows those earth-friendly cleaners don’t really take off the calcified deposits. What’s the point of having a new bathroom if it’s not clean?

We renovated this room only six months ago because the floor fell in. It turns out there were tree roots in the outtake pipe. When I lived in New York, I didn’t have to know about tree roots and wide flanged faucets and Toto toilets because, if something went wrong, I’d tell the doorman on my way out and I’d come home to find the problem solved. Now I’m the doorman. I wonder if I’ll get a nice, fat envelope at Christmas.

We put this huge shower in the new bathroom because Tom is 6’5” and wanted to see what it felt like to be able to stand up in the shower. I never realized he always had to bend over. I like the big, new shower with wide glass panels, too. I had the contractor put in subway tile with a grey border and two nooks for shampoo and razors and a nice little bench. It looks beautiful. But it’s a bitch on cleaning day. There’s a whole lot of tile and glass to clean. It takes more time to clean that shower than the whole other bathroom.

Now that I’m at home every day, I clean a lot. My son, on the rare occasions when he comes home from college, thinks this is a little crazy. It probably is. It’s a control thing, isn’t it? I can’t control how the advertising industry has changed, or how often my son visits, but I can control how clean my shower is. There. No therapist needed.

Going down the rabbit hole, I let myself remember the day my team spent all morning picking out a picnic basket for a TV shoot. We chose the one with Limoges china. It was so big, if a couple actually used it for a picnic in real life, they’d need to bring the servants along just to carry it out of the car trunk. After we’d made our selection and had sent all the reject baskets away with the stylist, we went out for a lovely lunch at La Grenouille or was it The Four Seasons? We even had a cocktail. How shocking.

You’d almost think we were talking Mad Men here but it really wasn’t that long ago when companies weren’t so cheap. Now you spend all day thinking of something provocative to say on Twitter you didn’t say five minutes ago. Nobody really cares about chic anymore. And they certainly don’t care about picnic baskets.

You take time off to raise a baby and you’re dead meat. That’s what I’m thinking and I know I’ve got to shut those bad thoughts down before I get to the part where I remember how I was the best, the best, the smartest, the hottest, oh, there I go, I’m sitting on the floor of the shower with a sponge in one hand and a rag in the other and I’m cleaning, cleaning, cleaning the grout, the brand new grout, and if I’m not careful I’ll scrub it right out of the tile. I should really get some Ajax. I really should.

The Laying of Hands

I’m listening to my nephew chant his haftorah. I am only in this place on important occasions like bar mitzvahs or weddings. There will be funerals someday, possibly soon. Marcia starts to cry in the row in back of me. I know she’s thinking about her parents. I am too.

The last time I saw her mother, my Aunt Charlotte, at her apartment, I stared at her hands. They were chapped and raw. She had peeled the skin off from rubbing her fingernails back and forth across her palms. Then she dug the nails of her right hand into her palm and held them there until half-moons of blood obscured the natural long crease down the center–the lifeline we used to call it.

She told us Eva was sleeping. It was Eva we had come to see. So Marcia, Aunt Charlotte, and I sat at the white table on white chairs and watched the vines of the wallpaper grow over our heads while Aunt Charlotte told us she would not watch Eva die. She survived the camps, the long, slow death of Uncle Simon, and that was enough. She would not watch her first born slowly disappear. Marcia took her clenched hand and opened the fingers one by one kissing the raw skin of her palm underneath each finger.

I looked for something to focus on, some memory that would take me away from the kitchen table. On the counter was a bowl so old it was chipped all around the perimeter. In it were car keys and a case full of credit cards. On the edge of the sink was an open bottle of prescription pills and a paring knife, red with jam making crescent moons along the blade. I saw her hands whether I looked at them or not.

I remember how those hands would cup our cheeks when Marcia and I would come in from a walk and she’d kiss us, inhaling very deeply, with a loud snort that meant she knew we were smoking. We reeked of it. But she just wanted us to know that she knew. I remember when she pulled me to her that last time in the hospital with the identical gesture. There were tubes running out of her arms with an I.D. band on one wrist. Her hands were calloused. But they were smooth.