Books are a uniquely portable magic. ~ Stephen King

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

If You Dream of Fairies

Whimsical Wednesdays

If You Dream of Fairies
is a story I wrote for my daughters and niece last summer. I will present it here in serialized form. It was my first foray into fiction.

In case you missed something:
If You Dream of Fairies - I
If You Dream of Fairies - II
If You Dream of Fairies - III
If You Dream of Fairies - IV
If You Dream of Fairies - V
If You Dream of Fairies - VI

Liz got down on her belly so that she was eye level with the opening. There was a gentle glow emanating through the crack between the door and the tree trunk. She reached out tentatively to touch it; to widen that gap between the door and whatever magic was concealed within the tree. Her heart pounded rapidly as her chest and belly pressed against the sun-warmed soil of the garden. As her fingers barely grazed the top of the tiny door, it slammed shut.

“KEEBLER!”

Keebler had pounced across her and a quick slap from his tail had closed the door. She desperately moved her fingers around the outside of the door to force it open once more, but to no avail. The door was shut tight.

She glared at the little dog. “Keebler, how COULD you?” she admonished. He sat beside her, his little head cocked inquiringly to one side. Liz lifted herself to a sitting position as well and ran her hand across his little head.

“Aw, Keebs, you couldn’t help it.” It was hard to stay angry at a puppy, especially one as sweet and engaging as Keebler. She tousled his fur again then stood up to engage him in some more running. When they left the dappled shade of the garden for the sunshine of the yard, it became clear that the spots where she had touched Keebler’s fur had taken on a faint but distinctive glow.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When Liz’s mother called her in for dinner, she retrieved her abandoned book. She dutifully brushed the worst of the dirt off of her arms and legs and pushed her hair away from her face. Her mother smiled. She knew that children at play were bound to get dirty. “I’ll take Keebler, sweetie, you go wash up. You’ve got fifteen minutes till Dad gets home. We won’t eat till then.”

“Time enough for a quick shower, then?”

“Absolutely. And also, please.” Her mother smiled at her again. Sometimes she felt like she had won the parenting lottery. Liz was such a good kid.

“Use soap!” she added, as Liz reached the top of the stairs.

“You’re a laugh riot, Mom.” Liz answered flippantly. But she was smiling, too.

Liz enjoyed the sensation of the warm shower washing away the dirt and grime of her first day of puppy-sitting. She also, if she was going to be honest with herself, enjoyed fifteen minutes of solitude. Liz was an only child. She was used to being alone. Maria was always right next door for companionship when she needed it, and they were inseparable most of the time. In her own home, however, there was a lot of time left over to be alone. She enjoyed that. Keebler was fun, but his needs were relentless. Liz needed fifteen responsibility free minutes.

After she’d dried off, she turned to rinse the dirt out of the bathtub. It wasn’t necessary. The tub shined brighter than it did right after her mom cleaned it. That was weird. She knew she’d just showered a lot of dirt off. Oh well, maybe she’d just lingered in the shower a little longer than usual and the shower itself had taken care of it. Yeah. That had to be it. She finished dressing and headed downstairs for dinner.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Wendy Doesn't Know (So Don't Tell Wendy)

Memoir Monday

March Madness has set me to musing about basketball. I would never go so far as to call myself a fan - that would be wildly inaccurate - but I sort of like watching it. I haven't sought out any games, but I do frequent bars (Please don't have a heart attack and die from the shock. It's true.) and the games have been hard to ignore in that setting. It's not just that I'll watch anything that's on, either, because I can ignore baseball quite neatly. Basketball has some appeal for me; it's fast moving, things can change quickly and the rules aren't terribly complex.

Plus, I have some experience being a basketball fan.

I was in the high school marching band. My parents were supportive and made sure I got everywhere I needed to be, but they did not go to all - or even most - of my performances. (And those were in the middle of football games, for Pete's sake - not a difficult sport to watch at ALL) Their reasoning was that my dad was a teacher at our high school and it was a different dynamic. They didn't get involved with band boosters or anything like that because he wanted his role to be clearly defined within the structure of the school as faculty and he didn't want to blur that line by becoming an active parent.

As both a parent and a teacher myself, I do sort of get that.

At the time it hurt my feelings a little bit.

My sister, Wendy, was more athletic than musical. Her primary sport was basketball. My parents took the same approach with her basketball games as they took with my band performances. They showed up for a couple games each season, but didn't become very involved. So I took matters into my own hands. I never missed a home game and went to as many away games as I possibly could. I wanted there to always be someone in the stands who was there not necessarily for the love of the game, but for the love of her. I was her biggest fan.

She may not have even known I was there.

If she did, she certainly never knew the reasoning behind it.

She would've found it ridiculously sappy and sentimental, and no one has ever accused her of being a sappy and sentimental chick.

She might have hated it.

But it was pure love.

Wendy doesn't know.

Or maybe she does.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Back to the Beach

Matt and I were so happy with our last collaboration, that we decided to try it again. We're taking it from wintry snow to summers at the shore. Without further ado, I take you back to the beach.

Back to the Beach

It’s amazing how easy it was to return to beach living.

Just a month ago my wife had had to convince me to come back. I’d grown up at the beach, but we’d moved away when the girls were young. Every year she’d talk about wanting to go back for a visit, and every year I managed to talk her out of it. I just never really got the attraction. She said living there had jaded me and I suppose that was true. She also said that just because I’d had my fill didn’t mean I should deprive her and the kids of the pleasure. She probably had a point there, but I just didn’t see the charm. I always managed to redirect her with other vacations – different vacations – vacations that didn’t involve sand in places it was never intended to be.

A few months ago, though, an invitation had arrived in the mail for my twenty-fifth high school reunion. I had intended to throw it out, but my wife saw it on the counter before I got around to it. She’s always bitching at me to not leave my stuff lying around. I guess my noncompliance bit me on the ass this time. We went back and forth about it, but eventually she convinced me. We’d go down a week early and turn it into a family vacation.

The girls were excited. My wife was excited. Me? Not so much. I just wanted to get through it. Maybe when my family got a taste of it they’d see that I was right – that the beach didn’t live up to the hype - and we could ditch this yearly argument for good. Plus, I was curious - if not exactly excited – to see some of my old friends from school. I’d lost touch with most of them years ago. We grow up, our priorities change; our paths lead us in different directions. That’s as it should be. Still, though, it would be fun to catch up.

As we crossed the bay, my wife insisted that we turn off the air conditioner and open the windows and the skylight. “Smell that, kids? That’s the beach!” She breathed in deeply and dramatically. I rolled my eyes. It smelled like dead fish to me. The girls followed her lead and stuck their heads out the windows.

“Whoa! Dad! Did you see that? Was that a seagull?”

“Yep.” I answered, resisting the urge to call it a flying rat.

“Ohmigosh! It’s so beautiful!” My youngest aimed her new camera – bought just for the trip – out the window, attempting to capture the vermin of the sea, perched on a sign post, for posterity.

All three of them were pointing and exclaiming and their excitement was infectious. By the time we pulled in to our hotel I had softened up a little. This could be fun, I admitted to myself reluctantly.

As we checked into our room, the girls couldn’t be bothered with anything as mundane as unpacking. They were ready to get to the “beach, beach, beach, come on Daddy let’s GO!!!” My wife smiled at me imploringly with widened eyes and raised eyebrows, clearly in agreement with the girls on this one.

My wife grabbed the beach bag that she’d packed before we left home and the girls stripped away the clothes they had been wearing over their bathing suits for the trip. “It’s a little late…” I attempted, but they were half way to the elevator. “The hotel has an indoor pool…” I attempted again, but I don’t think anyone heard me. I was seriously outnumbered.

We got to the beach as most folks were packing up to leave. My wife spread a large blanket on the sand and sat down, facing the ocean. She wrapped her arms around her knees and fixed her gaze somewhere off in the distance. She suddenly seemed simultaneously so close and so far away; looking for something hopeful on the horizon. I lay on my side beside her, my head propped in my hand, watching her watch. The girls danced in and out of the little waves just at the shoreline. They kicked water at each other and squealed. My oldest dropped her cool fa├žade and looked like a happy kid for the first time in months. I had to grudgingly admit it: this was nice.

When hunger took over, and the sunlight was diminishing – giving way to soft evening breezes - we packed up the bag and headed back to our room. My daughters giggled as they tried to fold the blanket, sand and wind thwarting their attempts. My wife smiled at me – a simple, uncomplicated smile – and took my hand as we walked back to the hotel. It had been a while since we’d walked hand in hand. Too long. I gently squeezed her fingers three times – code back when we were dating for “I love you.” She squeezed back four times without missing a beat. “I love you, too.”

Sleep came easy that night. It was hard to say if that was because I was so exhausted or so content.

In the days that followed, we fell into an easy daily routine. My wife and I would watch the sun rise over the ocean from our balcony while we drank our coffee with a sense of leisure we never experienced at home. When the girls woke up we’d have a quick breakfast, then head to the beach early. My wife and I would spend the late morning and early afternoon lounging in the sun, while the girls played in the sand and the waves. We took turns reading and napping and watching the girls. We’d head back to the room when we got tired and take an afternoon nap, or just lounge around playing cards and board games – things we never did at home, where the real world put too much pressure on all of us to allow the simple enjoyment of such endeavors. Dinner was a casual affair – we alternated between seafood, pizza and subs – usually within walking distance on the boardwalk. After dinner we’d walk the boards or the beach – slowly, without real purpose, just for the joy of it. Sleep continued to come easy.

My wife, who generally wears full make-up to go to the grocery store, has pared down to a moisturizer with SPF and lip balm on her lightly bronzed skin. The blow dryers and flat irons and hair products that absolutely needed to be packed have been virtually abandoned, as all three of my girls have taken to pulling their hair back into high casual ponytails when they’re not wearing hats. Me? I shave when I feel like it – which is every second or third day. I’d let it go completely, but there is nothing appealing about a tan line where facial hair used to be.

The week passes quickly in slow motion. It feels like we’re just getting started – it feels like we’ve been living this way all our lives. As the weekend rolls around, we are reminded of the reason for this trip: my reunion.

The night before, I’d noticed my older daughter walking on the boardwalk with a casual sway to her gait that I hadn’t noticed before. It was a mating call of sorts and I’d noticed a couple boys slow down to appreciate it. I didn’t care for the fact that they were looking at her that way and I didn’t like the way she pretended not to notice while she amped up the arc of her sway. I was a boy once. I was THAT boy once – hanging out on the boardwalk, carrying my skateboard, chatting up the vacationing honeys. They were always impressed when I told them I was local. I shrugged it off. It was amazing what girls would let you get away with when they were on vacation. It horrified me that MY girls were beginning to show interest in the ritual. I thought I had more time. More than that, though, I was overcome with a maudlin sense of nostalgia. I would never be a young boy trolling the boardwalk for girls again. I loved my wife and my girls – I had no regrets – but it was hard to accept that my youth was really over. Gone. I was no longer that boy, I would never again be that boy, now I was the man who intended to cockblock that boy. I silently mourned the boy that I was and feared for the women my girls were becoming.

The next night I’d be in the company of people I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. People I had last seen when I WAS that boy. I was so different now. Would they all be different too? I wanted them to be different. I wanted them to be the same. I wanted for us all to still be young. I wanted for us all to have grown up. I wanted them to be fat and bald. I wanted them to have not changed a bit. I wanted.

Sleep was less easy that night.

“Wanna see my old stomping grounds, girls?” I asked on the morning of my reunion. They didn’t. They’d rather hit the beach. Their mother reminded them that if it weren’t for my reunion we wouldn’t be at the beach at all. They grumbled and fell into the back seat as I prepared for a melancholy cruise down memory lane. My wife has taken this guided tour before. When we met we hadn’t lived far from here. She could’ve probably provided the commentary. “Coming up on your left is the street Dad lived on. His best friend lived in that house right – there. Once, at this friends house, they set his moms curtains on fire when they were practicing smoking cigarettes…” stories on every street, around every corner. I became more depressed as the cruise continued. This was where I’d spent my youth, and now it was just – gone. Some of the stories now started with, “There used to be a little store on that corner where the Home Depot is now…” My youth, literally as well as symbolically swept away, replaced by work and family and obligations and home improvement warehouses. For a brief fleeting moment I resented my companions in the car. It was their fault. They had taken all of this away from me. If it weren’t for them, I’d still be that boy.

“Oh look, girls! That’s the apartment building Daddy lived in when I met him!”

“Yeah – I used to ride my bicycle to work – this is the path I’d take.” As I traced the path between my old apartment and my old office, the girls periodically made comments on the length of the commute. It was an awfully long bike ride.

“Why did you ride this far every day, Daddy? Didn’t you have a car?”

And I remembered why. My youth was gone long before my wife or my girls or even the Home Depot made their marks. My youth was gone and I still lived here – alone. I remembered why I rode my bike instead of driving – it was because it filled more of my lonely hours. It left me with less time to spend alone in my apartment. I reached across the center console and squeezed my wife’s fingers slowly, three times. Her response was immediate.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

If You Dream of Fairies

Whimsical Wednesdays

If You Dream of Fairies
is a story I wrote for my daughters and niece last summer. I will present it here in serialized form. It was my first foray into fiction.

In case you missed something:
If You Dream of Fairies - I
If You Dream of Fairies - II
If You Dream of Fairies - III
If You Dream of Fairies - IV
If You Dream of Fairies - V

On the last day of school the girls rode the bus home, Maria clutching an armload of awards and a certificate proclaiming that her attendance – like everything else about her – had been perfect and Liz holding her report card. Maria turned to Liz and said, “My parents want to go for a little trip next week. Could you look after Keebler while I’m gone?” Liz accepted this opportunity with enthusiasm. She always missed Maria when she went on vacations, but it would probably be a lot less lonely with Keebler to keep her company.

The two girls and the pup stayed in the garden well past dusk that night. Maria had gone over Keebler’s instructions so many times that Liz was pretty sure she could recite them back word for word. They watched the sky turn orange, then pink, then lavender, and finally a deep inky blue as the sun set over their neighborhood. They watched the moon begin to glow and the stars begin to twinkle. They saw a few fireflies, the surest sign that summer was upon them. When their mothers indicated that it was time to come in, the girls embraced. It had always been hard for them to spend time away from one another. Maria swallowed a lump in her throat as she watched Liz walk away with Keebler in her arms. A solitary tear grew in her eye, then, when it became too large for her eye to contain, flowed over her lower eyelid and down her cheek. One perfect tear. Liz’s eyes were red, as she wiped the back of her hand across her tear stained face. She had never experienced the perfect tear phenomenon. When she cried, her whole face became wet. And red. And usually a little splotchy. She sniffed loudly as she turned around just in time to watch Maria quietly close the door behind her.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The next day Liz found herself very busy with Keebler. She knew puppies were cute. She knew puppies were fun. She had no idea that puppies were so much work. Just keeping track of him was hard. Her parents had told her that she could keep Keebler for the week, but they made it very clear that she would be the one who would be completely responsible for his care. By the time she’d fed him, brushed him and taken him for a walk she was already exhausted. It wasn’t even lunch time yet.

After lunch they headed out to the yard. Maybe if she ran around with him for a while she could wear him out. Now that school was over, she was looking forward to sitting under the tree in the garden and reading something just for fun. She’d pictured herself doing so while Keebler snoozed contentedly beside her, his head resting sweetly on her lap. It was quite a pretty picture, in her mind’s eye. That particular scenario was looking less and less likely.

“Keebler, you’re on your own for a little bit.” She said, making herself comfortable with her back to the tree and opening her book. When Keebler realized that he’d lost his playmate, he settled down a bit, too. He didn’t snuggle into her lap as she’d hoped, but at least he wasn’t running around like a thing possessed anymore. He rolled on his back in the ground cover, offering his belly up for Liz to rub. She obliged him absentmindedly, allowing herself to finally get involved in her book.

Quite without warning, Keebler stood up and stiffened. He was fully alert and sniffing the air. “What is it, Keebs? What is it, boy?” Liz asked, placing her finger in her book to hold her place. Keebler began to whimper. He very slowly made his way towards the tree, his eyes never wavering from the fairy door. “What the HECK, Keebler?” she asked, abandoning her book entirely and brushing leaves away from the bottom of the tree on the opposite side from where she’d been sitting. “What the HECK?”

The door was ever so slightly ajar.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Wearing Hats on Planes

Memoir Monday

I don't know if this is a memoir, per se - but it dredges a lot of stuff up from the past, so I'm going to say it is. I told you my self-imposed guidelines were loose...

Wearing Hats on Planes

A few years back I was working in a career education program. I was usually out in the field, but on one particular day I was working at my desk finishing up some paperwork. As it is in most offices, my desk was located in a cubicle - privacy was an illusion. One of my co-workers was interviewing a young lady in a nearby cubicle. I couldn't see them, but I could hear every word. They were trying to figure out a career path for her, but they were having a hard time pinning something down. My co-worker tried, "When you picture yourself working, what do you see?"

"I'm not sure what I'm doing, but I know I'm carrying a briefcase and wearing a hat while flying somewhere."

I don't have any idea how my co-worker responded to that, because I had to remove myself from the situation before I laughed right out loud. This was an urban high school dropout and teen-aged mom of three. Her opportunities - at this stage of her life, at least - were limited. She had no idea what she wanted to do, but she wanted to wear a hat on an airplane. With a briefcase. No idea what sort of career to pursue, but a very clear idea of the image she wanted to portray.

I eventually got over my amusement and put some thought into it. When we're young and trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives, isn't 'looking the part' a big part of that process? We provide kids with tools and props and costumes so that they can 'try on' various careers when they're toddlers. They don't know a whole lot about what the jobs entail, but they know what someone looks like doing them. It's part of it. I wonder how many women in the sixties and seventies went into nursing for the foxy uniforms?

When my sister was young, her fondest dream was to be a window washer. This was back in the days when you pulled into a gas station and there were attendants who pumped your gas, checked your oil, and - yes - washed your windows. My sister thought they were awesome. She wore little coveralls and my parents at one point bought her a squeegee. (MAN I wish one of my kids wanted to be a window washer...) She had a little utility belt where she stored her squeegee and a squirt bottle - sometimes some rags, sometimes a walkie talkie, sometimes a canteen. Hey - I don't claim to know all the ins and outs of being a window washer. That's how they looked in her mind. "Yeah we've got a dirty window problem here on the East side. Roger that. Over." And off she'd run to save the world, one fingerprint smudged window at a time. My sister grew up and got an education and became a well-respected teacher. But her house and car still consistently sport damn clean windows. There just wasn't any money in following her heart.

When I was in high school, I had a part time job as a bank teller. Can I tell you how awesome that made me feel? Other kids my age were working in fast food and I was working in a bank. They wore hairnets and name tags and I wore what I considered to be very sharp business clothes and high heels. I felt like the shiz, no doubt. I loved running into people from school on the weekends who would ask, "Where are you going, all dressed up?" and I would respond, "I'm on my lunch break." They were usually exactly as impressed as I needed them to be.

When I left for college that fall, I had to look like I pictured a college student. My ankles took quite a beating, going from every day in heels to every day in topsiders, but as they said right around that very year, "it's not how you feel, it's how you look..." And I looked like a college student. Until it was time to student teach, of course. Then I looked like a teacher, or at least I looked like my perception of what a teacher should look like.

Now it's not so easy to tell what someone does for a living based on the clothes that they wear. Dress codes in most working environments have relaxed considerably. Uniforms, in the rare instances where they do still exist, are more casual and do not clearly delineate one worker from another in a given field.

That's good, I guess. But sometimes I miss nurses in white support hose and those weird folded hats. I definitely miss window washers. And sometimes I think I, too, would like to fly somewhere with a briefcase and a hat. What an exotic, important job the person who does that must have...

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Journey

Fiction Friday

This one's for all of us who have ever wanted to run away from it all. Thanks to Crystal, Amy and Cass who all - in their own ways - let me know it was the right story to write this week. This is not a scary story, by any means, but some very weird stuff occurred between the time I wrote the first word and now. First - I got it started then stalled a little. Chris sounded a lot like Tom and the narrator sounded a lot like me. I didn't want Tom to read that and worry about me doing what the narrator does. So I stopped. Then the aforementioned Crystal, Amy and Cass all said things that reminded me of this story. I got back to it. I finished it. I set it up to post. The day before it posted I found out I'd need to go out of town for some job training. Guess where? The same place our narrator ends up. I'll be staying at the Hilton. When I wrote this story, she was, too, until I did a google search and found out there wasn't a Hilton near the airport, so she was relocated. Coincidence? Or just excellent timing? I don't know. Enjoy the journey.

The Journey

Chris kissed my cheek as he headed out the door. Seems like one or the other of us is always headed out the door these days. His kiss was mechanical – a force of habit rather than an expression of affection. I wasn’t even sure he liked me anymore. If I were to be honest with myself, I wasn’t completely sure I liked him anymore, either. We didn’t really know each other well enough these days to be sure.

Certainly we both still loved each other. But that love hadn’t been stirred up in a long time. We never fought, we rarely even argued; but we rarely talked, either. Our conversations had disintegrated into ‘who’s picking up which kid where and when?’ and ‘would you pick up such and such on your way home today?’

On the rare occasions that we were both home at the same time, Chris was content to lie on the couch watching reruns of shows that weren’t that good the first time around, while I puttered around playing at housework more than actually doing it.

In a word, we had become stale.

That night was no different than any other Wednesday night. Chris had gone to play darts with his league. I checked the kids’ homework while being reminded none too gently that they ‘weren’t babies’ and that they ‘didn’t need me to check up on them anymore’. I kissed the heads that housed their rolling eyes and headed out the door to teach my night class.

“Be good! I love you!” I said, as I said almost every night.

“Whatever”, came the mumbled response, as it did almost every night.

No, that night was no different than any other night – a million nights before it and a million nights to come.

I wasn’t looking forward to class that night, either. We were nearing the end of the quarter and that meant I’d be hearing a lot of questions that should have been asked weeks ago while listening to carefully and not so carefully honed excuses as to why these issues hadn’t been addressed earlier.

I passed the airport, as I did every night and, as I did every night, I fantasized about the people who were getting on those planes; people whose lives were full of intrigue and adventure instead of ungrateful children, an indifferent husband, and entitled students. I was thinking of those people as my car eased into the turning lane, seemingly of its own volition.

This was different.

My heart should’ve been pounding, but it wasn’t. I executed the turn into the airport as casually as if I had been doing it every day. I followed the signs to long term parking. I calmly locked my brief case in my trunk and I waited for the shuttle. I held only my purse while people began to join me; people who were struggling with their luggage, their infants, their toddlers. I smiled. It was a rare and wonderful feeling to be less encumbered than those around me.

I got off the shuttle at the first stop and walked past the posters of tropical landscapes, happy families and romantic couples. I approached the smiling, polished woman at the reception desk and said, “I’d like a one way ticket on the next flight out to somewhere tropical.” Her smile faltered a bit.

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

I repeated my request.

“Somewhere… tropical. Where – specifically – would you like to go, ma’am?”

“I don’t care. What do you have?”

“I have a flight to Key West tomorrow morning at 10:25…”

“Tomorrow morning is too late. What do you have going out closer to – now?” She really looked flustered at this point and I imagined that she was working on quite an intriguing story as to why I needed to be – to paraphrase the ubiquitous eighties stadium act – on a late night plane going anywhere.

“I have a flight in forty-five minutes to Denver,” she said, looking up from her monitor and frowning.

“Ah! Beautiful, tropical Denver. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.” I said, smiling broadly, “I’ll take it.”

“Yes ma’am,” she said, punching something out at her keyboard. I wondered if she was just printing out my ticket or if she was also alerting security about the whackadoo she was sending their way. Apparently it was only the former, because I went through security without a hitch. I used the restroom, bought a cup of chai tea, and headed to the boarding gate. Once there I called the school, telling them I’d gotten a flat tire on the way in and that I’d never be able to make it within my fifteen minute grace period. They promised to put a note on my door and wished me good luck. I was a little surprised at how easily the lie had come. I suppose I’d learned something in all those years of being on the other end of them. When the call was completed, I turned off my phone. I was officially off the grid. It was exhilarating.

I sat in the window seat and watched the lights of my city at dusk fade into a distant memory. I blew a little kiss out the window and settled into my seat, pleased with myself and a little amazed that I’d actually pulled it off. I looked at my watch and smiled. In another hour and a half I’d be in – Denver. Wait. Denver? What the hell had I done? Denver? I didn’t know anyone in Denver. I didn’t have anywhere to stay; I didn’t have anywhere to go… what the hell was I going to do in Denver? The reality of what I’d done started to sink in, and I began to panic. Chris wouldn’t miss me till morning, I reasoned. It was nothing for me to stay at school late correcting papers or counseling students. He’d go to bed without me without becoming concerned. Maybe I’d be able to find a flight back as soon as I landed – maybe if I could just hop on another plane I could be home before anyone even knew I was gone. I’d tell Chris about it before the credit card statement came and we’d just laugh and laugh. Oh my God, who was I kidding? I’d made a huge mess. We were never going to laugh about this. I had never been the impulsive type – what had I been thinking?

I exited the plane like a zombie. My legs remembered how to walk, my lungs remembered how to breathe, my heart remembered to beat – but my brain was completely non-functional. I couldn’t seem to form a complete thought – and it was important that I think – I needed to think – I willed myself to think – but it was futile. All capability of thought had escaped me. Finally, in desperation, I sat down in an all but deserted waiting area, turned on my phone, and dialed home.

“Hello?”

“Can I talk to Daddy please?”

“Where are you?”

“Can I just please talk to Daddy?”

“DAAAAAAAD!!! MOM’S ON THE PHONE!!!!!! Could you keep it quick? I’m expecting a call.”

Ever since Jordan had had her cell phone taken away, she’d been commandeering the landline. She was always able to find a loophole in her punishments. We really hadn’t thought that one thr…

“Hey babe – what’s up?”

“Chris?”

“Are you ok?”

“I did a bad thing.”

“What happened? Where are you? Are you ok?”

“Chris? I’m in Denver.”

“You’re in…”

“Denver.”

“Denver? What the hell?”

“I just – I’m ok – I mean – I guess I’m ok…”

“Could you just tell me what’s going on, please?”

Chris’s voice sounded so scared. I broke down and told him the whole story. How it all just sort of – happened. How it had felt like the right thing – the ONLY thing – to do at the time. How sorry I was. How truly, truly sorry I was. How I couldn’t wait to get home. I couldn’t express how sorry I was. I asked him to look for flights online because it was late and I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to find something hopping from counter to counter. So, so sorry. Some of the counters were already closed.

Chris did a little research and told me there was no way I was going to get home that night. He told me to go the Airport Marriott and he booked a room there for me. He promised to call me in the morning with my flight arrangements. He told me to please stay put and not do anything impulsive. Like a shamed and obedient child, I assured him that I wouldn’t.

I took the shuttle to the Marriott and checked into the room Chris had reserved for me. I thought I’d never be able to sleep with so many conflicting emotions running through me, but I was asleep the minute my head hit the pillow, without even taking off my shoes. Perhaps sleep isn’t the right word – it was more like a complete shutdown. I just stopped functioning. I was awakened abruptly by loud pounding on my door. I had no idea what time it was or how long I’d been asleep. I went to the door, but didn’t open it. “Who is it?”

“It’s me.”

Chris.

I opened the door to find my husband holding a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers, and a suitcase. I rubbed my eyes, certain that this was a guilt induced dream. Chris kissed me – not mechanically, not out of force of habit – a kiss that was full of love and regret and promise. It was slow and soft and sweet and deliberate. We hadn’t kissed like that in a long time.

He came in and opened the wine while I put the flowers in the little hotel water pitcher. He retrieved wine glasses from the suitcase. “You’ve thought of everything.”

“I haven’t thought of nearly enough.”

We sat cross legged on the bed and talked all night. We talked about everything and nothing. And we laughed. We laughed like we did when we were discovering each other the first time around. We’d never stopped loving each other, but it was awfully nice to rediscover liking each other.

“I’m sorry I ran away.”

“I’m sorry I made you need to.”

Chris and I stayed in Denver through the weekend. He’d made arrangements for the kids to stay with his parents. He’d made arrangements with both of our employers. He'd thought of everything. We treated it like a four day honeymoon.

We returned home Sunday night as a couple in love; not as harried parents and spouses. We vowed to keep that feeling alive, despite the fact that we knew that the world was going to come rushing right back in at us. When the kids or the jobs or any of the other pressures became too much for one of us to bear, the other would say, “Denver?” Usually, we found, when we worked on it together there wasn’t a need.

But it’s nice to know it’s always an option.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

If You Dream of Fairies

Whimsical Wednesdays

If You Dream of Fairies
is a story I wrote for my daughters and niece last summer. I will present it here in serialized form. It was my first foray into fiction.

In case you missed something:
If You Dream of Fairies - I
If You Dream of Fairies - II
If You Dream of Fairies - III
If You Dream of Fairies - IV

The girls looked at each other in shocked amazement. Liz’s chin dropped to her chest and Maria’s eyes widened so much that Liz could see the white all around the violet centers. They practically glistened with excitement. Keebler cocked his head to one side and looked anxiously between the two girls and the wee door.

It was only about three inches tall and it was flush with the tree. The wood of the door was the same color and texture as the surrounding wood on the tree. It had certainly been carefully camouflaged.

“It’s a fairy door!” Maria exclaimed excitedly. “I’ve seen them in the catalogs my mom gets. People put them on trees or in their homes so that they can pretend magical folk live there! I wonder who put it there, your mom or mine?”

“I don’t think…”

“It doesn’t matter who did it, it was a lovely thing to do, don’t you think?”

Liz nodded, still paying more attention to the door than to Maria. Maria continued, “I love that they wanted us to think our garden was magical. I wonder how long it’s been there. Should we ask them where they got it or should we play along?”

“I don’t think our moms put it there. It doesn’t look like anything that came from a catalog – it’s just too perfect.” Liz said, scooting in for an even closer look and running around the edges of the door with her fingertip. “Just too perfect” she added, almost reverently.

“Oh! I get it!” said Maria, “I’ll play along. Magic, then. I love it! It will be a magical summer, with our own fairy tree!”

Liz was so entranced by the tiny door that she barely heard her.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Maria tapped on the door gently with one finger. “Knock, knock, fairies! Come out to play! We’ve found your home!” Keebler had lost interest in the door and the girls and was chasing a few small birds off of the lawn, barking in as threatening a manner as a six pound ball of puppy fluff could manage. The birds scattered, duly intimidated.

The girls laughed and joined Keebler in a chasing game, all three of them running and tumbling, no one certain who was chasing and who was being chased. Only Liz glanced back at the tree from time to time.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Laundry Basket

Memoir Monday

The next chapter in The Texas Project is still stewing, so today I offer a stand alone memoir type post. Where The Texas Project takes us to the year after college, this story takes us to the summer before. (teaser: When the next Texas piece is done, it will involve a new friend and perhaps some marijuana. Tune in next week.)

The Laundry Basket

It sat there in the corner of the bedroom I shared with my sister, looking innocent enough. It was just a bright yellow plastic laundry basket. The cut-outs that provided ventilation were shaped like tulips. It was empty at the beginning of the summer, but as the weeks progressed, items were added a few at a time until it was overflowing.

I’d be heading to college in the fall and that basket was collecting the things I’d need to live outside of my parents’ house for the first time in my life. There were towels – MY towels. There was bedding – MY bedding. There was a bucket to transport my toiletries from my dorm room to the communal showers. That was rapidly filling, too. A filled bucket within a filled basket.

I spent that summer recklessly. I had a boyfriend of sorts, but it was casual. We both knew it was finite. I went to parties and hung out with my girlfriends. We were all headed to different schools in the fall and – even while we were promising each other that it would be like this forever, we knew it wasn’t so.

That laundry basket was there to remind me.

I had a job that summer. I’d had a job since I was just shy of my sixteenth birthday. I saved a little, but most of what I earned went to clothes and albums and movies and concerts. I worked to support my habits, not to support myself.

I didn’t help much around the house. It wasn’t so much that I was lazy (although I was), it was just that not much was required of me. My mother was an excellent housekeeper and she took a great deal of pride in her home. I didn’t execute any of the household chores in a manner which was satisfactory to her, which caused both of us a great deal of frustration. By this summer – my last as a permanent resident of that house – we had both pretty much given up on me, at least in the domestic realm.

Our mutual long term hopes and plans for me were more in the academic realm.

My personal short term hopes and plans were more in the social realm.

So Mom cleaned the house and cooked the meals and did the laundry while I partied and played and worked just enough to finance it. I knew it wasn’t going to be this way forever. It wasn’t even going to be this way for long.

That laundry basket was there to remind me.

It was there to remind me that college wasn’t going to only be all about mixers and sororities and boys. It wasn’t even going to be all about classes and studying and grades. It was going to be about being accountable. If I did well, that was on me. If I screwed up, well, that was on me, too.

As an incoming freshman, I was scheduled to have a meal plan, so someone was still going to cook for me. But no-one was going to clean for me. No-one was going to tell me when it was time to study. No-one was going to tell me that partying on a Wednesday night before an 8:00 am Thursday class was a bad idea.

No-one was going to do my laundry.

That laundry basket was there to remind me.

The summer wound to a close, more quickly than I ever could’ve imagined. It had been a wonderful summer and I’d lived it to the fullest. Sincere promises were made to keep in touch, amid hugs and tears. In most cases, those promises would be broken in less than a year.

The laundry basket moved from the corner of the bedroom to the trunk of my parents’ car.

It was a quiet ride. No-one had anything to say that hadn’t been said before. I understood what I needed to do to live independently, even if I was a little unclear as to how, specifically, I was going to actually do it.

The laundry basket moved from the trunk of my parents’ car to my dorm room. It was plopped rather unceremoniously onto the little dorm bed, along with a suitcase and a couple armloads of clothing. I’d brought an orange crate full of albums, but my roommate was bringing the stereo. She hadn’t arrived yet.

My parents, who I hadn’t had much time for the past summer, kissed me good bye, slipped me a couple bucks, and left.

I sat on a little corner of the bed and cried for a moment. That was a surprise! I’d been so excited about the prospect of not living in my parents’ house anymore. And now I didn’t. Right this minute, I didn’t. It was a lot scarier than I thought it would be. I pulled myself together and began to unpack and move in.

I hung the clothes in the closet and unpacked my suitcase. My roommate arrived and we set up her stereo and organized our albums.

I was left with the laundry basket.

I made my bed with the new bedding and hung my new towels neatly over the towel rack. I found a spot in my closet for the shower bucket.

There was a mixer that night to welcome incoming freshmen as part of our orientation. I decided to shower and change clothes for the occasion. I threw my dirty clothes in the laundry basket.

Who was going to wash them?

I was, that’s who.

That realization scared me. It terrified me. It made me ridiculously proud. That laundry basket was my responsibility. My life was my responsibility.

I was ready to handle it.

I was a grown-up.

That laundry basket was there to remind me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

February

My friend Matt says to me, he says, "Y'know how Bernie Taupin wrote stories and Elton John stretched them and molded them and turned them into songs?" I didn't, but Matt knows a lot more about things like this than I do, so I trusted him. "Will you be the Bernie to my Elton?" he proposed.

Who says no to Sir Elton?

I loved the idea, but had no idea how to make it work. I told him I couldn't write lyrics or poetry and he said no worries - he didn't want me to write the lyrics - he wanted me to write a story. He had some bones and he wanted me to flesh them out. Loving the idea, I set to work immediately.

This was the first piece:
Mrs. Folino's Man

This was the second:
The Old Man in Winter

I was less than pleased with the second, so I went back to the drawing board and came up with this, the final piece:
Winter

Today I would like to offer up a special treat. I'd like to give you the chance to listen to the song that resulted from those stories. Without further ado, Matt's solo project,
Bad Toupee and the song February.




Wednesday, March 10, 2010

If You Dream of Fairies

Whimsical Wednesdays

If You Dream of Fairies
is a story I wrote for my daughters and niece last summer. I will present it here in serialized form. It was my first foray into fiction.

In case you missed something:
If You Dream of Fairies - I
If You Dream of Fairies - II
If You Dream of Fairies - III


One Saturday afternoon Liz was lying on her back near the garden, enjoying the feeling of the warm sun on her face after the cold winter. The ground was still a little cool, and she was contemplating the contrast between the cool ground on her back and the warm sun on her face and wondering if she could find an essay in it because she had a compare and contrast essay due next week and she had been drawing a blank as to what to write about. This was not in any way an unusual situation. Contrast was easy, but she was having a hard time with the compare.

“Liz!” Oh good! Maria! Maria would be a welcome distraction. She sat up and waved. Maria didn’t return her wave and Liz could now see that that was because she was carrying something in her arms.

“Whatcha got there?”

“Oh wait till you see!” Maria answered, walking quickly but not quite breaking into a jog. As she got closer, Liz got a glimpse of what was so carefully concealed in Maria’s arms.

“Do you want to hold him?” Maria carefully placed the sleeping puppy in her friend’s outstretched arms. He registered the switch with a yawn and a stretch before falling asleep again, this time on Liz’s lap.

Liz widened her eyes and whispered to Maria, “What the HECK? I didn’t know you were getting a PUPPY!” Her whisper was more of a stage whisper, as loud as some people’s regular tone.

Maria answered in a voice as soft as the breeze and as excited as – well – as excited as a girl with a new puppy. “He was a surprise. He’s a rescue. He’s a mutt. Isn’t he WONderful? What should we name him?”

“Keebler.” Liz answered suddenly, surprising even herself.

“Keebler.” Maria responded. “It really works.”

Keebler stirred at that moment and seemed to smile as he sighed and settled himself further into Liz’s lap. Liz smiled, too, marveling at the fact that the perfect name had come to her out of thin air. Perfection was usually more Maria’s domain.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The two friends became three that spring, as Keebler was Maria’s constant companion. It was all she could do to be away from him between the time the school bus picked her up in the morning and dropped her off in the afternoon. Keebler was exuberant and sweet and he seemed to love the garden as much as the girls did.

One afternoon when they were reading together, Keebler tired of being scolded for running across the books on their laps, wrinkling and sometimes tearing the pages. He seemed to mope for a moment, sprawling out full length on his belly with his paw over his snout and covering his eyes, but his shame was short lived. He quickly jumped back up and started batting playfully at the flowers as well as the butterflies and bees that were hovering around them.

Liz heard a rustling near the tree that she’d heard twice before. She decided not to even mention it to Maria, since she knew Maria would say that Keebler had made the noise and, really, that made the most sense. But just as she made the decision not to say anything, Keebler froze, mid bat. He became very alert and started sniffing the air purposefully, all sense of playfulness gone.

“What are you doing, you silly boy?” Maria asked, looking at him indulgently.

“I heard it, too, Maria.” Liz offered tentatively.

“Heard what?”

“That same weird rustling by the tree I told you about before.”

“I don’t remember…” Maria started, furrowing her brow in concentration. She resembled nothing if not a sweet, worried pixie.

“Never mind. What the heck is that crazy dog up to?”

They both turned their attention to Keebler, who was digging frantically at the base of the tree. They approached him to try to see what he was getting at.

There, under the ground cover, where the tree met the earth, was what could only be described as a door.

Monday, March 8, 2010

In Which We Dance. For Inspiration.

Memoir Mondays

A few weeks back I wrote a post on Keep in Touch With Mommakin that referred to my first year of grad school as 'Around the World in Eighty Lays'. This prompted my roommate from those days and I to want to relive them through writing a joint memoir. I write a chapter, she adds a 'journal entry' to show the same story through different eyes. At this point I'm referring to it as The Texas Project. I hope to come up with something better soon. Until then, without further ado, Chapter 4 of The Texas Project (subtitle: Around the World in Eighty Lays)


In case you missed something:

In Which I Lose a Love, Make a Friend and Run Away From Home
In Which We Fly to Texas and Uncle Frankie Goes to Hollywood
In Which We Move Into Our Deluxe Luxury Apartment

In Which We Dance – For Inspiration

Terri started taking her classes and I acquired a job at the student union. The school had a small motel and my job was at the information desk. We covered front desk duties at the motel as well as information and check cashing. The best part about my job was the hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 1-9. Sure, it meant I worked weekends. But it also meant I got to sleep in every morning and still watch Days of Our Lives before heading out, and I got off just in time to get ready to head out to the dance clubs. It was ideal for my situation.

It was our habit to go out almost every night. It was a good year for dancing. Madonna had hit her first peak and Prince had arguably hit his highest. Video had killed the radio star, so we practiced our moves with the aforementioned superstars as well as Pat Benatar, Belinda Carlisle and Cindy Lauper. Billy Idol taught us to dance with ourselves and Sheena Easton taught us to strut. We were young and we were – well – let’s just say that the effects of beer, sugar and gravity wouldn’t catch up to us for a few more years. Ok, I’ll say it. We were hot. Not – you know – like – smokin’ unattainable hot. Just the right amount of hot. The sort of hot that tends to get hotter with the advantage of hindsight.

We liked to dance and had gone dancing all the time in college. But this was different. Then we didn’t live together and, well, there was Jeff. Now we were dancing to be noticed, make no doubt about that. We were amazed at how many boys would ask us to dance. Back home, boys never asked us to dance unless it was a slow grind and they thought they might be able to get us to go home with them. Here? Boys asked us to dance because they wanted to dance. Once a boy asked Terri to dance and he was clearly on a date. She said, “What about your girlfriend?”

He answered, as casually as he’d asked her to dance, “She’s a little tired and she doesn’t like this song.” It was clearly ok with her, so Terri danced with him. We were definitely not in Pennsylvania anymore.

We realized that for sure one night when there was a dearth of boys and a song we liked came on and we decided to dance with each other. It’s what we’d always done back home and we sort of enjoyed it. We hadn’t danced with each other in a while. We didn’t realize it at first, but conversations stopped while people turned to look at us and whisper behind their lace gloved hands. A girl dancing with another girl was absolutely unheard of. It was scandalous. We crossed a line that night. As we were not adverse to a little scandal, we filed the information away for future reference.

It was a nice position to be in – thousands of miles from home and there for a finite duration. We didn’t have to worry about what people might think. And oh, what they must have thought from time to time. Young, free, no concerns about reputation, completely independent of anyone to answer to, and living in walking distance of a club. Widespread panic over the fear of AIDS was a few years in the future and every STD we knew about could still be cured with a shot in the ass. Life was good.

Now often, by means of introduction when boys in the club would ask us to dance they would open with, “You a rawker or a keeker?” Yankee translation: “Which do you prefer? Van Halen or Hank Williams Jr.?” Neither Terri nor I could do a two-step at the beginning of that year; by the end we could both hold our own. But it was never pretty. We were rawkers.

Now one fine night, very early in the year, we found ourselves at just such a club having just such an evening. A boy asked me to dance and – Good Lord, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Make that si. Short, dark, built like a wrestler with just the slightest Mexican accent. Ay, baby, come to Mamacita. He was absolutely beautiful. That’s how I saw him then and that’s how I remember him now. It may or may not be accurate. It doesn’t matter. Perception is reality.

I didn’t bother to see if Terri minded if I left her to dance. As I said, there was never really a shortage of boys to dance with. If she wasn’t dancing it was because she didn’t want to. We danced for several songs, screaming brief questions and answers at each other over the throbbing music. I learned that his name was Ronnie. (Not Ron, not Ronald, not Ronaldo. Ronnie.) I learned that he was a junior majoring in engineering. I learned that he could dance. Oh, man, could he dance. As the music slowed, I was dying for a drink, but he pulled me into an embrace. All righty then. That’ll work, too. The smell of our combined sweat, Drakkar Noir, Obsession and Aqua Net should’ve been nauseating, but it absolutely was not. I wanted my pillow to smell like that. I had a feeling in an hour or two it might. As I was thinking this and meeting him grind for grind on the dance floor, I was yanked back to reality by a sharp pain. My hand left his back and went quickly to my neck where – oh my God, he’d bitten me. Maybe that should’ve made me angry. Maybe that should’ve offended me. Neither of those things happened. I couldn’t get this boy home fast enough.

I looked around for Terri and she was slow dancing with a nice looking black man. She had a sort of dreamy look in her eye. Dreamy, horny, I don’t know. I was always getting those two confused. I hated to interrupt her, but if I didn’t leave right then I was afraid I was gonna rip Ronnie’s shirt off right there on the main dance floor. The ripples where the sweat made his shirt cling to his torso were very promising. Delayed gratification was not my forte. I tapped her and jerked my thumb towards Ronnie and then the door. She held her finger up to ask me to wait a minute and whispered something in her new friend’s ear. He nodded and they left the dance floor with me. The four of us somehow made it back to our apartment fully clothed, but only just barely.

Clothes were flying as Ronnie pulled my bedroom door shut. Turns out the dance floor wasn’t the only place he was exuberant. It was – I can’t think of a better word for it – it was fun. He was fun. There was nothing tentative or gentle or romantic about what was going on. We were having fun. Now as you often do when you’re having fun, we started to laugh. We were laughing and skin was slapping and the headboard was banging and – and in a moment of clarity my eyes widened as I realized – Terri and Howard – her new friend was named Howard - could hear every sound. Briefly mortified, I tried to get Ronnie to quiet down. That? Was not going to happen. He was a wild man. He had taken advantage of my brief break by tying one of my scarves around his head, like a pirate. He took a flying leap and let out a war whoop as he came in for round – oh, who the hell could keep track? Arrrrr!

The next morning the boys left early so they could get back to their dorms in time to shower and change clothes before their first class. Terri and I sat at our flimsy kitchen table in our bathrobes not making eye contact.

“Soooooo.”

“Sooooooooo.”

“Yep.”

“Yep, yep, yep.”

“How much could you….?”

“Oh, everything.”

“Oh.”

“What the HELL?”

“It was really fun.”

“No kidding!”

“And you? Is it true what they say?”

“You didn’t even ask me that.”

“I might have. I think I did.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“A very satiated idiot.”

“Me too.”

We exchanged ridiculously sheepish grins.

“So it’s true.”

“Idiot.”

But she couldn’t stop smiling any more than I could.

It was totally true.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Winter

Fiction Fridays

A friend approached me a couple weeks ago with a unique proposition. He was working on a song and he had the bones of some lyrics and wanted me to flesh them out. I told him I couldn't write poetry or lyrics and he said, no worries - he didn't want me to write the lyrics, he wanted me to write a story. Loving the idea, I set to work. Over the following weeks I will present the stories that resulted from that request.

This was the first piece:
Mrs. Folino's Man


This was the second:
The Old Man in Winter

I was less than pleased with the second, so I went back to the drawing board and came up with this, the final piece:


Winter

I looked out the window at the dirty, gray landscape. The last snow had fallen three days ago and anything that might have ever been appealing about it was long since gone. It had taken on the same shades of gray as the rest of the town – a palette that vacillated only between grimy and sooty. If I were going to be honest with myself, winter hadn’t had much appeal for me from the day I turned in my sled and snowpants and exchanged them for a lunch bucket and dungarees. I tried to remember the joy I felt as a young boy when I’d see those first flakes of winter coming down. It didn’t mean ‘no school’ – like it means to the kids now – but it did mean that when school was out I’d be joining my buddies in snow ball battles, building forts, and racing our makeshift sleds down the hill – a hill which was, by the way, also a street. We played until our cheeks were red and our fingers were blue. I remember my mother would scold me for not having the sense I was born with, but it was a good natured scolding, usually delivered as I warmed my hands around a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

As I got older, the chore of clearing the snow from the sidewalk and street in front of our house became my responsibility. I did it quickly and without complaint, knowing that as soon as I was done my buddies would be waiting for me at the hill behind the golf course with their wooden skis. Every now and then some of the girls from school would hang out at our makeshift slope and we pretended we didn’t notice them while we showed off shamelessly.

Yeah, winters were fun back then. But that was long ago and far away.

School days gave way to a stint in Korea, and when I returned home after that there wasn’t much of that boy left. I got an entry level job in the steel mill and married one of those cute little girls that used to watch us ski. I was good at my job, but it seemed like with every promotion we welcomed a new mouth to feed. I was always able to support us, but we never got too far ahead. That didn’t matter, as ‘getting ahead’ had never been a big ambition of mine. I took pride in my work, took responsibility for my family, and found comfort in my faith.

Winters were hard. The short days and the dearth of sunlight even when it was daytime took their toll on me. By the time I was done working at the plant and had finished clearing the driveway and sidewalk at home, all I wanted to do was crawl under one of those afghans my wife was always crocheting and hide from it all. Of course the kids usually had other plans, imploring me to help them build a snowman or to pull them on their sleds or to take them ice skating on the little pond down the way. I usually gave in, not wanting my lack of enthusiasm to rob them of the childhood memories I held so dear. My heart was rarely in it, though. It was just another obligation in my daily stream of obligations.

“How’re ya holdin’ up?” my wife would ask at the end of the day, tucking one of those afghans around me and bringing me a beer as I finally found a moment to relax in my favorite chair.

“If I can make it through the winter, I might make it through another year,” was my routine answer. It always made her smile. Good Lord, that woman was pretty when she smiled.

My kids grew and took on some of the chores themselves, but less responsibility didn’t make me any happier in the long cold winter months. My wife would try to be extra cheery when I came home in an attempt to lighten up my mood. I loved her dearly and I loved that she tried, but it had very little effect. Sometimes it even made me grumpier, and I was none too proud of that. It was so hard to feel any other way, surrounded as I was by dark ugly skies, dark ugly snow, and people at work whose dark ugly moods rivaled and sometimes exceeded my own.

One evening one of the fellows on my crew walked down to the beer garden after work. I often did the same, but I hadn’t that night. He had gotten pretty drunk and walked himself home, leaving his car in the mill parking lot. Now not a lot of us locked the doors to our houses in those days, but his wife insisted on it. She had inherited some sort of – something – he was never very clear on that – but she was sure it made them a prime target for hoodlums, thieves and general no-goodniks. He tried several times to fit his key in the lock in his inebriated state before giving up and falling asleep right there on his porch. By the time she got to wondering where he was, he had frozen to death.

I remember telling the rest of the crew about it the next morning after the police informed me. No one knew what to say. There wasn’t anything to say. It was cold and dirty and now we’d lost one of our own to this great gray beast.

Of course backdoor gossip traveled fast, and by the time I got home it was clear that my wife already knew. Her eyes were rimmed red from recent crying and when I opened the door her tears began anew. She threw her arms around my neck and hugged me and kissed me like I’d just come home from the war. I guess a lot of the guys on my crew were getting similar greetings in their own homes. She led me to my chair and tucked me in under a blanket. She brought me my beer and, quite uncharacteristically opened one for herself and sat in the chair next to mine. She reached for my hand across the short space between the chairs and asked, “How’re ya holdin’ up?”

I sighed. “If I can make it through the winter, I might make it through another year.” She responded with a smile, but it was a weak one. The unspoken addendum hung in the air.

My children grew up and started families of their own. As each one left, it seemed like the winters became a little darker and a little longer. The year I retired it felt like winter lasted a full year.

Now I’m no different than any other man, I had gotten through mid-life fantasizing about retirement. I’d gone straight from school to the Army and straight from the Army to the steel mill. I’d never really traveled – unless you count that time in Korea as travel. I’d never had a time in my life where someone wasn’t relying on me for something and I looked forward to a little respite. Like so many men before and since, though, I found that that respite wasn’t really what I was looking for at all. I puttered around the house trying to find ways to make myself useful and generally driving my wife nuts before I’d move my puttering out of her way to the basement or the garage. I tried to take up hobbies, but they never really stuck.

I missed going to work. I missed the camaraderie, sure, but what I missed most was working with steel. I was good at my job. People counted on me. I’d been told that after my retirement there were still clients who would request steel with my stamp; so, while I retired, my stamp and my name did not.

That first winter was maddening.

When I was younger, I’d entertained the notion of retiring to Florida, or maybe even to exotic Hawaii. As I got older I realized my budget hadn’t exactly accounted for that. Besides, my kids all lived close by and they were starting to have kids of their own. If I were in Florida or Hawaii for Pete’s sake, my grandchildren would never know me. I promised my wife at least a vacation somewhere warm, but as I pored over the books I realized that that was a pipe dream, too.

“How’re ya holdin’ up?” she asked, bringing me a beer as I watched the Winter Olympics on the new TV the kids had pooled together to buy me for Christmas. I appreciated it, but I was having an awful hard time getting used to the remote control.

“If I can make it through the winter, I might make it through another year.”

She smiled and settled in beside me on the davenport, stealing a corner of my blanket for herself. Good Lord, that woman was pretty when she smiled.

She went home to be with the Lord the following winter. The doctors figured she had a stroke of some sort. It was a big mystery, but I wasn’t much interested in solving it. Knowing what had happened wasn’t going to bring her back to me. She hadn’t even been sick, she just died in her sleep and the doctors said it was unlikely she was in much pain. That made one of us.

When I took sick, shortly thereafter, every day started to feel like winter; dull, gray, ugly, tired, lonely, infinite winter. Lately I don’t get out of my bed much, much less out of the house. I’m in so much pain and I’m tired all the time. I have a home health aide who comes to the house every day. The kids visit as often as they can. My kids, they tell me to relax. They remind me how hard I worked all my life and how now it’s my turn to let people do things for me. I smile and thank them. I tell them, “If I can make it through the winter, I might make it through another year.” They pat my hand and tell me what a great attitude I have. They tell me to stay strong. I’m tired of being strong. I’m tired of being sick.

I’m tired of making it through the winter.

I looked over at my nightstand, as I so often do since I’ve been confined, for the most part, to my bed. It held two items – two items that summed up my time on this earth. A commemorative clock - presented to me upon my retirement from the steel mill, and a wedding picture. I remembered the photographer pleading with us to take our eyes off of each other long enough to smile for the camera. I hadn’t managed – so the picture portrayed me looking at her while she smiled at the photographer. Her smile was wide and sweet and full of promise. Good Lord, that woman was beautiful when she smiled.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

If You Dream of Fairies

Whimsical Wednesdays

If You Dream of Fairies
is a story I wrote for my daughters and niece last summer. I will present it here in serialized form. It was my first foray into fiction.

In case you missed something:
If You Dream of Fairies - I
If You Dream of Fairies - II

If You Dream of Fairies

The girls were rarely actually alone in the garden. They were quite comfortable and friendly with the various life forms that inhabited their special place – the garden that seamlessly spanned their two yards. They barely noticed the flying, crawling or squirming creatures anymore.

One afternoon in the late fall, Maria was helping Liz decipher what Liz thought was an impossibly complex formula and Maria thought was just plain common sense.

“What was that?” Liz exclaimed, lifting her gaze away from the book that had been troubling her and turning it towards a tree right there in the middle of the garden.

“I didn’t see anything.” Maria replied, gently attempting to redirect Liz’s attention back to the book that lay opened across both of their laps.

Liz turned her eyes back to the book, but her attention remained divided for the rest of the afternoon. Something had scurried through the fragrant golden leaves that had already fallen from the trees in the garden and the yard. She was certain of this to her very core. She never argued with Maria – what would be the point in it? – but every molecule in her body informed her that something had happened. Something that she was aware of and that Maria clearly was not. The feeling was somewhat unnerving. It caused the fine hair on the back of her neck to stand on end. She couldn’t decide if she liked the feeling or not.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The girls loved watching the changing of the seasons in their garden and in their yards. In the winter, they did their studying indoors, usually huddled together in front of the fireplace in one of their homes. But when their studying was done, they would bundle up and head to the garden, where they’d brush the snow aside with hands ensconced in brightly colored mittens their mothers had knit for them by hand. Liz was particularly compelled by the tree in the middle of the garden, where she remained certain beyond the shadow of any doubt that something noticed only by her had scurried by just a few short months ago.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As the snows of winter melted away, the friends watched their garden anxiously, waiting for the first flowers of spring. The low, hearty crocuses were always the first to appear; first yellow, then purple. Liz and Maria gloried in them. They met in the garden every day, both before and after school, to gauge spring’s progress. Crocuses, then daffodils, then tulips. Their mothers had planned the garden so that there was an optimal profusion of color at all times. As one breed peaked then faded, another breed was just reaching perfection.

When Maria reached the garden first, Liz always slowed her approach, just to be able to look at her. Sitting among the conglomeration of spring colors, Maria looked as pretty as any painting Liz had ever seen. Liz liked painting, but couldn’t seem to quite grasp the knack of it. She thought that if she ever did manage to get good at it she might like to paint a picture of Maria on the garden. She could see the whole scene clearly in her mind’s eye – Maria sitting with her legs tucked under her, the soft halo of curls framing her face, looking not at the artist, but at one special, single flower. One lucky bloom out of the multitudes, singled out for Maria’s attention. She figured that would be sort of symbolic of their friendship. The art teacher was constantly pointing out the symbolism in great art.

She pictured herself, too, sitting behind an easel, touching the handle of the brush to her lips in concentration before making the final stroke that would forever capture this moment perfectly in time.

She sighed, a little overwhelmed by the beauty of it all.

She plopped down next to her friend and the magic wasn’t exactly broken, but it wavered a little bit.

“I’m going to cut my hair.” Maria announced, in response to nothing in particular.

Liz gasped at the thought of it. Maria’s hair was so lovely – it was the envy of all the girls at school. To cut it – to even talk about cutting it seemed almost sacreligious.

“Yeah, right.” Liz said, pulling gently on a silky curl and letting it bounce back into place. She pulled on a strand of her own dark hair. It fell flat.

“I’m doing it, Liz. You’ll see. I’m cutting it as short as a boys.”

Liz laughed because now she knew it was a joke for sure. There were many things Maria resembled, but ‘a boy’ was certainly not among them.

The next morning, before school, Liz arrived in the garden first. She tried to imagine what a painting of her in the garden might look like. She carefully struck a pose, designed to make her look thoughtful and serene. Mid pose she sensed rather than saw something rustling through the ground cover near the base of the tree. She shook her head vigorously. Just a bird or something. Maybe a chipmunk. Or a baby bunny. Oh! What if it was a baby bunny? She abandoned her pose completely to seek the source of the movement.

It was at that very moment that Maria came bounding across the lawn, graceful as a ballerina. As she came closer, Liz could see that she’d done it. She’d cut her hair. It was very short. Shorter, as she’d promised, than a boy’s. And somehow, it made her look even more feminine.

“What do you think?” Maria asked, doing a little pirouette and running her fingers over her head.

“Dang, Maria! You make boy hair pretty. Are you from another planet or something?”

“I come in peace from planet boy hair.” Maria answered in a staccato voice, holding out her hand to help Liz up so that they could walk together to the bus stop.

It wasn’t until they were on the bus and everyone was making a fuss about Maria’s hair that Liz had a quiet moment to think about the feeling she’d had in the garden that morning. She thought about it until their first class began, but then she concentrated on the teacher’s words. If she could grasp this stuff the first time around, she and Maria would be able to spend more time exploring and less time studying.

She concentrated with all her might.

Monday, March 1, 2010

In Which We Move Into Our Deluxe Luxury Apartment

Memoir Mondays

A few weeks back I wrote a post on Keep in Touch With Mommakin that referred to my first year of grad school as 'Around the World in Eighty Lays'. This prompted my roommate from those days and I to want to relive them through writing a joint memoir. I write a chapter, she adds a 'journal entry' to show the same story through different eyes. At this point I'm referring to it as The Texas Project. I hope to come up with something better soon. Until then, without further ado, Chapter 3 of The Texas Project (subtitle: Around the World in Eighty Lays)


In case you missed something:

In Which I Lose a Love, Make a Friend and Run Away From Home
In Which We Fly to Texas and Uncle Frankie Goes to Hollywood

In Which We Move Into Our Deluxe Luxury Apartment

We enjoyed a couple days at Terri’s friend’s apartment. It had a pool in a center courtyard and it felt a lot like Melrose Place. It was a lovely, well maintained complex with beautifully manicured grounds. It felt a little bit like a vacation. We learned our way around town and I applied for a job at the University.

We kept pretty busy and the day to move in to our own digs was upon us in no time. We loaded up the car with all of our belongings and headed to the address we’d been given, full of anticipation. The lyric, “comin’ home to a place he’d never been before” kept rolling around in my brain until it implanted itself as a full-on ear-worm.

As we pulled into our own complex, our excitement didn’t waver. Perhaps the word ‘complex’ is not entirely accurate. Our landlord had four buildings forming the four corners of a square. Each building was divided into four identical units, two upstairs, two down. The area between and surrounding the buildings was filled in with gravel. It was quite – unremarkable. There were two old rusty coaster bikes leaning against the railing in front of our apartment – the left downstairs apartment of the right rear building. Terri’s friend had acquired them for us, informing us that it was nice to be able to get around, but you didn’t want to own anything worth stealing. All righty, then.

We turned the key and walked into our new home for the first time. Our apartment was furnished with a delightful assortment of well-used and mismatched furniture. Our living room, dining area and kitchen were all the same room and took up the full right side of the apartment. To the left were two identically sized though not, obviously, identically furnished bedrooms. I took the front room and Terri took the one in the back. There was a small bathroom off the living area.

This was the first time in my life that I had ever really had a room of my own. I had shared a room with my sister growing up, and then I’d had roommates all through college. Terri had grown up in a large family, but she’d had a room of her own in college. That room, however, was in a family home. So this was my first bedroom and her first apartment. We loved every hand-me-down, outdated, dilapidated inch of it.

We immediately went to our own rooms (Our own rooms! Our own rooms!) and began unpacking. The wall between our rooms was thin and we carried on the first of many many conversations across it. The former renters had left things behind and we did a lot of squealing and calling the other over to see our ridiculous finds. There was clothing and periodicals and even a few things we couldn’t quite identify. We threw everything away, but not before trying to imagine what the people who had owned these things were like. Had they been happy here? Why had they come? Why had they left?

Once we had unpacked our suitcases and taken inventory, we set out walking to the local grocery store. It was called Skaggs, and we were pretty sure we couldn’t imagine a less appetizing sounding place to shop. I don’t know. Maybe Herpes Sore Grocery and Pharmacy would’ve been less appetizing, but not by much. Her friend, however, had reclaimed his car and we were left with no transportation other than the rusty bikes. We had to make due with the places we could get to on foot. Luckily that included Skaggs, a dance club, several bars, and, of course, the University itself. What more would we ever need?

We picked up a bottle of cheap champagne – or, more accurately – sparkling wine – and a half gallon of Cookies and Cream ice cream. Blue Bonnet Cookies and Cream ice cream, as a matter of fact; something we couldn’t get back home. We walked home (Home! Home! Home!) and cracked open the bubbly and dug into the carton with two spoons while we waited for a pizza to be delivered. We turned our little portable TV to MTV (where it remained for most of the next year, making exceptions for Days of Our Lives and the rare sporting event) and ate and drank – completely and utterly content.

We had no access to a washer or dryer, but there was a more traditional apartment complex right next door. We would go over there to do our laundry and relax in their pool and hot tub between loads. We figured it was probably trespassing, but we were going to do it until someone told us otherwise. No one ever did.

Even our sense of contentment, however, wasn’t enough to completely blind us to some of the less fine aspects of our new abode. First and foremost, we had an undeniable bug problem. And anyone who has ever been to or lived in Texas probably knows that that was my delicate way of saying we had roaches. Lots and lots of roaches. Big ugly omnipresent roaches. I had never seen a roach before much less shared an apartment with a hoard of them. It was unnerving, to say the least.

At first we erroneously thought that cleaning would solve the problem. So we set out for Skaggs in search of cleaning supplies. We cleaned every tile and baseboard in that small apartment. We emptied all of the cabinets and cupboards and scrubbed them thoroughly. We vacuumed our orange and brown plaid sofa and scrubbed down our orange pleather chair. We hit our wagon wheel coffee table with enough product to kill an army of crawly critters. Our thin walls sparkled; our appliances shined. We went to bed that night, tired and satisfied with a job well done. Of course, when I turned the light on to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I heard the familiar scamper of tiny little legs and saw the disgusting exodus into the floorboards and closets. I woke Terri, which may not have been completely friendly, but I figured I shouldn’t have to deal with my disappointment, anger and even, on some level, shame, alone.

Next step was roach traps. We bought professional ones at Skaggs and devised a couple of our own as well. We found little Spiderman suction cup dart guns and shot the little fuckers to the wall. This method was ineffective, considering the scope of our problem, but it was highly satisfying. We became quite good shots quite quickly. Terri was a much better shot than I was, but she’d grown up around guns. I held my own and improved with practice. And there was plenty of opportunity for practice. We cut off paper cups and filled them with a small amount of beer. We had heard that roaches were attracted to the sweetness. We even put our names on the cups to see which of us could collect the most by morning. In the morning, all of our traps were full, but the next night the critters were still out in full force.

The next step was fogging the place. We bought a fogger and made plans to be out of the house for the designated number of hours. We informed the inhabitants of the three apartments that shared our building, as the walls were thin, connected, and probably not sound. Across the board they simply nodded at us.

Our neighbors, you see, might have been experiencing a slight language barrier when we knocked on their doors to give them this bit of helpful information. Terri and I were the only folks in our whole little development who spoke English as our native language. She was of 100% Italian heritage and, while my heritage was more of a question mark, I shared her olive complexion and dark coloring. We had never considered ourselves to be very white bread until we moved into this development. Our swarthy selves comprised a pale minority in our little corner of off campus housing. So we told them about the fogging, but we were never certain we were getting through. Some of them were pretty shocked at the audacity of two women they didn’t know knocking on their door and attempting to make conversation with them. They nodded and said anything to make our bold and clearly unchaste selves just go away – and quickly.

Needless to say, none of them did anything the day we fogged, so our little roachy friends just scampered over to their apartments while ours was a hostile environment for them and came right back in three or four days. We didn’t admit it easily, but we did eventually admit it: we weren’t going to win this one.

The bathroom was the worst, so we decided to provide ourselves with a distraction. We bought ourselves a poster of David Lee Roth – 1984 was when he was arguably at the height of his hotness – stepping out of a swimming pool. The poster cut off just below the hollow beneath his hip bones. We knew he probably wasn’t naked, but it was provocative enough that we were free to imagine that he was. It was – distracting, all right. If those roaches weren’t crawling out from under the lower edges of that poster, we weren’t likely to notice them.