Inspiration

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


I was supposed to be working on an editorial. I had one sketched out; I just had to buckle down and finish it.

But I had a problem: a story had popped into my head and I had to get it out.

It all started a few weeks ago. Baker, a.k.a. Eden, posted a challenge on her blog. The challenge was to encapsulate the history of rock ‘n’ roll on two CDs.

That challenge was one I didn’t feel qualified to undertake (you can see Eden’s effort here), but it did get me thinking. A while back, I had loaded all our CDs onto my laptop. I flipped over to them, organized them by release date, and verified something that I had suspected.

There was a giant gap. The really old stuff was there. Stuff that had been first-purchased on record and replaced, or that was older than we are, or at least older than we were when we first started buying music, so we never owned it in the first place and only bought it in retrospect. And from 1991 on the collection is pretty comprehensive. But the entire decade of the ’80s? Represented by just a few discs.

It’s not that we don’t have any music from the ’80s. It’s that it’s all on cassette.

Seized with a sudden burst of nostalgia, I sat down with the Rubbermaid container of cassettes, dumped them all out, and made a list. 170, all-told. Here is the early REM; all the Canadian bands you’ve probably never heard of—The Grapes of Wrath, The Pursuit of Happiness, The Northern Pikes, and so on; Duran Duran, Madonna’s debut, and oh, Katrina and the Waves.

In light of this week’s events, it’s seems ironic that it was a Katrina and the Waves song that stuck in my head as I perused our musical history. Not the big hit, Walking on Sunshine, but Red Wine & Whisky, the song I had always liked best off the album. I Googled the lyrics. Turns out there isn’t much too them. But that’s the funny thing about songs. Sometimes there doesn’t have to be.

Not every old song holds a memory of course. There’s definitely stuff in that box that I wouldn’t replace (Huey Lewis, yikes!). But if money were no object, there’s a lot that I would. They say that smells trigger memories, that they go to the core of who we are. And I don’t disagree, but music— I think its effect is even stronger. A few bars of a song and I can be right back where I was when I first heard it.

A few days ago, Eden posted a meme on her blog. It’s the Top 100 Songs of the year you graduated from high school one. You’re meant to bold the songs you still like, strike through the ones you hate, and underline your favorite. Of course, I had to look at my year. It’s an odd list. I couldn’t figure out what a lot of it was doing there when suddenly it clicked: “Duh! Miami Vice!” How could I forget the turquoise and pink palm trees that plastered everything that year?

There were a few good songs on the list, a lot of terrible ones, and even more that were simply forgettable. Way down at #62, I found the song I would underline: “Your Love,” a song that made me nostalgic when I was 17. Did The Outfield ever have another hit? I have no idea. But they got it right at least once.

The song started playing in my head and it wouldn’t stop, despite the parts I had to mumble-mumble because I wasn’t sure of the lyrics. I was trying to proofread the September issue of TC and all I could think about is this story that was threading itself together in my head over bars of the song. I started to type it out. I nearly had the draft finished when I realized something—or at least I thought I did. I hit up Google for lyrics again. (How different from the way it used to be, painstakingly rewinding and replaying songs line by line as you wrote out the lyrics by hand!)

It’s true that sometimes a song’s lyrics are unsubstantial, that it’s all about the music, the way the song is sung. But sometimes…

It was almost scary how closely the lyrics paralleled the story I was writing. After all these years, I suddenly had to confront the possibility that it wasn’t a coincidence that the boy in the story played that song. How meta would that be!

I forged on with the story, charged up, editorial forgotten. This was going to be good. I could feel it.

pencil

E-mail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

A Day Like That

Best of the Boards
Liz Law


On a day like that, the humidity forms mist instead of fog. If any rain falls your skin is already too damp to notice. The only color that is visible when the air is that dense is green. Mainly, a shade of dark green intense as deep, mournful grief. That’s how I remember her…

She smiles as she invades my meandering mind. Her cotton T-shirt grasping the curves and creases of her upper body, while her skirt clings so closely it may as well be a pair of slacks. “Fionula beware how you frolic, lest they think you’re one of them.” I think to her, as though she could hear me, as though it might make a difference, as if it were real again. She laughs and the vapor about her shimmers in response. I shake my head at the dirt smudged on her cheeks and mud kissing the skin between her toes. She was always beautiful, but on a day like that, she was ethereal.

Standing in the garden with ivy as her backdrop and lavender upstage, she holds me in awe. “Honey, I need a vase for these.” She points at the weeds she just pulled. “Can you get me one love, before they wilt?” I good-naturedly mutter something about silly girls who value weeds more than flowers and head into the house. As I’m filling the vase with water I lift the lace curtains to see what she’s up to and the vase falls from my suddenly limp fingers.

My hands shake; the sudden grip of fear is replaced by the all too familiar ache of loss. The garden is empty. She is gone again. All of my joy evaporates as the sun comes out and chases my memories away. She’s not here, she was never here, and she never will be here. I tuck my head down and my shoulders shake as I start to cry.

Eventually, I open my eyes again and through my tears, I see the vase. It has shattered into all shapes and sizes of disaster. I begin with the largest pieces. I must be ever mindful of the imperceptible slivers that will embed themselves in my skin if given the chance. Tediously, I start to gather the shards of my splintered life. Usually I do just fine, even my therapist agrees. But then I don’t tell him that she comes to visit on days like that.
pencil

Liz Law (Lyzardly) is a glorified secretary for a glorified medical college in Manhattan. The only award she has ever received for her writing, was a “B” in her college creative writing class. E-mail: lyzardly[at]gmail.com.

Driving Directions

A Midsummer Tale ~ Honorable Mention
Jim Walke


An Excerpt from “Driving Directions”

Eastern Wyoming sloped. Sheer granite in the distance was a reminder of the true vertical crossed, but the highway unrolled across plains tilting east and down. The sun rose over the hood, blinding us to the expanse. We were lulled by the gentle descent, stupefied.

Twenty-four hours gone, the time spent along thirteen hundred miles.

Wham! Wham! Wham! The truck whipped across both lanes, both of us snapping awake. The hitchhiker banged on the back window again, the wind stealing his shouts. He pointed with one frozen claw at an exit sign: Spearfish. He hopped out after we slid to a halt, knees buckling when he hit the ground. He muttered thanks and trudged shakily up the exit.

“Nice guy.”

“I should have asked him if he’d seen the moose.”

“Hour to Rushmore.”

“Gonna be early.”

“Breakfast.”

Keystone, South Dakota was not yet awake. The signs promised the pleasures of a thousand family vacations, but most of the lights were off… most, but not all.

“Mini-golf?”

“No.”

“Ye Olde-Timey Photographs?”

“No.”

“Gun museum?”

“Oh, yes.”

Of course the gun museum was open at seven in the morning. It had a coffee shop. Either that or the coffee shop had a gun museum. I had blueberry waffles beneath a phalanx of bayoneted rifles. The salt and pepper shakers were shaped like little derringers, and were for sale.

“When is Mom’s birthday?” Sandy asked.

“Don’t even think about it.”

We paid our fee at the gates of the park and joined the pack of RVs and buses hunting the elusive parking space. A loose mob of senior citizens walked to the viewing platform and we trailed along, the youngest by fifty years.

A woman with Cheeto-orange hair clawed onto my arm as we walked up the slightest of slopes. She picked up a conversation we had never started.

“Of course we always went to Branson. Before my Glen died, we went every year. In the fall we went.”

“That’s nice ma’am.” I tried to get my arm free.

“I didn’t want to come on this one. My friend made me. Of course she just plays bridge on the bus, so what does she care? The restroom smells poopy. The Branson bus is much better. We sing.”

“Sounds awful, ma’am,” I said automatically. She had a grip like a gorilla. She barely came up to my shoulder and I could see Sandy over her head. He rooted in his rucksack and offered the panty rose to me. I mouthed bad words.

We reached the viewing platform. The four stone heads hung on the mountainside, poised to speak. A hush fell over the group.

“I thought they’d be bigger,” said Glen’s widow.

“Me too,” I said. The answer was echoed by others, but an elderly vet in his W.W. II cap focused his glare on me. Commenting on the former Presidents’ head size was unappreciated.

“Good likeness, though,” she added. “I saw Roosevelt when I was a little girl.” She repeated herself, louder. The white heads nodded in approval, and she released my arm to work her way to forward. They were listening to her now.

“I usually go to Branson,” she told them.

Sandy and I drifted away.

“What’d you think?”

“I’ve seen it. I don’t have to come back.”

“Really moved you?”

“It’s your turn to drive.”


pencil

Jim Walke is an actor, writer, and cubicle monkey. He lives in Virginia with his wife and two canine children. In his spare time he wanders the Appalachian Trail. E-mail: jaywalke[at]yahoo.com.

The Pride of St. Louis

A Midsummer Tale ~ Honorable Mention
Toriano L. Porter


An Excerpt from “The Pride of St. Louis”

The trip to Texas to take on the Dallas Diesel in a semi-pro football game had all the makings of a bonding outing for the St. Louis Bulldogs. St. Louis’s winningest minor league football team ever had struggled with their early pre-season games in 2005, losing the first three to opponents deemed very mediocre by Bulldog standards. The team was in the midst of a rebuilding process, having lost key members from the previous year’s 8-4 club, including the star quarterback, running back, and wide receiver.

The dwindling out of players and coaches caused a ripple effect for St. Louis, leaving them struggling to stay competitive in a fledgling semi-pro league.

Feeling a lack of cohesion on the part of the 2005 squad, Bulldog coach Greg Moore reserved a charter bus for the 12-hour ride to Dallas. The plan was to meet Friday, June 10 at 11:00 PM in the North Oaks Shopping Plaza, a local strip mall with retail stores and a bowling alley, and leave for the trip at midnight. St. Louis would then arrive to its destination by noon Saturday and have a few hours to eat a pre-game meal and maybe watch a movie at a local theater in Dallas. In typical St. Louis fashion, most of the team’s players didn’t arrive until well after midnight and Moore was peeved.

“Listen up guys,” Moore ordered as players milled around the parking lot for a team meeting prior to boarding. The chief of the Northwoods, Missouri police department, Moore was used to giving orders. What ticked him off were guys not following the procedure he’d laid out for them.

“Some of you guys don’t know the meaning of what it is to be a St. Louis Bulldog,” continued Moore, the Bulldogs’ veteran coach of thirteen years and minor league football Hall of Fame member.

Moore, all of five feet, six inches of him, was appalled. The three losses, even though preseason games, weighed heavily on him. He had scheduled the game against the Diesel thinking he’d have a squad that would compete for a national championship. Never did he imagine he’d have to go to Dallas with practically a rebuilt offense and minus several key defensive reserve players. He let the team know his feelings.

“We’re going down here to play one of the better teams in our league,” Moore scolded, “and we’ve only got thirty-something guys here.”

“Thirty-one, Chief,” tight end and captain Wendell Mosley informed.

“Thirty-one,” Moore corrected.

“Chief,” Mosley chimed in again, “we ain’t got to sit here and wait on none of these cats.” Mosley, along with Moore, offensive tackle Stan Johnson, and defensive end Fred Robinson, were the faces of the St. Louis Bulldogs. They represented St. Louis at most of the NAFL’s league functions, including all-star games and award banquets. Moore gave them a certain leeway other players couldn’t quite grasp. “Fuck ’em, let’s go. One monkey don’t stop no show.”

“Yeah, Wendell, you’re right,” Moore agreed, “but I hate to go down there with thirty-one players. We want to make an impression. We need all fifty of our guys—there’s power in numbers, boy.”

“Guys,” Moore said to his team, “get on the phone, call your buddies whose not here and tell ’em to get here. We need bodies. We need numbers, baby. Tell ’em if they’re having problems with the sixty dollar boarding fee, don’t worry about it, we’ll get it from later. Tell ’em to just come on.”

At 1:40 AM, St. Louis headed for Dallas with just thirty-three players.


pencil

E-mail: torianoporter[at]yahoo.com.

In the Back of the Bolivian Bus with My Mom

A Midsummer Tale ~ Honorable Mention
Joanna Popper


 An Excerpt from “In the Back of the Bolivian Bus with My Mom”

All of a sudden we must have hit the Big Ditch because try as they would, these men couldn’t move the bus. Everyone got off the bus, all the passengers tried to push the bus together, and it wouldn’t budge. It was getting dark. We had been on the bus all day. I had no idea if we were close to our destination. A pick-up truck pulled up. Everyone watched to see if it could make it through the mud puddle and lo and behold, success. The more experienced Yungas passengers (or maybe those in a rush) ran after the truck, hopped on and fled in the night. Every time a pick-up truck passed, more people scooted off the bus and left with the truck. The man sitting on my lap with the pig departed. I looked around for the driver to remove our luggage from the top of the bus, but couldn’t find him. There was a tarp covering the top, so I couldn’t get to our bags.

“Should I climb on the bus and get our stuff down?” I asked my mom.

“No.” My mother said. “It’s dangerous. Let’s wait for the driver to get it for us later.”

We stretched out in our seat. It felt very luxurious after the man and pig’s departure. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do and we were exhausted from the day’s activities. Eventually we fell asleep.

I woke up when someone yelled “Gringuitas, Gringuitas!” That was us, the “foreign girlies.” I looked up and someone said, “El Padre esta aqui.” The priest is here. Normally this wouldn’t mean anything to me since I am a non-practicing Jew. But it was the middle of the night, I was stuck in a bus with my mother in Bolivia in a mudslide in rainy season and a priest was calling for me. I got off the bus. The priest had come to get us. We were saved! Praise the Lord! I guess the nun took off at some point in the middle of the night and sent the priest back. I felt bad that I’ve always been so critical of organized religion.

The priest found the bus driver, got our bags and drove us in a pick-up truck to a small town on the edge of the river where we planned to embark on the highly anticipated boat excursion in the rain forest. Twenty hours later, but we made it! The priest led us to a hotel, woke up the proprietors, and arranged rooms. We were appreciative, exhausted, and happy to be off the bus. We were also covered with mud from our adventures and hopped into cold jungle showers and ran back to our room just as the town’s electricity went off for the night. We groped our way into bed in the dark. My twin bed felt abundant, so much room. No pigs. No chickens. No one to share with. I never felt so glad to sleep alone.

We woke a few hours later to the sound of the roosters. I rolled over and noticed a familiar image: blonde hair, blue eyes, a perfect smile, a not-so-anatomically correct figure. Barbie sheets. I loved Barbie throughout childhood. I may even still harbor a desire to be Barbie, with her great life, car, townhouse, wardrobe, and boyfriend Ken. She can do anything. Here I was in the middle of the Bolivian jungle sleeping on her sheets. I never had Barbie sheets at home. I was never even allowed to have the Barbie car or townhouse. This was true splendor.

“Look, Mom!” I exclaimed. “You never bought me Barbie sheets!”

She smiled and said, “Well, that makes the experience extra special now, doesn’t it?”


pencil

Joanna Popper now lives in Miami, Florida, and mainly travels without pigs and chickens. She still hasn’t convinced her mother to get her Barbie sheets, the townhouse, or the car. She recently completed a documentary entitled The ABC’s of Eating Disorders. E-mail: Joanna_Popper[at]hotmail.com.

Are We Honest Yet?

A Midsummer Tale ~ Honorable Mention
Jenny Lentz


An Excerpt from “Are We Honest Yet?”

Everything began to fall apart that night.

Mom was irritated with Dad for a reason we had yet to learn, and instead of watching Rear Window with us in the hotel room, she went downstairs to the lobby to read. She later returned, still grumpy and angry, and revealed why she was upset: Dad was encouraging her to get a job now that she’d be empty-nested—she had been a homemaker our entire lives—especially to help pay for the increasing expenses of Kathryn’s psychotherapy. A fight erupted between Kathryn and Dad, because Kathryn was frustrated that he hadn’t kept her informed that his insurance did not cover her psychotherapy. Their heated argument was going nowhere, and Mom was near tears. I just lay on the bed with my eyes closed, trying to ignore the horrible events in the room.

Finally Kathryn said to me, “Jen, come with me. I need to get something from the van.”

As she and I waited for the elevator, Kathryn said, “I don’t really need to get anything. I just had to get out of that cramped hotel room and away from our parents.” On our way to the van, she began to cry in the parking lot. I just held her while she sobbed. We then sat in the back of the van and complained about our parents, about Dad’s obsessive, tightwad money issues. About how Mom is hypersensitive, manipulative, overprotective, hypocritical. How they drive us crazy and are screwing us up. How sometimes we find ourselves acting like Mom, dealing with things in her terrible, unhealthy ways, or like Dad, freaking out when things don’t go according to plan. Mom’s overanalysis. Dad’s self-absorption. We feared we would someday become them.

We talked for over three hours, expressing the concerns and atrocities we’d both been struggling with in terms of our parents. We loved them so much and knew they meant well most of the time—but the bottom line was that they were not perfect parents and often made us—and each other—miserable.

We talked about how Mom and Dad were in denial of how dysfunctional our family was, how in all the time we spend together acting like we’re close-knit, we actually don’t communicate much at all.

We talked and vented and probably could have said much more—but then Mom came out to the van because she couldn’t sleep without us in the room, worrying about us not returning safely, even though we were just in the hotel parking lot. She came into the van with us, and as we talked with her a while, she burst into tears about how insensitive Dad could be. We knew that, facing an empty nest, she feared being alone with Dad and finally having to face the imperfections in their relationship, without the distractions and joys of having her children, who had always been her career, with her.

I had always hated to see my mom cry; it affected me in a way no other person’s crying ever did, as if some foundation were crumbling and something inside me was breaking down. She was still supposed to be the strong and supportive one, not the weak and hurt one who was weeping rather than comforting others and distributing Kleenex.

Kathryn asked her, “Are you glad you’re married to Dad?”

Mom replied, “Sometimes.”

Kathryn asked her which outweighed the other, the times of happiness versus the times of unhappiness.

“I don’t know,” Mom said.

Then Kathryn said, “It’ll be okay with me if you decide to divorce Daddy.”

Kathryn was serious and calm. Mom just sniffled.

I didn’t feel the same way as Kathryn at all. I knew that Dad was in love with Mom and that he would be absolutely devastated without her. Even tonight he would have done anything to make things up to her; he was desperate to restore her happiness. He was simply clueless as to what she wanted, and she would never tell him but then would get angry that he was clueless. But I knew he absolutely adored her. Mom’s adoration of him was far less evident, and if she would truly be happier without Dad, then I would have been okay if they divorced, although I knew for a fact that it would shatter Dad’s heart.


pencil

Jenny Lentz holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from Bryn Mawr College, attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts in Creative Writing, and works in human resources by day while fervently writing by night. Her short fiction has won awards in the Women in the Arts Annual Contest, Skyline Magazine’s Annual Short Story Competition, and The New Writer Annual Fiction Contest, and has appeared in a various small print and online literary magazines. E-mail: jennylentz[at]earthlink.net.

Make Me Laugh

A Midsummer Tale ~ Honorable Mention
Catherine Lanser


An Excerpt from “Make Me Laugh”

Poker made the miles fly by. We played it for hours, exchanging real quarters, dimes, and pennies. We were no longer kids held captive by a road trip, but Vegas high rollers. Every hand made you want to play another. We were so embroiled in the game that we didn’t even notice that we had pulled off the road. I held my cards tightly to my chest, making sure my opponents to my left and right couldn’t see them. I glanced up briefly, saw a parking lot, and looked back down at the game.

“Let’s go, we’ve got to make this kind of quick,” said Dad. “That stop earlier put us a little behind schedule.”

We didn’t budge.

“Let’s go,” said Mom, opening her car door and stepping out into the parking lot.

We continued playing.

Dad exited and walked around the front of the car. Mom’s head appeared through the open front car door.

“Let’s go,” she said sternly.

We looked at each other and then at her. We didn’t know where we were and we didn’t care. All that mattered was winning this next hand. We were addicted and that’s why Tommy said what he did next.

“We’re going to skip this one, we’re in the middle of a game here.”

It was brilliant; he had said exactly what we were feeling. Why should we get out and see one more boring tourist trap when we were having a great time here? After all, didn’t Mom just plan these stops to give us a chance to get out of the car and not get on each other’s nerves? Since we were getting along right now, what did she care? She and Dad could enjoy it without our bickering.

“Yeah, we’re having fun back here,” I said.

Pattie nodded. We were all in agreement. This was one monument we would skip.

Mom’s head disappeared through the passenger door and she slammed it behind her. She stepped toward the back seat, where Tommy sat, and pulled on the handle. It was locked.

“Open that door,” she said through the glass.

Tommy reached over and rolled the window down a crack.

“Get out of this car, right now,” she said, her voice low and primal, putting her fingers through the window and doing her best to drag Tommy through it by the ear.

“Open this door!”

He put his cards down on the pillow that we used as a table and opened the car door.

“Let’s go,” she said pulling him out by his arm, leaving a trail of cards and coins behind him.

For a second I wondered if she just meant him, but realized the seriousness of the situation when her face appeared again in the open doorway. Pattie and I put our cards down and had barely exited the car when Mom started down a path. We tried to catch up, hobbling as best we could with our tired legs. About halfway down the path we looked up and saw four humungous, very serious, faces carved in the mountain. I made a mental note to imitate them later if we played another game of Make Me Laugh.

When we arrived at the overlook we turned around, put on our best fake smiles, and posed for a few pictures with Mount Rushmore hovering above us. After that we took a quick spin through the museum and were back in the car, just under a half an hour later.

“I can’t believe you guys wanted to miss that,” said Dad when we were back in the car. “You don’t know how lucky you are to see all the stuff we have.”


pencil

Catherine Lanser is a writer who lives in Madison, Wis. She grew up in a small town, the youngest of a big family, and enjoys writing about this time in her life. E-mail: catherinelanser[at]yahoo.com.

I Talk the Talk, He Rides the Bike

A Midsummer Tale ~ Honorable Mention
Ellia Bisker


An Excerpt from “I Talk the Talk, He Rides the Bike”

The next morning the sky threatened rain and we were anxious—rain was dangerous on a bike, not to mention penetrating and unpleasant. If it rained we might have to wait it out and then head back to Nimes. But after breakfast the skies cleared and we hit the road, all optimism and pleasantly aching legs.

When we hit the Pyrenees it suddenly occurred to me to be afraid. There the road began to climb up and wind around the mountains, suddenly becoming a series of swooping blind curves around a cliff face, which offered us the most magnificent view yet, of the heart-stopping drop to the rocky sea where we could, quite conceivably, fall to our deaths.

If we crash, I thought, if some car flies around a curve and knocks us down the side of this mountain, no one will even know we were here. It was a sobering thought: our broken bodies tumbling down the mountainside like rag dolls, punctured by the lovely grapevines, crushed by the bike.

I gritted my teeth and white-knuckled it the whole time Seth was negotiating the bike through the turns, my mouth as dry as paper. At the Spanish border we flashed our passports and were waved across without a fuss, and, in spite of my apprehension, we reached Portbou without incident.

Portbou was a bright, quiet fishing town on a serene blue harbor that seemed to be populated entirely by old men and their dogs. After buying a postcard depicting the Benjamin memorial, I approached one of the old men and said, “Scusi” (this, Seth later pointed out, was Italian), “donde està—” and pointed to the card.

“Ah,” the old man said, nodding. Did we speak Catalan, he asked.

We shook our heads.

Spanish?

No Spanish.

He shook his head in bemusement or pity at our ignorance and motioned for us to follow.

Faced with the old man’s gruff silence, I racked my brain’s store of Spanish and came up with a sentence to offer him: “Bueno perro,” I said. Good dog.

The old man nodded, unsurprised. Of course it was a good dog.

Exhausted of vocabulary, I followed.

The monument was lonely and ineffable, a mute object. It was in the form of an angular metal tunnel leading down from a clifftop toward the sea, where it dead-ended at a wall of glass inscribed with a quote from Walter Benjamin about the forgotten of history and pocked with a couple of what looked like recent bullet holes, the noise from which must have been deafening to whatever vandalizing teens had shot them.

We paid our respects, took some photographs, and then, just a couple of hours after reaching the town we had worked so hard to get to, we eagerly got back on the bike.

This time as we made our way around the series of treacherous curves, fear didn’t twist my gut up in knots—maybe because we had already survived it once, or maybe because we had achieved our halfway mark and everything was going to be downhill from here on out. Or maybe it was just clear that Portbou had become our pretext, not our destination.

pencil

Ellia Bisker has worked at a children’s publishing house, an independent bookstore, a New York City art museum, and a small circus; currently she is pursuing a degree in Arts Administration. Her writing has been published in Pif magazine, Brooklyn Inside Out, ReadyMade, the Utne Reader, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She also writes and performs country songs, much to the surprise of her Yankee parents. E-mail: ellia.bisker[at]gmail.com.

Abbey Road and Mister Maniappa

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Fatima M. Noronha


Bee—the youngest child of my parents—was born after humans walked on the moon, after Woodstock, indeed after Des—the eldest of us four—completed school. My parents had retired early from their European jobs to live a challenging life in our ancestral village in Goa. Within a year came an unforeseen challenge.

“There must be a good reason for my pregnancy, uh?” our middle-aged Ma confronted her doctor.

He chuckled. “The native air!”

During the six-month gap between school and university, Des sang his own brand of lullabies to an appreciative baby sister. His course at the University of Agricultural Sciences at Bangalore would begin in June. Dad who loved to travel realized that if we were ever going to tour together it would have to be in April.

“All through the month of May,” he accurately predicted, “we’ll be entertaining an endless stream of friends and relations.”

“Have a heart! We can’t go touring with a babe-in-arms and piles of diapers!”

Ma was outnumbered by the rest of us who thought it would be fun. Ten-year-old Pitti, the sister between me and Bee, was the most excited of all.

“We must go swimming and mountain climbing. I’ll eat only ice-cream.”

The bus we boarded at Margao in Goa took us smoothly enough through the sun-soaked plains where red soil alternated with deep brown, with here and there a patch of green where a stream or perennial well helped the dogged farmer to grow a summer crop of okra, aubergine and cucumber.

All went well till the foothills of the Western Ghats, the range which, with an arm around her, turns Goa’s attention towards the Arabian Sea and away from the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. The latter was our destination. We were to check out the areas around Bangalore and the city itself before Des moved there.

Most of our co-passengers were peasants from the villages along the way. Peasants, as I noticed then and since, do not hold forth on Newtonian laws but usually know exactly which parcel may or may not be placed on the overhead rack of a speeding bus. We sat as best we could with sacks of rice under the seats and large copper water pots pressed against our elbows. Ma wore the expression of Joan of Arc at the stake. Bee slept blissfully as long as the bus was in motion.

As the bus started uphill, a few bags slid back a little along the rails of the luggage rack, met immovable objects and stopped sliding. Dad drew the conductor’s attention to the heavy moulded suitcase poised on the rack two rows in front of us. At that incline, it was not in the least secure.

“That is likely to fall.”

The conductor called out, “Whose maroon suitcase is that?”

The proud owners of the maroon suitcase ignored him. The long-haired man, in bell-bottomed trousers and (despite the heat) yellow polo-neck, whispered something to his partner, which made her giggle. Hers was the get-up of a fairly traditional Hindu newlywed: a red sari, glass bangles, massive gold earrings, vermilion on the forehead.

The farmer in front of me leaned forward, tapped yellow arm, and pointed to the teetering suitcase. The yellow torso contorted towards the rear row.

“Hahn?”

The farmer said nothing, but in mime his hands explained how a small jerk would knock the suitcase off its perch. The yellow fellow was aggressive.

“What’s your problem?”

Several male voices rose at once.

“It will fall.”

“Don’t worry, it won’t fall.”

“I’ve been travelling on this road since Independence and I can tell you that nothing of that size can stay up when we come to the hairpin bends.”

“You know nothing of modern suitcase designs. The weight goes to the back and—”

“I’m telling you it will fall. Then what will you do?”

“If it actually falls, then you can put in a complaint.”

“Oh yes, the person with the smashed skull will sit and write a complaint. To whom?”

At the first hairpin bend, the maroon suitcase slid to the edge of the rack. Members of both parties raised their hands to protect their own heads or the heads of their children. Then the bus swerved in the opposite direction and the suitcase sat back. The yellow man looked triumphant.

The fear of crashing objects, fatigue and motion sickness were plain on Ma’s green face. I was quite scared myself. Des specialized in looking as if nothing was going on. Pitti, who had the window seat, kept staring out. Dad seemed lost in thought.

At a particularly sharp bend, without the slightest warning, the woman in red stuck her head out of the window and was awfully sick. The yellow man left off acting cocky and became by turns helpless and solicitous. While he was thus preoccupied, Dad strode over the rice sacks, pulled the maroon suitcase off the rack and, with help from passengers in the front rows, stashed it away in the driver’s cabin.

It was just before sunset. The valley below was all green treetops courting a single gorgeous gulmohur. Incredible flame set in green.

With the exception of Dad, who was ever on his feet, none of us did much in Bangalore the next day. We relaxed at the Airlines Hotel, listening to piped music.

“It was there,” Des recently told me, “that I first heard Abbey Road.”

“What I recall most vividly is the pink mosquito curtain suspended from the ceiling and tucked around my bed, like a gauzy tent,” said I.

Dad returned to the hotel that evening looking pleased about the arrangements he had made for the remainder of our trip. We gathered in our parents’ room for a short briefing on the salient features of our itinerary.

“I interviewed several taxi drivers. What a tribe! I’ve fixed up our trip with a nice, friendly chap called Maniappa. He’ll take us to Mysore, Ooty, and the usual places. I was keen to see Halebid, but he said it was much too far west. We should turn south after seeing Shravanabelagola.”

“Whom?” said Ma.

Gleefully Dad repeated, “Shravanabelagola. That where we’ll see the statue of Gomateshwar.”

“They’re not short of syllables around here,” Ma noted.

We all tried our luck with the names.

“Shravanabelagola,” Dad pronounced authoritatively. “It’s a hundred and thirty kilometres from here, so we’ll set out at seven to beat the heat. Be ready before seven, all right?”

Despite her religious observance of such rituals as mashing a banana, squeezing out the juice of a sweet lime and making sure the baby swallowed all of it, Ma managed to get Bee ready by seven. The effort took its toll, though, and she kept grumbling to no one in particular that it was unwise to change an infant’s routine and that it was, of course, a waste of time to travel with so small a child. The infant concerned was all smiles and ready to sit on the lap of any sibling, including Pitti who she seemed to consider a rival for parental affection, the ten-year gap between them notwithstanding.

We (minus Dad) sat in the hotel lobby waiting for Maniappa and inhaling the smell of spicy sambhar from the nearby restaurant where breakfast was in progress. All of us had gulped down our buttered bread at the crack of dawn and now, a whole hour after the appointed time, the marvelous scents of a South Indian breakfast increased our restlessness. It was probably an elaborate meal (a mere snack to Bangaloreans) which was delaying Maniappa. Dad, not known to be patient, fumed as he paced up and down the driveway. And then suddenly Maniappa appeared in his black Fiat. A strapping man somewhere in his thirties, he tossed back his oily black curls and smiled broadly at Ma.

“Sarry, late.” That was it.

He opened the boot and all the doors, we and our bags were quickly in, Maniappa saluted the guard and within a minute we had cleared St Mark’s Road. By then the city had woken up and traffic slowed us down a bit. We were not yet out of Bangalore twenty minutes later. Dad was in the process of brainwashing Maniappa on the subject of punctuality. The head of oily black curls nodded vigorously in agreement.

What happened next is now well-worn family lore.

The car slowed down and stopped. Opening his door, Maniappa turned amiably to my father.

“Fifteen minutes for tiffin.”

Shock is too mild a word for Dad’s reaction. Instead of attempting to make up for lost time, here was this indescribable maniac stopping at his favourite eatery for a leisurely brunch.

“Oh Mr Maniappa!” cried Dad in amazement, sorrow, anger, and despair.

“What happened? What is a tiffin? Where did he go?” Pitti had many more questions.

Des and I shook with laughter. In a moment, Ma joined in. Dad took a while to accept the situation.

The summer sun was directly overhead when we reached Shravanabelagola. Maniappa parked the car at the bottom of the hill. The only way up was on foot, we learnt. Ma sat in the car to nurse the baby while the rest of us trudged up barefoot. Footwear showed disrespect, the officials of the Jain shrine told us. Hot and hungry, we climbed up the rock-hewn steps, which seemed never-ending: 614, we heard later. Not a bush, not a wisp of shade anywhere along that cruel stairway. I felt faint and sat on the ground, but the prospect of a fried behind got me to my feet again.

Only Dad, I think, really thought nothing of the exercise. Places of historic interest supplied all the adrenaline he needed. Up at the top of the hill, he introduced us to the world-famous monolith: the holy being had no worldly attachments whatsoever, hence no clothes, and he had stood there in deep meditation long enough for creepers to entwine themselves around him.

With Maniappa at the wheel, we drove south to the city of Mysore, then to the Krishnarajasagar dam for an evening among the fountains and pools of Brindavan Gardens. I thought the coloured lights were awfully gaudy. We were all tired out by then.

The following day we were off to the hills. The Nilgiris are the pride of South India. We made for Ooty, the highest town there. It must have been close to 40 degrees Celsius in the plains, but as we drove up it became a trifle cooler at every hairpin bend. The hills were very lovely.

Pitti said, “I wish I could run up that way,” pointing to one of the narrow paths which led off the road and disappeared among the cypresses.

When it was time for Bee’s elevenses, we left her and Ma in the car and walked beneath the trees off the road.

At Bangalore we had bought pairs of colourful slippers. Pitti was wearing her orange pair. She forgot she was not in her normal sneakers. Thrilled with the sudden freedom to run uphill, she did not notice those rough rocks bore no resemblance to the beaten paths she was used to back home. When we were called back to the car, each of us turned back from our little explorations.

Pitti was at the top of a short steep slope. She turned and took a quick step downward. The slipper sole had no grip at all. Her foot skidded. The slipper strap broke and Pitti shot forward.

She lay a few metres away from where Des and I stood but neither of us could move our feet. We had never seen death. From much further off, Dad came running, calling out to us the while.

“Lift her up! Hurry, son!”

Dad picked up the limp body. There was blood on her face. He carried her to the car.

Ma screamed at each one in turn for not taking care of Pitti.

The body groaned.

“She’s alive, thank God, she’s alive!”

In a few minutes, she came out of her dead faint.

“Pitti, Pitti, how are you?”

“OK,” she mumbled.

Her face was raw and blood oozed from the corner of her closed eye. Would she be disfigured for life?

Maniappa drove in unaccustomed silence to Ooty. At the first roadside kiosk he asked for directions to the nearest doctor.

The doctor checked her eye.

“Not damaged,” he said.

After examining the rest of her face and asking her to move her various joints, he quickly and most skilfully cleaned and dressed the wounds. Except for a gash that ran dangerously close to the edge of her eye, all her injuries were superficial. Apparently she had fainted from fear, not pain, when she fell down the slope.

We knew Pitti was going to be all right when she broke our nervous silence after lunch. “Is it too cold to eat ice-cream?”

It had rained—as it does almost every day in Ooty—and we all felt a bit chill in our summery cottons. But Dad scoured the damp little colonial town for ice cream. Then we drove back to Bangalore.

In a couple of weeks Pitti’s scars healed completely. She grew up to be the prettiest woman in the family.

This summer, thirty-five years later, I was again in Bangalore. The city has expanded in all directions. Traffic has increased a hundredfold. But St Mark’s Road still smells, not exactly of breakfast but of tiffin.
pencil

Fatima M. Noronha is a freelance writer and editor. After gypsying around India for twenty years and raising two daughters, she and her husband have settled in Goa where they delight in growing green things. E-mail: fatimazi[at]sancharnet.in.

Dog Driving

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Devon Ellington


It’s always tougher when it’s not your dog. You know how you raised your own hound. You know if he understands “no” and “that’s not your food” and “get that disgusting wet sock away from me.” But you don’t know how someone else’s dog will respond.

What the heck was I doing driving someone else’s dog around, anyway? A friend I’ll call Jay (because he will never speak to me again if he finds out I wrote about him—more fool him to hang out with a writer) took a job out west for the summer. The housing provided didn’t allow dogs, and didn’t pay him enough to find a place that did. So I inherited Charlie for the summer.

Part of the picture was my rented cabin in Maine. I’d rented it long before Jay took this job in Colorado or Utah or Wyoming or wherever it was. I wanted a quiet place to write, and I wasn’t going to give it up to spend August in Manhattan with a large mutt.

“Charlie’s never been out of the city,” said Jay.

“He’ll learn. Make sure I have his license, his rabies tags, and everything else,” I said.

“What if he has pollen allergies?”

“He’s a dog, not your girlfriend. He’ll be fine.”

Jay got on the plane for the West, and I packed the rental car with a laptop, plenty of books, a blanket or two, a few clothes, some wooden spoons, my coffeemaker, and the wok. That fit on the backseat. The entire trunk was filled with Charlie’s gear.

“You’re not wearing the raincoat, and you’re not wearing the booties,” I told him. He looked relieved.

I wanted him to stay in the back, but he was determined to sit in the front. I gave up after awhile, wondering if there was a doggie equivalent of a baby car seat, or if I was violating some law by having the dog in the passenger seat. I figured it was safer for everyone if he slept in the front while I drove, rather than me wrestling him to the back on the highway. He wore me down by the time we hit the Hutchinson Parkway.

Normally, I drive to Maine in a fairly straight shot, stopping only for gas and maybe once pull off in some cute little town to try a restaurant. But I wasn’t going to leave Charlie locked in the car. Even when we stopped for gas, he looked like he was afraid I’d leave him there. He sat up, his brownish-black fur in sharp contrast to the red and blue plaid blanket on the passenger seat. His long ears pricked forward, and he began to pant.

“Charlie, I’m only putting gas in the car,” I told him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He climbed into the backset, upsetting the wok with a clatter, so that he could watch me through the window as I pumped the gas. I remembered Jay got him from a shelter. He’d been abandoned to the shelter, and now he probably thought Jay abandoned him, too. No wonder he was worried.

“Here, have a cookie,” I said, when I got back into the car. I gave him three Milk Bones and a drink of water. Yeah, I’d make a great parent. Bribe the kid every time I felt guilty. Good thing I don’t have any. “Blues Traveller okay with you or you want more Thelonius Monk?” He didn’t seem to care, so we kept Blues Traveller on. It’s better driving music.

I used a drive-thru to buy lunch and parked overlooking the water in York Harbor, Maine. I rolled down the window a little bit. I didn’t want Charlie to jump out. He lifted his nose and sniffed the salt air. He looked back at me questioningly. “We’ll go for a walk after lunch,” I promised.

I unwrapped my messy burger, balanced my fries on the dashboard, and hoped I wouldn’t spill the soda all over myself. My half-finished coffee was still in one cup holder, and Charlie’s water bottle in the other. Charlie stuck his snout towards me aggressively. “Don’t even think about it,” I said sternly. Charlie sighed and settled back down on his plaid blanket, resting his nose on his paws. “I bought you one of your own,” I said. I unwrapped the second burger for him, and it was gone in a gulp.

“Let me guess—the new vegan girlfriend with all the allergies thinks you and Jay should be vegan, too.”

I swear that dog rolled his eyes at me.

“Don’t worry, buddy,” I said. “There’s a grill at the cabin. We’ll spend our summer as carnivores.”

I cleaned up after the meal and took Charlie for a good walk. It didn’t take long to get the hang of cleaning up after him—wrapping the plastic bag inside out over my hand and then flipping it over the turds. To give Charlie credit, he waited patiently until I got it right, instead of yanking on the leash as I bent over the mess, which would have caused me to fall face down into… you get the picture.

We drove up Route 1 rather than going back on the Maine Turnpike. I had the windows partially rolled down so we could both enjoy the fresh air. Charlie’s tail wriggled along the seat, and he sat up, perky and attentive. His head turned from side to side, and his eyes followed anything that moved. I wondered how he would react if we saw a moose. I was more worried about fishers, actually. Fishers are vicious predators that resemble small bears, but behave more like jackals. I’d keep Charlie close.

When we hit Wells, I couldn’t resist. I had to stop at my favorite secondhand bookstore. At one time, it was someone’s two-story home. Now, it’s two stories of secondhand books. Stopping there is a compulsion, an obsession. No matter what crazy project I have to research, I can find a relevant book on the subject.

I pulled into the worn-down parking lot strewn with left-over brown pine needles and turned off the ignition. I looked at Charlie. He hopefully looked back at me. I sighed. “Yeah, I know. I can’t leave you in here, can I?”

I grabbed his leash. We walked up the wooden stairs. The row of Christmas bells tinkled gently as I cautiously opened the door. “Hello?” I called.

“Back here. Out in a minute.”

I waited. A minute or two later, the owner appeared, in his requisite navy and white plaid shirt, chinos, black-rimmed glasses, and salt-and-pepper hair that matched his beard. “You could come in, you know.”

“I’ve got a dog with me this time.”

“Housebroken?”

I looked at Charlie, who nodded. We’d never had a problem. “Yeah.”

“Bring him in, then.”

“Thanks.” Charlie and I entered. I had nearly an hour of sheer heaven, ambling up and down the aisles, poking through the unfinished wooden shelves. Charlie sneezed once or twice, as I slid a particularly dusty volume out, but he was admirably patient. I’d have to return the favor when there was something he adored.

It took several trips to the front counter to transport my treasures. I had a few dust balls hanging off my clothes by then, too. But I was happy. The owner rooted around until he found a box large enough to hold them all and began toting them up.

Fortunately, I’d paid off my credit card balance before the start of the trip. For a brief, shining, twenty-four hours, I was debt free. No more.

Charlie pulled on the leash. “Just another minute. I have to pay,” I said.

He looked up at me with “dense human” written all over his face and tugged again.

“What?” I asked.

He pulled me towards a box sitting to the side of the counter. He snuffled noisily, then looked up and barked.

“Is there a rodent in there?” I asked suspiciously. “Because, if there is, I don’t want to know about it.”

He gave me another exasperated look and stuck his nose back in the box.

“Those just came in,” said the owner. “Picked ’em up at a garage sale after the owner died. Haven’t gone through ’em yet. Take a look, if you like.”

I couldn’t resist. But I warned Charlie, “If anything jumps out at me, I’m blaming you.”

I got another look for that comment.

The books were mostly juvenile series mysteries from the early twentieth century—Ruth Fielding, Vicki Barr, Beverly Gray, Judy Bolton. As someone who grew up on Nancy Drew, I had a weakness for them. “I’ll take the whole box,” I said, without bothering to look through them all.

The owner stared at me. He lifted one or two books off the top and looked at them, then back at me. “You always buy somethin’ here when you come through. Even in the wintertime. How ’bout I give you the whole box for forty?”

“Great.” I played it cool.

He smiled. “Still more than I paid for them.” He wasn’t a fool.

“As it should be,” I replied.

He nodded, gave me the total, and I handed over my credit card. It went through, and both boxes of books were mine. “I’ll help you get them into the car,” he offered, “seein’ as you have the dog and all.”

“Thank you.” I balanced one box of books in my arms and had Charlie’s leash circled around my wrist. As we hobbled down the steep steps, Charlie stayed a step or two ahead of me, looking up as though he worried I would fall. The dog already knew me too well.

“Where’ll I put ’em?” The man asked. “Car’s pretty full.”

“On the floor, behind the front seats.”

We managed to wedge the boxes in, Charlie returned to the front, and off we drove. The owner even stood in front of the house waving at us as we rolled down the block.

We ran into a problem at the grocery store. When I left Charlie in the car, he howled as though he was tortured. People going to and from their cars stared at me, wondering why I was hurting my dog. I spotted two kids with skateboards.

“Got twenty minutes?” I asked.

“Why?” The taller, thinner one asked suspiciously.

“I’ll pay each of you twenty bucks cash to watch my dog while I run in and grab some groceries. He’s from a shelter. He has abandonment issues.”

“Twenty bucks each?” The shorter, rounder boy asked.

“Deal,” the first boy said quickly.

I shopped as fast as I could, tossing items into my cart and bowling over a couple of senior citizens in my eagerness to return to the car. I threw in an extra six-pack of beer, for my nerves. I paid the two kids their twenty dollars each.

“He’s an awesome dog,” the tall kid said wistfully.

“He is,” I agreed.

It was late afternoon by the time we pulled up to the cabin at Little Sebago Lake. Commonly called a “camp”, it was a two bedroom wooden house with a kitchen, living room and bathroom—and a screened-in porch overlooking the lake. The green paint was peeling, but unless Charlie planned to eat paint chips, I didn’t care.

I let him off the leash as I unpacked the car. He ran around, exploring the pine, ash and oak trees and the bushes. An unfamiliar bird called out. He raised his head, looking around, but chose not to pursue the sound. He ventured towards the lake and looked back at me. When I didn’t follow, he came back to trot beside me as I carried luggage back and forth.

I got everything inside, filled and set down his water dish, and popped open a beer. I gave him a couple of Milk Bones, and we headed onto the porch to watch the sunset. As I sat down, I knocked over one of the boxes of books I’d left sitting precariously on a small campstool. It was the box of juvenile mysteries. They scattered across the floor. A wadded up ball of newspaper with a distinctly fishy smell fell out—that was probably what attracted Charlie to the box in the first place. Charlie gave a whine and backed away, looking at me with large, scared eyes.

“It’s okay, Charlie,” I said. “I did it. It wasn’t your fault.” He hesitated. I held out my hand. He slunk over. I had to pet him for several minutes before he relaxed. If I ever found his original owner, the guy was in for a serious ass-kicking.

I looked at the scattered books. A trio of small, leather-bound volumes caught my eye. I reached for one of them. “What’s this, Charlie? What did you find for us?”

He tilted his head and then stretched out his neck for a sniff.

I opened the cover. “Myrtle Pierce, 1902” it read. I turned a few pages. It was a diary, written in a beautiful, neat hand. I caught my breath. I’d always wanted to find a genuine diary in a box of old books. And Charlie found it for me.

“Good boy, Charlie,” I said. His tail thumped the porch happily.

We were safe and snug in our cabin after a long drive, with months of unstructured time stretching before us. And now, a whole new adventure in the past beckoned invitingly. It was going to be an unusual summer.

pencil

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names, both fiction and non-fiction. Her serials “The Widow’s Chamber,” “Tapestry,” and “Cutthroat Charlotte” run on keepitcoming.net. She contributes regularly to FemmeFan with articles on horse racing and ice hockey. Her website is devonellingtonwork.com and her popular blog on the writing life, “Ink in My Coffee” can be found at: inkinmycoffee.blogspot.com. E-mail: quillgoddess[at]verizon.net.