Cathedrals

Creative Nonfiction
Arwen Dewey


You can’t say anything. Brown metal twisted into a woman’s writhing form, hunched protectively over a body that has torn itself open beneath you, frozen silent. Your grief is a brass stamp in the corner of a museum, made by no one famous, nodded to and passed over and forgotten by hundreds of visitors each day. You are sloppily reproduced by student artists with charcoal on their fingers, leaning solemnly over thick white sketchpads. But one short thin foreigner with an American accent, traveling through Europe alone, leans close enough to fog your polished cheekbones with her breathing. She stares at you until her eyes begin to water, and even then, blinking, she does not turn away.

How long have you been in this corner, in agony over a boy who was alive and now is dead? They must have told you by now that there are hundreds of those, more made every day, in every country. We live in a world of dead boys, soldiers and gangsters and activists, victims of AIDS or drugs or fast cars or depression. But this one was yours. You held him sometimes, and he was your joy, and you lived the better pieces of your life seeing the reflection of your living in his eyes. Those eyes are gone, the life inside used up. So what? Thousands of bulbs burn out every day, so many eyes, so many dead.

But only one was yours, only one was mine. We are selfish in our grief, uncaring. Most people wouldn’t dare to get close to creatures so violently emotional as we, so they will never think to judge us for this.

I could stand here and stare at you for days at a time. Admission to your naked body, like those of your cracked, faded brothers and sisters, is cheap. I have already stared at you for so long that my eyes understand you, not just the way your jagged spine stretches your skin, or the way your torso arches; I can see that your knees are aching from pressing too hard into the earth by his side. I can see that the ground is rocky beneath you. I know that the pain in your legs would please you, if you noticed it, and also know that you are beyond noticing. Your face is stretched wide, shock and denial and the most brutal kind of realization taut in its creases. Your mouth is open, and I swear to you that I can hear the silence that comes out. It is loud, is screaming in my ears, is capable of this. Lady, it hurts to look at you. You are the rocks under my knees, and I’m kneeling, like you, on bare, dry ground. My mouth too is stretched wide, but the world remains silent.

It has been a long time, a long time here looking at you and even longer since it happened, and still I can’t say anything. Sometimes pain is too sharp and tight a creature to let spill from something so fleshy and delicate as lips.

*

In the youth hostels, we would have had to sleep in separate dormitories. In the solemnly glorious castles where dozens of inglorious neon-clad tourists wait in the entrance lines, camcorders and whining children in tow, in the cool, ancient, stone-built cathedrals where, once inside, nothing outside really seems to exist, I think of him, and in my mind he sees all these things with me. In reality, I sightsee quietly, almost stoically, and walk alone from sight to sight, jostled by the crowds.

Two kids are playing on the wooden deck of a squat suburban apartment building, making a fort out of a torn blue tarpaulin and whatever patio furniture they can pull into place—crumbly cinder blocks, a folding deck chair, two half-barrels used as planters, and their mothers’ bicycles, among other things. The boy is the organized one, and the one with the strongest will power; he brings out a red-and-gold cigar box filled with candy bars (stolen from the 7-Eleven down the road)—it’s the girl who is the innocent, law-abiding one.

The snack box, he announces. They can share one candy bar each time they have a sleepover in the fort—the rest of the time, off limits. The girl eyes the snack box greedily from time to time, but says nothing—she is a little awed by the boy’s self-restraint, but doesn’t want to admit it, and besides, they’re his candy bars.

Some days I can’t remember why I’m here. My eyes, trying so hard not to look backwards, see the present in a blur. Physically, I move from place to place, distantly admiring, not thinking. But despite myself, I begin to make friends with these half-timbered buildings and lumpy cobblestone streets, and as we grow comfortable together, I find my mind wandering into telling the story, in fragments that it still stings to think about too much.

The fort stays up nearly three weeks. It was built solidly, and only their mothers’ firm requests that their bicycles be liberated lead to the dismantling of the project. But a week or two later, with new materials—planks left behind on a nearby construction site, maybe, or empty grocery boxes—they start a new one, a better one. Each time they tell each other that the new fort is the best one ever.

The morning after I found out, my mind was raw, absolutely emptied and scraped brutally clean. I stepped outside and saw with stupid shock that the world had not responded. The world, it seemed, hadn’t even heard. There were the neighbors’ houses and neatly trimmed lawns, and the forested hills beyond, big and green and luscious in the bright sunlight. The fact that there was sunlight, and that it dared to be bright in the face of this, that it dared to shine, and that my body should stoop so low as to be warmed by it…

The boy and the girl are going on a hike. The hill is steep, and the girl is exhausted before they have gone very far. “Oh look, blackberries!” she says to the boy, and stops walking. She hopes he won’t notice her strained breathing as she picks a few berries and pops them into her mouth. “Have some!” she tells him, “They’re good!” The boy usually teases her mercilessly when she shows signs of weakness, but this time he keeps quiet. He smiles at the girl, and says encouragingly, “Come on, we’re nearly halfway there!” To the girl, the boy is the sun—an incandescent bulb, constant ideas and activities and vibrant energy. Determinedly, she summons what strength she has left and starts trudging along behind him again.

There was a woman jogging down the road that morning, wearing blue cotton sweatpants with a pink racing stripe, and matching pink sports bra. She smiled at me, and called out, “Good morning!” My mouth shaped the polite response before I could think, and even stretched in an automatic smile that felt stiff and fake and like treachery. I don’t think she even noticed.

The boy and the girl are recording their own radio program, complete with silly advertisements for imaginary new Barbie dolls and psychic services. They play the tape for their mothers afterwards, who laugh and laugh.

I still have conversations with him, in my head. It’s my way of trying to understand, or maybe acknowledging that I probably never will, and trying to accept that. I say, Do you still remember the adventures we were going to have? How we were going to end up filthy rich off one of your schemes, and travel around the world together? We had so many plans—two natural-born daydreamers. Well, here I am, traveling around the world like we always wanted to, now what? I need a new plan, and you were always the best at coming up with those. Who am I supposed to daydream with now?

It’s a rainy day, and the boy and the girl are sitting inside, writing skits together and then acting them out. They try to outdo each other with the number of dopey jokes and gruesome murders they can fit into each one.

Over and over again I ask him, Why didn’t you let me know, somehow, that you were hurting that much? Did you try, and I just stupidly, blindly didn’t get it? How could I not have known? Why didn’t I feel it, why couldn’t I smell it in the air around you like roses or too much garlic?

He doesn’t answer, which is why I can believe that these conversations are real.

The boy has his driver’s license. He borrows his mom’s van and drives with the girl and another friend high up into the mountains. The directions are vague, but they find the place eventually—a natural hot springs an older friend has told them about. During the long drive, they listen to a mix tape the girl and the boy made together, and sing along, making up goofy new words to the songs.

The hot springs is on a cliff, overlooking a pine forest in the valley below. It is very beautiful. Soaking in the steaming water, the three speak softly, because when their voices rise the cliffs send echoes bounding around the valley, and the calm and the quiet are too perfect to disturb.

Sometimes the thought of that silent anguish scares me so much that my body shakes with it. In the dark when things are quiet and there are no more distractions, I am suddenly alone, not neutrally, but in a dull thudding sort of way; I can practically feel the air throbbing against my skin, too close around me. Then the horror of it strikes me again, and I call out to him, wherever he is now, saying oh God, what did your grandmother do first? Did she scream, or cry, or maybe faint? I know the police came. I know you had left a note for her. Did she call them first, knowing that going alone to find you there would be too much for her, if it were true?

Or did she go running up the hill alone, hoping to catch you in time?

The boy is sick and the doctors don’t know why, or what his illness actually is, but he doesn’t seem to be absorbing nutrients very well, and he doesn’t have much energy anymore. When the girl comes to visit, she is so bright-eyed and happy to see him, full of stories about college life, her new job, what she’s been doing since they last saw each other. It doesn’t occur to her that there might be a hidden reason for his sudden invitation, but she is worried about him—he’s so tired, and on a flour-free diet calculated by his latest doctor to treat the chronic infection that took hold a few months before. The two cook nut muffins and make nut sandwiches and laugh trying to eat them, watching them crumble in each other’s hands. They go for bike rides, and take walks along the beach and splash in the waves, but the boy is always so tired afterwards, and takes long naps, while the girl sits beside him on the sofa and strums her guitar, and sings him old songs. She hopes he will get better soon.

I say to him, Do you know these things? Do you know that in the back of my mind there will always be this image, dangling, of your body, thin and tired and hanging from a branch I will never see on some solid, indifferent oak on a California hillside? Dangling by the neck, I say to him. My God, by the neck. Did you think about it, while knotting the rope around yourself, did you for one moment think, how ironic that there are people who love this neck I’m working so hard to strangle? But I shake my head at him there, and half-smile as I say, Actually, I know perfectly well what you were thinking. You were trying to figure out how to make a noose like in the movies, that sleek spiral wrap around the main cord, and you just couldn’t figure out how to do it. If I’d been there, we would have giggled over that one, how the suicides and murderers-with-rope in movies always know instinctively how to make perfect hangman’s nooses. “You should’ve taken a class or something,” I would have choked out between giggles, “before trying it for reals. What’s your grandma going to say when she sees this shoddy job?”

But we wouldn’t have laughed. He would have cried in front of me, then, instead of hiding in his room like he did when I was visiting the month before. As if the walls were feet thick, as if I couldn’t hear his ragged sobbing.

The girl and the boy are leaving the rental stand at a boating club. The boy is finally going to show off his sailing skills, acquired over three years of summer boating camps. He slips easily off the dock and into a large and slightly battered blue sailboat, then holds out a hand for the girl to join him. They take off in the steady bay wind, which quickly becomes ocean wind. The boy lets out more sail, until the boat is rushing along at a terrific speed and tilted sharply, nearly perpendicular to the water. The girl eyes the waves nervously, but tries to relax and enjoy herself because she has just turned and seen the way the boy is sitting behind her, his body silhouetted against the horizon. For the first time since her arrival the week before, the exhaustion has dropped from his skinny frame; he looks almost happy.

I wish I had dared to try to reach out to him. I wish I had known. I would have held him in that moment, if he had let me. I would have said, Stay here with me. Live in this world with me. Let’s have adventures together, let’s find out if there’s a way to be grownups and still be happy here. We’ll go to Switzerland, take you to doctors there, they’ll give you back your energy, make your body work right again. We’ll leave no note, we’ll just disappear, they’ll always wonder what happened to us. We can live free in caves in the mountains above Zurich, and frighten the tourists, and howl at the moon, become the stuff of Alpine legends, and die old and wild and happy.

I don’t know, will never know if that would have been enough. But sometimes the pain of the things I did not know to say sears through my mind until I feel like there is nothing left to do in this life but hurt for the past.

*

I’m not Catholic, and he wasn’t either—still, when I visit the cathedrals, more than anyplace else, I go in for us both. I stop just inside the door first, near the holy water, and I breathe in deeply, the smell of old stone and cool air, and with it I breathe in the taste of centuries of people believing. It’s not important that we believe in different things. It’s the believing itself that connects us, our common recognition of the holiness of this place, our shared awe in the face of what is magical and powerful and untouchably real in the world. The high ceilings, their flying buttresses or gothic arches, the stained glass sending panes of colored light drifting down over the cathedral floor. I think of my friend, and I’m not really thinking about the simple fact that we always planned to come here together. I’m thinking, if I can stand here and sense so clearly the others, the faithful of long ago, and feel their belief that still impregnates these stones, maybe there is no time here, and no separation that matters after death. Here, more than anywhere else, I can pretend that we are still together, and believe that it is something more than pretending.

In the great cathedrals, there are always tourists, but the stone is so still and dark and vast that their presence detracts from the solemn majesty only in the way a mosquito at a campfire distracts from the warmth of the flames. There is a vivid, breathing silence that makes the voices of the tourists insignificant and even covers the incantations of the priests during mass. Sometimes that silence surrounds me absolutely, until the insect-buzz of my own existence grows so finite and distant in my head that I have to go outside, just to remember how to breathe again. The blue light from the stained glass is liquid, flowing over the floors as if it were water flowing over time, ancient otherworldly water that flows in still circles yet drenches the stone everywhere, puddling against the walls. It touches the carvings and pictures of old stories that are also portraits of old faith, the lifelong blind devotion that the centuries of artisans and cathedral-builders brought with them here. These things remain; this devotion stays.

I have walked halfway around the cathedral, and chosen the place. My coins clunk down into the moneybox, and I take a votive candle from the shelf beside the chapel of the Virgin Mary, and light it on other people’s prayers, already burning on the dark metal frame. I don’t have to shield the flame, there will be no gust of wind, but I do anyway until, with my right hand, I’ve set the red plastic candle-cup in the holder nearest the top of the frame; he always wanted to be the best, the highest, the brightest.

I watch the flame intently until its flickering steadies, and it begins to grow. I don’t pray. I stand there in silence for a long time, staring at the candle with the calm desperation unique to those of us who want something very badly and know without a doubt we’ll never get it. With all the force I can muster I think at that little flame, “Live. Live. Live.”

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When not writing fiction, Arwen spends her time singing 17th-century lute music, practicing Spanish, and bicycling. She lives in Southern Oregon. E-mail: hokadinkum[at]gmail.com

Murder, Suicide, and a Playgroup

Fiction
Jessica Smartt Gullion


“Ok, suppose you and the Wiggles were the last people on Earth,” Carrie said as she put together the train tracks for the kids. “Which one would you hook up with?”

Laura laughed. “I’ll pass on all of them. Just promise me they won’t sing.”

“Not me,” I said. “I’d make them all into my personal slaves.” Which they would willingly do after my brutal yet oh-so-satisfying murder of Captain Feathersword.

Carmen breezed in, her toddler on her hip. Her gauzy skirt swirled in a rain cloud around her. Black sandals clicked across the hardwood, and then were silenced by the playroom rug. “Did y’all hear the news?” Her face was grave, her voice low. This was not Good News.

I mentally sorted through recent Bad News, but I didn’t know whether to say yes or no. Fighting in Iraq? Category Five Hurricane Hits Mexico? Scandal in US Attorney’s Office? Maybe it wasn’t News; maybe it was news. Someone was getting divorced. Someone’s kid had cancer. I hoped it wasn’t cancer.

Laura saved me. “I don’t watch the news. It’s depressing.” She expertly whipped off her little girl’s wet diaper, rolled it into a neat ball, and replaced it with a clean one, properly adorned with Elmo. Personally, I like the diapers with Dora the Explorer because I hate her and the fact that Brycen poops on her makes me laugh. Immature, yes, but, whatever.

Carmen set Roger on the floor. “Astrid Hanigan. From my street. She killed her baby, her husband, and herself. It’s all anyone is talking about.” She pulled a bottle of spring water out of her Kate Spade diaper bag and took a sip.

I remembered now. Local Woman Kills Family, Self. I didn’t realize she lived by Carmen. Those houses are amazing. Probably 4,000 square feet. My house is small. I hate it when it’s my turn to have everyone over. I don’t even have a playroom. I have to pull toys into the living room. Carmen has a playroom and a media room with surround sound and one of those giant flat plasma screen TVs. She also collects expensive knick-knacks. These fabulous antique Dedham plates hang on the wall of her kitchen. No toys in the living room—it looks like a magazine. Actually, her whole house does.

“Oh, yeah, I did hear about that. A friend of mine knew her from church. Heard she was crazy as a loon, really mental, that one. Supposedly, she cries a lot during service, but if you ask her what’s wrong, she never says, never admits to anything bothering her. She barely combs her hair, let alone wears makeup, and her clothes are wrinkled all the time. She organizes the Wednesday dinners. My friend said she’s like a Nazi about those, ordering everyone around. Gets mad if you bring a salad instead of a dessert, like really mad, yelling and all. They didn’t care much for her, but, you know, they are glad she was saved,” said Carrie. She sat in a rubble of wooden train tracks, snacking on a baggie of Goldfish crackers. A bit of one stuck to her bottom lip. None of us said anything, but we all watched it bob up and down when she talked.

“She killed her baby?” said Laura, her face contorted in horror. “What on Earth?”

“Shot her in the head,” whispered Carmen over Roger’s head. She gave him a kiss. The large platinum hoops dangling from her ears shook violently back and forth. I admired her bravery for daring to wear them around small children. I wouldn’t. “Fortunately she was asleep, so the last thing she saw was not her mama killing her.” Her voice was syrupy.

“How does anyone do that?” Laura replied.

“I don’t know,” said Carmen. “I just don’t know.”

None of us knew Astrid, not really. We somewhat knew of her; it’s a small community. Carmen had some street cred for living three doors down, but she never actually spoke with the woman. She had seen Astrid several times, even waved at her once as she loaded her baby into a maroon SUV. She told us that Astrid’s front yard was perfect; of course, she did have a service. They planted new flowers each season, always color coordinated. A couple of months ago all the beds were full of bellflowers and columbines, with delphiniums around the trees and a cluster of daisies by the mailbox. We fed on details, we inspectors, trying to make sense of it. Carmen noted that Astrid recently lost a lot of weight, and we agreed that was an important fact.

“The weight loss, that is a clear sign of depression,” said Carrie. She rescued Thomas the Train from Shelby’s mouth.

“I wish I lost weight when I was depressed. I eat ice cream,” I joked. Actually, I drink beer out of a chipped juice glass, but ice cream is more PC with the mommies. It is a delicate balance, how much we share.

We didn’t know how she did it, how she pulled the trigger, the gun pointed at her sleeping baby girl’s head. We were much more understanding about the husband. We could all come up with reasons: he cheated, he drove them into bankruptcy, he left his dirty socks on the floor just one too many times. She shot him in the garage. Maybe he spent more time in there than with her.

The problem for us, of course, is that if another mommy could snap like that, maybe we could too. I mean, I understand how child abuse could happen. Not that I would ever do it, of course. Brycen has colic. Sometimes he cries and cries for hours. Nothing I do can get him to stop. Sometimes I just set him down in his crib and go take a hot bath. The water falling into the tub drowns out the sounds of his crying. Sometimes I almost let it run over the top, I hate to turn it off. Still, I would never shoot him. I love him.

He was on a fuzzy blanket on the floor, pawing at the baby gym positioned over his belly. He occasionally managed to swipe one of the toys and it sang “London Bridge is Falling Down,” blending in with all of the other electronic music-makers going off at irregular intervals in the playroom. I picked him up and cuddled him, feeling guilty. “If you guys ever see me going crazy, please intervene,” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Laura. “We all need to watch out for each other.” Out of all of us, she’s the most likely to flip out. She doesn’t believe in letting her kids watch TV. Not even videos. I don’t know how she gets anything done.

“I bet there’s more to the story than we know. I could see how, if Bill cheated on me, and like, got some other woman pregnant or gave me AIDS or something, I could see shooting him,” she said.

We all laughed.

“And my kids,” she continued, “I wouldn’t want them growing up without parents.” She twirled a lock of blond-highlighted hair around her fingers, considering this. “Well, you know, I could see someone doing it if they were already mentally unbalanced. Of course I wouldn’t do it. I’d go to therapy.”

“And we’d help you,” said Carmen, patting her on the leg.

“Or take meds, I mean come on, get a prescription for Prozac or something,” I added.

“Seriously, I wouldn’t get through the day without my 75 milligrams of Zoloft,” Carmen replied.

“I am so glad we have this group,” said Carrie. “I never thought it was going to be this hard, being a mother 24/7. I don’t know what I would do without you guys.” She brushed cracker crumbs off her ample chest, and repositioned her large legs around the toys. She was attempting to sit criss-cross-applesauce, but her body doesn’t fold like that.

We all nodded in agreement and paid homage to the original inventor of the Play Group. If we were drunk, we would hug and tell each other how much we loved one another and that if we were lesbians we would definitely hook up. But we have small children and none of that is appropriate.

“Ok, I wasn’t going to say anything, but,” Carmen made a dramatic pause, we all leaned in closer. “I heard that she had S-E-X with a guy down the street. He’s divorced. Has a 10-year-old son who comes every Wednesday and every other weekend.”

“That’s awful,” said Carrie. “Bouncing your child back and forth like that. Kids need stability.”

“Not as awful as murdering them,” I piped up.

They all looked at me, stunned. Brycen babbled. Carmen laughed. We all joined in with relief. No one thought it was funny though.

I pulled a bottle out of my enormous blue diaper bag. Laura watched me. She was totally into breastfeeding, breast is best and all, but it just didn’t work out for me. Two weeks of sore bloody nipples did me in. Brycen is healthy; the pediatrician says he is fine. Besides, I was bottle fed, and I turned out ok.

“If she was the one cheating, why would she kill everyone?” I said.

“Guilt?” said Carmen.

“I could see that,” said Carrie. “Crazy woman couldn’t take the guilt of it. Maybe her husband found out. So she killed him before he could leave her. I don’t understand people who cheat. Is it really worth it?”

I held Brycen over my shoulder and patted him on the back. His burp was loud. He looked startled.

“What a sad story,” said Laura. “A sad life.” She stared at Brycen’s baby bottle. I packed it back in the diaper bag.

Roger hit Shelby with a Weeble, and she cried. Carrie scooped her up and showered her with kisses. “I’m going to pray for them,” she said.

“Next week at Carmen’s house, right?” asked Laura. We all began packing up our diaper bags, gathering all the supplies we tote around with our children. It wasn’t. It was my week, but I didn’t say anything. We all wanted to go to Carmen’s. So we could see where it happened.

“No one go crazy in the meantime,” I said, holding Brycen on my shoulder. I kissed him on the side of the head, inhaled his baby smell.
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“My writing has appeared at the Mother’s Movement Online and in the forthcoming anthology Mama, PhD. I have also published quite a few academic research articles.” E-mail: Jessica.Gullion[at]dentoncounty.com

The Secret of Despair

Fiction
Karen Carlson


This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;

This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

—H.W. Longfellow, “Snow-Flakes”

I gave birth to three new monsters today. In the supermarket, of course.

Something always happens in the supermarket.

I’d already finished about half my shopping. I was doing pretty good. My shoulders weren’t hunched, my fists weren’t clenched, my face was neutral. I was studying the canola oil.

An older man, his potbelly straining his sweatshirt, interrupted my concentration. “Do you know anything about bacon?”

A good sign. If he was asking for my advice, I must not have looked anywhere near as confused as I felt, as I always felt here in the land of too many decisions, too much sensory stimulus, too much peril. When I look confused and scared, even the street people won’t get too close to me. That’s an advantage on days when I don’t have any spare change to give, but in most of everyday life I prefer to blend into the masses and appear, well, normal. Normal acting, anyway. First impressions would always yield “fat woman, sloppy clothes, middle-aged loser” but that’s better than “wacko fat slob.”

What was the question? Did I know anything about bacon? Well, I knew it’s cured and smoked pork belly, of all the foods on the planet it’s probably one of the least healthy and the most irresistible. I haven’t cooked it in, oh, 30 years or so; my last attempt involved a roommate who kept a pan of hair wax under the kitchen sink, right where my mother kept the pan for bacon drippings—that didn’t end happily. I’ve eaten it occasionally, on rare breakfasts out or club sandwiches. I decided that I qualified as knowing anything about bacon—he hadn’t asked if I was an expert, after all.

“A little. What do you need?” I raised my eyebrows a bit, kept a slight smile, and maintained eye contact.

“My wife is making Toll House cookies, and she wrote down “brown sugar,” but all I see is light brown and dark brown, no just brown, so which do I get?”

I understood the question. But what did this have to do with bacon? Oh, wait—not bacon, bakin’. That amputated terminal G got me. Baking. Chocolate chip cookies. Brown sugar. Okay, I still qualified as knowing something about that. Probably more than I knew about bacon.

But it wasn’t a simple issue. Most cooks use light brown sugar, but some prefer dark. It made the cookies a bit crunchier and deeper in flavor, but needed to be balanced with a trifle less butter, or maybe it was more flour, I couldn’t remember. Beginner’s cookbooks will all tell you that unless specified, you use light brown sugar for anything. But how should I know what his wife wanted? What was the right answer?

Reality check: Was I thinking too much? Yes, I was; it was cookies, not brain surgery.

I grabbed a bag of light brown sugar off the shelf and handed it to him. “Here, this is what you need.” I made sure my voice was strong with confidence, and gave him a full smile. He said “Thank you” and wheeled away. I returned my attention to canola oil, comparing the price-per-quart for various sizes and brands.

Oh, no. Wait, I gave him a small bag of store-brand light brown sugar. What if his wife was making a large batch for a family reunion or a party and needed a large bag? Or she really wanted dark brown? Or she was one of those people who thinks store-brand items are automatically inferior to name brands? What have I done? Would she be angry with him when he got home? Would they have a fight? Or perhaps she was a gentle and considerate soul who would just shake her head in amusement at the difficulty husbands have getting the smallest household errands right, and would send him out for the proper sugar—but what if he had a car accident then, and got killed, and she was left penniless and on welfare and died of a broken heart six months later?

Some help you are.

Hi, Bacon Man Monster, why don’t you go find Bicycle Lady Monster and Choir Monster and the whole family of Work Monsters; they all have the same line as you. You’re just a thought, not a voice like schizophrenics hear, just my own thought and I can conquer my thoughts, I can control you, it just takes practice. Mindfulness. After half a century of practice, I was now able to complete my grocery shopping without creating a scene. Usually.

I needed to finish getting these items on my list—yes, I had to follow my list, canola oil, no I don’t need peanut oil or tahini. I had about ten minutes before the bus came. Cheerios, milk, ice cream. I wheeled my cart purposefully and kept a bland, pleasant expression.

Between the Cheerios and the milk, I saw the bus pull up to the stop outside. I could hope that it was early and make a mad dash for dairy and the registers, but then I’d be all knotted up waiting for the cashier to ring up the order in front of me and I’d get impatient and start snapping. Better to wait for the next bus so I could maintain a calm façade. I didn’t really have to get home anyway, nothing waiting at home for me, nothing and no one except sweet Lucy who loved me as much as a cat can, no matter what, as long as the food dish was full and the litter box was clean. I’d putter away the extra half hour before the next bus. I’d wait twenty minutes before putting the ice cream and milk in my cart so they’d stay cold, rather than sitting in summer heat with them melting and curdling at the bus stop. Planning, it avoided potential pitfalls.

What to do for twenty minutes? I could sit on the bench in the frozen food section. It was cool from the freezers, and it was next to dairy so when it was time I could load up and go. I would sit for ten minutes, get the milk and ice cream, then check out, leaving plenty of time before the next bus came. Sounded like a plan. Without a plan, I might end up wandering around the supermarket for three hours, checking out not only weird produce—What is a cherimoya anyway? Will I ever be brave enough to actually cook an artichoke?—but also magazines about subjects I never knew existed and the ingredient lists of seventy-three different kinds of cat food Lucy wouldn’t eat. Or I might completely disintegrate, walk away from my cart and have to, god forbid, come back tomorrow. Paramedics and emergency rooms hadn’t been in the picture lately, but I couldn’t rule them out entirely.

I wheeled towards the bench, the only bench in the store for some reason. I wonder why they put it facing the frozen vegetables? Do the glass doors remind people of a soothing aquarium, with the fish pressed into sticks and battered and stationary? Or do a lot of people finally reach the end of their rope here and need to rest?

There was a grandmotherly-looking lady standing in front of the bench, looking through her cart. Why was she standing—not sitting, standing—in front of the bench? I’d have to wait until she moved. I struck a casual position and a look of concentration and took out my shopping list. People would think I was weird just standing here but it was easier than coming up with a new plan. After all, how long could she possibly stay there?

Three minutes, that’s how long.

Three minutes isn’t a lot of time. In my younger days, I could hold my breath for three minutes. The average pop song lasts three minutes. It’s a commercial break, feeding the cat, brushing your teeth. Not long. Except when you’re standing in a supermarket doing nothing, waiting for Grandma to move away from the only bench in the store so you can sit down. I reminded myself that no one was paying attention to me; I wasn’t that important, everyone was busy with their own shopping. Yet here I was, paying close attention to the grandmother in front of the bench. For three minutes.

She took a small watermelon out of her cart, put it on the bench, and wheeled away.

What did that mean? Did she do that on purpose, or was she rearranging items and forgot it? Should I tell her she forgot her watermelon? Would that be embarrassing to her? Would she get mad at me? Did she just decide she didn’t need it any more and the bench seemed as good a place as any to leave it?

I wondered if it was all right for me to sit on the bench. Would people think it was my watermelon? And when I got up to leave, would someone yell, “Hey, lady, you forgot your watermelon” and I’d have to buy it? Would a passing stocker hate me for leaving unwanted produce strewn about the store, for him to lug back to the other side of the building for proper restocking? Did I have to take it back myself? Might Watermelon Lady be back to claim it and think I was trying to steal it? Was it okay to sit on a bench with an abandoned watermelon?

Everyone’s laughing at you.

Hello, Watermelon Lady Monster. Why don’t you go find Writing Group Monster and Computer Tutor Monster, they’ll be your new friends singing the same chorus of jeers and taunts.

Time for some cognitive restructuring: I hadn’t done anything wrong. It was not my watermelon, and I was not going to take responsibility for it. If I looked at it funny and sat on the other end of the bench, maybe people would realize I didn’t know what it was doing there.

I forgot about sitting on the bench, grabbed the milk and ice cream—let them curdle and melt if they must—and got out of there. I didn’t rush, made my movements deliberate.

My pass through the registers was relatively uneventful. There wasn’t even the typical indecision about whether to use the 14-items-or-less—when, oh when would someone realize it should be “fewer”?—line. If I’m buying six cans of cat food at 3/$1.00, does that count as one item? Two? Six? It mattered, since I usually had about twelve other things in my cart and could use the express line in good conscience if cat food counted as one or two, but not six. There was a whiteboard right there at the service desk, “% of customers with under 14 items who actually use the express lanes, this week, last week”—goal 90%, actual 82%. So they wanted us to use the express lane if we had fewer (not less!) than 14 items. I’ve had cashiers scold me for standing in a regular line, and I’ve had to argue with them that I actually have 21 items but they insist that I use the express lane anyway because the regular registers are backed up.

I wanted to follow the rules; if someone would just tell me what the rules are, I will follow them, I promise.

But today no one was in line at any register so I breezed through a regular lane before anyone could yell at me. I made sure I kept a slight smile and exchanged banal pleasantries with cashier and bagger. I headed for the bench—another bench!—to wait for the bus, about 15 minutes if it was on time, not bad. I sat with my cart in front of me, something to lean on, something to hide behind, something to protect me.

The only other bench-sitter was a girl with an infant in a stroller. Or was it called a carriage? I wasn’t sure of the difference, I’d never had children, never wanted them; even before I married I’d taken significant steps to assure they wouldn’t appear on the scene. Divorce had confirmed my wisdom.

Something went flying past me, to my left. I wasn’t sure what it was; maybe it was my imagination. Or it might’ve been a fly or a bird. But no, another something went flying by, something too small to be a bird, too large for a bee. It landed on the sidewalk, near the brick wall of the store. Several small items clustered there. They looked… Red? Green? White? What was it? Was it any of my business? It became evident the flying freebies were coming from the girl with the baby. She was eating strawberries out of a plastic container from the store, biting off half the strawberry and throwing away the other half complete with hull. It was raining half-strawberries. Right next to me.

Throwing trash on the sidewalk wasn’t nice. Someone could slip on it, a kid could pick it up and eat it (probably with little ill effect, other than to his parents’ peace of mind), birds and bees would gather and thus sting and shit all over the place… and it was just messy. Someone was going to have to clean it up. Why should some poor kid working for minimum wage have to clean up someone else’s strawberries, strawberries he probably couldn’t afford to buy himself because he had a crappy job working at the supermarket, not that he’d want to buy strawberries, he’d probably be more interested in beer and Doritos but still, he’d have to clean it up.

But scolding young mothers wasn’t nice, either. Especially when it could be argued that it wasn’t any of my business. And she had more important things to do than to clean up strawberries, with her sleeping infant, looked like less than three months old; she was probably still feeling the birth changes. Might be the only time she got to sit and relax and if she wanted to eat strawberries and throw the uneaten halves on the sidewalk, who was I to say she shouldn’t?

Dammit, I just wanted to sit here and wait for the bus, and here I was in the middle of a moral dilemma. I wanted to do the Right Thing, if I could just figure out what it was.

I used the 60 Minutes approach. Morley Safer: “So you knew she was throwing away garbage on a public sidewalk, you knew it could be potentially hazardous, and at the very least was unpleasant and would require work to fix, and you did… nothing?” Mike Wallace: “This young woman wasn’t hurting anyone, she was throwing her discards towards a corner, she had an infant to care for, and you… yelled at her?”

Neither prospect looked good. So I improvised another course of action—just fix the problem. I wandered, casually, like I was just stretching my legs while waiting for the bus, over to the area where the strawberries were still raining down, pulled a crumpled tissue out of my pocket, and started picking up half-strawberries. I was amazed at how little she actually ate of each berry. I collected the dozen or so pieces and stood there waiting for more to fall. I’ve always been pretty good at blending into the scenery, hiding in corners, flying under the radar. It was typically my default position; I have to remind myself not to do it. Here it would work to my advantage. Neutral expression, relaxed posture. Maybe she wouldn’t notice me picking up her half-eaten strawberries.

She noticed. “What are you doing?” I didn’t think she was a sneerer, but I was wrong. I really didn’t want to answer her question. The truth—“Picking up the trash you’re throwing on the sidewalk”—would’ve sounded snide, and the technique was to fix the problem without blame or judgment, so I stayed silent.

Apparently my silence offended her. She glared at me, put the depleted carton of strawberries into her grocery bag, whipped her baby stroller around and hurried towards the entrance of the store. Maybe to buy more strawberries. If you throw half of each one away, you need to replenish your stock often. I threw the tissue full of half-strawberries in the trash. My hands were only slightly sticky.

Can’t do anything right, can you?

Good evening, Strawberry Girl Monster. I think you’ll find that Pilfering Co-worker Monster and Jesus Christ Superstar Monster—my, that’s an old one, from about thirty-five years ago when I was in high school—will make good company for you.

The bus arrived; I gathered my bags, climbed on board, and handed my pass to bus driver with a forcibly steadied hand and slight smile.

Finally, blessedly, home. I put away my 18 items—14 if the cat food counts as two items, 13 if it counts as one. The Cheerios and canola oil snuggle safely in the cupboard, the milk in the fridge. Lucy meowed underfoot; I stepped carefully to avoid her tail and paws as I transferred her dinner from can to dish and placed it on the floor, giving her a light stroke and a “good girl.” In the bathroom, I scooped the litter box for that-which-must-be-scooped. I spent the next six hours focusing on CNN and reruns on TV, dinner, reading John Updike’s Problems, listening to my “soothing” iTunes playlist (The Kings Singers doing British Isles folk songs and Johann Strauss, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, assorted Renaissance Latin), visiting familiar websites for word games and puzzles, attempting without success to fix a broken story, and stroking Lucy when she nuzzled me. I kept the monsters at bay.

*

The clock creeps past midnight; sleep is the unattainable goal. I use the usual tricks: I invent figure skating routines in my head, count (not sheep, just… count), imagine myself in the arms of someone caring and gentle, visualize a safe place of sea and grass and cool breezes and belonging. But the monsters intrude as my defenses lag. I wonder if Bacon Man is lying in an emergency room now, bleeding and dying; more likely, he and his wife are sleeping peacefully under the same nearly full moon that, for the next hour or so, will shine through my window as a spotlight on my mistakes. And what of Watermelon Lady? Did she get something to replace the abandoned fruit? Is there a stocker remembering how inconsiderate I was to leave the watermelon on the bench? Is Strawberry Girl relating to her baby’s father how some idiotic old bag had nothing better to do than to interfere in the perfectly acceptable behavior of a young mother? Older monsters join in the chorus: Stupid… incompetent… loser… useless… troublemaker… they’re all laughing at you… no one needs you… shut up… go away… die… The pillow feels wet under my cheek; I flip it over. I have three pillows, two sides each. It’s usually enough.

pencil

“I’ve lived in Maine for the last 15 years, arriving here via Boston, South Florida, Connecticut, and Long Island, NY. Stories find me by way of a phrase, a feeling, or an event which seems important enough to explore.” E-mail: sloopie72[at]gmail.com

Deadwood

Flash
Janice D. Soderling


“This ain’t easy for me neither, Wanda Gail,” he said, and his words came slow and deliberate like the steps of a hobbled horse.

The woman shifted herself sideways, avoiding his eyes, and looked out across the river. “Isn’t that a heron over there?” she said. “I haven’t seen herons around here since I was a girl.”

The man didn’t answer. The only sound was the steady quaking of the aspen leaves, a soft rustle like the wagging tongues of gossips.

The woman said, “It would have been a comfort to have had the child.”

He said, “You know that wouldn’t’ve worked. It wouldn’t’ve been fair to the kid. It weren’t practical.”

“I could go with you,” she said. Without looking his way, she knew his jaw had tightened, throbbing under the weather-beaten skin. “I could.”

The man said, “We better be gettin’ on back. Your husband will be wonderin’ where you’ve gone to.”

Her voice came quick and bitter. “Jeb is no more interested in me than you are.”

“Well, I’m goin’ back now. You comin’?”

“Do you have to leave tomorrow? Can’t you wait one more week? Till I’m feeling better? You owe me that much.”

“I owe you nothing, Wanda Gail. You owe me nothing. We’re dead even.”

“Dead,” she laughed, or maybe she was crying. “You hit the nail on the head there, Buster.”

The man stood up. “You comin’ or not?”

She pulled herself to her feet, leaned unsteadily against the aspen trunk and looked across the river, shading her eyes with her hand. “I don’t think it is a heron at all. Just an old tree stump. But it sure looked like a heron. Had me fooled.”
pencil

Janice D. Soderling is an award-winning writer whose fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Fiddlehead, and Acumen; and online at 42opus, Our Stories, Cezanne’s Carrot, and Word Riot. Her poetry is scheduled online at Innisfree Poetry Journal, Mezzo Cammin, Right Hand Pointing, and Umbrella; and in print at Anon, Other Poetry, and Blue Unicorn. E-mail: wordwright[at]telia.com

Final Wish

flash
Wayne Scheer


Karla sat on the edge of her husband’s hospital bed, massaging his swollen fingers. A yellowed foot stuck out from under the sheet. She covered it and resumed massaging his hand.

“I love you,” she said.

She imagined him tightening his fingers.

“It’s all right, sweetheart.” There was so much more she wanted to say.

Ted had wanted to die in his own bed. After each hospital stay he would say, “When my time comes, please let me die at home.”

She had promised. And she tried. God only knows how much she tried. But when he collapsed in the bathroom earlier in the morning, she panicked and called 911. She couldn’t pick him up, although his once two-hundred-pound frame now weighed nearly half that.

She tried not remembering the sound he made falling off the commode.

He had been getting weaker and they decided no more dialysis, no more emergency resuscitation. Ted had fought the cancer for over two years, but it continued to spread. The chemotherapy was terrible, yet he managed. He even kept his sense of humor. At the hospital, he became friendly with a man who was undergoing the same treatment. Ted called him his “chemosabe.”

Karla understood that Ted could not last much longer. Understanding was one thing; watching him die another.

She had begged the emergency medical people to carry him to his own bed, but they said they had to take him to the hospital. She didn’t have the energy to argue. The truth is she felt relieved.

She tried explaining this to Ted in the back of the ambulance, to apologize for breaking her promise. She thought he nodded as if he understood.

At the hospital, she showed everyone concerned his Living Will and the Do Not Resuscitate order. They gave her papers to sign and took him to a separate wing of the hospital for terminal patients.

“It won’t be long now,” the doctor had said after examining him.

All she could do was hold her husband’s hand and hope he understood.
pencil

After teaching writing and literature in college for twenty-five years, Wayne Scheer retired to follow his own advice and write. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Notre Dame Magazine, The Pedestal, Pindeldyboz, Eclectica Magazine, flashquake, Flash Me Magazine and Apple Valley Review, among others. Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at wvscheer[at]aol.com

From: Man_2579@companionsearch.org
To: Woman_1375@companionsearch.org

Flash
Charles D. Phillips


W_1375>: Your turn. Tell me one thing about you that might weird me out. >

M_2579>: What, you think I would tell you if I tortured small animals? Okay, I have a cat as black as the devil’s heart. He sometimes (okay, most of the time) chooses to sleep on me. Before he settles in on my right shoulder, he occasionally grooms my ear or my cheek with his quick, sandpaper tongue. He then lays his head against my neck and purrs in my ear before he falls off to sleep, dreaming of fat voles and slow mice. When his purring ceases, his slow, rhythmic breathing lulls me to sleep.

I remember what it was like when a woman did a similar thing. She would softly hum little nonsense melodies as she drifted off to sleep. In her sleep, she would stretch herself against my naked skin, and we would touch in unexpected places. Her knee would rest against my thigh, one of her nipples would bud against my arm, or her chin would touch the top of my shoulder, while her sweaty, rumpled hair pressed against my temple.

On some mornings, we would slowly awaken with the wine still sloshing in our brains and the smells of sex still faintly swirling around us. Each of us would know the other was awake, but we wouldn’t speak or even open our eyes. We would simply lie there, barely touching, and our breathing would synchronize; maybe our hearts would too.

Usually I would never say these things. But, email creates enough emotional distance so that if you reject me, it won’t be so bad. I can imagine all sorts of unpleasant things about you that make it a good idea that we never meet. You think Rush Limbaugh is an intellectual giant. You have bad teeth and smile much too broadly. You wear sensible shoes and don’t shave your legs. You braid your hair and never wash it. Worst of all, you are more needy than I am and even more transparent about that need. The list goes on into infinity.

Besides, what woman would want to meet a man who tells her about sleeping with his cat? But, the cat story symbolizes the combination of affection and trust that I have felt before in my relationships and now miss. The cat relishes curling up next to me and is fully relaxed as he adds my warmth to his own. God, here I am back to the cat again. This is really about me and women. Of course, if we should ever meet and after some excruciatingly long period of dating, during which we decide that we are soul mates, we eventually did go to bed together, I would appreciate it if you would wear a fur coat the first few times, until I get adjusted. >

M_2579>: You still there? >

M_2579>: I hope you know that last part was a joke. >

pencil

Charles D. Phillips is a public health professional who lives and teaches in College Station, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Flashshot, flashquake, HeavyGlow, Long Story Short, and Vestal Review. He also has additional pieces of short fiction forthcoming in Flashshot and Long Story Short. His non-fiction essays have appeared in The Touchstone Magazine and been produced by Touchstone Radio. E-mail: chasphil3[at]verizon.net