Little Blue Flower

I knew a man once who was cruel, but his story was also cruel.  The memory of how his life unfolded still haunts me.

It began when he saved the life of a wizard.  Remarkable in and of itself.  As it happened, the wizard was merely crossing a street and this man was doing the same.  He noticed the oncoming car first and whisked them both out of harms way.  It was a simple act, more instinct than kindness, but the wizard was grateful and he granted the this man a unique wish.  He could give him any one power, to be used over and over until his death. It would be a unique gift and one he must decide for himself.

As it happened this man was broken-hearted at the time of his heroic act.  His girlfriend of many years has left him only weeks before.  He was haunted by his love for her, particularly by a memory that came each time he glanced at a photo on the fridge door.  She stood on the beach, backlit, her hair a silver outline against the grey of sky and ocean.  It had been a sunny day, but the picture was not a good one.  Still, it brought back his happiest memory, and that was something that broke him every time.  He had torn up the photo, but later taped it back together. He couldn’t let it go, but the pain just didn’t seem to let up.

So when the wizard asked him what his power would be, the man said he wanted to be able to take away a person’s happiest memory.  He would use it on himself and once he did the photo would be all but meaningless.  It would find its way into the waste basket.

At first the wizard pulled his beard and seemed to hesitate, perhaps mulling over the cosmic ramifications of rendering such a trick.  But then his cell phone rang and, reaching into his flowing robes, he took a call.  It was his mother and he seemed peeved to get it.

“This really isn’t a good time,” he said.

The wizard shook his head at the man, his expression seeming to say, “Moms. Am I right?”  At last, he held out a hand and placed it on the man’s forehead.  His lips moved in a silent incantation.

“There,” he said aloud.

Then into the phone, “Not you, Ma. Some guy.”

The wizard walked away, but turned back, flattening the phone against his chest.  “It is done,” he said. “You need only say, ‘Happiest memory you are gone.’ Use it wisely.”

When the man got back to his apartment, he took one long look at the photo.  It had been in Malibu and the memory was a short one, though it represented a broader swath of his life.  When he and Diana were first falling in love.  He had looked into the sun too long, so that when his eyes tilted on her, there were spots of blackness floating around her face, and a dimness that shrouded her eyes in secrecy.  But her smile came through his small blindness, a flash of gorgeous lips and bright teeth.  He then felt her hand slip into his and heard her voice, husky and sweet and golden, “Ready to head back?”  That moment encapsulated everything good about one fantastic year.  His hand rose involuntarily and rested on the corners of the photo, flattening out the curling paper.

Taking a deep breath, the man closed his eyes.

“Happiest memory, you are gone.”

He let his mind go blank, breathing the way he did when he did yoga, sure that the magic worked best when you gave it a little space.  Then he opened his eyes and looked at the picture.  But the memory was still there, sharp as ever, bitter and sweet and agonizing.

“Damn.”

He tried it once more. Then again.

When he was drunk later that night he tried it so many times that he fell asleep on the kitchen floor in front of the refrigerator.  Each time he said, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

In the morning he could still remember everything about that moment.  The cry of the seagulls.  The smell of her shampoo and sunblock. He decided that there really was no such thing as wizards.  The wizard had just been some dude stumbling toward Comic Con or a meeting of D & D players.  Or a lunatic with a strong grasp of wardrobe.

He laughed at himself until his head hurt.

There was no such thing as magic and he had no super powers.

 


 

Then in the Spring a small blue flower budded in the mulch at the corner of his yard. He spotted it one morning on the way to the coffee shop and he paused, a smile opening on his mouth, and he had a strong sense that whenever this blue flower bloomed, he felt happy.  Because.

Then he realized that the only thing he knew for sure about the blue flower was that for a long time it had been a thing that meant something.  Now he couldn’t remember what it was.  He asked his sister if it meant anything to her.

“Mom planted those for us. Some in each of our yards. Cassie has some, too. Mine never made it. The year she was dying. You remember.”

And when she said it, he realized that part he could recall.  And helping her plant the flowers wasn’t a happy memory really.  He’d been irritated with her about it.  Thinking it was sentimental.  He might not always live here. One day he might not even want a yard. She’d blown off his grousing the way she always did.

“Let me do this,” she said.

It wasn’t the planting day that he couldn’t remember.  It was something else.  Of course, he was a kind of forgetful man.  He often walked into a room and paused because his reason for coming was already out of his mind.  Still, that blue flower hit him when he looked at it.  It was sharp, but vacant.  There had been a memory there and a meaning. It just wasn’t there anymore.

He began to wonder if he did have the super power.  Had this forgotten thing been a happier memory than the day on the beach with Diana?  He’d been sure that was his most joyous recollection, but he had been in the throes of his grief then and perhaps he’d not been seeing things clearly.

 


 

Then in the autumn he was cleaning out the grate when another missing memory made itself known to him.  It was a damp day outside and on those days the chimney really smelled of wood smoke the most.  As he leaned in to clean out the ashes, the smell caught him off guard.  And he felt a smile forming on his lips – just like with the little blue flower – and then it was just a feeling like being empty.  But if emptiness could itch.  Because he knew that this smell of woodsmoke always made him think of something else that was sensory, like another fragrance or a taste, which was in turn connected to a person and a moment.

He was stunned by the loss.

Leaning back from the grate, he stared into the shadows of the room, but there was nothing there to answer the question.  How many times had he used his power on himself that first night? How many happy memories had he erased?

Or was this more of his usual scattered mind?

 


 

He stayed late at his neighborhood bar, until only he and the bartender were left.  Two feet of mahogany, waxed over the years to a mirror finish, separated them.  Charlie had told him some good jokes; he knew a lot of them already.  They had been talking for years.

If the wizard had been a wizard – and if he had a super power – tonight would have to show it.  He couldn’t live anymore with the uncertainty.  It had been terrorizing him, not knowing if he had magic or was simply on the precipice of Alzheimers.  That’s what took his Mom. It ran in the family.

He looked into Charlie’s eyes a little too long.  Men have codes about things like this.  But he had to study him and see just how his eyes looked in the beginning.  Charlie frowned at him.

“You okay?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded distant to himself.

He took a deep breath and then said to Charlie, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

Charlie blinked.  “I’m glad I already called last call.”

“Tell me about the day with your Granddad on the ferry ride.”

Charlie frowned. “What the fucks got into you, man?”

“Tell me about it.  The hotdogs and the fat lady whose dress blew up.  The thing your granddad said.”

Charlie shook his head, “He just…”

“Yeah?”

Charlie straightened up, braced his hands on the bar.  He turned his head to glance down the bar, his eyes probing the dimness of the room, looking for an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think that’s me.”

“Of course it is,” the man said.  His heart was racing, his hands trembling. “I just asked you too quick.”

“No,” Charlie said.  But his brow was creased as he dropped his gaze to his feet. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t have no memory like that.”

When he glanced up at the man, his eyes glistened with tears.  The man looked into his eyes, trying to find a missing light.  Charlie turned away, taking the towel off his shoulder to wipe glasses.

“What was that thing you said a minute ago?  The thing about the happy memory?”

“I don’t know.”

Charlie put a hand up on the shelf in front of him and leaned into his arm, resting his face against his sleeve.  “I think you’d better get out of here.”

But the man had already slipped off his stool, his face white and his fingers numb and awkward as he shook a twenty out of his wallet.

“Night, Charlie.”

The bartender wouldn’t turn to face him.  He didn’t say good night.

 


 

After that the man was sure his power was real.  It awakened something in his personality. There had been a thrill that came when he took away Charlie’s happiest memory.  It was undeniable.  When he tried to think about the morality of it, his thoughts broke apart like a puzzle fresh out of the box.   He couldn’t piece together a way to look at the mess of his new magic.  He just knew it to be exhilarating.

 

 

 

Momentos

As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring.  I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on.  No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either.  The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts.  A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming. 

The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year.   In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class;  blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.


The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end.  In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend.  She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her.  When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger.  Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically.  Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years.  Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.

During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me.  Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends?  Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?


My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well.   Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young.  It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism.  When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point.  In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things.  One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift. 

Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country. 

Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts.  With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier.  I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms.  Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero. 

As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek.  Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether.  By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it.  My mother is very, very sensitive.


At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent  when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement.  Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country.  Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.

The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit.  I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure.  I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile.  They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much.  For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned.  I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.


I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach.  When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again.  They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.

We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes.  It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage.  Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change.  And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera.  When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together.  The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.

In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket.  It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.

The Sandalwood Spell

Mrs. Lowell died today.  She was ninety-one.

We remember her fondly.  There was a time when she taught us lady-like things, spidery handwriting and the proper way to serve tea.  She belonged to another world.  In her little cottage, there were relics of that bygone place and time.  A fan open on a marble table top, carved of wood and bone, with a rose tassel, rotting despite all her clean and careful ways.  In the hall, a collection of walking sticks from all over the world marched along the wall.  One had the fearsome face of a tribal god.  She taught us the name, but it is long forgotten.

Her husband was English, the last of the keepers of the empire, she said.  They married late in life, when his diligence in the name of a young queen was no longer needed, and they came to her home place in America, the cottage on the bend in the road near our house.  Somehow she fit everything they’d ever loved from their life in Africa into those four small rooms.

Once, she gestured to the parlor, saying, “When I was a girl, there was only a stove and a pair of armchairs.  The reverend and mother sat side by side, so many years the velvet wore through, and all of the little ones sat on the floor.  Now there are more seats than people for sitting.”

She didn’t sound lonely too much when she said that.  The colonel, her husband, was long dead by that time.  She was used to her singular existence, one supposes, or as used to that as any child of God can ever be.  We are never alone, if one thinks about it the right way.

Her hands were slender and pale, the nails always pared just so, though they yellowed in the late years.  She tutted over them with a frown, trying to remember something she used to know.  White rice vinegar, she said, but there was something else.  Her gaze moved out the window, to the soft green brightness of the yard.

“Well, it will come to me,” she said at last.  Her eyes were silvered over gently with cataracts. “The vinegar and something else, something hard to get.  He brought it from town for me and surprised me.  Mother Superior soaked her hands in it and they turned as white and soft as a girl’s hands.”

We sat and listened.  The house smelled like old things, old roses.  In the pauses, one heard the wood pop now and again, as if the walls were cracking their knuckles absently.  Mrs. Lowell drew a breath.

“One mustn’t think she was vein, mind you.  Mother Superior.  It was only that her hands itched from the dryness.  It was meant to make them soft.  When it made them young again, it was only a little blessing more.”

On the walk home, we speculated about the other ingredient.  But perhaps it was something African, some exotic oil from a flower unknown to us.  Perhaps she had only imagined the outcome.  If it were possible to find it, we asked ourselves, and there was only enough to fill a small basin, what part of ourselves would we wash?  Our hands were already feeling age, mine more than yours.  You said you’d prefer your feet, because if they felt as they had when we were young, you’d walk out more, long distances away.  Your eyes went a little dreamy.  It sounded nice to me, too, and neither of us said we’d wash our faces in the basin.  Perhaps we would have just a few years before.

It is sad to think that Mrs. Lowell is gone, the last lady of another era.  I never quite learned the knack of her fine calligraphy, but when someone talks of the old British empire, I can think of many relics out of Africa, ones that I touched with my hands.  I know what Indian sandalwood smells like when it’s been captured in a rosewood box for thirty years and is released onto the limpid air of a Virginia summer.

A letter fell out and I bent to pick it up her her.  Mrs. Lowell trembled as she glanced at the words written on the pages.  I recognized the hand, glanced away as one must do.  The sandalwood was a spell between us, though only she knew the words.  Then she said in a voice that sounded richer and rounder and smoother than her age, “We surround ourselves with old romance, but forget we were ever romantic ourselves.  I’m glad you asked to see the box, child.”

I recall we went into the garden then and she told us the names of flowers she’d brought over the ocean, the ones that survived our native soil and even the ones that did not.  Mrs. Lowell described them with glistening eyes and color in her cheeks.  To hear her, there were shades of scarlet and of yellow we had not yet seen in this world.  In these bright spirits, she took us under the oaks and pointed to violets in pots she had nestled among the roots.

“I bring them inside for the winter.  They’re beautiful but awfully delicate.”

I fetched three folding chairs of bamboo from the house while you stayed with her and we sat in the shade until the sun set and the fireflies came out, sparkling on the dark green field.  The stories she told are forgotten to me, except in bits and pieces, but these are my treasures, crowded in my mind like all the things of her little home on the bend.

Good night, Mrs. Lowell.

The May Day Knot

Tiger walked home from school, a knot in his gut he hoped a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would ease.  The knot had nothing to do with hunger, but he’d found that almost anything between two pieces of white bread made the worry a bit smaller.  In the slanting light, his shadow trudged beside him, long and thin when they walked beside parking lots; short, fat, and folded when they passed in front of stores and houses.  He could see lots of things in his shadow: the bulging wood buttons on his coat; the fuzzy edge of his boots where they met his pants; the fringes of his scarf that fluttered with the breeze and his movement.  He tried to see the outline of his face in profile – the shape of his nose, the full lips the girls all envied – but when he turned to try to catch it, the shadow turned, too.  He was left staring at the outline of his ear, with the bulky fold of his cap just above it.

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It was too warm for the coat and the hat, he’d argued that morning with Grangie, but his granny always got her way.  If she planted her feet and reared back her head, it didn’t matter what came out of her mouth after that.  She was the boss.  As he went back to his room to grab the coat, he’d mumbled something about the flowers in the yard.

“I hear you, smart ass,” Grangie said.  “But it’s gonna rain today and bring in a cold front, the weather man say.  First of May don’t mean jack.”

“It means May Day,” he said, tucking a grin into the coat.

She shook her head at him, but smiling.  “Well, it won’t kill you to carry it over your arm if I’m wrong, Tiger man.”

“Other kids don’t have to wear coats now.”

“Right. Cause other kids come from trash.  They’ll be out at the emergency room or whatever, waiting three hours to have someone tell them they got pneumonia.”

He thought about what Grangie said as he came to the community center.  She’d been right about the rain and the chill.  The pavement was dry now, but only on account of the cold breeze.  He dug his hands into the pockets of the coat and the left one found the shape of something in a wrapper.  He pulled it out with a smile, a pack of Reese cups from Easter time.  He wondered if Grangie put it there for him.  She might have done.

Looking over his shoulder, he decided to sit for a minute and eat the candy by himself.  He climbed the steps of the old community center and found a dry spot at the front door.  There was a cover over head, a kind of porch roof, but it didn’t have any posts.  It just sort of reached up heavenward, like it was always looking for bad weather.  It was like Grangie, never letting the other shoe fall, always holding out a hand to catch it by the laces in the nick of time.

The paint on the center was new and old ladies like his grandma were proud of how it looked.  They always brought it up in the line at the grocery store.  Didn’t the green on the windows come out nice?  Made the place look kind of summery.  Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, they said, leaning in to share a laugh that Tiger didn’t understand.  Grangie and her friends seemed to know another language.  It used most of the words he already knew, but they put them together differently.  Sometimes they stopped talking all together when a kid came into the room.  Or else they started down one road with their words, then paused, giving each other a look.  Whatever else they were going to say was routed to their eyes.  The others would press their lips together and nod.

“Mmm-hmm,” they’d say.  Or, “Well, I told her that would happen.”

Sometimes, “But ain’t that always the way it goes?”

He liked being with Grangie’s ladies sometimes.  They didn’t seem to mind him lingering in the room.  Without missing a beat, they switched to the language of their eyes and half sentences.  Some of them had such big round eyes, when they rolled them, it made Tiger want to laugh.  The biggest, roundest, darkest eyes must have all kinds of funny things to say, he supposed, because the other ladies laughed, too.  He’d stand at Grangie’s side, resting his cheek against her shoulder and listening and not listening.  She might reach across the table, take the lid off the cookie jar and hold one out for him, all without looking at him or breaking the chatter.

If the ladies started to talk about him, it made him happy and worried all at once.

“Angie, ain’t he got your Joe-Joe’s eyes?”

“Little boys are sometimes prettier than the little girls, you know what I’m saying?”

“Look at them lips.  Ruby red.”

“Oh, girl. Now he’s blushing.”

“Preening more like,” Grangie would say. “Now stop fluttering your lashes like a you know what.  Get on out of here, Tiger man. Go play with Teeny’s girls.  They’re out on the porch.  But play nice or I’ll get you.”

Then she’d add a look that sealed the promise.  He’d leave them with heavy feet, dreading playing with the other kids.  He wasn’t like anyone else, he felt too keenly, and it made it hard for him to warm up.  Kids at school said he was a snob.  Or else a sissy.  Two older boys had taken to taunting him in the halls.

“Queer,” they’d whisper as he approached his locker.

They were tall boys, handsome already, dressed better than most.  If there was a new kind of shoes, they were the first to wear them.  Had they lived just one street over, he understood, they’d be going to the big school out near the library.  Instead they went to his school like a handful of other white kids.

One of the boys already had a shadow over his lip where a mustache would want to grow one day.  The other had large hands with broad knuckles that could make a hateful fist, but still they fascinated Tiger.  He didn’t know why yet, but he always noticed those hands, how the fingers were long, how the knuckles were dusted with golden brown hair like a man’s hand.  When he saw the pair of boys coming along the hall toward him, he had two thoughts, one chasing the other: first he thought how good-looking they were, like boys on album covers at the record store; then he remembered anew who they were and what was to come.  Each of the two thoughts left him with the knot in his stomach.  He lowered his eyes and tried to think of other things, hoping they would not notice him.  He longed to be invisible until they parted like the Red Sea and moved around and past him.

Lots of things left him with a knot in his stomach.  He was used to the feeling of one gathering and thickening there, not long after the last one had slipped loose.  His face, one of Grangie’s ladies once said, was a worried face.  “Some children do more than others,” she said, her own old face looking sad and heavy.  She tucked her chin close to her neck, her jowls making her into a kind of hound dog for a moment.

Grangie had given him a long look, then frowned into her coffee.  She slid her flask out from her apron pocket, gave the mug a little pinch of encouragement, and sipped the brew again.  “Well, I try to keep things together, girl, but you know…”

“Mmm-hmm.”

The Reese cups were good.  He pushed out the center with the tip of his finger and ate that first.  It was best to save the thick, chocolate edges for last.  “It’s like they’re little peanut butter pies with chocolate crusts. I love them,” he said softly to himself.  The breeze made the little baby leaves on the trees whisper even as he noticed the sound of a train rumbling through town in the distance.

In a month, they’d be out of school, he thought, letting the chocolate melt between his tongue and the roof of his mouth.  The summer would begin for kids.  Grangie would take him to the community pool, then make him wash with lots of soap when they got back.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” she’d say. “Chlorine or whatever it is don’t make a bit of difference if people be peeing in the water. Don’t you ever let that shit in your mouth, Tiger-man, you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He liked the water but he always got the knot when he thought about all those other kids there.

“Go find your friends,” Grangie would say, rifling through her bag for something or other.

Tiger didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t really have any.  She’d give him that sad look of hers and it would make him cry.  Before long, she’d be crying, too, and they’d both be what she called a mess. So he’d sidle up near kids he sort of knew from school, standing just to the outside of their circle, miming a quiet laughter as they laughed.  Silent so they wouldn’t mind his intrusion too much; but the look of laughing with them, in case Grangie glanced up from her novel and noticed.

It was hard to imagine the pool days coming so soon, sitting there outside the community center in his coat, the tip of his nose going cold in the chilly wind.  He ate the second Reese cup a little slower, the sugar cheery like sunshine.  When he lifted his hand to take a bite, his shadow did the same, the two of them tucking away the last bites of Easter.

 

Wayne

From my alter ego a couple of years ago, a story I still like a lot.

Cindy Smoot

When I was thirteen, someone new came into our lives, upsetting the apple cart but leaving behind a few genuinely sweet memories.  Wayne Sowers was tall and paunchy and wore so much Old Spice it was like the whole cast of T.J. Hooker had come over to watch women’s volley ball.  Mamma met him at the bowling alley where he was a manager.

One Friday night she dropped me and some cousins off there to entertain ourselves while she went to get her drink on with my aunt Sheila.  This didn’t happen too much, but when it did we just rolled with it.  Of course, two hours in we were already starting to draw some notice from the management.  In my family, returning to wolf pack state is a short trip, so when cousin Dawn proposed a seek and destroy of this drama club girl who’d said ‘nice banana clip’…

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Molly

The gulls are bright and quick, taking high to the sky. 

This great, long band of sugary earth,

The broad, splashing meadow of water –

They make of us very small things, you and I.

We pause, sun-blinded, for a moment lost.

Heedless of our bewilderment, the tide unfolds on the sand,

Tossing up shells of pink and strands of kale green.

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Then you call out to me to come and play,

Two pale hands making a steeple over your green eyes.

And because you are older and wiser

And more knitted to the world by the magic of hours,

And because I know you will not lead me too far away,

I come along to join you.

One hot, crunchy step at a time, we close the gap.

Warm fingers curl together and another adventure begins.

London and Other Old Loves

When he thinks of London, he remembers a girl with henna red hair and eyes like exotic oceans. Water he’s yet to dip his toes into.  They were best friends for a year and lovers for a scant few weeks.  That began in a rented room over Baker Street, where the window looked out on roofs for chimney sweep dancers. It surprised them both, that their laughter and wrestling sport would lead to urgent kisses, sliding hands and tongues, a shattering and quieting bliss.  He held her until she fell asleep, wondering what it meant.  Had he changed or been mistaken in himself all along?

Later he stood out on those roofs, listening to the noise of the city, feeling the humidity of the summer night.  He smoked back then and he remembers watching grey plumes drifting away from him into the shadows.  In his recollection, he didn’t want to turn and study her through the window.  He felt a mixture of anger and curiosity.  They had opened something between them that could not help but feel bold and mysterious.  Yet he was sure it only complicated everything.  The weeks to come would prove him right.

He walked to where the building ended over the street and sat on the dirty ledge.  He thought of home, the small nest of their town in Virginia, and he cried when his thoughts drifted to the boy he was sure he loved. In later years, this summer of youth would amuse him a little.  If the man he became could stand near the boy he was, watching him swiping at his tears and lighting another cigarette, he would be hard pressed not to turn away with a smile of both kindness and contempt.  Would he drop a hand onto the boy’s shoulder, give it a comforting squeeze?

His father used to do that, when he was alive, and that young man always squirmed away from the touch.  The young have no notion of how cruel they are, carving out their space, keeping their old keepers at arms length while they mine the world for gems they can only find on their own.  He hopes he would save the gesture. Perhaps he’d do the thing the boy hadn’t the courage to – after all, things would sort themselves out eventually – and instead he might turn and give the young woman his consideration.  Knowing where the years would take her, surely she needed the love more than his callow, slender, boyish self.

If he could go back as he was now, with just a hint of ache in his joints, a skiff of white wintering his dark hair, he might stand at the glass and think she was a bit of Venus in the shadows of that old room.  In sleep she would seem angelic, her claws tucked away.  For the year of their friendship, she was safe and never needed to use them.  Except perhaps a bit at the end – but those little cat scratches were all but forgotten.  He would trace his finger along the glass, the silhouette of her cheek against the pillow.

Our Lady of Perpetual Snark

As she walked home, she thought first about a woman she wanted to punch, a woman with one front tooth that stuck out more than its mate, whose face went soft as pizza dough when she looked up at you with her mouth hanging slack.  Those thin lips were always gaping open, their owner saying something like, “That was mean, Hawkins.”

Then her mind drifted and she was trying to remember what she had in the pantry because it seemed like a soup kind of night.  Though there were still some leaves on the trees, the October twilight was cold.  The chill had chased people off the sidewalks, so she was alone for the twelve blessed minutes until she got home.

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Everyone at work called her Hawkins, which was her own rule.  She hated her first name.  It was a soft name that never fit her personality.  Even her mother once said, “If I’d known what a mean bitch you’d turn out to be, I’d have named you something like Myrtle.”

“Nice, Ma,” she’d said, laughing.

The two of them could always joke in that way.  A friend of hers once asked if it hurt her feelings and that was the first time she ever stopped to consider that it could.  She shook her head at the time, said, “No, that’s just how we are.  Honest.”

She had to explain that to Denise from human resources all the time.  It came up again today when she was called in to talk about the latest report Leslie had filed.  Leslie was the dough faced idiot who sat across from her, dusting her resin lighthouse collection with her dirty lunch napkin while she talked to customers on the phone, the wire of her headset vanishing into her neck fat.

As soon as she sat down, Denise adjusted her glasses and opened with a textbook question, “How do we find a way to coexist, since both of you have the right to expect a comfortable work environment?”

Denise was a pretty girl, always wore nice clothes from places like J. Crew or the Gap, tossed her hair-do around the lunch room like a Kennedy at a fundraiser.  Hawkins considered herself lucky not to be on Denise’s friend list.  If you were, she’d make you look at pictures of her latest bride’s maid gig. All those girls with thin arms and drunken eyeliner, captured forever trying to Dougy with some sass.  No, thanks.

Hawkins knew the drill.  She knew how to talk to people like Denise.  Clearing her throat gently, she put on her smooth customer service voice.  “Well, Denise, I think it’s common for there to be friction between folks in close quarters. I also think Leslie’s a bit hypersensitive.”

“She said you muttered…” Her eyes dropped as she glanced at the report.  “She said you muttered ‘ugly bitch’ under your breath when she looked at you.”

Hawkins laughed out loud – mostly because it was true and a little embarrassing, but also because she liked to see proper, swing-bob Denise using words like that.  She composed herself, decided the game was up.  “Look.  What you mutter is private.”

“Then why mutter it at all?”

“Because sometimes something is so true and so annoying, you have to say it out loud, but you know it’ll cause problems, so you mutter it.  Out of courtesy.”

Denise looked at her for a long while.  Her office was small, so the silence was condensed like soup out of a can.  Considering her options, Hawkins decided to throw in a little water.

“Well, she does have super good hearing.  I’ll give her that.  How about I go to the printer room the next time I need to mutter something?  Because I promise you, it isn’t in me to suppress it when I get that irritated.”

Whether or not she liked the suggestion, Denise seemed to accept it.  Looking a little flattened, she turned back to her computer and said, “Just try to remember why you’re here.”

The walk home took her along the expressway and she paused as always at Mt. Carmel Triangle to light a cigarette.  She leaned against the fence while she smoked, looking at the statue of the holy mother and child.  The Madonna had been painted badly so that her eyebrows looked like woolly caterpillars.  Still, her face wore the calm wisdom that comforted people.

Hawkins shook her head, said out loud, “Right, bitch. Motherhood’s a piece of cake.”

At home, her kids were staring at screens, hunting down gangsters and popping off hookers at a hundred and twenty miles an hour.  If she was lucky, the oldest remembered to empty the drainer and maybe, just maybe, wash the coffee pot for tomorrow morning.  It wasn’t likely.

“Wonder if Baby J ever got sent home for stabbing a girl in the hand with a pencil?” she asked the evening air.  “Maybe he had it coming.”

If her Grammy could have seen her talking to the two of them like that, she’d have made her cut a switch from the forsythia in the back yard and she’d have welted up her ass cheeks something good.  Hawkins glanced up into the glowering sky, but her sense of guilt was short-lived as something like a defiant smile played at her lips.  Still, she fished into her hip pocket and found some change, dropped it softly on the broken tiles at the feet of the Madonna.

She finished off her cigarette before moving on, glancing back once and catching the last of the twilight making a sort of magic on the statue.  They didn’t seem to mind her grilling them.  Maybe they knew how much her feet hurt by this time of day.  Or how annoying Leslie was in the morning, when her energy was peaking after a breakfast of sugary, whip cream covered coffee from McDonald’s.  The thing about people like Leslie that pissed her off was how they pretended that each day was a fresh slate.  She always parked it with a bright smile, saying good morning like today they were finally going to hit it off.

She dug her hands into her pockets, leaning into a cold breeze that cut over the island.  On the air she could smell garbage and spicy food.  It quickened her hunger and she walked faster.  Before long she reached their little house with the metal awning over the door, rusted and bent but still some comfort on rainy days.  The door was unlocked, like always, so she pushed into the warm hall without breaking pace.

Two of them were playing video games, little boxes of cereal open on the table in front of them.  The oldest was sitting in her recliner, Indian style, painting his nails carefully.  He glanced up at her when she entered.

“It’s not one you like,” he said. “You said this one chipped bad.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, princess, well that’s good to know.  I got a fancy dress ball this Saturday.  You mind picking up my diamond tiara from the dry cleaners?”

He laughed. “You have a good day?”

“You clean up in the kitchen at all?” she asked, sinking onto the sofa between the younger ones.  They peered at her quickly, then back at the screen.  She snatched up a cereal box and gave it a shake.  “You little fuckers hungry or did you already eat?”

“They’re good,” Shawn said.  “And I did clean up the kitchen.”

“Oh really?”

“Yep.  And Ru-Ru came by and dropped off a pizza, so I put it in the oven.”

Hawkins sat up, “You didn’t turn it up to high, did you?”

“No, Mom,” he said. “I know about the oven. It’s on three hundred.”

She shrugged, eased back into the flattened cushions.  As an afterthought she glanced at him, saying, “Well, thanks.”

When she was fifteen, she got pregnant with Shawn.  His stupid dad hung around just long enough to stick him with that name.  The other two came a good long while later.  Hawkins always said she was too smart to want another kid after Shawn, but now and again she forgot herself.  In a lot of ways, she and the boy had raised each other.   When the others came along, he helped a lot, always seeming to know how tired she was and that her fuse was short.  Sometimes he said something smart and it made her see herself.  One day she had to get around to thanking him for real, but not until he was old enough to get it.

Just in the last year, since he turned fifteen, he’d changed on her.  Most times he wasn’t willing to help anymore with anything.  She had to harass him to pick up the messes and get something on the stove.  And it took everything in her to make the little fucker go to school.  He said they were all calling him faggot and he didn’t need that shit anyway.

“Yes, you do, dummy,” she’d told him.  “You need to finish school and then you need to go to college.”

“I forgot about my trust fund.”

She heard him, but she pretended she didn’t.  It was true that she had no idea how she’d get him into college.  His grades were good, despite his absences, but that wasn’t enough.  Instead of arguing about that, she’d taken up the other issue.

“If you don’t want people calling you faggot, stop wearing girl’s jeans and makeup.”

That had made him cry and even though Hawkins liked to pretend nothing ever hurt, seeing his mascara running down his young face was like looking in the mirror when she was that age. It just about broke her into a million pieces.  She set her jaw.

“Anyway, why do we care what trash thinks about us?” she said. “When you’re my age, you won’t remember half the cunts you went to school with and whether or not you’re queer won’t matter anymore because by then you’ll have friends who like queers.  Get it?”

He’d given her one of his looks.  His eyes were exactly like her own, small and brown and really sharp.  Her Grammy always said she had a way about her that was worth more than gold.  It amused the old woman.  “You got that peppery stare that makes bitches sneeze.”  Hawkins never got the joke until Shawn got old enough to give her the look.  It always made her glance away.

Tonight, while they sat eating pizza in the little dining room off the kitchen, she found herself looking at Shawn now and again.  Under his eyeliner and his shaggy hair, he was as good-looking as his father.  He was tall and slender and had full lips that were quick to smile, but pretty even when he was sad or thinking hard.  Her boy was self-possessed like herself.  With him, you only ever knew what he wanted you to know.

In the silence between them, her thoughts drifted to the Mt. Carmel statue.  She wondered why she stopped there every night and looked at the mother and son.  It had seemed for a long time like it was the perfect place to light her cigarette, the mid-point on her walk home.  But since Shawn had started to change, she’d been studying the figures closer.  Some nights she had dreams about when he was as little as the Baby Jesus.  It was the kind of dream that was so mundane and so real, it felt more like a memory.  Maybe it was.

She was sitting on her mother’s sofa late at night.  All the lights in the apartment were out, except that the Christmas tree was lit.  In the rainbow glow of the lights, she could make out her baby in the bassinet near her knee.  She was drowsy and he was sleeping peacefully.  The two of them were all alone and outside you could hear the traffic on the expressway and you could hear the wind.  Howl.

On School Mornings

On cold school mornings, it was hard to wake up, get out of bed.  The wood floors were chilly on our toes, the house was church quiet in the wan light.  The last things we touched before bed were just as we’d left them: an open board game on the dining table; smashed up sofa pillows in a nest in front of the TV set.  Mom would have stoked up the wood fire. Its smoky scent suggested to me the comfort of a day at home with soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, so that the thought of washing my face for school made me sick with dread.

We lived on a country road outside of town, in a little brick rambler on a thirteen acre patch.  In the summer, it was cheery with falling birch tendrils and floating mimosa blossoms.  Dashing bare foot over soft wild clover, our only concern was not to step on bees.  That happened to me once and twenty-four hours later – a peculiar delay – my foot swelled up fat as a melon.  There was an orchard, or three apple trees we called an orchard, you could see from the bedroom windows.  Once I spread a quilt there and read in the shadows, heedless of heat and snakes.  Another time, me and Mom discovered a dove nesting amid the blooms and we visited often to watch her bringing food to her fledglings.  One day we went to find them, but there was only a mess of blood and feathers.  The cat had gotten to the little winged family.

When the season turned, there was a sad kind of beauty that took place of all the gold and the green.  The autumn wind bowled easily through the shallow hills, bending grasses that were auburn and blond like my two sisters’ hair, and scrubbing the scrub cedar until the air was heady with its chill spice.  Sometimes, when the fall was new, I would walk with Mom out to the pond and then into the woods.  We’d take note of all the summer things that had vanished – the blue quaker ladies we found on the pine hill, the orange lantern vines that decorated a marsh-footed persimmon tree – and we’d stand for a good while at the water’s edge, marveling at the blue mirror of an October sky.  If you were silent, the breeze in the pines sounded like the very world was taking a deep breath.  On weekends Dad might walk with us and though he was often like a stranger to me, it was nice to be three.  The girls seemed never to be part of those ramblings, my oldest sister, Moo, happy to stay in her room, her nose buried in a romance novel, while tow-headed Bird talked on the phone with friends, usually about the new boys that year.  If my folks had a little buddy for traipsing through the autumn woods, I guess it was me.  At least, that is how I remember it.

There was as much to love about autumn as there was summer – except for school, which seemed only a sterile building to be placed for the day, where the learning was sometimes a pleasure, but where the cruelty of the roughest kids paralyzed me.  School gave me a knot in the stomach, a dread that began at bedtime each night.  In August, when the first day was still a few weeks away, I would have nightmares about it.  The defenses I put up against the unkind few – I later discovered – also kept away those who might have been my friends.  I lived my childhood years in a cage that I had built from the inside but did not know how to dismantle.  What was meant to protect me became the thing that made it hard to be happy.  I now know how being safe can be a delusion, keeping us from being bold, from trying our own, unique untried. But try telling a kid that, especially when you’re that kid.

If there was one thing that brightened the mornings – those awful school mornings – it was breakfast.  The scent would bring us to the kitchen quick, still sandy-eyed as we tried to walk and step into our socks at once.  The sounds of eggs being cracked, a whisk rattling against a mixing bowl, water running, toast popping, bacon frying – this lovely song of morning comforts was the very thing that made leaving the house shortly after seem crueler still.  I would be thinking of my options for staying home even as I sat down at the table.  My sister Bird would be eyeing the morning fare with only mild interest, most likely wondering yet again why Mom would deprive us the pleasures of Lucky Charms and Captain Crunch.  If I had used the complaint of a sore throat the day before, I would decide that it ought to be an upset stomach this time.  It was important to keep it varied.  Those stomach ache mornings required a terrible sacrifice, as I knew from experience that you needed to feign a poor appetite to really seem sick.  I’m sure when Mom noticed the histrionic pushing around of a stack of pancakes, accompanied by the grave face and a string of heavy sighs, she knew what was coming.

We struggled with each other horribly, me sticking to my claims hard and fast, she refuting them and insisting – yet again – that this time the truancy officers really would come and take me away and throw her in jail as an unfit mother.  But when I could break her down and get my way, it was quite simply turning off dread, turning on happiness.  If it meant having to hide in my room all morning, reading and keeping up the game, it was worth it, knowing that by lunch we would be friends again.  I would come out around eleven, saying I thought I felt a little better, and I would offer to do some little house chore for her.  She would be busy at her typewriter, typing medical records from dictation, and would roll her eyes and say warily, “Whatever, Paul.”

I would try to be quiet as I washed dishes or cleaned up breakfast from the counters.  Her mornings were stressful even aside from my contribution.  She spent as much time as she could trying to finish that days batch of work, while dodging calls from friends who seemed to think working from home was a lot like not working, and occasionally hiding in the living room if Jehovah Witnesses or salespeople knocked at the door.  It was fun to stand in the shadows with her; we always caught each others eyes and got a case of the church giggles.  Our eyes are a lot alike – keen, brown, and sleep-shadowed – and they always seem to recognize the ridiculous when they meet.  Mom and I were the worst for sharing nervous laughter.  By lunch time, she would be thawing, perhaps deciding it was useless in the big scheme of things to carry on a show of her disappointment in me.  She and I were equally powerless to explain or best what had become, by the time I was nine, the phobia that was shaping me.  She had her own cadre of anxieties – perhaps she could sympathize.  At the time, I figured she liked my company as much as I liked hers and that it was a reluctant acceptance of this that brought about the lunch hour reprieve.

Putting her work aside, she would step into the kitchen and pull out one of her Weight Watcher lunches, saying how she would much prefer some biscuits and Dinty Moore beef stew.  I would readily agree, “You only had two pancakes at breakfast, Mom, and you had fruit on your yogurt.”

My agenda was obvious and she might give me one last withering glance as she said, “That doesn’t matter, Paul.  You have to stick to it every meal.”

I would shrug, “Can I have some Dinty Moore and biscuits then?”

“Oh, so your stomach’s that much better.”

“Yes.”

Inevitably she would toss the box of grilled barbecue chicken, peas and rice back into the freezer and knock open a roll of biscuits on the counter edge.  I would get out the can opener and rummage in the pantry cabinet.  I would chatter nervously, happily as the food cooked.  As we ate, Mom would eventually get back around to the school problem, but I would try to charm us onto other topics.  If we steered clear of those troubled waters, we had fun, so I learned to get us going on things she liked to talk about.  As we gathered up our crumbs and spills into the folds of the paper towels we called napkins, for the first time that day I would notice the knot in my stomach had gone away.  She would have to get back to her dictation and I would ask if I could watch TV if I kept the volume down.  In a brief, hard-captured peace, we parted for a few hours and the morning tumult seemed impossible to remember with the sounds of typewriter keys and game show music replacing the silence.