Tag Archives: Fiction

A Room

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A room. A window. Outside the window, an entire world that I have not moved through for so many years. Some of the world comes to me, it is true, and I am not so reclusive that I do not let it in. Marietta brought her newest baby just yesterday, and I held it as though I have held a baby every day of my life in spite of the fact that I have not held a baby since that first baby slipped away from me, into the arms of another woman I have never known the name of. That baby was ripped more violently from my arms than it was from my body hours before. I was not given a choice. No one knew. The baby vanished and then I vanished, off to another country. Off. . . .a cough. I spin around and look behind me. It is a new intruder. After so many years alone, two people entering my world. Perhaps if I’d kept the door unlocked all these years, more people would have come other than the boy who brings my groceries and the other woman with the many layers of skirts who brings me new medicine when I have need of it.

I do not know this new person. It is a young man who carries a machete in his hand. He is very tall. Very very tall for a Mexican, so perhaps he is a Bedouin or some other Arab from a tall tribe, plopped down in America in the way many of us have been positioned here by fate, by circumstance or by force. His skin is that beautiful golden coffee color of someone naturally dark who has also been in the sun for long periods of time or for a long lifetime.

“Disculpe, senora,” he says, as he moves into the room. When I speak to him in English, he switches to English. He has seen my tall palm with the fruit and the seeding husks hanging dangerously loose. He can scale this tree and cut them for me. It needs to be done, senora, and if I have no money to pay, he will do it for no more fee than my friendship. And if I have no friendship to offer, then he will do it for the good grace it will bring him in the universe and perhaps an easier ingress into heaven.

It is an omen, I think, and I surprise myself when I give him permission to trim the tree. He cannot know how much he looks like a young man in my past and he cannot know how uncharacteristic it is for me to allow anyone at all into my life, my room, my trust. Now I have an obligation to this man I know nothing about. He may be dangerous. Certainly, he carries a weapon. The branch of the pomegranate tree taps taps on my window, as though a strong breeze has come up in this still day. It is the fingers of the afternoon reminding me. Warning me. But then I see that it is the movement of the young man as he brushes past the tree that has set it in motion.

A large turquoise dragonfly rests on the branch that has stopped moving and that now sits isolated. Another dragonfly approaches it and seems to attach itself in an arch and they go flying away together in this impossible configuration—a broken circle. How two creatures can move as one is not something I have ever learned, not since the one person who was a part of me for so many months was pulled from my arms still weak from childbirth. If they’d waited, I would have been strong enough, I tell myself. I have been telling myself for most of my life.

After they took from me what was mine, we took a drive to a large place with many chairs. Many chairs and many people, then a corridor. Then I was on an airline and in spite of my terror, I fell asleep. I was a thirteen year old girl, accustomed to doing what I was told to do. I woke up in America, where I was driven to the beautiful house of my aunt. It was here I lived for ten more years. Here that they expected to give me a new life to encourage me to forget my old life, but as I sit for all these years in my isolation, it is the old life that I remember and remember and remember.

 

 

 

Locked Secrets

Version 6

Locked Secrets

I’d just received my school’s math prize and my Uncle Jimmy, after handing me a twenty dollar bill, had, in his usual self-effacing manner, proclaimed that I must have gotten my smarts from him.  “How is it that you are both the pretty one and the smart one in your family?”  He teased.  My sister Eleanor was out of the room at the time.  If she’d been there and I hadn’t, he would have been proclaiming her the prettiest.  We all knew this about our uncle.  He adored us, and was not above flattery in revealing the fact.

This time, however, he had overlooked  both the precociousness and competitiveness of my two-and-a-half-year-old youngest sister, Stephanie.

“Elebben, eight, twenny, fiteen,” she recited proudly!

“Well, forgive me, Missy. Aren’t you a smart young lady, knowing how to count?” He reached into his lumpy pocket and tossed her a nickel.  Amazingly, she caught it.  Perhaps she was going to be the first athletic one in the family.

“Fohty-two!” she exclaimed proudly. “free, sebben-elebben, one, one, one.” This time he extracted his wallet, took out a one-dollar bill and handed it to her.  Putting his wallet back in his back pocket, he turned one side pocket inside out. “But that’s it, Teffie.  No more money. If you want to go on counting, it will have to be for free.”

His other pocket still bulged with its contents: coins, a rubber ball to throw for our dog Pudge, oatmeal cookie bits in a small plastic bag–also for Pudge.  My Uncle Jimmy always proclaimed that doggie treats were a real gyp and that no self-respecting dog would perform for such a dry, tasteless mouthful.  So, he preferred to bake his own dog treats.

My sisters and I agreed, and sometimes we would perform, hoping to be rewarded with one of Pudge’s treats.  We were all constantly performing for our uncle, whom we adored. He was the one person who paid more attention to us than to our parents when he visited.  He was our favorite babysitter, and our parents’ favorite as well, as he always waved away payment.

He would take us to Fern’s Cafe for strawberry malts, greasy hamburgers and mashed potatoes and gravy, since Fern didn’t have a French fryer. He took us for wild rides over cow pastures in his beat up old red Ford pickup.  Once he took us to a matinee cartoon show in Pierre, sixty miles away, and got us home and in bed again before my folks got home.  We were sworn to secrecy and so far as I know, none of us ever told.  I know for sure I didn’t.  My Uncle Jimmy had my undying loyalty.  I would have borne torture before giving away any of his secrets.

Sadly, Uncle Jimmy died during one of those wild rides across the South Dakota prairie.  This time he was flying solo over a dam grade and veered too far to the right, rolling the pickup.  He drowned trying to get out of the passenger door, the pickup mired driver-side down in the mud at the bottom of the dam.  We had always felt like such ladies as Uncle Jimmy graciously got out of his pickup to personally open the door from the outside for us.  We didn’t know then, as we know now, that it was a peculiarity of that door that it would only open from the outside.

“Thank God the girls weren’t with him,” my mother sobbed to my father, as they sat side-by-side at the kitchen table, my dad’s arms around her.  It was past midnight, and they were sitting in that room furthest away from our bedrooms, thinking we wouldn’t hear her sobs.  But, unable to sleep, we had stolen out to the living room to listen––all consumed by that missing of Uncle Jimmy that would last our whole lives.

“Oh, he never would have driven that wildly if the girls were with him,” my dad said.  But Eleanor and I and even Steffie just exchanged that look that we were to exchange so many times in our future lives together––that look that children exchange that would tell their parents that they know something their parents don’t know––if only their parents took the time to notice. Even Steffie understood.  And Uncle Jimmy was right when he proclaimed her wise beyond her years.  Even Steffie never told.

(This is a work of fiction.)

 

The prompt today was recite. (A repost of a story from a few years ago.)

Most of the Time: A Serial Tale, Chapter 6

Most of the Time

Chapter 6
(A Ghost Story)

“Where shall we begin?” The fussy little man moved his little mustache back and forth like a typewriter carriage gone slightly out of control. We were off to solve a mystery, Hercule and I, and although I followed along without a clue as to where we were going or what the mystery was, I had faith that this friend I had followed through so many adventures would once again take me to a worthwhile  place.   I had caught up to him by quickening my step, but my legs were so much longer than his that doing so caused me to sprint out ahead a bit until I shortened my stride to match his.  The combined effect of walking faster but taking shorter steps gave me a prancing quality that I’m sure was humorous, but since no one was viewing this daydream but me, I had no sense of embarrassment.

It is only in retrospect that I gain a viewer, but since that viewer is me, I am perhaps harder on my protagonist than an impartial viewer might be.  What does one do when she is the narrator of her own life?  It is an exercise in schizophrenia.  You are you.  You are she.  You are you.  You are she.  When I see through the eyes of that woman, feeling the onset of middle age years before the appropriate time to do so, I understand the need for flight and escape.  What she needed to do was to leave her outgrown marriage, but how many women do?  Instead, they seek to alter a dress that no longer fits–to plump sofa cushions that have grown too matted to plump years ago.

They live in fantasy worlds of ladies luncheons or afternoon movies or midnight novels.  They simply neglect to fix the thing that needs fixing or to leave it behind for a new set of life problems. For it seems to me from the vantage point of my sixties that that is what life is–a series of puzzles that we can either confront and try to solve or merely overlook and seek distraction from.  Fold up the paper and use the puzzle to swat flies or form it into an origami bird  or party hat.  Use it to wrap up garbage and count on someone else to carry the problem away for you.  All the different solutions we invent in response to our problems is the point of life.  We are all our own choreographers, doing our version of the dance. So I try to be more patient with Susan than I want to be, calling forth more sympathetic narrators.  Susan at 40.  Susan at 35.  What would Susan at 20 have to say about me, I wonder?  Stretching my mind to this task sends me off in a different direction, to tell a different story.

A woman lies in bed in her short purple cotton spaghetti-strapped nightgown.  She shows upper arms too heavy for showing outside of her own room.  She lies typing, which is true in more ways than one.  For when she writes in the very early morning, as she has said countless times before, she writes from a different part of her brain than that which guides her actions during the day.  She writes more about the present, with spare bits of the past popping up as well, as they do in dreams.

That whole part about Peter is imaginary, but where did Peter come from? Is he a manifestation of something she really was trying to escape at the time–some dream lover she might have in fact married in her twenties if she had not in reality been off pursuing the life she described as a metaphor in her initial chapters?  This whole hierarchy of selves is getting so complicated that even I as the real person narrating this story cannot keep track.  How did Doris Lessing keep all those separate selves straight in The Golden Notebook?  By compartmentalizing. Other writers do it by splitting themselves into separate characters, but I’ve never been successful at that.  I write best as myself and somehow can’t make the jump into dividing myself into the parts of myself.

When I split here, it is my whole self being presented at  20, at 35, at 45 and at 67. It is so complicated that the plots become intertwined, but since this is what they want to do, I’m going to go along with them.  Like Alice down the rabbit’s burrow, I will swallow bitter pills and grow and shrink–but in my case it will be in age as well as size.  Let’s see where this acid trip of imagination takes me. No doubt some readers will drop away, but at this point I think this has become an exercise more for myself than for any viewers who are free to jump on and off this slow moving platform at will.

“We have arrived at our destination,” my twitching little companion tells me, his prissy voice cutting through my reverie.

“And what is our destination?” I ask him. “I’ve never known where we are going.  I’ve just been so busy trying to get in step that I never asked.”

“You don’t recognize this place?” he asks, as he swings open a wide door before us.

I step into the view on the other side.  It is a large golden yellow house with rose pink domes.  Two dogs rush up to greet us–obnoxious dogs that jump up and bark and then rush out the open door behind us into the street.  They vanish in seconds up the big hill that we, too, might have climbed if we had not taken this detour. The courtyard of the house is full of flowering trees and bushes and succulents and palm trees towering or contained within  pots.  As we walk, the door to the house opens.  Inside is a table and a computer, but we keep walking to another door, open it to see a woman in a purple nightgown lying on her back in bed. Typing on a laptop. Lying in two different ways.  I take off my coat and shoes.  Lie down next to her.  Roll over into her, and we are one.  And that is why, dear reader, when you ask me the question everyone inevitably asks, I admit that yes, “I believe in ghosts.”

The opening and closing lines today are from  “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline. Thanks, Patti Arnieri, for furnishing me with your second prompt.

You may find Chapters 1-5 of this tale in postings made over that past 5 days.

 

 

Most of the Time: A Serial Tale, Chapter 3

The prompt I have been doing for the past three days involves taking the first and last line of a favorite book and using the last line as the first line of my writing and using the first line of the book as the last line in my piece.  Links to the results of the first two chapters, if you haven’t read them, you can find below.   I’m going to continue so long as people keep providing me the first and last lines.  More info about that is at the end of my Chapter 2.  So, here goes Chapter 3:

Most of the Time

                                                                            Chapter 3

Nothing that is not there and nothing that is.  That is what most people think about.  There were a few of such thinkers scattered atop the stools along the long bar that ran front to back on the left side of the room.  The right side was taken up by three pool tables and a series of plastic beer signs where water bubbled up from deep springs and pristine rivers and, supposedly, directly into amber bottles with labels such as Pabst and Old Milwaukee.

This was the sum total of nature that Ninny had thought to infuse within her establishment.  No fern bar this.  A bit of black mold, perhaps.  And as noted before, the place seemed equally devoid of human nature–the drinkers here like robots with glazed eyes seemingly staring at the mirror behind the bar or the bottles in front of the mirror, or perhaps their own reflections reflected behind the bottles.  Little conversation seemed to be going on.  There was no music.  Even the bartender, an ancient man with unintentional chin whiskers and a small protuberant belly over a tight-cinched bolo belt and baggy Levis, seemed to be muffled–negotiating the world behind the bar without clinks of glasses, or pops of bottle corks or whooshes of the draft beer dispenser.  It was as though I’d entered a “Quiet” zone.

Ninny being gender non-specific, now that I thought of it, I wondered if this quiet gentleman was, in fact, Ninny.  I established myself on a bar stool, ordered a dirty Martini, then took myself and my over-sized bag off to the ladies room where I struggled out of my shooting range jeans and into the diaphanous swirly skirt of the day.  Under my T-shirt was a spaghetti-strap little top that color-coordinated with the skirt.  Let the games begin.

Unsurprisingly, no one seemed to notice my transformation as I sashayed back into the room I had purposefully and sedately left only moments before, but as though I had caused the change in the room, the jukebox immediately sprang to life, causing the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign to blink off and on, seemingly in cadence with the song.  It was familiar, but I’ve never been good at remembering the names of other people’s songs…nor my own, as a matter of fact.  It was something about somebody’s baby being somebody else’s baby now, but that doesn’t narrow down the field much.

I parked my recently-freed shanks on the bar stool, allowing my skirt to hike up as it was wont to do.  The controlling part of my life was over for a few hours.  I looked around the room, seeing what new adventure was about to present itself, and my eyes fell immediately on a wizened little woman sitting at the end of the bar.  She was not, understand, old.  Simply wizened, with sharp little features:  nose, chin, cheekbones.  Even her eyes made sharp little glances around the room, as though she was taking everything in. Me, too, although I could never catch her eyes on me.

After every sip of what looked like a Rum and Coke, her sharp little tongue darted out of her mouth to extract every drop from her lips, as though she was unable to control this “Yum yum” action–every sip duly acknowledged and appreciated.  She had the fiery intelligent demeanor of a weasel or a mink.  Darting, secretive and swift.  I observed this all with my own sneaky eyes as they executed furtive reconnaissance missions in her direction while seeming to be merely surveying the room.  In fact, I couldn’t have told you a thing about any of its other inhabitants.  My long glances in various directions were merely subterfuge.  It was little weasel lady that was drawing my full attention.

She was tidy and trim, in a polyester sea foam green pant suit with a flowered polyester blouse–the collar turned neatly over the collar of the jacket.  On her wrist was a dainty bracelet of fake pearls and tiny rhinestones.  Her shoes were thick-heeled and square-toed-like shoes a schoolteacher might wear.  Her hair, in tight little ringlets, looked as though she’d just ducked out of the beauty parlor for a quick drink before her comb-out.  She could have looked severe, given her sharp features and tailored clothing, but she was saved by a sweet rosebud mouth, the corners of which curled up as she drew her lips into a tight little compressed grin.

There was a plate of peanuts on the bar beside her, and I picked up my drink and moved over to the bar stool next to her, as though in pursuit of them.

“Hungry,” I half-chortled as I took a handful and stuffed most of them into my mouth.  I half-expected her not to answer, but saw her raise a finger at the barman and say in a sweet little-girl voice moderated by a smoker’s huskiness : “Nestor, give this lady some fresh peanuts, please.”  Then she looked at me quizzically, causing two little furrows to pop up over her tiny straight ski-slope nose.  “You want something else to eat?  We have frozen pizzas that are pretty good.  Or sub sandwiches we can also heat up for you.  Chips. Beef jerky.”

“Pizza sounds good.  Are you Ninny Ricketts?”

She was.  We polished off one little pizza and then another.  I switched to Rum and Cokes, which went much better with pepperoni and tomato sauce and cheese than gin did.  We talked for three hours, and by the end of that conversation, I almost understood the quote hanging on the wall behind the bar between the bottom shelf of liquor bottles and the top of the draft beer dispenser.

“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world. ”

“What does that mean, Ninny? ” I’d asked her when I first noticed it.  We were only fifteen minutes into our initial conversation at that time.

“If yer just lookin’ at it, you’ll never know,” she shot back at me with those furrows over her nose again.  But then she smiled. “I reckon soon enough you’ll be seein’ through it like everbuddy else at the bar.”  Then she chuckled, and for the next three hours we talked about football (her interest, not mine), politics, recipes for shortbread, the freeing qualities of polyester, the clitoral orgasm, Parcheesi, the Nebraska watershed, stepmothers, the immorality of Christian missionaries in Africa, lawn fertilizer, Walt Whitman, Edith Sitwell, Bob Dylan, Patty Duke, Cheetos, Philodendrons and Richard Nixon’s incredible gall.

I’d left my house at 11 a.m. for my supposed trip to the firing range. By the time I thought to look at my watch again, it was nearly four.  If I stopped at the grocery store on my way home and made a few quick and non-selective runs down a few aisles, I might be able to fill up enough bags to convince Peter I’d had a long leisurely shopping session after my shoot.  I paid my bill, told Ninny I’d be back soon because I’d enjoyed talking to her, and walked calmly for door, breaking into a sprint only after I reached the parking lot.

In the car, I wriggled into my Levis, extracted myself from the skirt by pulling it over my head, pulled my T-shirt from my purse and pushed one arm through the armhole as I turned on the key, the other as I let up the hand brake.  As I drove, I tried to will myself to slip back into home mode.  But as my body got closer to home, my mind seemed to slip further away from it.  And although I was no closer to solving its puzzle than I’d been four hours ago, my final thought as I drove into my driveway was one I’d be puzzling over for a good many months to come, “If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world. ”

The Prompt: The book suggested to furnish the beginning and ending lines of this chapter is “The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero” by Robert Kaplan. First line: If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world. Last line (which quotes Wallace Stevens): Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.  My thanks to Robert Okaji for furnishing a beginning and end for me to fill in today.  Please keep those prompts coming in.  Without them, this story will abruptly end.   Judy

See the first chapter of this piece HERE.
See the second chapter HERE.
See Robert Okaji’s blog HERE.