Thursday, September 16, 2010

In The Early Days

In the early days, I wanted to know physics and cell biology. After a short time I realized that no expertise could save us, because it seemed that even the experts never knew what was happening or why.

One morning five weeks before this day, I noticed the odd shape of one leg of the kitchen table, but didn’t think much about it. By the time I got home from work, the table leaned from lack of support on one side. Running from room to room as eight-year-olds often do, David eventually claimed my attention, so I propped the table up with a chair and went on about my evening. When Gabriel got home he studied it as he did every problem and came to bed with no conclusion.

Two days later, David hunched down to fixate on a small hole in a corner of his bedroom and how a few ants trailed through it. We called the building maintenance man. He shook his head and scratched his scalp and promised to return to repair it. He never did; the opening expanded but the ants disappeared.

Two weeks ago, all the animals followed. We had no pets, but the silence resonated throughout the neighborhood as if it were its own sound. No barking or loud shrieking in the night. No birds singing or crickets chirping. The accelerated pace of their lifespan must have taken them before us.

When two other holes opened up in the ceiling, we stopped ascending the stairs out of fear that the second floor wouldn’t be safe.

Everyone stopped going to work and we never left the dissolving house. For several nights we drank the liquor from past parties and duty free purchases from trips we would never take again, never sure what would be around from one second to the next. Gabriel and I ate some of what we found in the cabinets, reserving the rest for our son more finicky than usual. He fitfully slept between us. I felt the shivering that enveloped him when he wasn't expressing his fear in tantrums and whining like a toddler again.

My terror accompanied the recent thought that Gabe and I would leave David alone to fend for himself, untethered to anyone, grasping at what was left of the world and alone. I forced myself to hope that he would survive what the adults couldn’t and would rebuild the world with us, or without us.

Who knows why atoms come apart leaving empty spaces. Or why beings and objects dissolve into an oblivion that in its first moments flare like an image from a telescope in space, as these words dissect themselves until I cannot even think them anymore. Nothing is left to say, except that the three of us have entered this new world together.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Paris Diaries, Conclusion: Retirement Home for Gargoyles

Didier raised his creaky and stiff body from the bed, opting not for a stretch but a scratch to the belly instead. Craving a smoke, he got up, lumbered outside to the balcony, and turned to see in the creeping sunlight his former workplace. “Pfft,” he spit out in his morning ritual of disdain.

“Didier, comment ça va?

“Ed. Bonjour. I didn’t see you there.”

A willowy and pasty man stepped close to the edge of the shadows. “Is it jour already?”

“Yes. Can’t you see the sun? I would have thought you’d be back in your room by now. Do you have a cigarette?”

Ed took a pair of sunglasses from his pocket and put them on. “Sorry. Not today. I’ve given them up for the last time.”

“Not that girlfriend again.”

“Bella? Mais non.” He drew in a breath as if he had a cigarette perched on his lower lip. “I haven’t talked with her in months. Or has it been a year?” His face slackened into his infinitely ruminating expression.

“Too bad. So, how’s your roommate?” The image came into Didier’s mind of the elderly canine, incontinent one minute, farting the next. Hard to believe that there was a time that those two actually had to fight off the ladies.

“He had a bad night. Lots of skin discomfort, I guess. I requested an ointment from the attendant, but Jacob refused to use it.”

“Why would he do that?” Didier looked around for a stray butt.

“He wants to suffer.”

“Oh, I see.” Mon dieu. For the months that he’d known them, he’d never understood l'angoisse existentielle of those two.

Didier peered over the side of the balcony to look at the gargantuan Notre Dame de Paris where he’d spent the first 700 years of his life perched on its roof, fending off challenges from the elements, torch-bearing head choppers, and ambitious rivals who’d lusted after his job. After all that time, he was forced out by mandatory retirement rules.

Ed had moved along the waning shadow to stand closer to Didier who startled at the sound of his voice. “At least you don’t have to do that anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t imagine centuries spent as a drain pipe.”

Didier resisted his urge to strike the papery chauve-souris, largely because he didn’t have the energy. “I realize that my life wasn’t as romantic as yours. Although I did get more than my share of female attention.”

“I hate to say it, Didier, but having hundreds of disposable cameras take your photo does not really constitute female attention. What?”

Didier felt the steam rise from his hunched back. “Why are you out here, Ed?” He reached into a crevice between the bricks and discovered a half-smoked Gauloise Blonde. The find took the edge off of his growing annoyance.

“Waiting for Roger. He promised me he’d bring me breakfast. Ouch!” Didier glanced over to see Ed pressing his palm against his forehead. He’d moved a little too far out of the shadow again and the sun had singed his scalp under his thinning hair.

Didier leaned over further to look down at the street. “That’s Roger there, and he’s brought someone with him. Now she’s a looker. Not that I’ve ever paid attention to that sort.”

Ed showed some definite interest. “A red head. She appears imported.”

“Um, c’est posible. “ Didier slapped a hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Come, my friend, let’s get you back to your room. You have a busy day ahead of you.”

Ed pulled a match from his pocket, struck it against the brick wall, lit Didier’s cigarette, and smiled. “Something to look forward to.”

* * * * *

Bridget pulled the catalog from the seat pocket and thumbed through it, waiting for the final few people to board the plane. She grew impatient for the electronic devices announcement so that she could get back to the book on her e-reader, one of several books she’d planned to finish over her time in Paris. Who would have known the trip would have been so eventful? Find love, lose love, find love again, then realize that she had nothing in common with the museum ticket-taker and finally getting creeped out at his insistence that she meet his elderly uncle in some retirement home. The latter put an end to the doomed love affair.

The tarmac glistened from the glaze of rain that fell all afternoon. Bridget watched the ground crew prepare in the dark for the plane’s departure and decided that she was truly happy to finally be going home. Not so happy when the credit card bills finally arrive, but she already had an email evite from friends for happy hour at Dave and Buster’s later that week to distract her.

“Excuse me, Miss?”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” Bridget pulled her purse from the seat next to hers.

“No problem.” A very debonair man took his seat beside her. He seemed to notice where her gaze had settled. “A little too much sun this morning.” He arranged his hair to cover the red spot on his forehead.

Bridget shifted nervously. “I’m sorry, that was rude…”

“Are you going home or leaving?”

The man’s English accent mesmerized her. As she watched him now, he seemed to be much younger than she’d originally thought. “Going home. Back to Texas.”

“Texas.” He said the word as if it was the first time he’d realized where he was going. “Yes. I hear it’s a very nice place.”

Bridget thumbed through the magazine without paying attention to what was on the page. “Very nice. I like it there.” She extended her hand. “My name is Bridget.”

The man hesitated for only a moment as his ears detected the muffled sound of canine claws frantically scratching that came from the cargo hold of the plane. “Edward,” he said, extending his own hand. “My name is Edward. Enchanté.”

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Paris Diaries Part III: Centre Pompidou

The cup and saucer clattered loudly as they dropped onto the wrought iron table top. Bridget lowered her sunglasses to glare at the unapologetic waiter who had deposited them there. He slipped away with a scowl.

Bridget immediately stopped mulling over what she’d done this time. Or, more specifically, what she’d said or how she’d said it or how she’d said it incorrectly. She doused the coffee liberally with sugar and trained her gaze on the parade of people walking briskly down the boulevard St-Germain. As much as she didn’t want to let the rudeness of her waiter mar her sunny afternoon, she was steamed. Here it was, the halfway point of her long-awaited trip to Paris. She’d been stuck for hours in Gander, Newfoundland when her plane was diverted. The man she made the trip to meet, her lover Guillaume, turned out to be named Gunnar and was not French at all. And now her careful use of the language after weeks of study brought her nothing but grief.

No matter how hard she tried to speak French, her efforts were met with disdain. The ticket taker at the Musee D’Orsay. The waitress at the Indian Restaurant. And worst and most discourteous of all, the gelato dipper at the Rodin Museum, an insolent teenager with one flared nostril that accentuated her disgust.

Bridget mulled over her strategy for the next time this happened. And there would be a next time, she was convinced. Perhaps she would greet the snub with a loud guffaw. Or a sneer. No, too derivative of gelato girl. Suppose she threw herself on the floor and flailed about, overcome with emotion due to her inadvertent error in accent or word choice? Certainly something to consider.

The waiter returned briefly to rip off the check from the pad and drop it on the table. And a fine day to you, too, Bridget whispered to herself. She drained the cup, picked up her bag, and set off for the last stop of the day: The Centre Pompidou modern art museum.

On the street between the café and the metro stop, a van disgorged a family of escapees from Eurodisney, the children coiffed with Mickey Mouse hats and character balloons bumping against each other over their heads. The parents, a grumpy and clearly unpleasant pair, shouted orders to the driver in English as they corralled the children massing around them. Oh, to be so uncaring of the world’s opinion.

Once on the metro, Bridget got off at the Rambuteau stop, walked up the stairs and easily found the distinctive building. She purchased her ticket on the ground floor, then found the escalator encased in Plexiglas that ascended up the side of the building. She looked over the brochure and planned to start at the top with a special exhibition on hair. She checked the dictionary to make sure. Yes, an exhibition on hair.

“This is not the ticket for this exhibit,” the ticket taker with a shock of maroon tresses said firmly as she clicked her tongue, immediately speaking to Bridget in English. “You must go downstairs and buy the correct one. This is to the third floor.” She reached over to the person behind Bridget, pushing Bridget aside with her elbow. “Downstairs” she said again firmly without looking at her.

Throw myself to the floor and flail about now? Bridget made a disapproving noise, the best she could manage, and went back down to the ground floor to purchase what she hoped would be the correct ticket. A long, long line greeted her. At the front and as before, the ticket seller insisted on speaking to her in English, even though she was sure she knew enough French to complete the transaction. She shoved the first ticket into her bag, then went back up again to the exhibition.

The maroon-headed woman no longer sat at the door and just beyond the turnstile. Instead, a man with wire-rimmed glasses and a blank stare had taken her place. He said nothing to any of those in front of Bridget, just took the tickets and allowed the next patron to pass. Then, Bridget’s eyes met his as he took the ticket from her. “This ticket…”

“What?” she snapped. “This is the wrong ticket?” She had never spoken English with such conviction. “I explained downstairs to the little toad at the ticket counter just exactly what I wanted. And I supposed you will say that my French isn’t good, that I should just stick with sign language and, hum, maybe semaphore? You know, flags? I don’t know just who you people think you are, but you could show some respect to someone who is trying very, very hard to communicate with you. Is that too much to ask? Huh, buddy? Too much for you?” She came close to mentioning how their French behinds were saved in the last world war, but stopped herself given that her knowledge of history was not great.

The ticket taker continued the blank stare, saying nothing for several minutes as Bridget, to her disappointment, felt the warmth of blood rush to her cheeks. Just as she was about to apologize and find out exactly what was wrong with the ticket she purchased, the ticket taker spoke.

“The ticket is the exhibition that close in fifteen minutes. We will go for coffee.”

Bridget’s eyes widened. “Coffee? Sure.”

He tore her ticket in two. “And what is toad?”

She smiled. “Nice man. Bon homme. I’ll be back in 15 minutes then.”

As Bridget walked through the door, she felt elated as she moved quickly from one bizarre hair display to the other. Her annoyance flitted away and she felt her fortunes change. Maybe this was the Frenchman she had really come to France to meet. C’est le destin.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Paris Diaries Part II: On the Banks of the Seine

We left our intrepid traveler as her plane detoured to Gander, Newfoundland. She has finally reached her destination.

From her seat on a bench not far from the Pont des Arts, Bridget watched Guillaume clutching a cell phone and tossing his arm around as he paced the bridge. His very dark sunglasses, feathered by his mussed but not really fashionable hair, concealed his once enticing and now beady eyes. How could she have been so wrong about him?

Her thoughts turned to finances. The only hotel she could find was the Ritz at $700 a night. Five nights would wipe out her savings. It was so worth it.

From the bridge where he paced, Guillaume waved, catching her off-guard. She waved back. He turned around and returned to the conversation. Did he suspect that she knew his secret? He didn’t let on.

Back in the United States, his presentation of flowers on bended knee had caused her to lose her every bit of common sense she possessed. His name: Guillaume Bongrande? How about “Malpetit” instead? More truthfully descriptive.

That morning, the day after she arrived in France, he’d left early with the suggestion that they should meet for lunch. She thought he meant at a cafe, not a lame picnic of half a baguette and cheese slices from the supermarché, accompanied by a half-bottle of wine. Beyond where he stood: the Tuilleries Garden. The cafes there probably had something she could afford to eat. Anything was better than this. She kicked the sack of food.

As he left that morning, the attractive young neighbor Sophie, whom Bridget vowed not to intensely dislike, passed Guillaume and whispered: “Quel abruti.

“Excuse me?”

Instead of apologizing to Bridget when Sophie realized that she’d overhead her, she instead added more loudly, “Idiot! He’s an idiot! And a fraud.”

“Why do you say that?”

Holding her empty garbage can in one hand and brushing away her unruly hair with the other, Sophie said, “Because I like you, I will tell you the truth.”

Bridget had expected to hear a tale of infidelity, of un tren sans fin of women coming and going from the apartment. “What is it?”

“Ah, what you don’t know about this man. Can’t you tell by the accent, everything about him?” She'd stepped closer, her face just inches from Bridget’s. “He’s not French. He’s German.”

All Bridget could do was gasp.

Finally, Guillaume was off the phone and coming toward her, ready to embrace and kiss her. She’d been waiting for that moment all morning. “Are you ready to eat?” he asked her.

“I’m not interested in lunch.” She looked at her watch. “And I have somewhere else to go. But I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”

His face wore a knit of brow and a mouth slightly agape.

She got up from the bench. “Au revoir. Or perhaps I should say, Auf wiedersehen, mon cher. Dieter.” He said nothing more but simply watched her walk away.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Paris Diaries, Part I: Gander

In every group of strangers, there is at least one person who will not be quiet.

“You know, I was going to bring sneakers, but I decided instead to pack three pair of sandals and a pair of boots. You have to have a lot of room for boots, so I had to bring another suitcase for my sweaters.”

Bridget tried to bury her face in the pillow and pulled the airline blanket over her head in a vain attempt to silence the incessant chattering. According to the big clock on the wall, it’s 2:30 in the morning. “Two thirty in the morning!” she wanted to shout to Chatty Cathy. Alternate strategy: think of Guillaume.

Guillaume, who waited for her somewhere in the Paris suburbs. The possibility of soon being with him enriched her libido. In all their phone conversations and email exchanges, Guillaume insisted that the two of them would spend all their time together in his apartment, all ten days of her trip.

“And I went out and bought two new outfits. I know I shouldn’t have. But they were so cute, and 10% off.”

Tiffany. Chatty Cathy has to be named Tiffany.

Instead of being an hour away from landing in Charles DeGaulle Airport, she, Bridget Meyerson, found herself trying to sleep on an orange naugahyde couch in a large, bright room. She never expected to end up in the airport in Gander, Newfoundland where the plane was forced to make an emergency landing. The pilot had assured the passengers that there would be another plane along soon to pick them up and take them the rest of the way.

The airport staff was very cheerful there, but their courtesy and helpfulness couldn’t replace the fact that Bridget wanted desperately to be in Paris, in Guillaume’s apartment, where they would spend the entire ten days of her visit. Except that likely they would emerge to enjoy a lovely dinner in a bistro or drink a cup of café au lait or a glass of wine at a sidewalk table while they watched people going by, commenting upon them in whispers before returning to his apartment.

“You know, Brad wants me to send him postcards, but you know, I told him that we didn’t have that much free time and, besides, we’re broken up anyway. Do you like these shorts?” Tiffany again. So nice to hear her broadcasting her life from across the room.”

Bridget sat up and caught the view of a pair of strawberry milkshake legs wearing abbreviated black shorts, the legs lined with a pink ribbon. “I took the bow off this leg. Do you think I should have taken off the bow?” Another woman her same age knelt at her feet, a sleepy look in her eyes. Neither one of them appeared to be more than 21.

Bridget eased back down. It would be ridiculous to go to Paris and not spend a day in the Louvre. She wanted to see the Mona Lisa and the classical Greek statues. And especially the painting by Delacroix, “Liberty Leading the People of 1830” depicting a courageous bare-breasted woman urging a bevy of men into battle. She’d never forget how exciting that painting was when she first saw it on her only other visit to the city, on her senior whirlwind trip through Europe.

Bridget wished that Guillaume planned to meet her at the airport; instead he’d suggested that she take the subway to his apartment, only three changes of line to get there, very easy.

Bridget met Guillaume, a tall dark haired striking man in very tight jeans, who came into the restaurant she was auditing as part of her job in financial management for a mid-level food chain. He flirted with her mercilessly, and one thing led to another thing until, after two intense days together, she found herself taking him to the airport and engaging in regular email exchanges with him in preparation for the trip.

Bridget wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, to have a picnic along the Seine. She wanted to pretend that she lived there as she passed the cheese shops and markets.

“Glenn says he’s interested, but he only calls me everyone once in a while. He’s such a jerk. Do you like these gladiator sandals? These are my favorite pair.”

So why did Guillaume spend all of their last phone conversation asking her about her last day in Paris and how she’d get to the airport? He never once offered to take her. Once in passing he had mentioned how he might have a “work-related commitment” for a couple of days during her stay and would she mind a hotel during that time as his hours would be very erratic?

Bridget wanted to ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower. She wanted to eat an éclair. She wanted to turn “Liberty Leading the People of 1830” into a screen saver for her computer.

“Isn’t this great luggage? I got it for Christmas from my Aunt Madison.”

Bridget loudly beat the pillow and growled. Guillaume est un idiot.

Bridget wanted to visit the Moulin Rouge. She wanted to see Le Can Can. She wanted to go to Euro Disneyland.

A woman’s voice came over the loud speaker. “Universal Airlines passengers to Paris. We are sorry but the plane to continue your journey has been delayed. The airline wishes to express its deepest apologies. Unfortunately, there is no one here to help you. Airline staff never comes this far north.”

Thursday, May 27, 2010


The child swims inside of me as if I am a great ocean. Even through the cacophony of battle, you must hear her flailing arms slapping against the water that embraces her. This one, our last one. As she emerges into the world, she will call to you.

Together we have created thirteen, my love. Thirteen times before I have become a vessel for what we mold together. We grieved as seven children slipped away from us not so long after entering this world.

I am the envy of the two women who came before me, yet I confess that sometimes I envy them. I envy their solitude, the quiet of their lives all their own, and the moments that you slip into their arms, though rare and only when I am as now. Once when I believed that you had gone to one of them, I found you sitting quietly in the garden, surrounded by the song of birds. You chose instead to nestle amidst the blooms and snaking waters of the charbagh, the garden child of my imagination. That child will also survive me.

Today, our seven lost children dance about just inside this earthly space. Often as I give birth I see them as sparks in the air and hear their small voices in the wind. This time I hear and see them more clearly, and among them are the unfortunate little ones who left this world with bellies empty. No matter how much I tried, I could not do enough for all of those children.

Here in Burhanpur and not far from me, you fulfill your dream of empire, your hands streaked with blood. Yet I know your heart teases you to abandon that struggle and to return to me, my Khurram. Come and take into your arms our tiny Gauhara.

Around me, this rowdy group of small earthly strangers, unfettered by worldly expectations, all shout with the sound of tinkling glass and beckon me to come with them, to truly be their mother at last. I see a vision of a white dome rising from the grounds of Agra as I pass. But as I leave, your whisper of my name, Mumtaz, echoes always in eternity.

"O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Aunt Agnes

Inspired by a true story.

Every family should have an Aunt Agnes. What I mean is that every family should have an Aunt Agnes issued to it, if they don’t have one already. Otherwise, there’s no justice in the world.

This morning I’m settled in my office in front of the computer working on a Powerpoint presentation when I get the call.

“They’re taking out the black bags again.”

“The black bags?”

“The bags filled with the chopped up body parts. They’re taking them out and leaving them in my yard.”

I massage my forehead. “Agnes, we’ve already talked about this. Your next door neighbors are a nice couple from Vermont. They’re not serial killers.”

“The two of them are stacking the bags up against the fence. I told them to keep the bags away from my gate. At least twice, I told them.”

“Aunt Agnes, I…”

A protracted silence is followed by the repeated clicks of a cigarette lighter and a long drawn in breath. I can visualize the smoke curling across Aunt Agnes’ face the texture of fast food fried chicken. “And they disturbed my nap with their jackhammers.”

I thread my fingers through my hair to rub against my throbbing scalp. “There are jackhammers?”

“Destroying my driveway. That’s probably where they plan to bury the bags.”

As usual, my next call will be to Aunt Agnes’ neighbor Polly who lives across the street from her and who will confirm that there is no jackhammering in Agnes’ driveway just as she verified the previous week that the FBI was not scouring the neighborhood arresting people for using DVDS in violation of the video warning nor that Jehovah’s Witnesses were going door –to–door threatening people if they use the Internet. “Call Uncle Jack at the police department. He’ll check on the situation.” Again, I think to myself.

“Can’t you come over? I don’t know how much longer I can hold them off.”

“I’m busy, Aunt Agnes. I have a report and a presentation to finish.”

“When I was a bookkeeper for Huffmeyer Ford they let you work your own hours.”

I let out a sigh. “I’m not a bookkeeper. I’m a Financial Analyst for a bank.” Not that she would know the difference.

A muffled disapproving grumble crackles through the headset. “Well, when they find me in the bottom of a dumpster at the Stein Mart think of me when you divide up the booty.” While Aunt Agnes lives in what from the outside appears to be a lovely little cottage on a tree-lined street, she stuffs it with every garage sale find within a 20 mile radius. Every item in the house smells of a combination of sickly-sweet talcum powder and fried liver and onions. Whichever of her twelve nieces or nephews she willed the house to will be cursed to deal with all the stuff inside, for which the remainder will be elated to be relieved of any responsibility. Happy day; I’m her favorite.

My boss sticks his head in the door. “Beverly? You about ready?”

I want to shout, no, no, no, but instead lower the phone from my mouth and smile. “Almost. Another ten minutes?”

“Ten minutes in the conference room.” He is slightly annoyed rather than raging mad. Thankfully, my headache does not intensify. Time to end the call. “Agnes, I have to get back to work. Call Eddie and I’m sure he’ll be happy to come over and help you hold vigil.” Eddie is Agnes’ sometimes boyfriend.

More muffled crackling grumbles. “Eddie is so last week. You’ll come after work then. You get off at 3?”

“I’ll be there around 5.” I hang up without saying any more, knowing that she’ll talk for the next 30 minutes without noticing that I’m gone.

At 5pm and after ignoring three voice mails from her, I get in my car and set off for Aunt Agnes’ house. Once I turn onto her street, I notice police cars in the vicinity of where she lives. I wonder why six officers are leaning up against one of the cars just outside the neighbors’—the serial killers’—house. The police appear to be stalling before they take action, whatever that may be. The thought suddenly crosses my mind: she got it right.

Mr. Burnsides, the insurance adjuster originally from Vermont, peers out through his barely open front door as Aunt Agnes on his porch chatters away. She wears a robe held open by her hand on one hip just over the bottom half of the cotton underwear ensemble she has on underneath it. She is wearing hot pink high heels and dark red lipstick. A cigarette is wedged between the fingers curled against her hip and a long rope of ashes dangles out of it. From her head emerges a shock of hair recently died a color that can only be called maroon.

In her free hand, she holds a black plastic bag. And a copy of the Watchtower.

Friday, May 14, 2010

That Day in Spring

In front of the building, Emma skirted the drive where the cars piled into a traffic jam. Parents frantically waited there to pick up their children as quickly as they could to get home before the roads closed. The principals released all the students early, instructing them to go straight to their houses without stopping.

As Emma moved away from the school building, she walked the flawless white sidewalk slowly and tried to ignore the unnerving stillness. On what had been a beautiful spring day, clouds gathered over the streets now empty of people. A heavy silence muted the usual trill of birds.

Emma startled when an olive green car abruptly pulled up to the curb beside her. Both of its occupants smiled broadly, their eyes shrouded by opaque sunglasses. The one nearest her in the passenger’s seat spoke to her through the partially open window. “What are you doing outside, miss?”

“I had to finish something at school. I’m on my way home now.” She continued to walk at a slow pace.

The man in the passenger seat smiled even more broadly as Emma answered him, as if he knew something that no one else did. The driver turned his head to survey the area surrounding the car. The man in the passenger seat looked out at the street, the lenses of his glasses too dark to make out his eyes. “You had to finish something? A school project?” The tone of his voice didn’t threaten her.

“Yes.” Emma lied, warming to him as he took an interest in her.

The car continued to follow beside her. “Did you finish it?”

“The project? Yes.”

The driver then leaned over to speak through the open window. “Want a ride home?”

Her mother’s warnings about strangers snapped into her head. “No. I just live over there.” Emma pointed down the street.

“Okay. But we’ll stay with you until you get inside.” The driver moved back behind the wheel.

Emma crossed the street as the car pulled past her and up into the driveway of her house. She ran to the door and rang the bell even though the front door key was lodged in her pocket. Quickly moving footsteps came from inside as someone approached the door. Emma waved at the occupants of the car, then turned back to see her mother standing in the doorway, her face as she saw the car fading to pale. She quickly pulled Emma inside and shut the door.

Seven years later, the temporary situation born on that springtime afternoon lumbered into another year of the “great crusade” and “the salvation of the nation.” The handsome face of the Colonel who preached this gospel still stared out at her from billboards and handbills routinely disfigured until they were replaced. He never aged.

Not long after her eighteenth birthday, Emma sat on the floor in a dark room where candles painted their ephemeral twilight across the wall. Stale damp air crowded into the empty spaces. Emma pressed her back against the wall.

Across from her, Elena from another part of town finally finished the story she had hesitated to tell of that same day in the spring. “In the middle of the night they came to take me and my neighbors on both sides. Pushed us all into buses with the rest of the people they picked up, even though there wasn’t enough room for all of us. The bus took us to the gym at the high school. Everybody cried and I could feel everybody shaking all around me. We couldn’t sit down. When we got there, I saw so many of them, so many people with guns.”

Emma knew without being told that Elena had not revealed before the words perched on her lips slightly parted. “I never told anybody about what happened that night. I never said what they did to me.”

She brushed the side of her face with the palm of her hand. “I never did. And I never will.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

Save the SMU Press

Instead of a Friday Flash entry today, I'm posting a link to information about the elimination of the SMU Press. The Southwest Review, SMU's literary magazine, may also be threatened. Unfortunately, the only way to respond is to send a snail mail to the president. Here's more information about the issue:

And the President's snail mail address:

President Gerald Turner
PO Box 750100
Southern Methodist University
Dallas, TX 75275

Let's hope that he has a change of heart when he hears from the public.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Off the Beaten Path

The noise of the buzzer near the entrance forced him out of bed. He was accustomed to the sound and his robe hung within easy reach. After putting it on, he walked the few feet to the front door and opened it to an attractive woman with hair perfectly coifed and surrounded by the perfume of lavender and cigarettes.

Rarely before had he felt this uncomfortable checking in a guest. “Good evening.” He pulled the tie of his robe tightly around him, then took in a deep breath. She didn’t seem to notice.

The woman fumbled with the purse hanging at her side. “You have a vacancy, right? The sign…”

“Of course. How many nights?”

“Oh, only one, thank you.” At the reception desk, her shallow laugh sounded of tinkling glass as her eyes fixed on the paper he handed her to complete.

He reached for the key from the board behind him. “This is one of our nicest rooms. Very secure.”

When she looked up from the page, the puffiness beneath her eyes that he’d barely detected before came into view in the muted light. Her smile illuminated her face and momentarily disguised her fatigue.

He looked at the paper, then reached over with the key in his hand. “Miss Crane. Have a good night.”

“And you do the same.” She took the key. “Thank you.”

As she walked away, he thought of how his life revolved around that hotel entrance ever since his father’s death. Even if the buzzer rang during the night, which was rarely the case, he rose early, tended the flowers in front—even though the garden fell under the responsibility of the handyman—then settled in with a cup of tea behind the heavy mahogany reception for the rest of the day.

And so it was that morning. With the thin local paper laid out in front of him, he took in the smell of oiled wood and waited for what the day would bring. That morning, she would be dressing perhaps. She might still be sleeping, as it was only 10am. Not every room was as well maintained as her room that he reserved for special guests, for those who showed respect, who treated him kindly. The room was not intended for the cranky salesman who came through twice a month on the way to Montford, or the old crone who visited her daughter in nearby Oak Grove.

The phone rang. Her voice on the other line quivered. “Can I have the room one more night?”

“Most certainly.”

“I’ll come by later this morning with the payment. This room seems so…safe. I appreciate it. Bye.”

“Take your time, Miss Crane.”

The door slammed just as he hung up the phone.

“What needs fixin’ today, Mr. B?” A man in ill-fitting overalls sauntered in, a slash of white forever marring his red right cheek.

From behind the desk, Mr. B glanced at the newspaper articles. “3E has a dripping faucet. Take a look at the begonias in the side yard. And make sure that Miss Crane’s room, 2F, is in satisfactory order, please.” He did not look up. He suspected that the man would not make it to the end of his assigned duties, as usual.

At midnight, just as every night, Mr. B made his way back to the house behind the hotel. This ritual was something he’d never ignore, even though it left him drained and sometimes unable to sleep afterward. But she had to be attended to, her needs met. A little food, some conversation, a listening ear. An ear to hear the antique words and accusations that had never dissipated even after almost a decade of their hovering in the air, hiding in the cracks of the walls, and nestling beneath the cushion of the sofa from where she judged him.

When he was through with the visit, her command to him was clear. His last thought was of the old crone and the salesman, why he’d never bothered to dispense with them in this way. But she had never spoken of the crone. She had never judged the disheveled and unkempt salesman. Only Miss Crane.

He stumbled down the pathway with the question why playing over and over in his head, clutching her gift in his hand, the gift she had given up to him from the sheath of her ribs to take care of it once and for all. To end his lust for the guest in 2F.

When he reached her room, he took out the key from his pocket, opened the door, and heard the shower going full blast. He stepped inside. “Do it, Norman!” he heard the voice hiss in his ear as he pulled back the curtain. “Do it once more for your mother.”

Her words, the last sound he heard.

The police detective knelt down and reached over to turn off the water with his handkerchief, pessimistic that he’d get any prints anyway. “Two knives, huh? All the blood’s on the one in the tub.” He looked over at the back of the head of curly hair, face to the floor. "And her."

His partner picked the knife up carefully. Some blood still streaked across the blade. “Bet it’s her blood. But not her knife.” He pointed to the old woman, a second knife lying on the floor not far from her hand. “Who found her?”

The first detective surveyed his notes. “Handyman.”

“He didn’t see anyone?”

“Not this morning. Said that the last guest left sometime in the night but he never got a good look at her. Didn’t get a plate number off her car either.” The first detective pointed to the dead woman. “And he’d never seen this one before."

The second detective scratched his head with his pencil. “One thing’s for sure, he won’t be seeing her again.” He punched a cigarette between his lips, then they both went about finishing their routine and grisly job.

Friday, March 5, 2010


The truck’s steel skeleton rattled as it moved along the side street, shaking the metal bed and the wall that separated it from the broken road. Hovering in that place between dreams and waking, Nina recognized the noise before panic set in, a panic caused by the shaking ground that would force her from sleep and through the door. Every morning, the same.

For almost a month, Nina woke up in a country where the ground often trembled under her feet. Everyone said it was a good sign. The more the earth shivers, the less likely it is to convulse. The shaking earth always unsettled her.

She wondered what Brynn would say about it. Brynn, whose Kreyòl was always better than Nina’s. Who gathered friends around her with ease. Whose jokes were only funny because of the way she told them.

The last night, Brynn studied the ragged edges of her sun-bleached hair. “We come here to fracture our hearts. So we can put them back together again.”

Nina reached over and flipped the switch on the travel alarm before it went off, then stretched her arms over head. She got up slowly. I hope there’s hot water today, she thought to herself as she turned on the faucet. A stream of cold water trickled loudly onto the gray concrete of the shower floor.

Just as she started to search for the words in Spanish to explain the problem to the handyman, the propane flame of the water heater exploded with a “poof” just outside the bathroom window. Soon, the water ran warm through her hands. Precious water.

The pastor who owned a jeep, the only vehicle in the small town Nina had left behind, loved Brynn like one of his daughters. “I should not have sent her to the meeting,” he confessed. Nina did not know how to respond. What happened to Brynn was not his fault. The pastor did not dwell on his remorse as the needs of the town’s residents were too great. On the eighteenth day, he took Nina in his jeep to the capital to release her from that place.

A trickle of water drizzled down Nina’s body. She slipped along the rough side, her palms against the wall, until she sat down. She grasped her knees and let the water continue to run over her. The large drops slapped against the rough surface of the concrete. Wasteful, but she felt too weak to stand. Her parents’ frantic words came back to her, their surprise, relief, distress wrapped into a few sentences over the crackling cell phone. “You’re safe! Come home!” they called out to her. And she did come home. For a while.

Loud chattering from children on the street filtered in where Nina sat and she got up quickly to shut off the faucet. She shook the water from her hair and wrapped herself in a thin towel, then peeked through the window to see the girls in dark blue uniforms making their way toward the busy intersection.

Nina missed teaching her classes. She missed the girls from a different place who looked up at her and asked her questions she did not want to answer, and giggled as they asked them. She missed their parents who wanted to learn to read and write. She missed all the things that she had once hated, that had made her want to leave—the dust, the insects, the uncomfortable bed, the grinding poverty she could do nothing about. Instead of going home, she came here, to this place of volcanoes and shivering earth. This place of women wearing bright huipiles and dark braids down their back, and men with straps across their foreheads bearing loads of firewood.

A horn beeped and she quickly dressed and stepped outside. “¿Otro grupo?” The driver asked her when he saw her.

“Yes. Another group. Un momento.”

Just as she reached for her bag, her body gave way and she sat down hard on the bed.

Two months ago, Nina said goodbye to Brynn that last morning, wishing that she was the one going to the meeting in the capital and to a comfortable hotel room. Nothing unusual about that day, or Brynn lifting her tanned arms to hand her bag to the man on top of the bus, then turning to wave goodbye.

Once the shaking started that night, the earth continued to tremble eternally. Two small children clung to Nina as all three lay on the soccer field, too afraid to sleep inside. One child lost both her parents and later went to live with her uncle, the other found his mother the next afternoon.

But that night they had no one but Nina who pressed her hands against both of them, comforting them. She calmed herself by concentrating on the band of light over her head, the arc of the Milky Way. See, she told the children. The boy pointed at one particularly bright star. “Etwal.” His voice rasped from the dust.

Seventeen days later, they pulled Brynn’s body out of the rubble of the hotel.

“Are you all right?” The driver stood at the door and looked into the room, but did not come inside.

“Estoy bien.” Nina got up from the bed. “We’re taking the group from the airport to the clinic in Camanchaj.”

“I know.” The driver stood back from the door and let her pass as she walked toward the van, then climbed inside.

On the road to Guatemala City, the driver respected the silence, humming softly under his breath as he drove. Nina busied her mind by checking off all the tasks—the construction supplies purchased, the hostel reservations made, the translators hired. Another group, here for only a week or two. Another group of fractured hearts, to be remade again. For a while, Nina knew that hers would not be alone.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Side Effects

Last week, A.M. Harte submitted a stunning story based on the ABC Challenge. The rules are this: write a story that is 26 sentences long. This first sentence must start with the letter ‘A’, and every following sentence begins with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, ending with ‘Z’. Here for your reading pleasure (or revulsion) is my version written for a short story class last summer. One addition: we had to incorporate one sentence that exceeded 20 words. Guess which one it is.

Audrey worshiped pharmaceuticals. “Benadryl saved my life when I had anaphylaxis. Cymbalta takes away that blue feeling. Duloxetine does its part in lifting my spirits. Excedrin mutes my migraines. Fosamax cements my porous bones.”

Grabbing a beer from the fridge, Zach shook his head. “Hold on, now, mama. I believe that there’s more to feeling good than popping a pill.”

“Jitters can only be calmed by a good dose of valium,” Audrey continued. “Klonapin keeps my nerves in a restful state, too. Let me tell you that I couldn’t live without my Midol.”

“Mama, some subjects are off-limits!”

“Now you’re a grown man.”

“Oh, say, can we change subjects…?”

“Prednisone takes care of my incessant itching."

"Quaaludes got you through the 80s, ain’t that what you said?”

“Richard Zachariah, don’t bring up my youthful indiscretions!”

“Sorry, mama, I didn’t mean…”

“Two pills a day tame that restless leg syndrome.”

“Unless you are me, and I don’t need any of these, since I jog and I swim and I eat three reasonable meals a day and visit the chiropractor, and practice meditation and sing in the choir and take all my vitamins and occasionally go to Jazz-and-tone classes and work out at the gym and floss my teeth and make sure I get my five fruits and vegetables every day and limit my intake of carbohydrates and fried foods and stopped smoking and chewing and switched from Coors to red wine and make sure to stretch and don’t forget my weight-bearing exercises, so what more do I need?” Zach asked.


“We are stopping this conversation right now.”

“Xanax keeps me from panicking when my son wants to cut off all communication.”

“You got me there.” Zach held out his hand and said, “Give me a couple of those Excedrin cause you win.”

If you would like to cleanse your pallet with a better story, please select one from the panel on the right.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Virgin and the Priest

The woman arrived at the priest’s office on a Saturday early, soon after the priest normally started his day. She stepped inside his office and stood her ground. “I’ve found a virgin.” The package she carried in her withered arms was enormous, though she didn’t seem to struggle with its weight.

The priest looked at her over his wire glasses. “Pardon me?”

“A virgin, Father. By the creek just a mile or so from the church. Surely you know…”

“I’m aware, Mrs. Abernathy of the creek.” And what a virgin is, he opted not to add.

Just then, the woman set the bundle on his fine mahogany desk and slipped off the burlap cover.

The priest studied the poorly made replica of the Holy Virgin constructed from a mottled and discolored material resembling Plaster of Paris. Most off-putting of all was her face, nothing like the beautiful countenance of most renderings. “And what would you wish for me to do with this, Mrs. Abernathy?”

'What priests normally do, I suppose. Build a shrine to it on the creek with a small garden to be enjoyed by all who pass by her.” She raised then lowered her silver brows. “That is what I would do.”

All the joggers and bicyclists and their dogs would destroy it, if it were even possible to raise the money to build the structure. “That is public land. It’s not likely…”

“Suit yourself.” Mrs. Abernathy dropped the burlap back over the object, then left without removing it from his desk.

After the door shut, the priest lifted the burlap once again to study the face just below the head covering that cast a shadow down to the stern eyes. The joggers, bicyclists, and animals might destroy it, but that would be less an affront to the Holy Mother than whoever cast her with this expression. He replaced the cover and lifted the heavier-than-anticipated object, took it to his car and slipped it into the trunk. Slapping his palms together, the priest quickly forgot his isolated passenger and took off to finish the day’s chores followed by an afternoon of golf.

On Sunday morning, on the way to church, he noticed that the object no longer made noises as it rolled around. After he arrived, he opened the trunk and found it empty of all but the spare tire and his golf clubs. He checked every nook and space, but still no Virgin. He’d left it at the greens. Or possibly Mrs. Abernathy’s anarchist grandson must have taken it. He pondered other logical explanations, then went on about his day.

Monday morning was particularly satisfying. This regular homily, “A Woman’s Place,” was well delivered and received. A parishioner served him a lovely lunch and sent him home with a dozen chocolate-chip-walnut cookies. He headed home to spend the day tending to his garden, with a break at midday for a well-deserved nap.

The priest gave the Virgin no further thought, until he stepped out into the garden and felt eyes upon him. That’s when he turned and saw her there on top of the air conditioning unit staring through the trailing roses. Her expression mirrored a disapproval more stern than his sternest teacher in school.

The priest startled, then relaxed when he realized that it must be a prank. Anyone could access the rectory courtyard with little trouble. His relief lasted less than a day when the Virgin turned up three times more in the same place, finding its way from the garden of the nearby convent, the hallway outside one of the classrooms at the parish school, and, finally, the dumpster at the golf course.

In two weeks’ time, the priest raised the money to build a shelter appropriate for a Virgin with a small garden along the creek bed where it stood. On the day he placed the statue in its shelter, after the small ceremony planned for it, he stepped out and looked down at the neighborhood of simple frame houses at the foot of the hill. At that moment, his eyes met those of a woman mowing her lawn. She shielded her face from the sun with one hand as she stared at him, then hesitated briefly before returning to her task.

It took the priest more than a month to recover from the whole effort and the unsettling appearance of the Virgin in his yard. Once the building to house her was constructed he never went back to see her there, though he did receive reports that her expression had changed to peaceful satisfaction.

To the priest's surprise, all summer a surprising number of women and men came to the parish to volunteer to serve the areas of most need in the community. Almost all were joggers and bicyclists, and a fair number of dogs accompanied their masters.

One day in early fall, the priest prepared for a game of golf in that late afternoon of cool fall crispness. Someone knocked on his door.

“Mrs. Ogilvy.” He could say no more once his eyes fixed on the bundle in her pillowy arms. Her sweater was tied round her waist, and her face glistened.

“Oh, Father.” She placed the burlap covered object on a stack of papers on his desk. “I’ve found a Virgin.”

A pain stabbed through the center of his skull and the priest reached up to rub it away. “And where did you find this, my child?”

The woman grinned broadly. “In a taxi cab, Father. I found it in a taxi cab.”

Thursday, January 14, 2010


A ghost witnessed the end of the world and whispered words that no one could hear.