Friday, December 19, 2014

The Last Christmas

Early Christmas morning, Edward kissed Helen’s hand, just as he had on their honeymoon fifty-four years earlier, and laid it back on her chest. His thumb brushed the heart-shaped birthmark on the side of her throat. For a painful second, he believed his eyes when they told him her faint lashes had fluttered on her cheek. He knew it wasn’t so.
His Helen was gone and had been for an hour. He sat talking to her after her final soft exhalation of breath, holding her hand and ignoring the way her skin lost its warmth as the minutes passed.

With tears spilling from his rheumy eyes, he explained all those days he’d risen in the morning with dark circles betraying a sleepless night.

“You always believed my excuse of insomnia—didn’t you? I was too embarrassed to tell you why I didn’t sleep…. I would lie next to you, watching the slow rise and fall of your chest on nights when the moon was full, watching your lashes flutter against your cheek while you dreamed. In the quiet, I watched you sleep, still unable to believe, after five years or ten or forty, that you had chosen me and loved me despite my bad habits and big nose and quiet ways. I never got over that disbelief, and I studied you at night to memorize the line of your jaw, the slight upturn of your nose, the precise color of your lips—afraid one day you might come to your senses and find a man without so many faults. You were too loyal for that, I know, but I watched you sleep just the same.”

Now he would have to face the nights with only the memory engraved by thousands of moonlit hours.

Edward grabbed his cane and pushed himself up from the bedside chair. The dull ache in his knees flared brighter, his hands seemed to tremble more, the color of the sunrise appeared muted and flat as he shuffled from the hospital room. Nurses offered condolences, but he hardly heard them. He made his way down to the lobby, aware that the sharp antiseptic smell had vanished from the hallways. Reaching the bus stop, he lit his pipe, but the tobacco had no flavor. Helen had taken the essence of everything with her.

He went through the motions of life: rising in the morning, eating at the proper times, and keeping the house neat. But the days held no meaning, and the moon illuminated nothing. More and more, Edward sat in his easy chair, staring at nothing, with no one to notice.

On a Sunday, as Edward walked home from the bus stop with his small bag of groceries in one hand and his cane in the other—going through the motions—he was woolgathering, wondering how long he would have to endure his faded imitation of life before death would finally embrace him. A weak whimper interrupted his thoughts. He paused on the sidewalk and tilted his head, thinking the noise might have come from his own lips. The cry came again, from a solitary lilac bush growing wild at the park’s edge.

He bent to see deeper into the thick shadows. Curled in the dirt, a patch of darkness whimpered again. Edward lowered himself, pushing away the pain and stiffness, until he kneeled beside the bush and parted the profusion of heart-shaped leaves. An Irish Setter puppy peered back at him. The animal trembled and whined, shrinking back.

“Here, pup,” Edward whispered. He tried to suppress the palsied tremor in his hand and held it out to the puppy.

The dog watched him with wary eyes for several minutes, gaze darting for an escape. It started to lean forward, pulled back, started toward him again. Edward kept his hand out and waited. Inching toward him, the setter stretched its neck out, and ventured a nervous lick at his hand. He let it sniff until it came out further. The puppy wagged its tail as it slinked into the gap between Edward’s legs and huddled there. The perfume of lilac came to him then, overwhelming in its dizzying sweetness.

The pup wore no collar. Edward carried it home, and made it a small bed, and cooked some food for it, grumbling that he didn’t want the burden. He told himself he had no business keeping a dog and would find her another home. He scanned the paper for days and checked the neighborhood for flyers. In case someone called, he left his name and number with the dog pound, but the phone stayed silent.

On the fourth day, as he sat in his easy chair and the dog lay at his feet, he felt her eyes on him. He resisted the urge to meet her gaze. Her head lay on her paws and she crept closer and closer. He wouldn’t give in. Soon she lifted her head, slow and sneaky, until it touched the hand resting on the chair’s arm. She nuzzled it and insinuated her head under it. Edward sighed and let his hand smooth the silky hair, then scratched her ear. As his hand drifted lower, she lifted her chin, asking for more. Her head tipped back, exposing her throat. For the first time, he noticed a tiny white patch there. Shaped like a heart. His resistance melted away, tears dampened her hair, and he named her Ellie.

He chastised her for getting on the bed and nosing through the trash. Ellie followed him around the house and sat patiently by the door when she needed to go out. They went on walks, neighborhood children begged to play with Ellie, and she obliged. Edward and Ellie watched old movies on Saturday nights, with her in the spot beside his chair and his hand resting on her head. She lay next to his bed every night. When he woke, he would find her soulful gaze on him, watching.

The color seeped back into the sunset. Food tasted better, and his pipe, left in its stand on the mantel for ages, found its way back into his shirt pocket. Smells returned, sounds became richer once more. Ellie brought the essence of everything back to him.
Early Christmas morning, Ellie snuck onto the bed with Edward. Her big dark eyes watched him sleep. And when the last soft breath left his lips, she licked his hand as it lay on his chest.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Christmas Morning

He claps his hands, his face suffused with joy, and runs off to write a Christmas wish list. He's giddy at the idea of waking up there; he wonders what they'll have under the tree, and how they'll spend the day.

I sit alone, smothering the bitterness roiling at the one disrupting our lives after years of indifference and absence, and instead focus on the happiness it will bring the one I love.

I sit alone, avoiding thoughts of the deafening silence I'll hear when I wake at a reasonable hour, instead of at the crack of dawn with warm little hands nudging me and a squeal of delight, "Santa came!"

I sit alone, refusing to listen to that slithering whisper in the back of my mind. What if he likes it better there?

I sit alone, wondering if he'll come home and ask, innocent and unaware of the rending of my heart, "Mom, can I go live with him?"

I sit alone, anticipating silence.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The End

"The End."

I believe those two words, at this moment, hold more emotion and meaning for me than any others I've written. They represent time and energy expended. They carry the weight of my expectations and my fears. Those two words mean the end and the beginning.

I finished my manuscript today--well, I finished it at 5:43 a.m., after writing furiously all night. After one year and one week, my creative endeavor is complete. I have told the story.

The work is not done, of course. I still must revise and edit, tweak and adjust, worry and massage the words I've written. The story is not ready for the world yet, and making it ready will be no small feat in itself. More time, more energy, more expectations, and more fear. But I have told the story.

When I started telling this story, I had a plan. The plan involved writing a book in about two or three months. After health issues intruded, I went to plan B. Six months. Writer's block. Nine months. Work. Ten months. Health issues. Twelve months. Things got in the way, and I got in the way. Maintaining momentum is hard, especially when you aren't really sure you have what it takes. The initial excitement loses out to monotony, focus fades, and doubts creep in. I'm actually surprised I found the determination to fight through. I have persevered and told the story.

The end of the story means I have accomplished something new and know now I can accomplish much more. The End means far more than I imagined those two words could.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Door to the Past

I put the bullhorn to my mouth and closed my eyes as I recited a prayer in my head. Sweat dampened my collar, and the ulcer eating away at my stomach burned a hot lump in my belly. I had to make him listen—without telling him what I really wanted him to know.
“Mr. Richardson! We can stay out here all night, and you can stay in there. But whether it’s five minutes, or five hours, or five days, won’t make a difference. It won’t change anything. Come on out so we can talk.”
The door mocked me with its silence. No response came back, just as I knew none would. I studied the pattern of grime on the white paint around the door handle, where the hand of a mechanic had left greasy evidence of his daily life.
Bob Richardson had spent the last forty years living the same day, over and over. He got up in the morning and ate the same breakfast of grits, sausage, and coffee. He went to work at Reddy Automotive and fixed cars. He came home, read the paper while he ate his Hungry Man TV dinner, watched a few shows, and went to bed. Grocery trips happened on Wednesdays, to catch the market’s double-coupon day. The barber down on Franklin Street cut his hair every third Saturday without fail. His routine didn’t change one iota from the age of twenty-six to sixty-six.
Until yesterday.
Yesterday, Mr. Richardson bypassed Reddy and drove to the other side of town. He parked in front of the home of a Mrs. Thornton. He walked to the door and knocked. When the woman of the house—Estelle Thornton, a plump but buxom widow of sixty-two—answered the door, he lifted a shotgun and blew a hole through her abdomen the size of a dinner plate. Then he drove home and locked his door. When we arrived, he yelled out to us to stay away because he had guns and wasn’t taking calls.
As a detective, and the only trained negotiator in our department, my efforts to communicate with Mr. Richardson with a bullhorn were nothing out of the ordinary. We responded to a dozen of these kinds of incidents every year.
This time was different, but I was the only one who knew that.
Last week, I’d received a letter from a stranger. Mrs. Estelle Thornton had written to tell me she was my biological mother. She explained she had married too young and wasn’t happy. When she found out she was pregnant, she left her husband without a word about the pregnancy, got a divorce, and put the baby up for adoption. I had known I was adopted since I was nine, but I hadn’t looked for my birth parents until last summer. I submitted paperwork to the adoption agency, and they said they’d forward it to my mother, and she’d respond if she wanted.
I waited. For six months I waited without hearing a thing, wondering who she was, if I looked like her, why she’d given me up. I’d figured she decided she didn’t want to connect with me. That hurt, but I had come to accept it.
Until last week.
Mrs. Thornton’s letter also stated the name of my birth father, which she hadn’t given the adoption agency. One Robert Richardson, last known address at 845 Denmark Street, apartment C.
My eyes touched on the tarnished brass letter tacked to the door, and I blinked back the sting of tears. I had a pretty good idea why he snapped. She’d said she sent him a letter, too.
“Mr. Richardson…please,” I swallowed to suppress the catch in my voice, “put down your weapons and come out.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Stick Fishing

My illegal fishing escapade took place the year I turned eleven. We went on a hunting trip, staying in a nice cabin with several ponds upstream. One day, while everyone else hunted, I stayed behind. I ached to catch some of the huge fish in the ponds. The pools had almost dried up, with only a foot or two of water left. Off I went, with my pole and tackle box, convinced I would return with record-breakers.

I fished, and I fished. I lost lures, snagged hooks, and wasted bait. My hook dangled sumptuous worms inches from the trouts' mouths, with no response. Frustration mounted. I could reach out and touch these monstrous, shimmering fish. But how to catch one? An idea formed. The muddy banks sucked at my feet until I found a waterlogged stick, the size of a baseball bat. I trudged back through the muck to where the fish hovered, mocking me. Determined to win, I proceeded to assail the fish with my new weapon. Water splashed, mud flew…. And I conquered.

I returned to the cabin with two fine specimens, so heavy I could barely carry them. I proudly showed them to my mother. She eyed them with surprise, and asked how I managed to catch them. I regaled her with the story; how I had tried so hard to catch the fish doomed to die in the rapidly shrinking pools; and how they refused to let me help them. Earnest, I described how I had used my stick to convince them. She couldn’t hold back a smile, but explained we have legal ways to catch fish…and not-so-legal ways. I haven’t clubbed any fish since. A good thing, because the man she married soon after that worked as a game warden for thirty years.

Monday, September 15, 2014


You’ll find few soft things on a U.S. Navy ship. The outside of the ship tells you little, other than its sheer size, which causes vertigo as you stand at the edge of the pier and look up to the towering antennas, and the color—which is gray. There are varying shades of gray. Gunmetal gray, deck gray, light gray, dark gray. But they’re all gray and it is a hard color. When you step onboard, you begin to duck—if you’re a fast learner. The tight oval holes of the hatchways sneak up on you in an obvious way. The tops of these ovals hang down from the oppressive ceiling, lower than you expect. Short people, who have never had the need to duck for anything in their lives, will start ducking. It becomes a reflex. Unfortunately, it’s not a reflex you lose once off the ship. Sometimes years later, you can still identify a sailor by his duck-walk. He will duck at the slightest provocation. A low ceiling? Duck. A ceiling fan hung a bit far down? Duck. A doorway that isn’t at least three feet higher than the head? DUCK.

But it’s not just the ducking. A sailor develops a sort of high-stepping shamble. It might sound contradictory, but once you try it, you’ll find it is possible, and quite valuable on a ship. Hatchways have a rim, and that rim will ensure you learn to pull your knees up as you make your way through the ship. The steel rim has an edge—a hard, sharp, unbelievably painful edge. When your shin makes contact with this rim, you will invent new curse words just to increase the variety in your blue-streak. Learning to pick your feet up while you duck is vital to your well-being. As a beginner, you may get a few bloody noses when your face inadvertently connects with a knee, but that's a price you pay for wanting a life at sea. So you start to walk in a kind of Hitleresque goose-stepping march with your shoulders hunched and your chin tucked to your chest.

During your head-ducking-goose-stepping routine, you notice the deck. It is gray, with spots of dingy brown from drips of coffee and dirty boots. The rest of your surroundings are white. Not a bright, clean white. A yellowed, sad, creamy off-white you can tell just isn’t the right color. What it isn’t the right color for, you’re never quite sure—but it’s not the right color. When you dare to pick your head up for a brief moment, a ladder materializes before you. The ladder is metal, and gray—a sort of dull, gleaming gray. It looks unstable. Nevertheless, it insists you climb it. The first step shows it’s steeper and narrower than it looks. It is unstable. But you quickly forget the rickety sway in the loud din that envelopes you with the first contact. The horrible noise rivals the sound a toddler can make with a few spoons and some pots and pans. It is loud and metallic and booming. It only bothers you for the first few ladders, however. After that, your hearing is gone and it doesn’t matter.

When you reach the next deck, you can’t resist the urge to keep climbing. You goose-step-duck around the ladderwell to the foot of the next noise-maker and continue up. As you climb, you notice a difference. The odor of paint and oil and grease and bodies lessens. The air feels cooler against your skin, which is damp with sweat from climbing these infernal ladders.

After eons, you reach the last of the ladders. This ladderwell is pitch black, not gray. Like the moment in the early morning just before dawn when the moon drops and the night closes around you, the void smothers you in a vacuum of color and light. You catch your breath. The alcove somehow both mutes and heightens the rumble of metal as you climb the last ladder. You reach the hatchway and pull the bar to unlock the door. You’re desperate to plunge through the doorway. But this is the sneakiest hatch of all. Its rim is even higher than the others. It thrusts up from the top of the ladder, counting on you to maintain your body’s reflexive movement and step only as high as the last step. As you crack the hatch, bright light streams in, preventing folly and saving your shins—sometimes.

The deck here is gray, of course. The few pieces of equipment and rooms for storage are gray. But when you look up, the cool breeze caresses you and it’s a clear blue sky. The blue eases a burden up those many ladders, one you never realized you carried.

Monday, September 8, 2014


I am paralyzed. My toes wiggle and my legs carry me when I wish to move. Lifting a burden poses no problem; my arms and back remain strong. My hands and fingers may deftly weave a warm garment, or concoct a nourishing meal, or repair a broken home. Better yet, they can still caress my child’s face when he seeks reassurance and comfort.

No, my paralysis lies deeper, in my brain, my heart. If I looked inside, I would see no damage. The structures are intact. They hum with electricity and pulse with every beat.

Inaction persists. Tending the garden, walking in the woods, driving a car…. Motion means nothing when the words refuse to flow. They dance just beyond my reach, tantalizingly close yet achingly far.

Why? What inner demons hold the words at bay?

Fear paralyzes me. Doubts eat every line. Indecision drags me to and fro, forcing me through a maze which has no outlet.

You think you can write? Ha! Your trivial musings have no value.

You are wasting time, wishing for validation, hoping for acceptance, aching for praise. Give up.

You will never reach such a lofty goal; your wings of gossamer, they cannot carry such a pathetic burden.

The whispers rise into screams, echoing to a crescendo of agony.

How do I silence them? They hammer and pound, an endless drumbeat of defeat, failure, and insignificance. My eyes roll in their sockets, a frantic search for the source of the cruel phantoms. Panic envelops me in its cold embrace. Ragged breaths ripped from my chest are the only sign of life.

I am paralyzed ... but I refuse to give up. Quitting is not an option. My body still moves, my brain fires, my heart pumps. My gossamer wings flutter, battered by howling winds.

Still, I fly.

Image courtesy of  Victor Habbick at
Image courtesy of  Victor Habbick at

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cancer of the Hamper

Sometimes I think nudists have the right idea. They’ve simplified their lives. I haven’t managed to take that leap into territory where no clothing hides the various bulges and quirks of my decaying body. Eventually my wits will abandon me, and I’ll no longer mind the scorn and mockery bound to follow if I venture out naked. Until then, laundry haunts me daily—the bane of my existence.

About once a month, I gather the courage to face the heap of clean clothes which reproduces like rabbits on top of my dryer. I stand in the claustrophobic laundry area for an eternity and fold clothing I didn’t know I own. My hands move in a tedious monotony, shaking out a shirt and smoothing it into a somewhat tidy square. I set it down and grab another superfluous garment and repeat the process…. Over and over and over. This is the moment I can’t help thinking, “How on earth did I get so many clothes? Where did that skirt come from? Why can’t I find anything to wear?”

Apparently I do find things to wear, because a tumor grows in the hamper at light speed. It is cancerous, contagious—frightening. And since I have a child, it reeks. The menacing lump swells, and I cringe each time I see it. It spills out like the noxious slime oozing from alien pods in a sci-fi flick.

I brace myself and confront the growth. I open the washer and turn the knob to select the correct cycle, sharp, rattling clicks grating on my nerves. The water streams into the tub, slowly, ever so slowly, filling it. Detergent poured in, then I excise a chunk of tumor and sort the pieces, hurling a tornado of garments until the drum is full. Dark, white, color, white, towel, dark. Most often, the procedure ensues due to the lack of a certain item which must be worn on a certain day, or perhaps my son finding some new, foul way to soil his clothing.

The groaning, rattling, swooshing, gurgling of the washer drills my brain for forty minutes and then, if I don’t forget I’m in the middle of doing laundry, my hands pull the cold, soggy mass out and wrestle it into the dryer. Inevitably, a wet pair of undies splats on the floor in an effort to escape. I close the door and hit the button; the dryer rumbles, the mound thumps in protest. Desiccation separates the mass, and the sound softens with time, but for one button that tinks, tinks, tinks. Or maybe it’s a penny. Not loud enough for a quarter or tinny enough for a dime. After a while, the buzzer sounds, the jolt of a cattle prod interrupting one of the other hundred tasks I've attempted.

But by this time, my fortitude has waned. The scourge prevails, awaiting another load which requires its removal. Yanking it out, I try to balance a sodden load in one arm, sodden socks plopping at my feet. I mash the dry clothes into the already full basket sitting on the dryer, crushing them into compliance and wrinkles. There the clean clothes remain, the pile shrinking by a shirt here, socks there, replaced by ten more until the malignancy overwhelms.

Thus, the cycle begins again. I wish had the strength to face the process more often, but instead I avoid it. The cancer mocks me. I turn my head and pretend it’s not there…. Until I gain the courage to battle it once again.

Despite my loathing of the process, I admit I do enjoy the outcome. The sense of accomplishment in a chore conquered provides relief and satisfaction. The clothes hang neatly in the closet or lined up in organized rows in the drawers.

The warmth of a plush, fleece shirt fresh from the dryer provides comfort few things can. I rub the fluffy material against my cheek, inhaling the scent of flowers, as if deprived of oxygen. It transports me to the simplicity of childhood, when I took for granted the clothes arranged in my old oak dresser. I remember lying in my mother’s soothing arms, the softness there, the perfect serenity, and the crisp, summer-wind smell of her blouse.

Maybe I won't throw the clothes out just yet.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Thanksgiving: Generations

I scurry about the house, jittery, focusing on the preparations. It’s always like this. In the hours before everyone arrives, the idea of the family dinner intimidates me. I try to conjure ideas for witty conversation while spreading table cloths and pulling dishes from cabinets, but when the time comes, all wit escapes me.

Seasons mark the passage of time, like generations retiring to make room for the young. Some people like spring. The new growth and cool showers rejuvenate them. Others like summer, basking in the sun and outdoor fun. Then there are those who baffle me with their affinity for the snow and teeth-chattering short days of winter. My favorite is autumn. I love the warm colors falling like rain drops from the trees. I love the metallic tang in the air when I step outside. I love Thanksgiving, and a large family dinner. Everyone leaves their far-flung corners to gather for sustenance, physical and emotional.

I set out silverware and plates, arrange napkins, and devise a centerpiece. As I move about the long, make-shift arrangement of tables lined end-to-end, I envision everyone, already in their chairs, chattering and laughing as they wait for the feast. As I notice a similarity of traits in my clan, the image focuses on three figures.

My grandfather sits at the head of the table. His balding head gleams in the soft light, his large frame cocked to the left, with his elbows planted on the table. His huge hands, seamed with wrinkles and age spots that belie my childhood memories of a man in his prime, link loosely together just below his square chin. Thin lips press together in the slightest of smiles. It’s difficult to tell if his smile is the outward expression of a sense of superiority, which lies just below the surface, or simply mild amusement. There's something fantastic in his shoulders, in the way he holds them, as if an invisible mantle hangs upon them that bestows a greater…everything. He pulls his shoulders back and holds them straight, steadfast. They embody the pride he carries with him, like a coat of armor, inspiring admiration for the soldier of years past. His shoulders have carried large burdens, too heavy for many men. They embody strength and security. But armor can shield too well, preventing true closeness and intimacy. I'm certain I'll never peel that armor back quite far enough to see what hides underneath.

Then I picture my brother. He sits much looser, without the obvious rigid control of the man beside  him; he projects less visible tension. But as he shifts in his chair, I spot the signs of restlessness. He’s never still for long. His hands, so similar to his grandfather’s, are gentler in some indefinable way. They rest upon the table, then cradle the back of his head as he leans back with a sigh. The arms are thinner, more sinuous. But his shoulders mimic his ancestor's. Not quite as broad, but they have the same lines. I see the deeper differences, though. These shoulders speak of more pain endured and truly felt; absorbed rather than deflected. They do not offer the same inviting impression of security. More vulnerable, less guarded. But I know they shelter something within. The armor isn’t as thick, but it’s made from the same resilient material and formed from the same mold.

Last, I see my son in my vision. The thought brings a tightening in my chest; an unbearable ache, a need to hold him and keep him always within my reach. He squirms in his chair, that dazzling, mischievous smile lighting upon anyone who looks his way. Overwhelmed by the larger-than-normal crowd and all of the attention, his eyes flicker to me for reassurance.

He reminds me of the leaves swirling in a blustery autumn breeze, free and loose. Yet his excitement prompts a virtual vibration of his entire body, invisible energy on the verge of explosion. He sits straight, then leans to grab the cup belonging to the person next to him, then shifts to look at the people at the far end of the table who erupted in laughter, his green eyes opening wide in surprise. Between his bursts of movement, I catch a glimpse of his hands and his smile; the hands of a small child, the smile of a cherub. But when I look closer, I notice his hands are large for a boy his size, with long, slender fingers--exactly like his grandfather’s and uncle’s hands. He reaches to rub his ear, brushing away the bronze-red hair that tickled it. He has a slim neck, with the spot under his ear that I can’t help nuzzling whenever he allows me to restrain him for the briefest moment. He has the shoulders, too. They aren't as big or as broad, of course. On a child, they look as fragile as the whisper-thin bones of a hummingbird. But potential inhabits his shoulders. I try to imagine the man he will become, but it's too soon, and the picture eludes me. I pray he won't encounter too much pain, but I know he will bear his share. I hope when he meets challenges, he learns to absorb what makes him grow and learn, and manages to deflect what can damage his soul. His shoulders will carry burdens, and his hands will bear scars. Just like his grandfather and uncle.

I finish the settings, making small adjustments, fidgeting until it's just right. The aroma of rich food--turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie--fills the air. I admonish my son to stop playing with the napkins I just folded and scoop him up as he giggles. I bury my face in that precious spot on his neck, inhale his little boy scent, and endure the painful swell of love he brings to my heart.

The others arrive, and I hug my grandfather and brother. As each embrace me, my cheek nestles against their shoulders. They comfort me and calm my nerves.

Image courtesy of Apolonia at

Sunday, August 10, 2014

No Hands

In a battered Volkswagen Bug, we would begin the trip -- any trip. If I were lucky, I'd sit in the passenger seat, with my brother sulking in the back, and watch my dad carefully. He always seemed amiable and easy-going in the early stages, before the inevitable boredom and bickering that came with the miles. I saw in him the tall, dreamy hero in a princess story.  He'd flick his long, white-blonde hair from his face and tap a cigarette out of a crumpled pack, then light it on the warm glow from the little knob in the dusty dashboard. He'd turn the key; the engine would sputter and catch.  The car would vibrate as he settled his long, lanky frame into the sagging seat, his knees poking up along the sides of the steering wheel.

Before slipping the Bug into gear, Dad would reach over and look in the tattered box under the dash. He’d search through the 8-track tapes, looking for whatever fit his mood. For the start of the drive, he’d pick something my brother and I liked. Our favorite was "Puff the Magic Dragon," though we knew nothing of the hidden symbolism of the song. Dad would push the cassette in, and I'd hear it click into place. A low burst of static snapped from the speakers, followed by the sound of the tape sliding through its reels. He would turn the sound up until we could barely hear the rumbling of the engine, then he'd pull out.
Image courtesy of  Stuart Miles at

The routine captivated me. But mostly what I remember is that as soon as we hit a stretch of straight road, however brief, Dad would let go and start tapping his fingers to the beat -- on anything but the wheel. His knees would cradle the shifting circle and make small adjustments. His demonstration of "skill" left me both terrified and awestruck.  I couldn’t wait until I grew up, old enough to hit the road and try out my own abilities.

I wish, sometimes, I had better, more inspiring memories of him. I wish I remembered something more substantial. I wish the image of the princess’ hero hadn’t faded. Perhaps it is better this way. Memories are unreliable, tainted by time. They offer something better than the truth.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Lonely Sea

Wind buffets my face and steals my breath. I hear only a distant, quiet susurration as the ship slices through the water with rhythmic waves of spray. Flags ripple overhead but I can’t hear them—the wind whips that away too. Salt in the air, and all around. It coats every surface like slippery, crazed icing.

I stand at the bulwark, preparing for my watch. I slip the strap of the binoculars over my head and let the heavy weight dangle from my neck. After a while, that weight will burrow into my skin and my shoulders will ache. For now, the familiar tug goes unnoticed, a necessary part of the routine.

I hate midwatch. It’s so boring. At least it’s not freezing tonight.

The top of the ship sways and I steady myself. I lower the large, padded earpieces of the sound-powered phone onto my head and adjust them over my ears. Suddenly all sound evaporates, but I still hear the ocean waves crashing in my ears, as if from a seashell. I press the button on the receiver to speak.
“Bridge—Starboard Lookout, back online.”
Propping my elbows on the bulwark, I pick up the binoculars and scan the ocean. The water reflects the moonlight in soft glimmers between peaked white caps of small waves. I can see for miles and miles, to the edge of the earth.
Nothing to report. I lower the binoculars and my eyes squint against the breeze.
“Bridge—Starboard Lookout, no contacts.”
I shift my gaze to the endless expanse of milky river flowing across the sky. The stars look different at sea, with no light pollution. I can identify a few bright, burning individuals, but the rest of the sky billows with the wispy, cottony glow of millions of other worlds. I grow dizzy trying to contemplate their multitude. It’s wondrous, yet intimidating, and arouses a feeling of intense loneliness.

I am such a small, insignificant being.

Those worlds out there care nothing for me. They revolve and change and will never even know of me. My presence, or absence, is meaningless to them. My family cares, of course. But in this moment, thousands of miles away, they seem a hazy memory. Beyond those few people, does my existence matter? I remind myself of the hundreds of people sleeping and working underneath me. They know me—at least some of them—and would miss me if I were gone. Wouldn’t they? But they don’t really know me, nor I them. I spend all twenty-four hours of every day with them. We crack jokes, complain about the Chief, and hit the bars together on liberty, but I’ve never confided my deepest hopes and fears to any of them. Would they care if the wind carried me away and let me disappear beneath the rolling swells? I have no answer.

During the day, I wish I could be alone. I want to silence the endless clamor of voices, boots, music, and equipment. I crave an escape from the constant suffocating presence of people. I ache for a quiet moment of privacy and peace.

I am alone. It’s quiet now. I have escaped.

To what? A lonely pinnacle atop the deserted ocean. The sea mocks me with singular solitude and I curse the hollow granting of my wish.

A flash of iridescent turquoise shimmers in the water. The glowing bioluminescence of a million companions reveals their presence. I could whisper all my secrets to them, and they’d never tell a soul.

There! Off the starboard side, just behind the bow. Silvery silhouettes emerge from the water and time stops as they float over the passing waves. No flapping of wings, just a smooth glide brings them into my airy world. I smile at the flying fish. They too would harbor my most private musings, if I chose to speak them. The fish plunge under the shroud of their world, the only trace of their flight a brief wrinkle in the waves.

Perhaps I’m not so alone in this bounding main. Creatures big and small permeate the ocean surrounding me, swimming and floating in a silent ballet. Knowing they are there soothes my sense of desolation.

My melancholy mood fades and I scan the surface again. My eyes track the movement of the swells, looking for any objects.
Nothing to report.
My eyes droop and I look at my watch. Zero-three-thirty. Almost done.

The wind dies down, but the night is cooler now. Puffs of air still flow over me as the ship steams to its destination. I shiver and pull my collar up.

The infinite liquid plain stretches before me. The calm before dawn settles the white-caps. Suddenly, the sea clears and turns glassy. No ripples mar its perfect stillness. Tranquility descends upon me, too. The darkness no longer seems overwhelming; rather, it feels open and liberating, full of possibility.

Movement at the edge of my vision catches my attention. I turn my head and focus my gaze a hundred yards away, beyond the ship’s wake.

The water rises up. No, not the water. Something under the water pushes up from below. A large, rounded shadow breaks the surface and silky, black fluid cascades from its sides.

My lips part in a gasp of ecstasy. My heart renders galloping thumps in my chest and I start to breathe in great, heaving gulps. Tingles rush over my skin and I shiver again, overcome with joy and awe.

The behemoth expels a blast of air and rides the wake for a glorious moment, before it sinks back into the depths.

I smile so wide my cheeks hurt. I search intently, hoping to see the beast surface again. Stillness returns.

My throat tightens and I try to swallow. Salty droplets spring to my eyes and spill onto my cheeks as if the sea has filled me to overflowing. I perceive a connection to the leviathan that transcends the barriers of our worlds. He knows me, and I know him.

My breathing slows but the thrill of wonder remains. My spirits buoyed, I see the depths with a new sense of intimacy. I know its secrets now, and I can share mine.

I lean over the bulwark and speak to my companions under the waves.
“I’m not alone!” Passion adds power to my voice.
“What?...Lynn, go to bed.”
I slowly pull myself back and turn around. My relief stands before me, eyeing me with unease.
I give him a sheepish grin and hand him the binoculars.
“Who were you talking to?” he asks with a dubious glance over the side.
“Nobody you know.”

Not Sad

The chirping ring broke through the haze of half-sleep. Faded denim light seeped around the curtains. Another chirp. Pushing myself out of the bed in a flash, I stumbled from the bedroom. My shoulder hit the doorframe with a staggering crunch. “Ouch! Dammit!” Feet not awake yet. Who the fuck would be calling so early? Mom? Better not be a wrong number. Down the hallway and into the dining room—don’t step on the exposed tackstrip. Christ, I have to finish that floor. My bleary eyes scanned the desk, glossing over the piles of books, stacks of papers. Did the kid leave the damned phone somewhere else again? One more chirp let me zero in. I snatched the phone from the crack in the couch.

“Ms. McDonald?”
“Yessss?” I said. Not Mom. Not a wrong number. Maybe a bill collector? No, too early. My heart skipped a beat. Something worse.
“Sorry to disturb you so early. I’m Officer Jackson with the Kansas Highway Patrol. I have some bad news.”
Kansas? I only knew one person in Kansas.
Brandon has died in an auto accident. His wife asked that I call you—I understand you have a son with him?”
I mumbled some kind of reply.
“My condolences to you and your son. He was on his way to work and collided with an 18-wheeler. The scene wasn’t discovered for several hours, the other driver was unconscious. Brandon was transported to the hospital with severe injuries, but he died a short time later.”
“I see.”
“I expect they’ll notify you of the funeral arrangements. If you need anything, please feel free to call me at 316-555-8691. Again, my condolences.”
“Thank you.”

I pushed the “off” button and set the phone on the desk. My heart thumped as if filled with molasses. I pulled the desk chair over and sank into it. Rapid, shallow breaths flowed from my lips, making them dry. I licked the parched skin and allowed the grin to stretch across my face.

Finally. I’d waited years for that call. The scenario changed each time I imagined it; a prison escapee had burst into his house and murdered him; a heart attack, or better yet, a long torturous cancer; a tornado flung him through the air and impaled him on a jagged spike of twisted metal. A million versions, all ending the same way.

I tried to feel bad, now that it had happened. I tried to conjure some sense of sadness or grief. It wouldn’t come. I only felt relief. Well, not only that. A rush of grim satisfaction pulsed through me at the thought that he suffered for a little while.
I knew it would be difficult for Connor, our son. He would grieve, and I would comfort him. I would hold him close and wipe away the tears. But I wouldn’t voice the brutal reality.

‘It’s better this way, honey. I know it hurts now, but this is only for a little while and the pain will fade. You’ll have the chance to live only with the memories you choose. If he’d lived, your pain would continue. He cared nothing for you. He never called, let alone bothered to come see you. He spent money on his own toys, but none for you. You cried so many times, wishing he would give you just a few moments of his time; just show he cared a little. Now you don’t have to question why he didn’t care. Those nagging doubts about yourself can die with him. It’s better this way, I promise.”

A strange emptiness settled in my chest. The anger and hatred I carried for so long left me. I would no longer have to lay in the dark, seething with fury after soothing Connor’s anguish and hearing him lament, “I wish I could see my dad.” I wouldn’t have to lie in response, “Honey, he’s just busy working; he works a lot. Soon, maybe.”

I sat by the desk as the sun’s rays topped the trees. I thought of the pointless, banal words I would give him instead. The birds awakened on their boughs, singing their cheer. I listened to their distant, muted calls and planned fun excursions to distract him: the zoo, camping, maybe the museum. I pulled in a deep breath, closed my eyes, and peace settled over me.

My eyes opened, a flash of confusion in the darkness. Not at the desk. In bed.

“Fuck.” A heavy sigh as I rolled over. Disappointed, again. “Soon, maybe.”