Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Holiday Scourge

"There is really only one
fruitcake in the world. People
just keep sending it to one another."

~~Johnny Carson~~

Since this week officially opens the holiday season, it’s time to explore an age-old problem, and what better place to do so than my blog? This is a subject so dark in its aspect, so repulsive, it’s as big a threat to our way of life as Obamacare, thong underwear, or Bill Clinton at a girls choir convention.

Yes, I am talking about fruitcake.
Fruitcake was invented about the time man discovered fruit. Satisfied with the texture of his previous diet of rocks and wood chips, early man determined to make fruit more to his liking, so laid it in the sun for several weeks until it attained the same consistency as oak and was festooned with snake skins and bird droppings. This dried fruit was then mixed with things like mud, sticks, bugs, animal innards, and yak hair—and the fruitcake was born.

Secret fruitcake recipes have been handed down through the ages until today only a select few humans still practice this black art. My mother made fruitcakes—usually in the middle of night. That’s when most fruitcake covens conduct this ritual. We could always tell when Mom was preparing for baking night. She’d buy dried fruit, candied fruit, and boxes of raisins. Then she’d sit at the kitchen table and sort through it, dicing up the larger, more recognizable chunks (carving citron into little pineapple-like shapes to fool the unwary), eventually dumping all of it in a gallon jar into which she also poured a bottle of rum. She'd then cap the jar and put it in the dark under the sink for a couple of weeks, at least.

Around October she got the jar out and drained away the rum (a tragic loss if you ask me), the fruit now bloated and uniformly horrible. Then she mixed up a batter which, with the addition of the embalmed fruit, took on the rough consistency of brown concrete that she subsequently globbed into ten or so loaf pans. She always rubbed it around making sure there were no air bubbles in it. To my way of thinking, air bubbles would’ve been a good thing. Something you wouldn’t have to eat, you know? Too bad I didn’t think of that back then. Mom could have cooked me an empty pan.

The cakes baked in a slow oven until they took on the appearance of rectangular cow pies. (I was never stupid enough to suggest to Mom that her fruitcakes looked like crap. Even she—a saint—had her maternal limits.) She dumped the hot cakes out onto the kitchen counter to cool, wrapping each one in cheesecloth, then stored them in brown paper bags on cookie sheets in a cabinet under the kitchen counter. Every few days, for weeks thereafter, she went to the kitchen, pulled the trays out and doused the cheesecloth wrappings with apricot brandy. The kitchen took on the odor of a speakeasy and the rags covering the cakes turned brown. My Christmas wish was always the same—that a marauding band of fruitcake thieves would break in and carry these disgusting wads away. "All right, lady, give up the fruitcake and nobody gets hurt!" Well, so much for Christmas wishes. A week or two before the hoilday, Mom announced the fruitcakes were ready.  “For what?”  was the question on everyone’s mind.

The slicing of the first cake—the one we kept—was a noteworthy event. Mom and Dad gathered the rest of us in the kitchen to watch as Mom reverently peeled the gunky brown cloth off her masterpieces. (The unveiling made me think of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon pulling the wrappings off a mummy.) “They’re beautiful,” my dad sighed. Personally, I thought they looked a whole lot like something the garbage man might scrape off the bottom of the trash dumpster—without the bottle caps, of course. I am still of the opinion they were a waste of perfectly good apricot brandy.

Mom’s fruitcakes were always the same shiny brown on the outside—imagine sticky sea turtles without legs or heads—and lumpy on the inside. Mom shuffled through them, selecting the worst looking one for us to keep for ourselves—kind of like keeping the ugly puppy because you know nobody else wants it. The rest she gifted to friends and relatives.

Thankfully, Mom thought fruitcake was more precious than gold and so she would pare off six very thin slices—one for each of us. She and Daddy wolfed theirs down with coffee, quickly lapsing into some kind of fruitcake-induced coma, whereupon we would slink away, lips curled, and feed our slices to the dogs—all of which would’ve happily eaten hubcaps if we’d offered them up. Except for the citron. Nothing eats citron.

For a few days afterward, Mom would holler, ‘Stay out of the fruitcake!” each time one of us ventured into the kitchen. Eventually she accepted that even if her cakes were the best in the world (and they probably came close), we wouldn’t have touched the stuff if the little lumps in them had been made from solid gold.

Over the years I’ve developed a grudging appreciation for accordion music, polka contests, and annual physical exams. I have never, and will never, however, develop a taste for fruitcake. Come to think of it, I would be svelte today instead of round if someone, somewhere, had invented a fruitcake diet.

Just the other day, I got an email with a link for fruitcake recipes in it, which took me to AllRecipes.Com. All I can say is there are way too many fruitcake recipes out there, people. AllRecipes, itself must have a couple dozen at least, and most of them are prefaced with, “This is the best recipe ever! All our friends and family say this is their favorite fruitcake!” Trust me; they’ve never tasted it! Are they really going to tell you they hate the stuff and never want to see it darken their doors again? No, they aren’t. They’re going to be gracious, knowing you worked hard to produce this inedible, glow-in-the-dark nuclear waste. And every year when the UPS man struggles to Aunt Flo’s front door with a ten-pound package slightly smaller than a shoebox, both he and Aunt Flo know what’s in there, without so much as sniffing the cardboard. Fruitcake. And they both know where it’s going. The TRASH.

A dear friend visited us a few years back, and waxed on at length about how he and his family make fruitcakes every holiday season…wasn’t that wonderful…family bonding experience…and  how they sent them off as gifts. All I could think of as he babbled away was that he should’ve met my mom—and how very, very thankful I am that his kids have a great big dog.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nurse Ratched and the Karmic Oxygen

"Always laugh when you can.
It's cheap medicine."

~~Lord Byron~~

Last week, my husband figured things around the Vernon household just weren’t quite exciting enough, and so decided on the spur-of-the-moment (and without my consent), to have a pulmonary embolism. The preliminary event took place sometime Tuesday, when he suffered shortness of breath, but decided it would be best if he kept that to himself.

After breakfast on Wednesday, though, he went downstairs to his hobby room, came right back up, white as the cream cheese on his bagel, popped an aspirin and said, “Take me to the hospital.” Never one to miss the opportunity to see him under the doctor’s thumb, I ran down the hall, got dressed in record time and drove him into town to the VA.

Let me tell you, mentioning shortness of breath at the ER desk is galvanizing. In a matter of minutes the staff had Bill in his own little cubicle. One of them helped him out of his shirt while another brought in the EKG cart. I suggested they stick the test leads directly on top of Bill’s chest hair, but all the nurses were male, and found that to be a cringe-worthy suggestion. One of them whipped out an electric razor and shaved little bald places on Bill’s torso, giving me the stink-eye the whole time. The EKG showed Bill's walnut-sized heart was chugging right along, so they sent him down to radiology for a chest x-ray. Those results came back and were apparently top secret but required a third test, a CT scan.

Finally an MD came in and told us that Bill had suffered a ‘shower’ of blood clots in his lungs, probably from a deep vein thrombosis in his legs. He went on to explain that the clots were very tiny and likely did not cause any lasting damage, but that Bill would have to be on anti-coagulation therapy for some time, so those and any other clots would have the opportunity to dissolve. He went on to say that Bill would have to be admitted too, so his condition could be more closely monitored, and so they could do more tests.

One of the nurses administered two injections into Bill’s abdomen, explaining he was shooting him up with a blood thinner that worked very fast. Then they bundled him into a wheelchair and escorted us up to the third floor. An orderly came into Bill’s room, bringing a set of hospital pajamas marked ‘XL’.  I helped Bill get out of his own clothes, folding them away in the wardrobe. When I turned, he already had the pajama pants on and was struggling into the jacket. Remember The Incredible Hulk, that cheesy old sci-fi program on TV starring Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner and Lou Ferrigno as his green alter ego, The Hulk? Well, my hulk of a husband was sporting Bill Bixby’s jammies, his legs and arms rudely naked from the elbows and knees down, the jacket unsnappable, so his shaved chest spots--skin that hasn't seen daylight in three decades--glowed in the light from the fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling. He just stood there, looking vastly bemused, trying, I’m sure, to figure out how he was going to get into bed without popping every snap and ripping every seam. Between snorting, whooping spurts of laughter, I convinced him to take off the baby jammies and trade them in for bigger ones. He was unamused.

Finally he was in bed. Another nurse came in and set up monitoring equipment and flushed his IV. Then she poked another hole in him and drew ten vials of blood. After that, she put him on oxygen. After watching her suck out most of his blood, I thought we should all have some, but I was afraid to ask for fear they’d want my blood, too.
Our daughter and her fiancĂ© were preparing to leave on a trip when all this happened~~going off to Atlanta, Georgia for a very intimate marriage ceremony, her best friends there to stand up for them. I asked Bill if I should call her. “Absolutely not.”

“But this kind of thing is dangerous. What if…?”

“If I die, you can just apologize to her for the rest of your life.”

The following morning I arrived at the hospital to find Bill’s room full of people, Bill, as usual, holding court between blood draws and medications, laughter leaking out of the room into the hall. An escort arrived to drive him to another facility for a Doppler study on his legs, to see if that could discover the parent blood clot. Off he went in his wheelchair, his escort an instant friend. I snuggled down with my Kindle to wait.

He came back an hour or so later, he and his escort now bosom buddies. They shook hands and the escort told me Bill was the most fun patient he’d ever met. “He makes good coffee, too,” I said.

His pulmonologist showed up. She told us they’d located the ‘parent’ clot, and that it's a whopper. Located in his left leg, it’s about two-feet long. The good thing: that’s the only one he’s got. She also told him he was going home the next day, on oxygen, and would be on oxygen for the time being, not only because his CO2 rates were down, but because oxygen helps the lungs heal and would help with the dissolution of the tiny clots therein.

She also told me that I would have the unforgettable pleasure of administering Bill’s shots at home for the next week, twice a day, each injection in the abdomen. The nurse came in and demonstrated how to do it. According to Bill, who has suffered at my hands all week, I’d make a heck of a Nurse Ratched. I apparently suck at shots.

The next morning we came home. Home Oxygen came by and left a whole flotilla of oxygen bottles and an oxygen concentrator that puts off so much heat  we don’t have to heat the dining room right now.

It’s Karma, really. As long as I’ve known Bill, every time he sees someone on oxygen he says, “S.O.B. probably smoked all his life.” Well, Bill’s never smoked. Not a single cigarette. Not so much as a drag. He’s also convinced that his oxygen bottles and cart are out to get him. He goes outside and the cart falls over, or the hose to the concentrator gets caught on door edges, especially when he's halfway down the stairs. Two mornings ago before dawn, I awoke to hear him stumbling around in the bedroom, swearing under his breath. He finally went out, closing the door behind him. Later, when I got up, I asked him what had happened.

“Oh hell. I was trying to put on my sweat pants in the dark and somehow the hose to my oxygen ended up inside one pant leg. It ran up the crack of my butt and halfway down the other leg and I couldn’t get it out. I had to go out to the living room and strip.”

So, that afternoon I stopped by Home Oxygen to see if there were any alternatives to the setup we have. They gave me a shoulder bag and several smaller bottles, so at least Bill wouldn’t have to contend with the cart anymore. He was ecstatic, but yesterday morning I noticed he has a scratch and a big bruise in the middle of his forehead. “What happened to your head?”

“Oh, I went outside to feed the birds this morning before daylight and bent over to pour their feed out. My oxygen bag slipped and the cylinder came around and clocked me in the face.”

It’s Karma, I tell you. Karma.

Author's note: The Cheyenne VA Medical Center ROCKS! The staff is caring, knowledgeable, and loves our veterans. Bill and I are so thankful for their outstanding treatment.~~LG

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Lesson From Mom

"You have to learn the rules of the game,
and then you have to play better than anybody else."

~~Albert Einstein~~

I wanted a job when I was in high school, but my parents wouldn’t hear of it. They said my job was to go to school. I was allowed to babysit, but I was not allowed to go out and find a ‘real’ job. “Study,” they said. “Enjoy this time. You’ll be working the rest of your life.” That said, two days after I graduated, my mom, who worked for the Department of Employment, handed me a yellow job ticket and said, “You start Monday.”

It was an awful job and the best favor anyone ever did me.

I was a Pin-Ticket Operator in the warehouse of a small home store. Well, not a Pin-Ticket Operator, the Pin-Ticket Operator. The store wasn’t big enough to support more than one. Picture a Mom and Pop Walmart, without the charm. There I dragged myself every day and stood in front of a small machine that I loaded with paper rolls of steel straight pins, with which I attached price tags to soft goods: shirts, underwear, blouses, socks and household goods—and sometimes me. The first aid kit was a box of bandages I copped off aisle five.

The machine hated me almost as much as I hated it. I had to set type in a tiny page set, upside down and backwards, for each kind of merchandise I priced. That ‘tag page’ had to be reset—the automatic inker, re-inked—each time I began pricing a different item, size, color, or brand. Inventory control began and ended with me. I learned that a nine, upside-down, meant six, and ink doesn’t come out of a white blouse. Not ever.

The work was mind-numbing. I stood at that damn machine from eight to five, five-days a week. Unless I was unloading boxes from big trucks. That was where I really picked up the life skills: moving huge, heavy objects with no hand-holds from point A to point B without herniating a disc or breaking a toe.

From Midge, my co-worker and supervisor, I learned to never go into the merchandise stacks with a truck driver named Randy. He was. Very. (I learned from myself that I could disable a man with my knee.)

But what I learned more than anything else was that I didn’t ever want to be a Pin-Ticket Operator again in my life, if that meant I would die of starvation at the bottom of a dumpster outside a mall in Fargo, North Dakota. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, but this job in this place became number one on my list of Things That Will Suck You Dry.

I knew, there in that place, I was not only dancing to a tune I could not hear, frigid hands were  wrapped around my neck and would eventually choke the life right out of me. At eighteen, thanks to my mother, I irrevocably understood that I simply wasn’t cut out to pin tickets from a roll onto merchandise from a box with tickets on another roll all coming out of a machine that made an ugly noise. Endlessly, repetitiously pricing, stacking, stocking, packaging, and re-boxing merchandise I could barely afford, and would not want if I could, just wasn't on my dance card.

I did hear the seductive song of forever. I did feel the pull of destiny. I had no idea what either one of those things were, but I was going to, by God, find out. And even though the owner of the business, Mr. Fox, himself, took me out of the warehouse and made me the Accounts Receivable Clerk, I shook the dismal of that little place off me as fast as I could, and rumbled away into a life of my very-own making, the intervening years since a dizzying kaleidoscope of experiences I knew were there in that alluring song.

I knew they were.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Appliance of Doom

"Sometimes I wax poetic.
People tell me I'm better off
waxing my legs."


Dear Mom, I’ll be home late.
Don’t wait up, I have a date
Adorns your door, in lovely prose,
Along with cards and magnets and one of those
Stick-on calendars that, (I'm agog!) 
Is a full year older than the dog.
(Who turned five last November.)

Inside your cavernous interior
Goodies wait to inflate my grand posterior.
Along with cheese and weenies, which reside
There in the dank dark, deep inside~~
Unrecognized because of mold,
And veggies, unexpectedly grown old.
(In the crisper~~a misnomer, if you ask me.)

Perhaps I should dispose of jam
That has sugared. And there is that ham~~
I stuck back on the second shelf
To keep it all just for myself.
To eat it after company left.
But it’s rotten now and I’m bereft.
(Because I forgot about it and now it’s green.)

There are German gherkins, once a delight,
Blackened and shriveled from some dark blight
That's changed them from food to something other.
(I swear I don't know why I bother.)
Green and blue coronets grow strong
On lunchmeat, on sausage, and that's just wrong.
(I bought the stuff a week ago, or was it five?)

Ah, refrigerator, you are a grand invention.
You do your job without pretension,
Though your coils are dusty down below,
Where saber-toothed dust bunnies surely grow.
There are fingerprints smeared upon your door,
And cooties in this crumb-littered drawer.
(Where I keep fast-food packets of ketchup.)

I need to clean you, a lofty goal.
And so I’ll pour milk in a bowl,
And plunk it down there on the floor~~
In front of your propped-open door.
And kill the creatures that crawl forth,
Then vow to do better, for what it’s worth.
(I’ve made this promise countless times.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Morning Better Come Softly~~Or Else!

"I have a 'carpe diem' mug and, truthfully, at six in the morning 
the words do not make me want to seize the day. 
They make me want to slap a dead poet."

~~Joanne Sherman~~

I’m married to a Morning Person. I am, however, not a Morning Person. The only chirping I want to hear in the morning is from the birds—and then all I want to do is read their little birdy lips through thick, sound proof glass.

I came by my not-a-Morning-Person condition naturally. Mom wasn’t one either. But she had four children to wrangle, so she’d get up at five a.m. in order to arrive at a somewhat normal personality by the time the rest of the posse arose. Sadly, I never learned that. I am of the opinion that morning should be held about eleven a.m., wherein small, silent robots would bring me coffee and go quietly away in order to prevent me from pounding them back into their original mineral elements.

But back to my Morning Person. He begins planning morning the previous evening by grinding the coffee. He springs out of his recliner about ten p.m every night and looks at me as though a truly glorious thing is about to take place. “I gotta go grind coffee!” Willing to forgo the pleasure of this event, I sacrifice my own enjoyment and nod at his happiness, keeping my finger firmly on my place in my Kindle reader. I shove the amoeba-sized pellet of disappointment I feel at having to stay nestled in my fuzzy blanket with my book, down deep, while he streaks off to immerse himself in the joys of a burr grinder. But hey, into each life and all that, ya know? I’m sure I’ll recover.

I hear him scrounging around in the kitchen, and I know exactly what he’s doing. See, ever since our daughter’s university days as a starving barista, Morning Person has become a coffee maven. We don’t just drink one kind. Oh, no, sirreee. Morning Person keeps quart jars of beans on a specially designated shelf in the kitchen, specifically sequestered for this precious cargo. There is Yirgicheffe from Ethiopia, Blue Mountain from a blue mountain (of what, I have no idea), in Jamaica, Kona from Hawaii, and several others that change with his whim. I am given the lowly responsibility of keeping the jars full and the grinder clean. I accepted these tasks willingly because Morning Person is irascible when it comes to proper coffee preparation, and me seeing to these things decreases the likelihood that he might have a hissy fit over a dirty grinder while I am trying to read.

Morning Person finishes his grinding and sets two cups on the counter, along with a small glass for his orange juice. He also selects and lays out two unopened bananas. Now, I am of the opinion that bananas are best eaten when the skin is yellow but the fruit is still firm—only slightly ripe. Morning Person will eat a banana as long as it does not dissolve when he peels it. He is adamant that I get my daily intake of potassium from the consumption of this fruit, and so we occasionally have brisk breakfast discussions that include me making gagging noises while dropping said banana in the garbage bucket.

That’s another thing: Morning Person likes to eat in the actual morning, as close to sunrise as possible. I’m sure he evolved from knuckle-dragging dirt-worshipers who sacrificed blind, hairless bunnies at the crack of dawn. I can see them now, cackling and shambling around a huge fire, smiling - actually smiling! Gads, it defies thinking about!

Breakfast food is wonderful. Waffles for dinner can be spectacular, but I hate breakfast. It was only invented to give people who get up too damn early something to do. But, as long as Morning Person leaves me alone, and limits conversation expectations to 'hello', I toast him a bagel, because pushing the lever on the toaster isn’t in his job description, and cream cheese and its application confuses him.

But the man does make a truly amazing cup of coffee.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Man Inside

"He did not care if she was heartless,
vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping,
he loved her.
He would rather have misery with one
than happiness with another."

~~W. Somerset Maugham~~
Of Human Bondage

“Jerry,” she whispered. “Wake up, Jerry.”


“There’s someone in the house.”

He sat up, listening. She rose up next to him, clutching him, her hands fluttering. “There—hear that?”

“Ssshhhhhhhhhh,” he murmured. “I can’t hear a damn thing but you.” He cocked his head, holding his breath, listening. The tree in Mrs. Goldsmith’s yard cast a wavery shadow on the bedroom wall; the curtains wafted in the breeze from the open window. Down the block, the Johnson’s Labrador barked once, twice.

He lay back down, flipping his pillow over to the cool side. “It’s nothing. I don’t hear anything. Go back to sleep.” But she hesitated, trembling, so he pulled her down into his embrace. “You smell good.” He skated his lips into the hollow of her throat and slipped his arms around her waist. Her nervous giggle turned into a warm moan against his neck. Her body, so familiar, undulated against his. Her tongue slipped out, trailing warmly against his ear.


He sat up, and heard it again.

Thump. It came from downstairs. The kitchen, maybe the den.


Next to him, she whimpered.

“Stay here,” he said, sliding his long legs out from under the sheet. He stood up and moved along the wall toward the bedroom door, stepping over the squeaky floorboard halfway around the room. He squatted next to the doorway, glancing back at her. Just as he figured, she was out of bed. He motioned for her to stay, but she shook her head and scampered around the room to squat next to him, clutching at his t-shirt.

“No way, Jerry. I’m not staying here alone,” she whispered, a plea in her voice.

Thump. Thumpthump.

Definitely the kitchen.

“All right. But no talking, and stay behind me.”

They hugged the wall out to the staircase, then stood in the darkness while he listened again, his respirations and heart rate ratcheting up. Sweat broke between his shoulder blades, trickling downward under his t-shirt.

Thumpthumpthump. Thump.

Slowly, he led the way down the stairs, along the wall through the front hall, where he stopped, squatting next to the coat tree. He could feel her against his spine and reached back, squeezing her thigh. He squinted into the darkness, wishing to hell he could just go back upstairs and lock the bedroom door.


In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought. It’s too late now. Hurriedly, before he chickened out, he stood and strode across the den, reaching around the wall to flip the light switch in the kitchen, which was suddenly filled with light.

A young woman in black slacks and a dark red jacket sat at the kitchen table. She held a pistol which she tapped once, briskly, on the table top.


Smiling grimly, she raised the gun, pointing it at him. “Wait a minute, lady. We don’t want any trouble here." He raised both hands, surprised at how calm he sounded.

She pulled the trigger. The bullet slammed into the meat across the top of his right shoulder. He spun away, clutching his arm as a white hot sizzle ran down it into his hand and spread upward, into his neck. His knees buckled. He had no idea a gunshot would hurt so bad. There was a second shot.

“Jerry…,” was the last thing his wife said.

Slowly, he struggled to reach the phone and dialed 911, his eyes never leaving the woman with the gun. “Send help,” he said. “My wife and I have been shot.” His voice grated, shook with the horror of it all. He gave the dispatcher the address and a sketchy description of the assailant. “It was a kid…a black male…grey stocking cap…ran out the side ….” He hung up and slumped against the wall, looking up into LeAnne’s smoky green eyes as blood pulsed out of his shoulder and ran steadily down his body. “You better go,” he said quietly. “I’ll meet you in Barbados as soon as I can.”

She nodded once, pocketed the pistol, went out the back door into the alley, and disappeared into the night.

Jerry slid down next to his wife’s cooling body, tears stinging his eyes. Damn, his arm hurt.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

If My Dogs Could Talk I Would Tell Them To Shut Up

Lots of people talk to animals.... 
Not very many listen, though.... 
That's the problem.

~~Benjamin Hoff,~~
The Tao of Pooh

Rowdi: “Yes, of course. Let’s go outside. I heard suspicious noises coming from the neighbor’s place, several acres away, and as soon as you open the door I’ll run right over there to check it out. What? You say you’re in your housecoat and slippers? That’s nothing compared to that hairdo! If Al Sharpton and Phyllis Diller had a baby, its hair would look better than yours. And that breath! Were you out to dinner with the buzzards, again? Anyway, it’s all good! I’m sure the neighbors would love to see you on your hands and knees trying to grub me out from under their deck. Just don’t breathe on them and it will be fine.”

Spots: “Outside? Out! Out! Out! Yes, let’s go out! I distinctly remember there’s one blade of grass out front I have not yet pooped on. Yes, by all means, let’s go out!”

Rowdi: “You want me to go inside? Inside where? You must mean out there, half-an-acre away from this house I don’t recognize? Don’t get so excited. Jumping and swearing is so unladylike. Besides, when you yell, I can smell that horrible breath. Oh….ohhhhh…you mean inside the house. Well, let’s take the circuitous route to the door, shall we? Don’t yell! The neighbors are laughing.”

Spots: “In? In! In! In! Let’s go in! Wait until we get inside and I show you the pine cone and the Rottweiler turd I picked up in the front yard! Don’t yell! Don’t yell, OK? It’s only a turd. It’s not kryptonite. Jeez, I hate it when you yell. Is there water?”

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Burden of Sorrow

"Death is a challenge. It tells us not to waste time...
It tells us to tell each other right now that we love each other."
~~Leo F. Buscaglia~~

Note: The following is based on a true story.
This happened to my husband's family
while he was at war.

The doorbell rang.
She wasn’t expecting anyone. “Bob,” she called. “Will you get that?” She raised her foot off the sewing machine pedal and listened for his answer.
“I’m going,” he said, and she heard the rustle of his newspaper, his feet shuffling toward the door. I should have gone, myself, she thought. His arthritis is so bad.
The front door opened and she heard low voices—something about the tone of Bob’s causing her to rise, blood thundering in her ears. Something was wrong. She hurried out of her sewing room and down the hall, passing Jeff’s pictures, touching them gently as she hurried by, a habit she’d developed since he left for Iraq
The images blurred as she passed them: Jeff in kindergarten; his first pony ride; receiving his Eagle Scout pin; high school graduation; boot camp; Baghdad. She hesitated, the memory of their parting so vivid. She'd cried, something Jeff had seldom seen her do, clutching at him, so afraid to let him go. He'd been the parent then, patting her, reassuring her when reassurance was futile. "I'll be fine, Mama. Don't worry about me." He'd grinned, actually grinned. "Well, don't worry too much, OK?" 
She turned into the living room. Bob stood in the open doorway, talking to someone outside, his big body blocking her view of the people on the doorstep. His voice was low, unintelligible, but the urgency was unmistakable.
He twisted, his face blanched, lips colorless. “Marlys…” He reached for her, went to her, and over his shoulder she saw their visitors.
Two men in dress United States Army uniforms stood on the porch. She was struck by their pristine appearance, their somber mien. One of them was a sergeant and he held a manila folder under the crook of his right arm, his hand folded around its edge. Recoiling, she knew what was in there, and it began, ‘The President of the United States regrets to inform you…’
“No,” she said, as Bob lowered her onto the couch. “No!” she shouted to the men standing on the porch, twisting to snarl at them as they waited there in the sun.
Bob sat next to her, wrapping her in his embrace, throwing a leg across her, pinning her on the couch as she struggled to get free, the madness of denial overtaking her. “It’s all right, Marlys. It’s all right.” He held her, rocked her, and at last penetrated her sobbing, his words finally making sense. “They’re lost. They’re looking for a different address. It’s not Jeff. It’s not Jeff.”
“We—we’re sorry, folks,” one of the soldiers stammered.
And in lockstep the two men marched away, carrying their burden of sorrow, following the directions Bob had provided.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Search

"Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not;
and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad."

~~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow~~

Bill didn't get in until long after dark. It was summer, blistering summer, in California's Imperial Valley, the temperature that day soaring above one-hundred-ten degrees. His brown and tan uniform was crusted with alkali, as was his skin, which was crazed with bloody scratches. His voice was a whisper, all but gone. Although he washed off the salt and the blood, and although it's now been years, his eyes still grow hollow, his face still contorts when he recalls that day.

As a law enforcement ranger, his patrol sector included large stretches of desert, including the Imperial Sand Dunes, a monstrous recreational area where visitors from San Diego, Los Angeles, and elsewhere still congregate on holidays and weekends, bringing with them an assortment of off-road vehicles in which to enjoy the great outdoors. On this particular day, dispatch received a frantic call from a family group from which two seven-year-old boys had gone missing. They'd been riding their child-sized motorcycles in the camp. "Get out of here," the grownups said. "You're making too much noise." So they did.

But that had been before lunch; now past noon, they still had not returned.

Heat rose off the desert floor in undulating waves. Nothing moved. There was no comforting sound of motorcycle engines in the distance. Bill's stomach plummeted.

He activated search and rescue and rangers rolled in from other sectors, other counties. He and his people started 'loading up', drinking water and sports drinks as fast as they could choke them down, knowing. Just knowing. It was too hot…too hot.

Still, trained to save, Bill held out hope. If they could just get to them in time…if the boys stayed together they had a better chance…maybe they'd come back to camp…maybe they were in another camp…maybe…maybe.

They tracked the bikes for miles, in and out of gullies and washes, eventually into the San Sebastian Marsh, an isolated alkali swamp, maze-like and thick with tamarisk and salt cedar trees, the ground temperature over one-hundred-thirty degrees, the air stifling, nearly unbreathable, humidity over ninety percent.

They searched on foot, almost frantically, pushing through stickery thickets, wading through noxious, stagnant pools—calling out the boys' names until they had no voices left. A professional searcher collapsed and had to be air-lifted out, overcome by heat. Bill carried another one out. He and the others kept on, walking, sometimes crawling. Hours later, exhausted and broken-hearted, they found the children a few yards apart, their little motorcycles nearby.

Both of the boys were dead.

Like everyone I know who deals with death, who hands out
grief—who has to be the one to tell, to professionally inform, to see the dreadful dawning of knowledge on the faces of  loved ones that life will never be the same again—Bill was stoic, his regret efficiently compartmentalized, tucked down in his gut, there next to Vietnam, next to car crashes, house fires, murders; nestled in with dozens and dozens of little boxes of other people's pain all mingled with his own—a lumpy, broken mosaic of unuttered woe.

That night, we sat together in the dark for a long, long time. As always, there were no words.

There was just us.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mud Running and Other Fashion Disasters

"Time is the longest distance
between two places."
~~Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

My phone vibrates, skittering around on my bedside table, playing the opening riff to Ain't Goin' Down 'Til The Sun Comes Up, thus giving me my first opportunity of the day to choose. I dismiss the alarm, roll over and go back to sleep.

An hour later, I awake and realize I'm about to miss my dental cleaning. (Now wouldn't that be a tragedy?) But I am too parsimonious to pay for an appointment I do not keep, besides, it could be six months before I can get scheduled again, so I leap out of bed, stub my toe on one of Simon Winchester's fabulous books, race into the bathroom without my glasses where I step on something that obviously should have stayed in the litterbox in the corner, but did not.

With a sudden and probably terminal case of the Shivering Disgusteds, I jump into the shower and wash my foot, inadvertently wetting my hair in the process, so I shampoo it, too. The blow dryer is for sure going to cut into the window of minutes I have to get to Dr. Allegretti's office on time.

I am out of the shower. I yell to Bill that we're going to need a clean rug in the bathroom, because even without my glasses I can now see the very large smear my misstep created. The cat sits in the window, grinning in the sunshine. I am compelled to poke him, but I don't.

I rush back into the bedroom and pull a clean bra out of the basket of clothes Bill brought up from the laundry room the night before. Grabbing a single beige strap, I come up with a gigantic, mutant wad of brassieres. "Looks like these got pretty tangled," I remember him saying. "You'll have to figure them out." I drop the wad to wrench open my lingerie drawer, latching onto the only thing that pops out: a sheer red number that has the support attributes of overcooked pasta—which would be why it's still lurking in my drawer instead of tangled in the wad in the basket. At my age and vastness, I need a hoist, not a hanky. I struggle into it. It's going in the rag bag as soon as I get home, I tell myself, trying to ignore the generous amount of 'me' jiggling in the dresser mirror.

I rummage through the closet and pick a blouse and slacks. Black, of course. I could wear one of my other colors: gray or navy blue, but it's turning into a black kind of day, so black.

Back in the bathroom, I brush and floss, doing my best to erase three months of slothful neglect. I toss on an assortment of skin products, all guaranteed to make me look younger, brighter, less mottled. Wrinkle free. In the unforgiving glare from the professional makeup lights I had installed years before (now that was brilliant, wasn't it), I just look greasy. I dust on some mineral face powder which immediately settles into the hills and valleys of my face. No blush, no eyes. Anyway, I figure, by the time the dentist and his henchmen finish with me, even the powder will be gone, so why bother?

I dry my hair, applying the goop my hairdresser entices me to buy every four weeks when she cuts it. Once it's dry, I mush it around into a spiky, swirly arrangement. I call it Wyoming Hair  because whichever way the wind blows it, it's fixed.

I am out the door, on the phone. "Tell Dr. A I'm on my way," I beg his receptionist, knowing I have a twenty-minute drive and ten minutes to get there. I glance down at myself only to see a long, foamy glob of toothpaste gracing the right front of my black moleskin tunic. In the truck, I grab a tissue and wipe it up. Barreling down our dirt drive, one-handed, with the front of my shirt in my mouth, I try to wet it enough to get the spot completely off. (Oh, c'mon - you've done it, too!)

I pull out onto the unpaved and pothole infested road to the highway, only then recalling that the county maintenance crew turned and plowed the roadbed two days before, and it's been raining off and on ever since. I put the truck in four-wheel drive, gear down, and work on my shirt, which now has a huge, wrinkled wet patch on it—as though I've been assaulted by a moose—but the toothpaste is gone. I turn the heater up to high and twist the vent toward my chest.

There are two sets of foot-deep ruts in the roadway—one set going north, the other south. Between them are glistening slicks of mud. The bottomless kind that steals shoes, steals car keys, steals balance. It's two miles to the highway and I see the dollar signs involved in a tow if I...Make...One...False...Move. Besides, if I get stuck, I know I'm going to end up on my face in the road.

By the time I reach asphalt, my blouse is dry, but I've been sweating like a pig in the heater air, wrestling the steering wheel, nervous about the road, and I realize I forgot to put on deodorant. So, for the rest of the trip, I alternately smooth the wrinkles out of my shirt front and sniff myself to see if I stink. Do I smell? Do I not smell? Is my blouse dry? Will Dr. A notice? Oh, God! I stink; I know I stink. I'll just keep my arms down. How are my teeth? Are my teeth OK?

I wheel into the parking lot and leap out of my old truck, failing to take preventative action against the stalactites of mud hanging from the vehicle's undercarriage and rocker panels. Thick, oozing glop plasters the back on my left pant leg. I knock off the biggest lumps and hurry into Dr. A's office.

Sitting in the waiting room, because, as the receptionist said with a sniff, "You're really late. They will have to work you in," I try not to get mud on the chair as I consider how my morning, how my day, might have been better had I not turned off that alarm. "Choices," I sigh.

"What voices?" the old lady across from me asks.

“The ones in my head.”

She moves to another seat.

Finally, my teeth gleaming, my dental hygiene habits firmly chastised, lies about flossing, water-picking, and brushing hopping out of my mouth like wiener dogs at their first race, I have my new toothbrush in hand and drive home, the ruts in our country road not nearly as intimidating. Once arrived, I stand in the pasture and scrape off as much of the dried mud on my trouser-leg as I can before I go inside.

I drop my purse in the living room, and go down the hall to the bedroom where I begin changing my clothes, disgruntled at my harried morning. I am standing there, my tunic hanging open, my slacks in the clothes hamper, when Bill walks in. "Wow," he says. "You haven't worn that in a long time." He smiles that crooked smile of his, gesturing toward my chest and the sheer red nylon and lace, which (still failing to perform its primary function), peeks brazenly out of my shirt. He saunters in, closing the bedroom door and then the distance between us.

I still have that bra.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Rebecca's Journal

"You don't die from a broken heart,
you only wish you did."


He disappeared a little over a year ago. He kissed me goodbye and left the house and simply did not come back. Since then, there has not been one word from him. Not a phone call, not a letter.
We've been married 31 years. He has a natural foods-type grocery store in the city, and a small recycling center, too. Thanks to his management team, I've been able to keep them going, so I still have income. We have two children, a boy and a girl, both grown with families of their own. They keep me strong. They are what I live for. Our youngest grandson, Ryder, looks just like his grandpa. Sometimes that makes me cry.
When I reported him missing, the sheriff's department came out to the house. A couple of detectives questioned me while their CSI people went through every room. They searched his clothing, his personal items. "Did he take anything with him?" they wanted to know.
No, he didn't, I tell them. Except my heart, of course.
I can't sleep. I sit on the front porch in our old glider, thinking I'll see him come out of the woods where he has always loved to wander. Or maybe he'll be in the garden patch, preparing the soil for a new planting. Sometimes, my daughter drives over to see how I'm doing and she finds me out there, just sitting in his old bathrobe, and she takes me into the house and puts me to bed, staying with me until I go to sleep.
Once, the sheriff's department made a statement that he had 'vanished without a trace'. For weeks after that I was bombarded with calls from magazines like The Enquirer and The Star, asking foolish questions about kidnapping and whether or not my husband believed in extra-terrestrial life. His disappearance was featured on Most Bizarre on TV. Ridiculous stories appeared online, suggesting he'd been the victim of alien abduction. There were spurious quotations in them attributed to me. My lawyer is seeing to that, now.
My family and friends tell me it's time for me to move on. My lawyer says I can do a couple of things: I can wait, and then have him declared legally dead after seven years, and be able to collect his life insurance; I can also divorce him on the grounds of abandonment.
I don't want a divorce, though. I love him. I have since the first time I saw him. Besides, he told me this would happen one day. That he would only be here, conducting experiments and passing on his genetic information, for a few of 'our' years.
He said it would only be a matter of time before our species destroyed itself. He's seen it countless times over the centuries. I asked him how old he was, but he told me I couldn't possibly understand the concept of his age, and not to worry about it, so I haven't.
He'll be back to pick up our children and grandchildren before society breaks down completely. They all know. They have always known.
I am, he told me, too fragile physiologically for the trip, and would die of old age long before arrival at a hospitable planet. But my genes, he said, have added to the strength of his own kind, and our children and grandchildren will become part of a race that will perhaps return to repopulate the earth when the time comes.
In the meantime, my son, thanks to his dad, is marketing technology that composts waste more effectively, turning the byproducts into fertilizer and fuel. My daughter works in cancer research, developing gene therapy for tumor eradication. She has also patented a water recycling method that uses solar energy and works faster than any means heretofore seen on the planet.
I would love to hold him one last time. As I sit here in our old glider, I wonder which of the stars I see is the sun that warms him now. I wonder how many other wives and families he has on other spheres. I wonder what he really looks like.
The bastard.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

When Worlds Collide

"Let's be careful out there."
Sgt. Esterhaus
Hill Street Blues

Author's note: Yeah, that's me up there~~back when the earth was still cooling. I'd just walked in the back door of the police department. Jerry Clark, one of our ID techs, caught me in the hall in order to snap a photo for my new sergeant's identification. This was the picture.
Flash forward several years and halfway across the country.

I hope you enjoy the story...

He was lying on his side, half under his big old Harley. From behind the wheel of my truck, I could see he had suffered an open fracture of his right leg, just below the knee and just above his boots—a common injury for motorcyclists hit from the side. The sharp, bloody end of his tibia protruded from his grimy denim pants.

It was bitterly cold. I pulled to the curb and stopped. That old rush of adrenaline slugged me, my heart rate tripping up. “Stay in the truck,” I told my little girl. “Do not get out.” She nodded, goggle-eyed. I turned off the ignition, took the keys and locked the car, trotting over to the injured man. He was trying to kick his way out from under the bike, lost in a maelstrom of excruciating pain. His foot-long, scraggly hair blew in the wind. I dropped down next to him on the asphalt and put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m here to help you, buddy” I said. “Lie still.”

Angry, confused, terrified, he looked up into my face and realized he wasn’t out there on the pavement alone anymore, and stopped fighting the bike. “Are you burning?” I wanted to know, wondering if his uninjured leg, trapped under the motorcycle, was making contact with hot bike parts, quickly assessing whether it could be moved if that was the case. “Are you hurt anywhere else?” I ran my hands down both his arms.

He shook his head. “Just can’t get out.” He ground his teeth, growling with the pain.

A couple of other passersby stepped into the street to divert traffic. A slow parade of vehicles drove past in both directions. A few looky-loos congregated on the sidewalk nearby.

Sirens blared in the distance. “The ambulance is coming. We’ll get you moved as soon as they get here.” I asked him where his ID was and he scrabbled helplessly for a wallet on a chain protruding from his back pocket. With his permission, I removed his license and proof of insurance. I bent over him, sheltering him from the biting wind. He was growing shocky, trembling.

“Jesus Christ, it hurts,” he said, clutching my arm, his eyes filled with tears.

“I know,” I said. “I know. I’m so sorry.”

The ambulance and a couple of squad cars slid up. “They’ll take it from here,” I said, trying to stand, but he hung on. “You have to let me go so these people can do their work.” I handed his papers to a police officer and tried to get up again. The man pulled me down, our faces inches apart.

“Thanks, lady. Thank you so much,” he said, his voice and face fierce with agony. His head rolled against the pavement. I patted him and he let me go. I stood and told the police officer I had not seen the accident occur, and trotted back to my vehicle, where my daughter sat, mouth agape, her hands and face pressed against the driver’s side window.

She was silent as she buckled herself back into her seat belt and we continued on our way, passing the man in the street, now being ministered to by a couple of EMTs. Police officers had quickly set up a pattern and were diverting traffic. I turned the heater up to full. Finally, my daughter spoke. “Is that what you used to do, Mommy?”

I smiled. “Yeah. That’s what I used to do.”

We went home.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


'Here we are, trapped in the amber
of the moment.
  There is no why."
~~Kurt Vonnegut~~

I stood in the darkness and watched them moving together, arms and legs intermittently intertwined, grins, grimaces--frowns flashing, eyebrows twisting--silent but for the clashing of their bodies. Eyelids fluttered down over bulging eyes, only to slide open again, looking too wise, too smart.
The performance ended, the dusty footlights on the outdoor stage going dim. Everyone turned away, back to the sound and excitement of the midway, except for me. I wanted to meet the puppeteer, the man who so masterfully pulled those strings.
He was busy putting props away, his black suit coat draped over a chair, muscles playing across his shoulders under the white broadcloth of his shirt as he packed first one dummy and then another into their cases. He was a severe-looking man, abrupt in his movements, his hurried packing, his stiff-necked turning making me inexplicably uncomfortable. A cigarette dangled from his bottom lip. "You want something?" he asked, looking me up and down. He turned away, humming tunelessly, the music drawing me, pulling me.
I moved closer. "I'd like to learn more about the marionettes."
He smiled, looking back at me over the top of his shoulder, his eyes shining as he pivoted and came to sit along the edge of the stage. He took one last drag on his smoke, then tossed it away in the darkness. All the people were gone now. "Per—perhaps I should be going," I said, stepping back, feeling nervous. But he reached for my arm, his mouth a moue of disapproval.
"No, no, ma petite, come sit beside me and ask your questions. I will answer if I can."
So I—hesitantly at first, growing braver as the evening died—asked him about his job and the dolls he controlled so expertly, while he discovered the curls behind my ears, and how the silky auburn hair there wrapped his fingers like a baby's fist.
He confided how much he loved his dolls, how his craft, his talent, was ancient and had been passed down from father to son. He told enthusiastically of growing up in the Pyrenees, honing his skill at country shows alongside his grandfather. Between the stories, he hummed that tuneless music, his face glowing as he talked about the next town, the next show, his life on the road exactly what he wanted to do, how he wanted to spend his time.
I scooted nearer, seeking his warmth, the treasury of his thoughts. His arms came around me in the hour before dawn, his lips, his strength, pressing me urgently onto the boards of the small stage, his puppets forgotten, watching us solemnly from their cardboard suitcases.
It never was an interest in marionettes that drew me to him, but rather all those lovely muscles beneath that white broadcloth shirt. They dwindled, though, when he took a desk job at Hanley's Insurance so we could stay right here at home. I haven't heard him hum in thirty years, but he makes a decent living. Me and the kids are fine.
Once in a while he'll go up into the attic and just sit up there on an old chair, the four suitcases at his feet, tears licking at their dusty tops as he looks out the dormer window facing north.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Big Brother is ALWAYS Watching

I was in the produce department at Safeway when I saw a small uproar down at the end of the aisle. A handful of women gathered around a grocery cart in which reposed an infant. She was swaddled in pink and attended by her mother, who basked in the glow of appreciation for the beauty and perfection of her newborn, expressed by the women who'd apparently been attracted by new-mother pheromones or perhaps the smell of formula.

Well beyond that age when babies caused my hormones to scamper, I was about to drive on past when I saw him, drooping outside the stage lights, his eyes pools of abandonment as he waited for his mother to recover from post-partum notoriety and finish the shopping, so he could go home to his Legos. He was about four and every bit of the self-esteem that had ever been in him had been sucked out by the squirming alien in the pink blankie, who'd clearly brainwashed all the adults on the rock.

I was equally ignored by the squealing, cooing herd, so I squatted next to the boy and nodded toward his mom. "She told you yet what an important job you have?"

Surprised by this unwarranted attention, he shook his head, watching me, probably figuring any second I'd spring up and hand the new baby the keys to a car or something.

"Well, you know you're the big brother, don't you?" He nodded, so I went on, warming to my subject. "Why, that's about the most important job in the universe. That baby over there only showed up because there was already a big brother in place to take care of her. Fine babies like that one don't just get dropped into a family without a very important and capable big brother around to make sure she stays out of trouble. Besides, no matter what she does, no matter how many people thinks she's special, she's never, ever going to be anything but your. Little. Sister."

He seemed to stand a little straighter, looked a little bit proud, putting a possessive hand on the cart as a grin broke out on his face.

"She a pretty good baby?" I asked.

"Yeah, she's OK," he replied, with an almost geriatric sigh, leaning toward me to whisper, "But I looked and she ain't got no winkie."

"Figures," I said, grinning in return, tossing a head of lettuce in my cart as I ambled away.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Casualty of Pride

“I'll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don't choose. 
We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, 
it was important and beautiful and not ours. 
It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. 
There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” 
~Cheryl Strayed~

She knew he was gone.

Belinda Carrick turned Jackson and Buck into the round pen and walked across the dooryard toward the house.  Bundled in her short canvas coat, she watched the chimney, wishing for a puff of smoke, a puff of hope. There wasn’t even the smell of a fire gone cold.

She went in through the back door, unlocked as it always was. Snow had blown in between it and the threshold and now sparkled across the kitchen floor. The house was still, even the furniture frigid, radiating cold in the late afternoon gloom. She put her hands to the stove in the corner. It hadn’t been hot in days.


Her voice rippled against undisturbed air.

She stood in the kitchen, examining the tired oak flooring his father put down fifty years back. There was a clear path in it now, worn by Richard’s mother Kay, and then Richard’s wife Barbara, as they’d each taken their turn as lady of the house.

Belinda had missed her chance.

She stuffed paper and kindling in the stove and turned open the damper, then struck a wooden match against the underside of the kitchen table, lit the lamp setting in its center, and then the paper in the stove. She left the stove door ajar while the fire caught and roared in the stovepipe. She added more wood, finally shutting the door and turning the damper down. In moments, heat wafted through the room. She filled the coffeepot with water from the pitcher pump at the sink, blindly reaching for grounds in the drawer of the wooden grinder setting nearby.

She was delaying and she knew it.

Richard had taken sick in February. She found him one afternoon, resting in a wan patch of sunlight on the porch. It must’ve been no more than twenty degrees. He was coughing. Still, he managed to smile at her, those agate-brown eyes of his brightening as she came to help him up. “I’m glad to see you, Belle,” he’d whispered hoarsely against her temple.

She pulled his arm over her shoulder and took as much of his weight as she could, but he towered over her, outweighed her by sixty pounds at least, the two of them stumbling drunkenly into the house and into the bedroom. She was uncomfortable there. There where they had been so urgently intimate years before, while his mother was busy with her Sunday school class and his father was running the disk in the east pasture. Richard had told her he loved her then. Asked her to marry him. It was the only time he ever did.

And she said no.

She had her own place to take care of, her own stock, her own fields. Pride had stolen the years they might have had together. Nothing, however, could rob them of friendship.

She rubbed her arms and glanced toward the hallway. She’d put Richard to bed and stayed for two days, which was all the time her place and her stock could spare. He’d stripped down to his skin while she stood and watched, and she would have, too, if he hadn’t been so sick. Instead, she killed a chicken and made soup, along with some of the noodles she knew he loved. She went out to the smokehouse and brought up a ham so he’d have some meat in the house, then she baked two loaves of bread.

By the end of the second day, he looked and sounded better and was dressed and sitting up in the parlor. She had to fight him to keep him from going out to feed stock and break water. “It’s already done, Richard,” she told him. “I’ll go take care of things at my place and be back as soon as I can.”

He slumped in the chair, his brown gaze burning her. He reached forward, leaning to pull her close, his big arms lashing her to him, his voice muffled, thick. “You’ve always been here, Belle. No matter what. No man could have asked for a better friend.” He coughed, the sound rumbling deep in his chest. “You’ve been the one constant in my life, besides this place, this land.” He looked up at her, his face as familiar as her own. “You were my first love.”

She swallowed, then swallowed again before she could speak, her fingers in his hair, sifting through the thick silver strands as she tried to smile. “You promise me you’ll stay in the house. I fed everybody up. The troughs will freeze over tonight, but I’ll be back the day after. They won’t die without water for a day.”

Richard pressed his forehead against her waist, nodding as he held her. She felt him taking in great drafts of air, breathing her in.

As she promised, she was back in two days. Richard was up and moving, but he’d kept his promise and stayed in the house. He seemed thinner.

“Let me take you into Laramie to see Doc Fletcher,” she said.

“I’ve seen Doc Fletcher.” He turned away toward the window. “Come to bed with me, Belle,” he said, gazing out across the long pasture. Ice spiked the weeds, heavy mist rising from amongst the naked cottonwoods along the creek.

She stayed for another two days, at the end of which Richard seemed much improved, although the cough nagged him. “No need for you to wear yourself out driving that team back and forth, Belle. I’m fine. Truly. I’ll be fine.”

They sat across from one another at the kitchen table that should have been theirs. Her eyes slipped to the chairs that should have held their children, their grandbabies.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you, too.”

She’d gone then, returning to her place along the Little Laramie. “I’ll be back in a few days.”

“I’ll be here.” He stood in the doorway and watched her go.

The stove ticked as it warmed, the metal expanding. The coffeepot began to perk. Belle took off her coat and hung it over a kitchen chair, then went up the hall.

Richard was in bed. At the last, he’d thrown the blankets back. Belle covered him to the chin, smoothing his mother’s wedding quilt close around his shoulders.  Stiff-backed and efficient, she went to the dresser and withdrew clean drawers, clean socks. She went to the wardrobe and pulled out his Sunday suit. She lifted the hanger on which he kept his ties, and did not begin to weep until she saw the note he’d pinned to the old blue one with brown dots—the very color of his eyes.

“This one, Belle. It was always your favorite. Love, Richard”

Sunday, November 3, 2013


He storms into my office and I take off my headphones. "What's wrong?"

"The damn thing won't work, that's what! Can you come and look at it?"

Of course I can. I walk the twenty feet from my computer to his, where it sits in the next room. It's a sleek new beauty with a huge flat screen and all the bells and whistles. There is no blue screen of death, so I know whatever's wrong isn't fatal.

"What were you doing?"

He takes that personally, as though I've accused him of something like maybe pouring hot coffee into the CD-ROM drive, or having an online affair with Pamela Anderson. "Nothing! Not a damn thing; it just froze up."

I hit Control/Alt/Delete and the Task Manager pops up. I see that the IE browser is open at least twelve times and resource use is at 100%. "Were you trying to get online?"

"Yeah, but it wouldn't go!"

"So, how many times did you click on the IE browser icon?"

He folds his arms and stares at me. He has no idea what an icon is. I've explained to him a hundred times that a computer is like a small child. You give it a direction and let it do what it's told. If you tell it over and over again - if you bully it - it will give up in frustration. It would have a tantrum if it could, but instead it just stops working.

I shut the machine down through the Task Manager, restart it, flush the DNS cache, clean the registry, update the safety software and run a sweep. It's fine. Everything works perfectly, which always makes him mad. He is, I'm sure, convinced that his computer and I have some sort of illicit relationship going on wherein it stops working on purpose so I can come in and be a show-off. Neener. Neener. Neener.

He, in the meantime, has stomped off in a huff to the next room where he works on some reloading parts he's been restoring. He doesn't care why his computer works, or why it doesn't. He has no interest in learning how to take care of it. He just expects it to do whatever he wants it to do, when he wants it to do it, and at the speed of light.

He is an utterly brilliant man. He knows more about the earth than anyone I've ever known. His knowledge of geography, geology, and ecology is astounding. When he reads something, he enjoys almost total recall -forever, as far as I can tell. Yet he is mystified, stupefied, terrified by computers, and when it comes to them, we are complete opposites.

Computers are a joy to me. I love to build them, tweak them, master them. To him they are scary metal monsters; to me, they are knowledge at my fingertips, entertainment at the touch of a button, and a boon to my profession, allowing me to conduct most of my writing business electronically. They were the future, decades ago, and now their basic technology is part of the past.

"Your machine's fixed," I tell him.

"What was wrong with it?"

"Nothing," I say, smiling, telling him what he knew all along. "Just operator error."

Man, that pisses him off.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

It Helps If You're Disturbed

Whelping a child late in life is transmogrifying. No, I didn’t deliver her on a blanket in the garage, if that’s what you’re thinking. Still, the event changed me—from a ferociously feminist freedom fighter, forever festooned in khaki, jingling with keys and handcuffs, smelling of eau d’ pepper spray and Hoppe’s Gun-Cleaning Solvent—into a diaper-carrying, talcum-wearing, book-reading, night-walking, fried-weenie-cooking mommy.

Having given up my lengthy and successful career, I found that rattling around in a country house with a nattering infant for company was enough to turn my brain to whirled peas. I plastered, painted, and wallpapered. I ripped up carpet and put down ceramic tile. I decorated and redecorated. I cleaned cabinets, refinished woodwork, rearranged furniture and wondered what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life. But, gazing in thrall at the child with whom we’d finally been gifted, I knew that even if Bill came home to find me gibbering in the corner with my eyes rolling around like ball bearings on a linoleum floor, I was not going to work away from home until our daughter was much, much older. Forty seemed like a good, round number.

Looking at the skill set I brought with me from my ‘other’ life, I found that I could do any of the following: drive an automobile at blinding speeds, on two wheels, sometimes on no wheels; recite the Miranda Warning by rote in both English and Spanish—‘You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say…Tu tienes el derecho de silencio…’; shoot, reload and shoot some more while running, squatting, falling down and/or hiding; creep into dark buildings, climb in or out of broken windows, kick in doors, crawl in dirty crawl spaces festooned with black widows and scorpions all waiting for an opportunity to bite or sting me; talk down drunks and dope addicts; talk up the depressed; interview victims and witnesses; interrogate suspects; collect the dead; process crime scenes; kick, hit, wrestle, and do anything else to stay alive; write tickets, end arguments, break up fights, testify in court, and restore family harmony. I could also write reports.

So I took over a room in the house, proclaiming it ‘my office’. I bought a computer and every other piece of office equipment I could imagine ever needing, and I became a writer.

Oh, I know; it sounds so glamorous, so exciting, so lucrative!

This is how my day sometimes went:

  1. 0530: Arise (think ‘Dracula’ or ‘Night of the Living Dead’), and get dressed—a generic term meaning, ‘put on one of several ratty-but-endearing caftans’.
  2. 0535: Prepare breakfast, working around the dinner dishes from the previous night because the grown-ups in the house were mesmerized by the child in the house and so unable to perform simple tasks.
  3. 0600: Drink coffee while sitting in the living room rocker, strategically placed in a shaft of sunlight, book basket at hand.
  4. 0605: Baby awakes, demanding instantaneous and solicitous diaper change.
  5. 0610: Return to rocker with baby.
  6. 0610-0700: Read to and feed baby, pretending she has any earthly idea of what is going on. Baby plays with feet, blows bubbles at father, makes interesting intestinal noises, husband exists room swiftly as though pursued by a gang of killers. Make requisite trip to the changing table down the hall.
  7. 0700: Husband leaves. Large production made of his departure, with liberal baby kisses, etc.
  8. 0705: Drag baby swing into dining room, strap baby in place, wind up swing. Give baby small white bear.
  9. 0706: Begin cleaning kitchen.
  10. 0706: Baby throws small white bear into dog water dish.
  11. 0706: Respond to crying baby. Retrieve now water-logged bear. Squeeze bear out in sink. Comfort crying baby. Put baby back in swing. Put bear in bathroom for drying in clothes dryer later in the day. Give baby hard plastic rattle.
  12. 0707: Baby throws rattle into dog water dish.
  13. 0707: Decide to let baby fuss. (I worked in the jail. I can do this.) Baby wails, screams, squirms. Dog becomes concerned. Dog checks on baby, gives me a dirty look and grabs rattle out of dish.
  14. 0708: Take broken rattle away from dog. Retrieve pieces scattered in living room. Clean up water in dining room. Baby still crying. Give baby a pacifier. Pick up water dish, carry it to bathroom. Return to kitchen. Note that pacifier is on dining room floor. Baby crying again.
  15. 0710: Pick up baby, take her down the hall to her crib. Wind up mobile, give baby another stuffed animal. Take walkie-talkie-sized baby monitor to kitchen. Baby sleeps.
  16. 0740: Dishes done, kitchen clean. Dishwasher running. Slug down last of cold coffee. Hungry. Eat handful of dry cereal.
  17. 0740: In bathroom, brush teeth, brush hair. Observe mascara and eye shadow cooties on face due to failure to use makeup remover the previous night. Apply makeup remover. Dog whines and barks at front door.
  18. 0742: Rush to living room to avert canine chemical spill. Open door, dog runs out and immediately races off after a rabbit. Stand in yard, screaming at dog drawing attention of neighbors leaving for jobs in town. Dart—barefooted and wincing—into neighbor’s pasture where dog’s rear end is protruding from old car body. Bottom half of caftan now full of cattails, dead grass and sticks. Grab dog, drag him back toward our property. Dog thinks this is a game, wrenches free and begins running in huge circles. Catch him, but run through a red ant hill, the occupants of same finding that caftan has some appeal.
  19. 0750: Step into foyer as a red ant bites me between the shoulder blades. Pull robe off over my head and throw it on the porch. Dog immediately grabs it and drags it around the front yard while I, naked, realize the baby monitor is in the pocket. Run down hall and grab another caftan, go outside, retrieve baby monitor which is now lying in middle of yard. Dog and discarded caftan are missing. Begin brief but fruitless search. Hope dog chokes on caftan or gets run over by the county truck—or both.
  20. 0800: Go back inside. Realize that makeup remover foam has dried on face and I look like I have rabies. Clean off face, apply moisturizer, brush dead grass and sticks out of hair. Sweep bathroom and foyer floors.
  21. 0815: Baby still asleep. Creep quietly to office, turn on lights, boot up computer. Reread acceptance of on-spec query for magazine article. Type cover page, set up document, build headers. Poise hands above keyboard, crafting opening. Dog barks furiously at front door.
  22. 0825: Let dog in. Caftan still missing. Baby awakes.
  23. 0825-0900: Change and feed baby.
  24. 0900: Put on actual clothes and shoes. Put baby in backpack and dog on leash for a short walk. Open front door, find brutalized caftan on porch with note. “Saw you wearing this yesterday morning, so figured it must be yours.”

Over the years I’ve been met with skepticism, of course, about being a writer. Unlike a physician or an attorney, I have no diploma with which to proclaim my expertise. I have no local covey of clamoring clients, all chiming in with stories of my skill. I have, nevertheless, prevailed. That baby grew up, unscathed by my scattershot parenting. The dog lived a long and irritating life and has been replaced with a succession of other dogs, and I’ve managed to produce a very diverse body of work, sometimes only a syllable at a time. I don’t carry a baby monitor anymore; I have a ‘smart phone’ instead—which proves daily that it is much smarter than I. Life continues to interfere with my work, simultaneously short-circuiting thought and providing fodder for other stories.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.