Voyage [Repost]

Prompt: Smell you later

portrait of a young woman

Oh, what a journey!

Everything smelled horrible and I couldn’t eat the food. It was foul. But when I could, I went up on deck where the air was a little fresher, though the smoke from the smokestacks often settled over us, dropping black ash into our lungs.

I was little, so I could get up there even when it was crowded. Unless the ship was storm-tossed, I would stay up top in the rain, underneath a box that was full of ropes (I looked). It was better than being crammed together belowdecks.

My mother dressed me like a boy, because she thought I would be safer. But you might be surprised how many men want to be with boys. I knew how to look after myself, though, I was pretty smart for a kid.

My mother had a boyfriend on the ship, though she didn’t think I knew. It was such a long, boring, unpleasant, filthy voyage that my mother welcomed this man, with his jokes and and the way he always had sugar cubes in his pocket, like a stableboy. My mother had a sweet tooth, and those sugar cubes were the closest thing to candy she was going to get.

Sometimes at night, when they thought I was asleep, they snuggled together.

One time I made it up to second class. This was very hard, unless you were half-monkey, like me, at least my mother said so. I could climb anything. I had my cleanest boy clothes on, so didn’t smell too terrible, and I climbed up through the inflatable life boats closest to the steerage deck, and made my way by ladder to the crews’ quarters, where it was easy to slip onto the second class deck.

It was pretty nice up there. People weren’t vomiting or covered in ash, or making love in dark dirty corners that smelled like pee.

I even got to meet the captain. A very pretty lady, about my mother’s age, saw me crying as I clung to the railing, breathing in the sea air. I forget why I was crying. When she asked me what was wrong I said I lost my mommy and daddy— I used those words— and she gave me a hug and said, “Well I know the captain, and he can find your parents for you.”

Meanwhile, she bought me some ice cream. Wow!

The captain quickly determined that I was steerage, that I (my mother) had only paid $30 for my passage, that I was not lost but an overly-curious girl dressed as a boy.

The captain was old, I remember that, but I mostly remember that he had a cat, whose fur was the same grey colour as the captain’s beard. He said the cat killed vermin. I asked if I could take the cat back to steerage with me. He didn’t laugh, and neither did the lady.

My mother told me my father would be waiting for us, once we docked and cleared inspection. I didn’t remember my father, not one bit, so I wasn’t sure how to feel.

I wondered how my mother would clean us up, how she would wash away the voyage, with its smells and indiscretions and adventures, and if my father would love me, or even know me. I told my mother that perhaps I could stay a boy, since fathers liked boys better.

My mother kissed me and said no, and my journey ended.


Advertisements

Think of the Ways [Repost]

Prompt: School

child poster pollution

Yes, children: Help the world. Think of the ways. Walk more. Don’t litter. Plant a tree. Recycle your pop cans. If you don’t, everything will die and we will all choke to death. Including puppies.

Something about the way we teach ecology to children rankles. They can be worked into a frenzy over juice boxes. Taught to fear asphyxiation if parents idle their cars beside the school waiting for the final bell. Are willing to pick a square of cellophane out of a garbage bin for the sake of recycling.

Why so much pressure on the kids, when the greater reasons for life-threatening, world-ending pollution rest in the hands of the polluters and the politicians who enable and bless them?

Certainly every little bit helps. It is important to recycle, to value trees and plants, to be aware that small changes add up.

But I don’t remember, as a child, being unable to sleep because the glaciers are melting, or having a panic attack when a juice box ends up in the trash can. Guilt and hopelessness make us panic and give us insomnia. Let’s stop loading the responsibility for a clean future, if we have a future, on six year olds.

Let’s teach them a little bit about ethics and civics. Give them relevant information that allows them to assess choices in the products they use. Let them understand the power of the consumer and of the vote and, yes, even of peaceful resistance.

Children aren’t stupid. I’ve worked with children and they constantly floored me with their wisdom and common sense. Let’s arm these children, sensibly and without terror, with the tools they need to face a real crisis and transform a future that is not as bright as it should be, or as bright as they deserve.


Original Prompt: Atmospheric, November 18, 2017

Leep the Outsider [Repost]

Prompt: Fly on the wall

wash-hands-sign

Franco the Barber had a maddening (and probably unsanitary) habit of waiting until he was out of the toilet to zip up his fly. It was as if he was in such a rush after peeing, Leep thought, that he couldn’t stop— no, he had to walk and zip; and peeing is normal and everyone knows he has to zip up so why worry?

So he was in the hallway to the living room, zipping away as he approached them where they sat in the living room, all except Leep who leaned on the doorway to the kitchen. He never felt he quite belonged. He was ever the outsider, and sitting down would mean he was part of this family group of Uncle Alberto, his nephew’s widow, Deborah, and her mother, Beth. Franco the Barber had no qualms about joining them, he exhaled heavily as he dropped into an armchair, simultaneously grabbing a handful of salted peanuts from a dish on the glass-topped side table beside him.

Did he wash his hands? Leep had a craving for something salty but would avoid the peanuts.

There was another outsider in the room: Deborah’s lawyer, Carmen.

“I don’t know why we need a lawyer here,” said Uncle Al. “We’re family.” Even though he wasn’t family, Franco grunted in agreement, which was another maddening habit, though Uncle Al didn’t seem to object.

Uncle Al was casual today. No tie, but the same dark suit and white shirt which designated him the boss of the room, over Franco’s somewhat rumpled striped suit and cobalt blue polo shirt.

Carmen had her hair in a ponytail and was clad in a cranberry red suit and black pumps. To Leep she looked a bit intimidating, so was the lawyer he might hire if he ever needed one, which wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Deborah and her mother were jean casual, as was usual for them. Deb had taken to wearing Vincent’s old jerseys, this one turquoise trimmed with black, number sixteen.

Deborah’s mother Beth, or Lizzie as Leep called her (in his head) had the courtesy to look embarrassed. She rustled up a smile for Uncle Al and said, “I was visiting Carmen on another matter and mentioned the annuity, she just offered and is not looking to make anything difficult.”

“Certainly not,” said Carmen, and she smiled at everyone in the room individually, including Leep the Outsider. He squirmed, just a little bit. She had an air about her, as if she could read your mind. Leep resolved not to gawp at Lizzie for the rest of the meeting, or think about how he wanted to frame Alberto for Vincent’s murder.

“It’s just an allowance for Debbie,” said Uncle Al, who was the only one to use her childhood name. “My nephew was a good boy and a good husband but was not good with money.”

Leep remembered Vince bragged about using a credit card for his vacations and the 46” flat screen TV and the new steering wheel on his Taurus. Poor old Deborah was probably up to her ears in debt.

“He was always on the verge of growing up,” said Lizzie.

“Mother.”

“May he rest in peace,” said Franco the Barber.

Lizzie said, “We are so grateful, Al, but I was wondering about the um…”

“Non-disclosure clause,” said Carmen.

“That is in all my documents, for business reasons,” said Uncle Al. “My lawyer insists. If he insists, I insist.”

“It’s no big deal,” ventured Franco the Barber.

“Shut up, Franco,” said Uncle Al amiably. “You’re no lawyer.”

“True,” said Franco with a chuckle.

Carmen continued. “And the visitation clause?”

“If I’m paying is it such a hardship that I see the girl and her mother once in a while?”

The discussions continued, and Leep slipped away for a few minutes, going to the toilet and fully zipping his pants before he washed his hands thoroughly, with lots of soap.

When he returned there were handshakes all around. Uncle Al looked victorious, though Leep suspected that was a strategy he employed at the end of every negotiation. Even Franco the Barber was shaking hands and grinning at Carmen the lawyer. She had probably shaken hands with worse, in her career.

Lizzie went into the kitchen to make coffee, and Uncle Al got on his cell phone to his legal adviser requesting minor changes to the contract. He wanted the revised document by six pm that evening.

Good, thought Leep. He leaned against the wall in the doorway, watching Uncle Al take Deborah’s hands and carefully kiss her on both cheeks. She blushed, but was used to his quirky formalities by now. What was important was that she and Lizzie would be looked after, no matter what happened to Alberto Demarco.


  • Original prompt: Maddening, December 16, 2016.

He was very pensive [Repost]

Prompt: Teach

grapes-690230

Todd’s mother answered the door. She stood there staring blankly at Lily-Rose, without recognition or curiosity, and said, “I’m not interested.” She started to close the door.

“Mrs Caper?” Lily-Rose said quickly. “I’m Todd’s English teacher, Ms Roades. I was just wondering how he is doing.”

“Oh,” said Todd’s mother. “Oh, well, come in.  I’m so sorry, we get so many suspicious people coming to the door!”

Do you? Lily-Rose thought, slightly ill-at-ease with the lack of some kind of immediate connection with Todd’s mother. There was always something, she found, when you met someone new, if you looked. A warmth in the eyes, a recognition of challenges shared. A camaraderie based on a flimsy but mutual instinct. She felt none of that, and neither did Mrs Caper.

Todd’s mother was tall and thin, with wavy, partially grey hair pushed behind her ears, and now that she was smiling, was not unattractive.

She stood aside and Lily-Rose tentatively entered the Caper home.

Nothing wrong with it. Clean, carefully decorated and tended. Framed pictures on the living room walls, though Lily-Rose would be hard-pressed to remember their content later.

“How is he doing?” she asked Mrs Caper.

“Well of course the flu became pneumonia,” said Mrs Caper, as if that was the established progression of life. “He has always been delicate. I’ve done my best.” She looked at her watch.

“Of course,” said Lily-Rose. She held out a small brown paper bag. “I brought some fresh grapes,” she said smiling,” it’s kind of a traditional offering.”. Mrs Caper took the bag, looked inside, and then back at Lily-Rose. There was an odd silence. “May I see him?” said Lily-Rose.

Todd’s bedroom had the usual accoutrements expected of a “normal” affluent teenager: expensive computer, posters of badly photographed women, blood-spattered heavy metal band posters, wi-fi speakers everywhere, yet the room was completely neat and in order. Mom had obviously taken her son’s weak moment as an opportunity to tidy up.

His bed was dishevelled; a sign of restless sickness and restless sleep. A pitcher of once-icy water and a clean glass were set on the bedside table. There was a small plastic tub, too, presumably to catch any stray vomit. The room was not stuffy since the window opposite the bed was wide open. The curtains moved lazily, like ghosts.

Todd looked a little pale, with not unexpected dark circles under his eyes. He looked at her with a pronounced What the Fuck expression.

Which was not surprising, since Lily-Rose and Todd had evolved into mortal enemies since the start of the spring semester. He refused any attempts at discipline, and bordered on physical threats. Lily-Rose had never experienced such hostility in her teaching career before, and needed to see where he came from. She needed to know if it was her failing, or his– or no one’s failing, but a circumstance to be endured, a problem to pass on to his next set of teachers.

“How are you feeling?” Lily-Rose asked when his mother finally retreated from the room.

He didn’t answer. He stared at the ceiling.

“I have your last test results with me,” said Lily-Rose. “And a little outline about what we are studying now, into next month.”

He then turned his gaze on her. “Get out,” he said.

“Here,” Lily-Rose said, pulling a sheet of paper out of her soft-sided briefcase, “is your answer to one of the test questions, Use ‘pensive’ in a sentence.” She read his answer: “He was very pensive.” Then she looked up and smiled.

“I thought that demonstrated a sense of humour,” she said.

“I don’t care about you, your class, what you think, who you fuck,” said Todd.

Ouch, thought Lily-Rose.

“Well, I appreciate a sense of humour,” she said. “But anyway the main reason I am here is to apologize.”

He pretended not to be interested.

“I came into the classroom when I had the flu,” said Lily-Rose. “I should have stayed home. I’m sure you caught the bug from me.”

Todd looked startled. Lily-Rose concluded he was expecting a different kind of apology. She was intensely interested in what apology Todd expected. She was missing something.

Mrs Caper came into the room, unannounced, with a thermometer. Lily-Rose stood up.

“Let me show you out,” said Mrs Caper.

They walked to the front door, and Mrs Caper said politely, “Thank you for coming.”

Lily-Rose caught her eye, and held it for a moment. “Please keep me informed,” she said.

And she walked home, thinking about the look in Mrs Caper’s eyes, and what it meant in relation to Todd. She understood it completely. It was a look of complete detachment, disinterest, distance, and disdain.

That was the look that Todd, as a child and now an adolescent, faced every day. Lily-Rose would think about it, but she believed when Todd returned to school, they might become allies instead of enemies.


  • Original Prompt: Pensive, May 19, 2016.

 

The Night of the Planets [Repost]

Prompt: Faith
Original Prompt: Awe, June 23, 2016

saturn

Some people think that I dreamed the whole thing, but I know it really happened.

I live in Arizona, U.S.A., in a suburb way south of a city called Scottsdale. Houses in this “community” are small and cheap, and many of them still lie empty, with dead palm trees glued to the soil in front of the door. In the winter, a few more neighbors appear, but not many, and they leave again in spring.

My abode has two small bedrooms and a small wall-enclosed garden. Beyond the low walls are other small gardens belonging to other house dwellers. The project was originally gated; now the gate stands permanently open. I put a splash pool in the middle of the garden, which has no plants, for my dog, Poopy. That is a play on words, of the famous dog, “Snoopy”. My garden gets morning sun, so the water is too warm for Poopy to play in until early afternoon. I bring out a pitcher of ice cubes to help cool it down. Poopy splashes around in it like a toddler. It is strange to watch.

The kitchen has a fancy fridge that makes ice cubes. The fridge came with the house. All I really needed to buy was a TV set, which I got at Walmart, a ninety minute drive south-east. It is a Samsung 30″ flat screen and I mounted it on the wall.

There are no grocery stores, restaurants, or shops of any kind within an hour’s drive. There is a Texaco gas station, though, which stocks Lay’s Potato Chips and Pepsi, if I ever get desperate.

I was born in Wisconsin, so I am technically a “cheesehead”. My father still lives there, at least he used to; I believe he is on the road, looking for me.

Yes, I am a taker of drugs. I have some pain without them. I also enjoy recreational drugs. In the community of empty box houses in the desert south of Scottsdale, there is not much else to do. I take my medication, smoke a little weed, sometimes talk to Facebook friends on the Internet. They are not real friends, since I call myself Jody Marx, which is not my real name, and in Facebook I live in California. But it is fun to talk to other people. It could be that their Facebook feed is false too. Who knows?

I walk Poopy early in the morning and late at night. If I drive to Scottsdale or Walmart, he comes with me in the car. The car has air-conditioning.

Poopy and I decided to drive south and take a few detours, just to see what we would find. I always pack a cooler of water, just in case, and sometimes some beer. I have a cell phone, but no guarantees that I will have reception.

On our exploration drive, we ended up in a place that was so empty it could have been the far side of the moon. Flat and utterly barren in all directions, there was something breathtakingly beautiful about it. I let Poopy loose, and he went a little crazy, running around with his nose to the ground. There was not even a tree or shrub to pee on.

As nightfall approached and it started to cool off, I set up a lawn chair so I could relax and watch the sun set on a perfectly flat horizon. I was hungry, and so was Poopy, so I was going to drive the hour and a half back right after the sun went down.

The stars were out, of course, and there was a winking red light low in the sky that I thought might be Mars. I don’t know much about the planets, just that there are nine of them, and they include Mars, Saturn, and Earth. Sometimes a star fell, and I made a wish. Poopy was curled up beside me on the hard-packed dirt, moody because he hadn’t been fed.

I had to get my jacket out of the trunk of the car, as it gets cold at night sometimes, in the desert.

I must have dozed off just as the sun disappeared. The lawn chair was uncomfortable, but the air was soft and perfectly cool, and the silence was as deep as the silence in the well at my Grandfather’s house, which I fell down when I was nine. That was quiet. This was quiet.

When Poopy barked I opened my eyes and there she was. I don’t know why I call the planet Saturn a “she”. I think actual Saturn might have been a god? And probably male. But “it” was not right and “he” sounded crazy.

She filled the sky with her plump perfect roundness and wide shimmering bands. I thought I was dreaming, sure I did, but I poked Poopy, who was staring too, he stopped barking, and I stood up and walked around a bit, not taking my eyes off the sky, off the beautiful she-planet.

I took my phone out and took a picture. I went to the trunk of the car and got out a beer. I sat in the lawn chair again and stared at her.

The thing with me is, I believe my eyes. I believe I saw the planet in the Western sky, Poopy and I both did. I didn’t have anyone to share this information with, not really, so when we got home, after I fed Poopy, I put the news on. There was no mention of it. I called the local TV station and told them what I saw. They listened carefully and thanked me, but they did not put it in their news broadcast. I posted the picture to my Facebook page without comment. It just looked like a blurry planet. I should have included the lawn chair and Poopy in the photo.

I know there are scientific laws, laws of physics and astronomy. I understand that. I also understand that when you stare at a night sky so immense as the one that hangs over our heads all the time, every second, you have to come to realize that there are things beyond our knowledge, beyond explaining, beyond faith or religion, beyond science, beyond our comprehension.

Some people think I was dreaming, but I know what I saw to be true. I wonder if anyone else sees the unseeable sometimes. Who was dreaming that night, who saw what was real, and who refused to see what was in front of their faces?


 

Fairy Tale Ending [Repost]

ice cream sprinkles

We sat on the sunporch, though it was after midnight. They usually didn’t arrive until after two am, but it was impossible to rest, knowing they were coming. So we didn’t rest. We gathered in skimpy clothing, because it was so very hot overnight. The men were bare chested, shiny with sweat and the women wore tank tops glued by the heat to their bodies.

We played Yahtzee. It was the only game that did not incite physical fights. It was the perfect blend of luck and skill… you could not justifiably kill a person because of the random numbers on the dice.

The children ate ice cream in the kitchen. We didn’t force them to bed at the children’s time because it could be their last hour, too. They had sprinkles to put on their ice cream, if they wanted, and chocolate milk. It would be their best last night, if that’s the way it turned out.

I went to the doorway and looked out at the night. It was so beautiful it made me miss a heartbeat; deep, intense and fragrant, with moonlight shining through the lush and tiny leaves of the trees, shimmering like light upon the water.

My parents and grandparents were dead. It was pointless to lay blame with them. They thought everything would work out. They had the optimism of deniers. They chose not to see what covered them like a blanket. They chose to be blind. They dreamed of a lush and welcoming world for their children, and lived on faith.

They were criminally wrong.

When the things came, a little earlier than 2 am, the screens held for a long time. They had no evil intent; they were trying to survive, just as we were.

It was breathlessly frightening, listening to them trying to breach the screens. At those moments I thought of my parents and grandparents who could have laid out a different path for us. They knew about beauty and caring and value and wisdom, but not about survival, not about reality.

I want to say they were misled, or lied to, or simply not aware.

But they knew. And now our children put sprinkles on their ice cream, before they died.


  • Original prompt: Screen, March 6, 2016

 

Chandler’s Folly [Repost]

Prompt: Retrospective

bonfire-column_of_sparks_by_the_emerald_otter

It was my dog Plato that coaxed the shadow out from the depths of a dark, dense army of evergreen trees and into the flickering light of the bonfire.

Plato barked and whined with excitement but his tail also slowly wagged in a grand swishing movement, and I said quietly, “OK.” Plato took a few tentative steps, nose thrust forward, and someone emerged, hand first for the dog to sniff, like a child who’d been taught to do so by a careful parent.

It was a child who stepped forward. Young, with long hair like a girl, but scruffy, thin, and ragged. Plato sniffed, and then licked her hand. She lifted her head and looked at me with a blank, dead expression. It startled and confused me. Where was the curiosity, the relief, the fear— all the emotions I felt?

“He’s gentle,” I said to the girl. “You can pet him if you want.”

She fell to her knees, closed her eyes, and put her arms around Plato. He didn’t like hugs, but only squirmed a little.

“What’s your name?” I asked, as Plato had a quick taste of her cheek with his tongue.

“I don’t know,” she said. She stood again, and took a step backward.

“Would you like a hot dog?” I asked her.

She nodded and I went to the small table I’d set up beside the fire, where there was a cold, roasted hotdog, and some fresh ones that might take a few minutes to heat up. I figured she didn’t want to wait, so I gave her the cold, roasted one. She turned her back and ate it. I guess she ate it quickly and greedily. Someone taught this kid both manners and dog protocol. Who? I buttered a couple of hot dog buns and gave them to her, too.

“Where are you from?”

“I don’t know.”

“How old are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you travelled far?” I asked. “Never mind, don’t answer.”

She slept in the tent with Plato, while I lay by the fire, wrapped up in a sleeping bag set on a thin foam mattress, and watched the stars move across the sky. I thought about how they still moved across the sky, even though life had all but ended on Earth, and about how they must have moved across the sky before the first squiggle of life struggled into being.

The following morning we walked to the mall, where we picked out some jeans and shirts and sweaters,  a coat with a hood (age 9-11 seemed to fit her best), toiletries, a carry-bag, and other necessities, then she cleaned up, and a fresh, clean, nameless child with shiny black hair walked back to the camp with Plato and me. She never spoke unless I asked her a question. So I asked her questions, though she had few answers, and got upset and frustrated. I realized it might take some time. It had taken me and Plato a bit of time to get used to the plague and everyone gone and being alone, too.

“You still can’t remember your name?” I asked.

She hesitated. “Folly.”

“Folly?”

She looked at me in silent despair. “I don’t know. I think so.”

“OK,” I said. “Would you like to come with us to the Grand Canyon?”

And so we all three crammed into the front of the red 1961 E-Type Jaguar convertible, Plato partly in her lap, and hit the open highway again. It wasn’t until we stopped at one of those gas station pantries to use the toilet and pick up some Cheezies and Snapple, that I idly looked at the big map and spotted a little town about seven miles from where we’d camped in the woods behind the big mall. The town was called Chandler’s Folly.

I decided to change our plans. The Grand Canyon wasn’t going anywhere.