No Place for Secrets [Repost]

Prompt: Fright

sun_prominence

“There is no place for secrets here.”

That’s what he used to say, almost every prayer session, sometimes softly like a nurturing father, sometimes with spittle at the corner of his mouth, furious and shouting. It got so that the phrase had no meaning at all.

We weren’t sure what secrets were anymore. He mostly told us what to think about, and there seemed to be eyes upon us all the time; if not him, or some of the others, then our own eyes, upon ourselves.

He told us to think about what life means, and what it would mean without him to guide us. What if we were abandoned by him, and left to fend for ourselves up there? We trembled when we thought about it. He said we would be eaten alive up there, and we realized he meant it figuratively, but it seemed terrifying all the same.

When we looked in the mirror we saw faces without sunshine, from without or from within.

“There is no place for secrets here.” We were to confess our wayward thoughts to him. Shine the light of day on those thoughts and make them scurry like cockroaches back into the darkness. We didn’t know what the light of day looked like or felt like. We had forgotten. We confessed that wayward thought to him and he grew angry. “Up there, you would be lost. What good is the light if you souls are lost? Think about that.”

And we did. We thought about life, about life without him, about how we would be eaten alive up there, about soulless lives, about how there is no place for secrets.

So, we rolled him into a blanket, and shoved him out the door. He was right, the light was frightening. It hurt our eyes. We closed and sealed the door, and he began pounding on it. He was shouting something too, but his voice was muffled and we couldn’t make out the words.

We didn’t have to hold secret our thought, not any more. It was finally out. And he was right. The world is a better place without secrets.


Original Prompt: Secret, March 1, 2016

Paint-by-Number

doberman hydrangea-Edit

“That looks like a paint-by-number my grandmother did,” said a man in a hat. He wore a grey raincoat and could be cast as a subway flasher, Envy thought, as he seemed the tiniest bit shifty.

“I can see how you might get that impression,” she said. She looked around for the server with the tray of white wine. Exhibit openings always attracted fresh new art aficionados, or at least those who could tolerate modern art and who liked free wine, which was ok with Envy as long as she got her fair share.

“This one is $670 though,” said the man, not taking his eyes off the small painting, which was a representation of two doberman pinschers in front of a blue hydrangea shrub.

“Framed,” said Envy.

“Does the frame cost $665?” asked the man.

Envy wondered where the featured artist, Francesco Brown, had wandered off to. He was a thoughtful and precise man, and could likely engage the man in the hat in a startling and enlightening conversation.

The pianist had started playing ragtime, which Envy detested at that particular moment as it clashed with her mood and, she felt, with the paintings on display. She signalled to Meghan, her assistant, who didn’t notice, as she was swiping at a blob of cream cheese which had dropped from a canapé onto her blouse.

“Francesco Brown,” said Envy to the man, who had turned his head to stare at her when she hadn’t responded, “paints in a somewhat primitive, two-dimensional style as a way of connecting with past sensibilities and in response to the current trend of what he calls multi-media ‘meddling’.”

“He does, does he?” said the man. He took his hands out of his pockets and Envy, in momentary panic, feared he would suddenly expose himself.

“He can explain his aesthetic better than I can. Why don’t I find him for you?” She looked around again for the tray of wine.

“Not necessary,” the man said quickly. “I’ll take it.”

“Take it?”

“I’ll buy it. This one. The dogs. It reminds me of my grandmother. She was the only one who never asked me why I collected sticks. Plus, it has a nice frame.”

Envy insisted the man in the hat meet the artist, who was charming and drew out from the man that his name was Edward, he lived in the neighbourhood, he had a dog named Cleo, he didn’t drink, and he preferred to pay by cash rather than a credit card, which made it awkward for Envy, who didn’t want to put the “sold” sticker on the picture until the money was safely in hand.

Edward didn’t seem to notice, or care, that there was no “sold” sticker on the painting of the Dobermans with Hydrangea. He said he would drop by the next morning with the cash and seemed confident the picture would be wrapped and ready to go.

But he did insist on a cup of coffee at the Starbucks next door after the event ended at nine pm. Envy agreed, and a coffee with a client was a good excuse to duck out and leave the closing up to Meghan, who hadn’t been much help at the exhibit otherwise.

They chatted briefly about the obvious topics: the exhibit (well-received), the artist (not as flaky as expected), the attendance (solid, including at least one arts writer from a small local paper), and the sales (satisfactory).

Then Edward said, sipping on his black coffee, “You are dying for a glass of wine.”

“Not drinking makes you an expert?” said Envy, a touch prickly.

“In a way, I guess so,” said Edward. “I always liked a drink after any kind of exhausting activity.”

“What kind of exhausting activity?”

“You know, like the end of a project, a speech, a big sale, lovemaking, anything emotional.”

“To be honest, I could murder one,” Envy admitted.

“I won’t keep you,” said Edward. “You just seemed interesting. Not like the women I usually meet.”

Envy stifled a yawn. That old line. She possibly got it more than most women, since she was, by any objective standard, not particularly attractive. She instinctively looked at her watch, then blushed at the inadvertent impoliteness.

“Sorry,” said Edward.

“No, I’m sorry,” said Envy. “I’m not bored, honest.” Not yet.

“Is that an engagement ring?” Edward asked, indicating the glittering tri-ruby ring on her left ring finger.

“It is,” said Envy with a sigh. “Though I don’t know if I am really engaged.”

“What’s the confusion?”

“I have the ring, but not sure if I want the marriage,” she said. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“Because I’m safe, anonymous? I have a kind, trusting face?” suggested Edward.

For a flasher, thought Envy. But she found herself continuing, “We love each other, we do, we should get married.”

“But?”

“He thinks I’m not over my first marriage.”

“Oh. Are you?”

“Definitely, but not over the man,” Envy said. Yes, that was it. The worst combination of feelings for an engaged person ever: cynical about the institution of marriage and still clinging to the connection with the ex. Shit.

“Selfishly, I can’t help but think that puts me in third place at the very least.”

“Amazing, isn’t it, how someone who looks like me could have an interesting love life?” Envy said, much more harshly than she intended.

Edward gently set his coffee cup down and stood to his feet. “It’s been fun, Envy, but Cleo can’t walk herself, so I should run.”

Envy rigorously decided against being embarrassed or regretful, and held out her hand. “Thanks for the coffee, and see you tomorrow.”

“Right,” said Edward.

Whether he would show up at the gallery to pay for Dobermans with Hydrangea or hop the subway in his raincoat was anyone’s guess.

 

Oasis

Romantic Couple at Sunset

Leep got himself a ferocious sunburn on his very first day at the resort, and subsequently had to wear thick lashings of sunscreen, a hat, and cover both his arms and legs to protect himself, even when he sought refuge in the shade under a tree or umbrella or beach canopy.

He regularly submerged himself in tub of cold water until his steaming skin warmed it to soup temperature, and took two extra-strength Advil every four hours as directed, to deal with the stinging pain of the burn. He lay in darkened rooms until the buoyant nausea subsided.

He watched the swimmers and boaters and fishers and wind-sailors with wistfulness and regret, even though he couldn’t swim and wouldn’t dream of paying $185 to frighten himself by wind sailing. And so he became an observer of others on vacation, not a vacationer himself.

There was the self-conscious newlywed couple, desperate to make romantic memories but curiously awkward and restrained; Felipe the activities director whose bright encouraging expressions dropped from his face in seconds when he turned his head away from the giddy group learning to line dance or build leis or use flippers. There was Alejandra, lean and muscular, who patrolled the pools and cafes and restaurants in a navy staff bikini and black pareo; the blonde sisters who took pains to befriend the staff and ignore the advances of other guests; the quiet man and woman who spent long days in the sun in silence and stillness, growing black; and the young family whose children were more dignified and well-mannered than their parents.

And Leep, anonymous in a wide rimmed straw hat, behind dark sunglasses, in long sleeves and grey cotton trousers that covered him to his ankles, distant and unapproachable.

Then, one day, he fell in love. He didn’t kid himself: love among the palms was a fantasy of Leep’s, at least it was since he researched and booked his ten days at a lushly landscaped all-inclusive tropical resort. There were photos online of couples laughing together in an azure pool, sipping exotic drinks in candlelit dining rooms, silhouetted by orange skies as they strolled hand in hand at twilight. He understood, of course he did, that these were marketing ploys, alluring and fantastical and unreal, but he fell under their spell nonetheless. The silhouette of the man could be Leep, why not? The woman could be a blonde sister, or Alejandra in a black pareo, or someone seated next to him at the fish and chip lunch, or someone he encountered not far from the resort, while sitting on a stool in deep cool shade, sipping Dos Equis and watching the beach vendors hawking their silver and leather.

Yes, there.

She was tall and too thin and wore a gauzy embroidered top cinched by a leather belt over jeans so faded as to be almost white in colour. Her leather sandals had loops that surrounded her big toes. She was dark, naturally, since she lived in constant sunshine, and her voice, though soft, betrayed too many years of smoking cigarettes.

“I quit in 1990,” she told Leep. “Cold turkey.” She spoke in short bursts like that, which Leep liked since they made his halting manner of speech seem almost normal.

“Another beer, Leep?” She took his empty glass and smiled at him with slightly raised eyebrows.

He’d already had his usual limit, two, but he smiled back, shrugged and nodded, and Lacey laughed and pulled another frosted green bottle from the little refrigerator with the glass doors.

Reggie was at the far end of the bar as he was every day, setting himself apart because the fragrant smoke from his pipe did not please everyone. He sat with his back to the beach, facing the tiny bar and the banyan tree behind that and the modest whitewashed hotel behind that. Soon Camille would roll out of bed and appear in her rumpled sundress and open weave cardigan sweater, ordering an orange juice, then and orange juice with vodka, then a vodka straight up.

Tourists strolling the beach might spot the small, shady, set-back oasis, but Leep knew it looked like a black hole from the sand, appealing only to someone like Leep, sweating under his hat and his shirt and with an eye for the black holes of the world.

Sometimes the curious would appear anyway, and perhaps have a drink with pineapple juice or slices of papaya which Lacey served up with a flourish, before setting off into the real world again. Reggie and Camille and Leep would fall silent for a while, as Lacey bantered with the fresh faces, and when they finally left Camille might pick up the story of her ex husband where she’d left off, or Leep would ask Lacey another question about her travels, or Reggie might say, “When did shoulder pads come back in style?”

Leep and Lacey, Reggie and Camille. They were a group. A gang. A comfortable clique. A casual club. An exclusive society of dark sitters, nectar sippers, easy idlers. Leep had never been a member of a group that welcomed him by choice, not ever. Among these people, Leep was a swaddled stranger, a mysterious man of few words, a kindred soul, a fellow traveller. He had never been happier in his life.

In the evenings, before bed, as he lingered in the tub of cold water he would dream about calling Mr Duffy and quitting his job, taking an inexpensive room at the whitewashed hotel, banging out his stories on a typewriter, sipping beer and sharing experiences with his group, his club. His friends. His woman.

Why not?

Days Like This [Repost]

Prompt: Switch

sheets-on-clothesline

Oh no.

Leep awoke slowly, but to the distinctive odor of his own body, warm sheets wrapped around him in knots, his head under the covers.

It was going to be one of those days.

Did anyone else have such days? He got out of bed, stripped off the sheets, took them to the back hallway and put them in the washer. He had only the one set of bedding at the moment, so he set the oven timer to remind him to transfer it to the dryer.

He had a quick shower: quick because the hot water was so pungent, minerally, and reeking of chemicals. Was it always like this?

The kitchen smelled of burnt bacon, lingering from two nights ago. Leep switched on the oven fan. There was a mechanical part loose inside the fan so it rattled ominously. He wouldn’t be able to tolerate coffee this morning, so he put the kettle on for tea. The kettle smelled salty, so he spent half an hour scrubbing hard water build-up before filling it with fresh water and plugging it in.

The fresh tomatoes were heaped in a cardboard flat on the counter. Their scent wafted over to where Leep hovered over the kettle and his teacup. Green and earthy, a pleasant smell, but combined with the burnt bacon, the hard water, the chicken skin in the kitchen garbage pail (he emptied it into the big garbage can out back), the smell in the kitchen was overwhelming.

Outside the air was sulphuric, so much so that Leep could almost see the yellowness of it. He held a cotton handkerchief over his mouth and nose and made his way to the car. He put the tomatoes in the back seat.

The sharp smell of evergreen assaulted Leep as he slid into the driver’s seat. There was a green cut-out fir tree dangling from the rear view mirror shaft, and Leep had no option but to yank it off and toss it out the window. He would clean it up later. Then there was the grease. Leep reached under the passenger seat and found an old hamburger wrapper. Sighing, he got out of the car, picked up the air freshener tree from the ground, and put them both in the garbage can before leaving for Beth’s house.

Leep got the flat of tomatoes from the back seat of his car and went around to the kitchen door of the house. He could see Beth, whom he called (to himself only) Lizzie, through the window, fiddling with something on the counter. He saw the shadow of someone leaving the kitchen. Her daughter, Deborah? He tapped on the door.

“Hello, Leep,” she said with a small smile, glancing behind her where the shadow had been.

“I was at Costco,” said Leep, setting the tomatoes down heavily on the kitchen table.

“Oh!” she said, with marginally more warmth. “What do I owe you?”

“No, no,” said Leep. And he suddenly noticed the smell in the room. It wasn’t Lizzie’s orange and gardenia perfume. It was a powerful scent that overrode anything else. The last time he breathed it in was late at night, on the street, with his gun drawn, hearing an insult so dire that his finger squeezed the trigger and someone crumpled to the ground. It was sweet and musky. To Leep it was a deeply unpleasant smell, but perhaps women liked it. Today, at this moment, it was overpowering.

Leep suppressed a shudder, but not enough to prevent him stammering. “I know you like, you know, tomatoes, you cook them, um—“

“Yes, thanks. I do freeze a lot of spaghetti sauce when tomatoes are in season.”

Which they weren’t, but at Costco Leep had put one of the tomatoes to his nose, and it smelled fresh and fruity. “These ones are ok, I think,” he said to Beth.

She looked to the back of the house again. “Yes, thank you, Leep.” Her breath smelled sour, of coffee. The pot she was making was not the first that Saturday morning.

“Who is he?” asked Leep, then immediately, “Sorry.” She waved her hand at him in dismissal, sending wafts of pear soap fumes.

Then, to Leep’s shock, she answered. “Just a friend from the cruise. Dropped by to say hello.”

“The cologne.” Leep said.

“I know,” said Beth.

He had to get outside. But when he stumbled out, the sulphur smell struck him again. He took his car to the 999 Car Wash. They scrubbed it inside and out. Then instead of evergreen and grease it smelled medicinal, which was intolerable too. Leep took the freshly laundered sheets out of the dryer and made up the bed. They smelled of linen, a blissfully neutral odor. He got a disposable surgical mask from the drawer in the bathroom, turned on the ceiling fan and the portable air purifier, and lay on the bed.

It might take a few hours, even until nightfall, but it had always gone away before. Did anyone else have days like this?


Innocence [Repost]

 

Prompt: Famous

adam and eve

Kelly Bak was joining Pat for a private lunch at the White House. They’d become quite close during Rich’s run for governor of California— both wives to powerful, and in Kelly’s case, very wealthy men. They could talk freely about their travels, their servants, their possessions, the famous people they knew, without sounding pompous or pretentious. All these things were incidentals, elements of their daily lives.

They both knew that the Mellon family didn’t eat shellfish, that coats made from the fur of female mink were lighter in weight but just as warm, and the first name of the owner of the hidden hotel near the Spanish Steps. They could share concerns about temperamental cooks and valets, discuss which make-up artists were the most competent, or when to wear the real jewelry and when to wear the paste.

On this day they met in the small family dining room, where Pat’s “help”, Constance, had laid out sandwich triangles of egg and ham, fruit salad, and slices of chocolate chiffon cake, along with pots of tea and coffee, on a smooth white linen cloth.

They chatted briefly about their daughters, Julie being only a few years older than Kimmy, when Pat noticed a shadow cross Kelly’s face. “What is it?” she asked.

“I think,” said Kelly, “that Kimberly made a mistake.”

“A mistake?”

Kelly hesitated. She lit a cigarette, a Virginia Slim, and inhaled deeply. Feathers of fawn-colored smoke swirled in the air around her.

“There was something going on with her riding instructor,” Kelly said at last, setting her cigarette on the rim of a cut glass ashtray that Pat had thoughtfully moved closer.

Pat didn’t smoke or drink in public, but she looked at the cigarette cradled in the Vallon ashtray with longing, and fought an impulse to smoke, herself, as she always did when conversations or feelings became too intense.

“Oh dear,” said Pat.

“He’s gone, but…”

Pat said nothing. She clasped her hands in her lap. An image of Julie and Kimmy as small children, splashing about in a turquoise blue wading pool, popped into her head. She remembered the bathing suit that Julie wore, her favourite, a pale pink and yellow plaid with a skirt frill.

“She made an appointment with a doctor,” Kelly said slowly. “A different doctor.”

“Perhaps it’s nothing— a teenage thing,” Pat said.

“No,” said Kelly. “I don’t think so.”

Pat wanted to say, Why don’t you ask her? But she knew what happened when you asked questions. They both knew.

“Would you like more coffee?” Pat asked.

Kelly set the china cup on the table and Pat poured from a silver carafe. “How is Richard?” Kelly asked.

“Richard is just fine!” Pat said. “As always.” And she smiled, and poured a second cup for herself.


Crazy Dark Place [Repost]

Prompt: Fight or Flight

plain-blonde-doll

Charlotte arrived home just after four am, and Jamie was asleep. The house still stank of beer, so he’d had friends over. The furnace had clicked over into overnight temperatures, so the house was cold– that especially bitter, early morning cold.

She went into the kitchen and washed her hands at the sink. She used Palmolive dish detergent as soap, and scrubbed up as thoroughly as the surgeons she occasionally worked with. Her hands, she noticed were looking pink and raw but she was too tired for a shower, and needed to wash away the death and decay.

Jamie had cocooned himself in the sheets and blankets at one side of the bed. She had to wake him, or sleep in the cold.

When she awoke the next day, she had a meal that was neither breakfast nor lunch, an egg sandwich and a glass of cranberry juice, followed by a can of beer. Jamie had gone off to work, and she was due at the hospital in less than an hour.

She combed her hair, thinking it was too long. Who was she kidding? Her hair was pale blonde and thick and there was no grey showing, but she was no longer the bright young beauty that had attracted Jamie and so many others. She rubbed baby lotion on her arms and chest. She put concealer under her eyes. She thought of Cassie, who was the wife of one of Jamie’s friends. Charlotte would agree to the Super Bowl party Jamie kept talking about, so Cassie could visit too and they could chat and Charlotte would inevitably laugh, because Cassie always put things into perspective. Cassie seemed to enjoy making Charlotte laugh. The world was a crazy dark place, that was Cassie’s philosophy. Might as well face it and deal with the paralysis of life with energy and a sharp tongue.

Charlotte understood that. She felt paralyzed but lacked the energy or power to feel that she was more alive than the patients she treated, and not one of the walking dead. She wanted handsome Jamie back. She wanted the feel of a hero’s arms about her, warm and soothing. She wanted a flat stomach and trim waist, and clothes that fit. She wanted to be admired and yes, even pampered. Instead she was surrounded daily by the dying, and had to fight off thoughts that the happiness of those she served might be better fulfilled by a deep, permanent, peaceful sleep.

Jamie had a gig that evening, and Charlotte would miss it. While she she nursed a vague nostalgia for the once inseparable performer and muse, she didn’t mind, and neither did Jamie. He was hardly the rock star she had worshipped as a girl. He was a DJ in a small town now. He didn’t write songs anymore, or sing them. She was no longer his inspiration. He played whatever music his clients wanted, even country and western. Being the wife of an indifferent DJ was not the same as being the wife of a rock star. To be honest, he was never a rock star either. Just a singer in a band that was no more.

He would be home from work by six, while Charlotte was at the hospital, then out again by seven, so she made him an egg sandwich too, wrapped it in cellophane and put it in the refrigerator. It was not a hot meal, but then Jamie was less of a cook than she was. It would have to do.

She had one more can of beer, and put another one in her bag.

She passed the hall mirror on her way out the door and looked into her own eyes. So, how she felt was obvious. They were as flat and matte as a painted doll’s eyes.

Cassie. She would wait to see Cassie before she made any decisions. Cassie could make her laugh. When she truly laughed, her eyes twinkled and shone. Many people had told her that, once.


  • Original Prompt: Jump, September 22, 2016

Conquer [Repost]

Prompt: Senses

yin yang fish

Beth wondered how much to tell him, as she snuggled close, her arm draped over his waist and her middle finger idly stroking his breast bone while he slept.

It wasn’t love. It wasn’t just lust, either, exactly. It was an almost Zen contentment, a match, a yin and yang, a yearning perfectly met. Theirs was a playful relationship, without intimacy, but with good food and fun and flirting and far too long in bed. Beth was reeling from the intoxication of it, she walked just a bit above ground, she was just a bit too forgiving, a bit too ready with a smile that couldn’t be contained.

There was no reason she should feel ashamed of anything in her past. Ok, her military husband left her for a man while she was pregnant. Ouch that did hurt, but didn’t really reflect on her, since in the end she was well rid of the bastard.

A single mom then, basking in the attentions of a rich man, who some might say bought her “services”. She didn’t look at it that way. Roman was lovely, attentive, in love, and Beth was young and desperate and tired of the struggle. Who could condemn her for that?

And Deborah. Beth had never really approved of Deborah’s husband, Vincent, but Deb was like her father— there was no stopping her when she wanted something. They shared a healthy ego, confidence, and the sense that the world owed them a happy life. He hadn’t met Deb yet, hadn’t heard the story of Vincent’s murder. How would it sound to him?

Vincent was out walking late at night (why?). He was robbed. It happens. But how often does the robber shoot their victim in the face? It was more than a robbery; Beth could feel it. No one had ever explored any other motive for the crime. But Beth could add. She knew Vince. Something happened that night.

And Beth didn’t know how to explain it to Geoffrey, or even if she should try. She longed to talk about it with someone. Geoffrey, deep in a dream adventure, was breathing heavily next to her, smelling strongly of his cologne, Makizmo.

Yes, and that scent had to go. It had been Vincent’s cologne too. Very musky and sweet. The smell of it upset Deborah, and even Deb’s strange friend Leep noticed it.

Beth had a little gift for Geoffrey on the night stand. A new cologne. Musky, grassy, citrusy, fresh, and not Makizmo. It was called Conquer.

A new cologne. Beth knew how foolish it was to set landmarks in relationships, but she set one anyway.

Conquer meant both defeat and victory.

Beth moved even closer, and Geoffrey, in his peace and comfort, started to quietly snore.


  • Original Prompt: Conquer, March 19, 2017