The Couch

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While Steven and I, still in our pajamas, sat in front of the television watching Looney Tunes, a man in a green truck pulled into the driveway. We ran to the window, prying the blinds open with our fingers, watching a man exit the truck, his jeans dirty, his beard thick, a cigarette dangling between his lips. He turned to say something to his passenger and then approached the door, ringing the bell twice.

“Go sit down,” my mother barked as she came down the hallway.

Rodney, her new boyfriend, was on her heels, racing her to the door where they argued over who would open it. Steven and I stood frozen as they tussled. When the door cracked open, we hid in the hallway, daring each other to steal glimpses of the bearded man, find out why he was ringing our doorbell at 9am on a Saturday.

“I called about the couch…” he greeted, extending a folded up newspaper with an ad circled.

“Oh, that’s right,” my mother grumbled, opening the door.

“What couch?” Rodney probed, a scowl crumpling his face.

“The one in the den,” my mother explained.

Steven tried to hold me back, digging his dirty fingernails into my pajama top, the faded pink My Little Pony one I loved so much because Natalee gave it to me.

“Wait,” I yelled. “That’s where Natalee sleeps.”

“Not anymore,” Rodney taunted. “We’re gettin’ a pool table.”

“Mom,” I complained.

“You and your brother go back in your room,” she scolded.

“No,” I defied, changing my mind when Rodney reached for his belt.

“Should I come back another time,” the man asked, his cigarette smoke wafting into the house.

“The couch is in here,” my mother said, leading him into the den as Steven and I went to my room.

With a ten year age gap between my oldest sister and me, I rarely saw her. And I knew very little about her, except that she attended the university about an hour away because we had dropped her off, Steven and I waving, waiting for her to turn around and see us as we drove away, but she never did. Her dad, Ivan, was there to greet her with a stiff hug and a few one-hundred dollar bills. She folded the money and stuffed it in her back pocket, breaking from the awkward hug to grab her bags, glance once more at both sides of her family–a mother and a father, whom she knew only through a court ordered visitation schedule, and their children produced in subsequent loveless marriages, an unhappy Brady Bunch she was thrilled to escape, hoping it meant the strangers she’d meet felt more like family.

On occasion, she returned, and we surrounded her, showing off our best cartwheels, new dance moves, and artwork, blushing at her compliments, watching her live out of a suitcase, never thinking we weren’t the reason for her visit. I sat on my bed listening to Rodney and the man shout directions at each other as they lifted the couch and moved outside.

“Turn a little to the right…”

“Watch your step…”

I hugged my knees, remembering the last time Natalee had been home. She arrived on a Friday evening, a couple weeks before Christmas, while my mother and Rodney were at the pool hall.

“It’s me,” she knocked on the door three times. “Audrey…Steven…”

We let her in, jumping up and down, squealing as she threw a black duffle bag on the floor, giving us each a hug before she slumped on the couch a few minutes with her hands covering her face. I went on an on about school, showed her my new shoes, played with her hair, ran through a list of games we could play after she rested. She hopped in the shower, trading the black turtleneck and red corduroy pants ensemble for a baby blue, cotton sweat suit.

“Hard day?” I asked, plopping next to her on the couch.

She brushed her wet hair, making faces when it ripped through a patch of tangles. Her eyes were red, tired, weepy. When she was done, she put her brush back in her bag and grabbed a stack of index cards, reading one side and then the other before stuffing it somewhere in the middle.

“When’s your test?” I pulled her hair into a ponytail and made a loose bun.

“Monday morning…” she exhaled.

“Do you want me to quiz you?”

She read a few more cards and then handed them to me. I stood in front of her, flashing each card and waiting to see if her answer matched the one on the back.

“Keep trying…” I said, but she shook her head and curled up on the couch.

I sat on the floor next to her, building small houses from the cards, matching them by color. She slipped into a fitful sleep, and I covered her with a moth-eaten blanket from the hall closet. Steven and I lay on the floor in front of the tv, sharing a bowl of dry cereal, laughing at a boy wearing overalls and oversized glasses, a teenage witch, twin girls playing tricks on their parents. Just before midnight, Natalee turned off the tv, woke us up, tucked us in our beds, and then disappeared. I heard the usual arguing sometime later, Rodney’s baritone roar rumbling through the whole house. We sat up in our beds and stared into the darkness until it was safe to close our eyes again.

It was quiet in the house now, Rodney and the bearded man’s voices faded, meaningless. I tipped into the den, the front door wide open casting bright light on the empty space, and began collecting the items we had long forgotten, items covered in layers of dust. From Happy Meal toys, Legos, and puzzle pieces, to pills wedged in carpet fibers my mother never found, stretching manic episodes into what felt like eternity.

I heard the man’s truck gate slam, my mother and Rodney coming up the walkway. Steven was next to me, gathering Lego pieces while I collected the pills in my palm. First her nails scraped the back of my neck, and then they dug into the back of my scalp gripping me by my hair pulling until I was face to face with her and spit raining off her P’s and T’s freckled my face. Steven’s screams amplified her slap, the sting of her skin on mine a reminder that home wasn’t home. I let go of the pills and ran outside to find the bearded man checking the ties across the couch one last time.

“My sister sleeps on that couch,” I approached.

“Maybe your mom is getting a new one…” he turned his gaze to the woman in the cab staring back at us.

“She’s not going to,” I wept.

He offered a sympathetic smile and hopped in the truck next to the lady with bright pink rollers in her hair.

“Have a good day,” they said and turned up their music, Marvin Gaye’s I want You.

I chased the truck, running as fast I could, the cold air numbing my skin, the song like silk, suspending me somewhere between sadness and exuberance. And even when the truck was out of sight, my legs heavy, I kept running, laughing, giddy at my newfound freedom. But in between the buzz of weed whackers and birds chirping, I heard Steven call my name and I stopped, touched my hand to my face, the burning a reminder that I was his couch, the place he could lay when there was chaos all around us.

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Sacrificed

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Daniel packed his trucks in their plastic case and then sat on the sofa, his hands stuffed inside the pockets of a puffy blue coat.

“I’m ready to go now,” he asserted, watching me eat the last of my breakfast. “Are you almost done?”

I nodded.

“Is my mom or my dad picking me up?”

“Your mom,” I reassured. “We’re meeting her.”

After I finished eating a poached egg and a slice of toast, I packed a sack lunch for Daniel and drove towards the meet-up spot, stopping near a small alcove north of the lighthouse. It was empty of people, white waves crashing against jagged rocks the only sound, the sun still pale against a light blue sky. Daniel shivered as a wintery chill blew through his coat, nudging him towards the water’s edge. I found a spot on the shore and we waited, a turkey sandwich and Gala apple safe inside the crumpled brown bag between us. Miriam was on her way, bringing a familiarity Daniel yearned. He kept his eyes glued to the road, scooping handfuls of sand to pass the time.

“I think that’s her,” he perked when he saw headlights in the distance.

We both stared, saddened when it wasn’t her, all too eager to be relived of the visit neither of us wanted. Daniel was five, entertained by anything that had wheels and was born a worrier. He spent our week together troubled by thoughts I couldn’t help him escape, fears whose origins were rooted in a time his mind couldn’t access. It was as if we were trapped in a loop of “What ifs,” the plot always the same, always anticlimactic.

“She’s not coming…” he threw sand in the wind, gasping when it blew back in his face.

I reached for him, but he turned away in protest, folding his arms tight against his chest. As he sniveled, his body shook. And then he quieted, let his arms fall to his sides before spinning around wide eyed, stumped by a burning question, one that had come up before rattling my nerves, illuminating a truth I had buried in memory’s graveyard.

“Who are you anyway?” he scowled.

“I’m your mom’s friend…” I stuttered.

“No you’re not,” he leapt to his feet and ran to the water.

“Wait,” I followed, slowing when he picked up a rock, threw it and then found another.

The last time I had seen him he was a newborn. I held him once, Miriam and Dennis on either side, enamored by their bundle of joy. They thanked me with hugs, tears, tuition to law school. And, as planned, we went our separate ways. I flunked out of law school and bought a trailer off highway 112 where I spent my days tutoring international students remotely, my nights counting the stars in the sky, wishing I was somewhere else, someone else. Miriam and Dennis moved into their new house, decorating Daniel’s room with dolphins or footballs, something like that, content with the life they had created for themselves.

Then came Yosef, a neighbor I nicknamed horse whisperer as I watched him from my window. He trained horses that would have otherwise been put down, and made the best chili I had ever tasted. At night we sat outside, laughing, crying, reimagining life until ours overlapped. We got married, had a home built, and welcomed a baby girl whose every coo we cherished. Everything was as we imagined, as we planned.

The day before we were supposed to travel to Yosef’s family reunion, Miriam called.

“I need your help,” she cried. “Something terrible has happened…”

“Is Daniel okay?” my heart raged.

“Yes.”

With little information, I agreed to keep Daniel, to Yosef’s dismay.

“Don’t you think this will confuse him?” he asked.

“He won’t know…” I said.

But I knew. The part of me that belonged to the little boy still yearned for him, even though the sacrifice I had made meant he’d be loved the way I couldn’t love him, meant we were never supposed to meet, not even as strangers.

He threw a few more rocks and turned his attention back to the road ready to be rid of me, free of the fear we stirred in each other, a fear birthed during a time when love should have been at its height.

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Missing

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Over the years people claimed to have seen her, passed her in the supermarket, on the street; saw her on the bus, at the airport: spoke with her while in line at the DMV, while she ate her lunch on a park bench. But none of the sightings ever turned out to be true, and Valentina stayed missing, gracing us with a yearly postcard she scribbled her name and a few words, vague phrases Alonzo and I spent weeks trying to decipher. There was never a return address, and the pictures were just decoration: sandy shores and sea shells to mark her absence.

“Give her time,” people said when they learned she had packed her belongings and disappeared in the middle of the night.

“She must have a reason for staying away,” they said in a snarky tone when the amount of time that had passed seemed enough for any reasonable person to return, unless some evil lurked.

We explained, defended, and then explained some more even though at this point people stared back blankly, already firmly rooted in their opinion of us. Their silence was razor sharp, unforgiveness fueling misunderstanding, a loathing for our mere existence. So, we disappeared too, made the road our home, and found purpose in searching, found peace in hoping.

In the still parts of the day, we replayed loss like a song, hit all the notes like pros. In the busyness we let our guards down, lived like life was a postcard, taking in all of nature’s beauty, its charm and mystery. And in between the ocean floor and mountain tops, we too saw Valentina, passed her, whispered I love you’s into the wind, a soundtrack she might hear playing the next time she thought of home and scribbled words on the back of a postcard.

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Dream State

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Hazel and Luz slept on the sofa bed, Gabby on the air mattress, while I lay awake down the hall on an old pillowtop mattress. It was just before 2 am and thoughts collected throughout the day played against an eerie silence. My mind labored over every detail, pausing to ponder whether the cashier at Sassy’s had been wearing a shirt that was indigo or navy, whether the engravings on the towels I ordered did, in fact, match the ones already hanging in the bathroom, whether Hazel would notice the blotches on the ceramic elephants I made for her, if she’d care, whether the coffee I tried once in the store would taste the same at home, or if I had imagined delight, been primed for it by all the surrounding nods and smiles, the fancy cups and sweet aromas. And when my mind had travelled to the end of every thought, it stopped short, leaving me dangling, clutching at darkness.

I sat up and pushed the blankets past my knees, listening for the presence of life, three lives resting soundly in a new space and a different time zone, but I heard nothing, not breathing, stirring, or mumbling. My feet touched down on the cold wood, and I gasped, the chill gripping, settling in my lungs like eucalyptus, piney and smooth. The floor creaked on my way to the living room, moonlight from the window guiding my steps. I avoided spongy spots, the one in front of the bathroom, the one in the center of the hallway, the one where wood meets carpet and a glass coffee table rested, making room for a queen size air mattress. Gabby lay sprawled, her feet hanging off the edge. Luz was curled in a ball. Hazel slept with her hands under her face, soft breaths escaping through pursed lips. The ceiling fan spun on low, leafy plants slow dancing in the corner. I listened as the automatic air freshener sprayed its tropical breeze into the air, and then I headed back to my bedroom, tucked myself under the white duvet cover, darkness an inflexible backdrop.

My mind returned again to the day’s events like a trolley, starting and stopping along Aberdeen Street for frozen yogurt, beads, stationary; through Jepsen Park to snap pictures of the garden, pose in front of fountains, picnic on the grass; inside the farmer’s market, a maze of fruits and vegetables, flowers and herbs, people who knew what they wanted and those who didn’t. I moved shoulder to shoulder with friends I had met in college and spent my twenties and thirties with, fumbling through life until we found our way. We laughed, reminisced, fluctuating between longing and fulfillment, between then and now.

I blinked, turned my head, dozed off or something and when I looked again they were caricatures with exaggerated features, sitting at a bench composing long letters. Their smiles exposed cartoonish teeth. Their doll eyes stared sweetly, and, for a moment, there on the edge of sleep where the lines between real and unreal are blurred, I relished the ambiguity.

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It’s Our Anniversary!

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I began writing daily stories here at WritingBlissfully a year ago, technically 13 months (I miscounted midway). My intention when I began, was to make sure I made time each day to write, something I had always put off for the more important activities in my life like Candy Crush and The Walking Dead, or just downplaying my passion for storytelling and complaining that I didn’t have time to write.

So here we are a year later (13 months), and I’m happy to have met/created some really interesting characters along the way. There were plenty I released back into their fictional worlds, while others stayed with me. Moving forward, I will be revisiting the characters that left an impression on me, expanding their stories, giving them more time and space to exist.

Thank you to all of the readers and fellow writers I’ve met along the way. I truly appreciate you taking the time to read my work. It’s also been a pleasure connecting with so many of you. I look forward to seeing more of your wonderful posts. I may be around a little less, but I’m still here. (Also, it’s hard for me to imagine not tuning in every day, so we’ll see what happens…)

Happy Writing!

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In the Moment

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As I drove onto the property, I could feel the festivities going on in the back. It was my grandmother’s birthday, and there was always a big celebration with cousins and great-aunts, lifelong friends and neighbors who lived a couple miles down the road. There would be her favorite foods, gallons of strawberry ice cream, music, and gifts that made her weep.

Growing up, we used to meet guests on the edge of the property, hop in the backs of their trucks or chase them half a mile to the house. Growers, buyers, and family traveling from a distance brought excitement, stories my brothers and I listened to while picking at mosquito bites, gnawing on sour grass. As long as we stayed quiet, no one noticed we were sitting there in cut-off jeans with dirty knees and elbows. My grandfather and the Townsend brothers talked grapes, pests, droughts. Fast talking merchants pitched their ideas. And family members we remembered by the kinds of gifts they gave exchanged hugs, talked over each other, sharing details of their drive, catching us up on months of work. When the conversation lulled, they moved into the house, making themselves comfortable at the dinning room table.

They drank tea with milk, shared tips, made agreements, or revisited the past, clinging to comfortable memories from their youth as their bones creaked, hip and knee surgeries scheduled and then rescheduled. After a couple cups of tea and a trip to the bathroom, the magic in reminiscing got lost in the aches and pains, the call of a future still unclaimed. Talk of selling, downsizing, and retiring made for a somber mood, led to long pauses for reflection, mourning. Around that time my brothers and I entered, lurking first before disrupting the quiet with questions, hastily formed arguments for why we deserved a cookie from our grandmother’s honeycomb-shaped cookie jar. It was just the interruption they needed to find their way back to the present moment. They watched us devour the cookies, proudly wiped the crumbs from the corners of our mouths and brushed our cheeks with their calloused hands. We only knew how to live in the moment, to embrace it, and we expected nothing less nor anything more.

Now two shoeless, little girls in identical butterfly dresses and a boy in jeans with holes he earned approached the truck, motioning for me to stop so they could climb into the back. They cheered the whole way home, welcoming adventure in all its many forms, unaware of how memory might frame this moment. There wouldn’t be a party, but we’d each have a cookie from the honey-comb-shaped jar. And I’d wipe the crumbs from the corners on their mouths, rub my hand across their faces knowing they didn’t yet see themselves in me though I saw myself in them.

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Expecting Rain

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Pearl liked to take a walk before dinner, during the last half of the Sally Jessy Raphaël show, before the oven timer buzzed. She set aside her mending, slipped on her shoes and sun hat, and moved onto the porch, down the concrete steps she’d sweep when she returned. I grabbed my favorite doll and followed her outside for a leisurely stroll along the winding driveway. With her hands clasped behind her back, she hummed church hymns, eyed nature, appreciating Oak and Maple trees, the way they hugged the path. Patches of Blue grass hid behind prickly bushes, spider flowers in bloom, a beautiful shade of pink, a suffocating stench we hurried past.

Birds called out to their pals. Squirrels raced up scaly bark, avoiding fungus, pruning scars, insect bites. We slid our feet against dirt and rocks, stepped over dips and grooves but not before Pearl paused to examine them.

“It’s going to rain,” she said suspiciously, looking up at a bright blue sky, the tips of blue-gray mountains. “We should get back.”

“I don’t think so,” I stared up at the sky.

“Let’s go back,” she warned, but not before taking a few more steps into the bend.

Deep tire tracks marred the ground, and weeds scattered along the edge. But a few feet away something caught her eye each time. She walked through the trees, stepping carefully through vines, around rocks until we were standing in front of a plaque that had been covered by drooping wisteria. She crouched to scrape the dirt from the engraved letters, and I whispered the words into the air.

“To My Beloved Friend,” I paused for effect. “Charlie…Who’s a Good Boy.”

She lingered for moment inside the sweet smell of the flowers and then turned to leave.

“Come on,” she reached for my hand. “It’s going to rain.”

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Evidence of Outside

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Rubi and I arrived first, Alannah, Erin, and Desiree not far behind, their SUV loaded with luggage for a week. With keys in hand, Rubi led us up the stone steps and into her family’s timeshare.

“Wait a second,” she said, motioning for me to stay outside, while she checked the conditions of the house.

She gave the door a shove and disappeared. I took a seat on a wooden bench, English Ivy tickling my back, thin trees a screen blocking the sun’s rays, fracturing light. While I waited, I listened to the sound of water flowing across rocks and animals scurrying through thick patches of green foliage, yellow and purple flowers. The wind tickled my arms, blew through loose hairs that had found their way outside of a black ponytail holder. Leaves fell from high branches, landing in my lap, on my head, resting there weightless and adaptable. There were hints of eucalyptus, wild jasmine, and honeysuckle that soothed my lungs like medicinal vapors.

I caught a glimpse of Rubi standing in front of an upstairs window, her face obscured, framed by Ash and Cedar as she prepared the space, putting things away, clearing surfaces of dust, sweeping all evidence of outside into garbage bags, She waved and pointed at the oval-shaped leaves resting on me. I waved back, smiling at her, smiling at the juxtaposition.

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Familiar Land

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We hadn’t seen each other in the last two decades and had spoken maybe four or five times during the holidays when my parents and my sisters and I huddled around my mother’s old rotary phone to speak with relatives across the country, all of us talking at the same time, inquiring about children, jobs, school, expressing how happy we were to hear each other’s voices. And if we both could find a quiet space, we’d chat nonstop about our lives, our goals, motivating each other to stay the course. Before hanging up, we promised to stay in touch, not let so much time pass before checking in with each other. But we always got busy, months turning into years with a conversation here and there, the closeness between us waning, memories of good times fleeting.

When she called, I was outside planting perennials, Elias running back and forth in his Superman cape.

“Hello?”

“Angie…” the voice on the other end squealed.”

“Charlotte?” I listened to her laughing.

“It’s been a long time,” she stretched her words.

“It has…” I stood up and moved to the steps where Elias was now playing with a pile of action figures. “What are you up to these days?”

“Well, I’m on my way to a conference for work,” she explained. “And I’m in Bellford…” she squealed again.

“Right now?” I joined in her excitement. “Your conference is in Bellford? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“The conference is not in Bellford, exactly,” she clarified. “My connecting flight was delayed, and now I have some time, so I thought I’d give you a call to see what you were doing.”

“I’m just here at the house,” I said. “I was planting some flowers, but I can do that later.”

“Do you want to get something to eat?” she asked. “I have a few hours.”

Elias and I picked her up from the airport. When she spotted us, she squealed and rushed towards us with open arms. I hesitated for a moment, collecting her characteristics and matching them to my memory. We we’re older, our features changed by fine lines, water weight. But we found our way back inside youth, talking nonstop about life, our journeys through its dense jungles and quiet coves, all the times we waded alone through its slimy swamps and mountainous peaks, armed with introspection and a desire to connect, to reconnect on familiar land.

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Endless Summer Days

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Summer days felt endless, and we were unstoppable, resistant to the heat, sudden downpours, and hunger. We thrived on blackberries, sour grass, hose water, tag, and hide-n-seek. There were seven of us all together, my older sisters, Mira and Josephine, and our cousins, Kimberly, Brook, Eli, and Caleb. We woke to the sound of Mr. Gill’s chickens, ate breakfast, and followed our grandmother outside onto the porch, where soon our playfulness disrupted her peace and she shooed us on into the yard, a space that came to life with our imaginations.

Rusted tractors became get away cars, hay stacks made good hiding spots, and old farm tools were weapons to fight aliens, zombies, and other villains. One scenario led to the next, leaving little time for food breaks. little time to challenge believability, to consider the fear factor for the scaredy cats. We edited storylines as we went, vetoed ideas that didn’t fit, appeased younger cousins who threatened to tattle.

“Fine then,” we said, adding imaginary dinosaurs to zombie hordes.

Our grandmother brought lunch to us. When we heard her call, we stopped what we were doing and raced to the long, screened porch. She stood in her housecoat, holding a tray of sandwiches, dill pickles, cherry tomatoes, and snap peas no one grabbed. After maybe five minutes, we folded a few tomatoes into our shirts and were off again, moseying to the end of the gravel driveway where we’d race trucks that passed, the drivers honking to humor us.

The next few hours were spent swimming in the lake behind Mr. Robinson’s property. We piled into his truck and he drove two miles up the road. While we played in the water, he fiddled with his trucks, tuning his hear to sounds of coughing and choking.

“Be careful now, or you’ll have to get out,” he warned.

So we were careful, the bigger kids keeping an eye on the little ones, there to catch them when their bravery was bigger than they were. We played Marco Polo, tag, jumped from low-hanging branches, floated aimlessly until our skin wrinkled. And when the sun began to set, we sat on the grass, welcoming the cool evening breeze.

“Who wants to go back in the water?” we asked before realizing exhaustion had drained any energy we had left.

We threw out ideas, built elaborate stories, characters we’d play only to lay back on the grass and watch the sun disappear, wishing the day wasn’t over yet.

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Morning Coffee

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A few days before she arrived, my parents huddled in the living room, the kitchen, engaged in hushed conversations that left them rubbing their brows, exhaling, throwing their hands in the air.

“What’s wrong?” I asked my mother on the way to school.

“What do you mean?” she feigned.

“You and dad…” I nudged.

“Nothing,” she kept her eyes on the road and then turned up the radio, pretending to be absorbed in the traffic report. “People really need to slow down,” she mumbled.

That day I presented my report on endangered species with Diana Jensen who had talked me out of creating a slideshow of dead animals. I had first lunch, and all my friends had second lunch, so I roamed the halls, finding my way to the art room where, if Mr. Dalton was in a good mood, I could play with clay, mold it into a turtle, a flower pot, a mug I’d gift to my father once it had been put through the kiln and painted with leftover colors like mustard yellow, neon green, crimson red. After school, I rode home with Michelle Ashley and her sister, Renee, who lived a few blocks from us in a two-story brownstone with their parents and grandparents. We usually sat on the front steps or in the laundry room on top of the washer and dryer, chatting, making little progress on our homework.

My father, instead of my mother, picked me up at 7pm, an hour later than usual. I threw questions at him as he drove, but he ignored them, told me to sick back and relax. The lights on the dashboard glowed. something in the engine compartment rattled, and truth’s shadow lay against my father’s face.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“So…we’re going to have a visitor for a while,” he explained after a labored pause. “She’s staying in the guest room, and for now we need to give her some space…”

“Why?”

“Well, because she needs some space right now,” he ran his hand through his beard. “She’s been through a lot.”

“What?”

“Things you might not understand,” he said, checking the mirrors before changing lanes.

“Tell me…I’ll understand,” I pleaded.

“When she’s ready, she can tell you…if she chooses too,” he warned.

“Who is this person anyway?”

“Her name is Cynthia.”

“How do we know Cynthia?”

“I know Cynthia from work,” he slowed for a light. “She was my teaching assistant last year.”

I stared blankly for a moment, still not understanding why Cynthia had to move in with us.

“She doesn’t have her own house?”

“No, that’s not it,” he said and then fell silent.

We pulled into the driveway, and my mother came rushing out to greet us. She guided me into the kitchen, touching my face and hair as if it had been months since she had last seen me. They exchanged a long gaze and a few telepathic messages before sitting down at the table, picking at mashed potatoes, chicken breasts, green beans. I talked about my presentation, threw in questions about Cynthia that they provided vague answers to, and then headed upstairs for bed.

The next morning I awoke to whimpering noises, followed by footsteps descending the stairs. I grabbed my robe and slipped out of my room in time to watch Cynthia and her dog exit the back door. She let her dog off his leash and watched him sniff around until he found the perfect spot. I crept down the stairs to get a better view. When she came back inside, she told him to sit, and he did, staring up at her with big, begging eyes while she sifted through my mother’s coffee flavors before finding one she liked. I thought about walking into the kitchen, because watching without her knowing felt wrong. She took my father’s mustard yellow coffee cup from the cabinet, looked at it, and then put it back on the shelf, grabbing another one that didn’t have an uneven handle or odd shape. The coffee maker rumbled and brown liquid dripped into the cup. She watched the drips turn into a stream, and when the machine clicked off, she took the cup and sat down in my father’s chair.

There was nothing in her demeanor that explained the urgency of her visit. She sat soaking up the sun, lost in thought, so I decided to move into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of orange juice.

“Hello,” I said, nonchalantly.

“Oh hi,” Cynthia said, surprised to see me.

“I’m Francis,” I said, extending my hand.

“Hi Francis,” her hand was limp inside mine. “I’m Cynthia.”

“I know,” I said, opening the refrigerator door.

She smiled and then turned her gaze back to the window. I grabbed the orange juice and then a glass, filling it.

“Do you like orange juice?” I asked, and she turned to look at me again, this time her smile forced, her eyes looking in, not out.

“No,” she whispered, and I left her to enjoy her morning coffee.

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Brown Sweater

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On Saturday mornings, my mother dropped me off at the Drip N Dry with four baskets of laundry and six dollars worth of quarters stuffed in a red coin purse. She sat in the car while I lugged the baskets inside and then drove to her shift at Thelma’s Boutique where she fitted women for dresses and gowns, wigs and jewelry, chatting with them about their upcoming events. Before driving away, she warned me to keep the coin purse close, to watch out for detergent thieves, machine hogs.

“I will,” I said, slamming the trunk.

Inside the laundromat it was hot, stuffy, the regulars already staking claim to washers, dryers, space on the folding tables. I found a seat between two women, both with children they yelled at, threatening physical punishment if the bad behavior continued, but this didn’t stop the children from running around trying to destroy the place, even the shirtless baby who ran after his brothers in a saggy diaper, gripping an empty bottle he stopped to suck, frustrated when there was only air.

The sound of water sloshing through cycles and dryers buzzing quickly became background noise to the yelling, the complaining, the gossiping. Dressed in bleached sweatpants and mismatched socks, patrons led the attendant to washers that had accepted quarters but never turned on, dryers that had spun clothes round and round only for them to still be as wet as when they started. Women who were already familiar with each other collected around folding tables talking about people they knew, people they didn’t know, attacking their characters, their appearances. The women’s unapologetic tone cast a restlessness over the room, and we steered clear, as much as possible.

We jumped up when there were open washers and dryers, maneuvering our baskets through the rows of seats, crowded aisles. As Miss Harrington emptied two washers, I swooped in, waiting with a patient smile. She nodded and I began planning my approach–colored clothes and towels then whites and bedding. A woman wearing a brown, loose knitted sweater approached from the other side, her demeanor imposing.

“I’m using these washers,” she informed.

“I was here first,” I said, barely above a whisper.

Miss Harrington shot me a warning glance and then left. I began tossing clothes into the washer when the woman pressed her body against mine, pinning me against the machine.

“I said I’m using these washers,” she pressed harder until I gasped.

It took another twenty minutes before a washer opened, and I pounced, energized by the conflict. I threw the clothes in, measured detergent, and slid quarters into grooves. The woman in the brown sweater stared, her arms folded tight. I turned away and found a seat near the dryers next to a woman fanning herself with an All Saints church fan. Brown Sweater followed, pacing in front of me, mumbling insults. Her children joined, thinking it was a game, not the passive aggressive move she intended.

When she left to check on her clothes, I raced to the bathroom, pulling my baskets into the narrow space. I looked in the mirror at my glossy eyes, at the fear burning in my cheeks. Fear turned to anger, and the longer I stood there, the more confident I became. Armed with a fleeting sense of power, I barged through the door ready to take on whoever was on the other side, but Brown Sweater was gone. And the posse she belonged to was packing up, the mood growing lighter, strangling my nerve.

Once they were gone, I went to check on the clothes, discovering the machine was empty. I slammed the lid and opened it again, still nothing.

“Were those your clothes?” a woman in a baseball cap asked.

I nodded.

“A lady took them,” she looked around. “She was wearing a brown sweater.”

There was loud knocking against the window, on the other side Brown Sweater. She held up my Clear Lake Academy gym shirt and shorts. Then she pointed at me, beckoning me outside. My heart sunk and I stood frozen, my legs like Jello. Brown Sweater knocked again, this time with her keys, the jingling a menacing sound that made everyone look and then look away. I headed for the door and then stopped, considering for a moment what the infraction would cost me, if it was worth it.

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Creek Life

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My younger brother, Freddie, and I attended Travis Elementary. Our sister, Faith, attended Travis Junior High, the campus right across the street, and after school we went to catch crayfish in the creek while Faith, stayed for cheer practice. We rolled up our pants, slipped on galoshes, and walked to the middle of the creek, dipping our nets into the dirty water. If we were lucky, by the time Faith found us there, we had a small bucket full, but most days we caught a few minnows and insects.

“Let’s go,” she barked, still dressed in her blue and white uniform. “If any of that gets on me, you die,” she pointed at our muddy bucket.

Freddie and I shared the load, lugging creek gear and our backpacks for two blocks to the blue house on Kentucky Drive. We left our galoshes and nets outside, and delivered any crayfish we caught to our mother, who greeted us at the door, her nose crinkling when she caught a whiff of creek water on our hands, our clothes. I showered in my parents’ bathroom; Freddie enjoyed a bubble bath in ours. If we had homework, we finished it before plopping in front of the tv. Dinner was served when dad arrived, and we sat around the table eating spaghetti, broccoli florets, jabbering about our day.

Afterwards, Faith and I washed dishes, dad and Freddie in the living room watching a PBS special on the Civil War. Our mother ironed our uniforms, working through her nightly checklist.

“Did you finish your homework?” she probed, and we nodded.

“Did you turn in your homework from yesterday?” she looked at Freddie who paused, looked up at the ceiling, and then ran to check his backpack.

“Do I need to sign anything?” she asked, steam pouring from the iron.

Freddie found a permission slip in his math folder, and Faith and I were dismissed. I followed her to our bedroom, diving onto the bottom bunk, while she sat at the vanity brushing her hair and talking to her friend Maxine. She was also a cheerleader, so they mostly talked about cheer routines and why Betsy Fisher shouldn’t be on the team.

“She can’t even do the routines…” Faith whined. “She’s only on the team because her dad works in the front office.”

I lay with my back turned to her, the covers over my head as I listened, usually with disgust; that is, until a boy named Robert Jackson entered the picture. They went on and on about his features, his voice, his laugh, arguing over who he said hi to first that day. Soon they were competing for his attention, both wanting to attend the winter formal with him.

As much as I loved catching crayfish, I had to see who this Robert fellow was, so a week before the dance, when Faith and Maxine had already been fitted for their dresses but were still dateless, I ventured onto the campus, still wearing my galoshes. The cheerleaders were practicing, chanting their spirit, and on the sidelines were a few parents, siblings, and none other than Robert Jackson, a short, stalky boy standing with his hands in his pockets. I watched him pace awkwardly, taking his right hand out of his pocket long enough to adjust his glasses. And after each routine, Faith and Maxine ran to his side, welcoming his praise, his critique. Their smiles were wide, their eyes beaming.

“Gross,” I said, and made my way back to the creek where Freddie had already caught three crayfish.

I joined him, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but replay the Robert Jackson scene, oblivious to what made him so appealing, to why Faith and Maxine were so infatuated. We caught three more crayfish before Faith came, this time her shoulders slumped, her face long, eyes puffy.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, moving towards her until she held her hands out for me to stop.

“Nothing…” she cried.

“Robert Jackson didn’t ask you to the formal?”

“He asked Betsy, and she’s not even a real cheerleader,” her voice quivered.

“He’s dumb anyway,” I said.

“No, he’s not,” she wiped her tears with her sleeve. “Let’s go…”

She walked ahead of us, arms folded, head pointed at the ground, perhaps hoping comfort was there, written between the cracks in the sidewalk.

“Did you know that if a crayfish loses a leg it can grow another one?” Freddie posed.

“So?” Faith pouted.

“If your heart is broken…then maybe you’ll grow another one,” he explained, mud splattered across his face, thick under his fingernails.

Faith wrapped her arm around him, her mood lightening. He wasn’t Robert Jackson, but he saw her when she felt invisible.

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The Guardian

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We lived on the edge of Sweetfield in a three-level house with ten acres of land separating us from our nearest neighbor. My great aunt, Jackie, preferred it this way, relishing in the quiet, the solitude. In the early days, I didn’t know life could be any different until I started school and built friendships with Scarlett, Evie, December, and Lillian, who enjoyed playdates and sleepovers while I watched Matlock with Jackie, inhaling Bengay and emptying plastic store bags Jackie filled with peanut shells.

“Why can’t we move?” I asked anytime brave buyers ventured onto the property with their bold offers.

“Nonsense,” Jackie scoffed, and went back to critiquing the housekeeper’s work. “Can’t she see all this dust?” she complained.

I finished my homework and then tuned into the primetime lineup, soaking up catch phrases and lessons I’d take to school and try on with my friends, even if it meant irritating teachers who’d call Jackie to express their concern. They didn’t know that Jackie wasn’t exactly a parent. She was my guardian and took care of my basic needs, but parenting wasn’t part of the plan, aside from a few rules that barred me from parts of the house like the entire third floor, the first bedroom on the second floor, her father’s old study, and the half-bath. It wasn’t as if I didn’t try though. Jackie was one step ahead of me, bringing in a locksmith to secure the doors. I was five then, a snooper in search of information about my mother, my father, any other person who could decode the mysteries that seemed to surround us like the cobwebs Bertha could never reach.

“I’ll try, Miss Jackie,” she nodded, and she did, tiring her shoulders from holding sweeper in the air so long.

When I turned ten, instead of our usual celebration at the house, Jackie let me invite friends. even let them sleep over. She provided cake and ice cream and food we warmed in the microwave while Jackie lurked on the edge, unamused by the noise, the unbridled joy. She took a walk in the garden and then sat on the porch listening to oldies. I cut the cake and December took a slice Jackie. She turned up the radio to drown the excitement of opening gifts.

“What’s wrong with your Aunt?” Scarlett asked.

“Nothing,” I avoided their eyes. “She just likes to be alone.”

I don’t think Jackie slept much that night, kept awake first by our silly squeals and chit chat, and then by her fear that the privacy she had maintained for years was now threatened by four pre-teens. And she was right. They returned to school armed with observations that meant little to them but everything to Jackie. Word about her quirks got around, and all day long people drove out to the property to watch her, taunt her, remind her of a past she’d tried to seal.

Jackie didn’t acknowledge the insults, but she started going through old files and letters, looking at old pictures, conjuring the past with obsession, yearning. It took a few weeks before the past arrived in the flesh, a man named Henry who had made his way to the property and waited, poised like he was posing for a picture. Jackie told me to grab the grocery bags and go inside.

From the window, I watched their exchange. They weren’t exactly strangers, but the familiarity they once shared had diminished, in its place a wound. Neither wanted to be the first to speak though their bodies didn’t hesitate, diving into resentment, succumbing to the heaviness of holding on instead of letting go. Henry took a step towards her, and she took a step back, rocking on her feet for a bit, hands clasped.

Their mouths moved one at a time, the corners creasing as they remembered who they had been, what had made life so good then. And maybe this was Jackie’s chance to unseal her heart, let someone in who had loved her then, who loved her now.

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Predictable

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I slept for maybe five hours before my alarm blared, jarring me from a disturbing dream about a pizza delivery to a boardroom filled with men and women in suits, their heads on backwards. Enticed by the smell of coffee brewing, I slid out of bed and wandered into the kitchen. Kenny and Beau sat at the table each halfway through a bowl of Frosted Flakes. As I poured myself a cup of coffee and stirred in creamer, Kenny listed the day’s tasks, stressed deadlines. I sipped and nodded, absorbing the information the best I could.

“Text me the dentist’s address,” I said. “I’ll mail the packages on our way.”

“I don’t want to go to the dentist,” Beau turned to look at me, his face worried.

“It’s just a cleaning,” I comforted.

Kenny and Beau put their bowls in the sink before leaving, and I sat inside the absence, mulling over my 9:00am meeting with a client named, Noelle, who I knew would reject the first two plans I presented her, only to brainstorm a third and then go back to the first one. Today I was prepared for her long, contemplative pauses, her sulky sighs and disappointed glares that would all melt away in a moment of clarity when she saw the bigger picture, saw herself in the plan.

I envisioned my 11:00pm meeting with Grecia, a trainer who always came with tips for sculpting leg and arm muscles, going much more smoothly. She was chatty but decisive, idealistic but true to her budget. We’d both leave feeling inspired, full of energy, and I’d move on to my 1:00pm with Lavern who’d want to vent for ten minutes, weep for five, her tears staining the documents as she signed. With about forty-five minutes to spare, I’d mail the packages and arrive at Beau’s school in time to watch him walk out with his Batman backpack, his eyes wide with anticipation as he searched the pick-up line for my car.

What happened instead was a series of events that made me wish I had stayed asleep, haunted by suited men and women with their faces pointed towards the walls, their arms stretched towards the boardroom doors. On my way to my office in Millcreek, I was rear-ended by a sassy teen whose father, she threatened, was a judge. At the office, the printer was jammed and our usual technician was on vacation. There were the deliveries my assistant had mistakenly sent to our sister office in Bancroft. The missing files, broken light fixture in the bathroom, and black ink that had spilled in the storage room. Then Beau’s school called to let me know he was running a fever and needed to be picked up sooner than later. And the Kinkos on Walnut Blvd was closed for the day, meaning I’d have to find an alternative.

Kenny was in a meeting when I called, my mother was at the senior center playing bingo with her friends, and the sitter was in class taking a physics exam. So I took Beau home, and tended to him, promising an orange-cream popsicle after he choked down two teaspoons of cherry flavored medicine. His expression signaled the exchange was well worth it. He lay across my lap when he was finished, sleep relieving him of the discomfort.

By the end of the day we were still in the same spot, the sun crawling towards the horizon, steady, predictable, embracing the dimming of its glow without resisting.

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The Edge of Chaos

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Yareli called and asked if I’d spend the day with her, go for a ride, eat, celebrate.

“What are we celebrating?” I laughed.

“I don’t know…life,” she said, punching the keys on her keyboard.

“You’re at work?”

“I’m getting ready to leave now,” her attention divided between our conversation and her computer screen. “Meet me at the train station.”

“The train station?” I protested.

“Train leaves at 9:35am.”

I glided a pink highlighter over the definition of Structural functionalism before closing my textbook and emptying my backpack, filling it with a sweater, a few snacks, and my phone charger, before heading to the train station. Yareli was waiting outside on a bench, her legs crossed, one arm stretched across the back, the other in her lap.

“Hey,” she said. “You made it.”

“Where are we going?

“You’ll see.”

We moved inside and waited to board. People paced, hid behind newspapers, stared into their phones. She talked about an upcoming project for work, and I talked about classes, my anthropology professor.

“You have a crush on him,” Yareli teased.

“No,” I defended. “He makes me think…” my voice trailed.

“About what?”

“All kinds of things,” I waved my hands in the air. “Like how societies maintain order.”

“Wow,” she nodded. “Sounds interesting. It’s not something I’ve ever even thought about,” she laughed.

“You’re more of a numbers kind of gal,” I patted her shoulder.

“Numbers are everything.”

“Sure,” I rolled my eyes. “Too bad numbers can’t edit your reports.”

“Hey,” she put her arm around my shoulders, and we walked to the boarding area.

Once inside the trolley, she released her hold, sitting across from me so we both had a window seat. There was the light rustle of people settling in, mumbled confusion dispelled by instructions printed in plain sight, followed by urgent uniformity as announcements blared through the speakers and the train lunged forward.

“Sonoma, huh?” I said.

“Yep.”

“Wine?”

“Nope.”

“What then?”

“You’ll see,” Yareli shifted in her seat so she faced the window.

We passed through the city, through barren industrial areas, across narrow bridges, stopping to let passengers on and off, many moving swiftly to get to their destinations, to find their seats and get situated. After a quick glance at the new arrivals, Yareli and I chatted for a minute before getting back to gazing, which for me was a combination of observing the landscape and entertaining daydreams I orchestrated in my mind, moving things and people the way I saw fit. This is part of the reason I didn’t realize there was commotion in the trolley.

Yareli said it began with a shoulder brush. The lady across from us said it began with a side comment, something sarcastic. A man a few seats ahead of her said they belonged to rival gangs. While the encounter continued, words and gestures loaded with anger flew across the trolley and people talked amongst themselves. Brave bystanders and staff swooped in to offer their bodies as barriers, their calm demeanors as a purifier, turning anger into tolerance. And it worked. The feuding passengers returned to their seats, and through our windows we observed the softness of fall, its browns, yellows, and greens framing what still felt like the edge of chaos but looked like order.

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Everything we Needed

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It was our first summer in the house on Charleston Street, a three-bedroom townhome that had been painted the same color inside and out, a baby blue we thought was charming at first until it started to crack, exposing a blemished brown color we hid behind posters. My grandmother bought me curtains and bedding from QVC. Alice’s grandmother bought her a whole new bed, double curtains she had someone come over to install, fluffy pillows and stuffed unicorns, a matching robe and slippers, a small television set, and summer clothes she’d wear once and pass down to me.

“For god’s sake,” mother muttered, ripping the price tags off all the items.

“You can have whatever you want,” Alice told me, pulling me inside her room.

I left with a pillow and a unicorn half my size, placing both on my bed across the hall. But that night, every night until school started, we slept downstairs on the couch because it was hot and because we had never slept alone. Mother was off the week we moved in, so she joined us, and we watched movies, ate popcorn, braided each other’s hair, danced in front of the fan, talked about how this time things would be better, how we’d have everything we needed.

Alice turned twelve that year, and I was a year and a half behind her, much shorter, thinner, without the same curly hair people admired. When mother went back to work, we were on our own, spending our days playing board games, watching Little House on the Prairie, living on popsicles and pizza from our cousin, Natalie’s, parlor.

“Are you two supposed to be here?” she asked every time we walked through the door.

I looked at Alice and she looked at me, Natalie standing in front of us now with stern eyes.

“Come on,” she led us to a table, got us a pitcher of ice water and two slices of pepperoni pizza.

Before we left, she slipped us money for ice cream, told us to be safe, to stay off the bike trail even though it was a shortcut to our house.

“You hear me?” she warned, and we obliged, our fingers crossed behind our backs.

The trail offered a much more interesting view overlooking the creek, away from traffic, the hurry up and go attitude of lunch-breakers. We picked wildflowers, skipped rocks, raced to the tree with winding limbs. Bikers and runners passed us, shouting their location in advance.

“On your right,” they yelled, and we responded with a giggle.

Ahead on the trail were suspicious figures, but we crossed at Cheyenne, cutting through the park and arriving at Dairy Queen a couple blocks later, where we shared a sundae. We dodged concerned glances, pretended our mother was in the bathroom or next door at the sandwich shop, if people asked. It was a few days after the fourth of July that a girl appeared on the edge of the Dairy Queen parking lot, wrapped in a blanket, making us invisible. We stared at the motionless mass, some wondering aloud.

“Should we call someone?”

“Is she dead?”

Alice and I slipped out the side door and walked towards the girl, our steps slowing the closer we got.

“Excuse me?” Alice asked, her hand shaking in mine. “Are you okay?”

“Are you dead?” I asked, Alice shushing me.

The girl stirred, unravelling the blanket to reveal her disheveled hair, dirty jeans, bare feet.

“No,” she let her shoulders slump. “It just feels like it,” she wiped her eyes with the back of her arm.

“Why are you sitting out here?” I asked.

“I lost my dog,” she looked around. “Bear,” she cried.

“We can help you find him,” I offered. “I hope he wasn’t the dog we saw…” Alice nudged me.

“What did he look like?” the girl perked.

“Brown and white,” I said. “But he was…” Alice nudged me again.

“A man was putting him in his car,” Alice interrupted. “He was feeding him and petting him.”

“Really?” the girl cried. “You think he’ll take good care of him?”

Alice shook her head and smiled.

“Okay…thanks for talking to me,” she wrapped the blanket around her and sat on the ground. “I think I’ll be okay,” she rocked.

Alice motioned for me to follow her, this time taking Spokane to Walnut to Charleston, the sound of tires on the road drowning our voices. We waited for crosswalk signals to turn green, found loose change, kicked cans down the street. And when we got home, the answering machine was blinking with a message from Mother letting us know she’d be home late.

We played Checkers and Candyland, ate popsicles, dripping cherry and grape droplets onto the board. We watched Wheel of Fortune, guessing vowels and consonants. Afterwards, Alice made dinner, Top Ramen and toast that we ate in front of the television. We fell asleep on the couch, our ears tuned to the sound of the front door opening and then closing, the smell of sweaty cologne familiar to our noses as it wafted, following Mother up the stairs, the small click of her bedroom door closing all we needed to convince ourselves we were safe, all we needed to be okay.

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Shadowy Formations

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When I was thirteen, my grandmother moved in, along with her diaper-wearing dog, Fred, who barked at everything, including his own shadow. I gave up my bedroom and moved into my mother’s sewing room, decorating around patterned fabric, spools of thread, unfinished projects folded on shelves or flung over the chair and door frame, stick pins holding sleeves together, holding collars in place.

“Why do I have to give up my room?” I complained, while my mother diced onions. “Noah and Matthew don’t have to give up their rooms.”

“Never mind all that,” she scraped the onions into a saucepan. “Go see if Nana needs anything.”

And that’s what I did before and after school, filling her water pitcher, fixing her a snack, taking Fred for a walk, reading letters from childhood friends who wrote to tell her that someone they knew had died.

“Well,” she stuffed the letter back inside the envelope. “Put this in my letter box.”

“Are you sad?” I sat on the edge of her bed.

“Of course, I’m sad,” she patted my hand and then went back to her cross-stitching.

Most evenings she joined us for dinner, sitting in my father’s chair, while he squeezed between Noah and Matthew, their elbows bumping. But some nights she preferred to eat alone, left to grieve the deaths of her friends, to mull over test results and her doctors’ recommendations. And life went on. We absorbed changes, adding new pills to the dispenser, learning everything we could about new treatments, ordering take-out on the way back from appointments.

I was midway through 7th grade at Carson Charter when my grandmother started daily radiation treatments at Bellevue Medical Center, her appointments right after school, which meant I had to race to my locker and then to the car so we wouldn’t be late.

“Next time get here faster,” my mother complained.

“Why don’t you park in the front then?”

“If I park in the front, we’ll have to wait for all of the other parents trying to get their kids.”

“I have to run through the hallway which is full of kids.”

“I’ll talk to Mr. Bower,” she mumbled. “See if you can get out early.”

Fred licked my face and plopped next to me as my mother drove. My grandmother asked about my day, reminisced about being in high school.

“I’m not in high school yet, Nana.”

“I know,” she laughed and went on about a boy who had caught her eye, a boy who drove a Plymouth Fury. “

At the hospital, my mother and grandmother moseyed in arm-in-arm. I stayed outside with Fred. We walked across the street to the drugstore where I bought a pack of peppermint gum and an orange Crush. I shoved two sticks of gum in my mouth and sipped the soda as Fred and I strolled along the waterfront, weaving past men and women in scrubs, friends and relatives of patients who needed to take their minds off things. They wore worried expressions, stared out at the water until curiosity called them back.

“It’s so beautiful,” they all said, taking one last glance at the stillness, the way the buildings were reflected–blurred, shadowy formations that would fade when the sun set and shimmer softly under the moon, never letting time separate our seams or leave us alone, unfinished and fragmented.

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The Most Vulnerable

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The morning after the worst storm we’d had all year, the sun rose and clouds parted, illuminating damaged rooftops, toppled sheds, garbage scattered across muddy lawns, uprooted trees narrowly missing parked cars. Residents opened their doors to the aftermath, thankful their homes were still standing but perplexed by nature’s attack on unsuspecting gnomes, flamingos, bird feeders, fountains, grills, and wicker furniture now broken and twisted, too fragile to use, too blemished for curb appeal.

We drove around, retrieving city-issued receptacles and other items that had journeyed across the neighborhood, checking on the most vulnerable to make sure they had survived. Familiar faces filled yards and hoisted Hefty garbage bags over their shoulders. Parents with children and Golden Retrievers by their sides, strolled by handing out water and granola bars, offering their assistance with broken fences, tree removal and stump grinding.

When I returned home, I put away my candles, scraped wax off the coffee table, reset the clock on the microwave, and opened the windows to let in the fresh air. My phone buzzed with text messages from friends, family. I responded with emojis and one line messages that conveyed general concern, an invitation to respond if they needed anything. And after two cups of coffee, I went out into my backyard, clearing branches and leaves, fast food wrappers and wrinkled notebook paper with spelling words written in cursive, math problems scribbled on one side, answers blurred. Plants in ceramic planters leaned to the side, their roots exposed, so I secured them, adding more soil to keep them upright. I swept dirt from corners and restored the awning.

Around midday the doorbell rang, my sister and her children on the other side of the door, peering through the peephole to see if I was home. I sat at the kitchen table, eating an egg salad sandwich, listening to the children run across the grass.

“I know you’re home,” my sister yelled. “Your windows are open.”

“Yeah, we know you’re home,” the children parroted, giggling as they went back to their game of tag.

I went to the door, put my hand on the lock, and then froze, stepping back a couple feet.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I’m checking on you…I can’t check on my sister?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I don’t need anything.”

“Okay,” she sang. “Well, we’re fine too,” she mocked.

“That’s good.”

“You wouldn’t know because you never call or come by.”

“That’s not true…” I started.

“It is,” she turned to walk away. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

“No,” I said, watching her rally her children.

They were the most vulnerable, and even after years of acrimony, I still checked on them first.

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White Puffy Clouds

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Our plans to binge watch The Wire were thwarted by a collect call from my sister, Aurora, claiming she had been falsely accused of stealing her neighbor’s dog.

“Why did you steal your neighbor’s dog?” I asked, still making sense of what she was saying in between angry and sorrowful cries.

“I didn’t,” she blurted. “Can you come?”

Wesley and Tia went home, wanting nothing to do with the situation, but Miranda reluctantly agreed to take the two-hour drive with me.

“Do you mind if we listen to my audiobook?” she asked when we got in the car.

I plugged her phone in and backed out of the driveway, listening to the opening credits. Miranda leaned back in her seat, slipped off her shoes, and closed her eyes. I thought she might fall asleep, but she didn’t. Occasional gasps and groans overlapped with the speaker’s voice, a sarcastic, nonchalant first-person narrator with everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Drawn in by the character’s flaws and her underlying desire for good, we rooted for her, let the speaker pull us inside the chaos, the mystery, the joy though it was fleeting, swiftly swapped with sadness. We screamed at the end of each chapter as the narrator was swept away by yet another bad decision, and we cried for her at the beginning of every chapter when hope began to fade, when she realized loss was eminent and embraced the wound long before it appeared.

Most of the drive felt seamless; in fact, there were parts I didn’t even remember, long stretches of highway unaccounted for, but the emotional trek was rife with potholes, arduous hills we had to downshift to climb, a weepiness we couldn’t shake because at times it was like looking in a mirror.

“Do you mind if I pause it?” Miranda asked, as the narrator weighed the pros and cons of leaving her daughter with a friend.

“Go ahead,” I said, anticipating silence.

Instead, she pointed towards the bend.

“Look…”

The highway curved, and we were riding alongside white, puffy clouds, miles of unexpected peace shielding us from where we had been and where we were going.

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A Story

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I was two days into my three-day trip to my grandfather’s cabin, a small one-room, log home he’d spent a lot of time, remnants of his woodwork still scattered, hidden as if they had been part of some scavenger hunt. Already I had found a small pack of wooden wolves lined up under under his bed, owl faces in the window sills, birds perched on ceiling beams, and a figurine of a women wearing a feather hat and a ballroom-inspired dress, her face blank, smooth.

In plain view were stained coffee mugs, a jacket still wrapped around a chair, boots by the door, logs he had stacked in the corner, the debris collecting, home to insects I rehomed near the creek that ran alongside the cabin. I cleared the cobwebs, but I left everything else alone, preserving his last days there, learning as much as I could about who he was.

“I don’t advise it,” my mother warned. “Who knows what he did in that cabin.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I defended. “Just because he liked to go out to the cabin doesn’t mean he was doing anything wrong.”

“Well, I guess we’ll see,” she gulped the rest of her wine and went to the kitchen for a refill.

I got lost twice on the drive up, missing faded road signs, narrow turns down ominous paths, before arriving to a dense, overgrown piece of land. The trees around the property seemed to lean towards the cabin, their branches reaching out like arms. A nearby waterfall plunged into the stream, white noise slowing my thoughts, quieting the worry, my own and others’. This was my cabin now, willed to me because I told him I wanted it.

“What are you going to with it?” my grandfather asked from his hospital bed.

“I want a place I can go to write… like Virginia Woolf,” I said, leaning over the bed rail.

“Like Virginia Woolf?,” he laughed and reached for my hand.

“And take pictures…paint.”

“If I give you the cabin, you’re going to do all those things?”

“I already do…”

“I want to see what you have,” he smiled. “I want a show.”

So I gave him a show, right there in his hospital room. I brought my paintings, pictures, and read chapters from my novella while he dozed off, awaking when my voice trailed.

“It’s all yours,” he said, sitting up and then clearing his throat.

He changed his will a few days later, and at the reading I learned that he had also left me enough money for the upkeep.

“Figures,” my mother stood up and left.

I made sure everything stayed the same. I lived on the edge of the space, not in it, a visitor aware of how her presence changed the energy, but also of how our lives intersected, a story I was now responsible for weaving together, changing it into something new.

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Hillside

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When I was thirteen, about six months after my parents’ divorce, my father and I moved to Elford into a small house on the hillside, over a hundred miles from my old school, my friends, my mother who kept our dog, Lily, and had a new boyfriend named Terrance, whom she told not to tell my father about but I did anyway, to which he said, “Okay,” and shrugged.

There were only two bedrooms in the house on the hill, instead of four, like our old house, and the rooms shared a wall, a thin wall my father’s snores drilled through like a jackhammer. We ate meat and potatoes, the only things he knew how to make, at a table for two. He woke me up at 4:30am and I dressed for school, finishing my homework in the truck during the hour drive while he listened to the Aaron Neville cd stuck in the player. When we made it into the city, he bought us breakfast sandwiches and coffee from Caroline’s a few miles from my school, and we parked in the empty lot. Our conversations centered on sports, professional basketball teams and the St. Francis’ girls’ team where I played. As we took our last bites, he asked how I was doing, and I nodded, chewing until the food was mush.

It was the two of us and our neighbors down the hill, Holly and Glen, who brought us figs from their tree, invited us for dinner on Sundays, and gave us a baby goat who chewed through the enclosure and made his way back down the hill, to the only home he’d ever known. My friends called every day, updating me on the gossip, even including me in their girl’s night celebrations. I watched them for a while, jumping into the excitement when a space opened, but eventually hung up and read choose your own adventure books until I fell asleep.

Some Saturdays I hiked with Holly who would always invite me to make pickles with her, and I would decline, reminding her that I didn’t like pickles.

“You don’t have to like pickles to make them,” she explained.

“I don’t like the smell,” I said.

“I see,” she said sweetly but always asked again to see if I had changed my mind.

On my birthday, while my dad went to get a cake, she walked up the hill, toting a pink giftbag and an invitation to help her feed the baby goats.

“Remus misses you,” she laughed.

“He ran away,” I grabbed my jacket. “Pretty sure he doesn’t miss me.”

We took our time down the hill, admiring the greenery and the flowers spring delivered. She schooled me on what was edible and what wasn’t, the animals and insects native to the area, what to do if I ever got lost.

“I only go to school and home, Holly.” I laughed.

“You should always be prepared…how old are you?”

“Fourteen. It’s my birthday,” I stopped, waiting for her to remember.

“That’s right…” she laughed.

At her house we slipped into work boots and went out to the goat pen. It soon became clear that they had already eaten. Remus played with his buddies, oblivious to my presence.

“I know what you can help me do,” Holly said. “I have these jars I need to wash…they’re not pickle jars,” she teased.

“What’s going on?” I asked, detecting something was off.

“Nothing,” she sang, a smirk forming as she tossed me a pair of rubber gloves.

“Is my dad trying to surprise me?” I fished.

“I don’t know,” Holly said, staring out the window at the goats.

“Do you know if my mom is coming?”

“I don’t know,” she repeated, this time her tone sympathetic. “When is the last time you saw your mother?”

“Right before we moved here,” I said. “But I talk to her every couple weeks.”

“Oh good,” her body relaxed.

We washed jars, labeled boxes, and cooked fruit until it was soupy. Glen poked his head in the kitchen from time to time, praising our progress, throwing hints that made no sense.

“Glen,” Holly threw him a glance.

“I think I already know what’s happening,” I laughed, and they both waited for my guess. “A party?”

“Umm ,” Holly and Glen avoided my eyes.

“My dad went to get my mom, and we’re going to have a party,” I said, satisfied with my guess.

Holly looked out the window again at the goats, I thought, but creeping up the road was my dad’s truck, bouncing on the uneven terrain. I ran out to greet him, Holly and Glen chasing after me. And the closer he got, the clearer it became: We weren’t having a party with my mother. My dad sat in the driver’s seat, his body large behind the wheel. Next to him was a small-framed girl with curly hair and braces. She waved wildly, freeing herself from the seatbelt.

“Sophie,” I screamed.

Charlotte, Hannah, and Ester were in the back seat, their hands raised to the ceiling as they cheered. They jumped out of the truck and swept me into a group hug. I glanced over at my father, offering a non-verbal thank you for bringing home to the hillside.

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The Choice

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As soon as I started climbing the stairs to Sabrina’s apartment, I heard her yelling at Vincent, her boyfriend of two years. I slowed my pace, unsure if I should interrupt or come back later. They threw complaints and insults at each other, pain the enemy fueling the dispute, replaying past traumas and dramas. I waited outside the door, ready to knock, to distract them from the wreckage.

“Choose,” he yelled.

“I can’t,” she yelled back. “I won’t.”

A few minutes later, the door swung open, Vincent racing past me, down the stairs, leaving behind the smell of his cologne and the sound of wrought iron vibrating long after he had released his grip on the rail.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hi,” Sabrina exhaled, ran her fingers through her hair.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” she crossed her arms at her chest. “You want to take a short walk?” she grabbed her keys.

“Sure. It’s a nice day, and I could use a walk,” I joked, but she stayed quiet.

We headed west on Market Street, past residential sound walls, into the heart of downtown where we were greeted by honking and rage, blocked intersections and broken meters. Sabrina took her time, strolling along unbothered by the noise, by drivers who were blind to pedestrians.

She stared up at the office buildings, their rounded corners, bay windows, brick siding. The half-lit structures loomed, drowning us in shade, like an ominous prequel to a thriller, but still she continued her stride, her silence. We moved past couriers pushing packages in wire-framed baskets from one building to another. Workers in suits and rimless frames stood poised, waiting for drivers. UPS trucks double parked in the alleyways to unload boxes they transported into building lobbies.

Things quieted the closer we got to the Punch Bowl, the smell of pizza, burgers, fries, and spicy noodles hanging in the air. There weren’t fewer people, but they stood quietly in line, scrolling through notifications. They wandered into boutiques, bookstores, jewelers, galleries, and day spas. Sabrina still moseyed along, pausing to read store signs, muse at artwork, collect brochures she glanced at and folded in half.

At the corner of Market and Fifth, she stopped, looking first at the coffee shop on our left and then at the coffee shop on the right.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Should we go to…” I watched her cover her face with her hands.

Soft cries turned into long, silent stretches labored with the kind of pain that suffocated before it offered release. We stood on the corner, temporarily invisible to passersby who didn’t understand just how complicated the choice was, or why in this moment picking one over the other brought sadness and not joy.

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Green Smoothie

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“…And I came home to a note from neighbor about my guests parking in front of her house,” Valentina said as I came back from the bathroom, examining three mangos before selecting one and putting the other two in the refrigerator. “They don’t own sidewalk,” she complained.

“That’s ridiculous,” I supported.

“Besides, the only guests I get these days are Jerry and Jean,” she cut the mango into slices. “They come in together and park right in front,” she pointed the knife towards the street.

“What about me?” I nudged her with my elbow.

“You don’t count,” she tossed the mango slices into a bowl. “You’re my daughter…I mean friends.”

“What happened to Hillary?” I moved over a little so she could get a bag of kale out of the refrigerator. “Why don’t you take out everything you need, instead of going back and forth…”

“Because I do it this way,” she snapped.

“So what happed to Hillary?” I laughed.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she fiddled with the bag, trying to open it without spilling the kale.

“Here…let me,” I grabbed the bag and cut the top corner with the knife, creating a small opening.

“I can’t get my hand in this,” she grabbed the knife and started widening the opening.

“Pour it, mom,” I reached in, tilting the bag.

“Well, now I have to wash the knife,” she walked to the sink and rinsed the knife.

“I thought you only used this thing to make soups.”

“I make smoothies,” she defended. “Jean gave me this recipe a couple weeks ago, and I thought I would try it since I’m here,” she pulled out two produce bags from a drawer.

“Why didn’t you go to the flea market today?”

“Didn’t feel like it,” she shrugged, untwisting the wiry twist ties.

“Why not?” I pressed.

“What are you with the FBI or something?” she scoffed, measuring seeds and pouring them into their own bowl, finally ready to make her green smoothie.

“I ran into Hillary at the post office today,” I confessed. “She said you weren’t returning her calls.”

“Interesting,” she said, the icemaker rumbling as it dumped ice cubes into a bowl.

“Are you mad at her?”

The motor of her newly dusted Vitamix screeched as its blades cut through ice, mango slices, kale, pumpkin and flax seeds. She yelled over the sound, defending herself, but I could only understand her hand gestures, her disgruntled facial expressions, the meanings of her words drowned by the blender while swirling bits turned to liquid.

“I’m the one that should be mad, right?” she asked, the motor winding down from a screech to a whirr before ceasing.

She poured a little bit of the smoothie into a glass and took a sip, the smell of fresh kale and mango still lingering in the air.

“It’s not that sweet,” she set the glass on the counter, looking at the recipe again.

“Is it supposed to be sweet?”

“That’s what Jean said,” her tone sad, defeated.

“Maybe it’s sweet to her,” I explained. “Or it could be the mango…” I said, but she had stopped listening.

She began cleaning the space, piling the bowls in the sink, pouring the rest of the smoothie into the glass and rinsing the container.

“Why don’t we go get a smoothie?” I suggested. “There’s a place downtown that’s good.”

“Never mind,” she wiped the counter twice.

“Are you sure?” I put my arm around her, squeezing her.

“Enough of that,” she broke out of the hug. “I’ll just make something else.”

“They’re sweet,” I teased. “And green…”

She put the dishes in the dishwasher and with her back to me said, “Let me get my purse.”

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Hiding Places

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By age ten I knew how to perform the day-to-day duties in my parents’ bookstore, helping customers find books, running the cash register, making sure I slipped a free bookmark into the bag when a customer spent at least twenty dollars; restacking books customers decided not to buy, and directing delivery drivers to the back where my parents were, lost in a lively conversation about transcendentalism, citing and reciting writers like Emerson and Thoreau.

It was also my job to look after Albert and Jackson, our sixteen-year-old Himalayan and the young man who spent his days in the aisles of the store, a history buff who dabbled in Myths and Legends, sipped black coffee and nibbled on muffins my mother got from the day old bakery. Albert knew all the nooks and crannies and hid from us until it was time to eat when he filled the store with his meows and rubbed against our legs, white hairs flying through the air. Jackson wore a black leather coat and boots year round, mumbled while he read, and minded his own business. He had no family, no friends, that I ever saw, and at times he didn’t seem to have a home either. But he always found his way into the store, grabbed his stool, and picked up where he left off the day before.

“He never buys anything,” I complained to my dad after Jackson left one day. “This isn’t a library.”

“That’s not for you to worry about,” my dad said calmly, peeling an orange and leaving the peels on the counter.

“Dad…”

“What?” he turned, an orange slice sticking out of his mouth.

“Your garbage.”

“Why don’t you take care of that for me,” he winked.

I threw the peels into the garbage can near the entrance, and as I turned, out of the corner of my, I thought I saw something shiny so I took a closer look. There were two silver bracelets stacked one on top of the other. I reached in, grabbed them, and slid them onto my wrist, remembering the young women who had come in earlier. One led the other into the store all the way to the self-help section where they spent an hour flipping through chapters on healing before they decided on two books, one written by a psychologist, the other written by national radio host. I tried to remember if I had seen either dump the bracelets on their way out but came up with nothing. Squiggly designs on each made them look expensive, or at least not cheap. On the inside names had been engraved, Lucy and Leanne. I decided to put the bracelets in my backpack, thinking my mother would certainly see them and ask questions.

The shop closed at 8pm, giving us just enough time to get home, eat leftovers while playing a quick game of Scrabble, and then we were off to bed. My parents always left the house before me, leaving me behind to get dressed, make my own breakfast, and catch the 19 bus that stopped a block from school. I sported the bracelets that day at school, playing with them while my teacher blabbed on about fractions, parts of speech, osmosis. I ate lunch with Sybil and Priscilla, played a little dodgeball at recess, and goofed off during the library tour with Mrs. Walker.

“You don’t want me to contact your parents, do you?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” I said but kept pushing books off the shelves.

After school, I took the 30 bus and then transferred to the 11 bus, walking a few blocks to the store, past the Salvation Army, a gas station, a four-level apartment complex, a park, and the bakery my mother bought muffins and nine-grain bread. The front of the store, usually bustling with delivery drivers, customers who heard we had a copy of some out of print book they needed for a project, was quiet except for the three police cars parked side by side.

“What’s going on?” I ran inside, my bracelets clanking.

“This is our daughter,” my mother offered. “Go in the back, please.”

I cut through the store, feeling my mother’s eyes on me until I was out of sight. I waited a few seconds and then crouched down, making my way to the next aisle, crawling to the middle where their voices were clear, where the problem burned like a wildfire and they couldn’t figure out how to extinguish it.

“He wouldn’t harm them,” my father said, his tone weepy.

“Several witnesses have…” one of the officers started.

“It can’t be true…none of this…It can’t,” my father cried. “They’re his half-sisters…Lucy and Leanne.”

I slipped the bracelets off and hid them behind a book, my hands shaking, my flesh burning.

“When he was here yesterday,” another officer chimed. “He seemed okay, like everything was normal?”

“Everything was fine,” my mother said. “Also…” she paused.

I heard my father sniffling, trying to compose himself, and then voices on the officers’ radios announced codes that meant something to them and nothing to us, adding more stress to the moment.

“He’s…” my father started, his voice faint. “Jackson is…my son.”

Albert found me, his meows loud as he rubbed his face against mine. I didn’t know what else to do so I scooped him into my arms and ran to the front of the store.

“I think they came into the store yesterday,” I said. “They bought two books.”

My father shook his head, and, as if it were contagious, my mother started shaking hers too.

“No, they didn’t,” she said.

“There were two…” I started.

“They aren’t allowed to come in the store,” my mother explained.

“But I found their bracelets in the garbage can,” I admitted.

My father covered his face with his hand, emotion moving through him. His body shook with pain, and I wanted to save him, protect him the way he had protected Jackson, but I also wanted to scream at him and tell him to stop hiding.

“I threw them away,” I lied, watching his eyes perk.

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Memory Keeper

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“What do we do with the pictures?” Alexandria asked.

“I’ll get some of those picture boxes,” I said. “How many do you think I should get?”

“Depends,” she scratched her head and put her hand on her hip, surveying the walls, the faded Polaroids, the unframed images taken by disposable cameras, all of children who had passed through Aunt Linda’s third grade class. “There are the ones in the back rooms too,” Alexandria remembered.

“Oh yeah…” I counted the top row of pictures and then the ones along the border, hoping a little multiplication would help me figure out how many pictures there were. “I’ll stop by Michael’s on the way home and see what they have.”

We finished covering the furniture with sheets, emptying the cupboards of expired canned goods and mite-infested bags of flour, cornmeal; wrapping dishes in newspaper, and making a list of all the things that needed to be fixed.

“I can’t believe my mother just left,” Alexandria said, emotion in her throat. “I don’t know if I could leave everything behind…walk away and start over somewhere else.”

“You never know,” I stacked two small boxes on top of the big ones we had already packed, taped, and pushed to the side. “Maybe it was something she always wanted to do.”

“Maybe,” Alexandria said, dissatisfied with my answer. “I think it was something she just decided to do without even thinking about how it would effect us.”

“It doesn’t really effect me…not that much,” I clarified. “Plus, now we have someone to visit in Alaska.”

“I’m not going to Alaska,” she clenched her teeth. “Why don’t you start taking the pictures down…we can get the boxes later.”

“Okay,” I stood up and slipped past her, weaving through boxes on my way to the living room.

My Aunt Linda had used some kind of adhesive to glue the pictures on the wall, making it impossible to remove them without destroying them first. Decades of smiling faces collected like yearbook pictures, some children wearing their Sunday best, others standing in grass-stained jeans, in baseball uniforms, in leotards and tutus, with younger siblings, parents and grandparents. There were pictures of birthday celebrations, children reading their favorite books, building sandcastles at the beach, riding new bikes in their cul-de-sacs; fishing with grandpa, camping in the woods, sleeping under character comforters with their teddy bears next to them.

I ran my fingers across the pictures, wondering why she had chosen to keep them in this way. For most, the fine details had been blurred by time, by the cold and hot air blasting through the vents. What remained were bits and pieces of the moments parents had captured and sent to her as a thank you, a forget me not. And Aunt Linda had found a space for every child, lining up the pictures so their faces reminded her of their days together, so they were not forgotten. Her walls had disguised the passing of time, until it crept into her bones, an aching that sent her on a adventure she’d live, even if it meant letting go of the memories that had once kept her safe.

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Light

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Denise pulled up to pump 9, got out to pay and realized her tank was on the opposite side.

“How long have you had this car?” I asked.

“Um…like five years,” she said, pulling around to pump 10.

“And you still don’t know what side your gas tank is on?” I teased.

“Ha, ha,” she got out, slid her card into the machine and entered her pin, looking around while she waited for the prompt on the screen to select a fuel and begin pumping.

I leaned back and listened to the sound of gas gushing through the hose, panhandlers asking for change, a young salesman announcing his merchandise: gold chains, designer sunglasses and wallets, Cd’s.

“Ready?” she asked, getting back in the car.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

“Well, you better get ready,” she doused her hands with sanitizer.

We were on our way to take groceries to our sister, Sandra, who, for the past year, had walled herself in her house, living off microwave dinners and romance novels. I usually let Denise do the drop off while I took mom to her dialysis appointments every week.

“You need to come with me,” Denise pleaded. “I think we should do an intervention.”

“Are you serious?”

“She seems really unhappy,” Denise explained.

“Sometimes people are unhappy,” I dismissed.

“No, like really unhappy, like she doesn’t want to be here anymore.”

As we drove south on I5, Denise went on and on about the new hire at work, pausing when she had to make a lane change, when someone cut her off, when she tired of the topic. The quiet neighborhood she lived was tucked behind a wooded bike trail, a few miles from the main road.

“Is she even home?” I asked as we got out of the car, each grabbing two grocery bags stuffed with fresh fruit and veggies. “You think she’s eating this stuff?”

“I’m just trying to be helpful,” she sighed and rang the bell.

All of the windows were dark, but we heard footsteps and then locks unlocking. Sandra poked her head through door, squinting at the sunlight.

“What do you want?” she muttered.

“I brought you some groceries,” Denise said.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Sandra tried to close the door, but Denise wedged her shoulder between the door and the frame.

“I wanted to see how you were doing.” Denise said. “I brought Hazel.”

“Hi,” I said, like a stranger who had tagged along to get out of the house.

“Can we come in?”

“No.”

“Not even for a few minutes?” Denise persisted.

Sandra looked inside her house and then back at us before opening the door for us to enter.

“Don’t touch anything,” Sandra warned.

Boxes of books cluttered the living room, small stacks collecting on the end tables, the sofa and loveseat, on the dining table, the chairs, and countertops.

“Wow,” I said, “Are you starting your own library?” I asked and Denise jabbed me with her elbow.

We followed Sandra into the kitchen where she unpacked the grocery backs, frowning at each item as she stuffed them onto the empty shelves of her refrigerator, cabinets, pantry.

“There,” she wiped her hands on the front of her pants.

“So what have you been up to?” Denise pried.

“Time to go,” Sandra pointed towards the door.

I backed up right into the table, her laptop resting on a pile of newspapers wobbling, the light on the screen flickering against the darkness in the room. Denise pressed Sandra on her daily activities while I snooped, clicking through the open tabs on her laptop, the pill bottles hidden behind craft books, receipts for slacks, blazers, button-down blouses, the appointments scribbled into a planner.

“Get out,” Sandra was yelling now.

“Come on, Denise,” I grabbed her arm, guiding her to the door.

“I’m concerned,” she kept saying, Sandra on our heels, ushering us towards the door.

When the door slammed in our faces, we paused for a moment, processing what happened, adjusting to the sunlight, its familiar warmth.

“She’s fine,” I comforted Denise.

“No…” she shook her head. “We have to do something.”

“She’s already doing something,” I put my arm around Denise and walked towards the car. “I think she got a job.”

“What?”

“Yeah…on her laptop there was an email from her manager, and she bought clothes…”

“Really?”

“Yep,” I said, waiting for Denise to unlock my door. “She’s finding her way.”

“Well, that’s good,” Denise relaxed, turned on the radio, and bopped to the beat.

She was excited, unburdened, and now I would carry the truth on my shoulders, weighed down by the fact that our sister was sick and was not searching jobs but for doctors who could help her find the light wanting to shine through.

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Hidden Treasure

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“Ill be right back,” I said, ditching the paved path for a grassy ground littered with leaves, fallen branches and tree roots.

“You want me to come with you?” River asked, already moving towards me.

“No…uh, I’ll just be a second,” I assured.

“We’ll wait for you,” Selah blurted.

The sound of my boots crushing lush vegetation followed me into the dense forest, quieting in spots where crisp leaves had been dampened by moisture, where rodents and insects had staked their claim, digging elaborate tunnels in the floor. I mapped my steps as I went along, clusters of white flowers, like clues to a hidden treasure, leading me to its precious gems–small, shiny stones cut from the earth, each offering a glimpse into the meaning of life. With limited time and the fog thickening, I postponed the quest, walking until I could no longer see the path, River, or Selah. And I found the perfect Redwood to lean against, one with a massive circumference, hundreds of years living, outsmarting disease, reaching for the sun and the moon, dazzled by twinkling stars, constellations giving shape to the sky.

I lay my hands on its trunk, finding comfort in the smoothness, the unpredictable breaks in its bark, its skin. In exchange for calm, I offered my tears, salty seeds it could plant, nurture, and protect like minerals from the earth, their meanings coded with life’s little dark secrets.

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Drive

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As punishment for taking my dad’s car on a joyride and getting into a fender bender that he had to pay for out of pocket, I spent two months with my paternal grandparents on their farm, shoveling manure, feeding goats, milking cows, and driving the tractor, plowing acres of land in triple digit temperatures, my grandfather offering zero sympathy when I complained.

“You wanted to drive so bad…there you go,” he laughed. “Drive.”

Our day began at sunrise, a plate of eggs, bacon, and grits on the table next to a thermos filled with black coffee.

“Eat up,” my grandmother said. “You’ll need the energy.”

The first day I didn’t listen, preferring to fast but almost passed out from exhaustion, my grandfather standing over me with his I told you so grin.

“City folk,” he coughed and lit a cigarette. “Go get some water.”

It took a week for me to get used to the sodium rich food, the heaviness of the meal, the way it made me nauseous.

“That’s good eatin;” my grandmother defended, unamused by my pickiness. “When I was your age, I ate what my mother put in front of me.”

I followed my grandfather out to the barn, his voice stern as he went through the day’s duties, interjecting an I don’t know how you do things back home, but here you’ll do as I say from time to time to assert his authority, and then, when we were feeding the goats, the babies bumping into us, he softened, played with them, picked them up and talked to them as if they knew what he was saying. His cows had names and gave their milk freely while he sang to them. He executed each task like a seasoned farmer but hesitated when it came time to slaughter a pig, taking a step back, turning his face away from mine, the pig’s. And for the rest of the day, he was quiet, staring out at the road, perhaps waiting for someone to relieve him of the sorrow.

I drove the tractor up and down the field, disturbing the dirt, preparing it for the seeds that would be planted. He sat next to me and took off his hat, sweat sliding down his temples, words on the tip of his tongue held back. Gray stubble decorated his jaw in patches, the hardness of his face contrasted with the tenderness in his eyes. His lean arms were covered in scars, and he wore them like badges for everyone to see, proud of the injuries that would always be fresh in his mind.

“Sorry about the pig, grandpa,” I said, and he patted my hand, his skin rough and battered with deep grooves he’d earned after countless seasons working the farm.

“Drive,” he managed, letting out a long sigh, lighting a cigarette to keep his hands from shaking, and keeping his eyes on the road in case relief arrived.

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Intersecting Lives

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Only four checkouts were open, each with a long line wrapping around snack and soda displays. Some people stared into their phones while they waited; others sifted through the items in their baskets, double checking their lists. Children grew restless, whining for candy, toddlers screaming to be lifted out of the cart to wander freely.

“I can help who’s next,” the woman opening the checkout a few feet away said, motioning for me to come on over, be first in her line.

“Hi,” I said, setting dairy items on the conveyor belt. “How’s your day?”

“It’s good,” she smiled, scanning the items and then putting them in paper bags. “Don’t I know you?”

“Uh,” I stacked yogurts on the belt, looking more closely at her face.

“I think we grew up on the same street,” she laughed. “Actually, I lived on the street across from yours, at the intersection.”

“Eunice?” I asked, but I knew it was her now. “Oh wow…how long has it been?” I lay two packs of spinach and a pound of green grapes on the belt.

“I see you all the time,” she confessed. “Usually, I’m working in the back when you come in, and I see you pass,” she waited for the spinach to get closer before grabbing it and scanning the bar codes.

“Really?” I laughed, thinking about my weekly visits, what I bought, what I looked like, who I had been as I pushed my cart around the store, stuffing it with things I needed, things I didn’t.

“What are you up to these days?” she asked.

“Right now I work at the library downtown,” I said, suddenly embarrassed, not because of my job, but because I realized that Eunice may have seen me muttering to myself while I picked out cheese, griping about the prices of roasted almonds; blocking customers while I stood in the middle of the aisles lost in mental math, making sure I had enough to cover everything; roaming aimlessly while I looked at everything, motivated by nothing, my basket empty, my pace slow, my mind frantic, reaching over and over for a linear thought; wiping my eyes with my sleeves while I read sympathy cards to make myself feel better; clinging to a family size bag of chips while I took pictures of recipes and diet plans and then put the magazine back on the shelf; moseying through the bakery while listing the pros and cons of red velvet cake, butter toffee cookies, a box of Boston Cream donuts; chatting with with the guy behind the meat counter who never remembered my name.

“That’s cool,” Eunice said, still smiling, but I couldn’t tell if it was because she was happy to see me or for some nefarious reason.

“It’s okay,” I smiled back, thinking about how I used to run down the street to her house, squeeze past their overgrown bushes and knock on the door, their cats too lazy to protest my presence, though the gray one did hiss once when I got too close. Her mother would answer the door in her housecoat, greet me in a thick accent and yell for Eunice, who, six months younger than me, always obliged me, grabbing her bike to ride to the levee, distracting the cashier at the corner store while I stole Juicy Fruit gum. “What about you…I mean,” I paused.

“I’ve been at this store for three years, and I was at the store in Rosemont for five years,” she said, waiting for me to slip my card into the terminal. “I’m going for manager,” she leaned in to tell me.

“That’s awesome,” I said, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. “You should’ve said hi sooner,” I suggested.

“I don’t know,” her smile faded as she waited for the receipt to print, avoiding my eyes. “I just thought…” she handed me the receipt and greeted the customer behind me.

“What?” I pushed.

“That there was no need to.”

I rushed out the store, the cart’s wheels wobbling across the parking lot. Her words rang in my ears, and to calm myself I thought about how many times I had crossed paths with people I once knew, their presence a reminder of the past but no longer loaded with the same urgency to connect, to reminisce, to acknowledge the truth we once shared, the lifeline of youth we no longer needed.

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A Magical Place

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I visited my mother on Saturday mornings, after she had eaten her breakfast, taken her meds, and watered her plants, mostly Devil’s Ivy, their long vines climbing across heavy picture frames, wrapping around decorative furniture, spilling from the mantel like drapes for the fireplace. Her live-in caretaker, Eleanor, always let me in, dinner already simmering in the crockpot as she tidied up the place.

“She’s in the living room,” Eleanor said, greeting me with a smile and a pat on the arm.

“How is she?” I asked, setting my purse on the table in the foyer.

“Well,” she took a deep breath. “She’s waiting for you…”

“Who’s at the door, Ellie?” my mother yelled.

“It’s Grace…”

“It’s me, Ma…” I walked into the living room.

She sat in her recliner, a pillow under her head, The Lone Ranger playing on the tv, the book she had been reading for a month in her hands.

“Hey,” I stood next to her.

“You’re not Grace,” she scolded. “No…no…” she shook her head.

Eleanor rushed in as part of our routine, feeding her clues until my mother was able to join her memory of me with the person who now stood next to her.

“Wow, I didn’t know that was you…”she touched my hands, my face. “It is you,” she laughed at herself.

“Are you ready for our walk?” I asked.

She scooted to the edge of her chair, and on the third try she was up on her feet, arms extended as Eleanor came in with a grey sweater.

“I’m ready,” my mother said, grabbing her cane and heading for the door.

“I thought we’d walk through the park today,” I said. “What do you think?”

“Well, okay.”

I looped my arm around hers and guided her to our usual spot: the place where the trees whispered and the air was crisp; where green leaves dangling on branches shielded us from the sky like a curtain, the grassy ground a floor we’d sink our feet into; where we’d sit on a bench and watch squirrels zigzag across furrowed bark, their claws sinking into the ridges as they raced to the top, balancing on boughs to nibble on food they found along the way.

My mother smiled and chuckled at the sight, reaching for stories about her own mother while we watched. Her stories were sweet with hints of melancholy, regret. She was a little girl again sitting next to her mother on a pew while her father preached; walking to the school house with her brothers, avoiding long, hateful stares and narrow-mindedness; riding in the back of her father’s old Chevy with the windows rolled down, the sound of tires hitting the blacktop as they headed into town.

“I sure do miss those days,” she laughed.

“Tell me more,” I said.

“No, I have to get going,” she said, suddenly panicked.

“You have something to do, Ma?” I asked, knowing this was her Saturday, sitting with me at the park, reminiscing until her mind unraveled and all things familiar were forgotten, sealed in an envelope she’d need help opening later.

“Well, my daughter’s coming to see me,” she stood up to leave, setting the pace, moving as fast as her arthritic joints allowed, her arm loosely looped around mine.

Life for her oscillated between waiting and hurrying, and I existed for her somewhere in the middle, a magical place where I was the stranger she waited for every Saturday, and the stranger who walked her home so she could visit with her daughter, an invisible observer of her joy and pain, and a companion she trusted though she didn’t know why.

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Hesitation

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“You’ve changed,” Nina complained, leaning on the counter as she stared at me.

“Not really,” I said, filling the teapot. “I’m just going through something…I guess.”

“What?” Nina grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl.

I started to speak and then hesitated, unsure how to articulate my dilemma.

“Well?” she pressed, biting into the banana.

I watched her chew, moving the mashed chunk from one side of her mouth to the other. She motioned for me to speak and took another bite. But the words still didn’t come, at least the ones I wanted, the ones that painted a da Vinci, not a Picasso. My story was abstract, a collage comprised of shapes and symbols, asymmetry and animosity, ghastly gashes and gorgeous landscapes. It was a tempest at times with stretches of tranquility, tally marks to chart successes, boxes to check how well I fit, masks to impress the chronically unimpressed.

“Hello?” Nina sang.

“Um…”

In part, she was right. I had changed; something in me had shifted, and life’s waves seemed stronger now, treacherous and fast moving, engulfing and endless. I paddled until my arms stiffened with pain, and let the frothy water pull me towards its cliff. Not knowing whether to fight the current or free fall into the uneven cascade, I hesitated. I knew I could be enveloped by its ominous course, or experience a life-changing adventure, one that would reveal layers of my story I didn’t know were there. So, I closed my eyes, calmed by the sound of the water, the tug towards the cliff’s edge, and then the weightlessness as I fell.

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Erased

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She showed up at my grandmother’s burial, standing in the distance, watching, weeping, wavering on whether to come closer. A low whisper turned into an audible grumble, an urgent call for her removal.

“You’re not welcome here,” they shouted, pointing their fingers at the woman, some rushing towards her.

“Who is that?” I asked my Aunt Betty.

“No one,” she shook her head.

Before my uncles, Geoffrey, Dakota, Leonard, and Shane, could reach her, she moseyed away, hands clasped behind her, head bowed. The grumbling continued for minute, and then we turned our attention back to the service. And afterwards, when we were all at my grandmother’s house, I listened to side conversations, waited for someone to mention the woman, for details to come out about who she was, where she fit, and why she was no longer welcome. I nibbled on cheese and crackers and drank bitter lemonade, moving from the dinning room to the den, from the front porch to the backyard. We shared our favorite stories, studied photo albums to remind ourselves of days past, smiling laughing, crying. Warmed by memory, we dismissed sadness, celebrated a woman who had lived a full life, who left behind evidence of her greatness: awards, artwork, books she had written and books written about her, clothes that would make some lucky woman feel glamorous, special, enough jewelry to open a small shop, furniture fit for a catalogue, enough money to live three lifetimes comfortable, and a will to outline where and to whom it would all belong.

Some bragged about what they had been promised; others wondered what they’d be gifted. They softened their desires with details of their own graciousness, gratefulness, and goodness, rocking back and forth on their heels with their hands stuffed in trouser pockets.

“They sure are going to be surprised,” Aunt Betty said, spitting chip and salsa bits onto the table. “Think of all the dinners we had here,” she changed the subject.

“What’s the surprise?” I smirked.

She dipped another chip into the bowl of salsa and looked around the table. Everyone else was engrossed in other conversations, trying their hardest to balance ego and sorrow, or at least give the impression that they were. Any outsider might have wondered what made them all so deserving, so certain that my grandmother had chosen to leave her possessions in the hands of relatives who could find time to attend her funeral but not visit when she became ill, when there wasn’t food or a reward for their presence, when they disagreed with her and vowed to never to show their faces again.

“All of this…” Aunt Betty said. “Everything…it’s all going to her.”

“Who?”

“Tabitha Larsen,” she pronounced each syllable as if it pained her tongue.

“The woman at the…”

“Shhh…” Aunt Betty picked up another chip, broke it in half, and dipped it into the salsa.

“Who is she?” I whispered.

“A friend,” she crunched. “The kind that took all her calls, went to every appointment and held her hand, discussed art with her, attended events where she was the less accomplished one but wasn’t made to feel like she belonged less, and slept next to her every night when we told her to embrace loneliness instead.”

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The People Who Came When We Called

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I slept most of the trip, wedged between my cousins, George and Eddie, in the back seat of my uncle’s caravan, the middle seat occupied by my older sister, Lily, and my younger sister, Jane, both dozing in an out of sleep as well. Aunt Terra sat in the front passenger seat working on a crossword puzzle, picking Uncle Tim’s brain when she was stumped. We had only been on the road for an hour or so, and even though we were exhausted, we were glad to be stuck inside the van, protected by seatbelts and people who came when we called.

Our bags were in the back, stacked high, packed haphazardly, as if we were on the run, being chased by hitmen, and in some ways it felt like we were. But the hitmen were our parents, drug-chasing zombies, whose cravings kept them away for days, and opened the door to people we didn’t know. They stole anything of value, including Lily’s clarinet, grandma’s china, and Jane’s electric scooter. They left behind the residue of addiction, deconstructed love until its seams broke open and its insides hardened like arteries.

We hid, stayed silent, tried to summons peace back into our lives, but poison is sneaky, learning our names and holding us close while pulling us into the fire. The flames raged, and teachers sent notes home, made reports that put the authorities on our trail. Judges made orders for separation, treatment. Family members were called but declined when asked if we could stay with them, citing uncertainty, lack of space, and fear of backlash as their reasons. And then we remembered our uncle and aunt who had moved away, breaking the curse by chasing life, not death. They turned their home office into a bedroom, painted the walls white and drove through three states to reach us, to try to put out a fire they knew could burn for a lifetime.

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Not a Mother

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In the evenings my mother and several women from the building took a five mile walk, round trip, to the community center, checked the bulletin boards, and then headed back before it got too dark. I rode my Barbie pink bicycle just ahead of them, lost in my own imagination, whispering under my breath to invisible playmates, while my mother and the women walked behind, their pace brisk, their arms bent at their sides. Dhalia, a retired teacher, opened with conversations about recipes and bakeware. She complained about her children who lived across the country, her sugar levels, and the extra padding on her hips, slapping them to illustrate. Millie was my mother’s age but had adult children, and grandchildren who lived with her in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, so she used this time to complain about the chaos in her home. Eileen drove the school bus packed with noisy high schoolers and was always ready to pull her hair out, though I could never tell since she stopped in front of the building in the mornings to update us on the status of my bus, her temperament friendly, happy.

“Your bus is right down the street,” Millie looked at her watch. “She should be here in a few minutes.”

“Have a good day,” my mother said, and a group of boys in the back of the bus put their faces against the glass, groaning like they were in pain.

Jeannette worked as a CNA and had twin daughters, Audrey and Ava, who were in 8th grade and lived with their father in Eastview, spending less time with her now because they had soccer, tutoring, and they just didn’t want to. Helen knew how Jeannette felt because her daughter, Penelope, was no longer taking her calls after a fight about a boyfriend who wasn’t even in the picture anymore. Celeste kept quiet, chiming in when she had something positive to say, or tried to make a comparison to her cats, Murphy and Zander.

“It’s not quite the same,” they argued, and the smile on her face disappeared.

They proceeded to explain why mothering cats was different from mothering real children, diving deep inside the complexities of being someone’s mother: being everything and nothing, giving all and receiving little, turning sacrifices into moments of joy, remembering love is stronger than disappointment, shining a light so their children could find their way through the darkness. And when they had hashed out motherhood, satisfied with their explanation, they waited for Celeste to see the errors in her thinking.

“Maybe mothering is not just about what you lose,” she shrugged, and the other women erupted, reminding her that she wasn’t a mother and didn’t understand what it meant to be responsible for another person, what it was like to desire balance while walking on uneven beams, swallowing fear so the children felt safe.

Bent on making their point, they each offered worse case scenarios, ones they had lived and ones they imagined, and then the conversation began to break down when hidden contention was revealed and they couldn’t find their way back to peace. And they didn’t notice that Celeste had removed herself from the feud. She caught up with me, challenging me to a race.

“You beat me,” she panted as we reached the end of the street, looking back at my mother and the other women who were still arguing, neither willing to accept defeat. “Do you want to see some pictures of Murphy and Zander?” she asked, pulling out her phone and clicking on the gallery.

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Broken Pots

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“What are you doing?” Stella asked.

“Nothing,” I plopped on my couch, clicking through tv channels. “

“Uh…meet me at 1818 Auberry Court.”

“What…why?”

“I need your help,” she said, her background suddenly noisy.

“What is that?”

“How long is it going to take you to get here?”

“Let me look up the address and change clothes.”

“Wear something you don’t mind getting dirty.”

“Are you putting me to work?” I guessed.

“Well…Charmaine called in sick.”

“Seriously?” I huffed. “Fine.”

I changed into an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt, catching a glance at my hair in the mirror before I locked up and walked out to the parking lot, my two-toned sedan waiting for me. Twenty minutes later I pulled in front of a small apartment building, square patches of green lawn lining the walkway, potted flowers decorating windows. The door was open, so I stepped inside the entryway, inhaling the smell of cleanser.

“Stella…” I called, listening to footsteps move across the ceiling.

“I’m upstairs,” she opened the door and yelled. “Apartment four.”

I climbed the carpeted steps to the second floor and followed the arrows. Stella stood in the doorway, her hands gloved, the knees of pants stained.

“Hey,” I said.

“I owe you,” she sighed.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked, catching a glimpse of three women sitting at a card table. “Oh, hello,” I greeted.

“Introduce us to your friend,” they said, and I followed Stella into into the dining area.

“This is my friend, Victoria,” Stella said.

“Hi,” I waved.

“I’m Berenice.”

“Cora.”

“Josephine.”

“Nice to meet you,” I nodded.

The women went back to their card game, and Stella and I finished cleaning the kitchen. She scrubbed the stovetop. I emptied the refrigerator, scrubbed food stains that had been there for weeks, and dumped the crumbs clumped in the crispers.

“They all live here?” I asked.

“No…” Stella said and then looked over at the women who were engaged in their own lively conversation. “They live in the building.”

“So, whose apartment is this?”

“It was Myrtle’s.”

“Was?” I froze. “What happened?”

Stella looked over at the women again and then at me, her face sad.

“She had a lot of stuff,” she said. “Her family came to get some of it, but most of the day I’ve been packing up everything they left, and cleaning,” she looked around. “Josephine wants to get the place rented out as soon as possible…so she can open the shutters again,” Stella shrugged.

I looked back at the women, listening to their antics, their teasing every time one of them played a card the other needed. And then I noticed the cards for a fourth player resting on the table next to a framed picture of a smiling woman whose eyes held many mysteries, whose calm demeanor masked a similar zest.

Myrtle would always have a place at the table, but soon someone else would occupy this space, opening the shutters to let light in. Maybe she’d play cards on Saturday afternoons, hang flowers from her window, and grow roots with them, collecting the pieces of their broken pots when it was time.

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A Farewell

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In high school, my friend, Trinity, and I worked as Candy Stripers at the hospital. The vision of the future we had then included becoming nurses, working at the same hospital, living in an apartment overlooking the city, and marrying brothers or cousins so that, technically, we’d be family members. Instead, midway through senior year, her family moved overseas, and I never saw her again.

On her last day, we celebrated with ice cream sandwiches from the vending machine. She collected gift store teddy bears and flowers from the nurses, a card signed by the entire floor, and teary hugs from patients who were impressed with her kindness.

“I’m going to miss you,” they all said, lingering in the sadness, the heartbreak.

“I’ll miss you all too,” Trinity pressed her hands to her chest. “I’ll never forget you.”

We took our usual route home, past the donut shop, where Mr. Hoffman gave us a small box of donut holes, and through Meadow Park, chatting as we walked along the stream, challenging each other on the swings.

“Bet I can go higher,” we said, running to the open swings.

With our legs extended and our hands gripping the rusted chains, we soared, and then tucked our legs in and leaned forward, air tickling our backs, whispering its strength. I looked over at Trinity, watching her squeal in delight as she reached for the sky, as we shared that moment of suspension, returning again and again until the evening chill sent us home arm in arm with the knowing that this would be our last swing, a farewell I’d always remember.

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The Masked Man

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Ayanna invited me to her sister, Adrianna’s” party as her plus one. It was supposed to be a small affair in their newly landscaped backyard with rented tables and chairs, food catered by Lucille’s, and a DJ to keep the mood light, provide a soundtrack that captured the excitement.

“Wear something nice,” Ayanna said.

“How nice?” I looked up from my phone. “What kind of party is this, again?”

“You don’t need a ball gown or anything,” she laughed. “Wear your new romper.”

“Oh…okay,” I agreed. “Is it a birthday party or something?”

“They just like to throw parties.”

We arrived fashionably late, entering with a small gift stuffed in a silver bag with bright pink tissue poking out the top, crumpled just right. Ayanna’s sister greeted us and took the gift, handing it off to her friend who placed it on a long table and wrote our names in a spiral notebook she kept in her pocket. Guests mingled, sipped spiked punch, and nibbled on finger foods, while trendy songs played in the background. Tables were set with with white flowers in the center, name cards stuck to chairs. And while everyone complimented Adrianna on the embellishments, shared long stories about little ones at home, fished for approval on their choice clothes, shoes, careers, they posed for pictures.

“Are you going to post them, Adrianna?” they asked, hopping to be tagged later.

Adrianna led us in trivia-styled games, rewarding winners with gift cards, wine, and shiny tumblers to keep their coffee hot. Their smiles were big, their laughter layered with alcohol, and whether they won or lost, they cheered, raised their glasses, and danced offbeat, mouthing the words to a song they barely knew but swore was their favorite.

Before we could eat, Adrianna wanted to say a little something to her guests, so we found our seats and listened, first to her anxious mumblings–half sentences, uh’s and um’s, teary gratitude for such an amazing group of friends–and then to a speech she had written on index cards that began with, “Many of you don’t know this, but…”

She spoke of her college days, a time when she was looking for her soul tribe in all the wrong places and found herself on a camping trip with people who didn’t have her best interest in mind. As she exhaled, Adrianna’s friend, Stacey, snapped a picture. Around a campfire, they roasted marshmallows and told ghost stories, she told, shuddering at the thought. In the pause, I suppressed a giggle, staring at the backs of my hands and then squeezing them together in my lap when she continued. There were sounds in the distance that made her clamor, a hard tap on the shoulder that made her heart stop.

“That day changed my life,” she cried, Stacey capturing the moment.

“Oh my god,” Ayanna groaned.

“When I turned around, the only thing I saw was a masked figure…” she paused again, catching her breath. “And this masked figure grabbed me and pulled me into the woods,” she wept, and her guests let out sad sighs.

Stacey snapped another picture, this time crouching in front of her.

“I fought hard,” she collected herself, hands on her chest to express sincerity.

Ayanna cleared her throat, signaling the arrival of a man dressed in cargo shorts and a Warriors jersey.

“How yawl doin’,” he shouted, helping himself to a few green olives and cheese slices. “I thought this was supposed to be a party,” he looked around.

“That’s our dad,” Ayanna whispered. “The masked man,” she laughed.

“Are you kidding?” I laughed.

“Where’s the food?” he looked at our empty plates.

“Dad…” Adrianna complained.

“Okay, okay,” he found a chair and squeezed between me and Ayanna. “What’s goin’ on?”

“She’s telling the masked man story again,” Ayanna rolled her eyes.

“Don’t forget to tell them you asked me to come pick you up because you didn’t trust those people,” he shouted.

“I didn’t say to put on a mask and drag me into the woods,” Adrianna folded her arms.

“Well…that’s true,” he laughed. “But it taught you to never sneak off with strangers.”

The guests erupted in laughter and then settled into a how could you grumble as they watched her face go from scared to enraged, Stacey aiming her camera at the performance, the smell of chicken and buttery sides wafting, upbeat music playing.

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Rerouted

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We all thought Yareli was going through a life crisis when she quit her job, sublet her apartment, sold her car, canceled her gym membership, put all her belongings in storage, and bought a one way plane ticket to an undisclosed country in Central America.

“Are you sure?” we treaded carefully, feeling like outsiders now, privy to very little about what prompted the decision, who or what was in Central America, or when she’d return.

“Positive,” she held up a pair of white, pillar candles. “You want them?”

“Did something happen?” I reached for the candles, adding them to the growing pile of things she parted with so easily.

“No,” she shook her head, continuing to sift through kitchen cabinets and drawers. “It’s something I have to do,” her breath labored from stacking food goods in the large box between us.

“Is Xavier going?” I asked, holding my breath while I waited, but she never answered.

“The only things left are in the bedroom,” she said, reaching across me for the tape, instead of asking me to pass it to her as she had before.

Xavier’s name hadn’t been part of any conversation we’d had lately, though not much of anything had been said, which worried us.

“Talk to her…please,” Yareli’s mother called to say. “I’m scared for her.”

“She’s not herself,” her father chimed.

Now we were days from her departure, and her plan was still in motion, the pace quickening like the moments before a rollercoaster descended into an abyss. I pleaded for more details, an explanation, assurance. And she dodged all my questions, stood firm in her decision though I quivered at the thought of her being gone.

“Are you still giving me a ride to the airport?” she interrupted, tired of my prodding.

“Of course,” I nodded.

She loaded two suitcases and a smaller carryon into my trunk. We listened to an oldies station, warm air blowing through the vents, lifting the night chill. There were only a few other cars on the road, people leaving work, suffering with late-night munchies, or heading for the airport to drop off friends, loved ones, someone they barely knew but didn’t want to leave hanging.

‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Yareli looked down at her flight information, her smile reflecting onto the window.

“I can’t either,” I said, this time matching her excitement. “What are you looking forward to most?” I asked, trying not to be annoying.

She brightened as she talked about a group of archaeologists she and Xavier had met a year earlier, how they had been invited on an expedition, an opportunity of a lifetime. I leaned back and let her talk for as long as she wanted. Tower lights lit her face as we passed, dispelling the idea that this was some kind of mid-life crisis. She wasn’t stuck or stranded. She had purposely rerouted her journey, eliminated the things she didn’t need, and found peace in releasing herself from expectations that no longer supported who she was.

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The Last Straw

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The coffee at Girdie’s was a great weekend option when I didn’t feel like driving the two and a half miles down Monte Vista Avenue and waiting twenty minutes for a large, iced vanilla chai. It was right around the corner from my apartment, a five minute, brisk walk through the Save Mart parking lot, across the alley, past the laundromat, the pawn shop, a smog station, onto the sidewalk in front of the comic book store, Diane’s Donuts, the dry cleaners, and Girdie’s.

There was a full house, Aimee at the register, Beth and Gerard in the back, the sound of dishes clanking, coffee brewing, paper wrappers ripping, and idle conversation erupting and then stalling. I got in line and waited while Aimee tended to a disgruntled customer, explaining that his coupon couldn’t be applied the way he was trying to use it. He walked away angry, and the lady behind him stepped up, ordering a lavender latte and a blueberry muffin.

“Hey Aimee,” I greeted. “Busy, huh?” I looked around at all the tables, each one occupied with patrons who read newspapers, stared at screens, exchanged gossip with friends, or sat alone eating, enjoying the solitude.

“Yep,” she smiled. “What are you up to?”

“The usual,” I laughed.

“Nothing?” she teased.

“I need coffee and something sweet,” I said. “Then I’ll do some work.”

“Vanilla chai?” she asked, her hand hovering over the register.

“And a lemon bar…”

“That’s it?”

“Um…I’ll take a brownie too, for later.”

“For later?” she laughed.

Gerard appeared, carrying a tray of cookies.

“Eat them both now, girl,” he joked. “Treat yourself.”

“Hey, Gerard,” I sang. “How’s it going?”

“I’m here,” he exhaled. “Where’ve you been?”

“What do you mean?”

“I know you’ve been going to that other shop,” he walked towards me, squinting his eyes. “I saw you…” he started putting the cookies in the display.

“What were you doing there?” I smirked.

“Hey, I’m asking the questions here.”

More customers walked in and Aimee took their orders while Gerard and I went back and forth on who had the better coffee, the better snacks, the better ambiance. In my peripheral I saw Beth come around with a water pitcher, her shoulder bumping Gerard’s as she passed.

“Excuse you,” he laughed.

“Excuse me?” she defended. “Maybe if you were actually doing something.”

He put the tray of cookies on top of the display and turned to face her, a spat ensuing, customers looking on with worried expressions. They each accused the other of slacking, of not taking the job seriously. Aimee tried to diffuse the conflict, but they only grew more enraged, delivering even harsher attacks. It was like listening to an angry performance review that ended in tears, clenched jaws.

Aimee banished both of them to the back and apologized to the customers. I offered a closed-lip smile and took my coffee and pastries to go, leaving Beth to rebel, not against Gerard as she had at first, but against the ceiling she crouched under, the ropes she imagined bound her body, her mind, the expectation of stability when she felt like she was standing on a foundation made of straw.

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A Fleeting Juncture

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I submitted my last copy request and logged out of the computer, grabbing my keys as I slipped out of my office, into the dark hallway, voices echoing at the end. The campus was beginning to buzz with new and returning students, staff and faculty who decided to put off retirement for one more year, librarians and counselors preparing informational packets for students to cram into their backpacks.

Fall semester represented a new start, an opportunity to make the Dean’s list, join a club, apply for an internship. As the freedom of summer disappeared, we’d chase daylight, wear knitted scarves, and drink pumpkin spice lattes. Landscapers with blowers would rid the campus of red and yellow leaves. Students taking night classes would be told to leave with a partner, to avoid areas on campus not well lit, and report suspicious activity, persons. The bookstore would sell thousands of scantrons, blue books, and number 2 pencils. And the quad would fill with rambunctious eighteen-year-olds, while spaces off the path filled with the shy and introverted, and the library became home to the studious, those whose parents dropped them off early.

Volunteers wearing bright-colored shirts steered newcomers in the right direction. Long lines formed outside the admissions office, financial aid, and police services, parents signing forms, making payments, and buying parking decals for cars with easily accessible catalytic converters that might be stolen. There was happy chatter and nervous silence, confusion that was cleared, second-guessing that lingered.

Faculty darted across walkways, camouflaged in casual wear, and hid in their offices where they created syllabi, scheduled speakers, ordered films. We exchanged nods, sympathetic glances, acknowledging the task before us, one requiring endless encouragement and empathy we’d ration over the next sixteen weeks.

This was the calm we’d remember only as a fleeting juncture, an intersection of profound pressure and invisibility before we armed ourselves with slacks and blazers, titles and badges announcing authority and importance, disguising uncertainty and ignorance.

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Hunger

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“Can we get some food at one of these little eateries?” Mariana asked, staring out the window at delicatessens and bistros. “I’m hungry.”

“I know a great deli just a few blocks from here,” I said, laughing as she leaned back, impressed by the smell of food in the air.”

We were returning home after a day of sightseeing, bags of souvenirs in the trunk, our legs tired from walking through malls, along wharfs, inside gated gardens. She was visiting for three days and wanted to see the city, experience life here.

“It’s not that great,” I tried to dissuade her from coming.

“Are you serious?” she sang, her voice sweet. “I still want to see where you live though,” she pressed.

“I live in a one bedroom…it’s tiny.”

“That’s okay,” she said, her voice raspy. “I can sleep on the couch.”

“Don’t laugh at my furniture,” I warned.

“I won’t,” she laughed.

A month later she was on a flight headed my way, bringing an excitement for the city I had long lost, a craving for hot sandwiches, and an eye for trinkets, the kind she couldn’t find in her small town. She awed at the tall buildings, their architecture, their vastness, while I felt small, trapped. The honking of horns was like a jolt to the body, but each time she touched her hand to her chest and smiled. The city was a maze to be explored, and she wanted to take a piece of it with her to remember, to share. While, I dreamt of escaping the exhaust, the traffic, the tolls, the constant buzzing and beeping. Smelly dumpsters didn’t bother her, nor did the smells rising from the wharf. Instead of turning away, she leaned over the rails and peered into the water, admiring the creatures below. Crowds of tourists huddled outside shops and standing in the middle of walkways for pictures made her happy. She waited patiently as they posed for one more picture, even offering to take the picture for them, if needed.

“There it is,” I pointed to the deli up ahead. ” I just have to find a place to park.”

I drove up and down side streets looking for a space. She admired the houses, how close together they were. There was no such thing as taking too long; time was her friend, not the penalizing, overcharging bully we pleaded with when thin, white envelopes appeared on our windshields. She had three days and intended on making the best of them, embracing a lifestyle she had admired from afar, soaking in the city’s essence the way the small intestine absorbed nutrients, always hungry for more.

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The Moon’s Wonder

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“You want to sleep over tonight?” Holly asked, reaching into her locker for her math book.

“Not tonight,” I said. “My mom is having some people over. Maybe next weekend.”

“Why do you have to be there?” she pressed. “Seems like the perfect time to get out of the house,” she stuffed her book in her bag.

“I have to be there…” I started to explain, choosing my words carefully. “It’s a thing she does…but I’ll ask.”

We walked to the edge of campus, waited for the crossing guard to walk to the middle of the crosswalk and raise his stop sign. Clusters of 7th and 8th graders passed through the white, parallel lines bustling with laughter, or weighed down by books they wouldn’t crack open until Sunday, if they had anything to say about it. Holly and I took the long way home, around the community center, past Home Depot, TJ’s Auto Repair, Vision Church, and the Quick Mart where we bought candy and sunflower seeds before heading to her house to wait for her mother who drove me home on Fridays because we only had one car and my dad usually worked late. We ate the seeds and spit the shells in the flower bed, covering them when we were done so that her mother wouldn’t find them, right away at least.

“You should just stay over,” Holly said between cracking and spitting shells. “When my mom gets here you can just call her and let her know…you can borrow some of my clothes.”

“I really can’t,” I grabbed a handful of seeds. “Not this weekend.”

“Because your relatives are coming over?”

“They’re not my relatives,” I corrected. “They’re my mom’s friends…”

“What about after they leave?” she suggested. “Your dad could drop you off when he gets home.”

“He won’t want to,” I admitted.

“Maybe my mom will…and we can stay up and watch movies.”

“I can’t.”

“What about tomorrow then? When I get home from soccer practice…”

I shook my head no, keeping my eyes on the ground as I put a handful of seeds in my mouth and sucked the barbecue flavor.

“Why?” Holly asked, perplexed by how unmoving my mother seemed.

There had always been great mystery around my mother, something I guarded so she wasn’t at the mercy of people who didn’t understand her, so I wasn’t at their mercy, ridiculed by their ignorance, their fear when they learned of the rituals my mother and her friends performed during the full moon, when they learned I participated too.

“Is it a meeting…for church or something?” Holly tried to guess.

I shook my head no, imagining my mother cutting fresh fruit and vegetables, putting them is small bowls.

“Oh…is it Avon?” Holly unwrapped a banana Now and Later. “Does your mom sell Avon?”

“No,” I smiled, thinking about my mother who never wore make up and always smelled like sage and lavender.

“Is it Amway?” she swished the candy around in her mouth.

“What is that?”

“I think they sell stuff.”

I shook my head no, remembering the candles and handmade jewelry my mother sold at the flea market, how I passed out flyers to unsuspecting shoppers in the health food store parking lot.

“I know,” she waved her hands in my face. “They paint and drink wine.”

“No,” I laughed.

“What is it then?” she screamed.

“They set intentions,” I said carefully and waited for her reaction.

She popped another candy into her mouth, the sound of it crashing against her teeth filling the awkwardness.

“Interesting,” she said, her mind far away.

I wondered if I had said too much, if she felt differently about me now. She finished the pack of banana Now and Later candy and then went back to eating sunflower seeds, spitting them into the flowerbed so they collected in one area.

“We set intentions too,” she admitted. “Sometimes…”

I wanted to tell her about the moon, its energy, how to harness it. I wanted to tell her about my dream journal, my crystals. I wanted to ask her to sleep over at my house.

“But I don’t really believe in all of that,” she sighed and stood up when she saw her mother’s car turning onto their street.

She sat in the front seat, and I sat in the back, questioning for a moment the moon’s wonder.

“Looks like there’s going to be a full moon tonight,” Holly’s mom pointed at the outline of the moon. “Let’s go outside later and look at the moon,” she looked over at Holly.

“Why?” Holly complained.

“I don’t know…make a wish.”

“That’s stars, mom.”

“We can make a wish on the moon,” Holly’s mom smiled, laughing at herself.

“Or…” Holly turned back to look at me. “We can set our intentions,” she smirked.

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Through Water (Part 1)

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Early that morning, Fawn and I got a ride to the airport from her father, Jubilee not far behind in an Uber, chatting nonstop with the driver.

“It was nice meeting you, Jubilee,” he said, getting her suitcases from the trunk. “Have a great trip…take lots of pictures.”

“Thanks,” they exchanged one last glance before she found us standing just inside the doors.

“Have you ever met a stranger?” I teased.

Fawn and I were crashing Jubilee’s trip, one she had spent months planning so she could finish her book of water photos. While she worked, we’d play, and she’d catch up with us later. That was the plan, the only way she’d allow us to tag along, to invade her space with our antics. We were long time friends, our lives colliding in an undergraduate Women’s History class when we were nineteen. Jubilee was feverishly taking notes as the professor, a woman with long gray hair and stern eyes, droned on and one about topics not listed in the agenda. Fawn sat one row ahead, her head tilting to the side due to intense interest, I first thought, until she was sliding face first towards the floor, her spiral notebook and pen hitting the dirty tiles to catch her fall. Professor Boyd excused Fawn from class. We watched her collect her things, sleepiness slowing her movements, and then, once the door clicked shut, the professor continued her speech, forgetting all about the offense, dismissing us at 2:50pm exactly. Outside, Fawn sat against the wall, standing when the door opened and students moseyed through, off to their next class or to the cafeteria for a late lunch.

“Hi,” I said, as I passed, almost running into her.

“Hi…” she said, waiting for the trail of students to end so she could go in and talk privately with the professor.

“I wouldn’t go back in there, if I were you,” Jubilee said as she strolled out, adjusting her backpack on her shoulders.

“I need to get the homework…and notes,” Fawn explained, poking her head inside.

“Come with me,” Jubilee said, pulling Fawn back from the door. “You can thank me later.”

I stood behind, watching them walk away, and just before I turned to head back to my dorm, Fawn swung around and waved for me to join them. We found a nice shady spot on the lawn across from Young Hall and chatted about the class, the upcoming exam, our majors that changed every other day, and how campus life was treating us.

“I can’t stand my roommate,” Fawn said. “She talks in her sleep.”

“It can’t be worse than living with the RA,” I complained.

“No way,” Jubilee said, trying to show sympathy, but her laughter seeped out, and she covered her mouth in embarrassment.

We formed a study group, rode our bikes on Saturdays, caught the Yolo bus to other cities, and kept each other encouraged when dropping out and joining the circus seemed more achievable. And slowly we learned each other’s ticks and triggers, triumphs and traumas, settling into a friendship that carried us through our twenties and now early thirties.

“Mark is okay with you being gone for three weeks?” Jubilee asked Fawn while we waited for the flight attendant to give her talk on airplane safety.

“Well…I told him I’d be gone for a week,” Fawn confessed.

“How are you going to explain three weeks?” I laughed.

“I’ll tell him we extended the trip,” she sat back in her seat.

“Relationship goals,” Jubilee smirked. “Did Denver give you a hard time when you asked for time off?” she asked me. “I haven’t heard back from him yet about the changes I want to make to the book.”

“Um…I did tell him I’d check in…we’ll see,” I forced a laugh and they joined until the flight attendant came on, speaking firmly about seatbelts, oxygen masks.

We were told what to do and what not to do before the pilot guided the plane across the runway, and into the sky. Light chatter filled the cabin, but eventually everyone fell quiet, sleeping, reading, or watching a movie they had already seen. Jubilee shared the Airbnb details with us again, noting there was a storm that was supposed to be coming in and she wanted to get pictures of, if she could.

“Let us know what you need us to do,” Fawn said.

“I got it,” Jubilee reminded us. “I won’t be able to hang out…depending.”

On that note, we settled in for the three hour flight, plugging in, zoning out, absorbing turbulence with our hearts, catching our breath when it was over. But nothing was more breathtaking than watching Jubilee in her moments of certainty, watching her live out her goals, while I hoped the storm she wasn’t expecting spared her its wrath.

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One Week

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“You have one week…” Georgia said before I could even put my things down, shake off the rain.

“What?” I felt my shoulders slump as my backpack slid to the floor.

“Yeah…sorry,” she shifted on her feet, kept her eyes on the floor. “I got the job in Bellevue,” she made small clapping motions with her hands.

“Congratulations,” I smiled. “I didn’t know you were looking for another job.”

“I wasn’t,” she perked. “My father knows someone who knows someone,” she explained, dismissing the advantage with a wave. “I don’t know…but yeah I’m leaving in a week.”

“Okay then…” I thought about asking if she wanted a going away party, but before I could articulate the idea, she was gone, the sound of her door closing.

I put my things away and then made dinner, pasta from a box. It was Sunday, so I watched The Walking Dead before going to sleep, making a mental note to call my cousin, Samantha, to see if she had room for me. She and her boyfriend, Fred, whom I did not really care for, lived an hour away, but it was something. I tossed and turned for about an hour before sleep found me and pulled me into a dark dream where everyone I knew disappeared one at a time, leaving me stranded in a damp parking lot staring frantically for a sign of life. Long lesions formed on my arms and then my legs, the ground opening underneath me, sucking me into a cold cellar to be eaten alive.

My alarm went off at 4am, lifting me out of the nightmare. I shook my head and got ready. The walk to the bus stop was long, quiet, usually uneventful, time I used to ease into the day. The end of the block was taped off, police cars and EMTs parked in the middle of the street, their lights flashing, radios beeping. I cut through the park and found my way to the bus top on Norris, in front of the McDonald’s, early risers trickling through the drive-thru for black coffee and a McMuffin. The bus creeping down the street was a welcomed sight, cold air swapped for the smell of diesel and a mugginess that made us dizzy.

I sat back in my seat, watching the sun rise, watching the bus fill to standing room only as the city came alive and offices opened to the suit-wearing, briefcase-toting employees who’d wrestle with numbers all day, decipher data collected on websites, write jingles and catch phrases we wouldn’t be able to forget. Every day the man in a long, dark coat, gave up his seat to the woman whose belly kept getting bigger and bigger. My stop was the one across from the almond factory, perfect because I didn’t have far to walk. And it gave me time to call Samantha.

“I can’t,” she let out a long, labored breath. “He’s using again…”

“Oh…okay,” I smiled as my coworker, Macy, approached.

Employees had to swipe their ID cards twice, once at the entrance, and again every time they entered and left the floor. Too many swipes drew the attention of floor supervisors, and gaps–swiping in but not swiping out or vice versa–earned us an uncomfortable meeting with a manager. We chatted on the way, and I thought about getting her advice on my housing situation, but decided against it when she began talking about her ailing mother.

Monday came and went. Tuesday the landlord stopped by to measure the island in the kitchen, the shower, and to look at the steps leading to the backyard, which was really a mini walk-through. Wednesday I called a woman named Opal who had posted to the community board at the Co-op that she was looking for a roommate–women only, no pets. She dominated the conversation, and after revealing all the details about the apartment, she said she had a few cats.

“How many?” I asked.

“A few,” she repeated, her tone angry.

“I need a number,” I said, not backing down.

“Seven,” she huffed.

Thursday I went bowling with Priscilla and Duncan, who both offered encouragement, sympathetic smiles, and a ride to get boxes.

“You’ll find something.”

Friday it rained. Georgia offered to give me a ride to my bus stop, and I accepted, but it just meant I had to stand there longer, listening to the rain fall, warmed by panic, uncertainty. At this point, I had the option of moving in with Opal and her cats, Dwayne the gamer who admitted that he spent most days yelling at his screen and into his headset at players younger than him, and Sophia Simmons, my arch nemesis, a bully from high school who claimed to have been reformed after what she called a near-death experience, but we later discovered wasn’t life-threatening at all.

“People can’t take constructive criticism anymore,” Sophia complained. “I’m only trying to help.”

I was glad to see the bus, its headlights bouncing as the driver maneuvered through hills and dips in the road. We boarded, and the usual people entered, some wrapped tight in raincoats, others more daring with printed sweaters the rain seeped through, thin jackets that changed color when wet. It was all the same, the woman with the big belly wearing flats, her hair pulled back across from me, raindrops sliding down the man’s coat as he held onto the bar, steadying himself when the bus stopped. At 3rd and Franklin, the driver turned, as usual, headed for the almond factory, only this time he stopped, and passengers groaned.

“What’s going on?”

“I’m going to be late.”

The dark-haired man, snug in his blue uniform spoke to dispatch, a fragmented, staticky exchange that ended with, “We’ll send someone out…” We could wait or walk, so most us walked, leaving a trail of grumbled disappointment.

“Hey…” the woman with the big belly called. “You work at the almond factory too.”

“Yeah…I’m Lettie.”

“Journey,” she smiled. “Mind if I walk with you?”

I shared my umbrella, and she talked about being eight months pregnant, soon to be homeless.

“Me too,” I laughed a little, but regained my composure, not sure she’d appreciate the comparison.

“You want a roommate?” she asked. “Two?”

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Blank Pages

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“I’m on my way,” Cassandra warned.

“Wait…what time is it?” I asked, unraveling myself from the blanket.

“Don’t tell me you’re not awake,” she complained.

“Um…no,” I looked around my room, the pile of clothes on the floor, the overflowing garbage can, the cluttered vanity. “”I’m up…where are you?”

“I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes,” she said, distracted by traffic. “Be ready,” she huffed.

A few seconds passed before I could move, before I could think about what her presence entailed, demanded. I remembered a highly motivated and organized, Cassandra, a few years older than me, who moseyed into my office with her life plan etched in the folds of her brain, confidence in her bloodstream.

“I need to take your Literature 310 course,” she flopped into the seat across from me, opening her book bag and pulling from it a composition notebook, pages and pages filled with to-do lists, items crossed off, highlighted, circled, with exclamation marks. “It’s my last English class,” she slid an add slip in front of me.

“What’s your name?” I smiled.

“Cassandra,” she nodded towards the add slip.

“I see,” I looked down at her name scribbled across the top of the form. “At this point…”

“Your class is full…I know,” she leaned forward in the seat. “I was wondering if you’d consider adding me anyway.”

I leaned back, my chair squeaking. Her eyes were glued to mine, the urgency behind them relentless. In the silence, her hands shook, but she didn’t waver, just waited.

“I invite you to stop by class later, check it out, and if a space opens, I’d be happy to add you,” I smiled.

“Great,” she closed her notebook and slipped it back into her bag. “I’ll see you at 2pm,” she stood to leave. “By the way, I’ve heard really good things about you, and…” she paused for affect. “All of my professors have said great things about me,” she smiled.

And that afternoon, she entered the classroom like she already belonged, impressing me with her knowledge of Tolstoy, Kafka, Foucault, Barthes, authors I’d spend weeks explaining, breaking them down into smaller, more digestible pieces. So I signed her add slip, and she became my student, and later my friend.

I slipped on a pair of jeans and the shirt I wore the day before, brushed my teeth, and closed the door on the disaster behind me, only to walk into another. The curtain in the living room was half hung on its rod, the afternoon light pouring through the arched window. My desk faced the wall now, empty, lonely without its chair, pushed to the side in haste, exasperation. Papers littered the floor, blank and menacing. One by one, I picked them up, stacked them into a neat pile, and held them to my chest.

A few minutes later, Cassandra was at the door, ringing the bell, and then knocking three times. Still holding the stack of papers, I answered. At first she gasped. Then she tilted her head, her face filling with kindness, grace. She took the papers from my arms and followed me inside where we sat until words found us.

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River Days

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On the last day of school, we traded stiff uniforms for cut-off jeans and t-shirts and made the river our home. With Ingrid at the helm, because she was six months older than the rest of us, we rose early, grabbed the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and water jugs we prepared the night before, and headed to the river. Lina and Cheyenne lived on the same street, three doors apart. Hope, Ingrid, and I lived in The Village, a gated community overlooking the river, so we met at Ingrid’s, waiting on the steps of her family’s double-wide trailer playing Roshambo, her grandmother watching from the window, warning us to stay away from her flowers.

“We’re not touching your flowers, grandma,” Ingrid yelled, rolling her eyes, and then, when her grandmother wasn’t looking, she snapped three pink flowers from one of the potted plants and we slid them into our hair.

Lina and Cheyenne arrived with a giggle in their throats, gasping for air as they tried to explain what was so funny. We sat with big smiles, trying to decipher their overlapping, high-pitched speech.

“Come on,” Ingrid interrupted, and we followed her down the river trail, ducking under overgrowth, maneuvering around or climbing across tree stumps, some smooth, others jagged, claimed by insects, small mammals.

First up was checking our frog traps made from plastic cups and popsicle sticks which were always empty, though the dirt residue left behind made us feel confident that one day we’d catch one. We reset them and then headed for the embankment, stripping down to our bathing suits to play a little Marco Polo. Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Woodard and their wives fished downstream, complaining that we were being too loud, threatening to come for us if we kept it up, but they never did; instead, they cheered when we finished swimming.

We slipped back into our clothes and walked to the rocky part of the embankment, Hope’s dog, Scooter, barking and whimpering in his enclosure as we passed. Occasionally, Jacob, Isaiah, and Emilio found us sunbathing on the big rocks. They teased us, stole our flipflops, and pretended to throw our sack lunches into the river, leaving when they grew tired of our whining, the wild punches we threw, some of them landing.

“Babies,” they mumbled when they left.

“Let’s go,” Ingrid said, once the boys were gone, and we had collected our things.

She led us further upstream to a dense area our parents told us to avoid, and we climbed our favorite sycamore tree, the one whose branches hung over the river. There we ate sandwiches and talked with our mouths full, spewing our pre-teen blues, finding power in defiance. When we were done, we stuffed the paper bags in our shorts, held hands, and fell into the water, preferring the river’s treachery over complicated home lives that made youth feel impossible and currents feel friendly.

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Garden Street

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In a small corner of the city, tucked behind the river, behind brush growing wildly across undeveloped land, is a quiet street. Misnamed Garden Way on the GPS, it is lined with trees, ones that were all planted on the same day, pruned in the same way, and sad California Palms sprinkled throughout, framing buildings, stretching towards the sleepy sky. Office buildings in the distance stand like towers, their windows bright though everyone has gone home for the day. And the baseball stadium on the other side of the bridge awaits its players, fans with season tickets, and vendors selling hot dogs, popcorn, t-shirts and hats.

On Garden Street, there’s a stillness, calm excitement as families, friends, and lone wolves venture into the bowling alley for a game or two, for wings and a pitcher of beer while ESPN plays in the background. The sound of pins falling repeats, and fist bumps celebrate strikes and spares. Seduced by flashing lights and music too loud to ignore, but too low to recognize, they play one more game, put a few more coins into machines that promise a stuffed bear, a ring, a jumbo-sized jaw breaker.

Just down the way, hotels, motels, and inns house locals, people passing through, people searching for something. Ticket stubs to museums and dinner on the waterfront flaunt their foreignness. With their backpacks strapped tight, they ride red Uber bikes to the bridge, the stadium, through old town, balancing on cobblestone roads. And when they return, they stroll to CVS to buy Tums and hand sanitizer, lingering to talk, to enjoy the evening breeze before returning to their rooms, or they fill the tanks of their rental cars at Arco, Chevron and prepare for an early morning departure.

There is a little bit of something and a little bit of nothing to keep yesterday at bay and tomorrow from arriving too soon.

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Archives of Acceptability

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It was a panel of six, all dressed in suits, collared shirts under starched blazers with shiny broaches stuck on lapels and handkerchiefs folded neatly inside pockets; shaven faces and contoured cheeks wore serious expressions, spoke in matter of fact tones, stared out with judging eyes watching, considering, deciding the fate of hopeful candidates who too had taken the time to pretty themselves.

They were called in one at a time, greeted by the six strangers whose voices ranged in octave but offered little comfort. Under florescent bulbs, they sat in a wooden arm-chair, its legs scraping against the floor, a notable screech that made candidates even more nervous. And after a barely audible “Sorry,” they sat up straight with their hands clenched tight, a happy smile plastered on their faces.

The six spouted questions, and the candidates dove in head first, teetered on the edge of understanding, or drowned in fluff. Talkative and boastful candidates told beautiful stories highlighting their skills, their experiences, navigating carefully around weaknesses and failures. Others were stoic, gave one word answers, avoided eye contact, disappearing when it was over. The unprepared fidgeted, stared off into space, cleared their throats hoping this might pave the way for words to flow. Some bragged, feigned surprise that they had been invited, used their hands to express passion, excitement, their voices to cajole, manipulate. And the panel noted these attributes, scored each candidate on a scale of professionalism, knowledgeability, capability, trustworthiness.

But nothing prepared them for the very last interview, though they managed to muster enough mental energy to sit through one more round of questions. She sauntered in, wearing a navy blue, pleated skirt, a white button-down blouse, a grey, wool sweater, with dark loafers. Her hair hung past her shoulders, frizzy, maybe a little oily they thought, unsure of whether she had combed it that day. She crossed her legs at the knee, her sockless foot dangling, sweaty inside the suede shoe, they imagined. Chewed fingernails caught their attention when she explained the duties at her last job, scratching intermittently at the red flaky skin on her arm. However, they were intrigued by her experience in the field, her candor, her quiet enthusiasm, thrown off by her laugh, her mannerisms. Between questions she sunk in the chair, calm, relaxed with an expression of curiosity, or confusion, they wondered. Yet, her list of references were admirable, though her habits were peculiar, bordering on neurotic, or perhaps brilliant. They didn’t know. So when they looked down at their scoring sheets, their pens hovered, their eyes darted from one end of the room to the other, and their minds searched archives of acceptability, hoping they’d find where she fit.

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Stained

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Sunday mornings, while we were preparing for church, father slipped out the back with his coffee mug, fishing rod, and tacklebox, headed for the river, the sun still hidden behind thick clouds. Caroline and I slipped into white tights and polka dot dresses, brushed our hair into ponytails that our mother would redo, and washed our faces before following the smell of biscuits downstairs where mother was waiting with one hand on her hip.

“Hurry up and eat,” she said. “And don’t get anything on your clothes,” she walked upstairs to put on her face.

We sat with our chests to the table, a napkin tucked inside our dresses, eating jelly-filled biscuits and scrambled eggs with our hands. Amused by the look of smeared red jelly on our hands, we held them up, taunted each other with, laughing at the other’s fright. Then we smashed our hands in the eggs, white and yellow bits sticking, again waving our hands close to the other until we got carried away, the way five and six-year-olds do. Caroline lost her balance, her hand sliding down the side of my dress as she fell.

“Look what you did,” I whined.

Caroline dragged me into the bathroom where we washed our hands and tried to rub the red jelly out of the fabric, but the red stain only sunk deeper, mother’s voice getting louder as she called us up for a hair check, to gauge our overall appearance, make sure we were presentable.

“Don’t tell,” Caroline begged.

“I’m telling…I don’t want to get in trouble,” I admitted.

“Please…” Caroline grabbed my arm, pulling me away from the stairs. “Please…”

“I have to,” I yanked my arm back and climbed three stairs, mother counting down from ten, and we both knew that if she made it to one, we’d both get a spanking.

Caroline ran to the back door, opened it, and ran.

“Where are you going?” I chased.

“I’m running away.”

I spent half a second thinking about my own fate and then followed, weaving through trees, hopping over rocks, our feet, covered in just a thin nylon material, hitting the ground hard, dew and grit finding their way between our toes, sweat beads sliding across our skin until our dresses stuck to us.

We slowed down the closer we got to the river, hearing a voice echoing long before we determined it was our father. He stood on the riverbank waiting for the line on his rod to tighten, to wriggle. And though he was alone, as far as we could see, he smiled and blushed. talked and laughed with someone named Candice, repeating her name like it was candy on his tongue. We watched them dance, embrace, and when there was a fish on the line, we watched him dedicate it to her.

“For you, my love,” he cheered.

When we heard mother’s voice, her rage, getting closer, we interrupted father’s little soirée, blurting our grievances to him, seeking shelter from the storm we knew was on its way.

“What are you two doing out here?” he stuffed a yellow hairbow in his pocket. “Where’s your mother?” his tone concerned at first, and then angry.

“She’s coming,” Caroline said. “And she’s mad.”

We both tugged at him, wrapped ourselves around him until mother arrived, the curls in her hair lopsided, her makeup smeared.

“What are you two doing?” she pulled us each by the ear and headed back to the house. “We’re going to be late for church now.”

Caroline squirmed and I did too, hoping mother would loosen her grip, but it only got stronger, her pace quicker. And by the time we reached the back steps, I thought my ear was going to fall off.

“Get upstairs,” she said, her tone firm, her face filled with disappointment.

As we changed clothes, we argued over whose fault it was, replayed the details, apologized. But nothing seemed to calm her, so we thought distracting her might be our best chance at avoiding a punishment we’d remember for weeks.

“Who’s Candice?” I asked.

“What?” mother froze, my hair still in her left hand, the band in her right.

“Candice,” Caroline said. “That’s who dad was talking to…”

“Never mind that,” she put the band around my hair and told us to go downstairs and wait for her.

We heard muffled sobs, and when she came downstairs, she had on fresh makeup, the tear tracks still visible, thoughts of Candice still scribbled across her mind, in the red stains on her eyes.

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