In Concert

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“It’s only two hours away, but…” Greg said.

“We have to go,” I interrupted, grabbing him and jumping up and down with excitement. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, pulling away. “I’ll drive.”

“I have to work that day. There won’t be enough time to get to the bay, not with traffic,” he frowned. “Sorry…”

“But you’re my concert buddy,” I sobbed. “Who am I going to go with?”


“Take Liz,” he suggested. “Or Cline…Paulette…Melanie…”

“Fine,” I plopped in my chair and rested my elbows on the table. “If something changes, let me know.”

“I will, sweetie,” he agreed, rubbing my shoulders.

A few days later, I saw Liz in line at the pharmacy. She was ahead of me, swaying back and forth on her feet.

“Hey, Liz,” I called after she had collected her items.

“Oh, hey,” she said.

“Albuterol,” I announced with an eyeroll. “Can’t go without it.”

“Wow,” she said and tucked her little white pharmacy bag in her purse. “I have to get going.”

“Sure, no problem,” I smiled.

“It was good seeing you,” she walked towards the front of the store and disappeared.

Cline and I worked at the theater together. He was a stage director, and I was a sound technician. We shared a love for plays, food, and books, but concerts weren’t his thing.

“Too many people for me,” he said, shaking his head at the thought of having to push his way through the crowd.

“I understand,” I laughed. “It is a lot.”

Paulette and Melanie were my upstairs neighbors, party girls who never hesitated to send down an invitation to their weekend bashes. Unsurprisingly, they already had plans too.

“You should hang out with us,” they giggled.

I hung out for a while, listened as they cracked themselves up, barely able to make out what they were saying at times. But between outbursts they made lucid remarks about hair extensions and their microeconomics class at the local college, described their progress in opening an online hair extension store.

“Consumer demand,” they yelled and then burst into laughter.

Out of desperation I asked other coworkers, the barista at my favorite coffee shop who always chatted with me on her break, the elderly ladies from my walking group. They all declined.

“Go by yourself,” Greg said when I called. “I know you don’t know many people here yet, but the last thing you want to do is go to a concert you’re looking forward to with people you don’t even like.”

“I like them,” I disagreed.

“Really?”

“Are you suggesting I go by myself.”

He didn’t answer, not right away, letting the question hang in the air, letting me breathe it in until the idea of going by myself felt like oxygen, until the idea of driving two hours alone listening to the songs I wanted to hear, in the order I wanted to play them sounded good; until the idea of following the hand gestures of city workers in bright yellow shirts through crowded streets, into a dark multi-level garage was no longer intimidating; until the idea of walking a block to an architecturally impressive arena and lining up behind fellow fans showing off t-shirts and gear we purchased online brought excitement; the idea of finding my way to the concession stand for a pop and nachos made my mouth water; and the idea of sitting somewhere in the middle, while my favorite band played songs that made me want to dance, cry, and live life to the fullest felt right.

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The Carpool

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Beth arrived promptly at 6:15am in front of my house every day, Megan in the front seat, Nicola in the middle seat of her Dodge Caravan. The side door slid open, and they waved me in, their morning cheerfulness contagious. I climbed in next to Nicola and put my backpack on the floor next to my feet.

“Good morning,” they sang, Megan turning towards me with a Tupperware container filled with muffins.”

“Morning,” I sang with the same enthusiasm.

“It’s your last day, and it’s Muffin Monday,” Beth put the van in drive and checked her mirrors. “I made chocolate chip pumpkin and caramel apple.”

“They look good,” I grabbed a caramel apple muffin and leaned back, peeling the heart-patterned baking cup back before taking a bite.

“You’re going to miss us,” Beth said.

We were on our way to pick up Sally and Angeline who both lived about five miles from Integrity Auto, the place we worked. Ironically, I worked at a car dealership, but I didn’t have car. I helped people find the right financing options, even watched them drive off the lot in shiny red coupes and sedans.

“Let me know when you’re ready to get yourself a new car,” Mike from sales said every time he poked his head into the office.

“I will,” I said.

But for six months, I took Beth’s carpool to work, paying monthly for gas, service, and goodies like muffins and coffee.

“The conversation is free,” Beth laughed, shifting into her customer service voice in case I needed convincing.

“Sounds good,” I agreed.

I had met Beth on my first day at the dealership, but I met Megan, Nicola, Sally, Meredith, and Angeline when I joined the carpool. Megan worked in customer service with Beth. Nicola and Sally worked in sales, online inquiries, and Evangeline worked in service, signing customers in for oil changes, tune-ups, and mystery problems that were described by their noises–clanking, knocking, whistling. Meredith worked in rentals and left the carpool a few weeks in because she said we were too negative for her.

Once we were comfortable with each other, we spent the ride complaining about our lives, our coworkers, customers, traffic. And we arrived at work bitter, depressed, using the evening ride home to vent some more until we started to turn on each other.

“The muffins were a little dry today,” Nicola said one evening. “You can do better,” she laughed.

“And you can find another ride to work,” Beth snapped. “Or…” she looked in the rearview mirror at Nicola, the tires hitting the median. “You can make the muffins…you can do something besides just sit there every day.”

“Watch the road,” Megan said, steering the van away from oncoming traffic.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Beth yelled.

“She’s just trying to help…make sure we don’t die,” Angeline defended Megan.

“So now I’m trying to kill you?” Beth barked back. “My muffins suck and I’m trying to kill you guys…got it…well, you can all find your own way to work,” she pouted.

“You’re taking this personal, Beth,” I tried to calm her down, but she was gone, her eyes welling, tears spilling down her face that she wiped with the ends of her sleeves when they reached her chin.

She called later that night to apologize and discuss the changes she wanted to make to the carpool, so we listened. Each day now had a theme, and there was a no complaining rule.

“I think Meredith was right,” she cleared her throat. “We should be more positive.”

We all agreed to the new terms. Megan made muffins every other Monday. Nicola provided topics for Talk Tuesdays, and Beth brought a large thermos of coffee. On Wednesdays we took turns sharing our favorite music.

“I never would have pegged you for a rock and roll kind of gal,” Megan said when Nicola shared her favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers album.

Thursdays were funny joke day. We could bring our own jokes or find clips from our favorite comedians. And on Fridays we motivated each other to keep working on our goals. Beth was almost done with her bachelor’s degree; Megan was getting back on her feet after her divorce; Nicola was working on getting her license; Angelina’s car had been repossessed, so she was trying to settle with the bank; and I was seeing a counselor to help me get over my fear of driving after being in a car accident that killed one person and injured three, including myself.

People at work knew we carpooled together, but no one knew that it was more than a ride to work: it was time we spent developing friendships we each needed, time we spent relearning how to see the good in life, time we spent exposing our underbellies because it was finally safe to do so. And now I was leaving, getting behind the wheel again, prepared to navigate the route on my own when Beth made a suggestion.

“Why don’t we take turns?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The carpool…we can alternate weeks.”

“That sounds good,” I smiled, and I meant it, knowing they still needed me as much as I needed them.

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Sixteen

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I never looked forward to summers with my father because it meant leaving all my friends behind and spending my days with the cats, Tinkerbell and Pixie, my nights at the drive-in or music in the park watching people dance to cool jazz and funk.

“Do I have to go?” I asked my mother who responded with an are you kidding me expression.

She drove me to the airport and told me to call her when we landed, to tell dad hi, ask him how he was doing, as if they had only ever been casual acquaintances, strangers. I slept through most of the flight, listened to CDs the rest of the way. It was a typical flight with a few bumps along the way, the usual numbing feeling as I waited for my luggage to appear on the carousel, a forty-five minute wait for my father who always claimed to have gotten my arrival and departure times mixed up.

“Ready?” his first word to me when he pulled in front of the terminal, the truck’s loud diesel engine idling as he waited for me to throw my bags in the back.

We stopped off at Dairy Queen on the way home so we didn’t have to talk, so that we could slowly find that father-daughter groove, move past the awkwardness that comes from knowing someone over the phone and then meeting him in person. At home, everything looked the same: the same furniture, the same framed pictures on the wall of me when I was a baby, but none of me since then. My room was the same as I had left it but dustier, with cobwebs in every corner.

“I didn’t want to bother anything,” my father explained as we stared into the dark room. “There’s a movie playing at 8pm,” he said. “But it’s PG-13.”

“Dad, I’m 16,” I reminded him.

“Nooo,” he said, winking as he turned and left to join the cats on the couch.

The movie was actually rated R, for violence and partial nudity, but we went anyway, sitting in the truck chomping on popcorn, Red Vines and Whoppers while the sound played through small speakers. On the way back home, we argued about the characters, the visual effects, the plot, deciding to agree to disagree when the neighbors overheard us.

“Hey,” my father said to the man and his son who worked in the driveway on a black and gold Trans AM.

“Oh, hey Steve,” the man called back, and we walked up the driveway to where they were both bent over the hood, a halogen light shining bright.

They chatted about the car, the son and I avoiding each other until he got up the nerve to introduce himself.

“I’m Nathan,” he said.

“Maddy,” I smiled.

“You live next door?” he asked.

“I live with my dad in the summer,” I explained.

“That’s why I haven’t ever seen you before,” he laughed.

“You guys weren’t here last summer…”

“No, we just moved in a couple months ago,” he wiped his hands on an already greasy rag. “It’s just me and my dad…all year round,” he smiled.

“What grade are you in?”

“I’ll be a senior,” he leaned against the car and folded his arms. “You?”

“Junior.” I blushed.

“So what do you guys do for the summer?”

“Not much.”

“If you want to hang out sometime…”

“Ready?” my father interrupted, putting his hand on my shoulder to guide me down the driveway.

“Dad,” I whined with embarrassment, not even bothering to look back and say goodbye.

Over the next couple days nothing happened, except the usual–movies at the drive-in, shining lasers on the wall and watching the cats chase red dots, listening to music, talking to my friends, even though my father said I was running up his phone bill, and crushing pizza boxes on the porch before stuffing them into the garbage can.

“You guys eat a lot of pizza,” Nathan rolled down his window and yelled.

“We do,” I laughed. “You got your car fixed.”

“Yep,” he tapped the door. “You want to go for a ride?”

“Where?” I shied.

“Just around town,” he said, but I still didn’t budge. “What about the arcade? Do you like arcades?”

“I love arcades,” I said. “I have to be back before my dad gets home.”

“I have to be back before my dad gets home,” he admitted.

We drove down 8th Avenue, our quiet residential street, and then turned left onto Main, passing fast food courts where people sat outside with their burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches, milkshakes. There were auto part stores, banks with drive-thru deposit boxes, drug stores, markets, a Lumberjack, K-Mart, fabric store, and a crowded shopping center with a Shakey’s Pizza, a skating rink, an arcade, and a Baskin Robbins.

“How long has this been here?” I asked as he looked for a parking spot.

“You’ve never been here?”

“No…”

It was the perfect hangout, a place we could spend hours, and we did, each day, making sure we were home in time. He beat more levels in Ms. Pacman, Astroids, Street Fighter 2, and Frogger than me. I beat him in Skit Ball and Table Hockey. When we tired of the games, or it got too crowded in the dark room, we went to get ice cream, ate it under a tree behind the building, watched trucks back up to the dock and unload boxes and crates. We filled up on salad at Shakey’s sneaking olives, baby corn, cucumbers, and grape tomatoes for later.

“You’re so weird,” he laughed, helping me stuff the veggies in a sandwich bag without getting caught.

A few weeks in, things had changed between us. We held hands in the Trans AM, sat right next to each other at Shakey’s, shared spoons when we ate ice cream, sometimes he let me beat him at Ms. Pacman, and he only skated with me when a slow song came on.

“It looks like I have a girlfriend,” he said one day when we were on our way back home. “And in a week she’ll be leaving me,” he pouted and put his arm around me.

“I’ll be back…” I played with the idea in my head. “Maybe I can move in with my dad,” I suggested, but knew it wasn’t plausible.

He kept driving, blasting R.E.M., singing along, embracing the sadness already. We turned onto 8th Avenue, turning the music down as we neared our houses. He slowed when we saw my father’s truck in the driveway.

“What am I going to do?” I panicked.

“Just tell him the truth,” Nathan put his hand on mine and squeezed.

Surprisingly, when I got out of the car, and my father hopped out of his truck, he didn’t say anything. He looked at me, quickly acknowledged Nathan, and then looked back at me.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” I broke our silence.

“You’re 16,” he shrugged, pulling his keys from his pocket and moving towards the front door as he worked through the awkwardness, as he thought about what it meant to be my father, now that I wasn’t a baby anymore.

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Wanderer

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We paused on the platform, but Quinton kept going, through the brush, on to the other side of the marsh. His feet landed rhythmically on the wooden planks, leaving behind a trail of creaks and cracks, a light trembling we felt even when he was out of sight. The water sloshed, it’s dark surface revealing little of what lay beneath, but still we stared, wondering what was staring back.

On either side of the walkway, critters scurried across thick vegetation, camouflaged by dark green leafage, a muddy embankment. They called out to each other with high pitched-screeches, chirps, hisses. And in between swatting mosquitos, spotting muskrats and water snakes, we watched for Quinton, waited to feel his footsteps.

Fifteen minutes passed, and then thirty before we followed the same path, pausing at the tunnel of vines and branches.

“You go first,” we each nudged the other before ducking and then trudging through what felt like a jungle, enduring prickly burrs and sharp stems that made us itch.

“What was that?” we shuddered at the scampering sounds just ahead.

After a moment of fear, the path lead to a wide open marsh. Dark green leaves changed to light green. Red, yellow, and golden brown plants grew in the water; turtles rose to the surface, poking their heads through layers of moss before disappearing again. Quinton stood with his head bowed, his arms folded. With heavy steps and soft chatter, we made our presence known, waiting for him to turn and face us, but he didn’t. He sighed instead, let his shoulders fall.

“Isn’t this great?” he asked.

“It’s okay,” we said, looking around. “It’s kind of dirty…”

“Life’s dirty,” he defended. “We try to sterilize it, make it more palatable, but in the end isn’t it just like this marsh?”

We nodded, not in approval, as a sign we were listening, not understanding.

“We’ll wander from one end to the other…”

“And get eaten?” we laughed.

“Eventually…”

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Flying High

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I stood in line for the swings while Daniel and Terrance went to the bathroom. The girls in front of me ranted about how long it was taking, and the mom and daughters behind me chatted about funnel cake, how they’d wait until after the ride to head over to the food court for the warm treat. Teenagers near the end of the line posed for pictures, videos they played back and laughed at and then begged their friend to delete. Passersby inched along, small children a few paces ahead, skipping with delight. Those traveling bravely in the opposite direction endured shoulder bumps and awkward collisions with taller park-goers whose line of vision excluded them.

A long steady scream hung in the air as the swing reached its height and its speed doubled. Blurry riders flew through the air, dark spots against a blue sky. Adjacent rollercoasters shuttled excited riders across curved rails and through loops until they lost their lunch, their minds. The sea dragon rocked back and forth, riders participating in an uncoordinated wave. Tilt-a-Whirl whisked riders in circles, an updated, high-powered merry-go-round. And Dads threw baseballs at jugs, darts at balloons, basketballs into small hoops to win oversized bears, SpongeBobs and Patricks, Simbas, and Peekachoos.

“Boo,” Terrance shouted, running up behind me.

“You scared me,” I swatted at him. “Where’s Daniel?”

“He’s right there,” he pointed to the haggard man wearing an A’s cap, baggy jeans, and a t-shirt that hung on him like a dress.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” I asked, putting my hand on his arm as he approached.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” he raved. “I’m good,” he reassured.

The line shortened and we were up next. We picked swings near each other and waited for the attendant to come around and check the safety chains before returning to his post. There was a slight tug when the ride started, and soon we were rising, circling the tower. Wind whipped against our faces. We stretched our legs in front of us, leaned back and stared up at the sky. Then the angle of our swings shifted and we were staring out at the park, the city. Buildings in the distance were small now, gabled rooftops more impressive from up high. People scattered across the park chased fun, embraced the controlled chaos. They awed at the engineered magic all designed to impress and distract, create a euphoria that made our hearts sing, our souls soar.

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Here and Now

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I checked into the hotel with enough time to unpack and call home just to hear Ronin’s voice.

“Try to enjoy yourself,” he cheered. “If not the conference, then at least the hotel,” he laughed.

“It’s really nice here,” I looked around the room. “I’ll try.”

The Edison Complex was fifteen minutes away, the parking lot already full when I arrived, so I followed the hand drawn arrows taped on fencing and trees to the overflow parking at the end of the block. I ran into Dillon Terry from Humanities his presentation notes in a folder under his arm.

“You’re coming to the Gender Bias in Media lecture, right?” he asked.

“Oh…that’s at 2pm, right?”

“Room 6,” he reminded and walked ahead, his tie flying in the wind.

I saw Beatrice and Gloria from my department. They were immersed in a conversation about the new federal requirements, so I slowed my pace but didn’t join in, listening to their argument, sure it would be repeated over the next few days. We were all dressed up in our best business casual: crisp blazers, slacks and shirts, starched collars, leather heels and loafers, light cologne, and shiny hair. Ticket collectors scanned our bar codes, gave us folders filled with a program and other and goodies, and had us write our names on tags we stuck on lapels, next to broaches, buttons.

Inside were clusters of attendees sipping water, tea, and coffee, nibbling on bagels and fruit, meat and meatless breakfast sandwiches, compliments of a local café whose catering services had excellent reviews on Yelp. All around me were extended hands reaching for handshakes and professional smiles expressing excitement. People made introductions, swapped business cards, and loners sat at tables reading through the program, circling events they wanted to attend. I got a cup of coffee and found people I knew.

“Who’s going to the 10am Myth and Culture lecture?” Paula asked. “It conflicts with the Food and Crisis lecture, and I really want to go to that one,” her face serious.

“I’ll go,” I said. “And I’ll get an extra copy of the handouts for you.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said but didn’t look up from her program.

We chatted for a few more minutes before the Deans and Department Chairs arrived, their walk to the podium deserving of our applause. They thanked us for coming and guaranteed the program was stellar, something we wouldn’t regret spending three days of our summer break to attend. At the end of their talk we were hyped, educators coming out of a two-month hibernation. And for the rest of the day, we moved from one room to the next, watching slideshows and short videos, listening to speakers, their chipper voices and high vibes enough to keep us from slipping into boredom. After lunch–a choice of sandwiches with bread or without, vegetarian and vegan options, hot and cold sides, sweetened and unsweetened teas, bags of chips and fresh-baked cookies–we found ourselves in yet another room with speakers who joked about food comas, who promised not to hold us too long and then went over by five minutes. There were activities to participate in, partners to put our full trust in temporarily, boxes to write inside, lines to fill with buzz words, language that illustrated understanding, mastery. We pondered questions, took notes, stayed in the moment even when our minds wanted so badly to travel to other places, other dimensions.

Then at 4 o’clock, when it was time to leave, clusters of people gathered, made plans to hang out, go to happy hour, spend even more time together processing, collaborating, merrymaking until the wee hours when they’d make their way back to empty hotel rooms.

“Are you coming?” Neil asked.

“Uh, yeah…” I adjusted the papers in my folder. “Text me the address…I’ll catch up.”

Back at the hotel, I slipped off my shoes and lay on the bed, restless at first until the excitement of the day subsided and my mind got its wish, slowing its pace, softening the energy, keeping me safe just outside of here and now.

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“Candy Girl”

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The new guy at work quit after collecting his first paycheck, leaving a pile of unfinished contracts Grace asked Claude and me to take home over the weekend.

“And what is she going to be doing?” Claude huffed, his chair squeaking as he plopped down in front of his computer and took a bite of a cream-filled donut.

“Her kids have a soccer tournament this weekend,” I mocked. “I have kids too,” I protested.

“Me too,” Claude nodded and took another bite of his donut.

“What?” I leaned back in my chair. “You have kids?” I asked, surprised I had been working with the man five years and didn’t know he had kids.

“Dogs technically,” He wiped his hands on a small white napkin, half the size of his hand. “They’re my babies.”

We fell into a groove, the sound of our typing in unison, interrupted only when we needed to stretch or take a water break. Grace made her usual appearances, always with her hands behind her back, a long face, and an air of superiority. She lingered, looked over our shoulders, lurked long enough to layer the room with her scent, an overpowering, floral fragrance that reminded me of my grandmother.

“Please have the contracts completed by Monday morning,” she said as she was leaving, an hour early, of course, for some undisclosed reason.

Claude scoffed, ignoring her while he worked on his fifth donut.

“It’ll be okay,” I comforted.

My shift ended before Claude’s, giving me just enough time to pick up the kiddos, rush home to make dinner, and then take Matthew to Karate, where Julia, Tiffany, and I would watched a room of green belts punch, kick, and scream yes sir, yes ma’am. Back home, Jadon had cleaned the kitchen and slipped into his workout clothes, ready to take his evening run, Tiffany tagging along Friday nights for a little daddy-daughter time, and because they always stopped off for frozen yogurt on the way back. Matthew showered and parked himself in front of the tv for a few Fortnite battles. Julia filled the tub with her dolls and played until her fingers and toes were wrinkled. I pulled out the pile of contracts, creating a mental timeline: complete half Saturday morning, the other half on Sunday.

When my alarm went off at 5:30am, I hit snooze, Jadon laughing at my masterplan as he dressed for work and left. At 7:30am, Julia climbed onto our bed, snuggled for a few minutes before telling me how hungry she was.

“I need food now,” she exaggerated.

Tiffany was already awake, sitting in the den curled up with a book, and Matthew was still asleep, his head hanging off the bed, the covers balled on the floor. Julia watched from the table as I scrambled eggs and buttered toast, readjusting the timeline in my head. I figured after breakfast, they’d all settle into their own activities and I could get to work. But that didn’t happen.

Julia wanted to play Mario Kart and Matthew was not on board. Tiffany wanted to go to her friend, Shelly’s, house, but I didn’t know Shelly’s parents. And when I had set Julia up on the computer in the office where she could play Sonic, Matthew was offended because he never got to play on the computer. Tiffany changed her mind about Shelly’s and decided she wanted her friend, Lisa, to come over, promising they’d stay in her room, out of my way. Hearing this, Julia wanted a friend to come over too, and eventually so did Matthew.

“It’s not a good day for guests,” I exhaled, looking at the breakfast dishes still in the sink, the grocery list on the refrigerator, the pile of laundry spilling out of the washroom.

“That’s not fair,” they whined. “We can’t do nothing.”

“You’re no fun,” Matthew accused.

“Daddy’s funner,” Julia said.

Tiffany stood with her arms folded, waiting for me to drop the mean mom façade.

“Fine,” I threw up my arms.

I didn’t agree to having guests over, but I did agree to going to the skating rink for a couple hours, deciding I still had time to get to the contracts. We hopped into the van and drove across town to The Rink.

Music played as skaters, young and old, glided around the rink. Long tables were filled with party favors, cakes, gifts, and half-filled cups of fruit punch. At other tables parents sat guarding nachos and soft pretzels, water bottles, sneakers, game winnings. We rented skates and Matthew went out on his own, Tiffany and Julia hand-in-hand, rolling across the shiny floor. I found a bench, and like other parents, sat with smelly, scuffed sneakers, wishing I hadn’t let them talk me into putting on skates I knew I wouldn’t be using.

“Come on, mom,” Julia yelled each time they passed.

I waved and declined, counting down the time, that is until the DJ came on the speaker calling everyone to the floor, We Are Family by Sister Sledge playing low at first, the musical intro catchy so I bopped my head up and down, started singing along when the chorus played.

“You know you want to come out here, mom,” Tiffany said, stopping to extend her hand this time.

“I really do,” I admitted and hopped up, wobbling a bit when my skates touched the floor. Other skaters raced past us, dancing with their hands in the air. “I used to do this all the time with my friends,” I said.

Matthew caught up with us, laughing at me as I corrected and sometimes overcorrected on the skates. He showed off his tricks, and then Julia followed, twirling and riding low to the ground as the music played. It took awhile, maybe two or three songs, before I too found my groove and was whizzing along, weaving past skaters, rolling back the years. And when Candy Girl came on Tiffany, Julia and I locked arms and danced around the rink like we owned the place, like we were the girl they were singing about.

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A Leap of Faith

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I wasn’t even home from my first semester of college a day when Benita, Louella, and Lillian pulled up in front of my house, Benita honking wildly from the driver’s seat of her mother’s pink Cadillac, while Louella and Lillian hung out their windows, screaming my name.

“Who’s that?” my mother peered through the kitchen window.

“Benita and the twins,” I said, opening the front door.

“Tell them to stop all that noise,” she returned to her ironing. “They’re gonna get Wilma started.”

I stepped out, waving my hands, Wilma already standing on her porch with her hands on her hips, rollers in her hair.

“What’s going on over there?” she yelled.

“Nothing,” I assured, and then leaned against Louella’s door.

“Why don’t you ever let your sister ride shot gun?” I teased.

“I’m older,” Louella said, throwing a glance at Lillian.

“Were going up to Canton. Get in,” Benita said.

“What’s in Canton?” I asked, and they all laughed.

Who, not what,” Louella corrected.

“Okay,” I said. “Who’s in Canton?”

“Ronnie,” they sang in unison.

“What is he doing in Canton?” I said with a smirk.

“Working… now get in,” Lillian said.

“Hold on…I have to tell my mother,” I explained. “But she’s not going to let me go to Canton.”

“Tell her we’re going to get floats,” Benita suggested, and Louella and Lillian agreed.

I ran back to the door, cracked it, and yelled to my mother that we were going to get floats.

“Be back by dinner,” she said.

Lillian opened the door and scooted over so that I could hop in next to her. We chatted over country music playing on the radio, the station going in and out the closer we got to Canton. They filled me in on the Ronnie situation, his new job, his ex-girlfriend, Pearl, who may or may not have been back on the scene. I let them do most of the talking, realizing that spending a semester away from the excitement made the drama less interesting. Ronnie was Benita’s love interest and had been all four years of high school.

“Are you going to talk to him, if you see him?” I asked her.

“She’s too chicken,” Louella and Lillian laughed.

“I might,” Benita shied. “He’s probably not going to see us.”

By us I knew she meant her, that he probably wouldn’t see her. She adjusted the station, searching for one without static but finding nothing but talk and opera, so she turned the knob until it clicked and the sound of tires hitting the road filled the car. We exchanged polite glances, tucked ourselves inside the same angst, the same longing, wondering if today was the day Benita would be released from what, to us, felt like torment.

For Benita, love’s lever had landed on Ronnie, and it wouldn’t budge. Memories of their movie dates, strolls along the riverbank behind his house, notes they passed between classes, and cafeteria lunches they picked over while staring into each other’s eyes couldn’t be diminished. So we stayed in the car with her while she waited for him, knowing what it was like to love someone for reasons we couldn’t explain. And like on an emotional merry-go-round, she spun, holding tight to wobbly handles, hoping that if she jumped off, took a leap of faith, she might find what she was looking for.

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While We Wrestled with the World

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Our weekly phone call, a two-hour conversation, almost to the minute, was something we both looked forward to, usually filled with a lot of laughter, life updates, pep talks, and dreams we shared only with each other. It was a time to connect, to be a pillar for each other while we wrestled with the world.

I knew something was up though when he answered, the conversation stalling, every attempt to jumpstart it thwarted, the laughter absent, silence a third party on the line, a friend but also an enemy stealing time, peace.

“Why don’t I come see you?” I suggested.

“I’ll meet you halfway,” he said.

We each bought a train ticket to Oakley, boarded, and prepared for what lay ahead. The train tugged and swayed, roared across the steel rails into wide open space, evergreen and spruce trees a barricade to keep out wanderers, offer serenity for restless travelers. I settled into my seat, inside the train’s steady rumbling, and let my anticipation wane. My dear friend would be waiting on the other end, not because there had been some great catastrophe, or a breakdown we couldn’t find our way through, but because we had old battle scars that could only be soothed by joy, the kind that came from seeing each other, holding each other until the irritation passed.

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Wind to Harness

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I watched from the driveway as my father placed my things onto the lawn. His shirt was blotted with sweat, his breathing heavy, but he never let the lit cigarette fall from the corner of his mouth. He wasn’t angry, and neither was I. This was something that needed to happen, something I welcomed. When he had cleared my room of my belongings, he turned and walked back inside, giving me a goodbye salute before he slammed the screen. I collected my things, stuffing them in the backseat and trunk, peering back at the kitchen window where I knew he was standing, before driving away.

It wasn’t the first time he had kicked me out, all other times the result of my own behavior. His list of house rules was long with little room for negotiation. He spent his evenings, after working a twelve-hour day, checking my work and looking for signs I had disobeyed–watering his lawn, fifteen minutes for each side; washing and hanging clothes on the clothesline; starting dinner and washing the dishes I used; dusting grandma’s china, replacing the items exactly as she had left them; feeding the cats, all seven of them, and the two German Shepherds in the back that hated everyone but him; but most of all he wanted to make sure I had not invited any of my friends over to the house, that no one had been in his rare coin collection, no one had sat in his chair, moved his fishing magazines, or consumed any of his Coors Lites. If he found anything amiss like water spots on silverware or teacups whose handles faced east and not west, he raged with his belt, and I raged back, earning myself an eviction. I usually went to my mother’s house until things calmed down or until she kicked me out too.

I wasn’t a bad kid, not at all. I just didn’t understand my parents; I didn’t know who they were or why life was like a tightrope for them, one false move a fall that took weeks to recover. With my belongings in my car, the one one my grandma gave to me, I drove–all four windows rolled down–not to my mother’s house, not to see a friend, somewhere far enough away that I might be able to see things differently, clearly.

The sun was still shinning in the middle of the sky, clouds sprinkled across an endless blue background. I had nothing but time to think about what my life had been, space to redefine what it could be, and wind to harness, fuel for a journey of transformation, a death and rebirth I knew would only lead me farther away from home, farther away from who I might have been had I stayed.

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A Good Impression

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I started my vacation early so that I had time to get the house ready for houseguests who were in route, taking a two-day drive in a cramped minivan, with plenty of time to go from excited to annoyed by knuckle-cracking, nose-blowing, mouth-breathing relatives. The seven of us were going to spend a week together, piling into my three-bedroom townhome in Hollow Park. We had an itinerary for each day, organized by my aunt Martha, a retired teacher who preferred schedules over a we’ll see what happens approach. She knew what she wanted to see, where she wanted to go, and no one challenged her because it all sounded fun.

My alarm went off at the usual time, and I got up, making a cup of coffee to drink on the veranda. The sun was already chasing the cool morning air away as I sipped the dark roasted blend, its bold flavors exciting my tongue, awakening my brain, returning my focus to the intricate to-do list I had started days earlier: Scrub the floor boards and wipe the dust off the crown molding in case their gaze fell there. Dust behind the furniture and clear cobwebs so that the house didn’t look like it had been abandoned all year. Rearrange kitchen cabinets so all soup can labels faced the door, all dishes were stacked by size because it seemed right. Vacuum lines into the carpet and remove the clutter from countertops to give the impression I was an organized person. Stock the refrigerator and toss expired food instead of taking a gamble. Empty garbage cans, lint traps, and drains and pull weeds from the flower beds, exposing vines that, with a little water, might come back to life.

But there was still me. I needed a makeover too, a haircut, a manicure, eyebrow trimming, some kind of serum to remove all traces of stress from under my eyes. Though it was just family–my Aunt Martha, Uncle Andrew, and cousins Jack, Isaiah, Emmy, and Brooklynn–I wanted to look good, make a good impression. I went into the bathroom, found an old box of hair dye, Forever Rouge, and, deciding it would have to do, followed the instructions, using the time it needed to set to cross off a few things on my to-do list. There was a pep in my step, a confidence as I imagined the outcome, red hair I could style or wear free flowing. The rinse turned my shower a dark brown, not red, the ends of my hair still, seemingly, the same color. And when I looked in the mirror, it was confirmed, only now there was a smudge across my forehead, blotchy like a rash. I tried to wipe it off, wash it off. Then I tried to style my hair to cover it, but the redness was visible, and the only thing I could find to cover it was one of Robert’s old work hats I had stuffed in a drawer, the one with all the belongings he never returned for.

I put the Roadway Trucking hat on and decided it was time to free up some space. There was a pair of sunglasses, ticket stubs to Phantom of the Opera, a bottle of cologne, a watch, two silk ties, and a bottle of GNC Mega Men vitamins, all things I had bought him. Twice I had to talk myself out of keeping anything and into making a fresh start, making a good impression for me.

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The View

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“Now, I know it’s not what you’re used to, but I did my best,” Jolene smiled and shrugged.

“I’m good,” I said. “I don’t need much, just time to heal,” I used the pull-up bar dangling over the bed while Jolene grabbed my heavy, casted legs, swinging them over the edge so I could then plop into a black, steel Medline wheelchair.

I said goodbye to the nurses, thanked them for everything, and Jolene pushed me to the elevator as I balanced a bag stuffed with my belongings–sweatshirts, socks, a blanket, a few crossword puzzle books, coffee candies, gum, mints–and two crutches resting horizontally across my lap. Stella was in the car, waving as she got out to help.

“Looking good,” she greeted. “I bet you can’t wait to get out of here.” she popped the trunk.

“I’m so glad,” I released my grip on the crutches and then the bag as she tossed them into the back of her Civic.

“I’ll put the chair in the trunk,” she explained.

“Oh, it’s not mine…we’re not taking it with us.”

Stella nodded and moved the crutches into the trunk, slamming it before walking around to hold the chair while I inched towards the front passenger seat, Jolene’s arm wrapped around mine.

We stopped off for burgers and then headed to Jolene’s apartment, a small two-bedroom unit in Lawrence. The brick building was surrounded by small manicured lawns, a fountain, covered and uncovered parking spots. Long stairwells were decorated with leafy plants in ceramic pots, wind chimes, and decorative rocks. It wasn’t a view of the ocean, but it was fine for six weeks. I’d get my casts taken off, spend a few weeks in physical therapy, and be back on the water, surfing, skiing, living.

The room I stayed in belonged to Ethel, Jolene’s grey, shorthaired cat who had a slight weight problem. She slept on a big, fluffy bed, played with yarn, climbed her tower, and sunbathed on the window sill. I slept because I was tired, and then because I was bored. Jolene opened the blinds every morning, but the view was always the same, it seemed, and I started to miss home. There weren’t enough crossword puzzles, talk shows, old movies, or conversations about how I was feeling to ease the restlessness.

Then came the fight, an argument between roommates that took place right outside my window. I awoke to the bickering, the accusations, an emotional eruption that brought them both to tears, to blows before the manager intervened. A few hours later I watched a man leave his apartment in a suit and return exactly two hours later in workout clothes, his face and neck still damp from exertion. The library lady wasn’t far behind, carrying a stack of books wrapped in plastic covers, each at least four-hundred pages long, stories to keep her mind busy. Around midday, delivery drivers descended the stairs carrying sealed bags and beverages, their eyes wide as they looked for the right apartment number. College students who worked nightshifts at local grocery stores and 24-hour coffee shops, arrived with backpacks hung over one shoulder, with tired faces and disheveled hair. They slept or studied for a few hours before leaving out again, this time with fresh faces painted on, combed hair, and ironed uniforms to distinguish themselves from customers. A biker couple, I assumed, dressed in black, leather jackets and mohawk helmets passed, on their way to roads they’d navigate at speeds that made the heart leap. Noisy kids in khakis and white shirts, now with food stains, raced down the stairs, their squeals loud though their parents, in various states of frustration, reminded them that everyone could hear them in the walkway. I watched them pass, felt the sharpness of their absence as the silence returned.

I kept watching, waiting for someone else to pass, wishing I was climbing the stairs, on my way to the ocean, balancing my board atop wild, rolling waves, balancing doubt with possibility as it raged in the corners of my mind.

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A Celebration

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Elliana reached out by email after finding my contact information on an old high school graduation list she found posted online somewhere. Her email was titled Do You Remember Me?, so I clicked on it and immediately recognized the name. “I can’t believe I found you, or at least I hope it’s you,” she wrote. “I’d love to catch up.” I replied with a brief update on my life and enclosed my phone number.

When she called, it was all laughs and memories, a rekindling of a friendship that had once meant the world to us. And then we found ourselves wading through tragedy as we combed through a long list of people who we admired, who we expected would go on to live interesting lives, but had died instead in car accidents, from rare cancers, or as a way to escape depression.

“What about Isabelle? Have you heard from her?” I laughed, recalling the trouble we got ourselves into the time we were caught snooping in the teacher’s lounge. “The last time I saw her was senior year…”

“She went to Highlands?” Elliana interrupted.

“Not exactly. She was home schooled through their program though,” I clarified. “I almost didn’t recognize her. She was dressed in all black, her hair, make up, all black.”

“Yeah, she was Goth the last time I saw her too,” she paused. “That’s actually why I was trying to find you.”

I waited for her to continue instead of jumping in, but I knew more bad news was coming, rolling in like tumbleweed on a windy day, a mass of dry stems that would knock me over.

“Isabelle passed away a few months ago…from pneumonia and you know,” she paused again because we did know.

We had always known that she wouldn’t have a long life, that her muscles would get so weak her heart would no longer be able to pump, but growing up we had pushed these details to the side, let play protect us.

It was always the three of us, leading the school in dodgeball tournaments, tag, and Simon Says. We were everyone’s friends, but we were especially each other’s friends, sharing dolls, playing dress up, spending nights together building forts, watching movies, telling secrets we pinky-swore to keep forever. Birthday parties and Halloween were a favorite, and we were first on each other’s friend list, even after short-lived squabbles that left us in tears. We arrived with neatly wrapped gifts and giggles, ready to partake in the celebration.

“Do you remember Isabelle’s 10th birthday party?” Elliana asked, trying to shift the mood from sad to joyful.

“The one Michael Jackson came to?” I laughed.

“I can’t believe you thought he was the real Michael Jackson.”

“Isabelle talked about it for weeks. She was so excited,” I explained. “It never occurred to me that she was talking about a look-a-like.”

“Not even the picture he signed?” she teased.

“It was maybe a year later that I realized I hadn’t, in fact, met Michael Jackson.”

“All her birthday parties were big, elaborate,” she recalled. “I was mad at my parents because they never threw me parties like that.”

“You? Mine either. I was lucky to get a cake, and I had to help my mother make it,” I complained. “Everyone thought Isabelle was so lucky.”

“We were so jealous, but being her best friends meant we got to share in the fun.”

“Her grandparents always included us…”

“Oh, remember when we didn’t have costumes that year?”

“No, we had costumes, but Isabelle wanted us all to match,” I interrupted.

“Yeah…and her grandparents went out and bought us costumes.”

“What were we? I don’t even remember anymore.”

“Me either,” she laughed, and I joined.

There was so much we remembered and so much we didn’t, but we both felt the weight of the loss and were grateful none of us knew then the gravity of what was to come so that life for Isabelle was a celebration, an adventure.

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Unrecognizable

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Sunlight after prolonged darkness blinds before it illuminates, burns before it warms, frightens before it soothes.

***

Most people who ask me what it was like to live at the Seven Divines compound have no context for such an existence which, in part, fuels their curiosity and leads to questions that have razor sharp ends, comments that bind, words that suffocate.

“Excuse me,” I dismiss myself.

It’s been over a decade since the children of the Seven Divines were rescued, but some days it feels like less time has passed. I can still smell the inside of the cage–a dark cell we were sent to be punished–its thick sulfur fumes, ammonia, rotting flesh, and vomit still make me nauseous, make my eyes water, make my mind whirl. Select members sat outside the cage, reading long passages from books we were told were greater than law, books printed on home copiers, bound with long plastic spirals that instead of making it easier to turn the pages, made it harder. Twenty-four hours a day, members took turns sitting outside the door reading, and at any time they could ask us to repeat the last thing they had said. Every missed question meant an additional day in the cage. And in the beginning, I missed all of my questions, which meant more days and finally a visit from the leader who ordered my release, a cold shower, and a meal, followed by thirteen lashes before sending me back to the cage.

I was only thirteen, but I knew giving up my mind would be the end for me, as it had been for my mother when Irene entered our lives, bringing kindness, support, adventure, material goods we couldn’t afford, pamphlets and meetings that promised a better life, a better way if we submitted. All burdens would be lifted, and we’d enjoy life’s abundance. So my mother signed over our belongings, the key that unlocked Irene’s true intentions. And I watched our lives unravel as the people who had been caring and inviting unzipped their skin suits, exposing slimy monsters with an insatiable hunger for the vulnerable. We were picked up in a white van, driven blindfolded to meet the family, and put to work immediately, children on one side of the field, their mothers on the other, too far apart to find comfort, close enough to hope that the distance wasn’t permanent, but for many it was too late. They were already dying, their brains washed in ideals they were afraid to live without, familial bonds sacrificed for what sounded like redemption but felt like hell.

When they read to me, I let my mind travel back to our old life, the brown house on the south end of District City, where my friends, Courtney and Zaria sat on the steps waiting for me, where our neighbors Roy and Troy played music on their porch, where the Bailey’s dog, Lennox, chased us and gave away our hiding spots. I thought about school, my teachers. I counted, recited my multiplication table, recalled dates from history, remembered stories we had read, panicking when I couldn’t pull up words in my mind, spell them the way I had before. The idea to actually listen to what the members were reading popped into my head but with one caveat: I would only reflect on the meaning of the word, not its context, create a kind of duplicity that allowed me to preserve who I was and also spare myself the pain that came with rejecting who they wanted me to be. This time when asked, I repeated back their words and embraced the darkness because now I knew how to manipulate it.

After a few weeks in the hospital, where I was treated for malnourishment and a myriad of traumas, I went to live with my aunt and uncle on the north end of District City. They gave me my own room, but I spent most days alone on the balcony because it felt safe: no one on the outside could reach me there, and yet I wasn’t trapped.

“Let us know if you need anything,” they said everyday, a well meaning offer that somehow, after everything, felt hollow.

Some days I still feel like I’m back at the Seven Divines compound. I still feel their words, the intonations and rhythms like a scalpel scraping against my tongue until I taste blood. So I stay silent, honor the parts of me I no longer recognize and find comfort in knowing light reveals what darkness hides.

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I’ll Teach You

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“Go check on Mrs. Reeves,” my mother poked her head into my room. “I think she has her window open.”

“So…” I rolled my eyes.

“It’s going to be hot today, and if she keeps her window open, she’ll never get cool.”

“How can you even see that her window is open?” I sat up and put my phone down.

“I just can,” she insisted. “Go check.”

“Listen to your mother,” I heard my father say on his way downstairs.

I slipped on a pair of black slides, grabbed my house key, and walked to the end of our driveway, crossing diagonally to the orange house across the street. As my mother had said, there was an open window, one on the second floor, so I rang the bell. Mrs. Reeves’ shoes were loud against the tile, and then she looked out the peephole at me, fiddling for a moment with the door before it swung open. The entryway was dim, darkness growing where the hallway stretched into the den. Dank air seeped out, thick and hot.

“Your window is open…upstairs,” I said, stepping back.

“I know,” she said. “It’s hot in here.”

“Did you turn on your air conditioner?”

“I tried,” she looked down the hall at the thermostat. “It didn’t come on like it usually does when I pushed the button.”

“Do you want me to check?”

“If you want,” she opened the door, and I walked past her to the white panel in the middle of the hallway.

“It’s 93 degrees, Mrs. Reeves,” I looked at her, but her face stayed flat, sweat beads trickling down the sides of her face.

I pushed the ON button, adjusted the temperature, and waited for the familiar sound of the AC unit coming on, pushing out hot air first, then cool. We both stood there, ears wide open until we realized nothing was going to happen.

“Do you have something cool to drink?” I asked, concerned but ready to get back to an afternoon of nothingness. “Try to stay cool, okay?”

“I will…thanks for coming by.”

My mother was in the kitchen when I got home, stirring a pitcher of lemonade. I climbed onto a stool and motioned for a glass.

“Is everything okay over there?” she asked pouring ice cold lemonade into a glass.

“No…her air conditioner is broken.” I reached for the glass.

“What?”

“It’s like 93 degrees over there…”

“You just left her over there?” she put the glass on the counter, just out of my reach. “Go back… tell her to come here,” she said, her face disappointed.

“Why me?” I huffed, but knew it was no use. “Can I at least drink my lemonade first?”

“Listen to your mother,” my father said. “See you in a bit,” he headed into the garage, touching his hand to the opener on the wall, and then starting his car and driving away.

My mother tossed me a lukewarm bottle of water and sent me on my way. Mrs. Reeves was surprised to see me again but quickly jumped on the invitation, taking a minute to put together an “activity bag.” She slipped the handle over her shoulder and followed me back to our house, where I assumed my mother would take over, filling the living room with loud banter, old stories, heavy silences they wouldn’t try to avoid.

“Mom,” I yelled as we entered. “Mrs. Reeves is here,” I showed her to the kitchen where she sat at the table.

I waited for a moment, and then came the sound of her coming down the stairs.

“Dad forgot his papers,” she held a stack of papers to her chest, the silver ends of an extra large binder clip hitting her chin. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

“So what do you want me to do?” I complained.

“Sit with Mrs. Reeves,” she rushed out the front door.

I watched the door close, frustrated by her request.

“Do you know how to play dominoes?” I heard Mrs. Reeves ask.

“No,” I said, pulled out a chair and sat down, staring into my phone.

“I’ll teach you,” she poured the tiles onto the table.

Soon I was strategically lining tiles on the table, counting points, enjoying the silence as I awaited her next move, calculated mine. We sipped lemonade, nibbled on Mrs. Reeves’ secret stash of peanut brittle, and between games participated in competitive banter that made us both smile.

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A Very Special Project

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My friend Michelle had just opened an office on Manzanita Avenue, between a donut shop and computer repair shop.

“You have to come see it,” she said. “I’m so excited.”

“I’ll stop by this week,” I promised. “Let me know what time works best.”

“Anytime, I’m still getting everything set up,” she admitted. “I don’t have any appointments scheduled for another two weeks…I’m waiting on a few things.”

I thought about stopping by on my lunch break, taking a quick peek, and then going back to work. Instead, I waited until after my shift ended and took the twenty-minute drive, stopping off for coffee. Traffic was light, but the wait for two iced, caramel macchiatos was long enough to make impatient customers angry. When I picked up my order, I offered the baristas a compassionate smile, relieved that I was done with my own customer service duties for the day.

Michelle was inside her office with the door open, moving items from boxes to shelves. I entered with a “Hello, I made it” and waited for her to see me. She welcomed me in and thanked me for the coffee.

“This is just what I needed,” she took a sip, motioning for me to sit in the chair next to the window as she sat in the one across from me.

“How’s it going?” I looked around at the space.

“Great,” she nodded at her progress. “I have more books to organize, some pictures, and ornaments…just to make the place feel homey.”

“It feels homey,” I laughed. “I might have to get a session,” I joked.

“Oh yeah…” she put her cup on the small table between us and then leaned back in her chair. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I was just kidding,” I waved my hand dismissively.

“You sure?” she pressed. “I have time.”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“Positive?”

“Positive,” I shook my head.

She sat quiet, crossed her legs at the knee, and stared at me. I avoided her glare and looked over at the bookshelf, reading titles printed on hard and soft spines: The Gift of Imperfection, When Things Fall Apart, Finding Your Own North Star, Transformational Life Coaching.

“Nice collection,” I said, continuing to read more titles, as many as I could make out.

“What are you avoiding?” she leaned in to catch my eye. “In your life right now?”

“Uh…nothing.”

“You’re not avoiding a very special project?” she smiled, but the moment still felt awkward, invasive.

I thought about it, that very special project of mine, and then stood up to leave.

“Wait,” she followed, grabbing my arm.

“I don’t want a session,” I ripped my arm from her grip. “I just came to see your office…that’s it.”

“Come back inside,” she pleaded, and I obliged.

We returned to our seats, and this time she chatted on and on about how much she still needed to do, what made her decide now was the right time to open her life coaching business, what she hoped to accomplish. I congratulated her on everything, wished her the best.

“I better get going,” I said after another fifteen minutes. “I’ve got a couple other errands to run.”

“Wait,” she marched over to her bookshelf, pulled a book from it, and returned. “Read this when you’re ready.”

Creating Your Best Life,” I read the title aloud. “Thanks,” I waved and left.

When I was far enough from earshot, I mumbled words of discontent, expressed shock at her audacity. It’s not a surprise that I didn’t curl up with the book that night, that I chose to stew in anger, replay the insult for weeks before digging the book out of my trunk, opening it and finding my way back to a very special project I had saved five years earlier on a Yoda memory stick.

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All About You

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“Don’t you want to get to know me before I die?” my cousin asked as she sat across from me.

“I do…” my voice trailed off, and I averted my eyes, unsure how to navigate the terrain.

“Ask me some questions then,” she smiled, her face slimmer, the bones more prominent than the last time I had seen her.

We were cousins, with many years between us, so many that our interactions had always been parent-child like. She picked me up from school when my parents couldn’t, taking me to doctor’s appointments. I helped her with her shopping, searching the store for items she described by color–“it has a red and white label…,” “the box is blue with yellow writing…” Back at her house, I helped her put the food away while she talked on the phone, the cord stretching across the kitchen, hitting me in the face as I emptied the grocery bags. She talked about her husband, her mother, my aunt, described their indiscretions in the kind of detail that made me stop and stare.

“Mind your business,” she snapped, but not loud enough to wake her children who lay sleeping in the living room, and I went back to what I was doing, shaken by the reprimand, and memories of others just like it, or worse.

By the time I was in my teens, I didn’t see much of her. She’d drop by our house in a panic and sit at the kitchen table with my mother who organized and labeled her medications, told her which ones she needed to take with food, which ones she absolutely could not take with alcohol. We greeted each other, and I made my way to the back of the house, locking myself in my room to listen to dubbed tapes and reread folded notes from my current crush. When she was ready to leave, my mother called out, and I returned to the kitchen to bid my cousin adieu–a hug and a “it was good to see you.”

The years continued to divide us, with even fewer run ins, most of them occurring when my father was in town and everyone in driving distance gathered at our grandmother’s house to eat, reminisce, and see how much we had all aged. My cousin always found me in the crowd, calling out to me as she approached, repeating the nickname she had given me before I even knew my real name. After our greeting, she pulled up a chair near her siblings, older cousins, and spent hours laughing, drinking. And just before memory lane intersected trauma boulevard, I made a plate, at my grandmother’s request then drove away, unsure of when I’d see them next.

It wasn’t until I had my own family that my cousin visited me. She pulled up one day with my father riding shotgun, his wife in the backseat adding comic relief. They exited the car with big grins and sweaty hugs. Inside we sat across from each other, sipped sweet tea, and waited for the food to be ready. We looked at pictures and videos of grandchildren saved on iPhones and Androids, talked about how life had been treating us, how far away retirement was, how we should all take a trip somewhere fun. This was my favorite part of our time together: a collective projection of the good times we’d have at some later undefined point in time, when vacation time aligned, bank accounts were full, and motivation was as high. We didn’t know any other way. Life together meant catching up on the past, looking forward to the future, not the present moments, the ones that unfolded daily.

I looked back at my cousin and returned the smile. It was clear that the cancer was ravaging through her body, and what she wanted most before she died was to be known, understood. I heard her plea, but I didn’t know, at first, how to answer it, simple as it seems. I didn’t know how to be in the moment with her, so I looked to the future, grew excited about all the things we could do, and then she shifted in the chair, a reminder that time was not on her side, that the future could never be a substitute for now.

“Wait right here,” I got up and went into my office. “I have an idea,” I said when I returned, setting a notepad, scrapbook paper, and all the embellishments I could carry between us.

“What’s all this?”

“Let’s create a scrapbook…all about you,” I suggested. “You tell me your story, and I’ll take notes. Then we can decide how to best capture it.”

“Really?”

“Really, I can’t wait,” I assured, knowing I was now likely the parent and she the child in need of gentleness, something she never had.

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On the Hilltop

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Even on cold winter days, I walked to the hilltop with grandpa Eli and sat between two oak trees he had named Peace and Wrath. Cold, foggy air chilled our earlobes and fingertips, made our noses run. We sat on a tattered quilt, some of its patches ripped, frayed, all of them faded, smelling of mold. He plopped down onto the edge, letting me sprawl out on the rest of the quilt, playing silent games with myself, the people and creatures I imagined. I ran my hands across blades of grass, collected Chickweed, looked for beetles that had toppled over, rescuing them from critters lurking in the shadows.

This wasn’t a time for conversation, just the opposite. At most, grandpa Eli tolerated a soft whisper when I got carried away, but maybe that was because he didn’t hear me. With his legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, he stared at the mountain, the milky sky, listened to animals scurry, and got lost in his thoughts, which, based on the deep lines in his brow, were all-consuming.

Sometimes, after I had exhausted my imagination, I stared up at the naked branches, thick and thin limbs intertwined, locked in an embrace, wondering if they had grown together on purpose. When grandpa Eli found what he was looking for, we walked back down the hill and into the house where he made us both a cup of hot chocolate. We never talked about why he ventured up the hill everyday, why we couldn’t talk, but later I understood that while we sat there on the unforgiving ground, chilled to the bone, he had a conversation with wrath, let it boil over uncontained, let it slow to a simmer, then cool and shrink back to size, becoming again the part of him he could embrace, maybe even love.

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While We Weren’t Looking

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We watched from across the field while the search team continued ploughing through piles of clothes, counters lined with dirty dishes, stacks of flimsy magazines and newspapers. They scraped mysterious substances off dry wall and wood floors, unmoved by the stickiness, the smells, the obvious desperation. From the outside the house still looked good, reasonably so, though time had left its mark, weakening vinyl siding, fading once vibrant paint, tarnishing brass knobs, light fixtures, hinges. It was the inside that appalled people, the horror of madness left unchecked, left to race head first into wickedness, its dark canyon.

Many wondered how we got here, how a family that prided itself on good values and morals wandered so effortlessly into the halls of corruption, mingling there like gold card members. I never would have known anything was amiss, if Clara hadn’t called. I still received weekly calls from my Nana who repeated stories that made her feel good, that made her laugh. My niece, Clara, was on course to graduate high school and wanted to move upstate with us to attend college. Bridget, my oldest sister, was in an out, bringing groceries and transporting Nana to her appointments. Raelynn, the second oldest, was in charge of finances, making sure all bills were paid, all repairs were made. Had she been receiving Nana’s mail, we would have known sooner that we needed to intervene.

Ryan, my older brother, had come back, bringing with him a host of misfits who made themselves at home, turning the house upside down in search of valuables they might be able to sell, pills they might be able to pop. They bought junk cars and parked them on the lawn, tinkered with them for a while and then put For Sale signs on them, though they had no intentions of them.

“Why didn’t you tell me all those people had moved into Nana’s house?” I asked Clara.

“They stayed in the basement mostly and left out the back door until…”

“Who was with Nana while you were at school?”

Her silence made me gasp.

The city sent three notifications regarding excess garbage, threatening fines to be accessed per diem. But no one knew, and the garbage piles grew, more junk cars arrived, leaving barely enough space to reach the front door, and fumes from the basement made their way into the rest of the house, lingering in the yard long enough for passing neighbors to observe and report.

Clara was at school during the raid, but the news traveled fast, all the way to second period geometry. When the mumbles became coherent, she collected her things and ran out of class, off campus to a nearby sandwich shop where she called me, insisting she wait for me there though I was an hour and a half away.

“There’s going to ask me questions,” she complained.

“You can only tell them what you know,” I comforted. “You didn’t know what they were doing, right?”

The line was so quiet I had to make sure she was still there.

“Uncle Ryan asked me to tell some kids at school about…”

“Stop talking,” I interrupted, squeezing the tension headache spreading across my forehead.

“You didn’t take any with you to school, did you?”

She was quiet again, this time the sound of workers calling out orders echoing.

I hung up with Clara and called my sisters, telling Bridget to go and check on Nana. As I drove, the sound of the engine muted my thoughts, and my brain slipped into autopilot. When I pulled up to Cecil’s Sandwich Shop, Clara exited with a soda cup and a half-eaten BLT.

“Thank you for coming to get me,” she said, leaning in for a hug. “I don’t know what to do…did you talk to Nana?”

“Bridget is checking on her,” I said.

“Are we going back to your house?”

“No, I’m going to the house,” I turned onto Interstate Road.

“Why?” she leaned forward in the seat, stretching the seatbelt until it clicked.

“I need to see what’s going on, that’s why.”

She tapped her nails on the door, cleared her throat a bunch of times, and fiddled with her hair, pulling it onto her shoulder and then off again. Then she began scratching at her arms like she was being attacked by mosquitoes. Instead of going straight to the house, I parked on the other side of the field so we could watch what was happening, so I could decide my next steps. Lights flashed, dogs sniffed, handcuffs restrained. Rows of parked junk cars were unloaded, all the ingredients for chaos labeled. And Clara was still fidgeting.

While we weren’t looking, poison had made its way into her veins, and her fate was now in my hands, as I started the car and headed to the house.

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Through Muddy Waters

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It was a last minute invite, but I accepted, rolled over and untangled myself from white, cotton sheets. I took a hot shower, packed a bag for the two-day stay, and hopped in the bus, a VW Travis spent three years restoring, a cherry red and white vessel with a refurbished engine and transmission, reupholstered bench seats, brand new flooring, years of grime erased, old memories replaced with new ones.

I hadn’t seen Travis in about a year, but any time he came through I knew we’d have a good time. A born traveler, he spent weeks on the road exploring nature’s known treasures, and the hidden ones too. He tucked my bag into the trunk between a case of water, a box of individually wrapped trail mix packs, and a tacklebox.

“Are you ready?” he asked, putting his foot on the clutch before starting the engine.

“I sure am,” I adjusted my seatbelt and leaned into the seat. “This seat is much more comfortable than before. Did you change them again?”

“You know what’s in there?” he probed. “Memory foam, the good stuff,” he checked the mirrors and backed out of the driveway.

On the agenda was camping and fishing just outside Sierra City, a three-hour drive we’d split in half, stopping off to stretch, fill the cooler with goodies, and eat lunch on Mountain Creek. We sat outside under a big umbrella on a wooden platform overlooking the winding stream. The server brought two ice-cold waters followed by a plate of beer battered fried pickles and chili cheese fries.

“This will be our last meal if we don’t catch any fish,” Trevor laughed.

“The last time I went fishing was with you, so…” I said. “It may be trail mix and sun chips for the weekend.”

While we nibbled on fried pickle slices and fries, he told me about his company, a startup he ran from the bus, selling language software to people across the world. We talked about my job, how year sixteen had changed everything.

“It’s just different now,” I explained.

“Maybe you‘re different now.”

“I suppose,” I folded my hands under my chin and stared at him, expecting one of his usual lectures.

Instead, the server returned with our entre, and we ate, our conversation turning back to the trip. Lakes, trails, canyons, picturesque fields of wildflowers, and remnants of old mining towns we’d venture out to, live alongside for two days. And like Trevor, I couldn’t wait to be in this space, to swim through muddy waters, washing off the old, slipping into the new, and then driving home changed in ways we couldn’t yet see.

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Approving Nods

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“Tessa, no one likes your salads,” Lyle teased. “I don’t why you make them when you’re going to be the only one eating them,” he laughed, headed for the garage.

She paused for a second and then went back to chopping radishes, humming a song she seemed to be making up as she went. Bill and Eddie were outside starting the grill. Flames ripped through the grates and then quieted while they chatted about their favorite football teams, one giving the other a hard time for his choice. Jackie was still in bed, not sure she’d be joining the festivities.

“I’m so tired,” she complained. “I’d have to take a shower and…”

“You might feel better if you get up and get dressed,” I suggested.

“No, I don’t think so,” she turned her back to me. “I think I’m going to stay here…but, we’ll see.”

I stayed for a moment, not sure how to make my exit until I heard Mary come in, her loud, raspy voice filling the whole house.

“I’ll be right back…” I said and left to greet Mary.

She was a retired counselor and lived three houses down, spending her days gardening and tutoring children in the neighborhood.

“Hey, Mary,” I said, waiting for her to turn around and see me.

“What?” she set a pan of mac and cheese on the counter. “I didn’t think you were going to be here,” she pulled me in for a hug, patting my back like I was choking.

“I decided I needed to be here…” I said.

“Jackie?” Mary stared at me over the rim of her glasses. “Where is she?”

“It’s been a tough day for her,” Tessa said, adding Rotini noodles to her salad.

“She’s in bed,” I pointed down the hall. “She doesn’t want to get up.”

“Let me go talk to her…” Mary put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed as she walked towards Jackie’s room.

I went back to making a banana pudding, and Tessa started on another salad, one with beans–green, soy, and kidney–celery, bell pepper, red onion, vinegar, and oil. We couldn’t make out what Mary was saying, but we heard her voice, the way she held onto words, twisting them around her tongue. Bill was loading meat onto the grill, Eddie supervising with a beer in his hand.

Gloria and Glen arrived with a red velvet cake and deviled eggs. They dropped off the food in the kitchen, greeted us, and then made their way to the backyard, grabbing sparkling waters from the ice chest before sinking into two orange lawn chairs. Not long after, Tammy and Ruth came, and then Jerry, Eileen, Marty, Stella, and Barb joined. Tessa had made three salads and we were ready to start lining the long, empty table outside with bowls and platters of food, heavy-duty paper plates and cutlery, napkins and cinnamon flavored toothpicks, when Mary appeared, Jackie next to her dressed in a blue t-shirt and white shorts, her hair combed in the front, matted in the back.

“Come on everybody,” Mary ordered. “Jackie has something she wants to say.”

Bill flipped a few burgers and then gathered alongside Eileen and Marty. Eddie poked his head inside the garage, inviting Lyle to Jackie’s big announcement. We stood in a large circle, Jackie in the center, Mary not too far away for support.

“I’m really tired,” Jackie began, moving nervously from side to side. “I just wanted to sleep all day.”

We all nodded with sympathy, offering closed-mouthed smiles.

“Thank you all for coming though…” she rubbed her hands together. “Um…Trevor would have wanted to be here.”

No one spoke, giving her time to collect herself, giving ourselves space to step back from personal opinion, to remember that Trevor was always going to be her son, even if to us he had become something else: the reason we had stayed away so long, and for others the reason they’d never return.

“I know he’s where he needs to be…I do, but thank you all for coming,” she choked. “And thank you for not judging me for still loving him.”

Mary started clapping, encouraging everyone else to do the same, and we did. But it was a disjointed effort that never really came together and ended with a silence we filled with food and approving nods.

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When the Past Whispers my Name

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Going back to my old stomping grounds was something I liked to do from time to time, when the past whispered my name, calling me back to relive the good times and the bad.

I parked on the west end of the A Street shopping center, tempted by the smell of sugar cones and Szechuan Chicken. The arboretum was my destination, a well hidden exhibition behind the university I strolled through the way we did between study sessions, or on Sunday afternoons when the campus was quiet, reading silver plaques that introduced each plant, tree, shrub. It was the three of us (Francesca, Loralee, and me), always searching for spaces safe for introverts, the arboretum our favorite. We sat for hours on wooden benches, talked about the future, how we’d go on to graduate school, get our Ph.D.’s, build successful careers in medicine, engineering, academia. Driven by hopefulness and innocence, we kept to ourselves, befriended professors who recommended us for internships and research opportunities, arrived early to counseling appointments, determined to manage coursework, stress.

We had it all together, a professor’s dream, asking all the right questions, studying for the right amount of time, exuding confidence and motivation in the front rows of large lecture halls. But as life would have it, this level of excellence was short lived. By the start of year three, even after a restful summer, we started to see signs of burnout. Office hours were inconvenient, interrupting our nap schedules, Maury. We wondered why we needed to study formulas for Stats when we could write them on our forearms. And emails from counselors collected in our inboxes, their guidance ignored. Loralee was first to find her way onto academic probation. I was next. Parents called, threatened, and we found our way back inside heavy textbooks, the ones we spent hundreds of dollars on and sold for not even a third of the cost. Our enthusiasm was gone though. And, ultimately, rather than flunk out, we took a break, moved back home, and got jobs in customer service centers, book stores, supermarkets.

I returned a year later; Francesca and Loralee did not, opting to continue working and attend schools closer to home. I had new roommates, ones who were studious but knew how to have a good time too. They pulled me into their Saturday night shenanigans and we slept most of Sunday, waking up in time to write eight-page research papers and make flashcards for Chemistry that we’d study before class started.

We talked about these days, how much fun we had, how many lessons we learned. When they visited we all returned to the arboretum, the campus, reflecting on life then.

“Some lessons you can only learn through experience,” Loralee said. “Degree or no degree, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

I made my way back to my car and headed home. A girl leaving campus, wearing a blue and white backpack stood on the corner of A Street. She adjusted the heavy pack, placing her fingers under the straps to keep them from digging into her skin until the light turned green and she darted across the street, slowing her pace as she moved further into the neighborhood, past a fraternity house, a fire station. I watched until she disappeared, thinking for a moment that she reminded me of an old friend, and then dismissed her from my mind.

It wasn’t until I was on the freeway that I realized she didn’t actually remind me of anyone; she encapsulated everything I remembered about university life: how freeing it was and how it also weighed me down.

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Just a Stranger in the Crowd

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Every Saturday morning, weather permitting, four boys (Malcolm, Roger, Gerard, and Manuel) came to our door asking for my brother, Jerome. He was usually finishing up breakfast dishes, drying them and putting them in neat rows on vinyl, shelf liners. The boys waited in the living room, leaving long pieces of carboard outside the door, Gerard holding a boombox in his lap, fiddling with the dials. Jerome was five years older than me, his friends a couple years older than him, all with facial hair that made them look much older than high school seniors. At first I thought maybe they had jobs during the week, attended college classes at night, until they started talking about senior prom, who their top picks were and who they’d settle for if it came down to it. I’d linger in the hallway and listen to their banter, their excitement as they prepared to leave. My mother would pull me by my collar if she caught me and tell me to go to my room. But on the day my father called from the restaurant asking her to come in because two people had called out sick, she had to decide what to do with me. I was too young to stay home alone, she thought. The Warners were out of town. My mother and Ms. Singh weren’t on good terms. And she didn’t want to burden Aunt Hazel who was at home busy with newborn twins.

“Jerome,” she called, making her way down the hall and into the kitchen. “I need you to take your sister with you.”

I heard him groan with disappointment, the rest of the conversation muffled as she applied pressure and then promised she’d make it up to him.

“Come on,” Jerome said, nudging me through the front door when I reached the end of the hallway.

“Hold on,” I ran to my room, stuffed a few dolls into a bag, and ran back.

As soon as we were out of the driveway, Gerard turned on his boombox, and their heads began dancing on their shoulders, their arms rising and falling, folded in sharp angles that made them look like robots. All down the street they carried on this way, and I followed, finding myself copying their movements, trying to at least.

We caught bus 22 headed south and got off on Morse Avenue, walking another few blocks to Whitney Park where kids their age crowded around each other as they did tricks on carboard, balancing on one hand, spinning on their heads, moving through acrobatic arrangements while others cheered and gawked.

“Stay here,” Jerome warned as he and his friends lay their cardboard about six feet away from me on the ground, beginning their own show that others would crowd around to watch.

The music was loud, funk and soul, sixteenth and quarter beats pumping across the park. I stayed put, as I was told, but I didn’t stay still. I grabbed a piece of discarded carboard and lay on it, moving my arms up and down like I was making a snow angel. Then I sat up, crossed my legs and made motions with my arms. I jumped up and danced a shuffle across the cardboard before attempting a handstand. Lost in the music, I tried again and again until I was upside down making scissor motions with my legs and kids were gathering around me, cheering.

Blood rushed to my face, but I didn’t stop. I swung my legs back and forth and then let them drop when my eyes felt like they might pop out of my face. I landed on my back, arched my chest towards the sky and began twisting one leg over the other, before jumping up and dropping my shoulders into a hanger pose, letting my arms dangle, quitting only when I grew too tired to move. Even then they cheered for me, saw me though I was just a stranger in the crowd, one who didn’t really know what she was doing, but did it anyway.

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What’s Important

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The word “No” was on the tip of my tongue as my friend, Miranda, looked over at me with sad, pleading eyes.

“Fine,” I said. “But I have something to do a little later.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she cheered, changing her frown to a smile. “I appreciate it. This is really important.”

“I only have a couple hours,” I reiterated.

“I know,” she sang.

“I have to be back home for an important Zoom meeting.”

I made a U-turn at San Juan, and headed towards the freeway. It was midday, the freeway mostly clear except for the lunch crowd rushing to pick up take-out they’d eat in thirty minutes or an hour. Miranda sat back scrolling through her phone, answering texts, laughing at memes. I listened to talk radio and munched on trail mix, on our way to the address she had provided, an office building located in the middle of downtown.

“Where should I park?” I asked when we arrived in front of what was once a tri-level home, now offices rented by a law office, a psychic reader, and a small yoga studio. They seemed to exist together peacefully, one ignoring the other.

“Uh, can you just let me out here?” she said, putting her phone down. “I’ll be right out.”

“Okay,” I let her out and pulled up to the next block where there was an empty parking spot, a metered spot I hoped I wouldn’t have to feed.

Five minutes passed, then ten minutes, fifteen, twenty, and at twenty-two minutes parking enforcement appeared in my rearview mirror, the three-wheeled electric vehicle, starting and stopping down the one-way street. I stepped out and slipped change into the meter, buying another fifteen minutes I was sure I wouldn’t need. The blue vehicle passed, a man wearing sunglasses and gloves staring straight ahead. I sent Miranda a text telling her where I was parked, but she didn’t respond. And though I hadn’t seen her go into the lawyer’s office, I figured that was where she was, that it was the reason her request was so urgent.

Fifteen minutes passed and the red light on the meter began to blink again. I checked the console for more change but found none, biting my lip at the thought of swiping my card for an hour, the minimum. A man on a bike whizzed by. An elderly lady and a Shih Tzu walked to the corner and then turned around, both taking their time. enjoying the stroll. I waited another twenty minutes, checking my phone for the “on my way” text I was expecting. Still nothing, and anxiety moved in like I was its prey, devouring me from the inside as I thought about the meeting agenda saved on my laptop at home, the speaker I had invited still waiting for the Zoom link and password, the white, collared shirt and blazer I’d slip on just before the meeting began, running a brush through my hair to make it look like I cared.

“I have time…plenty of time,” I rationalized, starting the car with the intention of making the block, circling back to the tri-level building.

Four women were exiting the yoga studio, dark colored mats under their arms. I waited for them to get into their cars, grabbing the first open spot. The law office was on the second floor, so I climbed the spiral-staircase, peering into the window when I reached the top. A man and a woman sat across from each other in front of large, mahogany desks, consumed by what was on their computer screens. I knocked on the door, and they both looked up, motioning for me to come in.

“Hi,” the woman said, standing up to greet me. “How can I help you?”

“Is Miranda Pruitt here?”

“No,” the man said, looking first at me and then the woman.

“Oh, okay…thank you,” I backed out of the office, pulling the door shut.

I looked at my phone, noting I now had forty-five minutes to get home. The third floor was home to the psychic. This time when I stared through the window, I saw Miranda sitting across from a woman with thick, curly hair, not what I imagined I would see, but I didn’t have time to analyze my misconceptions. I bolted through the door, and in the calmest voice I could muster, I told Miranda it was time to go.

“We’re almost done,” she whined.

“I told you I have a meeting,” my voice stern now.

“Can’t you do it on your phone?”

“If I could do it on my phone, I wouldn’t have said I needed to go back home,” I was now yelling.

“Okay,” she stood up to leave.

I raced down the stairs, Miranda behind me trying to keep up.

“You’re not mad are you?” she asked. “Don’t be mad…”

“You lied to me,” I screamed. “You said you had something important to do.”

“This is important…to me,” she closed her door as I began driving away. “How was I supposed to know?”

“You think going to a psychic is important?” I fumed, weaving through traffic. “I have responsibilities…”

“I do too,” her voice trailed. “Don’t you even want to know what she said?”

“Not really,” I dismissed, focusing on the traffic, the time.

With five minutes to spare, I ran through my front door, turned on my laptop, slipping into the shirt and blazer hanging on the chair. I logged onto Zoom, greeted the speaker who, to my surprise, was already in the waiting room.

“I got the link from Tom,” she said.

We went over the agenda before letting the others in the room.

“No worries,” they all said when I apologized for my tardiness.

After the meeting, I went into the kitchen, thinking Miranda was there helping herself to a snack or two, but she wasn’t. She was still outside, sitting on the ground.

“Hey,” I stepped outside.

“She told me I could have what I desired, that there were people in my life who could help me.”

I sat next to her and exhaled.

“She’s right.”

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Hold on to Me

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It was a Wednesday morning. Priscilla was in the laundry room looking for her favorite socks. Charlie was in his high chair eating Cheerios and banana slices. Tim was in the shower singing The Beetles’ Come Together, loud and off key. I was in the kitchen packing lunches when my phone rang and the person on the other end delivered news that entered my mind like a poison.

“They found Thalia…”

“What do you mean they found Thalia? Found her where? Who found her?” my heart sunk.

“How soon can you get here?”

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t want to tell you over the phone.”

“Why? I deserve to know. I’m her…”

“Send me your flight info, and I’ll pick you up from the airport.”

I was on a plane that night, taking a red-eye flight to the homestead where my sister, Pauline, her husband, Frank, and our brother, Marcus, would be waiting. The plane was quiet, the windows dark as we flew across three states, slipping from one time zone into another where day had already begun. I leaned back into the seat, pushing sleep away so that I could work through every question I had like a puzzle, project a positive outcome in spite of what my heart knew to be true.

Pauline didn’t say anything when she saw me; she walked towards me, her arms extended for a hug, and she pulled me in tight, her body shaking against mine. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated.

“Tell me what happened to Thalia,” I pushed her away.

“The sheriff found her in the ditch behind the Saunders’ land,” she wiped her eyes and took a deep breath.

“Is she…” I started but couldn’t find my way to the end of the question.

“She’s unconscious…her brain…”

“Take me to see her.”

I threw my suitcase in the back of her pickup and climbed into the cab. She drove us into the center of the city, morning traffic still thin but growing more congested the longer we were on the road. Radio hosts announced accidents and lane closures before playing the latest song of singers I had never heard. Pauline still wept, while I stared out the window, concerned but unexpectedly detached. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; It was that I had devoted myself for so long, poured my whole heart into a girl I didn’t know how to reach, a girl who couldn’t be reached, I thought.

By ten, she was showering me everyday with “I hate you,” screaming the sentiment at the top of her lungs as she threw whatever she could get her hands on at my face. Still I made counseling appointments, administered medication daily, hired a lawyer when others accused her of crimes I couldn’t imagine her committing, showed up for weekly visits at the juvenile detention center, cried when she ran away with a man twice her age and stayed gone for two years.

I thought she had returned to start over, get back to our lives, but she disappeared again a week before her seventeenth birthday, this time leaving a note that read, “Don’t try to find me. Let me go.” But I didn’t let go. I tried to find her because I still loved her, because I was her mother. Only now I wondered if I had done enough.

Had I made life safe for her? Had I kept my promise to love her? Had I stayed long enough in the house on Elliott Street before selling it and moving away?

The year she turned twenty, I took a job three states away, and started a new life. At any moment, though, I was ready to drop everything and find my way back to her if she returned. Then I met Tim and his daughter, Priscilla. Then we got married and had Charlie. We were a family, did family things, and Thalia turned twenty-four. I stopped looking for her, waiting for her, holding on to her.

Pauline led us to the elevator, to Thalia in the ICU. A nurse greeted us, and I told her I was Thalia’s mother, but it felt like a lie. I thought she might ask for proof or otherwise challenge me. Instead she led me into the tiny room where Thalia lay, a machine breathing for her, an IV filling her medicine, monitors tracking her vitals. I stood next to her and took her hand in mine.

“It’s mom.” I whispered. “I’m here,” I said, thinking she might give me some signal that she was still with us, that she was still holding on to life, holding on to me.

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Everything Else

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During my parents’ divorce, I lived at Eastside Village with my grandmother, a woman I barely knew and who knew even less about me. “Well, okay then,” is what she said when my Aunt Joanie dropped me off and told her I would be staying for a while. I was thirteen, troubled and full of angst, something my grandmother, despite her agreeable manner, didn’t tolerate.

“You will not be disrespectful in my house,” she warned when I slammed the refrigerator and complained that she had old people food.

Her tone was stern, but her voice wasn’t raised. I watched in shock as she stood up to me, telling me she had no problem showing me the door, that she wouldn’t hesitate beating me with her cane if it came down to it. And then she poured herself a cup of tea and sat down at the table.

“I don’t know you, not like a grandmother should,” she confessed. “But I can tell you’ve been through some things,” she stirred her tea and then dipped the wet spoon into the sugar dispenser. “You’ll have to find a way around it.”

“How?” I tried to hide the quiver in my voice.

“By controlling what you can and recognizing that everything else is just that…everything else,” she took a sip of her tea, pulling back when it burned her mouth. She nodded at me and then said, “find what makes you happy.”

My Aunt Joanie picked me up Monday morning and dropped me off at Eastview Junior High School, where I was greeted by Principal Washington and my homeroom teacher Mrs. Coleman. Their smiles were big as they told me all about the school, my classes, how happy they were to meet me. After a tour of the campus, I waited in homeroom, picking a seat towards the back, while Mrs. Coleman wrote the agenda on the board, standing on her tiptoes to reach the top. Students began trickling in with backpacks dangling on one shoulder, hair styled with gel, new sneakers and trendy clothes, and the gift of gab, announcing their presence through laughter, Yo Mama jokes, a recap of last night’s television shows, and complaints when they read the board.

I had first lunch, so after science I followed the lunch crowd to the cafeteria, spotting a few girls from homeroom already sitting at a table in the back. They were laughing, each wearing a similar button-up top, the first two buttons left undone, jeans with holes in the knees, and white shoes. Their speech patterns included phrases like, “She is straight trippin,” “You go, girl,” and “If I’m lying, I’m dyin.” I paid for a carton of chocolate milk and moseyed over to their table.

“Hi,” I said, making eye contact with the girls who were in my homeroom. “Aren’t you in Mrs. Coleman’s homeroom.”

They stared for a moment and then all burst into laughter.

“Who wants to know?” they laughed again.

“I…I was just…” I turned to leave, my cheeks on fire.

They kept laughing, mocking me as I walked out of the cafeteria. On my way to the bathroom, a girl from my homeroom named Tracey Calhoun stopped me, resting her broken leg on a bench.

“Hey, those are the Sequoia Girls,” she informed. “Ignore them,” she smiled, exposing wire braces as she hopped away on her crutches.

Instead, I ignored her and began planning, plotting my steps to becoming a Sequoia Girl. They had embarrassed me, but they had what I didn’t: charm, style, power. I convinced my grandmother to buy me a pair of white shoes and button-up shirts. I cut holes in the jeans I had, put enough gel in my hair to lock it in place for a week, and went to school with a new attitude because in my mind I had been transformed. I was one of them.

“Hey, girl,” I said as I passed them in the halls. “See you in homeroom.”

I held my head high, exuded as much confidence as I could muster, but they didn’t see me, didn’t acknowledge me. They chatted about a cute boy named Christopher on the basketball team, passed around answers to the history test, checked their makeup in tiny mirrors, and criticized Tracey Calhoun as she passed, her cast now signed by half the school.

“I mean, who does that?” they laughed.

Tracey Calhoun’s eyes widened at the insult. She quickened her pace, the ends of her crutches slapping against the ground. Once in homeroom, I glanced over at her, gave her a sympathetic smile.

“What are you looking at?” she barked.

“I was trying to be nice,” I defended.

“Nice?” she jerked her head back. “You’re one of them. You’re not nice.”

Though it was already too warm for a jacket, I slipped mine on trying to cover the button-up shirt. I played with my hair, untangling the strands from the gel until frizzy ends fell against my shoulders.

At home I put the white shoes back into the box and slid them under my bed, hung up my jeans, and asked my grandmother if we could take the shirts back.

“What’s wrong with them?” she asked, her hand on her hip.

“They don’t fit,” I lied.

“Are you telling me those shirts don’t fit you, even though I watched you try them on?”

I didn’t have an answer, so I shrugged.

“Maybe you don’t fit,” she said, letting her arms hang at her side. “Is that why you wanted to buy all that stuff? To fit in?”

My eyes welled, and my body started to shake.

“Ahh, come here,” she pulled my head to her shoulder. “Let this be a lesson,” she patted my back. “Life is slippery like a slide. If you hold on too tight you can’t enjoy the ride, and if you’re not careful you’ll fall right off and hurt yourself. Control what you can and leave everything else.”

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Into the Unknown

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We decided to go to The Spring Chicken for lunch to celebrate Alicia’s promotion, Jasmine’s engagement, Celeste’s move out of her mother’s house, and my ongoing search for the perfect state job and my newfound peace with The Walking Dead after Glen’s death.

“You can’t still be upset,” Jasmine laughed.

“He didn’t have to die,” I defended. “They always kill the good characters.”

“Let it go,” Alicia yelled.

There was a twenty minute wait, so we stood outside under the awning, talking and watching people eat. Alicia reminded us of her duties at work, the people who now took orders from her and hated her for it. Jasmine showed us her ring again, letting her hand hang in the air long after we had stopped looking. Celeste talked proudly about her studio apartment, the new furniture being delivered, the color schemes for her kitchen and bathroom. And I talked about the upcoming test I’d be taking in hopes of getting a state job where I’d do the same thing I was already doing but get paid more.

The server, a short and cheery girl we surmised was our age, called our number and led us to a table in the back, two tables away from a couple in the middle of a fight they tried to disguise as a loving conversation until one exploded and the shrapnel triggered the other. We sat with our menus covering our faces, mouthing questions, concerns. And just as they dug in, silence strangled them. They tilted their bodies away from each other, focused their attention on their phones, the window, giving the appearance that they stared out when really they stared into the flames burning behind their eyes.

We placed our order but couldn’t stop looking, listening to their relationship shift, stall. They played a game of cat and mouse, one looking at the other and then turning away before making eye contact. They started sentences with accusations and then jumped ship. They baited each other with comments about exes, brought up flaws to awaken the other’s insecurity.

Maybe it was when the server brought our food, or when she bumped into their table that they realized they were balancing on a tightrope, their next move critical.

“It’s just…I mean…” she started, running her hand through her hair. “I don’t know…”

“I don’t either,” he said, squeezing his forehead.

We looked down at our plates, stuffed fries into our mouths, slurped soup, sipped sweet tea. They were falling apart, not us, but somehow the moment resonated. We were each navigating our way across life’s tightrope and knew that in the process of exploring new territory, merging lives through marriage, cutting cords for the first time, and seeking stability, we could lose our balance and fall into the unknown.

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The Good in Life

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It’s quiet at first, sneaky and encompassing like the sky, like skin. Arriving sometime after dinner but before bedtime, it unfolds inside stillness. The windows I had closed, the programs I had shut down reopen, and my mind reaches for old files, restores deleted drafts. It’s a soirée I didn’t know I’d be attending, exhilarating with fattening finger food, music made for dancing, highbrow conversations with earlier versions of myself on into the night when my eyes desired darkness but settled for a lingering fog too dense to see through, too delicate to chase dreams in.

I slide between cold sheets and lay there, waiting for sleep to slow my heart, relax my muscles, interrupt the merry-go-round in my mind. Heavy eyelids and incessant yawning, sleep’s gateway, promise entry again and again but ultimately leave me alone with time, its agitating tick, a consuming count measuring the night in hours, minutes, seconds. The sound of waves crashing fills the first two hours. Binaural beats play for another hour, and sleep teases, letting me fall into its arms only to be ripped away moments later. I let out a scream, pound my fists and heels against the mattress and then wait, listening for sleep’s sweet lullaby.

But in the quiet, I hear my own thoughts squealing like the steel chain of a swing rubbing against its frame. I move back and forth between joy and despair until I can see the child in the seat extending her legs and then tucking them in, an image I cling to for as long as I can because I know she is me, an earlier version I know still sees the good in life.

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Little Crusaders

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Our trip into the city was impromptu, born out of the excitement and angst we were feeling after completing our last day at the Little Crusaders Day Camp, where for eight weeks we had chased little kids around the playground, assisted them with arts and crafts projects, supervised games of Simon Says and Musical Chairs, prepared cold lunches, diffused disagreements, and found ways to motivate shy and lazy kids, cajole the whiny and pouty kids, calm the impatient and experienced kids who were more advanced and knew it.

We accepted stick figure drawings and hugs from four and five-year-olds as farewell gifts. They jumped up and down around us, all dressed in bright yellow camp t-shirts, cheering as we sang the Little Crusader song one last time. Matt, Nylah, Justine, and I were sad to go, but we only had a couple weeks of summer left, and there was no time to waste being sad over a temporary job. The director had us sign all final paperwork so we’d get our last paycheck, freeing us from all our duties. I don’t think either of us even looked back before piling into my car.

“I have to get gas first,” I said, watching Matt and Nylah peel off their shirts and stuff them into the Parks and Recreation bag we all received on the first day.

“We can get snacks too,” Justine said, trying to pull her seatbelt across her chest before it locked in place and she had to start again.

At the gas station, I filled the tank while they raided the store, returning with ICEE’s, water, beef jerky, sunflower seeds, and bags of fruity candy. We were all laughs, the sound of plastic wrappers background to our scattered conversations, to the music playing until one station disappeared and we found another. Traffic was thick in parts, but soon we were cruising past acres where neatly planted rows of wheat and tomatoes grew, past milk farms where dairy cows grazed. We kept talking, our spirits high as miles of agriculture faded and shopping centers on either side of the freeway beckoned, promising sales, all the food we could eat in one sitting. Then came grassy mountains home to sheep and an occasional farmhouse we couldn’t see a clear path to.

“How do they get up there?” Nylah pondered aloud.

“There’s probably a road somewhere,” they kept looking until we were past the bend, and my car struggled up the hill.

“Get in the slow lane,” Matt instructed.

I drove behind a diesel until we were at the top of the hill, but even then my car was acting funny.

“Are you pressing the gas?” Justine asked.

“I am,” I looked down at the pedal. “It’s just not going…wait, what do these lights mean?”

“It means pull over,” Matt yelled from the back seat. “Put your hazards on.”

I weaved across two merging lanes, drivers honking, nearly hitting my car, and then finally made it to the shoulder. We were silent for a moment, letting the panic subside before considering our next steps.

“Do you have Triple A?” Nylah asked.

“We have to go find a payphone,” Justine said, as we looked out at the gated field to the right, the next exit ahead an onramp to an adjoining freeway.

“Should we get out of the car?” Nylah asked.

“Where will we go?” I responded.

“We should just wait,” Matt suggested. “It’s strange because last night I had a dream that we were sitting on the side of the freeway, and here we are,” he sighed.

“What happened to us?” Justine asked.

“A man in a pickup came by,” he said, changing position in the seat.

“And?” we prodded.

“We got in.”

“All of us?”

“Yep.”

“And then what?”

“I woke up.”

“Nope, not happening,” Justine and Nylah shook their heads.

“How did we all fit inside the truck anyway?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We just did,” Matt assured.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Justine shared.

“Me too,” I added.

“We all do,” Matt rolled his eyes. “Oh, grow up,” he said when he saw Justine whisper something in my ear.

And what came next was a series of angry insults, high-pitched screams, and a slap fight where the top of the bench seat endured the most hits. We were interrupted by the flashing lights of the driver who had pulled behind us. A man wearing tight blue jeans and cowboy boots approached. When he was standing next to the car, I rolled down my window.

“Having a bit of car trouble are you?” he asked.

“Yes,” we said in unison.

“I can give you a ride to the shop up the road a ways,” he pointed south.

“That’s okay,” Nylah chimed.

“You don’t want to stay here,” he warned. “Big trucks come through here all the time, and it can a blind spot for the big ones,” he hawked whatever had been in his throat towards the front of the car. “I know because I drive one of ’em.”

“We’ll take the ride,” Matt said, opening his door.

Nylah, Justine, and I followed hesitantly. The inside of his truck smelled like cigars. We sat in the second row of seats, while Matt sat up front. As soon as we were all buckled in, he asked us if we minded country music, turning it up, but it was barely audible over the diesel engine.

“Where are you all headed?” he asked.

“To the city, but…” Matt said.

“Well, maybe next time,” he moved into the center lane. “I don’t mean to preach or anything, but you need to be prepared for something like this.”

“…Prepared for anything, little crusaders,” Nylah sang part of the Little Crusaders song, and we laughed.

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Soar

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A letter from Bradley Morgan arrived a day before Betty’s 84th birthday, so I put it in the mail organizer in her kitchen and went about making deviled eggs, chicken and fruit salads. I expected her to grab the mail after All My Children ended and sit at the table with a magnifying glass to help her read the contents, deciding right then if she needed my assistance with anything. Instead, she called for me to bring her an afternoon snack, to place it on the tv tray in front of her while she knitted another sweater for Champ, her eight year old rescue dog with three legs and a marred ear who never let her out of his sight. I wrapped the gifts her friends and cousins had dropped off, though she had already seen them because she insisted on knowing in advance what was under the colorful paper.

“That’s no fun,” people complained.

“I don’t like surprises,” she snapped back, and that was the end of the conversation.

For the most part, she was a mild-mannered woman, spending her time taking care of Champ, watching soap operas, and venturing out to the Bingo hall a couple days a week. I had been her caretaker for a few years and knew exactly how she liked things, but I knew very little about who she was, if she had ever been married, if she had children, grandchildren. These were topics everyone avoided, even the three sisters she called cousins who never mentioned other family members, never reminisced, never gave the impression that they had roots in any other place and time. They were careful with their words, enjoyed listening to others talk and sitting in long silences. This somehow made them friend-magnets, invitations arriving weekly, many she turned down. I figured Bradley Morgan was another friend, maybe from Bingo, or a party she attended at some point, but she didn’t bother with the mail like usual. She kept knitting even after I had prepared everything for the party and said my goodbyes.

“I’ll pick up the cake on my way tomorrow,” I said.

“Thank you, Lauren,” she said. “Did you see what I left you?”

“I did, thank you,” I smiled, but she didn’t look up, insisting on leaving extra money for me in a tan coin purse throughout the week, on top of what she paid me.

I returned the next day to find her in a silky blue dress, the sleeves long, puckered at the seams, wrinkled around the waist.

“You look amazing,” I said.

“Did you get the cake?”

“I did. It’s in the car. I wanted to bring these things in first,” I pointed at the bag of party plates, cups, and hats.

“Oh my,” she said and headed back into her bedroom, Champ at her ankles.

She came out a few minutes later and helped me finish setting up. Guests began arriving, all dressed up in slacks and button-up shirts, dresses with pleats, and shoes that had been shined the night before. They entered carrying dishes and deserts Betty hadn’t asked for but had me take into the kitchen anyway. After sharing a laugh, they each made a plate, making themselves comfortable around the long dining table, in the living room on plush chairs and sofas. The cousins joined late without explanation, dropping off warm bottled water in the kitchen before finding Betty. They cornered her, each delivering a message she absorbed but didn’t respond to. She walked into the kitchen, grabbed the letter, and moved towards the front door, Champ and the cousins behind her. I watched from the window, stared through the sheer shade. Their mouths moved; hers didn’t. She opened the envelope and squinted as she read the handwritten letter, letting it rest in her lap when she was done. Still she said nothing. She didn’t seem sad or happy. Her face didn’t change; she put the letter back into the envelope and sent for me.

All three cousins came into the kitchen to tell me she needed me and then went into the living room.

“Yes?” I approached.

“Would you cut me a piece of cake? A small piece, dear,” she said.

“Of course.”

When I returned, she had slipped off her shoes and stretched her legs across the iron table.

“Here ya go,” I handed her the cake, a fork, and a napkin.

“Look at that,” she laughed and pointed to a lone bird flying through the sky, then disappearing in the fog. “They say Beverly jumped off a bridge because she said she could fly,” she revealed. “Now I guess she can,” she licked frosting off her fork, Champ staring, hoping he might get a taste too. “No more voices, no more pain, just wings so she can soar,” she waited for the bird to reappear.

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Watch Over Me

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I knew her as Nettie, a nickname she gave herself after years of people mispronouncing her name. She was my neighbor for four years in the brand new apartments on Center Way, the ones standing alone between two empty lots, an ominous image at night.

“This place is haunted,” residents said anytime they saw a moving van pull up and new renters step out.

“Really?” they asked, rethinking their year-long lease.

We were all spread out, at first, just one or two families living in each building, their every move echoing through the dark halls. Jack rabbits and mice still found their way onto the premises in search of a home that had been demolished and covered with a concrete foundation. On paper, the complex promised spacious units with modern amenities, a clubhouse, weight room, and pool. The reality was not as appealing. There were plumbing issues, break ins, and unexplained sightings, eerie feelings we couldn’t shake.

I had moved from another state with plans of starting over with my newborn son, a young widow now whose husband’s body lay a thousand miles away in a cemetery alongside other veterans. Aside from the plumbing issues that required me to leave the apartment or succumb to the horrendous smell, I didn’t leave much. From couch to kitchen to crib, I spent my days feeding, changing, and soothing a newborn, venturing out to buy groceries, visit the pediatrician, or collect the mail. Each time I stepped out, locked the door behind me, and headed for my red, four-door Volvo, I got the feeling that someone was watching me, though the parking lot was clear and blinds were shut. As I put Nathan in his car seat, I stayed alert, buckling him in and then plopping into the driver’s seat and making my way from the back of the complex to the street. But there was never anything suspicious, nothing that made me worry. Instead, there was Nettie, a neighbor whose patio faced mine, who admitted she had been watching me.

“Hey there,” she called, running out of her apartment as I pulled into my parking spot.

“Hi,” I said, but it was a question.

“I’ve been watching you, girl,” she laughed. “I’m Nettie,” she said.

“Kaia,” I said.

“Don’t think I’m weird or anything,” she lifted the blanket on Nathan’s car seat and peeked in at him. “Cute…I run a business from my living room,” she explained. “So, I see everything.”

“What kind of business do you have?”

“I make stuff and sell it,” she began and then listed her achievements.

“That sounds fun,” I took a step back. “I better get him inside.”

“Don’t be a stranger,” she said. “I’m in apartment 1013 if you need anything.”

A few weeks passed before I saw her again, and when I did she was bearing gifts.

“Hey neighbor,” she said when I opened the door. “I ordered a bunch of lavender, but I got more than I needed,” she held up a bundle of lavender. “And I thought of you,” she smiled.

“How nice of you,” I said. “I don’t have any plants or anything right now,” I looked back at my living room, a bare space aside from a couch and baby stuff–a walker, stroller, and unopened toys he’d have to wait months to play with.

“Do you have a planter?” she asked.

“No,” I shook my head.

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

She returned with an orange and yellow clay pot, a small bag of soil, and a small shovel. There was no question in her mind that she was coming in to help me, to show me how to care for the lavender. And that’s what she did, while Nathan slept in the bedroom; we stepped out onto the patio, using the surface of the wall to transfer the lavender bundle into the soil. She went on and on about the plants she had in her apartment, her collection of unusual planters, ones she designed or repurposed. I stood there and listened, annoyed by the intrusion, glad when she left. But, of course, she returned, inviting me on evening walks, to craft stores, to her favorite eateries, and I resisted for as long as I could.

“You ready to go on that walk?” she’d ask.

“Uh, maybe soon.”

“It’ll be good for you,’ she sang.

So I gave in, thinking a walk around the neighborhood could be good for Nathan. She talked the whole time, told me about her adult daughter, her losses and gains in life, and the decision she made years earlier to live the rest of her life the way she wanted to. Though I still found her to be incredibly intrusive, I was also intrigued by her strength.

“I don’t know your situation, but I can tell you’re starting over,” she smiled. “We all need someone to watch over us sometimes.”

That was enough for me to let down my guard. She pulled me into her world, and soon I was making baskets, candles, designing stationary, key chains, building planters for my patio, fancy shoe racks for the shoes I didn’t own yet. I was as spontaneous and eager as I could be with a child, always ready for our next adventure. We spent Saturday mornings rummaging through items at yard sales, excited when we found a set of rusted canisters we could resurface, decorate, and sell. She enlisted my help on large projects, and I obliged. We took trips to wine country, not for the wine, but to get ideas and enjoy the scenery. She invited us to her favorite vacation spots. We visited nurseries, always on the lookout for lavender, jasmine, and sweet peas because they made her feel good. And she never ran out of things to say, willing to share every detail of her life with me, except that she was moving.

She never talked about it, just announced one day that she was leaving, that it was time to move on. Even though I was disappointed, I understood. Nettie needed to live life, not get stuck in patterns that no longer challenged her. I helped her pack and watched her go, resolved to be there when she called to tell me about her latest adventure. But she didn’t call, and then I moved on, taking all she had taught me to design the life I wanted.

A couple years later, Nathan and I moved into our own house, he started school, and I created stuff all day. We met new people and went on new adventures. I thought about Nettie from time to time, hoped she was well, happy, never bothering to find her because I knew she didn’t want to be found. She had given me what I needed, any more would have been too much. What started with a bundle of lavender blossomed into a garden I thought could never grow again.

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Worry-Free Spaces

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After a weeklong heatwave, cooler weather brought people out of their air conditioned homes, into parks where their children could run without the risk of heatstroke, touch the surfaces of playground equipment that days before would have caused third degree burns; where they could buy fruit-filled popsicles from sellers who stored them in small freezers on wheels; where exercise buddies could walk mile-long laps around the perimeter, chatting about meal prep services, trainers, and intermittent fasting; where families could gather around picnic tables to enjoy six-inch subs and sun chips; where friends could stand around their cars, too caught up in laughter to make it past the parking lot; where neighbors could sit on benches and knit booties for grandchildren arriving any day, read the latest Stephen King novel, or people watch as they settled into the worry-free spaces in their minds.

They could listen to birds call out to each other as they foraged for food, dogs bark to express their excitement or yap out of fear, children squeal as they slid down plastic spirals, tennis balls bounce against asphalt, music vibrate through wireless speakers. They could watch ducks swim across the pond, dogs catch frisbees between their teeth, study groups sit in circles on quilted blankets, dance partners practice a new routine, butterflies flutter through the air.

And while the northeast winds tickled their exposed skin, the rest of the world would disappear, and their own thoughts would be silenced, a reprieve they’d know to be grateful for when the scorching heat returned and they were again at the mercy of air conditioning units and busy minds ready to predict the future or return to the past.

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The Way to Safety

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A white cake sat in the middle of the table; on either side were bowls of chips and punch, trays of fruit and veggies, cookies, cheese. The conference room was packed with people I knew well and spent time with off-site; people I had an over the phone relationship with, calling them when I had a client sitting in front of me who needed resources I didn’t have the authority to offer, and people I had cordial relationships with but never thought much about outside of work. Gifts in colorful bags were hidden under decorative tissue; others were wrapped in shiny paper, poly-ribbon bows on top. A card everyone jotted short, farewell messages in circulated the room, and, between conversations on what was next, I watched joyful expressions turn to sadness as the hour approached its end, goodbye imminent, hanging over us like the bittersweet moments after graduation. We’d promise to keep in touch, but life would ultimately pave a new path for us to follow. And at forty, I was again the graduate, moving on to a new adventure that some had no trouble denouncing–for its risks and unknowns–in long emails, voicemails, and over lunch dates disguised as catch-up sessions that quickly turned into embarrassing monologues riddled with warnings, shoulda-coulda–woulda’s, and a bone-deep desperation I dodged.

“I’ve already made up my mind,” I said, momentarily silencing their apprehension.

“Aren’t you scared?” they asked.

I was.

I was afraid to let go of a career I had once enjoyed. And I was afraid that if I didn’t let go I’d be forever tethered to a routine I now, most days, tolerated. Like so many others, years of promotions promising speedy climbs up invisible ladders, big offices overlooking quiet meadows, and increased workloads consuming all free time, meant I wore a smile on my face during the day and chased sleep in the wee hours. But I didn’t know how to untangle myself from the safety of this net, how to return to a time when I wasn’t driven by false victories, by the race through ranks that had redefined who I was while I was buried underneath mounds of work.

I worried that leaving would leave a gaping hole I’d spend the rest of my life trying to fill. I fretted at the thought of myself frozen in time, memory stranding me in the past when things were good, tolerable. It was like floating down the river under a dark cloud. I couldn’t see where I was going, but I didn’t dare jump out of the boat. I let the waves carry me until the sky opened, revealing the sun’s soft glow, just enough to light the way to safety.

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Breathe in

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It wasn’t his favorite day of the year. In fact, it was quite common for him to disappear when visitors filled the house and loud, overlapping chatter spilled onto the porch and into the yard. He made sure to greet everyone with his toothless grin and a calloused hand on the shoulder before slipping away for an adventure more his pace. He never wanted cards, gifts, trips, or big backyard barbeques. A quiet walk in the woods was enough to excite him, to awaken his inner conversationalist. But I didn’t always understand or appreciate this.

Growing up, his frequent absences felt troublesome, personal. Whether he left the dinner table early to sit outside with the dogs, stood in the doorway of the school gymnasium during my recitals and left midway through, never called during his weekend trips, or showed up late for my birthday, staying just long enough to wave at the guests before climbing back into his truck and driving away, I wondered why.

“Where’s Daddy?” I asked my mother.

“He’s here,” she said. “Look around you…”

“No he’s not,” I argued.

“Yes,” she said and shooed me out of the kitchen.

I walked away, angry that she had lied to me, that she was hiding something from me. He wasn’t there. And when he was home, he was also somewhere else. His eyes were always red, his face, hands, and clothes blackened with soot, stains that never left. Preferring his own company, he sat outside until the mosquitos started to bite and then came inside. Some nights, after going to the bathroom, I peeked inside their room where he lay on top of the covers and listened to his labored breathing, his cough that seemed benign at first and later felt menacing, like it might overtake him.

By the time I was sixteen, he needed oxygen, but he didn’t want the oxygen. The silver tank went unused while an average cough lasted several minutes. I grabbed a wet cloth, and my mother rubbed his back until the coughing spell was over because she didn’t know what else to do. The hacking was replaced with wheezing, and he struggled to catch his breath.

“Use this,” I pulled the tank to him and wrapped the soft tube around his ears, securing the prongs inside his nostrils.

He sat this way for a while, the sound of his breathing getting softer and softer.

“I think that’s good,” he pulled the tube out and headed for the woods.

I followed him, dragging the tank behind me. I called him stubborn, asked him if he was trying to kill himself, but he didn’t answer. We kept walking like this, me a few paces behind him. He maneuvered through the dense trees like we were on a marked road, not really looking for anything, just looking, being.

“How’s school?” he asked, once we had passed the Charleston’s property.

“Fine,” I said, shocked he had asked.

“Are you still interested in that red-headed fella?” the wheezing was back.

“How do you know about that?” I blushed.

“You walk home with him every day,” he blurted. “Have you thought about Mrs. Perry’s offer?”

“To work at the boutique?”

“Yeah,” he said. “What other offers do you have?” he laughed and the coughing returned.

“Let’s stop so you can catch your breath,” I said, but it was a plea.

We found a spot overlooking the lake, and I wrapped the tube around his ears, slid the prongs in his nose. He smiled, patted my shoulder as I sat next to him, and breathed in. I answered all his questions, asked some of my own when the wheezing faded. He told me about his own youth, his dad, who was a man of few words, and that he wished there had been other opportunities besides working in the mines.

“If I would have known,” he reflected, succumbing to an uncontrollable cough, one that ripped through his body, leaving him defenseless as it ran its course.

“Breathe, Dad.”

“You’re my breath,” he said, his voice raspy, a whisper I might not have heard if I wasn’t sitting right next to him.

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In the Middle

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Every summer my parents, younger brother, and I spent a month in a small cottage overlooking the ocean. My mother’s two sisters and their families, along with my father’s sister and her family joined, each of us committed to the long trek that ended when we reached the midpoint between us so no one was more inconvenienced than the other.

We all arrived around the same time in matching, rented minivans, with rolling luggage and ice chests, wearing brand new shorts and tanks we found on clearance racks at Khols, and open-toe sandals with Velcro straps we’d ditch for warm sand and wooden planks. Aunt Helena, my mother’s youngest sister was first to hop out the front passenger seat and run towards us, wrapping her arms around us, squeezing until we squirmed. Her husband, Uncle Devon, and children–Michael, Rae, and Cindy–followed behind, slightly less excited, offering polite hugs and tired smiles. Uncle Thomas, Aunt Gina, and their children–Tommy and Tessa–approached with toothy grins and squeals, rocking us back and forth in a quick hug. My father’s sister, Aunt Rosa and her husband, Uncle Gordon, and their children–Tasha, Finley, and Jasper–approached with handshakes and small gifts from their novelty store. Uncle Gordon stood with his hands in his pockets, swaying as he talked about the drive. Tasha and I found each other, quiet at first, warming to a playful giggle. We were the closest in age, just six months apart, old enough to call each other during the year and write letters on Hello Kitty stationary.

The cottages were close together, small quarters with small appliances, space enough to sleep, eat prepackaged food, and store our suitcases. Once we had emptied the vans of our belongings and stacked them neatly in the cottages, we slipped into our bathing suits and headed for the water. This was where we’d spend most of our time, parading up and down the shore, jumping into volleyball games, taking surfing lessons, and building sand castles. We’d take turns rubbing sunscreen into freckled flesh, bury each other from the neck down in sand, and play detective, searching for clues to unsolved mysteries like The Case of the Floating Flipflops and The Case of the Missing Beach Towel.

This game prompted more snooping, this year especially, when I noticed Uncle Gordon and Aunt Rosa were not wearing their wedding rings.

“They’re still married,” Tasha assured.

“Are you sure?” I pressed.

“Yeah…” her voice was layered with doubt. “I think so.”

“Well, let’s find out for sure.”

We each had a notepad and took to observing her parents: the way they sat apart on the boat ride, the way Aunt Rosa forced a smile when Uncle Gordon nudged her with his elbow and they stepped away to discuss a pressing matter, the way he emptied their garbage can early in the morning, leaving behind no traces of the tiny bottles Tasha said he drank at night; the way Aunt Rosa kept sleeping pills and hard candies in her purse that she poured onto the table and counted after a squabble over money and mistresses.

“I don’t think they love each other anymore,” she looked down at her notepad and then closed it, staring at the bright yellow cover.

“We don’t know for sure,” I said. “There’s more work to do…we’ll wait until the band starts playing,” I looked out at the crew preparing the stage.

“I don’t want to play this game anymore,” she stood up, handed me the notepad, and went back to their cottage, her frame dark as the sun sunk further into the horizon.

Minutes later, when just the tip of the sun remained and soft, event lights came on, Aunt Rosa marched towards me, Tasha and Uncle Gordon behind her. They took turns yelling at me while Tasha cried, and then my parents, who had been strolling along the shore, rushed towards us, their words unclear, their faces defensive. I stood in the middle as they swapped insults, as they worked backwards through the offense.

I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the sounds now coming from the stage. Brass instruments told a story of triumph, and people danced, cheered. But we were suspended inside what had been revealed, by what had started as a game and ended in a reality no one wanted to embrace.

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Friend

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Kim had planned a trip to the beach so that we could get away and reconnect, Kim the buffer between Gretchen and I after an impassioned conversation on ethics in education when we found out that a professor was accused of inflating grades for female students. It was a conversation that ended with her going her way and me going mine. Two months had passed without a phone call, a message, an apology.

“It’s starting to feel normal…not having her around,” I admitted to Kim.

“That’s not okay,” she scolded. “You’re friends…long before I met either one of you,” she cut her burrito in half, wrapping one end for later. “Why can’t you call her?”

“I’ve had a lot of time to rethink our friendship, and I’m just not sure it’s even worth it.”

“Why not?”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had a disagreement…”

“But why does a disagreement have to end a friendship?”

“It’s not just about the disagreement.”

“You brought it up though as a reason for not talking to her.”

“It’s more than that,” I defended.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know if I like who she is anymore,” I sunk in my seat as the words came out of my mouth.

“Why not?” Kim pressed.

“She’s competitive, insulting, pompous…”

“Pompous? Wow!”

“Uncaring, braggy, dismissive, doesn’t listen, thinks everything is about her, punitive…”

She’s punitive?” Kim laughed.

“Gossipy, lazy but wants everything to go her way…”

“I get it,” she held out her hand, insisting I stop. “Dang, I’d hate to hear how you describe me.”

“I wouldn’t say those things about you,” I insisted. “I’m not trying to be mean.”

“Well, you are,” she took a bite of her burrito. “I have to say I’m surprised. I thought you were different,” she shrugged.

“What do you mean?”

“I thought you were her friend…” she sipped her Dr. Pepper. “Maybe you should spend some time thinking about what that word means,” she said and then finished her burrito in silence.

When she was done, she stood up, gave me a one-armed hug, and left. I followed behind her, but it was clear we were not together. By the time I got home, my roommates were in the kitchen making samosas, laughing as they chopped potatoes and measured ingredients as if the entire process was funny.

“Hey,” I nodded and went straight to my room, plopping on my bed.

I fell asleep for about an hour, and when I awoke I had two missed calls from my mother and a text from Kim.

“We’re all going to the beach tomorrow at 8am. Be ready. No getting out of this,” she wrote.

Before texting back, I called my mother, folded a pile of clothes on the chair, and stared at an episode of Tiny House Nation, unimpressed with 500sq. foot house a man, his, wife, and dog would share.

“Fine,” I texted.

The next text from Kim came the following morning at 7:55am.

“I’m here…”

I grabbed my backpack and walked outside. Kim sat in the driver’s seat rocking back and forth to Lauryn Hill.

“Look at you,” I hopped in and she sped away.

The music blared, windows rolled down, all green lights as we headed to Gretchen’s house. I felt my neck muscles tense, my jaws clench. The plan was to be cordial, but I was open to other options. When she got in the car, she let out a long, complicated sigh, and I rolled my eyes.

“Hey, Kim,” Gretchen cheered. “How’ve you been?”

“Busy,” Kim complained. “Stats. If you don’t have to take it, DON’T.”

Kim glanced my way, but I stayed quiet, staring out the window while they swapped stories.

“Professor Hurst is back,” Gretchen informed, “I guess he was innocent after all,” she gloated.

“Doesn’t mean he’s innocent,” I bit back. “Just that they didn’t have enough evidence to prove he’s disgusting.”

“I really don’t see what the big deal is,” she reminded. “It’s not like he’s teaching a class that matters, anyway.”

“That’s not the point, Gretchen,” I turned in my seat to face her. “He’s bound to standards…”

“Yeah, yeah,” she interrupted.

“Don’t interrupt me,” I sassed.

“Ladies,” Kim said. “We’re going to the beach. Be happy.”

“I am happy,” Gretchen said, her arms folded at her chest. “Can’t even have a civil conversation though.”

Kim turned up the music and waited for the bad energy to clear. She drove another thirty minutes stuck in her own world. Unbothered by us, she took a call from her boyfriend, told him how much she wished he was there, that it was no problem she was talking to him and not us. At the beach, she told us to get out of her car, go take a walk and figure things out.

“Are you serious?” I protested. “You said we were all going to hang out.”

“I’ll catch up.”

Gretchen took the lead, walking a few paces ahead of me. The morning sun was still soft, the wind cool. She pulled her hair away from her face, each time a breeze returning the strands like a curtain covering her eyes.

“Here,” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a scrunchie.

“Thanks,” she wound the white band around her hair.

We kept walking, runners from both directions passing us, their breaths heavy, loud enough for us to hear and find humorous. Gretchen mimicked a man running shirtless.

“I hope everyone sees my hairy chest,” she teased, huffing and puffing, motioning like she was running.

I hadn’t forgotten about the disagreement, but we laughed like the teenagers we were, fresh out of our parents’ homes, adults legally, still child-like as we navigated the layers of friendship outside of the spaces they were created, redefined boundaries as we defined ourselves, and discovered that beliefs were sometimes like tornados; they’d destroy us if weren’t prepared.

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Last Chance

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“I found her, but…” Vance said.

“But what?” I slid my arm through the bed rail and reached for his hand.

“She’s in the Mammoth Mountains,” he squeezed my hand.

“Where’s that?”

“Far,” he shook his head.

“We have to go.”

“It’s too dangerous…for you,” he looked at the IV pole, the bags hanging from it, the tube that traveled to my chest secured by medical tape. “It’s in the middle of nowhere…nowhere.”

“Vance,” I whispered, too weak to assert myself, but I knew he understood.

“Okay.”

A few days later, I was released, conditionally. I had to return in the next seventy-two hours to complete the treatment my doctors hoped would work better than the last one had. Vance, his cousin, Terri, and my friend, Brenda, arrived in a white van, the third row ready with blankets and pillows so I’d be comfortable. Two nurses helped me into the van, double checked my port, the tubes that dangled from it, and wished me good luck.

Mammoth Mountain was eighteen hours away. Vance, Terri, and Brenda had agreed to each drive six hours so we’d get there and back in time. I lay propped up on thick pillows, watching sky and treetops, drifting off to sleep or just thinking about Pearl, my mother, the woman who went out to get her hair done when I was eight years old and never returned. My purpose for finding her was not due to some fantasy I had about reuniting, at least I didn’t think so. I just wanted to see her one more time in case this was my last chance.

I tuned in and out of conversations, listened to music, felt every bump, dip, turn. and vibration like it was an extension of me. Brenda filled water bottles with fresh water for me to sip, apple juice to swallow handfuls of pills, prescribed meal replacements as directed. She gave me crackers to nibble on, words of encouragement for nourishment. But when it became too hard for her to look into my eyes, she returned to her seat, staring ahead because that was where peace lived. At rest stops, they got out one at a time to stretch and use the restroom, making sure I was never alone though I suspected that they felt I might abandon them after this trip seeing how hours in a van seemed to put even more strain on my body.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back?” they asked, but it was really a plea, a hope I would choose my life over a memory of someone else’s.

It wasn’t that simple for me; I didn’t want to die wondering. For eight years, she had taken care of me, loved me, and I watched her, in awe, wanted to be like her, be her. I was her shadow, always nearby, matching her movements, her mannerisms, trying to find myself inside her. And then she was gone, leaving me with questions I’d spend a lifetime trying to answer.

“We’re almost there,” Vance cheered.

He steered the van along a narrow, dirt road, winding down the mountain until we were parked in front of a white house, a yard full of bushes sprouting orange berries. He turned off the engine, and we waited.

“Should we go knock on the door?” Terri asked.

“Let’s see if she comes out,” I suggested.

A few minutes later, the door opened, and a woman stepped out, her hands on her hips. Vance got out and opened the sliding door. Brenda and Terri adjusted my pillows so that I was sitting up straight. The image of my mother I had in my head was fuzzy and had been for years, but I knew the woman approaching was her. Long strands of grey, wiry hair grew all the way down her back. She walked now with a bad hip and was thinner than I remembered. I watched her cross the uneven walkway, avoiding cracks and overgrowth. Midway she stopped and put her hand to her mouth. She recognized me but couldn’t find the strength, the courage to approach.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“She said it’s okay,” Brenda yelled.

My mother moved her hand from her mouth to her chest, covered her heart and kept it there, her feet still frozen in place. We waved her in, smiled through tears, still she stood there, and we looked on, waited, and waited some more, eventually realizing we were at an impasse. I couldn’t get to her, and she couldn’t find a way to me.

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Tuck Me in

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My sister, Elizabeth, called around 4:15am, waking me from a dream about spiders weaving a web around me.

“Can you watch Jeremiah for me?” she asked, her voice faint, like she had been crying.

“Of course…what’s going on?” I sat up.

“He’s at your door,” she sniffed.

“What?” I stood up and walked to the front door.

“I’ll be back later.”

I opened the door as she pulled away, Jeremiah standing in a sleeper with a stuffed frog in one hand, his lip quivering.

“Hey, Buddy,” I bent to pick him up, and he wrapped his arms around my neck. “I got ya,” I soothed, grabbing the diaper bag.

I wasn’t a mother then, but I had family and friends who were, so bottles, pacifiers, diapers, and tantrums were things I was used to. We went inside, and I turned on the kitchen light.

“No,” Jeremiah screamed, waving his free hand in the air.

“Okay…okay,” I turned off the light and rubbed his back. “We can sit in the dark.”

He pointed to the sofa, so I crossed the living room, sitting on the plush sectional. I thought he wanted to run across the cushions, jump up and down, laughing as the wood creaked like he had all the other times they visited. Instead he clung to me, putting his head on my chest. His body was tense, a sharp shiver moving from one end to the other. Each time I held him tighter until the shiver was gone. He stared into the darkness, rarely blinking, quietly contemplating, I imagined, the events that led him to my house. And I couldn’t help but wonder myself. I was the younger sister, and I had always seen Elizabeth as smart, fun. life-loving, a pillar of strength. She was the one I called when I had good news, when I needed to vent, and she was there to listen, not judge. I never really considered that she might be overwhelmed, that under her cool exterior she was drowning, hoping someone noticed.

After about thirty minutes, Jeremiah’s body began to relax, and his grip on the stuff frog loosened. He tried to keep his eyes open, but sleep forced them shut. I lay him on the sofa next to me, putting the frog next to him. In his bag I found a knitted blanket, one Elizabeth had knitted, and spread it over him.

“Tuck me in,” he said without opening his eyes.

I pushed the ends of the blanket under him so that he felt snug, so that he felt safe, and I waited for him to fall back to sleep before I called my sister.

“Hey,” I said when she answered. “Let’s talk…”

At first she was quiet, promising she was fine.

“I’m listening…no judgment,” I said, and she exhaled before revealing details of her life she had never shared with me: the chaos, the vulnerability, and the peace. And I just listened, affirmed, tucked her inside love so she felt safe.

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The Girl

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I am twenty now, and I spend my days moving between the chair in the corner, my bed, and the window, reading mostly 19th century literature, watching critters climb up and down apple and acacia trees. Addie cares for me. She helps me in the bath, brings my meals, and lets the doctor in when he arrives each week. I don’t know the name of it, but I believe I have a terminal illness, though it’s taking its sweet time. That’s at least what I’ve been able to glean over the years from whispers, slips of the tongue, and characters like Ivan Ilyich in The Death of Ivan Ilyich who grapples with the meaning of life until he befriends death. I don’t think my own death is near or anything like that, but neither are we good friends. I like living; life hasn’t always been this secluded. I used to attend school. I had friends, a really good one.

When my grandmother was alive, she took care of me. She made sure my uniform was ironed every morning, that I was presentable before we left the house. I attended All Saints Primary School and she packed my lunch because I couldn’t eat what everyone else ate. “That’s just the way it is,” she explained. The kids in my class assumed I had food allergies, and that made sense to me, until Dr. Jones and his nurse began visiting more often, bringing bags of blood they let drain into my arm when I felt weak and couldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes grandmother allowed my friend Connie to come over on the days I didn’t go to school, if she had completed her homework. She sat on my bed with me, playing with my dolls, drawing get well pictures, painting my fingernails with a clear polish.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, but I realized that I wanted to know. “I have to find out.”

“Do you want me to help you?”

I still remember how we became investigators, rummaging through grandmother’s things when she was immersed in her soap operas. We shuffled through papers, letters, mementos, and found a lock box with “The Girl” written on it.

“It’s locked,” Connie determined. “I bet what we need is in here,” she said, as we ignored letters with an overseas address, letters about guardianship of a girl named Alice because we didn’t know what they meant.

Addie now guards this box. She moved in after grandmother fell ill, and had been prepped, trained in secret-keeping. Some days though her tongue had a mind of its own.

“Do you know what’s wrong with me?” I asked one afternoon when she brought fresh towels into my room.

“Tisk, tisk,” she sat on the edge of the bed and put her hand on my face. “You look just like her.”

“My mother?”

“Ring the bell if you need anything, Alice,” she said as she stood up and turned to leave.

“It’s Annie,” I corrected, and she stared for a moment before closing the door.

And the morning of grandmother’s funeral, as Addie was helping me get ready, she made an observation she didn’t mean to make.

“It’s too bad Sylvia can’t be here,” she said, pulling my hair back and twirling it into a bun.

“Why can’t she?”

“She’s sick too…the transfusions aren’t working anymore,” she blabbed. “I hope this isn’t your fate too.”

“Why would it be?”

“Sins of the mother,” she said and then fell quiet.

I’m almost twenty-one, and I live in a delicate web of fact and fiction, both of which can break the heart or mend it. Aside from a few slips, the people in my life have worked really hard to protect me from a truth so egregious they’d rather take it to their graves than speak it. I don’t know who Sylvia was, just that she died after grandmother, and I don’t know who Alice was, if I’m her. I’ve given up on knowing. I’d rather live the rest of my days seeing, not seeking. Truth is, after all, like the curved branches of the acacia tree. At some point the the winding limbs always become fragmented; delicate twigs always break off and fall to the ground, unnoticed.

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Like in a Movie

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We met serendipitously, like in a movie. I was sitting on the steps in front of my apartment building crying because I had locked myself out again, I had lost my job, I was basically friendless, losing them in the usual ways–big moves, tragedy, and drama–my phone was dead, and life was starting to feel unfair. Rain pelted against the red, vinyl awning, irregular taps I listened to, waiting for a rhythm to emerge. Cars sped by, delivery drivers double parked their trucks to unload coffee beans to the shop next door, and people with umbrellas took an afternoon stroll. I saw him before he saw me, at the end of the street, meandering from one side of the sidewalk to the other, stopping to inspect fancy railings and posts, make sure garbage can lids were secure, greet passersby, and smell the roses.

The closer he got, the quicker his pace became. He exuded confidence, his hair damp, small spikes sticking up as though it had been styled that way, his muscles toned, a sign he worked out everyday. Then his big brown eyes met mine, and I thought I might faint. He stopped, said hello, and sat there on the steps with me. I looked around, thinking he might be with someone, that this someone would show up and claim him. But that’s not what happened, not exactly.

He stayed with me until my neighbor Chauncey arrived, and then we said our goodbyes. The next morning, we met up again. This time I was on my way to the market, and he insisted on tagging along, wanting to hear more about me, my career, my interests, my goals. I bought all non-perishables, so that we could take a stroll through the park. He talked on an on about the squirrels and the ducks–he seemed to know a lot about them–showed me his favorite spots, and retrieved tennis balls when they made their way over the fence.

Against my better judgment, I invited him to stay over, and he obliged. At home I made us a meal, telling him all about my culinary adventures. He seemed pleased with his chicken and rice entre, while I had grilled salmon and green beans. After lunch, he fell asleep, snoring like an old man. I went back to my job search, hoping the tapping of the keys didn’t wake him. When he stirred, I took pictures of us together, some of just him, posted them online, printed copies to share with neighbors. And just like that, what I thought was for one night, at most, turned into a week, and then another week, not that I minded. I was his and he was mine. We took long walks every day, ate gourmet meals, set daily goals–his very short term, completed by noon–cuddled on the couch, and shared my bed at night.

It’s no wonder that a phone call from a Mr. Flanagan felt like a disruption. There was someone else after all, and he was on his way to collect what belonged to him.

“Mr. Flanagan,” I said when I opened the door.

“Call me Hunter,” he said. “Come, Ace,” he called, and Ace came.

I gathered his things, keeping my back turned so they didn’t see my sadness.

“Hey, thanks for looking after him for me,” Hunter said. “My brother was supposed to be watching him while I was out of town and clearly did a horrible job,” he laughed.

“It was no problem. We had fun…didn’t we Boy,” I bent to say goodbye to Ace.

“I would like to give you something…”

“That’s not necessary,” I said, as he pulled out his wallet. “It was my pleasure.”

“Why don’t you meet us at the park sometime,” he pulled a business card from his wallet and handed it to me. “We can talk about Half Dome,” he said.

“What?”

“Half Dome, when you climbed it?” he pointed at the framed picture above my desk.

“Yeah…that was a long time ago,” I dismissed.

“I still want to hear about it,” he smiled and turned to leave, Ace at his side.

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The Fine Line

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I stood in front of the door for a moment before I rang the bell, my mother and sister on the other side bickering about what needed to be thrown out and what didn’t.

“You can’t use this,” my sister yelled.

“Yes, I can,” my mother screamed, and I imagined her clutching the item to her chest.

We didn’t usually bother with the growing hoard, letting her exist peacefully amongst piles of stuff, but today was different. It was moving day, and almost everything had to go. I took a deep breath and rang the bell. The yelling stopped, my sister’s footsteps heavy as she approached.

“Finally,” she huffed. “I’ve been here an hour already,” she complained. “And all the boxes we packed? Yeah, a waste of time.”

“She unpacked them?” I asked.

“Get in here,” she rolled her eyes.

Half full boxes were spread around the room, packing tape ripped, sliced, dangling from the sides. I looked out at all the stuff now scattered: books she said she couldn’t live without, photo albums that belonged to her mother, a ceramic cat collection she started the year she got married, costume jewelry she swore was worth something.

“Mom,” I sighed.

“Never mind this mess,” my sister interrupted. “I need you in the bedroom,” she insisted.

I followed her down the cluttered hall and squeezed past a stack of boxes, a dusty vanity.

“Close the door,” my sister snapped. “You have to see this…” she sat on the edge of the bed and opened a brown accordion file.

“What about it?” I asked.

“Look,” she nudged.

Inside the file were our old assignments, ones we had done poorly on, detention slips, citations, and suspensions, a yellow legal pad with a tally of all the times we had been disrespectful, the date and a short summary of the infraction, the latest entry a few days earlier.

“Oh…my…”

“Look at this?” my sister pulled out a citation from seventh grade. “For chewing gum,” she waved it in the air and put it back, pulling out another one. “Looks like I was caught hugging a friend. The word friend in quotes,” she laughed.

“This one’s mine,” I joined. “My pencils were too sharp, apparently.”

“Mom wrote, ‘Averie is hugging boys now. I have to pray harder that she doesn’t turn into a jezebel.'”

“Wow,” I said. “Read mine.”

“She wrote, ‘Riya likes sharp pencils, the lead sharp enough to hurt someone. I pray she doesn’t stab anyone.'”

“Oh my…” I said. “Here’s the time I got suspended for covering Mrs. Latham’s desk with cotton balls.”

“How did you even get them to stick?”

“Gum,” I admitted, and we laughed.

“We were too much,” I said. “But why keep the records of it?” I asked as the door opened.

Our mother’s eyes widened as she saw what we were doing, the blood rushing from her face. She put one hand on the door frame, the other on the doorknob to steady herself. Her mouth opened as if she wanted to speak, but no words came out. We waited, the evidence still in our hands, an infraction she’d describe later on the yellow legal pad. She squeezed through the door and quietly took the citation slips and suspension letters from our hands, slipping them gently into the file before turning and walking out of the room.

“Okay,” Averie said, getting up to finish going through our mother’s closet.

I joined her, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the file, about why she charted our disobedience and not our accomplishments.

“You’re still thinking about it, aren’t you?” Averie turned, watching me throw old church shoes our mother never wore into a box.

“It’s just weird,” I shuttered.

“Not really,” she said. “She’s a control freak.”

“What does that have to do with the file?”

“By collecting the bad stuff, she could contain it, and if she could contain it, she could control it,” she said like a riddle, one I should have learned in nursery school.

“What about the good stuff?”

“No need to collect good stuff, for her at least. She doesn’t have to control the good, only the bad.”

“So, all of this stuff represents something bad?” I challenged.

“Yep.”

I looked at the flattened shoes in the box, imagining the fine line she had walked for years, how, more than anything, she must have wished there had been a wider path, space to stumble, space to fall.

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An Invitation

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It was a cool 75 degrees, the windows of my sedan rolled down as we cruised along Sutter Avenue. XM radio played in the background, cars whishing past almost muting the announcer’s voice as she introduced the next song, one long anticipated. I slowed for a red light, listening to short drum strokes, the eruption of musical accompaniment, a familiar voice I always found comfort in, one I’d replay, surprised each time by its tonal distinctions, its built-in depth, a time-release capsule rippling through verse, chorus, bridge.

Musicians on guitar and keyboard frolicked up and down scales; drummers beat rhythms into congas and snares with calloused hands and sticks. Music and lyrics came together just right, a story about life’s pendulum swaying between self and other, flight and stillness, togetherness and absence, pinpointing the spaces they intersect, brief glimpses into mysterious and magical moments, the kind of peace we yearn but can never own.

And as the song ended–a careful, intentional fading–meaning lingered. It was a whisper I could still hear and feel against my ear, its warmth an invitation to return again and again.

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Framed

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The doors opened at 7pm, letting in art enthusiasts, artists’ families, and passersby who were out for a Friday evening stroll and felt compelled to support The Artists Guild. For ten dollars they could enjoy a cup of ice cold lemonade or water, admire oil and acrylic paintings of sailboats floating along calm waters, quaint towns and bustling cities, storms raging behind eyes, on water; converse with artists about texture, color, inspiration; and exchange business cards or contact information when deals were proposed, friendships birthed.

Days before, the framed works had been hung against dark and light backgrounds, guiding our gaze inside the framed canvases where we studied impressionism, surrealism, modernism, and the world of abstraction. Some visitors raced through, their eyes landing maybe once or twice on a painting before moving on to the next as if it was a race to the finish line. And many lingered, at times blocking others’ view, as they took in every line, every curve, delighted by subtle shading, breathtaking depth.

We exchanged thoughts and reactions in passing, a light chatter that succumbed to long, pensive pauses when we saw ourselves inside the nebulous formations, heavy brushstrokes, and cardinal themes. With our eyes glued to the canvas, we journeyed into pain, love; the spaces we guarded, framed like still pictures so we could always return to the moments that changed us.

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Clam Chowder

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After Geoffrey finished grading final exams, we headed south to the Manta Ray Cove ready to escape our real lives for a few weeks, like other vacationers, Clusters of people spread across the waterfront, out for an afternoon of sunbathing, swimming, and ice cream, something I knew we wouldn’t be doing. Long lines of cars crowded residential streets as drivers searched for the home they had rented, borrowed, or bought as part of some timeshare deal they might regret later. Music pumped from every open window: fast rhythms, dance beats, the sound of brass instruments and vibrant voices singing catchy lyrics about summer. And Geoffrey scoffed, rolling up the windows.

We lugged our bags inside the two-story, architectural beauty, its long windows overlooking miles of water, the wood furniture newly polished, the ebony-stained floors smooth, slippery, a cause for concern later.

“This is amazing,” I gave myself a tour of the house, oohing and aahing at fixtures, artwork, crown molding.

“Let’s unpack later,” Geoffrey rushed, setting a stack of books on the coffee table. “There’s a little spot not too far from here we can go and get some lunch.”

“Clam chowder?” I guessed.

“I did mention it a couple times on the way,” he realized.

“Yep…a couple,” I teased.

“Don’t,” he warned, motioning for me to walk out the front door.

At the top of the hill, cars were diverted left to a small parking lot, and pedestrians turned right onto a strip of eateries, gift shops. and gambling spots for those who felt lucky. The sound of fun carried on the wind; triple-scooped waffle cones were consumed by couples wearing matching tees and visors; seagulls lurked, swooping in for crumbs and spills while sad toddlers and disappointed dads lamented the loss.

Geoffrey stood in line while I claimed a table, a small one next to a clam statue. I reached out to touch the tarnished shell but pulled my hand back before it touched the surface, taking a second to think about the grounded yet adaptable mollusk, how I never realized the similarities between us.

With two bowls of steaming hot chowder on a tray, Geoffrey approached. I smiled as he placed a bowl in front of me.

“It’s delicious,” the woman next to us said. “We come here every year,” she pointed to her husband and he nodded.

“It looks delicious,” I agreed.

“Yes,” Geoffrey joined, and sat with his back to them. “Eat up before it gets cold.”

I tasted the chowder and stared out at the water, safe for now inside my shell.

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Old Friends

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I was surprised when I saw that Frankie’s was still open, Mr. and Mrs. Becker’s son, Jonathon, now the owner, and his son helped him after school. The outside looked the same, with new coats of the same green paint, energy-efficient windows, and antique light fixtures. Inside, the delicatessen had been overhauled for a more modern look, but the concept was the same: guests could dine in or order to go.

“Do you have time to sit?” Jonathan asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said, leading us to a table in the corner. “What can I get you?”

“Just water,” I said.

“What? Are you telling me you don’t want a pastrami sandwich, a little mac-n-cheese?” he teased. “For old time sake?”

“Well, if you put it that way,” I laughed. “I can’t believe you remember.”

“We ate here almost everyday after school,” he said. “Pops made sure we were all fed.”

“He did,” I smiled. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to go to the…”

“It’s fine,” he interrupted and stepped away to grab two glasses and a water pitcher.

When he returned, he set the glasses on the table and then poured icy water into them. We listened to the sound of ice hitting the sides and water splashing, but we didn’t say anything. He left again to make our sandwiches and help customers, Manny Mullen’s granddaughter and Kim Weaver’s little sister, Elise Klein, who had married her high school sweetheart on a Saturday and needed a criminal defense lawyer by Sunday evening. I turned my back to the counter so she didn’t see me and listened to Jonathan greet her like an old friend.

“How are you?” he asked, leaning over the counter. “I haven’t seen you in a few weeks.”

“I’m good,” she ran her hand through her hair, letting the curly strands settle on her shoulder before scooping them up and twisting them around her finger. “I went to Decanter for a while…with Robbie.”

“That’s good,” he cheered. “Tell him I said hi.”

She left with two roast beef sandwiches and a large salad with blue cheese dressing on the side.

“Sorry about that,” Jonathan said, setting a plate in front of me and one across from me. “You remember Elise, right?”

“Yeah,” I raised by eyebrows and shook my head with disdain.

“She’s had it hard,” he sympathized. “I hope things get better for her, but…” he sat down. “Enough of that. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”

I talked about my job, what I enjoyed, what I didn’t. We talked about my parents, my father’s love of cars, how disappointed he was that his arthritic hands could no longer hold a wrench, that his eyesight was too poor to peer inside his car’s small cavities. I brought up Rick because he mentioned his wife, Mary, but didn’t mention we were on a break. He talked about his son, Matthew.

“That’s my twin,” he laughed. “But he’s nothing like me. He’s in the debate club. He wants to go to law school and start a nonprofit to help people who can’t afford good legal representation.”

“Wow!” I smiled. “He already sounds smarter than we were. I never thought of life beyond high school until we graduated.”

“Oh, yeah,” he leaned back with pride. “He’s not interested in cutting class, sneaking donuts from the market, or riding dirt bikes down Ice Mountain.”

“You know why it was called Ice Mountain.”

“Because we all needed ice packs by the time we got to the bottom,” we laughed.

I took a sip of water and let the last few chuckles escape. He broke the silence a minute later, tapping his fingers on the table and then diving in head first inside a topic I had purposely avoided.

“Are we going to talk about Olivia?” he leaned in and put his elbows on the table, his head resting in his hands.

“What’s to say?”

“Do you plan on going to see her since you’re in town?”

“No, I hadn’t planned on it. Why?” I felt myself getting defensive.

“You don’t think it’s time to bury the hatchet?” he pressed. “How long has it been?”

“I know…I’m not the one that needs to…”

“See, that’s the kind of thinking that keeps both of you stuck in anger and, I’m going to say something you won’t like,” he warned. “Both of you think you’re the victim, but you’re not.”

There was nothing I could say to prove him wrong. The feud now seemed silly, a silent grudge that festered, oozed, weighed me down in ways I hadn’t realized. I laughed until my eyes welled with tears.

“We stopped being friends because of Elise,” I admitted. “One day she just stopped talking to me,” I said and folded my arms.

“She should have said something,” Jonathan nodded. “What you didn’t know is…”

“I know Elise ran away from home and stayed with Olivia’s family.”

“She didn’t run away from home,” he corrected. “She was removed by protective services.”

“What?”

“It was pretty bad, and the only person she trusted was Olivia.”

“She could have told me,” I defended.

“Could she have?” he smiled, but his eyes were filled with doubt. “We were different people then.”

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With Her Whole Heart

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She liked putting plants in ceramic pots, sinking their roots in new soil, and returning each day to water them and watch each species grow. There were Begonias, Geraniums, Myrtle, Hibiscus, Monrovia, a blackberry bush, Sunflowers, herbs she thought she might one day chop up and add to her food. But she never did. Instead, she collected more plants, filling her yard until there was hardly any space left and her neighbors complained.

“They can’t tell me what to do,” she complained. “It’s my yard.”

“It’s not just about the plants,” I said, reading the letter from the city. “They’re saying that you can’t block the pathway and that they have to be better managed,” I explained, trying to sound hopeful even though I knew she’d have to get rid of most of the plants she owned in order to satisfy the city.

“The plants aren’t bothering anyone,” she looked around as if to show that no one was bothered, but there was no one there.

“Some people have complained,” I informed as gently as I could. “They say the plants are attracting animals and snakes,” I gave my best I’m sorry face.

“No,” she shook her head and picked up her watering can, making her way through the narrow spaces between planters, stumbling and falling on top of leaves and thin vines, water spilling on the ground.

“Maybe we can trim some,” I suggested. “I can get Tony and the boys to come help. We’ll be done in no time.”

“Trim them?” she shot me a look. “How would you like to be trimmed?” she dismissed.

“I have another idea then,” I watched as she finally got to a spot where she could stand comfortably. “How about we go to Home Depot and get some of those plant racks and stands?”

She didn’t answer which meant she was mulling over the idea. Her face was flat, her jaw clenched as she poured water through a mass of tangled Monrovia.

“Okay,” she said, wiping the sweat building on her forehead.

“Let’s make a list of how many you think you’ll need, what kind you want…and maybe we can get some new pots so you can replant the ones that have outgrown…”

“No,” she barked. “I don’t need any new pots.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “Some have cracks in them. Eventually you’ll need to replace them,” I pointed to a few pots that had cracks, and she followed my finger her eyes.

Then a worried look gripped her face, and she let out a soft sigh.

“Paul is here…his ashes…they’re in the soil,” she admitted.

“Oh…” I gasped.

“I wanted him to always be close.”

“I see.”

I put my hands in my pockets, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with her choice, simply imagining her spilling the ashes from his urn into the ceramic pots, tending to the growing plants, talking to them as though they were her best friends because in a way they were. The now overgrown plants had been potted in beautiful planters, nourished with plant food, filtered water, and what she believed was the essence of the man she loved with her whole heart.

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Sweet Like Cake Batter

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The church bake sale was two days away and Mimi still needed to make twenty cakes, five yellow, five chocolate, five strawberry, and five white. After school I ran to her house, threw my backpack on the floor in the entryway, washed my hands, put on my apron, and climbed up on the stool I always sat on when I helped her cook. She had already gathered the ingredients, lined them up on the counter, dry items stored in mason jars. butter, eggs, and milk kept cool in the door of the refrigerator. Mimi had a cook’s kitchen, plenty of shelves, counter space, a double oven she used to make a big Sunday dinner every week.

All her friends, seniors from church and her volunteer group, joined her, relaxing around the long, mahogany table while they ate Louisiana favorites they either remembered from childhood or were trying for the first time. If I was quiet, I could make a plate and eat with them, never letting on that I heard conversations centered on disease and dying, bucket lists and once in a lifetime feats. They ate, laughed, and lived, finding happiness in memory, joy in seeing their children and grandchildren become people they were proud of, contentment they found in friendships, people they’d know until the end.

And now, one by one, they trickled into the kitchen, rolling up their sleeves, ready to measure and mix, scraping batter from bowls into cake pans, washing dishes so they could be used again and again. They moved through the process like they were on an assembly line, their banter light, their pace productive. Once the cakes had cooled I helped frost them, decorate them with flowers, sprinkles.

We were halfway done, when Mimi noticed that both ovens had stopped working, the temperature steadily falling as she played with the buttons. She looked across the table at the bowls of batter, at Gloria who was adding butter and eggs to a bowl, Yolanda who was pouring batter into a cake pan.

“I can make a couple cakes at my house,” Joyce said.

“Me too,” Jeannette offered.

“If we each take two, we can get it done,” Yolanda comforted. “We’ll get these cakes made,” she sassed.

“You don’t have to,” Mimi said as she fiddled with the ovens.

“Don’t worry about that now,” her friend Carmela walked over and guided her to the table. “What we’ll do is finish making the batter here and we can put it in…” she looked around the kitchen.

“This,” Gloria pulled out gallon-sized storage bags. “This will work.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Yolanda agreed.

They all went back to work, except for Mimi. Cake batter was poured into storage bags and then put inside old grocery bags, the ends knotted in case there was spillage. I watched her sit at the table, wrestling with kindness. She only knew how to give it, not how to receive it. She didn’t know that she was as sweet as the batter we scooped from bowls and baked for people who’d enjoy the treat but never return to say so.

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What the Heart Wants

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People gathered at Hope Garden on Sunday afternoons to stroll along dirt and cement paths, admiring the botanical beauty, whether they had roots in horticulture, were looking for the perfect venue for a wedding or anniversary, or were just intrigued by the elaborate maze, the carefully crafted arrangements of greenery, seasonal flowers, manicured trees and bushes all picture ready.

It was the heart-shaped archways, however, that garnered the most attention, the green vines winding their way up the arches, sprouting clusters of pink flowers, excess foliage tapered for practical reasons, not cosmetic ones. Lingering visitors studied the display, moving up and down the long walkway, chatting with friends or silently gazing, consuming the sweet smells, awing at nature’s magic trick that allowed white flowers where there had only been pink, that allowed some vines to keep their vibrant color and others to turn brown.

And as the day progressed, sun and shadow played, painting the ground with impressions, some clear, some muddled. The interaction like a song that felt familiar but was unrecognizable, its rhythm, tone, sound stirring the soul, the heart’s wanting for love as surprising, imperfect, and patient as nature, the kind achieved only by surrendering to clarity and confusion.

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A Shining Light

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There was something about lighthouses that excited him, that perplexed his five-year-old mind. He leaned forward in his seat, staring out the window whenever he saw one, and if we had time to stop, he awed at its shape, its design–a tall, concrete tower with arched windows, a vent ball, and, what he imagined was in-tact, a cellar, an engine room, office, kitchen, and watch area.

“It looks like someone’s in there,” he said every time, even when nothing but darkness emanated.

“I don’t think so, buddy,” I informed.

“I think there is,” he insisted.

“Well, what do you think the person is doing?” I humored.

“He’s looking out at the water…sending signals to the boats.”

“Where are the boats?”

“They’re coming,” he assured. “When they get here, I’m going to wave.”

“Okay,” I said, doubting we’d still be there when one did finally pass.

“I’m going to wave to grandpa.”

“You think grandpa is going to be on the boat?”

“Yes,” he shook his head.

We found a place to sit and waited. I did not have quite the same fascination as he did, but I didn’t mind staying, enjoying the smooth ocean air, the last of the sun’s milky rays. Every once in a while, Patrick stood up and paced, his hands on his hips as though he were working through one of life’s great mysteries.

“It’s time,” he said,

“Time for what?” I asked, but he didn’t clarify.

In the distance, I saw the front end of a boat cruising towards us.

“See,” he said. “It’s grandpa.”

“But, grandpa’s at home,” I explained. “He can’t be at home and on the boat.”

“Uh huh,” he insisted. “The man in the lighthouse is going to give him a signal so he’s safe.”

“Oh, okay,” I agreed, deciding not to argue with a five year old.

Patrick jumped up and down as the boat approached.

“Grandpa, grandpa…” he screamed.

The long, commercial boat seemed to inch along, my interest piqued as the red and white vessel got clearer. I knew my father was not on the boat, but I wanted to see what was.

“It’s grandma,” Patrick said when my phone rang, and he was right. She was calling again, checking in, having already forgotten our previous conversations.

“Hey, Ma,” I said. “We’re at the ocean.”

Her voice quivered, her words like needles sliding off her tongue and into my ears. The weight of her news brought me to my knees.

“Wave to grandpa,” Patrick sang, waving with all his strength.

I waved.

“He’s safe,” Patrick said once the boat had passed. “And see, the man in the lighthouse gave him a signal, a shinning light so he could see where he’s going.”

“That’s wonderful,” I managed a smile, wondering how at five he had navigated his way through life’s murky waters and found his way back to shore safely.

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The Roses

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I tidied up the living room and kitchen, setting a bowl of chips, a veggie platter, and the strawberries my upstairs neighbor brought over before she left for work on the table.

“Take these,” she pleaded. “Sahara’s parents always drop off what they don’t sell at the market,” she huffed, handing me the heavy bag. “We’re going to turn into strawberries,” she laughed as she walked away. “Have fun tonight,” her voice echoed in the hallway.

My roommate, Duncan, was gone for the weekend, so I invited Zuma and Blair over for a girl’s night. Blair was bringing pizza from Steve’s, her second job. Zuma was bringing drinks and ice from Snider’s Supermarket, across the street from the jewelry store she worked. We planned to watch a few movies, vent about our respective workplaces, and listen to new music.

The dryer buzzed, and I tossed the hot clothes on my bed, promising myself that I’d fold them when Blair and Zuma left as I shut the door behind me. Plus, this was a long overdue get together; everything else could wait, including the unread messages from Terrance I feared were the beginning of a conversation I didn’t want to have. I fluffed the pillows again and looked out the window at the same time Zuma was pulling up. She got out and walked to the trunk, and I opened the door, slipping on my crocs before heading out to greet her. I opened the door and almost tripped on a bouquet of roses wrapped in white paper. A handwritten card inside read, “Talk to me. I want to work this out.”

“Are those from, Terrance?” Zuma asked as she approached carrying a bag of ice and a six-pack of Dr. Pepper. “Let me put this stuff down,” she squeezed past me.

“It doesn’t say who it’s from…they were just sitting here,” I said, looking around and then following her inside the apartment. “You think they’re from him?”

“Duh,” she set the soda on the table. “Where do you want me to put this?” she held up the bag of ice.

“I cleared out space in the freezer,” I said, opening the door.

“I can’t believe it,” she teased. “So, are you going to call him?” she leaned against the cabinet.

“Yeah…but not right now,” I smelled the roses, touched the soft petals.

“You got a vase?”

“In the cabinet,” I pointed above her head, and she turned to open it.

“The red one should be good,” I directed.

She filled it with water and set it on the counter, helping me stuff the long stems into the narrow lip.

“This is so sweet,” she tilted her head at me. “Like Romeo and Juliet.”

“You know they both die, right?”

“I mean that your families hate each other,” she grabbed a handful of chips and nibbled on them. “Would you even be fighting if it wasn’t for your parents?”

“Probably not,” my mind flashed back to the evening Terrance and I were leaving the Rose Theater after watching the play, Good Country People, put on by the Young Actor’s Guild. “That’s why he sent roses,” I thought aloud.

“Why?” Zuma cracked open a can of Dr. Pepper.

“The Rose Theater…” I reminded her.

“Oh, yeah,” she scooped ice into a tall glass and poured in the soda. “He’s good.”

I smiled, but it quickly faded and was replaced with the sound of his parents screaming, the brashness of their words, the unexpected shove that knocked me to the ground, his sister straddling my body as she slapped me, her long, dark hair, smelling of eucalyptus, whipping me in the face, at times like a curtain blocking the light. Johan yelled for me, his father and brothers combining their strength to drag him into their van. When the door slammed shut, his sister punched me in the gut and then stood up, screaming sounds I didn’t understand as she ran towards the van. The security guard and then bystanders surrounded me now, their sympathy gazes stinging more than the sister’s hands had.

“I hate them,” my mother blurted when she came to pick me up.

“Don’t say that,” I advised. “You don’t understand…”

“I understand, and I hate them, my father added, driving out of the theater parking lot. “

The doorbell rang, and I jumped.

“She’s here,” Zuma sang, walking towards the door. “Hey girl,” she leaned forward for a hug, catching a glimpse of the strangers standing next to Blair.

“Hi,” the guy spoke.

“Hi,” the girl joined. “I think you have…um…by accident…”

“The roses I left in front of your door…” the guy said.

“He meant to put them in front of my door,” the girl said. “Apartment 20A not 2A,” she threw a I can’t believe you glance at him.

“No worries,” I moved to the kitchen and grabbed the roses. “They’re beautiful,” I said, handing over the roses still in the vase.

“Thank you,” they smiled and walked away.

“What was that all about?” Blair asked as she stepped inside.

“We thought those roses were from Terrance,” Zuma explained.

“Oh,” Blair set the pizzas on the table. “Well, have you talked to him?”

“Not yet,” I admitted.

“You should,” Blair washed her hands. “I swear it’s like Romeo and Juliet around here.”

“Because our families don’t like each other?” I sassed.

“No, because he died without realizing how much she loved him.”

“It’ll never work,” I said.

“Make it work,” Zuma said, her voice louder than she intended.

We plopped on the couch resting in our youthful wisdom, believing that love could be summed up in a play because, after all, what was love without a few thorns.

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