Three days left of Inktober and then because I’m a girl who likes a challenge, Flash NaNo. FlashNaNo is a writing challenge where you get thirty days of flash fiction inspired prompts and you write each day. And in more exciting news this November I will share each and every one of my pieces on this site (drumroll please) and link to Facebook. Looking forward to the writing, dreading the sharing, but I want to strengthen my writing skills and build a consistent writing habit for my soul. Stay Tuned.
My new flash fiction piece, “Cut,” will be published in the upcoming spring edition of The Toho Journal!
“How are you?”
Suddenly, an everyday walk from my cubicle to the copier flipped into an unexpected conversation with my coworker. Her question stymied me. Lately, I go through my days on auto-pilot keeping each moment as busy as possible to not have a chance to think too much.
How am I doing? I thought as I peered into my office mate’s friendly smile. Normally simple questions would not be difficult for me. At the beginning of summer, my husband, Kev, suffered a stroke out of the blue. In the weeks that followed, acquaintances asked me about him all the time, always him. I shared his recovery and his struggles. Then people ask how the kids are doing and finally people ask about me as an afterthought. It has been a while since someone asked how I was holding up first.
How am I doing really? I thought as my mind reeled. I went from summery plans of eating too much barbecue and watching never-ending middle school baseball games to a well-worn patient room. Day after day, I was marooned on a slick plastic enrobed lounge/bed/torture device with bright lights, beeping medical machines, surrounded by a river of doctors and incomprehensible medical jargon. Watching and waiting as my beloved fought for his life, I was a frenetic ball of anxiety.
After Kev’s transfer from intensive care to rehab I slipped from wife to health advocate, from partner to single mom. As my husband re-learned walking, I split in half. One side of me was an over-enthusiastic cheerleader boosting my husband’s spirit and soothing my children’s fears. The other side of me was a frighten shell. Every day I thought, What’s going to happen to him, to us, to our life? How do I do all the things I already do and the stuff he used to do? Wait did anyone feed the cats? Hey coworker betcha didn’t know I was a crazed hamster running on a spinning wheel of despair?
At summer’s end, Kev was discharged home. Once again, I transformed this time to caregiver. My boys had also metamorphized from irksome kids to inexplicable troubled teenagers. Thanks, puberty! Juggling his care, our kids, their troubles, my job, and the perpetual loads of laundry, my life became a series of waiting rooms, trips to the doctors, trips to schools, and trays of medications. By fall every call was from a pharmacist or a vice-principal.
I’m tired. I’m dead dog tired. I’m sleepwalking through the day with an insipid smile on my face tired. I’m a zombie all day, yet I still can’t sleep at night. I worry about the bills. I worry about my kids bungee jumping into stupidity. I worry about what comes next. I listen to my husband’s breathing at night interpreting every sigh. I replay the constant fights with our boys as I pull them closer and they push away harder. Hey coworker! my life soundtrack is whining and complaining punctuated with the angry slam of doors. How am I doing I want to scream and kick things is how I’m doing.
I stared down at my office building’s sensible beige carpet tiles and remembered my first date with Kev. Over dinner, he asked if I was a people person.
“Well I wouldn’t wheel anybody’s mom down a flight of stairs while laughing maniacally so yeah I’d say I’m a good person but not a people person,” I joked.
“I like a woman whose definition of good starts way back at Richard Widmark,” he said.
“I like a man who gets my noir movie references.”
I smiled at my memory. Despite my current emotional crapstorm I’m still a good person. I know people don’t ask how you are doing to get a Dumpster fire of terrified truthiness poured on their heads on the way to the coffee machine. People ask how you are doing because they care and they want to know you are okay in an inspirational Hallmark movie kind of way. My coworker wanted to know that I was okay first.
“I’m fine. It’s–.”
She interrupted, “No, I asked about your husband. How’s he’s doing?”
With lime green floral shears, Lori cut the tight, twisted rubber band from its colorful bunch of flowers. Blood orange cosmos, blue-violet columbines, lacy fern fronds rained down into the kitchen sink. Snip, snip, snip, with quick, efficient motions Lori cut each flower stem diagonally. The warm sun rested on her bent shoulders. With a quick deliberate head gesture, she turned on Netazon. The home screen appeared a few inches Lori’s face with its familiar red N logo bounded by the date, the time, and a friendly “Hi, Lori, what are we watching today? Here’s what’s trending” below. Her fingers gently sorted the blooms.
She looked up at the glimmering images. Sports Highlights, Best WorldStar Clips of 2039 Volume 2, British mystery show, Comedy movie, another British mystery show, each flitted by. The Great British Baking Show flickered before her eyes. Ooo bread week, she thought, this is a good day. With a swift up-down head movement, Lori selected her show. She adjusted its volume quickly so as not to disturb Jameson typing away on his old Tab with a mug of Earl Grey besides him at the kitchen table. Lori surveyed the flowers, absentmindedly dried her hands on her sunny yellow apron, and headed for the dining room.
The screen winked off as Lori turned and flashed on again to her left as she searched the top shelf of her antique pie safe. The opening music played over images of a tent full of anxious amateur bakers and then a quick fade to commercial. Lori rummaged a lower shelf.
“Not feeling yourself? Overwhelmed? Always anxious? Now’s there’s help. Now there is Flaviron,” said the commercial.
A beautiful model with silver temples wrapped in an elegant knitted shawl walked solemnly under autumn trees in the commercial. The announcer’s placid tone washed over Lori. She selected one of her favorite vases, a tall slender fluted cylinder of milk glass with scalloped edges that Jameson and she had gotten at that little shop in Providencetown when they had hid that time from a sudden rainstorm. Lori ran her fingers along the smooth, familiar surface.
“…the long-acting solution to depression, bipolar disorder, baby blues,” the commercial continued, curling around her head.
She snatched a green metal frog and returned to the kitchen. From the corner of her eye, Lori could see the lovely model twirling merrily under falling golden leaves, shawl flowing around her, her head thrown back.
“Honestly, I don’t believe what the Commission said I know the computers are listening to anything we say and selling our information to Facebook and AppleSoft and the government and God know who else. Just the other day I was telling Suz I wanted to spruce up my look and Facebook I kid you not sent my ads for hair extensions and exercise bras all day. I mean honestly I couldn’t even enjoy Ollie’s fall break photos. Honestly, it’s like—“
“Are you all right?” Jameson’s tone more than his question struck her into silence. Lori search his face, the dark rimmed glasses, the serious hazel eyes with laugh lines, the salt and pepper hair, the tightly clenched mouth. She followed his gaze to her own hand and then realized she was squeezing the frog so tightly that its tiny metal prongs had pricked her flesh and a thin ribbon of blood trailed down her arm. Lori rushed to the sink and bathed her fingers in cool water. The baking reality show returned over the sink. The hosts telling jokes about bread in the English countryside. Lori hummed to herself under the cool water as Jameson’s eyes surveyed her movements. His gaze returned to his device.
This is a good day. Briskly, Lori returned to the flowers. The screen slightly above her head showed contestants frantically making brioche. Jameson and I had coffee and toast and eggs this morning. No headaches, no gray cloud. Such a good day. We went to the farmers’ market and the weather was lovely. We went to that stand with the good crumb cakes and there were beets and collards and even a handful of gorgeous grape tomatoes and Jameson had picked out two bouquets for her.
Lori placed the metal frog in the vase’s base and filled the container with warm water and an aspirin. Then she added each flower cautiously building up the arrangement. She pulled the leaves from each flower stem below the water line and imagined pulling off her own skin in long strip the way you peel Granny Smiths for a pie. She pushed the thought away. Above her, the contestants continued to race around their baking stations.
“Not feeling yourself? Overwhelmed? Always anxious? Now’s there’s help.” The sounds of the commercial returned.
Without looking up, Lori moved more quickly, crushing the bits of stem and leaves into the garbage disposal with a long wooden spoon. Flowers slammed together. “Hon, did you see that funny video from Oliver? I don’t know if he sent to you, too. Where he found his girlfriend’s cat in his shoebox?” Lori’s voice was cheerful and eager. “He tried to put the box lid on and that cat wasn’t having it. He always knows how to have a good time, my Ollie. He was a happy baby and he is still is—
“Now there is Flaviron. The freedom of Flaviron.
“I know he hates to hear me call him baby, but he’s always my baby boy and speaking of babies did you see Taylor’s photos of Isaac and Ruby? Can you believe they are graduating?” Her voice rose higher, came faster.
“FDA approved Flaviron is the long-acting solution to depression, bipolar disorder, baby blues with the total suppression of all strong emotions. Flaviron puts you back in control. Flaviron puts your family back on track. Contact your doctor today for–
“I remember holding them in my arms. I remember the day they were born as if it were yesterday and now they are both taller than me and actually graduating high school.” Delphiniums, ragged pieces of asparagus fern, columbines, ranunculus, cosmos, she plowed them in, spearing each in place. Lori raced into the dining room, vase in hand, towards the dining table, paper thin ranunculus petals falling behind her. Suddenly her midriff hit the dining room chair and she dropped the heavy vessel on the table. The vase fell and tripped over almost in slow motion, water raced across the table, flowers splattered.
“Are you all right?” Jameson said.
He rushed into the room, his hands found her waist. Lori sidestepped his grasp and started mopping up the water with an embroidered yellow cocktail napkin with one hand while the vase in the other hand gently leaked water from a hairline crack. Over Lori’s head a grey-haired woman was spinning and then one of those baking shows Lori liked so much came on. Jameson took the vase from her, placed it in the sink, and fetched paper towels for the floor and table. I’ll have to get that vase mended. There is a guy who sharpens knives at the farmers’ market. I think he can mend pottery and vases and stuff. I’ll looked up his shop. It’s still a good day. I can pick up some nice roses too at the supermarket when I get the milk. First a nap. My head, my head. Her shoulders were raised and her head throbbed. Jameson turned off the program with an abrupt gesture and Lori looked up at him with a grateful smile. He kissed her forehead gingerly.
Jameson returned to his Tab after Lori had wearily climbed the stairs for bed. He sat down wearily, his Earl Grey long grown cold. An ad popped up on his device screen. It was an attractive older woman walking under trees. The woman in the ad had a scarf, a little like the ones Lori used to knit when Oliver was little. She was always doing projects, making things. Jameson took a long draw of his cold, now bitter tea. Is Your Loved One Not Herself? Would you like to learn more? it read. His hand hovered over the ad then he brushed it away.
Jameson had been researching Flaviron for weeks. He read about the success rates in the clinical trials, the significant positive effects in prisons and juvenile detention facilities. He had pored over articles and blogs, potential side effects, potential benefits, the pros and the cons. This wasn’t like that terrible thing with Sympathix last year, he said to himself. Not at all. Besides you can believe everything you read anymore. The press were always making up bogeymen, creating tempests in teapots to sell more ads. People love to sit around and bitch and moan instead of actually doing things, getting things done. Granted a few people got hurt with Sympathix, a few out of many, and they were pretty messed up to begin with. Besides that was a different drug company and they had finagled the early trials. That couldn’t happen again.
“Everyone is always so sensitive nowadays over every little thing.” Jameson said out loud.
The ad refreshed on his Tab.
“Now, there’s Flaviron. The freedom of Flaviron,” the announcer said. An image appeared of the same attractive woman wrapped in a shawl now walking arm in arm with a guy through a park in autumn.
Jameson thought about a trip Lori and he had taken to New England years ago. A smile came to his lips. He knew under the latest guidelines husbands could seek and obtain prescriptions for their wives. It is done all the time. Would it be so bad to try? Just a little and he could stop if there was the slightest side effect. What’s the big deal? New and Improved, now colorless and tasteless. Would you like to learn more?
Jameson finished his mug of tea and tapped the ad.
I wake up to screaming. High pitched, blood-curdling squeals—almost like a child’s cry—fill my bedroom raging in through the open window. Blindly I run out of our bedroom across the hall to the stairs. The screaming races from the front yard whips along the side of the house and rushes into the backyard. Frantically I pound down the circular stairs, spinning through the foyer, through the kitchen, finally to the backyard door.
The screams are louder, closer, right there. I wretch open the back-door lock. I throw open the back door. Cool night air floods in and I hit silence.
My eyes devour the darkness for the source of the sounds. Nothing. I can just make out the outlines of our trees and shrubs, the neighbor’s trees and the neighbor’s shrubs. I fumble with the light switches. The back porch overhead lamp sputters on throwing a pathetic pool of light.
Now I see our overturned wheelbarrow, the weeds, Kennedy’s twisted water slide leaning forlornly against back fence, and our old empty rabbit hutch. I search the yard with my eyes hungrily. Suddenly cold in my nightgown, my heart still pounding in my chest, I close the back door.
Slowly, I climb back up the stairs suddenly weary. I peek into Kennedy’s bedroom. Twinks uncurls and recurls at the foot of her bed, sleepily winks at me, and begins to purr furiously. Kennedy’s room is very warm and lit by a plush star-studded turtle nightlight. She is dead asleep, tiny hands clenched tight, her blanket with tiny tiaras and pink flowers kicked to the floor. I resist the urge to go to her bed to sleep cradled against her warm back and instead I pick up her bedclothes and tuck her to bed.
Quietly return to my own room. I make a plump nest of pillows on my side of the bed. I kick my own duvet viciously to the floor and settle under the cool, cool sheets. It’s 3:26 am. The night screams have happened again.
I try to sleep. 3:37 am. I turn and twist. 3:42 am. I flip over the good pillow and lay very still hoping that if I pretended to sleep very, very well I would fall asleep. 4:02 am. I give up. I reach for my iPad and start researching useless things. At 5:23 am I turn off my alarm before it rings and begin limping through another day.
Kennedy wakes up like a rocket, bursting with questions and songs and occasional pirouettes. I sleepwalk through our morning routine, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, load laundry, pack lunches–turkey sandwiches and apple slices with onions on mine and a juice box with hers–drop off Kennedy at daycare, drive to work, collapse on desk. At each step of the morning, I return to thoughts of the night.
According to my late-night internet research the screaming in the night is the sound of rabbits, rabbits in distress, particularly rabbits in distress when they are being eaten by foxes. Wild bunnies invade our raised beds day and night, but mostly at night. Among the cukes and black Russian tomatoes each night, the rabbits come for food and instead encounter foxes. Rabbits are silent, no purring, no barking, their only sound is a scream before dying.
I’ve put up chicken wire and squirrel netting. I sprayed the garden with wolf urine. I even listened to my mother God help me and sprinkled human hair from the Hair Cuttery around the vegetable garden. Now I sweat out the end of summer with the windows closed, but still I can hear them. The first time I heard a rabbit’s screaming I must’ve dreamt a fox had broken into our bunny’s hutch. I ran into the backyard, tore up the cage, searching for Paddington before waking up to remember our own rabbit had died last spring.
I lose myself at work, editing articles, reviewing captions, pretending to listen during staff meetings. Only on the long drive home does the night returns to my mind. Will I lay awake all night restless and waiting? Will it be peaceful? Will I hear the screams again? When will I ever get a good night’s sleep?
It is a relief to finally head home, discarding the mask of politeness and efficiency on the passenger seat. I pick up my daughter and together we head to ShopRite for a roast chicken and quinoa salad for me and nuggets for her. Over dinner, Kennedy fills the house. The evening slowly unfurls from dinner to cleanup to Kennedy’s taking out each and every toy from her bedroom to the living room, to making tomorrow’s lunches, bath time, bouncy pajama time, story time, bed time, please one more story time, real bedtime and watching Kennedy, suddenly, effortlessly fall into sleep.
I reach over and stroke her curls. She has my dark coloring but Liam’s hair, a loose explosion of big curls. I watch her even, slow breaths and twirl a lock of her soft dark brown hair around my finger. She strikes my hand away in her sleep and rolls over. I head down stairs with heavy slow steps. I pick up the toys and books and stuffed animals, carrying them to the bookshelf or the basket on the staircase landing. By the stairs I stop to needlessly straighten the coats on coat rack. I hug Liam’s old jacket then I quickly push away the jacket and my grief. Overhead I hear footsteps.
“Did you wake up honey?”
I wait for Kennedy’s voice to ring out for a request for a glass of water or a hug or yet another story. Silence. With a tired shrug, I return to Hungry Hungry Hippos, carefully collecting the white marbles that have escaped the broken box waiting for a plaintive mommy. I pour myself a predicable glass of box wine. I find a paperback and settle onto the sofa. Gently I pushed a stubbornly sullen Twinks off the blanket on the sofa back and cover myself with the warmed, slightly hairy blanket.
My book hits the floor with a sudden bang waking me up. Stiff, I reach for the paperback hoping I can read myself back to sleep. A puffed ball of orange fur, Twinks is standing stock still in the middle of the living room peering up at the ceiling. Soft solid footsteps cross the living room ceiling. The steps are solid, heavy, too heavy. They are not coming from Kennedy’s room on the second floor into the hallway, but from higher up from the third floor Liam’s office. The sound of steps drift down the third floor stairs. There is a pause. I look at Twinks; he looks at me. I realize I’m holding my breath. There is the gentle squeak of the heavy five panel door to the third floor as it opens. Twinks flattens his ears against her head and zips into the dining room, runs around the dining room chairs and barrels through the kitchen through the cat door and disappears into the basement..
My eyes return to the living room ceiling. The footsteps from the third floor stairway head to our bedroom then quiet. I sit perfectly still. I close my book. I untangle from the blanket and head for the stairs. I climb up to bed, I climb up to curl up in a crescent on my side of the bed, I climb up to feel again a warm arm rest gently across my back, I climb up to sleep.
It’s December 23rd and I have officially bound off my last knitted Christmas gift of 2014. As I reflect over my projects I have gathered some life lessons.
First start early.
I started making Christmas presents last summer. I was filled with creativity and time stretched before me like an infinite road. Who cares if it’s ninety degrees. Starting early also gave me time to screw up without stressing. I bought some new skeins of pretty thick and thin yarn that knitted up just weird. Not bad, just weird. I kinda of like this pair of cowls but ultimately decided the projects were a little too odd for gifting.
Second keep track of your shit.
As summer rolled into autumn I bounced from project to project careening wildly attracted by new patterns and pretty pieces of strings. Seriously have you seen Ombré by Friea? There nothing wrong with being a magpie as long as you keep stuff organized. I kept slowing down because I would lose patterns or balls would escape to the nether regions of the sofa.
Third go big.
If you didn’t do the second step and really what magpie would, don’t be afraid to pick up the thickest nicest yarn you can.
But when you use bulky yarn make sure the pattern suits the yarn. Quick and ugly doesn’t fit anyone wheelhouse. Last week, I bought two lovely skeins of Isaac Mizhak variegated wool and jumped into my tried and true fave quick pattern. Disaster. I ended frogging three times until I found the pattern that really suited the cushy jewel tones of the yarn. If I had stopped to think, to consider carefully, I could have saved myself a lot of time. And that was the fourth and final lesson: always consider what you’re working with. This is always the hardest, I’ve learned and forgotten it hundreds of times and I suspect I’ll be learning it again next Christmas.
Despite my bloggy silence I am still writing as well as doing some research on hoarding to recharge and inform a certain story I’m wrestling with. Despite my struggles, I haven’t given up and I feel encouraged that I will write the knots out my tangled story or die trying.
Thank to my writing group for support on my journey and here is a sample from the last meeting, which I think I will refashion as an ending for another mired story.
I love everything. I love the sidewalk, especially after it rains and smells of mud and dry earthworms. I love these rocks these pee splashed egg round rocks right here along the driveway. I love love the patch of long grass by the side of this house, yes, it’s dryer towel warm and soft and I can keep an eye on that cat in that window. I inhale the crisp blades of grass–a bright, sharp, candy sweet, rolled newspaper smell–nosing them left and right, no cat, right and left, no cat yet. Turning circles in my favorite napping spot, I knead the lawn until each blade was folded into the ideal sleeping position, and then I settle in.
The whine of a car trunk opening wakes me. The nice lady with friendly hands is carrying suitcases, then boxes, then trash bags. Raising a wiry eyebrow I watch and wait. The other lady, the get out my yard lady, comes out now, carrying some clothes on hangers. The nice lady with friendly hands grabs them from her quickly. I watch for a fight. Their eyes are angry but arms stay loose and limp. Slowly I walk to the car door, my head low and cautious.
The nice lady returns carrying the little girl who throws rocks. The girl is sleep heavy with pink wet lickable cheeks. I could smell the salt on her face. She puts the girls in the car.
“Hi, Bubba,” calls the nice lady, her eyes moist and kind.
I wag my tail enthusiastically. My whole bottom wags from side to side. The nice lady smiles at me but no head pat, no belly rub. I watch her car drive out of the driveway down the road past the hill, gone. I eye the other lady wondering if I have to move on, but she is smiling too. The screen door shuts quietly. I notice that cat is watching now with an angry flicking tail. I turn three times left and three times right to annoy her then I fall back to sleep.
Here’s the first paragraph of a new story I’m working. I’m very happy with how the work is progressing which never happens so perhaps it’s good or perhaps I’m loopy.
“Signs are very important. You can’t ever forget that,” MaryRose said, fluttering between the coffee machine and stovetop. News radio blared from the tiny, much duct-taped transistor radio as MaryRose gently stirred the eggs. She watched her son absently scratching his stubbly beard, rubbing his chin like his father used to when he was pretending not to listen.
Her son’s eyes never left his phone. Swiftly, MaryRose took out two slices of wheat bread from the loaf on top of the cookbooks on top of the breadbox and headed for the toaster.
“Remember that thing that happened to your Aunt Miriam. I told her and told her but she never listened to me. Matthew are you listening to me?”
“The eggs are burning.”
She raced to the stove with the bread, stopped short and then ran back to the toaster. Matthew slipped his phone into his hip pocket and stalked over to the cupboard. He opened the door swiftly as cockroaches slithered away frantically from the light. Matthew grabbed the nearest cup rinsed it in the sink. MaryRose hurried to the stovetop to rescue the charred eggs.
“Matty, they’re not too bad. Just a little crispy on the edges. They’re good, good,” MaryRose stammered cheerfully, switched off the stove, and hurried to the cabinet for a plate. A shower of dead and live roaches spilled onto the crowded countertop.
“Damn, damn,” MaryRose whispered to herself, while hurrying back to the stove. She slid two eggs onto the plate and turned to watch Matthew walk out of the back door with his backpack and coffee cup.
MaryRose watched the door slam shut. She left the eggs on kitchen table at Matty’s place and then shuffled to her corner of the sofa bathed in the soft blue of the television set.
School has finally begun. And while it has been rough to juggle getting school supplies and going to parent/teacher meetings (I still haven’t gotten the kids sneakers!), I have found the more rigid schedule of fall more conducive to writing than the languid days of summer. Ideas have began to percolate.
Once at my old house, I climbed up a narrow flight of stairs with a mailing tube full of large knitting needles (don’t ask). The bottom fell out of my tube, the needles followed the bottom, and when I leaned over to pick up a needle I fell down said narrow stairs careening over pastel metallic needles all the way. Apparently, my writing mojo took a similar spectacular fall this summer.
Ladies and gentleman, I have fallen off my writer’s wagon like Jack Lemon in Days of Wine & Roses. The kids had summer camp and summer trips and my inspiration went on vacation. But I like to think that my inspiration was re-charging and not merely slumbering. God help me, I’m not Lee Remick in Days of Wine & Roses. I will get off the floor, splash cold water on my face,and write into the sunset.
And I designed some flyers for the new knitting guild that I’m starting so that counts for something.