Flash fiction found cleaning up today


Crossing the parking lot closest to the barber’s, Marianne walked through walls of smell. Non-natural. What was it – Desitin? So definite and remembered, nothing comparable — a chalky scent with overtones of cherry life saver. Couldn’t be, could it?

The heat of the three previous days had subsided but not the mugginess. A mass of grey cloud signaled rain, but so far, it held off. The traffic at the corner was obscene — a re-vamped right of way gone amuck. People were up in arms, zinging emails through neighborhoods and sponsoring data collection after the fact. The mayor was gonna have his head handed to him.

In the crosswalk, Marianne looked up to see the clouds spreading out. Or were they gathering other clouds into their mass? Church bells peeled. There was a sense of drama.

Was it just 24 hours earlier — her face crumpled in grief, the vet kneeling in sympathy — that she’d received the news about Ursula’s cancer? Even overwhelmed with the kind of unmitigated sorrow we can only feel for our animals, Marianne recalled her sister’s aggressive question from the day before, “What makes YOU cry?”

Marianne had been tightly unresponsive knowing that any answer would’ve been employed in the undeserved campaign to prove her failings. But she’d also been unable to recall a single instance of recent tears.

“Probably Stage IV,” the vet was saying.

“THIS makes me cry,” Marianne thought, “this.”

Just a few minutes into the wave of uncensored grief came the discomforting certainty that, to put it simply, cost would be a factor.

After hearing the price for chemo, Marianne wailed, “We have two kids to put through college!” The two vehicles in need of repair were not mentioned. The vet continued to kneel and nodded without judgment while Ursula sat between them in a quiet sphinx-like pose. Was the dog merely relieved the muzzle was off and the prodding over or did that posture now include a dignified toleration of pain?

The next day Marianne headed back to the van and wondered how long Sam’s haircut would take. Some days they took you in five minutes. Other days, thirty. That was the summer she coached the boys to say, “I want to wait for Sal.” No one should get a terrible haircut out of polite deferral to the random order in a barber shop.

The rain started its slow pelting after Marianne reached the mini-van. The heat being what it was, she sat with the windows open, letting the splatting drops moisten her shoulder and the window berm.

“What makes YOU cry?”

School had ended, finally, last week. Sam took himself to the barber routinely now, so why was Marianne offering rides and waiting, as if he were twelve? “The spiral of development,” her psychologist friend, Winnie, would chuckle. “Not just the kids regressing before transitions.”

Marianne rejiggered the bounds of dependence in both directions. ‘Here’s a credit card.’ ‘Let me pick you up.’ There was a haunting finality to those weeks between high school and college.

White clouds billowed above maple trees to the east, their curves almost precisely replicating the scalloped canopy below. Then the rain came down in sheets.

What would it be, then, this summer? The sad and inexorable cancer vigil, each night wondering if Ursula would still be breathing come morning? Indulging in trips to the beach, determined to make the summer worthwhile, unsettled by the knowledge that the dog was at home trying to breathe? What comfort could the crashing surf offer when the decision about euthanasia hung above the beach like a scythe and flashed in the summer glare?

They went to the White Mountains in July. Ursula’s last outing. The guys all hiked, while Marianne read a Franzen novel at the picnic table and fed Ursula chips of bacon. If it had been any other year, they would have boarded the dog. Now such a decision struck her as incomprehensible, just as how, at this distance, preschool seemed so radically unnecessary.

It killed Marianne that all those white haired women at the supermarket had proved to be right in the end. How she’d gritted her teeth hearing advice that was as predictable as it was intrusive: “Enjoy it while you can! It’s over before you know it!” Yeah, lady. I’m just trying to get through the next hour, she remembered thinking.

The next hour and the next hour adding up to an entire childhood. The penultimate haircut before college.

What makes you cry?

“The dog will let you know when it’s time,” the vet was saying. Marianne doubted her, but it turned out she was right. Ursula did let them know. The medication helped for six weeks and then it didn’t. Just like that.

During Ursula’s final moments, Marianne fed her nearly a pound of bacon. Her husband choked back tears. The sweet-faced Corgi was lying on a towel the vet had given them in case the dog emptied her bowels at death. Ursula was eager for pork one second and gone the next. Just like that. They wrapped her and the towel in a large swath of red silk. Then the vet showed them a private exit through the lab as a courtesy.

Her husband buried Ursula under the pin cherry out back. They used half of a broken paver stone Marianne and the boys had made ages ago for a marker. The shards of crockery and marbles had been stuck into concrete not quite mixed to last.

And here came Sam at last, looking dapper and ready to meet the world, impervious to the rain.

* * * * * * *

 Note: This is a little too long to be flash fiction.

On another note, I consolidated the plot map into one board. Turns out, it was hard to read over two panels and too much light was being blocked.
And, I did finally manage to download a countdown app. The home screen icon (lower right) gets a red number, as noticeable as the number for unread emails.

If I click on the icon, I see this:

(Those are slave cabins at McCloud Plantation). I still can’t really tell if this is a do-able amount of time to finish. Truly. But it seems to be helping me stay focused, so I won’t dicker with it.

After being called into service to help my sister supply the Salem housing authority with a bunch of documentation on Monday, I worried I might have to move the deadline. Fortunately, the task was a lot easier than expected. When and if she gets subsidized housing, I’ll let my brother pay for movers.

Next up. I plan to break the sections on the board into four chunks. Each will then get roughly twenty five days.

Dogged effort 

I tried to download a Countdown Clock to help me focus on an arbitrary deadline (to finish a first draft). But it’s too complicated, so I’ll just tell you. An October 30, 2017 deadline means I have 109 days left.

That’s pretty sobering and I guess that’s the idea.

A quick check in on progress —

— revising an early chapter when Eliza’s father and his newly purchased Barbadian slave sail back to Antigua, where the Lucas family lives.

“How long would that take?” was a question that suddenly needed answering.

Ugh, I spent an impossible amount of time trying to find out. First, determined the distance between islands was 492 kilometers. Then converted kilometers to nautical miles (a nautical mile = 1.8 km). Then learned that American nautical miles and British nautical miles are not the same and decided not to worry about that. Also decided not to worry about wind speed or direction, in part because I can never remember what ‘a northerly wind’ means — as in, does it blow IN from the north, or TOWARDS the north? (I’m pretty sure it’s the former).

My rough calculation: three days. For some reason, I’d been operating under the assumption that it was an afternoon’s sail.

So, now I need to think about: What else would have been on that schooner? Would a newly purchased slave be allowed to wander about at will? Where would she have slept? If there was human cargo on board, what would it’ve been like for her to see them, chained in irons in the dark hold below? And, if she was unable to see them, would she have been able to hear them? Would she have had any conversations with her new owner and if so, what about?

My character is musing about the power and variety of lies (in part because she understands that the stated reason for her purchase is a lie), but something needs to happen since pure musing gets boring.

Yesterday, I revised a chapter where skunk bones figure heavily. An enslaved man recently arrived on the Lucas plantation in South Carolina, is a trained priest (babalawo) from Ife and grieving a brother who died during the Middle Passage. He wishes to remain apart, hidden, even. But when he finds an entire skunk skeleton, he takes it as a sign that he cannot walk away from his power.

Near and far

Last night my city, Newton, Massachusetts, became the 14th community to pass a local resolution asking the federal House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether there is cause for impeachment based on Trump violating the two Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution (there is).  And, for Obstruction of Justice.

I helped! It was K’s birthday last night so I didn’t attend the second of two hearings, but I dutifully wrote my letters and spoke at the last hearing. I’ll admit that I didn’t think it was going to pass.

The Resolution can be viewed as a formal way of asking the House to do one of its most important jobs: performing oversight of the Executive Branch.

The resolutions have been passed by cities in Massachusetts, California, and Vermont. Hopefully, more and more towns and cities will do the same.

The idea of these resolutions is to create tangible evidence of the citizens’ will to adhere to the Constitution. It is all about applying pressure. It is not to make the argument for impeachment.

As you all know, the delay in impeaching this autocratic, corrupt and destructive president is not a problem of evidence. It’s not a problem of having too many possible judicial interpretations of the Constitution. It is solely a problem of the failure of political will. Party over country, etc.

I’ve said enough about this elsewhere, so I’ll leave it at that.

 

 

 

 

The digital collage was chosen for its juxtaposition of near and far views — the window into a home and the observatory with a view of the heavens — which goes to the relationship between local and federal power. Detractors of the resolution argued that it overreached the correct exercise of local power. Bah, I said to that and will say to that again: Bah!

Insect wings : a meditation on scale and mothers

Image result for art insect wings

I dream about making furniture out of insect wings. Tiny, sheer, delicate and for whom?

Upon rising, I think about size in creative endeavor. How scale matters. I wonder: am I working too small — somehow limiting the scope of my work — or perhaps, the opposite — making life difficult by bucking a natural inclination to work small?

A large wall quilt. A goddamned novel.

And then out of nowhere, I remember something my mother said to me when I was seventeen or eighteen: “You may very well be a miniaturist.” Her tone was curious detachment as if still considering the idea, not at all one of her emphatic pronouncements.

Hmmm.

For reasons both complicated and pragmatic, I spent my senior year at the school where my mother’d been teaching for almost a decade. For a span of nine months, then, she was both mother and art teacher to me and for nine months, I was her daughter and her student (and the ‘art teacher’s daughter’).

That year, I was perpetually embarrassed by my mother — what 17 year old isn’t? Her clothes. Her laugh. Her opinions. I still remember how cringe-worthy her repeated mispronunciation of the late Baroque period was — making it sound less like a hot beverage and more like a porn star’s screen name — Ro-COCK-oh. Again, Mom? Really?

But, overall it was good. For one thing, seeing her in her element enlarged my view of her. In particular, it lent credence to an assertion she’d been making for years about having this respected competence elsewhere (as opposed to the beleaguered and disputed competence at home). But more importantly, I was the beneficiary of her considerable skill as a teacher. Of course, she dispensed observations and enthusiasms throughout my childhood, but as her student, the feedback was sustained and structured and something a little different could unfold.

Even now, it’s hard to square my mother’s capacity to run rough shod over people with her perceptive skill in the art room. Imagine a woman walking into the teachers’ lounge of a small school where she’s disliked by a majority of her peers — a place where her chain smoking and a tendency toward dismissive, smug bombast put people off.

Now picture that same person entering her classroom and coming alive with the give and take with her students. Watch that same forceful delivery of opinion turn a shy student into an aspiring artist. Yes! That quiet student who formerly floated from class to class in ghost-like invisibility has become a person determined to make something beautiful and certain she can do it — because of my mother.

You know how teachers talk about ‘that one student’ that made their entire teaching career worthwhile? My mother sometimes had two a year.

My mother taught her students that they had something to say and that how they said it was both unique and discover-able.

Teenagers who’d convinced themselves by the ripe old age of 15 that they were ordinary or ‘just jocks’ found out otherwise in her classroom. For the wild kids (called ‘juvenile delinquents’ back then), she’d harness their misspent leadership energies without judgment, instilling no end of appreciation. “Give ’em a job,” she’d cackle.

Of course, she celebrated talent — what teacher doesn’t? For those students, her unique skill seemed to be in knowing when to gush effusively (but sincerely!) and when to step back and let them struggle. She ushered one outstanding student after another into their talent.

“You just might be a miniaturist.”

Is the observation as straight forward as it sounds — as in, ‘work small’? Given that my mother was right about an obnoxious number of things, I’m willing to consider this anew, but not exactly sure how to.When I removed a small section of a semi-large quilt to work on separately, I considered letting the fragment stand alone. I do this all the time.



(The fragment has been returned to the whole). Sometimes, when the prospect of finishing a first draft overwhelms, I get energized at the idea of trying to get excerpts published (and then, ironically, I can get back at it).Is scale of work as innate as our preference for certain palettes? And if it is, is it useful to step outside of that preference now and again and see what happens? What results if we don’t discover or honor our basic preference regarding scale — does it add pitch to the learning curve in a distressing manner, building in frustration that could be avoided? Or is this something else?

Before I go, I have to tell you we’ve had a string of truly beautiful summer days here. The weather was especially nice for a small birthday gathering for K yesterday — very Napa-valley with the tables in the yard and flowers cut from the garden. Of course, our new fire table was a big hit!

 

Insect drawing from RoyalSocietyPublishing.org.

Support

Obvious supports in my world: down spout, lattice, spouse.

img_5038-1Quiet is a form of support. Also: refuge and sanctuary.
img_4837“Do you hear that, K?” I asked a few times this weekend. “That’s quiet. We’re listening to QUIET!”

img_0743Getting organized is support. I forget that.

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Calendars are fickle forms of support — fierce task masters in one mood and stalwart and reliable friends in the next. But, if you think about it, a grid is neutral really. Maybe time is, too.

I cannot live without a paper calendar — electronic won’t do. I prefer a teacher’s big-sized version (though no more academic years for me! too confusing!). These are wire bound, with views of both the months and the weeks. I need both.

Life without this form of support is unimaginable to me. Three people in my immediate circle do not use them. Two of them are millenials and before you assume they simply have a generational aversion to paper, let me say — they don’t really seem to use the calendars on their phones, either. Huh?

Technology is support, except when it isn’t. When technology isn’t a support (or a form of education and entertainment), then it is a Medusa-like fiend.

My laptop froze twice over the weekend — big time scary event when the last save of the manuscript was three weeks ago. More frequent saves to the external hard drive are in order! That’d be routine forming a safety-net. Support.

Having dog walker, Rafi, help out (especially when K is away) is an expensive but welcome support and since it’s the only time our Finny gets to be social, it has additional value.

Getting groceries delivered is a decadent support that I’ll sheepishly admit to enjoying. It adds minimal expense and subtracts a fair bit of selection pleasure and skill, but eliminating grocery runs, sometimes for three weeks running? That’s support. And there’s my Peapod truck now — so bye!

Where do you find support in your life?

 

to submit to something

Last week, a PBS News Hour interviewer asked our new poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, why she wrote poetry. Her answer? ‘Because it forces you to submit to something’.

The evocative phrase has lingered.

What do you submit to and why — and if enduring something is different from submitting to it, is there a way to convert one to the other? Maybe reverence is involved. Silence? I might cleverly suggest that karma dictates what we endure, while our gifts and aspirations determine places of submission, but that seems facile. Oversimplification is not what’s called for here.

An examination of distractions, might be, though.

TV-viewing habits are ‘up’ right now, starting with a disastrous re-boot about a week ago, after which I was left with sound but no picture (well, and another entry in the annals called, “Only When K is in China”).  I submitted (wrong word!) to watching a little local, live TV in the kitchen now and then. There was a mood of nostalgia and curious forbearance. I read more.

Next came a four or five hour power outage, leaving me with no TV whatsoever. It wasn’t like I was dying to watch local news or catch up on reruns of ‘Get Smart’, but if the reboot was a nudge, the subsequent power outage was a kick in the shins. I wanted to read the synchronicity for the fullness of its message — to submit to it.

The power outage was precipitated by a dramatic shorting wire out front. It was a real emergency.  After hearing a loud crackle and seeing a lightening-like flash, I went to investigate, thinking I’d be reassuring myself that it wasn’t electrical.

reddressblur_deemallon - CopyInstead, I was greeted by a series of violent flashes up in my neighbor’s maple tree. Ill-positioned wires had heated up the bark, igniting it in two places. I dashed in to take shelter behind my neighbor’s front door while she called 911. Children and nanny clustered ’round. “It might’ve used me to go to ground,” I said in slight panic.

Soon, the zapping melted the wires, leaving one end dangling from the pole nearest our driveway and draping the other along the road like a venomous snake playing dead. A teen-aged boy emerged from across the street. I quipped, “You can tell E. is home alone,” but then as he approached stuck my head out to holler, “Stay back! That wire might be live!”I could tell my neighbor thought me a little hysterical. Perhaps because I cussed out her landscaper last week? No matter. Thanks to my electrical engineer father’s pragmatic warnings about current and conductivity over the course of my entire childhood, I knew mine was not an overwrought assessment of the danger.

Firemen arrived, police set up yellow tape, etc.

Once the wires were severed, it was safe to return home and await the restoration of power. Then, two thunderstorms rolled through.

As if it wasn’t enough for the elements to cut off my power, the first storm filled the house with a preternatural dark. I donned a ‘miner’s lamp’ and carefully climbed the garage-attic ladder to fetch our camping lantern, although I’m not sure why, since my last solo attempt at lighting it nearly set the Sangre de Cristo mountains on fire. I wasn’t likely to give it another try.

I gathered a few candles for later and made myself a tasty chicken salad. I wondered if our hot water heater held enough hot water for a bath (it does). Soon sun flooded the back room again and I read Smith’s memoir “Ordinary Light.”*

OrdinaryLight_deemallonphoto

Not long after, the canopy out back set up a noisy rattle, signaling imminent rain. The display made me wonder: when had I stopped submitting myself to summer storms?

The metaphors swirl, still — restoration of power, providing ground, a live wire, electrical storms rolling through, sudden, zapping current.

The repair guy arrived at the height of it. Seeing him up in his metal bucket, head in the trees and handling electrical wires was unnerving, but I had to assume he knew all the safety precautions. As the sky pulsed with lightening, the power came back on in three waves. The fridge resumed its humming. I padded about, resetting the digital clocks, glad to be capable of that at least.

 

*I’ll refrain from commenting until I’m done. How my opinion of Plum Johnson changed between when posting and finishing her memoir!

 

Score and a Heart

After weeks and weeks of missing, I flung the poop bag right into the pot! Blam!

It’s a tough shot — not so much because of the distance (from where picture was taken) or the small target, but because the missile has a tail (we use long, plastic newspaper bags) and the ballast is weighted unevenly. You can’t throw overhand or at least, I don’t, and hence you have very little control. How satisfying to nail it!
Was my aim improved by an hour long walk through sunny, summery, quiet neighborhoods? Three-quarters of the way along a sour knot in my gut disappeared. Just by walking. In the sun. With my dog.

We saw lavender blooming on Ripley Street, two Chinese brothers heading to the T in matching pj’s and yellow caps on Braeland with their dad, people out jogging, cycling and walking their dogs. Closer to home, the lavender has yet to blossom, but on Walter Street we were treated to sun-illumined rust-vermillion Japanese maple leaves and a morning dove perched up on a cable backed by blue sky.

Finn had a Training Victory on our walk, too — a trifecta. Some other time.

Given the TV’s current state, I’m plowing through a memoir called, “They Left Us Everything” — a book recommended by a blog reader a couple of weeks ago. This was Plum Johnson’s debut effort and it came at age 68. Sixty-eight!

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The book won an RBC Taylor prize, an award for literary non-fiction that “best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception.”

The memoir is interesting and well-written. Doesn’t hold a candle to “H is for Hawk”, but then, very few memoirs do (that’s like comparing debut historic fiction to “Wolf Hall” by Hillary Mantel — it just isn’t fair — but I think it’s the last memoir I’ve read?)

Johnson crafts nuanced portraits of complicated parents, not just their late, declining years, but their more vibrant youth as well. Both of her parents led interesting lives — informed by tragedy, travel and unusual circumstances. Johnson gets at the essential unknowability of parents by their children, something made plain as she sorts through their belongings.

Her mother was a piece of work and her father over-reliant on military experience as a benchmark for parenting. And yet, whatever wounds linger they scarcely show up on the page. Whether this is a testament to Johnson’s person or her writing style is hard to judge. It does strike me that building a narrative around the objects of her parents’ lives may have kept a certain kind of self-reflection at bay.

I like memoirs that get down and dirty too, but the absence of grudges, whining, or blame is notable.

I don’t know nearly as much about my parents’ courtship or their early work lives as Plum Johnson does about hers.

On our second walk, Finn and I rounded the corner to find a huge heart-shaped cloud, like a blousy kiss from the sky.

Perhaps it was meant to compensate for today’s crossword puzzles? Or the personal torment of the last couple of weeks? KISS!

And now it’s gonna rain again — no wonder I’m ecstatic about puffy white clouds and doves backed by blue sky. Man! Meanwhile, the catalpa blossoms that seemed celebratory days ago now clump in wilting piles of rot, four inches deep in places. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. And grab. Good thing I’m totally into sweeping these days (seriously into sweeping). And good thing this old bod can still squat with ease.