Anticipation

90574414_s via 123rf.com

The kitchen waited expectantly for the ritual to begin. It was like this every year at this time… when the first snow fell, when the stars seemed somehow brighter in the crisp, cold sky, the appliances would begin to Anticipate.

The oven was always first. Its pilot light would spark excitedly, and the flame would glow steadily  – no, steadfastly – ready for a cookie sheet to be inserted.

After the oven was the stovetop. Each burner softly warming, not too hot, not too cool. This is where the chocolate would be melted, the sugar and water combined into simple syrup, the caramel browned to buttery perfection.

The refrigerator, stolid and stoic, was always last. Sure, it would hold cookie dough that needed to chill, or the fruits required for pie fillings, but it did that throughout the year, and never seemed to notice the change of seasons much. (In truth, the fridge felt far more appreciated during the hot summer months when it spit out glass after glass of ice water.)

Still, by the time the Baker came into the room, each of the appliances was ready for the holiday season.

And when she arrived?

A smile. A breath. A cabinet pulled open with a graceful hand. A clunk as a ceramic bowl met the counter-top, a soft bump as a human hip nudged the door closed again.

The Baker had no compunctions about talking to her appliances. She knew that a good worker was not reliant on fancy tools, but that such things made life simpler. She also knew, that a little affection couldn’t hurt.

“Alright boys – ” (it was common knowledge that the appliances owned by female Bakers were always male, while male Bakers had female appliances) – “the holiday season has begun. Let’s get cooking.”

And they did.

(Thanks to Fran, who provided the first line of this piece.)

Bead by Bead

0746 - Bead by Bead

For years, decades even, Mama Louise had been known for her beadwork. Every velvet bag, every fancy dress, every bridal gown in their small town had been hand-beaded by the old woman.

Her work was impeccable, of course. She still used silk and cotton thread when commercial beadwork had switched to synthetics, or even glue. She never seemed to measure, but the spacing between her beads, whether it was simple trim or an intricate pattern, was always precise. Not a millimeter offset. Not a fraction of a millimeter in error. And when she was asked how she created these items of wearable art, Louise would smile and answer, “Bead by bead.”

More than her actual work, however, was what Louise instilled in her work. Before making a bag, Mama Louise would ask where it would be used, and she would have the eventual owner talk about their hopes and dreams for the event. The purse would then seem to carry the faintest scent of the floral archways of a specific restaurant, or glitter with the starlight of an open-air theatre.

If she were beading a dress for a ball or party, Mama Louise would listen to the sort of music likely to be played and her old feet would tap out the rhythms as she worked. (Somehow, her arthritic knees and ankles never objected to such movement.) Later, the women who commissioned her work would share that their feet never seemed as light, their energy never seemed so strong. “I could have danced forever,” one woman shared, glowing with happiness and enthusiasm.

Bridal gowns had always been Mama Louise’s specialty. She limited her commissions to two a year and quoted a five-month turnaround. It was much longer than it took to have a custom gown from one of the bridal shops on Main Street, but her customers never objected. They knew that a dress from a store was just a dress, while a creation sewn by Louise would be a family heirloom.

For those gowns, Louise would ask for stories of the bride’s childhood. She would collect memories from her parents and friends, her cousins and sisters and partners in youthful crimes and misdemeanors (which is how she jestingly referred to youthful exploits). She would also ask that each woman provide a well-wish for the bride-to-be.

When the recipient of such a gown finally tried it on, it would be as if each memory was whispering to her, and when she walked down the aisle on her special day, to meet her partner at the end, she would feel the love of all the well-wishes wrapping itself around her, and sending her into a happy future.

With so many girls and women being connected to Mama Louise through her work, it was inevitable that someone would notice when the old woman began work on another piece. This dress wasn’t pure white, like a bridal gown, but buttery, like French vanilla.

“Who is this piece for?” her visitors would ask – for it wasn’t unusual for her clients to stop by with baked goods and have coffee or tea with Louise. “Is this a wedding dress?”

But Louise didn’t share the recipient’s name. Instead she would lead her guest down memory lane, collecting a story of when that person wore a Creation by Louise.

Bead by bead, this last dress was nearly finished, but work on it stopped suddenly, when Louise had a heart attack one night.

Her son was the one who found her. He was a quiet man. A concert violinist with elegant fingers. He could have done beadwork as fine as his mother’s but that wasn’t where his heart led him. An only child of an only child, he’d considered his mother’s clients to be the sisters, cousins, and aunties he’d never had.

“My mother,” he said, “never sewed for herself. But this dress… ” he choked up as he told the people who had gathered in the old woman’s apartment. “This dress was meant to be her burial gown. She knew, I think, that her time was running out.”

There were three days until the wake and the funeral. Three days to find a shop to finish the beadwork… except.

Except Vanessa, the owner of Mama Louise’s last wedding gown, came to sew on a few beads from her dress. And Caitlyn who had no fewer than six of Louise’s velvet handbags, brought three beads from each.

The contributions continued. Each of these former clients added pieces of their favorite dresses and purses to the last few rows of beads, laughing together at their uneven rows, sharing memories and stories as they worked.

They finished at midnight, the night before the wake, sitting back and sharing a collective sigh.

Somehow, the soft breeze that wafted through Louise’s living room didn’t surprise them. It just felt right. Similarly, the appearance of their friend and neighbor in her rocking chair, looking peaceful, if slightly transparent, was not scary, but somehow soothing.

“We finished your dress,” the women said. “We couldn’t come close to your talent… but we tried to do the work with love.”

“And so, you did,” the ghost of their  beloved friend shared in a thin voice. “Bead by bead, you finished the gown. Bead by bead you strengthened your connections to each other and your community. Bead by bead, you spread love into the world.”

They wanted to hug her, but you can’t hug a ghost.

They wanted to share all their stories, but she was already fading.

Still, she held up an ethereal hand. “I know all your stories,” she said. “I know your hopes and dreams, and they will warm me in the next life. You’ve shared them with me… all of you… bead by bead.”

 

Reality Writes #5: Perfect

NOTE: This piece is my interpretation of the “translation” assignment from the 2019 “Reality Writes” project from The Literal Challenge. My interpretation was a bit loose.

Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites – the Prelude played by Yo-Yo Ma in the video linked above. Why that piece, when it’s not rock or pop or blues? Because it’s simple, but deceptively so.

Pay attention to it. There’s almost no use of extended positions (that’s when you reach down toward the bridge and play far down on the fingerboard (which is technically playing ‘high’ because the notes are higher)). There are almost no double-stops (that’s chords to you guitarists). The melody isn’t terribly sophisticated.

And yet… it’s the measure of a cellist’s skill, of whether they play with emotion or are simply good ‘technical’ players. It’s a required part of the repertoire for every conservatory audition, in every country in the world. If you can’t manage a credible Prelude, you don’t get past round one.

Jacqueline du Pré played it with every bit of her depression infusing the notes. Ophélie Gaillard plays it with warmth and wisdom and a sort of bemusement that makes it as French as she is, for all Bach was German. Rostropovich, Casals – they each had their own spin as well.

But when Ma plays it, especially in his studio recording, you can hear what’s underneath the music. Listen carefully. You can tell when his fingers meet the ebony of the fingerboard beneath the strings, but you can also detect the faint ring when his fingers leave the strings. Good cellists don’t rely on their thumbs – a practice exercise is to play études without using your thumb at all – but you can hear his thumb contact the saddle of the cello when he does move into extended positions. And you can hear his breath.

If you know the piece, you can discern when Ma’s pitch is a little off (it’s the beauty of live performance – the reality and impact often lie in the flaws), when he doesn’t attack the strings in quite the right way. His cello has a subtle burr note in the lower registers.

Look carefully. When the bow is really raspy you can see traces of rosin fly off it. You can see the muscle control Ma has, in the way an up bow (when you push the bow) has the same volume and strength as the easier down bow (when you pull).

Bach. Unaccompanied. Deceptively simple.

Utterly perfect.

Perfectly flawed.

Perfect.

Photo by DXL on Unsplash

Clock Watcher

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

They call her the Unturnable, because she will not change her mind. Once someone has reached the end of their allotted thread, she whisks in to snip it.

They call her the Inevitable One. The Inflexible.

Rarely do they use her name: Atropos.

Most times, the cut is a gentle one, and she catches her charge as their weight is untethered from the cable holding them to life. Sometimes, she misses the catch, and there is a metaphysical thud as though a weary soul has collapsed to a less-than-ethereal floor.

People fear her, but her calling is a necessary one.

Time and technology have changed how she works, over the years, decades, centuries, and epochs. Her sisters have changed their methods as well.

Clotho was so excited to be able to use a 3-D printer to create lives, rather than merely spinning them. And Lachesis was immediately taken with any number of Rube Goldberg-esque measuring devices involving chutes and troughs and scoops and bins and rolling parts that bounce and glide  – the middle sister always had been a bit of a tinkerer.

And as for Atropos, herself? Somewhat ironically, the Unturnable had become enamored with the turning hands of clocks. A clock for each of her charges, each of her targets, every living soul, with the correct allotment (as proscribed by Lachesis and created by Clotho) pre-programmed into the perfect number of ticks and tocks or bleeps or blinks (some of the clocks were digital).

They didn’t chime hours, these clocks, but showed how a thread would be snipped. The Shears were merely a symbol now – there were so many other Ways in the world.  Look at that one, it’s got lots of time left before the hours wind down to Doesn’t Wake Up, or that one over there, just a few minutes left before it chimes Old Age.

But then there are the more ominous clocks, the ones with darker Ways. Those are the lives that are tortured and broken. Some are sad, some are angry, some have been harmed, some wish to cause harm. Some wish to take other lives with them when they go, some wish only for their own endings.

And Atropos is the Clock Watcher who sees them all.

Tick, tock, it’s half an hour ’til Poison.

Tick, tock, it’s a quarter to Gun.

They call her the Unturnable, but some clocks, she wishes she could turn back.

Wind and Water

0711 - The Wave

He’d been reluctant to bring her to the farm. The prairie was so far from the ocean she loved and confining her to a landlocked life seemed somehow cruel.

The night before they left California, she took him to Half Moon Bay. She stripped off her clothes and while he watched, she stepped into the freezing Pacific.

He was half-convinced she’d be eaten by a shark – a surfer had been attacked just a few days before.

He was worried the undertow would claim her, and their marriage would be over before it had really begun.

But after fifteen minutes she’d come walking back out of the frothy, foamy waves, her skin glowing in the light of the full moon. He’d tried to wrap her in the thick towel they’d brought, but she’d demurred.

“Hold this, please?” she requested, drawing a blue glass bottle from her beach bag.

He did, and she squeezed the saltwater from her dark hair into the waiting vessel.

Then she’d wrapped the towel around them both and pushed him onto the scratchy, wool blanket she’d inherited from her grandfather. “He was a sea captain,” she’d told him once. “He spoke the language of the wind and the waves.”

But in that moment, the only wind was a balmy one blowing across the beach, and the only waves he cared about weren’t the ones crashing a few yards away, but the ones he was riding as she rode him.

* * *

She’d adapted to prairie life more easily than he’d expected. She had a green thumb and her tomatoes won raves at the county fair. So did her strawberry-rhubarb pies. “I never knew,” she told him, “what they meant when they talked about ‘pie plant’ in the Little House books until I came here. To think it was only ever rhubarb!”

At night they’d light citronella candles and sit on the porch and watch the stars wheel around in the sky. Well, she’d watch the stars. He’d watch the wind as it ruffled her hair and her skirts.

The wind was a constant presence on the prairie. He’d warned her about it, told her that in the old days, before electrical hum and technology drowned the sound and provided distractions, people literally went mad from the never-ceasing wind.

But she’d just laughed and teased the nape of his neck. “I like the wind,” she said. “If I close my eyes, it sounds like the ocean.”

* * *

For the most part, their life was happy, but sometimes, he caught her staring at her blue bottle of ocean water, and he knew that a part of her was still in California. He might be her husband, but the ocean was her lover, and always would be.

He asked if she wanted to move back, and she refused.

“This is our home,” she said. “I like it here.”

So, they got a dog, and they added a room for her to write in and a room for him to build model trains in and a room they might, one day, give over to a child.

The day the digital stick blinked PREGNANT, he came home to strawberry-rhubarb pie and homemade black bean chili and cornbread with fresh honey butter, and they went to the soft grass  in the back yard and made love under the stars with the warm wind washing over them, and the stars smiling down.

The day she started cramping and bleeding, the day they knew that room would never be a child’s room, the wind had never been so fierce. He begged and pleaded with her to let him take her to the emergency room, but she’d seen the tiny fetal mass go down the toilet… a lima bean and a splash of blood and said there was nothing emergent about it.

She clutched her blue bottle and wept, and he wrapped himself around her, and wept as well.

* * *

He heard the shatter of glass and went to check on her, expecting that she’d dropped a glass in the middle of the night (she never would turn the lights on when she went to get water). But it wasn’t a glass.

She was standing on the front porch with the door wide open, and the fragments of her blue bottle at her feet.

He heard a rushing sound, but  it wasn’t the wind he was accustomed to.

Rather, it was a wall of water – a giant wave – rushing toward them.

“I would have taken you back to the sea,” he told her.”

“I know,” she said. “But it’s too late. The sea is coming to take me back to it.”

 

Trouble Bass

0705 - Trouble BassFor years, the house had been rumored to be haunted. It was the one that always seemed neglected. It wasn’t tall or imposing – just a post-war bungalow, like half the houses in the neighborhood, but there was something off about it. The grass was always a touch too long, the shingles too shabby, the windows… when you walked by at dusk or after, it was as if there was something watching from behind them.

Kids dared each other to climb the porch steps and knock on the door on Halloween. The light was always on, its bare bulb illuminating the peeling paint of the screen door and the rusty hinge that kept it mostly shut.

But no one ever took the challenge.

Still, if a soul was brave enough to slow their steps of an evening, they’d have heard sounds from within the old house that might have changed their minds. For after dark, there were warm lights behind those watching windows, and if the wind was just right, a person who paid attention could catch the sound of old jazz – acoustic jazz – seeping out from the cracks in the floorboards and the gaps in the siding.

The bassline was always most prominent.

When Sherry and her family moved into the house next door, that bass was the first thing she heard. Her bedroom window overlooked the neighboring back yard, and she could see a covered patio lined with colored Christmas lights, and smell the sweet aroma of pipe tobacco.

Often, she could hear men talking and laughing. She could tell by their voices, their accents, the way they spoke, that they were black, that they were older, that they were from the South, and that they were musicians, but she could never discern specific words. When the laughter stopped, the music would begin.

So many nights, Sherry would lose herself in that music, letting it distract her from the sounds of her parents fighting downstairs, or, later, from the sound of her mother crying in frustration and desperation, after her father had stormed out yet again, or come home drunk and violent, or finally left forever.

Sometimes, Sherry was half convinced her unseen neighbor and his friends played extra-loud on the really bad nights, just for her.

The music went on all through her middle- and high school years. She always meant to go and knock on the door, bring a batch of cookies (everyone liked cookies, right? And she was a decent baker) and thank him (she was certain it was a him) for the music.

But she never did.

One late-autumn weekend, home from college for the traditional doing of the masses of laundry on Mom’s dime, Sherry sensed a change in the old house.

Sure, it had always been a little bit raggedy, but now, the windows felt empty, the grass was too tall, and that night, there was no talking, no laughter… no music.

The next morning, she layered herself in turtlenecks and flannel and climbed the three cement steps to the front porch and knocked.

She wasn’t expecting a response.

She was half-certain her neighbor had died, and since she’d never bothered to meet him, no one would have thought to tell her. Or her mother.

But a rustling sound came from within, and a man with white hair and dark, weathered skin, opened the door.

“I’m your neighbor,” Sherry said. “I’m Sherry.”

“‘Bout time you came,” the old man said. “Played for you for so long… never a peep. I knew you’d come if I stopped. We’ve been expecting you.”

“I’m sorry?” Sherry said.

“Nothin’ to be sorry about. Just follow me.” And he turned and shuffled back into the house.

Inside, it was just as shabby as outside, but it was also somehow warm and cozy. “That’s Pete,” the old man said. “This here’s Milt, Ron, Joe, and Mona.” He introduced her to a circle of older people, all aged, all with skin and hair like his, all holding instruments. “My hands can’t pluck the strings anymore,” he said. “But yours… yours are young. You can learn.”

“But I’m an economics major,” Sherry protested.

“Economics is what you do. Music is what you are. Today you’re a trouble bass player.”

Trouble bass?”

“Yup. Iff’n you play for nice folks in clubs, it’s double bass, but when you play for the people who need to hear it, need it to keep their hearts whole, it’s trouble bass.”

“So, you were playing for me, all these years?”

“As if you didn’t know.”

“I should have come sooner.”

“Nope. You came when you were ready. Like I said, it’s about time. Now, come here.” And he put his instrument, honey-brown and warm from care and love, in front of Sherry, and helped her place her hands. “Good thing you’re a tall girl.”

For Sherry, learning to play the bass was a sort of homecoming. All the music she’d listened to growing up finally had a place to go, and her fingers – fingers that usually clicked pens or absently tapped on paper – finally had a healthy means of expression.

The old man never shared his name. Only his music. Sherry just called him Mr. Bass Man, or, when she was particularly exasperated with him, Trouble.

Eventually, she took her place – his place – in the circle of players, laughing with them and talking. They shared their histories and she shared hers and it was as if cultures were being bridged in between riffs and licks and improvised melodies.

Trouble breathed his last breath a few days after Sherry graduated.

She was surprised to learn that he had a son – a doctor. He came to close up the house, get it ready to sell. In a romance novel, the two of them would have found a connection, fallen in love, and made music together to honor the old man.

But it wasn’t a romance.

She inherited Trouble’s bass.

His friends dispersed after the funeral.

And Sherry?

Sherry formed a pickup jazz ensemble among the accountants and other eggheads she worked with in the big city. Her condo had a covered patio, and she lined it with fairy lights and invited them to come and eat and drink and laugh and play.

They called themselves Numbers Game.

Cut a few albums.

Played gigs in schools.

Sherry got letters from kids who said their music made them feel safe. That they listened to her walking bass lines when they walked home at night and felt like someone was walking with them. That the music helped put their troubles in a safe place.

She knew that at some point some kid would find her, and she’d have to teach them what she knew.

But until then, Sherry plucked her fingers on the strings of the trouble bass, and found peace.

For years, the house had been rumored to be haunted. It was the one that always seemed neglected. It wasn’t tall or imposing – just a post-war bungalow, like half the houses in the neighborhood, but there was something off about it. The grass was always a touch too long, the shingles too shabby, the windows… when you walked by at dusk or after, it was as if there was something watching from behind them.

But if a person paid attention. If a person really listened… they could hear it, coming from the back yard, or maybe from the kitchen on rainy nights… the sound of a walking bass line, thumping its solidity through the darkened streets, guiding them safely home.

The Fungus-Fearers

Benihana-Piccadilly-4

There were three of them, sitting at the end of our table at Benihana, the Fungus-Fearers.

Oh, that isn’t what they called themselves, of course.  It’s what I called them in my head.

In reality, they simply looked at their bowls of mushroom soup and elected their pumps-and-pearls wearing spokeswoman to speak for them, her prissy voice pushed from her pursed lips as if she resented having to speak of such things.

“We neglected to inform you earlier,” she said, her tone haughty, disdainful, “but we  – none of us – do not care – for mushrooms.”

The chef, an affable local man who had engaged the other five of us – my husband and our friend, and a fun couple at the opposite end from the Fungus Fearers – quite easily, immediately became contrite. “I’m so sorry,” he said, as if the fault was his. “Are you allergic? Your meal doesn’t come with any more mushrooms, and neither does hers – ” He gestured to the cardigan-clad younger woman between the one in pearls and her bald, male, companion, obviously their daughter “- but yours does.” He continued, addressing the man, whose body was angled toward his family, and hand was cradled protectively around his glass of chilled Chablis, as if he might not be allowed another.

“No, not allergic. We just… dislike them.”

“Alright then,” the chef replied. “Because if you were allergic, I’d make sure your food was cooked before they touched the grill.”

Dinner proceeded.

The girl, who had insisted she’d ordered tuna, not chicken, then refused to eat the tuna because it was rolled in sesame seeds. (Apparently Fungus Fearers are incapable of reading menus.)

While the rest of us laughed with the chef, and with each other, becoming temporary friends, though we’d never met before and would never meet again, the three at the end remained stiff and aloof.

Why, I wondered throughout our meal, and after, would you come to a place like Benihana where you know you’ll be seated with strangers (they were clearly familiar with the setup) if you don’t like sharing space with strangers?

And how could anyone possibly be so agitated over mushrooms?

Just Desserts

666 - Route 666

They were somewhere in the desert, the one that spanned Nevada and Arizona but changed names, or spellings anyway, at the state line. Mojave, Mohave, either way it was Mo-freaking-hot-as-hell.

Tracy could even see the heat waves rolling up from the ground, making the endless stretch of empty road look more like rolling sea than a black asphalt river bleeding its way across the parched flesh of the empty land.

Sure, there was another car from time to time, but mostly the only thing that punctuated the monotony was the occasional mournful whistle of a cargo train – they were automated, those things – and over a hundred cars longs – and their whistles made Tracy shiver every time.

“Too much a/c?” Steve asked? The outside temperature gauge read 106 but it was 72 in the car.

“No, just the train whistle.”

“You like trains,” Steve reminded her.

“I like passenger trains,” she said. “These cargo things… they’re more like ghost trains. Sometimes I think maybe it’s just one endless train on a loop, never ending or beginning…”

“Drink some water, babe; you’re dehydrated.”

“I’m not!” she insisted, but she reached for her water bottle anyway, and took a healthy swallow. “How’re we doing on gas?” The design of the dashboard meant she couldn’t read that information from the passenger seat.

“We can make to Flagstaff.”

“Oh. Goo – Shit!” A red sports car had come zooming up beside them in the wrong lane, nearly clipping her mirror. “That wasn’t the same car we saw leaving Vegas?”

“I think it was… ”

Tracy reached out and teased the nape of Steve’s neck. “Crazy.”

“I know.”

They kept on driving, stopped at a couple of truck stops for bathroom breaks and gas. And then, just outside Flagstaff, they turned off the interstate, following suggestions to a tourist destination on the old Route 66. “I-40 parallels it along this stretch,” Steve told her, when Tracy questioned the detour. “There’s a ghost town with a burger joint that supposed to be to die for. They keep it open for tourists.”

“What tourists?” Tracy wanted to know.

“I guess there are more than we think.”

Tracy shrugged. “Sounds fun.” They weren’t in a race, after all.  They were headed to a new life in a community of artists and writers in Taos, New Mexico, but their schedule was their own. So why not enjoy a slight diversion?

Unlike the Interstate, the road they turned onto was faded and crumbling at the shoulders. The paint marking the lanes was barely discernible, but ruts in the road marked the divisions as well, or better.

The burger joint – a roadhouse, really – had a rusty highway sign on the top, Tracy froze looking at it after they got out of the car. “Steve. There are three sixes on that sign.”

“What?” he said. “Baby, we really need to get some protein in you.”

When Tracy looked again, the sign was a normal Route 66 sign.

Inside, the place was full of tourist kitsch. Stuffed jackalopes and Route 66 t-shirts were everywhere, and the song – that song – blared from the speakers.

A tired waitress in a polyester uniform greeted them with a dusty smile. “Welcome to the Roadhouse.” She reeled off a list of specials and left them to decide while she went to get drinks. A few minutes later, they were sipping iced tea and waiting for bacon and cheddar burgers.

“You headed somewhere specific?” the waitress asked, when she brought their food.

“Taos,” Tracy said.

“Nice town,” the other woman answered. “You’ll like it there. Best cheese enchiladas ever come from Gloria’s. Don’t miss them.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Tracy said.

The burgers were wonderful. Steve ate his own and half of hers, but that was typical. She ate all of her own fries, though. They had garlic on them. They watched people come and go as they ate – families mostly, and a few couples like themselves – but then he entered.

Tracy could tell he didn’t fit. Didn’t belong. His teeth were too white. His sunglasses were too expensive. His t-shirt had a logo that meant it had cost more than their typical electric bill.

“Can I get service?” he asked loudly. He’d barely been waiting fifteen seconds.

“I can seat you at the counter,” their waitress offered. “If it’s just you.”

“Fine, I guess. Could you wipe the grease off it first, though?”

Tracy couldn’t see his face, but she could practically hear him rolling his eyes.

“Asshole,” Steve muttered under his breath.

“Bet you anything he’s the guy in that red penis-car that keeps almost killing us,” Tracy whispered back.

In an attempt to wait him out, to not be ahead of him on the road, they decide to order pie and coffee. Tracy went for peach – her favorite – Steve was excited that they offered strawberry-rhubarb. “Good choices,” their waitress approved. “You want a la mode? It’s on me.”

“Because we’re going to Taos?” Tracy asked.

“Sure. That.” The waitress gave asshole-customer a furtive glance. “And because I know you don’t want to be on the road with him. I can tell.”

“He’s… we keep running into him. I guess the upside is that he’s the one who’s been caught in every speed trap since Vegas,” Steve said.

“Don’t doubt it.”

“A la mode sounds fantastic,” Tracy smiled. “It’s summer, after all. Thanks.”

“You bet.”

They finish their dessert, by which time the guy with the attitude has disappeared. “Bet you anything he’s from L.A.,” Tracy said, as they paid the check. “Leave the waitress a generous tip.”

“I left twenty-five percent,” Steve said.

“And that’s why I love you.”

“Not for my hot body?”

“Well, that too.”

They paused for a selfie in front of the roadhouse. It was dark by then, but there was so much lighting in the parking lot that it might as well have been noon. There’s a mark on the ground telling people where to stand so they can guarantee the sign is in the picture.

Back in the car, they headed back to the Interstate, only to be halted by flickering red and blue lights. “Sorry folks,” a highway patrol officer says, coming up to their window. “Gotta redirect you. To get back on Eastbound 40 do this…”

Tracy took down the directions with the “Notes” app on her phone. “Can I ask what happened, Officer?”

“Bad accident,” he said. “Speed demon in a red car wrapped himself around the signpost on the ramp.” He took a beat, then added. “These roads… they may seem flat and empty, but they make you cocky. You drive safe, hear?”

“Sure thing, Officer.” It was Steve who answered.

They follow their detour directions which take them to a ridge on the other side of the Interstate. Looking down, they can see the car that was smashed. No surprise, it was their “friend” from the road. The asshole from the  roadhouse.

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Steve said.

“Hush, honey. No one deserves that. Not really.” She paused. “We should go.” But their vantage point also let them glimpse the sign from the roadhouse, and Tracy shivered when she saw it. Checking her phone, she confirms what she’d seen before. The sign on the roof. One side was the normal road sign for America’s most famous highway.

The other? It had three sixes.

Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.

Uneasy Lies the Head

662 - Uneasy Head

“They whisper,” the Crowned one heard her confession. “They whisper all sorts of things to me, and I’m never which advice to follow.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Big Nose said I should trip Samuel as he was reaching the top of the stairs. I thought he might tumble and slide. I didn’t expect to hear the cracking sound. Or for his head to turn all the way ’round like that.”

The Crowned One frowned. “Samuel died at the bottom?”

“He was very pale… and so quiet. There wasn’t any blood though. I thought there was always blood when people die.”

“Not always, Georgia. Not always. What other whispers have you heard?”

“Twisted Lip said Nanny was plotting against me and I should switch my teacup with hers.”

“And did you?” the Crowned One was concerned as well as curious. What would the child’s answer be?

“Yes, I did. We’re looking for a new Nanny now. Because that Nanny started foaming at the mouth and then went all twitchy and fell off her chair. She’s not dead though, just really sick.”

“I see. It would seem Twisted Lip’s advice was wise, then.”

“Yes, but… I miss Samuel.”

“I am certain that you do. You and he have always been good friends.”

“Except he said that he would ascend to the throne because he’s a boy even though I’m six weeks older,” the little girl announced. “And Mother said those rules don’t matter anymore, because she sits on the throne now, after all.”

“Yes,” the Crowned one confirmed. “Yes, she does. Have you spoken to your mother about these things, Georgia? Told her what the Advisors are whispering to you?”

“I have,” she told him, nodding her head up and down. “She said it’s the way of things. People always try to eliminate the people who have power so they can have power instead. And sometimes we must act to protect our own interests.”

The Crowned One understood his role in Princess Georgia’s life. As a former head of state and current, well, state head, albeit a disembodied one, he was to offer the child as much wisdom and guidance as he could. He had hoped this could have happened without so much intrigue. He had fervently wished for a lot less murder. But it was the way of the world. The other heads – former guards and statesfolk, all – would whisper to the Heir, their advice to be heeded or not, as the child’s will dictated.

But his counsel was given openly.

At that moment, he wished he could give more than counsel. A friendly hug, perhaps. A pat on the head. But the reality was that this small girl was, at ten, already more ruthless than half a dozen mercenaries. She had to be, if she truly meant to take the throne someday.

All he could hope was that his wisdom would temper her more… expedient… choices.

“Dark Eyes also whispers,” the young princess offered, perhaps to assuage his obvious unease. “Dark Eyes says I must remember to be compassionate, when I can.”

“That is wise advice,” the Crowned One said.

“I’ve tried to heed it. Benjamin and I have been playing together since Samuel left us.”

“Since he died, you mean?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s good that you’ve reached out to his little brother.”

“Benjamin will never sit on the throne.”

“It is highly unlikely that he will.”

“But… he makes me laugh, and when we are together, I don’t focus so much on the whispers I hear from the Heads.”

“It’s good,” the Crowned One said, “that you can still be a child from time to time. Stay young as long as you can, Georgia.”

“I will try.”

“It is late. You should rest.”

“Yes…”  She released the magic holding him in place, and the Crowned One floated up to the Keeper’s Space. “Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, Georgia.”

The little girl was soon asleep. But the Crowned One was still fretting. She was becoming too hard, too cold… he was concerned. A leader must be able to act swiftly and make tough decisions; it was true, but a leader must also be able to be lenient, to know when kindness was the better path. He would speak with Dark Eyes in the morning. They would push Compassion at her a bit more heavily.

A line from Shakespeare went through his brain, and he chuckled softly. Old Will had really nailed it with that one.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

 

 

 

 

Eternal Companion

656 - Eternal Companion

You’re the same in every city. Every country. Every continent. You have been so ever since Velázquez first used you as the model for one of his gods.

You knew he would.

How could he resist?

Your flowing platinum hair. Your alabaster skin. The faint glow of otherness about you. These things made you compelling to men and women of all walks of life, so why not one of the world’s greatest painters?

But then his vision changed.

Ever the storyteller, Diego chose to tell different stories with his paintings. Instead of capturing encounters between gods and men, he focused on the earthiest of the earthbound. The kind who most people made a point of never seeing: the poor, the ugly, the ill, the malformed.

But you; you were beautiful, and you knew it.

So, you went on a mission to show off your terrible, dangerous beauty.

Killing sprees across every city in Europe. Milan. Paris. London. Madrid. Amsterdam. Rome. Berlin. There was no pattern. You went wherever your bloodlust took you, leaving your crimson stain on the statuary, since you couldn’t leave a tintype or photograph.

And I watched you.

I watched you grow paler and more luminescent as last vestiges of humanity were bitten from the necks of your victims and spit, sizzling, to the ground.

Your humanity, not theirs.

And I began to wonder who the real victim was: those whom you killed; you, who did the killing; or I, who allowed it all to continue.

If I were a stronger person, if my resolve were better fortified, this is the point in which I would inform my readers that I’d left you, or better, that I’d committed the ultimate act of altruism and driven the final stake through your marble-esque chest.

But I am not that strong.

And love can be so weak.

And so, because through it all, my angel, my demon, my eternal companion, I do love you, I offer you my neck, and hope beyond hope that in doing so, some of your madness is abated.

After all, the blood is the life.