Red Velvet

Red Velvet Cake

I woke to the sound of Grandmama singing in the kitchen.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

Her voice was deep and rich, like the red velvet cake she was probably making right that very moment. We always had red velvet cake for Juneteenth, and I always licked the bowl.

I jumped out of bed and pulled on the t-shirt and shorts I’d worn the day before. There weren’t too many grass stains, and my mother would make me change before the picnic, anyway. Grandmama was stirring the cake batter with her big wooden spoon. Mama had a Kitchen-Aid mixer, but my grandmother said the spoon was better. “Hand mixing adds in the love,” she would insist whenever my mother or sister would try to convince her otherwise.

I made it to the kitchen in time to join in on the chorus of the song. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us Facing the rising sun of our new day begun Let us march on till victory is won.” My voice wasn’t deep or rich yet, at least, not all the time, but I sang the words anyway, and there was something magical about singing with Grandmama in the kitchen when everyone else was still asleep.

“‘Bout time you showed up, handsome boy,” Grandmama greeted me. “I was beginning to wonder if you were too old to help me with the cake.”

“Not yet,” I said. “Not ever.”

“Oh, if only that were true,” she laughed. “C’mere and stir this for me. I need to rest my tired arms a minute.”

I took the bowl, tucking it under my arm like she did. We had plenty of counter space, but we never braced a bowl any other way. Not for stirring, I mean.  “Am I folding or just stirring?” I asked.

“Just stirring. I want that batter nice and smooth before we add the red to it.”

It’s a little-known secret that red velvet isn’t actually a flavor. It’s really just chocolate with red food coloring in it. Only Grandmama didn’t use coloring from a bottle like most folks. Instead, she used cherry juice. She said it was better to use natural flavors because our ancestors always cooked with real ingredients, and we had to honor their memories, their struggle, and their courage with the food we made for this day.

“Is it time to add the juice yet?” I asked when I’d switched the bowl and spoon from side to side a couple times.

“Yes, I guess it is,” Grandmama said.

I put the bowl on the kitchen counter, and Grandmama poured cherry juice into the bowl. It pooled on top of the chocolate batter, and she took the spoon from me, and started folding the deep red liquid into the warm brown batter. At first, it did look a lot like blood, but once it was mostly mixed in it just looked like reddish cake batter. She didn’t hand the bowl back to me, just stirred until it was one, uniform color, and then she poured it into pans. Most people do just two layers, but our family makes four-layer cakes because Grandmama’s people had been in America for four generations when Juneteenth happened, and people here in  Texas knew they were free forever.

I never asked Grandmama to tell me the story of her family. I wanted to, but Mama said it was too sensitive. It turned out I never had to ask, because if you got Grandmama singing, she’d follow that with a story, like when her four-times great grandmama (I think I’m counting that right) and her family were forced into hot, smelly, ships and went over the ocean until they ended in Galveston. All these many years later the foods my ancestors brought with them – things like okra, and kola leaf tea (which is also red)  – have become foods everyone in the south eats all the time. I hate what they went through, but I love that these folks brought over as enslaved people ended up influencing, and even dominating, the entire culture.

Grandmama says I have to learn our history, just like I have to learn to make red velvet cake with cherry juice, so I can carry our legacy forward. “Just because you’re my handsome grandson, doesn’t mean you can’t cook just like your sisters. All the famous chefs are men, anyway. Hopefully that’ll change someday.”

Once the cakes went into the oven, Grandmama took me into the parlor where the old piano was. Mama kept saying we should get a new one, because a couple of the keys just would not hold their tuning, but we never did. Everyone’s sleeping, still,” I said as she sat down and positioned her worn hands.

“Well, then… let’s wake them up.”

And so, as the red velvet cake baked in the oven, I sang with my Grandmama, and we woke up the house.

 

“Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land
Our native land”

 

Note: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by R.M. Carter, J.R. Johnson, and J.W. Johnson

Written for Brief #19 of Like the Prose 2021: Juneteenth

 

Eating Pistachios in Bed

 

Pistachios

Hemingway wrote standing up at his typewriter, at least when he was a war correspondent, but Twain liked to write in bed. I’ve always preferred the former’s style, because he said so much with so few words, most of them simple, but well-chosen. I write American Sentences as warmups. Sometimes I write them on notecards and take pictures of them. But when it comes to where I write, it’s Twain’s example I follow: I like to write in bed, late at night. I even make sure all my laptops have backlit keyboards so I can write in bed without disturbing my sleeping husband. Tonight, though, I’m 1,046 miles from my husband, in my mother’s guestroom, which is decorated in “beach chic” because this is Florida, after all. My mother went to bed two hours ago, and I, who revel in darkness, am cross-legged on the coral-colored bedspread with the quilted sea shells with YouTube playing a documentary about the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof while I write this piece that really should be more than one paragraph, but I’m feeling like a stream-of-consciousness piece is called for this evening. Or is it morning? It’s after midnight, but dawn is hours away. Thunder is rumbling, low, in the distance, the first fringes of a storm building in the Gulf, and I’m eating pistachios (roasted, salted, no shells). That’s my nightlife this summer: Writing and eating pistachios in bed.

 

 

Written for Brief #18 of Like the Prose 2021: You, Now.

Summer Storm

Summer Storm (Felix Mittermeier via Pixabay)

Thunder murmurs in the distance, and the sky brightens in response. Both are soft at first, but in wee increments, they increase in intensity.

The murmur grows into a conversation, and then an argument, two gods boxing in the heavens, it seems, or perhaps it’s humans moving heavy furniture. No matter, the sound is now percussive, shaking windows and making entire houses shiver.

Again and again, streaks of incandescent amber divide the night sky, white-hot and singing with static.

The night air is thick with bruising energy that expands and expands waiting for when, with one great burst of white fire, the skies divide and rain descends.

The wind whips the water in different directions.

The precipitation spreads into every nook and cranny of the street, the pavement, the grass. Temporary ponds form.

As if someone turned off a tap, the rain ceases.

The booming and hissing in the sky fade away.

The night sky returns to its former state, with a mere hint of remaining humidity.

The storm is over.

The chorus of geckos, frogs, and crickets serenades the neighborhood.

Written for Brief #15 of Like the Prose 2021: Lipogram
(The omitted letter is ‘l.’)

Glove You So Much

 

Ballerina

You can tell everything about a person by their feet. And for dancers, you can tell our histories.

Dancer FeetThat scar on my heel? It’s from my first time playing Marie in The Nutcracker. I had thrown one of my slippers at the Mouse King and spent the rest of Act I  in only one ballet shoe. I bet you didn’t know you could get sliced by stepping on a sequin, but you can.

That red V between my toes and my instep? That’s where I was permanently marked by a pair of pointe shoes that were fitted too tightly at the toe and too wide at the heel. A professional fitter changed my life, and probably prolonged my career, by introducing me to two words: wing blocks. If you have wide feet, with tapered toes remember those words.

Blisters over healed blisters.

Swollen bunions over swollen bunions.

A dancer’s feet – my feet – are ever changing.

See that second toe that isn’t quite straight? That’s where I rolled over in a dead shoe and broke the toe. See the lumpy bit on my right big toe? That’s a bunion that never quite heals.

And see how my toes are all slightly crooked now, and how my metatarsals are extremely prominent? That’s arthritis. It’s what dooms us all. I started feeling the telltale pain when I was twenty-six but managed three more years on stage.

Twenty-nine is ancient for a ballerina.

But when my ankle collapsed during a performance of Coppelia, I knew it was time to move on. I went to the doctors.

“You tore your Achilles,” the company ortho told me. “Which is bad enough and will kPedicureeep you out of dance up to a year, but this ankle is deformed from arthritis, as well.”

“So, it’s time for me to turn in my pointe shoes?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“I’m afraid so.”

I had the surgery, of course. I might not perform again, but I could still teach if I took the time to recover correctly.

The first day out of the cast, I had a pedicure.

I let them scrub away the last of my callouses. I let them soothe my bunions and shape my toenails. And I chose a bright red color to paint them with: Glove You So Much by OPI.

You can tell everything about a person from their feet. Mine? Mine used to be bloody and pussy from hours in pointe shoes. But now? Now I can wear flipflops without embarrassment.

I used to be a dancer. My feet still show the signs (you would die if you saw my arch). But my toes… my toes tell another story now.

Polished toes

Written for Brief #14 of Like the Prose 2021: Acceptance

If Only It Would Rain (a Basil and Zoe story)

seaside-1149687_1920

Her head hurts.

And there’s this weird choking feeling in the back of her throat as if she stuffed grief whole into her mouth but can’t swallow it down where it won’t hurt anymore.

And the storm clouds are overhead, and thickening.

If only it would rain.

She goes through the motions… She meets friends for pedicures, but the colors seem overbright. She makes nice meals for herself, but the food all tastes like sand.

And the sky is black above her, no sun to be found.

Sundays are the worst.

Any other day, she could go up the street to see Sissy or Gina and share a frosted glass of iced tea on the porch or call across the fence to Becca and accept the invitation for a dip in her pool.

But Sundays are family days.

And her family is far away.

And her partner is further away than just “away,” because he’s dead, and she can’t wrap her brain around it, quite.

And the sky is getting thicker and she can feel it in her brain pressing harder and harder.

She considers traveling, but she’s not ready to leave the house they built together, the things they so lovingly collected (trinkets from a myriad of planets) the bathtub he had installed just for her, because it echoed the one he’d installed in their cabin on the ship.

She considers going back to work, but she’s not ready to face auditions, and she’s spent enough time away that she no longer gets straight-up offers. Or at least, none that don’t repel her.

Her daughter tries to make her smile, asks her to play, demands beach days… and she does her best to be present in those moments, but inside all she feels is numbness, blackness, a void deeper than a black hole.

And the thunder is unceasing.

If only it would rain.

Written for Brief #13 of Like the Prose 2021: Depression

Bookworm (a story in dialogue only)

Reading in Bed

“It’s bedtime.”

“Five more minutes?”

“You have school tomorrow.”

“I’ll get up on time, I promise.”

“It’s very late.”

“But I’m almost done with this chapter.”

“Is it for school?”

Well, no.”

“Five more minutes…”

“Five more minutes from the time you close the door?”

“You’re pushing…”

“Well, you used my first five minutes asking me why I needed five more minutes. So really, I should get ten. More.”

“Or, maybe since the original five minutes expired, you should turn out the light now.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Life’s not fair.”

“Do you want the five more minutes, or not?”

“Ten.”

“And you’ll get yourself up on time?”

Reading in Bed with Flashlight“I’ve already got the alarm set.”

“You were that sure I’d agree.”

“No. But I was that sure you’d get tired of arguing with me, and send Dad in, which would have given me at least fifteen more minutes.”

“Ten more minutes.”

“Goodnight, Mom.”

“Goodnight, my little bookworm.”

Written for Brief #12 of Like the Prose 2021: Bargaining

 

The Tenth Time (A Basil and Zoe story)

Anger“Take this,” he said as we approached the shuttle bay. “In case I do not return.”

It’s a ritual we’ve been through ever since the Cousteau’s mission had changed from exploration to war. Except no one called it “war.” They called it, “defending the Coalition of Aligned Worlds.” Basil and I knew the truth though. The Kastellian Hegemony had been attacking planets on the fringes, and now there was an incursion into Coalition space that threatened the lives of no fewer than six colonies and eight systems.

“Come home to me,” I said, accepting the data solid from him. I knew what it contained. His final message to me. His final wishes. Nine times he had returned from one of these missions and I’d given the solid back to him, without ever scanning it. I wasn’t religious, but I prayed there would be a tenth.

“I promise to try.”

Five days later, Captain Rousseau came to my quarters in the middle of the dog watch. I invited her in and offered her tea. Tea made everything better… Almost everything. But I knew – I knew – she wouldn’t have come at that hour just for a chat.

“Zoe, I’m so sorry. As you know, Basil’s mission was to rescue a team of scientists from Beta Capella. The Kastellians were waiting. There were no survivors.”

“No.” I said. “You’re wrong.”

“Zoe… as his captain… as your friend… I’m not wrong.”

“No!” I said again, louder, more emphatically.

“Zoe, I’m sorry. His shuttle was destroyed.”

“NO!” I shouted the word that time. “Damn it, Cecile… he never should have gone on that mission. He’d already done back-to-back away assignments. He wasn’t supposed to be in the rotation.”

“He had special abilities that I felt were required.”

“You mean, you sent him because a machine who doesn’t get tired or burnt out.”

The captain – Cecile – was quiet for a long moment. “I’m sorry, Zoe. I made the best decision I could.”

“Fuck your decision,” I hurled the epithet at her. “Fuck your decision. Fuck this ship. Fuck this war. Fuck YOU.” Tears flooded my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. Cecile stepped closer to me, probably meaning to offer comfort but I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I raised my hand, and without any conscious plan, struck her on the cheek.

She let me do it.

And the slap of flesh on flesh snapped me out of my blind rage.

“Oh, gods,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, you’re not.” Her words were grave. I got the feeling she understood me. I also  got the impression she felt she deserved it. “I’m going to go now, Zoe. I hope we can talk again in a few days. I’ll have our mental health department contact you.”

I just nodded.

The captain left, and I collapsed on the couch. I was thankful, in that moment, that Elizabeth was on Centaurus with my father. Safe. Sheltered. I tried to do the time conversion in my head and couldn’t. I’d call her later. In the morning – evening – whatever.

Robot head looking front on camera isolated on a black backgroundI went to Basil’s desk and removed the data solid. I knew I should play it, but it was too soon. And maybe, maybe if I didn’t play it, he would come back.

Except, of course, he couldn’t.

I wanted to scream more, but my energy was rapidly draining. Sleep. I needed to sleep.  I took the data solid into our bedroom. Holding it in the palm of my hand, I sat down on the bed. “You promised me forever,” I said into the room. My words were directed to my absent partner, and to the computer chip I held.

“You lied.”

Written for Brief #11 of Like the Prose 2021: Anger

Words Have Power

 Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_kladyk'>kladyk</a>

“Chill out!”

I knew that voice. It was the scratchy tone of a faerie  – almost more white noise than actual speech. But I knew what to listen for. And I knew it wasn’t just dated slang. It was a curse.

“Why me?” I whispered into the darkness, already feeling the temperature start to drop. “I haven’t wronged you.”

“Haven’t you? So many stories about the fae, the djinn, the fanged ones… so many begun, none finished. A book promised and not executed. Your lack of attention to your avocation over the last year has caused harm to the creatures you used to write about.”

“Harm? How?”

“How can you be a tale-spinner still be such a nitwit,” the faerie snorted. “Dim bulbs, the lot of you humans, but you… you should know better… why do you always have to finish reading a scary story?”

“Closure,” I answered.

“Wrong!” The temperature in my house dropped again. “Peter would be so disappointed in you.”

Peter… oh, Peter… my first love! Before my husband. Before my dogs. Before my friends and family… there was Peter. “He… he would?”

“‘He… he would?'” The faerie mimicked my voice and my tone. “Of course, he would you idiot bird. When’s the last time you clapped your hands in glee? When’s the last time you created a working plot? When’s the last time you finished a story?”

“You mean… my writing gives you power? I didn’t know.”

The room grew even colder. “You didn’t know? YOU DIDN’T KNOW!” A blast of cold came with her  – I knew it was a female faerie now and was certain of her name, as well. “Our existence in this world depends on the belief of humans. Try thinking with your brain instead of your tits, girlfriend, and you might understand. Without belief, we don’t exist. Without stories, there’s no belief. We’re dying… all of us… and it’s  all. Your. FAULT!”

“I’m not the only writer…”

“No, but you’re one of the few who still retains that hint of childhood possibility. Why do you think you have so many nightmares? Why haven’t you been able to sleep well for a year?”

I mentioned things like stress and a global pandemic.

She didn’t buy it.

“Look, Chica, writers write. You’re failing yourself. You’re failing us. What do I have to do, bust a pipe and let water flood this idleness out of you?”

“No!” I scooted back against the pillows of my bed. “I mean, please don’t. I’ll try. I’ll try tonight… only… please turn off the cold first? I can’t feel my fingers.”  I held out my hands. They were rapidly turning blue.

“Twenty-four hours, wordwench, or I come back and turn you to an icicle.”

I looked at the place in the room where I thought she was and smiled softly. I knew what I’d write. “Sure, Tink…” I said. “Give Peter my love, won’t you?”

“Bitch!”

Her word hung in the air where she no longer was, but my house was warm again.

Written for Brief #9 of Like the Prose 2021: Faeries and Folklore

Causeway Considerations

 

 

Howard Beach

No matter how many times I drove out to Howard Beach, the moment where the pine woods give way to the causeway, stretching a mile across the Gulf of Mexico, would never fail to take my breath away.

That drive, which begins as a meandering trip through the waterfront neighborhoods of Tarpon Springs before you enter the outer park and it’s canopies of trees, multitudes of squirrels, and the occasional turtle (there are turtle crossing signs at several places along the road), is beautiful enough. But when you exit the dark woods into the bright light of the sun, and its reflection on the water, it’s as if you’ve set foot on the Yellow Brick Road and are approaching the Emerald City.

The beach isn’t just a beach, of course. One side of it, tucked in next to the causeway’s terminus, is dedicated to aquatic sports. Athletes, and those inclined to think they’re athletes, can rent kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, or water bikes. For slightly more sedentary folks, there are also paddleboats.

Across the causeway the other leeward quarter of the island (okay, it’s only an island when the tide is extremely high) is marked by a palm grove, and it’s usually occupied by a few people who want solitude, and don’t really swim. There is no lifeguard on either if the leeward beaches.

The windward coast of the island slopes gently toward the warm water of the gulf. The bottom there isn’t clear, as there is sea grass covering most of it, but it’s short, and unlike seaweed and kelp, it doesn’t wrap itself around your ankles.

This is the swimming beach, and it’s typically filled with happy families. On a recent trip I ran into a young woman with vivid blue hair, spending the day on the sand with her pink-haired partner, and their toddler-aged daughter, and a Greek mother with three kids, though none were under her umbrella. Rather, they were out in the water with their father while she caught some sun.

It’s worth mentioning that the water here is warm and shallow. An average-sized woman can touch the bottom with her feet while keeping her head above water most of the way out to the channel markers. It’s deceptively calm, though, there is a serious riptide if you get caught in the wrong current.

Howard Beach, like most of the beaches in the Florida State Park system has a lifeguard on duty. It also has clean bathrooms, outdoor showers, and a small walking trail to an overlook with a bench. Parking is ample, and costs five dollars a day, though locals and long-term visitors can buy passes. Handicapped parking is free with a placard, and also ample. There is no concession stand, but the town of Tarpon Springs has many restaurants and cafes. Greek food is most plentiful as the town was originally a Greek fishing village, but there’s a whole range.

After a day at Howard Beach driving back across the causeway feels a little like leaving technicolored Oz and returning to black-and-white Kansas. What helps is watching the fishermen along the road, asking them if they caught anything.

What also helps is the knowledge that this little piece of sand will still be there, welcoming the next families, the next laughing children, the next people to cross the causeway looking for fun in the sun.

Written for Brief #4 of Like the Prose 2021: Literary Travel

A Thread on Thread

(A Twitter Story)

https://twitter.com/Melysse/status/1400651144440041473

Thread

1) This story is true… mostly.

2) I’m visiting my mom for a month or two while storm damage is finally fixed in my house in Texas. The damage is from the February Freeze, but that’s another story…

3) So, my mom is a self-described “sewist,” and that comes with certain hazards. Like, I cannot count the number of stray straight pins I’ve found embedded in my feet over my lifetime (which is one of the reasons I wear shoes in the house, but I digress).

4) But this story isn’t about pins; it’s about thread. Sewing thread. It’s insidious stuff. Gets everywhere. Sometimes it floats through Mom’s living room like a weird, skinny, insect.

5) It’s bad enough that I have to keep pulling stray thread off my clothes every time I get up from the couch or the bed or any chair. But lately… lately the thread has been following me.

6) Specifically, there is this one piece of turquoise thread – and none of the clothing I bought here is turquoise – that was moving from the living room toward my bedroom.

7) The first day, it was in the hallway leading to the front door, as if it was planning an escape… or maybe just heading out to take over the world. Either is possible. But then…

8) …then the thread got to the entry-way and instead of taking advantage of the open doors and making its escape into the wider world, it turned toward the guest room and guest bathroom. AKA MY bedroom and bathroom. I swept it away, but it came back…

9) I was in the bathroom, when it returned. I had just finished my “paperwork” and I looked down and the turquoise thread was wrapped around my foot! I unwound it and dropped it into the trash can.

10) The next day I saw the same thread, but it was drying to enter my bedroom. Of course, I closed the door, but I was worried. Maybe this wasn’t just fiber. Maybe it was a sentient being bent on world domination…

11)… or at least on the murder of an innocent writer who hadn’t yet reached her full potential. What would my dogs do without me? How would my husband cope? Who would inherit my mother’s art when the thread eventually turned on her???? The mind had to boggle.

12) Things improved the next day. Somehow, the turquoise thread wound up in the bathtub while I was taking a shower. (There isn’t a rule about getting them wet or respooling them after midnight, is there?)

13) I have to confess: I was smug as I watched that evil blue strand slither down the drain. I thought it was over, but the next night as we were watching that awesome @AmyTan documentary on  @Netflix a red strand attached itself to my leggings.

14) I pulled it off in much the same way one removes a tick and cast it away. “Are you alright?” My mother was looking at me as if she wanted to know which meds I wasn’t taking and should have been.

15) “No,” I complained. “Loose thread is following me everywhere. I think it’s revenge.”

16) “Revenge?” my mother asked. “For what?”

17) “I don’t know… maybe for all the times when I was a kid that I bitched about it when you made me stand in line at the fabric store with an extra coupon so you could buy more fabric. And more thread.”

18) “Oh,” Mom said. “Thread would never care about that.” She took a beat. An ominous beat. “But mothers do…”

19) I laughed at her, of course, but I was still worried. And when I returned to my room that night, I knew my concern was not unfounded… because red threat was wrapped around and around the handle of the window…

20) I knew then that you CAN go home again… you just never get to leave once you do.

 

Written for Brief #3 of Like the Prose 2021: Write a Twitter story.