Shadow

artist: scaf_oner - https://www.instagram.com/scaf_oner/“I have a little shadow
That goes in and out with me
And what could be the use of him
Is more than I can see.”

“He is very very like me
From his toes up to his head
And I see him jump before me
When I jump into my bed.”

The words of the old Robert Louis Stevenson poem circle through my head in my grandmother’s voice. She used to make me recite them at night… not just “My Shadow” but all those children’s’ verses. We would recite them with Grandpop, too, “to help keep his brain stimulated,” the old woman would say.

In my innocence I had no idea they were meant to be protective spells. I would just become entranced by the rhythms and rhymes and the time spent one-on-one with the old woman. The images would swirl around in my imagination, but I never paid attention to the meanings of the words.

I also had no idea that my grandfather was slowly slipping away from us as Alzheimer’s ate his brain. Some days, he couldn’t remember how the percolator worked. Other days, he couldn’t remember my name.

Then there was the night of the big storm. The power went out and the world felt deadly still without the usual electrical hum that most of us don’t notice til it’s gone.

I saw my grandfather downstairs, checking to make sure all the storm doors were shut, and the windows closed and latched. It struck me as a comforting scene until the lightning flashed outside and cast his shadow – his true shadow – on the wall near my bedroom door.

Looking down, I caught the old man staring at me the way I’d have stared at a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles from Carvel.

As if I wasn’t human.

As if I were FOOD.

And his shadow… it looked more like that creature from ALIEN than the old man who happily hunkered down on the floor and played trains with me just a few hours before. And it… it was looking at me, too, the way a predator analyzes its prey.

“Get to bed!” Grandma came out of nowhere to push me back into my room and slam the door shut. “You must never let Grandpop’s shadow touch you.” Unspoken was the other half of the admonition, the half I was still too young to hear: “and never let your shadow cover anyone else.”

Sitting in my bed, in the dark, I noticed that my grandmother’s shadow wasn’t with mine, that only my form showed in silhouette on the bedroom wall. Through the crack under the door, I saw flickering light and comprehension dawned. Her shadow was out there, defending me from my own grandfather’s inner demon.

“Recite,” she ordered, though there was affection beneath her commanding tone. “How do you like to go up in a swing?”

Up in the air so blue,” I dutifully continued. “Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing, ever a child could do.” The words calmed me. I imagined myself swinging away from the weird shadow battle to a place of peace and light.

When the storm ended and the power returned, Grandpop came to check on us. I checked the wall, and saw the lamplight throwing only the expected, human forms of all of us there. Grandma smiled at him, and said, “It’s alright now.”  And we all went on as if everything was the same as before.

Except… I am  different.

I know things now.

The shadow curse runs in my family – I learned that later – but it’s been steadily weakening from generation to generation.

And the rhymes? They protect us and repel the monsters.

If that seems a bit far-fetched, consider: “Ring Around the Rosie” defines the symptoms of the Plague, and “This Old Man” warns us about a pedophile. “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush,” on the other hand,  refers to how female prisoners once got exercise.

My own demon shadow is a rare visitor, a puny and ineffectual thing compared to my grandfather’s.

Still, when the weather guy on tv warns of an impending storm, I sit on my daughter’s bed, take the video game out of her tiny hands, and teach her a rhyme:

“The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.”

None of him at all… Perhaps by the time my daughter has children, it will be so.

 

*All italicized verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
Art by  scaf_oner

But Old Towns Are Always Haunted, Aren’t They?

CreativeFest

That one stretch of Highway 75 across the corner of Nebraska between the Kansas Turnpike and the turnoff to cross the river and connect with I-29 always spooked her.

When she made the trip alone, she would make sure she had enough gas to drive that section of her journey without having to stop. When she was with her partner, she still got the heebie-jeebies, but at least she had another human being, real and alive, sitting next to her.

Ralph's Market by Daniel RitterSometimes, she even let him drive.

“I’m just going to shut my eyes,” she’d say, even though they both knew she never slept in cars. “Wake me when we get to that rest-stop with the fancy Japanese toilets.”  She’d pop headphones in her ears, and squinch her eyes shut, and pray she could keep them that way until they’d crossed the Iowa state line.

Invariably, though, she would wake up just as the speed limit slowed and the road narrowed to two lanes as it crept through the old town.

Tonight, they hit that part of the trip just as the sun was setting, and she couldn’t help but watch as the dying rays illuminated the creaky old buildings with their ghost signs still evident on long-derelict buildings.

“You okay?” her husband asked, more focused on the road ahead than on her.

“Yeah. I just… this town makes me sad.”

Sad was an understatement. She could feel the neglect like a weight upon her shoulders. The town had been cute once – the remnants of it were still here – the old bones of a place that was too far from any city to be a suburb, and too small to thrive.

The post office was little more than a phone booth – or maybe one of those roadside ice cream stands that are only open in summer. She imagined Ralph, from the market still bore his name even though it was long since closed (replaced by a Walmart up at the crossroads between this tiny town and the next), rushing over to handle the mail or sell some stamps in between customers picking up their grocery orders.

She could almost hear the happy voices of children playing tether ball in the yard of the schoolhouse across the street – the school that no longer hosted lively classrooms. A few windows were broken, and the chains for the balls hung limply.  Probably the kids would have trooped over to the market when they were done playing, and spent their allowances on penny candy and the kinds of pop they didn’t sell much anymore: Mr. Pibb, RC Cola, Grape NeHi.

Up at the corner, the motel still had lights on, and one lonely car was parked in the criss-cross of broken paint lines that was its parking lot, right in front of the payphone – an actual payphone! – and the sign promising free ice. Those lights were a beacon to her, a sign that the oldest part of the town was behind them, and the next block would hold the Tast-e-Freeze and Dog House  – two stops on an endless march of fast food.

They waited at the light – the only one in town, and she could have sworn she saw shadowy figures in the background, the essences of the people who had lived and worked here once upon a time, but then the red switched to green, and she realized it must’ve been a trick of the light.

Still, she shuddered, glad they were back up to speed.

Old towns always made her feel like someone was watching her.

And who knows? Maybe they were. Old towns are always haunted, aren’t they?


Photo credit: Daniel Ritter
Written for October 2021 #CreativeFest. Prompt: Ghost

 

La Signora della Luna

CreativeFest

 

When I was little, my grandmother kept the moon in a glass on her bedside table. She kept her teeth in another glass right next to it.

girl-5760295_1280I always wondered what would happen if she mixed them up, and put the moon in with the fizzy tablet that cleaned her teeth. Would it wipe away all the craters? Chase away the mares and level the Archimedes mountains?

But she never mixed the glasses.

I asked her once, why she trapped the moon that way. She told me that after my grandfather left this world, she was lonely. During the day, she had friends and neighbors to visit with, and family to talk to on the phone. But in the deep, darkness after bedtime, she missed having someone right there, with their head on the pillow next to hers, to share her thoughts with.

“But don’t people miss the moon, when you have it in the glass?” I’d asked.

“Oh, no,” she said. “Because the moon isn’t just the moon;  it’s the quiet listener we all need from time to time. I have the moon in this glass, and we talk, and then the moon goes to the next person who needs it, and I drink the moon-water.”  She paused and smiled at me, and her teeth were shiny in her mouth, in a way they never were in the glass. “The moon-water is what makes it possible. Your grandfather used to snatch the moon from the sky when we was away at war, and keep it in his canteen.”

“He didn’t!”

“He did. He sent me a drawing of it, once. I think it’s in the bottom drawer of my bureau.”

I went to the bottom drawer, the one where my grandmother kept her treasures and found the manila envelope of my grandfather’s drawings. We never found the picture of the moon in his canteen, but we flipped through pages showing the anatomy of flowers and insects in textbook detail, and a sketch he drew of my grandmother when they were young and newly married. He’d written La Signora della Luna in the top margin. It meant “Lady of the Moon.”

“Would the moon listen to me, if I needed to?”

“Maybe.” My grandmother rarely gave definitive answers. “If the mood was right and you asked politely.”

Of course, I resolved to ask.

I tried and tried – constantly that summer, and less frequently as the years turned and I grew older. In time, I forgot all about the moon being in my grandmother’s water-glass, and when I did remember, I assumed it was a trick of the light, a reflection shining through her window.

But after she left this world to go be with my grandfather again, I found the thick, heavy glass in a box of things to be donated, and I asked my mother if I could have it.

“I guess so,” she said, puzzlement in her voice. “But it’s just one glass. We were never sure, but we think she took it from the Officer’s Club dining room.”

That didn’t surprise me. My grandmother had many mysterious acquisitions among her belongings: a tiny milk pitcher from a favorite bed and breakfast, one purple satin shoe, a pair of gold bracelets that didn’t seem big enough for even her tiny wrists, yet somehow, magically, she managed to wear. A stray glass was nothing by comparison.

Except that I knew the secret.

Alone at home, a year and a day after the funeral, I filled that glass with water and put it on my bedside table. I wasn’t even thinking about a possible lunar visitation. I just remembered that it had been hers.

That night, I dreamed of my grandmother, not the way she’d been in the last years before her death, but vibrant and relatively young the way she’d been when I was little. Her cheeks were barely lined then, and her eyes were bright and shining. She didn’t speak to me, but I felt the edge of the bed dip when she sat down, and I smiled at the touch of her cool fingers on my forehead.

I woke up to dim light, certain that I could detect her rose-scented perfume in my room. Reaching for the water glass on my table, I froze. Because instead of just water, the moon was there, just floating as if it belonged there instead of the sky.

Moon-water doesn’t taste any different from plain old drinking water,  I discovered later. But drinking it makes you feel lighter inside. It’s as if gravity isn’t pulling on you quite as hard as it should.

And the moon… well, it’s an excellent listener. It never talks back, of course, but the next morning I always wake up with an answer to whatever problem I had told it about.

I bet if I had a lover who could draw, instead of one who played music, he’d call me the Lady of the Moon, now, and I guess that’s how it should be. I don’t have a granddaughter to pass my legacy to, but one of my nieces has the soul of a dreamer. Maybe I’ll ask her what she sees in the glass, next time she spends the night.

My grandmother used to keep the moon in a glass of water on her bedside table. Now it’s my turn.


#Written for the October 2021 #Creativefest. Prompt: Moon. 

Sunday Brunch: Leonardo Was Right

Leonardo DaVinci once wrote, “In time, and with water, everything changes.”

Over the last year I’ve lived very closely with that tenet, as we’ve had to replace pretty much every household appliance that uses water. The washer, the dishwasher, and the water heater were the big-ticket items, but we also replaced our electric kettle and my water-pik.

And then February happened.

The atypical side effects of “Winter Storm Uri” as experienced by those of us in Texas and other parts of the south made national news. Our state’s greed meant that our electricity infrastructure had not been winterized, even though a similar storm ten years ago made the need quite obvious.

We were warned that we’d have rolling power outages. We were told they’d be 15 to 45 minutes long, every few hours. Instead, in sub-freezing weather, the rolling outages in my neighborhood gave us one hour of power every seven, but that level of surging caused a lot of the grid to fail entirely.

In my house, our heat and hot water are gas, but everything else is electric. If there’s no electricity, there’s no way to distribute the heat (it’s a forced-air system.) We have twenty-foot ceilings in our living room and the registers are at the top of the room. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t have closed off that room to make the rest of the house warmer. We have a fireplace, but it’s mainly decorative and doesn’t really put out heat. During a typical winter, we might use it on a rainy night to cut the dampness a little bit.

This winter was not typical.

On the morning of Tuesday, February 16th, it was 40 degrees in my bedroom. My 12-year-old pointer-mix, Max, was shivering in his bed. His hips are arthritic, and he can’t control his bowels so curling up in our bed is no longer an option. My chihuahua, Perry, had been shivering since the initial power outage on Sunday night.

A gracious friend told me to pack up all four of my dogs and come to her house. It’s a tiny house. 2 bedrooms with a connecting bathroom. Her college-aged son was in his room doing virtual school (he’s in the theatre arts program at DePaul, and he’s going to be a huge talent someday). She gave us her bedroom, and we squeezed the dog crates and dog beds into it. (She had a trundle bed in her office, sewing room).  Initially, I’d resisted her offer. Surely, I thought, we would have normal rolling outages.

I’m glad I changed my mind.

As I was packing with numb fingers (our closet is beyond the master bathroom and shares a wall with the garage, so it was even colder in there), there was a loud KA-CHONK sound from somewhere inside the bathroom walls. We’d been dripping the taps – all of them – but apparently it wasn’t enough. When Fuzzy went upstairs to check that bathroom, he found that the tub and one sink were no longer dripping, and the toilet wouldn’t flush.

We packed the car for the first trip across town on icy, unplowed (because Dallas doesn’t own plows) streets. I stayed at my friend’s house and drank hot tea until I felt warm, while Fuzzy made more trips.

When he got back to the house the first time, he found water pouring into our master bathroom (on the first floor) from the tub pipes in the bathroom upstairs. The fire department came and shut off the water at the main, and I called in a claim to our insurance company.

It was Thursday evening before a plumber could come and fix the pipes and at that point the power had just come back on. We were lucky – there are people in my city STILL waiting for plumbers a week and a half later.

We got even luckier: the plumber’s wife is a general contractor. Normally, we’d be getting bids and vetting people. We don’t have that ability right now.

With water, heat, and power restored we could return home. But we are still in limbo. Our insurer wants water mitigation to come and dry things out (it’s been almost two weeks since the initial flood at this point, and it reached 80 degrees outside a few days ago) before the contractor can be allowed to start. There’s other damage to the house, related to the storm, but not necessarily related to the pipes that may or may not be a separate claim (and thus a second deductible), and as it is our deductible is based on our property value and is over three thousand dollars.

The contractor has identified a lot more work than I anticipated, including replacing the sheet rock on the bottom two feet of most of the back of the house, and basically gutting the upstairs bathroom. (The entire subfloor did get drenched. It’s been raining this weekend, and my house smells like a pirate ship… and not in a good way.) Because there are thousands of people in similar  – or worse – situations materials are scarce and places where we can relocate during the work that must be done – with four dogs, one of whom has mobility issues – as I do – are even more challenging to find.

Water used to be my best friend. It has always been where I felt safest, where I felt calmest. But right now, my tub is full of debris, and the intense lightning storm the other night had me awake every hour because I’m now paranoid about losing power.

My husband is a calm, stoic Midwesterner. He has faith in the process and believes we will be okay. I cannot share his optimism. I’m frazzled and anxious and exhausted. I look around my house and feel nothing but anger at being cheated out of enjoying a rare snowstorm, and at the fact that the Texas government would prefer that people freeze rather than lose a penny.  I feel like I’ve betrayed my dogs by allowing them to suffer, to be confused by being moved away and then home, and by not behaving in ways they expect. My house is no longer a haven, but a prison I can’t escape. If I had a place to go, if I could AFFORD to buy something new, I’d sell this place to a flipper and bail in a heartbeat. In half a heart-beat.

And yet, there is some good that has come from this. My friendship with the woman who gave us sanctuary grew stronger. We’ve connected with some of our neighbors we only really knew by sight before. My husband and I have both experienced moments of clarity about what we want for the future. And my friends, my awesome friends, many of whom are included in the list of my podcast patrons, started a fundraiser to help us offset our deductible and the inevitable expenses that insurance won’t cover, and FEMA may not be able to help with. (I’ll link to it in the show notes.)

“In time, and with water, everything changes.”

Leonardo was right, but what changes I will ultimately see are as yet unknown.

FUNDRAISER: Dog Days of Podcasting  – Help Melissa

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?

True Love Cafe

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The Brief

How frustrating is it when you have to deliver something to a deadline, only to realise afterwards what you could have done better.
So this is your opportunity to re-do a challenge. Pick any of the previous 26 challenges we've done, and write a NEW play following that brief.
I bet you've thought of a few better ideas since sending in your first version.
But don't just re-do the play you did - it has to be a completely different concept!

Notes

I chose the “TLC” Brief. You can read the details and my original submission here.

 

The Excerpt

SPRITE

Yes! Yes, exactly. Like, for me, my tree, it might be a willow… or maybe an aspen. But for you, it might be a salt pine or maybe even a beech tree.

DEREK

Can it be a copper beech, like in that Sherlock Holmes story?

SPRITE

Copper? I don’t know. Maybe. The thing is… you have to find your tree. And I have to find mine. And until you do, a relationship between us can’t work.

DEREK

Wait… you’re breaking up with me because you have to go find your tree?

SPRITE

Yeah… I have to find my tree. And you have to find yours.

 

To Read the Entire Play

Click here: 1902.26 – True Love Cafe

Stormy Weather: A Relationship in Three Short (Rhyming) Acts

nathan-anderson-113932-unsplash

The Brief

Coz every year we do poetic briefs –

To do with either rhythm or with rhyme…

But this is now the fifth month of our game

So this year we’ll do both, I think it’s time.

We’ll take some inspiration from the Bard

But mix it up so that we do it new.

We’ll write a play that’s all Iambic Pents,

but also make it rhyme, we must that do!

“what sort of rhyming pattern should we use?”

I hear you ask with panic in your voice

Well, you can choose whatever fits you best

That’s right, you have the power – make your choice!

Right, that’s the easy part, and now the trick,

the language must remain ‘au natural’

Do place the play in modern times and themes

Maybe even make it factual.

I don’t want any mention of old Will

or texts that could be taken from his plays

No themes that maybe he has written ’bout

instead deal with our lives these modern days.

So write about things Shakes-boy couldn’t write

Like Mars bars, Gogglebox or World War II.

I hope you like this challenge, my dear friends

I think it’s fine. I do. I do. Do you?

 

The Excerpt

The sound you’re hearing is just a branch on the roof

I’ll show you in the morning if you require proof.

I love that your dreams are never boring,

And that you think of ships at sea when you hear me snoring.

But right now, I’m so tired I almost feel like I am dead,

So maybe drive the Master and Commander novels from your pretty head

Cuz all too soon our dogs will bark and growl and whine and peep

And we’ll have lost all chance of ever getting any sleep.

 

To read the entire play…

Click here: 1902.02 – Stormy Weather – A Relationship in Three Short Rhyming Acts

The Eighth Day After – Coffee Cake

Entenmanns

 

The eighth day after Christmas, before they could suspect
I bundled up the…
Eight maids a-milking
Nine ladies dancing
Ten lords a-leaping
Eleven pipers piping
Twelve drummers drumming
(Well, actually, I kept one of the drummers)
And sent them back collect

I wrote my true love we are through love
And I said in so many words
Furthermore your Christmas gifts were for the birds

– The Twelve Days After Christmas, by Frederick Silver

My earliest memories revolve around my grandmother’s dining table. Laughing aunts and uncles and cousins would sit around the table talking as loudly with their hands as they did with their voices. Some nights the Canasta cards were brought out, other nights the game was Pinochle or for us non-cardplayers, Scrabble was the game of choice. Inevitably though, whether there were two people at that table or twelve, my grandmother would announce that she wanted a ‘little something.’

Invariably that ‘little something’ would be dessert.

And more often than not, the dessert would be an Entenmann’s coffeecake. The kind with a crumb topping and pastry cheese filling. That taste, slightly metallic from the foil tray, but always just enough sweetness to temper the strongest of coffees (or the brattiest of little girls) was the taste of my childhood. I remember it as strongly as I do my grandfather’s raisin bread or my grandmother’s meatballs or her recipe for pasta e fagiolli, which, by the way, is nothing like the swill they serve at the Olive Garden.

For Christmas this year, my friend Fran in Massachusetts sent me not one, not two, but three Entenmann’s Cheese-filled Crumb Coffee Cakes. Two immediately went into the freezer, to be saved until I just can’t stand it anymore. The third, we cut into almost immediately. Even my mother, who doesn’t eat carbs (she says), couldn’t resist the siren call of this coffee cake.

You see, they don’t sell it in my part of Texas. Believe me, I’ve looked. And even in California, it was a rare thing to find.

They say you can’t go home again, but sometimes, home can come to you, and when it does, it’s packaged in a white and blue box.

 

 

 

 

A Capella Podcast Blues

dolo-iglesias-487520-unsplash

There’s a song that’s been haunting me since just after Thanksgiving. It’s a lullaby that some people think is a Christmas song. It’s not; it’s really just a lullaby. But when songs get stuck in my head, what that usually means they’re sparking a story.

I know that doesn’t seem like a problem, but it became when I realized two things:

1) The story I’m working on will have to be part of my podcast this month.

2) Since I can’t find a podsafe version of the song, I have to record it myself.

Well, okay. I can sing. I’ve been singing since before I could walk – literally. I can also play the cello, koto, dulcimer, autoharp, and musical saw, but I sold my cello a year ago when I realized my carpal tunnel had gotten too bad to play it, and I don’t own any of the others. (Well, we own a saw, but not in my key.)

What I cannot do – could never do – is play the piano.

It’s not for lack of interest.

It’s for lack of ownership. To play the piano without a piano, is kind of a trick.

So, I’m trying to learn this song well enough to do a decent job of singing bits of it as punctuation to this story I’m writing, but there’s this weird key-change in the middle and I can’t find a version to sing with (for practice) that’s in a key where I’m comfortable. (The perils of being a lyric mezzo / belter, and not a true alto or true soprano.)

My frustration led to the following exchange with my husband about an hour ago:

Me: Fuzzy, if you hear singing, ignore it. I need to be comfy with this song so I can use it on pod.

Him: I don’t hear a thing.

Me: Keep it that way. (beat) I really need this about a third lower.

Him: You can’t find it in a key you like?

Me: No. I want a holographic accompanist for Christmas.

Him: I’ll get right on that.

And this doesn’t even take into account that I don’t really have my full voice back after two weeks of sinusitis, pneumonia, and pleurisy (but at least I’m done with the medications).
And on that note (pun absolutely intended) I’m going to make a hot toddy and take myself to bed, so I can sing another day.