Hope and Keep Busy

Orchard House

In the cold gray dawn the sisters lit their lamp and read their chapter with an earnestness never felt before. For now the shadow of a real trouble had come, the little books were full of help and comfort, and as they dressed, they agreed to say goodbye cheerfully and hopefully, and send their mother on her anxious journey unsaddened by tears or complaints from them. Everything seemed very strange when they went down, so dim and still outside, so full of light and bustle within. Breakfast at that early hour seemed odd, and even Hannah’s familiar face looked unnatural as she flew about her kitchen with her nightcap on. The big trunk stood ready in the hall, Mother’s cloak and bonnet lay on the sofa, and Mother herself sat trying to eat, but looking so pale and worn with sleeplessness and anxiety that the girls found it very hard to keep their resolution. Meg’s eyes kept filling in spite of herself, Jo was obliged to hide her face in the kitchen roller more than once, and the little girls wore a grave, troubled expression, as if sorrow was a new experience to them.

Little Women and its sequels have been more than mere fiction to me, but lifelong companions. When I was a gap-toothed seven-year-old my mother and I were reading the first book together at bedtime, a chapter a night, until I became impatient and started reading ahead.

It was the last book we ever read together in that way, although my teens and early twenties would find us going to the library together and fighting over which of us got to read the new releases first. Somehow, “but I’m the one who checked it out,” never holds water with your mother, even when you’re a legal adult.

While a lot of people believe Alcott wrote for kids, that’s not really true. She was a writer in a time when, except for books targeted for very young children, books were just… books. “Young adult” didn’t exist as a category. If it wasn’t a picture book, a piece of fiction was meant for everyone.

And Little Women has universal appeal. Sure, a lot of boys and men are turned off by the title, but once they really start to read it, there’s a realization that even though the four protagonists of Alcott’s most famous work were girls, she really understood boys.

It’s also a book that has come back to me, time and again, albeit with different perspectives. For example, when I was first reading it, the part that hit me the hardest was when Beth dies. But once I’d started dating, and especially once dating became “adult” relationships, the scene where Laurie proposes to Jo and she declines is what really affected me.

More recently, Alcott and Little Women returned to the forefront of my consciousness when, a couple of weeks ago, I caught a Facebook Live presentation from the executive director of Orchard House, once the Alcott family home, and now one of the many literary museums in New England. (If travel has opened up by mid-August, when I turn fifty, the plan is for my mother, my godmother, and I to go there together. My godmother was the “book aunt” for my generation of cousins, and she’s the one who gifted me with the book in the first place.

The presentation I watched was low tech, but heartfelt. Jan Turnquist sat in a chair and spoke about the way the Alcotts – in reality – and the March family – in the novel – faced times of trouble and tribulation. “Hope and keep busy.”

And isn’t that what all of us have been doing – or trying to do – since our various shelter in place orders began? We are crafting more, baking more, sharing our artistic talents more freely, and in more public – if virtual – venues.

We are holding onto the people and things that are dear to us, and rediscovering things like cooking from scratch, the joy of an evening walk, and the beauty of real mail.

Hope and keep busy.

It sounds so simplistic, so basic, so old-fashioned… but even when we have all this amazing technology at our fingers – when we can engage in video chats with virtual backdrops that put is at Hogwarts or on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, what we seek, what we have always sought, is human connection, and if that doesn’t embody hope, I don’t know what does.

My husband and I work from home all the time and have done for over a decade. On the surface, our daily life hasn’t changed much. Our dogs are not getting any more or less attention than thy ever have. We were never out of toilet paper, or desperate to find more  (although the lack of it in stores did hasten my decision to sign up for a subscription for delivered bamboo toilet paper) and we haven’t had the time to take on major DIY projects. Sure, we miss things like going out to restaurants or to the movies, and most of the shows in our theatre subscription were canceled, or postponed, but for the most part, we haven’t faced a lot of changes.

But psychologically, the knowledge that we can’t do certain things is still a heavy weight. And concern for our family and friends still affects us, not to mention almost every article in the local or national news. (Here in Texas, a side-effect of shelter-in-place is that with gyms closed, people are taking more walks and hikes at dusk, which means snakebites are on the rise – springtime in Texas is snake season after all. I know, because we have to keep fishing baby rat snakes out of our pool.)

But even we are finding ourselves in need of more distraction. My husband is an introvert, but I’ve had it confirmed in these past few weeks that while I can be reserved in large groups of people I don’t know, I’m really an extrovert. I’m also – for the most part – an only child, which means I’m accustomed to being independent and entertaining myself, which is why I thought I was an introvert until fairly recently.

And even we are finding ourselves a bit on edge. Sure, I’ve been seeing my chiropractor most weeks (it’s allowed because it’s for pain management) and having massages (my massage therapist is in my chiro’s office, and time with her is also for pain management), but our schedules don’t really allow us to hang out on video calls or join virtual games, except on rare occasions.

I’ve also been struggling to write. Partly this is a combination of hormone flux and my migraines being out of control. Partly it’s a reaction to the state of the world. I would not describe myself as depressed, because that’s a very specific chemical and neurological condition, but I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve been unable to find my spark.

So when Orchard House and Jan Turnquist reminded me of how the Alcotts – and the Marches – handled tough times, it resonated with me, the way Little Women has always resonated with me.

Hope and keep busy.

So I must. So must we all.

Nobody talked much, but as the time drew very near and they sat waiting for the carriage, Mrs. March said to the girls, who were all busied about her, one folding her shawl, another smoothing out the strings of her bonnet, a third putting on her overshoes, and a fourth fastening up her traveling bag…

“Children, I leave you to Hannah’s care and Mr. Laurence’s protection. Hannah is faithfulness itself, and our good neighbor will guard you as if you were his own. I have no fears for you, yet I am anxious that you should take this trouble rightly. Don’t grieve and fret when I am gone, or think that you can be idle and comfort yourselves by being idle and trying to forget. Go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace. Hope and keep busy, and whatever happens, remember that you never can be fatherless.” – Little Women, Chapter 16 (“Letters”) by Louisa May Alcott

Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)

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Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down

I’m wrote this, last October, with a brain that was a bit addled, and definitely altered, from opiate painkillers and actual pain. I had a torn meniscus in my right knee – surgery took place a week after I wrote this – and I had a stress fracture in the same foot.

We were supposed to write a didactic dialogue – an unemotional exploration of a serious issue. In my case, I had an idea for a dialogue on gun violence and gun control, and while the piece wasn’t meant to be fiction, I was going to use my recurring android character Basil and his actress partner Zoe to illustrate both sides of the article, because moving things into the future, setting them in a world a bit separate from our own, often makes them easier to process.

And I use horror and science fiction to process.

But then I woke up that October morning to the news that nine people had been shot at a bar in Kansas City while I was sleeping.

At that writing, my country had gone zero days without a mass shooting.

As of today, it’s been 50 days, unless you count a family of five in Milwaukee, but that was inside their house, and I think from a member of the family, so I’m not counting it. And anyway, the only reason it’s been fifty days is because schools are closed and  most people have been on stay-at-home orders.

But I was heartsick then, as I become every time I hear about such an event in the news.

And I was  – am –  incapable of writing a dialogue. Because I can’t see another side. Oh, I know my own nephews have hunting rifles. I know that they are good fathers and responsible young men, and I know they store their ammunition separately from their actual rifles and would never let their children touch either until they were old enough to be trained and responsible themselves.

But they don’t need to hunt to eat.

They do it for sport.

And this nauseates me.

I also know that my brother is a cop, and carries a gun, and that, as far as cops go, he’s one of the good ones. He’s not overtly racist or intentionally misogynistic, and he genuinely believes he’s helping people. (Actually, he has a bit of a hero complex, but a lot of cops do.) Like my nephews, my brother does not treat his gun as a toy, but sometimes he jokes about it. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m strapped,” if we’re in a sketchy neighborhood.

And I don’t find this funny, or reassuring.

Because to me, if a cop has to draw a weapon, they’ve already failed. The situation has already deteriorated.

You’ve already lost.

And if your first reaction to being in a neighborhood that isn’t upper middle class and white is to be glad you have a gun, I think that says something about you, not the neighborhood.

It’s easy  – so easy – to believe that if you haven’t felt a bullet whizzing by your cheek that you haven’t been affected by gun violence. But if you live in America, as I do, you have been affected, whether you admit it or not. You’re affected because every year there’s a ballot measure about open carry, or allowing guns on university campuses, or adding or eliminating restrictions on who can purchase guns or what kind or how.

It’s equally easy to believe that Columbine was the first school shooting in the United States. It wasn’t. I know of a woman who was held hostage in her high school in 1985  – 14 years before the massacre at Columbine – and I was witness to a shooting at my own high school in 1987.

In my case, we were lucky. There were no hostages. There was no lockdown. It was one kid targeted by his girlfriend’s brother. The shooter was a member of a gang called SKB – the South Korean Boys Club, and he didn’t like that his target was dating his sister. So, he pulled his car to the curb outside our school, took aim, and shot Phong Nguyen at 3:15 PM on Thursday, December 17th.  It was the second-to-last day of classes before our winter break, and the day of all the winter concerts (we were a performing arts magnet school).

If you’ve ever seen an episode of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you know that California high schools are not the enclosed, prison-like structures that the rest of American students are stuck in. Rather, we have a few buildings connected by breezeways. At 3:15 on a Thursday, the regular students were heading for their cars or their buses, but the performing arts students were crossing the breezeways for a final class. (In order to meet our academic requirements, and still fit in our arts classes, we had one extra hour of classes every day.)

I was standing not far from Phong when the gun was fired.

A friend of mine from the drama class we were heading to, a friend whose name is absolutely not Julian because I’m only naming the names in the news articles, pushed me to the ground when it happened. When we stood up again, Phong was on the ground, and his blood was on our shoes. Julian  and I were seniors. Phong was not in the magnet program and was a freshman.

Before that day, neither of us even knew his name.

Before that day, we were typical American kids, who sometimes pretended we were holding rifles or pistols when improvising scenes or re-enacting favorite bits from action films.

Before that day, I had no problem playing video games that involved blasting alien ships out of the sky.

And after…

The first change was to the orchestra program… we deleted the “March to the Scaffold” from our set; it would have been in extremely poor taste. Instead, we played the Ode to Joy, offering it as a song of peace and hope.

The second change came with the nightmares. Real gunshots don’t sound like the bang-bangs you hear on television. They’re more of a subtle pop. For weeks firecrackers and backfiring trucks spooked me, and I had nightmares about being shot, or being in the way, or what would have happened if my friend hadn’t pushed me down.

In the years since then, I’ve developed a strong distaste for guns. I do not allow them in my house. I have to state this on invitations, because I live in Texas, where open carry is lauded and almost every native has a pistol in her purse. Even my most rational, liberal, friends cannot explain why they feel the need to carry. They just do.

I feel assaulted, sometimes, walking into stores. Not by the Bubbas with their guns on their hips – mainly because most of the businesses I frequent don’t allow open carry  – but because of things like a display I saw in Target during last fall’s back-to-school shopping period. It was for bullet resistant backpacks for kids, and the price tag on them was about $100.

I was horrified, putting myself in the place of a parent who couldn’t afford that kind of expense: the kind of parent – a single mother or father, maybe – who can barely keep a growing kid in shoes and make sure there’s healthy food on the table. How would I feel if I were that mother, having to choose between a backpack that might keep my kid alive, or putting gas in the car for a week? How would I feel if I were that father, unable to buy it, and finding out my kid was the next victim?

I grew up in a world where our school safety drills included marching out for fire drills and warnings like, “If there’s an earthquake that destroys the stairs, don’t use the stairs.” (I’m not making this up.) My youngest nieces and nephews, and my grand-nieces and nephews, live in a world where they practice hiding in closets and using textbooks as shields and cowering under desks to avoid gunfire.

It’s so easy to think that if you’ve never felt blood spatter your skin, you’ve never been touched by gun violence.

But you’re wrong.

Just by reading this, you have.

And I have.

And I’m sorry, but I can’t find it in me to write a dialogue about it. Not then. Not today. Not ever.

Bang bang, I shot you down
Bang bang, you hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, I used to shoot you down

 

 

 

 

 

Twirly Girl

0893 - TwiirlyGirlShe twirls.

She has to, you see, because Mommy put her in the dress with the floofy skirt to take pictures for Grandma and Grandpa, and it swirls when she moves at all, so full-on twirling is required.

She manages to stand still for the pictures. Out on their wooden porch, leaning her back against it, she smiles for the camera, but in her head, she’s already on the lawn, twirling in the soft, cool grass.

As soon as Mommy says the pictures are done, she kicks off her shoes and runs down the steps, stopping near the big tree where Grandpa hung her tire swing last year.

She twirls.

She spins round and round until her head is as dizzy as the wind-tossed leaves on the branches above her, and then she collapses onto the grass and squinches her eyes closed and lets herself get lost in the spinny spacey feeling that comes from twirling.

When she opens her eyes, she thinks she’s become one with the earth, because she can feel the world spinning and see the clouds circling above, and she thinks it’s the best feeling ever.

She twirls.

Even when she’s twelve, fifteen, seventeen, twenty-two, she keeps doing it whenever she has a private moment in the yard, or on the beach at the summer place Mom bought with her new husband.

She doesn’t need a special skirt anymore.

But when things press too close, or her head and heart are too full, she channels her inner child and spins and spins until she can’t keep her balance, and falls, laughing to the ground.

She likes the beach best… warm sand, the ocean tickling her toes… she’s lying there, feeling the world spin with her when a shadow falls over her.

“You okay?” a male voice asks.  “I saw you fall.”

She sits up, and her brown eyes lock onto a pair of blue ones that rival the ocean for depth and purity.

“I’m good,” she says. “I was… it’s hard to explain.”

“Spinning,” he says.

Twirling,” she corrects. “It’s like getting high… only cheaper… and…”

“Can I try?” he asks, interrupting. He extends a hand, and she takes it, letting him help her to her feet.

She twirls, and he follows her, only this time instead of collapsing onto the sand, they spiral into the waves and come up, soaked and silly with joy.

“I’m Eric,” he tells her.

“Sophie. I mean, I’m Sophie.”

They go for a burger and a beer and talk long into the night. She’s too old to need to sneak back into her mother’s house after a date, but at the same time, she’s a little disappointed Mom isn’t on the couch, waiting to grill her.

She twirls.

Only now it’s not always literal twirling.

Sex with Eric, that’s a kind of spinning, swirling dance, too. It’s so good. He’s so good. And he gets her. Like, really gets her.

At their wedding… they dance respectably while people are watching, but after the guests leave, they go back to the arbor that was placed on her grandparents’ broad, cool lawn, hold hands and twirl under the stars until they’re twice drunk, once from the champagne they drank earlier, and once from their shared motion.

“I’ve been thinking,” Eric says, “about what brought us together.”

“You found me lying on the beach,” Sophie answers.

“No, that’s how we met. What brought us together was centripetal force.”

“Centripetal?”

“It’s when spinning pulls an object toward the center. You’re my center. And I’m yours.”

“I love you,” Sophie says, because what else can you say when your heart is still swirling?

“I love you, too,” he answers, “Twirly girl.”

Four Dogs

Dogs

Here they come, I warn,

Make sure you’re sitting down.

Because Teddy is kind of flaily

And he’ll bark at you while wagging

His Shepherdy tail

But then he’ll turn his head and show off

His Rottweiler  profile

And you’ll think he’s mean

When he’s just shy.

 

Hush, don’t talk!

Piper will have meltdowns

And try to phase through the floor

Or forget how the doors work

And don’t let her kiss your face

(She eats poop)

But if she comes to you

She’ll let you pet her soft, soft fur

And she’ll lean against you

Sharing the warmth of her solid form.

 

Watch your step – Perry’s coming.

Skitterbug, I tease him,

Because he runs all akimbo and askew

On an angle.

He’s a pint-sized powerhouse

The main dog in charge.

(Just ask him.)

If you pick him up you may never move again

Because Chihuahuas control gravity

Everyone knows this.

 

Old man Max comes lumbering out last.

He had to check the others’ crates

In case they had better toys

Than he does.

His hips are creaky

And his blackest bits are salt-and-pepper now

But he chases flies like a puppy

And more than the others

He is Mama’s dog.

My companion, and defender.

 

Okay now, ignore them…

They’re eating their dinner, and then they’ll go Outside.

Wait…

Outside.

Are they being quiet?

This is never good.

Note: inspired by the work and writing style of Naomi Shihab Nye, for Covid’s Metamorphosis prompt 8 which is to emulate a favorite poet’s style.

One Perfect Sentence?

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Write one perfect sentence, they ask, and I think: who determines what perfection is?

The nautilus, with its saltwater-born concentric spirals that echo the golden ratio may be a perfect crustacean… but that doesn’t mean this sentence is perfect.

Personally, I think a perfect sentence would be: Cheesecake has no calories.

But then I’d have to ask myself: does that fact that such a sentence expresses an untruth render it imperfect by default?

One perfect sentence…

Maybe it should have seventeen syllables, all stretched  out in a line like Hemingway wrote for warm-ups. “American sentences,” he called them. But while his work was wonderful, he himself was a horrible person, so maybe that makes him incapable of perfection? Or even of inspiring it?

Rain dancing across the deck sent small creatures scurrying for shelter.

I think that’s more charming than perfect, myself.

Or even cute.

It is a fact that as humanity has colonized other worlds, and formed communities on worlds with existing populations, their favorite food has spread into space with them, to the point that every world with a significant human population has at least one decent Chinese restaurant.

There. That’s perfection. At least to me.

Notes: For day 7 of The Literal Challenge‘s “Covid’s Metamorphosis” project. I’m woefully behind.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Recipe for an Easter Eve

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Most of my Easters have been for just two people. As a child, the other was my mother, and we colored eggs, which I would find hidden around the house the next morning… often one was stuck in a slipper.

(As an adult, my Easters have been spent with my husband. Quiet mornings. Sometimes at church, sometimes worshipping each other, instead.)

Tulips were ever present. Tulips. Irises. Calla Lilies. All standing on their green stalks and bowing their heads as if the turning of the years, the arrival of spring, the hope of new growth and better days is instilling them with reverence, not necessarily to God, but to Nature and her Work.

But maybe God and Nature are one and the same, and we simply carve up the naming of things into chunks made for human understanding.

Always, on Easter Eve, with the kitchen smelling like vinegar, and our fingers stained blue, green, purple, we would make aglio e olio, which in our New Jersey, Neapolitan dialect becomes something  more akin to “ahlya awlya.”

It’s the simplest of Neapolitan dishes. Four ingredients (six, if you count the salted water): Spaghetti, fresh garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper flakes. If you want to be fancy you can add Italian parsley for color, or sprinkle it with parmesan at the end,  but it’s not really necessary.

Most Italian dishes are improvisational. You add some of this, a little of that, and when it smells right, looks right, tastes right – you know it’s ready. And my family are big with kitchen improv (except for my husband, the engineer) so we never make anything exactly the same way twice. Cooking is an art, after all. (Baking is a science, but that’s another story.)

But, here’s a reasonable attempt at a recipe for other people. People who don’t experiment.

Ingredients:

One box dry spaghetti or linguini. Spaghetti is traditional, but linguini works just fine. My favorite American brand is DiCecco but use whatever you like.

Olive oil. This is the main ingredient in this dish, so use the best extra-virgin olive oil you can find.

4-12 garlic cloves, peeled and minced. I like my aglio e olio super-garlicky, so I tend to use 10-12 cloves. If you’re less of a garlic fan, use less. Obviously, the size of the clove makes a difference.

Crushed red pepper flakes. This is a to-taste ingredient. If you want just a touch of heat, ¼ teaspoon is enough. If you want more heat add more. It’s better to go easy and add incrementally.

Instructions:

1) Cook the spaghetti according to package directions in salted boiling water. NEVER PUT OIL IN PASTA WATER, only salt, but cook for one minute less than the listed time for al dente pasta. Do not drain it.

2) Mince the garlic while the water is boiling. Everything goes really quickly once you start cooking, so you’ll want this prepared.

3) About three minutes after the pasta goes into the water,  heat olive oil in a deep frying pan or skillet. I often use a stovetop wok pan. You want something large enough to hold the pasta. Amount is up to you, but I typically use a couple tablespoons. You’re going to need enough to coat the pasta.

4) Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. You’ll want to sauté it for 3-5 minutes, but don’t let the garlic burn.

5) When the pasta is done, use tongs to transfer it to the pan with the garlic, pepper flakes and oil. Add ½ cup of the starchy water and toss it all to coat.

6) Taste it, and if you want to add a pinch of salt or more pepper, do so.

7) Add any garnishes like grated parmesan or minced parsley These are completely optional.

8) Serve hot in plates or bowls.

Photo by Youjeen Cho on Unsplash

Fireflies

Note: The excerpt is the poem used in the play, Fireflies, by Robert Frost. The challenge was to write a play that could be produced in isolation. The full script is linked to preserve formatting.

Excerpt:

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,

And here on earth come emulating flies,

That though they never equal stars in size,

(And they were never really stars at heart)

Achieve at times a very star-like start.

Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.

To read the whole play, click here: 05 – Fireflies

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

Saturday, San Francisco, ’73

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Note: For prompt 4 of Covid Metamorphosis, we were to retell a friend’s story, making it into something new. I used a story my former pre-school teacher told me, long after I was legal. I started writing this without picking names for the characters, and decided to keep it that way.

Saturday, San Francisco, ’73

They exited the restaurant, laughing. She was still wearing her server’s penny around her waist. He is jeans (and part of his shirt) were covered with spaghetti sauce. They both had long hair and both their jeans ended in bell-bottoms.

“I have a washer in my apartment,” she told him. “No dryer, but there’s a line on the balcony, and the coffee’s free. Or I could just give you quarters… ?”

“How far’s your place.?”

“Not far. Half a mile.”

“Got parking?”

“Just the curb. You’ll have to move it in the morning, though. Street cleaning.”

“You’re assuming I’ll be there in the morning.” It wasn’t a question. He was teasing her. Flirting.

“Mmm. Maybe. If you like my coffee.” She was teasing too.

“I’ll drive.”

They got in his old red beater, the perfect representation of the word “jalopy,” even though no one used that word anymore.

Her apartment was a flat carved out of what was once a single-family home. The balcony was really a broad landing on a fire-escape out the back, but the bathroom had a clawfoot tub and a Victorian shower, and the kitchen was bright and airy.

The bedroom… the bedroom was small, but neat. Colored scarves were pinned to the walls to hide the cracked plaster. They were hung over the windows, too, to filter the light. The living room had one of those famous San Francisco bay windows that everyone took pictures of.

“Strip,” she told him, directing him to the bathroom. “There’s a bathroom on the back of the door.”

Her robe, he realized putting it on. It ended a few inches above his knees. The arms came to a stop midway between his elbows and wrists. He walked out of the room on bare feet and handed her his balled-up clothes. Sheepishly, he told her, “My, uh, shorts are in there, too.”

She laughed. “So, you’re naked under my robe.”

“Very.”

“Hmm.”

She pulled off the penny and kicked off her shoes, both at once, then stepped out of her jeans in front of him. “We’re a little more even now.” All the discarded clothing joined his in the small washer tucked into the kitchen. She added soap and started the machine. “65 minutes, and don’t be alarmed if you hear thudding. It’s off balance… and really old. Coffee?”

“Sure.”

She brewed it in one of those stove-top espresso machines that he’d only seen in art films – French and Italian, mostly – and it came out thick and strong. “There’s milk in the fridge.”

He found it, doctored his own coffee, and after a nod from her, splashed some into the other mug as well.

She brought out a box of Stella D’oro anisette toast. “I know… only old people eat these, right? But my grandmother loved them, and they taste like home.” He followed her into the living room, and they sat on her couch (it was covered with Mexican cotton blankets) and got to know each other.

“So, you’re not from the City?”

“Is anyone? No. From New Jersey.”

“I’m from Philly!”

“Practically neighbors!”

He learned that she wanted to be a writer, and he could tell from the books piled everywhere that she was also a reader. He shared that he played the guitar, but really wanted  to open his own café someday. “The kind of place that’s like a pub, but with coffee, you know? The neighborhood hangout.”

She told him about the “penny universities” from 18th and 19th century England and Europe, where scholars and writers and philosophers would often hold court all day, and people could come in and listen for the price of a cup of coffee – a penny – and a story.

He grinned. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

“I’ve always wanted to have a table in a place like that, where I could sit all day and write and just let the sounds of the rest of the customers’ conversations wash over me,” she said.

The rain started just as the washer stopped.

“No problem,” he said. “Your oven work?”

It did, and he’d learned that if you bake jeans at 200(F) for 45 minutes, they were dry enough to wear. T-shirts, socks and shorts didn’t take as long, but they were using all the racks, so they set a timer for an hour.

She was standing behind him when he stood up, and it seemed only natural that they should kiss at that point.

Coffee and anise flooded his senses. Coffee and anise and sunshine, because her strawberry-blonde hair was bright like the sun and smelled like summer.

They kissed until they were out of breath.

“I want to make love with you,” he said.

“With? Not to?” She seemed amused.

“Sex should be equal, don’t you think? So, yeah, with.”

“Your clothes will burn.”

“Read me something you wrote then?”

They went back to the couch and she read to him from a well-worn moleskine notebook filled with penciled lines. Her poetry was raw and real, and her voice was strong as she read. As if she was used to it.

“You read to all the guys you spill spaghetti on?” he asked, teasing.

“No… only the ones who let me wash their shorts,” she shot back.

They laughed together, her warm alto and his lower base blending together.

The timer went off.

The clothing was still damp.

“I’ll turn it off,” she said. “Let them finish on their own heat.” She clicked off the oven, and they stared at each other for a long moment. “Bedroom’s this way,” she reminded him, and led the way.

* * *

They woke up hours later to find that the rain was still falling, and his clothes were dry. “I should go,” he said, more to give her an ‘out’ than because he truly wished to leave.

“Why?” she asked.

He didn’t have an answer.

In the morning, they showered (separately) and brushed their teeth (together) – she had a spare toothbrush. “Mom always sends one in every package,” she told him. “Yes, it’s true: my mother’s a dental hygienist.”

“My mom teaches Sunday school.”

“Wow.”

“You know it.”

She didn’t work that day, so they got back in his car and went to find bagels and coffee. They ended up at a café in the Haight, not far from the diner where she worked. It was a busy morning. But then, all Saturday mornings were busy in that neighborhood, unless the Dead were in town. You could always tell if the Grateful Dead were playing nearby because the Haight would be empty.

They inherited a section of the daily paper from the previous occupant of their table – the obituaries – and had fun reading them aloud to each other and making up background stories for the people they’d read about.

“Vic Johnson, 79, leaves behind a wife, and three Puli dogs. Donate to the local Humane Society in lieu of flowers,” he read.

“Ohh, that’s sad. They tried to have children for years, and never managed. They adopted dogs instead and doted on them, except for the one time the oldest dog urinated on the wife’s heirloom quilt. They were His Dogs after that.”

“You’re better at this than I am,” he said.

“Well, I am a writer,” she pointed out.

They exited the café holding hands, only to find someone – tanned skin, dark brown hair and beard, paisley shirt draped carelessly over faded, ratty bell-bottom jeans – leaning against the car. He recognized him as the guy who lived down the hall from his apartment.  They bummed weed from each other from time to time.

“Hey.”

His neighbor started laughing. “Man, I saw your car and had to wait for you. I have this freaking fantastic story… I’ll tell it for a toke.”

He didn’t have anything, but she stepped forward. “A story for a joint?” And she pulled one out of the macramé bag she was carrying. “Do tell?”

The neighbor turned and pointed. “See that blue bug over there?” They looked at the car he was indicating. “So, I was walking by and I saw a fur coat in the back of that car. And I thought… that coat would buy a shit-ton of grass, right? So, I was gonna break into the car and steal the coat… and I put my hands up like this – “and he cupped his hands around his face – “to see in better, and I tapped on the back window to see if it was gonna be easy…”

“Seriously?” she was incredulous and turned to him. “How do you know this guy.”

“Neighbor,” he answered.

“Oh.”

The neighbor kept going. “Anyway, I tapped on the window and all of a sudden the coat jumped up and started barking. Three heads. Gnashing teeth and curly black fur. Crazy, man. It was crazy. And then I saw your car and I thought, “Man, I gotta tell Barney.”

“It’s a good story,” he said, trying to ease out of the conversation. “But… I’m not Barney.”

“You’re not?” The neighbor peered into his face. “Man… you’re not. You’re… wait I know this… you live in 2 B.” He glanced at the woman with the strawberry-blonde hair. “Wait, then… you’re not Sheryl, are you?”

“Nope,” she said smoothly.

“You look familiar though… like… I’ve seen you before. With a plate. Dude! You’re the chick from the diner. Wow. Congrats, 2-B. Nice score!”

“And with that remark,” she said. “You’ve lost your chance for a joint.”

“Man, I didn’t mean… I’m sorry…” the neighbor turned around and pinned his gaze on someone else, up the street. “Hey… I see Barney. Actual Barney. He has to hear this story…” and the neighbor unpeeled himself from the car and walked off, still laughing.

They watched him go, then got in the red beater. It was, as far as they could tell, unharmed. “It’s a nice day,” she said. “Wanna go to Ocean Beach? Share this joint. Watch the waves?”

“Clam chowder after is on me.”

“Cool.”

They drove through the city, enjoying the freedom of a sunny Saturday morning, when suddenly he slammed the breaks. “Damn!” he said. “I bet those dogs were poor Vic’s Pulis!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ballad of Basil and Zoe

nathan-dumlao-w5hhoYM_JsU-unsplash

He was found alone, unwanted

Lying in the dust

The realized he was mechanical

(Amazed there was no rust).

 

They took him to their starship

Found the switch to wake him up

Offered water, coffee, tea…

(Of course, he crushed the cup)

 

His questions were unceasing

Sometimes basic, sometimes deep

They crew tried to answer everything,

But humanoids need sleep.

 

Back to Earth they finally went

Dropped him with fleet command.

They said he wasn’t sentient.  He said,

“I do not understand.”

 

For four years he was studied

As he completed menial tasks.

But he was programmed to evolve

He said, “I have an ask.”

 

“Admit me to the Academy.

Let me prove I can.”

Only one dissented

Insisting he was not a man.

 

But he met their every challenge.

He showed that he could grow.

And proved there were no limits

To how far that he might go.

 

He served on many spaceships

He rose up in the ranks.

He won awards and honors

World leaders gave him thanks.

 

When he was nearly thirty

(At least in human years)

He found her in the aquatics lab

With a book, and padd, and tears.

 

“What is wrong?” he asked her.

“May I join you sitting there?”

“I cannot fathom math,” she said.

“It really isn’t fair.”

 

He helped her through her homework.

By the end, she cracked a smile.

But she touched his hand before he left

“Stay and talk a while.”

 

She was but a student.

Her mother was on his team.

But he enjoyed their conversations.

And she did too, it seemed.

 

They bonded over music.

She set a goal to make him laugh.

Their friendship became solid.

Friends called her his “other half.”

 

But he waited for her birthday

The night she turned eighteen

To ask her for a change…

“In parameters, you mean?”

 

She’d found him in a hidden alcove

Overlooking the warp core.

She asked him why he was brooding.

He told her he wanted… more.

 

Their first kiss was magic.

Their second, just as sweet.

She wrapped herself around him.

He reveled in her heat.

 

Four years of separation

While she went to Earth for school.

But they called and wrote and visited

Breaking every warp-speed rule.

 

She became an actress

Found success upon the stage.

He published his poetry,

Writing her into every page.

 

They married, they had children.

(Some were built, and some were born.)

Their careers continued to ascend

Like stars on every morn.

 

He became a captain.

She an ambassador for arts.

They were the perfect team.

And they both enjoyed their parts.

 

When the time came to retire,

He passed on his baton,

To their first synthetic daughter…

Then they danced until the dawn.

 

He was a synthetic lifeform.

She was organic, completely.

But to each, and all they loved,

They were just Basil and Zoe.

 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Note: this very bad poetry was for challenge #3 of Covid Metamorphosis. I’m woefully behind.

Family Planning

Robot head looking front on camera isolated on a black background

Note: this story is for prompt #2 of “Covid Metamorphosis,” in which we were asked to begin and end with provided quotations from Ovid.

“I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms.”

I looked up at my partner, who was hovering in the door of the workroom while I was slicing tomatoes for a salad. “Basil?”

He held up the head – or ‘cranial unit’ as he preferred to call it – “as you know, my first attempt at creating a child did not go well.”

I remembered. We’d become friends not long after his first child – Noelle – had died after a series of cascade failures caused her neural net to disintegrate.  “And you’re concerned it will happen again?”

“I am, but only in the sense that any parent is worried about the survival of their children. I worry about Elizabeth injuring herself while snorkeling with you, or climbing trees with her friends or…”

“Okay, I get the point. So… what’s this about bodies and changing forms… and why are you quoting Ovid, anyway?”

“Ovid’s line seemed an appropriate entrée into this conversation.”

“Oh.” I rinsed tomato guts off my hands and dried them on the towel near the sink. Turning around and leaning against the sink, I gave my husband my full attention. “So, which bodies are we changing?”

“This one. I believe… I believe it would help me to move past the loss of Noelle if, rather than allowing this child to choose their gender and appearance, we select it for him.”

“Him?”

“You lost a son.”

We lost a son,” I corrected. And we had, two years before Elizabeth was born. Our son, Jake, had been stillborn. There had been no discernible cause. Sometimes, even with all the technology of many, many worlds, horrible things just… happened. “We are not building a replacement.”

“No, we are not. But, we have a living, thriving, daughter. I believe this child should be a son. For balance.”

“Balance, hmm?” I sensed there was more to it than that. “Not because a son would likely be a lot like you?”

“Perhaps, partially, but, by choosing his gender and appearance, we could blend our features to create a child that truly represented both of us.”

“My skin, your eyes?” I asked, with only a hint of a teasing lilt in my tone.

“Precisely.”

“Your hair, my nose?” It was bad enough Elizabeth had inherited my wild, unruly hair. We would not curse a synthetic child with the same.”

“If you wish.”

“You feel really strongly about this, don’t you, love?”

“I… Yes, Zoe, I do.”

“Alright.”

“All-right?”

“Alright,” I repeated. “Congratulations, Dad, it’s a boy.”

Basil turned back to the workroom, but I called his name, and he paused. “Dearest?”

“What’s the other reason – the true reason – you want a son?”

“Elizabeth is our daughter, but she is your child. Blood of your blood. I wish… I wish to have a similar child, to follow after me.”

“A legacy.”

“In a sense. Many poets have written of immortality via offspring, as well as great works….”

“And that’s why you want a son?”

But Basil didn’t give me a simple affirmative. Rather, he quoted Ovid again,  From anyone else it would have seemed pompous. From my husband, it made perfect sense:

“If there is truth in poet’s prophecies, I shall live.”