Seventy-three cents doesn’t buy you much, but the price of love is difficult to measure. Take Ben and Anna for example. They’d met in San Francisco, at a café called All You Knead, when Anna had dumped a plate of spaghetti in Ben’s lap. Fortunately, he hadn’t been horribly mad. In fact, he’d found her apology charming.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s my first week here, and I overbalanced and… can I make it up to you? I could pay for your dry cleaning?”
“They’re jeans,” Ben pointed out. “No dry-cleaning required. A new plate would be fine… and maybe a towel?”
“Sure thing.” And she’d gone into the kitchen for new food and a clean towel, returned with both, and thought no more about it, until later, when she’d gone to bus the table and found he’d left a tip of only seventy-three cents and a note that read, “You’re wonderful, but this is all I had. Call me?” His phone number was scrawled at the bottom.
Anna never called him – to be honest, she’d stuck his note in her pocket and forgotten it, but fate had something planned for the pair, because he bumped into her – literally – at the laundromat a few days later.
“Hey, it’s you!” Ben said, and his smile caused dimples in his cheeks.
“It’s me,” Anna said. “Oh, you’re washing your jeans, right?”
“Um… and other stuff… and I have other jeans, obviously.”
“Oh, right, sorry.” She hesitated, the offered. “Well, let me treat you to a load? I really am sorry about the spaghetti incident…” She reached into her change purse to give him some coins for the machines, and blushed. “I’m out of quarters,” she said. “I’ve only got seventy-two – no, seventy-three cents left. Here, take it… I owe you two cents.” Her dark eyes were glowing with amusement. “I swear it’s not the same seventy-three cents you left me.”
“God, that was the worst tip ever,” he said.
“Well, I sort of deserved it.”
“True. Look… I’m gonna be here a while, but there’s a café across the street. If you’re willing to keep an eye on my stuff while you’re folding yours, I’ll get us each a coffee.”
“It’s a deal,” she said. “Cream, no sugar.”
Their laundromat coffee-date ended up lasting until the owner strongly suggested they take their bins of folded clothes and go home, so he could. He even held the door open for them, and he never did that.
Anna shoved her laundry basket into the back seat of her vintage VW Beetle, then turned to lean on it. “I washed your number…” she told Ben. “I stuck your note in my pocket and got busy… I go to the culinary school and between that and work, it’s exhausting…. And then I washed the jeans I’d been wearing that day…”
“Well, I could give it to you again.”
“Come home with me and I’ll cook a meal for both of us.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
That dinner turned into dating, and an engagement, and marriage. During those years, Anna finished her program at the culinary academy and Ben got his business degree. Not long after their marriage, they inherited an old diner from Anna’s aunt Molly, and turned it into a coffeehouse with an art studio in the back. As business grew, they expanded their menu from coffee and pastries to bistro fare – soups, salads, and sandwiches. One thing that never changed, however, was that you could get a regular cup of coffee and a lemon cookie shaped like a crescent moon for only seventy-three cents.
Their coffeehouse wasn’t the only thing that flourished. Bella Luna became a sort of community center of the funky beach town where they lived – less than an hour from San Francisco, but a completely different world – with live music on Friday and Saturday nights and pick-up Shakespeare on Sunday afternoons. Their patrons weren’t just customers, they were friends, and even chosen family, and when Ben and Anna had their first child, a dark eyed, curly haired girl they named Marin, the coffeehouse folk became her aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers.
Life wasn’t always perfect. The first year of the coffeehouse was a struggle, and they both took side gigs to bring in cash. Ben sold paintings and gave art lessons – business school had been a concession to his parents – and Anna took special orders for bread, rolls, muffins, and cookies.
The year Marin turned two, there was a tragedy of another sort. Anna always swore she only turned away for a second, and all of a sudden, the toddler had toppled the Christmas tree, and was on her ass in the middle of the bent branches and broken glass ornaments, crying her heart out.
Anna didn’t blame her daughter. Accidents happen after all, but some of her ornaments had been family heirlooms and couldn’t be replaced. While drying her child’s tears, Anna cried her own. The pair were still sitting on the couch when Ben came home.
They cleaned up the mess, had dinner, and put Marin to bed. “We can get new ornaments,” Ben assured his wife. “We can create our own heirlooms.”
And they did.
Each of the artists and students who used the studio created an ornament for Ben and Anna’s tree. Anna (with Marin’s “help”) made paper chains and strung popcorn and cranberries. The end result was eclectic, but also charming, and very real.
“It doesn’t shine, though,” Anna said. “I shouldn’t complain… but I miss the way the glass ornaments caught the twinkle lights and reflected them.”
“We could use tinsel.”
“No, if Marin or the dog get into it, it could be dangerous.”
“I’ll think of something.”
But the tree remained as it was until Christmas eve.
That night, Ben came home from closing the coffeehouse with a wrapped shoebox in his hands. Marin was already in bed, but that was okay. His gift was for Anna.
“Sweetie… you didn’t have to buy me anything.”
“I saw this at the church gift store… you know they’re always selling wreaths and ornaments during Advent. Old Gladys insisted on wrapping it. Open it, please?”
“Okay,” Anna said. And she ripped open the paper not much more daintily than Marin would have. Then she opened the box. Inside were a bunch of tree ornaments (hooks thoughtfully provided), all of the same type. Faintly pearl colored, mostly translucent, with a hint of glitter for shine. “Icicles!” she said. “You found icicles…”
“I saw them on the sale table and had to get them to you. You need your tree to shine.”
“How many are there? It looks like a thousand,” Anna said.
“Not quite,” Ben said. “There are thirty-seven.”
“That’s a really odd number for a collection.”
“Gladys said there were originally fifty, but some got lost over the years. She said make sure you count them before and after you put them on the tree.”
“After you remove them,” Ben explained. “Some were lost because they sort of hide within the branches. They never thought to count.”
“Makes sense. Help me put them on.”
And so, Ben and Anna hung the thirty-seven icicles on the tree. When they were done, Ben brought peppermint tea to their couch and they sat and watched the way the tree seemed to shine from within. The icicles weren’t obvious. They could barely be seen unless someone was looking for them. But they added the final touch that Anna had been missing.
They sipped their tea and caught up on the rest of the day’s news, sharing special things that had happened, and knowing their daughter would wake them up at dawn.
As they finally headed for bed, Anna mused aloud. “Thirty-seven icicles. You know thirty-seven is the reverse of seventy-three?”
Ben paused in the hallway and pulled his wife close. “See, it was fate. We were meant to have them.”
Special thanks to Mark, the Encaffeinated One for providing the first line.
For years, decades even, Mama Louise had been known for her beadwork. Every velvet bag, every fancy dress, every bridal gown in their small town had been hand-beaded by the old woman.
Her work was impeccable, of course. She still used silk and cotton thread when commercial beadwork had switched to synthetics, or even glue. She never seemed to measure, but the spacing between her beads, whether it was simple trim or an intricate pattern, was always precise. Not a millimeter offset. Not a fraction of a millimeter in error. And when she was asked how she created these items of wearable art, Louise would smile and answer, “Bead by bead.”
More than her actual work, however, was what Louise instilled in her work. Before making a bag, Mama Louise would ask where it would be used, and she would have the eventual owner talk about their hopes and dreams for the event. The purse would then seem to carry the faintest scent of the floral archways of a specific restaurant, or glitter with the starlight of an open-air theatre.
If she were beading a dress for a ball or party, Mama Louise would listen to the sort of music likely to be played and her old feet would tap out the rhythms as she worked. (Somehow, her arthritic knees and ankles never objected to such movement.) Later, the women who commissioned her work would share that their feet never seemed as light, their energy never seemed so strong. “I could have danced forever,” one woman shared, glowing with happiness and enthusiasm.
Bridal gowns had always been Mama Louise’s specialty. She limited her commissions to two a year and quoted a five-month turnaround. It was much longer than it took to have a custom gown from one of the bridal shops on Main Street, but her customers never objected. They knew that a dress from a store was just a dress, while a creation sewn by Louise would be a family heirloom.
For those gowns, Louise would ask for stories of the bride’s childhood. She would collect memories from her parents and friends, her cousins and sisters and partners in youthful crimes and misdemeanors (which is how she jestingly referred to youthful exploits). She would also ask that each woman provide a well-wish for the bride-to-be.
When the recipient of such a gown finally tried it on, it would be as if each memory was whispering to her, and when she walked down the aisle on her special day, to meet her partner at the end, she would feel the love of all the well-wishes wrapping itself around her, and sending her into a happy future.
With so many girls and women being connected to Mama Louise through her work, it was inevitable that someone would notice when the old woman began work on another piece. This dress wasn’t pure white, like a bridal gown, but buttery, like French vanilla.
“Who is this piece for?” her visitors would ask – for it wasn’t unusual for her clients to stop by with baked goods and have coffee or tea with Louise. “Is this a wedding dress?”
But Louise didn’t share the recipient’s name. Instead she would lead her guest down memory lane, collecting a story of when that person wore a Creation by Louise.
Bead by bead, this last dress was nearly finished, but work on it stopped suddenly, when Louise had a heart attack one night.
Her son was the one who found her. He was a quiet man. A concert violinist with elegant fingers. He could have done beadwork as fine as his mother’s but that wasn’t where his heart led him. An only child of an only child, he’d considered his mother’s clients to be the sisters, cousins, and aunties he’d never had.
“My mother,” he said, “never sewed for herself. But this dress… ” he choked up as he told the people who had gathered in the old woman’s apartment. “This dress was meant to be her burial gown. She knew, I think, that her time was running out.”
There were three days until the wake and the funeral. Three days to find a shop to finish the beadwork… except.
Except Vanessa, the owner of Mama Louise’s last wedding gown, came to sew on a few beads from her dress. And Caitlyn who had no fewer than six of Louise’s velvet handbags, brought three beads from each.
The contributions continued. Each of these former clients added pieces of their favorite dresses and purses to the last few rows of beads, laughing together at their uneven rows, sharing memories and stories as they worked.
They finished at midnight, the night before the wake, sitting back and sharing a collective sigh.
Somehow, the soft breeze that wafted through Louise’s living room didn’t surprise them. It just felt right. Similarly, the appearance of their friend and neighbor in her rocking chair, looking peaceful, if slightly transparent, was not scary, but somehow soothing.
“We finished your dress,” the women said. “We couldn’t come close to your talent… but we tried to do the work with love.”
“And so, you did,” the ghost of their beloved friend shared in a thin voice. “Bead by bead, you finished the gown. Bead by bead you strengthened your connections to each other and your community. Bead by bead, you spread love into the world.”
They wanted to hug her, but you can’t hug a ghost.
They wanted to share all their stories, but she was already fading.
Still, she held up an ethereal hand. “I know all your stories,” she said. “I know your hopes and dreams, and they will warm me in the next life. You’ve shared them with me… all of you… bead by bead.”
Like the Prose: Challenge #1 – So today we write about birth. Perhaps write an autobiographical story about a memorable birthday party? Or a funny anecdote that happened to a friend at a birthday? Perhaps a surreal story about someone being born?
It’s hot. It’s hot and it’s humid and the only thing that makes this hot-and-humid different from the hot-and-humid he was in a week ago is that a week ago there was blood in his boots from marching through the jungle in the dark and now he’s not wearing boots; his feet are wrapped in cotton gauze and there are blue cloth booties over that.
There’s gauze around his right bicep, too, and bandages over that, and he can’t tell if the wetness seeping through the layers of cotton and gauze is sweat or blood or both, and he wants to look but he also doesn’t.
It’s early morning, the time when choppers usually come out of the night… or the planes come to blanket the jungle with strafing fire. Ignoring his arm, he turns his head to look out the window. There’s a partial lunar eclipse, they told him, but he’s not sure he wants to see the moon in shadow.
The moon has always been his friend.
He closes his eyes, but he swears he can hear the blades of the whirlybirds circling closer and closer and feel the breeze from their spinning blades….
The smell of bacon – bacon? – and antiseptic take him out of the war-torn jungle and put him back in the here-and-now.
He’s Private Miller. Gregory Miller. Drafted. Taught to shoot at people he never had an issue with. People who were shooting at him for reasons he’s still not sure of. And they didn’t miss, but they also didn’t kill him, so he’s back stateside in New Jersey, in August, in a hospital with no a/c and a rickety fan that sounds like an incoming helicopter… at least to someone like him.
A corpsman comes with a breakfast tray and he asks about the heat.
Energy crisis, he’s told. Only the surgical theaters, ICU, and maternity wards have cooling, per orders of the commander-in-chief.
He’s been taught to respect the office, if not the man, but he can’t help but wonder if Tricky Dick is doing this to punish the military for not crushing the VC and ousting Ho Chi Minh.
He eats his breakfast. The bacon and eggs are real, not rations, and the coffee is amazing, despite the hot-and-humid that’s settled into his bones, even here, in the clean, bright, hospital.
When the corpsman comes for the tray, he asks for help to use the bathroom, and then he goes back to bed and loses himself in sleep. He isn’t really sleepy, but at the same time, he’s exhausted.
* * *
The light has changed when he wakes again, in time for lunch. A burger, fries, a salad, an icy cold Coke in a glass bottle. Vintage. He’d kill for a beer, but the cola is almost as good right now. It’s proof he’s really home. Or close to it, anyway.
After lunch another corpsman comes to help him to the bathroom. He’s shaky. His feet are tender, but he’s grateful to have them. He was half-convinced he’d wake up to find stumps – he remembers the line of infection starting up his leg. Luck. It’s all just fucking luck.
The corpsman has a wheelchair waiting when he leaves the bathroom, but he doesn’t take him back to the ward.
“Am I being kidnapped?” he asks, only half-kidding.
The corpsman is the size of a linebacker, black, with dark eyes that are difficult to read. His looks make him more likely to be on a football field or at the door of a disreputable bar than in a military hospital. But Miller feels like the bigger man can be trusted.
“Thought I already was.”
“Rescue,” the corpsman says, “is an ongoing process.”
He accepts the statement as they leave the general ward and enter the maternity ward. Cool air wraps around him almost immediately, and he sighs, sinking into it. “Ohhh, that’s nice.”
“Yup, it is. But ya gotta earn it.”
They enter a room full of bassinets. About half aren’t in use. Some hold sleeping babies. The rest… he realizes that while some of the people in the rockers are new mothers, new fathers, some are wounded vets, like him.
“I don’t have a kid here,” he says.
“I know.” The corpsman stops him near a bassinet with a baby girl in it (he knows it’s a girl because she’s got a pink bow taped to her bassinet. There’s no name yet.) “Did you know that human contact in the first few hours after birth is crucial for newborns? This little girl just joined us today. Her mother’s asthmatic. It was a rough delivery. She’s exhausted. It’d be a big help if you could hold her for a while.”
“I’ve never held a baby.”
“I’ll teach you.”
“But… I… won’t her father be pissed…?”
“He’s – ah – not in the picture.”
He moves to the rocker, lets the corpsman place the tiny baby in his hands. She’s not even as long as his arm, from elbow to wrist. And she smells clean and new… Ivory soap and new beginnings wrapped in a cotton blanket.
The rocking begins unconsciously. He’s in a rocker. It’s what you do. The singing. Well. Probably no one’s ever tried to turn “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” into a lullaby before, but the baby doesn’t seem to care about the lyrics.
And the air conditioning is bliss.
* * *
He comes to rock the little girl every day that week, always in the late afternoon. On Friday, they wheel in a woman wearing a yellow nightgown under her hospital-issue robe and slippers. “I think you’re in my spot,” she says, her tone wry.
“You’re her mother?”
“She’s beautiful.” He gives up the rocker, and hands over the baby, asking, “Have you picked a name yet?”
“I was going to name her after my brother, but he insisted that I can’t burden a child with a name like his.” She shares the name with him, and he agrees it’s awful.
“Is your brother a soldier?”
The woman looks away. “Not exactly.”
AWOL then, he’s guessing, or something else. “I’m sorry. I’m just – ”
Yellow-nightgown woman is quick to assure him, “No, it’s fine. My father’s career Army. He’ll fix it, but it hurt him, and… it’s just hard.” She pauses. Her tone is softer when she asks, “Were you at Ripcord?”
He is surprised she knows the name. Most people just know “Vietnam” and nothing else. Most people don’t care about the details. “Yeah. It was… ”
“You don’t have to tell me,” she says. “I’m glad you got out.”
“Thank you,” he answers, because he doesn’t know what else to say. The corpsman comes to take him back to his bed, then, but he offers, as he leaves, “Maybe you could use the first letter of your brother’s name. And… if it helps? I usually find inspiration in the shower.”
She smiles at his suggestion then turns her entire focus on her tiny daughter.
He goes back to bed. Someone in the ward has found a radio, and he finds himself listening to the Phillies play Houston in a double header. They win one and lose won, and he chuckles as he eats his dinner, because the results seem a perfect metaphor for his life, the war, the world.
* * *
On Saturday, when the corpsman wheels him to the nursery, the little girl is gone, and a baby boy with tight black curls is waiting to be held. Mark is his name, and his skin isn’t as dark now as it one day will be, he is told, but a baby is a baby is a baby and there’s something cleansing in holding these new lives.
Still, he is pleased to find that the charge nurse has a message for him: “The captain’s daughter says to tell you that the shower helped, and the baby’s name is Melissa.”
He is Private Miller, comma, Gregory, and he served three years in Vietnam, and made it home wounded, but alive. He will never tell anyone – not his priest, not his best friends, not even the woman he will one day marry – about the children his unit killed, or the children his unit left parentless and homeless, or the families whose homes were burned, or any of the other horrible things he saw. He will wrap those memories inside a piece of olive drab canvas and hide them in the deepest part of his heart.
But he will also hold onto a better memory: On the day after the eclipse, on a hot and humid day in the middle of August, he met a brand new baby and was reminded that hope still exists in the world.
He will continue to be reminded of that every time one of his own children is born, and his grandchildren as well.
And he will often volunteer to rock them.