SwimTime

I’m participating in the Summer Love Notes project this summer. (If you’d like to contribute, feel free to drop me a line.) Here’s an excerpt from my piece “SwimTime,” which ran on June 8th.

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She drapes her pink and white striped beach towel across the arms of one of the patio chairs and leaves her flip-flops underneath it. Her sunglasses, she leaves on as she descends the steps into the pool. They’re a little too tall for her, so her movements aren’t graceful, like a reverse Aphrodite slipping back into the water, but more half-way between a step and a hop.

Read the rest of this piece here: SwimTime at SummerLoveNotes

Milano Musings

A Basil and Zoe story – sort of.

This was for day 4 of this year’s Like the Prose challenge, in which we were supposed to write in third person, which I don’t do a lot.

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“I’m about to make some coffee; would you like some?” Charlotte greeted as her roommate, Zoe,  entered their apartment. They two young women had gotten lucky, scoring a two-bedroom, top-level place with a real kitchen – not just food replicators – and a view of the docking rings as well. Other members of their troupe had not been so fortunate.

“Thanks,” Zoe answered, reaching up to pull her chestnut hair out of the elastic keeping it in a high, tight, ponytail. “I thought today would never end.”

“Team-building with the cadets again? Charlotte asked sympathetically. The blonde woman knew that her friend hated working with the newest members of the Star Navy. They always wanted to ask questions about the other woman’s relationship with her partner, the Coalition of Aligned Worlds’ only sentient synthetic lifeform.

“Worse. Teaching improv at the middle school.” Part of their job as members of the Astral Theatre Troupe was Theatre Education, and while Zoe was actually fairly good at it, she also hated it. “Their principal told me they ceased to be intelligent beings when they turn twelve, and don’t revert to their native species until they start high school at fourteen.”

Zoe flopped on the couch, and Charlotte moved to join her, bringing two mugs of coffee and a bag of cookies on a tray.

“Dark chocolate Milanos? You never replicated these! And I know the station store charges an arm and a leg for them.”

“And a couple of ribs, yep,” Charlotte grinned. “A certain silver-skinned gentleman had them delivered and asked me to hide them til you ‘really required them.’ Feels like today was a good time.”

“Basil, I love you,” Zoe said the words to the air.

“And he loves you, too. Which begs the question: Why are you spending the summer break here on a space station in the back of beyond instead of on his ship, in your quarters, canoodling between his duty shifts.”

The darker-haired of the two grimaced. “It’s not a masochistic streak, I promise. Basil isn’t on the Cousteau this summer. He’s temporarily assigned to the Ballard, filling in for the executive officer. It was entering its spawning period and had to return home to Okeanos Four.”

The other woman nodded in sympathy. “So even if you went home, you’d still be apart? That’s all kinds of suckfulness.”

“It is, and it isn’t. This assignment will make Basil a better candidate for exec on the Cousteau when Captain Kr’klow retires. Maybe even captain. He has the required time in rank, after all.”

“So, you’re gonna be a captain’s wife someday? How fancy!” the blonde woman teased.

“It’s just a job, Char, and honestly, our jobs are just as fancy to people outside the troupe. Now… do you want to share these Milanos with me or not?”

“Not… ” Charlotte began claiming one of the cups of coffee and pushing the tray toward her friend.”

“Charlotte?” Zoe looked shocked.

“Kidding!” the other sing-songed. “Just trying to keep you on your toes.”

“Why, exactly, are we friends?” Zoe demanded, only half-joking.

“Because I keep you from missing your fiancé and I make excellent coffee.”

Zoe gave her friend a look. Well, at least the coffee part was true.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

But, the Wolf?

But, the Wolf

But, the Wolf

 

They found her, naked, curled into a protective ball – not quite the fetal position – nestled in between the great roots of a giant tree.

“We’re so glad we found you,” they said. They didn’t ask how she’d  come to be there; they simply accepted her return.  “Here, put this on.”

It was her cape, of course, the red one she hadn’t worn since childhood. (And she was quite obviously no longer a child.)  She wanted to shred the thing, but conceding to the cold and their false modesty (for they were looking at her nude form, all of them) she wrapped it around her,  at least enough that her soft, pink parts were hidden from the public eye.

“Were you miserable?” they demanded. “Alone with that creature?”

“No,” she said. “He was quite lovely, really.”

“But he swallowed you. The woodsman saw it.”

“No, he saw what he wanted to see. The wolf protected me from Grandmother’s dark beliefs and black magic.”

“But he had such big teeth, such demonic eyes – surely you were afraid?”

“No,” she said. “He made sure I was warm and dry and well fed. He made sure no danger approached me. My sleep was untroubled.”

She didn’t tell them that the wolf’s fur was softer than any of the mink coats the old women lusted after, winter after winter, but never dared to make or buy. She didn’t tell them that his thick tail would loop around her wrist when she was frightened, or that he would curl himself around her when the nights were freezing, or below.

She certainly didn’t tell him, that he wasn’t really a wolf at all, but a werewolf, in full control of both form and faculties.

And she absolutely didn’t tell them that it was possible she was carrying his child. Or children. Or pups. (Would they be pups? Would it matter if they were?)

She wanted to run back to his  – well, lair wasn’t really the right word. Cave? Home? Den. Yes… den. Den connoted a safe and cozy feeling, and she had been both, and more.

“But the wolf,” she asked, her voice trembling because of her worry for him, “is he unharmed?”

“We couldn’t find him,” one of the hunters said. “It’s like he never existed.”

They took her to her mother’s home, where she found the woman much diminished. Her father had long since disappeared into the forest. Maybe he’d found a she-wolf companion – they said these things ran in families – but more likely, he’d found a bottle, and a river, and a rock, and would never been seen again.

Pity.

She’d have liked to have words with him. About not telling her that his mother was a dark witch who wanted to lock her up til she was thirty. About not telling her that the forest creatures weren’t always dangerous. About not telling her to think first and slash out with her knife second.

She’d cut him. Not her father, but the wolf. She’d drawn his blood while he never drew hers. Well, not with a knife. But she’d been a virgin the first time he’d lain with her, and that kind of bloodstain was better earned.

A week passed, then a fortnight, then a month. On the day after the full moon, he came to her door in human form.

“I love your daughter,” he told her poor, insane mother. “I wish to marry her. She’s carrying my child.”

Her mother approved; the date was set. After the old woman was well asleep, he went to her bedroom.

“I love you,” he gave her the words he’d shared with her parent. “I’ve missed you.”

“But, the wolf?” she asked, her hand curving protectively around her belly.

His eyes flashed amber for a moment, then soft brown replaced them. “Oh, the wolf… he loves you too.”

Image Copyright : Natalia Lukiyanova via 123rf.com

37 Icicles

37icicles

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.”

“Okay.”

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.”

“Sure… or…”

“Or?”

“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?”

“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.

Anticipation

90574414_s via 123rf.com

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

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

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

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

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

And when she arrived?

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

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

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

And they did.

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

Eclipse

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?

 

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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.

“Nope. Rescued.”

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.”

“Oh?”

“Yup.”

“How?”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Waiting for Fedex

So, the folks at The Literal Challenge are doing a short story challenge in the month of June. As if 28 plays in 28 days wasn’t hard enough, we’re now being asked to write 30 stories in 30 days. Today, we were asked to submit “something” to test their fancy new submission engine – no more manually emailing Sebastian the moment we’ve typed “CURTAIN.”  So I wrote a thing. It’s small. It’s silly. But I haven’t posted here since February so I thought I should also  do a test to make sure everything still functioned. Oh, and, stay tuned, because my stories will be posted here. 

Waiting for FedEx

Waiting for FedEx is like waiting for Godot, except the writing isn’t as good and everyone is carrying boxes that represent their personal issues… childhood trauma, relationship woes, body images – whatever.

The FedEx guy has been elevated to mythological proportions. He’s a superhero now. He doesn’t just sport a purple shirt, he’s got shiny tight pants and a cape, and he comes to take away the boxes of horrible, ugly, truths.

And if you’re lucky.

Supremely lucky.

He brings you something pretty and shiny in exchange. True love. A new attitude. Awesome abs.

Or, maybe it’s just this week’s HomeChef delivery.

Better than nothing.

We’re having salmon and asparagus tonight, honey.