4:33

The clock ticks. The countertop herb garden’s pump grinds: it needs more water. The owner of the house grunts slightly as she rises from the couch, which creaks in response. The faucet gushes into life and there is a soft click as the woman fills a plastic pitcher. The rubber cap of the herb garden pops loose. Water dribbles into the dark cistern. Water meeting water  – the splashes are muted by the container. A hiss: the grommet is sealed.

Ping. Pling. Plink. The faucet wasn’t turned off entirely. Drip by excruciatingly slow drip, water meets the metal of the sink basin.

The dog scratches himself, then shakes, ID and rabies tags jingling. He settles onto his bed with a soft flop. Slurping sounds emanate from it as he begins cleaning his privates.

The woman picks up her iPhone and texts a friend. The return sound is a whistle-ping. Ah, she’s using WhatsApp.

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She is still in the kitchen. She opens the fridge and it, too, emits a soft pop – louder than the herb garden. She stares into the chilly, white, landscape of possibilities. She slides open the deli drawer with a faint sound of metal on plastic, extracts cheese in crinkly plastic, and swings the door shut. A low click means it bounced open again.

A few seconds later, there is beeping from the fridge. The woman takes several seconds to recognize the sound, then bumps the door closed with her hip: a soft thud, followed by a more solid one.

Outside, thunder rumbles. The dog grumbles in response. The woman hushes him.

Another beeping sound begins but it’s external, a neighbor backing their golf cart out of the carport. (The vehicle’s headlights double the illumination in the woman’s house.) The cart whirrrrs into forward motion that fades away.

Birds sing in the trees outside. A sandhill crane calls to its lover. An owl screeches a warning to a squirrel. Lizards come out and make their soft gek-gek-gek sounds. Bug-zappers across the back yard at that neighbor’s place make their distinctive sting-pzzt sound as mosquitoes meet a sudden and violent end.

(No one mourns the mosquitoes.)

Somewhere in the distance, an ambulance siren is heard, the doppler effect obscuring the direction it’s coming from.

Thunder rumbles louder, and there is the electrical crack of a close lightning strike.

The dog whimpers – he hates storms – and the woman picks him up and rocks him like a human infant. His tags and her bangle bracelets click, clack, clank together.

The clock ticks.

Written last summer for Like the Prose 2021. Prompt # 24 – Crossover Art Form
Inspired by composer John Cage’s musical composition of the same name,
in which he simply let the audience listen to ambient noise for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

Menage a Trois

Menage a Trois

I found her waiting for me at the table when I got there. I hung up my coat and had, and went to join her. “Oh, it’s good to see you…” I half-whispered. But she didn’t answer.

She was wearing a green dress that flattered her curves in all the right ways, and I couldn’t stop staring at her. She glowed, especially around her neck where a maroon choker rested, right around the hollow of her throat.

I reached out to touch her, but I could tell she was too cold. Better to wait, better to let her get warmed up, better to give her a chance to breathe.

And for me to breathe her in. Her scent, intoxicating. Her hair, like the softly burning embers as a fire is nearly out. Her curves…

I shook my head to clear it. This wasn’t an affair, and she didn’t need foreplay.

I reached out and stroked my fingers down her neck, her side. So smooth. I did it again, felt the change from her silky green to the colorful fabric wrapped around her middle. I couldn’t help it, I moaned.

I’m not sure if I would have touched my lips to her neck or not, but even though I knew she was receptive to the idea, I didn’t try it.

In all honesty, I didn’t have a chance.

Bright lights came on and pulled me out of my reverie, and the voice – the voice I hear every morning and fell asleep with every night, spoke to me in sweet tones.

“Is there some reason you’re in the dark? Oh, hey, have you tried the new pinot noir yet? I got it for eight bucks at Costco. I’ve heard it’s really good.”

I sighed. I love my wife, but sometimes you just want to enjoy a glass of wine alone, or at least, enjoy a quiet fantasy.  Maybe next time.

“Shall I pour for both of us?” I called to the other woman in my life.

“Please!”

I looked back at the one in the green number. “I guess it’s three of us tonight.”

Doing the Right Thing (a Basil and Zoe story)

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“Why does doing the right thing never feel good?”

“I do not understand.” Basil’s voice was mild as always.

“Well, take us for example. We’ve been dating since I was seventeen, but until I was eighteen, we never went farther than kissing. Seventeen is legal throughout the Coalition of Aligned Worlds, so why did we wait? It made me antsy and worried you didn’t feel as much as I did. We waited because we were concerned your reputation would be…”

“… besmirched?” Basil interrupted, his tone amused.

“Yes, thank you.” I took a breath. “But it turned out no one cared. So why did we do it?”

“We did what we felt was right at the time,” he reminded me gently. “And we went farther than kissing, Zoe.”

“Well, yes… if you want to be technical.”

“I am technical,” he reminded me. It was an old joke, and one that he’d never cease making. “And you are using the fact that we did not ‘jump into bed’ as a deflection for your true concern. I cannot help you work through it if you do not tell me what it is.”

“See, you’re doing the right thing, and it doesn’t feel good.” I paused for a beat. “Well, it doesn’t feel good for me right now.”

“You are still deflecting.”

“Must you always be right?” I grumbled.

“Yes, even when being so doesn’t ‘feel good.'”

“Brat.”

“Sometimes,” he agreed. “But you have yet to tell me what is troubling you. Dearest, whatever it is, it cannot be ‘that bad.'”

I paced back and forth in front of his console for a few minutes. Then I stopped, and said, “It’s the Kazoines.”

Basil’s last mission – the ship’s last mission – had been an attempt to relocate a colony of twenty-thousand people. The Kazoine sun was failing, and the Stellar Navy had been sent to rehome the colonists. Except they refused. Well, some of them. Some had come aboard the Cousteau and a few of the other ships in the fleet, but not enough.

“You believe we should have enacted a forced evacuation, pulling people from their homes, even though they understood the danger of remaining on Kazo Prime.”  Basil wasn’t asking. He knew how I felt. He knew a good number of the officers and crew felt the same.

“Yes.”

“But you know that those who chose to stay were honoring their faith, and their commitment to the homes they built on their planet. And you also know that the vast majority of those who remained behind were disproportionately aged and infirm. The rigors of space travel and resettlement may well have caused as much harm as staying on a planet that was losing its sun.”

“I know,” I said. “I know it was an informed choice. I know they would likely not have survived planting a new colony and all the work that entails. I know that even now the Kazoines who did come with us are complaining about lack of space and creature comforts.”

“Do you believe living on the Cousteau is a hardship?” Basil changed the subject, but I knew we’d go back to my issue.

“Well, no, but I share private quarters with you. And this is home to me now. The colonists have been ripped from their homes and are basically living in dorms.”

“That is true, but it will only be for two weeks, and they are aware the situation is temporary.”

“I still feel awful about it all,” I said. “But especially that we left those people to die.”

“It is alright to feel that way,” Basil assured me. “We had little choice in this mission because Coalition regulations do not permit us to supersede local authorities unless criminal acts are being committed. I, too, regret the loss of life and separation of families that will and has happened as a result. But we did rescue seventeen thousand people who will continue to live fruitful lives.”

“And you believe those seventeen thousand negate the three thousand who stayed?”

“Not at all, Zoe. But saving those who were willing to come was the right thing to do.”

“I know,” I said, collapsing onto the couch. “I know. But it still feels pretty awful. Why does doing the right thing always suck so much?”

“It does not,” Basil said, “always.”

And I had to accept that.

Written for Brief #23 of Like the Prose 2021:  First line prompt.

 

 

 

 

 

Prose and Cons

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We’re supposed to be writing about con artists but I have no CONfidence that I can pull it off.

May I CONfide in you? The only con artists floating around in my CONsciousness are the characters in “Guys and Dolls,”  and that movie Leonardo DiCaprio did about the guy who CONvinced people he was a pilot for PanAm , among other things. It was a true story. I think it became a musical due to some strange CONfluence of events. Funny, I can remember if he was ever  CONvicted. Not Leo. The real guy.

After some CONtemplation I’ve determined that Will Smith’s character in “Six Degrees of Separation” could be CONsidered a con artist. Oh! And Wimpy from the old Popeye cartoons! I’m CONfident that he never paid anyone Tuesday for the hamburgers he was CONstantly eating.

(There was a hamburger stand called Wimpy’s across the street from my high school. CONtrary to rumors, there were no human body parts in the meat. And the French fries there were always hot and crispy. They served them in paper cones, like at the boardwalk.)

But that’s the sum-total of my less-than-CONsiderable knowledge about con artists and why I’m the worst person ever CONscripted to write about one.

If you’ve read this much of my CONvoluted tale, you will now be slightly CONsternated.

Why? Because I’ve used my CONniving ways to CONvince you that I’ve written a story about con artists.

And thus CONcludes my CONcept piece.

Written for Brief #22 of Like the Prose 2021: Con Artists

Five More Minutes

Dreamer

“Five more minutes,” I demanded, and the Faceless Man nodded. “It’ll cost ya,” his voice came from nowhere. And everywhere.

“How much?”

“Ten seconds of attention.”

Attention was one of the highest currencies. If the time was taken from your account at the wrong moment, you might blink and miss an ID scan or turn your head and get clipped by a teenager taking the family flitter out for a spin.

“That’s a lot.”

“You know my prices rise every time you come to me for more.”

I couldn’t help it. Like everyone else in the Belt I was tired, hungry, and chilly all the time, even though I had a cushy office job and wasn’t actually running the water makers or mining ore.

“I know.”

“Maybe you should buy five degrees of heat instead. It’ll only cost you two breaths and being warm might alleviate your other… problem.”

Tempting. It was tempting. But I needed the dream-time with my  lover out on patrol duty beyond the Rim more than I needed to be warm.

“I’ll pay your price,” I said. “Five full minutes.”

“Have I ever stiffed you?”

“No. No, you haven’t.”

“Alright then. Your hand?”

I put my hand in the cold machine and felt the prick of the needles. Two of them. One to give me what I wanted and one to fulfill my payment.  “Thank you.”

I pushed the com-set away and rolled over in bed. Five more minutes of sleep and happy dreams.

I never noticed that the elevator car wasn’t there when the doors opened.

I never knew that’s how the Faceless were created.

The next time I used a com-set, I’d be the one with all the time in the world.

Written for Brief #21 of Like the Prose 2021: Fantasy

Where the River Meets the Sea

Boat at Night

They knew weather conditions in the gulf were unstable, but her grandfather checked the maps and figured they were far enough south to avoid the brunt of any storms. So, they went to the dockside cafe and stocked up on fruit and sandwiches and bottled water, and  they took the boat out anyway.

Motoring down the Anclote River to St. Joseph’s sound they made up stories about the Original Occupants (that’s what he called native Americans) and their guardianship of the freshwater springs that dotted the coast.

“Sweet water,” she mused. “It doesn’t make you young but keeps you alive. Maybe we got the Fountain story all wrong.”

“How so?” His voice seemed craggier than usual.

“What if it wasn’t the fountain of youth? What if it was the fountain of life?”

“You might have something there,” her grandfather agreed. “Maybe you could make a story about it.”

He always said it that way.  Make a story. Not write one. And why not? Storytelling was as much construction as imagination after all.

“Maybe I could,” she agreed.

They kept the engine going until they were out past Anclote Key and into the Gulf of Mexico. Then they hoisted the sail and switched to wind power until they’d reached the secret beach.

They anchored the boat in shallow water and half-swam / half waded to shore, floating their cooler between them.

They picnicked under a palm tree and then she swam while her grandfather napped. It used to be that he would fish during these excursions and bring home the catch for her grandmother to clean and cook. But Grandma had left them several months before and it wasn’t the right time of year for grouper, anyway.

Before dusk, they returned to the boat, turning on the lights so they’d be visible. Again, they stuck to wind power on the gulf, heading home with her at the wheel.

Just outside the mouth of the river, her grandfather said, “It’s time.”

“Oh, Grandpa!”

The old man pulled a black plastic box out of a storage chest and leaned over the gunwale of the boat. He opened the lid and poured the gray-white contents into the water.

“Your grandmother and I met at a solstice celebration,” her grandfather said. “She made me promise to say goodbye to her on the first one after her death.”

He looked down into the water. “Swim with the dolphins, my love. I miss you.”

There were no words she could have uttered so she merely slung her arm across the old man’s shoulders and kissed his stubbly cheek. He smelled of tar and salt and peppermint, and there were times she wanted to wrap that scent around her like a blanket.

The motored back to the harbor in silence, tied the boat, and made to leave.

“You go home, honey,” her grandfather said. “I’ll bunk down below tonight.”

Reluctantly, she left him. But somehow, she knew that next summer solstice, her grandparents would be reunited.

Written for Brief #20 of Like the Prose 2021: Solstice

 

 

 

Red Velvet

Red Velvet Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not yet,” I said. “Not ever.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I guess it is,” Grandmama said.

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

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

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

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

“Well, then… let’s wake them up.”

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Eating Pistachios in Bed

 

Pistachios

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

 

 

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

Got a Light? (an really bad rap in extremely poor taste)

Smoking Elephant

Picture it, I dare ya, out there in the Jungle

Of India, a place so old it makes you humble

There’s no roads and the trees are close together

So the way to get around is very clever

See the way that we’re rolling is ridin on a creature

And if he were a movie he’d be a double feature.

We’re riding high over terra-ferm’

On TuPac the two-pack-a-day pachyderm.

 

Now, this is the truth, and I ain’t jokin’

This elephant is addicted to tokin’

He’s hooked on the bud, and it makes him kinda mellow

Pretty useful for a beast that’s such a big fellow.

He can be super stubborn, so you gotta treat him firm.

He’s TuPac the two-pack-a-day pachyderm.

 

Elephants are super good at sucking cigs

Their prehensile trunks are build for holding twigs

But the problem is that smoking is just awful

What it does to lungs that big  – imagine them all coughful

So even though TuPac was babied all his life

Cancer turned his end days into strife.

In the middle of the jungle though, nestled in some ferns…

Is a statue of TuPac, the two-pack pachyderm.

 

Written for Brief #16 of Like the Prose 2021: Tu-Pac