Double Take

witch

A tall man with a hooked beak for a nose and heavy eyebrows stared over the wooden slats of the fence.  He wore grey sweat pants pulled up over his hips and a thin long sleeve t-shirt that outlined sharp shoulder blades and bony shoulders. Thin wrists and long, pale hands stuck out from the ends of the sleeves.  He was like a scarecrow hanging onto the fence, scaring off the birds and small rodents.

“Mike, what are you doing?” a woman asked from behind him, suddenly arriving, and seemingly appearing from out of thin air.   She had shiny, black hair and wore a pair of neon green tennis shoes and a matching athletic top.  

He gasped and tried to step back.  He stumbled, finding he was already against the fence without any additional room for his long legs to stretch.  Then he realized several things; it was just Lani and she must have walked over, she therefore did not appear from out of thin air and in conclusion, he decided that witchcraft was likely not involved.  He felt relieved and relaxed back into his original watch over the fence.  

“Hey…” he gave a sheepish greeting at his exaggerated reaction.

Lani narrowed her eyes as she tried to understand what he was doing staring over the fence.  It was not lost on her that his neighbor, Shelly, was young, single, and often sunbathed in a very itty, bitty polka dot bikini.  Lani’s heart rate increased as she felt an anger rise from her gut into her chest as she watched him continue to peer over the fence without shame or remorse.

The sound of a wail, presumably Shelly, broke her chain of thoughts. 

“Princess,” she cried out.

Mike waved her forward and motioned with his heavy eyebrows to look over the fence. 

Lani crept up to the fence and saw that Shelly was not the target of the man’s attention.  Rather, it was a lump of fur that lay on its side in the grass. 

“Something’s wrong with Princess,” Mike whispered in an astute observation.

“Help!” Shelly called, perhaps sensing a nearby audience, “someone help me with Princess.”

Shelly knelt down next to the dog as Mike and Lani made their way around the fence, leaving one yard to enter another. 

“She just got back from the groomer and I let her out and the next thing I know she’s on her side breathing like that.”

The dog was on the smallish size but not so small to fit in a purse.  Its fur was longish but not long enough to get knotted, and it wore a bedazzled pink collar, not bedazzled enough for Dolly Parton, but bedazzled enough to suit a dog named Princess.

Princess lay on her side, she drew in ragged gasps of air.  Her side rose and fell as she stared straight ahead with unseeing, dull brown eyes.  

“This is not good,” Lani surmised as she knelt next to Shelly and the animal.

“What happened? What’s wrong, Princess?” Shelly asked, not believing the scene as it unfolded in front of her. 

The dog slowly breathed in and out and then gave one last puff of air.  Its side did not rise again as Shelly and Lani kneeled next to the animal and Mike towered above the gathering.

“Princess, princess, can you hear me? Hang in there with me.  Princess?” Shelly ran her hand along the dog’s side and held her head in her hand.  

“She needs CPR. Chest compressions.  Step back, Shelly.”

Lani crossed her index and middle fingers on the dog’s chest and pumped to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive” by the BeeGees, just like she learned for an infant in Beginner’s CPR.

“This isn’t working, I have to get her to the vet,” Shelly whimpered. “I’m going to get the car. Will you bring her out to the drive way?”  

Lani exchanged glances with Mike.

A vet was not going to help Princess, there was nothing shy of a water-into-wine, roll away the stone type of a miracle that would bring that dog back to life.  It wouldn’t be long before she started to stiffen up with rigor mortis, hopefully, the vet could break the news about the miracle shortage before that happened. 

After the car peeled out with the dead dog stowed away into the backseat, Lani turned to Mike.

“What happened back there, really?”

“Princess was barking and I was picking up twigs in the yard.  She barked and barked and barked and wouldn’t stop and I stood up and looked at her.  That’s all I did, I swear, and she just sort of stopped and fell over onto her side,” he raised one hand and placed the other over his heart in a solemn oath of truth.

“You killed Princess?” Lani asked.

Her tone changed and she narrowed her eyes for the second time and started walking backwards towards the road, away from this yard and this man and this clear case of evil intent.  She repeated herself but this time, there was no question about it.  It was a fact and a statement, “You killed Princess.”

 

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Tribal Women

I am part of an indigenous tribe of women. We have sheltered in place for many years, wisely watching the rise and fall of regimes. We carry the collective memories of being both abused and revered, conversely held in high regard and held down depending on the leadership at the time. We hold this history in our hunched shoulders and in our faces wrinkled from the harsh weather of the environment.

Watching, waiting and holding our ground, we cling together for strength and protection. There is safety in numbers.

We are surrounded by an aggressive group that would like nothing more than to see us disappear but will settle for our constant discomfort. They are The Haves and we are the have-nots, in all lower-case letters.

They have carpet and a regular cleaning service, their desks were ordered new with matching chair and they complain when the software on their laptops has to be upgraded.

Meanwhile, we are lucky if our keyboards have most of the keys. We take out our own trash and sanitize with supplies brought from home.

As the leader of the Have’s explained, “It’s not in the budget for every office to be sparkling clean.”

We nod in acceptance with crystal clear understanding. The meaning is unmistakable. If we could be left alone to do our work and govern ourselves, this arrangement would be agreeable. Not ideal, but agreeable.

There was a relocation one year ago when The Have’s made peace with a warring faction and our office was given up as a sacrificial gift. The masterkey was turned over without so much as a hey-wait-a-minute-there-are-people-in-there type of hesitation.

So, we moved without much of a fight into an office off the main strip, with harsh lighting and scarred tile floors; carrying our folders, office supplies, and wilted plants we shuffled in a single file line down the stairs and through the hallway.

Now we face another potential move. It started a few days ago when a group of prospectors came to the area like locusts on a field intent on greedy destruction. Click clacking down the dim hallway with their high heel and smart phones out, they snapped selfies as they travelled.

Golden sunlight streamed into our office, warming the room. We grew quiet, hearing the footsteps slow as they approached. The click clacking stopped outside of our office and the sleezy introductions ensued. The women alleged they were touring through the area, getting familiar with who was on the floor.

Unsuspectingly, a tribeswoman proudly showed the visitors through the office.

“Oh, these windows,” they gushed.

“Look at this adorable space,” another said in breathy agreement.

A tribeswoman with short hair and orthopedically responsible shoes said, “It’s so far out of the way, I wouldn’t love it so much if it wasn’t for the bathroom.”

The visiting women gasped in unison.

“You have your own bathroom down here?” the woman with the highest heels asked for confirmation as though it was too good to be true.

“Yee-haw, ladies,” she hollered and took off an imaginary hat.

“Looks like we struck gold.”

And suddenly I knew what had to be done.  Our time of watching and waiting was over. It was time to fight. We will not be relocated again. Not for The Have’s. Not for the prospectors. Not for nobody.

How Fish Breathe

fingertip-pulse-oximeter

Leo was an imposing man, over six feet tall with a sharp intellect that cut with amazing speed and accuracy.  A gold link bracelet hung from his wrist.  He wore khakis and a soft, green sweater that clung to his round belly and skinny shoulders.  His clothes were simple, but good quality, meant to last with care.

He leaned against the wall just inside of the restaurant.  The room was bright with garish yellows and oranges; it was decorated with sequined sombreros, pictures of dark eyed women and ponchos with intricately threaded designs. 

After making his way through the door from the parking lot, he needed to rest.  Just for a second.  He surveyed his family as they milled about in front of him, laughing and talking, unaware of the struggle occurring behind them.  Good, he thought. 

He blew his breath out through slightly blue, pursed lips as he tried to force his body to cooperate.  It was a technique from his respiratory therapist that he would never admit to using, especially after the way he ended their work together. 

Patting his pocket, he slid his hand inside and held his pulse oximeter; a small device the fit over his finger and flashed out a percentage.  He resisted the urge to get a reading, but knowing that he could pull it out at any moment gave him a sense of control.  There was power in the label and an understanding in the scientific.  He felt an ironic reassurance as though it contained the magic needed to open his lungs and carry oxygen when it needed to go.  While still in his pocket, he gently turned it over several times between his long, white fingers, a lifelong fidgetier.

Yet, it held no magic, no healing, or even a preference for life over death.  The pulse oximeter was not to be swayed by his position or intimidated by his size or smarts.  It could only tell the truth that he was not getting enough oxygen and then finish each statement with an honest beep before shutting itself off. 

What to do when air becomes the enemy for a man used to walking on top of it?

 

Cancerous Growths

north korea

“Sure, I remember what you told me,” the old man said. 

His name was Tom.  He wore khaki pleated pants and a collared shirt; his clothes were clean and ironed but hung from his body.  They were meant for a bigger man, a man with more meat on his bones and vitality in his heart.   

He dismissed the woman, who also happened to be his wife and caregiver, with a weak wave.  Clearing an area in front of him, he rested his elbows on the cluttered table and held his head between both hands.  Blue veins ran across the back of his hands and down his arms.  Band-aides covered skin tears and puncture wounds, still fresh from the most recent treatment.  

Wanda crept forward silently in her orthopedic shoes and stockinged feet, bringing a grandmotherly smell cloud of light perfume and hairspray and powder.  She placed her hand on his forehead and her rings spun around, getting looser on her fingers as she also started to shrink with age and disease.  Her hand expertly registered two temperatures, fever and not-fever.  His skin felt cool and clammy, somewhere between fever and not-fever. 

“Get off,” he barked, lashing out as any sick animal will do in self-defense and looked up at her.  If he had fangs, he would have bared them at that moment and then scampered off to hide in the forest. Instead he had to settle for snarl of old, dull teeth, brown with coffee stains.  

She yanked her hand back with a “Harumph!” as though bitten by his sharp tone.  

“Do you remember what you told me?” Tom asked. 

Wanda nodded, “Of course.” 

No self-respecting wife would admit to forgetting a directive given to a husband. 

“You told me to cheer up because things could always get worse,” he allowed for a dramatic pause. 

Wanda waited, she was anxious and hopeful that something nice would come out of her husband’s mouth.  Perhaps something about how he appreciated her dedication and excellent nursing skills, and tolerance of his grouchiness and bad attitude. 

“So, I cheered up and sure enough, things got worse.”

Wanda gasped, that was the lifelong advice that she gave to friends and family, strangers and neighbors.  She said it out of habit; it was a reflex in her desire to help, to say something when silence prevailed and there wasn’t anything to say.  Now here it was, regurgitated and bastardized.  The cancer was killing more than her husband, it threatened to destroy the life they built together. 

Unless she could come up with another helpful saying to boost his spirits and refocus his energy.   

She gave a brave smile and wiped a tear from her eye, “No, things could still get worse.  We could be at war with North Korea.”

Cat Hospital

sickness-2.jpg

Our bathroom is now a hospice ward in what is turning out to be a cat hospital. The patients outside of the hospice ward are low acuity; they are working through issues of obesity and anxiety, an over production of hairballs and general sense of neediness.  Patient X is not working through, over, or around any issues.  She exists between life and death, stuck in the moment right after the sun sets and pulls the light from the sky, slowly wasting away in a state of limbo. 

I want Patient X to be comfortable and the environment is important in this goal.  The window is covered; the room stays cool and dark, even during the day.  Patient X no longer needs to keep her days and nights separated.  

Each day, I give her a fresh dish of water and crunchy kibble.  Last week, she moved the bits around with her paw to make it look like she had some interest in it.  Now, it’s all she can do to turn her pink nose up at it and lay back down in her box. 

I then sweep up the loose litter and scoop out the clumps and wet spots, but today, there is nothing to clean out.  There is only a dying cat hiding under a soft towel in a cardboard box, neither eating nor eliminating.  She watches me with dull eyes that sparkled green with curiosity and trouble not long ago; they are much like the changed eyes of my grandfather since the cancer spread through his body.  He, too, is lounging about in limbo, losing time and strength as his body winds down from eighty years of constant life.      

Sickness takes up space, a lot of it, especially where every nook and cranny is already filled with a knickknack or stack of books.  It’s hard to prioritize and harder to understand other than that it happens.  Sickness leads to a sadness that fills up rooms and houses, spills out windows and forces open doors.  When the sadness has no place else to go, it shimmies and shakes its way down the road to the neighbor’s house and lets itself in through the backdoor for a season.   Until then, I guess it’s here to stay.

Tentative

Good Old Boys

Flavorful

I sit across from a crooked, old man in a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a wrinkled suit of tan linen with leather shoes and a deep brown felt derby hat.  As I put the hard questions to him, he remains as calm and cool as the earth tones he wears.  He explains away the rough patches of his life in stories with movement and flair, dancing around everything but a simple answer. 

“You know about the Good Old Boys?”

He smirks when I shake my head.  

“They ran this town in the 80’s. They had all of the drugs and you didn’t mess with them.”

I picture the “good, old boys” from my hometown with their pick-ups and lips full of chew, wearing flannel shirts and scuffed boots.  Sure, they had guns, but they kept the safety on and used them for hunting or to run off trespassers and the occasional out-of-towner. 

“I needed money, so I got mixed up with them and ended up in little bit of trouble.” 

He refers to a hefty prison sentence for an armed robbery which involved cocaine, and an unregistered handgun. 

“A little trouble, huh?”

Just like how the Good Old Boys of his past weren’t really “good”, this wasn’t what would be considered a little trouble.  A speeding ticket or a warning for loud music was more like a little trouble than ten years in prison, but who was I to judge?

How easily could our backgrounds have been switched by being born to different families in different environments? In a parallel universe, maybe I sit across from him with a fly looking hat, a monochromatic suit and endless tales of adventure and danger.  And in that world, I hope he can withhold judgement just long enough to listen and learn a thing or two about life on the streets.   

hat

Eggs for Dinner

Penchant

eggs

I am on a week-long husband holiday.  I get to sleep in the middle of the bed, use up all of the hot water in the shower, and eat whatever I want for dinner.  It’s like being back in college but with a house, a full-time job and responsibilities and without the drinking or late night pizza.  So not quite as fun.   

After work, I head out for a jog around the neighborhood.  Flashing lights draw my attention towards a work crew of sunburned men.  They look tired and dirty as they take down a power line with an end of the day carelessness that motivates me to run a little faster. Somehow getting electrocuted and spending the rest of my husband holiday in the hospital is not how I plan to spend this time.

Once home, I peel off my sweaty running shirt and drape it over the back of the couch.  I can be a slob during my holiday week, but it doesn’t suit me.  The thought of a perspiration soaked shirt on the furniture makes my skin crawl.  Some people can’t stand spiders and beg for their death or removal, others get queasy at the sight of blood. Me, its dirty socks and laundry where it doesn’t belong. I can’t handle it regardless of if I’m on a husband vacation or not.  I retrieve the shirt and carry it back to the bedroom to dry and makes its way to the laundry basket.   

Now the cats need feeding and so do I.  The thought of sampling their expensive kibble briefly crosses my mind.  Its nutritionally balanced and even boasts of nutra-bits; whatever those might be, the whole shebang would be nourishing and so easy to prepare.  However, the smell is too disgusting and the greasy, crummy residue left on my fingers after scooping out a serving is too gross to give more time to this as a possibility for dinner. 

Instead of cat food, I go in for my old stand-by.  Eggs.  It’s been a long time since eggs were a main staple for dinner and the poor nutrition years comes rushing back.  Scrambled, hard boiled, sunny side up, fried, burned, omletted, more often with a piece of shell than not, eggs got me through the lean, mean years and taste almost as good now as they did then.  Survival food, it’s much better when eaten out of preference than necessity.

Counting down the days until my “vacation” is over because I’m sick of eating eggs, taking long luxurious showers, and sleeping alone in the middle of our big bed.   

Traffic Trolling

time

Cruising home as the last light leaves the sky, I fiddle with the radio punching through the five preset stations.  The number on each button is starting to fade from frequent use.  I am searching for a song with feeling and words that I know in hopes of singing along.  As a musical simpleton, new songs are a little frightening unless sandwiched between tried and true billboard hits, lending credibility to a newcomer’s radio worthiness.  Nothing catches my attention and I continue in my possibly fruitless search for a suitable jam.  I roll to a stop at a traffic light and take my turn waiting for green.

It is completely dark now.  The street in front of me is illuminated by the headlights from my car and a dim light inside of a covered bus station.  I am alone with my thoughts and a whining voice coming through the radio.  Next.  I hit another preset button not tried in the last thirty seconds.  A commercial comes on with two sisters trying to sell used cars for “just pennies down.”  Next.  A radio dj reads the news, it’s all bad.  Next.  

I used to be so good at waiting, I waited for letters to come in the mail, I waited for the internet to dial up, I waited for my turn in our single bathroom, I waited to get older.  Now, I can’t even wait the minute at a traffic light without feeling impatient or the ability to remain present. 

I remember a pack of gum in the center console, unwrap a piece of hard Juicy Fruit and peek at the light.  Its still red.  Red as Dorothy’s slippers and I am uncomfortably bored, alone and back to changing the radio station.  Boredom is a killer.  It drives a need for distraction from reality and in between that wasted space, the minutes turn into days into months and years and suddenly there is a lifetime of waste and perhaps an awareness of how life could have been different. 

Then I am not alone or bored. Someone is tapping at my window and I shriek. 

A short, squat woman is tapping at my window.  The dim light from the bus stop is enough to outline her face, covered in sweat, with a broad nose and wideset eyes that are so dark they look black.  She is intensely focused inside of the vehicle which was previously no more exciting than an empty cardboard box.    

“Roll down the window,” she yells and makes a rolling motion with her arm.  

I shake my head.

“What do you want?”

She points at her wrist, “Time.”

“Me too,” I smile and give her a thumbs-up. 

Or maybe not, I sure have wasted enough of it to make a person wonder. 

She throws her hands up and yells something encouraging as I drive off.  I don’t look back, green means gun it and go.  There’s no time to waste.

Disobey

Movie Night in a pre-Netflix world

An empty wooden bowl stained a dark brown collects dust on the shelf amidst other useless trinkets and knick-knacks in the name of décor. I looked at the bowl without really seeing it for years when suddenly the bowl is overflowing with the colors and smells of a twenty year old memory.

The room is dark and warm with the summer air. The windows are open and dingy lace curtains gently billow with the night breeze.  It smells like fresh cut grass and gasoline and pollen and earthworms.  Three feet of rabbit ear antenna are connected to an old tv that flickers in hues of green and pink.

It is Movie Night in a pre-Netflix world. There is a stack of VHS boxes from which to choose the evening’s entertainment.  First up, Cujo.  Perhaps, not the best choice for two kids who are scared of the dark, loud noises, cauliflower and clowns.  Nonetheless, the tape gets pushed into the mouth of the VCR and starts rolling to a limited but captive audience.

We pass the same smooth wooden bowl filled with popcorn back and forth, each taking a handful. I let a piece dissolve and shrink on my tongue before taking on another for the disintegration process.  It’s a complicated and slow way to eat popcorn, for sure.

Baby Bird stops passing the bowl and instead holds it between his hands, entranced by the scene on the flickering screen. As a massive black dog lunges almost out of the set, Baby Bird screams.  He tips the bowl over his head and eyes, and like an ostrich with his head in the sand, he feels safe.  Popcorn rains down onto his shoulders and gathers around his little body, like the falling of dogwood flowers around their tree in Spring.  It is a beautiful mess.

The bowl is back on the shelf, a retired relic of the past. However, the memory is wily, not to be sterilized or neatly labeled and categorized.  Instead it disappears into the shadows of the mind with days of red popsicles, puppies, summer breaks, and Baby Bird who is thousands of miles away from his refuge under the bowl.

Reading Non-Fiction

old books

In thirty minutes, I have to meet with a man whom I have been watching through the window. At first, I thought he was a passerby resting on the bench outside of the building.  It’s a fine bench positioned under an old tree with dappled shade.  With the light breeze that happens to be blowing today, there are few places in the area more delightful to take a rest than on that very bench.

Then I noticed that way that he leisurely dangled his tattoo covered arms across the back of the bench with his camouflaged bags resting at his feet.  He did not appear to be leaving and matched the general description of “a man” for my afternoon appointment.

He let his head tip back as the sun broke through the shade and warmed his face. It was an intimate moment suddenly broken like a stone hitting still water with the call of a cell phone in his pocket.  His body changed, becoming tight and tense, ready for combat when he looked at the number of the incoming caller.

A few words were exchanged on the phone, just enough to make the blood rush to his ears and neck, filling them with a red flush.   As he spoke, his free hand gestured wildly in the air, angry and ugly, consumed and transformed by his emotion.  His words were absorbed by the birds, traffic, and hum of the air conditioner unit by which I sat and continued to watch the man.

If I were to judge this book by its cover, I would have already slid this one back onto the shelf.  I would have searched for a book with a cover, spine and pages intact.  A little dog-eared, with a coffee stain on the edge of a few pages and an old receipt for lunch left between the last pages, no longer needed as a bookmark, signs of being well used and loved.

I never would have learned the history of his tattoos or that his son was about to turn one and that he was just on the phone with his child’s mother who was threatening to revoke all custody.  If I judged a book by its cover, I would have missed the most beautiful and terrible stories of heartbreak, survival and growth.  I would be nose deep in a world of fiction, unaware of the real life non-fiction that reads better than any novel on a shelf.

 

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