Portrait of a Man

cakeThe man rocked his swaddled baby back and forth in his exhausted arms, while the baby stared up at him with two bright eyes as a curious observer.  The baby had no intention of going to sleep but he enjoyed being rocked and was willing to allow his father to continue as long as he wanted.  His daddy dimmed the lights with one hand and then turned down the volume of the tv.  He rocked and bounced and bounced and rocked until the baby’s eyes began to slowly close.     

Suddenly, the infant was asleep.  

“Success,” he whispered to his wife and mother of the boy.

“Piece of cake, really,” he said with a wink. “I’ll be back in a jif.”

He carried the bundle into the nursery and gently lowered him into his crib.  As soon as the baby’s back hit the mattress, his eyes flew open in confusion.  He never meant to fall asleep.  Fat tears spilled from his eyes and ran down both sides of his face as he cried.

Meanwhile, back on the couch his mother heard the refreshed cries and picked up the monitor.  It sat on a pillow next to her, like a prize pet with a seat of its own.  She flicked the screen, bringing it to life.  A man stood next to the crib, diligently rocking and bouncing the crying baby again.  The two did this dance every night, each trying to wear the other out until one dropped to sleep.  Fortunately, it was always same diapered, swaddled one who gave in first.  She laughed and turned off the monitor to wait. 

A few minutes later, her husband emerged shaking his head.  He pulled the door shut with a click and tiptoed back to his wife. 

“Tough little guy.”

He flopped down on the couch, letting himself sink down into the cushions knowing that he would do it all over again tomorrow.  I get to do it again, I don’t have to do it, he thought.  He was a perpetual optimist even on his worst day. 

“Listen,” he whispered.  “Did you just hear that?” he asked cupping his ear towards the nursery.

“No, I didn’t hear anything,” his wife replied in alarm and reached for the monitor again. 

“Exactly… silence.  Like I said, piece of cake.”

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Trembling Whiskers

cats

On the day we brought Baby home, the cats met us at the door.  They were partially curious about the screaming creature who could be heard from outside, but mostly hungry from eating every last crunchy nugget left out by the cat-sitter and anxious to have their bowls refilled.

While the cats tried to understand what it was that we brought into their previously harmonious sanctuary, Baby continued to wail.  It was no wonder as to the reason for his displeasure, he had just encountered the coldest and most blustery day of winter and was only three days old.  It was a cruel change from his most recent very warm and cozy living situation of the last nine months.

His tiny, still wrinkled face was red as he continued to express his disappointment with the world as a whole.  I felt mostly responsible being the one who grew him, only to evict him in the middle of an Indiana winter.  Sorry baby Hoosier, it won’t get much better for a few months, I thought.

Meanwhile, the older cat quickly figured out what was happening, she was being replaced, yet again.  She hissed at us with yellow teeth before making her retreat into a secret, not-so-secret, hiding place under an overstuffed chair.  This left the younger cat, a fat tiger girl, alone to fight or flee from the new foe.

She incorrectly opted to fight and stand her ground.  This was her first go around with Replacement and it was as painful and confusing as anything else experienced up that point of her four years.  Hissing and baring her strong white teeth, she tensed her 14-pound body, ready to attack.  She was not about to welcome the mostly hairless and screaming creature into her home, let alone allow it to stay.

Unfortunately, this caused Baby to wail even louder.  His screams reached a new level that was surely audible throughout the hood, which also happened to be at the perfect pitch to level the cat’s ears back flat before sending her into hiding, next to the older cat under the chair.  The two were unified at last with trembling whiskers and broken hearts.

They Came Bearing Gifts

wisemenThree very different women darkened my office doorway today, all before noon, bringing stories and wisdom about childbirth. Perhaps inspired by their own history or the need to help in a helpless situation, they offered what they could and went on down the hallway to the breakroom to warm up leftovers or to have a cup of coffee.

The first woman appeared like an opening act for the trio, with the jingling of bells, wearing a red sweater and matching lightbulb earrings that swung with every movement of her head.    

“Just bringing the Christmas spirit,” she announced.

“Still here?” she asked.  “And you still haven’t delivered that baby?”

It was unclear how she missed the watermelon sized bump resting on my lap.  I wrongly assumed that stupid questions came in sets of three, so I waited for the final one before breaking the silence.

I laughed, “No, not yet.”  

“Ok, then, hang in there.”

Great advice, thanks, I thought dryly.

Only a short while later, a second woman appeared at the doorway.  She wore a turtle neck and a quilted Christmas vest, which was just a slight variation from her usual vest. 

“Hey there,” she greeted me and then came into the office without an invitation.

“I was almost a Christmas baby,” she started. 

Her tiny eyes peered out from behind thick lenses, neither blinking nor breaking her stare.  She had the hint of a wicked smirk on her upturned lips as she continued.

“But my mother was in labor for four days and blew right past the 25th.  She told me that every time I came down the birth canal and saw the light, I went back inside and waited.”

“What a horrible story,” I gasped unable to hide my horror.  I felt my jaw drop and had to consciously pull it back up from the floor. 

“Don’t worry,” she reassured me with her creepy, un-breaking stare.

“She said I was the best baby after that ordeal.  My brother, on the other hand, was an easy delivery and turned out to be the worst baby.”

More great insight, I thought. 

“Thanks for clearing that up.” 

She shuffled off with a nod, happy to have been so helpful.

I was still reeling from the thought of being in labor for four days when the third visitor appeared, the boss of my supervisor, making rounds through the offices.  She gave me a warm smile and leaned against the doorframe.

“How are you feeling?” she asked with genuine interest.

 “Nervous and ready,” I replied, as a woman of few words.

She nodded in understanding, “This will be something that will change you forever.  You will tell your delivery story for the rest of your life.  It will change you in ways that I cannot even begin to describe and it is just the beginning, a rite of passage into the next phase of life.” 

“My only advice is to turn off your phone after delivery, unplug the hospital phone, and just focus on being with your baby and tune out the rest of the world.   You only get to do it one time.”

She winked and turned to leave, but suddenly stopped, “Oh, and send me a text so I know you will be out of work for a while.” 

 

Halloweenie Party Favor

pumpkins

The fire blazed a bright orange against the dark, cool night.  An old man with a beard heaved a log onto the flames, sending a whoosh of a thousand sparks into the air like a fireworks show in the middle of summer.

“Thanks, Firekeeper,” someone yelled from the crowd that circled the bonfire.

A zombie nurse and an overgrown Brownie jumped out of the way with squeals as hot ashes landed on their bare legs and arms.  What did you expect standing that close to an open fire?  I mentally growled at them from my perch atop a tractor tire.

I sat between the rubber treads; a huge, round woman dressed as a pumpkin, with green felt leaves and stem bobby pinned into my hair, waiting unhappily on a ride.  Three treads over, a jail bird husband nervously refreshed his phone, in hopes that a driver had picked up the request.    

Unfortunately, we were in the middle of a four cornfields and miles away from the city.  We had not anticipated the Uber and Lyft shortage of rural Indiana or of the nerve wracking nature in being at a costume party, elbow to elbow with drunk people and seven months pregnant. 

I felt like a character in a video game, the crazy clowns, police, walking dead, Gumbies and Trump-alikes were out to get me with their elbows, props and disoriented bodies.  I had to dodge big men and little women alike to escape from the warmth of the barn and into the open air with my jail bird following closely behind me, just as concerned about the perils of the party.

When we finally got a ride, it was with a MAGA Trumpster who couldn’t hold in his thoughts about his beloved leader, sexual assault and his interpretation of consent, and lastly, the current state of his marriage. I wasn’t sure if we would ever make it back to the safety of our home.   

Last year, it would have been just another crazy weekend of going out without consequences or responsibilities aside from the hangover that awaited us the following morning.  Now, the world feels different, somehow spinning more quickly and with more gravity than before, one in which we have an unborn babe to protect and raise until he can go out and make equally poor choices as us, like going to a party without a real plan to get home.

The Cost of Freedom

dog

After the rain stopped, a dog appeared from an alley.  It zig-zagged up the sidewalk, sniffed at a door with green paint that curled up in half-peels and then stopped to lap at a puddle of dirty water.

The dog was caramel colored with medium length hair that was darker in some areas where it gathered into mats between raw, bald spots. A frayed rope hung from its leather collar, a dangling reminder of the jail from which the dog had just escaped.

The dog moved with a heavy slowness, dragging the invisible weight of a broken spirit.  It had been too hungry, cold, and neglected for too long to start to heal in a day or two out of the yard.  In fact, freedom wasn’t so different from incarceration in the backyard where it had lived tied to a tractor tire for the past few years.  Either way, there wasn’t any food, clean water or anyone to give a damn if it lived or died.

He reflected the people living in the abandoned and dilapidated buildings along the cracked sidewalk.  They lumbered through life with their heads down, too sad, lonely and hopeless for too long.

No one came after the dog as it wandered into the distance, further from the yard and ever closer to an tenuous future that was certain to end with Animal Control or crumpled in an alleyway.  Still, freedom was worth it.

Christmas Lights in June

A thousand tiny orange lights twinkle in the dark as I peer out the window, startling me into an arrhythmia.  The possibility of falling into a time warp and getting spit back out into the Christmas season is terrifying.  I haven’t even started to shop or to consider how I will deal with ice as an off-balanced, pregnant woman.  

With so many other bizarre-o things happening in the world, somehow the thought of time travel doesn’t seem so impossible.  The snowcaps are melting, kids are shooting each other, our leader is insane and the world seems to be following in suit.  Honestly, of all of the unbelievable things, the possibility of time travel is the most appealing. 

There is actually a separate reality based on alternative facts where honest observation will do a person no good.  Right is wrong, black is white, and up is down there.  It’s a hell on Earth and not a place that I want to spend any amount of time.  Yet, that is where important decisions are being made, in a place where information is mutilated, destroyed and refabricated as the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.  

So help you God is right.  If there is a higher power, it seems that now is the time on call on Him or Her for clarity of vision, the strength to resist and the wisdom to separate fact from fiction during these confusing times.  

I have to find out if once again my senses have deceived me and walk to the window for a closer inspection.  The lights are fading out and with them the illusion of Christmas, leaving behind only a few beams of orange light from the setting sun to break through the leaves of a shadowed magnolia tree.

Relief takes the place of anxiety and returns my heart to a normal pattern.  All is well with the world, or at least the world contained within the tiny plot of land surrounding my tiny house.  My eyes have regained their credibility and with them their sister senses of hearing, tasting, touching and feeling.  We have to trust the senses to recognize beauty for what it is with the same certainty as knowing evil for exactly what it is and is not.  

For tonight, I will not doubt.

Biological Warfare

germs

Signs were posted everywhere with big red, bold letters.  It was flu season and germs were not welcome.  The usually bustling office restricted visitors and required anyone with the chills or body aches to wear a disposable mask and latex gloves, yet the flu was still spreading.  

More handwashing stations went up, while the news streamed stories about the rising death toll of flu related deaths.  Strangers and friends alike started to eye one another as potential disease vectors and withdrew from conversations at the slightest hint of a sneeze or a sniffle, slowly backing up so as not to startle the germs into action. 

Things were breaking down quickly and not much work was getting done until the genius management put their oversized egg heads together and came up with a three-part solution to the problem.

More signs, they decided, because the first batch was so effective.  Then, they gave the front desk staff unlimited authority to stop and interrogate all visitors and employees.  Lastly, they tightened up on attendance policy so that employees were afraid to use their time off and instead reported for duty, bleary eyed and feverishly punctual.  

It was a perfect plan, seemingly infallible, and still the flu raged on.

Unaware of this change in the flu fighting approach, I walked in from the bitter cold and practically collapsed at the front desk, unable to proceed toward my office.  A red, velvet rope partitioned off the hallways and forced all entrants to pass through a narrow channel monitored by a large woman with heavy braids and long, colorful nails depicting ten tropical island scenes.  She pointed to a sign on the counter with a chubby finger and looked expectantly at me.

My glasses had developed a fog from the sudden change in temperature and my hands shook as they started the painful process of de-thawing after the long walk from the public parking lot.  

I took my glasses off and squinted at the woman, “Good morning. What’s going on?”

Irritated she sighed, “Need to see your id badge, we’re only letting employees in today.”

“Would I be here if I didn’t have to be?” I joked, seeking common ground.

“Don’t know and don’t care, I have to see your id if you’re going in.  Visitors have been impersonating employees to get into the office.”

My hands stopped shaking by this time and I put my glasses back on, catching her bad attitude faster than the rampant virus that was shutting down the city.  I tried all of the positive affirmations I knew to reset my frame of mind, but it was too late.  

“And what does that have to do with the flu?” I asked flatly.

“Visitors are bringing it in,” she said as a matter-of-fact. 

Shaking my head, I dug through my purse, pushing aside my wallet, a pack of gum and a ring of keys; delving deeper into the bottomless pit, I found a hot pink pen with origins unknown, a folded cardboard book mark and a sticky, partially unwrapped cough-drop before latching onto my id badge.

“Aha!” I declared in victory and considered the course of the day that was already off to such a great start.  Was it too late to go home, I wondered for a second before remembering the attendance policy. 

I pulled the id badge out and flashed it at the woman with a frown that I tried to turn upside down, resulting in a weird smirk that was as close to a smile as I could muster.  Meanwhile, another employee had come in behind me, hacking a dry cough with red rimmed eyes and overheard our conversation.  

“I would complain about the cold, but I’ve been feeling so hot this morning,” she explained as she extracted her id badge from her coat pocket with a still-gloved hand.

“Anyways, you know, if anyone is bringing in the flu, its going to be an employee,” she coughed again and shuffled off towards the heart of the building.  She said over her shoulder, “Just trying to be helpful.”     

And still the flu raged on, baffling the eggheads.

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.

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

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