Bake Sale

bake sale

A handwritten sign thoughtfully taped next to the elevators pointed down the hallway with the promise of cookies, candies and cake for just $1.  In smaller print, the sign declared, For a Good Cause, which was followed by a smiley face; two dots and an upwards curved line, a simple but efficient mark of authentic intentions.

As a sucker with a mean sweet tooth, June grabbed a few dollars from her purse and followed the directions to a door covered in cobwebs, strategically placed black plastic spiders, and a mess of orange and black streamers.

Inside of the room, there were four long tables displaying bags of caramel popcorn, frosted ghost cookies, and pumpkin spice cupcakes.  There were goblin shaped brownies, pretzels dipped in chocolate, peanut butter fudge and peanut brittle, and an unreasonable amount of chocolate chip based goods.  On the table against the far wall, there were three crock pots with a handwritten sign advertising two different varieties of chili, also fairly priced at $1.  Volunteers in red shirts stood behind the tables with fresh faces and ready hands, excited to sell baked goods.

By this time, June’s coworkers, Lindy and Sandy, followed their noses or the same sign and found the same treasure trove of snacks.

“Thanks for saving some for us, Juney,” Sandy said with a nudge in her ribs.

There was the a hint of aggression; Lindy and Sandy liked to do things as a group with June, including lunch outings and bake sale shopping.  This uncoordinated encounter by June outside of the office was not appreciated.

Ignoring her jab, June asked, “Did you see the chili table?”

A woman from behind the table with a tight perm, huge glasses and a red sweater with a cross-stitched cat on the front and center of her chest took this as her opening.

“Hey ya’ll,” she started with a heavy accent. “We’ve got this here chili for a dollar, best chili in the whole Midwest.”

Admittedly, she only had two selling points; the price and the rhyming effect of having something that was the best in the Midwest, but they were good enough for June and her crew.

“Scoop me up a cup.  White chili, please,” Sandy asked. “Lindy, are you in?”

“Mmm, I don’t know.  I only planned to buy a cookie,” Lindy mused as she compared two bags of puppy chow.  She decided on the slightly more filled bag and gave a distracted nod at Sandy.

“Honey, remember, it’s for a good cause, and what’s another dollar, after all?” the woman behind the table gave a knowing look at Lindy over the rim of her massive glasses, pulling grandma-style leverage.

She’s a better salesperson than I thought, June noted as she waited her turn in line.

“Ok, ok,” Lindy said, holding her free hand up as though to ward off the pressure of the saleswoman. “I’ll get a cup of chili, too.”

“Make that one more,” Sandy indicated to the woman across the table.

“Sure thing.”

The edges of the woman’s mouth tugged upwards into a warm, toothy smile that contradicted the cold steel of her grey eyes, magnified behind thick lenses.  She nodded and dipped a ladle into the crockpot in the middle and filled two Styrofoam cups to the brim with steaming hot beans.

“I added a few extra beans in there for you, on the house,” she winked as she handed the cups over to Sandy.

June stood in line behind Sandy while Lindy still gathered cookies and candies from the tables.

“I didn’t know you would be selling chili today, the sign just mentioned sweet things.  One chili, please,” June said as she tugged her money out of her side pocket.

“Oh, this was a bit of a surprise for everyone.  I wanted to make something special, extra special, in fact.  I even added my secret ingredient to the chili,” she gave wicked laugh, winked at June and added, “for the cause”.

The woman scooped up a ladle full of chili from the crockpot on the right and placed it on the table in front of June.  June raised an eyebrow, the cause was still undefined.  Yet, she persisted in handing the woman money for the chili and a cupcake.  There was something familiar about the woman’s face, obscured by the glasses.  June needed to remember about the woman, a loose end that waved back and forth in the space of memory.

Shrugging it off, June followed Lindy and Sandy out of the bake sale and back to their office.

They made quick work of the chili and divided the sweets amongst themselves.

Lindy said, “There was a spice in the chili that I can’t quite place, something familiar.”

“I know, I tasted the same thing and still can’t figure out what was in there,” Sandy agreed.

June didn’t weigh in, she felt irritated.  It was that old woman’s secret ingredient, probably a piece of dark chocolate or a jalapeño pepper.  Lindy and Sandy had something to say about everything.  Her chili tasted how chili should taste.  It was finished and now she needed to get back to work.  She checked her voicemails and when she turned around to ask about an upcoming meeting, Sandy and Lindy were gone.

Together somewhere, June thought, in further irritation.

Suddenly, the contents of June’s stomach started to move and churn like water at the base of a waterfall, violent and relentless.  She quickly walked from the room, down the hallway and the bathroom was occupied.  She ran to the next bathroom and screamed as she painfully found it also occupied.

Her options were limited and she was desperate as she sprinted for the men’s restroom and prayed to the God of the Bathroom for it to be vacant.  She pushed through the unlocked door and sent out a heartfelt hallelujah towards heaven and locked the door behind her in the nick of time.

Her condition did not improve once situated on her cool, porcelain seat and finding herself unable to leave the bathroom, she carefully reflected over the day.  She found a paperclip in her pocket and straightened it out.  With the end, she scratched a smiley face into the door of the stall and gave a sardonic laugh.

“The things we do for a good cause.”

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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.

 

Simple Things

sheets

 

Flourish

He stretched out on the firm bed and kicked off one dirty sneaker and then the other. They fell with heavy thuds, weighted with mud and water. He peeled off his wet socks, once white now brown, with little difficulty. The socks sagged around his ankles, stretched and unwashed. His feet were snakes shedding their skin for new growth, wrinkled and pruned in their newness. Without hesitation, the old skins were dropped over the side of the bed, following the muddy shoes.

The bed was covered in a bright patchwork quilt of connecting rings and had fat down pillows in white cases. Patiently, the pillows waited for his weary head, while resting on tightly wrapped sheets with perfectly folded corners. The man struggled to loosen their hold and released the smell of sunshine, still fresh from drying on the line.

He hesitated, the bed was so clean, but he was so tired. Giving in to the tiny invisible hands pulling his eyelids, he dropped onto a pillow and let his eyes close. His head slowly sank deeper and deeper. He wrapped the colorful blanket around his aching body and gave into the sinking.

The stars searched for the man, they watched him drift into sleep last night as they had for the past thousand nights. They watched him curl up in pile of moldy blankets under a tarp, tucked into the back lot of an abandoned property. They silently twinkled and worried, never knowing if a few good nights of rest could restore a man’s heart and ability to plan for the future.

A civic duty

vote

“I have to do my civic duty. I don’t have time for this,” a woman groans aloud.

She has a purse over her shoulder, perfectly matching her red power-suit and pumps. She looks at her wrist-watch and notes only one more hour before the polls close.

A man wearing a flannel jacket and flappy shoes lurches happily across the sidewalk, wavering back and forth. He carries a plastic bag bulging with mysterious contents that he swings with each unsteady stride.

The woman announces her presence behind the man by clearing her throat multiple times, “Ahem, ahem, ahem.” Heavy traffic stops her from stepping into the road to go around the man and her heels are clearly not made for walking through the deep gravel on the other side.

The throat clearing goes without notice.  This man is impossible, she thinks. He’s never going to move. I’m trapped back here.

“Tra, la, la, la la,” the man breaks into song. “Deck the halls with…” he mumbles and hums the last words.

Suddenly, he stops in the middle of the sidewalk to look in the plastic bag. The woman stumbles forward as she tries to catch herself.

“Move,” the woman yells.

She is angry at this disruption in her path of motion and angry at the inconvenience of being at the same place and time as this bum. Anger, as powerful as it is, doesn’t stop her from falling and knocking the man, already unstable with ill-fitting shoes and an over-indulgence of Four Roses, into the busy street.

“I have a civic duty,” the woman whispers to herself and continues quickly onward to fulfil her sacred responsibility.

The April Fool

chains

Freedom doesn’t mean much until it’s gone.

Deb never knew about the danger of healthcare until she started to really use it. Her diabetes got out of control, so she started going to the ER. She became what is called a “frequent flier” and got tagged as a high cost patient. A team was quickly dispatched to figure out what was driving these frequent visits and put a fix to things before the costs rose any higher.

The team sent her for testing and to specialists for this and that, they reviewed her medications and medical records and came to a conclusion. She was a slow learner with a poor memory and should no longer work, live by herself, handle her own medications or finances.

Wow, what an amazing conclusion made by the team. She should be made an inmate in someone’s home, better yet, maybe have her arrested and taken to prison for being too much trouble, medically speaking.
The team looked around the office once they reached their conclusion for someone to give Deb the good news. Her problems were over. The team had figured everything out.

“There’s really no point in explaining the tests to her, it’s not like she’ll remember.” One team member said to the uproarious laughter of his colleagues.

“You are always good for a laugh,” one woman in scrubs said, red in the face from the funny joke.

They put their heads together in a huddle, like a team preparing to take the field, and came out of it with a plan.

They chanted, “Send in the social worker, send in the social worker, send in the social worker.”

I nodded and straightened up my shoulders, stood a little taller and prepared to take the invisible chains of future bondage into Deb. The team lined up and patted my backside as I walked past them and said encouraging things, like “Go get ‘em” and “Keep your head up.”

There was no time for stretching or to run a few plays first, I had to get to Deb before they did.

I knew what to do.

I walked into the room and closed the door. Deb sat on a chair with a massive purse overflowing with Kleenex’s and crumpled papers on the chair next to her. I stood in front of her and put my hands on her shoulders.

In my most serious voice, I whispered, “You need to leave right now and never come back. Go as far as you can and then keep going. Don’t answer any calls or sign paperwork from these people; they want to take your freedom from you. They want to take your life.”

She cocked her head to one side and looked blankly at me for a minute. Then she started laughing showing her strong white teeth. It was a big, hearty laugh that surprised the team, waiting outside, listening with a cup to the door.

“You people are always joking in here. April’s Fool’s Day, I get it. How much longer is the wait?”

I shook my head, “For you, not much longer. Your troubles are just about to be over.”

Wild Encounter

bear
The doctor looked at the woman and back to his laptop, unsure of his patient.  I’m pretty sure this isn’t just an American thing, he thought and adjusted his glasses. She wore a large fur hat that covered her neck and the sides of her face. Little round ears stuck out from either side of the hat. Dark eyes peered out from within the fur and as she watched the man.

She looked remarkably like a smallish brown bear, sitting with her legs crossed at the ankles. When she pulled her hands from the pocket in the front of her sweatshirt, he silently noticed the brown, furry mittens.

The smallish bear patient giggled when the nurse walked in and stated in a flat voice, “Well that’s cute.”

“Thank you,” she said, flattered. Large, square teeth were exposed as the woman smiled in a contrast of white against brown.

The nurse continued, “Here something else that’s cute,” she paused for dramatic effect and continued in the same monotone voice.

“Your blood sugar levels. I just checked your meter, and they’ve been out of control. Are you taking your insulin?”

The woman pulled the hat off with one hand and held it in her lap; it looked like the decapitated head of wild animal, lifeless and out of place anywhere but her head.

She had no answer as this was not her world.

Believers: Fiction

vo

It was early in the still-black morning when I awoke with a shriek. The numbers on my wrist watch floated like a glowing orb above my face as I held my arm up and tried to determine the time. Time was a part of the living world and knowing my place in it meant I belonged. As I made out the numbers, the dream image began to slip from my mind and like smoke, it was gone.

Yet, I still felt it. Long after a fire burns out, the smoke lingers. Likewise, I had a chill and felt a sickness in my stomach, something was wrong. I grabbed for my sleeping husband out of instinct as my lifeline to the living; he would surely ground me. I found his hand and did not feel calm, instead, a slow panic started. It felt strangely cold and stiff.

Then I opened my eyes and screamed for the second time of the morning.

I held the skeleton hand of my husband. His smooth, cool wedding ring slipped off into my hand. The cat, startled from my cry, leapt from the foot of the bed and scrambled to hide behind the curtain. A ray of bright moonlight streamed into the room, illuminating the bones resting on the pillow next to me.

When I stopped screaming, I didn’t wonder long at what happened.

This was vodou.

Earlier the day before, he balked at the cost of admission to the Field Museum which included a pass to a special exhibit. This special exhibit had come straight from Haiti and was an immersion into vodou (also known as voodoo, but not to be confused with Louisiana voodoo).

There was no way for him to have known that the cashier not only practiced vodou but had also mastered the darker side of it.

The cashier looked back and forth between us as we discussed the cost, listening big with her small ears. Large hoop earring swung with each turn of her head, tugging at her brown earlobes, lower and lower. I sensed an ally in her. Female intuition.

“Think of the cultural experience,” I reasoned.

“You will take more away from it than you know,” the cashier added with a nod.

She looked at the line behind us and gave an impatient grunt. She began to drum her long, natural nails on the keyboard of the cash register, clicking against each key. Our connection was wearing thin, quickly.

When we finally decided to check it out and bought the tickets, the cashier gave me a wide smile of forgiveness. We had clearly made the right choice and it didn’t take so long. On handing the tickets over the counter, her face fell into a scowl when my husband reached for them. Silently, she watched us walk away and muttered something when she thought we were out of earshot. Apparently, he was not included in the alliance.

“Next,” she yelled out behind us for the couple behind us to come forward.

I looked back to give farewell wave of appreciation and she was gone. The ticket line remained but the cashier was nowhere in sight. She must have gone on break, I thought. Good for her.

We walked off to explore the museum, forgetting about the cashier and her words, in our shared tourist joy.

It took a few hours, but the cashier delivered on her promise. She conjured up the help of a mischievous skin and organs snatching spirit and sent it over state lines to punish, perhaps, and to send a message.

Point proven, it was worth the admission fee, but I didn’t need to be convinced.

We are all believers, now.

Image:http://theculturetrip.com/caribbean/haiti/articles/vodou-flags-between-the-terrestrial-and-the-spiritual-/

Additional sites about vodou:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Vodou

The Spirit of Christmas

The man with the golden hair heard a pencil scratching across a pad of lined paper. His eyes had just fluttered shut when he looked up with a start. He brushed a single strand of tinsel from shirt, a remnant from the day’s activities. After a quick scan for more tinsel, he glanced at his wife, checking to see if she noticed.

“What are you writing? You aren’t writing that letter, are you?”

She stared intently at the paper as she wrote fast and furiously. He wondered if she had noticed anything that he had done that night: the twinkling lights, the tree, the presents or the snowflake cut-outs taped to the ceiling. He was most proud of the snowflakes, each one was different. His hand ached from the careful cutting.

He watched her purse her red lips and continue with her task.

There were only a few people left on earth who still communicated by letter and his wife was one. Instinctively, he knew for whom the letter was intended and what it would likely say.

“Come on, now, what are you writing? I have a right to know, don’t I?”

He continued to wheedle the unrelenting writer for confirmation of what he suspected, perhaps in hopes of stopping her or changing the contents of the letter. Surely, he had done enough to make up for whatever wrong she had imagined. He pulled his body the rest of the way up from his resting spot on the couch and felt his heart pounding.

Of course he was nervous; he had a lot riding on this exchange of information. Yet still, the pencil continued to scrawl out letters and words without stopping.

He glanced towards the corner at the tiny tree with twinkling lights and lumpy presents at its base. Its cheery glow reminded him of the reason for the season, the joy of giving, and then of the thing that he never forgot, the bribe.

In a few days, he would make a batch of his famous cookies. From the baker’s dozen, he would pick the most perfect cookie, with chocolate chips evenly spaced and plentiful, not too chewy or crunchy and leave it out on a plate with a cup of milk. Perhaps this year, he would leave out a few more cookies and a bigger glass of milk.

A greater investment should yield a greater return, he reasoned. That is, unless that letter gets to him first. He began to worry again.

“You promised you wouldn’t write,” he said.

The scratching suddenly stopped and the writer looked up. Her pencil remained suspended in midair, filled with endless graphite potential. She pushed a pair of heavy glasses higher on the bridge of her nose and prepared to speak.

“He has to know,” she said. As though he doesn’t already, she snickered. He knows everything, including who is naughty and nice.

She stared out the window as white flakes of snow fell from the grey sky and as paper flakes hung from the ceiling, only thinking of what to write next.

Clearly

The only empty spot in the parking lot was at the far end, underneath of a shaggy scrub tree, from which juicy berries dropped. It was here that Laura was forced to reluctantly park, aware of the certain purple splatters to greet her at the end of the work day. Trudging inside, she dropped her lunch off in the break room fridge. It was filled to the point of bursting with brown paper bags, soda pops, and colorful mesh bags filled with leftovers and sandwiches. Clearly, it was a Wednesday, the only day that the entire office staff was required to come into the office.

Suddenly, there were so many unfamiliar faces with mouths that wanted to talk. The mouths of these unfamiliar faces talked about the week, their work, family, friends and events. They knew about her family and even asked about her dog. She saw the expectation in their faces continually replaced with disappointment. Over what, she couldn’t be certain.

“I don’t know you and I’m not going to pretend like I do,” she calmly explained when a fat woman in a billowy denim dress asked about her Labor Day as she shoved her lunch bag into the fridge.

The woman’s fat mouth fell open in shock.

Strange reaction for a stranger, Laura mused and shrugged her shoulders.

A man with a headset met her as she left the break room, “Hi Laura, how did things turn out with the Johnson’s?”

Laura looked at him with disdain at his lack of formality for someone he had never met before. An introduction might be nice, she snickered to herself. That’s just how these people are, I must remember that.

“I assume the Johnsons are friends of yours?”

The man looked puzzled, “No, they’re your clients. I referred them to you last week. Remember, they were the pack a day smokers who need the smoke alarms?”

“I have no such memory of that because it clearly did not happen.”

She had no time for such gossip. She bustled past the man, leaving him to question his reality. He felt certain that they just laughed about the irony of the situation on Friday.

Laura wandered around the office, avoiding eye contact with her co-workers. She was searching for something which was part of the reason she came into the office. What was the reason? Remembering that might help to find whatever it is I’m looking for, she thought in frustration. What was it? she berated herself and started to lose her breathe.

Calm down, just think. Think. Think.

Taking a deep breath, she walked down a row of cubicles.

I suppose this will do, she thought as she stepped into an empty cubicle with neatly stacked piles of paperwork. It looks clean enough but what about all of these papers. What a mess.

Scooping the piles into one armful, she dragged a trash can to the edge of the desk. With a fierce swipe, she pushed the entire pile into the trash with a swoosh.

“Hey, Laura. What are you doing over there?” a young girl with a long pony tail, pretty enough to get a better job, asked her with concern. “Those look like Jane’s annual client reviews that you just threw away.”

Laura narrowed her eyes, how did all of these people know her name. They seemed friendly and well-intending, but how was one to really know. She knew for a fact there are work place scams taking place every day, she saw it on the news. Or maybe she read about it? In any case, this could definitely be some kind of a information gathering conspiracy with all of the questions and watching.

“Mind your own business, Ms. Ponytail,” she retorted.

She sat down with her purse on her lap. She stared straight ahead, feeling unsettled and sensing that something had happened. Something was different, of that she was certain. It was not with her, of that she was also certain. The world had somehow changed.

It’s so hot in here, she thought and wiped the sweat from her forehead. I can barely breathe, she gasped.

She blinked and black stars started to appear, one by one. She blinked again, hard this time, as though to force the stars and specks out of her vision. Yet, they remained, winking and blinking in and out of her mind’s eye like a meteor shower in the night’s sky.

The Short Tale of Ony

Image search: Beutiful Blue Nose Pit bull

A complex woman went out for a walk one fine summer day. Trouble found her whether she looked for it or not, which she admittedly, intentionally sought out at times. On this fine day, she had only good intentions for the world as she pumped her arms with each stride. She took great pride in her long legs and fast pace.
2000 more steps, she noted as she glanced down at her pedometer. Sweat dripped from the side of her face and down her neck. Enthusiastically, she sped forward only aware of the power in her legs.
The walking woman did not think of her pesky daughter who begged her to “try and be aware of your surroundings”, the self-defense class she always meant to take, or that she might make a tasty victim for a bad man or animal, alike. Instead, she focused on the swing of her hips and legs when she caught something in her peripheral vision.
She turned to see a muscular dog with white foam flecking from the sides of a mouth filled with sharp, white teeth charging towards her. The woman froze with a pounding heart. She had just enough time to think defensively, you are not getting my bad leg.
She stepped back with her bum leg and braced herself, when the dog abruptly stopped in front of her and started wiggling its bobbed tail. The dog inched closer and nudged the woman’s hand. She couldn’t stop herself from petting the dog’s head. The dog stared up in gratitude with a pair of golden eyes that understood and accepted.
“Ony. You stupid mutt, get back here!” a shirtless man covered in tattoos yelled in an evil voice. He threw down a glowing cigarette into the uncut grass and slowly walked towards the woman and dog.
“She likes you,” the man sneered at the woman. “You are lucky, the last time she got out, it didn’t go so well.”
The woman felt her throat with her free hand, relieved it was still intact, and willed her beating heart to slow itself. She rubbed the dog’s ears with the other hand and the dog leaned against her bad leg.
“She’s a sweet dog. Did you say her name was Oni?” the woman asked.
“Yeah, short for Fel-Ony. Get it?”
The man leered at the woman with blood shot eyes and searched her face for judgment. He took a step closer and the dog cowered while the woman quivered in fear. Once again, her heart pounded in her chest and she froze.
“Felony, what a unique name,” she laughed nervously as he continued to stare suspiciously at her.
The man grabbed Ony by the scruff of her neck and she whimpered. He nodded to the woman and dragged the whimpering dog across the uncut grass and disappeared behind a tall, wooden fence.
The whimpering changed to cries which faded as the woman resumed her walk, still in need of 1800 steps.

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