Pacification

paci

The woman yanked the pacifier out of the baby’s mouth and stomped to the back door in her orthopedic, soft-soled shoes.  She unlocked the door’s double lock with two clicks; the door flew open, pushed by an invisible gust of wind that threatened to tousle the woman’s tightly permed hair.  Touching the top of her curls with a hand, she confirmed that not a hair had moved.  It was sprayed into an inflexible helmet of grey that matched her flinty personality.  

She pulled her arm back like a quarterback and let it fly, sending the pacifier into the cool, dark air of the night.  Spinning around on her heels, she turned back to her daughter and infant granddaughter.

“Don’t ever let me catch me you with something so foul and indecent in this house again.”

The door slammed shut with a bang.  Stunned by the sudden loss of her pacifier, the baby sucked in at the air as though it was still in her mouth and finding nothing there, she screamed and began to cry.  She turned red in the face as she continued to scream and big, wet tears streamed down her face, cutting a shining trail down each chubby cheek. 

“Mother,” her daughter said in disbelief raising her voice over the screaming infant.  “We just bought that for the baby.”

Dottie picked up her baby and rocked her back and forth, bringing the cries down to a whimper.  Every cell in her body longed for rest and yet there was suddenly a new surge of energy driven out of anger towards her mother.     

The front door opened and Bobby walked in with the suitcases.

“I parked the car on the side of the road…” he started and stopped.  His mother-in-law stood in front of the back door with flashing eyes and flared nostrils.  He was convinced that she was a dragon in a past life.

“What’s wrong with the baby?” he asked his wife, suspicious that his mother-in-law was somehow behind the tears of his new daughter.   

“Ahem,” his mother-in-law cleared her throat.  “Your daughter is starving and your wife is trying to trick her with that obscene rubber nipple that I took the liberty of disposing of while you were parking the car.”

Bouncing the baby in her arms, Dottie felt a swell of emotion, like an earthquake triggering a tsunami.  She was fierce in her love of her daughter and growing in her confidence as a mother.  Finally, it was her time. 

She drew herself up to her full height of five feet and two inches, took a deep breath and turned to her husband, “Bobby, please help me with the baby carrier and bag.  We aren’t staying here tonight.”   

Or at least, that’s what she wished she could have said, if they had any other place to go.

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Sharp Edges

gummiesEveryone’s voices are too loud and the lights are too bright.  Two women laugh by the copy machine. The sound saturates the air and is broken by the code being keyed into the door. Beep, beep, beep, beep.  A third woman joins in at the copy machine, their heads lean in and their voices fall to whispers.  They share the kinds of secrets that sink ships.

Just around the corner, sits the subject of their conversation.  A powerful sitting duck.

“He needs to get up off his rusty dusty and do something about…” a voice rises from the cluster of three and falls back to an inaudible whisper.

I am unable to cope with the drama and leave the office.  While wandering the long hallways, people pass with purses and bags on their shoulders with appointments and parking validation on their minds.  Conversation is light or heavy depending on the room from which they left or to where they are heading.

Finally, I reach the safety of the coffee shop.  Dim lighting makes it a cozy nook, plus it’s harder to see stains and spills in the dark.

“A small coffee and…”

Feeling impulsive, I look around.  I need something to make me feel better about life and work and getting through the next 8 hours.  There are energy drinks in the cooler, a tray of rock-hard rice crispy treats, and barrels of healthy snacks like nuts and apples.  And then I see it, the barrel that I need.

It is filled with baggies of brightly colored, freshly packed gummy bears.

“…and this.”

I casually throw a bag on the counter like it’s no big deal.  Like I am not going to open it immediately after purchase, rip it open with my teeth if necessary, and begin to annihilate the cute little red, green, yellow, blue and orange bears.  The clear ones are garbage and will be spared, while the rest are about to be put on the once endangered and now extinct species list.

Soon I will be intoxicated with a combination of gummy-bear power and caffeine, and once again ready to take on the world.

When nothing is simple.

mouse

The couple sat next to each other, inches apart, but separated by a thousand emotional miles.

“There she goes again. Won’t let me talk,” the man started cutting at his wife with a tone as sharp as razor.  He wore a baseball hat and dark glasses, sweatpants and a t-shirt that showcased a blurry tattoo on his bicep.

His wife stared down at her planner.  The cover had a pretty floral pattern of pinks and purples, outlined in gold and protected by a clear plastic coating.  She flipped it open.  The pages were mostly blank aside from an outline of the same floral pattern from the front, traced onto the background of the calendar days, in black and white.

Her hair was dyed a honey blond and carefully curled and sprayed into place. Still, dark roots showed through, a brown base from which a fountain of fake gold flowed.  The truth always makes itself known, eventually.

“Would you please listen to the woman?  She has a job to do and you are slowing her down.”

“She said she wanted to understand where we are coming from and that is just what I was trying to do when you interrupted me.”

“Sir, I asked that question so I could get you directions to the clinic where your next appointment is scheduled,” a woman on the other side of the desk explained.  She had long, black eyelashes like spider legs and equally long, red nails.

A line formed behind the couple, the woman looked out from under her lashes and sighed.  She glanced down at a tiny Mickey Mouse clock on her desk with a sigh.  The little gloved mouse hands were both straight up.

Five long hours to go, she thought.

Disease State

phone

Michelle’s smooth white skin was interrupted by dark bruises as though a painter had dabbed her arms with a brush full of blue paint, using her thin bones as a guide.  She texted on her phone, punching in letters and emoticons with grubby fingers, ignoring the woman sitting across the kitchen table from her.  

Before everything changed, Michelle’s phone was merely a distraction, a way to avoid eye contact, and pass the time.  The woman across from her remembered how Michelle used to talk on her first cell phone, a big bulky device with actual buttons and an antenna; she snapped the phone shut at the end of a call and tucked it away for hours without once reaching for it.  It was a sweet time when they communicated with real interactions and conversations, before Michelle was sick.  

At the thought of it, the woman bitterly laughed to herself.  It seemed like a million years ago when health was wealth and they were rich.  Now, it was all symbols to represent words and emotions, entire sentences condensed into a frowny face next to a fire and a thermometer.  Sick again. 

The power of technology was a powerful addiction, one that had taken hold of her daughter along with the rest of the population, from toddlers to the elderly, it was yet to be formally declared as dangerous because the side effects were still accumulating and not entirely clear. 

However, the woman sitting across from Michelle was keenly aware of the addiction.  She shared the same wide blue eyes, pale complexion, and health insurance plan as her daughter and not much else now that the disease had taken root.  Planting her elbows on the table, she clasped her hands, interlocking long white fingers with well-shaped nails.

“Next month, we are going to lose our insurance because I can’t afford COBRA,” the woman said in a very matter-of-fact way. 

Her daughter looked up and connected with her mother’s eyes, “I know.  You have said the same thing every other day since you found out about the layoffs.”

“And you were listening?  All I ever see you do is twiddle and tweet on that stupid phone so excuse me for being surprised.”

“And I got a job, you’ll be happy to know. With insurance for both of us.  It’s online.”

Serve the People

shot glass

Ray worked every night at a grungy dive bar that clung desperately to its place at the edge of town.  The bar straddled the past and the present, unable to fully commit to one or the other.  It was a depressingly dark establishment with an ancient cigarette machine outside of the single bathroom, brown water stains on the ceiling tiles and a glowing touch screen juke box was mounted on the wall.  A flat screen tv played a college basketball game over shelves of dusty liquor bottles and entertained the few customers seated around the bar. 

Ray inspected a glass for lipstick and nicks around the edges before wiping it down and stacking it on shelf under the counter.  A man with an American flag bandana wrapped around his grey hair sat at the far end and stared into a glass that he considered very much half empty.  Next to him, a skinny man with large, dark square glasses watched the basketball game and made comments between plays and during commercial breaks.  He sucked down the rest of a bottle of Bud Light; he rattled it on the counter and cleared his throat to get Ray’s attention.

The customer was foiled in his attempt when another man with a wrinkled t-shirt, messy hair and bleary eyes walked in a side door and swaggered towards the bar.  

“Hey pal, you need another fire ball?” Ray chose his words carefully and reached for another glass to wipe down.  There was a definite difference between want and need in his business. 

The man gave Ray a sloppy smile, “You are good, man.  How do you remember every time what I want?” He swayed to the left and then slowly to the right like a tree in the wind, somehow, his trunk stayed planted.  

There was no rush to take the man’s money or to refill his glass with the liquid that would continue to destabilize him.  Ray could take his time with this man, he had him right where he wanted him without concern that he would quickly leave or cause trouble with the other patrons.  He had a sense about his customers, like who would leave a tip and who would tip over.  He prided himself on his professionalism, his ability to be present without prying, to engage without judgement. 

He was there to serve the people and he had no qualms about over-serving those who asked for it.  

Balloons at a Shower

balloons

The room dripped in signs of love or affluence, both of which were certain to register with the expected guests.  Pink and blue balloons hung in the corners of the room, gathered together with curls of long silver ribbons.  Vases of fresh flowers were spaced every three seats, tastefully arranged by the best florist in town.

Two tables covered in light pink and baby blue cloths formed an L shape against adjoining walls with a massive bouquet of flowers adorning each table center.  One table held a sheet cake outlined in delicate pink sugar flowers and candy gem centers with a scrolling “congratulations” across the middle; bowls of nuts and mints were nearby a plate of fresh-out-of-the-oven croissants, a dish of neatly cubed fruit and a white, fluffy dip.  A crystal bowl of pink punch with a matching ladle and punch glasses completed the spread. 

The remaining table was only clear of its contents temporarily as with each guest a new package or container would be placed until it was full, like the collection plate by the end of a church service.  Offerings for the future bought peace of mind for the present by the givers.  Beautiful wrapping paper and ribbons would soon be torn open and tossed aside to reveal yet another onesie or pack of diapers and wipes.  

Yet, the chairs with their white linen covers were still empty, the punch melted, the croissants deflated and the flowers wilted.  

When the warning sirens sounded and there was suddenly no time to celebrate or to refrigerate the perishables.  There was no chance to return the gifts or recycle the cards, already marked with personalized messages of luck and advice for the future.  The same future that once seemed so unlimited was now on a drastically shortened timeline with the news of a missile, expected to strike within the city limits.   

Still the pink and blue balloons floated in the corners, bravely announcing the joy of new life during a time of utter confusion and darkness.

Art of Giving

red leaf

Tap, tap, tap.

It was still early in the morning when there was a soft knock on the glass patio door.

“Don’t answer, you know who it is,” Jan said without looking up from buttering her toast.

She stood at the kitchen counter in a long nightgown and slippers, while her husband sat at the table holding a steaming mug of coffee. He perused the headlines of the news, rattling the paper as he turned the pages.

Across the table, old newspapers were haphazardly spread and stacked with colorful advertisements and junk mail randomly shuffled into the mix. Salt and pepper shakers in the shape of birds were in the middle next to a plastic napkin holder with plain white paper napkins. Her husband, Dennis, reached over and gathered the papers into a messy pile to clear a space for his wife.

“Come sit down.”

He looked over the top of his glasses, unsurprised that the seat remained empty. Jan was still standing at the counter shaking cinnamon from a spice container with an aluminum head onto the buttered toast. She risked a peek out the door and then quickly looked away, reasoning that without eye contact there was nothing to stop their visitor from leaving.

Tap, tap, tap.

She felt a secret thrill, he wasn’t leaving. The hint of a smile played out on her face as she turned to her husband for another peek out the door over his shoulder.

She feigned surprise, “Oh Denny, it’s him again. What should we do?”

He laughed and the skin around his eyes crinkled like old leather, “We?” he asked.

“Don’t you mean what should you do?” he clarified with an emphasis on the word, you.

They had to play this game, their roles and the rules were both well-defined and rehearsed. He gave his wife a knowing look that was a mixture of amusement and annoyance and sipped his coffee.

“In that case, I better give him what he wants,” Jan said coyly.

She reached for the jar of peanut butter in the cabinet and pulled out another slice of bread from the breadbox. Humming to herself, she quickly slathered the bread with a thin layer and cut it into triangles, just the way she used to do.

Tap, tap, tap.

“Oh, hold on,” she said with in pretend irritation as she balanced the triangles flat on the palm of her smooth, white palm and made her way towards the door.

Sliding the door open with one hand, she knelt down with surprising flexibility for her age. She tucked her nightgown around her legs to hold it in place as she balanced on the balls of her slippered feet.

“Well, hello there,” she greeted a fat brown squirrel with shiny, black eyes.

The squirrel twitched its nose in recognition.  It chattered with excitement and held its claws out for breakfast. Jan extended her hand towards the creature. It sniffed her fingers and looked up at the woman; they locked eyes for a brief moment of connection before the squirrel grabbed a triangle and took off for the edge of the patio, still chattering as it disappeared up a tree.

Jan straightened out her legs and back as she stood, and noticed at her feet a unusual, bright red leaf carefully brought in from an ornamental tree of a far off yard.  It was left not as a payment, but as a present.  Jan left the rest of the triangles with a smile now fully fixed on her face and took the leaf, grateful for the gifts of the day.

Here today and gone tomorrow.

Incorrigible

father

The man’s voice is deep and crashes around the room like a rogue wrecking ball.  He is missing most of his teeth which makes conversation difficult, and asking him to repeat his words only results in yelling the same barely decipherable utterances again.  

A bald man with glasses pops his head into the open doorway and asks, “Everything ok in here?”

The man is pacing, he has a large presence and moves with a force that doesn’t stop easily or make detours.  He is a straight through the mountain, never mind the winding road that wraps around it, kind of guy. He stops moving and looks down at the man.

“Shoore ith, thank you ferry mush.”  

The man’s daughter is sitting on a chair, a softer and smaller version of the man.  She holds her purse on her lap and waves the little man away.  She knows how her father must sound from the hallway.

“Everything’s fine, it’s just my daddy acting up.”

The unwanted visitor nods at the seated woman, “You just call if you need anything.”

Something deflates in the visitor’s chest as he walks away, he is disappointed and dissatisfied.  He wants to be helpful and save a damsel in distress, but is once again thwarted by the damsel.  He wonders why no one wants to be saved, particularly by him, for the rest of the day.  

Back in the room, the man is gathering his personal things and dropping them into a plain canvas bag that cinches tight with a draw string.  Once he finishes with that task, he opens a cabinet door and peers inside at an assortment of supplies.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” his daughter asks.

Instead of answering, he goes onto the next cabinet.  He peers inside and is again displeased.  He opens a third cabinet and grunts with delight.  It is filled with an endless supply of Boost drinks in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry flavors.

“Baby, gimme a bag.”  

“Daddy, what are you doing?”

“What? Do you want these?” He generously offers his daughter the cans of chocolate Boost held in both hands.

“No, those are not…

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” he says with amazing clarity, reading his daughter’s mind.

He rummages around in the first cabinet, finding a clear bag with a company logo printed across the front of it.  One by one, he unloads the cabinet of its burden and transfers the cans into his bag.   

“Why else would they be here?” he asks with a shrug.  

The woman shakes her head and laughs with a sigh, there is no point in arguing.   

“Right, Daddy.”  

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.”

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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