As Above, So Below

as above

The screen door slowly opened with a squeak.  The hinges were reddish-brown with rust and curls of white paint peeled away from the wooden door.  A pink noise poked out and sniffed at the air; the nose was followed by the black and white body of a small dog.  The animal slipped the rest of the way out of the house and the door slammed behind it with a bang.

Scents of all kinds bombarded the tiny but powerful nostrils of the dog.  It looked left and then right, orienting to its new surroundings.  A squirrel watched from the branch of an oak tree in the front yard, holding a nut in its claws and waited to see what the domesticated creature would do next.

The dog took off in a beeline towards the edge of the yard, running with muscular strides, quickly drawing away from the house.

“Beanie!” a boy yelled as he pushed through the screen door.  He wore jean shorts and striped tank top; dark hair fell over his forehead and hit the top of his ears, in a perfect bowl cut.

He yelled over his shoulder, “Beanie’s out, again!”

A girl followed the boy through the door, letting the door slam behind her.  Bangs obstructed her view and she pushed heavy locks away from her nearsighted eyes.  She wore a faded pair of jeans, rolled up at the bottoms with a thin t-shirt.

With bare feet, the pair raced after the dog, leaving mashed grass and flowers in their wake.

“Beanie! Beanie! Come back!” they yelled in unison.

Suddenly the dog stopped and looked back, it waited for the kids to catch up.  Its sides heaved in and out and its tongue fell from its mouth as it rested for a second and then it took off again like a shot.

Chase me, shiny eyes begged as it risked a quick glance back at its pursuers.

The siblings laughed and resumed the chase after the dog.

An engine revved over the hill and a car appeared trailing a cloud of dust from the gravel road as it sped towards them. Screaming, the girl grabbed the boy with both arms, pulling him back from the road as the car flew past them.

The car intersected with the escaping dog.  They watched its body hit the front of the car and shoot off to the side of the road.  The girl’s heart pounded in her chest, she was still screaming.  The car sped on, never once hitting its brakes as the dog lay still on its side. Its life whiffed out in the same moment as the fleeting innocence of childhood.

Once gone, always gone.

 

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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?

 

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.

The Neighbors Get a Minivan

van

A sleek black minivan was parked between our houses after work.  It did not leave as expected, rather, it returned day after day.  A paper tag protected by a sleeve of plastic was attached on the back, stating the expiration date at the end of June.  The minivan was here to stay. 

We saw the neighbors boarding their new cruiser and all of the bags and baskets that are apparently required to take a baby anywhere.  The baby was strapped to his daddy’s chest, supervising the undertaking and keeping an eye on his mother who stood nearby in obvious discomfort.  She appeared to be 12 months pregnant.

Hipsters are trying to extend the average gestational period.  Or so I have heard.  It could be fake news.  In any case, our neighbor just had a baby and then was instantly pregnant with another one in a phenomenon that will make their offspring “Irish twins” when the second one is born.  The timeline is unclear but it definitely seems that they have been continuously pregnant for the past two years.

The neighbors started out like us, very cool and modern, engaged in work and exercise, friends, and family. We resolved to share a pizza and a few cold adult beverages but never got around to scheduling a date because all of a sudden, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, they were pregnant and went underground. They emerged this Spring, eyes weak and blinking under the bright sun, pushing a stroller with a round faced ooling, drooling baby boy and with a belly popping out like a snake that just ate Mousezilla. 

We walked up to the new van and B said, “Looks like you are just missing the decals on the back.” 

He was referring to the ever-popular cookie cutter stickers of each family member and pet, usually something like two parents next to a half-sized sticker of toddler or two, with the outline of a dog wagging its tail in familial bliss. 

The couple smiled together in a wholesome unity, clear that they were of one mind, and the man said, “That’s a great idea. We’re just glad we have room for everyone now, even the dog.”

They will leave the neighborhood soon, there isn’t enough room as it is for the current occupants of their home, let alone when the babies start to stretch out and grow.  Already, they are planting petunias and Hosta’s, laying mulch, trimming trees and power washing their siding.  It’s just a matter of time before the FOR SALE sign goes into their front yard and they pack their lives into a U-Haul truck.  When they move, it will be with a family double in size than when they moved next door to us.

Meanwhile, we remain in place, at the same address with the same number of residents, exactly three cats and two humans, as when we came to town two years ago.  We will be just as childless but still happy, healthy, well-rested and living relatively uncomplicated, minivan free lives.  For now, anyways.

     

Changes

Faded

The woman’s lip quivered as she watched her husband regale their grandchildren with tales of days from fifty years past.  There was one about a monkey named Diana and another about a man in the Marines, and a more recent one about ending up a beauty parlor in just his swim trunks and a towel.

Suddenly, the woman realized she was holding her breath, trying to freeze the moment.  At her very core, she resisted movement forward towards the undeniable future.  She inhaled deeply of the stuffy air around the table and blinked back the tears that threatened to constantly fall. 

The man’s voice grew weaker and started to crackle as he continued his story telling.  A bag with tubes gurgled and percolated as it pulled liquid from an open wound in an undisclosed location under his baggy shirt and pleated pants.  He tapped his plastic cup with cartoon turkeys marching along the rim against the side of the table.  The woman, now breathing but with a still quivering lip, stood to fill his cup with punch.  Not so long ago, she would have resented the same request, but not anymore.  Now, it was something to do to be useful and needed and she was grateful.

Meanwhile, the man bravely marched through the fields and belly crawled through the jungles of his memory; afraid that if he stopped, he would find himself at the edge of the universe with nothing left to hold him back.

universe

Twists and Braids

Promises

red

Mama stopped to twist a lock of rough hair to match the others, all reaching up like the tentacles of a sea anemone. Her older daughter, Gal, continued her halting walk forwards. She was in charge of Baby and had to make sure the little girl didn’t run out into the street or eat glass, but that was the extent of her caregiving ability or desire.

Gal matched her steps with Baby’s; Step, step, rest, step, step, rest. It wasn’t a quick way to travel, fortunately, the three didn’t have far to go from the bus stop.

They stopped in front of a heavy set of doors. Mama straightened out her tank top and ran her hands back over her hair. Baby toddled off of the sidewalk and plucked a bright, red bloom from a mass of red flowers in a big, decorative pot in front of the building.  She brought it over to Gal who had lapsed in her duties of watching her liege to pick at her dirty and chewed nails, still bearing the flecks of bright pink polish that refused to be flicked off.

“What?” Gal said without looking at Baby and swatted away the little fist that reached up to her with the fragile gift.

“Girls, it’s going to be different this time,” Mama said standing up tall.

Her older daughter raised her thick eyebrows in doubt and continued to pick at her nails.

“Don’t start, Gal.”

“What? I didn’t say nothing.”

“And don’t start. Keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking.  You watch after Baby and don’t let her cry.  People don’t like crying babies,” Mama spoke in a hushed voice with an urgent tone.

Gal knew the routine. Someday, it will be different; she thought and followed Mama through the doors, dragging Baby and the impossible load of psychological baggage behind her.

Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

And not a drop to drink.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge

Words of a baffling father

Fragile
Baffling is the father who declares his undying love for his son to every stranger, but neglects to mention how he lost custody and refuses to seek treatment or change. He blames the system that conspires to separate his family and sets his jaw with grim determination in his crusade to right the wrongs done to his clan by others.

He would give anything, including his right hand, to bring his boy home. He explains this to the judge when asked what he has been doing to rehabilitate over the past few months.

“That’s not what I asked,” the judge says.

The baffling father clarifies, “I would climb Mt. Everest or swim in shark infested waters if that would prove my dedication to bringing my boy home.”

The judge shakes his head with sadness. Frustration left him years ago for a level of acceptance just before apathy.  He has seen this case before and will see it again many times before he retires and takes up deep sea fishing in Florida. Sometimes the thought of riding in a boat over the open sea, smelling the salty, fresh air and feeling the spray of warm water and sun on his face is the only thing that gets him from one moment to the next.

“A boy’s place is home with his parents.”

The judge wants to laugh as he scans the room for the boy’s mother, already knowing that she is not to be found. The baffling father is alone in his battle with the state while his partner is out on streets, engaged in a fight of her own and losing on a daily basis to her demons.

These are the same demons that plague the baffling father and the same ones that brought him to this place, alone in a room full of people.

In just a few minutes, the judge sets a date for the next hearing, straightens out a stack of papers and prepares for the next case. He has heard more than enough.

Pleased with the power of his convincing speech, the baffling father discreetly slips out back to the parking lot where a man wearing dark sunglasses waits inside of a blue pick-up truck with tinted windows. The baffling father walks around to the passenger side and hops into the vehicle. An efficient transaction takes place; few words are needed for their business.

He returns inside after all of the morning cases are completed to pick up his paperwork from the clerk, his eyes are glossy and his pupils have taken on a black-hole like appearance, massive and destructive.

Wanda, the clerk, purses her lips as she stamps and staples his papers.

Baffling father excitedly exclaims, “I am so close to getting my son back, I can feel it in the air.”

In truth, he is feeling the benefit of air conditioning on a hot day and the rush of whatever just travelled up his nose or into a vein. Apparently, the combination can feel like the false hope of a man in denial about the reunification process.

Fragile are the hearts and minds held together with a wad of pink bubble gum.

bubble-gum

Fly Right

bird

When I was in kindergarten, my class took trips to the zoo and other places for young minds to learn. It was a privilege and opportunity for a country girl to get out and explore Indiana within a sixty mile radius or so. Sadly, the little brown stone building that I attended for my early education is closing this year with not enough hillbilly kids to keep it filled.

While I was there, I started to understand that there are two types of people in the world, those who follow the rules and those who do not. The realization came upon me like a slow sunrise, starting with a little light along the horizon quickly filling the sky with the big, hot ball of truth. Perhaps it burned hottest for me because it was not a fellow classmate or teacher illustrating this lesson, but rather my mother.

My class was preparing to go on a trip to some exciting town like Wabash or Andrews for an event which has now escaped my memory. We were each asked to bring in $5 and a signed permission slip. As a dutiful rule follower, I brought home the letter to parents and reiterated the request.

To my delight, there was no fight or complaint. My mother read the letter and signed with a smile.

“Let me get you a check,” she said still smiling. How could I have known her coy plan, as though a plan was needed for such a simple request?

She dug through her grungy purse and pulled out her worn checkbook. Through my childhood, I remember her thoughtfully staring at it, chewing on the end of a pencil, as she tried to balance the numbers. She never said anything about it, but I bet it never came out right. Somehow her motto, “Close enough,” ended up working out just about every time.

I carried the check and white permission slip in my little book-bag back to the school the next day. My teacher, an older woman with grey hair who wore skirts and loafers on the daily, collected the money and paperwork in the morning. She straightened the stack and retired behind her desk. We were left to a coloring project which I was in the middle of when she returned to my work area.

She squatted down, knees together and off to the side in the most lady-like-kindergarten-teacher-style and asked with the most serious face, “Is there something wrong with your mother?”

I set my crayon down and considered the question, “No, I don’t believe so.”

“She has been signing all of your paperwork with different names, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Jackie O, Barbara Streisand…. I have a list here of the alias’ she has used.” She waved a sticky note from the end of her finger to prove her point, like I had the capability to doubt a teacher at that time.

“We just need her to sign her real name or you can’t go on the trip to x,y,z place. It’s a liability for the school.”

Liability, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Streisand, this was all foreign, I shook my head. My teacher handed me a check, it was the same one that I had turned in that morning.

“And this, we can’t accept. It’s signed Dolly Parton.”

It was at that moment, I knew my mother needed fixing. She needed to be normal, to follow the rules; the easy, black and white ones as well as those living in the various shades of gray. Then another realization, the truth was out, it wasn’t at all what she needed, it was what I needed.

I needed her to fly right, something a bird with a broken wing can never do.

The Path of Least Resistance

trailer

The severe weather warning sounded on my phone. I turned it off without looking down. Distractions were not appreciated as the sky turned dark and heavy rain started to pelt the windshield. I was heading to the safest place in Indiana under the predicted conditions; a trailer nestled in a park with many other trailers.

This was a visit that needed to be done before my vacation. I didn’t have time to wait out the storm or to reschedule for the next week. There was a quote about taking the path of least resistance that came to mind but I couldn’t remember the last part of it.

Anyways, if a tornado were to hit, there wouldn’t be any pesky foundation to stop us from going airborne. So taking the path of least resistance must be a good thing- I imagined if we were in the way of a tornado, we would be lifted up, swirled around and set back down. No bigs, right?

I arrived just as the sky turned an eerie green and the wind died leaving the trailer park silent. The tornado warning siren cut through the air, deafening all of the ears within hearing range.

On further consideration, this home visit was probably not going to have a great ending.

A ferocious honey colored dog greeted me at the screen door, snarling. Its teeth were barred and the fur between its shoulders stood straight up, stegosaurus style. My can of pepper spray was in the car where it could be most helpful to me in an attack/assault type of situation.  I sighed, this was really not going to end well.

Then a woman emerged from within the dwelling with a lit cigarette dangling from her thin lips. She grabbed the dog’s metal choke collar and pulled back with a yank.

She said, “Queenie, this is a good friend. Stop it.”

We had somehow completely skipped the acquaintance stage and gone straight to friends.  At that rate, we would be family by next week and the holidays were about to get very complicated.

“C’mon in and don’t mind our mess.”

Whenever someone says that, I know it means the home is either immaculate or a disaster zone. There is never a happy medium type of situation to back up that statement.

Once again, this proved to be true. I walked in cautiously and looked for a clear space to sit. We had paperwork to complete but the table was covered with Arby’s roastbeef sandwiches, foil, fries, and stacks of papers.

“You caught us in the middle of lunch,” she said stubbing out her smoke.

She picked up a half eaten sandwich to resume where she had last left off. Queenie growled at me from a rug by the door.

“Don’t worry about her. She takes a while to warm up to strangers,” the woman explained which did little to reassure me that Queenie wasn’t about to lunge for my throat.

The possibilities of this visit were endless, a dog bite, tornado ride, COPD/lung cancer, and then a new threat ran at top speed into the living room.

A small, dirty, shirtless boy with spikey hair charged out from a backroom with plastic Hulk hands on yelling, “Hulk smash!” as he ran towards a dozing woman sitting on a stained plaid couch.

He jumped onto the cushion next to the woman and started punching her with the gloves.  Surprisingly enough, the woman did not resist the Hulk inspired blows.  In a flat voice, she said, “No, don’t,” and weakly tried to defend herself.

What strange reality is this, I wondered.

An hour later, I left with the paperwork finished and about six Marlboro Red cigarettes smoked secondhand, completely unsure of the number of people who were there as different faces continued to appear and disappear from the backroom.

I was a cloud of smoke as I made my way back to my car, never so grateful for the fresh air.

In the meantime, the storm cleared and I remembered the rest of the quote.

The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men.

Or in this case, just a trailer full of smoke.

Reaching through the pine needles/Easter Egg Hunting

pine

For the past few years, I have been part of a highly specialized Easter egg hiding task force. We are a lean crew of three, capable of covering a large area with limited time. It must be admitted that we each experience some degree of joy in possibly hiding the eggs too well. Watching the Littles waddle past a cleverly obscured egg is delight above delights on Easter Sunday and I’m not above admitting it.

I like to hide my share of the eggs with the use of camouflage, a white egg in the end of a drain pipe, a green egg in the grass, a dark purple egg on top of a car tire. It’s all too much fun when they throw their little hands up with a sigh of exasperation. The task force laughs in unison at this point in the hunt and the parents of the Littles start to get upset. We mollify the situation by yelling supportive statements like, “Keep at it,” and “Think like an egg” just so they know we are on the same team.

We don’t give in and help them find the eggs because we are helping in a much bigger way. By making them really search, we boost their endurance and work ethic. Their problem solving and creative thinking skills are tested. We like to think we are cultivating the egg hunters into better people.

This Easter, a key member of our trio took things to the next level. He set a Hunger Games type of challenge for only the bravest of the Littles to try. I didn’t realize the trap was set until I heard the oldest girl cry out in pain. She was on her hands and knees in her Easter dress, slowly making her way under an old pine tree with low branches. I could see her goal, three neon eggs, holding treasures of unimaginable deliciousness.

Each egg rested in its own nest of dried pine needles and was protected by low growing branches. The girl crawled as far as she could go until the branches stopped her.

The taskforce members whispered behind me, “She needs to make a tool.”

This quickly brought to mind a tv special on PBS about chimps using sticks to fish out ants from an anthill for dinner, another good use of a tool.

It didn’t take long before the girl took off her sunglasses and used them as an extension of her arm to catch an egg and roll it towards her. Success! She had it in her hand and dropped it into the bucket that she dragged with her under the tree.
She crawled out from under the tree, backwards over the dried pine needles. The rest of the small-person-gang ran carrying their quickly filling buckets, shrieking like wild animals just released from captivity. They pounced on eggs and each other while the oldest plotted out her approach on the remaining two eggs.

Shuffling around the tree, she moved in for another attempt. She cried out as she crawled over the dry, dead pine needles and reached forward through the sharp, living green needles.

The task force yelled out, “Work through the pain!” excited by her determination and tenacity.

The girl stretched as far as her arm would go and then with her glasses like before – she was learning. Suddenly, she had the two eggs and was standing victorious beside the trees, upright like a human again.

She sat down on the porch steps without looking for anymore eggs which was good as they were mostly found by her siblings.

When they all sat down and started opening the eggs, the oldest girl popped one of the three open to find a piece of chocolate, the next one revealed a quarter, and the last one caused a horrific murder-movie type of scream.

She screamed in the agony of injustice and deflated expectations, “It’s empty!”

The taskforce giggled with delight, “Another life lesson well taught. Two out of three ain’t bad.”

Links on animals using tools:
http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/primates.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tool_use_by_animals
http://www.livescience.com/13138-blond-capuchin-monkey-tools-110308.html

Links on Easter egg hunting:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egg_hunt
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/greedy-parents-battle-kids-easter-egg-hunt-sacramento-article-1.2174533

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