400 Crocs in Paradise

croc

The boat pulled forward slowly cutting through the brackish water without leaving a wake, like a pregnant snake, it floated low and heavy in the water loaded with tourists from around the world.  

At the front of the boat, the tour guide stood proud and tall at 5’5.   He was excited to have another captive audience on which to try out his comedy routine.  It was still early in the day and he was just getting warmed up on his act.

However, he was also quite literally warming up with the day.  It was already 85 degrees out and the sun shined brightly down on his coastal mecca.  His black hair was slicked back and drops of perspiration formed along the sides of his face.  The moisture glistened as it slid down his neck and was reabsorbed into his shirt.  He held onto a silver railing that lined the edge of the boat, steadying himself as the boat continued along the length of the scraggy beach.

“Bienvenidos, ladies and gentlemen, I am Jose and Marco is at the back steering the boat.”

Sure enough, at the back of the boat a man lightly gripped the steering wheel and lifted a hand to wave.  He gave a reassuring, toothy smile to the tourists.  Everyone on the boat who understood English craned their necks to confirm that there was a Marco steering the boat.  They assumed the boat was driving itself until Jose mentioned his coworker and then they had to see him with their own eyes, suddenly a most urgent necessity.

“At the end of the tour, please leave a review on our website, tell your friends and feel free to be generous with your tips.”

He held up a finger to emphasize his next point, “Unless you don’t like the tour, then remember that my name was Juan and Alberto was the captain when you go to tweet or leave a review online or don’t say anything at all.  Now with that business out of the way, are you ready to see some crocodiles?”

Then he started on the same spiel in Spanish; half of the crowd listened attentively while the rest gazed expectantly into the water.

An American couple laughed and looked at each other, passing an unknown silent message back and forth.  They held hands and sat thigh to thigh with matching sunburns and passport protectors around their necks.  

Jose continued, “Unfortunately, we did not learn German at university. So here goes. Hallo, guten tag, auf weidersehn and adieu.”

He winked and waved in a Sound of Music type of way at a pair of blond men with khaki colored hats sitting towards the front of the boat. 

“Are we ready for crocodiles, now?” Jose asked again.

The crowd laughed as they refocused and then cheered at Jose’s suggestion.

“There are 400 crocodiles out there but we are only going to see a few.”

The boat glided past a tangle of tree limbs and weeds.  Muddy clumps appeared from the dark water between patches of skinny reeds and debris.  Motionlessly, a log floated on top of the still surface and started to move forward towards the mess of the tree limbs sending slow ripples out from either side of it.  The log had eyes and suddenly a tail emerged from the water.

“This is very good, everyone.  Little Girl is out today.  This is a smaller, female crocodile who was just resting until we disturbed the her.  Do you know what this means?” 

Jose continued without waiting for the audiences’ response.

“Big Papa is around and we have to be careful because he will chase the boat.  He does not like us to mess with his girlfriends.  There is one guy and many girls, he is a lucky crocodile, no?” 

“But this is what you came for, to see the croc’s.”

Atop a scrub tree on the beach, a sleek bird of prey perched watching the boat creep along.   A long-legged crane picked its way through the water, stopping occasionally to stab at the water with its beak and unconcerned with the tour boat.  

“This area is home to more than the crocodiles, look up and you will see the birds.  Look down and you will see the fish.  We have to take care of it, we have to take care of the Earth because it is changing.  If we don’t do something now, it will be too late and there will be nothing we can do about it.  What will we leave to our children? What will be left for us?”

The tourists glanced around at one another and then out at the water.  It was a sobering moment.  Jose was serious and the tour was no longer fun, they were being raised to a higher level of accountability without relation to their country of origin.  They were equally responsible for the care of the world, from the inland brackish wetlands to the oceans and everything in between.  He made them think.

“Amigos, don’t look so serious.  Ok?  Today is a good day.  Today, you are all VIP because you are on this tour.  We normally don’t let people snorkel here, but this is your lucky day.  Americans, you can go first. Germanies, you are next.  Lastly, the Mexicans will go because we are delicious.”

Half of the tourists laughed while he said the same things in Spanish.  The tension was broken but the tourists were left thinking long after the boat brought them safely back to the rickety wooden pier.

 

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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.

Poor birdie

Forlorn

bird

What do shivering birds in winter, a wet, bedraggled cat after a bath and my new coworker huddled over his desk all have in common?  The apparent desire to be far, far away from their current situation. 

Joe has successfully stayed off of the radar since he started and with 87 days left to go, he still has a very long orientation period.  Our supervisor suggested bringing him into our office with a tiny, temporary desk to hang out, hear our discussions and naturally integrate into the flow of things.  A good idea that was quickly shot down with any hope that Joe would learn to love the work or the team.

We were a schizophrenic group.  We wanted a man on our team, but we didn’t want a man in our office. We wanted an experienced co-worker, but didn’t want to train him, but wanted him around to give him exposure and opportunities to learn.  It was a unanimous decision that our boss struggled to understand. 

I tried to explain it in the lamest way possible, “He’ll be bored in here.” 

Then, driven by guilt, I went off to be more inclusive.

I peeked into Joe’s office and startled him, he was busy texting and avoiding conversation.  There was a blank screen of blue on his computer monitor and a mostly blank pad of paper on his desk with a few scribbles and a doodle along the edge of the paper.  He pushed his heavy, black rimmed glasses up on his nose and discreetly slid his phone under his leg without saying anything.

“Hey there, how are things going?” I asked.

He blinked at me with the eyes of a sensitive little bat, just brought out into the light.  He did not appreciate this intrusion into whatever it was that he was working on, likely an epic game of Tetris.  It was a strange situation, like a cat after a bath, this was an uncomfortable and disagreeable interaction for him, and like a bird in winter, his feathers still weren’t thick enough to protect him from the cold of group dynamics. 

 

Toothbrushes and Towels

truffles

Susie and Ned shared everything from friends to the flu, toothbrushes and towels excluded.  They even shared the same cushion on the couch while watching The Voice or napping.  It seemed like things would continue in shared bliss forever, until the truffle incident of 2017.

Susie shuffled around in the kitchen, finishing up the dishes and putting away the leftovers from dinner.  Ned cooked and she cleaned, sometimes vice versa, but that was the division of labor in their house.  It was one of the many agreements that they reached throughout their time together, more often than not, it was a natural and voluntary arrangement.

Opening a cabinet, Susie shoved a can of tomato soup and another can of peas aside.  She glanced over her shoulder to confirm that she was unobserved.  Sure enough, she was alone.  Ned was in the next room watching tv, Susie could hear Alex Trebeck reading off the final Jeopardy clue.

She extracted a small box tied with a ribbon in the very back hidden under a box of white rice.  Carefully, she untied the ribbon and opened the box with a sigh of relief.  Six perfect truffles were in place, flawlessly round and chocolatey, ready to be eaten, one by one. 

Earlier in the week, the truffles arrived in a larger Christmas box mixed in with pears and specialty nuts.  At the first opportunity, Susie snatched the box and stashed it away, to be shared at her discretion.  Now, it was time to sample her goods.  With surgical precision, she pulled a truffle out and held it between her thumb and index finger up to the light and confirmed, “Absolute perfection.”

The box, she returned to its special place in the cabinet, under the rice and behind the tomato soup and peas. Taking a nibble from the side of the truffle, the rich chocolate melted on her tongue.  It was creamy and satisfying with more than three quarters still to slowly enjoy.  

Then a twinge of guilt struck, somewhere between her mouth and stomach, and she remembered that sharing is caring with the man on the sofa.

She walked out to the living room, “Here Ned, try this.” 

She offered him the delicacy without reservations and watched him take it, anxious to try another nibble from the other side.  Ned inspected the truffle.

“There’s a bite out of this,” he declared and popped the entire thing into his mouth.

Susie’s jaw dropped as she watched her husband masticate the rest of the candy.

“What?” he asked with feigned concern.

“It fell into my mouth.”   

Towels, toothbrushes, and truffles; the unsharables list increased by one that day.

Elevated

elevator

While waiting outside of the elevators, a crowd gathered.  I clutched the strap of my purse with one hand, slung over one shoulder, and held my lunch bag with the other hand.  I tapped my foot and looked at my watch.  The work day had yet to begin and already I was impatient and irritated when the doors finally opened.  We surged forward, each claiming space inside of the silver walled box with grungy floors and orange glowing buttons that promised of predetermined destinations.   

A man with a briefcase leaned against the wall across from me, a woman held a coffee in one hand and another woman peered inside of an oversized purse as the doors closed. A couple with dirty shoes stood shoulder to shoulder and stared straight ahead as the doors closed.  Just before the doors slid together, a hand appeared in the empty space and triggered them to reopen. 

“Damn it,” I whispered under my breath, like any normal jerk in a hurry who was running late because of his or her own poor time management.     

The man with a briefcase groaned, apparently not one to hide his emotions, as a blue barrel of trash rolled into the elevator followed by a man wearing a wireless ear piece into which he spoke. 

“Yeah, I’m getting on the elevator, hang on. I might lose you.” 

The trashman smelled like smoke and grease from McDonald’s drive through.  He rested a hand on the edge of the trash barrel, lined with a plastic bag, “No, still here,” he laughed.  “So that sonuvagun just showed up at mama’s place…” he continued.

The elevator was already filled with enough people to equally distribute the available floor room.  There was no fear of bumping into another occupant or violating another’s personal space until he arrived.  Yet, we still moved out of the way to make room for the trash barrel as it continued to move forward, partly out of decency and partly out of necessity to avoid conflict, and the barrel keeper didn’t seem to mind if we were crushed or displaced in the process.  

As I squeezed between the man with dirty shoes and the woman with coffee, the contents splashed over the edge of the cup as the elevator lifted to the next floor, I felt a sense of nostalgia for the time when trash travelled via the service elevator, when people cared about the wellbeing of others, and when it wasn’t so damned hard to get from the first to the fifth floor.

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.

 

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.”

 

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.”

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