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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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.”

A Day in the Life

Notorious

Two men stood outside of the brick building, smoking cigarettes. The taller of the two kicked at a clump of weeds and inhaled at his Marlboro, while the other worked an orange, plastic lighter through his nicotine stained fingers.

“Did they install your A/C yet?” the taller man asked.

“Nah, they told me there was something going on with maintenance. You think we’ll have them by August?” the man said with a laugh and continued to practice with the lighter like an unlikely baton twirler before a high school football game.

“I put a fan in my window, but it’s just blowing the hot air around. It’s like the desert in there.”

Beads of perspiration popped out on the taller man’s forehead, he wiped it with the back of his hand.

“Whew, it’s hot,” he declared. “But its cooler out here than it is up there,” he gestured with his eyes in the direction of his apartment, too drained from the heat to lift his arm to point.

A woman emerged from the door of the house next to the apartment building. She wore a neon swimsuit top with white washed, cut-off jean shorts that were pulled up over her belly button. Perhaps most noticeable was the mean looking, black and purple bruise around her left eye.

“Hey boys,” she rasped to the men with a grimace that was as close to a smile as possible.

She fished out a lighter from her high-waisted pocket and uncurled her fingers from around a Pall Mall.

“How’s your old lady?” she asked the taller man.

Sensing a follow up question, the man answered with a reserved, “She’s ok,” and waited.

His companion interrupted the pause with a snort, “She’s been cooking again. I smelled the burned food all the way over in my place,” he chortled.

The woman lit her cigarette and took a deep drag with no small amount of pleasure.

Exhaling a dragon-like stream of smoke through her mouth and nose, she continued, “Does she smoke? You tell her to come over and visit anytime she gets sick of you. We can garden and smoke a little herb.”

A shadow darkened the doorway from which the woman had previously emerged and a man with strands of long gray hair appeared.

“Theresa,” he barked with a tone that threatened of another bruise, this time to her right eye.

The men outside stopped smoking and looked at each other; the reputation of this neighbor preceded him via the frequent bruises of his partner.

“That’s just my ol’ man, you know how he gets.”

Theresa took another long drag of her cigarette before dropping it onto the grass and walking away with a wave. Smoke curled from the end of the abandoned cigarette, briefly burning before it extinguished itself.

c

Mr. Big

Two grey trash cans lay uselessly on their sides, like a pair of beached whales. Their contents were strewn across the grass and the broken pavement of the parking lot.  Mr. Big and his crew had struck, again.

Mr. Big was a clever bandit with a luxurious coat that was thick and shiny from his rich cuisine of leftovers, stale cereal, cold French fries, wilted salad, moldy bread, and whatever else he could procure from his nightly raid of the local trash cans.

He lived at the top of a dilapidated brick building. The maintenence man was so busy trying to keep the walls together that he didn’t bother about the extra resident in the attic.

There was an unspoken agreement between man and beast that if given words would have been something like, don’t bite me and I won’t bite you. It was an understanding that lasted long enough for Mr. Big to grow from a ball of fluff into a healthy dog sized creature of 25 pounds or more.

On most nights, Mr. Big organized a gathering party with neighboring bandits to go out foraging, targeting different trash cans on the same city block. He found the greatest success on Sunday when the cans were at max capacity with plastic and paper bags, vegetable peelings, plastic cups and to-go boxes.  When the cans were filled to the brim they took more pushing to knock over, but the effort was rewarded without fail.  Mr. Big usually took Monday off to digest the massive amount of trash-can-food eaten during the previous night.

For years, Mr. Big was the perfect criminal, growing in confidence and size until one day, two Thursdays again, he made a serious error. Mr. Big lunged out after a snot-nosed kid who had the nerve to throw away a pop can into the very trash receptacle where he was rummaging through a discarded bag of half eaten Rally’s burgers.

I cringed when I heard the story from the kid’s parents without a hint of surprise.

You see, the maintenance man wasn’t the only one aware of the Mr. Big and his movements. I knew. I laughed off the stories about his escapades around the apartments. I listened to the ever exaggerated description of his size and strength.  I righted the trash cans and gathered up the trash or asked a loitering resident to do so.  Mr. Big was just another familiar face in the area trying to get a decent meal.

But when he messed with the kid, I drew the line and began to gear up for battle.

By Monday, a wire cage was dropped off and baited with an ear of corn to lure the greedy Mr. Big inside and then off to the great raccoon farm in the sky or at least the nearest state park.

Tune in over the next few days to find out what happened.

big

Bells and Whistles

Instinct

b

The man is tall, towering and mostly toothless. He wears blue sweats and a plain black t-shirt.  Like the man, the clothes are clean but worn out.  Grey stubble grows on his chin and head.  It is a low maintenance style that he picked up in the Big House and decided never to change.

He steps inside the office and looks quickly to his left and right. Under a broad forehead, his eyes are deep set with a slight bulge from an untreated health condition; they pick up who, what, and where of those present.

He is a mangy wolf sniffing out an easy dinner. There is an unnatural shine to his eyes as a small woman greets the visitor with a barely hidden disdain usually reserved for car and life insurance salesmen.  He is not scheduled to meet until later in the week.

Just Puney, the man accurately surmises. Excellent, he thinks as he shuts the door behind him; it closes with a definite click of the latch.

“Keep it open.”

He experiences a physical shock and takes a half-step back. Puney’s voice sounds different, clear and strong.  She stands back from the doorway, out of arm’s reach from the man.

“Oh, I thought you wanted it closed.” He laughs in a forced and creepy series of “Heh, hehs.”

“The door was open when you walked in. Why would you think that?”

Puney stares at the man, very hard. She looks him in the face, gathering information as quickly as he did seconds earlier.  Fine hairs on her neck prickle and stand at attention.  There is a physical connection to her animal ancestors, a leftover gift of evolution that is needed now as much as in the past.

“Open. The. Door.”

She speaks slowly to ensure that he understands. Her feet are firmly planted and her knees are slightly bent, ready to spring out of harm’s way.  In her hand, she holds a pen, no longer twirling it between her fingers.  Rather, it is repositioned in her palm, grasped by all fingers as a weapon, ready to stab and poke as needed.

Taking another step back, the man opens the door and a gust of fresh air gusts into the room. Puney exhales a sigh of relief, not realizing until that moment she was holding her breath.  In a cross between a smile and a snarl, she shows her teeth.

“Now, what can I do for you?” she asks and wonders with an internal sense of exhaustion, what can I do for me?

When everyone and everything is a potential threat, Puney startles at the drop of pin. Her instincts are shadowed by anxiety and exaggerated by the constant clanging of bells and whistles sounding their warning. It’s a hyper-vigilance that cannot be maintained. She knows something has got to give and sincerely hopes that it’s not her.

The Guilty Witness

“Before we get started, I want to say that wasn’t a crack pipe in my suitcase.”

This was not a good way to start an interview, especially with a detective, I thought as I casually eavesdropped on the men. I peeked around the corner and then returned to my position, busily typing away at pointless notes, listening all the while.

A good natured detective sat next to the man. He held his thumb on the record button of a slender, silver device while the corner of his mouth tugged upwards. He had yet to ask any questions and already the information was pouring forth, and like a tipped over bottle of malt liquor, it stunk.

“Ok,” the detective agreed. “We are in agreement that the pipe found in the suitcase was not used for smoking crack. Can you explain what it was used for?”

They reached a consensus so quickly, I marveled. It is easier to swim with the flow of the stream rather than to resist it.  There is a Buddhist quote in there somewhere.  I made a search of the internet of swimming upstream and found reference to a crappy Australian movie.

“Weed,” the man said with a nervous laugh. “I smoke weed.”

Oh great, that’s much better than crack. I rolled my eyes and continued my search.

Found a better quote, “Three things cannot be hidden long: the sun, the moon and the truth.”

“I see, you smoke a little reefer,” the detective said with a nod.

The tugging at the corner of the detective’s mouth gave way to a smile. He had nice clean teeth, all accounted for in a straight line of healthy white.  He was really jiving now, pulling out his street lingo for drugs.

Suddenly, the man received a message on his phone. He got up and announced, “I’ve got to smoke a cigarette.  I’ll be right back.”

He went across the street, forgetful or unaware of the window through which the detective was able to watch him walk up to a car and make mysterious transaction and return without once lighting a cigarette.

Namaste, little brother, the truth will almost certainly not set you free and it will all be known soon enough.

 

 

There he goes again.

spring-bird

There he goes again.

I watch from my office window as a man in faded blue jeans limps across the street using a crooked stick for a cane. He wears a straw hat over a mess of grey hair.  From this distance, it is hard to tell if he is wearing his teeth, but it seems unlikely.  In his free hand, he carries a plastic bag from the gas station.  The bag contains his sickness and the cure.

I am surprised to see the man return so soon after the bitter cold of winter, certain that he resettled in the south, retired and resigned from a life of struggle on the street. Then like a bird of spring, he suddenly returned and resumed his daily activities as though there was never any interruption.

Most mornings, the man leaves his nest of dirty blankets and plastic bags and travels across the street to fuel up on cigarettes, cheap booze, and a pack of peanuts or crackers.   He returns to doze in the comfort of his makeshift home until he runs out of supplies and is forced to make the trek once again.  Sometimes he is gone for long stretches of time.  I like to think he made it to the mission for a hot meal and a few days off the street or is visiting with an old friend rather than the more likely truth that he was arrested for public intoxication or hospitalized for seizures.

Time and time again, he returns. Unchanged and uncompromised.  Always limping and always with the hat.

He is surviving off of the elements, earth, wind, air and fire, and asks for nothing more. Yet, the people around him refuse to accept his decision to live and die in the alley behind an abandoned building. He remains at odds with these concerned neighbors.  They want him housed and sober, in treatment, at the least.  They want him to sleep in a bed and eat nutritious meals, to be warm and safe.

Meanwhile, he is determined to drink himself to death, programmed to self-destruct by a wicked and powerful hand. He is centered and focused on a course that is difficult to change; it is one that he is not interested in diverting from and next to impossible for his concerned neighbors to understand.   While they scheme to bring him in, coordinating agencies and professionals in the effort, they forget to look up at my spring bird.

He needs freedom, dignity and is one of the rare few who has not forgotten how to fly.

There he goes again.

 
Center

Hospice, the conversation killer

Expectation

wilted-flowers
Hospice, it’s a real conversation killer.

So death, what a bummer, amiright?

The couple, Jack and Jill, rode in silence with the occasional interjection about the weather and the Grammy’s.  When they arrived, it was a relief to leave the car.  They stepped out of their temporary vacuum world onto a freshly sealed, asphalt parking lot.

“This is nice,” Jill said with a grimace against the cold.

She pulled her coat together with one hand and held a bouquet of wilted flowers in the other. At the top of the inclined parking lot was a light grey stone, two-story building with clean, white trim around the windows. Along the edges of the building dry, brown, stick bushes waited for Spring to come alive with bright and vibrant colors, unlike the occupants of the building, grey and prostate, watching the world turn from their beds.

Next to the door, a sign read, “This is a secure facility, please ring bell for assistance.”

Jack studied it for a second, pushed the red button and waited; he was very good at following directions. The door clicked after a few seconds and was opened by an unseen hand.

“After you,” Jack said gesturing for Jill to walk in front of him.

Jack was also known for his good manners and gentle nature. Once inside, they met with another obstacle, Doris.  Doris sat at a table in the foyer, posing as a receptionist, bouncer, and tour guide, depending on the day.

“We’re here to see Beverly De…”

“Bev DeMonn?” Doris cut him off eagerly as though to say yes, we know the same people, isn’t that a coincidence.

Doris was a small woman with short hair done up in that old-lady-way requiring weekly visits to the beauty shop for a wash and style.  She nervously adjusted her glasses on her face and shuffled a stack of papers on her desk.

Jack stood tall and looked Doris in the eyes. He shook his head in confirmation and gave a warm smile.

“Yes, exactly, she’s my grandmother.”

“That’s nice,” Doris said with as much sincerity as she could muster. “Right this way.”

Jack and Jill followed Doris’s shuffling steps as she led them down a hallway and through an open sitting area. There was a fireplace pumping out dry heat, warming two empty arm chairs and an empty couch. The place was strangely quiet and still for such a large facility.

“It’s nap time,” Doris explained, reading their minds. Then in a whisper over her shoulder, she added, “And we just lost a few residents.”

“That must explain all of the locks, everyone wandered out,” Jill snickered.

“Not funny,” Jack hissed without looking at his companion.

“Ok, ok,” Jill said unrepentantly with a shrug, “anything to lighten the mood.”

Suddenly, the lights grew brighter as they stepped into a cafeteria. The kitchen area was against the far wall.  The rest of the area was taken up by empty tables and chairs.

A shriveled up human, presumably a female from the fuzzy pink sweater with shoulder pads that she wore, sat alone at a table. In front of her, there was a small dish with a half-melted, purple Popsicle.  A wooden stick leaned out over the edge, like a riderless teeter-totter.  With a weak shove, the woman pushed the dish to the side and folded her bluish hands on the table.

“Bev, you have company,” Doris announced and readjusted her glasses.

Bev looked straight ahead, her eyes a bleary blue with pupils drawn into pinpoints.

“Grandma, it’s me, Jack.”

Perhaps he was as unrecognizable to her as she was to him; her once black hair was now gray, her face shrunken in without dentures to support a shape, and her body was half of its previous size.

A dehydrated apricot, apple, plum? Jack tried to match up the fruit with the woman without any luck.

“Oh, and this came for you.”

Doris reached into the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a letter, postmarked and stamped from Florida. Bev turned to Doris, reached out with a claw like hand and grabbed the letter without a word.  She sliced it open with the long nail on her index finger and extracted the contents.

Slowly, she read each word of the epistle, feasting her eyes as she refused to allow her body. Jack pulled out a chair and sat next to his grandmother while Jill selected a seat across the table from the two.

On Bev read and still she refused to acknowledge her company.

“How are you, Grandma Beverly? We heard you were sick and brought you these flowers,” Jill spoke loudly.

For the first time, Bev looked up at Jill.

“I can hear just fine. What time is it?”

Jack stepped into the conversation, seizing his opportunity. Gingerly, he put his hand on her arm and said, “Its two o’clock, Grandma.”

“Hmmm…too bad,” Bev exclaimed and returned to her letter.

Dying was not about to change her mind about these unsaved heathens. It was simply too late to do anything about it. So Jack and Jill went back down the hill, got into their car and drove away with a sad promise not to return until another much, much later day.

Make Believe World

bottle

The man walked into the office, dragging his feet and with his head hung low. His clothes were the same ones that he wore the day before but now wrinkled and stinking of smoke.  A woman sat at a desk with pictures of cats around the computer screen.  There were so many different felines, it was hard to imagine that they all belonged to her but not impossible.  Remember the show, Hoarders.

Nodding her head in acknowledgement, the woman sighed.   She looked up at the clock on the wall, as a not to subtle sign of her annoyance.

“I know I’m late,” he said and sat across from the woman.

Like a tidal wave crashing down on the shore, the smell of alcohol hit the woman’s nostrils as the man spoke.  He belched and filled the room with more of his unprocessed booze and bodily fluid smells.

“Huh, huh,” he laughed as the woman inwardly gagged.

The man continued without blinking.

“I went to a hotel party last night and time got away from me. I woke up, looked at my watch….”

He pulled his sleeve back to show his bare wrist where a watch might have been if he wore a watch, demonstrating how it might have happened and went on, “Oh shit, I’ve got to go.  And I came straight here.”

There was no mistaking the pride in his face. Was it because of the good decision that he made on how to spend his day or that he had just awoken in a strange hotel room after a hotel party with a roomful of strangers?

Unable to stand the woman’s silence, he shifted uncomfortably in his chair and stared at a stain on the wall, at his shoes, at the cats; everywhere other than the woman’s face.

“Hey, at least I’m here.”

Would he use that line on an employer if he was an hour and a half late, still reeking of his night of debauchery? Did that work with his parents and the mother of his son?

The woman laughed to hide her sadness, to give her a moment to collect her thoughts, but her eyes still spoke. Disappointment is a powerful emotion that is hard to hide, destructive and unnecessary when it comes about because of unrealistic expectations.

She thought what do you want me to say? That everything is going to be ok? That your addiction isn’t going to destroy what is left of your life?  That you still have to hit rock bottom before committing to change?  There is no rock bottom.  There is just a bottomless pit into which you are falling deeper and deeper unless maybe this will be the day you reach out for a rope to begin the long, hard challenge of climbing back towards the light.

“Yes,” she affirmed the man. “At least you are here.”

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