Tag Archives: New-to-you

New-to-you – Over

Woah, did I say in my last post that an old story of mine was going up “tomorrow”?  Which would have been, like, a month ago?  No, I couldn’t have.  I think, when I typed “tomorrow”, what I meant to type was “sometime in September”, I just spelled it really, really wrong.

So here’s the one I was talking about.  Posted exactly when I said I would.


Over

There’s music playing in the background, badly.  The selection could use some improvement as well.  We were speculating earlier that the musician is probably related to the restaurant’s owner—nepotism, that great equalizer.  But I’m into my third glass of wine—miles behind my rambling friend here—and the buzz is smoothing out the rougher edges nicely.  Even Barry Manilow on an out-of-tune guitar is bearable after your third Merlot.

It’s a small restaurant.  “Atmosphere” they advertise; cramped it is.  You can only apologize for so many inadvertent elbows for so long before it all descends into absurdity.  Or a brawl.  Thankfully, this appears to be a crowd of the former.  My knees, on the other hand, are black and blue and know the underside of our off-balance table too well.  I imagine I’ll be feeling them—and everything else—rather vividly tomorrow morning.  God bless Merlot—but God really loves two aspirin and a glass of water before bed.

It’s an Italian restaurant, supposedly.  The menu is in Italian, and there’s enough garlic hanging to invade Transylvania with, but there isn’t a pasta dish or a clam in sight.  It’s good, don’t get me wrong; in fact, it’s already gone.  It’s getting pretty late, and most of the new customers wandering in are wearing blazers and pearls—it’s time to go.  Except our second bottle’s only half empty, and we both know we’ve only got a few more of these Romantic Evenings left in us, so we’re lingering.

It’s over, almost, for us.  You couldn’t tell from the outside, and, hey, we’re doing a pretty decent job of ignoring it ourselves.  But we’re lingering, and we know it.  It’s not exactly devastating.  Oh, hopefully it’ll happen as a fight, so she can cry and throw things and I can yell and get righteously pissed-drunk afterwards.  But it’s coming regardless.  I can feel it lurking just a couple of tomorrows away.

So, we linger.

But we’re not the only ones.  Just across the aisle from us, actually.  She’s by herself, has been since we first came in.  I can only imagine the scene we missed.  Just as we were showing up, a big, burly man came storming out of the restaurant’s front door.  I hope to God I never have on my face the expression he had on his.  He looked damned.  Like whatever had been haunting him had finished its work and seen that it was good.  He brushed by us without noticing, and I probably would’ve forgotten all about it except, when we went inside, the place was silent, not a word or a clank or warbly Fmaj7 cord in sight.  And all eyes were on this woman, this woman we ended up sitting just across the aisle from.

If he looked bad, she was worse.  Still is, as far as my surreptitious glances can tell.  Her table is as small as ours, and was set for two, but—and this is what’s absolutely killing me, and probably her as well—along the edge of the table are four or five crayons, strewn across a half-finished child’s activity place-mat.  The man who left didn’t have a little one in tow behind him, and there’s no one else at the table with her now, and so the question I still haven’t been able to answer is:  where the hell is the kid? I don’t know and still don’t know.

She has a glass of wine—whatever plates and silverware she had were picked up a while ago—and occasionally she takes a polite sip from it, probably without realizing she’s doing it.  She doesn’t look like she’s paying much attention to anything right now.  I’ve seen couples waiting by the door for a table, and given how rude our waiter has been to us, I’d expected someone to ask her to leave a long time ago.  But they haven’t yet.  In fact, part of the crampedness at our table is a result of everyone who uses the aisle’s swerving around her, ending up in our laps.  And no one’s staring anymore.  Maybe there is some compassion left in this world after all, people who won’t kick you, no matter how gently, out of their way when you’re down.

Her make-up is still in place, same with her hair.  She doesn’t look like she’s been crying.  Her dress is nice but doesn’t look very expensive.  If I had to guess I’d say she was just the other side of thirty.  She’s wearing a bracelet and stud earrings but nothing on her fingers or around her neck.  If I weren’t still lingering, I might wonder if she was attractive.  Her napkin is folded in her lap, a streak on a dangling end showing that it’s done its job.  But I can’t get over those crayons.  They aren’t set so that she or the person sitting across from her would have used them.

What happened?

I think it’s time to go.  There’s still a little wine left, but I have some more at home if we need it.  No more lingering; dinner’s over.

New-to-you – Angel Wings

Another piece from the archives.  In reading through it…I’m not sure what I think of it.  There’s certainly a lot of pretension here.  Given the name of this site, maybe it’s a good time to balance out all the eloquence and microfiction and get some good old fashion pretentiousness up here too.

There’s no major crisis, no insight into areas of the human soul normally left in darkness…just a story.  Sometimes simplicity is the ultimate pretension, like walking out onto a stage in front of 250,000 screaming rock  fans and starting in with just an acoustic guitar.  Consider this my stoned Joan Baez at Woodstock set.


ANGEL WINGS

There are those happy people, who’ve found their place in life, comfortable, smiling, well-groomed, bothersome, distant, and always with important meetings after lunch.  Then there’s the rest of us, still searching for a place, hopeful, depressed, confused, hurting, loving, muddling along as best we can.

And then, there are those for whom a place is made.

Once upon a time, there lived an eccentric millionaire.  He lived in Los Angeles, so he never stood out much, though he should’ve, a rare camel with a real chance to pass the Needle’s Eye.  He’d spent most of his life poor, or at least payday to payday, like the rest of us.  One of the local aerospace companies—where he’d spent forty years as an on-call engineer, ready to look at some problem, something’s  broken, fix it quick there are a hundred and twenty-six drunk businessmen and crying kids backing up in the terminal, please just one more trip, then we’ll get the new jets (and we won’t need you anymore)—had ‘encouraged’ him to retire in 1986, and within six months he had become the victim of a con-game aimed at the double-A-R-P crowd.

A well-dressed young man with a ponytail had convinced him, and most of his neighborly peers, to invest their savings—five hundred, a thousand, or in our camel’s case, fifteen thousand dollars—to buy studio time for an up-and-coming rock band.  In exchange, they’d get ‘points’, a percentage of a percentage of all the money people paid for the album in stores.  And with the profit margin on these new compact discs, they were still guaranteed to make twice, even three times their money back, whether the album sold or not.

It sounded risky, but there were charts and graphs with projections and everything was so professional; they couldn’t help themselves.  It was supposed to get the band a good demo and the nice young man with the ponytail a kilo of cocaine and the use of the drummer’s girlfriend for a week.  It was supposed to end with fifteen people living on social security in worse shape than they had been before.  Instead, an executive thought the demo was good enough to release, as is.  He did, and it went on to sell over ten million copies.  And fifteen people had to rethink their ideas of retirement.

Vernon Adams was eccentric because he knew his new-found fortune wasn’t his.  He’d lived a small life, and enjoyed it—you weren’t supposed to get anything less or more than what you worked for, and Vernon had always worked hard, and was happy with what he got.  He liked it when the world worked the way it should.  And when he had realized that he and his neighbors had probably been tricked, his first thoughts hadn’t been of revenge, or despair, but instead that living on peanut butter and dried cereal and week-old fruit wasn’t luxury, but he’d done it before, and it wasn’t so bad.  Not when it was all you had.

And then, after only six monthly deposits, he had more money than he had spent on every home he’d ever lived in, combined.  Plus every car he’d ever owned.  More money in six months than he’d earned with hard work, total, in the past fifty years.  It was staggering.  It was unbelievable.  He didn’t know what to do with all of that money.  It wasn’t in him to even comprehend how much money he now had.  And that’s when he understood—it wasn’t for him.  God had dropped this gift out of the sky, into his lap, and if He had meant for Vernon to spend it for himself, He’d have made sure he knew what to do with it.  But what did he know?  How to take care of things.  Make them last.  Make them work so that others could make what they could of their own lives.

The money wasn’t his.  His job was to find out who it was really for.

That’s not to say he didn’t touch a dime.  His lawns grew green, under professional care, and a new import replaced the relic of American stubbornness in his driveway.  In a wild fit, he went to the store, bought every jar of peanut butter on the shelves, and gave every last one of them away to the homeless and hungry in the parks and alleys near where he lived.  But this was a lot of money.  You couldn’t nickel and dime a thing like this to death, though it was fun trying.  And Vernon didn’t try very hard.

For the first few years, he simply waited, hoping the answer would come the way the question had, with a mysterious phone call and a quick leap of faith.  Everyone he met suddenly became a candidate, whether they knew it or not.  Would this one know what to do with the money?  Would that one understand that it was for something, to be used well?  But no one fit.  Vernon was hardly a recluse—the few close friends he finally revealed his search to had spread the news within hours over three zip codes.  It wasn’t long before someone—several people, actually—hit upon the idea that they should give him a mysterious-sounding phone call.  Set up a time to drop by; introduce themselves; explain that they’ve always wanted to do just one thing, had a plan, if only they were to win the lottery, or something like that.  And, hey, if the old man was sincere. . .well, it was worth an afternoon to find out, wasn’t it?

Vernon became very popular.  And, the small, quiet neighborhood where he lived saw an increase in pure imagination so powerful, had it spread to cover an area the size of, say, Europe, it might have been its own Renaissance.  As it was, Vernon considered hiring a secretary to keep track of everyone (he settled for a new computer instead).  But, as even he had to admit, the old man was sincere, and maybe this was how God was going to bring the right person to him.

So day in and day out, from ten o’clock in the morning until five at night, he sat patiently, listening to the cures (there were numerous) for cancer; ends to world hunger and, therefore, war; plans for monuments for him, for America, for most of the forty-something presidents—though most named Elvis as their honoree.  He met hundreds of the most honest souls, telling it plain:  they were going to drink a lot, smoke a lot, eat a lot, and see every movie ever made twice, so how about some credit for not trying to pull the wool over the old man’s eyes?  He listened intently to every single one of them, looking for something, a sign maybe, to let him know that this was the one.  But years went by, one long confessional with people that weren’t any more deserving of the money than he was.

And then, she finally came.  She was young, no more than fifteen, a mix of most of Earth’s races, nervous as hell but feeding off of it at the same time.  She’d researched Vernon carefully, had spent a month writing and re-writing and burning and writing again before she felt she had something that would work.  And it didn’t matter one bit.  She walked through his front door (which he kept open during business hours), into his living room, and before she’d opened her mouth, he knew.  The money was hers.  He hadn’t even taken in her face, or how she was dressed, before he knew with the same certainty he had known that the money wasn’t his:  it was hers.  He nodded politely through her speech, not paying attention to the details—something about sky-writing and his name—and when she finished, he just sat there, staring at her, tears peering over the lower edge of his eyes, checking to see if it was safe to come out.  He thanked her, put her file on top of his desk, saw her out, and canceled the rest of his appointments.  An hour later, after a call to a lawyer to make sure everything went the way it should, he called her and told her the news.  She was on her way to his place when he had a stroke and slipped into a coma, from which he never woke up.

The money was hers; the lawyer had merely filled in the blanks on a document Vernon had already signed, and the next morning she awoke in her mom’s apartment and found no police, no government agents, come to take it back—someone like her wasn’t supposed to have that much money.  But there it was.

The girl’s story was infected with the same irony Vernon’s was.  She had been seeing a boy for the past six months, and her period had been only a memory for the last sixty-eight days.  On the sixty-ninth she had gone to see Vernon, and become a millionaire, as only the tiniest part of her (one afternoon out of eighty years) had been allowed to believe.  On the seventy-first, she had her period.  The boy was, needless to say, history, and with no more financial monsters looming (besides the day to day of ‘getting by’), she found herself in an awkward place.  She didn’t know what to do with it, any more than Vernon had.

And a month or so later, after every local mall had been terrorized at least a couple of times, she got a mysterious phone call.  From the lawyer, the guy who’d set everything up.  He wanted to know how her plan was going.  Which was funny, since she hadn’t thought about it once since the first meeting.  She was so stunned with memory that she actually mentioned this, that she hadn’t even thought about it since.  She was embarrased, immediately, but the lack of silence on the other end of the call suggested that the lawyer wasn’t surprised at all.  Had, in fact, been expecting this.

The lawyer asked her if she’d managed to read through all of the documents yet, if she had noticed the amendment Vernon had added.  She asked him to refresh her memory.  The original plan had been this:  she was to use the money to live a simple life.  She would finish high school and then take flying classes.  She’d learn to fly, and then learn how to sky-write.  She’d buy a plane, and equipment, and hire what help she needed, and spend every penny not maintaining her simple existence on the plane, keeping it flying.  And every day she would fly over the executive offices of the aerospace company that had so callously used him up and spit him out, and write his name in the sky.  Every day, until the money ran out or she died (or they shot her down), whichever came first.  It hadn’t been the plan that had convinced Vernon.

The amendment was a small one, but important:  never his name, and never within sight of his former employer.  Otherwise, full speed ahead.  And if she actually sat down and thought about it—which she didn’t do often—it occurred to her that she didn’t have anything better to do with her life.  She had done a lot of growing up somewhere between day forty and seventy-one of the lost period, and suddenly she didn’t have to, but it was already too late.  She was in a different place, seeing things through different eyes, and on a lazy afternoon she committed herself.  She would finish high school, she would take flying lessons, she would buy a plane, and she would. . .well, fly.  It wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t productive, but it was a damn sight better than the other possibilities she’d faced.  She’d fly.

What if I’m scared of heights?

She wasn’t, thankfully, and after a few bumpy landings on what passes for a runway at the small, local airport, she found that she actually enjoyed it.  She had a new CD-changer, speakers and a sub-woofer installed, and would map her flight plan along the coast around her music.  And she’d fly.  The drone of the engines would fade into the background, and she could hear her heart, beating, always faster.

And then she discovered clouds.  The kind that drift in, off the ocean, like cotton candy all stretched out.  She’d find a way in, and hide, making tunnels, getting lost in the white, trusting that something would beep long before she was in danger of crashing into what she couldn’t see.  She’d swoop, and dive, and fly.  She’d build up speed, and come tearing out one side, a long trail of intangible cloud clinging behind her.  She’d shake it free, swerving the plane back and forth, sometimes taking her hands off the stick and holding them up high above her head, like on a roller coaster.  And behind would stretch a soft, wide blanket, rippled, curving familiarly to an invisible point at the end.

From the ground, looking up, the wings of hidden angels, watching over.

New-to-you – Saturday, June 6

I’m almost clear of it; the project is nearly done, all that’s left is the death spiral of closing it out, offering sacrifices to the great god First Party…there’s a clarity dawning, shapes protruding through the fog.

Work has begun again on something new, picking up the tools and materials and dusting them off, trying to remember where I was, what I was aiming for, when I set them down such a short while ago.

In the meantime, here’s another treat from the pre-drought days…I can’t pretend that I got it right, but my mom did read it, back in the day, and said she liked it, so I must’ve hit somewhere close to the mark.


Saturday, June 6

1

She figures it’s way beyond habit, much more than conditioning.  The day to day after day after week after month after…Christ, it’s been years.  How many?  From the top:  twelve of elementary and prep school, two of eight AM survey courses, five times a week, three years of getting to the office early enough to have the coffee ready when everyone else arrived, four years married (but with the same responsibilities), then the last fourteen with the kids.  Plus the last four months.  Just the three of them.  Even consciously trying, she can’t remember the last time she’s slept past six o’clock in the morning.  Slept in.  All week she’s been trying to convince herself to look forward to this.  As a reward, maybe, for making it to the weekend.  But here it is, the first Saturday in June, and it’s six-oh-three in the morning and it’s taking such a deliberate effort to keep her eyes shut that sleep’s already gone.

She tries to enjoy it anyway, but automated alarms start going off inside of her.  The kids’ll be up soon, and they’ll need breakfast and someone to break up the fights over the television.  Except they won’t.  Or, rather, will, but not here, not in her home, not today or any day until the end of the summer, when their father will pack them up (probably putting all of the expensive things he bought for them on top, where she can see them), and drive them back.  Then every other weekend with him, until the holidays, which is already looking like it’s going to get messy.  So they’re at his place, and probably already awake, and alone, and trying to fight quietly ‘cause they know better than to wake up their father before he does it himself.

But still, she can almost hear them, thumping lightly down the carpeted stairs, hitting the eighth and ninth square in the middle, thankfully (to her mothering heart) not yet knowing how to step on the edge of them to silence the creaks and gunshot pops.

Before she’s fully aware she’s doing it, she stands, grabs her robe from the chair in the corner, and follows their memory down the hallway and stairs.

2

There’s something wrong in the kitchen.  She doesn’t know what it is, if something’s missing or severely out of place or a different color—like the fridge, for instance.  She gets out the pan, the bacon first, then two eggs fried in the bacon grease.  Some orange juice and a couple of chocolate donuts for a chaser.  She gets the paper, finding it where she should, and sits down in the silence for her breakfast and Dear Abby, like she does every morning.  Except that’s what’s wrong.  It’s never this quiet.

She allows no time for thought, just lets the impulse take over.  By the time she’s on her feet she’s already made a mental note to call Anne and tell her to clear her couch all next week.  This is definitely getting certifiable.  But she won’t think about that now.  Just pick up the remote, change to channel nine, another super-hero battling another super-villain.  She turns the volume up to the earsplitting level where the kids would have it, and goes back to her food.  She eats in peace, enjoying reading about another bridal shower snafu, blessed for a bit, living without having to think about it.

3

There isn’t much she needs; she could, in fact, probably hold off until Monday and swing by the store near her office on the way home.  But nobody bothered asking her.  It’s Saturday morning, a little after seven-thirty:  it’s time to go to the store.  Q.E.D.  No question mark in sight.  And as such, it’s easy to tune out and let her autopilot take over.  She drives past the 7-11 two blocks down, gets onto the freeway, and drives for ten minutes, all the way to Playa Del Rey.  To the only supermarket in Southern California that carries a certain kind of chocolate toaster pastry which the kids are addicted to.  There’s no need to drive all the way out here for milk and wine and tampons, but again, no one’s asking.

She wanders the aisles slowly, leaning on her unneeded cart, following the regular route.  Occasionally her arm starts to rise as she reaches for one or another of the items she’d usually buy.  If the kids had been around to have used the old up.  It hadn’t been so noticeable during the week.  Work had been particularly hectic, and she’d only barely been aware that all of the little artifacts that the kids would leave behind in the course of their after-school lives weren’t popping up anymore.  The quiet had actually been nice, particularly after half a bottle of white wine.  What she is feeling now is subtle, almost devious.  It hits her like a bullet shattering her spine:  no pain, just a slowly dawning awareness that something significant has already happened to her.

She comes to aisle six, her autopilot steering a true course, and doesn’t notice the other shopper in the aisle until her cart runs into his.  She looks up, and even under the blanket of numbness she’s been knitting herself all morning, she can feel shapes moving, shock and surprise overwhelming the last parts of her worth taking.

“David.”

Her ex-husband looks, she’s sure, as bad as she does, if not worse.  He hasn’t shaved yet, and clumps of gray-speckled hair poke out from beneath an old baseball cap.  His T-shirt and sweatpants were probably slept in.  He’s staring feverishly at the shelf with the toaster pastries on it, the grinding gears of his memory nearly sending smoke out of his ears.  He hadn’t even noticed when she’d bumped his cart, but when she says his name he turns to her, the same compressed astonishment bringing his eyes briefly to life.

They look at each other for a moment, a long one.  This is no time for improvisation.  And then inspiration comes.  She motions with her head towards a section of the shelf he’d been staring at.

“Devil Bombs.”

He follows her gaze and finds what he’d been looking for.  He takes one, then thinks better of it and grabs another two boxes, dumping them into his jumbled cart.  A small smile hangs briefly from the side of his mouth, and for a bit they’re blessed.

“It’s hard.  To tell them no.”
“Isn’t it.”

The burning insults and threats that should follow dissolve on her lips.  They don’t mean anything right now.  She offers him a sad, wry smile, and continues on her way, trying hard not to look back and see if he’s watching her go.

New-to-you – If We Had A Yard

So, posting is slow these days.  Work is unchanged i.e. if I saw it coming towards me down a dark alley, I’d cast about for the nearest heavy object that might suffice to bash its skull in.  And would do so with a sick, drooling grin on my face.

New writing continues apace regardless, but apace means damn slow, so in the second of what I think will be an ongoing series (at least for as long as I’m lacking in latest-and-greatest), here’s another old story of mine.

If “The Maid” was the last real piece of fiction I wrote before the Dry Years, then “If We Had a Yard” was the first…it’s easily the oldest story that I can go back and read and not want to get blisteringly drunk afterwards.  Or if I do, it’s not from the shame of discovering the awkwardness that comes from huge desire, huge talent…and little acutal skill.  IWHAY is the first time I felt like the story that was in me actually made it to the page, at least mostly.

Enough fanfare…though I will pause to remind you that it, like all the New-to-you stories I post here, are included in the collection The Messy Divorce of Faith and Belief; buy one and know that you’ll have given my beautiful, waif-like daughter at least one fleeting moment of happiness (in other words, help subsidize our trip to Disneyland for her birthday).

From way back in 1996, an oldie-but-goodie, a platter that matters…


If We Had A Yard

There’s a yard below—I see it, sitting here at my desk.  It sees me too, but still, I feel invisible, like I’m the usual twenty or thirty floors up instead of just on the second.  The story I’m supposed to be writing sits, and waits—and its patience is infuriating—while I look out my window, and see.

There’s a yard below—kids are playing in it, but only two.  The first—eleven years old, all angles and joints still grinding the rough edges off against each other—has a plastic hockey stick and a plastic hockey net and a bunch of plastic hockey pucks and (I have one word for you) is hitting the third with the first into the second, over and over and over again.  The asphalt underneath is rough, and the sss—crAPE! of every shot echoes between our two small buildings until it’s all that I hear, and my poor, humble, clear window sings of it.

There’s a yard below—and the second kid is the older brother of the first.  They don’t look much alike, but that doesn’t mean much anymore.  The family dog is there too (named So-Co after dad’s favorite alcoholic comfort) and he’s found a purpose to his domesticated life.  Every time little bro takes a shot, So-Co leaps after it, snatching the puck in mid-rebound with a loud (plastic) click as his jaw snaps shut.  But whom does he retrieve the pucks to?  Older brother, of course, and when the meager supply of practice pucks runs dry, life happens.

There’s a yard below—and I can hear them as clearly as though the words and voices are my own.

“Hey.”

“What?”

“Little help?”

“. . .Oh.  You mean these?”

“Yeah.”

“. . .And?”

“Toss ‘em over here.”

“You’re the one up and moving ‘n shit. . .”

“Fine.”

“. . .Hold on.”

“What?”

“Possession. . .is. . .nine-tenths of the law.”

“So what?”

“What’re you gonna’ give me for ‘em?”

“This fucking stick through your fucking head.”

From the open window behind them comes a voice, old and masculine, drunk and preaching, Dad,

“WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE!”

They’re silent for a while, then just quieter.  There wasn’t any intimidation in little bro’s threat, but the older brother doesn’t seem to want to spend the effort to keep his game going.  The pucks are returned to their rightful owner, and then back into the net, and here comes So-Co, and so on.  But before little bro can run dry a second time, an increasingly loud, deep, rhythmic thumping draws close enough to be noticeable, recognizable.  A white car with windows tinted nearly opaque; small, with equally small and pretentious tires.  The bass track to another rap song has my window shaking in terror.  Little bro knows how his brother’s friends drive; he does not walk—he runs to the relative safety of inside, well down the hallway.  The car screeches to a stop less than a foot away from the family’s minivan, a door whooshes open (and the volume briefly trebles, and my window goes into seizures), and the firstborn is in and gone, without a trace.

There’s a yard below—I see little bro leaning in the doorway, plastic hockey stick dangling loosely in his hand.  He sees his brother, cruising through his city, doing. . .something.  Something important, maybe, or at least better than hitting plastic hockey pucks into a plastic hockey net with a plastic hockey stick.  Dad yells at him that he doesn’t care which side he’s on, just shut the fucking door.

There’s a yard below—it’s an alley, really, concrete and cinder-block walls and the occasional bricked-off patch of dirt.  But kids need a yard to play in, and you make do with what you have.  Things grow busy for a while, as the other tenants come home, parking their cars and treading listlessly up stairs and down hallways.  And night falls, quietly, without fanfare or debate.

New-to-you – The Maid

So, nothing new ready to go up here yet…combination of no time, and when there is time, I’m working on something that’s taking more than a few days to finish.  But I can’t leave this place gathering too much dust; of the multitudes who visit (almost double digits at its peak earlier this month!), a few of them know where and when I sleep and have access to well-balanced blunt objects.  I need to keep them happy.

So until I have something new to go here, I thought I’d post something old, but in that best salesman’s creed, is New-to-you.

And because it’s been brought up here more than any other story I’ve written, and I’ve had a few recent requests specifically for it, first up is the Stephen King On Writing award-winning story “The Maid”.  Reading through it today…it actually holds up better than I was expecting.  Like nothing I’d written before, or have since, but still pretty darn good.  I was able to resist the urge to roll up my sleeves and dig into some re-writing, which is always a good sign.


The Maid

He noticed, as he pulled into his driveway, that he’d left the lights in the kitchen on.  Nothing unusual there, not these days.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as forgetting to turn the car’s engine off and leaving it running all night, which he’d done two weeks ago, or forgetting that the kids had to be at school at eight and that he was the only one who could drive them.  But it was, in a way, worse, because it was so obvious.  Like hanging a sign out.  He wondered how many of his neighbors had walked by that day, noticing and shaking their heads.  Maybe letting loose with a quiet “Tsk-tsk, poor guy. . .” before continuing on their way.

Nothing he could do about it now, though.  It was actually comforting, however surreal.  Like this house was a home again, their home, and Lily was waiting inside, getting dinner ready, maybe a candle-lit spread for the two of them, the twins over at her sister’s for the night. . .  The twins were with Annie tonight, but it definitely wasn’t to give he and Lily a private evening together alone.  More like he and Jack, or Jim, or even his old college buddy Jose.  Whatever he had left in the cupboard would be fine, as long as it was strong, and put him to sleep.

He gathered his briefcase and his jacket and got out of the car.  Then reached back in, turned the engine off, and pulled the keys out—once is, perhaps, understandable; beyond that is just pitiful.

He’d remembered to turn the entryway lights off, at least.  He hadn’t completely lost it yet.  He dumped his briefcase in the shadows at the foot of the stairs, went to hang his jacket up, then remembered it was Friday and tossed it back on top of his briefcase.  Let the maid get it, he thought, and laughed as he went into the kitchen.

Cruising on autopilot, he opened the closet just past the doorway and pulled out a bottle.  It felt full, so it didn’t much matter what it was, and he didn’t bother looking.  He went to the counter to find a glass clean enough to get him started—he usually went straight to the bottle once the buzz kicked in—and for the first time that day, he started to really worry.  Or maybe it was just a new worry, one he hadn’t already been carrying around with him for the past month.  It was fresher, and it stung.

There were no glasses on the counter, used or otherwise.  There should have been; and dirty, encrusted dishes, piles of silverware, pots of three day-old, half-eaten chili.  But the counters were clean, not even a stray crumb or coffee stain.  He’d done this before.  Sometimes—generally after three in the morning—he’d be overcome with drunken disgust at his life and how it’d turned out, and he’d throw himself into the housework he’d ignored during the day.  Thinking that somehow clean windows or a vacuumed carpet would make the life of a drunk, single father with twins and a nut-case ex-wife more bearable.  He never did a very good job, and it never made things more bearable.  But he always remembered the embarrassing attempt.

He didn’t remember cleaning the kitchen last night.  Nor did he think, even sober, that he could’ve done such a spotless job.  It was like the maid he and Lily used to joke about had broken in while he was gone during the day.  Breaking and entering and. . .Cloroxing?  Had he even noticed it this morning?  The routine of the days was starting to melt everything all together—all he could remember of that morning was a pair of three year olds who couldn’t tie their shoes by themselves yet.  And cereal.  There was always cereal; that was a safe bet.

He’d never had a blackout like this before, and regardless of how nice the results looked, he didn’t think he wanted to make a habit of it.  Maybe he should take it easy tonight, watch a movie on pay-per-view and get to bed early.  Spend the weekend sobering up a little instead of the reverse.

There were clean glasses in the cupboard—he’d apparently put everything away too—and he filled one almost to the top with what turned out to be Jack Daniels.  No ice: there’s no need to coast politely into oblivion when you’re drinking alone.  He sat down at the kitchen table, yanking his tie loose and opening the top two buttons of his shirt.  He took a long sip of his drink, shivering as he felt it work its way through his stiff and tired body, and leaned back, stretching his legs out in front of him.  Day is done, he thought, And so am I.

The light on the answering machine next to him was flashing, and he reached out and hit the play button.  The first message was just a hang-up, white noise, only it went on and on, for a good half-minute.  Then there was a familiar sound he couldn’t quite place, a loud rumbling and rattling.  It wasn’t until he heard the horn blow twice that he recognized it for a semi-truck, roaring past.  And then the rest of the noise fell into place: traffic.  It sounded like a pay phone alongside a busy street, maybe a highway.  The message ended a second later without the caller saying a word.  Probably a wrong number, he thought, which fit in quite well with his own crumbling life.  Someone stuck in the breakdown lane, trying to get home. . .  He raised his glass to the invisible caller. Right on, brother.

The second message was from Annie, his ex-sister-in-law.  He sat up and checked the time stamp showing on the display; she’d called and left the message twenty minutes ago, while he was still driving home after dropping the twins off with her.  He didn’t like the way her voice sounded:  hurried, and nervous.  Maybe a little scared, even.

“Mark? It’s Annie. I just got. . .um.  Look, try not to let this freak you out too much, but. . .shit.  Mark?  They lost Lily.  They were taking her over to Ridgeview today to run some tests, and the van to bring her back signed out at three, but it’s only fifteen minutes back to. . .to County, only they didn’t notice the van hadn’t made it back yet until the shifts changed over at six.

“Um, so, I talked to Sergeant Thomas already.  He called me after you weren’t home yet, and he says that everyone’s probably just lost in the paperwork and she’s safe away in her ce—. . .room.  But then he said he wants us all to come down to the station ’til they do find her, and if they don’t, tonight, then they’re going to put us up in a hotel ’til they do.  So you figure it out.

“I’ve got the twins, you just left here fifteen minutes ago, so we should be there. . .any time now.  So be ready to go, okay?  Bye.”

The message ended, the machine beeped twice (meaning that was the last one), and began to rewind the tape.  It sounded very loud in the quiet kitchen.  The rattle and the hiss, and then suddenly the sharp click as it reached the beginning and stopped.  His hand jerked again, spilling some of the liquor, and he didn’t notice it.  He got to his feet, raised the glass, and drank until he started to choke on it.  It burned, and he was coughing all over the kitchen, big coughs that bent him over at the waist, but he couldn’t think of anything else to do.  Everything was so much easier to deal with when he was drunk.  It all just kind of. . .happened, and he was along for the ride.

As the coughs died and he straightened back up, he glanced back over at the counter and saw something moving.

His heart froze, his breathing fainted, and a sudden burst of adrenaline flooded him.  But.  It was just a reflection, his own, caught in the window behind the sink.  It was dark outside, and he was a little jumpy, and more than a little drunk already, and maybe, for a second, he’d thought he’d seen. . .

Lily?  Why would she come here?  Even if she’d actually. . .slipped away, from the doctors, why would she come all the way back here?  ‘Cause she’s crazy, he thought, and wondered where the idea had come from.  You saw her at the hospital.  Crazy people don’t need why’s.  But. . .

“Ah, shit,” he said, and it fell out of his mouth just like it sounded.  The last thing he wanted to be tonight was responsible.  And now he had to spend the evening with Annie and the twins; not that he didn’t love them, Annie too, but he could already feel the Jack Daniels starting to crawl its way up the back of his neck, getting ready to lower its shroud over his temples, and forehead, and eventually his eyes, so he could sleep.  All because some orderly out at Ridgeview had assumed that the “next guy” would take care of. . .whatever it was they did to keep track of the patients out there.  The whole damn world was going to hell.

He put the almost-empty glass down on the counter—and not without a little satisfaction, like the marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima.  Clean my counters, will you? he asked the drunken maid inside of him.  Take that.

He paused in the hallway, listening for the sound of a car approaching in the street outside. There was none—he figured he had five or ten minutes before Annie showed up.  Probably more, considering how she drove, especially with the twins in the car.  Time enough to go and change.  It was Friday, after all, and he hadn’t become a teacher so that he could dress up on the weekends.  He started up the stairs, nearly tripping over his jacket and briefcase along the way, and made it all the way to the switchback landing before he saw her.

They kept a fish-tank at the top of the stairs, ostensibly for the twins benefit, though they hadn’t voiced much of an opinion.  Mark had found himself sitting in front of it at night, especially recently, staring into the calm water, and the eerie glow that the heat lamp gave off, seeping through like liquid fog.  He’d bought the fish, and the tank, but he wasn’t the one who had taken care of them.  That had been Lily’s job, and part of the origins of the Maid Joke.  As in, “They’re your fish, Mark.  What do you think I am, your maid?”  Variations on the theme were, “Stop throwing your stuff on the ground, Mark. There’s no maid to pick up after you anymore.”  Or the suddenly relevant, “I wish you wouldn’t leave your dishes all over the counter Mark.  Or am I just your maid, cleaning up after you?  Is that all I am?”

Lily was sitting at the top of the steps, next to the tank, her head resting against it, one arm draped loosely around the front leg of the table it was resting on.  She was staring out into space, but she didn’t look dazed or drugged.  More like an animal, a leopard napping in a tree, waiting for her prey to stroll unexpectedly by.  She didn’t look like she’d seen him yet.  But before he could move or even think, she did.

“Mark?”  She sounded pleased to see him.  “You’re home.”

“Lily?  Wh-” But the question died on his lips.  His eyes were adjusting to the dim light, and he could see more of her.  She was still in her hospital pajamas, the thin cotton with the V-neck.  Not the green ones, for doctors, or the white ones, for the normal patients, but her orange ones.  For the violent patients.  Her hair was short, just a week or two past a buzz-cut.  Her feet were bare and dark.  And her front was stained with. . .with whatever was dripping from the wicked-looking club she was holding.  It was dark, but he didn’t need to know what color it was.  He could smell the blood from where he was standing.

“Lily.  What are you doing here?”

“I shouldn’t have left you guys.  You know I shouldn’t have, Mark.  And I’m sorry.  You can’t take care of yourself.”

She got to her feet, the club hanging by her side, the horns at the ends of it glistening in the dim light.  She took a step towards him, down the stairs.  Prowling, her eyes alive and watchful.

“You can’t, and I knew that, and still. . .I went and left the three of you on your own.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!”  With each shout, she raised the club and, as he watched in horror, brought it down on her own head.  He didn’t know if she was already bleeding, but when she stopped, it was pouring down one side of her face, a mask with just a single, dull eye staring out.  He started to back away from her, facing her and feeling behind him for the next step.  She followed, getting closer.

“Can you-,” she started, “. . . It’s your fault too, you know.”

“Lily.  Take it easy.”  He had to reach out for the banister.  The whiskey was still creeping over him, and he was on the verge of losing his balance.  He was afraid of turning around and running—hell, he was afraid to move.  She looked like she was waiting, just waiting for the right moment to pounce.  “Just stop and tell me what you want.”

“I want. . .”  She stopped for a moment, then bent over, her hands going to the sides of her head, like she used to when one of her headaches would hit her mid-stride.  He thought for a wild second that he should leap forward and tackle her, now, while she couldn’t pay attention.  At least get his hands on the club she’d been using on herself.  And maybe others.  Bare minimum he could turn and run for his life.  But he couldn’t move, could barely breath.  The shroud was upon him.  She was happening; he was just along for the ride.

She looked up, and saw the intent in his eyes.  Her blood-smeared lips curled into a nasty smile.

“What the fuck do you think I am?  Your maid?”  And she started towards him again, faster.

He kept backing up, one hand on the railing, until he was almost at the bottom of the stairs, wondering if he’d locked the front door, if he’d have to stop and unlock it before she chased him out into the street.  Give the neighbors something to really talk about, he thought, and a sick half-giggle escaped his lips.  She heard it, and lunged for him.

His left foot reached back, feeling for the floor, and stopped before it should have.  His heel came down on top of his briefcase, and it fell over, taking him with it.  He felt his ankle twist, the pain momentarily overwhelming his thoughts.  Probably sprained it, he thought, and then he felt her on him, landing on him, taking her prey.  He tried to roll over, and the last thing he saw was the club in her hands coming down towards his face.

She brought it down again, and again, and again.

Example from circa 2001

So, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about…it’s a bit long, a bit more storyshowing than I’m talking about today…I was still interested in being a normal writer back then. But it’s good, and it’s close, and the kind of thing I hope goes up here in the future.

GRACE

He’s beautiful, and for a second, that’s all that matters.  He’s not supposed to be, and there’s a good reason why, but she can’t remember it.  A million words spring up inside of her and then fly away, like a hail of confetti in the sway of a strong wind.  They catch in her throat, and her breath starts to come short, and fast, and weak.  She’s dizzy, and grabs onto the arms of her chair to keep from flying away herself.

Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen, or the haze from the noon sun overhead, but she can’t see his face.  Just a blinding, walking towards her.  An afterimage, like staring right at the sun.  The streets are crowded, but the people part before him, like he’s not even there.  Or maybe it’s everyone else who’s a dream, and he and she are all alone.  In the middle of the day, on a busy street, and it’s just the two of them.  She’s waiting, he’s walking.  Towards her.

He sits down at her table, and smiles, and now she knows it’s a dream, because in the real world, if you stop breathing, and your heart explodes, you die.  But here she is, still, alive and shaking.

She opens her mouth to speak, and can’t.  Words don’t mean anything anymore.  He’s smiling.  At her.  She wonders if she’s smiling back, and knows it doesn’t matter.  His is enough for both of them.  And if she’s not happy now — and she is, she can feel it burning inside, like liquid smoke — then there’s no such thing.

They sit, and smile, and then he leans forward, about to say something that doesn’t matter anymore because words don’t mean anything anymore, just him, when there’s a loud band from her right.  It’s sharp, and so low she doesn’t hear it, she feels it, shaking her but not the way he does.  This is violent, pulling her in every direction at once.

She feels a stinging all down her side, like someone threw a giant pushpin mold at her.  She watches a sudden storm of glass and splinters blow past her, and then a gust of warm arm, more solid than the asphalt she lands on a few seconds later, wraps itself around her, tipping her and then throwing her into the air.  She soars and spins and lands on a soft cloud of hot smoke and plunges through, crashing a second later onto the street.  Her hip breaks her fall, then just breaks.  Her head hits a second later and bounces, which heads aren’t supposed to do.  And then, even with the rubble still pouring down all around her, she is still.

The air is hot, and her lungs burn as she tries to breathe.  She can feel her arms pointing in two very wrong directions; she can’t feel anything at all below her waist.  There’s pain, but it’s dull and unfocused.  Like her nerves have blown a fuse and shut down.  She realizes in the same distant way that she knows about the pain that something terrible has just happened to her.  That she is dying.  The word doesn’t scare her; the ground is too soft and warm, the air in front of her eyes still shimmering.  If this is dying, she doesn’t think she minds.  Until she sees him, a ghostly image coming towards her.

He kneels down next to her and reaches his hand out.  He lays a finger gently on her lips, and says her name, once.

“Grace.”

And now she knows it’s all just a dream, because instead of smoke and flames and debris, she sees flowers.  A blizzard of buds and petals, every possible color and even a few that aren’t.  Falling down upon her, burying her slowly in a grave of soft and smell.  And his face, ringed with flowers.

* * * * *

She crawls out of the bed, trying not to wake him.  He needs his sleep.  She walks slowly to the window, checking the time showing on the clock as she passes by.  Six-thirty in the morning, but it’s still dark outside.  She can hear the rain falling, the distant rattle on the roof and the humble roar on the ground outside.  She can hear it, but can’t see it, or anything else.  Just the faintest outline of the backyard, falling away to the fields below.  There’s a sunrise out there, somewhere.  Here it’s still night.

She hears him, behind her on the bed, tossing and turning, even the occasional whimper.  He’s dreaming; he has been all night.  Some are bad, some are worse.  It sounds like it’s getting worse now.  She wants to go back and hold him, keep him close and sheltered, like she’s been doing all night.  She’s already started to turn around when she stops.  It’s morning now; maybe not here, yet, but it is in the rest of the world.  If they could stay here, at his house, alone and away, maybe she could join him, back to his dreams and endless night.  But they can’t, and she won’t.

She can stand here at the window for a little while longer, though.  It’s cold in the room, and her nude body craves the chill.  She reaches out and unlatches the pane, swinging the two halves in.  A strong wind nearly yanks them from her hands, washing over her like a drug.  Her hair whips at her neck, and her skin grows tight, goose bumps cascading, her nipples hard and sore.  She stands and lets the storm take her, a frozen hell after the heaven of his warmth in her arms.  Or maybe this is bliss, and he’s an inferno, burning them both.  She knows that it feels good, whether she’s a sinner or a saint.

She hears a cry from behind her.  Not a sob, no tears — she doesn’t think he knows how to, and that’s part of the problem — but hurting, still.  She looks back and sees that he’s tried to bury himself under the blankets again.  The dim glow from the clock casts a shadow across his face, dividing him in two.  She closes the window, hoping she hasn’t done him any harm with her moment’s release, and stops by the bed on her way out.  She smoothes the comforter and pulls it away from his face. He mumbles, words she can’t understand, and then says her name, once.

“Grace.”

She feels the chills rain down her back.  Even asleep, he opens her, every ripple and scar and uneven seam he’s left inside of her rising to the surface.  A knot fills her throat.  Her chest tightens up, like he was holding her again, too tight.

She kisses him once, softly on the corner of his lips, then stands up and leaves the room, ignoring the robe lying across the chair by the door.  She likes the feel of the cold air drifting down her chest, weaving slowly between her legs.  It’s more than sexual — there is no modesty here, with him, no secrets.  None intentional, anyway.  The thick carpet in the hallway gives under her bare feet, then springs back, propelling her forward.  She has a headache from a lack of sleep, but now that she’s up and moving she can feel the pain falling away behind her, a step at a time.  When she reaches the stairs at the end of the hallway, she feels a small smile creep across her face.  Her eyes are wide and awake, and she feels seized, suddenly, almost, by a confidence she hasn’t felt for too long.  There’s something about to happen, something new.  A direction, waiting for her just around the next corner.  Somewhere in the between of this moment and the next.

There is a tall window, ceiling to floor, at the landing at the top of the stairs, and she stops in front of it.  She can see, far away, a break in the clouds, and two tiny shafts of perfect light shining down through.  Columns, maybe, supporting the gates of some imminent paradise.  Something is coming, she thinks, it’s just out there at the edge of the night.  She doesn’t know where this feeling is coming from, or why it’s so strong, so sure.  She wonders if she’s dreaming.  Maybe she’s still back in bed, here or somewhere from before that she can’t even imagine remembering, and this night, this walk, this feeling, are all figments of her unleashed imagination.  And him?  His house, his bed, their bed, his Pain, their. . .?  Why?  Why would she do that to him?

She pinches herself on the arm.  It hurts, but not the way it’s supposed to, and she still doesn’t know.  She tries to speak, and can’t.  Her lungs have locked up like in a nightmare, spirit desperately willing, flesh frozen and weak.  She tries again.

She’s shivering now, suddenly cold and uncomfortable.  She wraps her arms close around her, watching as the storm closes back in, the columns disappearing.  The gates closing.  Here, it’s still night.

~