Inspiration: Death has a way of making me pause and ponder life. I found out Saturday that within the span of a week, a baby was born and died. To me, this is especially sad because I expected the child to have a long life – because many of us do have the opportunity to grow old.
That’s how this poem came about. The phrase “expected life” made me think about my own life and expectations. In this poem, I chastise myself for all the things I don’t do today. It doesn’t often cross my mind that my tomorrows are limited.
I chose the photo because I always pause when I see a cactus growing on a rock. It looks like nothing should be able to grow on rock. But, as I discovered during some recent reading for a story I wrote, the lichen that grow on rocks can indeed provide nutrients for plant life. Interesting, that I have killed a cactus or two in my life. Go figure. They can grow in inhospitable conditions, but they can’t survive my inept care.
This may be my only post this week, as Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and in-laws will be at our house. The fiction story I hinted about last week will have to wait another week. Um, that is, if I’m blessed with another week here!
Have a beautiful week, and I hope you embrace today :)
The photo below provided by Emilio Pasquale. The story I wrote inspired by the photo follows…
She thought she’d find an ally in her sister, but as they engaged in a stare-down, it became obvious to Elaine that she’d miscalculated. Her stiffened legs and a crick in her back warned she should quit. Clearly, more than a laminate table divided them. Yet, she refused to show signs of wearing down. I inherited Dad’s stubbornness.
“She’s getting older. I think the stress of the trip will be too much for her. Please, convince her not to go,” Elaine said, mindful to keep desperation out of her voice. Jackie would never admit it, but they both knew she had more sway with their mom. It’d been that way from the beginning, when Jackie almost died the day she entered the world fifty-eight years ago. It took adulthood and having kids of her own for Elaine to forgive her for that.
Jackie snorted. “We’re all getting older, Elaine. There’s no way she’d not go.” She dunked her tea bag several times with the back of her spoon. Her mouth pressed into a thin line and a frown creased her eyebrows.
Three soggy tea bags rested on the saucer beneath Jackie’s cup. All spent. That’s how Elaine felt. After two hours, neither had budged. If the conversation translated into chess, it would be a stalemate. In their defense, there wasn’t much room for compromise; it’s not like they could half-way go.
Elaine shook her head. “She gets so upset. Besides, the Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point she doesn’t understand much anymore.” She hesitated before adding the root of her concern. “I have a bad feeling about it.”
Jackie smirked. “Another premonition?” She crooked her fingers in air quotes as she said premonition.
“Nothing specific; just a feeling.”
“Look, you know as well as I do she hasn’t forgotten that house.” With the back of her hand, she brushed her graying bangs off her forehead. “I don’t know why, but she has to visit that place on Halloween every year.” Jackie sipped her tea and set her mug back on the paper coaster. “If you won’t go, I’ll take her by myself.”
Elaine recognized the determination in her younger sister’s eyes. Just like Mom’s. “You can’t drive until your seizures are controlled.” She sighed. “Fine. I’ll drive. We’ll leave at noon so we can get there before dark. That house is darn creepy at night.”
Jackie laughed. “That, I’d have to agree with.” She pulled out her wallet. “I got this.” She dropped a ten on the table to cover the muffins and beverages.
After she slid out of the booth, Elaine left another few dollars to compensate for monopolizing the table for so long.
Ashley stared at the red numbers projected onto her wall by her bedside alarm clock: 11:58. For two nights now, the phone rang at precisely 12:15. Each time she answered, there had been a pause and then the connection broke. Intrigued by the timing (not many people call after midnight) and the origin of the call (The Morrow House, an assisted living facility) she anticipated the shrill staccato that would disturb the gentle snoring of her beagle, Elvis.
As if sensing the internal restlessness of his motionless companion, Elvis, curled at her feet, raised his head and gave her a tilted head glance.
“Come here, boy,” she whispered. That was enough to convince him to bathe her face in slobbery kisses before collapsing in her arms; his exposed underside the not-so-subtle invitation to rub his belly. She didn’t know the precise moment when she became lonely enough to look forward to a late-night hang up call, but she suspected it may have been when the door clicked behind Brent as he carried the last of his belongings to his Chevy Blazer. The thought had crossed her mind to beg him to stay, but as much as she wanted to, she could sense he wanted to leave more. So she let him go.
Six years together disappeared in two carloads. For the first few months, Ashley expected him to come back, realizing the error in his choice. Now, going on the fifth month, with divorce papers on her nightstand waiting on her signature, she’d learned that setting one free with the notion he’d return was just foolish hope harbored by the naiveté of a romantic heart.
She’d never make that mistake again.
The sharp ring of the phone cut through the silence, startling Ashley. Elvis barely raised his head.
“I know you’re there. Please talk to me.” She detected two shallow, raspy breaths that made her question her sanity. I’m asking for trouble.
“Edith. Is that you?” A man asked.
Ashley let out a surprised gasp. “My middle name is Edith.” She rarely admitted it because, although she was named after her great-grandmother, she found it too old-fashioned. “Who is this?”
“David. They won’t let me come home to you. They say this is home now.”
She remembered driving by The Morrow House and from the outside, it looked like a warm, well-kept building.
“Do they take good care of you?”
He sighed. “I suppose.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “But no one took care of the Colonel like you did.”
“What is your favorite meal?”
“Always turkey dumplings.”
“Oh, I love to make those. Most people use chicken, but turkey adds more flavor.” Without expecting it, she blurted another question. “What about dessert?”
“I don’t get sweets much but if I could sneak another bite of lemon meringue pie…” He paused. “Someone’s coming.”
Before she could answer, the call disconnected. In an instant she knew what she’d do. She had recipes for turkey dumplings and lemon meringue pie, passed down in her family for generations. “We’re going to give David a taste of home,” she said.
Elvis wasn’t impressed. Drool pooled under his loose lips and his eyes twitched beneath closed lids.
She rolled onto her side ran her fingers down his back. It wouldn’t be long before his steady snore would lull her to sleep.
Sophie squeezed through the creaky, half-opened door of the blue line city bus. As coins clinked into the metal fare box, her breath caught. Perfumes, leftover pungent lunches, labor and worn leather boots (all amplified by the latest heat wave) assaulted her. Even after two weeks of this commute, the odor still came as a shock. Every time, it brought back memories of indecision.
“Move behind the yellow line.” The surly driver jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
She stepped across the painted line. Before she could find a seat or even an appropriate place to stand, the bus lurched forward. She stumbled and her satchel slipped off her shoulder, bumping a man on the head.
“Watch it!” He shoved the bag.
She saw him shake her shoulders and then slap her face to make her talk. Her mother wilted like a bouquet of cut roses. Brianne’s reaction had been swift; deadly. Her mother hid the damaged brass lamp and dragged her second husband’s body to the basement until she could figure out what to do with him. The smell became overpowering.
“Sorry.” She reached for the smudged chrome bar overhead. Steadied and easing toward the back, she scanned for an empty space in the crowd of heads. No one made eye contact. The blue collars gravitated to one side of the bus. Across the aisle, the lower-level white collars kept heads bowed, tapping on digital screens.
No one ever noticed her, or suspected her past. After her step-father’s death, a new self emerged- Julia. Memories of past selves toppled in her mind like a bumped chain of dominoes. Dawn… Lynette… Tracee… Anita… Gena… Rochelle. So many fresh starts, but Bri always managed to stain them with the burden of death.
The bus heaved to a stop and more people crowded in behind her.
“May I sit here?”
The man wearing paint-splattered overalls and a ball cap stained with sweat and dirty fingerprints tilted his face to her. “No entiendo,” he mumbled.
Sophie clenched her jaw. It was the same every day, no matter which side of the bus she asked. “Usted tiene dos asientos.” She pointed to the empty seat beside him.
He exhaled a weary sigh. Instead of sliding toward the window, he shuffled into the aisle and gestured for her to sit.
She bit back annoyance and smiled. “Gracias.”
The man slumped beside her with a grunt.
The exchange reminded her of Mexico, which made her think of Jason and the evening he spent with Rochelle on the Ensenada beach. He’d come too close to harming her- closer than anyone. She blamed her vulnerability on the emotions stirred by having recently lost Nate. She’d loved Nate, but couldn’t make him stay. When she returned to the United States two weeks ago, Sophie emerged. Rochelle was sacrificed to Bri as soon as Jason gasped his last breath.
Beside her, the odor of a day spent working outside emanated from the man’s clothing. The air conditioning choked out intermittent spurts of semi-cool air, so she reached up to slide the window open.
“No. Too hot.” The man gestured toward the window.
Sophie dropped her hands to her lap. “Lo siento. No entiendo,” she muttered, turning toward the world outside. She had about 29 minutes before she’d reach her stop. Her seatmate’s leg relaxed and his thigh pressed against hers. She scooted toward the window in an attempt to regain her violated personal space.
As usual, vacant thoughts gave way to remnants of past dreams; shards of glass scattered among her trail of selves. Like a dandelion’s puffy pollen, little by little, those dreams shifted paths and floated away on passing breezes.
Nate. Instead of them clinging to each other, they grew apart. Instead of breakfast in bed on their honeymoon, she rode the blue line home from work. She’d slipped from his loving embrace. Instead of growing grey together, he grew cold beneath her hands. He’d described their emotional separation as the result of passing time and neglect, much like the corrosion of metal in the salty mist of ocean air.
Reflecting upon the endings, beginnings and transitions, Sophie decided she wouldn’t change any of her decisions. The person behind her let out a jarring sneeze. She cringed when spray landed on the back of her neck.
I wish I would’ve taken Nate’s car.
Despite the vague sense she should be overcome with guilt, of all her choices, it was the only thing she regretted.
This is my response to the Speakeasy weekly prompt, which is to write a piece in 750 words or less (mine is near the limit!) using (1) “It was the only thing she regretted.” anywhere in the piece, AND (2) making some kind of reference to the media prompt, the song Over the Valley by Pink Martini. The challenge is open to anyone, so if you want to join in, click the badge below to check out the site!
Some of you who read Lost and Found (my Speakeasy story from last week) may notice this kind of goes with it. It takes place after that story and clues us in a little more on her past. At the moment, I’m not planning on developing this further, but based on past experience, my plans don’t matter too much… if a story wants to be written, it will nag me until I write :)
I’m still in the middle of computer issues, but in the interim I’ve reclaimed our old Vista computer, which had been relegated to the kids for the their computer use. (Is that a form of child abuse?!) Sorry, but this OS is not a shining moment for Microsoft. I’m going to attempt a complete wipe out and reload of my regular computer… wish me luck (I’m gonna need it…)
This story is prompted by the photo below, offered by Emilio Pasquale. Click his name to check out his photography blog (you won’t be disappointed!)
The asphalt seams thumped a steady rhythm as she sped through the dust coagulating in the late-afternoon desert air. Both hands gripped the steering wheel as if it was the only tether saving her from being swallowed by blackness. Part of her feared it might be too late; that the darkness which began as a pin-point deep in her soul had already bloomed into an inky pool that engulfed her heart and slithered through her veins.
Anna Morris hadn’t always been that way. She could remember a righteous childhood where God had smiled upon her. Growing up, she went to church with her parents every Sunday and sometimes Wednesday, clothed in frilly dresses, white ankle socks with ruffles, and patent leather Mary Janes. During middle school and high school, she focused on the likes of Newton, Pascal and Aristotle, rather than the boys in class who managed to distract her friends with their unpolished charms. It was her senior year in high school when the light shifted and shadows crept into her world.
To round out the credentials on her college application, Anna began volunteering at a care home. The first resident she visited was Mabel Pyerstrom. The fragile woman must’ve been no taller than five feet, and weighed about ninety pounds, judging by the small hump tucked under the crisp white linens. Anna could remember the conversation like it happened yesterday, not twenty years ago. Her voice laced with apprehension, she had introduced herself as “Anna.”
“Come, sit by me,” Mabel said, her trembled words both fragile and demanding.
Anna obeyed. Her gaze rested upon the woman’s bony hand, its pale, papery skin marred by sunspots and a road-map of bulging blue veins.
“Age takes prisoners.”
The woman smiled, stacking wrinkles around her cloudy eyes. “We squander our youth, take our blessings for granted and then…” She worked a phlegmy cough that seemed to rattle all the way down to the bottom of her lungs. “And then, it leaves you a wrinkled shell until it finally lets you go.” The skin puckered around her lips as she spoke.
Anna cringed. She didn’t know what to say; she couldn’t argue against the cruelty of time. “W-would you like me to read to you?” She pulled Wizard of Oz from her tote bag.
Mabel turned toward her voice. “Ah, been a long time. Lost my sight some twenty years ago.”
“I’m sorry. It must be awful to live in darkness.”
“I said nothing of darkness. Just see different things, that’s all.”
Anna felt her cheeks flush. Thankful the woman couldn’t see, she ventured, “I-I don’t know what you mean.”
Mabel laughed. The rasp morphed into another cough.
A shudder ran through Anna’s body, ending at her curled toes. For a moment she wondered if the volunteer hours were worth it. Surely her grades alone could carry her into college. She contemplated leaving but stayed seated next to Mabel’s bed while the commingled odors of meatloaf, soiled linens, bleach and age taunted her gag reflex.
Mabel tapped the bed with her fingers. “Can you just hold my hand?”
Anna hesitated before closing the book and slipping it back into her bag. She reached for Mabel’s hand and gasped when the ice-cold skin pressed against her own sweaty palm. The woman clenched with surprising strength. As Anna’s gaze studied the contrast of Mabel’s pale wrinkles against her own tanned, smooth skin, she felt a sense of unease creep over her. Anna tried to pull away.
“I see death.”
“Death roams these halls. Watching. Waiting. I can feel it. See it.”
“Okay.” Anna didn’t know what to say.
Mabel cleared her throat and continued in a gravelly voice, “I asked to go. After ninety-four years I’m ready. You know what the bastard said?”
Anna flinched, caught off-guard by the curse and angry tone. “Um, no.”
“Said I needed help over the bridge.”
“What does that mean?”
“A second chance. Said left was wrong. Lucifer left. Right was right… light.”
Anna feared the woman had lost her mind. She opened her mouth to call for a nurse, but words lodged in the back of her throat as if she’d swallowed an apple whole.
Mabel tugged Anna’s hand until her body leaned over the bed, face inches away. The old woman reached her left hand up and ran her fingertips along Anna’s cheek, and then trailed along her jawline. “You’re an angel sent to guide us right in death, Anna Mary Claire Morris.”
Anna gasped and jerked back, knocking over the chair. She’d only given her first name. Again, she couldn’t break the woman’s hold.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Anna.”
We? Panic raged inside her.
The old woman’s breath grew shallower and her chest stilled.
Anna waved her free hand over Mabel’s nose and mouth to check for even the faintest wisp of warm air.
A nurse rushed through the door, glancing at the overturned chair. “What happened?”
“I-I don’t know. She was talking and then she wasn’t” Anna attempted to pry her hand free. “She won’t let go.”
The nurse checked Mabel’s pulse and noted the time of death on her chart. She peered over her glasses. “Are you okay?”
Anna pressed her left palm into her forehead. A blinding light seared through her brain. “Owwwwww!” She moaned as sharp pain started at her forehead and radiated to the back of her neck. It felt like waves of brain freezes timed seconds apart. A minute later, the misery halted, Mabel’s grip released, and Anna fell backwards, stumbling on the overturned chair.
That was the first time it happened.
A semi passed on the left, a whoosh of air rocking the car. Anna jolted into a present resembling the interstate she traveled: not an attraction of its own, rather a means to a final destination. Exhausted after reliving the experience with Mabel, she wondered how accurate the account. Memories were shifty like that. Similar to the greasy mirage shimmering on sunbaked blacktop before disappearing upon approach, memories tended to change shape over time.