Hasty Words

The sisters sit alone in the living room, their age-bent backs to each other. The windows are open but even the crickets and cicadas have stopped their chatter, afraid of attracting the wrath of the women inside. The guests have left unnoticed, sneaking away into the night, one of them chastised almost to tears for bringing up the decades old feud.  “I didn’t know!” she cries to her companions, “Why didn’t you warn me?”

The sisters have hacked and slashed at each other for hours now, their mouths dry and throats raw from prolonged discussion. They’ve revisited every battle except one.  The first one.  There is only the last part of the argument to get through now.  But who will begin?

The elder sister lost the most in the event, the details of which are fuzzy nearly fifty years later. But she recalls her patient, thoughtful course of action, all her careful plans, ruined by her sister’s hasty derailment.

The younger sister never apologized.  Her decision to ‘derail’ her sisters hopes, while made in haste, she never regretted.

The elder opens her mouth, tired, wanting to sleep, about to speak the final words and end the argument, the same way it ended so many times before, when the younger holds up a hand.

“You were twenty and beautiful,” the younger says, in a hoarse whisper. “Your life was like a perfect fairy tale, and you were engaged to your Prince Charming.”

The elder turns to face her sister.  This is something new.

“But you teased him so mercilessly. He banged through the screen door that last night, angry, frustrated.  I don’t think he saw me at first, curled up on the porch swing, he started to light a cigarette and we both heard you laugh. It was a cruel laugh.”

The younger’s eyes meet her sister’s briefly. “I saw his face in the light of his match. I saw the anger change to rage.  It scared me.  No.  No, scared is not right.  The look on his face changed something in me.  I changed.  He dropped the match and the cigarette, I saw his hands turn into fists, and he took a step to the door.  I jumped into his path.  I didn’t think, I just acted. Pure instinct. I acted without all the careful consideration that you pride yourself on, sister.”  The last word flecks her lips with spittle.

“He certainty didn’t think when he yanked me by the hair and threw me to the ground.  The back of my head hit the corner of the swing, not enough to bleed, but it dazed me for a moment.  He took another step towards the door, and I think I grabbed his ankle, I’m not sure. He kicked at or stomped on my hand. He broke three of my fingers. I told our mother I fell off the porch. I was sixteen and clumsy.”

The elder sister folds her hands tightly in her lap to stop their trembling.  Her memories shift in her mind and come into focus.  The secret sense of relief she felt when he called off the engagement resurges.

“I held on,” the younger continues, “I could not let him enter the house.  Somehow I knew that he would never really hurt me.  He didn’t care enough about me to go that far.  But you… I knew that if you went on with your plan, that if you married this man with all his wealth and beauty, that somehow, he would kill you.  I knew it in the instant he heard your laugh.”

“There was no time to think it through.  I told him, while I lie there on the porch clutching his leg, I told him I would scream.  I told him I would tell the world he tried to rape me.  I told him to leave, to call off the engagement.  I held my mangled hand in the light from the door and told him to never come back.”

The elder sister clears her throat, “He told me you said I wasn’t a virgin. Why…” The question, asked a hundred times before, has to change now, “Why did he say that?”

The younger sister hears the change and meet’s the other’s eyes, holding steady. “He said he needed a reason to end it.  I told him to blame me.”

“You could have told me the truth.”

“You wouldn’t have believed me.”

The elder sits in silence, absorbing the new truths.

Eventually, she sighs and rises slowly, carefully from her chair. Her younger sister stands as well, and they help each other towards the back of the house.

Before they separate, the elder touches the younger lightly on the cheek. “It is good to know,” she says.

The crickets and cicadas resume their chorus. The argument is over.  It is time for bed.

***

Learn to Play

English: An Atari 2600 four-switch "wood ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The kids are at school, the dishes done, and the laundry started.  She has no more excuses.  She must sit down on the floor, now, in front of the TV, now, turn on the XBox, now, and learn to play.

She hates video games.  She’s hated them all her life.  From the moment her parents gifted her brothers their first Atari console, she’s thought of video games as the worst waste of time.  There were so many more interesting things to do.  As a kid she was always outside, running and playing and riding bikes.  On rainy days, she liked to play house and school or games like trivia pursuit or do crossword puzzles.

It never mattered, before now, that she never got into gaming  the way her brothers did.  No one minded, before now, that she didn’t know the difference between a side-scroller, a first-person shooter or a role-playing game.

It mattered now.

Now she had kids, and her kids were gamers.

In her mind, in her world, a good parent was an involved parent.  A good parent went to every soccer game, attended every recital. A good parent knew what was in the books her children read, because she’d read them.  She knew the TV shows they liked because she watched with them.  She knew how to play the games they liked, because she’d played them.

This month, the favorite game is on the Xbox, and it is a side-scroller. The kids finished level three last night before bed, and when they get home from school they will start level four.  When they get stuck, they must turn to her for help, not the internet, not a friend, her.

She sits in front of the TV, turns on the XBox and logs into the game.  With her laptop beside her, open to a cheat website, she takes the controller in her hands and learns how to complete level four.

***

One Bite

The New Orleans "Picayune" mascot fr...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh how they stare. They know I don’t belong here, but they know why I’ve come.

A once in a lifetime trip. I’ve spent all of my savings and borrowed a fortune to get here. All for this one experience. This one event. This one meal.

The maître d’ leads me to a table and a waiter produces a chair from somewhere. I would have been fine standing but I am not surprised a galaxy-renowned establishment such as this can handle tourists.

The menu is extensive but I can’t read it. I don’t know any of the words. I look up at the waiter, helpless confusion on my face. He nods, takes the menu, and floats away.

I sit there and try to ignore the looks of the other patrons. They lounge on their hover chairs and mumble to each other. A family of three surround a table nearby.  I know what they are saying, although I can not hear the words.

“Why bother?” asks the son, “She’ll only eat two mouthfuls and then she’ll be full.”

“That poor skinny thing,” says the mother, “She looks like she’s starving. Don’t they have any food on her planet?”

“All they do is swallow nutro-pills, I wonder if she even knows how to chew,” the father responds.

Finally the waiter returns with a huge platter of food. The smells are overwhelming. I take the utensil, the one called a spoon, and hold it like I practiced. The waiter is floating at my elbow and I look up at him. He suggests I try the one he calls ‘spinachsouffle.’ I scoop a small amount onto my spoon and bring it to my mouth.

The combination of texture and flavor explodes on my tongue. It is, simply, orgasmic.

In that moment I know that all the expense, all the time, all the disdainful stares, all of it was worth it. And I would suffer through it again for the pleasure of that one bite.

Collect Call

phone booth
 (Photo credit: Montauk Beach)

He calls from a payphone. “I’m going to the woods,” he says.

I try, “Oh? Um. Yeah?” Then, because I can’t stop myself, “Why?”

“Goddammit!” He explodes at me, “Because it’s all I can f-ing do right now! Ok?”

Quickly, “Yes! Yes, OK.” I take a deep breath. “But just think, you could come here?” He needs to be reminded of choices.

“Yeah, your husband would love that.”

The two men in my life, my engineer husband, with his checklists and fail safes and backups for the backup plan, verses my brother, the artist.

My husband: “If he’s an artist, show me his work. Show me one thing he’s created. Just one.”

I respond with my brother’s words: “Art isn’t quantifiable.”

“Do you have food?” I ask my little brother, “Water, a tent, matches? A shovel? Pliers?”

“Pliers? Really?” He laughs, a low chuckle that flows down my spine like warm water. He knows the joke was contrived, but he laughs anyway. Things aren’t as bad as they seem.

“I’ve got it covered,” He says. This isn’t the first time he’s pulled a Thoreau.

I want to cry. But instead I say, “It’s already fall.” My voice sounds choked. “I wish you’d get a cell phone.”

“You know those things radiate cancer.”

I hold in my sigh. I don’t want to end on an argument. “I love you, Please be careful.”

“I will.”

I hear the clunk of the heavy old handset hitting something, but the connection doesn’t end. Perhaps the bygone pay phone is broken after all. I hear the squeal of the phone booth door and then the sounds of shoes hitting pavement, a brisk walk that quickly fades away.

Long minutes later, I still have the phone to my ear, absorbing the sounds of the occasional passing car and what might be an hooting owl, when my husband enters the kitchen. “Who is it?” he mouths silently. Then he points to the stove. The pasta water is boiling over.

I touch the end call button. “Nothing. Silence,” I say, turning down the flames.

Mad Molly

I’m eight, I think, maybe nine, when Mad Molly whispers in my ear, “The tooth fairy is a lie.”

I lean away from her. Her breath smells of garlic and eggs. My tongue probes the new space between my teeth. I taste blood. In my hand I hold my tooth, white in a tiny puddle of red, not as small as the last one.

“Did you hear what I said?” Her face changes, the skin around her eyes tightens.

I nod my head. I don’t want to move my tongue away from the space. I can feel a roughness in my gum. The new tooth? It is here already?

“Well?” She is angry now but I still can’t move my tongue away.

Mad Molly wants my pain. Her madness feeds on blood and sorrow, spilled milk, broken dishes, and skinned knees. I don’t have anything for her. I am distracted by the sensation in my mouth. I stare blankly at her twisted face, working my tongue in and around the new space, getting used to the change.

She snorts loudly and shuffles away.

Do I care that the tooth fairy is a lie? Will the truth or lie of the tooth fairy’s existence change the reality of the loss of the tooth or the gain of the dime? Probably not.

I cup my hand around the loss and watch Mad Molly disappear. My mother approaches. I show her the tooth. She gasps and smiles and hugs me tight.

“Another one? You are growing up so quickly,” she says. There are tears in her eyes.

“Mommy?” I ask, “Is Mad Molly real?”

“Yes, darling,” she laughs, “What an odd question!” She glances at the tooth in my hand, then over her shoulder. “Don’t listen to her, she’s a sad old lady, full of venom and spite.” She kneels and looks up at my face. Her eyes look like mine in the mirror.

“Did she say something to upset you?”

I pause, probing the space and thinking of the thing I have lost.

“No, mommy,” I say.

“Good,” she says, hugging me again. “Let’s go wash that tooth for the tooth fairy.”

*

Fine Pancakes

pancakes
pancakes (Photo credit: Shoot into the Sun)

The Old Man insisted on calling her Marcy. Marissa wasn’t in a position to argue with him.

“I’m just reminding you, again sir, that in order to arrive at the signing on time, we need to leave in,” She glanced at the cell phone in her hand, “three minutes.”

He just kept on smiling and forked another pancake onto his plate.

“Marcy, relax. Have a pancake.  They’re delicious.” He winked at the cook who blushed.

The Old Man sat at the kitchen table in the tiny B&B he’d spontaneously chosen – instead of the fancy hotel the publishing house paid for. The cook/owner bent over backwards for the famous author, but Marissa had never seen her boss so angry.

You can’t just give in to the Old Man’s every whim! You’re his handler, Handle him!

“We don’t have time, sir.”

“Marcy, sit!” The old man barked, “You’re hovering like a mother hen.”

The commanding tone took her by surprise and she sat without thinking. He took her empty plate, put a pancake on it, and put it in front of her.

“Eat!” he said.

“I don’t eat carbs,” she said, cringing at the whine she heard in her own voice. The Old Man made her feel like a teenager despite her twenty years of experience in the book selling industry.

The Old Man snorted. “Marcy, you are an idiot.”

She’d been called an idiot and worse before. But for some reason, this client got to her.

No, I’m not, sir,” she snapped. “You are a rich old man used to getting your own way and you don’t care that your actions, or rather lack of action, will make me suffer.”

“How will my enjoyment of these fine pancakes make you suffer, exactly?” He said, still smiling.

She glanced at her phone where the messages from her boss were already piling up. “If we are late, again, I will get into trouble, again, with my boss, with the signing planners, and with your fans.”

He laughed and said, “I will tell them it was my fault.” He waved his fork in the air, a benevolent wizard with a magic wand.

Marissa shook her head. “I will still be blamed. Because you cannot be blamed.”

The old man sighed around his smile and looked down at his plate, “I am sorry for your suffering.” He punctured another piece of pancake, “But I am going to enjoy these pancakes.”

He looked back up at her, a hard glint in his watery blue eyes. “I am very old. These might be the last pancakes I ever have. We will leave when I feel it is time to leave. They will wait. The world will not end if I am late.  In fact, I might, if I feel like it, take a stroll through that lovely garden down there,” he gestured through the window behind Marissa, “and skip the signing altogether.”

He put the forkful of pancake in his mouth.

Marissa turned to look out the window. She hadn’t noticed the garden. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Like a picture from a fairy tale, with flowers, miniature trees, and a winding path of white gravel. She felt relaxation seeping into her bones just by looking down at it.

It would be nice to take a stroll, to skip the signing. He was right, the world wouldn’t end. She could picture herself sitting there, enjoying the sun. But she knew what came after that. Boredom. She didn’t like to vacation on the beach. She didn’t like to wander.

The stress of work made her feel alive, needed, and useful. She lived alone, her job was her life, and she liked her life.

She stood and left the kitchen. While she waited, she called her boss and let the other woman vent her frustration with the Old Man on a patient ear.

Eventually the Old Man appeared, hat in hand, ready to go. Marissa took his arm and helped him to the waiting limo, but before closing the door on his smile, she said, “We are real. We do exist. We think and feel and breathe in and out.”

He looked at her, his smile questioning now.

“Just in case you forgot.”

The smile faltered.

“I enjoy schedules and plans,” she said.  “I like planning things out ahead of time.  I get tremendous satisfaction out of checking items off a list.  This does not mean that I am living my life wrong.”

The words came out quickly – she knew the driver was anxious to depart, and she respected his anxiety.

“There is no wrong or right way to live a life.”

She started to close the door, then stopped and said, “And at your age, you really ought to know better.”

*

Daily Prompt: Comfort Zone – What are you more comfortable with — routine and planning, or laissez-faire spontaneity?

Something More

The question comes from behind me, an unexpected place.

“What do you want?” she asks again.

The question hits my right shoulder, and bounces off my head. I have been waiting for this question my entire life, but the pain of it shocks me into silence.

I turn to see a woman there, asking a child to make a decision. She is surprisingly calm, patent, waiting for her son to answer.

The boy shakes his head, looking up at the sign, “I don’t know.” His mother nods, and takes him by the hand, “let’s wait over here until you are ready.” She waves at the people behind her to go ahead.

But she and her son are not the cause of the delay, and I cannot step out of line, I’ve already started my order. I go back to the basics. I breathe in and out. I listen to my heart beating. After a century of seconds, I am calm. I finish reciting my order to the pimply boy with the paper hat and move away. Nobody yells at me.

The airport is quiet today, not like last week or the week before, when more obnoxious children and mothers, finishing their summer holidays, yelled and screamed about wants and needs. “Just make a decision!” Screeches echoing off vaulted ceilings decorated with model planes that never fly away from home and never crash.

The boy decides. The mother’s kindness infects those around her, who gladly let her and her child back in line. The mother asked, the boy answered, the mother provided.

The question still hurts and I rub at the sore spot, trying to smooth it away.