Thursday, March 29, 2012

After he failed to wake up

she slept with the sock, made of softest, bluest cotton, small enough to slide on her thumb. On the 390th day, her husband unfurled her fingers. Enough, he said, and took the sock, but not before she pressed it to her face, missing the powder smell, the last evidence her son once existed.

Another 53 word story from the good folks at PRESS53, this requiring the use of 'sock' as a launchpad. Peace

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring has Sprung

Tulips burst forth in crimson and orange

Forsythia rims the fence

White and pale pink blossoms adorn the cherry, plum, and pear (Asian and European) trees

Rhubarb sprouts pink from rotted black stumps

Raspberry canes poke through composted leaves

Strawberries send out runners

Grass greens up

Hearts bleed

Asparagus break through cracked earth, purple-tipped

Narcissi scent the air

Eyes itch, nostrils twitch

Ah, Spring.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Mama Loves Birds

Mama loves birds but is afraid to fly. She rests now, secure with her crooked smile, the whorls of her thumb print, her cigarettes and Pep-O-Mint lifesavers, quilts and romances, morphine and x-rays, her hollowed bones. The pilot swoops closer to the leaping waves. The wind shifts, and she takes wing, fire-polished ash.

This little birdie found a home at BLUE FIVE NOTEBOOK. Thank you wunderbar editors Michelle Elvy and Sam Rasnake for publishing my words. Peace...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Seven Lines for Luck

The prolific TONY NOLAND tagged me in a fun lucky seven post. Here are the rules, which I copied from Tony's post:

1. Go to page 77 in your current manuscript
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next seven lines as they are - no cheating
4. Tag 7 other authors (Done on Facebook)

Here's my 7 lucky lines, from CLOSER TO NORMAL, my completed novel currently making the rounds.

The night before she died, an odd, sad noise had woken me, Pumpkin meowing to come in. When I snuck from bed, the cat lay curled outside my door, asleep. From downstairs, my father’s voice soothed, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow, darling, I promise.” I remember wondering what would happen the next day, what promise he was making to Mom. I crept back to bed, too excited to sleep – tomorrow Mom would be better.

But the next morning she wasn’t better. Daddy tucked pink linens around her wasted body.

It's fun to follow the meme, get a few tantalizing tidbits of folks' longer works.

Thanks for tagging me, Tony! off to find my seven 'victims'! Peace...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Are You a Woman?

Or do you love one?

If so, please remember to get yourself checked for breast, cervical, and endometrial cancer. Sure, it's no fun to get poked and prodded, but getting a pap smear at least every three years if you are between the ages of 21 and 65 is no biggie. Nor is an annual mammogram once you hit forty.

This post inspired by two things: new screening guidelines for the three most common cancers in women, and my own personal medical scare over the past two weeks. I neglected to my own cervical screening (5 years!) and suffered two weeks of intense anxiety. The results came back today--and I got lucky.

Do yourself a favor: if you are a woman, remember to put your health first. If you love a woman--your wife, your mother, sister, daughter--remind her to get screened.


Thursday, March 15, 2012


Every morning, after coffee that did not warm her, toast she did not taste, Lucille pulled on her coat and walked to the cemetery. Today she bought pink tea roses and let the vendor keep the change. Snow dusted the grave. She fingered the pills, placed the last flowers before the tiny headstone.

A very micro flash for the weekly Press53 Pokrompt.

Inspired by LAST FLOWERS, sung by the incomparable Thom Yorke of Radiohead.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ruminations on Approaching Two Score and Ten

I miss being younger. Yes, I miss my body behaving, my mind facile and witty, my skin supple, my hair wavy, my silhouette an hour glass. But most of all, I miss the anything-is-possible, world-is-my-oyster, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar sensibility that plagues all young people.

I miss wanting to jump in a car with friends and supplies--Doritos, wine, REM in the tape-deck, twenty bucks--and driving north, south, west, anywhere, nowhere. I miss talking to strangers. I miss wandering large cities alone, going to hear music in bars, dancing at parties, without fear, without anxiety, without worry of what might happen while I am away.

But the more I have plunged into life, the more I have seen the hurts it inflicts. I have children now; I have to protect them, I have to keep me safe. For who will watch over them when they nibble on that oyster?

I am approaching that time in life when I think of mortality, not if, but when. And how. And I miss the innocence of not knowing or caring about the end of this life. Peace...

Thursday, March 08, 2012


The ladder leading to the attic was pulled down—she never even realized they had an attic. Attics were for treasures, for keeping a mother’s memories safe. After two weeks of picking up spent syringes and pulling out rusty cans from the first two floors, Annie needed to believe a family once lived here. But the path to the third floor landing seemed miles away, the black opening from which the ladder hung impossibly far. Graffiti stretched up the stairway walls, wounds spray painted in red and black. Annie needed to make the stairway safe; she was afraid of falling, of hurting the baby, of lying injured and no one knowing.

At first, clearing the second floor by herself seemed an impossible task. She wearied easily, the baby lying in her like a weight. She would rest, hands settled on her lower back, at the foot of the broken stairs, panic growing in her bigger than the gaping holes between treads, sharper than the railing ripped from the wall. Every time she saw the angry words, Annie scrawled on the wall, she felt slapped. She considered leaving, returning to Pennsylvania and her mother, but that would be admitting defeat. Besides, she had invested in this place—this was her home. Who cared if the investment amounted to a dollar, cheaper than a cup of coffee, cheaper than a diaper? When she looked around her, at the railing post of turned cherry, the threshold made of marble, the intricate carved molding, she felt the tug of the house’s beauty and potential under layers of dirt and neglect. “Good bones,” Todd had said the day they passed the papers committing them to the city’s urban renewal contract. “A diamond in the rough.”

But in less than two weeks, scared off by the gunshots at night and the fires flickering from the neighboring houses, Todd left, taking his Volvo, books, and clichés with him. With Todd gone Annie felt paralyzed, afraid to venture beyond the first floor of the ramshackle row-house. For a week she wandered from kitchen to sitting room to the dining room they had made up into a bedroom, crying. When her tears exhausted her, she flopped onto the mattress. The baby kicked, hard in the lower ribs, punishing, as if their predicament was Annie’s fault, not Todd’s. She had loved sleeping in Todd’s arms at night, hearing the soft tinkle of crystal above her when cool drafts moved through the house. She imagined them ghosts of prior owners, watching them, encouraging them to return the foreclosed home to its former life. Now the mattress served as a cairn memorializing her aloneness. The memory of Todd prodded her back to her chores, first from sadness but later, as the days passed, from a thin, hard anger that fueled her work.

The Sunday following Todd’s abandonment, Annie walked the two blocks to the Ace Hardware and bought a hammer, a saw, and a half-pound of ten penny nails. She did not pass anyone on the sidewalk, coming or going. Two blocks of houses, brick and Formstone, boarded up, windows blindfolded with do not enter signs, faced the reservoir. Weeping willows greened the edge of the water, the strange color of new leaves Annie always thought of as a softer chartreuse. Seeing the green made her think of nourishment, of herself and the baby. Once she cleared her way to the second floor, she would have that view, too.

But the second floor rooms were small and dark and smelled of dirty laundry. Char and mildew streaked the peeling wall-paper. Plaster covered the two south-facing windows. Annie swallowed her dismay and looked up the back staircase to the top floor. The ladder beckoned. Annie began clearing debris, tumbling bags of trash down the stairs to the foyer. She bought paint the color of garnet. At night, her bones aching, she painted over the ugly words as far as she could reach. If she stood quiet enough, she felt the cool of air rushing down, the whir of it whistling through a cracked window.

She nailed down the curling floorboards and covered the holes with plywood salvaged from the refuse heaped in the basement. When she secured the top two steps, she stood on the third-floor landing. Rose-colored paper covered the third floor walls. Two rooms, with closets smaller than the Volvo’s trunk, and a full bath with a claw-foot tub. Rust stained the porcelain, and when Annie turned on the water, the faucet hiccupped before spitting out brown water. In the farthest room, covered with cobwebs, a doll’s cradle in the corner, a lavender set of drawers. Light streamed through the south-facing window and, in the distance, Annie saw the pillows of green. This will be the baby’s room, Annie thought.

She returned to the landing. The ladder hung above her. For an instant she wished Todd was beside her, to share in this moment of discovery. She did not know what the attic contained, but she hoped it held secrets of a kinder kind: books and letters, old toys, moth-balled clothes, or even nothing but air. A family lived here once, she was certain, and that knowledge felt enough to tether her. The baby kicked, a quiet ripple like a river flowing through her belly, and Annie pulled on the bottom rung.

My classmate Jackie wrote the first line of this story--and I took it from there. A great way to storm your dormant muse. Peace...

Monday, March 05, 2012

10,000 Hours (or Talent + Persistence = Success)

In OUTLIERS, Malcolm Gladwell makes the assertion that to become 'good' at something takes practice. About 10,000 hours worth of dedication. That boils down to a year and another month or two of full-time effort: no sleeping, no eating, no bathroom breaks. I don't know about you, but on good days (and today was not one of them) I get in maybe one hour of writing time. So it should take me another 21 years to get 'good' at writing.

I wonder if I will still be able to form a word by then.

Of course, I read--a lot--and think about my writing--a lot. And I guess all that down time does make a difference, because it sems easier to sit down and fill a blank page than it did a year ago, and infinitely easier than five years ago.

Practice may not make perfect, but it can make life less painful. This was made clear to me this weekend when my son, almost 13, struggled to come up with a 'protest song' for his Language Arts class. It took him a long time--and a lot of anguish--to even figure out what he wanted to sing about. A Saturday night party where he witnessed some arrogant, almost bullying behavior, gave him the theme. He must have slept on it because by 10 am Sunday morning he had a decent draft of the lyrics down.

Watching my son tussle with his muse made me realize how easy it is to take for granted the accumulated benefit of constant practice. Talent is a rare commodity, and a prized one, but in today's market even the most talented have a tough time finding homes for their creative endeavors. It is the butt-in-chair that makes a creative inkling tangible, and maybe even bring success, however we measure it.


Thursday, March 01, 2012

7 or 8 Things I Know About Him

The Father's Guns
It turned out his father owned two guns, a rifle and a pistol. The rifle was for putting food on the table, and the pistol for keeping humans and other varmints off the nine-hundred acres sowed with wheat and soybean and later, when the market tumbled, less than cattle-grade corn. The father showed all three sons how to shoot the rifle, but of the three, only the youngest, Jeremiah, took to hunting. Michael, the eldest, was a gangly, quiet kid who preferred to ride his horse through the fields. Martin, the middle son, cringed when a turkey or deer came into view, and became a vegetarian and a minister. When he was six, Jeremiah, shot his father's hunting rifle and thought it the biggest gun in South Dakota; years later, he would find it insufficient for elk, terrorists, and other big game.

All three sons forgot about the pistol, although they knew it was kept in a box with a combination lock for safe-keeping. The mother did not forget about the pistol.

The Bird
When he was 17, Jeremiah packed his crossbow and arrows and took Sheila up to the foothills that curved down to the edge of the farm. They made camp in an old deer blind, padding the ground with his sleeping bag and the woven wool blanket her mother had made, and brought enough food and drink to keep them comfortable for a day or so.

They waited for the turkey to strut through their campsite—they had seen the fine bird pass through twice before—but by late morning they knew they would not see the Tom until dusk, if they were lucky. He kissed Sheila, and then unbuttoned her jeans and stroked her lower stomach before burying himself between her thighs. When the thin wail of sirens from across the fields found them, they paused. Clouds of yellow dust billowed from the winter wheat field where Michael had been harvesting. Sheila whispered, maybe we should go back, and he looked at the dust, then at her lips red as just-plucked cherries, and pulled her back down into their nest, laughing.

The Bread
It was only a slice of bread, but after ten days of field rations and the thin unleavened nan-e bread the Afghans ate, it tasted the way Jeremiah imagined manna might taste. He sat on the edge of rocky outcropping the hour before patrol began, the slice cupped in his palms. The smell of it brought him back to the fields, the grain rippling silver in what little breeze the summer could muster. To Sheila patting small wheat tortillas and frying them in the pan, to his brother's warm house smelling of yeast and rye and cardamom. He thought of Maryam then, of the way she chewed the wooden end of the brush when contemplating the next strokes of a painting, and his brother Martin sitting in his armchair watching him teach Josh power chords on the guitar, and for the first time since he arrived in Afghanistan, Jeremiah felt the space in his chest swell.

He tore off a small piece of the still-warm bread and let it dissolve in his mouth. The sun hovered two inches above the mountain ridge. Soon, he thought, I will hunt in the dark. He ate half the slice like that, tiny pieces of white dropped on his tongue, then wrapped the other half in a piece of plastic to eat the next morning.

First Criticism
Two weeks after birth, lying in the bassinet. “He disturbs me,” the father said to the mother. “His eyes follow every little thing that moves, even me. Why can't he just sleep like our other two boys did?”

Listening In
“There is nothing we could do,” the man in white said. “Nothing anyone could do. It is the way of God and nature--those unprepared to live must make way for the strong.” But the doctor let her hold the gray infant swaddled in pink flannel, and her sobs filled the hospital.

After Sheila left. “The only thing I'm good at is hunting.”

For years, when he dreamt of sex, he dreamt it was Maryam who lay beside him. In his dreams she came to him, arms open, supplicant and soft, her pink robe slipping from her left shoulder. She was like falling into a nest of eider down. Often in his sleep, while dreaming this dream or even thinking about Maryam, he would turn to Sheila and she would curve into him, unknowing, and they would make sleepy love.

In the morning when he awoke, he felt cleansed and confident, but as the day wore on and he remembered the way he held Maryam, the way she held him, he felt dirty for coveting his brother's wife.

When he heard the click beneath him, so quiet and unassuming, he was not sure, so he froze. But then through his night vision goggles he saw the ridges, the faint outline of the IED. You goddamn idiot, he thought.

He tried not to tremble from the cold, the odd sensation growing hard in his gut. The WinMag grew heavy on his shoulder, digging a groove, and he thought for a moment whether to turn it around, place the muzzle in his mouth, and pull, for that was a better, cleaner alternative.

But there was hope, always hope. When he did not return by daylight, base camp would search for him. Six hours he could stand stock still. Six hours he could wait.

The sky tilted, carrying the stars with it. His breath danced around him like a tired ghost in the frigid night air. When he thought he could not stand still another instant, the edge of the sky melted crimson into the mountain ridge. He closed his eyes, let the sun warm his face, and thought of Sheila working the clay, of Maryam standing by the window, the crunch of gravel as the car brought him closer, the sheer curtain hiding her face. He thought of the bread in his pocket, the way the soft crumbs dissolved in his mouth.


I love my Creative Writing Class at Hopkins. Every week we have a prompt to respond to, focusing on some facet of writing: plot, narrative, point-of-view. This story focuses on characterization. And the prompt? A huge nod to Michael Ondaatje, whose prose poem 7 or 8 Things I Know About Her (A Stolen Biography) served as an armature to dig deeper into the character of Jeremiah Anselm--in love with his brother's wife, lover to a Lakota potter, American Army sniper, and a player in THE MINISTER'S WIFE, my novel-in-progress. Peace...