At first glance, I would have described her smile as mysterious or haunting, but it was her eyes that made me think that. They were tunnels of ice-blue light ringed in shadow, arresting and unsettling in the way they gauged the depth and breadth of my soul. They were eyes that ferreted out pretenses and unearthed jealously-kept secrets.
Her eyes were haunting, yes, but her smile was self-satisfied.
I saw her in the underground subway tunnel, propped against the hand rail. The tunnel was empty, save us, and I had to pass her to catch the late train home. The incongruity of her there, small, alone, and seemingly fragile, slowed my approach. I was far bigger than she. I could have easily dashed her to the ground, broken her into jagged shards, but she raised my hackles and stilled my steps. Every instinct recoiled as if she were a snake or poisonous spider.
A red sign, cut in a saw-blade semicircle, was held above her head:
The words FREE and PLEASE, hastily scribbled in ballpoint pen, had been doubled back on and scribbled over: FREE PLEASE
There was something about the configuration of the words and the emphasis on the first two I didn’t like. A cold finger played down my spine and jangled discordant notes sang along my subconscious.
The woman’s steady gaze held mine as I stood, transfixed.
The one corner of her mouth, quirked just slightly upward, seemed to curl further in amusement. I see you, the smile implied, I know you.
The woman was blond, her hair pulled back into a bun or ponytail in the back; I couldn’t tell. Young. No older than thirty. Attractive in the slight, sickly, wan way of Eastern European models. The longer we stared at each other, the more I began to notice the yellowish-green hue surrounding her right eye. The less that coloring seemed a shadowed hollow. The more it revealed itself the remnants of a healing bruise.
Despite my every nerve clamoring warnings over this encounter, I leaned slightly forward to better take in the shadows of her face. Were the shadows to the right of her nose and along her cheek bruises as well? Were there stains of fingerprints below her right ear, riding her throat?
How could this fragile creature challenge me with that small, patient, curl of the lip? How could she brazenly hold my gaze and mock me with her Mona Lisa smirk? My gaze jerked back up. Her eyes were diamond bores, drilling past a polished marble exterior, deep into my psyche. I could feel them reverberating deeper, growing closer and closer to my darkest core.
I recoiled from the small pastel portrait sketch leaned up against the handrail and fled the tunnel toward the sound of an approaching train. At the platform I flung the catalogue I’d been holding into a nearby wastebasket and wiped that same shaking palm across my sweat-greased face.
The pages rustled open to a page visited most often as hot air rushed into the tunnel. The same delicate, blond Eastern European woman, her face circled in my red Sharpie, seemed to wink as the pages of Alone Angels fluttered wildly. I’d ripped off the mailing address from the front of the catalogue, but I’d missed my title and first name in my haste. ‘Dr. Haart’ flashed on the front.
Flutter. She winked. Flutter. Dr. Haart. Flutter. She winked. Flutter. Dr. Haart.
The train screeched to a stop and I, Dr. Haart Jekyll, fled into it, away from the accusatory stare and knowing smile of my chosen bride.
I wrote this in response to a post in Art Abandonment, a Facebook group I belong to. It was shared from another Facebook group called Weird Second Hand Finds that just need to be shared.
Maybe I haven’t written in a while and I needed to lance that growing boil or maybe this subject’s face just spoke to me, but the story came almost fully realized as soon as I saw it.
I pay for this account and haven’t written a god-blessed thing in, let me just check my calendar . . . . forever.
So I’m posting some creative thing I’ve done lately so I don’t feel like a money-wasting failure.
I saw a writer friend post their results of this test and had to find out for myself who I write like. I typed out about a paragraph of text about a man getting off a train in an obvious state of both trepidation and expectation about a meeting. I think the use of ‘train’ had something to do with the result because . . .
DISCLAIMER: I’ve done this test before, years ago, and got Stephen King. On any given day, depending on what I’m writing about and mood, I believe we can get any number of results.
And, yet, I”m thrilled. 😉
Hark the frozen words,
held to Winter’s frigid breast,
whispering Spring’s thaw.
A carpet of leaves
Limned with late November frost:
This was written in 2016 as a prompt challenge. The first sentence is the prompt. And, in case you want to hear what ran through my mind (in a loop) while writing the story, it was this:
Not the Words of One Who Kneels
“I’m going to disappoint you. But you know that already.” I winked, flashed my winning smile, and finalized the contract with a flourish. The weight of the silver pen gouged the paper as I dotted the ‘i’ in Iscariot. It was clearly a quality writing implement. I slipped it into my suit pocket, leaned across the desk and extended my hand. “I appreciate the opportunity and am really looking forward to working with everyone.”
That was then, and this is now.
Looking back, I see I wasn’t the best fit for my team, but working with them also wasn’t as difficult as I’d originally anticipated. In any group, there will be some back-biting – some head-butting. There was squabbling over who was most loyal, the most dedicated. You can’t work and travel with the same people without tempers flaring now and then. And, at the end of the day, everyone in the group was a hundred percent behind the product. The marketing was flawless because they truly believed in it.
Jaded as I can be, so did I.
The boss’ son was my immediate supervisor. That can be a real headache too, but this guy was cool. Okay, maybe a little over-earnest and definitely too idealistic. More “crunchy granola” than I usually care for. But likeable, definitely likeable. And don’t get me wrong, he had some impressive leadership qualities. We would have followed him anywhere.
This part is going to sound ungrateful, and I don’t mean it to be, but our budget was laughable. As treasurer, I happen to know this company’s resources are off the charts. Which is why it rubbed me the wrong way we weren’t treated better.
Everything from the transportation to the meals and accommodations was handled poorly. We operated on a shoestring budget. Less than a shoestring. It wasn’t just maddening, it was disrespectful.
I say this because our project was huge—a game changer. When so much hung in the balance, to be treated like that was insulting. And I want to make it clear that, at heart, I’m a humble man. When I say my part in this project was pivotal, I’m not bragging, just stating fact.
They knew my potential when they hired me. You’d think, based on that, they’d have taken the time to listen to some new ideas I had. Ideas about extending the availability of the product, raising its visibility beyond the regional level.
You can imagine my frustration when my calls to corporate were systematically ignored.
They only saw potential in a shock and awe approach. Saturate a small market with a limited edition release, then pull it and let word and demand spread before a second release. In a way, it felt like the company had set us all up for failure. Like they were cheating the consumer.
In the end, I did what I was hired to do. I signed the contract, after all. Judas Iscariot is nothing if not a man of his word.
I’m not with that company anymore. People assume I went to work for the rival, but I didn’t. Despite the bad press I got, I’m a man of honor. When I quit, I took myself completely out of the workforce.
I’m in limbo, so to speak—and to tell you the truth, after all I went through, I don’t have the heart for corporate life anymore.
What sticks with me, though—what I can’t get past—is how my supervisor got screwed in all this. Yes, we were hired to be the fall guys for this debacle, but it was his father who sent down the order. His father who set it all in motion.
Even now, this is what sticks in my craw. I ask you, how can a Father do that to his Son?
A writing group challenge from January of 2016. There were a series of Photoshopped photos offered. I chose the one above and wrote a story about it.
Over The Threshold
I met Sue on the playground when I was in second grade. People might argue that children don’t understand love, but I was smitten at first sight. She was in first grade and small for her age. She stood on the edge of the group dressed in a pair of hand-me-down overalls with her hair in pigtails and her eyes as big and dark as a fawn’s.
Her father owned the dairy farm that supplied us and a neighboring town with milk and cream. They didn’t get into town much and Sue was shy. I’d never met a stranger and, with some persistence, I got her to talk to me.
All through elementary and middle school, I carried Sue’s books home for her. Sure, I got ribbed by some of my pals, but that didn’t bother me none. Not when I could stand, touching shoulders, and listen to her quietly recount the names of the newborn kittens that climbed over their mother in the warm, afternoon sunlight. I missed games of relievo and stickball to join Sue at the pond and let tadpoles swim in the bowl of our hands. I once suggested we keep them in a jar, but Sue wouldn’t hear of it. They would miss their mothers, she reasoned. On days when we both were set loose from chores, we’d trek across the fields until the grass gave way to sand and the wind grew sharp with salt. We’d laugh into the bright blue sky and throw bread scraps to the gulls.
In high school, everyone knew Sue was my girl. It wasn’t any surprise when we announced at the end of her senior year we were going to marry. Sue helped her father with the farm most days after school, but most nights she owned she’d been working on her wedding dress. Sue could sew so straight and small, people swore it was neater than any machine. I knew she’d be a vision.
The day we stood up together, Sue carried white and pink roses. The white matched the pure brilliance of her dress and the pink matched the blush in her beautiful cheeks. My brother snapped our photo outside the church. In it, Sue’s captured smile was the small, self-contained curve she shared with the public. It was only when we were alone she allowed her demure smiles to bloom into laughter. I was looking forward to getting her alone. To making her laugh and to kissing her smiling mouth.
We couldn’t afford much. I was working for my father in the family’s general store and he said we could have the small space above it if we moved the stock out. It seemed like paradise to us. So did the overnight honeymoon we were taking. It was only to a bed and breakfast a half hour away on the coast, but we were giddy at the idea.
I borrowed my father’s car for the trip. It was old and rusted with piebald tires and an engine that started with a croupy cough. With Sue in it, it was transformed like Cinderella’s coach into something magical. I could barely keep my eyes off of her, she was that radiant.
I could blame the tires and the sand. I could blame Sue’s musical laughter and the flash of her bright smile, but the fact remains that it was my fault. I was too relaxed. I strayed too close to the edge of the road. The front, passenger side tire mired in the soft, sandy shoulder and ripped the wheel from my hand. Before I could react, we were rolling down the embankment.
The sky. Scrub grass. The ocean. They spun outside the car windows in a confusing blur. Sue flew into me and then tumbled past me. I reached for her, but her veil swept across my palm and was gone. When the car hit the water I remember thinking the sound was like a baseball hitting a bat, then my world went dark.
They never found Sue. They think the weight of her dress and veil would have tangled her up and dragged her under. That the current carried her away.
There hasn’t been a night since that I haven’t dreamt of her. Beautiful and ethereal on the ocean floor. Her gown swaying around her. Cupping her hands to allow tiny fish to swim into the bowl of her palms. Waiting patiently for me to carry her over the threshold.
I don’t think she’ll have to wait much longer.
This was written in June of 2016 from prompts I’m hazy about – I think striped shorts or bathrobes might have been the prompt — or perhaps it simply had to include three boys.
The Boys Who Matched
The boys wore open bathrobes and striped shorts. The three of them stood at the prow of our boat, Pam’s Promise, solemn and silent.
Ben, the youngest, stood a head shorter than his brothers. His hair had bleached from mouse brown to blond over the summer. He was as dark as a berry from running through summer days on sturdy legs.
Nate, our middle boy was still growing. He was rawboned, all sharp angles and insatiable hunger. He was a locust swarm at the table and never left it fully sated.
The eldest, Matt, teetered on the precipice of manhood. He had the muscled build of a gymnast and stood taller than me by an inch, now. Matt was our quiet one. For all his physical power, he was a poet and philosopher.
Their mother had loved to dress the boys in matching outfits. Her sturdy Singer machine had buzzed through their infancy and childhood. When they’d been small, they hadn’t cared. One outfit was as good as the next as long as they could ride a bike or climb a tree in it. Once Matt had hit twelve, though, that had changed. He’d stubbornly refused to continue.
It was after the Foster boy had taunted him at a birthday party that things changed. Matt hadn’t yelled or slammed doors to make his point; he’d simply announced he was done with it and then dug in his heels. Matt’s brothers had always taken his cue and had quickly followed suit. They’d begun to grow up — to become individuals.
The bathrobes were a gift from their mother that past Christmas. Her last shopping trip.
All were downy white, but each had the boys’ initials embroidered on them in a different color: Matt’s in navy, Nate’s in hunter green, and Ben’s in maroon. On a whim, I’d bought the shorts from L. L. Bean a few weeks before. I thought Pam would like that.
My own shorts hung low on my hips. I’d lost weight, along with my wife, in the last six months. We’d always talked about dieting together. This hadn’t been the way we’d planned.
The full weight of her rested in the urn seated in the captain’s chair behind me.
At the end, she’d hardly weighed more than the insubstantial ashes inside. The cancer had been a rapacious flame, first burning away the fifteen pounds she lamented she’d gained since our marriage. Then it had greedily consumed the remaining weight of her slight frame along with her spirit and laughter.
I dropped anchor and stepped up to join our boys. The boat rose and fell in gentle waves like the soft lullabies Pam used to sing when she rocked our fretful babies through fevered nights.
When the sun finally broke over the horizon and painted the water orange and red, I unscrewed the lid of the urn. A soft, mournful note sounded in the mouth of the vessel as a breeze caught and stirred her ashes.
Pam had loved the ocean. I had promised her the boat and I had promised her we’d grow old sailing it together.
I had only been able to keep one of those promises.
The boys gathered handfuls of their mother with care and cast her into the waves — watched gravely as she dusted, then dissolve into them. I released the last of her along with the dreams of our future together.
We each threw flowers from the garden, Pam’s second love.
Ben threw a handful of dandelions. They floated in the water like miniature suns: bright, resilient, and hopeful. Nate threw a wealth of sumptuous birds of paradise: long, slim, and elegant. Matt threw Queen Anne’s lace: lacy, wild and complex.
Into the water I launched a corsage of stephanotis, the delicate, white flowers that had made up Pam’s bridal bouquet.
Their fragrance clung to my hands long after we left her final resting place.