Writing Practice 11/26/2019

Stories of Your Life, page 119: It’ll be when you first learn to walk…

It’ll be when you first learn to walk. Your drunken-baby steps, uncertain and wobbly, that lead you only a few inches away from the safety of the couch at first, then further and further as you gain skill, confidence, strength.

Or – maybe – it will be when you first ride a bike. That proud-parent-even-prouder-child experience, when you go zooming off down the street faster and more sure than I could ever be for you right now.

Or – maybe – it will be when you have your first sleepover party, that time when I will for the first time be unable to sneak in your room at night and just watch, just check, just to make sure, once more, that you are, in fact, still breathing and are, in parallel fact, still my little daughter.

certainly it won’t be as late as when you get glasses. That’s going to be in about fifth or sixth grade, if family history is any indication. You’ll be what – eleven? Twelve? So grown up, and yet so vulnerable still.

I won’t even conceive that it could be as late as your braces, those fences inside your lips holding back your “true” development, but, at the same time, driving you to a more secure, more happy, more healthy body image. I must admit – I never went through that phase. The one bright spot in my DNA, I guess, so I don’t know how to relate to that. I’ll just have to listen then while you hate having braces and hate the rubber bands and hate flossing and hate the checkups and hate everything about it, just smile and nod, smile and nod.

Perhaps it would be foolish of me to think it would be at your first date. Or when you’re driving to your job. Or when you’re moving in to the dorm, or moving out, or when you finally come back to tell me the fabulous news. Or when you’ve finally gotten that sweet little bundle of joy of your own, when you feel “complete”, whenever that is down the road, whenever you’re able to give me advice on finances, or memory, or organization.

I could be forgiven for hoping it will last that long. But I know it won’t. Someday, it will come, that I will realize you are no longer my “little girl”. And then I will probably cry. Laugh, too, and give you a hug, but, yes, without a doubt, I will cry.

Until that day, though, I will savor these moments. I will cradle you here in the crook of my arm. I will feel the solid weight of your head against my bicep. I will stroke your tiny fingers, one at a time. Then all at a time, with my huge fingers, my giant hand, my overwhelming love. I will bask in this wonderful feeling, and together we shall march, arm in arm, into the future, as one. Let’s go, my dearest daughter.

Let’s go.

Writing Practice – 3/12/2019

Outside Magazine “Terror in the Wild” edition, page 52

My father’s e-mail didn’t make much sense…

He sometimes gets in these kids of moods, where he will, for weeks at a time, rant about an Atlantis cover-up, or the Moon landing being real, or the fact that those ancient civilizations that left us all their writings in the pyramids really weren’t from another planet. Each time, I dismiss him as a bit of a nut, but every once in a while he’s got a little ring of truth to it.

“I’ve got the key,” he wrote, and that was it. No Hello, no good bye, and no explanation of what kind of key it might be or how it could be used.

So I wondered, is this something I need to understand? Is it a way for me to be a part of the bigger elements of this world? Or was it just a hoax of his?

I considered, briefly, that it might even be my brother spoofing him. Ted’s done that before, pretended to be someone he’s not through e-mail, to try and get me to go to the Appalachian trail with my long-distance girlfriend, or to get me to think I’ve won the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes, but this seemed too simple for him. He liked grander, broader schemes, and this one didn’t look like that. I believed it was Dad, then, and decided to reply.

“Oh, yeah? Key to what?”

Even though it had been a couple of hours between when I sent my message and when he’d first sent his, he replied almost immediately. He must have been at his desk, “working”, or whatever he liked to call all this research he did. Old books, old magazines, ancient journals and maps. My father’s basement looked like someone had emptied the Chicago Public Library archive into his room without bothering to organize anything, or even stack anything on shelves. I pictured him, sitting there, hunched over his ancient iMac, green screen and all, typing away at me. Six hundred miles away, lounging in my bed, laptop open on my lap, a stark contrast in experiences almost as strong as the contrasts of our environments and personalities.

“The key to the future,” he wrote. That too was all, in that message. I wanted to call. I wanted to talk, directly, because I could see where this was headed. Fifty messages, back and forth, over the next two hours, would just infuriate me at the man’s lack of focus, at his undisciplined approach to the world. I’d be sitting here, racking my brain trying to understand, to comprehend, to figure out if what he was saying was, or even might be real, or whether he’d finally lost it and we could safely deposit him at Shady Acres to a nice, relaxing retirement. It would do me no good to call, though. He’d disabled his phones months ago, in the belief that the radiation from the handset was making him sterile! Ha! As if he could, or would want to, get someone pregnant again at seventy-five. Why would he do that? And if he wanted to, who would sleep with him? All those are beside the point, but useful in illustrating that my father was not always altogether “there,” and so I would need to play along. Play his game of back-and-forth email tag, teasing meaning out of him one or two sentences at a time, wondering, questioning, probing, when all I really wanted to do was go have a run, and a nap.

I replied, “The future of what?”

“Of Humanity,” he replied. “It’s not looking good for us.”

“When has it ever?” Okay, a little snark, but when you’re frustrated at the imposition, you can be allowed some.

“Well, it was all good up until 53 years ago.” Then that message stopped. Before I could reply, another came in. “When you were born.”

Oh.

Shit.

He knew.

Writing Practice – 2/23/2019

[the punchline of a joke is:] Put up a Bingo sign. [I’ll tell the joke after the writing exercise.]

Here’s the scene: crowded airport, filled with travelers. Small kids with moms, business executives, families heading to another state to take a daughter to college. Within the crowd, one person stands out. It’s a clown, an old-man clown; he’s clearly been doing this a while, because his outfit is frayed and worn. not intentionally, but, yes, intentionally – his yellow suit is “patched” in various places with other colors of fabric, but as you watch you can see where the patches have themselves started to pull away from their seams. The seat of the suit is wearing through and has new holes. The gloves are dingy around the edges, and his shoes – large, exaggerated toe box, thick sole – are black but spotted, as if he’s needed a shine for quite a while but just can’t afford one. Or is too proud.

The clown doesn’t so much fight the crowd as meekly wait for the occasional breaks in the stream, to make his way towards Baggage Claim. The jostling jumbles his make-up occasionally. He usually covers his whole face with white, then comes back again with purple nose and orange oversized lips. Today he has added red cheek spots, in the hopes that looking happier will make him feel happier. It’s not working. The people in the crowd see him, smile, pat him on the back occasionally, maybe stop to take a quick picture – who can blame them? They’ve never seen a clown in an airport before – and then go on their way, when they feel the cloud of sadness wafting form him, rolling off the shoulders of the too-wide suit in waves that reach out five, then, fifteen feet in his wake.

He is not a happy clown today.

He holds a bunch of helium-filled balloons, another attempt to make himself feel what he doesn’t. It’s not working, either, their jumbled rainbow does not inspire joy, or elation, or even much more than a general amusement, even in the other by passers. Occasionally a traveler will stop to consider the logistics, whether the balloons, too, wen through security, or whether they were inflated past the gate. But none really stop long enough to ask the question. Most of those who do, who think of it, feel the blackness, the unseen sadness, radiating off his suit and shoulders and smile-that-isn’t-real and they move along without really knowing what it was that they wanted to say anyway.

Only one person actually talks to him. A young man, perhaps twenty years old, with Down Syndrome, and therefore a much greater appreciation for how hard it can sometimes be in life just to feel like you don’t fit in, stops and talks to him. “Hello,” he says. “Hello,” is the response. “You look sad.” “I am.” “I was sad yesterday. I had some ice cream. Maybe you should eat ice cream.” “Thank you, that is very thoughtful.” “Can I have a balloon?” The clown pauses for a moment, then hands the whole bunch, multi-colored globes and strings of gift ribbon a handful, to the young boy. His face breaks into a huge grin as his escorts frantically wrack their brain wondering how they’ll get these new objects through Security, and before they’ve even had time to ask “Wait, what?”, our clown has moved along. He is not happy, yet, for so many other events of the past three days weigh so heavily on him, but at least lightening his burden also lightened his spirit – a bit.

Our clown has found the DOWN escalator to take him to Baggage Claim and Ground Transportation. He has no baggage (physically) to claim. He carries a briefcase and thirty years of memories. He wishes it weren’t so, that this trip never happened, that he’d been able to reconcile before the end, but, alas, estrangement does strange things. Our clown finally notices his driver, one of only three or so, holding a sign with his name on it -“KYLE” –

“It really should say BINGO,” he thinks. “I mean, really, that’s who I am, right?” He looks at himself, then, and without a moment’s hesitation, and without a moment’s shame, the weight and grief of the past three days come flooding back over him, washing upon his heart like a tidal wave, overpowering him, and Bingo, Bingo the clown, the one who chose his “career” of happiness over his family, who allowed his pursuit of passion to drive a wedge between himself and his mother, his now-dead mother, his dead mother who never approved, who couldn’t see anything other than a whole in fancy-colored clothes, who herself was incredibly closed-minded, judgemental, rude and simple, who was now dead and rotting in a box six states away back where he’d left the family immediately after the funeral, his mother, he knew, would scold him for crying like this, for making a scene in the airport, for blabbering and streaking all that fake-up and messing up his old, worn suit, and causing a scene, his mother would have scolded him and told him to shape up, she wold have wipe his whole face clean of orange nose and purple lips and clear tars and yellow snot, she would have said, “There, there’s my boy, there, Kyle, why don’t we go home now,” and Bingo, he should have gone along, he would have buried his head in the corner of her shoulder, between her neck and her arm, he wold have felt her love and acceptance, for him, at least, if he were Kyle and not some simple sad sack clown, if he’d gotten a real job like architect or manager of the water treatment facility, or, hell, anything that wasn’t performing, he would have felt safe and comfortable, but – he couldn’t because he had missed out on all that those last 30 years, and now she was gone, and he was alone again, and, stupid pride, that’s all it was, stupid, so as Bingo/Kyle stood in the airport Baggage Claim and his tears dried and his snot ran onto his upper lip, he waited. He waited for a sign. For something inside his mind to tell him what was the right thing to do.

He didn’t know.

So , he waited.

***

Q: How do you get 500 old crows into a barn?

A: Put up a Bingo sign.

Writing Practice – 2/17/2019: Imaginary Friends

Imaginary friends…

My imaginary friends are having a real war, and it’s taking a toll on my room. Last night Katie threw my Spider-Man across the room at Jacob. It missed him but hit the mirror and knocked it off the shelf.

Mom says that she doesn’t believe me, that it’s not me doing it, but Dad does. He always takes my side. I wish they weren’t so made t each other, but, sometimes I don’t get what I want.

Katie told me she doesn’t want to be my friend any more, if Jake is still coming around. She said I have to choose – who am I going to pick her or him? I told her I don’t want to pick. Why can’t I have both? Why can’t things be like they used to be?

It started like two years ago. Mom told me that’s when I started having nightmares, but I don’t remember that part. She says she would hear me screaming about monsters. She would come in and check on me, tell me it was okay, and leave. I didn’t remember that part. I do remember that a lot of times I would wake up and Dad was lying in the bed next to me, his arm around my shoulders.

“Hey, big guy,” he’d say, when I woke up. “You were having another bad night, huh?” I didn’t remember him coming in to my room, either, but i do remember when I met Katie and Jake. I was out at the swingset, no – maybe it was the little creek out at the community park – anyway, all of a sudden I heard two other voices and they were arguing, too.

I was able to stop them from that argument, and they made up. They were okay, and I was okay with each of them. I like Jake a little more; he’s about two years old than me, he doesn’t like to ride bikes like I do, so I have to play at the park when he’s already there.

We don’t hang out with Katie much any more. We did for a while. She’s a little younger than Jake so she’s just a little older than me. She likes to ride bikes, so we do that together. She says her grandma promised her a gear-shifter bike for her next birthday, but when ask when that is, she always says, “oh, in a couple of months.” I’ve had two birthdays since I met her, and she hasn’t had any.

I’m afraid if I keep going to like this that she’s not going to get any older, but I will. I might grow out of my imaginary friends. I grew out of my hi-tops last year and my older brother grew out of his shorts and that’s why I have his. I don’t want to grow out of my friends. I want them to stay with me.

But Mom says that I need to leave them behind. It’s not that they can’t help me anymore, she says. It’s just that they don’t need to be there every day. Dad says it’s okay. He thinks as long as I have a way to “process” those things it will be fine.

Sometimes, I wish I did just leave them behind – you know, go out and live by myself. But then I realize I’m only ten, and I can’t give them up that easily. Who’ll take care of me? I can’t get a job. Now way I could take care of myself.

Writing Practice 1/1/2019 – Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary…

Mary, would you like to go to the zoo with us this weekend? We’ll see all your favorite animals – monkeys, and lemurs, and the penguins.

No.

Mary, would you like pancakes for breakfast? We can put syrup on them and blueberries inside, I remember how you liked them like that at grandmother’s house last month.

No.

Mary, would you please take out the trash? It’s been in the bin for a couple of days and is starting to smell.

No.

Mary would you like to go on a date with me this weekend? I would like to go see the new play at the community theater.

No.

Mary, would you consider majoring in architecture while you’re at university? You seem to have an aptitude for lines, and you’re always checking out the shapes of the places we go. You might really like it.

No.

Mary, would you like to have a drink with me next weekend? I’ll be back in town and it’s been a while since we’ve talked.

No.

Mary, would you help your other brothers and me with Mom? She’s been getting older and ever since Dad passed last year, she just seems so down.

No.

Mary, would you ever consider getting married? It’s been a long time, you’re quite lonely, and I think having a man in your life might do you some good.

No.

Mary, would you help your niece? She’s going to college soon, and, seeing as you’ve saved up quite a bit of money from never having kids of your own, this might be a chance for you to give some of that back. I mean, we’ve put up with an awful lot of negativity from you over the years. Wouldn’t you like to make some amends before you pass?

No.

Mary, would you like to sign this living will? And the Do Not Resuscitate order? I have done everything you asked, and as your counsel, I cannot force you to sign, only strongly recommend that you do so. You really don’t want your family members to have to do that once you become incapacitated. They’ll just muck it all up. What do you say – one last thing?

No.

Mary, can you hear me? Can you understand what’s going on? The doctors say you’re in there – that the hearing is the last to go. So – Mary, can you hear me? It’s Trisha, your little sister. You know, that never was easy, living with you. And now, now I don’t have to. Thanks to the fact that you never signed your DNR, you’re in that bed, hooked up to all those machines. Good. I hope it’s torture for you. I hope your lungs burn and your throat is on fire, and that the needles, feel that – I’m poking this goddamn IV right further up in your arm – I hope these needles feel like ice in your veins, that you can’t sleep, can’t rest, can’t relax, that you’ve got a million thoughts running through your head that you want to say but can’t because of that terrible, horrible tube stuck down your throat, I hope it’s torture for you to have to lie there and listen to me take control and make decisions for once. I hope this is simply eating you up inside because you can’t say “No” any more. That’s all I ever heard from you, Mary, “No”, no to playing, no to sharing, no to caring. Sometimes I don’t know why I bothered trying to keep the relationship going, you were so negative. But I did, and I’m here, and look, now you get to listen to me. Oh, surprise, surprise, what should I say? Should I tell you how my marriage fell apart four years ago because Brad admitted he’d had feelings for you for a decade? Should I tell you how my own daughter wants to follow in your negative footsteps and run away and live in the middle of the Texas wilderness in a van? Shall I tell you how much your own “friends” talk about you behind your back? Shall I tell you the awful secret of mom and Dad, too, that you were an illegitimate child and they once told me it would have been better if they had given you for adoption, as grandmother suggested? What do you have to say to that, to those horrible, terrible things you’ve really been all along? What do you have to say for yourself? Do you really like this life, this legacy you’ve left? Are you proud of who you turned out to be? Don’t you wish everyone in the world could know your story?

Writing Practice 12/4/2018

From Where The Sidewalk Ends, p 50.

“The googies are coming, the old people say, to buy little children and take them away.”

But I’m not afraid. My mother says I’m too valuable, she would never sell me, not for even like a thousand silver coins.

But I don’t really know if that’s all true. I heard that last year, when the googies came to town, Tommy Spickoza’s mom told them that they could have him for two thousand, and they thought it was a deal. The whisper campaign they sent round after said they would have paid five or more. So if they would pay five thousand for Tommy, how much more do you think I could get? Ten thousand? I’m so much better than Tommy. He’s kind of a mean little guy. He pokes cats with sticks and tells bad jokes. I’m not like that. I hold the doors open for my sister and I don’t chew with my mouth open and I make sure to always write my name on the top of my homework.

My mama says not to worry, because I’m too valuable to her, but I don’t think she understands economics. I may be only thirteen by now, but I understand it much better than her. All us kids do. We’ve been watching the googies come into town and buy some kids, and not others, for a decade now, and we can’t make sense of it. Sometimes they want just the fat ones, and that year they take like the six fattest kids in the whole town. So the next year all the kids were real skinny (we starved ourselves for like three weeks before they showed up, just to help our causes), and that was when they wanted the shortest ones. They took Caroline, and Suzanne, and Jonah, and Zeb, but left chubby Marco, who’d been crying the whole time that he just couldn’t do it, couldn’t lay off the candy bars, and we all understood, Marco’s home wasn’t that great anyway, and even the googies would have probably been a welcome change.

So then the year after they bought the short ones everyone was stuffing their shoes with papers, and hanging by their arms from trees for days at a time to get taller, and wearing short pants to make their legs look longer, and that was when they too two girls, twin sisters, and that was that. We didn’t understand, but still we keep trying to figure out their system.

Braydon thinks he’s got it figured out. He thinks this year they’re going to take three boys and two girls, out of the thirty or so of each who are all under eighteen. “One runner,” he says, “and one smart kid. And the other three are people who do music.”

That’s the part that scares me, the music. Because my flute has been sounding really good this month. Mama says not to worry, I can fake it, or I can just pick up the guitar when they arrive and just be real bad at that, and then they’ll pass me by. I don’t believe her, because those lineups aren’t when they actually choose, Braydon says. He thinks they’re monitoring our every move already, so they know before they even get here what they’re gonna do.

I asked my Mama once about why they (they being the parents in this town, stupid them), have been selling their kids to the googies, and she really didn’t have an answer. Something about opportunities for all to be better, but I think she’d rather just pretend not to know what’s going on. That way, if the googies come for me, she can pretend like it’s this great big tragedy, and get the sympathy votes and pity looks from all the other women in the village, and at the same time her life will be a little easier ’cause I’m not around.

I don’t like her very much, my Mama, and like I said, she might not understand much about economics, but she sure does know that ten thousand silver pieces would feed two mouths a lot better than zero pieces feeds three.

Extremely Bad Advice – How to Deal with Sentimentality

Stealing from Abby once again – ’cause I’m too lazy today to write a new question.

DEAR ABBY: My adult son passed away two years ago at a young age. We were very close while he was growing up. He married young, and I maintained a great relationship with both him and his wife. They gave me the most precious grandchildren any woman could ask for, and I am extremely active in their little lives.

My daughter-in-law has moved on. She met a nice young man, and they are planning to be married in the near future. Do you think I would be out of line to request to have my son’s ashes back home with me? We live near each other, I love her very much, and we still have a great relationship. I don’t want to damage it by asking this if it’s not appropriate.

I would pass his ashes on to his children when they grow up, of course, but for now, I’d love to have my son back home with me and his dad because she has started her new life. My husband is noncommittal about the subject. When I broach it, he says he “doesn’t want to talk about it.” I really have no one to ask or confide in about this. Your thoughts would be most appreciated. — STILL BROKENHEARTED IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR BROKENHEARTED,

Well, what can I say? I would say I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m not. I think “sorry for your loss” is about as meaningful as “the sky is really blue today”. If I was saddened by your loss, I’d tell you that, and perhaps that would do something. If I was interested in showing how much I care about you, I’d ask, “Oh, that must be hard. What do you miss most about him?” But, again, I don’t care, because your sorrow and misery really don’t affect me on the daily. Other than to provide fodder for my advice column, for which I will gladly say, “Next victim!”

Okay, here we go. The classic dilemma – who gets to keep the crispy bacon that used to be your son’s body? Because, let’s all agree, your “son” is no longer there any more, just like the dream I used to have of being an Abercrombie & Fitch model has blown off into the wind with that first hit of the mind-altering substance known on the street as Jif Extra Crunchy. Your son disappeared from the shell that held him the moment his cranial electro-activity ceased. What he left behind was the meatbag for DNA that did its job incredibly well by providing “the most precious grandchildren” [hold on – just threw up in my mouth a little].

And in order to do that, he had to procreate with his wife, your daughter-in-law (DIL). Who is now his widow. So, for that you should be grateful to her, not jealous.

What’s left is sentimentality. I get it. People have good memories of the past, and it’s hard to move on. It’s hard to imagine that your progeny wouldn’t love you as much as you loved him. How could he? You’re a mother, and everyone knows a “mother’s love knows no bounds”. He couldn’t reciprocate your devotion to him. And he proved this by not pulling an Oedipus and fucking you! He shagged the DIL, knocked her up a couple of times, gave her good memories, and now his burnt ends occupy a silver chalice on the mantle. Good for him and her.

But – you’re a selfish hag who has nothing left in her life, and you’re trying to fill your own void by commandeering what should be left to her in order to appease your own shortcomings. As evidenced by your question to me! Don’t do this. Would you be out of line? Absolutely. Don’t do it! Leave well enough alone. Your husband “doesn’t want to talk about it” not from an ethical or emotional perspective, but simply because you’re looney-tunes and he recognizes a bear trap when he sees it.

However, because I suspect you won’t take my advice above, being as reasonable as it is, I’m going to give you a bonus recommendation of some Extremely Bad Advice. This you’ll probably do with gusto. Have fun!

Step one: Offer to babysit the grandkids for a night. Give the DIL and her new guy a chance to go out and have fun.

Step two: Prepare for the switch. Get a plastic bag, about a gallon, clear (not white), full of ashes from your backyard barbecue pit. Take along a second, empty bag for holding.

Step three: Once the kids are in bed, make the transfer. Go full Indiana Jones. Play dramatic music, sweat profusely, look over your shoulder for booby-traps.

Step four: Revel in your glory. You now have your son’s actual remains, and she, the grandkids, and your husband are none the wiser. Dare I say they might view you as a hero for how magnanimously you deal with the situation? Visit a bar and order a glass of Chablis to celebrate. Send me the bill – I’ll gladly treat you for that job well done!