Monday, May 21, 2012

Idea for a non-fiction book

Book Idea
The book will be three things:
1.       It will be an anthology of the best movie writing I’ve done during my 18 years living in Mandan. (I’ve written roughly 200 pieces. I’ll select 75-100 of them.)
2.       It will tell the story of how I found happiness and was able to pursue my dream of being a film critic in an unlikely place.
3.       It will be about how, if one so chooses, one can turn any place into one where dreams can flourish.

It will follow this outline:
I.                    Introduction: Or how one can be happy anywhere, if one so chooses
II.                  The Open Forum Writings: Or how I created a publication to house my reviews
III.                The Lost Writings: Or how I kept my dream alive via the Internet
IV.                The River’s Edge Writings: Or how I rediscovered my Open Forum days (without having to pay for it)
V.                  The Bismarck Tribune Writings: Or how I found a bigger audience
a.       The Rave Reviews
b.      The Pans
c.       The Cinema 100 Reviews
VI.                The Prairie Independent Writings: Or how I truly found a home in my new home

The book will include present day commentary along with each piece. This commentary will focus on:
1.       How I feel about what I wrote then, now.
2.       How the piece fit into my personal story. I.e., what was going on in my life at that time?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chapter 15

I was peering down a dark tunnel with this little pool of light at the far end. In the light, I saw three things: Ed was kneeling beside the bed, his voice soft but scolding. My mom was in the bed, moaning and drifting in and out of sleep. On the nightstand was an open and half empty bottle of pills. It was like how in the movies they always light things so you’ll see, and only see, what you’re supposed to see.
Have you seen those old silent movies where a circle would suddenly iris down to only show a single detail, something really important like a hand holding a gun or a bunch of keys hanging on a hook? That’s what this moment seemed like. It was like the most important detail in my life was there before me in a tiny little circle.
I had awakened in the middle of the night. Something must not have been feeling right, maybe a slight breeze across my bed that shouldn’t have been there. Everything had been the same in my family my whole life until recently. Now, every little change was starting to seem a harbinger of terrible things.
I stood in their bedroom doorway for a minute, maybe longer. When Ed saw me he snapped his fingers and pointed me back to my bedroom. He followed me and closed the door. I did as I was told, but lay awake most of the night. I heard strange muffled sounds coming from their bedroom, coughing sounds, walking around sounds, and water running and toilet flushing sounds. After a while I covered my head with my pillow.
In the morning, things seemed normal again. Ed was gone. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table staring into a mug of black coffee. Eagle was drowning toy soldiers in his cereal bowl. And I was late for school.
That day was interminable. When I was in class, I couldn’t wait for lunch. When I was eating lunch with Annie, I didn’t hear a word she was saying. I just wanted lunch to be over so I could get on with the day. It felt really important that I get home. I was afraid something might be changed forever when I got there.
When the final bell rang, I ran out of the classroom and didn’t stop running until I pushed open our front door. “Mom!” I yelled. The house was quiet. The downstairs was empty. I started checking room by room, still running, until I got to the bottom of our stairs. I paused. I needed to catch my breath and to gather myself before climbing toward the bedrooms.
It’s amazing how different a place looks in the daylight. At night, everything is shadowy scary. I think horror movies are so horrifying because you can’t see anything. At least, that’s why the really good ones are so scary, the old ones with zombies and vampires and cat people. I’ve only seen one brightly lit movie that scared me. The Shining.
As I pushed open the door to my parent’s bedroom, I felt like little Danny going into room 237. I was curious, fearful. But everything seemed okay. The dark tunnel of the night before was gone. Now I could see everything. The bed was made. Mom’s nightgown was neatly folded over the chair by the dresser. There was no bottle of pills on the nightstand, just a clock radio, an empty water glass, and her dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre.
I was about to leave when I heard a sneeze and noticed the bathroom door was closed and light was creeping out through the crack beneath. I went to the door and tried turning the knob. It was locked.
“Mom,” I said.
There was no answer. Then I heard a coughing, retching sound, then another sneeze. “I know you’re in there!” I shouted. There was still no answer.
I ran to my bedroom and grabbed a bobby pin from a tray on my dresser and hurried back. Bathroom door locks are so easy to pick. Maybe they’re easy because of times like that, like times when someone slips and falls in the bathtub. All you have to do is poke something through the little hole in the center of the knob, feel around for the little lever inside, and twist the knob while pushing.
Just as it did the time Eagle locked himself in the hall bathroom with my Barbie dolls and a bottle of maple syrup (don’t ask), the lock popped open and the knob twisted in my hand. I pushed the door inward. I’m sure I was shaking terribly. What I saw has haunted me ever since.
Mom was sitting on the toilet in her underwear. Her eyes were half closed. She looked exhausted like she’d been crying for hours. She was shivering even though it was blazing hot in the bathroom with the heat lamp glaring. And her cupped hands in her lap were filled with vomited up, undigested little white capsules. I almost threw up myself from the smell. I don’t know which was worse, the smell or the sight, but I reeled back out into the bedroom. Then I got angry.
I went back into the bathroom and grabbed what was left of the pills; some still in the opened bottle and some spilled on the counter and threw them as hard as I could against the mirror.
“Why are you doing this?” I screamed.
Mom looked up at me and mouthed “I’m sorry Marla. I didn’t want you to find me like this.”
I went to the shower and started the water, leaving it cold. I grabbed her by the arm and started pulling her toward the water. The spray was already getting us both wet with the shower door open. She tried to get to her feet but was so unsteady that she sat down again. I pulled harder and she stumbled forward into the shower and crumpled to the floor under the chill water. She was too weak to scream. She just cried louder.
I took the bar of soap and starting cleaning her up. Then I slapped her. Then I hugged her. She just kept saying softly “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Once the color started coming back into her cheeks, I shut off the water and wrapped her in a towel. I hugged her again, really hard this time through the towel, and could feel her still shivering.
The bathroom window overlooked the driveway and suddenly the sounds of Ed’s car filled the moment. Mom perked up.
“Marla. Don’t let him come upstairs!”
She pushed me away. She seemed to have found new life and got to her feet, ushering me out of the bathroom. She closed the door. I heard it lock.
I reached the bottom of the stairs just in time to stop Ed’s progress. I grabbed him by the shirtsleeve and starting tugging toward the kitchen.
“Come on Ed. Let’s make lasagna.”
“Are you wet?” he asked.
“Yes, I guess so,” I said still tugging. “Come on.”
He resisted for a moment. Have you ever seen the movie The Searchers with John Wayne? There’s a moment where he stands by his horse, rubbing its back with a blanket and staring far, far away. It’s as if he can see the Indian attack that is happening at that very moment many miles away at his brother’s homestead. Almost everyone is murdered. That’s what I was thinking as Ed gazed up the stairs.
Almost reluctantly, certainly hesitantly, he gave in to my insistence and followed me into the kitchen. And then I started my fumbling. I wondered. What is lasagna even made out of?
I started opening cabinets and pulling things out – cinnamon, tomato soup, and macaroni.  Boxes and cans began to pile up on the table. Ed pulled up a chair and sat down. He sprinkled a bit of cinnamon on his finger and licked it. He looked to be enjoying the show.
“This is going to be the best lasagna you’ve ever made, hon,” he said.
“Uh huh,” I said and kept improvising.
“I read this great new recipe for lasagna in one of mom’s magazines just the other day. Would you like to give it a try?” he asked.
“Okay, but it may not be as good as mine.”
He added a can of spaghetti sauce and some lasagna noodles to my ingredients and started fishing around in the fridge. He pulled out a bag of white cheese.
“So, how’s mom, hon?
“She upstairs?” he asked as he pulled a big pot out of the cupboard and started filling it with water.
“She’s taking a shower.”
“I don’t hear the water.”                         
“How many noodles should I put in?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Nine,” he answered, playing along.
We continued working – or mostly he continued working – in silence. I knew already that my charade was only partly successful. He hadn’t gone upstairs. I’d bought mom some time, but why did I think to make lasagna? I hated lasagna. And he knew that.
I know he knew everything. He’d been through the night with her. Whatever I’d glimpsed down that dark tunnel had been his and mom’s reality. It must’ve been awful if mom had tried swallowing a handful of sleeping pills. It must’ve been terrible to cause him to look up the stairs with such concern. It must’ve been horrible for him to go along with my lasagna game.
“What are you two up to?”
We both turned around startled. Mom was leaning against her cane in the kitchen doorway. She was fully, casually dressed in jeans, sweatshirt, and floppy slippers. She looked great. And in one swift motion she took over the creation of the lasagna and shooed us both out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t until time to eat that it occurred to me. Where’s Eagle? There were only three of us at the table. Mom sent me upstairs to find him and bring him down.
His bedroom door was slightly ajar, so I pushed it inward and there he was. Beneath the window, he was sunk so far down into his green bean bag chair that he almost disappeared from sight. He was holding a copy of A Princess of Mars in front of his face. I think he was pretending to read though. His hand was shaking just a bit too much to be able to focus on the words.
“Get up stupid. Time to eat,” I said.
He didn’t say anything. He just tucked his legs up tighter to his chest and a little stream of white pellets shot out through one of the many tiny puncture holes made by Marty.
I went back downstairs. “He’s not budging,” I announced.
“We will. When he gets hungry,” Mom said. (I wondered even then why she said "we" instead of "he.")

The next morning, Saturday, Eagle and I had just settled in front of the TV for cartoons when Ed came into the room, turned the volume down, sat on the coffee table, and cleared his throat.
He didn’t have to say anything. I was already shaking and the tears were already coming.
“Kids, I’m sorry. I don’t know…”
He started to shake too. His lower lip had that tremble that one always gets when nervous.
“Your mom and I… I…”
He cleared his throat again and found some courage.
“I’m moving out. Mom and I are getting a divorce.”
He tried to look us in the eyes, but couldn’t. His eyes just drifted down into his lap. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to say. I wanted to hug him, for my comfort more than his, but I also wanted to hit him everywhere at once with my fists. All I did was sit as more tears came.
I wasn’t sure at first if Eagle had heard him. He wasn’t shaking. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t… anything. Then I knew he’d heard.
He got up, raised the volume, sat down, and took a bite of Cheerios.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

This Town Smells Like Popcorn

Marla and Eagle are sitting on the curb outside Marv’s Market. She’s eating Red Vines, four at a time. He’s crunching his way through a bag of roasted almonds. He knows apes need lots and lots of nuts to survive. Neither one looks worried. They’re just two young kids, she’s 12 and he’s nine, sitting by the side of the road on a blustery December afternoon.

A beat up red Chevy pickup pulls up and the driver, reaching across the seat, pops the passenger door open. The hinges protest and the door shuts again. The driver pushes harder and it stays open. The smell of Marlboro Lights drifts out of the cab and barely reaches the kids’ noses before being carried away by the wind. An empty 7-Eleven cup falls to the street and rolls under the truck.

“Get in,” the driver tells them. She’s pushing 40, but looks like she already left that age far behind. She’s wearing western chaps over blue jeans held up by a heavy leather belt with a turquoise and silver buckle.  Her cowboy boots are cracked and her western shirt with snaps is wrinkled and stained. The top two snaps of her shirt are unfastened – On purpose? By accident? – revealing an undersized bra and sun wrinkled skin. A tan cowboy hat and cigarette dangling from her cracked lips complete the picture.

“Are you still mad Aunt Dorothy?” Marla asks while getting to her feet. Dorothy shakes her head and then turns to blow smoke out the window. Marla motions for Eagle to come along, but he sits firm, still popping nuts into his mouth. “Come on Eagle,” she urges.
“I’m not gonna,” Eagle says crossing his arms and clutching his almonds to his chest.
“Why aren’t you gonna?”
“Tarzan told me not to get back in the truck.”
Marla turns to Dorothy, “He’s not going to get in, I’m afraid. Nothing’s going to change his mind when he’s like this.”
Dorothy sets the parking brake and reaches behind the seat. She pulls a plastic spear out and starts rolling it between her hands. “Tell him Tarzan came by the house today … and left this.”
Marla turns to Eagle, but he’s already spotted the spear and is scrambling to his feet. “I didn’t know you know Tarzan, Aunt Dorothy,” Eagle says.
“Oh yes. We had lunch today. Did you know his favorite food is hamburgers? He ate three.”
Eagle dives into the cab ahead of Marla and grabs the spear out of Dorothy’s hands. He gleams like a boy on Christmas morning and starts stabbing the dashboard. Marla plops into the seat beside him and reaches for the door handle. She pulls, but her hand slips and she almost tumbles out of the truck. She braces herself with one hand, grabs the handle again, and pulls it shut with a grunt.
Dorothy releases the brake and shifts into first gear. She pops the clutch and the truck lurches forward with a jolt, leaving a puff of black exhaust in its wake.
“Do you two have anything to say?” Dorothy asks.
Eagle doesn’t look up. He just keeps thrusting the spear into the dashboard. Marla looks out the window and says, “Sorry.”
“Sorry what?”
“Sorry for being such a brat, Aunt Dorothy.” Marla throws an elbow into Eagle’s shoulder.
“Owww!” Eagle yelps and turns toward Marla, furious. He threatens her with his spear and snarls like a wild thing. She stands her ground and glares back at him. It becomes a stare down between two wild cats. After a minute of tension, Eagle and then Marla begin to smile and as the tension dissipates he blinks first, losing the contest. He lowers his spear and toying with it in his lap says “Sorry, Aaaaaunt Doroooooothy.”
Cigarette between her fingers, Dorothy reaches down and pushes a cassette into a tape player crookedly bolted beneath the dashboard. Some ash falls to the floorboard to join a mound already there. Music starts playing as she absentmindedly places the cigarette back into the corner of her mouth. The singer is Anne Murray:
“Every now and then I cry/Every night you keep stayin' on my mind/All my friends say I'll survive/It just takes time—“
Eagle blows a raspberry and hits eject with his spear. He looks over at Dorothy as if challenging her to a duel.
Dorothy knows better than accept his challenge. She just reaches down and pushes the tape back in. As she does, more ash shakes loose and falls to the floorboard. Marla notices and frowns.
“That’s gross, Aunt Dorothy,” Marla says.
Anne Murray continues:
—A million miracles could never stop the pain/Or put all the pieces together again/No I don't think time is gonna heal this broken heart—“
“I hate your music,” Eagle says as he pokes the tape free again with his spear. He turns in his seat to face Dorothy.
“Eagle, you do that one more time and—“
Eagle interrupts her with another raspberry and threatens her with his spear. She raises her hand as if to slap him and still more ash falls to the floorboard.
“I said that’s gross!” Marla shouts.
She pops open the glove box. It is like a rolling junk drawer. Bottles of Advil and Tums roll and slide about. There’s a hairbrush filled with hair strands. A used up and dried up stick of deodorant missing its cap falls out. Marla catches it and tosses it back in. There are two heavily read paperbacks – a Zane Grey and a Barbara Cartland. There is a hastily and very improperly folded road map torn across most of its creases.
And, of course, well within reach is a carton of Marlboro Lights with two packs remaining. Marla grabs the two packs and, staring defiantly at Dorothy, holds them out the window.
Dorothy starts the tape again and it becomes a bit wobbly from being started and stopped. Anne Murray sounds sick and tired:
No I don't think time is gonna heal this broken heart/No I don't see how it can while we are—“
Eagle hits eject. Dorothy slaps him across his right ear and he immediately curls up in a ball and starts wailing. Marla tosses the cigarette packs out the window. Dorothy slams on the brakes.
“Out! Go pick’em up!” Dorothy orders.
Marla looks at her in disbelief. Eagle wails even louder.
Marla opens the door and slides to the ground. She walks along the side of the road kicking at weeds and turning her head away from passing cars, embarrassed. She spots one of the packs and gives it a kick into the ditch.
Dorothy honks the horn, holding it in to fully express her anger. Marla retrieves the pack and finds the other perched atop a thistle bush. She starts to slowly walk backwards toward the truck. Dorothy honks again and Marla runs.
“Here’s your stupid cigarettes,” she says climbing into the cab. She tosses them at Dorothy and one of them hits Eagle on the nose. He turns to Marla and slaps her. Marla slaps his other ear and he slides as far away from her as he can and leans his head against Dorothy, his crying now a muffled whimper.
They drive for a while in silence, Dorothy staring straight ahead, Marla staring out the window, and Eagle rolling the spear around in his lap. They are entering a town again and Marla watches as a gas station and a general store roll by. This town smells like popcorn.
Finally, Eagle breaks the silence. “Tarzan told me not to get in the car with you. He says you’re a mean lady.”
“I wish you’d shut up about Tarzan,” Dorothy says without looking at him.
Marla says, “I’m glad Mark didn’t marry you. You would’ve made a terrible mom.”
Dorothy grips the steering wheel tightly, fiercely. Eagle stops mumbling and looks at Dorothy, then at Marla, and back to Dorothy again. Marla smiles cruelly. Dorothy pulls off the road and stops the truck.
“Get out… Both of you… Get out,” Dorothy says.
Marla pushes the door open with a creak and slides out to the ground. Eagle slowly follows her and once he’s beside her he cautiously looks about ready to defend her with his spear.
“Shut the door,” Dorothy says.
Marla pushes the door, but it doesn’t shut because the seatbelt is dangling in its way. She tosses the belt onto the seat and tries again. This time it shuts and immediately the truck pulls away, its spinning tires kicking up gravel. There’s another puff of black exhaust.
Driving away, Dorothy pushes the tape back in and it crankily starts playing:
“—still apart/And when you hear this song/I hope that you will see/That time won't heal a broken-hearted me/Every day is—“
The music stops. Dorothy reaches down to remove the tape and it unspools, part of it still stuck inside the machine. She gives it a tug and the tape breaks. She wraps the tattered tape around the cassette.
“Goddamn him!” she yells as she heaves the cassette out the window.
She tears open a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights and pops one in her mouth. She pulls a Bic from her shirt pocket, lights the cigarette, and drops the lighter back into her pocket. She takes a long draw. She takes the cigarette from her mouth and grips the steering wheel with that hand. Some ash falls to the floorboard. A single tear breaks loose from her eye and travels down her cheek, its course following one wrinkle and then another, and then another.

Marla and Eagle are sitting on the curb outside Quick-E Mart. They’re sharing a box of popcorn. Neither one looks worried. They’re just two young kids sitting by the side of the road on a blustery December evening.
A beat up red Chevy pickup pulls up and the driver, reaching across the seat, pops the passenger door open. The hinges protest and the door shuts again. The driver pushes harder and it stays open. The smell of Marlboro Lights drifts out of the cab.
“Get in,” the driver tells them.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Lollipop

“My turn,” Marla says.
“Okay,” Annie says as she licks a giant spiral lollipop the size of her head. She stops licking for a moment and coughs.
“Come on Annie. You had your turn,” Marla says.

Annie takes one last long, leisurely lick and hands it over. “Here you go.” Marla takes it and immediately starts running her tongue around the circumference. After a few trips around, her tongue follows the spiral all the way to the center.

She hands the lollipop back to Annie as they turn the final corner on their walk home from school. Marla runs her hand through the ivy overgrowing the fence along the sidewalk.

“Mr. Johansson was so funny today,” Annie says between licks. “I love how he says everything twice.”
“Now listen up class… listen up class,” Marla imitates giggling. “This’ll be on the quiz… on the quiz.”
“He’s always looking at the board and then turns around to look at us and says it again like we didn’t hear him,” Annie says.
“The commutative property says that… says that six times three equals three times six… three times six,” Marla spurts out, laughing now.

Laughing too, Annie slurps at some sugary juice running down the stick onto her hand and starts to choke. She starts coughing, sputtering, and laughing at the same time.
Marla whacks her on the back.
“Owww!” Annie says.

The two girls stop at a gate. Annie flips the latch open without looking away from the lollipop, holds the gate open for Marla, and pushes it shut behind them as they head up the front walk. The sounds of someone playing piano scales, gradually faster and faster, can be heard through the open front window.

“Shhhh,” Annie says. “Daddy’s practicing.”

Annie quietly opens the front door and they go inside. When she closes the door, the hinges creak. They freeze and hold their breath. The piano scales keep going up and down. They exhale slowly as Annie finishes closing the door.

As they cross the foyer to the stairs, Marla looks into the parlor and sees Annie’s dad intensely hunched over the keyboard, head down, and eyes closed. He reminds her of Linus from Peanuts.

The girls kick back on Annie’s bed. Marla’s on her stomach alternately kicking her butt with her heels. Annie’s propped up against a stack of stuffed animals with her feet resting on Marla’s back. They are passing the lollipop back and forth, one lick apiece each time.

“God your feet stink!” Marla says.
“I know,” Annie giggles and then coughs. “Marla?”
“What?” Marla asks.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” Annie asks.
“What do you mean?” Marla asks.
“About me flirting with Marc… You still like him?” Annie asks.

Marla is quiet. She stops kicking her butt. Actual music starts drifting up through the floor and they listen.

“Liszt. My dad’s favorite.” Annie says. “Whenever he plays this, I always feel… I don’t know…”
“It’s okay,” Marla interrupts as her feet start kicking again. “I think Marc really likes you a lot.”
“But you went out for a long time,” Annie says starting to lick the lollipop again.
“I was thinking about maybe going with Tom anyway. You can go with Marc if you do one thing,” Marla says.
“What’s that?” Annie asks.
“If you let me have that,” Marla says and starts tickling Annie until she frees the lollipop from her grasp. Annie chases after it for one last quick lick.

Marla gets off the bed with her prize. “I have to go pee,” she says.

Out in the hall, Marla stops and looks into the master bedroom. Annie’s mom is standing by the window, motionless, staring outside.

Marla leaves Annie’s house and Annie remains standing on the front threshold.
“Bye,” Annie says.
“Bye,” Marla says walking to the gate.
Marla opens the gate. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Annie says. “Bye,” she says again, starting to giggle as Marla starts down the sidewalk.
“Bye,” Marla giggles back.
At the house next door, Marla turns up the front walk. “Bye,” she says. Annie laughs.
Marla opens her front door and says, “Bye.”
Annie says “Bye” laughing so hard now that she’s crying. They both close their doors. A few moments later, they both open their doors at the same instant and poke their heads out.
“Bye,” Annie says.
“Goodbye,” Marla laughs.

Marla is in bed. A bit of light and an icy breeze flows in through her slightly open bedroom window. She shivers and rolls from side to side. Her blanket is in a ball around her feet.

There is a faint “pop” sound and she opens her eyes. She listens. Her eyes start to close and then it happens again. “Pop … pop.” She opens her eyes again and listens.

Marla wakes up. It’s morning and the blanket is now covering her again up to her shoulders. There are sounds, but not the usual morning sounds of birds chirping. She looks up and her mom is sitting at the foot of her bed. She looks distraught.
“What’s wrong mom?”

Her mom doesn’t answer. She just slides across the bed toward Marla and takes her in her arms.
There is a sound of car doors outside and Marla ducks out of her mom’s arms and goes to the window.
“Marla… don’t…”

Marla looks outside. Annie’s house is surrounded by bright yellow tape and there are police cars and police officers everywhere. Marla sees Annie’s mom sitting in one of the police cars. Then she notices Annie sitting in another. Marla runs from the room, evading her mom as she tries to stop her.

Marla runs down the stairs and out the front door. She reaches the sidewalk and stops. She watches the police car with Annie drive away.

Marla walks down the sidewalk alone carrying a binder and a math book. She turns the corner and runs her hand through the ivy covering the neighbor’s fence. She stops to watch four men with a dolly as they wrestle a piano down the front steps of Annie’s house.

Marla coughs and sniffs twice. “I shouldn’t have licked your lollipop Annie. I think I got your cold.”

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Ring

I’ve stumbled through many relationships. There was Allie who told me that she was no good. I didn’t listen, so she stopped talking. There was Michelle. She and I never did get in sync. When I wanted to get something going, she was pining. When she got over her past, I’d moved on. There was Carolyn. We slept together on our first date. Most awkward mistake I ever made, probably for her too.

And there was Candy. There was something about her. It’s been almost 30 years since I last saw her and I’ve never freed her from my mind.

Our first date was a drive and a picnic at Snoqualmie Falls. It was one of those first dates with few awkward silences, my only such date first or otherwise, ever. We drove up and back deep in conversation.

“I love golden retrievers. They’re so beautiful,” she said.
“Me too… And huskies,” I said.
“Oh, I love those. Isn’t this drive gorgeous?” she said.
“Very,” I said. …

We spent the entire afternoon enjoying the view – her, the mist as the water tumbled toward the rocks below, and me, her curves beneath her long chaste wool dress as I caressed the small of her back.

When I dropped her off at her apartment that night, she turned to me to say “Thank you” and I said “You’re welcome” by giving her a sudden, awkward kiss. She looked confused. She didn’t pull away, but she didn’t say anything either, the one awkward silence.

I’ve never had a hard time getting lost. It’s a joke, sort of. I have a sign outside my bedroom door that reads “Bathroom” with an arrow pointing the way.

I had it all worked out. We would start the evening with dinner at 4:30 at Bartleby’s, a quaint Irish place, and then a movie at 6:15 – Raising Arizona. It all hinged on finding Bartleby’s, a family favorite from her childhood. She said, “I’ll show you how to get there.”

Traffic was a snarl. Look up “frustration” and you’ll find “trying to get anywhere at 4:30 on a Friday in Seattle.” Just a few blocks from our destination with its green sign glowing like a beacon through the drizzling rain, I was faced with a decision.

“Turn left up here,” she said.
I started to change lanes.
“No, I mean right.”
I switched my blinkers.
“No, go left!”

I swerved into the other lane, got honked at, and turned left. And it only took a moment to realize we were in trouble. We were heading out of town across a floating bridge with no way out until Clyde Hill.

It was bumper to bumper all the way across, the memory of Bartleby’s fading.
“I’m so sorry,” she said pulling her collar up and tucking it under her chin and pulling her sleeves down into her fists as if trying to disappear into her wool dress.

“It’s okay,” I said.
“You really must hate me … Don’t you?”
“Don’t be silly. I love you.”

We drove in silence until we reached Bartleby’s at 5:45. We ate and drank and drank some more until time to leave for the 8:30 Raising Arizona. As babies tumbled from a crib atop Nicholas Cage, I couldn’t stop laughing. I looked over at her and there was a single tear on her cheek. I watched it in the flickering light as it finished its journey and dripped from her chin. I squeezed her hand.

It was the only time I’ve ever cried as an adult.

I’d just spent a week away from Candy while her ex-boyfriend Phil was in town. She’d told me, “We spent so much time together. I can’t just tell him I can’t see him.” I was finally with her again after he’d gone back home to Chicago.

I suddenly felt my whole body shaking and I didn’t know what was happening until she started pleading, “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.”

I rested my head in her lap. I could barely feel the warmth and softness of her flesh through the layers of wool. I looked up at her, for comfort. She was distractedly pulling her turtleneck as far up her neck as it would reach.

“Why do you keep doing that?” I demanded.
She kept tugging.
“Stop it!”

She got up and left the room. Not mad, not hurt, just confused. We ended up making out that evening. We always ended up making out. But I drove home feeling her confusion.

I type her name into Google. “Candy Morrison.” There are about 11,000,000 results including images of a nude model with very large breasts. After spending a moment eyeing those, I scroll down hoping for some sign of my Candy.

Google is amazing. I can usually find anything about everything. Why am I having such a hard time finding what’s become of her?

I was smitten. Only days after tears had overwhelmed me, I’d almost forgotten about Phil – and Candy was trying hard to please me as if still feeling my harsh words. She kept pulling her collar down and pushing her sleeves up past her elbows. There was something lighter about the fabric of her dress and her lips were the shiniest I’d ever seen them.

The excitement of seeing so much exposed skin on her was intoxicating. Was she finally opening herself up to me? Maybe she’d needed that time alone with Phil so she could forget him?

Such were my thoughts as we cuddled on her couch, the passion of our kisses growing with each pause for breath. My fumbling hands found the zipper at the base of her neck and began to glide the tab downward, slowly separating the teeth. The zipper offered no resistance and she didn’t either. I kept kissing her and she kept kissing me back.

The tab slid past her lower back and I paused to press my hand against her skin. It felt softer, smoother than I’d imagined. I slid the tab until it stopped at the top of her panties and then, unannounced, her dress tumbled from her shoulders revealing tiny bare breasts, perfect morsels. Instinctively I took one into my mouth.

I looked up into her eyes expecting an invitation to continue and saw instead the fear of a wounded, terrified, cornered doe. Guilt hit me. I suddenly felt a rapist.

I placed her dress back over her shoulders and slid the tab back up along her backbone, re-clenching the teeth along the way. I sat back against the throw pillows at the end of the couch catching my breath. She curled up against the pillows at the other end, the couch seeming twenty feet long.

I didn’t know what to say so I started, “Candy, I love…”
She interrupted, “If I ever get pregnant, I’ll die.”

As always with Candy, she was dramatic one day, calm the next. I saw her two days later and she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt for the first time since I met her. She always looked sexy to me, but that day she was making me dizzy.

We were having lunch at her apartment and I noticed an unopened letter on the counter. It was from him. She had it in plain sight just begging for me to notice it. When she saw I had, she said, “It’s over. I wanted you to see that so you could see this.” She picked it up and tore it in half, dramatically dropping the halves into the garbage.

Her gesture was a relief to me. But in bed that night I imagined her fishing it back out, reading it tearfully, and leaving the next day for Chicago, never to be seen again. It felt like a “do something now or it’s over” moment. The fear of losing her kept me awake.

The next day I called her best friend Marlene and asked her to meet me at the mall. We spent four hours going from one jewelry store to the next. I trusted she knew Candy’s taste better than anyone.

“What do you think?” I asked, pointing at a ½ carat Marquise.
“Have you dropped any hints?” she asked.
“Sure I have… Or do you think she’d prefer that one?” I pointed at a round cut.
“What has she said?” she asked.
“I think I like the round one best,” I said.
Quietly, she said, “No, I think she’s more of a Marquise girl.”

The whole time I knew her I only saw Candy drive once. She was terrified, but she wouldn’t tell me why. She just insisted that I always drive. This complicated my big evening.

I wanted to pop the question in my living room before a roaring fire after a nice meal over glasses of wine. It was just some romantic image I had floating through my head. This meant that I would have to drive across town to pick her up and drive her all the way back to my place, something sure to arouse suspicion. She’d never seen my house before.

“Where are we going?” she asked.
“It’s a surprise.” I said.
“Oh,” she said.

I pulled into my driveway and parked. “I thought it was about time you saw my place,” I said.

I hopped out and started toward the door and saw that she was still sitting in the car. Like a gentleman, I went back and opened her door for her. I allowed her to go ahead of me. “After you,” I said.

I unlocked the front door and pushed it inward. She hovered over the threshold for a moment before going inside. Dinner had been slow cooking all day. “It smells really good in here,” she finally said.

And it did. I had everything planned. I was setting the perfect mood. The table was set and candles were already flickering in the dimly lit dining room. I’d been waiting for years to finally share my house with someone. Hopefully my queen-sized bed too that I’d bought two years earlier at the urging of a lady friend. She’d told me, “Come on. Go for it. You won’t be a bachelor forever.”

I took her coat, folded it carefully, and draped it on my bed. I returned to find her fiddling with my stereo, my copy of Kind of Blue in her hands. I remember thinking, “Girl has taste.” I took the record from her and told her to make herself at home while I put it on. Soon, we were relaxing on the couch, her with her eyes closed and head back, and me enjoying the sight of her while the strains of Miles Davis drifted through the room.

Dinner went as planned. Everything tasted perfect and by the third glasses of wine we were both laughing and listening to records like two college roommates.

As we moved to the fireplace with a fire already blazing, I was just drunk enough, just relaxed enough, and just happy enough to ignore how fast my heart was racing. The moment was here. Now I just had to do it.

“Candy. I said I have a surprise for you,” I said.
“Yes. Thank you. The evening has been wonderful,” she said.
“Yes it has. And I’m hoping we can have many more wonderful evenings,” I said, pulling the ring out of my pants pocket and holding it before her. I’ll never forget how it sparkled by the light of the fire. “Candy, will you marry me?” I said.

I looked into her eyes. They were deep and green and beautiful. I couldn’t tell what they were seeing, though. They were looking somewhere, but they weren’t looking back into my eyes.

“Take me home,” she said.
“What’s wrong? Please try it on,” I said.

She took the ring from my outstretched hand and rolled it around in her fingers. She handed it back and started walking toward the door. I followed. I didn’t know what else to do. When she went out the door, it was my turn to pause, hovering over the threshold. Then I stepped out into the night, closing the door behind us.

We drove back to her apartment in silence. She let herself out and as she closed the door I spoke my last word to her, “Candy…”

I started to feel the wine as I slowly drove home. I was lucky the cops were somewhere else that evening. Getting pulled over would’ve really made my night. When I got home, I poked at the embers until they were no longer glowing, went to the bathroom and stood before the mirror wondering why that guy staring back was such a loser, and then went to bed.

I finally started sobbing when I turned on my bedroom light and saw Candy’s coat still draped carefully across my queen-sized bed.

I type “Candy Morrison Phil” into Google and sit staring at the screen. Damn, Phil. Phil what? Candy never said his last name. Adding just “Phil” to my search isn’t going to get me any closer to the truth. It’ll just take me to a nude model with very large breasts again.

I click the search button anyway.

About a week after the big evening, I got a call from Marlene.

“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but Candy packed up and left for Chicago yesterday. I’ve never seen her like this,” she said.

I was speechless. I wasn’t over Candy. How can you get over someone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with in only six days? I was still hoping she’d change her mind and ask me for the ring. It took me another two weeks after she left before I finally returned it to the jeweler.

“Scott? Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes. Sorry. I have to go,” I said and hung up.

For the next two months, I didn’t do much. I sat around the house. I’d lost my taste for Kind of Blue and started listening to The Rolling Stones while drinking Jack Daniels. I remember “Dead Flowers” being a favorite.

I would go out and take long drives, nowhere in particular. One day, I was at a stop light and a familiar car drove through the intersection, a VW bug, vintage ’64. It jumped right out at me. It was light blue and had these funny, homemade bumpers made of oak. It belonged to Candy’s dad. But what made my heart race was Candy was driving.

When the light changed, I followed. She was driving slowly, cautiously as if the car was as fearful as her. I kept a safe distance feeling like a private investigator in some film noir. I followed her to the edge of town and away toward the mountains. We headed up the pass. I remembered her saying “Isn’t this drive gorgeous?” And I looked about and thought “Yes. It is.”

I knew where she was going long before she got there. It was no surprise that she took the turnoff for Snoqualmie Falls. I wondered why she was going there. The only time she’d ever been there was with me on our first date. Was she re-living that day? She parked near the lookout point and I parked at the far end of the parking lot and watched her from my car.

She got out and walked over to the railing and started fiddling with the coin operated telescope. There was a mom with her little girl standing nearby. The girl was licking a huge, rainbow colored lollypop. Candy kept looking over at them and then pretending to peer through the telescope.

The mom and girl wandered away out of sight eventually and I decided it was my chance to go try to talk to her. But before I could open the car door, in the blink of an eye, Candy climbed up onto the railing and jumped. I ran to the edge as fast as I could and looked down. Through the mist, I could see her body on the rocks far below.

I think “George,” “George Morrison.” That was her dad’s name. I type “Candy George Morrison Seattle” into Google and click “I’m feeling lucky.” And suddenly I find myself reading an obituary. George died just a few weeks ago from a freak fall from a ladder. He was survived by Candy (Morrison) Oaks and two grandchildren Jason and Olivia Oaks ages nine and eleven.

Oaks! Phil Oaks! I type “Candy Phil Oaks Chicago” into Google and there she is, or rather there they are. The first suggested image is of little Olivia holding up a trophy and wearing a swimsuit. Little Jason is frowning and Phil has his hand on Olivia’s shoulder. He’s smiling proudly.

Off to one side, a distance away, is Candy – looking older, but still my Candy. My eyes go straight to her hands tightly clutching the sleeves of her long, chaste wool dress.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Finn and Sam

The fingers of his left hand nimbly dance up and down the fret board, his right hand motionlessly plucking the strings in fanciful patterns. What comes out is from some magical place between folk and classical.

Finn has been playing guitar for seventeen years, ever since he was a boy of eight, but he’s never played with such passion. He’s performing for Sam, trying to set the mood. There’s a diamond ring resting in the pocket of his jeans draped over the bedpost waiting for the right moment, a moment they’ve both been anticipating since Valentine’s Day when she gave him pink heart shaped candies with the words “Marry Me” printed in rose red.

She’s 23. Her full name is Samantha, but don’t get caught calling her that. She’s sturdy, stocky and a Tomboy with a capital T. She wears her blond hair clipped short – to keep it out of her way. Brushing hair away from one’s eyes may be flirtatious fun for her friends, but it has no place in her life. Finn loves her hair short. Better to see her dazzling green eyes, her most striking feature. He’s been smitten since their first date when he narrowly escaped drowning in them.

Finn is her soul mate. He’s wiry, quiet and quick of foot and a bit softly effeminate of voice. His shadow could pass for a boy or a girl and nobody would think twice if he walked out the door one day wearing eye-liner or a wig. But androgyny can be a curious thing. He’s slight, but that didn’t keep him off the football field each fall. He could outrun the entire conference and was impossible to bring down. He wasn’t strong. He simply avoided being caught.

Sam is reclining on the bed with Finn, her head lazy from pot, his music fluttering about and smoke drifting over and through the curves of their naked bodies. She smiles, her mind lingering over the passions of the past hour. She looks up and is startled to see him smiling back. She blushes, kisses him on the rear end, and hops off the bed.

“I’m going to make coffee,” she says. She leaves, still naked, while Finn stretches out and continues playing, louder so Sam can still hear.

She pauses before entering the kitchen. The windows are boarded up, there are cracked open cases of canned food in the corner, and bottles of water line the counter top. She hesitates, wishing this reality would go away. She still hears him playing, but other sounds now fill her head – horrible, clawing, incessantly scratching sounds. She carefully pulls a knot-hole from a board covering the window and peeks outside. Her thighs begin to tremble slightly and she slaps them to make them stop.

“You really shouldn’t look outside?” Finn says as he covers her shoulders with her robe.

She slides the knot back into place and picks up a bottle of water. She crosses herself and says, “Please dear Mary,” before turning the knob on the stove. Flames ignite and burn brightly. They both know the day is coming when her prayer will no longer be answered. She starts making coffee.

“Time for my chore,” he says.
“Screw domesticity,” she says.
“You’re still making coffee,” he says.
She shrugs.

“I’ll be quick. Latch the door behind me.” Still naked, he plucks up a bag of garbage. “I’ll be quick. Don’t want anyone to see my bare ass.”

He unlatches the kitchen door and dashes outside; she quickly latches it behind him. She plucks the knot back out of the board covering the window and watches, her thighs immediately trembling again. She doesn’t care now.

Finn reaches the middle of the yard and then does a skidding, sharp turn like a character in a Roadrunner cartoon. Then he angles toward the end of the driveway where a dumpster has been pushed as far from the house as possible until its wheels got stuck in a patch of grass and mud. You can see the smell. Garbage bags are spilling all about. Garbage men stopped coming long ago. He makes it to the dumpster, but it is always the trip back that’s tricky.

The first to appear, blocking his path is Mr. Christianson from two houses down the street. He used to be a plumber and always wore the same green overalls and red cap. He always had a lively skip to his step, clearly a happy plumber. Today though, like every other day lately, he’s changed. He’s still wearing the cap and the overalls, but the skip has left his step. Instead, he staggers a bit sideways and then lunges forward, gradually moving about. His face is tight like a mask, frozen in a final grimace from the day he died. There’s tattered flesh on the side of his neck, rotten, dangling, and gray. His eyes stare ahead, determined.

Then, out of the corners of her eye, more appear, two from the left, three from the right, all of them blocking Finn’s path back to safety. Her thighs tremble faster.

Finn has been here before though. He gets a kick out of it. He gets down into a three-point stance, looks to the left, then to the right, and is off and running. He runs straight up to Mr. Christianson, stopping just short of his groping grasp, tweaks his red cap playfully and is around him with a quick sidestep and a twirl. He makes similarly easy work with the others as well, but he always cuts it too close for Sam. Her whole body is trembling as she unlatches the door, lets him in, and pushes it shut behind him. He notices her trembling and takes her in his arms and holds her.

She returns to the stove. He returns to the bedroom. She can hear the notes from his guitar again drifting out the bedroom door, down the hall, and through the living room as she pours two cups of coffee. She turns around and... One of the cups crashes to the floor.

Outside, Mr. Christianson slowly turns to see Finn prance back into the house. The other zombies gathering in the yard – nine by the time Finn escaped – all look confused and dejected, if such feelings can be attributed to the walking dead. But Mr. Christianson presses on, side-stepping and lunging after Finn as he has so many times previously. It’s a routine. Everything in the life of the dead is routine. Finn’s adventures outside are what he – uh – lives for.

He reaches the door. He stumbles against it and turns to stumble away, but is surprised to see the door swing inward. He wavers side to side with uncertainty and then shuffles inside. And there she is just a few feet away. He lets out a groan that emanates from his bowels as she turns toward him holding coffee cups, startled. Fear glazes her eyes. Her mouth opens but is silent. She drops one of the cups with a crash.

He lunges toward her. She’s trapped. She tries to run past him, but he reaches out and grabs hold. Zombies are dead, but they’re remarkably strong. She is in his grasp, helpless. She screams “Inside!” as rotting teeth sink into her shoulder.

Finn is relaxing on the bed, wiggling into his jeans with one hand while strumming his guitar with the other when he hears the cup shatter across the floor and hears her scream.

And he is instantly in motion, no movement wasted. He’s rehearsed this moment in his mind many times while hoping the tables would be turned and it would be Sam rushing to his aid. He’s off the bed in a flash, the guitar bouncing on the sheets, the box still ringing with his final notes. He runs from the room.

He grabs a Ruger Blackhawk from a holster on the wall in the hall without looking. No need to check if it’s loaded. It always is. He dashes through the living room and skids into the kitchen taking in the situation at a glance. Two more zombies are halfway in through the open door. Point blank he puts a bullet through the head of the first one and he crumples to the kitchen floor. He kicks the other in the chest and she tumbles backwards outside. He slams the door and latches it.

He turns, places the barrel against Mr. Christianson’s head and pulls the trigger. Brains and skull spray the kitchen wall. Sam breaks free and collapses into Finn’s arms. He holds her. They’re both sobbing now. A tear runs down his cheek as he watches blood from her bite wound pulse out, flow down her arm, and drip into a puddle on the floor.

Sam is breathing quickly and shallowly. Her shoulder is bandaged and she’s propped up against pillows on the bed. He takes the ring from his pocket and slips it onto her left ring finger. This, ever so briefly, coaxes out Sam’s last little smile.

Finn sits facing her, serenading her. The revolver rests on the bed beside him. He sings:

“Childhood living is easy to do/The things you wanted, I bought them for you/Graceless lady, you know who I am/You know I can't let you slide through my hands…”

The passion in his playing is laced with melancholy, the sadness a musician feels during a final performance. While he plays, he watches Sam’s final performance.

Every time she takes a breath, there is a terrible rattling sound in her chest like she’s drowning and her eyes become frightened. When she exhales, her arms stiffen and then she finds a bit of peace for a moment. And then the whole thing happens all over again, each time the peace lasting just a bit longer. Finally, the peace goes on and on. She doesn’t inhale again. Her head rolls slightly against the pillows and her eyes close.

Finn lays the guitar on the bed and picks up the revolver. He studies her face; waiting for the moment he knows is coming. Death always follows the same script nowadays.

It starts with her legs cramping up, toes turning inward. Then there is a gurgle from her belly and a flatulent smell. Her arms curl into an awkward position with her palms facing upward, her hands twisting into claws. Then her neck stretches to its full length and the skin on her face draws tight, her mouth assuming a wild animal snarl. And then her eyes pop open, staring straight ahead.

He tries not to meet her gaze. He just lifts the revolver and points it at her head. He closes his eyes and silently prays and then opens them again. She is sitting upright and one hand is groping toward him. And then his eyes meet hers and he can’t help it. He’s smitten all over again. Everything about her has become grotesque from head to toe, except her eyes, those dazzling green eyes as deep as the deepest pond. There’s nothing to save him this time. He drowns in them, willingly.

Finn forms a box with his hands, blocks everything else out, and looks into Sam’s eyes. And he suddenly has his love back on the bed with him. There is no horror in those eyes, no hunger to devour, just desperate pleading.

The gun drops from his hand. He blows her a kiss and walks from the room. He opens the kitchen door and goes outside. The zombies have dispersed and he heads toward the woods behind the house. He’s in no hurry. As long as he keeps walking, he knows they won’t be able to catch him.

He walks deep into the woods, darker and still deeper, until he abruptly emerges into a clearing. He stands before an almost perfectly round pool with a stream trickling in on one side and another trickling the water away again on the other. There is a bit of sand and a bench. He sits facing the water.

He and Sam used to come here to relax before the zombies. He has so many memories here with her. Now, they flood is mind.

He used to be so nervous when he performed on amateur nights at the Sand Dollar. He’d spend his minutes of preparation in the men’s room trying to throw up, but failing. Not even that relief was going to help get him through the evening. He’d take the stage and sheepishly gaze into the darkness, lights glaring in his eyes. He’d start playing, fearing that his fingers had forgotten what to do, but the music always found its way out. He was never sure what the crowd thought. All he’d hear was shuffling of chairs and clinking of bottles.

One night when he wrapped up and started putting his guitar back into its case, he heard polite applause and was pleased that it lasted long enough to seem sincere. Then he heard a single voice coming from far away, booing.

He got up to leave and turned as the house lights came up. He could see a young woman seated at a table in the far corner booing; or rather it was a parody of booing. She kept cupping her hands over her smiling mouth to help her voice carry and then she’d resume clapping. When she realized she’d been spotted, she waved. A waitress arrived at the same moment and sat two beers on the table.

They wasted no time. The evening’s conversation covered all the bases. Same religion: check. Both wanted kids: check. Both wanted about three kids: check. (She preferred boys, he girls.) Who is better, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles? Why, the Kinks of course: check. They were between the sheets together that night. Within a week, they didn’t bother with sheets, they just ran out into the woods, stripped, and jumped into the pond together.

One night, they pitched a tent just a few feet from the water’s edge. They spent the night making love to a symphony of crickets and frogs. He awoke in the morning while she was still sleeping. While walking back to the house to shower for work he noticed something in his pockets, pebbles maybe? He started pulling out little Valentine’s Day candies, every one bearing the words “Marry Me.” He turned around and spent the entire day with her in that tent.

Finn hears the crunching of leaves and turns his head, expecting to see zombies, perhaps with Mr. Christianson leading the way. Instead, he sees Sam slowly moving toward him. She’s gripping his guitar in one hand, its body dragging the ground emanating curious vibrations like music.

She staggers up to the bench and stands wavering above him. She slumps down beside him and sinks her teeth into his throat. He reacts as if they’re making out. He doesn’t pull away. She growls hungrily. He wraps his arms around her and closes his eyes.

He falls, taking her to the grass with him. He opens his eyes to see her face and cringes. Then he regains his courage, forming a square with his hands so he can only see her green eyes. He begins to shiver calmly and closes his eyes again.

The next time he opens them, they will be together, forever.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


My dad got me an ice cream cone for the drive over. It made me giddy. It didn’t seem odd that it was the first time he’d ever bought me a treat without my having to beg and whine. All I really cared about was licking every last drop of chocolate mint as it ran down my wrist.

I hung my head out the rolled down window like a dog so I could smell each house as it passed by – bacon, motor oil, fertilizer. Sometimes I couldn’t place the smells, but filed them away fondly anyway.

It was an old street, one where every house looked different than the ones next to it as if each had been built during a different year by a different mind with a different concept of beauty. But all the houses did have two things in common – a crumbling sidewalk with each slab either a half inch higher or lower than the next and an identical oak tree in the middle of the front yard, its branches splaying out in perfect angles for climbing, its roots the cause of the sad sidewalk.

As always, as soon as our car swung into the driveway I jumped out before it stopped moving and ran toward the front door which was always swinging open at the same instant as if my grandpa had been waiting, watching with his hand on the knob all morning.

That day, though, something caught my eye and I stopped. Grandpa’s house was on a bend in the street which caused it to share a bit of driveway with the neighbor’s house and caused the two houses to almost face each other. I always imagined the houses were watching each other.

What caught my eye was a little girl about my age wearing a bright yellow dress playing on a swing in that opposing front yard. The swing was made out of a red board, part of an old wagon, and it hung from the oak tree on two ropes, one short and one long to allow for the slope of the branch. A man was gently pushing the girl on the swing back and forth. They were both laughing.

When the girl saw me, she waved and said, “Who’s she daddy?”

I started to walk toward her, but my dad took me by the arm and led me toward grandpa. I looked up at him, about to whine for the first time that day, and saw a hurried, worried look in his eyes. I think I saw grandpa give him a slight nod as he patted me on the back and closed the front door. I turned to watch my dad walk quickly back to his still running car and drive away.

Grandpa waited for me to follow him. He was finding it harder all the time to get around. He didn’t really walk. He waddled. He wore dress pants way over his belly, held up by red suspenders over a sleeveless white t-shirt. His pants were pulled up so high that I could see the tops of his black socks. My friends joked, “Is he expecting a flood?”

He was waddling slower than usual though. He’d usually get ahead of me and have to waddle back to hurry me along as I stopped to peek in the coat closet. That’s where he kept the basketball and Hula Hoops. But he stayed right with me as if he was leading me somewhere.

Before we were halfway across the living room, I already knew we’d find grandma waiting in the kitchen, the smell of peach pie lifting me from my feet and carrying me away. And, there she was all pajamas, apron, and a smile. Two plates were set out on the table, each with a still steaming slice of pie and a scoop of quickly melting vanilla ice cream. One can never have too much ice cream I thought and licked my wrist.

I never saw her eat though, ever. Even when we had Thanksgiving dinner, she never sat down. She was always running back and forth between the table and the kitchen for more gravy, sweet potatoes, or pickles. I just figured that’s how she always stayed so skinny.

Grandpa didn’t notice the plates. He and grandma just kept looking at each other like they were having a silent conversation. He led me toward the basement door and she kept walking toward it as if to get in our way. We all arrived at the same time. Grandpa cleared his throat and grandma scurried away. He reached for the doorknob and gave it a twist – I swear he would’ve done so even if she was still there, his hand passing through her like a ghost. A gust of cool air blew against my bare legs and I shivered just slightly. He led me down the stairs.

Going down into the basement seemed to be a journey like going to a faraway fantasyland, the smells of the kitchen dissolving into smells just as memorable of film, dust, and mildew. I imagined I was walking down into the past.

Grandpa wasn’t a movie buff. If he was, those basement walls would’ve been covered with posters from Gone with the Wind or some such movies instead of old calendars and cobwebs. But he loved to take movies of his family, and he loved showing them off – his family and his movies. Almost all of my memories are of him holding a movie camera. I even had dreams when I was a kid where he had a camera instead of a nose. I always expected to end up in his basement, his theater, every time I visited.

He sat in his big leather chair by the projector and patted his knee. I hopped up and leaned back against him, my feet dangling far from the floor and said, “Let her roll.” He switched off the light and flipped the switch on the projector into the up position.

There was a bit of clickety-clacking as the film started feeding through the projector. The first images were white with a streak of red down the middle. Then images of my dad and my grandpa burst onto the screen. My dad was a little boy and grandpa looked so young, so handsome. Dad was climbing the oak tree in the front yard, he wasn’t climbing very high. Grandpa held his hands out to catch him if he fell anyway.

Grandpa seemed nervous. There was something heavier about his breathing and he kept saying, “Hm,” the way he always did when he was about to say something important. Then he started to talk:

“That house used to be so nice, so pretty. It was freshly painted green with white trim and had pink rose bushes all along the front. The smells of fresh baked bread drifted out through the kitchen window every morning. Mrs. Shelton could always be seen at the window adjusting her apron and smiling. Mr. Shelton would head outside in the cool of the morning to mow and edge the lawn, trimming extra carefully along the sidewalk. The sidewalks were happy then.”

I kept watching the movie as I listened. The scene had changed to grandma bringing grandpa and dad lemonade and sandwiches on the porch and then sitting back to watch them eat. Grandpa’s story continued drifting into my ears like narration:

“After Mr. Shelton had a heart attack, Mrs. Shelton moved away to be closer to her kids. The house sat empty for months. Times were tough and houses weren’t selling. And they were getting closer all the time.”

“Who was grandpa?”

“It all started when the meat plant opened just past the turnpike. All those animals, those niggers started to go there to work and to move in little by little, closer and closer. Then some of them moved in just down the street and the weeds started to grow. And the smells started too.”

I glanced over my shoulder at him. “Smells?”

“Every time a nice family took a look at the house next door, mom and I got our hopes up. Then we’d cry when we realized they weren’t coming back.

“Then they showed up. They didn’t even have the sense to think about it. They took one look and just moved right in.”

The movie on the screen went back to white with a streak of red down the middle and then the end flapped out of the projector, the reel spinning quickly, wildly.

“It makes me sick. The parties and the cars parked on the lawn, crushing the rose bushes. There were people stumbling in and out all day and night cussing and throwing up. And the smells coming from inside the house were so bad the paint started peeling down the sides of the house. It was like the house was crying along with Grandma and me.”

Grandpa took a long breath. “I don’t know how to tell you this.”
“What grandpa?”
“They don’t even use the bathroom. They just go wherever they are in the house and then they try to cover it up like cats. It makes me want to throw up.”

Grandpa reached over and switched the projector off. He threaded the film back into its original plastic reel, flipped the switch down, and the film raced back to where it came. He pulled the reel off the projector and carefully slid it back into its little yellow Kodak box. He plucked another box from the shelf and fed the film through the projector.

When images of me at my first birthday party filled the screen, he started to chuckle. He was breathing easier now and I leaned against his belly and started to laugh along with him.

I always lost track of time while in the basement with grandpa. We probably watched dozens of movies that day, so many memories of my dad and me. He finally said “time to give the eyes a rest” and we slipped off his leather chair and went upstairs.

Going up was usually like returning through time to be welcomed again by the smells of grandma’s kitchen. That day though, it felt like the past was following us up each step like fog from an old horror movie. There weren’t any smells of peach pie still lingering and the ice cream was gone. I licked my wrist hungrily and tasted only dust. And where was Grandma? Her craft room door was closed and I could hear her sewing machine whirring like it always did when she wanted to be alone.

Then I noticed that grandpa was gone too. He was no longer following me. I checked his bedroom thinking maybe he’d slipped away for his afternoon nap. Then I saw him out on the front porch, just standing there. I went outside.

He was staring at the house next door and saying “Hm” softly over and over. He reached his hand out without looking and I took it. His hands were rough and pudgy and one of his fingers was only half as long as it should’ve been. He called it his “saw finger.”

I stared at the neighbor’s house too. The girl and her dad were no longer playing on the swing, it was empty, swinging side to side instead of back and forth and twisting slightly in the wind that was starting to blow. The sun and the oak tree were in just the right places to cast shadows on their front porch that looked like a twisted hand.

I kept squeezing grandpa’s saw finger and wondering about the gaps in the flower bed where rose bushes used to be and about the tears of paint peeling down the side of the house.


“Your boots look like a couple a dogs yapping,” Carlie sneers.

Margie stops, eyes downcast, looking at her boots. They are big and floppy and furry, laces trailing behind. It’s amazing she doesn’t trip and tumble with every step.

“Hey, I love my boots,” Margie replies.

But Carlie has already lost interest and moved on, her damage already done. She’s skinny, too skinny, and wears plenty of her older sister’s makeup. She’s twelve.

Margie watches Carlie and her followers disappear around the corner toward the lockers. She glances down at her feet. With a sigh, she stoops and laces the boots snugly against her ankles.

It’s the first week of school at Roosevelt Junior High. All is chaos as dazed seventh graders wander the maze of indoor halls like too many mice in search of too little cheese. Activities groups are seeking members and several kids have gathered around a bulletin board, momentarily distracted by the posted announcements.

Margie pauses at a drinking fountain and pretends to drink until the others move on. She finds the sign-up sheet for band. The three openings for flute auditions are almost filled:
1. Carlie
2. Dylan

The bell rings, but her eyes remain focused on line 3. She lifts a pen hanging from a string and writes “M-a-r-.” Then she scribbles out the letters and hurries to class.

At the end of the school day, Margie waits until the halls are quiet. The wind blows and only leaves scatter across the school lawn now. She unlaces the boots, allowing them once again to yap and breathe. A bounce returns to her step. She’s going to let the laces dangle all the way home.

But she’s not alone, entirely. A boy has been watching from down the hall, around the corner. He smiles and pulls his cap over his eyes. Another boy zips past him on a skateboard. “Dylan. The park. 5 minutes.” Dylan drops his board to the ground, flips it twice with his foot, and glides away after him.

Margie nudges her boots from her feet. As the first plunks to the floor, a kitten climbs up the sides and settles into its warmth. She folds the sides up carefully around it and loosely ties the laces.

Margie’s room is a clutter of throw pillows, a scratching post, papers, and, rising from the mess, a neatly arranged row of posters. Straggly haired boys named Yuki, Kyo, and Shugure. A single manga girl named Tohru completes the set. There is a lonely music stand in the corner with sheet music spilling to the floor like a waterfall.

Margie settles into her bed and pulls a blanket over her legs. An aging orange tabby tries to jump onto the bed, but doesn’t make it – claws ripping the sheets all the way back down to the floor. Margie leans over and lifts the cat onto the bed. Stroking its fur she purrs, “It’s okay Kyo. It’s okay.” The cat closes its cataract-filled eyes.

Without looking, Margie plucks a remote from her nightstand and presses the power button. Her television comes to life showing a blue DVD screen. She stretches her leg out as far as it will reach and presses play with her big toe.

She watches a scene in the middle of an anime television show. A young girl is sitting expectantly in a chair while kids’ playful laughter can be heard. Suddenly, a kid shouts, “Rice Ball!” and the girl leaps from her chair and runs off-screen to join the others.

Margie stretches out her foot and presses the fast-backward button as the action races back in time. She lets go and the episode begins again. The scene is Tohru’s childhood memory of a moment when she went from an outcast to someone accepted by the other kids. Margie watches again up to the happy exclamation, “Rice Ball!” She runs the DVD back and watches again, “Rice Ball!”

She nudges the stop button with her toe and lies back against her pillow, still stroking Kyo’s fur. She exhales as if she’s been holding her breath her whole life. She slides off the bed, lowers to her knees, and starts digging for something under her bed. She pulls out a flute case.

Settling back against her pillow, she opens the case, removes the pieces of the flute, and assembles them without needing to look, her practiced hands knowing exactly what to do. She raises it to her lips and blows across the mouthpiece. The sound is hollow and airy. She grimaces, adjusts the mouthpiece, wets her lips, and tries again.

And what comes out is a lovely, lilting melody, a tune from the television show she was just watching.

Margie stands outside the door to the band room, holding her flute case. She’s wearing different jeans, but the same sweatshirt. Her boots are tightly laced. She listens through the closed door.

Someone is playing the flute. The tone is filled with air and there are wrong notes fluttering everywhere. All else is quiet in the room, almost hushed. Margie takes the doorknob in her hand and pauses. She hides the flute case under her sweatshirt, opens the door, and goes inside.

She takes a seat in the back as Carlie finishes her audition. The teacher says, “Nice job Carlie.” A girl in the second row giggles. Carlie flashes the girl a glare and she shuts right up.

The teacher says, “Okay Dylan. Are you ready now?”

Dylan gets up and saunters toward the front of the room. Stopping short, he glides the last few steps like a skateboarder with an invisible board. Kids laugh and he pauses to soak it in.

Carlie laughs the loudest until she glimpses Margie trying to hide her laughter. Then Carlie turns serious.

Dylan pulls his cap over his eyes and starts playing. He plays well – or at least well compared to Carlie. There is an assured casualness about him, his tone is clear, and he hits mostly the right notes. And those notes that he does miss don’t bother him.

When he finishes, he lifts his cap and glides away just as he arrived. There’s more laughter mixed with applause.

The teacher says, “Okay Margie. Are you ready?”
“What?” she gulps.
“You signed up.”
“I didn’t—“

Margie pulls her flute case out from under her sweatshirt and opens it. She assembles it slowly.

“Come on. I still need to hear the trumpets.”

She gets up, still adjusting the mouthpiece and hurries toward the front of the room. A girl nudges her foot ever so slightly into the aisle and Margie trips over it, falling to the floor in a sprawl. Her flute clanks across the floor and one of the keys breaks off and slides under Dylan’s chair.

Shaken and embarrassed, Margie gets to her feet and starts to run from the room, but a voice stops her.

“You can use mine,” Dylan says.

Margie wipes her tears and takes the offered flute. She makes her way to the front of the room and pauses, hoping the shaking will go away, afraid to look at anyone.

“Would you like to wait a bit?” the teacher asks.

Margie doesn’t answer. She raises the flute to her lips and plays.

Margie walks in through the school doors, quickly escaping the now howling winds and blowing snow. She is once again wearing her big, funny, floppy boots with laces dangling. She sees another girl walking toward the lockers wearing boots, also dangling and yapping.

“I love your boots,” Margie tells her.
“Thanks,” says the girl.