Artifact

There are short stories and then there are really short stories. Here’s 42 words.

Red's Wrap

The wagon was so small, my mother assembled it on the kitchen table, holding the bolts in her mouth like stubby cigarettes, she built it to last but it’s gone, buried in the attic with the torn stuffed bear he called Billy.

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Waiting in the Waiting Room

In the waiting room
my husband sets down his Thermos
opens his blue backpack
full of New York Times magazines

He pours coffee in the Thermos cup
Pulls down his mask to sip
Selects the first of a dozen
Begins at page one, settles in for the wait

I see him reading about Thai food
how people in Thailand love to eat
and talk about eating, so says the NYT
the pictures are of green cake, many slices

He gathers recipes in his head, exotic things
not the cake, he doesn’t bake, he reads,
nods when I go with the nurse, no kiss, a wave
he is ensconced and unworried, patient

________________

Photo by R O on Unsplash

99 New: Toothy

Red's Wrap

I told the dentist that the gold crown in his hand which he was about to re-cement on my #15 had been put in forty years ago by a dentist who, because I had no dental insurance at the time, let me pay off the $250 charge in $25 increments. Today’s dentist was astonished by this as if it was a fable involving talking bunnies rather than a real life experience and he then proceeded to tell me about all the new dental technology as if I hadn’t been to a dentist since. (He skipped over the payment plan part.) It was sweet in a way, his desire to update me, but it quickly became tiresome so I told him about how the gold crown dentist used to sing to me while he was working and that disconcerted today’s dentist much like it had me forty years ago.

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100 Word Story: Monument

The sand was soft, not packed hard like she’d imagined. It made running down
the giant dune wild and hard. She liked this, the risk and the sun going down.
It had been a dream.

The ranger waved his arms, shouted words that floated out over the lake. She
waved back, thrilled to be seen, her solitariness a trophy.

She built a stone tower on a log still wet from its voyage and considered
her luck to be strong and fearless.

Behind her, the dune rumbled and shifted, silent in the waves’ roar, until
the sand was at her back.

Thanksgiving Hat

Thanksgiving makes me miss everything.

My parents, my kids when they were young, my old hometown, my grandmother’s house, my dead dogs and cats, accomplishment, potential, myself.

It is hard to explain this without sounding depressed. I am not depressed, not really. What I am is old. And, despite having been old for a good while, I am still astonished by the passage of time. What set me off most recently was this picture.

I remember that hat. It was a big thick hat that protected me from the harsh winter and stiff wind of Flint, Michigan. And I remember the coat – a car coat with a stand-up collar and big buttons. I was probably wearing a turtleneck sweater and wool skirt with high boots. At 22, I was on my third college with a year or two to go but I was going someplace. I was going to be somebody – I just didn’t know who.

I thought I had all the time in the world. And I did. Ridiculously more time than many people, unearned good fortune, surprisingly smooth sailing after a few rocky years pushing out from shore. And even now, comparatively few worries – there are some significant ones, but I’ve grown calluses around them that numb their impact.

Still.

Gratitude is sweet and functional and good for one’s mental health. And if you’re an older person, wise, as well, because gratitude keeps you in a restful, content state, the way you felt as a child when you got everything you wanted for Christmas and arranged the gift display in your bedroom. You temporarily suspended thinking about what you wanted next year to revel in this year’s bounty. As old people, we are supposed to appreciate the bounty, stay in that place in our heads.

Instead, I am missing everyone and everything. Myself. That hat.

It’s temporary. I blame Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving Eve

When I was eight or nine, my family moved from a little town in western Michigan to Detroit. In Hastings, the town where my mother grew up, we lived in a house my dad built across the school playground from my grandmother’s house. It was a great house and a wonderful town, and we were all happy there except my dad who wanted to own a Ben Franklin store and the only one he could buy was in Detroit. After we moved, every trip back to Hastings, especially the Thanksgiving trip, was a weird stew of grieving, worship, and reading the Ripley’s Believe It or Not paperback my grandmother had on her bookshelf. Here’s my description of my mother preparing the Thanksgiving turkey for the three-hour drive from Detroit back to the holy land, probably around 1958 or so.

How to Transport a Thanksgiving Turkey (originally published on Dead Housekeeping)

Start by buying a bigger bird than you think you need. It will be frozen solid so don’t wait until the last minute like last year. On Thanksgiving Day, get up at 4:00 a.m. In a dark house with a single kitchen light burning, make stuffing by tearing two loaves of Wonder Bread into little pieces. Add onions and a lot of sage. 

Wash the bird and study the skin for pinfeathers. Pull them out with a paring knife until you can run your hands over the bird’s skin and not feel a single feather. Pack the turkey with stuffing and put it in the oven. Turn off the kitchen light and go back to bed. At 9:00 a.m., when everyone is awake and dressed for Thanksgiving, take the midnight blue roasting pan with the nearly done turkey out of the oven and set it on top of the stove. Put the lid on the roasting pan. Wrap the lidded roasting pan in a dozen layers of the Detroit Free Press and tie with twine. Call one of your children to put their finger on the knots so they are tied nice and tight. Place the wrapped roasting pan on more layers of newspaper in the trunk of the car.

Ride three hours in the blue and white Chevrolet your husband is driving. Listen to your kids in the backseat counting telephone poles and reading Burma-Shave signs. Worry a little that you didn’t buy a big enough bird. Doze off with the smell of roasted turkey heating the car and wake up in your mother’s driveway. See that your brothers are already there and know they are having cocktails and joking in the kitchen. Put the turkey in your mother’s oven and then look for the yellow baster you left in the drawer last year.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks! May you buy a big enough bird and roast it just right. Safe travels – in all ways.

Window Looking

I don’t sleep all that well, I wake up in the night thinking about what to wear to an important meeting, wondering if I dress all in black whether that will date me as if my face wasn’t already enough to date me, and every morning, if I am facing east, I see the sun rising over the few houses that stand between me and Lake Michigan, the cat already curled on the radiator next to the open window, his perch for every beginning day, we don’t know why because it must be cold, although I piled an old blanket on the radiator for him so he could watch the new cardinal visit the bird feeder in the yard as if the cat’s amusement is an ingredient in my good day which it sometimes is, and then tonight, coming home after dark, a bunny scurried from the bushes across the yard, making me love all the creatures, in the house and not, including myself.

________________

Photo by Степан Галагаев on Unsplash

The Elusiveness of Consistent Effort: About Gardening and Other Self-Improvement Activities

The trips out to my insanely untended ‘Victory Garden’ have become more infrequent as the dread at finding still more tomatoes grows. Our neighbor, a man with a new-found farmer avocation, comes by every few days with bags of tomatoes, small ones, medium ones, giant ones. I add them to the tomatoes I pick from the tangled vines of my pitiful garden. The tomatoes are relentless. They aren’t connected to me in any way. They would grow in the middle of a road. They are stronger than me and they know it.

When I trudge through our overly shaded yard to the spot of the ‘garden,’ I think that I should write a blog post entitled, “The Elusiveness of Consistent Effort.” The garden’s hysterical weeds and overgrown-ness is so extreme as to have been planned. But what it is is my passive-aggressive relationship with plants. I love them, the idea of them, the planting of them and then, just as fast as this, I resent their neediness.

Is it really necessary to water them every day? What if it rains?

On the side of our house is a long strip of plants and flowering whatnot. It struck me a few days ago that I may actually have killed a plant that had been around a long time because of my ambivalence about watering so I started watering every afternoon, thinking I could re-coup the damage. After a few days, a few plants started to brighten up but  then it rained and I lost interest.

I was this way about studying Spanish, then Hebrew, then American Sign Language. In love with the idea and regular in my attempts but wandering off mid-way when it became clear that some level of daily involvement would be necessary. You can’t learn ASL by going to a class once a week? You have to practice every day? It’s the same with Tai Chi where I walk in every week as if it’s the first time I’ve ever laid eyes on a Tai Chi-er. I follow her every move, nearly twisting my head out of its socket to watch her because nothing gets wired into my brain. But there I don’t care. There’s no risk of tomatoes.

So I’ve tried to come up with instances where I’ve had consistent effort. I raised four kids although some of them would argue that they mostly raised themselves. I’ve stayed married a long time. That takes consistent effort if only the effort required not to leave when really pissed. I finished a dissertation by writing five pages a day for however many days 250 pages divided by 5 is.

And.

And I have this blog. Now there’s consistent effort. Five years, several hundred posts, frequent, present, trying, watering, occasionally weeding.

So it’s not out of the question that I could have a decent garden someday. Already I’m planning for next year, how I’m going to stay on top of gardening by doing a little bit every day. And how I’m never going to plant another zucchini plant because they become monstrous and take over the entire garden except for the tomatoes that are able to beat the zucchini plants back with baseball bats. You wonder why I don’t water. It would only make them stronger.

It’s important to have some failure as part of your life, some humbling thing, something you can’t help seeing, that reminds you that you are falling short. Your father could work 12 hour days and water his garden, prune the roses, pull the weeds and he could do it in a short-sleeved white dress shirt and a clip-on tie. What’s your excuse, Jan?

You don’t have one, do you. That’s fine. The tomatoes have gone on without you.

______________

Photo by Marc Mueller on Unsplash

 

It’s 13 Degrees in Milwaukee

One of my father’s sayings was “you don’t have to say everything you know.”

I know he said it to me more than once but now I’m wondering why. Certainly, for a long while, well, all the time I was growing up, he didn’t think I knew very much. That changed a bit the day I found him sitting on my back porch reading my dissertation while the rest of us got ready for my graduation ceremony.

“You wrote this?” he said.

“Yes, Dad, I wrote that.”

“Pretty impressive.”

It was so alarming that he’d said such a thing, I can still remember what he was wearing – a white dress shirt with a tie and no suit coat, his left leg crossed over his right, a pencil in his right hand as if he’d thought he’d make comments on my work. It was probably the only time he thought it was okay to say everything I knew.

My dad’s saying, “you don’t have to say everything you know” has had staying power all these many years. I’ve morphed it into “you don’t have to say everything you think.” This latter version is stitched on a pretend t-shirt that I wear nearly every day.

Today’s challenge is not saying everything I think about it being 13 degrees tonight and there being no warming rooms open in Milwaukee for homeless people.

I thought about saying, hey, it’s winter in Wisconsin, why are we waiting until December 1st to officially open the warming rooms and bring people inside? Or, hey, I know everyone is doing the best job they can for homeless people and my heart goes out to you, but can’t we figure out how to open an emergency warming room when freakish weather happens? Or better yet, do you know there are at least 164 people living outside right now, forty of them women, twelve of them over sixty?

Then, I think, is saying something like this helpful? Will saying something make the night less cold? Will it support a warming room planning process months in the making? Will it bolster and support the good people who’ve been trying to figure out places for vulnerable people to stay during the winter? Or will it make people who’ve tried their hardest believe that they’ve failed?

This afternoon, on my way home from the downtown library, I passed a park where there were several tents clustered in one corner – an encampment of homeless folks. I’m really glad for those tents, I thought, grateful that at least some of them were tents that my beloved group, Street Angels, gave to people. The people in them will still be cold, but they’ll be protected from the wind, which is fierce today, 20 miles per hour. The wind made me shrink into myself and keep my mittened hands in my pockets on my block walk to and from the library. I wondered if they had matches, wondered what would happen if they started a fire to keep warm, but I kept driving. I drove home with my books from the library.

I prayed for those folks in the tents and the others without to get through the night. There was no thinking or knowing involved.

Pet Ears Friday Round-Up

Hercules the Cat carried a full roll of toilet paper in his teeth from the bathroom to the door of our bedroom. We base this, not on forensic evidence, e.g. comparing his bite marks to, say, a certain dog that lives here, but by actual eyewitness testimony. This was an extra big roll, don’t you know, qualifying this as, yes, a Herculean achievement.

Long ago, I had a cat who was impregnated by a tomcat who got in through the window of our second story flat. She had her kittens on the top shelf of my closet and it took forever to find her and them. I’m not sure we even knew she was pregnant, there was just suddenly a lot of mewing. It was a long time ago but I remember being lousy with kittens for weeks before we found homes for them all, well, all but one.

My daughter had a hamster once that would go into a stupor from how cold it was in my daughter’s bedroom and could only be brought back to life with a heating pad. This didn’t happen all the time, just once in a while. It was magical how quickly the heating pad would revive him. We never really figured out how to heat that part of the house very well but there were no more hamsters to worry about after she left for college.

There are several parakeets buried in our yard. We never got the hang of keeping birds alive. I just remember buying a lot of cuttlebone and adorable little toys with mirrors right right before each bird dropped dead. A dead bird is truly the dashing of dreams. You have to say goodbye to the idea of having a bird on your finger who will give you a kiss on the nose.

I’m mystified by people who don’t have a dog or a cat or some creature that obligates them to do often unpleasant chores and inhibits their ability to travel. My husband told me about his friend who didn’t want a dog or cat because having one would make it hard to travel to which I said, a person is in one place most of the time and travels only occasionally so why wouldn’t one want a cat on one’s lap or a dog curled around his last important chewed thing? Traveling and being fancy free is so overrated.

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