A Stone Skipping Over Water

Our relationship was like that – here and there only a moment of contact but with enough impact to make a mark. Not a bad one, mind you.

Our mothers played tennis together, and this was how we first met. My mother often dragged me to the courts and left me in the clubhouse with a lunchbox of toys. Even though I would’ve preferred being left at the swimming pool, this wasn’t often possible, but I had an active imagination and could make do with my toys and an almost-house.

One day, I sat upon one of the bamboo sofas with neon palm tree printed cushions (hey, it was the 80’s) and applied makeup to a Barbie head. He came in, looked at me, and said, “That’s terrible, and look at her hair!” It didn’t matter that he was six years older, he sat with me and showed me how to brush the tangles from her hair without ripping it out of her scalp. Why would he play with me? This, I asked my mother.  “He has a little sister. He knows your brother.” Judging by how rarely my brother allowed me to play with him, I couldn’t understand how this was an answer.

<long skip>

He sat with me on the porch of the clubhouse and helped me tear out dresses for my paper dolls. “Don’t be impatient or you’ll rip the folding tabs.” No, I couldn’t abide that. This obsessive trait, we mutually understood.

<long skip>

“Here,” my tennis coach said, “Practice returning Jason’s serve.” It glanced off the top of my racket and hit me in the chin. He crossed the net to have a look at it. “Sorry,” he said and smiled.

<long skip>

I stood beside an outdoor fireplace, plastic cup of keg beer in hand, chatting with another girl. I saw him and he me. “Oh my God! Is that you?” Yes, it was. “How old are you?” I was eighteen. “Really?” We talked for three hours.

<short skip>

I hugged him at his engagement party. By now, he was a dentist, and I was working on my bachelor’s.

<short skip>

I chatted with him at someone else’s engagement party, told him I was married and that I was a teacher. “You’re too smart to do that.” Well, kids need smart teachers. “It was good to see you.” You, too, and it was the last time.

<the stone sinks>

Rain-tinted Glasses

Clouds blanket the sky.  Everything is saturated and squishy, but I take pleasure in the sharp contrasts found only when the land is drenched.  Wet like this, things appear to exist more.  The world looks skewed, as if I have been transported to a realm similar to my own but where every color is deeper, bolder, richer.  Everything is off-set just a bit, distances seem further, and the empty spaces, emptier.

The tree bark is almost as black as the asphalt.  Where they reach into the puffy, gray sky, more naked branches, limbs, and twigs of the white oak are visible in the tops of the trees.  The ultra-green of the pine needles glows when compared to the trunks.  The vinca blossoms are purpler, the fallen leaves burnt orange instead of dry, dull brown.  The tiny, dripping leaves of the boxwoods seemed livelier, and the dormant grass, a warmer shade of beige.

I first felt this shift, this different realm, as a child.  I pulled my mother outside and said, “Look how different everything is!”

“It’s just wet, honey,” she said and went back inside the house.

She didn’t see.  Confounded by her reaction, I focused harder, trying to see the world as it had been when dry.  I couldn’t.  I never have been able to, and I wonder how anyone with eyes can.

Cumberland

It’s a stretch of highway between rolling hills of grazing cows where you will find the thawing carcass of a yeti that tried to go south for the winter, where old wooden ships are playhouses for children, where the crane operated box of chainsaws chews foliage away from traffic, where the cleaved open mountain looms over the lanes, where you may drive through fog or deer or falling rock, where you will stare ahead blankly wishing for the road to end and when it does, you know you are almost home.

Over the Train Tracks and Through the Hood

On my way to my parents’ house, I passed a house where my childhood best friend’s husband grew up.  It’s a square cinderblock house, the kind where one side of the block is coated with ceramic asbestos paint.  It’s a terrible puke-mint-green color with a white door, no shutters, and no shrubbery.  It looks somehow naked without those things.

He hated the house, called it The Cracker Box both because it was the approximate size of a cracker box and because many people in the small, conservative community considered him and his *gasp* divorced mother to be white trash.  His mother is a first rate Hell-bitch.  She once broke her ring and pinkie fingers by slapping him with her rings turned so that the stones were inside her palm.  He came to homeroom bleeding from three cuts on his chin and laughed when I told him.  She was mean and tough but had to be. She had a strong-willed boy to raise with no help from family.  She refused all government aid.

She waited until after he graduated from high school to marry her long-time “boyfriend.”  When she did, she moved out to his lakehouse and sold The Cracker Box.  It’s now Don’s Pawn Shop.  A large fluorescent sign with a giant pistol on top pokes out of the lawn to let potential customers know that cash for Christmas is only a sale away.  It’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen.  Someone I cared about lived there, grew up there, lost his virginity there, and now there’s is a giant pistol on top of a sign in the front yard.  Strange.

Ten Year Reunion

“I’m going to be a mortician,” Heather said as she blew her plume of smoke away from the circle of smokers gathered outside.  Her former classmates stared at her. “But, I’m scared there’s a lot of math involved.”

“I’m pretty sure you have to get a medical degree,” Reuben said. “So, yeah, some.”  Reuben stuffed his butt in the stone planter filled with sand and lit another. “Why do you want to be a mortician?”

“It’s just something I would be good at, and I can do it.”

Heather launched into a story about her mother’s brother. The family wasn’t very close, but when no one heard from him for about a month, she was elected to go visit and see if he was okay. He was not.

“The cops said he had been dead for a few weeks. It smelled pretty bad in there. I remember the sound it made when they pulled him off the recliner.” The daunting task of cleaning and cleaning out his house was left to Heather and her mother. “She couldn’t handle the smell, you know?” Heather’s eyes were wide, and we watched as a wisp of smoke rose from the tip of her cigarette and went straight into her eye. She didn’t even blink. “It didn’t bother me.”

Heather helped her mother make arrangements. She desperately wanted to see the embalming process, but there are rules about that. So Heather went home, booted up her brother’s computer, and watched instructional videos.

“I really want to do it,” she said. “Mom said I could have some of the money from the sale of his house, and that’s how I’m going to use it. I used my part of the money from the yard sale to sign up for a class.”

“Were y’all able to sell everything?” Reuben asked.

“Mostly. What was left, Mom let us divvy up. I took the recliner.”

They didn’t speak for a while, and then Reuben turned to another classmate and said, “So, you’re getting married…”

Type of Fool

I

If we had been lovers, I would’ve been a cliché – alone, lonely, the dinner I cooked for us cooling on the table. When you said you would come, I picked flowers from my garden. My heirloom and confederate roses, the tiny purple blooms on the monkey grass, Gerber daisies, and day lilies I arranged in a Mason jar. Aphids on the rose petals. You didn’t show. You didn’t call, but I didn’t worry. You have always been flaky, flighty. I knew better than to trust, than to depend on you, but I let myself hope. That’s what I get for loving you.

II

I wrote to you, many times – offering help when it wasn’t requested or welcomed. Me being me, I couldn’t help but do it, and you, being you, couldn’t help but spew bile at me. I cried for you, wasted tears. You love your sadness too much, your protection from others. I want you to experience joy, and you refuse. My heart breaks, over and over, for you, and you’ll never give a damn.

III

It began as friendly arguing, batting bad philosophy back-and-forth. What is real? What is love? What are we but a man and a woman, matter, anything that has mass and takes up space? Elementary. I had dreams of silver eagles that gutted and devoured nations. You liked that. You liked me until you didn’t. You told me you’d heard enough from me for a while, to run along and play with someone else. A true verbal slap and I hit back until whatever we were was irreparable. Are you still a zombie, little bird? Did you finally find someone to breathe life into you?

IV

I wanted the best for you, and I wanted you. For years, more than anything. You told me that I was the type of woman a man falls in love with, and that was not the type of woman for you. I used that in a story I wrote. I could kiss you for hours and did a few times, always swallowed whole by your eyes. Because of you, I keep my eyes open. After, I used to catch you watching me, your eyes darting away from mine, like two north poles, repellant. There were times I would’ve done anything for you. I would’ve strayed for you, away from what I knew, from a life and a man that were comfortable. You knew that, and that you didn’t take advantage showed me you were a good man. So many times, I wished that you weren’t.

V

I would trade with you if I could, but I wouldn’t do this for you. It’s too hard, too painful. Maybe you would change your mind if you knew, but you don’t talk to me. We’re strangers now. It was just too much, I guess. I should try harder, but I’m just so damned tired. So tired.

Waiting…a different time.

During the hours that I sat in the waiting room for Oncology, I studied dream interpretation. I bought several books on the subject, and while the doctors radiated my mother, I read about symbolism. The waiting room was large, so large that I could sit alone and never worry that anyone would need to sit next to me. I always sat in the section away from the TV and close to the refreshment center. I kept to myself and spoke to no one. I just read until the nurse called me to go out and pull the car around for my mother.

One Thursday, a woman sat next to me, which forced me stop reading and acknowledge her. She smiled and pointed to my book.  “Dream interpretation,” she said. “Sounds neat.”

“It can be,” I said.

We introduced ourselves and began a lengthy conversation on the symbolism of colors and numbers.

After talking for about ten minutes, she told me that she moved her father in with her family so she could take care of him, her husband, and her three kids. Bone cancer. Even now, I still wince at the thought of it. Not as bad as pancreatic, liver, or colon cancers but bad, very hard to treat, usually fatal. He was to the point where he had to wear a neck brace all the time. It was the first time that I was ever thankful for the type of cancer my mother had.

For the next week, she brought her father at the same time I brought my mother, and we talked about dreams and cancer. I feel a bit ashamed that I can’t remember her name, especially since I remember her dreams. They were normal dreams about every day sorts of things with the exception that she was always dragging a heavy black garbage bag. About the time he reached the point where he could no longer care for himself, her father began throwing all his trash down the ravine behind his house. The hillside was strewn with black garbage bags of trash, and this woman and her husband had to clean it all up before they could sell the house. She was angry and burdened, and those feelings made her feel guilty. After talking about it, she felt better and joked that I ought to charge her for my time.

Near the end of that week, her father’s white count was too low for him to receive more treatments. After that, I never saw her again, but one of the nurses, who overheard our conversations, commented to me that I was a sweet girl for talking to her.  Her father’s prognosis was poor, and I had likely eased her guilt about the situation.

Of the meeting, my mother said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

I replied, “Of course He does. If He didn’t, we would all understand everything, and there would be no cancer.”

“You know I believe that everything happens for a reason,” she said.

“Yeah, well, why do you think you got cancer?”

She shrugged. “Maybe to bring you and your father closer together.”

“That’s fucked up,” I said, to which she snapped at me for cursing. “I think you got cancer because you grew up in a city before there was any regulation on what toxins industries to pump into the air, and you went to college in a town where the morning air was so filled with chemicals it was yellow.”

“And I didn’t wear sunscreen like I should,” she added. “Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes things just break.”

So I thought, Even God answers his children’s questions with, “Because.” It’s not an answer at all, so why bother asking?