Daphne and Apollo

Screen shot 2014-09-16 at 3.36.21 PM

I’ve come to love the silence. When I was human, noise always meant Apollo was around. Silence was in short supply. Even his smile was loud.

We met in the pool. That’s not a euphemism or anything: I was a competitive swimmer. He claimed he was training with Coach Gattis, but I wouldn’t have put it past him to have nabbed an extra pair of swim trunks from an open locker.

When I finished my laps, I put my hands up to my forehead and wiped the chlorinated water back from my face. I opened my eyes and his white teeth gleamed in front of me, like glare reflecting off the ocean.

“You’re Daphne. Hi,” he said, offering me his hand to shake. I’ll admit I was attracted to him at first. The shadow of beard that circled his full lips. The sheen of his dry hair— he obviously hadn’t been swimming. The oyster shell necklace that perfectly set off his olive complexion.

I ignored his hand. “You’re in my way.”

“That is unfortunate. I suppose my best course of action, then, is to extricate myself from your path.” He turned away from me. A midday sun shone bright between his shoulder blades. He grabbed the ladder with both hands and flexed his biceps. Then, he slowly stepped up, revealing a slick, black Speedo with a small thunderbolt pattern. He turned his head to the side, slant of nose, jut of chin. “You didn’t ask, but I’m Apollo. I’ll see you around, girl,” and then his laughter filled the natatorium like someone playing a vibraphone.

I know. Ridiculous.

For the next few weeks, he’d catch up with me either in the pool or in the parking lot of the gym. He always started with flattery. Lame stuff that still felt good, even though they were obviously practiced. One day he said “I’m going to start calling you Sharpie, ‘cuz you extra fine.”

“Dude. If that’s the best you got, you need to recalibrate your suavé.”

“I can’t help it, luscious, that swimmer’s body of yours drives me wild.”

“You have to know by now that I’m training for Rio.”

“Rio?”

“The Olympics. You know, 2016? The only relationship I’m looking for right now is with a gold medal.”

After that he wouldn’t let up. I guess he thought I’d challenged him and he wasn’t the type to refuse. Every time he saw me, he’d tell me about some new girl he was seeing. Then he’d say something like, “You know, I wouldn’t have to bore you with these stories if you’d just give me a chance. I’ll treat you like a goddess.” Why couldn’t he just accept that I wasn’t interested? After about a month of that syrupy crap, I asked my dad to step in.

Dad came to the gym and cornered him in the men’s locker room. Told him to leave me alone. Most guys would step off after that. My dad’s pecs stick out in front of him like the prow of a ship. Plus he has this goatee that flows from his chin like a river, biker-style. But Apollo just shook his head and said, “I can’t. She’s the only one that got away.”

The next time I saw Apollo he convinced me to go down to the sauna for a steam. Once inside, he gave me a laurel branch made of gold. Told me it was his promise to quit playing games. He seemed sincere when he slipped out of the wood-tiled room, so I didn’t listen for the click of the lock.

Connecting with My Grandfather

I’ve never met my grandfather, Ralph. My father didn’t really know him either. He was an alcoholic and he abandoned my dad at the age of 8. I assumed that was all there was to know.

Dad only told one story about him. The story took place on the roof of what would become my childhood home. After years of repeatedly disappointing my father, he was trying to reestablish a connection. Ralph chose to reconnect by helping my father build our house.

CCC working
CCC men dig a ditch.

It was 1970. Ralph was in his mid-60s. He and my dad were putting the roof on the house. While they were hammering and tarring, Ralph started talking about how the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) ruined his life. It was the reason he lost his job, and the reason he started drinking. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s economic recovery plan for America during the Great Depression. It allowed the government to hire three million men to build roads, plant trees, and dig ditches across the country between 1933 to 1942.

The story has always confused me. How could a program whose sole purpose was to hire millions of people put my grandfather out of work? I had no idea.  I decided to look into it, hoping to understand him a little better.

In the 1930 census, I found him listed along with my great-grandparents. He was working for a county in Iowa as an assistant engineer three years before the CCC began. Mystery solved, I thoughtThe CCC, being a national program, must have made the County guys, like my grandfather, obsolete. Roosevelt formed the CCC; Ralph lost his job.

In the 1940 census, I found this:

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So, my theory was wrong. My grandfather wasn’t let go when the CCC started. He kept his job well into its heyday. Not only that, somewhere along the way he had picked up a wife and 2 daughters I didn’t know about. Holy cow!

Using phone directories (which listed peoples’ professions alongside their addresses back then), I find out that Ralph was let go as an engineer sometime in 1941. With that information, I had to form a new theory: the CCC must have finished all the work a county engineer would be hired to do. When the CCC started to disintegrate, the county probably realized there was no more work for my semi-educated 36-year-old grandfather.

I say semi-educated because the censuses consistently list Ralph’s highest level of education as 8th grade. ‘Engineer’ was just a title; he didn’t have a degree.

In 1942, Ralph was divorced from Gladys, broke, lacking purpose, and living in Flint, Michigan. The directory states that he was running a pool hall there. Before, I would have blamed him for allowing himself to be near the alcohol in the pool halls, accelerating his and his second family’s self-destruction. But I realize now that if I had lost both my job and my family in less than a year, I might start drinking, too.

I don’t like that he took such a long time to get his act together, but I’m grateful that he eventually did it. That he was there in 1970 on that rooftop with my dad. That he tried and succeeded to connect.

(l to r) Bill James, Eva Burns, Ralph James
My grandfather is the man on the right.

Light

“She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen the stars,” Everett told his son. “and I’d have to drive her out past the suburbs to show them to her. We both know that isn’t happening. So I went down to the hardware store, bought all these Christmas lights, and decorated the house. I was just trying to get her out to see them. She gave me a look and ran to the bedroom. Then I called you.”

“You gotta give her baby steps, Dad, like the doctor said.”

“I thought asking her to come out to the yard was a baby step! It’s been months. When’s she going to get better?”

In the quiet that followed, both Everett and his son heard the muffled sniffling and the telltale intakes of breath. Connor got up from the table. “It’s ok, Mom,” he reassured the locked bedroom door. “I’ll take some pictures of the lights on the house. You don’t have to leave.”

*****

A few days before, Miriam had watched from the living room as Everett propped the ladder outside the front window. He exhaled, and she thought for a moment that he’d taken up smoking again. Then she remembered the snow on the ground.

He raised his voice so she could hear him through the panes of glass. “They’re called icicle lights.” He dramatically opened the box while dah-dumming the theme song from 2001: Space Odyssey. Once unfurled, he draped the lights around his neck to show how they could dangle from the eaves like icicles after a blizzard. She smiled weakly and pulled a blanket tighter around her shoulders. Everett reassured her with a wink, then climbed up the ladder carrying a hammer and  a box of nails. The lights wrapped around his body.

Everett’s dark silhouette— head and shoulders cut off by the top of the window— contrasted with the white canvas behind him. After he started hammering, she felt each impact through the floorboards. She knew it was irrational, but she began to worry that it was an earthquake and not her husband causing the vibrations. She imagined him falling: his legs twisting unnaturally where he lay on the ground, his irises reflecting the blue of the November sky. What would she do? Would she risk running out to him? Last year, she would have been keeping the ladder steady as he climbed. That wasn’t a task she could handle now. On top of everything else, the man in the parking lot had stolen her marriage. If it had happened— if Everett had fallen— she realized she couldn’t help him.

Everett stepped off the ladder and was disappointed to find the still-rocking recliner empty.

*****

Miriam stopped by the mall to pick up some journals before bible study one day in May. She locked her doors and was about to walk out into the driving lane of the parking lot. It was probably the butt of a gun that caused the sudden pain at the back of her head; that’s what the police said. Her vision only registered white; she was blinded either by the blow or by the brightness of the day. She felt her body slam onto the asphalt. There was rustling around her shoulder, the thief slashing the straps of her purse. Then silence. A blind lamppost bent over her: the only witness. “I’ve just been mugged. I need to find someone.” The rational thoughts surprised her.

It hit her while she was walking toward the store. The weight of her terror. An empty parking lot, the horrible things that could happen at any given moment: viruses, hit-and-runs, freak meteors. She realized her exposure. Staring at the nestled carts in the corral, she chastised herself for parking so far away from the store.

The man in the mall security van told Everett he’d found her mumbling “No more light” and holding the back of her head.

 

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Dinnertime Showdown

The only thing between Dad and his post-shift nap was the gelatinous mush on my plate. Mom tried distracting him, but his attention soon returned to me in my Oscar-the-Grouch bib.

“Nathan, I want those peas ate!”

“Well I want them six.”

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The Meaning Behind a Green Velvet Suit (Crannog Part 2)

My revisions to the original part 2 post from earlier this week. Sorry to inundate you all with this story, but I do feel I’m onto something and I’m excited by it.

As always, respectful constructive criticism is welcome. Part 1 can be read here.
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Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com
Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com

Uncle Jarlath paused with a smirk on his face allowing me to absorb what he’d said. Algae? How could algae turn my breath to spinning orbs? How could algae wrap around my body and float me around the park?

We stared at each other. The first thing I noticed was a clarity to his mannerisms. His expressions weren’t smearing across his face, each new emotion was crisp; he was sober. His velvet emerald suit was impeccably fitted to his thin frame. He looked like a dapper frog. His black hair, usually greasy from forgetfulness, was trimmed neatly around his ears, and the deep crinkles around his eyes were less pronounced somehow. I looked to his hands: cuticles trimmed and fingernails gleaming. Has he been to a spa?

His smile widened, but his lavender eyes shifted to my left as he continued, “I just woke up one morning and discovered that I could make water turn red simply by imagining Rhodophyta in my mind. Then I found if I pictured the algae in the water multiplying and joining together, I could make the mixture solid and strong. Strong enough, say, to carry a boy around a park. If I pictured each individual alga releasing its oxygen— as it’s wont to do, you know — I found I could make water float in mid-air.”

I don’t believe you, was my only response, but I wasn’t about to say it out loud. So another silence passed between us.

“Smile, my boy,” he said with a pat to my shoulder. “You are the esteemed nephew of a Necessary. Provided the Commission accepts me, of course. We will find out in a week’s time.” The Necessary were the Emperor’s league of magicians. Anyone possessing inexplicable powers—the ability to predict the future, for instance— were required to identify themselves to the government. The Emperor realized early on in his reign that magicians posed a threat to him. He started the Commission to keep track of these threats, to coddle them, and to occupy them with matters of state. That way they wouldn’t instead concoct plant to usurp his power. That’s what I thought, at least. I’m sure my uncle would provide another, more self-important explanation of their purpose.

“I’m sorry, Uncle. It’s incredible news, really. It’s just that I hope it doesn’t mean you’ll be moving back to the city and leaving me here alone in this house,” I said. There is nothing I want more.

“I’m not that sort of Necessary. I cannot tell you what they will do with me after I show them my powers. I merely want to resume my duty in serving the Emperor again the best way I know how.”

And with that statement I began to suspect what my uncle was up to.

# # # #

Years ago, my uncle awoke in a canopied bed. He’d sip his tea out on a prim balcony overlooking the Palisades, the granite cliffs that protect the Emperor’s grounds. His servant dressed him head-to-toe in bronzine, a caramelized orange silk created especially for the uniform of the Emperor’s chief engineer— a prestigious role. It’s purpose was to provide water for the City, and less consequentially for the Emperor, the rest of the Kingdom. Since pollution tainted most other bodies of water, the population relied on several hydrofactories in the Boglands to supply fresh water. They were the Boglands only source of income. The factories filtered the algae out of our water to make it potable.  A system of aqueducts designed by my uncle carried the fresh water throughout the Kingdom.

As a man with status, Jarlath seemed kind and gracious. He’d call meetings to discuss how he could further help the people of the Kingdom. But I suspect it was an act. He pretended to care about things in order to maintain his title and dignity. He’d all but forgotten his dreary childhood in the gauche bogs. A single miscalculation with the aperture size of a pump several years ago resulted in his catastrophic loss in status. The fickle Emperor refused to listen to my uncle’s pleas to keep his job. Unemployed and shocked, Jarlath sought refuge in our house. He was wallowed in the bedroom down the hall from mine since. I believe he has shaken his self-pity and concocted a scheme to return to his station as the Emperor’s aide. The suit, the sobriety, the reappearance of his self-worth: it all fit.

I just had to find a way to prove it.

Photosynthesis (Crannog, Part 2)

Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com
Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com

He waited for an hour.

Skulking in the bushes outside my own house, I watched my Uncle Jarlath through a window. We were both waiting; I was waiting for him to leave. I don’t know what he was waiting for. Behind him, several stacks of differently colored journals towered above a squat writing desk. Beside him sat an aquarium. A ball the size of a punch bowl floated in murky, green water. Several tubes chaotically swirled their way up and off to parts of the room I couldn’t see. What I could see of Jarlath’s profile was oddly lit. It reminded me of the frightening scene in the park the other night.

“Magic,” he had said, after I asked him how he’d formed my breath into a chair. “I just woke up one morning and discovered that I could make water turn red simply by imagining Rhodophyta in my mind. Then I found if I pictured an algal bloom in the water, I could make the mixture solid and strong. Strong enough, say, to carry a boy around a park. And if I pictured each individual alga releasing its oxygen—as it’s wont to do— I found I could make water float in mid-air.”

He had paused with a smirk on his face, allowing me to absorb what he’d said. I remember studying him in that moment. Curiously sober and wearing a new suit. His eyes returned to mine as he’d said, “Smile, my boy, you are the esteemed nephew of a Necessary. I register with the Commission in a week’s time.”

I hadn’t believed a word of it. Still don’t. That’s why I’m kneeling in my hedgerow like a common thief. When my uncle finally left his laboratory exactly at 10, he detached the tubes and shoved the aquarium ball under his arm. Now it is 10:04. I had to wait a little longer to make sure he didn’t return. I believe my uncle has hatched a plan to restore himself as Chief Engineer of the Kingdom, so I’m sneaking into his lab tonight to prove my theory. I’ll know what I’m looking for as soon as I see it.

Jarlath’s laboratory was once my mother’s art studio, a room into which I could freely enter. The irony that I now have to trespass into it makes me long for the time when my parents were here. Navlin and Bradan were their names. Years ago, before they were taken, my mother, Navlin, had put the deed of this house in my name as a precaution. The only caveat in the deed was that her brother— Jarlath— would act as caretaker and guardian if something should happen to them before I turned 18. That is why I am stuck with my moody, insecure uncle. I dream every night of the day three years from now when he will no longer be in charge of me.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember when my uncle dressed all in bronzine, the caramelized-orange silk created especially for the Emperor’s chief engineer. As a man with status, Jarlath seemed kind and gracious. A single miscalculation with the aperture size of a pump resulted in his catastrophic loss in status. The fickle Emperor refused to listen to my uncle’s pleas. Unemployed and shocked, Jarlath sought refuge in our house and not long after, the Raiders— the Kingdom’s army— came for my parents. When Bradan dared to ask a stoic soldier the reason for their apprehension, the kelp-eyed man replied, “For threatening the security of the Kingdom.” I haven’t seen or heard from them since.

The quick succession of those two events seem not to be a coincidence. I believe my uncle, in a desperate attempt to regain his prestige, told the Emperor of Mother’s plans to rally the crews of the hydrofactories. The factories filtered the algae out of the bogwater. They are crucial to the welfare of the Kingdom. Since pollution tainted all the other bodies of water, hydrofactories are our only source of freshwater. They are also the Boglands only source of income. It was Jarlath’s aqueduct design that transported the water throughout the Kingdom.

Enough time has passed since my uncle left with the aquarium ball under his arm. If I’m going to do this, it has to be now. Hopefully, I am not seen.

 

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This one was tricky with all the flashbacks and explication. How’d I do with my verb tenses? Could you follow me? As always, respectful constructive criticism is welcome.

In case you missed it, the opening chapter of this story can be read here.

 

Cahoots

As I spread my work over the duvet, the fan begins its hum. The curious Manx sniffs around, then eases onto my chest. His purring vibrates through me. A feather of a nap floats in with the breeze, then I’m far away.

,

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Get Well Soon

Everything hurt—chewing, coughing, breathing even—so between the nurses’ questions about pain levels and decreasing dosages, I occupied myself by staring at the television. The Streets of San Francisco was on. Steve Keller was chasing a bad guy across a parking lot. Rosalyn, my wife, must have gone down to make a call, and I was alone when Albert walked into my room.

“Look at you. That contraption you’re in makes you look like a robot. You ain’t auditioning to be the next ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ are you?” He was talking about my back brace. He stopped a few feet short of my bed and waited for a reply. His bell-bottomed slacks cinched below the volleyball of his belly and pooled at his loafers. He looked ridiculous.

But instead of telling him so, I dryly said, “You should have called an ambulance” and moved my eyes back to the tv.

“You know why I didn’t.”

“They’re medics, not policemen. All they would have asked you to do is point to where I was.”

Albert had been in and out of jail since I was the size of a quarter: theft, public intoxication, child neglect. He didn’t like policemen, so after watching me fall off the roof, he got in his car and drove until he found someone else to deal with me. Yet another example of my father’s problems taking priority over my well being.

“I’d have had to file a report, wouldn’t I?”

“People don’t know about your record unless you tell them, you know. I can’t believe you just left me there. What if I’d died?”

“Stop being over-dramatic. You were breathing. You hadn’t broken anything. Rosalyn was only down the street, so I went and got her. I figured she’d want to ride with you.”

I had been re-roofing the house. Albert was there helping me as part of a reward system we’d worked out. He started calling me about five years ago to apologize and ask to be a part of my life. I eventually gave him the chance to prove it. He sobered up; I started acknowledging his presence. He managed to stay out of jail for a year; I invited him to dinner, and so on. It had taken him three years to work up to being my assistant carpenter.

“You should have forgotten yourself for a second and called a damn ambulance.”

“You only fell fifteen feet. And you got here, didn’t you? Besides, you’ve always been good at taking care of yourself.”

“No thanks to you, Dad.” I sneered. “I had to learn to take care of myself because my parents were too lit to feed me. You know, I was talking to Carol a few weeks ago and she told me this cute story from when I was young. Seems she found me on a kitchen counter one morning chowing down on some dry spaghetti noodles. When I asked her how old she thought I’d been, do you know what she said?”

Albert was so silent that, even through my anger and the pain medication,  I registered the tinkling of a commercial jingle playing on the television. I’d never brought up the bad years before; he didn’t know how to respond.

“She said I was five months old. Have you ever heard of a baby so young being able to climb onto a countertop? I must have been pretty motivated to get up there, huh? Bet I was hungry, and I bet I had to learn real quick that in order to stop the hunger I needed to climb counters and open cabinets. So, fuck you, Dad, for teaching me the hard way that I only have myself to rely on.”

I don’t know if it was the anger, the concussion, or the medication, but a wave of nausea overtook me. I grabbed the bed pan. When I finished, I saw the back of him turn out of my room. It was just like him to leave when someone was holding him accountable for something.

 
*****
This story is very loosely based on family folklore.

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Hive

“Run!” someone shrieked, and I did—across greedy sand and down into the lake. Underwater, I watched my brother gesticulate upward as if he thought I was lost. We surfaced to a frenetic orb of winged stingers hovering inches above our noses.

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The Creeper of the Family Tree (revised)

Sums it up pretty well.
Sums it up pretty well.

A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling groggy, I’ll jog up and down the stairwells of my office building. Each time I hit the bottom landing I’ll turn down into the little-used basement and lay on the floor for my jack knifes, squats, and pushups. I like that it’s cool and quiet down there, but mostly I want to spare my co-workers the mental image of me huffing and puffing while doing lunges.

The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s within earshot of the back door of the building. Many people take their cellphones to the bottom of those steps to make a call, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to work. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. A few of them have actually screamed when I’ve emerged from the basement and crossed between them mid-conversation. Since mine is not the only company in the building, these people don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that’s running away from whatever suspicious thing he’s got going on in the basement.

In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.

Me, after a workout
Me, during a workout

And sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a creeper when I’m researching my family: shining lights into dark corners, uncovering tawdry secrets, sniffing out facts about strangers to whom I happen to be related.

For instance, early on in my research I found the names and whereabouts of two relatives that had fallen away from the family. Exhilarated by my discovery, I immediately reached out to them on Facebook, but my enthusiasm was not reciprocated. They politely asked me not to contact them again. I was crushed. It hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t be equally enthusiastic, nor had it occurred to me that they’d associate me with the grudge they held against our common relative. I didn’t understand their immediate dismissal at first. I’m not to blame for what happened to them, I thought, and the past is past.

But it’s not.

Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there, and genealogists like me make a hobby out of rifling through it like the NSA at security checks. My relatives’ rejection helped me to understand that my research and my feelings of connection to familial strangers could be construed as intrusive and stalkerish.

Their rejection also reminded me that our past is directly tied to our present. For some people, like my two relatives, the consequences of past events can be so raw for so long that an enthusiastic Facebook message might make the pain of an entire childhood resurface. I realize that now.

Then it occurred to me that if researching my living family members can stir up bad feelings, maybe it’s ticking off my dead ones, too. What if my research is just bringing up long-forgotten resentments and shame in the afterlife? What if they’re sitting together in an all-white hotel conference room right now throwing fast food wrappers at my image on the afterlife’s version of a television?

Most of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet lives. They were solid, modest Midwesterners living as best they could in the capsules of their time. Maybe they weren’t the kind to like attention. I wonder if they find my stories about them ostentatious. I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. My devout Baptist and Methodist relatives probably wouldn’t agree with my life as a gay man. If they were living, they might have ignored me, disowned me, or sent me off to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp.

Obviously, I hope not. I hope they see my creeping as interest in their lives. I hope they appreciate that I’m trying  to understand and learn from them. I hope they recognize that their lives are inspiring me to be grateful for every moment of my own quiet and solid Midwestern life.

(I pulled this from my archives and submitted it to two very gentle editors for their feedback and guidance in yeah write‘s Silver Lounge. Thank you, Christine of trudging through fog and Rowan from textwall, for helping me see this post in a different light. Click here to read the previous version.)