98H

The Luxury of Time

Margaret groped crusty tissues, two prescription bottles and a Katherine Porter novel to find her tortoiseshell frames. She knew the time of day only by the color of her bedroom; the angle of the sun hit different parts of the color-blocked curtains at different times of day. Orange meant early morning. Candace would need feeding and William will want breakfast when he comes home from his shift, but Margaret continued floating on the island of her mattress.

 

The diner was dark except for the green neon glow of jukeboxes peering from every tabletop. A woman stared at her across a row of cherry red booths, her hair pinned up so a single russet curl fell perfectly above her eyes. She smoked a cigarette as if she were thumbing through a magazine. The absence of waitstaff behind the long counter unsettled Margaret as she strode to join the woman who so obviously expected her. She wished the blinds in the windows were open, even knew it only looked out onto a parking lot and an expressway. Margaret heard the plugging sound of lips on cigarette.

“Well, someone call the press,”—plumes of smokes rose to the speckled ceiling as the woman spoke—“Miss Maggie Jane is in a place that serves Spam.”

“What do you mean? I eat Spam all the time.”

“Not out in public, you don’t. And you hide it behind the orange juice in the refrigerator as soon as you pull it out of the grocery sack.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Mothers know things.” After she said it, the shadows on the woman’s face fluttered like moths’ wings and Margaret recognized the curve of chin and the Jayne Mansfield-inspired eyebrows of the mother she’d only seen in photographs. In the silence after the woman’s quip, Margaret heard someone talking, the voice—a young woman’s—muffled by the closed metal swinging doors. A sign of life just beyond this room.

“You aren’t anyone’s mother,” Margaret said. There was a plate of French fries in front of her, but she couldn’t remember ordering or seeing a waitress deliver it.

“Boo hoo, missy. You know, there’s a reason why you only hear children saying “No fair” when the world doesn’t give them what they want.” The woman’s patent leather purse strap fell off her shoulder as she talked. Margaret watched her shake salt into her chocolate milkshake and stir it with her straw.

Maggie couldn’t taste her food; she was too distracted by the eerie quiet of the restaurant. No meat sizzling on a grill, no whir of a refrigerator engine, not even an Elvis song coming from one of the jukeboxes. The only sounds were the woman’s interjections whenever she took a sip of her milkshake—mmm. They grew louder the more of it she drank. Mmmm. MMM-mmm. By the time the milkshake was gone Margaret was relieved the diner was empty because the woman’s enjoyment verged on sounding sexual. The woman plucked several fries from Margaret’s plate, popping them in her mouth, all the while maintaining eye contact. The moans turned into half-screams as she chewed, subtle vowels entered the sounds. When the woman clearly screamed “Mommy,”  Margaret rolled her eyes, but then felt remorse when she grabbed Margaret’s hand and started bawling.

 

 

Margaret’s bedroom shined red, and on the other side of the door a man’s voice lilted above her daughter’s whimpering. The smell of William’s Brylcreem already permeated their small flat. She found her glasses resting on the duvet next to her hand and returned them to the nightstand. She picked up one of the prescription bottles and sprinkled a few over the duvet, careful not to make a sound. Her legs kicked off the sheets and blankets and her arms flung out to her sides, one hand still holding the bottle. She closed her eyes and waited for William to open the door.

The door finally creaked open a sliver, and then immediately closed. She heard William pick Candace up from her crib and walk into the kitchen. She opened her eyes again to the sizzling of bacon in a frying pan.

family records for blog

The Bedweaver

Last week you came into my shop and told me you’d bought a fine new bed, and we agreed on a day and a time. That night I added up the sum total of our conversations, and determined that our last conversation held more words than you’d ever given me before. I slept tight in my chair with that fact over top of me.

Two days ago, I poured water into the washtub and let the sisal rope soak overnight. The dog tried to harmonize with my singing. When I asked him to stop, I noticed he needed a washing, too.

Yesterday I laid the sisal out naked in the June sun, wiped down the parts of my bed key, then I scrubbed my nails clean and used the washtub for myself. My gnarled body went in from the corns on the bottom to the grays on the top. My shabby clothes and shabbier dog followed. After the bath, I walked to Mrs. McLachlan’s garden and plucked some mint without asking. I asked the Lord to forgive my pride for not wanting to tell her my intentions with the mint.

This morning when you show me into your room there will be on the floor your birch headboard, two posts, two long and two short support beams with a row of pegs like upside down thimbles on one side of each. I will drop my sisal and my key and get straight to work. As I assemble your bedstead, I will ask your thoughts of the new pastor. At some point, your children’s voices will run through the open window and around and between us. When the frame is at attention on the plankwood floor, I will say: My, but your bedstead is grand, Mrs. Putnam. You will smell mint on my breath and smile as you leave the room.

After I’ve woven the rope around each peg and used the key to pull slack from the sisal grid, I will tie hitch knots diagonally from the southwest corner to the northeast and slide your horsehair mattress over my work. I will make a point not to think of you as the Widow Putnam anymore. I will tell you as I leave about the knots, that they keep the bed from sagging too soon. But, actually, I am a superstitious man and every little bit helps.

sequoia-274158_1920

Vagabond

The day I moved into the hollow of a giant redwood
the crowberry eyes of a family of martens appraised
my ragged chin, my desperate need for shelter,

and rightly deemed me harmless. They knew the city does not shelter
those that need it most. I unpacked my life, slept below the red wood
sky as constellations of banana slugs appraised

my verdant dreams, and woke to find my nap praised
with larksong. I joined their melody, singing for shelter,
for autumn and spring, for the growth rings of a redwood.

The redwood appraised my plea, and gave me a family in which to take shelter.

 

family records for blog

The Drowning of Vic Garland

Synopsis: Three days after the sinking of the Titanic a young nurse receives a meaningful package.

 

No further updates of the Titanic survivors have been wired.

The White Star agent stops hurling the sentence at the journalists long enough to check for my brother’s name. When he finds it printed on the original passenger list, he mumbles where on the wharf I can find the other families.

Pier 59 teems with thousands of anxious women in crumpled hats, somber gentleman with their hands behind their overcoats, and photographers documenting it all. Most everyone’s heads point toward the White Star pier where the RMS Carpathia broods, but I continue looking for the cordoned-off portion of the dock the agent told me about. I push forward until I find myself under the steel arch that reads “Cunard Line.” My confusion and the near-ice falling from the sky make my progress through the throng of people feel like a morphine dream.

Men use newspapers to shield their eyes; the names of the surviving first-class passengers’ names bulge from the front page. There is no word yet on the lower classes, but reports are grim. Images of my brother, poor darling Vic, drifting in a gulping sea float through my mind. I fear they will continue until the moment I see the ridiculous orange feather aflame in the band of his homburg.

A tall officer with a mustache like a push broom crosses his arms as he shouts, “This section is for families of passengers only, ladies and gentlemen. If you are not relation, please wait for the ship elsewhere.”

I grab the man’s arm and allow my fears to spill out. “My brother, sir, James Garland? He goes by Vic. He’s a salesman, hospital cots. Look at me. Please. I’m his sister. People say we resemble each other. Will you watch for him for me?”

The man’s sparse eyebrows rise higher above the thin bridge of his nose before he says, “Of course, my dear, but until he comes, wait with us. Take comfort in the company of others in your particular quandary.”

A woman standing nearby immediately starts complaining about the Cunard company’s decision to drop off the Titanic’s lifeboats before allowing the survivors to disembark. Others agree. A man with an aristocratic air announces that a few of the survivors with the most pressing medical needs have already been sent straight to hospital, that family members should check with a White Star agent for more information. A matronly woman takes my arm.

“I do hope it’s good news for your brother.” She pats my hand and her touch sets in motion a wave of unsteadiness. “This too will pass away, young lady. Chin up, now.”

Hollow words with good intent. Exactly what put my brother on that abominable boat. I think of the belongings he didn’t take with him, still piled high in one corner of my lodgings. He had asked his man Thomas to arrange the suitcases, boxes, and empty birdcages to look pleasant. When he saw Thomas’s work, he dubbed it the Eiffel Tower and insisted upon addressing every letter he wrote to Mademoiselle Garland.

“Would it help to tell me about him?” I feel the matron’s cool grip on my arm.

No, I think. I can hardly think of him without being reminded of our fight the day I sent him away. I can’t bear to remember the look on his face, hear again the apologies for his crimes, what the police described as “sexual perversions,” the schemes, the aliases, or the promise I extracted from him to leave New York. Searching for a safe topic, I blather on to the woman about his dog, who is likely curled on my kitchen floor, with an old nurse’s uniform of mine for a bed. I tell the woman he named the Boston terrier “Her Majesty” because it amused him to walk through the neighborhood calling it out. I tell her that he wore his dog’s collar around his wrist whenever he left home.

“He sounds like a nice man,” she says. I do not say otherwise.

The Carpathia eventually slides into port and dock hands carry the recovering survivors on stretchers down the gangplank. Everyone on the wharf jostles to see the precious cargo. Photographers flash their cameras. The matron eventually releases my arm when she spots her niece’s face.

Then the survivors who can walk proceed silently down to the waiting crowd. One by one the pale men and women find their loved ones, cries of joy and grief follow, until at last the end of the cortege proceeds up the wharf and there are no more survivors to be seen. 

I collapse into the officer’s arms.

“Come, miss,” the officer whispers. “I’m sure the agency has the finalized list now. Hope is not lost; perhaps your brother waits for you in a nice, warm room at the hospital.” The officer takes my arm, and conveys me to the shipping office. The same agent from before tells me that my brother’s name is still absent from the list, and I feel every vibration in my body—digestion, respiration, cognition—cease. I can hardly find my own hands inside my gloves; it takes the kindness of the police officer to deliver me at home.

 

In the confines of my parlor I unpin my hat and peel off my wet gloves, my coat. I am warming my feet by the fire when someone knocks. Her Majesty starts barking. I find Thomas, the valet Vic gave to me while he was away, standing on the stoop wearing a soot-stained coat and a cockeyed grin. He clutches at my wrist, behavior of which I would reprove under other circumstances.

“The German Hospital, miss. We’re to look for Ludwig Kranz.” He places something in my hand. I find a thin leather strap with three ornate bells attached. I call Her Majesty to me and refasten the collar around her neck.

spot in the forest

Migration

When I wake, I am lying in a field stretched taut over a hill. The knife in my hand gleams in the still-blinking dawn, and I see the patch I’ve cleared in the switchgrass—a circle on one end, two prongs on the other. Its shape reminds me of you. The fire is slow to rekindle, but it is rare that something stands between me and my day. Stags scatter from the creek bed when I move to gather blackberries and wild mint for breakfast. I stare at the flames as I chew and sip coffee. I write in my journal of last night’s Cheshire moon—how its malice kept me up too late—then I swear to the page that I will find a hill every twilight on my journey, and I will slash the switchgrass into that same shape. After a week there will be seven oracles. After a month there will be a knowing army. I say a silent prayer to the birds. That they will use the path of my men to find their way back. That they will whisper what they’ve seen in your ear.

 

The Aerialists

It’s easy to idolize the women floating above you. The footlights set their sequins on fire; the music spins them between gasps and cables. You appreciate the simplicity, the reliance on ribbons, the swinging on silks. Their work is to be upside down, arms extended, hanging by an ankle to please strangers, and you blush to think you’ve complained about less. Of course the spotlight reveals the tent roof beyond, the spider web of trapeze to one side, still you keep the tangle of your gaze on the dazzle-skinned for fear they’ll float away.

105H

The Forbidden Room

The rink had just been resurfaced, but adjusting to the extra stickiness of the floor was only Ryan’s second problem. His first was a tall bottle-rocket of a girl. Jessica.

Seconds before, Ryan had been practicing his backwards dance moves. He was getting better, but he knew the real jam skaters didn’t knock so many sixth graders off their feet. They practically floated around the rink moving together in perfect synchronicity. That’s what he was thinking when he felt strong hands pull him past the deejay stand. He heard Jessica sneer “payback” into his ear. By the time he thought to do something—squat, wiggle, turn around—he was sailing past a row of stalls the color of guacamole. A girl screamed when she saw him in the mirror, which made the other lip-glossed girls stop their unnecessary reapplications and turn around. Ryan looked to the floor and that’s when he remembered how to stop.

“What are you doing in here, perv?” Jessica snarled.

Just as quick he was back on the rink. He wracked his brain trying to think of a reason for Jessica’s revenge. Ryan had no idea, but he wasn’t going to practice dancing backwards anymore.

 

174H

Calamine

I still feel that humid night on me. Back then our apartment perched above the sidewalk like a vulture; my head perched above my heart like a parrot. Just before you wedged that stupid laundry basket you use as a suitcase out the back door, you told me to stop messing with the frays of things, and I spent I don’t know how long on the rim of the bathtub. Early, early, I wandered outside. I found one of your button-downs wadded in the yard—still wet from its vagrancy. I took off my shirt, smoothed yours on my skin like lotion.