Neighbors noticed the band teacher’s yard sprout unconventional planters over the first month of her retirement: chrysanthemums ejecting from half-buried tubas, sunflowers booming from kettle drum frames tarnished green. It was Mr. Johnson who suggested putting her talent to good use. Soon, every yard played a flower song.
My friend Ron walks into his kitchen, hooks the tip of his sneaker under the bottom drawer next to the fridge, and flicks it open.
“Dude, have some,” Ron says.
Inside the drawer, I see Chips Ahoy cookies, moon pies, and those Little Debbie wafer bars that I used to beg for in the grocery store but my health-nut parents would never buy. The sugary smell of Halloween hits my nose. I swallow my spit.
Guilt floods my brain. My mother’s voice echoes in my head. “It’s all crap corporations want you to become addicted to.” But I stoop anyway and tear into a wafer bar like a lion into beefsteak. It crackles when I bite into it, and the creaminess of the peanut butter coats my tongue. It is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten.
Still chewing, we go out to the garage to work on our bikes. After a while, Ron’s mom pulls up in her Suburu.
“Hey,” I ask Ron. “Will we get busted for eating the candy?”
He stares at me, then his eyebrows round. “Man, your parents are Nazis… No, she won’t care.”
The car engine turns off and the car door slams. “Hi, Jason.”
“Hi, Mrs. Langley,” I say.
“Do your parents need a refill?” Mrs. Langley sells Shaklee products, a healthy food company that runs like Mary Kay. Once a month or so, my parents have me pick up protein powder, carob bars, and vitamin supplements.
“Nah. We’re good, I think.” My smile feels too big on my face.
I remind myself that I didn’t do anything wrong—people eat sweets every day—but a scene plays out in my mind of Mrs. Langley snitching on me to my parents. Mom would go the “disappointed” route; Dad would encourage me to double my miles on my jog.
I continue smiling, searching Mrs. Langley’s face for my secret. She eventually breaks eye contact to look at her son, then she walks into the house.
Ron pounds my arm. “What was that, weirdo?” he says.
“Dude, if my parents find out, I’ll be hosed.”
“I told you she won’t care. She thinks your parents are too strict, anyway.”
“Okay, okay” I say, but break out into a sweat anyway. We talk about BMX tricks as we ride down the street, but my thoughts stick to that drawer.
A couple weeks later, Dad slips some money in my pocket. “More power packs, some of those quinoa bars, and anything you want, kid.”
When I get to the Langley’s, I knock a few times, but the front door to the bi-level is wide open. “Hello?” I walk in. The house is eerily silent.
I wait in their front room, which is adjacent to their kitchen, whistling and tapping the glass cases filled with trim, white packages of granola and fish oil pills. The drawer in the kitchen calls to me. Before I know it, I am stooped over the open drawer.
When I pick up a box, I tell myself I am only looking. I smell it, then set it aside to pick up the next treat, a box of oatmeal creme pies. My brain flashes back to a day at school when I was eating lunch with Ron. He had opened his lunch bag and grimaced. He chucked an individually-wrapped crème pie on the floor and kicked it across the cafeteria. “Those things are nasty,” he said.
In the Langley’s kitchen, I pull out the creme pies and close the drawer. No one will notice, I tell myself.
“Jason?” Mrs. Langley stands at the bottom of the stairs. She is wearing a pink track suit and her hair is wrapped in a towel. “What are you doing?”
The pursing of her lips tells me she already knows.
“I….” I see myself on her kitchen floor, smelling her kids’ lunch desserts. “I don’t know. I’m so sorry.”
“I think you should leave.”
Without another word, I walk out.
The next morning, our landline rings while I am eating breakfast. My dad answers it. After a series of uh-huhs, he says: “Thanks for telling me, Nancy. I’ll handle it. Bye, now.” He walks over to the refrigerator, stretches, and pulls a box of Girl Scout cookies from a cabinet. He places the box on the kitchen table squarely in front of me.
“We’re not monsters,” he whispers. “Maybe we can compromise on a weekly dessert… you know, to keep you out of jail.”
Mrs. Albert surprised Mags by taking her elbow. Mags tossed her clutch on the nearest surface, an alabaster chaise longue. She allowed her lover’s mother to steer her in a circle around the wide and crowded patio of Swannanoa Palace, introducing her as Nadine’s “friend,” her voice dinging the last word like a spoon dings a champagne glass. Mags’s face flushed every time she said it. When she finally arrived home that night, she would wonder if Mrs. Albert’s acceptance was genuine or tolerated as a whim of her daughter’s youth.
An even bigger surprise of the night occurred when Mrs. Albert released her into the party with a glass of Chardonnay. Mags lingered on the outer edges of the party for a while, observing interactions, identifying the famous faces surrounding her. Actors, dancers, musicians; if she’d hadn’t entered the event with one goal, she’d be overwhelmed to the point of inaction. She scanned the crowd until she spotted the conservatively dressed woman with the sparkling necklace. It occurred to Mags in that moment that Mrs. Albert took her around to seemingly everyone but their hostess. Lao Russell—the thought of her name made Mags’s feet float above the ornate brickwork—had written the definitive book on every humans’ capacity for love that opened doors to Mags’s shyness, her inability to acknowledge her own needs. If only she could pull each page out of Lao’s book, stitch them end to end, and wear them as a scarf always.
Well, Lao seemed suspicious when Mags put her hand out and introduced herself. Mags was expecting curiosity; she was the youngest person at the party—no, memorial—by 25 years. She was also the only person wearing thigh-high boots. The bite of her idol’s distrust shook Mags’s confidence. In response, Mags blurted out something she’d read about Lao in the gossip columns. Magnets? Really? Who in their right mind would magnetize a memorial sculpture to their beloved husband? It was no wonder Lao walked away from her so quickly. But then at the sculpture unveiling, someone handed her a little magnet and everyone, six martinis in by now, rubbed them along the hundreds of rungs of the beautiful bird cage memorial. Men with their ties in their pants pockets pulled free women whose jewelry had levitated above their wrists and necks and ached for Lao’s mourning-made-artwork. It was a beautiful night. So much so that Mags had completely forgotten Mr. and Mrs. Albert. There were only a few people left talking in clusters on the lawn. Mags walked barefoot across the cold patio.
Sometime during the night, she had lost her boots, and her purse was no longer on the chaise longue where she’d left it.
She got down on her hands and knees to look under the furniture and then scan the patio. No sign of her things. She went around to the people left on the lawn and asked if they’d seen her things. The women put their noses up at her; the men followed the lines of her legs up to the hem of her miniskirt.
Tears forming in her eyes, Mags searched the patio again for her shoes. No money, no identification, and there were three mountains between her and the nearest town. Why would the Alberts abandon her? Was this their way of punishing her for tainting their daughter? This is what she gets for trying to be something she’s not: bold. She was just not ready to live the teachings of the inimitable Lao Russell. She needed to accept that she may never be.
Mags found her boots slithering underneath a withering azalea bush. She plopped on the lawn and pulled them on, hiccuping and cursing. She did not notice the ethereal woman gliding across the lawn toward her.
“What, my dear,” Lao announced so everyone could hear, “could be so awry on such a beautiful evening?”
Mags wiped both cheeks with her blouse. “Mrs. Russell! I…can’t find my purse.”
“Well, that’s because my butler has it. He found it and thought it should be kept safe.”
“Thank you.” A hiccup escaped her. “Do you know where the Alberts are? They were my way home.”
“Eddie and Alana left an hour ago. We all thought you might enjoy staying here tonight. Were we wrong?”
Mags stared at Lao.
“Because I can have Mayes drive you home if you’d rather not stay.”
“No, no. I’d like to stay. Thank you.”
Mags took a deep breath and followed her idol inside.
Mags couldn’t stop pulling clothes out of hiding places in her room and laying them out. A cerulean dress she last wore to church on Easter Sunday, a houndstooth jacket, and a pair of emerald green Capri pants hung from her bedroom doorknob. She covered her bed with three different front-pleated floral dresses, her favorite low-waisted wool number with the bow instead of a collar, and her only pair of white gloves.
She just needed to see it all out. Take inventory. Then she’d be able to decide on what to wear. She was absolutely sure of it.
She stacked her record player on a step stool and stood atop them to reach two hat boxes perched at the top of her icebox-sized closet. Inside, Mags knew, were a brand new pillbox hat and a white turban-like chapeau with a single feather reaching up like a dandelion growing in a sidewalk crack. She didn’t think either of them were appropriate for a memorial service, but what was? The famous man had died over a year ago. This wasn’t a funeral; it was his famous wife’s call for attention after an appropriate time of mourning. Her second coming-out cotillion, so to speak, but Lao Russell would never think of it that way. But this whole thing was a delicate situation.
Not only would Mags be meeting the woman who had changed her life tonight, she would also be meeting Lao Russell as a guest of her new lover’s parents. Even the term lover wasn’t quite right. Was it?
It all happened so fast. They were in Nadine Albert’s bedroom. Nadine was playing with Mags’s long red hair as they talked about Elvis, then she was curling her finger around Mags’s ear. Mags had finally asked for what she wanted instead of waiting for what was given. Well, sort of. She hadn’t used words, but her intention was clear. Mags had leaned in and closed her eyes. She had never considered kissing a woman, but the breeze was coming through the window and there was the smell of spearmint gum and that minute or two of being the center of someone else’s attention. It was the loudest thing she’d ever heard. No. The opposite.
It was the quietest symphony.
“That was far out,” Nadine had cooed after the kiss. “I didn’t think you liked me.”
“Of course, I like you. Why would I be here listening to records with you if I didn’t?”
“I meant, in that way.” Nadine blushed, sending chills up Mags’s spine. She could feel the dynamics shifting between them like blobs in a lava lamp.
“I think I just knew you’d be cool with it, and I’ve been feeling pretty sick of waiting around for something…anything to happen.”
Nadine put her hand on Mags’s knee. “What else would you like to happen?”
A billion thoughts rushed through Mags’s head. A cigarette, a Coke, listening to Don’t Be Cruel again, dancing, kissing her friend again. But through all of those thoughts, a yearning budded.
“Your parents are still going to the Russell memorial, right?”
“I want to be there. I want to meet Lao, get her to sign my book. I would never have thought to kiss you if I hadn’t read her book.”
Nadine looked at her a moment too long.
“What?” Mags huffed. She should have left it where it was. She’d gotten one thing she wanted; she shouldn’t have asked for another so fast.
“If I talk my parents into taking Lao Russell’s biggest fan to her house, will you invite me over to your place to listen to records?”
Mags had leaned in for another kiss.
Back in Mags’s bedroom, all of the surfaces in her bedroom were covered with clothes and accessories. She wanted to be respectful, someone had died after all, but she wanted to look interesting. Interesting enough to catch Lao’s attention, but not in a bad way.
No. None of the clothes would do. If being bold had gotten her here, then she had to keep being bold because it was obviously working.
She dug around in her bureau for the mini-skirt she’d only worn once before. Then she pulled the longest pair of white go-go boots from under her bed. The Alberts were picking her up in an hour. She needed to reread a few passages from Lao Russell’s book before then.
This draft is fresh off the presses. Constructive criticism welcome.
Doctor’s orders: to swallow words whole, to take
opinions, a pill the color of bone, a
lozenge the color of tongue. Grind them with a ball-point pen,
mortar and pestle-style —Take with food, avoid alcohol, and
if you experience any symptoms or side effects, write
them across your pubis or on the soles of your feet, put this
lab-coated totem into your veins, jog in place, then lie down
but don’t rest. Resign. — The doctor knows shit, but do it anyway: let the pencil draw
your shadow onto the earth because something
caked and aching will rise from its center. Mud? No. More than that.
Mud and twigs and the sediment of autumns, a seed you can’t
open; you just have to bury it, and walk away. Bury it, and be
broken. Wander the Earth until Spring that drunken ex has finally found
his way back to you. Let him stew awhile on your porch. Learn
astronomy to tell the trees of their brothers the stars, to
cajole the glow from any Sun. Leash the inevitable storm and walk
it to that place in the soil that was you and you will be well again.
Let that doctor marvel —You did this without me somehow?—
A golden shovel poem inspired by lyrics from Jack Garratt’s “Surprise Yourself.”
Very early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.
Darren dared me to do it. We were sitting on the porch—Mom didn’t want us to go out into the yard until we knew what had happened—eating apples and talking about the holes.
We’d just gotten up and walked outside to put our bikes away like our Mom had asked when we noticed. Overnight, every single tree had been replaced by a hole in the ground. A perfect pile of leaves circled each hole. Not just in our yard but as far as we could see. The day before, there had been a forest—like a real one with a name—that blocked our view. But we could see everything now. The town, the lake, the school. Not to mention the blinking walls of our neighbors’ houses. I imagined them blushing from the sudden exposure.
“You think it was a machine?” I asked him.
He scanned the horizon. “An army of ’em.”
“No. Couldn’t be. We’d have woke up. Well, you and Mom would have for sure.”
“Maybe the government has developed stealth tractors.”
Shivers jangled my spine. I’d never thought of stealth tractors before. What else was the government doing that I’d never thought of?
“Naw.” I shrugged off my fear. “It was a monster. A picky one who doesn’t like roughage. And they’re going to find it and ask it to spit the trees back out.” I didn’t know who “they” were. I hoped Darren wouldn’t notice.
“That makes no sense, Arnold. We’d have heard breathing or crunching or footsteps or something”
“Makes as much sense as an army of tractors.”
Darren stuck his tongue out at that. He finished his apple and spit the seeds at me. I ran from him and sat on the stairs. A few minutes later, Darren sat next to me. First, we watched the stick figures of neighbors come out of their houses and survey what had happened. Then we watched the birds, frantically gathering on the ground or flying from the eaves of one house to another. I got scared again thinking about what was all missing.
“Gotta be a monster. It ate up all the squirrels and chipmunks, too,” I told Darren.
“All right, smartie. If it’s a monster, it’ll be hungry again, won’t it?”
“Not for a while, I think.”
“Well, but it will, and we’re gonna need to feed it or it will eat our houses, too.”
“Never thought of that.”
“So you gotta distract it by moving these chairs out into the yard.” He pointed to the four Adirondacks sitting back up on the porch. “I dare you.”
We eyed each other for a moment before I took the dare. I was thinking Mom usually wants us in the yard instead of playing video games so she couldn’t get too mad at me. While I was pushing the second chair down the stairs, Darren went inside to watch the news. It didn’t take long for me to move them, heavy as they were. When I was done, I joined Darren on the couch. Trees were gone everywhere. The newscasters were interviewing scientists who all had their theories, some blaming corporations, others blaming environmentalists, but it was clear it was all filler. They knew as much as we did. Our phone rang constantly: neighbors calling to compare notes.
The chairs stayed in the yard, untouched. I’d check them through the front windows every hour or so. I couldn’t rescue them because Mom grounded me for putting them out there in the first place. She still wouldn’t let us out of the house; everyone was afraid the ground was diseased. And Darren wouldn’t rescue them because he said they proved he was the smarter brother.
On the morning of the fourth day, I saw that the chairs had been stacked on top of each other, that the legs of one were growing into the armrests of another. Branches bushy with leaves had sprouted from the planks. Seedlings in their casings shaped like music notes dangled in the breeze. We ran inside to tell Mom. Darren made a point to tell her that moving the chairs was his idea. But she didn’t ground him.
By the end of the day, chairs, dressers, desks, and ottomans decorated every front yard in town. People had even pre-stacked them, though Mom told them we hadn’t done it that way and it had still worked.
Photo by Mikes Photos from Pexels
Which person do you need
me to be? The man standing
solid on a sinking pier,
toes in lake, eyes
scanning the surging storm
(even the elms are hellbent
to run the other way).
We are all trees
tethered to this moment
and to the next and the next.
Or do you need the woman
who escaped the storm
by diving through it? Lakes
always mimic what they see.
She is the reason the pier
is flagging to hold us up,
to keep us dry, to allow us
to walk on opalescent water
like Jesus bugs or distrust or
skiers framed in life jackets.
Decide before the fog gathers
between our fingers.
Written for YeahWrite’s Fiction|Poetry challenge. Click the badge to read other stories and poems. Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.
“I know it’s cold in here, Libby, but don’t you think what you’re wearing is a little much?”
She would say that. My mother. I scanned her pristinely white sneakers and the store-bought worn jeans she was wearing before I shrugged.
“Can we just get this over with?” My winter coat tightened over my shoulders.
“We should take a before-and-after shot. Wouldn’t that be fun? Let me get my phone.”
Bright yellow and orange flowers grinned at me from all four walls of the dinky bathroom. I could not imagine entering this room of forced happiness every morning to get ready for school. Thank God we were here to make this place more livable.
An avocado-colored bathtub squatted in the corner. I opened the cupboard under the sink and found a mostly-empty canister of Comet. There were two old shelves stacked on top of the toilet, one painted yellow, the other just plain wood. They were both broken. Another shelf, white, hung above the sink right where a mirror should be. What kind of people lived here before who didn’t need to check that they didn’t have any food in their teeth or snot hanging in their nose?
“Ready?” Mom held her phone up.
I shrugged again.
“Your hat matches the wallpaper. Did you plan that?” She winked one of those Mom winks at me.
“Are you going to take the picture or not?”
She faked a pout and then raised her rhinestone-covered phone to eye-level. “Aren’t you going to smile? This is a big day. The Winton girls out on their own for the first time. Let’s show ‘em no fear, huh?”
The left side of my mouth raised slightly before the click.
“Okay, you get anything that isn’t nailed down out of here and I’ll go get the stuff from the car. Be right back.” And she was gone.
I grabbed the shelf off the wall, walked the five steps into the kitchen, and slammed it as hard as I can into a large metal garbage can. Something inside me loosened when I heard the hollow sound it made. I did the same with the other two shelves, and then I yanked the pale orange shower curtain down from its hangers. The pops of the plastic reminded me of cracking knuckles, of squeezing bubble wrap.
Mom walked in with a small steamer, drop cloths, and a putty knife. She placed them on the floor and left me a third time. I heard water filling something and then she returned carrying a heavy bucket.
“Open it for me, will you?” She kicked the steamer with her foot.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to dunk the canister into it?”
“Oh. I guess you’re right.” She placed the bucket on the floor and opened the top of the machine. “Look at you being all handy. Have you done this before?”
“Why are we doing this again?”
“Because this bathroom is ‘70s fugly.”
“No. Why are we moving here?”
“It’s the cheapest I could find.”
“It sucks. It’s mildewy and grandma-ish and jenky. Why aren’t we staying home? It’s not fair. Randy’s the one that fucked up. He should be the one to move.”
She stared at me for a moment. With a sigh, she handed me the canister. “Fill this. You’re going to be the steam queen and I’m going to work behind you peeling off the wallpaper. Okay?”
I don’t know why I didn’t take the canister from her. “Why are you letting him win, Mom? Why aren’t you fighting back?”
She grabbed my shoulders and jerked me toward the empty bathtub. “See that? Hideous as it is it doesn’t know a thing about us. And here, this toilet? This toilet won’t whisper behind our backs when we leave the room. The sink, the walls, the towel rack, the countertop, we can do whatever we want to them. We could rip them out; we could sand them down; we could paint them fucking purple.” She takes a breath, looks up at the ceiling, smiles. “We could hang them up there and no one will know. Do you understand?”
She was so exasperated I didn’t want to make it worse by saying something wrong so I just shook my head.
“Great. Then let’s start with the walls. Take that coat off, you’re going to get hot fast working the steamer.”
We spent a few minutes figuring out how to work the thing, and then we fell into a silence. With every scrap of paper falling onto the tiled floor, the room opened up. About 2 hours in, my mom started humming. About 2 hours and five minutes in, I started humming with her.
An early draft; constructive criticism welcome. To read more fiction and poetry, click the badge above.
I had imagined pinks and vermillions, an impossible sunset contained within an industrial warehouse. I had heard the chitter of squirrels and felt spring breezes. But when I awoke to a thump, felt the vibrations through the floor of my Nomad cell, and saw the most beautiful open door I had ever seen, I knew I wasn’t hallucinating.
The forklift carrying my cell headed toward the receiving door of the warehouse. We passed dozens of other people like me, locked inside 5-foot by 5-foot boxes with clear walls called Nomads. All of them were shielding their eyes with their hands from the bright light, watching me. It wasn’t strange that a worker would be moving one of the inmates to another part of the facility.
It was the open door that was strange.
As we approached it, the forklift slowed. The light became so strong I had to cover my eyes, too, but soon I felt warmth on my clothes, my hair. The forklift set me down on a hard surface, and then nothing happened.
Little by little, my vision grew accustomed to the daylight. The worker had dumped my Nomad in the middle of an asphalt patch. I sat there for some time. I did not mind the waiting; it had been so long since I’d seen the Sun.
At dusk, my Nomad expanded. The ceiling raised, and the walls backed away until it had grown to the size of a conventional living room. The wall closest to the warehouse turned a bright cobalt blue and a pristine white couch inflated from a panel in the floor. Pin light eyes dilated in the ceiling. I didn’t believe that the Nomad’s new dimensions were for my own comfort.
A golf cart approached. I recognized its passenger as the Nomad salesman who had captured me. The ends of his mustache curled malevolently and his gilded cloak shone in the fading light. Clasps secured around my ankles before the driver opened the door to the Nomad. I decided not to try to escape yet; I would have one shot, and the two men blocking the only escape meant this wasn’t it.
“You are in the presence of Grun Dolbry, prisoner. Only speak when spoken to.”
And then the salesman was inside. He smelled of pine and of a pomade that reminded me of my grandfather. The driver shut the door behind him.
Dolbry’s eyes leered at me before he spoke. “Prisoner,” he sat on the couch directly opposite me. “Your family has paid for your release.”
A rush of relief flooded me, but I did not show it.
“That’s cause for celebration, yes?” He bent his arm and spoke into a gadget that looked like a watch: “Two cod fillets, green beans with almonds, and a Cabernet. Is that suitable?” His gaze hitched on to my lips.
“I was hoping for steak.”
“Sorry, but that’s not on the menu. Beef shortage because of the drought out East, you know.”
Of course I didn’t know.
A dining table and chairs rose between us, and the man immediately moved to sit. The clasps pulled my ankles forward. The smell of the fresh food made me stumble. I struggled not to faint at my hunger.
“Please sit. I am very pleased to be dining with you tonight. You have made me quite a bit of money.” He cut his fish into pieces, then brought one to his mouth. I tried to ignore the noises he made as he chewed, but the sounds nauseated me. My food remained untouched.
“Of course, where there is a bee, there is a hive,” he smiled, smacked, clicked, glopped. “Carry on with your supper, prisoner. It will be a while before you’ve another. Are you not hungry?”
“You’re not freeing me,” I declared to my plate, then, remembering my plan of escape, I took a large bite of fish. Transfiguration required energy.
“Ah, you’ve discovered your appetite. You women change your mind too quickly.”
My mind focused on barbs, beaks, and wings; I didn’t hear another word he said to me, but I continued eating. Eventually, the man set his napkin down on his plate and walked to the door, and when he finally opened it I felt the feathers prick up on my skin and the clasps slip free of my legs. I was aloft and out the door before the man could react.
The night was as dark as the inside of that warehouse, but I was a dove flying above the tallest oaks. On my way to see my sisters.
Very very early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.