Cucumbers

I remember my grandparents’ garden from my childhood. I remember following along behind my grandfather, sent out for tomatoes, while I “helped” by pulling fresh cucumbers off the prickly, hairy vines. Wiping the vegetable off on my tee shirt, I chomped into it right there where I stood.

My grandfather was a staid mountain of a man. He didn’t talk much to his family; he frequently responded to my grandmother in grunts or one-syllable sounds. When he sat down to eat, he really tucked into it:  seconds were certain, thirds were not out of the question. I never knew him not to eat what my grandmother set on the table, but he drew the line at cucumbers.

When my brother, my cousins and I discovered this, we were giddy with unexpected knowledge. We were between six and seven years old and our shrill little giggles must have sounded like the munchkins in Oz. Our secret-telling was, no doubt, conducted in theatrical stage whispers. We couldn’t believe it. Grampie didn’t eat cucumbers! We had to clean our plates, but now here was this revelation.

And so at every meal shortly thereafter, we took turns offering our grandfather helpings of the cool disks marinating lightly in vinegar with a hint of sugar and generous salt and pepper.

“Would you like some cucumbers, Grampie,” we asked choking on our hysteria. In the spirit of humor moderated by solidarity, Grammie hid her smile until it wore off and even she spoke sharply, telling us to leave our grandfather alone. But it was irresistible to tease the unteaseable, to ruffle the unruffleable.

“How about a cuke, Grampie,” we asked, until finally he pounded the table with one open hand.

“I don’t want any goddamn cukes,” he thundered before slamming downstairs to his woodworking shop where a half-gallon of vodka was kept cool under the stairs.

What he didn’t know, sadly I think now, is how nicely good vodka goes down with a bit of gently muddled cucumber, fresh from the garden.

Wordless

“What are you sitting there for?” Lyle asked from the doorway.

“I’m thinking,” Vern said without looking up.

“Thinking. About what?”

“Writing.”

“You’re thinking about writing.” Lyle said walking into the room and peering at the computer screen.

“Yes.”

“There aren’t any words on there.”

“I know.”

“Are they going to write themselves?”

“I hope so.”

“They’re off to a slow start.”

“Listen, how about you go pour me a whiskey. I think that’d help the little bastards start flowing from my fingertips like they oughta be doing.”

“Seems to me that could get in the way.”

“Well, you let me worry about that. I think a little whiskey would be like putting some WD-40 on a hinge right about now.”

Lyle lumbered off muttering about ice and the cost of a proper bottle. Vern continued to stare at his hands, willing the words to spring forth, like a snake getting charmed out of its basket, words rising out of the dark to electrify the page.

The clock ticked and the cat began chewing on something in the corner of the room.

“Cut that out, Buster! Ssssssss!”

It was always the hissing sound that got the cat to pay attention.

Lyle stood in the doorway. “What was all that?”

“Cat’s into something.”

“That little bastard knocked my pill jar off the counter today. He better not be getting into that bottle.”

“What was in it?”

“My blood pressure medicine.”

“Christ! If he gets into that, we’ve got a dead cat on our hands!”

“If we don’t find that bottle, we’ll have a dead Lyle on our hands. I can’t be running around without my medicine.”

“For crying out loud. Don’t you think we should be looking for the damn pill jar?”

“I was going to talk to you about it, but then you were sitting there staring off with that look on your face, like you were in mourning or something.”

“Would you please shut up and look for the damn pills? Vern said, setting the laptop on his side table and lowering himself to look under the chair.

Left

Although it was dark and the chill was settling in, the plaza was busy on the first of a three-day weekend. The restaurants and bars were full of bubbling conversations. Couples strolled by with restaurants on one side and the harbor on the other. 

A little girl, about nine, stood on the plaza beside a bench, staring out onto the harbor where sailboats and yachts were swaying with the tide. Past the boats, on the other side of the water, there were condos, restaurants, and abandoned warehouses that may have, for some reason, held her interest. 
 
People walked behind the girl in groups and in couples, but she seemed unaware of their presence. A young Asian couple with two rambunctious pugs walked by and the dogs veered around the girl, circling her and tangling her in their leashes. She looked down at the snorting dogs and their people, who were frantically trying to unwrap her legs, but she didn’t move or respond to their laughing apologies. As the couple with the dogs hurried on, they turned back to glance at her, whispering back and forth.
 
Music blared from a bar nearby. Clanging bells announced a train’s approach, followed by the long rolling rumble of Amtrak taking people up the California delta and beyond. The moon continued its slow journey across the sky and the wind gently blew the girl’s hair across her back. 
 
Although she had been standing still and straight, all at once she inhaled deeply and began to shudder, slumping against the bench. 
 
She knew it like the cut of a knife before it bleeds. Her parents weren’t coming back.

working for the man

Dick was sitting at his kitchen table stirring the sugar into his coffee. He never managed to get it all into the cup and didn’t Noreen bitch about starting her day with sugar gritty elbows. Christ. If that was the worst of her troubles. He flicked his lighter and pulled in a lungful of smoke, first of the day.

“Yes, Zippers, this here is the most satisfying time of the day. Just you, me, coffee, and nicotine. It’s a man’s paradise right here, old Zip, isn’t it?” He scratched the black and white cat’s chin.

Zippers was a skinny bastard, probably because he spent every night outside carousing and whoring around.

“I need to give you a multi-vitamin, old man?”

Dick sighed.

Time to put his shoes on and head out to the shoe shop. If he didn’t punch the clock and get to his machine on time, Donnelly would be on his ass all day long. What a bastard.

Maybe, Dick thought, I should cut old Donnelly some slack. After all, his almost-pretty wife disappeared on him and he was just a working stiff earning a few extra bucks for all his supervisory prickishness. Probably sucks to be him. Maybe more than being me, even.

“But I got Zippers, don’t I boy? He don’t got a Zip Man, now does he?”

Dick scratched the cat behind his ears and bent to tie his shoes.

An honorable mention for “The Light”

I am pleased to announce that my flash fiction piece, “The Light” received an honorable mention in the  Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. I am in good company with my friends Sue Granzella, who got an honorable mention for her essay, “Geography of a Final Resting Place”  and Barbara Ridley who won first prize for her short story, “The Ring” and third prize for her memoir vignette, “Half and Half.”  It’s a fortuitous start to the new year!

In celebration, I am re-posting The Light.

 

“Let me light that fire for you,” I said. “I’m good at it.”

The moth paused for a moment, contemplating. Her antennae quivered, as if there were a tiny breeze.

“Yes, that would be fine,” she said. “Actually, it would be quite nice of you.”

“So, where are you off to?”

“I’m searching. I’m called to search for the thing I am missing. There is a shadow inside of me, a cool empty place.” She paused looking over my head.

“I see,” I said, picking up the two smooth, dry twigs. Rubbing them together, I felt warmth radiating from the friction.

“Why do you ask?” said Moth.

“I wondered how we both happened to be in this dark place, as if we were here to meet.”

“That could be. Perhaps,” Moth said. “And you. You are here for a purpose?”

“I am consumed with too much heat,” I said. “I came to cool my face under the light of the moon. It was here a moment ago. I don’t see it now.”

“Nor I. Nor I,” she said, again rubbing her spindly legs together.

I slid the twigs back and forth and sparks glinted off, cascading onto the mound of straw I had gathered.

“Oh my,” Moth said.

Soon the straw was ablaze and I tossed my twigs onto the top, watching the tendrils of bark glow and curl back, exposing the tender innards to the fire. I turned to gather more twigs and when I turned back, Moth was gone and the fire was inexplicably larger, like a passion recently kindled.

Hard freeze

The morning sun had been up for hours, its rays more a diamond’s cold glitter than warming. Frost glistened on the shaded oak leaves at the back of her yard, where a murder of crows was having breakfast. They flung the acorns onto the street in showers, and waited for cars to drive over and crack them open. They’d been at it for weeks, a bumper crop of nuts.

She sat in her kitchen on a high stool at the counter, looking out the window over the sink and watching the crows. Coffee was still warm in her mug and she kept her hands wrapped around it, listening to the heater click and whirl. The sound of it lulled her mind back toward sleep, a floating place where memories rose, performed, and dissipated like watching a play through fog.

Her father walked through the haze as she remembered him best, when he was the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jacks, when he was the tallest man she’d ever seen with his head skimming the clouds. Even then he limped and the sound of his uneven footfall echoed in her ears. “Don’t wear cheap shoes or you’ll ruin your feet,” he told her as he sat soaking his before scraping the corns and callouses with a razor blade.

Her neighbor’s rooster gave call, a little late she thought, but earlier than his usual 3PM alert. Because her house sat at the top of a small hill, her neighbors were fanned out around her at descending altitudes. The sound of their roosters, automotive backfires, and Chinese New Year firecrackers carried up, including her in all their public sounds, and some private moments she preferred to mute with NPR’s educated patter.

But those were sounds of other days. Today there were hungry crows and the frost melting off trees, a sound she could only imagine, the quietest trickle, the tiniest whoosh of evaporation.

Full to bursting

South Shore_11.3.15

In front of me, there are small sea birds with straw-shaped beaks that they jab into the sand, breakfasting along the water’s edge. The patch of tidal sand forms a triangle into the bay and at its point furthest from land is a large rock with a gray lump atop it, a pelican. While I watch, she rises up and stretches her wings, letting the air comb her feathers before curling back up, tucking her wings back into her breast. Her movement sends the small birds atwitter and they flock closer with a burst of vocalizing and sand poking.

A cloud of termites hatches out of the sand behind me ands swirls around me like winged snow, hitting my face and neck. As I sit writing, there are three hatchings, three clouds of termites setting off toward the south. The layers of bird calls are their sound track to new life.

Behind me men with crowbars are deconstructing the roof of a modest beach house to add another story, transforming it into another type of dwelling as they have done to several nearby houses.

Across the water, Bay Farm Island sits with its modern construction mc mansions, over which airplanes from the Oakland airport fly at ascending angles. Further still are Twin Peaks and San Francisco’s downtown in layer upon layer of so much beauty it physically hurts.

I breathe it in and am filled with yearning, to be one with it, expanding to be all of this and nothing, no thing and every thing and at long last enough.

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The Boneyard

I park in the shade of the magnolia tree fifty yards past the mausoleum door, leaving the closest spots for the bereaved who creep and creak in to remember. I don’t know anyone stored in the body-sized drawers, but I go inside to use the restroom before my walk through the boneyard. The first few times, I felt like an intruder echoing down the corridors of the clammy cool granite and brass-filled building, with its faint odor of decay, but now I’m a regular.

My father-in-law was buried in a mausoleum. Before his internment, I’d presumed only the wealthy could afford the accommodations, but my in-laws weren’t particularly wealthy. In Illinois where Bob is entombed, a mausoleum makes sense for the visiting bereaved. At Christmas-time the year after he died, we drove through drifts of blowing, blinding snow to sit inside with him and the summers are no less rigorous on the other end of the spectrum.

I’m at a loss to explain the mausoleum in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Why deny the worms their due, as if embalming hasn’t hindered their work enough? Perhaps the mausoleum makes decomposition seem more tidy, where the inhabitants are safe from tree roots that stretch in search of nutrients and, finding them, grow large, pushing boxes open, tilting carefully-carved stones to dangerous angles.

Outside I wend my way around and up through the hundreds, no thousands, of graves covering the hillsides. I go around the pyramid-shaped mausoleum, which is behind the one with the bathroom, and climb up to the modestly wealthy families’ tombs, which  are finer than any cottage with this view that my little paycheck could afford. Here, as elsewhere, squirrels frantically gather and bury nuts from the picture perfect live oaks, planted at careful intervals. Hawks circle, noting the large bellied squirrels distracted by their work.

I hike past the University of California founder, past the stones of Julia Morgan, the ambassador of Micronesia, past Ina Donna Coobrith, California’s first poet laureate, past the locals and transplants who’ve left their marks on the world and lie here in the shadows of the captains of industry with their monuments up the hill.

There are hills covered with small stone rectangles that lie flat against the ground. I’d thought they epitomized modest means, but apparently they are also evidence of the evolution of graveyard philosophy and Mountain View’s partial transition to lawn cemetery design. Perhaps these hills of small stones are also monuments to post-mortem practicality and leaving what resources there are with the living. There is an Oakland-style Chinatown here, with Asian names and pictures of the departed on their stones. Here more than anywhere, I find evidence of the living. They leave flowers, moon cakes, jack-o-lantern, pinwheels spinning in the breeze, and generations of families gathered for a photo near the stone of their loved ones, long buried, but remembered.

My lifelong search for a grave with my family name outside of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, has come to fruition only here. I’ve found a reasonable sized, brown-colored stone marking the burial of two married couples. Their names are united by the symbol for a fraternal order. This Raymond Farrar is unknown to my family, with its own Raymond Farrar. He lies with his friends on a sunny hillside. I leave a rock on his stone each time I pass by. I pull the weeds from the flower vase built onto the stone’s base. Someone who knows those buried here removes my stones and leaves none, but I persist. One day I found a single daisy, freshly picked on top of the stone with no one in sight.

How to go to war

You agree to let your housemate move her sister into the flat you share. You’ve never met the sister, but you like your housemate, so why not? You hardly ever see your housemate because she’s an exotic dancer by night and by day she’s interviewing exotic dancers for a documentary about the trade. You presume, of course, that the sister will be similarly cool and interesting, that she will have an active social life, and when she is at home, which won’t be often, she’ll be enjoyable, like her sister, who you always wish you saw a bit more often, and this is the right amount and kind of disappointment to have in a housemate.

After the sister moves in, you realize she is a 4’8” foot stomping tyrant, who constantly nags her sister about not being home enough. Your housemate fires back, calling her a shrieking shrew, which makes the sister shriek. You also realize that not only do you hate the sister but that your housemate hates her, and always has hated her. Actually, everyone in the world hates her and so, or course, she never leaves the house, because she has no friends, and no interests, other than buying things cheaply, due to her willingness to argue the price, and by researching sales and clipping coupons, which she does for half the day on Sundays when she commandeers the paper and spreads it out over the entire kitchen table.

A few months pass in this fashion and you decide that the only way to get her to leave is to drive her out, which unfortunately will also mean the loss of the housemate, who is bound to her sister by a hate-filled loyalty. You ponder the best way to accomplish your ends, deciding, of course, that you must go to war.

Declaring war is no small matter and, once declared, there is no turning back. You contemplate this fact and decide to wait, allowing the hate to build into a fury that you contain in the darkest part of your heart and behind your furthest molar that you clench and grind whenever you hear the sister’s shrewish voice. The hate blooms and blossoms into a hateful creativity. A battle plan reveals itself in one tactical maneuver after another, ever onward to the eradication of the enemy, leaving you the victor on the competitive battlefield of the San Francisco rental market.

You are in the kitchen on the day you go to battle, the kitchen where the sister has used most of the household dishes, sloppily half-washed and left them piled precariously in the drainer, as she does several times a week. You have just returned home from market and want to whip up a quick stir-fry, starving as you are, but before you can begin, you must dislodge the cutting board, the knife, and the pan from the pile. Like a childhood game of Jenga!, your attempt to remove one item begins to topple the lot. You grind the hatred into your tooth and, as usual, begin the dismantling process of drying and putting away all of the dishes to get to the ones you need, which must be re-washed.

In a rage-fueled moment of inspiration, pick up the cleaver, turn it to the blunt side and smash it onto the pile of her rings she has left by the sink, as she always does, like a dog lifting its leg to leave traces of its ownership behind. Administer three quick blows and the rings are dented and scattered. Gather them up, pocketing one and returning the rest to the spot by the now-empty dish drainer. You put this act of violence out of your mind, like a strategic white board wiped clean, your face is blank, your conscience is clear and you return to your intended task, that of a quick lunch. Sit in the blessedly empty flat, absorbing sunshine and silence at the kitchen table with your lunch and a novel you bought for 99 cents at the used bookstore on 24th Street near Church.

Later, you are in your room above the kitchen. The sister comes home and stomps through the house to the kitchen to, you suppose, take all of the dishes out of the cupboard. You listen to the quiet moment as she puts down her bags of slightly wilted vegetables and turns to the sink. You hear her tone of outrage, her rings! The battle cry has sounded and hatred spills over to the bile in your guts and you plot your next move.

The days go by and you begin to gather evidence of war’s justification. In the bathroom, the sister creates little nests with her hair. She leaves the coiled dark strands in the soap dish, on the windowsill, plastered onto the wet shower walls where you are forced to confront or pointedly ignore them. Today, you gather them into a handful of hair that you put it into a paper bag and hide on the highest shelf in the closet, tucking it behind your pants.

In the hallway between your bedroom and hers, she piles fashion magazines on the floor. She is the least fashionable person you know with her penchant to purchase whatever will fit her small box-shaped frame and is on sale for at least 60% off. She wears the same shoes every day. They would be cool on anyone else, but on her are reduced to an outdated stereotype–black utilitarian 1950’s style spinster shoes with chunky modern heels. Despite her frugality, on magazines she spends with abandon, and then is reluctant to throw them away. The stack grows with its perfume samples wedged between piles of pages, requiring that your door remain closed against the olfactory assault. Tie the magazines into a plastic garbage bag that you wedge behind a box under your bed.

On the day before the full moon, you find yourself in front of La Sirena Botanica, a small store on the J-Church line that you’ve rumbled past for years. You go in to inspect the candles that line an entire wall from floor to ceiling. You pass the ones in glass, the ones with saints and pictures on the label, preferring the ones that are most fearsome, the images made out of wax. There are black cats, naked men and women of varying sizes and colors, waxen dollar signs, a cloven-hoofed man with horns, and most disturbing, a full-sized replica of a human skull that’s black on the outside, but once lit reveals a blood red interior and is exactly the type of thing you were looking for. Purchase it, along with a small cast iron 3-legged cauldron, and head back to your flat to prepare for battle.

Once there, dust off the water-stained end table that the neighbors left outside with a “free” sign. On it carefully arrange your purchases. Retrieve the magazines, the hair, and the ring from their hiding spots. Wad up a few pages and pile them into the cauldron. Place a pile of the hair in front of the candles, weaving some through the ring. Twist a nail into the third eye of the skull and hang the hair-knotted ring on it. Put the rest of the hair and the magazines under the table, making certain it is all visible from the doorway across the room. Leave your door ajar and leave the house for dinner with friends at Zante’s Indian food and pizza joint a few blocks away. Enjoy your last feast before battle.

Returning home, slightly high from a large bottle of Taj Mahal beer, Indian spices, and witty repartee, pause in the foyer. Listen for movement and sense the mood of the household. Feeling the crackle of tension in the air, rest assured the altar has been seen, examined closely, and has begun its work. Pause in the hallway and slowly turn your head toward the sister’s room. For once, her door is closed, but you can see the shadow of her feet on the floor inside. Leave your door open the tiniest crack and set the cauldron ablaze. Light the candles, as you will do for the next seven days. Now wait. Prepare for the day you return from work to find an empty flat and for the month you’ll be stuck paying the full rent. Craft your “housemate wanted” advertisement; imagine the dinner table conversations, the new furniture, and the addition to your circle of friends. Plan to savor the spoils of your victory.

In November

The bones in my feet said, “Walk.” “Put on your damn shoes and walk.”

The bones of my hips said, “Stay.” Sit down in your grandma’s chair with its creaking woven seat and stay.”

The bones around my heart said, “Ache.””Grow heavy and old; grow brittle and break.”

The bones in my hand said, “Write.” “Pick up your pen and scratch at the page.”

A chicken in the coop looks at its feet, sees talons, and feels the wind beneath its now useful wings.

Scratch for a truth, a fleck of gold in the detritus of abandoned, mouldering words that died here and left their bones.