Baby On Board

Out on the highway,
the drivers think
of There as much
as they do of Here.
They can picture it
as easily as you do
that BMW which just
cut you off trying
to make it to Exit 8A
from the outside lane.
They know the destination
carries more weight
than the journey.
That’s just how the world
ticks when you’re
rolling along at 79 mph.
Sometimes even when
you’re driving that fast.

They probably don’t
care too much to realize
if they were to slow down,
even a little,
they might notice how
things closer to you
take on a sharper focus.
Like a BMW blindly
zipping left to right
might on its journey
toward a destination
more important than
that of the Honda
it just cut off. The one
with the Baby On Board
sticker in its back window.

Let’s see how many of these bits I can crank out in the 20-minute gaps I have in Father’s Day duties today.

Come Listen to Me, the Teller of Tales

“… come listen to me, the Teller of Tales …”  ~ Brian Jacques

The children would gather around the fire when the old man would sit and light his pipe. It was his silent way of telling them, “Come, listen to me, the Teller of Tales.”

The children were not the only ones who would grab for the words, the lines, the tales, the dreams the old man would weave into something palpable, like the log upon which he sat or the lap upon the young ones would cuddle. So too would be the tousled head that would rest upon a mother’s breast, a father’s grizzled chin. All of the warm and comforting.

Such a blessed distraction from the star that stared down upon them night and day, growing bigger with each rise and fall of the sun. One couldn’t really call them nights anymore, since the star’s light rivaled the twilight of dawn and sundown.

“Come listen to me, the Teller of Tales,” the smoke would say to their little noses.

“Come listen to me, the Weaver of Dreams,” his eyes sparkling in the campfire would say to their frightened eyes.

“Come listen to me, the bringer of sleep,” his comforting voice would say in its tone so soothing, never rushed or strident, never angry or dismayed, never giving in to the inevitable forever sleep that approached the world in a ball of ice and iron that had slipped from the belt of the great god planet and through the fingers of his red-faced minister of war. And now it was coming into the embrace of the mother of planets.

The old man would begin his stories the same each time: “In the beginning…” which gave the children a little anchor to end their days, something they could moor themselves to like the sea otters to some sea leaf before drowsing hand-in-hand with their loved ones, for no one wanted to be separated from them when the great sleep ultimately came when the ever-dawn became ever-night.

Here’s my last possible moment response to Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt for the week of May 28- June 4. It based on that quote from a character created by Brain Jacques in his Redwall series of novels. I’m not one given to writing fantasy, but in the half-hour it took to write this piece, that’s what appears to have happened on the page. I guess that’s what you’d call it, even though it sounds like historical fiction and reads like speculative fiction of a coming Armageddon.

Heroes

It was August 28th and Cindy Bingham knew her father, Walter, had fallen off the wagon again.

He’d gotten falling-down drunk around this time for each of the twenty-one years since August 28, 1862 etched its physical and emotional wounds upon him that never quite healed.

After sitting all night in a rocking chair by the fireplace in the Bingham home outside Stony Point, New York, Cindy heard the thud outside. This time Walter’s fall was as literal as could be. His brother-in-law Hiram Mott thought he saw Walt misstep onto the dusty road from the front seat of Hiram’s rig as it slowly passed in front of the Bingham place at dawn on August 29, 1883. Hiram had been drinking with Walt all day, just to keep him safe, but was too drunk to do much about his brother-in-law’s tumble anyway.

The clop-clop of his horses’ hooves drowned any sound from behind as they never stopped. The pair of bays just kept trotting north to the Mott place, their reins slack and their master dozing along for the ride. They’d made the trip many times with Hiram before.

Walter’s fall was also from his normal sobriety. That date and its memories had again set him to drinking day and night since the evening of the 26th.

Cindy Bingham found her father by the side of the road when she emerged bleary-eyed from the house about the time she normally would begin the day’s milking. It was a job she shared with her father since the death of her mother, Martha, two years before.

Always he would turn into this other Walt at the end of August. Then he’d slowly return to the quiet, sober and loving husband to Martha and father to Cynthia everyone knew as the local hero.

As she helped her father into the house, she recalled Walt hardly ever took out that medal, with its blue ribbon with thirteen red and white stripes, honoring his heroism,. Most especially not at the end of August. Instead, he’d only pull out the three old photographs that portrayed five smiling young men posing in impeccable uniforms whose exotic design was borrowed from the French Zouaves.

All of these young men wore the confident and guileless grins of soldiers who had not faced an enemy in combat. They’d not yet left Stony Point and heard the whiz and crunch of enemy bullets missing or finding their mark. They’d yet to feel the body-shaking concussion of a Parrot shell as it obliterated the men next to you and threw you six feet away, turning the world into swirls of red, white and gray. They had not yet “seen the elephant,” as the veteran soldiers described their baptisms in fire.

As she peeled Walter’s filthy clothes off her father before putting him to bed, Cindy Bingham recalled the first time she equated this room with this date.

When she was eight, she watched from the barely open bedroom door as Walt opened the cigar box where he kept the photos that turned him from doting father to brooding and distant stranger. That was when she connected the date and the contents of the box with an abnormally short and frightening temper. She had seen him lash out with his voice and the back of his hand to her mother should she try too much to console him. That day, she watched Walt carry his photos to the barn, where he sat with his back to its south-facing red wall. He gazed at them when he wasn’t staring into space or covering his eyes and shaking his shoulders.

Cindy remembered how she crept to the clothes press where Walt kept the box and opened its lid to see whatever could make her father change so.

Inside, she found the medal. It was a tarnished upside-down five-pointed star topped by an eagle perched on crossed cannons. The star was suspended from a ribbon that reminded her of the flag under which her father was said to have fought with great distinction in the War of Southern Rebellion. Beneath the medal, along with some documents and letters, she found another photo of her father, its image face-down. The photo was of Walt Bingham in the plain blue uniform of an Army sergeant, a grim and tired expression on his face and the still-shiny medal pinned to his chest.

The little girl heard the bedroom door open and there stood Walt, his eyes rimmed in red.

“What are you doing?” he said, in a voice caught somewhere between anger and anguish. He rushed to her and, before he could take the box from her, Cindy dropped it in fear, its contents spilling on the bedroom floor.

“Look what you’ve done. Don’t ever touch this box again, girl or I’ll…” Walter raised his hand as if he might strike Cindy, but stopped and dropped to his knees to put the photos, documents and medal back in it. Cindy, in tears, rushed past her father and downstairs to her mother. Together, Martha and Cindy watched as Walter rode away from the house and did not return until August 29, as drunken and disheveled as the man she was helping into their home on this morning in 1882.

* * * *

Once she was back in the kitchen, Walter softly snoring off his bender, Cindy thought back to when she was ten, when she finally got the courage to ask her father the question that had burned in her for two years.

“Daddy, why do you get so sad and angry when August turns to September?”

Walter Bingham, softly put his mug of coffee down on the kitchen table, closed his eyes and mumbled, “You’re not old enough to understand, Cynthia. I hope you never have to. Now go help your mother, please.”

It was her mother, Martha, who told Cindy that her father had returned from the war a changed man.

“He left New York a cheerful and strapping boy, so dashing in his blue jacket with its and red brocade trim, his baggy crimson trousers. I watched the gold tassel on his red kepi bounce to the martial air they played while his regiment marched to the train in Peekskill, bound for Baltimore that morning in 1861. He was the most handsome boy in that regiment.”

“Were you proud of him?” Cindy asked.

“Oh, my yes. He was my betrothed and I was the envy of all my friends. But, inside, I was terrified of what might happen to him, how I might become a war widow before we’d ever become married.”

“And what happened when he was away and then came back?” Cindy asked, because this was the answer she really wanted.

“In three years, that dashing boy returned a wounded hero. The people of Stony Point greeted him with honors fit for a victorious returning knight. The young man who limped off the train resembled my beloved Walter, but he was not the same boy I’d kissed goodbye. And that’s all I’ll say right now, Cynthia. Now off to school with you,” Martha said, giving Cindy a kiss, then turning to her dishes and pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at her eye and across her nose.

* * * *

Cindy made a pot of coffee, as much for her sleep-deprived self as for her deeply sleeping father. As she waited for the water to boil, she knew that by the second week of September, he would return to his normal self. Once again he’d be the loving and industrious Walt Bingham she knew better than anyone. Once again, he’d be a citizen of Stony Point who people would always greet on the streets with a doffed hat and a simple and warm, “Good morning, Walt!” or nod of the head and proper “Hello, Mr. Bingham. Good day to you, sir.”

Walt would politely acknowledge his treatment as the town’s foremost citizen, though he eschewed any attempts to draw him into political circles or any public activities, including meetings of the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Three years ago, when she was fifteen, it was through a talk with one of those veterans, her uncle Hiram, that Cynthia learned the true genesis of her father’s hero status. That and his annual temporary metamorphosis into a drunken misanthrope.

“It happened at a place called Manassas in Virginia, Cindy,” Hiram said. “Your papa’s company was in reserve of other units who were putting up a great battle against the forces of the Rebel General Jackson, a brilliant soldier and brutal man who got his comeuppance in ’63 at Chancellorsville. But that’s neither here nor there to Walt’s story.”

“His company was ordered to fill a gap on the left side of the line, where the 5th New York was taking a terrible fire and beginning to falter. Your papa rushed up and took his position just as the 5th began falling back. Men were dropping, dead or wounded, all around him. The ground was so covered with them in their tattered once-grand uniforms that Walter had to quick-step atop their bodies to rush up to his position in the line,” Hiram said.

Cynthia gasped.

“Sorry to spell it out like this, little niece, but I think you should know why your papa is the way he is. Now amid all this chaos, Walter’s company, under fierce fire, began to waver and fall back. He, with a handful of other men, began running down a ravine that led toward our lines. In the woods above this little group of New York boys, Walt saw the Reb officers were dressing their line before making another charge. Your papa, already a corporal and a very smart soldier, realized the Rebels would likely strike at our big guns protecting the entire Corps’ left flank. That’s when he left his friends to go alert the artillery to their danger,” Hiram said, crossing his arms and rubbing his chin whiskers with his left hand.

“The Rebs saw what Walt was doing and started firing at him. I was with the guns and we watched him running like a rabbit, never expecting him to make it. He sprinted through the enemy fire, bullets tearing at his uniform and one ball cutting across his ribs,” Hiram said.

“I’ve seen the scar. Papa always tries to cover it, but I’ve seen it,” Cindy said.

“When he went down, we thought sure he was dead. But son of a bitch if he didn’t pop right back up and start running again. Funny thing about that. While we was hollering for Walter to run, the Rebs was cheering for him, too. Not that they wasn’t still trying to kill him, of course. When he got to the artillery commander, your papa reported the enemy were gathering in force in the woods on his left flank and the colonel would lose his guns if he did not limber them up and get them the blazes out of there. Which they did, by the scarcest of margins. They most surely would have been lost, our flank overrun and the whole army lost with them if not for your papa. After they patched Walter up and the officers made their report of what he did, they awarded Walt that Medal of Honor,” Hiram said and then spat at the ground.

“And that’s why he’s sad every year at this time? You would think he would be proud to have earned that medal. He’s a hero,” Cindy said, beaming with pride after hearing the story her father never told.

“Well, sweet girl, that’s not how war works. War affects men in different ways. Your papa was pretty shaken up by that Reb ordnance and musket fire chasing him down the ravine and the bullet that tore through his side. But what really wounded him was the fact that all the men he was with up on the line were lost. And those four men he broke off from to warn our guns? Not two seconds later, a Reb shell burst in their midst and, well…let’s just say they were lost, too. Walt was the only survivor of his whole platoon.” Hiram spat again.

“Those four men wouldn’t be…”

“The young fellas in that photograph he keeps? Yes, dear girl. All school chums who joined up for the fancy outfits that impressed the girls like your Mama, the precision marching that impressed themselves, and to put down the secession in a couple of months. It took four years and thousands of lives. Some, like Walter, are still walking around, still sharing the warmth of his loved ones. But, come the anniversary of that day, he goes dead as his friends inside, too. Now you dry those tears, girl, and know how lucky you are to have Sergeant Walter Bingham of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry as your father. And to know you have Walt Bingham, as strong and saintly a man as ever drawn breath, as your papa, period.”

It was that day Cindy vowed to help soften her loving but quiet father’s sadness, pain, guilt, or whatever tortured him so, most especially every late August.

* * * *

Her father still sleeping off 1883’s sorrowful fall, Cynthia discussed her father’s invisible wounds with her beau, Robert Van Wormer, who stopped by to see how she was faring with her father back home.

“My father tries so hard, Robert. And Lord knows I did my best to make sure everything was neat and quiet and loving these past years since Mama died. She once told me she almost made it happen one year when I was two. She hid the cigar box and the photographs from him. But by noon on the 28th, he became so melancholy, she said she thought he would harm himself. That’s when she gave in and showed him where she’d put it,” Cindy said with a catch in her throat.

“Out came the pictures and Mother said Daddy was gone for the next day and a half. That date has a power over him that she could never rein in and I’m not sure how I can. It’s like the sadness lies in the ground like a cicada and pops out to overwhelm whatever good we can bring to it. We are lucky he and his faith and love for us was so strong that he can soon enough bury it again until the next year.”

“You know, there may be a way,” Robert said. “Maybe if he took the cure, the whole treatment at the spa up in Saratoga. The waters, the baths, massage, just getting away from all these same faces and places, might just jar him into something other than his melancholy.”

“let me think abut it, Robert. And thank you for being such a love,” Cindy said, kissing Robert on the cheek.

* * * *

Good as his word, Robert suggested taking Walter away from home that August, taking the steamer up the Hudson to Saratoga for the springs and mineral baths, and not returning until the 29th or even the 30th.

“I don’t know if that would be the answer, Robert. But perhaps taking the cure at the Springs might be the thing to help keep my mind at rest and away from those horrible visions, those faces, those… Yes, let’s take the trip,” Walt said to the earnest young man.

A few days later, Walt and Robert were back in Stoney Point, Walt in roughly the same shape as all the preceding August 28ths.

“Robert, what in the world? How did this happen?” Cindy said to her crestfallen beau after they half-carried a very sick Walter to his bed.

“Everything was going extremely well, Cindy. The trip upriver to Albany was beautiful and the train to Saratoga was fine. Your father was a little quiet, perhaps reticent to speak openly of his problems with me, but once we got to the town, I think he actually got caught up in the whole spirit of the place. The baths there were still buzzing after the record win of the Travers Stakes race by a horse name Rataplan. It was all they could talk…”

“Robert, my father? I sent him off with you to avoid another occasion like all those other years. Please explain how he ended up like this while supposedly in your care,”  Cindy said, holding here hand up in front of Robert’s face.

“We were in one of the baths, having just finished a good steam and were getting massages, all part of the treatment I hoped would help your father. We couldn’t help but hear one of the other masseurs talking to a guest on the other side of the room from us. ‘Yes sir,’ he was saying, ‘this old place has quite the history. Famous folks from far and wide have come here for the waters and their healing powers. George Washington himself wanted to buy one of our springs for its bubbling waters. Just last week Commodore Vanderbilt, Diamond Jim Brady and Miss Lillian Russell herself stopped by for the baths and a massage. Why even that Rebel General Stonewall Jackson came right to Saratoga for the mineral springs and such on his honeymoon with the second Mrs. Jackson.’”

“Oh, no,” Cindy said.

“Next thing I hear is your father’s masseur saying, ‘Sir, please, you’ll have to relax just a little. You’ve stiffened up rather severely.’ Straight away, Walter, not even bothering to cover himself with a sheet, ran out of the room to grab his clothes and disappear out a back door. I couldn’t catch him, Cindy. I’m so sorry. I spent the day and night scouring every saloon and casino I could find searching for him. I eventually found Walt the next morning, the 28th, out cold in an alley behind the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway. I cleaned him up best I could, and we took the next train to Albany and on home.”

“Oh, Robert, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve to be brought into this so deeply,” Cindy said.

“I don’t think there’s any more we can do, Cindy. That date and those memories are too strong. And, if I am to be Walter’s son-in-law some day, his welfare will be as much my problem as yours,” Robert said, as he took Cindy’s hand.

In October of that same year, Robert asked Walter for Cynthia’s hand in marriage. Cindy could see her father’s habitually passive expression Walter was overjoyed, because he now knew Robert to be a young man of integrity and respect for not only his daughter, but himself as well.

“So have you picked a date for the nuptials, Cindy? Sometime in June? I understand June is the month most brides cherish for the occasion,” Walt said, his arms around his daughter.

“We’ve decided upon August 28th.” She tugged her father closer, as Walt’s embrace grew limp.

“No, Cindy. I can’t, you mustn’t, I…”

“Daddy, Mother always said that it was the horrible memories of what happened on that date in 1862 that hurt you so. And I figured perhaps I could give you something good on that day to help soften some of those bad things,” Cindy said, her eyes welling up.

Walter, a head taller than his daughter, looked not at her, but at the wall behind her, as he would on those days when he would sit with his back to the barn wall, searching for something but not finding it. He gave a great sigh.

“My darling girl, since your mother’s death you are all I have. You are my life. I would not wish to lose you to any man, with the possible exception of young Robert.” Walter gave a slight grin. “And I adore you for this gesture and will accede to your wish. And with God’s help, we shall see you a glorious bride and I the proud and joyful papa come this August 28th next.”

* * * *

On August 24th, 1885, Walter Bingham gave a cigar box to his daughter, telling her to keep it safe for him. And though he was subdued and quiet for the next four days, Walter looked every bit the proud father of the bride as they walked down the aisle of the Reformed Church in Stony Point.

Walter hired a photographer take portraits to remember that day. He kept but one on the mantle of his home for the rest of his life. His daughter had helped turn it into life that, while not as lighthearted and high-spirited as the boy who left Stony Point in 1861, was never again as broken as the man who returned in 1863. In fact, it turned quite hopeful.

The photo on the mantle was a hand-tinted portrait of Walter and Cindy. He in his fine morning coat and cravat and she in her her mother’s wedding dress. On his lapel, beneath the pink rose, he sported a locket containing a small portrait of Martha. On her bodice, Cynthia wore an odd piece of shiny jewelry, which the photographer had painted in watercolor tints of yellow for the upside-down star and pink and blue for the ribbon.

Robert had given Walt the frame in which he displayed it, gilded and bearing one word upon a scroll at its bottom. It read, HEROES.

I was inspired to write “Heroes” by a story I read about some Vietnam vets and decided to superimpose that inspiration, on Memorial Day, upon America’s defining conflict, the Civil War.

This is a revised version of the original, incorporating suggestions by Julie Duffy and other members of the Story-a-Day writers and critique group. My thanks for their insight and generosity.

And Crown Thy Good…

At the end of the bar, I saw old Mason Snyder sitting in his semi-usual ruminating funk, so I decided to slide my beer down there to here him out and see if we could repair the world a bit together.

After asking why the long face, Mase said, “Last week, I saw a study that broke down the average life expectancy in all the States and the spot with the longest living residents–at 85 years–was in some Colorado ski resort area, while the shortest are in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, where on average, people there can expect to live to age 67,” Mase said.

“Beyond the obvious disparity, is that what’s pissing you off so much?” I asked.

Mase had a long pull on his Bud, took a deep breath and said, “I saw some news bunny ask if the lives of Oglala Lakota County residents there were so short there because they died of boredom out there in the high plains.”

“Uh oh,” I said, knowing the righteous wrath coming in three, two,….

“Yeah, honey, the type of boredom that sets in where you have no prospects to change your life from the grinding poverty of being members of families who’ve essentially been prisoners of war for a century and a half. The type of boredom that drives people to drink and drug themselves into oblivion because they lost the home version of the Manifest Destiny game show. The type of boredom that causes kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation to kill themselves at a ridiculously high rate,” Mase said in his indignant and borderline angry tone when he talked about the treatment of America’s native people.

“That’s pretty tragic,” I said, feeling both sad and guilty watching Mase, who was of mixed Navaho and German heritage, take another gulp of his beer and the breath to go on.

“Oh, and by the way, Miss Talking Hairdo, that average life expectancy was for the whole of Oglala Lakota County, where
the numbers just a few years ago for Pine Ridge Reservation residents only were 52 years for women and fuckin’ 48 for men– 48 years of age and done,” Mase said, spun on his stool and stalked out the bar entrance.

“What the hell was Big Chief Bottom-of-the-Bottle going on about?” Charlie the bartender asked me in the wake of Mase’s diatribe on the mistreatment of red folks by the sorry-ass  Great White (absentee) Father over the years.

“C’mon we’re as guilty as any White Americans in not doing enough–or anything–to help these fellow Americans live better, safer, healthier lives,” I said in my own Mase-stoked righteously indignant tone.

“Yeah, well you tell him for me if he–and you, for that matter–expects to get his firewater in my joint anymore, he’d better keep it down or, better yet, take his whiny shit to some liberal fern bar, ’cause us real Americans don’t want to hear it,” Charlie said, flipping the channel from the fifth inning in Cleveland of another one-sided Mets matinee loss over to Fox News Channel.

A poor pass at my Day 24 effort for Story-A-Day May. The prompt was to write a “Sonnet Story,” one with 14 sentences and carried the sonnet structure, save for no rhyming or anything like that. Just twelve sentences of any length, with or without rhyme or meter. I don’t think I hit the mark of a Petrarchan nor Shakespearean sonnet, but at least it’s written and the data is absolutely correct…and shameful. 

The Lie Behind the Secret, The Secret Behind the Lie

She waited a week before revealing the secret.

Liz sat me down in the living room to tell me. I could see she had something going on, though. Distracted, quiet, even moody. I’d asked several times before she finally told me.

“Oh, I’m just tired’s all,” she’d say. Or, “Nothing. Everything’s fine. Do you want there to be something wrong?” Eventually, after a week of this, I just stopped noticing, at least with any intent.

That’s when she dropped the bomb.

“I’m leaving here,” she said.

Not, “I’m leaving you,” but, “I’m leaving here.”

“Liz, what’s going on? I’ve noticed something’s wrong for over a week, and now, ‘I’m leaving here’?” I said, not sure if I should lean in or rock back like I would if punched in the face, which is what this felt like.

“I, I can’t do this anymore. It’s all too much,” she said. She couldn’t look me in the eye, but I could see hers darting about the room as if looking for some means of escape other than through me.

“Can’t do what? What’s too much?”

“This, here, everything.”

“Us?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it’s…”

Her phone rang with a ringtone I’d not heard before. She took a quick glance, rolled her eyes to the ceiling and took a deep breath.

“I’ve got to take this. I’ll be right back,” she said. She got up from the chair and moved one room away into the kitchen.

My mind raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. But even through all the questions ringing in my mind, I could hear her whisper from the kitchen.

“No, not yet… No. I’m trying, but it’s hard… You don’t understand… I told you not to call… I’ll call you when I’m done… No.” Then a muffled something that sounded to me like, “Love you.”

I got up from my chair and walked toward the kitchen, where Liz quickly whispered, “I’ll call you later,” and cut off her call.

“Okay, Liz, what the hell’s going on? The detached behavior for the past two weeks, telling me you’re leaving, the secret phone calls? If you’ve got a beef with me, at least have the decency, the balls, to tell me straight up. There’s nothing you can’t tell me, okay? We’ve been through too much to keep secrets from one another, especially something as obviously disturbing as whatever’s on your mind,” I said.

She wandered over to the coffee maker and poured herself a second cup. Black. And if Miss Sweetness and Light was going to drink her coffee straight, I knew I’d better brace myself.

“Please sit down, JJ,” she said, pointing to the kitchen table. With the shuffle of chair legs on the tile floor, we each settled into seats on the opposite side of the old wooden table we bought at a flea market when Liz and I moved in together.

She looked at her refection amid the steam on the ebony surface of her coffee and took a deep breath, which caught in her throat.

“There’s this man, I met,” she said.

Finally, I knew what was coming.

“I found him online and we’ve been talking to each other for a month at night while you’re sleeping or engrossed in some TV show,” she said, which felt like a backhand to my reddening cheeks.

“A man? You’re leaving me for some man you met only a month ago?” I said a little too loudly. Now I felt like throwing a backhand.

She stared into her mug some more and looked like the steam had condensed in her eyes and was dripping down her cheeks. If she ever left me, I felt sure it would be for another woman. After all, she’d left her boyfriend two years ago to be with me and I was anything but a man.

I got up from my chair, it’s legs squealing in protest to my sudden explosion of energy I’d been tamping down since Liz began her harried silent treatment.

“Fine,” I said. “Go. I guess I never expected a pretty girl lie you could stay with troll like me forever anyway. But never for a man, even if you are bi.”

“Stop it, JJ,” she shouted. “I’m not leaving you for another man. I’m not leaving YOU. I’m leaving here to finally meet my father, you idiot. But if that’s the way you really feel about me, then maybe I should.”

Her anger had brought the color back to her soft white cheeks. The skin I’d come to adore. I was hurt, but once again, I’d hurt her worse.

“I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure. I’ve been living without a father my whole life. It left me feeling rejected. You know how my analyst says that’s why I always ended up with what she thought were father figures. She even included you in that group,” she said.

“Well how about that?” I said. I’d never been the most feminine woman, but I was far from anybody’s even desperate surrogate for a runaway father. My turn to roll my eyes.

“JJ, I love you. But I have to see what it’s like to have a father, see what Kevin’s all about. He says he never wanted to leave me, but Mother, the domineering bitch, chased him off with her lawyer brother and threats from her family. I’ve been searching all my life for the truth. Now I may have found it. I’m sure I’ve found my father,” she said.

“You couldn’t tell me this?” I said, rather more weakly than I thought I could.

“I thought you’d ridicule me, a 30-year-old woman searching for her Daddy like I got lost in the mall.”

“No, honey, I wouldn’t. I’m sorry to hear you felt that way.”

“Well, I’m leaving Tuesday for Vancouver. That’s where he lives, Vancouver,” she gave a kind of ironic chuckle and said. “But I’ll be back, I promise. I only took a two-week leave of absence from work.”

“You couldn’t even tell me that?”

“No, I really was afraid of how you’d react. And I’m glad you seem to be taking it so well. That you understand why I have to do this.”

“Not really. Not with my history of being tossed out at sixteen by my old man when I came out. But I won’t stand in your way, even if this dude is some fraud serial killer who’ll take you away from me permanently,” I said, surprised at the catch in my voice. “But let me help you pack and take you to the airport.”

Which I did, with the teary bon voyages and long hugs and kisses you might see in the movies when Johnnie marches off to war.

A week later, I got her email saying she indeed was leaving me for another man. The father thing had been true. She had found her father in Vancouver. But the Internet affair and three-day business trips to the Pacific Northwest had been to see some guy name Bret she met out there. I shipped her things to her and that was that. She’d already packed most of her secrets and took them with her a week before.

Like I said, she waited a week before revealing her secret. It just wasn’t the week or the one I expected.

For Day 8 of my May story-a-day challenge, I had to write a story based on the first sentence of this piece, as offered by artist and writer Marta Pelrine-Bacon. Tis one came quickly, between 6:00 and 7:30 this morning.  Hope it hits the mark for some of you.

An Afternoon in No-Man’s Land

The wild bramble bush has defeated me for years,
defending itself with twisted wire vines and thorns
like wildcat claws. It’s stalks and branches
laughed off mere garden shears and sorely tested
the metal mettle of long-handled pruners.

It tries disguising its natural malevolence
with dainty pink blossoms come spring and summer,
as well as musical accompaniment from humming
honey bee acolytes.

This year the gloves came off when I pulled
my leather gloves on, fighting claws with
the teeth of a chainsaw. With chain whining and
motor roaring winnowed the suburban Maginot Line
down by its flanks, nearly to its side-hill foundation.

I then called an immediate cease-fire.

There, deep within the once-impregnable, are
two entrance holes into the den of an animal
who felt the need for the jagged protection
of my bushy bête noire for its newborn own.

That’s when this ruthless flora-felling homeowner
was himself hewn down by my own nature as
pater familias. I’ve gone soft in my old age.
Even semi-merciless backyard generals have families.
I can always wait to finish after Father’s Day.

An extra poem for Day 19 of NaPoWriMo. The true story of how this suburban Genghis was conned by some varmints (along with his own soft heart and cowardice — those holes are BIG) to show quarter to the foe that’s blooded me for seven years.

Going, Nuclear

There once lived a tradition
in my United States, one which
mostly petered out following
the dawn of the Atomic Age.
In this tradition, entire familial
crews would board the family heap
and set sail upon the Lord’s Day
to circumnavigate the countryside
of the Free’s land and Brave’s home.

Mom and Dad, little sis and big brother
and every sibling within their orbits
would fuse within a Detroit-made
nuclear containment vessel for no
other reason than to conduct experiments
in fusion. In back, young neutrons bounced
off one another, raising the heat up front,
in any season. Inevitably, the proton
in the driver’s seat would turn and
threaten to turn the ambling four-wheeled
atom around or into an isotope
if they didn’t settle the hell down.

Gas stations and diners of America’s
fruited plains would whiz by as
its purple mountains majestically
strolled along in the distance,
each in their analog glory.
Then along came the Digital Age,
where packs of four to seven
were replaced by zeroes and ones,
and the Great American Sunday Drive
went the way of the buffalo, Dad, Mom,
two of my brothers and a nuclear family once
solid as a wood-sided Ford Country Squire.

On Day 13 of NaPoWriMo, I used Writer’s Digest prompt for a “family” poem. Maybe you have to be my age to really get this one.