Working At It

Ed Snyder laid on his back in the dark bedroom with uncertainty and a touch of anger lying on the pillow next to him. The sun peeked around the bedroom curtains and knocked on his locked eyelids with the persistence of a teenager’s mom. Begrudgingly, his peepers responded to the maternal illumination and his ears to the music of the cheepers dancing from one leafy party to another. Even the dust motes floated in amiable ambling through morning’s cataract of light flaring in the cataracts of his sight. His phone decreed it was 7:00 AM and he couldn’t remember of which day. They all had become the same in his lonely retirement. He thought these days would be like heaven but discovered it could be just like the lingering death of his final years on the job, when he would dream of all the things he’d do in his life when he retired and hadn’t started even one yet. The talking hairdo on the television said today was Thursday and he realized he’d reached what would have been the end of a week having accomplished nothing. Again. He shrugged on a jacket and stepped outside into the world. He whistled into the trees, joining their orchestra, and let the sun carry him along like a sentient and content dust fleck on this first day of his new job…Working at Living.

I think we’ll use this piece for Day 4’s shot at my Story-a-Day challenge. It’s written in the form of a prose poem (I guess) and it hits the right buttons in meeting the basic prompt for today from author LJ Cohen, a version of Writer’s Clue:  Mr. ___________ in the _________ room with a __________.

Wishing Upon a Star (Another Day)

Deflated-football

I checked my teeth and tie in the bathroom mirror, something I always do before a gig.

I next took a step backward from the row of white sinks in this hotel men’s room, I scoped the front of my pants. I always wanted to be sure there was no stain or something hanging out of them after using the john. After all, I am a professional.

Giving my zipper one last security tug, I stared intently, confidently, at the guy on the other side of the glass — the guy who the crowd in the ballroom across the hall came to hear. I give a wink big enough for the back row to see and say, “It’s Showtime, baby.”

Reflected in the mirror, I saw the fellow walking out of the stall directly behind me stop dead, blink, and return to the comforting warmth of the chamber he just left. I turned just in time to hear him slide of the lock and see him lift his feet from view of anyone outside the stall door.

“Whoooo,” I yell. That howl psyched me up every time, whether I turned it loose before one of these speaking engagements or walked out of the stadium tunnel when I played for the Gamecocks at the University of South Carolina.

I stepped out into the maroon-carpeted second floor hallway of the St. Elmo’s Inn. I could hear my audience-to-be’s hum of conversation and clinking of tableware behind the large double door across the hall.

Hmmm, that’s an awful lot of noise for fifty people, I thought. But they always were a talkative bunch.

This afternoon, I once again would be addressing the Low Country chapter of Goose & Gander: The Society for the Preservation of First Wives and First Husbands. Actually four out of every five of the attendees were first wives, a sad, Book of Lamentations-quoting, and often bitter lot of church ladies from up and down the Grand Strand. But when they got a few cocktails in them, they more often than not turned into a prowling, pawing mob of howler monkeys in heat.

“Larry, how are yoooooo-eww?” I had heard that greeting sing-sung to me by maybe ten different women in the bar the last time I addressed this group. One of them, Audrey Whiteapple of nearby Florence, found out how I was…better than her ex, Claude. Or so she claimed as she wept to me in the uncomfortably long, but fair’s-fair post-coital quid pro quo cuddle.

Claude told her she was less than he had expected after eight years of marriage.

“That’s eight years of mopping up his muddy floors after coming in drunk from hunting – he said–and eight years of scouring the skid marks out of his saggy-ass boxers and ten years of doing every vile, terrible thing he asked me to do, too, Larry,” Audrey said.

Yeah, vile, terrible things like what she next suggested we do. Next morning, those vile, terrible things required me to steal a set of sheets from a housekeeping cart and surreptitiously swap them for the percale Jackson Pollack she left behind.

I limped and my lips were numb for a week after that.

I wonder if Audrey’s here this afternoon.

I’m not in this business for any real money. That was what the NFL was supposed to be for. So I guess I don’t feel too badly about the perks of the speechifying business. Being Larry Jenkins–one-time Second Team All-Southeast Conference quarterback–and ONLY being Larry Jenkins, has left me with few career options. Especially after I wrecked my throwing shoulder my first training camp with the Browns. But I knew the truth. Five-foot-eleven free agent quarterbacks who can’t throw the deep out pattern, even before they blow out their labrum, aren’t going to make it in the NFL. Even in Cleveland. The injury gave me cover back here in the Carolinas.

I wasn’t too good at math—I had tutors and a couple of exam-taking stand-ins back in college—but even I could add two and two and come up with an answer to my post-athletic career. I decided to trade on my erstwhile fame and program-cover looks for a living. I learned to use words like “erstwhile” from the Dale Carnegie course my agent made me take while I was rehabbing my shoulder. He knew a loser when he saw one, too.

So here I am, twelve years after throwing my last ruptured duck incompletion in a meaningless scrimmage someplace called Berea, Ohio. I have become a Toyota/Chevy sales associate for my Uncle Lamar and a mid-rung, well lower mid-rung, motivational speaker for myself.

So if I can catch a little affection from some woman who used to kiss the image of my face inside her locker and in her teenaged dreams, well, maybe we both are getting what we need out of life. At least for that moment.

“Larry! Larry! Oh good, I caught you before you went into the ballroom. ”

Vern Tarwater, the Brigantine’s events director, trots down the hall toward me from his office next to the hotel’s business center. One of those chubby guys whose pants always looked too short and too tight whether he stood up or sat down, Vern’s a good egg who always takes good care of me when I visit his hotel.

“Look, Larry, um, we realized during set-up this morning there’s been a teeny, tiny infinitesimally minor oversight on our part. We weren’t able to get hold of you until just now,” he wheezed.

I put my hands out to ease Vern to a rolling stop in front of me.

“C’mon, Vern, you know me. I’m usually prepared for any speaking emergency. What is it? Brought my own microphone, extra batteries, three different projection bulb sizes and makes, a MacBook, a laptop running both Windows and Linux, an extra tie in case I’m too matchy-matchy with the emcee…..”

“We double-booked the ballroom,” Vern said.

He tucked his head down and looked like a little sea turtle in his green uniform blazer.
“What do you mean, ‘double-booked’?”

“I mean I booked the GGSPFWFH. But Felicia Flores, my former assistant as of this morning, booked a different group for the room at the same time. And they paid cash,” Vern said.

“What’s the other group,” I asked.

“Oh, they’re a terrific group of ladies and…um, some gentlemen. The NGWTWCS. All those Gs and Ws you can see how we had this little slip-up,” he said.

“NGW…uh,W…”

“NGWTWCS. The New Gone With The Wind Collectors Society,” Vern recited, his eyes rolling back in his head as if reading the letters and words off his eyebrows.
“New Gone With The…”

“Wind Collectors Society. Yes, they’re getting very big here in South Carolina after catching fire in Georgia and Florida. Ooh, ‘catching fire,’ ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘catching fire,’ did say that? Anyway, we can’t have Georgia and Florida steal potential business from the Grand Strand now, can we, Larry?”

My mind suddenly a scene in Technicolor of Audrey Whiteapple in a big picture-frame straw hat and pantaloons. Shaking my head, I tried to process all Vern had told me.

“Okay, give me a few minutes to make a few notes and I’ll do the best I can. You know me, Vern. I’m a professional,” I said.

Vern took my hand in his sweaty paws and pumped it vigorously. The pulled a soggy flyer from inside his jacket and pushed it against my chest.

“Here’s the background on the NGWW…”

“NGWTWCS.”

“Oh, who knows? Thank you so much, Larry. You’ve got maybe ten minutes. They’re in the middle of the dessert service right now.”
Vern turned and trundled away.

“Whoa, Vernon,” I called.

“Yes, Larry? I’ve got to reset the Magnolia Room for something called a bris tonight and it’s still wearing all its ribbons and crosses from this morning’s Young Republican prayer breakfast.”

“And, Vern,” I called, “two audiences equals two fees, right?”

He stopped, turned and giggled.

“Of course, Larry. You’re a professional.”

Goose, gander and Gone With the Wind. Now how can I massage one of my standard speeches to satisfy the interests of that audience?

Actually, I had a clip of maybe eight speeches, all drawn from literature and coaches’ talks I’d heard in my career as an athlete. And coaches themselves stole from literature, history and literature professors, or each other.

But suddenly I felt so tired of it all. I didn’t want to have to weave a potholder of stretchy insincerity. I needed quiet and privacy to figure out what I was going to do. I reentered my tile-walled office suite across the hall.

As I swung open the door, I saw the man who I’d scared into hiding not three minutes before. He had just finished washing his hands and he was staring into the mirror, not too much unlike I had been. He saw me enter and straightened up with a snap.

“Relax, friend,” I said. “I didn’t mean to startle you, even before. Just a bad habit of mine, how I cope with the job, with life sometimes.”

“Oh,” he said. “That’s okay, you just startled me. I was just kinda deep in thought there. Seems like a funny place to think, but…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I do it all the time myself. In fact, I was just about to take a seat and work out a problem I’ve got right now. And yeah, that sounds weird out loud, doesn’t it?”

“Well…”

“‘That’s okay, really.”

“Not to sound too, well, queer, but you look familiar. You somebody?”

“Not really, maybe once, in a small little world. Name’s Larry Jenkins,” I said. I reached out my hand, but realizing his were still a little wet and we were standing in a public men’s room, I pulled it back.

“Now why do I know that name.”

“Well, I was a football player of some renown, once,” I said.

“No, that’s not it. I don’t follow football,” he said.

“I give speeches now, maybe you’ve heard me give a presentation,” I said.

“No, I don’t think so. Haven’t seen anything like that. Nope,” he said.

“Ever buy a used Toyota?”. I laughed.

He gave me a quizzical look, nervously laughed and shook his head No.

“Guess I’m mistaken,” he said. “By the way, my name’s Whiteapple, Claude Whiteapple. Work for the beverage distributorship out of Florence. Used to own my own, but I got messed up in a nasty divorce and had to sell out. Ex-wife, backstabbing girlfriend and all. But I get by now. Found Jesus, you might say.”

“Uh, pleased to meet you, Claude,” I said. I tried not to look too startled, like I was looking off a safety to hit a post pattern. “I hang out in a lot of hotel bars in my travels. Maybe we crossed paths in one of them.”

“Yeah, maybe that’s it,” Claude said.

“Well, anyway, I’m sorry I startled you. I should think more about disturbing people when I do that.”

“That’s okay. By the way, what was it you said you do again?” He asked.

“Well, all those things. At least one time or another. These days, mostly I give little talks. Try to help people make sense of their lives. Feel better about themselves,” I said.

“Maybe I should catch one of your speeches. I sure as hell would like to feel better about myself, too,” Claude said.

“You know, Claude, maybe I should listen to myself once in a while, too,” I said.

“Well, I got to get to work. Offload some kegs and such. Put the empties back on board. Looks like I’ll even have time to have lunch today,” he said.

It was then that I figured out my speech. I kinda knew what I was going to do.

“Say, Claude, if you don’t mind, once you get done with your delivery, I’d appreciate it if you’d let an old quarterback sit down and buy you lunch,” I said. “Really, it’s the least I can do.”

“Oh, that’s okay. you’ve got your own business to take care of,” he said.

“Yeah, I do. And that’s one of the reasons I’d like to buy you lunch. It really, really is the least I can do. I’d feel a lot better if you’d say yes,” I said.

“Well, okay. Sure, where you want to eat? There’s a Shonee’s down the road,” he said.
“I was thinking the hotel restaurant,” I said.

“But I’m all sweaty and in my uniform and all,” he said.

“Don’t worry about that. They like me here and you’re my special guest today. Helped me make my presentation, figure out something,” I said.

“Okay, gimme about 30 minutes,” Claude said. “Appreciate it, uh, Larry.”

This time he extended his hand. I gripped it and gave it a good shake.

“Great. What I have to do won’t take all that long. Meet you outside the restaurant,” I said.

Claude left and then it was my turn to look in the mirror. I gave that guy in there a weak smile.

“Curtain down, curtain up,” I said, tugging my zipper.

I walked across the hall and stood in the back of the hall. I spotted Audrey Whiteapple and a couple of other familiar faces in the audience. I found this kind of interesting because they had all begun to look alike. Mostly white faces looking for someone to tell them they’re okay and everything’s going to all right. I never really believed that, but I had to do something to make a living. To stay in the arena, too.

Clarissa Beauregard, the woman who booked me for today, waved from the front of the room. I smiled, waved back, and walked up the side and stood while she introduced me. Old friend Larry Jenkins, blah-blah, University of South Carolina, blah-blah, same old same old.

Amid clinking teaspoons splattering terrible hotel coffee on white tablecloths and a smattering of indifferent applause, I approached the microphone, put on my confident face and took a deep breath. It felt just like it would in a huddle when everything could fall apart if I did. Confidence, smarts and BS, my stock in trade.

“Thank you for that lovely intro and greeting,” I said.

“You know, I was prepared to give a different talk today when I arrived here. Well, not too different since I only have a few that I give. Been giving them for years now. Gotten pretty tired of them, actually. Whatever.”

The clinking stopped and there was silence in the room.

“And when Vern Tarwater told me I’d be speaking to two different groups at once today–two way different groups–I figured I could slide something past you all. It’s what I do. Been doing it since college.”

I could hear whispers.

“So, what can I tell you all that fits this wacky combination of organizations? That was a real quandary for me. By the way, Rhett over there, if you were straight, there’s a real Scarlet over here just made for you and you for her,” I said, gesturing in Audrey’s general direction.

Murmurs. And some indignant gasps. One from the guy in the Rhett Butler costume.

“Now where the was I? Oh, yeah. Something you all can bring home today and give some thought and meaning to your day. Maybe even your lives.”

Quiet again.

“Okay, let’s make this short and sweet. I got some things I really got to do today and for my tomorrows and I don’t want to waste our time gassing about beating Florida or self-reliance or lying to you or ourselves. That’s what I’ve been doing for something like ten or so years. The years as empty as the message,” I said.

Clarrisa stood up and began walking over toward me, a concerned look on her face. I put up my hand like a traffic cop and mouthed “It’s okay, hon.”

“So, what can old Larry say to you all? What can I say to you the divorcee and your sometimes sad colleagues? And how about you, the dude with the shiny hair, and all your antebellum loving friends? Is there something to be said even for the washed up football player who never grew up feel like life is worth the effort of getting up in the morning, facing all those slings and arrows that may be huge but probably are just little annoyance piled one on top of the other?”

“Get with it, Larry,” I heard from the back.

“Right, once again I’ve put off the big decision, the big moment, until it’s almost too late. And that’s today’s message, boys and girls. No matter how bad or stupid or upsetting your life is, life goes on. More than likely, you’ll get over it. You may not see that now, because you’ve got your head up in some clouds or down on your chest. I know that because I’ve had my head in both places. Up my ass, too, I guess.

“There’s an old football coach over in Dalzell who taught me everything I know about the game and about life. He’s forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know. I just forgot all of that other stuff because I thought I knew it all already. I’ve been pretty sad about most of the decisions I’ve made and the way I thought life had shit all over me. Loser, huh? But he’s never given up on me because he knows that tomorrow’s always gonna be there. There’s always gonna be another chance to get off the turf, to make things right, to feel better if you want to, make someone happy, maybe even yourself.”

Things got quiet again.

“So, kind people, this will be my last little speech of this type. And it will probably be the first one I actually believed, myself. Um, what’s the thing I want you to think about when you leave here? Hmmm, thought about that and couldn’t come up with anything too profound. Most profound people and their profound statements are just more bullshit,” I said.

I was losing it for sure. Rambling but learning something with every crazy word. It was like I was looking in that mirror and seeing myself as something more than a fallen jock and loser car seller and a gas bag salesman of Larry Jenkins, defective product. A different guy but the same one at the same time.

“So what thought can ol’ Larry leave you with today? I wish I had more time to think of something really cool, but, like I said, I got some things I gotta do. I owe it to you nice folks who had to put up with my silliness. You’re an interesting crowd, my last one. So he goes,” I said.

Shamelessly, I smiled at the combined groups and said, “Tomorrow is another day.” And then I walked out of the room. I thought I heard some applause when I reached the hallway.

I pulled my cellphone from my pocket as I squinted across the street at the big hotel where the restaurant was. Claude was standing outside, looking a little nervous, not knowing what to expect next. That made two of us.

I punched in the numbers and after four rings I heard, “Hello, Coach Jenkins.”

“Hi, Dad, it’s Larry. You still looking for an offensive coordinator/QB coach? I can be there tomorrow.”

Okay, here’s story #9 of the Story-A-Day slog. Today’s was supposed to be an Ugly Duckling story, which this may be if you squint really hard. But not really completing the Cinderella Story job yesterday bothered me. So here’s the story of a guy who was a swan/prince, tried and failed a few times and ended up a loser and ugly duckling in his own mind, only to eventually figure out he was supposed to be a different bird, but still a prince, all the time.

Travelogue

TriesteCentral_StLoc

Morning still hadn’t wiped the fog from its eyes and neither had I.

Standing there on the train station platform under the yellow lights shining from the ceiling, everything around me looked like I was seeing it through a bottle of corn syrup. Welcome to sunny Italy in January, I thought. Next time come in the spring, Gary.

The train horn blew and I heard the man chant the names of Italian towns in a litany that reminded me of serving Mass as a kid. I felt like I should rap my fist against my chest like I’d do when Father Tremblay would recite, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

When the train clanked, rumbled and rolled to a stop, I climbed aboard the old-style passenger car and found my compartment. Opening the door, I saw a young woman already seated inside.

Buon giorno,” I said, smiling, as I tossed my bag into a shelf above the seat on the right.

Buon giorno,” she mumbled, looking up from a book and not being too impressed by the gray-haired guy with the horrific American accent disturbing her morning.

I knew very little Italian, which made this Grand Tour of mine a little dicey. I knew good morning, buon giorno, good evening, buono sera, and prego, grazie, ciao, and perhaps most importantly, Dove si trova il più vicino Starbucks? That means something like “Where is the nearest Starbucks?” I learned that in three languages for three major reasons–getting some coffee that tasted of home, free wifi, and always knowing where to find a bathroom without asking for, you know, a bathroom. The travel agents lie when they tell you everyone in Europe speaks English.

“Are you headed to Trieste, too?” I asked my young traveling companion, trying be a friendly American and once again prove my theory.

She raised her brown eyes from her reading, frowned and shook her head no.

“No engleski,” she said in some language that definitely wasn’t Italian.

“Well,” I laughed, shaking my head yes and raising my palm in surrender, “that’s okay, dear. I’ll be able to fritter away the couple of hours to Trieste. You go back to your reading.”

She smiled and returned to her book. She was a pretty girl, mid-20s, dark hair, huge brown eyes behind her cool Euro glasses. She dressed like so many girls I’d seen on this trip, from London to Brussels to Paris, Provence, Tuscany and now headed to Trieste. Bulky sweater, long scarf looped around her neck, black leggings, and Uggs or some other winter footwear. Her boots rested beneath her seat and she had drawn her legs up under bottom her in that way girls do. My wife Gina sat that way on the sofa.

“God, I could use some coffee,” I thought aloud. I found I did that a lot these days and the habit had followed me to Europe. “Can I get you a coffee, a cafe, young lady?” I asked, tipping my cupped hand to my lips in pantomime. She smiled and shook her head no again.

Nevertheless, I returned from the coffee bar with a pair of medium coffees, some sugar and those little tubs of creamer. If she still didn’t want it, I’d drink it. I saw she had put away her book and was looking out at the snowy mountains in the distance now that we had escaped the fog.

I placed the coffee in a cup rest and nodded to it. Again, she demurred. So much for absorbing more local amity and culture, dammit.

“Looks like I’ll be wired for sound and looking for the bathroom in the station when we get to Trieste,” I said, grinning. I held out my hand, “I’m Gary,” I said, pointing to my chest with my left index finger.

She took my hand in one of those fingers-only girl shakes and said, “Regina.”

I nearly wet myself right there.

“That’s my wife’s name. Regina.”

She gave me with a quizzical look. I reached into my jacket and pulled out my wallet and opened it to a picture of I’d taken of Gina on a visit to New York City. I remember her face beaming, standing there on Broadway, pointing to the marquee above, which shouted “Cats.” I also remember my frowning and stewing that I didn’t want to sit for two hours in a theater watching a bunch of prancing gypsies in various feline-themed Union suits. And I hate cats. I’m a dog kind of guy.

“My wife,” I said much too loudly in the way Americans think people who don’t speak English are deaf. “Mi, ummm, mi mo…mo…mi moglie. I think that’s Italian for ‘wife’.”

“Ahhh… supruga,” she said.

Young Regina held her palms up and made like she was looking right and left for something.

“Huh? Oh, where is she?” I pointed to Gina’s picture, frowned and shook my head no.

“Well, it looks like neither of us understands a damn word the other says,” I said. I could feel the difference in our momentum and realized we were slowing as we were rolling into our next stop. Out on the platform, folks were climbing off of and onto trains and in about five minutes we were cracking along again at top speed.

“American,” I said, pointing to myself and then to her, putting on what I hoped was a questioning expression.

Hrvatski,” she said, which really drove home our language barrier. What the hell is a Hervatski, I wondered.

“Ohhhh-kay,” I said. “Well, Regina, we’ve got another couple hours to go, but this trip is going to be a bitch, communication-wise, so, uhh…” I smiled and pulled out my Kindle and she smiled and pulled out her music player with a set of those big noise-canceling headphones and sat back, her eyes closed. This girl had ridden the trains before, I thought. Within fifteen minutes, the train had rocked her to sleep.

“You’d fascinate Gina,” I whispered. “She always was up for adventure and meeting new people, trying new things.” I remembered the first time she tried to foist Filipino cuisine on me. Crazy half-gestated duck eggs and other things that didn’t look the least bit palatable. I ate roast pork and a flan-like thing. But, in England, I’d eaten frigging kidneys. Yesterday, I’d choked down some piece of a goat I did not want identified. Neither the goat nor its part.

I closed my eyes and felt the train rock its smooth rock, but the damn coffee wouldn’t let me sleep. Out the window I saw trees blur by and I jumped when another train blew by ours. You think you can reach right out there and touch the other one, they pass so close.

I lived like that for a long time, full-bore and balls to the wall, not recognizing what was going on around me, just in front. Today I realized those are windows across from me, but there’s no way you can recognize anyone sitting there, maybe sucking on a coffee or a Red Bull, wishing he or she was still in bed bumped up against–or bumping up against–that warm form in the port-side sheets.

You just see a whoosh of silver-gray flashing its own sheets of strobe-light what-ifs and maybes. And you try not to look too hard at it because it just ends up hurting your eyes or something.

I had enjoyed my stay with my sister-in-law.

“Is she still your sister-in-law even after your wife dies?” Funny the things that go on in your head when you’re really alone. I even said them out loud now.

I had determined to take the trip I had promised Gina all those years I had been too busy or too something to actually do it.

“She passed away, you know. Died,” I whispered to my sleeping traveling companion. “Uhh, morto.” I was pretty sure that would sound like something people in this part of the world would recognize for death, and, if she was awake, this Regina would have looked at me like she didn’t understand. My Regina looked at me that way sometimes, too.

“Gary, when are you going to slow down?” she’d say. “You’re going to work yourself to an early grave, and I can’t imagine what would happen to me if I lost you to that stupid job.”

“That job put us in this house and keeps you in it and in some beautiful clothes and a fine car, Gina. I’m only doing this for you, babe, so you can live the way you should live. Comfortable, not wanting for anything, happy,” I said.

“Sometimes comfortable isn’t enough, Gary. Maybe I want you! That would make me happy.”

“You’ve got me, Gina. Soon as I retire we’ll take the trip, sweets, I promise,” I said. I’d always say, putting her off for another year. And then, six months before I was scheduled to retire, there was to be no other year.

Dope that I was, I never understood what she meant. Now I knew too well. Even I felt guilty about that.

Across the compartment, Regina stirred, and the mouth of her bag gaped open. Even though she was a kid, young enough to be the daughter we never had, other than her phone and tablet, she looked to be a words on paper girl. She was reading a real live book. And there in her bag I could see what looked like a small journal, like Gina kept. I never read Gina’s, of course. not until after she died. Took me three months to even lift it off the nightstand.

Now I keep a journal. Not like those profit and loss things I kept as a young accountant. This was a different kind of accounting, keeping records of what turned out to be real loss. I wished I could share some of it with young Regina over there. But kids like her wouldn’t relate to it. She’d think I was some crazy old coot writing in a book in which I kept my thoughts and conversations with Gina. I had a lot of catching up to do, hon. I pulled out the journal, the new one Gina had started before she died, and opened it in my lap.

Looking up at sleeping Regina, I whispered, “I hope you never have to write such a story, kid.”

She stirred a little and I thought she was waking.

“Sometimes, Regina, the book ends much too quickly. It’s climax gets ripped from its back pages before you get to The End. It sucks when you’re left to guess at the ending. You wonder all the what-ifs. I never was good at imagination and, what did Gina call it? Spontaneity.”

I closed our little book—Gina’s and mine—and looked out the window again. I had no idea what the hell I was looking at. I grabbed that other coffee cup from its holder and took a sip. The Euro brew was cold as I imagined those mountain streams in the distance were. But at least now I tasted it, instead of gulping it down. Like I used to gulp every bit of life.

Another train sped by and the flash of the sun on its windows burst across our faces, I’m sure waking Regina. That’s how you’ll look at your life will look someday, young Regina, I thought. I closed my eyes and kept them closed until we rolled into Trieste.

Story #8 of my Story-A-Day quest. Today’s prompt was for a Cinderella story structure. Something with a try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, and final change to the protagonist. I tried, I really did. But this is what happened. I can’t complain. Knew it would happen eventually. What was it old Lodge Skins says at the end of Little Big Man? “I was afraid of that. Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.” Today, a different magic happened. I think that happened for Gary, too.

Deadline

7035-journalistsorbloggers

Um, good afternoon, I’d like to speak to Jason Lafleur, please. Oh, hi, Mr. Fletcher, this is John Berdar from the Press-Republican. Heh, yeah, the Republican Press. I hear that a lot.

Anyway, I was hoping you had a minute to talk to me about…. No, nothing to do with that. I never heard about any DWI. Not anything with your name attached. I just was kinda wondering if you’ve heard about the State Police looking for your cousin, Loyal.

No? Okay, thanks. Oh, wait a second, please. You don’t know anything about Loyal’s disappearance, but maybe you can help me fill in some blanks the troopers won’t. I won’t have to use your name or nothing. You could be what we call a source close to the family. Funny, huh? Someone in the family being called close to the family. I’ve got only one brother left and I don’t think I’d want him to be that kind of a source, close to the family. He’s a real dick.

Oh, oh, I’m sorry, you don’t need to hear my sorry story. Let’s get back to Loyal. You two grew up together, right? Uh huh. Sure, up in Chateaugay. Love how you local folks say that, shadda-gee. Sorry, I’m from Albany. I’m sure you think I’ve got my own weird accent.

So, you and Loyal grew up in Chateaugay. Would you say he was a quiet kid, kinda a loner? You know, like how the neighbors always describe their neighbor who chopped up his mother and fed her to the cats or sprinkled her on his salad or whatever.

Oh, yeah, sorry. You were saying he was a hell raiser then? I hear you kinda ran together back in the day. Were you the quiet one in your dynamic duo? Kind of a balance thing. Funny how nature likes that balance. Human nature too, I guess.

Anyway, the troopers tell me, what little that is anyway, that Loyal once got caught outside your Mom’s house holding something they later connected to a beating he must’ve given a guy named, ummm…Steve Yaddeau? Yeah, he must’ve been a tough kid. You didn’t see that did you? Him beating up Yaddeau? You two always together and all, I figured. Yeah. Yeah, No, of course not. Not you. He ever put a whupping on you? Oh, sorry.

Just a few more minutes. You’re being a great help. My editor, Teddy, he wants all this background stuff and he’ll cuss me out something fierce if I don’t come up with something. Hate to lose my job over just a conversation between two guys, couple of poor kids who grew up with some rough guys around our family. Ya know?

Thanks, I appreciate it. Now, you say you were around when Loyal put that whuppin’ on Yaddeau? Uh huh. What about the time he got caught joy-riding in your dad’s Chevy? Oh? You tried to stop him? Rode with him so he wouldn’t get in any more trouble. Your a good friend, Jason. Sorry, can I call you Jason? You can call me John. How’s that?

I guess having the under-sheriff as an uncle helps in times like that. Oh, no, I wasn’t saying that. Of course not. That’s just how my silly mind works. No filter, as they say. Just BLURGH, out it comes. Sorry.

So you and Loyal were caught joyriding in your dad’s car. Glad he didn’t press charges. Woulda been a terrible thing. Family and all. And I know how families are, believe me. You can be going along your whole life like brothers, even closer, and BANG something happens between you two and it’s over. Happened to me and my brother. Don’t speak anymore.

I’m not prying or anything, you know, but were you and Loyal still on speaking terms lately? Just as background, mind you. My editor Teddy will be asking how credible my source is. And who could be more credible than the cousin and one-time best friend of the deceased.

Oh, I’m truly, truly sorry. Did I say deceased? I meant missing person. I’m sorry, you’ve been a great help to me for the story, talking to me all the way from Watertown and all. You moved away after your grandfather died, right? About six months ago? Was that when you and Loyal had your falling out? Man, I know how those tough guys can be about personal stuff like that. Emotions always close to the surface. Sorry for your loss, Jason. I’ll bet you were your grandpa’s favorite weren’t you. The good grandson.

Oh? Go figure. You two being his only living kin and all. I figured, you know, that balance thing again.

Oh, yeah, I’m sorry, taking up so much of your time. I really really thank you. My editor will skin me with a pica ruler if I don’t get a couple more facts. I promise.

Anyway, I’ve got this friend over in the probate court. You know how it is, young reporter from the Big City, Albany, and a sweet girl originally from Rouses Point. Sweet girl. Yeah. Anyway, she told me that your grandpa left most of his estate to Loyal, with you as secondary heir. That can’t be right, can it? I didn’t believe that.

No, no, strictly on deep background. Just so I understand how Loyal ticked. A bad kid who connived his way into his grandfather’s good graces, an Eddie Haskell-type sucking up to his elders while being a creep to the younger kids. You ever see Leave It To Beaver? Sorry if the analogy is… Oh, you knew about that. No Kidding. Must’ve been a real ball breaker, you’ll pardon my French.

Anyway, I want to thank you for your time, Jason, Mr. Lafleur. You’ve been a big help. My editor will only have to skin me from the waist down now, ya know? Heh…

So thanks again. You have a….

Oh, one more thing. I’m so freaking stupid. You said you saw Loyal at your grandfather’s wake, right? Oh, you didn’t? I would have sworn you did. Must have been that funeral guy I talked to from Brown’s. Said he saw you guys in the parking lot that night. All those Elks and Knights Pythias herding around, I don’t know how he could, but there ya go.

Said you two were having words, but he coulda been mistaken. Coulda been an Elk and a Knight or a Rotarian arguing about the Habs or Democrats or something like that.

So I want to thank you for your time. I’ve gotta make another call to get a second source. Yeah that’s the rules around here. Yeah, ain’t rules a bitch. No, I won’t use your name in this story. Not today, nope. Hey, and you have a great day, okay? If I hear anything from the troopers or sheriff I’ll be sure to give you a call if you like. No? Okay, you’ve been a great help anyhow. My editor… Yeah. Yeah. You too. Yeah, have a great…

Ouch. That was a loud one. Must’ve hung up with a baseball bat.

Hey, Ted! You might want to look at my notes here, but first I got one more call to make. Yeah, troopers. Want to go over my notes with them, too. Think I might be able to wrap this story up for ya with a big bow by 10:00. Just hold another seven inches on A-1. No, I’m not shitting you. No. Then come on over while I call Troop G.

Sheesh. What a grouch. Wish he’d stop calling me Li’l J-Bird. Demeaning shit. Oh, hi, sorry, good afternoon. This is John Berdar from the Press-Republican. Hah, Republican Press. Never heard that one before. Anyway, I’d like to speak to inspector Gallo? Yeah about the Loyal Lafleur murder. I got some new questions, shouldn’t take more than a couple of… Sure I can hold, but tell him I’m on deadline.

Story #7 of Story-A-Day may. One week in the bag. Wouldn’t you know it, the day after I wrote a story using practically all dialog, the prompt from Julie Duffy is for a story written…you guessed it. All dialog. So I decided to write one that’s all-dialog, just only with the reader hearing one side of it. I hope it works. Drew from my nascent reporter days for the setting and character(s). This is, as are all of my Story-A-Day postings, a first draft. It’ll change quite a bit should I decide to revise it into something more palatable for editors and discerning readers.

All God’s Plan

Seymour, Texas Tornado

Seymour, Texas Tornado

“Will this rain ever stop, Grandpa?”

“Always has before, child. I imagine it will again someday soon.

“Why won’t it stop today?”

“Because it’s not in God’s plan, I guess. We have to have faith that He’ll take care of us in our time of need.”

“Then why would He want to flood our fields and drown Mr. Bennett’s cows? That doesn’t seem like taking care of us.”

“We don’t always understand the ways of the Lord, Lizzie. Like I said, we’ve got to have faith.”

“You said that last year, you know.”

“Said what?”

“About having faith, about God taking care of us.”

“Yes, and I believed it then as I do today. You should, too.”

“You said we had to have faith that God would make Mama and Grandma well again. But he didn’t. He let them die. Like he let that tree fall on my Papa. I hate God now.”

“Don’t you say such a thing, Lizzie. The Lord has blessed us beyond reason and your mama and grandmother were just called to His side in His own time.”

“I think God needs a new clock, calendar and almanac then, Grandpa, ‘cause his timekeeping is bad. And I still hate him.”

“Don’t blaspheme, child. Our faith in Him will pull us through. Just you wait and see. Now, come over here while I read you some scripture to help you understand and believe.”

“Will reading the Bible again help keep us from drowning, Grandpa? Will it keep us warm again until the rain stops?”

“Not exactly, Lizzie, but come sit on my lap beneath the blanket and I’ll read to yo something St. Peter said that might help you understand why we need to keep our faith that the Lord will provide.”

“Awright, but I believe in a warm fire and a boat more than some God who’d kill off people I loved and trapped us in our own house like we missed Noah’s Ark.”

“All right, Lizzie. You bundled up? Here’s what St. Peter says in his first letter to the Romans:
…who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

“See, Lizzie? Our salvation’s coming if we have faith. Aw, the poor little tyke’s gone to sleep. Probably for the best in this God damn cold and this God damn rain, in this godforsaken piece of Hell. And now the God damn fire’s gone out and what little kindling we have’s still soaking wet.”

With that, Hank Beene laid his granddaughter on the little bed he prepared for her near the fireplace. He walked to the window and saw nothing but gray and black in all directions though the wind-driven torrent. In the distance, a black line dropped from the clouds to the ground.

He turned and took his wife’s old rocking chair in hand. He pulled it’s rockers and legs off, separated the slats from its maple seat and placed them all in the cold fireplace. Hank looked about the room for some tinder to touch off what little wood they had left. He went back to his Bible and ripped out the page he’d just read. Lighting a match to First Peter 1:5-9 he tossed it beneath the last physical memory he had of his Elizabeth, whose faith had sustained her to her grave. Who believed so hard that even a tornado’s funnel cloud was God writing his plan on the land. Ben crawled next to his little Lizzie and gave her a kiss and hugged her close as a sound like a locomotive came closer.

“God’s plan, my ass.”

Semi-experimental piece for Story #6. Supposed to write about a character unlike myself. I just wrote about characters in crisis of life and faith. And that’s that.

Lost in Translation

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Our little bi-lingual house guest was sick.

My wife’s niece Jeanne had been staying with us in Fort Myers for the winter break. My brother-in-law and his young second wife had decided to escape the Montreal weather and take a winter honeymoon cruise in the Caribbean and needed someone to keep watch on their eight-year-old.

She wandered into our bedroom about 5:30 in the morning and stood there, just like the dog does, willing me awake with a doleful stare and plaintive energy aimed directly at my skull.

“What’s wrong, Jeanne?”

“My throat ‘urls.”

“Oh, well you’d better get back in bed and we’ll be right down to check on you.”

Cathy and I had been through this with our own kids, now grown, and knew a sore throat could mean anything from the kid needing a drink of water to the room humidity was too dry. It seldom meant a real illness. At least I couldn’t remember anything like that from back then. That was Cath’s department. The bonus of being married to an RN.
After pulling on some warm-ups, I scuffed into the guest room, where I found Jeanne curled in the rocking chair holding a blanket and her stuffed whatever-it-was-once. Her face was quite pale and it looked like she had been crying.

“Okay, hon, let’s take a look at that throat.”

I placed my palm on her forehead and found it quite warm. My handy little LED flashlight I kept in the nightstand showed her throat was indeed quite on the rare side.
“Hmm, looks like you might be sick,” I said.

“I told you that already.”

“Yeah, right, but…um, never mind.”

“What’s going on, Dave?” I heard my deep-sleeping spouse mumble from the doorway.

“Looks like Jeanne might be sick. Her throat’s pretty red and she feels warm on her forehead.”
“Oh, no.”

“Yeah, I know. Her parents still three days out at sea and your best nursing days behind you.” I grinned. “You gonna take her to the urgent care on Daniels Parkway?”

“Nope, you are.”

“What? C’mon, Cath. I’ve got golf today and…”

“…And I’ve got to sub for the middle school nurse today. You’re It, Doctor.” Never knew retirement meant I’d need to work anymore, but there you are.”

Jeanne gave a little cough and whimper. “I want ma mère.”

“Oh, I want her, too, hon. I do, too.”

Cathy wrote down the symptoms for me to recite to the receptionist/triage clerk at the urgent care center and put them in an envelope with a health insurance card and the letter from her brother giving us permission to have Jeanne treated in the 99.999% unlikely instance that she might need to see a doctor while he and his Marion Cotillard look-alike trophy wife pressed their by-now toasty flesh into cruise ship berths and palm-slung island hammocks.

A young guy in blue scrubs, with a name placard that read, “Bobby Dinkley, P.A.,” and a tiny toy monkey attached to his stethoscope came into the exam room and just blinded us with sunny.

“How long has your daughter been sick, sir?’

“He’s not mon père,” Jeanne said, which blew a cloud over Bobby’s sunlight.

“My niece,” I said.

“Uh, okay, sure. Let’s check that temperature, okay, sweetie?”

Bobby stuck this little ray-gun looking thing in Jeanne’s ear before she had a chance to protest and three seconds later it beeped and glowed “102” on the read-out.

“Hmm, let’s look at that throat.”

After giving her the once-over with most of the paraphernalia that had more glowing little numbers on them, the physician’s assistant said, “We’ll do the quick strep test and see what we’ve got.”

He left Jeanne and me to sit alone in the room while they ran the test.

“Why don’t you get your shirt back on, Jeanne? This shouldn’t be much longer.”

She hadn’t spoken much since we got to the urgent care. But then, she hadn’t spoken much since her parents left Fort Myers for the cruise docks in Tampa. Most of the time she looked to be half on the verge of crying. Right now, understandably, she looked like she had crossed the 50-yard line of the Tear Bowl.

“Want to read something? I think I saw a Highlights magazine around here somewhere.

Non.”

“Want me to read to you?”

Non.”

“How are you feeling now, Jeanne? Are you tired?”

Non.”

“We’ll be out of here soon and we’ll get you back to the house with some medicine and then we’ll try calling your mom and dad again to let them know how you are.”

“Non. Want ma mère now.”

“Well, we can’t help you there. Closest thing we have until Sunday is your Aunt Cathy and me.”

She curled up on the exam table and closed her eyes.

It was then that I realized two things. Despite her being on the verge most of her time with us, including being separated from her mother for the first time in her life, I hadn’t actually seen her cry. Our daughter, Rachel, had been a well-spring of tears at eight. It got worse when she started nudging her way through puberty. I silently prayed that Steve and Marie would be back in Florida before Jeanne reached that age.

The other thing I finally noticed was she never called me anything but You. No name. No Dave. No Uncle. No Uncle Dave. I’ll admit we were as new to her as she was to us, but Cathy had referred to me as Uncle Dave and told Jeanne about our daughter and how great it was going to be to have a little girl around the house again. It didn’t really hurt. It just felt strange.

Bobby came back into the room and said the test was non-committal or whatever for strep, but said that Jeanne should get on some medicines just to take care of any fever or bacterial infections she might have.

“Don’t want the little one to get bronchitis or pneumonia, do we, sir?”

“God no!”

He wrote us two prescriptions which we had filled on the way home. I got her back into her PJs and tucked in bed after giving her some Tylenol and an antibiotic she didn’t want to take.

“Do you want me to read to you?”

Non. Well, if you want to,” said the little girl who now looked littler and whiter than she had when she woke me up four hours ago. She laid still and I would have thought she was asleep except for the fact that her eyes were open and she looked directly through me while I read.

“How you feeling, hon?”

“Same,” she said. “I think I’ll try to get to sleep.”

“I’ll stay with you a while. Okay? Just to make sure you’re doing all right.”
But she still looked at me, and I felt like some kind of perv under her laser-guided scrutiny.

“You don’t ‘ave to stay with me,” she said in a not very convincing tone.

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me. I want to be sure you’re okay.”

Non, you can go do something else. I think I want to sleep.”

“All right, I’m going to go check my email and do a few chores and I’ll be back in a little while to check on you. Here’s your glass of water if you need it.” I pushed a sipping cup on the nightstand closer to her pillow.

Merci.”

I left her door open a crack and padded down the hall to my bedroom and fired up my Mac. I sent another email update to my brother-in-law, letting him know Jeanne was doing fine and everything was under control. I wrote it so I believed it myself, even though I figured I had lost control of this situation the moment I opened my eyes at 5:30.
I let the dog out, then went back to the guest room and tapped on the door.

“You can’t come in. You can’t get what I ‘ave.”

I opened the door and walked to her bedside. She was in the same position in which I left her and was still wide-eyed and flushed.

I took her temperature, this time with an old reliable thermometer of Cath’s.

“What’s it say?” Jeanne asked.

“Um, about a hundred.” It looked like one-hundred one to me, but I didn’t want to upset her anymore than I already had.

“It was cent deux before.”

“Who says?”

“I saw the numbers. I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re not stupid. You’re a very smart girl.”

“It’s just…”

“What? What can I do to make you more comfortable, hon?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jeanne said. I could see her swivel-hipping her way to the lachrymose mid-field stripe again.

“Sure it does. I’ll do anything I can to help.”

Touchdown! and the tears poured.

“I don’t want to die, Oncle Dave,” she wailed and reached out to hug me.

“What are talking about, sweetie. You’re not going to die.”

“It said cent deux. I want my ma mère.”

“Well of course you do. But you’re definitely not going to die.”

“Yes I am. Home I had a fever once and was sick for quatre days.” She held four fingers up in front of my face. “Then my temrachur was only quarante-quatre.”
It all became quite clear.

“Oh, Jeanne. That’s because you read your thermometers different in Quebec. Like home you have kilometres and here we have miles. In Quebec your thermometer uses something called the Celsius scale to tell how hot things are. Here we use something called a Fahrenheit scale. It gives us bigger numbers to tell the same temperature. On your home thermometer, normal is something like, oh shit, um, thirty-seven, uh, trente-sept…? Here, it would be ninety-eight. Umm, ninety-uh..huit. Or..something like that.”

“Are you sure?” she snuffled.

“Without question.”

“Oh.” Jeanne blinked back the tears. “I still want ma mère.”

“Yeah, well she’ll be calling later and will be home in a couple of days. Until then your Tante Cathy and I will take the best care of you we can.”

And then Jeanne blinked, snuffled, and rolled over to sleep for five hours.

For the next three days she cried a lot more, even after she started feeling better. But every time she did she would call for Oncle Dave, so it was okay.

Story #4 of my Story-a-Day in May quest. The prompt asked for a story told in first person. I put a modern spin on an old story…I hope. I’m sure i’m screwing up how medical temperatures are read in French-speaking Canada. So if any of my Québécois(e) readers, like my friend Heather Grace Stewart, read this, you can tell me I’m full of merde. Just be gentle, okay? Merci.

Fiddleneck

Amsinckia eastwoodiae in lower Kern Canyon by Tom Hilton via Wikipedia

Amsinckia eastwoodiae in lower Kern Canyon by Tom Hilton via Wikipedia

The exhalation of air conditioning sounds like the day’s last breeze combing the trees by our old pasture. Well, waking from Lorazepam makes it seem so.

Brown eyes above glisten like old Sally’s when she’d follow you weeding by the woods. Hear Sal’s lowing? Something like “six m-o-o-onths to three years if we remo-o-o-ve it now-o-o.”

Remember how the fiddleneck always returned so you just gave up pulling it? Liver failure the Vet said. Never forgiven yourself.

Her brown eyes again, “Afraid that’s the best scenario.”

You smile, and say, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Story #3 of my Story-A-Day May quest. In this case I used both prompts. The first called for writing a drabble, a story consisting of exactly 100 words. Now who do you know who has an obsession about writing 100-word poems? Yeah. The other prompt called for ending the poem with a great closing line of a famous or favorite novel. Ya’ll know how I love “The Sun Also Rises.” I read it twice a year. Well, here’s my little drabble, punctuated by that symbol of the Lost Generation, Jake Barnes.