Old Habits Die Hard

Old Habits Die Hard

Her grandmother insisted she could only inherit the old cabin and it’s fifty-some-odd acres if she moved there and lived in it. So she didn’t inherit it…not for years. She was being stubborn, she knew that. What would it cost her really to move into the cabin for two years, use it as her mailing address, then sell it afterwards. She’d have fulfilled the requirement to inherit it and she’d save on capital gains tax. It was a win-win. Still, it took her nearly eight years to break down and move there, and by then it was because she was slightly out of options.

She’d known her grandmother was dying, in that way that everyone is dying from the moment they’re born, but also in that she’d finally been to sentences to hospice care. If that was even a sentence. She wasn’t sure. Helen knew her grandmother refused to leave the cabin unless it was in a box, and there was no one willing to come care for her until the hospice was granted. It seemed she’d get her wish now and if it meant a “stranger” was living with her until the wish was granted, so be it.

There were no strangers in that little town though. They’d all been born there, grown up there, would die there. Except the select few, like her mother, who’d managed to escape. Helen always expected her mother to utter something dramatic like, “promise me you’ll never go there!” but she never did. She died without ever having introduced to Helen to any family or friends from there. She died without ever mentioning her own mother was even alive.

All that is to say that Helen could be forgiven for her stubbornness when it came to the inheritance. Who would give up their life to move somewhere they’d never been, to live with someone they’d never even known about, to inherit a cabin they’d never seen. Not Helen. She’d created a life for herself, such as it was, a job that took ten to twelve hours of her day and a cat that took that remainder, books to fill in and soften the edges. So it wasn’t until the job disappeared that she even considered the inheritance.

It all came about one day out of the blue, the inheritance, that is. She received a phone call from an unknown number, and let it go to voicemail. Who answers an unknown number these days. And so it wasn’t until her lunch hour when she remembered to check her voicemail that she learned she not only had a grandmother, but that she could also have a cabin. She sat with it for awhile, chewing it over as she ate her turkey wrap and drank her pop.

When she finally decided to call the attorney back Helen learned that in order to claim her inheritance, she would need to go live in the cabin for two full years, and also that her grandmother was still very much alive and living there too. It all seemed a bit ridiculous, and Helen refused, the attorney letting her know that he’d be in touch.

He wasn’t. In touch, that is. She didn’t hear from the attorney again for nearly eight years.

And then her phone rang.

Surprisingly she’d saved the attorney’s information in her phone and new precisely who was calling this time. Rather than send it to voicemail, she answered, a bit clipped perhaps in her “yes,” rather than a “hello,” but she answered which she figured was better than the alterantive.

The attorney must have thought so too, because rather than stutter or stumble, he introduced himself again, this time with a “perhaps you remember me?” attached to the end. He then proceeded to inform Helen that her grandmother was now “actively dying” and that she, Helen, was still the sold beneficiary of the cabin and that the two year stipulation was still in place.

“When can we expect you?” the attorney said, for it was very much a statement as much as a question.

Helen sat quietly for a minute, quietly on the outside only as on the inside her thoughts spun about coming and going so quickly she wasn’t thinking about any one of them really simply being overwhelmed by their speed and quantity. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and shouted internally. With her eyeballs pulsing she told herself, “the bottom line is that without a job I’m in a bit of a bind. The bottom line is I could go there and have a free place to live for two years while I sort myself out. The bottom line is I don’t exactly have a lot of options. The bottom line is I can be packed and on my way in less than 48 hours.”

“I’ll be there by the weekend,” she heard herself saying and she hung up before the attorney could say more.

Helen had never expected to accept the inheritance, had never expected to be in a position where she’d have no other options. You don’t go from living a soulless work filled existence to having nothing overnight, and yet that’s exactly how it happened. One minute the people around her were slowly losing their jobs and their cars, their homes and their families, and the next minute she was one of them. She’d figured she had padding for one month, one month in which to find another job before she’d have to enter panic mode. Now there’d be no need. Now she’d have two years and a property to sell at the end of it.

She began packing.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
Loss of Appetite

Loss of Appetite

It had to be Jack in the Box, that was the thing, when smoking weed she needed, not wanted or craved or thought about, but physically needed a chicken sandwich, fries, and a Dr. Pepper. And it had to be from Jack in the Box. Everybody has their thing, and this was hers. Or rather it was on of hers.

Which is how they ended up, the four of them, at a Jack in the Box drive thru one night. It was early, as nights out go, but late considering that they would all have to work tomorrow. The driver, Jeanie, didn’t smoke, so she’d be fine…although it also meant that she didn’t need this trip to grease town the way her passengers did. She dutifully got everyone shushed enough to get the orders placed, which took some doing, no small feat being the sober one amidst a group of raucous and totally stoned young women.

They were all waiting for the order to get repeated back, well, to be fair, Jeanie was waiting for the order to be repeated back, the others were staring off into nowhere, having completely forgotten where they were and what they were doing, no longer aware of their previously all consuming desire for this disgusting bit of plastic food to tether them back to earth. Only the repeat never came. Instead someone must have left the mic on without noticing because suddenly Jeanie the chicken sandwiches and fries that she was expecting to tally became a confusing smush of

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
Thanksgiving Burgers

Thanksgiving Burgers

I’m a pretty good cook, not great, I’ll never be great cause I won’t do the training, but I’m good. Good enough. Good enough that when I invite people to dinner they jump at it, or it seems they do, there’s an immediate response of yes and much hoopla made over picking the date for said dinner, the sooner the better they always insist. So, yeah, I’m a pretty good cook.

So when I set out to make Thanksgiving dinner this year, I figured it’d be a slam dunk with family and friends. I created a menu based on all my favorite things but including some of the more standard fare as well, because you never know what dish really says Thanksgiving to people. I mean, you’d think that would be the turkey, but that beast of a bird really tends to be symbolic in peoples minds for some reason…which is something I’ve never understood, I mean, if those pox-giving Pilgrims really did sit down to a meal with the Native Americans, even if they had turkey, it wouldn’t be this huge thing we picture today…it’d be one of those scrawny wild turkeys, that yes, will fix you and your family of four a meal, but it’s not going to feed hundreds. Not even if you had four of them. Or six. I mean, clearly these people ate deer or something.

Anyway, I went ahead with the turkey, because as I explained, tradition.

So as I’m inviting people to dinner and showing them the menu and everything people are excited. I mean, they seem excited, there’s a lot of “thank you” and “I can’t wait” and even a “can’t Thanksgiving come earlier this year.” Which really pleases me, I’m not gonna lie, it feels good to hear people are excited to come, even if they’re coming for the food more than for me. Which is just me trying to be self-deprecating, but really I think they’re coming for the food.

And it’s not until I get to the last couple on my list, the last two people to fill in my table, the two people I’ve been trying to get to come to dinner for years who always seem to have an excuse, it’s not until I’m inviting them that things start to go…wrong seems like a harsh word, it’s more that things just start to go awry, let’s just say that.

I can tell right away, before I even invite them but after I’ve discussed this amazing menu, it really is amazing, that they aren’t interested, and it bugs me. How can they not be interested when I’m describing candied yams and a turkey that’s been rubbed, brined, and slow cooked? Who can look bored when hearing about the ingredients and the love and care being put into such a meal? But they do, look bored that is. And I already know they’re going to say no, but I ask them to dinner anyway.

Obviously, they find a polite way to decline. I mean, if I hadn’t seen that coming I would have been concerned by my lack of attention, but it still stings a bit, these constant “no, thank you” responses I get from them. And for whatever reason, instead of just shrugging it off and figuring out who to invite instead, I get a bit…defensive is probably what I got, but I’d like to think I was curious. And before you know it I’m asking them why they always turn down my dinner invites.

Well, it turns out, and this was a relief, I tell you, it turns out they’re vegan but even more than vegan. As I keep asking for more clarification, as I keep hearing the way they eat, I’m just amazed. There’s a list of like…fruit. Really. It’s just fruit that they eat. Literal fruit. They have all these vitamins and minerals and injections they take, because all they eat is fruit. And I realize that it’s really no wonder they always look cold and like they’re going to disappear if the wind blows, they eat fewer foods than rabbits.

But, I can’t help myself, I’m intrigued. I have to know more. We end up getting a table at a nearby coffee shop, they drink water, while I ask all these questions about their diet, and they don’t seem to mind. They don’t get verbose or anything, they don’t try to convert me, they just answer question after question. And the next thing I know, I’m offering to make them a meal. Their way. A fruit dinner. But that includes cooked fruits, like a serious, multi-course fruit dinner.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
Unexpected Thanksgiving Guest

Unexpected Thanksgiving Guest

I should have expected it. Especially from my cousin. Not only does she, my cousin, Charmaine, have a big heart, she also had no sense whatsoever of other peoples affairs. She’s not insensitive, quite the opposite, and she’s not empathetic or oblivious, it’s something else entirely. It’s like she exists on another plane, like she doesn’t understand the threads that bind people together or how those threads fray and snap. She, my cousin, Charmaine, always gives people another chance and doesn’t even recognize that she’s doing it. There’s always another chance with Charmaine because there are never not chances cause what are chances so chances are innumerable.

So I should have expected it, from Charmaine of all people. But I didn’t and that’s on me.

See the thing is, we were all sitting around the table, having just been called to Thanksgiving dinner by my aunt Ruth, and we’d all found a spot and there was still one spot left, for Charmaine, who hadn’t arrived yet, but my aunt Ruth had begun bringing the food in anyway, placing the green beans here and the biscuits there, the mashed potatoes catty corner from me and the gravy next to them. All this incredible food was coming out, and I’m salivating cause I didn’t eat breakfast expecting this huge traditional spread, and I’m so hungry and all I can think is “when are we gonna start passing the food around,” and in she strolls with the most perfectly browned turkey I’ve ever seen. So I was a bit distracted when Charmaine arrived. Even so, I’m still surprised it took me so long to notice.

Charmaine had brought a guest, because of course Charmaine would bring a guest to Thanksgiving dinner with absolutely no forewarning. It was classic big hearted Charmaine. No one was surprised by that. Or if they were they didn’t know my cousin. But we were all surprised. I guarantee you that. I guarantee that not a one of us was drooling over turkey one minute and then desperate to carve the next. Nope, we were all a bit stunned when we realized who she’d brought.

Because of course she, my cousin, Charmaine, brought my dad. The one person none of us ever thought we’d see again. Not after the last time.

See, several years ago now, I can’t think for sure, I want to say it was eight years ago but I feel like that was the year uncle Jeb threw out his back tossing the football around, so it musta been the year before or there wouldn’t have been such forced gaiety. So, nine years ago, the last time my dad came to Thanksgiving dinner, there was this moment where his sister, aunt Ruth, realized he wasn’t really there. I mean to say that his body was there, obviously, we could all see him, but his mind was gone. And not like the way we say “where’d my mind go,” when we realize we’ve misplaced our keys or been caught daydreaming out a window cause the larch trees are budding and the green is so exquisite. No, his mind was gone, and it turned out to be drugs.

Anyway, there were a few Thanksgivings after where his name would be mentioned in the pre-dinner prayer and I’d find out he was in this rehab or that psychiatric hospital or his name would simply be mentioned as one to watch over and I’d know he was out on the streets somewhere if he was even alive at all. I got used to the idea that my dad was gone, I mean, I guess I got used to it, what choice did I have, it’s not like I was gonna go search the streets for him all day every day til I found him. Cause then what? What did I know from drug recovery.

So there we all are, sitting at the table, except aunt Ruth who has placed the turkey on the table but is still holding the platter and my cousin, Charmaine, and my dad. And Charmaine has a contented smile on her face and simply says, “look who I ran into! Uncle Charlie’s joining us for dinner. I knew you wouldn’t mind, mama,” and then she’s guiding my dad to the empty seat, her seat, and she’s carefully sliding settings left and right and creating a space for herself to sit and no one is helping. Not a one of us is helping her. And it’s not cause we’re rude, not intentionally, we’re all just shocked.

I should have jumped up and started moving settings over or grabbing another setting out of the cabinet aunt Ruth keeps her linins in or gone to the kitchen for a plate and cutlery, but I just sat there. Luckily, I realized I had my mouth wide open and I shut it, although to be fair I might not have noticed my mouth open except that when I finally got to looking around I noticed everyone else had their mouth open which of course led me to discover mine was to.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
He Got His Wish

He Got His Wish

His great grandfather had been a barber in the war. Which war, he wasn’t sure, he never got to meet the guy, so it was just this story he’d always heard. “Your great grandfather was a barber in the war.” And for whatever reason, he’d always wanted a proper shave by a proper barber. If you asked him he’d shrug, he’d make it seem he really had no idea. But if you questioned him long enough, if you approached it from the right angle, you could see that it was a bit that he felt it was something his grandfather, or great grandfather, or whoever, would have approved of. It was a way to feel a little closer to a man he’d never met.

Plus it seemed bougie as hell and therefore a bit of a lark.

The thing is, do you know how hard it is to find someone that can do a straight razor shave. He’d moved to a few different cities throughout his life for college, for a girl, for a job. Every time he moved he’d walk the streets of this new conglomeration of buildings and people and businesses and keep an eye out for all the regular things, the potential new favorite coffee shop, Thai food place, book store. But he’d also be looking for a barber.

Every city had a barber. Even when he had to travel to some tiny city who’s only claim to fame was having a hotel cheap enough that his company would host their annual meeting there, he could find a barber shop. But most barbers were the electric kind. They could give you a cut and a shave and it’d all be done in less than twenty minutes, and all with a little electric device whirring in your ear the whole time.

Of course he got those cuts and shaves. Of course. But they weren’t what he was looking for.

And then when he joined this latest company, his boss a bit of a dick, and the directory mentioning the possible cities from which he could work, the cities they’d welcome a “man on the ground,” as the directory called it, there was just something about the cities name that called to him. Something a bit throwbackish about it. A bit Mayberry, if you will, a town he only knew through stories, like his grandfather, or great grandfather or whatever.

Which is how he found himself in Three Rivers: City of Elms. And it was true, there were, three rivers and elms. “Rivers” seemed like a bit of a stretch, he would have called them creeks, but there were three and they converged at a lovely if a bit loud spot just outside of town, a gorgeous walk and especially in the spring as he’d just discovered. The elms looking vivid with their leaf buds everywhere, the water tumbling from all directions, especially thunderous with the winter runoff.

He’d checked the city online before moving, of course, who wouldn’t. He knew there were the important things: a grocery store, gas station, mechanic, doctor, pharmacy. And he knew that nowadays you could live just about anywhere and get just about anything thanks to the internet and UPS. He also knew he could live anywhere for two years and move on if he didn’t like it. So the decision was made and he was now a resident of Three Rivers.

He arrived on a Sunday and spent the day unloading the contents of his trunk into his new home, a dilapidated single wide he’d found cheap and that he could always turn into a rental if this didn’t work out. There wasn’t much to move, a couple suitcases worth of clothing, a box of books, a good lamp, a duvet he’d gotten from an ex that he’d kept in the breakup. He’d furnish the place with garage sales or IKEA if he had to. The furniture was irrelevant. He’d already ordered a new mattress and it was set to arrive the next day. He could tolerate the floor for one night.

Move-in complete he went for a stroll. It being Sunday the town was quiet, businesses closed, a thing he’d have to get used to but was charmed by.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
Pet Peeve Punishment

Pet Peeve Punishment

It wasn’t her place to judge. She knew that, and she tried her best. But still, it grated on her nerves when people would complain about the things they brought on themselves. Her coworkers were especially good at this. And the first few times they came to her with their complaints she’d listen, nodding sympathetically, never saying anything, waiting it out. But after a time it became a habit. One stopping by to complain about the overtime they’d accepted because they “needed the money but still.” One stopping by to complain about the OT the other was getting because they’d declined the OT themselves because they had “family in town but still.”

Every time they stopped to complain she played violin music in her head, “oh, poor you,” her thoughts went, “you made a decision you don’t want to live with because it’s slightly inconvenient compared to the other decision you could have made that would also be slightly inconvenient,” all the while a Bach piece playing gently in the background of her mind. “I wish I could just play this piece anytime they stopped by to complain,” she caught herself thinking at one point. And then she couldn’t stop thinking it.

She caught herself downloading the Bach piece on her phones music app. Listening to it on the way home and smiling, laughing out loud even. But she knew she’d never have the ovaries to actually play the piece aloud when a coworker was present. That’d be taking it too far…wouldn’t it? Or would they even notice? She always had music playing softly at her desk as it was, never anything raucous unless she was the last person in the building. Maybe…?

And then one day after a company meeting in which she’d heard the debate amongst coworkers of who was going to take on the latest emergency project that would require an immediate input of overtime beginning that very day, she knew. She just knew that the complaints were coming.

Sure enough not an hour after the meeting she could here the heavy stride of Raquel, a woman who thought that all women needed to take up more space and made every effort to get the office to participate in Take Back the Night events. Raquel, a normally lovely woman, extremely supportive and with a smile that made you feel seen, but who occasionally agreed to an OT project despite having two children and a wife at home, and then she’d walk as though the floor were a good foot or more lower than it actually was, her feet slamming into the ground as though she’d just jumped off her desk.

“I can’t believe they talked me into it,” she began.

And before she’d even registered she was doing it, Kay pressed play on the Bach piece.

It was a subtle enough change that Raquel kept talking. She took no notice whatsoever of the violin’s grief over her situation, at the sweet sympathy it cooed at her. Kay continued to smile and nod and “mmhmm” but inside she was laughing. Laughing hysterically. No longer taking any notice whatsoever of the words coming out of Raquel’s mouth, although she did notice as Raquel’s shoulders relaxed, as the tension left her arms and she took a deep breath. She did notice when Raquel finished up her wha-whaing with a deep sigh and for the first time ever said, “thank you, Kay. Thank you for listening,” before walking away smoothly.

“Perhaps the violin music helped,” Kay thought, “it certainly helped me…but that’s the first time she’s ever thanked me. Huh.”

Over the following days and weeks Kay continued to employ the violin music, and she realized that not only did it help her feel a sense of righteousness over holding her tongue at all the complaining, it also gave the complainers a feeling of having been heard. It was a balm for them all, rather than a hilarious punishment, and Kay thought at first that perhaps that would ruin the fun of it, but it didn’t. No one seemed to notice that the music was played mockingly and Kay forgot, over time, that it was ever meant to be such.

In whatever bizarre twist of fate life dealt her, the complaints became fewer. At first Kay thought it must be that the projects has slowed but that wasn’t the case. There were still the monthly or more clients who decided they simply had to have whatever they needed immediately and hang the expense. Somewhere along the way though her coworkers had stopped feeling harassed by their own obligations, or more aptly, by their own choices.

Kay began to miss all the complaints although she didn’t recognize it as that for some time. She simply felt a hollowness that wasn’t there, an emptiness, as people no longer stopped by her desk every week or more with a scowl and a grump. She realized that now she was the one walking about with a scowl, that she was now stopping by Raquel’s desk with nothing specific to say but rather a general malaise about her, that Raquel no longer looked up when she heard Kay approaching, or that if she did accidentally look up that she’d smile quickly and duck her head again determined to look very busy.

One day Kay realized she no longer played music at her desk, couldn’t remember the last time she played anything, even the Bach piece.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
The Man Who Speaks in Poems

The Man Who Speaks in Poems

Everyone called him Poet. She assumed that’s what he was, or what he used to be, back before he came here. She never even bothered to question that assumption because he spoke only in poems, which at first she took to be a brilliant affectation for someone who was supposedly senile. It was only after days of working there and paying attention to what he said, that she realized he wasn’t trying to be endearing, he was simply stuck in a loop of poems.

She wasn’t assigned to any particular patients, she went where she was needed, so her exposer to Poet was minimal at first. An occasional moment where he dropped something and she was walking by and could pick it up for him, or when bringing out the food trays and he’d yet to be served. That was the first time she realized his poems were situational and not completely random. She’d slid the tray in front of him with a smile and was turning to the person on his left, Mildred, a woman who insisted on wearing lipstick every day despite her exclusive wardrobe of gunked up slippers and a terry cloth pullover that left her looking for all the world like a bathmat.

“Women whose lives are food, breaking eggs with care.”

She was brought short by the words for a moment, repeating them softly to herself and later typing them into her phone and discovering they were the words of Joyce Carol Oates. She made a point later that day to swing near Poet and say, “Men whose lives are money, time-and-a-half Saturdays,” hoping to get a response, a smile even. But there was nothing. Not even a flicker in Poet’s eyes.

The next time she heard Poet speak was when she nearly slipped and fell coming rapidly down the hallway, the hallway that had just been polished before lunch and about which she had been warned, the warning quickly forgotten.

“How many times these low feet staggered, only the soldered mouth can tell.”

Dickinson, she discovered later with the help of her phone.

“Fearless – the cobwebs swing from the ceiling, Indolent Housewife – in Daisies – lain!” she whispered in his ear later that day while tidying his room.

Again there was no response.

There existed then several weeks where she had no interaction with Poet, the comings and goings of the place far exceeding the time a single volunteer could devote. The turnover from the latest flu was horrific, and it wasn’t until she was called in to the supervisors office that she even had a moment to think of Poet. Perhaps she could ask the supervisor about him.

“I want to thank you, personally, for all your hours here, miss Lin. We don’t often get volunteers and when we do they don’t often stick around past their nursing hours or community service requirements. I sincerely appreciate all you’ve done here. You’re a real asset, and if you ever decide you want to work here fulltime as an employee, I’d be happy to hire you.”

Frankly, this was not what she’d expected at all, she was stunned and her eyes were a bit misty as she replied, “thank you, sir. I enjoy it.”

“Yes, well, thank you again,” he said before turning to the papers on his desk and raking a hand through his hair. He was clearly overwhelmed by what lay before him and had assumed their meeting was over, his goal accomplished. She considered going back to the few tasks she wanted to complete before leaving for the day, but hazarded a question.

“Sir? If you could, I’d like a bit more info on the man they call Poet?”

He looked up at her a puzzled furrow of his brows, “Poet?”

“Yes, sir, I don’t know his real name, it’s not on his door and no one seems to know it. He speaks in poetry? The staff call him Poet?”

It took a moment, and then she saw the realization in his eyes, “ah, yes, Marcus. He’s an interesting man. Used to teach, I believe, I’d have to look it up. I’m afraid he’s been gone for quite awhile now, came to us with no responses to his name or questions, music or other stimuli. He’s one that simply exists here.”

“Yes, sir, only it seems he may be a bit more there? His poems seem to be about whatever’s going on around him at the time.”

His eyes widened at this, “are you sure? We put him through several tests when he arrived. As you know we like to be sure to keep our clients as sharp as possible for as long as we can. He failed, well, he failed everything. There was no response to anything, not even electrical waves. Has he spoken to you or given any indication he understands what you say?”

“No, sir, not exactly. It’s that his poetry is…situational, for lack of a better word,” and she proceeded to explain noting all the while that his expression slowly went from excited to bored. “I just think, sir, that he knows more than we give him credit for,” she ended weakly.

“Yes, well, I’d like then for you to be assigned to him. I realize there are a lot of things you’re currently tasked with, but those things can go to someone…Jordan. Give them to Jordan, and let her know your time here is to be spent exclusively in aiding…Poet?”

“Yes, sir, Poet.”

“Right. Off you go. And please check in with me at the end of one week with any updates.”

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
Retirement Party

Retirement Party

Over forty years with Incle Corp, forty years and how many millions of dollars, and they’ve put together an employee potluck, bought a big box sheet cake, dollar store decorations, and there’s a cardstock achievement printout that I know Karla (“with a K!”) in HR has printed from her own computer. It’s unbelievable. I’m not even sure which is more unbelievable that it’s happening or that I’m forcing myself to smile as though it’s all okay. Which it is, really, everyone retires at some point, but it’s also not okay at all. Forty years for a potluck and a sheet cake?

I’m doing that breathing thing Karla is always going on about, “you have to breathe in deeply, count to four, then exhale for a count of eight. It really helps if you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Do it with me now. Good! You’ve got it!” And I do have it, the breathing thing, but it’s not helping. It never helps. Either she’s full of shit, and I’d put my money on it, or I’m doing it wrong, and how do you breathe wrong? Impossible.

But I can get through this. Keep the fake smile on, I can let it go if I’m eating or drinking, thank goodness I brought my own pop for lunch because they’ve neglected to include drinks on the potluck sign up sheet and I can see right about now that everyone is very much aware of this oversight. There’s Jim whispering to Bob in the corner and their both smiling. You know they’re wishing drinks had been included, they would have brought whiskey and pretended it was no big deal. I wish they had.

Oh geez, now Karla’s talking and smiling and gesturing, something about everyone knowing how much I’ve meant to the company blah blah blah. What’s this? What’s happening? Everyone’s staring at me. What did Karla just say?

“I’m sorry, dear, what did you say?” I ask. It helps to call them dear, the younger ones, they think it’s endearing. Sure enough I see her face loosen a bit, she’s probably reminding herself that I’m old, delicate. Ha!

“I asked if you’d like to think back on your years here at Incle and share with us your thoughts?”

She’s smiling. I know she thinks I’ll have nothing but positive things to say, because that’s me, always positive. Always trying to keep the company on track despite the way it’s being mismanaged, despite the way it’s all gone to pot the last ten years after Mr. LeBouche, Sr. died and Junior took over. Junior. That’s his name. Mr. LeBouche, Sr. never would have named him Junior but what do you do when it’s your wife’s dying wish? You have to go through with it, right? Ridiculous.

“Well, I remember when I first started here, I was hired on by Mr. LeBouche, Sr. himself. There weren’t but a handful of people here then, we all started together, see. They’re gone now, those first few, except me,” I say, trying to keep things light, forcing that smile even as I see their eyes starting to glaze over. Jim isn’t even pretending to listen, the bastard and I can’t help myself. I really can’t. Before I know it I’m telling the truth, “when it all started we were about customer service and proactive selling and positive customer interactions but that’s obviously not the focus any longer. I’m surprised I made it to retirement at all, really. One after the other I’ve watched as my longest term customers have made their excuses and walked away, watched even as they offered me a job with their company so I could work somewhere reputable.”

I can see the panic on Karla’s face. It started as a cocking of the head as she thought surely I was going to tell a joke, maybe rib Junior, who hasn’t bothered to show up, the pompous little twerp. But now she knows. Now she can see what’s coming, I think there must be a glint in my eye or a set to my jaw, because she’s just assumed the face she wears when she tells me to breathe. I should stop, I should laugh or find a way to make it seem like I’m not entirely serious, like I’m not embarrassed to be retiring from this joke of a company. But I guess she’ll have to find a way to stop me cause I can’t seem to stop myself, the words just keep tumbling out.

And that’s when the glaze in Jim’s eyes evaporates, he even shakes his head, his eyes wider than I’ve ever seen them, although that may have more to do with the lack of alcohol available than anything I’m saying. The next thing I know he and Bob are laughing loudly and walking towards me enveloping me in a hug, which is outrageous by the way, and now I can see, they’re embarrassed for me. I’ve just embarrassed myself in front of these people.

The next thing I know I’m being escorted politely to my desk, my box of knick knacks carried for me by the sweetest little gal who’s only been answering the phones here for a week and she’s saying something about how she wishes she’d started sooner to have more time to “get to know” me. And now we’re out at my car and she’s put the box gently on my passenger seat and she’s hugging me before returning to work and I do the only thing I can think to, which is to get into the drivers seat and start the car.

It’s a good idea to sit for a few minutes and let the engine warm up, not just put her in gear and go tearing off like these people do nowadays. So I’m sitting there waiting for all the lights to come on and go off again, for the engine to settle into that sound it makes when it’s got itself situated and I realize, I didn’t embarrass myself at all. There was nothing embarrassing about what I said except maybe for the fact that I said it. It’s not me that embarrassed myself, it’s those people. Those people are embarrassed because they still have to work there, while I’m free to leave. It’s their own sense of regret and guilt and fear that I was exposing and that they have to live with.

There’s a knock at my window that makes me jump, and when I turn to see who it is I’m genuinely surprised to see Jim. I roll down the window, a question in my eyes, and he blurts out, “Bob and me are going to the Wayback after work if you’d like to join us? We’d like to buy you a drink.”

I’m astounded. Not once in forty plus years has a coworker invited me out for a drink, and certainly not to some garbage hole in the wall like the Wayback, all forty year old women in tight jeans hoping for a second chance and pot bellied old drunks willing to give em something for their efforts. So I’m surprised when I hear myself saying, “why Jim, that’s so kind. I’d love to.”

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
Hospital Visit

Hospital Visit

I’d come to see my father, a man I hardly knew. I’d grown up with him, here and there, but only knew him as my dad, as a man who worked a job he hated and lived with a woman that wasn’t my mom. People would later tell me how funny he was, how much they enjoyed spending time with him, how adventurous he was. I wondered who they were talking about. But that would be later. For now, I’d come with a second hand book I thought he might like to have read to him and a vague idea that I would try to get to know him, or get to know what was left of his memories of himself.

Instead, as I was walking down the hall looking for room 204B, I heard a familiar voice and quite literally stopped in my tracks. It couldn’t possibly be who I thought it was, but it was very similar. Eerily similar. Far too close to be believed and I simply had to stick my head in to verify that this was in fact a case of my own memory playing tricks on me. Only there, right there upon a hospital bed that couldn’t possibly contain the personality upon it, was Mr. Tucker.

I quickly drew my head back out of the room and flattened my body against the wall outside the doorway. Feeling mildly ridiculous for such a move, I shook myself and realized I was smiling. Of course I was smiling. Who wouldn’t want to run into a man like Mr. Tucker after all these years. You see, Mr. Tucker was my teacher way back when, grade school, must have been third or fourth grade. Back when teachers told every student how perfect they were and every student believed them and adored them for it.

Would I be welcome in the hospital room. Would it be rude to walk in unannounced. What if Mr. Tucker suffered from the wasting away of his brain that my father was battling somewhere along this very hallway. The questions flooded my mind and rendered me immobile until I heard a shout that was so very un-Mr.Tucker-like that the next thing I knew I was within the room to stand witness to what was surely elderly abuse. It wasn’t, elderly abuse that is, it wasn’t at all. It was a young nurse, or perhaps even volunteer or candy striper, I didn’t think they had candy stripers anymore, who was finding that when Mr. Tucker said no, he meant no. She’d have known that if she’d had him in grade school.

I laughed aloud before I could stop myself and the scene froze before me: candy striper’s arms raised in battle with Mr. Tucker’s, a tray of grey food between them and a pink pitcher of ice or water or something precariously teetering on the edge of one of those rolling tables they insisted on providing to every hospital patient, as though anyone ever used them for anything other than setting vases of decaying flowers or the garbage from the latest injection.

“Mr. Tucker,” I said humorously, “you’re behaving badly. Give this girl a break, I’m sure she’s just doing her job. May I be of assistance?”

The young woman looked at me with a bit of relief before turning to Mr. Tucker and saying, “I’ll leave you to your guest, but you must get some of this in you or they won’t let you leave!” She backed away, straightening her uniform, before turning to leave but not before giving me a meaningful look. “I’ll be back in twenty, Mr. Tucker.”

Mr. Tucker rolled his eyes, a move he’d never have allowed from any of his students and I had to suppress another laugh. “Thank you for the rescue,” he said as he leaned forward looking towards the hallway, “and if you wouldn’t mind, there’s a toilet behind that door there you could take some of this and flush it for me.”

“I’ll flush one bite for every bite you take and if she tells me you’re allowed, I’ll give you a candy bar after, deal?”

He smiled and said, “you’re on! Now, you’ll have to forgive me, but I can’t quite place how I know you. Sit, tell me,” he indicated a chair near his bed as he picked up his fork and began pushing food around on the tray trying desperately to hide his look of disgust as he settled on a bite and forced himself to take it. I could see him cringing and figured the best remedy for a bad mean is good conversation.

“I wouldn’t expect you to remember me, Mr. Tucker. My name is Alice, and I was one of your students back in the day. Alice Tanner. I was walking by on my way to visit my father, he’s somewhere along here, when I heard your voice. It was unmistakable,” I smiled.

He smiled, too, and forced a swallow. “Right, that was four bites, I figure that’s about all I can handle unless you’d like to see it again. Off to the toilet with you,” and he handed me the tray.

I had to agree with him, whatever it was they were feeding him looked disgusting and none of it looked like anything I could name which was a bit frightening. I supposed if he was on a diet like this the odds of him being allowed a candy bar were slim to none, but I went to the toilet and flushed away a bit of the food as I’d promised. I returned the tray to the table and myself to the seat.

“Alice Tanner, yes, I’m beginning to see the girl inside the woman. You’re still very much the same, really, your walk. It’s there in your walk. Very determined. Good to see. What have you done with yourself these twenty years, or is it thirty? You’ll have to forgive me as I’ve lost track of time since retiring.”

“I’m surprised you remember me, sir, I never much thought I stood out,” I laughed. “I don’t know that I’ve done much of anything to tell you except that I tried my hand at marriage and failed, tried my hand at travelling and found it wasn’t for me, tried my hand at a multitude of odd jobs and while I’m proficient in quite a few things now because of it I’m not particularly good at anything,” I laughed again, realizing as I said the words that they were true. I realized my eyebrows were raised, I’d surprised myself with my lack of a life, with my inability to recognize my own lifelessness until this moment.

“That, my dear, does not at all sound like the Alice Tanner I remember. Perhaps I have you confused with a different student? Alice Tanner was confident. Independent. She was going to change the world. She told me so herself on a few occasions,” he said, his eyebrows drawn down low, and a glint in his eye. No longer facing me head on, he was giving me a sidelong glance as though his peripheral vision afforded him a bit of time-travelling.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here
Unforgettable Meal

Unforgettable Meal

The storm had been expected. You don’t live in the mountains without checking the weather reports religiously. So everyone knew and was well stocked. Most people had generators for back up power, but not everyone. Even those with generators had water put by though. You don’t live in the mountains without having a bit of common sense and a healthy understanding that you’re but small on this large plane.

Despite having prepared for the storm, there was the occasional person, like herself, who without a backup generator would be struck with a loss of power and an overstocked fridge and inevitably there’d be an invitation to dinner. The food needed to be used up before it went bad and who knew when the power would be back on and yes, yes, thank you, but no, I’d rather not move everything to your fridge but you’re very kind to offer.

And so it was that she found herself knocking on her neighbors door at five til, a bottle of sparkling cider in one hand and a flashlight in the other. She was welcomed in by a different neighbor who’d apparently also just arrived and was still hanging up his coat. Good to see you, how are you faring, did you get that generator put in this year, yes, yes, excellent timing.

There was small talk in the living room with a few other local faces, lots of laughter, a bottle of red being passed around, yes, I know it won’t spoil as it was never in the fridge, but on a chilly night who wants a white, after all. The smells from the kitchen were overwhelming and her stomach had started to murmur, she realized she’d skipped lunch what with the added chores a storm brings like felled trees and washed out driveways. The call to come eat came in the nick of time.

Having been invited to a fridge cleaning party her expectations had not been high. She honestly expected to find a bit of this and a bit of that. Smaller amounts of food all cooked up to create a larger spread, but not very much of any one thing. She was wrong.

There was a turkey and a ham, as though it were Thanksgiving. There were two kinds of rolls, one of which appeared to be very much homemade. There were the expected frozen veggies, warmed and slathered in thick pats of melting butter. There was the occasional odd dish here and there, clearly leftovers that would get thrown away if not eaten tonight, a bit of macaroni and cheese, some cottage cheese, an odd assortment of olives and dill beans.

The thing that took her breath away, the thing she realized she’d been smelling, that had set her stomach to rumbling and her mouth to drooling were the oranges. There was an entire platter of oranges that had been gutted and filled with sweet potatoes. They smelled absolutely delicious and she hoped there were enough for everyone, or that she’d at least get first crack at ’em and not have to miss out. She deliberately edged closer to them in an attempt to be seated within passing distance in order to be in the first one or two served assuming passing would go clockwise, because of course passing would go clockwise.

As everyone sat down and voiced the expected thank yous and this looks lovely and even a my goodness but it looks like Thanksgiving, she smiled, for she’d managed a chair directly in front of the platter of oranges. Up close they were even more delectable, she could see the sweet potatoes or yams or whatever they were inside had been mashed about like a twice baked potato and instead of marshmallow there appeared to be something else, honey perhaps, at the edges. She’d missed whatever was being said but recognized the people around her were grabbing dishes, serving, the passing would begin shortly.

She grabbed the oranges, placed one on the plate before her and passed them along, clockwise, of course, accepting the platter from her right and taking a tongs-ful of green beans, passing again and again and again. The food came in a near endless stream and she found herself running out of room, a balancing act now of food piling on food, the green beans succumbing to the turkey, the turkey to the roll. She left the orange undisturbed.

Finally the first round of passing was complete and people were taking their first bites, the conversation had died down and the occasional mmm or aaaah or clink could be heard. At one point someone paused their chewing long enough to say delicious and there were murmurs of agreement, a bit of laughter here or there, the host saying thank you, or I’m so glad, or please please eat up.

She took her fork and pressed it gently into the tuber mix, swirling out with a beautiful biteful and swiftly brought it to her mouth before any bits could fall. As the fork sat on her tongue and the flavor spread across it she closed her lips, unable to remove the fork, unable to move for a moment as the sweetness overtook her tempered a moment later by the tang of the orange flavor, subtle but there. It was like nothing she’d ever tasted before. She removed the fork and mushed the bite against the roof of her mouth, inhaling deeply before swallowing on an exhale. Phenomenal.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here