Archive for the The Word: Stories Category

School Night at the Viper Room

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , on 12/30/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word–BAND

Michelle ordered a Jack Daniels. It was a Thursday night at the Viper Room, the bartender a girl with extraordinary tattoos and a blue streak in her black hair.  Michelle felt ridiculous in her jeans and high heeled boots, false eyelashes glued to the outside corners of her eyes, a trick she’d seen in Allure but hadn’t possessed the nerve to try before this. She would have ordered red wine, but it seemed too old-lady. Jack Daniels was the thing to drink in a dark nighclub on the Strip.

She perched on the barstool, pretending to be interested in the first band–mediocre, with a screamer, not one word intelligible–pretending everything was cool. She tried not to make eye contact with anyone. She had never, ever been to a bar by herself, not in her forty years on this planet.

She would normally be getting ready for bed at this hour.  But she had promised Dustin she would come.

Dustin Jakes. A tall, lanky boy with tribal tattoos and dreadlocks she’d found on a flyer:

                                    Guitar Lessons With Dustin,

                                          from the band The YoYos

                                                I will teach you the

                                          Secrets of the Universe

                 Electric, acoustic, 12 string, also mandolin U name It!!

                                     CHEEP AT TWICE THE PRICE!!

He was, in fact, $25 an hour.  Not exactly CHEEP but within the realm of the possible. Her ex refused any part in the project–it was Michelle who bought Chloe the guitar–slightly used, off Craigslist–and Michelle who paid for the lessons. She didn’t make much money as a history teacher at John Burroughs Junior High, but she was good at saving money, stashing a little here, a little there, ready to splurge on something really important, like a pearly black Stratocaster and a little Fender amp for her daughter’s thirteenth birthday.  And Dustin Jakes, to teach her the Secrets of the Universe.

She was paying him when he invited her to come see his band. At the Viper Room.

Instantly, images arose of a talented young star dying on the sidewalk as soulless young people stood around him in a modern day version of Day of the Locust.  “Thanks,” she said.  “But I don’t think I can. School night.”  But it sounded lame, even to her. Like she was 12.  What was she afraid of?  The Viper Room?  Or Dustin, his gold-dusted dreads, his mocha skin, his clear green eyes. He’d already asked her out once for a beer, she’d been both charmed and terrified.

“We’re the second band. Nine-thirty, ten o clock max.  Come on, you’ve never seen what I can do.”  He gazed at her reproachfully.

“Oh, maybe,” she said.  thinking, not in this life.  What would she wear, for god’s sake? Squeeze her fat ass into a pair of jeans and high heels like an idiot?  She was too old for the Viper Room.  She was too old for Dustin by about 20 years.  But even as she was saying no way she was thinking, who she could get to go with her?  Mary? Helen? She should see him play. Or whatever else it was he was asking.

“I’ll put you on the list, you’ll just pay to park.” Smiling his goofy-ass smile. Chloe in the other room, practicing a Jack White riff.  That child hadn’t been as excited about anything since the divorce.

And so, Michelle found herself walking up to the Viper Room box office and giving her name, and there it was, on The YoYos’ list. And now she was propping up the bar, terrified to look to the left or to the right. The place was half full, boys and girls, more boys than girls, and God, they were all so young.  She did not belong here.  Where did they all get the money to come to the Viper Room on a Thursday night?

She never felt so old, so out of place.  Would the band never come on?

Three loud boys stood at the bar next to her, looking at their cell phones and laughing about some text message.  She felt invisible. She felt like a junior high wallflower all over again–ignored, ridiculous, hopeful, despairing. Finally an older group came in–two whippet-thin men with gray hair, and women with those expensive choppy haircuts, who sat  in a reserved booth in the corner. They looked like people from the music business.  Maybe she could pretend that’s what she was.  I’m from the record company.  The ‘label,’ isn’t that what they said?  Or an agent.  Or a backup singer from the House of Blues up the street, dropping by to see what was new.  A ‘friend of the band.’  Something that would make it cool to be old, or at least plausible.  Actually, I own this joint.

At last, The YoYos came on.  A fat drummer with a goatee, skinny-ass bass player with a cap,  intense, intellectual keyboardist in hornrimmed glasses, and Dustin, astonishingly handsome in a Bob Marley t-shirt, dreads bright in the darkness. They had a psychedelic sound–the keyboardist sang, a reedy voice, and Dustin was indeed a remarkable guitarist, he played with a warm, honeyish, Hendrixy tone that was thrilling, almost like a human voice, and Michelle could feel that voice inside her, warming her.  She had not dated since she and Jeremy divorced. and could not silence the fantasies of Dustin.  She had had them since Chloe started taking lessons. That smooth skin, the goofy macramé necklace with the simple beads woven in, his sensitivity, he picked up on her vibe, she knew it, but not in an awful way.  Just–he knew.

Oh, he’d seen her! She waved, a small wave, and he smiled, dipped his guitar.  And what if… What if she just gave in? Wasn’t that really why she was here? In adult’s-only territory, minus the 13 year old chaperone? She gazed at Dustin in his luminous pool of spotlight, the liquid tone of his guitarwork.   For once, she would not chicken out.  She would not let tonight slip away without seeing what this was.  She would be insane not to find out.  She had not slept with anybody in a year, a whole year…. she had worn her red lace underwear, just in case.  And had slipped a condom into her wallet–though boys knew what to do now, it was de rigeur. She wondered what his place was like. She hoped it wasn’t full of dirty clothes and pizza boxes, moldy.  But she was sure he would make her feel just like that sound, honey and warm and thrilling.

Finally, the YoYo set was over.  She waited anxiously. Was he ever going to come out?  Oh, yes, here he was! Golden, still looking like there was a spotlight on him.  Pushing through the crowd which had thickened during the set.  He saw her at the bar and swam over to her. “Michelle! You came!”  He hugged her, and kissed her on the cheek.  His shirt was soaked with sweat.  “Thanks for coming, it means a lot. Did you like it?”

“Amazing. So glad I finally heard the whole band..”  He kept his arm around her shoulder. She assumed he was going to join her for a drink, but a pretty girl in a baby-doll vintage dress and striped tights squeezed in, and he seemed equally delighted to see her, and the other people he knew. He was just delighted to see everybody, like a big Golden Retriever puppy.  Just a world of delight, embracing them all, wrapping them in his glow, and letting his friends lead him away. “Thanks for coming!” he shouted back over his shoulder. “See you Tuesday!”

And she realized that was all there was.  All there’d be. She had seen him play.  That was all he’d wanted. Just for her to come and see the show, after paying him all these weeks. To see what he could do. He hadn’t promised anything, she’d just read him wrong.  She was stunned, that she could be so stupid, such a silly, ridiculous middle-aged sentimentalist, she should have stayed home and read a Harlequin Romance. To think that a boy like that would be interested in her– a pupil’s mom, who sometimes let him stay to dinner when the lesson ran late. She wanted to drop into the floor. She wanted to disappear in a flash of sulphurous smoke.  She grabbed her purse, dug around for a Kleenex but of course there was never one when you needed it.

The bartender slapped another Jack Daniels on the bar.

“I didn’t order this,” Michelle said.

The tattooed girl nodded down the bar to a man with a little beard, glasses, a leather jacket. Pleasant looking, rosy cheeked. He held up his bottle of beer. Cheers.

She’d seen this in movies, but it had never happened to her before. Well, she would drink it. She was forty, not twenty two.  She toasted him back, drank. Let it  loosen the tightness around her ribcage, the grip of shame upon her throat.  What was she out? The price of a drink, $10 parking.  What was self respect, anyway?

“So, you’re friends with YoYo guitar player.” The little man with the beard had edged down the bar, and  now stood next to her.

“My daughter’s guitar teacher,” she said matter of factly. Not even trying to look like a backup singer or a music industry professional.

He tipped back his Newcastle Brown.  “How old’s your daughter?”

“Thirteen,” she said.

“Any good?””

“Yeah, she’s good.”  She sipped her fresh Jack Daniels. “You know, I’ve never been here before.  Driven by a million times. It used to be owned by Bugsy Siegel in the Forties.”

He grinned. His teeth were small, with an appealing gap between the front two. “Well you better watch out, you might end up with a musician, and then you’ll be here three times a week.  At least she’s a guitar player. My son’s a drummer.”  His glance went to the drum kit being set up on stage.  “If he’d played the harmonica, I could have gotten a sports car.  He’s in the next band, The Free Thinkers. You staying?”

It was midnight.  If she left now, she could be home by 12:30, and tucked up in bed ten minutes later. Across the room, Dustin stood with his lanky arm wrapped around the girl in the striped tights.  She couldn’t leave now. It would feel like slinking out with her crushed little party favor of a heart stuffed in her handbag.

“Sure, why not.  It’s almost the weekend.”

The Free Thinkers were better than the YoYos, the songs less cliche, the singer’s voice was strong and clear, and the man’s kid, the drummer, was insanely good.  She leaned back against the bar and thought, she hadn’t really needed Dustin after all. She’d  just needed something.

Maybe this was one of the Secrets of the Universe.

Cheep at twice the price.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: FOLD

The Secret Agent

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , , on 12/16/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word–SOCK

When Mom’s at work, Scott does what he wants.  It’s just him and me, and he’s three years older.  One of the things he likes to do is sock me in the shoulder.  He socks me in the shoulder in the same place, day after day. He doesn’t have to really hit me hard anymore, it always hurts from being hit all the time. I tell Mom, I call her at work and tell her Scott’s beating me up, but all  she says is, “Oh, he wouldn’t do a thing like that.”

I hate her and I hate Scott, I even hate my dad who can be in the same room when Scott’s socking me, and Mom screams at me for yelling.  He just sits there in his ugly lounge chair watching The Game on TV.  I hate sports.  I hate Dad and Mom and Scott and sports and TV.  I hate anyone who can just sit there when someone’s getting beat up and watch TV like nothing’s happening.  I especially hate anyone who leaves a kid alone with her maniac brother and can actually, really say, when you call her crying,  “Oh, he wouldn’t do that.”

Like I’m crazy, like I’m making the whole thing up.

I hate my teachers, like Miss Dickson the math teacher, who makes me cry in class every day. I’m always freaked out at school. I just cannot remember how many feet in a fathom. How many sheets in a ream of paper? How many feet in a furlong?  How many pecks in a bushel?  She asks so fast, picking people at random so you can’t be prepared and WHAT THE FUCK DO I CARE? Life is hell and I hate Miss Dickson. She makes me cry, and then the other kids laugh and imitate me, sobbing.

I hate the other kids, Marlene and Jennifer and Cassie, who make fun of me,  they do mean stuff like bashing the bottom of my bag of popcorn so it flies up into my face. I even hate Gigi, who is my best friend but likes Marlene better, so if Marlene’s around, Gigi is mean to me too.

Sometimes I just cry for no reason at all.

I’m only in the seventh grade. I have five more years before this is over. I don’t think I’m going to make it.

Sometimes I imagine I’m a secret agent, a spy on a mission from an alien planet, and I have a spy camera in my head, and I’m sending all this information back to my alien leader.  This is what life on earth is really like.   Then I don’t mind it all as much.  I think, okay, bring it on, because someone is watching this.  Like the cops on Cops.  They aliens are stunned. They cannot believe what a jerk Miss Dickson is. Their hearts hurt when they see me run out of class crying.  They wince when Scott hits me in the shoulder one more time.  They’re outraged when Mom gets mad at me for calling her at work, for making up shit about my brother.  They can’t believe what a shitty deal life here is like.

I’m not really me.  I’m just here on assignment. Recording all this.  It’s not really me.

Except when Scott socks me in the shoulder again.  Then it’s really, really hard to remember.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: BAND

Mister Twister

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , on 12/08/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word–COP

We were flying through the mountains, Durango to Denver, we were soaring. enough blow to cover these damn mountains, snow it back to winter again. Yeehaw! Davis shouted out into the wind. Still damn cold, piney mountain air rinsing us through the open window of the 442. We’d made it up here just over three hours, we’d make Denver in four, just like he told me he could do it. It was a seven hour trip with Dad at the wheel, but they always stopped to take pictures, the Sangre de Christos, South Park, pictures of nothing, cows.

But nothing Davis did surprised me.  Or maybe it was that everything did, so you were sort of ready for it. I felt awake with him, really awake, like I’d been sleeping all my life until I met him.  Sleeping Beauty, that was me.  My parents didn’t like him, of course–the man smelled of sex, just reeked of it, the way he’d stand there with his thumbs tucked in his belt.  “I don’t like you seeing so much of that boy,” Daddy said. He thought I should go out with someone from Fort Lewis Community College. “Somebody nice,” my mother said, meaning without a cock. Yeah, I knew what she meant.

I looked at Davis in the driver seat with that spring wind blowing, dancing the feathers on the roach clip hanging from the rearview mirror.  I was laughing, like I was champagne that got shook up and popped, all of me was just flowing out in a great jet of sparkling foam. We were going to meet some friends of his in Denver, have a real party. He kept saying, “Wait till we get us to Denver, baby, then we’re gonna have some fun.”

We were going fast enough through the turns that I had to hold onto the seat. Like Mister Twister at Elitch Gardens. Being with Davis was like being on a ride like that, you screamed your head off and then wet your pants laughing when you finally got off. We went squealing along, corners at eighty, patches of snow still on the ground among the pines.

“Oh shit,” Davis said.  And there was  Officer Law, lurking just off the highway, half hidden in the trees like some black-and-white tiger, just waiting for us, a few miles short of  Bailey. I felt Davis trying to slow without cramming on the brakes and putting us in a spin.  “Shit shit shit.” The cherry lights started to turn, then the siren.  Davis thrust the little folded paper of blow. “Tuck that in your bra, darlin’.”

I didn’t know what to do.  I felt this zing of panic.  Why was he giving it to me?  It wasn’t my blow.  And the cop was flashing his lights, he was getting pissed, wanting Davis to pull over.   “But what if we get arrested? What if they search me?”

“It’s just a traffic stop. And even if they did, what the fuck, you’re not 21, first offense. Trust me, it’ll be ok.”

The cop was right behind us, flashing his lights!  What was I supposed to do?  Even if they did?! I rolled down the window.

“What are you doing, don’t–  Don’t–“

I threw it out the window.

“The fuck! You stupid bitch!” The car swerved as he screamed. He was so mad! I was glad he had to hang onto the wheel, in fact I was kind of glad they were pulling us over.  He mighta hit me or something.

My heart was in my throat as we  stopped on a narrow piece of shoulder off the winding highway, cars whizzing past. Davis sat looking front with his hands on the wheel, his jaw working, his face sheet white. “shit, shit shit.”  Nobody was coming over. The cop just sat watching us.  Finally, he got out and came up to the car on my side, tapped on the window.  A clean shaven blonde about thirty poked his head in.   He looked us both over.  “ID and registration, folks.”

My parents would kill me if I got arrested up here, and my dad had to take off work to come get me.   I tried not to start crying. I never got arrested before.  I was stoned and high and scared, and Davis was really mad.

“Registration,” the cop said again.

Davis kept his hands on the wheel, but opened them  to show he wasn’t holding anything, I guess, spreading the fingers.  “It’s in the glove compartment. But I have to tell you, there’s a gun in there, okay?”

Davis had a gun in the glove compartment.  We’re doing eighty, coked out of our minds, and he has a gun in his glove compartment.  And he called me a bitch!   Suddenly I didn’t feel so good about this whole Denver idea.  What else didn’t I know about Davis? He wanted me to hold onto three hundred dollars worth of coke during a bust and then called me a bitch, and he had a gun?  I didn’t know who these people in Denver were. Anything could happen–and nobody knew where I was, they all thought I was in class.

“Will you open the glove compartment, Miss?”

Davis was trying to signal me something with his light green eyes, I usually liked them but they looked kind of lizardy to me now.  He looked like he would kill me once the cop left. I didn’t know what to do.  Was there something else in the glove compartment?

“I was just getting a ride,” I said, opening it. And there was the gun, a greasy handgun.  There was never a gun in there before.  “I was just getting a ride to Denver.”  I found the registration and gave it to the cop.

The cop went back for the longest time.

“Why’d you say that?” Davis asked.  “What kind of shit is that? We gotta stick together.”

I didn’t answer him.

We got our IDs back, and he had us get out of the car. The cop started to look around the car, shining a light under the seats, looking in my purse.  “I saw you throw something out of the car,” he said. “That gives me probable cause.”

He found some pot under the seat.  Davis looked mad. But it wasn’t my pot either.

“Can I go now?” I said to the cop.

He looked at me all squinty-eyed.  “Sure,” he said.  “But not him.”

“Clara.” How shocked he looked. “Baby.”

I hitched my bag with all my stuff over my shoulder and started walking towards Bailey.  Fuck Davis, man. Fuck Davis.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: SOCK

 

The Thing, That Thing…

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , on 12/01/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word: DARK

Slim woke in the dark, and could not remember.  The thing, that thing. That made it light again. She knocked something off the bedside table, she could hear it hit the floor.  “Shit.” The clock didn’t work either, the numbers, glowing. So irritating, she could see the numbers, but she couldn’t… Oh, why was she so stupid?  Was it time to get up or not?  That’s all she wanted to know.

It was dark, she didn’t think it was time, but those things, over the windows, she couldn’t tell. Was it dark outside too?

She tried to find the thing–the thing that turned on the light, but she couldn’t. Something else fell.  She got out of bed then, maybe she could light a light in the bathroom, by the commode. But suddenly, she was on the floor. She must have sat down. It was dark, and her glasses, she couldn’t see, and she was on the floor, and it was dark. She tried to get up but she couldn’t do that either.  “Shit.”  And she started to cry.

There was something she was supposed to do.  Pull something. couldn’t reach the pull thing that called–who? She believed no one would come anyway.  There was no one who worked here at night, they all went somewhere and drank coffee and laughed at the old people.

If only it wasn’t so damn dark. So many things rambled around in her head, she couldn’t say what exactly. And  there was no one to say them to anyway.   She missed Ritchie. “God, Ritchie, why did you have to leave me here?” it was cold on the floor, she pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped it around herself.  How had this happened to her? Of all people.  Who the hell said this would be all right?

The clock was even laughing at her, glowing there with its big computery numbers like it was a rocket station. But it was wrong. Nobody ever reset it.  How she hated it here.  “Ritchie, I’m a goddamn fool,” she said.  He was waiting for her, in that place, the sooner the better if you asked her. She reached up to her bed and pulled a pillow down, lay her head on it.  Screw it.  Then she started to cry. Here she was, Slim Tolliver, queen of the goddamn north shore, lying on the floor like an overturned turtle, and there was no one in the goddamn world to help her.

It felt good, infinitely good, to cry like a kid and feel sorry for herself. Ha.  She never let her children do this, when they were young. Teased and bullied them into pulling their socks up.  “Pull your socks up,” she used to say  “Stop sniveling.  You look like absolute hell.”

If only she had a little dog, it would come and lick her face, she could cuddle with it, talk to it.  But they didn’t have animals here. That one big fluffy dog came sometimes, it had a diamond collar–oh, she loved to pet it. That great curly hair.  But she couldn’t bring her own dogs, the big one and the little one… Frenchie?  F… F something.  Cute as could be.  So funny to watch them play together, the little one running in circles, the big one just staring.

Where was her mother? Not mother… sister? Daughter. Pammy.   She came and went whenever she goddamn well wanted to.  Nice to come and go. God she missed her car. White car, white leather, two seater. Just for her. She remembered when she bought it.  She didn’t tell anybody, not even Ritchie. It was the first time she bought something like that without anybody’s say so. Ha.  His face when she brought it home.  Oh, to just get in a car and drive… a white scarf on her head.  Sun on her face.  Ah…

If only she could get the light on.  She crawled in the direction she thought was the bathroom, found the door, felt along the cold porcelain commode and pulled herself up onto her knees. There it was, the thing, the switch, she turned it on, it got light.  Never in her whole life was she so happy to see her jumbled makeup and the toilet rolls,  the towels.

Seeing she was here already, Slim used the commode and wondered if it was time to get up.  They came to give you your pills at six. She had never been an early riser, six was ridiculous, inhuman, for bakers, and people who delivered the paper.  It would probably be hours until it was six.

She decided she wouldn’t tell her mother what had happened. She’d been so mean to those kids.  Not letting them cry or be hurt.   No wonder that one had put her in here, where there was nobody to help her, they just drank coffee in the basement and make fun of the old people, their clumsiness and the mess you couldn’t help making.

She started to cry again.  If she was a dog, they could just take her to the vet, give her a shot. She didn’t think she could do this one more day.  She looked in the mirror over the sink, that blurry thing she assumed was herself. God, it was lucky she couldn’t see more than the white hair.  “Pull up your socks, Slim Tolliver,” she told herself.  “Nobody wants to see that.”

She left the light on, and shuffled back to the bed. She was supposed to use that thing, but she had no idea where it was just now. That thing

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: COP

Carmen, Still

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , on 11/21/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word: FOIL

Yes, I’m her foil, her heterosexual Alice B. Toklas, her dogsbody, her step n’ fetchit man.  Companion was the term they used in the dear old days back when we met at Mills, that during the War. Carmen and Addy. Who was the comic who put us into the same room. Both from Southern California, poor dear. They must have supposed we knew each other. Or at least traveled in the same circles.  That we’d take comfort in one another, being so far from home.

But Carmen was from Bel Air, and I was from Whittier. Her father was a big man in the studios, while mine edited a small town newspaper. (No one ever asked what the mothers ‘did,’ but for the record, hers collected art, and mine went to church and grew a Victory garden.)

Sixty-some years ago.

Who would have put money on us?

Carmen still glittered, I’ll give  her that much.  Even as a college girl she had. I’ll never forget how a car came for us, to take us to the Opera in the City. Girls spied on us from the windows of the dorm.  I’d needed a formal gown, I remember.  I made mine, pale yellow with a jewel neck, a color I thought looked well with my pale hair, and my blue eyes and my freckles. But I disappeared next to Carmen, with her luxuriant black hair and olive green dress with the plunging back.

I don’t mean to sound envious. Who would want to be Carmen? It would be like wanting to be a hurricane. Tearing through the world, knocking down trees, drowning everything in her path.  Ruin in every direction, ruin of your own creation.

Girls didn’t like her. Women,.  She had to wait until she was so famous, everyone admired her–and took her peculiarities as part of the package. But back then, they expected you to be just another nice girl from a good family, which meant–behave. She scandalized them by being both nouveau riche, and–they didn’t have to say it–Jewish.

But I was dazzled by her.  And I was her friend.

Tonight, the hair was silver and wound in a thick chignon I knew was half purchased, her bony arm bore six inches of jeweled bangles, the dress was scarlet. Oscar de La Renta. At eighty, she was still the most daring thing in the room. And I was myself, as ever. Gray hair bobbed,  black pants elastic-waisted, wearing a silk kimono bought on a trip to Hong Kong in the ‘seventies.

“Addy! Take this, dear.” She thrust a half-eaten strawberry into my hand, a balled up napkin, turning to smile at the photographer, arms around two young glittering friends.

Yes, that was me, there to hold her sweater or a wet glass when the photographers came around,  The gooey feeling of the strawberry in my hand. I wanted to throw it at her.  People said, yes Carmen’s a handful, but it must have had its moments–a girl from Whittier, you’ve stayed at the Dorchester, you’ve met Picasso, You fly first class, there’s a a car and driver in every city.

But I’ve  been well-paid– in wet glasses and half-eaten strawberries.

I drifted back to the catering kitchen–there was a personal one and a larger one for parties–where black-and-white-clad boys and girls smoked and gossiped as they cleaned up.  I liked they didn’t stop when I came in.  I dumped the strawberry into the trash, and wiped my hand, asked a young man for a cigarette–my once a year treat.

I have been her shadow for sixty years.  Good old Addy. Through all seven of her marriages, one more disastrous than the next.  I wear the same dress to them all now–it seems ridiculous to buy new ones.

I remembered the gown she wore for my sole trip to the altar. Schaparelli pink. For a Methodist wedding in Whittier. Ha. My mother was appalled, but I should have  known. She just couldn’t bear to be in anyone’s shadow. Not even on my wedding day.

But when Jim lay dying, in the bed at Cedars with all his tubes, she brought us pastrami and pickles and scotch. Her then-husband couldn’t bear the sight of the dying–he was, as she would say, a piece of work. Number six, the designer. But Carmen stayed with us, night after night, playing gin rummy, running to the nurse’s station to bawl them out, she snapped at their heels like a border collie. She’d invited me to come live with her after the funeral.

“I can’t live under the same roof as that,” I said. The husband, Danny somebody, waiting by the Bentley.

“It’s not the same roof,” Carmen said.  “It’s the carriage house. There’s a huge lawn between you.”

Then Danny was gone, and the one after that.  But I’m still here.

So funny, who proves the most important person in your life.  I poured myself some scotch. I could hear her out there laughing, she had a big braying laugh, the girls at Mills used to mock it, but she’s known for it now.  And I toasted her. For she was my foil as well.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: DARK

 

Heavy

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , , on 12/17/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Pan

She wondered how it would be to backpack with Dan. She didn’t know him that well, they’d dated at school. But now they were here, she was glad she came. He was at his best in nature, so happy to show off his backcountry skills and the high meadows of  yarrow and lupine and Indian paintbrush. The Colorado sky was Van Gogh blue, straight out of the tube.  Five days in the Lizard Head Wilderness, just the two of them.

Dan had planned the whole thing, traced their route on the green topo maps. He’d completely repacked her backpack, eliminating extra pants and sweaters and shirts she was sure she’d need.  Scrapping all her toiletries. Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint soap would be her major toilet item. All one, All one.

Now she saw how right he was. She hadn’t needed any of it.  He’d packed perfectly– aluminum camping dishes, fitted knife/fork/spoon sets, all nested together. Dried food, ground and measured coffee. A tiny stove, no bigger than a takeout box. Everything weighed and measured, every ounce pared away. Her pack was only 35 pounds, he took 60, all the heavy items–tent and food and fuel.

She loved Dan in the out-of-doors. Holding her hand when she had to balance on  switchbacks, encouraging her to cross a fallen log straddling a creek. He was never this nice back at school.  Mostly he kept to himself, or drank himself stupid with his roommate Chuck.

She liked nature. She had gone to Y Camp in the San Bernardinos, though it was nothing like this. He laughed at her when she woke the first night and thought there was a streetlight outside the tent. She was 19 years old and had never understood that the moon rose.  She’d stood outside the tent in her long underwear and gaped at the full moon.

They pressed on toward Lizard Head, skirting timberline, rising up into high meadows, dipping down into cool fragrant pines or trembling aspen.  He had  it down. They didn’t even have to carry much water, he’d planned the trip never to be far from a stream. They filtered the water with a little gizmo so they wouldn’t get giardia. Though it looked clean enough.

So self-sufficient. “Well, you have to be, out here,” he said.  “You can’t just run down to the hardware store.  You forget the flashlight, you’re SOL.”

They’d found the perfect camping spot–a clearing in the pines, two downed logs, the stream close-by–but not too close. Put up the tent, set up their ‘kitchen’, made some lemonade, settled in..  She took out her watercolors and painted him reading, lying on his Therm A Rest-padded log. She wandered, identifying woodpeckers and wildflowers. There was nothing they needed, they had everything–tent, sleeping bags, food.  It was perfect.

The light soaked the afternoon mountains in rose-gold when they saw the lone figure struggling up the trail.

They’d made their camp almost astride the path, having no idea anyone  might walk right through it. They hadn’t seen anyone since the trailhead.  “Who the fuck is that?” Dan said. “Look at the size of that pack. What a moron.”

Now they saw, it was a boy, wearing shorts and enormous hiking boots. He humped an orange backpack, bigger than he was.  He climbed slowly, he seemed to be making no progress at all, just this dot, green shirt, an orange pack, laboring up the mountain.

As he got closer, Jen could see he was exhausted, pushing himself, hands on his knees, as if he had to force each leg in turn to press the earth and carry him forward. But finally, he was within hailing distance of where they sat on their Therm A Rest pads. He grinned and called out, “Boy am I glad to see you! Wow.  That’s some trail, huh?”

Dan didn’t even say hello, just stared at the intruder, a boy, smiling, chestnut haired, about sixteen.

“Hi,” Jen said. Trying to distract him from Dan’s glower. “How long you been climbing?”

“All day. Wow,  that’s was some hike.”  He stood looking back to where he’d come from, gasping, cheeks red, fingers hooked around the straps of his enormous orange backpack from which a cast iron frypan hung. A fishing pole peeked out the top.  The frypan alone must have weighed ten pounds.

Jen could tell he wanted to drop the pack and join them, but he was offput by Dan’s unwelcoming vibe.  Well, unexpected things happened, whether Dan liked it or not. “Take off your pack and sit awhile. Want some lemonade? Cold from the stream..”

Dan gave her a withering look.

But she couldn’t exactly send the kid on his way, not like that. That wouldn’t be friendly at all.

The kid awkwardly lurched from his pack–it tilted and fell like a tree, hard, and clanging, the frypan and other jangly stuff that sounded like cans of soup and metal spoons.

She poured the lemonade they’d made from packets of instant and their filtered water into an aluminum cup. The kid drank it straight down. She poured him some more. What a pretty boy, his freckles, his dauntless smile.  “Where’d you come from?” she asked.

“Durango,” he said.  “My parents are staying down there. I hitched a ride, some cowboy.  It’s amazing up here, isn’t it?”  He sat down on the log next to Jen’.  Sighed. The view was tremendous, the craggy outcrops all around them.  He pulled a pennywhistle from his pack, played a lively tune.

“Wasn’t there anything you left at home?” Dan said from his side. He was rolling a joint. “What else you got in there, golf clubs?  A surfboard?”

Jen smiled awkwardly. What was it to Dan what the boy was carrying? He was always so mean to people who did things differently.  Or was it was the boy’s happiness he envied?

The kid toed his orange monstrosity. “Yeah, I guess it’s a little heavy. But I didn’t know what to take so I just threw a few things in.” He was eying the reefer.

Dan finished licking it, lay back on his Therm A Rest, lit up. Dan was one of those people who brought his own bottle to the party and drank from it.  If you went Chinese, he ordered the one thing he wanted, and didn’t share. He didn’t want to try yours, either.

He was at his best when it was just him and Jen, like on this trip. The other Dan, the one who couldn’t stand in line, the one who thought everyone else was a moron… she tended to put that Dan out of her mind. Excuse it.

The kid’s name was Jesse. He’d come up from Austin with his family, who were staying in Durango.  A friendly kid, open-faced, laughed easily. Jen stuck her hand out for the joint. Reluctantly, Dan passed it to her. She handed it to the kid.  That grin.  Sweet. “Thanks, man.”

She took a good hit on it before passing it back to Dan.

“So where you trying to get to?” Dan asked, begrudgingly entering the conversation.

Jesse shrugged, hitched his aching shoulder under the green t-shirt that said There is no Planet B. “Nowhere in particular. Just checkin’ it out.”

Dan snorted. “Do you have a map?”

Jesse said, “No, just thought I’d follow this trail, find somewhere to sleep, rinse and repeat.”

“No map?” Dan said. “You’re up in the Rocky Mountains and you have no map.”

Jen felt sorry for the kid. She was used to Dan and his mockery of what he felt was the idiocy of others.  It wasn’t so different than other guys at school.  But now, she was embarrassed.   “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Jen said, patting the kid’s sweaty shoulder.

“It’s how people die up here. They bring the shower curtain and the barbeque but no map.”

“I’m not going to die, dude.  It’s not that big a deal.  I’m going to go up that trail, and I’ll come down the same way.”  He stood up and dusted his hands on his shorts.  “Look, thanks for the bud. You guys have a good one.”

Jen wished he’d stay and play his little pennywhistle.  Have dinner with them.  She liked his attitude, his fresh, open smile. She envied his way of meeting the world, even if it was a bit haphazard. Even if that pack probably weighed 100 pounds. It didn’t bother him, he wasn’t complaining.  Jen helped him on with it.

“Get tired of Mr. Sunshine there, I’ll be right up the trail,” he whispered under his breath.

She laughed, and watched him climb up the trail, the afternoon light catching the red in his hair, the ridiculous frying pan hanging off the back of his pack like a manhole cover. The sound of an Irish pennywhistle filled the cooling air.

“Probably won’t even hang his food tonight,” Dan said.  “The bears’ll get his stuff and he’ll be one hungry puppy.”  He seemed to savor the thought.

But Jen didn’t think the bears would get his food. And even if they did, Jesse probably wouldn’t mind.  He’d be hungry, but he’d get down the mountain somehow. She’d give him half of hers.  In any case, she bet that even bears wouldn’t dent the boy’s good humor.

She lay on her log, listening to the light sound of the pennywhistle echoing off the mountain peaks, getting fainter and further away.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: FOIL

Italian Movie

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , , , on 12/10/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: SLIP

A youngish man with graying hair stands on the sidewalk of the elegant Via Ariosto, looking up. Across the street, an older woman follows his gaze, up the building’s third story to where a young woman stands on a balcony in her slip. A young brunette woman in a white slip, tall shutters half-open behind her.

Milan, summer, twilight.

Leaning over the art nouveau railing, lush dark hair full over her shoulders, the young woman drops a white handkerchief–no, something wrapped in a handkerchief–to the man looking up. He misses the toss. Leans over and picks the package up.

It is an Italian movie. A key. Dropped from the third story balcony to the lover below.

What she remembers are those slender arms, the flutter and flash of a white handkerchief, the white slip, the glossy brown hair, the smile, and how the youngish man unwraps the handkerchief, climbs the steps, lets himself in with the tossed key.

Now the older woman stands alone on the Via Ariosto. The youngish man with the graying hair is gone. The slender-armed, graceful, barefoot woman on the balcony, the woman in the slip, has disappeared inside the half-shuttered room.

The other woman feels it, a deep ache. That she would never drop a key in a handkerchief from an elegant balcony before shuttered doors, wearing a white slip, for a handsome graying youngish man, in a midsummer twilight on an elegant Milanese road.

She’d just come back from the leafy corner café, where she drank a vino bianco alone under the trees–elms? Her divorce already cold. She is 56 years old, and she would never stand on a balcony in a white slip… god, they’d call out the Carabinieri! Her ashbrown hair streaked with gray would make no appealing picture, her plump bare arms tossing a key–to no one.

And yet, the beauty of this movie is unmistakable, heartpiercing in the twilight. She is slightly drunk. The fierce heat has ebbed to sensuous luminous blue. A man stands on the curb reading a newspaper lying in the street. His hands remain in his pockets, he has no intention of picking it up. An older man, older than her.

It is too early to return to the hotel. She strolls along the leafy street, remembering the loveliness of the woman on the balcony. Wondering, did loveliness need to be one’s own to give one happiness?

And what if she were the woman on the balcony? That Giulietta or Giovanna. Would she even know how beautiful she was? No. Truly, she would not.  She would be thinking of her lover, of their evening ahead, the salad she would make, a light salad on a night like this. But not the beauty of this moment.

It’s all merged into one single thing–the woman, the man, the twilight, the street. How evanescent–life, beauty. But this, this is hers alone, this moment–she, with the eyes of a traveler, she is the one who caught the key more surely than the graying youngish man.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: PAN

 

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