Archive for the The Word: Stories Category

Boris and Alexandra

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 10/12/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: WEED

The taxi pulled over in front of the house in the hazy light of late afternoon.  Weeds crowded the planters. Alexandra pulled her suitcase out of the trunk, the taxi driver didn’t even get out to help her.  What had happened to her yard? Her house-sitter, Don, was supposed to pay the gardener. She lugged her bag up the front stairs, let herself in the front door, usually the best part of any business trip.The house was silent. That closed-in smell—all the plants were dead.  “Hello? Don?” And where was the cat? “Boris?” No familiar gray tabby, no meow. Where was the damn cat?  Where was Don? Had he taken the cat to the vet? She ran to the cat box by the back door. Clean.

There, on the dusty dining room table, a note on yellow foolscap.  Sorry Alex sweetie, had to leave. Last minute job in Martinique, I couldn’t find anybody to cover, but can’t miss this opportunity. Boris’ll be okay, I left plenty food for him out on the patio. SORRYsorrysorry. D.

How long had been gone, a week? Two? He didn’t date the note but by the look of those weeds… She hadn’t hired a fucking housesitter so he could leave a week’s worth of food for her cat and piss off to Martinique! She run outside. “Boris!  Boris!” Trying for the top of her range, super-soprano. “Here kitty! Kitty… Boris!”  The hillside was full of weeds, the steps clotted with leaves. There was Boris’s bowl, out on the back terrace, and a cereal bowl beside it.  Both empty.

“Borya!  Kotik!”  She climbed up to the very top of the yard in her heels, looked up the slope, across the chain link. “Here kitty kitty kitty…”

He was gone. Damn Don to everlasting actor hell.  Coyotes walked boldly down the center of the street up here, she saw them all the time, on towards twilight. People regularly found the dens full of dog and cat collars.  Sobs caught her by the throat. Don was on some white beach in Martinique and her cat was dead.  She lowered herself into a patio chair. It was hard to breathe.   A lizard ran out from the rocks, rustled in the fallen leaves.

It had been a crappy trip too, an endless series of trade shows, Florida, Atlanta, Austin, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, St. Louis.  All she wanted was to get home, pour herself a glass of wine and see her cat.  She started to cry. Borya. She’d found him as a kitten by the dumpsters outside her dorm at Cal. She’d had him through both of her marriages.  Fucking Don.  She hoped he drowned. She hoped he was eaten by a great white shark. Actors, they were always available, but anything free that came up, they were gone like greased shit. “Borya!”

She was weeping now, great racking sobs.  She never should have gone on this trip. She never should have taken this fucking job, come to this horrible city, she should have stayed at Cal, she could have had a nice job in Slavic languages, she’d be a professor by now.  “Borya!”

Weeds everywhere.  She grabbed a handful and yanked them from the roots, threw them into the bushes.  Why didn’t she have any friends who would feed her cat? She worked too hard, she traveled too much.  She didn’t have anyone.  There was just Susie, the marketing girl at the McLelland Group. Her mother, in Florida. Representative Flores who kept calling to make sure she’d vote in November.  “Borya!” she screamed.

“Hey!” A disembodied voice called out to her from the south side of the massive bougainvillea growing over the wood fence.  “Looking for your cat?”

“Yes!” she called back. “Yes, the gray one! A big gray tabby. “Have you seen him?  I was away, my housesitter left.”

The voice called back. “We’ve been feeding him. He seemed pretty hungry.” One of her neighbors, The Kids, there was a whole house of them. Early twenties, dyed hair, noisy parties.

But they were feeding Borya!  He was alive. “Oh, thank God. Thank God!” She swiped at the tears staining her face. “When did you see him?”

“Come around to the front, okay? It’s weird talking to a bush.”

She ran down, slipping on the dead leaves, past the empty cat bowls through her empty house and out, down to the house next door, up their front steps. She had never climbed their steps, had never met any of these kids. Had only gritted her teeth at the cigarette butts The Kids threw out on the driveway from the front balcony, the drumming in the garage.

A boy about twenty-one years old waited on the front porch. He wore a plaid shirt, a full beard. He smelled like pot.  “I’m Sam.” She shook his hand. Sam.  They had names. Up to now, she had only thought how noisy they were.  “Come on in.”

A plaid couch. An enormous TV. Electric guitars.  Magazines, plates and the bong on the table. “Want a beer?”

She was going to refuse, but really, she could use a beer.  She followed him into a dirty kitchen, he found two cans in a magnet-laden old fridge.  Pabst Blue Ribbon. She imagined it was supposed to be was ironic.    “About Boris…”

The boy grinned, hopeend his can of beer with a noisy spurt.   “We call him Maxicat. ‘Cause he’s so big. ” He drank, wiped his moustache on his hand..

They sat in the living room on the plaid couch.   “He comes around all the time.  He likes Friday, that’s Devin’s cat.  She’s his girlfriend.” A shiny black cat with white feet and chest and white whiskers lay cleaning herself on the armchair across from them. Boris’s girlfriend.  She had never seen another cat in the yard. But then again, she was gone most of the time.  She wiped her tears, sipped her metallic-tasting Pabst. Her cat had a girlfriend. He had another name, and a girlfriend.  She suddenly felt very out of place, in her suit, her nude nylons, her high heels, she seemed so uptight–even to herself. Her cat had a girlfriend, and she had what? A rolling suitcase, a houseful of dead plants and half a million frequent flier miles.  She started to cry again.  “Sorry, sorry, I’ve just had him forever.”

“No worries, he’s your cat, man. He’s a great guy.” Sam. All this time, she had never said so much as hello to any of them. He really was a very nice boy.

That’s when she heard the clattering in the kitchen. A girl with blue streaks in her dark hair, ironic hornrimmed glasses.  “That’s Devin. This is Alexandra, she’s Maxicat’s mom.”

“Hey,” the girl said. “We’re just going to have dinner. Tacos, want to stay?”

Suddenly, she realized she was imposing.  Coming at dinnertime.  She stood, straightening her skirt.  “I should be going.”

“No, stay,” Sam protested. “Maxicat’ll show up at dinnertime,  he always does.”

“You’re very kind,” she said, imagining what they thought of her in her suit, her nylons.  Don’t impose on people, her mother used to say. She always pictured people secretly rolling their eyes and wishing she would leave.  “I just got back, I should unpack.” She wrote down her number and handed it to the boy, asked him to call her when the cat reappeared.

She returned to her own quiet, empty house. Dust all over the glass table.  The wilted orchids. The unopened mail heaped on the kitchen counter. More in the mailbox. Junk mail. Bills. Hot and cold running crap. Even Borya had a girlfriend. and she had ATT, Sprint, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. She picked up the phone, listened to the beep of the voicemail tone, entered the codes. Susie from McLelland Group.  Cal Builders. Someone from her alumni association. Peace Action.   Lexus, time for the 30,000 mile service. Her mother launching into a longwinded message about her neighbors at the condo complex putting their trash in her cans.

Alexandra hung up before it was done. So much wine in that wine rack. She pulled out a Cab, Chateauneuf 2001, a better wine than The Kids had probably ever seen in their lives, and marched it next door, knocking lightly on the wood underneath the ugly bubbled glass.

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: CAPE

The Plant Guy

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 10/05/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Prod

Denise didn’t want to prod him.  Tully was sensitive.  He meditated on the plants. He had ideas. He had opinions.  He let weeds grow because he said they were herbs, some herb they used in Guatamalan cooking, mora.  Tully was not not Guatamalan, nor was Denise. But Sonya, her housekeeper, took some of it home for a soup her mother liked to make. Sonya’s mother could have made enough soup to feed the entire Guatamalan population of Los Angeles from the weeds Tull left to grow in Denise’s yard.

Now it was fall and they were shriveled and covered with black berries he said the birds liked. There weren’t enough birds in all of Los Angeles to eat those berries.  She sat in her yard, trying not to think that it looked  like a vacant lot. Her orange cat moved in and out from between the plants.

Tully had been meditating on what they would plant when the rains came in the fall–the planting season in Southern California. He had left her a list of native plants he felt would be happy on her hillside.

She didn’t want to be non-PC. She was an old hippie herself. She used recyclable bags. She wouldn’t spray during that horrible flea infestation this summer, because birds would eat the bugs and be poisoned. There were many things she did for the environment. But secretly, she hated native plants. To her, they always looked like weeds. They grew long and leggy and dried out. They attracted clouds of bees, though she knew we had to support bees, that bees were our friends and under threat these days, hive collapse and so on, but really, she was terrified of bees, and the merry sound of their buzzing made her feel, not happy, not joyous at the burgeoning of life around her, but terrified and reluctant to go outside.

Tully meditated on her garden. He had a gentle touch, he was intelligent and quirky and maybe a little odd, yes, but she liked hiring someone who would meditate on the plants instead of the regular mow and blow guys, the plant-killers she used to use once a year for brush clearance.  She was no gardener.  Tully had pruned her straggly jacaranda for the first time in its 20 years, and now it was growing beautifully, all the dead wood gone, the lopsidedness history.  She liked working with him. She liked him. He reminded her of boys she knew when she was young.  He was idealistic, wacky, he wore a silk flower upright in his straw hat. She sighed and looked at the native plant list again. ‘Bee’s bliss’, buckwheat.

It was hard to find a real plant guy in LA.  She just wanted the plain old-fashioned plants that everybody had. Geraniums and plumbago, agapanthus and jade, lantana. Easy, green, flowering, hardy, attractive. But Tull had an artist’s soul, and if you wanted a creative person, an imaginative person, you had to take the whole package. You had to accept his philosophy, let him work with materials he believed in. If you wanted a guy to do more than kill everything, someone who would prune and nurture and meditate, you were going to end up with leggy Mexican herbs with black berries growing up around the succulents.  Basta.

But how to suggest something more prosaic, how to collaborate…It was a delicate operation. The last time, when he’d overpruned something and she’d pointed it out, he’d disappeared for a month. He wasn’t just a tool, he was sensitive, he cared.

 She was up on the patio when he appeared–clambering up the side of the house in his crazy hat with its Dr. Seuss flower.  “Hey Denise, did you have a chance to look at that list I left?”

“I did,” she said.  The but hovered on her tongue.  She saw the love in his eyes, not for her, but for being understood, for being appreciated, from his mora to his straw hat and the flower stuck in it, his crazy truck with the luscious fruits painted on it. Don’t be one of them, they begged.  Just another imaginationless homeowner who wants everything weedless and non-native and impersonal as a business park, tended by people who cared as little for the plantings as a kid working at a Burger King cared about the goodness of the patties. He cared so much.  He loved that mora. He loved seeing things grow, flourish, surprising even him.

She smiled. “Some of them look amazing.”

He beamed, the flower trembled.

She just hoped whatever he planted would go with those weeds. Maybe she would learn how to make that soup herself.  Because she knew she would always choose love over indifference.  Even if there were weeds involved.

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: (if you can believe it) WEED


The Horror, the Horror

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 09/08/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: BITE

Dmitri sat on Vermont watching the traffic, a bistro in Los Feliz, noisy, nursing his cold Chardonnay. A warm summer night, tables under the awning. Dmitri was lonely.  He had lived in Los Angeles for three years now and still had not become used to it. Everywhere these flawless girls. Their gleaming hair, their perfect American teeth. Like picket fences, glowing.

Whatever happened to regular teeth, he wondered? Who had a sexy overbite now? Gloria Grahame’s winsome grin—nowhere. Gene Tierney’s sultry imperfection. He missed Russia. American girls all looked like Julia Roberts—with those terrifying American smiles. Teeth all in front, lined up like boxes on a supermarket shelf. Horrible. Even his waitress had it, that smile like an ID badge flashed at a door. A mockery of the real thing– they couldn’t always be so happy, could they? It was more like a dogs baring its teeth before it bit you.

When he first arrived in California, he kept thinking that these smiling people were getting ready to sell him something. They seemed carnivorous. It put him on edge. He could be anybody, Jack the Ripper, Ivan the Terrible, but still, they smiled. Perhaps it was the fault of beauty pageants, or the pom pom girls who smiled and kicked at sporting events. Wasn’t the liberated woman supposed to have done away with all that? He thought of his students at the USC. Selling happiness and invulnerability.

His wife had a sexy overbite. But she’d divorced him in favor of Gazprom apparatchik with a Mercedes Benz. And he’d moved to America, to teach literature across this wide country from Smith College, Massachussetts, to Arizona State. Now, the USC.

Cars rumbled by. The waitress bumped his table carrying an armload of food, spilling his water.  A group of miniskirted girls descended upon a nearby table, like seagulls upon an abandoned sandwich. Hahaha, their overloud laughter, their big straight teeth.

But then he saw her. The girl. Long neck and doe eyes, striped top, long straight hair cut in bangs across her forehead. And there it was! Winking at him. One tooth slightly ahead of the others, like they were pushing their way through a door. She covered her mouth with one hand.

How had this girl escaped the unifying rule of American perfection? Her nose was long. She had to be European, Spanish maybe, or French. An exchange student? Oh please, look my way Mirasol, Gabrielle.  They’re nothing to me. It’s you I want, you… The other girls, conventionally pretty, glanced slyly at him, used to being the target of admiration, but his was only for the girl with the overbite. She caught his gaze, startled. Her big eyes, glanced away. Covering her mouth. She thought she was less pretty, but that vulnerability was what made her human, and he craved her humanity.

In films the big shot sent over a bottle of wine.  He had never done this, but he found one he could afford, $35. He didn’t even know if it would work.  He called the waitress, Lindsay–they announced their names here, like lords and ladies at a ball.  “Give the to the girl with the brown hair,” he instructed.  The one with the overbite… but he didn’t dare say it.

Their wine duly delivered, he smiled, hopeful. The girls giggled—how he missed Russian girls and their air of mystery–and there it was again, her tantalizing smile. More, his heart cried, more… She stopped the waitress and wrote something on a piece of paper, desire filled him, he yearned toward her like a plant to light. Then, embarrassed, he rested his gaze on the twinkling lights in the trees across the street. Lindsay brought the note to him. Thanx, but u r 2 old 4 me.

 He made no gesture that would give his sadness away, drank the rest of his wine. His hand barely trembled. He was 38. Women found him attractive. His students even–though he’d taken any number of two-hour instructor’s courses on-line, which explained very carefully that he must not date his students, must not even speak to them. Now this. This girl. 2 4.  Thanx. She could not even write in her own language. They were laughing at him. In his old-world jacket, his old-world face.

Yes, he was too old for her. He was too old for all of this. Desire, yearning, America, everything. He should go home, get a job in a factory, or clean the streets. He called for his bill.  He was privileged to see that smile one more time before he left.  Laughing– at him.  $35 for that laugh.  Why did it pain him so? Did he feel that because she was flawed in that slight way that she would appreciate his attention more? That she should be grateful? He was a fool. 38 and still an idiot.

He walked away like leaf blown by the cars’ hot rushing.  “Hey!” A girl’s voice called out to him.  He turned. Had she perhaps reconsidered? But no, it was only Lindsay. “Hey mister, you forgot your bag.” He had forgotten his old-man’s briefcase, with the student papers he still had to grade.  She’d run to catch up with him.

“Thank you. You’re very kind.” He took his bag from her, ashamed she had seen him so disregarded, so humiliated.

And she smiled. Her big white teeth. “No worries,” she said. No worries. Thanx. 2 4. Yet she was kind. And really, the teeth, they were not so horrible as that.

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: PROD



Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 03/22/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: FLOWER

Susie sat on the floor to arrange the flowers. Her mother heard her better when she was low and in front. People always loomed so over her shrunken form.  Susie examined the materials that had composed a mixed bouquet from Gelson’s–various shades of orange.  She’d hoped her mother would like them. Her mother liked orange. When Susie was a child, the largest room of the house, the playroom, had been painted a violent tangerine.  The starburst saffron gerbera, she decided, would be the focus, and the tallest of the eucalyptus spikes would be the center.

Music filled the air, a Mozart string quintet, with two violas.  Her mother loved music, but had forgotten how to manage the radio.

The rose blended  with the spicy scent of carnations and the green of chrysanthemum, the resinous eucalyptus. “How are things going, Mom? Making friends?”   Susie always waited to arrange the flowers until she’d arrived in her mother’s room, so she’d have something to do with her hands while she tried to make conversation.

“Some and some,” her mother said.  “In any place, there’s all kinds.”

Her mother looked good, sitting in her peach wing chair from the old house.  Better than she had any right to. Her thick hair,  gone perfectly white, looked just as good as it had in its former state–expensively blonde  and carefully layered. She was nicely dressed in black and gray, modern. Susie had managed to leave the pastel track suit behind.

“Bill’s in Boston, for his son’s graduation,” Susie said from the floor, enunciating clearly. “Sean’s  getting his Masters, in education.”  Snipping the stems of the button chrysanthemums.

“He speaks very good Spanish,” her mother said.  “He can talk to the people here, tell them what I want.”

“That’s Noah,” said Susie.  Her brother. “Bill’s my husband. Remember, he plays the guitar for you.”

“I know,” said her mother.

She measured the gerbera’s long stem against the vase, judging the best height for it, recalling the basics from her ikebana class with ancient Mrs. Morita at LACC. How she’d struggled with her pathetic two flowers and little branches of foliage. But she learned.  The idea was to create the shape of  a large dome using just a few sprigs of greenery, a couple of flowers, a branch.  Ikebana was about making the most impact with the least materials, a true arte povera.  Before taking the  class, she would never have thought to cut a large bloom short. Now she clipped the gerbera low, and let it come forward as the focus. “Pretty?” she asked.

But when she looked up, she saw that her mother’s gaze was trained on the swaying cypress across the street.

“I love that view,” Susie said. The light through the jacaranda, the breeze in its feathery fronds.

“Have you been here before?” her mother asked.

Susie held her breath,  felt the zing!  in her lungs.  She had built that chest of drawers herself, an assemble-at-your-own-risk kit from Crate and Barrel. The nightstand too.  She’d assembled each of the room’s four lamps—two hanging Craftsman fixtures on either side of the bed, a magnifying lamp and the corner’s torchiere.  She’d built the ikea worktable.. She’d selected every garment in the closet, put away every sweater and scarf, arranged tchotchkes and shelved the books, hung every painting.

She picked a sprig of carnation and snipped it, trying to keep her voice level. “Yes, I have.  Many times.”

The question was, why did she do this? Why keep visiting someone who had no idea who she was, and didn’t really care?

Her mother liked the new place all right, had made friends, knew where she liked to sit for meals—the round table by the window—Susie was happy for that.  But the flip side was—her mother’s  indifference. Her own mother treated her exactly as she would  a presentable stranger. Cordial but distant.

Why did she come at all?

The old woman gazed out the window at the afternoon sun filtering through the jacaranda, listening to Mozart. They had chosen this room because of the view, the trees, the hillside, the green wall and the Spanish apartment and even the traffic’s steady hum.  Now she was content.

It  beat the hell out of how she’d been–desperate, anxious, calling a million times a day,  Everything an emergency. It wasn’t long ago that Susie took off work to bring her mother to the doctor when she was panicking, my throat’s closing up! And when she got there, her mother told the doctor her foot hurt.

But now those calls had ceased, and in addition to the sheer giddy relief she had expected to feel, came a shock and a sadness she hadn’t anticipated. Although she didn’t miss the constant need, the complaining and demands, it had always been accompanied with love and tenderness. ‘I don’t know what I would do without you,’ her mother used to say. ‘You’ve really changed a lot.’ (From the sullen teenager she’d been, about forty years ago!)

But now that was over.   And this was what was left.

And she came because she wanted whatever was left, she would make do with that–the way you inhaled the last fragrance of a summer rose.

She picked up the arrangement in its vase, and positioned it on the side table. It was beautiful, airy and striking, a real painting. Her mother would enjoy it, even if she didn’t remember who had made it.

Well, she’d certainly got the most of that small bouquet. Filled space with the modest materials at hand. She kissed her mother goodbye,  hugged her, feeling the sharp fragile bones of her shoulders.  “I’ll come back on Sunday.”

She left the radio playing, they could turn it off when they took her mother to dinner.  The old lady sat with her eyes on the trees, listening.  At least she had not forgotten Mozart.

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: BITE



Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 01/30/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word–FOLD

Annie and Cliff strolled around the reservoir as they did most evenings, when the sun tinted the landscape into Maxfield Parrish golds and pinks and blues, watching herons fly crookednecked to their nests up in the massive eucalyptuses. They didn’t saying much, just held hands, heading for their usual ending spot–the long oak bar of the Firehouse.

Cliff’s hand felt good in hers.  Solid, capable, warm. He’d been there through all of it—the professional struggles, mumps and measles, cooperative nursery school, the cancer scare. All those trips, the college applications. Now Nora was out in the world, and Cliff was thinking of retiring from the firm.  He played scenarios back and forth, what if he did, what if he didn’t. Annie, a painter, had no idea.  Painters didn’t retire—they just painted bigger, or switched media– turned to lithography, or woodcuts.  Or even started writing. These were the best years, Nora in college, then law school, now she was working in DC, good and launched. Annie’s empty nest syndrome had lasted all of a week and a half. Working, no meals to cook, no particular time to get up or go to bed, no one to worry about but the two of them.

Then, her mother began to fail. “She’s sure they’re bugging her room, writing down everything she says. She went on and on about it.” Annie stepped aside for a young runner with three dogs of wildly varying size trailing him on leashes, tongues hanging out.  “I finally lost it and started screaming at her– Why would anybody be interested in what you say? Are you working for the CIA? Are you on the House Armed Services Committee? Turns out she thinks its me, they funnel it all directly to me. Like I’m dying to know what she does every moment.”

Cliff just kept walking, he didn’t get involved, knew she just needed to complain, like a deeper form of breathing, with him she could exhale, finally. She and her mother had never gotten along, but Annie was an only child, so there was no choice, there was no one else.  She often felt like a diver who gotten tangled in the kelp, she was beginning to panic, she had to find her knife, and cut herself free.  “Let’s run away,” she said.

“Let’s go to England,” Cliff said. “Some little spot without phone service. A country pub that smells like people’s wet dogs, with plaid carpet and old men playing darts.”

She took his arm.  “It’s horrible to see her, folding up like a piece of paper. You can watch it happening. And somehow I feel like it’s me, that I’m doing it somehow, sucking the life out of her.  Like I’ve defeated her in some way.” Annie always remembered the myth about the man who asked for eternal life, but forgot to ask for eternal youth.  He turned into a cricket.  Soon she’d be able to put her mother in her pocket.

“You didn’t do it,” Cliff said.  “You just came on the conveyor belt later. It’s the  way it’s set up.”

She exhaled, and grabbed the chain link, gazed out at the row of seagulls which had settled on a line of buoys.  “It doesn’t feel good. I wear the things she gives me, but it feels wrong.  I wore her gold watch today, thinking she’d like to see me in it—but I’d felt like I’d stolen it.”

He rested his arm lightly on her shoulder, pressed his cheek to her hair. “She knows you didn’t steal it.”

“No, but I feel it. Existentially.”

Cliff’s parents had died years ago, his mother of cancer at 45, his father of emphysema– years ago.  Her own father’d had a heart attack in the parking lot at his bank.  Neither of them had ever deal with this, the awful and indisputable reality of advanced old age.

And now they were headed that way themselves. Almost sixty.  The end of middle age. Though Annie’s friends were always saying sixty was the new forty, that was just whistling in the dark. She had taken to examining people in movie theaters and malls and restaurants, the people on this very path, and it was very clear, she was older than most people in the world now.  Older than the newcasters, and the actors on TV, the guys from AT&T. The waiters and bartenders and the President of the United States. She was not middle aged.

Yes, she could still do a three mile walk, including hills, but she looked different than she did at 50. Her hair was gray. She wore glasses all the time, it wasn’t even worth the trouble of taking them off. She wore hats. She avoided heels. She woke at four in the morning more nights than not.  Her body had developed afflictions she’d even had time to get used to—her hands, left hip, the top of the left foot. She’d lost a tooth.  Really, she had more in common with the geezers in the dining hall at Toby’s than with this couple pushing their big-wheeled stroller around the gold-kissed blue of the reservoir this evening.  It was just so sad.

“When we’re that age, let’s smoke pot every day,” she said. “And listen to Led Zep at full volume, and live in a yurt.”

“Sure,” Cliff said, putting his arm around her waist. She was trembling, though the evening was soft and warm. “I’ll be the sane one, and you’ll be mobile, and you’ll push my chair and I’ll tell you who everybody is.”

“And we’ll smoke spliffs big as baseball bats, and sit outside and look at all the birds.”

“In England. With a wet dog.”

The gold of the day had faded to indigo by the time they reached the Firehouse. They settled onto their barstools, hooked their feet over the rail, and whether or not they were the oldest people in the place, their martinis were good and strong– his with olives, hers with a twist– and they toasted the wet dog they would own, and the crickets they would–with luck–become, and hide in each other’s pockets.

One of a 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: FLOWER



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