Being “Freshly Pressed” and Lifeblood of the Pen

This week my email contained a message from WordPress.com. It noted I had been “Freshly Pressed”. There was a moment of confusion as the editor that informed me was Cheri Lucas Rowlands, whose blog I appreciate and follow. I thought, how wonderful that she is communicating via email, and promptly re-read it. Ah, “Featured by Freshly Pressed”, those writings I so enjoy sampling and savoring! Chosen was the story “Pastime”, one written just this week when I felt uncertain about a much longer short story being revised for possible submission to a literary magazine. It was one item on my daily writing schedule. And it brought this great surprise! Far better than flowers at the door.

I had been working hard. I hadn’t yet pinpointed a good market for the 5000 word “Jasper and a Night of Thievery.”  I was puzzling over its subject matter, if a punch line near the end was too real for some. Meaning, a sock-to-the-stomach sort of reality ensconced inside gentle opening pages with swift bits of suspense. Then wham! The tough stuff. My career and life have perhaps unfolded like that too often. A challenge for me as a writer is to clarify the truth within a sturdy structure that is upheld by compassion, empathy and respect for our human journey. I also encourage the Divine to come forward in my characters. Truth-telling in writing has been something I can lose sleep over; my hopes and the mysterious writer’s way don’t always align powerfully or even well.

So I engage in many kinds of writing, creating pieces that are less perplexing, at times more uplifting. Briefer and perhaps occasionally even a lark. It all matters. They are gratifying to give shape and heft to, good tasks to support the greater body of work. And I write these without any fear, as opposed to longer fiction and non-fiction or poems that weave their way in and out of my psyche. Or sometimes harrass me until I relent. For reasons unknown to me, I can sit at a keyboard and words are freed as though water from a faucet. The immediacy of this writing on impulse thrills me. I just need to give it all permission to unfurl. It pulls me along until the period at the end, then fix a few things and head down again, nose to grindstone.

So being “Featured on Freshly Pressed” is a lovely honor. I am happy and grateful as I write this. “Pastime” was one of those brief stories that came quickly in entirety and gave me pleasure to share. This particular photo from the fifties came from a writer’s blog that I admire, Patricia Ann McNair’s as she offers daily writing prompts. I utilize my own photos as well as public domain art and photos.

Due to this blog I write a larger volume of pieces and my skills improve in the process. I am satisfied more often because I have the Tales for Life blog to supply. When I started this I was a neophyte in the blogosphere. It was a motivating force at a time I was lagging in many aspects of my life. It has become another potent avenue of creativity. A way to cull and offer what matters most to me as a writer-person as well as avail myself of other bloggers’ brave, beautiful and funny words. We are connected by an adoration of language, wherever we live or whatever we aspire to with our work. I am nourished by life–people and nature, God and my own tender, temperamental muse.

So here we are, each of us writing, making known our minds and hearts. What a way to live, make use of our time! It’s an endeavor of blessings. Thanks again, WordPress, for choosing my small story. And readers, I am profoundly loyal to the world of art-making–and so glad to have your company to keep along the way. Take your own risks. Speak your truth and I’ll keep speaking mine and so we keep the lifeblood of the pen (and laptop) astir.

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Pastime

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You would not believe the shock I felt when I passed by the gallery that winter during my lunch hour. I recognized his name right off. I pushed the door open and took it all in, wondering if it was true.

When we first met Sully was camping next to us, his tent sagging in the middle, his kerosene lamp throwing off a weak light. He was rooting around for something, I couldn’t tell what since he was half-in and half-out of his tent. Maybe that’s why it was about to cave in.

I walked over, licking my fingers clean after enjoying BBQ chicken legs I’d made for me and my two boys. He stuck his head out and looked at me, then the tent collapsed. I stood with hands on hips and watched it fall in on him, nothing more to do but see if he could put it back up right. I found it funny, I admit. He fixed it okay and held out his right hand while his left grasped a camera. The suit coat he had on was as out-of-place as a peacock feathered hat would be for me. There were dirt, bugs and trees out here, not an office complex.

“Sullivan Chambers, Sully for short,” he said with a cheerful smile and nod of his well-shaped head. “I guess you see I’m new at this. Just pulled in a few hours ago. You?”

I wiped my hands on my apron. I hadn’t changed since leaving the city that morning and was a mess. I must have looked strange to him, too. “No, we’re used to it. This is how Tim and Jude and I spend our summers when we can get away. Oh, right, name’s Evie Windham.” I glanced back at the boys who were eyeing this stranger who was chatting me up. “Want to join in a cup of coffee? And a chicken leg?”

Sully did, so we sat on the camp stools while Tim and Jude introduced themselves. After fifteen minutes of chitchat, they were satisfied the man wasn’t a creeper or crook so took off for the river. I waved them off. I had lots of witnesses around. The boys were meeting other teen-aged kids for a big bonfire. I could see the riverbank from where we sat and knew they’d be watching us off and on, too.

Sully and I gabbed easily. A shock. I wasn’t fond of suits and slicked back hair. My ex had a closet full of suits and he was bad business. But this guy was a photographer, said it had become more than a hobby, but not quite a full-time profession. He was here to photograph nature all week-end. He’d left from work and driven straight out, a long drive.

“A happy pastime,” I smiled. “We need those, I guess. I like making crafts.”

“We need our hobbies for relaxation but I have a passion for photography. It’s magic, how you can capture or shape a split second of something and —voila–it’s immortal.”

“Never thought of it that way. I always felt pictures were sort of fake. Camera finding the best thing or making them a lot better, then freezing them in time so that nothing more happens. Kinda weird if you think about it.”

Sully frowned a little, swished coffee around once in his mouth before swallowing it. “I see what you mean. But there’s something nice about that, too, sometimes, right? Makes things more important than we usually think they are.”

We had a deep thinker here, for whatever that was worth. He looked good, but then, I was at the point where any clean and courteous man was a treat. Not that I was seriously looking. I was past that point after surviving a divorce. Not many girls could say that in 1958 but I liked being on my own, in a way.

“Maybe so. Yes, sometimes. Like a memory you want to keep perfect. Special.”

“Right. And it’s art.” He looked around at the campground. “So, what are you three doing out here?”

It was more than a small question. It was mini-investigation, like why was I out here without the boys’ father unless he was fishing and oddly okay with me being unaccompanied in the wilds? Except this was a family campground, tents and trailers and lots of nice Airstreams. Electricity. Running water. Who was this guy?

“Easy answer. We spend most of our time here in summer. It’s a nice vacation from my mother’s place. The boys have a dad; he lives in L.A. He prefers palm trees and glamour and such. I manage.”

Sully laughed big and rumbly. “I see, well, you’re one brave lady, Evie. Two teen-aged boys and setting up house in the forest. This is quite a good tent, big. Me, I work at the water works office in Portland. No wife so I travel on my time off. You from there?”

“Have been, will be when summer is over again. Welcome to the camping life.” I felt fidgety and got up, took a stick to the small fire I’d started before he came over, strained to see the boys. They were getting a little rowdy already. There was a frostiness to the air since the sun started hovering closer to the horizon. I let the damp, piney sweetness fill my nose.

Sully settled his camera on its metal legs,  tripod he said, and fiddled with the lens.

“Mind me snapping a few?”

I shrugged, smoothed my unruly waves and half-turned to set more kindling. I placed bigger pieces of wood around the heart of the fire. It took off and our faces glowed a healthy amber. Sully snapped away before I could stop him. It was embarrassing, me in my rumpled old house dress–the one pair of pants I’d packed were no better. After that, we sat and chatted about camping and the seasons, how his summer had slipped by with a few weddings he was hired to do, a few portraits and nature trips like this one. For me it was all about my mother, how she had a house we shared the last couple years but she was fussy and drank cocktails, one too many, every day. The boys and I were between places until I got a better job than selling housewares at a department store. I knew how to type. He nodded either understanding or approval.

We could hear the kids whooping it up, people splashing in the river.  The fires all around us felt so friendly and Sully said as much. He snapped many more pictures but I was tired and yawned a big one despite wanting to be polite. I needed a long shower and my book. Sully stood and stretched, wiped the dust from his shoes.

He smiled as though we had become friends. “I’d better get back to my tent. Got an early day tomorrow, out to the mountain and then around the lakes.” He picked up his camera equipment. “I’m real glad we got to meet and talk. Maybe you could stop by my office on Fifth and Renton sometime. Coffee is good in town, too.”

In the morning he was gone by the time I got up at six. That was it, I thought. Strangers came and went out there. And I knew little about him. Later I thought about Sully sometimes, but more like trying to figure out a puzzle. I didn’t know what to make of the whole night and wondered if he had just made his life up.

So of course I wasn’t ready for what I saw that day at the gallery. The windows were full of his name and his pictures, the mountains, woods and lakes, people playing and working and camping. Then I stopped.

It was me, that’s right, me, standing before the crackling fire, my back to him so I was a graceful outline, then my face smiling at him in dusk, then my narrow hands warmed by a flickering fire. I saw my shoes cast off, dirty and worn at the heels. But the last one was this: me sitting forward, intense, staring off at the river, still as a creature watching and watched, eyes lit by something unknown. I didn’t realize I had such a lonely, serious look. Yet gentleness was there, too. I’d never guess I could be even a little beautiful, resting in the peaceful dusk and twilight. I left the gallery. I’m not looking for him. What he can see scares me, a good scared, but still. It was so much more real than I imagined.

(Photograph courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog/photo writing prompts.)

Known by Creatures We Keep

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I live in a city secretly run by cats and dogs. If I am basking in the sun along the river, nearby there are dogs performing athletic feats as they catch Frisbees in mid-air. Certainly at the parks it is clear we must share and share alike: broad thoroughfares are filled with vocal, leaping, racing canines. Occasionally, a cat on a leash mosies by. When on daily walks in the neighborhood, however, an eclectic array of cats slink across my path with their snaky or fluffy tails swaying, as though sent out to evaluate the rabble on their turf. The dogs are seldom seen outside; they keep guard from the picture windows, but solemnly, as though carrying out orders though they would rather be napping. Now and then they bark like mad. I do feel for them. The cats and I live the good life, indoors and also unleashed (for the most part) in the city wilds.

I faced up to it a long ago when I moved to Portland, Oregon: I may be in the minority here. Felines and canines are just the tip of the heaps and gatherings of animals of all classes that are well-beloved by their human roommates and handlers. I have seen or heard of ferrets and minks, turtles, salamanders and snakes, birds of every feather, fishes from ponds and wild blue seas, exotic animals I can barely identify much less relate to.

One of my friends had pet white rats. Rats! They are the one thing that might induce me to get a weapons–at least a BB gun–permit. The friend and I are still close and it may be partly because the rodents are gone. (One was accidentally crushed beneath her foot in the night; the other, who knows? I know, a terrible fate. To you maybe, not me.) Now I share her car with her dog, Gypsy, who brashly objects to my presence until she recalls she knows me.

All these animals running around in addition to cougars, coyotes, bears, deer, fishes, ample amounts of insects, birds and so on that we see or hear within the city limits. It is the Pacific Northwest, known for dense, pervasive rainforests and mountains (for starters), after all. A  mini-frontier to many, and wild things’ territory.

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I should make it clear: all this observation is not indicative of a lack of interest or fondness of animals, wild or tamed. Not at all. It is true I was raised by parents who held the notion that animals other than human ought to stay outdoors and earn their keep, meaning, participate in field and barnyard types of activities. Provide sustenance to folks as required. Keep watch for trespassers and sound out an alarm. Even if my mother was friendly with some of them, she was dispassionate about their passing. My father knew nothing about domestic animals of any sort, having been raised in town by parents who did not harbor pets. I suspect he thought them a novelty, attractive and capable of good tricks at best, filthy and irksome at worst. He loved aquariums, the best zoos and wildlife seen from a car or train.

When I was growing up, one of my sisters, A., had a number of cats, despite our other sister’s allergies and the parents’ rule of zero animals allowed. Apparently they deemed felines acceptable since they daily roamed outdoors, coming in for dinner and seeking shelter from inclement weather systems. Plus, they cleaned themselves thoroughly and delicately. Even though I was five years younger, I well remember her four-footed friends. They curled up on our beds and gave off rumbling, warm responses when stroked. They played when I was bored. They sneaked around like spies and pounced on their targets with glee, even if it was a wayward dust bunny. I thought them smart and pretty but an aside in my life. For A., my sister, they mean more than I could have imagined until one by one, they died. We lived on a very busy street. The cats did not dodge cars well.  I discovered one, once pure white, bloodied and limp, and it was terrifying. A.’s grief cut through my innocence: so this was loss of what you loved. I felt it yet from the edge of things. These defenseless beings were so easily taken down by the same sleek cars she and I loved to count and identify by year and make from our front porch.

I can’t say any of this encourage me to have pets as an adult. Nonetheless, there have been animals living among my tribe over the years. I can see them run by: Twiggy, a whippet felled by a virus; Max, a huge wooly mutt, given up in a divorce; Buddy, a Brittany Springer Spaniel who eventually zigzagged away, back to the ex-husband’s country acreage only because our son begged. I think he was a hunter’s companion soon after which, I have to admit, is a better destiny than the city life he had lived with a family of seven though he adored playing with us and making us run when he slipped out.

Then there was Miss Mandy.

It was my youngest who saw the “Free Kittens” sign at the curb. I warned myself to not give in. Alexandra found the runt, of course, the one who needed the most love, the petite calico kitten curling up in her arms like adoption was a foregone conclusion. Because it had been a hard year that included a move to a new state, I relented. As we adapted to each other Amanda soon became Miss Mandy. That cat knew what she wanted, demanded it with precision so she was given her way despite misgivings. We should have named her Spitfire or Divine Miss M. I can’t say she was the sort of cat I always looked forward to snuggling at the end of a long work day. Her voice, for one thing: tinny, sometimes a whiny screech, not the voice of a beloved friend. She had claws to match–they would as soon find our flesh as the scarred couch legs.  Miss Mandy was not fully devoted, as sometimes she adored us both, sometimes she found us a nuisance and irritation or one preferable and the other worthless. I had not bothered to research the personality traits of calico cats, but Miss Mandy was certifiably temperamental.

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Of course we kept her. She lived with us for seventeen years, long after Alexandra had left to sample the world’s offerings. For one thing, Miss Mandy was a fair mouser, though she liked to bring them in before harassing them for hours, then grabbing them and taking them back out. Or I had to catch them when she found it tedious. She often offered up a melodious purr, which we all appreciated once she decided our laps were coveted spots. She played, chimed in with cat opinions, lazed in the sunshine like a lady of leisure, and otherwise filled out lives with interesting moments. Not to mention scratches that hurt like crazy. But I was quite allergic to her, discovered too late.

When she finally left us, aged and feeble, Alexandra and I were overcome with sorrow. I was a little surprised. I didn’t fancy myself that sort of pet lover. Yet Miss Mandy had been quite the eccentric family member and would be missed a long while. Even now.

In the end, I do not want another creature living in my home, not today or tomorrow. There was the worry about the traffic and Miss Mandy ending up like the white cat. And I moved from house to apartment. I live a life both active and engaged by many passions (including some travel). I enjoy my spouse and my solitude. I like it this way. And I appreciate all manner of animals in city, forests, high desert, rolling ranch and farm lands, seaside. I extol their virtues, note their peculiarities. It seems their lives are sometimes parallel to ours, different as can be yet often not so far beyond. I marvel at this. I do see and admire you, cat and dog; you see, hear and smell me better, I know.

Meanwhile, my son has raised a German Shepherd-wolf dog. I am fond of his dignified and intelligent ways, his calm protection of my grandchildren. Wolfie’s quiet alertness pulls me closer; he rarely barks or howls. It took some time for him to let me smooth his fine head, hug his thick chest. Now we exchange affection and news. I note how he rests, rises, lopes, circling and shepherding before resting again. He lords over everything without a fuss. Wolfie may frighten some but we find him elegant, gentle, easy. I am very happy to visit him whenever I want. You would agree he is part of the family. But, then, I always wanted a Husky; he’s close enough for now.

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In Good Time

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We had been talking as we walked near the edge of a cliff, catching glimpses of the Columbia River muscling its way through rocky landscape below. It was hotter in the mountains than I’d expected, and there was a steady stripe of sweat from my neck to my waist, a rim of damp on my upper lip and forehead. Carissa seemed cool as can be, walking briskly, her white flats clicking on the asphalt. I couldn’t believe she had worn a dress, a pretty one at that, as though she was attending a garden party. Well, I could believe it. She’d be perfect at a table set for tea and scones. It was just her. I wondered if she had another set of clothing in her trunk for the hike.

I was anxious to get off the walkway and tackle the trail to the waterfalls. We had waited a more than reasonable, red-hot hour. I’d shared my water bottle since she had forgotten hers. Matt and Grant had said they’d join us for a little prayer, a good work-out on the trail and refreshments. I’d packed four peanut butter sandwiches and Fuji apples and was getting hungry already. Carissa had brought trail mix just in case but the chocolate drops had started to melt all over the almonds. Still, it took a strong will to not grab the baggie with the mix from her and scarf down a couple handfuls.

She frowned and wriggled as I swatted a spider from her shoulder.

“I wish I knew why they weren’t here, Margo. I tried hard to accommodate their schedules. I know Matt worked this morning but Grant…well, he always wants to see me.” She turned to me with the smallest smile, like she was embarrassed. “It’s almost a problem.”

I shrugged. “Grant can be a nuisance but he’s okay. I think it’s all that wavy blond hair accented by baby blue eyes. He likes attention and you just give it to him.”

“Well, I didn’t say it was a bad problem. Just an inconvenience at times. But you would think the least he’d do is be here on time.” She looked around. “Just be here with me, us…”

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I sat under an ancient, gargantuan tree and fanned myself with a trail map. After a big gulp of water, I handed it to Carissa but she declined, leaning back on her hands, ankles crossed. Tiny scratches crisscrossed her feet and calves. They looked mean on her ivory skin.

It was Matt, Grant’s twin, I tried not to think about. He was as much like Grant as a plum was like a pickle. Broad of shoulder and big of spirit, he had what my mother called color. Everything he did was either fun or verging on sly. Carissa said he was a scamp. I thought he was a bit like a bee, flitting flower to flower, but hopefully no pollination was going on. That would have disappointed me. But you never knew with Matt what the consequences of his choices would be. It kept it interesting as far as I was concerned.

We had all been schooled in what was important in life, what was right and wrong. Even I didn’t always know what it all meant and my uncle was a minister. If truth be told, I was inclined toward very human thoughts and doings yet I never doubted my security in the good Lord’s arms. Uncle Travis said it best: I had an understanding with God from birth. That meant I felt close to God and tried hard to live up to expectations but I had questions and ideas. If I failed anyone, so be it. God kept the door open from what I could tell. I wasn’t prone to much rugged worry.

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Carissa, though, she had a fear of things, of spiders and eating too much and sneezing loud, or giggling in the middle of church. She feared not getting on the honor roll, wearing one item of clothing twice in the same week. Once she was upset she had left out the butter so it began to liquefy. I didn’t understand it and I had known her most of our lives. Still, she was a good kid. I was older by ten months and bigger so naturally I felt protective.

So when she started to fuss as time hemmed and hawed and stretched into an hour and fifteen minutes but still no boys, I took her cool hands in mine and said, “Look, let’s hit the trail. It’ll be cooler down in the trees and we can sit by the waterfall and eat. They couldn’t make it, I guess. We could try calling them, but…”

“No, let’s go.”

She smoothed back her wispy bangs and lifted her chin. I worried about her flats and told her so but she was unconcerned. We started down the incline gingerly, the gravel rolling off the dirt. I was in front and twice she grabbed me as she slipped. I hesitated. All we needed was an accident, her dress ruined, shins fully bloodied. The path soon leveled off and was beaten hard so we kept on. My t-shirt was soaked in back and my chest felt prickly. A mess is what I was, but the woods were thick with greenness and everything glowed in the afternoon light. The ferns, slugs and mushrooms, the lichen clinging to nurse logs, the breeze sweetening: I was in heaven. I fell into a pleasing rhythm and forgot to watch over Carissa.

It was a good trek into the dappled cool of the forest. As we descended towards the snaky creek and rounded a curve, waterfalls seemingly dropped from the brilliant sky, parting the rocks. They called out to us with happy music. I could see one fall mixing with another and wished I could slide right down them into the sapphire pool below.

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At the bridge I turned to Carissa. She was leaning against the railing, staring into the creek.

“I came here to celebrate another day with the Lord, but nobody’s here…” she said in a near-whisper.

Really, I thought I heard her wrong. I studied her perspiring face, the corners of her downturned mouth, her chest heaving as she tried not to cry. What I saw shook me up.

“What?”

“No one came.”

“I’m here, Carissa. I’m always here, if you think about it.”

She propped her chin in her hands, then squeezed her eyes tight. “Yes, but…”

“And God’s here, right under your nose. ”

“I guess. Yes, of course. Still.”

The water roared like a playful creature. I found I couldn’t hear Carissa anymore. I crossed the bridge, climbed up thirty-two railroad ties with muscles straining so hard I thought I’d have to stop, but didn’t. I had to keep going. Finally I arrived at the top platform overlooking Bridal Veil falls. My heart was banging but I felt strong, good, like I had gained stamina along the way. I stood alone but it didn’t bother me at all. Here was creation and it was amazing to behold. It hit me that I was at home, where I belonged.

When I finally turned to see if Carissa was joining me, I heard my name called. There came Matt running down the trail, just Matt, his hands waving like crazy at me. Carissa stood alone at the bridge, her mouth open, arms wide, palms up as he passed her by. It made me sad to see her there in that pretty aqua dress and dusty flats. But I guess the right time is when things happen of their own accord. That’s how God sends us a little message. At least, that’s how I see it. Carissa–she’ll find her own faith sooner or later. I’ll likely be around to offer her a hand if she wants it.

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The Book Stall

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It took awhile until Sy Teverstein found a man who could take care of his book stall business every Tuesday. When he did he thought how excellent; he could now visit his frail mother without fretting so much. The guy had been a regular customer over the past year, buying a monthly gardening magazine. Sy thought that odd since it was clear the customer lived in the neighborhood and there was no land for gardening around there. But, hey, it might be the window box sort that he enjoyed looking at, or maybe there was a rooftop the man had the privilege of filling with a square of plantings. It could be a whole vegetable garden feeding a family of ten for all he knew. He enjoyed speculating.

But Sy knew next to nothing about such things. He was the book seller, had been since his fifty-second birthday which gifted him with a lame ticker. Went from fat cat accountant to skinny book seller with pacemaker. It was a most simple job. The magazines were contracted by an outside publishing service. Books were courtesy of (for a fee plus agreements signed and sealed) a chain bookstore by the river walk. You’d think the store would be grateful for the chance to sell them on the street but they wanted it the other way around. Sy did okay. People liked to buy coffee at next door and then get reading materials. Sy took their money and got to know people. He still liked it at the end of most days.

But about that garden lover. The two of them got friendly over time. His name was divulged some time after Sy’s comment on the cover of his new gardening magazine.

“Nice picture, all those flowers.”

The man openly sniffed the pages and Sy appreciated that: new paper and ink. “Yeah, looks good, don’t it? Wish I had a backyard like that. A big fountain like that would keep me company at night, too, ya know?”

Sy’s eyebrows wiggled up and down. He hadn’t heard that idea before. “I suppose so.”

“I don’t sleep well,” the man said by way of explanation. “Water, it calms.”

“Ah. Me, neither. Wife snores like a banshee. Or a man, take your pick.”

It was the man’s turn to raise eyebrows. “That so? My wife has her own bed. Can’t manage us both. She’s a real good size. I miss her at night… ”

So it went each month, a little of this and that talked over, a few laughs, until in late June Sy stuck out his hand and introduced himself properly.

“Sy Teverstein at your service.”

“Harlan, Harlan Z.”

“That it? Z? Okay, Harlan Z.”

“Well, the Z part is much harder for folks to say. I started to leave it off; it’s worked out fine.”

Sy thought that was an efficient way to handle it. They got to talking about weather, horse races and living close in city center. Harlan was semi-retired, a machinist who was relieved of his job earlier than planned. He was looking for jobs but not much had turned up.

Sy got the idea shortly after. He had to travel a couple hours to and fro to see his mother in the suburbs, one of those decent, bland retirement places. She was heading toward eighty-five at a speed he wasn’t prepared for, at all. In fact, he feared her imminent death. She had been a good mother, not easy but well-meaning, with a flair all her own, not always around. But still. He badly missed her just thinking of her leaving for good.

The problem was that he hated to leave his book stall and he also didn’t like to give up his Sunday afternoons–the one day he had most of the day free since he closed up shop around eleven. So when Harlan seemed like a reliable sort, he approached him with his idea.

“I would just be gone until around two o’clock. I spend the morning and take her to lunch if she can manage. What d’ya say? Or if you want, I’ll give you the whole day. I’ll pay fair. Say, you can count money alright, yes?”

Harlan nodded vigorously and didn’t think twice. The deal was completed with a handshake and a plan for the following week.

It went well despite Sy’s wife berating him for not doing a background check. His mother was visited each Tuesday and he was relived the book stall was manned by a regular sort, a person who liked print and liked working even one day a week. The weeks went by. No one complained. In fact, some of the customers said the change was refreshing and found it commendable he was tending to his ancient mother. Sy thought, who wouldn’t do that if they had any heart at all?

Then one August Wednesday morning, Mr. Calhoon stopped by earlier than usual for his daily newspaper. He seemed in a rush but bent toward Sy with his ice blue, heavy-lidded eyes. A familiar scent of expensive aftershave wafted into Sy’s nose and made his eyes water but he smiled at him, grateful for the routine one buck tip.

“Say, Sylvester, I think there is a problem. Your man, Harlan. He can’t actually read.”

Sy’s shook his head to get it clear of fancy fumes. “What d’ya mean, can’t read? Of course Harlan can read. He loves books and magazines, gets his own here. That’s how we met.”

“So you said. But I’m telling you, you are in error. I asked him for a certain title, if it had come in yet, and he looked and looked. I spotted it near the back and pointed. He still couldn’t find it. I said, ‘The one with the blue and black cover, it will bite you if you get any closer!’ He finally put his hand on it after I described it in detail. I nearly went back there and grabbed it myself.” He opened his hands wide. “He is illiterate.” He folded the paper. “Bad for business.”

“Wait a minute, he just couldn’t find it.” The thought horrified him. Had he been duped? His wife would let him have it for this one.

“Suit yourself, see you tomorrow,” Mr. Calhoon said as he loped away.

Next Tuesday morning Sy stayed back. He decided coming straight to the point was best. He shared the complaint and waited for Harlan to respond with a laugh and good explanation.

Harland half-hung his head. “I read a little. Not so much, really. I never went to school after I left at thirteen. I had to work on the farm. I know a lot about llamas, for one thing. I do my best work with my hands, not my head. But I get by.”

Sy considered the man. Harlan had taken off his cap and held it by the brim. He looked down at the sidewalk, his round face pink with embarrassment.

“But what about the magazines you buy?”

Harlan lit up. “Oh, I love the pictures. They remind me of growing up in the country. We had gardens, not fancy but kitchen gardens. I helped my ma cook for years after my sister died. But flowers, too. I love to look at them. My best memories, if you need to know.”

A customer came up. Afterwards, Harlan asked if Sy was going to see his mother or not.

“Have I lost my job or what?”

Sy wiped his brow. It was blasted hot already. He looked across the street, at kids already running out to enjoy the last days of summer, at a fire hydrant at the park spraying cool water on a stray dog, garbage men doing their work like they did every week. He waved at the woman, Thelma, who always sat on her stoop watching.

“You like it here? Good, I like you being here. I’ll be back by four.”

Harlan watched him go, bald head shining in cheerful morning light. He thought Sy Teverstein was a good and more than fair man. Harlan chatted with a customer, counted the change carefully, then realized bundles of fresh new magazines were due in that afternoon. He looked forward to it.

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(Another good fiction prompt from Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.)