Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Once Abandoned, Always Abandoned?

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Families leave legacies to the next generation, and young children likely have little clue what they will get. I don’t mean material goods–though the getting or not getting of those can pack power, too. I mean emotional goods. I hazard that as a kid, you get what you get, and you don’t truly know that it just is what it is, or perhaps not until much later. We come into the world from a watery womb and then it is a bubble consisting of family first and most of the time…. though by school age the outside world seeps in, anyway. Maybe we make nice friends, meet other adults we like. But home is the seat of our emotions. It steers us in ways we may not be conscious of as we grow up, choosing each tentative step to more independence. And when we take off, fledglings no more, it is a surprise that there often seems to be more of the same, a similar content as we attempted to escape.

So what dos that mean to those who have been abandoned early and perhaps often? I haven’t counselled clients in several years about the emotional minefields which being left behind creates for countless adults. It can brings too often self-loathing and self sabotage; it leads to addictive behaviors; it can lead to death. It is likely too big a topic to try to blog about, but I write of it, anyway. And I have been hearing talk of this topic in a broad way within my circle. A sister not paying attention during a visit. A spouse forgetting an anniversary. A friend moving away and never calling. A parent of someone’s niece getting lost in addiction–again. A partner on the verge of calling it quits. We all have “fear of abandonment” and have tasted the bitter fruit of it.

But many seem to be reviewing relationships more closely–that includes the one with our own selves. The pandemic has presented long hours of solitude, time to look into life with an acute vision, to bring up the past as well as try to imagine a more challenged future. Concerns might arise in roundabout ways as people deal with multiple difficult experiences, are worried about family members or see themselves stuck in an situation not as healthy as they prefer. As they intended and worked towards. They see the connections between years gone by and current times. Often issues they thought had been bypassed/outgrown/resolved are resurfacing during the days and nights of stress. More often than not it comes down to being left in actual fact or feeling as such at a vulnerable time of life. Being set aside by someone who was considered constant and trustworthy yet suddenly was not. Feeling a lone even with others around because somehow the ties began to fray.

It feels like getting punched in the heart. Abandonment. We don’t even care for the word: it echoes with crying out, shakes with anger, tells us we are unloved. It defines an emptied place inside us just as a building fully abandoned telegraphs that reality. It’s a big word, and carries a far more powerful feeling that just “uninhabited or “empty.”

What if a parent left you literally or figuratively when young but it was never discussed, even though that parent was basically around? Or if a parent was there for you–then came a divorce and the family decision was to bar that person from even finding you? (That is a true and terrible story.) Or someone gave you up to foster care because you were so “difficult’ or the caregiver was simply unable to deal with life on life’s terms. These are not minor separations from love, what was perceived and believed as love. It is clear that this sort of loss is a pain with staying power. An agony, even. And that goes for the ones who long ago decided they would be impervious to the gaping internal chasms created by those who might–and do–leave them. Even they cannot fully staunch seepage from the festering wound when it comes down to it.

So, once abandonment has occurred, does one ever get over it? Or is this the theme music by which a person is doomed to work and play and laugh and rage? I believe such woundedness can be healed, and know that it does happen. Maybe not perfectly so, leaving no trace, but enough that life is freer, fuller, even happier.

Those who have read my posts a long while know that as a child I was sexually abused a few years by a non-blood relative. I was blithely living my life until then. Soon, the facts were clear: no one was aware of or paid attention to signs of my increasing distress, no one seemed to care, and there was no rescue or plan of aid.

These things made an indelible impression. What had been a life of security and safety, genuine affection, careful guidance and support were about erased just like that. My mother–a caring mother I adored but who knew nothing of coping with such a thing in the 1950s– strongly suspected but never confronted me or the perpetrator. If the abuse was bad enough, the abandonment was as bad–if not worse. With no swift and loving intervention I was left to survive on my own. And that told me that I was weirdly, shockingly, not loved enough, after all, to be saved from constant fear and danger. I would not be surrounded by love like a fortress. It would have instigated a healing process and initiated legal action–which is becoming more common today, thankfully. But unheard of 65 years ago.

And I paid the price, which included a strong expectation of ever more recurrent abandonment. Who can a child and then youth trust if not her parents and others in the family who were kind, capable and just there? Then just no longer there, so it had to be my fault; it made no sense that wonderful parents and siblings could let this happen. Everything that had been marvelous in my life began to feel bad. I felt marked, changed, wrong and wronged, and uncertain of so many things. I took all that with me as I tried to grow up alright, though deeply unwell. Tried to be a credit to my accomplished and respected family, but often failed badly, filled with more shame. How to overcome and rise up? To suture up those torn places that abandonment had made?

I had, it turned out, some decent tools for a better life already.

The most important thing was that I already had known deeply what it was to be loved, helped, included in a family of seven. I had been taught useful values and skills–how to play well with others and so how to make friends; how to plan, work hard and seek good results; how to use my curiosity to learn interesting things; how to get up when I fell down, clean up the scrapes, try again. How to keep clear focus when everything around me was pandemonium in a small house. So I had a basic sense of competency and self worth despite the harshness of a very different experience.

And I knew how to pray for help and comfort. That was a practical skill that segued with daily words from my father: “Chin up, honey”, i.e., be positive and have dignity, look upward, keep going forward. I could do both by 7 years old. If bad things happened to me, to my family, then I would make more good things happen. Nothing was insurmountable, apparently, according to my parents, and according to Jesus’ teachings. We earthlings were meant to be “greater than angels” I had heard, so the least I could do was be a human being who kept trying for better.

But then I had years of trials and errors, false starts and detours that took me to more harm. Still, giving up was not truly an option. I held onto the conviction that there were more choices available, that I’d recover, learn again to live well. I found many. Others were pointed out to me. Some seemed mysteriously there when I needed them. I was relentless in the search for answers and resources– and discovered I was not alone in my difficulties. And I learned that loving parents can be afraid, too, with too few good answers, and lacking adequate support. That they surely seem omnipotent to a child and youth but are mainly bigger human beings still trying to figure things out. They fail. They have regrets. And still they care as much as they can, in the ways they can.

Forgiveness has been helpful. The kind of forgiveness that doesn’t deny the pain and loss and remnants of anger… yet can arise from a greater compassion for the cruel offender as well as those who did the abandoning (for whatever reasons they had, it begins to matter less and less). But also: forgiveness of myself. For the many times I failed myself along the way, the skewed ideas and senseless decisions, the difficult reactions to others, missed opportunities, a sometimes hardened heart. The failure to love enough, even–my own self and many others. If I don’t forgive, then who? And who will give me needed relief if I cannot seek and accept it first? Then comes a new peace, slowly but profoundly.

Love doesn’t come with any pain-free guarantee. I learned that lesson well. I used to change the final page of fairy tales when I read to my own kids. I instead made up an ending that indicated life went on, sure, but with good and not-so-good, and that if there is a someone to share it with then that matters most, not an elusive “happily ever after”. There is going to be hardship awaiting us all. There are no spectacular times without visitations of difficulty or sadness. So, then, why not embrace it all?

There have, of course, been betrayals over the years, ones I thought might break me. Misunderstandings that kept me up at night. Words thrown at me that I wish I never heard. Leave-takings that almost broke my heart. Illnesses that have taken me or another to the edge and back. And there are also triggers from time to time that I feel coming alive deep within: See, I caution myself, there it is, this is a thing that might recall that old abandonment but it is NOT the same so I need to separate myself from it to avoid mistaking it for that terrible thing. It is an illusion; you make of it what you will. Be a grown up and take responsibility, refuse to be a victim of the past, such an old fear. If dipping into the ole self-pity pool happens, anyway, I further counsel myself, then keep it short and get over it; learn something and move on. There is nothing quite as relieving as a storming cry, a kick at the dirt, spouting off in private–then finding something positive to do. If it’s something truly needing a remedy, it is meant to be faced so a plan to address it needs to happen. After that, I hope I have done what I can, then will choose to do the next good thing. But in the final analysis, I will not ever abandon myself.

There are possibilities for change on every level. So many ways to move in a healthier direction and create a better time of it. I believe in myself–that I can be hurt and recover, that I can make something worthwhile out of less than I may want to have. That life is beautiful, still, and so are other people. I have hope in my faith in God. The truth is, everyone everyone on this planet is abandoned at some point; we each carry the memories and it is how we carry them. We love and we lose–romantic relationships fall apart, friends move away or move on, people we adore, die. We face ourselves in dark places and learn how to find courage for the battles, the truces, the peacemaking. Its seems to be the way things go here on earth. But I will risk it every time to experience the power and wonder of loving–and being loved– and how it shapes and propels my life. That’s the sort of legacy I want to leave my children and grandchildren.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Short Story: Ardis and the Feathered One

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It had come to this absurd situation. One wrong footfall and boom!–her ankle puffed up like it was packed with dense stuffing. Except it had nerves, too, and persistent pain. Swelling that made the skin ugly, tighter. So much for the fearless, iron-legged hiker that Ardis had always been. An easy trail through the woods brought her to her hip, now bruised and sore. But the ankle twisted on the way down a rutted, rocky slope.

Slouched in her cushioned and creaky rocker, she stared out the picture window. Books she’d piled at the side table were hardly touched. The TV in the corner was blank, meaningless. Her pitiful right foot, encased in a rigid plastic and padded therapeutic “boot”, made her angry and at times tearful. It lay there like a forgotten thing, a useless thing that taunted her from the old leather ottoman. Until she reached for the crutches, forced herself out of inertia to hobble to the kitchen for sustenance or down the hall to answer nature’s call. She hated to drink too much or she’d be often compelled to make that miserable trip.

If only the sun would shine. Ardis then might see past the low grey clouds, be able to envision an end to 6 weeks, make plans for resumption of her life. At first her buddies Harry and Joanie stopped by after work; Aunt Ellie brought scones and steaming cappuccinos; her co-worker brought magazines– as if Ardis was in the hospital and could only handle cheesy reading material, but at least she came by. Now, almost no one came. Except birds and squirrels, but there were far more birds in her yard–which she had only half-seen before.

So, by default, Ardis had become a bird watcher. Not that she knew much about birds. They came and went, pecking at the soil or berries in bushes, hiding in potted plants on the deck, snagging a spot in a makeshift bird bath created by rain in a cereal bowl used and forgotten. Their chirruping and singing were pleasant, and before long she was trying to figure out who was partnered with whom, where they were flying off to, and if they’d scatter or fight when crows–birds, sure, but lately seen as titans of trouble by Ardis– descended. Where did they all go when it rained hard? Did they have family to help them find food?

She thought the same handful returned every day and so began to name them: Johnny Red, Angel, Big Talker, Ivan, Little Mo. It was entirely unlikely she could identify them well–she couldn’t even tell what species they all were–but it didn’t stop the naming. She’d attempted wrestling with her crutches–which conspired to topple her between Point A to Point B–to go outdoors. Once at the back door she’d opened it with difficulty, then only listened and watched from there. The early fall air smelled and felt sharply soothing. But after ten minutes of leaning against a hard door jamb, crutches cumbersome and her ankle beaming at her with pain–that was the end of it.

One afternoon she kept trying to read a book Aunt Ellie had generously brought her about Pacific Northwest birds. (Though no coffee or scones.) It was far less dull than her aunt had warned but less thrilling than imagined. But she kept at it until her eyelids slid shut, fluttered, fell again. In a flash her mind had hopped on the sleep train and gone elsewhere. She was high up and everything was shining in whites and blues, a chilly, bright landscape. Calm, silent. Free. Far from feet and other human and mysterious impediments. Her rocking chair afternoon rolled away from her as she moved effortlessly.

Thwack! Ardis’ eyelids flicked open.

Something had hit a wall, the window, maybe the picnic table outside… was it the neighbor kid’s ball? a pinecone rolling off the roof from last night’s rainstorm? Then she replayed the sound and suddenly bent at the waist in the rocker, straining her neck to better look out the window and to the deck. There were some feathers. A bird had flown hither and thither as usual, then rammed right into her big window.

Trying to get a better view, Ardis rocked forward little by little, began to slide off the seat and steadied herself. But were those bird feet? She shouldn’t be able to see feet sticking out in the air. Her heart stirred. She grabbed the crutches, positioned them so she could stand and better look out.

Yes, the bird was certainly knocked for a loop, lying on its side with twig legs and clawed feet straight out. It lay stunned, perhaps paralyzed. Or–dead? She looked from every angle she could, noting the sleek black head, white stripe, two black stripes above and below dark bead of its eye, a dab of yellowish color by its face, body clothed in greyish-blue—taupe?– feathers, a colored breast. But its small face, still as can be. A handsome feathered thing. She didn’t think it had been given a name. Maybe a visitor? What sort? She watched then concluded her window had sent it to its demise. And she was filled with an attack of sadness, eyes going misty. What to do? She shouldn’t touch it, move it. Flummoxed, she retreated to the ottoman. Waiting for something to happen, hoping it might get up.

Hearing that awful thud again and again in her head.

It just couldn’t die.

She sat with hands crossed flat against her chest. Perhaps five minutes went by, then she skootched the ottoman to the window. Looked down at the bird, noted its right wing set a bit apart from its soft rounded body. The wing seemed to move rapidly; she deducted it was a breathing movement. She held her own breath, put forehead to glass wondering if the wing was damaged. If it would ever fly even if it lived. Suddenly, the bird smoothly hopped upright onto its feet. Stood still, just breathing more gently. The wing didn’t look bent but who was Ardis to determine anything? It wasn’t taking a step. It just stood there on spindly legs, not even the head moving. Maybe it was brain damaged and couldn’t figure out what next. Or, after all, there was that wing– or maybe something was hurt inside?

Ardis was pondering, still, how she might help, then admitted with a mutter that she was no use to a bird, surely not one nearly accidentally murdered in her own back yard. By her own picture window as she sat there, unaware. The beat up creature–why wasn’t it giving the offending window a bad look or, more appropriately, gazing toward sky and trees? She wanted to get up and walk out, make apologies to it–crouch down eye-to-eye with it.

Damn that ankle. Her inability to find a good solution.

From the distance there rose a clear bird call. And the not-so-dazed bird turned its head to the call, lifted off the deck and swiftly flew off with nary a wobble. Just like that! Ardis’ hand flew to her mouth as she grinned like a kid, amazed.

She pressed her face close to the glass, searching tree branches, the hedge next door. Not a feather to be seen. No significant bird chatter. The bird just recovered its senses and strength and oriented itself. Took right off. How could that be when it had looked like a goner? Unlike Ardis, it had not sprained a thing when it met with sudden changed circumstances; it had just lost its bearings, and perhaps consciousness briefly.

Ardis moved backward and sat down, thrusting the crutches aside. Stared out her window a long while, replaying what had happened. Her alarm, sadness, concern, surprise. A sudden desire to protect birds from her windows and even more from her ignorance.

And then: what bird was it? A nuthatch? A warbler? A chickadee? Those two black stripes, a white stripe between, some yellow or was it orange or…? She grabbed the Northwest bird identification book and began the search. It was taxing to recall the specifics of birds marking, beak shapes, coloration. It was hard to figure out what birds lived where or, if migrating, when and why. But she persisted awhile until she had come up with five different possibilities. She should have taken a photograph.

As time passed she also thought how she needed more patience with herself. The swollen ankle. Her mistakes and frailties. Her lack of knowledge of so much. The bird did what it was meant to do so it might regain its sense of self, its righted bird-ness. She could do the same with her own circumstances, couldn’t she–wait it out, let healing happen until she regained her Ardis self. Just be still. Worse might have happened to them both. She could manage this interval of time, as her little miracle bird had managed its situation.

Her fascination with the identification process continued until the room dimmed, then filled with soft rosy light. She put the book down, looked through her window. There was a bird sitting on dangling branch, looking right at her. Her feisty bird? Wishing it so, she imagined it had come back–or maybe it was a sibling or a cousin. No matter. Redux: she named it in case she saw it once more. Redux, as it had been restored to itself, to nature, to her. Ardis offered a wave and it flew beyond a scrim of deepening dusk.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Writing as a Way of Being

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Marc said, “Writing is your therapy, I guess.”

I thought about that a moment. It rang predominantly false.

“No, that’s a whole other thing. Of course I journaled for decades, starting with little, gilt-edged diaries as a child that I could lock with my own tiny key… I doubt it was helpful in a significant way; I was noting very little, the day was three sentences. By adolescence, maybe all the scribbling out feelings and events was semi-therapeutic. I had a private place to share the reality of my life. But was it writing? No. Not to me even as a teen. It was dumping emotional excess at its best and obnoxious perseveration at worst. True therapy exists in another realm.” I thought a bit more. “Maybe there is some crossover. But I think I write best when there is much less emotional excoriation…and more inquiry and imagination.”

Marc nodded. He knows better than to expect an abbreviated answer when he brings up writing. And I do like to talk, if not as much as I do writing.

We agreed that all sorts of creative action can be therapeutic. It certainly is a lifeline in troubled times, as well. And I have always liked to make paintings, collages and drawings to clear and liberate my mind. For decades I made music via guitar and cello, and wrote songs in small part because it was an emotional outlet…and dancing, acting and so on, to a degree. Because creative activities do help people expand intellectually; move past emotional blockages; explore more modes of experience; interpret worlds around and within; recover from woundedness; clarify needs/wants; gain self esteem; develop a deeper sense of soul. It figures prominently in wellness regimens the world over.

But a strong creative urge is primary in and of itself, and can be far removed from therapeutic intent or result. It is an energy, a movement that comes from a deep wellspring, from passion for what is undertaken. It is the moment-by-moment action that draws me, not the finale. It includes the design process, but it is the act of writing and seeing where it goes that is most powerful viscerally, intellectually, spiritually.

Writing, then? This is just what I do. It has come first as long as I can remember, back to early childhood. Music was the most important creative mode in my family but for me, despite my adoration of music, writing won out. It was such a strong urge that it started my day and ended it before I entered. I wrote little plays for the neighborhood gang and poems for fun. I wrote on scraps of paper, in cheap spiral-bound notebooks and on clean white paper on the ancient Remington manual typewriter. In school, my writing was often pointed out; a poem I wrote in third grade was published and presented at a state conference on children and creativity. I found it funny my teacher would do that. It had nothing to do with my desire to keep writing.

I had no clear sense of whether it was “good” or not, and even now don’t think it is worth the effort to try to rate it. I write and rewrite and write some more, then see how it stands up to my own interest during more reads and rewrites. It is necessary to improve but not for someone else–for myself, for the work I labor over. Being self-critical is necessary as I delve into exposition of a piece. It spurs me to design sentences that better deliver ideas and experiences. I can do this for long hours and do it alone. Marc’s voice is unheard or jarring when he speaks to me as I work. My dinner goes cold; other pressing duties fade. Time disappears; the written words engulf me.

I do, however, miss face-to-face interaction with other writers–conferences, workshops, writing sessions/sharing with one other writer, talking with editors at presentations, participating in public readings. These educational and fun events help me grow as a writer and as a human being. Both roles benefit from redefinition, willingness to learn. And I am not reluctant to get down to business.

I was having that earlier conversation about writing because I have been thinking about writing an ever greater amount of time. And this blog. I’ve noticed recently that though I have over 15,000 followers–a deceptive number, who knows what that quite means?–I have very few views, overall, in comparison to other weeks, months, years. There are also much fewer “likes”. Especially in the last weeks. This has not been the case, generally. I have had high numbers and moderate numbers and low ones, all. But 6? And practically no one comments–and is likely telling…of something. What is the data worth to me? Not that much, in the end. It doesn’t stop me from posting thus far. But I am curious, since I have had better statistics much of the past eleven years.

Yes, that’s a crazy long time to have a blog. Do I write here because it is not truly as rigorous as writing for other venues and platforms? If I even ask that, it must have bearing. Yet, I clearly am hooked; I enjoy myself.

But back to readership: the lag of viewers may mean people don’t relate to topics I am writing about lately. Or, as one reader says, many pieces are longer than most blog posts–I guess that can turn people off. It might mean followers just got tired of my blog–there are countless fascinating blogs to check out. Or it could even be the quality of my offerings has been in decline and I’ve failed to see it. I naturally consider that. Whatever the reasons, it gives me something to mull over.

Ultimately, it is about keeping on writing. I think it, dream it, wake up in the middle of the night and do it, phrases and characters run about my brain in the shower or store, while driving or walking, listening to people talk or seeing them play or work, when hearing music or sitting outside watching leaves shimmy, reading something else–any time at all. I take small breaks when feeling emptied out of good words or distracted by events in my life. There are times I feel like what I write is lacking oomph and just needs to be dumped. But there is always another concentrated attempt, and a fine word comes to me on the next wave of language rising, unfurling on a page. I can’t not write for long, even if it is a quick phrase on an envelope or receipt.

I have notebooks of listed ideas, many starts and stops. And mounds of sticky notes plastered on my desk with notes on reference material, titles that come without anything attached to them, quotes from other writers, literary mags to check out. And print outs of articles that demonstrate fine wordsmithing. I can’t keep up with it all but it isn’t daunting, it’s invigorating. It inspires me. And I am not a writer who stares at the screen or page a long time. I like prompts to get started for fun, but don’t need them. For some weird reason, I can sit and begin immediately; I write fast for a first draft. The deeper, better writing comes with revision. That takes much more time, is harder. A great deal harder. Even for this blog, I am often writing at midnight–and still miss necessary editing.

So it is not that I want to stop writing–I cannot imagine it–or even take a break. (I had some of those with the death of our granddaughter…and car accidents, illness, vacations, etc.) It’s about what I want to do with it next. I believe I must make changes. I don’t spend enough time revising my posts, and my proofreading needs attention. I easily spend 4-6+ hours working on them but I should clean up more. Including any photographs demands more time and labor. The truth is, I might make many improvements, even the design of my site; maybe readers would appreciate that, come back more. Or maybe not.

I also think it would be fun to start a new blog under a pseudonym. What, exactly, I’m not yet sure, but it would be entirely different than this one…Maybe satire. Maybe vignettes of real people whose names are changed, or stories of the most harrowing or spiritually intense moments in my life.

But beyond writing for the blog three times a week, several hours a day, what else might I want to do?

~I love to write poetry. For decades that was my genre, my preferred way of being and doing creatively with words. I write free verse but have written other kinds of poems. I can spend months on a poem that pulls me in and shine it up. I have published more poetry than anything (and under various names due to marriages). I quite like its economy–perhaps surprising for me, who tends to verbosity–and potency. Its elegance and truthfulness.

~I love fiction writing. I fell for fiction as a kid but felt intimidated by writing it until I kept working at it, reading and learning more, trying things out. In time I came to understand it better. It still is a form that seems complex and demanding, yet I love stories so much that I pursue them to the page, anyway. It is more like a story arrives, grabs and takes me to the page. I enjoy all the walking about in unknown places with strangers who become friends or curious bystanders or witnesses via the written word. It fulfills me immensely to complete a decent story. Or a series of short stories; I’ve written one grouping that takes place in a small northern lake town with many recurring characters. It is a collection I love to work on.

But then arrives the question: which genre would I like to explore next besides dabbling in mainstream, literary or women’s fiction? Psychological suspense? Fantasy? Old fashioned mystery? And flash fiction intrigues me, too. The only one I can’t get excited about is popular romance. Maybe a different angle on romance would be interesting.

Then there are novels. I have written two but only one may still have a drop of lifeblood. But I would rather begin a new one than return to those that I have worked half to death. I have ideas that come and go. If there is a really good idea it sticks– so far nothing has stuck well again. But this doesn’t mean I won’t begin another novel. Maybe not just today. I am stimulated by the work on very long projects. They require discipline, stamina, optimism, ruthless editing, and deep faith in the story–as with everything else, I suppose, but for much longer periods of my life.

~ Nonfiction, including memoir, is newest to me. I began working on it more seriously as I wrote for this blog. Then I published a couple pieces in collections so was encouraged. It was a challenge I enjoyed tackling. I appreciate its brevity requirement–though I have much to learn about that! I like to ask questions, search for answers whether a factoid or greater history or a recollection in family history. It moves quickly– or should. Succinctness is something I crave to master…and keep working on in nonfiction especially. I also love that it offers truth in a very direct way. The more stripped down the better; it generates more power.

~This is an addition since I initially published this post: I also have written (and published two pieces) young adult and children’s short fiction. It was also a pleasure taking months of classes on writing for children and applying more skills; I had the bonus of a children’s author providing great critiques. This genre remains of interest to me.

I have so many choices, that’s the issue. I have profound attachment to the written word, and respect for the value of language well crafted. But there is not enough time to do all I want to do, even in retirement. I need to heed these questions about what I will write further. There may not be another ten years left for me–or perhaps there will be, but time is not endless on earth. Some days I have a stronger tug to submit my work again for possible publication. Other times I want to dive right into that story collection, revise and polish until it is finished–then perhaps submit it. Or get back to more serious poetry writing, just because it is a beautiful form and it speaks to me with such grace and comfort. And it is good to know life most vividly, tp draw closer to God and maximize my compassion for the earth, the world–poetry is a good way to do all that.

The last question I ask myself tonight: do I keep on with this blog? Have I said all I have to say here? Does it matter if anyone reads my posts or not–or is it primarily an exercise in creativity, as so much of what is meaningful is to me? I do care about writing for others though I have written in solitude all my life, for the sake of the writing–that is what most writers do–and for myself, also. I need to write. I am entirely in love with the process, even during uncertain and self-doubting times or days of stalemate, or when I am fed up with the grinding work of eliciting the best words so they will cohere and open new doors… that I can walk through and so, too, the reader, into the next ones.

But it matters to me that I can send out my voice, and the voices of characters, and believe they may be heard. To be a small conduit of creative energy, of discovery. That I can offer up my vulnerability and then readers may open and connect more fully to themselves and others. That what I offer in words has meaning, even though fleeting. And that human language once more gives the gift of expression, that tool of powerful searching and finding, giving and taking, hoping and healing. Because language speaks the story of humankind. That is what matters to me, for this is what we all offer: astonishing stories of magnitude. So whether I write here or elsewhere, the stories will guide me faithfully. For this, I am grateful.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: The Benefits of Malaise

Chris couldn’t quite tell the difference between day and night. He knew if he said that aloud, Lana would stop in her tracks, eyes big as pie pans. At work he said only what was required. Oh no, that wasn’t right. He no longer reported to a job. He was a homebody now; he tinkered every now and then, he sat and sat. He wandered in his mind.

Day melted into evening into night into another dawn. The shadows on walls or floors lightened and darkened, lengthened and shortened. He watched them move about and thought how mysterious they were. Sheer ivory curtains swayed and fluttered when a breeze visited. But the light itself? It only seemed to dim and then dim more in waking hours, then disappear as time wore on. Once Chris pulled apart the curtains to peek out at midday and the sun was a spotlight that blinded him. He closed his eyes, turned back to his interior darkness, and the greyness of the room. It might make some difference if he moved about the house, just got up and left their bedroom for more than a few minutes, Lana had said.

Maybe; likely not.

In their room, he’d placed the antique wingback chair just so, then he could rest and fiddle with the radio on the little side table, punch the buttons of the TV remote–though TV didn’t much interest him. He had books, and every day picked one from the teetering stack. Flipped the pages as if he thought it engrossing when, in fact, he lost his place every other paragraph. If all else failed, he’d take five medium steps to the bed and flop down, stare at the squiggly lines in the ceiling until he grew drowsy.

Lana said it was almost like his room now, in the same way the far end of the sagging mauve velvet sofa was their cat’s: Captain’s spot. No one thought it wise to move him, especially after his eyes closed. Chris agreed it might not be wise to move himself, either. But Lana came to bed around ten-thirty, as always. Gave him a kiss on his cheek, smoothed the damp T-shirt against his back. He couldn’t bear to face her much of the time, those eyes that saw him. He squeezed his more tightly closed.

At least she had become more silent like he was, as there wasn’t much more to add to it. The facts: hiding out in the room, his too long pause. Languishing in your bitter disappointment, she said once, tears held at bay as she turned from him. He could not argue with it.

******

Lana carried on. For her, life went on if edited to feel differently. There was still cleaning and cooking–tidiness helped with her feelings of misalignment, the stress of his distress, and he still liked good meals though he ate half the amount now–and errands and bill paying and calls to family to try to reassure. But even if she had expected Chris would get a hobby or become a bona fide handyman when he retired–granted, it was a very early and forced retirement, as he said–she was so in error. At least at this point. Not that this bothered her. He read; did crosswords (just easy ones, she noted); he took out his ancient ukulele a couple times and attempted to strum a tune. And he slept. How he slept.

What wore on her was that he had made their bedroom his cave of isolation. It was their bedroom, not just his only she only needed it at night, she supposed. But if she stepped in during daytime, she felt a temperature change. Coolish when it should have been warmer up there–they’d never gotten the planned central air–what with summer going heat-wild but no, it was a strange well of shadows, and it seemed the walls insulated Chris like protection of earth about a real and deep well. She’d open up a window to air things out and he’d half-shut it, as if too much oxygen might be harmful. He kept a fan going all the time, facing outward so stray warmth and breath was sucked right out.

He is trying to live in a vacuum, she thought and it made her shiver.

After breakfast, while he leaned back in the ancient wingback (she’d spent too much money to re-upholster it in a fine wisteria print–how was she to know he’d be let go?) and stared at things she’d not ever see, Lana went to the market. Up by seven, put the kettle on, take Chris his breakfast on a tray, eat her own thick slice of bread with a nut butter and jam, then off she’d go. It was a sure thing to keep her better afloat. And a break from his melancholy.

The colors! The mix of voices, casual elbowing. The foods displayed in an artistic way–she’d gawk while fingering things. In her hands, tomatoes were smooth as silk, plump with juice; potatoes with their earthiness were weighty and consoling. Herbs were held to her nose; the aromas carried her away. The onions were pretty with papery skins and friendly, unlike when she chopped them for stews or tacos– in seeming punitive response they made her cry a bit. Then strawberries, black raspberries, raspberries and figs, peaches and apples–all called to her as if she was exactly who they were waiting for, and she was delighted to carry them home.

Sometimes she’d sit with her bag full of sustenance and watch others come and go. Mothers wheeling newborns about, older men with sunglasses perched atop balding heads, little children stopping play to blissfully bite into ripe nectarines, juices dribbling down their perfect small chins. Women with eyes bright with relief and happiness like hers.

And my, those astonishing flower stalls.

Lana was not that talented in their yard–mostly, she weeded and beat back bugs that nibbled away, trying to keep things going. So she bought flowers at the market in armfuls. Chris tended to complain that they’d wilt and be done so what was the point? But she had a collection of odd and lovely vases, even a few antiques scrounged over decades from flea markets and garage sales. She loved the act of preparing bouquets, the gentle separation of stems and trimming, arranging this way and that, in just the right vase. They were placed on tables throughout the house, each room they graced sparking with beauty. She smiled as she entered and exited and grazed their bold or pale, tender blooms with her fingertips. Their unique fragrances followed her from task to task. She sometimes thought she’d like to take a class on flower arranging, make it more than an amateur attempt. She thought, too, she’d like to wear them in her hair.

It was an hour or so that Lana spent at the market. She was lightened by it, always looked forward to chatting with neighbors and vendors. It assured her she held a welcomed place in the world, as did they. But then she had to go home.

Not that she didn’t have a place there. It had just shifted as their foundation trembled; big parts of their life were no longer settled.

Chris had fallen away. And she was taking care of him, trying to keep him from tumbling further. And if that meant bringing him meals and seeing that he got a good shower every couple days, she’d do it.

******

He might have done something different, he thought many times a day, so that he’d have been kept on as supervisor at the plant. Eighteen years there, unheard of these days, and yet he was one of the first to go when the pandemic stopped the world. But it was done, he reminded himself, and that was how it was–why wear out the simple truth of it with all his self-doubts? He was getting older, business was poor, they could do fine without him, it turned out so fare thee well old man.

Why it mattered so much he didn’t know. The job wasn’t something to brag abut, it was good work fairly well paid. He and Lana were not going to go hungry or lose their bungalow bought thirty-some years ago. So they wouldn’t likely redo the two bathrooms. They might not eat as well as they liked and no longer eat out, of course. Captain, their fat grey tabby, might have to endure nail cutting from him as all that cat upkeep business got pricey. Vacations might have to be cut the next few years, maybe forever, he wasn’t even sure yet.

They’d be okay. Still, it felt like a punch in the gut.

And what came next?

These thoughts coiled and uncoiled in his brain as he half-dozed, so that when he awoke with a start as a truck rumbled by he wasn’t sure if he had just dreamed of Angus burgers burning on the grill or Captain racing away as he wielded nail clippers or Lana catching him off guard as she waltzed right past him in a beautiful green dress, her dazzling smile with tears falling. Maybe he was recalling the past in altered form. There certainly wasn’t much going on in his present life. The future? Anybody’s guess. Chris could be nostalgic as much as he chose. It didn’t change a thing.

The life beyond the windows on their second story room barely pulled at him. He knew the Carters were jamming as many suitcases and bags as possible into the back of their camper van. To the Southwest in August, they’d informed him a couple months ago. Tom Hannelly had broken a leg when he fell from his cycle racing down country hills; he hobbled about in an unwieldy cast, swearing a bit. Tina and her three dogs were out three times a day; she now worked from home. And Margo and Danny were maybe still getting a divorce after the pandemic but for now they were a team trying to make it work, their two teenagers in need of cohesion.

The last bit he knew because Lana had updated him. He hadn’t asked, he never did; he counted on her to be the bearer of news. And most else. And like before, she was there with what he needed, even though he had been in an unfamiliar survival mode. She was his safety net.

Chris heard her come in and shut the door, jabber to Captain. He wondered what she’d bring him from the market for a snack. Then felt the guilt wash over him. He was stuck in this room–and didn’t care that much. He put his feet on the footstool, settled into the wingback and felt the tide of sleep lap at his mind, threatening to take him again. But he was sorry he made things harder for her. It’s just that the most pressing thing was how many lines were creeping across the ceiling he had almost memorized. And if he was ever going to look further into it. Beyond that, the room was getting stuffy despite the fan on high all the time–but there was enough good air, he presumed, to keep sitting there indefinitely. It just took too much effort to face what lay outside these walls, beyond the tiny corner of his life. Discomfort nagged at him and he shifted. There came a niggling restlessness that he ignored. He dozed once more.

Then her footsteps, steady but light, the only footsteps he loved to hear. Did she ever miss hearing his on the stairs or running down four steps into the breezeway and across to the garage with its apartment built on top (that had been empty since Teddy had left for post-grad work six years years ago, good for him) or grilling on the deck he had built last year? Did she wait to hear those steps as he waited to hear hers?

He felt the slip of breeze with a touch of cool sail over his eyelids, neck, hair. He stretched, got up, went the distance to the hall, then the bathroom–the farthest he had walked in some time.

*******

She spent a long time sorting and preparing bouquets of multi-hued dahlias and roses with sprays of greenery for three rooms. Then several minutes fixing the zinnias so they fit a smaller orange and white swirled glass vase with fluted mouth. She picked the freshest, brightest blooms, placed them in the water, patting them when done. She also nestled a mix of berries in a well used white ceramic bowl and brewed tea, Lady Grey, for his mug with its red-winged blackbirds motif. It didn’t much matter that he might not notice these things. She wanted to do it for him.

When she knocked softly, then entered their bedroom, she was surprised to see Chris showered and dressed in shirts and a fresh T-shirt. It had been almost four days since that had happened and it had almost scared her.

“Here you go, tea and berries, and my, you look nice, fresh.”

He gave her a weak grin, let his eyes roam over her; they landed on her hips a moment, then her shoulders and neck, her face. Remarkable, really; she always looked good to him. It had been awhile since he had really looked at much less seen her and her trim form and bright expression stirred a light flutter in his chest.

“I needed it, I suppose.”

She set down the tray after he put the radio on the floor. That old thing, a cumbersome black radio that he’d kept for twenty years and repaired twice. She heard him fiddling with stations sometimes, until he settled on local news or programs with old standards, as ever. She hoped it never broke down for good.

“Berries again,” he murmured, and pinched one between thumb and index finger, popped it into his mouth, groaned in appreciation.

She knew he enjoyed them, as much as he could. She watched him test the tea, blowing across the top of the mug first, then nod. Smoothing her chinos with damp hands, she said, “I’ll leave you to it, then,” and turned to go.

At the door, she heard him stir, then say her name. She turned and saw him sitting forward, mug set back on the table.

“I’m sorry, Lana,” he said.

He had said this often enough that she was sure he was, and she knew he meant it to bridge the narrow but obvious gaps between them. She had tried for two months months to be patient, to let him work it out, to be positive with fewer words and yet she hovered at the edges of his malaise, waiting, tending, praying, just trying hard to accept. The bee sting with the honey, she recalled her mother telling her of the flux of things in marriage.

“Drink your tea, it’s good tea, eat the berries, you’ll feel better. I’ll make a peach pie later.”

She smiled, started through the doorway but looked back a last time. He was hunched over bowl and mug, head in hands. So she went to him but sat on the bed a few feet away.

To speak or wait and listen.

His head felt thick as pudding but the promise of peach pie was so good gratitude welled up. Could a pie do that to his impoverished soul? How long was he going to let her carry the load while he suffered hurt pride and a loss of direction, still as a sloth in the heat of summer days and nights? She was near him and he ought to speak to her but Chris noticed an ant cross over the worn wood floor boards, then another and another, an orderly line in and out of shadows. Ants had purpose, they got so much accomplished, putting him to shame. And when had they started back in? Was it about fall already?

Lana lay back on the unmade bed and the feather pillow, long gray hair (no more beauty salon visits lately) strewn about it. She took a quavering breath in, let it out. Touched the silky sheets. It was a good bed; it had served them well, had been a nest and a briar patch and a chalice of sorts. As she closed her eyes, weariness engulfed her. Was she really that tired out? She never felt it when on her feet, moving and doing and looking forward. But here, in the middle of day, after flowers and berries and hearing his deep regret again, she felt nearly overwhelmed by the weight of their most ordinary lives. Her broad palmed, practical hands were crossed over her chest; the heat of them and the oppressive room pressed upon her. And she understood the need to sleep more.

And then he was beside her, a zinnia in hand. He touched it to her rosy cheek, traced her firm jaw, lips soft as dandelion fluff. She opened her eyes and what she saw was a small relief, and an offering, a remembrance of love. She took the flower, lay it aside as he lay down. And then he held one of her hands in his and they closed their eyes, midday sunlight peeling away bits of slinking shadow. Captain pounced, then lay at their feet, and a trickle of incoming breeze from a slightly ajar window felt like a spell or a blessing rich with jasmine. It was daytime but it might have been night, as the room felt so much more theirs as they settled close to each other, and it was not a fortress nor a place of doom. It was only a room of comfort.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Caught Between (Blood and Books)

Photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.com

Sauntering, that was the best way, browsing at her leisure, body reflecting both harmless and relaxed, feet shuffling a little. The table of books lay there like a banquet, and her fingertips skimmed a few covers. She couldn’t help herself. This was not what she was meant to be finding in a good day’s work but the bookshop had caught her attention the day before. She’d stopped momentarily. A large cat had rubbed its silky fur against her bare ankles, guaranteed to annoy her and that caused her to sneeze loudly three times; the calico jumped straight up. Then came a slight movement behind the big display window, a warning for her to move on.

Today she’d fared well in the market six blocks away: two fat yellow apples; a fresh scone in a paper sleeve someone put down by someone when looking at something; a golden pen with ten fine sheets of handmade paper (the sign said); two pair of thick socks. The socks would go to Gerry but the rest she was keeping. It was useless surplus, not ready cash. That would have to come from the half dozen fancy knock off watches and a bunch of real silver bracelets from a corner shop in Harleton. The old lady–who had been easily engaged in random patter–had picked up her chiming phone–church bells?– and it was a deal done fast and she was out of there. Then there was a sweet short wave radio on a floor in an open garage she passed–where was the owner? Drinking beer at the back, too slow on his feet to catch her.

Thieving wasn’t hard but energy-consuming–being ever watchful, smart and fast about it. Sheila was all of those, even as a kid. How many times had she been punished by her dad, and how often had she and her young aunt sneaked off again to find and raid a make up display, a table piled with purses, a bakery with mini cakes and still-warm biscuits displayed on a shelf by a front door to lure customers. They were most certainly lured, then filled up with the high of stolen sweetness. Though her dad said time and again, “You got bit by the devil’s wiles, it’ll cost you more than you know, my girl.” He knew all that and more because he’d been to prison for four years–he’d only been nineteen– for crimes no one spoke of now he was all legitimate. But Sheila knew it was burglary, maybe a few; he might not have been caught for all of it. She shuddered to think of it, her caring dad.

She was eight years old when it started; Auntie Jean was way older, fourteen. They made a perfect pair of kleptomaniacs, Jean had said laughing. She had the hands that, like magic, swiped and grabbed; Shelia was the lookout and runner once Jean lifted the thing and handed it off. Because who would think a little girl with pigtails could steal and run so fast?

Now–seven years later– it was Gerry and Jean and a handful of their friends. Mostly Shelia did minor stuff, she did what they said if she wanted a small cut, but sometimes she went her own way. In fact, more often she was going her own way and lied to them when she got back: “I was sooo close, then it got risky, I’m not going to juvie for you guys!” she protested. Or: “Everything’s tied down tight out there, can barely find anything worth much lately.”

They had bigger fish to catch, anyway–TVs, computers, cars, stuff Shelia didn’t want to know about. There business was growing. But when she was empty handed Gerry gave her a medium punch on the arm and Jean gave her a scalding look then moved on to other matters. Jean kept telling her in private that she becoming a big disappointment and if she couldn’t bring it in why bother sticking around? She was on the verge of being a liability. She had to get with it or get out, Jean was sorry but family or no family…. Shelia’s face burned with humiliation so on she went, looking for more targets.

They were family, yes. So Shelia stuck in with them. Still, she was better at school and worked at that harder. One thing her mother said before she left them was that her daughter–Sheila–was way too smart to live the low life and if she had any say left in the matter, the girl would become a lawyer, not a miserable petty–or worse–criminal.

“What’s the difference?” her dad had said, laughing with that edge he still had back then.

Her mother reportedly said, “You know what I mean. She could amount to something good. She could be anything if she gets a chance, just like me! But no, you have to stand in everyone’s way. You and your crooked paths to big dreams. What a joke!”

“I’m not in her way, just yours. She’ll get a different life, she’s smarter and better than you,” he grumbled and waved her off, his long suffering girlfriend of ten years, and his daughter’s mother, for good or ill.

But she’d soon left in a flash after losing some fight with him. And though he loved Shelia more than he could say, he worked six to seven days a week at the marina so she was on her own when not in school or watched after by a co-worker’s wife. And they got by, more or less, on his wages. He wanted better for them both. Shelia was six then. Her mother–those words sounded foreign to her. It was so long ago it was all a fuzzy dream of a memory. All she knew was her dad–who stuck by her.

She wanted to give him some of her cash but knew he’s had a fit. She bought a few groceries or personal items with the little she kept from Jean, sometimes stashed it under her bed in the jewelry box from her childhood. Her dad half-knew what she did but denied it to everyone. And his own self even more. As long as she did okay in the school year and no cops came to his door…what could he really do about it? It had to be in the blood. He blamed Jean but his niece blamed him and then he blamed his brother, her father. It was a waste of time to think about. Sheila was going to be okay.

To Sheila, the stealing was a habit, and she sometimes felt it was a pretty bad habit. One she might break someday. Or not. It bore little thought; it was not the major thing in her life. She was really trying to grow up.

******

It was the third time in a month the teenager came by and appeared to be casing the place, try to maybe steal one of the books. It always perplexed her that anyone would steal a book–there were libraries, for Pete’s sake. So Meredith circled in and out of her bookshop, very casually, and looked down the street, nodded at her.

“Nice day, hey? See anything you like?”

Just like that, the youth was gone. A very fast mover, like a ninja kid, she chuckled as she told her assistant. And never spoke a word. The girl tended to linger at the bargain mystery books on the table outdoors– but at other times she checked out a few memoirs and science books baking in August’s sizzling heat. Couldn’t be that she didn’t have the money–they were cheap in her opinion, deeply discounted after being long idle on shelves. Who knew? Might be a street kid. Maybe her ripped jeans were not due to fashion but because those were all she had. The large navy windbreaker hung on her narrow frame; her hair was worn swept into a short choppy ponytail, and she always wore sunglasses despite the weather. Once it rained suddenly; she’d left on the sunglasses but pulled a baseball cap from her jacket pocket, pressed it on firmly and slinked down the sidewalk.

Meredith thought of putting up a Free Library sort of box in the back alley for those who had no money; lots of people used it as shortcut so it might take off. So she set to it a few evenings later after closing time. As she rummaged through cast-offs by the back door Mr. Mercedes–so named because the calico sure thought he was all that— sniffed each book from the pile, then chose a couple of stacked ones to sit on. The cat had been wild and still disappeared a couple days at a time, yet always returned. Customers liked–or perhaps admired– him more than he liked them but he was tolerant enough after three years, even conversed to a few in his surly native cat tongue.

She worked a few minutes, feeling good about her effort, when Mr. Mercedes shot past her piles and raced around the corner. Meredith checked around it with caution. A mouse or-ugh-rat? A passing cyclist? What had he heard that she had not? She had closed up and locked the front door twenty minutes ago; her assistant was working on invoices in the back office. She went in search of the cat and came to the entrance.

The door, to her surprise, was slightly ajar. How had that been overlooked? Or was it jimmied? Mr. Mercedes had snaked inside; Meredith peered in the windows. There was a shadowy figure at the back aisles. She saw a hand skim then lift a few books off a shelf, drop them in a backpack. Art history section? The thief grabbed a few more in the next section, hunched down, crept between book stacks, perusing the bounty.

Should she call out to Annie, her assistant or call 911?

Before she could decide what to do, the culprit headed to the back door that was still open to the alley. As he passed the office Annie stuck her head out and shrieked as Meredith ran inside, then after the culprit. But a muffled crash stopped her at the doorway. She peered into the passageway beyond, Annie imploring her to stop right there,, and she narrowed her eyes at the the gathering dusk.

There: that teenaged girl, a booted foot on its heel in the now-impeded trajectory of the running, then falling thief–or was it really her partner in crime? The person sprawled onto pavement with a thud, books falling from the still-open backpack, each hitting ground hard, a few skidding away and coming to a pathetically scratchy, dirty full stop.

“What on earth is going on here?” she called out to both of the youths. “Leave all my books this instant or I’ll call police!”

The scruffy guy scrambled to his knees but the girl gave him another push so that he stumbled forward. Another two books fell from inside his hoodie but he was rendered useless at picking up any of them as she kicked at his ankles. He yelled an obscenity at her and took off down the darkening alley, long gone before Meredith could call out another warning.

The girl with her usual sunglasses and hat pulled low stood opposite her, hands on hips, mouth opened a little as she huffed some. Mr. Mercedes sat at her feet looking up, tail twitching. She glanced down a split second when Meredith entered the alley and walked towards her. But this was not welcomed by the book rescuer. She stepped way back. Mr. Mercedes stepped back as well, hissing at them both.

“Who are you? Why are you hanging out here so much, and how did you know he was going to steal something? Where did you come from?”

The wiry, sharp-featured girl with immobile face balled her hands up and jammed them into jacket pockets, well balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to take off.

“Well, thanks for the help–I think!” the anxious bookseller said, exasperated, as Annie circled up behind her.

Meredith picked up a couple books and then the two women tended to others scattered about. They were heavy, expensive coffee table books about art and photography, of all things.

“Stolen gifts for someone? Why these?” Annie said.

“Criminal opportunist! Why not just buy a used couple of tomes somewhere? How dare he!” Meredith whimpered and stood with hands on cheeks, studying the glossy volumes.

The books were all damaged to some degree. She might never be able to sell them for what they were worth–beautiful, informative, inspiring books. But it was her fault, apparently, since the door had been easily opened. Meredith tried to tune out the nervously chattering Annie and they wiped off the books with their shirttails, murmuring about the scare and torn covers and grime and what to do. Then Meredith recalled the young woman. still just a girl, really, and yet she was readied to fight or flee, and she spun around to find her.

Too late. She had flown.

******

“That was stupid! How much can it matter if Leo’s great-grandfather or uncle or whoever got those books for his seventy-fifth birthday? Was it worth all that trouble? Now what does he have? Nothing. Not one damn thing! And now no one can enjoy them either!”

She saw her Uncle Brad across the floor–“Blue” they called him due to the blue-black tear tattooed on his cheek–and he studied her with a quizzical look, then went into a back room and shut the door. Thankfully. She was always wary of him, even when he was nice to her-But he was often gone and Jeanie was second in command.

Sheila was pacing and yelling at Gerry and Jean. Leo had left in a funk, humiliated about having been foiled, ready to start a brawl with Shelia, his senior by two years but smaller, when Jean stepped in.

“Well, it isn’t only the grandpa, Sheil, it was a dumb, simple test! Jerry needs his nephew to get better at the simplest tasks and if he can’t even pick off a few stupid books…! Useless crew.” She shook her head in disgust. “But for you to interfere–that’s what’s idiotic, you know better, and it’s almost enough for me to–to–” She came toward Shelia with raised hand, face red as a radish, curly hair shaking as she advanced.

Sheila felt her insides quiver but stood her ground. “Aw, Jeanie, chill out. I didn’t know it was him at first. I was just hanging out, that’s all, and when I saw him break in–“

“You should have let him be,” Jerry pronounced with that rumbling voice. “What a couple of amateurs. Might be time to just prematurely cut both short, baby. But it’s not like it’s some major loss. Books, ya know? No harm done.” He put an arm around Jean’s shoulders, tugged her back. “Let’s not get her so riled up she shoots off her mouth at Speed.”

“Yeah, okay, never mind, I’m okay, my Sheil’s okay…well, aren’t ya?,” Jean cast her another look, then stomped over to the desk, where she fingered a big new batch of superior gemstone jewelry.

Speed, Sheila repeated to herself. Her father’s old name–his old identity. Shelia felt alarm shoot through her. If he even knew the extent of things going on with her. And here.

She surveyed the storage building, All the covered cars, stacks of boxes with TVs and computers and video equipment with hot new games and more–the giant desk where jewelry awaited assessment, at the dark corners where others of the group lounged like sly lazy dogs or talked on their phones making clandestine deals.

What was she doing there? Why did she persist in thinking this was really her family–and her fate?

“I’m so completely sick of this, of you all, I’m outta here!” she yelled and left.

No one said a thing. She was a kid, kids were impulsive and she was blood family.. Jean just had to wait and see. But she watched her niece go and sighed heavily. It was awhile coming to this, yet she always thought it. It wouldn’t be at all easy for little Sheil, the smart one, her protégé, slowly going sour. She had good instincts but too often she didn’t show enough common sense or lack of guilt for this line of work. It took guts and stamina and no looking back, only to the next job that might be the big payoff. Jean lived for that day so she, too, could walk away– but to her own private Shangri-La.

******

At Meredith’s Book Madness all was in order. They’d sorted out the inventory and found new ways to donate some books, started a couple new sales that were going well. The book library at back was being well used, too. In fact, they thought it brought more foot traffic and cyclists–and then to the front door.

The nine art and photography books that had been harmed by thievery were repaired and put on a discount table indoors; four had sold so far. They ordered a few more interesting volumes.

Annie unlocked the front door. It had rained the night before. The world smelled sweet and bright, warming up as sunlight streamed onto the quiet street and their ceramic flower pots along the outer wall. Then her eyes glimpsed a form at the far end of the building.

“Meredith?”

“Yes?” The answering voice wafted from back of the shop.

“Can you come here?”

Meredith came and gazed to the spot where Annie looked. Smiled.

Shelia roused, blinked in the honeyed light. She grabbed her hat which had fallen off a couple hours earlier; she’d been too tired to wait for the shop to open and dozed off. She had had little sleep all night. After she’d left Jean and Gerry, she’d gone home. She later–without thinking further– told her dad she wanted a change in her life but she wasn’t sure how to do it.

“Why all this?” he’d asked, elbows on the table, eyes piercing the short distance between them. “What do you mean, a ‘change’? Are you in trouble? I mean, more than I think? Tell me what happened.”

“No, not really. I mean, that depends on what you think…”

“I know you and Jeanie are thick as…you need to come clean with me, honey, and now.”

“You know I can’t say what I want to say, not really, and I know you know what you know. So what is there to say–except, what should I do now?”

“How deep, Sheila girl?”

“Not that deep in, I can swim to the surface.”

He rubbed his bristly chin and didn’t take his eyes off her, and it startled her, his intense stare, as if he was cutting through all her smokescreen of thoughts and seeing everything all through the years. Maybe he did, but then it was as if he looked far beyond her. And then he came back to her.

“I’m sorry, this is fully on me. So leave it to me.”

“No, Dad.” She shook her head vigorously.

“Don’t worry yourself, I know a couple of things, helpful things. And from now on, every time you get that itch…just tell me. We’ll fend it off. I’ve got your back, don’t you know that?”

He half grinned at her, the goofy one that revealed his bottom gold tooth so it winked in the light and at her. He was a nice enough looking guy, she realized, a man who’d aged too fast, but he still had energy and attitude enough for at least two younger guys. He could have gotten married a couple of times–she’d not have gotten in the way.

But he’d kept his nose clean, he told everybody, was about working hard and taking care of Shelia. Though he clearly had failed in some basic ways, he knew that already. Did he think he could’ve kept ignoring the worsening signs, though? No. Where did he think she got to when he was gone so long every day and even night? He had hoped for better times for her but suspected so long. The family, right, leave it to crazy Jean to screw it up worse.

Things just had to be made much better, he knew right then.

“Yeah, Dad, I know you’ve got me. I didn’t want to freak you out, make you sad– or worse…”

“Well, it’s lucky for me you have the sense to know when to speak up a little. And figure out you need a new direction.”

“You mean, lucky for me! I’ve sorta been on my own awhile, you know?”

“Yes–you’re right. We both are fortunate now that we put a few things on the table. And I’m stepping in this time, blood or no blood, no matter, we are not them.”

He rose to put his arms around her and squeezed three times for “I love you”, and she about cried, it had been so long since he’d done that. She squeezed back.

And that was it, for the time being. They’d figure things out. Or maybe he’d just do his bit and they would go on in a more normal way, their odd but more real way. She could only hope he didn’t step too hard on the dragon’s tail. Jean the Dragon Lady they called her–she was tougher than anybody she knew in their city. Except her uncle… and her dad, though he was not like much his brother, anymore

But for now here she was with a book lady who was looking her over as if seeing her for the first time, a creature who didn’t, in fact, have horns. An ordinary girl with some strange aspects.

Sheila didn’t remove her sunglasses to stare back harder. The woman didn’t take any offense at whatever she did, it seemed.. It was like she got it, though how was anyone’s guess.

“I’m Meredith; this is Annie. Want to give us some help? We have a bunch of books that need sorting,” she said, gesturing with a sharp motion of her head toward the store.

“Uh, maybe, I guess so.”

“If you catch on and come on time twice a week, and ask before you take anything, you can stay on. If not, you’re out. But I have to tell you right off I can’t pay you. You can, however, choose a cheaper book each week to take home. But we shall see how things go, alright? Name?”

Shelia stood up, smoothed her damp jeans and jacket, put her cap back on. The way this woman talked floored her. “Sheila. Wait a sec–did i even say I wanted an actual job?”

Meredith rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. “Oh, didn’t you? I thought you might have. And you were sitting out here waiting for us to open, right? Anyway, no worries–no pay, no real job…” and she went inside.

Sheila shook her head hard to clear it. Hesitated. Looked up at the fat clouds scudding by, heard cars honking and a cyclist’s bell ringing as he whizzed by, and those crows squabbling from the roof as if they owned the block. Smelled a bit of gasoline and a whiff of scraggly red roses growing by the sidewalk. Ordinary stuff. She wondered if the lady knew what she was really all about–and if she did, would she have offered her a gig, even for nothing? She was sure taking a chance. With a thief.

An about-to-be-reformed one, she corrected herself, and the idea excited and worried her.

Mr. Mercedes jumped out at her so she bent down to briefly stroke him; he followed her into the store. “Well, she let you stay, that’s kinda weirdly nice,” she told him. She tore off her jacket and stuffed her cap in a back pocket. Looked around the homey, dusty, beautiful bookstore. She took off her sunglasses and set them aside.