It’s the first sleepover of the summer. I’ve waited months for this night! We’re in our attic fort, behind the house, among the rafters that extend above the woodpile. Mosquitos buzzing past our ears, dive bombing us, trying to catch some bare patch of skin where they can land.
The frogs creak, croak, groan and gurgle in the swamp. Whoever decided to call that cacophony ‘singing’ must have been mad but it is beautiful, in its own way.
A cow lows in the distance, calling its calf to its side for the night.
There are the whispers and stifled giggles of the other girls, Chantal, Andi, Jasmine (we have to whisper, mom said she’d separate us if she hears us, and we dread the back door opening, we know she’ll do it!)
Dad’s voice rumbles. He’s on the telephone, talking to Uncle Dan about the haying and which field they’ll do tomorrow.
Mom’s practicing the piano, mostly church music, getting ready early for Sunday morning. When she comes to Amazing Grace we sing softly for a verse or two, until we lose the words and relapse into giggles.
There is a brief scrabbling on the plywood side of the house, a soft patting of feet, and my tortoiseshell cat comes to investigate this intrusion into her realm. Sniffing each girls face, she raises more giggles as her whiskers tickle our noses. She settles down on the foot of my sleeping bag, her low rumbling purr half heard, half felt through the soles of my feet.
The stove door creeks, and there’s the dull clang of a new log being rammed in, hitting the stove’s back wall.
Slowly the frogs cease their serenade, one by one, until one squeaky little fellow is left all alone and finally trails off. The piano lid closes with a soft thud. The house is quiet, the voices gone still, leaving only the sighing of the wind through the tall old cedars above to lull us to sleep.
And suddenly the thump and crack of Dad splitting kindling wakes us and it’s morning. And we are left to giggle at the weird patterns left by bug bites on each other’s faces as we wriggle out of our sleeping bags and climb down the ladder made of random boards my brother nailed to the corner post and run inside to the hiss and gurgle of the old coffee pot and the sizzle of bacon in the frying pan.
Leave No Spaghetti Behind!
“Eeeeew,” was the only sound to be heard. Did you even know that was a word?
There were wrinkled noses on every face, and Molly’s really looked stuck in place.
“What has happened to all of you? You love spaghetti, really you do,”
Cried Mom. But all she got was, “Eeeeew.”
“That’s ENOUGH!” Dad had entered the fray. Suddenly every face froze that way.
“Everybody up,” it was the drill sergeant voice. “Everybody up, and don’t make a noise.”
Now the boys stood lined up by their chairs, and Molly was giggling at dad’s fierce stares.
“I give you all five minutes or less, to get back here in full army dress.”
Then the only sound was pounding feet, as we all beat a very hasty retreat.
Not four minutes later this raggedy band, has back in a row awaiting commands.
“Now troops,” said Dad, “We have a mission. Listen close, there’ll be no repetition...”
“We leave no spaghetti behind!”
There was spaghetti on every face, and it might go down without much grace,
the slurping wasn’t very refined, but we left no spaghetti behind!
Now, Friday was never a very good night, fish just can’t go down without a fight.
That is until the very strange day, that dad appeared in costume to say…
“Now my cubs, as you know very well, bears love fish, I think it’s the smell.
So first of all I want to hear you growl. Good, now show me your best bear scowl.
And now that we’re all feeling good and bearish, let’s see you eat up all that fish.”
The fish was gone not a bone in site, and from that day on we were bears Friday night.
Who knew that a little variety, could cause so much mass anxiety.
“A dish of potatoes, is this all? I can’t eat just this,” was the general call.
“No, no,” cried Mom, “It’s shepherd’s pot pie.”
“If this is all you feed us we’ll surely die.”
Just then Dad showed up for dinner late, and taking one look at what was on his plate,
“All right boys, everyone sit up. If Molly wants to play she’ll have to keep up.
It’s men’s work that we have here to do; we’re seeking treasures rare and true.
I know it might not look like it, but if we dig and do not quit,
In these little potato-y pots, we’ll dig up treasure, lots and lots.
Now here’s the rule to this game, every treasure found must be called by name.”
We fished and we stabbed, we dug and we jabbed.
Peas of bright green, and carrots were seen,
Waved all about, as “Treasure!” we’d shout.
The occasional piece of ground beef; may have come to bit of grief,
But Rover cleaned up the bits on the floor, as dinner proceeded at a roar.
Then there was the very strange case, of the squash that got all over dad’s face.
Mom might say that it was good, but there in the doorway we all stood,
There was no way we were going to try, this thing we were sure would make us die.
Dad didn’t even try to coax, he didn’t argue or tell jokes.
He just sat down and took a bite, and suddenly we all took fright,
This time Dad was going to cheat, and leave us all with nothing to eat.
The way that Dad was carrying on, pretty soon it’d all be gone.
I gotta say, it sure looked weird, hanging there off of his beard.
But while he sat there and ignored, we suddenly with one accord,
Sat down, and when we took a bite, we all learned to like squash that night.
There is one Saturday I’ll never forget, when Dad had given his blood and sweat,
To BBQ to perfection, some burgers that upon inspection, we all gave a very thorough rejection.
You’d think he’d get mad, or at least be sad, but oh no, that’s not dad.
He just covered the meat, and told us all to take a seat,
while he with purpose in his stride, firmly disappeared inside.
It was the longest wait we’d ever had, while we wondered what had happened to Dad.
And there he was, dressed all in white, like some medieval castle knight,
Except for the hat pointing to the sky, “You don’t think I can cook?” it seemed to reply.
Dad line up four more hats in a row,
“All right, you experts, you have a go.”
What kind of kid wouldn’t want to chef, soon there wasn’t a burger left.
We piled those burgers with sauces, spicy and sweet, until you couldn’t even see the meat.
Then there were veggies, some normal some not, even the peppers that were usually too hot.
We piled them half a mile high, and topped it all off with a bun made of rye.
And when Stevie tried to get his in his mouth, half of it landed on the tablecloth.
We giggled and laughed ’til we were almost sick, and those burgers went down pretty quick.
Yup, dad sure thought that he was slick,
Then there was that fateful Sunday, it was so bad you’d have thought it was Monday.
Everybody had to say “Eeeeew.” There wasn’t anything else to do.
Mom looked at Dad. Dad looked at Mom. We all waited for the bomb…
Mom said, “Liver is good for you.”
And Dad said, “Honey, there’s nothin’ I can do.” Dad had met his Waterloo!
For the Love of Vampires
A compare and contrast essay...
With all the drama caused by screaming fans and tabloid scandals, one might think that the current fascination with vampires is a modern fad, but this is hardly the case. The concept of immortal evil sucking the blood of the innocent to survive has both fascinated and horrified readers of literary fiction for years. That said, the image of the modern vampire is rather different than that portrayed by Bramm Stoker. In fact, it is quite possible that the monster, Dracula, would be extremely offended by any comparison between himself and the heartthrob, Edward Cullen, and it would be hard to blame him. This modern vampire is a weak and paltry character next to the monster of classic fiction. Instead of a figure of selfish manipulation, evil power and perverse sensuality, the sparkling Cullen shows restrained self-denial, kind concern and almost antiquated morality.
While the creature hunted by Doctor Van Helsing felt no compunction in using his victims to accomplish his own ends, only to feed upon them as soon as they were no longer necessary to him, our more modern vampire is concerned with protecting the humans he lives among and feeds only on animal blood. Who can forget the eerie image of the ship of death cast up on the English shore, its final crew member lashed to the helm, the ship’s log the only thing left to tell of one after another missing or found dead, with no explanation for the terrified men, who did not realize they carried a monster in their hold ? No amount of dramatic music or stunning visual effects can provoke the shivers that such a scene naturally engenders when one is confronted with a youth willing to live on the vampire equivalent of tofu rather than harm even his enemies.
Furthermore, this malevolent being from distant lands tainted those victims he did not kill outright. He was pleased to make them as evil as himself, while today’s vampire so abhors his own existence that he refuses over and over again to grant his form of immortality to the girl he loves, despite her repeated requests . Mara’s cry of “Unclean, unclean!” when the communion wafer burned the skin on her brow communicated a despair that no amount of arguing on the part of a young lover can ever convey.
Again, on the one hand, we find the vampire’s strength used to enforce perverse desires, while on the other, we find an uprightness approaching prudery. One does not need to be well-versed in Freud to read the erotic implications of Lucy’s forced sucking of Dracula’s blood after being drained herself. Nor does the image of her former love piercing her writhing body with a wooden stake fail to arouse, even while it disgusts. This is not merely sex; it is a sick and twisted mockery of the thing, intended to revolt even while it fascinates. Compared to this, it is hard to see Cullen, who will not spend a night with his darling before they are lawfully wed, as a monster at all, never mind one that deserves to bear the title Vampire.
Where once the word Vampire stood for the age old story of good versus evil, with every possible sentiment of fear and horror that could go with it, today it has become nothing more than a banal twist on the lighter, less inspiring story of boy meets girl, where a sparkly exterior seems to be the lone stab at originality. And while modern readers may be excited to the point of fainting as they await the arrival of each new installment of their favorite romance, they will never know the thrill of setting Dracula aside for the night and having to cross the room to turn out the light.
I found this in some old schoolwork of mine and it gave me a giggle, I thought some of you other Prosers might be amused as well.
A Matter of Perspective
"She never had children of her own so now she's trying to steal ours," Sheila's shrill voice carried through the night air, despite her attempt to whisper.
"Steal? Don't you think that's a little harsh?" Her sister-in-law Iris's deeper voice just reached the open window where Genevieve stood in shadow, sipping a glass of wine and listening to her brother's wives discuss her influence on their children.
She couldn't help chuckling to herself. Sheila really was a little twit, she thought. Nice of Iris to defend her, but she lacked imagination. It was no surprise both of their children enjoyed their aunt's company to that of their mothers.
But Sheila wasn't finished yet.
"Isn't it bad enough that our husband's care more about her opinion than about ours?" It was an old argument and Iris' sigh was audible in the dark stillness.
"She's their big sister, they let her say her piece, it doesn't mean that they don't do exactly what they planned to all along."
"Martin might, Adam changes his mind to match whatever she thinks it should be," Sheila snapped.
Genevieve had to admit she had a point. Martin had always been the more stubborn brother. Adam was easy to influence if you knew how to make an intelligent argument. He wasn't influenced by emotion, which was why his wife didn't find him easy to sway. With Martin you practically had to argue in the opposite direction to get him to do what you wanted. Iris didn't have the subtlety for such manipulation, nor could she easily spot it, which might be why she found Genevieve so much less threatening than Sheila did.
"You have to admit this trip was a generous gift," Iris continued in her calm, reasonable way.
"And so is her offer to take Sean to Africa with her," she added, more doubtfully.
"Would you want Michael running around Africa for months on end, eating and probably catching God knows what?!" Sheila sounded a little hysterical.
"Sean is seventeen," Iris replied, "Mikey is seven. And you know Sean's dying to go. He worked so hard to get good grades this past year, so she would take him. At least she made that a requirement. Genevieve won't let anything happen to him. You know she loves our kids."
"Oh yes, she loves them. Loves them so much she wants to make them hers!"
"Not really," Iris sounded exasperated now.
"So you have no problem with the fact that Miranda just spent a year of her life bumming around South America?"
"Central America," Genevieve corrected, under her breath.
Sheila knew this had been a sore point for Iris, but Iris didn't bite.
"I didn't love the idea at first, you know that. But she's had her gap year now, and she speaks Spanish quite well as a result, and that won't do her any harm when she goes looking for a job after university, if she keeps it up."
"I think it might have been good for her, really," she added, reluctantly.
"And what if she doesn't want to go to university, now that she's had her year of freedom? Then what?" Sheila demanded.
"Oh, she's going to university," stated Iris flatly.
"How do you plan to make her, if she doesn't want to," Sheila continued voicing the fears Iris preferred to avoid.
"She has to get a degree in a field that will allow her to support herself. She knows that. We've been telling her all her life," Iris insisted.
"Yes, you've told her, while you wore yourself to the bone working shifts at the hospital and Genevieve sent her exotic presents from around the world," Sheila wasn't even attempting to whisper anymore and Genevieve saw Iris make a shushing motion with her hand and glance in the direction of the house. They wouldn't see her, standing in the shadow of the curtain, in a room with no light on, and Genevieve smiled to herself, enjoying her surreptitious invisibility.
"Just because people think her travel books are funny, she gets to live this glamorous lifestyle, swanning around the world and never doing a day of real work," Sheila hissed more quietly but no less vehemently.
Genevieve snorted. Other than occasionally selling Tupperware or scented candles Sheila hadn't worked since she got pregnant in the first year of her marriage. Lucky for her Adam liked the idea of having his children home with their mother.
Genevieve turned from the open window to smile at her niece. Casually reaching out and pulling the window closed she let the curtain fall back into place, shutting out the tropical night.
"What's up honey?" she asked, clicking on a lamp and bathing the spare, simple room of the rented house with warm light.
"Aunty Gen, I don't know what to do!"
Miranda's face was the perfect picture of nineteen-year-old tragedy. Genevieve picked up the wine bottle from a side table and poured the rest of it into her glass before crossing to the rattan couch. She settled herself gracefully on one end of the seat and held out her hand to her niece.
"Tell me," she offered. Miranda joined her on the couch, sitting close enough to her aunt to rest her head briefly on her shoulder before sitting up and facing her squarely.
"Aunty Gen, I don't want to go to university this fall," she announced.
"Why not?" The question held no judgment, just honest curiosity.
"Because I don't know what to take! I know I don't want to be a nurse like my mom. I don't want to go into business or anything like that. The only thing that doesn't sound terrible is teaching, and if I was going to teach I would rather teach English in another country like I did in Nicaragua and Honduras. I wish you could get paid for that!"
"Oh, you can," Genevieve said calmly. "Not a lot, but enough to live on, if you're careful."
"Would I have to go to university to do that? Would I have to have a four-year degree?" Miranda demanded eagerly.
"It depends on where you want to teach, but the training you took while we were in Costa Rica, plus your volunteer hours in the other countries we've been too might be enough for some positions."
"You did keep your certificate and the reference letters like I told you too?" she added, treating it like a rhetorical question but still relieved when Miranda quickly nodded.
"Oh yes, I've got a file with everything, sample lesson plans and all. Do you really think I could do that!"
"It certainly wouldn't hurt to look into it," Genevieve said with a faint smile.
"Oh, Aunty Gen, do you think I could go to China?" Miranda was leaning forward now, her hands gripping each other in her excitement.
"It's definitely an option. Although you would make more money in Japan or South Korea."
"No, it has to be China!" Miranda insisted. "Not that I wouldn't love to see Japan and Korea too, but I've been dying to visit China ever since I read you book about sailing down the Yangtze!"
"I got dysentery on the Yangtze," Genevieve pointed out wryly.
"I know, it sounded amazing!"
Genevieve threw back her head and laughed. How could she argue with such youthful enthusiasm? She reached under the sofa, pulling her laptop out from where she had stashed it earlier, when she first heard voices in the garden.
Waking it up she said, "I know the government of China hires English teachers for its public schools, that would probably be the easiest way to get your visa approved."
Finding the site she was looking for she passed the laptop to her niece, watching over her shoulder as Miranda began to read.
The door to the living room swung open and a tousle haired small boy stood in the door way, rubbing his eyes.
"Mike," chided his aunt, "What are you doing out of bed?"
"Mum and Aunty Sheila are talking outside my window and Sean's snoring and I can't sleep," he grumbled.
"Your dad and Adam still not back from snook fishing yet?" she asked. He shook his dark blond curls.
"Alright," Genevieve caved. "Come curl up on the sofa until you fall asleep."
Miranda shifted to a chair to make room for her little brother, still glued to the laptop, poring over details of teaching opportunities in China.
Michael climbed onto the sofa and lay down, putting his head on his aunt's lap. Genevieve pulled the afghan off the wicker back of the sofa and spread it over him, then stroked his hair as he settled in, sipping her wine and listening to the tap of keys as Miranda planned her future.
There was a fly buzzing in the room. The man in the bed couldn’t see the fly but judging by the sound it was near his head and getting closer. He shouted for the nurse even though he knew she wasn’t in the apartment. The fly buzzed around in front of his face and he stopped shouting in order to keep his mouth shut. He breathed forcefully through his nose to discourage it from climbing in there either.
It flew down and landed on his hand. He couldn’t feel it but its presence irritated him. He tried blowing at it only to have it begin its circular buzzing again. This time it landed on his forehead. The apartment door slammed. The man could hear the nurse dropping bags of groceries onto the kitchen table. She waddled into the room with a bunch of tulips in a vase in her hand.
“There is a fly on my face,” grated the man through clenched teeth. The fly was making its way across his temple in the direction of his eye. The nurse crossed the room and set her flowers on the windowsill with the same grunt she made every day. She pushed up the window before walking over to the man. She brushed the fly off his cheek and, when it landed on the wall, killed it with a smack of her fat, capable hand.
The nurse went back to the kitchen to put away her groceries and make herself a cup of tea. She would come when he called or when it was time for her to perform the daily tasks necessary to his existence. Otherwise she would stay in the kitchen. The man accepted this arrangement. She was better than the cheerful, sunny, chattering nurses who tried to perk him up.
The fly wasn’t buzzing anymore but with the window open he could hear a group of boys playing down in the street. Their laughter grated his already raw nerves and the sound of their sneakers scuffing the pavement pained him. He tried to ignore it but the frustration he was already feeling built until finally he shouted for the nurse. He had to shout twice before he heard her footsteps in the hall and it didn’t help his mood.
“Shut the window,” ordered the man.
“No,” said the nurse, and she turned to go back to the kitchen.
“Come back here. Close that window. I don’t care what those doctors say I don’t want fresh air. I want the window closed,” he shouted louder with each sentence, knowing that she was still walking away. She didn’t respond but the boys down below, hearing his yells, got nervous, and muttering to each other, took their game somewhere else. He could tell this was going to be a bad day. The angry days were bad days.
The worst moment was when he caught the smell of cigarette smoke. The nurse wasn’t supposed to smoke in the apartment but sometimes she cheated. The smell triggered the old craving and took him back to the last cigarette he ever smoked, on the roof of the hotel that night. He could remember every movement, every breath, right down to the last flick of his fingers that sent the butt spinning off into space before following it over the edge. It had been such a simple gesture. So easy then. So impossible now.
Looking back, he couldn’t remember why it had seemed so important to end it all. Why had that jump been the obvious solution? He was going to lose everything. That was it. That was what finally drove him to try suicide. He laughed darkly to himself. He knew better now. Losing things, losing position and prestige, that was nothing. Losing everything was not being able to smoke a cigarette, not even being able to die, without help. When they picked him up off the pavement in front of that hotel he should have been dead. No one saw the irony except the man who found out what it really meant to lose everything.
He slept badly that night. By morning he was exhausted enough to ignore buzzing insects or children in the street. He lay and stared at the wall without seeing it for hours on end. Only when the nurse came to change his position and adjust the bedclothes did he notice his surroundings. She was kind in her own way, bullying him, poking and pushing him when she wanted him to move, muttering under her breath as if the limbs that didn’t work were his own fault. After all, they were.
The lethargy lasted for days. It was easier to maintain than the anger. Then one morning the sound of furniture moving in the apartment above disturbed the man. Listening to the sounds he realized that someone new was moving in. He wasn’t pleased about the change, especially when the sound of a little girl’s voice drift down to him through the open windows.
At first every noise the family above him made irked the man and he was nastier that usual to his nurse but after a few days they began to fade into the background of his life and he was able to block them out like everything else.
They had lived there for perhaps a week when someone in the apartment above began to play on an out of tune piano. The man in the bed groaned as the discordant notes came down through the floorboards. It was bad enough that someone was trying to make music in his hearing. The least they could do was tune their instrument. Even the disgusting noise, so off beam that it couldn’t really be called music took him back to a different time, a time when music had been everything to him.
The man shouted for the nurse, and when she came he ordered her to shut the window. A gruff order was given upstairs and the non-music stopped, temporarily. But not the thought process it had set in motion. He was sitting in front of a piano again, in his parent’s house, on another summer’s day. Playing for hours, mind and body focused entirely on the music, even his breath rising and falling with its rhythms. Only stopping when the maid brought in a tray and refused to go away until he’d eaten. Working towards perfection with a single mindedness that bordered on obsession.
And it had paid off. He had been the best. He had played in that same trance-like state before audiences of thousands and been physically shocked to look up at the end of a piece and see them there, hear their applause. Lying alone in his bed, staring out at the clouds sailing by, he could still hear that applause. He was grateful when the sound of heavy boots walking across the floor above him pulled him out of his reverie.
The gratitude was short-lived. As soon as the footsteps were gone the off-key music began again, very quietly but still painfully clear. He turned his head from side to side on the pillow, covering first one ear and then the other, trying to block out the sound but it continued for what felt like hours while he lay in an agony of mounting rage.
Days went by and the man realized that it must be the child playing. The ill tuned instrument only played after school let out and before the heavy-footed father returned from work. That was already too long from the man’s point of view. He began to dread the hours spent as a captive audience to a piano player apparently oblivious to the awfulness of the music she was making. The boys who played ball in the street hardly bothered him any more as he was filled with genuine hatred for this little girl musician.
It surprised him one day to realize he had begun to think of her as playing music and not just making noise. It had nothing to do with the quality of sound. The notes were as wrong as ever, but despite himself he began to pick out what those notes would have been if they were only what they should have been. He began with a natural musician’s ear to correct the tuning in his own mind, and to hear the complexity being played.
It is weeks before he allowed himself to listen objectively, but when he did he realized that the timing was always perfect. He listened to the rise and fall of the incorrect notes and he heard the fact that she must time even her breathing to the music she played to have it flow the way it did. He began to recognize that if the instrument where not so warped the pieces being played were truly amazing for a child. But never complete. There were snatches of songs, the sort that a person might catch standing outside of a concert hall when the door opened.
Somewhere, at some point, this child must have run her fingers up and down the keyboard of a perfectly tuned instrument, have heard exactly where each note was and remembered the fact. And now, anything that came past those little ears was played as it should be played, by ear and by memory both. The natural skill required for such a feat was astounding. It felt like waking up as the man recognized another person who needed music so badly that they would play anything, even something as awful as that beast of an instrument upstairs.
In the corner of the man’s room, out of site from where he lay in the bed, was a very old, very plain piano. Its appearance was deceptive. There was nothing simple about the music he had played on it once. It was the only thing he had loved enough to hold onto after he chose to throw his life away. The child had been playing her awful scraps of melody for over a month when the man ordered his nurse to call an expert tuner he used to know.
He chose the time when the tuner should come very carefully, and his orders to the nurse in preparation for his arrival were precise. When the tuner arrived, the dreadful piano upstairs was playing and the tuner grimaced in sympathy toward the man.
“That must be enough to drive you mad,” he said.
The man merely grunted in reply. The tuner got on with his job. Running his fingers up and down the keyboard first in chords then arpeggios he tested the instrument’s accuracy. There was very little discrepancy, even after all that time. When he opened the top he only needed to adjust the strings very slightly. His fingers lingered on a series of rich, mellow chords that perfectly brought out the piano’s tone. There was a slight sound from the doorway of the room and he looked around. A young girl was standing there, very still, her eyes locked on the piano as if she had never seen one before.
She stepped carefully across the room to stand beside him. The tuner looked over at the man in the bed that had been turned from its usual position so that he now faced the piano. The man jerked his head at the tuner so he stood up and gestured to the child to sit. Her hands were still to small to reach an octave, but she held her fingers delicately curved above the keys.
What she played was only a bit of the original Sonata, but it came to life in that small, bare room. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Everything she wore was cheap and worn. She was so shy it was painful, but none of that mattered when she played. When she turned to look at the man in the bed she wasn’t smiling, she was too afraid for that, but her eyes glowed.
“You can leave now,” the man said to the tuner. The girl got up from the piano to follow him out of the room.
“No, you stay,” said the man in the bed, “Look in that cupboard, there in the corner. On the second shelf is a sheaf of music. In it is the rest of the piece you were just playing. Only you were playing a later rendition, that one is the original. Under it is a record, put it on that machine there and listen to it so you can hear where the notes are until you can read the music.” The child obeyed and music he had recorded long ago floated out of ancient speakers.
The man’s life didn’t change very much from that day. He was still alone most of the time. He was still unable to lift a finger for himself. But where there had been despair there was purpose. Where there had been emptiness there were plans and goals and the anticipation of a few short hours every afternoon when once again his genius could flow out into music, this time through the medium of a child.
At the end of the school day she would appear at the door, always waiting to be invited in. What the man offered could hardly have been called an invitation, but it worked.
“Come in here,” he would bark, “Play me the piece you played yesterday, and remember what I told you about…” and on it would go. No teacher could have wished for a better pupil. The girl was as focused, as dedicated, as he had ever been himself. And in return he taught her to bring out the nuances of a song that could take it from a rippling brook to a thundering cascade from one bar to the next. He taught her the steps to greatness.
The growth in her music showed in the child. Drooping lids no longer hid the glow in her eyes. The smiles that at first trembled at the corners of her mouth burst forth when she felt the shock of a rushing finale. Even the grunting nurse found tasks to busy herself with in the room during those afternoons. She didn’t frighten the child. The girl seemed to understand the approbation behind the silences, to hear the praise in the grunts and she responded with affection in her quiet way.
The sound of her father’s boots broke through the spell of the music each afternoon and the girl would stop, her fingers poised above the keys to listen until they had passed upstairs. Then she would slide off the bench and go to where the nurse was working and stand beside her just for a moment, near enough to touch, but not. She would walk over to the man in the bed and this time she did reach out, her fingers just touching the back of his hand as it lay on the covers before she slipped away upstairs. The man could almost feel that touch.
One day the girl was late for her “lesson”. It was the first time in months she had not run up the stairs after school to begin playing as soon as possible. The man in the bed began to be restless and angry. When the nurse came into the room he growled to her, “How does she ever expect to excel if she doesn’t have the dedication to practice for a few hours?”
The nurse didn’t answer. She was looking toward the doorway. The girl stepped into the room.
“Daddy got laid off,” she said. The situation clearly wasn’t new to her. “We are behind on the rent. We catch the midnight train to the country. My uncle will give Daddy work. We are to be grateful.”
She walked over the piano and touched the keys with the tips of her fingers. Just brushed them without making a sound. She turned and looked at the man in the bed and her eyes said the words her lips couldn’t voice. She walked out of the room and up the stairs. They could hear the sound of feet walking the floors and muffled voices. Very little furniture was moved, that would have to stay to cover debts. The girl did not come back to say good-bye, but the man could hear her father’s boots on the stairs and her mother’s voice moving away down the street.
The nurse went back to the kitchen. The man stared at the wall and tried not to see even the shadows, tried not to hear even the wind, tried to put up the blank wall of unfeeling between himself and his surroundings. But even as he felt himself begin to sink the sound of boys shouting penetrated his concentration. He bellowed for the nurse and after a moment she stumped into the room.
“Close the window,” he ordered.
“No,” she said, and turned to go back to the kitchen.
“Wait,” he cried, and the desperation in his voice must have penetrated because she paused.
“If you won’t close the window,” he said, “At least get a pen and paper and write something down for me.” She left the room without a word but a minute later she was back with a bit of pencil and a piece of brown paper bag. It would have to do. It took an eternity for her to find a pocketknife in a drawer and shave the end of the pencil to a workable sharpness but finally she was ready. She balanced the paper on her broad knee and looked at him. What he told her to write she wrote, and she took the piece of paper out on the errand he asked her to run.
A week later she answered a knock at the door. The teenager she showed into the man’s room was dirty and unkempt. His oily hair hung unevenly on his shoulders. His jeans were out at the knees and it was impossible to tell what the original color of his leather jacket had been. In his hand, he held a newspaper. He stared at the man, lying there in his bed. He looked around the room and saw the piano. Finally, he held out the paper.
“It says you’ll teach people no one else can teach any more,” he said, “Is it true?” It sounded more like an accusation than a question.
“Sit down at the piano and play me something,” said the man. “We’ll see.”
Dad grins over at me, coffee stained teeth flashing through his bushy grey beard. I smile back, stifling a yawn until he looks out over the water again. He casts his line in a high smooth arch, his reel whirs as he cranks it in.
My cast is lazy. It lands the lure only a few feet from the base of the doc, in an oily patch of water. I balance the rod in my left hand as I lean down to pick up my travel mug off the low guardrail. The smell of fish bait on my fingers wrinkles my nose as I bring the mug to my lips, and I squint at the morning sun sparkling off the little peaks formed by the incoming tide. The salt scented breeze ruffles my bangs and the water laps gently at the wood pilings below us.
I have to admit that it’s all very lovely. But wouldn’t it have been just as lovely after ten am? I put my coffee down and slowly click over my reel, counting down the seconds to when my alarm would go off on a typical work day.
“Morning Mark,” each new comer greets Dad as they pass, grey, grizzled old men like himself.
“Morning!” Dad responds to each one, calling out their names as they pass, “Did you see? Arlana’s here for a visit!”
“Wow, look at you,” they say. “All grown up!” “I remember when you were only…”
I smile and nod politely to each one, though most I don’t recognize at all, and none have names in my memory. I continue to sip my coffee at regular intervals, ignoring the stink of my fingers in my need for caffeine.
“I’ve got one,” shouts an old-timer who Dad called Jim, down at the far end, “Someone give me a hand!”
I look around, confused, wondering what “someone” is supposed to do. One or two of the other men start reeling faster but I’m the only one without a line in the water. I look to Dad for an explanation.
“Grab one of those nets,” he gestures with his bearded chin to a heap in the middle of the pier, still reeling in his own line, “And help him pull it in.”
I put my rod and my coffee down on the deck and hurry over to the pile, grab what looks like an oversized wire mesh hanging basket attached to yellow nylon rope and hustle to where the hunched figure is struggling to hang on to a rod bent almost double.
“I’ve almost got him,” he gasps, managing to click the reel over a couple of notches, “Get the net in the water.”
I look over the edge, to where the ocean meets the pilings several meters below. I hadn’t thought about how the fish were supposed to get up to the platform.
I heave the basket net over the side and flinch as the frayed rope scrapes my fingers. I try to line up the basket as close to the where his line enters the water as possible, scanning for the first flicker of scales under the surface. There it is!
I let the rough rope slide through my hands, the basket splashes into the water and Jim is right next to me, so close the smell of his chewing tobacco overpowers the salty sea air, struggling to force the fish into position. I jerk the rope a second to soon and the fish slips over the edge of the net, still fighting for it’s freedom. I curse under my breath but Jim just chuckles and leans back against the pull on his line.
This time I’m more patient, I watch for my moment and then I heave. Hand over hand I lift the basket while Jim reels like mad. Together we lift the gleaming speckled body up onto the planks.
“Thanks,” gasps Jim, grasping the fish and twisting the hook out of it’s mouth with one smooth gesture. I stand back, breathing hard, looking down at our handiwork.
The following minutes are a blur. I'm up and down the dock, pulling up fish after fish, the rough, worn ropes rasping against my palms, drops of salt water leaving white crusted splotches on my leather shoes.
I’m panting, and half laughing when a familiar hand, large, scarred and calloused, catches hold of the latest fish and I look up into my dad’s eyes and we’re both grinning at each other in the sunshine and I don’t even notice the salt water running up my sleeves.
“Go on,” he says, “I’ve got this. They’re really biting now!”
I glance around to be sure no one else needs me, then snatch up my rod and cast my line in a long clean arch, my grip tightening on the handle as my reel begins to whir.
Dreaming of Utopia
Some people say there were drugs involved.
Others think it was hypnotism. Some kind of mind control anyhow.
I don’t see what they’re so fussed about myself. No one’s gone hungry in America in years. “Homelessness” is being taught in the schools as a historical fact along with apartheid and slavery and all the other nasty things humans used to do to each other back in the day. You’d think people would be grateful and I guess most of them are, but there are always a few conspiracy nuts that just can’t accept a good thing even when it’s staring them right in their faces. They want to explain it in a way that fits their ideas of human nature and all that, and that’s tough to do.
It all started with Carlin. You’d think the savior of mankind would have a more religious sounding name, but maybe he (Or is it she? I couldn’t tell you.) didn’t want to be too obvious about it. At least not right at first. No one saw his gig for what it was until things were already under way. If they had some of them might have quit before anything really big could be accomplished. But maybe Carlin wouldn’t have let them. Who knows?
I think there were fads about guru’s before. But the really rich don’t seem to have followed them, generally. With Carlin it was different. You needed a net worth of billions before you had a chance of meeting him. At least in the early days. And did they ever line up to meet him, to hear him talk, to learn his secrets. I don’t know what exactly he promised them, some sort of secret to life I guess. It must be easier, changing the world, when your first converts own so much of the world’s wealth. I wonder why Jesus never thought of that.
Cause these people, the richest of the rich, started to change. Not too quickly, not all at once, but in ways that mattered. No one else knew anything was up until things were already well under way. And then there were protests, lobby groups, objections all round. Because one of the first things they did was buy land. Lots and lots of land. A lot of it was farm land, and no one could really object to farm owners selling their own property, but a lot more of it was protected land, government land and the like. And people sure got bent out of shape about that. As it turns out, they needn’t have. These richer than rich were suddenly all about “holding things in trust” and “creating a community” and they didn’t block other people from the land, they actually invited them to share it. With conditions, of course.
They started with the homeless, the addicts, the bottom of society. People who had nothing left to lose. Offered them an alternative lifestyle. And it worked. These drunks and addicts and prostitutes became happy, productive farmers on the communes, living right alongside those rich men. Once you were there, on the communes, then you got to meet Carlin, no matter who you were, at least once. And he’d talk to you, they say. Convince you to see things his way. And once he got a hold of them people stopped hording up stuff, and started to only take what they needed and to live in ways that hurt nature less, and if they didn’t agree on every little thing, well, they let each other alone instead of fighting about everything.
Once word started getting around about how good things were on these farms, people started lining up to join, first the poor, or the ones with tough lives, but after a while it was even people who had regular jobs and could afford to eat, and everyone was welcome, more or less. They’d make you listen to Carlin and agree to what he said, about all the mixed up priorities people had learned to have, and how greed was killing the planet and everyone on it, whether they realized it or not. And as long as you agreed that you didn’t want that anymore, that you’d live the sort of peaceful, quite life they were offering, then you were in, simple as that.
It sure opened up opportunities for some people. Grandmothers rotting in old folks homes were brought out of retirement to teach a generation of young men and women raised in the concrete and steel world of American cities how to preserve the food they’d grown, how to spin and weave and knit and sew the clothes they needed. And the grandfather’s too, the few still around who could remember a simpler way of life, and how to work the land without doing so much damage, they were welcome too, although less of them seemed to want it. Maybe they were just more set in their ways, but no one forced anyone to join, you understand, it was all voluntary, and that’s the part some folks find hard to believe.
That and the fact that, once Carlin’s talked to them, it doesn’t seem like anyone ended up seeing things different than him. Maybe he’s just that convincing, but some of us prefer not to test that theory, just yet, and so far he’s left us alone. Not that we haven’t been affected, oh no. It’s a lot harder to run a government when all the lobbyists have stopped
paying politicians and are busy building farms and protecting all the trees and whatnot. It’s been pretty hard on the government budgets, since the farms aren’t run for profit and no one living on them seems to make a taxable income. I guess the politicians might have found a way to tax carrots, if they’d realized the risk sooner, but by the time they started to raise a stink too many of their voters were already in on the deal and there wasn’t much they could do.
Rich men turned pacifist was hard on national defense too, let me tell you. Too many non-government weapons contracts and suddenly the owners of these massive companies were closing them down, even when it cost them a bundle, and turning their factories into giant greenhouses and grow-ops and what-have-you. It’s a good thing Carlin had taken his show on the road by that time. America would have been in a whole lot of trouble if they’d been the only ones falling into line. But its spread, this new way of thinking and living, and other rich men are setting things up so that ordinary folks can choose a different life all around the world. They seem to be happy. Happier than the rest of us still trying to make a go of it without “the community” to back us up, anyway.
It’s hard to be greedy when no one’s ready to work a crappy factory job anymore, so all the normal stuff we used to collect in our normal houses are luxury items now, and no one builds real luxury items anymore because no one rich enough cares to buy them. Not that we’re going to starve or anything. The communes sell whatever they don’t need to live on at pretty low prices, considering they’ve got a corner on the market. But some of the older ones, the one’s who remember what it was all like before, miss stuff like sports games and big screen TV’s and eating junk food that made you sick. My old man talks about it with the friends he’s still got on this side, all the time.
They figure it made sense for the artists and musicians and poets and such to run off to the farms. They always were into that sort of lifestyle apparently. My old man never cared much for art anyway. But they say all the best educators went too, and that’s why there isn’t more literature and the like in the cities now days. Some of them even say the young ones don’t know nothing like they used to. I dunno, I guess I done ok. I gotta admit, the best doctors are out on the communes, and that’s a pain for us, here in town. But if you can get to them they’ll treat you, same as anyone else. So long as you can get to ’em. There are a lot less lawyers now too, since most people don’t want to sue each other, and the few that would like to would just be wasting their time chasing the likes of Carlin and his fans. Because, really, what do you charge them with. Feeding the hungry? Sheltering the homeless? Explaining to any judge still working for the system that all this kindness is killing the GDP is a bit difficult, and even if you could, the other side can afford better lawyers, even if they don’t like the idea.
There’s the question of population, of course. People seem to have a lot less kids on the farms. That looks like proof that something suspicious is going on to folks like my old man, but the community has an answer for that too. According to them Carlin got to us just in time. They say that one person can live on less than an acre of land, if they know what they’re doing, but that things were getting awfully tight, before he showed up. Apparently, and this seems to have been known even before Carlin came along, there are something like 7.68 billion acres of farmable land on this planet. And there were about that many people on the planet the year his name first hit the news.
So maybe making too many babies isn’t such a good idea either. And it’s not like they’re cruel about it. Any woman wants to have a kid, that’s ok. And if she wants a second bad enough, they say she just has to find another woman who doesn’t want kids to agree to let her have her quota. So even that’s a win win. Far as I’m concerned the whole thing seems ok. It’s my old man that won’t let go of the whole conspiracy drugs and hypnosis thing. And he’s getting up there. He wouldn’t do so well on his own, without me to look after him. So I’ll wait ’til he’s gone, and then I guess I’ll head out to the nearest commune with some room to spare, and be grateful for the fresh air and do my bit of digging and maybe find out what the big deal is about art and music and all the rest.
Someday. Not just yet.
Janet stood on the steps of her apartment building, fumbling in her purse, hunting for her keys and shivering. A thin cry halted her search. At first, she didn’t believe her ears. There couldn’t be a baby here. There was nothing here except brick walls and glass windows and concrete sidewalk. And the dumpster. There wasn’t usually a dumpster in front of her building but one of the apartments was being renovated. The dumpster was for construction materials. There couldn’t be a baby in the construction dumpster.
"It's a kitten. It has to be a kitten." She said the words out loud, but she didn't believe them.
If it hadn’t come again, just then, as she stood hesitating, keys finally in hand, Janet might have gone into the building and up to her eleventh-floor apartment and convinced herself she hadn’t heard it at all. But it did come again. An angry little wail, firmly objecting to current circumstances, and this time Janet didn’t hesitate.
Hanging onto the frigid handrail with one hand and clutching her purse with the other Janet made her way down the steps and approached the ugly green bin. She could just see over the edge by standing on tip toe, but she thought the sound must have come from a cardboard box sitting on top of the heap of broken drywall inside. She tried to reach but it was too far. Gripping the edge of the bin she managed to get the toe of her patent leather shoe into the metal protrusion on its side. She boosted herself up until her hips rested on the edge, her toe just managing to hang on for balance and, releasing the edge, she reached out with both hands, grasped the box, then let herself slide back until she stood on the sidewalk again.
Dumpster grime had smeared her suit pants and the front of her coat but she didn’t notice. Setting the box carefully on the sidewalk she automatically adjusted her purse strap more firmly on her shoulder before crouching down. Her hands shook slightly as they pushed the flaps back and she recoiled, almost falling backwards, when she saw what was inside.
It was an infant, certainly, squalling and red faced, tiny fists waving uncontrolled, but from the waist down it was covered in a thick clot of dark blood. Janet gagged as she reached in to slide her hands under the baby’s armpits, supporting the head with her fingertips as she lifted it free of the box. The clot slid away and she realized it was attached by a chord to the baby’s navel. She had to search her memory for a moment. Placenta. Hadn’t Clarissa talked about the benefits of eating the placenta before she had her first? Seeing one for the first-time, Janet wasn’t surprised that this particular fad hadn’t stuck. Fumbling open the buttons on the front of her wool coat she tucked the infant inside, against her right breast, placenta and all. Scooping her keys up from the sidewalk where they had fallen she stumbled back up the steps and finally got the door to her building open.
Standing in the brightly lit foyer next to the bank of mailboxes, she finally looked the newborn in the face. It had stopped crying now, and it blinked tears out of dark blue eyes as it looked blurrily back at her. They couldn’t see very much at first. Janet was sure Clarissa had told her that, and she bent her face closer to ask, “What am I going to do with you?”
The baby didn’t answer, just blinked some more. Janet realized that she was staring with her mouth slightly open and closed it with a snap. “There has to be someone to call. Do you constitute an emergency? You don’t look like you’re dying... I suppose you’re a crime.” The baby vented a brief cry and Janet chuckled. “What, you don’t like being a crime? I can imagine it’s not very comfortable.” She looked around at the bare, tiled space, searching for a solution to her predicament. “Well, let’s make you more comfortable while I look for a number.”
Riding up in the elevator she wondered how she was going to do that. Her blouse was now thoroughly begrimed with dirt and blood, but she didn’t think that it, or any of the other clothes in her closet, were suitable for wrapping an infant. Maybe if she cut up a t-shirt?
She was two steps inside her own front door when she began to laugh. Thank god for Clarissa! Fertile, fecund Clarissa. Was she having baby number four? Or five? At the moment Janet couldn't remember. Either way, her cousin now had enough of them that Janet didn’t feel obliged to buy carefully selected, personal gifts for each new arrival. This time she had ordered a "diaper cake" from a company that made gift baskets. It had come blessedly early, and there it sat, in the exact center of Janet’s round, polished dining table. Her laugh was slightly hysterical as she stood staring at the lumpy tiers.
It was larger than any wedding cake Janet had ever seen. And it wasn't just diapers. She had chosen the "assortment" option, and the result was a mix of pale yellow and green jumpers, booties, hats and receiving blankets, twisted to look like flowers atop the Pampers layers, tied round with ribbons and topped with a bouquet of bottles supporting a mass of yellow minky that might have been intended for daffodils.
Pulling at the ribbons with shaking fingers, she set aside the blanket and counted three baby bottles, with little frogs and ducks printed on them.
“Food first, then we’ll get you dressed.” Janet pulled open the fridge door and stood staring at its meager contents.
Almond milk. Almond milk wouldn’t do any harm, would it? She managed to fill the bottle one-handed, and put it in the microwave to warm. The baby was fussing, making little whimpering sounds in its throat. “Sh, sh,” Janet murmured, bouncing gently as the glass turntable revolved. She remembered to shake a few drops onto her own bare wrist, as she had seen Clarissa do. “It’s warm, not too hot, what do you think?” she asked, putting the nipple in the baby’s mouth. It must have been a healthy infant, for all it was cold and dirty, because it only took a second for the taste of milk to penetrate and it began to guzzle greedily.
Janet stood in the center of her stainless steel and porcelain kitchen, still wearing her heels and coat, and watched the infant drink. Her chignon was starting to come lose in wisps around her face, and the crisp outlines of her makeup were beginning to blur this late in the day. Her usually erect posture curved inward to support her arms encircling the tiny bundle.
Hunger abated, the baby’s sucking slowed. At least half the contents of the bottle were gone. Sitting down at the table Janet pulled a polka-dotted receiving blanket out of the first cake layer and threw it over her shoulder. The wool of her coat might be scratchy. Cautiously she positioned the slender arms over the fabric, so that the baby’s face was clear to breath. With one hand she cupped the baby’s bare bottom, with the other she gently patted manicured fingers against curving back. The umbilical cord hung past dangling pink toes, the placenta puddled in her lap. Abruptly the baby spat up. The force was enough to clear the cotton and leave a trail down her back.
“Well thank you very much for that.”
Janet laid the receiving blanket across her knees and balanced the baby on top of them long enough to shrug out of her coat and suit jacket. Had it only been a day since she stood in her closet deciding whether to wear a pantsuit or a skirt to the conference? She had avoided anything that might look at all festive. She didn’t want to remind any colleagues attending of her birthday. She usually avoided the office around birthdays, especially these days.
The baby stirred and whimpered in her lap. “Oh, I’m sorry sweetie,” Janet leaned forward at once. “Did I zone out on you?” It was a girl. She hadn’t noticed that before.
Tucking the receiving blanket more closely she lifted the little bundle, still attached to the dark mass of placenta and carried her across to the kitchen sink, laying her on the drain board. What was she going to do with that placenta? She couldn’t just leave it hanging there, not if she was going to get her dressed before calling social services. She was pretty sure you couldn’t just pull it off.
Clarissa’s babies always had clips on their umbilical cords, she remembered. “Clips, clips,” she muttered to herself, hunting through the kitchen drawers, one hand still on the baby. She ended up using a chip bag sealer, gingerly attaching it a couple inches from the full, round belly and cutting the cord with a pair of kitchen shears. “Sorry baby, sorry,” she muttered as the tiny legs kicked, sending the cord and placenta sliding into the sink.
Dropping the shears back into their drawer with a clatter she hunted some more, until she found the softest cotton dishcloth from the ones her grandmother had knitted. Running the water and the garburator simultaneously she disposed of the placenta. The fleshy bloody smell made her gag again, and she poured some disinfectant down after it. When the water seemed warm enough she began to carefully wipe away the muck covering the little body.
The baby squalled again at this procedure, but quieted once Janet put one of the diapers on her and wrapped another receiving blanket, striped this time, tightly round her body, arms and legs. Cuddling the baby in the crook of her right arm Janet dug her cell phone out of her purse and walked over to where her laptop sat on the coffee table. Waking it up she wondered out loud, “Social services? The police? The non-emergency help line?”
But she found herself searching for adoption information instead. The number of older children in the system waiting for homes was heartbreaking, but statistics on infant adoption were worse. The process sounded long and complicated. The odds of a single woman her age being approved didn’t look good. And there was a waiting list. A long one. She wasn’t really surprised, she hadn’t even meant to look, but she found her eyes stinging, all the same.
Finally, she typed “what to do with a baby found in a dumpster”. The results weren’t very useful. Instead of instructions she found a series of news stories where babies had been abandoned in dumpsters. Some included pictures of dead infants, frozen or starved. Janet’s stomach churned and her shoulders hunched as she hugged the baby in her arms closer to herself. The little one had dropped off to sleep now, her breathe coming gently through parted lips. Safe and warm and fed. Janet stared down at her for a long time.
When the phone in her hand rang she nearly dropped it in shock. A pang of guilt stabbed her. She was supposed to be making a phone call, damn it!
"Happy birthday!" Her mother's voice rang down the line. "How does it feel to be thirty-nine? Any different than it did yesterday? At least you can be grateful it's not the big four oh! But tell me, what did you do for your birthday? Did you go out with friends? You didn’t have to go in to the office, did you? You should have stayed home and gotten your nails done or treated yourself to a nice massage. Something like that.”
“No, Mom, I had a conference today. It ran late, I only got home an hour ago.”
Had it only been an hour? Her clock said so but she couldn’t believe it.
Her mother was still talking but Janet wasn’t listening. She was gazing down at the small face nestled against her blouse, at the surprisingly dark fuzz covering the round head, at the balled-up fist on top of the blanket.
“Mom,” she interrupted a description of her Aunt Trudy’s gall bladder operation, “Mom, I’ve got something to tell you.”
Her mother, abruptly worried, asked, “What is it?” rather sharply.
“I’m going to have a baby.”
“What, at your age?” still sharp.
“You always say I’m not too old,” Janet retorted, stung.
“Well, I know you’re not, but I didn’t even know you were seeing anyone these days. Did you and Dan get back together?”
“No, I’m not seeing anyone. I’m going to have it rather soon. Any day now.”
“Oh my good lord! And why am I just hearing about this now?”
“I didn’t know if I was going to keep it. I didn’t want to start a fuss until I was sure.”
“Does Dan know?”
“It’s not Dan’s. Actually, the father is the reason Dan and I broke up. But he’s not in the picture either.”
Janet couldn’t believe how easy the lies were. They couldn’t have been smoother if she’d practiced for a month.
“You don’t mind, do you? About me being a single mum.” She knew the answer before she asked the question, knew it was the quickest way to win her mother over. Her mother had always been so proud of raising her girl on her own. Janet knew what she would say.
“Of course not! Do you want me to come out there? Be with you when you have it? Or you could come back here. We could arrange for Sylvia to do the delivery.” Janet’s younger cousin was a midwife.
“No Mom, I’m fine and I have everything arranged here. I’ll come out next month like I planned. I just wanted to give you the heads up.”
Her annual visit to her home state and the small town she’d grown up in. A week with her mother and her aunty and her cousins. A week of home and she was always ready to get back to her solitary city life, her apartment and her work.
“Heads up? Honestly,” her mother’s voice was losing its sharpness, beginning to sound pleased despite herself. “We could do a joint baby shower for you and Clarissa. Clarissa wouldn’t mind.”
As her mother began making plans for being a grandmother Janet went back to watching her baby sleep.
“What am I going to call you?” she asked softly.