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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Beauty with a Bite - 1/24

Becky lay back in the reclined chair, staring at the dog posters adhered to the ceiling. Closing her eyes, the bright light from the blazing bulb above her head, lingered against her lids while her jaw burned and she tasted cotton stuffed into her cheeks.

"Just one more," Dr. Martin said. The orthodontist blew another puff of chilled air onto her second front tooth. The dab of cool glue made her shiver, the touch like ice.

Opening her eyes, Becky watched the orthodontist take the last bracket in his tweezers. He lifted the small square of silver and brought the brace to her mouth. The metal felt like a boulder falling upon her face.

Dr. Martin set down his tools with a clatter and pulled off his rubber gloves. He patted her on the shoulder and Becky felt his calluses against her skin.

"I’m going to give you a few minutes to let those set, and then we'll thread you up and you'll be on your way."

Becky nodded, her grin stretching her chipmunk cheeks.

With a clatter of his stool’s casters, Dr. Martin rose and headed out of the paneled office. He began chatting with a nurse, but Becky didn't listen.

The smell of adhesive and steel drowned her nose like Andy Faber’s new aftershave. She grinned again and wiggled into the leather padding the orthodontist’s chair. Images of the other girls in school, with their braced smiles and rubber bands joined her in the slim room. Paula and her gold and red smile for homecoming along with Lisa, hers glowing in the dark for Halloween. Even Vera, who barely opened her mouth anyway, had a shimmering display of crystal blue peaking out whenever she grinned.

Tilting her head, Becky gazed at the clear box on the counter, holding the colored bands from which she would choose her newest accessory. She had already decided: purple. Her mom of course thought the choice was horrible.

"You'll look diseased," her mom had said on the drive over.

"It's my mouth," Becky had countered before pouting and staring at her gapped filled smile in the passenger window.

As the medicinal aroma’s began to dwindle, Becky glanced over her shoulder. The opening into the hall remained empty, although she heard Dr. Martin and a technician two doors down. The orthodontist’s mumbling dwindled as his heavy steps neared. Becky settled her gaze back on the dog posters above her head and kept her hands from drumming the seat with nervous energy.

"Let's see if you're ready," said Dr. Martin, striding back to her side and onto his stool with a spin. He donned another pair of rubber gloves while Becky opened her mouth as wide as she could. Her jaw already felt weary but she held steady while he poked.

"Alright," said the orthodontist.

Becky gripped the hem of her tank top with both hands.

Dr. Martin drew a thin thread of metal and began weaving through the adhered braces on her teeth. Becky cringed as the sound of nails on chalkboard erupted from her mouth.

"What color did you want again?"

"Hur-hle," she managed.

Dr. Martin nodded as if she had spoken clearly. Becky locked her gaze on him though, following his gloved hands to the box.

"These right?" He held up the plum hued rubber circles.

Becky nodded to be on the safe side.

The orthodontist began on her mouth again without argument or even an eyebrow raised in surprise at her selection. Once he had tugged and snapped, threaded and jerked, he sat back and tilted the light to observe his work.

"You're going to need some elastics," he said. He scooped a clear baggie from the tray and dangled them like a treat. "They're going to go from your upper canines here," he poked to indicate the appropriate teeth, "to your back molars. I'll put them in and then show you."

Again, Becky nodded. She remembered Skip Johnson flinging his elastics across the lunch room. She was certain she would be more careful, although her smile would no doubt still show them off.

Dr. Martin fought with the tiny bands and then stretched them into place. The rubber tasted like unflavored gum and the sudden tension made Becky frown.

The orthodontist pulled out the supportive cotton from her mouth and tossed the soggy wads onto the tray.

"Why don't you have a look?" Dr. Martin pressed a button on her reclining chair and Becky started sitting up. Halfway vertical, the orthodontist offered her a square mirror with a plastic handle. The weight of the metal and bands swarmed with the blood rushing from her head and made Becky feel dizzy. Becky took the mirror in a two handed grip and drew a breath that swelled her nearly flat chest.

The orthodontist began talking about the bands, cleaning, and care, but his voice dimmed as Becky took in her reflection.

Rows of metal squares glittered where her smile had once been. The purple gleamed like fresh bruises, one for each tooth. She tried to open her mouth to check out the beige bands but her jaw felt stuck, as if made of rock. And then, as Dr. Martin gave her a final pat, the throbbing pain began. The agony ran along her gum line and then took hold of the lower part of her face. Becky scowled at her reflection as her heart began to sink and her pulse inflated her head like a helium balloon. Beauty, she realized with a sag of her knobby shoulders, came at a price.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Always Listening - 1/22

Edna shuffled through the front door of her apartment. The scent of roses and arthritic ointment hung in the air. As the latch clicked into place, she draped her bulging purse on one hook jutting from the wall and then sloughed off her coat. She hung the linen jacket with care and then wobbled down the hallway, passing rows of framed photographs.

"I'm home," she said. "Going to make some tea, would you like some?"

Silence answered as Edna turned left to enter the kitchen. Sparse linoleum gleamed from a recent cleaning. A shining tea pot sat on top of the pristine stove. Clutching the handle, Edna held the spout beneath the faucet and began a slow trickle of water into the bell shaped container.

"Meredith says hello," she continued. "Jimmy apparently has a new job and Helen's engaged. Can you believe it? I remember when she was in diapers."

With the pot half full, she returned to the stove and started the front burner. The dribbles of water around the bulbous sides spat and sizzled as they dripped into the gas.

"Greta is supposed to be coming by," Edna said, opening a cabinet. A cluttered set of dishes greeted her and she selected a mug, setting the porcelain onto the counter. She rose on the toes of her Mary Jane’s in order to pull down a crumpled box of orange-spice tea. Draping the string over the mug’s rim, she rested one tea bag into her cup.

"She's going to help me get rid of some more junk." Edna sighed and watched the steam begin to build out of the curving spout. "She doesn’t seem to like it, you know, but better than leaving it all until the end."

The pot began to whistle and Edna clicked off the burner. Gathering a potholder from the drawer, she hefted the boiling container. With one hand holding the tea bag, she poured.

"There," she said, setting the pot onto a heart shaped trivet. Collecting her steaming cup, she wobbled into the living room.

Afternoon light streamed through the lace curtains, falling with specks of dust against the thick carpet and tweed couch. The bookcases lining the walls greeted her with remembered tales, as the sea of photographs covering every flat surface smiled back with cheery faces and memories. A wide backed leather arm chair gleamed with rounded edges and rings of crinkles.

Setting her mug down on one woven coaster occupying the table, Edna plopped down onto the couch cushion closest to the leather seat.

"Greta should be here soon, I think." Edna checked the thin watch on her dainty wrist. "You know she usually comes by after dropping Freddie off."

A rap on the front door echoed down the hallway.

"What did I say?" Edna smiled at the neighboring chair and then turned toward the entrance. "You have a key!"

The bolt thudded and hinges let out a squeak. "You brought me up to be polite," said Greta, stepping through the door.

"You learned that from your father," Edna said. With a double sway, she hefted from the cushions and stood. By then, Greta occupied in the living room's doorway in her checkered sweater and slacks.

"Don't get up, mom."

Edna waved off the advice and they met in the middle of the room for a quick hug.

"Tea?" asked Edna.

"No, thanks. I don't have long. Freddie's got practice this afternoon."

"Of course, of course."

Greta's gaze passed over the living room. "Was there anything you wanted me to take?"

"I put together a box of books for donation." Edna motioned at the crate in the corner.

"Alright," said Greta, locking eyes with the cardboard. She adjusted her purse strap onto her shoulder. "I'll take it with me."

"Why don't you wait? It's heavy. Bring Freddie by and he can carry it for you."

Greta shook her head and chuckled. "He's got the social schedule that would rival the President."

"You can still come for lunch on Sunday though, right?"

"Of course."

"Take it then. It's not in the way."

Edna gave Greta a wide smile as her daughter frowned.

"You know you can always come stay with us, right mom?"

"Bah," Edna said, waving her hand as if batting flies and shuffling back to the couch. "You don't want me underfoot. And why would I leave?"

Greta loomed over the table. "You're by yourself so much. If something were to happen..."

"Good God, Greta. I'm not alone with Josephine right next door and I'm not an invalid."

Edna reached for her tea and set the mug on her knee. Greta blew out a long exhale.

"If you change your mind..."

Edna bobbed her head. "I'll let you know, dear. For now, this is home. It always has been."

"I know, mom." Greta stepped around the low table and Edna tilted her cheek for a kiss. "See you on Sunday."


Leaving the box behind, Greta headed out and bolted the door behind her.

Edna gazed back at the empty leather chair. The light seemed to filter around a remembered form, leaning back, with one hand holding a glass and resting on a bent knee. Her smile stretched.

“Now,” said Edna. "Where was I?"

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Night Out - 1/18

Jim winced and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "That's..." he coughed to clear a crack from his throat. "That's too bad."

Tabitha glanced at him through her thick frames. Her braided pig tails swayed over her bony shoulders covered in a snug sage cardigan. "Why? Are you going?" She nibbled at her lower lip and clutched her books tightly to her flat chest.

Jim shrugged. "I was thinking about it."

"Oh." Tabitha cast her gaze over the stretch of lawn between the Gothic style buildings making up the center of campus. Crisp air tumbled through leaves falling onto shades of autumn and stirred the few dried debris littering the raked trails. Tabitha looked down to follow her flats as they traversed the asphalt path and made sure to avoid the jagged cracks. "I hope you have fun."

"We'll see if I end up going."

"Why wouldn't you?"

"I don't think I'll know anyone other than Max and Andy." Jim dug his fingers into the back of his head, shaking the shoulder length locks. "Probably just skip it..."

Tabitha bumped his shoulder with hers. "Go."

A grin bloomed on his clean shaven face. "Come with us then."

She rolled her eyes and stared down at the books in her arms. Tightening her grip, she brushed away invisible strands of hair from around her face. "I've got Chem on Tuesday."

"That's next week."

"Yeah, but it is a mid-term. Unlike you, some of us have to study."

"Study?" Max gave them both a toothy grin as he trotted up beside Tabitha, his flannel jacket swaying and chestnut eyes sparkling. "Who's making you do such a horrible thing?"

"Chemistry," replied Tabitha with a weak smile.

"You know the Delta's are having a party tonight. Should be a blast," said Max.

"That's what I was telling her," murmured Jim.

Max's grin spread and Tabitha felt his gaze leaping from her to Jim like a ping pong match. She clomped back down on her lip and stared down the brick path.

"You coming?" asked Max.

Tabitha shook her head.

"You've got to," said Max, poking her with his elbow.

Jim let out a sigh. "Give her a break, Max."

"What? Can't I ask?"

Jim scowled into Max’s innocent expression and tucked his hands back into his pockets. "I’ll see you tomorrow," said Jim to Tabitha.

She watched him peel off on a side trail, his head bowed.

"Ouch," muttered Max.

"What did I say?" Tabitha tore her gaze from Jim's dwindling back and frowned at Max.

Max shook his head and snorted. "You said no."

"What? I don't want to go to the Deltas party. It's just going to be a bunch of people drinking and...and…you know."

"Yeah,” said Max, his smile stretching deviously. “But he was going to be there. You were going to be there." Max raised both his eyebrows.

Tabitha covered her gaping mouth with her hand. "So he was asking me out? Like on a date?"

Max laughed. "And I thought guys were supposed to be the dense ones."

She grabbed his sleeve and gave his arm a shake. "What do I do? How do I fix this? I mean…I…" She clamped her jaw shut to keep it from flapping. The wind whipped up and helped cool the sudden heat coloring her cheeks.

"Come tonight."

"But he's not going to be there..."

Max patted her hand. "Leave that to me."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wisked Away - 1/7

Between the roped off barricades, the endless line sludged forward toward the train's single check in attendant and opened door. Beeps and shuffled feet echoed against the steel and glass in the towering terminal as if taking flight.

Jerry stared down at his ticket and driver's license. His square and weary face stared back from the slim piece of plastic.

"What about the mail?" asked Paula. She stared up at him while clutching her backpack to her belly like a child. "You remember what happened last time."

"I do. I asked them to hold it until we got back," said Jerry.

Paula gripped his elbow, her eyes wide. "What if there are packages?"


"You know, if my mom sent gifts or something for the holidays?"

Jerry sighed and shoved his duffle bag another few inches forward. "I'm sure the post office will hold those too."

Paula lumbered forward with her second piece of luggage and sighed. "I hope so."

Jerry pecked her on the top of the head, where her inky black hair parted to split into two braided pig tails. "Try to relax."

Taking a deep breath, Paula blew out a long exhale. "The oven?"


"You locked the door?"

"I did," answered Jerry. "I even double checked by rattling the knob."

"Sorry," Paula pouted and hunched in on her backpack like a withdrawing turtle.

"It's fine,” said Jerry. “Everything's fine."

"That's what you said about Milwaukee."

Jerry winced. "Milwaukee was a mistake."

"No, asking Bernice and Arnold for a ride was a mistake. That whole trip was an abomination."

"Dramatic much?"

Paula gave him a wide stare and her lips condensed into a tight pucker. "You don't remember getting called by the cops because of the car? How you lost both the tickets and then we had the wrong sized bags for carry-ons?"

Jerry rolled his eyes.

"Don't roll your eyes at me," snapped Paula. "Excuse me for asking a few questions now to try and keep this trip from devolving into such a disaster."

"Right, ok." Jerry held up his hands in muted surrender as they lumbered with the rest of the masses. "What else have I done while you've been slaving away at the office that you don't think I've done, that you want to ask about?"

Paula stared straight ahead. "Some of us are more accountable to others than some."

"Shit, do you really want to have this discussion again? Here?" Jerry waved at the crowd and nearly smacked into the clustered family behind them. "I thought you were ok with how this has been going?" he asked, reining in his hands and lowering his voice.

Scowling, Paula looked out the tinted window where the gleaming train cars waited. "I am."

"Look at me," asked Jerry. Paula cast her gaze up toward the ticking clock far overhead. "Paula."

Sighing, she met Jerry's gaze. "I am, really." She shrugged her shoulders. "You're business is great, and I like my job. What more is there to say?"

"They why this," Jerry waggled his hand in the heavy tension in the air between them.

"When I'm at the office all the time, I don't feel like I get to do anything at the house or plan for things. I just have to..."

"Trust me?" Jerry cocked an eyebrow.

Shaking her head, Paula inspected her bags zipper to hide her small grin. Silence hung for a few moments as they paraded forward like molasses.

"Go on," nudged Jerry.

Paula gave him a relieved smile. "The car?"

"Locked and clamped."

"The Nelsons?"

"They're going to have Abby water the plants and promised to keep an eye on the house." Jerry gave her a thin smile. "They're good neighbors. They'll call if they see anything."

Paula bobbed her head as the details continued churning. "You got directions to the hotel?"

Jerry patted his coat's breast pocket.

"Picked up the currency?"

"From the bank on Wednesday."

Frowning, Paula looked down at her fingers. "Do you really think this is a good idea? I mean, your project..."

Jerry shook his head and wrapped one arm around Paula’s shoulder. With their carryon bags and luggage beneath their feet, he managed a weak hug but Paula leaned into the embrace. "It is, babe. We have to live."

The couple before them lumbered through the last door and the weary attendant at the check in desk held out an expectant hand.

Jerry hefted his bag and offered his ticket and identification.
Unzipping her packs small pouch, Paula retrieved hers.

"Thank you," said the attendant, splitting the tickets along their perforated edges and handing them back.

"Thanks," said Jerry as Paula gave the sagging fellow a smile.

They passed out onto the concrete platform, the sliding doors closing behind them, blocking off the real world and real world worries as the train rumbled, ready to whisk them away.

Breakfast - 1/6

Jane perched on the edge of the wire rimmed chair and lifted the only menu she could find. Within a few seconds, the cook tromped out from behind the counter, a disgruntled frown on his stubbled face.


Jane winced. "HDHDHD, but excuse me?"

The cook sighed and rubbed at a chubby temple. "You...Eat?"

Lacing her smile with an apologetic twist, Jane felt her cheeks turn as red as the sandstone beneath her sneakers. She nodded and her stomach rumbled in agreement.

The universal grumble broke through the cook's stiff glower and he smiled. He waved a sausage sized finger at the menu.

Jane followed the gesture. Her eyes widened at the jagged lines of characters filling the page. A few coalesced into words she understood. Reaching the bottom of the limited list, she spotted one that felt somewhat safe.

She pointed with a "DHDHDHD?"

The cook waved both hands as if attempting to take flight.
"You...," he pointed at a near paragraph on the menu. "HDHDHDHDH DHDHHD HD HDHDHHHD HHDHDHDHDH HHDHD HDHHDH HDHHD." Grinning, he rubbed his ample stomach. "Good."

Jane kept her smile from wobbling as she repeated "Good."

Satisfied, the cook swept up the menu and sailed back behind the counter after tossing the flimsy page onto another table. Pots began clashing and fires roared behind the tile and slate barrier between the bare wooden seats and kitchen.

Jane cupped her chin in her hand and stared out of the open sides of the restaurant. Clusters of morning shoppers strewn through the other tents lining the marketplace. Rich fabrics lay stacked in bundles waiting to be cut, while barrels of intoxicating spices began to warm in the morning sun.

A pair of men turned into the small eatery and shouted. "HDHDHDHD HHDHD HDHDH DHDHH DHH DHHDHDH HDHHDHHD."

"HDDHDHH HDHDHD HHDHHDHDHDH," the cook responded.

The two men took one of the tables by the side and Jane felt their glances. She smiled over jovially and the pair looked away with embarrassed cringes.

The clink of steel and ceramic preceded the cook's sweep around his barricade.

Jane stared at his armful of plates, the glass of something purple in one hand and a basket washed in steam balanced on top.

The two other patrons drew in gasps. “HDHDHDH,” one murmured to the other.

The cook set the array down on Jane’s table as if dealing cards. "Good, good," he kept repeating.

The basket appeared to have some kind of flatbread dotted with black, ant looking seeds. The liquid in the glass barely sloshed as he set the drink down. One in the trio of plates held a cluster of bright, unidentifiable vegetables diced with some kind of brown meat. A second had a creamy white dip spread thin with herbs sprinkled on top while the third had a lump of chestnut brown paste.

The cook proceeded to load up one of the flatbreads with a little bit of each, humming and mumbling as he went. Once the bounty had been collected, he offered the concoction with both hands.

"HDHDHDHDH HDHD HHDHDHDH HD. Good." He motioned his own fat mouth toward the end of the bent bread.

Jane accepted the loaded bundled with care, avoiding spilling or dropping the whole concoction. Swallowing, she smiled and held the layers of steaming ingredients before her. The cook rubbed his hands together as he watched.

Jane licked her lips, closed her eyes and bit into the nearest corner.

Spice and salt, sweet and creamy, smooth and crunchy exploded onto her tongue. She opened her eyes as she chewed and stared up at the cook. The man smiled broadly.


"Good," Jane murmured through her mouthful before diving in for more.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Heart Beats - 1/3

"Honey?" Betsy's call rose above the crinkle of paper bags.

"Yes," shouted Adam from the living room.

"Could you help me with the groceries?"

With a heavy sigh, Adam folded up the Sunday paper. He lowered his feet from the ottoman and tossed down the newspaper, filling the dent left from his slippers. Gripping onto the rounded armrests with his veined hands, Adam scooted to the edge of the plush, flower print seat. Rocking, he heaved onto his feet with the third round of sways.

Adam wavered for a moment as he straightened. The clustered living room wobbled before his eyes as if the sagging couch and table strewn with grade school photographs had taken flight. Within a few short breaths, gravity took hold once again.

Shaking his head, Adam shuffled toward the kitchen. His wife dashed from the counter strewn with grocery bags and the opened cupboards and refrigerator.

Pausing against the doorframe, Adam took in the silver tinged tornado.

"I thought you wanted my help?"

"I do," Betsy said, waving toward the paper bags on the stove. "Take the soda to the garage."

"I thought I couldn't have soda anymore," Adam grumbled as he plodded over to the appliance.

"You can't." Betsy unpacked a towering mound of miniture chocolates in multicolored packs.

"Then why do you buy it?"

"For the party, silly." She spun and waved a stick of pepperoni like an extension of her waggling finger. "So no snacking. Take them though, Doctor Jenkins says you need the exercise."

“Doctor Jenkins says a lot of things.” Adam shook his head and peered into the bags. Shiny packages of potato chips, jerky, and containers of thick white dip filled the back three sacks while cherry and emerald colored boxes of cans sat stacked in the front two.

"Make two trips," said Betsy as Adam tucked one sloshing bag beneath each arm.

"You asked for my help so let me help my way."

With the weights in tow, Adam shambled to the other side of the room and fought with the knob without setting down either of the bags. His fingers fumbled with the latch and the door swung open, revealing Betsy's cooling sedan sitting in a cloud of gasoline scented air.

Adam wobbled down the set of stairs and set one bag in front of the listing fridge.

He winced as he gulped for a deep breath and rubbed at his chest. Shaking off the pressure, he opened the refrigerator door. The appliance grumbled, countering the loss of frosted air as Adam leaned against the open door.

Taking another set of deep breaths, he bent to set the second stack on the concrete and then pulled out the first box by the cut out handle. Sliding the soda onto the top shelf, he followed with the other three cases before swinging the door shut. Gathering the bags, Adam made his way back up the stairs, and into the kitchen.

"Shut the door next time, hon," said Betsy poking her gaze down into the last of the bags. "You'll let all the heat out."

"Right," heaved Adam. He swallowed, hard and found his throat reluctant to comply. Staggering toward the kitchen table, he plopped down into one of the rickety chairs. The braided seat gave a crackled as he sagged against the slatted backrest. The bags fell from his hand like autumn leaves as he raised his fingers to his temples. His skin felt clammy and damp while the room began to spin.

"There's more to go out back," said Betsy. She turned with a dozen eggs in one hand, the other already on her hip. "Those chips-."

The eggs crunched as they hit the tiled floor.


Adam stared down at the squares of lime green linoleum and tried to make the lines straighten. Betsy's worried face appeared as if through a mist, her eyes wide. She set two fiery hands against his cheeks. Adam heard her whispering, "Oh God," over and over.

"I'm alright," he whispered and tried pushing her hands away. His left arm flared and refused to move as if stuck in a furnace and an invisible elephant sat back onto his chest.

"No you're not," snapped Betsy. She disappeared from his tunneling vision but Adam heard the receiver being lifted and her frantic press off three buttons.

“I’m alright…” he whispered again, while Doctor Jenkins’ warnings throbbed with each beat of his straining heart.