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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Changing into Butterflies - No. 26

Melinda stopped short of turning off the engine.  Holding her breath, she listened to the reporter wrap up the radio announcement.  The dulcet tones relaying the FCC warning faded into tinny transitional music promising the forthcoming interview with a biologist and his discovery of some new subtropical species of butterfly. 

Before the lepidopterology segment began, Melinda flicked the key lodged in the ignition, silencing the sedan's rumbling and inquisitive interviewer.  A check on her watch showed the hands nearing eight. 

“Don’t be on time tonight,” she whispered.

The reporter’s words, the near right angle on the watch face and the thought of splashing water and another nighttime of wails quickened her pulse. 

Hustling her purse and briefcase from the passenger seat, Melinda slipped behind the wheel and into the humid night.  She didn't feel the clinging air, however, and her heels rounded the bumper and mounted the porch stairs on instinct.  Jabbing the front door's key into the lock, she hurried inside. 

The gush of water leapt from her worries and filled the hallway, undercut by Ted’s humming and a round of giggles.  Dumping her briefcase and purse, Melinda trotted down the corridor, homing in on the bathroom's gurgle.  She flung the door open without slowing.


Ted glanced over his shoulder while Vicki slapped at the bathwater.  Her pudgy hands cast droplets onto his arms, bare in his faded souvenir tee-shirt from a concert back in ‘92, dampened his ruddy stubble and the bags beneath his weary eyes.

"Look who’s finally home, Vi," said Ted. 

Pivoting away, he scooped frothy water into a red plastic up and dribbled it over Vicki's head.  She tittered with glee and clapped her hands.  When she swayed in the tub seat, he slipped one pale hand beneath her armpit like he might have a guitar’s neck and held her steady until she sat upright on her own.

Coming to his side, Melinda knelt, her a-line skirt stretching around her knees.  "Have you used the shampoo?"

Ted scooped another cupful of bathwater. "Mommy doesn't know our schedule very well does she?"

Melinda hugged her arms around herself, her body feeling small, empty and surprisingly fragile. 

"Ted," she whispered.  “Please.”  She swallowed the sudden warble in her voice.

He glanced over, the severity in his square-jawed features ebbing.  "I was about to."

Spying the honey yellow bottle, Melinda plucked it from the tub's rim and skimmed the ingredients.  The third on the list made her shudder.  She snapped closed the lid and cradled the bottle in her hands.

"I'm going to need that," said Ted.

"I heard a warning on my way home."  She twisted the label into his view, her thumb beneath the multisyllabic threat.  "The FCC believes it's causing sleep disorders in infants and toddlers."


The nights of Vicki's shrieks, her seemingly endless crying, Ted's rolls in and out of bed, his promenades around the living room’s coffee table or his circuitous route from kitchen to front door and back humming every tune in his arsenal seemed to coat the bathroom's tiles.

"You think that's the problem?"

Melinda shrugged.  "Isn't it worth a try?"

"I've tried everything else."

He swiveled to Vicki.  She'd quieted, for once, and seemed to be following their conversation, blue eyes wide as teacups. 

"We're going to do something different tonight, Vi," said Ted, his tenor softening. 

"What do you want to use?"

"How about your old body wash?"

From across the tub Melinda fetched the sage bottle within a ring of film and perused the ingredients, comparing the list to the toxic one.  "It's not listed."

"Then let's try it."

"Do you think it's safe?"

"Does it have anything the other doesn't?"

She checked again.  "No."

"I bet it'll be fine.”  Ted took the bottle and popped the cap with his thumb. “I like’d how it smelled anyway."

Melinda stared at the puddle of pale-green he poured into his palm, the smell of ginger and orange wafting up like steam. 

"You did?"

"Yeah."  He scrubbed his hands together, frothing bubbles.  "It made Mommy's skin feel soft too," he said, massaging the foam into Vicki's scalp.

Melinda leaned against the sink’s pedestal, the rough patches on her elbows and knees scratching the silken coating of her business jacket and pantyhose.  While Ted resumed one of his songs, she floated on the gentle rhythm and body wash’s aroma, each punctuated by Vicki's splashes; a wet but approving applause. 

The clapping, shouts, roars and hoots he'd had in black box theaters and larger auditoriums seemed to echo their daughter's ovation, a distant memory of months long past.  The spice and citrus scents replaced the haze of cigarettes and alcohol, and the jacket and skirt cinched around her deflated body traded for tactfully ragged jeans and the crimson halter top he been able to spot through the crowd. 

Not anymore, thought Melinda.

Rising, she collected a fluffy bathrobe from the hook behind the door and laid the feathery terrycloth against her cheek.

"All done," said Ted, rinsing the final bubbles from Vicki's downy head. 

He tugged the towel draped on the rod at his right, wrapped it snug around Vicki’s naked body and hefted her from the inch deep pool.  Rocking her lightly in his arms, he turned and paused.

Melinda met his gaze and offered the robe's open arms.  She held her breath again while considerations passed behind his cobalt gaze.

"Look what Mommy has," whispered Ted.

Vicki pointed a stubby finger and he stepped forward so Melinda could thread on the canary sleeves and slip off the towel.  She hung it back on the rod while they exited, Ted's nighttime humming quieting in their trek down the hall to his once-studio. 

Unplugging the tub’s drain, she let the water seep away and tidied up the bathroom, mopping up the puddles and drips and dumping the possibly toxic shampoo into the trash.  Once in order, she flicked the light switch and headed for the living room. 

The darkness welcomed her, and she slipped out of her heels and dropped onto the couch.  Turning on the baby monitor, she curled her feet up under her and hugged one of the paisley pillows, resting her chin on the corded edge. 

As if from another planet, the monitor transmitted Ted's gentle cooing and the bedtime rustling in Vicki's room.  Burbles mixed with the soft swoosh of the ambient noise maker mimicking the heartbeat Melinda felt thudding against her ribs.  She listened while Ted whispered through a book about caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies, and then the wooden floor creaked and the door hinges groaned, each announcing his sneaking departure.

But where are you going? she wondered.

Melinda clutched the pillow close, and clasped tighter when Ted’s silhouette appeared in the doorframe.  She didn't move for fear of scaring him off or disturbing Vicki's tenuous quiet.  In the passing seconds, he drifted near and took the cushion by her side.

Eyeing the monitor, Melinda stopped counting when she reached triple digits.  Vicki's shifts here and there over road the fake heartbeat, but nothing more broke the stillness.  The silence seemed to stretch, however, leaving other problems in their wake.

"Sorry I was so late again," she whispered.

"No," whispered Ted, "sounds like it was good you were at the office."


He reached out, his hand finding her knee below the skirt’s hem.  "No, it was good.  It is good."

Exhaling a long breath failed to release the tension in her shoulders and Melinda snuggled deeper into the pillow. 

"This wasn't how I thought it was going to turn out."

"They needed you."

"I know but—"

"No buts." 

She stiffened when Ted caressed her thigh, his fingers pruned and tinged with an orange and ginger tang.  A slow smile curled his lips, one she couldn't remember seeing since they'd come home from the hospital. 

"We'll figure it out," he whispered.

She stared at him in the dark, the shadows deepening his voice and the lines on his face.  "You think so?"

"Yeah." He caught her gaze and moonlight gleamed in his eye.  "We will.  One FCC warning at a time."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Working Digits - No. 25

Helen paused in mid-sip when she noted Andy sliding her debit card through the register a second time.  The machine beeped and he stared at the panel.  Whatever the display indicated, he didn’t bother swiping again.  Instead he plucked a pen from a neighboring canister and while he jotted on their receipt, Helen swallowed her mouthful of unsweetened ice tea and set her glass aside. 

"Are you ready to go?"

Slouched in her chair, Wendy kept gazing over the wrought-iron fence and its pansy-housing flower boxes. Pedestrians swooped along the tree-lined sidewalk and beyond them, the traffic slugged by, bumper to bumper, but Wendy seemed to peer beyond the lunchtime crowds and into nothingness. 

In the passing seconds, the ice in Helen’s glass clinked and she sensed Andy’s approach.


"Sure," she whispered.

Helen rolled her eyes, and then stiffened when Andy’s shadow fell across their table and its dirtied dishes.  Looking up, she smiled.  His atypical frown when he offered their receipt, however, made her lips droop and the BLT on rye settling in her stomach to flip.

"Is everything okay?"

Andy cleared the worry from his square features and laid down the bill, pressing his fingers onto the spongy cover. 

"Fine,” he said in a hushed baritone.  “You two take care."

He strode away, his departing steps and the brush of his charcoal slacks gathering Wendy from her perusal of empty air.  She tilted her head and sighed. 

"Do you think he has a girlfriend?"

Helen stiffened in her seat.  "What do you mean?"

With a shrug, Wendy snagged the straw plunged into her lemon water and drained the glass while Andy vanished inside. 

"He's cute."

"And you're on the rebound."  Collecting the billfold, Helen worked the pen from the seam and opened the cover.

"You have to get back on the horse, or the bicycle or whatever right?"

Wendy’s sarcasm slid off of Helen's shoulders and her spiked nerves dissipated while she looked at their receipt.  Her gut clenched viewing the bright red circle around her debit card number and the accompanying line through the digits half hidden by the plastic card.  Below, the words: “Just go – A” caused sweat to spout on her palms.  Snapping the cover closed, Helen smothered the folder beneath her palm, but her downcast gaze poured through her flesh and the leather; the sharpie and ink in Andy’s hand staining her sight.

"….it, don't I?" 

Wendy’s question blended with Helen’s pounding heart, the honking horns and the surrounding banter of other conversations.


She jumped when Wendy touched her hand.  Collecting the bill to the front of her peach tank top, Helen bit her lip tasting the mustard from her sandwich’s dressing and her lip gloss underneath.

Wendy tightened her grip and faint lines marred her pristine brow.  "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," said Helen.  She placed the folder on the other side of her breadcrumb dotted plate.  "I...I'm just not sure I have any cash for a tip."

"I sure don't."  Wendy settled back and rattled her glass, melting the last of the ice.

"I didn't think so," said Helen. 

Scooping her purse from the terracotta tiles, she dug for her wallet.  She winced as she found the empty slots her credit cards had once strained, the plastic now sliced and diced and filling her apartment’s trash like swept up confetti.  Digging further, she searched for the emergency twenty tucked between her photographs and business cards until she remembered her last rejection.

"The taxi," she whispered.

Wendy slurped through her straw.  "We don't need a cab."

"I know," said Helen. 

She waved away her errant words, and sought a gulp of tea to wet her throat.  The straw gurgled at the base of her glass and she came up dry.

"If you know, then what are you so worried about?"  Wendy snatched the folder before Helen could free herself of her drink or her wallet.   "It can't be that big a tip."

When she opened the folder, the debit card and marked receipt slipped onto the table.  Cringing, Helen reached over and plucked the plastic card while Wendy's mouth fell open.


"Yeah," said Helen.

"I didn't think you were so bad off."

"Four months will eat at your savings," said Helen, sliding the debit card away.

"You should have said something."

"I thought I had it covered.  Anyway, you said it was an emergency."

"Dumping Ryan is not an emergency.”  Wendy closed the folder and waggled the leather case before planting it on the table with a thump.  “This is an emergency." 

"It's not."  Helen forced an easy smile but it failed to appease the arches of Wendy’s raised brows.

"You should have told me."

"While you're going through your third break up in as many months?"

"It's not like there's not going to be another one."  Wendy collected her handbag from beside her chair’s legs.  Unfastening the latch, she retrieved her turquoise wallet and fanned the folds.

"I thought you were broke."

Wendy snorted.  "There's always credit."

"Not always."

"You're kidding,” said Wendy, stuffing her card into the folder's crease.

"I wish."

"What are you going to do?"

Chagrinned, Helen peered over the fence and flowers at the rush of ties and power suits.  "Keep applying.  Keep hoping." 

"Maybe learn to ask for a little help?" 

Wendy made a point of setting the folder on the table's edge.  Following her wave, Helen caught Andy’s eye from where he hovered in the former garage door’s threshold.  Her cheeks warmed and she retreated to her plate and a count of the crumbs.

"I'll figure something out."

"Helen."  Wendy took her hand and squeezed again, her manicured nails pinching.  "You've got friends, family.   Hell, even the waiter wanted to give you a break.  You've helped us all over the years, now it’s time for us to return the favor."

"Sure," she whispered.

Wendy sat back in her chair, the whicker crinkling.  "You can be so goddamn stubborn sometimes."


Looking up, Helen couldn’t help but laugh when she spied Wendy grinning through the feigned hurt.  Andy’s shadow draping her once more, however, doused her sudden lightheartedness.

"Is something the matter?"

Wendy aimed her beaming smile at his concern.  "That was very sweet of you.”

"I ah....”  Andy smoothed the wrinkles out of his mint-green polo.  “I don't know what you're talking about."

"Of course." She inched the folder toward him, her card evident.

Collecting the bill, Andy bobbed his head and headed back to the register.

"Thanks, Wendy," said Helen.

"I think we’re a little old for running out on the tab."

"Just a little."

"Anyway," said Wendy, twirling a russet tendril between her fingers, "it gives me an opening."

"An opening?"

"To be the good girl.  You know he's going to remember this."

Helen folded her arms.  "You never stop do you?"

"I wouldn't be much of a predator if I didn't keep my eye out."

"I wish I had your stamina." 

“You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

Wendy ratcheted up her smile again when Andy returned. 

"Thanks," she said, a husky thread to her voice.

"No problem,” said Andy, laying down the folder.  Helen felt her cheeks flush again when he turned her way, his grin flashing.  “You two have a good day."

"It's gotten better already," said Helen.

"I’m glad."  Andy drummed the table’s lip and then weaved off, beckoned by a snapping pair of fingers.

“So much for that,” whispered Wendy. 


“Never mind.”  Taking the folder, she opened the cover and with a soft swish, signed her name.  Helen tipped forward when she swiveled the folder and kept writing.

"What are you doing?"

"Leaving a number."

“A number?”

“You know, a telephone number.”

Spurred by a sudden bolt of adrenaline, Helen slung her purse's strap over her bared shoulder.  "Good thing I'm not coming back here for a while."

"Well, maybe next time he can actually pick up the tab."

"Maybe by then I'll be employed."

"And I'll be engaged."  With an acerbic laugh, Wendy tossed the pen onto the table and flipped closed the cover.  "I think you'll have better luck with both of those than I will."

"No offense, but I hope so." 

"None taken. But at least until then, learn to bow that stiff little neck of yours."

Helen hung her head like a puppet on loosed strings.

"Very funny." Wendy rose and clutched her bag.  "Come on, we’ve got phones to hover by."

"And email to check," said Helen, leading through the patio of diners.  She found her sway competing with Wendy’s hips and on their way to the exit she waved a farewell to Andy who scooted into the kitchen, a tray of dishes in hand.

“My money’s on your phone,” said Wendy.

The hint in her voice froze Helen with her hand on the door’s knob.  “Wait a second.  Whose number did you leave?”

Wendy’s grin turned wicked.  “The right one of course.” 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Standing Your Ground - No. 19

Holding his coffee in both hands, Adam stared out his bay window.  Trash bags, bins and cardboard boxes full of garbage lined the sidewalk along the two lane road, shaded by the maples full of summer growth.  Before his brownstone, the black plastic lumps from the past week were squished between the previous week, and the week before that.  His pile peaked between the neighbors' rubbish, an Everest of trash among the foothills.  Bottles overflowed from one bin, some standing on the curb like kids lined up for a school bus while others lay drunk on their sides.

From down the block the rumbling of the nearing truck shook the collection of empties, the window's panes and the sugared coffee in Adam's mug.  The truck's brakes squealed and hissed with its stop down by the Mason's in number 119.

"Stand strong," whispered Adam, "you've done nothing wrong."

Setting his mug on the window sill, he tightened the terrycloth cord of his evergreen bathrobe and headed outside in his leather-soled slippers.  He descended his stoop, the robe's hem flapping around the knees of his sweats like his fuzzy-wrapped feet on the half a dozen brick steps.  Pocketing his hands, Adam loomed in the cleared parking spot beside the Everest mound and the "towing every first and third Friday" sign.

Once the Mason's and adjoining trash had been plucked, the garbage truck trundled from the curb and started along the block again.  Through the bug-spattered window Adam spied a smirk on the driver's lips when he looked down the road and spotted where he stood. Gunning the engine, the driver picked up speed, then surged to a stop, the deceleration casting a soured breeze over Adam's face.

He smothered his nose with the crook of his arm to ward off the stench while two men, one beefy the other slim, wearing matching sanitation uniforms with reflective stripes alternating with the dank grey jumped off the back and started pitching the neighbors bags and the contents of bins into the crusher.  The unit smashed the added contents and the two workers muttered to one another.

Adam frowned when Beefy thumbed in his direction and said something lost beneath the pop of plastic that caused Slim to snicker.  Neither touched Everest or even attempted to stop its slide when they picked up the surrounding garbage.  Once they'd cleared the sidewalk to either side, they shared a harsh chuckle, slapped the side of the truck and hopped onto the back.  The driver grinned and the engine roared to life.

Not today, reasoned Adam.

Raising both hands he positioned himself at the truck's vibrating front bumper.

The driver scowled and then beeped the horn.

Shaking his head, Adam planted his slippers on the asphalt.

The driver stuck his head out the window, his receding pate gleaming, and angled his shout down the length of the truck.  "We got trouble boys."

You do indeed, thought Adam.

Lowering his hands, he balled one into a fist while the two workers rounded the truck, Beefy in the lead.

"You're going to have to move, sir."

"Not until you pick up my garbage," said Adam, sweeping an opened hand at the remaining trash.

"So you're 233?"

Adam grimaced at the known detail, but held his ground. "Yeah, so?"

"You were right," said Slim, "a pencil pusher."

"Had to be," said Beefy.  "No one who knows how to work for a living's going to do something like that."

"Something like what?"  Adam glanced between the two but both men crossed their arms and peered at him like an annoying speck marring an otherwise polished surface.

"Doesn't even remember," said Slim with a disapproving cluck of his tongue.

Beefy snorted his agreement.  "Why should he?  Mr. High and Mighty wouldn't have time to waste thinking about the likes of us."

"Unless he wants to save his own skin."

"Save his own pennies is more like it."

"Listen," said Adam, bowling into their snowballing diatribe.  "I've obviously done something you fellas think is wrong.  What is it?  I'm sure we can work something out."

The driver beeped and Beefy called over his shoulder.  "He wants to work something out."

What sounded like a Rottweiler’s bark and then a line of curses shot from the cabin.

"I hear you."  Beefy popped the knuckles on both of his gloved hands.  "We're going to make this quick Mr. 233."

"Okay...," said Adam, his heart beginning to sprint while he eyed the sturdy leather covering Beefy's softball-sized fists.

"You were the one who opposed Ordinance 449."

Adam swallowed his lurching stomach.  "Is that what this is about?"

"You kept them from voting," said Slim, pointing a bony finger.  "You kept it from passing."

"Because it was a stupid law," said Adam.  "There's no reason to regulate the garbage union."

"No reason for us to collaborate for our basic rights?" asked Beefy.  "To argue for better wages?  To work together to improve our situation as a team?  You're calling that stupid?"

"No, no."  Adam shuffled backwards, holding up both hands while the pair encroached, one steel-toed step at a time.  "I'm just saying you don't have to have something special...ah something new put into the books. already have those rights."

Hitting the tow sign's pole, he cringed and waited for the first strike to land.

Both men, however, stopped.  They shared a glance Adam felt certain divided his body for punching, then swiveled back, a frown on Beefy's wide brow.

"What do you mean?"

""  Adam fought his tongue and his primal urges to flee, making way for the seed of rational conversation.  "There's a law, a right to work law or a union law...I don't remember it right now, but talk to the local AFL-CIO office, I bet they'll get all the information you want.  You have all those rights, I swear."


"Really."  When Beefy's frown faded, Adam released some of the tension his shoulders.  "I opposed your Ordinance because I didn't think we needed another law made when there's basically a law already covering the issue.  More red tape doesn't usually help anyone, you know?"

Slim nodded, his head wobbling like a bobble head doll.

"I hear you," said Beefy,  He glanced at the Everest of trash for a moment, then wiped his palm on his uniform's slacks and stuck out his hand.

Adam flinched, but then realizing his kidneys and nose were safe he seized Beefy's grimy paw.

"Thanks man," said Beefy.

Grinning, Adam tried not to wilt under the other man's tight grip.  "No problem."

After a friendly thump on his shoulder Adam suspected might leave a bruise, Beefy then thumbed at Everest.  "We better get back to work."

"Sure, don't let me stop you."  Stepping onto the curb, Adam drifted to the stoop.

Beefy meanwhile started whistling and hefted the rubbish into the back in time with his tune.  Seizing the bins, Slim added the last into the compressor.  With a pat on the truck's flank, they took their posts at the bumper and the engine rumbled.  The driver beeped again, and all three waved.

Adam lifted his own hand in farewell.  Once they'd rounded the block, he stared at the exposed concrete.  Puddles remained where the contents of one bag had leaked, but otherwise the curb looked untouched.

And so am I, he thought.

With a laugh tinge with relief, he gave his shoulder a massage and headed inside, bent on his waiting cup of coffee and the next encounter of the day.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Intermission - No. 18

Gail's cheeks burned from the smile etched on her lips.  Waving, she clomped off stage, and once obscured by the wings, dropped her hand and shoved the doused microphone at Patty.  She managed to keep the growl in her voice to a whisper.

"Where is she?"

Serenely claiming the handheld mic, Patty waggled it at the riggers across stage.  The crimson curtain began to part, revealing the pianist and his ventriloquist partner between the velvet folds.  She made a note on her clipboard before looking up.

"Who are you talking about?"

"The woman by the bar," said Gail.

Frowning, Patty peered beyond the proscenium.  "Which one?"

"Didn't you hear her?  Cackling like a hyena between her personal commentary."

"Oh," said Patty, "her."  She returned to her clipboard.  "Get Mr. Tymes ready," she said to Linus who stood twitching at her elbow.

The young assistant darted off toward the greenroom, dodging the light trees and the other performers and crew clustered to watch the pianist and the fuzzy blue puppet.

Gail folded her arms and stared into the laughing audience seated at the round bistro tables and in padded booths while mirth and piano music filled the theater.  The stools by the bar were occupied by suited men and women in stylish dresses and skirts, most with their attentions on the stage.  A few leaned toward one another, conversing or flirting quietly.  None seemed to disturb anyone else, let alone be making a nuisance of themselves.  She found the seat where the cackling had bellowed but the leather cushion had emptied.  The sound chipped at her memory nonetheless and set her teeth on edge.

Patty came to her side, clipboard clutched to her black button-down shirt.  "She headed out when you started introducing Key and Pedal."

"To the lobby?"

"I don't know, you could ask Vince.  He was going to escort her out if she kept at it."

Gail grunted.  "Too late."

With a hum Patty seemed to note the vacated seat.  "Sorry, but it looked like you were handling it."

"I'd rather handle thrown tomatoes or silence."

"Maybe next time."

She snorted.  "How long is their set?"

Patty checked the stopwatch pinned to her board.  "Another six minutes."

"I need a quick smoke."

"I'll send Linus to get you in five."

Nodding, Gail turned and weaved through the onlookers and down the corridor past the greenroom.  She exited through the side door and inhaled the brisk, midnight air.  Shoving the rubber stop across the threshold, she left the door ajar and dug into her jacket's inner pocket for her pack and lighter.  With a smoke at her lips, she flicked on the Bic, the flame dancing and warming her cheeks.

"I thought you'd be out here."

Gail jumped at the voice, the cigarette falling from her lips unlit.  Her thumb blazed upon the Bic's switch but she left the light on, illuminating the wrinkled face and the pinned up mess of graying hair of the plump figure wrapped in too-tight denim rounding the nearby dumpster.  Straightening, Gail inched toward the door.

"So it was you?"

"You saw me?"

"No, but it's hard not to recognize your mother's laugh, even if it has been twenty years."  Gail fetched another cigarette, lit it and took a long drag, letting the coils weave into her lungs.  "How have you been Janice?"

"You know those will kill you."

Gail shrugged and blew the smoke out into the night.  "Says the three packs a day?"

"I've quit."

"Is that what you've come to tell me?  You've cleaned up and want to pick up where you left off?"  She chuckled.  "Good joke.  I might have to steal it."

"I won't lie, Donna—"

"It's Gail now."

"Like Grandma?"

"I'd rather be her namesake than Dad's.  She took care of me a lot better than he did, better than you did."


"I got a letter from him," said Gail.  Twirling the cigarette between her fingers, she stared at the glowing pearl.  "A postcard from Christchurch.  He wished you well."

"Then you've heard more than me."

"Should I be sorry?"

Janice shoved her hands into the pockets of her faded jean jacket and stared at the toes of her cherry red boots.

"I'm sorry."

Gail choked on her next lungful.  "Sorry?"  She spat out the question again.  "Sorry?"

When Janice looked up, the lines around her bloodshot eyes had deepened, matching the clumps of mascara.  The pallor of her skin stood out beneath the ruddy blush half blended into her hair.

"I'm sorry, yes. I'm sorry for everything.  For being a terrible mother, for leaving, for being too scared to fight through my fears and figure out a way to make it work.  I'm sorry for not being there on your first day of school, for not helping you pick out your prom dress, for not coming to your graduation.  I'm sorry for it all, for all the time we lost."

"We lost?  We didn't lose anything.  You lost.  You lost out on me and if you think coming back like this, heckling me on an opening night, is somehow going to get you back into my good graces you're crazier than I thought."

With a frown, Janice tilted her head at the same angle Grandma had used when she hadn't quite heard what had been said.

"Heckling?  You thought I was making fun of you?"

"People usually laugh at my jokes, not their own, but they can only hear them if they listen.  I heard you muttering the whole time."

"I was laughing, Donn— Gail.  I thought you were funny.  Ask that bartender in there," she said, pointing a ruby fingernail at the door.  "I couldn't stop talking about you, about how damn funny you were, how proud I was.  It got so bad I left before they could kick me out."

Gail stared into Janice's drawn face, her mother's painted lips quivering.  The silence stretched until the cigarette burned low and bit her fingers.  With a wince, she flung the stub to the asphalt and ground it beneath her boot.  She kept her gaze downcast and watched the embers winking away like fireflies.

"That's all I wanted to say,” said Janice.  “I'm sorry, and I'm proud of all that you've done, all that you accomplished.  I realize it might not sound like much coming from me, but I needed you to know."

The door creaked open.

"Gail?  Oh, sorry,” said Linus, “but Patty says one minute.”

"I'll be right in," she whispered.

"Um...Okay."  Linus ducked back inside, the door thumping on the rubber stop.

"Sounds like you've got to go."

"Yeah," said Gail.  "Are you staying for the rest of the show?"  She looked up with a sharp inhale, but failed to suck the back the question.

Janice's eyes grew wide, like two cue balls.  "Do you want me to?"

"I...."  Gail gulped down the sudden answer leaping on her tongue.  She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her slacks and kicked away the smashed butt, wishing for all the world she didn’t feel like the wounded little girl she sensed cowering in her heart.  "I don't know."

"Maybe I will then."

With a noncommittal grunt, she thumbed at the door.  "I've got to go."

"Don't let me keep you."

"I won't," said Gail.

Grabbing the knob, she strode inside.  The door slammed closed behind her and the corridor breezed past in a blur of painted cinderblock and murmured backstage banter.  Walking into the wings, the darkness embraced her and the stage lights beckoned.

She found Patty as the audience's applause escalated time with Key and Pedal's crescendo.

"You're on," said Patty.

She waved for the curtain to fall, and offered over the microphone.

Staring at the open stage, Gail seized the handheld and stroked the plastic casing with taut fingers.  Jokes, puns, quirky phrasing and her introduction for Jerry Tymes flew from her thoughts and when she thought of the audience a single face came into mind.

"Gail," said Patty. "You okay?"


Gail worked her lips back into a happy smile.  With dimples carefully in place, she strode out into the waiting spotlight wondering if the one person she'd longed to see would be waiting.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Tomorrow’s Headline - No. 16

Flipping to the economics’ section, Ned folded and angled the newspaper against his bent knee before his arthritis demanded a change of pose.  He sipped his coffee through the slit in the disposable lid, milky sweetness coating his tongue.  A trio of runners passed by while he perused the far column and a summery gust fingered his receding hairline.  Two dog walkers strode along in their wake, the long strides of the humans and smaller strides of their pets creating a staccato rhythm against the gravel trail.  Grinding of strollers rolled on but Ned didn’t glanced up until another set of looping wheels stopped before him and sneakers shuffled.

"Is this seat taken?"

The young blonde in a peach track suit tilted her head at the other end of his bench.

"No," said Ned.

She frowned and pulled off one of the wrap around ear pieces blasting a bopping tune.

"No," he said again and inched to the bench’s opposite side, leaving as much of the flaking green paint exposed as possible.


Plopping down, the blonde maneuvered the stroller before her and dug into the bottom compartment.  Her rummaging failed to disturb the babe nestled within a padded cocoon of honey-yellow fabrics.  The woman produced a downy lemon blanket and proceeded to tuck it around the child, as if the summery warmth had suddenly gone icy.

Ned looked away when she glanced in his direction and submerged himself into the newspaper’s fine print.  He noted, however, her wave and the arrival of a second stroller and young redhead in pink spandex.  She pulled up alongside, plopped down with an equal lack of ceremony and parked her matching stroller with a similarly slumbering child in gender neutral sage at her sneakered feet.

With a sigh, Ned sought the details of the recent bailouts, the opinions of those who were in the know, and the speculations of others who saw the world about to end or on the other hand on the verge of creation.  He blotted out the women's banter, their discussion on pumps and wipes, of what little X and done and how little Y looked so cute doing Z.  He didn't break out of his protective shell of numbers, dates, distant politicians, and the shakers of the global marketplace until he heard the static.

Frowning, he checked his hearing aid.  His quick flick of the switch, turning it on and off, failed to resolve the buzz.  He upped the volume and caught the first words.

"...take the boat into international waters."

Ned homed in on the sounds and found himself peering out of the corner of his eye at the redhead’s stroller.

"Do you think that'll be safe?"  The question emerged from the blonde’s blanket-stuffed compartment by the carriage’s gravel-scuffed wheel.

"They'll be so lost trying to work out what's happened, they won't be looking in that direction," said the first voice, his cocky tone wafting from beneath the redhead’s slumbering babe.

They fell silent, as if they could sense they were being overheard.

Giving the strollers a sidelong glance, Ned flipped his newspaper over, and sought a diverting bit of world news.

"Then we're still on?"

Ned ground his teeth, risking dislodging his dentures, when the second voice whispered again.  The nervousness and excitement in his tone made Ned's feet itch.

"Of course.  Tonight it'll begin."

"Tonight.  You know...."

"Are you okay, Mister?"

Ned jolted as the redhead touched his shoulder.  The newspaper fluttered in his hand and he shifted his staring gaze from her child to the woman's face with its thick veneer of makeup and one thin wrinkle of concern.

"I thought I heard something...."

She glanced at her babe, sleeping without a sound.

"You don't—"  He chuckled, inspiring a wary laugh from both women.  "You don't happen to have a radio or anything inside there?"

Both women blanched, their sudden iciness making Ned want a blanket for himself.

"No," said the blonde.  She stood and laid a protective hand on her stroller's handle.  "We should get going."

The other nodded, and then her features relaxed into a smile.  If not for the hardness a second earlier, Ned might have almost believed the warmth wafting off of her like some freshly spattered perfume.

"Have a nice day," she said, wheeling her stroller to align with her companion.

"You too," said Ned.

He watched them start power walking away, the grind of the plastic wheels and thump of sneakers dominating the voices rattling in his skull.

"What happens tonight?" he whispered.

The blonde glanced over her shoulder and he offered an awkward wave before returning to his paper, in a sudden hunt for a hint of what might be on its way.