When Henry Beeped

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diving block

Henry BEEPED, the digital sound echoed through the pool deck so perfectly that the swimmer before him dove, a perfect arch of girl slicing through the water, streamlined, rising without breath into a free and furious stroke. The official raised his hand, the whistle blew as understanding dawned and the girl was removed, ejected, disqualified from her race. Henry had BEEPED, not the starter so the race was done.

“Not Cool!” a mother yelled, striding toward him, the sobbing rejectee running on wet feet to her coach. Henry felt the weight, the reality, the price of having counted down the time to start too quickly, of anticipating the buzzer, making its sound so perfect-yet imperfect because it fell in the wrong second, the before second, the quiet second when all the deck was still.

“I didn’t mean…”

“Not Cool” the mother repeated while his team mates glared.

“I didn’t mean. I was just…” but he couldn’t explain the counting or the sounds that happen in his head, the perfect rhythm of the world living in synch inside his mind to surface in involuntary noises; digital-analogue-mimicry rising from his cords without permission. So he stood, the girl cried, the team glared and the meet went on.

“Swimmers take your marks!” the starter called, “Ready-set-BEEP!” It was the free, the hundred meter free, not the fly or the back or the breast. Definitely not the breast. Henry dove, a perfect arch of boy rising, springing, slicing into streamline perfection to break not with arms extended cutting the water with the tearing strike of free but the prayerful, elbows bent motion of breast. Rise, plunge, rise plunge as swimmers past in blurs of speed. Rise, plunge, rise plunge, hands prayerful, extending, parting, colliding again into prayer.

Coaches yelled, the official raised his hand, parents shook their heads embarrassed by the boy whose actions no one could account for, understand, fathom. At one minute, fourth-two seconds, the whole pool waited as the last swimmer returned, focused fully on doing the wrong stroke, the punishing stroke, the prayerful stroke that cannot make amends for a girl’s tears or the accidental BEEP!

The Bittersweet

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bittersweet

When I first held my baby I could already see the man he would become, tall, kind and strong. I saw our lives laid out before me; joined at the hip for years before being severed by age and distance. I felt the rush of bittersweet love, the love that says I see you right now and I love you right now because right now is all there is. I’ve watched him grow for thirteen years and loved every bit of it. He is a magical wonder, a joy in this world and his enthusiasm for life and living astounds me. What must it be like to be so purely in love with being? What must it be like to just exist where you stand without the bittersweet pull that says; this too shall pass, shall end, will fade into the shadows of time.

I’ve long watched happy people and wondered what it would be like to be happy while secretly hating the fakers for their fake joy; their grief hidden behind a fraudulent smile. Why lie, why fake, why smile when it isn’t real. To act out anything other than what you feel is to tell your soul it’s wrong to hurt, to grieve, to question or be real. Feeling isn’t wrong, it can’t be a mistake, it just is.

The bittersweet of living isn’t something everyone experiences. This universal view of our lives as tiny fragments of a greater whole is something reserved for just a few of us. So why? I wish I knew. Maybe the bittersweet perspective is born of hard history, singular loneliness, or pain so intense that to see the world as you once did no longer seems possible.

Among you stand the walking wounded, riddled with emotional bullet holes patched over with plastic smiles and empty pleasantry. It’s our jobs to heal one another, to be real and open in our kindness. It’s our job to see the pain and ask, “How are things going. No really, how are you?” and if they’re not ready to put aside the “happy” even for a moment it’s our job to be willing to wait.

P.S. If Thanksgiving tomorrow feels like a warzone you have to slog through then go to the beach, order pizza, have a beer and find a happy that feels real for you.

A Tuscaloosa Morning

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Barn-with-Vintage-Red-Pick-Up-Truck

Where were you when I called last night? Where were you when I had to go out in the chilly darkness cause the wood box was empty again. Right now I’d like to flick your red pick-up truck off the landscape like some miserable bloodsucking insect. Fat and shiny, it winds its way over the bumps and dips of our Tuscaloosa farm land, its old motor ripping up the morning like sheet lightning in August.

“Y’all sit down and be still now.” Four pairs of eyes look up, questioning. “Go on now. Jemima, put Pudding in her high chair. Cecilia, Rose, get to your places. You’re Daddy on the drive.” I stoke the fire with fresh logs still cold from the wood shed; iced sap sizzles to steam as the fire licks the wood alight.

The stove is warming up quick but not quick enough to warm the room or fill it with the soothing scent of oven hot bread and fresh coffee.

“Y’all be quiet when Daddy comes in. Be respectful.” Cecilia and Rose nod but Jemima looks away. Only Pudding makes a sound, a high sweet baby sound all happy innocence.

Feet walk on porch boards; old wood creaks under a heavy weight. The screen door squeaks to life, calling on the front door hinges to answer it in low grinding tones.

“What y’all doing up so early?” My husband casts long shadows. His shoulders fill the doorway.

“We’re up on time. It’s not us that’s early, it’s others that be running late.”

“No Ma’am! Not late but right on time, on time for breakfast anyhow. Isn’t that right Pudding?”

My baby smiles real big. Her sweet brown eyes flash all kind of sunshine into the shadowy kitchen. I smell the bread begin to warm in the oven, see the butter melt in the fry pan. A touch of a finger to hot tin tells me the coffee pot is part way to percolating.

“The truck running smooth?”

“Smooth as ever,” my husband smiles.

Jemima flashes me a worried look from where she sits at the table. Ignoring her, I crack six eggs into the hot butter, scrambling the yokes into the whites. Better some kind of man than no man at all, my grandma whispers in memory, bidding me to tread careful. Yah…but if it weren’t for me our little ones would’ve been as cold as corpses in a snow drift last night.

“Any trouble on the road?”

“Not one bit.”

“Well that’s fine!”

I bite my lip, scrap the eggs onto six different plates, tear chunks of bread off the loaf and listen for the coffee pot to sing. The room smells all full of breakfast, the scent hangs heavy over the stink of cigar smoke, bourbon and cheap Woolworths’ perfume. Jemima takes two plates to the table, the first for her Daddy the second for Cecilia. My girl knows her manners but watching her wait on him makes me sad. When she comes back to the stove we take the last four plates to the table together.

“You see any of them Carlson boys last night?” I place a bit of cooled egg on Puddings tongue and watch her chew.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What’s it to you Lizbeth?”

“Only that they’re mama was poorly. I was only asking on account of her. Seems a shame a fine woman like that working so hard all her life only to raise up six of the worst men that ever walked God’s earth.” I shake my head. “And that Meme Carlson…they say she’s turned out worse than the lot of them! Mrs. Haylee says she’s nothing but a two penny wh…”

“And how would you know how she’s turned out?” My man interrupts. “Not like you look her way at church or any other place. All you do is listen to gossip and slander and that just ain’t Christian. If you want to know how she does you should go on over and see for yourself.”

“Now why would I do that when I’ve got others to do it for me?” I take another piece of egg off Pudding’s plate and place it on her tongue. Looking around the table I see she’s the only one eating. Behind me the coffee percolates, its slow whine building into a scream. Rising, I take a mug out of the cupboard, fill it with coffee and walk to my husband. His shadow falls at my feet, cast by the sunlight pouring in from the living room window. It’s a big shadow that grows bigger when he rises to his feet.

“I’m tired.” Looking me up and down he turns to go.

“No sir, I’m tired.” I set my foot onto his shadow, pinning him to where he stands. “I’m tired of chopping and hauling my own firewood. I’m tired of milking cows you don’t make time to feed. I’m tired of tending and mending and cleaning for a man who can’t be bothered to come home when he’s needed. Jesus knows I’ve done my chores.”

Out of instinct my body tenses, my muscles contract, hardening in preparation for a strike. Looking hard into my husband’s eyes I see a mean light shine but Pudding giggles and the meanness goes out of him. With a defeated sigh he slumps back down into his chair. Jemima hushes my baby, pushing clumpy eggs into her open mouth.

“No Jemima, you let that baby girl laugh.” My husband looks down the table at his littlest girl. “You let her feel happy for as long as she can. It’s a sad damn dirty thing to stop a body from feeling glad.” Picking up his coffee he looks at me like I’m the last nail in his coffin, “and by the by Lizbeth…Meme Carlson had the good manners to ask after you. She says she hopes you’re doing fine.”

Sailors Blood

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boat

I wish I could stay on this boat forever, Sabela inhaled the sea air, watching the Channel Islands pass one after the other. To the east, Los Angeles, faded and was lost from sight. The sail snapped taut, filled to bursting with wind, its triangular shape glowing stark white against a Pacific blue sky. A salty sea spray kissed her lips as overhead the cry of a seagull added texture to the scene.

“Hey sexy chica. Come take the helm.” Jay waived her away from the forward bow.

“I’ve only read about yacht sailing, Jay. I’ve never actually steered one.” Sabela’s voice was lost in the western breeze, stolen by the cry of a gull, made inconsequential by the bored look on Jay’s face.

“It’s not like you can hit anything. There is nothing out here. Just keep the sail to starboard and we’ll be on course.” Jay stepped from the station, freeing the yacht. The helm turned with the movement of the rudder, its jerky motion chaotic. Wrestling it under control, Sabela felt the pull of the water and the motion of each wave that moved the rudder, dragging at the helm. “It’s a fucking yacht not a loose hog in your abuela’s garden, Puta. You don’t need to jump on it.” Sabela tried not to blush at his words. Puta, the word echoed in her head. I’m not a whore. Looking starboard she bit her lip and checked the sail. Why did he call me that? Jay disappeared below deck. They were friends, had been friends ever since the first time he’d walked into the bar and ordered a whisky. He must have been joking.

Alone at the helm, Sabela breathed in the sea air, feeling her body relax, her worry fade. The smooth black wheel moved in a genteel dance in her hands, making her feel connected, rhythmic and vital in a way she’d always dreamed. I want this… The statement came from somewhere deep inside her, rising solidly in her mind like absolute truth.

“I want this…” the words were real, as real as the thought.

“Want what?” Jay stepped out of the hatch with a whisky in his hand.

“This!” Sabela smiled at the blue waters.

Her smile faded when Jay walked up behind her, his hips pressing into her backside.

“And I want this, Puta.”

“I’m not a whore, Jay. I’m here as your friend.” Sabela pushed him away. “It’s not cute to call me that. Besides, I’m Portuguese not Spanish so don’t call me chica either.”

“Portuguese, Spanish, Latina, it all adds up to Mexican vajayjay in my book.” Jay kissed her neck, his hands sliding around her waist.

“Well Jay, your book is fucked up! You said you’d take me out on your yacht, nothing else.” Pinned to the helm, Sabela could smell Jay’s breath, a composition of rotting gums, marijuana and whisky. She turned her head to catch the sea breeze, her left elbow coming up under his chin. She felt him stumble back, his bad scent leaving with him. “I’m not a whore, Jay.” Her words followed him as he wobbled drunkenly back below deck. He was being persistent but working a bar had taught her how to deal with drunk aggressive men.

The yacht lifted and plunged softly under her feet. Glancing at the compass it read south by southwest. Looking up she checked that the boom held hard to starboard. In the ensuing peace the joy of a full sail returned to her, lifting her heart the way the wind lifted her black hair. Even if Jay was being an ass she wasn’t going to let him ruin this day.

“I don’t think you quiet understand your situation, Sabela.” He’d snuck back silently. The blow landed at the back of her head, knocking her into the helm. Her eyesight blurred, white lights flashing across her vision. She felt the yacht jerk again, the helm fighting to list the yacht portside. Sabela sank to her knees, the boom swinging erratically overhead. “Like I said…Puta, your tan ass was invited on this boat ride for one reason. May not be the reason you planned on but…shit happens.” Sabela felt herself lifted, her body turned towards the scent of whisky, gingivitis and Mary-fucking-Jane. His breath filled her nostrils, making her retch.

“My tan ass…has made other plans.” Lifting her fist she landed a weak swing into bad teeth. Jay stumbled back, his eyes alight with rage. He swung at her again but missed, his fist connecting with the rear hatch. “You said we were coming out here to sail!” Sabela’s voice and body rose as the yacht pitched, sending her stumbling into the guardrail. Jay came stumbling after, fists raised, landing a second punch to her forehead. His body collided with hers against the thin cable. The yacht bucked and turned. Overhead the boom jibbed to full portside, pitching Jay down the guardrail when the vessel tacked right. Sabela ran to the helm, cranking the yacht into a hard left.

“You fucking Mexican?” Jay stood clutching the cable rail, his drunken face reflecting a dawning uncertainty.

“I told you, I’m fucking Portuguese…” Jay stepped towards her, but the violent starboard tack pitched him overboard. …and I told you, I came out here to sail! In the ever growing distance, Sabela watched Jay vanish silently under a swell.

The Shame in Bare Shoulders: Part 16 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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Jenny, Eleanor and Zara (front row center)

Jenny, Eleanor and Zara (front row center)


On my seventh birthday my friend Zara gave me a sun dress with red, white, and green pinstripes. It was the most beautiful dress I had ever owned. I loved it the moment I saw it and wore it as often as I could. In my candy cane stripes and with my hair twisted into cinnamon-rolls like Princess Leia, I felt beautiful.

A heat wave hit Salt Lake City, driving the temperatures up well over 110. The heat made breathing painful. Each breath came like the drag of sandpaper over skin while the sunlight was so bright it blinded. I walked to school in my sundress under the shade of the box elder trees. I felt happy. The world was bright and warm and nature buzzed and shifted like a symphony around me. I walked into school, set my lunch bag in the bin and walked to my desk.

“Eleanor.” When I looked up my teacher was frowning at me. “Come here.” Rising from my desk I walked to her. What had I done wrong and why was she looking at me like that. “Girls are not allowed to show more skin then a tee-shirt reveals. You know the garments rule don’t you?” This last question assumes I’m Mormon, while questioning how I could have forgotten the LDS rules of modesty. I feel confused.

“I’m not a Mormon.”

“The garment rule still applies to you.” Her response is terse, her eyes sharp. “Mrs. Smith, please take Eleanor to the lost and found and find her something appropriate to cover herself with.” Mrs. Smith, our classroom aid takes my arm as if I’ll run away and forces me before her to the office. Inside the secretary rises, her eyes concerned. By the look on her tired old face I can see that my shoulders have upset her.

“Eleanor forgot to wear a sweater over her sun dress. We’re going to take something from the lost and found.” I don’t rise my eyes. I’m too ashamed. My little striped sundress with its pretty spaghetti straps is a humiliation. I feel too naked and too ashamed to look at the ancient secretary as she leads us into a side room labeled lost and found.

I watch Mrs. Smith sort past tee-shirts and hooded zip up jackets until she finds a knee length cable knit wool sweater. “Put this on and do not ever wear that dress to school again without a sweater to cover your shoulders. It is immodest and ungodly to show so much skin.”

“But it’s hot out.” I look at my feet, my voice imploring her to take pity on me. “Couldn’t I wear a tee-shirt over it?”

“No. You’ll wear this sweater. It will help you remember the garment rule.”

Sliding into the sweater I find it itchy and hot. Mrs. Smith buttons it down the front so that my shameful little sundress disappears beneath it. Not even the hem can be seen at the bottom. I watch Mrs. Smith roll up the sleeves before sending me back to class. When the bell for recess rings I unbutton the sweater and walk to hang it on the peg.

“Put it back on and button it up.” Mrs. Smith walks towards me, her fingers grabbing at the sweater, forcing me back into it.

“But it’s hot out.”

“Which will help you remember the garment rule!” I’m forced to watch Mrs. Smith button the heavy sweater up to its last button, the rough wool scratching my chin. Then I’m forced out of the air conditioned school and outside, but I can’t run and play with the other kids. I can’t even walk out into the heat. I stand at the shaded entrance, too sick with heat to step out of the shade.

“No loitering at the entrance. Come out please.” Looking up I see Mrs. Smith standing five feet before me. I walk to where she stands at the top of the playground stairs and try to keep my eye sight from blurring. I’m so sick with heat that it’s all I can do to stay on my feet during recess.

“Why are you wearing that heavy sweater?” A girl asks. She touches the sleeve, her fingers recoiling from the rough wool.

“The garment rule. My dress shows my shoulders so I have to cover up.” No one else talks to me that day. I’m shunned for breaking the rules, for being immodest while the reality that I’m not a member of the church sinks into more than one mind. When the final bell rings, marking the end of school, I try for a second time to take off the sweater but am told I can wear it home and return it the next day.

When I’m safe at home I am sweat drenched and covered with red scratches and hives. My mother stares at me in confusion the moment I step through the door.
“I showed my shoulders.” I tell her. “I broke the garment rule.”

“I didn’t know.” She keeps saying, too shocked to grasp what’s happened. “It was so hot,” she adds, still lost in the sight of my red roughened shoulders, “I didn’t know.”

The brightly colored pinstriped dress hung in my closet reeking of shame and licentious transgression until I finally outgrew it and gave it away. The dress is gone but I feel the shunning and the shame like I felt the hair shirt I was forced to wear on a 110 degree day; it burns, and it hurts to this day. So I cut the necks out of my tee-shirts. I wear bare shouldered gowns. I refuse to bend to self-righteous people who say that a girl who shows a shoulder is a bad girl and I won’t give an inch to buttoned-up self-righteous people who shame and injure others in the name of religious propriety. We are as god made us. We are glorious. We are women.

The Sanctuary of a Story: Part 15 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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green world

Everything is safe in a story. Stories have beginnings and middles and ends. If the storyteller is kind then the story ends well. Though not all stories end the way we want, a good story, a story worth the telling should leave you with something that makes you think, makes you feel, and makes you see the world in a slightly different way. The very best stories leave you awake, aware, nourished; feeling fully connected and alive. I know stories, I live in stories, I hide in stories when the world becomes too shrill, sharp and blinding.

I sit on the edge of the world. As far away from humanity as I can hope to go, while my shaking fingers twist thin willow switches into ornate braids. Today I am an ancient girl, a timeless nomad, making what I need from the bounty of a vast green country. The air is cold, fresh, and pure. I taste the wind, feeling it as it wriggles in the folds of my gown; its rough spun wool smelling of grasses and smoke and earth. I am a part of the earth. The earth is a part of me. Together we make beautiful things.

The bracelets I weave are a gift. They calm my nerves, help me to breath, and fill me with a silence that restores my peace. I take a smooth black rock from my pocket and place it in the middle of my braid, twisting the thin willow switch in circling patterns around it. When the stone is secured and centered I tie off the ends. This braclet is for my mother. I lay the strip of willow and black stone on the ground with the other two I have made.

Girls walk towards me. They whisper in low tones, their bright modern colors destroying my illusory peace. I’m forced to sit up, to smile, to act…normal.
“What are you doing?”
“Making willow bracelets.”
“Can we see them?”
“Yes,” I look down on the bracelets that lay on the grass where I sit.
“They’re beautiful. Can I have one?” The girl is kind. She’s always been kind. Her name is a memory I can’t catch. I lift up a bracelet with a pink stone and help her tie it around her wrist.
“Why don’t you come play with us?” Her expression is curious, not judging. I would like to play with her but just being forced to speak to her has constricted my breathing, sending my stomach into knots. I need to be alone, in silence…free.

“Thanks but I like being here.” The kind girl smiles softly, her right hand sliding over the pink stone bracelet like a gesture of understanding. I watch them walk away, whispering and wondering why I sit alone. I try again to remember what it was to be timeless, to be alone in rough spun fabric I made myself, to be unindebted to a world without center, but the time has gone. With the ring of the bell I am forced to gather my things and head back to class.

Kids run with soccer balls, girls laugh, skip and play. I walk with my head down, trying not to see all the colors, feel all the noise. My mind grasps at a vanishing blue sky, an endless, enfolding expanse. Wispy clouds call to me through aluminum edged windows as block walls separate me from my true self, my green self, my free self. The story I embodied retreats, is saved for later, buried deep. Yet its memory lends me calm in the riot of noise that only stills when the teacher calls the class to silence.

Being Enough: Part 14 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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late bloomer
I’m drowning in the reality that I’m not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, kind enough, or thoughtful enough. I thought I was a little girl but they tell me I’m a “late bloomer?” There’s even a book they read me. It makes me angry and sad at bed time. So every day I struggle to be more…. If I can become more then I can feel ok. I can bloom. But when I’m messy, stupid, or outspoken, or hungry, then she notices. She is my Mother and my Mother is a Goddess. I’ve seen her put Daddy down like an old dog, and burn our world to scorched earth with a look. Goddesses are tricky creatures. Please them and they’ll ignore you. Upset them and you’ll see how quickly everything you thought you were gets singed to ash.

I’m not enough. Daddy isn’t enough either. Together we let the team down and that makes us embarrassing. I’m his because I have his hair, his eyes, and his shape while Sis is hers because she is thin, red haired, pale, and universally adored. Sis is a Goddess in training. I am a late bloomer!

This reality divides our house into the reds vs. browns, thins vs. fats, petted vs. rebuked. In Mother’s corner is Sis and a tenuous, uncertain me – wishing to please and be accepted. In Daddy’s corner is Daddy, looking alone, sad, confused, goofy and often outright obnoxious. I drift to his side now and again but scorned Goddesses are never merciful.

Daddy has always been the odd man out. He wears his constant rejection like an old sweater that is too shabby to bring comfort, yet too familiar to be taken off. So he says and does things that make everything harder, needing to be loved while he gives us reasons to push him farther away. I feel his need to be loved like I feel his need to be accepted. I want him to be loved and accepted; to be better, thinner, smart, and funny in a way that will please her, but he doesn’t try like I do, so I, too, am ashamed. In being ashamed of him, I become ashamed of me, ashamed of us.

So here we are! It’s a hot, sunny summer day and my uncle is complaining that the meat we bought for the barbeque is too cheap a cut for him to eat. Mother makes food and ignores him, while wearing a tee-shirt two sizes too small; her low cut bell bottom jeans flaring in all the right places. Sis is in her bikini looking equally radiant, while I wear my one piece, the only kind of swimming suit this round bloomless girl is allowed to wear.

Daddy fills the paddle pool. Then he fills up water balloons and before we know it a neighborhood-wide water fight has begun. Hoses reach under boxelder trees, are pulled across M St., while buckets are filled and balloons smashed. Pop! We shriek, laugh, scream and run but not fast enough as buckets of water are dumped over our heads. In minutes we’re all soaked, laughing and happy.

Cold water turns to steam that rises off hundred degree concrete, filling the air with that most succulent of urban scents: hot wet sidewalk. It’s a memory scent that makes me happy every time I smell it. I’m lost in the scent, in being happy, in the sparkle of puddles on scorched brown lawn. It’s the yells of men that makes me look up. Daddy has the hose but Uncle and another man have hold of Daddy. In a second he’s dragged across the lawn and thrown down in the paddle pool face first with Uncle and this other man landing on top. Daddy is pinned to the bottom of the baby pool and the fight is over.

Everybody laughs. It’s funny? It doesn’t feel funny! It feels mean! When they let him up Daddy’s half drowned and defeated. He is again the youngest brother of five, the boy who never wins. I feel mad because they took the game too seriously. Like the water disappearing into the ground, all the fun’s leached out of the day.

I go in the backyard and sit alone, the sound of laughter still ringing in the air. There is no way to fix this thing I feel but can’t express. No way to take sides in this invisible battle that no one ever talks about. All I can do is try to be better, to be kinder, to be a lady, to be enough. If I can be enough then maybe I’ll bloom.