On The Attic Floor

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I’m happy to announce a short story I wrote is featured in the new issue of Hot Valley Writers fantastic online literary magazine. Please enjoy “On The Attic Floor“, about a woman who discovers a box of her childhood books and takes a much needed trip to the past.

All The White Horses

 

abreyer2

I saw her today. My former best friend.

Our parents were friends before she and I even came along into the world. We ended up in the same first grade class, beginning a friendship that often proved to be my rock. We spent countless hours playing at each other’s houses, preferring our Breyer model horses with which to exercise our imaginations, rather than the more traditional Barbies and baby dolls that most girls chose.

I can easily access many treasured memories of weekend sleepovers. If it was Friday, we stayed up late to watch the 1970’s music stars perform on “The Midnight Special”.  If it was Saturday, we sat down on the floor in front of the tube with a snack and tuned into “Project Terror”, a rerun of some scary B-movie too old for us to recognize.

The teenage years saw us catapult deeply into the waters of angst and rebellion. We ran around in our black heavy metal concert t-shirts, carrying cigarette packs and whatever weed we could score in our purses.

I could write volumes about Ethel. That’s not her real name. Nor is my name Gladys. Those were nicknames we gave ourselves as we laughed about what kind of crazy old ladies we would evolve into, certain we’d still be best friends.

Like I said, I could write volumes. There are memories of days and chunks of life and strings of sentences shared between us that saved my sanity, made me laugh until my sides ached and soothed my soul. Our friendship helped shape the woman I became. But that’s not what this is about.

Ethel hated conflict. If we had a fight, she’d just stop talking to me for awhile. If she had built up negative feelings about our friendship, rather than open up a discussion and work through it with me, she’d cut and run. Just after high school, she cut me out of her life for about six months. No discussion, no warning. Just stopped taking my calls or talking to me. When she finally contacted me again, I was so lonely and desperate to have her back in my life, I acted like it was no big deal and welcomed her back.

It happened again a few years later, and I’m sorry to say I reacted similarly. I had no idea how to stand up for myself, and was frightened of losing the most important friendship of my life again. After several months of the reborn friendship, she ghosted me a third time. This time, it lasted for five years.

I knew Ethel’s parents had an influence on her, despite her not being fully cognizant of it. After we hit adolescence and began to rebel, especially when I introduced their precious daughter to the music of the rock band KISS, her mom and dad began to blame me for screwing up their kid. I remember Ethel telling me that her mother called me ‘white trash’. That cut me to the core. It took me years to ask myself why Ethel would even relay such a painful comment.

My belief is that Ethel used me as a scapegoat at times, too. If she could see me as less than her, it gave her some self-esteem she couldn’t find in other ways. I think she saw herself as the more educated and well-rounded one, while I was still the same misfit stuck in her teenage years.

After those five years of no contact passed, I received a letter from Ethel.  She wanted to talk again. She wanted to apologize.

Ethel was now married, living in Chicago and going to grad school.  I wrote back, telling her I would tentatively correspond with her via letters. I needed time to test the waters and see if I could extend trust not born of my youth and former loneliness.

After several weeks of snail mail, I supplied Ethel with a caveat. If she ever pulled her act of just taking away the friendship without even discussing it with me first, then she needed to understand it would be the final straw. Don’t ever contact me again, I said. She accepted my terms.

We became close again. It was a rewarding, much more adult friendship this time around. I was thrilled I didn’t miss out on her giving birth to two beautiful daughters. Her family moved back to the area, and I got to see them more often. I thrived as a pseudo aunt. Those girls were the be-all-end-all to me.

After twelve years of having Ethel back in my world, we got into a fight. The details are unimportant as far as this writing goes, but I can say that it began with me telling her she had said something to me that hurt my feelings, and I wanted to discuss it. Suffice it to say her old habit of being unable to handle disagreement with me reared its ugly head yet again. Despite now having a graduate degree in a counseling field, she couldn’t deal with conflict. Ironic, don’t you think?

She cut. She ran.

Ethel still had some of my things, like CDs, DVDs and a book. I found my items in a small cardboard box that had been surreptitiously tossed on my front porch. It was raining, but the box was left open, allowing water to do some damage. Thanks! So kind of you to offer one last gutless wonder maneuver. My guess is it wasn’t even her that performed the drive-by. She likely handed off the task to her husband.

That was thirteen years ago. As I said at the beginning of this, I saw her today.

Not in person. It was during a middle of the night Google session conducted when I couldn’t fall back asleep. I searched various people I used to know, catching up with neighbors and old school mates. Then I thought of her and started poking around. I mainly hoped to see what her daughters look like all grown up. I still miss them.

I found recent pictures of Ethel posted on social media. There she sat having a meal out with her extended family. I did see what I believe are both of her daughters. But what I could not take my eyes off was Ethel herself. No longer the six-year-old sprite running around our elementary school playground. No longer the teenage girl applying purple eye shadow and puffing on a Marlboro. No longer the thirty-something new mom.

I could say I felt an instant longing for our closeness again. I could say I had to fight the desire to try to find her phone number and see if we could work this all out. But neither of those is true. I found myself awash in bitterness.

That face – my God, how much she looks like her father. Ethel’s dad was one of the most judgmental men I ever knew, and I was often standing in front of him as he brought down his gavel in contempt of me.

It wasn’t just her face. It was her expression. I knew it like I knew the back of my hand.  Ethel was never comfortable being photographed (neither am I). She often expressed fear of being seen as ugly or fat. I could see in these photographs the discomfort she tried to hide behind a grin. The way she sat, the placement of her hands, the tilt of her head. Her body language still proved familiar to me. I saw that she wasn’t happy about her picture being taken, but knew she had no choice.

She sat next to her mother-in-law. The one about whom Ethel often complained to me, but she couldn’t (wouldn’t) stand up to her. She sat across the table from her sister-in-law. The one about whom Ethel often complained to me, but she couldn’t (wouldn’t) confront her either.

Yet these people were still in her life, because Ethel had no choice. The very fact that they were in-laws meant she couldn’t pull her Ghost Routine. I was different. I was disposable.

I saw something else in those pictures. Ethel had gained weight. I knew her well enough to know what a number that must do on her self-image. In a flash of pettiness, I briefly took pleasure from knowing this. The anger at her goddamn audacity to throw me away time after time proved strong.

Taking in her physical changes, including how she has aged (as we all have), and seeing that patented I Am Uncomfortable Ethel body language and frozen smile posed some questions.

Has she changed in the past thirteen years? Does she face her fears about conflict and know how to resolve it now? Does she regret trashing our friendship? I don’t know. I never will know. I sure can guess, though. Pictures vs. a thousand words and all.

I took twenty-four hours to consider it all. Who and how she is now, as well as my reaction to seeing her in digital form moving through the current day world. My former best friend.

I spent the majority of the last several years being a caretaker for my mother, who had dementia. My entire life came to a halt while I did my best to ease her through her last years. I lost ground in terms of my career, my savings, my social life and my sanity.

When it was all over, I felt like I had spent ages on the side of the highway with a broken down car. My friends in my age group had all whizzed past me. After taking months to properly grieve the death of my mom, as well as the loss of the years of my life, I found myself in a depressive state. How on earth was I ever going to catch up?

In processing my reaction to seeing Ethel, I turned a corner in understanding something. We all spend time broken down on the side of the road. It’s not that I didn’t already know this on a cognitive level. I just needed a ghost from the past to stop in and remind me that I need to relax. I needed a revelation to give me a gentle shove towards getting back out on the road.

For months now, I’ve felt this favorite old Tori Amos lyric about feeling left behind summed up my life:

“All the white horses have gone ahead”

Now I’m realizing that I need to also hear the rest of that stanza:

“When you gonna make up your mind
When you gonna love you as much as I do?
‘Cause things are gonna change so fast”

And they have changed quickly. I actually started writing this piece some two months ago, then set it aside because my focus was suddenly diverted. I created a major opportunity in the creative writing field that, if it pays off, will change my life. I’m also now more at ease that being a menopausal woman with problems is not only okay, but matches me well with a group of friends I have in the same boat.

I released Ethel, that ghost from my past. That old haunting feeling of ‘She must be way happier than I am’ is gone. How she is, what she’s accomplished and what she weighs is none of my concern.

I’ve got my eyes on my own lane. I may be in a jalopy moving forward in fits and starts, but I am on the road again.

avw

Home for the Holidays

amomtape

 

My mom came by to visit me yesterday. Not in the flesh, owing to the fact that she died summer of last year, but she found a way.

Back in 1994, I decided to record a conversation with my mother. I treated it like I was interviewing her, with the purpose being to achieve a sort of life history for her. I caught the whole thing on cassette tape, as this was back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and people weren’t armed with smart phones and digital video recorders.

I spent forty-five minutes asking her questions, going chronologically from when she was born through when I was a little girl. My mother was 71 years old at the time I interviewed her, so less than an hour was nowhere near enough time to cover all the bases. I did manage to get in a lot of factual questions, along with ones with a more emotional base to them.

One of my biggest problems is that I procrastinate like it’s an Olympic sport. My intention to record more was put off and put off, and eventually the tape was relegated to its plastic cover and shelved with my hundreds of musical cassettes. I had not heard it since I created it.

Shortly after my mother died, the tape resurfaced. Not ready to deal with it yet, I put off listening to it. The day finally came when I wanted to hear it. More accurately, I needed to hear it. I cued it up in my ancient boombox. I was disappointed to find that the sound quality was so poor that I had to start and stop every few seconds. I could just barely hear her, which served to frustrate me and make me cry. I put the tape back up.

Yesterday, I decided to try again. The volume was still way too low. In desperation, I smacked the side of the boombox with my hand, as one does when a television, computer, kitchen appliance and host of other machines fail us.

Voila! The sound roared to life and my mother’s voice filled the room.

I listened to a twenty-seven year old me play journalist, sorting through the details of an elderly woman’s life. And it was beautiful. An early Christmas gift created by both my mother and myself to be delivered twenty-five years in the future.

The first thing that hit me in the face was that I never realized my mother had a Texas accent. How is that possible? The voice definitely belonged to her. The younger voice I remember, not the woman with dementia I knew for the last several years of her life. Yet it had a subtle but noticeable twang; sweet like a little sugar in a glass of iced tea.

Startling as well was a fact about my grandfather I had long forgotten. He was forty when he married my grandmother. She was only twenty at the time. My grandpa became a father in his mid-40’s. My mother entered parenthood in her mid-40’s, too. This means my own grandfather was born in 1880.

1880! When Laura Ingalls ran barefoot through the prairie, my grandpa was alive. Edison patented the light bulb the year before my grandpa entered the world. The invention of the car had not yet come to fruition. I simultaneously feel like I’m touching a piece of living history and that I myself am older than dirt.

I asked my mom about World War 2. She relayed how she was riding in a car with a couple of friends when the announcement about Pearl Harbor came over the radio. She spoke of the ration books she used to purchase things like meat, sugar and gasoline.  She was unaware of the atrocities of the Holocaust until the war was over.

When asked what attracted her to the man she married before my dad, she exclaimed that he was “oodles of fun”. The fun stopped when it was clear he was a raging alcoholic. Tired of living with him in Waterloo, Iowa, she left him and came back to Texas. I asked her who filed for divorce and she replied that she did. She told me at that time, most women were the ones to do the filing. If the man filed for divorce, it marked the woman as ‘unmarriable’, and was a black mark on her social record. If the woman filed, it just meant it must not have worked out. No Scarlet “D” for the man.

I learned about most of the cats my mother owned. (Shut it! Like mother, like daughter.) She reminded me of the multiple places she called home in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas. She told of my father’s proposal to her when they were out with friends drinking and dancing.

She spoke of so much more, happily answering all my questions. Yet there were so many I did not get to. I wish I had gone back to this project, but I am grateful that I achieved what I did. This precious testimonial has lived on, and it has allowed my mother to do the same, at a time of year when I really needed her to come to life in some form.

While listening to the tape, my eyes only watered a couple of times. I didn’t go into the full-blown grieving cry, which delightfully surprised me. It felt like my mom had stopped by for a visit at Christmas. As if she were just sitting next to me on my bed, painting little portraits of her life experiences.

If you have relatives whose life stories you’d like to relive down the line, I encourage you to document them now. It’s much more personal when it comes with their voices and faces, as opposed to just jotting down a timeline. There is so much more technology available for this today.

I meant to talk to my father, too, but he died a few months later. Time waits for no one. Make a piece of living history with your mom, dad, grandparents, spouse and others while you can. It will pay you and other family members back down the line.

On a similar subject, I wrote a piece last Christmas called “Red”. It’s about the last Christmas present my mother ever gave me. For those interested in an update, I unwrapped the red package to find a beautiful ornament.

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You might think I rushed to hang it in a place of prominence on my tree. I did not. I let it sit on my desk for weeks, afraid of breaking it while handling it or finding it had fallen from the tree and shattered. Weeks turned into all year, and it was only when I put up a tree this month that I was forced to make a decision.

I asked my friend to put a beautiful green bow on the top of the box and set it under my tree. Thus, a new tradition was born. I like the idea of placing the boxed ornament among the other presents. It feels like I cheated time and am able to enjoy that single present from my mother long past the one Christmas. Now every year will contain a gift from my mom.

I can’t decide if that is charming and clever or merely a cloyingly sweet idea fit for a horrid Hallmark holiday movie. Time will tell, but for now it feels right.

I wish a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or whatever applies to all my readers. May the new year bring you the peace I felt for forty-five minutes yesterday.

Trick or Treat

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I love me some Halloween. The usual reasons come to mind: dressing up, costume parties, decorations, the spooky atmosphere and the candy. Especially Smarties. If you don’t understand the cult love some of us have for Smarties, I feel sorry for you. If, in addition to that ignorance, you also love candy corn, I will fight you.

In some ways, the best part of Halloween is seeing kids dressed in their costumes. I love seeing imaginations in action. Comic book heroes, princesses, witches, ghosts, Harry Potter, and on and on. I’m particularly enamored of kids who are too young to have chosen their costumes, so they are sporting what Mom or Dad picked for them. There’s nothing cuter than a toddler wandering around looking somewhat confused, yet also confident that, ‘Yep, I’m a tiger” or “I don’t know what a Buzz Lightyear is, but apparently I’m him.”

For many years, I lived in a neighborhood that didn’t have trick-or-treaters. There were a lot of empty nesters living there, as well as the streets had no sidewalks and did not lend themselves to walkability for the kiddos. I moved to a new home last year, and was quite sad when my neighbor said we don’t really get trick-or-treaters in this area. Still in the process of unpacking and setting up my house, I didn’t bother to buy candy.

Foolishly, I turned my porch light on for the big night without thinking.

Around dusk, the doorbell rang. I was in my bedroom talking on the phone. I checked my alarm system’s front porch camera and saw a darling little girl dressed in a pink kitten costume. “No!” I said to my friend on the phone. “It’s probably just the one. Go turn your porch light off”, he replied.

But it was too late. I would have to cross in front of the open living room windows and look like a Samhain Scrooge signaling that I was just kidding, no goodies here for you younguns! A steady stream of kids and families kept trudging up my driveway for the next ninety minutes. I sat in my bedroom watching them on cam, my eyes actually watering at one point because I had missed out on something I love so dearly.

candy halloween

 

I vowed that this year would be different. I bought new decorations to add to my old ones and put them up. I bought a giant bag of the good candy. (I would not be stuck with a bowl of leftover Dum Dum lollypops or Dollar Store candy I don’t enjoy). I bought stickers, monster temp tattoos and tiny plastic bat rings. I put two pieces of candy and one prize in a sandwich baggie and tied it up with green ribbon, for a total of sixty bags.

I was not only going to hand out Halloween candy this year, I was going to be the cool house.

I pulled a muscle in my thigh the day before Halloween, making it difficult to get around. Getting up constantly and moving around was painful, but I was not going to have another Halloween be thwarted. I decided to set a bowl with all the candy bags in it on a chair just outside my front door. I wrote a sign that said, “Happy Halloween! Please take one bag per person”, and taped it to the door. I planned to watch the kids on my porch cam so I could enjoy the costumes and excitement of participating in handing out candy again, even if from my gimpy spot on the couch.

I knew the risk. I was warned by a couple of friends, too.

“You’ll be robbed blind by the first kid that comes to your door.”

“You can’t trust people. Don’t do it”.

I was willing to take the risk. I believe in the good of people, even if that good doesn’t always come through. It’s the Anne Frank in me. So I set the bowl out and waited.

The first visitors featured a mom dressed as Maleficent, her husband and two kids. I watched my cam as they read the sign, politely took one bag each and left. Then came a little unicorn accompanied by a cowboy. They did the same. Then skeletons and fairies and some in costumes I could not identify, all cute as can be and doing as my sign requested.

I almost melted from adoration when a hot dog and a pirate, both boys about ten or eleven years old, showed up. The hot dog read the sign to his friend, and told him, “Be sure to take just one bag.” As they walked off, they turned and looked at my door and said, “Thank you!”

My faith in humanity was fully charged at this point.

Next up was a group of four teenage boys. The first one up to the door read the sign, screamed to his buddies, “Oh, look!” and grabbed as many bags as he could. His friends joined in, emptying my bowl.

I yelled out the window, “What the fuck?!” They laughed and took out running. I screamed, “You fucking assholes!”, and one returned fire with, “You shouldn’t have put the bowl out!” They tore across my lawn and down the street.

I just sat there, saddened and angry. My porch cam captured an image of two of them, and I contemplated posting it on the Nextdoor website (each neighborhood in a city has a section on the site), asking something like, “Are these your kids? They’re also thieves.” The hope would be to get them in trouble, but realistically I knew the greater risk was they would come back for revenge. They may be ‘just kids’ to some, but I don’t need the fear of four high school males cooking up ways to scare or harm me because I got them in trouble with their parents.

I was half-dressed and in no condition to go open the door, tear the sign down, collect the bowl and turn off the light. It was getting late anyway, so I knew only a few more visitors would come by. A couple of girls walked up, read the sign, expressed confusion at the empty bowl, then made off with the last two bags that had hit the porch before the shithead hooligans teenage thieves made off with them.

I stopped monitoring the cam, instead focusing on sitting on my couch trying not to dissolve into tears (spoiler: it didn’t work). I know that in the grand scheme of things, it was just some idiot boys playing a trick on Halloween. I was out about twenty bucks worth of merchandise, so it wasn’t some headline grabbing crime. But still.

I checked the camera one more time and literally screamed when I saw this.

clown halloween

 

I am not kidding when I say that from the day I first got my new alarm system, I have had a fear of seeing some scary ass clown on my front porch when I checked my camera. That night, my nightmare came true. Turns out it was just some poor kid reading my sign and realizing there was no candy to be had. He turned and skipped across my lawn to the waiting car I assume his parent was driving. He definitely won my award for Scariest Costume of the Night.

I thought about those kids that took the candy a lot that night and the next day. I made a conscious decision not to go all glass-half-empty over a prank done on the spur of the moment by some kids whose brains aren’t fully formed yet. Which is not to say I didn’t also express a wish that they all choke on my candy. I’m no saint.

My takeaway from the experience is this: Up until they showed up, eighteen people read my sign, respected it, took one bag and left. They were the treats. And I will not allow one pack of tricks to overshadow that.

(But seriously, choke on it.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comfort Zone

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He called me when I had just climbed into bed to take an afternoon nap. We talked for a while, my head sinking into the memory foam pillow, and I could feel sleep overtaking me. I fought it but … ZZZZZ. The next thing I knew, I was waking up with my phone still perched on my chest. I could hear the sounds of traffic and the gentle purr of an engine.

“Am I in the car?” I asked, still not fully cognizant.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Oh my God, I fell asleep! I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, really.” His soothing baritone voice assured me he truly didn’t mind.

“Why didn’t you just say something and wake me up?” I asked.

“I know you needed the sleep. At first, I muted myself so I wouldn’t disturb you while I took the dog outside and did a couple of things around the house.”

I was mortified at this point. “Holy cow, how long was I out?”

“About half an hour.”

“You should’ve just hung up!”

“I didn’t have the heart to do it,” he said, and I could hear the hint of a smile on his face.

My mind seized up with all the embarrassing possibilities. Had he heard me make mortifying sleeping noises? Sweet Moses, had I snored?! I had trouble falling asleep when my cat was staring at me. How could I let this happen?

I heard the rhythmic clicking of his car’s turn signal as he waited at a traffic light. Feeling touched and a bit curious, I asked, “Where are we going?”

“I have to go to the grocery store, so I’m taking you with me. I must’ve accidentally unmuted myself. I’m sorry.”

“You were prepared to cart my sleeping ass on the phone through the entire store and back home, if necessary?” I asked, feeling incredulous.

“Yes,” he replied. “I didn’t want you to wake up alone.”

Involuntarily clapping my hand over my mouth, I searched for my next words. Before I could choose any, his own words wrapped me in a comforting blanket.

“Go back to sleep, if you want to, baby. I got you.”

 

Red

tree mom

 

When someone you love is living with a looming deadline for how much time they have left on earth, due to age or medical condition, each holiday or birthday begs the same question: Is this the last one?

Every Christmas, Thanksgiving, her birthday and my own that came and went, I thanked God for another one with my mom. She was in her nineties and had dementia. Borrowed time was where her feet were firmly planted.

My mom wasn’t able to drive for the last several years. (Well, according to everyone but her. She fussed at us endlessly when told a mostly deaf woman with dementia probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel.) Since she was no longer able to go out and shop for my presents like she used to, I started buying a few things for myself, giving them to her to wrap, and we pretended they were from her to me.

Those last years, when we sat together on Christmas Eve night to open presents, only one of us was surprised by what was in each festively wrapped package we traded. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting. No matter how many decades you bank as an adult, you still want your parents to give you a present that makes your eyes wide with delighted anticipation as you tear into it, not knowing what it could be.

Last year, during one of her clearer moments when she realized Christmas was coming, she insisted she wanted to buy me some presents. I realized this was likely the final chance for her to shop and for me to enjoy the fruits of her labor, so I handed her a wad of cash and asked the wonderful lady who helped me take care of her to take her out for a shopping trip. My mother asked what I wanted. I replied, “Whatever you think I’d like, Mom. Who knows me better than you?” When pressed for at least an idea, I suggested an ornament, and recommended they visit Hallmark and Pier One.

A few hours later, there were three presents wrapped and set by the tiny artificial tree I bought at Walgreens. Christmas had become too different and often sad to bother with the giant artificial tree for years, so the little one sufficed.

Christmas was delayed a few days because I was ill, but the night finally came where I called mom into the living room for our gift exchange. Mom sat on the couch with a blank look on her face while I explained that it was Christmas and handed her a present.  While appreciative of the decorative box I filled with her favorite miniature Hershey’s chocolates and kisses, she took a few and handed the box back to me. Despite my repeated assurances the box of candy was hers to keep, she couldn’t quite grasp that it was a gift to her or why I was giving it. I didn’t see the point of continuing and asked if she’d like to go back to bed. She did.

I managed to wait until she left the room before bursting into tears. Moments like that will rip a hole in your soul you aren’t prepared for, even if you know they are eventually going to arrive like a burglar at your bedroom window at two in the morning. I accepted that Christmas 2017 was either going to be the last one for which my mother was at least semi-coherent, or the last one at all.

After a couple of very dark emotional days, I opened two of my presents and was delighted with what my mother had chosen for me. Even in her dementia, she still knew my taste. One package was a collection of three miniature boxes, each covered in a glossy wicker type material with a featured bright jewel tone. Pier One always could catch my eye with merchandise like that. To be honest, I cannot remember what the second present was, but I know I liked it.

The third present remained. Encased in glittery red wrapping paper, I left it unopened, not entirely sure why. As the days passed and a new year began, I realized I was saving this present. Saving it for when my mother was gone and there would be no more shopping excursions for her or packages under the tree she had selected for me.

It sat on the built-in shelves in the living room for weeks. Every day I would see the present. I didn’t know if I would be overcome with a need to unwrap it that might hit me in five minutes, or if I would just feel the time was right to unveil it on some unspecified day weeks or months later. Certain I would know when the time was right, I moved the present to my bedroom closet shelf.

My mom died this past July. Last year turned out to be her last Christmas, her last Thanksgiving and the last birthday of mine she would witness.

I moved shortly before her death, after she had been safely ensconced in a nursing home, and the last several months have been about grieving, crying, sorting through earthly possessions and wondering just when in the hell does it get easier?

I decided to put up my Christmas tree this year. Part of me was quite excited. I love the pageantry of hanging the lights and garland, but my favorite part is going thru the ornaments.

If you are at my house when I’m unpacking them, fix yourself a large drink and sit down, because I will tell you the story of every ornament I own. You’ll learn which ones are childhood favorites, which ones were a gift from someone special, which ones were homemade and which ones I bought myself. If you are bored by this recitation, I won’t notice because I’ll be too busy grinning like a goofball as I pull out the next ornament and search for the right place for it on the tree.

My six foot artificial tree looks amazing. The tears I feared would flow from sorrow that my mother wasn’t here to help me decorate it didn’t occur. Instead, I got a little misty-eyed because I get to have a tree again.

In fact, I have two trees. The small LED-lighted tree sits on my kitchen bar, surrounded by a few of my decorations. In the center of the decorations is The Final Present. The Red One.

The last gift my mother will ever give me.

I was correct that I would know when it was time. I’m going to open it on Christmas Eve night. I know it’s an ornament, because mom slipped up and told me that, but I don’t know what kind.

I know I’m going to cry. I may end up going into the ugly cry; the kind where you want to do it alone because no one should witness the howling that comes from the loss of someone you love so much.

I’m hopeful I will also experience joy. To be honest, I’m a little intimidated by what emotional process I may strap myself into and ride like a roller coaster. But I am ready. Strike that. I am as ready as I will ever be.

Come tomorrow night, I will sit down, pour a glass of the red wine my mother loved, and I will open the last present she will ever give me. I will open Red, and if the universe works the way I like to think it does, my beautiful mother will witness it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soul Mates

Opportunity Missed and Taken Green Road Sign and Clouds

 

Ellen had just begun her second day in the marketing department of a dying chain of mid-sized department stores when Jon introduced himself into her life. He had walked past her office cubicle, stopped, then walked backwards and stopped again. Ellen turned to see who was invading her uncomfortably small cube space, and found herself staring into the cobalt blue eyes of a man dressed in an off-white dress shirt and casual brown pants. His dark blonde hair brushed up against the collar of his shirt.

A one-man welcoming committee, Jon charmed Ellen with his easy going nature and wit. He treated her to mediocre coffee from the office building’s basement cafeteria, and a friendship was born.

The two co-workers quickly became tight, initially bonding over their similar senses of humor and a shared love of cheesy sci-fi films. They discovered their commonalities included having fathers who were lawyers, being raised in the mid-West, and both hovering just shy of their fortieth birthdays. Within a few months, Jon and Ellen became best office pals, often sitting next to each other during conference room meetings, and seeking each other out for restaurant lunches once or twice a week.

Ellen had to admit to herself that she found Jon attractive. It wasn’t that he had stop-you-in-your-tracks good looks, but he was definitely easy on her eyes. His personality had a hold on her heart more than anything. He fit neatly into her figurative file cabinet under ‘J’, for Just My Type. However, she had spied Jon’s wedding ring on day one, and ruled out any role for him in her life other than co-worker and friend. He was married, perhaps happily (although he tended to speak of his wife only in factual terms, rather than glowing, infatuated ones), and she did not cross that line.

At a ritzy New Year’s Eve party held at Jon’s house, Ellen met his wife for the first and only time. Jon said, “This is my wife, Cecelia,” and Ellen made the mistake of attempting humorous familiarity too early, replying, “Hi, I’m Jon’s work wife!” The icy look from Cecelia could’ve frozen the pot of piping hot fondue centered on the antique dining room table. Ellen meant no harm. Her entire department referred to the duo as each other’s ‘work spouse’, but the charm of that apparently ended at the office doors.

After several cups of party punch laden with a top shelf vodka, Ellen plopped down on the family room sofa and swiveled her slightly hazy gaze around the room. She stifled a giggle at the juxtaposition taking place on the wall with the fireplace. What was obviously Cecelia’s collection of Hummel figurines on one bookcase was dwarfed by free floating shelves sporting a range of toy store purchases celebrating characters from the various Star Trek films and television series. Ellen recognized some of them as duplicates from the array of Jon’s desk toys back at the office. It struck her as a perfect illustration of the difference between this husband and wife.

The couple’s three young children made a brief appearance at the party before being ushered back to their bedrooms by a sixty-something woman, who could have been a relative or a nanny. Ellen noticed how the blonde boy who toddled in circles in his Spiderman jammies was the spitting image of his father. The older girls both sported the elongated chin Ellen noticed on their mother.

Ellen said her goodbyes just after midnight, and endured another cold look from Cecelia as she exited the party. Jon walked her to her car, and offered her a lingering kiss on the cheek. “Happy New Year, work wife,” he said, as she slipped behind the wheel of her car.

“See ya, work hubby,” she said, laughing and feeling rebellious, although she wasn’t exactly sure why.

Right after the turn of the new year, Jon sent a text to Ellen. Contact outside of work hours was not common for them, and Ellen noticed and then pretended to ignore the schoolgirl skipping of a heartbeat she felt when she saw the text was not work related. It was the opening to a knock-knock joke, and she took the bait. Thus began a series of bad jokes they would send each other at all hours, as well as conversations that were about their personal lives. While no inappropriate verbiage was exchanged, Ellen sensed that these textual interactions were not likely something to which Cecelia was privy.

They had become close friends in their time working together. Nothing more. Not in a physical sense. Yet the longing had been there, ebbing and flowing, for a very long time. Ellen often found herself resenting not Cecelia herself, but the concept of a Cecelia. If Ellen had gotten to Jon first, might they be together instead?

One night found the two of them working in the office until almost midnight, desperately trying to put out the social media fires that resulted from the news that their store had sold a line of toasters that were known to cause electrical shocks, including one that seriously injured a toddler in Vermont.

Sitting at her desk, Ellen tossed her empty Orange Crush bottle into the trash can under her desk and ignored her inner voice advising her to keep her musings to herself.  She didn’t go full monty about her feelings for Jon, instead floating the idea that if he were single, she wouldn’t be surprised if they would have coupled up by now.

After a brief pause, Jon leaned forward in his chair, put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Yes, Ellen. I can see that, too.”

“Really? You don’t think it’s wrong of me to say that?” she asked.

“Not at all, kiddo,” he said. “I mean, we do have so much in common, and we certainly have a lot of fun together. You’re very …” He paused and looked to the ceiling tiles for a way to finish his sentence. Ellen held her breath while he contemplated. He finally looked her dead in the eyes, stroked her cheek with his fingers and said, “You’re easy to be with, honey.” With that, Jon stood to leave her cubicle, then turned and looked at her for several beats. Sitting somewhat askew in her chair after a draining day of damage control, Ellen could feel something of portent about to fall from his lips.

“Sometimes soul mates don’t marry,” he said.

With that haunting line, he headed for the elevator. Ellen spent the weekend pondering those five words. By the time her alarm clock sounded on Monday morning, she knew he was correct. Soul mates aren’t just the people with whom you walk down an aisle. They can be a best friend. A family member. Even an unrequited love of sorts. This redefinition of their relationship soothed Ellen. He could be happily married and still have a non-sexual, close friendship with someone he also considered a soul mate.

That new knowledge paved over acres of occasionally unsettling times in which Ellen pondered her feelings for Jon, and if he had them for her. But the concrete cracked soon after when she risked complicating things one morning by firing a question at Jon as they drove together to a breakfast meeting with a client.

“Is Cecelia your soul mate?” Ellen blurted out.

“What?” he asked, clearly taken by surprise at the inquiry.

“I mean, she is, right? I was just thinking about how we have different soul mates, and what you said about how sometimes they don’t marry.”

“Oh, right,” he said. Jon fiddled with the navigation system, double checking the location of a place he’d already visited many times.

Ellen pressed the issue. “So is she?”

“Sometimes. But we’re very different people,” Jon responded, clearly uncomfortable with the topic.

“Oh, okay,” Ellen said, having no idea what he meant. After a couple of city blocks of silence, Jon changed the subject to something neutral. Ellen withheld all follow-up questions.

Just over a year down the road, Ellen was near tears on Jon’s last day at work. He had accepted a position at another company that brought both an increase in salary and prestige. They stood huddled together in the break room. Ellen clutched a festive paper plate from a party store that held a piece of store-bought chocolate cake in which she had no interest. Co-workers milled around them, offering their well wishes to Jon while seeing if they could scam a second piece of cake without notice.

Jon pulled Ellen into the hallway and rubbed her upper arms with his warm hands in an attempt to comfort both of them. “I’ll be five miles away, not five planets. We’ll still be friends, Ellen,” he said.

“I know, but…” she said, her voice trailing off. She tried to finish the sentence with her eyes.

“I know,” he said. Message received. He embraced her for several seconds.

Just as Ellen took a seat in her master bathroom for her morning pee, the phone rang. She stretched to grab it off the far end of the vanity, almost falling off the toilet in the process. Caller I.D. volunteered only that the call was from ‘out of area’. “Hello?” she said tentatively, certain it would be nothing more than the annoyance of a sales call.

“Hey, fruit stripes. Still asleep?” The tenor voice hit Ellen between the eyes. It was Jon. Their attempts at keeping in touch had lessened over time, which initially saddened her greatly. She could not remember the last time she heard his voice. Familiarity and joy washed over her.

“Holy cow. Jon?” she said.

“Yes’m,” he replied. “How in the world are you?”

“I’m great! You?”

“I’m in hell, Ellen. More specifically, Los Angeles.” Jon said.

Ellen struggled to silently pull up her panties and left the toilet unflushed. She gathered her unbrushed hair into a red scrunchie and headed for her kitchen table as he began his story.

Jon explained how he had received a last minute invitation to an old college buddy’s wedding to be held on Malibu Beach. After consulting with Cecelia, who gave her blessing for him to take a much needed long weekend off from a currently hectic life, he booked a non-refundable ticket, and was in the skies before dinner the previous day.

Sadly, before he could take custody of his rental car, the best man texted him with news that the wedding was off. The proposal had been determined to be a huge mistake, and the hastily thrown together ceremony was not to be. Jon was holed up in a three-star motel, pissy that his airline wanted almost a thousand dollars to change his return ticket date, and full of self-pity.

“So here I am, stuck in So Cal for three more nights, and I don’t know a soul. This was a destination wedding, and the groom-not-to-be has already fled town to nurse his wounds,” Jon said.

“You poor sap,” Ellen sympathized.

“Save me, Ellen. Come out here. Come to California.”

Ellen nearly dropped the phone.

“What do you mean? Are you serious?” she asked.

“Heck yes, I’m serious. You, me, Hollywood, Disneyland. It’ll be a riot,” he replied.

“You go to Disneyland with your kids, you weirdo,” she laughed.

“They’re in school. Besides, I won’t have to buy you hundreds of dollars worth of Mickey Mouse shit,” he said.

“The hell you won’t!” she said, surprising herself.

“So you’ll come? Yes!” Jon said with pure delight in his voice.

“Don’t be silly,” Ellen said.

Jon fake pouted for a couple of minutes, trying his best to paint a picture of a weekend full of laughs and mindless adventure. He informed her that the motel parking lot was half-filled, which surely meant there were plenty of rooms available, although she was welcome to stay in his room. “I’ve got a dynamite view of the dumpsters behind an IHOP!” he said with mock enthusiasm. Ellen said she just couldn’t go, and they moved on to  catching up on work gossip and trading personal life updates. Jon thanked Ellen for cheering him up with the phone call. She wished him a speedy long weekend, and they hung up.

Ellen’s morning at work passed quickly, but truth be told, her mind kept returning to the idea of actually dropping everything and flying to L.A. She knew it wasn’t a good idea, nor was it even a possible one. She had a presentation in front of the vice president of the company tomorrow. She had tickets to her nephew’s high school production of “Rent” on Saturday night. She was in charge of picking up her neighbor’s mail for another several days. All valid reasons she couldn’t just pick up and fly a thousand miles for an impromptu vacation with a friend.

Most of all, she had the good sense to know better. She didn’t have to ask Jon if his wife would be told he had invited a companion to help him pass the time. She knew the answer to that could only be no. She didn’t have to ask herself if his assurance that there were two beds in his hotel room meant he neither expected nor would consent to any hanky panky. To agree to go to him was to agree that the outcome was open-ended.

There was a second call from Jon that afternoon, which Ellen took after running down to the lobby of her office building, so as to avoid any co-workers who might catch on to whom she was speaking. He had asked one more time, quite firmly, if she would please come to Los Angeles. An offer to buy tickets for both the plane and the tourist attraction of her choice was extended.

Ellen stood near the revolving door of her office building, eyes squinting not from the sunlight pouring in through the glass atrium, but from anger and frustration with her dilemma. She wanted to say yes like a child wants to tear into a present before the dawn has cracked on Christmas morning. Ultimately, she knew the call she had to make; the one that would not include seeing the inside of LAX.

With a hitch in her voice, Ellen declined the invitation. Jon sighed deeply and accepted her decision. His final words before he hung up played on a loop in her head the rest of the day. “Alright, kiddo. It would’ve been a beautiful time, and something we both sorely needed. See ya around, soul mate.”

Over the next few days, Ellen kept herself busy. But time and time again, her mind floated off. While shuffling through the slides of her presentation to the V.P., she could see Jon in her mind’s eye. He was pulling his old routine of standing at the back of the room making faces only she could see, trying in earnest to crack her up while she powered through another boring staff meeting.

While pulling her neighbor’s bills and circulars from her mailbox, she thought of Jon’s assurance that her trip to visit him would be more fun than human beings should be allowed to have.

While surrounded by parents in a high school auditorium giving a standing ovation to the attempt by their teenagers to achieve Broadway realism, she imagined the two of them propped up against pillows on the hotel bed, binge watching a favorite comedy show while sharing a boxed pizza.

Most of all, Ellen asked herself if she had made a mistake by staying home. She could have gotten her own hotel room, kept a virtual chastity belt on, and walked away with goofy, happy memories that would last a lifetime. She could have sated her long festering need to spend time with her close friend and former husband-of-sorts  without it turning into a sordid scene from a bad nighttime soap opera.

No one congratulated her for her demonstration of willpower, because she never told anyone about it. Ellen wanted to share her dilemma with a close friend, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It would mean opening up Jon to derision. A married man asking his female friend to join him on an out-of-town trip to which his wife was oblivious? What a cad! It wasn’t logical, but she couldn’t bear the thought of someone seeing the man she cared for so deeply in an unkind light. She also didn’t fancy the idea of casting herself in the role of someone who might have happily gone on the adventure to California under questionable conditions. She preferred to showcase her integrity in a more positive spotlight as well.

Ellen also wondered if she had made a mistake by denying herself this unique opportunity for different reasons. That meant admitting there was a part of her, buried deep in the dark, that knew she was willing to leave one of the beds in Jon’s motel room unused, the other one rumpled and smeared with the evidence of their long unrequited passions finally having  been birthed.

Ellen tried giving  herself credit for taking the moral high ground, but it all fell apart when, after three strong rum and sodas pounded in a short amount of time late Sunday evening, she realized she regretted saying no and staying home.

“Sometimes soul mates don’t marry. I get it,” she muttered in her empty living room, as she stumbled a bit while she walked to the front door to check that the alarm system was engaged. “But to hell with you, fate, that they can’t even play house together for a weekend.”

 

Read more from Eve Allen at: https://twitter.com/River_Writer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zippy the Wonder Dog

One fine summer day almost eleven years ago, I was driving home from purchasing a frame for a new piece of artwork I had acquired. The route was a straight shot down a major thoroughfare, but I had an inexplicable impulse to cut through another neighborhood.

“Why did I do this?” I asked myself, as I realized I was adding unnecessary time to my journey home by going through the quiet, middle-class neighborhood.  Then the answer shot out in front of my car.

Literally.

A scraggly little dog came out of nowhere, streaking across the street, and I slammed on my brakes to avoid hitting her. I spent the next half hour driving up and down streets after her, then giving chase on foot through the yards of strangers.

The wily dog finally acquiesced and allowed me to scoop her up without objection. I set her on the passenger seat of my car, and got a good look at my rescue. Her coat was bedraggled, and she clearly had missed a few meals. Some sort of black terrier mix, she looked a bit like Toto if he’d been born on the wrong side of the Kansas tracks.

As I pulled back into traffic, this sweet little orphan plopped down in exhaustion. She slid closer to me and put her head on my thigh. She glanced up at me several times as I drove home, and I was touched at the amount of trust it took for her to do that.

My plan was just to foster care her until I could get her into a shelter. I didn’t want a dog (even if I did, I would’ve been overruled by my trio of felines). I asked my mom to house her for a few days. Having witnessed many instances of her daughter finding the dregs of animal society and trying to save them,  my mother was hesitant at first. A bit hostile, even. I assured her this ugly little thing would be gone soon.

And God help me, this dog was an uggo. Giant donkey ears, wild fur going every which way, and overgrown feet. I have never taken to what I call ‘yap dogs’; the variety that yaps at any and everything, and wealthy heiresses tend to tote around in oversized designer bags.

I took the dog to my vet, and was surprised to find out she was still a puppy. His guestimate was six months old, and likely mainly terrier with a healthy dose of chihuahua in her. (Man,  do I hate chihuahuas. The yappiest of all the yap dogs.) She spent a day at the vet’s office being treated for fleas, dehydration, and anemia. They bathed her, and I looked forward to picking up a much more comely pooch. Sadly, the result was a still goofy looking yap dog with slightly cleaner, creepy, wiry fur.

After ascertaining there were no notices seeking this lost puppy, the Humane Society helped me nab a spot at the upcoming weekend’s Adoption Day at a nearby Petsmart.  Being both a small breed and a puppy practically guaranteed she’d find a home fast, I was told. I informed my mom that Le Uggo would be out of our lives in a few days.

Then mom surprised me.

“How do we know she’ll go to a good home? She’s such a sweet little thing. I don’t know about this Petsmart deal, Eve.” My jaw hit the proverbial floor when I saw her eyes were watering.

“Mom, have you fallen in love with that goofy ass dog?!”

Next thing you know, I’m calling Petsmart to cancel the whole deal. My mom was now the proud owner of five pounds of awkward.

I took the liberty of naming the dog. I had just seen the musical “Wicked” while on vacation in Dallas, and was knee deep in the book.  In this amazing fictional twist on the whole “The Wizard of Oz” story, the Wicked Witch of the West is actually a brilliant, misunderstood woman, shunned by society due to her looks. Elphaba was her formal name, but those close to her called her Elphie. It seemed appropriate, so I named the dog after the character.

You could say young Elphie soon became quite comfortable in her new abode.

She adopted the cats as beloved siblings, often horning in on their playtime and snoozing next to them. After awhile, I’m pretty sure she was unaware that she was a different species than the kitties.

While Elphie was primarily my mother’s pet, she saw me as what I called “Mom #2”. When I’d go over to my mom’s house, she would explode with the joy usually reserved for a long lost vet coming home from the war. As soon as I pulled up in the driveway, she’d run out the door as fast as her little terrier legs could carry her, dance and turn circles, then zip back inside to retrieve one of her toys. She would run it back outside to share with me, inviting me to play.

Whenever Elphie was let out in her back yard, she would celebrate by tearing around as fast as she could, running in figure eights over and over. She experienced joy on a level I had never seen in a pet before. Zippy the Wonder Dog, I called her.

When my mother’s dementia began to compromise her ability to live alone, I moved into her home. Elphie couldn’t have been happier. Over time, I blew a fair amount of money on a varied collection of her beloved squeaky plush toys. She established a hierarchy with them. Pinky the Flamingo was king of her world. The next favorite was Phil the Pheasant, then Woodstock the yellow bird, and so on. I remember the night Pinky went missing, and I spent almost two hours online, frantic in my pursuit to find an exact replacement.

Elphie transformed in my eyes. She became beautiful to me.  Lovely enough to dress up! Still, at least I never turned into one of those creepy dames that buys their tiny dogs an outfit to wear.

Wait, I can explain this. Elphie got cold when she went outside in the winter. It was Christmas. I was weak. You have to admit green is a good color on her. In my defense, it’s the only doggie outfit I got her. Except for the blue Snuggie. You read that right: I discovered on a trip to CVS that the adult blanket-as-sleepwear had been adapted to fit a snoozy pooch. I got her a blue one to lounge around the house in. In Elphie’s defense, she refused to wear it. Years later, in a moment of regret and sanity, I donated the Snuggie to an animal shelter, where I’m sure several more dogs refused to be dressed in it, too.

The years have flown by with Elphie always being a constant in my life. Quick to bark the second she senses trouble or an unexplained sound, her barking racket offered us a great sense of security. The only ones unimpressed were the wild deer that are often in the yard. When she went outside, instead of running off in great fear at the tiny canine predator, the deer would just stand there, chewing their cud with a thought bubble over their heads saying, “Call me when you’re a real dog”.

Sadly, the passing years also brought about poor health of late. Hip issues that are common in smaller dogs, and about which the vet hard warned us would happen, began to affect Elphie’s ability to walk. Any measures taken would only be stop gap, and as one often has to do when contemplating the life of an aging pet, I had to consider if multiple trips to the vet – which would no doubt leave her trembling and hysterical, as they always did – and any accompanying procedures and meds would be extending her quality of life, or just making her last days more difficult than they needed to be.

I had to make a decision. As painful as it was, I chose a sooner journey to the Rainbow Bridge, rather than a latter one. A tender mercy, as my friend so eloquently put it.

As the final day approached, I plied her with both her favored Pupperoni sticks and the cat treats she stole from the cats when they weren’t swift enough to gobble them down first.

I even convinced her someone was at the door, then recorded a minute of her barking fit on my phone. I know that long after she’s gone, anytime there is a stranger at my front door or I hear a questionable noise at night, I can play the recording, making it appear my tiny but loyal protector is on the job. There’s something incredibly bittersweet about knowing Elphie will still protect her Mom #2 long after she’s gone.

It took me over a month to get from the moment I chose to put her to sleep until the day I mustered the ability to make an appointment with the vet. When the day arrived, I became so despondent ten minutes before the appointment, I changed it to the next day. Ultimately, I had to go through with it. To make it even more brutally unfair, I had to hide what happened from my mother. Aren’t moms supposed to be the ones to comfort their child when they lose a family pet? Not anymore, not in my family.

I let Elphie go today.

Everyone says their dog is the best, but in my case I suspect it was true. And if anyone wants to say their dog is equally as awesome, I can understand that. Just hold that thought for a week or a year or a lifetime. Right now, I just need to let everyone know that once there was an awesome little not so ugly yap dog that ruled my neck of the woods, and today I released her.

Thank you, Elphie, my canine love. Mom #2 will see you on the other side.

An Understanding

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“I understand.”

Two words that had become Karen’s motto. It was her robo-response to each new version of another “You’re on your own” shiv stuck in her side that she had collected over the past, increasingly desperate months of her life.

She hung up the phone and drained the last tepid swallow from the cup of coffee she used as a paper weight to corral the stack of bills on her desk. While she normally paid them online, what she owed whom and how overdue it was had become so confusing that Karen had printed out the whole sordid mess in order to make handwritten notes on the paperwork.

She had spent the morning on her bare bones plan cell phone, dialing each company to whom she was in debt, explaining to a host of service representatives why she couldn’t pay them yet again.

Underemployed for six months, followed by unemployed for another four, Karen’s previously steady financial picture had crumbled to pieces. The few family members still in her life were loath to offer a financial hand, and the even fewer number of people Karen could comfortably call friends were either unsympathetic or knee-deep in their own swamp of debt.

A calendar full of late and partial payments to her landlord, utility companies, phone services, credit cards and student loans kept Karen awake during the small hours many nights. The cable company had cut her off in the spring. Her landline was dead in the water, the number already reassigned to a new customer.  Master Card had closed both of her accounts and assigned them to a collection agency the week of her 40th birthday, which meant the end of cash advances she immediately turned into rent payments.

Karen had grudgingly learned to live with all of that, but now that the electric company was playing hard ball, the dire nature of her financial future slapped her dead in the face. Pay six hundred seventy-nine dollars in full by the end of the week, or lights and air conditioning go bye-bye. Holding up the check-out line in order to count nickels and dimes to buy a bag of store-brand spaghetti, as she had last night, was a pretty good harbinger of the chances of any bill collectors receiving their due.

“We know times are tough, and we have worked with your late payments for months now, Ms. Anderson,” said the electric company employee in a jarring Boston accent. “But we have now run out of options. We don’t enjoy turning off a customer’s electricity, but you’ve reached the end of the line with your account.”

“I understand,” Karen replied, mustering a politeness in her voice, despite the anger flashing on her face.


A month earlier, Jeff had held Karen’s hand firmly between his own, giving her an earnest look that both touched and disturbed her. “I just can’t see wasting any more time,” he said.

Karen had put the better part of three years into her relationship with Jeff. She had pulled down the wall around her heart, brick by painful brick, in order to let him in. But apparently it hadn’t been enough to keep his full attention. Sounding like the local sportscaster giving a play-by-play recap, he detailed the affair he had begun a few months ago with the new sales manager in his office.

Karen did love the tall, brown-eyed loan officer with whom she had shared her life, her heart and her bed during the longest relationship of her life. Over their time together, Jeff could draw Karen close to him and coo words that made her feel as safe as a child in her father’s arms, yet in equal parts he could display a chilly side that left her feeling isolated and lonely even when he was sitting right beside her.

As the walls closed in on Karen in other areas of her life, she had a nagging feeling that a real future with Jeff had called a cab and left. Still, his break-up announcement, coming just twenty minutes after somewhat lackluster sex on her sofa, came as a shock.

“I’m a man, babe. What can I say? You’re always in that pretty little head of yours, and Virginia is more about getting out, having fun, being kind of wild. Maybe it’s because she’s so much younger than you, I don’t know. Anyway, I just couldn’t take lying to you anymore.” Jeff said, letting her hand drop in her lap with an audible thud. “So we’re, you know, done here.”

“I understand,” Karen said dutifully, and walked him to the front door.


A couple of months before that, Karen leaned over the cold metal exam table, pulling the shivering bundle of fur close to her body. “I know, I know, sweetie. We’ll be going home very quickly. You’re such a brave boy.”

Henry was a French bulldog Karen had plucked from the middle of a busy parkway seven years ago on her way home from getting a haircut that was so atrocious, she had wept in the car before she could pull out of the parking lot. Despite calls to area vets and a handful of “Found” signs posted around the neighborhood, no one came forward to claim the lost puppy. Karen acquiesced to Henry’s bug-eyed pleadings for a forever home, and placed a green collar around his neck, claiming him as her surrogate son.

Despite being denied the experience of a pet throughout her childhood, Karen quickly settled into her role of ‘fur mom’, falling head over heels for the mischievous canine who never failed to develop a severe case of wiggle butt whenever she returned home from a day or evening out. She trained Henry to retrieve his own leash for their forays in nature with a simple command of “Walk!” He slept on an expensive fleece blanket at the foot of her king-sized bed, and seemed to forget all about whatever bad luck or ill treatment had brought him to be lost in the streets in the first place.

When a few days of lethargy turned into a refusal to eat anything, including a hand-cooked burger patty, Karen booked an appointment with Henry’s vet. Two office visits, an invasive exam and multiple blood tests later, Dr. Murphy broke the bad news. A tumor had developed in Henry’s abdomen, and the prognosis was bleak at best. Karen took home printouts of treatment plans and a price list the vet had provided her, but what blacked out virtually all hope she had was his warning that these options were pretty much a Hail Mary pass. It was just a matter of the clock running out.

At the last appointment in the stucco building by the highway off-ramp, Dr. Murphy put his clipboard down and gave Karen a solemn stare. “Look, I can continue to offer medications that will ease his pain, but he’s slipping away. It’s up to you to decide how much of this you want him to bear before the inevitable happens.”

“What do you recommend?” Karen asked, lifting Henry into her arms, her tears dropping onto his now dull, camel-colored coat.

“If it were me, I would put him down. I can go ahead and perform the service for you right now, if you like. Letting one of our pets go is never easy, but sometimes it’s the kindest option.”

Karen kissed her sweet puppy on the head a few times, and said quietly, “I understand.”


“Gosh, Karen, I’m sure sorry to hear how tough things are for you, but as I told you before, the waiting list for sliding scale therapy is five months long. You can try asking your doctor for an anti-depressant to help tide you over.” The effeminate-looking man at the downtown county clinic seemed genuine in his wish to help, but also exhausted by likely having delivered some version of this speech on a daily basis to the sorrowful city dwellers who sought low (or no) cost psychiatric help.

“Here’s the thing, Kevin, ” Karen said, reading the receptionist’s name off the plastic tag on his dress shirt. “I don’t have insurance. Paying for the doctor visit is already a problem, and then the hundred bucks a pop for a prescription on top of that? I just don’t have it. I know someone who went here and was able to get free samples from her therapist, so I was kind of hoping to do that.”

“Yes, the free meds and therapy deal is quite popular, as you might imagine, but it’s limited. You can always hope for the best when we eventually call you to come in. Sorry I can’t offer you more.” Karen opened her mouth to respond, but no words came to mind. “I’ll pray for you,” Kevin added, already scanning the sign-in sheet for the next name to call out in his high-pitched voice.

“I understand,” Karen said in a stoic voice, pushing the strap on her purse firmly up on her shoulder and turning for the door.


Singer commits suicide in hotel room in Hawaii

The headline leapt off the home page of the news outlet Karen favored. Mitch Lowe was the singer for a pop rock band that peaked two decades ago, but continued to record music that Karen faithfully purchased. She had followed Lowe’s career through two modestly successful solo albums, and caught him in concert just a few years ago at a theater while on vacation. His tenor delivery of his own lyrical prowess still moved her, as it had in her high school days.

Despite fame and fortune, or whatever was left of it, Lowe had apparently reached the end of his personal rope. Over the next few days, multiple news organizations and ghoulish gossip websites verified that the aging heartthrob had downed half a bottle of a popular prescription drug and most of a bottle of top shelf tequila, then leapt from the balcony of his room at a high-rise hotel on Waikiki Beach. He left no note, but loved ones told stories of a depression that had closed in on him, and a notice of bankruptcy recently filed in court.

The internet filled up with tributes to the lost soul. Predictably, comments sections and social network postings spilled over with the pithy, unsympathetic rants of how Mitch was a coward and a loser, and deserved no sympathy. Funny how those who have never walked in a valley of emotional darkness easily appoint themselves as experts on how one must handle that very situation. Karen had offered half-hearted rebuttals on a few websites, daring to offer up her own depression and how it manifested itself in mournful thoughts, but she was shot down every time.

Even those who claimed to have been through their own moments of desperation had no sympathy for Karen, Mitch or anyone else. They all maintained that when you reach the end of your rope, you don’t swing from it, you tie a knot and hang on! Karen pictured the old chestnut inspirational poster of the kitten hanging from a tree branch by his front paws, beneath the directive “HANG IN THERE!”

A final interview given to a freelance journalist who happened to be a seatmate on Lowe’s flight to Honolulu surfaced a couple of weeks after his death. After a few mile high cocktails, Lowe had opened up to her about his darkest moments; an act of foreshadowing  in hindsight.

“I probably shouldn’t talk about this, but I’ve actually made plans before. I wrote notes to send to a few people, trying to appease them after the fact, you know? But I never went through with it. I do what I can. I do what the experts tell me to do. I have a shrink, I take my bloody meds. But some days the darkness is like an eclipse. No matter how much I try to open my eyes and see something new, everything remains pitch black. It’s painful just to breathe. Where’s the hope in that, I ask you? F***ing pundits tell me there’s always hope but I don’t know. And it gets harder and harder to care.”

“I understand,” said Karen, pulling out a box of stationery from her desk drawer.

Charlie & the Girls

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The boogeyman just died.

Charles Manson, to most, but throughout my childhood, I thought of him as the boogeyman. I had just turned three when several members of the Manson family snuck into the warm California night, slaughtered five people and became ghoulish celebrities that dominated the news for months to come via a trial that was the O.J. Simpson case of its time.

I was in elementary school when I used my meager allowance to buy a used copy of Helter Skelter. I knew better than to tell my parents of my purchase, as it would’ve been confiscated and dropped in the trash immediately. I devoured that paperback book. It was hard for my childish mind to take it all in, but I couldn’t get enough of the details. To me, it could have stood alone as a fictional novel, but it had an impact that was tenfold greater because it was true life.

I shared my book with a couple of trusted friends, who were equally shocked by the painstaking details now imbedded in our tender young minds. We poured over the pictures time and again, shocked by the audacity of the bloodlettings unleashed in the Tate and LaBianca households, as well as the other killings attributed to the Manson Family.

We thought of Charles Manson as the boogeyman because we were afraid he would escape prison, come straight to Texas, and murder us. If not him, he might order one of his followers to come after a gaggle of school girls, and write on our front doors with our blood.

When the television movie based on the Vincent Bugliosi book aired, I was forbidden to watch it. Determined not to have my mom ruin my need to indulge in my obsession with the Manson Family, I took my portable, 13 inch black and white television into the bathroom and watched it there. My mother had gone to bed early, and my defiance escaped her notice. My only temptation to confess was when I awoke from a subsequent nightmare brought on by the viewing.

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As I struggled to understand what happened on those two fateful August nights, I tried to picture the peace of the home rented by actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant on the day of her death. Her husband, director Roman Polanski, was out of town at the time. Sharon’s friends, hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and her boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski, were with Tate in the home. House caretaker Steven Parent was alone in the guest house.

I loved the idea of this beautiful actress with honey-colored hair feeling free enough amongst friends to lounge around them in her bra and panties, her clothing now too restricting for a woman so close to giving birth. I responded more to the idea of an earth mother archetype like that than the typical princesses manufactured by Disney.

I would then picture what it must have felt like when the horror began. When several strangers who, on the surface, might look like they would be your peace and love allies, broke into the home and committed carnage that spread from room to room and out on the lawn.

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I also ached for the fear and shock experienced by Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, when the Family assaulted and extinguished them the following night.

My best friend and I were fascinated not just by the crimes, but by the family itself. We girls were born during the height of the Hippie Era, and were already entranced by the young people embracing free love, alternative living and invigorating rock music.

While most girls were play acting marriage ceremonies between Ken and Barbie, Susan and I were putting on little skits in her play room in which we imagined our lives when we had become the freedom loving, long haired women of the 1970’s we were eager to become. We outlined ideas of living in a commune, the men we’d fall in love with and how adult we would feel, then act them out as our own entertainment. Theatre for two adolescent girls.

We even incorporated our old school flat top tape recorders, pressing the red ‘record’ button to capture our latest dramatic renderings. We played our grownup selves, as well as our lovers, and two or three fellow commune residents we had cast in our roleplay of life when we were eighteen and free to do as we pleased.

I’ve remained consumed by any new information about the Manson Family throughout my entire life. I read and reread “Helter Skelter” so many times that the pictures became faded, and I bought a new copy several years ago. I have added a good half a dozen other books about the crimes to my collection, and I will watch any new movie or tv show about the subject, although most of them end up disappointing me for one reason or another.

Several years ago, I bought a little known book by Karlene Faith called The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten. Van Houten was one of the women convicted in the trial for her participation in the murder of Rosemary LaBianca (she was not present at the Tate killings). She was found guilty of stabbing Mrs. LaBianca, although it is arguable whether or not the wounds were delivered post-mortem.

The author of the book does not attempt to defend the crimes themselves, but rather explore why a ‘good girl’ like Leslie ended up in a hippie commune turned killer cult, and brainwashed to follow the rantings of a diminutive madman (most people are surprised to learn that Manson was only 5’2″).

To be perfectly clear, I recognize that these crimes were brutal, sick and deserved imprisonment. The initial punishment was death row for Manson (despite his not having actually participated in the Tate/LaBianca murders), Charles “Tex” Watson, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan “Sadie” Atkins. When California overturned the death penalty, their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

As a person with a lifelong interest in the psychology of why people do what they do, this book gave me information to ponder, as well as some outright answers as to why an impressionable young woman might transition from her previous life to that of a devotee resident of the Spahn ranch. It really isn’t just the crimes themselves that have interested me all this time, but the psychology of how the members of the cult – the women who went on trial in particular – renounced sanity and peace in order to carry out orders by a sick, violent man.

As well, I wanted to understand how the most famous Family members came to think of their actions and their leader in hindsight. Who did they become when they went out of circulation? What were their truest thoughts and emotions when they sat alone in their prison cells some five years after the crimes? Ten years, twenty years? Now just shy of fifty years?

Author Karlene Faith used her thirty-year friendship with Van Houten, whom she met while teaching in prison, to help paint a full picture of who the Manson Girl became once she was out of the cult. Van Houten renounced Manson very quickly after entering prison life, and became a model prisoner. By all accounts of the penal definition of ‘remorseful’ and ‘rehabilitated’, she has been qualified for parole for a good twenty years plus.

I’ll stop you right here to say I understand most knee-jerk reactions to the idea of paroling any Manson Family member is ‘Oh, hell no!’. Lock ’em up, keys out the window, etc. And I do get that. But what Faith’s book and subsequent happenings since it was published show is that it’s not necessarily a failure on Van Houten’s part to prove she is ready for release and no longer a threat to the general public, but rather a potential political grandstanding that keeps her behind bars.

Parole board members have admitted, even if off the record, that despite evidence given them, no one wants to be the guy or gal who voted to let one of those infamous killer hippies go free. A review of stats gathered for similar crimes in California show many examples of inmates who committed crimes with a higher body count than Van Houten, and who were less than model prisoners, yet served greatly reduced prison terms in comparison.

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Being a student of the whole clan, I have my own opinions on this. I do believe the case for Van Houten’s release is clear.

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Having said that, I concur with the decision to keep Manson in jail for life. He himself said many times he had no interest in leaving, even if he had been paroled.

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I believe Tex Watson to be a liar when he touts his jailhouse conversion to Christianity as proof he’s no longer the man he was. Based on what I know of him, I’m quite happy he’s still a prisoner.

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I have had doubts about Krenwinkel, but in researching interviews and her own prison record in terms of remorse and rehabilitation, I believe she may indeed qualify for parole, too.

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Sadie Atkins died from cancer in prison in 2009, and I am relieved she was never released. She wrote a rambling book detailing how she married while in prison,  became born again, and started a ministry to help others. I believe Atkins to have been a danger to even the proverbial fly on the wall, all the way to her death. To me, she was mentally wired to be drawn to the extremity of being in a sect of zealous believers, and she merely traded in the Cult of Charlie for the Cult of Christ. That is in no way a denigration of Christians, but rather my conviction that she merely switched her fevered, singularly focused obsession on one group and its leader to a different one.

Atkins was the first of the main players in the Family to die. When I read online that Manson was hospitalized near death, I wondered what I might think and feel upon his demise. I’m still not sure what it is yet.

It’s certainly not sadness. He fostered a lot of horrible ideas and acts of violence in the world, and was incredibly sexist, despite the bevy of women who were once so loyal to him. For the past almost half a century, Manson offered nothing to the world other than occasional bat shit crazy quotes picked up by the media.

Other than a few mentally ill groupies that inevitably attach themselves to a serial killer, no one will want to share kind thoughts or sweet memories of him at his funeral, if he receives anything beyond a legally required pauper’s send-off.

The nearest I can compare my reaction to is it’s like seeing a character killed off a television show you’ve been watching forever. I won’t miss the little fucker, but I recognize the star of the drama I’ve followed since I was old enough to even grasp the concept of current events has now departed this world.

At some point, the entire cast and audience will be gone. The grieving relatives of the deceased. The legal teams present at the trial. The media members that covered it.  The rest of the imprisoned.  The girls who shaved their heads and carved an X in their foreheads to demonstrate support for Manson outside the courthouse. The followers who fled the Family and we never hear about. All the spectators who were alive the summer the Manson Family became infamous.

The era of Helter Skelter will officially close. And I still say what a fascinating piece of American history to be witnessed by this Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes.

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