All Shook Up

Edna watched the living room from her special spot on the window seat. During the day, she curled up on the brightly flowered cushion to watch the neighbors pick at their gardens and stroll along sidewalks cracked and crooked from rogue tree roots. (Edna doubted the city would ever take responsibility for the state of those sidewalks. She huffed at the thought, air whooshing out her sizeable nose.) At night, though, she could hardly see a thing, even when she squinted her beady blue eyes and cupped hands around her face to press against the cool glass. Nothing. Not even her own reflection.

Now she turned from the window to watch the house’s current resident. Edna thought Sally was her name, but young people spoke so fast these days that Edna could hardly keep up. She’d asked the girl to speak up several times, but the twenty-something just ignored the old woman.

Sally, having just returned home from work, had changed into flannel pants and a worn T-shirt and settled on the couch. She held an ice cream container and a spoon in one hand, a bulky remote in the other. Edna stared in disgust as the girl flicked through the channels before landing on some ridiculous investigation-discovery television show. It was sick, she thought to herself, just sick the way kids today were so enthralled with crime. She tsked, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Sally, engrossed in the show, didn’t hear a sound.

Edna got up to wander the room. She had suffered a stroke several years ago, and now she cradled her left arm at her side and walked with a limp. She used her right hand to balance on a stray chair, then the back of a loveseat. Sally’s cat, Mermaid, sat perched on the curved arm of an overstuffed chair and flicked a green-eyed glance toward Edna. Edna reached over to stroke her hand down the cat’s bony back, but Mermaid leaped out of the chair, eyes narrowed at the woman.

“Never liked felines much anyway,” Edna muttered to herself. “Too damn prickly.”

As Mermaid sauntered away, sending backward glares at Edna, the old woman decided her walk across the room was just about enough activity for the evening. She tucked herself into the now vacant armchair. With her left arm propped on her thigh, Edna turned to Sally.

“Why do you watch this garbage?”

Sally didn’t respond, focused as she was on scraping her spoon through the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. She licked up the vanilla ice cream, then chewed the cookie dough balls.

“Ever heard of manners?”

Sally turned the spoon over and sucked on it before removing it from her mouth and dipping it back into the ice cream carton.

Edna, appalled, looked away.

“I said, ever heard of manners?”

Sally, her eyes glued on the television, never turned in Edna’s direction. Even when her cell phone began to trill, Sally kept her gaze on the forensics show and groped for the phone with one hand. She didn’t even bother to glance at it before swiping her thumb across the screen and bringing it to her ear.

“Yello?”

Edna couldn’t hear the voice on the other hand, but she was betting it was Sally’s latest boyfriend, Herman. He was a string bean of a man, tall and thin and awkward with big eyes and a nonexistent chin. Sally seemed enamored with him, though Edna couldn’t imagine how anyone could be attracted to a flagpole.

Sally giggled in the phone. “Nothing. What’s up with you?”

After a pause, she asked shyly, “Wanna come over?”

Edna rolled her eyes.

“Great, see you soon. Bye.”

Sally tapped the phone screen to end the call and smiled to herself before dropping her cell on the coffee table with a clatter. She thrust her fists in her air and wiggled her butt, then looked down at her comfy-cozy attire. Edna watched the play of emotions on Sally’s face as she realized her slovenly appearance, her melting ice cream, her sticky mouth. Sally reached up with nail polish-flecked fingers to dab at her lips. She stood and stripped off in the living room, then gathered her pajamas and the ice cream, flipped off the overhead light and the television and skipped upstairs to her bedroom.

Edna remained in the living room.

“Haven’t you ever heard about the cow giving away the milk for free?” she shouted up at Sally. “That girl,” Edna chided as she shook her head from side to side.

Edna picked at the stray threads on her plaid wool skirt and crossed her feet at the ankles. She didn’t care to sit in the dark, but as she couldn’t get up and turn on the light herself, she’d just have to wait for Sally’s return. She hummed a song from her childhood, one that had been passed down through generations, and rocked her body back and forth. So absorbed was she that the darker shadow passing over the now vacant window seat went unseen.

She also didn’t hear the lock being turned with a snick, the door opening with a creak. Sally, rummaging through her closet upstairs to find the perfect dress, didn’t hear it either. But Edna, she did feel the light breeze that drifted through the room when the door was opened. Her skirt fluttered just slightly at the edges, her ecru knee-highs slid down just a little.

Edna pushed up her coke-bottle, plastic-framed glasses and twisted her neck to the right and the left, curious about the teasing wind. As far as she knew, she and Sally were the only inhabitants of Shawnee Park House, but maybe they had a new resident. She shrugged, considered herself the senior member of the house’s occupants and resumed her quiet singing.

The figure dressed in black sneaked into the room, his Velcro-fastened sneakers making the tiniest of squeaks on the linoleum floor. When he reached the carpeting of the living room, he looked around, saw it was empty. He lowered his flashlight and circled the room smoothly, one gloved hand trailing against the wall panels. It was here, he knew it. He’d read about it.

He’d come across the story in the library’s archive while on his lunch hour. This house, this unrenovated, ugly house, had once been home to Blue-Eyed Blondie and his gang of thugs in the 1930s. They’d hit every bank from the Mississippi to the Missouri before escaping into rural Kansas. Blondie had lived out his days as a miser, and the money had never been found. The house had since been passed from ancestor to ancestor, the latest having died under “unknown” circumstances. But Ricky knew that the money was still tucked away here somewhere.

He pulled at the wood paneling, jumping slightly when it snapped back into place. Edna watched him curiously from her seat. Who was this odd-looking fellow with his bobbing light? Edna looked in the direction of the stairs, oddly comforted that the girl had turned on her stereo and was singing to some sickeningly pink bubble gum pop music (Edna considered it to be noise. Give her Elvis any day.) This wasn’t some game Sally and Herman were playing, was it?

Edna considered the fellow, his scrawny arms, his short stature, the wire glasses poking out from behind the hastily pulled down ski mask. No, he was too small to be Herman, she decided. Although from the looks of it, he wasn’t much better off than Herman in the looks department. And he clearly wasn’t educated in the art of burglarizing. Coming into a home with a light on upstairs? With Sally’s car in the driveway?

Edna shook her head in disapproval. She knew what he was looking for, but she thought when the time came, she’d at least be pitted against someone with some grit. This man looked about ready to pee his pants, poor thing. A wicked smile began to spread across Edna’s puffy face as she sized him up and down. He was frantically moving from one panel to another, risking frequent glances at the stairs and the warm circle of light coming from Sally’s room.

Edna levered herself off the chair and limped her way over to the man. Ricky, for his part, seemed to sense the movement, and finally, out of frustration and limb-tingling panic, yanked up his mask to see better. The room was still empty.

Ricky, baffled at his own skittishness, returned to the paneling, stripping back one flexible board after another, craning his neck to see between the panel and the siding. He was sure that the money had been hidden in the walls. He could really use the extra cash; the library didn’t pay very well, and if he ever wanted to publish his novel – which had been rejected a total of 83 times so far – it was going to cost him. But fame and fortune were just within his grasp. Literally.

He reached a gloved hand around to poke at the drywall, then made a fist to lightly pound on it. He suspected if he heard a difference in sound, it would indicate the money’s hiding place.

Edna, amused and far more entertained by the intruder than the television show Sally had switched off, let out a snort.

“What an idiot,” she said.

Ricky’s body immediately went still at her laughter, a stiffening that Edna, despite her cataracts and the darkness of the room, noticed.

“Ah ha, so you can sense me, boy. Well, just you wait. This is going to be fun,” she promised gleefully.

Mermaid, having wandered back into the room, now sat at the doorway, her tail flicking nonchalantly.

“Ok, cat, shall we make hay?” Edna asked.

Mermaid lowered her lids halfway in response, and a purr began rumbling out of the sleek black body.

Ricky turned at Mermaid’s humming and immediately fell into a fit of sneezing.

“Damnit,” he said, reaching into his pocket for a wad of limp tissues.

Edna winked at Mermaid, then slid closer to Ricky, now covered in red hives.

Ricky stuffed the tissue up his nose, the ends flopping down like a limp white mustache, and continued to tap-tap-tap against the wall. Edna scooted closer, her shoulder bumping Ricky’s. He let out a little squeal and jumped back, his body circling the spot the where he stood.

Edna, bent at the waist, howled with laughter.

Ricky tentatively reached out a fist again to knock on the wall. This time, he did hear a different sound, a different tone. Ignoring his heebie-jeebies, he tried to punch a hole in the wall. He succeeded only in bruising his knuckles and leaving a delicate imprint on the wall. Grumbling under his breath, he pulled a travel hammer from his pocket, unfolded it and knocked it against the wall. Finally, it began to crumble piece by piece, and Ricky, covered in a dusting of gray, reached his hand in to grasp at the box tucked between posts.

Edna, out of breath and with a smile still dancing across her face, watched him pull out the box and lower to his knees. She’d let him get this far, might as well let him open it up to see what was inside.

As Ricky undid the latches to flip open the top, the music in Sally’s room came to a stop. And someone knocked at the front door. Heart thrumming and sweaty fingers trembling, Ricky opened the top of the box. Empty. Edna hooted with laughter, and Ricky, hearing the footsteps, hearing the persistent knock at the door, hearing the cackling, looked around wildly. He staggered to his feet, and before him stood an old woman, one arm cradled to the side, the other wiping tears streaming down her transparent cheeks.

“Boo!” she shouted.

Ricky let out a warbling high-pitched scream, one that would’ve done any actress in Sally’s television shows proud, and raced toward the door. At that moment, Sally flipped on the light and danced downstairs, and Herman, tired of waiting, stepped into the tiny foyer. Shocked at the sight of Ricky, Sally let out her own shriek and Herman goggled at the man in black whose mask was, unfortunately, bunched up around his hairline and whose tissue was now just dangling precariously from his left nostril.

Edna curled back on the window seat and watched the confrontation ensue, her eyes bright, her smile wide. Mermaid jumped up in her lap, and Edna lifted her good hand to stroke the cat’s vibrating body.

“Thank you, thank you very much,” she said in her best Elvis voice.

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The Breaks

Mal could barely control her giddiness. She was faint from the anxiety and excitement coursing through her body, running in parallel neon streams from the top of her head to the tips of her tingling fingers and toes.

“I’d like to buy a vowel,” she shouted, her voice hoarse from the effort.

The light shone down on her, illuminating fair strands of hair and heavy globs of mascara. Mal ignored the glare, her pale blue eyes focused on the board before her. She knew this, she absolutely knew it. The answer was “Howling with laughter.”

“An A!” Alex called back. Vanna, resplendent in a red sequined gown that hugged her famous curves, walked gracefully from one end of the platform to the other, her manicured hand pushing the black button on each lit screen.

The audience cheered, the noise reverberating throughout the windowless studio. It echoed around Mal, pulsed just outside her ears. She could feel the air pushing against her, and her heart thumped harder and faster.

“I’d like to solve the puzzle, Alex,” she called.

Howling with laughter, howling with laughter, howling with laughter. She muttered the phrase under her breath, her mind whirling at the thought of what she would do with her winnings. She would get the final puzzle. Obviously. Then she could take her money – taxes, what? – pay off her remaining student debt, the typical albatross of her unfortunate generation, then she was out of here. Leaving behind her nagging mother, her cheating boyfriend. Paradise was just a plane ride away. And she watched enough movies (“The Firm,” anyone?) to know that the Cayman Islands were the place to be. Sun, sand, surf and safe banks. It was a no-brainer.

Mal lifted onto her toes, bounced three times, then cupped her hands around her mouth to clearly and confidently announce, “Howling with laughter!”

She squealed after the announcement, went from bouncing to jumping exuberantly. Her ill-fitting black blazer flapped at her wide hips, her limp curls sprung apathetically. She didn’t care. This was her moment.

So absorbed was she that Mal didn’t notice the audience’s lukewarm applause or the look exchanged between the two other players. All that mattered was that she was the smartest. The fastest. The winner. She was going to win. Win.

Beep, beep.

“I’m sorry, that’s not correct. On to you, Matt. Spin that wheel!”

Excerpt III

*Note: I’ve decided to start from scratch with my NaNoWriMo project. Seems like I’m doing too much telling, not enough showing, and I can’t say I’m happy with the writing. Any tips are welcome!

Jacob sat on the concrete curb and wrapped thin arms around knobby knees. His shirt was threadbare and his coat old, a hand-me-down that was too small; bony wrists poked out beyond frayed cuffs, and the folded collar was wrinkled and ripping away at the seam.

Periodic waves of chills flowed through his body, starting at his toes and up to the tips of his ears. He could feel pinpricks at his scalp. He shivered once, twice.

Paul hadn’t come yet to pick him up. All the other students had left. He’d watched them, much like Lucy had the previous Friday, crowding into warm vehicles with welcoming parents who gave kisses and hugs and smiles.

Maybe Paul had forgotten about him. Jake wouldn’t mind being forgotten, wouldn’t mind being invisible. That was better than being out in the open.

He didn’t even like Paul, anyhow, he thought, scrunching his shoulders. Paul didn’t know how to sign, he didn’t know how to listen. He just talked and talked and talked. Not that it mattered since Jake couldn’t read lips fast enough. He figured anything coming out of Paul’s mouth was a lie. All adults lied.

Except Miss Lucy. She was different. Her smile wasn’t hard or too bright. It wasn’t forced like Paul’s was sometimes. Hers was natural. Plus, she had a space between her two front teeth. She was beautiful.

Paul still hadn’t come. Jake sighed, fingered the paper bag next to him. He’d clutched it since Miss Lucy had given it to him, had rubbed and rubbed the bag until it was soft and smooth. Now he unfolded the top and pulled out the pieces of paper he’d written on that day. Jake unstretched a leg to pull a pencil from his pocket and flipped the sheets of paper over, balancing them on his knees. Then he started to draw.

He hadn’t started with an idea of what to sketch, what to create out of lead and lined paper. But as he drew the pencil down, as he shaded in areas, Miss Lucy’s face appeared. Swirls became her curls, light shadowing became her eyes, crosshatching formed the roses that bloomed on her cheeks. She smiled in the picture, smiled at him. Like a mom.

Jake flipped to the next page and began to draw another face. The lips were thin, the eyes narrow, the face crinkled with deep lines, early wrinkles. The hair was straight and hung in clumps. The roots were darker, the lines more crudely drawn.

When Jake lifted his pencil, Rose stared back at him. Rose and Miss Lucy. Jake couldn’t explain why, but he felt a swelling in his throat, tears pricking at his eyes. He couldn’t tell if it was sadness or rage. It made his skin heat, made him burn. He crumpled the side-by-side portraits into a ball. Then uncrumpled and ripped them into pieces. The ragged squares fell to the ground like snow, soft and light.

Jacob stopped, took deep breaths, pressed cold hands to flushed cheeks, closed his eyes. He lifted his face to the weak sun. Then he gathered up the flakes, shoved them in the bag. Threw the bag across the street into the woods. He jammed the pencil back into his jeans pocket and resumed his earlier position: thin arms wrapped around knobby knees.

Paul still hadn’t come.

Excerpt II

In a dingy house on the outskirts of town, where rusted cars without wheels rested on concrete blocks, where weeds and wild grass grew with abandon, where the burning sun never reached into the far corners of crumbling dwellings, lived Rose.

One of those houses was hers – or at least she thought of it that way. It belonged to her current flavor of the month, a truck driver named Bernie, but she considered anything that she liked as belonging to her.

Bernie worked odd hours, two weeks on the road, one week off. Right now he was on again, newly on again. They’d had a wild ride of a night before he left. She’d scored some meth, had stood over the white stove with its grimy top and blackened greasy burners, holding a cheap metal spoon over the flame. The meth heated and bubbled, and the spoon bent downward, slowly, slowly, slowly. Rose was mesmerized by the flame, by the liquid that would set her on fire. And the heat warmed her hands and her body and her mind.

Bernie had come up from behind, nuzzling her neck, grinding against her. He’d almost made her drop the spoon. She’d snapped at him, shoved him backwards, slapped him across the face. His eyes had burned like the flame, blue turning into orange, turning into red, until the blacks of his irises bored into her own.

Then she’d twisted off the flame and ripped off the plastic protector of the needle with yellow, decaying teeth to spit it on the floor. She set the spoon on the counter and carefully dipped the needle into the amber liquid. It rose in the plastic plunger, in time with Rose’s anticipation. She felt giddy, shivery, her skin puckering into goosebumps, her heart racing, her mouth wide open and smiling. Cackling.

She’d looked back at Bernie, whose eyes had faded from red to dull blue. He came up behind her again, twisting her around, pushing her against the counter, rubbing himself against her. Her eyes met his again, not with fear masked by aggression and belligerence, but with desire. For the drug. For him.

Bernie grabbed the rubber tourniquet lying next to the filthy sink, wrapped it around Rose’s left arm, squeezed it, tightened it. Rose’s head fell back. Then Bernie took the needle between stubby, thick fingers with dirt-framed nails, slid it into Rose’s arm, into a vein, and pushed down the plunger half way.

Rose closed her eyes, floating with sensation, with pleasure. The world was perfect, beautiful, colorful. Dreamy blues and yellows and greens, soft reds and oranges, gentle yellows, they glided on the back of her eyelids, against the black. Somewhere, she thought she heard a baby crying. Wet, sucking, needy sobs. Her sweet baby Jacob. She’d hold him, rock him, sing him lullabies in a sweet voice that knew no violence, no harm. It was so lovely, it was overwhelming. Beauty was so powerful.

As Rose cruised, she clenched her fists, ground her teeth, back and forth, back and forth, gnawing and gnawing. She half opened bleary eyes to see Bernie take the needle out of his arm. They staggered to the main room where a mattress lay on the floor, a wad of sheets in a ball on top. They fell, heavy with Bernie’s weight, but Rose shrieked with laughter.

Then Bernie tucked her head on his fleshy arm, and they watched the headlights sweeping through broken and jagged windowpanes play on the popcorn ceiling.

Later, as their high had worn off, when the sun had sizzled into the ground and the moon sent chilly air into the house, the night turned ugly. The wind grew claws, the broken windows grew fangs, the floor began to throb. The mattress shook uncontrollably, tossing the edges of the sheets to the floor, but the rest, the rest of the sheets – they crawled up Rose and Bernie’s bodies, tangled in their legs and their arms, around their necks. They yanked and stretched and pulled, and the sharp edges of the threadbare cloth nipped and sliced at bare flesh.

Rose pulled at the sheets, fought them with long nails, bit them. They wouldn’t let go. But Bernie attacked, jerked them off her, heaved them to the black abysmal floor, an ocean of darkness. Then his hands became bruising, his lips hard, his belt buckle like a razor. She helped him drag off the pants, the boxers, tugged at the coarse hair on his backside. He thrust into her, again and again and again, and she teetered on the knife-point edge between pain and pleasure. She screamed when her body erupted, screamed again when Bernie bit her ear, bit her neck, bit her shoulder. Slapped her across the face with one huge, blotchy red open palm.

In the morning when the sun threw the littered room into relief, she squinted open bloodshot eyes. Bernie had gone. Already driving, she thought. She sat up, bare white breasts sagging onto a concave stomach. Purple spots lined her arms, teeth marks adorned her neck and ears like diamonds. She wrapped thin arms around thin, knobby knees, lowered a mascara-stained cheek. The other cheek sported a pink handprint. A memento of the thrill.

Had she heard Jakey in the night? She remembered hearing a baby cry. Had it been her own sweet little baby? Confused, brain muddled and melting from drug use, she absently watched a fat, sleek rat nibble on old beans tripping out of an open and corroded can lying on its side.

She needed to find her baby. She needed to bring him home. With Mama.

Excerpt I

Dear readers,

The following is an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo project. Opinions welcome!

Happy reading!

***

Lucy stopped talking when she was five.

She’d been sitting in a hard plastic chair at the police station the morning after the fire. Her feet couldn’t reach the floor, so she began swinging her legs with abandon, higher and higher. She felt like she was kicking the air, striking it, hurting it with the toe of her pink sneaker. She didn’t know why she felt so angry. She just did.

But when the nice policeman, the one who said he had a daughter her age, came into the room and knelt down in front of her, she let her legs quiet down, let them turn off so they hung limply above the dirty linoleum floor.

“Hi, honey. Do you remember me? I’m Detective Bascom.”

Lucy nodded.

“You see this lady over there?” he asked, jerking his head toward a woman standing in the corner. The woman smiled gently at Lucy, shifting the heavy notebook in her arms to wave.

Lucy turned back to Detective Bascom, to his lined face and tired eyes.

“She’s going to take you to a new home today.”

Lucy’s eyes narrowed. She stuck her right thumb in her mouth, began sucking loudly. She’d quit sucking her fingers a year ago – that was for babies – but she needed her thumb today. Why did have to go with this woman? Where were her Mommy and Daddy and Baby Louis?

The detective reached out a hand to help Lucy out of the chair, to help lead her to the woman. Lucy unplugged her thumb and put her wet hand in the detective’s. He didn’t seem to mind.

She scooted off the chair, landing on the floor with a soft thud. Gazing downward, she planted her foot in the center of a linoleum square. One pink sneaker after the other. One square after the other.

“Hi, Lucy,” the woman said. “I’m Darla. I’m going to take you to get some food and some clothes. Then we’re going to meet your new family. How does that sound?”

Lucy stared at the woman, round blue eyes filled with uncertainty and suspicion.

“Where are my Mommy and Daddy and Baby Louis?”

Those were the last words Lucy spoke. And when she heard the answer, the wail melted out of her, and she cried and cried and cried.

To My Father

Dear Dad,

Tonight you pissed me off. Tonight you took a swing at me. Tonight I stormed out of the house.

I got in my car, I revved the engine until it roared, I swerved out of the driveway. My tires spit pebbles at your house.  Just like I spit at you.

I drove and drove and drove, racing around curves, accelerating into bends, leaping over hills. I smacked the steering wheel with the palm of my hand until my skin turned blotchy and red; I punched the dashboard until my knuckles were raw and bruised. I screamed until my voice was a raspy whisper.

You pissed me off.

The truth is, Dad, I love you. I know you love me. But you know how to make me angry, how to make my blood boil, my skin heat, my fists ball, my scalp itch with rage. You’d say that you know how to press my buttons because you installed them. You’d be right.

But, tonight, Dad, it went too far. I said terrible things to you, things a son should never say to his father. I called you a mean bastard, I called you a horrible father, a worthless man, a shell of a human being. I said I hated you, that I never loved you, that I never wanted to see you again.

I didn’t mean it.

I do want to see you again.

But on one of those bends, after one of those hills and before another one of those curves, I lost control. My car spun and spun, and I could see the trees whipping past my window. It seemed like the outside was moving in front of me, like a movie on a screen. Inside, all was still. I didn’t touch the wheel, I didn’t press my foot on the brake or the gas. I let my life spin out in front of me, I watched it pass me by. I sat, unbuckled in my seat, motionless. Paralyzed by the movement. Calm and at peace.

Then the car hit a tree. I never heard the crunching of the metal, the screaming of the carriage as it bent in half, the tinkling of the broken windshield. I never felt my body fly through the rectangular opening beyond the wheel, land on the rocks, behind the bushes and behind the large oak tree. I never saw the leaves floating down to caress my battered body, to soothe away the aches and pains.

But I saw you.

I saw your face when the officer came to the door. The confusion, the fear, the grief in your eyes when he told you about the accident. I saw the tears that streamed down your crumpled face. I saw your fists bunch as they had earlier, but instead of hitting me, you hit the wall, over and over again until your ripped hand went clean through the wood paneling. I saw you fall to the floor, land on your knees, shake and yell at the god you said you never believed in – especially after the war. And I saw you curl into a ball, my senior portrait in its plastic gold frame, tucked under your arms.

You slept.

I died.

I’m sorry, Dad. For everything. I love you. I’m waiting.

Scott

To My Mother

Dear Mom,

I saw you for the last time today. You were curled up in a hospital bed, your body frail, your hair thin, your skin cold. You opened your eyes briefly when I came into the room. What was vibrant blue is now cloudy white. You still had that spark of liveliness behind your gaze, but it had dulled, become tired and pale and worn. It is a small comfort, but I think you were ready to go. You waited until I could say goodbye, then you squeezed my hand once as I cupped your wrinkled one in my own. You closed your eyes for the last time, and I laid my forehead on the white starchy sheets of your bed.

I miss you so much.

I wasn’t able to tell you much in the end. You were always sleeping, I was nervy and restless and overwhelmed. My nerves felt like they were on fire; even the touch of my daughter’s hand to my own sent sparks through my skin, bumped my heartbeat up to a gallop, flushed my skin. I couldn’t sit still, except with you. Then I had the calmness, the quiet, the company. But the words wouldn’t come. So here are the words I would wrap for you as a gift, tuck them in your pocket, bury them with you so you could carry them with you until I see you again. I’ll see you again.

You are, and always have been, the person I have strived to be. You worked so hard for me, even after Daddy died. Looking back, I realize that the late nights, the overtime, the myriad part-time jobs and couponing and skimping and saving were for me. It took the beauty of motherhood for me to understand that sacrifice. I was ungrateful as a teenager, and I know it. I wanted what the popular, rich girls had; you couldn’t give it to me, and I punished you for it. I’m sorry. Sorry that I underestimated your love, your home, your lack of materialism. That was the greatest lesson you have taught me, one I hope to pass on to Sylvie. It is not what you have that makes you who are; it’s your core, your self, your values and thoughts and feelings that determine your self-worth. Funny how the outside doesn’t really matter.

You showed me how to laugh. Still, when I watch movies, I imagine you sitting next to me, tucked under your favored blanket – you always loved being cozy – laughing and laughing and laughing. You had the best laugh. It started deep in your belly, rolled through your chest, bubbled out of your throat and mouth, filled the room with giddiness and light. Sylvie has your laugh.

You have always accepted me for who I am, my choices and my mistakes, my achievements and my failures. I had to take responsibility for my decisions – that’s what an adult does, you told me – but you always supported me. And occasionally gave me that kick in the butt I needed. Procrastination is my best friend and my worst enemy. But now I hear you in my head, telling me to “get on that!” and “be proactive!” and “stop talking, just do it!” The only thing missing is the motherly swat that would follow your orders.

And thank you for introducing me to Jack. I should’ve known that you would set me up on the one blind date that would turn into a relationship, then a marriage. I could tell that day by the spark in your eye, your uncontrollable smile, your nervous, jittery movements around the kitchen. How is it a mother always knows before her daughter? When he proposed, you danced – DANCED – around the room, shaking and wiggling and punching the air like I’ve never seen! And you cried silent tears at the wedding.

Now the only tears left are my own. They are hot and stinging and fall from my eyes in a drenching rain. I can’t stop them. Even now they drop onto this letter, polka dotting my words.

You are my mother, and I love you. I thank you.

I miss you.

Always,

Lacie

The Value of Money (and Coupons)

She walked into the grocery store, her folder, thick and heavy with coupons, clutched at her chest. She was a first time couponer – and nervous with it – but she had to get through this trip under budget.

It was the last week of the February. Even though it was the shortest month of the year, it was quickly becoming the most expensive. She was still trying to pay off her credit card bill from Christmas – it was a shame she missed the after-Christmas sales, but the kids and Rob had to have presents on Christmas Day – and she’d spent more than she should have.

Then, come January 1, Rob was laid off, and her hours were reduced to part-time. Winter in rural Iowa was one thing; winter with no money was another. Thankfully, they had their cash stash, but who knew how long it would last? Marcie wasn’t willing to find out.

She stomped her feet on the thin black rug in front of the sliding glass doors and welcomed the warm air the heater blew on her chilled skin. The grocery carts were to her left. Unwrapping her scarf, a handmade gift from her youngest daughter, she placed it, along with her book of coupons, in the child seat. The coupons were quickly becoming her fourth child; just as precious, just as needed.

She’d spent the week collecting them from her neighbors, from the members of her church – the nonjudgmental ones, anyway – and from her friends. She’d downloaded merchant coupons from her home computer and her work computer, and she’d gone around collecting Sunday papers. Although it shamed her to admit it, and no one in her family knew, she’d driven out to the neighborhood recycling center to dig coupons out of the blue plastic bins. It wasn’t dumpster diving, exactly, was it? It wasn’t like she emerged from the bins covered in banana peels and coffee grounds and who knows what else. It was just paper, perfectly harmless. Right?

Tentative at first, she wheeled the cart past the fresh produce and into the frozen food aisle. She flipped the cardboard top of her notebook open to look at her neatly printed list of items and scanned the frosty doors for the match. Frozen pizzas, 10 for $10, and she had a 50 cent coupon that the store would double. 10 pizzas for free. But she’d get 20, just to be safe. That’d be 20 dinners (maybe less, given how her 12-year-old son was eating these days). For free.

She pulled the door open, propped it on her hip and carefully counted out 20 boxes, all pepperoni. As she placed them into her cart one by one, she felt her timidity, her lack of confidence melt away. Just wait until Rob saw what she was able to get. A wave of giddiness swept through at the thought of the pride and pleasure on Rob’s face. She was going to take care of her family. She was going to do it.

She mentally pumped her fists in the air before taking the cart and striding down the aisle. Next up – frozen vegetables. Something healthy. Sort of. 35 bags of vegetable medley. Then 63 cans of soup; that would get them through the winter and into the spring. 8 packages of honey-glazed ham lunch meat. 19 boxes of saltines. 81 snack packages of M&Ms. Those she’d have to hide and save as bribery for her children; sometimes homework was just easier to complete knowing that a nice package of candy-coated chocolate was waiting. 7 bottles of shampoo. 22 24-packs of Coke products (again to be used as bribery).  48 travel-sized tubes of toothpaste.

She crossed off each item with a flick of her pen. It felt good, nourished her in a way the food couldn’t. She’d filled three carts of goodies to feed her family. Maybe the groceries weren’t entirely healthy, maybe they weren’t fresh, maybe they weren’t gourmet. But it was food. And in this economy, who could afford to be picky?

She relayed between her carts, pushing them toward the check-out station that looked to have the youngest cashier.

“Hi,” she said brightly.

The cashier, a young blond whose name tag was marked with “Allie” in black letters, looked on at the carts in horror. The stacks of frozen foods, the towers of cans and boxes. The notebook bursting with tell-tale white scraps of paper.  A couponer. The amount of scanning she would do was going to give her carpal-tunnel. She swallowed and let out a cautious greeting.

“Hi there. Did you find everything you needed today?”

“I sure did!”

“Great.”

Marcie started taking out items from her carts and piling them on the conveyor belt. Her back was aching from the bending, but the pain was dull, in the back of her mind. Her focus was on the bill. She was happy, simply happy, and she had practically danced down the aisles. She could only hope that she hadn’t calculated her savings wrong. She’d never been a good student, but she prayed that simple mathematics wouldn’t fail her now.

Allie took the items one by one, dragging them across the scanner as it beeped. The two women settled into a rhythm, each intent on their tasks and the give and take of plastic and cardboard and metal containers. The metronomic beeping gave structure to the movements, and when Marcie paused, resting, the numbers on the screen angled in her direction shocked her. She’d never seen so many strands of $7.99 and $12.99 and $3.99. She reached back blindly for the book that rested in the last cart, comforted when the tips of her fingers stroked the cardboard cover.

When Allie had finished scanning and bagging the food, she asked Marcie, “Do you have any coupons today?”

Marcie opened the notebook, handing Allie one batch of coupons after another. She felt the relief sweep through her, causing her knees to weaken, her breath to slow, at the first drop in the total. One scan at a time, the numbers dropped, from $598.76 to $576.52.

As Allie continued to scan, as Marcie kept her eyes glued to the screen, a handful of shoppers began to peek over the racks of magazines and candy and gum, curious at the extreme couponer. One of them, a septuagenarian, called out to Marcie in a creaky, thin voice, “Good for you.”

Marcie turned back, took in the old woman with the white peach fuzz hair.

“Thank you.”

“Are you saving for your family?”

“Yes, my husband was just laid off. We have three children at home.”

The woman gave a nod of approval to Marcie. These young people were suffering, but God bless the woman for trying, she thought. If only those politicians and bankers hadn’t screwed everything up. Back in her day, everyone knew the value of a dollar.

At the counter Allie swiped the last coupon and announced Marcie’s total: $198.30. The spectators clapped politely before returning to their lists and their carts.

For Marcie, the clapping was white noise, a buzz in the background. She’d messed up. Her total should have been under $100. Where had she gone wrong? She didn’t think her dyslexia affected her math skills, but obviously she was wrong. She couldn’t afford to pay the almost $200. A lump gathered at the back of her throat, and tears began to prick her eyes. She looked up at Allie.

“Are you sure that’s correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I thought my total would be closer to $85.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

Oh, god. Marcie fisted her hands, driving her fingernails into her palms, hoping the pain would distract her from crying.

“Ok, I’m going to have to put some of these back.”

The humiliation, the embarrassment coursed through her, burning her cheeks, her lips, her ears.

“Just a minute, dear.”

The septuagenarian shuffled forward. She carefully opened her pocketbook and took out a handful of bills. She reached out to take Marcie’s hot, sweaty hand in her own dry, wrinkled one.

“You use this money. I’m eating at my son’s tonight, anyway.”

“No, please, I couldn’t.”

Marcie tried to hand the money back to the woman.

“No, dear. You need it more than I do.”

“Please, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” she urged. “You’re a mother. You know what’s right.”

Marcie swallowed and slowly turned to hand the cash to Allie.

“Ok, your total comes to $98.30.”

One hundred dollars. Macie couldn’t believe it. That was too generous, too much.

She swiveled around to find thank the old woman for her generosity. But she was gone.

Marcie’s eyes tracked the store, looking for the white hair, listening for the sound of orthopedic oxfords scuffling along the floor. Nothing.

“Where did she go?”

Allie shrugged. She handed Marcie her miles of receipt tape and wished her a good day, grateful her break was coming soon.

Marcie thanked her absently and walked out in confusion.

It had begun to snow, and the sun had sunk into the cloudy sky. Marcie pushed her carts to her minivan and scanned the dark parking lot for the woman. Again, nothing.

Marcie loaded the bags into the trunk, shut the door, returned the carts. As she retraced her steps to her van, she called out, “Thank you!”

Only the wind and the snow answered her, flying around, caressing her cheek. A mother to a mother.

Bad Day

*Note: This story is just something a little light and fluffy. Please read with a grain of salt!

Auggie overslept, which rarely happened. She was so anxious about being late that she routinely woke up at least 30 minutes before her alarm went off. But not today.

When she scrambled out of bed, her foot got tangled in the sheets. She fell to the floor in a heap of twisted cotton, and she banged her elbow on the hardwood floor. She extricated herself from the mass of fabric to take a shower only to find that the hot water was out. Miserable under the ice cold spray, she stayed in just long enough to shampoo her hair. Oh, and her eye. That felt fantastic.

She wrapped her dripping hair in a threadbare towel – she kept meaning to go buy some plush Turkish ones from Target, but never had enough cash in her wallet – and stepped in front of the sink to put on her make up. Her foundation was out, and her mascaraed eyelashes left black smudges under her overgrown, Cro-Magnon-style eyebrows. She got red lipstick on her teeth. When she plugged her hair dryer in to the socket, sparks flew. She screamed. Loudly.

Finally, she gave up and stalked back into her bedroom to get dressed. She ignored the mess of sheets on the floor. For someone as fastidious as herself, a self-proclaimed neat freak, not making the bed was a rebellion. So there, she thought, and nodded primly at the pile. She picked her go-to outfit for emergencies, for the days when she couldn’t find anything to wear among the silks and cashmeres and linens in her closet. She pulled on a pair of black trousers and grappled with the hook. Stunned, she looked down. Had she put on weight? Seriously? This was just what she needed, honestly. Just what she needed. She shrugged on a white button-down, slipped on a pair of black kitten-heeled shoes and wrapped her still-dripping hair up into a tight bun. It was chic, she reassured herself. The wet look was in now, right?

She grabbed her briefcase – a red snakeskin number that was classic and brand new, thank you very much – and tugged her camel peacoat from the coat rack. Stomping to the doorway, she wished her apartment a hearty f-you, and stepped out into the pouring rain. At least her hair was already wet, thank God. One less thing to worry about.

Auggie ran through the downpour to her car and wrenched open the door. As she slid into the driver’s seat, she dragged her clean trouser leg against the muddy car, leaving a giant brown streak. Auggie merely sighed and made a mental note to stop at the dry cleaners later. She turned on the car and pulled out of the apartment complex.

After a traffic jam on the highway, Auggie, frantic and sweaty at being so late, pulled into the office parking lot. There were no available spaces. Typical. So, like any woman in a hurry, she parked illegally, just for this one time, really, and hurried into the office. She ignored Stacey, the perky young receptionist who excelled in delivering back-handed compliments.

“Auggie, love your hair! So wet and messy. By the way, you’ve got doggie doodoo on your pants. Just letting you know!” Stacey trilled.

Bitch, Auggie thought, but continued striding to her office. She tossed her briefcase on the leather loveseat, flung her coat down on top of it and collapsed into her fancy swivel chair. First things first, she thought with a sigh. Email. And she had them, email after email after email. She spent, according to the clock on her screen’s bottom righthand corner, three hours responding to requests, deleting junk mail, avoiding the set of messages sent from her mother between 5:25 a.m. and 6:02 a.m. It was too early in the day to deal with family, and Auggie was too sober.

Handling her mother, who was just dying to know about Auggie’s latest break up, had become practically a part-time job. Her mother was single after her fourth divorce and had decided to reinvent herself Madonna-style. As a cougar. But she was stuck somewhere between a nagging, overbearing parent, and a cleavage-baring, blond-highlighted, slang-using single girl. It was getting exhausting setting personal boundaries.

Anyway, Auggie was still sore about Jim dumping her apparently overweight butt last week. She needed approximately five more pints of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, a bottle of tequila and a girl’s night out before she could even attempt to talk with her Nosy Nellie of a mother.

She must be tired, Auggie thought, if she was beginning to think in clichéd phrases. That’s just how the cookie crumbles. Ha. Which reminded her, she hadn’t eaten breakfast, and it could be time for an early lunch. She stood up and reached her arms in the air. She yawned and leaned back, bending her sore back. Just as she was in the height of her stretch, the hook of her pants sprang off and tripped across her desk top. Her pants fluttered to floor, exposing her enormous white cotton panties with the gaping hole at the waistband between the elastic and the fabric.

It was, unfortunately, just at that minute that Auggie’s boss, a no-nonsense company man, walked in.

Auggie froze, her arms still in the air, her back still bent. Shit! She and her boss stared at each other. Five long seconds ticked past before Auggie suddenly reached down and yanked her pants back up.

“Just one of the days,” she said cheerily and let out a nervous giggle.

“Uh…yeah,” her boss said. “Listen, draft these for me and have them ready by the end of the day.”

“Sure thing,” she responded, her pants still clutched in a white-knuckled hand.

He tossed a thick file folder on the desk and walked out of the room, shaking his head.

Well, she thought, that could have been embarrassing. Auggie sat back down and, releasing her rascally slacks, laid her head on the desk, her face nestled in the crook of her elbow. Could this day get any worse?

She raised her head and fumbled in her desk drawer for a safety pin. It would just have to do for now. Tomorrow, she was going shopping. No, first she was going to sign up for Weight Watchers, then she was going shopping. Ann Taylor would surely be the antidote to this nightmare of a day. Maybe she should stop by Nine West, too. A nice pair of pumps would cheer her up.

She fastened the pin on her pants and then headed to the staff kitchen, desperate for comfort food. She should’ve eaten, she scolded herself, but lately, food just hadn’t seemed that appealing. When she opened the refrigerator door and was assailed with the scents of various salads and leftovers and overripe fruit, she felt her stomach roll. Ugh. On second thought, she decided to settle for a Sprite and some crackers from the vending machines.

Auggie spent the rest of her work day hiding in her office, avoiding her boss whenever possible. When her computer clock flipped to 5:00, she hustled into her coat, grabbed her briefcase and slipped through the side door. Taking the stairs down the three stories seemed like a good decision, a stealthy move, but with her heels clicking and clacking, and her head pounding from the descent, she landed on the ground floor with a nasty sense of vertigo. She clung to the railing, closed her eyes and shook her fist, still gripping the briefcase, at the gods. Someone, she decided, didn’t like her today.

When she slogged through the pouring rain to her car, she realized it wasn’t where she had parked. Damn, had she forgotten where she parked again? She was always getting twisted around in parking lots and garages. She saw a late-night infomercial once about a recording device old people could use to record where they had parked. At the time she thought it was for those with early on-set Alzheimer’s. Now it seemed pretty useful. Maybe it would be worth the three payments of $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Something to consider.

She walked around the parking lot, trying to locate her Mini Cooper, but it was dark, and the street lamps didn’t afford much view.  She waved goodbye to her colleagues as they ran through the dreary storm to their cars, and she ducked behind someone’s red Volvo when her boss came out. Within minutes, she found herself soaked and standing in an empty lot. Oh my god, she realized. She had parked illegally. Her car had been towed.

Cursing herself, she called for a taxi and huddled under one of the street lamps for cover. When the cab pulled up, Auggie gratefully slid inside, her wet clothes squeaking across the cracked leather interior.

“Where to?”

“18th and Walnut, please.”

Within the comfort of the warm car, Auggie let out a deep breath. She looked through the window, watched the rain pouring down, the pedestrians scurrying to buildings and cars, the windows in houses light up with yellow glows. Dinner time, she thought. Families would be sitting down, eating lasagna, talking about school and work. But she was headed to her quiet, lonely apartment.

When the cab pulled up to the building, Auggie reached into the briefcase to grab her wallet. She picked through file folders, her emergency make up and medicine kit, the library book she kept forgetting to read, her iPod. Her coin purse was there. Her wallet wasn’t. Figures.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I must’ve left my wallet at work. Can you wait just a minute? Maybe I have some cash upstairs.”

The cabbie looked back at her, his bored eyes taking on an edge of irritation.

“Fine, lady, but I’m keeping the meter running.”

“Ok, thank you. Thank you so much.”

Auggie scurried to the front door. At least she hadn’t forgotten her keys. She raced up the stairs to her apartment, water squishing between her toes in the waterlogged kitten heels. She unlocked the door and pushed inside. She went straight for her cash source – the wad of twenties hidden in her freezer. She clawed through frosted bags of peas and broccoli and took out the empty ice cream box. When she wrenched off the cardboard lid, she stood there, as frozen as her veggies. There was only one twenty left. What the hell had happened to her money? She grabbed the bill to go pay the cabbie and then trudged back upstairs.

She stripped off her wet clothes, tugged on a pair of flannel pajamas and popped a frozen meal in the microwave. As it warmed, she thrust her arms through her Snuggie – best purchase ever – and settled on the couch. After turning on the television to a  reality show where all the women dressed too young and wore too many skin-tight satin dresses – no one should wear satin that tight, hello – she saw the blinking on her home phone.

Sighing, she reached across and tapped in her security code to listen to the messages. The first was from her mother, of course.

“Hi, August, honey. I tried emailing you, and I left messages on your cell phone, but I guess you’re just too busy to answer your mom’s calls. You know, Ellen’s daughter talks to her every day, and I have to listen to her go on about how perfect Becky is. My daughter doesn’t even take my phone calls. But I still love you, so so much! You’re my Auggie muffin. Muah. Anyway, honey, I was calling to get the 411 on the ex-boyfie. I want to hear what the dealio was. I’ll come by tomorrow with some chocolate chip cookies, and I’ve just bought the ingredients for a Boston cream pie. Get ready to veg out girlfriend style! Love you so much, muah, muah, muah, muah, muah, mu… – beep.”

Auggie rolled her eyes and dropped her head on the back of the sofa. Typical. A message that started with guilt and ended with 90s-era slang and sugar.

The second message was fro Jim, the “ex-boyfie.” He’d ended things last week. They’d been together for six months, happy for five. She hadn’t been looking for a boyfriend, but he’d sauntered into her life, sexy and suave and everything that she didn’t need. The first month was spent almost entirely in her bedroom. Months two and three were spent on picnics at the park, feeding each other bits of berries and baguette and rich French cheeses. They went to art festivals and saw indie films during months four and five. He’d made her feel smart, and she so wanted to be one of those sexy preppie chicks. He used to tell her she was the only woman who could pull off brogues and a sweater vest and still look doable. Then he’d stroke the back of his hand down her cheek, call her “pumpkin,” and kiss her until she felt dizzy. God, he’d been so beautiful with sparkling brown eyes and mocha skin. And he’d had a motorcycle. Every girl wanted to date the guy with the motorcycle. But no girl ever married that guy, as Auggie found out. She’d watched him rumble away on the bike, leather jacket hugging his muscled shoulders.

“Hey, Pumpkin. Listen, I think I left some of my things at your place. I’ll stop by when you’re at work or something if you don’t want to see me. I get it. Listen, I wanted to tell you before you hear from anyone else that I’m moving in with someone. Sherry. I think maybe you know her. Anyway, let me know when I can come by. Also, I borrowed some cash from your stash. I promise I’ll pay you back. I’m just waiting for this deal to work out first. Bye.”

As the machine beeped, Auggie felt the first tear roll down her cheek. Oh, she knew Sherry. Her roommate and best friend from college. The girl she’d shared all of her tears with when Jim had dumped her. The girl who said that Auggie didn’t deserve a douche like Jim and that she would always have her friends. They were moving in together. Great.

The horrors of the day washed over her in one image after another: bumping her elbow on the floor, almost getting electrocuted, flashing her boss, getting her car towed. Her bad boy lover, the one she knew – she knew – wasn’t Mr. Right but had cared for him anyway was sleeping with her best friend. He was too stupid to even know who her friends were. Oh, and he’d stolen from her. Taken $980 from her $1000 rainy day fund. And what do you know, the one time she’d needed money from the rainy day fund, literally on a rainy day, she’d been left broke. What a bastard.

She curled into a ball on the couch and wept. Hot tears slid down her cheeks. Her sobs shook her body, and she pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. In contrast to Auggie’s break down, the women on the television screen bitched about petty drama. Auggie sniffed and wiped at her face with the sleeve of the blanket, completely ignoring the beep of the last message and the beep of the microwave.

She lay prostrate for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Then she pulled herself upright and considered that she’d indulged in a crying fest and should, by all rights, feel better. She didn’t. She sniffed once more and picked up the phone to listen to the last message.

“Hello, this is a message for August Sandborn. This is Dr. Krystofski at the Warner Clinic. We ran your tests from last week. Congratulations, you are six weeks pregnant. Please call the Clinic soon to schedule an appointment. We’d like to perform an ultrasound and discuss your pregnancy plan. Again, congratulations.”

The phone dropped out of Auggie’s limp hand. It hit the rug and bounced off the coffee table leg. It lay on the ground, as silent and unmoving as Auggie. Her mouth was open, her eyes wide and staring and unseeing, her cheeks drained of the rosiness her crying jag had brought on.

Pregnant. She was pregnant. Auggie brought one trembling hand to her mouth. A smile tugged at her lips. Auggie, bewildered and weepy, started to laugh. She laughed and laughed, and tears began to run down her cheeks once more. She felt a warmth rush over and through her, warming her skin, heating her bones and muscles. Her heart. She was going to have a baby. A baby. A family.

Today wasn’t so bad after all, she thought, laughter bubbling out of her hormonal, pregnant body.