Chrysanthemums (30 Stories – 9)

Chrysanthemums

White and yellow Chrysanthemums in a thick explosion filled a wide vase at the center of a display of get well cards decorating the window ledge.  Chrysanthemums were Marty’s favorite, each like an exhuberant firework, like the flower world’s equivalent of jazz hands.  Marty bought them for Carla twice a week, had been buying them through thirty-seven years of marriage.  He would bring a new arrangement in two days to replace the ones currently grinning at Carla from the window.  “More mums than you could know what to do with,” he had promised before he’d left at the end of visiting hours the night before.  Carla couldn’t stand Chrysanthemums.  She found them cheap and gaudy.  And they made her think of funerals.  For more than half her life, Marty had been showering her with the flowers of the dead.

“Your husband sure is sweet,” the night nurse had said.  “Flowers twice a week!”

“He’s a good man,” Carla said.

“You’ve been together a long time.  That’s what will help you heal, that kind of steadfast love around you.”

Carla had smiled.  She liked the idea of Marty’s love being the magical elixir that would mend her.

When he came to visit that evening after work, Marty smiled at the flowers in the window as he pulled the chair beside Carla’s bed.  “And tonight, my sky, how do you feel?”

Carla reached for his hand and smiled.  “My nurse says you will heal me,” she said.

“Of course.  Of course.”  He nodded and squeezed her hand.  “The flowers.  That is my job and my pleasure.”

He hoped she couldn’t detect the fear in his voice, in the tightness of his breathing.  He’d been with her in the car when the drunk had plowed into them, sending their little sedan careering into a mailbox and parked car on the opposite corner of the intersection they’d been waiting to cross.  He had walked away with scratches, but not Carla.

When he’d turned and seen her silent, crumpled and bleeding beside him, the shock and horror of it had twisted  his heart out of position.  The sharp pain in his chest was the vision of a life without her.  He’d sat, frozen, staring at her, not realizing the ugly screeching he heard was coming from his own throat until a woman outside his window had shaken his shoulder and asked where he was hurt.

The doctors had said Carla was lucky, that she should heal fine, probably without even a limp.  He couldn’t allow himself to believe them.  Not until he saw the truth of it, of wellness, in Carla’s eyes.  In the first days at the hospital, he had only seen emptiness.  Her eyes looked as if she had already left him.

It was Hanna, the youngest of their daughters, who’d figured it out.

“Pop, don’t you think Mamma misses her flowers?” she’d asked one night on the way home from a visit.

He’d felt stunned, slapped.  “Her flowers! I’ve been so distracted!”

He knew the mums were the secret.  As soon as he’d brought the first arranement, he’d seen a change in Carla, saw a light come on at the back of her eyes.

“What else does your nurse say?” he asked, smiling.

“She thinks you’re sweet,” Carla said, feeling the strong embrace of his smile.

“Oh, does she?  And what about you?  Do you think there’s still any sweetness left in me after all these years?”  He stroked the palm of her hand with his thumb, and she rewarded him with a deep blush as she always did.

Carla laughed — it was maybe her first laugh since the accident.  It hurt her chest, but it felt good, too.  That was Marty.  Good for her in spite of herself, in spite of everything.

 

She’d never told him she hated Chrysanthemums.  In the beginning, she thought it such a wonder that a man would consistently give her flowers, she was afraid any negative comment would shut down the flow all together.  Her best friend at the time had tried to warn her off Marty because of the flowers.  “He just brings you what he likes?” she had said.  “What kind of man does that?  A selfish one.  He’s no good for you.”  But Carla’d had no trouble dismissing that argument.  Mirelis was angry and bitter, in the middle of her parents’ angry, bitter divorce.

Carla accepted the generosity of the flowers and accepted Marty, saw that his whole heart was always on display, just as showy and in your face as the sprays of mums that had begun to invade her home.  By the time she believed the bouquets would keep coming, telling him she didn’t like Chrysanthemums seemed mean.  Marty by her side was what mattered.  If ugly, depressing flowers were the price, she would pay it for the rest of her life.

 

Thirty-seven years later, the price wasn’t exactly feeling high, but having to stare at all the vases of mums when she had come so close to dying was hard.  She had felt the moment when her balance had begun to shift had tilted toward the warm weightlessness of death.  She had felt it and hadn’t immediately fought it, had paused to feel that embrace.  Not to consider — she wasn’t yet 60 and there were too many things still on her myriad lists.  But the gentle pressure against her heart was calming, oddly seductive.

When she had opened her eyes and seen Marty, felt the desperate pressure of his hands holding hers, her heart had raced, and the pleasure of seeing him had washed through her.  When he had walked into her room four days later with the first enormous bouquet of Chrysanthemums, she had smiled, had seen in his eyes for the first time not just hope, but his belief that he hadn’t lost her.

Changing the Story (30 Stories – 8)

Changing the Story

In the photograph, Janice is giving the ref the finger.  Of course.  Of course that was the moment captured.  Of course that was the photo included in every newspaper article, news report, blog post.  Of course.

Janice sat at her kitchen table drinking her coffee.  She thought that, of all mornings, she deserved to roll back her sugar industry ban just on account of that photo, but she resisted the pull.

“I don’t even swear,” she said as Tanya walked in.  “I’ve never given anyone the finger in my life.”

“Well, now you have,” Tanya said, taking down her oversized morning mug and filling it almost to overflowing with the strong Jamaican blend they both preferred.  She walked to the table and sat across from Janice.  “You’re worried about the campaign.”

“Don’t you think I’ve already been painted as angry enough without this?”

Tanya smiled.  “Sure, but this time, you actually were angry.  They’re saying something true for a change.”

Janice nodded.  “Yes, there’s my consolation.”

“Look, honey, you can’t control that nonsense.  Just like you couldn’t help your response to that ref.”  She shrugged.  “It’s done.  You did it.  All you can do now is move forward.”

“Is this going to be another of your “change the story” pep talks?”

“In fact, it is.”  Tanya reached across the table and held her hand open in front of Janice, waiting for her to take it before continuing.

“You’re good at this,” she said.  “Each time some ridiculous story about your anger has been put out there, you’ve been able to turn it into a story about an issue, a policy piece, something to shine the light on Tipton’s failings.”

“Sure, but – as you so nicely pointed out — this time I really was angry.”

“And you weren’t angry about the benefit cuts to families with children or the diversion of funding for the arts to pay for private school vouchers?”

“Ha, ha.  Yes, of course.  Those were different.”

“Why’d you flip off the ref?”

Janice finished her coffee. “I told you –”

“Tell me again.  You’re going to be answering some version of this question all day, right?  So, why?”

“He called me a dyke under his breath.”

“You are a dyke.”

“It’s a pejorative when he says it.”

“So?  It’s the first time you heard hate speech?”

Janice brought her mug to the sink, rinsed it and set it down.  “I’ve got to shower.”

“Go shower, but that’s the heart, isn’t it?  You don’t swear.  Giving someone the finger isn’t the norm for you.  So why last night?  Was it that insulting to have him call you a name?  The “what” of this is how you change the story.  You need to find it.”

Janice frowned and walked out of the room.  She knew Tanya was right, would have known even if her whole body wasn’t giving up the signs.  She could feel everything acutely: the tie of her robe creating friction at her waist, the bandage on her left thumb feeling tight, the hard soles of her slippers not offering any give against her heels.

Why had she given that foolish man the finger?  It definitely wasn’t the first time someone had thrown her orientation in her face in an attempt to shut her down.  So why?

She was willing to bet that, by the time she finished her shower, that ref would have made the circuit of morning shows talking about how shocked and offended he was, how he’d only been doing his job, but she’d been so angry.

Yeah.  She’d handed him the club to beat her with, handed Tipton’s campaign another media moment to grab hold of.  He couldn’t attack her on issues, but he could go to town on her being such an angry black woman.

Refreshed from her shower, she chose her red jersey v-neck dress that fell to mid-calf.  No way she was going to dress quietly when she faced reporters.  She’d wear a gold chain belt and her black, oiled leather knee-high boots with the four-inch heels.  She’d tie her twist-out back with her purple and green paisley scarf that would drape down her back.  She would look tall and strong and fierce and feminine.  She would talk about hate speech and how her orientation had nothing to do with the disputed call.  She’d apologize for offending people with her vulgar gesture, but also talk about passion.

She frowned.  It didn’t get at the “why” exactly, but it might start to get there.

She could hear Tanya on the phone and smiled.  Tanya would raise an eyebrow when she saw the outfit, but she’d also nod her approval.

The “why” still caught in the back of her throat.  She knew she’d have to be careful, that because she hadn’t articulated it for herself yet, it was dangerous.  It could bubble up and out in the middle of an answer.

She’d get there in time.  Probably not until after dinner, after she’d had the day to see herself standing tall, to see ease return.  She’d come home late, she and Tanya would watch a movie and eat popcorn, and then they’d talk.  And talk.  The way they always did with problems.  Tanya threw the question out over coffee so it would sit over a low flame all day to simmer and burn off the rancor, get to the core.  They she’d be there to help with the harder part, the pain of an old hurt or shame that had been stick-poked and uncovered.

Janice definitely wasn’t ready for that first thing in the morning, but she could use its fuel to drive her day, push her past the insulting questions, put that ref on the defensive, force something substantive into print.

Separation and Protection (30 Stories – 7)

Separation and Protection

Allie had slept on Max’s sofa six nights before she finally felt able to talk, to ask Max to take her home. She hadn’t slept well, but at least she’d been able to keep her eyes closed, quiet her thoughts long enough to fall.  That was more than she’d been able to do at home.

Max drove slowly past the university, navigating through the obstacle course of police barriers.

“You’re sure?” he asked.  “You know you can stay with me as long as you like.  As long as you need.”

“No, this is better,” Allie said, fighting a rise in her throat like seasickness.  “I have to go home sometime.”

“It’s only been a few days,” Max said quietly.

 

The bomb had blasted away half of the Forbes building, taking the English Department, part of the library, and the teachers’ lounge.  Allie noted that Max had driven a longer route, one that wouldn’t take her past the destroyed facades, the blown-out rooms that looked frozen in perpetual screams.

The weather had saved her.  The surprise of a 65º day had made her take her students to the reflecting pool on the other side of campus. They’d been discussing Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” some students stretched out and half dreaming in the sunlight, one girl tickling the arm of another with a blade of grass. Allie had just asked, “What did you first think when you read the title? What did you think after you’d read the story?”

So simple, so what every day, any day should be.

“The chancellor announced that we’ll be reopening next week,” Max said, pulling over to the curb in front of her building.  “Will you be ready to go back?”

“I’ll go back,” Allie said.  It wasn’t an answer to his question, but it was, too.

Forty-seven dead.  Another thirty-eight wounded.  All of her students spared by the weather.  Even Max had bandages on his neck, his hand.

She’d called him that night, late.

“I heard you were hurt.”

“I’m fine,” he’d said slowly, his voice sounding dazed, out of focus.

“I woke you.”

“It’s 3 a.m.”

She knew the time, had called after checking the clock, had called even though she’d known she’d wake him. “I can’t close my eyes.” She’d cleared the glass from the bed, swept her room clean but still imagined all those sharp edges clawing into her. “I’m just lying here, staring.”  When he was silent, she asked, “Can I come over?”  She hadn’t heard the hesitation she’d expected in his voice.  Terror and tragedy did that.

She wondered if he’d expected her to want more than his couch, to want to pick up where they’d been six months earlier.  She hated that that was exactly what she wanted, hated that he would think she was using him.

You’ll go back?”

He looked at her, surprised.  “Of course.”

She nodded.  What other option was there? Students would return. Classes would resume. Of course.

 

Inside, she walked through her rooms, laying her hands on every piece of furniture, every wall.  She stood a long time in the kitchen.  The windows in every room had been blown out by the blast.  There was no longer any sign of that.  All shards cleared away, new panes in place, the illusion of separation, protection. She’d cleared her bedroom, Max had seen to the rest, setting her home right while she burrowed deeper into his couch.

She went to the bedroom, pulled the pillows and comforter from the bed.  She made up a nest in the tub and curled up tightly inside.  It would be okay for the moment, would be better than listening to Max’s heavy breathing on the other side of a thin wall.  Better than resisting the pull to go to him.

As her eyes closed, she thought of her students.  Wasn’t it appropriate that they’d been reading Octavia Butler?  If they weren’t living in a dystopian universe, no one was.  How else to explain the bomb, the laughing video claiming bold and proud responsibility?

When she’d gotten to Max’s house, he hadn’t asked for any explanation, had simply put her up on the couch.

“You know where everything is,” he said.

She’d known where he was, that was for sure.  “I won’t stay long,” she’d said.

“You’ll stay as long as you need.”

She knew that should have been longer than six days, but how much longer?  What had she stayed for after the first night of fear?  What would Max say when she called him the next day and asked to come back?  What would he say if she packed a bag tonight and never came back?

Car Chases and Explosions (30 Stories – 6)

Last month I signed up to participate in NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challgenge. I like flash fiction.  I like the idea of being handed a genre, a setting, and an object and being given half a minute (or, you know, 48 hours) to write a story. My group for August waas given Action/Adventure, a train yard, and a peach.

Remember how I said I liked the idea of being handed a genre? Yeah, that was until I got Action/Adventure. I’ve never written anything action-y or adventure-y. Never. Ever. I hear that genre, and I think of … well, what I used for the title of this post: car chases and explosions.  Generally not my subject matter.  So I freaked out for a day. Then I forced myself to get to work. And when I say I feaked out for a day, what I really mean is that I feaked out until one o’clock Sunday afternoon. Leaving myself 10 hours and 59 minutes to get my act together and get something written and submitted.

In the end, I came up with the story below.  Kinda sorta Action/Adventure.  Posting it now is totally cheating — I didn’t, after all, write it today — but I’ve had a LONG week of worrying and caretaking and I’m too tired for newness.  Month-old-ness is much more my speed.  Would love to hear what you think!

_____

Serum

Rikki, tired of running, collapses into the gravel and rolls under a freight car, breathing hard, eyes painfully straining to take in every movement in the thin horizontal plane of her field of vision. The train yard is quiet, which feels unnatural. Her brown skin glistens with sweat even in the dim light under the train, and her stomach cramps. It’s nearly noon – an hour has passed since her father called, told her he was being arrested, to grab what she could and get to the depot.

She’d thrown tools and a sweater into a pack. In his lab, she’d smashed everything, set viruses in his computer and burned all but one of his samples. That last one she had taken. If she survived, she would carry the heart of his work with her.

On her way out, she let herself be distracted by the amethyst crystal bowl filled with perfectly ripe peaches – her father’s favorite. They glowed in invitation, and she wrapped one in a tea towel, carefully added it to her bag. Impractical. She wouldn’t see her father again, knows the Magistrate’s men will waste no time, eager to torture out whatever information they can.

She rolls onto her stomach and begins to crawl under the train cars, still headed south. The underground camp of the opposition leader, her father’s friend, has a tunnel entrance at the far end of the depot. She sees a flash of light at the edge of her sight to the left and worries that she has been seen, is being tracked. She is still breathing hard from her run, and prays she has the strength for a sprint.

Her father had insisted she train as a runner, long and short distances. He had developed her workouts, saying she would need them. She had found him unsympathetic as a trainer, had chafed under his strict rules and grueling routines. Today, she silently thanks him for driving her, for a lifetime of practice.

She wonders how much longer she has before the vial in her stomach metabolizes and floods her system with serum. It’s the last of her father’s samples. She knows the serum will kill her or get her killed, knows her best hope is the tunnels, turning herself over to the opposition, letting them make use of her – force peace with the bludgeon she is about to become.

She pauses, certain now that someone is tracking her movement. She strains her ears, desperate for a telltale sound or movement, praying someone has come up from the tunnels to watch for her. If the magistrate’s men have found her, she will have little recourse by the time they bring her in for questions and violence, little recourse but to use the tool her father gave her. His last sample. His last gift.

“You can just freeze like an ice sculpture, girl.”

She starts at the raspy voice above her and turns, twists her head to look up, registers the outline of a man. He is speaking down through the grate in the floor of the train car. He’s in uniform, smiling at her, his gun pointed at her face.

“Nowhere for you to go now, is there? But you were a tricky one. What you want to come all the way out here for?”

Rikki takes a deep breath, turns full on her back, aware that she is crushing her father’s peach, that he is really gone. “You should be careful with that gun, sir,” she says quietly.

The man laughs. “You planning to hurt me?” he asks. “I don’t see a weapon on you.”

“I am the weapon,” she says. “Didn’t they tell you? That’s why you’re looking for me.”

It’s a lie, but she can see it’s had a good effect on the soldier: frozen him, made his eyes go owl-round and wide. It was a lie when she said it, but then she feels the vial expand, blossom in her belly and send the serum flowing through her, sparking chemical changes through her blood stream and nervous system, weaponizing her in an instant.

She watches the soldier, knows she’s his. There is no way to escape, nothing to do but wait to see what he will do, and he’s still thinking. Now that she has adjusted her eyes to see him through the grate, she can see that he is very young but that his eyes are tired, red-rimmed. How long has he gone without sleep? Why did he think he was tracking her if he didn’t know about the serum?

He should shoot her. Dead, they can use her body to arm themselves. She’s counting on him not knowing that. Alive she can detonate herself, obliterate everything they know, draw the world into a tight, hot knot of fire and ash. Alive, she is power, that threat over everyone’s head. Her father wanted her to give his friend that power, thought it would somehow save them all.

She keeps her eyes locked on the soldier’s, waiting. Wonders how it is that the clever people – the ones like her father who dream up big plans for saving worlds – never take this into account, never remember that it will be everyone else, anyone else, who will make the final decision. She crosses her arms slowly, ready to release if she hears his weapon cock.

That sound you hear? My contented sigh. (30 Stories – 5)

If I get nothing else from this flash fiction exercise, I’ve just gotten this lovely quote by Joseph Roux: “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.”  According to Wikipedia, Roux was a French Catholic priest and a poet, and that is perfect for tonight’s story.  A boatload of other good quotes are attributed to him, too, but I’m sticking with this one for now.

_____

Truth in Sunday Clothes

Richard took his bike down from its rack in the garage and strapped his bag into the front basket.  He was glad the weather had finally thawed enough to melt the ice and compacted mounds of snow that made him drive in winter instead of ride.  He needed the strength and power he felt when he used his body instead of just conveyed it along.

He knew the conversation he was headed for would be difficult at best, so the extra boost of biking in was that much more welcome.  He smiled as he turned onto the bike path, waved at Sheila Tate and her kids as he glided past them.  He hoped Sheila would come back to church now that her baby seemed to be a bit more manageable.  He wouldn’t push her about it, though.

Since he’d come to Saint Agatha’s, he’d worked hard to change the community’s perception of priests as stern taskmasters.  He knew both of his predecessors had seen their role as similar to angry, long-suffering parents.  Both had used the mainstays of strict parenting to guide their parishioners, scolding and punishing anyone who dared stumble or stray outside the clearly demarcated lines, boldly reshaping the behaviors of their congregants to match their harsh, Puritanical visions of “right.”

Riding past the industrial park, Richard was pleased to see that posters for Valentine’s Day Love Song Karaoke were already up, their bright pink and red hearts and flowers flashy enough to catch anyone’s eye.  When the teens in the youth council had suggested the event as a fundraiser, he had almost laughed.  Their courage to broach the idea revealed the comfort they felt with him, and he’d agreed immediately.

He turned into the parking lot behind the high school and hooked his bike into the rack near the door.  He’d been up late the night before planning for the discussion he was about to have, hoping it would actually be a discussion and not an argument, not anything worse.

He’d spent his two years at St. Agatha’s trying to roll back the ugly curtain of shame, distrust, and rigidity that had been draped in sodden, sagging folds over the community.  Between them, the Fathers Hall and Neeson had spent 43 years in town, shutting down any spark that challenged their narrow views.  Richard, as thrilled as he’d been to see that people were embracing the karaoke night, knew he hadn’t turned any kind of tide, that two years of gentle nudging wasn’t enough to do that trick.

He straightened his clothes, rand his hands over his face and hair and went inside.  He wasn’t surprised to find such a large group of parents and nearly the full school staff waiting to see him.  He was happy, though, to see some of their faces relax into genuine smiles when they saw him.  It was a start, and that was usually all he needed.

His late night had been spent combing through books of poetry, pulling out a stanza or a couplet here, taking an entire piece there.  He had a clean, typed copy of his arsenal folded neatly in his bible, marking the start of Psalms.

He’d left his last position — chaplaincy at a small private school in Syracuse — because he’d felt emasculated by the limited authority and scope of his role: hear confession, lead mass.  Done.  No community events, no dinners for saints days, no counseling of any kind.  A few extra duties at Christmas and Easter, but that was all.

He could have found himself overwhelmed by the dramatically expanded scope at St. Agatha’s, but he drank it like water.  He’d drawn up a five-year strategic plan at the end of his first six months, and real changes had slowly begun to take hold.

He’d been broadsided by the news that a teacher had been suspended for using Lucille Clifton’s poems in class and that now all of Clifton’s work was to be banned and a review of all contemporary poetry would be conducted with unacceptable works put on a list and removed from the library.  Never mind that Clifton was one of his favorite writers.  The censorship rocked him.  Each of his successes felt very small in light of that.  But at least the reign of Hall and Neeson guaranteed that he’d been called to counsel them before anything more drastic would be done.  At least no one was talking about burning anything.

He smiled as he shook hands with the principal and was surprised by the strong wave of longing for his dad.  And, if his father were still alive, Richard would have called him during his night of research, told him his battle plan … and told him, too: “I went to seminary like you wanted, but this — this right here — is why I needed to be an English major in undergrad.”  His father would have laughed, would have reminded Richard that he, too, had been an English major before math had stolen his heart.

He was ready.  His father, who had given him Dylan Thomas as a high school graduation gift — his first “grown up” book of poetry. His father would walk with him up to the lecturn, nod his head in approval.