Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mop and bucket

Tonight you're in Vegas.

Tonight, in a back room of the Starbucks-cafe part of a Barnes & Noble, I put my hand on the handle of a mop.

Someone had spilled a drink. The cafe was packed with Georgetown people, expensively dressed and graduate-degreed. I paused for just a beat. I had to push something inside me down, squelch it, before I could go back into automatic motion and heave the mop and wheeled plastic yellow bucket out there. I struggled with the heavy objects, props that felt as if they belonged to someone else's life and not mine, objects that therefore have not yet acquired the gravity they'll have when they finally belong to mine.

The wheels of the bucket wanted to curl and run sideways, not back-and-forth. So I dragged the bucket instead, groaning, reluctant object that it was. In the vestibule between the private back room and the public cafe, I arranged myself. I would perform this task with grace. I would have good posture. With my hair pulled back into a ponytail that reveals my swan neck, wearing a skirt and ballet flats that were really too dressy for cafe duty, I tried to seem aristocratic, academic. 

Out there in the cafe, the light glaring, I maintained a serene expression, hoping the cafe patrons were thinking that I must be a graduate student, working here the way poor bohemians magnetize to bookstores and cafes. I thought of castes in India; I thought of the rigid and impermeable class barriers in England. I held my head high. Studious people at tables moved their chairs for me when I asked them to in as polite and assured a voice as I could summon.

When I reached the spill, a clear topaz puddle, I pulled the mop up out of the cloudy water in which its yarn-head had been submerged. The woman at the nearest table smiled in something like an apology for having spilled the drink, in something like embarrassment at having a stranger clean up her mess, the embarrassment of the person with the luckier role.

It's possible that I allowed them to see me struggling a bit with the mop and bucket, as if to say: "I am not accustomed to doing this. What a funny twist of fate." It's possible that I found it morbidly amusing, thinking of what the cafe patrons might have imagined my life to be like -- the stories they create to explain why a nice, young, smart-seeming and well-dressed girl like me is playing janitor.

I changed the spill into a shiny-wet slick on the cafe floor. I warned the woman to be careful walking on it when she left.

Then I went on, doing my job for the next six hours, routine and recipe and procedure. And then the night ended, and that was that. A seamless blur of moments, except for one:

That moment, in the back room, when I put my hand on a mop for the first time as someone whose job duties include mopping -- I stopped, and thought of how you're in Vegas, and of how far you are, and for that moment I could not move.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What matters

“Sweetheart, there's something I have to tell you."

The mom was wearing a burgundy paisley dress that fell to about mid-calf-length. The sleeves were three-quarter-length, so they stopped right at about halfway down her forearm. The dress was made of a stiff sort of cotton, or maybe a cotton blend. It had a little rounded collar, what you might call a Peter Pan collar if you were writing a description of the dress for a catalog.

“Oookay, shoot.”

The daughter was wearing low-rise blue jeans that flared out at the bottoms of the legs and had a smattering of silver studs decorating the pockets. At the store where she’d bought them, the style was called “Diva.” She was also wearing a little pink T-shirt. You might call it a baby tee if you were writing a blurb in a teen magazine.

“Honey, I’m just going to say this. You’re adopted.”

The mom was wearing loafers with a low, chunky heel. The loafers were brown leather, from the Stride Rite store, bought for their comfort. They were sensible shoes. The mom was also wearing pantyhose; on the box, it said the color was “nude,” a sort of suntan brown.

“Mom… what…”

The daughter was wearing white sneakers with thick soles, almost like platform shoes, trendy among her peers at her junior-high school.

“Dad and I were friends with your real mother. We are friends with your real mother. She’s someone you know… someone you know quite well.”

The mom wore her shoulder-length medium-brown hair in a low ponytail. She wore glasses with discreet rims, so that you mostly just saw the glass lenses, which were reflection-proof, so you almost didn’t see the lenses either.

“Who is she?”

The daughter had purple polish on her nails, and it was chipped. Her brown hair was long; she was growing out her bangs. Her T-shirt said “Boy Magnet” on it.


What it is

I brought him to a pizza place to break up with him.

He loved pizza. It didn't love him back, and neither did I, but I guess one-way love is better than no-way love.

I watched him dig into his pie. He was a big eater, and had ordered a pie all for himself. It was covered with anchovies and onions and smelly things.

I had ordered a small side salad. I couldn't eat much. I always feel queasy when I have to deliver a blow.

"Mmm... mm rrowr rrowr rrowr rrowr, mmmphlet mphlet," he said and laughed.


He gave it another go. As he spoke, I looked into his churning, cheesy maw. Imagine a washing machine but full of melted cheese instead of socks and towels.

He wiped his lips with a thin cheap napkin. It left a greasy smear of a kiss-print.

"Sorry," he said, his left cheek full of chewed-up mush. "I had my mouth full."

"Oh, did you now?"

"Yeah. Heh."

"So what were you trying to say?"

"I said, 'I really love you.' "

I let my plastic spork drop to the table in our booth. He was grinning and clueless.

I saw his eyebrows go up a bit at their centers, awaiting my response.

In the kitchen in back, a cook twirled dough in the air. The cook was boisterous, singing about what it is when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.

"That's amore!" he bellowed, spinning the dough round and round.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Bad people: microfictions

Peace pie

There’s a boy in our neighborhood whose dad is a pacifist. If you beat up his son, the dad brings your family a pie. It’s supposed to teach us something – that violence can be ended with kindness; that if you respond to a hit with another hit, violence is neverending.

But we beat up his son a lot. We think it’s funny. We joke about who’s having peace pie for dessert tonight. His dad is a really good cook. 

Cut Off Your Nose

Saint Ebba heard they were coming.

She’d both feared and looked forward to it. Everyone had been looking at maps – this place was right on the path, right in the way. She’d lain awake at night, flat on her back, looking up in the cold. Vikings were monsters in stories parents told at bedtime. They didn’t come into the lives of just anybody. She had almost felt honored. Her life might mean something after all.

What would they do when they got here? They would take the girls. She wasn't supposed to let that happen. She was in charge of everyone. Mother Superior.

There were no men or weapons to protect them, so she had to be clever. She had to twist her mind. It came to her in blackness one night. It almost excited her. It was terrible; she shivered then went to sleep.

In the morning she passed around knives. They would do it if she told them to, especially if she went first. Their pretty faces would be as ravaged and ugly as she was deep in her heart that had wished for this all along.   

Hang in there, toots

The letter was written to "Ask Auntie E.," the MILF-like advice columnist for Elle magazine ("the thinking woman's Cosmo"). Auntie E. is whippet-thin and strawberry blonde, wears leopard print and calls her readers "doll." She tells it to you straight.

The letter was from an Indian woman whose parents had arranged her marriage. The woman was pretty sure her husband was gay, and he was also terribly immature. In bed, he would demand that his wife go down on him -- and not only did he never reciprocate, but they never had intercourse either. And he told her to keep her underwear on during it -- one time she removed her bra, and he asked why her breasts looked so weird.

Auntie E. said in her reply that her gut instinct was to tell the Indian woman to "kick him to the curb!" But, being a diligent journalist, Auntie E. had consulted with a scholar, an authority on Indian culture. The expert said life could be hard for the Indian woman if she left him; she might be ostracized by her loved ones. She might be happier to just stay there. Hey, maybe he'd grow up; people can change! Hang in there, toots. 

A Sunday

It's an Edgar Allan Poe, early winter, snowless day. Brittle barren branches and crows.

I'm wearing my coat but my bones are cold. I have arthritis. Cold in the fibers of the wool.

I'm walking on a country road. I'm your widow.

Today is Sunday. Normally I would refresh your flowers. It's been about a year.

But this morning I remembered why sometimes I used to hate you, and I find myself walking in the opposite direction.   


He's resourceful. I'll give him that.

He makes things, builds things, rigs things up, carves flowers out of wood, beckons vegetables out of stubborn earth. These are qualities I fell in love with.

He finds a way to get what he needs.

I don't think he meant to mock me with this last thing. He was simply building a scarecrow and needed a head. Somewhere he found the head of a beautiful lady mannequin. He placed it atop a tall, vaguely human form and dressed her incongruously in lumberjack flannel and a trucker cap.

I see her from my kitchen window. Sometimes I stop and notice how glamorous she looks, with her pageboy haircut and heavy-lidded bedroom eyes, a face sort of like one of the older Barbie dolls, before they got saucer-eyed and vacuous, and virginal. Those older Barbies with their half-lowered lids looked like they were up to no good.

The thing is, it wasn't just one other woman. It's a serial thing. It's chronic.

Why does he keep me around? I know why I stay here, for our son, even though he's grown; your child is always your child. But why does he keep me here? I feel like a spare tire, the little donut kind you use only in an emergency, just to get you through until you buy a nice new one.

I have my own resources. If I didn't, I couldn't stay here.

I look out my kitchen window and wonder why I have to see his women everywhere. 

So help me God

"I have to live my life right. So help me God. Starting today I live my life right."

He looked up. The blue autumn sky above the prison yard was bright and vast, as if it had no end.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Life goes on: microfictions


I looked out at the grass, which was perpendicular to my car. Other cars passed. The breeze they left behind them ruffled the blades. I thought how strange, they just kept going.

I could only move my eyes. I could see my dashboard, and the little bobble-head dog on it. The dog hadn't come unstuck. Its head wagged up and down, nodding yes yes yes, life goes on, yes it does.

Come on, Irene

The old man had started something that he couldn't finish. It was going to be the grandest garden-gnome village the world had ever known. But after just four trips to Wal-Mart's garden section, he realized he couldn't afford as many of those little chumps as his vision demanded. He stopped at about 20 gnomes.  

It was an underwhelming sight. The gnomes almost blended in with the grass and bushes. None of the neighbors said anything. Even the neighborhood kids, whom he'd imagined lining up to tour his grand village, didn't comment on it. It just looked like he had left a bunch of crap in his yard and forgotten to pick it up.

So when the hurricane came, he looked out his window at their ridiculous imp faces. They seemed to mock him. He left them out there as the trees began to rustle and the birds all flew for cover.

"Come on, Irene," he sang softly, his breath fogging up the glass, invoking the name of this particular storm, although the song was really "Come on, Eileen." He had never been good with song lyrics, either.

He wanted the wind to take them away. He wanted the wind to erase everything his life had never been.


The geeky freelance pop-culture blogger with Asperger's often wondered why he wasn't a hit with the ladies.

His folks had a lot of dough, so they bought him a condo.

They gave him a little allowance, too. He saved up so he could go to the Bunny Ranch, that famous brothel in Nevada where it's legal. He was determined to lose his virginity before he turned 30.

He saw his life as a romantic comedy that was only sometimes tragic.

He pulled his rental car up to the house where the bunnies lived. He tried to calm his breathing. He sat in his car in the hot dry sun. He never got out. He drove back to his hotel. He never went back. He wrote a funny blog post about it.

Alone in my mountain tower with my worst enemy

They found the Japanese literary master dead in a mountain tower. He been holed up there for months, and then he had killed himself. When his fans heard this, they grew morbidly excited. Had he been completing a final masterpiece? Had he woven together his accumulated insights into a tapestry that shimmered with ultimate truth? Did the police find a manuscript, or at least some notes? A computer disk containing a precious file? But no, all the police found was issues of People magazine from the U.S. and empty Hostess chocolate cupcake boxes. There wasn't even a suicide note.

His fans couldn’t reconcile this with their idolization of the late master. They expected the police to at least find something heroic, poetic: a samurai sword, a goblet of wine. But I know how he felt. A suicide note, a symbol – a final poignant act – would have brought him back to life, through eternal analysis and worship. And he wanted to be dead.  

The man with the stutter

The man with the stutter sat in the front row of the theater. He looked at a galaxy of stage lights thrown onto the walls and ceiling. Gods and goddesses appeared and spoke in tones of crystal clarity, their words shimmering like epiphanies.

A wood nymph bestowed flowers on a few in the audience. She stood before him in a halo and reached into her basket. The flower was yellow and real.

After the play, he stood in a circle with friends in the parking lot. He had thrust the flower into his coat pocket at the end of the show, not wanting to be seen, not wanting people to think he was being sentimental. His friends talked and smoked, and stomped and laughed and breathed cold frost. He listened; he had known most of them since childhood and they protected and included him like a family member. He put his fist into his pocket and felt the petals, velvet and silky. The petals felt like all the words he couldn't say.

Country song

She had been reduced to a faint twang drowned in radio static on the road through the country where nobody lived and nobody listened. It was her worst fear.


There was this dog I heard about that had OCD, and he kept jumping into this pool and then getting out and then jumping in and then getting out, and he didn't know why, but something impelled him to do it forever, so he whimpered and obeyed his body's lunatic commands long after he was tired.


I stopped at the ghost town on my drive home from your place.

It was called Calico. I saw a sign and thought I should stop there. Shouldn't I not be the kind of person who just passes an Old West ghost town by?

I thought it would just be ruins and ghosts and me. But there was a parking lot full of tour buses. There was a lady in a booth asking you to pay admission. There was pizza, and there was face painting.

So I left Calico. I left it, just like the original townsfolk did.

There is such a thing as wearing out your welcome.

When even the ghosts have left a place, you should, too.