Let It Not Be Said

“Ma, come out of the shower.”
“No.”
“Ma. Ma, come on.”
“No!”
Melanie stands outside the bathroom door, practicing the now nightly ritual in which her mother locks herself in the bathroom, gets in the shower with at least some of her garments still on, and refuses to come out. There is only one bathroom in the small house, and the closest neighbors are over five miles away.
In retrospect, Melanie thinks she should have had her mother move to Atlanta with her rather than moving back to her childhood home, which used to be a farm but is now a small house with acres of land rented out to corporate growers. Where a stable once stood, there is now a rotting semblance of a building where termites, the exterminator told her, were impossible to get out now. All he could do was protect the house from their spread. Which was something, at least, Melanie thought, hoping that the extra favors she’d given him helped to make sure that he did the job right.
A girl could get mighty lonely living with her possibly senile, maybe paranoid, and most definitely difficult mother for over a year.
“Ma, I need to pee.”
“No! They’re coming to get me, don’t you get it?” This is hissed now, as Melanie’s mother moves from her obstinate stance to one that had a reasoning, whether invented or truly believed.
“No one is coming for you.”
Silence.
Melanie sighs and walks away from the bathroom towards her childhood bedroom.
“Don’t leave me!” The cry echoes after her, but Melanie knows that if she were to rush back to the door, her mother would revert to nay-saying.
In her room, covered with posters of irrelevant and broken up boy-bands, models, and basketball players that Melanie didn’t bother to take down when she first moved in, she picks up the paperclip she’s been using for the last few nights.
“I’m here again, Ma,” she says, back at the door, on her knees in front of the doorknob.
“Go away! Let them find me! Save yourself, baby!” The cliches came fast and automatic, echoes of movies Melanie and her mother had watched over and over again, years ago. This is her mother’s grand performance, the role of a lifetime played by a woman who’d never wanted to be an actress. All she’d wanted to be was a rodeo rider, but that was only for boys when she was a girl, so she became a factory worker instead, and then a homemaker, and then an sort of Jill-of-all-trades when it came to anything involving a needle and thread. She altered wedding dresses, made baby clothing out of hand-me-down big brother rags, patched together old family quilts, and hid teenagers unwanted pregnancies for as long as she could by letting out hemlines and creating collage shirts that seemed like the height of alternative fashion, clashing patterns purposefully loud so as to distract from the bump of a belly under them.
There hasn’t been a needle in the house since Melanie moved in, soon after her mother tried to commit suicide with them, a process so ridiculous that Melanie almost started to laugh when she saw the doctor’s photos of her mother looking like she’d been to the acupuncturist and gotten up and wandered home before the treatment was over.
“Ma, I’m coming in now.” Melanie begins to pick the lock, deciding that tonight she will finally unscrew the doorknob and make the door unlockable for once and for all.
But her paperclip isn’t working. Or then again, it is working, she can hear and feel the lock moving but she still can’t open the door. “What have you done now?” she yells through the door.
“I’m only protecting myself, Mel! You of all people should understand that!”
Melanie regrets now more than ever having confessed her rape to her mother. It didn’t heal her, and it’s only given her mother more bizarre ammunition to use against her now. Melanie moves to the living room and then the kitchen and finds what she’s looking for – an absence. A chair missing. Her mother has used the old chair-under-the-doorknob thing. Melanie has always thought that this only works in movies, but as her mother is putting on a Raspberry-worthy performance at the moment, she assumes that her life is simply like this now. Melanie is nothing if not a realist.
“Ma?” Back at the door, she tries again. “Ma!”
“No!” It’s a screech.
“Okay, Ma, I’m going to go pee outside and then I’m going to bed without brushing my teeth.” Melanie walks to the front door and as she opens it she hears behind her the opening of the bathroom door.
Her mother, underwear soaking and her bra undone in the back but still dangling on its straps around her shoulders, stands in the doorway.
“Don’t be silly, Mel,” she says. “You can’t go to bed without brushing your teeth.” She traipses along the hallway to her bedroom and lies on top of the bedspread and stares at the ceiling. Melanie watches her for a moment and then goes back to the bathroom where the shower is still running. She shuts the water off, pees, brushes her teeth, and then returns to her mother’s room. She will dry her, dress her, and give her the medication she is still getting used to. She will put her to bed and kiss her goodnight. And then, as she does only every so often, Melanie will put on boxer shorts and a tank top and she’ll crawl into her mother’s bed and lie there, awake, listening to her mother breathing, snoring, dreaming. And Melanie will pretend that she is six, and that her mother’s snores help to put her asleep. And she will pretend that there will be cereal and chocolate milk in the morning and a yellow school bus stopping a mile down the road to take her to school. And she will remember her mother waking her up and telling her she sleepwalked into her big grownup bed again, and herself pretending that she did indeed, and that it wasn’t on purpose.

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Found Poetry – Big Boggle

July 12, 2013 Big BoggleMy mother and I often play Big Boggle (5X5 tiles, not 4X4), which, for those who don’t know, is a word game in which you have a limited amount of time and you have to write down as many words as possible. Since we got to be too good at it, we decided a couple years ago to limit ourselves to four-letter words, eliminating the endless and obligatory three-letter words that show up way too often and make the game repetitive (tea, eat, ate, rat, art, tar, pat, tap, apt, etc.)

Tonight, for whatever reason, this list I made seemed to work very well as a slightly sinister, possibly political (class and gender commentary?) poem. It wasn’t on purpose, but as I was reading the words out, it just seemed to work out that way. So, as you see above: my first ever piece of found poetry. Read it however you want – with the crossed out words or without, across or top to bottom, it works out somehow. I’m quite proud of the bizarre and happy accident (less happy about sharing my atrocious handwriting, but, there you go.)

Oh, Please Believe [Flash Fiction]

When Mother forbade me from going into her office, I was, of course, determined to go in there. I should have respected her privacy. I didn’t have the excuse of being a curious, nosy seven year-old anymore. I was married, thirty-two, and had a child of my own. But I was going through a bad divorce and I was living with her for the first time in over a decade, and I didn’t like the idea of not being allowed to go somewhere in the place that I once called home so naturally.

Mother and Father had moved into the house in the 60s, before I was born, and they never left. After I was five or so, Father stopped leaving for good. He was too heavy to go out much past the garden when I was a toddler, and by the time I was skipped up into first grade, he was only able to stand for a few minutes at a time and poke his head out the kitchen window to wave at me. I loved him for it, at the time. It took me a few years before I really understood how shameful it was to have a father who stayed inside all the time. I was proud of him, then, because I could boast of how often he played with me.

Our games were simple ones. I hid, and shouted out for me, moving from one easy chair to another, heaving and puffing. His sweat smelled of talcum powder. He was fastidiously clean. He was shy of his big underarm stains, even though I knew them so well that I used to put my forehead under them in the summer, when I was hot, and cool myself off. I would giggle and he would blush. He loved me, I think, even though he died before he ever really told me so. He didn’t talk very much. Most of his communication was accomplished through his eyes, which crinkled at the sides like his his favorite potato chip brand.

Mother talked too much, and when he died, she let him out of the house only long enough to be cremated. Then he was back, and she carried him around in a jar with her. She talked to him, and to me, sometimes getting us confused. It made me angry at him. I didn’t like being confused with a pewter jar full of dust. I peeked inside once, even though she told me not to, so I knew that he wasn’t in there really, despite what she always said.

Now, at thirty-two, I knew better. She hadn’t lied to me. I just hadn’t understood that my father wasn’t sitting in that jar like a genie in a bottle. A comforting thought, especially because the environment would have suited him – he wouldn’t have to move very much at all – but one that at my age I knew was stupid. I should have trusted her this time when she told me not to go into the study. I should have learned from past mistakes. I should have realized that I’d only be disappointed.

I waited until she went to her quilting class. She never carried Father around with her anymore. She’d bought a lot of new clothes and gone back to work when I started high school. She was better. That’s what she always said. Better. Like Father had made her sick. Maybe he did.

I made sure that Jonah was sleeping. Ever since leaving his father, he’d been sleeping badly, prone to nightmares. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get as much custody over him as I wanted, because I knew that he loved his dad and that it would be cruel to him – not to his dad – to separate them completely. I couldn’t hurt Jonah, even though I wanted to knife his father with a set of scalpels.

Opening the door to the study, I already knew that I was making a mistake. It wasn’t dramatic. It was anticlimactic. I really should have expected it when Mother had “thrown” Father’s favorite chair away, the last of the old possessions in the house, a few years ago. Of course, there it was, right there. I leaned on the door frame and sighed, disappointed. I was expecting a family of bears, or maybe some secret lover hidden away there. But a chair? An old chair.

The worst bit of it all was trying to figure out why Mother needed to hide from me that she’d ever loved Father. I didn’t understand it. I closed the door, decided never to ask, and ran to Jonah who had started crying, waking up out of a nightmare.

Confessional [Flash Fiction]

When I married my first fiancee, she and I were only nineteen. We were engaged for the twelve hours it took us to hitchhike from our town all the way to Vegas, where we got married in one of those cheesy wedding chapels. I don’t remember its name, but I’m sure it had the word “Love” in the title, which was apt. We were in love, all right. We were passionately, tremendously, glowingly in love, positive that everybody could see it on our faces. We knew we were going to be together for the rest of our life.

She was also pregnant.

When she first told me, I didn’t even have to think about it. I just asked her to marry me, right there, on the spot, with no ring, no nothing. We were in bed together, and it was dark because we’d shut the heavy curtains in her room so we could sleep late, and because my legs were entangled with hers and her back was to me, I couldn’t even kneel when I proposed. Not my finest moment. But she said “Yes,” anyway, very quietly, and I could hear her smiling.

It was only then, after she’d agreed, that I realized what it actually meant. I’ve heard other people talk about how having babies young means you can’t go to college, but neither of us were heading there, anyway, so I wasn’t worried about that. I actually heard from an old mutual friend a while back that she got a Masters degree in something or other a couple years ago, so maybe she did want to go to school and just never told me about it. When I think about it, there’s a lot I didn’t really know about her. We were nineteen. We didn’t really know how to talk to each other about the big things yet, I guess.

But I knew exactly where I was headed, and that was nowhere. I’d always worked at my parents’ diner, busing tables when I was kid, taking orders when I was in high school, learning how to do the cooking on the longer weekends when the staff had time to teach me. Now that high school was finished, I was working there full time, doing whatever needed doing. My mom was showing me how to do some of the bookkeeping, but I didn’t have the head for the math – “Just like your father,” she’d say, huffing and pushing me half-off my chair with her too-strong arms – so I learned from my father what it meant to be a manager. He taught me how to hire and fire people, how to order the supply we needed, and how to try not to get too cocky, because some days were so busy that he needed to be in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, or out there on he floor, taking orders, and he didn’t get paid any overtime for any of it. “Heck,” he used to say, “I don’t even get a salary, technically. My salary is the profits, and the profits come from good workers, and good workers like working for humble bosses.”

So what was I so afraid of, lying in bed, making plans with my girlfriend-turned-fiancee about how to lie to her folks into giving us the pickup truck for the day so we could go to Vegas and get married? I was afraid of missing out. I couldn’t tell you what I meant, exactly. I just knew, somewhere deep in my bones, that I shouldn’t be getting married when I was still getting pimples on my back that I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of. The thought of holding a baby in a few months threw me into a kind of panic, too. The future stopped for me there. Suddenly, I had no future seven months from that day when I married her. There was white, blank space after that day, space that I couldn’t even imagine.

Later, my second fiancee told me that maybe it was a sign. That maybe I knew what was going to happen, exactly seven months from that day, right on the nose. Then she laughed at herself and said she didn’t believe in things like that. I told her that I did, because I do, but that it wasn’t a sign. If it had been, I would have listened to it. I don’t ignore signs. This was no sign – it was just the terror of a teenager who barely knows what a baby looks like, let alone is ready to hold one and call it his own.

I’ve heard of plenty of people being happy when their baby was born. I’ve never heard anyone admit to feeling what I felt the day my baby was born dead.

Stories from the News – Episode 1

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become an NPR junkie. I listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered almost every single day. I also recently discovered On the Media and listen to every week’s episode on iTunes, as well as NPR’s TED Talk podcast.

Beyond getting my daily dose of “what’s going on in the world” that way, I also get to hear interviews with authors who I never would have heard of otherwise, musicians whose music I don’t like but whose words inspire me, and series on topics that I wouldn’t be exposed to in my regular day-to-day life. Often, the stories I hear inspire me and give me ideas and things to think about. But what I don’t do often enough is write those ideas down.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Today I heard a piece that just sparked my mind and made me want to cry and laugh all at once. Whether or not a good piece of flash fiction will emerge from it is yet to be seen – but the important thing is, I’ll have recorded both the story that created a rush of feeling in me and I’ll have tried to write down some of what it made me think of. Here we go. The link below will bring you to the page with the NPR news story that I listened to. Below it is the piece of flash fiction that arose from it.

“The ‘Other Audubon’: A Family’s Passion”

______

“It’s been days. I’m worried about her.”

“At least she’s taking exercise today. That’s something.”

“Yes, but she insisted on putting on her purple dress. The one she always said that he liked.”

“And so we mustn’t say anything about it. No, not another word. If we don’t talk about him, she’ll forget about him in time as well. The important thing is that she’s out of bed again. Hush now, dearest. I think I hear her coming downstairs.”

She’d been downstairs for a while already, listening at the door, clutching at the handle of her parasol. She bit the inside of her cheek and felt the blood pool in her mouth almost at once as the old wound opened again. Every night it closed up, and every day she found a way to worry it  open again. She wouldn’t complain about it to Mama, though, because then the doctor would come, and she was sick and tired of his patronizing eyes and the way he looked at her in her shift, nothing but her shift, whenever he was there.

“Are you ready, love?”

“Yes, Mama.”

They left the house by the back door. She wanted to go out into the fields, but Mama wouldn’t let her yet. She was too pale yet, she said, and too frail. Maybe when she got stronger, in a few days. Perhaps then. She regretted, now, the fuss she’d made, putting on the purple dress and staying in bed for days. She didn’t love him all that much, really, it wasn’t about him, it was about Mama and Papa trying to protect her all the time. She knew she was frail, she knew she was sickly and small and weak, and she hated it. She could never be passionately swept up by a man like the women in novels were, and she wanted so much to be a heroine at times. The closest she ever got to being a heroine was her fits of hysterical tears and the chokes she got afterwards, when she couldn’t breathe and they fetched the damned doctor.

A whistle sounded just as Mama tried to usher her inside and she looked back. It wasn’t him, which she knew was what Mama had feared. No, it was a bird, one of the beautiful Phoebes, and she could swear that it was winking at her, promising something. In a moment she would know what it was, if only Mama waited one more second – but no, she was ushered inside and whisked back into bed to have a bowl of broth so that she could get strong again.

Carved Innocence

“Carve my face just like it is, okay?” Juliet turned to see how her hair would look piled up on top of her head in a messy knot. The result was unappealing so she let her long, dark locks tumble back down to cover her back.

When she took her eyes off the riveting image of herself, she was almost surprised by the other presence in the room. She was so used to speaking to herself, that it was hard to remember how to act when she did have company.

“Of course, my lady. I would dare not insult you by creating a lesser image than the one you see before you in the glass.” This courtly nonsense was exactly what any poor artist who lived on the whims of the rich was supposed to say.

Juliet didn’t smile. She wouldn’t smile unless absolutely delighted. The uncles that raised her had taught her that facial expressions could cause lines in older age, and they strictly forbade them. Juliet was their prize, their secret weapon, growing into womanhood in relative secrecy and almost absolute privacy in order to be unleashed upon the world at precisely the right moment. Until she was out of their hands – and, if they had their way, she never would be, not entirely – she would do as they said and would be rewarded and punished accordingly.

The artist was one of her rewards. Juliet knew that she was beautiful. But her uncles didn’t know that she was growing shrewd, locked as she was inside the walls of the estate they’d allocated to her. She asked questions of the servants and bribed or charmed them to answer her despite their fears. She discovered how she could get what she wanted. In time, her intelligence might prove dangerous to her kin, and she might become a force to be reckoned with in quite a different way than her uncles had planned for.

But now, having just celebrated her fourteenth birthday, Juliet was getting a statue carved of her. Her uncles had been surprised. “Not a portrait?” they’d asked. “No,” she’d answered. “A statue. Of me in robes. Like a wise woman of the old days.” When they’d begun to complain about the cost of such an endeavor, she’d pouted, frowned, and wrinkled her brow. They had become alarmed, remembering the tantrums she’d had as a little girl and had quickly agreed. “Alright then,” they’d said. “As a birthday gift. How’s that?” She had let her face slacken, thanked them politely, and had walked away softly, demonstrating her perfect posture and the pleasing way her hair swayed back and forth lightly with every step.

Now the artist was taking some sketches of her. Juliet had been worried, at first, that her uncles had gotten confused or had tried to foist a portrait on her after all, but the artist had reassured her. “Ah, no, fair lady, I need the sketches in order to be able to work even when I am not in your presence. Have you not heard about artists and their muses? We do not always work at the most convenient of times.”

Juliet had spent her morning doing what she always did. She read poetry aloud in front of the mirror, listening to the resonance of her voice and practicing to make the tones more pleasing. She sat at the harp and played it for a while, eyes wide open, not getting lost in the music as she’d read in books that some people did. She couldn’t get lost in anything, not because the artist was there, but because she’d been raised to be aware of herself at every moment. She always thought of the way she held herself, moved, expressed her physicality in all its aspects.

The only time she could get lost was when she gazed in the mirror. Only when she saw that she was doing everything correctly and that there would be no lashes, no punishments, no chastising and shaming words from her masters – only then was she able to relax into herself.

It was when Juliet was gazing in the mirror and the weight came off her shoulders that the artist saw the human being in her. Before that, she had seemed like an automaton, a puppet being moved on strings. The artist began to sketch furiously, terrified of losing the one glimpse of this girl whose innocence was never allowed to flourish.

Next moment, Juliet heard the call from one of her masters and the weight of her uncles, their friends and their enemies seemed to sit back on her so that her posture became once more an act of will.

Flies and Cubicles

Shane wondered how many words it would take to make his mother understand him. Each sentence he went through in his head became messier, each consecutive invention becoming more muted than the one before. It was as if they had no way to communicate anymore.
He fiddled with his pen, twisting it around and through his fingers in the old drummer’s trick that he’d taught himself in high school. They’d managed to talk then, ironically enough. True, much of the time they shouted each other down, but they’d gotten their meanings through. She’d let him get the big drum kit and had even helped him to make the garage sound-proof-ish. She’d come to the two years he’d been in his neighborhood’s Battle of the Bands and had bought him and his friends a big pizza when they lost.
“Has Roberta sent you the figures yet?”
“No – I don’t think so, let me check. Oh, yes, she just sent them!” Shane smiled at his boss and began to reel off the numbers she wanted from him. Roberta – one of the blank slates that Shane knew only through their interoffice email correspondence – had, in fact, sent in the figures two hours ago, but Shane had been catching up on some National Geographic articles that he’d missed and hadn’t been doing his work. It was a good thing that all the cubicles in the office had screens that faced into them rather than out into the walkways between the booths. Shane sometimes wondered whether whoever designed them was aware that no one was going to work this way and had designed them like this on purpose, so as to give the working drones like him a bit of a break.
A fly buzzed near his ear and he swatted it away with a spastic jerk of the hand, making his boss smile and then pretend that she hadn’t. She walked away, having jotted down the obscure figures onto her ever-present clipboard and Shane breathed a sigh of relief and allowed his eyes to drift down to the sway of her lower half as she walked away from him. He felt mildly guilty about his fantasies about his boss. One thing that he believed in just as strongly as his mother did was the equality between men and women. He’d stopped telling women on the online dating websites that he frequented that he was a feminist because he realized that it worked much too well as a line and he felt that wasn’t fair, since he actually was one. But being a feminist didn’t stop him from noticing his boss’s curvy figure and though he knew she was also intelligent and competent – he actually didn’t know these things about her, but felt obligated to think them because she was his boss – he couldn’t help staring at her ass whenever she walked away from him.
The fly was back. Shane swatted it again, this time actually hitting it with his hand. He winced. There was something disgusting about feeling the fly hit his hand – flies were supposed to be vainly swatted away, never actually touched with bare skin. He got up and went to the bathroom to wash his hands. He knew it was silly, but he felt dirty now, almost contaminated. While he was soaping up he began to think about his mother again. Why couldn’t they talk anymore? It truly didn’t seem to make a bit of sense. He was older now, a real adult with a job and rent and utilities and a bit of health insurance. Shouldn’t they be able to actually talk now, like equals?
But she was still unreachable to him. He knew that she still had friends – they went “lunching” together three times a week; he still cringed whenever his mother used the noun as a verb. He knew that she spoke to his sister because she often dropped heavy and obvious hints whenever he talked to her about how much “Mom’s going through right now,” but she always refused to explain what, exactly, it was that their shared mother, flesh of their flesh, was going through. His sister always said the same thing whenever he asked for details. She told him to call her and “ask her yourself! You’re her son, aren’t you?” The question unsettled Shane, and he occasionally wondered whether his sister was actually trying to tell him, in a strange and roundabout way, that he was adopted.