April at the Shore

by Jane M. Bailey

Twists and turns of life take us here, there and everywhere as we try to figure out where we’re going.  I found this much easier when I was a child and trusted that Mom and Dad knew where I was going.

Not that we went very many places.  One constant, though, was spending Easter week at the Jersey shore.  Long Beach Island was worlds away from our New York City home on Staten Island.  We’d pile in the car—Mom, Dad, three kids, dog, and suitcases filled with a week of clothes for all weather and our Sunday-best outfits for church, including Easter bonnets.

Once we all squished into the car, we’d let Mother run back to check she’d turned off the stove and the iron and then we were off!

Those two-hour car rides were happy family time.  Who spies the stone dinosaur on Route 9?  Who sees the Lakewood Diner? —and no, we’re not stopping.  When we turned onto mirage road where it always looked like there was a magical disappearing puddle, we knew we were almost there.  Heading over the Causeway we leaned forward and caught a glimpse of the ocean on the other side of the island.  With the car window rolled down, the smell of salt air enveloped us like a warm beach towel.  We swung around the Ship Bottom circle with the Clam Shack in the center.  I suppose now it is a Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel with no more fresh clams to buy.

But that is now, this was then…1960-then.  Two miles north to go, with dune and surf on the right, bungalows and bay on the left.  Past the Surf City 5 & 10 where we spent rainy days looking at old lady hair nets or checking out lipsticks—hot pink, nude pink, fleshy pink, pink-pink.  Oh, to find a pink lipstick that would attract a surfer from the Ron Jon Surf Shop down the street. 

Beyond all that to a simple enclave of Cape-Cod bungalows where our car turned left.  One block straight to the bay where Uncle Dave’s sign in a wooden framed ranch entrance gate was swinging in the breeze—Wonderland.  His gift to Aunt Alice was an Alice-in-Wonderland house right on Barnegat Bay.  And our lucky family got to use it for a week each April.     

When we piled out of the car, the sand, the view, the salt air, the reeds, the dock, the seagulls, the mussel bank pierced our senses and wrapped us together as the family we never could seem to be in New York.

It was our escape from the reality of bickering, nagging, homework, chores, jealousies, and the petty ways family splinters apart.

The shore cleansed all that as we walked the desolate beach—the only time I saw Dad and Mom hold hands; ate Mom’s clam chowder, hung strings off the dock and caught crabs which we dropped in a big bucket to watch them claw over each other until supper when we watched those same crabs try to claw their way out of a pot of boiling water. 

Days we ran along the sand dunes and visited the tall stately Barnegat lighthouse sentry at the end of the island.  Or went to the historic Lucy Evelyn schooner at the other end of the island where we clamored over the deck and pretended to be pirates heaving-ho before going to the gift shop below to buy a dried seahorse to put on the dresser with the rolled pink shell that roared of ocean when held to the ear. 

The houses around us were boarded and vacant during those cold April vacations.  The businesses along the main road were mostly closed.  The island was our special place—and we weren’t about to let people in on the secret of what they were missing.

Each day there was something new to explore…a jump onto the squishy mussel bank released a fishy mollusk smell that permeated our hair blowing in the wind.  Hide and seek in the reeds brought us deep into a world hidden from parents.  Eddies of water pooled in interconnected rivers as the wind blew the reeds back and forth in unison, swaying to the rhythm of the wind while my sisters and I carved a path through the reedy stalks, stopping only to bury a dollar bill to see if we would find it next year half-disintegrated in the wet sand.  We played

nok-hockey by the fire at night, and poker with real chips in the attic with the howling wind and pounding rain hitting the roof as the angry white caps on the bay reared to the top of the bulkhead. 

Rain or shine, calm or wind, didn’t matter.  The surf and the sand swirled in our dreams and with each whirl of the kaleidoscope taught us something new about shore life.   

We never got to know the Jersey shore of summer—but I’m sure it isn’t as nice as it is in April.  And try as we might, playing poker at home just wasn’t the same as it was at the Jersey shore!

West Texas Holy Land

By Christopher Armentano

West Texas they tell me is a place where time stands still. I guess that’s why a tired rough necker like me has too much of the stuff on hand. So much that all kind of things drift into my head as easy as sagebrush blows across I-10. Like the thing that got the federal authorities out here in the cold months of 2003 after I wrote the President. Beau, my big brother and the only atheist I know that goes to Sunday services at First Baptist, El Paso (because it makes him feel superior), says my daily comfort with God’s holy book didn’t help neither.

How’d it start?  I was taking comfort with the King James Bible and six apostles of Saint Lone Star, when I hear my boy screaming like a little girl. He’s only ten and his voice is a ways off from changing. He yells, “Poppa there’s a rattler out by the well shed.” Well that girlie yell brings me out of deep meditation I was doing on Moses, the old thunder mouth played in the movies by the Moses of the NRA, Charlton Heston. My poor boy’s out there chasing boredom with a short stick, cleaning his muddy boots and shaking God’s West Texas grit from his tired blue jeans when he spots the rattler.

I yell back, “Where’d you expect him to be? Someplace he don’t like?” Rattlers being cold blooded like sittin’ in a cool place near a warm place so they can modulate to a nice even temperature.

“Can I kill him pa?” That’s what I like, a toe headed ten-year-old that don’t think he needs his Daddy’s help killing things.

“Grab a stick,” I say. “A long one with heft to it, but don’t get too close cause you can’t tell whether that rattler is going to identify your intentions before you get to bash his head.”  The boy’s skinny as a rattler himself so he better arm himself good.

I can see the sun’s pretty high by the short shadow from the well shed. Noon, I figure, has just about come and gone, so I might as well get up if I can break the seal between my sweaty arse and these vinyl sofa cushions. The damn cushion follows me halfway out the door before it falls off and I kick it back toward the couch.

Did I tell you I grabbed my 30-30 on the way out and slipped a couple of cartridges in the chamber? Good thinking it turned out, ‘cause I see my boy and the snake in a standoff and it isn’t clear who’s getting the best of who. He’s only ten and the snake’s maybe twenty, I figure, with a lot more life experience in his rattle than my boy has in his whole body. So I get a little scared when the snake rises up to my boy’s eye level and hisses the words: “Ready or not, son, here I come.”

Then I say, “Excuse me son, can you not move a hair until after you hear the gun?” Good boy that he is, he’s stark still when I put a slug through the neck of that big old thing. Must have been seven feet long with a head like a hatchet. The snake that is: not my boy.

Damn snake didn’t die though. He kept writhing and hissing, coiling and striking out. Two more slugs slowed him up a bit more before Glennis, my second and current wife, as well as the boy’s mother, comes out of the house carrying the splitting hatchet. With a couple of whacks that hatchet separates the old rattle snake’s body from his head.  Even then, the snake’s head is still going and the body is whipping around like it’s crazy.

Next thing we throw the rattler’s body in the creek behind the house. This time of the year there’s water in the creek so we’re happy when the snake sinks out of sight. Glennis figures we baptized a serpent, which is something unusual considering God’s troubling relationships with that particular class of critter. Then she says, “God bless,” as she watches his ripples spread out and die to nothing. I pour in half a Lone Star to consecrate the event.

Being the kind of fool who expects God to always be teaching lessons, I figure the snake is a New Testament style messenger but I’m damned if I can figure out what he was trying to say unless it’s something like, “Even if you cut my head off I’m still going to give you trouble, so best let me be.” Gloating Glennis figures maybe I’m right about that, while she reminds me that it was her that struck the final blow. She’s real good with snakes. Been known to carry one around in her purse for entertainment. The night we met she was sitting at the end of the bar at Sally’s, twisting a long neck Lone Star in her pretty fingers. In those days she had yellow hair tied up with a ribbon on top her head. God bless me, she had pretty hair and I liked the way a few stray strands lay like feathers on her neck. That night at Sally’s, when the band was playing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” I leaned in to sniff her hair and damn that ribbon, which was nothing but a green snake, hissed at me, nearly knocking me off the bar stool. Of course it sent her friends into a howl, laughing, screaming and slapping the bar. They’d seen her pull that one once or twice before on stray cowboys. They knew what was coming all along.

Dinner conversation won’t be much good for a month or so until she figures we don’t need more reminding of her great deed. I put up with it because she sets a nice table. Now that her looks are gone, I do take pleasure in her other attributes.

A couple days later on February first we hear about the space shuttle exploding over West Texas. They say there’s some pieces of the machine and bits of flesh showing up all over our neck of the woods. I can imagine it all laying in the dust, hanging from the saguaros and getting et by rodents and horny toads. Some of it I figure must have dropped on Crawford, but still Mr. President doesn’t see what I see: that this disaster is a clear-as-day a message from God.  Flesh and blood falling from the sky tells me God’s upset about Dubya’s plans for Iraq. “Decapitation,” removing Saddam’s head from the Iraqi serpent nation is what Dubya’s calling what he’s going to do. “Decapitation,” just like what Glennis done to the old rattler in our dusty yard. Which causes me to write Dubya a letter explaining everything: the New Testament style parable of the snake whose head got divorced from his body, the Old Testament message in junk and blood falling from the sky, and how God’s trying to get him to stay out Iraq. Maybe if I didn’t write “Message from God” on the envelope, I never would have been visited by six fellas dressed like pall bearers who said they was Secret Service. Nothing more to tell though. I figure I convinced the S.S. boys that God is still sending messages, and with that they let me be. Regarding the letter, I say Dubya didn’t read it. Maybe nobody did because by March third we were killing folks and being killed in Baghdad.

I fully expected Dubya to be more receptive, seeing how we got similar stories. Both of us prodigal sons who squandered God’s treasures looking for the gold we figured life owed us. When Jack Daniels was our guide, we didn’t find nothing:  just a couple of ignorant fools looking at ourselves in dirty restroom mirrors. Tough as we were, it still took tiny little ladies, mine a schoolteacher, to get a loop around our ankles and yank our heads out of our butts.  One difference between Dubya and me, maybe. I remember where I’ve been.

Glennis tells me to forget about Iraq. God’s got His plan. Yes. He do, I admit, but He don’t need us interfering with it all the time.

 My brother skipped the annual “Blessing of the Ammo” at his church and drove out here from El Paso to tell me I told you so, but I can still kick sand in his face, so he holds his comments close. Instead he stands around in our kitchen, heeing and hawing about nothing. You could tell he was looking for a spot to throw in some comments about our God-fearing president. I wasn’t about to give him a chance. You can fear God, but that don’t mean you got sense to know what He wants you to do. And that I guess is the story of Dubya.

I do feel sorry for the Iraqis, the young fellas we sent to help them out and my boy, who don’t get why I haven’t been much fun to be around. He still thinks life ain’t nothing but a rattlesnake hunt with a barbecue afterwards. He’s got some time yet with that notion. I won’t tell him otherwise until he’s at least thirteen.

Balloon Face the Knife Swallower

by Maire Greene                                                                  

I know how it feels to swallow a knife. I saw it on T.V., on Big Top. There was this guy who swallowed this great big knife— Declan says it was a sword—so I guess sword-knife. I saw him put the whole thing right down his throat. I think someone must of sneaked into my room last night and put one in my throat, a really big one, ‘cause it hurts like anything all the way down to my belly and it made my whole throat get swelled. Mom is calling me Balloon Face which I think is mean. Dec says now I can run away and join the circus.  I don’t want to run. I just want to swallow without a sword cutting me.  It’s scary and I’m crying and asking Daddy to take it out.

But he told Mom, “We got us a circus fire here, Mike.”

Sometimes he calls her Mike when he’s trying to say something he doesn’t want me to know. Then she calls him Ike. They think they’re fooling us, but me and Dec know to listen especially hard if they do this ‘cause then is when they do what Dec calls talking code.

Like today Mike said, “Might have to call for reforce men.” Which Dec says means get more guys here. I started crying then. I don’t want more guys—just Mommy.

Dec whispered, “Don’t worry. First they’ll call the old guy.”

And they did. His name is Dr. Dario. Dec and I call him HiHo— get it? Like HiHo the Dario, farmer in the dell. That’s our code talk. Sure enough, he came with his nasty black bag full of humongous, big, long, really sharp needles and smelly medicine. He didn’t even take my tempenture which is lucky ‘cause Mom already put the glass stick with the red line up my butt. She said I was 104 and I started crying again ‘cause I’m really only 4 and Mommy mostly never lies so I don’t know why she said it.

HiHo said, “Well, kids are tough but this is the worst case of mumps I’ve ever seen.”

He offered me a lollypop—red—my favorite kind—and I really wanted it but even thinking “lollypop” made my throat hurt so I tried not to think and a moan got out my mouth. Then he gave it to Dec—no fair! That was my lollypop! Then I started crying but it clogged my nose and my throat has a sword and I can’t breathe.

HiHo said to Mommy, “You have to keep the other kids out. Nobody comes in the house except the Mr.”

That’s how he calls Daddy to Mommy – “The Mr.”

Once I heard Daddy say to HiHo, “How’s the Mrs?”

Grown-ups talk weird.  I must of fell asleep ‘cause  HiHo was gone next I noticed. Mommy had a blue bowl full of teeny, little, beeny macaroni stars with butter. It smelled so good but even smelling made the knife hurt my throat all the way up to my ears.

I made my mouth clamp shut but Mommy said, “Just three spoons.”

I cried again but she made me. Then I went asleep again.

Good news. The sword is still there but Auntie Ree brought a neat comic book of Mary Jane and Sniffles, which is her Mouse friend. Mary Jane knows magic.

She says, “Puff, puff piffles. Make me just as small as Sniffles.”

And then she turns mouse size. So I tried it and guess what! I got really small and crawled out under the door and went outside to play and have a venture. But Dec couldn’t see me so I just followed him like if he could and stayed out for a really long time. And no swords there! It was great. But then Daddy shaked me and I had to get big again.

Mommy was crying and Dad said, “Call Dario.”

But Mom said, “No. I’ll give her an alcohol bath.”

That’s just silly but then she did and I just winked out.

And that’s how it goes for a really long time— wink out, come back, smell alcohol, get mouse size, but the sword is getting smaller.

HiHo says, “Just keep up the jello and ice cream.”

But Mom says I have to get them down, so which is it? None of the other kids get swords down their throats.

Finally, Dec whispers through the door, “They’re gonna let you out of this room tomorrow.”

I can’t wait. But I’m gonna keep practicing the Sniffles trick. It’s really handy to sneak outside whenever I want.

Copyright © 2020 by Maire Greene

Exit, Stage–uh–That Way

by D. Margaret Hoffman

Don’t follow me.

Ever.

If you do, I make no guarantees where any of us will end up.

You see, even though I may seem cool, confident and clear-headed, I never know where the hell I am. Ever. This is hard to admit. It’s even harder to hide.

I am directionally challenged. Whether this is a chronic disability or just a result of inexcusable laziness is difficult to say. All I know is that sometimes it is so hard for me to figure out where I need to go, I have been known say, “Screw it,” and just stay home. It has been easier to come up with excuses—lost keys, calls from long-lost relatives, mysterious one-hour diseases—than to get to unfamiliar places by myself.

This is so much a part of my life that I can’t even narrow down a particular directional disaster to use as an example. Instead, there are a thousand little things that happen every day to remind me that I should never just get into the car and drive someplace new without a great deal of preparation.

Here are a few of them.

  • I cannot instantly distinguish right from left. I can figure it out in a second or two, but that’s the problem. It’s not instinctive. I have taken many wrong turns in the space of time between hearing “Take a left” and deciding which left is right.
  • I have no sense of north, south, east or west. If you tell me that I should travel east on Main Street, I will sigh and roll my eyes at you. If you tell me to go north on South Street, my brain will fold over on itself and you’ll have to come and pick me up.
  • I struggle with map reading. Well, the reading isn’t the problem, really. It’s transferring the information from the map to the road under my feet. Driving, walking—it doesn’t matter. I need written directions. None of this pictograph stuff for me. Words work. Words that I can read and reread and mull over and check for spelling and grammar. It’s a wonder that I get anywhere.
  • I once thought that public transportation would be a solution in city situations, but that requires figuring out which bus comes from which direction when and which side of what street you need to be on at what time and which way to walk to get to that street, or what color metro line goes toward the place that you think you want to be and which side of the track you need to stand on and which escalator you need to take to get to that side of the track at what time and how many people you need to push out of your way to get onto the right car. So, no.
  • I cannot intuitively retrace my steps. Getting somewhere is not a guarantee of getting home. I have entered buildings from one way, exited later from the same door and then turned back the way I was certain we came only to hear my husband calling me from the other direction. Even walking in New York City where the grid pattern of streets couldn’t be more accessible, I might try to walk back from the Met towards the Frick and end up at the Guggenheim. And inside large museums? Those rooms that look so straight and welcoming on the map that lure you in and then turn into rushing labyrinthine rivers of fire with a thousand tributaries that have no beginnings and no ends? If I go in there, will I ever find my way out? Not on my own. So, you might imagine my constant state of apprehension in a city like Venice, where all the little bridges look exactly the same and our hotel was tucked in a courtyard that I swear was always moving. There were not enough breadcrumbs in all of Italy to get me back where I started from. Where’s a gondola when you need one?
  •  And so, I am anxious whenever I have to venture out to a new place by myself. How will I get there? Where will I go once I get there? How will I get home? What if I get lost and it gets dark and I get a flat tire and run out of gas and there’s a blizzard and a busload of bad guys and a clowder of bobcats and a swarm of locusts and my cell phone dies? What then? Huh? All this makes staying home look pretty good.

So how do I get anywhere ever? Since I can’t seem to resolve the whole right vs. left thing, and I can’t realistically curl up by the fire for twenty years at a time, I have found some ways to compensate.

  • When I am driving, the family has learned to direct me to “take a my side” or “take a your side” instead of taking a right or left. This creates an immediate directional connection with no dead time in between. Pointing in the right direction and yelling “THAT WAY” works, too.
  • Pre-planning is crucial. MapQuest will give me at least two routes and I print them both and then reverse them and print them again.  Then I study both ways and then I run them by my husband for corrections and modifications. Then I study them again. Then I check Google Maps. Then I program my GPS. Overkill? I don’t think so.
  • If a place is close enough and there is no room for error and my anxiety levels are rising, I will take a pre-drive to make myself feel better. This is no guarantee that I will remember every turn or landmark the next time, but it will help me to sleep better the night before.
  • It’s good to have someone in the car who either knows where we’re going or has that illusive sense of direction that I so covet. It’s even better if that person volunteers to drive.
  • Marrying someone who always seems to know where he’s going has gotten me a lot of places over the years. It has also resulted in the production of another lucky (and useful) human who has the gift. (And, sadly, one who doesn’t. We call ourselves the Right Brains and the Left Brains but only when my youngest and I can figure out which is which.)

I did a little research and discovered that this condition indeed has a name—several in fact. I could go with “directional disability” or “topographical disorientation” or “directional confusion” or “directional dyslexia.” I could say that I have a directional impairment or that I lack an internal compass. Unless I actually swallow a compass, there’s not much I can do to change this.

So I just have to figure it out on my own.

Late in my teaching career, I started directing high school plays. At least some sort of directional sense, like knowing right from left, is kind of important when you’re telling people where to move on stage without crashing into each other. But, when you are facing actors and have to figure out two rights from two lefts that are opposite each other, a whole new level of brain strain emerges. For me, it was like trying to get up the stairs and over the bridge in an M.C. Escher drawing before my head exploded.

Afraid to look stupid, I once tried to conceal my disability by directing from the back of the stage (stupid) and another time by directing with my back to the stage (so stupid).Finally, one day, out of frustration, I resorted to a tried and true.

“When you finish delivering that line,” I said pointing the way I wanted the actor to go, “you’ll exit—Stage—uh—THAT WAY.”

And you know what? It got the job done.

So, it’s all about learning to compensate. Just like anyone else who stinks at something—which is everyone else. You either stay home or you venture out into the world even when it’s hard and you make it work.

Whatever gets you where you’re going, Baby.

Copyright © 2020 by D. Margaret Hoffman

The Cardinal

by Gail Ouimet

My name is Meg. At least it was when I was over there. It’s a bit confusing, this new way of being. Thank God I am out of that body riddled with cancer that ate me up from the inside out. It happened so quickly, so painfully, all I wanted was to get out of that broken vessel.

It breaks my heart to see Paula suffering since I slipped through the veil. Honestly, I don’t have a clue how things work on this side. I have realized that when I think of her, she pops up. I can see her, feel her, experience her present paralysis, hear her crying. I want to wrap my arms around her thin frame and pull her close like I used to back then. I want to see her engaged with life again, using all the talents, the creativity, the warmth she brought to our life together.

It’s too bad Beau isn’t still around. He’d cheer her up! How she loved that malamute; his one blue and one brown eye fixed on her instantly melted her heart. After her teaching day was done, I’d hear the car pull into the driveway, followed by a whistle. She was proud of that whistle. Two fingers pressed against her upturned tongue, just like her dad taught her. Beau, asleep in his backyard pen jumped to full alert at the piercing sound, tail wagging, nose pressed against the pen door. Released, he hopped into the car and off they’d go to the woods.

Weekday afternoons were theirs. White’s Woods was only a ten-minute drive away. Once there, they ran, jogged, or walked until they knew every trail, every shortcut and loop variation–past ponds, over boardwalks, along the stream and through pine forests encompassed in the four thousand acre preserve. She came home with stories. On one winter excursion, Beau sniffed something through a foot of snow. Paula was so animated when she described how Beau used his nose like a snowplow; sniff, push, burrow until he raised his head with a mole clamped in the jaw, proudly wagging his half circle of a tail.

Sometimes I was even jealous of him. Imagine! Paula and I went for walks there on weekends; but it didn’t carry the air of adventure she felt with our dog. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Beau too, but he was a bit rambunctious and hard for me to handle. He weighed a solid sixty-five pounds and looked like a wolf. Maybe I heard one too many stories of the big bad wolf as a child. I was happy to let Paula be his alpha. When he died, after sixteen years with us, I insisted that we get a kitten.

I admit it; I was always a cat person, grew up with them and found them so much easier to care for. You don’t have to walk them in the rain or when it’s below zero, the wind is blowing and it feels like your nose will fall off—all weather Beau loved!

Quite frankly, I appreciate cats’ independent streaks balanced by their desire to cuddle. That epitomizes our Jenkins. Feisty and cuddly. I’ll always remember how he joined our home. I was headed to the grocery store. That day, a cat shelter set up a station in the parking lot for a pet adoption event. It didn’t take long for a little ball of orange fur to steal my heart. Paula named him Jenkins. Sounds like a butler on a sitcom to me, but I was okay with it.

We bought little cat toys and let our new kitten sleep at the foot of the bed. Yeah, that didn’t last long. His favorite nighttime perch was on top of the covers on my hip or on the pillow by my head. Paula, not so keen on him, often referred to him as “your cat.” I was grateful she confined her complaints to insisting that I clean the cat box daily. I could live with that. Now, that smelly task has fallen to her.

I wish I could let her know I’m here in spirit; she’s not alone. I don’t know how to do that. When I had a body we used to speculate about the afterlife. Long conversations with friends or family about signs from loved ones who’ve passed. Our daughter-in-law insisted that her dad, who also died of cancer, sent dimes to let her and her mom know when he was around them. They found dimes in the strangest places. Her mom found a dime in her suitcase, on top of a pile of clothes she’d packed for a trip. Once a store clerk asked Lucy if she minded getting her two dollars of change all in dimes! That makes me believe there’s something to it. Now that I’m over here, I want to figure out how to do it, too. So far, no luck; I can’t produce a dime. Would Paula even remember the significance if I could? I tell myself she would.

I see Paula sitting in my favorite rocker. We both love that den spot, looking out on the backyard flower garden and bird feeder.

Oh, yes, there’s a story behind the feeder. It started with Paula’s belief in psychics, messages from the beyond, all that stuff. Me? I was a skeptic. If I saw it or felt it, I believed in it. Nothing more. Now I’m just confused.

Every so often Paula went to see Madame Clara for a reading. “The Madam” as I jokingly referred to her, wore a long flowing robe, a la Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. She was fodder for my sense of humor, but I didn’t belittle Paula’s need for this reassurance in her life. When she came home from a reading babbling about cardinals, I thought, Well, it’s harmless enough. The information was something about watching out for cardinals or that cardinals would have messages for her. I wish I had paid more attention; I don’t remember the exact wording. I suggested she put up a backyard bird feeder. The next weekend she had all the parts needed: the pole, a feeder for the top and cement to sink the base into the ground. She’s real handy with tools and had it up in no time. She kept if full of seeds. Still does, I see. The birds came: sparrows, finches, pesky noisy blue jays, nut hatches and cardinals. She loves the cardinals the best.

When I wanted to give her a small gift, a cardinal was my “go-to” present. It was easy to find something cardinal-related. I was surprised at the sheer number of cardinals–glass ones, ceramic ones, and don’t get me started on the cardinal prints on clothing, kitchen items, Christmas ornaments, etc. A gift-giver’s heaven.

Heaven. Is that where I am? I don’t see any angels. I don’t see any people either. I feel very peaceful, though; a calm I didn’t feel much in that body of mine. I can see Paula sitting in my rocker now, covered by my blanket, the fleece one with blue bears all over it. I can feel the heaviness in her chest, see the sadness in her eyes. She’s watching a female cardinal on the ground at the base of the feeder. Paula’s head swivels left to right. I know she’s looking for its mate, the flashy male cardinal. It hasn’t been around for a couple weeks. I can feel her tension as she pulls the fleece up higher.

Can I nudge Jenkins to go sit on her lap? Maybe if I think real hard. Nope. Nothing has worked so far. Wait. Yes. He’s going over to her. Good boy, Jenkins!

Dang. She sent him scurrying away. The cat door clicks as he escapes to the yard.

I’m here, honey, everything is going to be okay,” I whisper near her ear. She doesn’t react.

Signs. Madame Clara always talked of signs. I need her advice now. Ironic, isn’t it? How do I send my love a sign? What would make her think of me? A cardinal? I certainly gave her enough of them. Dimes? We talked about them, too. I don’t know. I just keep sending love and hope it works.

I’m brought out of my musings by the sight of Jenkins.

Oh no. I see him slithering through the tall grass, working his way toward the feeder. The unwary bird pecks at seeds on the ground.

Stop!” my mind screams at the orange stalker. He doesn’t react. His tail flicks. Once. Twice. He pounces.

This is not the way it’s supposed to be! The bird should have flown up to the windowsill and perched there for Paula to see. Jenkins should have been sitting on Paula’s lap. This is all wrong.

I feel Paula’s consternation as she witnesses the kill. She’s out the back door in a flash. Her heart is pounding. All I can do is send love—a big strong wave of love. Please let it be enough! I follow her movements as she picks up the lifeless bird and returns to the house.

In the living room she gently lays the bird on our oak desk, then reaches into the bottom drawer for something. The gun. Can this be happening? I send another wave of love with all the force I can muster. I feel like I’m suffocating. Can’t catch my breath. She has crumpled into a chair, the cold metal Ruger handgun in her lap. She reaches for a photograph of us on vacation. A silent tear trickles down her cheek. I can see she feels only the loss, not the happy memories it was meant to represent.

I eye the gun sitting menacingly on her lap. I bought it after several break-ins in our neighborhood. We both took classes in its use for self-defense. This is my fault. I insisted on keeping it loaded. Damn. I never thought it would come to this. I send more love in pink, warm embracing energy. The sharp ring of the phone makes Paula look up. She doesn’t move.

The machine clicks on and a message begins.

“Hello, Paula, it’s Madame Clara. Yesterday you called for an appointment. I have a slot open tomorrow at ten. I’ll assume you’re coming unless I hear from you. See you then, dear.”

Wait ! Wait, Madame Clara!my mind screams. “It’s me—Meg!” I hear her breathing, then silence. “I need to talk to you.” More silence. “Help me, please.” A click. The line goes dead.

Paula’s eyebrows lift as she looks toward the phone, where all my concentrated effort has been.

She’s calming down. What is she thinking? Something is shifting; I can feel it. Her fingertips trace lightly over our faces as she sets the photo back in its place. Her eyes travel from the gun to the bird to the oak surface near the phone. In relief and amazement (did I really do it?) I see, sitting there between them, one thin dime. Paula releases a deep sigh. Calm settles in me, too. She fingers the dime, eyes cast upward. “Yes, Paula, yes.” She lays it in front of our photo. I watch her put the gun away, then gently pick up the cardinal and head toward the door.

Copyright © 2020 by Gail H. Ouimet

Getting My Groove Back

By D. Margaret Hoffman

{ A version of this essay originally appeared in Saving Our Lives: Volume One–Essays to Inspire the Writer in YOU by D. Margaret Hoffman, 2015.}

Christmas changes everything.

If you are a religious person, you are nodding and thinking of the promise of the Christ child.

If you are me, you are shaking your head and thinking, “Damn, I did it again.”

It is January. I am not the same person I was in November. I am heavier, poorer, slower. I haven’t written, exercised or kept regular hours in a month. I have ingested sugar in a frightening assortment of processed forms and carbs in abundance. I have spent more money than I intended and I dread the arrival of the next MasterCard bill.

I enjoyed the holiday season very much. But somewhere in the middle of it I lost my mind.

For me, it seems, The Christmas Season brings with it the slow, imperceptible erosion of good habits, good judgment and common sense. I start out well enough. Adult. Responsible. Health conscious. Fiscally aware. But somewhere in the process, about the time when the department store renderings of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” get my attention, I begin to lose my grip.

It’s ironic, really. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the story of one man’s shameless efforts to seduce an innocent young woman, ply her with drink, break down her resolve and convince her to stay with him where it’s—nudge, nudge—warm. When the girl in the song concedes to another drink, we know she’s fallen. And when I start to enjoy this and the countless other corporate seductions thrown in my path, we know that I, too, have succumbed to a siren song, this one sung not by Dean Martin or Leon Redbone or even John Legend, but instead by the wildly alluring Ghost of Christmas the Way Retail America Tells Us It Should Be. Snowy. Bountiful. Bejeweled. Sugary. Carb-loaded. Gift-laden. Calorically dense. Alcoholically lenient. Impeccably decorated. Expensively dressed. Beautifully wrapped. Cost is no object! More! More! More! Yes! Yes! YES!!

They got me. Pulled me right in there. Got under my skin and into my wallet. Inhibitions fell away, the shopping began in earnest and I officially lost control.

Why do I let this happen?

Well, for one thing, I kind of like it.

No, I don’t like being manipulated by Madison Avenue and corporate greed, but I do like the Currier and Ives, traditional, bountiful family Christmas that they portray.

I like parties and presents and decorations and fancy food. I like lights and shopping and snow. I like having the family all together. I like happy people. I like ooohs and ahhhhs and kids with cookies. I like full plates and clinking glasses and sparkles on trees and on sweaters and in people’s eyes. 

I like it when everyone forgets for a little while that there are so many things in this world that suck. I will do whatever I can to make this happen for people in my life even if it means taking temporary leave of my senses.

Who knows when—or if—the chance will come again?

This kind of Christmas doesn’t happen by itself. I am in charge of the extended family Christmas celebrations, so I know how much work goes into them. It’s a big responsibility. I take it seriously. And as much as I want to save time and pinch pennies, every year I reach that moment when I say, “What the hell! It’s Christmas!” And I mean it. But it’s like having that first glass of wine too early in the evening. Once I quaff the Christmas Kool-Aid there’s no turning back. I shift into preparation overdrive and I inevitably overdo, as evidenced by the mountains of leftovers, the gifts that looked great under the tree but are not very useful later and the growing number of Rubbermaid tubs that it takes to store the decorations. I have yet to get the hang of choreographing the Christmas cruise without dancing my way into the drink.

December is an anomaly. It gives us an annual opportunity to find a crazy place that we wouldn’t think of visiting any other time. That means loosening the restraints of the rest of the year, at least a little. It shouldn’t mean gaining twenty pounds, pickling our livers or going into hock, but it should allow everyone at least one good party, whatever that means to us. Even if we give it to ourselves.

But getting there sure does throw off a groove.

And that is what January is for. It is the morning after. It is when we realize that it’s great to break the routine and have a wonderful time, but those songs that wish for Christmas all year ’round don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s beautiful to put up decorations and to enjoy them with people we love, but it is also a huge relief to take them down and vacuum the glitter out of the carpet. It feels good to eat salads again, to walk around the neighborhood instead of the mall and to give the old charge card a chance to cool down. The tree was lovely this year, but it is nice now to have the window unobstructed to let in that precious, fleeting January daylight.

Seeking perfection and happiness is hard work and living up to such stratospheric expectations is only possible for short periods of time. January reminds us that cookies make us fat, that dried up pine needles hurt when we step on them, that staying up late makes us unproductive, that parties and presents come at a price, that maybe we did let corporate America get the better of us and that there really are many, many things in this world that suck. That’s the way things are. But having had a break from them in the noble pursuit of comfort and joy makes it all a little easier to live with.

December, then, is a temporary departure from real life. This is good. January brings reality back. This is good, too.

But now we are encouraged to improve, to embrace the New Year, to renew ourselves with obligatory resolutions. I am not looking for a New Me. I caught a glimpse of that chick in December. Cool, but totally unsustainable. I want the comfortable Old Me back. I miss her.

So instead of resolutions, I am using January to make restorations, replacing the sprees of December with the steady habits that I abandoned in November. This means settling back into my former groove by writing every day, walking every day, keeping the bird feeder full, maintaining a reasonably healthful diet (you hear that, cookies?), getting out to the movies every once in a while, staying out of the mall, sticking that cork back in the wine bottle, singing in the choir, keeping in touch with friends and loving my family. Simple goals—staying connected, productive, healthy, sane. Steady. No need to set the world on fire.

At least not until next December.


Copyright © 2020 by D. Margaret Hoffman

    

    

    

    

   

    

    

    


 

Leaning In

by Jane M. Bailey

In the depth of Winter, I finally learned 
that there was in me an invincible Summer

– Albert Camus

No one will argue that January isn’t the depth of winter.  I for one am not a fan of winter.  I miss the ever-so-slow changing spring palette from Crocus pink to Daffodil yellow to Iris blue to finally leaf and grass green.  I miss the heat of summer days spent on the porch with a glass of iced tea and a book in hand as squirrels dart across the lawn making their pass at the bird feeder, scattering birds and their feed as they steal what they can.  I miss summer walks and dinners of fresh corn, grilled meat and strawberry shortcake.  I miss the au-gust change of palette back through the color range of gold to red to brown as the leaves make their fall and the painting shifts from high to low on the easel, with the fiery red Burning Bush underbrush the last bastion of autumn before Thanksgiving.  So yes, when winter hits, I miss all that. Terribly.  

Here I sit, grousing about being cold, not wanting to go out.  Cranky that I must scrape snow from the windshield and fender crevices of my car.  Afraid of falling on ice, afraid of driving on snow-slicked roads, afraid of catching a winter cold—or worse, the dreaded flu.  I spend my days cold and afraid. 

Last week, the howling wind piled a 21-inch pillow of snow on the deck, blocking the slider and darkening the kitchen as the power ominously flickered.  What if the pipes freeze?  What if we can’t get out?  What if, what if?

Yet the swirls of white whipping around the house were a sight to behold—a MoMA exhibit of Jackson Pollack splatter paintings as the snow swirled and dropped leaving traces in the air as the snow moved and swirled up and around and back in and among the frigid air that seemed it might freeze all in place:  a three-dimensional painting that could be packaged in an ice-cube.  Cubist art at its best. 

The arctic cold prompted me to visit the cedar closet where I found an old fisherman-knit sweater that still fits.  Warmth enveloped me as I tugged it over my turtle-neck shirt.  I found socks, thick hiking socks, at the back of my sock drawer.  How good they felt on my cold feet as I rolled out an extra room heater and shut the door to the library to keep out the cold from the other rooms.   I warmed the kitchen with stove-heat under milk for hot chocolate and padded back to the library to snuggle into the heat of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.

It was like being homesick—missing so much of spring-summer-fall home, yet gradually feeling the homesickness dissipate by fortifying myself and leaning into winter.  Lean in!  Lean in! as Sheryl Sandberg wrote.   It’s hard to lean in to that which we don’t like!

Yesterday the snow fell gently.  Simple quiet strokes of the brush added thin layers of white, one on top of the other until the ground was once again covered after the thawed interlude of warm temperatures last week.  The beauty of this snowfall so different, yet no less beautiful than last week’s storm.   As the white layers covered the back yard, the brook magically kept flowing, its dark arterial path flowing in stark contrast to the soft white banks on either side.  Beneath the winter snow, the flow of water—lifeblood—continues its path.  The water is seen clear in contrast to the winter white surrounding it. 

Like this morning when the lights I flicked on before dawn illuminated the darkness behind the window, blocking whatever light might be there.  By turning the lights off, I could see the last of the stars disappear and the midnight blue of the dawn sky start to outline the bare tree branches across the barren field.

In this winter that I hate, water flows and light glimmers, if only I will lean in.