A Chance Meeting (New)
I felt the bench cradle our bodies. There was a blossoming warmth and trembling anxiety from being so close and so careless. It was supposed to have been a simple run, free from distraction. It was late in the morning, and the house was empty. I thought I could be free to focus on nothing. It’s so rare to get a moment and let my mind drift.
It was nearly ten in the morning when I came around the turn, my shirt plastered to my chest, sweat pouring into my red jogging shorts. I was a mess in desperate need of a shower. I didn’t expect her to be out. She was supposed to be at home with the kids.
“I asked the neighbor girl to watch them. I wanted to get out,” she said.
I was still breathing heavily, nervous about her boldness. There were houses everywhere. There could be eyes watching.
“I didn’t know. I would have stayed at home,” I responded. I felt a quiver ripple through me.
“It’s fine. It’s fine. No one will see us.”
“We don’t know that. I feel naked out here.”
“Maybe that would be better,” she smiled.
“Stop joking, or I’ll regret it,” I said. I could see her delicate hands playing with the edge of her coat. “What happened?”
“I had to tell. I couldn’t keep it quiet.”
I was shocked. It was the last thing I expected from her. But my selfishness took hold, “Did you tell him my name?”
“No. No, I couldn’t. He wanted me to. But I wouldn’t. He thought it was a friend, but I assured him it was no one he knew.”
“Damn. How are you?”
“It was the worst. I felt awful. I tried to explain myself, but what do you say? How do you not make it about yourself? He cried so hard, I thought he might pass out. I never expected him to react like that. I always thought he wouldn’t care.”
“Do you need to stay somewhere?” I asked. Where the hell would she stay? At my home? That would be a hard one to convince the wife.
“No. No, I’m at home. I think that’s best.”
“How much did you tell?”
“Just enough. I told him I hadn’t seen him in forever. I wasn’t thinking straight, and it just happened. I don’t think he bought it.”
What was there to say? I didn’t know what to say myself. It was fun and felt innocent, but the reality of years of decaying relationships crumbling like falling rocks ready to turn you into a smear was too much to handle. I said it, but I didn’t mean it. “We should stop then.”
“I think so,” she lowered her head.
I could see the emotion on her face, dragging her down. Her eyes were heavy, and she looked like she hadn’t slept in days. “Is there anything I can do?”
“I don’t know,” she paused, her voice struggling. “It was fun. With everything that’s happening, I’m still glad you were there. I had only been with my husband. For a moment, I felt young again. As if I could roll back the years of children and be…just be young again.”
“You’re not that old. You act like you’re some old lady.”
“Three children. It ages you fast.”
“You look good.” Damnit, I wish I hadn’t said that. The words seemed to tumble from my mouth. She smiled nervously and I asked, “What do we do now?”
She didn’t answer. I saw her hands playing again with her jacket. They moved slowly, and I felt them touch my thigh. They were small but firm, seeking and probing. She looked up at me and then back down. I didn’t hear the roaring sound of engine brakes along the road. I was only focused on the demure woman reaching out for an ideal. She found what she wanted, and my eyes closed.
Why does every day have to start with the same blue-grey light bleeding through my drawn shades? And the rain. The endless patter of drops. I can almost feel the mist in my eyes. My shoulder hurts from working out last night, and my feet are killing me from chasing those kids all day. I don’t want to move. I don’t want to wake the dog and inadvertently shove her to the ground, only have her shake herself silly, jingling her collar like a dinner bell, or maybe a breakfast bell that I’m sure the baby will hear.
I eat the shoulder pain, in exchange for a brief moment of peace. Outside are the sounds of the black crows in the cedar tree. They are watching my window. They are waiting for the dog to be let out soon. We’re all waiting and watching and checking the blinds, looking at the same muted scene, one east, one west.
Down the street, a sharp spurt of the hydraulics cries out. It’s Monday and the massive steel beast lumbers between the stop and start cadence. It’s here to take the waste away.
The truck is one of life’s clocks reaching its chime.
The morning light.
The garbage truck.
The buzz of the phone.
The fresh static from the monitor.
It’s all too much. My baby cries for its father, and the day has begun.
The woman was a mess of grey and black like melting steel. Her neck and back curved under the weight, the dower face of regret and obligation. Her yellow beanie was pulled hard against her eyebrows, the mass of unwashed hair protruding like spent straw bedding. In the air was a faint smell of brown sugar oatmeal. She looked at the back of her hand. There was a sticky nugget that had escaped the morning cleanup. Like a falcon, she swooped down and gobbled it up.
She swiped her phone and opened the tracking app. Ten more calories were added to the morning total. It was an estimate after all, but the effort is what mattered. She knew it wouldn’t last long, but between now and when she quit, it was important and in some obscure way defined who she was. She was someone who cared, or that’s what she wanted others to think.
She stared at her phone as the kindergartener circled her anchored brown boots. She proudly hid age’s dimpling beneath the black yoga pants.
They are comfortable, she would say.
They make me look good, she would lie.
The truth was she felt ugly. Just the thought of someone looking at her sent her deeper into the grey pullover.
The old days were long gone when she would push the limit and forced nervous school administrators to measure her skirt length. Now the aging paradox stopped her. She seemed to care more and more but did little to nothing about it.
“Mommy,” the child nagged.
“What?” she answered, still locked on the local outrage thumbing past her phone. The local Facebook group was too entertaining to ignore.
“Mommy,” the child said again.
“Uh-huh. Yes, sweetie,” came the rehearsed response.
“How many days are in a year?”
She had no energy to remember. Her thumb pressed the button, and she asked the phone.
The answer came back in the mechanical voice: “There are 365 and one-quarter days in a year.”
The mom thought for a moment and wondered about time and the child. It took her a moment to remember the child’s birthday. Six years and two months.
Seventy-two? No. Seventy-four. That’s good enough.
It was an estimate, and that’s all that mattered.
2000-ish days? Was it that long?
“When will the bus be here?” the child asked.
Damn, 2250 days. That can’t be right. Jesus, it’s right.
She melted a little more.
A hiss came from over the ridge and the lights flashed yellow and then red. Cars slowed on the old road, letting the children dance across to the waiting doors.
The woman waved and turned back. She tucked the phone into her waistband. Her back straightened as she entered the house.
There was a deep voice from upstairs. “You want to?”
She nodded but gave an indication to wait. The bathroom was cool under her feet. She grabbed the pack and popped the pink pill.
No more, she said to herself.
What Do You Want?
I hate this music. It’s not that it’s not good, it actually is. And, I don’t give a damn that it’s another hellspawn from Disney. But there’s a limit in my brain, like a bucket catching dripping water from a leaky roof.
…a leaky roof…
I’ve been there before, in our first house. On the first day, I nearly kill myself slipping on a small puddle in the kitchen. There’s shock and fear and uncertainty all at once. Is there a leak in the sink? Nope. Dishwasher? Nope.
The fear grows as I see the fresh drop flash by my face.
The ceiling? The roof? How the hell am I going to fix this. They never had that class in high school or college. And my dad is useless when it comes to house things.
So, I do the only thing I can, I grab a bucket and leave for work.
I’ll have to fix that, but I’m busy right now. Later.
Later? Jesus, I can actually hear myself saying that. The bucket now arrives, settling like a canker on my lip. I grow to hate that bucket every time I pass it. It represents my ignorance. But deep inside, it’s not the bucket I hate, it’s the fact I know I’ll have to get fans, open drywall, and…
Shit. I’ve got to get on the roof.
That’s right my man, the roof. And up there is a whole new mess, you know it. Replacing some shingles that’s easy. But oh man, the moss is heavy on this side of the house. I might trip. I might fall. The wife and kids will be there to see my demise, all the while telling me to be careful, and that we should have hired someone. Hired someone?
We can’t afford that, sweetie.
Damn right. And now I’m here taking care of these kids all day and there’s no pay in that.
Except for those internet surveys I do on my phone every morning. Hmmm, I’m rich. As I earn ten cents while pooping on the toilet.
Now I’m passing the bucket every day and the pressure to fix it is building. I know I need to fix it. I know I need to address the issue, but damn it I don’t want to. It’s easier just to walk past it.
But soon, it’s filled.
Damn, that didn’t take long. It’s going to be a nightmare to fix.
Then I wait a moment and look at the bucket. I’ve got another in the garage. Maybe I could swap it out. Maybe I could buy another day?
…drip drip drip…The music is still there.
The car moves in front of us. The music continues to pour out of the speakers.
“Sir, welcome to McDonald’s. Will you be using our mobile app today?” There was a pause before the woman said, “Oh, I love that song!”
I pour the bucket out and get another.
“Kids, what do you want?”
He would never abandon his wife or children for anything, except when the steelhead were running on the Skykomish. The gear needed dusting from the long rainy winter. Even he felt the need to shake off the cobwebs that had accumulated in his sore shoulder.
After a short test in a shallow pool, the fisherman confirmed the waders were dry, and no mice damage. He had purchased them on sale at the local tackle shop when it closed the year before. Jake had been his friend and run the shop since the fisherman had been in high school. They had fished together more than once under the bridge, enjoying the throaty rumblings of people disappearing to work. Beneath the bridge, it felt like a different world amongst the willows and cottonwoods.
Now, it was still early spring and the trees along the bank’s edge were in bud. The shoreline was dark grey, accented with the occasional hunter-green of a Western Red Cedar. The smell of rot and decaying wood gave off a musty smell. The fisherman took in the air, bringing the fine particles inside with every heave of his chest. That small piece of the world found a home inside of him.
He cast the rod, the looping shimmer of the translucent line dancing over the water, the neon green tip, unnatural in its color, smacked hard against the flowing blackness. The water was a void, cold and never-ending. It hadn’t rained in a week, returning the water level to its reasonable spring height. The morning rain was nothing more than a drizzle, and through the cold valley fog, the fisherman could see the morning light cutting through the haze, and overhead the first cracks of blue.
Another car rumbled and he thought of Jake somewhere out there fighting for a small parking spot to call his own. He wondered if that might be him one day. The fisherman shook his head. The steelhead were here, and everyone else was out there. And that’s the way it will remain this morning.
It’s Cold Out
“Mom, do you think we should be out here? It’s cold.”
“Nonsense, I do it all the time.”
“I know that’s why I’m worried. It’s cold and foggy this morning.”
“Are you ever outside? We live in the Pacific Northwest, for God’s sake. It’s always cold. This will burn off in an hour.”
“Can’t we wait an hour then?” The son asked.
“No. I like to see the blue sky appear. And the birds are out. They’ve been out before you even woke up.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“I love birds, but the woodpeckers can all die,” the mom said as she worked her way to the small patio chairs outside the nursing home. “Those woodpeckers were up knocking on the walls at first light. The staff runs out there with brooms to shoo them away, but it never works.”
“Do they keep you up, mom?”
“No, don’t be silly. I’m always up.”
“Mom, let me clean that seat for you.”
“The towel is over there on my walker. I carry one all the time. Most of the time I’ve got to do it myself, but lately, it’s been hard. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Just ask someone for help. I’m sure one of the staff will help you.”
“I’m not going to ask one of the orderlies to help me. I see too damn much of them as it is. They won’t let us out here to do anything. Sometimes, I feel like I’m fusing to that chair in my room.”
“Mom, there’s a pandemic going on. They are trying to keep you safe.”
“Pah! Your pandemic. You’ve got half of your life in front of you. What’s a year or two? At the rate this pandemic thing is going, I’m going to be an embarrassment at my funeral. ‘Did she die of the virus?’ They’ll ask. ‘No, just old age.’ I can hear them say. ‘Jeez, what a waste of her final years.’ I don’t have much left. I don’t intend to spend the last few grains of falling sand stuck in my room. Well, at least at my funeral something’s happening. I’ll put in some stupid request like the Macarena or the electric slide. That would be perfect. Making you all look like fools as my last request. Maybe it will be my sweet revenge for keeping me holed up in this place.” She snickered and gripped the cane close to her chest.
“Mom, stop talking about your funeral.”
“Why not, if you’ve got a vacation coming up then you talk about it. I’m waiting for Peter to take me home. Maybe he will surprise me before we get to the pearly gates. A quick stop at a Greek island or something on the way.”
“Mom you’re home here. Stop talking like that. And don’t you dare ask me about the plot. Sometimes I wonder if you olds get emo at the end.”
“Emo, what the hell is that?”
“Nothing. How’s the food?”
“It keeps me regular.”
“How’s the bed? Do you need another comforter?”
“No, it already takes me ten minutes to get out as it is. I can’t afford any more comfort.”
“The road’s busy,” the son said, pointing to the line of cars on Main Street to steer the conversation away from death and complaining.
“We’re at the end of the school hour. I never knew there were so many schools on this street. They are everywhere. I used to walk out to the road and see the traffic people holding up signs. They were as far as I could see. It reminds me of Jackie going to school.”
“That was a long time ago,” the son said, his voice slow.
“How is she?”
“Is she working?”
“The last time I heard.”
“Is she downtown still? Is she’s still doing that job for the internet company? I can never remember what it’s called.”
The son slowed and rubbed his hands. The silence was clear and deafening. “Mom, it’s getting cold. Let’s head back in.”
The woman watched her son age before her. His eye twitched briefly behind his mask. She understood and nodded. “Let’s go. There might be something on the TV. It will also give me enough time to kick your ass in hearts again.”
“That sounds good, mom.”
“I didn’t mean to bring up Jackie. I know…”
“…It’s fine mom,” the son cut in. “It’s fine.”
But it wasn’t. She gripped his arm tight, and they made their way towards the door. She knew something was wrong as he trembled on her arm. She wondered if it were the cold or panic. She didn’t care, she needed his company. Her head laid against his shoulder as the front doors swung open. The blast of warm air was enough to dry his eyes and for her to begin simmering underneath the wool sweater.
(New) The Shadowed Home
The woman’s scream faded into a choked line of sobs. There was another voice lingering in between; male, firm, and dominant. It remained in the air as the woman’s sobs turned quiet. There was a sharp smash of a plate against the wall, and the ringing sound of shards raining to the floor. The sudden explosion plunged the home into an eerie quiet. Something had unsettled the balance.
All around the house were the echoes of chaos, pain, and frustration. The sounds found their way through the decades of discolored drywall, aged Doug Fir framing, grey insulation, and mustard siding. The laurel bush quivered like a sprawled drunkard; branches splayed over the side of the home in a hunter-green embrace.
Morning dew laid the heavy grass over, seven weeks since the last mowing. Two worn footpaths curved through the yard to a hanging hip-high gate. The grey flecked paint peeled and drooped over the cracked sidewalk. A small breeze wound between the narrow houses and pushed the faded aqua swing, patched with rust, into motion. The old oak that rose overhead shaded the porch and touched the moss-filled shingles.
The door popped and a tiny boy emerged. His face wore the screams and smashes, and sudden quiet of the house. The shoulder strap of his blue and red backpack was taped together, his fist squeezing over the patched seem. He clutched it like a baby blanket, holding it close to his puffy mesh jacket. His thin frame snuck through the open gate, and he turned towards the middle school that loomed like an oasis. His face brightened as he grabbed the crosswalk flag. He waited for the minivan to pause before crossing. Between the idling morning commuters, he could hear the fresh cries and the sharp sound of shouts coming from the receding shadowed home. When he reached the far side of the road, all he could hear were the growling sounds of accelerating cars and the voices of children laughing as they walked to school. He hustled along and joined them, only looking back for a moment before melting into the throng.
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