June 20, 2015

Chicago Cartoons

The bullet tore into his neck and knocked him backwards. On a landing between floors, he gripped the wound and staggered down the stairs, trying to outrun what just happened. His race ended on the linoleum outside Geneva’s door.

Renting an apartment near the building’s entrance was good when carrying groceries or kids, but bad when people partied late on the stoop. She’d spent years inside providing child care. Mothers working the night shift, her bread and butter, had to put their babies someplace safe while they cleaned offices and filled catalog orders. The bedroom held three small cots for little sleepers. Geneva was known for allowing sniffles, low fevers, and an occasional extra baby, in a pinch.

Used to neighborhood gunfire after dark, tonight’s commotion sounded different.

Jumping out of bed, she pressed her ear to the only outside door. Spying through the peephole, the hallway appeared empty. Having learned a long time ago that it’s best to wait a few, she rested her forehead against the door, staring at her feet.

At first, it looked like Kool-Aid. A narrow, red line snaked inside and licked the doormat. Jolting upright, she searched through the peephole. Nothing. Silence. Silence as near as she could tell, anyway. Hard to be sure what with her heart all up in her mouth and booming. Hands shaking, she held the chain lock in place and turned the deadbolt, easing the door open enough to see clothing of some sort on the floor just outside. Pulling back til the chain got taut, there was a man and more red. His eyes were still open and his mouth, shaped in a small “o,” made him look like he didn’t understand the question. Slamming the door shut, she noticed blood spreading through her doormat. Snatching it away only increased the flow, so she pushed it back into place.

Now the children were awake, standing behind her. “What’s goin’ on, Ms. Geneva?” As sirens approached, she shooed them back into their cots. A cop announced himself through the door. Not wanting to mess up his shoes, he stepped carefully while she asked, “Officer, can you stop the blood? I’ve got babies in here.” He instructed her to keep the door closed while they investigated.

Cordoning off the perimeter, the police waited for a medical examiner. The babies’ mothers, due to arrive after their shifts, would have to wait, too. Geneva tamped bath towels on the sodden doormat. Come dawn, juice with toast was served in bed, a special treat. This being a Sunday morning, there was only one medical examiner on duty and a young male victim, picked clean of evidence, wasn’t a priority.

After an hour, she opened the door some. Warm temperatures made everything sour and sticky. A different cop gestured for her to be patient. After all, the body was being patient. She laid another towel over the part of it that had drained into her home. “If you promise to stay put on the couch,” she told the fidgety children, “you can watch TV.” Confused, but happy to be out of the bedroom, they scrunched together and stared at the screen. Cartoon animals with goofy voices kept getting run over, blown to bits, or burned crispy. They’d snap back, however, before equally fantastic commercial breaks filled with manicured yards and fancy kitchens.

Know what? You can’t do a damn thing without a medical examiner. No matter it's hot and smelly and you’re trapped in your own house. Exhausted, Geneva slumped in a chair in the kitchenette and lit a long overdue cigarette. Rocking gently, her mind went back to the night a neighbor shouted through the window for her to come quick. Yelling that her 14 year-old, Donald, was surely the one shot dead and lying under a sheet two blocks over. Since his murder, she purposefully kept indoors after dark, caring for other women’s babies. Trying to shield somebody.

Every now and then she’d look to the couch and give a nod, but the children were elsewhere, too. Lost in cartoons. Finally, the examiner’s truck pulled up. It took another hour for the cops and M.E. to shoot the shit and bag the corpse, leaving the hallway floor looking like a finger painting. Bits of processing debris were embedded in wide, circular smears of dried blood.

After police tape was removed, the mothers stared numbly at the scene. Wordlessly, they scooped up babies and carried them away. Geneva knew that if this was a Lake Shore Drive building on the north side, the guy’d been washed away but quick. No point complaining, no one was listening. She began to scrub.
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Background: I wrote the first draft several years ago to be included in non-fiction essays about my work experiences. The fact I wanted to share, while true, was hard for me to communicate to readers unfamiliar with day care providers in urban areas. When I began writing fiction, I decided to craft a short story around the fact's thread. This is the result of dozens of drafts, some molded for literary publication submissions. Number of acceptances: zero.

I am posting this version so I never forget the real women and children, and their experiences.

May 10, 2015

'Fresh Air' Remembers Mystery Novelist Ruth Rendell

Within 48 hours, I watched The Karman Line and listened to NPR's re-broadcasted interview by Terry Gross of the late writer Ruth Rendell.

For me, they dovetail.

The film expertly illustrates how jarring it is to grasp and finally accept what we cannot deny.

While the complete Fresh Air interview of Rendell is worth a listen, it was the excerpt below that struck me, especially coming right after the film (emphasis mine):

"GROSS: An interesting bargain she tries to make there to prove their love. What kinds of opportunities did this challenge or bargain create for you as the novelist?

RENDELL: Well, it was the crux - it is the crux of the novel. I mean, it is what the novel is about. It's what - I suppose it created for me something else very much - an opportunity for something else that very much interests me. That is that about 90 percent of our lives is illusion, so - especially, I think, in a love affair. Philip, my protagonist here, lives in illusion. And this fosters more opportunities for illusion. He becomes pretty disillusioned later on, but this gives opportunities for so much confusion and hope and despair and wonder and simply mistakes. All of those things, they're all ingredients in my fiction - confusion, bewilderment, things going wrong."

I certainly spend wide swaths of time day dreaming. Off the cuff, I haven't delved much into sources of disillusionment. What I mean is, when we become disillusioned, how much is expended on that which actually exists? How much pain, anger, or joy do we feel that others can also see and feel as we do?

Still chewing on this...

April 16, 2015

The Tree, revised

This is why I love Julia:

I looked over at the passenger seat. At the pile of my coat, purse, some papers, gloves. It took only a moment to slip my right hand inside the purse and feel around for that pen.

BOOM! A loud noise and big jolt from under the hood made my eyes shoot back up to the road. Except there was no road. Instead, there was a big parkway tree coming up fast.

Turns out I had drifted over to the right, driving up and over the curb, onto the parkway. Jerking the wheel hard left, I over-compensated.

By God’s grace, no one was in the oncoming lane. Steadying the wheel and myself, it took a few for me to get my bearings and realize what I had done.

The kids, strapped in their car seats were, thankfully, too young to rat me out.

I continued the drive to Julia’s house and, on arrival at her front door, breathlessly told her what awful thing I had done.

Without missing a beat, she replied, “Don’t you just HATE when that happens?”

April 5, 2015

The Sermon

Young families, neatly turned out, sat mixed in amongst the old folks. Preaching the story wherein Jesus restored sight to a blind man, Pastor Stanford asked, “Do you know what healing is?” While a few babies fussed, most adults tried to follow his thread.

Toward the back of the sanctuary, commotion could be heard from the parking lot. Billy Tadel, a nine year old who had to pay attention on account of his mom always quizzing him, sat up and tried to see out the stained glass windows. Ushers hurried past. “When we think we are in control, we’re actually separated from God.”

Billy slid out of the pew and got up on his tippy toes. Through the sepia-colored glass of St. Peter’s robe, he spied Mrs. Keller belly-flopped on the hood of a car! Her skirt, bunched up at the hip, revealed mommy underpants. Gripping the now bent backward windshield wipers, she tugged them around like gear sticks, shouting, “Susan? SuuUUU-SAAAN?!!”

Behind the wheel, Mr. Keller drove very slowly. He looked like he just tasted a bug. Billy imagined that, if he was driving really fast, this’d be as good as a movie. But Mrs. Keller wasn’t a cop and Mr. Keller wasn’t a bank robber. She was a Sunday school teacher and he was a little league coach. He eased the car to a stop but she stayed put, angry-faced and yelling.

The pastor, oblivious to the real reason this sermon would become memorable, intoned, “Jesus gives us what we need, not what we want.” A powerful arm yank from his mother returned Billy to their pew. Up front, Susan Stanford sat with her children, staring stock-straight ahead. She looked like she just tasted a bug, too.

March 15, 2015

The Toaster, Spoken

With apologies to voice artists and audio engineers everywhere, I recorded one of my shorts: The Toaster.

February 22, 2015

Anne Lamott and Kelly Corrigan on Forgiveness, Compassion, and Embracing Our Messy Selves

A welcome visit with author Anne Lamott:

Her observations about compassion made me think of a story I posted in 2013: Lunch Break. I still see that elderly man in my mind's eye. I'm still a jerk by times, too.

January 1, 2015

Real Life Nail Colors 2015

My son gave me a Sephora gift card for Christmas, which was much appreciated. I redeemed part of it on a bottle of Formula X nail polish. While pricey, I gotta say it applies like a dream and complements my skin tone. Because I shopped by holding bottle after bottle against my hand, I didn't read the shade's name until this morning: Impeccable. I'm many things each day, but Impeccable is not one of them.

Turns out my polish is one of Sephora's New Neutrals. 31 blends with names like Perfection, Potent, Brilliant, Extraordinary. Their pitch: "Our groundbreaking formula delivers the ultimate super-talent nail color, while our breathtaking array of shades and effects provides endless inspiration. Now you can finally have it all."

This got me thinking about creating a line of nail colors for real life: