Fried chicken. She didn’t know why she’d been thinking about fried chicken, but she had been for the past three days and now it was becoming almost an obsession. It wasn’t as if she had any specific desire for it and she certainly didn’t have any desire to cook it, but the two words remained stuck in her brain. Over and over they repeated themselves like a mantra that becomes a fixation.
Thursday passed and then Friday and now it was Sunday and she wondered if it were somehow connected to some story or television show she’d seen where there was a Sunday-after-church dinner. She wondered about those. Were there really families who gathered every Sunday afternoon as a family and had dinner together?
It was a nice thought. One that she couldn’t quite imagine having grown up in Manhattan, the daughter of two neuro-surgeons who were either constantly in the hospital doing some surgery or in their office seeing patients. One person they rarely saw was Stephanie.
As usual she was alone in the eleven room penthouse apartment on 5th Avenue overlooking Central Park. Stephanie wandered around aimlessly. Everyone was gone for the day. Her parents were doing rounds at the hospital and even the maid had the day off. Stephanie wondered if she went to church and then to a Sunday-after-church dinner before she came back to 5th Avenue? And did she have fried chicken for dinner? Had she mentioned it and that’s how it became stuck in Stephanie’s head? Stephanie didn’t remember even talking with Jenny, their maid, about it. So why the fixation on fried chicken?
Stephanie went to the kitchen, looked in the refrigerator as if compelled to see what it contained. Nothing very interesting. And she wasn’t even hungry – Jenny had made her a big breakfast before she left and it was now only two o’clock, not even hungry enough for a quick sandwich and certainly not a full dinner which, she suspected, would be in about an hour in those fantasy homes. How did people eat dinner so early? And didn’t they get hungry again? What did they eat then? The whole process seemed so completely out of her realm of experience that it was just a part of stories she’d heard and read.
“Okay. This is ridiculous,” she said aloud. “I will not be ruled by some fixation on fried chicken or fantasy about Sunday-after-church dinner. I’m seventeen years old. I can fend for myself and eat what I want when I want to eat it!”
With that said she picked up the book she’d left on the end table a couple of weeks before and settled down to read. Three minutes later she was up and wandering around again. Another three minutes and she was back in the chair. That repeated itself about five times before she slammed down the book and announced – “That’s it!”
She went to her computer to look up the location of the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken.
A Father’s Pride
“You didn’t have to walk me to school, Dad.” The wind whipped around the edges of a hand-hemmed skirt, the stitches slightly erratic but strong.
“It’s your first day at a new school. I wanted to make sure you got here okay.” The late summer sun beat down on a button-down shirt and tie.
“We’re five blocks from home.”
“Most accidents occur within five miles of home.”
“That’s in cars.”
“Good thing we walked, then.” As they neared the campus a swirl of minivans, bicycles, and skateboards passed them by, ignoring them save for a few headturns. “I see other parents around.”
“Great, you’ve joined the helicopter squad.”
“You have your class schedule printed out?”
The backpack shifted over a broad shoulder, the blouse beneath showing stitches similar to the skirt. “First period English, snore. I’ll navigate alright.”
“You have Mrs. Feld’s number?”
“Saved on speed dial, right after ‘Over-Protective Parent’ at #1.”
As they neared the building they slowed, their steps growing short. “Her office is on the east side of the gym, you can always go there if you have any problems. Don’t forget to stay on campus - remember to make allies, not just friends. Kids who will jump into a fight instead of Instagramming it.”
“I mean it, find a few honorable delinquents and gain their trust. I hid some JUUL refills in the bottom of your backpack, you can use them to buy influence.”
″Seriously Dad?” The backpack came down with a soft thump, hands covering it protectively. “What the hell??”
“Hey, if you don’t use them you can leave them there. They’ve got my fingerprints on them, I'll go down for them if anyone asks.”
With a sigh, the backpack shifted back up into place. “You’re certified, Dad. Past the helicopter brigade, you’re a drone parent now.”
“I...” The footsteps stopped, stalling on the sidewalk. “I know I’m not brave, okay? You get that from your mother. But that doesn’t mean I’m not damn proud of you. If the world has improved at all since my time in school, kids like you made it that way.”
A lip-glossed smile crept up beneath long, semi-curled locks. “Is this my obligatory pep talk now? ’Cause I’m good. Really. You can go back to work now.”
“Right, unnecessary dorky Dad moment.” Cuff links clinked as large arms wrapped around the slightly shorter figure next to them, encompassing them in a hug. “I love you, Sam.”
Reflexively the shoulders stiffened, then sagged as smaller arms wrapped back around. “It's Samantha, please."
"Crap. I'll get that right, one day."
"I still love you too, Drone Dad.” They held together for a couple seconds more. “You know this looks worse when I’m dressed like this.”
“Oh well. I’m already going down for contributing nicotine to minors."
The hands pulled away, latching back onto the straps of the backpack and shifting it again. "Go to work, Dad. I got this."
"I know." A warm smile and a wave bid the teenager goodbye as a bell rang in the distance. "Have a good day!"
There was a quick wave back before lightly tan sandals hit the pavement and disappeared in a sea of puberty.
Wow he's grown so much. The father thought, then corrected himself. She - she's grown so much.
With a heavy sigh, he waited and watched until the long, flowing locks disappeared indoors, looking for any signs of nerves or second-thoughts but seeing none.
One day I'll get it right.
Turning, he smiled and walked back towards their home, so conveniently close to the local high school. Not that he would ever tell Samantha he'd taken the day off to work from home. She'd never let him live that down. Drone Dad, indeed.
In the meantime...maybe he'd gotten enough right, at least for today.
I want to smack her. Literally. She certainly deserves it--her words strike harder than my hands ever could. But physical assault will get you arrested while hateful words seldom do. My father is proof of that.
When I was seven, after my parents divorced, I had to go see my father. It was his way of getting out of child support. My visits were a nuisance more than anything.
About a year after the divorce I rode the school bus to his house on one of many miserable Fridays.
“Home, Dad.” I said after I fumbled through the screen door and dealt with his dogs, Thumper and Max. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table in his rumpled underwear and t-shirt. He leaned over his bowl of cereal like a bear. A dark shadow of stubble matched the smudges under his eyes. In the back, I could hear Nolene, his girlfriend doing some kind of housework.
He didn’t respond, so I headed toward my room.
“Don’t bring a bunch of shit in here,” he said to my back.
“I won’t, Dad.”
He was talking about my insect collections. Mostly moths and butterflies. A few beetles but those icked me out when the pins went through the plasticy shells.
“I’m serious, girl. Nolene don’t have the time or patience to be picking up after you.”
I didn’t hate anyone then. When I was a kid. Now, I’m pretty full of it. I wonder if it’s contagious?
My father worked the second shift at the air conditioner plant. Looking back now I can see that drugs probably influenced his behavior. Nolene never did anything about it except fight. The result was usually him getting on to me.
I’m married now with two kids of my own. They are out of the house. Doug is in graduate school and Nancy married a nice accountant and does nothing with her own accounting degree. I guess counting is useful for keeping up with three kids. I’d like to see them more, but they live an hour and twenty minutes away. I’m still living in my hometown. I guess it’s good the kids moved on. Nobody beat them for their hobbies. Maybe that’s the reason.
At first, Nolene tried to befriend me. She’d been “rode hard and put up wet” as my dad’s brother told me one time and was emotionally detached and unpredictable. I think she wanted me to be her kid, a nice little family. When that didn’t work out she gave all her attention to getting what she could from my father in terms of attention, affection and fidelity. There wasn’t much of that to go around.
Maybe that’s why I married Bruce. He’s got the good looks of a Greek god sculpted from mashed potatoes, but he’s dependable. His non-verbal way of interacting doesn’t even bother me much anymore. Silence at my father’s house was dangerous.
One time, when I was about ten, my fourth grade teacher had encouraged me to do something with my insect collection for a science project. She figured that out when she saw me pick up a dead spider from the backpack room floor.
“What are you doing, Ellen?”
“What?” I tried to stall.
“Why did you pick up that dead bug?”
“What bug?” Why do we think we can lie and get away with it? Besides it technically wasn’t a bug.
“The dead bug I saw you pick up from the floor and that you are now holding loosely in your hand so that you don’t crush it.”
Ms. Thatcher had a way with details.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you collect them?”
“Sometimes,” I said. I could feel the crinkly little legs lightly touching my palm.
“That might make a good display for the science fair.”
It’s all I needed. I spent the next three nights at mom’s picking out my best specimens. My mom even got me a new piece of foam board. Friday morning is when I realized I had a problem.
I talked it out with Professor Peter my Praying Mantis. He was pinned to the bottom right of my poster. I had drawn a talk bubble like he was naming each of my bugs. I’d even made him a little mortar board hat. His spiny arm made a good pointer.
“I’ve got to turn this in Monday,” I said when I realized I would be at my father’s house all weekend.
You can’t take it to your dad’s. Nolene hates bugs.
“I know. But it’s not ready.”
Tell your mom.
“I can’t tell Mom because she won’t let me take it.”
Maybe she can say something to your dad. It’s a school project.
“She never says anything to him. And he won’t listen anyway.”
She’s gonna see it.
“I’ll just have to tell her it’s ready, and I’m taking it today to turn in early.”
I covered the panel up carefully with a plastic bag. Dried insects are fragile. At school and on the bus to Dad’s I guarded it from bumps and jolts. When I got off the bus I tucked it beside the door and made a trial run inside first. Dad had already gone to work. Nolene was on the phone. With as much stealth as I could muster, I snuck it into my room. After I closed the door, I listened to see if she would follow me. When my heart settled down I couldn’t help but unwrap and admire my work.
Eight of my favorite bugs I had arranged in a ring and from the bottom corner Professor Peter called out their names. At the top was a sweet green Actias luna “Luna Moth.” Then a fuzzy black Xylocopa “Carpenter Bee” and a Periplaneta americana “American Cockroach” to creep people out. Most of my bugs I had found dead, window sills catch and dry them out perfectly, but the three little Fireflies Lampyridae had met their fate in a jar on my dresser.
A large space in the center I had intentionally left open in hopes of finding something spectacular before Monday. Gently, I placed the foam board between my bed and the wall and headed out to the yard to hunt.
“Be safe, Professor!” I said.
There was lots of luck that day.
Today has had its own bit of luck. When I arrived at the nursing home, the shift nurse Cindy said, “Miss Nolene had a pretty good evening. Not much in the way of trouble last night, and she’s up and cheerful this morning. The CNAs said morning cleanup was no trouble. She’ll be glad to see you.”
She’s never glad to see me.
The TV was on when I entered, but she wasn’t watching it. Dementia has eroded much of her attention span. She didn’t even look at me when I said hello. It’s her unintended kindness to me to be so out of it that she doesn’t recognize or interact with me. Her roommate is a pitiful stroke victim slowly contracting into a ball and completely oblivious to the world around her.
“Good morning, Nolene.” I say.
“What is it?” she says to the corner of the ceiling. I smell body fluids and disinfectant.
“Just thought I would drop by to check on you.”
This brings a glance, “And who are you?”
“I’m your step-daughter, Ellen.”
It’s hard to tell where the long pause is going. In my mind, I’m racing out of my dad’s house again, with my glass Ball jar. His house was situated on the edge of a field and there was stand of trees nearby. It was hard to find bugs in the forest, but the lawn and field usually proved fruitful. And there it was. Without even looking—a big, mean, red and black ant making its way across the lawn. It was really not an ant but a wingless wasp with a wicked black stinger. “Cow Killer,” I said under my breath. I couldn’t remember the scientific name, but I could look it up after I captured it.
It was such an awesome little creature and proud--like it didn’t know it was tiny. I had played with one before, penning it down with a stick to hear it hiss and aggressively fight with its stinger. This one was huge. We battled like a bull and matador, me trying to get it in the jar and it avoiding the glass death chamber. Finally, I was successful and tromped to the house triumphantly with the centerpiece for my exhibit.
Unaware of what had happened, I entered my room thinking of where I could hide my prize until it died, Nolene was standing opposite of me at the end of my bed. Her huffs and angry scowl revealed my fate before I even noticed my poster at her feet.
A few frizzy strands of hair clung to her sweating face and the rest shot from her head in all directions, “I told you not to bring bugs into this house!”
Dreadfully, my eyes took in what she had done. The foam board was mashed and creased with shoe prints, bits of dust and scattered legs were the only things left of my insects. Heartache and sorrow pull my heart down, then from some unknown place a spark of anger raced forward. I didn’t know what to do with it. Nolene continued to rant at me and justify her act of destruction, “You’re a stupid weird little girl! Why are you so weird? What’s wrong with you to bring shit like this into the house?” Like an exterior elevator I watched my own fury rise and threw the jar at her.
In my hot anger I hoped that the Cow Killer to spring out and sting her to death. Instead the jar smashed into the wall behind her. Momentarily, she was stunned into silence. We stood there glaring at each other. In the moment she backed down. When my dad came home that night she filled his ear full of her side of the story. He got me out of bed sometime after midnight to spank me. I never let him see me cry.
He died about fifteen years ago. I’m kind of glad my grandkids never met him. Even though he had mellowed, he never could say, “I’m sorry,” or “I love you.” It fell to me to look after Nolene. She has no children of her own. The dementia makes it both worse and better. Worse in terms of complications and meanness, but better in that at least I can blame it on the disease.
Perhaps it was the disease moments ago that made her respond to my greeting with, “You ain’t my daughter. I never had any children. At least none that survived.”
“I’m not your biological daughter, I’m Ellen. You married my dad, Carl. Remember?”
“What I remember is that you are a stupid and weird little girl.”
I’m holding a glass vase with three white daisies in it. I want to throw it at her. She wouldn’t be able to dodge it this time.
It occurs to me that there are bugs over on the window sill: the ubiquitous “Pill Bugs” known around here as Roly Pollies, Armadillidium. She hated those things. I could go around the building and gather a few more, certainly I can also find some Silverfish and spiders for a nice necklace to place on her when she dozes off. The image of her waking up in a panic, screaming and thrashing around trying to knock a few not quite dead bugs off on the floor is surprisingly appealing.
Instead, I place the flower vase on her nightstand and leave. I don’t tell her Roly Pollies aren’t even insects, they’re terrestrial crustaceans. She doesn’t care and couldn’t learn it anyway.
[12-3-18 Thanks for the challenge! It has become an exercise against perfectionism as this is a very rough draft. I wrote it today and forced myself to share without any more edits or polishing. Any feedback is welcome and will be appreciated.]
Flowers on the Hill
She was a flower girl in a flower shop. I saw her when I was going east on 29th street. She stood there in the window. She was setting up. It was a celebration of some kind. And she was getting ready for it. I don’t remember what they were celebrating but I went in anyways. It was a mothers day celebration but I hadn’t talked to my mother in years.
Still the idea of flowers was nice. Maybe I could buy some and take them home to my little one bedroom apartment where they might sit near the sun and grow during summertime’s. I had seen the girl in the window but there was no one at the counter. I had hoped I walked into the right place. “Hello?” I asked and dinged the bell. Ding, ding, ding!
“Does anyone even work here?” I asked out loud. A woman came to the counter from behind me. Probably the same woman from behind the window. “I’m working here while the owner is away.”She said. “What can I help you with?” “Well I need some flowers, something nice. Carnations or Daises. Maybe even Roses.” “Are you having a special event?” She asked.
“I suppose so, it’s my mothers birthday.” I told her. “Well that’s nice of you! You’re a good son. I wish that my kids will buy flowers for me one day when they’re older.” She said. “It’s a yearly thing it seems, I used to never do it. I was too lazy. Now I do it every year and every mothers day.” I replied. “It’s coming up you know.” “I know.”
I wasn’t sure of the amount or size of the flowers that I would get but I kept changing it every year just so she would have something new and different.” “Well i’m sure whatever you pick she’ll love them just the same.” “Well I can’t say she’s been dissapointed so far. I’ll take a bouquet, something with a bit of everything. Can you do it?” I had asked.
“I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem. She told me. I hoped it wouldn’t take long, I was on a schedule. One I intended to keep. You could hear rustling from the back. Everything was being prepared and wrapped up, just how I wanted it and have always prepared it. She came back with a large bouquet wrapped in thinly made paper, enough to cover but not to protect.
“Here you are, a blended bouquet. Just how you wanted.” She said. I had taken the bouquet from her and thanked her after I paid. I left the shop and headed out. I walked for a while and kept walking a bit more. Home was the opposite way. I would go there later.
Right now I had somewhere to be. The bouquet was nice, it was something different. The forecast was rain and quite a bit of it, I could already see it coming. At first a little as the clouds grew dark and eventually more would be on the way.
As it began to rain more and more I pulled up the collar of my jacket around my neck. I wanted to stay warm and the rain didn’t bother me anyways. The flowers could use some water.
The further I walked the more I was away from town but still here. The cemetery was in it’s own little plot, they replaced all the old apartments and shops where the rent was too high and had to sell but then nobody bought them and so they were torn down.
It was a majestic scene, like in a romantic film, rain on a dark day that was once sunny where the heart felt emotion really showed itself. The gates were open and I walked in. Going past row after row. She was there waiting on me, we had set a time and a day. I’d visit every week I told her.
Flowers always died and were removed but I told them she was special and so her flowers were always left where I put them, I added more and placed the bouquet in the middle, front and center. “Happy Birthday” I told her and there I stayed for hours, just talking.
Nothing rhymes with it
Oh, except for bumpkin.
I bathe in pumpkin,
Which I agree
Doesn't get me clean
And isn't sanitary.
I need a pumpkin
Carriage and six
Pumpkin scented horses
That walk on crunchy cinnamon sticks
And breathe pumpkin out their noses.
Carve it with a face
Scoop it out
Stick a candle in it
Short and stout
I wonder if there is a pumpkin
To fit me and my candy stash
And all my bathroom stuff
'Cause I'll live there all the winter
As it rots away outside
I refuse the snow and gingerbread
And elves I can't abide
I'm an autumn girl
In a pumpkin palace
With a pumpkin swirl
And a curly pumpkin crown.
All hail the Pumpkin Queen!
The orange smell of cardamom and cinnamon waft around me as red leaves crunch underneath my feet. I drag my shovel next to me, keeping my head low. It’s hard to look up at the beautiful scenery around me. Swirling wind kisses my face as pale sunlight creeps through the branches of trees. I long to return to the autumn when my mother was still alive. All of this beautiful scenery in New England is not the same without her. Without her vibrancy, or her wisdom in what makes autumn seem so beautiful.
“Mom,” I say against the lump in my throat. “Did you hear that I got a job promotion? I took your advice and talked to the boss. I’m making twenty dollars an hour now.”
I smile against the tears that pool in my eyes. The leaves blur, almost like they’re drowning. The red, orange and yellow colors meld into one color.
I hear, in the distance, the sound of the river. Roaring. Mom always liked to sit by the river and tell me stories of her first autumn with Dad. Their first kiss, the proposal. He walks beside me, silent. He’s lost most of his hair since Mom died. Even lost a little more weight. But there’s a serenity in his face. Maybe he feels a connection to her still, as if she’s not gone.
“Dad, I’m still hurting.” I sigh, kicking a lonely tree branch. It reminds me of my childhood.
“Me too,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper.
I find that familiar old river and I sit by the oak tree like Mom and I would all the time. The umbrella that looms over me is a plethora of colors. Golden sunlight bleeds through the leaves, giving off a fairy-like glow. Or, at least, when I was a child, I thought they were fairies dancing joyfully. As resplendent and colorful everything is right now. Everything is so bare without her. Funny, how beautiful everything seems. Even though the leaves are at the twilight of their lives. Even though everything around me is dying. Even though everything is falling for winter. I remember how beautiful mom looked on her bed. During her final breaths, her eyes sparkled like diamonds. I knew she saw something. Whatever it was, I wouldn’t know. But she did see something and the permanent smile on her face reminded me of our days here at the river.
I take the shovel and begin to dig near the oak tree. Dad stays in the background and sits down. He seems lost in himself. In his own memories of her.
I continue digging, but then I find the box and my heart feels that profound pang in my body that brings me to my knees. Our old time capsule. We made a promise together that we would find the time capsule twenty years later. No matter what, I was going to stick to that promise and so here I am. My hands tremble as I hold the wooden box in my hand. Taking the key, I open it and smile when I see the first thing that appears.
My Baby Marley,
Today is not an easy day for me. Writing this letter isn’t an easy one. I’m sure by now you probably know all about my pain and suffering. I might not even be alive anymore. I didn’t want to tell you today since you love autumn so much and you love being here. Why would I sully your beautiful experience with this news? Marley, I have breast cancer. I just diagnosed a few weeks ago. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in the future, but I just want you to be strong. I want you to grow up to be a fine woman. And the next time you come here to open this time capsule, I want you to take my ashes and spread them in the river. Always keep autumn in your heart. Even though winter follows, the spring will come. And I’ll always live in your heart.
Falling Into Winter
Crisp apple breeze
In a pumpkin spice sun
Gold medal leaves
Sparkle through rust
The first of the freeze
Brown on the mums
Now naked trees
Bare branches above
Red sunsets tease
Before the grey comes
The dropping degrees
Starting to numb
The ground and the bees
Silence the hum
As the earth goes to sleep
For the cold winter months
“Hey, calling to see how you’re holding up?”
“Oh, fine. I’m fine. Just… you know. Well, you know, puttering around the garage.”
The man chuckles. It is loud, but quickly fades and something metallic falls in the background. He clears his throat and speaks again.
“She would always come home and take a nap, it was like any other day. I mean, she was out, walking around. We were window shopping after church then came home. She looked at me and said, Honey, I’m going upstairs to lie down. I looked at her, you know, said, OKAY. That was it.”
A leaf silently breaks away from its home in the gentle breeze that drifts through the man’s yard. It sways soothingly back and forth as it falls amongst its brethren upon the moist grass. The man sits on a stool in his garage looking out the raised door, and the four cornered box that in one form or another has always served as his gateway to the world beyond.
A crackle on the other end of the phone breaks the silence only to say, “I know. I’m sorry, Bud.”
The man’s eyebrows lift as if to pull him out from within, and he tells his friend goodbye. His friend asks if he is fine, and a smile forms that none can see, and he replies that he is fine. The call ends with the man saying that he must go inside for he has things to do.
But he has nothing to do. For in his heart, he has nothing anymore.
He slumps at the stool, and continues to watch the season unfold. He puts an old tape in, one that grows more snowy and unrecognizable with each passing day. He sees the pumpkin patch and the corn maze. He smells the crisp apples and warm glaze. He feels the rough yet smooth texture of the gourd between his palms. With the smell of kettle corn in his nostrils he sees her smiling, laughing, twirling, chasing and running away.
He sees her go upstairs, for a nap.
So my reader, when he says he is fine, know this. Know that somewhere a gear has slipped, a belt has snapped, and a cog has worn thin.
For above all, he is not fine.
Fall is notebooks, papers, pens
Time for school to start again
Fall is sweaters, leggings, boots
Time to put away swimsuits
Fall is apples, crisp and sweet,
Pumpkin Spice, and trick-or-treat
Fall is first frost come by night
And yellow leaves in Autumn light
Fall is family at Thanksgiving
Eating, laughing, reminiscing