Even Up North

Huff Post

They grew up in a town that was more than a little backward. A visitor from anywhere else would feel like a time machine’s dial had at least been set back to the ‘70s upon arrival there, and very few faces were a hue other than white. Anyone of color stayed indoors after the sun’s setting.

No actual laws stated non-caucasians shouldn’t venture outside at night, but people took the not-so-subtle hints to safeguard their families. Why tempt fate? Ugly sidelong glances on the street in the daytime were enough to make black people uneasy, much less the remarks made by passersby with racist sticks up their asses.

Ellen knew how to recognize that look from someone who wouldn’t quite meet her gaze, one who peered only from her neck down with a crisscrossed scowl. Old school. Her white grandmother warned her about those types.

She was mixed race, with a white mother who died when Ellen was in her early teens and a black father she never met. Plenty was said about him in his lifetime of absence, none of it good.

Grandma shared cautionary tales about the scandal when Ellen’s mother started seeing her father. Disapproving of the relationship, her own brothers trapped the couple in the boy’s car, one threatening him from outside the locked doors with a bat and the other proffering only fisticuffs. “It was just the times,” her grandmother said. “Your uncles didn’t like your daddy and didn’t want their sister mixed up with his kind.” Ironically, Grandma couldn’t say what was so objectionable about him other than his skin color.

The “whites only” signs from Grandma’s time had since disappeared, but prejudice lingered long from the area’s past and well into its present. Kids learned early in life to hate other children for no reason. If asked why they picked on classmates or called them names, the kids could give no sensible answer. Only, “that’s the way it is.”

Plenty was said behind Ellen’s back at school, mainly sneers and unprovoked taunts meant to hurt her for no apparent reason. Naturally shy, she tried to ignore the kids who harassed her. Other quiet classmates tried to keep the attention off themselves by ignoring Ellen’s plight. But they didn’t speak up for her either.

It all began to fall apart for Ellen when her brother got into a fight at school protecting her from bullies. Robbie defended Ellen from a group whose cruel bravery was relative to its size, as mob mentality usually works. Robbie came home with an eye swollen shut from the beating he took at the two oldest boys’ hands.

Ellen and Robbie had different fathers, but at least he knew his dad. Robbie’s white father was also in a short-lived relationship with their mom, but Ellen was biracial and considered a bastard. She ignored the mocking, but Robbie couldn’t stand it. He was sick and tired of the girls who made fun of her curly hair and the boys who called Ellen all the names he and his sister had been taught not to say in their home.

Black, yellow, brown, or red  -  it was just brutality for the sake of sick fun. Even their uncles had apparently enjoyed it.

Robbie planned to end the hateful epithets once and for all. He waited for them in the parking lot after school, hiding behind one boy’s truck to use the element of surprise to get back at both of them. His sucker-punch plan didn’t work and actually backfired on him.

Grandma was so upset when she got the news, Ellen had to drive her to the hospital where Robbie was undergoing surgery for internal injuries. The girl practically carried the frail woman into the emergency room waiting area as she sobbed uncontrollably. She cried, “Why can’t Robbie just leave better off alone? It’s just the way things are! He’s never going to change how those boys think.”

Ellen bit her tongue and sat with her grandmother while they waited for the ER doctor. She hugged her and replied, “No, Grandma. We’re never going to change their minds.” She looked up to see her uncles walking in the door and muttered, “Or anyone else’s.”

Studio30

*This week’s Studio 30 Plus writing prompt was “it all began to fall apart,” an original phrase from Stephanie.

(photo credit: Huffington Post)

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The Fringe

Jden Redden on Flickr

Jden Redden on Flickr

He wore a faded brown fedora that protected his hairless head from the sun’s rays as he walked the streets. It was not purchased at a haberdashery, as one might suspect from the tycoon, but was instead a finder’s keeper.

A predilection for thrift store shopping implied Jones was impoverished at first glance but was actually quite wealthy. He was tight with his money although his fortune was made in the oil industry, disenfranchising his family in the process. All the work meant little time for loved ones, who swiftly procured his place in a nursing facility with the onset of dementia later in his life.

No one noticed when he followed some visitors out through a secure exit and away from the home, never to return. He left with only a lock box of his most valued possessions secured under his arm.

He found the old brown topper on the ground next to a scroungy mottled dog, similar in color, in the park following his escape. Jones spied the hat beside the friendly mongrel, right at its brim, prompting his moniker for the mutt. “Brim” seemed to be waiting for Jones and perked up at his approach. They became fast friends and wandered the streets together, inseparable to the end. Their days were spent outside in each other’s company strolling the park in daytime and sleeping on a secluded bench out of the public eye and scrutiny of the authorities.

Up to that point, the man spent his life as a miser who meant to disprove the old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” He vowed to do so and left a note in his pocket with his last wishes.

The action was more a deliberate obfuscation. A generous person would willingly leave a legacy for others to use, if even for the sake of doing right instead of getting recognized for altruism. Any other man would surely bequeath his riches to surviving family.

No love was there to be lost between the relatives. Jones suspected they only wanted his money and found a greater connection with his canine companion. He said the dog “wagged his tail and not his tongue,” feeling he’d found the perfect relationship with someone who wanted nothing else from him but his company.

The world had sucked the good out of him by then, and his scant remaining empathy was gone by the time his dead body was discovered in the park. The brown dog watched mournfully as workers hauled him away to a drawer at the City Morgue with a John Doe tag on his toe.

Jones felt about life as he did about his headpiece. Having once read words written by Oscar Wilde that, “All good hats are made out of nothing,” he saw fortune the same way. People made their own luck.

Believing everyone deserves only what they earn, he wanted his money to go to whomever befriended his loving pal, Brim. The dog took to few people other than Jones but seemed to sense who truly needed his camaraderie. Someone approved by his sharp canine wits would find a tiny key tied to the collar buried deep in his unkempt fur.

The dog would later dig up the lock box from its hiding place under the park bench where he and Jones met. The charmed schmo who cared for Brim would find the man’s tattered hat inside with a well-worn copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray atop a sizable pile of money.

Losers weepers.   Studio30

*Studio 30+ writing promptHe wore a faded brown fedora” from Ashley.

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Shoo Fly

Wiechert-Visser creative commons

She realized early on her new marriage wasn’t all she hoped it would be. People fall into routines, and life goes takes on a new rhythm following the honeymoon’s afterglow, but she was crestfallen to discover how different her husband was once the newness became old hat.

Granted, they married later than most couples, in their 30s. She had cast his first marriage out of her mind and attributed that divorce to youth and ignorance, but now she was feeling what the first woman probably experienced long before she fell into the same rut. The old saying about people being “stuck in their ways” was too obviously true.

Her husband simply checked out. They rarely talked, didn’t hang out together, and never went on dates. It was if she didn’t exist. His face was stuck in a screen – either the computer’s or his smart phone’s – but never looking at her.

He was still there, but it was if he had just evaporated. His mind was elsewhere, maybe at work or perhaps on another woman. Broaching the subject did no good, as he brushed off her questions like a bothersome fly buzzing in his ear.

She grieved for their lost love but swore she wouldn’t let herself become inconsequential. The spark was gone, and she had to accept it. She scraped what was left of her dignity off the floor and made plans to leave.

Few of their scant furnishings belonged to her, so she had little to pack. Sadly, there was more left in the house than in their marriage when she walked out the door. Sniffing back a tear before pulling out of the driveway, she wondered if her husband might miss her.

He was meanwhile engrossed in something on the computer, as usual, and didn’t see her leave. Maybe he’d notice when a text from the phone company informed him she hadn’t paid the bill.

- photo Wiechert-Visser Creative Commons Studio30

*Studio 30+ prompt “…he had just evaporated…” from the original post He Confessed Everything.

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He who Laughs Last

Grand River Conservation AuthorityDave thought his weekend antics were private, that his co-workers would never know. Secrets were so much easier to keep in the days before social media’s onset. He’d later rethink his personal policy of “sharing” with his colleagues.

Pictures don’t lie, and proof of what he’d done was posted all over the internet. All revealed by his so-called friends. No way to deny it come Monday morning.

So he’d confessed everything. Wearing the thong banana hammock, aka butt floss, on the bus ride down to the river. The puffy bunny tail perched above his ass crack. A humiliating seven hours on the river he’d spent trying to keep his 350 pounds of near nudity out of the public glare in the ostensible confines of a canoe.

Attempting to escape everyone’s taunting that day was fruitless.

The river’s circuitous path wound eastward for miles, its banks lined with sprawling oaks. Limbs reached across the expanse of water and hovered above the canoes drifting languidly downstream. Gigantic leaves created a canopy but didn’t quite shade the luminous skin in the boats on the water below, and the sunlight quickly burned all the unprotected epidermis within its reach.

Webbed roots trickled down from the eroding shoreline and deflected catcalls echoing across — with Dave as their target.  “Whoa, lard ass … cover that shit up!” yelled one onlooker. Others called out, “Oh, my God. What is wrong with you, man?” and “My eyes, my eyes!” A raft full of college girls burst into drunken laughter at the site of him, some feigned sickness and pretended to vomit over their boat’s inflated tubes. “Nice nut-huggers,” an older gentleman half-heartedly complimented him in passing.

Dave bit his lip and paddled onward, head held high, knowing what waited for him at the rendezvous point. He won the bet for weathering a day-long firestorm of constant jeers and triumphantly gripped five dripping $100 bills as he boarded the outfitter’s bus back to the campground parking lot where the safety of his car awaited him.

No towel, no clothes, only a g-string swimsuit and the cottonball. Sloshing Converse high tops didn’t cover any of the humiliation.

He stomped up the steps of the vehicle to finally end the day. A warning came from the driver sitting nonplussed behind the wheel. “You better hold on tight to that money, buddy,” she said. “‘Cause you sure don’t have anywhere else to put it.”

Studio30

*The Studio 30+ prompt “…he’d confessed everything…” was originally written by Kir.

 

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Pleated Memory

accordionSchoolmates teased Marlon for as long as he could remember, and he used to wallow in his misery until feeling blue became his second biggest pastime. Unfortunately, his favorite activity was also the source of his juvenile misery. A music teacher encouraged him early in life, and Marlon was introduced to his muse … the accordion.

The instrument his parents purchased took almost as many beatings as he did. A less-than-melodious noise emerged from it when the bellows was repaired with adhesive tape. Trying to patch it with cardboard and glue made the sound worse. With no money to buy another button box, Marlon’s musical dreams were dashed and his anger turned fatally inward.

Though he never reached his own musical aspirations, he listened to all the greats on his phonograph — Tony Muréna, Guido Deiro, Emile Prud’homme — and dreamed of a career that could have been.

Marlon lived a life of accomplishment, having survived the war and saved his battalion from certain doom in a sniper attack. Those early times of daily accordion practice meant his trigger finger was nimble, and he picked off a sharpshooter from a tower where the villain took shots but ultimately fell to Marlon’s aim.

The melodies of his musical heroes soared through a mental concertina as he tromped through his final days in Italy and France, all the while praising the genius of Cyrill Demian.

The unlikely hero came to an untimely end via other means, his depression getting the best of him. By then, he had nothing of his own left but his dignity, and he swore to never let them take that away from him. Marlon’s ego remained battered, and he longed to play the classics of his past.

His life meant nothing without his squeezebox.

Studio30

*Studio 30+ writing prompthe had nothing of his own from a previous post by Joe Scott.

 

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Burning Bridges

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Grover Rutherford took his melancholy out the back door, just as he had done his entire unsatisfying career. He didn’t know what else to do with the emotion. It did no good to get upset.

Doing this job for 14 years seemed to get him nowhere. He’d spent his best days behind his desk diligently serving their customers with little recognition or reward. Grover hadn’t seen a salary increase for five years, with the economy as a convenient scapegoat, and flat profits meant no raise in the foreseeable future either. His future at Delta Universal, Inc. was uncertain at best.

The latest dustup with a client over the phone had been all he could take. His boss had believed the client’s side of the dispute, even though the error in question had not been Grover’s. He vowed this was the final time Mr. Anderson would betray his company loyalty.

After typing a letter of resignation that plainly spelled out his general grievances, he tacked it to the door of his boss’ office not unlike Martin Luther himself had done with the Catholic Church. His list didn’t reach 95, but he still felt his soul was in purgatory.

Perhaps it was a coward’s doing to leave after hours with everyone already gone for the day, but he was not a confrontational sort of person. His mother had always warned him not to burn any bridges, “for you never know when you might need a good reference,” she’d say. Grover decided not to heed his mother’s advice this time. He left a not-so-subtle message with the letter and defiantly grabbed his stapler before leaving the building by its rear entrance, lest Security catch him at petty theft.

He wondered if the acrid smell of urine on the note would be as strong when Anderson found it the next morning. Grover decided not to tell Mother about that when he got home.
Studio30

*Studio 30+ prompt from my original post “… He took his melancholy out the back door …”

photo:  e.c. johnson on Flickr

 

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Zebra Danio

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Little do my captors know what a feat they accomplished in my capture. A previous life involving such great sea adventure has now been reduced to subsistence within this glass containment. May my ancestors and fellow wayfaring captains never realize my doom!

I once swam the coral reefs of the great Indian Ocean and led droves of tropical fish to elude nets at every turn. Our keen senses steered us into the awesome depths, away from the creatures who wished us into the subservience of relatives who were otherwise reduced to a hobby, a child’s folly. Theirs was a fate we all hoped to avoid – living in a young boy’s tank inside a human dwelling instead of our own vast aquatic empire.

Our schools flanked great lionfish and rode the draft of whales and other large marine mammals to catch a ride. We braved their enormity and felt our power at the association.

Alas, I succumbed to this devastating fate. My route is now reduced to circles within a 10-gallon prison, and the continuance of life now depends on TetraColor flakes at daily dispense of a kid. My great humiliation is witnessed through a skewed view of an opaque pane. The light here never dims, and the glare off bright rocks beneath me reflects into my never-closing eyes.

Gunships apparently blew holes into an oceanliner that is now capsized on the bottom. Human lettering emblazoned on its side reads T-I-T-A-N-I-C, surely a sign of its defeat in another location. I will hide in its confines to masquerade my shame — at least until a TetraColor speck sinks down this way.

 

Indie Chick Lit #GetYourWriteOn prompt:

People think goldfish have boring lives and terrible memories. Write a goldfish adventure that defies both stereotypes.

 

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The Weight of Blood – book review

McHughCountry noir — as dubbed by one of my favorite authors, Daniel Woodrell, is on my top shelf of genres.  So I don’t mind dark brooding stories. Living in the same part of the United States as the fictional town of Henbane, we are lucky to be somewhat oblivious to the realistic base for this type of crime. The author began her book tour locally and mentioned at her first signing how she got the idea from a real life crime scenario that happened not too far away from here. While this particular tale is about some people who are seriously creepy and depraved, the events are told in such a way that a more desensitized reader (like me) continues eagerly turning pages.

Although the “culprit” emerged early on, I kept grasping at Lila’s outcome and her daughter Lucy’s future. My curiosity was piqued by more than just the beautifully crafted descriptions of Ozarks’ scenery I’m used to but that some people aren’t privileged to see. These characters became real women whose predicaments made me cringe, and I hoped in vain for the best for both protagonists.

The scenario in this book was more palatable than some to which it’s being compared. McHugh’s characters meant more to me than most of those in a Daniel Woodrell or Gillian Flynn story, because I wanted to like them. As far as the connections to those authors being drawn, there was more hopefulness for the women of Henbane regardless of its misery. Even though I realize the fuller desperation of Woodrell’s and Flynn’s females, my overall impression of that work may (unfortunately or unfairly) fall on how well they draw unlikable people. McHugh’s main characters are sympathetic, while Flynn admits to creating the lesser-seen female villain, and Woodrell many times pens women for whom there is little hope at all. Who’s to say which is more realistic of the three styles? McHugh is a burgeoning author who deserves her own kudos if she can ever escape the comparisons.

Even though I sing praises for McHugh’s ability to build tension, her characters aren’t 100% flawless. I had a hard time believing the implicit loyalty between the Dane brothers, family ties be damned. That much sociopathy surely limits the ability to truly love other people, even family, so the fierce devotion did not ring true. I, however, loved the juxtaposition of that loyalty with moral conscience and how the two concepts competed against each other in all the interlaced characters’ lives. The way McHugh weaved those ideas throughout this too-true-to-life crime story was done very well.

Truth is truly stranger and sadder than fiction, but we can’t live in constant fear of the criminally anti-social elements in our midst. I prefer to remain mindfully unaware, at the risk of living in denial, of that ugly felonious sort and just read about it through the creative capacity of writers like McHugh and Woodrell. People like the Henbanians (Henbanites?) are everywhere, and I carelessly choose to believe in the good (ala Lucy) and middle-of-the-roaders — those long teetering toward the good side (Jamie), even if that road is paved with gravel out in the middle of nowhere. Besides, it’s pretty out there.

I’d rather think the Birdies out-number the Joe Bills. Naive as it may be, I want to believe more quality citizens exist than degenerates. Let’s hope they’re the out-liers, the miscreants just laying low, hiding in plain sight but concealing their actions from detection, left to speculation within a good book like The Weight of Blood.

 

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Waking Up 13

practice

The radio blasts Freddie Mercury’s frenetic cries into my brain, as his Scaramouche-ish lyrics act in evil coercion with the alarm clock. The bus will be here in 30 minutes. The calendar shows it’s Friday, which means a Math test today, but I still refuse to believe numbers and letters can exist together in any equation no matter what Ms. Kipling says. A blinding shine off her bald spot keeps me too distracted to concentrate on learning Algebra. I feel sorry for any woman who is losing her hair, even if it’s Ms. Kipling.

At least there’s a party at Holly’s house to look forward to tonight. Her family lives in a very nice house with a finished basement that has a big shag-carpeted family room with faux wood paneling. She said this is the first time she’ll get to use the disco ball she got for Christmas. It’s not as big as the one on Saturday Night Fever, but it spins so light from  other lamps will shimmer off it.

We usually have snacks from a card table in the linoleum-covered corner and listen to music from an older brother’s stereo system. Holly only gets to use it if she promises to not touch his 8-tracks. Many of us bring records from home in hopes our favorite songs be played, most girls begging for the love ballad currently topping the radio charts. Some guy will joke about playing Spin the Bottle, but parents usually keep that from happening if the song’s volume dips low enough to be noticed from upstairs. Audible clues like that can foretell an impending bout of Seven Minutes in the Closet.

I hope the party doesn’t digress to such games or consist of only boy/girl dancing. Otherwise, the scene will be as uncomfortable as any other weekend at the skating rink when couples pair off for “moonlight skate,” and I leave the floor to hang out by the Space Invaders machine again. They play that Boz Skaggs song called “We’re All Alone,” but I feel like I’m the only one who really is all alone. The majority of other girls in my grade have kissed a boy but me. Of course, there was that one time with Todd on a dare, but he already ran through every one of my friends by then, so it doesn’t count.

When the ceiling lights go down tonight and only the lazy strobe light is flashing from beside the potato chips, almost everyone will slow dance. Somebody always brings that record “Babe,” and we girls standing along the wall wail off key about how the guy has to leave and will be missing her. Sure. Watching all the boys grope their partners in fumbling tries at second base in the darkness of Holly’s basement gives new meaning to the lead of Styx crooning about being weary and feeling like giving up.

So I write my name on the rpm adapters of the 45s that I stuff into my Garfield backpack and rush out the door to catch the school bus. Teenage brooding now replaces the earlier excited anticipation of tonight’s party. Maybe solving for “x” isn’t going to be the most difficult part of getting through to tomorrow after all.

*Indie Chick Lit inspired post

(image via slideplayer.us)

 

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Perspective

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It gave Evan a start to see such a huge image flash in front of him on the gravel pathway. The shape was especially disturbing because of the enormity of its wingspan, a distorted exaggeration, making the turkey buzzard’s shadow a supernatural size. Going in the same direction as him, he wasn’t sure what to make of it. He wondered if it was leading him down the path with its beak headed north, pointing the way he should keep going.

Evan saw the unusually large black bird swooping overhead and stopped in his tracks, dirt puffing out in front of him as he skidded to a stop from walking at such a swift clip. He looked up to watch its avian frame gliding through blinding sunlight. He recognized the red head and sharp beak from seeing others scavenge on carrion delights atop many asphalt roads.

The boy had no concept of omens but simply didn’t like buzzards, as they reminded him of death. Their eating fetid, stinking road pizza made his stomach turn at the sight of one.

He was in a hurry, his anger moving him along so quickly, having left the house angry with his father. Figuring his frustration might as well be taken out on the ugly bird as anything else, he scooped up a rock and flung it upwards with all his might. Its arcing path circled back toward him but was too far away to make the mark. Evan shouted at the vulture, “Get away from me!” It felt good to scream the words in its direction since he couldn’t do the same to his dad without getting in more trouble. The situation was bad enough as it was.

Getting in trouble at school meant more punishment at home – losing some privilege like television viewing or Playstation time. He’d stomped out of the driveway in a show of defiance following the latest skirmish and subsequent admonishment by his parents. He’d show them — maybe he’d never go home.

He blocked the sun’s glare from his eyes with his hand and gazed up at the re-approaching buzzard, wondering where the death it circled was located. He despised the bird for coming near him again, especially in his present state of mind. Searching the fields parallel to the road, Evan turn his face upward to sniff the air for whatever smell the scavenger must be scouting. No overpowering stench, not even a slight odor in the breeze. Watching its overhead flight pattern made him feel too small under the ugly creature’s watchful glare, like he imagined a skittering rabbit must experience in the headlights just before the fatal smack of a car’s grill.

Such a mammal’s powerlessness was all too real for Evan. He’d spent the entire school year under similar pressure of impending doom. His teacher, the coach, his parents, even some friends – everyone seemed to lay in wait for any misstep that would bring a fatal blow down on him. His helpless self-perception had grown out of proportion and made everything appear tragic, especially his dad’s scolding. He didn’t know what to do with all that anger and stood in a defensive stance gripping another rock in a clenched fist.

But no groundhog, squirrel or even a smashed armadillo was anywhere nearby. Evan sensed the airborne predator winging its way around again and vulnerability overwhelmed him. Spinning on his heel, his feet lost friction on the gravel, but he gained footing and began running in the direction of home. The enormity of any lingering argument there was suddenly diminished.

Whatever caused the tension between him and his father didn’t seem nearly as important now. He wasn’t about to let that bird get him.

 

(image: courtesy Jake Lichman on Flickr)

Woven Tale*This post was prompted by shadow at The Woven Tale Press.

 

 

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