Old Habits

800px-Fat_cat_sleepingBeatrice heard her stiff joints crackle as she stood up from bed and began to creep across the hardwood floor, its chill not helping the arthritis in her feet. Those old limbs didn’t work near as well as they used to but carried her body across the short distances she needed.

She walked into the living room where she’d sat at opposite ends of the couch from her late husband in virtual silence for the last several years before he finally went home to meet his maker a month prior. How many times had she stared at his unfortunate face from that distance while he loudly solved the puzzle on that t.v. game show he obsessively watched?

“Stupid bastard,” the woman mumbled to herself, thinking of Vaughn. “He was never any good at the bonus round either.” Thoughts of him brought bad memories and bile backed up in her throat. It was too early in the morning for such ugly thoughts.

Vaughn hadn’t always been such a schmuck. Some quality besides his hubris and those blue eyes must have originally attracted her to the man. His charm drew her in, but that charisma soon morphed into plain conceit. A baby soon on the way meant she stayed with her husband and tried the make the best of things. “You’ve got someone to worry with besides yourself now, girl,” her momma told her. Bea knew it was the truth.

Little Leon loved his daddy, and Vaughn likewise doted on him. It was enough to keep Beatrice in the marriage, but her husband paid more attention to the television than he did her. He certainly spent more time at the office than home but more so for the company of his pretty blond co-worker than any task their boss assigned. Vaughn’s hinky actions became easy to read, and Beatrice wasn’t stupid.

Heeding Momma’s advice, though,she stayed for the duration. By the time Vaughn retired, their son was long gone. Leon had his own aspirations, and Beatrice wanted him to live the way she’d wished for herself – to travel, see the Eiffel Tower or those pyramids over in Egypt – to go somewhere besides here. She wondered if she’d stayed with Vaughn just to spite the man or if they simply shared the bad habit of one another.

A thick strand of her once jet black hair fell in front of her eye. It was now coarse and the color of steel but still accented her startling green eyes. Vaughn called them bewitching and once said she’d vexed him. She never believed that to be the case. Instead, truly the opposite. He’d tricked her with his charming ways and made her fall as much in love with him as he was with himself.

“That narcissist probably took a hand mirror with him to his coffin,” she reported out loud to nobody in particular. A big tabby cat was the only one there to listen, and it languished across the armchair, paying her only the slightest attention. “You probably learned your ways from him,” she told the feline. “Preening yourself all day long, and layin’ there pretending like you don’t hear a word I say. You both considered yourselves the center of the universe.” The old cat paid her no mind and closed the one eye it opened only to verify someone else’s presence in the room. It barely noticed Vaughn’s absence either.

“That’s okay,” she said. “Just ignore me. I’m used to it.” Beatrice sniffed derisively and looked out the window. The street view from the sofa where she usually sat pleased her. “I’ll perch right here, thank you very much.” She half-heartedly chuckled.

She normally amused herself that way, wouldn’t depend on anyone else to do it for her, even if it meant watching the world go by from the living room’s confines. A satisfied smile crossed her wrinkled face, the skin soft but creased from years of sour expressions settling in on it.

Hers wasn’t an unhappy existence. She finally had what she wanted — a quiet, peaceful life. She didn’t even have to compete with the television any more to get it.

*writing prompt “hubris/conceit” from Studio 30+ Studio30

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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The Price of Pain

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It smelled as if a janitor tried to clean up someone’s sickness in a school hallway and only managed to mix the stench with Pine Sol to a harsher concentration. The odor overwhelmed them upon entering the gray waiting room.

Jewel asked the receptionist, “You take walk-in appointments, right?” As a mother, she was torn. Her daughter’s illness made going to the doctor a necessity. Their lack of health insurance and no expendable income, however, drew that same old feeling of dread from her center. She had no choice but to take Marissa to the free clinic.

This was the first, and she hoped only, time she had to enter the building. She’d seen the sign outside before but thought it a mystical conclave with which she hoped to never become acquainted. Once when Marissa asked her about the place as they passed it on the street, she told her, “That’s where poor people go when they’re sick.” Now, they were the proverbial poor among whose ranks she’d previously never imagined being.

“Yes, the doctor will see you without an appointment,” the woman behind the desk told her. Jewel shook her head, stating, “Actually it’s my daughter who needs to be seen.” She pulled the girl closer to her, hugging Marissa around the shoulders in a grasp of protection.

The receptionist leaned closer to Jewel, nodded toward the young girl, and asked sheepishly, “Does she need a pregnancy test?” Marissa was appalled and blurted out, “NO, she doesn’t need a pregnancy test! She’s 12 years old, and she’s sick! It’s probably the flu.” Jewel didn’t try to disguise her indignant tone.

The woman simply raised an eyebrow in reply. She waved a clipboard toward the waiting room and said, “You can fill out this form and have a seat over there until we call your name.”

Jewel snatched the paperwork away from her and led Marissa toward the scantily-furnished area. Plastic chairs that may have once been white offered little welcome, and she hoped their uncomfortable stay there proved as short as possible. A faded landscape framed on the wall looked as lonely as their surroundings.

While filling in the required information, Jewel looked at the other people around the room. An older couple sat silently in the next line of seats looking downtrodden and serious, their gnarled hands clasped in each other’s grasp. Further down the row, a mother scolded the toddler circling her seat clad only in a t-shirt and diaper. Jewel noticed a brown streak running down the child’s leg and onto the linoleum floor and wondered if it the liquid might only be melted chocolate.

An elbow nudge in her ribs brought her back to the moment. “Mom,” Marissa whispered to her. “Why did the lady ask about a pregnancy test?” The confusion in her daughter’s face saddened her even more than their environment.

She brushed Marissa’s warm forehead lightly with the back of her hand and told her, “I don’t know, sweetheart. Some people just take certain things for granted. Don’t worry about that now. I just want you to feel better.”

**

Studio 30+ writing prompt – conclave Studio30

Image via Erich Ferdinand – Flickr Creative Commons

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Reverance

untitled (4) She kept her head bowed in what she hoped was an acceptable fashion in the congregation, especially to her mother and Brother Welks. Eleven-year old Angelique felt caviled by adults and relegated to silence during the service. The pastor’s deep baritone blasting from the pulpit almost demanded respect and adherence. Such high expectations meant the girl could expect a sound thump on her head if she dared utter a peep during the prayer.

Her eyes cast downward, she glanced to her right where Mr. Lundgren sat with his leg twitching a mile a minute. “He must be as bored as I am,” thought Angelique, pondering the nervous jitter. The polyester of his gray perma-press pant legs jumped up and down, the solid seams pointing in the direction of the hymnal rack attached to the pew in front of him. Lundgren’s wife sat beside him, her hands lay splayed across her lap and open in upturned supplication.

The elderly couple bemused Angelique, and she emitted a tiny snort of ponder before she could stop herself. A sharp flick of her mother’s middle digit and thumb shocked her back into submission quick as a wink. All it took was a quip of “Ssst,” just like a snake, to quiet Angelique, who quickly looked back down at her own legs. As the preacher’s words continued, the girl clenched her fingers more tightly around each other.

Walnut creaked under the heavy load of parishioners in the pew, and they shuffled in their uncomfortable seats. Angelique’s little body fidgeted for a minute, her bottom wiggling for a new position. She agonized, “How many more minutes? How many more minutes?”

The girl sensed a whiff of vegetable soup and wondered if the church ladies fixed up an after-service meal. An acrid mix of Campbell’s tomato base laced with a toxic sodium level in her nostrils took her thoughts back to their kitchen at home. She so longed to return to her new Shaun Cassidy album and whatever lunch her mother had in store there.

A woman beside her mother sniffed audibly, so Angelique opened her eyes again to steal a sideways peek. Miss Harriet sat stock still with spindly fingers cupped in prayer, ropy blue veins bulging out from the pressure of her grip. A splash of water dropped onto them, and Angelique’s curiosity outweighed her better judgment. She spied a tear rolling down Miss Harriet’s age-spotted cheek, and it saddened her.

She nudged her mother and whispered, “Momma, somethin’ is wrong with Miss Harriet.” The surly woman’s quick snap and disapproving look were all it took for her daughter to realize her error. Such admonishment spurred Angelique to dread waking up on Sunday mornings. Now witnessing someone cry in church reinforced that desire to instead be home in her bed reading a Nancy Drew mystery or perched on the sofa watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. She’d much rather hear Marlin Perkins talk about lion cubs than someone drone on about the wages of sin.

A hard slap of Brother Welks’ hand against the speaker stand made Angelique jump in the pew. She gasped for breath, tightened the squeeze of her fingers, and asked God for release from the church’s sanctuary. They’d all be set free upon utterance of the morning’s final “Amen.” The pastor prayed and persuaded all he could, but no one took the invitation to come forward, so his job remained unfinished.

Another whiff of soup blew past Angelique’s face. Imagining the taste of Saltines in her mouth made the girl lick her lips in anticipation, and a hungry grumble stirred in her stomach. She knew all the words to Hey, Deanie and couldn’t wait to get to her record player to hear them again.

Her mother grasped her hand and tugged her to standing so they could finally follow everyone else out. Miss Harriet had already left the row and made it to the exit by then. She even beat the pastor to the door where he always greeted parishioners upon their exodus from the building. The poor woman wouldn’t have a chance to shake his hand in passing.

**

This week’s Studio 30+ writing prompt was quip.

Studio30 Image Credit: lenwilson.us via Creative Commons

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Frenemies

imagesR2TX8I3R Team sports were never my thing. They seemed to be for the goody, goody kids. The ones who studied all the time and still went to church as teenagers. Not that I was a bad kid. We just partied too much for our own good. Truthfully, it probably took more effort than I was willing to expend.

My son’s a likable little fella. When he was starting Kindergarten a couple years ago, I asked him how he thought he might go about meeting classmates on his first day. He said he would walk up to someone and propose, “Hey, you wanna be my friend? I’m a pretty good guy.” So sweet, and so naïve.

It wasn’t long before he was in full-on sports mode. He wanted to play all varieties of ball, which is fine until kids start getting hurt. Both physically and emotionally.

The concept of becoming a team was innocent enough at first. They learned the basics of the games, supposedly got schooled on sportsmanship, but also quickly fell into the dynamics of society at large — the fundamentals of not only the sport being played but how people act in groups. Groupthink. Behavior that became another lesson to learn along the way.

These boys already split off into factions that gang up on each other, pair up and pick on someone else they sense as weaker. A more sensitive boys perhaps, like my son. He tells me things some kids say that break a mom’s heart. I thought the stereotype fell on mean girls and didn’t appear until around middle school.

Some of the kids are great, and he excitedly went to a teammate’s 8th birthday party at a pool. Other teammates being there meant he felt a little less out of place with the birthday boy’s unfamiliar friends from school. I watched my boy making his way around the water, looking for a trustworthy playmate.

One of those so-called buddies didn’t act like one at the party. He pushed him up the stairs to the slide to make another boy laugh. My son told him repeatedly to stop it, but the other kid just mockingly parroted him. What a friend.

My gaze drifted in the direction of an older lady who ambled into the pool area in a terry cloth swimsuit cover-up. Her struggling gait made me doubt whether she could wind her way through all the short scrambling legs that rushed to the poles where pails showered water down on their heads. I wonder if the woman had a child she had worried about the way I do mine.

I realize kids can be crappy. My own son may act bad when I’m not looking. But this isn’t the first time that particular kid was a little shit as soon as his parents, whom I like well enough, had turned their heads. He curses, calls names. I kind of hope he’ll be shiftless and still living in their basement one day instead of going to college. Maybe not.

My immature and more uncivilized side urges me to suggest retaliation. Another part of me says situations like these will help guide his moral compass in the right direction and build my guy’s character. As a young girl, I had no coach tell me about being a good sport or give instructions on how to not let it bother me when people you think you know don’t act like you’re on the same team. I wish I could simply give my son a game plan to help him in all the gray areas. If only there was such a thing I could buy for myself so we could both learn how to come out victors in life.

**

This week’s Studio 30+ writing prompt “shiftless.” (image from zoomwalls.com) Studio30

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Baby steps

option4 Ivy stared at the foam from the shaving cream drizzling down her right leg as it circled the drain. She wondered how long it’d been since she last used a razor. At least two weeks from the looks of the thick, black stubble. More pressing issues occupied her mind lately — or at least they seemed increasingly important in her head.

Living with random negative thoughts inside her head proved the main problem. Ivy’s catastrophizing of manners that other people appeared to easily handle got the best of her. Realizing she lacked coping skills didn’t help her situation any.

Life was actually good. No specific cause brought on such self-doubt and constant anxiety. No one particular reason caused the incessant worry she dealt with almost every day of her life, yet her body teemed with cortisol from grossly exaggerated stressors. It felt like a constant case of “fight or flight syndrome.” The quickest release from that mental hold was to escape into sleep, easing an almost textbook clinical depression diagnosis.

She inwardly cursed herself for becoming a statistic, the typical angst-ridden teen back in college who put on the “freshman fifteen” that later became a troubling twenty pounds remaining on her former slight frame. Forever tugging at her waistband, never comfortable with how she looked, she shamed herself with each bite taken. “I shouldn’t be eating this,” said the inner critic. “You ought to be exercising.” Hatred for her own appearance took its toll.

Every such failure blew up in extreme proportions. Lack of will power. No initiative to advance. Not that anyone else thought these relatively miniscule hiccups such a big damn deal. Only to her, her own worst enemy.

Nothing came soon enough, quick enough, easy enough. She hadn’t reached career and personal goals yet and felt she may never get there. None of her friends had such a heavy cloud hanging above them, an ever-present portent of doom. Ivy turned up the radio on her commute to drown out thoughts of another boring day at the job she’d never love.

The elusive path to happiness, though actually tread one step at a time, stretched ominously in front of her. Almost every day she asked the universe if she’d ever get there. Funny, no one else probably suspected the inner demons she fought, her private war, since she kept up a brave — if not fraudulent — face in public.

A faint buzzing in the background brought her back to awareness when she stepped out of the shower. The cell phone’s vibration atop her wooden dresser, rather than its ringtone, snapped her back. She unenthusiastically answered, “Hullo,” into the bright plastic ladybug that encased her phone. She bought the cover on one of the pick-me-up shopping trips designed to bring on a good mood that usually lasted about as long as the drive home.

Cara’s voice came across light and chipper. Too exhaustingly full of life for Ivy’s liking. “Hey, girl,” her friend quipped, “wanna go for a walk with me? We need to soak in a little Vitamin D from all this sunshine!” Her invitation fell flat.

She drew back the heavy bedroom curtain and answered the question with one of her own, “Is it sunny out today?” She blinked at he bright light bursting forth from behind the fabric.

A happier tone than her own practically pulled Ivy to an alternate world through the telephone line. “Come on,” pleaded Cara. “You have to get out of the house today. It’s the weekend.”

Ivy opened the lingerie drawer in front of her to pull out a jog bra and some socks. She glanced down at a trickle of blood on her thigh bone where she’d unknowingly nicked herself. For at least this one moment, she wouldn’t let it get to her.

With a heavy sigh, Ivy acquiesced, “I’ll meet you at the park in 20 minutes.”

***

This week Studio 30+ offered up a writing prompt of “portent.”  Studio30

Image: http://www.cam.ac.uk

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The Comfort Zone

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A few months ago, I accepted an invitation from Lili Taylor to join her for a yoga class at a new studio she hadn’t yet tried. Her latest role in a horror film had taken a toll, and she wanted to release some tension at this restorative session. Lili is generally a very down-to-earth person, but she’s accustomed to the swankier sections of L.A. I was a novice not only to the class but that area of the city as well.

The scent of jasmine greeted us upon crossing the threshold of a lavish studio, with its freshly polished teak floors and low lighting that helped immediately reduce our blood pressure. I felt an instantaneous state of Zen. Lili pursed her lips in an affected kiss when I cast her a sideways glance in wide-eyed surprise. The place was amazing!

She warned me, “Now, remember, I don’t know much about the class. An instructor I met on set recommended I come try it out.” Her right eyebrow rose slightly, and she tilted her head to one side. “She seemed a little flaky, though.”

Everything about the studio appeared legitimate — its fancy foyer and decor, a receptionist who greeted us with an indiscernible yet exotic accent, the upscale location. I asked Lili, “What? Does something make you distrust her judgment?” She met some kooky people from time to time.

Nothing in her facial expression made me doubt her, but the steep shrug of her shoulders worried me. “Um, let’s just say that Starfire has a mercurial personality. That’s all.”

I thought I’d heard her correctly but asked, “Your friend’s name is Starfire?” A dubious feeling crept into my stomach. My friends had names like Amanda and Kirsten. Or Lili, for fuck sake. Lili, who noticed a concerned furrow developing in my brow-line. “I’m not used to all this hippy dippy Hollywood stuff,” I whispered to her.

Lili only smirked a little and said, “Come on. It’s supposed to be in the back.” I think I heard her laugh as I followed her down a red, crushed velvet wallpapered hallway.

Starfire stood in front of last doorway, her petite frame ensconced in a short, green Kimono. A thick crown of curls sat piled atop the woman’s head in an unbalanced fulcrum. She looked liked she could tip over at any moment. Instead, she smiled and a bold greeting billowed from her wide mouth. “Oh, Lili, I’m so glad you could make it! You can change in there.” Her hand swept forward in a broad gesture toward an adjacent shower room.

“It’s okay. We’re dressed already,” Lili responded, wagging a finger back and forth between us. As Starfire stepped aside to let two other participants wearing bath robes enter the room, we saw a sign on the door behind her that read, “Yoga with Starfire – Clothing Optional.”

I don’t know what Lili decided to do. I turned and ran back out to the street too quickly to find out.

***

Generated from Studio 30+ writing prompt “mercurialStudio30

Wouldn’t it be fun to go to yoga with Lili Taylor???

(Image: Joel Nilsson Nelson used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

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Role Reversal

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The bathroom faucet ran full blast while Ann Marie scrubbed her hands with antibacterial soap, wringing them over and over and willing the foam to cleanse her system of any germs she might happen to miss washing away. All the water being wasted never entered her mind as she muttered to herself, “Gotta get under the nails.” Her obsession to get them clean overrode even her previous distraction with the tasks that first dirtied them.

She swore she’d never admit it aloud to anyone. Not her mother or even her friends. She didn’t feel any natural inclination toward caretaking whatsoever and was ashamed of herself for it.

Fully realizing she wasn’t cut out for this type of work, she felt a responsibility to help out anyway. Ann Marie just loathed the aroma of it all. Such a noisome bother to her delicate sensibilities.

Cleaning up after other people’s bodily functions made her almost sick to her stomach, no matter how close the familial connection. Nursing was not Ann Marie’s forte.

Even a faint whiff of vomit or just the sound of another person breaking wind triggered her gag reflex and sent her scrambling for a waste basket. So helping care for her grandfather, at her mother’s insistence, exceeded her comfort level. She begged for any other task than his personal care – manicuring the lawn, cleaning out gutters, dusting the ceiling fans – anything except clipping ear hair or rinsing bed pans. Hearing other people’s bodily functions was just too intimate, especially at such close range in his tiny little house.

It broke her heart to so loath such closeness. The sights, the sounds, the smells.

Tears flowed from her eyes as water rushed into the kitchen sink. Having her hands submerged in floating food particles and dinner’s remnants didn’t compare, because she couldn’t see anything gross. Soap suds across the surface made washing dishes a thoughtless and impersonal action, one that lacked any human offal. Only imperceptible organic leftovers. No gas, urine or mucous.

She would willingly complete any other menial chore, clean the house or take out the trash. Flashes came to mind of how her parents left her with her grandpa when she was a toddler. He read her stories and helped teach her to ride a bike. No doubt he’d changed his share of her diapers, but she couldn’t fathom doing the same for him. Life’s circle brought her around to reciprocate nonetheless.

He called from the bedroom, “Ann Marie, come in here please.” His voice resounded with the pain that wracked his withering body, no longer the sturdy frame that previously towered above everyone throughout her comparatively short life span. An overwhelming odor took over her senses in crossing the door’s threshold. She blinked back a reaction so he couldn’t sense her disgust.

She feigned a smile and asked, “What do you need, Grandpa?” His kind eyes and gentle smile reminded Ann Marie how much he meant to her, how much she loved him. That’s why she was there. The phrase repeated in her head, “I can do this. I can do this.” Flipping on the table-top fan to sweep the smelly air in the opposite direction, she told him, “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

*The writing prompts “noisome or smelly” came from Studio 30+.

Studio30(top image: goodhusbanding.com)

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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A picture is worth a thousand screams

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I sat nodding in agreement looking at the pictures. People getting attacked by the animals with whom they tried to stage “selfies” had become quite an engulfing habit of mine.

What did they think was going to happen?

“This raccoon looks so cuddly. Maybe it wants me to touch it.” Fourteen rabies shots later she figured out she was very wrong. It didn’t want to be fed dog food.

An elephant doesn’t need any help in procuring hay. The gargantuan animal can handle its own mastication, thanks. Bet that smack to the head is going to hurt in the morning. Maybe the sign by the exhibit was meant to be taken seriously.

Drive-through animal parks are fun, eh? Unfortunately, the poor schmuck at the car wash will have to clean up the llama slobber instead of its owner. He’d wear rubber gloves if he knew that slime’s origin. If only the driver had to remove the mucus all over the steering wheel.

Surprise or not, growling might prove a prescient warning of impending doom. Flattened ears are a dead give-away (pun intended). Take the clue to back off. Better yet, how about you stay away in the first place?

Regardless of whether your plan is a slapdash attempt to secure the most popular pic on Instagram – a viral success with your followers’ adoration – ignorance precedes your photographic prowess. It’s a paradoxical certainty you will end up with a bandage or two. Maybe even a few scars. (*fingers crossed*)

It’s a wild animal after all.

+The Studio 30+ prompt this week, “nodding in agreement,” originally came from Tara. Studio30

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Seeking help

pillsThe doctor said not to be too concerned about the change. I told him, “There’s just such a distinct difference. The personality changes are so pronounced.” This being the first time he’d seen her, the man wouldn’t necessarily know any better. He saw so many patients in a day that he probably only knew them from what he wrote down in their files. A prescription pad might be all he felt he needed.

Dr. Franklin sat shaking his head unapologetically while my pulse raced and feelings of hopelessness spun out of control. “You can’t understand, she wasn’t like this before. She … I … you just don’t know her.” The dull affect was a first warning sign. Her personality had changed. Something was missing although I was at a loss to explain it to him, the so-called professional. Shouldn’t he have learned about these things in medical school?

I looked out the three-paned window at the dreary winter sky, stratified in bleak layers of gray, pale pink and slate blue. The coldness it foreshadowed chilled me to the bone. Turning back to the doctor, I noticed a look of impatience on his face.

The man didn’t seem to take notice of my mother sitting in a wheelchair beside his desk, her gaze turned blankly to the wall. He said, “I’m sorry, but we need to hurry this along. Other patients are waiting.”

*The weekly writing prompt at Studio 30+ was something was missing. (image via John on Flickr)

Studio30

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