Vanishing (excerpt)

Vanishing

I’m slipping away. Like Paul Simon sings, “you know the nearer your destination the more you’re slip-slidin’ away.” I lose a little of myself each day. I’ve heard the first thing to go as you age is your memory but mine is as good as ever. At present I’m more worried about my fingers. The first one I lost was my right pinky. As a right-handed guitar player, I always said if I had to lose a finger it should be that one. I never had much use for it. I could do all the finger picking I needed with my thumb and the other three fingers. That’s all I needed for 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures, that is, when I was still playing. Now the thought of playing makes me melancholy. So many sad memories of my youth are associated with the songs I played then and I don’t feel much like learning new songs. The death of my dad when I was a boy. Being beat up in a brutal way by two bully brothers soon thereafter. And much later, the sudden death of John Denver, the idol of my youth and the reason I took up the guitar. Even his happy songs of my younger days make me blue. But when I was playing I used all the fingers of my left hand, so to me it made sense to lose the right pinky first.

I’m not a diabetic. My doctor doesn’t know why my finger just detached itself one day. There was no blood. It just turned a sickly sepia color and one morning it was no longer part of me. I didn’t notice it until I showered. Running my fingers through my hair felt odd somehow. I looked down at my pinkyless hand and screamed. I searched for it everywhere and eventually found it tangled in my bed sheets like part of a broken pen.  I thought I was in some bad horror movie (is there any other kind?). My doctor ordered all sorts of tests. Nothing turned up out of the ordinary…

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Worker.undoc (excerpt)

…Later, at Patrick’s apartment, after Diego went back home to be with his “wife,” I asked Patrick what the deal was. That’s when he told me of Diego’s “status.”

“Oh, he’s an undocumented worker,” he said matter-of-factly. “He paid a coyote a thousand dollars to transport him across the border in California. He grew up in a slum outside San Salvador without electricity or running water, with nine brothers and sisters all fending for survival amid rampant crime and drugs. He arrived in D.C. about a year ago. I met him at a club and that’s when we started dating.”

“You’re dating an illegal alien?” I replied, shocked.

Patrick winced. “I prefer the term undocumented worker,” he said, twisting his lips in a familiar way.

“What about his wife and daughter?” I asked. “What’s that all about?”

“Oh, Robin married him so he could get apply for his green card. The little girl is from a previous relationship. They’re all living together and “playing house;” they pretend to be married whenever a guvvie comes to visit. Sometimes the INS comes over unannounced; that’s why Diego spends as much time there as possible.”

“Why did she agree to it? Doesn’t she know she could get in big trouble?”

“She likes Diego. Though she’d never admit it I think she’s hoping to convert him.”

“You can’t be serious.”

In the space of a few minutes, I had learned of at least three crimes that had been or were being committed: Diego’s illegal entry and continuing presence in the country, a fraudulent “marriage” to gain citizenship, and Diego’s “wife’s” fraudulent role in the charade. Those were the ones I knew of; my fellow lawyers at INS could probably point out others.

I was deeply troubled by this news. Here I was, fresh out of law school and charged with upholding the laws of the government, and I had knowledge of serious crimes being committed. I wondered how Patrick, a man of morals and character, could be so flippant about being involved with an illegal alien and doing nothing about it. We’d been raised to respect the law and not stand by idly if we witnessed a crime being committed.

When I left Pat that day to walk home I was terribly bothered. On the one hand, I felt morally obligated to report the crimes. If I didn’t I might lose my job. If my boss found out I knew of these crimes and did nothing about it, she might be forced to terminate me for legal or, more likely, political reasons. On the other hand I didn’t want to rat out Pat’s lover. He told me it was the first time he’d ever been in love and I knew how much Diego meant to him. If I alerted the authorities it would almost certainly lead to Diego’s deportation and put a severe strain on my relationship with Pat. It might even sever our friendship altogether.

To try to solve my dilemma, when I got home I decided to do some research. Though I was a lawyer, I was not familiar with immigration law; I searched through the Internet and my law school textbooks and discovered that I was not legally obligated to report crimes that had been committed, but that I was obligated to report crimes that were being planned. Furthermore, I was also obligated to report any crime that was a felony. (I learned that crossing the U.S. border once is a misdemeanor, but making repeated attempts constitutes a felony; I didn’t know how many times Diego had tried). Based on my cursory investigation (which I intended to supplement with a call to a friend at INS), I believed I was legally obligated to report Diego’s situation, which would inevitably also implicate his “wife” and perhaps even my brother…

Bent Bad (excerpt)

Here’s an excerpt from a novel I’m working on.  It’s called Bent Bad.  I hope you enjoy it.

Bent Bad

The young boy with dark blue eyes, almost black, was playing in the kitchen when the phone rang. His mother answered while his baby sister played in the playpen. He watched as his mother’s face contorted in a strange way, but he couldn’t discern her emotional state. All facial expressions were the same to him. She dropped the phone. It bounced sharply against the floor and came to rest like a rubber doll, the cord a useless umbilical. She rushed to the living room to turn on the TV. Soon she heard the words, “President Kennedy is dead.” The boy watched her go limp and fall to the floor. He went to her with a look of curiosity and stood over her.

“Mom, wake up,” he said. “Wake up.”

His sister, still too young to talk, sensed her mother’s heartache and began screaming. The boy went over to the playpen and shouted at her to shut up. She stopped screaming and whimpered instead.

When his mother didn’t wake the boy went to the dining room and dragged a chair behind him. It made a skidding, irritating noise on the linoleum. He pulled the chair up to the sink and filled a cup with water. He spilled much of it as he maneuvered off the chair and returned to the living room, nearly falling in the process. He carried the water to his prostrate mother. He knelt down and poured the water into her half-open mouth. She choked and then revived. Momentarily disoriented she looked up at her son, sat up, and held him to her. He stood stiffly as she hugged him. Remembering the tragedy she broke down in tears, hugging her rigid son until he pulled away. The woman’s daughter screamed in the playpen. She went over and picked her up and soothed her. The little girl quieted down but she still sensed her mother’s pain.

Three days later, as her little daughter napped, the young boy’s mother was sobbing. Her body heaved, wracked with grief so searing it appeared she might throw up. She wrung her hands like a magician as she plopped grief-stricken on a chair in the living room. She stared listlessly at the grainy images on the black-and-white TV screen. Tears formed tiny pools in her lower eyelids, holding there for a moment in seeming defiance of gravity before spilling down her cheeks. Her body slumped as though she’d died sitting there; her arms drooped like large noodles and resting in her lap. She held tissues in her fists and dabbed at her eyes. The unimaginable had happened. The unthinkable made real.

Moving toward the living room slowly from the spotless kitchen, the boy pulled his Radio Flyer wagon behind him to investigate the unfamiliar sound of his mother weeping. The wagon held a single toy, The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. It was his favorite. In the center of the Tin Man’s chest was a heart-shaped button. When he pressed it, it made a whining sound. He moved toward his mother as he would a distant relative, someone vaguely familiar but not to be trusted. He stopped before reaching her. She was sniffling as she watched the screen. She held up several tissues and dabbed her eyes. He turned and looked at the TV and saw a flag-draped coffin on a big wagon with wooden wheels and pulled by a team of white horses. Soldiers walked on either side of the wagon. The camera panned the crowd. Everyone was dressed in black. Women wore black veils covering their faces. He heard drumming, a steady cadence. The boy sensed that someone important had died.

Now, as he watched his mother cry again as the clip-clop of the horses pulled the wagon and the coffin, he walked up to his mom and pressed the button on The Tin Man. It made a cat-like, wailing sound. When she didn’t take note of this, he pressed it again and again until she looked down and caressed his face. He pulled away from her. He didn’t like to be touched. He’d rather be beaten than touched. The boy, then four, retreated to a corner of the room and played in the half-light between shadow and sun. He pulled the red wagon around and around in a small counter-clockwise circle, an unconscious mimicry of the horse-drawn carriage on TV. He figured his mother needed to be alone with her sorrow, and he didn’t like to be near her when she cried. The Tin Man toy lay on its stomach. He liked it that way—protected from harm and looking inward. The boy was that way too. He had to keep distance from everything and everyone near him. It was his way. It was the way he moved through the world.

Crimson Cowl (excerpt)

Crimson Cowl

     Crimson Cowl had just turned 13 and become a woman. That’s how her mother explained menarche, but in Crimson’s naïve mind the word was distorted into malarkey. “Not malarkey,” her mother said. “Malarkey is nonsense and menarche is…is…” “Is what?” Crimson pressed. “It’s when you become a woman.” “You already said that.” “Oh, never mind. “We’ll talk about it some other time.”

“I want to see Grandma,” Crimson said later. “I haven’t seen her in such a long time.” Her mother rubbed her hands together like a magician, the way she did when she was nervous. “Well, all right. But be sure to stay on the main roads.” So Mrs. Cowl packed Crimson a basket containing a sandwich, a blood orange, and a cherry box drink. “Be careful,” she said, “and call me the second you get there.” “I will, Mom.”

Crimson set out for her grandmother’s house. She stuck to the main roads as her mother told her, but as she walked she spied some beautiful flowers in the forest away from the road. She forgot her mother’s instructions and peered into the trees, and seeing nothing dangerous she pranced to the flowers and picked some: balsamroot, buttercups, lupine, and some lush green plants. She thought her grandma would love them. She picked the flowers and put them in her basket, then picked the leaves of the lush plants. She absently took a few leaves and put them in her mouth and chewed them. They were bitter but she liked how they made her feel. She soon felt woozy and everything started to spin. She plopped down on the ground in a lush spot of greenery. Her basket overturned and everything spilled out.

Later she got up and thought she heard a rustling in the trees and the mournful howl of a dog. She spun on her heels and saw a large dog running toward her. It was grey and black with a bushy tail. Its head was down as it loped her way. Crimson’s first instinct was to run but she stood still. She knew she couldn’t outrun this dog. As it drew closer she saw it wasn’t a dog at all. It was a wolf! It stopped next to her. To her amazement it talked.

“What are you doing out here all alone, little girl?” the wolf spoke in a growling yet pleasant voice.

“I’m on my way to grandmother’s house,” she replied innocently.

“The forest is no place for a little girl.”

“I know. My mother told me to stick to the main roads.”

The wolf licked his lips. “I tell you what. I’ll escort you to your grandmother’s. I’ll be your protector.”

Crimson curtsied. “That’s awfully kind of you, Mr. Wolf. But if you simply show me the way back to the road I can make my own way.”

“I won’t hear of it. Come. Follow me.”

So the wolf trotted along. Crimson gathered up her basket and flowers and followed. The wolf led her off a well-worn path into the darkest part of the forest. “Where are you taking me?” Crimson said with a hint of fear. “This isn’t the way to Grandma’s.” “I know a shortcut,” the wolf said. Crimson grew fearful but by now she was lost and she could never find grandmother’s house alone, so she had no choice but to follow the wolf. She followed and followed and grew tired. “I must stop and rest, Mr. Wolf,” she panted. “If you must,” he said in a raspy voice. She drank the cherry drink her mother had packed for her. Some of it dribbled down her chin. “Would you like some?” she offered the wolf. He took the box from her and tasted it, then spat it out. “Too sweet.”

They continued on until it grew dark. “This can’t be the way,” Crimson said. “This doesn’t look familiar.” “Not much further,” the wolf said and suddenly darted ahead and Crimson lost sight of him. Now she couldn’t see very much and she walked fearfully through the dark forest. She walked forward for a spell and then suddenly felt a force push her down, like a strong gust of wind, and pin her down. She struggled with whatever it was. The furry creature bit her near what her mother called her miffkin and she started to bleed down her leg. She could see the blood ooze in the moon’s light.

“Surrender!” the creature growled and Crimson realized it was the wolf. Not knowing what she was supposed to surrender, the girl kicked and clawed and screamed and somehow managed to get away. She threw down her basket and ran back to where she had come from. Through briars and witch’s burrs she managed to find her way out of the forest and onto the road leading to her grandmother’s house. She finally found her house and went up to the door and knocked. Hearing no answer she checked the door and found it open. “Grandma!” she called as she entered. But there was no answer. “Grandma?” She heard a slight sound coming from the bedroom. Crimson walked tentatively toward it. “Grandma?” “Here I am,” she said in a cracking voice. The girl walked to the side of the bed. “Aren’t you feeling well, Granny? Your voice sounds strange.” “Oh, I must be coming down with something, dear,” her grandma said in a gruff tone. “And your ears. They’re large and hairy.” “I can hear you just fine.” “How about your eyes? They’re yellow and beady.” “I see better than ever.” Crimson studied her grandmother’s mouth. “You teeth are long and sharp.” Just then the wolf threw off the covers. “The better to eat you with,” he howled. “Ahh!” Crimson yelled and grabbed a lampstand and bashed the wolf over the head with it. It fell to the floor with a thud. Crimson searched the house and found her grandma tied up in the bathroom. She quickly untied her. When they went back into the bedroom the wolf was gone. “Where has he gone, Grandma?” Crimson asked. “Not to worry, child. He’s gone for now but rest assured he’ll return as sure as the next moon. You rest now and I’ll make you some hot chocolate. Crimson fell asleep as her grandma swished in her slippers in the kitchen.”

The Killer in Each of Us (essay)

The Killer in Each of Us (Non-fiction excerpt)

When the sun descends, when the earth is enveloped in its own shadow, as though swallowed by a cosmic dragon, as it languishes in its belly until it is once again disgorged with the advent of the sun, what foul fiends are unleashed into the tyranny of night? You stay in your homes and push all thoughts of evil and mayhem away, but you know the beasts are out there. You know malevolence lurks in hidden alleys, filling sewers and gutters with its putrefied pestilence and poison.

You tell yourself you could never live as a creature of the night, but how can you know until you have faced your own demons? You walk on a bridge of twigs over a raging river. You hold onto a frayed vine over a chasm. You stand on soggy ground over a sinkhole ready to swallow you. And all your beliefs and fairytale notions cannot hold back the dread you feel as you close your eyes and wait for sleep. In those few moments the night seeps into your thoughts, but you push it away like a needy child so it is forced to appear to you in dream.

There is a darkness in all of us, an emptiness wherein hides the things not visible in the light of day. It’s in the nature of things. We live in a world of opposites: good and evil, light and dark, sun and shadow. And there’s intelligence in the order of things. Even darkness and evil have their places in the cosmic design. For what is dark but the absence of light and what is evil except the corruption of what is good? Each person is a killer. We cannot survive without taking life, even if a person is vegetarian or vegan. So wonder no more where the killing instinct comes from; it is wired into our DNA and no one can escape the inevitable. Life feeds on life. That’s the way of all the world.

Contemplating Narcissus (excerpt)

Contemplating Narcissus (excerpt)

After burying the raven Larry had shot with his arrow he and I walked around the lake. We took turns with the bow and hunted frogs and turtles mostly but occasionally we’d aim for a fish, always remembering to shoot below it. My dad said it had to do with the way water bends light. It sounded odd but it was true. We had better luck when we listened to my dad’s advice. We stopped to rest. We sat on a wet log on the bank and breathed in the clean air. We listened to the birds singing and cackling, and the sounds of fish splashing as they surfaced for insects and quickly returned underwater. We looked out on the lake; we could see the cornflower blue sky and the white, gossamer clouds reflected in the water. The clouds looked like strips of gauze in a patchwork sky.

After a while, as Larry practiced aiming with his bow, I got up and walked to the edge of the lake. The surface of the lake was as calm as a baby sleeping. For no apparent reason I knelt down at the edge of the water; it reminded me of kneeling at the communion rail at church. I leaned out over the water and meant to gaze beneath it, but instead I was startled by my own reflection. I leaned in a little closer to study my features. Just then a fish jumped nearby and caused a ripple in the water. I felt a shiver course through me involuntarily. The water settled again and became a perfect mirror.

“Hey Larry. Come here a second.”

“What do you want?” he said, slightly annoyed. He no doubt was hunting frogs or turtles.

“Just come here, would you?”

He walked up beside me, looking at me in a peeved way. “Well?”

“Take a look.”

He leaned out over the water. “So big deal, haven’t you ever seen your own reflection before?”

“Not like this, not on the water.”

“Geez,” he said, shaking his head. He turned to walk away.

“Wait. Who do you think I look like?”

“What?”

“Who do I look like?”

“Huck Finn,” he deadpanned.

“No, really. Who do you think I look like?”

“You’re killing me, Malory.”

“I never saw it before, but I think I look like my mother.”

“Well, she is your mother! You’re supposed to look like her! Would you rather look like my mother?”

“I look more like my mother than I do my father. I think the resemblance is rather striking.”

“Are you through admiring yourself yet, Mrs. Damper?”

I stood up quickly. “Don’t call me that!” I said harshly.

“Hey Larry,” I said of a sudden, “do you think I’m like my mom?”

“Geez, will you get off it?”

“No. I don’t mean physically; I mean her personality.”

Larry clucked his tongue in annoyance. “What do you mean?”

“You can be honest. Am I like her?”

He screwed up his eyes at me but remained silent.

“C’mon, you’ve been around her. You know how bossy she can be and sometimes mean. And suspicious—”

Larry pursed his lips as if tasting something tart. “No, you’re none of those things; you’re the opposite. The only thing about her that you duplicate is…you’re nervous.”

“What do you mean?” I said defensively and stood up.

“Uptight, on edge, but don’t worry about it. Nobody’s perfect—not even me,” he kidded.”

“Nervous,” I whispered to myself and considered his observation. I disagreed with Larry but kept my opinion to myself.

“C’mon,” my friend said. “Let’s circle around the lake again.”

A Spot of Heaven (excerpt)

A Spot of Heaven

An elderly couple, married more than 50 years with three grown children, eight grandchildren, and an infant great-grandchild, pulls off the road and picks up a hitchhiker. Alice expresses misgivings about doing so but Chester says he just looks like a young man down on his luck. “Besides, he seems harmless enough,” he coaxes his wife with greying hair and dozens of coppery age spots on her hands. “Oh, all right,” Alice relents. “If you think so. You always were a good judge of character.” “Then how did I end up with you?” he quips. “You old fool,” she laughs.

The young hitchhiker climbs into the back seat, toting an army duffle bag, which he holds protectively in his arms as though it were a weapon. It’s worn and faded, matching him in appearance. He has a scraggly beard, like a patchwork quilt. His eyes dart nervously but he avoids making eye contact with either Chester or Alice. “Where are you headed?” Chester says, adjusting the rearview mirror. “Out west,” the man fumbles his words, nearly incoherent. It seems to Chester the young man is trying to work something troubling out in his mind. “I hear there’s work in Colorado,” the passenger volunteers after a pause. Alice turns in her seat and sizes up their passenger. “Colorado? You’re a long way from home, Sonny!” “It’s not home. It’s just where I’m going.” “Where is home?” The passenger either doesn’t hear her or ignores the question. Alice feels a tinge of doubt tickle her insides. She’s not sure if he’s a good egg, as her mother used to say. She glances at Chester but he doesn’t catch it.

“I’ve got an idea,” Chester blurts out suddenly. “Why not come to our home for a nice home-cooked meal? You can shower and sleep over. Then I’ll run you up to the interstate in the morning. I see young people hitching rides there from time to time.” The young traveler seems stymied and searches for words. “I don’t want to impose.” “It’s no imposition.” Chester glances at his wife. “Is it, Alice?” She studies her husband’s look and glowers at him. He isn’t normally so generous or unguarded. “No,” she says shakily.

“Since you’re going to be our guest,” Chester beams as they pull into their drive, “it’s only polite to introduce ourselves. I’m Chester. This is my wife Alice.” He extends his hand after they climb out of the car. The young man is caught off-guard for a moment. He sticks out his hand awkwardly. “Achilles,” he says. Chester shakes his hand generously. “What a fine name. An ancient, mythical name. Is your family Greek?” “On—on my dad’s side.” Achilles speaks in short staccato bursts, like a semi-automatic rifle.

Chester leads Achilles inside. “Guests first,” he smiles. Achilles notices the door is unlocked. He raises an eyebrow. “We don’t bother with locking the door during the day,” Chester explains. “Ours is a quiet, little town.” Achilles stands in stilted fashion in the kitchen. “Why don’t you set that heavy duffle bag down? It won’t sprout legs,” Chester teases. “You must be tired of lugging it around.” Achilles swings it off his shoulder. It thuds on the floor. Alice thinks she hears something metallic thump against the floor. “Now. Want something to wet your whistle? We have pop and juice and—” “Any beer?” “No. ‘Fraid not.” “I—I’ll have whatever you’re having then.” “Easy going? I like that in a man.”

Chester and Achilles sit in the living room while Alice nervously prepares dinner. She’s making fried chicken, instant potatoes, and green beans. And store-bought German-Chocolate cake for dinner. She glances into the living room frequently. She can’t shake a feeling of foreboding about their guest. Achilles seems all jittery. And he won’t part with his duffle bag. He keeps it next to him. She’s worried he might be on drugs and she knows what drug addicts will do to support their habit. She’s peeved at Chester. He seems clueless as to the danger he’s put them in. She wants to ask Chester to withdraw the invitation, just drive Achilles up to the interstate right now, but she can’t bring herself to be so rude. Hospitality above personal safety, it seems, is her unspoken rule.

Chester is full of questions for Achilles as they eat. “Where are you from? Were you in the army? Why kind of work are you looking for?” “Let our guest eat in peace,” Alice reprimands. Achilles says little, just a few words at a time. He’s engrossed in the meal. Alice can’t help but notice. He is ravenous. “This is the best meal I’ve had in I don’t know how long.” “Alice is a good cook, isn’t she?” “I’ll say,” Achilles responds. “You—you’re a lucky man!” he lets slip and seems to castigate himself for his spontaneity…

(deleted part)…

“What is it, Achilles? Are you leaving? Can’t it wait ‘til morning?”

He pauses, lost in thought. “I,” he finally begins, “was going to kill you. Take all your money and leave. I’m not sure why I didn’t. It’s been so long since anyone showed me any kindness.” The young man’s voice cracked with emotion.

It’s strange but Alice’s fear suddenly left her. “Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll fix you something to eat? You’ll need nourishment for the long trip ahead.”

They sit quietly in the dining room. Achilles eats leftover chicken while Alice drinks hot tea. Chester wakes up an hour later and comes down to the dining room. “What? Have you had breakfast without me?” he kids Alice. “No,” Alice replies. “I was just about to cook up some eggs and sausage for all of us.”

“Wonderful!” he says.

Alien-Alien Encounter (excerpt)

Alien-Alien Encounter

I sit in my apartment watching a rerun of the X-Files. Flashback of Agent Muldur’s little sister being taken away by aliens. I’ve been living in California for several years now, faking a marriage to get my green card. I’ve been a migrant laborer for years and now I’m working as a waiter. My English has gotten quite good. I hear a sudden boom outside, like lightning and an LP scratching mixed together. It sounds like Doc Brown’s time traveling train has just materialized, hovering over my apartment. I go outside tentatively. Seeing nothing I turn to go back inside when I am lifted up into what I take to be a beam of light. It has no substance yet I cannot move. It appears orchid in color, of a purplish hue. Something within the beam sparkles, like fireflies but miniscule. With great effort I’m able to look above me. I see the vague outline of a vast ship. It’s wedge-shaped, like the B-2 bomber, only unfathomably larger. My heart backfires. I imagine it as a prisoner in a cage of bone. I’m sweating suddenly. Water runs down my armpits toward my waist.

I look and see a round door open above me from which sun-rivaling light emanates. It makes no sound. I am held inside the beam. Four alien-looking creatures with big, Disney princess eyes and Edvard Munch’s The Scream faces support me with their white-tipped frog-like hands. The beam shuts off. They strap me into a chair perfectly proportioned to fit my frame. The restraints are made of a material I’ve never felt before. Kind of like wet lips. The restraints feel soft but they don’t budge when I try to yank free. I’m bound at my wrists, elbows, chest, knees, and ankles. My four captors leave the room. I feel the craft whoosh away at great speed. Soon afterward a single creature walks up to me. He stands beside me. He studies me, looking me over like a cut of meat.

“Name,” he states in a voice like billiard balls clacking.

It takes me a few seconds to realize what he wants.

“Julio. Who are you? What is this place?”

“Laboratory.” The creature twitches like an insect.

“Who are you? What is your name?”

He considers my interrogatory. “Blorfo.”

God Doesn’t Go to the Bathroom (excerpt)

Ah, childhood.  A time of magic and mayhem.  Most of this story actually happened.  I used a little poetic license.  Enjoy!

God Doesn’t Go to the Bathroom

 Sister Norah (we called her Sister Gomorrah but never within earshot) was, like many nuns at St. Martha’s Grade School in Oldton, Ohio, a strict disciplinarian. Back in the 60s nuns had two options: teach or become nurses. Perhaps Sister Norah would have been a good nurse. All I can tell you is she was a terrible teacher. I say this for one simple reason: she hated us. She was a child-hater. Her demeanor showed this every day. Her mouth was set in a permanent scowl, more like a tear in her face. And it wasn’t just me who thought so. Virtually every child in my fourth grade class believed this, even the teacher’s pet—Priscilla Mason. When I went to school back in those days most of the teachers were nuns, and Sister Norah was the most feared nun on the faculty. Her classroom was a place of terror and she was the tyrannical queen, like the Queen of Hearts Alice has to contend with.

Alice wouldn’t have fared well in Sister Norah’s classroom. She would have been gobbled up and spit out like the rest of us. And Alice would never have awoken from her dream. It would have lasted an entire year and longer if she’d been held back. Sister Norah had many rules, which she posted in large block letters on the front wall. She had ten to be exact, much like The Ten Commandments:

  1. Sister Norah is the ruler of the classroom. Obey her.
  2. Be prompt. Any student who is tardy will be sent to the principal’s office for discipline.
  3. Be quiet. This includes before and after the bell rings. Never run in the classroom or in the hallways.
  4. Speak only when called upon by Sister Norah. Stand beside your desk when speaking.
  5. Raise your hand to be recognized by Sister Norah.
  6. Never make a joke. When speaking always be serious.
  7. Always pay attention. A wandering eye finds trouble.
  8. Boys and girls are to remain separate at all times. This applies in the classroom, in lines, on the playground, and in the cafeteria.
  9. Keep your eyes on your own work. Cheating will be dealt with most severely.
  10. Go to the bathroom only at designated times, never during class.

The last commandment was enforced with rigor. We were allowed to use the lavatory before and after recess, before and after lunch, and at the end of the day if we could manage it before boarding the bus. If a student felt an urge at other times he or she was expected to hold it until the next designated time. This, of course, presented problems. We were fourth-graders, nine and ten years old. We could not easily control our bodily functions, so there were infractions. It took great courage to raise your hand in Sister Norah’s class, and even more courage to raise it to ask to use the bathroom. One day in the winter I held my urine as long as possible and then in desperation I raised my hand. Sister Norah, as irritated as ever, called on me. “Yes, Malory?” she growled. I stood beside my desk as was our duty. “Sister, I have to go the bathroom, please.”

“Malory, please read the 10th commandment posted behind me!”

I looked up and read: “Go to the bathroom only at designated times, never during class.”

I squirmed while I waited. I was in great pain. “Is there anything about the 10th commandment you don’t understand?”

“No, but I really have to go.”

She pursed her lips. “When will you children learn? The commandments are absolute! There are no exceptions. God doesn’t go to the bathroom! And you should strive to be like God in all things. Sit down, Malory.”

“I don’t think I can hold it,” I said bravely.

“You can and you will! Now sit down!”

The next minutes were terribly painful. I thought my bladder would burst and the urine inside me would poison my innards. After crossing my legs and holding myself for many minutes, the pain eased somewhat. I still felt the need to go but it was not as insistent. As soon as the bell rang I dashed for the bathroom. “Malory Damper,” Sister scolded, “what does Commandment Number Three say.” I danced in discomfort. “Never run,” I said. “Right. I suggest you follow it.” I said I would. I walked awkwardly to the door and then dashed down the stairs to the lavatory. I threw down my books and stood in front of the urinal and relieved myself. It was like eating chocolate ice cream. Afterward I zipped up, grabbed my books, and ran for the bus.

Oberon is Here (excerpt)

I walked into a modern production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I was cast in the role of Oberon, the king of the faeries.  I was the consort of Titania.  It was my first dramatic role.  I fell into it without even trying.  Henry, a friend from work who was passionate about all things theatrical, coaxed me into it.  He said the small theatre company he belonged to was short on players.

“It’ll be fun,” he said and chucked me on the shoulder.  “C’mon.  What do you have to lose?”

“How large will the audience be?” I said, genuinely frightened.

“If we’re lucky, slightly larger than the cast,” he laughed.

I reluctantly agreed.  “Besides,” he added, “you’ll get to meet all the other players.  You might even get laid.  Theatre girls are very uninhibited as a rule.”

“Really?” I replied with a tingle of desire.

Henry paused.  “No, not really.  But I’m still trying.  I’ve been trying to nail Angela for months.”

I went with Henry for the first rehearsal. On the way he told me a little about the company.  “We’re amateurs.  Nobody gets paid, not even the director.  We do a lot of Shakespeare but we’ve also done A Doll’s House, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Angels in America and lots more.”

“Do you go on the road?”

“Ha!  That’s a good one!  No, we’re strictly local here in Youngstown, Ohio.”

The first rehearsal was held in the basement of the local Unitarian Universalist Church.  I felt awkward, first for being in the play, and second, for being in the Unitarian Universalist Church.  I’d been raised Catholic and though I had given up practicing it long ago being in any church gave me the willies.

The director was an emaciated man with exaggerated feminine splashes of behavior.  Darius stuck out his hand in an effeminate way.  “So you’re our Oberon?”  I took his hand, fearing I would snap his bones if I squeezed too hard.  “Yes.”  He looked me over.  “Well, beggars can’t be choosers.  You’ll do, that is, if you always do things my way.

All the cast members met.  I could see why Henry was enamored with Angela.  She was a blonde beauty with azure eyes.  I was taken with her from the start.  She was a regular member of the cast.  She said hello to me and disappeared among people she knew.  But I could’ve sworn she kept looking at me.

We rehearsed three nights a week generally.  Once we got bumped because the church was having a social and someone forgot.  Darius threw a fit.  I saw Angela lingering near the door.  I was confused at first, and then I became convinced she was waiting for me.  When I got to the door she motioned for me to step aside.  She asked if I wanted to have some coffee.  Through fumbled words I said, “Sure I would.  I mean yeah.”  She smiled.

Angela and I started seeing each other after rehearsals, first for coffee, then for drinks, and then for late dinners.

“What do you do for a living?” she asked early on.

“Nothing exciting.  My company makes ink.  I’m in sales.”

“You mean like a newspaper?”

“No.  I mean we make ink…the liquid that goes into pens and other stuff.  What about you?”

“I’m a waitress, have been for years.”

“Have you ever gone to New York or someplace where there are more opportunities for actresses.  You should.  You have talent.  I mean I’m no professional critic or anything, but I think you have what it takes.”

“No.  I’m studying to be a nurse. That’s what I want.  This I do for fun.”

She invited me up after dinner.  I spent the night.  It was a long drink from Heaven’s cup.

In the morning at work Henry accosted me.  “Judas!” he hissed.  I looked up from my desk.  “What?”  “You heard me!  You knew I have it bad for Angela and now look at you.  Have you fucked her yet?”

I stood suddenly.  “That’s none of your business and besides, she approached me.”  “You sure put up a big fight.”  “Look, Henry.  You were only trying to get into Angie’s pants.  What we have is much deeper.”

“Well fuck you very much!”  He stormed away.

I told Angie about what happened.  “Oh.  I’m not surprised.  Henry has a reputation among the girls.  He’s just out to get laid and he’s failing miserably.”

“So he’s hit on you?”

“Sure, until I told him to fuck off.”

Henry didn’t show up at the next rehearsal or the next one.  I saw him at work so I knew he wasn’t sick.  I dared not approach him given his feelings toward me.  He’d been cast in the role of Puck so Darius was in a state.  Angie suggested me for the role before I arrived.  Darius put up a fight.  “Just give him a chance,” she implored.

I walked into the basement.

“Oberon is here!” Angie said and smiled.  I smiled back.