Being a shut-in can be a blessing. No one expects anything of you, and people are genuinely surprised if you show up for anything. Borrowing from my experience as a contemporary hermit, I can assure you that people like me have found their collective voice on social media.
I broke up with three guys on Facebook immediately after November 8th, 2016. When I complained to my husband about how my ex-boyfriend from college had written something rude about something on his most recent post, I asked if he (my husband) would please read my second to last post from the day before regarding misogyny so that he could figure out if he thought that it was, from the ex-boyfriend, a secret slam against me. What was my ex-boyfriend implying? Wasn’t that rude? Didn’t he agree?
In the way only a life partner of thirty years can draw attention to the obvious, my husband shed light on some possibly unhealthy attachments I’d been harboring toward men I’d known thirty-plus years prior. He would say in passing, ‘How did Dave respond when you commented on his comment on your thread about global warming? Or was it the article on human cloning? Maybe it was Devin I’m thinking of?’ He’d scratch his chin. ‘Which one is the fly fisherman? I can’t keep up.’
The hate feels boundless and primal on the worldwide web, so, like any responsible adult, I send it right back. I should add here that it has been suggested by some who are ‘concerned’ about my emotional health that I’m not actually engaged in ‘debates’, and have recommended I refer to practitioners of Eastern Religion, as they are an insightful group with long life spans. They think I should consider joining in on all the sacred calmness they’re having. I’d like to highlight here that getting my point across and winning an argument is also something sacred- to me.
Continuing on the topic of religion, that brings me to a funny little thing. I’d gotten into an online tussle by someone who went by the handle, TooTightInJersey. I’m no Bible thumper by any means, but I decided to comment on an image someone had posted depicting Jesus in the manger with glowing red eyes and horns. The little scamp was even sporting fangs. I wrote, ‘I don’t think this is right. Baby Jesus means something to a lot of people and you should respect that.’ TooTight disagreed. TooTight replied, ‘Why don’t you pull that pole out of your ass and eat shit.’ I certainly didn’t take it personally. Listen, we all have bad days, and in the spirit of intellectual debate, TooTight is allowed to share a few thought-provoking perspectives. In turn, I’d like to believe that TooTight, while exercising such profound wisdom, would recognize my stance on the subject. Even as I type this, TooTight is probably writing his dissertation after volunteering at a soup kitchen. Wherever TooTight hangs his hat, I’m sure he’s penning another auspicious diatribe he’ll soon post for the ages.
Thank goodness I’m applying the two college degrees I’ve earned toward the greater good. Throwing down with Reddit users in a Battle of the Wits is just how I figured my life would turn out. It’s hard not to brag.
My mom died in her sleep. Her heart could not pump as it once did, and fluid collected around her lungs. When she could speak, she assured me there was no pain, so we spent as much time with her as we could. I can remember thinking that watching her disappear was actually beautiful, although I can’t remember why I thought that, anymore.
I would make best friends and lose them. I would leave for school, come home again, get married, change jobs, and have babies. Through all of it, I always had a mother. For two weeks, I hid on the couch with the sheet over me like a tent. My kids walked around the makeshift rabbit hole and prodded me, but in the end, climbed in and hunkered down. My husband padded around in socked feet, numb and in a fog because he had loved her, too, and time was watermarked by ramen noodles meals and tv shows.
Two best friends, the most organized people I know, traveled up the coast to be with us, twice. They brought casseroles, helped dress my kids for the service and pinned photos of my mother to the board we would take to the funeral home. There are no words explaining how critical they were to my family’s health at that time, but more than likely they already know. The kind of people who don’t judge when you forget to bring your mother’s ashes into the house and the urn stays in the backseat of the car overnight because you drank a bottle and a half of chardonnay after the service. Another friend, someone I hadn’t seen in a lifetime, sent condolence via email and shared how he had coped with the early and unexpected death of his brother. It was such a sincere gesture I decided to send him something. It took all the energy I had to send it, but once I finally got that parcel to the post, my ascent began from nothing. Later that day, I sat in front of my computer.
There was an opportunity on the New York Foundation for the Arts website. It read, a week-long summer workshop in printmaking, offered at the Women’s Studio Workshop, WSW, located in Kingston, New York. In the fine print, there was a blurb describing ‘a crash course’ in bookbinding and letterpress. The title of the course included the words, Boot Camp, and in retrospect that would have implied some level of difficulty, but the idea of sitting around in a circle with other women (in shawls) making picture books had already been planted in my brain. I made the call and charged the course to the card.
By mid-July, I found myself driving over a covered bridge in upstate New York. Asphalt graduated to a winding bend toward WSW. It is an institution that was established in a farmhouse decades ago, and there’s a warm, Catskills feeling I associate with this place. A frayed, Wabi-Sabi style that looks like Patchouli smells. Despite some of the exchanges I experienced while visiting, let me point out that this is a great studio with great people, and I have every intention of taking another workshop there as soon as I have a chance.
I hustled in, slightly breathless with my new canvas bag stuffed with Moleskine notebooks and felt tip markers, ready to bind books and shake off the emptiness that had lodged itself between my throat and abdomen. It still had not occurred to me that when I’d registered for the workshop I had no experience with bookbinding or letterpress. When it comes to making art, or anything, really, my attention is rather feral. But the one thing that did bring some comfort was the smell of the place. Art studios, no matter where they are, have a distinct smell- slightly metallic, oily, and maybe a little chalky. In that way, it’s like coming home.
Some of the ladies had already bonded. I have never understood the undercurrent of female bonding. At best, if I can stay within the safety zones and off the radar with women in a group, I’m happy. This is a scandalous admission coming from a self-proclaimed feminist, but the thing is, some women, and in this setting, trust me, feminists included, have yet to read the memo on inclusion. I scuttled to the back of the room and pulled my bag up to an aluminum work table, taking in the space and noting all the good chairs had been taken. An intense blond woman who had absolutely no time for pleasantries, just had to get down to the business of whatever it was we had signed up for, was already writing something down and as far as I could tell, no one had started teaching, yet.
Someone did start speaking, eventually. A brunette, about mid-thirty, with a buzz cut started describing her work in detail. Her voice oscillated from monotone to burnt as she advanced upon a display of texts set before us. These were her books, hand-printed and bound, stunning in girth and cleanliness. Although the content of each is now lost to me, there were illustrations that looked like blueprints on the opposite pages of text. Really good-looking, put-together stuff. Intimidatingly, so. In a short expanse of time, maybe twenty seconds in, the lightbulb went off and alerted me that I absolutely should have scrutinized the workshop description. Some experience with elaborate measuring and extensive folding would be necessary, if not a prerequisite, moving forward. Immediately after thinking this, another woman who had traveled all the way from Australia to take the workshop, something that she would later share over lunch, turned, curled her hand dramatically around her mouth and announced, “She’s AWFUL!”
We obediently fell in line and followed the instructor into a narrow space. The walls were lined with antiquated, pencil thin drawers, each with the name of a font mounted in pressed tin on the facade. Within each were miniscule lead stamps, each one with a raised letter of the alphabet, all nestled tightly as puzzle pieces into teeny, tiny compartments. We were expected to pull these drawers out after picking a font of our choice by oh so carefully arching around one another, gently removing it and balancing this loaded drawer back to our work stations. The blond had managed to carry back three. She reigned from New Hope, PA, had commandeered two more tables, three in total, and set all the tables up in front of the bathroom. If I had any complaint, and it would only be the one; there was no clear path. This would be considered, by some, problematic in an emergency. Three tables lined up in front of a bathroom could be deemed a potential hazard and it’s inviting trouble by most standards. Everyone had their heads down, frantically working, so for a split second, I thought we were being timed and maybe that was another part of the description I had failed to read. It would have explained all the competitive energy.
I crammed myself into a corner, just a diagonal stone’s throw of the bathroom. A young woman who turned out to be an intern was super sweet and friendly. She had only been there a few weeks, but answered my questions and didn’t seem to be critical of my obliviousness. For the rest of the day I sketched drawings on a thin film that would later be superimposed onto a linoleum block by way of a darkroom. There were chemicals, a heat lamp and a see-through machine that I’d convinced the super sweet intern to turn on for me.
We were expected to spend most of our time in a room that housed an expensive and complicated piece of equipment- a printing press. It seemed exceedingly delicate for such a large thing. I found myself feeling as though I really did not want to mess with it, so I wrote it off and zoned out, possibly missing some pertinent information. One reason I may have been distracted is that my husband and the kids had driven up with me. We had rented a beautiful cabin about a half hour’s drive away, a charming place set off of a remote dirt road that was hidden by a copse of trees. Upstate New York is absolutely beautiful. So, at four o clock, as soon as the workshop was over, not that there was any kind of time limit, I would high tail it out of there and meet up with the family. In my absence during the day, they were catching salamanders and whittling. One evening, I enjoyed the bucolic landscape by drinking a bottle of white wine under a gazebo, and threw up a lovely risotto dinner out the second story window. I cut the workshop the next day and travelled with Marc and the kids, green gilled, around Phoenicia.
When Marc and the kids walked into the studio one day, the instructor asked me, ‘Which was planned first, the workshop or the family vacation?’ I thought she was annoyed because I always left earlier than everyone else, translation- I wouldn’t stay all night long. I was just starting up a conversation with the resident artist over coffee the next morning when the instructor walked by and quipped, ‘It’s a good thing I’m not grading this class, because you’d probably end up with a C-.’ My 46 year old self recoiled as if I’d just been stabbed with a plastic utensil in the junior high school cafeteria. I mentioned this comment to the Australian. She rolled her eyes toward the instructor and then turned back to me. ‘She is unfit to teach.’ I fiercely nodded. ‘I’ll say!’ The relief the Australian’s eye roll afforded me was as close as I would get to suspending the grief I’d walked in with. Australians are so totally my favorite, now.
By the end of the week, I had been pigeon-holed into a helpless, goofy character, a simple woman from Long Island who knew nothing of the nuanced intricacies of printmaking, bookbinding, letterpress or that other thing I’d been doing all week with the chemicals and the light. I had, in my defense, signed up and paid for the class based on all the enjoyment and merriment I would be having and that plan took off just about the second I pulled the car in the driveway. Because of my low ranking as had been defined within the confines of our advanced workshop, I found the interns were speaking to me a little slower than they had earlier in the week and they made sure, I thought, to make eye contact with me while they spoke.
On the last day, we were instructed to walk out of the main house, into the sweltering heat and cross the road, and visit a wilder part of the property. Through stalks of grass and dappled light, wildflowers peeked out along the edges of a path. Someone in front called out for everyone to check for ticks and then, inserted against a wall of old growth, a barn appeared that was barely standing. The instructor walked in first, and we followed, stepping over a threshold and into an older part of the barn. There in the way back, sat a towering piece of machinery.
This was a gargantuan relic of a paper cutter that had been previously owned by a publishing house. It could cut a ream of paper twenty inches thick by way of a sheer, blinding Samurai blade. Of course, there were about fifteen steps just to turn it on and like everything else, a litany of rules that needed to be memorized before touching it. In that respect, it was similar to the other machines we had been expected to use, but the difference here was that if someone maybe screwed up because she hadn’t been paying attention, instead of hurting the expensive equipment, this thing was quite capable of shredding everyone to pieces. Another plus was that it made a deafening, whiny howl that shook the barn to it’s rafters. After the instructor turned it on, she turned it off and asked who wanted the honors of turning it back on. Several hands went up.
While it sliced and diced sheets of hand-made paper into smithereens, I shimmied through the crowd in order to tell the instructor I was leaving. ‘I’m not cutting the line! I’m not cutting you! I just have to tell her something!’ You’d have thought I was stealing their babies. Considering the complete ordeal involved just to turn it on-I think I had to sign something-and the racket that ensued, it should have been able to do a lot more than just cut paper. It should have been able to cut out gigantic snowflakes, or a humongous line of paper dolls, like in cartoons. That would have been well worth it. I spent some time thinking about all the fun things it should have been able to do while waiting patiently for the instructor to turn to me. I didn’t want to distract her from what she was doing, or I would have been liable. The others were transfixed and in the trenches, proving to themselves and to each other that they were definitely a cut above, hence, the ‘Boot Camp’ in the title. Now I got it. I made my move and yelled over the roar while tapping her on the shoulder, ‘Hey! I’m not messing with that thing! I’ll lose an arm!’ and under my breath I said something like, ‘Holy sweet Christ’ just as the machine turned off. My standing fell a few more rungs with the faculty and staff after that- super nice interns included.
Long before we were married, I would stay over the house my husband and his friends had rented. I can remember watching re-runs in the warmth and safety of their living room while a blizzard was happening all around us. There was an unexpected knock at the door. The landlord was this young, extreme sports guy and he convinced all of us to go outside in the frigid cold and build an igloo. We did. It took hours. I never understood why we did that, how we were roused on a Sunday night, convinced to leave the comfort of the living room and follow this lunatic’s vision, but we did. I don’t even remember enjoying it.
I’m here to write that the same kind of phenomenon was unfolding in that barn over at WSW. The old story comes in many forms, but the characters were defined that day by the caffeine-fueled, hyper diligent, slightly lost, over-tired worker bees who were ready and willing to sacrifice themselves for their instructor Queen under the threat of a sharp-edged, ten-foot-long, six -foot-high, impending disaster. I bolted.
They found me in the main house, packing up and minding my own business. I nonchalantly fiddled with my papers before heaving it all into a manilla folder. I had started making handmade paper earlier in the day and when I ran away from the group, decided to keep playing with the pulp. I hadn’t washed my hands and had all kinds of troubled getting the paper into the folder, but it was the last day and in truth, I was anxious to get out of there. I was hoping to leave before anyone got back from the barn.
‘How was the paper cutting?’ I asked. Silence. My cowardice must have been discussed on the way back. And then,
Fantastic. I’m so glad I gave myself the gift of trying something new.
I so agree! I’m inspired to go home and build one on the deck.
Really, really wild. I’ve got some great pieces of paper now, some with ragged edges and some with straight edges.
Me too! Can we trade?
I discreetly tip-toed past the group with hands encrusted in a gritty wheat paste, effectively dripping chunks of it in my wake. As my hand was slipping off the doorknob, I turned to see if anyone would notice my exit. The interns smiled and waved, the Australian nodded my way, said, ‘Come visit Sydney!’ and winked. It was good in the end. I finally made peace with the door, opened it wide and walked through.
The year before my mother fell into steep decline, I would try to get out to see her with the kids at least one night a week. I’d have a lasagna or ratatouille ready to put in the oven, or some kind of casserole. While I was busy in the kitchen, my mother would sit on the couch and watch tv with her grandchildren snuggled up next to her.
During one visit, mom held up a well-worn toy, a pony with glass eyes and asked my daughter what his name was. My daughter answered, and I quote, ‘His name is guilty, and I don’t want him.’ Amen, sweetheart. Me, neither.
My daughter wants to go to a store and then grocery shopping with me on her Senior Cut Day. When I was a senior, Senior Cut Day was spent half lit on wine coolers and vodka at the Beach with drunken peers. My mother taught so she wasn’t around, but here I am, taking prescription anti-depressants first and then taking the seventeen year old to the grocery store. On this day, I’ve also taken one anti-psychotic.
She’s at once gorgeous and terrible and herds me through produce. I trail her, steering our cart while she pulls it, and we mostly drop in healthy stuff at the start. If I’m not worried about money, and I’m not as long as it’s Friday, then I’ll pick out cut flowers adorning the space between the two sets of sliding doors that usher us from the outside to the inside, the in-between part that is lined with buckets of compartmentalized plastic-wrapped arrangements.
We’ve got kerbies which are great in salads and probably great as pickles, I think. If you pick out the fruit that’s in season, like the Georgia white peaches or those fleshy ones from Jersey or the nectarines shipped up from the South as sweet as candy, the juice that pools down your arm is Manna from Heaven. I’m biased as far as Long Island corn is concerned. You can buy it conveniently husked, or there’s a self-husking station, too, and it is delectable as the kernels are small and easy and pop in your mouth when you bite down, not the leathery kind from elsewhere which are bright yellow nuggets, not as pale like ours and not as good, but probably better when grilled, actually. These are the thoughts I think at the store with my daughter, and while I’m thinking these things, she plots to hide the goods I’d say no to if I were all there. Which I’m not.
The one pill I’ve taken I don’t care for because, as I have explained to my husband in the car and to the psychiatrist who has met me just the once, it makes my eyes roll and blink like glass marbles installed into a heavy-lidded doll; first one shutters closed and then the other. The second reason is that it doesn’t stop my thoughts from reeling. The pill slows me down so I’m not as entertaining, at least not to me, and on some days chasing down this brain is my greatest form of entertainment.
By the time we’ve zigzagged the entirety of the store, our cart is stuffed. Boxes of cookies line the crevices and bags of snacks litter the top. Paper products and pre-made entrees now grace the pyre that is, at least, green and leafy toward the bottom. *Important tip- do not shop for food on an empty stomach if you can help it. It adds so much to the bill. I am right about this.
At the end of our exchange where product and packing meet, all sorted into recycled tote and box, I withdraw my debit and delicately jam the paper receipt into my bag. We walk to the car and unload our bounty with no real regard of what bag goes where. That must drive some people crazy, but not us. My daughter, satiated after eating something that could easily muck up the car, has commandeered our soundtrack for the ride home. She’s yucking it up and cradling the flowers I’ve splurged on like a pet. Stalks of irises, cornflowers, thistle and daisies are tucked into a slim bouquet, none of which would have bloomed in synch had they not been meddled with.
There is a wild orchid the size of a spoon that flanks the hiking trails of Olympic National Park in Washington State. It’s bloom is unassuming and reminiscent of a slipper, and it’s name, Calypso, is meant to infer romantic ideation, like the Greek nymph who seizes Ulysses’ purpose and vision for seven years. Seven years, I think to myself, that’s a long time to get off track. And then my brain snaps back at me, oh, sweetheart. We can do better than that.
I have lived on an island my entire life. I grew up on the water and on boats in the bay, but thanks to Steven Spielberg’s brilliant classic, Jaws, swimming in the ocean has never truly appealed to me. Most of my oceanic experience has been gained as an observer. One morning, off the coast of a boreal and seasonal port, I experienced firsthand how little of a sea-farer I actually was.
We were vacationing in Maine and I decided to buy tickets for the whale watching tour. So, after purchasing the Family of Four Whale Watching Tour Package, we enjoyed a decadent meal of deep-fried fish, scallops, too much white wine and ice cream. Driving back to our rental was a white-knuckled trip in slick rain and dark, only to turn on our heels and catch the boat out to the whales at daybreak. And momma was in no way at her best. Never pair undercooked scallops, deep fried anything and too much white wine with the impulsive purchase of an early morning Family of Four Whale Watching Tour Package. I wouldn’t have done well on a walk from the kitchen to the couch to the bathroom and back again holding a bucket, so a boat that was really just a dinghy of a ship at the mercy of wind and weather was pure, unadulterated hell. I was as sick as I ever want to be. Typing these words sets my face in a contorted grimace while I recall the ebb and flow of those great, sublimely churning, translucent sea-foam waves and how those waves perfectly mimicked my bowels.
The gentleman at the whale watching kiosk who had signed us up mentioned something about seeing Gray whales and Minkes, but once we were all aboard I couldn’t do much more than grip the rail and stand halfway straight. I prayed for God and Neptune to quell the horrible, horrible swaying, the wretched back and forth, back and forth- they did not. My husband had one kid and I was responsible for the other, but the one I was with kept wedging herself between hordes of fellow sightseers. Brandishing cutting-edge binoculars and cameras, they craned their necks over the side in search for the sea mammals I wanted to see, too, if I could have pried my eyes open a smidge more. Some of these tourists had children and I flatly observed they were all smiling and pointing toward the horizon, not acting like they had hangovers.
When you imagine whales in their natural habitat, do you see magnificent giants gracefully breaching, barely breaking the surface, only to nose-dive back into the water, but not before their massive haunches, twisting like barnacle-encrusted behemoths, remain suspended in space for one hot millisecond behind your family so that you can snap that perfect picture? Is it just me? Well I promise you, It would have been more rousing to see two sofas out there then what the animal kingdom was showboating starboard. Our whales were a little off. They looked like two tree stumps that floated away every time the captain tried to steer close. Gritting my teeth through relentless nausea, I mused it would have been more of what I was expecting if the whales swam up to the boat and interacted with us. By the end of the trip I wasn’t at all convinced they could even swim.
After five or six hours we headed back to shore, but did not return safely before some family drama involving a big wave, my daughter defying gravity, her chocolate milk and several trips to the bathroom. What was most memorable? How frightening my children were on a ship that simply could not stop going up and down. Ocean waves can be ridiculously gigantic. I may be exaggerating in hindsight but Christ on the Cross I had no idea waves could be that big. No one seemed to care except for me, my lower intestine and my husband who I would see in passing, double fisted with a coffee, corn muffin, maybe a turkey sandwich, a power bar, a bottled water, some wafers, orange juice and gum, acting like we were going on a ten mile hike and sleepover instead of holding on to the side of the wall in the ship innards (or cabin) for dear life, screaming for the firstborn to get back here because that is not a toy, damnit! We caught one another’s gaze, my husband and I, and it was as though he was seeing me for the first time. He was afraid.
Speaking of magical moments, there are no magical moments of our whale watching tour saved to video or digital or anything at all because if memory serves, the disposable, (waterproof) camera managed to find it’s way off the bow and into the crystal depths of those chilly Maine waters.
Bitter Skin was published in Volume 13, Issue 4 of Meat For Tea; The Valley Review, 2020.
“Golly, is that your cologne? It makes quite a statement.” The lawyer inhaled deeply. “I can’t place it, Sal, maybe like pine fragrance or an astringent. Either or, my eyes are watering.” He sifted through a file cabinet and hauled out two thick manila folders. “Some of these complaints go back nearly fifteen years. How long have you been with the company?”
“Fifteen years.” Sal could only tolerate being in the presence of anyone for a short time. This was no exception.
The lawyer glanced up at the nondescript man fuming on the other side of his massive desk. “Well, let’s get down to it, shall we?” and then flashed a perfectly enameled smile to no one in particular. “We certainly have a lot to work with! You’ve been a busy boy.” He leafed through the papers. “Unless I’m missing something, you’re lucky to have never been incarcerated. This list of accusations is bottomless. And this,” He removed a page sandwiched between the stack that was covered in post-it notes. “You were observed in the employee bathroom doing something to a woman’s shoe? What were you doing? Don’t answer that, by the way. It says here you mauled a dog on this note. How is that even possible? There are complaints here ranging from the confusing to the annoying to the blatantly psychotic. Yikes.”
Sal bared his teeth in a grimace. “May I ask YOU a question?” His voice inched toward hysterical. “What’s the big deal? Since when is smelling a shoe in the bathroom a crime?” The lawyer squinted at the fine print. “I don’t think there’s anything inherently illegal about smelling a shoe on your own time, however, you snatched it off of someone while she was still wearing it.”
“Big deal. Tell me the bad news.”
“The bad news is that your behavior, on average, is so sickeningly repugnant they just want you out. Severance pay included. They are practically paying you to leave. Consider yourself lucky and go find yourself another job, and good luck with that. You have the moral standing of a wet noodle.”
Sal’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. “Who the hell are you to judge?”
Sal stalked out of the lawyer’s office mumbling and cursing. He trudged over concrete pylons, shimmed between cars and finally emerged on the north side of the road where his own car was parked. It was dark and the pavement was slick, and just as Sal fell into the driver’s seat, his cell phone vibrated under the lapel of his corduroy jacket.
“I understand they’re trying to push you out of the company.”
“Who is this? Is this so and so’s friend from Kentucky?”
The woman cleared her throat. “I’m hunting down disgruntled employees in order to get a lawsuit going.”
Sal paused. “What do you need from me?”
“Not much, really. Just an interview with my team. Are you at all interested?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Thank you for meeting with me.” They were sitting at a snug booth in a service road diner. Sal couldn’t remember the last time a woman willingly sat with him for any reason at all. He couldn’t guess her age, but noticed that she smelled good.
“Where’s your ‘team’?”
The woman acted as though she didn’t hear the question. She leaned in and said, “Tell me something. If you had a chance, wouldn’t you like to do something different with your life?” she put her hand on his arm. “If you could have anything in this world, what would it be?”
Sal rubbed his chin. “Who knows? Money, I guess.” Suddenly, he had an epiphany. Sal yelled out, “I want people to notice me!” Then he blushed and got a warped look on his face. “I want people to revere me. Worship me!”
“For doing what?”
“Ah. I see.” The woman tapped a lacquered nail on the tabletop. “I think maybe I can help you. How do you feel about the great outdoors? Are you at all partial to gardening?”
“What the hell kind of question is that? Are you making a list?” He scanned the back of the diner and tried to make eye contact with the waitstaff, but no one obliged. “I thought you wanted to know about the ingrates at work and my back stabbing co-workers.” In that split second, Sal began to think thoughts he hadn’t entertained in a long time. He wondered what her shoe size was. The woman turned to him with an expression consumed with disgust and he looked offended. “What? Now you’re a mind reader?” Sal chuckled to himself.
The first thing he noticed was feeling warm everywhere. He felt illuminated. Glowing. Somehow it all made perfect sense. Time was irrelevant. He understood that he was connected to a vast network of roots entwined like synapses and that everything was infinite; much larger than he could have imagined. He was no longer alone and cold, but safe and content.
“Get the crate and grab the basket off the truck. These are ready.” The man shielded his eyes from the sun. “Look at that! It’s like a gift from God when the sun shines through, just like jewels on a crown.” He walked over to the vine. “Come here and taste this.” There was more shuffling on gravel. Another man walked over.
In his former life, Sal would have recognized the pattern of vibrations as footsteps approaching, but he was no longer himself. He was, well, happy, until he felt a quick tug. The man exclaimed, “This is divine!” and popped Sal, the formally nondescript man into his mouth. After a moment of grinding the bounty between his dentures, the man reconsidered. He spit out Sal’s remains. “This one’s not so good. I’ll have to try another.”
In the Spring of 2o18, an edited version of Travis is a Real Peach was published in Gone Lawn issue #28.
Travis Ramekin was put out after his laundered shirts had been sent back creased at the seams. He drove downtown and really let them have it. When he arrived home the pasta was boiling over and James was nowhere in sight.
Travis placed his keys and wallet on the kitchen counter. “James?” A faint light emanated out from under the pantry door. He peeked in and there was James, curled up tight and rocking under the pale glow of an Edison bulb. James picked his head up and looked at Travis. “My parents are coming to visit.”
A few days later, a taxicab dropped Mr. and Mrs. Del Buenos off in front of Travis’ and James’ charming brownstone. Mr. Del Buenos tipped the cabby a fiver and helped his wife safely avoid the potholes to the curb. When James met his parents at the door his mother lavished him with kisses and held his face. His father patted him on the back and tousled his hair. “You’re too thin and you have circles under your eyes.” Mrs. Del Buenos didn’t stop talking from the moment she greeted her son outside until they had reached the fourth floor and stood in front of the door to the apartment. Before he opened the door, James turned to his parents. “There is something I should probably tell you about Travis.”
The door opened. Travis took a formal, low bow, graciously grabbed the coats off the gaping couple and whisked them through a labyrinth of topiaries, climbing vines, white birch, tulips and birdsong. The furniture was draped with Virginia Creeper and moss grew up the William Morris wallpaper on the North side of the sitting room. Mirrors (there were several) reflected a vast, canopied forest. Two Turtle Doves carrying a flowing banner in their delicate beaks swooped low enough for the Del Buenos’ to read the inscription, Welcome D & M! The banner was abbreviated because the doves could not have handled the weight of a full, embroidered sentence.
Overhead, a honking flock of Canada Geese appeared. Mr. Del Buenos ducked and Travis said, “I apologize for the geese. My supplier was out of swans. Not the same, is it?” In a clearing in the woods stood a thick mahogany table dressed with four impeccable settings. “James and I thought we should all get to know each other over lunch. Hungry?” He walked to the table, pulled one of the chairs out and invited Mrs. Del Buenos over by patting the cushion. Travis then began ladling an extremely fragrant soup out of an immense terrain. The consommé was gorgeous to look at; a bubbly paste with a slick of translucent purples and blues, poured over seared scallops and succulent, glossy mussels. Dollops of sour cream bobbed in the center of each bowl, frothing over like clouds. Travis had paired the meal with crusty artisan bread and a sweet young wine from Portugal.
“How did you two ever meet?” Mrs. Del Buenos was beginning to feel the yummy effects of the wine. She batted her eyes and splayed her arms across the table. James and Travis told the story of how they first met and Mrs. Del Buenos shared a story of how James acted as a baby. The pink sky melted to lavender. When Travis jumped up to replace the spent beeswax candles in the candelabras, Mrs. Del Buenos turned to her son and said, “I really love his nose ring, James. It reminds me of my bracelets.” She shook her wrist and the bangles pinged like chimes. His father leaned in. “I’ve noticed his teeth are pretty big.” His mother exclaimed, “James! He is so talented! There are trees in here! I can’t get over how beautiful everything looks. How does he do that?”
“Travis can do anything.”
Mrs. Del Buenos dabbed her eyes with a napkin. “Travis, I adore him. You have my blessing.”
“Danae, he’s half of a cow.”
“Shut up, Maurice! Every time we leave the house you ruin everything!”
“Excuse me?” Travis’ backlit silhouette cast a massive shadow across the table. “Did you just refer to me as a..” He paused for dramatic effect, “..cow?” Carefully and with the agility of a prima ballerina, Travis navigated his great frame around the carnage of feathers and goose poop. He opened the drawer of a breakfront, withdrew several linen napkins and in the blink of an eye sculpted eight origami linen swans surrounding an origami linen monkey sitting in an origami linen basket that was being held up by the trunks of four origami linen elephants. Several origami linen clouds billowed past an origami linen hot air balloon and an origami linen sun rose and set behind the table, followed by an origami linen moon with, lo and behold, and origami linen cow jumping over it.
“HA!” Travis glared defiantly at Mr. Del Buenos. “Could a cow do that?” Mrs. Del Buenos started clapping. Mr. Del Buenos blanched.
“Boy! That..that was quite a feat Mr. Travis!” Mr. Del Buenos tapped the trunk of an elephant with his finger and his wife slapped his hand away. “Where would you ever see something like that happen, I mean, typically?”
Travis sighed. “Minotaurs are exemplary kinetic sculptors. I guess you didn’t know that, most humans don’t.” Mr. Del Buenos’ eyes grew as round as saucers. “I did not know that!”
“We have a bad rap. All we’re known for in this world and several others is causing chaos. We’re very good at it, of course.” As he spoke, Travis whittled a sprig of parsley out from behind an incisor with his claw. “It’s our defining feature.” Mr. Del Buenos maniacally nodded his head in agreement. “Of course it is!” and for the rest of the evening, love croaks from amorous frogs, besotted by a cobalt sky pin-pricked with stars, serenaded the jovial foursome over dessert wines, port and french pastries.
The following Spring and right before Equinox, Travis and James were married on a Celebrity cruise ship under a full, pink moon in a civil ceremony officiated by the Captain. There was a small reception on the promenade deck afterward and only James’ parents, some close friends and a few thousand passengers were in attendance.
Although domestic life was sometimes a chore and James would usually over-react when life served up a minor set back, it was something of a lucky turn that he had chosen to share his life with someone who was practically addicted to hysteria. It worked out perfectly for everyone involved.
A Cherokee Nation creation story, Grandmother Spider Catches the Sun, was an inspiration for this series, but another influence came about after a trip to Louisiana. Spider webs as big as quilts were draped over the Bayou and in the middle of each was an orb weaver the size of my hand. They looped through those webs with graceful, tapered legs, one more gorgeous than the next. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I’ll write this as my personal truth; there is fear and then there is becoming a parent.
We were hosting a holiday party when my daughter choked. Someone had served her a slice of American cheese and paired it with a fruit roll up. After I’d fished the goop out with the hook of my finger and performed the Heimlich she finally breathed deep, but it is beyond me how anyone thought it was a good idea to feed that combination to a toddler (and walk away). Each edible sheet was so securely adhered to her plate a metal spatula with a serrated edge was required to scrape off the remains. Within a few weeks my hair line revealed a solid strip of gray and it occurred to me then that we are usually defined by what we fear most.
Once Upon A Time, there was a Harpy who lived on a hill in a beautiful circa 1882 Victorian nest in the suburbs. She was mean and drank too much. A quick word on Harpies; They are vain, cruel and self-involved creatures. It’s best if you can manage to avoid them entirely.
One day after she’d really tied one on, the Harpy stepped outside the hole-in-the-wall she’d spent half a day in and stood blinking at the sun. As she staggered along the sidewalk, she caught a glimpse of her startling reflection in a storefront window and hesitated a bit to fluff her feathers. When an unsuspecting woman walked past and accentually brushed against her wing, the Harpy reacted by screeching into her face, “Watch where you’re going, you leathery handbag or I’ll pluck your ancient eyes out!” The poor woman toppled to the curb. This outburst and others like it were the reasons people didn’t like her; the half-bird thing was something they would have eventually come to terms with.
Every year, the Harpy traveled with friends to the State Fair at the edge of town. She decided to get all dolled up for the occasion. First, she rouged her cheeks and then applied a long, thick black line around her eyes so that she resembled an Egyptian queen. From her extensive wardrobe, the Harpy chose a reflective bodice embroidered with festive, sequined flowers and for the finishing touch, pinned a flouncy hat to her sea of auburn curls. As she added the last touches to her deplorable catastrophe of a make-up application, she thought to herself, “I’ll be the best thing those meat sticks have ever laid their pathetic little eyes on!”
The Harpy flew across the harbor to the next town over and landed on the front step of a friend’s house. Janice was a founding member and level-three priestess of the Our Lady of the North East Coven. When she wasn’t casting spells upon her neighbors, Janice taught piano lessons to a steady stream of local children and a handful of adults. Her saltbox shanty sat on a dilapidated dock that jutted out into a sheltered cove.
The Sea Witch opened the door and beamed a smile at the Harpy, who in turn squinched up her shellacked face in an expression of disgust. “Gad, Janice! Smells like mothballs and armpits. What are you making?”
“Cabbage soup, would you like a bowl?”
“I’ve already eaten, thanks. Twice. Once before I left home and after smelling your colossal mess of a soup, that last meal has come back up for a visit.”
The Sea Witch drove a 1985 Volvo down a poorly lit gravel road. A pebble was kicked up by a tire and met with the Harpy’s eye, but her fake lashes folded over the stray like a venus fly trap.
“Why must we always take my car, Bertie? Why can’t you fly every now and then?”
“I like to be driven around and I like to drink, Janice. I do not like smashing into things, which is typical when I drink and fly.” The Harpy preened her downy undercarriage and a stream of tangled fuzz trailed out the back windows. A half an hour later, they were parked in front of the Sunset Retirement Community Center.
The Oracle had lived through several great wars, the Crusades and had once mentioned something about a Great Pyramid debacle, but as she was as old as dirt her commentary was barely decipherable. She sat in the foyer of the community center with an aide next to her wheelchair. “Load her in the back. Janice, pull your chair up. There we are.” The Harpy adjusted her seatbelt so it didn’t catch her feathers. “Janice, how long is this going to take? My gentleman friend is meeting me in front of the Gravitron.”
The Sea Witch drove in a gigantic circle for the next twenty minutes and in doing so, unintentionally retraced their route over half the county. They also managed to defy the laws of physics when the Harpy became impatient, jammed her immense wings out the back windows of the Volvo and flew the car up into a tree. The Oracle’s magnified eyes gazed imploringly over the upholstered car seat and the Harpy panicked. “This plan needs some magic mojo, Janice! Let’s have it!”
“Honestly, I would feel more comfortable if I had my book with me so that I could prepare and review.”
“Janice, I’m telling you right now that if you don’t cast some mother load of a spell in a jiffy, we are going to resemble that horrific excuse of a soup you tried to feed me back at the house.” As if to drive the point home, the car began to sway. There wasn’t a minute to lose. The Sea Witch snatched her wand out from the glove compartment and in hushed tones, began to recite the spell.
“Oh Pine tree, dripping with motor oil brew,
Fill our fenders with sap for some super strong glue.
We will tread down your sinewy trunk where it grew,
And arrive at your bottom feeling good as new.”
The Harpy and her cohorts landed quite plainly in an open field, matted with pine needles and sap. The car engine wouldn’t start so they left it behind, along with a written note in cursive wedged between the window and the dashboard explaining to whomever read it that the owner would be back in the morning. They didn’t bother taking the wheelchair from the trunk because no one wanted the trouble of unfolding it, but the only way to transport the Oracle was for her to ride on the Harpy’s back. Although she was as light as a feather, the Harpy was still put out by the inconvenience. After twenty minutes of walking, they found themselves in front of a local watering hole.
“Guess what? You two peons may join me in a celebratory drink in honor of being in my presence. This evening has been nothing short of a complete and utter waste of my precious time!” The Harpy wailed. “This outfit is saturated in sap, completely ruined, you can’t get this stuff out of anything. Unbelievable! I need to unwind, girls, so let’s hustle!” She plucked the Oracle off her haunches and shoved the elderly pair into the musky den. Once inside, the Sea Witch escorted the Oracle to the bathroom, leaving the Harpy to perch on her favorite stool and brood. She spotted the bartender hiding behind the beer taps.
“Barkeep! I’ll have a triple quadruple on the double! Make it snappy, hayseed!” She frequented the bar so often that the poor man knew the drill. He lined up five long stemmed glasses and proceeded to pour five dirty martinis with fistfuls of olives in each.
As the Oracle and and the Sea Witch shuffled back from the restroom, a thin man with a hollow face rose up from his seat at the back of a bar. He sported a black leather jacket embellished with thick, metal spikes and on the back was a primitive rendering of a 1980’s hair band.
Janice and the Oracle sat down next to the Harpy. The Sea Witch waved down the bartender while he was frantically mixing another batch of martinis. “Young man, I’d like a Diet Coke and my friend will have a club soda with lemon. Thanks very much.”
“What are you supposed to be?” The question was posed by the man in the leather jacket. The bartender left his post and slowly walked toward the exit sign. A smattering of intoxicated locals scuttled underneath tables and the Harpy looked up from her drinks. “The Andrew Sisters.”
The man made a sound like a chainsaw that could have been interpreted as a laugh.
“Maybe seventy years ago. Now I’m looking at the local mutant barfly, a librarian and a wrinkled up strip of beef jerky.” He smelled like cigarettes and hard liquor.
The two old souls pulled away from the bar and retired to the back with their carbonated beverages. Bertrudence, the name she’d been known as for the last few hundred years, turned to face the stranger behind her. She dramatically flexed her talons, arched her back and fanned out her wings. “I’m not supposed to be anything. You’re probably supposed to be employed, sober and relevant, but you aren’t.” She sucked down a fourth martini and whistled through her teeth. “Life sure is funny.”
The interior of the bar was illuminated by the sickly glow of neon beer advertisements. The Harpy couldn’t tell if the man was actually beginning to swell in height and girth, and his skin, originally a blotchy ochre, was darkening to a moldy green. He pulled back and swung, caught her throat and launched her toward the back of the bar. The Harpy smashed into a wall and nearly went through it, but instead remained suspended in a hole, upside down, encased in faux wood paneling and plaster.
“Bertie!” The Sea Witch called out from underneath the pool table. “You’re stuck in the wall!”
The Harpy coughed out some plaster dust. “I am well aware of that, Janice.”
The man was now a monster. He snaked through barstools and patrons, deliberately kicking people with the silver tips of his boots. Just before he reached the Harpy, the Oracle put down her club soda and moved to block his path. She levitated off the floor, just a little.
“A mighty spell will land upon thou cheese block noggin’ to dissuade thee of untimely infantilizing!” The Oracle looked exactly like what she was; a seven-hundred-year-old partially mummified floating woman who was howling her latest vision.
The Harpy’s attacker had morphed into something that looked more like a gargoyle than a man, and removing the Oracle was as easy as flicking a beetle from his sleeve. The Oracle landed in a crumpled heap on the far side of the room. As he grabbed the Harpy by the neck and peeled her out of the wall, she managed a gargled moan toward the Sea Witch.
“This is unprecedented! I’m out of hooch and about to get plucked by this psychotic redneck! Please get out your wand and get us the #$@% home!” The man tightened his grip and shook her so violently that it looked as if a comforter had exploded. She resigned herself to sinking into a silent abyss.
When the Harpy opened her eyes, she found herself suspended in a great rolling skyscape. Towers of billowing clouds illuminated searing gold and brilliant red so fantastical that nothing on this earthbound plane could compare. She was majestic, regal and absolute in fearless, angelic perfection. Somewhere in the distance she heard a shrill siren, but she was so distracted by her happiness that she ignored it. The ends of her wings radiated a pure, unadulterated light. The noise fired up again, becoming louder and louder, a horrible, grating sound and something hard and gritty was mashed up against her face. It took a few beats before she realized she was on the floor and the horrible noise was coming out of her own mouth, so she closed it.
The Harpy gingerly raised her head and caught sight of overturned tables and splintered wood. A sharp pain ceased her movement as she tried to turn her head and she began to cry.
The Sea Witch was sitting on the floor of the bar holding a pack of ice against the Oracle’s head.
“What happened? I thought I died. It was nice.” She sniffed and started to sit up again.
“Everything happened so quickly. I ran over to Agnes and assumed the worst, but look- she’s very pliable. Then I turned to you and that whatever it was, honestly, I wish you would exercise some restraint in choosing who you spend your time with. He said he was an old boyfriend.”
“How did it end?”
“I turned him into a bug. We were going to put him in a glass and save him for you, but he was accidentally trampled by someone on the way out.”
Tears ran down the Harpy’s caked on foundation in channels. The pasty flecks pooled together with the eye shadow and gave her a garish, yet wistful, expression. “Maybe it isn’t worth going through this world alone. I don’t know. I’ve always been something of a loner.” She peeled off one fake eyelash, balled it up and dispensed it into an ashtray. “Maybe I need to soften my edges a bit. After all, what’s the point of inflicting misery upon the masses if there isn’t anybody around to enjoy it with? Isn’t that the fun of a shared experience, having witnesses around to watch the carnage unfold?”
The Oracle took a sip of her club soda. It had, remarkably, stayed upright.
“Thou unholy coupling with yonder allegorical green beast is haunting to mine own senses! Thee has’t causes great cataclysmic upheaval of odiferous drinking establishment.”
The future was bright for these magical, supernatural gals. Finally, after so many centuries, they had the perfect opportunity to band together and get down to the business of unleashing their collective fury upon the world of mortals. They promised each other they would do just that, as soon as they learned how to play bridge. The End.
Jennifer G. Peper is an artist and a writer. Since 2016, her essays and short stories have been included in Knee-Jerk, Gone Lawn Magazine and Woven Tale Press. She has collaborated in several art exhibitions, including the traveling literary/visual art exhibit, A Book About Death and most recently, her illustrations were showcased in Taxicab magazine.
The editors of Taxicab Magazine have accepted some of my illustrations for their upcoming issue. Highly Receptive was painted in 2016 and graced our kitchen wall until it was purchased by a nice couple at the Rattgirl and Ripe Art Vendor’s Circus. So long, Highly Receptive. You make me proud. Free-Wheelin’ Mojo is a visual response to the North American creation stories I’ve been reading and a nod to my husband’s perceived animal spirit guide.