Our country

Our Country

Noonday sun turns tin hovels into ovens and bakes the earth into a choking dust that clouds behind the Jeeps. He glances at the unfriendly eyes watching him with from dark, impassive faces. No matter. He’s come for what is his.

His driver halts before a shack, and he can hear the rhythmic chant of women’s voices inside. He motions his men to wait. No need for a scene yet. He strides through the doorway where the women dressed in shades of red are gathered around a low pallet on the floor.

He says, “Where is she?”

The keening continues.

He grabs the bony shoulder of an old woman in a dress faded almost to pink. “Where is she?”

The woman shrugs and moves aside to reveal her still form. A woman in soft crimson, with a scar puckering her right cheek, bathes her.

“What the hell is this? What did you do to her?” he shouts.

The scarred woman looks up. Expressionless. “What did you do to her?”

He pulls out his pistol. He hates her knowing eyes.

She says, “You can kill me, but in the end, you’ll lose. This is our country.”

He pulls the trigger.

Pavane for a Suburban Mother

On a Saturday, the parking lot of farmers’ market is like a giant playground filled with bigger, meaner kids all waiting to knock into you. There is nothing more intimidating than a Main Line mother in a Land Rover who is gunning for the same parking space you’ve scoped out. She’ll cut you off without a thought, while jabbering away into her cell phone, completely oblivious that she’s driven the wrong way on a one-way lane to do it.

Someone honks at me when I cross the parking lot and block the progress of her SUV to an open parking space. I jump a little, scoot between the parked cars, and count myself lucky that I wasn’t run down and left like a grease spot on the asphalt.

Once inside the bustling farmers’ market I wander from stall to stall. I’ve forgotten what I wanted, but I meander among the bright green and yellow gourds and fat orange pumpkins, the fresh bunches of crimson radishes and deep purple eggplants. The flower stalls feature ghosts and witches scattered among the bright fall mums. Halloween has come to the farmers’ market. I can smell apple cider in the air along with the usual coffee.

I buy carrots, apples and butternut squash along with a cup of warm apple cider. Then I manage to find a lone table squeezed into a corner of the small lunch section and stare out into the parking lot.

Usually I see at least ten or more people I know at the market, but today I have been mercifully anonymous. I’m not sure what’s happening to me. Why I find it easier and easier to slip out of my life and into this quieter place. I stir at the cider, and feel my eyes fill with tears I blink away. I am a stranger in my own life.

I suppose the problem is that I’ve always drifted along with the current because I’ve been afraid. I’ve never wanted to stand out. I’ve always wanted to blend. No controversy please. Nothing unpleasant.

I dance along the edges of friendship, because friendship is a tenuous thing. It slips away quick as a whisper. I am a good friend, but I never hold on to anyone too tightly. I never talk too freely, nor drink too much. Not even with my husband, especially not with him. We dance our stately dance, always in perfect time, always in step, never quite touching.

Each year seems to weigh more and more heavily upon us, and the silences, the things unsaid, grow deeper and darker. The children John was so eager to add to our little circle have enriched us at a cost. Every year I feel as though a little portion of myself has chipped away. I am no longer me. I’m John’s wife or someone’s mom. It is little wonder that I must be introduced to John’s co-workers over and over again.

I swallow the dregs of my cider and stand up, gathering my packages. The air feels a little colder as I walk to my car. In the bright sunlight, I am little more than a passing shadow.

Watch Your Intentions

For a long time she heard only the rushing of water over the rocks as she ran along the side of the swift-flowing creek. She’d lost one shoe when she’d escaped from the trunk of his car; the second was tucked into her coat pocket.

Deeper into the woods she ran, until her bruised and bleeding feet gave out beneath her, and she pitched forward grabbing onto an ancient tree for support and sinking to her knees. When she looked back a pinprick of light followed her.

He was behind her. He was growing closer. He was hunting her, and she was feeble prey indeed.

“I cannot do this.” She ran her hands up the gnarled surface of the tree and breathed in the smell of lichen and damp earth. The moon sent forth a pale glow from behind a veil of light purple clouds in the deep blue sky. Small creatures twitched in the undergrowth, watching.

“Help me,” she said, her voice scratching against her throat. Leaning her head against the tree, she fought back her tears. She had to be strong. Her daughter depended on her.

When the first drops of rain began to fall, she struggled to her feet. The rain came, soft at first, then in heavy sheets. The trees began to sway and murmur.

But the pinprick of light had become a dime.

A branch slapped against her face, and she looked up. Half-way up the tree was a deep split. If she could climb, she might be able to hide among the branches. She might be able to wait out the storm. She grabbed her shoe from her pocket and flung it as far as she could.

The dime of light had become a quarter.

She fitted her foot into a notch and hefted herself up. Her feet were slippery and unsure, but she grasped another notch and pulled herself higher. The wind whistled, as she wiggled and squirmed until she reached the deep crease.

The quarter of light had become a half dollar.

She settled in, pulling her coat over her head. Shutting out the horror creeping ever closer. Damp and chilled as she was, an odd warmth crept over her as she lay tucked inside the hollow of the tree, and lulled by the sweet smell of old wood and leaves, and the sound of steady rain, she found herself drifting off to sleep.

When she opened her eyes, she could hear the sound of water, but it was just the creek flowing. Birds chattered close by, and she could tell by the heat on her back that the sun was shining. She risked peeking out of her hiding place.

The sun shone down from an intensely blue sky on the quiet woods.

She saw it then. Protruding from the next tree was a hand grasping her shoe. As she watched, the hand disappeared.

A Rip in The Fabric of Time

I think someone drove a nail through my shoulder. Maybe they poured some drain cleaner down my throat and glued my eyes shut.

I struggle to sit up, and force my eyes open, expecting to find blood and gore smeared on the pillow. There’s nothing there except a faint outline of my head. When I roll my shoulders, though, pain shoots down my right arm. That’s not a dream.

I maneuver my body sideways and lower my legs to the floor. My toenails are bright green. I stare at them and try to remember how they got in that state, but it’s no good. I don’t remember anything about last night after I walked out of my office into the rain. I’m not even sure what day it is.

I glance at my watch. It reads 7:04. From the pale light streaming through the window, I assume it is morning, and I struggle to my feet. Oh dear, what did I do last night? I wander to the bathroom to perform the necessities than drag myself toward the kitchen. I stop in the living room and stare out into the backyard.

I have lost my mind.

A young woman with auburn curls and dressed in a short purple tunic is brushing a white horse with some kind of horn coming out its head. She sports diaphanous wings. I trip over the low round ottoman and fall on my face.

I hear the door open, but don’t look up.

“Stanley,” a soft voice says. “Are you all right?”

“What has happened to me,” I say into the carpet.

She pats much shoulder as if I were a frightened woodland creature. “Why don’t you sit up? You’ll feel so much better.”

I push myself up, but I do not feel better, even though she smells like jasmine and vanilla and fresh grass after the rain. I try not to gape.

“How do you know me?” I ask.

“You don’t remember,” her voice is a little sad. “Last night just before you left work, you said, ‘Oh please, just let something happen. I need an adventure or I’ll go mad.’ I heard you, Stanley. We had an adventure.”

“But why don’t I remember?”

“You’re coming back to your world. In a few hours you won’t remember anything. I’ll be a dream, if that.”

“A dream?” I shake my head. Oh no, not a dream. That would mean I’d be heading back to the gray world of Williams, Clark and Winston. I’m already running late, but I don’t move. “But I don’t want to forget. I want to remember.”

She smiles. “Oh, Stanley. Don’t you see? You’re not ready. Not yet. When you want to remember, you will.” She leans forward and kisses my forehead, and I get a fleeting impression of eyes the color of jade, rimmed with purple.

The alarm rings.

I sit up, my right shoulder throbbing like a toothache. I’ve been dreaming . . . something, and now I have to rush. No time for breakfast. Just a shower and shave, and I grab a coffee before I board the train.

Weak sunlight filters through the soft gray clouds, and I catch the whiff of something familiar. Vanilla, mixed with some kind of flower. It reminds me of something. It doesn’t matter. I’m late.

I exit the train and hurry topside making my way to the tall, gray glass skyscraper that houses Williams, Clark and Winston, wave my ID and run to the elevator. I’m behind my desk with one minute to spare.

Mrs. Durnham has left a large mug of black coffee on my desk. I breathe in the aroma and think for a moment I smell vanilla. But then it’s gone.

What a strange morning.

Rain begins to fall, running down the sides of the windows like soft tears. I lean back in my chair to take watch before I turn to the pile of folders in my inbox. They smell of ink and paper and urgency. I grab the top folder and begin to read. I need to concentrate.

There is important work to be done.

The Fairies Came Calling

I used to sit behind the thick boxwood hedges where the house cuts in two feet then continues on straight. It made a perfect little niche for me to set out my china tea things for the fairies. It was best towards twilight when the light turned soft rose and the fireflies sparkled and the toads in the window wells croaked out their full- throated symphonies. Soon the cicadas would join in and the crickets would begin to chirp and the doves in the weeping willow would coo ever so softly.

I would hide there from Cousin Carol Anne when she came to visit with my Uncle Peter and Aunt Alice. Carol Anne said fairies were stupid and it was much better to stay in the cool house to watch TV. Carol Anne said she was going to be an actress someday because she was beautiful, not a plain old nobody like me. Carol Anne threw our cat Tinker in the swimming pool because she didn’t like the way he looked at her.

Every evening I would sneak out of the house and hide from Carol Anne until Mama called for me to come in. Every evening I had to listen to her chatter on about how much better her house was than mine. How her room was bigger and her clothes were fancier. Every night I asked the fairies to take Carol Anne away.

The last evening of their visit, I was hiding behind the hedges when Carol Anne came looking for me. I sat still and quiet when she passed by the boxwood hedges and crossed down towards the woods that ran behind our house.

“Where are you, Emily? I’m gonna tell your Mama you’re hiding on me,” she said.

I closed my eyes and shrank into the wall. “Don’t let her find me.” I said it over and over until I realized that Carol Anne had stopped calling.

The fireflies were twinkling, the frogs and cicadas and crickets had begun their symphony. I heard footsteps outside the hedge and Mama’s voice. “Come on in, Emily. You and Carol Anne need to stop playing.”

I poked my head out of the hedge. “But, Mama. It’s just me in here,” I said.

There was a terrible fuss over Carol Anne. The police came and looked for her for days. Dogs tried to track her, but her footsteps ended at the edge of the woods. They brought in all kinds of specialists looking for blood and any kind of trace of Carol Anne, but she had disappeared.

Aunt Alice went a little crazy and had to go to a special rest home after a while poor Uncle Peter was left to deal with the police and the TV reporters and all the publicity.

I told the police the fairies took Carol Anne, but no one believed me. How could someone just disappear?

Of course, I’m grown up now. I know there are no fairies. I know that Carol Anne was never found. Everyone said, “Oh, we could have lost both girls,” but I always believed they wished that I had been the one who was grabbed.

I didn’t grow up to be a famous actress. I just grew up. I have always been just Emily, the one who wasn’t taken. Was I lucky that day?

Carol Anne knows the answer

Once a Thief

I sit back in my well-padded crimson chair and allow my eyes to drift for a moment over the city below me as Douglas J. Finnerman begins to speak about emerging markets and growth opportunities. My boss, Rowland Everett III, nods with great enthusiasm, and I give them both a smile that conveys approval and warmth. My job is to appear helpful and gracious at all times. It sucks, but it’s a living.

A good living.

It beats tending bar, waiting tables, and washing dishes. Of course, I did supplement my living by dipping into the pockets of the unwary and unsuspecting. My college years were something less than a blast. Even working my ass off, it was never enough. So I was a thief. A good one. As they say, I had the touch. In and out before the mark even knew I’d been there. Cash only, please. The trick was to blend. I used to hang down at the financial center in my second-hand suit. Lunch time was the best. All those self-satisfied business types pouring out of their offices like big, fat tuna just waiting to be hooked.

I usually limited myself to three wallets a day, depending on my haul. Sometimes I’d hit a jackpot: a money clip packed with fifties and hundreds. But I was smart. I never went on a spree. I’d put it away and be back on another corner the next day.

So today I sit enjoying the view and a nice dry martini. My lunch will be paid for, and life will be good because even though I’ve already lifted Mr. Finnerman’s money clip, he’ll pay with his triple-titanium credit card. He won’t even know he’s light a few thousand until he’s back at his office. And he certainly won’t consider that well-mannered young man from Everett, Brookstone and Blackwell as a suspect.

If only he knew, right?

Yeah, I should probably give up the dipping. It’s a dangerous game, but what do you do for fun when your life is a spent as a yes man to an old blowhard? Anyway, it’s not like I have family to worry about.

Eventually, I’ll move on, and maybe I’ll become so important, I won’t need the rush. I’ll be able to afford my own helicopter or be able to travel the world or climb Mount Everest.

For now, though, I’ll settle for giving half of Mr. Finnerman’s big wad of cash to the homeless shelter and adding half to my collection. I like to think of it as my super secret retirement account. On my next vacation I’ll go to the Cayman’s and add it to my account. Then I’ll swim with the stingrays.

You only get to live once. You might as well enjoy it.

The Writers’ Salon

Simon had never attended a Writers’ Salon before.

“Do you bring food every week?”

Jill nodded. “Yes. We all bring something. It’s nice really. Gina brings some kind of green salad usually, and Celine contributes chicken salad and excellent bread or sometimes divine raspberry and lemon tarts. We’re never quite sure what Linda will bring. It varies. She’s a real ass kisser. If Andrea mentions something, chances are Linda will bring it the next week. Bob always brings Chinese food, and with Richard, it depends on his mood.”

“And what does Andrea contribute to the feast?”

“She contributes the plates and silverware and the house, of course.”

“Jolly good deal for her then.” Simon wanted to say, “What a crock.”

“Well, she does do all that reading, Simon.”

He cringed at her tone. It was just slightly disapproving, so he nodded. “Well, yes. She does do that.” For a $50 fee. “I’m not trying to disparage her, Jill. I’m just trying to figure out the rules.”

Jill laughed a little. “Oh, Simon. There are no real rules.” She checked herself. “Well, if you really want to get along with Andrea, you can sort of be extra pleasant to her. She likes men.”

“Oh.” Good God. Simon knew this woman was going to be unbearable.

From inside he could hear the barking of dogs before assorted furry bodies began to fling themselves at the screen door.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you about Andrea’s babies,” Jill said. “Try to make a fuss over them.”

“It sounds like a pack of rabid mongrels.” Simon liked dogs if they were well behaved and on leashes. He didn’t like dogs that jumped on you and poked their noses into your crotch. Their rude behavior reflected poorly on their owners. These appeared to be a mixed lot: a white Teacup Poodle, three Italian greyhounds, a Jack Russell Terrier, and a Yorkie that looked like moving dust mop.

Jill opened the screen door when a voice from inside called, “Here’s Jill, and she’s brought her friend.”

Simon could quite honestly say he had never met anyone like Andrea LaBelle. She swept toward him in her black beaded caftan, hands outstretched, the tips of her long red nails gleaming in the light. Her arms jingled with sliver bracelets and her fingers sparkled with rings made of amethyst and garnet and peridot. She wore thick false lashes, deep purple eye shadow and layers of powder that sank into the crevices and cracks in her face. Her hair was dyed raven, and her alarming eyebrows shot up into a point before sloping down the side of her head. Simon guessed she was somewhere between seventy and one hundred fifty.

The dogs were jumping on him, climbing his legs, thrusting their noses into his crotch, while he stood there holding out his Brie and crackers like a supplicant. He would have handed over all the money in his wallet if she would call the wretched creatures off of him.

“You must be Simon,” Andrea La Belle said. She jingled closer and relieved him of his offering before planting a kiss on his cheek. “How lovely to meet you. Where has Jillian been hiding you? I want you to sit right by me.”

Simon wanted to sprint for the door. One of the dogs, a greyhound was wrapped around his leg and the Jack Russell tore at the hem of his jeans. When he tried to move, the Jack Russell growled and bared his teeth.

“Silly, Rudy, stop growling. Naughty, Daphne. You’re not a boy, stop humping our guest.” Andrea La Belle clapped her hands. The dogs ignored her. “My babies are a teeny bit spoiled.” She managed to drag Simon to a chair at a long dinning table and shove him into it. Daphne resumed humping his leg.

“Find a seat, Jillian,” Andrea said, and Jillian slid into a seat across from him. She refused to meet his eyes.

He stared at the four people who sat watching the exchange. The woman to his left appeared to be in her early thirties. She had the lithe body of a dancer and plenty of wavy, dark hair she wore pulled into a careless ponytail. Her dark eyes were almond-shaped, and she had a full, sensual mouth. When she shook his hand, she let her fingers linger for a moment. She told him her name was Gina, she was writing a supernatural romance, and she would love to read his aura.

Next to her sat Bob, a balding chap, who sold insurance by day. He hated his job, had a wife and twin boys to support, and all his life he wanted to write. Now he was working on a crime novel about an insurance salesman who suffers a nervous breakdown and begins murdering customers. Bob had the manner of a friendly puppy and seemed delighted to find that Simon was English.

“How ‘bout that,” he said in an awful imitation of a British accent. “A genuine Englishman. I might ‘ave to pick your brain. I was thinking of making one of my victims a Brit.”

“How delightful.” Simon wasn’t at all sure he wanted this fellow or anyone else in the group picking at his brain.

The other male in the group, Richard, sat across the table from Bob, or rather lounged across the table. He sprawled back in his chair watching Simon, his face creased in an expression of disdain and amusement. He was tall and angular with a luxurious mass of gray hair and icy blue eyes.

“Did you grow up in England? Where did you go to school?” Richard threw it out like a challenge. “I’m a Harvard man myself. I’ve already been published. Perhaps you’ve read some of my poetry?”

“Your poetry . . .” Then Simon remembered the awful swill Jillian had shown him. The poem about an old man slipping on the ice, he bloody well remembered that. Snap. Crack goes the bone beneath my skin. Pop as it breaks the parchment surface. It reminded him of a commercial for a breakfast cereal, and the one about the man masturbating as he fantasized about a teenaged girl. Oh, he remembered those poems. “Yes, I did read your work. Jillian showed me. They were memorable.”

Richard gave him a sharp smile. “This is an excellent group here. Most of us have been published.” He turned to Bob who looked away. “Most of us expect to get published.”

“I expect so.” Simon smiled at the woman sitting next to Richard.

She held her hand to her mouth as if she were trying not to laugh. She possessed brilliant green eyes and shortish white hair and seemed a bit older than the other women, though her face was smooth. She didn’t have the tightened look of a woman who had undergone severe plastic surgery, yet her eyes held a certain cynical sagacity that comes from age. When she was younger, she must have been quite lovely because she still possessed an arresting face. She wore no wedding ring, but her fingers flashed with a number of large diamonds and rubies. She wore a deep red cashmere sweater that looked expensive by the heft of the yarn and a heavy gold necklace.

“I am Celine,” she said. “Welcome. I think you’ll be a wonderful addition. Just delightful. Jill talks about you so fondly. You must tell us about your book.”

She gave him a kind smile, and Simon felt a little more at ease.

“Before we talk books, we need to talk about what’s happening in our lives. I’ll go first,” Andrea said. “You see my dear Rudy there. He accidentally bit someone on Friday. It was awful! I didn’t know what to do. This man was threatening to call the police, but fortunately we were able to slip away just in the nick of time. Honestly, Rudy barely broke the skin. Thank God I parked across the street, or that awful man might have gotten my license plates.”

“Was the man teasing Rudy?” Celine’s mouth twisted into a curious half-smile.

“Well, no. But Rudy is so sensitive. Sometimes if someone doesn’t smell right, he just knows to go on alert.” Andrea waved her hand. “He was protecting his mummy.”

Mummy was right, Simon thought. Andrea looked like something an archeologist had dug up a thousand years ago. If she had any words of writerly wisdom to impart, he was William Shakespeare.

The dogs started to bark, and the door banged open. A tall, heavyset woman rushed into the room with a shopping bag in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Simon had a fleeting impression of a square face, thin lips and intelligent dark eyes. Linda had arrived. She flung herself into a chair opposite Andrea and let out a puff of air that blew her mussed bangs up from her forehead. Everything about her spoke of utility and practicality. Her dark brown hair was cut in a neat bob, her navy blue turtle neck and slacks were good quality, but not ostentatious. She wore a simple gold wedding band on square hands with short unpolished nails.

“Sorry I’m late, but I had to get the kids settled before I left.” She spoke in a loud, direct voice, like one used to giving orders and having them obeyed.

The group had assembled.