Monthly Archives: June 2016

Aftermath—Elaine Bonow

Aftermath

I can remember it like it was yesterday. In the first place I really didn’t even like Christmas. I guess I liked it well enough when I was a young child. Christmas wasn’t like it is today. I mean you got a present like a doll or a truck and maybe a nice new coat for winter or a pair of Stride-Rite’s.

Christmas just wasn’t the gluttony that we see today. I really was OK with it until I had my own kids. I mean I worked like a dog all year plus raising three kids on my own.

Can you believe it, I would work Christmas Eve back then at the diner and make it home just in time for dinner. My sister lived with us for a while when the kids were small, which really helped. Those were some hard ass days and Christmas became a real chore. I mean the kids looked forward to what little I was able to get for them and eventually things got better for us, more money, more things. But I tell you the more I could get them the more they wanted.

Shit I would have piles of wrapped presents waiting for them on Christmas morning almost like that scene in Home Alone 2 with that enormous tree and five feet of presents. The little brats would tear into that Santa paper, pulling out presents left and right and then just throw stuff on the floor, grab another bundle of loot and rip into that one.

A couple of years like that and I put a stop to that bullshit. It was one present only and that was almost considered child abuse. But that was a long time ago. The kids finally stopped all that Christmas nonsense, got jobs and bought their own Christmas gifts with their own money.

I only asked for homemade presents, which went over all right although some of the stuff they made was, you know, promises like I’ll make you breakfast in bed one Sunday a month, stuff that was sweet and much better for me.

BY this time I was relieved the pressure of presents was let up. We still had a traditional Christmas dinner for everyone. We had a family tradition of taking turns hosting, my sister, my brother’s wife, my step-father’s ever changing girlfriends, a couple of close friends and that made it easy. Each of us had special areas of expertise that we bought to the table and everyone over the age of ten had to add something. So those were some good years until the kids were grown and had families of their own and their own traditions.

I finally felt I could do my own thing at Christmas: no presents, no huge dinners, no presents. But that year was different. MY kids were doing very well and the grand kids were growing up just fine. That year they decided that I deserved to get something special from them and I should think of something I really wanted for Christmas.

They told me it had to be something very special, extravagant even. They were prepared to buy me anything from a new car they said or a downtown condo or a little farmstead or a mink coat just like Tippi Hendren’s in The Bird’s. Money they said was no object, a Caribbean cruise or a trip to the moon.

I had a whole year to ponder this grand gesture and ponder I did. I took the offer seriously. I wasn’t getting any younger and I figured I deserved the luxury they were offering me.

I was almost retired from my city job. I had a comfortable pension coming, a nice apartment. I didn’t have a car living downtown close to work. I was comfortable and saw a comfortable future for myself. I was content at soon to be sixty-five but I took the challenge seriously.

I researched cars. Hell I could get a Tesla or one of those self-parking cars I saw on TV. I thought seriously about that blond full-length mink coat and went so far as to look on line. I actually found one that would only cost about ten grand. But what the hell would I do with that much coat. It was never really cold enough to wear in Seattle more than five days every three years or so. Plus I was liable to get blood thrown on me by some PETA radicals or some outraged vegan might kidnap me and force me to eat kale and quinoa until I promised to rid myself of that abomination.

I thought about jewelry, emeralds and rubies. I just happened to see a movie on TV with Ava Gardner wearing a full set of her very own emeralds. I was just unable to see any use for a huge necklace just to wear to the Queen Anne QFC. I could buy a huge gold chain like the rappers wear and pull my neck out of joint. Hell, I could get a gold grill and look like a total idiot.

I went so far as to hire a real estate agent to show me property: condo’s in Belltown and West Seattle, ferried to Vashon and the San Juan’s to see little farmsteads. I was in shock at the sticker prices, which made my obsession with mink and emeralds look positively puny.

I was feeling too old to change my ways too much. I liked not having a mortgage hanging around my neck. My apartment was small and easy to live in, no garden and I liked my neighbors. They were my kind of people, nosy to a point but we all respected each other’s privacy enough.

It was coming up fall and I had to get my head out of my ass if I wanted to please my family. I thought about traveling, something I hadn’t done very much of. The world was a mighty big place ad seeing so much on the TV in movies and documentaries and on Rick Steves who goes everywhere and has such a good time. His feet never hurt, he never gets ripped off or gets the trots. Everyone welcomes him into their homes like he’s the Sheik of Araby.

Cruises seemed too square like the Love Boat times a hundred. I couldn’t ever set foot in such fakery, smiling and groveling, clean and fresh everyday, eating buffet food, dancing the Wobble every night fending off old, middle-aged, short, bald, heavily perfumed men attempting to have me perform some fellatio before he lost his flaccid erection. No, no no, I had to find a really good present for myself.

It was after Thanksgiving dinner with Dennis, my next-door neighbor. We were having a smoke form his bong. He and I had discussed this question for many months now, with no solution insight. “Hey look what I found on EBay today.”

He pulled out an old thick comic book encased in plastic from a USPS shipping box. “Look, remember this one from 1958. I think I read it in about 1960 and was totally enchanted by it.”

He pulled out a not so perfect copy of “Dennis The Menace Goes To Hawaii.”

Finally, that year the only thing I wanted for Christmas was to go to Hawaii. Of course, I took my best friend and neighbor Dennis. We had a ball and stayed for almost two months using the tattered old comic as our tour guide.

PEARLS – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER

PEARLS – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER

        Judy stared down the row of oaks that led to the old barn. She could hear her dad yelling, a mix of curse words and short, sharp yelps. She figured it could be just about anything at this point. Maybe the tractor, maybe the holes in the barn ceiling or pig sty, or maybe he just fell down on something hard. It was after 3:00, which meant he’d been drinking. She thought it might be a good idea to stay away from the barn right now. She’d get her horse when her dad went back to the garden shed to get another drink.

        It was hot and dry again this year. Judy sat on the porch and stared at the hills that surrounded their farm. The grass was dry and yellow already even though it was only May. She thought it was beautiful, the golden hills overgrown with sage and chaparral. The only green patches of grass left were in the shade beneath the oaks. Judy liked the way the sage smelled when it got hot, sharp and soft at the same time. Her parents weren’t as happy with this dry weather as Judy was. As far as they were concerned it was just another problem to deal with on their struggling farm.

       “Judy,” she heard her mom call from inside the house. “Judy, where are you? I need your help”

       She briefly contemplated running away where here mom couldn’t find her, but decided against it. It was too hot, and she didn’t want to deal with both an angry mom and a drunk dad. Maybe her mom wanted something simple, like a couple of lemons from the tree or some eggs from the chicken coop. But based on the tone in her mom’s voice, Judy doubted this was the case.

        Judy reluctantly brushed the dust off the black patent leather Mary Janes she got for Christmas two years ago. They were just like the ones Shirley Temple wore when she danced up and down the stairs in “The Little Colonel,” except they didn’t make that clicking noise as she ran up the porch steps into her house. They were much too tight, but Judy wore them anyway. It might be a while before she got another pair of shoes this fancy.

        Her mom was waiting for her, hands on her hips. “How many times do I have to tell you not the slam the screen door when you come in,” she asked. “It’s wakes up Granny.” Her mom wiped off her wet hands on her greasy apron and pointed to the closed door at the end of the small hallway. “She’s in pain again,” she whispered. “I need you to sit with her while I finish up hanging out the clothes and making dinner.”

        Judy sighed. Her mom’s face slipped into her habitual frown. “It’s not like you have to be with her all day,” her mom hissed, grabbing Judy by the elbow and pushing her towards the closed door. “At least you get to go to school. I’m stuck here all day with the both of them.”  Her mom pushed a loose piece of her graying hair off her sweaty forehead. “I can’t wait till you turn thirteen,” she said. “Then you’re finished with school and can finally help us with the farm.” She handed Judy a glass of water and a little packet of powder. “Take this and go sit with Granny.”

        Judy looked down at her shoes, and thought about Shirley Temple’s mean grandpa in “The Little Colonel.” He acted crabby all the time, but he turned out to be really nice by the end of the movie. Judy knew this was not going to happen with Granny.

                Judy slowly walked down the hall and knocked on the door. “Granny,” she whispered, hesitating. “Granny, are you awake?” She pushed the door open and stared at her granny, asleep in her narrow bed. She looked exactly like her dad did when he fell asleep on the old sofa in the living room; eyes screwed shut, mouth slightly open, gently snoring. Judy crept slowly into the room, trying to get to the chair in the corner without making a floorboard squeak. But like her dad, Granny was a light sleeper. She jerked awake as Judy sat down.

        “Where’s your mother,” she asked, staring at Judy. “I asked her for my medicine an hour ago. I’ve been laying here waiting. How long does she expect me to wait?” She gestured impatiently at the pitcher of water on her nightstand. “Don’t just sit there. Mix me my medicine. It’s way past time.”

        Judy carefully opened the packet and shook the white powder into the glass of water like her mom showed her after Granny got too sick to do it for herself. The powder made the water cloudy. Judy stirred it with the spoon from Granny’s bedside table until the water was clear. “Give it here,” her Granny snapped. “Are you going to play around with it all day?” Judy silently handed her the glass and watched as Granny tilted her head and drink it all without spilling a drop.

        “Take this,” she said, handing Judy the empty glass. “Help me with my pillows.” Judy tried to shift Granny and grab the pillows out from behind her shoulders and head. Granny felt spindly and brittle, the way chicken bones felt after Judy left them out in the sun to dry. “Be careful,” Granny barked. “You’re as clumsy as your mother. All you Dowds are clumsy. Always were.”

        She lay flat on her back, gasping and helpless. She reminded Judy of a beetle that flipped over and couldn’t right itself. Judy herself had stomped on countless beetles in this very position. She looked at her shoes. These really weren’t the right ones to use to kill bugs. She’d just as soon use her dad’s old farm boots when she had something messy to do.

        Judy silently plumped Granny’s feather pillows. She opened the bureau and chose two fresh pillowcases that her mom had embroidered. One had a fat little red hen with a flock of yellow chicks. The other had a pair of bluebirds sitting on a branch with “Love” embroidered in cursive above their heads. The bird ones were her favorites. She hoped Granny either liked birds or wouldn’t notice which ones she chose.

        “You’re going to have to sit up Granny,” Judy said. “I’m going to just slip these under your head as quick as I can. Then you can go back to sleep.” She put her arm under Granny’s shoulders and put the pillows behind her. She was shocked at how thin Granny was now, how her collarbone jutted out so sharp that it pushed her whitish-blue skin almost to breaking point. She felt sorry for her, for how helpless she was. Maybe she wasn’t always so mean. Maybe it was just because she was so sick now.

        “What are you staring at?” Granny said. “Just be glad it isn’t you. I’m wasting away out here in the middle of nowhere.” She glared at Judy. “This isn’t where my people are from, and I shouldn’t be here.” She gasped for breath and motioned for her water glass. Judy silently filled her glass and handed it to her. She watched as Granny took a few sips of water and coughed most of it back up through her thin lips onto her chin. Judy dabbed at her face with one of the discarded pillow cases.

        “Get that dirty thing away from my face,” Granny said, feebly pushing the pillowcase away. “Just like your mom. She never knew how to do anything right either.”

        Judy backed away from the bed and sat down in the chair. She looked around the room. It was full of things from Granny’s house in town, where her dad and his two brothers grew up. There wasn’t enough space in the small room to artfully arrange much. Old photos in ornate gold frames were stacked on the bureau and end tables, along with porcelain animals, empty delicate vases, and leather-bound books with colorful illustrations on special shiny pages.

        Granny’s jewelry box sat on the center of the bureau, a testament of order amongst the surrounding chaos. It’s gleaming dark wood was inlaid with mother-of-pearl flowers. The drawers, a special one for each different type of jewelry, slid smoothly in and out with a light tug of each dangling silver pull. With the exception of a light stain on the top—from champagne according to Granny—it was smooth, polished, and perfect.

        Judy had only seen the inside of this magic box once, when Granny still lived in her old house. Judy and her mom and dad would go to Granny’s house for dinner on Christmas Eve every year. Her dad’s brothers and their wives would go to Granny’s on Christmas Day. Judy wished they could all go together on the same day so she could play with her cousins instead of playing silently by herself while the adults talked

        On Christmas Eve last year, she decided to explore Granny’s big house while her mom and dad sat in tense silence in Granny’s formal sitting room. She wandered through the dark house. All the curtains were closed and the furniture in most of the rooms was covered with sheets. Judy thought all those sheets made the house look haunted. She tiptoed back down the hall to check on her parents, still perched stiffly on the stiff chairs listening to Granny lecture them about all the money they still owed her. She quickly ran back down the hall and opened the door to her Granny’s room.

        Her room was beautiful, with a big four-poster bed and matching armoire. It smelled like orange blossoms and old roses. Granny’s bedspread was pink and silky, and her pillowcases had gold tassels on the corners. Judy looked at Granny’s books, all with matching leather spines in a bookcase that extended from the floor to the ceiling. She pulled one out and opened it. The front page was protected by a piece of tissue. Judy pulled back the tissue and stared at the picture of a white horse with big wings flying through the blue sky.

        She tiptoed to the table beside Granny’s bed. It was the first time Judy had ever seen a jewelry box. She pulled open the small drawers and looked inside. Each drawer had a special treasure; a big stone with a face carved on it dangling from a soft velvet ribbon, a silver clock hanging on a slim, strong chain, gold earrings with sparking stones. Best of all was the long string of silvery, pinky white beads, each one just a little bit bigger than the one next to it, leading up to the one biggest one of all. The big one was right in the middle of the necklace, dangling from a golden bow.

        Judy pulled the necklace out its special drawer and draped it around her neck. It felt heavy and warm at the same time. The beads were soft. Judy rubbed the biggest bead above her lip, on the place right below her nose. She stroked the beads at the back of her neck. It was intoxicating.

        Suddenly the door burst open. Granny marched in and grabbed Judy’s arm hard. “Come with me,” she said, yanking Judy down the hall to the sitting room. Judy saw the stricken look on her mom’s face. “I found her,” Granny said. “She was rummaging through my jewelry box. Look.” She pointed to the necklace still hanging from Judy’s neck. “None of my boys were raised this way. None of my boys were allowed to rummage through my jewelry box.” She looked at Judy’s dad. “It’s what I’d expect from one of the Dowds, so I’m really not that surprised.” Her dad kept his head down and stared at the floor.

        Granny held out her hand to Judy. “Give it back,” she demanded. “And don’t ever get into my jewelry box again.” Judy silently gave Granny the necklace, watching it slip from her fingers into Granny’s wrinkly hand. She looked at her parents. Neither one said a word. Granny shook Judy hard. “Your cousins don’t get into anything when they come over,” she hissed. “That’s why they’re invited back.”

        It was a quiet Christmas that year. Both her mom and dad were silent as they drove home from Granny’s house in their old pickup. But Judy hardly noticed. That year, the only thing she wanted for Christmas was that necklace from that jewelry box.

        Judy noticed that when Granny got too sick to live alone, neither of her other sons offered to take care of her. The oldest son lived in Los Angeles now; he said it would be too hard to get Granny there easily in her condition. The youngest son pleaded lack of extra space due to his four children.

        Judy’s family lived just outside of town and she didn’t have any brothers or sisters. They were close and they had one extra room. Granny moved in with them in the spring, along with the few items she took with her from the old house. Since then, Judy’s dad spent most of his time in the barn or the garden shed. Judy and her mom were tasked with taking care of Granny.

        “Do you need more water Granny,” Judy asked from the safety of her corner chair. She wasn’t as afraid of her after she took her medicine. Granny eventually would go back to sleep, unless the pain was particularly bad. Today her lips were white and thin, and she breathed quick, shallow breaths. Judy could tell she wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon. She just hoped Granny wouldn’t want to talk.

        “I don’t need any more water,” Granny said, licking her lips. She stared at Judy. “Where’s your mom?”

        “She’s doing the laundry now and then she’s making dinner,” Judy responded nervously. “Dad’s in the barn fixing something. I think he’s fixing something anyway, that’s what I think.” She stared at her shoes, hoping Granny would stop asking her questions and fall asleep.

        “Your dad can’t fix anything,” Granny said, her bony hands picking at the blanket. “I didn’t raise him to work on a farm. He doesn’t know anything about plowing, raising pigs, or whatever else you’re supposed to do on a farm. The only thing he knows about farm life is your mother.” She hooked a piece of thread between her yellow fingernails and began pulling at the stitching. Judy stared at her as she began unraveling the blanket.

        “Do you think your dad’s happy here,” Granny asked. Her eyes, pinpricks now, watched Judy’s face. “Did you think he moved out of his family home to the Dowd pig farm voluntarily?” She continued plucking at the old blanket, pulling out bits of thread with her gnarled hands.

        “This isn’t just a pig farm Granny,” Judy said earnestly. “We grow cabbage, apricots, Brussel sprouts…”

        “I couldn’t care less what kind of farm this is,” Granny said. “The fact is that I didn’t raise my son to live here, out in the middle of nowhere. He was supposed to go to college in San Francisco, then go into business. He should be wearing a suit, not dirty overalls.” Her voice was sharp and mean, and Judy wanted it to stop. “I thank your mom for that.”

        Judy thought about her mom for a minute, about her red hands from doing everyone’s laundry, about her worn face at the end of the day when she was able to sit down after finishing up the dinner dishes. How she put Judy’s dad to bed when he was too drunk to take off his clothes and shoes.

        “What did Mom ever do to you to make you hate her,” Judy asked. She was shocked at her own question. It was like another person was talking out of her mouth. She remembered that Shirley Temple asked adults a lot of impertinent questions in the movies and usually got away with it. Judy knew she wasn’t as young and cute as Shirley, but she was willing to give it a try.

        Granny struggled to lift her head from her pillow. She glared at Judy. “What was that, young lady?” she snapped. “What did you just ask me?” She grabbed at the blanket in an effort to pull herself up, but was too weak to get a good grip. She sank back into the pillow gasping. She motioned for her water glass. Judy remained in her chair, watching Granny as she tried to catch her breath.

        “Your mom,” she croaked. “Your mom. It was her fault. She wanted to get away from this dump, away from this farm. She thought my son was her ticket out.” Judy watched as Granny pulled herself up. “My son couldn’t help it,” she said. “Your mom was a white trash country girl, and all the sudden there you were. What else could my son do? He had to marry her. Her dad and brothers would have killed him.” She looked at Judy with disgust.

        “I tried with her,” she said. “I tried to like her but I couldn’t. She made a mess of your dad’s life. What were we supposed to do? Be happy about it? We all hated it. When your dad moved to this farm, it was like someone drove a stake into my heart.” She slipped back into the pillow. “Now get me that water,” she said. “I’ll die soon enough. Out here at the Dowd family farm. I just don’t want to die of thirst.”

        Judy walked over to the bed, filled up the glass from the pitcher, and held it to Granny’s lips. She watched her as she tried to swallow, the water running down her chin. Judy went to the bureau and got one of Granny’s silk handkerchiefs. She dabbed at her face gently, carefully blotting the water off her cheeks and chin. She folded up the handkerchief and placed it near Granny’s hand, now laying still on the blanket. She quietly went back to her chair, sat down, and folded her hands on her lap like her mom had taught her.

        She snuck a look over at the bed. Granny’s chin was dropping toward her chest. Judy sat as quietly as she could. Maybe if she was really still and didn’t move, not even to breathe, Granny would fall asleep. She held her breath and watched as Granny’s dry lips stretched further away from her teeth and her rib cage jerked with the effort of her breath. Eventually Granny began fitfully snoring, her breathing irregular and labored. Judy walked to her bedside. “Granny,” she whispered. There was no response.

        Judy went to cluttered bureau and began pulling open all the drawers in Granny’s jewelry box until she found what she wanted. It was still there, in the middle drawer, the long silvery white necklace with the little beads that gave way to the bigger beads. Judy picked the necklace up. The biggest, softest bead hung from the middle, the one that was shaped like an egg and hung from golden bow. Judy put the necklace around her neck and smiled.

        “Mom,” she yelled. “Mom, come here. I think Granny needs help.” She slipped the necklace into her pocket. She rubbed a spot off the toe of her left Mary Jane, and ran down the hall looking for her mom.

Christmas 1985— by K. Uffelman

Christmas 1985

 

by K. Uffelman

That year the only thing I wanted for Christmas was Steve Harrison.

He was all I could think about from the time I opened my eyes when my third and final alarm went off to the moment I fell asleep with my trig book spread across my lap in bed. He was impossibly gorgeous. His hair was a beautiful brown and he had three lines shaved into the side of his scalp on the right side. A single hoop in his left ear. A perfectly-worn-out army jacket and the most serious expression you’ve ever seen on a 15-year-old.

I was constantly late for my French class as I had to walk by his locker on my way there. If he wasn’t at his locker, I had to pass by several times, hoping to finally catch him. If he was there, and didn’t notice me, I also had to come up with some reason to double-back, in the hope of catching his eye. If he did see me, and nodded his head, or acknowledged me in some other way, I’d have to hide in the girls room for a few minutes after to allow my wildly beating heart to settle before heading to class. Such a trial! On the days that he wasn’t there, even after I’d made a third pass, I felt depressed and worried that maybe something had happened to him. Or maybe he was doing to another girl what I was doing to him, stalking her on the other side of the school building.

I was in love.

“Helen!”

“What, Mom?”

“Your ride is here!”

I stuffed a pack of clove cigarettes in my bag along with my oboe, pulled my pea coat on and ran up the stairs from my room in the basement, taking them two at a time. My jump boots pounding out a rhythm.

“Not so loud, Helen! You sound like a rodeo stampede!”

“Right, right, okay, I’m sorry!”

Becky was waiting for me in her mom’s K car in the driveway. She was a year older and had been driving for two months. We had been carpooling to junior orchestra for a couple of years, Becky’s mom usually dropping us off and my mom picking us up, but since Becky had gotten her license everything had changed. For starters, our moms were off the hook for making the 40 minute drive to and from Arlano Hall four times a week. But the biggest deal was that Becky now treated me like a friend, rather than the younger kid she was obliged to ride in the car with. And almost as important, we could now smoke on the way to rehearsal.

The car lighter popped out.

“Here you go, rug rat,” Becky handed the lighter to me, and I lit two clove cigarettes for us, handing her one after taking a long drag on both of them.

“How’s Steve?”

“Oh, he’s okay,” I said, rolling down my window and attempting to blow smoke rings.

“Have you made out with him yet, or what?”

Becky was always trying to get me to discuss my romantic exploits and was eager to talk about her own. I would sometimes make things up, so that our conversations weren’t totally one-sided, but I think she could always tell. Lately I’d been getting an earful about her new boyfriend, Evan. He was a year younger but, she assured me, very mature. He was tall and played basketball and, although he was no Steve Harrison, I had to admit he was pretty cute. Becky was a cheerleader and ran with a different crowd and had different dating prospects than me. She told me she preferred dating younger men because they were so grateful and easy to teach. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by that but I had an idea.

“When are you going to get some action with Mr. Harrison?”

“Yeah, right. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know I’m alive.”

“Well, maybe if you didn’t wear three sweaters at a time and those awful boots…” and then she pulled her v-neck shirt down a few inches to show off her impressive cleavage and made googly eyes at me, “You should ask him to the Christmas tolo!”

“I am definitely NOT asking him to the Christmas tolo, Becky. #1, he probably thinks school dances are dumb, because they are, and #2 he’d never go with me.”

“Stevey, baby, a ‘54 convertible, too, light blue…been an awful good girl.”

“Shut UP!” I laughed, choking on clove smoke.

“Listen, seriously now, what do you have to lose if you ask him?”

“I don’t know,” I sighed, “I can’t even talk when I’m around him. Like, I can’t even say hello. How could I possibly ask him to go to a dance with me?”

“You gotta’ get over this shyness, rug rat. You just care too much about what other people think of you. If Steve Harrison won’t go out with you he’s dumb. That’s not your fault. But how are you going to know if he’s dumb or not if you never give him a chance?”

I didn’t actually follow Becky’s logic, since Steve Harrison could also ask me out if he wanted to. It wasn’t like I was stopping him or anything. I did walk by his locker at least twice every day, and sometimes six or eight times. He had plenty of chances to flirt with me if he was interested. But she was right about me being too shy and caring too much about what other people think.

“I need to stop and pick something up, Helen. Are you going to freak out if we’re a couple of minutes late to orchestra?”

“No, whatever.”

Becky pulled into the Albertson’s parking lot and we walked into the store.

“What do you need to get?” I asked.

“Oh, just some stuff.”

Becky grabbed a box of junior mints while I tried on sunglasses. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was blasting over the grocery store speakers.

“Come on.”

I followed Becky back to the little pharmacy section at the back of the store, where she stood perusing the condom selection.

“Becky, what are you doing?” I looked around. What if my mom happened to be in the store? I could feel the palms of my hands starting to sweat.

“I need some condoms,” she said. So matter-of-factly. She smiled at me.

“Sure. Cool. Okay.”

Becky made a big show of reading the labels.

“Oooh. Magnums. This is what I need for Evan.”

“Okay, okay, can we go now?” I was trying to figure out what excuse I was going to use to head to the car and not have to stand with her as she made her purchase. I feigned interest in an end cap display of aspirin stacked in the shape of a Christmas tree.

“Sure. You’re going to carry these to the cashier for me.”

“I’m going to do what?” I laughed nervously.

“Come on, Helen! What do you care? You don’t even know the cashier! He doesn’t know you. Who cares what you buy?” Becky’s eyes twinkled, “You can do it!”

“Okay, okay,” I said, reaching for the box, “I’ll do it if it’ll make you happy.”

“It’s not about making me happy,” Becky said, “if you want to do that, you’ll have to carry the condoms on your head.”

I swallowed.

“Sure, why not?”

I looked around nervously and then decided I was being ridiculou. Becky was right! I didn’t know any of these people.

I balanced the box on the top of my head and walked toward the front of the store, at first with mincing steps, but soon was strolling. Strolling and smiling. I felt suddenly free. I was 15 years old and walking through a suburban Albertson’s with a box of condoms on my head. If I could do that I could do anything!

Becky was grinning from ear-to-ear, her giant cheerleader smile egging me on. I started humming some bars from Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Snowflakes, which we were supposed to be playing at rehearsal, and making big waltz turns down the cereal aisle. Becky was laughing and clapping as I turned towards her when suddenly her eyes got very big. I turned around to see what she was looking at, and there, right in front of me, was Steve Harrison. Steve was holding hands with Jeannie Ball. Jeannie was older than us, dressed like Madonna, made out with boys in public, and had a reputation for sharp elbows on the dance floor. I was in no way her equal.

“Is this a friend of yours, Steve?” she asked, snickering.

I remembered that I had a box of condoms on my head just as they started to slide. The box fell between us on the floor.

MAGNUM LUBRICATED CONDOMS. THE GOLD STANDARD IN COMFORT AND PROTECTION.

Steve bent over, picked up the condom box, and handed it back to me.

“Thanks,” I got out, and then, making myself walk slowly, headed to the checkout stand and put them on the conveyor belt.

“I’d like to buy these condoms, please,” I heard myself saying out loud.

The pimply cashier shrugged his shoulder and said, “Is that it? That’ll be $2.49.”

“And junior mints, too,” Becky pushed the junior mints next to the condoms and handed me a five-dollar bill.

“Yes, condoms and junior mints.”

The cashier shrugged his shoulders again and rang us up.

“Need a bag?”

“Nah,” said Becky.

“You okay?” she asked when we got to the car.

“I think I am,” I said, a little shocked but smiling, “I just made a fool of myself in front of Steve Harrison and I don’t even care.”

“Um, I think you just guaranteed that he’ll say yes if you ask him to the tolo,” Becky laughed.

I thought she was out of her mind.

But she was right.

Cornelius Wakes Up—Tom Gaffney

Cornelius Wakes Up

He had been having a fine time.  A big party, lots of pretty ladies.  An assortment of food and drink and intoxicants on platters and mirrors and a bar.  Then there was dancing and the band sounded really good.  He thought someone might be pumping oxygen into the room, he felt so fresh, awake.
Then he noticed her, and remembered her, her wild hair and tattoos, lithesome body gyrating to the beat.  And he was naked, and aroused, and on stage: everybody looking at him.
He bailed out. A dream, thank you, a dream, just some anxiety, time to wake up, not like that party in Palm Springs.
Naked and stiff but lying in bed, mercifully at home.  Mid-afternoon, maybe, so hard to tell in this springy-summer light.  The alarm on his computer was going off, a recording of cummings, poem on a loop, “here is little Effie’s head, whose brains are made of gingerbread.”
Fuck. He thought the poetry alarm was kind of funny, but ee and Effie were downright disturbing this afternoon.  It all felt weird, like something was out of sync.  Grappa headache or no, perhaps it was time to rethink the alarm if the poems were going to enter his head like that.
Neil was relieved it was a dream, and the poetry alarm worked in the sense that it woke him up (no small feat).  He liked to sleep until late afternoon when he could and liked to be up for sunrise, and he had done that too and then gone back to bed to escape the dreariness of high noon.  He savored the palpable relief of realizing he had not been actually on a stage displaying his manhood in all its glory while Lulu danced in the crowd.  Lulu though, her appearance in a dream had to be an omen.
Lulu: memories of bitter arguments, and sex on mesa tops where the skies were bigger than any other he had seen and the stars were huge and so many.  There was the time she started a fight down at Joe’s, and he had been the one with a night in jail, six months of legal appointments, twenty five hundred in legal fees, and a month of Saturday mornings on the “adopt a highway” work crew up on I-5 near Shoreline.  So many visions of Lulu, her crazy theories about aliens and rocks, entanglement, other dimensions, tourists, steamy pit stops in the staircase of the parking lot at SeaTac.
Yes, Lulu was special.  Yes, his life would generally be considered fairly dull without her.  But it was peaceful.  And he did not have to face the conundrum of the, irrational, as he saw them, acts that his lust and affection and anger for Lulu would drive him to.  Neil had made significant strides these past five years.  He was somewhat under control and maintained the unorthodox schedule that made him happy.
He looked out at Rainier and the traffic of Columbia City getting a little thicker as the day wore on.  But the traffic was pretty thick around here generally anymore.  Sighing with the effort, he put together an espresso, sat staring out the window, and failed in his attempts not to think about Lulu.
Awake now, or thinking himself so, he cleaned the kitchen, got rid of the nasty bottle of grappa he had drunk last night.  Remembering, as he did last night, how all he had wanted for Christmas that year was a bottle of scotch,  preferably old and tasting like it had billions of unseeable pieces of peat settling to its bottom.
No, she got me a bottle of grappa.  She said it was good grappa.
But he didn’t want to think about Lucille either, anymore than he wanted to contemplate his headache and the taste in his mouth, or scotch or grappa and the complications arising from the need to interact with people.  Why, how, did he end with a Lulu and a Lucille in his rear-view mirror?  Savoring his solitude, for today he had deemed a day without people, he sat like a cat in the window enjoying the sunshine, trying to think like a cat.
Against his better inclination he climbed from his chair and went to retrieve his phone from the freezer.  Curiosity kills the cat.  Freezer storage kept the phone from waking him up, and kept him from grabbing it while half asleep to monitor the world outside.  He had gone a good twelve hours without checking it and while that hardly qualifies as a day without, it was pretty good, and Neil was the only one who might pay attention.  The whole day without a phone thing had helped him wean himself from twitter.  He was clean now, so he could look at the phone as long as he did not succumb to the urge to tweet.  No shrill communications with the masses via thumb tips.
While the phone powered up he tried to think of a new alarm system, something not as freaky.  Female poets had come to mind, but then his dreams would always be more frankly about sex or some symbolic castration.  Nope, that wouldn’t work.  For years, he had used the Melvins but those paths had gotten kind of worn.  Plus, not really breakfast music, not anymore.
The phone beeped and buzzed and vibrated with what had to be a series of text messages.  Uh oh.  Perhaps it was time for some opera, a diva really letting it fly.  That could help him wake up.
But the buzzing and beeping already had the hair on his neck standing.  Someone was looking for him.  Someone who did not yet have his current address or an awareness of his land line.
Someone.
There was no surprise, just a dropping of the bottom of his stomach and a loathing of the naked foreshadowing of his subconscious, as well as just a hint of blood moving to his groin, as he looked at the avatar: a picture of a fist with several rings, “LOVE” tattooed on a woman’s hand, a letter for every finger.
The effect was like the last time she had hit him with that hand.  Now, granted, he may have deserved it, and she had done it with an open palm and not a fist – she did not like to leave marks, it helped prosecutors – but it was a slap in the face indeed.  And he doubted her contact was because she missed his touch and craved what he could deliver.
The first message read “honey – omg – rocks – lots of rocks.”  Then another “best samples I’ve seen in years, maybe ever.”  Followed by “you should see this pretty young thing and what she’s got around her neck.”  Then there there had been a gap of about an hour, followed by, sometime right around when the grappa had given up its last drop, “Corny, where the fuck are you?”
Corny.  Another reason to fear Lulu.  Nobody called him that anymore.  She probably didn’t even know he preferred to go by Neil now.  In fact, if she knew he had adopted a new name she would laugh and laugh and laugh at him.  Enough to precipitate some rage filled utterance or action from him that would certainly not improve matters.
Resigned, he went to the bedroom and got changed, pleased that he had a chance to put on some fresh clothes before it all hit the fan, when the door buzzer started going.
“Corny, it that you?  I hear this is your place.  Right last name, but whoever they are is referring to themselves as Neil.  Really?  Neil?”
He paused, thinking he could pretend he wasn’t here, have a few hours to collect himself.
“Corny, you dummy, the van is parked right here in the alley.  I know you’re home.  I’ve been watching the door for the last hour.  Come on honey,” she found a little sugar, “let me in, I’ve got some friends with me.”
He undid the bolts on the apartment door.  Noticing the paper on the stoop, he wound up to give it a kick, changed his mind but did not get the message to his foot in time, and he launched the paper down the stairs and right off the glass of the door. He cringed, but the sound of broken glass did not follow.
Lulu’s voice came from the other side, “hello Corny,” in a singsong voice.  “Come on, let us in.”
He felt the blood pressure in his head increasing, Lulu on the other side of the door, “he’s just a little slow this time of day.  He is really going to be quite happy to see us – and I’m sure he’ll put you up for a few days. No problem.  He’s not dangerous like that skeevy Max.”
Oh great, Max.  You can run Cornelius, but evidently, you cannot hide.
He opened the building’s front door, found Lulu and two kids on the doorstep.  Alright, not kids, but young, very young.
“Delia, Nathan, I’d like you to meet my friend Cornelius.”
“Please,” he heard himself say, “call me Corny.  Everybody calls me Corny.”
He remembered how she used to introduce him, reminding folks what Corny rhymed with.
Lulu leaned in and embraced him, pulled him close, her hand on his back.  He immediately noticed other parts of him paying attention.  She kissed him on the cheek and whispered in his ear “take a look at that necklace.”
His head swam.  He did not know anything about the kids, but he sensed they had stepped into something quite a bit more complicated than they had considered.  And he looked at the somewhat ordinary necklace around Delia’s neck, and the innocuous green stone necklace she wore.
“Come on in, who wants some coffee? I’m just waking up.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.  He felt like he was swimming in a river, he looked up to the bank and watched what he had been calling “normal” recede as he went downstream.