Boring Things

Last week I sat in a metal cylinder with a little over a hundred other people. After a brief wait and some preliminary safety instructions nobody paid attention to, the metal tube shot into the air and floated across the country, suspended between earth and space, no struts, no strings, no legs. Inside, we ate peanuts and drank various liquids out of tiny plastic cups, like it’s perfectly normal for something heavier than air to leap into the sky and stay there.

The weirdest thing was, it really was perfectly normal. Normal, and actually within the laws of physics.

I was flying out to a friend’s wedding in California. I’ve never been further west than Tennessee in my recent memory, so the western, desert landscape I landed in fascinated me.  I was unashamedly a tourist. Everything was brown, tan, ecru, taupe, and dust with the whole expanse of sky stretched out like a canvas above it. It was flat—determinedly and definitely flat. Even in the flatter parts of my current Southeastern state of residence, there are lumps and bumps, but this place looked ironed.

In the distance I occasionally saw a hazy outline of a mountain through the smog, but I didn’t pay much attention to it until I left for LA and actually drove into them. They leapt straight up from the ironed earth with no preliminary foothills, great big lumpy mounds, towering over the interstate. They were bald of trees, just bare, dusty grass and rock outcroppings, and they were beautiful.

And none of the people with California license plates were driving along with their noses pressed to the window to see them like I was.

In between those two experiences, as I mentioned, I went to a wedding (actually, in the process of writing this, I went to two weddings, but I’m just talking about the first one for symmetry’s sake.). Weddings are anything but boringly normal. They’re (hopefully) once in a lifetime events, magical, sparkling days. There’s The Dress and The Man and The Cake. They mark two people committing their lives to love each other; a picture of the supreme love relationship, the relationship between Christ and the church he died for. The one I was privileged to be involved in had all the sparkle and excitement a good wedding should have. We sent my friend off that day with her new husband, to embark on life together.

Actually, I would guess that over half the people at the wedding were married. We didn’t get excited about them. After the magic of the wedding day, it seems like people have a pretty low view of marriage. The institution of marriage seems less and less important. Many couples live together before getting married, turning the marriage ceremony from a celebration of new life to just a big, elaborate party. I love the T.V. show Chuck, but it makes me cringe when, after two of the secondary characters get married, the very first episode they reappear in, the wife is bemoaning how their relationship has lost its sparkle. That’s what pop culture frequently depicts marriage as—the end of the road. No more fun and games. Boring.

But if our eyes glaze over with boredom at the idea of huge metal tubes flying and massive, bare mountains rising out of the ground, we aren’t good judges of what is truly estimable. Marriages are normal—and also fantastical. Two sinful people making daily choices to put their spouse first, to seek reconciliation when wronged, to maintain a friendship over decades of daily irritations and drudgery—that’s an epic tale. And on the flip side, two people whose love and commitment get eaten away by sin and selfishness—that’s a tragedy to weep over.

And you know what? I’m going to play the I’m-very-pregnant-and-it’s-late-at-night card, and just leave that there for you all to think about with no proper concluding paragraph. Sorry.

 

 

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Apple

The apple sat on the table, shining in the sunlight, round and red and delectable.

“There,” a woman’s voice said, “eat it.”

A pair of hands sat, flat, on either side of the apple, thin, bony, man’s hands with dark hair and chipped fingernails. Leaf shadows flickered over his hands as the tree above them moved in a breeze. He hedged. “I don’t really understand how this is going to help me to escape guilt.”

“It’s a practical application of what we’ve been talking about!” The woman’s voice grew rich with a smile. She interlaced her hands on the table opposite from the man’s. Her hands were manicured, nails painted a matching apple-red. “The only way to prevent it from being rotten is to eat it.”

The man pulled his hands back from the table and raised his eyebrows. His face was thin and stretched with skin that looked like parchment and his hair hung in limp strands down his back.

She laughed at his expression. “I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. You think its being rotten is wrong, that there’s something substandard about it. If you ate a rotten apple—a ‘bad’ apple—then it would make you sick.” She was leaning forward now, auburn hair falling down around her shoulders, a smile on her face. “But think for a moment; is it unnatural for an apple to rot?”

He frowned at the apple, and ran a hand through his hair. “I guess not.”

“So then can you say that it’s wrong for the apple to rot, if that’s a perfectly natural thing to happen to an apple?”

“Well I wasn’t—”

She reached forward and laid her hands over his, giving them a squeeze. “Just keep going with me for a minute. We’ve agreed that it’s natural for it to rot, correct?

He nodded.

“If it’s natural, then it’s correct. So who’s in the wrong about the apple?”

“Me, I guess. My ideas.” He was looking at her, rather than the apple, his eyes traveling from her long hair to her smiling face, to her low-cut blouse.

“So if you eat the apple and believe that the apple is everything it ought to be, then you will have made a step towards understanding the universe. And understanding yourself. There’s no need to label things ‘bad’ and ‘good,’ and no need to live with guilt about any of your life choices. We’re going to root that old thinking out of you.”

In the distance, the wheels of a cart creaked and grass began to whisper as someone walked through it, but neither man nor woman looked away from each other and the apple shining in between them.

A shadow fell over the apple and the man jerked his head up to look at the intruder. A farmer stood there, face lined with exposure to the weather, a smile in his grey eyes.

The farmer tipped his hat. “’Lo, ma’am, sir. Sorry to interrupt, but I saw you had one of my Romes, and I’m afraid that lot rotted unaccountably fast. I can pretty much guarantee that one’s completely wormy at the middle. I’m very sorry for the trouble, but I can give you a couple new ones if you want. Best ones of the season—was just about to take them off to the farmer’s market in town, but you can have one for free to make up for that rotter, there. It’s on me.”

He grinned affably at both of them and held out an apple to them. Greg stared at it, mouth slack, eyes round, and then darted a glance back at the woman. She wrinkled up her nose into a smile.

“I think we’re okay with this one.”

The farmer tilted his hat back and sucked in a breath. “Weellll, I’m afraid it’s not a maybe situation, see, my en-tire crop of Romes got worms. I can guarantee you that that beauty there is the wormiest apple I hope you’ve ever seen, ma’am. You get a bite into that thing, and unless you have a fondness for worms wriggling through your teeth, you’re going to be puking your guts out.”

The woman turned to Greg. “See what I mean, Greg? That’s the problem with the world. People don’t have enough faith. Think of how much this man has been wasting because he’s too small-minded to see the beauty and wholeness of this apple. Go ahead, take a bite.”

The farmer snorted like a horse and dropped his cart handle. “Beauty and wholeness? Do you not understand me? This. Thing. Is. Rotten!”

In one smooth motion his arm flashed out with a glitter of a knife in his hand, and chopped through the apple. The two apple pieces stuck for a moment, and then dropped open, rocking softly on the picnic table, revealing a mushy brown sludge protected by a thin sliver of healthy apple just underneath the skin. The mush stirred briefly as something dove deeper into its remaining apple slice. Greg swallowed, coughed, and his eyes slid involuntarily to the apple in the farmer’s hands.

But his therapist radiated angry heat. She sat up straight. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I’m trying to help this man. And maybe you don’t care about freeing strangers from destructive thought patterns, but I do care!” Her voice broke, suddenly. “I really do! And—and you just come along and put your stupid apple above another person’s life! I know it may look stupid to you, but this is a really important step!” She flipped back around, avoiding Greg’s eyes, flushed red. “I’m sorry, excuse me, I’ll—” She got up and walked away, pulling out a handkerchief as she went and blowing her nose.

The farmer rested an elbow on the picnic table and watched her go, chewing on the inside of his lip meditatively. He pointed the tip of his knife at her retreating back and asked Greg, “You fond of that woman?”

But Greg’s face was white and his eyes glowed with nervous excitement. He barely even looked at the farmer as he got up off the picnic bench. “Dana! Dana, wait!”

He ran after her, caught up to her, took her hands in his. The farmer slid himself onto the picnic bench, pushed the rotten apple further away from him, and began carefully paring himself one of his healthy apples.

In a few moments, Greg escorted Dana back, his arm around her waist, bent towards her as she dabbed at her eyes with her tissue. She shot one angry glance at the farmer and sat down at the table. Greg went around to the opposite side, but reached for her hand and held it. She sniffed and would not look at the farmer, who offered a neat slice of crisp white and pink apple to Greg. Greg looked at his hands.

Dana said, “This is a private counseling session.”

“This private counseling session is smack dab in the middle of my cow field. I b’lieve I’ll attend.”

She wavered, stopped, and rapped out, “I’ll ask you not to make any comments during the session.”

The farmer tipped his chin in agreement. Then he casually rolled the apple he still held in his hand across the table. It bumped a foot or so and rocked to a stop next to the halves of the rotten apple.

“What’s that for?” Greg asked.

The farmer shrugged and leaned back against the tree again. “I don’t want to impose any morality on your apple, there, but should you maybe want to not blow chunks all over your lady friend, you eat my apple. If you want to spend the evening at the pot, eat her apple.”

Dana’s gaze was steely and she raised an eyebrow at Greg. He smiled and squeezed her hand again.

“I know. Don’t worry. I know.”

With that, he reached out and picked up the first half of the rotten apple. The skin squished in as he picked it up. He looked in Dana’s eyes, and, his voice steady, said, “I believe in the rightness of nature.” He took a bite. The apple glooped, wetly. He kept his eyes on her and said, “My ideas about right and wrong are wrong.” Something inside the apple crunched as he took another bite and a sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead.

Dana leaned forward. “Don’t lose focus, Greg.”

His smile was shaky. “Focus. Okay.” He shoved the entire half an apple in his mouth. Brown mush spilled out the sides of his mouth. He gagged, his eyes bulging, and then gulped it down. Tears shone in Dana’s eyes and she beamed at him. “Oh my gosh, you did it! You did it!”

The farmer got up. He picked up his own apple, nodded cordially to Dana, then to Greg, who appeared to also be fighting back tears—or something else. As the farmer left, he heard a rush of movement and the sound of someone puking up rotten apple under the tree. He shook his head and kept on walking.

Greg knelt under the tree for several minutes, wiping the vomit from his mouth. Dana walked over to stand behind him; he saw the tip of her candy red pumps out of the corner of his eye. But there was no happy comradeship in her voice anymore. She was distant and professional.

“We’ll that is disappointing, but we’ll just keep trying until you’re strong enough to eat a whole one.”

He kept his head down, not meeting her eyes, swabbing at his own vomit and trying not to let her see him gag again and again, spitting out the leftover bile. Furtively, he slid his eyes sideways. Out over the rolling grass, blurred by heatwaves and dust, the farmer was pulling his cart of fresh, sweet apples.

 

 

Remnants

My mother never turned the mattresses. That could have been just an odd housekeeping peccadillo if she weren’t the sole proprietor of a bed and breakfast.

When I was thirteen, a guest mentioned it on the way out, “Hey, you could let your mother know those mattresses could stand to be turned or replaced or something. That thing had a ditch so deep I might as well have been sleeping in a coffin!” He laughed loudly and shut the door behind him, but his death-related simile made me nervous. I went to my mother and told her what he’d said, but to my surprise, she just pursed her lips and said, “It is not good to disturb them.”

That was all. No explanation. She was like that. English was hard for her, so she stored it up, keeping it in reserve for an upset guest or a customer who wanted a discount they didn’t deserve. Though the rest of the house remained the charming, Victorian farmhouse it had always been, the mattresses slowly dipped, settling into firm body prints. And as the mattresses aged, our customers left us. First my mother let the groundskeeper go (“I can mow the lawn,” I said) and then the cleaning help (“We’ll split the rooms and do them ourselves,” we decided).

But by the time I turned sixteen, we both spent our entire lives keeping the place up and we had only one guest reserve a room for the entire month of June. My mother sent me upstairs to clean the room he’d reserved while she fretted and poured over our growing pile of bills.

Upstairs was silent, but for the creak of the polished wood floorboards under my feet and the tick-tick of the hallway clock downstairs. I opened the door to the Iris Room; a corner bedroom with a window seat, dark purple curtains and a tall, four poster bed. That bed. I threw open one of the curtains, letting in a streak of white sunlight and turned to glare at the mattress, the dips so obvious that I could see them even under the elaborate quilted comforter draped over the top and the several layers of blankets underneath. I peeked out the door; my mother was on the other side of the house. She wouldn’t hear anything.

As quickly as possible I stripped the bed and hauled the mattress off the frame, struggling to prop it up in the air. For a split second it stood there, upright and wobbling, almost like it was alive—then it dropped back onto the frame with a thump and a cloud of dust.

I gagged. Growing up cleaning used bedrooms gives a girl a very informed imagination about what kinds of residue gets left behind to turn into mattress dust. I imagined all the bits of people’s skin and excretions and dirt and dead mites being sucked into my lungs at every breath and I ran out of the room, retching. After a trip to the bathroom to wipe off my arms and face, I went back.

The dust motes were still thick in the air when I pushed the door open, and I was coughing and waving my arms, when I saw a figure standing in the shadows, the light from the window falling between us so I couldn’t see the face. My arms dropped to my sides. “Hello?” I said.

The figure moved forward, the edge of the light barely illuminating its face. It was a boy, my age, good looking, with high cheekbones and clear skin. He waved, half-abashed, and said, “Hey um, is this the Iris Room?”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice unnaturally high. “What are you doing in here?”

“I rented this room. But….” He laughed, “It’s kind of, well, girly. I hate to be one of those guests, but, do you think I could pick a different room? It’s okay if you can’t…”

I thought he was our guest. Maybe he’d arrived early. Maybe he’d rung the doorbell and then come on up when we didn’t hear him. Maybe he’d left his luggage in the car.

“Sure! I think maybe the Pine Room would be a little manlier.”

He walked through the beam of sunlight and if I had any superstitions about boys who appear in dust clouds and shadow, they vanished. Other than being more attractive than anybody had any right to be, he looked like a normal teenager. His haircut was funny—kind of a bowl shape. It made him look a little outdated, and a lot more approachable. Because this was no garden variety boy, no, this boy had a broad smile and deep brown eyes and if he hadn’t been humanized by a dorky haircut I would have been embarrassed about wearing my rattiest shorts and a t-shirt two sizes too big for me.

I threw open the door at the other end of the hallway and he peered in and grinned at me, “Much better. Thanks. That bed’s still pretty worn out, though.”

I sighed. The mattress was as visible and lumpy as a skeleton under a silk sheet. “My mom refuses to ‘disturb’ them.”

He looked at me and then at the bed, a mischievous glimmer in his eyes. “What if we turned them? Does she really come up here that often? Do you think she’d figure it out?”

I stared back at him and found an answering grin on my face. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?”

It was the most fun I’d had in years. He would flip a mattress up, I would catch the bottom, we’d flip, it would slam onto the bedframe and we’d scuttle out to escape the dust cloud, trying to stifle giggles in our hands. We went through every room. The entire upstairs was coated with dust, there were bedspreads lying on the floors of every room, the mattresses were mostly crooked with the bedsheets on upside down, but he pulled me down to sit against the wall in the hallway, our shoulders almost touching, cheeks flushed, gasping from exertion and suppressed laughter.

When we regained our breath, the upstairs seemed unusually silent, like we’d thrown a blanket down and muffled everything in waiting quiet.

He turned to me, still grinning. “Now we see what happens when they’re disturbed.” His eyes lingered on my face, drifting to my lips. He his hand went up to cup the back of my head and I leaned forward, my eyes shutting as I waited for him to kiss me.

Nothing. I felt nothing—no lips on mine, no hand on my head. My eyes snapped open, face flushed. He was staring at me with wide, horrified eyes and I shrank backwards. Not many boys ever tried to kiss me—I must have done something wrong.

He stared down at his hands and then back up at me, the shock replaced with a rage like I had never seen before. It came so quickly, transforming his face. “It didn’t change anything! I’m not changed!”

“What do you mean?” I said, my voice trembling. “I don’t understand.”

He rose up, looming over me, and I saw his face contort, shifting before my eyes, a swirl of particles making his eyes too big and his mouth too wide. “Because I’m dead, you idiot, and you didn’t make me better! You woke me when you flipped the mattress, but now I’m still dead, and it’s your fault!”

I scrambled away from him, struggling to get to my feet but then I saw the rest of the hallway. They were pouring out of the rooms, normal, solid people at first glance, but then I saw how their faces blurred like shifting sands, their skin rippled, just dust moved by the wind. Their eyeless faces were turned to me. Their shifting hands were reaching for me. The boy screamed in my face, “I’m still dead! You didn’t fix me!”

I couldn’t get away. My feet slipped on dusty floor and they crowded closer, human shapes blurring before my eyes into a luridly colored cloud of grit and suffocating dirt. The boy was still screaming but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. My ears were clogged up, my eyes stung even squeezed shut, and still the dust encompassed me, blocking my nose, strangling me. There was no way out. They were going to kill me.

Then something cold hit me hard, knocking me forward and I lay, gasping in a puddle of cold water, more water splattering down on me as I stayed there. I hacked and coughed and spat out dusty snot, but I could breathe. Finally, I rolled over to see my mother, face grim, standing at the top of the stairs using a garden hose to douse the entire upper floor.

As soon as everything had been soaked, she dropped the hose, knelt down in the puddle and wrapped me in her arms. I cried nasty, dirty tears down her shirt.

It wasn’t until she’d pulled me downstairs, sent me to take a shower, and made a cup of hot cocoa before she said anything. “They collect,” she said, “Pieces of people and their memories, left behind in the mattresses, always wanting to go on and see the rest of their lives and always stuck.”

“Why don’t you throw them out?” I asked, wrapping my still shaking fingers around my mug. “Why not replace the mattresses every few years? Why the heck would you keep mattresses like that, Mom? Not only did they destroy your business, they almost killed me!”

She looked down. “I am sorry. But they don’t seem like ghosts when you meet them, do they? I thought—I did not want to murder them. I felt responsible.”

I thought about the boy, and his grin and the fun time we’d had throwing mattresses around. He’d been freeing the rest of them the whole. But he had seemed real, not at all like a ghost. I could barely believe it even now.

That evening my mother called the garbage men and offered them extra money to remove the mattresses themselves. We stood on the porch and watched them leave, one bare, stained mattress after another. They went off into the purpling dusk and my mother crossed her arms a firm set to her mouth. “No more ghosts. Tomorrow, we start fresh.”

No Raisins (or, The Day The Raisins Dried Up)

Milk

Eggs

Flour

Oatmeal

Raisins

Edith scanned her shopping list and pushed her buggy down aisle five, under the sign that said “Canned Fruit/Dried Fruit/Jelly/Peanut Butter.” She was going to treat herself and mix up a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies tonight. She couldn’t manage to eat a whole batch by herself, but the grandkids would like them when they came over tomorrow. Now. Raisins. Where were the raisins?

There were jars of cherries, dried apricots, dried bananas (awful things, Edith thought, like fruit-flavored Styrofoam) dried cranberries, dried cranberries flavored to taste like cherries, dried cranberries flavored to taste like blueberries, and dried cranberries flavored to taste even more like cranberries. But no raisins.

“Please,” Edith said to the grocery stocking boy, “Could you tell me where the raisins are? I’m sure I’m looking straight at them.”

His Adams’ apple bobbed as he swallowed and she thought he looked unduly confused for such a simple question. “Er…I don’t remember seeing anything called that.”

She blinked at him. (Really, what kind of rock do you have to live under to not know what a raisin is?)

There was a pause and the stock boy said, “Uh, let me ask my manager. She’s probably in the back.”

Edith agreed to talk to the manager and went to pick up her other items. But when the manager found her and Edith repeated her request for raisins, the manager just smiled and shook her head, “I’m afraid we don’t carry that, ma’am. You say it’s a dried fruit? Would it be in the international section?”

For a moment Edith just gaped at her, this intelligent looking, well-dressed woman, the head of a store for goodness’ sake, who had not even heard of a raisin, much less thought to stock it.

“A dried grape!” Edith said, waving towards produce. “A little wrinkled, purple-browny thing—like a prune, but smaller. Really, it’s very common. People use it in oatmeal cookies, sometimes in carrot salad, in those granola mixes…it comes in little red boxes with a pretty lady on the front?”

The manager suggested a health food store down the street and Edith was ushered out, feeling somehow that they thought she was the crazy one.

At the health food store she was pounced upon by a pink and green haired clerk who immediately beckoned her over to the computer with a wave of a well-bangled arm. “We have so much stuff, and some of it has strange names, so this is just the easiest way,” the clerk told her.

Edith’s eyes bugged at “strange names,” but she held onto her purse and waited politely.

“Can you spell it?”

Edith did.

The clerk sighed. “Well that stinks. I’m sorry. Not a thing. Sure you weren’t meaning Rise-En, our natural male supplement?”

Edith blushed from her toes to the crown of her head, apologized for troubling the cashier, and hurried out. She intended to give it up as a strange coincidence, but she couldn’t leave it alone. She stopped in two different grocery stores on the way home with the same results in both. Nobody had even heard of raisins.

She let herself into her house, put away the milk and eggs, and sank down into her armchair, suddenly tired. After all, she was getting old, maybe—but no! She sat up and thumped the arm of her chair with a fist. “I am not imagining raisins, for heaven’s sake! My oatmeal raisin cookies are the best cookies this side of the Mason-Dixon line!” She picked up the telephone and dialed a number.

“Selma?”

“Oh, Edie, is that you? You sound all tensed up. Is everything okay?”

“You are my oldest friend, Selma.”

“Since we were six!”

“Yes, and I trust you’ll be honest with me if I ask you a question?”

“Well of course—”

“Do you know what a raisin is?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “A what? Like, raising? Barn raising? Roof raising?”

Edith sighed. “I’m sorry, Selma, I’ve got to go.”

She sat on her couch and frowned at the ground for several minutes. Then she got up and went to her back closet to rummage around. That evening Edith made several trips to and from the grocery store. Her house started to emit the most unusual sweet aroma, warm and comforting, but her neighbor couldn’t identify the smell when it drifted over into his yard.

The next afternoon, a little girl with banged up knees and her hair in pigtails sat on Edith’s couch. Beside her was a boy whose eyes drifted lovingly over to the closed 3DS that had been taken from him and temporarily stored on the highest bookshelf.

“What’dya think Grandma’s got? She said it was a special surprise.” The girl said, swinging her legs.

“I dunno. Probably cookies. It’s usually cookies.”

She sat up, her eyes twinkling. “Oh you sound like you don’t want them! I’ll be happy to eat them for you!”

“I did not!” He was affronted. “I was just saying that’s probably what they were. I’m gonna eat my own cookies and don’t you try to cheat me out of them Sara-Beth!”

Edith emerged from the kitchen. The door shut behind her, so her grandkids did not see the sticky food dehydrator sitting on the counter or the empty grape bags scattered around her usually pristine kitchen. She presented them with a plate of cookies that smelled of butter, cinnamon, and a darker, fruity scent.

Sara Beth snagged a cookie and munched it, pointing to the purplish wrinkled lumps scattered through it. “What’re those, Grandma?”

Don’t talk with your mouth full!” Edith said even as she panicked inwardly. She remembered all too well the moments she’d eaten a cookie she thought was chocolate chip only to find it was a raisin. Oh dear, thought Edith, I’ll turn them against raisins before I’ve even re-invented them!

“It’s not a chocolate chip—” she hurried to say, “it’s a raisin, a kind of dried fruit I…made up.”

“It’s good!” Sara Beth announced.

Her brother frowned and reached for another one. “What’s a chocolate chip?”

 

Babies and Rocks

After breakfast, my daughter frequently goes to the door, points at it, and says, “Gocks!”

By this she means she thinks we should go sit in our gravel driveway and play with the rocks.

Since she will eat the rocks if not closely watched I have spent a lot of time looking at rocks lately. I even looked up the type we have in our driveway: Goose Egg Stone. It’s billed as a “white and tan rock” but I can assure you, that’s a gross over-simplification. Today I found:

Pink—a Grandma’s bathroom kind of pink, the color of pink that goes with shells and scented soaps. There will also be an obligatory fuzzy toilet cover in this color.

Orange—not a rough sandstone orange, but a smooth orange, like somebody solidified and shrunk an orange push up ice cream into an ungeometric lump.

Crystal: Frosty white ice chips, lying out in my driveway in 80 degree weather.

And one that I decided was most definitely a chipped dinosaur’s tooth.

I feel like if I were a fantastic writer with clever insights I would segue from this into some thoughtful application about uniqueness or solidity. But here’s all I got from it: Rocks are cool. Sometimes it may be good to pretend to be interested in things a baby is interested in, partly to keep them from eating rocks, and partly because they may be onto something.

 

 

When The Rain Came

At 2:08 today, water fell out of the sky.

My grandma said it was the end of the world; probably aliens dropping poison on us. She said you could tell there was somebody up in the sky hiding because of the thick, puffy grey stuff that covered the sky before the water came down. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it before. She told me to get out the aluminum and to seal up the windows before poisonous gasses could get inside. She told me to hurry; she called me a lazy slob.

I went outside and shut the door on her screeching. I stood with the water pelting down from the sky onto my head, and turned to stare at our apartment window where I knew my grandma was standing. She was probably cussing me out up there, but I couldn’t even see her because of the water coursing over the window, rippling and shifting like liquid glass. If it was poison, it was beautiful poison.

Maybe Grandma would be less quick to see disaster in this strange water fall if she had to produce double the water production for our household. The government required my grandmother and me to produce .131 liters of tears every day—the normal amount for a two-person family. But Grandma didn’t like crying. When I came to live with her two years ago, she said I could stay with her rent free (who charges rent to a fourteen year old orphan?) if I cried her allotment as well as mine. What could I do? I had nowhere else to go, and crying extra doesn’t seem so difficult two weeks after your parents die.

So I cried all our tears every day and took them down to the tear-collection station by 8PM in the evening. There our whole town’s tears would be de-salted, sanitized, and sent to the national reservoir where they would be used to water the nation’s crops.

I looked up, letting the water splash onto my face. Thousands of tiny, sparkling dots fell evenly all around me, appearing out of the grey nothingness above and hitting my face and the cars and the ground seconds later, too fast for me to see each drop. I could never cry so fast—there had to be several pounds of water already on the ground, already evenly distributed, and more of it was falling.

The rivers and lakes left over after the war provide just enough water for animals and humans, but the tear-water goes to our crops. We would never waste any of it on un-planted ground. I stared, amazed, as the red, cracked earth turned a mottled dark brown, and then there was muddy water filling up the cracks. Part of me didn’t like that, to be honest. It just seemed so wasteful. After the first few months, with Grandma it got a lot harder to cry double. I had to drink water all the time. Sometimes she’d not let me eat till I completed the day’s crying, and since there’s only so fast you can cry, I frequently don’t get to eat till after 8PM.

The water fell slower now, just a tiny sprinkle pattering on my wet face. I was soaked through and when I inhaled I smelled an earthy, rich smell. The water hung from the eaves and dripped single, diamond drops onto the bare soil. Glorious, reckless extravagance.  My phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and read, “Public Service Notice: Tear collection for the city of Coaling canceled for today.”

I looked out to the east where the strange fluffy masses had broken up and the sun shone through. A knot of fear formed in my stomach—was this a freak event? Would it never happen again? Already I missed the pattering shower on my face.  Far in the distance I saw another puffy thing, hanging over a mountain. The water wasn’t gone. It would be back. I wanted it to come back.

Next time I would come out and try to count the drops before they hit the ground, and I would jump in the tiny lakes that filled the holes and dips of our parking lot, and I would stare up into the sky until every inch of me was wet. I smiled extra big up at my grandma in the window, put the phone in my pocket and went inside.

 

 

What Mythical Rats Have To Do With Modern America

Last week I wrote a short story (you can read it here or you can just scroll down a few paragraphs). I had several people tell me it was disturbing and morbid, and I meant it to be. But I wanted to be sure that my readers didn’t just think I was being disturbing just for kicks.

It’s a story in its own right—there’s no neatly packaged moral and no allegory.

At the same time the conflict and motivations sprang from something very real and very horrible in our own world. We, too, carefully guard our language to hide from the fact that we treat real, living, breathing human beings like rats all the time.

Recently, a certain presidential candidate made the mistake of referring to unborn babies as unborn babies instead of “fetuses”. Cue outrage. How dare she even imply that that thing is human? It’s a pest. Vermin.

A mother should have a choice about bringing a child into the world. That sounds nice and liberating, but it boils down to an unpleasant standard: a baby is only a human being if its mother wants it. It only deserves life if she wants it to live.

It may be easy to dismiss the unborn as non-persons and allow them to be quietly killed. But ignoring their death puts every single one of us in danger.

When the standard changes from “human life is valuable,” to “wanted human life is valuable,” you are no longer valuable in and of yourself. You are only valuable if other people think you are.

I don’t know one person who couldn’t become a rat in the right circumstances. Hitler didn’t think Jews, Christians, homosexuals and the mentally handicapped were valuable. He exterminated them. Women are rightly concerned about young girls’ body images—but if you teach a girl she is only valuable when she’s wanted and loved, what happens when her boyfriend tells her she’d be prettier if she was fifteen pounds lighter? What if somebody really is fat? Are they less of a person? What if you’re homosexual, or a Christian, or Muslim, or black, or American Indian, or Mexican, or Asian, or Irish, or Welsh?

We kill defenseless children when we don’t want them. Who will we kill next? If my story disturbs you, good. It should. Because it’s also reality.

Rat Catcher

Pretty much nobody gets their first job before they’re eighteen and they sure don’t get one with the rat-catcher, that’s for sure. But I guess if you don’t live out west like I do, you don’t think that sounds so great. Let me tell you—it’s the top, the very top. If you’re in a Mechanical Operations family, you can’t do better than landing a rat-catcher job. Dad was just a plain janitor, the lowest of Mech Op, but he went to school with a kid who went into rat catching, so when funds got tight at home and I was getting close to my seventeenth year, he pulled some strings and I went to work with Dave Pulley, best rat-catcher in the entire Midwest.

I got to work early my first day and picked up coffee for Mr. Pulley because it couldn’t hurt to brown-nose a little, could it? After all, if this job didn’t work out, I was stuck cleaning toilets the rest of my life like Dad.

At exactly eight o clock Mr. Pulley came charging out of his office buildings to meet me by the white van with all our equipment. “Got a puny one out wreaking havoc on Mrs. Windlemyer’s chicken farm. Hop in.”

The words burst out of him in a machine-gun rattle as he drove, hands high on top of the steering wheel, peering out over it from under his pulled-down hat.

“Seen a rat before, Tom?”

“No sir.”

“They’re gorgeous.”

“Sir?”

“Just call me Dave. You’ve seen the pictures, right?”

I had, and I already knew he wasn’t talking about grey rodents that creep through sewers. Out west, our rats look…different doesn’t quite do it justice. I shrugged. “They’re like birds, right, sir? Big brown birds with humanoid heads. Kind of de-evolved humans. Monkeys with wings.”

He glanced at me, dark eyes bright under the cap. “Monkeys with wings, eh? Listen, son, monkeys with wings they may be, but if you ever meet one face to face, you shut your eyes and pull the trigger on your spear-gun, alright? Do it fast. They’re dumb, alright, don’t you doubt it. A monkey’s probably got more brains. But to look at ‘em, well, let’s just say you got to keep reminding yourself of the facts.  Lotsa people wash out of this job. Softies. Let’s go over the basics before we hit the ground, ok?”

Twenty minutes later I exited the van, dazed by the high-speed orientation, my head abuzz with helpful information about firing a spear-gun, tactics for taking on a single rat, tips for staying clear of claws and talons, and finalizing procedures once we’d cleared the infestation. I was much too distracted to see the shadow skimming past on the grass as I climbed out of the van.

Dave saw it, though, and, cursing, ran around to the back of the van and started hauling out the spear gun bags.

“Get a move on, Tom! Darn woman swore to me it didn’t start its raids till at least 10AM! No time for more training! Get back here!” He shoved my spear gun into my hands. “You go down to the chicken coop—it likes coop 4A best, she says, keep watch.” He threw me a radio. “Contact me if you make sight. I’m going to go try to frighten it up past you.”

I ran off down the hill, elated, my regulation grey jumpsuit zip-zopping with my strides. I was out in the clean morning air, about to take on a large and dangerous prey, being part of a team—it just didn’t get any better. In a moment of cheap ingratitude, I mentally thumbed my nose at my father, who was probably about halfway through one bathroom now with sixteen more to go.

When I reached the chicken coops, I slowed down, the stench dampening my enthusiasm. The low white buildings gleamed in the sunlight and the chickens milled around each coop, bawking and clucking.

I ducked into the shade behind a utility building. Coop 4A was just over my right shoulder. I took a breath and was about to go check it when I heard a noise—a noise not two feet away from me, on the other side of the utility building.

Instantly every horror story I’d heard about rats flooded my mind: pictures of men and women with huge gashes all over their bodies from the razor sharp talons, that baby that one of the rats stole and then dropped off a cliff, the farmer who’d lost a leg after happening on one of them unexpectedly. I shut my eyes. No. I had to do this. Rats or toilets, I reminded myself. And I swung around the corner of the building, spear gun at the ready.

Even expecting her, I wasn’t expecting her. She was standing right there, right at the edge I was standing at. We’d practically been breathing the same air. We both froze.

The giant tawny wings were half unfolded from her back. I knew the talons were there at the ends of her feathered legs. I knew her hands curved into wicked claws. But in the instant I turned that corner, I only saw frightened hazel eyes set in the perfectly normal, human face of a girl my age. She squeezed her eyes shut and flinched back from me and I could hear her quick, shallow breaths. Her nose, scrunched up, had freckles on it, and she smelled of salt and wind and sunlight.

I still couldn’t move. She opened one eye, and then both, anger replacing the fear. “Just do it!” She snapped. That really put me off. They weren’t supposed to talk. They weren’t supposed to understand. This was supposed to be easy. I should be able to ram my spear into her heart. Why wasn’t I?

When I didn’t move, she launched suddenly into the air, pushing off of my chest with her huge talons and knocking me to the ground. Dust tornadoes stirred up by her wings stung my eyes, and then she was gone, skimming over the gleaming roofs. I stared down at the dusty, unmistakable talon prints on my jumpsuit and nausea stirred in my stomach. Scrambling to my feet, I ran after her.

Dave met me halfway out of the chicken coops. I saw him look at the front of my jumpsuit and, even worse, saw the disappointed shake of his head. I was going to be cleaning toilets my entire life. Up ahead of us, she was skimming through the air, one beat of her wings taking her further and further.

“Do it!” Dave half turned to me, waving and pointing, “Do it! Prove you can do it!”

It would be my last chance. I was a good shot, and spear guns are built for long distance shooting. I put it to my shoulder, sighted it. I saw her in my memory, the hazel eyes, the freckles on her scrunched up nose—but I pushed that away and thought about clogged toilets and smelly bathrooms. I pulled the trigger.

It hit her wing, right up at the base. It wasn’t a mortal wound, but it brought her down. When it hit her, she screamed, wavering in the air, suddenly unstable. She teetered, slipped sideways, and tumbled down to the earth. There was a wet crunch as she hit.

Dave had stopped running. He gave a curt nod. “Good. Broke her neck on impact. Should make things simpler.” He thumped me on the shoulder. “Good job, boy. You pulled through. Let’s go get the clipboards. Paperwork never ends!”

A minute later we stood over the body. A wingtip brushed against the thick leather of my boot making a papery susurrus as the wind lifted and moved it. I clung to the clipboard as if it could hold me up.

“She—” I started, with some confused idea about explaining how I’d been so close to her without killing her.

But Dave interrupted, still absorbed in scribbling down facts on his own clipboard.  “It. Don’t say he or she. It’s an it.”

He continued writing for another few minutes then dug the pen into the clipboard and faced me, fixing me with his glittering eyes under his hat, “It doesn’t matter what species it is or who it’s related to. If it harms someone’s livelihood, it’s a pest. You’re an exterminator. You best adjust to that. Unless you want to follow in your father’s footsteps?”

I gulped and kept my eyes averted from the body on the ground. A hearty halloo came to us from across the lawn and a grey-haired woman in high-waist jeans came trotting down the slope.

“You got it! Thank you very much, you can’t know how much this means to me!” She shook both our hands. “And don’t worry about evacuation—I’ve got my own grinder here.”

Dave raised his eyebrows again. “Your own grinder?”

She nodded, hands on her hips, examining the rat with the tip of her tongue stuck out thoughtfully.

“Oh yes. Well, actually it’s a wood chipper, but same difference, right? I’ve done my research, and lo and behold, chickens thrive on rat meat and bone. So, I thought, why not?”

“Well, thanks, then. Saves me a trip to the incinerator.” Dave shook hands with Mrs. Windlemyer, collected the check, and moments later we were bumping down the gravel drive. I rolled down my window and let the breeze blow my queasiness away. It was only a rat, after all. I’d be more careful next time, keep the facts in mind. And it was better than toilet scrubbing, wasn’t it? I heard the grinder start up behind us.

 

 

Roosters (I’m really no good at catchy titles)

There is a gang of eight roosters who live in my neighborhood. I was out running one day, just enjoying the day and the ground under my feet, when I heard a soft “bawk” to my right. I looked over and eight pairs of beady little rooster eyes were following my progress down the road. They were gathered together in a cluster of gleaming copper and red, every single one of them sporting proud combs and arched, dark tail feathers.

I stopped and stared. They stared back. They were both ridiculous and vaguely menacing. I could clearly imagine them humming to themselves: We’re men! (Manly men!)

As we stared at each other, I had several thoughts:

  1. Who in their right mind decided to keep eight roosters and how do they prevent their neighbors from calling the police every morning when all eight roosters decide to welcome the sunrise—probably well before sunrise?
  2. Do they have a purpose that binds them together in otherwise unheard-of rooster companionship? I’m thinking a vigilante rooster gang that terrorizes loose dogs and ensures safety for one and all. Kind of like Avengers, except with feathers and spurs instead of spandex and metal suits.
  3. Is it a rental rooster program? Nobody wants to deal with a rooster full time so one unlucky sod got stuck with eight fine specimens and he farms them out when different people want more chickens. I would charge exorbitant prices for such a responsibility. These were not meek spineless birds. I could imagine these roosters hotwiring a car and going on a testosterone-induced rampage, if properly insulted.

The wonders of Google inform me that you can actually keep a group of roosters together as long as there are no hens around. That’s interesting, and valuable if you want to do that. But I will keep the image of a copper feathered phalanx, distributing justice to the stray dogs of the world.

 

 

Supermarket

The spandex showed some frayed spots where the elastic was going out of it, and the green “S” emblazoned on his chest had lost a few spangles, but the cape draped nicely to the floor—or at least what you could see of the cape under his khaki windbreaker. He removed his hat and shook the rainwater out of it, all unaware of his strangeness. How most little old men don’t show up at the Food Mart at nine at night wearing a superhero outfit under their conservative khaki coat and black old-guy sneakers.

There was a single cashier at the registers, staring at him in open-mouthed derision. “Hey old guy! Hope you didn’t pay a lot for that Chinese rip-off of a costume! Don’t you know Superman has a red ‘S’?”

The elderly man looked down at his chest, flustered, and pulled the jacket closed with hands that trembled. “Oh! Oh dear..I forgot to change again…” He glanced around, obviously embarrassed, and said, “Could you, perhaps tell me where I could find some peaches?”

The cashier tilted his head over towards produce and the old man clutched his hat in both hands and ambled towards produce. “My wife likes peaches, you know,” he said, “So I thought I’d stop by on the way home and get her some, as a surprise!” He used the hat to point at the cashier, “That’s a tip for you young men! It doesn’t hurt to be thoughtful!”

The cashier rolled his eyes and sighed, dropping his elbows on the counter. “Sure, Gramps. Whatever.” He pulled out his phone under the counter and thumbed through it, his face lit up with the backlight.

Engrossed in his phone, he didn’t look up when the automatic doors whooshed open. When the cold, hard end of the gun pressed into his forehead he froze, and a man’s voice said, “Get me the money, kid!”

The cashier made a sound like squeak toy and froze, staring up at the ski masked man and the gun.

He barely registered the odd rushing sound coming from produce before a green and khaki streak blasted past him, so close that the  cashier saw a wooden toggle zipping right past his nose.

The streak barreled into the gunman. They tumbled headlong in a thumping, shouting, two man chaos to land with a heavy bang against the far wall right by the manager’s office. Several plastic bag racks, ripped out of place by the fight, clattered to the floor beside the unconscious gunman. A quiet shower of loose plastic bags fluttered down after them.

The manager threw the door open, staring around. “I just called the police! What the heck just happened?!”

The old man stood up and straightened his khaki coat, quietly arranging it to cover up his “S.” The manager eyeballed the old man as he walked back to the first cash register. He picked up his hat.  Then he produced a bag of peaches out of one pocket and his wallet out of the other. “I think I found some good ones.” He stopped and looked sideways at the cashier, a glimmer of humor in his eye. “You okay, boy? I didn’t knock you over or anything, did I?”

The cashier went blotchy with embarrassment and rang up his order, eyes on the counter. As he said, “Your change is 3.17” he glanced up involuntarily and met the old man’s eyes. They were faded, and blue, and patient, set over a knobby nose and a gentle smile. It was a pleasant face, a personable face.

The blotches on the cashiers’ face spread until he was an unattractive brick red. He looked past the old man’s left ear. “I guess it’s not such a bad costume….um…thanks.”

He risked a glance sideways and the blue eyes had crinkled into a smile. Wordlessly, the old man took his change, put it in his wallet, and ambled off towards the automatic doors.

But he stopped only two steps away, holding up a finger as if he’d forgotten something. The cashier cringed as the old man half turned and raised one eyebrow.

“Young man,” he said, “This ‘S’ stands for speed.”