A Story, Spoken: Chapter Five

Annie has agreed to a date with Gavin, the handsome handyman from Cheney’s store, but a trust has been broken. Will Annie’s dreams be collateral damage? If you haven’t caught up, you can read the first four chapters here: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four. Let’s see how Annie’s doing…

It wasn’t just that he picked his teeth with his thumbnail at the table, or that he tried to order for me, it was the way he laughed. I had put myself together, changing my outfit three times, rushed out the door with a fib ready on my lips if Nan asked who I was meeting. I had stumbled through the awkward realization that a smile and a cute butt was not enough for me, even for a “distraction from my life” date.

Gavin hadn’t stopped talking about himself since we’d arrived at the restaurant. We slid into a booth at the back of  Jimmy’s Family Cafe and perused the menu as he continued with his life story — how he had started the handyman business two years ago, how he still didn’t regret not going to college because he didn’t see the point, how loving and present his mother was in his life, but his dad was a hardass who died young and wasn’t missed. I couldn’t tell if it was nerves or if he always spilled his guts like this on a first date, but I was grateful because the more he talked the less I had to. I prayed silently that he had enough material to get us to the check so I wouldn’t have to answer or avoid painful questions about the current state of my family life.

But it wasn’t to be. Just as I was biting into the burger he’d cracked a joke about when I didn’t choose a salad on the first date, he zeroed in on exactly the last thing I wanted to discuss.

“So Cheney told me you have some internship next year for writing or something. What’s that about?”

My eyes rolled before I could stop them and he laughed. A loud guffaw, smile broad on his face, not realizing that I hadn’t joined him in his amusement.

“No, I don’t.” I took the bite and looked down at my plate while I chewed, occupying myself with squirting ketchup on the plate for my fries.

“You don’t, huh?” I glanced up to see him watching me, waiting for me to elaborate.

“Nope.” I popped a fry into my mouth and smiled through my chewing hoping he’d move on if I didn’t react.

“So you don’t want to be a writer?” His elbows were on the table now, food left untouched because he’d found a better treat in bothering me about things I’d rather him not know. I was furious with Cheney for putting me in this position and furious with Gavin for not getting the hint.

“I did,” I thought a short answer would give him enough satisfaction to move on, “but life happens, you know? A lot in my life changed very quickly, and now it doesn’t make sense for me to go. So that’s that.”

“Does Cheney know you aren’t going?”

“Yes, and I don’t know why she would tell you otherwise.”

“Well,” he said with another laugh, “seems like it’s for the best anyhow.”

“What does that mean?” I wiped the burger grease from my hands.

“I don’t know.” Gavin finally picked up his own burger, looking for something else to fill his mouth now that the words were running short. “Your heart doesn’t seem to be in it anyway. And I get it. Life does happen, and hobbies take a back seat when it does. That’s just how it goes, right?”

I felt like I’d been slapped.

“Hobbies?” I glared, no longer the least bit concerned about making a good impression.

“Yeah, writing, gardening, that kind of stuff. Sometimes we’ve just gotta get to work and push through and not get too caught up in time-fillers. Idle hands and all that.” Another bite. A drip of pink juice from his undercooked burger slid down his chin, but he didn’t seem to notice taking another bite before even swallowing the first.

“Writing isn’t my hobby. It never was. It’s what I wanted to do with my life. It’s what I studied at college. Everything I ever wanted to accomplish in life came down to being a writer.”

That laugh. It crept under my skin and needled its way into my heart so swiftly I was shocked at the surge of anger that swept over me.

“What the hell is so funny about that?”

“I’m sorry,” another chuckle, “no need to get your panties in a twist. Maybe I’m just naive about that kind of life. Hard work for a hard buck, that’s how I was raised.”

“And you don’t think writing is hard work?”

“Putting words on paper? I mean, I never liked it in school, but it’s just telling a story, right?”

I breathed in and out, using the gift of his momentary silence to try and steer myself away from yelling.

“You know what,” I set my napkin on top of what was left of my food and reached for my purse, “I could spit a lot of names at you right now, and I’m really tempted, but most of the words coming to mind are probably over your head, so I’ll keep this simple. Go to fucking hell you ignorant piece of shit.”

I didn’t wait to hear his response. I was across the restaurant and out the door in seconds and let each stomping step it took me to get home fuel the fire of astounded anger. I still had the consciousness to open the door quietly and softly open Nan’s door to make sure she was asleep before shutting myself into my room and pulling down the typewriter from its recent home in the back of my closet.

I set it down on mom’s secretary desk I’d squeezed into the corner and retrieved a small stack of blank paper from an open package on a shelf. I fed the sheet in and sat staring at the blank page, fuming, grasping for words, any words that I could pour onto the page.

My mind was a blur of pain and a deep feeling of betrayal. Cheney had told my secret. She had hung me out to dry and allowed me to be bombarded by a cute smile with a limited vocabulary for her own damn pleasure and I couldn’t stand the way it was making my stomach churn.

I typed a few words of frustration and crossed them out. I typed a sentence or two about what writing was or wasn’t and crossed those out too. I sighed and tried to put words to the storm of memories and fears about my mother that had consumed me over the last several months, but I didn’t get past “M-o-m” before I was sobbing and I couldn’t see the paper through the tears.

I stood up and pushed my hands through my hair, understanding why women in old movies tore at their hair in desperation after heartbreak. I stared at the typewriter, blurry until I swiped away the tears with the neck of my shirt. I knew now that everything that had happened, everything I felt, it had broken me. The life I’d imagined was dead. Just like my mother.

I pulled out my phone and opened my email app. I quickly read through the draft I’d typed earlier in the week but hadn’t had the guts to send. It was for the best, though. If I didn’t let go, I’d just keep hurting and I couldn’t bear anymore hurt.

I hit send and watched as the bar creeping along the bottom of my screen filled and my formal decline of the internship flew off to New York in my place.

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A Story Spoken: Chapter Four

Well, I have returned from my hiatus. Thank you very much for being patient with me! I really needed the rest and time away from the blog to work on my book…and be distracted by all the things I want to do around the house…and my kids…and my husband…and, well, you know how life goes! I’m excited to get back into the groove and share more books, chapters, and all the wonderful writerly things!

Let’s catch up with the girls and see how things are faring after Annie and Cheney argument on the way to The Hummingbird Boutique. If you haven’t read my previous chapters, you can catch up here: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three.

The bell tinkled as I opened the door and danced again as I shut it behind me against the rain. My teeth chattered, the A/C chilling my drenched clothes, and I rubbed my hands together as Cheney headed for the back room of the boutique.

“Hi, sweetie! Oh, it’s so good to see you.”

Cheney’s mom cantered around the checkout desk and gave me a hug that was more patting my wet shoulders than an embrace. She held me at arm’s length, looking me up and down, judging the state of my clothes and lack of makeup, no doubt.

“Is it really that cold?” she raised an eyebrow as another shiver ran through me.

“Not outside. We just got caught in the downpour running to the car.”

She was already walking back around the desk, and I realized her question had been rhetorical. All these years of friendship with her daughter and she still hadn’t shaken the grudge she’d held against my mother. I shook my head, never understanding the pettiness this woman was capable of or how she’d managed to raise a child as kind as Cheney.

“Before I forget,” Cheney re-emerged from the stockroom with a stack of mail in her hand. “I have a book for Nan that I found online. I hope she won’t mind that I went ahead and ordered it, but if I keep clicking without buying something, I’ll lose it forever.”

She sorted through the mail as she talked, looking up every now and then, occasionally gesturing with an envelope.
“Well, that might explain the credit card bill you keep complaining about.” I chuckled at her silly, if not generous, logic.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She swatted my arm with the mail still in her hand, glancing at her mother to see if she’d heard.

“Anyway, it’s an audio slash hard copy combo that’s supposed to teach the basics of how to read braille!” She turned to face me with this last bit, eyes wide and mouth open with anticipation of my reaction.

I tried to match her enthusiasm, “Cheney, that’s so sweet of you. You really need to quit buying stuff for us though. You’re gonna go broke.” I eyeballed Ruth as I whispered the last bit. She had moved on to another part of the store, straightening and refolding odds and ends on the small sale display by the door.
“You’re no fun. Why can’t you just accept it and say thank you?” She pouted at me, still irritated by our conversation in the truck and using her gift as an outlet.
I stopped and turned to her, letting my hands fall to my side in mock exasperation.
“Thank you, Cheney. You’re the very best. No one is better at picking out gifts than you. No one, not ever.”

I bowed to her with flourish.

“There is that better?” I lifted myself back up and laughed when I noticed Ruth staring at me with a sternly raised eyebrow.

“Do you really think she’ll like it?” Cheney came around the counter and walked past me to the rotating card stand by the front door, adjusting the placement of a couple knick-knacks on a table as she passed by.
“Honestly? I don’t know. I hope so. That actually sounds really cool. She’s just been so against even trying to do anything like that. She always claims that as a purist, she couldn’t possibly enjoy the experience of reading when she can’t see the words.”

I heard Cheney chuckle behind me as she moved on to a different display.
“She does listen to audiobooks she checks out from the library from time to time, but she’s quick to find something to get frustrated by with those, too. The narrator speaks too slowly, or they do too many voices for the different characters and that’s distracting.”

I sighed thinking of all the late fees I’d had to pay when she’d talk herself into trying another one, get halfway through a book, and then forget to return it. She’d almost asked about the one Nan was listening to when they’d left but didn’t feel like having another bitter conversation about books. Nan didn’t refer to her blindness until it gave her a good excuse.
“Mostly, I just read to her. She’s not very picky, so I’ll just read aloud from whatever I’m already reading, and we make an old-school evening of it. Really she just needs a bonnet to complete the picture.”
“That’s so sweet that you do that. It would suck to not be able to do the one thing you really love anymore.”

I looked up when she said that, but Cheney didn’t let on if she had intentionally thrown the internship in my face again. Not wanting to give her a chance to realize it if she hadn’t, I half-joked a distraction.
“Well, at least she can still smoke,” I mumbled. Cheney laughed, but I could only manage a half smile, and I knew it didn’t reach my eyes.

“Where’s the desk? I want to measure it to make sure it’ll fit before I take it home.”

I turned away, ready to finish up and move to lighter conversation that could carry into lunch. Away from Nan’s eyes or internships to easy stuff I could nod through more convincingly.

The bell chimed again and I turned to see a man with day old scruff on his face and a backward ball cap walk through the door. He nodded with a half smile as he passed us, and walked toward the register where Ruth was clicking on the computer. I turned to look at Cheney whose eyebrows had disappeared under her bangs.

“Cu-ute.” she mouthed, lips pursed in an exaggerated “o” shape. I shook my head, trying to deter her from making a fuss. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d tried to set me up with a stranger, but it was the last thing I wanted to deal with right now. Even if he did have a nice smile. She ignored me and walked over to join them at the counter throwing me a mischievous look over her shoulder, shaking her hips in an exaggerated saunter until the man turned around and she stopped suddenly. I turned to face the window, hiding my laugh at her getting caught.

I wandered through the store while they talked, Ruth pointing toward the back wall and nodding along to whatever the man was saying in response. I was fiddling with a tangled tassel on the corner of a throw pillow when Cheney called over to me.

“Hey, Annie!”

Shit. I squeezed my eyes shut, for a moment, bracing myself for the awkward moment of forced civility with a stranger before turning to face my dearest friend and her good intentions.

“Yeah?” I forced the corners of my mouth into something resembling a good-natured, I’m friendly, but please don’t talk to me too long, smile and walked over to join them. The man returned the gesture, though his looked far more genuine.

“Annie,” Cheney took hold of my forearm when I got close enough and pulled me the last few inches to stand close to her and the gentleman. “This is Gavin. Mom hired him to help us with the new display shelves. Gavin, this is Annie.”

After having made eye-contact when I first stepped up, my eyes had begun to wander while she made introductions. I knew it gave my nervousness away, but I couldn’t help it. Cheney had always been the social one who never seemed to meet a stranger. I, however, met them all the time and while I wasn’t quite shy, I didn’t like being thrust into small talk with an expectant spotlight over my head.

His hand appeared before me, forcing me to look up. I shook it and smiled again, fumbling somewhere between awkward and annoyed. He did have very nice eyes.

“Hi, there. It’s nice to meet you, Annie.”

His voice had that born and raised twang to it that told me he must have just been a few years ahead of us in school because, while I couldn’t recall having seen him before, there was no doubt he was a local.

“You, too, Gavin,” I managed after clearing my throat.

“Annie, you should have him take a look at your desk before we load it up. Didn’t you say one of the drawers was stuck?” Cheney grinned from ear to ear before nudging me toward the secretary desk we’d come for that did not, and had never had a drawer stick.

Gavin followed me over to the back corner where Ruth had stuck a “sold” sticker on the scratched up surface of it. It had seen better days, but it had been a favorite of mine from Nan’s house. Mom always said it had character. She’d even added a bit of her own when she was a young girl and feeling rebellious. She’d shown me once where she’d carved her initials on the underside of the desk when Nan had sent her to bed without supper after she’d sassed her too hard one day. She’d been so mad and desperate to get back at her, she secretly defaced the old thing. Nan never found out, as far as I knew.

“Well, here it is,” I turned to face Gavin, resting my hand on top of the desk. “But, there’s nothing wrong with the drawers, as you’ve probably guessed.”

He had the grace to laugh at that.

“Yes, ma’am. I figured that was the case.”

I nodded with a sheepish look. I didn’t know why I felt guilty, but he seemed like a perfectly nice man who didn’t deserve to have his time wasted.

“Look, I know it wasn’t your idea, but…” Gavin broke into a wide grin, dropping his hands into his pockets before pulling the trigger. “You feel like humoring your friend? Can I take you to dinner on Friday? Nothing crazy, no strings. Just some company from a pretty lady for a meal we’d both be eating anyway.”

I laughed and was surprised to find I didn’t want to say no.

“Sure. I think I can make that work.” I smiled and rolled my eyes when Cheney’s bouncing back by the register told me my face had already given away her success. Gavin turned to look and chuckled himself, waving, which she returned with an insufferable smile.

“Well, here.” Gavin pulled his phone from his pocket and handed it to me after pulling up the right screen. “Just put your number in here and I’ll give you a call tomorrow to figure out timing.”

I typed in my phone number, adding “Annie” to the contact name before handing it back.

“Great. It was nice to meet you, Annie.”

“It’s nice to meet you too, Gavin. Try not to look too smug when you leave? She’s already going to be a pain in the ass about this as it is.”

“I’ll do my best,” he laughed, sliding his phone back into his pocket and turning toward the door.

“Thanks, again, Mrs. Stevens,” he hollered back toward the open storeroom door with a wave, and I saw Ruth pop her head out for a moment to return it, hand over the receiver on the office phone.

Cheney skipped over to meet me after the door shut behind Gavin, fluttering her eyelashes in mocking flirtation.

“Oh, my. Does someone have a date?”

“Shut up, Cheney. I can’t believe you did that!” I shoved her gently as she exploded into giggles. I hiked the strap of my purse higher on my shoulder, waiting for her to hurry up with her gloating so we could go have lunch already and I could get back to Nan. She wiped tears of laughter from under her eyes but quickly flashed to a deep frown when I reminded her that if I even ended up going to dinner, that was where it would end.

“Oh, why?” she pouted.

“Because of Nan! Have you not been listening? I still haven’t figured out a long-term solution for me getting a job and how that’s going to work with her appointments and all that. I don’t have time for dating right now. I don’t even know why I said yes to begin with.”

Her smile returned with my last sentence, “Because he’s cute and charming and that’s good for you! Come on, Ann. You need a little fun in your life. I can’t be around all the time,” she swept her hair back in full diva glory and walked back to the office to retrieve her purse.

“You, know,” I called after her, “if this works out, I’ll just have one more reason to stay.”

Cheney walked out of the room with the shocked face of someone who’d just been had. I knew the likelihood of me actually being interested in someone enough to make life-changing decisions for was slim to none, but payback was payback and the look she had as her error registered was so very sweet.

 

The House of Broken Angels: A Book Review

As I have jumped head first into this whole “being a serious writer” thing, I’ve exposed myself to pretty incredible literature that I can’t believe I’ve been missing. I think I’ve mentioned before that I had a decades-old habit to only read old classics, or best sellers long after they’ve lost their new book luster. I think I had some twisted sense of responsibility to catch up somehow with all the books I’d missed before I read the new stuff. Like that makes sense, or is even remotely achievable. Along with featuring new publications in my book reviews, I’ve been listening to several podcasts about the current goings-on in the literary world and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been starving myself. Yes, the classic greats will always be great, but there are some truly incredible authors living right now, publishing right now, creating right now, that are simply too good to miss.

That is my disclaimer and poor excuse for never having read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea until now. Holy cow, can this dude write. I mean, it says “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” next to his name on the cover, so I should have known, but sometimes there’s a certain…pretentiousness in books with that honor…or books even close to that honor. There was nothing pretentious about this book. The House of Broken Angels is humble even in its striking beauty.

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The story spans two days with the De La Cruz family as they come together for a final birthday celebration for the ailing grand patriarch Big Angel. A week before the party, his mother passes away at nearly a hundred years old sweeping the family up in a blur of reminiscing and dreaming of what the future holds.The partitions between the aging generation that made their way to America from Mexico in their youth and the younger ones who barely speak Spanish are blurred, as the De La Cruz house bulges with familia and theatrics of emotion.

A slow read, its lingering sentences draw you to read them again just to bask in their light. This is a book you read a bit at a time, letting each moment sink in before you continue. The structure reminds me of music composition. The first third of the book serves as an overture, explaining the scope of the story, introducing themes and revealing backstories of the many players. You are then submerged in a dance of perspectives as you jump from character to character, what they see and experience in the forty-eight-hour period. You fall in love with their individualities, their simple pleasures and jagged pains, known, but not acknowledged by the others.

I felt entirely immersed in the culture of this family, each person so distinct but part of a powerful whole that leapt from the page. I stopped reading at one point and announced to my husband, “This man needs to write a screenplay.” The dialogue and simple painting of the picture are so pure and perfect I couldn’t help but make small exclamations of pleasure, adoring the very act of reading his work.

This is not what I would call an easy book, but it’s not hard either. The language is easy, the story is a meandering family fable with sharp gut-checking moments when a revelation hits true north. A stunning story that deserves to be savored for every delicious word. Luckily, it’s written in bite-sized portions, easily consumed in spare moments, but the words will follow you off the page to percolate through your mind long after closing the book.

As fate would have it, while I was reading The House of Broken Angels, I listened to another podcast, not literary-related, yet they referenced and quoted Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway as they spoke about the history of border control and immigration from Mexico. Just the small bits they read were enough to prove that this guy is not a one-hit wonder. I will be reading as much of Urrea’s writing as I can get my hands on.

Favorite Books: A Wrinkle in Time

I recently took a rare vacation and spent four days with my husband and his family in an A-frame cabin tucked in the foothills of the Sierra Blanca mountains. Beautiful scenery and great company made for a fabulous trip full of adventures, bruises, and lots of reading tucked in bed with my three-year-old sprawled out between my husband and me after long days spent playing in the snow.

Y’all, I went skiing. I actually went snowboarding, too…except that’s generous. I tried snowboarding. Nope, let me try again: I failed to snowboard. I don’t know how people manage that skill. I never even got both feet strapped in…even after a 90-minute class. I managed about six feet worth of sliding prior to falling at my very best and barely stood up without toppling at my worst. It was not for me. Apparently, skiing is my snowy weather sport. It’s much more enjoyable to slide down a mountain with boards strapped to your feet when you can actually manage to steer and stop yourself. No, really. Steering and stopping are the best. All hail Steering and Stopping, forever and ever, amen.

We drove the nine hours to the cabin, so I had an abundance of reading time, which is my favorite part of traveling! As I’m sure you’ve heard, the film adaptation of the long-beloved middle-grade novel by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, was released last week. I’ve been itching for a re-read because it had been ages since my original copy wore out and had to be replaced. My new copy only got me about halfway to New Mexico between pit stops and assisting the threenager with her back seat entertainment, but I required more than a few nudges from my husband to pull me out of that sense-less reader cocoon where you honestly can’t hear the whining for another package of fruit snacks.

I’m hearing great things about the adaptation, and I’m looking forward to a date night with my son to go see it. Like most adaptations, I understand that it deviates from the book to some degree. The trailers alone, show the difference in how some of the main characters look, but the nature of the book allows, or even nurtures, this kind of change.

But enough about the movie, let’s talk about the book!

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I’ll estimate that I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was about ten or eleven. It was assigned reading at my school, something I generally saw as a treat. I loved being introduced to new literature and talking about it with all my friends. Books were not common conversation fodder for pre-teens at the time, and while I was fortunate to have some close friends as bookish, if not more so than I, it was always exciting to have more people to talk books with. In good company with The Hatchet by Gary Paulson and The Giver by Lois Lowry, A Wrinkle in Time was a fast favorite of the grade. It’s the kind of book that encourages even the most reluctant readers into a world of imagination.

L’Engle tells the story of Meg Murry, her brilliant little brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin with the perfect balance of description and ample room for the reader to invent and imagine. She explains just enough of theoretical physics to make the children’s mode of transportation believable without losing the magic of the adventure. The Murry children and Calvin follow a most wonderfully quirky stranger and her two companions on a quest to find the Murry’s missing father and maybe save the universe along the way. With themes ranging from overcoming “otherness” and the power of faith, this 1963 winner of the Newbery Medal is still very much applicable to today’s trials. Still fresh and exciting, with nary a dull moment, if you’ve never read this gem of a book, please allow me to help with that. The passions, fears, struggles, and triumphs of these rich little characters are sure to spark recognition in the parts of you where those same traits dwell.

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High on my list of forever favorites, this book was my first elevated look at fantasy, stepping up from the fairy tales of childhood with clear morals and virtues into something a little more mature. I’d recommend it to readers ten and up. There’s some elevated thinking in this book that may be a bit confusing for the younger reader. If you’ve read it before, but didn’t realize it was the first in a series (like I didn’t, until many years later), make sure to check out the rest in the Time Quintet: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book: “We can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”

Happy reading, friends.

A Story Spoken: Chapter Three

It’s been raining like crazy for weeks around here, and now the storm is hitting Annie’s hometown. This month, we learn that she’s been hiding something from Nan. What kind of secret would Annie keep from her beloved grandmother, and will Cheney convince her to fess up?

If you haven’t read the first two chapters of my serial or need a refresher before you continue, you can read Chapter One here and Chapter Two here.

 

A rhythmic “shave and a haircut” knock rattled the front door to the apartment. Closing a bookmark into the novel I’d been reading, I glanced up at Nan’s old mantle clock. It was balanced somewhat precariously on the two by fours Mom had nailed together and mounted on the wall years before so we had a place to hang our Christmas stockings. A shelf would have worked fine, but I guess that hadn’t occurred to her at the time. If she had an explanation, I didn’t recall ever hearing it. Just another mystery quirk of hers I’d never be able to ask about.

I crossed the room, tapping the last two beats back to Cheney before opening the door.

“You’re early.” I smiled. It was getting easier, but guilt always tagged along quietly behind and I honestly couldn’t sort out which was right: being able to smile again, or keeping myself from it.

“Yeah, sorry,” Cheney huffed a bit as she lifted a box from the ground, “I wanted to go over putting the mailers together before we left if that’s cool?” She set the box of paper and envelopes down on the kitchen table with a loud thump that made the occupants of the lazy susan centerpiece rattle.

“Oh, yeah. I forgot you were dropping those off.”

Cheney looked up with concern, “You’re still okay with helping out with this, right?”

“Yeah! No, I just forgot. That’s all. I’m happy to help.” Another potentially disloyal smile.

“Oh, good,” Cheney sighed and opened the box to reveal the neatly stacked fliers for her mother’s boutique. “I’m already mad at myself for not just ordering the glossy postcard mailers. They were a little more expensive, but stuffing envelopes is such a pain in the ass. Thrifty is not always a good thing.”

“It’s not a big deal. I’m not sleeping much anyway. If I’m going to binge on TV late into the night, I might as well be productive while I’m doing it.”

“Have you seen that new true crime thing about the family in Minnesota that just vanished? Trent and I watched it the other night and it gave me nightmares!”

“I don’t know why you do that to yourself,” I couldn’t help but laugh at the obvious residual distress on her face. “Take a break from the murders and missing person crap before you really freak yourself out.”

“You’re probably right,” Cheney sighed, “We’re just lucky to agree on anything at all, much less what to watch on Netflix.”

I helped Cheney empty the box, neatly stacking the fliers, envelopes, and stamps in an assembly line across the table.

“You guys still having a rough time?” While I knew they weighed heavily on her mind, Cheney’s problems were mundane enough to be a break from my own. It was easier to help her sort through dating problems than it was to cope with my grief and the ever-expanding effort of taking care of Nan.

“A rough time?” Cheney scoffed, “Yeah, you could say that. I don’t think he sees it that way, but I’m about through.”

“Really?” I couldn’t hide my surprise. Two months before, Cheney was talking about rings and babies, ready to brave the meticulous and overbearing force that was her mother and plan a wedding.

“I just…,” she paused, visibly searching for the right words, “He’s a nice guy, Annie, he really, really is. I just don’t think I love him. I know I thought I did, but the longer we’ve been at this thing, the more I’m realizing that I might’ve gotten ahead of myself. He’s a solid guy, but not always the most compassionate, and I don’t really feel like hand-holding him through kindness my whole life. I want someone who cares if they hurt my feelings and cares if I hurt his.”

“He doesn’t care if you hurt his feelings?”

“Well, he cares, I guess. I shouldn’t have put it that way. He’s just so mellow that I can’t tell how he’s feeling most of the time. That’s harder than I thought. I don’t know where I stand with him and even when I’ve tried to talk to him about it, it’s more of the same! No reaction that shows me he even understands what I’m worried about.”

“That sucks, hon. I’m sorry.” I was quiet, letting her talk through what was bouncing around her head, knowing that she just needed the ear and not the advice.

Cheney trailed off, finishing her story and went through the steps of how they wanted the flyers mailed out. Cheney’s mom, Ruth, owned a small shop downtown and they sold everything from ruffled mommy-daughter outfits to embroidered tea towels. The Hummingbird Boutique was also known for having the best consignment furniture around and Ruth and Cheney were helping to sell the excess furniture we had after moving Nan in with me full-time. Most everything we’d given them had sold, but there was a small secretary table that was pretty beat up and hadn’t moved yet. Cheney had asked if I wanted to keep it on the floor for another week, but I wanted to take another look at it to see if it would fit in my room to use as a writing desk.

“Ready to go?” Cheney picked her purse up and started heading for the door, “Oh, crap it’s raining. Do you have an umbrella? I had to park pretty far down.”

“Uh, yeah there should be one hanging by the mail basket. I’m gonna let Nan know I’m leaving real quick.”

I knocked quietly on Nan’s door, pushing my arms through the worn denim sleeves of my favorite jacket while I waited for an answer. I poked my head in when I heard her call. She was lying on her bed, an old crocheted blanket loud with burnt seventies orange draped across her lap. She had pulled her headphones off one ear to hear me better.

“I’m headed out with Cheney. We’re going to run up to The Hummingbird and probably grab some lunch on the way back. Do you want anything?”

“No, that’s okay, honey. I can warm up some soup from last night.”

“Are you sure?” Nan tended to be overconfident with her ability to feed herself without at least some assistance, “I don’t mind bringing you something. That way you won’t have to mess with the microwave.”

I’d put raised stickers on certain buttons for her to feel her way around if I wasn’t home. She just needed to count how many thirty-second increments she needed for whatever needed heating up and then press start. Still too scared to leave her alone for too long so soon after the accident, I’d been making ends meet with the checks from renting Nan’s house out and odd jobs like stuffing envelopes for Cheney. I knew I’d have to find a steady job soon, but Nan wasn’t ready yet.

“I’m fine. Don’t fuss over me,” Nan grumbled. She didn’t wait for my answer. She replaced the headphones and pressed play on her audiobook.

Somehow knowing I hadn’t left yet, she waved her hand, shooing me away, “Go on, now. Have fun. Bye!”

I stepped into the room and pressed a quick kiss on her cheek. She smiled, patted the hand I’d rested on her knee as I leaned over her, and gently pushed me away.

“Bye, Nan.”

When I returned to the living room, Cheney was sitting on the edge of the couch reading something. She looked up, and, upon seeing her expression, I knew what she’d found.

“What the hell, Annie?” Cheney lifted the letter with an angry shrug, “When were you going to tell me about this?”

“There’s nothing to tell. I can’t go,” I lifted my purse off the hook by the door, sweeping the strap over my head in one fluid, practiced motion of a woman who didn’t have a lot of free time, “Come on. I want to get back by one.”

Cheney wasn’t buying it, “Nice try,” She shut the door again when I started to open it.

“Shhh!” I glanced back toward Nan’s room, “Let’s talk about it in the car.”

Cheney’s face flushed and her frown deepened, “You haven’t even told Nan?” she yelled the whisper in a huff, pursing her lips, but she followed me as I drug her through the front door and down the stairs to the parking lot.

“Annie!”

“No!” I turned to her as I walked through the rain, my shoulders lifted to my ears as the chilly raindrops dripped down my neck. Cheney had the letter in one hand and my umbrella in the other, but, in her frustration, she’d forgotten to open it.

“No, I haven’t told her. And why would I? She’ll want me to go, and when I explain why I can’t she’ll just get pissed. It won’t help anything. We’ll both just end up feeling guilty and shitty when it’s said and done,” I shrugged, turning away from her again, “I didn’t see the point.”

We’d reached Cheney’s hand-me-down truck she’d bought from her dad when we graduated from high school, but even when I rested my hand on the handle, waiting for her to unlock the door, she just stared at me, raindrops dripping from the tip of her nose.

“Cheney, get in the truck. It’s pouring out here!” She snapped out of it long enough to get us from the parking lot to the main road, windshield wipers screeching with each swipe, before she started in on me again.

“I can’t believe you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Annie, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve wanted to be a writer. You wanted to get out of this town, head to a big city somewhere and write! Now you finally have a chance and you just aren’t going to go?”

“It’s just an internship,” I gazed out the window, switching my focus from the raindrops to the traffic beyond them.

“At a New York City publishing house!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s bullshit, and you know it.”

“Hey!” I turned to face her then, anger getting the better of me, “You think I don’t know that it’s an amazing opportunity? I agonized over sending my application for that internship for months!”

“I know! That’s why I don’t…”

“Cheney! My mom died! She’s gone. Nan is blind and not getting any younger. Someone has to take care of her, and I’m the only one left. It fucking sucks. I know that, but there is no way that I can just pack up and leave after everything that’s happened. It’s just not in the stars anymore.”

“But…,”

“Stop! Please, Cheney. There’s nothing else to talk about.”

She wasn’t looking at me, eyes still focused on the road, but she clapped her mouth shut. We rode the rest of the way to the boutique in silence, but when she pulled into a parking spot and threw the truck into park, she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face me.

“Look, I’m sorry. I know that this has been horrible for you. Losing your mom, taking care of Nan. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through,” she looked down at the now crumpled letter in her hand, and lifted it up to my face, “but this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you, and I can’t stand to see you give it up.”

I took the letter and looked at it, ignoring the burning threat of tears.

“It says you have until September 1st to formally accept. You still have a few weeks. Please, will you please just think about it some more? At least don’t make up your mind until you have to.”

I knew there wasn’t anything else to think about. I couldn’t imagine how I could afford to put Nan into a home even if she agreed to go, which she never would. I couldn’t abandon her. She was all I had left of Mom, and I know she felt the same about me. We’d lost her. We couldn’t lose each other, too.

“I’ll think about it.”

Cheney sighed with relief and beamed at me, satisfied that she had achieved what she’d set out to, and I would now magically come around somehow.

“But, please,” I stopped her when she turned to get out of the truck, “don’t tell Nan.”

She nodded and we ran to the door, squished together under my umbrella, as I shoved the letter deep into my pocket and away from my mind.

An American Marriage: A Book Review

What to say about a book that was added to Oprah’s Book Club a few days after I pre-ordered it and is currently sitting at #4 on the New York Times Best Sellers list? Well, I could start by saying that I try to approach books without expectation. I don’t like to read a bunch of reviews before picking something up because I abhor spoilers, – so worry not, you won’t find them here – and I really just want to have an honest and organic relationship with a book as I’m reading it. No influences. Just living in the printed moment. That being said, the summary I read had me expecting one thing and Tayari Jones delivered something infinitely better.

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An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial, an educated and well-on-their way black couple living in Atlanta. Roy’s flair for business and Celestial’s budding career as an artist sees them traveling a road to success in comfort and faith in the future. Just 18-months into their marriage, Roy is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Two people, in love and in pain, attempt to make sense of the wrong done to them and how to move forward with a life you thought you had avoided.

At its core, this book is a love story, but Jones wrote about love on the realest of real levels. Love is tricky and tangled and it changes with time and circumstance. She skips the theatrics, what you’d expect to be the meat of the story, and instead shows us the moments in between. The moments where it becomes real for the people living through it. The quiet moments when they make decisions without realizing they’ve been made. The vulnerable moments when they can’t quite face the totality of their situation so they each forge ahead toward a future they have yet to accept has altered irreversibly. Most incredibly, you are there when those layers of quiet self-deceit begin to peel away and are invited to witness the beautiful rawness of what’s underneath.

The writing was so good that I didn’t even realize just how good at first because she writes these people so realistically that it seems like you’re just looking in on these people’s lives. A story that you expect lots of flashes and bangs from, is really a slow burn. I didn’t even think I liked the book until I was finished and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve gone back over and over in my mind to these people brought to life and when I re-read – something this book merits, likely more than once – I will not take the unassuming richness for granted.

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I’m having a hard time approaching the acknowledgment that Jones is a black author writing about a black family living a life that is forever altered because they are black. In a world full of people itching to be overnight experts on how someone different than yourself experiences life, I’d rather shut my mouth and listen. So I’ll just say this: I’m a white woman and that privilege does not give me a right to act like I know something about how a black family lives because I read this book. What I will say, and mean from the depth of my heart: It was enlightening, it was heart-wrenching and heart-filling, and I am better having read it. I will choose to see more because I read this book and was shown more.

What Are We Bleeding For?: A Special Edition

When I started this blog, I made a quiet decision to keep my political inclinations out of it. I felt like there was enough commentary on the goings on of the world and another voice would just add to the cacophony. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about my beliefs and will readily share them on my personal pages. It’s just not why I started this blog and I didn’t want to get distracted from my intentions for it. Today I’m breaking my own rule because I’ve been completely immobilized for the last eight days. I publish new blog posts every Thursday and Sunday, but what I had planned for these past two deadlines seemed trivial and entirely inauthentic to my feelings and thoughts right now. So, for today, I’m baring it all.

On Wednesday, February 14th, fourteen children, and three adults were shot and killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A nineteen-year-old man, a previously expelled student, opened fire and slaughtered them during a six-minute long shooting spree using an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle. A favorite among mass murderers, this type of rifle was used in the Aurora theater shooting, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas music festival shooting, and the Sutherland Springs church shooting just three months ago.

This rifle was designed to kill quickly, and kill easily. And that’s exactly what it does. Originally designed for the military, this semi-automatic version of the M16 is everywhere. The NRA estimates that Americans own over 8 million of them. That’s enough for 1 in every 40 Americans. Sadly, this particular gun is not the only problem.

There are things like bump stocks, which are legal gun stocks that allow semi-automatic firearms to fire like an automatic. I had never even heard of one until after the shooting in Las Vegas and was shocked…but not really… that, while a ban on automatic firearms has been strictly regulated since 1934, there is no current federal ban on bump stocks.

Real quick, the difference between an automatic weapon and a semi-automatic weapon is in the firing. An automatic rifle will continuously fire while the trigger is held. A semi-automatic weapon will fire one round each time the trigger is pulled without needing to cock the weapon hammer between rounds and while preloading the next round from a magazine. An experienced shooter can fire around 90 rounds in one minute from a semi-automatic rifle, that’s including buffers for the time it takes to reload. The average magazine for a semi-automatic rifle holds 30 rounds, however, it is possible to purchase larger magazines that hold up to 100 rounds.

I tell you all of this so that you, my dear reader, will have a better understanding of what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about these guns. I have listened to and read a lot of testimony about semi-automatics and why they are so popular and something that I keep hearing, particularly regarding the rifles, is that they are, “a lot of fun.” Generally speaking, the people who purchase semi-automatic rifles are invested in the hobbyist side of gun-ownership. They may have a 9mm Glock (another semi-automatic weapon, by the way) hidden in their bedside table, or, hopefully, stored in a safe in case of a home invasion, but more often than not, they have entered into a culture that seems centered around a lighthearted collector’s mentality rather than one that truly understands the gravity and responsibility of owning a weapon like this.

It’s important to me that we understand the difference between automatic and semi-automatic because knowledge is power, right? Let’s all have a deeper understanding of what we’re all fighting about. Let’s at least acknowledge that banning automatic weapons, but allowing semi-automatic weapons, especially with modifications like bump stocks, is disingenuine and frankly, a load of BS. It’s kind of like the difference between standing in the middle of an Interstate and standing in the middle of a highway. Yeah, the traffic isn’t as fast or as busy, but I certainly wouldn’t call it safe.

Now, I’m from Texas, daughter of a gun owner, and I’ve been to a few gun shows. Frankly, I have never been more uncomfortable in my life. I wouldn’t quite say I felt unsafe because there are some safety measures taken. There are uniformed officers on the premises that check that all guns being carried into the gun show are unloaded and lock tied with plastic ties. These ties are cut with scissors or box cutters when you leave. All guns on display are required to be unloaded and lock tied as well. Vendors in Texas are required to have a Federal Firearms License only if they sell firearms for their livelihood. However, private sellers are not required to perform background checks. The last time I was at a gun show, the few tables with licensed vendors were pointed out to me with a not-so-quiet conspiratorial tone of, “Don’t go to those tables unless you want a background check.”

Interestingly, brass knuckles, ASPs, and nunchucks are prohibited because they are illegal to own in the state. The ASPs have some exceptions for security guards and things of that nature, but overall these weapons have been deemed too dangerous for the public to own.

I know I’m getting long winded, but please bear with me because I’m still grieving the death of nuance. Too many arguments are treated like the answer is black or white. Here’s a clue, it’s not. While you’ll know my thoughts and feelings by the end of this article, I invite you to use your amazingly developed brain to do some thinking and processing on your own. Follow your emotional reactions to what you read and see what’s hidden underneath that rock. I can almost guarantee there will be creepy-crawly biases chilling out.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, I’m for better gun regulation. I do not, and will never, believe that the right to own a certain type of firearm is more important than the safety of our children. Period. I know that’s upsetting to some, and I understand that it goes against the culture that we have here in America. That is ALWAYS uncomfortable for people. Change is scary no matter what kind it is. I get that. However, 150 years ago, our culture in America included owning other people based on the color of their skin. It didn’t change overnight, but we’re overdue for a cultural shift around firearms. Gun regulation has been around in some form since 1837 in the United States which means we attempted to regulate firearms before we abolished slavery. We’re overdue.

The Second Amendment is constantly debated and tossed around as the ultimate and irrefutable argument of why the legislature should never, under any circumstances, touch our right to own guns. First, here’s the actual Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

According to Merriam-Webster, a ‘militia’ is defined as:

1: a: a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency
    b: a body of citizens organized for military service
2: the whole body of able-bodied male citizens declared by law as being subject to call to military service

I don’t want to derail this whole conversation by going into the history of the militia in our country, but take this information and do some research. It’s pertinent, relevant, and will give some context for the Amendment itself.

My point in bringing up the Second Amendment is to highlight the hypocrisy of how so many of our citizens wear this particular Amendment as a badge of honor while choosing to ignore the many other Amendments and Acts that have been passed since the Bill of Rights that clarify how they are to be followed. We added the 15th Amendment to allow black men the vote because it was not specifically stated in the Bill of Rights, and that omission was recognized as something that needed to be fixed. The same was done for women in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Times changed, we grew as a country and realized that the laws in place in 1776 were no longer adequately applicable to our country and its people.

I think we’ve more than proven that, as a country, we are not mature enough to handle owning semi-automatic guns. We have not shown to be collectively capable of handling the responsibility of this level of gun ownership. We have the highest rate of gun ownership of advanced nations and the highest rate of gun violence by…a lot. Guys, it’s not even close. There are tons of comparisons of us versus other “advanced” nations, but let’s frame it a different way. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, when compared to the ten countries in North Africa and the Middle East…you know, the ones with all the brown people we’re supposed to be afraid of…with the highest rate of gun violence, the United States of America has a rate of gun violence higher than all of them except Iraq. In 2016 our rate of violent gun deaths was 3.85 per 100,000 people in our country. That equates to roughly 12,439 violent gun deaths in one year.

We hide our household chemicals and cleaners under the sink because our children do not fully realize the potential harm they may cause. Well, what do you do with a toddler who keeps getting into the chemicals and cleaners under the sink? You install a child safety lock until they are old enough to understand and give these unsafe materials the proper care and respect they merit. Until the citizens of this country have proven themselves to be mature and stable enough to handle the great responsibility of modern gun ownership, we shouldn’t own or purchase guns without the necessary regulation that protects our people, and most importantly, our children.

Mental health is the newer, trendier scapegoat of gun violence. It easily harmonizes with the infamous NRA propaganda, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” It places blame on the person shooting with no fault falling with the weapon. Hey, I’ve seen the memes. I know that a gun isn’t going on a killing spree all by itself, however, it’s not just the gun we’re really talking about. We’re talking about how easy we are making it for mentally ill or unstable people to acquire them. I cannot fathom the argument against a waiting period, sometimes referred to as a “cool down” period in other countries that recognize that a delay in purchasing ability can save lives when a hothead’s impulse is to kill someone. I cannot comprehend the argument against mental health checks. Is it because it’s inconvenient? Or are you afraid you won’t pass? Either way, my kids’ lives are more valuable than any argument against it.

Japan not only requires mental health examinations before purchasing a gun but yearly reexaminations to minimize the cracks and loopholes people can fall through. They also require gun training prior to purchasing a gun and a rate of accuracy over 90%. There are other laws and stipulations in place, but that’s another rabbit hole. Let’s just say Japan’s gun violence rates are so low that it’s not uncommon for the police officers to have a single-digit rate of even needing to fire a gun. Countries like Australia and the U.K. have had great success in decreasing their gun violence rates with better restrictions and regulations for gun ownership.

Oh, and we can’t forget the age-old argument about criminals. If they want to get a gun, they’ll get a gun; a silly law isn’t going to change that. Well, let’s make it a bit harder for them, please. You know, like we did at the airports after 9/11? If you aren’t willing to make it harder for people who intend harm to acquire a gun because you think the laws to prevent it won’t do any good, let’s just go ahead and do away with vehicular laws, or regulations that require fire escapes and alarms. You know, as a matter of fact, the minimal laws we have to protect our children at school, they obviously won’t stop a criminal, so let’s just chuck those, too. An argument against regulation because criminals will be criminals is an argument for anarchy.

So, Kelsey, aside from a firearms buy-back program and waiting for our legislatures to agree on gun reform, what else can we do to protect our communities and our children from gun violence? Shouldn’t we arm our teachers? Or at the very least, place armed guards in all the schools? I have a better question: Do you really want to be the kind of country that needs to militarize our educators? I don’t. We honestly aren’t paying our teachers enough as it is. We aren’t funding education adequately enough to provide everyone with enough pencils for the school year, but you want to spend the billions of dollars it would take to even begin to properly train and arm all the teachers in schools? How about we take that money and fund a better teacher/student ratio. I’d also love to see better ratios of counselors to students, so the fringe kiddos who feel rejected by the world have better resources available to them. Let’s demystify mental health and create a culture that welcomes therapy and medication when it’s needed. Universal healthcare that makes that care accessible to everyone would go quite a long way. Just saying.

I’d like to close this article with a few quotes I’ve come across in the past week that I think it’s important that we acknowledge. At the end of the day, people are hurting. People are mourning. People had to bury their children this week. People are angry. People are scared. And people have a right to be. Let’s do our part and set our egos aside. Being wrong isn’t a crime. Being wrong doesn’t make you weak. Being wrong, and accepting it, is the greatest opportunity for growth you will ever encounter.

I will not give names as I did not ask permission to provide them.

 

“Let’s take a moment to honor the sacrifice of our brave school children who lay down their lives to protect our right to bear arms.”

                                                                                                                           – a concerned citizen

“just know, i love you” “I love you too” “forever and you’re the best brother”

“We’re gonna get out of here I promise” “are the cops here? my teacher died”

                                                              – texts exchanged between two brothers during the                                                                  shooting at Stoneman Douglas

“‘Wait, Miss.’ she said, ‘If you lock us in the closet, doesn’t that mean you’ll be out here?’…’You would do that?’…’In a heartbeat. Just stay quiet so you get out alive. Make it worth it.’”

                       – A teacher’s account of the conversation she had with her students at                            a neighboring high school while they reviewed protocol for an active                              shooter situation while waiting to hear if anyone they knew had died.

“But nobody died in my classroom today. Just a piece of my heart.”

                                                                                                        – The same teacher, in closing.

 

I chose not to source my resources today because I want you to do some work. You can read this and any other article you stumble across and have some feelings about what it says, but I doubt you can do yourself the honor of formulating an honest and authentic opinion on a subject without doing some digging of your own. Nothing you read here today is hard to find information about. Check your sources, fake news is actually a real thing. And hey, learn some stuff. Surprise yourself with what you know and what you don’t know. Our children are worth it. Beyond that, let’s stop the name-calling and the finger-pointing. Something real must be done. I don’t want to be the kind of country where children feel they have take to the streets and march for their lives because us grownups can’t get our shit together.

I didn’t write this to change anyone’s mind. I just absolutely needed the catharsis of doing the research and putting my thoughts onto paper. Apparently, this is my current stage of grief. My heart and prayers meet you at yours.