A Story, Spoken: Chapter Two

If you haven’t read Chapter One of my serial, A Story, Spoken, you can read it here.

Three months had passed since we’d lowered my mother’s body into the ground. Three months since I’d thrown a handful of dirt onto a brown box that contained the broken shell of bone and flesh that once held her soul. Three months of living a life that no longer made sense, but was my reality, though I hardly felt awake.

Nan had been released from the hospital a week after the accident. Neither of us wanted to be alone, but unable to bear speaking the words, I quietly drove her back to the apartment instead of to her house around the corner. She never asked me why.

I gave her my room, but I’d slept on the couch, pushing its aged springs and cushions past their limit with my heavy-hearted weight. It was second hand, to begin with, frayed and creaking, now it was a bowing cradle I retreated to at the end of every empty day, longing for the woman who’d rocked me in my first.

The medical bills came, then payment requests for a loan I was furious to hear Nan had taken out against her house to help me pay for college. All those years of sending checks with a simple explanation of, “It’s just something I had tucked away.” I was angry at her for the risk and angry at myself for not realizing the impossibility of her having that kind of money simply “tucked away”. Knowing that we couldn’t sustain the payments, we made the hard decision to rent out Nan’s house and officially move her into the apartment with me. We’d use the rent money to pay bills and climb out of the financial hole that seems to appear as a twin to tragedy. It wasn’t a long-term fix, but it was a place to start where we both felt comfortable.

Cheney, my best friend since grade school, had come over the day before the move to help me go through Mom’s room. I’d gone in a few times to look for documents required for a variety of things, and I’d picked out an outfit for her body to be buried in, but I hadn’t been able to handle the reality of vacant space. I think Nan had it somewhat easier in that sense. She was occupied with trying to figure out how to live without her sight, and I imagined how nice it would be to not see the obvious emptiness of life, of space, that my mother had filled.

Cheney left me in the jumble of my mother’s clothes and tchotchkes to pick up some storage bins. I had filled a box and most of a trash bag before I saw the glass on her bedside table. A thin beam of light from between the blinds was reflecting off the side and I could see a smudge on the rim. I held up the glass, staring at the rough, lined imprint of my mother’s mouth. Not one to wear lipstick, it was the slightly pink tint of cherry-flavored lip balm. I stared at that smudge, trying to trace every wrinkle into my memory. Unsure why it was so important to remember. Knowing I couldn’t ever, really. I lifted the glass and carefully aligned my lips with hers and pressed them into me. I drank the dusty water that shuddered in the bottom, taking it in like I was drinking her essence. I didn’t lick the excess moisture from my lips, not wanting to mar the sensation of the glass, and the print it held.

I stood and carried it with me outside to the flowerbed, unable to still the image of fairies scattering that flashed before my mind’s eye. I snapped and ripped the stems of the few blooms not wilting in the summer heat and carried them back to the apartment. I refilled the glass with water, placed the flowers inside, and set them on the window sill above the sink, turning the glass so the overlapping marks were facing outward to the sun.

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The next day found me alone in Nan’s empty house after the mover’s had left. Cheney had gone on to meet them at the apartment a few hours before and tell them where everything should go. I had stayed to clean the place up for the new tenants, enjoying the quiet of busy work without questions about where my memories of the house were to be stored or sold.

I was working on a scuff mark on the kitchen linoleum, lost in the mindless motion of the task when I realized I was writing a story.
I had been thinking about the scuff, the shape and sweeping lines of it that reminded me of an errant brush stroke. My mind skipped like a record from scuff marks to scuff marks on the soul, scuff marks on the soul that kept someone from living their lives the way they wanted to, kept them from reaching for their dreams because what dreams could come true when you are scuffed and broken.

I pictured a young man, one pained by abuse and abandonment, a true Dicksonian character. I saw him trudging down a windy city street, holding the hood of his jacket across the bottom of his face, trying to keep the rain and cold from stinging his tender skin. He was walking toward something important. No, he was walking to something mundane, but today he was aware that the act of doing it, or rather not doing it, stopping in his tracks with people bumping into him from behind, cursing him, would be life-changing. Garrett was his name, and he had just experienced a rare moment of knowing exactly what must be done to pull himself from his current state of existing and into something more.

I didn’t know the details of his story, just a very vivid understanding of that moment of clarity. I saw it play out in my mind. I saw his young face with early lines across his brow. I saw the rain dripping from his dark eyelashes. I saw him blink them away just as he blinked away the dazed life he’d been leading up until the moment that he wasn’t anymore.

He looked across the street, saw a park with open trails of calm and quiet, and then looked back toward the path he’d been walking. He followed the mundane continuation of his life stretching out before him and on into his eternity as a fabrication of a grieving mind. I watched him turn deliberately, coming to a decision, and walk toward the welcoming green of the park. I watched as the sun broke through clouds, and the rain slowed as he crossed the street into a new, unplanned future.
I battled with myself as I scrubbed, wanting to scratch the image down on paper, but not enough to stop the rhythmic motion of the brush on the floor. I was giving in to the excuses and comfort of my weaknesses, but I didn’t care. It was just a man walking to a park instead of down the street. He was nothing of substance – nothing I couldn’t call from memory later if I really needed to. I just kept swiping the brush over the scuff, silently damning the movers who’d drug Nan’s dresser instead of lifting, feeling the burn of tired muscles start to twist and tighten.

He was still in sight, not quite lost in the foliage. I could still get up and write him down. I could flesh him out. I could find out what his mundane life consisted of. I could find out what his past held, what made him afraid to be alone. I could explore whether I thought that loneliness ate at him, shaming him into solitude, or if he so craved attention and intimacy that he was cavalier with his heart and with his body. I could explore what future he was walking toward. I could find out what his dream was, the one strong enough to pull him from the ease of monotony. Would he succeed? Would he fail? Would any of that matter because it was really about the journey and not about the outcome, especially considering that stories never really die until a person does. And even then, they live on with all the other people they touched along the way. As I asked myself these questions, I was already answering them. I knew I could fill them out even more. I knew I could build his world, his entire existence into something meaningful.

But I couldn’t. Not anymore.

I moved on to another section of the floor, leaving Garrett and his story on the square of linoleum where I’d found them.

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The front door opened behind me, and I jumped, nearly slipping as I turned to see who had entered.

“Hey, honey.” Cheney smiled at me as she pushed the door open before hooking her arm back through the crook of Nan’s elbow and helping her step over the threshold.

“Nan, you didn’t need to come out here. Everything’s done already.” I stood and crossed to help walk her over to the window seat in the living room.

“I know that.” she snapped. “But it’s my house and I’m here.”

Cheney eye-balled me over the top of Nan’s head. Clearly, it had not been the first sharp moment for Nan’s tongue in the hours since I’d left the apartment that morning.

“How’s it going?” Cheney changed the subject, going back to stand by the open door now that Nan was safely seated. She wanted to go. I could see she was tired and she’d already helped so much.

“I’m done. Just being nitpicky now.” I lifted one corner of my mouth in the best smile I could muster and then let her off the hook. “Why don’t you go home. We’re all set for the night. Nan and I can drive through Jake’s on the way home for dinner. Tell your mom I said thank you for helping with the consignment stuff.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll tell her.” Cheney held her hands in front of her, wanting to say more, knowing it wouldn’t help.

“It’s okay, Cheney. We’re good.” I managed both corners that time and she nodded in acceptance.

“Okie dokie,” she chirped back, clearly trying to lift the mood before retreating. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yep.”

“Thank you, Cheney,” Nan called just before the door shut behind my friend. I watched Cheney turn through the window, hearing Nan’s voice and waving before sheepishly pulling her hand back down and lifting her shoulders to me in apology for forgetting Nan couldn’t see it. I waved her on and smiled a little more easily.

“Cheney waved.” I couldn’t hide my mirth. Nan grunted a small laugh in response and then a deeper chuckle rumbled up.

“Oh, that’ll be fun to give people shit about,” she sighed. “Keep snitching on them, will you?”

“Doctor Reeves even did it at your check up the other day,” I confessed with a small laugh.

“Ha! That’s rich,” she shook her head, still smiling. “Remind me next time so I can tease him.”

“You’re gonna get me in trouble, but okay.” I laughed, stretching out the tightness in my shoulders.

“I sure hope so.” Her blank eyes wandered around the room as she turned her face from side to side. “Tell me what it looks like, Annie.”

“What do you mean? It’s an empty house.” I leaned my head down, resting it on her shoulder as I stared at the hollow space before us.

“Babe, I lived here for almost forty years. Your grandpa laid the bricks on the front walk. I brought your momma home to this house. Watched her grow up in this house. She brought you home to this house after your daddy disappeared. When you ran away from home, you came here,” she paused, wiping away a tear, sniffing back the threat of more. “I never thought I’d leave it. And now I can’t even see it for the last time. But you can tell me what it looks like.” She kissed the top of my head and waited.

“Okay,” I swept the tears from my own eyes and cleared my throat. I sat up and looked around, still seeing where everything used to be, picturing vividly the moments that made it so hard to leave.

“Remember the crescent-shaped burn mark on the counter by the stove?” I began. “It’s still there. I always thought it looked like a taunting smile, endlessly reminding Mom of scorching it with that giant stock pot you guys used to make soup in,” I looked back to see Nan smile at the memory and continued. “There are dimples on the carpet where all the furniture used to be, like everything is still there, just suddenly invisible,” I looked around for something else. “The sun is coming through the kitchen window, and it’s almost to the edge of the living room carpet. I used to look for that when I was little because it meant Mom would be here to pick me up soon.”

“Really?” Nan laughed, sniffing again as more tears ran down her soft face. “I never knew you did that.”

“Yeah, every day. I don’t remember when I first noticed it, but it was like my own secret message that she was on her way. ‘When the light met the gold’” I laughed, quoting my childhood imagination.

“What’s that?”

“Well, you know the little strip of gold between the carpet and the linoleum?” she nodded in understanding.

“I don’t know. It’s just what I called it.” I shrugged, glancing around for something else to jump out at me that I could tell her, but there was nothing more to see. Stains and scuff marks were all that remained in the house she loved.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.” I gasped in as the knot in my throat clenched and I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. “It’s just empty.” I fell back into Nan’s arms and even as she shushed me, she cried.

I suddenly felt sick of the whole thing. I didn’t want to be in the house anymore. It hurt too much to sit on the bench my mother had read countless books on waiting for Grandpa to get home after work. I hated that when I looked up to see what time it was, the mantle clock wasn’t there to chime. I couldn’t stand that all I could smell was cleaning products and the sweat of strangers and not the mixture of staling potpourri, fresh bread, and Pledge that should have been there.

I stood, realizing I was on the verge of a panic attack and needed to move, and then I saw Nan. Her eyes were wide and frantic, glossy with tears. She was lost. I didn’t know if she couldn’t tell where she was or just worried where I was, or if she was lost in the pain of memories she could no longer call forth with visual clarity. I pulled her up off the bench and wrapped my arms around her.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.” I held her gently and somehow swallowed the rest of my sorrow for the moment. I was needed and so couldn’t need. Not right now.

“Are you ready to go?” I whispered in her ear.

“Yeah, baby. I am.”

I took her arm and walked her to the door, opened it and stepped out before her to allow more space to walk through. I turned to face her, still holding one hand, but she stopped in the doorway. She reached up and set her hand on the wooden frame, patting it gently like you would a good pet.
“Thank you,” she said. Not to me, but to the house that had held her life for so long. I could swear I saw her absorb every memory she’d let the house carry for her so she wouldn’t leave them behind. Her shoulders dropped almost imperceptibly as the weight of them settled around her. She grasped my hand tighter and stepped out on the stoop, the door swinging shut behind her.

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Bread Crumbs

It isn’t unheard of for me to write a little something, share it with my husband, and have him look up at me and ask, “Where did that come from?” I don’t always know, to be honest, but there are times that I can track an idea by following the breadcrumbs of my mind and the leaps it takes. The starting points are often the most simple and ignorable parts of life, but there they are.

I often find myself distracted from the largeness of life by the minutiae of it. I get caught up in trying to define the exact shade of yellow that is falling from my neighbor’s tree or wondering if the pebbles and rocks ground and mixed into the cement of my street is local or if it is broken bedrock from far away – a material once surrounded by the rugged beauty of earth, exposed and fractured by machines, packaged and shipped by machines, reincarnated by machines to serve as a smooth surface for machines. It’s part curiosity about how things work and part adoration for the stories behind why they do. These questions trigger memories which trigger new ideas which sometimes trigger stories.

For example, there’s a man that waits at a bus stop close to my house no matter the weather Texas happens to be blessing us with. He’s reasonably well-dressed, bearded, but neatly, and carries a leather briefcase. The image clings to my mind as I drive past and I find myself combing through my memory of what he looked like long after I have lost sight of him in my rearview mirror.

Perhaps, I wonder, he is a true, blue eco-warrior doing his part for the environment by using public transportation. Maybe he’s just down on his financial luck. Or maybe he has some intimately personal or psychological reason for not wanting to drive. And that’s where the story starts simmering. By the time I reach my destination I’ve created an entire narrative about this bearded man with a briefcase and a dad-bod.

His wife is fighting cancer. A vicious sort that is slowly leaching her youth. His live-in mother-in-law helps take care of her while he’s away at work. When his wife has an appointment with her life-saving poison the mother carries her in their junky car crammed with car seats, crushed crackers and prescription receipts littering the matted carpet on the floorboards. The pair of midsize SUVs, once housed neatly in their garage, had been traded in for the aging four-door sedan to help cover what the insurance didn’t. The Bearded Hero is quietly living an ongoing sacrifice, though he would loathe hearing it referred to that way. He spends extra hours at the office, underappreciated for all he does for his boss and co-workers. Even more of his valuable time is spent on that damn bus travel that extends his commute. And every day, as he stands at the stop, waiting for the cough and wheeze of the city bus to come over the hill and carry him away from his love and the life he’s sacrificing for, the little boy inside of him still carries a torch for everything he dreamt his life would be.

By this point, I’m brushing tears from my eyes, crying for a man I do not know and a wife I have invented. But it could be real. So a silent prayer is said for whatever that man’s life really looks like – whatever pains and difficulties have manifested. Because, regardless if I’m right or just a crazy writer pulling at a thread, we all could use a little extra grace.

The characters of the man at the bus stop and his family are easy to grieve and root for. It’s simple to slip into their shoes and trudge alongside them in the trenches of life. I can imagine the pain of setting aside dreams because you feel obligated to tend to other things. Can’t you? I’ve had cancer and mortality touch my life in ways that made it easy to slip away from my goals with a half-hearted promise to return and settle myself into “caretaker”. Just as easily, I can lay alongside the wife in her bed that is swiftly molding to the shape of her shrinking body. I cannot relate to the illness itself, though I have witnessed it in others, but I can relate to the thoughts that eat at your mind when all you can do is exist. I am horrendously harsh on myself on quite a frequent basis about my mothering and wifing, sistering, daughtering, friending…writering. How much more difficult and guilt-ridden it must be for someone truly incapable of performing on all cylinders when so much of life is calling for attention and care.

That’s where the tears come from. From that place of knowing just enough of what it feels like to empathize with the fiction come to life in my heart. That’s where the good stories are born. The books I’ve read where the author has delicately teased out emotion, allowing it to bloom quietly just as it would, had all of it been true — those are the ones that stick with me. Because no matter the setting, how fantastical or unimaginable the situation may be, the emotions are real. That’s the difference between a sentence wonderfully wrought, but not wonderfully put.

In case you were wondering, I’m shooting for the latter.