Fiction

The Serial Adulterer’s Guide to Attracting Feeble Hearted Women – a work in progress

“I’m not who you think I am, you know.”

I looked at the woman sitting across from me, the woman I had known for twenty years, the woman whose family shared Christmases with mine, the woman who had been my best friend for as long as I’d known her.

“What? Like you’re a spy or something?” I laughed and took a rather large gulp of the bland Beaujolais I had ordered because she had ordered one. For years she had drunk nothing but tepid Pinot, never cold. I would have to drop ice cubes into my Pinot when we drank in her kitchen or at the picnic table in her backyard. It was just what we did. And she always drank Pinot. But about a year ago she switched to Sauvignon Blanc.

That was when I first suspected she might not be who I thought she was.

And now tonight? Another new wine. Which was why her comment had me suddenly on edge. That and the fact that I had been counseling her for over a year now, ever since the time I asked her straight out if she was having an affair. “Why do you think that?” she had said, taking a deep sip of the Sauvignon Blanc, holding her nose in the glass longer than is proper. “You don’t drink Sauvignon Blanc.” And it was chilled.

Counseling isn’t quite the right word, but I’m not really sure how else to put our weekly get-togethers. She was having an affair, and I listened to her all giddy and glowing, telling me how wonderful it was to suddenly “feel something” again. And “he treats me like a princess.” I wanted to gag at that one, but she was happy, so I kept my reflexes in tact.

She was my best friend. Her marriage was what I and everyone else had thought was solid, friendly, perhaps a bit uneven in intellect, but a good marriage. A boring marriage. A marriage.

I had divorced after thirty years, but my marriage probably should have ended before it even started. My husband and I liked each other, but passion was something I had only ever felt once before in my life, and I knew I would never, ever feel that again. So I got married. My husband was nice enough.

She laughed. “No. I’m not a spy.”

We had been talking about her plans, the plans that she and her paramour were making to divorce their respective spouses. Paramour sounds way more sexy than the guy deserved. He was by his own admission a serial adulterer and had had “hundreds” of affairs throughout the thirty-five years he and his wife had been married. “His wife’s a real bitch,” my friend was fond of saying. “The only way he could stay married to her was to have affairs.”

I remember when she had first told me that, along about the time she first confessed to having the affair, I thought my friend was foolish and naïve. I had been on the receiving end of a serial adulterer’s attention a couple of times and knew most of the lines. I swear, they must have “The Serial Adulterer’s Guide to Attracting Feeble-Hearted Women.” Chapter One? “My Wife’s a Bitch.”

The problem with me is that I am a flaming feminist. When someone calls a woman a bitch, my first response is to ask “Why?” Not “Why?” as in Why do you think that, but “Why?” as in What’s the reason she’s bitchy? There’s usually a reason. No woman is bitchy just for bitchy’s sake. So I would barrel down a list of questions hoping to answer the question of “Why?”

How did you show your wife you loved her, when you did love her?

What is your wife’s favorite color?

How many times a week did you make dinner?

Did you arrange your kids’ after school schedules?

Your wife works a full-time job. What is her boss’s name?

Right. So his wife was a bitch and that was enough to excuse him his affairs. But what was my friend’s excuse? “I’m bored.” Yeah. Marriage can be boring. “He’s just not smart enough.” Yeah, I’ll give her that one, too. I always wondered what she and her husband had to talk about besides the kids and the house and the cars. “He’s not good at sex.” Bingo.

When you’re in your mid-fifties and your kids have left the house and you are staring at another, oh, twenty-five years with a man you really have no feelings for, what do you do? Do you survive on memories of your shared history, or do you become putty in the hands of a man who is an expert at making a woman feel like a princess?

Right.

I am a feminist. I said that already. I’m a modern woman. Fairly smart. And I’ve never considered myself to be naïve when it comes to the ways of the world. But maybe my expectations are too high. My thought has always been that if you are in a marriage that you are not satisfied with you do one of two things. You either tell your spouse you are unhappy and want out, or you tell your spouse you are unhappy and you are going to seek happiness outside of the marriage. You ask for your spouses blessing to philander. Some spouses are okay with that last one. Really, I think that last one is kind of an unspoken agreement in many marriages, in most marriages.

“He’s had affairs the entire time he’s been married and his wife doesn’t have a clue,” my friend had said. Really? Doubtful. She knows. She might wish or hope or long for a better marriage, for love, but a bird in the hand and all that.

“She knows,” I had said. “She just puts up with it. It’s an unspoken agreement between them. He gets to sleep around and she has a nice place to live. The family stays intact.”

My friend did not like that.

“Well, not for long.” She half smiled at me over her glass. “We’re going to get married.” This had been when she switched wines the first time. “We’re going to wait for the weddings to be over, and then we’re each getting a divorce. He’s going to buy the house from his wife and we’re going to live there. But first, right after I tell Mike, he’s going to take me away, to Europe.” She had said all of this without taking a breath. “He’s going to treat me like a princess.”

I was losing control of my gag reflexes.

Her son and his daughter were both getting married the following summer, a year from when she and I first spoke about this.

“He wants me to tell Mike first and then he’ll tell his wife.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up. This was freaking Chapter 10 of the serial adulterers handbook. He skipped all of the chapters in between. Ass.

“Why does he want you to do that?” I knew damn well why he wanted her to do that.

“He’s afraid I’ll back out. But I won’t. I love him so much.”

I drained my glass.

“So, you’re going to tell Mike you want a divorce before he tells his wife he wants a divorce in order to prove your love for him?”

“Yes. He’s so afraid that I’ll back out. But I won’t. I love him so much.”

“Yeah. You already said that.”

Chapter 10 in “The Serial Adulterer’s Guide to Attracting Feeble-Hearted Women” is all about manipulation. You see, serial adulterer’s don’t serial adulterate because they want sex. Well, they do want sex, but not just sex. They want control. They want to control a woman’s affections, emotions. They want the feeble-hearted woman’s every thought to be about them. Which is why they are a serial adulterer, why they have to have affairs with many different women, repeating the process over and over again. No one can hold that much focus on someone else for that long without beginning to want more for themselves. Eventually even the feeble-hearted woman realizes that she is being short-changed emotionally. Chapter 2 in the book outlines the importance of treating the feeble-hearted woman as a princess, the ‘blinding them with love’ effect. Give them the kind of attention they don’t get at home. Show them a sophistication their spouses lack. Promise them the world. In my friend’s case, it was promise her Europe.

“I’m going to tell Mike I want a divorce and then we are leaving immediately for Europe. He’s going to show me the world.”

Right.

“So you’re just going to drop the bomb and leave?”

“Yes. He says it’s the best way. We don’t need to stay for the fallout.”

That’s the second time I wondered if she wasn’t who I thought she was.

“That’s kind of unrealistic, don’t you think?” I was trying to get her head out of the clouds. She seemed to be lacking oxygen. “Not to mention unkind?”

“I don’t want to hurt Mike,” she seemed almost genuine, “but there’s no other way.”

“Yeah, there is.” Now the humanist in me was rising up. “You stay for the fallout. You stay to clean up the pieces. You do the hard work you need to do to get what you want. You face the person you are hurting and you help them through it. And another thing …”

I was on a roll.

“… when does he tell his wife that he wants a divorce?”

She looked at her fingers tracing the outline of her glass on the table. “When we get back from Europe.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” The couple at the next table stopped their conversation and stared at me. “Sorry,” I said.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I repeated, perhaps even a bit more loudly than I had the first time. “You are being freaking manipulated! Don’t you see that? He’s making you ask for a divorce first but he has, and I guarantee it, no intention whatsoever of leaving his wife. Nada. Zilch. If he wanted to divorce her he would have done it long ago. Don’t you see that?”

“I know. I know,” she said, her head leaning towards me across the table. “But I’m different, he said. He’s never felt this way before me. I’m different from all of the others. He said.”

Crap. Chapter 6. Tell the Feeble-Hearted Woman about all of your other affairs – Build trust! You’ve confided in her your deepest darkest secrets! And once you’ve hooked her with the truth, explain how lucky you are to have finally found HER, the one you have been looking for after all these years, the love of your life. Tell her “It’s fate!”

Crap and double-crap.

“Listen,” she said. “I know it might not work out. I know he might be … lying to me. But I don’t think he is. He loves me. He does. And I love him. And even if it only lasts for a while, at least I’ve had this time with him. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Right. Talk to me again in a year from now, when you’re divorced, single, and no longer a princess. The future is always bright when you’re in love, even when you know it’s not.

I was fighting a losing battle, so I listened to her tell of fairy tales weekends in the City and early morning rendezvous before work with only the occasional reminders from me to “Be careful.”

“I’m not who you think I am.”

“And you’re not a spy.”

“I’m not naïve,” she said pointedly. “I know what I’m doing.” She waited for me to talk. I had nothing to say. “I have had affairs the entire time I was married.”

I tried to keep my eyes their normal size but it was either have wide eyes or upset the couple at the next table with a very loud “What the fuck?”

“You know Zack?” Yeah, I knew Zack. He was an old friend of hers. His wife had died in a ‘home accident,’ having fallen down the stairs and broken her neck. I didn’t like Zack. “I’ve been having an affair with him since I was 13.” She smiled. “He was my first.”

I swear her face was changing in front of my eyes. Her eyes were narrow. Her smile was … sly.

“And there were others. Lots of others.”

Jesus. “Did you sleep with Bill?” My ex had revealed his own strayings from our marriage vows (what a joke) but sleeping with my best friend he had not mentioned.

“No.” She laughed. I wasn’t sure I believed her.

“You see,” she looked up at the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if she was searching for the right words or doing it for dramatic effect. “It’s just something that I do. I’ve always done it. It’s who I am.” She looked at me. “It’s who he is.”

The paramour. I was beginning to feel sorry for him. “Does he know?”

“Yes. We are alike in so many ways.”

I was a feminist. This equality should have made me happy.

“You see, he’s afraid I won’t divorce Mike because I’ll be tired of him.” She leaned into me again. “He is afraid that he is going to loose me.”

“Will he?”

“He might.” Blithe.

I sat there wondering, not about her and what she’d done, but how after twenty years I didn’t know this about her, I didn’t pick up on this. That she hadn’t shared it with me pissed me off; it felt like lying. It felt worse than when I discovered my husband had also been a serial adulterer. She was my friend. How was it that I was so naïve not to have seen it?

Who else had I misjudged in all my years? Who else was lying to me? What ideas, what philosophies did I misconstrue? What beliefs did I hold so dear that were not what I thought they were?

Perhaps I wasn’t the person I thought I was, either.

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Creative Nonfiction

The Magic Maker

Non-fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Winter 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 4

 

This is the story of how I ruined Christmas.

My thirteen-year-old daughter Beth is smart as whip, but socially? Let’s just say she’s a little quirky. At thirteen, she says she still believes in Santa Claus. Or, she did until the day I said, “You know that there is no Santa Claus, right?”

She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “What!?” The pompom on the tip of the red and white Santa hat she wore throughout the month of December shook violently.

We were in the car, driving to her church youth group meeting. My knuckles turned white on the steering wheel.

Why is it that when you know something isn’t going right, your brain kicks in to make it even worse? I mean, you know the conversation is going downhill but you say something that turns a snowball into an avalanche.

“You know that Santa doesn’t exist, right?” I pushed the snowball right over the cliff.

Tears under her thick glasses made her beautiful dark eyes frighteningly large and menacing. “You have ruined Christmas forever!” She started to hyperventilate.

“Are you kidding me?” I yelled back at her. “You’re almost fourteen years old! You can’t tell me that you really still believe in Santa Claus!”

“Awwwwwww!” She was wailing, tears streaming down her face. “You have lied to me my whole life!”

I pulled the car over to the side of the road and turned in my seat to look at her head on. “Beth. You know there is no Santa Claus.”

“You … gasp … have taken … gasp … away my … gasp … childhood!” She was choking on her sobs.

“Honey….” I decided to take a softer tack. I took my hand off the steering wheel and reached for her hand.

She shoved my hand away. “No! I won’t listen to you!”

My thoughts were reeling. I wondered as I often did how I had become so inept at parenting. I simply did not understand.

“Santa lives in our hearts.” The sanguine tone of my voice even made me want to throw up.

“Ahhhhhhhh! I don’t want you to talk!”

We sat in the car, listening to the other cars whiz by us. I was certain that those cars were driven by good mothers, happy mothers, mothers who bought Christmas gifts in August and had everything all neatly wrapped by Halloween. Mothers who had not stabbed the Christmas spirit clear through the heart with the simple phrase, “You know Santa doesn’t exist, right?” Right.

Beth’s breathing began to even out.

“Beth,” I started once again.

“No!” she said. “Stop.”

I kept quiet. I waited. It started to rain and the automatic windshield wipers pushed the rain to the side in a hypnotic rhythm that suddenly sounded like the back beat to Jingle Bells.

Her voice was quiet. “What about NORAD?”

NORAD is the North American Aerospace Defense Command. This is a major military operation, a seven-day-a-week program that warns of any “atmospheric threat,” like missiles, asteroids, and Santa’s sleigh. For the month of December, NORAD maintains a website that does a countdown to Christmas, and for twenty-four hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day they track Santa’s travels. For years, Beth has followed Santa around the globe.

“NORAD,” I said. “Well….”

“It’s fake,” said Beth. “It’s a lie.”

“No, Honey. It’s not a lie,” I lied.

“Stop it.” Beth’s huge eyes had become narrow slits. “Stop talking. Stop telling me lies. Take me to church.”

I put the car in gear and we drove in silence the five minutes to church. Beth got out and slammed the car door shut. She pulled the Santa hat off her head and stuffed it in her pocket in disgust. I watched as she then marched down the cobbled sidewalk and through the big oak doors of the sanctuary.

“Jesus Christ.” I banged my head on my hands resting on the steering wheel. Thank God I hadn´t yet burst her bubble about Him.

“I have ruined Christmas forever.”

You see, it all started just before Thanksgiving with a classic child-of-divorce maneuver. One day Beth says to me, “You know, since you and Daddy divorced…”

Here it was. I could tell I was about to take a guilt trip.

“…I’ve been feeling kind of lonely.”

My ticket was being punched.

“I think if I had a puppy, a Dachshund puppy, I’d feel better.”

I was on the express train to Guilt City.

It didn’t matter that we already have a dog, a neurotic dog that pees on your foot when you walk in the door.

“We already have a dog,” I said to her.

“But Stella,” the dog, “is your dog. She loves you.” Beth fluttered the lashes on her big brown eyes, eyes made wider behind the magnified lenses of her thick glasses. “She’s not mine,” she implored.

What I should have said was ‘There’s no way we are getting another blankety-blank dog!’ Instead I said, “We’ll see.”

If you are a parent, you know that “we’ll see” is the first step to a done deal.

For the next few weeks Beth created slide show presentations of why a Dachshund is the perfect dog. I like big dogs so she was trying to sell me on this. She also made a handbook of training methods she was going to use. This included commands for the dog to burrow into gopher holes to rid our acre of gophers. It didn’t matter that we don’t have an obvious gopher problem. She was going to train the Dachshund to go after gophers.

I had to find her a Dachshund.

I don’t “buy” dogs. I rescue dogs. I went online to the various rescue organizations and the closest thing to a Dachshund I could find was a Chiweenie. This rat-like cross between a Chihuahua and a Dachshund is small and ugly. And expensive. The last time I rescued a dog the cost was fifty bucks. Now a rescue is over two hundred. I was not going to spend two hundred dollars on an ugly little dog that was no bigger than a hamster. I asked her; she said no to a hamster.

I decided that I had to prepare Beth for the possibility that there would be no Dachshund for Christmas. I decided that the best thing to do was to just come right out and tell her. No Dachshund. To do this, however, I needed to start slowly, hint at the whole Santa Claus-doesn’t-exist thing.

Now, I truly believed that at the age of almost fourteen that her belief in Santa was really a show, a way to keep the gifts coming. I know I did that when I was a kid. I was the youngest; I had been certain that if I admitted that Santa Claus didn’t exist, Christmas would be over. So I was pretty sure that this is what Beth was doing.

Sometimes I’m just clueless.

“So, Beth,” I started with just a hint of feigned nonchalance in my voice, trying to keep my eyes on the road. “You know there’s no Santa, right?”

By the look on her face you would’ve thought I killed a Dachshund right in front of her with my two bare hands.

I really had ruined Christmas forever.

After youth group that night, Beth came home and managed to say not one word to me. She avoided me, and I avoided her. I thought avoidance was probably what was called for at this point. She gave me a hug before she went to bed, but no ‘Good night, Mom.’ Just a hug. I told her I loved her; she smiled and went to her room.

“I’ve taken away her childhood.” Her words rang in my head.

The next morning Beth was still not talking to me. She got ready for school. I left for work. We both were miserable.

I spent my day telling anyone who would listen how horrible I was. I hoped that public humiliation might save me. But no one took me seriously. “You told your daughter there isn’t a Santa Claus? She’s thirteen! Shoulda’ happened ten years ago!” They didn’t understand that I broke my daughter’s heart and I had no idea how I was going to put it back together.

But that evening at dinner, Beth began to talk.

“So, Mom, about this Santa thing,” she started.

“Unh uh,” I said. “No way. I’m not talking about that again.”

“No, Mom. Really. I want to know something.”

I reached across the table and tapped her hand with my finger.

“Okay. What do you want to know?”

“What about NORAD?”

Oh, how was I going to do this?

“NORAD?”

“Yes. Is it all just a lie?”

My heart was breaking. I was destroying everything she lived for; everything she believed in.

“Oh, Beth. It’s so hard to explain this. But I’ll try.”

Her eyes bore into mine.

“You know what NORAD is, right?”

She nodded that she did.

“Okay. So, here you have this huge government organization. Lots of people working round the clock to keep the country safe. And yet, in December, they have a whole department dedicated to tracking Santa. Why do you think they do that?”

“They’re trying to find Santa?”

I wanted to cry.

“No, sweetie. But, why else do you think they might do that?”

After a long pause, she said “They think believing in Santa is important?”

Thank God.

“Yes,” I said. “They want to help create the magic.”

“Magic?”

“Magic.” I took a deep breath. “Beth, hasn’t Christmas always been magical for you?”

“Yes. I love Christmas.”

“Okay. Who do you think makes it magical?”

She looked at me for a moment and then said, “You?”

“Yes. Me. And every other parent in the world.”

“But what about the toys?” She was talking through her heartbreak. “You know, those toys that are in my stocking every year? The toys that no one else has, that none of my friends have ever seen before?”

Every year I search for special small toys to give Beth for Christmas. These toys are usually little wind-up Santas or snowmen, magical in their uniqueness.

I smiled at her. “It’s part of the magic.”

“You see, Beth,” I went on, “when you’re young, everything at Christmas is magical. There is nothing more wonderful than believing in the magic of Christmas.”

“I know.”

“But, Beth,” I said. “It gets even better when you’re an adult.”

“It does?” She was skeptical.

“One of the joys of being a parent is making the magic for your children.”

Her eyes began to soften.

“When you’re an adult, Beth, you get to be the Magic Maker.”

Her smile was breathtaking.

She got up from the table and pulled the Santa hat out of her coat pocket where she had stuffed it the evening before. She walked over to me and put it on my head.

“No, Beth.” I took the hat off my head. “It’s official,” I said, placing the Santa hat on her head. “You are now a Magic Maker.”

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Fiction

Light and Air

Fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Winter 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 4

 
“It’s snowing.” Lisa pulled the moth-eaten fur throw up to her nose and the wool hat low over her forehead, her eyes the only sign of life under the thick pile of blankets that covered her on the narrow bed.

She coughed, the sound of her affliction echoing into the darkness, prompting a hacking reply from one of the other patients in the line of sufferers on the long sleeping porches of the sanatorium. It was a call and response that would repeat throughout the night, one to the other, as if to ask I’m still alive. Are you?

“Did you hear me, Evie?” She coughed again. “It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s snowing.”

Snow whispered through the pines and in the distance a train whistle blew at the crossing in Bloomfield.

“You okay, Evie?” When her friend didn’t respond, Lisa turned toward the soft wheezing coming from the bed next to hers. “Evie? You’re not coughing. You need to cough.”

Evie’s shallow breathing sounded as if it was scraping the edges of her lungs. “I’m okay, Lisa,” she said, exhaling through a thin, forced cough. “I love snow.”

“Me, too.” Lisa put her head back on the pillow and stared at the large flakes flitting through the lamplight. “I remember a time when I was little and it snowed for days and days and days. We couldn’t even see out of –” Without thinking, she placed a hand on her chest as if it would stop the racking that had become a part of her, the cough that ruled her existence.

Evie’s wheezing got louder. “You okay?” It was now her turn to worry, turning her head on the pillow toward Lisa.

“Yes,” Lisa said between spasms.

Rumors of new medicines that might treat their misery passed from patient to patient in whispered breaths, voices quiet so as not to disturb their cranky lungs or tempt the irascible future. They hoped for some tangible relief, something other than the tired mantra of light and air, something other than sleeping outside on frigid nights in the dead of winter to keep their lungs open, their hearts beating. But it was 1942 and medical research was focused on the war – on support of the troops who had recently been called to the Pacific; the troops who were fighting for freedom.

And dying.

“Come get in bed with me,” said Evie. “Tell me about last Christmas again.”

Lisa didn’t want to remember last Christmas. She didn’t want to remember Johnny.

“Please, Lisa.” Evie often begged Lisa to tell her stories about her life, her family, her Johnny. When Lisa asked Evie to tell a story, however, Evie would simply say, “I have no stories to tell.” Lisa knew only that Evie was the daughter of a woman who had borne her late in life and a father who ran off shortly thereafter. Evie’s eighteen years had evidently been as cold as the bed she was now confined to.

“Okay, Evie,” Lisa said. “I’ll get in bed with you. Are you ready?”

“Ready,” Evie wheezed. She put her hand on the edge of the stack of blankets that covered her, ready to pull them back to let Lisa in.

Lisa took a shallow breath and held it. She pulled back her own blankets, got out of bed, quickly tucked the blankets back in to hold whatever warmth that might remain, then rushed into Evie’s bed. Evie pulled the blankets tightly around their thin, tired bodies. Lisa released her breath in a long trumpeting growl. Despite trying to contain it within the blankets, the sound reverberated into the night.

Evie put her arm around Lisa. “Shhh,” she said, patting Lisa’s back. “Shhh.” It was a gesture of kindness, a well-worn habit, appreciated even for the placebo it was. “Shhh,” Evie repeated. “Think about the snow,” she said, her words soft, muted, woven through wheezes. “Think about the light. Think about the air.”

Lisa’s chest relaxed as the spasms waned. “Light and air,” she repeated. “Someday, Evie, I’m going to sit in a house at high noon, close all the windows and curtains, and do nothing but rejoice in the dark and mustiness.” She attempted a half-hearted giggle, not wanting to wake the monster that lay in wait at the bottom of her lungs. “Light and air will be the death of me, Evie.”

“Light and air,” Evie whispered, “will be the death of me, Lisa, not you. You are strong. You will survive.”

“Shhh, Evie. You will survive.” Lisa raised her head and looked into Evie’s eyes. “You will survive, Evie. And you’ll come to my house for Christmas. And you’ll skate on the lake.”

“And dream of Johnny?”

Lisa put her head back on the pillow. “Yes. You will dream of your own Johnny.”

“Lisa,” Evie whispered. “Tell me again about last Christmas. Tell me about you and Johnny.”

“Oh, Evie.” Lisa closed her eyes, her hand still holding her chest, still over her heart. “I don’t know if I can talk right now,” she said. Another cough born in the depths of her lungs struggled and came to the surface. Others responded from down the line, a pied piper of coughs, followed by hacking and sputters, a harrowing tune of sickness, despair. I’m alive. I’m still alive. Are you?

“Christmas,” Lisa said. Christmas Eve was always the most special night of the year for Lisa. Her Aunt Regina would make the drive from Springfield, bringing gifts galore. Lisa loved Aunt Regina, a spinster, a professor at the college in Holyoke, the only one in the family who went to college. “You’ll certainly go to college,” she had said to Lisa, as if there was any doubt about Lisa’s future.

Lisa’s father would play the old upright piano in the living room and everyone would sing tunelessly but with fervor, the joy and the spirit of the songs far outweighing the embarrassment of singing off-key.

And the food. The Lidestri family was pure Italian, despite the fact that Lisa’s mother’s maiden name was O’Hare; the Italians had overwhelmed Lisa’s mother, the quiet Irish girl, taking her in and making her one of their own. Lisa’s mother learned to cook at her mother-in-law Rosa’s side. “You shouda been born Italian,” Rosa had said. “You cooka soo good!”

And she did. Starting early in the day, they would celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, one fish following another. There would be scungilli and calamari, swordfish and anchovies, in casseroles and on pasta, or laid neatly on a plate with a tiny serving fork.

And the pasta. Baked with tomatoes, or freshly pressed and cut into strips, served only with a hint of olive oil and basil.

And the cookies and pastries that the women in the family started baking in November, kept hidden in the back of dark closets until they were ceremoniously presented after the sun went down on Christmas Eve.

And midnight mass, which was really at eleven and the entire family was home, gathered around the kitchen table by midnight. Midnight, when they would raise and clink glasses of Cynar to celebrate cousin Nate’s Christmas birthday with a hearty song whose lyrics ´Hooray for Nathan for he’s a horse´s ass!´ had a story attached to it that would be told with guffaws of laughter every year, as if the story hadn’t been told a thousand times before.

“Tell me about last Christmas,” Evie quietly reminded Lisa.

“It was Christmas day,” Lisa started. “Nana Rosa was cooking in the kitchen and Mom was cleaning up wrapping paper in the living room. The boys –”

“Joey and Anthony.”

“Joey and Anthony. They were doing chores out in the barn.”

“Because chores need to be done everyday, even holidays,” Evie said, her words coming out between uneven breaths.

“Right.” Lisa thought of her younger brothers in the barn, throwing frozen cow patties at each other like baseballs, playing king of the mountain on the hay stacked to the rafters, tussling and rolling around in the snow.

“Lisa?”

“Right, Evie. I’m okay.”

Evie put a finger on Lisa’s lips. “Let me tell it,” she said. “And then Johnny drove his car up the road to your house. You could see it in the distance; you watched him from the kitchen window, weaving back and forth on the slippery road.”

Lisa brushed Evie’s finger off her mouth. “Right.”

“And you grabbed your Mom’s jacket and ran outside.”

“I did.”

“And he skidded to a stop, almost hitting the house.”

“Who’s telling this story?”

“Me. It’s my story now.” Evie shifted a bit in the bed. They had all learned to move in ways that would release the energy from a laugh without causing their lungs to convulse. It was only laughter that required this, though; sadness required no movement at all.

Lisa smiled. “It might as well be your story, I’ve told it to you so many times you know it by heart.”

“I can see it all so clearly in my mind.”

“Then keep going. Keep telling your story.”

“His car skids to a stop. He opens the door and jumps out, runs to you. He smiles. And you think he is so handsome in his new uniform. And the hat! He looks so … manly.” Evie held the blanket over her mouth to contain a phlegmy giggle, her girlish nod to Johnny’s manliness. “Then, he reaches in his pocket and takes out a small box. He smiles at you again, opens the box, and takes out the ring.”

“Yes,” said Lisa. “It is a beautiful ring.” With her thumb, she touches the ring he put on her finger that day, last Christmas, a finger now so thin from disease that she has to wrap yarn around it to keep the ring from falling off.

“And then he kissed you.”

The monster in Lisa’s lungs roared; her knees bent to her chest. Evie kept her arms tightly wrapped around Lisa until slowly her breathing returned to what was their new normal. Shallow, raspy, difficult.

“What’s that?” Evie lifted her head at the sound of bells jingling in the distance.

“It’s Santa Claus, Evie.” Lisa could barely speak.

“Really?”

“Yes, and he’s going to stop right here and ask us if we want to hop into his sleigh and go live with him at the North Pole.”

“Oh.” Evie was quiet for a moment. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Living at the North Pole, I mean.”

“Evie. You´re eighteen. You know there’s no such thing.”

“Oh, I know, Lisa. But just imagine. Christmas all the time. Presents and cookies….”

“And elves. Don’t forget the elves.”

“I know you think I’m childish, but it would be Heaven,” Evie’s sigh was like the low notes on a harmonica.

“Heaven.” Lisa touched Johnny’s ring.

The sound of the jingling bells became louder, jangling to the beat of a horses trot.

“It’s not Santa, Evie. It’s the farmer on the other side of the big fence. He must have a sleigh.” The sound of the sleigh bells crescendoed, then faded.

The wind picked up. Heavy snow filtered through the thin screens on the sleeping porch, dusting the foot of their blankets.

“Tell me about kissing Johnny,” Evie whispered.

“You’re telling the story. You tell it.”

“No,” said Evie. “I can’t tell it the way you do. Please. Tell me what it’s like to be kissed.”

Lisa put her lips next to Evie’s ear so she could whisper. She was tired, and her breathing was rough. And talking about Johnny was hard.

“He put his arms around me, pulling me so close I could feel his heart beating right next to mine.” She took a shallow breath, and another. “He looked at me so … I felt like he could read my thoughts.” She smiled. “I think he did, because then he put his lips on mine.” Lisa sunk deeper under the blankets and pulled them over the back of her head, keeping her face exposed to the night air. “I’m so cold. You’re not warm enough,” she said to Evie.

“I’m sorry about Johnny,” Evie said. She turned and put her arms around Lisa, pulling her as close as she could, sharing what little warmth she had with her friend.

Someone down the line coughed and moaned loudly. You okay? A cough was the only response.

“Tell me about Heaven, Lisa.”

“I don’t know anything about Heaven, Evie.” Lisa turned her head, her eyes wide open, caught by a single star visible through a break in the clouds.

“Do you think it’s like the North Pole?”

Lisa shivered. “Yes. It’s just like the North Pole.”

Evie coughed. “Everyone is happy in Heaven. That’s what they say, right?”

“That’s what they say.” Lisa hunkered further down beneath the covers.

The farmer in his sleigh made another go around the pasture, the slow rhythm of the bells ushering in the darkest part of the night.

“Don’t worry about Heaven.” Lisa coughed.

“I’m not worried about Heaven. I like thinking about it. It makes me less afraid if I think about what it might be like ….” Evie’s words struggled out from between rattling wheezes. “Heaven’s going to be warm, hot, like sitting by a roaring fireplace in the dead of winter, the dead of winter ….”

From down the line of common sufferers, a deep raspy voice began to sing. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…” only to be choked off by a ghastly breath and cavernous cough.

Another picked up the refrain. “And never brought to mind.”

Then another. “Should auld acquaintance….”

“Be forgot….”

“And days of auld lang syne.”

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Fiction

The Tractor and the Plough

Fiction at Every Day Fiction – September 2014

The tractor loved the plough. He loved how she trailed along behind him, cutting deep furrows in their wake. He loved how the dirt would separate and fold over itself as her narrow pointed tip dug deep, dug deep the rows for seeding. He loved that she was strong and yet her foreshare left a dainty little streak in the middle of the line. But it was more than that. It was the way they worked together, his forward effort dragging her industriously behind him. Without her, he was power without purpose.

The tractor loved how the plough needed him, needed him in a way different from any of the other implements on the farm, the wagons, the combine, the waterers and tillers, the seeders and harrow — oh, the harrow. He was fond of the harrow, but she was shallow.

The tractor would back up to the plough, her hitch raised and then lowered into place, connected. She trembled as his engine revved, his clutch released, the sudden pull forward, her wild jerking response an answer to her calling. Together they would ride into sunlit fields or through rain drenched pastures to where their work waited for them.

Though she had sprung from a lowly hoe, the plough was proud of her heritage. She was an agricultural goddess, turning the soil to bring nutrients to the surface, lifting the sod up and over her mouldboard, leaving the rows open for seeding. The plough knew her true beauty lay in what the fields would ultimately yield in her wake. She also knew that without her tractor’s power — his gears, the power of his driveshaft — her purpose was unmet. And for that, the plough loved the tractor.

Though the winters were long and lonely, the plough survived the long still months on hope. She brightened as daylight came earlier and the sun set later, knowing the cold metal of her share would once again be made hot from friction as it was drawn through the earth by her tractor. So she waited patiently for months, while the fields were barren. But come spring! In spring she came alive again as she followed her tractor. Together they would leave their mark on the field, and from their work together would come the corn and the hay.

Their love was grounded in a dependency as deep as the furrows they ploughed, a dependency that grew into a desire as full as the harvest bounty. They were as dependent upon each other for their purpose as were the water and wheel, the wind and mill, the heart and soul.

But then the seasons changed, and he didn’t come. The days grew longer, and he didn’t come. And the years went by, and he didn’t come. Her mouldboard rusted. Her foreshare became dull.

At her lowest, when she seemed nothing more than an old rusted antique, something to be laughed at for its simplicity of function, the door to the barn opened. Gloved hands pulled and shimmied her wheels from the ruts that had formed beneath her where she had settled into them over the years. She cringed at the scraping of metal on metal as she was clumsily connected to a shining blue truck. It was strange to be hitched again, but stranger still not to be hitched to her tractor.

The blue truck pulled her down the dirt road, her shares raised and useless. They passed by the field she had once so proudly tilled. In place of the long rows of corn and wheat, however, sat large boxes sitting in circles that went against the grain.

They drove far behind the boxes to a pond she remembered ploughing around every year as she prepared the sod for radiant August sunflowers. Ploughing in circles had been a joy, a break from their earnest row-by-row work. But now, the pond was dry, filled instead with the skeletons of rusted tools and equipment. And there he was, amidst the decay, her tractor.

The plough was unhitched and pushed into the tangled pile. She rested next to her tractor, his paint faded, his engine quiet.

A few days later, a large truck came and with magnet enabled lifted the tractor and the plough onto a flatbed, drove to a scrap yard, and dumped them in line for the compacter. Pressured blocks slowly coupled the two pieces of machinery, but more than just at ball and hitch as they had been coupled so many times before. Once separate, their tired bodies writhed gracefully into one sleek, rigid and strong steel block.

And soon, soon thereafter the two who had depended upon each other so deeply and with a desire so strong, the two whose combined purpose was seen in the harvest year after bountiful year, were reborn. They now cruised as one up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu forming the high-strength steel B-pillars within a gleaming red Tesla. And their purpose? Pure joy.

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Fiction

The Chatauqua

Fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Fall 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 3

Mom threw a package of Lady Diapers on the kitchen table. “Okay, girls. Suit up.”

I froze. My eyes darted from my mother to the plastic underpants.

“Chop-chop.” She snapped her fingers twice and shoved the package toward me. “Suit up.”

My younger sister, Mel, walked into the room, her eyes glazed over from a marathon day of gaming.

“What’s up?” Mel rubbed her eyes with the backs of her thumbs. I pointed at the Lady Diapers. She picked them up, read the label, and handed them to Mom. “Sorry,” she said. “Must be rough getting old.” Mel turned and opened the fridge.

“They’re not for her, idiot!” I waved them in Mel’s face. “They’re for us!”

She looked at me and then at Mom. “I don’t have a problem with that.” She hesitated. “You know.” She pointed at her crotch. “That.”

“No, darling.” Mom laughed. “They’re not for you for that.” She ripped open the package. “They’re for all of us to wear, for the ride.” She held one out to me. “I’m not stopping for anything ´til we get there.”

Mel’s eyes widened. “´Til we get where?”

“There,” Mom said. “There.”

“Oh, no.” I put my head in my hands. “We’re not going there again, are we?”

“Where?” Mel´s thumbs started to work an invisible game controller, her anxiety beginning to kick in.

“We’re going on a Chatauqua!” Mom clapped her hands in glee. The lamp on the sideboard turned on.

“A Cha-what?”

“A Chatauqua,” I groaned. “It´s something she read about in a book a thousand years ago. We went on a friggin´ Chatauqua right after she and dad divorced.”

“I was three when they divorced,” Mel said.

I smiled. “Remember the horsey and the hamburgers?” I pulled out one of Mel´s recurring nightmares. She turned white as a sheet. “Yeah,” I said. “That was the end of that Chatauqua.”

Mom took Mel’s face in her hands, scrunching my sister´s cheeks together. “Oh, you’ll love it. We´ll drive and drive and we won’t stop until we get there.” Mom kissed her on her wrinkled nose.

Mel shook mom´s wrists. “Where is there?”

“There is a mystical land of rainbows and unicorns,” I said, “where everyone is happy and there’s lobster every night for dinner.” I sat on a chair, tossing a Lady Diaper back and forth from hand to hand.

“Sounds like ´My Little Pony,´” Mel said. “What? Are we going to PonyCon?”

“PonyCon?” Mom’s eyes lit up. Rainbows and unicorns was exactly what she was looking for. “What’s PonyCon?”

“God, Mom,” Mel said. “It’s some lame convention where these geeky teenagers go to talk about their love of ´My Little Pony.´”

“Ponies?” I smiled. “Can you say ´horsey burgers?´”

Mel shot me a look. “We’re not going to PonyCon, Mom,” she said.

“Well,” Mom stuck out her chin. “We’re going somewhere. We’ll find out where when we get there.” She walked around the kitchen table, grabbed a diaper and swatted Mel with it. “Suit up.”

“Mom. It’s six o’clock. How far do you think we’re going to get tonight? Where the hell do you think we’re gonna go?” Normally, I leave the swearing to Mel, but at the age of eighteen an occasional ´hell´ let Mom know I meant business.

“Sweetie, don’t worry your pretty little head.” She walked toward the bathroom with the pants. “Leave the driving and the worrying to me.” She closed the bathroom door behind her.

Mel looked at me and then at the Lady Diapers. “You gonna put those on?”

I picked mine up. “I’d like to say no, but I have a feeling it might be best to wear it. God only knows what she´s thinking.”

“She’s not.”

“I know,” I said. “Besides, what´ll come first, the need to pee or get gas?” Mel frowned. “Our elusive destination, There, exists at the end of a tank of gas,” I said.

“What is this Chatauqua thing, anyway?” Mel´s thumbs were flying.

I stood up. “We get in the car and drive without a destination, just to see where we end up.”

“We’ll get lost.” Mel´s brow furrowed deeper.

“Well, that’s kind of the idea,” I said. “Only, if you have no destination, you can’t get lost. Right?”

Mel rolled her eyes. “If you don’t have a destination, why bother going anywhere?”

“For the ride,” Mom said, walking back into the kitchen. “For the ride.” She hugged Mel. “Sometimes, honey, it just helps to have a change of scenery.” Mom tugged at the plastic pants under her jeans and did a half squat, sticking her butt out behind her as far as she could. “Sometimes you just have to feel the wind in your hair, you know what I mean?” She stood, sliding her hands down her jeans to smooth them, and smiled.

Mel looked at Mom, then at me. “I guess it’s time to suit up.”

I smiled. “Yup. Let’s put these babies on.”

Mom loaded the car with bottled water and granola bars, but most of our sustenance would come after we arrived wherever it was we ended up. Although most of the time we were poster children for Whole Foods, road trips were Mom´s excuse to let go. “One burger isn´t going to kill you,” she would say. Mel, however, only ate the fish sandwiches, never having completely let go of the horsey burger nightmare.

“Shotgun,” I called, heading for the garage.

Mel groaned. “Okay, but at the first stop, we switch.” I laughed. She still didn´t get it. We weren´t going to stop.

Mel climbed into the back seat of the faded white 1982 Ford Country Squire station wagon Mom refused to get rid of. “I’ve had it longer than I had your father,” she said. “You don’t just get rid of something that reliable.” Thus its name – Old Reliable.

She turned the key, counted to three. Turned the key again. Counted to three. Turned the key again, and a plume of black smoke choked out of the tail pipe. “Bingo! We have lift off!”

I rammed the earbuds of my iTouch deep into my ears and turned the volume up as high as it would go. I peered into the backseat at Mel. She frantically thumbed her DS, the old headphones Dad gave her covering her ears. Despite our attempts, we both knew that we would have to suffer through Mom’s newest musical fascination.

As if on cue, Mom pressed play on the CD player she had installed under the ancient dashboard, filling Old Reliable from dash to liftgate with music. Yup, we´d be making our way through this Chatauqua with Josh Groban wailing in the background. “Perfect!” Mom was in heaven. Mel and I sunk deeper into our seats.

Putting the car in reverse, Mom backed Old Reliable out of the garage, shoved it into gear and headed down the long driveway.

The car stuttered to a stop before we reached the street. Evidently, Old Reliable was less enthusiastic about this trip than Mel and I were.

Mom turned the key again. “Come on, baby. Come on,” she pleaded. Old Reliable sputtered and choked, pinged and rattled. A soft, almost apologetic hissing under the hood was her last gasp. “Shoooooot.” Mom let the word out long and slow, like a balloon with a small hole in it. She leaned her head on the steering wheel.

Mel sat up straight. I turned off my iTouch. Josh Groban was the soundtrack to the death of our Chatauqua.

“It’s a sign from God.” Mom moaned.

“We don’t believe in God.” Mel was very black and white.

“I believe someone is screwing around with my life!” Mom pounded a fist on the dash, popping Josh Groban out of the CD player, stopping him in mid croon.

Mom opened the car door and walked back to the house. Mel and I sat in the car, in our Lady Diapers.

“Now what?” Mel always needed to know what was supposed to happen next.

I was at a loss. “I guess we’re not going anywhere.”

“I was just getting used to this whole stupid Chatauqua thing.”

“Me, too.” I opened the car door and started to follow Mom. I turned to Mel. “You coming?”

“In a minute.” She scrunched back into her seat.

When I got to the house, Mom was already upstairs in her bed, the TV on, watching a documentary on bees.

“You okay, Mom?”

“Did you know that honey bees can fly as far as six miles and go as fast as fifteen miles an hour?”

“Nope.” I sat down on the bed next to her. “Didn’t know that.”

She smiled at me. “That’s farther and faster than Old Reliable.”

“Maybe we can rent a car tomorrow?”

“No,” she sighed. “That’s too much work. Too much preparation. That’s not the point of a Chatauqua.”

“What is the point of a Chatauqua?”

She leaned back into her pillow. “Just … to go.” She closed her eyes.

Mom had just broken up with her latest boyfriend, one of a string of helpless middle-aged widowers she seemed to attract. Going on a Chatauqua probably meant she was rethinking her life.

I hugged her. I wasn’t sure what else to do.

“It’s okay, honey.” She rubbed my back. “Just a little restless is all. I’ll be okay in the morning.”

I walked back to the kitchen. Mel hurried through the door. “I have an idea,” she said. “Come with me!”

“Where?”

“Don’t ask questions. Just get a flashlight and come!” She grabbed one of the Lady Diapers still on the kitchen table and ran back out the door. I searched a drawer for a flashlight and followed her.

She ran to the car and got in the driver’s side. “Good.”

“What’s good?”

“Mom left the keys in the ignition.”

I had a sense of foreboding. “That’s good?”

“That’s great.” She fiddled with the key. The engine turned over, but then stalled.

Her face glowed in the dark as she held her iTouch close and fingered the touchscreen. “No,” she said, finger scrolling down the screen. “No. No. Yes! This one!”

“What are you doing?”

“What was your grade in science last year?”

“D. Why?”

“Yeah, well, mine was an A. I like to know how things work. How things are put together. What makes things do what they do?”

“I need a science lecture why?”

“You don’t need a science lecture.” She popped the latch, springing open the hood over the engine. She got out of the car and lifted the hood as far as it would go. “Here,” she said, slapping the Lady Diaper into my chest. “Hold onto this. And hold the light so I can see.”

“I don’t feel good about this.” I wasn´t at all sure what a thirteen year old science geek might be able to do to fix Old Reliable. I was sure, though, that whatever she did would probably kill one or both of us.

“Oh, don’t be a wuss.” She leaned the top half of her body deep into Old Reliable’s gaping maw. “Hand me the diaper!” Her voice echoed through the engine.

“What? Why?”

“Just hand me the diaper.” She extended her hand up and out of the engine, waving it at me blindly. “Trust me!”

“Jeezis.” I put the diaper in her hand.

“Duck tape,” she called. “In the glove box! Get it!”

“Jeez. Hold on!” I opened the car door, found the duck tape, and handed the roll to her.

Mel handed it back to me. “Rip a piece off. Gimme a foot.”

“A foot?”

“A foot! Twelve inches! Gimme a foot of duct tape!” Her feet lifted off the ground the deeper she sank into the engine, and she was batting them back and forth. She looked all-the-world like the last visible bits of a Great White´s meal, about to enter the first stage of digestion.

“Keep your shirt on.” I ripped a length of tape and handed it to her, pulling apart the pieces that kept sticking together.

“Okay.” Mel was mumbling.

“What?”

“Nothing. Talking to myself. Stuff it in there. Okay. Wrap it around. Around. Around.”

“How’s it going?”

“Almost there!”

“Almost where?” I fought the urge to ask her what it was she was doing with a Lady Diaper and duct tape. I might not be a whiz at science, but I was smart enough to know that no matter what she did the plastic pants would probably melt from the heat of the engine.

“Ha!” She shimmied herself out of Old Reliable and jumped to the ground. “Fixed!” She brushed her hands on her jeans as she walked to the driver’s side and got into the seat. “Please, God, let her start,” she said, eyes closed.

“We don’t believe in God.”

“I believe in anything or anyone that will get this car started.”

She reached for the key, hesitant. “You better stand back,” she said, a bit too ominously for comfort. I backed away, then backed away some more.

“Okay,” she said. “On the count of three. One, two, three.” She turned the key.

The engine caught, turned over, roaring to life. Black smoke billowed out of the exhaust pipe, turned to white, and then became clear.

“Whooooooo hooooo!” Mel hit the steering wheel so hard that the CD player shut and Josh Groban once again filled the night air.

I hopped up and down, fist pumping the sky.

Mom came running down the driveway.

“What the hell?” she yelled. “What the holy hell?”

Mel jumped out of the driver’s seat. “I got her started, Ma! I got her started!”

Mom stood by the car, looking at Old Reliable as if it was a gift from the God she said she didn’t believe in. “How?”

“It was magic, Mom,” I said smiling. “Just go with it.” Who cared about the possibility of melting plastic pants? For now, we´d see how far believing in magic would get us.

“Sarah, go shut the lights off and lock the door!” Mom was laughing. “We’re going on a Chatauqua!”

I closed up the house, stopping before I shut the door. The rest of the Lady Diapers lay on the table. I picked them up, shoved them under my arm, and headed back down the driveway.

“So,” Mel said, as mom pointed Old Reliable down the road. “What say we change the name of this heap?”

“Change the name? To what? Why?”

“I’m thinking of a better name,” she said. “How about we call her Old Dependable.”

I laughed. Mom gave me a look.

“I don’t know what’s going on with you two, but I don’t care.” The window was down. Mom´s long, gray-streaked hair blew over the back of the seat. “We’re on a Chatauqua and we’re not stopping until we get there.”

“Are we really not gonna stop, I mean, to pee?” Mel shifted back and forth in her seat with a sound of rustling plastic.

Mom smiled and scooted her butt back and forth. I smiled and did the same. There we were, in our rustling plastic pants, heading who knows where.

“Not until we get there,” she said, as we drove off into the night. “Not until we got there.”

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