Friday, August 31, 2012


I've decided to share (over time) some of the short story "sermons" I'm writing.  If you read them, and then I come to your church and tell it from your pulpit because your minister's away and you ask me to fill in, your boredom is not my fault.

Ruth is told as a story.  As such, it engages our curiosity and remains strong in our memories.  It’s a pleasure to read Ruth, but it can also be frustrating.  On the surface Ruth appears to be yet another story about God using a woman’s reproductive abilities to get to the important people.  The men.  Men like her great grandson, King David.  But I think Ruth is about a great deal more than that.  It’s about loyalty.  It’s about women helping women.  It’s about God using even the most insignificant outsider to further God's will.  Without Naomi, Ruth would have disappeared into obscurity, never having experienced God’s grace in her life. 
The story (fictional) I have written is also about women who learn from each other's experiences and find grace in each other's stories.  What it isn't is a story about finding security in a man.
On the surface, you may think that's what Ruth is about and I've missed the mark, but I think the real message of Ruth is that faith is passed on from strong relationships.  God rewards love’s loyalty with blessings far beyond anything the world might have to offer. 

Take a moment to read the scripture from your favorite translation.  It isn't long, but it assumes you know much of the story of Ruth already.  
Ruth 1:16

            When Brook’s high school called saying she had not shown up that morning, Michaela thought she knew where to look first.  She was aware that her daughter snuck out of school from time to time and met her mother, Maxine, at local diners for coffee and tall tales.  Maxine was always good for a few of those.  But when Michaela finally got her mother on her cell phone, Maxine sounded genuinely alarmed by the accusation.
“She’s not with me, Mic.  You need to call the cops.”
Maxine, no matter how often she’d been gently coerced back to Stony Creek Convalescent home by some poor, hapless police officer, still insisted on calling them ‘cops.’  But never mind that.  Michaela wasn’t buying that Maxine didn’t know where Brook was.  Not for one minute. She pulled into Stony Creek Convalescent Home and charged straight for the administrator’s office. 
             “My mother is missing,” she blurted.
            The administrator, Mrs. Hanover, a diminutive woman with a short round everything, held up her hand as if taking an oath.  “We haven’t let her out of our sight, Michaela.  She’s probably just not answering her phone.”
            “Oh, she’s answering her phone,” Michaela said.  “From some coffee house or diner with my daughter in tow.  You can’t seriously think you’re keeping her locked in here,” Michaela said.  “I know my mother.  She’s escaped with my daughter and I demand that you help me find her.”
             “She’s with Dean,” Mrs. Hanover insisted.  “We assigned her a personal, um, attendant.  I assure you, Dean has not let her out of his sight.”
            “Fine, then.  I want to see her,” Michaela said, crossing her arms across her chest.
            Mrs. Hanover picked up an intercom mic and pushed a button on it.  “Dean,” she said.  “Dean Lamb, please call the front office.”
            They waited. No one called.  Mrs. Hanover was about to restate her demand when a young man with wide, opal-blue eyes and frazzled black hair burst into her office.  He looked distraught.  Poor fellow.
            “I… she’s…”
            “Oh, good Lord!” said Mrs. Hanover.  “You don’t mean to tell me Maxi has disappeared again.”
            Dean looked at his shoes.
            “And she has my daughter,” Michaela said.  “Now, what are you going to do about it?”
            Maxine sat down to catch her breath on a bus stop bench just outside Starbucks Coffee.   She’d been out walking for almost an hour now.  The last time she’d had such a hike was in 1996 when she was a mere pup of 67 and was looking for a birthday present for Michaela’s five year old, Brook.  They had to find a Tickle Me Elmo or die trying.  Maxine wished a Tickle Me Elmo were all she was looking for now.  Today, it was Brook herself she needed to find.
            After Michaela called, her first inclination had been to check S. Main Starbuck’s.  When Maxine escaped Stony Creek Convalescent and Brook escaped High School, that’s always where they met.  Then, over cappuccinos and triple berry muffins, Maxine would tell Brook stories about her life and Brook would fill her in on the latest High School drama.  But Brook was not at Starbuck’s.  Maxine’s next move had been to look for Sade’ Pembroke’s address in the phone book.  Sade’ was Brook’s best friend and Maxine was fairly certain she’d find Brook there.  450 Galloway Dr.  She knew the neighborhood, palatial Mcmansions on postage stamp lots.  It was a good three mile walk from S. Main but Maxine was certain it was here she’d ferret out Brook. They’d talk, and Brook would tell her Granny Max what was up.  They were close like that. 
            A police car cruised by and Maxine held her breath.  No doubt they’d issued a Silver Alert and Maxine was a wanted escapee now.  She smiled with pleasure at the idea, but the police car passed without stopping.  Close one! 
            Maxine rose from the bench, her knees popping and cracking.  She wondered what the good folks at Stony Creek were doing about now.  She’d probably gotten that sweet Dean kid in trouble.  She felt sorry about that.  But this was an emergency and Maxine would cover her tracks later.
            The sun was quite warm for April and Maxine had not been prepared for a hike.  She’d been unable to get to her purse with Dean hanging around her all the time, so she didn’t have her credit card and couldn’t call a cab. 
She was aware of how she must look, covered in sweat, wearing a moo-moo and house slippers, tottering down one of the wealthiest streets in Brownsville.  She passed a BMW parked along the curb and glanced at her own reflection.  She looked wild and a little crazy.  She felt a satisfied cackle rising in her throat.
            Sade’s home was the fourth on the left.  Holy cow, it was the Taj Mahal!  Maxine turned onto the walkway, textured concrete lined with dewy, red flowers.  The surrounding grass (what there was of it) was a perfect chemical carpet of jade.  Maxine stopped to catch her breath after she climbed the steps to the grand front porch and pressed the front door bell.  A few notes of Pachelbel played somewhere deep within the house.    
The door swung open and a tiny raisin of a woman in a black dress, white apron and, no lie, a tiny white cap looked at Maxine with a burst of alarm. 
“Need to see Sade’,” Maxine croaked, breathlessly.  “She’s my granddaughter’s friend.  I need to know if my granddaughter is here.”
“Aqui?” said the woman.
“Yeah,” Maxine said with extra volume.  “Donde-o is Sade’?”
Obviously, Maxine’s Spanish was faulty because the woman closed the door in her face and Maxine could hear quick, panicked footsteps walking away.
She’d done it now!  They’d call the cops and Maxine would be carted off to jail until Mic could come bale her out.  The thought was so delicious she almost cackled again. 
More footsteps within and the door swung open to reveal a tall, elegant woman whose dark eyes conveyed a haughty intelligence.  She smiled the kind of smile you give someone you’re hoping will soon go away and leave you alone.
“Maxine Ferris,” Maxine said.  She wiped her hand on her moo-moo and held it out to Sade’s mother.  “I’m Brook’s grandmother.”
“Oh!  I thought you…” Sade’s mother caught herself and took Maxine’s hand.  “I’m Geneva.  Please, come in Mrs. Ferris.”
“Ms.” Maxine corrected her.
“Yes, Ms. Ferris.  Come in.”  Geneva glanced beyond Maxine looking, Maxine supposed, for a taxi or some other mode of transportation that might have brought her here or might, in a moment, take her away again.
“I’m afraid Sade’ isn’t here at the moment,” Geneva said.  “Nor is your Brook.  School hours, you know.  If I may ask, Ms. Ferris, how did you get here?”
“Hoofed it,” Maxine said.  “But surely school’s out by now.”
“Still in session, I’m afraid.”  Geneva led Maxine to a silky blue love seat that was nestled against the wall of the entryway.  “Please have a seat, Maxine.  May I call someone?  Is Brook in some sort of trouble?”
Maxine plopped down on the couch.  Her feet, knees, and hips throbbed in response. 
“Brook didn’t show up at school,” Maxine said leaning down and massaging her own calves.  “Her mother hasn’t called the cops yet, so I’m looking for her. I don’t suppose you could get me a glass of water?”
 Geneva responded with the expected effluence of apologies and whisked herself out of the room to get the water.  Maxine considered snooping around while she could, but her legs refused to help her stand.  Momentarily, Geneva returned with a tall glass of iced water that Maxine gulped down too fast making her feel light headed on top of bone tired. 
Her thirst slaked, Maxine looked around the foyer, if that’s what this was.  It was bigger than the living-room of her last home.  A Tara sized staircase led to another grand landing that was lined with what looked like museum statues.  Nothing was out of place, so Maxine looked around for what was and she found it.  A bejeweled pink cell phone peeked out from under some bills and official looking mail on a glossy console table. 
“Isn’t that Sade’s phone?” Maxine asked.  In truth, Maxine had no way of knowing it was Sade’s phone except that she seriously doubted Geneva would bejewel her cell phone.
“Oh!  Well, yes, it is,” Geneva said.  “She must have forgotten it this morning.”
Maxine looked back up the staircase.  “This is a pretty big house,” she said.  “Are you sure Sade’s not hiding out in one of those rooms upstairs?” 
“I promise you,” Geneva said.  “Sade’ does not cut school.”
Maxine smiled as much at Geneva’s naiveté as at what she was about to do.  “Brook!” she shouted.  “Brooooook!”
Geneva took a step back and held up her hands as if to catch Maxine’s volume and contain it. 
“Brook, it’s your Granny Max.  I’m coming up the stairs, sweetheart, and Geneva’s going to have to call the cops to get me out of her house.  Then it’s all up, sugar dumpling!  Your Granny will be in jail and you’ll be under house arrest for the remainder of your days in high…”
A door opened and shut upstairs. 
“Thought so,” Maxine said, looking triumphantly at Geneva who charged to the bottom of the staircase and looked up into the guilty eyes of Brook and her daughter. 
“Sade’,” she barked.  “What on earth…”
“It was an emergency, Mom,” Sade’ said.  “I’ll explain if you don’t get too mad.”
“Then come down here and explain,” she said. 
Sade’ plodded woefully down the stairs under Geneva’s harsh gaze.  “To your father’s office,” she said, pointing to a heavy oak door on the other side of the foyer.  When they were behind the door Maxine looked up at Brook.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to come down here, kumquat,” Maxine said.  “I’m pooped out.”
Brook descended the stairs and plopped down beside Maxine.  “I’m running away,” she said.
Maxine nodded.  “Figured.”
“With Proust,” Brook added.
“Figured that too,” Maxine said. 
“You understand, don’t you, Granny Max?  I can’t take her anymore.”
“I’ve never known a sixteen year old girl who could take her mother,” Maxine said.  “But they usually wait it out, Brooksy.  They don’t run off.  Especially with the wrong …” Maxine couldn’t believe she was going to say this… “kind of boy,” she finished.
The shocked silence of her granddaughter made Maxine take a guilty sideways glance at Brook’s face.  Sure enough, Brook’s mouth was hanging open and her eyes were welling up.
“But you said you liked Proust,” Brook said.
“I said he’s the kind of boy I’d have gone for.  I didn’t say I liked him.”
“But if he’s the kind of boy you’d have…”
“And that should tell you something!” Maxine interrupted.  “Why do you think I went through three marriages?  Why do you think your mother is so uptight?  You think she never had a rebellious bone in her body, don’t you?  How do you rebel, Brooksy, when your own mother has taken that role?  You become a conformist, get all traditional.  Cut her some slack; she couldn’t help it.”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Brook said.  “She checks how low cut my jeans are before I leave the house.  She snoops on my cell phone.  She listens to my messages.  She quotes Bible verses to me and tells me who to hang out with.   I have to go to every church service there is.  If she had her way, I’d dress like Mother Theresa and never date again.”
Maxine couldn’t help but laugh.  “I know,” she said.  “But you could do worse than Mother Theresa and I’ll talk to her about the snooping.  As for the church stuff and the religion…” Maxine paused.  Religion had never been her strong suit.  The truth was, she’d always had the sense that church people were wagging their fingers at her, insisting that she give up every bit of color in her life in order to become… well, as dull as they were.   In every church she’d felt a sharp sense of disapproval.  She was an outsider, an intruder. Granted, when she’d come to church at all, she’d done so with a chip on her shoulder daring God to reveal himself in the faces of hostile church ladies.  But she had also seen her daughter, Michaela, find peace there.  A peace she’d never found at home.  Mic had found a foundation in the church that Maxine knew hadn’t come from her.
“I could have been wrong about that.” Maxine said.  “I think Mic’s religion grounds her.  I used to think it just limited her.  You know, her mind.  And I suppose it can if you get with the wrong group.  But Mic, she’s pretty smart about those things.  I have to admit, her faith has given her some good things.  I doubt you’d have turned out quite so strong and self-assured if you’d grown up with me.”
Maxine had never done this much confessing.  It was true what they said about it.  She felt a little freer, a little more centered.
“So be careful who you follow, Brooksy,” Maxine continued bolstered by her new sense of freedom.  “Proust, he’s a decent kid, but he’s wild and to be honest, I don’t think you can trust him.  He has a lot of growing up to do.  For now, you stick with your Mom, learn the things she has to teach you.  Even if it’s tough and even if she turns all churchy on you, it’s possible that she understands some things about God and real Love that I’ve never thought much about.  At least not enough. She has your best interest at heart.  She might actually be the only adult I know.”
For a long stunned moment, Brook remained speechless. 
“You get as mad at her as I do,” Brook said.  Her large grey eyes were boring a hole into Maxine’s head, trying to find the source of this unprecedented support for Michaela.  “Why suddenly change your mind?”
Why indeed.  Maxine knew and decided to be direct.  “Because my life’s coming to a close,” she said.  “Gives me some perspective, sweetheart, and boys, they’re nice.  They’re better than nice.  But they aren’t who you are.  Oh, I’ve had fun with being in love.  But maybe it isn’t always about fun.  Maybe it’s about the hard stuff too, and to be honest, I’ve never been very good at that.  If it was hard work, I always left it to Mic and I have to respect her for never ditching.  When the going got tough, I got out, but Mic, she just dug in a little deeper and stood her ground.  I hurt a lot of people who didn’t deserve it by running, Brook.”
Maxine looked at her granddaughter.  “Don’t be like your old Granny Max,” she said.  “Stay with Mic a little longer.  She has some things to give you I think you should take.”
Brook sat quietly for a long time studying the geometric patterns on the floor.  Then two things happened at once.  Sade’ and her mother came out of the study and the front door burst open revealing a ruffled and miffed Michaela.  Dean and Mrs. Hanover stood behind her, looking contrite and none too happy.
“Uh-oh,” Maxine said.  She grabbed Brook’s hand and said quickly, under her breath, “Follow my lead.”
“…and I’m just not sure we are,” Maxine said, doing her best little old person.  “Did you say we’re home?”  She looked innocently at Brook.
“Not quite, Granny Max,” Brook said.  “But I think Mrs. Hanover will take you back now if you want.  See?  She’s right there!”
“Oh!” Maxine said.  She squinted at Mrs. Hanover.  “Myrtle!  I thought you were dead!”
“Nice try Maxine,” Mrs. Hanover said. 
“May I ask who you are?” Geneva pulled herself up to her full height and took on that I’m in charge here look she’d had when she was first talking to Maxine.
“Why, don’t you know Myrtle?” Maxine said, still playing her role. 
“I’m sorry”, Michaela said.  “You must be Sade’s mother.  I’m Michaela, Brook’s mother.”  They shook hands.  “I promise, all of these people are going to be leaving your home.  Right now,” she added glaring at Maxine.
Dean stepped forward and leaned over to help Maxine stand.  “You got me in sooo much trouble, Maxi,” he whispered. Brook, overhearing, giggled. 
“And who are you, young man?” Maxine asked. 
He smiled down at her.  “Your worst nightmare if you do that again.”  He led Maxine out the front door. 
“Come on, Brook,” Michaela said.  Brook looked up at her mother’s stern face and followed her onto the front porch.  As Geneva slammed the front door, Brook gave a last I’m sorry look to Sade’.
“Sade’s mom will probably ban me from her house forever,” Brook moaned. 
Michaela stopped on the porch and turned to Brook.  “With good reason,” she said.  “What were you thinking, Brook?  You knew that if you skipped school again they’d call me and I’d come looking for you.  Then when I called them back to see if you’d turned up yet, they said Sade’ was missing too.  You had to know I’d come here.”
“Maybe,” Brook said.  “I was thinking about running away with Proust because sometimes I can’t take you anymore.  There.  I said it.”
“And Granny Max was helping you scheme?”
Brook looked at her mother, fresh anger hardening her mouth.  “She was talking me out of it.”
Michaela stared at her daughter for a long moment then took in a long slow breath.  She held it and then let it out between puckered lips. 
“Didn’t see that coming, did you?” Brook said. 
Michaela shook her head.  “Nope.  What else did she tell you?”
 “She told me how it was to be her daughter,” Brook said, “so don’t go raggin’ on Granny Max.”
Michaela looked skeptical.
“She said I should stay with you,” Brook continued.  “She said that you still had some things to give me that I should take.  She said I should learn from your faith and stuff.  She said you were the only adult she knows and I shouldn’t run.”
Maxine had not put it exactly that way, but Brook was on a roll and talking through Granny Max was easier than saying it herself.
Michaela eyed Brook with suspicion but decided to take an inch where she could get one. 
“She said I was the only adult she knows?  She said that?”
Brook nodded and dropped her gaze. 
“And that you should learn from my faith?”
            Brook bit at her fingertips and glanced at her mother’s face.  “I’m not sure about faith,” Brook said.  “But I’ll listen.”
“I see,” Michaela said.  “So when I drag you to youth group Sunday, you aren’t going to complain?"
“Maybe,” Brook said.  “But I’ll go.”
“Because Granny Max thinks you should.”
“Yes,” Brook said.  “Because Granny Max thinks I should.”
Well, it wasn’t what Michaela wanted.  She wanted her daughter to listen to her, to follow her lead.  But this was actually a great deal better than she thought things would go, so Michaela decided not to push back.  This time, she’d pull in the same direction as her mother.  She wasn’t quite sure how that would work, but it felt good to be on the same team for once. 
Michaela looked over Brook’s shoulder at Maxine as Mrs. Hanover helped her into the car.  Maxine caught Michaela’s stunned gaze and winked at her daughter. 
“Can you two hurry it up over there?” Maxine called, obviously dropping the confused old lady routine.  “My soap starts in half an hour.”
Brook headed for the car and Michaela followed, a prayer of thanksgiving rising in her heart.  “Thank you for sending Maxine to talk to Brook,” she prayed and then smiled at the novelty of her own words.  That was certainly something she’d never believed she’d say to God or to anyone else.  It felt pretty good.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I imagine that in the kingdom of God, where the new heaven and earth reign, there will be no winter.

No. There will be winter. I will not feel the cold.

No. I will feel the cold. It will not be unpleasant.

I will know it. I will even feel it. But it will not make me shiver.

No. I will shiver. But it will be from pleasure, not to keep my core temperature from dropping.

Today, even with the heat on as high as I dare turn it (what with trying to save money and all) I can feel the outside air drawing the heat from by body, demanding the warmth of my blood as a sacrifice. Winter is a primitive warrior, using ice cycles for arrows.

No. He is the archbishop of the other hell. The one that does in fact freeze over.

Someday, I will walk its banks and feel the cold and marvel in its beauty and it will not phase me. Not at all.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Coffee Dragons

The thing is,when I'm overwhelmed with too much to do, I tend to do just the opposite and occupy myself with things that have no value whatsoever except that they amuse me. Which is no small feat, if you want the truth.

I have GOBS to do right now. So, I've been taking pictures of coffee dragons. It's like looking at clouds. Only it's coffee.

To me, the one pictured above is a dragon embryo. Actually, lots of them are dragon embryos. Maybe I should say this one is a dragon with wings. Albeit short wings.

Here's the skull of an eagle. Raptors are dragons sort of.

Here's one blowing smoke out of his snout.

This one's "The Wizard" dragon. I like the bubble eye
and the fact that he looks like he's wearing a robe.

There are more, but the photos are not loading the
way I want them to. Anyhow, I hope you too enjoy
the coffee dragons. What do you do with your "free"

(And btw, this is not the best thing for a person with
OCD to do. I now feel I MUST have my camera at the
ready when I make my coffee. I have let my coffee
get cold looking for my camera. I discovered that cold
coffee makes better dragons!)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Frank Part II

Well, that was interesting! Not only do I not really do mysteries, but I gave myself the further challenge of ending it with the sentence fragment and subsequent complete sentence, "Dammit, Frank. That was my coffee." It also had to be set in the Baskerville Hall Hotel in Wales. Yeah, go ahead. Try to figure that one out! It took a while, but this is the somewhat strange result. It doesn't suck, but I think that if I'd given myself fewer limitations, I could have done better. I mean, there's almost no description whatsoever of the main character. Given the 1500 word limit, it just didn't fit.
The thing is, I'm hoping the guy who is judging the writing thinks it's pretty damn OK, because the prize for this one is the first three modules of his "writing course" for free. The plan is to send in some stuff I've already written and get him to edit it. Sneaky, yes. But he says that is OK and he would look it over if I were taking the course.
Enough. Here it is.

(I have no title. Care to suggest one?)

Greg has seen the old place in his dreams. Now here it is on the Internet. A real place. It popped up when he searched Hound of the Baskervilles on his computer. It is a fortress of a building, all gray stone and ivy. He thinks it's too symmetrical, its windows evenly spaced and its false dormers rising like little domes, suggesting a pseudo elegance. Too dark.
The Baskerville Hall Hotel in Wales is said to have been the inspiration for Sir Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mystery. This intrigues Greg in the way the word "hounds" has intrigued him for months now, for he hears them, hounds baying as if on some far off mountain pass. Greg lives in Chicago. There are no mountain passes. There are no hounds. Yet everywhere he goes, he hears them or sees references to the sleek hunting dogs of England, their lustrous brown, black and white coats, their long snouts eternally sniffing the wind. Baying, baying. He dreams about them. They are in magazines, newspapers, television commercials.
It is possible he is going mad. Either that, or he is being pursued by the beasts in earnest and his dreams are a warning. Emily is in the dreams. She is so real that he wakes up grieving, wishing he could stay with her a little longer. She is beautiful again, opening her arms to him. He approaches her ready to embrace her, but then the tracks appear on her arms and she disappears. At this point in his dream, he feels the need to run.
But run where? There? To that place? Is she prompting him to go there? The question will not leave him alone. He would be wise to leave the country anyway. His crimes follow him and this is perhaps his best move. Go to meet the Hell-Hounds that want his soul. If they are after him, he has to admit, if only to himself, that he may deserve as much. He has not always been a good man. If this is his fate, then he will meet it no matter what. Why not on his terms?
He books the flight and makes plans. He will stay at the Baskerville Hotel in the Welsh countryside. Five days and nights. He packs his camera, three changes of clothes, a credit card with a $20,000.00 limit. He may want to stay longer and he should use some of the money he has creatively transferred to his many and various bogus accounts, let it disappear into the hands of the Welsh.
He should not leave a trail, so he travels under one of his many identities. Frank Cushing, says the passport. A man recently deceased, Frank will not begrudge the desperate use of his identity for just a little while longer.
Greg remembers little about the flight. He mostly sleeps. Even the crisp Welsh air and the lush, green, checkerboard farmland does not impress him. His mind is filled with howling dogs. A train takes him to the small town of Hay-on-Wye where he rents a car to drive the rest of the way. He does not ask directions. He seems to know how to get there.
It should be a warning sign to him, this instinctive, magnetic knowledge, but he cannot manage to turn around or think better of his plan. He hears the baying again as he nears the hotel at dusk, the air infused pink with sunset light. It gives the mansion a ghostly glow.
"Frank Cushing," he tells the proprietor who thumbs through a notebook, draws his finger down the page, nods his approval. "Five nights, five days," he says. "Welcome, Mr. Cushing."
Greg takes the key and smiles. "Nice place," he says. He means it. The exterior doesn't prepare the eye for the rich golds and reds of the lobby and main floor. Victorian furnishings, dark wood and glowing fireplaces give it a deep sense of history Greg is not used to.
In his part of Chicago, everything looks new. Or if it's old, it's crumbling and seedy. His is a culture that reveres what is novel and tears down what is established to make room for each new generation of buzzing, bright neons, flavored liquors and dazzling drugs. An every youthful, ever wasted generation. He should know. He has pushed it down the throats of everyone around him. He has used more people than he can count and he is rich because of it. Rich, but troubled. It is a combination he knows how to play. The poor rich man. People are suckers for it.
He lugs his suitcase up the carpeted stairs to a cool, dimly lit room with a four poster bed, a wash stand he assumes is for looks only and a bureau all made of deep, lustrous woods. The window looks out on green lawns, looming trees, garden paths. If the Hell Hound resides nearby, it has a lovely home.
Greg has not made plans to have supper, but he is too tired to go searching. Breakfast isn't that far away. Food will wait. He undresses, then stores his money, identification, and credit cards in a locked zippered pouch in his suit case. He falls into bed, his dreams already howling.
In the morning, Greg is aware that he has dreamed of Emily again. He also remembers that the hound was there. No, several hounds, circling him, menacing. One in particular sat quietly at her feet. The dis-ease of the dream has walked with him to breakfast where he asks for cereal and toast. He is also given bacon done the English way, limp and a little soggy, and coffee. His hands are shaking, and it is difficult to keep the cereal on the spoon. He eats alone. It is as if none of the other guests can see him.
Greg is good at being invisible until he is ready to be seen. He tries to imagine how he will play the part of Mr. Cushing, but his mind is circling to the dogs and to Emily. He cannot concentrate.
Someone at the next table is laughing. The laugh is startlingly like Emily's. Greg turns quickly and stares, but the woman who is laughing has her back to him. How stupid. "Way to lie low," he mumbles to himself and returns to his breakfast. Emily is dead. He will not be hearing her laughter again.
A man walks into the dining room and whistles as if whistling to a dog. Greg chokes on his toast and someone behind him slaps his back.
"All right, then?" comes the voice from behind.
Greg nods and waves off the attention.
A dog begins to bark and Greg can hear it running, toe nails against hardwood floors. It lets out a long and lingering howl just outside the room.
He stands and looks desperately around for an exit. The place is too much. The dream, the laughter, the dog. It was a mistake to come here. He is hallucinating. He is still asleep perhaps.
He turns, looking for the door through which he came, and there is no one left in the dining room but Greg and the woman who had laughed. There are no others. The man who just slapped his back, the man who had whistled for the dog, they are gone.
Greg takes a quiet step toward the woman, whose back is to him. She might know what is happening. It is crucial that he either wake up or come to his senses.
"Excuse me," he says. She turns her head slowly.
"Emily!" The same Emily he saw lying in her coffin, wasted from heroin. The same Emily he had loved in the only way that Greg knows how to love. A brutal, savage longing he uses to consume the very ones he hopes to possess. But she is here.
"Frank Cushing," she says. "Fancy seeing you here."
His mind cannot hold what it sees and hears. He makes a run for the door and almost slides into the largest, blackest hound he has ever seen. The thing bares it's teeth and Greg stops short, moving back into the room toward Emily. His heart is beating wildly and he cannot breathe.
"Looks like we aren't leaving," Emily says and sighs. "The puppy wants us to stay." She smiles beautifully.
Greg turns toward her, arms flinging out as if to push her and the scene before him out of his visual range. He upsets her coffee cup and the black liquid spills slowly across the table, thick as blood. His blood. Whether nightmare or reality, Greg understands that the hound has come for him, and Emily is here to see to it that the hound collects.
She runs her finger through the reddish brown liquid and licks it.
"Dammit, Frank. That was my coffee," she moans.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


What I have written so far given the prompt... Write a mystery. 1500 words, no more. Doesn't have to have a polished ending. A friend told me that if she had to write a mystery, she'd start at the end and work backward. So, here's what I have so far...

"Dammit, Frank. That was my coffee."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Love Story???

This time, because it's February, the assignment was to write a love story. I don't do well with love stories. Can't really make mush work for me. So, I wrote this. It may be just a little shy of a real love story, but there's a girl and there's a boy and there's a decision. Maybe it will do.


by Beth Muse

He almost passed her by. Hitch hikers were discouraged around here, especially those sporting worn leather jackets and long braids. A young boy, that's what he'd thought. And he'd almost driven on. But in the end, it was the hips that made him change his mind.

She was walking away from what appeared to be a broken down motorcycle, a Honda with bright yellow trim. Her legs made long strides like a man, but her hips swayed in a rhythm that was unmistakable.

He pulled the truck over to the side of the road and she took several running steps to catch up. She poked her head in the passenger's side window.

"Broke down," she said. And that was all.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Hop in."

"I, uh." She glanced back at her bike. "I really hate to leave it here."

He put the truck in park and together they wrestled the sleek little bike into the bed of his sky blue 1972 Ford pickup, a farm vehicle with plenty of miles and dirt on it. Still ran like a charm. He always felt like a character in a country music video when he drove it.

"Just me and my Daddy and that old truck..." Lyrics like that.

She climbed in and stuck her feet fearlessly into the pile of trash that had accumulated on the floor board. Her presence made him self conscious and he flipped frantically through his brain for something to say that would put them both at ease.

He came up with nothing. Women made him nervous and overly polite, which made him all the more self conscious and fed his natural awkwardness.

The girl told him her name and wiped her hands on her jeans, stuck out the right one. He shook it and told her his.

"I can't thank you enough for the ride. Is there a mechanic in town who can work on a bike?"

Not that he knew of, but it didn't matter. He knew exactly where to take her. "More or less," he said, then changed the subject. "Where you have to get to?"

"I'm making my way to Phoenix," she said.

"Aren't you a little off course?"

"I'll find my way."

He gave her a dubious glance. Recklessness had never been a thing he admired.

"Do you live near here?" She gazed at the wads of paper at her feet and picked up an old newspaper. "The Copperfield Gazette?"

"Copperfield's the next town over," he explained. "I live between Copperfield and Jonesboro. That's the only paper, though."

"You live on one of the farms?"


She looked ahead at the straight road, the endless flat fields of milo and soy beans. How long she'd been traveling down this road, he didn't know, but the scenery had likely been exactly this bland for hours. The occasional silo or barn broke the horizon. Nothing else but endless sky and field after field. Sometimes he dreamed of driving the old truck until the flat lands buckled into forests, hills or mountains.

The long driveway that led to his family's farm house appeared on the right and he turned in. She jerked a quick glance at him and stiffened a little. "We're not going into town?"

"Not if you want that bike fixed," he said. "My Dad can fix pretty much anything. Farm equipment, cars, motorcycles. Anything."

He could see her relax in the seat beside him. Trusting.

The drive way curled around and the house came into view. It was a white clapboard farmhouse with a long porch across the front, symmetrical windows on either side of the front door. If you took a picture of it and then compared it to every other farm house in the area, you'd lose track of which was which. Only the people who lived out here would know the difference. Simple, unadorned, practical. That was their way of life. He took pride in the fact that he had chosen to hold onto it, champion the small farmer, reject corporate farming, conserve the traditions of his parents and their parents and so on. Let his younger sister and brother find their way in corporate America, struggling with the isolation of city life. He had responsibilities they couldn't understand.

He gripped the wheel of the truck, felt his neck tense and rubbed the back of it with his left hand as he put the truck in park.

"Home, sweet home," he said and tried to smile.

She unbuckled herself and jumped out of the truck like a cat. Together, they unloaded the bike and rolled it around to the back yard where several old cars, a tractor, and a partial engine decorated the shade of an oak. 'Yard ornaments' he called them. Everybody around here knew how to fix an engine. Everybody but him. It was the one thing he'd refused to learn about farming. I'm not mechanical, he'd told his father. Then how you plan to keep the farm going? his father had retorted. Every time something breaks down, you'll have to have help.

Having to get help said something about your manhood, he supposed. All he knew was that he hated mechanical work, and in this way alone he rebelled.

No one came out of the house to meet them and his father was likely still in the fields.

"We'll have to leave it here until my Dad gets back," he said. "I'm afraid I'm no good with this kind of thing."

She nodded and gave a grunt of agreement. "Me neither. Guess I should have learned a little something about them before I bought one. I needed wheels and I needed something it wouldn't cost a lot to drive."

"You want to come in?" he asked. He held up his hand toward the back of the house and a simple door with cinder block steps leading up to it. No porch, no railing. She started toward it without further conversation. He had to reach around her to push the door open.

In comparison to the bright sunlight outside, the room was dark, light filtering weakly through venetian blinds. She stood by the dinner table and looked around, letting her eyes adjust.

The entire scene was very simple. Red checked oil cloth on the table, white chairs with chipped paint tucked neatly under, a bouquet of artificial daisies as a center piece. They'd been there since he was a kid. A rag rug spun in spiraling circles centered the living room floor with faded blue couch and chairs surrounding it. A floor lamp, a recliner, a coffee table. That's it. All very neat and clean, though showing it's age. The kind of stuff you'd expect to see in a farmhouse. He felt like a cliche.

He stepped around her. "So, would you like some tea or something? A soda maybe?"

"Sure." She ran a finger along the oil cloth as she walked slowly toward one of the blue chairs. "You mind if I sit? When you've been riding all day, you just want to be still for a while."

"Be my guest," he said and backed through the kitchen door.

Now in the quiet of the kitchen, he wasn't quite certain what he was doing. Who, exactly, was this girl? He hadn't even taken a good look at her yet. She might be some sixteen year old run away and he was offering to fix her bike so she could continue on her merry way. Or she might be much older than that. Was this some con she pulled? Was she casing the house so she could come back later and... .

What an idiot, he thought. Her bike broke down, she needed a little help, that's it. Hell, she was probably a lot more nervous about him than he was about her. In fact, what she was doing was dangerous. She'd gotten lucky, finding him. Anybody else and...

He decided to concentrate on the drinks and he popped open a couple of soda cans and took them to the living room where she was propped on the arm of one of the chairs, her booted feet barely scraping the rug. His mother had always told him not to sit there.

He handed her the soda and warm moist fingers brushed his hand. He looked at her with a more discerning eye. If he ever needed a description, he should have one.

Long face, nose slightly bent like maybe it had once been broken, teeth all in a perfect row, eyes large and round, a light honey-brown. Hair straight with wisps of it falling into her face. Sienna. Pretty. Her face was dirty from road dust, but he could see the color in her cheeks and her lips, the glow of youth under the dust.

"How old are you?" he asked, not sure why it mattered.

She looked up at him and took a sip. "Guess."

"Games," he said.

"Fine. I'm twenty three. How about you?"

"Reverse that."

"You don't look like you're thirty two."

He said, "Good clean living," and she laughed. Maybe she thought that was a joke.

"Why are you headed to Phoenix? In the wrong direction, I might add."

She shrugged. "Friends there. I used to live there when I was a kid. I graduated from college last year and decided I wanted to take a road trip cross country. Just letting the bike choose where it wants to go. I'll eventually get to Phoenix."

He nodded. "That explains a lot." He walked around to the couch and sank into it, propped his feet on the coffee table. "Wish I could tell you what's wrong with your bike. My Dad should be home in a bit and he'll know right away."

"Will he?"

"With any luck."

"Can't thank you enough," she said.

"If you need a part, you know, you could have to stay here for a day or two."

"Is there a hotel in town?" she asked. She got up and walked around to the seat of the chair and sat in it, leaning back, looking for all the world like a woman making herself at home.

"Nothing good. You could stay here, I guess," he offered. His father wouldn't bat an eye. His mother would have a nervous break down. He was fairly certain he didn't care.

"I couldn't intrude like that." She played with the sweat on her soda can.

"No problem, then," he said. "Whatever you want to do. You'll be welcomed, though." (Partially true.)

She looked up at the ceiling as if making up her mind. She took her time.

"I guess I could at least help you get dinner together. Earn my keep."

"Well," he said.
It turned into more of a holiday feast than a dinner. He wasn't sure what was keeping his mother and his father was almost always home by now. But what the hell, it was time well spent and the girl was charming to say the least.

They dragged from the refrigerator a large chicken and he watched while she lifted the skin and stuffed it with pats of butter and sprigs of rosemary he harvested from his mother's herb garden. He put new potatoes in a pot to boil and freshly picked green beans in a steamer. He thawed a loaf of banana nut bread in the microwave and sliced it thick, slathered it with butter and put it under the broiler. He ground coffee beans by hand and showed her how to make coffee in a French press, his only snobbish habit.

It didn't occur to him until he heard the engine from his mother's car that this might look a little over zealous. He'd never really cooked before and here he was, setting the table for what might have passed as Sunday dinner with the preacher. He felt foolish, but giddy too. What did it matter what anyone else might think?

The back door flew open and he could hear his mother from the other side of the kitchen door, approaching fast. "Well, gracious!" she began. "I could smell that dinner all the way from the... " She stopped short at the sight of the girl. "The yard," she finished. "What's all this?" She wasn't talking about the dinner.

He ducked his head a little. I'm thirty two years old, he told himself, though not out loud. Definitely not out loud. If I have a woman here helping me with dinner, mother, what is that to you?

"Her motorcycle broke down," he said. "We're waiting on Dad to see if he can fix it."

"A motorcycle?" It was a foreign word in her mouth. She looked at the girl and shook her head. "Young lady like you?"

The girl smiled and looked around at the messy kitchen. "We promise to clean it up," she said.

It gave him a small thrill to hear her say the word "we."

His mother was not one to be impolite and she nodded her agreement. "Certainly smells delicious," she conceded and walked out without another word.

He walked out after her.

"She was broken down." He tried to get up close so the girl wouldn't overhear in the next room. "She's just making her way across country, you know? Just enjoying herself. She's OK."

His mother took him in. "I'd expect it from your brother, but not from you. You don't pick up road strays and bring them home."

He knew this. He knew the rule.

"I had plans for that chicken, you know," she said. "You'll have to get me another."

"I will."

"And what if your father can't fix the bike this evening? He's going to be too tired to do work for some stranger. He's over helping at the Adams' farm right now. Won't be home until late. Sometimes you have to think of somebody other than yourself."

"Other than myself?" He made no more attempt at lowering his voice. "She's was broken down."

"And where will she bed down for the night?" his mother hissed.

He bristled and stepped away from her. "We do have a spare room. I've already invited her to stay."

His mother pursed her lips. "That so?"

They stared at each other. Usually, he gave in. She was old fashioned after all, of another generation. A stranger in her home might indeed feel uncomfortable to her. But in all of his life, he had never felt more desperate for anyone to remain a guest in his home. And it was his home too, wasn't it? Had he not earned the right to have a guest? It wasn't that he was falling for a girl nine years his junior. He was attracted to her. That was all. Something about her. Something about what she was doing and where she was going and how she was going there. Something.

His mother cocked her head to one side. "I'll be," she said. She turned on her heal and walked slowly to her bedroom.

He hustled back into the kitchen. The girl's back was to him and she was filling the sink with soapy water. "I'll find a hotel or something," she told him. "If you could maybe just drive me into town."

He walked toward her slowly and touched the small of her back with his fingertips. "Here's just fine."

His father was not home when dinner was ready. They ate in the tense air speaking cautiously of the girl's history, her plans, her life's dreams. Now, while she was single and young, she hoped to travel the country, see every part she could see, find odd jobs and work her way from one coast to the next.

"Your parents agree with you doing this?" his mother asked. She had barely touched her meal, though she'd given it a glowing review out of courtesy.

"They don't mind," she said. "I do as I please."

"I've always gone by the commandments myself," his mother said, a false cheeriness in her voice. " 'Honor thy father and mother so that thy days may be long in the land.' That's how farmers live," she said. "We live Godly lives, simple lives. We take responsibility seriously. You have to when you have animals to feed and land to work. People don't know how to live simply any more. It's a tradition we hope our son will carry on."

She stole a glance at him and he nodded his assent.

The girl looked at him. "You like to farm?"

He shrugged. "I don't guess liking it is as important as doing it. I mean, of course, I love the land and I want to farm it." He considered his words. "I've thought about other things, I guess. I've always wanted to-"

"He's the future of farming," his mother interrupted. "So few young people today want to keep this alive. We've always been proud that he stayed and didn't go flying off to parts unknown trying to be someone he could never feel good about. He feels good about this, about his home, about this land and what it does for our country. If it weren't for farmers, America would be-"

"Mom, I'm sure she's heard this argument before."

The girl smiled at them both. "I think it's great," she said. "If this is your... calling, then it's great you can stay and keep the tradition going."

The tip of her boot brushed his knee under the table as she uncrossed her legs.

It was close to ten when his father returned to a cold plate and watered down tea. He was a quiet man and nodded solemnly to the girl when his son introduced her. He promised to look at her bike first thing in the morning and he tucked into his meal.

Maybe his father was too tired to react or maybe he didn't care. Either way, he was glad that he hadn't had to justify the girl's presence. He set up the guest room with a towel and a fresh bar of soap. He showed her where the extra blankets were. He helped her bring her things in from the bag she'd left on her bike.

Then he went to bed.

He could not sleep.

He could feel her palpable presence in the house. He wondered what might have happened between them had the house already been his. His alone. Alone.

Thirty two, he thought, and sleeping in my childhood bedroom. Parents. Farm. All the responsibility. I have to take it seriously. And I do. Like a vow. I've made this vow. I've made it to the land as if the land were a living being. It is alive. Like a child I have to care for. Like a child that isn't mine. But it is mine.

His thoughts kept on like this until he heard a faint creak in the floor boards of the living room. She was up and wandering the house. Of course, she might not sleep as early as farmers. She probably wasn't tired yet. He got up and walked quietly to his door, listening.

The next footstep was much closer to his room. Perhaps she was going to come in. It would look strange for him to be standing here at the door, wouldn't it? He backed away and hovered near the edge of his bed, but the door never opened.

Morning came earlier than he'd wanted it to. He got up and took care of the animals, made preparations to spend his day in the back fields tilling between crop rows, getting the irrigation system ready to be used in the evening. His guest would have to fin for herself after breakfast.

When he came back in the house she was already up drinking a cup of coffee, her face shining and clean and her hair loose around her shoulders. His father sat at the table with her reading the Copperfield Gazette. They both looked up when he came in.

"Bike's good," she said and she held up her jingling keys.

He stared at her, unwilling to hear the news. "So, no parts? No wait?"

"It wasn't hard to fix," his father said and glanced up. "I imagine even you could have handled this one."

It was a direct insult, but he let it pass. He let it go. He always let things go. It was his nature, and it had served him well. Yet standing here right now, watching the girl twirl her keys on her finger and smile at her freedom, he felt... nothing. He searched again. Nothing at all.

"That's good," he said. "I'm glad you don't have to hang around here and be bored."

"I haven't been bored," she asserted. "Your father is very kind and your mom... she made me a bowl of cereal. She's in the kitchen, I think."

His father put down his paper and looked at his son. "The part I asked you to get yesterday. I didn't see it in the truck anywhere."

"Because I didn't get it," he said. "I picked up a hitch hiker instead."

She giggled.

"I'll need it this morning. It'll put me a full day behind if you don't get it now. Your mother's chicken too, while you're at it."

He nodded.

His mother came through the kitchen door. "Coffee's still hot," she told him. She looked at the smiling girl. "She's leaving this morning, son. You can quit procrastinating now."

He felt his face burning. He felt his nothingness bubbling under the surface, warming to a new name. Anger or loneliness maybe. Or it could have been the impenetrable responsibilities of farm and parents, of animal and land, of sky and water and wind and sea and forest and earth and all that laid itself in front of him telling him that he must take care. He must maintain. He must resist. He must be this forever and champion these causes and these alone. Just exactly how much was he responsible for? Just exactly how much?

The girl was inches from him and he could not remember her moving at all. His parents were statues in a scene that was happening in someone else's dream and the girl was really all there was.

She took his arm in her hand and pulled him toward her face. "You'll be fine," she whispered, but not so quietly that the entire universe with all it's demands couldn't hear. The words of the goddess cannot be ignored. "Anywhere away from here."

She kissed him with a soft wet mouth that tasted of coffee and cream. The kiss infused him with her words.

Then she was gone. He heard the motorcycle roar to life and he heard it fade. He did not know how long he stood there or when his parents came back to life or even if they did. They were plastic figures speaking without meaning.

"Gave her a good lecture on being responsible with a bike like that," his father was saying.

"Was the dumbest thing in the world," his mother was adding, clucking her tongue in her mouth.

"Can't believe she didn't notice," one of them told him.

"Just ran out of gas," the other one said.

"Out of gas?" He might have been the one speaking.

His mother spoke. "Not the brightest bulb in the pack if you ask me."

"No one asked you," he said.

He walked slowly to his room and shut the door. He could hear the tense silence and then he could hear them talking to each other in quick clipped phrases, anxious chatter.

"Don't worry, mother," his father said. "Just a pretty face. He ain't goin' anywhere. Got a good head on his shoulders. She was too young and reckless. That little kiss... just gratitude. He ain't goin' anywhere."

"Well, not before he gets me another chicken anyhow," his mother said and they laughed the nervous laughter of people who have almost lost everything and know it.

"Never mind, mother," his father said. "He had to be tested, didn't he? He'll stay and keep the farm going. Doesn't this prove it?"

In his room, he sat at his computer and pulled up a search engine. He typed in the word "motorcycle."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Writing Contest Entry

The following was my submission to a writing contest which gave a photo prompt and instructed me to write the opening lines of a short story. Here is my entry. Oh, I won!

The couple looks out of place. They're dressed in antique brown vests and peasant shirts as if they might be going to a costume party. They are not.
The woman takes the man's hat off his head and places it on her own. A single feather stands erect in the back and she looks absurd. The man sneers as if tasting bile but otherwise pays no attention to her. Instead, he gazes fixedly at the bartender, a new boy we hired only a few weeks earlier. The old man smooths his hair back and then rests against the bar on his elbows. The woman whispers something in his ear.
He'll sit forward now and he'll address the bartender. I know this because he always does. It's always the same. He'll say, "Me name's Seamus."
He sits forward. "Me name's Seamus," he says.
Told you.
I have to give it to our new hire, Jason. He's a friendly sort, an American kid trying to earn enough money to slowly make his way across the European continent. England is his first stop and my pub his first real job.
"Nice to meet you," he says. "Get something for you?"
"Haven't finished me ale, have I?" the old man says.
"Suit yourself." Jason goes back to filling a mug.
He'll tell the woman she looks ridiculous in the hat.
"Gimme back me hat, Agnes," he says. "You look ridiculous."
"No more than you," she retorts. Her brogue is different. She isn't Irish. I've never been able to figure out where she's from. Maybe she's Welsh, but I haven't decided. She doesn't say much.
"I'll thank ye to give it back," the old man insists. "If I have to die tonight, I'll do so wearing me hat."
Agnes pulls it down harder over her head.
I smile at Jason's reaction. This is the first time he's heard this conversation and it's startling. He glares in the man's direction but then shakes his head and wipes up a spill on the bar's surface.
Me, I've heard this conversation every year for the past fifty two years. That's how old I am. My father owned this pub before me and I've spent every Christmas Eve of my life here. They have always appeared. I'm used to them, if one can get used to such things as ghosts.