City Renewal

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tpsdave / Pixabay

Dennis Darling, dressed in full business attire, sat at the corner table of Old Joe’s. It was a quaint little coffee shop with more patrons than table space. Quaint, in this case, also meant fashionably dilapidated. The local photos on the wall were badly faded, the paint chipped, and Dennis’s table, at least, had shims wedged underneath to keep it from wobbling as badly as it might. He took another sip of his mocha, which was surprisingly good, and tapped out an email to his subordinates on his phone.

Seven minutes late, Mayor Robert Ryland sat down across from him, hiding his discomfort tolerably well.

“Aren’t you going to order something?” Dennis asked, checking Twitter.

“I thought this would be quick.”

“It’s a business meeting. Get something. It’s a work expense.”

“Just get on with it.”

Dennis pocketed his phone. “Give me your elevator pitch.”

“Me? You’re the one selling.”

“Offering,” Dennis said. “This is one city. There are hundreds like it. Why should we work with you?”

Robert stared at him then shrugged. “All right. Factories made this town. They moved overseas or went bankrupt. Half the family businesses have been wiped out by regulations and Amazon, except for niche holdouts like this place. We’re a dying town. People need work, but there’s nothing here. In ten years, we’ll be gutted. Just like a hundred other towns.”

“Not just like. You were wise enough to contact us.”

“I’ve been rethinking that.”

“Have you?”

“Your boss has been in the news again.”

Dennis retrieved his phone and pulled up a photo from CNN of police pushing a business-suited man into his car. The headline read “Doctor Destructo’s Minions Foiled in Jacksonville.”

“This?” Dennis asked. “You saw the report on the TV?”

“Yeah. Everyone did.”

“How many casualties?”

“None, thanks to Teflon.”

“That’s a horrible codename, isn’t it?” Dennis said, laughing.

“Bullets bounce right off him.”

“How much damage? Did you hear?”

“I don’t remember,” Robert said. “Millions of dollars.”

Dennis nodded. “Millions of dollars of damage. One thing you don’t know: Mayor Daniel Yellin asked us to be there. Being caught was part of the plan. We can do the same thing for you.”

Robert shook his head. “You’re as insane as your boss.”

“How many acres of abandoned industry do you have in the city? How many deserted neighborhoods? Say we set up base in an old warehouse, and we let it slip through the right channels that we’re here. Teflon shows up. Or Victoria. Or even Justice James. A whole section of town goes up in flames, superhuman fisticuffs, and ray guns. No one’s hurt. Everyone’s relieved. Insurance kicks in. Better yet, the whole country sees it on TV. The money starts flowing in. Charities, churches, everyone’s fighting to help rebuild. You see?”

Robert studied him. Dennis could see him slowly understand. “And no one gets hurt?”

“No one. Human resources are a vital commodity. You arrange some fair or festival, something exciting. Something with fireworks and free food. If a few remain home, the good guys are there to protect him. That’s what they’re good at.”

Robert kept staring, bewildered. “What’s in it for you?”

“My boss is a business man. We have a tech company we’d like to start in the area. We’d like your cooperation, tax abatements, that sort of thing. A willing and happy workforce. A friendly face in the government. Et cetera.” Dennis stood. “Think on it. Here’s my card. Call Den Yellin, ask how Jacksonville’s recovering.”

Robert stood, too, in a daze. Dennis extended his hand and shook firmly. “I’ll call you in a few weeks. Just let us know how we can help.”

Monday Musing: We Don’t Exist

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Tobias_ET / Pixabay

Okay, I confess, the blog title is a lie. We do exist. (I do, at least.) It is, however, quite in style to wonder if maybe, really, we don’t.

All sorts of super-smart tech people, like that eccentric inventor Elon Musk, wonder if we aren’t just simulations in a giant computer, a la The Matrix.

If you’ve ever spoken with a moody, introspective teenager (or if, perhaps, you were a moody, introspective teenager), you’ve heard the question: What if this is all a dream?

Is it not strange that we can even conceive of such questions? Why on earth would a living creature doubt that he is truly living? Some might say, Aha! The fact that we can imagine being other than we are–an illusion, a fancy of some alien consciousness, a string of zeroes and ones–means that it is at least possible that we are.

I, however, as a Christian, take the same observation and conclude, How utterly broken we are, to conceive of being less than we are!

Let me put it another way. You can focus on certain material aspects of our being. You can say that we are just cells, just DNA, just neurons firing, just a sack of flesh with an organic computer inserted in a bone container. You can look at these things and say, I am not what I think I am. The fact that I matter, or my friends and family matter, that my decisions mean anything, is a lie. I am just a collection of natural processes. The soul is an illusion.

This is what you might call dreaming down. We look at an aspect of the processes that make up life, or make us, and say, Well, that must be what we are–that and that alone. In the case of the matrix idea, we look at what we’ve created and say, That must be the end of our intelligence. What we can create must by the answer to what we are.

There is another type of dreaming, however. I recently finished reading The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis to my kids, which is a close second for my favorite Narnia book and features the best Narnia character of all time, Puddleglum. (Sorry, Reepicheep fans.) At the climax, our heroes are trapped in Underland, a lightless, joyless underground kingdom. The Queen of this land is enchanting our heroes to believe that the world above never existed, that it’s all just a dream. Large chunks of the chapter are worth quoting, but I’ll limit it to Puddleglum’s final speech:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black bit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Puddleglum dreams “upward,” using a cat to prove the existence of a lion and a lamp the existence of a sun.

Those who believe we live in a simulation believe in a “play world” like Puddleglum, but it’s less than the real world, not more. Their dream makes the world more hollow, not more glorious.

To dream “up” means to believe there is more meaning and reality in the world than meets the eye, not less, to believe that creation is not just natural, but supernatural, that the body holds not just synapses but a soul. Even if I entirely ignore the compelling arguments for such a reality, I’d much rather live in a world where humans are not just biological computers but moral beings created with inexpressible worth. And, honestly, most people inherently live more in the second reality, at least as concerns their own well-being, than in the first.

If we don’t exist–and live like it–we won’t much live at all. The danger to dreaming down is that you eventually become what you believe.

But if everyone lived as if life were real and precious and right, well, I think the world would be a pretty swell place to live.

A man can dream, can’t he?

Blind

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I am blinded by uncounted lightless days, by a half mile of stone, by walls that do not yield and cannot listen. My wide open eyes have absorbed darkness until I dream black and wake and know no change. When food comes, scraps, I hear nothing or I hear their voices, brutal voices, until the darkness crawls with shapeless, vengeful creatures that burrow in my ears and whisper venom.

I am condemned. No protestation of innocence, no begging or weeping or screaming, opens the door. I am innocent, I am innocent–I was innocent, and for lost years I have stared into the darkness. It is my mirror, and I am condemned.

The cell is small, but so am I, shrinking to match my cage, expanding to fill the days, the months, the–I shudder. Time exhales the last breath of the dying. Nothing moves and nothing changes and nothing is. I sleep and I wake and I sometimes eat. I stare into my blindness and listen to the silence. What I think is what I see is what I hear. What I knew is no longer, or seems a shadow, a flicker of night against night, the echo of a shape or the remembrance of the idea of a color.

But I feel. I feel the rock beneath me. I rub my hand, my fingers, along the same smoothed spot. I ache in my hips and my legs and my back. This is pleasure, for it changes, it has a rise and a fall, a contour. It visits me and does not remain silent.

I will not die here. I will cease here. I will no longer open my mouth, I will shut my useless eyes, and I will remain, motionless, until I become one with my prison, perhaps a warm thing for a time but a senseless thing, a rock in the shape of a man, until I become what I see and what I hear and what I am.

A voice comes. I do not stir. Always they come and always they leave, like memories and earthquakes, signs of an epoch passing. The door opens. I am struck. I was beat in the beginning. This is different. It is a force, a blast. I burn. Within, I burn. I turn away from this new torture, shut my eyes. I am in its grip, and it burns, these others, these foreign things on my lonely flesh. The world is spinning, the air cuts my face. I cannot scream; I can moan. They pull my limbs, force me to collect the expanse of my existence into my body, force me into the void as a solid thing. It is too much, too much noise, too many sensations–the world is catching fire. I burn and I weep. “No, no, no….,” I whimper. The darkness will burn away and I am only darkness. I will burst. I will break into a million pieces. I cannot survive this, I cannot bear this touch, this light. “Take me back,” I beg, weeping, convulsing. “Take me back.”

“You’re free.”

I cannot. I am paper thin, I am smoke, I am the depth of the earth and human hearts. “Take me back.” It is forcing its way into my closed eyes, into my brain, a blaze that is warmth that is fire that is death. I pull away, desperate, strong for the moment, escaping their claws. I stumble, I crawl back to the black opening, to the pit, and tumble down into the hole where I belong.

The stone is hard as I fall and I ache and I am blind once again.

Like A Bird

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“It looks like a video compilation of epic fails.”

“It’s not that–”

“No, seriously, dude, it’s like something out of a 80s kids’ movie. There’s no way it’s flying.”

Michael shook his head, bemused. His friend’s insults didn’t bother him. He’d been saying the same thing for weeks. “Does that mean you won’t help me?”

Shawn rubbed his hand vigorously through his hair. “What makes you so sure it won’t nosedive the moment we’re off the cliff?”

“I’ve run dozens of computer simula–”

“We’re going to die. As long as I’ve prepared.”

“The models hold up, Shawn.”

“I’m not worried about the models! I’m worried about us.”

Michael sighed. He looked over his creation. Part kite, part bike, part mechanical bird, he knew every bolt and joint. It was a marvel, a work of art. Though, if he tried to see it through a stranger’s eyes, it did look a bit shabby, a tad crackpot.

“Look, Shawn, you coming or not?”

Shawn peered at the sky to avoid eye contact.

“I need you.”

“How about tomorrow?”

“Come here.” Michael pulled him down the incline to the cliff’s edge. “See that?”

Below was their small town, cars coming and going along the two highways that intersected in downtown. “Once, people drove those cars. Now the cars drive them. Kids used to go to school. Now school comes to them. Half the city works in its pajamas. You can live in a single room forever.”

“As long as it has a toilet,” Shawn added.

“Everything’s safe and confined and comfy. Then there’s this.” Michael pointed to his contraption.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying!”

“Haven’t you ever wanted to soar, to skim between heaven and earth like a bird?”

“Not really.”

“Seriously?”

“It’s not something I think about a lot.”

“Imagine flying above the earth with nothing between you and the wind!”

“Don’t go into sales, okay?”

“This is going to work,” Michael insisted. “Come with me.”

Shawn looked moodily at the town. “Isn’t it illegal?”

“What?”

“To fly.”

“Why would it be illegal?”

“Doesn’t the government own the air or something?”

Michael laughed. “Own the air? I would hope not!” Except, he considered, it was just the sort of thing they would try. “Come on, Shawn. Let’s do it–just this once.”

“Yeah, that’s not ominous.”

“Is that a yes?”

Shawn groaned. “Yeah, it’s a yes.” He started reluctantly up the hill. “Remind me how this deathtrap works.”

Ten minutes later they were strapped in and ready to go. Michael was in the front seat of the tandem bike. He tested the joints of the wings, examined the tightly stretched fabric overhead, and reminded himself he needed to purchase some parachutes for the next flight. “Ready?”

“No.”

“Remember, pedal as fast as you can, even when we run out of land.”

“Pedal as if my life depended on it. Check.”

“And sit up straight. Don’t lean unless I tell you.”

“Fall straight, not sideways. Check.”

“Ten….”

“A countdown? Really?”

“Nine.”

Shawn muttered something under his breath.

“Eight. Seven. Six.”

“I should have told my mom I love her. And sis.”

“Five. Four. Three.”

“You’re crazy, Michael. Insane.”

“Two. One.”

They began pedaling. The awkward mass started downhill. Michael gazed at the sky beyond the cliff’s edge, not at the land rushing beneath but the endless blue where they would float and soar. They pedaled hard, picking up speed as they bumped heavily down the uneven ground, the wind whipping their hair. They pedaled without restraint, serious, silent. They reached the edge. The front wheel dropped. The nose tilted down.

“Pedal!” Michael shouted.

The contraption rushed into space. It streaked downward like a badly thrown paper airplane. Shawn screamed and Michael laughed, a bit madly. The back propellor spun wildly as they pedaled, but it only added to their downward speed. Michael released the handlebars and thrust his hands into the shoulder-height gloved enclosures on either side. He grasped the handles within and rotated his wrists, changing the contour of the glider’s frame. The wind caught it.

They lurched upward, stomachs in their feet, and with effort Michael held them steady.

He let out a whoop. Looking back, he found a pale-faced Shawn smiling weakly. “I’ll thank those simulations personally when we land,” he said.

Michael grinned. His face refused to do anything but grin. “Let’s try this.” He grabbed another set of handles and, slowly, straining, pressed his extended arms down, then up, then down–like a bird flapping its wings. The wings of the contraption moved, too, lifting them higher.

Below them the city spread like a kid’s toy, intersecting streets huddle together among acres of grass and twisty housing additions. Roads and creeks ran ribbons through the undulating green. Above, thick nimbus clouds lazed in the sky like stage props.

“Where are we going?” Shawn asked.

“Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know.”

“Down?” Michael teased.

“Not yet.”

“How about we just go,” Michael said. “Nowhere. Everywhere. Like they used to do with cars. Cruisin’. Let’s go cruisin’. Pick a direction.”

“That way,” Shawn said, pointing over Michael’s shoulder.

“Any reason?”

“Roads don’t go that way.”

“See, I knew I wanted you along.” His vision was filled with air and land to the edges of his eyeballs. “We’ll pedal till we can’t.”

“And then?”

“Going down’s the easy part.”

“And landing?”

Michael shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter yet, I guess,” Shawn said. “It’s not too bad up here, you know?”

“No,” Michael said, drowning in the view, “not too bad at all.”

The Green Nymph

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The nymph returns. I see her bare, dirt-smeared feet as she flits away. Her eyes peer at me through the bushes. They are wild, fiery eyes. My work calls, but I think to catch her, moving slowly, tentatively. She runs, howling with laughter, her lanky form slipping through some crack in the fence.

She never stays away long. I sense her as I manhandle the beast out of the shed. With effort I put it in motion, and it roars, emitting a wretched stench of fuel and fire. The nymph is near, watching curiously. I lead the beast forward. It trembles, coughing and sputtering, as I direct it through the too-long, too-thick grass. It gets to work. Row after row I wrestle the beast forward. Slowly she emerges from her hiding. She is childlike, with long legs, a faded, too-short skirt, a too-loose top. She sits on her haunches beside a pile of green clipping belched out by the beast. She takes it in her hands, pulls it apart, manipulates it like putty.

Then she rubs it into her hair, laughs deliriously, and sprints away.

The beast is thirsty and so am I. I provide for both, myself first, and when I return, a mound has appeared in my lawn, a lumpy, wriggling pile of cut grass. It squirms as with a thousand invisible bugs. Then from it appears her face, green-streaked, hair and grass plastered across her cheeks and forehead. She stares expectantly at me and I cautiously crouch down and extend my hand toward this strange creature.

She bursts from her cocoon, armed, flinging balls of grass at me, pelting me in the face, dancing and twirling as she rushes around me and away.

I brush myself off and finish my work, looking over my shoulder for the green sprite, combing fingers through my hair to dislodge the grass. Eventually the beast ends its feasting and I lead it home. There is the sprite, grinning. She takes me by the hand. It is some spell, some witchcraft, and I am led away without protest.

The mound has grown. She throws me in. It is hot and damp and she jumps on top of me. I throw her off and break free, spitting grass. She pelts me as before and she jumps onto my leg to slow my step. I cast her away into the deep green pit, but she emerges, empowered. She leaps onto my back. I stumble backward, into her abode, where it rains grass and time is changed. We emerge in mantles of verdant greenery.

It is then I capture her by a spell of my own, a command of few words, held back for this occasion. I lift her up and take her into my own house. I present her to the mistress there who labors over the stove. She looks over the child.

“Yes, she will do, I think, after a bath. Scrub her well. She must be made presentable.”

So came the green nymph into our home, and so she shall come again, until the world turns and summer ends.

Don’t Cry

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She was weeping, and he could not bear her weeping.

Royal Advisor Antony Sculton loved the Queen dearly, having sacrificed decades in raising and training and guiding her. Nothing–not his grey hairs or failing body or lonely existence–made him feel as helpless as when the Queen cried.

He stood just inside her tent. One lamp flickered light over the dark interior. Shadows caressed the bed where she lay face first in her pillow. She was a hardly more than a child, too tender for the burden of the kingdom.

“Your Majesty,” he said quietly.

“Go away, Sculton!”

“It’s not your fault.”

“It is, it is, it is!” She screamed into her pillow, her body shaking.

He stepped closer. “You always make it your fault. It is not. You are the Queen. You did what had to be done.” She ignored him, still trembling in her emotion. He came next to her and sat in the chair beside her nightstand. “You did nothing wrong.”

“You can’t believe that.” She turned her tear-streaked face to him. She was ugly when she cried.

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.”

“You would.” She sneered. “To stop me from making a spectacle of myself. Don’t cry, don’t cry! It wouldn’t do to see the Queen cry! Let them despise me. I deserve it.”

“You don’t,” he said severely.

“I do!”

He sighed.

“Why won’t you just leave me alone?”

He told her again, patiently. “You have been raised by the finest minds of the modern world. Your father and mother, rest their souls, gave you love and affection. You have matured into a beautiful, intelligent woman. You are a good person. You are a good Queen. This…guilt you feel, it’s just insecurity, just your wanting to please the parents who aren’t here to see how strong you’ve become, just a desire for people to like you. But it’s not real, not true.” He leaned close and brushed her hair from her forehead. “I never had any children, any grandchildren. But I could not be prouder of them than I am of you.”

The Queen looked up at him with her large eyes. “I shouldn’t have done it. You see that, right? I was just so–”

“It’s fine. It’s over. And they’ll learn. You’ve done nothing to apologize for.”

“It’s just, it’s my birthday. I want everyone to be happy. I want to be happy.”

“Of course. You have the right to be happy.”

“Just today,” she said. “One day of my own. I have to deal with them all the time.”

“All the time,” he agreed. “It’s a lot to ask of a young woman.”

She sat up, quiet, like land after a rain. “Do they still love me?”

“It doesn’t matter what they think. You’re the Queen. You did what needed done. For yourself.”

The tent flap opened and Grayson entered. He was a good man, a loyal man, but he wanted more direction than most. “Sir?”

Antony excused himself and exited the tent with Grayson. A glance showed him Grayson had done his job tolerably well, though the blood was still obvious in patches and not all the debris had been removed yet. “Yes?”

“How shall we dispose of them, sir?”

“What do you mean? You’ve obviously done something with them.”

“They’re in a pile, beyond the clearing. We considered burning, sir, but the smoke and smell, won’t it bother Her Majesty?”

Antony considered. “Go ahead. I’ll deal with Her Majesty.” He reentered the tent. The Queen was at the table, pouring herself some wine.

“What were you discussing?” she asked.

“How best to clean up.”

“And what did you decide?”

“Fire, Your Majesty.”

She took a long drink. “They shouldn’t have stopped so soon.”

“I quite agree. You deserve a much longer applause.”

She refilled her cup and emptied it again.

“Come with me, Your Majesty.”

She rose and exited the tent with him. In the distance, they could see the black smoke. The wind brought the smell of burnt flesh. The Queen turned pale, and she trembled. “I’m wicked,” she whispered.

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “No. Not that. Never that. You were right. You are always right.”

Today

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Today I woke at 6 am. I didn’t want to. My alarm went off and I hated it with the wrath of a thousand suns. But I woke.

Today I ate off-brand Lucky Charms. There were not enough marshmallows.

Today I drove to work. My car was nearly out of gas, so I had to stop. Filling up took too long and I was almost late.

Today I talked on the phone. A lot. Most of the customers were civilized. A few were raving lunatics. I did not raise my voice or hang up. I made a motion of shooting myself in the head to my coworker, but I did not actually shoot myself. I survived.

Today I ate my lunch. I hadn’t gone shopping yet, so I had a lame PB&J, some leftover Easter candy, and oyster crackers. Oyster crackers are not meant to be eaten without soup.

Today I worked late. The company refuses to hire more workers. Or nobody wants to work. I don’t know. Both maybe. Either way, I worked.

Today the sun was still up when I arrived home. That’s because it’s nearly summer. That still surprises me.

Today I mowed the grass. Because it’s nearly summer. And the grass grows at a rate in direct proportion to how much I’d rather be doing something else.

Today my mom called. She asked me why I didn’t have a girlfriend yet. I told her girlfriends don’t just drop on your doorstep like packages from Amazon. She said that maybe they should. I said that was a very bad idea. She huffed a little and made some murmurs about grandchildren.

Today I washed the dishes, folded the clothes, and vacuumed the living room. Because I don’t have a wife. Or a girlfriend, even.

Today I watched some Netflix show after a half hour of trying to decide which Netflix show to watch. It was OK. Maybe I’ll watch the next episode.

Today I lay in bed. My bed, in my house, which holds my food, outside of which is my car, bought with my money. The moon shines down on it all, and I lay in bed, tired, quite tired, but content, I think.

Today I was an adult. It’s not glamorous, this adulting, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.

Guess I’ll do it tomorrow too.

Originally published at 4CountyMall.com on May 11, 2017,

Front Porches

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Robert shuffled onto the front porch, pulling the wooden door shut with an ancient creak. Patches of the floor boards were still painted, having survived another winter of freeze and melt. His chair, as weathered as the porch, he had brought out that morning, one item of a very short and meticulous To-Do List, which he had left undone after lunch.

He set his bulk down, slowly, and adjusted himself. The sun was out, warm against his tatty flannel. He absorbed it, letting the heat gather within his layers. It would take more than one afternoon to thaw his bones.

A few robins were at the bird feeder. His scrap of lawn, mostly weeds, was still a sickly green patch surrounded by sidewalk and asphalt.

The house across the street looked worse for the warm weather. Toys left out last autumn lay untouched and the little dog was back on its chain, running from one extent of it to the other, driven mad by every movement of squirrel or car.

It had been a nice house in its day; the whole street had consisted of cozy, honest houses, not fancy, crowded with children, not tidy but clean. Every mother was your mother; every boy was your brother.

He didn’t get emotional about what was lost anymore. He had raged, in the way people do, about change, but that had been a long time ago. With age came acceptance. Things fell apart. He lived at his own pace, in his own way, and let the world do as it pleased.

On his chair, on his porch, both relics, he watched. Sometimes a car drove by, going too fast. A young woman parked across the street three doors down. It must be the man’s newest girlfriend. A scrawny cat wandered by. He heard the screen door from two houses down slam shut. Last fall, a new family had moved in there. He hadn’t seen much of them, just the car leaving and returning, and two bundled kids, only eyes showing, out in the only snow all winter worth playing in. That house had had a front porch, like all the houses on the street used to, until the previous owners’ remodeled.

The woman and her two kids came down the sidewalk, the kids huddled close, the mother whispering fiercely at them. They turned at his house and she looked up and smiled as they approached. “Hi. We were making some cookies for Easter and made too many. We thought we’d share them.”

“We could have eaten them all,” the boy said sullenly in undertones.

“I made that one,” the girl said, pointing to a cross-shaped cut-out splattered with purple sprinkles.

“Can’t have them. Diabetes.”

The mother glanced down, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean–anyway, I’m Ellen. My husband, he’s at work, he’s Rick. These two are Chase and Cayleigh. Say hi, you two.”

They did, eventually. He nodded.

“And you are?” she asked.

“Robert.”

“Well, we had a plate for the house over there, too. What are their names? We’ve done a lousy job introducing ourselves. I’d blame being busy with these two, but that’s just excuses.”

Robert glanced over at the house across the street, thought. “Don’t know their names, honestly.”

The mother nodded. “Well, thank you, Robert. See you later.”

Making the kids look both ways, the mother led the way across the street. Robert sat on his porch, watching.

Originally published at 4Countymall.com on April 6, 2017.

Inventory of a Winter Thaw

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Bed: sheets (disarray), cover like an empty shell (two blankets from the closet layered within), pillow (hair-stained), nightstand.

Nightstand: alarm clock (off), tissue box (empty), cup (empty, dried residue), thermometer, trashcan (filled: wadded tissue (mucus-encrusted)). Trashcan original location: bathroom.

Bathroom: toothbrush (dry from lack of use), shower (dry from lack of use), toilet (flecked with bile), pill bottle (empty). Similar bottle stored: kitchen.

Kitchen: sink (empty – except for a few dishes (days old)), fridge (full – except for an orange juice gallon (swallows left)), window (closed, shuttered), door (unlocked).

Back Porch: wooden boards (paint peeling), trees (leafless), grass (dead), sky (cloudless), sun (bright), weather (warm), steps (upon which is a man).

Man: scruff (three days), pajamas (unwashed), glasses (contacts in bathroom), blanket (enshrouding form) — the blanket is removed.

Words: “Huh. This is what living feels like.”

Originally published at 4CountyMall.com on March 6, 2017.

Count to Twenty

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When she was a baby, I could just cover her eyes with my hands and then take them away. Peek-a-boo! It astonished her. I disappeared and then reappeared. Magic.

When I first taught her to play hide-and-seek, she would hide under the desk. And then, before I had finished counting, she’d jump out and tell me she had hidden under the desk. This would continue until I showed her a new place to hide.

Eventually she learned to hide where I hid, which was usually behind a door or barely concealed behind a chair, and even then, if I pretended not to see her, she would make noises until I noticed her. And then she would laugh hysterically.

There came a time when I tired of such antics. We didn’t play the game for a long time.

It was a ugly, dreary, frigid winter Sunday. Everything to be done while shut up indoors had been done weeks ago. “How about hide-and-seek?” I suggested.

“You count,” she said.

I counted to twenty slowly. I opened my eyes and looked under the desk. Not there. I looked behind the bathroom door, in the coat closet, under the bathroom sink. Not there.

I thought I might actually enjoy this.

I looked in the pot drawer in the kitchen, and behind the couch, and under her bed, then under my bed. I looked in the bathtub, in the clothes hamper, in the sliver of space between the bookcase and the wall where she might fit.

I looked behind the coats in the entry, in the pile of dirty clothes in the laundry room, beneath the sofa cushions she’d pull off to make forts.

I looked in the dryer, where I had hidden once as a child, much to the dismay of my mother. I looked in the toy chest and in the sock drawer and in the crawl space I told her never to go into. I looked in the trash can outside, though I had told her not to go outside.

I double-checked behind all the doors and under all the furniture and the corners of every closet. When younger, she had often said, “Make a sound!” when she couldn’t find me. I almost said it now but that would be weakness.

As I wandered the house, looking in places an octopus couldn’t squeeze into, the rooms were changed. They were hollowed, like a corpse in which just an hour before life had been. I did call out, “Make a sound!” but no sound came. Her shoes were still by the door; the door was still locked.

I ended up in my bedroom and sat on my disheveled bed. A doubt and a panic rose up in me. It was as if she had stepped through a mirror, slipped into a shadow, been raptured. I had closed my eyes and she had disappeared.

Something moved by my hand. I felt the lump. She laughed and stuck her head out of the crumpled mass of covers. “You found me!”

I scooped her up. “You’ve gotten so big!”

She wriggled out of my arms. “Dad! Let me go.” She pushed her hair out of her eyes. “It’s my turn to count.”

“Just count to ten slowly.”

“I can count to twenty. I’m not a baby.”

“No. Of course not.”

She closed her eyes and began to count, forcing me out of the room.

Originally published at 4CountyMall on January 31, 2017.