Category Archives: Story

Shattered Afternoon Muse

Jeff sat near the large bank of windows at the front of the diner. In front of him, he held a cup of coffee between his hands. His eyes followed the passersby as they hurried by him. Few looked inside the diner as they marched past. The glass dissuaded most people from peering too closely if they did glance in his direction.

Jeff tipped well, so the small group of potential waitresses didn’t object to him lingering there until he drank five or six cups of coffee. Only one asked him why he enjoyed people watching there. Jeff smiled. “Watching people gives me an endless number of stories to tell. Each one who passes is his or her own universe, one which I get to populate in whatever way comes to me as my muse.” The waitress in question, Shirley, nodded, probably a little surprised by his unexpected answer. She’d seen a lot in twenty-two years of working at the diner.

This afternoon, Jeff had a couple of interesting stories. One older man who had walked past briefly opened his overcoat, revealing a silver pistol shoved into his waistband. A beautiful middle-aged woman had stopped nearby and surprised Jeff by lighting a cigarette. She dropped several things from her small purse. As she bent to retrieve them, her dress rose up, revealing lovely legs. When she stood back up, she looked directly at Jeff and winked. He winked back and nodded. She laughed and walked out of his view.

As Jeff sipped from his cup, a small blue Honda pulled up. The driver, a small man wearing an expensive suit, exited his car, leaving the driver’s door open. In his right hand, he held a small brick. Before Jeff could notice more details, the man swung the brick on the glass on the window about six feet from where Jeff sat. The glass cracked, making an odd popping sound. The man stepped back three or four paces and hurled the brick at the window. As the brick hit the window, it imploded, sending glass cascading inside.

The five or six customers inside turned their heads toward the window in surprise. The glass didn’t go far. Neither did the brick. It fell across the table in the next booth and then skidded to the floor.

Jeff stared at the man who threw the brick. Behind him, he heard Shirley say, “Damn it, Jim, not again!” The tone of her voice conveyed the accusation that he’d done it before. Shirley walked over to where the brick lay on the floor. She picked it up and threw it back out the window. It went further than Jeff anticipated. The man who threw the brick, presumably Jim, picked up the brick, cocked a finger at Shirley, and laughed. He turned, got into his Honda, and drove away.

Shirley turned to the register, where Jinny stood, a bemused look on her face. “Jinny, call Joe, and tell him Jim broke another window!” Shirley turned to Jeff and said, “Refill, hon?” Jeff nodded, unsure of what he had witnessed.

When Shirley came back over to refill his cup, Jeff exclaimed, “Are you going to tell me what that is all about?”

Shirley said, “Well, you’re always looking for stories. Jim is the brother of Joe who owns this diner. Jim breaks a window every year on March 22nd. So Joe takes the day off every year.” She smiled, knowing that although she answered his question, she hadn’t really.

“Okay…” Jeff stammered. “But why? And if he does it every year, why doesn’t someone stop him? Or warn us? Or close? Or whatever?” Jeff realized he sounded a bit foolish as he asked.

“Joe won’t say. He doesn’t call the police, and he won’t file insurance. It’s a big secret.” Shirley laughed. “Not the answer you expected, was it? Now it’s going to drive you crazy like it does the rest of us.”

“Well, I know where I’m going to be next year on March 22nd, Shirley. Right outside, waiting to ask him.” Jeff smiled, knowing that he would.

“Gotta have something to live for, Jeff. I guess I better clean up some of this glass before Joe gets here.” Shirley walked away, presumably to get a broom.

Jeff finished his cup of coffee and watched people look at the broken window as they walked. Curiosity filled everyone’s eyes as they looked. One younger man looked at Jeff as if to say, “What happened?” Jeff shrugged, pretending he didn’t know.

As Jeff stood up to leave, Joe came through the kitchen and around the long counter. To Jeff’s surprise, he was smiling as he looked at the damage.

Jeff laughed as he left. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” he told himself.

The Bolt Of Life (A Story)

My Grandmother Bea surprised me by picking up the framed photograph from the oak table near the door. “It’s time I shared the story with you, John, if you want to hear it?” she asked, knowing my impatience to know was a decade in the making. “Have some tea with me while I tell you.” I wondered about that photograph at least a dozen times over the years. I called it the “Grandmother Mona Lisa” picture.

As I poured a ridiculous amount of honey into my teacup, Bea added the hot tea, using her prized teapot that resembled a rooster with its head craned.

“I was nineteen when this picture was taken. We lived in a little shotgun house no bigger than this living room. It was all heated by a single stove. We barely scraped by. My Uncle John, who you were probably named after, came by Saturday afternoon to give us a tableful of food. We were glad to have it. John worked at one of the mills, and he also loved cards. Though it killed my Dad to know it, John was good at gambling and often returned from his weekend trips to the Mississippi with cash. He always took time to share the wealth with us and a bit for the church up near Cypress. That church burned in 1961. On that Saturday, he came home with a camera. He won it playing cards. The photographer who foolishly played cards with him gave him to him instead of payment. He also showed John how to use it. It’s no small thing to know that your Uncle Thomas got his first guitar from Uncle John. And that guitar took him to Nashville. He also brought home three cars that way.”

Grandmother Bea was smiling in a way that I’d never seen before. She was joyously reaching back into the bygones, reliving the memories. She held up a finger and said, “Let’s celebrate a little.” She reached to the side of her sitting chair and pulled out a small bottle of whiskey. “You didn’t think I wasn’t able to have a little fun, did you?” She laughed. She poured a bit into her cup of tea and offered me some. I accepted it, shaking my head. Dad taught me that it was discourteous to decline a drink in someone else’s house.

“When Uncle John came to see us that day, he brought along a young man named Henry. Henry came back from the river to get a job at one of the mills. It wasn’t unusual for Uncle John to bring back recruits that he thought would be good workers. He was seldom wrong. I was sitting in the kitchen near the back window so I could catch a breeze. When Henry walked through and nodded his head as an introduction, he said, “Miss, pleased to meet you.” When his eyes met mine, I felt like I had been hit by a bolt of lightning. Henry’s brown eyes and dark hair consumed me. Uncle John walked in behind Henry. He must have seen the look on my face because he laughed. He said, “I remember being young!” Henry and Uncle John went to the backyard to sit in the shade with my Dad. After a few minutes, Mom asked me to take them tea. Even though my hands were shaking, I did. As I poured Henry a glass, his eyes met mine, and I almost dropped the glass. Dad asked me if I was alright. “Yes, sir.” Uncle John laughed and gave Dad one of those mischievous looks.

Grandmother Bea laughed, thinking about it. She gulped her tea and set the cup on the small table in front of us.

“Later, when we had sandwiches for an early supper, Henry and I walked along the dirt road that led to Cypress. I was a bit bashful and was tongue-tied. Henry seemed comfortable just walking and stealing an occasional glance at me. I was nineteen and had never done more than steal a quick peck on the lips. But I wanted to hug him like nobody’s business. When we got back to the house, Uncle John wanted to take our picture together, Henry and me. He kept teasing us. Mom told him it wouldn’t be proper, which seemed ridiculous even then. It was just a picture. So Uncle John had me sit by the front door in the fancy chair. Henry kneeled next to me, slightly out of frame. And right before Uncle Henry snapped the picture, Henry unexpectedly reached for my left hand and held it, his fingers encircling my wrist. You can’t see the blush on my face in the black and white photo, but I was flushed. Uncle John brought me the picture before Christmas, after. He told me it was the most beautiful picture he would ever take and that he would never forget how Henry and I looked at each other after the picture. It was then that I confessed to Uncle John what no one had known at the time: before Henry left with Uncle John that evening, Henry came back to me out on the porch, kneeled on one knee, and told me that he was coming back in two weeks to ask my Dad if he might be able to see me until he could earn enough to get married.”

Grandmother Bea took a sharp breath. I knew she was on the verge of being overwhelmed. I reached for her hand and held her delicate fingers as she continued. I knew whatever was coming was terrible and painted with tears.

“I wanted to tell Mom what Henry had said, but I didn’t want to break the spell. Sunday at church, all I could think about was imagining Henry and I standing at the front of the pews as we accepted our vows. It was young and foolish of me, I know. Monday, Henry started his new job at the mill. I knew he’d learn fast with Uncle John helping him. Wednesday afternoon, about 5:30, I heard a car pull up into the yard. I knew it was Uncle John. It was rare for him to visit during the week. He worked hard, and the hours sometimes wore him down. I looked out the front window and saw Dad walking up to meet Uncle John. After a minute of talking, Dad hugged Uncle John. That was a rare thing, even then. They walked around the house to sit under the big shade tree. Mom took them something to drink. When she came back inside, I couldn’t help but ask questions. “What happened, Mom? Did Uncle John get fired?” Mom looked at me strangely. “No. Nothing like that. The boy that he brought with him Saturday? Henry? He got killed this morning at the mill. A log came out of the sander and hit him in the head, killing him instantly.” I don’t remember much after that, only that I ran out of the house and along the dirt road, probably for a mile. Later, Uncle John’s car came up behind me as I shuffled along, my face covered in tears. He got out and hugged me, that I do remember. He held me as I cried. Eventually, he took me home. Mom didn’t ask me any questions. Uncle John likely told her not to.”

As I sat next to Grandmother Bea, I looked at the picture, taken at the happiest moment of her life, or at least the most bittersweet. Henry would have been my Grandfather except for circumstance.

Grandmother Bea spoke as her eyes pooled with tears. “When Uncle John gave me the picture at Christmas, it almost destroyed me. When I told him that Henry had proposed, he smiled and hugged me. “Y’all would have been spectacular, Bea! Don’t let that freeze up your life. Let time take your hand and lead you away from the pain. It just takes time.” He handed me the picture and told me I would have a great life. He was right. I have. But when my first child was born, I thought of Henry. When Uncle John died, it was Henry’s dark eyes that filled my mind. I don’t need a picture of him to know we would have been happy. You can’t see him in this picture, but his face was filled with a smile so large that I can’t bear to think about it. Now you know my story. I’m telling you the story because I know you will have a lot of heartache in your life. We all do. But if you find love, take it by the hand and smile in kindness and love. If you can do that, life will be a breeze.”

For a full minute, Grandmother Bea and I sat, both of us looking at the picture. Without speaking, both of us stood up as I hugged her, hoping that the power of Uncle John’s touch had passed to me. She pulled away from me, her hands on both of my arms. “Now, let’s have another little bit of whiskey and talk about you.” She smiled.
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P.S. I didn’t share the photo because I want each of you to imagine Grandmother Bea as she was, much in the same way that each of us can imagine young Henry’s dark eyes and deep smile. One day, as each of us transitions from flesh to memory, it would serve us well to think of them both, precariously making plans, yet filled with life.

A Mixed Post Of Story and Trivia

1/4 of all your bones are in your feet.

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“Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.” – Internet quote.

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He stopped and stared at the long rectangular Target sign at the front of the parking lot. Though the sun shone brightly, the chill of winter still clung to him. His life had become one continuous transition. His heart felt the pull of softness and also the duality of the hardness needed to live a good life. Making choices always cut one’s life into disparate columns; a choice made inevitably rendered another to be toothless. Most people found themselves unable to keep regrets from spoiling their minds; restless minds fill with regrets of things both done and undone, attempting an impossible balance.

The horn behind him startled him. He laughed as he jumped, waving to let the other driver know he was sorry. It had bleeped a long, consistent tone. “Forward now!” it said.

Just like that, he did.

He left the indecision behind him.

“Be happy,” he said, to no one and to everyone. Like his car, his life lurched forward.

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I want you to feel this sentence in your head, to experience the soft agony of a fleeting moment accelerating past. Words are knives, yet sharp edges have utility. The smell of wood smoke in December, hovering above a blanket of quiet snow. The smell of Saturday morning bacon or salt pork, your grandmother’s loving fingers artfully guiding the pieces in the hot pan, her mind focused on the utility of feeding those she loves. The smile of a September bride, her eyes opened to only possibilities and love, miles distant from those tragedies that always befall us. The tap of a piano beginning its melody in the background as someone lifts a cold beer from the family table. A raucous laugh bursting from an amused mouth. The sharp involuntary intake of breath when beauty is within reach. The rush of saliva in one’s mouth with the first bite of fried chicken, a grilled hamburger, or bell peppers slightly charred on a grill. Words are knives, but they are also caresses, ones crafted for delighted eyes and open hearts, to be whispered into attentive ears and crafty mind. Everything is a moment to an observant mind.

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“When life gives you lemons, squirt someone in the eye.” Cathy Guisewite

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Did you know that a truel is a duel except that three participants are involved instead of two? Most people don’t. Invariably, if I use the word without context, most people don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. (It’s the same when I use the word “antepenultimate,” which means “next to next to last,” or “third from last.” It’s a handy word. P.S. “X” is the antepenultimate letter of the English alphabet.)

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He sat motionless at the window, his mind trapped in an alternate universe, another timeline, one in which he was essentially himself, yet immersed in the consequences of other choices. This day would have been substantially distinct, its eddies and currents carrying him far afield from his comfort zone. Tom Wingo echoed in his head. He knew that most people wouldn’t understand the complexities of a complicated life. The invisible and hidden worlds contained inside our own minds are within reach of us all; seldom do people share them, for fear of their essential selves becoming unraveled. It is precisely inside these private compartments of our minds that we reside.

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If I tell you, “J is the only capital letter that faces the left,” you might immediately recognize that it is true. Despite this recognition, most people will stop and take a moment to inventory the alignment of their own alphabet. And if your mind is wired like mine, you will undoubtedly assign another moment to inquire as to why this small fact is true. Surely, there must be a reason.

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Someone wrote me and offered this unsolicited advice. I rewrote it to this: “The best partner is both critic and fan, unafraid to alternate between the extremes of correction and adoration.” Can you imagine if this were to be true in your own life?

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Can someone tell me why “Leave by example” isn’t a better cliché than “Lead by example?”

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Curiosity has its limits. For instance, I often see a picture of a beautiful person and wonder how many minutes have passed since they REALLY let one rip.

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About 1 in 10 people regrow at least some part of their tonsils back after removal. This fact has always stuck in my head, no pun intended.

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I am 19,717 days old today. Yay!

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Bananas are still the most popular item sold at Walmart.

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People don’t sneeze while they are sleeping. If you sneeze, you will wake up before doing so.

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A couple of the rooms here are flooded with rainbows emanating from the prisms I have in the windows. It’s the first day of Spring here in the United States. The day brought a lot of sunshine, some of which reached my heart today. That is a welcome change.

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A Random Death

Serendipity, chance, and luck constantly and invisibly ricochet through our minutes. Is this something to be observed with reverence or with gratitude? If our eyes were capable of seeing the criss-cross and intricate paths of danger, we might never relax. The universe is a complex machine of moving parts, any of which can derail our plans without regard to us.

Each of us sits in our homes, confident that our experience will guide us in unforeseen circumstances. Because life seems so mundane most of the time, we seldom see past the veneer of randomness surrounding us. Anyone who doubts this probably didn’t see the recent story of the four-year-old boy killed by a plane crashing on him and his mother as they drove down a small road in Florida. 

Two minutes before the owner snapped the picture of her adopted cat, two men ran through the snow-covered yard, their feet slipping on the hill’s incline. The owner came outside to see if her neighbor Earl was out with his rifle again. She was a bit too late to witness the random events that had unfolded around her.

One of the two running men held his left hand to his side to slow the flow of blood from the bullet hole he acquired near the road. The other man pursued him, aiming his silenced gun at random intervals and firing. A few trees noted their passing as they ran, having been on the receiving end of the bullets intended for the bleeding man.

The chase started half of a mile from the impassive cat. The fleeing man jumped out of his sedan as it slowly continued to roll past him. He knew that the slight rise against the road would give him a few seconds of concealment. When he stood up to run in a sprint across the snow, he was surprised to feel a stabbing pain in his side. Without turning to look, he knew that his pursuer had shot him, evidently expecting him to run precisely as he had. Acknowledging that he would undoubtedly be killed, he decided to make his pursuer earn the right. He didn’t begrudge the man; he had been in the same situation a dozen times. He had been lucky enough to be the survivor. Today was not his day. 

As the two men ran up the hill, the cat turned its head to look in their direction. Though neither men noted the cat along the deck railing, Assassin noted their passing. The men would have been shocked to know that the cat hailed from Detroit and that its previous owner was a notorious killer himself. 

As the men cleared the top of the hill, the pursuer stopped and aimed carefully at his victim. It would end here, in the impersonal cold. He watched his fleeing victim also stop, waiting for the bullet that was to come.

As his finger tightened on the trigger, he felt a sharp pain in his temple. He didn’t feel the side of his head exploding outwardly as a single bullet entered his head. He fell in a heap on the snow and leaves.

As the fleeing man stopped, his breath came in huge gasps. His hand pressed hard against his side. He heard the echo of a hunting rifle but felt no impact. He turned slowly, puzzled to see his pursuer dead on the snowy ground.

He turned a bit more. An older man stood on his back deck about thirty yards away, a rifle in his hands. As the pursued man looked, the old man nodded toward the road. “Leave your gun right there and go,” he said. His voice was raspy and carried surprisingly well across the stillness. 

The pursued man dropped his gun on the ground and walked toward the road. Whether the old man would shoot him too was beyond his control. He focused on placing one foot in front of the other. Doing so had saved his life several times over the years. Don’t think, just move. There would be time later to wonder how the old man decided who to shoot. 

Earl, the old man in question, took out a cigarette and lit it. 

“Honey, I got another one,” Earl shouted toward the sliding glass doors along his deck. 

In a minute, he’d get his four-wheeler and retrieve the body. The neighbors were no longer surprised by a rifle shot coming from Earl’s direction. There was no hurry. He was going to finish his cigarette first. 

As Earl continued to smoke, the cat Assassin sat perched on the railing. Both peered out at the same snowy ground. Both waited, though neither knew for what. Around them, the universe continued. 

March OF Yesteryear

The Springdale diner once stood proudly along Highway 71. Its gravel parking lot was a declaration of authenticity for those who frequented it. Though the town was growing, most residents chose the diner as their default. The waitresses were all grouchy, except for Macy, who loved everyone. The owner’s wife Mildred hated Macy for that very reason. It didn’t help matters that Macy was pretty and outgoing; Mildred looked an anvil with legs. Her singing voice in the church caused several devout Methodists to defect to the Baptist camp. If Mildred handled the register, tips usually went up due to many people choosing to pay the bill by dropping money on the table and bypassing Mildred.

Coffee flowed through the diner and the people inside it like a caffeine river. Had self-serve carafes existed then, the residents of Springdale would not have been pleased. Half the reason to have a go-out, sit-down meal was to interact and verbally jostle with those you’d encounter doing the same. Many of the wives claimed that such things didn’t matter, but most had carefully applied lipstick and checked their hairdo at least ten times that morning. Quite a few used Saturday morning to see their hairdressers.

On that March day, the wind blew and howled across the two-lane streets, taking dust and chicken feathers to every crevice. Not that townsfolk were uppity enough to drive convertibles, but if they had, their smiles would have been feather-filled and their lungs coated with the detritus of poultry.

By noon, all but one seat in the diner was filled. The exception was the chair always reserved for the diner’s unofficial number one eater. Earl only visited once or twice a week because his nephew Lou needed to drive him there. Earl saved the diner owner’s life in WWII. He would never pay for a meal for the rest of his life. Many people were unaware that Macy, the pretty waitress, was Earl’s daughter.

Macy and the other three waitresses ran from the kitchen window to tables, their fingers doing triple-duty as they placed plates, refilled drinks, and cleared tables. Wives secretly watched their husbands as their eyes followed Macy as she did her work. Most tolerated it as harmless fun. It was easy to see which wives were easygoing and which could rain hellfire down on their spouses’ heads. You could witness moms hitting the husbands with the same frequency they swatted at their kid’s perceived misbehavior.

Most of the diners chose the Saturday special. Today’s was meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, and a slice of one of seven pie varieties.

As the families ate, you’d occasionally see different folks stand up to give a quick “Hello” to someone. Such courtesies were a requirement of Saturday eating. If someone needed a longer word, they could step outside and have a cigarette and watch the traffic pass by. The ladies opted for the coat rack. Gossip was expected there, even though they disguised it with half-whispers and cautious glances around before divulging the latest news.

As the wind howled, the front door of the diner came open. Dozens of feathers eddied and blew inside. None of the people inside looked up or noticed.

The diner welcomed all visitors: even feathers, both the curse and the fuel for this town.

Rainbow girl

Rainbow Girl walked across the expanse of the cemetery, turning about halfway. The dozens of prisms she’d placed carefully in the oak tree branches shimmered like floating diamonds. The rear perimeter of the property held a dozen large oak trees, each with outreaching and drooping limbs. March had not yet relinquished winter, leaving the trees unencumbered by the approaching greenery of budding leaves.

I watched her from several rows away. A year had passed since my brother died. Without a plan in mind, I came to visit the grave he insisted on having, even after being cremated. To my surprise, some of the pain of his loss and his wasted last few years weighed heavily on my heart.

Even if she had detected my presence, I would not have affected her. It was the first time I had witnessed her. Stories about her floated around time from time to time. Most were fantastical and exaggerated. It was apparent she was no more than a young woman.

I looked away for a moment to glance at my cellphone. When my eyes found Rainbow Girl again, she ran toward the oak trees in the back and then began a pirouette, one anchored by her outflung arms. She spun faster and faster. Her black hair swung freely across her face and shoulders. When she stopped, several rainbow patterns from the prisms around her painted her face, arms, and torso. I felt as if I were witnessing a ritual. I was mesmerized.

With her arms still out, she turned toward me and waved her right hand, beckoning me to join her. Without hesitation, I quickly walked toward her. She waited, even as the prisms slowly moved with the breeze in the branches holding them. Her lips were painted bright red.

She spun her index finger around. I realized she wanted me to spin as she had. I looked down to see no rainbows across my torso or legs.

I expected to feel foolish. I didn’t. I inexpertly began to spin. After five turns, I knew I might be unsteady on my feet, so I stopped.

Rainbow Girl smiled, revealing white teeth. The smile reached her eyes, and a rainbow from one of the prisms above rested across the bridge of her nose. I smiled back at her.

She pointed at my chest.

Looking down, I saw several rainbows coloring my shirt and arms. Rainbow Girl motioned with her hand to tell me that she could see several across my face.

I laughed. Rainbow Girl spun several more times and stopped. By no means I could detect, the number of rainbows across her body had doubled. I repeated my slower spins. To my surprise, I, too, had twice as many rainbows across my body. Rainbow Girl tilted her head and smiled as wide as any smile I had ever witnessed.

She put her right hand over her heart and pointed up to the trees and March sky above. I did likewise. I felt a thousand points of multi-colored lights assail my eyes. When I looked back toward Rainbow Girl, she was covered in dozens of prism splotches, each faintly distinguished by incredibly vivid colors.

She motioned for me to cover my eyes. I reluctantly did so, blocking the beautiful mix of colors. I waited.

After a few seconds, I opened my eyes. Rainbow Girl was gone. A single prism rainbow painted the leaves on the cemetery grass. I smiled, a smile that grew across my face like the green of spring spreading over a field.

Minutes passed as I stood in the grass, wondering about Rainbow Girl and thinking about my life and that of my brother. As I walked past my brother’s grave, I noted a single rainbow across his name. I laughed.

Message received.

If you have the pleasure of seeing someone you love bathed in rainbows, take a moment to experience the magic of light rendered as color. And if you see Rainbow Girl, let her take the heaviness from your heart.

Love, X
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Spam Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

“Where were you a year ago, Wilson?” Amy half-jokingly asked her laptop.

On a random Thursday morning, Amy woke up to discover that her boyfriend of four years had left her. Eleven months of ensuing loneliness had hardened her a bit.

She had a message notification, alerting her that a non-friend wanted to send her a message. On a lark, she hit ‘accept.’

Below the picture of an attractive man, Amy saw the words, “Hello, beautiful.” Next to the message, his name: Wilson.

She snickered.

There were worse alternatives, she knew. She’d accidentally read dozens of them over the years. Few were noteworthy except for the depth of the lengths they would plummet to in an attempt to get her attention. Any reply at all immediately brought an onslaught of emboldened clichés, anatomically correct pictures, and strange requests.

Like so many women in today’s world, Amy learned to stop being curious. She marked all of them as spam and blocked them if she had the option. When even that option grew tiresome, she ignored the folder where such messages automatically went, thinking that any legitimate follow-ups would happen anyway.

Deciding that “Hello, Beautiful” wasn’t beyond the line, she went to her folder of hidden messages. To her surprise, there were thirteen. The first eight were horrendous and undoubtedly crafted by the King of Creeps. A few more were just unimaginative. Because she had started the process, she would finish.

She clicked open the thirteenth.

To her surprise, she saw a thumbnail of an average-looking man staring back at her. He was smiling. In his message, a single link. Though Amy knew not to click it, she did. Expecting the worst, she found herself looking at an online journal from a man named Evan Croft. It sounded like a Hollywood name or internet troll. Amy didn’t mind the idea of being famous – just not for being the star player in a true-crime documentary on Lifetime.

As she began reading his latest entry, Amy leaned in to read more closely. Thirty posts later, and Amy was a bit embarrassed to find herself fascinated by his life. It wasn’t that he lived an adventurous life; he appreciated people and moments that clarified more significant moments.

Before she could talk herself out of it, Amy answered Evan’s original message: “Hi, Evan. Let’s talk.” She watched the message go through. Unread.

“Well, I’m not doing anything else, so…” Amy continued reading. She took time to make a light supper for herself but forged ahead. Divorced, two children, creative job, and interested in everything. There had to be a catch, and not just because he wrote her as a stranger.

At six, Amy jumped a little when her notification ping sounded. Evan read and replied to her message: “I would love to talk. Over webcam, text, call, or shall we meet in person, like two savages? I leave the decision at your feet.” Suddenly, Amy felt a pang of buyer’s remorse and uncertainty.

Swallowing her fear again, she wrote, “My phone number is: xxx-xxx-xxxx.”

Ten seconds later, her cellphone lit up.

Without regard to waiting for a reasonable interval, Amy scrambled and grabbed the phone, sliding the ‘answer’ option as quickly as her fingers could manage.

“Hey, this is Amy!” She blurted out, smiling through her voice.

“I hope so, Amy, unless you’re accustomed to strangers answering your cell!” Evan laughed deeply at his own joke.

“Duh, yes I am. I do my best work at random bus stations and park benches.” Amy found that she, too, was laughing.

An hour later, both Amy and Evan were still animatedly trading comments and barbs back and forth.

“I’ll call you later, Amy, if that’s okay?” Evan’s voice sounded uncertain.

“Yes, please do!” Amy told him, unable to conceal the enthusiasm.

“Okay, have a good evening,” he replied.

Amy hit ‘end’ on the call. She sat at her computer desk, looking at the phone.

She was startled when it lit up and began to vibrate. Excitedly, she answered the phone.

“Hello? This is Amy!” For once, she was glad to answer her phone.

“Hi, Amy. This is Evan. It’s later, so I decided to give you a call back.” Though he didn’t laugh, Amy heard the impending laugh waiting in the back of his throat.

“Dork!” she said. To her, “impending laugh” sounded like an ideal recipe for a new life.

“Guilty as charged.” He laughed.

Amy couldn’t remember why she had doubted she would find interesting people in the world. Maybe even in the spam folder.

Evan and Amy still laugh about their first conversation, being lucky thirteen in the spam folder, and their two years together.

Spam is in the eye and heart of the beholder.

When One Door Slams

Tessa stood near the living room window, staring through the cold glass. She hadn’t slept during the night. In the odd illumination that accompanies some winter snowfall, Tessa watched the footprints fill with snow.

Around six o’clock last night, when the shouting finally stopped, and the front door slammed, she watched him stomp away through the snow. Her heart filled with dread, and her face washed with tears that couldn’t find a suitable place to end. He left a trail of meandering footprints in the snow, his feet imprinting the snow with a line of steps reaching the road. He climbed into his friend’s car without looking back. After so many years, he was gone.

He’d slammed the door and left her alone many evenings in the last few years. She found herself worried with fear that he would find something outside in the world to keep him from returning. Even after he belittled her and made her feel worthless, she repaid his scorn with loyalty. She stayed up, sleepless, and consumed with being alone.

Last night, when the door slammed, Tessa jumped with fear. A few moments later, she also felt an unfamiliar sensation well up. Relief. She shook her head in an attempt to convince herself she was mistaken. The solar lights she carefully placed throughout the yard last summer glimmered against the white snow. As the light faded in the winter sky, she noted how beautiful they were. She also remembered how badly he mocked her for buying them. He pointed out that they’d make mowing harder. She felt a flicker of anger, considering he didn’t do any of the yard work. That the solar lights had charged sufficiently to come on at all surprised her.

As the night progressed, Tessa found herself at the window, the curtains held to both sides. His snowy footprints were slowly filling as the night progressed. The solar lights continued to shine.

Tessa returned to the window with greater frequency. The relief she initially fought filled her. As the footprints became almost invisible, her relief began to feel more like hope. She stood motionless at the window for at least an hour. Without realizing she could no longer see the imprint of her departed husband’s feet, she burst into tears. The snow fell with greater fury.

By four a.m., the solar lights went below the falling snow. The snow carried a bright yellowish bulb of light under the surface.

Shortly before seven, Tessa put on her snow boots, a pair her Grandmother gave her for Christmas fifteen years ago. She still had on her one thick robe. As sunlight began to strengthen, on a whim, Tessa went outside and took long steps into the snow, all the way to the street. She turned and stared back at the house. Suddenly, Tessa didn’t feel lonely. She stomped her way back to the house.

Impulsively, she took her cellphone from her robe pocket and took a picture of the buried solar light and her deep footprints in the snow.

Without a doubt, she knew her light would resurface. Her footprints would dissipate, but she’d remain.

For the first time, she felt at peace.

Tessa remained there, near the living room window, standing in the snow for a few minutes. She felt the magic of the moment hovering over her and whispering in a voice she couldn’t quite discern. When she went back inside, she made a pot of coffee.

Tessa took a cup of black coffee and stood in front of the living room window again. As she looked outside, the solar lights dimmed and went off. Her footprints remained.

Tessa smiled and took a sip of her coffee.

The Most Beautiful Stranger In The World

Paul walked the aisles of the crowded flea market, looking at the trash and treasures piled everywhere. He agreed to do a flea market crawl out of reluctant obligation. His girlfriend Jessica loved browsing and prowling the dusty aisles of old buildings. “You never know!” she repeatedly admonished him. He never said it, but he thought in his head, “Yeah, I never know how much time I might waste.” Paul loved some of the things he found but tired quickly of the prowl.

They’d returned to his hometown for a long weekend. Though he had no plans to attend his Aunt Jill’s funeral, he did agree to return to go to visitation at Crowley’s Funeral Home. Jessica took the opportunity of their visit to ask to see downtown, all two streets of it. There were four flea markets in that small area. Paul imagined that the number of flea markets would soon reach a pinnacle, as most of the older population were dying rapidly. No one wanted their stuff filling their attics and cupboards.

Paul meandered through the maze of trinkets and what-nots until he spotted Jessica an aisle over from where he stood. He pantomimed tapping at his wristwatch, the one he never wore. She shook her head “no.” She held up five fingers. Though it meant five minutes to a normal person, Paul resigned himself to at least thirty more minutes of browsing. He nodded and walked all the way to the back of the crowded flea market.

He saw her face immediately, propped up against a plate. Her picture was printed as an 8 X 10 black and white picture, taken decades ago. Though the picture was a bit water-stained at some point, it didn’t conceal the set of her piercing eyes or the subtle smile on her face. Her lips filled toward the center, and her curly hair framed her face perfectly. Paul had rarely seen such a picture capture beauty like hers.

He picked up the photo and looked at the back. He first noticed that a small photo was glued to the back. Next to it, the name “Loretta” was scrawled with immaculate handwriting. The picture on the back showed Loretta slightly in profile. Her face was angular, defined, and revealed a slender neck. Paul found himself enraptured by the image. A slight smile framed her lips, a smile that seemed to be reflected in her eyes. Somehow, he also knew that Loretta was smart and had a wickedly sharp sense of humor.

Paul flipped the picture over again, taking a long second look at the front. He sighed. He walked back to the front, where the cashier stood inattentively. She looked up as he approached.

“This item isn’t marked,” he said, showing it to her without handing it over.

The cashier pointed to the sign by the register: “Unmarked items or items missing a price cannot be sold without the permission of the owner of the booth.”

“I’m in town for a couple of days. I really need this picture,” Paul said, surprised by his own words.

“No can do!” the clerk replied.

Paul thought a minute. “Look. I will give you twenty dollars for this picture.”

The bored cashier showed a bit of interest by arching her left eyebrow.

“I can’t. No exceptions,” the cashier said, her voice rising.

Paul didn’t miss the implication. “My apologies. I meant that I will give you forty dollars for this picture.”

“Sold,” the clerk said and laughed. She would have been irritated to know that he probably would have given her a hundred dollars.

Paul took out his wallet and handed the clerk forty dollars.

A few minutes later, Jessica appeared from the bowels of the byzantine flea market. She found Paul standing next to one of the long glass curio countertops, leaning over it and peering at an old photograph there. She leaned in and craned her neck around his elbow.

“Isn’t she gorgeous?” he asked her without looking. Jessica nodded. She found herself admiring the stranger’s face. She was a classic beauty, one that defied time. Paul flipped the picture over and showed Jessica the smaller image on the back. “Loretta,” he said, his voice taking on the tone of someone lovingly reading a poem.

“Okay, weirdo. Let me pay for this old watch, and we can skedaddle.” She smiled at Paul, who ignored her. His eyes were still locked in on the picture. “Don’t forget to bring the picture of your new girlfriend with you, Paul.” He didn’t hear her.

Jessica teased Paul a dozen times about taking another look at the pictures throughout the afternoon.
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Saturday afternoon, Paul and Jessica arrived at Crowley’s a bit early. Paul wanted to be able to arrive comfortably and watch people as they walked up. He needed cues and reminders for some of the family. As for the rest, he wanted to prepare himself for the inevitable comments about his long absence from home, questions about his family status, along with the other obligatory comments people make at funerals.

Mr. Crowley stood by the main entrance. Paul assumed he was at least ninety years old. He knew everyone in town, though, and a lot of secrets that would shock people. There were times when his failing hearing led him to answer questions that people hadn’t asked him.

Paul shook his hand enthusiastically and introduced Jessica. To his surprise, Jessica hugged Mr. Crowley, who turned red and smiled. Mr. Crowley directed them both to enter the building. Inside the vestibule, Paul picked up an announcement and handed it to Jessica. The music that always fills such places echoed strangely inside the main door. Paul hurried through.

In front of the long room, he noted Aunt Jill’s casket, adorned with a variety of flowers and a picture of her, one he had seen in someone’s living room when he was younger. Aunt Jill had been a beautiful young woman. Seeing her as a young woman in the memorial photo gave him a sense of deja vu.

Within minutes, a couple of dozen people had entered, each saying hello to Paul if they recognized him. Most attendees were well over retirement age. Paul did his best to pretend that he recognized them all. Jessica, who seemed to have magically acquired the ability to make personal connections, helped him by hugging each person who approached. Paul didn’t know she was such a hugger. In a quiet moment, he asked her about it. She smiled and shrugged. “I love people, Paul.”

At the moment Paul assumed that everyone had arrived, the door opened, and he felt his heart leap to see Aunt Jill’s partner, Betsy. Betsy had watched Paul countless times when he was young. She and Aunt Jill were together before such things were acceptable. Though she was with his Aunt Jill, Betsy always kissed him on the lips when she saw him, something that used to cause his mother a bit of grief. After pecking him, she always cackled with glee and winked at him. When he turned eighteen, she casually told him that she didn’t know she liked women until she met his Aunt Jill, who stole her heart. But that she hadn’t forgotten to appreciate a good-looking man.

Betsy slowly walked toward him, already smiling. He instantly felt glad that he’d answered her phone call a couple of days, asking when he would arrive in town. Paul bent toward her, and she put her hands on both sides of his face and kissed him thoroughly on the lips. Had he not pulled away, Betsy might have kissed him for five seconds. She laughed, looking at Jessica. Jessica also burst out laughing. “You must be Betsy!” Jessica said and moved to hug her. Betsy caught Jessica off guard, too, and gave her a kiss on the mouth. At that point, all three of them burst out laughing, which drew everyone’s attention around them. Jessica took Betsy’s right arm and wrapped it around her left arm, standing with her.

Once their laughter subsided, Betsy said, “I wish your mother were here, Paul. I can’t believe she’s been gone for all these years. She died too young, just like their momma.” She nodded toward the casket. “We had a good life together, even when people didn’t appreciate our kind. Your momma told us to keep our heads up and to love who we wanted to. And we did.”

Jessica looked at Betsy inquisitively. “Paul doesn’t have any pictures of his grandmother, Betsy. Did Aunt Jill look like her?”

“Oh lord, girl. You won’t believe it! I have some pictures in the car. Our friend Bill drove me. I’ll have Bill fetch them for you.” Betsy got distracted by another visitor as she looked around the room for Bill. He saw her craning her head and started to walk toward her.

“I’ll be back in a minute, Jessica. I forgot the pictures in the car.” Paul turned to exit the building from the service entrance on the side. Jessica followed Betsy toward the front pew and kept an eye out for anyone needing a hug. She discovered that a few did.

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A few minutes later, Paul returned, carrying a leather folder with the pictures he brought. He was chewing furiously as he walked up to Jessica, who laughed at the absurd mouthful he displayed.

Between chews, Paul managed to tell her that Mr. Crowley’s brother Earl insisted on giving him a handful of his homemade beef jerky before coming inside. Paul also told her he ate a ton of the stuff when he was a teenager and worked for Earl at the hardware store. “Better his beef jerky than his wife’s dipping snuff,” Paul said.

Paul and Jessica went to sit on the front pew with Betsy.

“Earl is here, I see,” Betsy said and winked. Paul nodded, trying to swallow the last of the jerky.

Betsy pulled a handkerchief from her black purse. He noted she had a cigarette case inside. She saw him looking and said, “That’s where I keep my gun. People see it and assume it must be cigarettes.” She handed Jessica the case. Jessica opened it. She laughed. The cigarette case contained a tiny .22 single-shot pistol. “Betsy!” Paul exclaimed, unsure what to say.

Betsy shrugged, took back the case, and stuffed it back inside her purse.

She unfolded the handkerchief and uncovered several pictures stacked together. “Let me see,” she said as she moved her fingers across them.

“Here it is. This is your Grandmother Mary, Paul. Quite the looker! You can definitely see my Jill and your mom Rosie in her face.” Betsy handed the picture to Jessica, whose mouth dropped open. The confusion on her face was unmistakable.

“What’s the matter, honey?” Betsy asked.

Without a word, Jessica handed the picture to Paul, who stared at the picture in surprise.

“What is it y’all? You’re making me nervous!” Betsy seemed to be a bit alarmed.

Instead of answering, Paul handed the picture back to Jessica. He unclasped his leather folder and picked out the 8 X 10 he bought yesterday at the flea market.

He leaned across Jessica and handed the picture to Betsy. She went pale and took a sharp breath. “Oh my!” She turned the picture over and saw the other one on the back, along with the inscription “Loretta.”

Tears formed in her eyes. “Loretta’s middle name was Mary, Paul. This picture was in her living room when she died. We wondered what happened to it. Where did you get it?”

Paul, still in a bit of shock, said, “At the bigger flea market downtown, the one off Main Street. Yesterday. I bought it because I thought it was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

Jessica didn’t take offense. Tears were forming in both of her eyes.

Betsy nodded. “Yes, she was. Jill and your mom had her looks and definitely her kind heart. She was the smartest person I ever knew, Paul. That’s saying a lot.”

The three of them sat in silence for a full moment. Betsy sighed.

“Let’s go say our goodbyes to my precious Jill, shall we? Help me walk up there if you will.” Betsy didn’t attempt to wipe away the tears on her face.

As they stood, Paul found himself hugging both Jessica and Betsy. They held the hug for at least thirty seconds.

They walked to the casket, looking at Aunt Jill’s memorial picture on the display stand near the casket. Paul held up Loretta Mary’s picture from yesterday. Somewhere in between, he could picture his mom’s face.

Betsy, her sense of timing as perfect as it always was, said, “When are you two going to be proper and get married? You can’t shack up forever, you know.”

As the three of them looked at each other, they burst out laughing, even as tears rolled from all their faces. Though the onlookers didn’t understand what they bore witness to, everyone smiled.

In the distance, thunder boomed across the sky.

Paul decided he might stay a few more days to keep Betsy company. And to prowl flea markets with his girlfriend.

“Goodbye, Loretta Mary,” Paul whispered, even as he stole a sideways glance at Betsy. She was crying, though a smile was on her face. And he looked over at Jessica, who also cried as she held Betsy against her. He couldn’t remember why he had avoided his small hometown. His whole world was with him at that moment.
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An Echo Of A Life

An Echo Of A Life

Maureen entered the house through the garage. “Mark? You in here?” she half-shouted a couple of times as she pushed the door closed behind her using her left foot. She had two bags of groceries in each hand, haphazardly hooked on her fingers. No answer.

She carried the bags into the kitchen, noticing that someone had done the dishes. She put the four plastic bags of food on the stove near the fridge. “Mark?” she said loudly one more time. Odd, she thought.

After putting the groceries away and tossing the sacks, she made her way through the house. Though she and Mark were married over six months ago, she still didn’t know his routine of how he filled his spare moments. Neither of the two kids was home yet. After checking the far bedrooms and the patio, she made her way across the house to the odd storage room where all the miscellaneous parts of their lives got tossed. She heard movement inside and a faint melody playing, so she pushed the sliding door to one side.

Mark was inside, folding shirts and doing laundry. When he saw her, he said, “Hey honey! What’s up?” and then smiled at her with a huge smile. “Hug?” he asked her, spreading his left arm in a faux hook. She walked to him and let him hug her. She kissed him on the lips, a quick peck. “I’m just listening to some tunes in here,” he said.

“Thanks for doing this laundry! I dreaded it.” Maureen gave him another quick peck on the cheek as she thanked him.

“Maureen. We talked about this. Don’t thank me for doing what I should be doing, okay?” He winked at her. “At least not that way.”

Maureen gave him a look of scorn, then smiled.

He was a keeper.

After giving him a real kiss, one loaded with promise for later, Mark told Maureen he’d be in the kitchen in a few minutes. He wanted her to help him cook a chicken dish of hers before the kids piled into the kitchen and made it impossible to cook. “I already did the dishes and cleared the drain tray,” he told her as she turned to leave. She bit her tongue, silencing another “thank you.”

Life wasn’t like she imagined. And she was beyond happy to realize it.

Love indeed resides in the laundry.