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Jul. 25th, 2017

LJ Idol Week 25 - Waffle House Index

Brie didn't belong here. Her posture, her clothing - cashmere sweater, camel hair coat folded carefully across her lap - was selected specifically to let everyone in the clinic know that this was not the sort of place she frequented.

She sat, back rigid on the equally unyielding blue plastic of her chair, and stared through veiled eyelashes at the people around her, specifically the women around her, rating them on what she jokingly called the Waffle House Index. She was from the South and everyone knew you could tell how much class a person had based on the likelihood they'd wind up waiting tables at a Waffle House by the time they were 25.

The scale was easy to deploy when it was necessary to judge someone at first glance. Brie herself was, of course, a one on the scale, meaning not bloody likely to ever work in a Waffle House, not very likely to even set foot in one unless her kids begged for some hash browns, "scattered, smothered and covered" and she was too tired from her tennis lesson to argue.

The girl across from her was about an eight on the Index. With her overdone eyeliner, black dye job grown out so two inches of dishwater blonde roots were showing and breasts squeezed up and over the neckline of her too small tank top, that child looked one eviction notice away from putting on a yellow name tag and asking "What'll ya have?" to truckers by the freeway.

When they called her and she opened her mouth to say goodbye to her boyfriend, slouching next to her - quite a catch that one, un-ironically sporting a stained muscle tee over his pale, scrawny frame - Brie saw the girl's teeth were yellow and askew and noted the nasally twang of a Cracker accent.

'Oops!' She smiled to herself. 'I was wrong!'
That girl was definitely a nine on the Index, working her way to a 10 if she didn't get to a dentist and fast.

Brie pursed her lips. That was pretty much what she'd expected when she made the appointment at the clinic, a roomful of white trash hoochies supported by their equally trashy mamas, or maybe by a prize like Mr. Muscle Tee over there, sullenly dragged along by an insistent girlfriend, but what was a mother to do?

The thing was, there were other women in the waiting room too. Women she wouldn't have expected to be in this sort of situation, Asian grad students reading Kafka in college logo sweatshirts, teary-eyed wives holding their husband's hands. The one thing they all had in common was that everyone was studiously trying to avoid eye contact with any other person in the room.

What a predicament. When her daughter called her late at night from college, sobbing that she was "in trouble," that she'd met a man at the hotel bar on her senior class trip to New York and now she was seven weeks pregnant with an unexpected souvenir, Brie hadn't hesitated for a moment.

Spring break was just a week away. She told her daughter to come on home, that mama would take care of everything. She woke up early the next morning, called the clinic and, as though scheduling a pedicure, made the appointment for her daughter's abortion before she'd even had her coffee.

She hadn't driven her daughter to years of dance classes to perfect her posture, hadn't sat through hours of violin performances and SAT practice tests and orthodontist appointments, hadn't paid for four years at a private liberal arts college so that her child could wind up a 10 on the Waffle House Index, knocked up by some Yankee who wouldn't even claim responsibility, working night shifts so she could take care of a baby all by herself. They simply weren't those kind of people.

And yet, here she sat, she thought wryly.

Maybe they should have spent more time with Jesus. She wondered how much longer her daughter would be.
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Emma was in one of the sterile rooms off the hallway, talking to a nurse. She had already had the state-required ultrasound - the fetus was eight weeks old, did she want to see it? Decidedly not. And now she had to sit through this interview before moving on with the rest of her life.

"Are you here of your own free will today? Is anyone forcing you to terminate this pregnancy?"

Emma looked out the stippled glass of the small window, wondering what the weather was doing out there. She thought of her mother, determined to make things right with her perfect  little girl, telling her not to mention any of this to anyone. She thought of her father, the disappointment on his face if he knew how irresponsible she'd been.

"Emma, is anyone forcing you to terminate this pregnancy?"

The thing was, her mom didn't know the truth, not really. That Emma really wasn't sure WHO the father of this baby was - that she had met a guy in New York and there had been that one crazy night in his hotel room high above Times Square, but she had also been sleeping with a guy on campus, this gorgeous, funny guy who seemed to really like her but, with about as much in his head as a potted fern, she knew there wasn't a future for him in her life. She had just been busy and lazy about taking her birth control pills and got caught. She knew better!

After missing her period, she told herself she was just stressed because of finals, and even when the nausea started to hit her at random times, she attributed it to a stomach bug. But, lying in bed after she nearly puked at a sushi restaurant, she knew she was deluding herself. She rose in the dark and drove to a Wal Mart at 1:00 in the morning, buying a pregnancy test where no one knew her and rushing, red faced, to the public bathroom.

In the silence of the stalls, she ripped open the foil pack and shifted around to pee on the absorbent tip. The package said to wait four minutes but a pink cross popped up before Emma could even say a desperate prayer for a negative result. Her face crumpled and she sat heavily on the toilet, sobbing quietly into her arms, her positive pregnancy test squeezed in her fist. Ain't motherhood grand?

Her mama didn't know, but she had gone to her boyfriend first, and, unbelievably, he had been the most gentlemanly of Southern gentleman about the whole damn thing.

"If you want to get married, we'll get married," he told her grandly. "My family loves you, my dad will help us out! We can make it work!"

But Emma didn't want that life, didn't want to be a mother yet, didn't want to marry out of necessity and be saddled to this sweet but slightly idiotic man for the rest of her days. She had plans, graduation, a career to look forward to and this was definitely not on the timeline. Her mom had this scale you used to judge people, her "Waffle House Index," and having a shotgun wedding in a maternity dress at 22 was definitely white trash Waffle House material.

So she had called her mother, with her grandiose ideas of proper behavior and family honor and lied a little bit to get her help. Her mom also had a Visa Black card to pay for the appointment, hallelujah.

"No. No one is forcing me to terminate this pregnancy," she said firmly.

The nurse nodded and handed her a release form to sign and then, without ceremony, sent her to get undressed for the procedure.

In a little stall, with a small television playing I Love Lucy, Emma removed her clothes and slipped into a worn, cotton gown. She folded her clothing carefully, and placed them on the bench in a neat pile. She didn't want to be the girl who'd throw her clothes in a pile and leave her underthings hanging out for all the world to see.

The nurse had asked her to take a seat until she was called so she sat daintily, hands folded in her lap. Over the madcap noise of Lucy and Desi on the television, she could hear another sound and cocked her head. It was like a vacuum, like a vacuum cleaner sucking up... jello? What the hell? And then she realized what she was hearing and wished someone had left her the remote. The volume wasn't quite loud enough.

In a few minutes the nurse returned and led Emma, bare footed, into a dim operating room. They passed another nurse on the way, leading an anesthesized young woman slowly toward a door at the end of the hall. Damn. With her raccoon eye shadow and homegrown dye job, that chica would surely have been a 10 on her mom's Index!

A doctor stood by the bed, smiling gently. Suddenly it became very important for her to show this man that she wasn't like that other girl, that she was better, smarter, a good girl...that he shouldn't judge her based on the stupid decisions she had made - that she was trying to make all that right!

"Emma, I'm Doctor Gregson. I'll be taking care of you today."
He reached out a hand to shake. The kindness in his eyes was killing her.

Climbing onto the orange pleather gurney, she smiled sweetly at him. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Gregson," she said, wondering what he must think of her, did he have children of his own, did he think she was a whore, but meeting his eyes bravely, as if they were at a business interview.

"The procedure today will just take a few minutes, and then you can get on your way," he told her. "You've elected to have twilight anesthesia. I think that's a good choice. Why don't you lay down and we'll get your IV going."

Emma took a deep breath and lay back, offering her hand to the anesthesiologist like a good girl.

"I see your chart says you are from Lake Oconee," Doctor Gregson mentioned. "I've done some golfing there."

Emma saw this as her chance to set herself apart from the other patients.

"Oh yes. We own a place at Reynold's Plantation," she told him, wincing as a needle poked into the vein at her wrist.
"Have you played the Ritz course there? It's really lovely in the spring."

If she could just pretend this was cocktail hour at the clubhouse everything would be all right. She tried to lift her head to look at his face again, but the anesthesiologist urged her to lay back.

"Oh yes, my wife and I love that course," he said. "The azaleas are gorgeous this time of year. Now Emma, if you could just count backward from 100 for me."

Emma began to count. "100, 99, 98, 97..." She thought about the vacuum sound she'd heard and tried to twist her head to see what might have made that noise.

"90, 89, 88..." Her mind began to drift and she thought of her mother and wished she could be here to hold her hand.

"80, 79, 78..." She remembered the girl with the raccoon eyes and wondered what she was doing right now. Was she sad? Relieved? Was her mother holding her hand now?

"70, 69, 68..." That girl had laid right here on this same table, not 30 minutes ago.

"60, 59, 58..." She had made a silly mistake too, had been here to fix her life just like Emma.

"50, 49, 48..." It didn't matter what her hair looked like, or her makeup, or her boyfriend.

"40, 39, 38..." They weren't so different,  Emma and Raccoon Eyes.

"30, 29, 28..." All the women here, they were all the same, just the same, once they made it to this table.
Not better or worse, but the same.

"20, 19, 18..." What the hell did her mother know anyway? But for the grace of God, they were all 10's on the Waffle House Index.

Tears slid from Emma's eyes as the darkness descended.

"10...I'm a 10, I'm a 10, I'm a 10," she whispered and then was unconscious.

Jul. 17th, 2017

LJ Idol Week 24 - Canard

She was so beautiful, all dark hair and wide eyes, standing there in the kitchen of the senior home. With her big smile and lilting voice the nurses called the new cook a Disney princess.

The orderlies just called her hot.

When they walked past the kitchen and saw her with her hoodie off, pounding out some dough for yeast rolls in a black tank top, their eyes went wide.
Up to her elbows in flour, she worked the dough hard before letting it rise and raised those big eyes to find three young men staring at her like they were starving.

"You guys looking for lunch?" she asked.

"I see something I want to eat," one of the boys said, cocking an eyebrow.

"You want some rolls, you gonna have to wait for them to rise."

"You getting a rise outta sumthin, girl," Jerome crowed to the other guys. "Why don't you let me be your Prince Charming, mami?" The guys laughed and knocked him into the door frame before they walked on down the hallway, jostling for position like a pack of young wolves.

Nieve shook her head. 'Prince Charming,' she thought and went back to her baking.

Pulling open the door to the oven, Neive slid the pan of rolls inside. It was quiet here. She liked the quiet.

She'd taken the job at the assisted living center just a few days before and didn't want want to make a bad impression with her new employers. She needed this job. Her bitch of a stepmom had kicked her out like five minutes after her dad left for Afghanistan and Nieve didn't have any family in New York. That puta had always wanted to get rid of her, she was so damn jealous.

That night, when the bruja said get out, Nieve zipped up her ratty hoodie, grabbed her backpack and ran to Javier's place.


Javi had been her best friend since seventh grade when he dumped his milk down the back of Angela Adams' shirt. At lunch, Angie'd said Nieve's Puerto Rican ass was starting to look like two bowling balls wrestling to get out of her jeans and Javi told her to keep her milky-white opinion to her damn self.

Javi was sweet and all, but he stayed with a bunch of his brothers and they were pigs.

"Dirty pigs!" she thought affectionately. They were funny and they made her feel safe but she was sick of coming home to a sinkful of crusty dishes, piss on the bathroom floor and their damn workboots all over the hallway! She figured if she saved up, made her own enchiladas and didn't go drinking, she'd have the deposit for her own little corner of Barrio heaven in about four months.

Waiting in the kitchen for the rolls to bake, she suddenly smelled apple pie, the scent washing over her like a warm hug. She looked up to see an old woman standing in the door, wisps of white hair standing out around her head in a cotton candy cloud.

The old woman's eyes widened with recognition. Nieve had never seen the lady before in her life.

"Good morning, dear!" the old woman said cheerfully. "Or is it afternoon? It might be afternoon...I get so many things mixed up these days," she said regretfully, and pushed her walker toward the counter.

"That's okay, I mix things up myself sometimes," Nieve said, smiling sweetly. The wrinkled old woman reminded her of her abuela, God rest her soul.

"You look as lovely as always." the old woman said, and patted Nieve's hand. "I've been waiting for you for so long! I'm glad you finally came!"

'Poor lady,' Nieve thought. 'She must think I'm like her grandaughter or something.'

Out loud she said, "Thank you, ma'am! I'm so glad to be here. Now, are you hungry? I've been working on some delicious yeast rolls and they should be ready in just a few minutes."

The old woman was about to reply when Jerome rushed back into the kitchen. His face was tight with worry. When he saw her standing at the counter beside Nieve, his look softened.

"Queenie! I been looking all over for you. You aren't supposed to be out of your room during naptime," he scolded gently and took her elbow, steering her toward the door. "Why don't we head back so you can get some rest before lunch?"

Behind Queenie's back, Jerome mouthed "She runs away," using his fingers to demonstrate running out the door. Nieve nodded knowingly.

Queenie looked defiant. "But this sweet young lady was just about to give me a yeast roll! I do so love them when they are hot!"

"If you go back to your room, I promise I will bring you a roll with butter just as soon as they come out of the oven, ok? Then we can sit and talk for a while," Nieve bargained. Jerome smiled gratefully.

"That sounds delightful, dear," Queenie said and turned to go. Neither of the kids saw her hand snake out and snatch one red apple from a basket on the counter as she left. She slipped the fruit into the pocket of her house dress and smiled beningly at Jerome as he led her away down the yellowed linoleum hallway.

Back at her room, Jerome opened the door and gestured her inside. She always kept her little space dark, had asked for candles because she said the flourescent lights were too harsh, but of course had been denied because senile old ladies and candles were not a good match, heh, he smiled at his pun.

As Queenie shuffled in and flicked on a lamp, Jerome caught sight of the huge old mirror that hung on her wall. The ornate frame, carved with writhing bodies and topped by a large unblinking eye took up much of one side of the room. It completely creeped him out.

Queenie had been forced into the state-run assisted living facility earlier that year. The court had decided the ancient old woman was a danger to herself after neighbors complained of a strange smell coming from her apartment and police arrived to find her cooking stew over an open fire she'd made on her fire escape that included parts of frogs and rats and pigeons. When they came to take her to the old folks home, she had hissed and clawed like a cat until they promised her they'd bring her spice rack along and that huge old mirror.

She'd tried to escape a few times, and that was why he panicked when he looked in on her nap and found her missing.
Keeping track of the senile old folks was one of his chores around here.

"Now, why don't you lay down? When you get up there will be rolls and butter!" he urged her.

She sat on the bed obligingly and waved him goodbye like a good girl.

When the door shut she turned angrily toward the mirror.

"Jesus, they talk to me like a child here," she growled. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?"

At her summons, the large wooden eye atop the mirror opened groggily and blinked a few times.

"Woman, are you really waking me at," the mirror glanced toward the clock "11:30 in the morning?! You know damn well this is nap time. Let an old demon rest! And, seriously, have you seen yourself lately? You haven't been the fairest in more than 200 years!"

"Oh, shut up, Maurice," Queenie's brow furrowed at his disrespect. "I wouldn't have woken you if it wasn't important. After all these years, I think she's here! Working in the kitchen, that sneaky wench."

"She? Surely you don't mean her? Snow White?"

"Yes, that is exactly who I mean! I snuck out earlier for a little walk and there she was, baking bread right down the hall! Some things never change," she cackled.

The Queen didn't see the look of sadness in Maurice's eye as she haltingly went to her spice rack.

"Are you sure?" he asked her. "You know that therapist back in the 70's told you to let all this Snow White drivel go, honey. You've wasted too much of your life on a useless vendetta. That little girl let you go back in the Dark Ages. Why can't you just move on?"

The Queen wasn't listening. She had pulled her spice rack down from the wall and was fiddling with a tiny clasp hidden in the back. With a pop, a small door sprung open and she removed a vial from inside. When she came to the home, they made her dump out her spices, but let her keep the rack for sentimental reasons. Sentimental reasons, hah! The spices didn't matter. It was her potions secreted in the false back of the cabinet that she wanted anyway!

If the mirror had owned a head to shake, he would have been shaking it now. Queenie had removed the pilfered apple from her pocket and was pouring a purple potion over the shiny surface. He noted there wasn't much of the poison left any longer. The mirror figured she would never have the chance to make more, the way they watched her here.

"Double, double, toil and trouble," she giggled gleefully. "I always did like that Shakespeare chap!"

In the dim light he could almost make out the beautiful woman his mistress had once been. Beautiful and cruel but then, he'd always loved a snarky witch. They'd made a good pair back in the day.

There was a knock at the door and the queen slipped the apple back in her pocket.
"Just a moment," she called in a singsong voice and hobbled across the room on blue-veined feet.

When his mistress opened the door a lovely young woman stood there, holding a small plate.
Hmm, she really might be the fairest of them all around here, but she was no Snow White, the mirror decreed.

"Queenie? The rolls are finished. I brought you one just like I promised." the girl told her.

The Queen's eyes lit up. "Why, that was so kind of you my dear! Here. I have something for you as well!"
She reached into her pocket and offered Nieve the poisoned apple.

Nieve was reaching to take the proferred fruit when another hand swooped down and snatched it away. She glanced back in surprise.

Jerome stood behind her, shaking his head with disapproval.

"Now, Queenie, you know you aren't allowed to keep food in your room. Where did you get this?" he asked her.
Queenie's face was darkening with fury.

He looked back to Nieve. "It's probably two weeks old! Do you know this is the third time this year I've caught her trying to give fruit to one of the girls here? You're a repeat offender aren't you, ma'am?" he said, and patted her arm affectionately.

Inside Queenie's room, no one saw the mirror roll its eye heavenward. One of these days the queen was really going to hurt someone but for now, all the princesses in New York were safe.

Jul. 14th, 2017

LJ Idol Week 24: Toolbox

She was so beautiful, all dark hair and wide eyes, standing there in the kitchen where the late afternoon light was the best. The room smelled like linseed oil, a streaked canning jar of the lemony cleaning solution more potent than potpourri. Her easle and canvas were on the island, tubes of oil paint spread out around the old fishing tackle box where she kept them during the week. She was in her element, lost in the swirls of colors and the soft strokes of her brush.
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I always slid into the house quietly after school, a child-sized phantom, opening the door slowly and slipping in before pressing it silently shut.

If the house was dim, I knew she was still sleeping, worn out from work the night before.

At the worn church pew that served as a bench, I would step out of my shoes in the entry hall and slip quietly into the kitchen for a snack. It was a game for me, to see how quietly I could take a plate down from the cabinet, open the refrigerator, make a sandwich without making a sound. To this day, in my own home, if I make too much noise in the kitchen I find myself looking nervously over my shoulder.

If the house was alight though, lamps on the entry table glowing, I would dump my backpack on the floor with a thump and call for my mom. When she was awake she wasn't one to sit down, so I had to find her...in the laundry room? Her garden? Cleaning something upstairs? When I found her, I would start talking, about my day, my friends, and she would keep working, often saying "I'm listening, walk with me..." as she bustled around the house, a basket of clean clothes or a duster in her hand.

Trying to keep house like her own mother, cook, raise two kids AND work full time, she didn't have time to slow down.

When I was nine years old, my brother just three, she came home from work one Saturday afternoon and announced defiantly, "I am taking a painting class!"

"Oh?" My father responded, briefly peeling his eyes away from the television. She had been gone on a two day trip for work and the living room around him was trashed.

"Yes," my mother said, nodding emphatically.

"Why?" I asked, all innocence. This was the wrong question, but I was just in third grade. How did I know?

"Because, " she said, a hint of beligerance in her voice, "I need something just for me. All I do is work and take care of this house and I want something that is mine."

This was quite the declaration. My father muted the t.v. and leveled his gaze at her.

"And when are you taking this class?" he asked, quietly.

Even at nine I could see something big was happening here.

"Every Thursday at 7:00. I'll leave dinner on the stove for you and the kids." She held his gaze steadily, daring him to argue with her.

My dad cocked his head, a buck deciding whether to run or charge. He nodded slowly.

"You've always loved art," he said carefully. "You'll really enjoy that." Then he turned the volume up on the t.v. again.
Discussion over.

She started with baby steps, simple pictures like a basket of flowers, or a grassy valley beneath a cloud-scudded sky. She soon moved on to creating more complicated works filled with detail and light, homages to her her favorite painters - Renoir, Monet, the Impressionists. She hung her pieces around the house, Ann Hathaway's cottage over the mantle, crowned cranes flying in the dining room and sailboats on the Mediterranean by the bath. To my young eyes they were masterpieces and to her, a declaration of her agency.

As I grew older, I would often slip in after school to find the lights on but when I called for my mother she wouldn't answer, wouldn't hear me, so engrossed was she in her painting. I would find her in the kitchen, barefoot in a shaft of light from the window over the sink, tapping the wooden end of a paintbrush against her front teeth as she puzzled out how to balance the roofline on a cottage or what colors she should mix to get just the right hue for a sunset-illuminated cloudscape.

Now retired, she has been creating art for 30 years this fall. Oil on canvas is her love, but she'll take requests - like the grist mill scene my uncle asked her to paint on a four-foot log saw for his cabin in Kentucky, the mural she painted at an elementary school. She no longer goes to classes but runs one of her own, teaching friends to make art on her sunny lanai in Florida. When we went to visit at Thanksgiving, her old easle was open on the deck, the paint speckled tackle box close by, her home full of the beautiful art she created.

I learned so much from her about what it means to be a parent and a person.

It is important for people to have something that is their own, something more than just work and home, something that makes you stretch and makes you proud. You shouldn't be afraid to try something new and you are never too old to get started. You may not be the best at it when you begin, but that is ok, you are doing better than most just for taking the leap and trying. With effort you can surprise even yourself.

Finally, creation is good for the soul. Be it painting or home-brewed beer or an entry for an online writing contest once a week, take the time, MAKE the time to create, and revel in the ability to make something wonderful out of nothing much at all.

Jul. 4th, 2017

LJ Idol Season 10, Week 23: Backing the Wrong Horse


Maman always told her Vincent was crazy but Gabrielle refused to believe.

He had always been so kind to her, the red-haired young man with piercing blue eyes. When they first met, she had just taken a job clearing tables and washing dishes at the Café de la Gare, open all night to serve the local drunks and derelicts.

It was just after midnight when he bounded through the door, hopping around the room in great humor, clasping hands with the old men, calling "Bonsoir, Gineaux!" to the waiter and enthusiastically buying everyone in the place a glass of absinthe. At that hour, there were only five people in the house, so, it wasn't much of an investment for the shabbily dressed young man.

Once seated at a blue-tiled table near the door, a stemmed glass of la fée verte held delicately in his hand, there was a pause in his manic energy as he assessed the space. She could see his eyes flick appreciatively to the muted shine of globed, gas chandeliers upon crimson walls, the contrast of green plaster ceiling and gold oaken floor, the lines of the room leading back to a curtained doorway. She could almost hear his curious mind whispering 'And what lies beyond that?'

His eyes wandered the room until they met hers, saw her watching him, and suddenly he was in motion again, rushing across the night cafe and grabbing her chin in his paint-splattered hand.

A timid girl, Gabrielle jerked her head away and, head cast down, looked fearfully at the stranger. Did he mean to kiss her, strike her? Her maman said you could never be sure what these bohemians would do to a young woman late at night.

"Tes yeux sont magnifiques!" he exclaimed in a rush. "Your eyes are beautiful! The aqua of the Mediterranean Sea. I should like to paint you. Would you sit for me? My name is Vincent Van Gogh." And with that he grasped her fingers to place a kiss upon her hand.

Raising her hand to his lips, the sleeve of her blouse slid downward, revealing an angry red scar that marked her forearm. His eyes grew wide and she jerked her arm away and slid her sleeve into place again.

"Bonsoir, Monsieur Van Gogh. Je m'appelle Gabrielle. You are the friend of Monsieur Gauguin, oui?"

Van Gogh rolled his eyes. "Gauguin is a friend of mine," he replied archly. "He lives in my maison, is part of my 'Studio of the South!' But please, call me Vincent. Now, come sit with a weary artiste and tell me a story. I must know how you came to have that scar."

Gabrielle was taken aback at his forward question, but could see no guile in his face, merely a childlike curiosity. She nodded and returned with him to his table, perching lightly on the rush seat.

She was a country girl and spoke simply. "My family has a farm. We grow lavende, lavender. Last summer I was in the field when I saw our shepherd dog stumbling about near the trees. It was in the shade and panting heavily and I thought perhaps it needed water. Maman told me to leave it but I ignored her. I approached it and knelt down. I put my hand out to feel his nose and, too late, I noticed the foam around the dog's mouth.

Her face paled as she recalled the scene.
"Le chien avait la rage! The dog had rabies!"

"It went mad, snapping at me, and I fell back. It lunged for my throat but I threw up my arms like this!" She demonstrated covering her face and neck.
"It bit down on my arm and shook me, but Papa had heard my cries and rushed out. He stabbed at the dog with his pitchfork and it fell on me, dead. I had been bitten so they knew I would have la rage too. There is but one way to stop the spread of it in the blood and that is to burn it out, fast as you can, so Papa and my brothers had to close my wound in the barn with an iron fresh from the fire." She looked regretfully at the red puckered skin of her forearm and shuddered.

"Most people die if they are infected with la rage!" Van Gogh exclaimed. "Yet, you live!"

"Maman had heard of a new treatment, in Paris, at l'Institut Pasteur. My family brought me there and I was given vaccines, many shots, but I survived. But, it was tres cher, so expensive, much more than they could afford. We are in debt because of me. And that is why I work here, and," she added under her breath "at 1 Rue du Bout d'Arles."

"1 Rue du Bout...but that is a brothel!" Van Gogh exclaimed, scandalized. "Surely you are to young to be..."

"Shhhh! Monsieur! Hush!" Gabrielle chided him, eyes wide, pressing her fingers upon his mouth. 'I am not une prostituée! But, La Madame does need someone to clean their sheets! The work is steady and the pay is good, so I am there during the day and here at night, until my debt is paid."

Van Gogh looked at her, hardly more than a child, and was filled with a melancholy so deep he nearly wept. Dog bites and blazing irons and prostitutes and debt. This world in which he lived was so beautiful and yet so cruel. Perhaps he could help her, could become Gabrielle's patron! When he left the cafe, he dropped a few extra coins on the table for petite Gaby.

Over the coming months, he visited her often, both at the Café de la Gare and occasionally at the brothel as well, where he was often shooed out the door by La Madame.
"If you didn't come here to pay, you cannot come here at all," she would call, braying at her double entendre as he hurried down the street.

He was passionately inspired by the small town, the light and color and soon painted the café where Gaby worked. Vincent often requested to paint her, but her maman had warned her well.
"Those bohemian types!" she'd chide. "First they say they'll paint your face and the next thing you know, you are nude on a chaise!"

Gaby swore to her mother that she knew him well. That he was a good man, a talented artiste, that he would one day BE someone, and that he WAS someone to her...but she never acquiesced to Vincent and her portrait went unpainted.

As fall slipped into winter, and the glory of the summer's sunflowers were dulled by dreary, windy weather, Van Gogh's mania drifted to depression. At the café, he would often wander in after midnight looking drawn and anxious. His clothes were unwashed and, by the smell of him, his skin was as well. His eyes were always moving, his mind never quiet, but he told Gabrielle fervently that a few moments with her was all he needed to find his soul again. He had determined that she was the last innocent thing left in this dark world.

Gaby had been working too much, and she developed a cough that frightened her benefactor. He believed it was his role to protect her, to save her. He feared it was hopeless as he was just a poor painter.

Sitting in la cathédrale just two days before Christmas, Vincent hadn't slept for several nights. He was worried about Gaby and prayed desperately that this dangerous world treat her with more kindness. Staring with bloodshot eyes at the body of Christ on the cross he knew what he must do. He began to sob, raising his arms heavenward in gratitude for providing him such inspiration.

Tucked away in one of the small brothel rooms that night, Gaby was pulling a stained sheet from an iron bed when she heard a commotion at the front of the house.
She stepped into the narrow hallway to see Vincent rushing toward her, trailed by the angry Madame and one of the working girls.

"Gaby, I must speak to you! I have something for you that is très important!"

"Vincent? Qu'est-ce que c'est? Are you all right?" Gaby grabbed his arms, taking in his pallid features, the bandage around his head and blood on his collar.

"I was in the cathedral and God spoke to me," Vincent cried, his voice strained. "He told me how I could heal you, Gabrielle! He told me I could make you whole again!"
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small box and placed it in Gabrielle's hand.

"This is my body, which is given for you," he whispered reverently.

"Make me whole? Vincent?"

Gabrielle opened the box and found an object within, tucked in newspaper. She carefully unwrapped the petite package. She noted with amusement that Vincent, typical artist, had managed to splash red paint on the wrapping paper. She pulled a final fold free and stared in disbelief at his gift to her.

In her open palm lay a severed human ear. She realized, with horror, that it wasn't paint on the paper after all, was it?

"Mon dieu!" gasped La Madame.

"Keep this object like a treasure!" Vincent said fervently. He was reaching for her with shaking arms but all Gaby could see was the blood beginning to well from the bandage on his head.

"Why must maman always be right?" she wondered idly.

The world swam around her and she collapsed to the floor.
____________________________________________________________________________________________

And it's all true.... In 1888, Van Gogh gave his ear to a farmer's daughter, poor girl. Luckily, it seems the rest of her life was far more uneventful.

Jun. 25th, 2017

LJ Idol Season 10, Week 22: Turn Back or Forge Ahead?


It was Clorox wipe-time at the Wigwam Motel.

Each week on Friday, before the weekend "rush,"  Sheryl pulled out the lemon-scented tube of wipes and cleaned the desert dust off the "artifacts" - giant hunks of petrified wood, their tops shiny from the asses of a thousand tourists posing on them for snapshots, the "ancient" Navajo kachinas - bought at the gas station down the road two for twenty bucks, the collection of classic cars in miniature - tiny red convertibles and aqua-colored roadsters, chrome fenders shining in the light that poured from the plate glass windows by the road. So many things collecting dust here.

Artifacts. That's what her boss had called them when she took the job, but really, they were "memorabilia" at best, or maybe even "relics," if you were being honest. Relics, like this old motel on Route 66, relics just like her.
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They'd been lying in bed, in a purple haze of afterglow and pot smoke when he slid his arm across her chest and ruined her life.

"Let's go out West," he'd said, blue eyes sparkling the way they always did when he got one of his big ideas. "We'll be explorers, you know, like Lois and Clark!"

"You mean Lewisand Clark?" she'd laughed, shaking her head and passing him the joint.

"Whatever, you know what I mean." His eyes flashed annoyance. He hated when she corrected him.

"We'll take Route 66, "The Mother Road," all the way to the Grand Canyon, - I've always wanted to see they Grand Canyon! - and then we'll go to Vegas, baby! Strike it rich at the slots! Vivaaaa Las Vegas!" he crowed, Elvis-style, grabbing her hips and wiggling them on the bed.

She giggled but raised an eyebrow. "You know those things are rigged right? My uncle Donny lost his car out there thinking if he just put in 'one more dollar' he'd hit the jackpot. What do they say? 'The house always wins?' It's no lie!"

"Sooo, we'll workat the casinos instead!" He always had an answer for everything. "I'll deal blackjack at Ceasars Palace, and girl, with those legs, you could be a dancer in any show on The Strip!" He cut his eyes at her slyly. "Speaking of legs...why don't you come wrap those things around me one more time, baby?"

He'd pulled her on top of him and kissed her hard. As he pressed deep inside her, all her arguments disappeared in the smoky air. She'd always wanted to drive Route 66.

They hit the road and made it to the Painted Desert before it all fell apart. Truth be told, the beginning of the end was back in Nebraska, or maybe Kansas - one of those flat states with nothing to look at and nothing to do for miles but talk.

First, they got lost. Route 66 wasn't marked as well as it used to be and somewhere around Lincoln they made a wrong turn and wound up in the center of corn fields that went on for miles. He blamed it on her and she blamed it on him and his eyes went hard and he hadn't spoken to her for hours.

Then, she corrected him one too many times. They were talking about movies, and he'd mentioned Star Wars, and then held up his hand, fingers spread in a V and said solemnly "Live long and prosper."

Couldn't he get anything right?

"That's Spock! Star TREK!" she'd said with irritation.

His brow furrowed in anger. "You think you're so damn smart don't you?"

He'd raised his palm to her like he might slap her face, then dropped it heavily back to the steering wheel. She felt a small shock of fear tingle down her spine. Maybe this had been a mistake, but they were a hundred miles from nowhere. It was too late to turn back now.

They were cruising through the Petrified Forest in Arizona when the car overheated. It was 110 in the shade - if you could find any shade - and they rolled, steam rising from beneath the hood, into the visitor's center parking lot. They were getting low on cash but headed in to the old Fred Harvey luncheonette to make a plan, eat some diner food, the chrome shining around the red leather booths.

They ate their lunches in silence, each wondering what next. When she finished her sandwich, Sheryl noticed the pie display twirling beside the counter. "Do you think I could get a slice of pie?" she asked him. "That chocolate cream looks so good! We can share it..." she offered, batting her eyes sweetly at him.

He looked at her face, at the pies swirling in their case and then out at the parking lot. A van had just pulled in and some guys piled out, slapping shoulders and stretching. VEGAS OR BUST! was written in the dirt across the windows.

"Sure baby, get yourself some pie," he'd said, and tossed a twenty on the table. "I gotta go." He gestured toward the bathroom and walked away.

She called a waitress over and ordered her pie. When it came, fork tinkling on the diner dish, she sat contentedly staring out the window at the endless desert, slowly savoring each silky sweet bite. 

She was thinking she needed to save a some for her boyfriend - what was taking him so long? - when she saw him walking across the parking lot toward the guys in the van. Was he going to ask them for help with their car?

He talked to them, gesturing animatedly to their broken car, the Vegas sign on their window. At first they looked wary of this stranger, but as usual, he charmed them and when they slid open the big van door, he climbed right in, a smile on his face, backpack slung over his shoulder. Wait. What the hell was he doing?

She rose to rush out the door after him but the waitress hurried over, afraid she was skipping out on her bill. She pushed the twenty he'd left into the server's hands and ran to the parking lot. The van zoomed off, tires skidding in a scatter of pebbles as the bros inside whooped and laughed.

She was alone, and he'd never even looked back.

What should she do? She couldn't go home. Her mama had been so pissed when she'd left, furious that she was "gonna go live in sin with that dreamer in the Temple of Sodom and Gomorrah." Her mother had warned her that this would happen and she'd be damned if she was going to prove her right. She was 21 years old and she could make it on her own.

She went back to the car and grabbed her suitcase, her sunglasses, and headed out to hitch a ride to Vegas.

The first car she hopped, a minivan with the all-American family that talked too much and sang along with oldies on the radio, got her as far as Sun Valley.

The next was a quiet and kindly-looking man in a beat up truck. When he pulled off the road by the railroad tracks in Holbrook, unzipped his faded jeans and grabbed her by the back of her neck, he said it all when he demanded "a down payment on the rest of the ride."

She struggled fiercly, clawed at his face, and managed to slide out of the truck as he sped away, tearing up her knee when she hit the shoulder. She limped into town and almost laughed when she saw the goofy concrete dinosaurs of the Rock Shop, the flashing neon warrior of the Apache Motel. She was at the heart of Route 66 now.

She took her chances at the Wigwam Motel. The white tipis with bright red doors set back from the highway, where roadtripping families spent the night back in the 50's, had always conjured the perfect image of a simpler era for her, a more innocent time.

The elderly owner took one look at her dusty, tear-streaked face and took pity on her. He gave her Lidocaine and Bandaids for her knee and set her up in Wigwam #5.

"I've been looking for a night manager," he mentioned casually as she left the lobby. "Maybe we can talk about getting you a job in the morning."

She nodded, grateful, and walked across the parking lot to her tipi. Inside the angled walls she found a double bed, Navajo blanket folded neatly on top, a tiny table with a mini fridge below, a tube tv mounted to the wall and a bathroom so small she had to hunch over to take a shower. Home sweet home.

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That's exactly what it had been for the past two years.

She took the night manager job. She was on duty from Noon to nine o'clock when the reception desk closed. From twelve to three she changed bed sheets, scrubbed toilets and swept floors in the 15 little tipis they rented by the night to adventure seekers and idealists.

From three to eight thirty she worked in the office, checking folks into their rooms, giving out keys and wifi passwords. Yes folks, these days even wigwams have wireless. And, once a week she was on Clorox duty, keeping the artifacts free of dust, shining like the day they were made in China.

Don't get her wrong, she loved Route 66. Loved the kitsch and silliness and the glow of neon at night. But she'd seen it from the inside out now, lived it from the inside out and now she could see the difference in fool's gold and fourteen karat.

That Friday she checked in a family of four...
"But WHY is it called the Wigwam Motel when these are TIPIS, mom?"
"Well, honey, people just weren't as culturally aware back then...but aren't they cool?!"

And a couple roadtripping their honeymoon cross country....
"I always thought staying in a wigwam on Route 66 would be SO romantic!"
"I sure hope the beds in those tipis have good springs!"

And a man on a motorcycle in dusty leather chaps...
"Where can a guy get a cold beer around here? I'm parched."

And one guy, who pulled up in a real classic Chevy, fenders gleaming, the car a midnight blue that matched his eyes...
"I know it's silly, but I just love Route 66. There's something timeless about it..."

She gave him his room key and when his hand lingered over hers she met his eyes and found a question there.

"I get off at 8:30," she said simply.

"You know where to find me," he replied.

A few hours later she hit the lights, her day at its end, and the neon Wigwam Motel sign went dark.

It was Friday and there were still five vacant tipis on the lot. The heyday of the Mother Road had long since passed this cracked blacktop by. Sometimes the loneliness of it was too much to bear.

She filled a bucket with ice from cooler, tucked in a few beers and headed to Wigwam #11.

When she knocked on the door he opened it quickly, those dark denim eyes opening in surprise.

"I didn't know if you'd come," he stammered.

"What's that they say?" she asked shyly. "Get your kicks on Route 66?" She waved the bottles at him invitingly.

They sat together in a companionable silence on a green iron bench beside his cement tipi, drinking beer and watching cars pass on the highway as the last rays of the sun disappeared.

When the bottles were empty he leaned toward her in the gathering dark and kissed her full on the mouth, the bite of beer both bitter and sweet on his tongue. Rising, he took her hand, opened the red door and led her inside.

In the haze of the afterglow they lay facing each other on the twin bed, feet tangled in the Indian blanket. He rubbed his fingers over her knuckles and kissed them.

"You know, I was thinking of driving on to Vegas," he told her. "Maybe stop by the Grand Canyon? You could come with me..."

She rolled onto her back and smiled a bittersweet smile. What was it with her and these damned dreamers?

"Thank you, but no," she said, kissing his chest as she rose. She slipped back into her jeans and shirt.

"I'm afraid this is where the road ends for me. But, why don't you send me a postcard from the Strip?" She knew she'd never hear from him again.

With a last kiss, she walked out the door, into the cool desert night.

He watched her go, through the tiny window of his tipi, watched her unlock the door to Wigwam #5 and step inside.

As the light clicked on in her tipi, her home, he wondered how she got here. Her story was just one of many left by the wayside on Route 66.

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The front of the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook where we slept this Friday night. Two classic cars for effect.

A variety of "wigwams" for rent. At 8:30 the young woman who checked us in turned off the neon and walked back to where she lived - Wigwam #5.

My family in the tipi on our roadtrip - not a lot of space, lol!

Cement dinos at the Rock Shop on Route 66 in Holbrook.

Sunset on Route 66 at "the corner" in Winslow, Arizona from the Eagles song "Take It Easy."

Same corner. That's me, fan-girling it up!

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Jun. 14th, 2017

LJ Idol Week 21 - Current Events

Hattie woke with a splitting headache.

The air felt heavy in her little room, heavy behind her eyes, and without even looking out the window she knew a storm was coming. She pressed her fingertips hard to her temples and sat up, a wave of nausea making her grimace. Migraine again. She needed to get the girls up so they weren't late for their shift at the factory. Headache or no, Mr. Cooper was a stickler for punctuality and they needed the work.

'No rest for the wicked,' she thought, and stood slowly, a little shaky, spots swimming before her eyes.

That Tuesday, Hattie Mae Mincey should have just stayed in bed.

Their rooms were just off the square in Gainesville. Hattie preferred the freedom of farm living but after Bascomb died in a hunting accident, dear Bascomb, she didn't know how she was going to manage their 50 acres with naught but two teenage girls and a pile of debt deeper than the Father's love. Smack in the middle of what people were already calling a "Great Depression" they'd scrabbled by all right, but she couldn't run the place alone.

She saw the notice in the local paper saying the Cooper Pants Factory was looking to hire "200 nimble fingered, hard working ladies of character" and she knew this was her Savior at work. She sold the farm and moved the girls into a boarding house in town, and when the foreman saw their earnest faces and heard their story, all three ladies were hired on the spot.

Pansy and Gertrude shared the room next to hers. They'd been so brave, so strong, leaving school, working hard six days a week to give their mama their pay every Saturday.

She'd tried to pretty the space with some plaid curtains, but the grey walls resisted sprucing up. Just a few more paychecks and they could start looking for a place of their own here in town, something with a porch and a little yard for a garden - vegetables AND flowers!

The girls rose, hurrying into simple cotton shifts and wrapping their dark hair up in braids. Gertie grabbed her little silver crucifix, a vine of ivy engraved along the front, a birthday gift from her late father, and tucked it under her shift. The ladies grabbed leftover biscuits and their lunch pails from the kitchen and hurried out the door to walk the few blocks to the factory.

Glancing at the mantle of low hanging clouds outside, Hattie shook her head. The humidity was so thick and still you could cut it with a butter knife. Hopefully they'd make it to work before the rain started.

When they arrived at the factory the family split up. Gert had a head for numbers and assisted the office staff on the third floor with their accounting. Pansy was quick with a treadle and worked on the second floor in the sewing room. Hattie worked on the ground floor in packing and shipping, readying orders for delivery.

Barely settled at her station, the rain began to fall, fat drops splashing against grimy panes of glass. Outside the sky had continued to darken and Hattie noticed with concern that the clouds were taking on the sickly green hue of an old bruise, a sure sign of tornados in the area. She'd seen a few of those in her day. Gainesville was at the foot of the Appalachians and the mix of warm and cool air made it a frequent site for the deadly twisters.

She was considering going to find the girls when the building went completely dark. The storm had knocked down the fledgeling power lines, leaving them without electricity.  She could hear the squeals of women from above, but soon candles and lanterns were lit and the 200 women and girls employed by the pants factory settled in to ride out the storm.

The wind picked up, lashing rain against the panes. Hattie jumped when something smashed into the side of the building near her table and she rubbed her aching head. The sky had grown as dark as the inside of a pocket and the clouds were roiling, so low now Hattie felt she could jump up and touch them.

And that was when she heard the sound, like a great freight train barrelling across the square. Above her, the windows began to pop from the pressure, sending a cascade of glass into the room. She could hear screams from the floors above.

Hattie scuttled beneath a steel work table in the corner and backed against the wall. The loading door was sucked open into the day turned night and she could see the tornado, actually see the great twisting funnel of destruction as it crushed the downtown square in a shower of red brick and twisted trees. It was headed right for her.

Wrapping her arms tight around the table leg, Hattie began to pray. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."

The ceiling tiles began to shake, it seemed the very ground was quaking, and debris drifted to the floor around her as the tornado neared.

The pine boards and old bricks of the factory didn't stand a chance against nature's fury. The tornado veered into the side of the building, ripping the roof into shredded confetti and collapsing the walls inward like a child knocking down a block tower. The tornado, unrepentant, rolled on.

Beneath the table, Hattie screamed and covered her head as the building began to fall, but her corner was secure. As the tornado roared into the distance, she rose, shaking, covered in dust, and listened, ears ringing ears, to a silent factory.

And then the screaming began. Women and girls, trapped in the rubble, beneath collapsed walls and dessicated roof beams cried out to one another, to God, some just cried in fear and pain.

It was then that Hattie noticed the smoke, billowing in from above. When the tornado hit, all those oil lanterns and candles became flaming projectiles, thrown into the piles of cotton fabric, spools of thread and the shattered wood like kindling that lay scattered throughout the building.

"Fire," Hattie croaked, then louder "FIRE!"

Hattie ran for the stairs. She had to find her girls! When she threw open the door she saw the concrete block stairwell was intact but the first two flights of wooden stairs had fallen down. Above her, in what remained, a crush of women were gathering on the second and third floor landings, crying out for someone to save them.

Hattie searched the faces of the women above for her daughters but saw neither Gert nor Pansy in the bunch. As the fire reached the stairwell, some of the women jumped the 20 or 30 feet to the floor, and Hattie helped them limp to the back door, asking each time "Did you see Gert up there? Was Pansy with you?" Each time they shook their heads she hurried back to the stairwell.

Screams of agony echoed from the floors above as the hungry fire licked its way along the dry old boards catching trapped women in its hungry maw, devouring them whole and leaving not a trace.

Tears streaked Hattie's face in the rising heat but she ran back to the stairwell again and again. Around her the building began to groan, the crackle of the fire the final death knell for the old structure. The third floor collapsed first, crashing down to the second floor and driving it straight to the ground.

Hattie was reaching up to catch a little girl, no more than 12, her mother trapped on the landing above, when the wood of the staircase gave out from the weight of the women. The stairs groaned, then cracked, wobbling beneath the horrified women and then collapsing in a shower of bodies and beams and terror.

As though poured down the shaft by some vengeful spirit, fire coursed down on them from above, turning the concrete blocks of the stairwell into a crematorium. The last thing Hattie saw was that river of fire cascading toward her as she stumbled back from the stairwell.

The entire building burned so hot that there was simply nothing left of more than 70 women and girls who perished there in the Cooper Pants Factory, in horror and agony, that morning.

Families came running, desperate to find their wives and mothers and daughters, but mostly they just found a charred square of earth, the air full of ash, a mass grave on the edge of the square.

Hattie's body was actually recovered, it lay in the burned grass by Market Street for a day as the town took stock, dug out.  When the coroner came to take her body the next morning, he found it missing, assumed a relative had claimed it.

They hadn't.

Years passed, 50 years, and the Cooper property at the southwest corner of the Square was bought by the City, paved over, became a little-used parking lot. An historic marker was placed on the spot, in memoriam of the women and girls who died there in a fiery inferno.

And then, 81 years after the tragedy, the city decided it was time to move on. They sold the lot to a developer who promised a mixed use property with a gourmet grocery downstairs and upscale apartments above. Although there were a few small protests from the Historical Society, no one was really around any longer to argue.

On the day the leasing office opened, David Knight sat at his desk, pleased at the classy Dutch Modern furniture his interior designer selected. This was his first real job at his dad's real estate development company and he was looking forward to filling up the gorgeous new property.

The door opened just after 8:30, the little bell tinkling, and a woman walked in, her long, dark hair in a braid. Her solemn face was framed by the collar of her flowered cotton dress. "Somebody's going for a retro look" he thought, but it worked for her.

"I hear you are renting rooms here," she said, her inflection rising on the end as though it was a question. "I'd like to let one. I've been waiting ever so long for the opportunity."

Knight was thrilled to have his first prospect. "Yes, of course! So what are you looking for in an apartment?" he queried. "Some of our units offer whirlpool tubs and gourmet kitchens. Others have cedar-lined, walk-in closets, rain shower faucets...we have some with a great view of the square and a few with a lovely view of the courtyard garden."

Her eyes lit up. "A garden? My girls always loved..." She trailed off. "Well, a garden view would be perfect," she finished.

"Would you like to see it?" Knight rose and plucked his keys from a hook on the wall.

The woman nodded slowly. "Certainly," she whispered.

As they walked down freshly carpeted halls, Knight chattered amiably, sharing news of the LEED points in the building, the sturdy steel framework and the security system.

Nearing an emergency escape, he opened the door to the stairwell and paused. "All our apartments are directly tied to the fire department monitoring system. In case of an emergency, they'll be here in under three minutes!"

At the mention of fire, her head had jerked up and her eyes met his with a haunted ferocity. Had he said something wrong?

"Fire is a deadly demon," she said, jaw tight. She glanced up into the sodium-yellow glow of the emergency lights in the stairwell for a moment before quickly casting her eyes down again.

"Well, uh, let's head out to the garden," Knight replied, overly cheerful. Holding the door for the strange, quiet lady, he wondered what sort of baggage this odd bird was carrying.

They stepped out into a charming courtyard, freshly landscaped and fragrant. Stone paths, framed in moss, curled invitingly through the space. Wrought iron benches dotted the green landscape and a marble fountain, a statue of a little girl pouring water from a pail, burbled in one corner.

"All our residents will have use of the garden, but only first floor apartments have direct access through their patios," Knight began.

"This is a beautiful place. Such a sweet botanical collection! The daffodils are so cheery, and just look at that gorgeous forsythia bush!"

"The landscaper used plants native to Georgia ma'am. In the summer, this one will blossom into lantana..."

"And this is a flowering magnolia, isn't it? Oh and gardenias! These will make the whole place smell like Heaven this summer!"

"You know your plants!" Knight exclaimed, and gestured for her to follow him.

They stopped before an overturned patch of earth.

"This side of the courtyard gets the most light so we left the corner uncultivated in case of our residents wanted to plant a vegetable garden! Do you like tomatoes?"

The woman began to speak, but a glint of silver in the fresh, black dirt caught her eye. She knelt to pick the object up and brushed the soil from it with trembling fingers. A cross, a little silver crucifix ringed with an ivy vine lay in her palm. She clutched it tight in her hand and, raising her fist to her mouth, began to sob, eyes raised to the patch of blue sky above.

Knight was shocked. "Ma'am? Ma'am, are you all right?" he asked. "What did you find there? The gardner said he unearthed quite a few little treasures when he came in here with a backhoe - some rings, old hair barrettes, bobby pins. Said it might have been an old midden heap from the early days."

The woman looked at him, tears streaming down her face. "Midden? Trash? A trash dump? This was the Cooper Pants Factory. Don't you know your history, boy?" she cried. "And thisis my daughter's pendant!"

This was not going at all as he planned. Knight considered the sobbing woman in the dirt at his feet apprehensively.

"Ma'am, can I get you a tissue?" he asked, buying time, and turned to dig in his pocket. When he turned back, the woman was gone, just gone. Only a scorched patch of turf remained where she'd knelt.

"What in the actual hell..." Knight whispered to the stillness of the courtyard.

Behind him, a girl giggled. A chill slid down his spine, pricking his thighs with gooseflesh. Slowly turning his head, he thought he saw the smoky outline of three women in black dresses standing by the fountain but then the clouds shifted and they were gone.

Knight rubbed his eyes and looked hard again but found himself completely alone. He'd always been more of a "flight" than "fight" sort of man. Turning heel on the stone path, he rushed back to the safety of his office as fast as his leather loafers could carry him.

In the sun near the vegetable garden, Gertie helped her mother to her feet.

"Where have you been, mama? We've been waiting here for you for ages." She took the crucifix from her mother's palm and slipped it into her pocket.

"Yes, mama," Pansy pouted. "We were beginning to think you'd nevercome!"

Hattie cupped the face of first one daughter, then the other in shaking hands, before gathering them to her fiercely in a hug.

"My beautiful girls. I have been looking for you, my darlings, everywhere for you, but there just wasn't a trace...I swore I'd never rest until we were together again."

Pansy giggled. "We've been right here all along, mama. Us, and a bunch of other girls from Cooper's too. We just wanted to go home for so long, but now that you're here..."

"Home is where the heart is," Gert finished with a smile.

Hattie grinned through her tears. She had finally found them, found her good, sweet girls.

"I'm here now my darlings, and I promise to never leave again. Never. Now, who wants to explore these apartments? They sound quite lovely to me!"

Back in his office, David Knight googled the Cooper Pants Factory and gasped when the page loaded.

Staring back at him from a grainy photo taken in 1936 was Hattie Mae Mincey, the woman he had just taken on a tour of the garden. The caption below explained that Hattie, her daughters, and approximately 70 other women and girls had died in a tragic fire after the tornado of '36. A fire that had raged on this very spot. And they had just built apartments onto their mass grave, churned their ashes up and set a foundation where their remains had lain, undisturbed, for decades. How could his father have done this without telling him?

He had a feeling Hattie wouldn't be the only restless spirit he saw around here.

Dear God. What had they done?
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I recently found out about some improvements they are planning to make to the historic downtown square where I live.

https://www.forsythnews.com/local/business/developer-turns-attention-gainesville-square-project/

Sounded promising at first, but, as I read deeper, I was distressed to recognize the location of one of the mixed use properties. They are planning to build on the site of what is basically a mass grave in my hometown. The article below explains what happened at the site in 1936. I think it's terrifically disrespectful, not to mention, if you've ever seen a horror movie, a pretty bad idea. I'm astonished there hasn't been more of an outcry!

http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/m/archives/104989/

Jun. 6th, 2017

LJ Idol Week 20 - Open Topic

When I was a liar, I always gave you my truth.

Even when it was ugly, even when it hurt you, hurt me, I never lied to you. I know it felt cruel to you sometimes, jagged echoes of my honesty reflected in the hurt in your eyes, but you were my best friend, ARE my best friend, and I never wanted what was between us to be filled with falsehood.

In those days I lied to everyone but I loved to lie to myself most of all.

"I NEED these gorgeous boots," I'd crow as I threw a maxed out credit card on the counter at Nine West.
"I DESERVE this vacation," I'd yell, tossing a fuck-you glance at my harried boss and disappearing without word for a week.
"I DON'T drink too much," I scoffed at my roommate, waking up in a stranger's clothes, gravel in my throat and boulders in my brain after a blacked-out night of partying.
"I LOVE him. Everyone fights like we do" I whispered to my reflection, glancing away from the bruises on my arm and throwing on a cardigan so no one else would see.

A little irresponsible, a little irrational, a little self destructive. I must have hated myself a little back then, and in that, hated everyone who loved Hurricane Me a little too.

You didn't judge me though. You never let me push you away. That makes you braver than me, stronger than me. You had your own demons, your own screwed up history, but I knew when I was weak, when I was a mess, when I disappointed myself and everyone around me, you were the one person I could talk to, lay bare my imperfections, without fear that you would fear me or hate me or worse yet, pity me for my mistakes.

There was a time when you loved me, I know, really LOVED me with a capital L, but I never felt that way about you, and that was where the cruelty came in. You were brother and soulmate, not lover or bed warmer to me, I had too many of those back then, but just one of you. I would never have risked losing you by trying to love you the way you needed to be loved, knowing it was fleeting. That wasn't my role, wasn't our story.

There was that one Christmas Eve, a surprising December snow falling in whispers over our hometown. We hadn't seen each other in months and we sat in your old car bathed in the green glow of the dashboard lights in an empty movie theater parking lot talking about high school, our future, heads close together in the dark.

There was a moment, in the warm, muffled silence of the night, when we ran out of words, that my heart skipped a beat and we leaned in close, slowly, close enough that I could feel the electricity from your face, noses brushing...But no! We both think too damn much and we pulled away in unison, eyes shining, laughing, shaking our heads.

"Did we almost...?"
"Should we just...?"
"No! Definitely not! No."

Too much at risk, too much to lose. And then we just held hands, listening to the radio, content to have found one soul on this Earth who could sit with us in silence and not run away.

I thought of you today, as I stood in the midst of a thousand people at a Paul Simon concert in the heart of Atlanta.

"Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down..."

One night, back in those days when I hated myself just a little - twenty one years ago now, believe it or not - you and I sat in this very amphitheater, shining and beautiful in the way that only the very young and the very idealistic can be.

That summer, I'd been dumped by the boy that was meant to accompany me to this show and had just started dating another, that one with a British accent, how EXCITING, but I had offered the concert ticket to you.

In the purple dusk before the show began, I made snarky comments about my old love and chattered with enthusiasm about my new one and you watched me with a bemused smile on your face. Warm candlelight began to pop from the the picnic tables in the expensive seats like entranced fireflies and I commented whistfully about what a romantic place this was.

You turned to me then, guileless, and asked "Do you wish you were here with someone else?"

I took a moment to consider. DID I wish I was there with someone else? In the cinnamon-autumn breeze, in the candlelit dusk? I would never lie to you, even if it were cruel, so I wanted to carefully consider before I responded.

You searched my face, waiting for me to reply.

You were my best friend, my favorite person in the world. The one thing I could always be sure of.

"No," I said, absolutely. "I do not want to be here with anyone else but you."

And that was the truth.

May. 26th, 2017

LJ Idol Week 19 : Invitation

Those Junior League bitches wouldn't take my mama and now they can't have me either.

My mama grew up poor. From a good Catholic family, she was the oldest of eight kids, and there probably would've been twenty of them if her daddy hadn't died when she was 12. Yeah, eight kids ranging from two to twelve, being raised by a widowed mom in an 820 square-foot house on a postage stamp of land off Eight Mile in Detroit.

After her daddy died, neighbors came and converted the attic into a bedroom for the four sisters to share, built little dressers for their scant belongings right into the eaves. The girls fought over basics like slips and hair curlers and their shoes never fit right because they'd been worn down and handed down from my grandma to each girl in turn.The four brothers shared a room downstairs, where they hoarded things like bread and cereal in their dresser drawers because there was never quite enough food. Their mom had her own tiny bedroom with a grimy window and a doily-covered makeup table, cracked, round mirror on top. All nine in the house shared one miniscule bathroom.

At the end of their street, a family with a little land and a big arbor grew vines of fat, purple grapes. Out of Christian kindness, they gave my grandmother all that she and her kids could pick. My grandma brought them home to the tiny kitchen with yellowed linoleum to mash and sugar and boil in a huge pot. She made jar after jar of tangy jelly every fall, and 365 days a year the kids were each given one peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich for lunch, at school, at home, no variation, no complaining. To this day, my mom still won't touch grape jelly.

Mama desperately wanted to join the Girl Scouts, but her mother couldn't afford the uniform so she babysat for the spoiled kids of a Protestant family down the street - there were just two children in that house - and she earned the eleven dollars it took to get her green outfit and sash. She loved Girl Scouts, it was her quiet place, the only thing in her life that was all hers. She loved helping at senior homes, selling cookies and playing clapping games with the other girls in the church social hall.

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black.

It was at Girl Scouts that she met a real PanAm stewardess, a gorgeous lady in in a fine suit and heels, with red lipstick and a hair-sprayed chignon. She told the girls stories of first class passengers, sleeping in fancy hotels and traveling the world. She was everything my mama didn't know she could even be.

'This is how I get out of here,' my mother thought, and for the next six years she worked toward her goal of signing on with the airlines and getting the hell out of Michigan.

That was how a poor girl from the wrong end of Detroit ended up in Atlanta, at Delta airline's flight school, surrounded by debutantes, beauty queens and Agnes Scott graduates who'd spent four years focusing on getting their M-R-S degrees. My mom stood out like a sore thumb in the dorms with her Salvation Army pajamas and hand me down luggage.

But she was beautiful and she was smart. God had given her a perfect smile and good skin and even with a midwestern accent she could charm the pilots and passengers. She graduated top of her flight class and was soon living her dream.

She met my daddy, a smooth talker with little education but a lot of business sense and soon they were married. It was the 70's and she had a brick house in the suburbs, a patio with an inground pool and a husband with a pinky ring. All was right in the world.

They made smart choices, lived in better neighborhoods then they could really afford and sold their homes when the market was right. By the time I was 15 years old we were living in a gorgeous place on Lake Lanier with a formal living room and a couple of boats.

No longer a hungry little girl in shoes that didn't fit, my mama's walk-in closet was bursting with fabulous clothes, her jewelery box full of sparkling things. I didn't realize then that it was a defense mechanism, surrounding herself with finery, because inside she still felt the embarrassment of being the poorest kid in class.

One day, not long after we moved in, the Junior League came to call.

I don't know how it is up North but down here, the Junior League women run everything posh. They are THE fanciest matrons in town. Their families have either been here since the dawn of time or they have so much money that where they come from doesn't even matter.

Their daughters are the ones who dance at the Cotilion balls, their sons get references from senators on their college applications. They attend croquet parties at the country club, organize charity food drives for Thanksgiving, have a fundraiser ball every spring benefitting different benevolent organizations and they run the annual fall thrift sale. Every lady has to donate a certain amount of their unwanted fancy stuff to the sale or they get fined!

Suffice it to say they are the uppitiest bunch of snooty Southern bitches on the planet. And somehow, my mama thought they would accept her. Her heart was in the right place, truly, and that's what hurt the most. She had some time on her hands, and some extra money. She thought she could help them do good in our community too.

On a magnolia-scented afternoon they showed up on our doorstep. A woman I babysat for a few times, who lived just up the street from us, knocked on our door. She stood there with another lady, in nearly matching blonde hair helmets and too bright smiles, fat rocks weighing down their ring fingers.

"We ahh from the Juniah League," one announced, all Southern drawl and over-sugared sweet tea.
"We ahh selling tickets to ouh annual Spring Fling!" the other finished, diamond bright, diamond sharp.

My mother looked a bit nervous in the face of so much flash but I could see her winding up for something big.She thought she belonged with these women now. She thought that she too had arrived.

"Well, I'm not really interested in buying a ticket, but I would love to help you with your events. What can I do to get involved in your organization?" she asked, genuinely.

They laughed. Just stood there and laughed on our front porch in tinkly little notes that shattered like glass at my mama's bare feet. They didn't know my mother from Adam's house cat, but in the two minutes they stood there they could tell she was not one of them.

"Oh, no," one admonished her. "You can't just join the Juniah League. You have to be invited."  She patted my mother's arm apologetically, as if surely she was a bit simple to think they'd ever take someone like her into their sacred bosom. "But, ahh you certain you don't want to buy a ticket?"

My mother had the grace to say "No, thank you," before walking back inside and gently shutting the door.

I watched for a moment through the glass and when the "Juniah" Leaguers were back in their car I smirked.
"Wow! THAT was unbelievable, mama! What bitches!" I said, laughing in astonishment at their privileged attitude, their obnoxious contempt for us.

My mama was not laughing. In just two minutes, those rotten belles had stolen from her the confidence that she'd built over 20 years of carefully planned outfits, expensive haircuts and interior designer sessions. In just a few words, they'd let her know that anyone with real money, real class, could see she was just a big ole fake.

Mama hid it well, but she never had stopped feeling like a poor little Catholic girl from Detroit. Those Junior Leaguers stripped her bare.

She walked down the hall to our kitchen, her proud back ramrod straight, little sobs shaking her shoulders.

I'll never forgive them for that. Have never looked at those women with anything but derision ever since. Some of my classmates who married well went on to become Junior Leaguers and I feel ashamed of them for partaking in any group that thinks wealth makes them better than anyone else.

Years later, after I got married, had moved to another town, I was involved in a lot of community initiatives because of my job, and living in a lovely Antebellum home just off the historic square. An invitation arrived in my mailbox, in a fine envelope with my name in calligraphy.

I slipped my finger under the flap and pulled a crisp card out of the gilded interior, a gothic column emblem embossed in gold at the top. "You are invited to a Junior League recruitment social..."

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," I murmured.
I turned the card over, wondering if this was some kind of a joke. It wasn't.

I sat on my porch and called my mama who had long since moved on to Florida like all the good snowbirds do.

"You are never going to guess what I got in the mail today" I told her. "Looks like you must have raised me right, because I sure fooled somebody down here!"

"In the South, that's quite an honor to be invited to the Junior League, honey. Are you going to accept?" she asked me.

"Hell no," I cackled."You think I would evah be a Junior Leaguer after what happened to you?"

"You know," she said quietly "that nearly broke my heart, when those women treated me like they did."
It had been a decade but I knew she hadn't forgotten what happened on our porch.

"Those weren't women, mama. Those were bitches. Junior League bitches. And they missed out on a pearl when they turned you down. Who needs 'em?"

"They really were bitches, weren't they?" she giggled. She rarely cussed but this was the moment for it.

"Oooh, mama. You said a bad word!" I chided her. "Now, let me go. I need to go reject some snooty elitists! Vengeance will be ours! Love you!"

Grinning, I dialed the RSVP number on the card.
When a saccharine sweet voice picked up the other line I started in cheerfully.

"Hi! Today I received an invitation to your recruitment social?...Yes...Yes, thank you....Oh, no, I'm definitely not accepting. But thanks for the invitation anyway. Have a lovely afternoon."

So damn satisfying. Mama would have been proud.

May. 13th, 2017

LJ Idol Week 18 - Location, Location, Location

(This entry is an Intersection with i_17bingo. Check out his entry HERE before reading mine!)

The first time she caught him, filling out his user profile on some singles website, her heart dropped to her feet, her stomach lurched.

There he was, alone in their office, shafts of late afternoon sun slanting in golden sparkles across the hardwood floor. She'd always loved this space, so cozy and full of light. Her violin still rested in a stand beside the futon, her framed photo of their first concert together in the city, a bright-eyed couple grinning in the LED glow of Times Square, still sat on the desk beside him.

Eric had his back to the door, focused wholly on the laptop in front of him, surreptitiously tap tap tapping on the keyboard, a little crease furrowing his brow as he selected the sort of mate he desired, shared the sort of mate he would be. He glanced over his shoulder, like he could feel her watching, but, seeing nothing, went back to his task.

Feeling sick, Emily turned to leave in silence, but an agonized groan behind her made her look back.

"What the fuck am I doing?" he muttered, slamming the laptop shut. He ran his hands through his hair, making it stand up at crazy angles, and reached across the desk to gently pick up their photo. He gazed at the picture, his longing palpable. Tears filled his eyes.

He wasn't ready. Couldn't take this final step to sever their relationship and, although she recognized it really was time, she was glad.

That was a year ago, and now she knew he really did need to move on. And so did she - in more ways than one.

Dying at 26 had been rather...unexpected.

Things were just getting good in her life too! Her job at the magazine was finally taking off. After four years, they'd finally moved her out of the cubicle farm, given her a modest raise, a title - Assistant Editor - and a little office with an honest to god window that looked out on the city.

She'd been dating Eric for a little over two years then. Kind and handsome, he made her laugh and he made her eggs benedict on Sunday mornings. She was lucky to have found him in the sea of facesin the city.

Just a few months before she died, he'd taken her on a backdoor tour of Carnegie Hall and there, standing center stage, he'd asked her to marry him.

The accident had been unplanned, they usually are, she mused, but entirely her fault. Her friends had planned an engagement party for her near the end of summer, a girl's weekend in the mountains. Driving back on Sunday, down curvy country roads, she'd been a little sleepy, a bit hungover, her reaction time slowed. When her cell phone fell in the floor, she'd taken off her seatbelt to reach under the seat and retrieve it.

Too late, she noticed the dogs running out into the road, two pups chasing each other in the gorgeous afternoon breeze, tearing across the highway without a glance in her direction.

She swiveled the steering wheel to miss them, and when her front tire left the pavement she knew she was in trouble. The wheels lost purchase in the roadside gravel and in a moment she was rolling down the incline, down the mountainside, through the woods. Unable to steer, the little car was buffeted by trees as she crashed into one after another, her head smacking the dashboard, the windshield, until gravity smashed her little Honda into the stones of a rushing, rocky creek, crushing her to the steering wheel.

There was blood on her face and blood in her mouth, salty and thick. It was so hard to open her eyes. In the distance she could hear the dogs barking. Her last thought, as water filled the cab of her car was "I'm more of a cat person myself.." And then she was gone.

When her eyes opened again, she was in a a glass-walled cubicle. The air was very still around her, and although she didn't see any windows, the whole place was diffused with a soft white light, like staring at the sun through clouds. Across the desk sat a man with a kindly face. He reminded her of her grandfather - wait - it  WAS her grandfather. But...he died 10 years ago.

"It's good to see you again, pumpkin," he said to her, reaching across the desk to take her hand. His gentle eyes searched hers for understanding.

She shook her head in denial but when acceptance struck, she began to cry. He came around the desk and held her until her tears slowed.
"What is this place?" Emily asked him.
"Welcome to the Bureau of Untimely Repose, Ideal Empathy Division" he replied - "B.U.R.I.E.D. for short."

There you were given the opportunity to leave your unexpectedly-ended mortal life behind for eternity or volunteer your time helping loved ones recover from your death. Emily chose to go back, to be with Eric, to grieve with him and help him move on.

The first few months were hell. They'd told her it would be like this, back at the Bureau, when she'd chosen not to cross over. Making the choice to go back, to assist your loved ones through the grieving process was the most selfless decision a spirit could make. Definitely won you a lot of points with the Big Guy, but it was certainly not without its share of heartache.

That was supposed to be the one good thing about being dead - no more sadness - but if you signed on as a B.U.R.I.E.D. Counselor, you knew you were asking for an undetermined sentence of sobbing spouses and mourning mothers, contractually obligated to stay with them until the moment they didn't need you any more.

Of course, there were other ways to go back, but they didn't guarantee an all expense paid ticket to Paradise, and she wanted to help Eric move on with his life.

That was two years ago. In the beginning it was hard, so very hard to do her job, to guide him away from darkness without letting him know she was still right beside him. She had decided to remain invisible and silent, fearing that if he knew some part of her was still with him, he would choose to never move on. His long days and longer nights of mourning stretched on interminably through the fall and winter after her funeral and often she felt beside herself with grief as well.

But she acted as a benevolent haunt, a silent grief counselor, pushing him in the right direction for healing whenever she could.

One snow-covered night she pressed his mother's number on the speed dial when he seemed hell-bent on drowning his sorrow in scotch, but was moving dangerously close to alcohol poisoning. She picked up. Hearing his mom calling to him from the handset shook him out of his stupor and he picked up the phone, thinking he must have accidentally dialed her himself. She was able to talk him down, talk him through this darkest night, and in the morning he woke, shaky and hungover but determined to get his head on straight.

Fearing Eric was becoming a shut in, one spring evening Emily went to his college roommate's house and knocked their old annual on the floor, flipping the pages to a photo of Eric and Matt on stage with their jazz band. Matt saw the picture and realized it had been a while since he saw his old friend, and called him up, invited him out for drinks. Over spicy micheladas, they decided it had been too long since they played together and agreed to revive their band, Just For Kicks, see where it led them. Eric's heart healed a little more.

As his smile returned - that grin had always slayed her, warm and gentle with one slightly crooked front tooth - the girls had started to make advances toward him in clubs when he played. He always turned them down, his heart wasn't ready for such entanglements yet.

But lately, she had seen him watching their backs as they left, and he'd begun to explore those offerings on dating sites, looking at young lady's profiles until heartache and frustration made him turn away. He was scared but she knew it was finally time for him to move on. She was ready too. She had to help him.

When he cruised those sites he was still hunting for girls who looked like her, thin and blonde, her image imprinted on his heart as what love would look like. But occassionally, he would stop on a different kind of girl, curvy and coffee-skinned, his interest piqued by dark eyes and round hips. She grinned. She'd never realized he had a thing for Latina chicks! Maybe, in this city of eight million souls she could help him find someone new.

When she first returned, Emily had stayed in their apartment all the time, nervous about leaving his side, nervous about taking her ephemeral form outdoors, fearful of being blown about the windy streets. But as time went on, and Eric grew stronger, she'd grown accustomed to the physics of her situation and began taking walks, long jaunts around the streets she had loved in life, visiting old haunts and discovering new places where the energy was right and music beckoned.

It was on one of these walks that she discovered HER. The new love for her old one.

Spring had come again to the city. On a narrow street where families strolled and flowers blossomed in window boxes, a young woman sat outside a cafe playing a blue guitar.
The sweet Spanish sounds matched her lovely face. She smiled gently at a little boy who tossed a dollar into a hat sitting on the ground beside her.

"Thank you," she called to him.

"You're pretty," he replied, "And I like your guitar," then ducked his head and ran behind his mother's legs, only to peer back at her shyly a moment later.

She laughed, her wide mouth split in a lovely grin that lit her face and crinkled her nose in a most beguiling way.
"That was even better than a tip," she said to his mom. "I'm Marisol," she waved to the boy and blew him a kiss.

Marisol. Watching her interact with her audience, the pedestrians walking by, even the animals - she reached out to affectionately scratch a pedestrian's dog behind the ears when it sidled over to sniff her hat - she knew this sweet, sexy, musical girl would be just what Eric needed to finally move on.

Now how to get him back to this spot? Glancing around, Emily noticed some flyers sitting on the railing beside Marisol. The girl was playing here later tonight for open mic night - perfect!

Like an errant breeze, she swept up two flyers and whisked them off down the street, twirling them through the air. Marisol watched their trajectory with a quizzical expression when they zipped around a corner and disappeared.

Emily headed to Eric's best friend's place first and deposited one flyer in his mailbox, then rushed back home and left the other in Eric's mailbox by the door.

Then she waited in the hall to see his reaction to the flyer. When he got home from work he looked stressed. He stepped off the elevator and flipped through the mail in his hands. Distracted, he unlocked their apartment door and went inside. He stopped by the trash and dropped a few things in the bin - a catalog, a credit card application...her flyer.

Damn!

She waited until he left the room and scooped it out again. What to do?!

He walked into the bedroom and she rushed to the office.

She knew his routine almost to the minute: Come home, head to the bathroom, change into lounge pants and go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and a quick snack before settling down with the laptop to watch his shows and lately, look for love.

She nudged the mouse, waking up his computer, and clicked the music icon on the desktop. Working fast, she navigated to a Spanish guitar station and pressed shuffle, sultry music filling the office moments before he hurried in.

"What the..." He glanced at the laptop in confusion. "Gah, what if it's a virus!" he muttered, but he didn't turn the music off as he dug in his bag for his charger.

She dashed to the kitchen ahead of him, throwing open the fridge and snatching out the bag of fresh ground coffee and hurtling it across the room. It struck the back of the trash can and the lid snapped closed just before Eric entered the room.

Grabbing a mug hanging under the cabinet, he danced in a little circle to the flamenco rhythm from his speakers and reached into the fridge for his coffee grounds, then stuck his head in when he only felt empty space. Seriously? He could have sworn there was half a bag left this morning!

Closing the fridge door, he looked with confusion around the kitchen. No coffee, but the orange flyer for an open mic night at the Mystic Grounds Cafe fluttered to the floor beside his mail. He'd never heard of it, but a pretty girl smiled up at him from the flyer. A really pretty girl. Marisol Flores, featured performer, would be sharing the dulcet sounds of Spanish guitar tonight. He turned his head toward the music pouring from the office and a shiver shimmied up his back.

That was certainly a coincidence...

Pulling out his cell, he called Matt.

"Hey man.You want to go out tonight? Looks like I don't have any coffee in the house and there's this open mic night I want to check out. It's at a place called Mystic Grounds. Oh, you've heard of it?  Really? I had a flyer for it in my mail too. They must be doing some serious direct mailing!"

They agreed to meet there in an hour. Emily smiled knowingly as he took a little extra time getting dressed, holding up different shirts before settling on one that made his eyes even greener, gargling mouthwash and splashing on some aftershave as a final touch.

Eric took the subway across town. Matt met him outside Mystic Grounds and they walked in, Emily by their side, though no one realized she was there. The coffeehouse was homey and inviting, with walls the color of lemon sherbet and funky local art hanging on the exposed brick behind the stage. The guys went to get their coffee. Some other girl was on stage at the moment, performing a sad, slow ballad about loves lost and never found.

"That is not going to help my cause," thought Emily. She walked to the stage while Eric got settled and, with calculated swiftness, approached the performer's coffee, precariously perched beside her on a stool. She bumped it with her hip and the drink spilled onto the singer's cell phone. The girl squealed and turned quickly to the spill, panic on her face. Grabbing her phone, she rushed from the stage crying out "Hey! Do you have a bag of rice?" and hurried into the kitchen.

Marisol had been sitting at the counter in the back, watching the show, watching the people, and when Eric walked in she really watched him. After her boyfriend Ted had died a few years ago, Marisol hadn't dated anyone seriously, hadn't wanted the trouble, but there was something about this guy with the big green eyes, the sweet, crooked smile...she felt her eyes drawn to him again and again. When the jittery girl dumped her coffee on stage, the manager asked her to go on a little early and she grabbed her guitar.

Settling herself on the stool she looked up to find Green Eyes staring at her, expectantly from a booth. Their eyes met and she blushed and looked away and so did he! Usually calm and confident, Marisol was completely flustered. "Pull yourself together, chica" she chided, taking a deep breath and looking back at the audience with a shaky smile.

As she played her first set, she relaxed, warming to the music, finding her rhythm as her fingers plucked the strings. When the audience began to smile to one another, tap their feet, she felt the familiar warm glow of pride and happiness in her belly. She had done that, she had helped to make their evening better. She stole a glance at Green Eyes who was watching her intensely now. Feeling daring, she threw a grin, meant for him alone, and cocked her head, like a question. 'You like?' His eyes widened, and she laughed.

When she giggled, her nose crinkled up and Eric had to take a deep breath, so lovely was her face in that unguarded moment. What was going on?
He had never felt like this before, never seen someone from afar and wanted to wanted to whisk them up off their coffee house stool and hold them in his arms for a passionate tango. Was it obvious?

"Eric? Hey, Earth to Eric..." Matt laughed. Yeah, it was obvious. "If you like her so much, you should go introduce yourself, dude."

Emily watched the scene, perched on the back of their booth, gritting her teeth. Eric was completely taken with the girl on stage. She had been right about her. Marisol was right for Eric, the time was right for him to meet someone new, but this was one of those moments when being right didn't make her feel good. This was what she wanted for him all along, but Jesus, no one at the Bureau mentioned just how badly it would hurt when this day came.

When Marisol's set ended the crowd applauded and whistled and she ducked her head modestly before blowing them a kiss and stepping off the stage. Eric glanced at Matt for moral support then stepped out of the booth and walked toward her.

"Hey, that was really good!" he told her enthusiastically and held out his hand. "I'm Eric."

Eric. Green Eyes' name was Eric.

"Marisol," she answered, taking his hand. "It's a pleasure."

Her touch was electric. He felt every hair on his body stand on end when their fingers met. He couldn't stop staring at her lips, the way her tongue had rolled the rrrrrr's when she said 'pleasure.'
Jeez. What was wrong with him?

She liked his body language. His posture said shy but interested, and those eyes! Wow.

"No, the uh, pleasure is all mine," he stammered, now at a loss for words. He glanced around looking for inspiration and his eyes hit on her guitar.
"Um, I play too," he offered, gesturing at the instrument.

"The Guitar? Really?" she asked, her interest piqued. Green eyes and a musician? Score!

"Oh, uh, no. Trumpet, clarinet, a little sax when I'm in the mood."

'In the mood? What am I even saying?' he thought, mortified.

"Sax when you're in the mood?" she repeated, her mouth quirking up on one side.

'WHAT? What did I just say to this stranger? What is he going to think of me being so forward?' Marisol wondered.

'WHAT? What did she just say to me? Was she flirting with me?' Eric speculated. 'I think she was flirting!'

Recovering, Marisol said  '"So you're a musician?"

"Ah, no. I'm in marketing but, my friends and I have a little jazz combo." Eric hoped this impressed her. "We play around the city, usually just for fun..."

"Cool! Well, now that you've seen me on stage, you ought to return the favor! When's your next gig?"

'Oh my gosh! She wants to see me agian?' Eric was flipping out.

"Next weekend actually. At Duke's. Have you heard of it? You should come down!"

'Oh my gosh! He kind of just totally asked me out!' Marisol tried not to do a little dance.

Eric patted himself on the back .He'd done it. He'd asked her out - sort of. Wait, he'd asked her OUT? What the hell was he doing? That was crazy.
He just met this girl! Before she could respond he was turning away from her.

"I need to...I'll be right back!" He said, cheeks burning when he noticed the confusion on her face.

He hurried away down the hall to the back of the cafe, pain stretching his chest and Emily rushed after him. He opened the bathroom door. It was a small space, a single stall luckily, and he locked himself in.

He stared at himself in the mirror, ran his hands through his hair trying to calm down.

When he looked at the face of that lively girl on stage he had felt his heart open again, felt like love might really be possible. After Emily died, God, he thought he would never love someone else, never let himself care so much again. And he owed that to her, right, to Emily, to keep her memory alive by shutting the door to his heart? But lately, he'd been wondering if that was foolish, if he really had to be lonely forever or perhaps there was room enough in there for two great loves.

Searching for clarity, he wondered aloud "What would Emily think?

His agony was breaking her heart. 'It's now or never' she thought.

"She would tell you its time, Eric. Time to move on, time to share your wonderful heart with another wonderful person who deserves it."
Emily coalesced behind him, her reflection peering over Eric's shoulder in the bathroom mirror.  His eyes went wide and he spun around.

Emily was here? In a coffee house bathroom? Looking as beautiful as she had the night he asked her to marry him?
Eric reached for her, all golden hair and glowing skin, but his hand passed right through her shoulder and she shivered.

"That was weird," she grimaced. "Sorry!"

"How are you here?" he asked. "ARE you here or am I seriously losing it?"

"You know you're not crazy" she answered. "You are one of the most grounded guys I ever met. Believe it or not, I've always been here, watching over you, just like those stories they tell kids about what happens when grandma goes to the big knitting circle in the sky."

Eric smiled but then his eyes filled with tears. "I've missed you so much, everyday, every night..."

"I know, babe, but lately...Listen, we don't have much time before that awesome girl out there starts to think you're a weirdo and we lose our opportunity with Marisol! "

"We lose...? How do you know Marisol?" Eric shook his head. "Emily, when we met I knew I would love you forever. You were everything to me, this shining star of a girl. And when I lost you I thought my life was over, the brightest light gone from my world. At first, I wanted to wallow in the blackest hole that ever existed, but then I realized that, even if you were gone, I was still alive - still had a lot of living to do. And I felt so guilty! I didn't want to hurt any more but I didn't ever want to let you go. Didn't want to lose what was left of you in my life."

Emily was touched. "I know you love me, Eric, but it's time." She said gently. "You know it's time. Time to find a new star - maybe one that plays Spanish guitar. A piece of me will always be with you, but I know your heart and there is room enough in there for a whole galaxy. Now get out of here - stop talking to some ghost in a bathroom and go talk to that girl!"

"You really...don't mind?" he asked, dazed.

"Go to her! Go on, you have my blessing! This is what I want for you."

Eric reached out for her again, but caught himself. "Thank you, Emily," he whispered.

Emily smiled, pointed to the door. "Go ON! You've got about 30 seconds before she writes you off as some corporate flake!"

"Good bye, beautiful" he said, taking a final, long look at her.

"Good bye," Emily whispered, her quiet voice filled with finality. Around her, a white light flared and grew,  a supernova of beatific energy, drawing her up through the building, up into the stars and then she was gone, the only trace of her a few golden sparkles blinking out in the bathroom of the Mystic Grounds Coffee House.

'You will always be a star in my sky,' Eric thought. He brushed the tears from his eyes and hurried out to meet the rest of his life.

May. 6th, 2017

LJ Idol Week 17: Surrender Under Protest

Word came that General Lee had waved the white flag at Appomattox, surrendering the cause to the Union Army, thus delivering the Confederacy back into the care of the North, a vengeful nursemaid to be sure.

The surrender hit the men of Georgia's Fifth Regiment, stationed in northern Virginia, like a blow, leaving them with the coppery tang of blood and bitterness in their mouths.

The men roared, pounded the wagons, sobbed at the futility of their efforts, at the years of their lives lost, their family and friends lost, their way of life lost, so much lost with nothing to show for it now but a battle-scarred flag, a battle-scarred soul.

His soldiers railed against the unfairness of the universe, but not Sergeant Connor Meeks. He was ready to go home.

Wish I was in the land of cotton...

In the years before the war, in another time, another life, Meeks had been a landscaper at Woodlands, one of the most prosperous plantations in Georgia. Woodlands was a wonder.

Most cotton plantations baked in the South Georgia heat, on flat plains where the sun bleached the sky to faded denim and roasted the residents till they looked liked dried apples left too long in an oven.

Woodlands was built in North Georgia, in the Appalachian foothills. Much more temperate than its southern counterparts, the plantation thrived on the mountain. Frequent rains and long, humid summers turned the fields and gardens into an emerald gem amidst the other, myriad greens of the verdant old hills.

Sergeant Meeks was the son of the first landscaper at Woodlands. His da had been invited to Georgia by way of Ireland by the owner, Godfrey Barnsley. The North Georgia countryside reminded him of green Irish hills and he wanted his grounds to resemble those of stately manors like Blarney Castle in County Cork.

Connor Meeks was born in 1830 and raised amidst the daffodils and magnolias, learning from his father how to care for the plants, plan gardens and most importantly, how to please Master Barnsley and his sickly wife, Julia.

After Julia died in childbirth, Connor, just 13 at the time, also learned how to care for a child, as little George, the youngest Barnsley, took a shine to him and toddled everywhere after him while he tended the plants.

His father's assistant, a slave called Washington who could make anything grow, had a son, a little pickaninny called Emmanuel, who was born the same year as the young master.

Often were the days that the two young boys followed Connor out to the gardens, roughousing, carousing like puppies in the gravel aisles between stately boxwoods. They were ever calling to Connor about the wonders they discovered together - a secret nest of blue speckled eggs, a chipmunk's den in the crook of an old tree. He remembered with laughter the day the boys caught a lizard basking in tbe sun only to have it escape when the tail detached and their reptilian playmate scuttled away.

The boys brought him the twitching tail, George and Manny both crying fearfully, and Meeks had intoned that, while they must be gentler to God's creatures, they hadn't actually hurt it, that the tail would, in fact, grow back.

If only Emmanuel's leg could have done the same.

When word of the Secession reached Woodlands, Connor was 31, the boys 18. Young George, affluent and privileged, had a fire in his belly to protect state's rights, and determined to join the efforts against the War of Northern Aggression. When he signed on, Master Barnsley ordered Emmanuel to accompany his son to the front, as a servant and companion. Manny would have gone anyway, to protect his best friend, though his family had never understood he and George's bond.

Meeks had joined the Confederate Army as well, not through a deep desire to preserve a way of life he had never fully approved of, but out of loyalty to his community and the need to protect his home and family. Packing his bag, he carefully wrapped a framed photo of his wife, Sylvia and daughter Katie in an old square of muslin, knowing he'd need it to give him strength over the long months to come.

Kissing his wife in a tearful goodbye, and holding his 14-year-old daughter close, he had no idea, as he turned his back, that it would be four years before he would see them, touch them, again.

Walking down the dirt road from their homestead to the plantation gates, his new woolen uniform made his skin itch in the summer heat,  the grey fabric matching his mood. Not even the sight of his well-tended garden could cheer him. It simply reminded Meeks of all he was fixing to leave behind.

He'd met George and Emmanuel at the gate to Woodlands, shook hands with Master Barnsley and promised to keep an eye on the boys. Together, the three men continued down the road toward Atlanta and an uncertain future.

No amount of training could have prepared Meeks for the horrors of war.

The sound the bullet made when it whizzed  past his ear and he thanked God for giving him another day, only to turn and realize it struck the soldier behind him.

The terrible crimson of fresh blood as it pooled around someone's brother, someone's father, someone's son, recently shot or gutted by a damn Yankee's bayonnette and left to die on the field.

The thick scents in camp of overflowing latrines, clothing ruined by dysentery, rotten teeth, festering wounds.

The feelings of cold and hunger, of pain and loneliness, God the loneliness, that came upon him in the night. Wondering how his family was getting on without him, when he realized today was his daughter's 16th birthday and he wasn't there to embrace her.

War is hell, there was no doubt in his mind.

Old times there are not forgotten...

Meeks had been raised up with the belief that slavery was a "necessary evil" and that "things were better this way" but the longer he spent in this maddening, messy war, the less he believed it.

He'd been told the darkies were of lesser intelligence, helpless and ignorant, yet in this war he'd seen black men learn to read and write and engineer complex systems to repair weapons and build camps.

He'd been told they preferred to live like beasts, that only the Whites had civilized them, but it was his white compatriots who refused to bathe, stole from one another and who fought like mongrels over imagined slights.

He had been told negroes had no emotions, that they were unfeeling animals, which was why it didn't matter if you sold their children to plantations 300 miles away, but he had seen them bravely fight and cry and die alongside the whites, with men who had become friends at home or on the front, for a cause that only promised to keep them enslaved.

The day George Barnsley was killed, Emmanuel proved this point.

Young George was manning one of the hulking cannons, set near the woods at the far edge of the battlefield. Standing behind its massive bulk like a bulwark, George would light the fuse to send a cannonball barreling toward the enemy. Bullets whizzing by, Emmanuel would run foward to reload it for another shot. He'd rush to the front of the cannon, shoving another cast iron ball full of explosive gun powder down the thing's throat then get out of the way before another boom came.The boys made a good team, George covering Manny as best he could when he ran out in harm's way.

This afternoon though, a lone Union soldier had been hiding in the woods nearby, waiting for a solid moment to strike. Bent over the back of the cannon, George didn't see him coming when the rogue ran out of the brush, brandishing his bayonette.

As he approached George, the Union soldier screamed to Emmanuel "Run! Run and we'll protect you!" believing the black man would take this opportunity to escape to freedom in the confusion of battle.

George looked up, but too late, and Billy Yank's gun blasted him squarely in the chest, at close range, buckshot peppering his torso, blasting him backward.

Blood flowing from multiple wounds, ghastly roses blossoming on his uniform. He fell to the ground and the soldier was on him in a moment, stabbing the prone George with his bayonette.

Manny ran toward them, grabbing the only weapon he had, the Bowie knife in his belt, and slashed madly at George's assailant.

They rolled together on the ground, punching and kicking in desperation, until Manny sat astride the Union soldier. Bloody foam spluttered from the pinned soldier's mouth. Emmanuel raised his knife for a killing blow when the young man asked him, in a strangled gasp, "Don't you want to be free?"

"Yes!" Emmanuel cried. "Dear God, yes! But not like this! Never like this." He raised a shaking finger and pointed toward George. "He was my friend" he sobbed and drove his blade deep into the man's chest.

Emmanuel crawled back to poor George, whose blood soaked his uniform, seeped into the earth. Manny had been born a slave but this white man had seen beyond that, had been his friend, like a brother, and now he was gone. Kneeling, he held George's head in his lap as the warmth left his body. When he was gone, Emmanuel lamented over his fallen friend, throwing his head back and keening at the impassive sky.

His grief made him careless. From behind, he heard the unmistakable whistle of incoming artillery. He turned in time to see a cannonball hurtling toward them. When it struck the ground beside the cannon, the explosion consumed the world. He was thrown heavenward and then he was unconscious.

When he awoke, he was on a cot in the infirmary tent, heart heavy and his left leg gone below the knee.

A black amputee was of no use to the war effort, so they sent a broken Emmanuel, along with a small box containing all that was left of George, home to Master Barnsley. In a munitions wagon headed south, Sergent Meeks and Emmanuel bade their farewells. Tears in his eyes, Manny said "I'm so sorry, Mister Meeks. So sorry."

"There was nothing more you could have done, son," Meeks told him, clapping a hand to Emmanuel's shoulder and pulling the young man close. "You were a hero out there. And, Manny, when you get back to Woodlands, please tell my girls how much I love them."

"I will, sir. You know I will. You come home safe yourself."

At that moment, Connor Meeks knew the past was a lie. There was no difference in white people and black people, beyond a despicable imbalance of power. They were all just people, who loved and hurt and bled the same red blood. This "cause" he was fighting for was no more justifiable than Manny losing his leg fighting in a war that meant to keep him in chains. Meeks couldn't run from it, but he also couldn't see a need for  all the death. He longed for the end to this senseless war.

That was more than two years ago and now, finally, finallyit was Meeks' turn to head back home to Georgia. He knew Woodlands was gone, burned by Sherman as he made his fiery march across Georgia the year before, and the Barnsleys had moved to New Orleans, but his wife and daughter were safe at home. In the last letter he had from Sylvia, a few months before, she said there was a happy surprise for him when he returned. That was something to look forward to on the long trip home.

Even Emmanuel had made it back to Woodlands safely and, due to the reports of his bravery while trying to save George, Master Barnsley had given him his emancipation, making him a free man in the eyes of the law. Manny had chosen to stay on at the plantation, tending to the gardens where he'd played as a child.

Sergeant Meeks wanted to get home and get on with life too.

He journeyed for weeks, by wagon and on foot, travelling south with the summer, finally hiking through the mountains to reach his homestead.

When he arrived at the long drive that led past cotton fields, on up to Woodlands and then home, he paused. No slaves toiled in the fields, singing their spirituals as they worked, the overseer watching them from horseback.

The cotton fields lay fallow, gone to seed in the aftermath of war. The slave quarters stood empty, a ghost town filled with the shadows of dark deeds.

Meeks walked resolutely up the pockmarked drive, the burned shell of Woodlands growing larger, the once white spires of the big house columns now spikes of coal against the summer sky. The beautiful gardens had been reduced to charred sticks. Those that were spared from the blaze were overgrown, boxwoods towering unkempt and climbing roses stretching runners across once neat paths.

Heart beating faster, he turned just beyond the garden's edge, following the smaller lane up the hill, to his homestead. The familiar sights and sounds of the Appalachian dusk welcomed him home. Tall pines silhouetted against an orange sunset, the warble of a chicka-dee-dee-dee hurrying back to his nest for the night, the swoosh and flip of bats come out for their evening meal, they all urged him on.

And then the trees parted and he stood at the edge of the clearing, his house waiting below.

Tears filled his eyes. So many nights had passed where he feared he would never see this place again. Candles already flickered within the little home his da had built forty years before, with the wide front porch and not one, but two chimneys made of Georgia red clay. Out front, the herb garden his wife lovingly tended - because both food and medicine could be found there - grew, neat as a pin. The swing he'd built for his daughter still hung from the wizened oak at the edge of the yard.

Though he'd lost track of time on his journey, he knew it must be a Monday because of the linens and clothing hanging to dry on the washline. Sylvia had kept this place running smoothly in his absence. He knew she would.

He saw her hands before he saw her face, reaching up to unpin a sun-crisp sheet from the line. As she lowered her arms to fold the worn fabric she spied him too, and she startled for a moment before dropping the sheet in astonishment.

He thought he must have looked a stranger there in the gathering dark, gaunt as a ghost and bearded to boot, but Sylvia knew her husband in a moment and ran to him, skirts swirling as she dashed up the hill.

"Connor! Oh, Connor! You're home!" she cried.
"Katie, Katie! Come see! Your father is home!"

Sylvia threw her arms around him in a joyful, tearful embrace and he could hardly believe the feel of her, so soft and warm, smelling of lavender and baking. He gingerly ran a hand over her head, marvelling at her silky hair. It had been too long. She raised her face to look at him too, examining the unruly beard and smiling.

"We'll have to take care of that tonight," she grinned. "See if we can find youunder there!" When she reached up and touched his face he shivered expectantly.

His daughter Katie was hurrying up the hill now, a bundle in her arms. She looked a woman now, lord, she was 18 already. Where had his baby girl gone?

'What could she be carrying up here?' Meeks wondered idly, but then she was crushing her daddy in a hug and his joy was complete.

A sudden cry between them made him loosen his grip and look down. In Katie's arms was a baby.

Down the hill, the front door to his house opened again and a man stood, holding a cane, his silhouette framed by the light from inside.

Sylvia spoke first. "Connor, I know you remember Emmanuel. After the house burned, he didn't have a place to go, so I offered for him to stay with us. He's a good man. He was such a help keeping things going and then..." Her voice drifted off, unsure of what to say next.

Katie spoke shyly to her father then, holding the bundle out to him. "Daddy, I'd like you to meet George, your grandson."

Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland...

Connor Meeks picked up the child and stared into the face of his grandbaby, coffee colored skin, curious brown eyes and a shock of black fuzz down the middle of his head. Then he looked at Katie, a hundred questions in his eyes, but clearly, he could see the truth.

The world certainly was a different place then he'd left it.

His felt ashamed of his momentary discomfort as, down the hill, Emmanuel bravely began the slow climb toward his family.

Meeks looked back at his daughter's expectant face.

"He is a good man," he said simply. "And this is a fine little baby we have here. Now, why don't you take me inside? I could smell your ma's cornbread baking all the way from the big house!"

Together, they turned their backs on the past and walked to meet Emmanuel.

At last, Connor Meeks could lay down his gun.

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