Sunday, April 17, 2011

Let the Chips Fall Where They May...

There are certain moments that come along when the choices are laid out clearly before you, and you know you will have to say goodbye to something that has become a part of you, in order to lay claim to another part of you that may be more hidden and obscure.

For years, I have been circling… no, lurking is probably a better word… around the soul of my creativity. She has lived in a shadow world that I visit mostly in my night time dreams, and sometimes during the frustrated day dreams that distract me from whatever business at hand I should be dealing with at the moment. I have used her as a justification for avoiding responsibility and for indulging impulses. She has been my running partner through years of mischief and then later through years of sacrifice and forbearance. I have loved her and hated her and envied her, for her unbridled courage and open fuck-you to anyone and anything that gets in her way.

And how I have longed for her. I have wished that I could just throw my arms open to her and embrace her with the fierceness reserved for those lovers who are star crossed or who have otherwise looked death in the eye. Instead, I have kept her in a secret place, barricaded behind walls of guilt and shame and the fear of clarity and its partner, judgement. I have opted for obfuscation, and the blurring of distinctions between what I’ve really wanted and what others have wanted me to do. I have bided my time. I have been lazy. I have been afraid. I have been foolish.

This blog is a testament to my almostness… My creative soul lives here, but I rarely bring around my friends or colleagues to sit with her. I share with them my chatter about work, and projects and other people’s music and musings. I immerse myself in conversations about commerce and communication and other people’s suffering. But here is where you’ll find the truth about me. Here is where I’ll show you how I’m really feeling, and what touches me deeply. The things I think about because I’m not supposed to think about them, or the things that haunt me because they could have been, might have been or should have been. Or shit I just feel like saying, without having to justify why…

I no longer believe in instant karma, as in a song that heals wounds or a play that changes the world. I now believe that real change is borne of many, many cumulative choices over time, coupled with as many accidents of fate. Having weathered the impatience of my youth, and the repeated construction and deconstruction of my ego, I’m comfortable enough with myself now to view the impending turn of my fifth decade with a sense of relief and wonder. The preciousness of my words no longer completely overwhelms me… I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter that much who likes my writing and who doesn’t. That will constantly change, and I will be delighted and disappointed many times over.

What I do know is that it’s no longer OK to sequester whole parts of me, especially my creative soul, to a dark corner of the internet akin to a deserted part of town. If I’m supposedly such a good communicator, then I should be able to talk about my own work, and share it with others, and be willing to participate in the conversations it stimulates. Yes, I should…

So here I am, putting it out there yet again. Each time I write one of these pieces that feels like a cross between a confessional and an attempt to articulate a grand world view, I care a little less about what someone will think when they read it, and a little more about what I’ve just gotten out of the way and how I’ve cleared the road for the next thing… I can’t wait to struggle with the next concept and practice letting it flow out of me like something tasty and delicious that I love to savor and share and savor some more. God it feels so fucking good to write. I just want to keep doing it…

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dealing With the Pain of Others

On Twitter, I'm known as projectmaven. That's me. I get involved in a lot of projects.
One of them is a play, No Place Called Home. It was written by a friend of mine, Kim Schultz. She's an actress, improv performer and writer. And now she's an activist. That's right, back in the fall of 2009, she traveled to the middle east with a group of other artists on a trip organized by the group, Intersections International, to meet with Iraqi refugees and hear their stories. She came back to New York a changed person. Not only had she heard literally hundreds of stories of ruined and traumatized lives, but she also fell in love with one of the refugees she met, an Iraqi artist named Omar. Then she wrote a play about it.

That's Kim.

Meanwhile, while Kim was busy getting her mind blown apart in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, I was back in New York, coping with the death of my husband, Ivor, from a life long battle with sickle cell disease. By the time she and I were reunited, the funeral was over and my son and I were well on our way down the road of Life without Daddy.

That's me.

Now I'm working with Kim to help her develop a national tour of her play. She's already had a successful run of this one woman show in New York City and New Jersey, and a performance in Washington, DC. I'm helping her to book dates at college campuses and museums all across the midwest, California, Baltimore, New York and other cities throughout the country.

There's one more piece of important history here.

Back in 2009, I had begun my own two-year journey of working on a project that was also related to Iraqi people. Although some of the folks I eventually met were also refugees living in the US, at the time, most Iraqis were still civilians living in their own country that was busy being decimated from the inside by US led sanctions aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein. The impact of these policies on Iraqi civilians, and the efforts of activists to bring light to the situation was the focus of my film, "Christmas in Baghdad." The Iraqi infrastructure had already been shredded, and many activists I knew were busy doing "peaceful" protests against the cruel policies by bringing medical and school supplies to the country, in quiet defiance of the restrictions. Although one friend had traveled to Iraq with a humanitarian delegation and shot ten hours of footage for me, I had largely approached my subject matter through the lens of the activities of protesters and students here in the states, as well as by meeting and talking to Iraqi Americans who still had family living in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

In my final leg of research, I also came to know a group of Iraqi refugees living in Lincoln, Nebraska, whose situation had stemmed mostly from their involvement in the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, at the end of the first Gulf War. As I remember it then, meeting with those families had led me to the soul of my film.

Iraqi people are indescribably gracious, soulful and thoughtful people. The poignancy of their suffering, coupled with their dignity and generosity was almost too much for me to bear. How does one witness this and stay silent? I was determined to bring their voices to the American public, to let other Americans have the opportunity to see that they are just like us! They love their children, and want to create a good life for them and the rest of their family members. They are interested in education and culture and living good, healthy lives within a community. Surely these are universal values that everyone could understand? Just share their stories with good hearted American folks, and they will see that we should not be supporting policies that hurt these other good hearted people who are not so different from us and our families...

But 2001 had other things in store for me, and for all of us.

In May of that year, my father died. Then, two months later, we lost my grandmother. Two months later was 9/11 which pretty much shattered the world as we knew it, and then in November, my cat died. It was a terrible year.

With much to recover from, I put my project aside for a while. "Christmas in Baghdad," would have to wait.

And then, the following summer, I became pregnant and my younger sister had a heart attack, just about in that order. My personal life was about to take over in a big way. By the time 2003 rolled around, I was becoming a new mother, and we were entering a new war in Iraq. My film about sanctions was a thing of the past. I had a whole new level of family responsibilities and concerns to occupy my thoughts. The lives of Iraqi people were no longer at the forefront of my consciousness.

Until Kim brought them back in. Coincidence? I don't think so. I believe things happen for a reason. Back when I was working on my film, the psychic burden had in some ways become too great for me to bear. At the time, I could not see how I, one woman functioning as an independent filmmaker, could take on the the criticism of US policies or even manage to look critically at their aftermath, in the form of the suffering of these very real people, about whom I had grown to care tremendously. I simply did not believe I had the inner resources to do it.

Over the next several years, as I dealt with the responsibilities of unraveling two estates, being a new mother, supporting my sister through her acclimation to what became chronic, though manageable heart disease, and coping with my husband's own quietly advancing illness, I often felt pangs of guilt for having abandoned my Iraqi friends. They had told me their stories. They had invested me with the responsibility of sharing what I knew, of doing whatever I could to help, and here I was, letting all of that just... go...

Until Kim brought it back into my life.

So yes, now my son is about to turn eight years old, my husband has been gone for over a year and a half, and my sister has learned to adapt to her underlying illness and is living a very normal and successful life. And I, amidst the many other things I do in a given day, am helping Kim Schultz, as her tour coordinator, to bring her one woman show around the country, to share the stories of Iraqi refugees whose country has been decimated.

And no, we are not alone. There are other artists, activists, advocates, aid workers, family members and friends of Iraqis throughout the United States and around the world who are also doing what they can to help. And the more we reach out and connect with them, the more we will be able to do. And, I am sitting on over a hundred hours of footage documenting the recent history of this current situation. So I'd say, there's a lot of potential here...

The big question is, how do you get people to care about people they don't know? How do you get people to want to deal with the pain and suffering of others? Especially when there is so much hardship right here at home... and in Haiti... Japan... the list goes on and on...

This is just the opening question in a conversation that will continue. I have much more to share on this topic...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Fear of Never Ending Pain

I spent most of this weekend in a reclining position. It seems that, despite the fact that I had just scheduled a chiropractic appointment for Monday evening, my recent, increasingly frequent bouts of lower and upper back pain, shoulder tension and neck spasms culminated in a massive lower back systems failure on Friday evening. All I did was reach down to pick up a garbage bag and BAM. The left side of my lower back just completely seized up. I could barely walk.

Fortunately, I'm not prone to panic. Plus I happened to have company that night and help the following morning to get my eight-year-old son to soccer, and then later on to karate. So I had the freedom to be able to stay in bed, and then on the couch, for the majority of Saturday. Oh, and thank goodness for take-out Chinese food, ice packs, hot showers, ibuprofen... and Flexeril.

Now here I am, Sunday night, still pretty sore and not yet able to pick things up from the floor, or easily make the transition back and forth from sitting to standing... but I know things will be OK soon.

I was reminded of a few things this weekend, though. When Ivor died, it ended a lifetime of chronic pain. He had been born with sickle cell anemia, one of the crappiest diseases I have ever come across. I know it intimately, from over two decades of supporting him through his crises, his hospitalizations, his gradually decreasing stamina and the slow erosion of his joints, the weakening of his major organs and the ultimate full system collapse that finally ended his life.

Since Ivor died, I have had several transient health crises. One was a stomach virus that had me grateful to lie on the cool floor between bouts of expelling my insides out both ends of my body. There have been a couple of eye splitting migraines. And then there was this debilitating back thing this weekend. Fortunately, the pain never got completely out of control, and I never got too scared. But I remembered what it was that has always frightened me about episodes like these - the possibility that it will go on forever.

What if my back is permanently damaged or injured? What if I will never regain my mobility? What if I will always be in pain? What if I will no longer be able to just walk anywhere I want, or ride a bike, or stand in the kitchen cooking all afternoon, or dance, or have sex all night, or even sit at the computer for hours on end? What if my life was permanently altered by a drastic change in my physical status? My biggest fear of being in pain is that it will never end.

I watched my husband live with chronic pain for over 20 years. I learned first hand the kind of assistance he required to live a good life. But I also learned how his positive attitude never let him lead with the pain. If asked how he was doing, he would always reply that he was doing either well, or OK. The pain was never the thing that defined the quality of his life.

When I was more actively working in coalition with other people advocating on behalf of the chronically ill and disabled, there was a term that people in the advocacy community used to refer to healthy individuals - the temporarily able-bodied. Because really, any one of us could suddenly be injured, or develop a terrible illness, or otherwise find ourselves faced with life altering circumstances. We healthy folk generally take our good health for granted, until something happens to shake us out of our complacency.

You would think that a big chunk of my life spent married to a man who lived with chronic pain would give me some perspective on this issue. It has. I suppose going through the grief of losing him has also taught me a lot about what I can survive, and what I'm capable of handling. And then of course, there is the instant motivator of having a son who needs me to be there for him. Despite my discomfort this weekend, I did my best to keep a good attitude and make sure my son knew I was still present and attentive, if not physically active.

Being a widow of a man who had a chronic illness puts me in a unique club. Anyone who has been there knows it's a life that encompasses many layers of challenge, blessing, frustration, and joy. It's really complicated. But here I am on this end of it, making my way through a fairly crappy weekend with my spirit intact, despite the fact that I didn't get to do anything special with my son, or do any of the house cleaning I meant to do, or the cooking, or even the writing I was supposed to do for a few of my projects.

Grief, loss, being a witness to suffering... are these hardships or gifts? For me, I like to think they have been a little of both...

Personal and Professional - Finding the Balance

For some time now, I've struggled with the notion of building a professional profile alongside my personal explorations. The more I put myself out there into the blogosphere, the twitterverse, and other online spaces, the more connections I make with people from all over the world, in a variety of social spheres. The outreach is so vast and varied, sometimes it makes me dizzy, but at the same time, it is thrilling.

I have to be careful I don't lose my balance. The other day, I got so carried away with all of my connecting, I ended up feeling lost and completely off center by the end of the day. I had gotten so swept away by all of the reaching out, I lost track of what I was bringing to the table, myself. I ended the day feeling empty and uncertain - NOT good feelings to have either as a foundation for confidence or self-esteem, or as the basis for creating fruitful dialogues with others. The next day I took a complete break from all social networks, and focused instead on being the best salesperson and business developer I could (i.e. focused on the day job). I found it completely rewarding to be applying myself fully to that for which I get paid. Doing a good job is in and of itself a gratifying activity. I forget that sometimes, so it was nice to be reminded...

I crave authenticity in everything I do. To be fully present in all of my activities - that is my goal. It seems the more of myself I bring to my work, the better I do, and the more gratifying are all of my interactions. That being said, I still feel a certain reticence to completely promote this blog. Somehow I can't see inserting keywords into my short stories, or thinking about SEO when I'm posting my poems. I guess my readership will just have to grow slowly as I go along. Develop naturally along the way. I want to share my work, but I'm still a little afraid of sharing all of these personal parts of myself with the people I'm communicating with for business.

I suppose things will get really interesting when I publish my first book. My writing is so personal. When it goes public, I'll have finally bridged the gap. That is going to be something...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yeah, I'm back...


Oh, Mercury retrograde, what hath thou loosed in me? I am a jumble of memories, impressions, sensations and desires… I feel so cold tonight. Can’t decide if it’s hormones or the presence of my dead husband’s ghost. I fell asleep earlier and had a strange dream of walking through the house in hard leather shoes that clacked loudly against the wooden floor as I returned to my bedroom and they clattered off my feet. Climbed into my bed and heard the clanging sound of something falling from the wall. The lid of some sort of tin box. But where had it come from? In the dream, I was somehow thinking of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz… I woke up for real, and heard the rumble of a loud car… the refurbished vintage muscle car from up the block, I think, idling, idling, so loud, in the middle of the night… I felt so very cold, and thought, I’m just like E-. Swathed in long pants, a t-shirt AND a sweatshirt, under a down quilt, and still chilled to the bone. I was getting ready to put my socks on, and the phone rang. He called, just as I was thinking of him. Are you still coming over, I asked. Yes, he replied. He sounded breathless and faraway. Are you at your house or in the Bronx? At the house, he replied. Oh, you sound so sexy in the country. And he laughed. A joyful, unselfconscious laugh. I could see his teeth flashing in my mind. Mmmm… I’m in bed, but I’ll leave the door unlocked, and you can just come right in… Mmmm… I said, that sounds good… More sexy. That keeps coming up…

But as I lay there, I realized, I can’t sleep. There is something in my gut, driving me out from under the safety of the covers, my warm socks now back on. The coziness, the drowsy, cozy heat of expectation was so enticing, yet I kept thinking about things I wanted to write about. Yes, the pull of the words was/is so great. They are definitely coming to the surface, needing to be organized.

This weekend, I took my son to his first Baptist Church. My boyfriend, who, like my husband… now what do I call him? My former husband? We never divorced. My dead husband? Anyway, he was African American. My son is the color of caramel, and his features carry the distinction of his African heritage – from the spread of his slightly flattened nose and his full lips to his dark brown almost black eyes and tight, curly hair, and the high round ass that will surely slay many potential suitors as he comes into his ripened pre teen years… he is a Black boy. And yet, he has never had the experience of being in a room full of hundreds if not thousands of brown-skinned people. Until this past Sunday morning.

It was only for a short period of time, not even an hour, if 45 minutes. I don’t think E- was really expecting me to say, yes, we want to come with you, and then proceed to shower and dress the two of us in our Sunday best as he took over the breakfast preparations. He took the batter I had mixed up and cooked us all a lovely batch of pancakes, and eggs. What a thrill having a man in the kitchen. But it all took longer than any of us thought, and by the time we got out of the house, it was later than we expected. By the time we reached the church, the choir was just finishing up their last big number.

I had enticed my son to break up his Sunday morning video watching jag by describing the amazing music he was about to hear. I was excited, myself, because there is nothing like a real, Gospel choir. The first time I heard authentic Gospel music sung live by brown skinned people, I wept. And there we were, at the Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, surrounded by a sea of brown people, and I couldn’t have felt more at home. My little boy seemed to light up when the time came to shake hands with those seated near us, and he fell right in line with the “God Bless You’s” of the moment. Later on, he told me he had never been around that many brown skinned people at the same time before. We discovered that we both had noticed the same “only other white person” in the room, a middle aged man with a large head, about halfway across the huge room. It would seem my son has already developed his own sense of race radar.

And now, here I am, writing, in the middle of the night. Waiting for my boyfriend to come over. He is also brown skinned. Tall, dark and handsome, I like to call him. He is. All three. I am feeling intoxicated with anticipation. My body is prickly and bloated with PMS, and there is an odd sensation in my midsection – a fullness, a swelling, a discomfort. What is it that I expect? I am sitting in front of the computer, typing, the screen bringing the only light into the darkened room. I am at my dining room table, the window looking out on the house next door, where I can see my neighbor’s bathroom light on through that room’s frosted glass lower window with translucent fish stickers on the upper pane of glass. When anyone is in there, I can see the top of his/her head. I like looking over there and seeing people walk in and out of that room, even though I can’t make out anything clearly below the foreheads of the tall ones.

I’ve decided that I’m going to write something every morning. Something that could loosely be construed as a blog post. I feel the urge to share my voice with others, even though at times I feel so unfocused and vague about my intentions. I am not sure why I want people to read my words. I don’t really know what I’m seeking… Sure, all the usual stuff – love, approval, all that shit… but what about beyond that… a following? A career? Financial remuneration? Other opportunities for self-expression? All of the above?

Being on a journey like this seems so haphazard. So precarious. So dangerous and frightening. So liberating, and ultimately reassuring. A journey into the chaos of my mind… into the fear of not knowing. Into the trust in my own impulses, my own instincts, my own floundering in the dark. Tonight I pulled myself out of a warm bed, out of the safety of the covers, where I was bundled in all my coziest cotton gear. I pulled myself away from the sweet escape of sleep, to the drafty space near the front door, to write my words, and wait for a late night visitor.

I have so many stories to tell. So many dreams to explore and nightmares to purge. So many theories to test out and visions to bring to life. So much pain to heal and desire to quench. So much to do. Must organize the words into some semblance of order. That is what I want. The beauty and joy of seeing the words come together in a way that traces the paths of energy I’m feeling. Tracing the familiar patterns. Feeling them come to the surface. Taking the expectation, the fullness, the discomfort and the desire and forming them into something coherent, something that reflects what I’m feeling, something that makes it all seem real, somehow. Something that reminds me of who I am. I guess that’s enough for now.

Photo "Under the Milky Way" by jurvetson

Thursday, September 9, 2010

PHASE

potential curve
possible
daunting
fear
balance
expectation
opening
curious
relaxing
curve
struggle
dark closing in
opening
until
up
growing
pressure
expecting
moment
flowing
EDGE
Break,
begin
straight
natural
movement
keep going
won’t stop
unknown
courage
beware
opening
continues
straight
high
darkness
lean into it
push
struggle
opens
lean
relax
flow
rush
expect
open
flow
curve
around
pressure OK
love it
easy
and
flinging
open
burst out

inspired by Richard Serra’s “Band”

© Deborah Oster Pannell 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Swollen Red Sky

It was a Friday in July, and we were headed down I-59 towards Birmingham on our way to three days of jazz in New Orleans. The heat of that sweaty summer afternoon was finally fading, and Eugene was letting me drive, and the further south we got, the happier I felt. You see, he’d been away again on business, and I have never been too sure of exactly what that meant, and of course, I never asked. All I knew is that he was back with me for a long weekend, and I was glad to be with him - to have him by my side and laughing. That was the best part. To hear his deep, warm laugh - a rare occurrence in those days.

The truth is, we’d been fighting a lot – not about anything in particular, just a lot of little nothings. So this was a particularly special outing on account of the fact that we hadn’t fought in nearly two days.

We were all dressed up. He had on a fine green suit and big brim hat and fancy two-tone shoes – he always looked so sharp in those damn shoes – and I was wearing a flimsy little lavender chiffon number I had picked up on sale earlier in the week on my lunch break. And we had a little bottle of Jack Daniels going between us. And the sun was going down and we were driving into a big sky, swollen into bands of gold and orange. Smokey Robinson was playing on the tape deck – his music always makes me smile and feel free inside. And we were laughing and singing, “You really got a hold on me… you really got a hold on me… baby...”

Then, I saw the flashing red and white lights in the rear-view mirror. I hate those lights. They make me feel like I’m about six years old and very naughty. So I took a deep breath, turned off the music and popped a Certs into my mouth. It was chewed and almost gone by the time I offered one to Gene and he refused it. The officer came sidling up to my window and asked to see my license and registration. I flashed a smile big enough for the two of us at the uniformed man and said, ”Sure thing, Officer… I was going a little fast, wasn’t I,” and then placed my documents into his huge, fleshy hand.

“Almost 80, ma’am,” he said without looking up from my papers, which were a little beat up and hard to read. I was concerned about that, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Just wait here, ma’am,” and he walked back to his car and left us sitting there.

I looked at Gene. I could see his mood hovering on the brink of darkness, and I thought, now’s the time to lighten things up so we don’t blow the whole trip.

“You know, I sure hope that Elmore Jenkins isn’t playing tonight. He’s just too wild. I prefer that other drummer, what’s his name?”

“Leroy Parker.”

“Oh yes, he’s so tasty.”

“Mm hm…”

The car idled as the sun dropped closer to the tree line. The quiet began pressing in on my heart, and I noticed it was beating faster. In front of us, the sky was now saturated in a deep orange. I looked at Gene and felt him slipping away from me. I wanted so badly to hold him and kiss him. I reached across the seat and put my hand on his leg, but he pushed it away without looking at me.

“Not now, Laura.”

“What is it, Gene? I know I was going fast, but I didn’t even see that speed trap.”

“Things are more complicated than they seem, baby. You gotta always remember that. On the surface, they may look one way, but underneath is always a whole lot of other shit that don’t get dealt with on a regular basis. If you’re not on your toes, it’ll bite you in the ass before you know what’s what.”

I sighed, and then collected my thoughts. “Sweetheart, let’s just try to enjoy this weekend, OK? It’s been so long since we’ve had a nice time away, and I’ve missed that. As soon as we finish up this nonsense, we’ll get back on our way, and before you know it, we’ll be kickin back in one of our favorite spots in the whole world and we can forget about everything else. It’ll be just the two of us, like old times...”

And he looked out the window and said with a soft chuckle, “Yeah, old times…”

A few moments later, the officer came walking back towards us, and, stopping at my side, he hitched up his belt and leaned into the car, “OK, Miss Andrews, I’m gonna let you slide this time, cuz you gotta clean record and you seem like a nice lady. But I gotta tell you, if I catch you blazin through this way again, I’m gonna have to write you up.”

“Why, thank you sir. I appreciate that.”

I heard Gene let out a sarcastic snicker and saw him still looking out his window from the corner of my gaze. Then I felt the officer’s eyes on him as he seemed to notice the person in the passenger seat for the first time, but I tried not to let on. I cleared my throat.

“Well, thank you officer, we’ll be getting on our way now. We’re seeing a concert tonight in New-“ He interrupted me. “You got a problem there, boy?”

Oh shit, it’s starting. I bit my lip.

Gene said, “No sir, officer,” but kept his face turned out towards his window. Goddamn that man, he can be so stubborn sometimes.

“I asked you if you have a problem. Were you replying to me, or were you just over there talking to yourself?”

“I was speaking to you, sir,” and he turned slowly towards this young, pink-faced highway patrolman who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old.

It seemed his ears were catching some pink now, too, as he spoke to Eugene again. “Well, DO you have a problem?” He didn’t say “boy” this time. Maybe because he saw that Gene was almost twice his age… More likely it was the steely-eyed way Gene met his own trying-to-be-hard gaze. “Well that’s good, cuz I’d hate to think that you’d be makin’ any trouble for this pretty little lady here.

“No, sir,” said Gene, looking steadily at him.

“My husband’s just a little anxious for us to be getting on our way, aren’t you darling?” and I leaned a little out the window. “He don’t mean any harm, sir.”

“Husband, huh… well, just be careful, lady.” And he spat on the ground and walked away.

I could hear the man’s boots crunching on the gravel all the way back to the flashing lights as I got the car started up. Gene was mad, I could tell, cuz he didn’t turn the music back on and he wouldn’t look at me. Just strummed his fingers on his leg, real slow, over and over again, and stared out the window, as the police car rolled by us and disappeared up the highway.

By this time, the sky looked bloody red, and I flashed on a picture of a burnt body swinging from a tree, but I shook that image out of my head real quick as I pulled out onto the road.

“C’mon baby, let’s forget about this. He’s just a stupid young redneck boy tryinda act like a man. We both know he’s got nothing over you.”

“Nothing but a gun and a badge, Laura… and that’s all he needs.”

“Oh, c’mon baby, it wasn’t that—“

“And if you ever apologize for me to a white man again, I will leave you for good.”

And with that, he turned up the music full blast, got the JD out of the glove compartment and took a full swig before passing me the bottle. I drank a generous gulp myself, and tried to think about the music, and dancing close in a smoky bar, and laughing again. Just to hear his laugh. But I kept seeing Smokey Robinson getting pulled off to the side of the road and spread eagled on the back of his car while cops felt up and down his legs. Didn’t they know it was Smokey? Old sweet, honey-voiced SMOKEY?

I really did feel like that naughty six-year old girl.

“You’re my man, Gene, and I’m gonna make you feel good tonight.”

“Mm hm,” he said without looking at me, and took another swig of JD as the molten sun slipped completely out of reach behind the horizon.

THE END

© 2006 Deborah Oster Pannell

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mooney's Ride Home

Mr. Mooney was in a very bad mood. Driving home from work on the crowded West Side Highway north towards the Henry Hudson Bridge, he heard a funny clacking sound coming from under the hood that sounded suspiciously like the sound he heard the last time he brought the car into the shop. Damn that mechanic. I know he’s ripping me off, he thought. You just can’t trust anyone.

Alexander Mooney was never one to require reassurance or a softening of hard edges. He liked his lights harsh, his desk clean, and his coffee on time. So when his gal Rosemary hadn’t shown up that morning until nearly 9:20 with his morning brew, he knew this was going to be a particularly shitty day.

Rosemary was very efficient, pretty, and cheerful enough, but she had three children between the ages of 7 and 17, and something was always going wrong with one of them. If she hadn’t been so good at typing and shorthand, or hadn’t been in the habit of wearing particularly tight blouses (with what must have been a brassiere made of gauze for all the good it did her), he would have given her the boot a long time ago. The girl simply missed too many days of work. It was always something – one kid with the chicken pox, the other one who cracked his front tooth during a sporting match, and then that oldest girl with her mysterious female troubles – infection, or some such thing…

Anyway, this morning when Rosemary showed up almost a half hour late with his morning coffee, Mr. Mooney almost fired her on the spot. But then he noticed that her eyes were puffed up and rimmed in red, and she was still sniffling from what had obviously been a good cry. She had tried to cover it all up by coming in extra cheery, with a big plate of those butter cookies filled with raspberry jam she was always making (another plus in her favor, although he had told her so many times that he preferred apricot jam to the raspberry, which left too many seeds between his teeth), but he could tell that the girl was barely holding it together. Normally, this too would not have been enough to assuage his anger, but in addition to the cookies, she was also wearing that shiny, clinging mint green blouse of hers, and the sight of those full nipples so early in the day had taken the sting out of waiting twenty minutes for his coffee… Such is life – you had to constantly balance out the good and the bad.

Alright, only one of you gets in front of me, God damn it! You see what happens? You let one get in the lane and they all want to cut in! The entrance ramp to the highway from 79th Street often backed up with waiting vehicles, and Mr. Mooney’s rule was to only let one car in per exit. In this way, he felt he was doing his civic duty to contribute to the civilized flow of traffic, while not letting himself be taken for a fool. So when three cars cut in front of him at once, he had no choice but to step hard on the brakes as well as his horn. Oh, that really pissed him off. And then, he noticed that the clacking sound was getting worse. He prayed the car would hold out until home and stepped on the gas pedal, shifting to the center lane, and then again to the far left, where he planned to stay until he crossed into the Bronx.

The trees along the side of the highway bore fruitless limbs that jutted out like cold bones from their lonely trunks, with nary a spring bloom in sight. The knobby joints had a polished look to them that appealed to Mr. Mooney’s love of all things smooth and cool. Whereas others might find the sight disturbing, or at certain times of night, frightening, their seemingly lifeless state was actually quite reassuring to him – no illusion, no pretension.

There is nothing mysterious in the business of medical supplies. Sales are sales. Customers buy the products and pay for them. And then you make a profit. Alexander Mooney had been doing business in this way at the same Chelsea location for over fifty years, when he first started Parkside Medical Supplies. He had been able to last this long, he believed, precisely because he was a man of his word.

It had been a terrible shock to him, then, when his wife of thirty-five years, Faye, had divorced him ten years ago. She had complained to him that he, Alexander, had LIED to her. He had “promised her the moon,” promised her a big, fancy house and vacations and children and grandchildren, and never mind that the one child they did have had died from a rare blood disorder at the age of two and Faye had barely let him touch her after that. Thirty years later on the evening she announced to him that she was leaving, he had tried to talk some sense into her, but she had just tolerated him with that faraway look in her eyes and then gone upstairs to pack as if he hadn’t said a word.

It was just as well. Faye had been a terrible cook and a slob. He could say that now since they were no longer together. The day after she left, Alexander had a girl come in and clean up the entire place and take whatever clothes and jewelry she wanted. Then he called the Salvation Army and had them take the rest of the clothes and the heavy furniture. Within twenty-four hours of her leaving him, it was as if she had never existed. Alexander told himself it was better this way and purchased a new chrome and black formica dinette set, and a new black leather couch and reclining chair, and some sheer white curtains. He re-did the kitchen, also in a chrome and black theme. He couldn’t believe how much the new designer appliances cost, but then it was worth it to have all the memories of Faye’s bad cooking erased from the kitchen she had pretended to use for all of those years.

Alexander wondered how it was that a woman like Faye could reject everything he had offered her. Their wedding, it had been a massive affair, even more beautiful than the Kapinsky’s at the Towne House (where, everyone knows, the stuffed derma are always too salty)! She had been so radiant that day in white satin, like a princess. He could still see the rhinestone bodice of her dress, sparkling, her big, brown eyes shining up at him when she promised to love, to obey, until death…

He had seen that same sparkle in her eyes when she went shopping. Lord & Taylor, Saks, Bergdorf’s – 5th Avenue was her playground. In the summers they vacationed at the Nevele, never mind that other place, it was like a summer camp, she always said. No, they went top dollar all the way. The best hospitals, the best medicines – it wasn’t his fault that the doctors couldn’t save the girl. They had done everything they could, and Alexander had stood by helplessly as her little body just turned on itself, and slowly withered away.

He would always remember the way she looked when they wrapped her up in white linen, so thin and frail, her porcelain skin smooth and cool beneath the shroud circling her angelic face. Faye had insisted on packing the coffin with all of her favorite stuffed animals, and photos of the three of them at the Catskill Game Farm, feeding the sheep, with the one animal standing on his foot. It was the last good time he remembered them all sharing…

And then, just as he was passing the bottleneck at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge and preparing to pick up some speed for the last leg of his journey home to Riverdale, the strange clacking sound that had worsened at 79th Street suddenly broke into a full scale bucking and pounding of the right front end. Fearing that the entire wheel was going to fall off and his car would flip over head first, Alexander jammed down on the car horn and crossed to the right lane (over the wild protestations of the driver of a Hummer with Connecticut plates) and onto the shoulder of the highway, where he came to a thudding stop halfway into the grassy patch alongside the road.

His heart pounding so hard he could barely breathe, Alexander turned off the engine and leaned back in his seat with his eyes closed and listened to the steady hum and whoosh of evening drivers speeding past him. Slowly, slowly, his breathing returned to normal, and he opened his eyes to see his own glassy stare reflected in the rear-view mirror, which had somehow turned towards his face during the rush to safety. Then, with a flicker, he saw that his hardened gaze had been cracked open by the unexpected fright. He reached for the door handle and stumbled out of the car and away from the dangers of the endless, erratic line of impatient commuters, as he made his way towards the small patch of trees off to the side of the clearing.

But before he got too far away from the car, he heard an odd sound coming from under the passenger side. He hesitated for a listen, and then he turned back towards his disabled vehicle and saw something brown and furry moving just under the chassis. As he stepped closer, he saw that it was a big raccoon. He had apparently run over it in his hurried escape from the highway. It was making soft little yelping sounds and moving its hind legs in a way that seemed to indicate some kind of a struggle. Mr. Mooney thought that the animal was probably dying, and wished he had killed it all at once.

Upon closer inspection, Mr. Mooney saw that the animal was actually trying desperately to move away from the spot it was lying in. Curious… And then he saw that from between the legs of the dying creature, a small head was pushing itself out and he realized that he was witnessing the struggle of the mother raccoon to deliver one of her young pups into the world before she died. He froze in his tracks and watched, mouth agape, as this bleeding, convulsing thing pushed and pushed and cried out in pain and release until its little one spurted out of her, at which point she turned on her haunches toward its awkward young body and licked at its face to make sure that its mouth was clear and free to receive the meal she would provide for it.

Once the little infant had found one of her nipples and begun its instinctive sucking, the mother laid back on her broken side and allowed herself to forget about the rest of the babies that would no doubt perish squirming inside her, for her eyes were already beginning to cloud over with death, and her breath, increasingly labored, was slowly unwinding its hold on her consciousness. And then, with a final arching of her back and one last clear-eyed gaze at her progeny, the mother collapsed with an exhale as the afterbirth filled with unmet promise slid part of the way out of her and lodged there, spilling blood onto the ground underneath. All the while, the new raccoon sucked away at the milk, oblivious to the drama unfolding all around it.

Alexander watched in silence as the baby nursed with contentment at its dead mother’s breast. Then, all at once, the tears began to gush from his eyes, and though he tried to hold back the cries, they came, first hiccupping and then roaring out of him from deep within his heart. And that is where he stood, weeping, watching a baby raccoon take its first meal in the evening air alongside the Henry Hudson Parkway on the west side of Manhattan island, until the police finally showed up to investigate.

THE END


© Deborah Oster Pannell 2007

Figurine

Not wanting to give your husband a blowjob, no matter what the circumstance, is hardly the same thing as being an unsupportive wife. It wasn't my fault that Sully had lost his job. It was that damn temper of his. He never did understand the importance of keeping his mouth shut when it really mattered. Never mind the fact that it was the sixth straight day of the worst heat wave of the entire summer, the air conditioning was broken, and it was all I could do not to pass out lying in front of the fan with an iced tea in my hand and a cold compress on my forehead. And then in walks Sully in the middle of the afternoon: "Sheila, I need you to be here for me, baby."

And he lies down near me on the bed with that feel-sorry-for-me expression, acting all innocent, saying, “C'mon, I just need you to be here and lie close to me a little.” And then perhaps, noticing the flicker in my eyes, he says, “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Sully was too slick to actually make me do something I didn't want to do. He would sweet talk me and get me to change my mind. Or at least get me to say what he wanted to hear so he could believe I had changed my mind. Then he could turn around and say, I didn't make you do anything you didn't want to do. You wanted to do it.

He kissed me and hugged up to me and worked on me for near about an hour. I guess what made him most angry is not the fact that he didn't get his blowjob, but the fact that there had never been a time before when he couldn't manipulate me into believing that what he wanted was the best thing for both of us.

Well, you would've thought that I had beat him or cursed his mother, or something. He didn't talk to me for a full week, and then, he kept at me for another ten days after that, working me every chance he got until he was able to make me say the words, "I'm sorry."

And that was it. An admission of guilt. Life with him wasn't the same after that. Yeah, maybe he thought so. From his perspective, I guess you could say that things went back to normal, but for me, something had shifted.

By Labor Day, noticing that I was unusually restless, Sully bought me ten weeks of pottery classes at the Y. I guess he figured I needed something to do with my time besides cleaning his dirty underwear. Bless his heart.

From the minute I dug my fingers into those moist, squishy mounds of clay, I knew I had come home. I thought of something and the image just came out of my hands. Cups and bowls, first. Then plates, candlesticks, napkin rings, elaborate boxes, and miniature furniture - chairs and tables and four-poster beds. Whole houses full of objects. From the life-size to the miniature and back.

Sully got excited, cuz he still wasn't working, and I think he thought I was gonna make a fortune. He started talking about flea markets at Christmas time, and I could tell he was planning on living off my handicrafts well into the New Year. He would send me off to class twice a week with a big grin on his face, acting all happy and telling me how he loved seeing me do what I loved to do.

After a couple of months, I started experimenting with abstract forms. I became fascinated with lines and curves and textures. I worked with different kinds of clay, from the smoothest porcelain to the grittiest earthenware. My teacher, thrilled with my wild experimentation, invited me to use the studio outside of class time.

Working with clay is an incredibly sensual experience. If you let yourself really feel the texture, if you open your senses to the possibilities, you can feel an energy in it that speaks to you. It's not inanimate. It has a personality. Porcelain is so smooth, it's like cool, liquid glass. If it were music, it would be the lone voice of a flute, soft and soothing but also crying sweet tears of longing and joy. Sculpting with porcelain, I felt the lyrical sweep of an aria as my fingers stroked through the curves.

By the end of November, I decided that I needed to continue working at home. I dug into our savings to invest in enough clay and supplies to start a little studio in the basement. I set up a small kiln next to the washer and dryer. And I started to spend all my time down there.

Where I really found my match was with the earthenware - the terra cotta. I suppose the name says it all. Massaging deep, red bricks, adding just the right amount of water to make them more malleable, and then, pounding them into submission. I created thick, massive objects that claimed their space without apology. Boulder-like statues, completely solid, not the delicate, hollow-centered, porcelain objets d'art that made my throat catch with their tender beauty. These were dense, packed with matter. The more they weighed, the more I liked them.

The irony is, the denser a clay sculpture is, the more difficult it is to fire. Before clay can be fired, it must be completely dry. The thicker it is, the harder it is to insure that all the water in it has evaporated. A delicate pot or a thin walled figurine dries relatively quickly and can be fired safely. But a piece made from a solid mass of clay may take weeks to fully dry. Even then, it must be fired slowly, in careful stages, at lower temperatures than usual. If it has even a drop of water left inside it, it's liable to explode.

One day I took off all my clothes and used different parts of my body to create impressions in the wet clay. Some primal, creative spirit was unleashed; images seemed to spring forth from my whole being. As I rolled my limbs against the moistened surfaces, I could hear Sully moving around above me, back and forth between the TV and the refrigerator. He had gradually gotten so distracted by his fantasies of spending our impending fortune that he had forgotten to be interested in the particulars of what exactly I was creating.

Creativity - true creativity - is a force of nature. It can't be denied. It moves through you in waves and resonates in the atoms around you. When someone creates, the air around them becomes charged in the same way that the air does sometimes after an electrical storm - fresh and clean. It practically vibrates.

I guess I had stopped listening for the telltale steps, because suddenly I heard this low voice behind me. "What the hell is all this shit?" Of course, there I was, covered in cracked earth and muddy residue, blinking at this man who called himself my husband: "And what the hell are you doing? Have you lost your mind?"

I looked up at Sully. Angry? Confused? No, he was feeling left out. An incredible tenderness swept over me and I wanted to hold him in my arms. I wanted to kiss him and stroke him and lick and suckle him. I wanted to make love to him so badly I plastered myself against him and tore the buttons off his clothing. His surprise quickly gave way to pleasure. Here I was, right out of one of his mud wrestling babe fantasies, right there in his own basement, taking off his clothes and pulling at him like there was no tomorrow. The power of the moment was bigger than both of us, and we slithered together on the floor covered in dripping wet clay for hours and hours. We made love until we cried, and then, remoistening the cracked, drying parts with more water, we re-covered ourselves in more clay and laughing, made love some more.

The beauty of clay is that no matter how much it dries out and hardens, it can always be brought back to its natural state when it is re-constituted with water. That is, until it's fired. Once it's been fired, it is forever altered.

It must have been deep into the night when we decided that we were starving. Fortunately for both of us, there was a utility shower right there in the basement and plenty of clean, hot towels, fresh from the dryer. I told Sully that I would clean up the following day. After our shower, I made a path to the stairway with a few more towels and took his hand to lead him upstairs to the kitchen. But he had stopped behind me. When I turned around, he was looking about the basement studio as if for the first time. His eyes came to rest on my sculptures.

"Is this what you do down here while I'm upstairs? Roll around in the clay without your clothes on?

It didn't matter that today had been the first time. As far as Sully was concerned, it had been happening forever.

"I love working with clay, Sully. It frees me inside."

"What do you need to be free from?"

I was silent.

"The way you were today! You've never been that way with me before - even when I begged you. When I needed you most, you weren't there for me."

Clearly he hadn't yet forgiven me.

"And what are all these things?" Now he was getting angry. "What happened to the Christmas stuff, you know, to sell?"

I stopped speaking to Sully that night. He tried to apologize to me, and when that didn't change anything between us, he became a bit more desperate, and then angry again. And so it went for several days, as I calmly resumed my sculpting in the basement. He cursed me, calling me a crazy whore, and threatened to divorce me.

I gave Sully all the miniature furniture and the vases and cups and the plates and bowls and candle sticks and told him that he could sell them and keep all the money. He spent the holidays getting drunk with his friends and screwing some woman he met at the flea market. The divorce papers came the second week of January.

The day Sully moved his stuff out was the coldest day of the winter. He thought that by bringing his new girlfriend along with the rest of his friends, he would add insult to injury. I served them all hot chocolate.

As Sully was leaving the house for the last time, I handed him a small, earthenware piece I had made. Even though it wasn't very big, it weighed almost fifteen pounds. It had taken two weeks to dry and another week and a half to fire, in eight, closely monitored stages. It was in the shape of a house, and cut into the front of it were the shapes of two figures, intertwined in an impossible tangle of hair, arms, legs.

He looked at me with a confused expression. Perhaps, he seemed to think, I was trying to reconcile with him, and this was my strange, nonverbal way of communicating that I still loved him.

Carefully, I turned it around for him to see the back, where the two figures, now separated, were reaching out of two different windows, each towards their own version of heaven. He smiled, slowly, as the notion dawned on him. Gently, I said, "There's nothing for either of us to be sorry about."

That's when the smile drained from his face. Turning and walking through the front door, he let the statue drop from his hands and fall onto the stone porch where it smashed into a thousand pieces. He continued on to the waiting truck filled with his future life and drove off, without turning back again.

THE END


© Deborah Oster Pannell 2010

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Before the Fall

Ruby Cole was completely innocent of all wrongdoing. She hadn’t seen anyone take those two brats, and she sure as shit wasn’t going to admit to anything else. Besides, she had nowhere else to go, and if they wanted to keep her sitting in this little room all night smoking cigarettes, that was fine with her.

The skinny one was kinda cute. He had this little mole over the left corner of his mouth that she just wanted to suck. She kept watching it go up and down as he talked, and the way his full lips kept spreading and then coming together. She really wanted to kiss him, but that was pretty much not gonna happen. The fat one wouldn’t leave them alone long enough for her to make anything go her way.

No, she just had to sit here listening to their bullshit about what time was it, and where was she when the guys came in, and what had she been drinking and all of this other crap. She was so tired of hearing their voices, she just wanted them to shut… the fuck… up.

This morning, Samantha had been complaining of stomach pains again. It’s no wonder. All that girl wanted to eat was fruit loops. It’s not like Ruby didn’t cook for her kids. Why just the other day she made spaghetti and hot dogs, Justin’s favorite. She’d made enough to last a few days, but that kid’s such a goddamn pig he ate enough for three people on the very first night. She tried to teach those brats some manners, but what with the shit they learn at school, it’s pretty near impossible to keep them on the right track anymore.

She tried to remember if Samantha had finished her homework last night. She had helped her with her spelling words, and then her vocabulary. That part had been easy. Somewhere around the damn math questions, her memory got fuzzy, as it usually did around numbers. Besides, what was she, some goddamn tutor? Let the girl learn to count for herself. She needed to learn how things worked. Get up at six. School at eight. Two dollars for lunch. Five days a week. Three guys a night. Two fists in the gut. What was his name, Tex? Rex? Who the fuck knows? C’mere Moleman, I’ll show you what I know. Just get rid of Fatboy here. He’s really holding things back. You want some truth? I’ll show you some truth. Just give me ten minutes, I’ll have you begging for more truth.

Sure, I’ll take another cigarette. And a pepsi. Yeah, fine, good. Anything to get Fatboy out of the room… Ruby felt her breath catch as Moleman sat down and drew his chair up close to hers. He was leaning in, right to her face. She could see that mole really clear now. It wasn’t really round, it was more like a misshapen square, what was it they called those, a trapezoid. Ha ha. Geometry. There was a subject she really understood. The shape of things.

Detective Newsome. Oh, nice. Well, Detective, here’s your chance. You wanna kiss me? Ruby closed her eyes as his face moved in to meet hers, and she felt the press of his warm lips and the thrust of his tongue into her mouth. Mmmmm… Ow! His fingers dug into her left arm as he brought it back quickly behind her, bending her wrist backwards in a most uncomfortable way. And his hot breath in her ear, You wanna fuck with me? Is this what you have in mind?

Ruby did not like this at all, not one bit. She wasn’t even getting paid for this shit. And Newsome’s breath stank like sour chicken stew. Suddenly she felt like she was going to vomit. She turned away from him just as the hot bile came bubbling out on a stream of chewed up donuts and splattered all over the floor. Tex, his name was Tex. That was his name, the bastard. He had brought that friend of his with him, the greasy guy with the long pony tail. She hadn’t minded at first, but the greasy one had a really mean face, and no one had said anything about two guys at once. Funny how a bottle of Jack Daniels can make everything seem a little easier. Her head was cracking open now. Where was Samantha and Justin? No, she did not want another goddamn Pepsi, where the fuck were her kids? Newsome, you have such pretty lips. C’mere handsome, let me give you another kiss. And he’s pulling her arm behind her again, and it hurts so much. My babies! Where are my babies?? Ruby screamed as she saw Tex and the pony tail heading out the front door with their sleeping bodies, and then the room started spinning and the bile was coming up again, but before she could feel it come out, her head hit the metal table and the room went dark with a dull thud.

* * * * *

Newsome glared at the sleeping woman, slumped over the edge of the hard, metal table, her head settled comfortably into the crook of her arm. Over an hour she’s been in that position, he thought to himself. Despite the harshness of the room, the fluorescent lights, the cold tabletop, she seemed at home - like she was curled up in a big down comforter in the corner of a thick couch.

It’s too bad this chick is such a mess, he thought, spraying more Fantastik on the floor and wiping up the remaining chunks of vomit. She’s got a great ass and two gorgeous tits. Licking his lips, he thought about what it would be like to take her from behind, right here, right now. His cock hardened as he imagined holding her mouth shut with one hand and thrusting the other hand down her pants to find her, wet and waiting for him.

“You thinking about me?” Ruby looked up from the table top, pushing her damp hair back away from her forehead as she turned to face Newsome with clear eyes. “I’ll give you a good deal – abduction night special.”

“You oughtta be thinking about your kids.” Newsome tossed the soiled paper towel into the trash and snapped off first one, then the other rubber exam glove, as his cock reflexively went soft.

“Fuckers took my kids. They waited until I was good and drunk, and then they took my goddamn kids.”

“Any idea what they want?”

“I got nothin.”

“S’not what I asked.”

Ruby took a deep breath, drew her sweater up around her shoulders and looked straight at Newsome. “Look, am I a suspect?” Her tightly curled lips could not hide a small quiver. “I need a drink.”

Newsome stared back at Ruby and sighed in return. “You could be in a lot of trouble right now.”

“I know.” And closing her eyes with an even deeper sigh, she put her head down on the table again, this time face down.

Newsome looked down at Ruby. He liked this one. He felt sorry for her. She was pretty. His shift was ending in fifteen minutes.

His hand touched the back of her neck, only for a second. “Wait here,” he said, and the door closed behind him.

* * * * *

The Roadway Bar was one of those places that truckers would crowd into… if there were any highways passing by Hell’s Kitchen. Instead, it was peopled by retired postal workers and petty criminals – cheap hookers and dime bag dealers. Coleman liked coming here after his shift to unwind. He didn’t worry about what anyone was doing except the bartender.

“Hey Charlie,” he called to his long time friend, as he and Ruby took the last two seats at the non-TV end of the bar. Silently, he lifted two fingers, and then lowered them with a slight wag in the direction of him and his female companion. Two shots of Scotch and a couple of beers would follow shortly.

Ruby leaned forward slightly to peer across Coleman’s shoulders and survey the other end of the room. “The lady down at the end of the bar keeps looking at me.”

“That’s Gladys. Postal clerk, Wall Street Station. Retired since 9/11.”

Charlie placed mugs of beer down in front of them and poured two shots of whiskey. “Probably thinks you’re a terrorist.”

“Well she's freaking me out.”

Gladys shook her head and muttered into her coffee. “Don’t like this one, no, not one bit… got shifty eyes… gotta watch her, I do…”

“Steady, Gladys. Want me to warm that up for you?” Charlie walked back into the pulsating bluish glare of the small TV on the Gladys end of the bar and poured her another cup of coffee. She emptied the sugar dispenser into the stream of thick, black liquid, all the while fixing her eyes on the new woman on the other side.

Ruby threw back her shot and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. She looked up into the mirrored wall, watching as the muttering woman continued to peer across at her. “She’s giving me the creeps.”

Newsome drank his shot and slammed the glass back down on the bar. “Grab your beer.” Ruby picked up her mug and followed him over to a dark booth in an even darker recess of the bar. She stumbled over a hole in the worn linoleum floor, and he reached out with a quick hand on the small of her back to steady her. Sliding along the cracked vinyl seat across from him, she leaned back to watch him sit down as their glasses knocked together in the center of the table.

“Is this better?” he asked, settling back against his own seat.

“Yeah, I hate people staring at me.”

The two sat in silence, sipping their beer, allowing the tension of unanswered questions to slowly uncoil.

“Thank you,” said Ruby. Newsome nodded and took another sip. He was probably a cruel bastard. Punishment would come later. It always did. But Ruby was grateful for the small kindness of this moment, and she wanted it to last as long as possible. They emptied their glasses in silence and Newsome nodded to Charlie to bring them another round.

To be continued...


© Deborah Oster Pannell 2009