Dancing With Dandelions

dancingwithdandelionsJasmine Washbinder smiled at her father with amazed delight after he’d located her flitting about in a field of flowers behind the barn behind the farmhouse where she lived. She ran to him then, throwing her arms around him and giving him a resounding smooch.

“How on earth did you find me?” she shrieked, her eyes wide with surprise, while at the same time obviously pleased.

“Oh, I asked around if anybody knew of a certain loony young woman named Jasmine Washbinder, and half a dozen people in town all pointed me in this direction.”

She laughed loudly and tightened her hug on him. She might have been as mad as he’d been warned, but her affection for her old man remained. He felt himself breathe again.

“I’ve missed you, you know, Daddy.”

“And I you, Popcorn.”

She smiled at the very old pet name he’d given her as a little girl.

“Ahh . . . ,” she sighed, “yes . . . really, really . . .really missed you. I’d forgotten just how much. Forgive me for just . . . just dumping you and never writing or calling you all this time. Just couldn’t deal with a lot of stuff.”

He clicked his tongue dismissively. “I know, I know.”

Jasmine held on to him for a moment more relishing his familiar warmth, then released the aging man, standing back a step to survey him.

“Let me look at you. Mmm, I see that you’re still looking pretty dapper,” she observed, smirking. “Would I be wrong to guess that maybe Melba might have something to do with it? How is she?”

Frank grinned. Melba was his second wife. They had been married two years. “You’re right. She has. She’s a regular tyrant for dapperness. And she’s fine. I think you’d like her.”

“If she keeps you happy, then I’m sure I would. Well, that’s just great. She and I’ll have to meet sometime. Hey, you should’ve brought her with you.”

“Next time. She wants to meet you, too, but she thought it better that just us two get together this time.” He paused. “So . . . how are things with you, sweetie? Everything coming along okay?”

Jasmine shrugged. “Yeah, more or less. Getting there. I have my ups and downs. Still rough around the edges, I guess, but not so bad. And folks here are nice enough to me, so that’s all good. Not to worry, Daddy. I do feel much better . . . than before. And there’s a fairly decent shrink in town I go to once a week. Bit of a twit, granted, but she’s still new at the game and learning the ropes. I have to give her credit, though. I was no easy customer in the beginning. We get along okay now.”

“Umm. That’s good, that’s good.” He was thinking of the dire reports he’d received back home and wondered just how well his daughter really was. He’d have to look up her ‘twit of a shrink’ later for some more objective professional feedback.

She cocked her head to one side, looking faintly amused and at the same time perhaps faintly annoyed by her father’s uncertainty. “We can talk shop later, Daddy. Let me show you the house. It’s really kind of cute, but a tad messy. I wasn’t expecting visitors, so don’t be too shocked. Just me being me.”

Frank remembered Jasmine as an untidy teenager and made a sardonic grimace.

“Fair enough warning, Popcorn. Actually, I want to see the whole spread. Barn and all. Looks interesting. And I can’t get over how beautiful this whole region is. Look at those hills and mountains! They’re breathtaking. You’ll have to give me the grand tour.”

“I’d love to, Daddy. Tomorrow morning we can do it. I’ll even introduce you to my barnyard friends. Come on, let’s go back to the house. No, wait. Where’s your luggage? In the car? We’ll take it to the guest room.”

“Thanks. I hope I’m not imposing. I should have contacted your first, but I didn’t even have a phone number.”

“Imposing? Are you kidding? I’m so happy to see you that I’m practically giddy. Where’s the car? Out front?”

He nodded, and they began to walk arm in arm toward the front yard.

“By the way, what were you doing back here?” he asked, glancing at the grassy, flower-covered field where she’d been executing pirouettes.

She paused and frowned a second, following where Frank now directed his view. “Oh, that? Dancing with dandelions. Chasing stars and tagging moons. That’s what I do, Daddy.”

Frank Washbinder raised his eyebrows, studying his daughter’s face. He’d come here half convinced, once informed by Jasmine’s distraught mother, confirmed in more scientific terms by the psychiatrist who had first treated her, and verified resentfully by the girl’s estranged husband, that she had indeed lost her mind. Had Jasmine still been a little girl, he would have been amused by her childish reply, and probably would have played along with her game. But she was an adult now. Her response, and what he’d been told prior to setting out to find her, made him a wince with concern. But then she winked at him.

“Keeps the local wannabe beaus and their anxious moms a-thwart,” she explained with a drawl.

He caught the impish gleam in her eyes. He blinked, sputtered, and he chuckled then, nodding . . . profoundly relieved. “That’d do it alright.”

He turned his gaze away from her and, with a deep sigh, breathed in the clean, fresh air. No wonder she’d come here. The countryside was heavenly, a place of refuge, a sanctuary from everything dark, cruel and ugly that had driven her so far from home. He had originally thought to bring her back, but now . . . that mischievous wink . . . so like her . . . now he didn’t feel quite so inclined. Instinct nudged him to the possibility that even if she had in effect lost her way before, this was a far better asylum for her than any couch or institution back home. She looked well and happy, relaxed. At peace. That was all that mattered.

“Want some lunch, Dad? Must be past noon by now.”

Steve Pulley
7/28/2014
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

Snollygoster

snollygosterSnollygoster: 1. n. (slang, archaic obsolete) A shrewd person not guided by principles, esp. a politician.
Etymology: 19th-century American English. Possibly from snallygaster, a mythical beast that preys on poultry and children, possibly from Pennsylvania German schnelle geeschter, from German schnell, quick + *geist*, spirit.

O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Snollygoster would, were he not Snollygoster call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Snollygoster, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
(with apologies to Romeo and Juliet, and of course William Shakespeare)

Julianne Paultec loved Snollygoster Moore more than she loved  the legendary triangular Swiss chocolate with honey and almond nougat Toblerone™, more than she adored three successive bowls of Count Chocula™ — and that was just for breakfast — more than she lusted for apple slices, blueberries, a half banana and cookies on top of those three successive bowls of Count Chocula, even more than she worshiped Daisy, her peach of a foot massager and masseuse, a miraculous stitch remover who could remove sharp pains in her body like no other human being she had ever met. Julianne Paultec loved her kitchy-kootchy Snolly that much!

What Julianne Paultec did not love quite so much about Snollygoster Moore, however, were two things: 1) he was an unprincipled, sneaky, low-down, dirty politician of the worst ilk, of the kind in olden days that preyed upon poultry and children. And 2) his name: Snollygoster Moore. Why his parents named her yummykins Snollygoster was quite beyond her comprehension. It’s true that they were Pennsylvania Germans, which might explain it, and they could have been thinking more along lines of that fine and upstanding old Pennsylvania German name Schnelle Geeschter, which meant quick spirit, Americanized as Snollygoster. But it must be allowed that Snollygoster Moore’s parents, being low Pennsylvania Germans and not high Pennsylvania Germans, did not quite glean for their lack of education the significance of naming their dear sweet only child Snollygoster. Notwithstanding, raised as a Snollygoster only conspired to draw him into ever-entangling webs and power-hungry schemes and political circles that eventually made him what he came to be: a shrewd dude with a penchant for rude that did not preclude common folks from feeling royally screwed whenever he stewed and skewed.

This is not to say, withal, that Snollygoster Moore was totally without socially redeeming qualities. It was merely that you had to observe him with a less jaundiced eye than is usually required of his stripe. Julianne Paultec was just that kind of remarkable girl who could overlook a man’s shortcomings for love, even though she might not necessarily approve of them. This was not something she’d learned in community college, which she currently attended with checkered distinction. It was just in her sweet nature to look for the good in everybody. She could also be a bit of a ditz.

“He’s the guy for me, and I’m his neon gypsy,” she declared to her horrified parents.

“He calls you his neon gypsy!?” gasped her mother.

Julianne nodded cheerfully. “Isn’t he just the sweetest, Mom?”

“He’s the slag of the earth is what he is, daughter!” screeched her mother.

“He’d sell his own mother if there was any advantage to it,” cried her father.

“No, wait. Looks can be deceiving,” argued Julianne. “And, Daddy, that’s ‘if there were any advantage’, not ‘was‘. It’s subjunctive.”

“Huh?”

“I learned about the subjunctive mood in my Spanish class,” she replied proudly.

“What!”

“It’s pretty neat, actually. It’s a verb mood that…” Here she paused to quote from memory, ” . . . that ‘represents an act or state (not as a fact but) as contingent or possible.'” She grinned with triumph, giving herself two thumbs up. “Aced it!”

“Don’t you dare try to change the subject, young lady! We’re talking about that political scumbag you say you love, not some cockamamie Spanish subjunctive mood!”

“My Snolly may have his faults, but who doesn’t? Why, to me, he’s . . . he’s the bee’s knees and the dog’s bollocks all rolled into one.”

“He’s what! Where in God’s name did you learn that?”

Julianne smiled smugly. “Early twentieth century American History.”

“They teach you that at school?”

“It’s part of the program that includes colloquial language and slang of different periods.”

Julianne’s father looked at her mother in dismay. “Are you sure this is our daughter here and not somebody else’s half-wit child switched at the maternity ward?”

His wife shrugged and sighed.

“Daddy! We’re talking about the man I love, not about my parentage!” She winced. “Wait. Do you really think I was switched at the hospital when I was born?”

Her parents rolled their eyes synchronically.

“Dammit, girl, we’re talking about your idiot attraction to that . . .  Boss Tweed regression.”

Julianne’s eyes lit up. “Oh! I read about him in my American History class. Wasn’t he famous?” She suddenly frowned. “Wait a second. He was a corrupt nineteenth-century New York politician, wasn’t he? Oh, Daddy! How can you possibly compare him with my Snollykins?”

“Easy. They are both attached at the same hip . . . only about one hundred and fifty years apart.”

In the end, Julianne’s desperate parents, instead of locking her in her room and throwing away the key, shipped her off to South America to improve her Spanish. She pined for a time until she ran into a wealthy Bolivian latifundista by the name of Melgarejo with political aspirations, fell madly in love, married him, bore six children, and became the country’s First Lady, though that lasted for only two days, once it was discovered that her husband was only a naturalized Bolivian of Chilean birth and thus considered anathema to the people by reason of the never-never-ever-to-be-forgotten War of the Pacific of 1879 to ’83 wherein Bolivia lost its seacoast to its Chilean rival, not to mention thus ineligible for the job as President of the country. The two, together with their brood, fled the country ignominiously, settling on an island in the South Pacific where they are currently growing with great success tropical fruit for exportation to South Korea, China, and Japan.

As for Snollygoster Moore, he lost little sleep over Julianne’s sudden departure from the United States, conveniently wedded a Washington, DC, socialite with plenty of seed money for his projected campaign for a seat at the U.S. House of Representatives and, perhaps one day, a shot at the White House itself — if he were lucky . . . in the subjunctive mood, of course.

Steve Pulley
7/28/2014
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

Up to the Challenge? Writing as a New Septuagenarian

uptothechallengeIn Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift, his once-successful author protagonist, aging über-overthinker Charlie Citrine, finds himself abandoned and virtually penniless in the back bedroom of a third-rate pensión somewhere in Madrid, jilted by his long-time girlfriend who, fed up waiting for him to decide to marry her, has run off instead to Sicily to elope with a more-than-willing, affluent undertaker.

I have been in one or two back-bedroom, third-rate pensiones myself in the past, more penniless of mind and soul than of pocket, though of late even the pocket has become a tad threadbare. In fact, I’m in the back of one right now, although to my good fortune this time around it’s a second-rate one-bedroom apartment. So I can empathize with Citrine to some degree. My brain will never churn out the grandeur and eloquence of Bellow, it goes without saying, although I remain ever-thankful that I am able to at least appreciate his genius. And if I need any further consolation, such as it is, I also see myself as a kind of dumbed-down version of the fictional Charlie Citrine, a chump writer dumped in my life by at least three women, pretty much justifiably so, now that I think about it. But that’s not what this is about. The dumping, I mean.

Sliding Down the Toboggan Ride of Life
Having finally entered those infamous twilight years and feeling myself now on the brink of that initially slow but inexorable downhill slide into dotage and gaining speed with each passing month, I am called to mind of my one-and-only childhood toboggan ride in which for the very first time in my young life I suddenly realized my own mortality. Before then I naturally assumed that I would live forever. Picture five kids on a toboggan made for four—me at the rear—at first barely crawling forward with the help of our extended legs, then slowly coasting on its own, accelerating, at last barreling at breakneck speed down a snow-clad slope on Mount Baldy in Southern California, and then launched high into the air on an upward drift, tossing us in five directions. What excitement: the adrenaline rush, the marvelous dare-devil thrill! Only we ran out of snow on the way down. My companions, to their good fortune, landed unscathed in adjacent drifts, screaming with laughter. I, on the other hand, splatted on my tush on hard, pointy, rocky ground. “Could’ve been worse,” philosophized one of the lucky ones sympathetically. “Could’ve ended up on your head.” This did not console my broken ass in the least. Years later, I read Hermann Hesse’s novel Gertrud and experienced one of those déjà vu moments upon discovering with astonishment that the protagonist Kuhn in his college years suffers an almost identical accident on a toboggan while trying to impress a girl, only to end up a cripple ever-after for his efforts, while the girl promptly forsakes him. On the plus side, though, Kuhn ends up consequently a famous musical composer. Dared I imagine at the time that I, too, would become a famous author? Probably not. I didn’t bust my butt anywhere nearly enough to attain or even hope for brilliance.

The brain now falters. Second-guessed misspellings here, typos there, clawing at thesaurus and dictionary for words that were once easy to evoke without help. Stories bubble up, yes, but then waver in the breeze and burst before they can rise toward that rarefied air of completion. It seems a shame to simply watch them pop and disappear. But I can’t stop blowing bubbles either, for godsake!

‘When There’s No Wind, Row’
A while back, flying home from Washington, DC, after a twenty-year, long overdue visit with my stepsons, who I now see appear to be slowly catching up with me in age themselves, I squinted at an airplane TV screen about twenty-five feet away to watch a movie. It was “The Life of Pi”, about a boy lost at sea, trying to survive while sharing a raft with a bunch of starving wild circus animals out to eat each other, or be eaten. Writing can be a little like that. Or maybe a lot like that. You have to stay on your toes all the time or you might just be gobbled up by your own apathy or by life and its distractions. And then there’s that movie’s theme: when there’s no wind, row. Gotta keep rowing even when you’re dying. Or you’re dead.

Spider, Spider

Spyder Spyder, burning bright,
In a nook awaiting night;
What mortal cricket or cockroach
Could flee thy web they would encroach?
(with apologies to William Blake)

uptothechallenge2At first I thought the spider was dead, the spider in the web, in the northwest corner of my apartment living room, behind the floor lamp and the vase of artificial peach blossoms, above the carved mahogany Chinese man carrying two pots of fish dangling from strings tied to the ends of a long stick carried in his right hand and resting on a shoulder. It made no movement of any kind. I dragged out my camera, took a host of close-up macro pictures of the beast. When I’d exhausted all possible angles of picture-taking, I gently wiggled the web to see if the dead or moribund spider would drop to the floor. That’s when I realized it still lived. It stirred. Not much, but enough to tell me life yet lingered. During the day the spider was gone, along with its web, but night after night—for weeks, then months—it would be back, resting motionless upon a newly spun frowzled, slapdash web. When at last it appeared no more, I missed the creature. Its calm, motionless patience enthralled me more than the frenetic commercial TV programs doing their usual mindless nocturnal cartwheels behind me.

To Be, Or Not To Be
At eye level, over the screen of my laptop, I find the following: a sign that reads: “Omit the verb ‘to be’“.

I blink. And then think. What on earth? Not write anything that includes our existence? It seems an impossible undertaking. I cannot conceive of omitting the one verb that projects place, mood, character, past, present, or future. The task appears a preposterous one, and my brain begins to short-circuit. I cannot do it. This sign perverts my sense of . . . of, well . . . shall I say it? Being?

Why Living Forever May Not Be All It’s Cracked Up To Be
Judy, one of my neighbors, and a dear friend I’ve known since I was eight years old, turned 101 in March (2014). She even got a write-up in our town’s quarterly magazine, “Connect.” Physically, she must be healthier than I; she’s suffered two fractured femurs in falls over the past three or four years and healed miraculously! How many of us can do that at half her age? Mentally, however, she’s either 50 to 90 years in the past, or no more than 30 seconds. I’m not sure she recognizes me anymore when I visit her, but she’s always happy to see me. And she invariably, adamantly and unequivocally declares each time I make an appearance, “If you don’t got your health, you don’t got nothin’!” When her dementia wasn’t quite so advanced, she used to warn me about pestilential public toilet seats. Their dangers fascinated her. Alas no more. She also bemoans the fact that she has lived as long as she has and wishes she were dead. I can’t say I blame her in her condition.

The Japanese, who by sheer numbers are statistically the oldest-living people of any nation on earth (although tiny Monaco holds the world record of 89.68 years for average life-expectancy), may also have come to this same conclusion. It turns out there are so many surviving nonogenarians, centenarians and supercentenarians in that country that they have become a burden to their sexagenarian, septuagenarian, and even octogenarian children—no spring chickens themselves—who must continue to care for them, not to mention Japan’s overtaxed health care system.

My late father, who died at 93, was wont to say, “getting old stinks.” Or as my very pragmatic mother put it upon learning she had liver cancer, “Listen, I’m nearly 87 years old. It’s time to move on.” She died peacefully ten days later.

Those Pangborneans
For the longest time I’ve written about Pangborneans—those ineffable creatures from a distant planet—mainly because people can’t seem to get enough of their belief that extraterrestrials surely ought to be more interesting than the clowns we’ve got peopling Earth. But now that I’ve actually met Pangborneans, they just aren’t any more exotic than we are—except of course for their ability to shapeshift as easily as we can scratch our nose . . . and speak fluent Pangbornean.

All in all, though, no matter how young or old we are, we’re still writers. Ergo, as what our dear CHPercolator promptdominatrix Beth Burris commands us time and time again, “enjoy and keep those fingers moving!”

Speaking of Pangborneans . . . .

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I’m Not Michael

imnotmichael“I’m not Michael,” I said to the woman who had just called me out and had wrapped her arms around me in an enticingly affectionate bear hug.

“You most certainly are!” she exclaimed with a laugh — surprised, I imagined, that I would deny it, but thinking perhaps that I might be joking.

“I’m sorry, madam,” I replied archly, carefully extricating myself from her grasp, “but you must be mistaking me for someone else. I assure you, I am not Michael.”

Were I Michael, it may or may not have changed the course of my life, not to mention that of untold others. You see, our lives, I believe, are connected by invisible threads that stretch far into the past and far into the future. I think that’s the way our brains work as well — an integrated network of connections that as we grow older and are exposed to countless experiences both large and small become more and more complex and contribute to our makeup as human beings. Likewise, as we meet and interact with different people during our respective lives, we form part of an intricate web of threads — past, present, and future — constantly evolving our universe.

Take for example my name. It’s Jack, by the way, not Michael. Could it be that I look more like a Michael, as this woman had claimed? But Jack it is, and Jack it’s always been. My parents wouldn’t have it any other way. But on reflection, naming me Jack may very well have aimed me in a completely different direction than had they named me something else. Michael, for instance.

I observed the woman more closely, now that I was at arm’s length and freed from her clinch. She was attractive, though not excessively so. Excessively attractive women conjure up divas in my mind for some reason. I’m sure that at some traumatic point in my past I had been stung by an excessively attractive diva and it had left a negative impression. Not that I don’t enjoy gawking at excessively attractive women, mind you. I just shy away from entertaining the kinds of wild fantasies that most men torture themselves with unnecessarily. One must maintain an even keel, you might say.

“Michael Fitzpress! Quit putting me on. It’s me . . . I . . . Renata Broadbury.”

This as yet nameless woman, who had corrected her grammar in mid-sentence, and unasked bestowed upon me her fond embrace, had interesting features in an unexcessively attractive way. She was full-bodied — I believe that’s the expression used to describe a person who has some meat on her bones, but has not gone overboard about it — maintained all the right curves and dressed to enhance them, and exhibited a pleasant, feminine countenance. Why I had addressed her as “madam”, as though she were a customer in a posh boutique and I a polite but aloof salesclerk, I cannot say truthfully. After all, she seemed about my age and by no means to be regarded a dowager; we were not in a posh boutique but in a Ralphs supermarket parking lot, each with our respective grocery shopping carts; and I certainly possessed no clerkish mien, so why the somewhat archly-stated honorific? I’m not at all an archly kind of guy, really. Perhaps because I felt — though appreciative, I do admit — not a little awkward to be drawn tightly to her ample bosom. And it was surely more polite than saying, “listen, lady, open ya eyes, will ya; I ain’t no Michael, and ya got da wrong bozo, okay?” Well, I would never really say something like that. I’m from California, after all, not New York.

I decided, since she’d announced her name, that I’d dispose of the “madam” business.

“Excuse me, uh, Renata, but I really, really am not Michael. My name is Jack. You’ve evidently confused me with someone else who perhaps looks like me.”

“I most certainly did not!” she retorted vehemently. “Maybe ten years have passed, but you’re Michael Fitzpress, or I’m a monkey’s uncle . . . er, aunt.”

She was beginning to look a little dangerous by then, so the old fight or flight mechanism started squirming inside me. I didn’t really want to wrestle with either just yet, or with her, at least not until I’d exhausted my small repertoire of reason. I reached into my back pocket and wriggled out my wallet. I really did need to remove some of the excess cards in it so it wouldn’t look like a bloated ham on rye. Somebody had told me that it was probably the main reason why I suffered from the pain of what I’d already self-diagnosed as sciatica if I rode in a car for more than twenty minutes.

“I think . . . I hope . . . this may clear up the confusion. Here’s my driver’s license. Uh, as you can see, it says here . . . Jackson Patrick Cleaveholder. And . . . that’s my photo.”

She stared at my license, then at me, then back at the license.

“Can I see it closer?” she said suspiciously.

“Be my guest,” I said, removing the card from my wallet and handing it to her.

She pulled a pair of glasses from her purse, set them on her nose, and examined my driver license intently. At last, she returned it to me, shaking her head. Her face was flushed and she looked defeated.

“It’s so uncanny! You’re sure you aren’t really Michael Fritzpress, but under a pseudonym in the Federal Witness Protection Program?”

“I’m sure,” I said, smiling slightly. For some reason, I found myself kind of taking to this nutty woman now, even though I was also ready to run for my life if necessary.

“I-I am so embarrassed. Please forgive me. I must sound like a head case to you.”

“Not at all,” I replied, though she did sound like she might be a head case.

“Oh, God, I still can’t believe this! And yet here you’ve shown me proof.” She paused, her blush burning darker, then burst out, pleading, “Please, I beg you! Forgive me for asking again, but you are being utterly truthful, aren’t you? I’m not being punk’d? Michael could be such a terrible prankster.”

“Truly, I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.”

“But you sound exactly like him,” she insisted.

I gave her a shrug and a sympathetic smile. “Sorry. But I must confess that this comes as much a surprise to me that anyone could resemble me so closely that you couldn’t tell us apart.”

“I was so sure.” She hesitated, looking all the more chagrined. “Of course, several years have passed — ten I think, so I could simply be wildly extrapolating an older version of the Michael I knew.”

“Umm . . . a possibility, of course. Pardon me for asking, but where do you know this Michael from? I have to say, you have me intrigued about the guy.”

“We were neighbors for years, since childhood. You — sorry . . . he — was a dear friend. This is such a shock. I’m both mortified and confused now. You . . . you don’t have a long-lost twin by chance . . .?”

I grinned and shook my head. “If I do, I was never told about it. Still . . . one never knows what parents will hide from their children, will they?” I frowned momentarily at the thought, shrugged, then glanced down at my watch. “Oops.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry! I’m holding you up.”

“No-no, don’t worry. I do have an appointment in a while, so I still have some time, but I need to get my groceries home first. There’s some stuff in these bags that needs refrigerating.”

She shifted and began to move her shopping cart. “I won’t detain you more. Again, my apologies.”

“Not a problem. This has been most interesting, I must admit.”

I paused then. Something about what she’d said . . . .  I stared at her. She waited. Then, as crazy as I thought this probably was, I continued slowly.

“You know . . . actually . . . thinking about this odd coincidence . . . and now my parents — knowing them as I do . . . or maybe as I don’t  — perhaps they did guard a deep, dark, long-kept secret from my sister and me. They certainly have been tight-lipped about a lot of things over the years.”

Renata Broadbury gave me a look then, as though sizing up my sense of humor. Her mouth quivered slightly. She wavered, finally decided, and quipped, “Maybe like Russian sleepers or something?”

I blinked, dumbfounded, then in turn enormously tickled by the idea, I burst out laughing. “Wow! I hadn’t thought about them quite that way. But, yeah! Who knows? They sometimes are kind of shifty-eyed, even now in their dotage. What a novel notion!”

She joined my laughter, and for the first time looked relaxed and relieved. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. Oh my! I’ve taken up all too much of your time!”

“Worth it, truly. Well, I must say, this has been a truly peculiar yet fascinating parking-lot encounter. I’m glad now we ran into one another.”

She rolled her eyes, but there was a twinkle in them, and she nodded. “Well, good-bye, then . . . Jack.”

I smoothed my hair and took a breath. “Uh . . . excuse me, Renata, I don’t wish to sound forward or anything, but I was just wondering . . . if it would be possible for us to meet again, somewhere later, perhaps tomorrow or some other day, where we could talk. You’ve really roused my curiosity about this ‘clone’ of mine, Michael.”

She seemed to baulk. I can’t say I blamed her. Who was this look-alike, anyhow?

“Uh . . . well,” she began.

I waved my hand. “No, no, don’t worry about it. It was just a crazy idea.”

“It’s not that . . . .  To be utterly honest, I still think somehow you’re ribbing me, that you really are Michael, though I don’t know why you would carry on this charade. Or-or you really are Michael, but you have amnesia and don’t remember your past or me . . . you know, like in the soaps? But then again, maybe not. Maybe you’re really his abandoned brother, or . . . ha-ha  . . . his doppelgänger.”

“His doppel . . . Ha-ha! Very good! I love it! Listen, I tell you what: If you are good with the hour, say tomorrow morning at eight, I’ll be over at Maggie’s Pie Post. If you come, I’ll treat you to a slice of the pie of your choice, and we can discuss this Michael guy who I’m beginning to suspect has stolen my identity. And if you don’t show, I’ll understand . . . but I’ll eat that slice of pie intended for you! How does that sound?”

She regarded me for a moment, took a breath, then nodded. “Deal. Tomorrow at eight. Now go.”

She waved, then pushed her shopping cart away. I turned and aimed my own toward my car, halfway down aisle 7.  As I pushed my way along, I shook my head in amused wonder. It looked to me like this Michael Fitzpress, whoever he was, without even knowing it might very well have spun an entirely unexpected thread connecting me with Renata Broadbury into the future. And I found myself looking forward to it.

“Mincemeat!”

I turned back. It was Renata shouting from a distance.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Make my slice mincemeat!”

Steve Pulley
6/11/2014
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Jabberwock in Aspic

jabberwockinaspicIt was four o’clock in the afternoon, and our mother had already hauled out the big iron pot to start broiling things for dinner. We lived way out in the boonies and we had to make do with what we could grow on our own, or track down. Mother was rattling beamish proud of us and pleased beyond imagination with what we’d captured that day, for our catch far exceeded even her wildest expectations, not to mention our own, and proved beyond all doubt our worth as consummate hunters. We won’t confess that an extraordinary degree of good luck had a hand in it.

Before we ventured out this day, however, she had lined up all five of us outside our hut like soldiers for a few cautionary words of advice.

“Boys . . .” Here she paused and warily eyed our sister, Prudence — a misnomer if there ever was one. “. . . an’ girl.”

Prudence grinned back with excited anticipation. This was to be her inaugural hunt with her brothers.

“Yes, ma’am?” we cried in unison.

“Exceptin’ fer Prudence here, I know that this ain’t yer first time out fer victuals, so you may think I’ve gone soft in the head tellin’ yer all over again how things be. But it don’t hurt none to be reminded that yer ain’t foraging fer nuts, fruits, an’ vegetables, all right? It’s protein yer quest this here day. An’ some o’ the protein in these here parts don’t always take keenly to endin’ up in our soup bowls and would be much more inclined seein’ you endin’ up in their soup bowls, if yer follows my drift.”

We followed. And we did not mind her “little talk” with us, because it was always both instructive and entertaining, not to mention the fact that we also appreciated that our dear mother fretted for our safety.

“First off, my babies, lay off the jubjub,” she warned, shaking her gnarled index finger at us for emphasis, “a desperate bird if’n thar ever was one, that lives in perpetual passion. And sidestep by all means the evil-tempered bandersnatch. What with its long neck, snappin’ jaws, and swift lope, it kin, if yer not careful, easily become the diner rather than the dinner, if yer knows what I mean.”

“Yessum,” we replied in submissive unison.

We weren’t exactly sure what perpetual passion might even mean without some subtext. We were already old and wise enough not to query our mother too much in some areas. While she did possess an innate poetic talent of sorts, she’d still on occasion mix up her words, raising in our minds questions we’d learned were sometimes better left unasked. We’d already coached our sister Prudence — who was younger than the rest of us and still prone to innocent and foolish inquisitiveness — to keep her mouth firmly sealed and we’d explain things to her later. It was a test for the poor girl, but she acquiesced to our superior knowledge and experience . . . at least for now.

With respect to our mother’s admonitions, she needn’t have bothered. jubjub birds tend to be a tad on the gooey side except the young ones, so we kids weren’t all that keen to feast on one anyhow, unless nothing more appetizing came our way. As for bandersnatches, they were just too darned risky when pitted against our less-than-masterful skills, even if they do taste out of this world. So we always gave them wide berth.

“And,” she continued, cocking a direful eye at each of us, “unless yer be so shamefully hard up as ta have no other recourse for prey, ferget about borogoves altogether.”

We bobbed our heads vigorously, shuddering at the thought. Borogoves, you see, are thin, shabby-looking birds with feathers sticking hither and thither, strongly resembling something along the lines of a festering mop, and tasting fairly akin to one.

“Last, but sartainly not least,” concluded our mom with a dreadful, albeit rhythmic, shout, “beware the jabberwock, the jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Nay, don’t yer squawk! Yer far too slight. Yer be no match.”

“Yessum!” we shouted back.

Hah! As though we had to be told. We were in no way about to squawk. The jabberwock — while we’d been assured by wizened troubadours in the district to be a banquet like no other on earth or in heaven — was without question entirely out of bounds for the likes of us, and we knew it all too painfully well. Some years ago, our dear departed father, God rest his foolhardy soul, thought as a Harvest Festival present for the family he could treat us to jabberwock entrecôte. As a consequence, however, and to put it gently, we feasted naught that day, though alas the jabberwock most certainly did. You might say that we no longer observe that particular occasion in quite the festive way most other folk do.

As such, we set our appetites instead on slithy toves, and the slithier the better. Their principal diet is cheese — with a preference for our local versions of mozzarolla, brie, feta, and provolone, though they won’t sneeze at humbler varieties — and even though they are the darndest-looking beasts you’ll ever lay eyes on (I kid you not: they look like a cross between a badger, a lizard and a corkscrew), they’re toothsome comestibles indeed and fairly easy to find because for some odd reason they love to conglomerate around horologes, sundials, and sand glasses. But . . . if they catch sight of you before you catch sight of them, they’ll straightaway rotate and bore right into the ground faster than you can nock an arrow, and you may as well dig your way to China before you’d find them again anytime soon. We were also on the lookout for mome raths, those succulent, greenish pig-like critters. Raths habitually wander off from their drifts, always a mistake since they can only be safe in a large group.

Eager to be on our way, we shuffled impatiently, preparing to break ranks.

“I’m not finished!” she thundered, stopping us cold in our tracks. “Hear me out, yer boys! Although yer sister Prudence here is a rough-‘n-tumble youngster in her own right an’ I ‘spect will hold her own with yer on this hunt, yer be sure she gets home alive an’ in one piece. So don’t yer be takin’ any unnecessary risks. If anything happens to her, yer can be sure that I’ll feed the pack of yer to the first peckish carnivore passes by this here home. Understood?”

“Understood, ma’am!”

With affection she then shook her apron at us and cried, “Then be off with yer, my beloved brats . . . and godspeed.”

And off we went. All five of us were pretty keyed up at this point, eager to catch us something, anything, that would please our mother . . . and more especially fill our bellies with something meaty. Fruits, legumes, vegetables, seeds and grains are all just fine in their place — and in moderation, mind you — but the juicy flesh of game cooked to perfection, served with love, and shared in the company of family and friends . . . well, what could possibly be greater pleasure?

The fact that we did not run across any raths, borogoves, bandersnatches, jubjugs, toves, or, for that matter, any other varmints larger than rats and squirrels, and very few of these, should naturally have cautioned us that something adverse might be underway. The tulgey wood was unusually silent except for the soft rustling of leaves, the esurient croak of a few high-flying scavengers, and our own movement through the brush, which was in fact passibly stealthy for a bunch of pubescent rustics such as we, something we had learned from our father before he tossed caution to the wind, forgot in his excitement to replace his freshly honed sword inside its sheath worn on his hip, and paid the price.

“Mighty quiet ’round here,” muttered Prudence imprudently as we entered a clearing shaded by a lone tumtum tree.

“Sshh!” we four boys shushed in chorus, making more noise in the end than did our young sister.

We all paused then and listened.

“Aye, she’s right,” whispered Frogmire, eyes wide, drawing a smug smerk of triumph from Prudence and a toss of her head.

“Something’s afoot, surely,” mussitated Thystlegoode. We all nodded in agreement.

I should perhaps interject here that among us five siblings, only Prudence received a becoming name, albeit the wrong one. We brothers, to our most profound regret, were burdened with sobriquets that could only assure that we remain hidden and unsung for the remainder of our lives in this godforsaken forest. No legends would be minstreled o’er the likes of us, of that you can be sure . . . unless it were in jest.  The other brother was christened Axelfrothe, and I, alas, Pangbourne.

Not now, though, to ruminate upon our sore misfortune. Even as wet-behind-the-ears as we might have been, we knew that either we had brought about the silence of the forest creatures ourselves, or not far away something else had, and probably more dangerous. It was time for us all to be alert. Those of us with javelins grasped them tensely, those with bows armed them, while dear, sweet Prudence, not to be trusted with such weaponry, surprised us all by carefully withdrawing from her tunic our late father’s prized vorpal sword! No wonder she’d been marching behind us with what we’d believed an affected stride. And a wonder that she had not sliced herself in twain!

We brothers rose up as one to protest her brazen act, but she hissed for us to be still, raising her free hand to an ear. We stopped abruptly and listened. At first there was nothing, and after a moment we were about to turn back on our sister, when she hissed softly again. “There!”

And in that same instant, for the first time in our young lives, we heard from afar the ominous, unmistakable whiffling, burbling sound about which we’d been recounted by our elders that could be no other but that of the dreadful jabberwock. We gaped at one another in terror.

“Did not a man of letters once write that discretion is the better part of valor?” queried Axelfrothe in a whisper, preparing to beat a hasty retreat.

Were we not in the direst straits just then, we probably would have expressed some shock and disbelief that Axelfrothe would even know of a lettered man, much less have memorized a line from one. We were, after all, five forest-bound analphabetic ignoramuses, having received not even a modicum of formal education. Or so we thought. We had only time enough to raise an eyebrow at our brother before choosing between fight or flight, now perceiving the distinct galumphing of the jabberwock in our direction.

“We must face the monster,” grunted Frogmire.

“I say flee,” insisted Axelfrothe.

“He’s too close,” asserted Thystlegoode. “He’ll catch at least one of us . . . no doubt Prudence. Those who survive cannot return home to face our mother with one less child. Better that we all fight and die than that.”

It was true. We all glanced at one another and nodded. Our bows were already drawn and armed, our spears at the ready. Prudence gave our father’s sword a couple of test swipes at the air. We drew back in fright that she might slay us unintentionally before the jabberwock did so by choice.

“There! Let us put our backs to the tumtum tree.”

It was a smart move, for the tumtum tree has heavy, thorny, low-hanging branches, which would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the winged jabberwock to arm an open air attack against us. It virtually was forced to land on the ground, which was about the only slim advantage we had in our own favor besides a lucky strike at the beast with our arrows and lances. I say slim because the jabberwock, though large and seemingly lumbering to outward appearance, is in fact swift to strike once worked out its strategy. Our shafts and arrows could indeed be lethal, for jabberwocks are not invincible, but only if we made no error would we all return home safely. We circled the tree so that our backs inclined toward the trunk and each of us could protect one another from a different angle against the attack that was sure to come.

“What now?” asked Frogmire.

“Momma says ta pray fer courage an’ strength in time o’ need,” replied Prudence.

“No better time like the present,” I said.

And so we prayed. Loudly. It’s curious to note how one’s attention to prayer becomes somewhat distracted when imminent death is breathing down your neck, while at the same time more focused and fervent. I don’t know how to describe it exactly. But at the instant we saw our awful adversary emerge from the forest and into our clearing, that same prayer became razor sharp and, in an instant, all fear seemed to shuffle off, and a terrible calm enshrouded us that even the jabberwock seemed to sense. Its gallop toward us slowed and then braked to nearly a full stop at a distance of four rods. Perhaps it was because we had stood our ground and not fled that had confused the creature. Perhaps it did not smell our fear, for we had lost it in prayer. Could it be that we were something that was not to be so easily trifled with? The beast observed us, perhaps recalculating the ratio between its degree of hunger and the degree of pain we might inflict upon it in return. With careful, but unconcealed stealth it began to circle the tumtum tree, wings undulating slowly.

It was gigantic, towering above us four times our height. How could we possibly best this monster of monsters? It was stunning. We might well have lost our courage then and there at the mere sight of its magnitude had Prudence not suddenly begun to chant, “Here, kitty-kitty-kitty.”

We four brothers gawked at her in stupefaction, thinking she’d surely lost her mind, then at one another, and finally back at the jabberwock. It had ceased its circumambulation and gaped. She was taunting it!

“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty,” our sister intoned, bobbing her head, thrusting out her chin, and wagging her eyebrows as though daring the beast to take the bait. Our father’s sword was now half-hidden behind her, just enough that the jabberwock could see she had one, but not enough to show its potential deadliness. What on earth had possessed her!

“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty. . . .”

We all now saw that the jabberwock had begun to fidget. It snorted and pawed the ground with one hind leg and then the other. Its long neck and head swayed back and forth with an air of uncertainty. It’s forelegs clawed the air. Its serpentine tail slapped the ground behind it. The feelers on its head and jowels writhed.

“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty,” cooed Frogmire softly, joining our sister’s provocations.

Our gaze shifted to our brother. He was actually smiling! And then, one by one, we understood, and grins appeared upon all our faces. We turned back toward our adversary.

“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty. Here, kitty-kitty-kitty . . . .”

The giant jabberwock blinked, its ferocious ruby eyes glaring at us in its wrath, its razor teeth snapping against one another, greenish froth oozing from its maw. Wings now beat the air, lifting it halfway off the ground. It let loose at last a thunderous roar that shook the very gound, and even at that distance we could smell its fetid breath. Then it charged.

“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty. Here, kitty-kitty-kitty . . . .”

&&&
“And so, my darling children,” asked our mother before her burbling cauldron, a beaming, angelic smile upon her perpiring brow, “how would you like it?”

“In aspic, Mother dear. Jabberwock in aspic.”

Steve Pulley
6/8/2014
Posted in Stories | 3 Comments

Will You Dance With Me, Natasha?

dancewithmenatasha“Will you dance with me, Natasha?”

It had been an innocent question, asked twenty years ago, at a high school dance. I’d asked her, not expecting her to accept. The place was mobbed with students and chaperones, and aside from the deafening volume of the music that made all intelligible speech but screaming impossible, I’d somehow managed to make myself heard. She was leaning against the wall, an amused smile on her lips and a paper cup of punch in hand, watching the kids hopping about deliriously. Her face was flushed, and I knew that she must have had a recent workout on the dance floor herself and had taken a break. She didn’t know me. And, in fact, I did not know her except for her name, which I’d asked from a classmate when I’d first seen her passing by days before in school. She now regarded me a moment, cocked her head to one side considering, then to the other, made a face, nodded, and yelled, “Yeah, sure.”

She set her cup on a table, and we danced. The piece was one of those frenetic ones, but with a nice beat and just the right rhythm for performing some creative glissades, hurdles, Moro reflexes, shimmies, sidesteps, and what today I suppose might be termed twerks or facsimiles thereof.

“I haven’t seen you before,” she’d hollered.

“New kid on the block,” I’d replied in kind.

“That explains it. How’d you know my name?”

“From a classmate.” As an afterthought, I added, “I’m Nate!”

She nodded and gave me a thumbs up. Although I’d seen her a few times during recesses, this was our first encounter. She and I were one grade apart and shared no classes. She was neither gorgeous, nor even beautiful, but nonetheless attractive in some ineffable way. Dark-haired, exotic, and with the name Natasha, I set about fantasying her family as Russian immigrants, although I’d been told that her last name was Cunningham, which is about as Russian as Clootie Dumpling. Her skin was pale—a translucent, near alabaster color that classical painters so loved in their subjects—which at the time I imagined in her indicative of one derived from generations of people from the far north where the sun shone brightly only three months of the year. Perhaps, I mused, her mother was Siberian and her father Glasgow Scottish. Or, to be even more exotic, respectively a Laplander from Murmansk and a Celtic Highlander from Inverness. I was deep into geography at the time and prone to flights of idiocy.

“You dance well!” she called out, interrupting my geographical ruminations.

“I do? Thanks! So do you!”

She smirked, then laughed. Any meaningful conversation, however, was fruitless in the din, so we shrugged and simply enjoyed the rest of the dance. When it was over, I bellowed my thanks to the girl, and she waved back with a grin, mouthed/pointed that she was going to reclaim her punch cup, but before I could reply, she was almost instantly swallowed by the throng. I attempted to follow, only to be swept away myself in the opposite direction by the hazardous stampede of another hoofing herd of teenagers. I did not see her again that night, though I’d looked for her several times in the swirl of pubescent humanity.

The next day at school I asked about, hoping to meet up with her again, but some of her classmates told me that she hadn’t shown up for classes. The day following that, police came to the school asking about her, reporting that she had not returned home after the dance. Over the week anyone and everyone at school was questioned, myself as well. I informed the officers she’d danced with me once that evening and then disappeared. I added that I had tried to find her later, but there were just too many people moving around. They asked if I’d seen her with anybody else during the evening, but I said no, though she’d obviously been dancing with someone before me.

Nobody ever heard from her again.

Natasha Cunningham had simply vanished without a trace. No one remembered even having seen her leave the school dance that night. She became the talk of the news for several days. Police combed the neighborhoods and any and every shred of evidence they could possibly find, imagine, or concoct. Private investigators were called in, rumors and hearsay examined, bloodhounds and psychics summoned. All to no avail. After a year and no leads to give them any hope, her parents and a younger sister, dispirited and brokenhearted, moved away.

Natasha haunted me for years afterward. When a person you know moves away, or dies suddenly, or stops talking to you, you can to one degree or another normally deal with it and move on eventually. But when one simply disappears, it leaves an indelible question mark that never quite goes away. What happened to them? Are they alive? Are they dead? Are they lost? Are they hiding? Were they abducted? Did they drown somewhere? Were they eaten by sharks? Did they commit suicide? Were they murdered? Did they escape? Did they enter the Federal Witness Protection Program? Why a girl I’d seen maybe no more than a half-dozen times, spoken exactly twenty-three words to and never once even touched had affected me so, I cannot say. But I often speculated. I didn’t believe in soul mates, though I could wrap my head around love at first sight. Had it been love at first sight cruelly snatched away forever in five minutes? That seemed excessively harsh, even in these callous and cynical times. What had it been about Natasha Cunningham that got under my skin so?

Perversely, Natasha had claimed my affections like no one else and thereafter cast a pall over my relationships with other girls and later women who’d come into—and consequently gone out of—my life. What do ethologists call it? Imprinting? Whatever it was, I seemed to have it. It wasn’t that I became a social recluse or avoided encounters with potentially desirable mates. But my heart wasn’t in it when things might have become more interestingly serious and thus permanent. And little by little as the years passed, I became mildly resentful of Natasha Cunningham for having done a number on my head. I wanted to form a family of my own, but she wasn’t letting me. I wasn’t letting me.

And then one day—ironically right after I’d been downsized from a plum job I’d had for nearly a decade—I finally determined that what I needed most at that very juncture was a radical change of scenery and of perspective. I vacated my apartment, stored, sold, gave away or tossed out all but my most essential belongings, bade farewell to family and friends, and set out. But it had to be a complete break from what I was most familiar with. And so I moved to . . . Inverness. Yes. Inverness, Scotland.

And no, it wasn’t to seek out perchance my ever-elusive Natasha Cunningham. Or who knows? Perhaps it was. But I pretended not. In any case, if she were still alive, I imagined she had to be in Murmansk. And I had no intention at this time in my life of learning to speak Lapp or Russian. A Scottish brogue, though, that did appeal to me.

Steve Pulley
6/1/2014
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

How I Spend My Sunday Morning

Crawling out of bed
on Sunday, like the living dead
and facing
a bracing
shower to wake my head
enough to stumble,
bumble,
grumble
to the kitchen,
where nothing more than stale kuchen,
a brown banana, milk, granola,
thank God not variola!
await to get me through the day.
Public Radio’s Rachel Martin,
“Car Talk”, perhaps a run-down Aston Martin,
“Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!”
And then God’s gift, hot coffee!
Awake at last, I face the beast,
check unanswered mail—that ever-swelling yeast.
Facebook, of course, must go not ungreased…
and last, not least,
I spend what’s left of morning
adorning
an unmindful world
with tales of love unfurled…
my mind aswirl,
typing gems of polished pearl.
And once complete,
I pause, reflect…then bleat…
and press delete, delete, delete.

Steve Pulley
4/6/2014
Posted in Poems | Leave a comment