Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Homework: up to 500 words on the following prompts.

An out of work flight attendant
Top hat

Katherine sipped cold latte at a café table in an outdoor market. The touristy area was crowded for a Monday. Weekend street performers who usually returned to day jobs were in full force, juggling, on unicycles and in top hats. Those painted like bronze statues jerked to life in response to donated coins and bills. Foot traffic was unusually heavy. Out of towners mingled with college kids. Backpacks, baseball caps and baggy jeans abounded.

Her coffee was hot when she arrived an hour earlier. At 49 degrees, the day chilled her beverage almost to the temperature of her blood. Yesterday had been warmer, but yesterday seemed eons ago, and her job with Swiss Air felt like a memory from another lifetime.

She waited for a phone call in the cool sunshine. Her stern demeanor kept strangers at a distance. Even foraging birds knew better than to approach. An aggressor who asked to join her at the table appeared perplexed, even violated at the suddenness with which he found himself alone. Without a word, she stood and moved to a less congested location. Her sunglasses hid dark circles and darting glances.

Occasionally tilting the undrinkable coffee to her lips, she reached into her oversized handbag for a newspaper. It occupied the open tabletop as a deterrent to future interlopers and provided a backdrop to the cellphone at her fingertips.

They rehearsed and reviewed a hundred times at her insistence. Drop. Call. Confirm. The protocol was solid, but time drained her of confidence and fed her angst. It was a recipe that had proved to be her undoing on the final flight in her four-on-three-off overnight schedule. The passengers were restless and demanding, the Atlantic crossing choppy and her nerves frayed by the time they approached Logan. They circled for two hours as her anger mounted. 12C pushed her too far.

The phone rang. She fumbled, edgy despite her readiness.

“Clear, Go” came the message. The call ended.

Moments later a second caller.

“Clear Go.”

Katherine reached into her handbag. She counted to fifteen as practiced. Her fingers stroked plastic shields and flipped them open. She pressed firmly, first one, a count of ten, then the other. Canon fire echoed twice in the distance. Commotion ensued in Quincy Market.

Tamerlan would be proud.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I Promise

My entry in the April Writers Weekly 24-hour writing contest. Results to be announced in June. A few modifications in this posting are thanks to some very respected writing friends.

Instructions - write no more than 925 words to this prompt:

"She sat in her favorite spot on the porch of the weathered beach house, the salty air
sticking to her skin, the oncoming storm blowing sand across her bare feet. The crisp envelope bent beneath her fingers as she laid it on her lap, and reached for the pen in her dress pocket..."

“Azure,” she says, and then “porch.”

The beach gradually comes into focus. Terns sprint between tide pools on comically thin legs, startling small crabs back into their glistening sandy burrows. The color of the sky and the front of her weathered house are the first images with which she can associate words. Others follow as her head clears.

“Low tide,” she whispers. 

She sits in knee-deep water that will be over her head in a few hours. She faces the shore. Summer heat bakes the sweat and salty air onto her forehead. Water laps gently at her legs. Sand oozes between her tingling toes, circulation impaired by the ties that bind her to a partially submerged chair. Minnows dart beneath the water’s surface, alternately visible in cloudy shadows, hidden by reflected sun.

It is afternoon in the tropics. Lightning flashes in the distance. Roiling hot and cold rivulets of air slap the surface of the ocean and disrupt its gentle rhythm. Gulls and wind chimes are the only sounds for miles. Beach grass sways in the breeze. A crisp envelope on her lap bends beneath her fingers. He has found her.

She slowly withdraws a lifetime of obsessive artifacts from the carefully prepared package. A short hand-written note speaks to the depth of madness that has led to her predicament. She has only wanted to be left alone.

Her trembling fingers sort through a stack of photographs, many of them recently captured and from unimaginable vantage points. It is when she views a photo of herself painting an ocean scene from the front porch that she recognizes the offspring of serenity and jeopardy as terror. Her stomach clenches.

She looks up and around. She is being watched.

Screams will not be heard. Her home’s greatest feature is its isolation. An attempt to stand is immediately thwarted. She is chained to the chair at her waist. Too great a struggle could result in tipping, drowning in the shallows.

“I have been diagnosed. My time is short,” says the note. “Write the words I long to hear. Your love will save you. I promise.”

The pictures swirl through her tears. A marker has been carefully placed in the breast pocket of her dress. The situation demands that she comply or die.

She prints “I love you” in large block letters across the back of the envelope, displays it and drops the marker in the water as if holding it pains her.

He appears suddenly, rising from behind a stabilizing outcropping of plants on a frontal dune. His face is familiar, an older version of the stalker she’s been fleeing since college. He is the reason she has moved to this isolated location and in fact the reason for several moves before this, along with a change of identity a decade ago.

“My legs hurt,” she says as he releases her from the chair.

“I’ll carry you,” he replies with a hollow persistence that stiffens his smile and causes an unseeing darkness to come over his glazed eyes.

The envelope and pictures fall from her lap onto the water, scattering like the minnows, rising and falling with the shore-bound waves, sinking as they become saturated, like forgotten memories in need of deep recall.

As he carries her toward the house, he mutters unintelligible words as if reading from a script, long practiced and playing out in a monologue. In his mind she is Christine to his Phantom, Esmeralda to his Quasimodo.

Inside the house he seems nervous, seeking control, especially when she begins to speak. She knows she must alter the script, introduce unexpected plot twists for which he is unprepared, unrehearsed.

“Would you like something to eat or drink?” she asks.

“A drink. Please,” he replies.

“May I?” she motions to the kitchen.

“Yes, of course,” he says as she heads into the next room. “You’ll come back…” he tests.

“I promise,” she says emphatically, and is true to her word.

She establishes trust over the next several hours. She is the perfect companion in his lifelong fantasy. He never sees it coming.

* * * * *

The next morning she stretches a canvas and squeezes out her paints. The front porch is once again a place of serenity. She paints a sunrise during rising tide.

A figure in a partially submerged chair nods to wakefulness. The drugs were strong, but the ties are stronger. Less forgiving.

She establishes her horizon line, her perspective. She will finish the painting only when the annoying, pleading head completely disappears below the playful azure waves.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hamlets and Bars

I’ve long insisted that a life crisis is evidence that you simply haven’t been paying attention. But looking in the mirror at graying hair is a singular awakening experience, whereas navigating an auditorium filled with “old people” is like swimming upstream with a population of decaying salmon. It hurts to see how old we’ve grown.

The average audience age at a recent Gordon Lightfoot concert had this effect on me. And honestly, the ghostly apparition who took the stage with his guitar and backup musicians made it clear just how long this troubadour has been writing and singing to a very dedicated, if somewhat eccentric, fan base.

I have been attending Lightfoot shows since the singer was thirty-five, when he was riding high on a second wave of popularity with his Sundown album. Now a frail fragment of his former physical self, he is one of a small group of aging musicians still touring and selling tickets to several generations of fans. And the passage of forty years caused the remnants of my eighteen year old inner child to reach for reading glasses to see “Row E, Seat 1” on my ticket at the charming Pabst theater in Milwaukee.

And then there are those younger fans. The next generation, old souls born out of synch with their own time and longing for a taste of the unparalleled music of the 1970s, or perhaps watching “That Seventies Show” for insight into the journey their parents traveled to get here.

A concert several years ago was attended by a particularly enthusiastic young fan dressed entirely in period attire, sporting an afro (he was white) and drinking far too much at his personal Lightfoot pre-game tailgate. To his credit, he knew the title of every song and most of the lyrics, at one point shouting “Hamlets and Bars” at just the right point and at the top of his lungs. He subjected the audience to slurred outbursts at Gordon right up until the intermission, when he was summarily removed from the concert by two no-nonsense security guards. He wailed in protest, maybe not so much in reaction to the assault as in grief at the realization that he would not be enjoying the second set.

The most recent audience featured a young-sounding female fan shouting repeated pleas from the darkness at the back of the theater to “Give it to me Gordon!” Gordon, ever the gentlemen, continued to strum and sing without comment, but no doubt appreciated the option of an offer to “give it” still, at age 75.

So the show goes on. Skeletal Gord, in one of his infrequent spoken comments, mentioned that the band plays for ticket sales. There are no more albums coming, no merchandise to be had. He struggles with the high notes, sounding at times like air blown through a whale bone, increasingly nasal with each passing year. But through it all, fans show up for his unique musical tales of life on the Carefree Highway, On The High Seas and in the Early Mornin’ Rain.

We’ll continue to buy tickets as long as you sell them Gordon, popping Tylenol and dragging our aching bones to the nearest venue, settling into our comfy chairs and “waiting for you.”

I could be caught between decks eternally
Waiting for you to ask what's keeping me
The skies of North America are covered in stars
Over factories and farms, over hamlets and bars