On Another Earth

As an exercise, I used the three contest words in another 500(ish) word story. One Drop in The Sea of Love is the obvious entry, so with this one I tried more for fun, writing out the first paragraph as a riff without really thinking about it. I just finished the tweaking and editing. Hope you enjoy it.

On Another Earth

On picture day at her school, eight-year-old Georgia had been warned not to mug for the camera. She did it anyway. Her mother, Amandine, tore the mailed proof into tiny pieces (discarding them into different trash cans on separate floors of the downtown mall), then tried to have the photo redone before it was sent to every personal news outlet on earth. But Georgia’s cross-eyed, bulgy-tongued, ‘fingers pulling from both sides of the mouth’ grin would be traveling the ether alongside beautiful glossy photos of sweet little darlings who had learned well and done as they were told. The response would be quick, the embarrassment intense as reaction upon reaction piled in. The Book of Faces would never understand this. Amandine knew she was going to get a letter.

It was bad enough when someone’s camera was on the fritz and the ministry acted as though the world might end. A purposely ridiculous likeness could bring a fine. They were both getting low on their specially blended, Ideal Personal Color lipsticks– Amandine’s multifaceted plum with highlights of poppy and the subtlest touch of gold, Georgia’s translucent age-appropriate honey mixed with pale peony pink. How would they be able to buy lipsticks and pay a fine?

Amandine decided that this time Wyatt should be the one to admonish the child. Georgia hadn’t been listening to her mother for weeks. Perhaps the father so chiseled that he could do no wrong could get his daughter to stop pretending that unkempt and weird were actually viable options in life. That silliness was for history books. Modern Life took one’s visage very seriously.

If Wyatt couldn’t get the child in line, Amandine had one more idea. She’d seen an advertisement the other day for something called an Outer Layer Converter. One of its settings enabled the wearer to look good in every photo taken during a twenty-four hour period, from studio shots to selfies– perfection, no matter the angle. The thing was pricey, but there were low interest beauty loans for big ticket items like that. Anything to keep The Book of Faces happy and off their backs.

Amandine was jotting down notes about this at her desk, when little Georgia pushed through the front door, smiling as splendidly as she hadn’t for her school photo. With her bookbag and mary janes left haphazard on the the front hall carpet, the girl sidled up to her mother’s chair and pushed a sheet of glossy paper across the glass top desk, gliding it toward her mother with ceremonious glee. She said, “Look, Mommy.”

Amandine turned over the paper to find the brilliant face of her only child wearing her best graceful smile.

“They didn’t mail the proofs, Mommy. They passed them out at school today. Daddy and I played a trick on you.”

Amandine’s happiness dulled the impulse to scold. She embraced her daughter, pondering the effect a bit of her Hair Away cream would have on Wyatt’s Bald Be Gone.

Hidden at the Edge

Photo by Ré Harris

This started out on Words One Hundred as a hundred word story from one of Julia’s prompts. It seemed interesting to some of those who read it, and they wanted more. I realized how much I liked writing it and how it seemed to be writing itself, so since this week has been weird for me and I have to get a lot of things done tomorrow, I figured I should just let it flow.

As always, feedback is very much appreciated. Whether you like the story or you don’t, I’d love to know. Here goes:

It was 1926, back in Utah.

With trouble hot on our trail, I woke with another headache. Vince gazed out at the mountains like he was thinking of another woman.

“You want to fend for yourself?” I said, checking the gun under my pillow.

“What’s your problem?”

I raked fingers through my hair, staring at the latch on the door while cold wind blew through the cabin and grabbed me under the threadbare blanket. I rose, fully dressed, holding my gun.

“You’re always upset about something,” he said.

“And you hate women with brains.” Light reflected outside the other window as I crept closer to it. “Too bad you need ’em.”

Vince’s pause before saying, “Now what?” said he’d caught on to his lack of diligence. Could’ve been cornered before he remembered to check another direction.

“What’s the point of the gorge at the back and only two ways in? Why take watch, if daydreaming’s all you’ll do?”

He cocked his piece at the window with the mountain view, before tossing a whispered yell. “Shut up.”

I let it go.

I woke with another headache for sure — Vince. Not sharp, but damn if his neck didn’t smell like clover sometimes.

Billy approached behind bushes, pistol in hand, rifle slung. I eased the window up and aimed.

After the shot, Vince was quiet as Billy’s whining started up outside, muffled but gaining volume as my heart ticked off the seconds. “You see anything over there?” I said.

I didn’t watch him check before he said, “No.” I felt his eyes turn to me. “Was ‘at Billy?”

I didn’t answer.

“Why the hell’d you shoot him?”

I wasn’t in the mood for stupid questions. Vince would see what was what in time. I waited and watched as Billy wailed. If he knew anyone had followed him, he’d let it slip while writhing on the ground clutching his bleeding leg.

“Maybe he was just mixed up about the meet,” Vince said.

“Should’a stayed mixed up someplace else if he wanted to go on two legs.”

“Shit, girl … we made it here okay, didn’t we?”

“Halfway to Mexico in a car’s better.” I shot Vince a nasty look. “Why was he on foot?”

Vince strained himself. “Crap.”

I searched the brush past Billy and waited some more.

Billy kept saying, “Aw, come on! I can’t walk! Help me! Help me dammit!”

Any time someone calls me Dammit, it makes me take longer. Vince didn’t even ask. Good thing. I wasn’t done running permutations in my mind. We didn’t just have to wait for signs he wasn’t alone, I had to figure out the order of things as best I could before we dragged him in. I wished we had a wireless so I could get some idea what the cops were thinking.

I didn’t see any more movement, no more reflected sun flashing. I told Vince I’d cover him while he dragged Billy in. From the sigh he let out and they way he flew out the door, you’d think the two were best friends from childhood or something. Maybe he just wanted to know what had gone wrong as much as I did. We thought Billy’d been pinched.

Once inside and on the bed, crying as loud as he had outside in the dirt, our no-longer-missing wheelman was submitting to Vince’s attempts at a tourniquet around his bleeding thigh. While writhing in pain, his eyes looked for me in the background. I moved around the room to vex him. Every time he lit on me, he looked scareder than usual. For a minute, I tried to remember what he’d seen me do that’d make him worry so much. Then I figured it must just be the bullet in his thigh.

When Vince had done the best he could, I went over to the bed and looked Billy in the eye.

“I couldn’t get there,” he said, sucking up snot. “The car … stopped on me.”

I reached my leg over and sat on his chest.

“What the hell?” I heard Vince growl. “The man’s hurt. What’re you doing?” I was glad I was wearing slacks. Vince couldn’t have a cow because a stupid skirt was hiking up.

I pressed the tip of my gun against the side of Billy’s forehead and his eyes closed tight. “Jesus, girl …” he slobbered. “You got no call to do that!”

“I fixed that car myself. She ran sweet and fast.” I stopped right there. It doesn’t do to talk more than you have to. Billy wasn’t the kind to know that.

“I don’t know what happened. It just stopped … it stopped right past the Mattson bridge. Running just fine, then she just stopped an’ I couldn’t get ‘er going.” He must’ve thought that sounded good because he added, “Maybe you don’t know all there is about engines.”

I held the gun steady and ruminated. I started back at the beginning and thought about how I’d laid out the parts as I took each one out, cleaning and checking. That line of thinking didn’t go on for long. I’d been making pocket-money since I was fifteen fixing cars for anybody who wanted it done cheap and right and didn’t care that a woman was doing it. I cocked the hammer and reached back to Billy’s wound. He squealed like a baby when I poked it. Vince was breathing hard, but when it came to fixing cars instead of driving them, he always kept quiet. “Where’d you say it stalled?” I asked the baby.

“Mattson bridge … Come on, Maybelle, put the gun down. We’re all in this together, remember?”

I leaned in as I reminded him of something. “Call me May or Belle, but if you ever slap the two together again I’ll shoot you on the spot.” I waited for him to nod, then I straightened up. “Now tell me exactly where it stalled.”

“R … r … right after the bridge, right after that little bend.”

“He’s lying.” I said.

Vince asked how I knew.

I stared into Billy’s weepy eyes as I dug the barrel harder into his temple. “If it stalled on the town side of the bridge it would’ve rolled down, all the way down to Burt’s dusty five and dime at the edge, before stopping. Road’s on an incline down to there. He would’ve only had to steer. He coulda got to us in time and warned us before we started.” I turned to Vince. “You don’t think for a minute I fixed a car that stalled out right away.”

Vince shook his head.

I looked back at Billy. “Who’re you working for?”

Billy wept and sputtered. “I don’t know what you’re on about …”

“I guess it doesn’t matter which ones,” I said. “Benson’s gang, or those city boys fighting ’em and wanting to run all the counties. One side or the other figured us out. Or maybe you told ’em. Did you do that to get in good with the ‘big boys’? They waiting for you to report back? You came up here to shoot us and take the money back to one or the other.”

“How the hell’d you figure that out?” Vince said.

I knew he didn’t expect an answer to that. “We don’t have much time.”

“How we gonna go without a car?” he said.

I smacked Billy across the head hard enough to put him out cold. “We’ll talk about that later just in case he can hear a little.”

“You’re not gonna kill ’em?”

“Whichever gang he went to will take care of that, if he doesn’t bleed to death first.”

Me and Vince hadn’t spread out much in the cabin, it was too cold in there to even undress, so we strapped a lot of the sacks with the cash around our bellies and buckled the rest of it, and anything else loose, into the two big over-the-shoulder bags we’d brought it all in. I strapped on Billy’s rifle and Vince got his gun and all the extra ammunition. As we started putting on our coats, I got an idea for a way to get down the mountain that I was pretty sure neither gang knew about. I’d lived and explored around there since I was real little — sometimes with my dad.

Watching Billy in all that pain put me in mind of Daddy’s last moments, when he’d grabbed my hand and made his peace.

Daddy’d been laid on the kitchen table by coworkers from the mine. They’d put a couple of dish towels under his head and the little crocheted blanket from the couch over him, up to his chest, so I wouldn’t see the wound when I got there. When I took his hand, he turned his grip on me and kept trying to raise his head as he rasped and blood dribbled out of his mouth and down the side of his face.

“They killed me, May,” he said. “They done killed your Daddy in that mine.”

I started to cry but he told me to stop.

“You listen to me,” he said. “I taught you everything I knew after your mama passed. I did the best I knew and I never cared you were a girl. You’re smarter than I ever was. Once you know something, you just do. You don’t have to think too long. That’s a good mark for a mind.” He spat out some more blood and went on, holding my hand even tighter and pulling me closer. “Do better than I did. Don’t go out poor. They got plenty, girl. Don’t you go out poor.”

“Oh, Daddy,” I said. I tried so hard not to cry, but tears fell.

“Promise!” he said so loud that it scared me.

I whispered into his ear, “I promise, Daddy.”

He’d been the one to teach me about cars. He taught me how to shoot and run as fast as any boy. He told me how he’d robbed strongboxes, store registers and a bank before he met my mama and went straight. He wasn’t scared to tell me that. He knew I’d still love him.

It took me a few years to figure things out. I wanted to do it once, big, then go someplace warm and live the way Daddy wanted me to. I would’ve got it done someday on my own, but meeting Vince made it perfect. He was another set of hands and someone who knew most of the ropes. He knew enough to see that I could plan things well. And since that wasn’t his strong suit, he let me plan it all. The coal company would never know who’d robbed their safe if we could just get the hell out of there and on our way south. I wasn’t going to let the little problem with Billy mess it all up.

As I was about to put my hat on, Vince caught me under my coat just above the waist, just above the tens, twenties, and fifty-dollar bills I was sure we’d get across the border. He moved his thumb around just under my breast the way he knew I liked.

I said, “I thought you dreamed of bleached blondes.”

“What’s a bleached blonde got over you?” He looked me up and down, those thick lashes of his threatening to melt me all over again.

I wiped a wisp of brown hair out of my eyes and felt for the pins holding my curls in place.

“You gonna listen to me for a change when we get to Mexico?”

“I’ll listen to you all you want,” I said. “I’ll even buy one of those pretty dresses and walk through the garden holding my shoes in my hand like we saw in that picture. Maybe wear a big straw hat with flowers around the brim …”

“Not gonna buy yourself a diamond ring, too?”

“Husbands are supposed to do that.”

“All right then. I will.”

I smiled at him.

“How ’bout babies?”

“Sure,” I said. We had plenty of money for that life. “We’ve got to get out of here now,” I said. “Let’s go.”

As we went down the side of the mountain farthest from town, going my most secret way, I kept my eyes and ears open, but I couldn’t stop smiling.

The Blackberry Dumpling Incident (Rewrite)

This story first appeared in the post on April 20th. Most readers felt that it needed more, that its point was more than ambiguous.  So here it is again after a few weeks, and finally, a rewrite that feels right to me. For those who don’t need to start again at the beginning, you can scroll down to the asterisks (**)  on the left and begin where the rewrite begins. Many thanks to anyone who gives it a read, especially if you take the time to comment, and I promise that not every story on the blog will be this long! (It isn’t really, it just seems that way !)

Dena brought a large box out into the dining room, where her guests were gathered around her table at the end of the evening’s meal. She bobbed from the knees like an excited schoolgirl, and smiled with eyes wide, as she introduced the object to her friends.

“We’re so lucky that Joaquin has a friend in Seattle who invents things, and let’s us be his guinea pigs!”

Joaquin beamed as his wife effortlessly brought the box to the table, and set it down inside the perimeter of coffee cups and dessert plates with half eaten pound cake slices bathed in pools of strawberries in custard sauce. She moved to open the top of the box, but he touched her hand and motioned for her to wait. She sat down again by her own plate, and listened as he spoke. “Andy’s come up with some cool things before, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but still great things. But this one — he’s outdone himself this time. He’s still wondering about it, but his wife and family, and us — we’re all sure he’s going to be famous for this!

“The point is, that we are his guinea pigs and we’d like you to be, too! But rest assured, it’ll be fun, and it’s not in any way dangerous. He wants us all to know that he hasn’t used anything like microwaves, or whatever that is in cell phones that we’re supposed to be careful about. He’s not even sure why the components he put together make it work. He just knows that they do. He calls it a Comprehensor.” Joaquin stood up and opened the box. He drew out a large, hard, grayish cap that looked much like a smoother and less angular sort of bicycle helmet, and put it on his head. He stretched out his arms and said, “Ta-daaaa!”

Some of his guests laughed outright. Some twittered about how ridiculous he looked in it. Dena was still smiling while she shushed her guests a bit and said, “Come on! It’s what it does — not what it looks like!”

Joaquin took off the cap and put it down beside his plate. He removed the box to the floor by the wall, and looked at Dena’s sister, Vicky. “To help illustrate what the Comprehensor does, Dena got your mom’s recipe for Blackberry Dumplings, and made some to augment our meal.”

Vicky looked as if she had just smelled something odd. “Excuse me?” she said.

“I know, I know,” Dena said patting her sister’s hand. “I was the only one in the house who loved Mom’s Blackberry Dumplings, but trust us.” She reached out to her husband, and he placed the Comprehensor in her hands. Then she told him, “We’ll get this on while you get the dumplings.” She paused, holding the cap in her hands, asking her sister with her eyes. Vicky sat still and said nothing as her sister gently placed the Comprehensor on her head.

Joaquin came back with a small plate of the dreaded dessert, putting it next to Vicky’s plate of pound cake. “It’s worked every time we used it, but if it doesn’t this time you’ve at least got cake to make the flavor go away.”

Vicky was tight-lipped for a moment, but finally said, “I take it that this thing is supposed to make the Blackberry Dumplings taste better?”

“Yes,” said Dena, “because I’m sitting next to you, and I like them.”

“I see a practical joke coming on!” said Dena’s boyfriend, Bill, laughing. “I can’t just sit by and let this happen. Don’t eat it, Vicky!”

Dena stopped smiling. “I would never do something like that. It’s just easier to explain what it does, if we show you first. It’s worked every time.”

Vicky shot a quick look at Joaquin, and he stopped smiling, too. The three of them were the only ones who seemed to have lost touch with the humor of the situation. Before the uncomfortableness took complete hold of the room, Vicky went ahead and lifted a spoonful of the dumpling with blackberries, closed her eyes, and put it in her mouth. There was a quietness, combined with breathy snickering and prickly anticipation, throughout the room as they all waited for whatever came next.

“What the… ,” said Vicky. She chewed, then swallowed. “This is a joke! What’s in this? How did you make it taste so good?”

The room came alive again as everyone began to speak at once.

“Wait. What just happened?”

“It is a joke, right?”

“How does it do that?”

“Is that really her mom’s Blackberry Dumplings?”

“Okay, somebody explain to me what just happened!”

Dena caught their attention as her sister continued to eat the plate of dumplings. “That’s what it does! The Comprehensor helps you understand what another person feels, as long as they’re physically close to you, like I am to Vicky right now. She can taste how good I think Mom’s dumplings are!”

Bill watched Vicky use the spoon to scrape her plate clean, and struck by the sight, he turned to Dena, “She’s sitting next to me, too–how can I make it happen with me?”

“You have to precipitate it somehow,” Dena answered. “That’s why we used the dumplings. Try asking her a question, or just mention something you feel strongly about.”

Vicky stopped eating and looked expectantly at Bill. She waited for him to think of something.

He smiled, then his smile faltered as he looked down at what remained of his dessert. Softly, he said, “The Three Stooges.”

There were chuckles around the table, and though his skin was the color of a golden brown caramel, the blush in his cheeks could still be seen.

Vicky took his hand under the table, and leaned in to her boyfriend, looking him in the eye. “The Three Stooges are funny!” she said, her excitement clear to everyone. “Watching them is like being very young again, when life was simpler…” She giggled, and took off the cap. “Now you try!”

Joaquin was beaming again, and their dining room was filled with sounds of excitement and the murmur of imminent possibility. In turn, they were each trying the cap, to have someone understand why they felt what they felt, to know that their point of view would be understood, even if later it wouldn’t be agreed with — it would at least, for now, for always, be understood.

After nearly an hour, the cap came to the last friend at the table, Annette. As she stared at it in her hands, the others wound down again as they had for each of them, quieting as the focus shifted entirely to her, waiting for her to take her turn. She lifted her chin and sniffed as she turned it around in her hands and finally placed it on the table.

“What’s wrong, Annette?” Joaquin asked. “Don’t you want to try the cap?”

She looked around the room at the others, and said, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding. You should all have seen yourselves. This thing is so ugly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.” **

Joaquin searched her face for something, anything to help him as he struggled to understand, but she simply smiled as she scooped up the last bite of cake left on her plate. He had known this woman through her friendship with his wife for much longer than the ten years he and Dena had been married, yet he felt unprepared to ask Annette what felt like a very personal question. He stammered while simultaneously considering his approach. His heartbeat felt suddenly aggressive, pounding inside him like a stranger trying to get out, though he only wanted to slide away from the moment to a calmer space where there was no ambiguity and there were no questions. After a few awkward attempts, he settled on a question. “Are… you afraid of the cap?”

Annette’s expression changed to one of confusion. “What?” She leaned slightly forward as she repeated her question into Joaquin’s eyes, “What?”

He tried again. “I was… I mean, of course it’s your decision, your choice… but I was just wondering if… well it can’t really be what the cap looks like. There must be something else. I…I’m not asking you to tell us anything personal. It’s just that we’re all friends here. I was just wondering if there’s another reason?” He tried to look pleasant, to look different from the way he felt inside. He realized that he had picked up the Comprehensor and was holding it in his hands, and that he couldn’t quite stop his hands from shaking. Annette’s expression deepened, and he felt the need to go on. “I just mean… you wouldn’t want us to think that you were, were…”

Bill interjected. “Shallow?”

Vicky’s raised eyebrows appeared to echo Bill’s finish to her brother-in-law’s query, even as she put a hand on Bill’s arm under the table and gave a gentle, quieting squeeze.

Joaquin couldn’t cover his embarrassment as Annette looked around the table again, uneasy this time, yet defiantly so. “Excuse me?” She stretched the phrase out for effect, and waited for a response.

She had come with her fiancé, Ryan, and he sat beside her, not quite looking at her but seeming to be just as perplexed as the others. “Honey,” he said softly, “The way you said it was just kind of insulting to the others.”

“Insulting?” she said, raising her voice. “He just insulted me!” She turned to Joaquin. “I’ve been sitting here, bored while you all go on and on about this, this thing! I didn’t try to stop you all from having fun, but now I’m a liar because I don’t care about this stuff? Because I don’t want to play this game?”

Dena had been quiet until now, searching the room from her friend’s face to her empty dessert plate, and then smoothing out the nearest section of organic cotton tablecloth. “It’s not a game,” she said finally, finding her voice. “And nobody’s questioning your right not to do something. We just don’t get what you said. We’re asking you to talk to us and not dismiss us.”

Annette shook her head. “What’s not to get? I said what I meant! You don’t think it’s ugly–okay fine! But you don’t get to call me a liar, or… what did you say?” She turned back to Bill and pointed her finger at him. “Shallow? Like I have to care about that thing? Like there aren’t some actual important things in the world? What the hell is going on here?”

“What about the possible good the cap could do?” Dena answered. “Even if you don’t want to try it, it’s like you can’t see the possibilities of it. Like you’re not even arguing with us about the merits of it, or what you think is wrong with it! Talk to us about what you really think! We’re all friends here.”

“You’re all acting like this is seriously important or something!” Annette was shouting now. “How could this be important? It’s just a game!”

Dena looked incredulous. “What if… what if it could be used someplace like the U.N.? If there was a dispute, and some representative of  a country could ask for permission to use the cap for clarity– it could help even more than the earphones that translate the speakers into the other languages. They wouldn’t have to agree, but at least they could really get the other point of view. It could work for everybody–unless they don’t want to be understood!”

“The U.N.? Oh, come on! Really?” Annette sighed, throwing up her hands and leaning far back into her chair. Catching sight of the Comprehensor again, her attention returned to Joaquin. “Okay. Since everyone’s so sure I’m a liar, put the damn thing on and ask me what I think.”

Joaquin hesitated. “If you don’t want to, none of us wants to make you. That’s not the point.”

“I’m tired of this, Joaquin! This is so insulting, I want to go home. But not before you all stop calling me a liar and realize that you’re the ones with the problem–not me!” She folded her arms with the challenge, and waited.

Joaquin took his time. Everyone was watching. He wanted a reprieve, but couldn’t find a way out of it. When the cap was on his head again, he turned to his friend and asked, “Why would you rather not try the Comprehensor?”

Annette straightened in her chair and spoke slowly at Joaquin. “I think it’s ugly, stupid, and ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense, and it isn’t fun.” She raised her eyebrows again and began to tap her fingertips on the table, watching as he removed the cap and set it down. She raised her fingers and wiggled them in the air, mocking him with the serious tone of a newscaster, “So what does the marvelous All-Seeing Comprehensor say about Annette?”

“That you said exactly what you think.”

“Oh! Oh, so I’m not a liar? Wow! Isn’t that amazing?” She rose from her chair. “We’re leaving now, Ryan.”

Her fiancé put his napkin on the table, and got up to follow her. He spoke softly to the others, “I wish I knew what to say.” She was already in the living room and they had all heard the front door open when he added, “I’ll try and talk to her. I’m sorry.”

“No, please, don’t worry about it,” Dena said. “I mean, just… thank you for coming.”

None of the others spoke of what had just happened between them during the few moments after the two had gone. There were knitted brows and truncated expressions of disbelief as hesitation morphed into reticence, and then silence. Soon a familiar path was found out of the maze. “More dessert all around?” And the hosts led their guests back to conversation and the more natural wind down to an evening that friends would expect, though it did end faster than usual, with the feeling that there was now something unpleasant clinging in the air.

Later, alone, Joaquin and Dena decided to wait until the next day to tell their friend in Seattle how delighted most of their friends had been with the cap. They went about the business of cleaning up and putting away, and while moving through the quieter progression of readying themselves for bed, they began to examine why, underneath, they were still feeling so uneasy. They talked late into the night, searching for those words that were lingering, creeping into the comfortable space they’d made in their lives and eager to explain to them what they didn’t want to comprehend. Unwillingly they examined those words that seemed to encroach openness and light, those words that were still clinging in the air around them, like weights.

The Blackberry Dumpling Incident

Dena brought a large box out into the dining room, where her guests were gathered around her table at the end of the evening’s meal. She bobbed from the knees like an excited schoolgirl, and smiled with eyes wide, as she introduced the object to her friends.

“We’re so lucky that Joaquin has a friend in Seattle who invents things, and let’s us be his guinea pigs!”

Joaquin beamed as his wife effortlessly brought the box to the table, and set it down inside the perimeter of coffee cups and dessert plates with half eaten pound cake slices bathed in pools of strawberries in custard sauce. She moved to open the top of the box, but he touched her hand and motioned for her to wait. She sat down again by her own plate, and listened as he spoke. “Andy’s come up with some cool things before, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but still great things. But this one — he’s outdone himself this time. He’s still wondering about it, but his wife and family, and us — we’re all sure he’s going to be famous for this!

“The point is, that we are his guinea pigs and we’d like you to be, too! But rest assured, it’ll be fun, and it’s not in any way dangerous. He wants us all to know that he hasn’t used anything like microwaves, or whatever that is in cell phones that we’re supposed to be careful about. He’s not even sure why the components he put together make it work. He just knows that they do. He calls it a Comprehensor.” Joaquin stood up and opened the box. He drew out a large, hard, grayish cap that looked much like a smoother and less angular sort of bicycle helmet, and put it on his head. He stretched out his arms and said, “Ta-daaaa!”

Some of his guests laughed outright. Some twittered about how ridiculous he looked in it. Dena was still smiling while she shushed her guests a bit and said, “Come on! It’s what it does — not what it looks like!”

Joaquin took off the cap and put it down beside his plate. He removed the box to the floor by the wall, and looked at Dena’s sister, Vicky. “To help illustrate what the Comprehensor does, Dena got your mom’s recipe for Blackberry Dumplings, and made some to augment our meal.”

Vicky looked as if she had just smelled something odd. “Excuse me?” she said.

“I know, I know,” Dena said patting her sister’s hand. “I was the only one in the house who loved Mom’s Blackberry Dumplings, but trust us.” She reached out to her husband, and he placed the Comprehensor in her hands. Then she told him, “We’ll get this on while you get the dumplings.” She paused, holding the cap in her hands, asking her sister with her eyes. Vicky sat still and said nothing as her sister gently placed the Comprehensor on her head.

Joaquin came back with a small plate of the dreaded dessert, putting it next to Vicky’s plate of pound cake. “It’s worked every time we used it, but if it doesn’t this time you’ve at least got cake to make the flavor go away.”

Vicky was tight-lipped for a moment, but finally said, “I take it that this thing is supposed to make the Blackberry Dumplings taste better?”

“Yes,” said Dena, “because I’m sitting next to you, and I like them.”

“I see a practical joke coming on!” said Dena’s boyfriend, Bill, laughing. “I can’t just sit by and let this happen. Don’t eat it, Vicky!”

Dena stopped smiling. “I would never do something like that. It’s just easier to explain what it does, if we show you first. It’s worked every time.”

Vicky shot a quick look at Joaquin, and he stopped smiling, too. The three of them were the only ones who seemed to have lost touch with the humor of the situation. Before the uncomfortableness took complete hold of the room, Vicky went ahead and lifted a spoonful of the dumpling with blackberries, closed her eyes, and put it in her mouth. There was a quietness, combined with breathy snickering and prickly anticipation, throughout the room as they all waited for whatever came next.

“What the… ,” said Vicky. She chewed, then swallowed. “This is a joke! What’s in this? How did you make it taste so good?”

The room came alive again as everyone began to speak at once.

“Wait. What just happened?”

“It is a joke, right?”

“How does it do that?”

“Is that really her mom’s Blackberry Dumplings?”

“Okay, somebody explain to me what just happened!”

Dena caught their attention as her sister continued to eat the plate of dumplings. “That’s what it does! The Comprehensor helps you understand what another person feels, as long as they’re physically close to you, like I am to Vicky right now. She can taste how good I think Mom’s dumplings are!”

Bill watched Vicky use the spoon to scrape her plate clean, and struck by the sight, he turned to Dena, “She’s sitting next to me, too–how can I make it happen with me?”

“You have to precipitate it somehow,” Dena answered. “That’s why we used the dumplings. Try asking her a question, or just mention something you feel strongly about.”

Vicky stopped eating and looked expectantly at Bill. She waited for him to think of something.

He smiled, then his smile faltered as he looked down at what remained of his dessert. Softly, he said, “The Three Stooges.”

There were chuckles around the table, and though his skin was the color of a golden brown caramel, the blush in his cheeks could still be seen.

Vicky took his hand under the table, and leaned in to her boyfriend, looking him in the eye. “The Three Stooges are funny!” she said, her excitement clear to everyone. “Watching them is like being very young again, when life was simpler…” She giggled, and took off the cap. “Now you try!”

Joaquin was beaming again, and their dining room was filled with sounds of excitement and the murmur of imminent possibility. In turn, they were each trying the cap, to have someone understand why they felt what they felt, to know that their point of view would be understood, even if later it wouldn’t be agreed with — it would at least, for now, for always, be understood.

After nearly an hour, the cap came to the last friend at the table, Annette. As she stared at it in her hands, the others wound down again as they had for each of them, quieting as the focus shifted entirely to her, waiting for her to take her turn. She lifted her chin and sniffed as she turned it around in her hands and finally placed it on the table.

“What’s wrong, Annette?” Joaquin asked. “Don’t you want to try the cap?”

She looked around the room at the others, and said, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding. You should all have seen yourselves. This thing is so ugly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”

Joaquin searched her face for something, for anything. He opened his mouth, but had no words. As he sat frozen next to Annette, he heard his wife ask her if she was joking. Annette sniffed again as she shook her head, then asked if there was any more cake. Joaquin reached for the cap as his wife slowly got up and went to the kitchen to oblige their friend. He moved to put the cap on, but stopped and only held it in front of his head for a moment, then turned and placed it carefully back into its box and closed the lid.

The dinner party was nearly done, winding down naturally, the way those parties generally do, despite the feeling that there was now something clinging in the air, words unspoken. Later, alone, Joaquin and Dena were happy that most of their friends were delighted with the cap. They decided to tell the good news to their friend in Seattle the next day. Then they wondered why, underneath, they were feeling so uneasy, and they began to search for those words that were still around them that seemed to encroach openness and light, eager to explain what they didn’t want to comprehend, still clinging, like weights.

The Global and the Personal

LoganBerry Heritage Farm photo by UGArdener via Flickr

The Global: We all live together on this planet. There is no doubt about that. On some level, we all know this, even though our conversations are often peppered with references to our countries, our cities, our homes — as if these places are actually separate from the “other” places on Earth. I know, of course that we each have to take care of our own manageable space, because the hope is that if we do, these spaces can come together in a healthy and peaceful way. My concern is how often we forget the way one action in one place can diminish, or take away, the health choices that other people should have the right to make for themselves. This happens in so many areas of life on Earth; from people (even in my own country, the US) being deprived of clean water, to the right to choose to eat organic foods. So many areas of life that it’s easy to feel powerless to affect…

I’ve just signed a time sensitive petition that asks the US government to consider how important it is to help organic farmers continue to offer consumers a choice concerning which foods they want to consume. Are the financial desires of a corporation actually more important than the choices human beings should have the right to make about their own health? For more information from people who can explain this issue far better than I can, here is a link the Food Democracy Now! website. I hope you’ll understand this issue, and add your own voice to the petition.

Now for the Personal: My story, “West on 80, 1993” is featured today on Open Mic Friday at Satsumabug’s art blog.  Lisa’s blog captures her personal journey as an artist in such a wonderfully written, informative, and supportive way, that I’m sure any of us can find something there to identify with, think about, or spark a bit of creative flow — no matter what kind of art we want to create or experience. I hope you can visit, because I could use all the feedback I can get in order to hone my creative writing skills. I also hope that you might like the story. It’s different from the dreamy, purposely stilted feel of “Cowboy Heaven” which can be found in the Bits and Pieces section of my blog. “West on 80, 1993” is a more traditional short story. Thanks in advance if you can give it a look.

Me, with unidentified stranger, during my first visit to San Francisco in 1993