Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘short story collection’

The Skin of Lions

Short story from children’s story collection.
The Skin of Lions: Rwandan Folk Tales.
Edited by Gabriel Constans.

At one time, all of the children in this book lived on the streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Their parents died from the genocide in 1994 or from the AIDS pandemic. They have been given new life and hope at an orphanage called ROP Center for Street Children. The stories from The Skin of Lions are taken from their personal experiences, traditional folk tales or unique creative imaginations. The children range in age from ten to nineteen and tell tales for all generations. They share their words from a thousand-year-old oral tradition and speak for all those that have been silenced.

The Skin of Lions by AHIKIRIJE Jean Bosco (Age 17)

There was a man, named Cambarantama, who looked after his sheep and cultivated his fields. One day, while he was looking after his sheep and leading them to the grasses, he found a small animal in the bush that had eaten some of his crops. When the man came back the next day, the same small creature had eaten more of his crops. He took the little animal back home and said, “I’m going to have to kill you for eating my crops.”

The small animal said, “Wait; please don’t eat me. Forgive me and I will not eat your crops any more.”

Cambarantama had a good heart, forgave the little animal and let him go.

On his way back to the shamba (field) the next day, Cambarantama was approached by a very big animal. The big animal told Cambarantama that he had to kill one of the sheep in the field and give it to him for his kettle. Cambarantama was scared and did as he was told. He went and killed one of his sheep and gave it to the big animal. This kept happening day after day.

One day, on his way to his shamba, Cambarantama met the little animal that he had forgiven. The little animal said, “I see that you have less and less sheep. What has happened?”

Cambarantama replied, “There is a big animal that comes every day and makes me give it one of my sheep. That is why you see so few that are left.”

The little animal he had saved said, “The next time that big animal comes I will be next to you, hidden in a bush. I will tell you what to say.”

Cambarantama took his sheep to the grasses and the big animal once again came from the forest and told him it was time for him to give him another one of his flock, but Cambarantama said he would not give him any more. The small animal was hidden next to Cambarantama and spoke out loud.

“Who are you talking to?” asked the big animal.

The small animal said loudly, “I am the king of heaven and earth who puts on the skin of lions.”

“Who is that?” asked the big animal.

“What are you looking for?” shouted the little animal, hidden behind the bush.

The big animal was scared and said, “I . . . I’m just looking for firewood.”

“Sit down and don’t move!” shouted the little animal, who then whispered to Cambarantama to get the firewood rope and tie the hands and legs of the big animal.

That is how Cambarantama captured and killed the big ferocious animal and saved his sheep, with the help of the little vegetable eating animal he had forgiven.

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(All proceeds from sale of book go to ROP Center for Street Children.)

Licking His Lips

Tale from children’s story collection Solar Girl and Lunar Boy by Gabriel Constans.

Licking His Lips

The ally was the surest way to get from here to there. I made my break out the screened back door and high-tailed it over the three-foot wooden fence. The dirt felt good on my feet. The air was clean and warm.

I heard Rebecca yelling, “Harvey! Harvey! Come back here!” I kept moving. I had to leave that suffocating box of neglect.

It had been raining for days. Today was the first letup in the downpour. My window of opportunity had opened. Parting clouds revealed a canopy of blue-skinned sky.

“Harvey! Har . . .” Her pleading voice merged with the outdoor symphony of untuned life. Some dogs a few houses down began barking furiously and rushed to the fence as I ran by. Their snouts pushed between the slats. They barred their teeth and growled. I smiled with fresh delight and kept on running. A compost of scents invaded my open nostrils. Flowers, weeds, car oil and rotting fruit filled the air with sweet and sour fragrances of paradox.

I walked across the street to the next alley and saw a large teenage boy on one of those little bikes; the ones they ride that are for someone half their age and look so ridiculous. As he got closer, I tried to relax and keep a steady gait. He rode by, as if I didn’t exist, then suddenly slammed on his brakes, did a broody in the gravel and came after me. I expected as much. I ran with surprising speed and left the gangly creature pumping away in useless pursuit.

Not thinking this way or that, I headed north or was it south? This freedom thing had a nice feel to it . . . no expectations, no parameters, no boundaries, fences, doors or control . . . a little dangerous now and then, but nothing too bad, at least not yet.

Turning left and stepping onto the sidewalk, I almost ran headfirst into a baby carriage. The woman pushing the thing looked OK. I tried to make small talk, be polite and all; but she kept on walking, looking into the big box on wheels with oblivious love and attention. Good thing really. It could have been disastrous. One slip or mispronunciation and the charade was over. Say the wrong thing or look cross-eyed and the next thing you know she’s making a federal case out of it. “What do you want?!” “Be quiet!” “Get lost!” You know how it goes. When all you ever hear is that kind of dribble, you learn to put a muzzle on it. But sometimes I just can’t contain myself. Everything builds up until it’s bouncing around inside like a firecracker and I’ve got to explode with a good shout or holler.

Somebody mowing their lawn turned the corner and went along the side of their stucco home. A calico cat looked out a big frame window in a trance, until it saw me and freaked. Thank God the power mower drowned out her screams.

Home after home; row after row; fence after fence. They all look alike – wooden garages, tin mailboxes, aluminum trashcans and metal cars. I was just another piece of furniture, another possession in her suburban, material world. Some used luggage to be stuffed with old knick-knacks and thrown in the garage for storage.

Sure, she’d feigned affection at first, they all do. It was shallow, temporary, a superficial semblance of real friendship. She didn’t need me, never did. I was one big nuisance. It hadn’t started like that. As a baby, I could do no wrong. She smothered me with affection. But the older I got, the more distant she became. By the time I was a young man, she didn’t know what to do with me. I told her again and again that I wanted her to stay home, but she never listened. I couldn’t take it anymore.

I didn’t realize I was crossing the highway until I heard one of those skids that send shivers through your spine. I saw the tire headed for my face and jumped out of the way without any time to lose. As I zigzagged to safety, I glanced down the street and saw the black and white moving slowly in my direction.

Cops!” I sneered. “How could she? I never hurt her.”

I took off around a small house, hopped the fence, ran through their garden, climbed under a railing and wound up next to someone’s garbage. I hadn’t eaten since early morning and could feel the saliva starting to ooze between my lips. Instinctively, I knocked off the lid and grabbed some leftover bread. It’s amazing what people will throw away – perfectly good food, just because of a little spot, a bruise or some other perceived imperfection. I wondered if she would have thrown me out someday, just like the garbage. I’m not perfect. I have my flaws. Who doesn’t?

“Hey! Get out of there! Get lost!” Someone screamed. I didn’t wait around to see where the sound was coming from. I took a big chunk out of the defective loaf and dashed around a hedge. I kept walking and swallowed hard, not knowing when or where I’d get my next meal. It didn’t seem like I’d been gone that long, but the air was getting chilly and the big, hot, warm, glowing thing in the sky was starting to melt into the ground.

The hair on the back of my neck started to bristle, as second-hand thoughts intruded upon my territorial sense of temporary emancipation. “Maybe it wasn’t that bad,” I questioned, as the sky grew darker and loneliness crept into my fur, like a pack of terrorist fleas.

As I meandered over some sharp gravel, which cut into my paws, I saw some houses that looked just like ones next to mine. I must have gotten turned around somewhere. The porches, front yards and walkways smelled oddly familiar.

Before I caught her scent downwind, Rebecca grabbed me from behind. She’d make a first class hunter if she didn’t have to walk so clumsily on her two back feet.

“Harvey. Where have you been?!” She picked me up and held me close, running her warm hands over my back and face. “You naughty boy! You had me worried sick.”

She didn’t act very sick. In fact, she looked happier than I’d seen her in a long time.

I put my head on her chest, licked her fleshy pink face and whispered, “It’s good to be home.” She probably just heard, “Bark, bark bark.” but hey, I meant it.

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No Smiling On Thursdays

Excerpt from short story collection for children Solar Girl and Lunar Boy.

No Smiling On Thursdays

Papa said, “No smiling on Thursdays!”

I kept my head buried in Mama’s shoulder. My tears were getting her shirt wet.

Papa asked Mama, “Isn’t today Thursday?”

Mama said, “Yep, Thursday all day.”

I looked at Papa, then at Mama and put my head back in Mama’s shirt. Papa got down on his knees, went behind Mama and peeked at me over her shoulder.

“No smiling on Thursdays!” he said smiling.

My sniffles stopped. My face felt happy. A big smile jumped on my lips.

“Hey!” Papa said, “This is Thursday! No smiling!”

A giggle ran out my mouth, then another and another. It was a giggle race. I couldn’t stop.

Mama and Papa both had pretend mean faces on and said, “Stop that! This is Thursday.” Then they smiled and laughed.

***

At school, my friend, Ben, ran up to the teacher crying. He put his arms around her leg and his face on her pants.

I went behind the teacher, looked between her legs at Ben and said, “This is Thursday.” He looked at me funny for a second, then put his head back on her leg. I said it again, “This is Thursday Ben. There’s no smiling allowed on Thursdays.”

Ben stopped crying. “What?” he asked.

“There’s no smiling on Thursdays,” I said again. He smiled and looked up at the teacher, who smiled back.

“Hey!” I said, just like Papa. “Stop smiling!”

Ben started laughing, let go of the teacher’s leg and tried to catch me.

“No smiling!” I shouted, as we both ran off to play.

***

At bedtime I heard Mama and Papa yelling. Papa came into my room to help with my pajamas. He looked sad.

Then Mama came in. She looked sad too.

After Papa buttoned the last button on my pajamas, I went behind him and said, “Don’t forget Papa. No smiling on Thursdays.”

He looked over his shoulder at me, then up at Mama and smiled.

“What?” he said. “Is this Thursday?”

“Yep!” I nodded back.

“You’re right!” said Mama. She smiled at Papa and kissed him on the cheek. She looked happy. “How could we forget?” she said.

Mama and Papa started tickling me all over.

“No smiling!” I said in between laughing, yelling and giggling. “It’s Thursday!”

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The Sweetest Man – Part 3

Excerpt from short story book Saint Catherine’s Baby.

The Sweetest Man (Part 3 – Conclusion)

Mr. Johnson and Ms. King, who now referred to one another as Joshua and Leslie, met the next day and the day after that. With Mrs. Johnson’s insistence, Joshua started seeing Leslie in the evenings as well, usually at Leslie’s home for dinner. When Leslie could arrange a babysitter, even though Sevon insisted he could stay by himself, “I’m TEN Mom!” they would go out to a movie, dinner or a walk around town.

It wasn’t long until mouths’ were talking and tongues’ a wagging at school.

“You Wiley Coyote you,” Maria exclaimed one afternoon to Leslie. “All this time. Not one look and here you come. Pow! He practically falls over himself chasing after you.”

Eloise laughed. Leslie chided. “Come on. It’s not like that. We’re just good friends.”

“Friends?!” Maria almost shouted. “Just friends my foot. You think we’re blind? We don’t see the way you talk?”

Leslie rolled her eyes, but didn’t deny the accusation as she walked away, leaving Maria and Eloise grinning, both genuinely happy for their new found friend, the “mother of Sevon.”

***

“Can we go to your place tonight?” Leslie asked sweetly, as she and Joshua left the Thai Kitchen, which had become their favorite dining spot.

“Well . . . I don’t know.” Joshua hesitated. “Don’t you think we should get back home? Ginny probably needs to leave soon.”

Ginny was the babysitter Eloise had found for Leslie. A freshman at the community college, she and Sevon had made a great connection. She didn’t treat him like a little kid and when he discovered that she had played soccer throughout high school and was on the college team, it was admiration at first goal.

“It’s only six-thirty,” Leslie replied. “She doesn’t have to leave until nine.”

“Oh yeah,” Joshua said, already knowing that was the case, but stalling, not sure what to say.

“Sure, sometime soon,” he said, giving her a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. “Let’s go see that new flick by Spike Lee.”

“Soon, soon, soon,” she frowned. “You always say that.” She looked at the wet pavement as they walked, water still streaming down the gutters from the downpour an hour earlier.

“Are you hiding something?” she inquired.

“Hiding something, from you?” He looked hurt.

“You’ve never invited me to your house,” she said. As he lifted his arm off her shoulder, she stopped walking, braced herself and took a risk. “You got another woman at home?”

Joshua rolled his head and looked up at the dark sky. He hadn’t told her about his mother. He was afraid she’d think he was a loser, “a coward,” his previous lady friends had said or implied, because he still lived at home.

“Oh my God!” Leslie gasped. “How could you?!”

The expression of anguish on her face almost killed him. She abruptly turned and started to run. He ran after her and grabbed her long coat by the sleeve.

“No! No!” he panted. “It’s not like that.” He could tell she didn’t believe him, but she had at least stopped to listen. “Yes, I live with another woman . . .”

She raised her hand to slap him, restrained herself and turned to flee, but he wouldn’t let go and turned her around. “It’s my mother!” he shouted.

Leslie’s mouth dropped open. She stared at Joshua, flabbergasted. “Your mother?!”

He nodded, waiting to hear a litany of judgment, deprecation and farewells.

“Why?” was all she said. She took Joshua’s hands and held them in her warm gloves. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Joshua had tried to avoid this moment at all costs. How could he explain that he’s the last and only family member living that can care for his mom? How could he tell her that he’d promised to never put her in a home with strangers? How could he tell her he owed his mom the world; that she was the only one who stuck by him when he returned from Viet Nam addicted to heroin; the only one waiting when he got out of jail for robbery; the only one that called and visited every week during his rehab? Every other woman he’d known had left him for someone successful, someone who wasn’t such a “Mama’s boy.” How could he tell her all that?

“I was afraid,” was all he could manage. “I was afraid you’d leave.”

“Leave?” she said pulling him close. “You’re the sweetest thing I’ve ever known.”

She wrapped her leather coat around them both; re-heating the bond that had been temporarily frozen, extinguishing the fear that had drained the blood from their bodies.

“When can I meet her?” she whispered, after gently kissing his soft cheeks. “Tonight?”

“No. She’d be livid if we showed up unannounced. She’ll want to make a big to do about it.” He smiled sadly, returning Leslie’s kiss with one of his own on her wet lips.

“Oh. I hope she won’t go to all that trouble.”

“She won’t,” he corrected. “She can’t be on her feet long. It’ll be me who does the actual cooking. She’ll be the general in charge, ordering me to do this and that.”

“I hope she likes me.”

“Like you?” Joshua’s replied. “How could she not like you?”

His gut tightened into a knot, knowing that his mother had always found some fault or perceived character defect with his lady friends.

***

Leslie and Sevon closed the doors to the Camry and walked across the street. They opened the gate of the chain link fence to the old brownstone and headed towards the front porch.

“You be on your best behavior, you hear,” Leslie reminded Sevon. “This is very important for Mr. Johnson and me.”

Sevon nodded for the hundredth time. “How old is his mom? I bet she’s ancient.”

“Sevon!” Leslie sighed. “She’s not ancient, just older.”

“How old?” Sevon asked, as they stepped on the creaky steps.

“Shhhhh!” Leslie cautioned. “I don’t know.”

***

“Don’t forget the crystal wine glasses!” Alberta Johnson shouted from the living room.

“I didn’t!” Joshua yelled out from the kitchen, were he was nervously watching the clock. The table was immaculately set with silver utensils, which had been passed down from his great-grandmother. Bright red roses splayed out from a vase in the center of the white lace cloth, which blessedly covered most of the gaudy Formica top.

When he returned to the living room to help his mother out of her chair, the doorbell rang. He turned back towards the kitchen, wondering if he should get his mother up first or answer the door.

As he hesitated, looking at the front door then at his mother, Mrs. Johnson yelled, “What are you standing there for? Hurry up before they run off already.” He started coming towards her. “Go get the door you fool,” she snapped. “I can make it on my own.”

He watched her rise, with great effort, using her cane to steady herself, as he hurried to the front door.

“Come in. Come in.” He ushered Leslie and Sevon into the entrance way. “Who are you two fine looking people?” he kidded.

Leslie kissed him on the cheek. evon nodded a perfunctory hello.”

“Where’s you’re Mom?” Leslie asked, noticing the beautifully laid out table setting.

“I’m right here,” Mrs. Johnson replied, huffing and puffing her way into the kitchen.

Leslie, taken aback by how bent over and breathless Mrs. Johnson was, stood and stared. Catching herself, before it was noticed, she went up to the matriarch; shook her hand and said, “What a pleasure to meet you.” Turning towards her son, who looked like he’d just seen someone raised from the dead, Leslie twitched her head to indicate he should move closer. “And this is my son Sevon.”

Sevon bowed, reluctantly took the outstretched wrinkled hand and said, “Nice to meet you Mrs. Johnson.”

Mrs. Johnson laughed. “Now, aren’t you the little prince?” Sevon backed up closer to his mother. “You keep that up and the girls will be all over you.”

Looking a little sick at the thought of girls being “all over” him, Sevon nodded politely and decided then and there to keep his distance from the old lady.

“Please,” Joshua motioned towards the table. “Dinner is just about ready.”

Leslie pulled out a chair for Mrs. Johnson, who was so focused on landing gracefully in front of company, that she didn’t bother to say thank you. Sevon sat as straight as he could, like his mother had instructed, at the opposite end.

Leslie sat down next to Mrs. Johnson, put on her napkin and complimented their hosts. “This is beautiful.” She smelled the roses, then picked up a silver knife. “And these are exquisite. Where did you get them?”

Joshua put a plate full of steaming hot lasagna in front of his mother, who replied, “They’re from my grandmother. They were a wedding gift from the woman she worked for.”

“What company did your grandma work for?” Leslie asked, grateful to have something for conversation.

“Company?” Mrs. Johnson stared hard at Leslie. “Where are you from?”

“What?” Leslie said, as Joshua placed dinner before her, smiling lovingly, not having heard their interaction.

“She was a cook, a cleaner,” Mrs. Johnson continued sternly. “She was a slave.”

“Why yes, of course,” Leslie acknowledged, feeling like she’d just slipped and fallen into a mud puddle. “I meant . . . I was just wondering …”

“What company?” Mrs. Johnson muttered, shaking her head, wondering how her son could find someone who had no sense of history, no understanding of what they’d been through, of who they were.

Joshua put a big helping of Lasagna in front of Sevon and a large portion at his own seat, then placed a bottle of wine and one of apple cider next to the roses. He sat down across from Leslie, between his mother and Sevon. After putting on his napkin, he glanced over at Leslie. His smile disappeared when he saw her look of confusion. Without wasting a second he looked at his Mom for an explanation, but received none.

Leslie watched Mrs. Johnson and Joshua bow their heads to pray and did likewise. Sevon, not being brought up in a religious household, reached for his fork and took a mouthful of lasagna before his mother could stop him.

Alberta Johnson shot an inquisitional look at Sevon, then his mother. “Sevon!” Leslie admonished. “What on earth are you doing?” Sevon was at a loss. His Mom nodded frantically at Joshua and Mrs. Johnson’s bowed heads.

Sevon put down his fork, whispered “sorry” and bowed his head.

The rest of the evening was civil, but no matter what Leslie said or did, she couldn’t erase the mortal sins Mrs. Johnson insinuated they had committed at the dinner table.

“That woman,” Mrs. Johnson gasped, after their guests had left. Joshua helped her back into her “Big Daddy” chair and raised the footrest. “That woman doesn’t deserve you.” She looked at the picture of her dead husband on the bookshelf, realizing once again how much she depended on her only son. “She’s got no religion.” She took a few skeletal wheezes. “A kid with no manners. And . . . worst of all . . . she doesn’t even know she’s black.” Joshua remained silent, as his mother gargled on. “Did you see her hair?!”

***

Driving home, in her new luxury Toyota, Leslie knew she couldn’t blame Sevon, who had never said grace in his life and she couldn’t take back her naive question about Mrs. Johnson’s grandmother.
“How on earth,” she told herself, “was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind reader.” As they drove on she became more incensed and less self-effacing. “What century does she live in? she told herself. “Praying never got us anywhere!”

Two minutes later she found herself arguing for understanding and patience. “So, she finds it comforting. Who am I to say what works best for the old lady?”

***

Joshua finished up the last of the dishes, got his mother’s night time medications and brought them, with some water, into the living room.

“Here you go Mom.”

“Thanks son.” She plopped the handful into her mouth, took a big swig and swallowed them all at once, coughing a few times to clear her throat.

After making sure they’d all gone down OK, he said, “I’m going to go read a while.”

When Joshua came out of his room, about twenty minutes later, his mother said, with a slight slur, “I, I think I’ll go . . . my prayers and . . . to bed. I’m pppretty tired all of a sudden.”

He helped her rise. She leaned on him hard and dragged her cane behind her. Her shuffling was worse than usual as they entered the bedroom. He sat her on the side of the bed and pulled back the hand-knitted bedspread. Gently removing her shoes, he laid her down and pulled the covers over her shoulders.

“Thanks sweetheart.” They kissed each other goodnight. “You’re sssuch a swweet, sweet boy. What . . . what would I . . . I ever do . . . without you?”

Joshua turned off the light, closed the door and went to the bathroom. He took the few remaining barbiturates he’d switched with his mother’s medications and flushed them down the toilet. As he watched them disappear, he realized he had been so taken with Leslie King, that he’d forgotten to find out the name of that cute little girl with pigtails that he’d seen on the playground several months ago and promised himself he’d find out first thing in the morning.

THE END

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The Sweetest Man – Part 1

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

Joshua Johnson stopped hauling the garbage can towards the bins and watched the Kindergarten children laughing, jumping and skipping on the playground.

“What a sweetie,” he thought, looking at a child with ribbon tied pigtails flopping on the side of her head like rabbit ears, as she ran playing freeze tag with another girl. “She’s just too cute.” He smiled to himself, picked up the can of discarded lunch plates and food and walked without haste towards the trash receptacle.

Joshua and smiles went together like popcorn and warm butter. He was one of those folks that could drive you nuts with his pleasant disposition. It could be the coldest, wettest, dreariest day of the year and he’d find something nice about it.

Just as you ran into the hallway, pulling your child in out of the storm, drenched and shivering, he’d walk by and say, “Good morning.” If you looked at him frowning, wondering what was good about it, he’d nod out the window and add, “Sure is a God- send for the trees.” As you forced a crooked smile, he’d be off, whistling some cheerful tune that sounded familiar, but he’d made to be quite his own.

Mr. Johnson, who was fairly good looking at fifty-one years of age, with short, curly gray-black hair, skin like rich dark earth and a prominent dimpled chin, had a gift for remembering names. He knew almost every child in the school. On his way to dumping the trash, Joshua realized he didn’t know the name of the little girl he’d seen playing tag and resolved to find out first thing in the morning.

***

As the bell rang, announcing the end of the school day, Leslie King made her way through the swarming hallways and met her son, Sevon, outside his fifth grade classroom.

It was only the second week of school and she and Sevon had hastily moved to the area a month ago. Though she’d known about the move ahead of time and prepared all summer, it had taken them much longer than she’d anticipated to find a decent place to live and a school district she found acceptable. It had just been their luck to move to an area of the country that had one of the highest costs of living and the lowest vacancy rates.

As a marketing manager for a major software company, she was required to relocate when needed. She was fine with the traveling, but didn’t like the impact it had on Sevon. She’d decided that this would be their last move. She was already looking into starting her own consulting firm and had some good leads on a few venture capitalists who might be interested.

Her mother, a professor of literature at the University of Texas in Austin, said she’d pitch in a couple grand if she needed it. She’d been able to keep her head when her mother had offered and simply said, “Thanks Mom. I’ll let you know.”

Yeah, her mother would give her some dough alright, but she’d have to pay some painful penance, hearing about how she was an idiot for dropping out of graduate school in her final year. And knowing herself, as she did, she knew that that sickening childhood shame, of never being good enough in her mother’s eyes, would once again creep under the door of her watchful radar and infect the healthy self-esteem she’d struggled to develop and protect.

Since Sevon’s father had left, over four years ago, Leslie had been too busy simply surviving to concern herself much with dating or meeting anyone new. he’d gone out a few times, usually with executives or colleagues, but found them to be conceited or consumed with accumulating material goods. She didn’t see herself as knocking guys out with her looks, but knew that for someone thirty-seven years old, she could easily strike a pose with her high chestnut cheekbones, accentuate her firm hips and legs and still turn some heads.

A few years ago she’d straightened her kinky black hair and had liked it so much she’d continued to torture herself with the weekly process to keep it that way, though it had now become more habit than enhancement.

She didn’t really care about how she looked anymore, just enough to keep appearances and have Sevon be proud of his mom. He was all that mattered. Any men in her life were a sideshow, at best a momentary pleasure, at worst a nuisance.

“Hey little man,” she said, carefully restraining herself from giving him a big luscious hug, knowing that would embarrass him beyond comprehension in front of his classmates. “How goes it?”

“OK,” he replied, smiling.

As they walked towards the exit, Leslie bent down slightly and whispered, “I missed you today.”

Sevon glanced up, frowned and looked around quickly to make sure nobody had heard her. “Mom!” he hissed.

He’d grown so much in the last two years that he came up to his mother’s chest.

“It won’t be long until you’re a big man and I’ll be looking up at you,” she would tell him fondly, when they were in the privacy of their own home. He would try to act like he didn’t hear her, but she could see his pride burst like fresh seeds from a pod and would have had to take sandpaper to wipe the grin off his face.

One of two women, standing in front of the school office, talking loudly, glanced at Leslie as she and Sevon started to walk by. The woman, wearing shorts and a bright yellow-orange jogging sweater, stopped mid-sentence and said, “Hello. I’m Eloise, Eloise Jacobs. Alex’s mom.”

Leslie stopped, shook Eloise’s pinkish-white outstretched hand and wondered if she was supposed to know this woman.

“Our sons’ are in the same class with Mrs. Rios,” she explained. “Your son’s name is Devon or Givon . . . I’m sorry I don’t remember.”

Leslie turned to her son. “This is Sevon,” she pronounced clearly, accentuating the short e.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Eloise exclaimed, reaching out her hand to Sevon. “Glad to meet you.”

Sevon shook hands quickly and he and Alex, who had just appeared, both scurried down the hall.

Leslie called, with a little anxiety in her voice, “Where are you going?”

Sevon yelled, “We’ll be outside Mom, by the basketball court.”

Before Leslie could say another word Eloise started talking. “Alex has gone here all his life. It’s a great school. Sure, there’s a few teachers that are so so, but most of them are good. And the parents really help out.”

Leslie noticed the other woman Eloise had been talking to start to leave, as did Eloise.

“I’m sorry,” Eloise said quickly, grabbing the other woman by the sleeve. “This is Linda Chang. Her daughter’s in the other fifth grade class. She helps out with the tutoring program in the library.”

Linda shook Leslie’s hand. “Is this your son’s first year?” she asked, a solid silver necklace around her throat and an aqua blue suit adorning her medium frame. “I don’t remember seeing him before.”

“Yes,” Leslie said hesitantly, still looking for Sevon out the window. She saw him playing with Alex, relaxed a little and turned back towards Linda. “We just moved here last month. Is it always so hard to find a place?”

Both women gave knowing nods.

“Where were you living before Mrs. um . . .?” Eloise inquired. “You do have a name besides Sevon’s Mom I presume.” All three women smiled, understanding how they often were referred to as someone’s mother instead of by their own names.

“It’s Ms. King, but please call me Leslie,” she replied. “We were living on the East Coast until I got transferred.”

“Transferred?” Linda inquired. “What do you do?”

“Well,” Leslie explained, “I have been working as a marketing consultant but I’m looking into . . .”

“Hey! What’s up?” yelled a short woman with long braided hair, high heels and bright red lipstick. A little girl that looked like her miniature was pulling her by the hand.

“Go play with Stacey,” she told the little girl. “She’s right out there.” She pointed to the playground. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

The little girl looked outside and took off running.

“Don’t run in the hallway!” the woman said and joined Eloise, Linda and Leslie.

“She’s such a doll,” Eloise told the woman.

“Yeah,” the lady replied, “a wind-up doll that never stops.”

They all laughed.

Eloise made the introduction. “Mrs. King, I mean Leslie or better known as Sevon’s Mom.” They all chuckled. “This is Marina. Marina Higuera.” They shook hands.

“Marina is the queen of the PTA,” Eloise continued.

“And about everything else,” Linda said satirically.

Marina lifted her chin and sauntered a few steps.

“It’s a good thing our husbands don’t attend PTA meetings,” Eloise smirked, “or Marina would have hijacked them all.”

They all laughed, as Marina batted her eyelashes playfully.

“Welcome,” Marina said sincerely.

“Thanks,” Leslie exclaimed.

Joshua entered the hallway, pushing the empty garbage can on a handcart and walked past the front desk whistling. He was reminding himself to find out the name of the new kid he just saw playing outside with Alex Jacobs.

Leslie, in the midst of explaining once again what she did for a living, stopped mid-sentence and watched the handsome, seemingly distracted older gentleman walk past whistling. The other women saw her eyes wander.

Suddenly, Marina called out, “Hey! Mr. Johnson!”

Joshua tipped the handcart forward, so it stood by itself and turned around to see Eloise Jacobs, Linda Chang, Marina Higuera and a lovely woman he didn’t know. With his easy, “I’ve got all morning” attitude, he walked over and nodded hello.

“Good afternoon,” he said, trying to keep from staring at Leslie. “Beautiful day out today, isn’t it?”

“Yes, indeed,” Marina exclaimed, and without much hesitation introduced Leslie.

“Pleasure to meet you Ma’m,” he said with pleasure, unable to hide his admiration.

Leslie shook his hand gently and felt a warm strength returned.

Nodding his head towards the basketball court he said, “And that must be your boy out there?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “Sevon.”

“Well well,” he said, not sure what else to say with all the ladies staring at him. “I ah, better get back to work.” He nodded over at the can in the middle of the hallway. “I can’t leave that standing there now, can I?”

“Take care Mr..Johnson,” Marina cooed.

“You all have a good night now,” he replied.

As he turned, he flashed a quick smile towards Leslie, but not enough for anyone to notice. He started whistling as he walked away from the desk and through the door to the cafeteria.

“Now wasn’t she something,” he told himself, as he replaced the trash can and put in a new liner. “Whoever she’s fixed up with is one lucky man.”

It had been a couple of years since Joshua had even considered getting involved with another woman. He enjoyed their company and was just as drawn to the opposite sex as most men, but things never really worked out and he’d decided it was better to leave things alone, considering his circumstances at home and all.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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The English Lesson – Part I

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

They stopped at 410 Stadler. Sy kept the gas guzzling, early eighties Plymouth idling, as Ruthie got her folder together and clamped her purse shut.

“Got everything?” Sy asked.

Ruthie had her lesson plan in hand. “Yep, all here.”

Ruthie thought about her student, Mrs. Frankel, a seventy-five-year old widow who had been forced to learn English since the recent death of her husband.

Only ten years younger than Mrs. Frankel, Ruthie had recently retired after a thirty-year career as secretary for the County Social Service department. She’d tried staying at home, but felt antsy and unproductive.

She’d wanted to help others, so she took classes on how to teach English and tutor people in their own homes. If she’d known her students could be as difficult as Mrs. Frankel, she might have stayed home and watched re-runs of Dick Van Dyke.

Ruthie considered herself to be in pretty good shape. She walked or swam daily, slept well and maintained a healthy diet. It gave her pause when she thought, “but by the grace of God” she could end up as bent and spiteful as Mrs. Frankel.

“She’s one of the rudest women I have ever met,” she told Sy. “Do you know what she said to me last week?” She didn’t wait for his answer. “She said, ‘Sit up! You’re not a teenager; this important class.’ She treated me like a little kid!”

Sy pecked his wife of thirty-four years on the cheek. “Come back for you in an hour?”

Ruthie closed the car door with a solid thud and blew Sy a kiss as he drove off in a cloud of white steam rising from the exhaust into the cold, fall-morning air. She tied her dark green scarf tightly around her neck, smoothed out her off-white, below-the-knee skirt and approached Mrs. Frankel’s aging home; a fortress of red brick and peeling, dirty paint that seemed to dare someone to approach or disturb its occupant. The porch had a metal grate topping off the brick base and an eight-foot, iron-bared gate. Using their secret code, Ruthie rang the doorbell three long blasts, then a short jolt, to seek permission to enter her student’s premises. She gave a start as Mrs. Frankel suddenly appeared and unlocked the rusting gate.

“Frau Ruth. You’re late!” Mrs. Frankel admonished; her small, upturned nose flaring as she turned towards the living room. Her short, curled, gray-haired wig bounced with each step, briefly revealing the dry skin on her bent neck.

“Good to see you,” Ruthie forced a smile and followed the neatly-attired, rickety old woman through the parlor, into a living room cluttered with antiquities. Mrs. Frankel plopped her spine-shrunken body into her polished maple chair of propriety, while Ruthie crossed the fraying, deep-red carpet to sit on her designated seat; an early twentieth century sofa with curled armrests and club feet.

Hilda, the fat, brown-stripped cat, lay on the rug, barely lifting an eyelid to acknowledge Ruthie’s presence. Hilda was nearly as old as the furniture and moved about as often.

The sitting arrangement was, to say the least, a bit awkward. It was quite a feat to explain the lesson from across the room to the hard-of-hearing learner. Inevitably, Ruthie would have to rise, cross the room and repeat her self several times, then return to her preordained position.

“You think I am a stupid, not?!” Mrs. Frankel shouted.

“What?” Ruthie replied meekly.

“You heard me! You think I stupid?!”

“Stupid, no, stubborn, yes!” replied Ruthie, surprising herself.

“Stewburn?” Mrs. Frankel said awkwardly. “Is stewburn good or bad?”

“I mean,” Ruthie shouted. “You are one hard nut to crack.”

“A cracked nut?”

Mrs. Frankel looked like a deer caught in headlights. Ruthie laughed, in spite of her best intention to the contrary. Obviously insulted, Mrs. Frankel’s pale blue eyes narrowed like two tiny laser beams on an enemy target.

Ruthie took a deep breath for reinforcement and put a lid on her natural reaction. “It’s an expression. It means you are hard to figure out,” she explained, “difficult to know.”

Mrs. Frankel looked down at her wrinkled, spotted hands, then sighed and said, “You think I like this?” She raised her head and looked directly at Ruthie. “I am proud woman. I never want to be in this crazy country. I come because I need to follow husband.” She looked at the cat and sighed. “Now, it just Hilda and me.”

“I’m sorry,” Ruthie said sincerely, not sure if her condolence would be received or accepted.

Mrs. Frankel suddenly sat up as straight as her crooked body would allow and turned to her present endeavor. Holding up the learning sheet and turning it slightly towards Ruthie, she pointed at the first line with renewed obstinacy and demanded, “Now . . . what this?!”
Ruthie started to rise and move closer, but was frowned at fiercely. She squinted in the dimly lit room and tried to decipher the line from where she sat.

“I say, What this?!” Mrs. Frankel held the page aloft, shaking it like some offending piece of evidence. “I not understand!”
Ruthie strained to see.

“Come here!” Exasperation clung to Mrs. Frankel’s command.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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