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The Window Cleaner – Part 2

from Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories. By Gabriel Constans.

The Window Cleaner – Part 2 (Conclusion)

As Rob’s outrage about his mother’s cancer and subsequent death raged on, Steven waited for a pause, a cue, a sliver of an opening to address the pain that boiled below the surface. It came suddenly, when Rob abruptly stopped speaking, placed his hands on his knees and glared at Steven.

“Well?” Rob asked bitterly, “Now what?”

“I’m sorry you had to witness such suffering,” Steven said. “What an awful ordeal.” Rob waited. “You must love your mother very much.”

Every instinct of pride and privacy in Rob’s body strained to keep composure. It felt like his ligaments were tearing apart; his protective shell, of time and distance from his mother’s passing, stripped bare. Repressed liquids of loss and abandonment leaked like a broken faucet. He tried holding back the tears, by covering his runny eyes and nose with his hands, but it was as useless as trying to stop a tidal wave with a bucket. He felt dizzy, his cheeks burned and his stomach ached. He questioned his sanity and wondered how he had let his well-meaning wife convince him to attend this torture. “I must be a masochist or a nut case,” he reasoned.

Sure, he’d had some scattered days since his adoptive mother had passed on. “Who wouldn’t?” he figured. “She was only fifty-one.”

Her name was Nadine. She’d adopted him, as a single parent, when he was five years old. Everything he knew about love, security or life had come from her. She’d taken him on faith; not knowing what complications might arise as he got older. Her devotion ran deep. She had spoiled him with attention and confidence.

“How could she leave?!” his mind demanded, not able or willing to match the reality of her death with his belief in how the world should work.

He had admitted to his wife, Soledad, that he wasn’t sleeping well and didn’t feel like doing anything. “It doesn’t make sense; nothing matters anymore.”

Anxiety about the future knocked day and night. He frequently asked Soledad if they were OK; if she was sure she wanted to stay with him being so “messed up and all?” She’d smile reassuringly and tell him their love hadn’t changed since they’d met in high school. He was and always would be, “her man . . . her sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere.”

It was during one of these moments of insecurity that she suggested he call these people for help. She had promised that they wouldn’t do any touchy-feely, therapy kind of stuff on him. Now, here he was, wondering what kind of mess he was in. All he’d done so far was babble on about his private life and cry like a wet baby in front of a perfect stranger.

He should have seen the trap the minute he walked in the little claustrophobic compartment. Soft music; candles; a warm and friendly atmosphere – all there to seduce him into making a fool of himself! And there was something unnerving about this guy, like he could see right through you.

“It’s not fair!” Rob shouted, between chest splitting sobs, “Why’d she have to suffer; why not me?!”

Steven handed him some Kleenex from the conveniently placed box sitting on the glass table, waiting patiently to be of service and discarded. Rob wiped his contorted face.

“You’d want your mother to go through the pain your feeling?”

“No, but why; how could this happen?”

“Her dying or the emptiness you’re feeling?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.”

“Doesn’t make sense, does it?”

Rob nodded, blew his nose again and tossed the tissue towards the small plastic can peaking out from under the table.

Steven said, “It can be painful and confusing. The feelings are so overwhelming; it seems like you’re out of control; nothing fits together anymore.”

“That’s for sure.” Rob dabbed his wet cheeks with another willing tissue. “But why does it have to hurt so bad?” Salt water oozed from the corner of his eye and dripped on to the front of his pressed shirt.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the price we have to pay for loving somebody.”

“Pretty stiff price.”

“Sure is,” Steven leaned forward. “You’d have to be a masochist to choose this kind of pain.”

Rob nodded, “So why go through it?”

“Grief seems to be the one kind of pain that doesn’t change or go away, unless we let ourselves face it, feel it . . . almost embrace it. Most kinds of pain are good to get rid of; put a bandage on it, fix it or avoid it, right?” Rob’s river of tears trickled to a small brook as he threw his last drenched tissue toward the seemingly elusive wastebasket. “With grief there is no easy, quick fix; it’s not something you ‘get over’ or ‘recover from.’”

Steven wondered if Rob was making any connections. He was never sure. Even if the client said they understood, felt heard or thanked him for his time, there was no guarantee that his presence or words had any beneficial effect at all. There was no tangible, physical sign or material exchange, no finished product or sutured wound.

“But,” Steven emphasized, “if you allow yourself to experience it, with people you trust and at times and places that feel safe, it will lesson in duration and frequency.”
Rob shook his head in disbelief. Steven added, “Right now it doesn’t feel like it will ever change, right?”

“You got that right.”

Rob’s apprehension and anxiety flew around in his head like manic butterflies, while Steven, this quiet middle aged man with specs and out of date shoes, continued to provide his attention and seemingly sincere concern. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Rob’s fears subsided, as he realized he was safe and could allow his heart’s storms to rage.

He told Steven all about Nadine. He talked about their favorite holidays, Thanksgiving and Halloween; about where they had lived, in Providence; what she did for a living, working as a home care attendant; how he bought her a home, after working in real estate for several years. He told him about the difficult times they’d had when he was a teenager, when he was embarrassed to be around her; how he had pushed her away and his remorse at having done so. He talked about his wife Soledad; how she felt closer to his mother than to her own. He talked and talked and cried and cried and remembered.

As Rob told him about his mother, Steven thought fondly of his own. She’d had a heart attack and surgery about six years ago, coming precipitously close to death’s door. She was in her seventies now and doing well, but the thought of her dying still gave him the chills. It wasn’t like he was a stranger to loss. Various family members, friends and acquaintances had gasped their last breaths; but there was something about his mother, her solid, life-long presence and care, that struck close to the bone. The thought of her dying and disappearing from this material life, made him feel vulnerable and alone. He prayed it would never happen, knowing full well that such prayers were a futile exercise in self-delusion.

“Yeah, she was, I mean is, an amazing woman,” Rob concluded fondly, an imperceptible smile kissing his lips.

Hearing Rob pause and having a sense that their time was coming to a close, Steven asked Rob if they could meet again in a week or two. He noticed the strained expression, of someone trying to hold together a broken glass, had been replaced with a smile, a smile that said, “Thank God. I’m not going crazy. This is all to be expected. It will change. There is hope.”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” Rob replied. “Would you write down the time and date? I’ve been a little forgetful lately.”

“Sure.” He wrote down the appointment, as slowly and carefully as possible, so someone beside himself could read it and handed it to Rob.

Rob checked the time and date, then turned the card over. “Steven Rice, Ph.D.,” he read silently, “Bereavement Counselor.” He stuffed it in his front pocket, stood and firmly shook Steven’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I know this sounds crazy, but I think it helped.”

“I hope so,” Steven smiled. “I look forward to seeing you next week.”

Steven watched Robert walk down the red-stained ramp, back into his life, a life without the woman who had taught him how to live. He went over to the miniature desk, sat on the rolling office chair, took out a pink form that read, “Progress Note”, grabbed his pen and began to write.

The last hour was fresh in his memory as he looked out the dirty windowpane and felt the air through the screen cooling as the sun undressed to put on its nightgown of darkness. The old knotted pine trees stood gallantly in the gully, impervious to the suns disrobing. They stood without feelings of love, loss, joy or sorrow; without consciousness of there own existence or approaching demise.

Steven put on his alma mater’s long sleeve blue sweater and placed his notes in Mr. Hartman’s file. He put the file inside the four-foot high, rusted metal cabinet and attached the combination lock. Picking up his frayed, black-leather briefcase and bottled water, he looked outside once more, before turning off the light, radio and sound machine.

“I’ll have to wash that window tomorrow,” he said to himself. “It’s filthy.”

Steven Rice walked outside, closed the vacuum-sucking door with a bang, inserted his copper key and turned the latch. The flimsy box trailer and its precarious contents were safe for another day. He walked down the shaky ramp and wondered how we keep living with all our scars and open wounds.

THE END

PART 1

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The Window Cleaner – Part 1

From Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories. By Gabriel Constans.

The Window Cleaner – Part 1

A warm breeze squeezed through the holes in the window screen of the small box trailer, caressing the hair on Steven Rice’s arm. He stopped writing his notes on the pink paper and looked out the spotted, streaked window, at the old trees, vines and plants rooted in the lush green gully bordering the backyard. He wondered how this small land of wood and greenery had flourished so bountifully, while trapped between residential asphalt and city streets of noise, grime and drifting exhaust.

“The stories they could tell,” he thought, staring at the knotted oaks, “hot, cold, dry, wet; season after season; change after change.”

Mr. Rice had survived a few blustery seasons of his own. Surgical intrusions, vandalistic relationships, precarious illnesses and winds of death had blown through the canyons of his life, leaving crevasses and jagged scars on the landscape of his soul. His receding, graying hairline and scarred, wrinkled skin, were testament to his growth and decay. Wire-rimmed spectacles framed his large protruding nose, providing an exclamation point to his tall, skinny frame. A light blue dress shirt and beige, corduroy slacks covered him modestly. They were just right for his kind of work: not too shabby, not to fancy or extreme.

Steven watched a brown, orange-bellied feathered friend jump from one of the trees to the soft green grass below the window. He wasn’t sure if it was a dull robin or a bright male sparrow. The sound machine hummed and the violins, emanating from the radio playing in the adjoining room, traveled through the thin plywood walls. They used the machine and classical music, to drone out their confidential conversations and keep the words, sounds and cries from reaching beyond the small, fern-potted cubicle they used for their private, intimate encounters with mortality.

There were two stout chairs with short, wide backs and legs; that looked like they had been dropped from a tall building and compressed on impact. An acrylic-padded office chair had been rolled under the insignificant, almost nonexistent, desk facing the dirty window. Fresh cut flowers, a miniature digital clock, some calligraphic business cards and a blue lit candle, graced the small glass table situated between the flattened chairs. The wall was adorned with two of his wife’s framed photos. One displayed a sensuous purple orchid in full bloom. The other contained a golden-orange poppy poking its head through the crevice of an intimidating mountain of cold, gray granite.

His wife, Jillian, was an excellent photographer, but hadn’t practiced her craft for years. Children, a job with the city planning department and various environmental causes had limited her photographic pursuits. Now, with the kids in their twenties, she and Steven had more free time for their individual passions and pursuits. Steven planned on taking up hang gliding, running off the tops of mountains and floating above earth like a bird. Some mornings he awoke with delight and told her about a flying dream.

Steven had been twice married before taking his vows with Jillian. The first mishap was as a young man of eighteen, when he had mistaken lust for love and connected with a warm, loving woman named Yolanda. There union lasted but a short two years; neither knowing who they were or what they wanted; both believing freedom equaled zero responsibility and no commitment.

The second marriage, to Peggy, had matched all the images in Steven’s head of “settling down”; but other than producing two beautiful children, the relationship was awash in misunderstanding and contrary ambitions. Everyone but he and his wife saw the mismatch from the start. They relinquished their individuality and personal boundaries to try to meet the others perceived needs or desires. They mistook control, security and acquiescence for love.

Jillian was the first to believe in Steven, to love him without an unconscious, unspoken need to control or manipulate his behavior. He had returned her respect and care in kind. The magnetic current that had originally attracted them upon first sight had done nothing but increase in intensity and strength.

The candle’s lavender aroma and the scarlet scents of spring, mingled conspiratorially, as Steven redirected his attention to the form under his hand and scribbled, in his disjointed, undecipherable hand writing, the words which best captured the last hours drama. The documentation was tedious, at best; but the lives and stories of those with whom he crossed paths, were anything but.

As he put the pink pages back in their vanilla envelope and placed it in the drawer, he felt the familiar vibration of footsteps on the wooden ramp. The ramp, made out of plywood and two-by-fours, had been hastily installed for wheel chair access, after the temporary trailers had been placed on their cement blocks.

The outer door to the middle office opened suddenly, sucking sound and air into the self-contained unit like a surfacing diver gasping for breath. Someone entered, knocked on the open hollow door to Steven’s little cubicle and peered around the corner.

“Mr. Rice?”

“Yes,” Steven replied, standing and holding out his hand. “Please, call me Steven.” He was forty-nine years old, had accumulated a number of advanced degrees and training, but still felt strange when somebody called him Mister or Doctor. The formal titles carried too much weight; too many expectations and implications of difference and separation. It made him feel old, defined and limited.

The gentleman clasped Steven’s hand cautiously, as if he could be infected with suffering by mere association.

“Mr. Hartman?” Steven asked.

“Rob,” Mr. Hartman nodded warily. “Rob is fine.”

“So . . . you found us OK?”

“I’ve seen the sign whenever I drove by, but never had any reason to . . . you know . . . stop in.”

Steven nodded.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“Actually, you’re right on time,” he said, closing the door. “Please, have a seat.”

Steven took the opposite chair and handed Mr. Hartman a clear clipboard with a form and pen attached. “A brief formality; we don’t want there to be any surprises or misconceptions.”

“Of course,” Mr. Hartman replied calmly, while his instincts told him to drop the damn form and run for his life.

“Whatever you tell me is confidential.”

Rob nodded, glancing over the printed page. His jaw was clamped tight as a pressure-cooker, the corners of his mouth descending, searching for something solid; some anchor to latch on to. His dark black hair was combed neatly in place, his striped sport shirt was buttoned to the collar and his cuffed slacks nicely pressed. Steven noticed a slight shaking of the fingers, as Rob signed and returned the form, carefully avoiding any eye contact.

Rob tried smiling as he handed over the clipboard, but it got stuck in his throat like a chicken bone before reaching his dry lips.

“Thank you,” Steven said, placing the “formality” on top of the desk. “Thank you for coming. I know this is hard.”

Rob nodded, rubbing his hands on the wooden rests of the armchair and looking at the floor. He cleared his throat several times, as if he was going to speak, but decided against it.

“He knows how hard it is?” Rob said to himself. “I doubt it.”

“When you called,” Steven interjected, “you didn’t say how your mother died. Can you tell me what happened?”

“Man!” Rob thought, his adrenaline pumping. “I barely hit the cushion before this guy is asking me how she died!”

Steven saw Rob flinch.

“She . . . she . . . I don’t . . .”

Rob braced himself, counted to three and turned an inner, emotional valve, squeezing off the pain that was about to blow his boiler. He reverted to his mind for expediency and safety, uncrossed his arms and went on a litany of chronological events leading up to his mother’s death. The room swam with details, accusations, judgments, blame and anger. He talked animatedly about doctors, nurses, relatives, family members and friends; his hands gesticulating freely, framing his words with emphatic motion. He told a long, labored story of the medical community and their assault upon his mother; of relatives who “never helped” and others who “always interfered.”

PART 2 (CONCLUSION) TOMORROW

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Land Minds – Part 1

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt) by Gabriel Constans

Land Minds – Part 1

He was savagely independent, having lived in the small, rugged, mountain community for more than a decade of self-imposed isolation and breathtaking loneliness. His earthly abode stretched a thousand meager yards from the nearest neighbor, who he avoided like diseased rats. The term neighbor implied a false familiarity, an acknowledgment of another’s existence, of weight upon the earth. The tenants who filtered through the adjoining rental property quickly learned to not ask questions or “nose around.” It didn’t take long until they treated him as part of the landscape, like a dried clump of gray-white bird droppings splattered over decaying leaves.

His makeshift home was a fading, moldy red barn, built in the late forties. It had gaping holes covered with black, dirty, torn plastic that had been nailed on in a haphazard frenzy of urgent necessity. There was no intention or inclination to give a damn about its looks. An outhouse supplied the necessary hole for elimination. An old, creaky, barely functional water tower kept his body and wrinkled clothes free of grit and grime.

To reach his dwelling involved a precarious path through an obstacle course of poison oak, prickly blackberry bushes and a six-foot deep, quarter mile fissure of eroded, hard red clay.

His only contact with beings human was a weekly visit to Frank and Stella’s Market, after having cashed his check at the bank. When he’d first arrived in town, Frank and his wife Stella, had inquired about his line of work. Their questions had been met with forceful silence and a souring scowl. Alice, who worked at Community Bank, told Stella that even she, “If anybody should know, it would be me.” didn’t have a clue about where he was from or what he did. All she knew was that the check he cashed was made out to Mark Keeler.

Mark Keeler didn’t know if he was fifty yet. He hadn’t thought much about it since his wife had thrown the mother of all surprise parties when he’d turned thirty-five. Old school mates, employees, best friends and beautiful seven-year-old daughter, all yelled “Happy Birthday!” showering him with flowers and popcorn as he’d walked in the front door.

His wife, Charlene, had kept it under wraps for a month of delicious anticipation. She, with her short auburn hair, teased and permed for the occasion, was wearing his favorite dress – the long, light blue, lotus-patterned one they’d bought in Bali on their honeymoon. Her grin had stretched with satisfied pleasure, from one soft earlobe to the other, as the party progressed.

Yes indeed, she’d pulled out all the stops! Pictures of him as a kid, pants half down, in his cowboy suit; tales from his father about his son’s “wild” days; and “secret” information thrown in from friends like Kurt Frazier, who recalled the time he and Mark were found in the girl’s bathroom in junior high, sabotaging the toilets. His daughter, Jasmine, who had been allowed to stay up past her bedtime, smothered herself with laughter when hearing of her father’s exploits. “Daddy was in the girl’s bathroom?!” She was flabbergasted. Her reaction sent the whole room into a crescendo of chuckles and belly laughs.

“Yes indeed, that was a hell of a party,” Mark recalled, as he put away the groceries he’d picked up at the market. “When was that . . . fifteen . . . sixteen years?” he wondered.

His callused, once long and smooth hands put the last box of chemical free, organic cereal on the top shelf. He pushed up his thick-lensed, dark-framed glasses and glanced at the label on the soy milk carton sitting next to the cereal. It read, “Safe to drink until Jan. 2012.”

“Safe my ass!” he blurted. “Nothing’s safe.”

Looking past the carton, between the warped wallboard’s, he saw the ageless trees shifting their feet. He reached up with his hand and scratched the flaky scalp which had been tauntingly gaining ground on his receding hairline. After drifting from one rambling boxcar of thought to another, he disengaged his overloaded, freight train brain and finished stocking the sparse cupboard with his weekly supplies.

Locking the cupboard and turning to go relieve his bladder, he carelessly stepped on his sleeping mat and allowed his eyes to glimpse the muted, color photograph permanently placed on the orange crate he’d transformed into a nightstand. Barking orders at his mind to disregard the sudden, splitting images of brutality and butchery that appeared without invitation, he wrestled himself out the door and collapsed. He looked at the bright, blue canopy and saw only a soiled sky of torn memories and violent dreams. The fluids that pumped through his veins turned into a slimy run-off of emotional grease and sludge, making his heart wince and stutter like a clogged drain.

He tried to forget by building miles of paths, stone walls and chopping wood until his hands’ were an ocean of draining blisters. Once he thought he’d lost his marbles and ran wild through the woods, growling and panting like a rabid dog, but even the comfort of sweet insanity had eluded his grasp.

That afternoon, as he lay on the decomposing earth, remembering the unmemorable, something inside churned and twisted with nauseating persistence. His gut belched with inquisition.

“No!” he said out loud. “I can’t!”

“You must!” his conscience protested.

His hands clamped tightly on to his contorted face, pushing his square glasses into his round eye sockets.

“No!” he screamed.

A belligerent typhoon of insistence rocked him from head to toe. His body shook with involuntary seizures of dread. He gasped then sighed as his tear-drenched palms fell away. A small clear hole of light broke through the blood stained clouds.

END OF PART 1 (CONTINUED TOMORROW)

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Moving Up – Part 2

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt)

Moving Up – Part 2 (Conclusion)

There I was with my stuffed dog and my mother’s eyes. The neighbor’s door slammed and the TV in the apartment below squawked like a rap song on downers. The water in the pot I’d put on the stove was boiling, the shrieking whistle increasing in velocity. I looked in those eyes, saw my reflection and wondered out loud, “Why did you leave? Where did you go?”

I went to the stove, turned off the kettle and poured what little water was left over my oolong tea. I turned up the volume on the radio, which I must have left on went to work. The announcer said the guy playing the violin had once played for change on the streets of Paris and now graced the stages of concert halls around the world.

I returned to the recliner, put the dog in my lap and hugged its neck. I closed my eyes and drifted off, as my reassuring nightmare gracefully returned.

The snake-eyed woman oozed out of the festering sore, her hands and bony fingers reaching for my throat. She whispers, “Die my love. Die a slow death. There is nothing but pain and sadness.” Her cold fingertips tighten on my Adam’s apple, as I flail with clenched fists to beat my way free, my knuckles smashing into her skeletal face without any impact. Her face changes into a tornado, sucking me in and spitting me out between her thighs. My heart muscle has been shredded into little pieces and is being flushed down the sewer.

My hand slid off the armrest and hit the floor. I found myself sitting in a chair, holding a stuffed dog with marble eyes. The phone was ringing again. I answered.

“What? Oh, hi Annie.”

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Where were you? I called earlier.”

“I must have been in the shower.” I lied.

“How’s your new job?” she asked, disdain seeping through her cheerful “everything is always great” voice.

“OK, I guess. I found the coolest dog.”

“A dog?!” her voice raised an octave. “I thought animals weren’t allowed . . .”

“No, they aren’t allowed here. Not a dog dog . . . it’s a stuffed dog. It’s in great shape. I can’t believe somebody threw it away. And it’s big. I mean really big! If I stand on end it almost reaches my head. And the coolest part is its eyes. They don’t look normal. They’re all glassy, deep black and vacant like. They remind me of . . . well . . . they’re very cool. You’ve got to see it.”

“I’ve got Springer,” she replied, “a real dog. Why on earth would I care about a fake one from the dump?”

“Well, no. I guess you wouldn’t.”

“You could have a real dog,” she pleaded, “if you weren’t so stubborn and moved out here.”

“Well . . . I’ll just have to enjoy my ‘pretend’ dog by my old stubborn self.”

“Don’t go all sad and sorry for yourself on me. You know what I mean.’

“Yeah, I know. Grow up, right?”

“You said it, not me,” she laughed.

She always wanted me to be someone or somewhere different, but she kept calling and seeing me anyway. If I could mint how many times she’d said, “Grow up.” I’d be a billionaire. I have grown up! I like my life just fine. It’s safe, secure and pathetically terminal . . . except for my nightmares. They may leave me sweating in terror, but they’re consistent, predictable and more painfully present then anybody I’ve known dead or alive. She keeps hoping I’ll change. She’s like that, full of faith and seeing the good in people. Some folks can’t help it.

“Why don’t you come stay with me this weekend? We could take Springer to the lake, go fishing and camp out at Crescent Cove.”

“Sure, but I’ve got to work Saturday morning. I’ll drive out in the afternoon. Maybe we could get in a little hook and sinker Sunday morning.”

“I guess that will have to do. See you then.”

“Later,” I said and hung up.

The truth be known, I could only handle being with Annie for a day, two max. Something about her always made me feel inadequate, like I was lacking some prime ingredient for her stew.

I looked at the chair and saw the dog had fallen on the floor. I picked it up, brushed it off and found myself staring at those eyes again. They held me like a voodoo curse. I shook myself free and placed it by the wall, under the window with the dirty blinds I never open.

***

It’s been a year since I started working at the dump. Annie finally got smart and left me alone. I heard she’s hooked up with some organic strawberry farmer who loves the country and has lots of “real” dogs. I’m still living in the same immaculately disastrous apartment, enjoying a Sunday to myself and reading the paper. The stuffed dog I found last year is still lying under the window, sagging a little more in the midriff, obediently collecting dust. I pick it up now and then, whenever I need a good shot of collected misery.

I put down my cup of cold coffee and am drawn to an interesting add.

WANTED. NIGHT DRIVERS. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. WILL TRAIN. REFERENCES REQUIRED. CALL SEASON’S MORTUARY. 639-4518.

“Well now,” I say out loud, “talk about a dream job. I think I’ll call them first thing in the morning.”

THE END

Part 1

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Sizing Up Shannon

Excerpt from Sizing Up Shannon. One of the stories in Saint Catherine’s Baby.

Shannon put the box of size six hiking boots high on the shelf. Even with the step stool, her five foot three, eighteen-year-old physique had trouble reaching the top. She pushed the end of the crisp cardboard container, with the end of her long purple colored fingernails, into its designated roost in the stockroom of Mr. Estrada’s shoe store.

As she stepped down and brushed the blond bangs away from her clear skin, the doorbell rang. A potential customer had entered the sixty-year-old city landmark. She smacked her lips together to moisten her bright red lipstick and parted the weighted curtain.

Shannon immediately recognized Mrs. Shorenstein and her five-year-old daughter Hanna. Shannon had sold her a pair of children’s shoes three weeks ago and saw the same shoes glued on to Hanna’s feet, with a layer of dirt and grime.

“Hello Mrs. Shorenstein,” exclaimed Shannon, extending her hand in greeting.

“Hi,” Mrs. Shorenstein replied. “How nice. You remembered my name.”

Shannon bent down and addressed Hanna. “Hi young lady. How are your tennies holding up?”

Hanna turned and climbed on top of the small coffee table covered with magazines. “See how good I can climb!”

“Hanna!” her mother said, “get down.” Hanna jumped off, fell onto the freshly vacuumed carpet and rebounded with an impish smile. Shannon bent over, picked up the magazine that had been carried off with Hanna’s surprise jump, returned it neatly to the table and stood to face Hanna’s mother. “I’m sorry,” Mrs. Shorenstein apologized. “She has such energy! I wish I could bottle it and take a swig whenever my battery was low.”

“No problem,” Shannon replied, with a half-knowing smile. “Does she need another pair?” she said, referring to Hanna’s tennis shoes.

“Actually,” Mrs. Shorenstein said, “I need something for work.”

“Oh. Really.” Shannon batted her eyes. “What kind of work?”

“Just a part time thing,” Hanna’s mother replied, “some secretarial stuff for an environmental group. Since Hanna started her first year at school I’ve got a little extra time. I used to work at Gleason and Soto. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Remember that big toxic spill case in two-thousand-three?”

“Sure,” Shannon said, without much conviction.

“Of course,” Hanna’s Mom explained, “that was before this little firecracker came along.”

They both looked at Hanna who, right on cue, jumped from the floor to a footrest like a bullfrog. “Ribbit. Ribbit,” she croaked.

Shannon turned to Mrs. Shorenstein. “So, you need something nice, but comfortable, right?”

“Exactly,” she said.

“What size?” Shannon asked, taking in her customer’s well-rounded figure, ankle length cotton skirt and white blouse.

Mrs. Shorenstein saw Shannon sizing her up and smiled knowingly, her brown, middle-aged eyes understanding more than Shannon could comprehend.

“Size seven,” replied Mrs. Shorenstein, lifting her skirt slightly. “I’ve got pretty big feet.”

Shannon anxiously led the way to the lady’s section of the small, but well stocked showroom. Hanna climbed on to one of the chrome chairs stuffed side by side and jumped from one to the other, as her mother looked through the available selection.

“These are nice,” Mrs. Shorenstein exclaimed, picking up a pair of black, paten-leathers, with one-inch heels and a thin buckle crossing its front. “Got any of these in my size?”

“I think so,” replied Shannon. “Let me check.” She took the box and started towards the back.

“Oh,” she heard Mrs. Shorenstein exclaim, “and these, if it’s not too much trouble?”

Shannon retraced her steps, graciously took the additional pair and made her way through the ponderous, blue velvet curtain that separated “Employees Only” from the public eye.

As she was searching for the size and styles Mrs. Shorenstein had requested, she heard the doorbell ring forth its proclamation that another customer had escaped the rain washed city streets.

Shannon stuck her head out the curtain and saw an elderly gentleman in a tweed suit looking at the men’s loafers. “I’ll be right with you Sir,” she said loudly. He smiled and nodded, as Shannon returned to her search for Mrs. Shorenstein work shoes. Just as she found the right style and size, she heard the urgent “Cling. Cling.” of the front door opening once again.

Without looking towards the newest entrant, she made haste to Mrs. Shorenstein, where Hanna was hiding under the chair, acting like she was appearing and disappearing.

“Here. Try these,” she said, “I’ll see if I can find the other pair in just a moment.” Without hesitating, she quickened her step to the preppie young woman in pigtails who had entered on the last ring.

“Hello,” Shannon said. “Let me know if I can help.” Not waiting for a reply, she politely excused herself and went in the back room to search for Mrs. Shorenstein’s other request.

“Where is Leti?” she wondered, as she looked frantically for the right shoes. “It must be ten-thirty by now!”

Leti was the store manager. Not much older than Shannon herself, at age twenty-six, Leti had quickly impressed Mr. Estrada’s eldest daughter, Josephina, who had reluctantly inherited the family legacy.

Josephina saw that Leti had the passion for selling and gladly relinquished the time and attention it took to keep the competitive trade going. Leti was rapidly promoted to store manager. With her infectious personality and clever marketing strategy to a younger, more diverse consumer, she had doubled sales and increased net profit by thirty percent.

As the manager for the last six months, Leti had made a point of hiring young women, like Shannon, who needed some job experience and something to believe in. She remembered what it was like to be young, insecure and scared to death of not being liked or accepted.

Shannon almost shouted when she found the exact size seven in the correct color and style. She yanked the box from the middle of the stack. The boxes further up the chain fell and spilled their contents on to the old wooden floor. Leaving them where they lay, barely restraining herself from running, Shannon sprinted through the curtains. MORE

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Lucy In The Sky

Excerpt from Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories.

LUCY IN THE SKY

The first gale of the season slammed inland from the frigid northwestern coast. It cut through her knotted muscles like a pickax breaking a block of ice. The howling wind attacked her defenseless anatomy with piercing needles of rain. There was no mercy. The cold didn’t care if she was animal, vegetable or mineral. It numbed her senses with fifty to sixty mile an hour gusts of furry; blowing her limber, toughened body two to three feet off the limb with each shot. If she hadn’t been watching the other branches submit to the storm’s passions and allowed her tiny ninety-eight pound figure to follow suit, she would have met a quick and lonely death. It was a sobering, hundred-foot fall from her precarious perch on high to the solid mass below.

Lucy had allowed the ancient redwood to keep her captive for six months. She saw no future in returning to earth’s sorry surface. Her short, twenty-six year old blond hair had turned white with constant exposure to the elements and the creases around her moss green eyes were etched deeply in her facial canvas. Her muscles felt like wet leather rope when she moved, slow as a koala, in the top third of the tree’s orbit. The numerous blisters on her hands and feet were covered with hardened calluses. The boils and scrapes on her face, neck and arms had left tiny blotches of fresh white skin where the scabs had completed their cycle and fallen with the trees flesh of decaying moss and bark.

She had first ascended the red giant in October, planning to stay for a few days, to protest government plans to cut down sections of her beloved, old-growth forest. When news of her action first hit the press she was barraged with admiration and contempt. Environmentalists thronged to her cause. Loggers and local mill-workers discounted her as a kook. Some came to hurtle insults, rocks and threats, but the distance and height gave her a cushion of immunity from both praise and defilement. What began as a single act of conscience had become a grueling marathon of determination, vigilance and stamina.

After the first weeks roar boiled down to a simmer and the journalists, ecologists and loggers went to fight other battles, Lucy remained embedded aloft in her swaying nest in the sky. Her good friend, Jenny, faithfully brought her essentials, including news and correspondence, three times a week. She bundled it all tightly in a large, green duffel bag, after replacing the empty containers Lucy let down by rope. Jenny wrote letters about her boyfriend, Zeek, and their latest breakup or fight. She told Lucy about recent rumors from Congress and various agreements to “protect” limit or sell “selective” acres for logging.

As the days began to shorten and weeks became months, Jenny pleaded with Lucy to reconsider her mission. “You’ve made your point,” she wrote. “Call it off. We need your help down here.”

The longer Lucy stayed, the more Jenny nagged. She didn’t mind the two-mile trek carrying in supplies week after week or the long absence of her room- mate. What had her worried and kept her awake at night were lingering images of Lucy’s face turning blue like frozen ice or finding her body splattered on the ground after a bone-breaking fall. She feared for her friend’s life, unable to understand that Lucy had never felt so alive. MORE
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