Old Ladies and Young Men – love – a different kind of valentine

A story for a stormy day. Here is a piece featuring the old woman, protagonists of my novel in progress, and their two young friends. This story may not appear in the novel, but these are four characters from the book. Love to hear any comments. Published in BLOOM 9 Fall 2013
Great place to submit http://bloomliteraryjournal.org/shop/

Sunflowers
“This the most boring hood in America.” Sixteen year old Ramon dribbles a basketball on the decaying driveway that belongs to the old ladies who live next door. He slips on a patch of ice on the mostly clear blacktop and rights himself. Ramon grins at his friend TJ as if not falling while he’s dribbling is an accomplishment that might get him a spot on the varsity team. When TJ doesn’t grin back, Ramon does his chicken dance. The boys’ adidas are wet from walking in the snow.
TJ wags his head. “Hood? This ain’t no hood. This is a Puerto Rican Dead End, ugly old white ladies in a falling down house on one end of the street, ugly young white ladies with ugly kids on the other end.” TJ steals the ball and shoots at the hoop on the side of the driveway. “You spend half your life playing basketball and you still suck, man.” TJ dunks the ball a second time. “Hoop ain’t even got a net. Fucking embarrassing. This street…” He snarls at the street. “ReeCans up and down the middle, gringas on both ends. We’re the filling in a white lady sandwich.”
“ReeCans? Talk normal. Say Puerto Rican. Nobody says ReeCans.”
“I just did.” TJ makes his ugly face and tosses Ramon the ball.
Ramon dribbles. TJ and Ramon are tight, but TJ’s got a lot of problems “at home” as the adjustment councilor with the big titties says to explain why he sometimes acts likes a dumb ass at school. She only sees him at school, when he goes to school. This morning TJ met Ramon at the bus stop, but TJ walked away when the bus arrived and Ramon followed. Mostly TJ is okay when it’s just him and Ramon. Usually TJ saves his mean streak for jocks. He likes messing with punk jocks, which means messing with whatever team the punk is on. Weird because TJ would be on the basketball team, he’s good enough, if his grades were better. Mostly, TJ goes after assholes who deserve it, but man there are a lot of assholes, you can get real messed up, waste your whole life going after assholes, especially assholes with teams to back them up.
Ramon wonders what he sees in TJ. Like right now, TJ’s getting all strung out because Ramon’s taking so long to shoot. One good thing about TJ, he likes to screw around, act a fool even, when he’s not at home or at school. Today should be an okay day for TJ. He and Ramon are shooting baskets in the neighbor ladies’ yard. Ramon’s grandmother will make them maizena if they go over to her place. TJ likes to eat it slow and tease Ramon’s grandmother about the two of them getting married and moving back to the island. But this morning TJ is acting like a ten inch prick.
Today TJ’s not going near Ramon’s grandmother or her maizena, if Ramon can help it.
“Well, you’re the only one who says ReeCan, Little Man.” Ramon is short and skinny. TJ is even shorter, but not as skinny as Ramon. And TJ is a lot stronger. “You getting your rag on, or what, TJ?” TJ’s arms are roped with muscle, his chest broad for his size. Even under the two hoodies he’s wearing anyone can see that TJ has a kick ass body. Both TJ’s hoods are off. The head of the serpent that inks its way from his shoulder to the back of his thick neck and right up into the shaved edge of his hairline is visible.
Ramon shakes his head. With all that going for him TJ is still sensitive about being short.
TJ stares at Ramon who just keeps shaking his head until TJ wails the ball at Ramon’s crotch. Finally, TJ smiles. His smile is butt- ugly today. Ramon turns sideways taking the blow on his hip. “Why are you doing me like this?” Ramon means to sound tough, but the hurt in his voice bleeds through. “Serious, what’s your problem? Why you fucking with my manhood?”
“What manhood?”
Ramon slams the ball at TJ’s chest. TJ catches it easily. Ramon turns, giving TJ the double finger as he walks away. When Ramon is all the way down the driveway TJ yells after him, “She’s dead,” like a threat or an insult, like it’s Ramon’s fault he doesn’t know what the fuck TJ is talking about. Like Ramon killed whoever it is died.
Ramon freezes and asks without turning around, “Who?” Not TJ’s mother. TJ wouldn’t be playing basketball if it was his mother or one of his sisters. His grandmother in San Sebastian, maybe?
“The butch one,” TJ says.
Ramon spins on his heels. “One of the old white ladies?” He nods at the house in front of them. “Jackie? We saw her yesterday.”
“She had a heart attack.” TJ squeezes the wet ball between his chapped hands. He looks like he might go for Ramon’s crotch again, but puts the ball down on the driveway and sits on it.
Ramon walks back up the drive and crouches next to TJ. “We helped them tie that dead Christmas tree to the roof of their car yesterday.” Ramon lives closer to the old ladies than TJ does. He can see them coming and going out their front door from his bedroom window. He points to their car which is parked at the curb.
“She died after we saw her, dumbass.”
Ramon frowns. “That old lady is flat on her back, with the TV on, snoring like a beached whale.” Ramon points his chin to the side of the house. “Right there in that window.”
“Papi says she’s dead.”
“Your papi never says shit about anything.” Ramon pulls the sides of his unzipped parka together and thinks about TJ’s father. It’s true, TJ’s papi has next to nothing to say. When he bothers to talk, he says what needs to be said, bare minimum. The man could not be bothered to open his mouth to tell a lie. Ramon nods and says, “Shit. Only one white lady now.”
“What have I been telling you?” TJ’s eyes dart around. Ramon knows it’s because he wants to run, but TJ is hanging on. Only his eyes are running. For now.
Ramon feels like crying, but TJ might get crazy for real if he does that. TJ loves that old lady. That’s the truth. TJ spends a lot of time inside the old ladies’ house when his father isn’t home and his sisters go at it. He slept on the old ladies’ couch just last week. TJ’s the baby of the family and the only boy. Maybe that’s why TJ gets crazy; all those women making all that noise, his papi gone half the time making money somehow, somewhere, barely saying a word when he’s home.
The boys squat. TJ’s ears are turning red. Ramon starts to tell him to pull up his hoodies, thinks better of it. Pulls the hood of his own parka up instead. Come to think of it the old lady, the dead one, is quiet like TJ’s papi. The live one talks enough for them both. The dead one, Ramon wants to laugh, one of those horror movie laughs, the dead one will talk less than TJ’s papi now. Jackie, her name is Jackie. The other one’s name is Regina. Seems to Ramon, someone dies, you call them by their name. Someone’s wife dies…Ramon can’t finish the thought without barking out a laugh. The old ladies got married. What’s he supposed to think about that?
TJ doesn’t even flinch when Ramon laughs.
Ramon studies TJ while TJ studies a crack in the driveway. Ramon knows exactly how many nights TJ spends on the old ladies’ couch. The whole neighborhood knows who sleeps where. They know that TJ’s father slept in a third floor apartment with TJ’s mother’s ex best friend one time. They know Ramon’s father kicked Ramon’s brother Oscar out of the house for smoking marijuana in front of their little sister Evone and now Oscar lives with their grandmother and gets to eat her maizena every morning. Everybody knows every damn thing. But Ramon keeps his mouth shut about TJ staying with the old white ladies. Sometimes the only privacy you get is not having to talk about your own personal business.
“Only ever was one lady in that house,” TJ finally says. He sounds like somebody else. Someone in a trance who might cry without having to punch out the person he cried in front of. His voice is soft, like when they walk in the woods behind the strip mall.
Ramon knows what TJ is saying. Jackie was barely female, buzz cut, men’s pants, work boots, on an old lady. A really old lady. “What’s going to happen to her, the pretty one?”
“Pretty?” TJ is back to being a dick. “She’s poor. She’s old. She’s white. She’s a dyke. Pick any two and it don’t add up to pretty.”
“You got a white girlfriend,” Ramon says. “She ain’t old,” he concedes. Reconsiders. “But she’s poor.” He runs a finger along the crack in the blacktop wondering how TJ, with his shit for personality, got a pretty girlfriend. Must be his body. He wonders what the girlfriend lets TJ do. “This is why you’ve been ugly all morning?”
“How am I supposed to know what’s going to happen to the pretty one?” TJ looks like he might spit on Ramon. Not that he would. Probably not. He spit on Ramon’s sneaker one time. TJ’s shoulder starts twitching like it does when he’s trying not to hit someone or trying not to cry. Ramon has seen him cry, but not since TJ’s favorite cousin got killed by a hit and run and even then TJ crying meant TJ crazy after he stopped crying. Ramon can see the shoulder moving right through the layers of hoodies. He pretends he doesn’t see TJ’s arm spazzing.
TJ jumps up. “Let’s go see.”
“See what?”
“If she’s in there, sitting on her chair like a beached whale, like you said. Maybe Papi got it wrong. People on this street.” TJ’s voice lifts with the thought of how wrong people on this street can be. “You see an ambulance? You hear sirens?” TJ’s excited like he hit on the essential point that’s going to save the old butch white lady from being dead. Like his papi, maybe this one time, carried a rumor without checking it out, without making sure it was true before it came out his mouth.
“Sirens every night.” Ramon thinks a minute. Maybe TJ has a point. “You hear them, same as me, but never on this street, hardly ever.” He stops, yeah, maybe TJ is right. “No ambulance next door, not last night.”
TJ sprints around to the side of the house, stops dead in his tracks, stands with his back against the faded clapboard a few feet from the window. Ramon stands shoulder to shoulder with TJ. If she’s not dead, Jackie should be sleeping on the ratty chair inside the house at this time of the morning, not five feet from the window.
“Look inside,” TJ hisses. He crouches and hugs his knees, his butt against the house. Ramon would tell him that the mold on the clapboard is going to rub off on to his jeans, but TJ would be disgusted if he knew Ramon even thinks about this stupid shit.
“You look inside.” He slides down next to TJ. “She was your girlfriend.” Ramon winces at his own remark. He didn’t mean to say was, didn’t mean to disrespect the dead, not with TJ looking so messed up, his arm twitching, his chest heaving like he ran a mile. Ramon is afraid of looking and finding an empty chair, too. “TV ain’t on.”
“How do you know?” TJ stands up. “The window is closed. How do you know the TV ain’t on?” TJ’s voice is a loud squeak.
Ramon shakes his head. “She likes the TV on loud, man.” TJ knows this. They’ve spent enough time slumped against the side of this house by this window to know you can tell if the TV is in on or not even with the window closed. Even on a cold day they can catch the score of a Patriot’s game by listening near the window. “Let’s get out of here. Your girlfriend is dead.” This time Ramon says girlfriend and dead on purpose. He figures if he can piss TJ off by repeating the shit about Jackie being TJ’s dead girlfriend TJ will go just a little crazy and they can fight instead of looking in the damn window, not seeing Jackie sitting on the chair, and having TJ go full blown crazy.
“Shut up fool.” TJ punches Ramon in the biceps but there’s no muscle behind the hit. He stops breathing and listens hard.
There is noise coming through the screen window. Not snoring, not the TV. Whimpering. Ramon leans forward on the tips of his sneakers so his stick-out Obama ears can catch the sound. “Jackie,” he whispers.
TJ shakes his head. “Regina.” TJ, on his feet, squints through the window. His hand shades his eyes from the glare that bounces from the snow to the glass.
Ramon stands behind TJ, puts a hand on his shoulder. They stare in at Regina.
Regina, who handed them cookies like they were little kids, just yesterday or maybe the day before. She’s sitting on Jackie’s chair. They see her in side view. Between the screen and the fact that there is no light on in the room, the boys can’t see her very well. They can tell it’s her though. She’s on the edge of the seat, staring straight ahead, an old lady zombie making a sound that’s getting louder or maybe just sounds louder because the boys are listening so hard. She’s so close that if the window was open and they leaned way in they could touch her.
The pane barely rattles as TJ puts a hand flat against the window, but Regina cocks her head responding to the sound.
They watch Regina’s slow-mo move as her head swivels in their direction. They watch her frown as she fights with the sash to unlock and raise the window. They watch her close her eyes and bite her lip as she manages to move the stuck screen. Ramon wants to yell, “Never mind the fucking screen.” Something is happening in his chest, like somebody shoved a fist in and is squeezing his lungs, maybe his heart. It hurts bad.
When the screen is finally up the old lady says, “Oh, TJ. Oh, Ramon.”
TJ and Regina stare at each other. TJ’s mouth is open. It makes him look stupid. Ramon feels like he’s doing something bad, watching the old lady’s sad face and TJ’s open mouth. Regina looks older by the second. TJ’s hoodie gets wet in the front. Ramon wonders if TJ knows he’s crying. He wants to run, but he can’t leave TJ.
“Remember the time Jackie caught you peeing on the rhododendron in the back yard?” Regina says. “And that bouquet of sunflowers you picked for her. She still has those, on a vase on our dresser, all dried up.” She smiles, a far-off looking smile that scares Ramon. “Ten years of dust, all the seeds fell out a long time ago.” She sighs. “I tossed them in the trash, but she pulled them out.”
Ramon takes a step back. Shut up about the fucking dead sunflowers, he wants to yell, TJ doesn’t know the difference between a rhododendron and an oak tree.
“You were about six years old,” Regina says, almost happy. “So cute.”
TJ nods and his fists curl. Ramon wonders if TJ remembers it was him, Ramon, and not TJ who got caught pissing on the rhododendron. Ramon can’t remember if it was him or TJ who gave Jackie the sunflowers. TJ’s fists clench and uncurl. He is fighting his hands so they won’t try to put themselves through something.
Ramon stares at Regina wondering if she’ll have to move. Where’s TJ going to go when he can’t hack it at home if she moves? He can’t stay with Ramon. Ramon’s father doesn’t understand that some people live in places they have to get out of once in a while.
Regina leans closer and puts her fingertips on TJ’s cheek. The pain in Ramon’s chest pokes at him. He sees Regina’s face clearly, her hair uncombed, the wrinkles deep. “She loved you. She would never say it, wouldn’t want to embarrass you or herself, but I will.” Regina’s lips are dry. She usually has pink lips and cheeks. Her face is all the same grey today. Her voice sounds younger than usual, a girl’s voice coming out of an old lady.
Ramon tries to breathe the knotted fist out of his chest. The old butch one is dead. He has known people who died, young people. He held a baby once, a little girl who lived right down the street, held her while her mother picked up the shit that fell out of her purse. A few weeks later that baby died. Ramon kind of liked holding her. She smelled good, but he didn’t panic when that baby died. His cousin died. Ramon tries to calm himself by thinking of all the people he knows who died and all the times he didn’t panic. He sucks in a big breath and holds it, a trick his father taught him. If Ramon doesn’t stay cool he can’t help TJ stay cool. Old people, Ramon reminds himself, that’s what they do, they die. But Jackie, somehow he thought Jackie would wait until TJ got better. Who’s going to help Ramon help TJ get better now? He holds his jaw to stop his chin from shaking. Ramon closes his eyes, hoping TJ and Regina keep staring at each other for a minute so he can think of something to do to get them all out this, some way to get the pain out of his chest, but all he can think about is their future. His and TJ’s.
Ramon has been holding back visions of their future for a long time. They’re only sixteen so, if neither of them dies young, there’s a lot of future pressing hard, breaking through his thoughts at the wrong times. He sees them, him and TJ next week or next month, maybe tomorrow or later this afternoon, after TJ stops falling apart and comes back together, and he will, TJ will fall apart and he will come back together, maybe crazier than before, but he will come back, he always does. Ramon tries, but he can’t hold back his worst thought – TJ losing the fight to keep his fists down, going after whoever is closest. That’s what Ramon is most afraid of – TJ not able to keep his fists at his sides until he finds a punk who deserves them. TJ wailing on whoever is closest.
Ramon wonders when his mom and the rest of the neighbor ladies will come with rice and beans and cake and mass cards. The old dykes have lived here since before the boys were born. The neighbor ladies will turn out for them.
He realizes his mom doesn’t know yet, none of the ladies know. TJ’s papi wanted TJ to know first. So TJ could pay his respects before everyone else got there. He tugs on TJ’s hoodie. TJ shakes him off. “Say sorry, say sorry to Regina.” Ramon can’t remember using her name before and he says it like a punk now, in a high nervous voice. “Then we gotta go TJ. Sorry for your loss.” Ramon wishes he didn’t have to look at Regina when he says this. If Jackie was TJ’s old lady girlfriend, Regina is Ramon’s. “I’m sorry. Real sorry. We gotta go.” He grabs a piece of TJ’s arm when he yanks at the hoodie this time.
“Get off me,” TJ growls.
“She loved you too, Ramon.” Regina is wearing some kind of a nightgown that she forgot to tie at the neck. The pepperoni skin on her upper chest shows. Ramon cries, not hard, he thinks he can stop. “But TJ…” She puts a spotty hand over her heart.
TJ grips the window sill, turns on his heels and runs.
Ramon follows him. He’s never been as fast or as strong as TJ, but Ramon catches up and tackles him on the front lawn. They roll over each other, bodies slamming together, hanging on like they’ll drown if either one of them lets go. Then there’s the moment that both boys long for and dread, when their eyes meet, when the rage and fear hang in the air and everything stops.
“TJ. I don’t want to fight you. I don’t want you to hurt…” Ramon voice is too tender for either boy to bear, “anybody.”
“Get off me,” TJ shrieks. The boys are on their knees. Ramon locks his arms around TJ’s chest. TJ struggles, but he’s fighting against too much, he collapses, an old trick to make Ramon put down his guard for a second while TJ rallies then busts out of the hold Ramon has on him. But Ramon knows this trick and before it happens, Ramon puts his head on TJ’s shoulder and kisses TJ neck softly, right there on the frozen lawn next door to Ramon’s house, right there in the neighborhood, not out in the fringe of woods a mile from here, where no one has ever found them, or only the one close call when TJ waved around a comb that the other boys thought was a blade, making the punks scatter and TJ laugh like a maniac.
Ramon knows kissing TJ’s neck is wrong, the wrong thing to do in the old ladies’ yard with the butch one dead and the almost pretty one crying in her too big nightgown. Everything is wrong. Ramon pulls his lips away, holds TJ just tight enough so he won’t slip to the ground, taking what he can get, one last time he thinks, but then he thinks one last time every time he kisses TJ. Ramon holds on and waits for TJ to bust out and start swinging. They both wait for TJ to explode. For a long moment TJ stays limp and spent in Ramon’s arms.
TJ doesn’t burst out. Ramon stops holding him and says, “Sit up, man.” Ramon puts his arm over TJ’s shoulder, like Ramon’s father does to Ramon once in a while. “Fuck all of this, TJ.” He means fuck one old white lady being dead and the other one looking tired as death and talking in a little girl voice. He means fuck TJ going to see his pretty white girlfriend after he and TJ have sex behind a tree near the strip mall. He means fuck TJ being crazy. “Jackie’s dead. I’m here, man, but I’m done with crazy.” He knows it’s the wrong thing to say to calm TJ. He knows it is exactly the wrong time to say it. He knows he and TJ will both die some day and if he doesn’t say it now he never will. “Done babysitting.” Ramon wipes the tears off his face with the sleeve of his parka. “Done fighting you, TJ.”
TJ’s broad back and shoulders stiffen. “What about fucking me? You done with that, too?”
Ramon takes his arm away. The question hangs there. Ramon pulls his head back. The boys stare each other down. They have never talked about what they do in the woods. Ramon thought TJ put it out of his mind as soon as it was over. He thinks what they do in the trees behind the strip mall is part of why TJ is crazy, but it can’t be all of why TJ is crazy, because he was crazy enough before they started going to the mall.
“If I have to be,” Ramon says.
TJ wipes the tears and snot on his hoodie. “I got your back too.” His voice is close to calm.
Ramon nods, almost smiles because he’s not sure if TJ means in the neighborhood and at school or in the woods when he lets Ramon cry on his shoulder without giving him shit about it.
“We should do something,” Ramon says. “Flowers or some shit like that for Jackie. She liked those big yellow ones. The ones that grow by their back fence.”
“Fucking sunflowers,” TJ says. “Why you pretending you don’t know they’re called sunflowers.”
END

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American Beauty

 

Yikes. Word Press just informed me that I have 846 followers. Thanks to those of you who have hung in there with me in the absence of any word from me since June. I will try to be a more reliable with my posts – starting today. 

Here is a poem that appeared in the most recent issue of Wilde Magazine. Not my usual subject matter or style. Poets note- Wilde Magazine is accepting submissions and seems to like “edgy” – if I can ever really call my writing edgy.

American Beauty

She’s a stripper who tends

her roses, thorn and petal.

Common pinks, late-blooming

yellows, black beauties, finicky whites.

Red, she loves.

Wears it on her lips and

fingertips to please herself

and sophisticated men.

Men who feign disinterest

at the uptown club

where she struts her stuff.

Out walking tonight,

in red hot jeans,

she stops to admire

her reflection in a shop

window. Praises herself

lovely. Freshens her lipstick.

Moves on.

A man watches.

She’s seen him around.

A quiet guy, even tonight

when he grabs her arm,

tongue against her teeth,

pelvis on her thigh,

right there on the street.

She bites hard.

His tongue bleeds.

Painted nails dig deep.

Red runs down his cheek.

For a moment

he can’t see.

She’s four blocks gone

when he finds his voice

and screams “cock-tease! ”

There’s blood on the thigh

of her jeans.

The colors are close—

hardly a mark

once the fabric dries.

She wonders if the stain

will set. Buys an appliqué

in the Chinese market.

Satin roses, red of course,

and a needle,

curved to pierce the fabric

but not the skin.

http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/682246 

 

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Gleaning nuts- a prose poem about aging

Can you glean nuts? Sure, says me. And I wrote a prose poem to illustrate.
I am reading at Whately Congressional Church on Monday, June 24th at 7pm – 177 Chestnut Plain Road. Probably will not read the following. So here ’tis.
Aging
When there’s nothing left in the garden but garlic, parsnip, and tomatoes that may or may not withstand the predicted light frost, I compete with squirrels for grounded butternuts. The flesh around the woody shell is green and fuzzy. My fingers are tarry with the handling. In a month, left in our dry cellar, with luck, the fuzzy flesh will become brittle husks, but the meat inside will remain moist and fit to be eaten. The shell is similar to a walnut, but thicker and harder. By November if the nuts don’t rot, the mice don’t find them, and if there is no snow, I will take a hammer to the shell, on the sidewalk, like I did as a kid. Maybe one in ten will be “just right” with a toasty flavor. To most palates the butternut is not as pleasant as the walnut, its better known cousin. Nine in ten will be either “under” with an astringent taste or “over” with a slightly rotten dirty taste. Nine in ten will either never reach my mouth or get spit in the yellowing grass. But the meat of that one in ten will be the perfect combination of oily texture and slightly bitter taste that make the foraging worthwhile. The best part is tossing the shells in a bucket, the satisfying lonely thump in the ear that only a child, or an adult remembering the smug secrets of that child exiled to the side yard for bad behavior, competing with squirrels for grounded butternuts, ever gets to hear.

“Aging,” Spilling Ink, Arts Unbound, England, Whales, Amy Burnes editor, Issue 5, June 2011

http://spillinginkreview.com/issue-5/prose-poetry/sally-bellerose

“Aging,” Spilling Ink 2006-2011, Unbound Press, England, Whales, Amy Burnes, editor, 2011.

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A Call for Flash Fiction

Like my favorite songs, great flash fiction hits me in the gut and lingers in my mind. As in the best ballads, flash fiction gets to the essence of the story, reveals plot, conflict, character and resolution with brevity and eloquence. My most beloved lyrics and short stories are just ambiguous enough to invite me, as a listener or reader, to read between the lines. I love a story with a strong beginning, middle, and end, but enough breathing room to make the “hinted at” narrative unique to my own interpretation.
Unlike a good song, flash fiction delivers the elegance of poetry and the elements of fiction without the aid of redundant stanzas or repeated lyrics. A good story makes the words sing without the aid of a melody or back-up instruments.
I love the challenge of telling a story in vivid, tight prose. I hope to learn more about creating economical and intimate plot while incorporating the emotionality of music and poetry and the elements of great fiction.
I received a call for submissions for flash fiction – under 750 words. The info about submitting to this anthology from WW Norton appears at the end of the following piece, one of three short-shorts that I submitted. The editors prefer previously published work. How often does a writer see that request?

Gravy word count 487
No religion, no politics, no sex at the supper table. Mother does the cooking. Mother makes the rules.
My father invites me and my lover to dinner. Last time we ate dinner at my parents house my father implied that my lover was not a lesbian because of the way she devoured a drumstick. I’m a vegetarian. My father believes that all lesbians are vegetarians. My lover was invited tonight. She declined.
My mother cooks a stew, calls it vegetarian stew even though it has two inch chunks of beef in it. I eat my mothers’ stew even though I call myself a vegetarian. My mother assures me that the meat she buys is so lean that there’s not a chance in hell that one fat globule could melt into the gravy. I don’t tell her it’s blood, not fat, that alarms me. She picks out the meat with plastic pickle tongs that she got free at a Tupperware party, before passing me a plateful. She discards my meat on my fathers’ plate.
“Who ever heard of broccoli in stew?” My father says, picking out the little green trees and piling them on my plate. I eat the top off a tiny one, after smelling it. I want to ask my parents if they think the broccoli smells like meat, but I’m afraid that might lead to breaking Mother’s rules.
I get pumpernickel bread out of the freezer and nuke it in the microwave for thirty seconds so we can sop up the nonfat gravy. When I sit back down my mother is trading green beans for pearl onions with my father.
“Anybody want to trade gravy?” I ask.
My father says, “No thank you I don’t eat vegetarian gravy.”
“This isn’t vegetarian gravy, it’s brown,” I say.
“Alright, I don’t eat a vegetarians’ gravy,” my father says.
Mother says, “Vegetarian gravy can be brown. You just add a little Worstershire and a little Gravymaster.”
Father takes a spoonful of gravy from my bowl, tastes it, shakes his head, says, “No protein. You got unnatural gravy.”
I take the spoon out of his hand and have a taste of his gravy. “Hormones,” I say,
“Antibiotics. Pesticides.”
We must be talking about religion, politics, or sex , because Mother is pissed. She gives us both a disgusted look and takes her plate in to the den.
I follow her. “Ma, do you like the smell of broccoli?” I ask, contrite, by way of polite conversation.
“Ask me after I finish my meal,” she says.
Father comes in with a second plate of meat- laden stew.
Mother gives us both a warning glance. “Put on ‘Wheel of Fortune,” she says.
Father and I sit on the couch, on opposite sides of Mother. We finish our stew and watch Vana turn letters. We behave during ‘Wheel of Fortune’. Jeopardy is a different story, but the meal is over by then.

International flash anthology: We’re looking for stories under 750 words for Flash Fiction International, due from distinguished publisher W.W. Norton in 2014.
We generally prefer recent, previously published work (recent=within the last ten years or so), but we will also consider unpublished submissions. The stories must be in English, originally or in translation. Limit of 3 stories.
Editors for the Norton Sudden and Flash Fiction book series, James
Thomas and Robert Shapard, are joined by Chris Merrill, director of the U of Iowa International Writing Program.
We would be grateful for any leads to authors we should read, besides yourself. Also, please let us know if you know any good, brief quotes that can be related to very short fiction (for example, Friedrich Nietzsche said, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”)
Send submissions by email attachment to james45387ATyahooDOTcom, or send print copy to James Thomas, 99 W. 3rd St. #5, Xenia, OH, U.S.A. 45385. Deadline is August 15.

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In life and in writing it is brave to move away from known places and places where you are known. I also think it is brave to stay.

What follows is a short opening statement I was asked to prepare for a panel titled
“Singular Women, Singular Worlds.” I never made it to Saints and Sinners Literary Conference in New Orleans due to thunderstorms and tornadoes and missing pilots. The panel included Jill Malone, Judith Katz, and Elana Dykewomon – more’s the pity, I didn’t get to hear what they had to say.
What follows is my opening statement.
How I create the worlds of my stories is directly related to the world that created me.
My siblings and I were raised in Chicopee a small town in Western MA. My parents were raised in Chicopee. My son Brian was raised in Chicopee. My first book is set in the town and is loosely based on the broad facts of my early life- Catholicism, illness, squabbling sisters, drugs, sex, family. Some of the characters and events in the novel started out as barely disguised people and incidents from my life but morphed into fiction as I wrote and rewrote draft after draft.
My new novel-in –progress, Fishwives, is also set in a small New England town. I suppose this makes me a regional writer.
I learned how to write by writing and failing to tell the story I was trying to tell, writing more, failing more, trying to fail less with every draft until the characters and story took on a life of their own. But my first book, and every story I write, whatever the setting or theme or characters, is always written with the sensibilities of a small town working class lesbian with a messy illness, a girl with a chip on her shoulder, a woman who made a twenty mile trek to Northampton, MA to become middle-class, because that is who I am.
For me, writing is all about the specifics of discovery. And discovery is about asking questions. For example, in that first book, The Girls Club, there is a scene in a high school girls’ room where the main character Cora Rose is seated on the toilet in a stall and spit on by a girl standing on the toilet seat in the next stall. When I was in high school some nasty girls spit on me in the girls room, so yes I was, to a point, writing what I knew, writing a scene that had actually occurred, but as I wrote the scene the facts and the characters changed. Initially, in this scene stolen from life, it was the main character alone with 4 girls spitting on her. In the novel, over time, 4 girls became one because it was better for the story to conflate them, to sketch one girl and present her more fully, easier to show her vulnerabilities if she was alone, so the writer and reader could see something in her besides spit and meanness.
In life things often happen quickly – then we move on to the next thing. There’s no slo-motion – You get spit on, the bell rings, you wipe it off and go to the next class. In writing you can slow down, if not the scene itself, what you discover in the scene, you can question every action, every motive, every emotional reaction.
As a small town writer, I attempt to examine where I am – try to go deep if not wide. As a girl with a chip on my shoulder questions of place often push my class buttons. In life and in writing, I think it is brave to move away from known places – or to look at it from another perspective, places where you are known. I also think it is brave to stay.
My next novel is about old lesbians behaving badly. Not a stretch for me. The setting is small town MA. The characters are working class, becoming poorer as they grow older. I’ll try to ask them hard questions. I am very interested in powerful old people. These characters are opinionated. They are poor, but not powerless or cute or sexless. One of them has a frayed corset. I have lots of questions about that. I have lots of questions about how they polish the chips on their shoulders – how they keep their humanity and power intact. I have lots of questions about how they stay so close to home and remain radical as they age. Of course these questions will change, and, I hope, get better as I fail and try again to answer them.
PS The irony of being the panalist who did not make it out of the airport does not escape me.

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It’s good to cry in your mother’s arms – or the arms of anyone who loves you

100_4258Ballast
Mom is no malingerer, but after Dad died she had a hard time getting up in the morning. She had gotten used to sleeping the hours Dad slept and couldn’t get back in the rhythm of staying awake during the day and sleeping through the night. She often fell asleep in the wee hours and slept through the morning. She asked me to call to wake her when I woke, no time too early. So I have spoken to Mom almost every day between 6 and 8 AM for the last eighteen months, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for more than an hour.
This morning in the middle of a meandering conversation I told Mom that her three year old great granddaughter Kennedy had been upset at bedtime the previous night and had cried herself to sleep in her mother’s arms. Mom was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. We decided that our beloved girl had just had a bad night. Then we spoke for an hour about the old man on Mom’s bowling team who wants to take her to Florida for a month, and about income taxes, which she hasn’t had to pay for fifteen years because she’s old and poor.
At 9 AM I said, “Talk to you later, Mom. I’m off to writing group.”
“You know your Pepere Curley was a drunk,” she answered.
Her statement was not news, but a lure, a tug on a line of a good story. I said nothing.
“I was her age, a little older,” Mom said and I knew she was referring to Kennedy. “My aunt picked me up to take me back to Lil’s house.” Lil was her cousin, now twenty years dead. “Not in a car, of course, in a wagon, must have been Uncle Joe’s wagon, an old wooden work wagon, open to the air, with sides short enough for a little girl to peek over. It was an over-night visit. They were always trading off kids. Maybe my brother was there, too. We were clopping along and we saw my father staggering down the street. He was carrying a sack under each arm because he said the sacks held him steady when he was drunk.”
Ballasts, I thought, but said, “Ah ha.”
“He never tried to hide his drinking. He was walking towards us tipsy as all get-out. We all saw him and no one said a thing. It wasn’t like today. We were moving slow. The horse was a work horse, a plodder, and the road was dirt. There were cars, but not many on a side street in that part of town. I was worried that my father would fall in that dusty road and no one would help him up, that no one else would come along, or that someone would come along and drive right over him. When it rained, there was quite a gully on the side of that street. I waited and watched him and knew he must have seen us, but he hung his head and said nothing and no one in the wagon said anything either. We just kept clopping toward him and he just kept weaving toward us. I didn’t cry right then, because I figured that might have made him more tipsy, but I turned around as we passed and watched him and the sacks under his arms with my chin resting on the side of the wagon. All these years and I remember my chin bouncing against the wood slat as the wagon bounced along the road. The horse’s feet kicked up little cloud of dust that blurred my view and stung my eyes and I lost sight of my father completely so I stood up to see and no one made me sit down, even though standing wasn’t allowed when the wagon was moving. When my father was almost out of sight, my aunt snapped the reins and said, “Sit.” I got on my hands and knees and crawled to the back of the wagon to watch but all I could see was a speck that I thought might be my father. When we turned into Lil’s I was mad because no one had said hello to my father. I fussed about getting out of the wagon. I thought my father was brave to keep walking down the road carrying those sacks, getting smaller and smaller, when no one in the wagon even waved hello. That night I was alright at supper. She was a good cook, my aunt. But she put me and Lil in the same bed and I cried all night. In the morning Lil told her mother. My aunt took me home and I finally got to cry in my mother’s arms.”
“Wow, Mom.”
“It’s good to cry in your mother’s arms,” she said.

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Happy (Belated) Poetry Month

Whee – just found out my poem (below) has been up at Sam’s Pizza on Main Street in my home town of Northampton MA since the beginning of April – as part of National Poetry week – which in Northampton extends well into May. Happy belated poetry month to all. Thanks to our Poet Laureate Rich Michaelson for including my work in this project. He arranged for dozens of poems to be posted in 30 or more restaurants all over the city. A lovely idea.

Work Break Morning Shift

Hands turning off an engine
fingers slipping out of work gloves
boots stepping from a dump truck
dew dampening the morning

Face soft with sleeping
robe loosely tied and yawning
whispering in the dim light
offering toast and coffee

Crows gathering in the front yard
pecking rows of green beans
strutting blue/black cawing
rhythm old as waking
seaming night to day

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