Weekly Writing Challenge: Fifty (Neutral Milk Hotel Edition)

The house lights dimmed. A slight shift to her right, and his body heat invaded her space. Her breath snagged. The first song rolled towards them, chords rumbling over her heart. He swayed in time; she let herself follow suit. She sneaked a glance, to find him gazing back, smiling.

(In response to this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge.)

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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The Badge

We wear our Katrina stories like badges of honor. The rest of the world has moved on, and to the unskilled eye, it probably appears that most of us have, too. But no matter how successful we appear, we’re forever scarred. Fear hovers just below the surface, waiting to rear its ugly head at the least opportune times. Our lives were shattered, pieced back together, then put into this weird holding pattern that sometimes seems like it will never end.

We persist. What more is there? You’ve got to rebuild your house, find new clothes, start paying off bills, find a man, find a woman, find yourself. But at the end of the day, you’re still sitting in your motel room, jaw clenched, tears queuing at the corners of your eyes, watching that wall of water roll over everything you love. Your band will never play again. But how could it, when your heart hurts too much to sing?

Years later, and still we can’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop. Sure, we’ve got jobs, homes, friends. But that lost time just seems to stretch out before us. We’re getting older. We wander. We’ve made new families out of those who hear our stories, our fear reflecting back in their own dilated pupils.

We compensate. We rehash the funny bits of our evacuation stories, check and recheck mental lists of all our long-lost possessions, and cry into our whiskies every now and then, late at night, bathed in shadows at the end of the bar. Somewhere, Aretha still sings “Ain’t No Way” on the Banks Street jukebox. Our souls leak over our shoes. We tell our tales – sometimes stripped down, others embellished – to our drinking buddies over and over again. Talking makes it easier, but it doesn’t make it go away. Drinking only makes our skin thinner, brings the fear bubbling up.

On nights when our hearts beat faster, when the pain needles (or knives), when it seems stupid to keep going, our friends hold us. We tell our stories. We listen to theirs, all the while letting the two versions mingle and overlap. We try not to cry for lost time. We tell ourselves that this time, this is the time that makes all the difference. We vow to keep putting one foot ahead of the other. We stretch out our hands and make a human bridge, then wade into the world, blinded by fear and sorrow, waiting for love to soothe this grand lostness.

Then we laugh it off. We polish off our drinks, then polish up our badges with a wry smile. Wasn’t my story more dramatic than yours? You didn’t even have it that bad – at least you had your family. I have a friend who saw a dead baby floating out there, all alone.

No one bothers to mention that we’re all still floating. We’re all face-down and blue. What’s the use in stating the obvious?

The Last Conversation With My Grandfather

Granddaddy and my cousin, Crystal. I took this photo when I was around 12 or so, with a new 35mm camera that he'd just bought me. His love of taking photos was the beginning of me taking snapshots of anything and everything in my life.

Granddaddy and my cousin, Crystal. I took this photo when I was around 12 or so, with a new 35mm camera that he’d just bought me. His love of taking photos was the beginning of me taking snapshots of anything and everything in my life.

I remember the last time I talked with my Granddaddy. He had gone into the hospital a few days prior, something my father explained to me as being “just a precaution.” My father’s father had emphysema, and was also going blind from macular degeneration.

Funny that this would be the case, because my memory of the moment is from the point of view of someone who is going blind, herself. I see the crisp, white hospital room, the gangly teenager, the frail old man, all through a mist, like a cataract clouding my mind.

I walked over to the hospital from my family’s upholstery shop after school one afternoon. My high school was 15 minutes’ drive from the town, so I’d driven in and parked the car in front of the shop, checked in with my father and dropped off my bookbag, then walked the couple of blocks over to Pungo District Hospital to keep Granddaddy company. I thought he must have been bored there, waiting for tests, taking a break to rest, whatever it is that people check into hospitals to do when they’re just a little too sick to stay home in bed. I had no concept of “sick.” I’d never missed a day of school, broken a bone, or been seriously injured. No one around me had ever been sick, other than Granddaddy, but he just seemed in need of a tune up, really.

His room was private, and in a wing of the hospital that I’d never visited. It seemed pretty swanky, and at first the gloss and shine of the facility overpowered how odd it was to see him stretched out in bed in a hospital gown. When I walked in, he didn’t know it was me automatically. There was a bit of fear in his expression as he called “Who is it?” but I quickly introduced myself and saw the sweet smile I had expected brighten up his face. He sat up in bed and arranged himself proudly. This was a man who, just three months before, had driven me across town on the Fourth of July when my glasses broke and I couldn’t see to drive. Even in July, his eyesight had probably been worse than mine, but this aspect of the blindness seemed new, like he’d lost another layer of sight here in this unfamiliar place. I was shocked, but tried to keep my voice light and my face neutral, just in case.

We talked about nothing, really. What were my college choices, what was happening in school, was I dating anyone, all of the little things a high school senior knows to talk about with her favorite grandparent. I asked if he was feeling well, and he told me that it was just a few tests, and he’d be out in no time. I took it at face value, and we continued to make small talk for a while longer. Eventually, though, it was time to let him get his rest. But first, a hug. He gave the best hugs.

Granddaddy swung his legs out from under the covers. He was wearing gold toe socks, those soft cotton blend socks that my Nana washed with more care than any piece of her own lingerie. When I was a little girl, I’d sit with her while she repaired the heels and watched late night TV, the two of us drinking endless cups of coffee (mine with enough cream and sugar to kill a horse). Other times, she’d enlist me in making fun of him for wearing a pair where a toe or two would poke out. Complex relationships, seen from the eyes of the most devoted of young fans. Those socks were as much a part of him as the ugly ceramic dog face that held his glasses, the ever-present toothpick gracing the corner of his clever smile, or the cameras – always a camera in hand, always a smile or a pose expected. I was always happy to provide one.

That was probably why I was able to hold my composure so well when I saw his legs. White and withered, with large veins and the knobbiest knees. They were just the legs of an old man, but there was more to it, somehow. My bold, bigger-than-life grandfather had shrunken. I gave him a hug, and we exchanged words of love. I told him I’d come back to see him soon, and he said he’d be out in the next day or two. He was always such a smooth talker.

I held it together for a few seconds after I left his room. My uncle’s ex-wife was a nurse in the hospital, and though we weren’t on speaking terms, when she met me outside of his room and pulled me into an embrace, I didn’t fight it. The first sob was a primal thing, from depths I didn’t know existed. It felt like a black hole had opened up just under my heart, and was simultaneously sucking me into it and spitting out anguish and dismay.

No one ever came out and told me that my Granddaddy, the light of my life, was dying. Not even he did. It was his knees that shared the secret.

Shortly after, the family was informed that he had an advanced form of cancer, and had six months to live. He never left the hospital. He died two weeks later, the morning of my senior year Homecoming Game. We were together twice more before he passed away, but this is the memory that sticks with me. The next two visits were full of pain, Morphine, no smiles, no hugs, just fear and sadness.

It’s probably fitting that the man who defined my childhood would also create the bridge that forced me, sharply and suddenly, into being a grown woman. I miss you, Granddaddy…so very much.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Papa & Popcorn

For this week’s challenge, I chose a paragraph from my most popular blog post by far, a silly instructional about how to pop microwave popcorn on the stove. (Don’t look at me – I’m as mystified by that as you.)

Original:

Unfortunately, soon after buying the microwave, we discovered that though it’s technically big enough to pop a bag of popcorn, as the microwave tray spins, the popcorn bag moves slightly. This causes the bag to get stuck against the wall of the microwave, stay in one place, and either burn the popcorn or just pop about half of the bag. Both of these outcomes make me very angry, but if I had to choose, I’d say that a half-popped bag of popcorn ticks me off more. The Man still insists on buying microwave popcorn and attempting to pop it, but I tend to leave the room when he does for fear of my head actually exploding if I have to hear him explain one more time that I’m just imagining that the bag is half-full. This as the tell-tale errant kernels clang to the bottom of his popcorn bowl…argh.

Severely Edited:

After buying the microwave, we discovered that it is too small to pop corn. The tray spins, but the popcorn bag does not, either burning or only half-popping the corn. Both of these outcomes disappoint, but the former is more frustrating. Still, The Man insists on making microwave popcorn, saying that I’m imagining the popping problem. His inaccuracy is betrayed by the tell-tale clang of kernels in his bowl.

Edit #2

We bought a small microwave, later finding that it either burns or only half-pops popcorn. Both outcomes disappoint, but the former is worse. Still, The Man insists on making microwave popcorn, saying I’ve imagined the problem. The un-popped kernels prove his error.

The Daily Post’s Creative Writing Challenge: Metamorphosis

black_cat_eye_by_Drehli

“Black Cat Eye” by Drehli

The following post is a response to a creative writing prompt issued by The Daily Post. Today’s assignment was to tell a story of human-animal transformation.

*************

In the movies, the detectives always tell the grieving widow that the victim’s end was painless, and that he didn’t feel a thing. That it was quick, and he probably didn’t even know what was happening.

But I knew. I knew, and I felt every second. The blood was flowing out of my gut and into a sticky, steaming puddle, and I guess to anyone else it would have been pretty obvious that I was a goner. But leaving wasn’t a possibility. I’ve always been an optimist, you know?

I didn’t know my killer. Still not entirely sure why he chose my apartment to rifle through, or why he stuck around to beat the shit out of me after cutting open all of my couch cushions. Maybe if I’d been a little smarter, if I hadn’t grabbed a kitchen knife for self defense, I’d still be around to figure all of those bits out. But I did grab a knife, and I did try to stab him, and next thing I know I’m alone, on the floor, with several large wounds where perfectly good internal organs used to be. My guts were on fire, my legs didn’t work, and that was that.

I had options, of course – scream for the neighbors, find my cell phone, try to crawl to the door. But I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t give up, but looking back, I didn’t exactly try my damndest, either. You can probably tell that that’s something I’ve spent some time rehashing – why just lie there? Still not sure. Except that my mind was racing, the pain was starting to ease off a little, and I desperately wanted to work a little normalcy into the situation. “Why me?” was what was hovering around and around in my last few minutes of humanity.

So it wasn’t sudden, or painless. My life ebbed out onto the crappy linoleum of my crappy kitchen in my crappy little apartment, and there were no sirens in the distance, no heroes pounding down my door. They wouldn’t get there for another three hours. In the end of my life as Joe DeRuth, the only one left to see me off was my cat, Ella. And eventually she got bored and went to take a nap under the overturned couch. She can be such a bitch sometimes.

*************

Once the cops come and find your dead carcass, and the EMTs have a look just to make sure you’re really dead (especially if you’re as fresh as I was), the morgue comes to take the body. The medical examiner takes a look to figure out how you died while the detectives are combing over your belongings to figure out how you lived. Somewhere in there they get in contact with your family and let them know that you’ve kicked the proverbial bucket, and then your folks come to identify the body and collect your belongings.

I was never married, and didn’t have a serious girlfriend. My parents have been dead for years, and the few good buddies I had died in Afghanistan. It was just me and my older sister, Pam. We were close enough, but she loved me more than I knew, apparently. More importantly, she loved my mangy feline, and was at my apartment to collect Ella as soon as the police would let her in. It was Pam’s arrival that told me something was off with my situation. Mostly the realization that I still had a situation to attend to.

I could hear Pam before I saw her. She was outside in the hallway, talking with someone in that gravelly voice of hers. Too many cigarettes; she’s a bundle of nerves, just like our mom was. A rattle of a key ring, a shaky scratch of key in unfamiliar lock, then she and the landlord walked in. I recognized Mrs. Connolly’s old fashioned nursing shoes from my hiding spot under the couch. That was what tipped me off that there was something wrong. Something rumbled in my chest, a little noise of frustration and fear. Why was I under the couch?

I was dead. The blood puddle still clung to the kitchen floor. The apartment was still tossed. My sister, pillar of strength, was standing in the entry, tears openly streaming down her cheeks. She was toting a cat carrier, so she was probably here for Ella. But why was I seeing all of this? Was I a ghost?

“Shhh. Calm down, Joe. Stop being such a freak.”

What the…? My head (I have a head?) snapped around quicker than it ever had when I was alive. The rumbling in my chest intensified of its own accord. In the darkness of the under-the-couch structure, I couldn’t make out much. There definitely wasn’t room for more than one person, but since I was dead, I figured that maybe there would be room for another ghost or two. But there was nothing. “Who’s there?”

“Kitty? Ella! You can come out baby, it’s OK sweet thing.” Pam’s feet were beside the couch now, with Mrs. Connolly’s right behind her.

“Maybe we should tip the couch over.”

“No, I’d hate to accidentally hurt her if we tipped it over wrong. She’ll come out. I know where Joe kept the cat treats.” Both women walked back towards the kitchen, Mrs. Connolly’s feet stopping suddenly at the edge of the linoleum. Pam, ever no-nonsense, stepped right over my blood and straight to the treat drawer. I felt the rumble in my chest stop.

“Oh yum, the salmon ones!” A brick wall of fur pushed past me and into the kitchen. Ella was munching on treats in no time; so much for cats having a conscience.

“I can clearly see how heart broken you are, jerk!” The words were out before I knew it. Ella responded with something that sounded mostly like happy crunching with a garbled “whatever!” thrown in. Pam, on the other hand, scattered a few more treats and then cautiously walked towards the couch. The rumble in my chest started again; what was going on here? How did she hear me?

“Mrs. Connolly, did Joe have any other animals? I could swear I just heard a little growling noise under the couch.” The feet were closer.

“Not that I knew of – he knew he’d have to pay another deposit for any other pets he brought in. I suppose he might have tried to get around that by hiding something from me.” I could already hear the gears turning in the old lady’s head. Good luck getting that deposit back, sis.

The hand snaked in and grabbed me before I had a chance to react. I struggled for a second, then went limp. It was very similar to dying again, but in slow motion over the course of a few seconds. What was going on? How could someone see me? Or touch me? Or grab me? Or yank me out from under the couch and ohsweetjesusthisismeflyingthroughtheair…

And then I was getting a hug from my big sister, and I didn’t really care. I snuggled into her sweater, breathing in the sweet smell of lavender soap and cigarettes.

“Look at you, hogging all the love already. We’re going to have to have a talk about that, dude.” I looked down to see Ella’s big yellow eyes, staring rather murderously up at me.

“Aww, look at it! Isn’t it such a gorgeous little thing, Mrs. Connolly? I wonder why Joe never told me he got a new kitten?” The rumbling in my chest started again in earnest, but this time it felt a little different. It felt familiar, which is kind of funny, since it was my first purr.