I’ve met the devil

He’s a train conductor.

Dad and Mom stood over my hospital bed, hugging each other, their eyes wet with tears. The day we’d dreamed of had finally arrived. They kept the details vague: A dental student had been hit by a train out in the suburbs, but his heart was feasible. The EMTs already had it on a Medevac. Mom and Dad talked like we had just won a sweepstakes.

Photo via popsci.com
Photo via popsci.com

The nurses whisked me off to pre-op faster than a bullet train.

The doctors said I was officially dead for four minutes. Four minutes. Minute one, the head surgeon severed my sick, sluggish heart, with a silver scalpel, carefully so as to leave the aorta intact, the vena cava repairable.

Hell was a high-speed Amtrack. I was standing in the vestibule waiting for my stop, and a conductor snuck up behind me.

“Ticket, Miss,” he said without inflection. He was tall, black, and very handsome except for his flat New York accent.

I held out my one-way and he lifted it up to the light and paused with his hole-punch in midair. “You’re on the wrong train.” He had perfect teeth, so good they looked fake.

“No, I’m not.”

Minute two, the kind-eyed nurse lifted my old heart carefully from my gaping chest cavity into a sparkling stainless steel bowl held by the gangly assistant whose Afro strained his sky blue cap. He whisked it away and squirreled it in a jar of formaldehyde. My trophy.

“You wanted Union, how’d you get way out here in Aurora, girl?” The conductor butchered Aurora. “You don’t wanta be here. Next train ain’t for three hours.”

“I’m not. I need to get to class,” I said.

“You’re going ta be late ‘less your classroom’s in a cornfield.” He laughed a long time like he’d said something funny, but I didn’t get it.

I stared at the passing farms, then I turned back and tried to snatch my ticket out of his hand.

He held it up too high for me to reach. “Nah, this old thing won’t get you nowhere you need to be,” he said, shaking his head from side to side and reaching into his navy blue jacket pocket with his hole-punch hand. “Lemme getchya a new one.”

Minute three, nursing assistant number two, an older woman with serious blue eyes, held my pristine and glistening dental student’s heart at the ready and passed it delicately to the surgeon, who took a long look at the organ, holy grail of the surgery chamber, and deciphered its tubes and cavities.

“You tryin’ a get downtown, right. Ya need the Loop.” The conductor didn’t ask. This wasn’t a conversation. He was in charge, the fucker. The train was barreling down the tracks, probably over a hundred miles an hour now, too fast. Faster than trains could ever possibly go. The fields were reduced to black and white lines.

“I can help ya out, girl,” he said and pulled his hand out of his jacket. Instead of a hole punch, he held a silver pistol.

And minute four, my time with the devil winding down, the head surgeon laid my new heart inside my chest and six pairs of hands went to work at once, aligning, whip stitching, stapling, glomming on the hunk of muscle that would pull me back from the dark side.

“This’ll getchya right.” The conductor pointed the gun at my head.

I added this character twist to my new MC, inspired by a piece by author Patrick W. Gibson. Thanks for the inspiration, Patrick!

I met a guy

I met a guy at a party last weekend, at a writing conference in Michigan. He was hot, but don’t worry, he’s married with kids, and plus, he’s a pastor. Still, I was attracted to him, in that way that I can’t explain except to say that we didn’t arrive together, but within minutes, we were. We met over a table of stickers with adjectives on them, where we decorated our name tags with descriptions of our writing. He chose dark, I chose twisted. Five minutes into our conversation, he told me how he watched his ex-fiancée spiral into drug addiction in L.A.

Here’s what’s bugging me. There I was, at a party, excited to be mingling with a room full of writers, ready for anything to happen. Five minutes in, almost without any effort, a hot guy opened up to me about what was probably the most difficult experience of his life. It could have been just what I’d hoped for, a deep connection. But in the moment, I thought only about a dear friend of mine who lost her husband to the underworld of drugs. Still a connection, but without any emotional risk of my own. I don’t think I even mentioned my friend. In the moment, I laughed and made a joke. To make him feel better, I thought.

In the moment, I forgot all about my own, very similar story, about how my big sister went on crack when I was sixteen. Standing next to that guy at the party, Kim never even crossed my mind. It was like I couldn’t access my own memories, or worse, like I didn’t even know the memories existed.

The guy and I chatted for a bit, then we drifted apart. The next morning, he sat several rows ahead of me in the auditorium. The collar of his sport coat was sticking up, and I imagined folding it down for him. We bumped into each other before lunch, and he almost but didn’t quite ask me to eat with him.

That’s it. We didn’t get a chance to talk again. He cut out of the conference early; I saw him walk out of the auditorium but didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t think much of it until my drive home. In the privacy of the car, my memories came rushing back to me: the time I begged Kim to stay with us (she left anyway, and never came back), the insomnia that plagued me through my twenties (lying awake at night, wondering if she was dead), that feeling of utter helplessness (at the pain of losing someone I loved).

When I think of Kim, all these years later, I’m left still asking the same questions I asked back when I was little, long before she became a crack addict. How can someone whom you’ve poured your love into choose to waste that love, and instead head down a path to ruin?

Now I realize that we all make mistakes. We go through life on the surface, moment by moment, sometimes without access to our deepest memories. We choose what makes us feel good instead of what helps us grow. We miss connections that might make all the difference in our lives, simply because we don’t risk our emotions.

I haven’t spoken to Kim since our mom died almost a decade ago. Yesterday, she popped up on Facebook and asked to tag a photo of mine. It was a shock to see her, but I said yes.

 

Two posts in one week, guys. This is huge!

’16 Cosmic Gray Mica

16 CamryChad came into my office wearing his full-length down coat that made him look like a walking sleeping bag. He pulled off his fur-trimmed hood to reveal movie-star hair.

“Shift change,” he boomed, laying his snow-caked shovel on my desk.

“Watch it, man!” I yelled as I removed the shovel from the Johnsons’ paperwork. “Do you know how fucking long it took me to work up that sale?” I asked, but I must have sounded rhetorical ‘cause Chad just sloshed past.

“Let me play you a sonata, Jimmy,” he said. “Get your boots on. I did the Prius row. You take the Camrys. You pass the torch to old man Zeke at 7. That gives you two hours. Spend it with your head up your ass for all I care, just don’t mess with my tits.”

“Your what?”

“Tits,” he signaled crudely with his hands to indicate a large pair of jugs. “You’ll see,” he winked.

I hated Chad.

“Anyhoo, leave the tits for the transport dudes. Give those poor slugs a laugh.”

“Right, Chad.”

He disappeared into his office across the hall. Ours were absolutely identical, same breast-cancer awareness sticker on the soulless windows, same Formica desk, same dot matrix printer, even the same photograph of an old-time steam train on the wall. Somebody had a sense of humor around here, but I was still too new to know who.

I pulled my boots out from under the desk and slipped off my Italian leather loafers. Most ridiculous footwear on the planet, those loafers. Cost me more than a whole paycheck, and worst part was they weren’t my only pair. Selling cars is half looks and half lies and the two are interchangeable. I pulled my coat out from behind the door, put it on, and grabbed the dripping shovel. It left a trail as I headed outside.

“Enjoy yourself, Jimmy boy,” Chad called from his office. He raised his Styrofoam cup as I passed. What a jackass.

Outside, Chad had shoveled a straight path to the Prius row, no mistake I’m sure. He’d left a perfect set of double-Ds on the first hood in the row, and one on the next, and the next, all the way down to the end. Nice.

I hadn’t always wanted to sell Japanese cars at a dealership in the burbs, no way. I’d majored in finance thinking I’d get a job at a bank downtown, but my parents’ house had the gravity of a neodymium magnet. I couldn’t escape the place. Downtown may as well have been Johannesburg. At least I was saving, and whenever I did manage to get out, I’d have a killer shoe collection. Mom and Dad wouldn’t live forever, would they?

I shoveled between two Camrys and went to work cleaning the first hood, careful not to scratch the Blue Streak Metallic paint. Bastards would dock my pay for that. I worked my way around with the brush, then came back to scrape the hood. I moved on down the line to a Ruby Flare Pearl and a Midnight Black. I would have gone for the Blue Streak, but I don’t drive Japanese. The old folks were crazy for the Parisian Night Pearl, and I worked my way through five of those. My fingers were popsicles by then, and I wanted to get back inside so I gave up on the scraping.

I cleared the hood of a Cosmic Gray Mica and I was working on the driver’s side window when I saw something in the driver’s seat. Something that looked suspiciously like someone. I finished cleaning the window and stuck my face up to the glass to get a better look. What I saw threw me back a few feet and I hopped around from foot to foot, hollering.

I breathed deep and tried the door. Course it popped open, no trouble. Old man Zeke was slumped against the black leather-trimmed seat, clearly departed. Worst part was his pants down around his knees. Whole thing undid me, and I turned away to puke in the snow.

I cleaned myself up and turned back to the Camry. Old Zeke had a lipstick print on his neck that filled in a lot of the blanks.

“You kidding me, Zeke? A Camry? You should have gone for the Blue Streak, old man.”

 

If you know me, then you know just how much I love car dealers.

Deal with it

My daughter idolizes you, Donald Trump. You’re the star of her comics, and she does a killer impression of you. You’ve infiltrated her ten-year-old psyche. You’re rich, and she has a thing for money. You’re powerful, and she craves power. Plus, you’re funny, and she has a great sense of humor.

Not to disappoint you, Mr. Trump, but Hillary has my vote. Still, I pay attention to my kids, so my daughter’s infatuation with you has given me pause. I’ll admit it, I’ve given your candidacy some consideration.

Every time my daughter tells her brothers to DEAL with it, I think of you.

You’re scrappy, Mr. Trump. You started out small, with only a $1M investment from your father. Everyone deserves an investment, if not in money then in time and attention. I hope my kids make the most of my investment in them, same as you. You’ve worked your way up, worked tirelessly to put your mark on the world.

My daughter knows exactly where to find your tower on the Chicago skyline.

I hear you’ve got a concealed carry permit, Mr. Trump, and I like knowing that you want to defend yourself. Like I teach my kids, you’ve got all the tools you need within yourself.

Good, honest people should feel safe inside and out.

I like how much you want to protect us Americans, Mr. Trump. When you say you want to build a great wall on the Mexican border, I know how much you want to keep us safe. Trust me, I wish I could put a layer of cement between my kids and the rest of the world. Sometimes I even want to protect them from one another.

But one thing I’ve learned is that once you start putting up walls, parts of you die.

I know you care about the world, Mr. Trump. I’ve been to Vegas, I’ve seen what wonders you’re capable of producing with a bit of money and raw materials. And I know you’ve got to tear down the old before you can build the new. So when you suggest bombing the hell out of ISIS, part of me gets where you’re coming from, Mr. Trump.

Like I tell my kids, when you’re mad it feels really good to punch someone, anyone. But it’s funny, when you hurt someone else, you’re always hurting yourself, too.

When you suggest deporting Muslims from the U.S., Mr. Trump, I think you’re just scared. Everyone has their fears, but be careful, Mr. Trump. Fear can make you reductive, and even worse, reactive. I’m not proud to admit the relief I felt when a bully was removed from my daughter’s class a few years ago, never mind that the bully was just one child in a class of twenty, acting out, making a desperate plea for help. Never mind that all children act out at some time or another.

It’s simpler to shut down in the face of adversity than to face our fears head-on.

I like how you want to invest in mental healthcare for veterans, to treat the invisible wounds of war. It’s introspective of you, Mr. Trump. Everyone has those subconscious wounds, you know. I know I do. I often wonder what scars my kids will bear by the time they escape their childhoods, what damage I’m inflicting on them, or they are, to each other.

Mr. Trump, I see how you want to send all kinds of trouble packing, to lock it up somewhere so we Americans can find the solitude to consider the best course of action to ensure a safe future for ourselves. Trouble is, Mr. Trump, solitude is a luxury that even most Americans can’t afford, and silence is virtually unattainable these days. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about with three kids at home.

If you can manage to calm your thoughts though, you’ll find the quietest place on Earth right inside your own head. It doesn’t matter what’s raging outside.

I believe you really want to be a nice guy, Mr. Trump, and I have an idea for you, a gentle suggestion. Take your own advice: Deal with it. In fact, let’s all try it, regardless of race, orientation, or belief. Deal, as in cope, rather than confront or bargain. Be still. Look inward, be honest. Acknowledge your emotions. It’s difficult to weather the storm, I know.

You’ll probably find that you remember things that you haven’t thought of in years. You’ll recall what your life was like before you became a success. You’ll remember hurts, fears, and doubts that you’ll probably wish had remained buried. But it’s never all bad: You’ll also recall loves, and joys, all the small things that have lit you up inside over the years. And that’s when you’ll know what you’re made of.

It’s hard to admit that we really are all made of the same stuff.

Like I tell my kids, eventually the storm will pass. Your emotions will settle down, and you’ll be able to build something new from all the rubble.

Photo via wsj.com
Photo via wsj.com

Firsts

Photo copyright Bruce Carver.
Photo copyright Bruce Carver

“Welcome to womanhood,” she grinned. At the mall we bought a flowered maxi (“Consolation prize!”) and a clutch (“To hide the evidence!”)
Flick, flash. “Want one?” She tossed the pack.

Do this

Scrawl me a note with an old ballpoint.

Begin with Dear, trace the vertical til the nib bites through
and leaves a gash in an otherwise lovely composition.

week-28-boris

Form

Draw me in charcoal on a gritty surface:

Prime linked to a hot radiator, sprawled naked and open along the retreating parallel lines of hardwood.

Leave me half finished.

week-20-matt

 

This week’s contribution to Three Line Thursday. Thanks for the amazing inspiration, Matt.

False impression

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 1913-14 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959Ghazi Aslam had a face like a pterodactyl, or so the guys at school told him. He compensated for his bad looks by taking good care of his teeth, covering as much of his face as he could with a beard, and working out until his chest took on the rough density and dimensions of a Gothic breastplate.

Ghazi looked in the mirror only once a week while he trimmed his beard, and he was okay with what he saw. He tried to be nice, plus he had a voice like an angel. His friend Keisha talked him into singing with her choir, and she assured him that the other members would be cool with a hawk-nose Muzzie ‘slong as he brought his perfect tenor. He never let them down.

Aside from choir, Ghazi preferred it behind the scenes. He worked as a prep cook at a fusion joint downtown, 3 to 5:30 every day but Monday. That left him free for classes in the mornings and choir rehearsal Thursday evenings, and that worked for him. Ghazi was meticulous when it came to his job. He had his tasks broken down to a science, and arranged his time into five-minute-long segments. Spices were combined, onions chopped, lemons squeezed, shrimp peeled all by 3:20. About to set to work julienning carrots, Ghazi felt his phone buzz and the familiar opening chords of Danzig’s Mother escaped from his front-left pocket. He chuckled and set down his knife.

Ghazi and his mom were close and he took her calls no matter the time. He slid his hand underneath his apron and reached into his left-front pocket. “Hi, mom,” he said as he cradled the phone on his shoulder so he could continue to slice the carrots. He lifted the knife with his right hand and went to work on a carrot while he chatted with his mom. He was more attentive to the chopping than he was to the conversation. Later, the details of what his mom said would escape him.

At 3:27, Ghazi slid the julienned carrots into a bowl, cut off his mom, and said goodbye. Later, he clearly recalled that he had been bothered by the slip in his schedule. He stashed the phone back in his pocket and went to retrieve some herbs from the fridge. When he returned with the rosemary and thyme he was annoyed to find his best knife missing from its usual spot, parallel to the right-hand edge of his cutting board.

Ghazi spent two minutes searching unsuccessfully before he gave up and resorted to his paring knife to chop the herbs. He had time to make up. He moved to the stove and set about caramelizing onions and melting butter for a roux. He sang gospel songs while he worked, warming up his voice for rehearsal. Luckily, Ghazi was alone in the restaurant, so no one was there to jive him about his rendition of Amazing Grace. By the time Lisa rolled in at five to set up the dining room, Ghazi was back on schedule and had the stovetop laid out with bubbling saucepans.

He scoured for the lost knife one last time at ten after five, while he was cleaning his work station. It bothered him but there wasn’t anything more he could do. He went over the menu with Yang, the chef, and hung up his apron. By 5:35, Ghazi was hopping onto the crowded rush hour train uptown to rehearsal. He chalked up the stares to his humongous schnozz and tried to smile whenever he met someone’s eyes.

At 5:55 he met Keisha with a hug outside the church. They went inside for rehearsal. Seconds later, old Mrs. Foster let out a shriek to wake the dead, and Sam Smith, ex-college linebacker and one of the choir’s two baritones, tackled Ghazi to the worn red carpet of the chapel, yanking the butcher’s knife from the back waistband of his jeans. Buff as he was, Ghazi didn’t stand a chance against Sam, nor was he expecting to be attacked in church.

The cops tried to frame him as a misfit momma’s boy with a prophesy to fulfill and made him out to be an obsessive-compulsive.Whatever, Ghazi figured. He was just relieved to have located his misplaced knife.

 

It’s not magic

“A lady’s gotta carry a pistol,” my grandmomma used to say. Grandmomma used to say lots of yimmer-yammer ‘fore she passed on, God bless her. After she died, daddy got her all set up real nice over on the hill there up behind the house. I got her a real marble, inlaid headstone so everybody knows it’s her they’re kneeling on, just like grandmomma wanted.

When she was livin’, grandmomma used to share lots of her gems up there in her kitchen. She’d have me sittin at her table, a glass of sweet tea or lemonade on a doily by my wrist faster than I could say gotchya, and she’d be fixin’ a sandwich more like than not. Sandwiches were her specialty.

I always brought grandmomma presents whenever I came up to visit. Nice vase of flowers, lilies like her name. Grandmomma always liked those even when she was livin’. I’d bring her those cookies she liked with the chocolate icing inside, and we’d have a talk. Really, grandmomma would be givin’ me the third degree ‘bout when I was gonna go on and finally get married, but at least her mouth’d be movin’ like it was a real conversation.

Course the first time I brought it by, she noticed my brand-new, cherry red Corvette outside. “Woo-ee! Where you gettin’ the money for that spitfire, girlie?” Grandmomma demanded, juttin’ out one hip under her apron with the little blue hearts, and clampin’ her hand down on it like she was sixteen. “You ain’t got a husband I don’t know about, do ya, darlin’?”

“Nah, Grandmomma,” I told her, gulping down my lemonade so I didn’t have to fill her in on my private business.

“I want an invitation to the weddin’, ya hear,” she laughed, sitting down across from me. “Now ya know I just want ya to be happy, darlin’. Ya know that, right?”

“Of course, Grandmomma.”

“So who’s makin’ the payment on that shiny red apple out there, girlie?”

“Me, Grandmomma.” I didn’t bother telling her I paid cash for the car. “Have some cookies, Grandmomma,” I opened the tin and pushed it over near her. She couldn’t resist.

Nobody wants a crook for a grandbaby, ‘specially if that grandbaby’s a girl. Still, round here, people prefer mayhem to the cold, hard truth. Ain’t no way I was gonna break my dear, sweet grandmomma’s heart with the news that her favorite grandbaby’s grown up and can take care of herself. I made more money in a month than daddy ever saw in one place.

Grandmomma had a lotta gems up there in her attic, but she never knew squat ‘bout makin’ rain, how a lady can make the bigwigs at a conference table blush just by shifting her thighs, how she can make the big shots fill her purse if she plays her cards right. Grandmomma would’ve wrung my neck if I’d opened up, so she died not knowin’. It’s too bad, ‘cause she woulda laughed, too. And she probably woulda liked knowin’ how right she was ‘bout the pistol thing.