Friday, October 24, 2014

sleepers


Photo Credit



MONTREAL

The rail tickets were good for a one-way trip from Montreal to New Brunswick in Comfort Class. Lillian heard the train was pleasant with exquisite views and she was determined to see a bit of Canada by train before Phillip would take them all back home to London.  

As they boarded, Lillian tried to persuade Philip to let the twins take the seats directly in front of them, leaving the two behind for them to hold hands.  She had never been in a rail car before and was excited about the idea of a romantic voyage with her husband.  Instead of acquiescing, Phillip told her he’d be more comfortable with Ida being with her in the front and Dean being with him directly behind them. 

“They are only thirteen, darling,” he said, offering his version of perfect British logic.  “They may quarrel once they become bored.”

“You’re right dear,” Lillian took her seat in the tall, grey upholstered chair and Ida flopped down next to her with a sigh. 

“Why do I have to sit here with you?” Ida peeked through the space between the seats to see her father and brother.  “I wish I were born a boy, so I wouldn’t have to sit with my mum and do my homework.  You know they’ll be playing a game, don’t you?  The minute we move Dad will start his game and Dean will get to play with him.”

Ida’s deep blonde ringlets were too perfect for a girl of thirteen; they belonged on a five year old, Lillian thought.  She glanced out the window at the dreary landscape.  The train heaved to a start and began to sway back and forth and move forward at the same time.  A grey cement wall was next to the rusted, lonely rails just outside her window; the view wasn't impressive and Lillian wished for water or flowers. 

“Get out your books, son.”  Lillian heard Phillip direct Dean and she glanced at Ida and raised her eyebrows, but her daughter pretended not to hear.  Instead, she was plugging her ears with the ear buds that connected to her phone.  After she was comfortable – and after Lillian could hear some music coming from them – she retrieved a large history text and a simple spiral notebook from her back pack. 

Lillian tried to smile at her daughter, communicating that she was proud of her, but Ida didn’t look up. Lillian returned to the window and the train picked up speed.  She thought of holding  her husband’s hand, finally squeezing her arm through the small opening between the seat and the window.  She wiggled her fingers, hoping he would take them into his own.  Instead she heard his voice:

“Something you need, dear?”

“No, darling,” she answered, bringing her arm back to her side.  “Just saying hello!”


SAINT-HYACINTHE STATION

Lillian had to use the ladies’ room and stood up as soon as the train came to a stop.  She looked over her seat  to see Phillip sleeping, his head back and his mouth slightly open.  It was only during sleep that her husband seemed especially young to her.  He was normally stoic and preserved, but in sleep he seemed to be only a lad of eighteen.   Dean, upright next to him, had  his ear buds in, and his tray table down, scribbling out a report of some kind. 

“Dean!”

He looked up, and Lillian smiled.  Her son’s hair needed a trim and she tried to brush his fringe back, but he moved his head to the side before she could touch him.

“Mom!  What?”

“I’m going to the Ladies’ room.  Do you want to come with me?”

Dean gave her a look mixed with incredulity and disdain.  “No.”

“Alright.  Ida?  Coming?”

Her daughter didn’t look up, so Lillian touched her shoulder.  Ida moved forward, agitated.  “No!”

“Alright, then,” Lillian squeezed her slim frame through the small space in front of her daughter and walked down the aisle.  “I’m off to find it myself.”

The rows of seats were neat and Lillian marveled at how many people could fit on the train.  

Passengers were in assorted positions of relaxation; many had unfolded their tray tables.  Some had reclined their chairs and were sleeping, like Phillip. 

She came to a sealed doorway, a blue button where the handle should be caught her attention: “PUSH”.  Lillian pushed it, but nothing happened.  When she pushed it again, the door made a hissing sound and opened, its glass doors disappearing into a pocketed wall.

“Proper!” Lillian walked through it, mindful of the polished stainless steel floors that soon gave way to blue carpet.   The walls were covered in matching pale blue upholstery and Lillian wondered if they were padded for safety.  Every wall she saw had a display of the official flag of Quebec; the fleurs-de-lis were worked into every inch of d├ęcor everywhere else. 

Here and there were display cases with model trains, a plaque underneath each one described its model, year of origin and purpose on the rails.  Once she had seen enough glass-covered memorabilia, Lillian proceeded to the next car where the toilet was located.  The same pocket doors allowed her passage; the same hissing noises welcomed her.  The Ladies’ room was grand, its lights encased in beautifully ornate wooden fleurs-de-lis and beautifully reproduced silk orchids were everywhere. 

Lillian loved each detail of the loo, nearly taking a picture of the marble sinks just so she could show Ida once she returned to her seat.  She thought better of it as she washed her hands and laughed to herself.  She straightened upon seeing her reflection.  She was a beautiful woman of forty, slim and impeccably dressed.  There was no shame in what she wore, although her children frequently accused her of looking like someone’s Gran.  She wondered when she became such an embarrassment to her children.  She wondered if it was the hound’s-tooth prints she loved wearing; maybe it was the accessories (mostly pearls) or the sensible shoes.  Her hairstyle was simple, parted in the middle and worn tied back.  For picnics or outings she would sometimes let her blonde hair down and she never once felt proud, even when strangers admired it.  To them she was beautiful. 

Upon returning to her seat, Lillian saw that Ida and Dean had taken the seats next to the windows.  Phillip was on the aisle seat, awake and reading a Canadian newspaper, written in French. 

“Oh,” he acknowledged her as she approached.  “I’ve allowed the children to take the windows for the second half of the journey.  I do hope this is agreeable to you, darling.”

Both children were looking at her; she nodded after a moment. 

“We are not yet halfway,” she said, making herself comfortable in the aisle seat.  “We will arrive in Charny soon and when we do, we can switch back again.”

Both children sighed.  The train started again, swaying side to side as it moved forward.  Ida had been glaring at her, but Lillian pretended not to notice.


CHARNY, QUEBEC

The air was biting when Lillian went to the observation deck.  Ida and Dean lagged behind her; Phillip had gone to the bar car to procure some drinks for the family.  The train had stopped and the conductors were encouraging passengers who needed a smoking break to proceed to the open area at platform A.  All other passengers were free to walk about and explore.  The observation deck was little more than two cars -flattened on top - with a handrail all the way around them.

“This is it?” Dean moaned at the top of the stairs.  Ida gave a half-hearted laugh and made a noise with her throat.

“Big fun up here!” she lifted her arms to the sky and then let them drop to her sides with a clap.

“Look there!” Lillian pointed over the tops of trees to a tall flag pole, flying the maple leaf flag – the first she had seen since she boarded the train.  “I knew there was one around!”  She turned toward her children, who grimaced at the flag.  “Have you noticed the absence of the maple leaf flag in Quebec?  Like it really isn’t their flag at all?”

Ida and Dean looked at each other and shrugged.  “Not really, Mum,” Dean said slowly.  Ida looked at her nails. 

“So here we are, then!”  Phillip was ascending the stairs with a drink carrier.  Four paper cups steamed with promise and Lillian felt encouragement and hope that one may be Earl Grey Tea.  Ida and Dean lunged forward, grabbing the cups closest to them.  “Hold on, you two!” Philip took a step back, nearly missing the steps that he just climbed.

“Look out!” Lillian shouted.  It caused everyone on the observation deck to look at them; the kids backed up, but Phillip glared at Lillian.  “I’m sorry I shrieked, darling, “ she led him by the elbow until he was safely away from the staircase. 

“Yes, I nearly dropped the tray,” Phillip was rigid; Lillian knew he was embarrassed.

“Yes, Mum,” Ida whispered loudly.  “He nearly dropped our drinks, then where would be be?”

Lillian looked carefully at the cups, removing the one with a tea tab hanging out.  “I believe this one is mine,” she said.  She smelled the cup through its plastic top, even the sweet aroma of her tea brought comfort. 

“This is my coffee,” Phillip pointed at the one closes to him.  “The other two are hot chocolate.  Go ahead, take them.”

Ida had her arms firmly crossed in front of her.  “I don’t want mine now!”

“Alright if I have it, then?” Dean started to remove both cups; Ida reached over and retrieved the one closest to him.  They elbowed each other briefly, then pulled their paper cups free, splashing some of the contents on the floor.  Before Phillip could correct them, they walked to the rail that overlooked the flag.

“Goodness,” he exhaled, removing his own cup from the holder.  “I get the drinks and this is the thanks I get!  My wife shouting at me, my kids quarreling  What next?  Am I to endure ridicule from the passengers?”

Lillian looked over her cup at him.  “The milk and sugar are perfect, darling.”

Phillip softened.  “Good.  I’ve been your husband for fifteen years and I’m just now getting it right?
“I thought you were going to fall down the stairs,” she said, gently.  She tried to stroke his arm, but he pretended to drink his coffee just to break free from her touch.

“Well, I almost did, didn’t I? Ungrateful, that lot.”

“Now, Phillip,” Lillian half-heartedly corrected him.  A man carrying a guitar ascended the stairs.  He began to walk among the passengers, singing.  Lillian knew he would come to them eventually and decided to go back to the bar car before he had time to reach them.  The public serenading was fine for Americans and Canadians, but the British shied away from that kind of thing.

“Phillip, let’s go into the bar car,” she whispered.  He was busy drinking his coffee, but he turned toward the minstrel and agreed.  His attempts to wave the children over were unsuccessful, so he walked to where they stood;  Lillian headed for the stairs.  Before she could reach them, the man with the guitar stepped in front of her.  It made her stop suddenly, and she felt cornered especially when he made eye contact and smiled.  The other passengers who had seen this were smiling; some applauded.  Lillian felt her face grow warm and looked over her shoulder for Phillip.  He was talking to Ida, who was pointing at something in the trees.

“I have often walked down this street before,
But I’ve always felt the ground beneath my feet before,
All at once am I
Several stories high
Knowing I’m on the street where you live…”

 Lillian turned back to the musician.  He was dressed in a simple white shirt and black pants.  She wondered if he was employed by the train; she couldn't imagine why he was singing to her.  There was a small packet of sugar on the ground and she stooped to pick it up.  She looked for a rubbish bin, just as she heard Phillip behind her.

“Yes, yes,” he said, leaning over his wife to stuff a five dollar note in the minstrel’s pocket.  “Well done.  Thank you.”

Lillian tried to walk past the singing man, who had moved on to another verse.  As she went down the stairs, she could tell he was still singing to her, facing her as he sang.  People in the bar car looked up the stairs and then back at her.  She tried to avert their gaze, but it was no use.  By the time she sat on the couch, her tea had gone cold and the passengers were all staring at her. 

“I want to go back to my seat,” she said. Her voice sounded high and unnatural; her ears rang.  Lillian stood and walked back through the hallway with the fleurs-de-lis and memorabilia and finally into the comfort cabin.  The passengers looked up at her as she walked in; she was embarrassed, thinking they all thought she was beautiful and there was nothing she could do about it.

In ten minutes Phillip came back into the comfort cab, carrying a paper cup of tea.  She looked up at him, filled with gratitude. 

“Oh, thank you, darling.”

He sat next to her after she had cleared Ida’s books away and placed them on the floor.  “The first had gone terribly cold and you hardly got to drink it.”

“Yes,” she said.  She tried a sip and realized it was plain China black tea, not Earl Grey. “This is nice, the milk and sugar are perfect.”

“There was no more Earl Grey, I’m afraid.”

“No?”

“Canadian train, you know.”

Lillian laughed quietly. 

“I suppose you’ve recovered from your serenade?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Charming chap, actually.”

“You think?”

“I think he fancies you, that’s what.”

Lillian waved her hand at him.

She heard a hissing sound and then the voices of her children.  They appeared next to Phillip, giggling uncontrollably.  Lillian hadn’t seen them this happy their whole holiday.

“Mum, Dad,” Ida tried to speak without laughing.  “You must come and see these Varsity students.  They are playing a game in the other sleeping car.  Come and see!”

“They each take turns sitting next to someone who is asleep,” Dean whispered.  “Then they pretend they are also asleep.  They….”  The twins broke into violent laughter, covering their mouths.  “They lay their heads on the shoulders of the sleeping ones.  Then they place their arms about their necks, almost as if they are snuggling…”  Again the laughter overtook them, and brother and sister were doubled over, guffawing.

“Until the other wakes up, completely startled!”

Lillian and Phillip, smiling, tried to see why this made the twins so giddy. 

“Is there more to this game that we’re not understanding?”  Phillip blinked his eyes.

“The last chap woke up just as the student  was putting his legs on his seat,” Ida giggled, regaining her composure.  “Here was this chap almost crawling over to his side and the man was so polite!  He told the student to wake up, and he was smiling.  It was hilarious!”

“Do sit down now,”  Lillian said.  Ida let her shoulders drop and exhaled long. 

“Please, Mum. Let us go see the strangers sleeping side by side just to get us laughing again!”

“The train is about to start,” Lillian began.  Phillip interrupted her, addressing both of his kids. 

“Be back here in five minutes, you two,” he said, waving a finger at them.

“We will,” Ida said before walking quickly down the aisle, Dean close behind her.  There was the hiss of the door opening and then silence. 

“They won’t be back in five minutes,” Lillian said over her tea. 

“I’m willing to go get them,” Phillip faced her and smiled.  She  felt safer, suddenly.  The tea was sweetened just perfectly and had the right amount of milk.  It wasn’t Earl Grey, like she had hoped.  Few things on the train were perfect, but they would soon be in New Brunswick and it would all be over. 




Tuesday, October 21, 2014

nightmares




The recurring nightmare that caused Alexander’s sleeping phobia – even his dread of  bedtime – took place in a car.  He never could remember how he got in the car, only that he’d be in the back seat of a moving vehicle, careening down a street at a speed of forty miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic.  His dream became a nightmare the moment he realized that no one was driving.

Each time the car was different.  Sometimes it would be a large Cadillac, other times it would be an old Ford truck -once it was a school bus.  It would be different cities, all unidentifiable – but always filled with people walking here and there.  Alexander would be panicked as he looked out the windshield, watching the near misses of pedestrians as they dove out of the way; the headlights of oncoming traffic swerving out of the way to avoid collision.   

He would try to climb into the front seat, hoisting a sweaty and limp leg over the unreasonably high bench that kept him from the steering wheel.  The other leg would follow and Alexander would then try to reach the foot pedals with his uncooperative feet, always bending at the ankles or getting caught on tissue boxes or old coffee mugs on the floor.  In the chaos, he could see other cars on the periphery, all obeying traffic laws as his runaway car threatened the otherwise peaceful road. There would be swearing and heavy breathing as he tried with all his might to situate himself in the driver’s seat.  As he felt the bumpy red steering wheel in his hand, there was always the feeling that it was all his fault. 

He would awake with a start, usually bolting up - right before he hit a tree or ran off a bridge or hit another car, causing great bodily injury.  He would be breathless in the dark, trembling and sweating as if it all had happened – there in his room.  Filled with fear, then relief and finally guilt, he only had one question:  How could he have let this happen again? 

Being a man of research, Alexander Ewald Gross had researched the field of recurring dreams and nightmares and even watched films on how to stop the recurrence.  None of the touted methods worked.  The mind control techniques were for the weak minded or newly haunted subjects, not for him – someone who had been plagued by the same nightmare since he was a boy.

He had tried everything.  Alexander had even become an expert on the wide array of available sleep medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter.  That tea?  Yes, it was good, but it was very light and didn’t take away the active mind in sleep.  That pill?  It was successful to knock the subject out, but the dreams continued in a surreal fashion, with the car becoming a melted mass of steel and the steering wheel resembling a Remo drumhead.   Alcohol only worked if it had to be the very fine or expensive stuff, like Tanqueray Gin or Bowmore whiskey.  Both had been distilled so beautifully that Alexander hoped they would be the cure; they only caused more of the same. 

Doctors he consulted as an adult were a confederacy of dunces.  As a teen, his mother mentioned his nightmares to his pediatrician, which made Alexander blush deep scarlet, but the doctor proved to have the wisest solution:  lots of reading and plenty of football.  Alexander found a home in both books and sport but the hellish repetition continued each night as REM sleep set in.

“You look weary, Gross,” his boss told him one morning at the coffee machine. “How are you sleeping?”


“I don’t really sleep,” Alexander answered without thinking.

“Really?” His boss leaned forward and tapped him on the elbow.  “Why not?”

Alexander explained weakly about his dream life keeping him awake.  Before he could finish his boss announced, “I’ve got just the thing!”

Alexander looked at him through his sore, dry eyes.  Could this little round man who did nothing for him other than check his reports actually have an answer? He decided to ask him.

“What do you have?”

“Serena!” His boss raised his eyebrows up and down, suggestively.  The thought of his boss entertaining a woman made Alexander nauseous. He had to be sixty years old – ugly as sin and woefully out of shape.  “A young guy like you?  You should have no problem at all sleeping!  I’ll bring her to your desk by the end of the day.”

Alexander returned to his desk with a steaming brown mug, careful not to trip and lay himself flat between the impersonal grey cubicles that constituted the hallway. He wondered if he looked well enough to meet a woman that would “help him sleep”.  The thought made him nervous and for the rest of the day, he could barely concentrate.  He made simple mistakes in sentence structure, printed reports to the mainframe printer (he had to descend two flights of stairs to retrieve them) and spilled coffee all over his beige tie.

At four fifteen, his boss appeared in his cubicle, suddenly.  “Gross!”

Alexander was startled and spun around quickly, hearing a small air bubble pop in his neck.  “Yes?” 

His boss put a small, square-bottomed, brown paper bag with twisted paper handles in front of him.  It looked like nothing – Alexander peered inside.  It was a small stainless steel radio box, resembling  an old alarm clock with a black cord that plugged into the wall.  He looked up, wearily, at his boss.
“May I present Serena.” His boss waved his hands at the bag.  “The woman I told you will help you sleep.”

“I’ve tried white noise, sir…”

“Oh, she’s not white noise!” His boss shook his head and reflected in quiet homage.  “She will whisper your name and chase those dreams away.  Now take her, read the directions and use her tonight.”  His boss looked over his shoulder and then leaned forward, speaking in a hushed voice.  “I expect an update tomorrow.  If she is who I think she is, you’ll soon be sleeping like a baby.”

Alexander watched the small man waddle down the hall, waving goodbye to some of his co-workers.  Looking inside the bag once more, Alexander saw the worn set of instructions – a pamphlet typed in English and Japanese.  He decided to give her a try. 

After a dinner of ham and eggs, Alexander pulled out the stainless steel box and read the instructions, desperate to achieve rest.  Through the fog of listless distraction, he managed to concentrate enough to bring the box into his bedroom and plug it into the outlet closest to his nightstand.  He read how the unit must be programmed by first clearing the memory. 

Whispering the instructions aloud to himself, Alexander murmured: “Press start button until red light stops flashing.”

He pressed the only button he could see, a nickel-sized button on top of the box.  A red light suddenly flashed in the digital display, blinking for fifteen seconds before it stayed on.  Alexander nervously returned to the instructions.

“When red light stays on, say your full name into speaker.”

There was no visible speaker, so Alexander leaned close to the unit and spoke clearly: “Alexander Ewald Gross.”

The red light shut off suddenly.  Did he do something wrong?  The instructions continued: “As soon as the name has been recorded, the light will go off and you are ready to sleep serenely.”

Alexander read the entire set of directions again.  He looked at the box and wondered if he had programmed it properly.  He wasn’t sure if it was an electric placebo meant to influence his subconscious or if it was a cheap rip-off unit manufactured by new age nuts.  Either way, he decided to unplug it. 

As he bent over to do so, he changed his mind.  If his boss asked about it tomorrow, he needed to be able to honestly say that he had tried the box and that it hadn’t worked. If by some miracle he didn’t have the nightmare, he could tell his boss he was right.  Either way, he’d need to answer in a way that would foster good relations or perhaps enhance his chance for promotion.

Pajamas and toothbrush routines successfully completed, Alexander climbed into bed and began reading his latest mystery novel, now and then glancing at the box.  It wasn’t until he was in the car, careening down a road with oncoming headlights did he realize he was sleeping and dreaming.  

Alexander breathed heavily in the back seat, his green pin-striped pajamas were sticking to him he was sweating so much.  Suddenly, in the middle of his panic, he saw her.  There, in the driver’s seat was a woman – a real woman with red long hair and milky white skin.  From his vantage point in the back seat, Alexander could tell she was beautiful, even though he couldn’t see her face.

“Hello,” he said.

She turned to him, glancing carefully and then returning her gaze to the road.  “Hello!”

Instead of climbing over the seat, Alexander decided to sit where he was.  He realized he wasn’t wearing a seat belt and reached for it. 

“You don’t need a seat belt, Alexander,” Serena said softly.  “This is a dream.”

He sat back and let go of the buckle, placing his hands on his lap.  He watched the road for a short while and then stared at the back of her head.  “I guess you know my name because I told you, huh?”
She laughed a little.  When she did, Alexander realized she was supporting him, not making fun of him.  “I love your name,” she looked back at him again.  Her thickly lashed eyes were a pale green, just like his own.  “I was wondering if you could tell me how you got your middle name.”

“Ewald?” Alexander realized there was no hiding; she knew everything about him.  He didn’t know how or why, but he knew she knew everything.  “You know that Ewald was my mother’s father, remember?”

Serena didn’t answer him.  Instead, she continued to drive and Alexander could see that the road was changing; it became sparsely populated.  They were leaving the city and going into the country, he could see apple orchards in his periphery.   Serena gently spoke, he voice like a cloud of feathers over his body. 

“You called your mother’s father Grandpa.   I didn’t know his name was Ewald.”

Alexander felt five years old again.  He looked at his hands, folded in his lap and realized that he actually had become five years old in his dream.  Was Serena taking him to Grandpa’s house?  His grandparents’ house used to be out behind the apple orchards, where the old farmer’s market was held.  A canning plant and a packing station used to be in full swing during the autumn.  Alexander remembered going there….

“Are we going to Grandpa’s?” Alexander heard his voice and was moved with emotion.  He was a young boy, at the mercy of the driver, going to a familiar place.  Why was his heart beating so fast?

“No, we’re not.” Serena was quiet for a moment and Alexander breathed deeply.  She spoke again, this time looking over at him for a long time.  Alexander was not frightened as she took her eyes off the road for an extended period.  Instead, he looked deeply into them and listened to her.  “You don’t ever have to go to that place again.  There is never a need for you to feel guilty about what happened there.”

Alexander nodded at her.  His eyes clouded with tears.  “What if Grandpa comes looking for me?”

Serena continued to look into him and reassure him.  “There will be no way he can find you.  

Besides, he can’t find you because he’s dead.  He’s in another world now.”

Before he could digest this fact, he realized that they were there – at the packing plant.  The big wooden boxes that held the apples were stacked up to the roof of the hangar, giants against the small car they had driven to get there.

Standing outside the car, Serena held his tiny hand in hers.   Alexander’s pajamas were now covered in trains. He remembered the slippers he wore with them as a boy, but when he looked down his feet were bare.  The ground was dirt, hard and compacted by years of wear.  All around him was the dark glow of the orchards, the packing plant was closed, but the smell of red delicious apples was in the air. 

“You see this place?” Serena was asking him.  “This place can’t hurt you.  This memory can’t hurt you.  You are now safe and you have no need to worry.”  He felt her hand squeeze his and he leaned against her, hoping to hug her legs.  Instead, the roar of a tractor woke him suddenly and he sat up in his bed, bolting upright.  Instead of sweat, Alexander was covered in wonder.  His eyes, opening to the morning light turned toward the box, buzzing like a tractor in the distance.  The digital display was blinking: “6:30”.

At work, Alexander served himself coffee, still taking in the events of the night before.  He felt remarkably rested, even though the dream was still very clear in his mind. 

His boss entered the break room, whistling.  “Gross!  Good Morning!”

Alexander turned to him and unwittingly smiled.  “Good morning, sir.”

His boss’ expression was fast and perfect, as if he knew that something had transpired.  “How was your night with Serena?”

Alexander feigned confusion, blinking as he tried to maintain a dim expression.  “Oh, yeah…  I forgot to use that thing you gave me.”  His deceit was plain, but for some reason, Alexander’s boss decided to play along.

“Oh, really?  I was just about to tell you that you look rested.”

“Well,” Alexander stirred his coffee.  Two ladies from shipping and receiving came in, talking about a show they had both seen on television the night before.

His boss poured himself a cup of coffee, ignoring the women and continuing with Alexander.  “If you decide to use her tonight, say a different name into the speaker.”  He poured carefully into his mug and then turned to Alexander. “It will be even more magnificent.”

For a moment Alexander wanted to confess, but decided to continue his charade of ignorance.  “I don’t know what you mean, but I’ll try that.”

Both men walked out of the break room and down the row of cubicles in awkward silence.  It was finally no use.

“Where did you get it?” Alexander suddenly asked. 

His boss continued to walk, not even looking at him.  “It was given to me by my boss after I told him I had problems sleeping.”

Alexander stopped walking as soon as he got to his cubicle.  He watched his boss keep walking, eventually turning the corner that led to his office.  Alexander sat  in his chair and turned on his computer.  Rested and fit, he now realized he might eventually have to part with the box.  He intended to find another one just like it somewhere.  Somewhere there was sure to be one.  One that could be his to keep.  Keep forever.  Without worry of parting with her.  Without her, his Grandpa Ewald might raise from the dead and find him somewhere in his REM sleep.





Monday, October 20, 2014

Barney



There is a tree outside my window that has leaves that are orange and red and yellow.  The tree is called Barney because when me and Daddy planted it he said we had to give it a name.  I said what about Barney and he said that sounds good.  It was right before he left us.

Barney was a green tree at first and had to be supported by big stakes, just like broom handles.  Daddy dug a big hole in the front yard and he was sweating.  I asked him if I could help and he said just hold that tree son and I did.  When it was time we put Barney into the hole and then covered him back up with dirt.  Mama came out of the house and said that the tree was planted too close to my window and not to be scared if the branches hit my window when the wind blew.  Daddy asked her how do you like the tree otherwise and Mama said its fine.  Then she went back into the house.

That was just before Arnie was born, my little sister.  I think she is cute and shiny but she poos a lot and Mommy is the only one who changes her.  I can’t change her because I can’t stand the smell of poo, even my own poo.  Daddy used to hold her until she pooed and then he’d hand her to Mommy.  She would say I sure would like some support around here she’s your baby too but Daddy said the smell made him gag.  I laughed at the face he made and I said it reeked to high heaven, which is what he usually said.   When I said that both Mommy and Daddy laughed and looked at each other, which was nice.  Then Daddy said you got that right son that diaper sure stinks but I love your sister. Arnie wiggled around while Mommy changed her and I went to find my tricycle.

Later Arnie learned to crawl and Mommie took me to a place called preschool where I met Ted and Tyler and we started a club that climbed on the monkey bars.  We are the climbing rangers, that’s the name of our club.  We like each other and we will not let girls join, which makes me a little sad because there is a girl Sarah who climbs the jungle gym all by herself when we are done.  I wish she could join our club but Tyler says no. 

One day I came home from preschool and Mommie said we need to talk Ben.  She only said that to me one time before and that’s when Rodent my pet hamster died because I didn’t feed him.  I thought I was in trouble but then I saw she had my snack on the table like usual so I walked over there and sat down.  She made me chocolate chip cookies without wall nuts that day and there was a glass of real milk not almond milk for me to drink.  All of a sudden I realized I did something good.  Boy I thought she was gonna tell me something good.

Then Mommy told me that Daddy had moved out and he was going to live with Pop Pop and Grandma for awhile until they figured some things out.  I thought she was joking, so I put down my cookie and went to the closet and all his work boots were gone.  I looked back at her and she was crying which I hate. When she cries it makes everyone in the house sad.  Arnie was wiggling around in Mommie’s lap and trying to reach for my cookies, so I ran back to my place and took a bite of one and pushed my face close to hers, just to show her that it was mine.  Mommie said don’t do that Ben she’s just a baby and so I said sorry and sat back down.  Mommie stood up and blew her nose in the bathroom.  When she came back she sat down and she wasn’t crying anymore so I asked her who was going to mow the lawn.  Mommie said Daddy is still, which made me feel better because Mommie never has the energy to mow the lawn and I don’t know how to.  Besides, I get to help Daddy mow the lawn and Mommie brings us iced tea and its pretty fun.  We stand up and drink it together and say cheers and clink our glasses.  After a few sips of iced tea Daddy says are we ready to get back to work, son? And I say I guess and he starts mowing the lawn again and I look for rocks in front of the lawn mower.  It’s pretty fun to work with Daddy  and I think it would be bad if we couldn’t do it together.

Now at dinner time we eat without him and Mommie cooks spaghetti like normal or sometimes she makes masanya which is really good.  I feel bad for Mommie because she has to watch the news all by herself and say things like how about that to me instead of Daddy.  I’m hoping that she doesn’t want me to start watching the news with her - I can’t because it’s just like poo.  I can’t stand it.
Baby Arnie is starting to take her first steps and Mommie called Daddy three times and said if you want to see her first steps you better get over here but he didn’t come.  Daddy lives far away at Pop Pops and he drinks beer with him and Mommie says Daddy is busy too busy to see his kids.  I know she’s mad at Daddy but she’s nice to me and Arnie so that’s the way it has to be.

Last night Mommie came into my room and said it was supposed to storm and howl and the tree might hit my window.  I looked at Barney and all his leaves were so pretty but they were falling off.  I asked Mommy if Barney’s leaves were losing their coloring fill and she laughed.  She said where did you hear such a thing and I told her that Miss Jenny told us at school.  The leaves on trees turn orange and yellow because their coloring fill goes away.  Without coloring fill they cannot be green and make the air nice and they will fall off the tree.  Miss Jenny said this is called FO TO SIN THE SIS and in autumn we see the leaves change color because they are already dead.

Mommie was smiling at me and she shook her head and said my smart boy are you paying attention in class like you are sposed to and I said yes and she kissed me.  Then she got tears in her eyes and said -everything changes Ben everything changes.  I didn’t know what to say so I said that a square has four equal sides just to see if she would smile again but she didn’t.  She said if you get scared just come into my room and tell me.  I said I would but I wanted to tell her that I’m pretty big now and I don’t get scared anymore.   

When she left my room I looked out at Barney and thought about how he lost his coloring fill and his leaves were already dead they were just hanging on.  They were good leaves but they had no choice – they had to die because trees have seasons and one day they’ll be back. 

There’s been so much change this year for me and Barney.  I think about Daddy and how he and Mommie are living in different houses now but that’s the way it has to be.  Mommie gets sad when she talks about it and Daddy says there’s nothing I can do about it son Mommie just asked me to leave and I had to.  I think I notice that he’s gone the most on Saturdays because that’s when he was a Daddy, not every other day.


I wonder if I’m like Barney, losing my leaves and not knowing it because they were dead already. Day by day I’m changing and now it’s almost winter and I better get a coat soon or else I’ll be cold.  I’m glad I’m not a tree like Barney because soon he’ll be naked like all the other trees on the street.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wanda




Saturday is the day that we get paid to read to the patients, at least the ones who don’t have family.  While some patients have the privilege of family members that live nearby and take the time to visit them, others are stranded without much human contact from the outside world.  Because all of the nursing assistants are usually saddled with all of the work of the maintenance staff, Saturdays we are relieved of basic housecleaning duties in exchange for visiting with the residents who are alert enough to know they have no family visiting and wish they would.

I try to choose one patient a week that I haven’t met before; I’m relatively new here so I haven’t met all of the patients.

“I’m Sophie,” I introduced myself to Wanda, a woman dressed in a dark blue dress and seated in her wheelchair.  As I held out my hand to shake, she placed hers lightly in mine, as if I were supposed to kiss it.  I wiggled the weak offering, her papery white skin shifting in my fingers.

“I’m Wanda,” she said softly.  Something told me that Wanda knew I was her compulsory reader; she wasn’t impressed.  “I am actually fine today, dear.  You can move on to someone else who needs a visitor more than I do.”

I sat down on the orange straight backed chair next to the bed, neatly made up with its harvest gold bedspread in place.  “Actually, I’m trying to meet everyone.  I’m new here.”

Wanda managed a little smile.  “Oh, well…”

“Do you mind if I stay?  I was hoping I could just get to know you.”

Wanda nodded, carefully examining my face for a motive.  She was a thin woman, probably in her mid-eighties, with pale skin and a shock of white hair, combed straight back.  That day she was wearing a pearl brooch, which looked carefully placed on the blue chiffon dress. 

“Is that a dove or an angel?” I asked, pointing to it. 

Wanda followed my eyes down to her brooch; she shrugged and looked up again.  It was then I noticed her eyes were blue.  “One of the nurses brought it back for me from her vacation.  I didn’t have the heart to ask her what it was.”  Her odd confession made us both laugh.

“Yeah, it’s the thought that counts, right?”

“Exactly.”  Wanda was eyeing the book I held in my hand.  “Is that what you’re reading?  Is that why you wanted to get to know me?”

I looked down at the brown hardcover I had chosen from the shelf in the main dining room:  “Murder at Glass River.”  It seemed as good a book as any and had a decent sized font.  “This seemed like an interesting title, do you like mysteries?  I think it’s a mystery.”

“It’s a murder mystery,” she said.

“Yeah, a murder mystery.  Have you read it?”

Wanda waited before she answered. “Yes.”  She was looking at me suspiciously, and it made me nervous. 

“I could go choose another one.”

At this point, Wanda put her frail hands on the wheels of her chair.  She looked like she was trying to turn toward me or maybe leave the room.  I started to stand up to help her when She pointed at the cover. 

“I wrote that book,” she said, wiggling her finger at the title.  “Is this why you wanted to read it to me?”

I looked down at the cover and saw the title again, then looked at the binding to see the author’s name: Wanda Ferris.  My face grew warm and I looked up at her again.

“You’re Wanda Ferris?”

She smiled again.  “Yes, I am.”

“This is you?”

She laughed a little.  “Yes.”

“Why are you here?” I blurted out, maybe a little too loud.  I regretted saying anything as soon as the words left my mouth. 

For some reason, the question didn’t surprise Wanda.  She smiled and put her hands back in her lap, straightening her dress as she did.  “Why am I here in this convalescent hospital, or why am I here in a Medicaid room with two other patients?  Why am I here on visiting day with no one around me?  Why what?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, my face reddening even more.  “I didn’t mean anything by that.  I just meant…” I shifted in my seat, which suddenly felt stiff and unforgiving.  “I ... I’ve never met an author before, and this is quite a coincidence.”

Wanda shook her head.  “I thought that maybe one of the other nurses told you I wrote that book and that’s why you came over here to read to me.  Most of them know that’s one of my books.”

I shook my head.  “Really, I didn’t know.”

“Oh, then it really is a coincidence.”  There was an awkward silence and I felt embarrassed for both of us.  The room that Wanda was in was a low-cost shared room, one where the Medicaid and social security were taken as payment.  It wasn’t like the nicer rooms in the east wing: private rooms where there was actually real furniture.  I also wondered where Wanda’s friends and family were; was she all alone?  How could I ask her?

“How many have you written?”  I finally got the nerve to ask her.

Wanda put her hand next to her ear.  “What was that?”

“How many books have you written?” I said, louder.

She smiled.  “Oh, about ten or so.  I’ve only had eight published, though.  That series there sold the most.  Everyone seemed to love that murder mystery series.”

“Well, should I read it aloud to you?” I was now curious to read it myself.

“Are you a student working here part-time?”  Wanda asked, out of the blue. 

I smiled.  “Yes, how did you know?”

Her eyes sparkled and she nodded.  “You’re young, like most college students.  This is a college town and jobs are scarce sao a lot of them work here.  I’ve never seen you before and it is October; you must have just started your fall semester.  Also, you seemed relatively impressed that I wrote a book, a lot of people wouldn’t care but students do.”

I couldn’t help but be impressed.  “Yeah, that’s about right.”

Wanda shrugged again.  Maybe it was a habit of hers; I didn’t know her well enough yet to know for sure.  “Why don’t you take the book home and read it and then when you work next we can discuss it.”

I nodded.  “I’d really like that.”

“For now, tell me more about yourself,” She put her elbow on the armrest and then her chin in her hand.  “What are you studying?”

I sat back in the chair, wondering if I was allowed to talk and not read.  For the moment, I didn’t care.  I was wondering if all of the patients were this interesting.  I doubted it; it was impossible to know for sure.

“Music,” I said, finally.  “In fact, I can play three different instruments.” 

And we sat there and talked for an hour or so before the sun made the long shadows that told me it was almost time to go home.




Friday, September 26, 2014

Harmony


Harmony
September 2014


Harmony will be five years old, meaning that she is filled with beauty and wonder and curiosity. On our “nature walks” (so named by her) she picks up items that we find and asks questions about them. Once we get home, she glues them to large pieces of paper and proclaims them to be her "work paper".  Her collages are starbursts of pine needles, leaves, pieces of pine cones and a red signature at the top: HARMOnY.

The collages will be with me at the moment of my death – that’s how embedded in my heart they are – that’s how important they are to me. 

Born on September 27th, 2009 - surrounded by love and expectation, Harmony didn’t breathe for her first minutes of life.  We watched, helplessly as doctors massaged her little body and I prayed for the Spirit of the Resurrection to breathe life into her.  When she finally took breaths and became rosy, we all breathed sighs of tearful relief and took oodles of pictures of her.  We haven’t stopped;  Harmony has to be the most photographed child in the world.

Harmony learned to crawl and then walk; make sounds and then talk; and finally call us Grandpa and Grandma – all while we were in Africa.  When we returned to the USA, Harmony was filled with love and joy that we were home.  It took a year of once a week visits before she stopped asking when we were flying “home to Africa.”

These once a week visits to Chico have been wonderful – all filled with the life that is found in a home of small children.  My daughter warns me (as I warned my own mother) to follow her rules with them and not spoil them.  I try my hardest, but it is a feat of note.

She loves to dance, sing, play games, dress up, talk to strangers (like her mother), play with kids her age (my friends!), and most of all - be read to.  My absolute favorite thing is savoring books that I used to read to her mother as we sit against her bed.  As we marvel at the words and illustrations, she finishes the sentences, just like her mom used to. 

“Oh, Grandma,” Harmony will say spontaneously, during our together times.

“What, honey?”  I’ll ask her.

“Oh, I just love you so much.”

That last part is said in her voice which I will never be able to capture with words, no matter how great of an artist I am. 


The love and joy she brings to our lives is irreplaceable and my heart is swollen at the thought of her.  Happy Birthday, Harmony – you are one in a gazillion.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sue





Some people are solid gold in your life. 

I met Sue in Los Angeles and right away we were laughing.  I was with my friend, Nicole and we already had the giggles.  I had turned to greet some other folks at the large conference we were attending and as I turned back , Nicole was involved in deep conversation with a petite redhead who seemed happy to have found her. 

I still smile, remembering our first meeting being swept into the most beautiful conversation with her – eventually being struck with terrible, uncontrollable laughter that called attention to ourselves.  We were guffawing so hard it made others stare…and eventually laugh along. 

That’s how I met Sue.

She and I became friends – good friends, although it doesn’t take a lot to love her and become good friends with her.  She is the kind of person who has several good friends.  I just like to think I’m one of her besties….

When  I lived in South Africa, Sue and I were confidantes, having deep, open communication that I thirsted for there and found rare.  If it weren’t for friends like Sue, I think I would have died.
With Sue, I just died laughing.

Sue is a JOY EXPERT.  She works as a Joy activist, a motivational speaker employed by corporations to encourage their employees to lighten up – and become more productive in the process.  This is a dream job for Sue – one that I never knew could exist …until she made it so. 

Sue has recenltly found herself among an elect few that have been given the chance to compete for their dream come true – sponsored by Vodacom (South Africa’s premier communication company).  Sue’s dream is to get Johannesburg laughing together – it truly is an incredible feat.  If anyone can do it, Sue can.  My favor that I ask of you today is that you VOTE for her here:



I am sure our votes can make her win this thing –  LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL!!!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Gran


Gran and I - October 2011



Her name was Gertie, but she introduced herself as “Gran”.

“I’m Gran to everyone here,” she laughed.  “No matter how old they are, I am Gran.”

“That’s not true,” my friend Joy said from across the room.  She was officially the leader of our Wednesday morning prayer group and therefore in charge of order.  “I will always call you Gertie and we are both Grandmothers!”

I smiled at the close bond they seemed to have.  Instead of contradicting her, it was a gentle reminder that they were long-time friends and in this thing together.  The other women in my prayer-group had also known her for a long time, as well.  I was the new one – newly arrived from America –new to the prayer group.

“I’m a grandmother, too,” I said quietly.  The ladies looked at me. 

“Well, you’re a young Gran,” Gertie said, smiling. "It's not the same as being an older woman, like me."

Gran knew the Bible well, especially the part about older women being "reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored." (Titus 2:3-5)

For some reason, Gran took this challenge seriously, and taught us all like she was commissioned by God Himself - and in a way, she was.  I loved listening to her stories of faith and words of comfort – older women have a way of looking back on time that’s passed and saying “Look how faithful God was there!  Do you see?”  

That’s what I love about hanging out with women who are older than me… They are patient with the challeges of today because they've lived through so many challenges already.

It didn’t take long for me to see that Gran was this way for many of the women in our church.  We all saw her as a pillar of faith – a woman who had been through so much and still shone with expectation of what was coming next.  She had sparkle in her eyes and warmth running through her veins.  She lived each one of her days. 

Before Mario and I moved away from South Africa, I visited her at the residence of her son and his wife – our dear friends, the Myburgh’s.  They had retired from Johannesburg and moved to a tranquil piece of land near George that had as much wild as disciplined gardens.  Queen proteas were everywhere, and Gran was able to see them as she sat in her favorite seat by the picture window.

“Gran, you look amazing,” I told her. 

“I don’t like all of these spots on my face,” she laughed.  “Other than that, I can’t complain.”  

We talked a little about her life at the farm, the way she had classic aches and pains and her readiness to go to heaven.  “I think sometimes that God has forgotten about me!” she joked.  “I have to remind Him that I’m ready to go on and be with Him.”

“I think he knows,” I tried to reassure her.

“Tell the ladies at prayer that I still can pray,” she said, emphatically.  I told her I would.


Today I received the news that God remembered Gertie and took her to be with Him, finally.  From my calculations, she was 97 and 5 months old.

I know she’s in a better place, I know she is finally out of pain, but the world has really lost someone special.  She was a classic “woman of faith” – a woman of prayer and a woman who believed God is who He says He is. 


She will always be an inspiration for me to live each one of my days.