Stained Glass Prayers

God, I miss her. It’s only been a few days. I haven’t decided where to spread her ashes or if maybe I should just keep them. I haven’t thought about a memorial service, because no one but me gave Mom the time of day. She lived in her tiny old house, sleeping one door away from my son and two doors away from me. I moved in with her when my husband left. She’s the only person who never did leave me. Even Sam, at five-years-old, packs his little suitcase every other weekend and drives away with his father.

“Susan?”

Speak of the devil and he shall appear.

“Susan, I know you’re in there.”

The downside of husbands knowing everything about you is now my ex-husband knows everything about me, including where I go when I need to think.

“I’m not coming out, Rick. Move on.” I watch the doorknob at the foot of the stairs. It won’t matter if he touches it. It’s locked.

“Come on, babe. Let me in. I know you’re hurting.”

I close my eyes and curl my fingers into the red shag carpet. Colors dance across my eyelids. Stained glass images of Jesus are burned there from the windows lining the wall above my head.

“I dropped Sam off at my mother’s,” Rick says. “She can keep him all weekend if you need some time to regroup.”

“I don’t need to regroup,” I practically shout. “I haven’t effing grouped in the first place.”

He tries the knob. I open my eyes and watch the metal glitter in light from the stained glass. The white door is covered in red triangles and blue curves to match the waves Jesus walked on. The gold of the knob reflects a halo.

I’ve come here since I was a kid, since back when it was still our church and my youth pastor had an office underneath this staircase. He gave me a key. I never gave it back.

“How do you stand it in there?” Rick asks.

I’m normally claustrophobic, and this stairwell is little more than a closet, but the dark walls feel more like a womb than a tomb, and the red carpet is soft as the quilt at home on Mom’s bed. It smells musty with a hundred years of prayers, like they’ve soaked into the wood and glass and metal all around me.

I run one finger down a crack in the wall. It’s been there for ages now, but it’s gotten longer. The church should have their foundation checked. I should’ve had my foundation checked. Maybe, if I’d noticed the cracks like this one when they first started forming, my ex-husband wouldn’t be on the other side of the door, because he’d be at home with me, in my bed, still my husband, holding me through this hard time.

And maybe I would’ve seen how the cancer was spreading. I could have taken Mom in sooner. I could have insisted she see a new doctor, tried a new drug, prayed a hundred years of stained glass prayers right here with me.

“I’m not going anywhere, Susan.” Rick’s voice is so soft it barely carries through the wood. It nestles in the carpet beside me, and my throat swells.

“Go away,” I whisper, but my own voice is hoarse. It tumbles from my lips to my chest and lodges there. Rick can’t hear me. Mom can’t hear me. Nobody can hear me anymore.

The colors shimmer on the door and disappear. My head snaps back and I get to my feet. High above me, the stained glass has gone dark. The shining face of Jesus doesn’t glitter anymore. Now his eyes are angry slashes across brown skin. Behind him, storm clouds gather on this Alabama afternoon. Lightning flashes. For a moment, I can’t remember if this is real or not. Am I in a church or on the Sea of Galilee?

The doorknob turns again. This time it opens.

“Rick?” I look down, but it’s not my ex standing on the stairs. It’s a man with a ponytail. He wears a tan jumpsuit and carries a large cross. “Jesus?”

“No, name’s Bill,” the man says.

“Susan,” Rick appears behind Bill.

I feel weak and put a hand on the wall. The crack bites into my flesh, and I wince.

“If I could just squeeze past you, ma’am.” Bill takes a step toward me. “I have to get this crucifix up to the attic.” He’s a janitor. Or a maintenance man. What do they call them now? I can’t remember.

“I’ve got her,” Rick reaches around Bill and puts a hand on my shoulder. He moves me to one side and Bill walks past, the foot of the cross dragging on the carpet, Jesus’s tattered body floating by me. I take my hand off the wall and put it on his wooden skin. Then Bill is gone, the cross is gone, Jesus is gone, and the thunder outside shakes the building.

“There’s a storm coming, babe. Let’s get you home before it hits.”

I sink to my knees and lean my head against Rick’s thighs. “I don’t have a home anymore.”

“What? Of course you do.” Rick kneels beside me, pulling me to his chest. “I saw the will. Your mother left you the house and her car and, well, everything.”

I shake my head. There’s a broken communion wafer on the ground, and it cuts into my knee, but I don’t shift my weight. I don’t move at all.

“The house doesn’t matter,” I sob. “Mom… Mom was my home.”

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Everything is Now

She sits down her coffee cup and smiles. It’s a soft smile, a knowing smile.

My chest tightens, hard as stone around my heart.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she says.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” I look away. My eyes can’t bear to see her, to see someone who isn’t really there.

“What?”

“Nothing.” I meet her gaze. My throat constricts. “I’m afraid of nothing. All of this life, and then… nothing.”

“You know better. Look at me. I’m happy.”

“Are you?” I squeeze the dishcloth tight in my hands. I lean across the table.

She picks up her coffee, sips it, smiles.

“Yes. I’m happy.”

“But you’re not real anymore.”

“Of course I am. Time is a human construct. Aren’t you always saying that?”

“Everything is now,” I mumble.

“Exactly,” she says.

I follow the thought. “And if everything is now…”

“There can be no nothing. Always always always, there is something, because everything is now.”

I reach out. I want to touch her. She reaches too. I close my fingers over hers and then…

There’s nothing.

The sobs fall out of my mouth, spilling like apples from a basket dropped, bumping across the tile floor, my orange rug, the startled cat.

Everything is now, she said. Exactly what I always say.

Still, I am stuck here, in the middle of this fear. Sometimes, when you’re sinking in the middle of the ocean, no words can pull your eyes away from your own afraidness.

She was never really here, not sipping coffee in my kitchen, because she died seven years ago. She died and moved on… to what? To where?

I’m supposed to believe she’s in heaven. I’m supposed to be comforted.

I’m not.

I’m terrified of nothing.

 

*originally published on Middle Places

She Left with Roxanne

Roxanne was perfect.

Flawless.

Jules knew it the moment she spotted her, wearing sleek black and silver, her angles sharp and curves soft.

“You are mine,” Jules said aloud.

A man in khakis glanced up and arched one eyebrow.

Jules ignored him. She left with Roxanne.

That was ten years ago, ten tumultuous years. A lot changed, like her job in sales. Now she was VP of distribution. Jules used to wear wedges, and now she wore stilettos. She used to drive a used sedan, and now she drove an SUV with so many luxuries, it could double as a spa. Her hair had been long and wavy that day, when she first laid eyes on Roxanne. Now it was cut short and kept straight, hitting her jaw at just the right angle.

The truth of her loss hasn’t sunk in.

Jules stands alone in the cosmetics aisle at CVS. Her new circle of friends would be appalled to see her there. They all purchase their foundation and eye shadow from Sephora and stores of that ilk. Jules does not. She feels like a cheater even going in those stores. It was here, in this very aisle, that she spotted Roxanne, that she approached her confidently and admired her perfect balance of sexiness and no-nonsense know how.

“Ma’am?” A young man approaches. “This is the last one. I looked everywhere.”

He hands Jules a tube of lipstick.

She remembers taking Roxanne home, peeling her like fruit, pressing her lips against perfection. No one and no thing had ever made her feel that good.

Now she’s crying. In the cosmetics aisle. At CVS.

“I’m sorry,” the clerk mumbles. He looks at his feet and then backs slowly away from the crazy lady in her black suit and high heels. You get all types in a 24-hour drug store, but this is a new one for him.

Jules exits the store. She doesn’t stop to pay, and the cashier doesn’t notice. The young man does, but he keeps quiet. Something about her demeanor makes him think it’s not worth it. That woman isn’t all there.

In her car, Jules fingers the plastic cylinder. She watches the sunlight glint off the red waxy surface of the lipstick. One last time, she flips the tube upside down and reads the label, the name of the color…

Roxanne.

And, beneath that, a yellow sticker…

Discontinued.

——————————-

Thanks, Sasha, for your offering of a woman discovering her favorite lipstick has been discontinued after ten years.

Fiction: The Regulars

The world is only as big as one diner. At least, that’s how it feels when you work almost daily double-shifts at said diner, a cliche greasy spoon known only as Pal’s. Who is Pal? Or who was Pal? No one seems to know.  The sign above the door might once have read “Opal’s,” but it was hard to tell, and no one could remember an Opal anymore than a Pal.

Janine wipes down a table recently vacated by one drunk college kid and a badly dressed female whom Janine suspected was the boy’s mother. Parents today are crazy, letting their children drink and then buying them burgers at 4 o’clock in the morning. Janine checks her watch. It’s five, time for her regulars.

As if she’d summoned them with one brief wristward glance, Holland and Bob appear in the doorway, causing a little bell to tinkle them welcome and Janine to smile despite her fatigue. “Morning, doll.” Holland is the older of the two men, but not by much. He’d celebrated his 85th birthday just a month earlier, and she knows Bob will celebrate his own in a week or two. By celebrate, she means they ordered or would order pancakes instead of eggs and bacon instead of whole wheat toast.

“Coffee?” Janine stands with her hands on her hips. The wet table rag hangs from one apron pocket.

“Black,” Holland replies.

While Janine is getting the coffee, the old men slide into a freshly cleaned booth and Bob nods his head toward a car parked just outside their window. “You think she’ll ever get tired of this?”

“Who? Martha? Don’t be silly.”

“She’s about to have a baby, Land. She won’t be getting a lot of sleep.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Sadie will bring us for a few months, while Martha adjusts. You already asked her, right?”

Sadie is Bob’s oldest granddaughter. She’s a personal trainer or something newfangled like that. She is always up by four and can easily drop them by the diner each weekday morning.

Bob looks bewildered for a moment. This happens more often since the stroke.

“I’ll ask her,” Holland says. He hopes to save Bob from recognizing he’s forgotten something important once again. This is why he can no longer drive for the both of them. Holland’s neuropathy makes gas and brake pedals impossible, leaving them both license-less.

“It’s a boy,” Holland continues on, as though there’d been no senior moment to recognize and deal with. “She says he’ll be Holland Briggs Joyner. Holland for me and Briggs for Lewis’ father. You know, he died with the cancer just a year ago.”

“Hip wasn’t it?”

“Stomach,” Holland says.

Bob just nods, and Janine reappears with two cups of coffee. While Holland adds two sugars to his own mug, Bob sips his black.

“The usual, boys?” Janine holds her pad with a pencil poised above it, as if she needs to copy down their order, something she memorized more than a year ago.

“Two eggs, over easy,” Holland says.

“Scrambled for me,” Bob adds.

Their waitress disappears again, her yellow uniform skirt swishing against her legs. Bob watches her go, trying to remember her name. He just can’t make it form in his brain, let alone on his tongue.

“It’s Janine,” Holland answers Bob’s thought. They’ve always communicated this way, one brain for two men.

In the car, with the heater running, Martha sips from a bottle of green tea, one hand resting on her full belly. She can see the two men through the window, their familiar movements, the way her grandfather nods respectfully when Bob speaks, and the way Bob sometimes gets lost, his eyes drifting to the window and meeting her gaze. He stares blankly this time. He doesn’t remember she is there. She fears he isn’t long for this world, and she doesn’t want to think about that. Losing their wives had been hard, but losing each other? The two men were raised together, shared a crib sometimes, when Bob’s mother worked at the mill and Holland’s mother kept him overnight. What in the world will her grandfather do without Bob?

Fiction: Ribbit

Jill dragged me to this party, and I’m still thinking of the book I left at home and the glass of wine I planned to sip while reading said book. I should have slipped it into my purse. Maybe I could find a quiet room in this big house and sneak in a few chapters. Maybe I still can. I have a reading app on my phone. It’s not ideal, but surely it’s preferable to awkwardly talking to strangers in this…

“Jill, who’s party did you say this was?”

“Bobby’s.”

“And, is Bobby, I don’t know, a wee bit insane?”

“I don’t think so.” Jill looks around the room while she reapplies her lip gloss, scanning the crowd for her ex, I’m sure.

I turn my own eyes back to the walls around us. There are cages. Big cages and little cages. Some are along the edges of the room and some are hanging from the ceiling. I can’t believe Jill isn’t freaked the hell out.

“This is crazy,” I tell her, but then she isn’t there. I’m talking to myself. Out loud. At a party. Lord help me; I should be home with my book. Jill must have spotted her ex after all. Why did she insist on bringing me along if she was going to abandon me?

“Suze, is that you?”

I haven’t been called Suze since high school. I cringe at the sound of the cutesy nickname.

“It’s Suzanne,” I answer, finding a tall man in a ball cap standing in Jill’s place.

“Suzanne then,” he puts a hand forward to shake, and I try to see his eyes beneath the hat’s brim.

“And you are?” Screw being polite. I haven’t been Suze in close to twenty years; there’s no reason I should recognize a man who calls me Suze.

“Oh, sorry, Rueben Sloan. We had math together senior year.”

“Rueben,” I repeat. The name rolls around inside my head. I don’t remember a Rueben.

“I had the biggest crush on you.”

I step back nervously, and my shoulder bumps one of the metal cages. I curse and Rueben bounds forward to right the cage.

“Who is this guy, Bobby?” I ask, peering into the cage I almost upended.

“He’s a CEO of something or other, but he collects untouchables.”

“Untouchables?”

“You know, spiders, snakes, bull frogs…”

As he explains about Bobby’s pet obsession, I watch his lips move and slowly I remember. Untouchables. Bull frogs…

Rueben Sloan. He did sit behind me in math senior year. He was quiet, and he was gawky, like a deer just being born and falling all over itself trying to stand up. The other guys called him Ribbit. Ribbit Sloan. His wide mouth gave him a frog-like appearance. He once caught the hiccups in front of the entire school. He was supposed to be reading his essay, because it won an award.That’s when he earned the nickname, Ribbit. He helped me pass that math class, though. Or, he helped me cheat, anyhow.

“You saved my life,” I say now.

He blushes and takes off his ball cap. “Nah, it’s a sturdy cage. The snake wouldn’t have escaped.”

“I didn’t mean the snake. Though, I could have done without knowing it was a snake in there. I was pretending it was a bird or a hamster or, well, just about anything besides a snake.”

Rueben laughs, and his eyes shine. He isn’t so gawky anymore.

“I meant in math,” I finish. “I would have failed without you.”

He shrugs nonchalantly.

“What are you up to now? You still live around here?”

“I was living in Denver. I just moved home.”

“What dragged you back to this hell hole?”

“I own a chain of bookstores. I’m opening one downtown.”

“Bookstores?”

Rueben nods, and that’s when I know. This frog I once thought of as untouchable is sure to be my prince.