I Am Too Fat For My French Horn

I am too fat for my French horn,
too burdened on the lungs
to inhale and exhale enough.
I breathe just enough
but want more, to breathe more.
I am too fat for the swings at the park
where I whirled with my girls
when they were younger.
I am too fat for my wedding dress
I wore when I was younger, too.
There were jeans I slid on day after day
but I am too fat for my old jeans.
They hung in my closet until dust caked the fold
and I gave them away,
bagged them with size eights
and tossed them straight in the bin.
I don’t ride the swings or wear the dress,
and the jeans went away with good will.
And I shrug.
I sit tight with my French horn
and breathe and breathe just enough.
I am too fat for my French horn,
and I want more, to breathe more.

Wait, Summer!

I have always said this—
I love the change of seasons.
And I mean it.
But just now I am clinging to Summer
by its ankles as it pivots toward the door
and leaves the room.
Wait! Don't go yet!
I call as I tighten my grip around its shin bone,
and it pulls me across the floor,
bunching up the summer rug beneath me,
the green grass, snapdragons and sprawled out oregano now in folds.
It's about to drag me through
crunchy leaves and spiked acorns and withering herbs.
So I plant my feet flatly against the door frame,
knees locked and jaw set,
as Summer shrugs and shakes me off
with a fling of its foot.
And empty handed, I reach out with splayed fingers,
and I shout one last time,
Wait! Not yet!
Just one more day.

500 Words—Jean and the Cafe

 Jean turned the corner and stepped down gingerly from the curb, letting his stronger knee bear the weight before allowing his age-worn one to manage the cobblestones. He winced in anticipation as he took the next step, but today seemed a good day, and he crossed the street to the café without any more strain than warranted a few winded groans.

It was early, and the shops were just opening. A few grazers cased the fruit stand, one or two aimed for the bread shop and Jean set his course for one of the empty tables on the sidewalk. He set his jacket down in an empty chair and eased into the one beside it, and he exhaled with the sound of a man with weary bones.

When the server delivered his croissant and coffee, he watched how adept she was at holding the silver tray with one hand, and how she kept it perfectly level without a sign of trembling. “I’d have that thing listing south like a steam ship,” he thought.

“Thank you, dear,” he said, and with a shaky hand, he dipped a knife in the jam and spread it on the bread. He dropped a rock of sugar into his cup, dribbled in some cream and stirred. The rattling the spoon made against the ceramic launched him backward to when his hand was as steady as the hand of any fresh-faced kid, when he was full of the future.

There was a time when Jean could stir cream into anything with the smoothness of light, and the custard he produced was the best of all the cafés on the block. He turned raw ingredients into delectable treats that people stood in line just to sample, and each bite was an indulgence.

Every single layer of his opera cake touched the tongue with pleasure. Each bite of his profiteroles melted as quickly as the cream inside them. And a taste of his apple tart was like home on a cold evening in February.

Jean ran a tight pastry kitchen, and he was proud of his craft. “You’re not making dessert here,” he’d say to his apprentices. “You’re forming bite-sized pieces of art, and if you form them well, you’ll have the entire village lining up at your door.” “People know the difference between a strawberry tart made with no feeling and one made with the art and soul of a craftsman,” he would say. And if a boy who didn’t mind his advice set emotionless tarts into the pastry case, Jean would ship him off to a competitor. “Go make your slop under someone else’s shop sign, then.”

Jean took a bite of the croissant and watched as just enough flaky crumbs fell to the plate. There was nothing worse than a croissant that collapsed like a paper crane, and this one was done well. He leaned back and slurped from his cup, and he let out a satisfied sigh. Art is a good croissant, he thought.

500 Words—Me and Lo

I held onto Lorraine’s elbow to stable her as she gripped the top of the car and slid herself into the passenger seat. Lo slowly eased her legs into the car, which looked painful, tucked her cane at her side and held her elbows in as I closed the door for her.

“This is going to be one long trip,” I said to myself as I walked around to the driver’s side. I took in a big, slow breath of air before climbing in behind the wheel, half-thinking this might be the last breathing I’d do on the road and that I might be holding my breath for the next two days.

We drove in silence through town, passing the Krystal and the Piggly Wiggly, the competing Kroger across the street and the barbecue shack, maneuvering through intersections and light traffic. But once I pulled onto the highway, I let my shoulders relax, and I leaned back, and I looked over hoping to see Lo do the same, but that woman sat rigid. I asked her, “So, are you sure you’re up for two days in the car with your favorite daughter?”

Lo answered without expression. “I guess I can handle being in this hot car with my only daughter.” She bit on “only” and dragged it out as she slapped at the vents in front of her.

I adjusted the air conditioning and gripped the wheel, and I set my eyes on the steamy road ahead and aimed for Texas.

We weren’t far from the state line, and the highway would take us straight there, straight to Mom’s sister’s house, and Lo would stay for a month, and I would deposit her like I was boarding a cat. I would say “good bye” and turn around and drive back home with the radio on and the windows down. And I would sing out loud and stop for a beer when my eyes got tired, and I’d leave all the pent up tension behind with my mother’s suitcase. I would think of the easiness of the return trip when this westward leg would push my teeth together in a clench.

“I don’t know why you insist on making me fly home,” Lo said with her arms folded across her chest and her dissatisfied stare set on the blurred field brush in the distance.

“Because, Mother, as I’ve said before, I can’t get time off of work to come get you.”

Lo snorted through her nose, but I persisted. “I’ll be happy to pick you up at the airport, though, and I am happy to drive you out this one way because I know how much you hate flying.”

Lo sat quietly for a moment and almost whispered, “I thank you for that.” She relaxed her arms and let her hands rest in her lap and she asked would I mind stopping for a Coca Cola soon. I said I’d look for a place to get us out of the sun.

And again next day a thinly populated sky, losing its blue to the heat, would melt overhead, and Lo would clamour for a drink, and her cheeks would hollow vigorously over the straw, and the car inside would be a furnace when we got in again, and the road shimmered ahead, with a remote car changing its shape mirage-like in the surface glare, and seeming to hang for a moment, old-fashionedly square and high, in the hot haze.

500 Words—Lucho Makes A Friend

Lucho Abril Marroquin settled onto the park bench, the one on the northeast side of the square that was shaded by oak trees. He opened his paper sack and pulled out a fresh blueberry muffin he’d bought at the bakery a block down the street. He set his cup of tea on the bench beside him, and he spread a paper napkin on his lap.

He looked just to his left and saw a woman sitting on the next bench. She was wrapped in a shawl and was wearing tight leather gloves, and she’d placed her purse and a cup of tea tidily beside her. She held a book in her lap, and she was looking up the street as two gentlemen bickered loudly over who would repair the fender the other had just damaged.

“Good morning,” Lucho said. “It’s a nice morning, isn’t it?”

“Oh, good morning. Yes. Yes, it’s a lovely morning. A little chilly but nice.”

She gathered her shawl tightly around her, and Lucho began peeling the wrapper from the muffin.

“I thought it might be quiet here?” he said, hoping she’d welcome conversation.

“Well, actually, it’s usually quiet here, and I come here quite often, but this morning there have been two accidents, one after the other.” She pointed up the street. “This one here and one before that.”

“That’s a shame,” Lucho said. “People are in such a hurry.”

“And they don’t stop to pay attention,” she said. “ You know, the first one was much worse, and the police were called to sweep up the broken glass. One car had to be towed away, it was so badly damaged.”

“Really. You must have been here for quite a while then to have witnessed all of that.”

“I do like to sit here in the mornings.” The woman took the lid off of her cup of tea and took a tiny sip. “I enjoy the birds and the activity. I don’t remember seeing you here before, though.”

“I usually sit at the park for my breakfast, but today I thought I’d try something new.”

The two sat quietly for a few moments, with each one thinking of something to say to the other. They sipped at their tea and followed passing cars with their eyes, and the woman pretended to read her book.

“My name is Marroquin,” Lucho finally said. “Lucho Abril Marroquin.”

The woman replied, “It’s nice to meet you Mr. Marroquin. I am Carmen Alvarez.”

“Would you like to share my bench with me, Miss Alvarez? And perhaps a bit of muffin with your tea?”

“I’d be delighted, Mr. Marroquin.”

Lucho scooted over on the bench to make room for what would surely make his remaining years full and happy.

But with the passage of the years Lucho Abril Marroquin was to tell himself that of all the instructive experiences of that morning the most unforgettable had not been either the first or the second accident but what happened afterwards.

500 Words—Undiscovered Genius

When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it.

I stood with the wooden spoon in my hand, not quite ready to stir the custard for the Champagne torte, and wondered how best to use this gift I had developed, the seemingly magical ability to draw people in with my cooking skills.

Towns people would hear that I was planning a dinner party with roasted salmon and butternut squash and the creamiest risotto for miles around followed by a flourless chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream made with beans fresh from Madagascar, and they would hope to be one of the blessed few to be invited. They would sample my macaroons or lemon-glazed scones or blueberry tarts at the coffee shop counter and beg for more.

“Please, sir, tell us how to order more of these scrumptious morsels. We must have more. Our appetites have been wetted, and now we are insatiable.” And the coffee shop attendant would wave them away with a gesture of annoyance.

“Peasants,” he would say, “The culinary maestro can’t be bothered with your petty requests. Remove yourselves from my establishment.”

They would go away unsatisfied, and I would be left with the decision, now a moral one, to meet their common desires with my masterful creations or to leave them hungry. There will soon be a line outside my own personal door, and people will be waiting with money in hand, eyes closed and mouths salivating as they anticipate what wonders might emerge when I finally open my kitchen door. I will have a tray filled with small plates of the most deliriously appetizing delights—walnut cakes with caramelized apple compote, raspberry trifle with Grand Marnier cream, dark chocolate cups filled with silky mousse topped with edible gold shavings, generous slices of white chocolate cheesecake with sugar cookie crust and a modest drizzle of chocolate ganache.

The eager and impatient patrons will hold out their money with one hand and beg for samples with the other, and they will say in unison, “Aaahhh, look at the wonders she has made.”

As I peer into their adoring eyes, I will say, “My dears, no. Please put away your money. I couldn’t possibly take cash for what I am presenting to you. Take it. Please, with my good wishes.”

And in complete awe of my openhearted generosity, and with some amount of disbelief, they will put away their dirty cash and delicately select their favorites from the grand array. And they will thank me for making their otherwise gray and tasteless day one of bright colors and vibrant sensory satisfaction.

“Idiot line cook!” I hear bellowed from the swinging galley door. “Stop your daydreaming and stir the damned custard already. You’re going to curdle the eggs, for godsakes!”

I am shaken from my delirium, and I dip the wooden spoon into the custard. Minimum wage. Undiscovered genius. My talents are wasted.

500 Words—Bewitched

She made that odd shape with her lips that women make when they put on their lipstick, and she leaned closer into the mirror. She followed the shape of her stretched mouth with the stick of crimson and pressed her lips together to set the color.

“There,” she said to her reflection. “That should last long enough.” She flipped off the bathroom light, grabbed her keys and slammed the door behind her as she hopped off the front stoop. She was going to set wrong things right, and that mission added speed to her step.

She had met him at the post office. He was the postman who manned the counter every day from 8:00 to 1:00 with a smoke break around 10:30. She was the office worker whose job it was to pick up the mail, and every day she stopped by the dock in the back of the post office to get the big, plastic bin and hoist it into her car.

The first time she saw him, he was squatting on an upturned bucket, watching her walk across the parking lot as he flicked ashes into the puddle in front of his feet. “Hey,” he said to her, and she turned and said “hey.”

The second time she saw him, he was standing on her front porch, leaning against her and pressing his smoky lips against hers. She liked the feel of his long hair that draped over her hands as she held his shoulders. And she liked that he made her feel the way she remembered feeling at seventeen, a little wild, disinterested in eating and unable to sleep at night.

He was so unlike the men she had dated since college, the men she chose because they were more like adults than they were like bad children. He was a bad child, and she resisted the urge to be a scold, to replace the mother he seemed to be missing. Her friends were perplexed and said he was bad for her. But she was helplessly bewitched, she told them. Bothered, bewildered.

That was before he found his feet and became the bewitched one, actually wanting her parenting and making her feel her age, or older. He cut his hair and threw out his Pall Malls and stopped squatting on an upturned bucket in front of the puddle in the parking lot.

With her flaming lips and the spell un-cast, she cut him down to size and told him plainly she was finished. He had put her on the blink once, but she was suddenly wise, and her eyes were fully opened. Romance finis, she said. Those ants that invaded her pants finis, she said. She turned on her heels and walked quickly home, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. Finally, she was convinced, she would sleep and eat and be herself again.

But witchcraft once started, as we all know, is virtually unstoppable.