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.

500 Words—The Boy, The Shoes and the Parents

THE BOY, THE SHOES, AND THE PARENTS,

He was wearing an old blue jersey and an old pair of pants and had on boxing shoes. The boy stopped in the hallway to take one last look at himself in the mirror. He lifted his chin and looked down his nose at his reflection, squinting his eyes and tugging at his shirt as if he were adjusting a suit coat. He felt tough.

Just as he spun on his heels to face the door, he caught a glimpse of his mother in the mirror, watching him from the living room. She had one hand wrapped around her waist and the other covering her mouth. The boy knew the look.

“I’ll be fine, Mom, really. I’m just going to work with a trainer. Think of it like I’m taking piano lessons, if that helps.”

“Do you want your father to go with you?” his mother asked. “Frank! Get in here and walk your son down to the gym!” She hollered down the hall for Frank who was in the kitchen. He was making a sandwich, but she thought he should help.

Frank came into the hall, wiping his hands on a towel. “You look good there,” he said as he patted the boy on the back. “Knock ’em dead.”

“Knock ’em dead?” the mother asked. “Knock ’em dead?” She repeated her question with a higher tone and a bite to the consonants. “Is that all you have to say? He’s going off to a gym, and not the kind with basketballs and nets. They’re going to teach our son to hit people and to take punches!”

She held her son’s jaw between her thumb and forefinger. “That sweet face, and he’s going to let people hit it. I just don’t understand.”

“Mom, please,” the boy pulled away and looked at his father for a little help. “Dad, tell her. I’m not going to get hurt. I’m going to box. It’s a sport. Would you tell her?”

Frank put his arm around his wife. “She knows. She just doesn’t like fighting.”

“No, I don’t. And I don’t understand why you can’t put all that energy into some kind of sport that isn’t about beating people up.”

The boy tilted his head, furrowed his brow, and exhaled through his nose. He made his way toward the front door, walking backwards to get there. “I’m going now, OK?”

“OK, fine,” his mother said, resigned to losing this one battle. “Be careful.”

“I will,” the boy said as he darted out the door, letting it slam shut just as his father yelled after him, “And have fun!”

He rolled up his sleeves as he took long strides down the sidewalk but then decided he’d look better with them just shoved up near his elbows. He had picked old clothes for his first time at the gym but wished his shoes didn’t look so obviously new. He dragged them in the dirt a little to seem like he’d been in the ring before.

500 Words—Miss Bernice Takes A Job

This week's sentence was taken from E.M. Forster's 'A Room With A View'. It was: 'It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown.'
Miss Bernice Takes A Job

Miss Bernice sat with her feet pressed together and her knees spread apart, and her mint-green floral skirt draped in the gap like a swag. Her garters were slipping, so she tugged at them through the cotton fabric when she thought no one was looking. She adjusted in her seat, straightened her shoulders and held tightly to the purse on her lap.

She would wait for her name to be called and would prepare her answers quietly in her head. It was always a good rule to follow—be ready when called, and know what you want to say before you open your mouth to speak.

Bernice was good with children, she thought, because she’d raised five of them on her own. Pulled them up by the stems into adulthood—tall, stalky sunflowers. She understood the importance of discipline when teaching little people, but she knew they needed comfort even more. Her ample, soft lap was the perfect cushion for a frightened child; and her big, wide arms wrapped around them like wings.

“Bernice?” A young woman stood in the doorway with a clipboard, and she scanned the room looking for the next applicant on her list.

Bernice stood and marched over to the woman, reached out her hand for a shake and said, “That would be me, Miss Bernice. Bernice Haversham.”

“I am Claire, and I’ll be interviewing you today, Miss Haversham.”

“It’s Miss Bernice.”

The young woman led her into the small office and guided her to the chair beside the desk. “Have a seat, then, Miss Bernice, and let’s get to know each other. As you know, we’re looking for a morning aide for the preschool children. Our adult students upstairs bring their kids here while they are in class, and we need an extra hand to help us out. Tell me why you’d like this job.”

Bernice didn’t need the money like some of her widowed friends. She’d been wise with her spending for years and had plenty to live on. She wasn’t lonely or bored, and she had grandchildren who needed her doting and warm cookies. “I want to spend time with children,” she said, “children who don’t have many people being nice to them.”

She told Claire about her theories of how people need soothing and smiles and gifts handed to them when they are young because such things help mold empathetic and loving hearts. “I’m handy with arts and crafts, and I make candy in my own kitchen.” Bernice dug around in her purse as she spoke, fishing for a treasure she was sure was hiding at the bottom. She pulled out a piece of candy wrapped in waxed paper and handed it to Claire.

The woman took the candy, carefully unwrapped it and slowly put it in her mouth. It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown. Suddenly delighted, she shook Bernice’s hand and hired her. Bernice would start tomorrow.

500 Words—A House for the Senses

This week's sentence is from Little Women: "A pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash."

A House For the Senses

Maggie stood in what was once her grandmother’s bedroom, a time capsule that looked as if it had been decorated in 1927, and not one item had been moved from its intended place since.

She turned slowly in the room, taking in every corner and memorizing every shadow and layer. The gauzy lace curtains draped over the windows, the satin bed cover, the braided rug woven from scraps from every dress her mother wore as a child. On the dresser was a tarnished gold tray that held a small mirror, a comb with missing teeth and a hairbrush with most of its bristles worn away. Beside the set were once elegant perfume bottles, their contents evaporated into an amber syrup. And spread out behind it all like a backdrop was a fan carved from ivory and webbed with painted silk.

When Maggie was a little girl, she would visit her grandmother once a year, and she would wonder about this woman who rarely spoke to her except to offer her a peanut butter cookie or a piece of salt-water taffy she had made in her own kitchen. On those annual visits, the grown ups would sit on the front porch, swaying on the rusted glider pushed by the feet of the one with the longest legs, and mixing their soft voices with the steady and rhythmic squeak of the old springs.

They would drink sweet tea and watch the honeybees drain the begonias, and Maggie would slip off to explore the house that seemed so odd. The floors sloped downward, and the ceilings bowed in spots. The walls were covered with dark green paper like taffeta and dotted with framed pictures of ancestors who looked like silent film stars. Lace doilies covered every tabletop. And in the corner was a pump organ that no one had played in decades but that had once filled the house with “Beulah Land” and “My Blue Heaven.” When whippoorwills call and evening is nigh.

Some rooms smelled like talcum, and others smelled like anise. Some drawers were filled with saved greeting cards and school pictures, and others were filled with delicate stockings and linen handkerchiefs with embroidered edges. Eighty-five years worth of collected China and glass rattled when Maggie walked past the cabinet, but she dare not touch a single piece.

Her mother tapped on the door behind her. “Take what you want, Mag. The movers will be here in a minute, and we need to get going.”

Maggie took one last look at the rooms that had captivated her as a child. She examined her own reflection in the mirror that had lost its silver, hoping to see traces of her grandmother in her own features. She gathered a few things—a pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash—and she tucked them away in a small box.

As she walked down the front steps, Maggie pushed the old glider to hear the squeak one last time.

500 Words—Miss Bernice and the Newts

This week's sentence is taken from Willa Cather's slow-burn masterpiece Death Comes For The Archbishop. It is: 'Muerto,' he whispered.
Miss Bernice and the Newts

Miss Bernice Haversham slapped her purse on top of the desk and unzipped it. She reached in and pulled out a bag of peanut butter cookies she had made, a full set of finger puppets she had once sewn together for her own children now grown and a bottle of hand sanitizer. She squeezed some out in the palm of one hand and coated herself against the germs she was about to contract.

As she began to steadily lower herself into the too-small chair beside the desk, she spotted a boy standing in the corner by the bucket of wooden blocks. He looked at her and then at her purse, and he looked down at the spot of floor in front of him. Miss Bernice remembered one more thing she had forgotten to retrieve from her purse, and she heaved herself back onto her feet with a groan.

She reached back into the bag as the little boy watched her movements, and she pulled out a small plastic bottle of newt food. She set it on the desk and smiled at the boy. “I think this might be something you need,” she said as she pushed it closer to the edge of the desk. He took a step toward her, and she said, “It’s OK, it’s food for the newts. Aren’t you the one who is taking care of them at home?”

The boy stopped and looked down at the floor again. “Or have I confused you with someone else?” Miss Bernice asked.

The boy shook his head without looking up, and Miss Bernice knew she was addressing Emiliano, the boy who had asked to take the newts home for the week. The students took turns taking care of the class pets, and the newts were favorites. They didn’t bite like the hamsters, and they weren’t noisy like the parakeet. They scurried around over the rocks on the floor of a ten-gallon fish tank, and all they wanted was food and clean water.

Miss Bernice reseated herself on the tiny chair again and motioned for Emiliano to join her. He took small steps until he reached the teacher’s aide, and he looked up at her, stuffing his hands in his pockets and pursing his lips as if he would not speak unless she pried open his mouth with a set of pliers.

Miss Bernice patted her lap and helped Emiliano climb up to sit with her. She put her big, wide arms around him, and so no one else in the room could hear, she asked softly, “Emiliano, has something happened to the newts?”

He put his face against her ear and cupped his hand over his mouth. “Muerto,” he whispered.

“I see,” she said softly, and she kissed the top of his head, his shiny black hair resting against her chin. “Well, those things happen. We’ll just have to get more newts, won’t we?” Emiliano grinned and slid off of her knees to go play with his favorite blocks.