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Grandma's Burden

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We are standing at the end of the sidewalk to our front door, mumbling into the drizzle between us. Mom says, “Don’t forget, Son, you can run and hide, but you always take who you are with you.”

I make a quick scan of her grey-blue eyes that catch reflections of the light drizzle that surrounds us as they slide from horizon to horizon. I’m not sure what she means, since I’m not going into hiding. A cryptic message she’s been saving for a rainy day.

Thirty years later, on an equally wet-gray day, on a bench in a park overlooking the Pacific Ocean, we have another conversation.

“What are you planning to do, now you’re retired, Mom?”

“I don’t know, nothing much, Son, perhaps some volunteer work.”

“Have you thought of moving near us, be close to your grandchildren?”

“I don’t want to get in the way. You know, I am so proud of you, all the children really, each of you finding your own way, resourceful, independent.”

We let our gazes drift to the Pacific, listen to waves rolling to the shore. A couple of seagulls’ screech, fog drifts away then toward us.

“Mom, you know what will happen if you do nothing, don’t you?”

“Yes, Son, I know,” her eyes float slowly to the horizon. I make no response. But I get her message, “I’m going to die before I burden you or your brother and sisters as your grandmother did me in those last years of hers, years filled with demential anger.”

Having encouraged us to seek our destiny, wherever that may take us, she stayed home and shouldered Grandma’s burden by herself. This is our way – bend to the task, keep the words to a minimum. Why say too much when words can easily lead us out of the cave where we might put feelings to words? Better to seek new horizons.

 

Less than a year later, her husband and most of her children have gathered from across the continent in a hospital room. Two sons, three daughters, and Mike, the man she married after Dad died and her children left home, accompanied by one withered body. All of us reluctant to look at one another. The room, with its cloud-blue-grey walls, white bedclothes and fluorescent illumination, offers no comfort. At the head of the bed is a panel with blinking lights, monitors, and buzzers. Strangers in faded blue and green cotton garb, offering nervous nods and sympathy smiles, come and go as silent as the breath of ghosts. In thick glasses, the grim-faced husband orchestrates the day, as if it’s his one-act play.

Throughout the afternoon, the two sons and three daughters, when the husband deems appropriate, are allowed into the room for short visits. After cursory viewings, we are invited to return to the waiting room where we can watch a thick fog collect into rivulets that drain down the window wanting to distort the Pacific in the distance. When the moment approaches, we are invited back in to her meager presence. One set of shriveled human bones, held taught in a fetal position, with either sunken eyes or protruding cheek bones or both, awaits us. The fluorescent aura, now fallen to an ashen glisten, drapes her face and hands in pallor. The bump and thrum of our heartbeats cannot overcome the stifling mechanical cacophony of the room. Mom offers the visitors nothing other than mumbles we dare not decipher.

As if she is lost in a last hunt for a horizon, with her head writhing back and forth, the moment comes. We gather in a tight circle, hold hands, her husband and one of her children clutching hers to complete the surround. Too soon, too soon, the electronic beep with its wavy green line, too soon, it becomes a straight, a horizontal, a lurid and lonely siren. Air and light melt into a puddle and drain the room. We pause; break hands. No one has anything to say. And, through a few tears, we almost hug. But not without respect, honor and, how shall I say it, love, a grey-blue-pastel love, as best we know how.

A few days later her husband whispers to me that she felt deserted by her children. “She was upset that you all left home, left her behind.”

I am stunned – isn’t that exactly what she told us to do, seek our own horizon?

 

 

The Lady and the Gunslinger

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“Hello there, young lady.“ A tall rugged man with a gun holstered on his hip addressed the woman seated at the table playing cards with three cowboys. She wore an off-the shoulder turquoise gown. Her auburn hair arranged in fat sausage curls hung over her left shoulder and glittered with diamante. An ivory cameo attached to a black velvet ribbon around her neck bore the name, Coral.

“What’s a purty thing like you doing in a dump like this?” He waved a hand to encompass the saloon.

Coral rose from the table, a scowl on her face. With a swish of her skirts she swept forward to within an inch of his nose. “This is my dump,” she said. “Get the hell out. Don’t want your kind here.”

“Whoa there.” The man took a step back. “No need to get het up. You know who I am?”

“Nope. Don’t want to neither.”

The man yanked a cowboy away from the table, whipped out his gun and held it to the fellow’s head. “You know who I am,” he said to the cowboy. “Tell her.”

The cowboy licked quivering lips and stammered, “He’s Riot Twerp. The baddest, meanest gunslinger in Texas. Maybe in the whole Yewnited States.”

“Like I said,” Coral told the gunslinger. “Don’t want your kind here.”

Twerp looked down at her nose, a bare inch lower than his. “Because I’m taller than you?”

Coral raised herself on tiptoe, which brought her eyes level with his fore-

head. “You ain’t taller.”

“Yes, I am.” Twerp dumped a cowboy out of a chair and stood on it.

“No, you ain’t.” She sidestepped another cowboy and stood on the table. “I’m still taller than you.”

The gunslinger eyed the bar.

“No standing on the bar,” Coral said. “Sign says so.”

“I don’t see no sign.”

“That’s cause my eyesight’s better than yours.”

“Oh yeah?” Twerp pulled an ace of spades off the table, tossed it into the air, and shot a hole through the center of the spade. “Can you do better?”

Coral grabbed his gun. “See that fly on the wall over there?” Blam went the gun. “Got it.” She returned the gun to Twerp.

“I didn’t see no fly.”

“You didn’t see the sign on the bar, either. Too blind. Too slow.” Coral took her place at the table.

“I’m braver than you are,” the gunslinger boasted.

“Prove it.”

Twerp looked around the saloon then walked over to the end of the bar, picked up a spittoon, and quickly downed the contents.

“Eww!” Coral said along with half the men in the saloon. “Doesn’t prove you’re braver, only stupider.” She looked up at him. “You ever give birth?”

The gunslinger blenched. “Hell no. Don’t want to. Ever.”

“Okay,” Coral said. “You’ve had your say. Now get out. Don’t want no high plains grifters like you in my establishment. Gives the place a bad name. Why don’t you mosey on down the street to Roseanne Carr’s place. You’d fit in there real well.

Riot Twerp crossed his arms against his chest. “Can’t make me.”

Coral put two fingers to her lips and gave a shrieking whistle. A short Chinaman appeared in the doorway. “Maybe I can’t, but Hung Far Low can.”

The gunslinger, almost twice as tall as the Chinaman, laughed. Coral yelled something in Chinese, and before Twerp could react, the little guy, with two forward flips and a half-twist, landed in front of him. In the flick of an eye, Twerp found himself hogtied on the floor.

“Get him out of here,” Coral said.

The Chinaman hoisted the gunslinger over his shoulder and, with the ease of an ant carrying a crumb, carried Twerp to the entrance of the saloon and tossed him into the street.

 

 

 

 

White Face

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In our continuing quest to showcase local senior writers, we are happy to post this first story by William Caldwell, who is the current facilitator of the Gresham (Oregon) Seniors’ Writing Group. Additional stories by William will be posted in the future. Soon we will post another story by Pat Morgan (a member of the Gresham Seniors’ Writing Group), whose first submission (Sir Robert Wiser Day) can be accessed by scrolling down this page.

                                                        White Face

I open the door to the waiting room where I feel out of place in a sea of dark faces, some sad, some angry, most simply lost. Masks of anger, fear, resentment, subservience, despair: welfare clients, all wandering in a shadowland of lack and hunger. A few faces stalk me across the room, as if I’m today’s target practice.

I’m on my way to interview Frankie Randle. She is an Aid to the Disabled client of my colleague Bob. I cover for him when he is out of the office. When he gets a call, she is in the lobby asking for him, Bob’s usual smile slouches to a grimace. He groans; picks up his note pad and releases a long, thick breath that wants to unravel the tapestry of his chest. Slumping past rows of desks and across the office, he trudges down three flights of stairs to the interview room. On his return, he usually wears a deeper slouch along with a thin, sour, scowl. Although my desk is next to his, I never listen to Bob’s debrief with the boss to get any details. The one time I do ask about her, he scoffs, raises his eyebrows, gives me a blank face and turns to stare out the window, searching for a glimpse of the placid bay I expect.

Since Bob is on vacation, it’s my turn. When the call comes, I rub my chin, grab a pencil and note pad, enter the stairwell and listen to the echo of my shoes on metal steps as I descend to the first floor.

I reach the battleship-grey metal door to the interview cubicle and open it. I am surprised to see a refined lady of striking beauty awaiting me. A perfectly combed pageboy hair style, complimented by just the right shade of lipstick with a touch of rouge, frames her smile. Her café au lait skin is smooth and beautiful. Large, compelling eyes engage me. Her calm demeanor commands the room and fills it with gracious ease. This is a woman who, by any standard, is quite attractive.

“Good day, sir.”

“Um, hello, I am Bill Caldwell.

“Mr. McCall isn’t in?”

 “Ah…” I have nothing to offer, except surprise and silence. It bears repeating, she is a well-composed, beautiful black woman.

“No; Bob is out of town and I am filling in for him.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir; I’m Frankie Randle, will he return soon?”

“Not for a couple of weeks. He is taking a vacation.”

“How nice for him. A vacation right now would be pleasurable, don’t you think? Perhaps he will finally get to the islands. I love the weather there. Have you been to the islands, Mr. Caldwell?”

We could be in a drawing room having a pleasant chat over cocktails.

Although she explains the reason for her visit, my astonishment at her presence, compared with Bob’s rolling eye exasperations, drives the details of our conversation from memory. Later, I realize the visit may have been about her meds, because I find myself looking for a doctor or clinic to refer her to.

She returns in a couple of days. I skip down the stairs, make my way to the interview cubicle and open the door. The odor of fresh paint assaults me. Sitting before me is a lady who reminds me of Frankie. Yes, this lady has the same features, same hair, and except for her face paint, almost the same make-up. Brown eyes and red lips excluded, this woman’s face is covered in a high-gloss white that smells of enamel paint. A glistening, glossy, white face! I make a guess: meds was the issue the last visit and it hasn’t been addressed. Bob later tells me that she goes off her meds and the white enamel appears. Nevertheless, even encased in white, her natural beauty holds my attention once more.

She opens the meeting by sliding her head side to side, giving the room a feral sniff. The fierce look in her eyes, the harsh tone, the abrupt gestures on top of the white face paint – what’s going on? Her glare lands on me, drills through me and into the institutional grey wall behind me. I wonder, do I have prey stink on me? She speaks. Her tongue is spiced with anger, her tone condescending. For my part, I am about overcome by the cloak of face paint perfume. She is a force of nature. This time I recall nothing of our conversation beyond the last exchange.

As we are about to wind up our visit, I am impelled to ask, “Why did you paint your face white?”

Before a heart can make a beat, the answer flies in my face: “Why do you paint yours white? You john’s are all the same.”

Sir Robert Wiser Day

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Once upon a time in the small town of Canterbury, there lived a mead maker named Robert Wiser.  He became known throughout all of England for his mead.  When the king learned of the wonderful mead Robert Wiser made, the king asked him to make special batches just for the court, and so he did.  The king was so delighted that he knighted Robert Wiser and declared that the fourteenth day of the eleventh month should be named after him and that everybody should drink only mead on that day.  And so it came to pass that November fourteenth was called Sir Robert Wiser Day.

Sir Robert was given a small castle on the outskirts of Canterbury under the condition that he continue to make mead for the king’s court.  And Sir Robert was very happy to do that.

In due course, he married a local squire’s daughter, and they lived happily in the small castle.  Over a period of several years his wife gave him three children. Two daughters and then finally a son.  Sir Robert decided to name his son after himself.  He declared that the boy was destined for great things, including being as good a mead maker as his father – if that were possible.

At the tender age of six, little Robert was introduced to the process of making mead, and by the time he was sixteen he was as good as his father.  But young Robert was not happy following in his father’s footsteps and being in his father’s shadow.  He wanted to strike out on his own. 

And so he looked around for something different he could make. He looked first at the making of wine, a drink that had recently been introduced into England.  He managed to finagle a trip to France from his father and spent a year there learning all about the making of wine.  But when he returned to England, he realized that the climate was too cold for growing grapes – at least the kind of grapes that would produce a wine as fine as what he’d tasted in France.  And so he gave up the idea of being a famous vintner. 

“You could always be a mead maker and a wine importer,” his father pointed out, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy young Robert Wiser.

So then he turned his attention to another drink that had been around England for many years – a crude peasant drink, which the local people referred to as “slop”, and slop it was.  Robert shuddered remembering the one time he had tried it.  What if, Robert thought, he could make a “slop” fit for the king?  Then he, too, could become well-known in his own right – to step out from behind his father’s shadow.

And so, he finagled another trip from his father – this time to the land of the Teutons, where it was rumored that a better quality of “slop” was made.  Robert spent a year with the Teutons learning the trade of making “bier” as they pronounced it.  Right away, Robert realized that he would have to change the spelling as he realized that his countrymen would either pronounce it “bier” as in “funeral bier,” or as “Bierre” as in the French word ”Pierre”.  And so he planned to call his beverage simply “beer.”

At the end of the year, Robert returned to Canterbury where he convinced his father to give him a few acres of meadowland to grow the malt and hops he needed to brew his own beer.  Needless to say, his father was very pleased with Robert’s first batch (made the Teutonic way) and pronounced it quite a relief from the too-sweet mead.  The local peasants were more than ready to give up their slop for some of Robert’s beer, and so in and around Canterbury, pubs began to spring up to sell the beer that Robert made.

But Robert couldn’t keep up with the demand.  He needed more money and more land to increase his production.  His father couldn’t help him as by now there were five more little Wisers.  And so young Robert made two special batches and carried them to the king for him to sample.  To make a long story short, the king was delighted with Robert’s beer, especially after Robert pointed out that it was the drink of royalty.  The king did give Robert a large tract of land to grown his malt and hops on.  In exchange, Robert was to deliver to the king such quantities of beer as he demanded.  The king told him that he was also interested in trying other types of beer if Robert was willing to experiment.  Robert agreed..

After a year, the king was so pleased with Robert’s beer that he summoned him to London to bestow knighthood on him, just as he had his father.

“I would like to give you a day just as I did for your father.  What day would you choose?”

“My father has the fourteenth day of November. Would you grant me the fourteenth day of October? We can celebrate by drinking all the beer we want..”

“Granted,” said the king.  “But there is a problem.  You are both called Sir Robert Wiser now.  How will the people know whether Sir Robert Wiser Day refers to your father, the mead maker, or you, the beer maker?”

“Hmm,” said Robert, and he thought for a few minutes.  Then his face brightened.  “Instead of referring to me as Sir Robert Wiser, why don’t you just name my day after my childhood nickname.  Bud.”

 

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