Mattie Sue & Bizby

All said, it probably took an hour for the boat to meander across the glassy lake. A few times she’d tried to use the tree branch as an oar–but that threatened to send her in endless circles. She’d opted to search out constellations instead. Which is why, when she reached the other side of the lake, she was snoring softly. And why she didn’t realize she’d drifted aground until she heard her own name.

Mattie Sue plodded out to the boat. Splash. Splash. Splash. Her galoshes squished on the muddy lake bottom. Just when the lake threatened to overtake her galoshes, flooding her feet and weighing her down, she clambered aboard the little craft. It was a sturdy little boat, not given to capsizing. And she was a slight girl–wispy, folks called her. But she was strong, too. She took the piece of tree branch she’d carried from the shore with her and pushed the boat out off the sandy bottom and into the lake.

She considered starting the motor, but then thought she might draw attention to herself. She wasn’t sure if anyone was awake to hear it or not. Based on the brilliant explosion of stars above, she guessed it was close to 10p.m. She didn’t really need to crank up the motor to get where she was going, though. Better to take it slow and just let the water move her.

All said, it probably took an hour for the boat to meander across the glassy lake. A few times she’d tried to use the tree branch as an oar–but that threatened to send her in endless circles. She’d opted to search out constellations instead. Which is why, when she reached the other side of the lake, she was snoring softly. And why she didn’t realize she’d drifted aground until she heard her own name.

“Mattie Sue?” a timid whisper of a voice called out to her. She shook the sleep off, grabbed her bag from the boat and hopped out. Immediately, her galoshes filled with water.

“Oh, hellfire,” she hissed.

Almost imperceptibly, a giggle came from somewhere along the shore.

“Bizby! Where you at, Bizby?,” Mattie Sue whisper-yelled.

A mess of blond hair popped up over the blackberry bushes. Bizby had obviously been busy with the blackberries; his freckles–which usually stood out like constellations themselves–had all been obscured by sticky, purple juice. “Bizby!” Mattie Sue fussed, “you’re gonna make yourself sick. All them blackberries.” She shook her head. She trudged out of the lake, stopping to empty her galoshes at the shoreline.

When she finally made it over to Bizby, she glared at him and muttered, “I ought to give you a whoopin’ for laughin’ at me.” Then, quickly, before he could get his feelings all hurt, she flashed him a smile and ruffled his hair. She knew she kinda babied him, but she couldn’t help it. Bizby’d had a hold of her heart since he was just a little guy. He still wasn’t all that big, if you really thought about it, his being 5 and all.

“Brought you some supper,” Mattie Sue said, plunking the sack of food down on the ground. Bizby grabbed it, in search of a peanut butter sandwich no doubt. This kid was gonna turn into peanut butter, sure enough, if he didn’t lay off.

He turned to Mattie Sue. “Fank ooo,” he choked out, over the sticky peanut butter and white bread.

“Welcome,” Mattie Sue said solemnly. They liked to try to keep things light, but the reasons Bizby was out here weren’t no joke. Mattie Sue pulled back her blonde hair into a ponytail. “Now you wait til I holler at you to come back, you hear? I don’t want you wandering up while he’s still there.”

Bizby nodded without looking at her.

“Pinky swear me, Bizby. C’mon. I need to know you’re takin’ this serious.”

Bizby stuck out his pinky, and Mattie Sue looped it in hers. “Promise I’ll come fetch you when he leaves tomorrow. This one’s a long haul–probly 2 weeks on the road at least. Reckon that’ll give us enough time to build you a little lean-to out here for the next time he comes through town.”

Bizby wrapped his arms around Mattie Sue and squeezed. She felt tears sting her eyes. She swatted at them with the back of her hand before Bizby could see.

“You sleep good now, hear?” She whisper-yelled over her shoulder, as she pushed the boat out into the lake.

As soon as she’d cleared the sandy bottom, she closed her eyes, bowed her head, and whispered earnestly, “God, if you’d keep Bizby safe, I’d be real, real grateful. And please, God, gimme the strength not to kill that mean ol’ sonofabitch ‘fore he leaves town tomorrow. Amen.”

 

 

 

Photo: https://unsplash.com/@emsbabee

Less Clearly Defined

In the round mirror marred with the black flecks of age, she saw herself. More accurately, she saw a version of herself. The stoic, bookish librarian version of Eustice had given way to something entirely different. Her long hair framed her face in a wild tangle. The sun making its way into the room lit her wild hair aglow. Her eyes, sooty with mascara and eyeliner, looked to Eustice both exotic and repulsive. She eyed her reflection warily, as if it might suddenly speak unbidden. But they both remained silent.

She found herself tapping her fingers to the click-click-click of the blinker. She looked up, startled. The green light swung gently on its wire. The sky was a charcoal smudge, not ominous as much as declarative. As if affirming her assessment, a large rain drop met the windshield with a splash. A horn sounded behind her. She glanced in her rearview mirror. A line of cars wound down the road. A red and white pickup truck behind her inched closer, nudging her forward.

She made the left turn. But only because that was the direction her blinker guided her. Not until she saw her house, purple with green trim, in the distance did she begin to make sense of where she was. She pulled into her driveway. She got out and opened the hatchback. She pulled two grocery bags from the back, wrestling to maintain control of the bags and close the hatchback. Victorious, she headed to the front door.

“Charlie!”she grinned, as the small, white wire-haired dog bounded into her legs as soon as the door cracked open. She put the bags on the floor and knelt down to pet Charlie. Only when she scooped up the dog and held him while he licked her face did she remember.

I am Eustice Walker.

She fed Charlie and put away the groceries. She went to put the milk on the shelf and almost knocked over a glass of orange juice. Where had that come from? Eustice shook her head, hoping to cipher the glass of orange juice occupying her refrigerator. Since she was a kid, Eustice had avoided orange juice. The pulp rendered it viscous and repulsive. But now, there it blithely sat, mocking her with its presence.

Eustice had no idea how the orange juice had manifested itself in her refrigerator.

She sighed and moved to put the granola bars on the shelf in the pantry. Except there was no room. Another box of granola bars already occupied the space. She looked down at the box in her hand. Chocolate sea salt. Eustice detested chocolate sea salt. She was certain that snacks should be either salty or sweet, not a strange amalgamation of both. Yet here she stood, holding a box of chocolate sea salt granola bars.

She shivered. She put the box on the counter. She grabbed a piece of paper from the magnetic pad hanging on the refrigerator. Images of Magritte’s art appeared on each sheet, a gift from her a friend who understood Eustice’s love of the absurd. Quickly she frowned. She supposed that she loved the absurd in abstract. Because when the absurd was purchasing chocolate sea salt granola bars, she wasn’t sure she loved it at all. In fact, she was quite sure she did not.

On the piece of paper, over Magritte’s The Great War, Eustice carefully penned the following:

Kindly find a different spot for your granola bars. I was here first. In fact, this is my house. And please develop a more refined palate—at least when it comes to granola bars.

She signed her name and stuck the note on top of the box of granola bars. Then she slumped down onto the floor and let Charlie climb up in her lap. The strange food loitering about the kitchen didn’t bother her as much as the fact that she had no idea who was leaving it there.

Eustice gently set Charlie aside and stood up. She felt an intense urge to struggle against … something, something amorphous, ill-defined. She could pinpoint with certainty the vague sense of malaise settling over her. She traversed a path toward the bathroom, side-stepping a pile of clothes. She glanced at them. Aqua pants. Her favorite purple tunic. A white and pale pink checked scarf. Her high top sneakers had been haphazardly discarded by the wall, one tumbling over the other in a state of disarray that she could not abide for more than a few seconds. She went over and aligned the shoes with the baseboard, one next to the other, toes just touching the wood. She straightened them. But she did not put them away. Why should she? She hadn’t left them there.

Eustice stepped up to the sink. She stared at herself. She’d always been fascinated by the face in the mirror–so familiar and, simultaneously, so foreign. Almost as if her reflection didn’t match who she felt herself to be, deep down, at an elemental level. She looked interesting, if not a bit bookish. Her strawberry blonde hair, which she’d gone to herculean lengths to tame that morning, now made a rather half-hearted attempt to say back in a ponytail. Her tortoise shell glasses took up considerable real estate on her face, but she loved them in part because they provided a shield, a barrier between her and the world. She stared intently into her eyes. Hazel. Lightly lashed. She wondered if people could read her when they looked into her eyes. She always felt so transparent, exposed, out in the world. But now, when Eustice studied herself in the mirror, she looked guarded, perhaps even mysterious. On second thought, her freckles probably relegated her to something closer to quotidian. But, at the very least, today she looked…complicated.

Eustice made her way into her bedroom, Charlie close at her heels. She looked at the bed, carefully made, with the navy blue quilt folded down just so. She saw her favorite sheets peeking out from underneath—white with tiny red rosebuds scattered across the fabric. The orderliness of the room settled her. She removed her shoes and lined them up parallel to each other by foot of the bed. She lay down on top of the quilt, resting her head on a navy blue shammed pillow. Although she found it markedly less comfortable than the red rosebuded pillow laying beneath it, Eustice couldn’t bear to disturb the fragile sense of propriety that her room offered. To be frank, this room, with its predictability, grounded her. That was too precious a commodity to unravel with the peeling back of a sheet and the tossing of a pillow. Besides, she’d only be here for a few minutes.

Eustice opened her eyes. A cold dread spread slowly through her. How long had she been lying here? What day was it? Where was she meant to be right now? She drew in a deep breath, as her mind raced to right itself. It was obviously morning. The light was too weak and fragile to be evening. The sun was waking up with a yawn, not flaming out at day’s end. She sat up. She felt something pinch the skin just under her waistband. She reached and scratched the spot absently. Her hand froze, only for a moment, then grabbed at the tag her fingers rested on. She pulled it out, fighting a quick slide into complete panic. She examined the tag as best she could, her neck craning up and back in an effort to read the words and numbers that staggered in and out of her vision. She recognized the name of the store printed on the tag. It was an upscale boutique downtown. A boutique she’d never been in. She tugged the tag out a bit further and felt her mouth go dry. $150 might be the standard price for couture. But for Eustice, who prided herself on the collection of classic, vintage clothes she’d culled from thrift stores across the city, $150 bordered on the obscene.

She felt an urge—or was it more like a pull?—to pounce out of bed and leap over to the mirror. She wanted to move. She felt wild inside. Chaotic. In short, she felt entirely unlike herself. But years of self-control and measured responses quickly subjugated these queer impulses. She climbed out of bed with almost imperceptible motion, as not to wake Charlie who slept snuggled against her in a ball. The rhythmic sound of his breathing soothed her. She walked slowly to the mirror, head down. When she arrived directly in front of the mirror—she knew she had reached the spot because she could see the legs of the antique vanity that she’d painstakingly restored—she looked up slowly.

In the round mirror marred with the black flecks of age, she saw herself. More accurately, she saw a version of herself. The stoic, bookish librarian version of Eustice had given way to something entirely different. Her long hair framed her face in a wild tangle. The sun making its way into the room lit her wild hair aglow. Her eyes, sooty with mascara and eyeliner, looked to Eustice both exotic and repulsive. She eyed her reflection warily, as if it might suddenly speak unbidden. But they both remained silent. Eustice took note of the green metallic eyeshadow smudged across her eyelids. She approved of the color, which complemented her hazel eyes, if not the heavy-handed application. Eustice turned her head slowly, side to side, examining herself. Geometric golden earrings jingled softly as she swung her head. A new addition, she noted. As was the army green jacket. She crossed her fingers that it wasn’t a boutique purchase, as she ran her hands over the fabric searching for tags. But this jacket seemed to be vintage. Hopefully from a thrift store. She made a note to check her credit card for unauthorized purchases.

Eustice stood back and examined herself in the mirror again. She felt elated and terrified. Her reflection mocked her uncertainty with a smirk. She reached up reflexively and touched her necklace. It was still there. She breathed a sigh of relief. She’d worn this necklace–a tiny golden puzzle piece with her name written in script across it–every single day since she entered the world. A thought flittered across Eustice’s brain and made her heart pound. Her stomach clenched. Trembling, she made her way over to her desk. She regarded the small, lavender box sitting neatly on the corner of the desk. She hesitated. Then she inhaled sharply and slowly removed the lid. Once satisfied that the contents of the box were in order, Eustice put her hand to her chest and took a few deep breaths. Distracted, she rubbed the charm on her necklace, as she had innumerable times before, and resolved to move on with her day. She turned on the shower and let the room fill with steam. Then she shed last night’s costume, scrubbed away the makeup, and emerged from the shower wholly herself again.

Eustice put Charlie in the passenger seat of her silver, economy sedan. She had been only 13 when, on a bright Spring morning, her father presented this car to her mother. He’d led her outside by the hand, counted to three, and stripped away the blindfold with a flourish. She remembered precisely how her mother looked, receiving such a tremendous gift—a gift her father purchased by toiling at odd jobs in secret for two years: she squealed, then covered Eustice’s father in kisses, tears streaking her cheeks. Her excitement felt electric.

She was dead one week later.

Her mother’s sudden death changed Eustice. She immediately took up the mantle of responsibility, cooking, cleaning, ensuring the house ran impeccably, efficiently. Eustice focused on her studies with laser precision, earning top honors every semester from the time of her mother’s passing to the day she finished graduate school. Eustice could not—would not–tolerate messiness, not even in grief. She demanded perfection from herself and from others in her orbit, personal or professional. While, admittedly, this practice netted Eustice relatively few friends, she judged them to be of a superior caliber. In Eustice’s estimation, she had achieved the markers of success and stability: a slow and steady rise in position at work and the purchase of her own home. Yet… she battled a persistent, nagging belief that she needed to pay penance for her mother’s early demise.

Eustice shook herself free from these thoughts. She found them oppressive, dark, and superstitious. She rolled the window down slightly for Charlie and tuned in to talk radio. She wound through the streets toward her childhood home. The neighborhood, once a solidly working-class neighborhood, had shifted in recent years. Rusted-out cars and broken toys littered the once painstakingly manicured lawns. The street where Eustice rode her bike until the streetlights beckoned her home was now a haunting row of derelict and decrepit houses. Eustice fought back tears. What did it matter now anyway?

Her car rolled to a stop on the same driveway where she’d learned to roller skate–in a rainbow tank top, hot pink shorts, and cumulous cloud knee socks–at seven years old. She cut the engine, scooped Charlie out of the seat, and walked determinedly toward the front door. She pushed her key into the lock and turned it halfway to the right, the way she’d done thousands—maybe even tens of thousands—of times before. She stepped into the cool foyer. Eustice called out for her father. Then she stopped. She inhaled sharply, then let out a jagged sob. Of course he didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer her calls anymore. She, Eustice Walker, was an orphan now. That word, orphan, broke her and sent sobs ricocheting off the empty walls. The house looked orphaned, too, ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

Eustice stifled her sobs and took a deep, shaky breath. This wouldn’t do. Losing control couldn’t alter her reality. They were both gone, her parents. All there was to do was move forward. She’d only come to do one final walk through before handing the keys to the real estate agent. Methodically, Eustice combed through every inch of the house. She walked through each room, checking behind doors and in closets for scraps of her parents’ lives left behind. It would be nothing short of a tragedy to Eustice for these artifacts to find their way into someone else’s hands. No, Eustice was their family’s historian; she was, herself, a living artifact. She intended to be a good steward of every piece of their legacy, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

She pulled down the attic ladder. Almost imperceptibly, Eustice shivered. She hadn’t been in the attic since the day she’d found her mother there, unresponsive. For a moment, she didn’t know if she could force her legs to do the work required to climb the ladder. Even on her rather limited budget, Eustice had hired movers to clean out the attic for her. They stacked the attic’s contents in the kitchen, where she’d sorted the crush of mementos, memories, and prosaic junk. But now she was pressed up against the final moments in her childhood home, the house where she’d last seen her mother alive. Eustice knew it was her responsibility–her sacred duty if she was being gut-wrenchingly honest—to venture into the attic and ensure no scrap of her parents’ life was left forsaken. Warily, she placed her right foot on the ladder and pulled herself up a rung. Her heart thudded; her breaths sounded short and shallow. She willed herself into a (slightly) calmer state and continued up the ladder, rung by rung.

She reached the apex and extended a shaking hand toward the attic door. It creaked open. Eustice squinted into the glare of sunlight and dust. She drew a breath in and shuddered. It smelled exactly like she remembered. Seventeen years compressed into one second. Grief rendered time meaningless. Eustice simultaneously existed in the moment of loss and somewhere on the eternal grief continuum. She glanced around the attic quickly, scanning for missed boxes and, seeing none, was about to make her way back down the ladder. But she saw something. Or, at least, she thought she saw something. She couldn’t be sure. But her uncertainty fixed her tightly to the attic ladder.

Eustice dreaded the emotional work of turning around to investigate the—what was it? A piece of paper? But she knew herself. She’d be mired in a torrent of regret if she left anything behind. So much of them had already been lost. Everything mattered. Even a discarded receipt told a story. So did the a long-forgotten grocery list. These were fragments of their story, a testament to what she’d lost. She collected these artifacts with fervor. Eustice forced herself to climb back into the attic. She walked breathlessly over to the place where she’d found her mother, crumpled on the floor. It was in that exact spot that the paper had settled.

Eustice picked it up gingerly. She moved as if she was afraid to disturb her mother’s spirit. Which felt absurd. Eustice prided herself on her realistic views regarding religion. Namely, she was an atheist. She did not believe in an afterlife. Or spirits. But she did believe in knowledge and history, and that’s why she was here. She picked up the piece of paper and turned it over. It was black and white, with two prominent white blurs. It took Eustice a moment to realize she was looking at a sonogram. Her mother’s name was at the top. Eustice looked at the date printed in the margin. She frowned, folded the paper, and placed it carefully in her back pocket for safekeeping.

Eustice heard a low whooshing noise. In and out. In and out. She felt soothed, lulled by the noise. She felt herself receding, fading. Eustice heard the whoosh-whooshing again. But this time she was able to fight her way through, back toward consciousness. It wasn’t daylight. But the lucent moon reflected against the ocean. Eustice sat up with a start and flung her hands out to the side. She heard a snuffle, just as her hand brushed Charlie’s soft fur. Eustice sighed and stretched back out on the sand. The unseasonably warm ocean breeze settled her, as Eustice tried her best to fill the gap between her parents’ attic and waking on the beach. She looked down at her watch, but instead found only her naked wrist. She laughed. None of this was funny, of course. Losing large chunks of time hardly qualified as laughable. But it was excruciatingly absurd. Eustice–who valued routine, order, and precision above all else–now found herself on a beach, in the middle of the night, miles and miles away from home, with no watch. She laughed again. Charlie stirred next to her. She gathered him in her arms and stood up to begin the odyssey back home from wherever she was.

Osipidy Beach. 280 miles from home. That’s where she’d woken up. Uncovering her exact location didn’t require much sleuthing. She’d just followed the shoreline north until she ran into a sign that declared Osipidy Beach to be “The Place Families Find Themselves.” Eustice thought that sentiment odd. She assumed the sign-makers intended for families to discover their most essential selves in the throes of this striking coastal tableau. Eustice, on the other hand, wondered how many families ended up here just the way she did—with no forethought, no planning, no real desire to be here at all. Regardless, the families at Osipidy Beach probably at least knew howthey had arrived here, if not why. Even that was a mystery to Eustice.

She turned to look back at the ocean. The waves pounded rhythmically. The lights from the sleepy beach town did nothing to disturb the brilliance of the stars or the moon’s luminescence. Eustice felt infinitesimal, insignificant. She also felt universal, infinite. She felt both exquisitely, without conflict. She sat back down on the sand and took in the landscape.

Stay.  

Had Eustice heard that? Or had she just felt it so strongly that it seemed audible? An undeniable pull to stay overwhelmed her. She needed this place right now. She knew it deep in her bones. Eustice, who believed in facts, science, and concrete knowledge, intuited that she needed to stay. Right where she was. On this beach. She shifted slightly to make herself—and Charlie—more comfortable. As she burrowed a little deeper into the sand, something crinkled. Slid her hand into her back pocket and pulled out the paper she’d retrieved from her parents’ attic. She ran her fingers over the image, brushed the paper against her lips, and stuck it back in her pocket. She laid back in the sand, pulled Charlie close to her, and let the ocean coax her back to sleep.

Eustice woke up to the smell of bacon. She opened her eyes, expecting the weak light that crept into her bedroom each morning. Instead, she saw a sky aflame with oranges, yellows and pinks. The sun marched a slow, steady path higher into the sky. Eustice watched the sun rise until it hung contentedly in the sky. She felt a sharp pang of hunger and turned her attention to breakfast. Following the smell of bacon and something sweet, like maple syrup, she stumbled onto a little hut on the beach. She walked up to the service window and leaned her head partway inside. “Got a menu?” she called to no one in particular. Typically reserved and ever-mindful of decorum, Eustice couldn’t seem to control her volume or her hunger.

“On the chalkboard,” a cheerful, disembodied voice called back.

Eustice stepped back, then laughed. The entire front of the building was a chalkboard. The menu wove its way around the facade. She saw, to her surprise, that in addition to the typical breakfast fare, this little beach hut served two different kind of veggie omelets. When she got up to the window, Eustice, a vegetarian for the last 15 years, ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich with a side of sausage. She sat down at the picnic table and devoured her breakfast, stopping only long enough to give Charlie one of the sausage links. She went back to the counter and ordered pancakes and coffee.

She paused briefly in front of the table that held the different varieties of sweeteners and creams for the coffee. She eschewed the powdered creamer, and instead chose whole milk. She contemplated the Stevia for a moment before grabbing two packs of raw sugar. After she’d assembled her coffee, she took a tentative sip. Then another. Eustice, avid tea drinker, sat down with her inaugural cup of coffee and stared at the ocean. She felt the picture in her back pocket crinkle as she shifted.

Stay.  

Eustice stayed at the beach for 3 days. Some locals proffered a tent and taught her to cook over a campfire. She expanded her palate, sampling local seafood, as well as a preponderance of local fruits and vegetables. She wandered the beach all day in a violet two-piece bathing suit (she’d never worn one) and cut off shorts. The ocean air made her hair curly and windswept. Her cheeks were sunburned. She was dirty. She hadn’t had a real shower in days. But there were no more blackouts. No more missing time.

On the fourth day, she bought a bus ticket back home. Not because she wanted to. But there were loose ends, affairs that needed to be reconciled. One couldn’t just hide out on the beach forever. Time to go home. To be responsible. Time to be Eustice again.

As she boarded the bus, Eustice felt an immediate longing for the ocean. She disregarded it. She was, in fact, beginning to examine her behavior over the past few days with a certain disdain. She’d been forced to board Charlie at a local veterinarian’s office. Eustice felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment as she lied to the vet: her friends unexpectedly abandoned her and she needed to return home via bus to collect her car. The vet graciously accepted her lie. Now Eustice had a modest goal: travel home, take a shower, and get a good night’s sleep. As she boarded, Eustice became keenly aware that she smelled …. earthy. The lingering smell of campfire mingled with the ocean salt. Eustice felt the contempt of her fellow riders. She attempted to run her fingers through her hair but found her fingers mired in tangles generated by days of salt and wind. Eustice felt the sting of shame as she sunk down into her seat. Mercifully, the steady movement of the bus lulled her to sleep.

Eustice slept so soundly that the bus driver had to shake her awake after all the other passengers had disembarked. She peered out the window as she gathered the few things she’d brought with her—the bikini that now seemed immodest and juvenile, the shell necklace that she’d strung on the beach. She felt ridiculous. What was it that people said? You can’t run from yourself? Wasn’t that precisely the foolishness that had consumed the last four days?  Eustice gathered herself with fresh resolve. As reached into her back pocket to look for her wallet, her fingers brushed the picture that she’d kept on her person the entire trip. She wasn’t quite sure why, other than in was part of the history she felt so ardent about preserving. She shrugged her way out of these troublesome thoughts and stepped off the bus.

No.

This time, Eustice ignored the voice or feeling or whatever force seemed to be pulling her back to the bus and away from her home. She pressed forward. Her motions slowed. She felt like she was pushing through viscous air. She pressed on toward home. Clearly, she was exhausted. She walked the few blocks from the bus stop fighting a growing dread. Finally, she stood in front of the purple house with the green trim. She’d painted the house purple the same day her father was diagnosed with cancer. It was the first irrational decision she’d made. She’d stood in the hardware store, looking at paint samples. She had a neutral yellow in her hand. But she felt drawn to the purple. She saw her hand reach toward it. And then it was done. She bought the purple paint, chose the green trim against her better judgement, and then she had a purple house. At first she was ashamed of her house. Every time she pulled up in her silver, economy sedan, she felt her cheeks burn. Who was she, Eustice Walker, to choose a color so bold? But now, seeing the unapologetic purple gleam in the sunshine, the purple felt right.

She unlocked the door and went in the house. The spaces she loved—her reading nook, her bookshelves teeming with classic novels, her rigid orderliness—felt confining. Eustice climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She pushed open the door. Clothes littered the floor, as if someone had tried them on, found them wanting, and dropped them right there, moving on. The shoe rack sat empty, discarded by its inhabitants in favor of helter-skelter accumulation on the closet floor. Eustice experienced, like a distant memory, the urge to tidy the room. But this chaos somehow made her feel more balanced, more sure. So she stepped over piles of clothes and made her way to the small, lavender box.

She pulled the picture out of her back pocket. Folding it and unfolding it for days on end left it a bit worse for the wear. But now she could see the images more clearly. There were two. Feet touching. Her hand went to the puzzle piece around her neck. With her free hand, she reached out to the box. She opened it carefully. Inside lay a tiny, perfect puzzle piece with a name written in script across it. She closed the box, lay the picture next to it. She made her way to her bed, fell down face first, and drifted off to sleep.

She awoke with a start, sure it had happened again. She blinked heavily, last night’s mascara sticking slightly. She looked down at her feet. Purple suede boots. She felt the initial trill of terror. Or was it excitement? She bounded out of bed and ran over to the mirror. She looked at herself. Her curls bounced wildly. Her hazel eyes stared back. She broke her own gaze and  scurried around the room, gathering the odd assortment of clothes, make-up and earrings that had made their way into her house during the last few months. She threw them all into a bag and tossed it by the door. She began the laborious task of straightening her room, hanging all the clothes on hangers, lining the shoes up meticulously on the shoe rack. She organized the vanity and made the bed. She arranged the pillows. Satisfied that all was in order once again, she stepped back and admired the sparse decor, the orderliness that bespoke a life completely under control. A measured, responsible life.

She made her way to the vanity and picked up the picture that lay next to the lavender box. She pressed it to her forehead for a moment before folding it and putting it in her back pocket. She opened the lavender box and took out the puzzle piece. It felt almost weightless in her hand. Made for an infant, it was delicate. The perfect match to the one she wore. She took off her necklace and removed her puzzle piece. She fit them together. Eustice and Amelia. She took the sonogram back out of her pocket. Eustice and Amelia. Tears stung her eyes. She picked up the puzzle piece and strung it back on her necklace.

She turned and walked out of the room, shutting the door behind her, leaving an orderly room, a clearly defined life, and a tiny golden puzzle piece with Eustice written in script.

Tetherball & Sprinklers…And a Black Eye

Percy’s mom was real cool—I mean, other than the fact that she’d given him the name Percy. That was a pretty big goof up. He was always getting into fights over it. But otherwise, she was a real nice mom. She didn’t even get mad when we came skidding into the house, all sweaty, and dropped our stuff by the front door. And she always had popsicles in the freezer. The red ones were my favorite. Which was great because Perc liked purple (yuck.) but hated red. So, there were always plenty of reds left when I came over.

Whap! The ball flew up at a 45-degree angle, then caught at the end of the tether before it came whizzing back around at me. I was ready. I’d perfected my tetherball stance this summer.

Whack! I smacked it hard. With my face.

“Oooff!” I yelled, covering my eye. Lights zipped back and forth underneath my eyelid like fireworks.

Percy came running over. I could tell right away he was trying not to laugh. Which really got me steamed.

“What the heck, Perc?” I shouted at him. I knew he didn’t mean it. But, gah, I hate to be laughed at.

“I… didn’t… mean… it… Stella,” it took him forever to get it out already between all his laughing.

“Whatever,” I said, still mad. “Let’s just finish playing. I’m gonna smoke you.”

“That black eye you’re gonna have is gonna have your mom smokin’ mad for sure,” Perc said, looking maybe a little more sorry than before.

“Oh for real?!?” I said, quietly, gently touching my eye. My mom was always on and on about me acting more like a girl. Trying to explain to her that there are all kinds of girls that act all kinds of ways had gotten me nowhere quick. Now I was going to have to explain a black eye? At least I hadn’t gotten it fighting. Whew. She’da really lost it them. I’d probably have to wear a dress and bows for the rest of the summer if that had happened.

“Maybe my mom’s got a steak we could put on it,” Percy said, grabbing his canteen and knapsack off the ground. “And I know she’s got popsicles, either way.” Percy looked real hopeful, but probably more about the popsicles than fixing my busted eye.

“Okay…” I said slowly, throwing him off the scent of my next move. “Race you there!” I took off running. Poor Perc was never gonna catch up. I was faster than him, even when I didn’t get a good head start.

Percy’s mom was real cool—I mean, other than the fact that she’d given him the name Percy. That was a pretty big goof up. He was always getting into fights over it. But otherwise, she was a real nice mom. She didn’t even get mad when we came skidding into the house, all sweaty, and dropped our stuff by the front door. And she always had popsicles in the freezer. The red ones were my favorite. Which was great because Perc liked purple (yuck.) but hated red. So, there were always plenty of reds left when I came over.

We ate our popsicles in a hurry. It was hot. And we wanted to go play in the sprinklers, which Percy’s mom always let us do. My mom woulda had a conniption, not so much because of the sprinklers but because I just stripped down to my underwear & ran around like that. I mean, I don’t carry around a bathing suit everywhere I go. And besides, people wanna make a big deal of stuff, but it’s not like I have boobs or anything like that. I’m 9, for the Pete’s sake. Besides, if boys don’t have to wear shirts, girls shouldn’t either. What’s fair’s fair.

Percy and I chased each other round and round until I finally called Uncle because I couldn’t catch my breath. I flopped down on the wet grass, with the sprinklers still going, and closed my eyes. The thing about being with Percy was that I could just be. If I wanted to close my eyes, I did. Just like that. He never asked what I was doing or why. I like that in a person. People should just let other people be sometimes.

After I’d caught my breath, I sat up and took in my surroundings. Judging by the sun, it was already late afternoon. I might as well go home and face the music about this stupid black eye. With any luck, Mom would be over being mad by dusk, when I was supposed to meet Perc at the hidden hammock to catch fireflies. If she was still mad, I’d have to climb out my bedroom window and shimmy down the tree outside my window. I mean, I’m all up for tree climbing adventures, but sometimes it’s just easier to walk out the front door, you know?

Perc & I went inside so I could dry off. I put back on my clothes (minus my underwear, cuz it was wet from the sprinklers) and towel dried my hair. Percy’s mom helped me squeeze out the ends real good so I wouldn’t be dripping all over the floor when I walked into my house. My mom’s real particular about that kind of stuff.

When I got home, I took a little pause on the front porch before heading inside. I took a deep breath and pushed open the front door real slow. I really wanted to make it upstairs without Mom seeing my black eye. I tiptoed up the stairs. Just when I thought the coast was clear, I heard Mom call out, “Stella Louise? Is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said as cheerful as I could muster, still hoping to avoid the Black Eye Talk.

“Well, come on in here. I want to hear about your day.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled. Mom hated it when I mumbled, but she was gonna hate this black eye even more.

It took her all of two seconds to let loose. “Stella Louise! What happened to your eye?!” I knew enough to know she didn’t really want an answer, so I let her keep going. “How many times have I told you that you need to get some decorum, young lady? I mean, Lord have mercy. How many times can you get a black eye? Or get stitches? I mean, when I was your age, I was playing hopscotch every afternoon, neat and clean as can be. But you? You’re all a mess! And what happened to your hair?”

“Hopscotch?” I said hopefully.

“Get on out of here, young lady! You go upstairs, take a bath, and run a comb through your hair. I want you to look presentable by the time your father comes home for dinner. And don’t ask me about going back out tonight. No, ma’am. Don’t you dare.”

I sighed and trudged up the stairs. Looked like I’d be shimmying down that tree after all. No matter, though. Percy’d be happy to see me, even if I’d likely show up wearing some stupid dress.

Photo by Piotr Chrobot on Unsplash

Unicorns & Sunday Mornings (Magical!)

I wish I could cause some sort of break in the time space continuum on Sunday mornings. Because I love my church–it’s one of my favorite places in the world, the place where I know I belong–but I HATE getting to church on Sunday mornings. Mainly, because my family sucks at it.

Take, for instance, Easter morning. I got up bright and early (6:30 a.m. to be exact). I made coffee, wrote for an hour (April 1 is the start of Camp NaNoWriMo. Hooray!), and watched Jane sort through her Easter goodies (and eat “just two” Sour Patch Bunnies… Easter is a time for grace–and sugar before breakfast, after all). Suddenly, it’s 9 a.m. and we need to be at church by 9:40.

Not a problem. For most people. But Jane wanted to wear a sleeveless, white eyelet dress on Easter Sunday. It was 47 degrees outside. Cue the variety of leggings and jackets to be paraded through to keep her from freezing. I also, foolishly, tried to be sensible and suggest that she wear a dress with some sleeves. You’ve thought I cancelled Easter, for God’s sake.

I finally got her to agree on leggings and a jacket that she liked–and that didn’t look too crazy–and I headed off to get dressed. I’d just finished toweling off and was standing in my robe in the bathroom when Simon stuck his head in and asked if it might be possible to leave a little earlier.

I’m sorry. WHAT?

Look, I am good at a lot of things. But I am not good at spontaneity. Or rushing. So, no. We cannot leave early, SIR.

I got dressed in record time, while slurping down my second–or third?–cup of coffee. I didn’t panic when my dress felt ever so slightly too tight. I just shimmied again. Things fell into place. More or less. I even managed matching jewelry and make-up. All in 25 minutes. The resurrection wasn’t the only miracle this Easter Sunday.

But for all the hassle that is getting to church on Sunday mornings–well, it’s worth it the minute I walk in the door.

We are a church full of unicorns. We’ve got a smattering of everybody: black, white, gay, straight, trans, cis, old, young, rich, poor. We’ve got reformed fundamentalists. We’ve got seekers. When they say “Everybody’s Welcome Here!” it’s the honest to God truth.

I left the church when I was 19. I was gay. It was 1994. And I was completely unaware that any church that affirmed gay folks existed at all. Mainline Christians were constantly spewing that “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” bullshit, and I was having none of it. I didn’t go back until I was 28. Even then, acceptance was conditional at best. It was a thin love (And I should’ve known “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”)
I should’ve rejected it completely. But I wanted Jesus. And I thought I needed the church to get to him.

I spent years in the Methodist church (which still can’t agree on whether or not they find gay people acceptable). I learned to accept the church’s tolerance of me. I thought it was all I was worth. And my family and I moved to Atlanta. And we found this magical, unicorn church. This place where we are celebrated fully. A place my soul is renewed every single Sunday. A place where I belong.

I am a writer. I have words for almost everything. But I really don’t have words to express what this place means to me. I can tell you, though, it’s worth every damn bit of the hassle it takes to get there every Sunday morning.

Grumpitude & Grace

We’ve entered the season of snark with Jane. And, dear God, it is wearing me down.

The morning light hadn’t quite made its way into my daughter’s room yet. Instead, her green bug nightlight cast a soft glow across her pink fuzzy rug. I stepped carefully, to avoid being impaled by a stray Lego or a doll earring that had escaped her tidying up efforts. I crept closer to her loft and whispered up to her. “Jane.” Only soft snores in reply. She lay hidden somewhere underneath her unicorn dream tent and her fluffy comforter. “Jane!” I stage whispered, gently touching what was likely her foot. Could have been a stuffed bunny, though. These things become difficult to decipher from 2 feet below the edge of her bed.

Finally, she stirred. A little groan escaped from underneath the covers. “Good morning,” I chirped, and immediately regretted my overt chiperness. Nobody needs to be bowled down by cheer on a Monday morning before they’ve even opened their eyes. I toned it down and tried again. “Morning, bear. It’s 6:30. Want to get up and make your lunch?”

My uncannily self-sufficient seven year old makes her own lunch every day. I’ve ceased being amazed by this (although I didn’t make my own lunch until high school). It’s just who she is. She enjoys independence. And she’s proven herself responsible enough that I don’t need to hover over her. Sure, occasionally she’s headed off to school without a fruit or a vegetable gracing her lunchbox. But that’s not the norm. Typically, she at least attempts nutritional balance. Her hatred of the cafeteria’s food fuels her motivation. But, if she doesn’t get up early enough to make lunch, well it’s cafeteria mystery food for her.

When I didn’t hear a response from the top of the loft, I started backing slowly out of her room. Typically, Jane pops out of bed. She loves mornings. She’s one of those kids that wakes up at 6 a.m. even on the weekend. But not the past week or so. Twice last week, she ran into school just as the tardy bell rang. Being late makes her grumpy. In this way, and so many others if I’m honest, she’s just like me. This child is incapable of being rushed. Truly, the faster I try to coax her to move, the more I swear time begins to move backward. It was an effort to avoid this unpleasantness that drove me into her room at 6:30 in the morning in the first place. But when she didn’t exclaim, “Mommy! Good morning!” first thing, I knew my morning was about to go really wrong.

I made it back out to the dining room table, sat down with my book, and was sipping coffee before Captain Gloom appeared in the doorway. My face almost melted off from the heat of her scowl.

“Hey, buddy. What’s up?”

More scowling. “WHY did someone turn off my white noise?”

I looked at my kid, hair looking like something might still be nesting in it, eyes narrowed to slits in a combination of sleepiness and grumpiness, and I knew I needed to tread lightly. In my most neutral, yet comforting voice—well, the best one I could muster before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee—I tried reason, “I don’t think anyone turned it off love, I think…”

Apparently, thinking was a big mistake. Because my thinking made her stomp past me and into the kitchen. Now it was my turn to practice some deep breathing. I looked down at my book, willing myself to concentrate. But all the yelling that I wanted to do about her bad attitude was bouncing around in my head, crowding out the words on the page.

We’ve entered the season of snark with Jane. And, dear God, it is wearing me down.

Jane usually feels things intensely and lets them go. She can be happy, sad, then happy again in the time it takes me to finish a latte. But lately she’s been broodier. She rolls her eyes so hard that I feel sure they’re going to get stuck somewhere up in her head. She stomps off. And she holds on to these moods for a while, picking at her feelings, crying about things that are over and done—or at least they would’ve been over and done a few weeks ago. But now, we brood.

As I tried to maintain my composure in the dining room, I heard muffled sobs coming from the kitchen. I walked over, accompanied by the dog who looked confused, too. “Buddy, what is wrong?” Through tears, she shared her exquisite agony over awaking to the absence of white noise.

Seriously?

Look, I try to be understanding. And I’m sure that her tears were not actually about white noise. Maybe she felt disrespected because she thought we’d touched her things. Maybe she felt out-of-control because her morning didn’t start precisely the way she thought it would. Kids are super-complex little beings. I totally get that. But I get that a lot more once I’ve had enough caffeine to function.

“Jane, you’re going to have to let go of the white noise thing. Okay?”

“Can I have a hug?” she responded, her voice small and muffled through tears and all that hair that was still a wild mess atop her head.

I pulled her into a hug. I felt her relax a little. “Can you come in here with me while I make my lunch?” she asked.

I felt my heart catch a little. “No,” I said, quietly. “I got up early to take care of some things. I’m going to do those things now.”

Even as I was claiming my right to my own personhood, to be able to control the outcome of my morning even in the face of her meltdown, I felt guilty. Maybe I should drop everything to be there for whatever it was she was struggling through. But that isn’t really love. That’s servitude. There are times my world stops for her. But part of my job as her mother is to teach her what she can reasonably expect from people she loves. She can expect grace. We’ve been known to completely call a do-over on our morning and start again from scratch. She can expect understanding. Everyone has a bad day. Everyone gets grumpy. But she can’t expect people she loves to be her emotional punching bag. Being Jane’s mom uniquely qualifies me to be her safe space. But for that to work, like any relationship, we have to have boundaries. By not rearranging my morning for her grumpitude, I set my boundaries. Clearly.

And the world did not end. She dried her tears. She made her lunch, just like always. She even found time to snuggle with the dog (in the dog’s crate—but that’s another story for another day). By the time we left to walk to school, Jane was talking and laughing, anticipating her day ahead.

Parenting is about love, boundaries, messy hair, and redeemed mornings. And about a helluva lot of grace.

 

 

Raising a Kid Who Sees (and Celebrates) Color

Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in gender, acceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different. 

 

Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in genderacceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different.

Teaching Jane about diversity hasn’t been without challenges. Take, for instance, the day we were walking through our neighborhood, admiring the pride flags fluttering in the breeze. “Do we know anyone that’s gay?” she asked earnestly. Um…

So, we started back at square one about what being gay means, what being trans means, and what it means to identify as queer. Just a typical, everyday conversation with the 7 year old. As laborious as it can be to explain concepts like gender and sexual orientation to a very curious and analytical kid, I’m grateful that she asks questions (and asks, and asks, and asks…) until I offer up a nugget of truth that resonates with her. I want to help her understand and connect with the world whenever I can. Even if that means I’m stuck in a never-ending round of 21 Questions.

Moving into a Broader World-View

The open, frank way that we dealt with her Bobby’s transition has bled into the way our family discusses almost everything. No question is off limits. Which is good, because our move from suburban Tampa, Florida, to intown Atlanta during Jane’s fifth year of life led to A LOT of questions.

Moving from the suburbs to a markedly more urban area looks and feels different. We no longer have to take the car everywhere. Transit is an option. So is walking (which I do a lot more of than Jane would prefer). We can see the Atlanta skyline from our neighborhood. And, perhaps most notably, we left an almost entirely white suburb and moved to Atlanta, which has a rich Civil Rights history and a vibrant black population.

We live in Southeast Atlanta; it’s not uncommon for us to walk into a restaurant and be one of only a handful of white people. This is different—for us and for her. And we never hesitated to say so.

We also identified that feeling of “differentness” as something black people experience more often, as they navigate predominantly white spaces that insist on assimilation. I mean, that was the idea, but the actual wording was more like: “How would you feel if people looked at you funny because you looked different than they do?”

Her empathy radar went off. “Bad,” she said, looking puzzled and a bit put out.

“And what if they felt that way just because you had brown skin?”

Now she was mad: “That’s stupid,” she sputtered.

I saved the lecture about calling things stupid for another day. Because racism is stupid. Sometimes you just have to call it like you see it.

Living Life in Vivid Colorand Picking Your Battles

My generation often likes to claim “colorblindness.” But studies show that kids notice racial differences early on. They also quickly identify things we refuse to talk about or name as “bad.” When we wanted to avoid negative, shameful feelings around her Bobby’s transition, we gave Jane the language to discuss it. When we enrolled Jane in our local public school, which is both racially and economically diverse, we took a similar approach. We wanted her to celebrate the diversity of her school, not ignore it. So we never shied away from her copious observations about, well, everything.

For example, Jane’s always been quick to notice and admire different hairstyles, especially if they include braids, bright hair bows or beads that clickity-clack. She noticed and started talking about other kids’ hair long before she seemed to notice their skin color. In Kindergarten, she asked me to buy hair ties to go in the top and bottom of her two braids, like her black friends. While we picked out new hair ties with brightly colored, interlocking balls, she chattered on about who has super-cool braids and pretty beads.

Next came the most obvious request ever: she wanted braids like her friends at school. I felt panicked for a minute—because cultural appropriation. But I circumvented that whole conversation by reminding her that she becomes a teary mess in the time it takes me to pull her hair back into ONE ponytail. Which, incidentally, takes no longer than 120 seconds. Cool braids take intense fortitude and patience, I informed her. One day, she and I will talk about cultural appropriation and the problem with being white and “borrowing” bits of black culture while systemic racism and white supremacy run rampant. But, right now, she’s 7. Cultural appropriation is a bit nuanced. Instead, we celebrate the joyous noise hair beads make when they clickity-clack together—and how amazingly cool it is to enjoy that at school every day.

Confronting Racism Wherever It Crops Up

Raising a kid to think critically sometimes means even the easy things aren’t so easy anymore. Take, for example, reading Little House on the Prairie. I figured Jane and I would read the books together, then watch the television show –a nostalgic passing on of tradition between mother and daughter.

But these things so rarely go as planned.

Seems I’d forgotten a little bit of the story. Like when Laura and her family move to “Indian country.” When I ran across the reference to Indian country, I stopped, reminded Jane that while people used to refer to Native Americans as Indians, we know better and do better now. Because Jane’s a curious kid, I anticipated she’d have more questions.

She did not disappoint: “Why did they go into the country if it was Indian Country?”

Ah, yes. The perfect late afternoon conversation: manifest destiny. But, because we’d already talked about judging people on the color of their skin—and about some white people thinking they are better simply because they are white—it was relatively easy to explain that, white people thought they deserved the land the Indians were on.

“But why?”

I won’t lie—I wondered whether it wouldn’t just be easier to dismiss the book as racist and move on. But if I did that, wouldn’t that be teaching her to just ignore racism instead of confronting it?

I kept reading Jane Little House on the Prairie because I don’t want her to think that when she encounters ideas that run counter to her own, she should dismiss them without critical thought. Turns out, scholars support the need for critical inquiry (even in kids’ lit): “…racism exists in the world. Children are going to encounter it, and a safer way to learn how to encounter it is via fiction. If you’re reading a racist children’s book with a child, you can help them read it critically, you can help them learn that it’s okay to be angry at a book.”

Topics like white supremacy and manifest destiny are big topics. But the principles that underlie them are accessible to kids. They see injustice unfold around them. But they often don’t have the words to give voice to what they see. Talking about racism and injustice is hard work. But it’s work worth doing.

 

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Coraline (the Scientist)

Coraline pressed her hand gently against the rough, wooden door. It looked weathered, like it had absorbed all the brightness of Spring and the darkness of Winter. The wood settled into a deep gray, still splintered in places. Coraline wondered briefly if some sandpaper might restore it to a brighter hue.

The door creaked slowly open to reveal a single room. The wood inside reminded Coraline of wildflower honey. The air felt soft and cool. Damp, maybe. But, if she left the door open, the luminous buzzing of Spring would make its way in eventually. No clouds of dust arose as Coraline slowly walked the length of the room. The dirt remained packed tight, determined to serve its designated purpose. A rug would do nicely in the middle of the room, Coraline thought. She’d need a place to sit and read or to spread out and play solitaire. A rug was just the thing.

On one wall, a low set of shelves provided a space for storage and a countertop of sorts. The perfect space for her books and her makeshift science lab. She would still take dinner with her parents, she supposed. Coraline would be perfectly happy with a steady diet of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, with an apple on the side. Her mother, however, insisted on a wide variety of foods—Pad Thai, grilled eggplant, Tuscan Pizza, tofu and bean burritos. And a salad. Her mother insisted on a salad at every meal.

Coraline felt a tiny tug at her heart when she thought of her mother. Her mother smelled of sandalwood and citrus. She always looked freshly scrubbed, freckles beaming radiantly on her face. Coraline shook her head almost imperceptibly. She loved her mother. Adored her, really. But they had irreconcilable differences that prohibited them from sharing living quarters. And that was that.

Coraline continued to survey the room. She would need a cot to sleep on, and perhaps a bean bag chair to read in. She also vowed to get a few new toys for Cricket. The cat seemed concerned about Coraline taking leave of her parents’ house. She constantly paced back and forth in Coraline’s (current) room, meowing incessantly. Coraline, for her part, packed boxes of her belongings rather nonchalantly. She felt an inkling of surprise that her parents did not seem frantic over her planned departure but rather a bit bemused. Her father offered his camping sleeping bag to keep her warm, as evenings in Spring were known for their briskness. Coraline graciously accepted. And that seemed to mostly settle things between them.

Coraline surveyed the little room once more. It didn’t seem like much right now. But once Haniford, her beloved pink stuffed bunny, took up residence, Corline was sure this would feel much more like home. And no one would ever again be vexed about science experiments gone awry. No, everyone in this residence would be a friend of science—even when science exploded and flung mossy-green residue all about the room.

Photo Credit: Veronika Homchis on Unsplash