Monday, August 31, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
I'm the kind of plant person who gives directions by foliage. The only way I know how to reach our dog sitter is to turn at a particular hedge. I literally navigate by plants—turn at this bromeliad, stop at that palm tree. When people relandscape, it screws me up for weeks.
But the point is that I'm a plant person. Along with writing and cooking, it is my great passion. I could fill volumes with my enthusiasm for plants. Indeed, I've been fortunate enough that, for ten years or so, I get paid to write about plants, in addition to growing them myself.
So yesterday was a poignant moment. A friend of ours has become close to an elderly woman, Diane, in her neighborhood. Diane is in her 80s, and she's lived in the same house for fifty years. Like me, Diane is a plant person. In her younger days, she used to travel to Fairchild Tropical and Botanic Garden south of Miami and steal cuttings for her own yard. For those who don't know, Fairchild is the premier tropical research garden in the continental United States. And, yes, stealing plants from Fairchild's storied collection is a horrible thing to do.
Over the years, Diane built up a large collection of rare and wonderful plants on her small, urbanish property. They were ... they are ... her babies.
Yet time moves on, and Diane's health has been failing her. Her family recently moved her into a nursing home. She is no longer able to live by herself, and her family is selling her house back to the bank. It is structurally unsound, infested with roaches. Undoubtedly, the bank will raze the property.
So yesterday, I went to Diane's empty house, with a shovel and a few garbage bags, and I took as many of her prized plants as I could stuff in my car. At first, I felt guilty— in a very real way, this was her life's work. But then my friend pointed out that Diane would have wanted this ... she would have wanted her plants to go to someone who would love them, who would raise them and keep pieces of her. So many thoughts went through my head as I hacked away layers of overgrown foliage to reach the gems hidden away. I thought about the way that a life can accumulate so much structure, only to vanish, become junk. I was almost overwhelmed by the idea that we spend our lives building private, personal monuments to the joy of living, but it will ultimately be swept away by time. Four generations from now, will my great-great-grandchildren even know my name?
I took her plants. And I brought them home and I planted them in my own garden, where she will now forever be a piece of my own passion. When I look at my own garden from now on, I'll always know that some of these plants were once pilfered from a very serious garden by a very funny old lady, and now it's my privilege to care for them. Until someday, I too will hopefully pass them along.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Monday, August 17, 2009
Dr. Charles Love hesitates at the door to the family waiting room. He has performed this task many times, but it never gets any easier.
Through a narrow window he sees a dozen or so people standing in a circle, holding hands, praying. Several of them are weeping. Dr. Love wishes he had good news for them, but he does not.
He opens the door and enters.
“Hello. I’m Dr. Love. Could I speak with the mother and father in private, please?”
The mother and father follow him to one corner. The mother is clutching a tissue, and the father has his hands in his pockets. They look at him with hopeful eyes.
“I’m afraid the injury was more extensive than we thought.”
“More extensive?” says the mother. “What does that mean? He’s going to be all right, isn’t he?”
“He’s going to make it, but—”
But he’ll never be the same. He’ll never drive a car, or flip a burger, or stroll hand-in-hand with his sweetheart on a moonlit winter night. He’ll never mow the lawn, or play the guitar, or finally catch that trophy bass. He won’t be able to father a child. He won’t be able to feed himself, or bathe himself. He’ll require constant care, twenty-four seven ...
“But what?” says the father.
“A sharp sliver of bone severed the spinal cord. We repaired the vertebrae, but the cord itself, there’s nothing we can do about that. Unfortunately, your son is going to spend the rest of his life with severe neurological deficits.”
“You mean he’s paralyzed?”
“From the neck down. I’m so sorry.”
The mother buries her head in the father’s chest. They embrace. They cry. Loud, mournful sobs of irretrievable loss.
Dr. Love excuses himself. He exits the waiting room, his heart flooded with empathy.
In the physicians’ lounge he sits alone and stares at his hands.
He wishes there was something more he could do, but there is not.
He wishes backyard trampolines were against the law, but they are not.
His pager trills, informing him of another trauma case en route.
Dr. Love hesitates, then gets up and trots toward the emergency room.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Laura bit her lip. Say something! She wanted to wipe her hands on her jeans but Jason was still holding them, looking at her with such adoration that she was afraid to move. He pressed his forehead against hers. What if she said the wrong thing? Tilting his head to one side, he slowly rubbed his cheek along her jaw line.
Her heart stuttered, and not in the way she always imagined it would. What the hell was wrong with her? Why was she feeling so… uncertain? This was what she wanted, what she dreamed about, what they talked about, and now that the moment was here her words vanished and her body urged her to flee.
Jason released one of her hands and swept her hair behind her ear, then brushed his lips down the length of her throat.
A sigh escaped her, but still no words. Her thoughts chugged around inside her head, stumbling over themselves—Yes! No! Yes! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!?—but it was as if someone had poured fresh concrete into her brain and it was solidifying before she could speak.
She thought this was what she wanted, yet how could she be sure? Her throat ached, struggling against the pressure of the words she knew she couldn't say. He deserves an answer. She pulled back and tried to lose herself in the emotion his warm eyes brought bubbling to the surface.
It felt like hours, weeks, months had passed since he asked her to marry him, but her heart had only beat a handful of times.
She parted her lips. Say it! "Jason, I…"
The corner of his mouth lifted into that smile she couldn't resist and her heart flipped back into rhythm.
Laura lowered her eyes, embarrassed by her hesitation. The answer was there all along.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
I found love the day after the world ended. It came as no more or less of a shock than the dead rising.
“Hurry!” Dan frantically swung his shotgun left then right. His eyes never left the shattered plate glass window in the front of the store.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” I said, grabbing what I could. “There’s not much left.”
Dan bit his lip. “Sarah, I know they heard us … they must have heard us …”
“Relax, Dan, Owen’s watching. He’ll warn us if they come.”
Unless they’d already gotten him.
It’d started out small enough—local children got a new kind of flu. No one was particularly worried because, at least in the city, no one died. It didn’t matter that thousands of miles away, across an ocean, people were. That was them this was us.
If only it stayed that way. The city’s death toll grew, then the state’s, then the entire country. One newspaper’s headline had read: God’s Punishment? No Cure for Worldwide Plague.
I’m not sure God had anything to do with it.
I thought the end had come then, but I’d been wrong. Yesterday was when it really had—the TV’s went black, the world went silent, and the dead started walking.
This morning I lost my neighbor to a corpse. She’d been torn apart by her daughter, Lizzy. I remember Lizzy eating the frosting off her sixth birthday cake. Now all I see when I close my eyes is her eating her mom’s intestines, all twisty red and glistening wet. All I remember are her mom’s screams.
A hand snaked out of the dark, grabbing the bottled water out of my hand.
“Christ!” I fell back, sneakers squeaking on the linoleum.
But it was a man not one of them.
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m okay. You okay?” He said.
We laughed as he helped me up. It was brief, the touch of his hand, and soft and quiet—a whisper of flesh. I looked into his eyes and knew, against all odds, love.
“Sarah,” I said.
A shotgun blast and shattering glass ripped through the store. Dan fired another round. “They’re here!” He shouted. “They’ve found us! Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh GOD.”
“Dan—” Grabbing my baseball bat, I turned to help. Joshua held my arm. “Dan,” I repeated.
And then I heard it—a scrabbling, tearing, a slurping and chewing. I thought I was going to be sick.
“Run,” Joshua said.
Joshua pushed me and then, pulling a gun, fired down the aisle. There were five of them including Owen. “Run!”
I flew to the back of the store, my heart pounding as loudly as my sneakers. It was hard to see but I found stairs leading into the basement.
“Here, down here,” I called as Joshua fired round after round and reloaded.
It was quiet for two hurried breaths before he joined me and we raced down the stairs, almost tripping. We found a storage room and slid exhausted to the floor.
I couldn’t see anything except a small pool of moonlight coming from a window set street level. The light flickered, strobe-like, as the dead shuffled past. I thought I saw Owen’s high-tops. The ones I’d given him for Christmas.
“He was my brother,” I said. “So was Dan.”
Joshua put his arm around me. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. It tickled my hair.
Eventually the dead left us, and the moon rose high. I walked over and looked up. What would tomorrow bring? Joshua came up behind me and held me close. His warmth chased the numbness away.
“Who did you lose?” I asked.
“Everyone.” He rested his chin on my shoulder. “But I found you.”
Was that the trade-off? Joshua kissed my neck, his breath sending goose bumps down my arms.
“I found you,” he repeated, grip tightening. “I found you.”
I don’t remember how many times he said it or how many times I said it back. We made love in moonlight; hard brick against my back, clothes torn open, kissing feverishly. Tender at the end, he cupped my face, stroking my cheek with his thumb. He had the softest brown eyes.
“Oh, God, Joshua,” I breathed.
“I know.” He smiled.
Behind Joshua was Owen. Swaying and slathering, bloody bits clinging to flesh and clothes, he stank of the newly dead.
Owen had always been fast and jumped, snarling at Joshua who pushed me away. They struggled, pinning me beneath their twisting bodies. Owen’s fingernails clawed furrows down Joshua’s arms.
“No! No, no, no!” I pulled myself away, kicking off Owen.
Someone screamed. I frantically looked around, spotted Joshua’s gun and grabbed it, swinging around.
Joshua crawled toward me leaving streaks of blood.
“Joshua?” I leveled the gun at his head, hand shaking.
I looked into his eyes.
“Oh, Joshua. Joshua, Joshua, Joshua,” I sobbed. I didn’t think I could pull the trigger.
Love hesitates, hunger doesn’t.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
I waited in the front room for the Reverend Jones. When he came out, he was ashen, his eyes wide and rolling like a colt that smells a thunderstorm coming across the plain.
"Well?" I said.
"Rachel is right," the Reverend said. "You must do it."
I felt my heart drop into an empty space in my chest. In the hours since the child was born, I had been hollowed out by shock and terror. But until I heard Jones say it, I had never experienced true existential dread.
What kind of monster must I be? Did I create this?
"Are you sure?" I asked.
Jones nodded and gripped my shoulder. "Yes. It must be you. You are the father. Only you can wash the stain of it away. Only you have the moral authority to banish the Dark One back to where he came from."
"But he's just a baby—" and my voice broke.
"No," Jones said. "You are thinking now only of love. But love is a weakness. Love stays the hand of justice. Love hesitates when strength is required. God did not spare Sodom or Gomorrah. Before that, he sent the Great Flood. He shows us the path in all things."
I'd heard this before, in one of Jones's sweaty, chanting sermons, the congregation shrieking before him in spasms of bliss, a box of snakes hissing and rattling next to the altar. But I only went to those heaving nights for Rachel. I joked it was an anthropology experiment.
"This can't be happening," I said.
"It is," Jones said. Then he stepped back and regarded me with a critical, appraising eye, like one might judge an ax before hefting it. "I've seen you on Sundays. You are not a believer—"
"What does that—"
Jones held up his hand. "I know it. I can feel your doubt like a cold stone in the fire. But think on this: do you not see the will of God himself in this? Is it possible that God wasn't after your wife, but that he had his hand on you all this time? That he designed this test for you alone?"
I shook my head. It was preposterous.
"Think on it," Jones said. "Things have been put in motion now that cannot be undone. Except by you."
Then he was gone.
I hesitated. Rachel was still groggy from the drugs Darla gave her to stop the screaming. I desperately wanted to see her, to touch her and bury my face in the cascade of dark hair. But then part of me wondered about her. The pale skin. Her black eyes rolling in unbridled ecstasy. Her ethereal, almost unearthly beauty. What if she was the monster? What if she had created this thing, and now she expected me to kill it?
A spasm of righteous anger and hatred blazed in my heart. The strength of it shocked me.
I heard a stealthy noise and whipped around, afraid that my very thoughts were visible like black letters on a white board. It was only Darla, pushing through the door and moving in sharp, rat-like motions to cross the room. She was still wearing her white gown, and I found myself unable to tear my eyes away from a red smudge across her front. Rachel's blood? The child's?
She came to me with her piercing blue eyes and stood close enough I could smell the sharp tang of the antiseptic she had used to cleanse herself after the birth. She looked up into my face, and I saw no doubt in her. Only determination.
"Please," I croaked. "Isn't there some other explanation? Some genetic condition? An anomaly?"
Darla shook her head, and what did I expect? She was a congregationalist, too. And she had seen the boy. "No," she said in a pitiless voice. "There is no such sickness."
Then she pressed an object into my open hand. I looked with dawning horror and realized it was a sharpened crucifix. I looked up and she nodded at me.
"I'll give you some privacy now," she said.
Alone, the crucifix burning into my palm, I stared at the door, feeling as if the last tendrils of sanity were slipping away from me. Would it ever be summer again? Would the moon ever shine on me? What if this was just a birth defect? What if it wasn't?
Beyond the door, a high keening note sounded, and I began to shiver with fear. I'd heard babies cry before, but this was nothing like any baby I'd ever heard. Slowly, I approached the door and pushed it open. The room beyond was bathed in shadow, the bedsheets still stained with Rachel's blood and something glistening and clotted on the floor. A crib had been set up next to the bed, and it was from this crib that the unearthly note sounded. I saw something move in the blankets and my shivering deepened into shaking.
"Hello?" I whispered, knowing how ridiculous it was to expect an answer from a three-hour-old baby. I looked up to the ceiling, and for the first time in my life, I wished I could call upon Rachel's God to give me the same certainty she possessed. To give me some kind of sign that Jones was right and this was a test like the Great Flood or those wicked cities he burned on the desolate plains.
But it was too late for God and me—I realized right then, standing in the awful doorway, that deathbed conversions and desperate prayers are just tricks doubters play on themselves to keep the fear at bay.
The blanket rustled and a tiny arm rose up and gripped the crib slats. It was as I remembered: scaled, red, with the tiny claws that had ripped poor, lovely Rachel to shreds.
I entered the room slowly, my hand tightening around the crucifix and my lips forming the words to some childhood prayer I only half-remembered and less than half-believed. I hovered over the crib.
Then the slitted eyes and the lipless, ancient grin.
The crucifix clattered to the floor, useless. Jones was right. Love hesitates.
I bowed my head and asked him what I needed to do. When the answer came, I wasn't surprised.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The Hard Thing
By Erica Orloff
My family calls me Speed Dial.
Someone in the family is pulled for a DUI at 2:00 a.m. and can’t walk the straight line, my number is the one they call from jail.
I am also Bail Money.
I’m the person my siblings call when they are arrested, or when they are considering doing something to get themselves arrested, like when their husbands leave them for the babysitter, when their wife shacks up with their son’s seventh-grade gym teacher. There are six siblings—split down the middle. Three boys, three girls, and that figure multiplies exponentially given my family’s propensity for fuck-ups of epic proportions. We’re now into second-generation fuck-ups. One of my nieces is pregnant. She’s sixteen, so I’m guessing we’re going into generation number three. We like our traditions.
Two a.m. is usually the DUI call. I rolled my eyes when I saw the county lock-up come up on caller I.D. Then I mentally calculated how much I had in my bank account to cover bail. Only this last call wasn’t a DUI. It was nine plain words.
“Your father has been arrested for murdering your mother.”
There are bail calls. And there are rock your world to its core bail calls.
It was days until I could see him—that’s how they processed him. When I finally was frisked and walked through metal detectors, squinting in the buzz of fluorescent lights, I saw how the orange jumpsuit swam on his 96-pound frame, casting him as some murderous scarecrow.
He didn’t apologize.
“I’ll be with her soon. I pray every night for that. I dream of it, and when I wake up, I’m just sad it hasn’t happened yet. Soon, though.”
And that much I knew. The pancreatic cancer had ravaged him.
“Love does the hard thing,” he sighed.
At first, she couldn’t count change. A math teacher who couldn’t count to 100 pennies. She got lost on the way to the supermarket that was a half mile from their house. Then she got lost in the supermarket by the frozen raviolis and started crying.
She forgot my siblings, one by one. Forgot their dramas (which was a good thing). Forgot the days of the week. She actually thought every day was Tuesday. She didn’t know the name of the president of the United States. Then she forgot she lived in the United States and told me she lived in Guam.
She forgot me, finally. Until he was the only one who could get through to her. He would hum her this song. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” From when they were dating 55 years ago. And she would smile and become compliant.
Then she forgot the song. Even just to hum it.
And finally, he slipped away from her, too, like disappearing into a thick fog.
Then she forgot words. Sometimes, it was as if she rattled around in her own head searching for C-A-T when their Siamese moose of a cat sat on her lap. But those three little letters could not be found.
Then she could not remember how to swallow.
And that was when he decided.
He made sure the sleeping pills were the very last thing she ate, spooned gently into her mouth in a soupy applesauce, him massaging her throat to help her remember how to swallow, spooning it back on her tongue when she pressed it forward through her lips like an baby learning how to eat rice cereal. He laid her down. When she snored, he put a plastic bag over her face and held her hand. She never struggled. He said he thought it was sort of like when babies die of SIDS. She just went to sleep.
He’ll be dead before the trial.
He confessed to everything anyway. The D.A. was a female without compassion, eyes black as a crocodile’s.
“I’ve got one question for you. Did you ever stop to think that maybe what you did was wrong? Wasn’t the answer?”
He pondered. “Love hesitates.”
Then, looking up at the ceiling, he whispered, “But love does the hard thing.”
Monday, August 10, 2009
The hatchet was heavier than she expected.
Jo wasn't the handy type, and tools and their uses were elusive to her — how things are put together, how they work. But hatchets were different. They were all about deconstruction and undoing, and Jo liked that.
Whoever had left the hatchet in the hall closet (the landlord? the fire chief?) had positioned it next to a small red fire extinguisher. If Jo had ever noticed it there before, she didn't remember. But now that Lars was gone, she could see what was left in his place.
She got dressed and headed in to work. It was the off-season and the casino was at half-capacity, but the HR department was still trucking along with new hires. Dealers. Floor managers. Cashiers. Each needed a snip of hair sent to the lab for drug testing.
Jo meticulously matched the ID numbers on the lab reports to the names of the new hires. The results were given in picograms of drugs per milligram of hair for amphetamines, cocaine, opiates, marijuana.
This one parties a little. This one parties a lot. This one was high when he came in for the test.
Jo wasn't sure how it happened, but like a fly to shit she ended up back in Lars's rejected personnel file.
Trying to get him a job had been a colossal waste of time. He had outdone himself that day — the numbers were off the charts.
By now Jo already knew the score, but she felt compelled to look again. Eight thousand pg/mg of cocaine.
"Asshole," she murmured. But she didn't mean it.
That night, she knocked back a few beers sitting on a plastic chair on the patio. Hadn't he said she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen? Hadn't he bought her lacy underwear, and played his guitar for her, and given her a ring?
She watched cars pass by on the highway and thought about promises made and promises broken.
She thought about Lars's face when she'd walked in on them. He hadn't bothered with apologies, hadn't even bothered to push the girl's head away from his lap.
"Fuck it," was all he'd said.
She drank a few more beers, and by the time she was in the car, she knew where she was headed. It wasn't the first time she'd been down this road.
The car was all over the place. Jo was losing focus on the white lines she was aiming for. She kept trying to remember the thing they say at weddings. "Love is patient. Love is kind."
She added a few of her own. Love is sober. Love keeps it in his pants. Love doesn't screw you over.
She turned the radio up. Love wrecks things.
Jo barely noticed the hatchet sitting on the seat next to her. She didn't remember bringing it.
She stumbled up to the door of Lars's new place and peeked in the front window. She saw nothing. Just black.
She went back to the car for the hatchet and sidled up with it held like a tennis racket, ready to swing. She tried to focus on what was in front of her.
At first Jo thought she couldn't do it, but then she imagined Lars inside, on top of that girl. The image fueled her, and she pumped her fists around the handle and tensed her shoulders.
She tried to swing the hatchet, but flinched and paused. She was afraid of breaking something between her and Lars for good.
"What's there to break?" she asked no one in particular.
Jo wished she could turn the hatchet on herself instead. "Love is patient, love is kind," she told herself. "Love is patient, love is kind."
She stood, frozen in the moment. Love hesitates. Love uses her head. Love holds its damn horses.
Her arms were getting tired, but she thought of Lars, butt cheeks tensed and ready to thrust.
She pulled the hatchet back and threw all of her weight behind it. She wished it was his head.