The Lingering Conflicts of a Leftover Life

I left Sayre when I was 18, and that was nearly two decades ago. It was a month after I graduated that my dad and my friend Joy helped me load the U-Haul in front of the rent house I had been living in and head two hours East to Oklahoma City. There are parts of me I left in that town. I buried them in the cold red clay and walked away. Discarded pieces of the person I used to be and no longer wished to remember.

Just like that I moved into a rent-controlled apartment in a not so nice neighborhood with no friends. I lived by myself and nearby distant cousins; family members I did not know that well, truthfully. The city had close to a million people in it, and the town I had just left had fewer than 2,500. Geographically it was about two inches on a map. But those two inches were a world apart.

Those first few months I drove back at least once a month and visited my friends, but eventually I did not even do that. That town became like a faded photograph, a memory that I could once connect to with ease had now become an image I didn’t see myself in at all.

The parts of me I left behind, those parts were what people remembered about me. As if by shedding them and leaving them there I was making sure those were my trademarks.

Ideologically I could not be further from that scarred girl who drove off to the big city to live by herself and go to college. I knew that the only way to grow was to push myself as hard as I could to be the person I wanted to be. I used to drive into the center of the city and then find my way home to my lonely apartment each night. Before GPS and cell phones I knew that the only way I would be able to get around would be to memorize the layout in my head. Along the way I would see signs advertising jobs and I would apply. It didn’t take long and I had a job, I made new friends, I started college. Then, I got married, graduated twice, bought a house, had a kid.

And I didn’t really ever look back.

There are still good people there. People I care about and people who know the core of who I am. But I haven’t been back to visit in years. My parents live outside of town so I will go and visit them and then return home all without setting foot inside the city limits.

I think now that I have avoided having to reconcile the “me that was” with the person I grew into. They are two sides of the same coin. I could not be who I am now without her, but there are days I have a hard time facing her. And she is intricately woven into the fabric of my hometown and the people that I grew up with.

So, to ignore her, I blocked them out.

This probably would have been the end of it. I might not have thought that much more about it, in fact, if it weren’t for what happened last night.

Last night there was a tornado that started near my parents’ property and their home and traveled just a few miles to the East and into the neighboring town. I realized that even though I have no claim to this land anymore that it still hurts. These people, many who I grew up with, were suffering and I felt bad with them. I wanted to let them know how sad I was or how it hurt to see someplace I had been so many times as a teenager left in ruins.

I felt myself wanting to share in their collective pain. But how could I? After all, I was the traitor that left and no longer had ties to the town. I was the one who had done nothing but peripherally stay current on social media with all of the people who had once been close friends. What right do I have to share in their pain and their agony? Who am I to offer empty words of sympathy?

While I do not know if I have a right to lay claim to the pain and sorrow that I am feeling right now, I want everyone affected to know that I feel your loss too, and it hurts much deeper than I would have believed.

A Story for My Mommy, Who is Hurting

I don’t know that I have the words to tell you how much of a powerhouse my mom has been. Growing up she was always so strong, so unfaltering that it left a deep and abiding impression on me. I, too, find myself trying to be as strong and as stoic as she has always been.

I wrote this story for her a long time ago. It’s been sitting around collecting dust. However, after this month and my grandma’s passing I think she needs it more than I need to hide it in my computer. So, this is for you Mommy, I love you.

Cracks

She wouldn’t have noticed the spot in the wall if it hadn’t been for Maribel.

After two days without the normally active cat trying to trip her when she was in the kitchen or doing other household chores, Connie Frampton began to worry. This fear caused Connie to set down the load of laundry she had been carrying and search for her pesky feline friend.

The grey tabby had been her own cat from the beginning, showing up on Connie’s front porch in the middle of the night, barely old enough to have opened her eyes. Full of curiosity and vitality, the kitten had brought joy to the Frampton household. Right now that joy was what Connie was searching for amidst the haphazard stacks of schoolwork, discarded socks, mismatched shoes, and general odds and ends that littered her house.

Connie tried to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be and to keep everything as clean as possible for her kids, but the fact she had children at all seemed to be enough to turn her house into a suburban jungle of extraordinary proportions. It was because of this clutter that Connie didn’t find Maribel until she began cleaning off the chairs surrounding the dinner table.

Once the bags, the skates, the hockey pads, and a pair of socks that appeared to have been transformed into moss-colored gelatin had been removed from the corner, she found Maribel staring at the wall.

“What’s the matter bella-kitty?” Connie asked, reaching down to stroke the cat’s back, the already tense muscles twitching under her downy fur. Maribel turned around, her pupils dilated until almost nothing was left of her green and gold flecked irises. She purred and twitched her whiskers, and, if cats could speak, Connie was sure this would be Maribel’s translation of Hello, friend.

After she stroked Maribel’s head for a few moments, the cat gently placed her nose into Connie’s palm and gave it a hard nudge before leaning back down to the small crack. Following Maribel’s lead, Connie quickly found herself crawling on all fours, leaning into the wall.

“Did you follow a bug into the hole?” Connie wondered aloud. Most cats were well known for their mouse catching abilities, but Maribel was more likely to stalk anything that happened to crawl by her. Whether it was beetles, ants, or flies, if it came in the house, it belonged to Maribel.

When she had been a very small kitten, barely able to jump on the couch, she had once sat in front of the kitchen cabinet door and meowed for two days straight. She had been so inconsolable that Connie had been close to just putting her out on the porch and letting her go explore in the backyard, mistakenly thinking the cat wanted to go back outside.

But when Connie had opened the cabinet and looked around, she’d found a line of ants marching across the tile. So she didn’t question the insanity of it all when she found herself crouched down on all fours peering into a sliver of cracked drywall that was only two centimeters wide. After all, if there was an infestation of something behind her walls, she wanted to know.

But it wasn’t bugs she found.

She could feel a soft breeze billowing out of the tiny crack. The tangy smell of ocean water assaulted her senses. Connie hadn’t been near the ocean in years, but she had never forgotten the sharp smell of the salt as it mingled with the air. Now, on the floor of her home in southwestern Oklahoma, the smell of the ocean didn’t seem as odd as she would have thought.

Another thing she hadn’t noticed before she leaned down was the way the crevice expressed a deep red light, as if a heat lamp were directly behind the wall.

Connie knew she should have moved, that she should have gotten up and shuffled around her house and tried to forget this, knew that if she stayed there too much longer the preoccupations of everyday upkeep and chores would somehow cease to matter. If she were to get up and move on in the next few seconds, however, she could put this whole incident behind her until the memory was filed away and forgotten.

After all, through the years there had been many things that had been buried. When she did allow herself to remember them, the only thing she could see or feel was the twisted metal of the wreck that had taken so much from her. It wasn’t enough that she had seen what the car had done to his flesh and bones, but sometimes, late at night, she could hear it shrieking as it twisted beneath him.

For a moment she thought about the cycle of grief that followed her and how there were things in life so tragic the best way to deal with them was to pretend they didn’t exist.

Besides, there were other things she needed to concentrate on.

Connie opened her eyes to the realization that she was lying on her side, her nose inches away from the wall. Maribel’s whiskers brushed the side of Connie’s face and she sneezed, causing Maribel to stare at her thoughtfully for a moment before inching toward the wall until the cat was so close her nose was pressed firmly against the crevice.

She then let out a long meow and began nervously pawing at the wall. The soft pads of her feet did nothing and it wasn’t long before she noticed the lack of progress and began clawing at the wall even harder.

Connie scooped Maribel up and carried her to the kitchen. At first the cat tried to climb over her shoulder and return to the wall, but the farther away they moved, the less she struggled, until eventually she was her normal, plump, purring self.

They stood like that for a long time, frozen to each other, neither one wanting to look back. Eventually Connie moved close enough to kick the swinging door closed before sitting Maribel on the ground. She poured herself a giant cup of coffee and leaned against the counter.

“What was that?” she wondered aloud. At first she had been afraid to say anything, afraid her recognition of the strange crack would cause the walls to split apart entirely.

But nothing happened.

Maribel continued to purr as she lay down in front of Connie’s feet and rolled onto her back. Without even pausing to think about it, Connie stretched out her foot and massaged the cat’s exposed belly.

Gradually fear and tension eased their hold on her, and although she knew it wouldn’t be much longer before the curiosity that had first pulled Maribel to the wall would return, she at least felt a little more balanced.

She rinsed out the cup in the sink, and then, to avoid opening up the door, she went ahead and unloaded then reloaded the dishwasher, scrubbed off the counter tops, emptied out the fridge (screaming only once when she encountered a Tupperware container that had completely changed colors on her), and swept the floor. When she was done, her kitchen was cleaner than it had been in months, maybe even years, but only two hours had passed. The kids wouldn’t be home from school for another three hours, and, until then, it seemed there was nothing to distract her. But somehow that thought didn’t seem as undesirable as it had only moments before.

Looking to the door, Connie noticed Maribel was sitting directly in front of it, staring back at her.

“Well, I guess we can’t ignore it forever, huh, girl?” Connie asked as she pushed open the door and the pair walked back to the dining room.

Connie’s cleaning rampage in the kitchen had not made the mysterious object disappear, but rather it was larger, widening to almost a half-inch across and over three inches tall. The warm, red glow now seeped out of its confined space and spread across the carpet, pooling in a circle on the floor as if it had substance.

Connie dipped her fingertips in the light and was immediately greeted with a tingling sensation that coated her fingers and spread out across her arm. She jerked her hand back and the feeling stopped.

Maribel sniffed at Connie’s hand and then leaned into the crack, pressing her nose firmly to the wall. Connie was about to push Maribel back when the cat disappeared through the hole.

If she hadn’t been sitting right there she wouldn’t have believed it, but she watched as Maribel’s full body flattened until it looked like a two-dimensional cartoon character, then slid through the gap.

Connie gasped, and called out for Maribel. A soft meow answered from between the walls, and Connie thought of her poor friend gone, lost to some other existence. There was only a brief moment of hesitation before she made up her mind to try and follow the cat.

Closing her eyes, Connie put her fingertips against the wall.

At first she felt nothing, not even the tingling that had greeted her earlier. Just the warm, salty breeze as it pushed against her hand and down her arm. She could smell the ocean and hear the cry of the seagulls. Her chest was burning and she realized that she was holding her breath, which she let out between clenched teeth as she opened her eyes. She had been curled on her side looking down when she touched the wall, but now she was sitting upright and she saw her bare feet were buried in sand.

Next to her sat Maribel, squinting against the brilliant rays of the setting sun.

Connie wasn’t sure what she had been expecting to find in between her walls, but a deserted island paradise was certainly not it. If nothing else, she had at least expected some odd form of talking cartoon cat to greet her. However, Maribel sat as stoic and as three-dimensional as ever, and the only vocalization was her constant purring.

“Connie.”

The call startled her, but she had been looking at Maribel when it was spoken so she knew that it the cat had not decided to talk. Although, she was not sure who was calling to her.

Connie looked up and put her hand to her forehead to block the sun. Someone was approaching across the sand, the form rippling as it moved. It could have been the heat from the sand, or an effect of the setting sun, but Connie knew it was an indication of what she was about to see. She held her breath, waited, and tried to decide if she should run or cry.

It had been thirty years since he’d died. The loss still hung hollow in her abdomen, and the emptiness ached when she saw his face form in front of her.

She hadn’t meant for him to come to any harm.

She was his sister, his family, and he’d told her he was going to miss her wedding. While his justification had been that he could not get off from his two jobs for the entire weekend, she’d suspected he was punishing her for marrying Daniel. So when James had told Connie he wasn’t coming, it had been inexcusable. She’d cried, begged, and cajoled until he agreed to make the ten hour drive, attend the wedding, and immediately head home.

Only he never finished the return trip. He’d fallen asleep on the long stretch of I-40 between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque and driven off the road. She’d been headed to her honeymoon when she found out.

James touched her cheek, brushing his thumb across her flesh, reaffirming that he was as real as anything else here in the space in-between.

“And when our dad died two years later, and Daniel just fifteen years after that, whose fault had that been? Surely not yours, Connie, you can’t control everything.”

He was faded around the edges, like an old photograph. He had on his favorite pair of bell-bottoms and the Hawaiian shirt he used to wear all of the time in high school. His dark hair flipped up a little at the edges, and his green eyes crinkled when he smiled.

Connie put her hand over his and let her tears go. There were too many pent up tears, and she thought she would pass out from dehydration before she stopped crying. He sat next to her and held her hand. The sun never moved in the sky, but they stayed like that for hours, Connie in the middle with Maribel on one side and James on the other.

She remembered that the kids would be coming home soon, knew she should be getting back before they thought their mother was gone forever, but the sun seemed to have sapped her energy and her limbs were so relaxed she could barely move. For once she felt as if there might be something else in the universe, some other form of meaning besides guilt.

It was a good feeling.

A while later, Connie opened her eyes and realized she was once again sitting on the dining room floor next to Maribel.

The crack on the wall was almost completely healed. Only a thin gold line stood out against the wallpaper. If she hadn’t known it was there a few moments before, she wouldn’t have seen it at all.

Maribel snorted and sauntered back to the kitchen door while Connie stood up and walked over to the other side of the wall. When nothing happened, Connie sat down and stared at her sand-crusted toes.

“Where were we?”

Maribel looked at her and cocked her head to the side before letting out a brief chirp. Connie stared fondly at her cat.

“You aren’t going to tell me one way or the other, are you?”

A tail swish was Maribel’s only reply. Connie thought it wasn’t much of an answer, but maybe there had never been any answers. All she knew was the guilt was gone, and that was something.

“Yes, Maribel, that is definitely something.” Connie said as she slid her bare feet into a pair of slippers and picked up the forgotten laundry basket. She might not be able to prove what had actually happened, but somehow she knew that if she ever needed it again the crack would return, and Maribel would find it for her.

And that was also something.

 

I See You

Being an artist is about being raw and true to yourself and to your vision of the world around you. It requires you to be both fearful and fearless simeltaneously. I tell that to my students all of the time, but they are just words. I had forgotten what it was like to live in that limbo of being brutally honest, yet hidden in the depths. I had forgotten what it meant to be someone who creates because there is no other alternative.

You see I couldn’t stop creating if I tried. It’s built into me, into my genetic code. My grandma was the same way. Up until the arthritis curled her hands and bit into her hips she would sit for hours and paint or sew or crochet or string jewelry: anything to help create something in the world. 

She passed away this week, and I didn’t realize until then how much braver she was than I ever gave her credit for. I had spent my life looking at her through one lens, that of grandma. To me she was someone who raised her family and lived a typical housewife existence and who loved to craft as a hobby. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I loved her any differently because of this perception.

I just didn’t see her. I didn’t appreciate her fire, didn’t see her as a young woman who put her dreams on hold only to go back to college later when her children were grown so she could follow her dream. I didn’t see how much courage it would have taken for her to do this, to branch out into a world she didn’t really know and go back to school with people half her age in order to learn more and grow as a person.

After school she took her art on the road, going out with the items she created and putting them up for people to look at and criticize. This is the hardest thing for any artist to do, and she did it with grace and style. She never lost her love of her art or her desire to create.

One painting has always stuck with me. It was a Bengal Tiger standing in wispy blades of yellow grass against a coal black sky. His eyes were not filled in but he stood strict and at attention, his entire body poised against the unknown. When I was younger I used to stare at it for hours and beg her to finish. She never would. She told me once she just wasn’t sure if she could. I didn’t understand it then, couldn’t understand why someone would invest so much in something they could not finish. I understand now. In fact, I’m fighting with some of my own demons on my unfinished stories. This painting is with me now, a constant reminder to not leave things undone.

I was going through pictures after the service and all of a sudden I saw my grandma as she had been, a fully formed person. There were smiles and laughter, tears and doubts, and through it all the story of her life. The story I had always missed because I couldn’t take off my glasses and adjust my view. I see it now, though. I’m sorry I missed it before, Nene.

I see you now.

Picking Apart a Scene

I’ve been working on the new story now and it’s getting to the point where I need to pull apart and completely revamp a scene. Long story short, I added in another character long after the beginning and I need to find a way to get her fully integrated in the front half of the book. I don’t know why I work this way, but that is often my process.

Right now I keep going back and forth between what I need to do and what I want to do. I need to completely gut this scene and only take away the vital elements. The problem is over the last year or so I’ve grown attached to it and I don’t want to change it. It’s hard to create something from scratch and then tear it to pieces and rebuild it.

Think about how attached some people get to Lego sets they build. Now magnify that. Yep, that is what I’m going through right now. I need all of the luck you can toss at me.

The good news is that the new character, Orele, is pretty bad ass. I like her, and that lessens the horrible feeling that I have in the pit of my stomach when I sit down to write.

The Universe is Waiting

At birth we are given a roadmap:
goals and dreams to add to as we age,
each step changing the landscape into
something we might not recognize later.

Obstacles rise to greet us, what we become tied to our
ability to navigate the wilderness of our destinies, even the
branches that build new maps in unknown territories,
to recognize different dimensions in the lands
of what could have been and what must never be.

Passionate volcanos burn bright and hot,
lava-filled and waiting to erupt before fading
into the background of what was and falling into the
event horizon so new ones can rise up from the bones of nothing.

And still, the Universe is patient.

She waits for each of us to reach our treasure, never bothering
to ask if that is what we need. Assuming, instead, that the brightly held “X”
is the inevitable conclusion to each breath that passes through
our lungs.

 

The Science of Grief

Receipts, plastic cups, televisions that no longer function…

Sifting through the pieces of a life in broken fragments of products –
A permanent fossil record of plastic bits purchased at dollar store prices. The sum of what we will eventually be known for nothing more than a doll without eyes, soul banished to the toy graveyard. 

Cracked porcelain plates and falsely smiling pictures. How will we be remembered? By the way we survived our days or be the way we lived them?

A baying dog on the edge of night, the rustle of leaves, the screech of the wilderness held back by the manmade glow of permanent light and the items that refuse to decompose.

Now you are nothing more to me than a shadow, a wispy figure hugging the edges of darkness, a silhouette hidden in the debris of immortality.

…and the walls came crashing down…

You probably don’t know me from Adam.  Or, if you do, you don’t know all of me.  I section myself off and very, very few people know what goes on in my head.  However, I think that is about to change.  That’s because they say that if you want to know a writer’s soul, you need to read their work.  While I have published some things, I hold a lot of it back.  No more.  Even the work that can’t get published or that I haven’t put out into the world much is about to find a home here.

This is the place where I make my stand, where I take a scalpel and slice my soul bare.  I had a very important person in my life once tell me that was the only way to make a connection as a writer.  She said I had to take a chance and open my wounds all the way up and bleed them out through my pen.  She died, and for awhile I forgot this.  I shut it away in one of my compartmentalized selves and locked the door.

Writing is not just something I do on occasion, and it’s not just a passing fad.  It is possibly the most important thing about me.  It is my purge, my way of coping with the world when everything seems out of control.  It always has been.  I’ve never used drugs, I’m not a big drinker, and for awhile in my teenage years if you’d asked I would have said my outlet was sex.  But that was before writing, before I found a way to sort my life in words.

These characters are not real, and yet they are.  I create them from aspects of people I have met over the years.  It could be something as simple as the way a man rubbed his stomach when he spoke or the confused tilt of someone’s head when I said something that took them by surprise.  I distill the essence of what these people are and try to incorporate those aspects into my stories.  It doesn’t mean the events are real.  In fact, events that happened in the written world probably have never happened in the physical world.  The foundations for these are built on a grain of truth and then expanded through a highly active imagination.

Pull up a chair and stay a minute. While you’re here, read something.  I hope you enjoy them. If so, leave a comment or send a message. If not you can leave messages too, but be constructive. You can call something shitty and trash it, just don’t be surprised if I tell you to fuck off.  It’s kind of who I am.

So, here it is people, take it or leave it.  I’m not sure how many of you will read this.  I have no idea if it will find an audience.  I just know it is something I have to do.  For too many years I have not been using writing as a means of purging my inner demons.  Instead I’ve been building up walls.  Now it is time for me to tear those walls down…