Inevitably Joe’s determined curiosity widened to include the rest of the world. As his medical condition worsened, his parents curtailed family outings without saying a word or ever referring to the involuntary confined nature of the shorter vacations. “Any chance of a trip somewhere exotic, Dad?” he asked, once. He saw the anguished looks and exchanged, entrapped glance they shared over his head. Joey never asked again.
Joey’s queries toned down and became more secretive. On his way to the public library, he discovered a table covered with stacks of old postcards in a junk shop. Joey fanned out sanitized images of capitol cities and stared transfixed. He fingered the old thick cardboard and posited himself there, an alternate Joe someplace seen by him only in his imagination. He knew kismet had randomly assigned him the death card.
Perhaps a few freebies were in the mix as well.
Some magazines had coupons for glossy brochures of vacation getaways. He filled out coupons in his careful script and sent them off. He started writing away to travel agencies and to the embassies of foreign countries.
Descriptions began pouring in from around the globe and woke a deep hunger in him for all the things and places he’d never get to see. His reading matter shifted to books about exotic locales. Joey did weeks of research on the wide, wide world in the library’s travel and geography stacks. He read about Europe first, and next he planned to move on to Africa, and South America, and Asia, last stop the Antarctic!
Lou found an application sheet his brother had hidden. “A new opportunity for a new life …Whatever your origins, nationality or religion might be, whatever qualifications you may or may not have, whatever your social or professional status might be, whether you are married or single, the French Foreign Legion offers you a chance to start a new life…”
Lou went on reading, incredulous. Joey had filled out the forms right up to the paragraph indicating that selection for the Legion was carried out in person near Marseille, and that the applicant had to be physically fit to serve at all times in all places. Lou put the form back in the desk and never told his brother he’d seen it.
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available as paperback or eBook at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1, 2 & 3 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
He entered magazine contests and it didn’t matter what the prizes were. Mrs. Bocci was the first housewife in their neighborhood to own a brand new Maytag dishwasher. He won an extra dryer, which his parents passed on to their aunt and uncle for Christmas that year when his newest cousin was born.
He loved the surprise of each free gift. Sur-prizes, he called them. Joey sent away for samples of things just for the hell of it. He had the time; what else was he going to do with all those hours stuck sitting in his wheel chair? His family received the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A through Androphagi. He kept Mom in perfume and the rest of the family in soap and shampoo. Any time a new product came out, such as the first mint toothpaste, Joey ordered it. The Boccis were always the first ones on the block to try any of them.
His past time took on epic proportions. They didn’t just have free food samples to try. Joey ordered free animal feed samples too: packets of birdseed. Hamster food. Gold fish pellet food. Pouches of cat food and dog food, even horse feed. His parents finally told Joey to stop with the animal feed already; they couldn’t even have any pets because of the danger of allergies or infection from scratches. Joey’s dad donated it all to the local animal shelter.
Once or twice a week the mailman delivered a package containing free items with company logos. Joey would read about a new product being promoted and bing, the coupons were clipped and filled out and in the mail before anyone could stop him. The Bocci household received free tote bags, baseball caps, tee shirts and socks and other products. Actually his parents didn’t try to stop him from sending away for those items once they realized how much money his obsession was saving them on clothes.
He won a ride in the local weather helicopter – and because he couldn’t fly because of air pressure and collapsing sinus issues, Lou and Mr. Bocci went in his place. Now that was cool!
Here the tale ended abruptly, the silence Margaret’s cue to ask questions. It didn’t matter what she asked, really, as long as it gave Lou an idea of what she wanted to hear about next. “Was he persistent or just incredibly lucky?”
“Margaret,” Lou explained patiently, “no one was ever stupid enough to call Joey lucky. But yes, he had a run of luck where it seemed like the Universe was giving him a break to make up for the crap cards he’d been dealt just by being born. He really did have fun entering contests and winning stuff.”
“What’s the coolest thing he ever won?”
Lou frowned. “I just told you: the helicopter ride. At least to me and my Dad it was the coolest,” he amended, yielding to the apologetic look on his girlfriend’s face. “And he won fourth prize in a contest for a new Pontiac. My parents took the cash from that one and put into savings bonds. That money helped put me through college.”
“It was okay with Joe? He didn’t want the money for himself?”
“Well,” Lou said slowly, “by then his lucky streak was running out. Joey hid it from the rest of us. He’d started getting weaker again instead of stronger… He didn’t have a whole lot of time left. And I think he was trying to win money and prizes for us to make up for the gap that would be there after he was gone.”
Margaret sighed and hugged her boyfriend. “Jesus, Lou. How could your family stand it?”
Lou shrugged. “We didn’t get calloused or anything, but it wasn’t like any of us didn’t know the end was coming. We just kind of… went on as we had been. What else is there to say? Joey was the glue for a broken situation; it was broke from the minute he was born. He was the glue holding the entire family together in spite of everything.”
“I just think, I mean, I can’t imagine how you all dealt with it.”
“Margaret, I never cease to be amazed at what people just deal with when they have to. How did my family deal with stuff? We just, did. Until we couldn’t any longer. When Joey went in the hospital the last time we thought it was temporary, just more of the usual batteries of tests. When his doctors found the tumor I think everyone knew that this was going to be it.”
“At least you all had each other. Your family was so strong!”
He looked at her with a strange expression. “Babe, that’s the whole point of what I’ve been telling you. We weren’t strong. Joey was! We were people he was supporting through his illness. The only thing we had in common was the DNA connection. Joey was never related to anybody I could figure out, not really, unless it was some kind of genetically defective super hero who hasn’t been invented or born yet.”
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1 & 2 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
Joey sat in the school library for hours. He hid there during recess and lunch periods, but the sounds of everyone out on the playground came through the open windows. Hearing the sound of other children shrieking was bad, and as Joey listened he tried to imagine it came from children somewhere far away. When he did see them the distance apparent between what they could do and what he could not was too terrible. He would perch at the dark wood of the windowsill, holding himself upright and steady with one hand as he watched. Children in groups skipped ropes, chased balls, played tag. The teacher with recess duty wore a light jacket and an expression of endless weary patience. He or she sometimes called out across the tarmac, “Hey! That’s enough of that, Loreen!”
Unseen and unimportant, from the high window Joey observed when the teacher rushed to the aid of a fallen child or broke up a playground fight. He hated it. Watching reminded him that no one would ever need to run to prevent him from doing something he shouldn’t; watching only reminded him that he couldn’t run.
Joey moved to a table where he could sit with his back to the windows. Determinedly Joey closed his ears to the cries of his peers playing outside the walls and forever beyond his ken.
Eventually Joey made his way through all of the school magazines. He began to take the bus to the public library. After school Joey sat among the adult publications where he felt less excluded. Around him sat members of his home city’s increasing homeless population, noisily turning pages and keeping a careful eye on their oversized bags of belongings. There were a few students, or grown ups coming in to claim the copies of recent novels they had put on hold, and every so often a class of younger children arrived for reading hour. Otherwise though, Joey could feel like he was simply another library user, ageless and without handicaps.
This was when he discovered adult magazines with their endless advertisements for write-in contests, coupons to win prizes, and teasers to learn more about great deals. Joey flipped pages hunting for things to win, things to present to his parents. Joey wanted, Lou said thoughtfully, to present them with distractions from the nonrefundable item they’d brought home from the hospital: their youngest son and his damaged body.
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my post Hit & Run 1 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
Lou became a different person when he talked about his dead brother. Each time he mentioned Joey’s name Lou’s own plain, pleasant face would animate. It was as if a locked cabinet door suddenly swung open, each time letting out bright treasures long stacked up and locked away for safekeeping.
Margaret learned not to interrupt the flow of memories; when she asked too many questions the stories might derail. Plus Lou tossed out medical terms that meant nothing to her. She had no idea he knew so much about medicine and genetic diseases.
She preferred the details about what his days with Joey had been like. “We’d sit on an old couch in the rec room and watch TV,” Lou recalled, and it took shape as he spoke. It was yellow and brown plaid and really ugly. Mrs. Bocci had covered it with a clashing afghan, luckily out of sight down in the remodeled cellar. Lou and Joey watched television down there in the darkened room, drinking cokes and eating candy bars. Or Lou did; Joey had to avoid sugar as his parents and medical team tried successive diet regimes to control his myriad conditions.
Lou and Joey were exactly the same height, and they had the same features. The boys were monozygotic, what they call identical twins. They were truly identical. Only 8% of twins are monozygotic, and double births like Lou and Joey make up only 3 in every 1,000 deliveries worldwide, regardless of race. The chances of a fertilization ending in monozygotic twins are the same, for every population everywhere, all around the world.
Lou’s voice took on a slightly lecturing tone as he recited each fact about Joey and his life. Margaret ate them up. The more facts he imparted the smarter she became, both about the topic of twins and about her boyfriend. With fraternal twins, Lou told her, the most frequent occurrence is brother/sister births. In identical or monozygotic twins, brother/brother births are the rarest births of all.
When the boys were out together in public it was more than obvious something was wrong. Clearly Joe was confined to a wheelchair or needed to use a cane to walk. If the viewer didn’t see the handicaps, though, Joey and Lou were identical. Without the cane or braces in plain sight, it was only when Joey coughed that someone could identify which twin was which.
As they aged they would likely become more alike, with the same IQ and personality. How twins are brought up, whether in the same house or separated at birth – that factor makes surprisingly little difference. Of course, the fact Joey was born with congenital defects complicated the math equation for the prediction. But the boys loved being twins; it was cool. Because of his brother, because of Joey, Lou was automatically special. While Joey was still alive, Lou stopped wanting to be an astronaut. For a time he wanted to go into genetic research.
Margaret went home each evening to sleep that was attended by strange dreams. Cells replicated in her dreams, forming up on the left into a perfectly regular human shape. On the opposite side, a tragically beautiful über-human took form. The gestalt was unquestionably male. But then the contour of the image blurred and curled at the edges, unable to hold his ideal form.
She woke up thinking about Lou and his frail, pale double.
Margaret began looking at Lou with different eyes. He simply wasn’t the same person as before. Lou hadn’t changed, of course, but his past and the absent twinned half that had been tragically cut down by illness, the part of him inexorably gone was the part Margaret found mysterious. The lost duplicate cells were of endless fascination for her.
In the hours between dates with Lou, Margaret daydreamed about her lover. How many other seemingly ordinary men and women might there be in the world, persons who seemed so common on the outside, all of them with their secrets and old tragedies. How many people had strange cloned or parallel universe doubles, tragically vanished and never to be retrieved? Maybe, she mused, maybe we all have doubles we sense on some strange level, and we mourn them without ever realizing it. When we talk about the search to find your soul mate, maybe what we really mean is your other half, the part you lost in some earlier life. And when you meet again in the current incarnation, you come together to be whole without even recognizing it’s happened. It’s just your missing twin, whom you’ve refound.
She scoffed at herself for such fanciful notions, but Margaret was a little bit envious of her boyfriend’s past history. Strangely, his incompleteness made him whole. Lou wasn’t a decent guy with a good if boring career. He was somehow so much more than the sum of his parts, both those existing and the ones that had vanished. Or maybe especially those parts that were dead. Not only did Margaret observe Lou with new eyes; she really saw him for the first time. Margaret began to fall in love.
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 2 & 3 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
In the early 60s Mom had 3 small girls and was the leader of a troop of Brownie Scouts. My mother was a sucker for holidays, and she loved Halloween. From personally answering the door with big bowls of apples and candy (both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ treats) she progressed to dressing up as a witch in cape and hat.
We had a Walt Disney ”Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House” record that played over and over in the background. Mom began to dye her face and hands a rather convincing green. She perfected a witch’s cackle and would slowly open the front door to a dark living room. The yarn cobwebs and paper skeletons hanging from the ceiling then became visible in the lights from the candles.
Needless to say, our house became cult. Little kids (and their parents, who discovered it had to be seen to be believed) saved our house for last to visit on the trick-or-trick circuit. We ended up having to buy lots more apples and candies every year as the number of visitors grew.
Mom was always slightly hoarse and had a sickly green-y pallor for days after that holiday. Green food coloring does not wash off easily….
I wish I had some pictures from those days but this one will have to suffice. As a massage therapist I have a (not-real) skeleton standing in my treatment room as a visual aide. Each year on October 31st I set him in a window backlit by candles, to honor my mother and all the dead.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
NOTES: This was one of my earliest posts, I think my 4th? (I know I had about 5 blog followers.) I still love Halloween, so today marks the very first time I’m repeating a post. First posted on October 27, 2012
“No one must ever come here,” Danny commented. Jilly was focused on the forest floor and didn’t answer, but he was right. The carpet of woods was undisturbed, and the trail she and her brother were following was unmarked by old boot tracks from anybody else.
Danny stopped to sit back on his heels and look up into the clear sky. The sound of Jilly’s woodpecker was louder; either they’d gotten nearer, or else the bird (or whatever was making the noise; he still wasn’t convinced it was necessarily a pecker) had flown in their direction. Tap tap tap tap thwock tap thwock. He stood back up. “Come on. Let’s go find your not-bird.”
Obediently Jilly followed, too happy with the day and the peace in the woods to respond to the comment. The trail narrowed, and the siblings walked single file without making noise as they followed an occasional tap thwock. The noise was less frequent and had stabilized itself to a point somewhere not far off.
Jilly looked behind her to see if she’d missed anything back down the trail, and promptly ran into her brother. Danny stood in the middle of it, concentrating on something ahead.
“Someone lives out here.” He pointed left. The trail rose a little, and they stood on the only point where the building could be seen clearly at all. Jilly squinted; she would need glasses soon, but so far nobody had noticed. Jilly’s quick wits compensated for what she lacked in visual acuity. Jilly narrowed her eyes into slits until she made out a dull brown building. It was a small hut, and the builder hadn’t bothered to clear out any of the trees or surrounding underbrush.
Danny and Jill went nearer, moving more slowly but intensely curious. Danny didn’t say anything as they kept following the trail. He ignored the No Trespassing sign nailed to a tree; Danny knew his sister hadn’t seen the other signs either, all warning they were on private property.
The trail ended abruptly. They stood at the edge of a wall of brambles, towering 4 feet above their heads. The screen of thick blackberry canes shielded the cabin from sight. Sharp points grabbed onto Danny’s knap sack when he went nearer, and he shrugged the pack off his shoulders and set it on the ground as he searched for a way through the thorny wall. The surrounding ground was awkward with rocks.
“We’ll never get through this,” Danny said.
“Over here.” His sister had found a path cunningly cut into the bramble, low enough that an adult would need to duck down to see it at all. The two children were just the right height to make out the path, visible only if you were searching for a way through the thicket. Jilly and her brother made their way into the low brush, moving carefully to avoid getting snagged.
They came out on the opposite side of the briar hedges and discovered they were close to the dwelling. It was constructed of smooth planks of wood and had a single door that was closed, and no windows. Jill moved back to the trees beyond the cabin, still looking for her bird. She vanished almost immediately into the darkness created by shadows of the tall trees. Danny circled around the side of the cabin.
He stepped into a messy clearing filled with wire cages, some of them with busted wire netting, all of them empty. Other than the ground under the abandoned cages, nothing had been cleaned or cleared. He discovered another, smaller hut almost completely hidden by the bushes and saplings crowding back into the forest.
There was no longer any sound of the hammering. “Told you there wasn’t a wood pecker,” Danny began to call after his sister. Before he could finish the words a shrill yapping drowned out his voice.
Danny shrieked and something banged against the hut’s inner walls. It went on banging without pause, as if a gigantic creature with fifty frantic scrabbling legs climbed up the wall in a desire to attack him. The yaps didn’t let up for a second. Things were hurling themselves against the planks, rabid with anger. For a moment the clearing was suddenly, terribly still, all sound sucked out of the day and into the creatures trying to break their way out of the cabin.
Danny glanced wildly around the clearing. He ran over to the cages and put his weight on the nearest one to see if they were stable enough for him to climb up out of biting range. He was testing the surprisingly thick wooden frames when the cabin’s owner stepped out in front of him.
Danny wondered why the burly man was wearing boots on a warm day, but the shovel the man carried took up his attention. “What’s your name? What do you think you’re doing?” The adult went on talking without waiting for an answer.
“I’m Danny Tarbery,” Danny answered. “I was just riding around, out exploring, that’s all.”
“Danny? Why, that’s my name, too.” The man came closer. “Danny. Dan. You can call me Big Dan. Little Danny, you’re a long ways from town for exploring.” Danny swallowed hard and tried not to make a face. Big Dan smelled unbelievably bad. It was a stench of very old sweat, the crusty plaid shirt he wore, and the mud caking the shovel and his boots with a combination of earth and partially decomposed swamp grasses.
Big Dan was directly in front of Danny but he didn’t stop coming. Danny backed up until he was cornered between the man, the cages, and the cabin. He stumbled a little as his body touched the back wall. The dogs became aware of his presence against it outside and Danny felt the boards yield. They threw themselves against the wood over and over, the movements harder and more insistent.
The man bared his lips and brown teeth showed in an incongruously attractive smile. He flicked almost white hair out of his face and never let go of the dirty shovel. “What d’you think you’re exploring for?”
There was a pause inside as the canines heard the older man’s voice. The thudding began again even harder. Danny literally felt them as they scrabbled up and down the other side of the thin planks. The frame and walls shuddered; the dogs were rabid to get outside. Danny began trembling, and couldn’t stop.
“You had to come looking even though the road out there has a bunch of No trespassing signs, right?” The owner pointed in the direction of the dirt track, clearly indicating it as the road in question. “You saw the signs, don’t pretend you didn’t.” He looked at Danny, calculating. “Boy, how old are you?”
“My step father’s waiting for me,” Danny began.
He heard the snapping of brush littering the ground off to the right on the far side of the cabin. The door to the cabin creaked as it opened and there was silence for four seconds. The air filled back up with shrill barking. Danny listened terrified as dogs sniffed the air and dashed towards where he stood trapped against the back wall of the cabin.
Calmly the man with the terrible smell turned and called out, “We got a visitor here. Stop!”
Danny watched in incomprehension as three dogs, far too small to have produced the huge amount of chaotic noise, immediately stood at attention. He wanted to laugh, but he was too scared. “Chihuahuas?” Danny said.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
– from my short story “Just Riding Around” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.
I think I come from a great family. We’re a lively bunch who cook and eat long meals while everyone laughs and carries on rambling, looping conversations. We genuinely love entertaining others and we’re not afraid of being silly. (Just ask Uwe.) You’d like us. Really!
But the thing is, we’re One-Tracks. Get us on a favorite topic and we’ll crank about our passions all night if you let us. If you want to hear about the intimate lives of gypsy moths, my dad is your man! Or to know about the alternate takes of Beach Boys songs, go to my nephew. I love Shakespeare so much, and have done so for so long, that for a few months around the age of 10 I went around saying things like, “Methink my sister Pam doth stink.”
When we get interested in something we happily spend hours, days, weeks and months learning about that subject. We’re thorough. If a Campbell says he or she knows a bit about the topic you innocently mentioned, trust us: we probably do.
The acknowledged One-Track Supreme of the family is Barb. My sister is an artist, working in clay. She loves ceramics. Her husband Javier Cervantes works in ceramics, too. At their house you eat off hand made plates and cups and bowls. Their work or the work of artists they trade with grace the walls and shelves.
The garden out back is filled with clay pots and figures.
Two kilns occupy the garage (the cars are banished to the front yard) and Barb had a workshop built in back that doubles as an art gallery.
Barb’s obsession with clay goes way back. As children we made annual camping trips in the Adirondacks. (All the Campbells are crazy about the wilderness, so I guess you could say this is a shared One-Track passion.) We’d load the canoe and head in to a remote spot. Often we only saw other people on the trails in to the back ponds or a boat from afar out on the lake.
Barb spent happy, happy hours forming objects from mud and collecting shells and stones. She fetched long sticks for a makeshift store. In the middle of the biggest state park in the USA, Barb peddled her wares to the Great Outdoors.
She played on the completely isolated shore and waited patiently until one of her sisters walked by. “Want to buy something?” she’d ask. Pam and I rolled our eyes and ignored her. (One-Tracks can be cruel to one another. We know it’s dangerous to encourage the madness.)
Nothing deterred Barb, ever. During those weeks in the woods she was simply training for the life and career she was fated to follow. For decades Barb’s done the artist circuit, traveling around the country to art shows. Her work sells in galleries. She and Javier have joint exhibits.
Over the decades I’ve been her booth assistant. I have an object I bought at the last show where I assisted Barb. I went back several times to admire a walnut and curly bigleaf maple salad bowl. The woodworker told me that it sat on his home kitchen counter top for over a year until he was finally ready to part with it. He said he’d looked at that bowl each day. I love knowing that this piece, used for an utterly utilitaritan purpose, had been the object of his meditations.
The atmosphere at art shows is always fun. They’re usually held on summer and autumn weekends in lovely outdoor settings. You see functional and decorative work from all over the country. You wander through rows filled with art that people poured their hearts and dreams into. You step into booths that contain the creations of others who dare to share their visions.
There is magic in the single-minded passion of craftspeople and artists. It’s not simply desire: it’s a need and compulsion to create. Every artist, regardless of the medium they choose (or that chose them), has allowed a Muse to touch their lives. I can’t draw or paint or throw a pot, but I come away jazzed by the energy of all those artists. One-Tracks, all of them!
(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)
Barb’s work can be viewed at http://www.barbcampbellceramics.com
More pictures from the Adirondacks, our trips and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.
“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley.” –Robert Burns To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough
Feste the Fool: [Singing]
“He that has and a little tiny wit– With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,– Must make content with his fortunes fit, For the rain it raineth every day.” —Shakespeare King Lear, Act III, Scene 2
“Man plans; God laughs.” —Anonymous
We’re renovating our apartment, and line up all the dates for workmen and repairs months in advance. We decide that once it starts will be the perfect time for me to fly back to America and visit my family. It’s finally about to begin, when suddenly…
We receive a phone call that my mother-in-law is in the hospital. She lives about 1 1/2 hours south of us, so Uwe and I take turns heading down there. He spends a night in a hotel. I arrive by train the next day and take over so that Uwe can drive home to work.
We need to move Mama into assisted living; I volunteer to go meet with the nursing home staff. For anyone contemplating life in a foreign language, the year I spent in submersion classes learning to speak fluent German pays off now. It would be scary not to understand what is happening, and awful not to be able to help my husband.
Her doctors think she needs an operation and schedule a day for it. Then the next time I go down, they inform us they’ve decided not to operate. She is moved out of the ICU. And then back into the ICU. And then back out of the ICU. Uwe deals with banks and Mama’s newspaper deliveries and the phone company. We need to keep updating the nursing home. Each day is a roller coaster experience.
Should I cancel or push back my flight to the US? I keep asking, but Uwe continues to assure me I can head out as planned.
Germany has record flooding. It rains every day and the train runs alongside the banks of the Neckar River. I have the surreal experience of watching the waters keep rising, along with our concerns about Mama.
In the meantime I try to write. I see massage patients. But I’m shocked when my sister announces my nephew’s birthday has arrived. I know it’s still a few days away, and then l look at a calendar. I have the date and what day of the week it is both wrong. I lost 48 hours somewhere.
Friday the tile layer begins work in the hallway. Saturday I go to my monthly writers’ group and come home to find an email about an award. Sunday I take my last train ride. Monday the tile layer returns and Mama can finally leave the hospital. Uwe drives down to get his mother settled in and buy furniture, etc. for her new digs. I remain home to hold down the fort. Tuesday the next Handwerker arrives and for two days walls are fixed in the next room (as I type these words. Literally.)
I am grateful for the completely unexpected VERY INSPIRING BLOGGER Award. It’s a glad moment in what have been harried days and nights. The wonderful, creative Jen Payne at http://randomactsofwriting.wordpress.com has honored me with the nomination. It’s a lovely recognition. It doesn’t involve answering or posing questions. Best of all, it arrived at the height/depth of 2 weeks of insanity. This award provided me with light for the end of the tunnel, letting me know that maybe I’m not just viewing the headlights of an oncoming train ….
The word inspire means to “fill with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.” I feel my creativity slowly returning as the flood waters in some spots finally begin to recede.
Heartfelt thanks again to Jen at Random Acts of Writing [+ art] for the nomination. I’m delighted to pass on the compliment by following the award rules and nominating 15 other bloggers.
VERY INSPIRING BLOGGER RULES
• Display the award logo on your blog.
• Link back to the person who nominated you.
• Nominate 15 other bloggers for this award and link to them.
• Notify those bloggers of the nomination and the award’s requirements.
May my nominations bring you amusement, relief, or whatever you may be needing at the moment. It’s great to be part of this community! (Written June 12th, 2013)
Gabe was grateful that in all the years of his travels, no one had ever thought to inquire, “What’s the worst experience you ever had traveling? What’s the worst thing you ever witnessed?” The day he spent being witness outside of Krakow, Poland in the Auschwitz concentration camp was a terrible experience he never wanted to repeat. The atrocities humans committed against one another was beyond comprehension. And it wasn’t ancient history. It had happened in his parents’ lifetimes.
He could never understand the racism that had been involved. What could there possibly be in an identity or religion that would make someone want to wipe out an entire people? It was inconceivable to him, and he sent up a fervent thank you to whatever gods might be listening that this was so. No! There were some things he didn’t ever want to understand. Auschwitz broke his heart. Gabe cried his first adult tears sitting on a cold bench in front of an execution wall.
Sometimes for his month of travel he headed to the heat. He always had a loose theme to the four weeks, and one year it was ancient lost cultures. He traveled through a region where jungle archaeologists were reclaiming entire cities from the undergrowth.
Gabe got up early and caught the local bus. He spent happy hours at the site, with satisfaction doing what he’d come to call connecting some of the dots. If the world were a large puzzle, a Pointillism painting, Gabe’s slow explorations gave him more of the pieces to the puzzle, more and more of the dots in which a picture was slowly emerging.
That day he made further connections in terms of ancient civilization, art history, and cultural contexts. Gabe was overly pleased with himself. He decided not to wait for the next bus to rumble past the ruins. Ignoring the rain clouds threatening the skies, he began the long walk back to his hotel in town.
Twenty minutes later Gabe knew he’d miscalculated badly. The rain clouds blew lower and closer in no time. At the halfway point, the storm broke. Gabe would get soaked if he kept on the road and equally as drenched if he tried to turn back to the bus shelter at the entrance road to the ruins. He pulled his rain jacket (a marvel that rolled up upon itself into a small ball with a carrying band) out of his little daypack and went on trudging, shaking his head at his own foolish optimism.
Potholes filled first, creating wet craters. Gabe got closer to town and the traffic increased, the wheels of old cars and carts churning the rest of the street into ruts. In less than ten minutes the single dirt road turned to roiling mud. It rained even harder, hard drops that fell in steady, monotonous sheets. Gabe moved over closer to the shoulder away from the biggest vehicles. He had to share the edge of the muddy street with other people on foot, vendors pushing carts covered with folds of plastic cloths or sheets of cardboard, and bicycles and motorbikes.
The rest of the traffic converged in the center of the street, trying to find spots that hadn’t yet vanished into a river of wet earth. A motorbike with a family on the back passed Gabe. The father drove slowly, trying to keep the bike from tilting over into the stream. His wife sat behind him with her arms around and underneath the clear plastic rain poncho her husband wore; a small boy perched, balanced in the seat behind her. He was wedged between the woman and the sacks of potatoes and peppers lashed to the rear of the motorbike.
There was a blare of arguing horns and out of the storm a jeep appeared. Sheets of rain obscured the view. The jeep driver headed alarmingly fast down the direct center of the road, his horn louder as the jeep got closer. When it was near enough people could see it was a government vehicle, and everyone moved over to the sides of the road to let it by.
Before anyone could grasp the danger the jeep was upon them. The driver kept one hand pressed on the horn as people scrambled in the mud. Gabe watched in horror as the motorbike with the family hit a pothole. The father put out a frantic foot trying to brake, but it was too late. The motorbike went over on its side. His body disappeared under water and the jeep ran over his leg.
People screamed for the jeep to stop but it never even slowed down; the driver now had both hands jammed on the horn and his foot on the gas pedal. He continued determinedly on down through the river of mud. Gabe could reach out and touch the bumper as it rushed by, it was so close.
The jeep was swallowed up in the sheets of rain and only the victims and witnesses remained. The jeep hadn’t carried any license plates and even if he had seen one Gabe was kilometers away from a police station. Who was he going to report to? All he could do was try to help the man who’d been run over. At least it had only been his booted foot, and that had been down in the pothole; maybe the man wasn’t hurt too badly.
Gabe turned back to the sodden street as rain rushed down his face and over his rain slicker. Through the damp he saw the fallen figures. The blare of the jeep horn faded, and a human voice’s wail began to compete with the sound of the waters crashing from the opened skies. Other voices joined the first one.
The traffic swerved around the center where people had gathered in a loose circle. Gabe moved closer and the driver dragged himself away from the fallen motorcycle. The man was limping, but he was up on his feet.
The motorcycle was already half buried by mud washing up over and against the frame in fast moving spurts; the bags lashed to the back of the bike had broken open. Lumps that had to be potatoes lay in the stream, some of them slowly rolling away in the force of the moving rainwater.
But the pair ignored the tubers and didn’t try to gather them back up. They huddled over another one of the sacks in the road as they wailed. Gabe tried futilely to push the water from his eyes. He shook his head to clear it, and then he saw the injured man and his wife were sitting in the mud as they held the body of their son. He lay like a broken toy, like a rag doll, small limp limbs dangling from his parents’ cradling hands.
The circle of people standing around them gently lifted the couple and half carried, half walked them over to the useless safety of the field at the side of the road. Gabe bodily lifted the damaged motorbike and carried it out of the street. Determinedly everyone moved back in the river that had been a road and collected potatoes. They ignored the blares of cars trying to navigate around them. They picked up the last of potatoes and the burst sack and returned them to the hapless parents.
Gabe thought, Where’s the nearest hospital? His next thought was the sad realization that a local hospital was probably located next to the nearest police station: a hundred kilometers away in the next city. A clinic, he thought desperately. But the country had no money for health services, and only Bread for the World and Doctors without Borders had any kind of a presence in the region. Gabe couldn’t speak any of the local languages and he had no training in anything more than the most rudimentary medicine.
Despairing, knowing there was nothing more he could do to help, Gabe resumed the harder trudge back towards the center.
Alone back in his hotel room, he drank to get blind drunk. Whether his eyes were opened or closed he saw the broken doll body of the undernourished child, the grief on the faces of the child’s parents. Worst of all was realizing his own helplessness to do anything whatsoever. There was nothing he could have done that afternoon to change the outcome and nothing he could do now. Gabe cried, for the first time since the visit to Auschwitz years earlier. They were bitter tears that refused to stop coming. Gabe was as unable to halt them as he was to halt the rains still falling outside of his room in the shabby hotel.
No one ever asked him, What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? Gabe knew it was the rainy day, the motorbike with a family riding on the back. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? If asked he wouldn’t have answered, because he carried the pain of that memory too close to his heart. It stayed alive and refused to fade. The worst thing he ever witnessed remained dangerously in real time, on a wet road between towns without names. It created a place of secret despair and awareness that the world was not a place of entirely benevolent forces.
It became his most closely held secret. Despite the sad knowledge, or perhaps because of it, Gabe determined to live as if the opposite might be true. That experience was seminal, one that defined who he was as a human being, in the inner place where his heart really beat.
– from my short story “Waiting” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.