The Yin and Yang of it

The Neumann family tradition on Saint Nicholas Day was a weekend long get-together. It was an annual reunion everyone looked forward to, but more to the point, it was a generations-old, clever solution as how to get everyone together without the obligation of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a typical summer gathering.

For Clarisse, however, the week before held the prosaic and boresome job of baking ten dozen Lebkuchen and of painstaking application of tiny icing swirls to each cookie. To say the least, it was a laborious task resulting in hand cramps, an aching back and regular doses of Tylenol.


Thought I’d jump into the two-prompts game with this one. First is this week’s UnOLWG prompts: prosaic; laborious; boresome. The second prompt comes from this week’s Carrot Ranch flash fiction challenge: In exactly 99 words, write about family holiday tradition.

Ursula’s Den

The UnOLWG prompts from the past 2 weeks stewed together with TN’s preamble story. The prompts are: playing a poor hand well; not a sound for miles around; like a poem without words; call him out; a matter of magic; the carousel only makes you dizzy.


Jasmine wandered aimlessly around the large, empty family room and kitchen while her children darted from room to room upstairs staking their claims. That was the deal: She would stay out of it and let them decide who would get which room. She knew it was only a matter of time before the wrangling would come to an impasse and she would, as always, have to step in as decider-in-chief. So, she listened and waited.

Evan impatiently negotiated with twins Sonja and Clara about who got the large room. The girls pushed back with their best argument that they were willing to share a room. Evan being the eldest held no sway. Marissa whimpered about the unfairness of it all and Michael, the youngest, was silent. Jasmine guessed he had slip-streamed his way through the tangle of his siblings’ bickering to zero in on the room no one seemed to want. As she predicted, he was the first downstairs.

“Why aren’t you taking the big parents’ bedroom?” he asked her.

“Because, like I said, I’m getting us a live-in and the master bedroom is going to be their room.”

“Why?” Michael was still at the age at which children cannot fathom an adult’s logic.

“I can only pay a nanny what I can. So, giving them the largest room, with their own bathroom and a separate entrance will make the deal sweeter. Anyway, that’s the idea.”

Evan was next down the stairs. Like the hormonal automaton he was these days, he went directly for the refrigerator.

“It’s empty, stupid,” Michael grumbled.

“Since when, with the ‘s’ word, huh!?” Jasmine scolded Michael with a gentle smack upside the back of his head.

“I’m going to check out the yard.”

Evan brushed past Michael, giving him a quick, soft warning shove against the wall. Jasmine watched Evan as he walked down the long dirt drive that lead away from the house. She sent him a text, if only to make sure he had his phone on him. He pulled his phone from his pocket, read the message, and put it back without replying.

Marissa called for Jasmine from the top of the stairs. “Evan and Michael took the rooms I want, and I don’t have a room!”

Jasmine took her daughter’s complaint as her cue to finally intervene. As she headed up the stairs, Michael rushed past her, down the hall, and disappeared into the room at the end. The twins were in the larger room mapping out a floor plan. Marissa stood in the middle of the hall wearing her ever-present look of despair.

“OK, so, it’s this one or that one,” Jasmine pointed to the two rooms on either side of the hall. “Which one do you want?”

Marissa pointed to the room to her left. It had a stunning view of the hillsides and the orange and red leaves blanketing the emerald ground beneath the trees in the yard. The morning’s cloud cover was giving way to blue sky and the mid-day sun streamed all the way into the room.

Jasmine took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She knew moving to the country may prove she had succumbed to some sort of utopian idealism. After all, a spinning carousel, with all its bright colors, gilded adornments and twinkling lights, only looks like some sort of magic joy ride, when it really is just a dull, dizzying, and never-ending trek to nowhere. A move to a farmhouse situated in an idyllic country valley might be no better than just another muddy rut in which to get stuck.

Nevertheless, given the hand dealt her, Jasmine was reasonably confident she had played it to the best possible advantage. The change in her children’s lives would be hard on all of them, regardless the setting. She had nothing else to offer any one of her children other than her faith in the hopes and dreams for their future, and for each of them, a bright, sunlit bedroom all to themselves.

“Mom?”

“Yeah, sorry, kiddo. Fine with me! You like it?”

Marissa nodded.

“Then, this one’s yours.”

“When’s our stuff getting here?”

“They said today. My guess is it will be late.”

The sound of two-steps-at-a-time up the stairs announced Evan’s return from his tour of the outside. He looked at his mother and sister in the room in which they stood, then looked at the room across the hall. An equally stunning view of the valley made that room’s window seem all the larger. A good place for a seventeen year-old, Jasmine thought, to stare out to the horizon while listening to the siren song of the big, wide world calling him away.

“OK, that’s done!” She paused, waiting for a reaction. No one put up a fuss. “Let’s get the stuff out of the car and then we’ll drive into the town to look for a place to eat.”

“Does Dad know where we are?” Sonja asked. Jasmine turned back to see all five of her children staring at her with the exact same look; a combination of sorrow and fear.

“He does. Text him, let him know we’ve arrived. But guys,” Jasmine put up a hand of caution, “I need you to understand, OK? Your dad probably won’t come here. I’m not saying ‘never,’ but, you have to accept, he probably won’t…want to. He may say he will because he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, but he won’t. Again, it’s not that he doesn’t love you, or that any of us did anything to make him…whatever. OK?”

“It’s because he’s with that lady and them,” Sonja replied.

“He’s not with anyone at the moment, honey. Look, when he said you can visit him, he meant it. He is your father and he’ll always be around for you. OK? Anyway, we’ll figure all that out later, you going for visits. All I ask is that you give this place, your new home, a fair shake. You aren’t that far behind in school and you’ll make friends soon. And don’t forget, Grammy, Gramps, Nona and Grandpop…and Uncle Mack, Aunt Jeanne, Geoff and Allie… they all  live really close, just, like, only ten miles away. We’ll get to see them way more often now.”

Her children gave her consolatory smiles. Jasmine knew what she offered was only a cold comfort. She kissed each one on the forehead and headed downstairs. She called back over her shoulder, “Evan, you want to drive?”

“Sweet,” Evan said as he vaulted past his siblings, snatching the keys from Jasmine’s hand.

“Wallet?” she asked. Evan patted his back pocket.

“Do we get to learn to drive this year?” Clara asked.

“I suppose. Sure.”

The twins jumped up and down, applauding. Marissa and Michael looked at each other wondering if they got a special offer, too.

Jasmine said, “And, when we get the TV set up, Marissa and Michael get to choose the first two family movie nights.”

The result was as hoped. The two youngest siblings high-fived and then chased after the others.

As the family made their way to the van, Jasmine suddenly felt like she was in a scene from the Planet Earth documentary series; the ones where bear cubs stumble and play alongside their mother as she leads them across the open fields to some yet unknown source of food. The image made Jasmine smile. If wildlife’s single mothers can hack it, she thought, so can I.

In a French Villa

Abigail and Bailey hailed an airport cab and handed the cabby the note written in French with directions and the address of their paternal grandparents’ villa in Beaumont-sur-Oise.

“I hope Aunt Rachel wrote down the right sur-Oise town,” Bailey whispered to her sister. “I looked on a map and there’s a bunch of them.”

The cabby locked eyes with both women in his rear-view mirror. Not certain if Baily’s comment offended the cabby, the sisters remained silent for the remainder of the trip.

The drive through the Parisian suburbs eventually gave way to open fields, contained villages and homes dotted along the way in between. Finally, the cab slowed and took a right turn.

“Mesdames, c’est l’adresse. C’est beau, oui?” the cabby said.

The villa was just as described. A large multi-storied structure built by their great grandparents a hundred years ago, it looked like something out of a gothic novel. It had been vacant a while but was otherwise in good shape.

“This is where daddy grew up? Wow.”

“Far cry from our home, huh?”

—————–

“What’s all this stuff?”

Bailey stood in a corner room on the top floor, lit by a single floor lamp and small a porthole window under the eave. She stared at a wall of cardboard boxes covered in dust and cobwebs. She could not make out the writing.

“What stuff?” Abigail called back from somewhere down the hall.

“All these boxes. I can’t read the writing.”

Abigail came into the room and tried reading the writing, too.  “Well, it’s not French. Dad said his grandparents were from Belgium…so, Flemish maybe? Must be things of theirs.”

“Should we, what…open them? See what’s in them first?”

Abigail grabbed a box and pulled. Dust showered down, filling the room in a fog and subjecting Bailey to a fit of sneezing.

“This one’s got clothes, looks like,” Abigail said as she pulled garments out and dropped them on the floor.  

Bailey held up the garments, one by one. “They look vintage, for sure. Hey!” She held a military jacket up to her chest. “It looks like a woman’s uniform.”

 “Are those medals?” Abigail asked, pointing. Bailey flipped the coat around to look.

“Yeah, I guess.”

Abigail turned her attention back to the open box. She held up a small brass object. It was scalloped shaped with a hinged lid and a handle. The top was decorated with beading and filigree. Something rattled loosely around inside. She opened the lid and took out a pearl and gold beaded bracelet.

“Pretty,” Bailey said. “Anything else in it?”

“No, that’s it. Is this a box, or a, what?”  Abigail held the object this way and that. She put the bracelet back into its curious container.

Bailey reached into the cardboard box and took out a book and a pair of pink ballet toe shoes. “Ever hear of a dancer in the family?”

“Yeah, remember? Grandpa used to tell stories about his sister, the ballerina. She was with some famous company in Paris. Hobnobbed with famous people. What’s the book?”

“It’s in French.”

“Give it here,” Abigail gestured. Baily handed over the book.

“It says, Letters from the Earth. Oh! It’s by Mark Twain. Huh.”

“I know that book. Had to read it in college. I thought all this stuff was generations old. What’s it doing in the box?”

Abigail opened the cover. “It has an inscription…” she silently mouthed the French words. “It says, To Adrian, uh, que ce livre vous aide à comprendre la nature du deuil. Something about grief. Nature of grief. Doesn’t say who wrote the note.”

“We have a cousin named Adrian. Somewhere here in France.”

“Yeah. Huh.”

The last two items in the box were a broken teacup and a framed photo. “Oh, my god, Abigail, look!”

Bailey held out the photo to her sister. A woman in the same military jacket they found in the box posed with a rifle. “Those are the same four medals, look!”

“She looks like Aunt Rachel, doesn’t she?”

“Wow. You think that’s our great grandmother? Was she a soldier? What army? I thought women weren’t allowed in the army.”

Abigail pried open the frame, pulled out the photo and flipped it over. “A message to a Lucas.  It’s in Flemish, I bet. I can’t read it.”

“Who’s Lucas?”


In response to Objects in a Box writing prompt

The Fork in the Road at Ralph and Dorothy’s

Casandra curled up in a blanket on the rocking chair on the front porch of her great-grandparent’s home. Their Labrador Retriever sauntered over with a shy tail wag, fishing for a pat on the head and settling down at her feet after its request was met.   

The cool, gray October morning’s only bright spot was the cluster of golden-leaved trees in the front yard. Birds called to one another as they darted back and forth, a cozy sight that Casandra found consoling after so many years of living in the heart of a loud and chaotic downtown. In the distance, the hum of traffic on the freeway reminded her that, in spite of the pandemic, the world was still in motion; still breathing.

The front door opened and a tray with a coffee mug and a bowl of oatmeal appeared, presented by the ever-smiling person of Casandra’s great-grandfather, Ralph.

“It ain’t fancy, but it’ll warm you up.”

Still a very tall man at 98 years, Great Ralph, as Casandra and her siblings and cousins called him, defied the notion that aging was a debilitating process. He was healthy, fit and full of energy.

“Is that bacon I smell?” Casandra asked as she eyed the tray.

“Grams insists we have the full breakfast spread this morning to celebrate the end of your quarantine but didn’t want you to wait, out here in the cold. Wanted to get you started with something hot.”

Casandra unwrapped an arm from her blanket and took a spoonful of the oatmeal. Plain, unsweetened and without milk, probably the instant variety, but gratifyingly warm, as promised. She unwrapped the other arm and took the coffee mug in both hands up to her nose, breathing in the rich smell of roasted beans before taking a sip.

“A girl could get used to all this service, ya know.”

“Best room service in the country, no doubt!”

“I can’t thank you guys enough for letting me stay here.”

“Enough of that. We’re here for you, and all you kids. We’re fortunate we can still help in any way we can. We’re just so happy you reached out!”

“Well, again, thanks. So much. I’m sorry the quarantine thing has been so weird.”

“It’s so damned strange to not be able to touch people. Give a hug! And staying in the guestroom like that? You could have come out, you know. Seemed a ridiculous business.” Ralph said.

“I’d never forgive myself if I brought the virus into your house. It’s the only way to make sure.”

“Well, let’s not worry anymore about that,” Ralph leaned forward and gave Casandra a kiss on the forehead. She smiled at Ralph and then turned to the opened front door.

“Grams? You need help in there?”

“No, no, honey,” the distant voice of her great grandmother Dorothy replied. “You keep visiting.”

“She remembered her hearing aid!” Ralph chuckled.

Dorothy stepped onto the porch with a thermos and another mug. Quick on her feet with an equally charming smile as Ralph’s, Dorothy was in as much defiance of her advanced age as her husband. They were quite the pair, Ralph and Dorothy. Always grinning and laughing, as if nothing could ever phase them, and still very much in love. It was a mystery to Casandra how people like her great-grandparents managed to make the happily-ever-after thing actually work.

 Dorothy handed Ralph the mug and topped Casandra’s coffee off from the thermos. “You certainly are a night owl, sweetie”, she said.

“I like working at night, I guess. In the city, nighttime is the best time. It’s quiet. I’m sorry if I kept you up, though!”

“No, no,” Dorothy shook her head, “not at all. I just noticed your light on when I get up to use the bathroom, is all. Well,” Dorothy continued, “I’m going to finish up in there. How ‘bout you two come in in a bit, OK?”

An easy silence passed between Casandra and Ralph as they drank their coffees. It felt good to Casandra to just sit still without the worry that she should be somewhere else doing something else. She allowed the dog to finish her oatmeal.

“Don’t tell Grams,” Ralph teased.

“Great Ralph, do you mind if my plans are still indefinite?”

“Of course not. Love having another person around the place. Been kinda lonely these past months, just me and Grams. But, don’t they don’t need you at work?”

Casandra shook her head. “No, still have a work-from-home-until-further-notice order.”

The two sipped their coffee, again in silence. Ralph fidgeted in his chair and cleared his throat.

“Honey, you know you can tell us anything,” he finally ventured. “Of course, your folks are worried about you, but we wouldn’t betray your confidence.”

Casandra watched the dog lick the oatmeal bowl clean, avoiding Ralph’s gaze. She knew she owed her great grandparents a full explanation in return for their generosity, especially given the risk they took that she might be one of those with the virus and not know it.

“Garrett’s OK, he’s just not…It’s not like he’s a total jerk. I made mistakes, too.” Casandra gaged Ralph’s reaction. He only offered the same smile he perpetually wore. “Coming here, I know it’s like running away, but, the past two weeks, holed up in the guestroom, no distractions? It’s forced me to take stock. To be honest, I don’t know if it was lust or love. I mean, it was something. We care about each other, I guess. Anyway, I’ve thought it through and I’ve decided he can keep the condo and all our stuff. He can even keep the cat, if it comes to that. I just need a fresh start.”

“My darling girl…” Ralph began, when Dorothy interrupted, calling for them to get a move-on before breakfast got cold. As they stood to go, Ralph held Casandra back.

“My girl, if you have to ask that question, ‘bout whether it’s this or that? Then the answer is plain as the nose on my face. Now, Grams and I have no problem you staying here as long as you like. We’ll get a desk up in the attic for you and Grams will make the guestroom all yours. Besides, it’ll give me a legit reason to get internet cable installed, which will finally get everyone off my back!  No, you take all the time you need. In fact, why don’t you just plan to stay through Christmas. That’ll make Grams so happy!”


A couple weeks’ of prompts: The dog in you; rocking chair; night-time is the best time to work; the world breathing; it ain’t gonna be pretty; lust or love, plus the image I found online.

https://aooga.wordpress.com/2020/10/04/olwg-175-the-girl-from-oscuro/

Elsa, part one

A hot, thick, wet breeze swaddled Elsa in an uncomfortable blanket. The second she stepped off the plane, her desperate wish was for a breath of cool, dry air. How do people live like this; like they are underwater? The days of the masked pandemic had nothing over tropical summer humidity.  

The drive was long to her sister’s place, as Elsa remembered. A rain forest to one side, and the Pacific Ocean to the other, all along a winding two-lane highway. The open car window blasted relatively cooler air in her face, which gave Elsa the time needed to adapt to the climate. She took in one deep breath after another and slowly exhaled after each one.

Finally arrived at her destination, Elsa dug around her carry-on for the set of keys sent to her, then thanked the Uber driver.

“You good?” the driver helpfully asked.

“Yeah, sure.”

“I don’t have another ride. Happy to walk in with you if you want.”

“No, thanks,” Elsa told the woman. “I’m fine.”

The exterior was a different color than before, but otherwise, Elsa’s sister’s house was much as she remembered it. But, the months of vacancy, especially in a tropical climate, showed its wear. Ants crawled in long lines on just about every countertop and cupboard door. Green Geckos scurried across every wall. Elsa remembered an aggressive spider, smaller than your garden variety, with short legs, bulky girth, and a bite that would make a mosquito envious. The memory made her wince.

That time before, when she came to visit, by the time she arrived at her sister’s, she was covered in bites from any number of venomous vermin. Elsa’s sister quickly ushered her to the bathroom, insisting she immediately shower with citronella soap, then get lathered up with her husband’s black goop (a concoction he brewed up to draw out the venom of any number of tropical insect bites), and afterward come curl up on the couch beside her with a G&T and watch some TV.  

“Just what you need, baby girl.”

Sitting on her sister’s couch that time, a short 45 minutes after her arrival, in an agitated state of itchy discomfort, Elsa silently wept. Staring out at the magnificent panoramic view of the Pacific from her sister’s home high atop an ocean bluff, Elsa thought, whomever it was that first sold the idyllic version of an exciting, exotic trip to Polynesia? What a fucking bastard.

So, here she stood, a twelve years later, in the middle of that unpleasant memory. This time, however, every centimeter of her body was covered in a rich citronella lotion.

“OK house!” Elsa yelled. “Your new mama is here! And, I’m having none of it! Umm-umm. No sir.”

Two geckos scurried to the corners of the walls. Elsa turned her gaze downward and stomped at a group of ants, who also scurried. She scanned the room for those damn spiders.

Three Weeks, Nine Prompts

Right.

[Stretches her arms forward, cracks her knuckles and shakes out her hands]

Three weeks behind on nine prompts: Treat him like a sister; In case of fire; Getting out of hand; Do the authorities know you’re here?; As you slept; What became of forever?; Los pobrecitos; The present was poorly wrapped; Bottle of emotions.

[Sighs] Let’s see what can be done with all that. [Sighs again]

[Stares out the window for 10 minutes. Turns on the TV, channel surfs, turns off the TV. Gets up and pours a glass of wine. Throws a proverbial dart at the prompts to determine which one goes first]


What became of forever? Seriously, when did, “I have all the time in the world,” become, “No time like the present, for there is no knowing what tomorrow will bring”? The problem is, like a poorly wrapped gift, the present is not an enticing offer. Unless you are talking about getting some tedious chores done. No. The sort of fertile ground needed for the seeds of tremendous things in life to grow is not here, not now. Maybe I’ll just float along until after elections next year. See how I’m feeling after that.

See, the thing is, I’m just a bottle of emotions these days. God forbid, should someone shake me and loose the lid? I’ll spew all over. I’m just sayin’, in case of fire, do not, under any circumstances, break the glass. Just let me burn.

Take last weekend. We gathered at my sister’s for a family wedding; her eldest, finally past the failure-to-launch phase with a decent job and a nice girl. But, because my nephew has always had the lion’s share of his parent’s attention—desperate as they were to get him grown, out of the house and on his own two feet—there is an underlying resentment about attending the little pobrecito’s wedding. If it were up to everyone else, they’d just assume he and she elope so they can avoid yet one more family event where he is the center of attention. He’s a lot like my sister, his mother, that way. The two of them. Sucking the air out of whatever room they walk into.

Anyway, there I was at my sister’s, nerves maxed to the hilt after a day of being forced to pay attention to only them while the rest of the famn-damily went on bickering, bitching, yelling, slamming doors and giving each other the silent treatment. Wide awake at 2:30 in the morning while everyone else managed to have finally passed out drunk. All I wanted to do was bolt. Just run. Out the door, down the street, down the next street, and the next. Just keep running until I couldn’t run anymore. Or, the police stopped me (Ma’am, we received a report of a woman in her nightgown running in bare feet down one street and another. Sorry, but we’re going to have to bring you in for making an ass of yourself).

This whole hysterical state of mind is getting out of hand! I have to pull my shit together and just, whatever. Let the rest roll off my back, as they say. The family will always be the family. The job will always be the job. Nothing is perfect.

And, so, here I am. A lovely, sunny spring evening. I guess it’s true. There really isn’t anything like the present, no matter how it shows up.


Disclaimer: bits of “nonfiction,” to be sure, but this is entirely a fictional piece!

The Alternative to the Alternative Life

Louisellie – named for both grandmothers, Louise and Ellie – was brought up to always strive for originality. Her parents had a single-minded passion for living life as uniquely and alternatively as possible. Alternative to what, Louise (as she preferred to be called), was never entirely sure.

Louise was typical of children born to parents with firmly held beliefs: She did not want to be anything like them. So, where her parents embraced a freeform life, Louise craved routine and discipline. Where her parents vacillated between one school of thought or religion and another, selecting only those insights and edicts that suited their particular view of life, Louise sought a singular dogma to guide her. She chose Christianity. Afterall, what could be so wrong about it? If it was good enough for the grandmothers for whom she was named, she reasoned, it ought to be fine for her.

Her older brother Albertodd (you guessed it. Named for their grandfathers) often chided her for being contrary. “Just go with the flow,” he’d say. Louise hated the phrase. It was all she ever was expected to do.

“I want to go to the public high school,” she announced one day. “I want to live in the world, and make friends, and be normal.” Her parents tried to dissuade her with their usual arguments about propaganda and hedonistic commercialism and the subjection of the simple man by the government’s industrial complex. Albertodd agreed with their parents. “The world is just a place. Nothin’ special.” Louise found her brother’s attitude ironic.

Albertodd was expert at sneaking off the family compound to get away from their parents and explore the world outside their cloistered life. He would disappear for hours, even days at a time, and come home with stories of the places and people they weren’t allowed to know. Her brother’s stories enthralled Louise.

Three summers ago, Albertodd met a boy his age who lived a vastly different life than theirs. By the end of that summer, the boy made Albertodd a tempting offer: the boy would pay Albertodd to attend high school in his place. Albertodd accepted, and since then, he had been attending high school as Robert Templeton. He kept his nose down, his grades up, and never attended Parent Teacher Night (which was a snap, since the actual Robert Templeton’s parents never attended, either).

Louise and Albertodd’s parents were as clueless as the Templetons about the situation. Every evening, Albertodd would surround himself with the library of school books he parents deemed appropriate for their children’s home school education, all the while instead doing homework from the high school. Then, each morning, he announced he needed to go on a long walk-about to process his homeschool work from the night before. His parents thought nothing of it.

“So, why is it OK for you to go to high school, but not me?” Louise confronted her brother. He only shrugged.

Louise was desperate to do as she wished, but she didn’t want to sneak around like her brother. So, on her 13th birthday, she announced she would start attending the public high school the following fall, even if it meant walking out the front door on the first day of school, leaving the family compound, and walking down the road and all the way into town, asking people she came by if they could point her in the right direction.

Her parents ultimately conceded and felt a formal ceremony was necessary to mark the occasion. They wrote a formal proclamation, read aloud by her father in full voice at the intersection of the road that lead to their homestead and the main boulevard that lead into town. As confused drivers and the occasional passersby looked on at the family standing in the middle of the median, Louise’s father declared that, on the 5th day of September, 2020, Louisellie Bradán Bláth Liptonadams, would leave the sacred home of her beloved parents and enter the world of fear, destitution and degradation.

Her brother chucked her on the shoulder. “My way’s easier.”


Oh, man! The prompts this week had me on a wild goose chase. Have you ever had a perfect picture of what your story will be, but when pen is put to paper (or key strokes to monitor), nothing you envisioned is rendered?

The prompts this week are entirely implied in my story. They are: my outfit is entirely vegan; it had to come to this; unique isn’t always useful.

https://aooga.wordpress.com/2019/03/03/olwg-92-anniversary-blues