Karen McCracken is an Inspirational Speaker, writer and lead Editor for Inspired Editing Services.
Regrets, I Have Them ~ Diana Rohlman
Sometimes I hate him. My husband. I’ve never told anyone -- who admits to hating her own husband? But those times, those times he morphs into a sniveling, pathetic creature, who delights in shooting sharp barbs my way just to see me wince -- my usual disdain turns into true, gut-wrenching hatred.
I hate our life together, our glamorous, carefree lie of a life. The only reality in our marriage is that final vow; till death do us part. He saw to that. Everything else was a beautiful sham. ‘For richer or poorer.’ I would laugh if I could. Richard begs pitifully when he has run through his weekly allowance; his handsome face scrunched as he attempts to cajole me. The bastard. He took everything.
When I was a little girl, I spent hours planning my life. I would have a garden, a dog. I would make blackberry jelly and strawberry preserves. My dog would be spoiled with home-baked cookies. I would make vast quantities of soup, freezing little aliquots to last me through winter. I would be happy. Above all, my childish self believed that I would be happy.
I was at the neighborhood book club last week, and one of the girls, her blond hair perfectly coiffed, her eyes hidden behind clumpy mascara, dithering nonstop about some article she had read. Even with her inane explanation, I caught the gist. No longer is death sacred; even now companies form to insure your presence lives on in the form of social media. Electronic messages from the afterlife. Absolutely morbid.
The damn girl twittered on. “Imagine what we would learn, the secrets people have held!”
To her, it was all a gag. Nothing was serious; secrets were glittery glimpses into someone else’s reality, nothing more. She lived in a world were clouds were fluffy, puppies were everywhere, and men were knights in shining armor.
I didn’t use to be a bitter person. I used to love life; I was such a gay little child, my mother would always exclaim. That was, of course, before the word gay was reclaimed, redefined. Of course had my mother known it was still applicable, the very word would have turned to ashes in her mouth.
Now, I find that none of that matters. My failed marriage, my horrid mother; I spent years straining after useless relationships. What could have been, I wonder. The thought staggers me, for I do not immediately know the answer.
If I were given a second chance, what would I change? My first kiss, my first quarrel, my first failure of a relationship? I could have written a novel, eaten better, exercised more, taken cooking classes. I could have been a connoisseur of fine wines, or a purveyor of glorious works of art. My feet could have roamed the rolling hills of Tuscany, or wandered the sad history of Germany. And yet, I do not regret the lack of these experiences. They were passing fancies, at best.
It was the moments, the moments that opened a world of alternative possibilities, the moments that I did not take, that I so deeply regret. I would have kissed Yolanda, there in the dirty hallway of our high school. I would have marched beside Erica, my clenched fists raised in opposition. I would have run after Jessica. I would have laughed in Richard’s face. I would have defied my mother. I would have been proud. I would have had a garden, and a dog named Liberty. I would have had children, beautiful, naughty, exuberant children. I could have been happy. I could have done anything.
But Richard, the bastard, had stolen all my dreams, my fading regrets, from me. I can still see him, even as my vision fades inevitably to black, standing over me, wiping his bloody hands in a towel. I would sigh, if I could. The bastard beat me to it. And perhaps that is my biggest regret.
Diana Rohlman lives in the Pacific Northwest, invariably spending the rainy days inside, writing with a glass of wine nearby, and her dog offering helpful critiques. Visit Diana at https://sites.google.com/site/rohlmandiana
Montmartre ~ Jennifer Courtney
It was raining, a capricious affair. Liquid mirrors dotted the cobbled streets. Puddles swelled. Silvery, moving of their own accord, they reminded me of the mercury I’d played with as a child in my parent’s shop. Milliners both, they’d gone mad. Often, I caught shadow-sketches of them screaming at me from inside diminutive curbside pools like these.
Henry was working on a story, striving to paint reality. He demanded new material. So out we had gone, arm in arm, in the fog and the rain, to people watch. For an hour along the lower banks he trudged, looking for a little bourgeoisie color. He was distant, bothered by some plot contrivance, or maybe a character flaw in his story.
After an eternity of people and puddles, we headed to the cabaret district. The fog off the Seine, thick and weighing down lower Paris, couldn’t make it up the hill. My face bobbed along, repeated in the canvas of a hundred gas-lit puddles, pale and distorted. Somewhere in those waters my parents lurked. I could hear them screaming.
Henry was hoping that the cabarets of Montmartre would give him something erotic to work with. I was hoping to get him drunk enough to earn a commitment.
He wasn’t courting me. Still, Henry would bring gifts, and say the most outrageous things. His hand on my arm seemed overly familiar, almost possessive. I’d seen him handle three boyfriends, and at least that many girls - not counting myself - with the same sure grip. I hadn’t managed to get him into bed yet. To the best of my knowledge neither had they.
The rain failed to wash away the smell of piss in the streets and the garbage in the narrow alleys. The damp air weighed down the stench of the cigar that Henry insisted on as we walked. He should have enjoyed his smoke in a parlor, like a proper gentleman. Instead we walked through fragrant tatters of it, a burnt-hair incense that mixed with the refuse of the streets.
In our first bar my drink rested on a coffin instead of a table, and I on a bench of rough stone. The staff kept calling Henry “M. James”. Dark, cold, and unpleasantly moist, it was hardly a place to inspire courtship. No wonder Henry adored it. Chandeliers of yellowed bone leaked sick glows, their half-light jaundiced the walls and tables.
There were murals, the twenty-one major arcana of the tarot. I wanted to lick them, to see if they tasted of life or death. Perhaps I made some motion, and gave myself away, because before I could touch tongue to lead paint Henry winked and stationed us beneath the wheel.
Seated beneath that lurid grind of cogs, the rise and fall of king to pauper, I thought perhaps my parents, swimming in the puddles outside had found something better to do. Their wailing vanished as a black-robed choir assaulted us with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
The bar was grim, the bock was cheap. I drank several, propriety be damned.
On our way to the next attraction, a bar modeled after heaven, Henry pawed me a bit. I returned the favor. Strangely, my parents weren’t around to object.
We didn’t stay long in heaven. St Peter’s beard was ratty and the divine never had suited Henry.
Besides, one door over, hell’s mouth gaped.
As we passed from heaven to hell, a woman with three faces grabbed my arm, pressed a card into my hand. Major arcana, the star. It fell away, landing face-up in the damp. The lady blurred, old-young and heavily pregnant. Smiling, she watched me stare between her and the fallen star until those triple faces shrank. She became a spider.
Henry picked up the tarot card and crushed her with it. Then, with an adventurous grin, he pulled me headlong into the cabaret’s gaping maw.
It was cold in hell.
Sometime later in the night, I crouched naked in the street beside a small pool of diminishing ripples, where eight stars danced. A bottle in my hand was empty. Silvery streams trickled away at my feet. I half-remembered dumping the drink when my last bout of vomit had roiled the waters.
Reflected, one star far brighter than the others shined hope. It kept shining - even through the next volley of sickness.
Jennifer Courtney is the aging mother of two toddlers and currently enjoying her last semester as an English Lit Major at the University of Maryland University College.
Keir knew the world lay just outside the door. Three steps away from where she sat life started again. One point five metres, one hundred and fifty centimetres. She could almost taste the air that filtered underneath, through the worn, dirty carpet. The door was one inch thick, almost three centimetres if you included the layers of paint crusted onto the wood. She ran her fingers through knotted hair and leant towards the mirror, misting the glass with her breath. Her index finger traced through the moisture.
“It is an ancient mariner
And he stoppeth one of three.”
No, not hers. Someone else's words, tasting like regurgitated food. Her hand brushed the wall, trying to centre herself, ground herself.
Woodchip lined the room. Maybe the wallpaper and door are relatives, distant cousins one forest removed. Closing her eyes she could almost hear the endless highland wind sing through their now shredded branches.
“Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace, four happy days bring in”
Shakespeare always tasted of apples.
“Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.”
Especially the middle. The middle crunched like toffee apples. Apart from Richard III. Maggots.
She twisted the blanket in a thin hand, picking strands of multicoloured lint. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for sorrow, four for sorrow.
The light outside started to fade and the branches of the sycamore clattered against the ceiling window.
She smiled and stood on the bed, sinking slightly, tapping on the glass. The leaves stroked the tiles and she listened to their dusty words, scratching her reply into the mildew.
She asked the Sycamore to pass on her message, sing her call for help on the autumnal breeze. The tree shook it's giant head and turned its gaze above the roof.
Footsteps came up the stairs and a key turned in the door. The writer walked into the room. One point five metres, one metre, fifty centimetres, his sweating hand now on her arm.
Once she tried running past, pinning him to the wall against the woodchip, and bounding through the doorway. But the stairs were lined with fine steel wire. Steel tasted of urine and mouldy furniture.
He plucked a feather from one of her wings, its black sheen dulled by scraping against the magnolia wall. A sharpened sliver of flint appeared in his hand. Last century they believed her cousins had shaped these tools, rather than their own ancestors. She remembered watching old men and women with scarred hands knap tools around fires of wet oak. The smell of spitting bark lingered. She cowered slightly as he shaped the hollow shaft to a point.
When she first woke up in this room, the walls weeping patchouli, he tried to quill her feathers with an iron knife and she watched them wither to dust.
Her left wing was almost bare now. He preferred that side for some reason. Clipping her flight as he took her words. He spoke to her, his voice shaking, hand playing with the necklace of rowan berries hung round his neck. He was always nervous round her, feared her, even while he kept her imprisoned, like a small boy poking a swan.
The room filled with the smell of burning wax as the writer melted the ink. His verse burned on the page. Each syllable tasted of singed hair. She closed her eyes and remembered coasting on the warm breeze of the Adriatic, being buffeted by gales around Scottish Munros, the setting sun catching on her elegant wings. Now she cowered in the corner of the small single bed as the writer plucked her bare like an apple tree in autumn. She had tried using broken glass to escape, but her kind died hard. She watched through half closed eyes as the quill in his hand turned to dust, exhausted of phrases. Grasping like an addict he pulled another from her. The feathers were emptying quicker these days, his desire draining the inspiration from them faster.
To distract herself she turned words over, feeling them appear on her tongue; sand, Cartesian, dryad, lemon. She swallowed, but the ashes in her mouth remained
The writer hunched over his manuscript, using the old wooden dressing table as a desk. When he first caught her, in an alley behind a bargain sportswear shop, he looked like an overstuffed sofa, every inch of skin straining with the good life he indulged in. Now, after six months of stealing the gifts hidden inside her feathers, he looked like a ghost of a temple, angular and pale.
She focused on the sweat that slipped down his face, pooling on his upper lip. He mumbled words as they flowed onto the page. She caught the occasional phrase, but he hid the manuscript from her in case she could leech the words back.
“I need more.” he said as the latest quill evaporated in his hand. “I need to finish this chapter.”
She rolled over and stretched out on the bed, stroking her hair.
“But if you take them too quickly I'll have nothing left, nothing to give.”
His body shuddered, “I have to.”
A shaking hand reached out to her, stroking the barbs, smoothing down the vanes. She circled his wrist and pulled him slowly towards her. One metre, one hundred centimetres, one thousand millimetres. Fingers playing up and down his arm she whispered in a voice of sweet honey.
“Take off the necklace and I can give you all the words you will ever need.”
Doubt swam across his face, conflict between common sense and addiction.
Slowly, hands trembling, he undid the cotton. The berries spilled on the floor. His foot crushed them, staining the threadbare carpet with bitter red juice.
He leant forward and her hand slid round his head, holding him as their lips touched.
She felt the stories flow into her. First she took the words he had stolen, then the stories he had created. Finally she felt the stories he had lived run down the back of her throat. Her hand was empty now and a new black green feather shuddered as she moved. It would take a hundred years to regain her plumage, maybe two. But time was one thing she had plenty of.
Steve Toase is an author who writes unsettling fiction while living in North Yorkshire, England and occasionally Munich, Germany.
Hippo Sheedy recognizes his old nemesis, even from across the airport tavern—as well as three and a half decades. He wheels his carry-on directly up to the bar, straddles a stool and grins up his best jowly jack-o-lantern grin.
“What can I get you?” rotes the bored barman, dealing a napkin off the stack.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” says Hippo, still grinning like he wants the corners of his mouth to shake hands with his ears. In fact, that’s how he’d acquired the name ‘Hippo’. He hadn’t gone to fat yet, but even when he was slim he had a mouth way too wide for his face. Made him look something like the ass end of a garbage truck. Or the front end of a hippo.
“Sure,” says the bartender, “you’re Brad Pitt. You come in all the time. What can I get for you, Mr. Pitt?”
“I’ll give you a hint,” offers Hippo. “I recognize you.”
The bar man shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
“Then I must be Angelina Jolie. Look, I’ve got other customers …”
Three to be exact. None clamoring for service.
Hippo waggles his finger at the barman. “You’re Stubby McShea. Still don’t recognize me? Does Wrigley Field, September 15, 1977 ring any bells?”
The bartender sighs, “I don’t hear bells so good anymore, besides,” he points to the name tag pinned to his shirt, “the name’s William.” he says. “I serve drinks. Can I get you one?”
“Whatever you got on tap, long as it’s light.” He pats his prodigious belt-overhang. “I’m thinking of makin’ a comeback.”
As a steamroller, maybe, William thinks as he pulls the handle and allows the beer slide down the side of a pilsner glass.
“I’ll give you another hint: Hippo.” He raises his arms and eyebrows. “Huh? Hippo Sheedy?”
The three other customers glance over, evidently curious about who dope keeps saying ‘hippo’, but William concentrates on drawing the beer. He places it in front of the customer.
“You must have me mixed up with someone else,” says William. “Happens to folks all the time. Especially in airports, or so they say.”
“Ah, no,” says Hippo. “I know what I know. William ‘Stubby’ McShea, pitcher, nine years in the Majors; mostly with the Cleveland Indians, but you also tossed for Kansas City, and Montreal there at the end. I kept track of you—‘specially after what you done to me. You were under .500 as far as wins and losses go, but you played for some pretty bedraggled teams. Lifetime ERA of 3.25. Nothin’ shabby about that, Stubby McShea.”
The other three customers appraise the bartender with new eyes.
Again, the bartender points to his nametag. “William,” he says quietly. “That other business was a long time ago.”
“Yessir,” says Hippo, addressing the other drinkers, “this guy woulda pitched for the Yankees or the Dodgers, people’d still be talking about him. You pitch for bad teams, nobody remembers. But Hippo remembers.”
The bartender leaned his forearms on the bar and bent in close to Hippo’s face.
“Listen, I was a mediocre pitcher on a series of mediocre teams. I burnt the stats book a long time ago. And I haven’t been called Stubby in more years than I care to count. Maybe we can talk about the weather, or not talk at all. Wha’d’ya say?”
“C’mon, Stubby, I only got a forty-minute layover, and I’ve been meanin’ to look you up since, well, September 15, 1977. It’s … what do they say … cashmere that we should meet like this.”
“I think you mean kismet. Why? Something special happen on that date?”
“You could say that, Stubby. That was the day you ruined my career.”
“Now I know you’ve got the wrong guy. The only career I ruined was my own. Though my liver might have reason to gripe. What is it I’m supposed to have done? I take it you were a ballplayer? I bean you with some hard cheese, and now you got double vision? What?”
“The name Hippo Sheedy don’t mean nothin’ to you, really?”
“For all I can remember about it, 1977 doesn’t mean nothin’ to me. What was it I’m supposed to have done to you?”
“You struck me out.”
William tugs the bar rag off his shoulder and puts it to use. “In ’77? I must have been havin’ a good day. I stunk like a fish-house dumpster that year.”
“On three pitches. Three lazy curveballs. Each one lazier than the last. Meanwhile, I was sittin’ on the famous McShea fastball. Made me look bad, Stubby. My only at-bat in the Bigs, and you and your curveballs made me look bush league.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” says William. “I was hootchin’ through an industrial-size funnel in those days, and my memory’s got more blanks and erasures than a Sunday crossword puzzle. Besides, I don’t think I ever threw three curveballs in a whole season, never mind three in one at-bat.”
Hippo slaps the bar with the flat of his hand. “See there?” he says. “I knew it. That’s how you ruined my career. Only a fool woulda gone up there lookin’ for benders from Stubby McShea.”
“I’ll have to agree with that.” The bartender shrugs. “I wasn’t known to heave anything that didn’t whistle—and a good portion of those got turned around and whistled right back at me … or over the outfield fence.”
Hippo pushes his empty glass forward, and gestures with his chin toward the tap. “So why’d you do it, Stubby?” he says. “Why’d you make a fool of me? Why’d you ruin my career?”
The bartender jerks the stick and the beer slides. “I don’t know that I did ruin your career. Besides, getting batters out was what they were paying me for.”
“But on three lousy curveballs? Stubby McShea didn’t never throw curve balls. So there I am flailin’ at high heaters that break in the dirt ten full seconds after I’d already swung.”
William places the beer in front of the old ballplayer. “On me,” he says. “Listen, Hippo, is it?”
The other man nods.
“You’re giving me way too much credit, and maybe a little more blame than I deserve, too. I didn’t make you swing at those three hooks, after all.”
“Maybe not, but you must have known I was a September call-up with a big fat hole in my swing. And it was my first Major League at bat. You treated me like I was a joke; a nothin’.”
“I can see how you might feel that way, friend, but I doubt I would have known you from Babe Ruth in those days. I swear, it never mattered to me who was at the plate. I just reared back and threw as hard as I could. All I had was power. No cunning.”
“Yeah, you threw like that to everybody else. I bet you wouldn’t have tossed Babe Ruth three straight curve balls.”
William nods. “You’re right about that. If someone had been kind enough to point out the Babe to me, I’d’ve grooved him one juicier than a grapefruit—just to see how far he’d hit it.”
Hippo spins his glass on the bar. “But you couldn’t do that for me?”
The bartender pours a brew for a new customer at the other end of the bar, then returns.
“You never got into another Major League game?”
“Nah, our season was over just three days later. During the winter, the GM swung a three-way trade with Chicago and the Red Sox. The White Sox got the kid, Samuelson, to take over for doddering old Manning in right field—the slot that was supposed be mine, until you made a fool of me. I ended up getting sent to Boston where Dewey Evans had right field sown up tighter than skin on a potato. Never made it out of Triple-A again. I was twenty-nine before I realized most of my teammates were only nineteen. The Game had already passed me by.”
William smiles. “If it’s any consolation, it eventually passed by The Bambino and Dewey Evans, too. Forget the meek, Hippo, it’s the young who inherit the Earth … and the batter’s box.”
The murky PA system announces boarding for Hippo’s flight. Hippo stands and reaches for his wallet.
“Keep it,” says William. “By the way, what do you do now?”
“Got a company makes reflective film goes on retail and office windows. Saving energy’s the big leagues in business these days.”
William spreads his arms, in exposition of the shabby bar. “Maybe I should have let you strike me out.”
When Hippo is gone, one of the other customers pushes his empty glass to the center of the bar.
“Will,” he says, “I’ll eat that salt shaker, and every grain in it, if you spent one day in the Major Leagues.”
William refills the man’s glass.
“I peaked at American Legion, Marv,” he says. “Was my brother Thomas he was talking about. Didn’t see any harm in letting him believe.”
“But he said, William ‘Stubby’ McShea, not Thomas.”
“That was just wishful thinking, Marv. I look enough like my brother so his mind made an adjustment on the name. I may have never made it beyond American Legion ball, but even I learned that a guy who craves the fastball can fool himself into swinging at the curve every time.”
copyright © 2014
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.