Monday, August 30, 2010

River Story, Part 1

He had never seen her without makeup.

The thought never occurred to Chris until they had been married about a year. One of the graduate students who shared his office had just returned from a honeymoon, and the other guys were teasing him.

“It all changes when you’re married, right, Brad?” asked Tom, who was engaged himself. “You find out what’s behind the makeup and flirting.”

“Yeah, the next morning I woke up and thought, ‘Yikes!’”

“Would that be a euphemism or a derogation?”

“Stick your critical discourse analysis in your Eustachian tube, Mike! Seriously, she has this big birthmark, right there on her neck, that I’d never seen. I guess I’ll get used to it.”

“What about you, Chris?” Tom inquired. “What does your wife look like first thing in the morning?”

“Margie is always beautiful,” he replied.

“There’s a typically uncreative American compliment.” The others laughed at Mike’s analyzing tone, and went on with their banter.

Chris headed for the peace of the library, but the question kept floating into his mind. His wife was an early riser, always fully dressed by the time he put on his thick glasses. Was he missing something?

Margie was lovely, no doubt about that. He had often wondered what she saw in a shy scholar like him. It certainly wasn’t his earning potential that attracted her. Linguists don’t get rich. But she did not seem to mind. She shared his quiet habits, enjoying reading, long walks, and going out for sushi on Saturday nights. She was perfect for him, that was all, and it did not matter if her makeup hid a few blemishes.

He shook off the thought and focused on proofreading his translations. Satisfied that they were ready, he found his way to the library’s conservation lab.

“Hi, Chris!” Becca greeted him cheerfully. “What do you have for me?”

“Just these stories. I’d like to give them to Margie for our anniversary.”

“That's so sweet!  For our first anniversary, Dan gave me a case of motor oil.  At least he doesn't expect me to change it myself."  Becca pulled out samples of binding cloths and endpapers.  "For this gift, you'll need a really nice binding.”

Chris looked them over, but could not decide. “What do you think she would like?”

“Don’t you know your wife by now?” Becca teased.

“I thought so.” Chris frowned. “Do you tell Dan everything?”

“Not all at once. When I hung a spoon on the end of my nose at our rehearsal dinner, he almost called off the wedding out of astonishment,” she chuckled. “A girl has to keep a few tricks up her sleeve.”

“You think Margie is keeping some talents hidden?”

“I’m sure of it. How about this gold paper with a green binding?”

Margie was waiting for him outside, as usual. Her red hair shone even more brilliantly in the golden evening light. “The garden looks great, dear,” Chris said. She had been transforming the barren back yard of their tiny rental house into a little paradise, complete with a rocky fountain feeding a small pond.

“Thanks, honey. Look at these!” She pointed at something moving in the pond, then scooped it out of the water.

“Is that a turtle? I’ve never seen one so small. How did it get here?”

“We’re not that far from the river. The mother must have liked this sunny spot.” She indicated a small hole in the ground. Chris peeked in and saw some eggshell fragments.

“How many are there? What do they eat? Do they need shots or anything?” Chris asked nervously. His parents had never allowed him to keep a pet.

Margie laughed. “Don’t worry, they can fend for themselves. There are only five, so the flower garden should attract plenty of insects for them. They’ll like the aquatic plants I set in the pond, too. But maybe they would like some minnows from the river. Shall we go for a walk after dinner?”

“Of course,” Chris smiled. Though he had grown up in another state, his earliest memories were of that river. His parents, alumni of the university, had returned to visit and persuade their young son to study there someday. He ran along the river trail until he tripped and fell into the cold water. His father had fished him out right away, with no harm done, but Chris had lost his glasses. After that incident, his mother had insisted on holding his hand any time they approached water. He still loved to walk along the river, matching his pace to its slow current.

When Chris awoke the next morning, he could hear Margie’s little splashes in the bath as she sang wordlessly. Listening to the comforting sound, his mind drifted to the old folk tales he had translated for her. They were strange stories of grateful animal spirits returning the favors of men by marrying them and making them rich – until the foolish men discovered their wives’ true forms.

Was Margie’s true form much different from her made-up face? It seemed unlikely. And she had never actually asked him not to look in on her during her bath. He put on his glasses and went to the bathroom door. It was locked.

“Do you need something, honey? Sorry – I’ll be right out,” she called.

Why would she lock the door? Chris shook his head. Don’t be silly, he thought. It’s probably just a habit from her single days. She emerged soon, with her radiant hair neatly arranged, elegant eyebrows framing her deep brown eyes, smiling lips nearly matching her vermillion hair.

“Good morning, sunshine.” She tousled his hair, and he forgot all about the old stories.

After his shower, though, he glanced at the case on the counter. It looked like a tackle box, but she had said it was her makeup case. He wondered how much makeup she actually used. He tried the lid. But it, too, was locked. Then he noticed a single metallic tube standing next to the case. He opened it to find lipstick, Margie’s favorite bright red. He slipped the cylinder into his pocket. Would she notice?

For Part 2, click here.

To read the sort of stories of which Chris is thinking, see my father's translations here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Small Steps

May, 1984
     The class perked up when Mr. Wells pulled down the white screen in the front of the classroom. “Get out your Social Studies notebooks, please. We have arrived at a recent, and most exciting, time in our study of United States history.” He pulled a cart into position, and threaded the film through the projector. “Please take notes on these events, and prepare to ask your parents about their impact on your lives.”
     A slight groan met his enthusiasm for interactive history, but mostly the class was impressed that it was an actual movie, not just another lame filmstrip. The teacher flicked off the lights, and the serious voice of the narrator filled the fifth-grade classroom. I started doodling in the margins of my blank page. Most of the images on the screen were still shots, just like a filmstrip. But then the scene shifted to show John F. Kennedy addressing Congress.
     “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space . . .”
     I winced. Did we have to dwell on that part of history?
     The narrator droned on about how the Space Race heated up the Cold War, as groups of scientists posed for pictures, rockets launched into desert skies, and animated satellites emitted concentric radio waves into space. Then, the famous fuzzy footage of the Apollo 11 mission.
     “One small step for a man,” Neil Armstrong said, looking down at his boot. “But who made these really small footprints? Hey!” He fell out of the camera’s view, tackled by blurry white forms.
     “American scientists and engineers rose to the challenge of creating new technology to respond to the lessons learned on the moon.” More pictures of scientists, construction workers, politicians, launches. A quick shot of a dark-haired man with glasses, an oxygen tank, and a notebook, interviewing a diminutive pale creature. I glanced around, my face burning. No one else seemed to recognize him. Why would they? I sank down in my chair, anyway.
     “The discovery of intelligent life on the moon ushered in a new era of responsibility for America’s guardians of freedom.” A hulking spacecraft crossed the black sky behind the Stars and Stripes, to be replaced by a heavily decorated admiral and a moon person in formal robes. “Our mission here is to keep these little guys out of the clutches of Communism,” the admiral announced, and patted the small dignitary on the head.
     “With construction of a permanent moon base underway,” the camera scrolled over an architectural drawing, “and expansion of the Naval Space Fleet, the United States of America continues to reach for the stars.” The Big Dipper faded into the blue field of the flag, the credits rolled, and the bell rang for lunch.
     “Remember, I want three paragraphs on how space exploration has affected your life, by Tuesday!” Mr. Wells called out over the hubbub.
     I could barely choke down my sandwich at lunch, and I gave Lori my cookie without even trading. I toyed morosely with the latch of my lunch box while Tiffany prattled on. Melissa glanced at me with concern, but even she could not get a word in edgewise.
     At recess we lined up to play Four Square, as usual, but I could not concentrate. When Tiffany called, “Around the world–movie stars!” I fumbled the ball and said, “Dad.” I looked around. “Okay, I’m out.”
     Melissa took my arm. “Let’s walk,” she said, and Lori came, too. I hoped Tiffany would keep playing with the next girls in line, but she followed along.
     “I have to tell you something,” I blurted out.
     “Ooh, who is your secret heartthrob?” Tiffany rubbed her hands gleefully. I ignored her.
     “I’m moving this summer.”
     “Already?” asked Lori.
     “You just got here,”said Melissa.
     “I know,” I sighed. “My dad is being transferred. He says it is only for a year. I’ll be back for seventh grade.”
     “That’s good. Where are you going?”
     “You’ll never believe it. I don’t,” I said.
     I shook my head. “To the moon.”
     “No way! That’s so cool!” Lori and Melissa looked excited.
     Tiffany had something else on her mind. “You can’t do that. You’ll miss the dance.”
     “What dance?”
     “It’s a school tradition. Every June, the sixth grade has a dance.” She put her hand over her heart, and looked longingly at a boy who was flopping like a fish on the grass. “I’m going to go with Billy.”
     “He already asked you?” Melissa asked incredulously.
     “No, but I’m going to make sure he will.” Tiffany batted her eyelashes, pivoted, and started sliding backward toward the breakdancing boys. “Better practice your moonwalk, Spacey Stacy!”
     Looking at the boys, I could not imagine dancing with any of them. “Maybe leaving the planet is not such a bad idea,” I commented.
     “Can we come, too?” Lori asked wistfully.
     “So, why are you moving to the moon?” asked Melissa.
     “Dad is a linguist. After the moon people were discovered, the government sent him and a couple of other guys to figure out their language. He wrote the book on Lunish, and another to teach them to speak English. There was a picture of him in that movie.”
     “Wow. So why does he need to go again? Is he going to write another book?”
     “No idea. It’s classified.”
     Melissa nodded. Her father worked for the government, too. “Don’t worry. We’ll write and tell you all about Tiffany’s conquests.”
     I rolled my eyes as the bell rang. The boys quit trying their stunts and ran to line up for class. Half of them shouted, “Spacey Stacy!” as they passed.
     “Oh, great. I know what to call my Social Studies essay,” I decided. “‘How Lunar Exploration Ruined My Life.’”

July, 1984
     After school let out, my life was a frenzy of immunizations, passport photos, shopping, and deciding what to pack. Between chores, my mother took me on a series of “last” visits, to the beach, to the Smithsonian, to the farm stand for fresh corn and cantaloupe.
     I was feeling a bit nervous the night before the launch. “Why don’t you take a nice last bath, dear?” my mother suggested in a soothing voice.
     “‘Last bath?’ What do you mean by ‘last?’” I was not soothed.
     “Well, the moon is a desert, so we’re going to have to conserve water.”
     “I can’t go for a year without a bath!”
     “There are . . . other ways to get clean.” Even she sounded a bit doubtful. “Go enjoy a nice bubble bath.”
     I filled the tub as high as possible with steamy water and bubbles, and tried to let my cares soak away. I propped my feet up next to the faucet, and regarded my toes.
     One of them waved at me.
     Surprised, I kept watching, and it happened again. My right pinky toe moved sideways, away from the other toes, and then returned. I didn’t know I could do that. But soon I realized I could move my right pinky toe voluntarily, and my left one, too.
     Was that normal? Could everyone move their toes independently, and I’d never heard about it? Was it one of those weird, inherited traits, like my dad’s forked eyebrow, or my ability to crease my tongue into the shape of a cross? Or was I just a freak of Nature?
     I was going to live on another world, and I didn't even know if I fit into my own. 
     Maybe the moon people would make a movie about me. I could see the title on the marquee: INVASION OF THE MUTANT PREHENSILE-TOED ALIEN SIXTH-GRADER FROM EARTH!
     I practiced popping bubbles between my toes, until the bath water was as smooth as glass.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lurking by the Tap

I'm holding a bulbous water balloon.
I've filled it as far as it goes.
I'll drench my brother before he takes aim--
unless he has the garden hose!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Lost and Found

A Magpie Tale, which began with a family brainstorm
     "Mom, look what I found!"
     Melissa looked up, gloved hands full of weeds.  After a month of unpacking boxes and organizing the house, she had finally decided to tackle the yard.  The beautiful garden had been an important factor when they bought the house, but she just had not had time for it since.  Now the carefully tended beds were full of weeds.  And some other things, too.  She had found bits of plastic, a soda can, a toy car, even a broken spade.  What could Sarah have found this time?  She pushed her way through the peonies to where Sarah squatted over her treasure.
     "See?  A watering can!"
     "Well, that could be useful." 
     "And it is so pretty and green.  May I keep it, and water all the flowers with it?"
     "Of course.  The Hansens must not need it anymore.  Bring it along, Sarah."
     The little girl picked up the watering can's curved handle.  "Oh, look!  They forgot a sock, too!"
     Melissa gingerly plucked the tube sock from the dirt.  "Do you want to keep this one?"
     "Eww, Mom, no thanks."
     Placing the sock next to the pile of weeds, Melissa moved on.  Sarah set the watering can down among the daisies, and ran off in pursuit of a butterfly.  Melissa attacked a tough clump of dandelions.  Soon Sarah came bouncing back, and picked up her treasure again. 
     "Another sock!" 
     Melissa looked over.  Yes, peeking out from the daisy leaves was a man's black sock.  Mr. Hansen must have been more careless than she had thought.  She put this sock next to the first, and uprooted the last dandelion.  Sarah dropped the watering can in front of some lilies, and turned somersaults across the grass. 
     When she came tumbling back, she found a pink baby sock.  Then a soft blue lady's sock.  The stack of socks was keeping pace with the pile of weeds.  Every time Sarah picked up the watering can, she found another sock.  None of them matched.  Melissa was puzzled.  The Hansens had not seemed like people who would toss their socks off with a wild impulse to work in the garden.  But she had barely met them. 
     Then Sarah approached with yet another sock.  This time she looked troubled.  "Look, Mom.  It's my favorite sock, the one with butterflies on it." 
     "I'm glad you found your favorite sock, dear."
     "But I lost it before we moved.  A long time before."
     "Maybe another little girl lost a sock just like it, right here."  She thought the Hansens only had sons, but they must have entertained visitors sometimes.
     "No, Mom.  I didn't want to lose my favorite socks, so I wrote my initial on them.  See?"  There, on the toe, was a backward letter S.  Melissa looked back at her daughter, who solemnly proclaimed, "This must be where the socks go."
     "When you fold up the clean clothes, and the socks don't all match, you always say, 'Where do the socks go?'  It must be here, and the watering can finds them."
     Melissa stifled her impulse to call Sarah's idea silly, and proposed a diversion.  "Will you put some water in the can, and water these poor roses?"
     Sarah willingly ran to the tap and filled the can to overflowing.  She lugged it back to the rosebush, and poured.  Along with the water, out flowed five more odd socks.  Melissa jumped.  Sarah just pointed.
     Then another voice rang out.
     "Mo-om!  I can't find my soccer socks!"  Max looked out of the back door.
     Melissa sighed.  "Where did you see them last?"
     "I left them on my floor after the game last week.  And they aren't there any more."
     "Did you look in your drawer?"
     "I don't have time for this, Mom.  I need to get to practice."
     Melissa handed Max the watering can.  "Go look in your drawer.  I need to wash my hands before I help you."
     Max groaned and headed upstairs.  Melissa listened for the thump of the watering can on the floor.
     "There aren't any socks in my drawer.  C'mon, Mom, I'm going to be late!"
     Melissa stood at the bottom of the stairs.  "Max, will you bring me the watering can?"
     "What watering can?  I need my--oh, here are some socks!"
     Max returned, fully dressed for soccer practice.  He handed his mother the watering can, picked up his ball, and waved as he hurried out the front door. 
     Max's mother and sister watched him run down the sidewalk.  The white tube sock on his right leg covered his shinguard neatly.  The blue and yellow striped sock on his left leg reached nearly to his shorts.
     "I think you are right aboug the watering can." Melissa smiled at Sarah.
     Sarah was laughing too hard to answer.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Don't lock your heart away from me;
I used to hold the key.
You opened up so easily,
communicating breezily.
But now you're looking freezily,
you've bolted from my knee.

When you were my little one
we used to have such fun.
Now you mostly sit and brood,
tumbling from mood to mood.
And so I ask, though it be rude,
when will this turn be done?