Poetry is a mixture of common sense, which not all have, with an uncommon sense, which very few have. — John Masefield
Archive for January, 2010
Not A Bad Day
by Angela Davis (Review Fuse user AC)
It is Christmas Eve day and inconsiderate people cram my treatment schedule—ill-tempered people compelled to share their holiday negativity or those who lack personal hygiene decided to grace my table. This day is never ending. I’m more than ready for it to be over with.
Only five more minutes left to endure the unbearable ache in my hands and the kink in my neck that shoots bullets to my brain. Five minutes until I can cover the client’s exposed body, wash my hands and leave for home. The countdown begins—I persist until the end.
“Okay, Mrs. Jones. How are you feeling?” I flash my most pleasant smile.
“Wonderful. I could go home and take a nap.” Mrs. Jones stretches on the table.
“I’m glad you feel better. Please remember to do your exercises and stretches this time. Drink plenty of water and I’ll see you next week.”
Finally free! Free to go soak my weary body in a hot bath. Six hours of massage a day is far too many to suffer through. Today, in particular, is difficult with clients who refuse to care for themselves on their own. No matter how many times they are told, they never do their homework. Yet, they wonder why they’re in pain. Go figure.
I rush through the office to gather my things.
Karen, the caffeine-driven medical assistant, steps in front of me. “Sue…Are you in a hurry?” she asks.
“Uhh, yeah.” Afraid to inquire why, I smile and maneuver around her toward my things.
“I have a favor to ask.” She grabs my arm and drags me into an empty exam room.
“What’s up?” Not that I really want to know.
“I kinda told this woman out front that you’d be able to work on her son. He’s in a lot of pain and needs a massage.” She justifiably braces herself for my response.
“Karen! I can’t believe you did that to me. I hurt…I’ve had a long day…I want to go home. What were you thinking?” How dare her schedule someone without asking me.
“He has MS,” she whispers.
Great! Guilt. Now how am I going to say no?
I sigh. “Okay. Give me the file.” I snatch the file from her hands and walk out to the waiting room.
Sitting across the room is a stout woman reading a book to a small fragile boy with fingers and arms curled close to his chest, skin pale as snow. Although his body is sickly and small, he has a glow about him. His soul radiates through his eyes, ever smiling.
I clear the irritating lump in my throat that tends to rise when inspiration sparks or when an invisible dagger smashes through my heart. “Mark? Are you ready for your massage?” I smile at the precious child.
Mark looks up at his mother.
“It will be okay honey. I promise it won’t hurt.” The mother stands to help her boy to his feet.
He stands with legs that don’t want to cooperate and begins his slow trek, one step at a time, leaning against his mother for support.
Finally, he enters the treatment room.
“That was awesome Mark! My name is Sue. I’m going to give you a massage today. Have you ever had a massage before?” I ask.
He looks up at his mom with big brown eyes.
“Not a professional massage,” she says. “He has been in so much pain lately and is very sensitive to touch. Even clothes rubbing against his skin causes him pain. My sister suggested that a massage may help him.”
Little Mark doesn’t look so convinced.
I sit down on the table. “How old are you?” I ask.
“Are you scared?”
“There is no need to be scared…okay? I will touch very lightly and you can tell me if you like it or not. If it hurts too much, we will stop. Okay?”
“I’m going to step out for a moment and I want you to take your clothes off but be sure to leave some shorts on. You can then get under this sheet on the table. Okay?”
When I enter the room again, Mark is curled up in a ball under the sheet. His mother sits in the corner.
I dim the lights and turn calming music on.
Using plenty of lotion, I ever so gently begin my work on Mark’s legs. Little by little he uncurls himself, becoming more comfortable.
While working on his back, a loud gurgle startles me. I pause and look for reassurance in his mother. She looks as unsure as I am, but when Mark doesn’t protest, I continue cautiously.
“Oh, that’s nice.” He says.
The mother’s face becomes flush and she bites her lip.
The lump in my throat returns as I fight back the burning in my eyes. This sweet little boy warms my heart.
“Do you like that, Mark?” His mother’s voice crackles.
“Oh yes. It feels nice.” His face beams. He giggles.
The mother loses her battle—tears stream down her face. She looks directly into my eyes and whispers: “Thank you.”
I nod, knowing that if I spoke, I too would be a sobbing mess.
Mark turns his head toward me and hands me his disfigured arm. “Can you rub here now?”
No longer do my hands hurt. The kink in my neck isn’t really that horrible. And my day? Well, it’s not so bad after all. This may be the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received.
And so blows the winds of change
Jack flipped the collar of his coat up, shivering in the breeze. The steady drizzle of rain soaked through his jacket, permeating all it touched. He could barely recognize the once familiar streets. Even though only three years had passed, time stopped for no man, least of all for a man like him. The haunting light from the lamp posts illuminated no recognizable landmark. Frustrated, Jack ducked under a doorframe. He raised his arms, stretching and loosening tight muscles. The scent of juicy turkey and baked potatoes drifted from behind the door. He breathed deeply. His stomached growled in appreciation and his mouth watered. Food. Real food cooked by a family.
The smell brought back a lingering memory, one he wished he could forget, but couldn’t. Always present, always ready to slip back into focus when his attention wandered. Water trickled down his face, but not from the rain. Evalyn’s favorite food was turkey. She had cooked it every Christmas eve, even though Thanksgiving was only a month ago. It had been three years since Jack ate turkey. Three years to this day….
Jack watched Evalyn twirl in the fading Christmas Eve light. Her blonde curls bounced and her smile shined. Snowflakes graced her head. They had chosen a peculiar resting place, for not many things crowned her head that could compare in beauty. Evalyn skipped ahead of him, glancing back every so often. Her giggles floated back on the light breeze. She pivoted and skipped back to Jack. Her flushed face radiated happiness and youthfulness. Jack’s breath hitched as he gazed at her. This was love, that burning sensation in his chest.
“Jack? Will you run to the market and grab the turkey? I forgot to get it while I was there earlier.” Her eyes twinkled in the fading light.
She gave a girly pout. “Please?”
He nodded, not trusting his voice lest it cracked. Evalyn squealed with delight. She hopped up and down, clapping her hands. “Meet me back at the house, kay?” Without waiting for his answer, she spun, dancing away. Her skirts billowed around her as she glided. Gaily, she turned around and kissed her palm, throwing the kiss to the air. Jack’s mouth twitched into a smile as he caught it and pressed it to his face. She giggled and floated away.
Jack balanced the brown bag on one knee while trying to open the apartment door. His key always jammed, and tonight was no exception.
“Evalyn, can you get the door?” Jack pounded on the wood. “Evalyn?” No response. Typical Evalyn, Jack thought, head always in the clouds, soaring and racing with the wind. She possessed a free soul. It wouldn’t surprise him one bit if scientists ever proved the existence of fairies, she had some fay blood. Finally, the lock clicked and he turned the door. The lights were off. He groaned and groped around for the switch until he found it. The apartment warbled into existence. The light illuminated nothing. The bare apartment stared at him. Jack glanced around, confused. His large eyes took in everything and nothing. He turned his head. The light glinted off something on the table. He couldn’t see what it was from where he stood. He hesitated but slowly walked towards the shiny object. Something felt wrong. The object glinted in the light again. Something was very wrong.
The paper bag thudded to the floor. The object, the sparkly object, was a ring. A wedding ring. A piece of paper was rolled inside. His pale face showed confusion. After steadying his hand, Jack picked up the ring and slid the note out. “Sorry,” it read. “The winds of change have blown me elsewhere.” An arrow pointed to the other side. “P.S.: The turkey cooks for 2 hrs on 450.”. Jack flipped it over again. His eyes flicked back and forth across the paper, looking for a clue he had missed. Where was she? Where was she? Sweat dripped down his face and the stuffy air pressed down on him. Suddenly, it was hard to breathe. The ring clattered to the floor, landing beside the cold bag.
Jack tore the apartment up, looking for a sign. He dashed to their room. Nothing. He pulled out all the drawers of the dresser. Hollow. He scrambled to the bathroom, tripping as he went. Empty. Jack sagged against the bathroom door, his hand pressed to his chest. He tried to keep his heart from spilling out, but the tears came nonetheless. His shoulders shook as he tried to suppress the sobs. Gone. Forsaken. He punched the wall. Pain flared into his hand, but dimmed in comparison. Jack pushed himself off the wall, scrambling. He raced out of the apartment. He flew down the stairs. “Evalyn!” He shrieked into the night air. “Evalyn!” The word came out chocked and broken. A whispered remnant. He sank to the wet ground, his feet unable to support his weight. The whole world heard his sobs as his heart crumbled into oblivion.
The smell of cooked turkey drifted to him. Three years from that Christmas Eve to this one, and nothing had changed. Jack lurched away from the doorway, desperate to get away from that haunting smell. The rain was preferable over that despicable scent. Jack shuffled along and the rain soaked everything. Nothing went untouched. Water slid down his face, but not all of it poured from the sky.
by Mike Ermitage (mermitage)
The unraveled red bow on top of the present requested fixing but I couldn’t oblige. I considered it a minor miracle that the present made it a decade with its neat, fixed bow intact. Even the red streaming curly ribbon under the bow survived albeit lacking most of its original bounce. The once vibrant green paper had turned a pale version of itself and next to the other presents under the tree, it looked severely aged. I could rescue it from its degradation, I thought, by simply doing what my wife wanted me to do ten years ago. And if she were here… well, if only she were here. You never forget the details of the Christmas morning your wife died.
“Hello, Mr. Van der kiln, this is officer Hanritty.”
“I have some bad news for you. Your wife was in a car accident. She, uh, well, she passed Mr. Van der kiln. I’m sorry.”
“She’s at Southwest Community Hospital.”
I hung up the phone without ever speaking a word. In retrospect, I knew something terrible happened to her before that phone rang. She went to the store to pick up another couple bottles of wine but too much time passed. I can think of a million things she could have been doing to hold her up - most of them involving the magazine rack at the grocery store - but I knew. I suppose others can testify that you develop a sixth sense about the people you truly love. Her last words to me were, “Found my keys! Love you.” At least I have that.
The funeral came and went and so did New Year’s. The presents slowly disappeared from under our fake pine until just one present remained surrounded by dozens of fake pine needles. Jenny had opened her present from me the night before because she was never able to wait until Christmas morning. I am stubborn, though, and always insist on opening presents on Christmas day. I nearly opened it immediately craving some connection to Jenny but then I worried it’d be my last connection. So, I saved it. It moved from apartment to apartment and now into my condo. It rested comfortably in a bag inside a box marked Xmas and made its annual appearance along with my sparse few other decorations. It visited attics and garage shelf space as well as apartment storage units. But it did so in style, occupying the safest spot away from all the items that seem to attach themselves to an individual, the crown jewel of the traveling refuse.
Every Christmas, I spend some time with the present, holding it and giving it a light shake. Sometimes, I pour a glass of red wine, extract my favorite pictures of Jenny, and travel back in time right there on my living room floor. This Christmas, however, is different. I am engaged to a wonderful new woman who laughs at my jokes and writes me notes on my foggy car windows. Silly, I know, for two mid-40 year olds to act, but liberating nonetheless. I will be married for a second time and I keep telling myself that this is how life goes. I do have the capacity to love again, I feel, even if that love manifests itself quite differently. My heart doesn’t leap with adoration this time around but instead warms with appreciation. We move into a new house in January and we’ll be sharing a Christmas tree next December. I’m not sure if our Christmas tree should hover above this present. I’m not sure if Jenny has a place there.
My favorite album from our time together is not from our wedding or from our honeymoon. We took a day trip once to a small lake front town completely on a whim. We swam in the lake, barbecued on a makeshift fire, and napped on a hammock. I look at those pictures now and I marvel at how young she looked. I have a favorite picture. Jenny is sitting on the edge of the hammock with her arms outstretched. I can feel her chestnut eyes staring back at me with her long arms seeming to reach out to hug me. Her favorite maroon sweater dotted with bits of fallen leaves.
I take a sip of wine and let it settle on the front of my tongue just as Jenny and I had learned all those years ago at that wine tasting class. I swallow and its bitterness touches my toes.
“Should I open your present to me, Jenny?”
I read the label on the present - To: My Wonderful Husband, From: Jenny!
A solitary tear splashes on the green paper with a whispered splish.
I clumsily tie the bow again and place it back under the tree. Not this Christmas. Not this Christmas.
The winner of the December 2009 Review Fuse Flash Fiction Contest is “Unwrapped” by Mike Ermitage (Review Fuse user mermitage).
All of these authors have given us permission to publish their winning pieces on our blog. We will post first place on Tuesday, second place on Thursday, and third place on Friday.
Thank you all for participating. It was fun to read your entries and hard to pick the winners.
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” — Jack London
How do you balance constructive criticism and the honesty required to give a helpful critique?
I try to always start by telling the author something I liked about their piece. Even when it is horrific, I can generally find at least one good character name or other trivial point to give a positive comment about.
After I have stated at least one positive thing I let the critique flow. A writer can’t improve unless they know their weak spots. Don’t waste time giving a fluffy feel good critique, tell the author what stinks so they can sweeten it up.
In graduate school the professors always said to end a critique on a positive note, but I generally forget to do this and thus far no one seems to care.
How do you balance constructive criticism and the honesty required to give a helpful critique?