Z is for Zoetic

Image source: wallpaperflare.com

An attempt to produce a poem or story from now until the end of April (except Sundays).
The theme for the 2022 A to Z Challenge is the human condition.

I have a photograph I carry around in my purse. The one of my dad on his fiftieth birthday. Mum and I clubbed together to buy him a hot-air balloon ride. In the picture, he is grinning like a kid on Christmas Day. You can see his excitement as he hangs over the side of the basket. His hands are a blur, but his eyes sparkle with two-dimensional joy. The face staring at me now is nothing but a ghost of that man.

“Look, he’s smiling at you!” Nurse Tina announces when she spots me standing in the doorway. She means well, but does she honestly believe that this dribbling wreck is capable of recognising his daughter?

Right from the start, even when my father still had some of his marbles left, her fluffy bunny act grated on the pair of us. She never realised she was dealing with a pair of heartless cynics. Neither of us wept at my mother’s funeral, bereft though we were. The fact my little brother hasn’t spoken to any of us since he left home twenty years ago, we take on the chin. No time for sentimentality; we liked our lives to be real. Nurse Tina, with her uplifting quotes and soft manner, was anathema to my father. So was being treated like a baby.

“Would you like to feed Dad?” she said on that first day, a beaming smile on her face.

“No,” I shrieked, ready to run from the room. My father’s eyes implored me not to assist. He managed a shake of the head. Nurse Tina probably thought it was just a muscle spasm. She pushed a dish of something gooey and pale at me. Invalid food, for my father, the invalid. Once a man of action, dreams and laughter, now reduced to a twisted jumble of limbs. Sitting on his bed, holding his hand and reading the latest Stephen King, no problem, but spooning gloop into his mouth, no way.

“Leave him some dignity,” I said without thinking. “He’s my dad, not my baby son.”

“Lunch will be over in half an hour.” Nurse Tina’s smile faded at my callousness. “Come back then.”

She dismissed me with a curt nod, and I wandered off to the garden, where I smoked a cigarette and resolved to avoid visiting at mealtimes. I would hold Dad’s sippy cup and pop peeled grapes into his mouth, but nothing more personal. We weren’t that kind of family. After a few weeks, he regained some control of his right hand. Now I could help. With Barney propped up next to Dad, all I had to do was cut the food and hand over the fork while Dad fed himself and his grandson with aeroplane and train noises.

Nurse Tina approved. “It gets easier, doesn’t it?” she would say and pat my shoulder. And I would smile back while stealthily wriggling out of her grasp. She was too used to touchy-feely families; bless her! When she told Dad about the room next door and how the wife would feed and toilet her ailing husband. Dad rolled his eyes and mumbled he would rather die.

“You are dying!” I said.

“Behave, or I’ll use your inheritance to pay for a trip to Dignitas.”

“You can’t: I’ve got power of attorney,” I reminded him. “And large fluffy cushions.”

“Do you hear that, Nurse? My daughter’s planning to kill me,” Dad slurred between snorts of laughter. “Don’t you dare try to stop her.”

Tina smiled in the way of one who will never get the joke, but hopes it is one.

Before I left that day, I told her Dad had a dark sense of humour and enjoyed shocking people. Not a total lie, but Nurse Tina relaxed. Although she has never been completely happy around me.

Today, she is wearing her compassionate face because my father is unlikely to last the night. His life force, the vitality that made him my dad, is ebbing away. Even I can see it.

I take my customary seat and clasp my father’s hand in mine. When Nurse Tina squeezes my shoulder, this time I don’t shrug her off, but I reach up and entwine my fingers with hers.

Y is for Youthless

An attempt to produce a poem or story from now until the end of April (except Sundays).
The theme for the 2022 A to Z Challenge is the human condition.

Hello, Mr Small, was that your name?
I guess it doesn’t really matter
Because that’s how I remember you
As the man who damaged me
The man who stole my childhood
Some things are hard to forget
Some things are hard to forgive
How could I?
How could you?

X is for Xeric

An attempt to produce a poem or story from now until the end of April (except Sundays).
The theme for the 2022 A to Z Challenge is the human condition.

Everyone else carries a satchel or a laptop bag, except my son. He is the only fourteen-year-old on this planet who carries a briefcase. It belonged to his mother, but she never used it. Her father bought it for her when she became a fully-fledged accountant. And my wife ditched that career almost before her father was cold in his grave.

When we met, Elise was training to be a chef. When she died this January, our restaurant had a coveted Michelin star and a three-month waiting list for a table. Just because she wasn’t a number cruncher didn’t mean she didn’t know how to use those skills. 

My son still misses his mother, but my daughter is coming through her grief. And only she and I accept the fact Elise isn’t coming back. I confess I still talk to her before I go to bed, and I still wear my wedding band. But life goes on, and I have to rebuild mine and start again. Every day, I force my desiccated heart onwards and upwards. It isn’t easy.

The grandchildren help. I take them to school for Charlotte and my son-in-law and at the end of the day escort them to whatever after-school activity is on the timetable. Ballet, chess club and judo are the current subjects du jour. Then it’s back home for tea with my despondent son.

Maybe it’s the age gap. Charlotte is sixteen years older than Jeremy, or Jez, as he likes to be called. But Charlie has always been self-sufficient when it comes to emotional intelligence. She wept at the funeral, and that was it. She mourns our loss, but to her, the past is the past and her family is the future.

I confess I enjoyed telling Oliver and Ruby my version of what death is, and where you go afterwards. It balances Charlotte’s rather brutal narrative of worms and a state of nothingness. Bless their hearts, but to my grandkids, death is not a thing to be afraid of. It’s what happens to old people. How I adore their unknowing innocence!

It’s only Jez who still struggles with the concept of gone for good. He tried a religious journey from Baptist to Zoroastrianism, but none of these satisfied his need to know what happens next. The idea of eternal life in the kingdom of heaven was a bit too Disney for him. And he couldn’t abide the thought of reincarnation. How dare some celestial being judge his mother and find her wanting? We are all human and all subject to human vices. Or as he said of these divine justices: who died and made them pope?

He tried spiritualism, but that didn’t help because of the tendency of the dead to come back and remind their loved ones to pay outstanding gas bills, and waffle on about how they were doing fine. Jez said it was like being at a party for the terminally boring.

The poor lad is suffering a psychological drought and wandering blind in the desert of misery. I don’t tell him to be brave or strong. I tell him to go with the flow because some days he cries like a baby, and on others he laughs himself into a hernia. And if he wants to crawl under the covers binge-watching Game of Thrones, then so be it. Sometimes I join him.

One thing I tell him, which I know he finds hard to believe, is it gets easier. In time, his pain will lessen, and the grief will be something that he will manage rather than it managing him. And on that day, his life will bloom again.

W is for Wretched

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An attempt to produce a poem or story from now until the end of April (except Sundays).
The theme for the 2022 A to Z Challenge is the human condition.

Every night for a week, he would turn up about twenty minutes before sunset and sit on the bench outside the derelict mansion. He wore jeans, a leather jacket and sunglasses, which didn’t quite cover a scar under his left eye. Who he was and what he was doing here was a mystery.

But the man never spoke to anyone. He just sat in his spot until full dark, and then he would go to the bar and drink one beer. If anyone tried to strike up a conversation, he would smile, shake his head, and look away. No one minded, or to be honest, no one cared. He didn’t cause trouble, and he always left a generous tip under his empty glass.

Xavier wondered if he might be one of the Garcia boys. We laughed at this: the Garcia’s had been gone a long time now. Raoul was in the cemetery with his father, Luis in prison, and Mateo rumoured to be in Canada. But Xavier was adamant.

“Why else would he sit outside their burned-out old house?” he cried. “The next time I go to town, I will call on Mrs Garcia and tell her about the return of her prodigal son.”

“But which one?” I asked him.

“Mateo,” said Xavier, crossing himself. “Luis would not dare show his face, even after all these years. And what judge would give him parole?”

Two days later, Xavier turned up with Mrs Garcia. She wore a bright red dress and a feathered hat. The old women of the village murmured in disgust. Safe in their widows’ weeds, nothing gave them more pleasure than looking askance at any woman who showed such disrespect to her husband. And she no better than she ought to be. How dare she show her painted face and dyed hair in this place? But they bagged the best seats outside the bar to watch the evening’s proceedings.

They even invited Mrs Garcia to join them, but she declined and stood in the shadow of the church. Her mouth moved silently, appeasing the old women with the thought that she was praying. “Although,” they whispered, “all the prayers in heaven won’t save her or her precious boys from hell.”

As the sun began its descent, the man appeared, marching across the meadow from the forest. He went straight to the bench and sat down. Mrs Garcia stared long and hard at him, then she strode across the square. The man took off his sunglasses and pulled a harmonica from his pocket.

He played a song none of us recognised, but Mrs Garcia knew it. She flung back her head with a high-pitched ululation and sang of pain and loss with the mouth organ’s vibrato matching her swooping vocals. When the song finished, there was complete silence.

Mother and son exchanged no words, and neither did they hug or kiss. Eventually, the man turned away, heading towards the road that led to the new bypass. Mrs Garcia signalled to Xavier and walked over to his car. She climbed in, and let him drive her back to the city.

V is for Vacillation

Image source: owlcation.com

An attempt to produce a poem or story from now until the end of April (except Sundays).
The theme for the 2022 A to Z Challenge is the human condition.

“Shades of Robert Johnson,” muttered Jake, stuffing his hands deeper into his pockets. A bitter wind blew across the service station forecourt. He had a choice of taking the northbound or the southbound road. But either way, someone was going to get hurt. Including him.

“When you sup with the devil,” he sighed and leaned against his car. And it would take the devil to sort this mess out. He thought of Maria and how her face would break out in red splotches and her eyes bulge, as if she had a thyroid problem. Maria didn’t cry pretty, her free-flowing snot and wailing revolted him.

Whereas Paula’s tears always moved him. He would take her in his arms and comfort her, the way you would soothe a baby. But that was Paula for you. She brought out the gallantry in him. He wanted to protect her from life. Maria didn’t need protection. Words like hard and resilient were perfect descriptors for her. Maria would take his decision in her stride. Her strength was part of the attraction.

He loved them both, but now he had to make a decision worthy of King Solomon. And if his chosen one said no, would the other always be second best? The one saving grace was neither knew anything about the other. He bet they had their suspicions, but nothing concrete. Because they never met, not with fifty miles of motorway keeping his life neatly compartmentalised. But the new job at head office meant no more tooling up and down the country. Leaving him stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Paula would say yes, she would have no trouble finding a new job in a new city. She was the confident one, the adventurous one. Maria was quieter, or was subtle the right word? Either way, she was more supportive. It was Maria who convinced him to apply for promotion. The promotion that could spell the end for her. Shame there was no way of taking the job and keeping his women.

Greedy, lying, two-timing arsehole! He heard their voices and saw the gentle tears of one and the angry tears of the other. But he still couldn’t decide who he wanted. Love was such a bastard. Like you, echoed Maria and Paula.

And as if on cue, thunder rumbled overhead, and a light pattering of rain began. He drew a fifty-pence piece out of his pocket and flipped it up in the air.

“Heads I go north for Paula and tails south for Maria.” The coin spun and fell to the tarmac with a dull clunk.

Jake looked down.

“Maybe, best of three…”