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

Image source: beaherosaveahero.org

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…”

U is for Ugly

Image source: theage.com.au

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.

We watched the hippos or river horses (as Swinging Cindy from Vermont insisted we call them) lolling in the shallows of the Zambezi. But our boat steamed past without so much as a waggle of their ears. How cool those beasts looked compared to us, bobbing along in our floating tin hotpot, crammed with what appeared to be a representative from each of America’s states. And like you, our fellow tourists gazed at the scenery with bucolic indifference.

Except for grumpy Ohio Edgar who, dabbing his face with a crumpled handkerchief, declared hippopotamuses about as interesting as earthworms. This prompted Leonard the Arizona Kid, he of the thick-lensed glasses, to wax lyrical over the endless fun he had with his wormery. Never did such a harmless-sounding hobby sound so abnormal. His furtive leer and the hitching laugh told me of long pink strings dropped down the fronts of pretty gingham dresses.

You whispered something in my ear, but I didn’t catch it. And we descended into the call-and-response routine that passes for conversation these days. After the fourth or fifth round of what? followed by it doesn’t matter! I realised you were saying something rude about Edgar. If I were the target, you’d have bellowed it out at the top of your voice.

My giggles started when I realised how ridiculous we had become. And as your face morphed into its customary moue of disappointment, my laughter became unstoppable. When I began choking, you flapped your hands and made tutting noises, a picture of outraged embarrassment. In the end, the old lady from Hawaii came to my rescue. She gave me a carton of warm orange juice, which, like her breath, hands and clothes, stank of onions.

You ushered me to the back of the boat. Stern I heard your correction in my head. There you ignored me and pretended to be fascinated by Kendra from Kentucky and her theories about the true parentage of Jim Carrey. And gender. According to Kendra, Jemima Carrey was the love child of Marilyn and JFK. Or maybe it was Elvis.

I didn’t care, and I’d had enough. Were there no ordinary people on this trip? People who didn’t sweat constantly or smell of food they hadn’t eaten?

Our second honeymoon was turning into a disagreeable nightmare. I’m glad I can say, hand on heart, that I enjoyed our first. And I had high hopes for this one. Until I overheard you telling the Kentuckian Klutz that this trip was your idea and you had to bully me into going.

How bloody dare you? You were the one disappointed in life. The one with next to no interest in the concept of togetherness. You were the one who didn’t want to come.

I was on the wrong continent, but all I wanted was to grab a tiger by the tail and beat the old farts, the little tykes and, most of all, you to death with it.

T is for Therapy

Image source: whyy.org

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.

Eighteen years of my life are gone, just like that.

How could you do this to me?

I was always there for you. Through the tax evasion, the bank robbery, and even the murder, I stood by you and defended you from your critics.

People said you were no good for me, and I should stop seeing you, but I couldn’t. You fascinated and beguiled me, and I loved you with all my heart.

Now, you’re gone, and I am bereft. But not alone. There must be other people experiencing this same pain. Maybe, I can find an online support group…