Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams

Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams: November 2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Poisonous Words

Poisonous words spill easily from her lips, a shattered pitcher of milk weeping upon cold ceramic tile, crawling out along the veined highway of grout lines, soaking in at the weak spots and leaving a permanent mark.
Spilled milk can be wiped away.  Shattered glass can be swept.  But what of her poisonous words?  Does she wish she could gather up those words, as the farmer’s wife gathers her eggs on a bright winter’s morning yet unspoiled by greetings and banalities?  Does she wish she could reel them in, just as the fisherman pulls in his fish at the end of the day? 
Does she wish she would spend her words more carefully?
No.  Seeing poisonous words hit their mark; seeing the pain and the anguish they leave behind; seeing her words soak into the skin, no, into the very soul of a person is much too gratifying.  She enjoys seeing marriages ripped apart; friends fighting friends; children turned against mothers. 
She will spend her words as she pleases.  In the end, she may lose a few friends.   But she considers it a fair enough exchange.
 For this week's
Trifecta Writing Challenge, participants were challenged to write a piece from 33 to 333 words using the third definition of poisonous.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Last Word

The sheets were white cotton.  Practical.  Opal was a practical woman.  And even if she were not—if she instead favored prints or silk or two thousand count Egyptian, circumstances would not have permitted her such luxury.  Nevertheless, the sheets were clean and pressed and carried on them the crisp scent of spring.  She thought of bluebirds and daffodils pushing their shoots up from the warming ground.  She thought of the first mowing of the season.  She thought of her seedlings, unwatered upon the windowsill. 
“Spring is a wonderful time to die.”
Read more »


Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The Priest assures us that the new words are meant to make the Mass more beautiful.  He tells us that the words are inspired by God.  The Priest tells us that we’re not moving back; we’re moving forward.  The priest tells us we should feel happy about these changes.
But the Priest does not know that I feel like a puppet mouthing these words unknown people are telling me to say.  I do not know for certain how long I can continue to act in their performance.  I cannot force my mouth to profess things my mind does not believe.
Do I betray the church by refusing to open my mouth?  Or do I betray myself by opening it and letting the words escape?
This post was written in response to a prompt from Trifecta, in which I was to write a post from 33 to 333 words incorporating the third definition of betray, as found on the Trifecta website.

This post has been linked to Love Links..

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dancing with the Devil

“Damn that wind,” Lilly Jean muttered to herself, slamming the door of her Chevette and then pausing for a moment to make sure the door wouldn’t fall off of the old rattletrap.  “Messing with my hair again.”  Lilly Jean wasn’t used to living at the bottom of a valley.  She didn’t like it.  Didn’t like it at all.  The wind whipped her hair across her face; it made her eyes stream; it made her mascara run.  Lilly Jean didn’t understand how people could enjoy living here: Rather than walking purposefully to their destinations, they were blown there, heads held down against the wind.  The wind gave everyone a rumpled look—like towels left to dry on the clothesline to save a bit on the electric bill.  The wind drew squint lines on every face and the skin of the residents of this valley was ruddy and pocked.  Or perhaps it was just the harshness of their lives that decorated their skin that way.  No.  Lilly Jean shook her head.  If that were the case, her skin would be as ruddy as the rest of them, despite the moisturizer she slathered on every night before bed.  Watching her one night, Daddy Sheriff complained about the cost of her moisturizer.  Told her he was saving up for a new truck and couldn’t she use something more cost-effective?  She caught his eye in the mirror.  Held it there.  “You certainly wasn’t complaining about my moisturizer when you first met me.  Your skin is so soft, baby.”  Daddy Sheriff had the decency to blush then.  “’Sides, it ain’t as if you’re shellin’ out the cash for my creams.  I’m paying for it my own self, just the way I always have done.”  And just to spite him, she applied an extra generous amount of moisturizer to her neck.
Read more »

Labels: ,

Friday, November 18, 2011

Keeping the Bees

In the space between alfalfa fields, my dad kept a couple of bee hives.  I remember putting on a beekeeper’s mask and standing well back, watching him smoke the hive to lull the bees into a quiet.  I remember cautiously lifting the lid of the hive, my father close at hand, and peering at the world inside.  I remember my dad pulling out frames and cutting away the honey comb.  He’d slice the comb into small squares and put the honey—still on the comb—into Mason jars.  “You have to leave some for the bees, to get them through the winter,” my dad would say, refitting the lid back onto the hive. 
My dad, too, had on his shelf a book called The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture by A.I. Root.  I remember running my hand across its dark nubby cover.  I remember reading that book and promising myself that one day, I, too, would keep bees.
Read more »

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


In the middle of Mass, Squints leaned towards me and whispered.  “Mom, what’s Black Friday?”

I leaned back.  Whispered bullet points.  “Day after Thanksgiving.  Everything goes on sale.”
He chewed on this for awhile before asking,“Is that a Holy Day?”

 I turned towards him.  “Where would you get that idea?”

“Well, at the stores, there are signs on the windows for Christmas and Black Friday so I…”

“It’s not a Holy Day.”
The day after Thanksgiving, we will not hold a vigil outside the store, waiting for gleaming doors to glide open and admit us.   No, we will spend the day after Thanksgiving in our usual manner.  The day after Thanksgiving, we will dip caramels.

My sister has already prepared several batches of caramel: melting copious amounts of sugar and stirring in ingredients I’m not allowed to reveal here.  As I write this, the caramel waits in rectangular baking dishes for warm hands to soften it and remove it from the pan.  The caramel waits for warm hands to shape it into bite-sized pieces.  The caramel waits for its thick shell of chocolate.
We’ve fallen into a pattern: Three or four of us will shape the caramels; Two or three will dip.  A runner will take cookie sheets full of glistening caramels to the dining room to cool and harden.

Cousins, together again at last, will talk and laugh and catch up.  Occasionally, a younger cousin will be recruited to grab a handful of caramels from the dining room and pass them around.  Orthodontist recommendations will be ignored. 
We will work for several hours in this way, dipping and talking and sampling a caramel or two.  When the caramel is gone, we will move on to peanut clusters.  And sometime after noon, my sister will begin cooking the several hundred pierogi (another secret family recipe) she also made in the weeks before Caramel Day.  For the second day in a row, we will overeat, stuffing ourselves with brats and pierogi and caramel, of course.

No, Squints, Black Friday is not a Holy Day.  But Caramel Day is sacred.  We shape our lives around around this day. 
After lunch, we will clean up and pack up the candy and head home to hide the candy from our children.  Because that candy will become Christmas gifts.  Teachers receive candy.  Neighbors receive candy.  Relatives and friends receive that candy.  In late October, past recipients of this treasure begin making their inquiries: “Are you making candy this year?”  People have come to expect it.  And if their box is a bit smaller than last year’s, they will not hesitate to let you know.  That candy has become legendary. 

I do not give it away lightly.
* * *

After Mass, we ate breakfast, and, on this day of rest, Squints and my husband set out to rake leaves.  

An hour later, Squints came in.  “Whew, I’m beat.”  He took out a saucepan and measured out milk.  “Seven bags, Mom.  Well, really only six because we had to fill one twice.  The wind blew it over and everything spilled out.”  He turned on the gas and added cocoa power and too much sugar to the milk.  He stirred.
The woman who lives behind us emerged, rake in hand.  She raked for a few minutes then lifted a small handful of leaves into the bag. 

Squints added his secret ingredient—peppermint sprinkles—to his cocoa.
The woman’s bag blew over.

“Squints,” I said, watching him take a taste of his cocoa and smacking his lips.  “Look there.”  I pointed.   “Wouldn’t it be nice to go help her rake leaves?”
He looked at me.  Frowned.  “I just…”

“Who knows?  Maybe you’ll land a lawn service job.”
He set the spoon down.  “You think she’d pay me?”

“I’ll keep an eye on your cocoa.”

“Don’t expect any money.”
"I won't.  He shrugged his coat back on and headed outside.  I watched him approach, rake in hand.  I watched her pause, rake poised above the leaves.  I could hear Squint’s voice in my head.  Want some help?

I watched a smile blossom across her face.  I watched my son raking leaves for a woman he’d never met.  I watched two people, separated by half a century come together in a trivial task.  I wondered why it had taken me seven years to figure this out.
Forty-five minutes later, Squints came home, grinning from ear to ear.  “She was so happy, Mom!  You should’ve seen her.”  He raised his voice a notch.  “I never thought I’d get three bags filled today!  I’m so pleased!  And look…”  Squints fished around in his pocket and withdrew a folded bill.  “She paid me!”  He poured out his cocoa and sat down to drink it.

“I told her about Destructo.”  He paused, looking out the window.  “She’s a cat person.  She’s been feeding those wild cats.  They live beneath her porch.”
I nodded.

“She told me she’d ring my doorbell the next time she needed help.”  He dipped his spoon into his cocoa.  “She’s really nice, Mom.  And she seems lonely.  I think we should have her over for dinner.”
I paused.  I wanted to help a neighbor, but dinner?  “Well, at least we can make her a box of caramels.”

“Oh, yeah.  I told her all about that.  She’s expecting some this year.”  He patted his pocket to make sure his money was still there and finished his cocoa in silence.

For more about Caramel Day...
This post has been linked to Love Links
Read more »

Labels: , , ,

Monday, November 14, 2011

Walls of Ivory

 “It’s pretty up here.”  Caroline ran a finger along the inside wall of the ivory tower in which she stood.   She looked out the tiny window at the people on the sidewalk. 

“They look small down there, don’t they?”  Derrick sneered.  “Small and insignificant.”
“You would too, from sixty feet up.”  Caroline crossed the room and picked up a book from the stack on his desk.  “How did you come to be here, anyway?” 
Read more »

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Goodbye, Friend

In the end, Destructo lived up to his name.

Every day, he tried to get into the trash to find something to satisfy his insatiable hunger.  He tore up the  basement carpeting.  He chased the cats.  He pulled the blankets from Squints’ bed to cover himself.  He tore holes in clothing.  He destroyed the acorn tree I’d grown from seed.
But we forgave him.  He was just a pup, after all.

And I say lived here, because this morning, Destructo was killed.  Correction: my husband and I had him killed.  Put to sleep.  Put down. 

Read more »

Labels: , ,

Friday, November 11, 2011

Unseeing Eyes


A train blasts its horn and charges through the station without pause.  Moments later, another train of sorts—two engines connected back to back—leisures its way in.  A man outside the lead engine leans against the headlights, basking in the honeyed sunshine slanting through a cloudless sky.  He wears a thin jacket and a black knit cap that leaves his ears exposed.  His left hand in his pocket, his right hand is raised in a greeting to the passengers waiting on the platform.  His happiness is contagious: I lift my hand to shield my eyes against the sun and hope that I, too, am blessed by a wave and a smile from this stranger.
Read more »

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cowboy Coffee

Well, our coffee maker has officially died.  One morning, about eight weeks ago, it refused to draw up water into the filter basket.  A tap to the back of the machine solved that problem.  Then the power switch blew.  It went slowly, briefly glowing red when switched on before winking back out.  But the machine still worked: We just had make doubly sure it was turned off at night.  We’ve been limping along this way for several weeks, the prospect of our morning coffee always dubious, and at 6:00 in the morning with still no heat (my repair man forgot to order the part), having doubts about your coffee is troublesome.

Read more »

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Well, we took our kitchen table to the basement to make a study area for the kids.  Hopefully, this will help to keep the house a bit neater: Rather than stacking backpacks all over the house, the kids will take them downstairs.  But this absence of the table leaves a surprising emptiness in the kitchen.  It makes it look as if we’ve just moved into the house or are in the process of leaving it.  So we take our meals in the dining room at the table my grandmother gave my husband and me for a wedding gift.

“We need a new table,” my husband said as he banged his head on the kitchen light yesterday.

I wanted to buy a table made locally; a table made by people who live close to me; by people who take pride in their work; by people who take a product from start to finish.  But we didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars.
Read more »

Labels: , , ,

Friday, November 4, 2011


Well, I’m in the process of putting everything back in order in the basement now that the tile is in.  I’m organizing and giving things away—lessening the load the shelves must hold.  Pens and crayons and paints and paint brushes—all in their proper spot.  Notebooks half full of paper have been recycled.   Toys the kids have outgrown have been given away.  Old books, too.  And it’s a liberating feeling, this giving away of things; this lightening of the baggage we carry.

Read more »

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Company of Strangers

Summer is still such a recent memory, I’d forgotten what it feels like to be cold.  But we’ve had no heat for over a week and I suddenly remember.  I wear double pairs of socks and shirts.  I wear a scarf and a hat and gloves in the house.  I’ve become like our fat orange cat who moves from window to window searching for a patch of sunlight slanting in through the window.  The tea grows cold in my mug before I’ve finished it and at night, the dogs pull the blankets from our beds and lie beneath, curled up into tight little balls of fur. 
* * *
Squints was in a cooking contest the other day.  Four groups of people received an identical basket of food and cooked it according to their time period:  The 1940s group used camp stoves.  The Revolutionary group cooked over an open fire. 

Visitors had to pay an entrance fee and, for an additional sum of money, could purchase one of a very limited supply of orange wrist bands that entitled the wearer to taste small samples of the food.  There were tiny Dixie cups, dessert-sized paper plates and a handful of plastic forks and spoons set out for that purpose.
The weather was cold and raw.  Besides my family—we were more or less obliged to be there—only one man showed up.  He wore a green down vest and a checked shirt and baggy blue jeans and boots.  His orange wristband was displayed prominently.  But nobody checked for it anyway.

Our money refused, we were invited to eat.  The small, limited samples of food became enormous.  Instead of a teaspoonful of chicken soup and half of a Brussels sprout, we ate the equivalent of two meals there, moving from century to century with abandon, tasting a bit of chicken cooked in a reflecting oven and moving on to chicken and dumplings.  We tasted squash and scalloped potatoes and Johnny cakes and biscuits.  We ate cabbage with sausage and apples; we ate eggs and sausage; we ate an apple and onion tart.
Besides their obvious love of cooking, historical cooks love to talk: They want to educate the public; they want to talk about the methods historical cooks used.  Food historians like to connect the past to the present.  Most of all they like to connect to people.  Having no one else with whom to talk, they talked to us: Staffers talked to us about the weather and the history of the place; a husband of a staffer, dragged along to help, talked to us about sports; a tag-along husband of a woman from the 1600s plopped down in the folding chair next to my husband and talked about trying to sell his house and moving to Kentucky, absently scratching his knee beneath his woolen pants.

In that room heated only by cooking fires, we ate the food of strangers and listened to the cooks exchanging ideas.  We learned how a turkey feather makes a superior baster; We learned how to make a whisk from twigs; We learned how to tell the temperature of roasted chicken by touch; We learned how to cook rice inside a pumpkin. 
The caretaker came from his apartment with his own plate—a large wooden plate—upon which he heaped chicken and sausage and potatoes.  A cat jumped into my lap and started knitting.  “That there’s Albert,” the caretaker said.  “Just showed up one day.  He’s real friendly.  Not like Yellow Cat.”  He put a piece of chicken in his mouth.  “Yellow Cat’s been here two years and still won’t let me get near him.”

Someone set a plate of chicken on the floor.  Albert jumped from my lap and began eating. 
“We got a cat needs adopted out—a drop off,” the caretaker said.

 “We have a cat,” I said.
“Tried to take him to the shelter, but he’s just a little bit of a thing.  They told me that at his size, they take ‘em in the front door and haul ‘em out the back.”  He shook his head.  “I’d hate to see that happen.  He walked to the door and paused there.  “Wanna’ see him?” 

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to see him.”
“Cat likes to sleep on yer head,” the caretaker said.  “Keeps me warm all night.”

Perhaps it was the thought of warmth that made us do it: We took him home. 
* * *

We’re having tile installed in the basement this week.  We had to remove everything and bring it upstairs.  It’s disheartening to see how much stuff we’ve accumulated.  It’s embarrassing, seeing it stacked up around the perimeter of each room.  We’ve reacquainted ourselves with things we’d forgotten.  We’ve made plans to get rid of things we don’t need. 
The tile guys showed up and I led them the basement.  I split up the animals: One dog is relegated to the garage; another to a cage.  There’s a cat locked in one bedroom; the second in another.  The hamster, displaced from the basement, is now in the dining room, running a hundred miles to nowhere on his wheel. 

I apologize to the tile guys for the lack of heat.  I show them the bathroom and offer coffee, which they refuse.   
They prop open the screen door and leave the front door open, which I keep shutting when I know they’re done cutting tile for a while, not to be rude but because there’s a chill in the air and a wild cat with her four kittens roaming the neighborhood.

I do not speak the language of these men.  I wonder, listening to their easy laughter, their chatter, their occasional singing along to the radio they blast in the basement, what they’re talking about.  Yet, I cannot bridge the gap that divides us.

I feel I’m in their way.  I hide off in a corner, try to be unobtrusive.  For the moment, this house is theirs.    I take my lunch in the dining room so they do not see me eat.  They eat their lunch in the van, the ignition turned on for the radio and the heat.

I look forward to having my house quiet and in order again.  But even more so, I look forward to the heat.  Because a little patch of sunlight in the window is only so warm, and eventually, it disappears. 

Besides, the cats have already taken the best spots.

Labels: , , , ,