Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams

Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams: January 2012

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


In honor of his promotion, Lena had made a celebratory dinner.  Robert didn’t have the heart to tell her he’d been fired that morning.  The seven of them sat around the dining room table in silence.  Robert preferred silence.  It was his thinking time, his time to plan for the morrow.  The squawking of the children distracted him, and he wasn’t interested in Lena’s trifling concerns over curtains or immunizations or making arrangements for boarding the slobbering dog.

Lena handed him the gravy boat.  He made a well in his mashed potatoes with the silver ladle, a wedding gift from a distant relative.  He returned the gravy to Lena who handed it to the eldest child.  The silence was punctuated by clattering silverware and the occasional murmured requests for potatoes or broccoli or bread.
Robert ate around the edges of his potatoes, careful not to make a break in the wall.  He didn’t like the gravy glopping all over his plate, mixing with the applesauce and the carrots.  He chuckled.  His boss had just told him this morning he was too risk-averse. 


He’d asked them to call him that.  A stupid request.

He looked up.  They’d paused, expectant, forks mid-air.   “What?”

“You laughed, just then.  You broke the silence.”  It was the fourth child. The brave child.  Phillip.  Robert glanced at the child’s plate.  “You eat potatoes the same way I do.”  Robert realized that he was looking at an image of himself, in miniature.   The child resembled him in every way, except for his courage.

“Are you feeling all right, Robert?”  Lena pressed a cool hand to his forehead. 

He brushed it away.

He wondered  idly whether Phillip would grow up to become Robert; whether he, too, would be so involved with his career that he wouldn’t notice himself reflected in his children seated round him at the dinner table. 
He dragged his fork across his potatoes.  Again he broke the silence.  “Who’s up for a game of catch after dinner?” 

This post was written in response to the Trifecta Writing Challenge.  The word was image.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Driving Lessons

A sunny day. High forties. Fluffy white clouds streaked across the sky.

A man stands outside with his young daughters. There are two bikes out in the driveway: A two-wheeler with training wheels. And one of those newfangled bikes, bright red seat a couple of inches off the ground. Pedals in front. A giant red handle in the back so that the child can be pushed along the sidewalk.

* * *

“Watch the curb! Watch the curb!”

Filbuster gets too close and scrapes the front tire on concrete.
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Saturday, January 28, 2012

If There were Dreams

“Hey, Howie!” 

 Howard jumped.  Now that Daddy Sheriff had taken off to go hunting, he’d grown accustomed to the silences of the house.  He liked the quiet, after a day of noise at the farm and the diner.  But Lilly Jean had a way of letting the entire world know when she was entering a room.  Lilly Jean Jacobs’s goal in life, Howard suspected, was to get noticed. 

Whatcha’ reading?” 

Howard closed the book, keeping his thumb inside to mark his place.  He showed Lilly Jean the cover.

“Steven Hawking?  You understand that?”

Howard grinned.  Nodded. 

“You’re shittin’ me.”
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Love Story in 33 Words

They met in June.

They fell in love.

But there were spouses; children; careers.

With shattered hearts, they held their families together.

Sundays, they smiled wistfully at each other from across the room.

This piece was written in response to The Trifecta Writing Challenge: Write a love story in exactly 33 words.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012


It was the Boy who conceived me.  He sat at a squat table swinging his legs, the laces of both shoes dangling.  His tongue stuck out at the right corner of his mouth. 

I started life as a piece of orange construction paper pressed up tightly against the other colors in the pack—green and pink and yellow and blue.  The teacher opened the pack and fanned us out upon the table.  The Boy chose me.  The Boy changed me.

The Boy cut me into what you humans call a heart.  Coated me thickly in glue.  And then, he covered me with a white paper doily and rubbed at it with his thumb to smooth out the glue.

“Mommy will love this,” he told me as he affixed two eyes crookedly to me.  The boy filled me with purpose and intent and slowly, I began to take shape.
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Monday, January 23, 2012

The Beast

Annie once said that babies grew on trees.  Told me I sprouted from a pink blossom in the apple orchard over yonder hill.  Told me she watched me grow fat and red before plucking me from the branch to bring me home.
Jonathan once told me that babies came from potatoes.  “Cut one into pieces and you got babies.  Just be sure an’ plant ‘em with their eyes looking towards the sky.  The life is in their eyes, Ellie.”
 Bitsy said that Annie and Jonathan were full of shit; said a girl oughta’ know her birds from her bees.   But I took their meaning:  Life surrounds me on the farm.
Besides, I’d known early enough where babies came from: Seems every day my mother told me babies came from mistakes. 
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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Anything But Science Fiction

Howard put the broom into the shed at the back of the diner and tossed the bag of leaves into the dumpster before heading for the IGA.  What the hell was Bitsy thinking, sending a man down to the store to buy plants?  Couldn’t she have sent Ellie?  Or did Bitsy believe, like many of the residents of Medford, that he’d gone soft in the head?  Howard frowned at the thought.  Just because a man didn’t talk didn’t make him stupid.  Bitsy of all people ought to have understood that. 
Inside the Laundromat, one of the Ransom boys stuck a finger into the coin door of the pay phone, looking for change.  His brother stuck a hanger inside the cigarette machine and worked it around furiously.  Their father Travis sat on the washing machine, looking exhausted and defeated.  Raising those boys would take the life out of anyone, Howard thought. 
Travis raised a hand in greeting, which Howard returned.   Many times Travis had sat beside Howard at the breakfast bar, chewing on tobacco and jawing about the difficulty of raising boys without a mother.  “Count yerself lucky, Howard Heacock,” Travis would always say, shaking his head.  But Howard would have given his eyeteeth for children of his own, even if they were like the Travis boys.
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Saturday, January 21, 2012


Darkness settles around me.  The snow falls heavy and cold.  I long for the white blanket Grandmother knitted years ago.  People pass: people in fast cars coming home from work and heading into warm kitchens and soup bubbling upon the stove; people walking dogs that pause and sniff at me and occasionally even lift their legs.  Occasionally someone slows and glances at me. 

Mostly, I am ignored.

I am thin.  I am faded.  I am dull. 
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Hands Slipping Apart

On a particularly cold day last week, Squints and I went for a walk.  He didn’t bother with gloves.  And his baseball hat did little to protect him from the wind that bit at his ears.  He hunched into himself, balled up his hands and drew them into the sleeves of his coat.  “It’s cold, Mom.” 

I took his left hand in my right.  Rubbed the back of it with my gloved thumb to warm him a bit.

And we along walked in silence, hand in hand.
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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Depths of Winter

Lilly Cecilio takes her books to the checkout desk.  The librarian looks at her for a moment.  “I can help you here, Mrs. DeGrassi.”

Lilly frowns.  “Ellen, I was here first.”
The librarian takes Mrs. DeGrassi’s books and begins scanning them.  “Going to be a cold one tonight.  Record lows and a foot of snow at least.”

“Ellen,” Lilly said.  “I run your book sale every year.”
The librarian slides the books to Mrs. DeGrassi.   “I can help you, Mrs. DePaul.” 

 Everywhere she goes, Lilly meets with the same.  The pharmacist turns her back on her.  The salon owner spits on her shoes.   And a woman Lilly doesn’t know approaches her on the sidewalk.  “My boys’ education is in that fancy house of yours.”
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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Holey Yoga

I tell myself, when I need to put a positive spin on things, that I take pride in the worn clothing my husband and I routinely wear.  The holes in the knees of our jeans; the wear around the necklines that no needle and thread could ever hope to repair; the sad, frayed sweaters—all are symbols: We are Frugal.  We are Salt of the Earth.  We Use Things Up. 

I tell myself we’re not Poor.  We’re not Cheap.    We’re not Waiting to Lose Weight before buying new clothes.  No, this fable of mine goes, we’re Putting Money By for college and retirement.

But this month, we had just enough leftover cash to pay for six weeks of yoga classes for my daughters and me. 

Because yoga’s good for when you’re thinking about college expenses and how to pay them.
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“It’s cold.”  Will’s words emerged from his mouth upon lazy clouds and hung in the crisp air.  He stamped his feet on the porch of his fiancée’s family cabin and blew into gloved hands.

“There’s a trail through the woods.”  Marie pointed to a tree-lined path lit by the full moon and hundreds of stars pricking through the sky.  “It’s beautiful after a snowfall.” 

The snow was thickly crusted.   It crunched and squeaked beneath their feet.  Every step they took hovered on the seemingly solid surface of the snow before crunching through.

Marie fell through up to her knees.  She hauled herself back up, laughing. 

“Walk in my boot prints,” Will said.

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Monday, January 16, 2012


Cameras were outlawed when the Transition Time came.  Cell phones, too.  Computers.  Even the ancient things: iPods and iPads.  Blackberries.  Nooks.  Kindles. 

The government no longer trusted its citizens with technology.  Officials went door to door in blood-red uniforms, tearing apart houses, gathering up digital devices and taking them away in great boxes.    

They took everything. 

And the people no longer knew what to do with themselves.
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Friday, January 13, 2012

Ordered Lives

Well it’s midterm week in our neck of the woods.  Every day after I pick them up from school, my daughters begin studying for the next day.  One daughter goes to the basement and reads aloud until well after two in the morning.  The other one types frantically on her computer, trying to outline two quarters of work in an effort to remember all she has learned.  They’re stressed and grumpy beyond belief.

Squints decides this is the week he’ll cook: pad tai and Japanese fried chicken and wonton noodles stuffed and deep fried.
My husband’s been in London for a week.  He calls when he can, tries to diffuse the stress long distance; reassures the girls that they’ll do fine; everything will be fine; tells Squints he’s sorry he missed his dinner again.
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Masked Men

Let us take off our masks, you and I. 

Let us dance with abandon.  Let us laugh too loudly.  Let us cry if we need to.

Let us speak from the heart.  Let us say what we mean.  Let us learn to listen.

Let us not worry about the judgments of others, who may point and stare, and, God forbid, laugh. 

Let us stand boldly before the world, newly hatched chicks blinking into the brilliant sunshine. 

Let us act like children 

Let us allow ourselves to be seen.

Let us throw down our masks, you and I. 

You go first.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012


She sits alone in the Reading Center, feigning interest in a thick paperback book.  She shoves up her glasses.  Scratches at her knee.  Listens to the girls around her.

The pretty girls, the girls with the flouncy dresses, the girls who hand her empty envelopes to get around the rule: Party invitations distributed on school premises must be extended to all classmates.

The teacher rings her silver bell.  “Time to clean up, Third Grade.”  The centers disperse.  It’s recess time.

She places herself at the end of the line.
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Sunday, January 8, 2012

No Map and No Directions

Robert Hayes stared out the window listening his partner tell the new admin some lame joke; listening to her laughter, bright and thin and so utterly expected.  Part of the requirements of the job, he supposed.  Nothing like the laughter of his mother. 

He smiled and took a sip of his tea, thin and green and disgusting.  Celeste had forced him to abandon coffee.  And meat.  And dairy products.  He wondered what his wife—in ever pursuit of eternal life—would press him to give up next.  What would be the next thing to drop out of his life completely?

If he were to examine the facts—and that was his job, wasn’t it?  To sort through the facts and find some Truth within them?—he would have to admit the fault was his.  He had allowed it to happen.  Had started it, actually; had set things in motion all those years ago. 

He put his mind in reverse, reeling backwards a single frame at a time, each important moment a snapshot in his memory: The purchase of the Lower East brownstone.  His Columbia degrees—three in all.  His move to New York.  His mother, the day of his high school graduation, pushing him out the door towards town.  “Go, Bobby Joe,” she said.  “Go and make something of yourself.  Go and make me proud.”
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Friday, January 6, 2012

Reconciling Socks

I washed the sheets with the darks today.  They were my son’s sheets—stark white flannel, with little raised footballs you can trace with your fingertip.  I imagine my son, the many nights he has trouble falling asleep, rubbing his finger back and forth, back and forth, along a football, imagining himself the winning quarterback of Super Bowl LIV—or maybe a star receiver, catching the ball and running into the end zone. 
We were running behind this morning.  I stayed up late last night reading a novel, telling myself, just one more chapter, as I turned the pages well past midnight.  I stuffed the sheets into the washing machine as my son got his Spiderman backpack ready for preschool, tucking a picture of his letter of the day—S for shutters—neatly in the side pocket, making sure he had his asthma inhalers and the picture he’d drawn for a friend.
The washing machine was only half full.  I looked at the laundry basket, overflowing with darks: inside out jeans, balled up socks, wet towels.  I could save a load if I combined them.  I shrugged, jammed them in and slammed the door shut, before they could escape. 
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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Five Hundred Miles...

This morning, I woke to eight degree temperatures and severe wind chills.  Despite the fact that the furnace seems to have been running non-stop, the house never seems to get warm.  Cold air snakes in around leaky windows and through outlets and beneath the doors.  There is a demanding meow at the front door: Outside Cat asks to be let back into the garage. 

The dryer is running.  Great blasts of steamy air billow and swirl outside beneath the vent.  It’s a good day for soup; steamy soup gently simmering on the stove, small bubbles breaking the surface, filling the kitchen with heat and the aroma of chicken and sausage and ham and spices; soup thick with potatoes and onions and carrots and tomatoes.  The dog sits close at hand, watching hopefully for scraps.  Orange Cat lies in a patch of sunshine on the back of the couch.  He will remain there all day until thirst or hunger call to him.

And yet, I must leave, if only for awhile.   I go to the garage and get my tennis shoes.  Outside Cat tries to slip in between my legs, but I’m too fast for him.  I scoot him back outside and sit at the kitchen table to inspect the inside of my shoes.  Outside Cat has taken to messing in the garage, perhaps in retribution for his banishment from the house.  I suspect someone’s shoes are under attack. 
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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cutting Words

Henry felt his lip curl into a sneer.  His wife had styled her hair so carefully.  Applied her makeup perfectly.  “You look like shit, Joan.” 

Her face crumpled in upon itself, reminding Henry of his toothless coal miner grandfather, the grandfather he'd tried to forget.

Satisfied, Henry smiled and returned to his meatloaf.  His words, he knew, were magical.  With one word, he could discourage his wife.  With an entire sentence, he could strike her down and keep her there for the rest of the day.

She shoved aside her dinner and looked him square in the eye.  She lifted her chin.  Crossed her arms.  “I’m quitting you.”
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Residual Anger

“You cannot mean to raise a child here.”  Patty’s mother took a sip of her wine and grimaced before swallowing hard.

“Why not?”  That wine was expensive—for Patty.

“It’s just not a…” her mother looked around the apartment.  “…safe environment.  Or particularly clean.  Are you certain there are no bedbugs?” 

“It’s fine.  For now.  Until I can get…”

“Get me a knife, Rose.  This roast is a brick.”
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Monday, January 2, 2012

Don't Ever...

Behind the counter, Billie-Jo stocks candy, setting bars of Snickers and bags of M&Ms neatly behind plate glass.  Billie-Jo smiles to herself:  She likes to impose order on things.  An ordered life is a safe life. 

She hears the tell-tale ding and looks up to see a car pull into the station.  She shields her eyes and squints.  It’s an unfamiliar car; a rusted-out car; a car is full of dents and dings, certain proof of the uncertainties of life.  She tucks a final candy bar into place before heading outside.

The driver—a boy no older than nineteen—has rolled down his window.  He nods in time to his loud music. 
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Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Day

My husband and I are surprised to see the crowds at the park this morning.  A group of runners has gathered near the fire pit, stretching and blowing on their fingers.  Someone stands on a picnic bench shouting out directions while another person breaks thin sticks across his knee before feeding them to the fire.  Someone holds a silver banner—Happy New Year!—and ponders where to hang it.

We cross the dam and, for a change, head left and up the hill.  A squirrel nags from his nest at the top of a tree.  Another sits on a branch, teeth scraping against the acorn held in his tiny paws.  Sparrows and chickadees flit among the brush lining the paved path. 

People walk without coats.  Some jog by in shorts.  Couples walk their dogs or talk on cell phones.  Some  smile broadly and wish us good morning.  And some, perhaps weary from the festivities, look tired and grumpy.

And at home, after ten days of being together, we’re a bit grumpy, too.  Our days have lost their definition.  The sharp edges of rules and expectations softened and eventually fell away altogether.  Our routine is lost and we crave it again.  We crave schedules and busyness and to-do lists around which to arrange our lives.
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