Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams

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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


“It’s a cook’s instinct, Mom,” Squints explained, sprinkling a pinch of sugar over his pizza sauce.  “Kind of like a Jedi fighter going after Darth Vader.”  It was this same cook’s instinct that led him to add vinegar to his homemade ranch dressing last night. 

“That’s going to taste funny,” I told him. “The vinegar is going to separate the fat in the buttermilk.” 

Of course I was wrong.  The dressing was delicious.

But I noticed that Squints’ cook’s instinct failed him on the second night of our pizza bakeoff: His instinct didn’t tell him that that night he would blow up the pizza stone in my oven.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Baseball Gardens

The holidays are over.  The Superbowl has come and gone.  That mountain of snow in the parking lot of Home Depot is a pile of black sludge.  A thin layer of salt perpetually frosts the cars; the roads; even, occasionally, my best pair of black slacks.  The house is cold.  My feet are cold.  Winter, it seems, has lost its sheen.

“Pitchers and catchers reported the other day,” my husband says hopefully, pulling away the curtain and frowning at the gray sky.  I nod and return my attention to the UPS truck pulling up outside our house.  I open the front door.  The driver goes to the side of his truck, grabs a huge box and skates his way up our icy sidewalk to present me with…

“Whatcha’ got there?”  My husband points at the box.
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Monday, February 27, 2012


A change in the weather; a exchange of winter’s icy teeth for the gentle caress of spring.  The wind will coax the ice from the ground and chase it to the clouds.  Spring will bring rain.

His home is damp; the walls streaked with water.  Today he will shed his home; trade it in for a new one as easily as a hermit crab exchanges shells.

He drags the box to the dumpster behind the Giant Eagle and throws it in.  He spies a bunch of bananas, brown in spots, but edible.  He smiles: Breakfast is served.

Three months into this experiment, he’s not sure how long he can continue.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dog Days

 Momma burst into my bedroom, an accusing look on her face.  “Billy, you take Brutus out yet?” 


“Billy, when we got that dog, you promised me you was gonna’ take care of him.”  Momma began enumerating my sins upon her fingertips.  “You was gonna’ feed him.  You was gonna’ walk him.  You was gonna’ pick up his doo from the yard.” 

I rolled onto my stomach; returned to my video game.

“You mark my words, child.  You gonna’ come back as a dog in your next life.  Then you'll see what it's like.”

“Catholics don’t believe in reincarnation, Momma.  You’re going to go to hell.”

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Fenced In

It’s a beautiful, cloudless day.  The temperature is in the high forties and is expected to be in the fifties all next week.  My husband made his annual trek to the garage attic this morning, handing down posts and fencing and plastic containers.  This afternoon, after the sun begins to warm the back yard, Squints and I decide to put the garden fence up.

In this high-brow neighborhood, it’s a low-brow affair: Ugly metal fence secured with white twine to green posts hammered into the ground every three feet or so.  And I keep telling myself, as I do every year, I want to grow more; I want to do more; I want to have more land. 
I pause in my hammering and watch Squints tying the fence to a post.  Outside Cat pounces at the fence and grabs at the twine.  Squints laughs and cuts a new piece of twine.  “You’re not going to get over this fence, Cat,” he says.  “No more messing in the garden.”  He pauses.  “Hey, Mom?”

“Think I have any strawberries yet?”
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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pizza Cookoff

“Listen to this recipe, Squints,” I said.  “No-knead pizza dough that keeps in the fridge for days.  Tastes like sourdough.”  I began reading from the recipe printed in my Mother Earth magazine. 

He wrinkled his nose and grabbed his Bon Appétit.  “My recipe sounds better.”   He listed the various toppings: bacon, some cheese I’d never heard of, arugula, Brussels sprouts…

Squints has gotten to the point in his cooking where he considers himself an expert—certainly he considers himself a better cook than I: He’ll offer to add some spices to a soup I’ve been working on all day or he’ll tell me that I might add a bit of salt to the lentils.  Sometimes I find this endearing.  Often it irritates me. 

“Well, we should just have a pizza cook off,” I said.  All week.  Then we’ll know who’s got the better recipe.”
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Friday, February 24, 2012


“Carol’s here.”  Earle insisted.
“She left him years ago,” Tish whispered to Jude. “Poor, sweet man.”

Earle died; They cleared away the remnants of his life.
They found Carol tucked beneath the floorboards.

This post was written in response to the Trifecta Writing Challenge.  This weekend, we were to write a 33 word response to this picture:


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Unshared Memories

In late fall, work slowed for Jonathan.  In the winter, it practically stopped.  Jonathan was in his winter, he knew.  A winter without springs.  Without summers to look forward to.  Without falls to gather in the harvest and settle in.  He pulled the tractor into the barn and shut it off, wondered what this place would look like without the barn, without the farmhouse.  Full of house after house after house full of people who wanted to escape the city, who claimed to want the land, then did nothing with it except call a lawn care company in to blast it with chemicals once a week.  He glanced at the trailer.  Where would the little silver trailer go? 

God, he loved that child.  He loved her more than she knew.  More, probably, than he was entitled to.  But not more than he ought.  Lord knew she needed as much love as she could get. 

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Spin Class

So I finally returned my husband’s holey sweatpants and invested in a pair of yoga pants.  To celebrate, I signed up for a spin class.  I arrived with my daughter this evening, late as is our custom. 

We were woefully unprepared: We’d forgotten hand towels, of course.  And water bottles.  One of the students grinned at us, taking in our trendy yoga pants.  “You might want to invest in some thick bike shorts.”

I smiled.  I didn’t need bike shorts.  What was a spin class other than riding a stationary bike just a little bit faster than normal?

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Midway through his junior year, Julian DeSantos left Harvard and moved onto a twenty-acre plot of land in upstate New York.  He gave away his possessions and constructed a simple one-room cabin.  He gave up electricity.  He gave up plumbing. 

He even gave up the internet.
Friends said it was the stress: triple major; pressure from his folks.  He simply snapped.  And his mind snapped, too.

The years passed.  Old friends went on to lucrative careers and vacation homes; pretty boats and second wives.
Julian married Louise, a plain girl, a simple girl, by town standards. 

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The Memory of Memories

Droplets of dew dry in the slanting sun.  She lay there in the cool meadow; spongy moss beneath her; the smells of earth—life and death, decay and growth—circling.  She feels the arms of the earth, steady and strong, supporting her.  She stares at the cloudless sky; the red rose sun beaming down hot and bitter and powerful like that first cup of coffee after a restless night spent wandering the house waiting for sleep, checking windows and doors and the gas on the stove and the coffee pot, mentally rehearsing a habit in a role she’s played far too long.  She opens her eyes.  “I have been here before,” she announces to the air, thin and stale.  Her chilly words are carried away on a cloud of mist.  Why the sun warms her body but not her words is still a mystery to her.  She fells the pull of something, a niggling against her brain, like a word she cannot fasten to her tongue.  She feels the memory of a memory.  She frowns.  “I have been here before,” she repeats.

Joe looks up from the card game, startled. 
“Never mind her, Joe.  Miss June say that every day at nine.”  The bigger one tosses down a jack.  “Your turn.”
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Saturday, February 18, 2012

On the Head of a Pin...

The entrance to the diner opened, sending in a blast of cold air.  Bitsy frowned.  “Lilly Jean, you know we don’t open until six o’clock.  I can’t keep letting you in or everyone else will be coming in for their morning coffee before we get it brewed.”

 “Bitsy, I…”

“I know you and Spank are sweet on each other now.  But that doesn’t give you special privileges.” 

Lilly Jean walked behind the breakfast bar.  She reached underneath the bar and grabbed a filter.  “Regular or decaf, Bitsy?”

Bitsy stiffened.  Of all the nerve.  But the call for coffee was stronger than her indignation.   “Regular.”  Lord, she needed a jolt.  And decaf wasn’t going to do it.    
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Friday, February 17, 2012


“Throw down your hair!”

Rapunzel grabbed her binoculars; studied the Prince.

“We shall marry; have children!  You’ll cook and clean!  We’ll be happy!”

“I’m good.”  Smiling, Rapunzel stepped away from the tower window.

* * *
This post was written in response to Trifecta's Writing Challenge: Retell a story in 33 words.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Made Up

Howard looked at her, wide-eyed.  He pointed to the door.

 “I ain’t going nowhere, Howard.  Your daddy don’t scare me.”  She gathered up glasses and plates and set them in the kitchen sink, humming a little as she did so to steady her nerves.  When she saw Daddy Sheriff standing in the hallway, she startled.  “Well, speak of the devil.  Where you headed with that big ole’ suitcase?”

“I’m going hunting.”

She looked at the oversized suitcase, the zipper gasping and straining.  “How many articles of clothing does a man require to go romping through the woods after helpless animals?”  And where were his guns, anyway?

“Don’t expect me for some time.”  The door slammed. 

“Enjoy yourself, asshole.”  Lilly Jean returned to the kitchen and ran water in the sink. 

Howard switched off the television set and got the vacuum from the closet.  Lilly Jean smiled.  “Why thank you, Howard.  I wish I’d met you before I met your daddy.  Lord knows, you’re more considerate of other people’s emotionals.”
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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Main Street, Valentine's Day

I sit at the bar of the coffee shop, looking at traffic on Main.  Across the street, headless mannequins model matching bra and panty sets.  A woman in a thick red scarf and purple hat waits to cross the street. 

A man sits at the far end of the bar and takes out his iPad.  Two others claim a table strewn with newspapers.  They talk of markets and clients, writing furiously on white tablets.

A car parallel parks.  A woman emerges, wearing furry boots and a peek-a-boo shirt and crisscrossed chopsticks stabbed into her bun.

A delivery man carries a vase of flowers.

Outside, two yellow balloons are snagged in a sweet gum tree still strung with Christmas lights.

The door opens.  Kathy walks in.  She wears a purple coat and red pants and white New Balance tennis shoes.

She makes the rounds, greeting people she knows.  She finds a seat and watches.  She speaks to herself.  “No one is listening to me.  Why is everyone ignoring me?”

A man passes. 

She asks, “What did you do to my head?”

He pivots.  “I’m sorry?”

“What did you do to my head?”

“I don’t think I did anything to your head.” 

“You’re right.  You didn’t do anything to my head.”

Kathy leaves.  Outside, she sits on a bench and ties a brown scarf around her head.  Moments later, she rises and walks away.

Within ten minutes, she’s back, clutching a bag of Doritos in her hand.  She sits, eating and watching.  She makes her rounds.  She leaves and sits on the bench.

Another fifteen minutes pass.  Kathy returns.  I listen to the reactions of the people.  Mostly, they are kind.

I don’t wonder why Kathy returns so many times during the day to the coffee shop on Main.  I can tell: The coffee shop is Kathy’s safe place.

I gather my things and head outside.  I meet Kathy at the corner.  “Good morning,” I say. 

“Good morning.”  She enters the coffee shop.

This prompt was written in response to this week's Trifecta's Writing Challenge.  The word was safe.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Place Called Disney

“Mother,” I asked, “what is a cell phone?”

My mother screamed and dropped the wooden tray of vegetables she was carrying to the table.  My siblings left their seats and began crawling on the dirt floor, gathering up the vegetables—carrots and parsnips and turnips—and holding them to their parched lips.
My mother approached me, hand raised.  She smacked me across the face.  “Never ask such questions, again, True."

Later that night, after my siblings and I were tucked into the bed we shared, I listened to my parents through the cloth curtain my mother had woven and hung to separate our sleeping alcove from the rest of the hut.  “True’s got the gift, Seth.  You see that, don’t you?”

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Love Scene

 “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the bedroom, Momma?”

Phyllis gives her head a stubborn shake.  She scowls.  “I was born in this kitchen.  I will die in this kitchen.” 
“Are you thirsty?”

“No.”  She shivers. 
Ellen tucks a blanket around her shoulders.  Lorraine stirs the coals and adds a log to the woodstove.  The kitchen is filled with crackles and sparks and heat, and Phyllis gives a thin smile.  She is reminded of the anger that filled the house for years: Her children have never gotten along.  The thought saddens her.

Thin wisps of smoke wend their way around the room, grasping and searching, searching and grasping.
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The Lost Things

I have two trunks in my bedroom where I stash things that are important to me–a stack of my journals going back thirty-five years; cards and artwork from my kids; a faded rose from when my son was in my brother’s wedding.   I have stacks of letters tied in yellow ribbon; my grandparents’ wedding license; my great-grandfather’s teacher’s license; report cards from the early nineteen hundreds.  My passport’s in there, too, the one I thought I’d lost.
Because things do get lost in trunks. 

And that’s the beauty of it all; finding memories you thought were long gone. 

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Presence of the Past

When she’s confused by the present, Pearl turns to the past: She struggles to the attic and fetches the box containing the remnants of her history.  She takes that box into the kitchen and sets it on the table, a table always covered by a vinyl cloth; bright yellow flowers on a white background.  In the fall of her life, it is perpetually spring on Pearl’s kitchen table.

The plastic flowers cheer her.

Pearl removes the lid from the box, takes up her lighted magnifying glass and settles comfortably into her past.  She feels her body relax and lighten as she reads the letters her parents wrote to one another when they were courting.  She laughs at the family photographs of her mother and her nine brothers.  She reads old letters from people whose names she no longer recognizes.

She frowns.  The past is dying.

No.  She corrects herself.  The past is vast, ever-expanding.  The past is growing thick with memories forgotten.

She tells herself that in the near future, she will belong to the past.  Even today, the majority of her life is past.  She wonders what will happen to her history after she is gone.  She picks up a photograph and flips it over.  Paul.  For years, she has wondered about Paul and his place in her history.

The past is too deep to comprehend.  There are too many characters, too many events, too many faces: How can anyone expect to understand it without a guide?

She will leave a roadmap; a compass; a light illuminating the way back, showing all the twists and turns and connections of her life.  She rises and crosses to her desk, tucked into a corner of the kitchen.  She rolls in a crisp sheet of paper and begins to type.

To Whom it May Concern…

No.  That won’t do at all.  She pulls the paper from the typewriter, balls it up and begins again.

My dears,

She smiles, hits the carriage return and continues.

This post was written for this week's Trifecta Writing Challenge.  The word was deep, third definition.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sinners and Saints

“Well, ain’t just you the little saint, Howard Heacock?” Daddy Sheriff sneered.  “Always doing the right thing, the good thing.  Paying for the child’s education.  Working your ass off for Jonathan Fowler and never spending a dime of it.  And always obeying your father, just like I asked you to.  You ever do anything bad in your life, boy?”

Howard nodded, once and neatly.  Daddy Sheriff knew he had.

“You think you’re proving some kind of point with all your goodness?  Well, I got news for you, Howard: You need me.”

No.  Howard had no need of his father.  He remained with Daddy Sheriff to punish him.  To remind him, every single day, of what he’d done.  Every time he looked upon his face, Howard knew, Daddy Sheriff was taken back to that night.  Every day that Howard kept his mouth closed, he shouted guilty.
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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Chicken Legs

“Now you jest come on back here, Lilly Jean, and I’ll rassle up something for you to eat.”  Spank helped Lilly Jean into a chair before tying on an apron.

 “I don’t know that I could eat, Spank.  I hurt too much.”

 “You’ll eat my special soup.  Wonton.  Cures everything.” 

“You’re shittin’ me, Spank.  You bin cooking in this here diner all these years making greasy shit food and you kin cook Chinese?”

Spank beamed.  “Yep.”  He took a bunch of green onions from the refrigerator and began to wash them.

“Where’d y’all learn how to cook fancy?”
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Friday, February 3, 2012

Love, Outlasted

Despite thickening waists and skin deeply creased and backs bent beyond necessity, every morning they greeted each other with tender smiles.  But his brain began to fuse and confuse and one morning over coffee he looked at her and said, “who are you?”

Their marriage lasted another eight years until she died of heartache and loneliness.

This is another attempt at Trifecta's Three Sentence Challenge.


First Love, Failed

She said she liked him; He liked her, too!

She said she loved him.

That was the end

This was written in response to The Trifecta Writing Challenge.  The weekend challenge was to write a story in three sentences.

This did happen to me.  But it was in Kindergarten.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Contours of a Man's Heart

Wheezy Hart lay there in his coffin, waxen hands clutching a shiny black Bible, proof of his belief in God, as if, Jonathan thought, God needed any more proof than what was bound up within the contours of a man’s heart.  Jonathan imagined his friend reaching up and hooking an index finger beneath the knot of the red tie encircling his neck.  Wheezy always claimed he couldn’t wear a tie too tight, claimed it aggravated the asthma that had plagued him his entire life.  Jonathan shook his head at the waste.  That asthma had forced the Harts to sell their farm to Jonathan’s parents and move to town, sentencing Wheezy to a life of books, a life that would better have been spent working the land. 

“He’s missing his cane.”  Jonathan pictured Wheezy, picking his way down Main Street, sucking at his inhaler like a calf on a teat.

“He doesn’t need it anymore, Jonathan,” Annie said.

More faithful than any woman had ever been to Wheezy, that cane had been Wheezy’s constant companion for decades.  When he wore the polish off the handle, the old cheapskate refused to buy a new one, claiming he wouldn’t divorce his wife just because she’d gotten a little ugly over the years, now would he?  Wheezy might have joked about not having found a wife, but deep down, Jonathan knew, he was lonely.  It wasn’t just God who could see into the heart of a man.

“He looks good,” Annie murmured. 

Jonathan frowned.  “He looks like hell. 

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