…about a color

Unlike other weddings, it wasn’t the style of the bridesmaids’ dresses that caused a stir.  The simple sheath dresses came with matching bolero jackets, for modesty and warmth, and showed enough cleavage and leg to tease but not enough to make Page 6, and, if sized properly, would look good on any woman no matter what her shape.

No, it was the bride’s color scheme that had her future mother-in-law speechless in that way that the bride knew meant she was trying not to laugh.

White.  What was so wrong with white?  Nothing by itself.  Since the bride insisted she would be wearing the polar opposite she had thrown everyone’s assumptions out the window.  For themselves, the bridesmaids were taking it in stride.

“At least it’s not sea foam.  God, do you remember Jaime’s wedding?” one said at a brunch they held in secret.

Another snorted.  “Barely.  There were schnapps.  Remember the one that was fuschia and gold?  I looked jaundiced in all the photos.”

“But where am I going to wear a white dress?” moaned the youngest, who was just as happy to have missed the fuschia stage.

“Your own wedding, maybe,” replied the fourth who knew there wouldn’t be a wedding in her future without serious legislative work.

“Is that what she meant to do, give us a wedding dress?  They are from the best designer,” said the one with the schnapps induced blackouts.

The fourth smiled in a way that made the others nervous.  “Maybe we should just ask her.”

…about selling

Randy knew even as he shook the man’s hand that taking the job was probably a mistake. He took too much after his father, and his grandfather before him, to be any good at the job. His stomach clenched as he agreed to the rate. As unusual as it was to find that kind of job with a salary any more the one Randy was being offered was high indeed. The start date, Monday a week, worked just fine. Randy didn’t tell the man that the could have started right then. He didn’t tell him about the bills marked “Third Notice” in red that sat in the wicker bowl on the counter next to the payment plan packet from the hospital.

As he walked out of the insurance office, Randy tried to use his talents to sell himself the job, that it would be good to meet people, that they product, supplemental health coverage, was something people in a town with a mill and a chemical plant needed. If he couldn’t sell the idea to himself, he figured, he’d be out of a job sooner than the six months he expected to last.

…about an enemy

Janie wasn’t sure what had started the feud with Megan Riley. They had been friends in grade school, living just down the block and across from each other since they were both four on the birthday they shared. But something changed.

Janie would often sit at her locker during lunch, whatever book she was reading balanced on her knees, and wonder what the jibe would be that day.

“Black jeans with the hole in the knee, it must be Friday,” sarcasm practically rained from above. Janie’s eyes traced up the stiletto-clad foot, passed the perfectly hairless, perfectly tanned leg to the edge of the too tight to breathe mini skirt to rest on the perfect face of her worst enemy.

“Actually, you can tell by the shoes,” Jamie replied, wiggling the Chucks with the hot rod flames on them. “Fridays are all about the fire.”

Megan rolled her eyes and clip-clopped off, her entourage streaming in her wake. The fire was Janie’s one weapon, that and her brain.

…about a map

Pam glanced over at the crumpled sheet in the passenger seat for the fifth time in as many minutes. Eyes back on the two-lane blacktop with no turn offs she had to laugh at the futility. She was either on the right road or she wasn’t.

Early summer corn waved from straight, even rows clearly laid out by a machine as the breeze picked up snatching away the wisps the country station up the coast and turning the radio into static. The smells of farming – water and the chemical tang of commercial fertilizer – reminded her of summers at her uncle’s place, summers her parents had sent her away first so they could take full advantage of the swinging ’70s and later so they could fight over who got to keep the trappings of their happy, middle-class life Pam included.

She returned the wave of a cowboy farmer in a beat up truck less worried that her battered Toyota would cause trouble here in a place where people flew the American flag with no irony. Pam reduced speed as she came to an intersection that wasn’t on her five year-old map.

…about losing

Dan Metzinger lost the ability to speak one fine May morning. He noticed during breakfast when he tried to say good morning to the cat and all that came out was a squeak. Dan simply shrugged and scratched the cat behind the ears. She purred and bumped his leg in that way that meant she was satisfied and went off to have a bath in a sunbeam.

His job wouldn’t be a problem Dan thought as he smiled and flashed his monthly pass that the bus driver. Being a “live help” support technician meant he spent his days typing anyway. The self-service coffee bar at the local deli got him a shot of caffeine wordlessly and the cashier never said anything to him anyway so he wouldn’t be failing to reply.

Since there was no pain in his throat, Dan decided to wait to see what happened. After a few weeks he felt his larynx get thick and stiff with disuse. Dan didn’t start to worry until the bright Sunday morning that looked like late twilight.

…about something worthless

The item in the gutter had no intrinsic value. In its current condition – dirtied from hours of bus and car exhaust, wet from the residue of someone’s spilled coffee half a block up – it wouldn’t even be accepted by the most desperate child or charity. Yet, for most who saw it as they went by it pricked at something deep inside them, something that those who thought about it at all thought they had control over and that most had simply buried unde rthe armor of $1,500 suits and $300 high heels. The sound of it drowned out by the ring of cell phones and the tweedle of incoming e-mails.

It made them stop, focus, and forget for a minute where they were and who they were pushing, shoving, and striving so hard to become. The ragged ear and the matted fur stripped off the veneer of civility and took those who actually looked back to a time when life was simple, when you could punch your friend in the arm in anger and then five minutes later be hugging that same friend because he’d hurt his knee on the monkey bars. Yes, the lopsided face of the discarded teddy bear was worth materially nothing but it had value greater than the rarest gem for those who actually saw it.

…about something narrow

The house on Lake Street always made passersby stop and stare, even the ones not clutching the walking tour book, the ones who weren’t somehow subliminally dreading devoting part of their precious vacation time to this desolate seeming part of town.

The smaller than average front door and the window boxes looked as if they had come off a child’s playhouse which, indeed, they had, these and the wooden windows all sparked the same thoughts.

“It must be a joke,” the man of the couple was often heard to whisper, “no one could possibly live there.” The woman, usually with her finger trapped between the guidebook’s slick, heavy pages, would bring the volume up and find the entry. The recitation usually included the construction date, far enough in the past to excuse the peeling paint up near the eaves, and the bubbling in the glass near the sashes.

“It says it’s private residence now,” she would reply, eyes scanning the heavy black type.

“For who? A family of dwarves?” he would snort, most often taking her arm and moving her toward the coffee shop at the end of the block, the one whose smells were carried on the prevailing breeze.

Sometimes while they stood there pondering the half-width building the door would open with a creak that the owner subtly encouraged through haphazard maintenance. He would tip his bowler hat, the man who emerged from the impenetrable darkness of the front room, adjust the collar of his overcoat, and shut the door moving down the sidewalk with his briefcase in hand.

The couple would gape at the man’s receding back, itself as tall as the house was wide, the implausibility of what their eyes had just seen being insisted upon by their brains.

“Do you think they squished him in there when they built these apartment buildings?”

Sometimes the man in the bowler hat would overhear as he strolled away. The question always made him smile.

…about a cloud of smoke

Betty couldn’t see the speaker through the thick, gray haze. His voice sounded familiar in that gravelly, half-remembered night way that shed used to think of her time in the bottle. And it wasn’t the words he used but the tone, the lilting familiarity and ease with which he placed his order. It was a simple choice: chicken, beef, or vegetarian pasta. The choice was always simple at these hotel things, even simpler for Betty now that she was off the booze and had started gaining weight.

The side offers from the conventioneers had stopped coming after she’d hit 140lbs which was a good weight for her height but too reminiscent of the wives they’d left back home for most of the traveling men. The smoke rolled as the man exhaled, his menu and hands appearing almost divorced from his actual body.

…about a symbol

No one thought the little box would mean much. It was just a place to leave lost and found objects. The random glove, a hat, a paperback book that had been left on a bench in the quad. And it didn’t mean much until the girl with the blonde hair left the note.

Red construction paper, neatly printed in “missing dog” style: Lost my will to live. Reward for some reason to go on.

From that first note the box took on new meaning. Sure, the blackberry people, their thumbs tapping furiously ignored the box. So did the iPod people as they bobbed along to rhythms only they could hear. But for many the box became their focus, the center solid in a world that had gone runny, a world where nothing was sure. In the end the box became the reason to live. That’s why the fire was so devastating.

St. Michael’s Maryland, 1968

The old barn stood on a far corner of Jack Willoby’s tobacco farm. The red paint covering its exterior peeled under the hot summer sun. Jack hadn’t had any time to repaint.

“Structure’s still sound I’d reckon,” said Marvin, Jack’s nearest neighbor. “It’s too far from the house to use as an equipment shed though.”

Jack nodded, crushing out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe and putting the butt in his pocket. He joined the other man inside the cool barn.

Jack’s father had converted the old tobacco barn for their small herd of cattle. Jack sold off the cattle when his father died but had kept the barn. No reason to tear down a perfectly useful building he’d figured. Looking up into the hay loft he could see chaff from the hay floating in a stream of sunlight. A pair of mourning doves nested in one of the eaves. Jack could hear their coos as they were startled by Marvin’s chatter. “Have you talked to the insurance company yet?”

Jack’s gaze traveled along the beam nearest the doves’ nest to the scorch marks left by the lightening strike last week. The marks striped the wood, leaving part of the oak beam looking healthy and part of it looking fragile. Jack knew that if he dug deep enough into the wood he’d find a healthy plank under the char.

“Not yet. Appraiser’s coming day after tomorrow.”

Marvin stuck his hands deep into his overall pockets and hawked some chewing tobacco into a nearby junk bucket. A late afternoon wind from the Patuxent River blew through the barn carrying with it the smell of salt, warm sand, and decaying fish.

“How’s Bettie doin’,” Marvin asked as he dipped into his pouch for a new bit of chaw.

Jack watched a dove fly out of the nest. It stayed suspended on a warm current of air before it flapped its wings and rushed down the aisle into the sunlight. Marvin rolled his pouch back up and shoved it into the back pocket of his overalls.

“Her folks are coming in tonight,” Jack replied, “She’s worried about how the house looks.”

“Lucy says that lightening strike coming the night before you got the telegram was a sign,” Marvin said, rocking back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet.

The wandering dove flew back into the barn. The whistling of its wings was clearly audible as it flew through to the nest. Jack watched as the bird landed on the charred beam.

“Do you think I could maybe take a look at the telegram,” Marvin asked, running his hand over his nose, “You know, just so I’ll know. In case…”

Jack felt for the slip of paper in his breast pocket as Marvin trailed off. He held it out to him between two fingers. Jack didn’t need to see it again. The words were seared into his mind. Marvin gingerly unfolded the telegram, his gnarled hands dark against the bright yellow paper.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Willoby. The President of the United States regrets to inform

Marvin’s lips moved as he silently read the remainder of the message. Something small and white fell from the rafters. Jack crossed the barn and scooped up the object. The small shell felt fragile in his hand. Overhead, he heard the sound of a newborn dove.