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Telling stories

Halitosis

My dad had the worst breath, and even though it was bad, I still liked being close enough to smell it. The stale, overcooked office coffee he drank, cup after cup, until his teeth were stained. They were yellow on the outside, and grey from fillings inside. He hated his teeth, because although they were straight, they were small. He cared more about his appearance than you would have imagined. Once he stormed from the room when my mother told him he looked like “Baby Huey” after attempting to fix a new style into his hair with an expensive salon product. He didn’t swear at her; he looked in the mirror, took a small-toothed barber’s comb and left to return his basic and thinning crew to its normal position.

I never knew he had been attractive as a young and middle-aged man, so I didn’t know he could have been attractive as an older-middle aged man, or that his self-image could falter. Continue reading “Halitosis”

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The Elephant

The day was warm, and we drove to the zoo. It was hard to decide which animal I liked best. It could have been the zebras. Yes, I did like those black-and-white horsey things. There was an orangutan whose hair looked like Papa’s. Most of all, I like the elephant, I guess.

Before I could tell Mama, she screamed.

Papa, I couldn’t see him. Mama’s eyes were wet and her hands, red. Brushing the hair behind my ears, she said it would be OK. She had made us a strawberry cake for after supper.

I got tired.

I’m tired.

No, my boy. Stay right here, in Mama’s lap. Tell me about the animals you saw today.

The sun shone hot, bright burning glitter through the trees while Mama held me, asking if it was the monkeys, or maybe the crocodile that I liked best.

I wanted to tell her it was the elephant I liked, that I wished I could ride him. But Papa came back shaking his head.

Mama cried and told him to go to the hospital anyway.

I shivered once, and then I stopped. My name is Irvin, but now it’s not. I’ve seen elephants, but I’m not sure what more has happened since. I don’t see Mama or Papa, but the sun is still hot, and the trees the same. It’s like summer all the time, as if winter never came. I’m not lonely. I have my elephant.

 

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The Expense of Hope

My husband’s grandmother turned 92 last week, and while we sat next to each other on the couch, she rubbed the kicking baby beneath my skin.  I wanted her to feel that squirming little life, because she can’t hear or see well. After our unborn daughter rolled inside me, Louise told me she’d live to see her next great-grandchild. Because I’ve cauterized a lot of the outlets of my emotion in the last two years, I made a joke.

“You said that last time, Louise. I think I’m done having kids. You’re going to have to find something else, because we want you around.”

I’m not hopeful like I used to be. It’s embarrassing, but it takes so much faith to believe something you want, something you work and wait and pray for, will actually happen. Hope gets whitewashed as flippant wishing, but committing to waiting for the possibility of disappointment is excruciating and exhausting. Continue reading “The Expense of Hope”

When we live stories we should hate

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One of the most memorable stories in the Bible for me comes from 2 Samuel 12, when Nathan, a prophet, goes to David to tell him an important story about an unjust man.

David, appalled by this man’s wickedness, swears he will punish him. That’s when Nathan finally clues him in:

“You are the man!”

The story about the evil man is about him, and what David perceived as a report of an impersonal crime committed somewhere in his kingdom reflected reality in his home, and sins in his heart.

We can read all day about racism and white supremacy and think it distant, but if we never ask how it would be possible that God might also send us prophets to reveal that we, too, are guilty, then we miss something. We are destroying ourselves.

Continue reading “When we live stories we should hate”

Dust and Grass

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There was chicken wire instead of a fence. It was nothing more than rusty, twisted wire caging dust and slouching, fading headstones in the middle of nowhere. All the sparse grass stayed out, as if cast from the perfect deadness of the small cemetery. It lay at the edge of the street of what was left of Baden, Iowa, a town someone in the German branch of my mother’s family had founded some time in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

My father parked in front of a building the same color as the unpaved road. Nothing was painted, and if it had been, it had been a long time since the last touch-up. Mom walked toward the cemetery to look for relatives, and my little brother and I wandered around what looked like a movie set from a Clint Eastwood western. About a half-dozen buildings with false fronts lined both sides of the street, and every one of them seemed emptied of life years before we showed up that summer afternoon.

Although the church wasn’t padlocked, it was vacant and likely without any congregants but a few field mice. The  general store had the only open door we found, but the windows were boarded shut. An old Pepsi machine on the front porch still had working lights, and I hoped we’d be able to get a Coke or Dr. Pepper. Mom didn’t trust how long the cans had been in there, so we left it disappointed and walked inside. One man stood behind the counter in a warehouse of dust and junk. Broken toys and tools sat on shelves and in cracked barrels. There were horseshoes and legless ballerinas in music boxes. I wound one and watched her twirl to a lullaby on a dirty pedestal, then closed the case. Continue reading “Dust and Grass”

Conclusion of “The Fault”

bones faultWhen he got home, she wasn’t there yet. Because this never happened, he assumed she’d gotten an angry phone call from Chelsea, who would have told her everything in such a way that he would be the stereotypically chauvinistic sex fiend. He would be unable to wait to explain himself or defend himself against her accusations and threats. So, he called her.

That’s when he heard her phone vibrating on the counter, right next to a half-emptied glass of room-temperature orange juice that had been left there for, he guessed, about nine hours and thirty-some-odd minutes.

He checked the phone, and saw that no one had called her all day except for him.

Draining the glass, he proceeded to corral the rest of the unwashed breakfast dishes to the sink. He’d only turned on the tap when he heard the door open and the jingling of her keys banging on the side of her thigh.

“You’re home early,” she said, before he could greet her.

“You’re home late—well, later.”

“I’m taking cues from you.”

She pushed past him to the refrigerator with her lunch bag and purse still hanging from her arm. Scanning the contents of the refrigerator, she reminded him that they were out of milk and shut the door.

“Were you in a hurry this morning?”

She wasn’t paying attention, so he repeated the question, this time with more concerned, projecting so she could hear him over the clanking of the dishes he was stacking.

“Hm?”

Again, he repeated the question.

“Oh, no. I mean, I guess. I didn’t sleep much, so I was slow starting.”

“Oh.”

“Thanks for doing the dishes, by the way. I have no desire to do anything tonight. I’m thinking of skipping out on the art center, too.”

“Wow. Already?”

“I’m not quitting. I just need to regroup. I can’t start out running on low. I don’t know. I am exhausted.”

He paused, and let go of his question about her suddenly renewed interest in ballet, not because he knew the answer but because he thought of another question.

“Hey, speaking of dishes, have you seen my chip bowl? I couldn’t find it the other day.”

“It was broken.”

“What do you mean, ‘It was broken’? You mean you broke it.” Continue reading “Conclusion of “The Fault””

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