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Telling stories

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Nonfiction

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”

Breaking, from “The Fault”

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Photo by Krista Mangulsone

When they reached the door, the knob was cold, and it wasn’t “eightish.” It was 9:37 p.m. She was surprised that she hadn’t stayed later on purpose. What had taken the most time was talking with the class coordinator at the art center. She was positively thrilled to have a volunteer instructor signing up.

“So many people want part-time gigs right now with the economy, you know.”

The woman at the desk leaned toward the office window, inviting the new teacher into her tedious chinwag.

“If you ask me, it’s usually just an ego boost for the prima donnas who never made it.”

The short, chubby woman wore too much rouge, but she was attractive, radiating the same kind of quirkiness that trinket shop owners in American tourist trap towns label as “sass” or “creativity” that is expressed in multi-colored reading glasses, spunky short haircuts, excessive eye makeup and bauble-wearing, and an inexhaustible admiration for Joni Mitchell and Emerson Lake and Palmer.

These kinds of women always have mints or chewing gum, she thought, as she allowed the talk to pass beyond her face and float toward the gargantuan local impressionist painting behind her. She tried to listen or empathize, but all she really wanted to do was get upstairs to check out the mirrors and see if they really had a decent practice space. Continue reading “Breaking, from “The Fault””

The Appraisal

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At Central Watch, a woman with silver hair waited. Her red pill box hat capped her bob and accompanied her wool camel coat well. She had been wearing this outfit, or something like it, for at least 50 years. It looked good, even when she had started to shrink and her voice had begun to lose its easy, youthful volume. She stayed warm on her way to Grand Central.
When the clerk had taken my cash and returned my watch, she spoke.

“Excuse me, sir.”

From her leather tote she pulled a watch so bedazzled that the diamonds caught the light and broke it across the room in a thousand glamorous fractures. Certainly, it was meant for more than a timepiece, but it was more luxurious than jewelry.

Holding it a full arm’s length in front of her, she started again, “Do you know anything about this watch?” Continue reading “The Appraisal”

Dance Lessons

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“Shoes, Mommy. Shoes.”

My toddler begged me to put on my dirty pink flats. I didn’t want to, but there’s no other way she will watch the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” on YouTube.

“Sha-sha-sha-shoes, Mommy,” she whined.

Only once when she was just 17 months old did I show her scenes from The Nutcracker. It was mid-September, and for four months, she insisted that we watch ballerinas and twirl in the living room while I wear those shoes.

My daughter is too young to know that I’m no ballerina and have no business calling myself a dancer. Right now, for her I am the Sugar Plum Fairy who changes her pants and teaches her everything she knows about dance. Eventually, she’ll discover that I know very little. She might even be ashamed of me.

I always wanted to learn how to dance, and by the time I found out that there might have been a chance for me, it was already too late. My first dance teacher said it was a shame.

“You really are a natural,” she told me.

I tried not to cry because I believed her. My emotions choked my gratitude. To fill the silence, she asked me to look in the lost-and-found crate outside the door. For two weeks, she had been trying to convince me to take some shoes that a real ballerina had left behind.

“Take those. I’m sure they would fit you. They’re good shoes. Use them in your classes in Texas.”

I remembered a few of my friends explaining the rite of passage of earning pointe shoes when we were in late grade school. At 23, I received my first good pair of ballet flats. I will never dance on pointe. Like my instructor said, it’s a shame I started when I did.

Being called “a natural” pierced me. The high compliment fell from my instructor’s mouth and shattered at my feet. Like my belated entry to the world of dance, those words were overdue. I turned 30 before I realized that all those hours I spent hours locked in my room stretching and pushing my body to bend made my body feel right. With no one looking, I was free to let my limbs speak through nameless movements with a structure and rhythm of their own. That I could communicate beauty and art with my body never took root, and it should have. Continue reading “Dance Lessons”

Resignation

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The driver’s side door of the limousine burst open. In tuxedo and top hat, the driver exited the car and stood on 5th Avenue facing his employer still in the back seat.

“You never give me the Christmas, or the vacacion,” he said. He never raised his voice above cool resolve; he stated facts. Then he slammed the door, leaving his post and the car running as he walked north toward the New York Public Library.

For a few minutes, the limousine idled on the street as traffic passed. When the back door finally opened, a man in a trench coat stepped out. He was beyond middle-age, balding, and stunned. Without his chauffeur, he returned to the car, this time — and maybe for the first time in a long while — to drive and not to ride.

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