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Present Ghost

Telling stories

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Nonfiction

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 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”

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”

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