Memorial Day Contemplations

FlagI dreamed of being a hero. Putting on Mother’s old dresses and twirling around like a dandelion seed in the wind. I didn’t sip tea with dolls, I rode horses and fought imaginary villains and leapt over molten lava, swinging from a rope on a tree. Yes, my Barbie kissed her boyfriend but she also went over cliffs tied to a string, on her brave mission. I wanted to save the world.

I dreamed of being an artist. Too impatient to finish college I drove to Los Angeles to be a musician. From dive bars to famous recording studios, I wrote songs that made me ache, that meant something, that said something, that made people feel. I wanted to leave my mark in the world.

I dreamed of a peaceful world. I taught my children to be kind, to share, to turn the other cheek. To soar like birds in their own way, and to help others find their wings. War, in any flavor, was wrong. I wanted to shelter my children.

I dreamed of a perfect world, but life zigged and zagged me through paths I couldn’t steer against, through tragedy I could not erase, through mistakes I could not fix. I dreamed of a perfect world, but instead I grew in wisdom and strength. With that came an elusive inner peace, which is there when I remember to look.

I woke up on Memorial Day. I remember with gratitude the heroes who fought, the artists who stirred our souls to action, the peacemakers who gave us hope, and the blind perfectionists who screamed in the wind until their message dissipated to compromise and change.

The F-Bomb: Friend or Foe?

I am searching for an answer. bomb

Not to the “Why are we here?” type of question. I just want to know if a writer like me should use the F-bomb. The F@*# word. That frigging, fragging, flipping, flurping notorious expletive that either disgusts or delights us.

When I was a kid, raised in a rural town in Oregon, the word was a big fat naughty no-no. Little old ladies would faint at the sound, and the word on the street was, “The F word is eeeee‑vil!” I never once said it, fearing a lightning-bolt might take me out.

As a teenager, I heard some of the really tough kids use that word, as they threw knives at each other’s feet playing chicken. (What else is there to do when it rains for nine months straight?) Anyway, once again the conclusion was, only a knife-yielding delinquent would use that word.

I went to college, and soon found a correlation between drinking too much Schlitz malt liquor and people dropping that F-Bomb. Still, I held out, my virgin lips sticking to phrases like “Gosh darn it, who moved the keg?”

I moved to California as a musician, started a family, and even got involved in a church for a time. Not very conducive to swearing. I wanted to be a good person, be a good example, I wanted to look back on my life and say I never hurt anybody. People called me “Sweet” and “So nice!” and “Such an angel!” They even called me Saint Rose, I kid you not.

Yeah. I was nice. But where was my backbone? When did I take a stand and ruffle a feather or two? I had political opinions but kept them to myself because I had both very conservative religious friends and far left liberal atheist friends. I was a mamby-pamby milktoast girl with a strong sense of self on the inside, and a weenie on the outside. I walked my career as a musician without stepping on any cracks. I tiptoed through my song choices with caution and frosting. Mick Jagger swaggered and sang deliciously naughty things that most of society played to their children. Me? I changed words around to make them G rated, deflating the fun balloon till it was a limp piece of rubber that was no longer interesting.

One day I woke up and decided I was going to be me. Just me, without all the frosting and rose-colored glasses. I made an effort to express my true opinions and feelings, and wondered if I’d still have friends at the end of the day. You know what? I got a great big “Bravo, it’s about time!” from pretty much everyone!

I work hard every day to lose old habits, and try to never repress. Now I sing what I want to sing. I rarely mess with lyrics. I write stories too, and try to stretch my characters beyond my own limitations. And now… I swear at my computer sometimes. Okay, lots of times. And yes, now and then, alone at home, I’ll drop that F bomb, because it releases anger and somehow makes me feel better in the moment. And then I go put a quarter in the jar. (Okay, just kidding about the jar.)

Last week I sat down to write a story. I had a blank slate, no idea or outline, I just put my hands on the keyboard and started typing. What came out surprised me, in a very wonderful way. It was a story called Cali’s Mojo. The story was me, if I hadn’t been such a conventional people-pleaser. Unlike me, she lost her parents when she was twelve and became a runaway. Unlike me, she spoke her mind—all of it. Unlike me, she did exactly what she needed to do without compromise.

And unlike me, she used the F-bomb in public.

I finished the story, and remembered my younger self who was so shocked by that word. I thought, do I owe it to others to be considerate? Should I remove the word? I have a whole arsenal of lovely cuss words to choose from that aren’t as repugnant to some.

Then I thought, “Hell no!” Sorry. I meant “Heck no! I will not slide back into that person who has to weigh everybody else’s opinion and lose myself in the process.”

Still, I’m a mother. A mother who told my own children it was a bad word. But I am a different me now. And Cali—the protagonist in my story—she’s different too. All my characters are different.

My instinct and promise to myself, was to be absolutely true to the character. She’s an edgy street-smart runaway who doesn’t give a flying… fig what people think. I want to be more like her. Who am I if I am just me, without wringing my hands and wondering what everyone else thinks of me? That’s the person I am desperately trying to be true to, so she can come out of the closet, so to speak.

I got so wrapped up in the question, “To swear, or not to swear,” that I decided to ask three people:

I asked my husband, who read Cali’s Mojo. I got a bowl me over, adamant, “Absolutely you cannot take the F word out. It’s who she is. You can’t sugar coat your writing.”

I asked my fourth grade teacher, whom I greatly respect and who is a published writer herself. She wrote me a very balanced letter saying she is old-school and one of those who finds the word boring and unnecessary. She also respected very much, the fact that I even asked her opinion.

I asked my sister, a High School English teacher who also helps me edit sometimes. She said, “It’s okay to skip the F-bomb, but don’t take away from her authenticity—she’s no priss! She is tough and strong.”

Cali would never have asked the question at all. She’d probably give me an earful just for writing this piece and questioning my unfiltered expression. I believe, after much thinking, that I will not filter. I endeavor to be the writer that does not censor herself. I write what flows from me, authentic and true. I may offend those who, like the old me, are weary of that word. I may offend people who don’t like my subject matter. I may offend people just for being me. But that’s okay. I know I am loved for who I am, too. And at the end of the day, I need to honor the artist.

 

Cali’s Mojo

cali 7It doesn’t matter what people say, I am going to walk my path, purple hair, a guitar slung over my shoulders, and a whole crazy world of crap behind me. Australia will take me. The people here are cool. They’re tough. Their ancestors were criminals, banished to Australia back in the day, sometimes just for stealing a loaf of bread. I think I had it bad? Kinda puts things in perspective.

Botany Bay—this is where the ships came in to drop off the prisoners. Not to put behind bars. More like, “Here’s an island continent. See ya—never. Don’t let the crocs bite your ass.” The prisoners survived, with nothing but the shirt on their back. Me? I have a guitar, and I’m gonna rock this place like an earthquake, and make them see me. I am Cali, I’m a seventeen-year-old girl, and I’m ready.

It all started I guess, when I was five, in a rural town in Oregon. I was finger painting in class, and got sent home for painting my face and hair, and my friend Erin’s too. Erin was awesome. She was my best friend. She always had my back.

“Cali, get in the tub! You’re an absolute mess!”

Man, my dad was pissed. I locked myself in my room and stared at the red blobs of paint in my hair, and that’s when I knew I had to be different. It felt incredible. I looked like a superhero. I felt like a superhero.

“Cali!” He pounded on the door and I could hear him rattling his keys, about to come in. So, being a superhero, I jumped out the window… and broke my arm. Guess flying wasn’t my superpower.

The cast was cool—everyone signed it. And everyone looked at me different after that, like I was really brave or something. I shrugged when people asked if it hurt. It hurt like shit but I remember pretending it didn’t. I told Erin though, about it hurting, and when we were alone in the bathroom I even cried, and made her swear not to tell. Only five and I was already totally fucked up.

Erin and I rode horses, and we did all kinds of daredevil stuff, like riding side-saddle, backwards, lying down or standing on the back of the horses, all with no saddle. Sometimes we rode with no reins like the Indians did, and made up crazy stories pretending we were bank robbers, or abducted by aliens, or caught in a whirlwind and whisked away to another dimension. We acted everything out on horses, or swinging from trees, or on the ground punching imaginary villains. Anyone watching thought we were crazy, but it was the best time of my life. I loved Erin’s blond hair and freckles and blue eyes. And she said she loved my dark long hair, my brown eyes and the way my skin turned bronze in the summer.

But she moved away to Thailand when I was twelve, and that was the beginning of the end for me.

I met Zoe, and she had a guitar. She wasn’t all wild like me and Erin, she was sweet and mellow, and she worried a lot. It was kind of funny to have a worrisome friend. I always did stuff that gave her a heart-attack, like the time I stole my Dad’s keys and drove her all around the neighborhood. The thing about Zoe was, she was scared but she did it anyway. That’s what I loved the most about her. We watched old movies and went for walks and talked about how stupid boys were, except for the boy from Japan (Zoe’s love interest) and the boy with the long hair (my love interest.)

Zoe showed me a few chords on her guitar, and she was really surprised at how fast I learned. Pretty soon I was writing songs and she’d dance and scream like a groupie. We both cut our hair all bad-ass. I shaved mine on one side, and she shaved the back of hers a little bit, just above the nape of her neck. That way, it didn’t show unless she wore a pony tail. She only wore a pony tail that first day, and then she grew it out again. Me? I had a different haircut every other month, each one weirder than the next.

My parents were shot in a pizza parlor. That’s all I’m gonna say about that, okay?

I didn’t want to cry too much about…it. So I found a cure for the pain. Weed. I moved in with Zoe for a few months but her parents were really worried I’d be a bad influence on her. When they found the weed—and I had a lot—I was put in the foster system. I’ll never forget Zoe, timid quiet mellow Zoe, screaming and fighting her parents when the car came to take me away. She even kicked her dad in the shin. I was glad she did, he was an ass. Her mom was cool though, and she let Zoe give me her guitar. Zoe hugged me goodbye, and said something that changed my life. She said, “When you get mad or sad, just write a song. It’ll work better than weed. You’ll see.”

She was right. Pretty soon I didn’t need the weed, but holy shit did I ever write. Morning, noon and night, when I could.

Yeah. About the foster parents—that lasted all of twelve hours, and for the second time I jumped out the window. I was three stories up, so I aimed for the bushes. I ripped open my cheek on a branch, and I didn’t dare go to a hospital so I ended up with a scar. I think it’s cool. Kind of like a bandit or a comic book hero. I named my scar Erin, and I named my guitar Zoe.

I was thirteen, and tall for my age. I had boobs, and with a little make-up I passed for 15. I hitched a ride to San Francisco and got a job waiting tables for a Chinese guy named Shen who never asked me for ID. I got to eat whatever I wanted, and he let me sleep in the back room with another family, the Lee’s, also from China. They didn’t have ID either. They all had my back, and never asked what my story was. If they had, I would have walked away. I didn’t like thinking about… the thing that happened in the pizza parlor.

I became friends with my room-mates the Lee’s, and after work I played guitar for them. They had a little boy named Tot, who would dance and rock out, and he reminded me so much of Zoe I ached all over. The owner, Shen, liked my music and he asked me to play for his customers.

I sat on a stool with my guitar case open, and damn if I didn’t make thirty bucks in tips! I thought I was rich! Every night after that, when the chores were done and the people were served, I’d play. I saved fifteen hundred dollars in four months, just in tips.

One night I walked in the back room and the Lee’s were gone. Oh crap, I thought. They’ve been deported. But Shen told me that they’d saved up enough money to get their green card. I was surprised. And then he told me it was a “special” green card, as in a fake. He told me I could get one too—fake ID anyway. I really thought about it. I had the money. And superheroes always had a secret identity. I’d just turned 14, and I had a long wait to be an adult. But I wanted to be me. Just me, not fake me, the world be damned. So I didn’t do it.

I saw an ad for a band looking for a guitar player, so I went to audition, and I got the gig. There was a hot guy named Brad who played drums and bossed everyone around because he was the best musician. The bass player Fred was from France and he was pretty terrible. We called ourselves Head Trip and played a lot of Zeppelin. They liked the edgy stuff but I liked the acoustic earthy songs and we butted heads a lot. Fred from France was all about Heavy Metal and he’d head bang even if we were playing a ballad.

Our first gig was at some street fair at Golden Gate park where we just set up and jammed and got a guitar case full of tips, until the cops came and asked us if we had a permit. Here we had an audience and happy faces and we were playing rebel rock and they wanted a frigging permit. I mean, what happened to land of the free and all that?

On our second gig Fred head banged like an ass and Brad punched him, right in the middle of Going to California. Brad swore the timing wasn’t on purpose, but Fred got punched right when I was singing the lyrics Seems that the wrath of the Gods got a punch on the nose and it started to flow, I think I might be sinking. And that was the end of Head Trip.

Shen’s brother and family moved into the back and I was kindly asked to leave. By this time, I was almost 15. I met a lady named Julie who was a recovering alcoholic, and she had a couple foster kids. She asked me to live with her and I said, “Only if it’s under the radar, no paperwork, and I can go if I want.”

She said a really awesome thing. She said, “Under the radar, yes. But you go to school.”

Turns out she was a really awesome home-school teacher, and a Juilliard musician. She was a pianist but she could play guitar “a bit,” as she put it. That woman could rock, I’m not kidding. I never knew a Mozart-playing pianist could turn around and wail on Frank Zappa tunes. She said Zappa guitar was her drinking years, the Juilliard Mozart piano was her sober years. I thought that was funny. She spent hours every night with me, teaching me guitar licks, until I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my fingers.

My two foster brothers were cool. I was told they’d been severely abused by their parents, but they really seemed to flourish under Julie’s care. She gave us all attention—the kind we each needed as individuals. Bob, the youngest, was some sort of computer genius, and Julie had her brother Stanley the tech guru, tutor him. Timmy was gay, and she helped him with that too, we all did. He went from a sullen whipped puppy to a bright-eyed guy with a wicked sense of humor, who loved and accepted himself.

At fifteen I could finally get a work permit, and Julie let me put her down as my legal guardian. She had a soft spot for runaways, as the police soon found out. She was busted, which I thought was the real crime. She was the best thing that had ever happened to any of us runaways.

For the third time I jumped out of a window, at Julie’s house, when the cops arrived. This time my room was on the first floor so I got away without a scrape, but I heard later that Julie had to go to prison. So instead of Julie, me and the two foster brothers healing each other, we all got dumped. Me in the streets, Julie in jail, and the foster boys into the dysfunctional system. I’m the only one who wound up free.

I walked to Golden Gate Park and made my home there for a few weeks. It was creepy at night and I slept in bushes to avoid the muggers. By day I played my guitar, practicing the riffs Julie had shown me. My voice low and raspy like a blues singer, I played my own songs. They weren’t sad, most of them. They were about life and the streets and following your dream, that sort of thing. But many people told me there was a hidden sorrow behind the lyrics. Try as I might to find the words they were talking about, I couldn’t. I guess it was just the tone of my voice. A lady with a fancy hat told me my songs made her heart hurt in a wonderful way.

On a Friday before Christmas, something wonderful happened. Something completely crazy. There I was at Golden Gate Park, freezing my ass off. The guitar strings were like ice, but I was feeling the music and singing from my soul. A man in a trench coat said, with clouds of vapor coming out of his mouth, “How much for playing at my Christmas party tomorrow night? My band cancelled.”

I looked at his shiny shoes and fancy gloves. I don’t know what possessed me but I said, as casually as I could, “Five thousand dollars.”

He laughed and shook my hand, handing me his business card. “See you tomorrow at Seven. Don’t be late.”

“I won’t,” I said, as coolly as I could.

When he left I whispered, “Holy shit.” And the next night after the gig I had five thousand big ones in my pocket. I really didn’t think it was a good idea to sleep in the bushes with so much dough. I looked at all the nice hotels, the warm inviting restaurants, and I did indulge in a bagel, but I wanted to use the rest of the money for something more important. I gave it to Stanley to bail Julie out of jail. It was the best thing I’d ever done. Especially because Julie found the boys and eventually adopted them, so I heard.

I had enough tips saved from my days in the park, so I got a ticket to San Diego. I heard it was a lot warmer there.

Anyway, I stepped off the bus in downtown San Diego. Wow. Lots of homeless, like me. Well, not like me. Mentally ill, most of them, poor things, talking to themselves and sleeping on sidewalks. Just like San Francisco. I thought things would be different down south.

I decided I didn’t want to end up like that, so I walked up and down every street, entered every bar, pub and restaurant, and auditioned. If they said they didn’t have live music, I said I’d play for tips. By the end of the first night I had seventeen business cards, five gigs lined up and fifty-two bucks in my pocket from an audition that turned into an hour, with claps and hoots and tips. And best of all, dinner.

I had enough money to stay at a hostel, and met a pretty Aborigine girl named Akala, which she said meant “Parrot.” It was perfect because she was kind of like a parrot, she always repeated what I said, and then laughed.

“Akala, why are you here?”

She answered, “Akala, why are you here?” She laughed, good and hard. “I am here, same as you. I am here to live.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you mean?” Again she laughed, and I laughed too, I couldn’t help it. She sat forward on her bunk and said, “The streets are dangerous. It’s safer in here.”

I nodded. “You have a cool accent.” I always did love Aussie speak.

“I like your accent.”

“Fair enough.”

We laughed again. Funny how some people are connected by laughter. I felt like she was my sister in about ten seconds. She told me a wild ass story about her dad, some Aboriginal chief, and how it was time for her walkabout so she came to San Diego.

I was surprised. “I thought walkabouts were in the wilderness.”

She said, “Walkabouts are in the Outback. Yes. That’s what my dad said too.”

“So why did you come here?”

She looked at me all serious. “No coke in the Outback.” She touched the side of her nose and sniffed, daring me to judge.

I shrugged. It was cool if she did coke. Whatever.

But then she raised up a can of coke, and we laughed so hard we leaned into each other and knocked heads, and it hurt like shit and we laughed even harder. I’ll never forget that. Man, that was one of life’s moments where you just have to stop and say, “I’m remembering this.” And you can pull it out again and again when you really need some hope.

I don’t know what possessed me, I hated talking about the past, but I told her my story. I left out the pizza parlor thing. But pretty much everything else came up by the end of the night. Finally, she shook her head and said, “Crikey, Cali! That’s some Walkabout! You’re lucky to be alive!”

Crikey. She just cracked me up.

She shook her head. “You sure got some serious Mojo.”

“What’s Mojo?”

“You know. Good luck. Here.” She pulled a string from around her neck and showed me a round stone with a sort of star painted on it. “This is my talisman. For good luck. What’s yours?”

I thought for a second and pointed to my scar. I even told her I named it Erin.

But she shook her head. “No. A talisman is something you carry.”

I lifted my guitar.

She shook her head. “Too big.”

Well shit. This was getting annoying. “Give me a fucking break!” I grabbed a pillow and hit her with it, and we had a big old giggly pillow fight. Then she stopped and said, “Come on. You got Mojo. I want to see what it looks like. What do you carry with you?”

There was… one thing. I used it every day but… I tried not to give it any thought. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a purple guitar pick with a flame on it.

Akala took it from me and examined it. “Where’d you get it?”

I shrugged. I didn’t feel like saying.

She caught my discomfort. “An enemy, or a protector?”

My throat tightened. “Protector.”

She nodded. “There you go.” She gave me a funny smile, all sly and wise, and said, “It’s three in the morning. I’m going to sleep. Goodnight Cali.”

I lay in bed with my throat all strangled and tight, trying not to think about stuff.

Akala whispered, “You should thank your protector.”

I didn’t answer. I pretended to be asleep, but damn if I didn’t start crying. Stupid Akala. I mean, it was silent tears and all, I wasn’t heaving and sobbing like an idiot. Truth be told, it did make me feel a little better, runny nose and everything. I stared out at the moon from our little window for an hour or so, and I finally whispered, “Thank you Mom.” She’d put that guitar pick in my Christmas stocking right after Zoe taught me to play guitar. I always took it as a message, that Mom liked me the way I was. Kind of like “It’s okay to have crazy hair and play Zoe’s guitar. Just be you.”

God I hate pizza.

I woke up to Akala walking out the door, looking really cool in a fedora.

“Hey.”

She turned around, with some long tube-shaped case on her shoulder.

“Is that a bazooka or something?”

We both laughed, and she told me I wasn’t the only musician in the world.

I thought, what are the odds? I felt stupid that I’d talked all night about me and hardly talked about her, and here she was a musician.

I asked again what her instrument was, and she said, “Come to Balboa Park with me and see. Bring your guitar.”

We walked a couple miles at best and oh my god. It was like Disneyland. I mean, the buildings were all white rococo and fancy, there were botanical gardens and museums and one of those 3-D theatres and even a bug museum, I kid you not. There was a really pretty fountain and beautiful lawns and stuff.

Akala pulled a long hollow piece of wood from her case, called a didgeridoo. She said people made stupid ass fake ones and sold them to the tourists, but a real Aboriginal didgeridoo was a tree branch that had been hollowed out by ants. I totally thought she was kidding but she wasn’t. It was all smooth and perfect and painted with tribal symbols, it was the coolest fucking thing I’d ever seen.

She sat down on the edge of the fountain and put the didgeridoo between her legs and blew on the top of it. What came out honestly freaked me out, in the weirdest, best possible way. Like a groaning, rumbling, ache of a sound. I closed my eyes and felt the notes reverberate inside my chest. It took me somewhere. Shit, I think I went on a walkabout in my mind. The tone was so low, and floated into my ears and took all my pain and anger and loneliness that I didn’t even know was there and shook it out of me, out of my pores and expelled it until all that was left was just me and Akala and the music, somewhere in the Outback. I saw her people in my mind, with painted faces, staring at me with black eyes. I felt a bond, with them, and with the earth. I opened my eyes and there I was in a park by a fountain and I thought, now that was frigging awesome!

Anyway, after that I was in. Completely in. I was the groupie. The thought made me smile, I was always the one who had “groupies,” like Zoe all dancing around, and little Tot from the back room at Shen’s. So I stood up and danced. But not rocking out—no screaming or jumping. Just sort of swaying and waving the air gently. The funny thing was, other people joined me! This goofy dance I was doing, everyone else felt it too and pretty soon Akala had a big-ass fan club! She told me she made more tips in that hour than she ever had before.

She asked me to watch her stuff so she could get some coffee. She shook her head at her hat full of tips and said, “You got some serious Mojo, girl.”

I laughed and said, “Hell no. That was all you.”

She said something cool. She said, “Maybe it was us.” And that felt good. Like we were friends. Really truly friends.

While she was gone I got out my guitar and just started fooling around, jamming, not really playing any one song.

Akala came back with two coffees and a big grin. “Yeah. That’s cool. Keep going.”

She sat down and played her didgeridoo while I played guitar, and we stared at each other with wide eyes, because it was fucking cool! Man that was an exciting moment, where we both realized something really amazing was happening. I kicked open my guitar case and made a shitload of tips. But that wasn’t even the craziest part.

A guy named Kai with a pierced ear and skinny jeans stood listening for a good hour. Then he gave us his card—he was the entertainment director for the House of Blues. He said he wanted us to play there but it was up to us to fill the place if we wanted to get paid.

After he left, Akala screamed, “House of Blues? That’s a big club!”

I was kind of freaked out, because all we’d done was jam. I said, “Akala, we weren’t even playing any real songs.”

“So we make a song list. What can you play?”

I shrugged. “Lots of stuff.”

Akala frowned and shook her head. “Lots of stuff. That’s a terrible answer. Are you a musician or not? Who are you? What music is completely you?”

“You mean—like songs I’ve written?”

“There. You answered your own question. Let’s hear them.”

I sat there with Akala and we played until the sun went down. It was unreal, how our music worked together. But what worked best were the jams where we just let the music take over. So I’d sing a song that would normally be four minutes long and we’d turn it into ten just playing off each other, my fingers flying, with Akala’s ethereal swirl of resonating sound in the background. Then she’d blow some wild percussive patterns and I’d stop playing and just pat the guitar with both hands like a drum.

We needed a band name. I said, “What about Outback?”

Akala looked around and laughed and said, “Girl this is waaaay Outback!”

So was called ourselves Way Outback. We played everywhere we could, every street corner, the park, pubs and coffee shops and everywhere we went we handed out flyers saying “Come to the House of Blues, March 13th!”

And come March 13th we had a full house and we each walked away with two grand in our pockets. Not only that, but Kai gave us a recording of the show!

Me and Akala bought I Pods and a little speaker and listened to the recording ten times that night, eating pizza and drinking coke in our hostel. It felt so weirdly normal, like we were every day average teenagers. Only we weren’t listening to our favorite rock stars, we were listening to us! Things were so great we talked about getting an apartment together. That was a great night, another memory to really remember. Akala gave me a lot of those—great memories, I mean.

Four days later it was St. Patrick’s day. Akala played at the park and I had a gig at an Irish pub. Everyone was getting wasted drunk so I played some Frank Zappa in honor of Julie’s “drinking years.” I got to thinking about her, and the foster boys Timmy and Bob, and how cool she was and how she was kind of like a mother to me. So after work I gave her a call, hoping she was still at the same house.

Timmy answered the phone and told me Julie had cancer.

I had ten gigs lined up but I canceled them all and got on the first bus back to San Francisco. And you know what? Akala came with me. Now that’s a friend.

Akala and I took a city bus over to Julie’s, but Akala hung back and sat on a bench in the yard. Timmy was there at the door. He gave me a big hug. He’d just turned fourteen and he was all GQ with his tight jeans and buttoned down shirt and his hair all slicked back. He was bad-ass handsome, and I told him so. He told me he had a boyfriend that had given him some fashion tips and taken him shopping. I teased him about having a sugar daddy and we both laughed. It’s weird how you can laugh when you’re scared. I wasn’t ready to ask about Julie, so I said, “Where’s Bob?”

He said, “Bob’s in the kitchen making Julie a grilled cheese sandwich.”

I felt like ten tons of bricks fell off my shoulder. Somehow I thought, if a person eats a grilled cheese sandwich they can’t be dying. I know it’s stupid but that’s what I thought.

We walked into the kitchen. Bob was thirteen by then. And he’d grown a bunch in just the few months I’d been away. “Geez Bob, you’re all tall and lanky!”

He gave me a big old hug, and he started crying.

Oh crap. That made me want to cry, but I blinked a bunch of times and ended up with just a tight throat. “So… what’s going on?”

Bob stood there with a grilled cheese on a plate sniffling and red-faced and it was all so surreal. He said Julie had some weird rare form of cancer. Some tiny little bump on her face. I mean, what the heck? A tiny bump?

“Come on.” And up the stairs he went, and we followed him. I didn’t know what to expect.

Julie was in bed, looking pale but that’s all. Her eyes lit up so bright when she saw me, I’ll never forget that.

I leaned over and hugged her gently.

“I’m so glad you came.” Her pretty strawberry blond hair hung over her shoulder. I guess I’d been expecting her to be bald or something.

I felt so stupid, and helpless and mad and I just said, “What can I do?”

She smiled and squeezed my hand. “You’re doing it. You’re here. I was really worried about you.”

Oh damn. That did it. I just sat there and cried, so hard my voice didn’t work for about five minutes. Finally, I squeaked out in a weird voice, “I’m sorry.” I was. I was so sorry I caused her to worry. God I never for a minute had even thought about that. I just felt so selfish.

She frowned. “Hey. You have nothing to be sorry about. Life happens. I know that more than most.”

I whispered, because that’s all my voice would do, “Is there anything we can do to fix this? Anything at all? Chemo, radiation, surgery?”

She explained that her condition was extremely rare, and cancer wasn’t covered by her insurance. They’d even asked her if she had a house she could mortgage. The answer was no and that was that.

I stood up, burning mad. “I’ll get you the money.”

She shook her head with a peaceful smile. “Cali, it’s alright. Maybe it’s just my time.”

“I’ll put on a concert. A benefit.”

She nodded. “I’d like that. But not for me. Maybe for cancer research. Make them aware of this disease, that it needs funding.”

I could tell she’d given up. I could also tell she totally didn’t believe me about the concert. I wouldn’t have believed me either, just a few months earlier. But San Diego changed things. Suddenly I believed I could do it. I needed to at least try. I squeezed her hand. “How… how long?”

“A couple months or so.”

I sat there on her bed and told her about Akala and The House of Blues, and even my “Mojo,” which got a laugh out of Julie. I showed everyone the guitar pick and then I slipped it under Julie’s pillow. “For you.” I gave her a kiss on the forehead.

Julie looked very happy, in that moment. She said, “Where is this Akala?”

Next thing you know, Akala was sitting on the bed too, telling crazy stories about the Outback to the wide-eyed boys, and delighting the heck out of Julie. If Julie could have, I bet she would have adopted Akala too, right there on the spot.

We heard a tap on the door and her brother Stanley the tech guru walked in. “How’s my favorite sis?” He kissed her cheek.

She chuckled. “I’m your only sis.”

Turns out Stanley moved in when she’d gotten sick. What a cool guy. He’d even promised to take the boys if… you know—if the worst happened.

We played the House of Blues recording to everyone and Bob the computer whiz said “You need a website.” And he and Stanley built us one, with a store and everything, where you could buy a download of our recording. Stanley asked what we wanted to charge, and it was Akala who said, “A donation of their choice to the cancer research for Julie.”

Timmy took some pictures of us playing our instruments for the website and it ended up looking pretty cool! It had a calendar and everything, for our shows. Of course we had no shows. I pointed to the following Saturday. “There. Put our benefit concert on the calendar, at Golden Gate Park.”

Akala said, “Girl, if we do that, we need speakers, a stage…”

I got a big fat grin on my face.

Akala said, “Uh oh, what are you scheming now?”

Remember my band “Head Trip” and the hot, bossy drummer named Brad? Yeah. I called him. He said we could use all his gear, as long as he could play too. So that’s how we got a PA system and a drummer. As for Fred from France, he’d moved back to France. According to Brad, Fred had shouted in a huff at the airport, “I’m going back to Marseilles where people won’t punch me.” I tried not to laugh about it but I did anyway. Poor Fred.

Timmy gave me and Akala his room and he bunked with Bob and Stanley. Julie slept a lot, but when she was awake she always asked us to play for her. She just loved that didgeridoo! And she loved my songs. Her favorite was the one I wrote for her—a song called “Strawberry Smile.” People always assumed it was about a lover but it was really just Julie’s kind face and strawberry blond hair. Visualizing her sometimes calmed my nightmares: “A twisted fright in the cold icy night is soothed by a strawberry smile.”

Everyone else went to bed, but I checked on Julie one last time and she was still awake.

“Cali, I’d like to talk to you.”

She looked really serious and it scared me. I sat on her bed.

She took my hand. “I know you have things you don’t like to talk about.”

If it had been anybody else, I would have run, right then and there. My heart pounded like a hammer. The stupid pizza parlor flashed in my mind and I shoved it away. Julie didn’t know about that anyway. How could she?

Turns out… she did.

“Cali, do you know why I went to jail?”

“Something about the boys being runaways, or not being processed properly, right?”

She smiled. “The boys were processed just fine. I was their legal guardian.” She waited for me to figure it out.

I squeezed my eyes shut. “Shiiiiiit.”

“I wasn’t your legal guardian.”

“Shiiiiiit. Oh shit. Oh shit.” I panicked. I stood up but she gripped my hand and she said in a commanding voice, “Cali. Sit down right now. I mean it.”
What was I gonna do? Run away from a woman with cancer? I sat down, dying a thousand deaths in that moment.

“Cali, don’t you dare feel guilty about this. Guilt is a useless emotion. It’s a poison and I simply won’t allow it in my house.”

“But…”

“I’m telling you this, not to hurt you, but to help you. Three words you need to hear are ‘Action, not guilt.’ Say it back to me.”

My eyes brimming with tears, I said, “Action, not guilt.” I would have said anything at that moment, I felt so horrible, but I had no idea what it meant.

“Do you know a man named Carmen Jones?”

“My uncle in Wales?” What the hell?

“Yes. Your mother’s brother.”

I felt like I was going to throw up. I felt all sweaty and pasty. “Please stop…”

Julie patted her pillow. “Come here sweetie. Come lie down with me. We’ve said enough for tonight. Can you promise me you won’t run away until after you’ve heard the rest?”

I couldn’t. I was already out the door in my mind.

She saw my face, she read my thoughts and she said, all exaggerated and funny, “Please promise a poor old woman, dying of cancer.”

She gave me a ridiculous pouty face that made me laugh in spite of it all.
She grinned. “There you are. Now promise.”

Laughing at her totally horrible sense of humor made me feel better. “Okay. I promise.” I lay down next to her and stared at the ceiling. “Go ahead. I’m ready.”

“Your uncle put out a missing person’s report, after…” she waited for me to finish.

“After I ran from the foster home.”

“Tell me happened to your parents, Cali. You need to talk about it.”

“They… died. They were shot by some crazy guy in a pizza parlor.” There. I said it. Okay. That wasn’t so bad.

“Where were you?”

I felt like I was sucker-punched in the gut. I felt all sick and pasty again. “Spending the night with my friend Zoe.” I really thought I was going to throw up.

“You know it’s not your fault, right?”

I rolled over and buried my head in the pillow, and I just sobbed like an idiot. Julie rubbed my back and my hair, like my mom used to do.

“There’s nothing you could possibly have done, Cali. I’m sure if you could ask your parents, they would be so grateful that you weren’t there. Thank God you were at Zoe’s. Thank God you’re safe.”

I woke up the next morning—afternoon. I’d slept for twelve hours solid. How weird is that?

Julie told me about “Survivor guilt.” Whatever. I tried not to think about it, but ever since then, I couldn’t push it all away. Not completely, like I used to do. Julie told me my Uncle was still in Wales but he’d take care of me there. That completely freaked me out. I didn’t even know my uncle. And Wales? I didn’t know a soul in Wales. Julie said if I did things the right way, I would have more choices. And she was right. Was she ever right.

As sick as she was, she and Stanley took me to the police department and we signed a bunch of papers. The police said there was a letter in my missing person’s file, from Erin’s family! Remember Erin, my horseback riding friend? They said I could come live with them in Thailand! The letter was three years old. Man. I had no idea. I could have been riding elephants and eating Pad Thai the whole time instead of living in bushes and hostels.

Julie was granted temporary custody of me while we got things figured out. We left out the part about her cancer. They didn’t have a checkbox for that anyway.

We got home and got Julie straight to bed. She was exhausted. I felt really bad and I told her so, but she said with a beaming smile, “Don’t you see? Action, not guilt! You took action today, and now look at all the choices you have! You made me very happy today, and I couldn’t be prouder.” She really did look happy, so I let the guilt go.

Akala and I went to Brad’s house to rehearse and wow, live drums added a whole new level of cool to our band. He had a new bass player, a girl named Daisy, and she was awesome. She joined the project too. We decided to do both original and cover tunes. I always liked the song, “Dream On” from Aerosmith so that got worked into the show too.

You know something else? Brad and Akala totally had the hots for each other! It took about two rehearsals and they were already making out when they thought we weren’t looking. I was happy for Akala.

Turns out her visa was expiring. We called the Australian Consulate to try to extend it, but we couldn’t. At least she didn’t have to go back to Australia until after the concert. And hey, remember my first gig at the park where we didn’t have a permit? I thought, What the heck. And we did it the right way and got a permit.

We needed a stage. I’d played on a stage at that Christmas party where I was paid five thousand dollars by the man with the fancy shoes, so this time I walked to his house, knocked on his door and asked if we could borrow his stage.

He shook his head with a big ass smile and said I was the most brazen person he’d ever met, and that he thought it was cool. But it turned out he didn’t own the stage, he’d only rented it, so he wrote the name of the stage rental company on the back of his business card.

Now this is weird. There I was, for the second time holding his business card. It said ‘Dr. Carl Mills, Neurosurgeon.’ I’d seen it the last time but it wasn’t significant. This time it was. I said, “You’re a doctor?”
I told him all about Julie and the rare cancer and the benefit, and he stood there in his robe with a cup of coffee listening intently, nodding his head.
He said two really cool things. First he said, “Tell you what. I’ll donate the stage. And the lighting. You have to have lighting.”

That was Cool Thing number one.

And then he said, “And I’ll do some research and see if I can find an expert regarding this particular form of cancer. I can’t promise anything, but with cancer it’s all about finding the right doctor.”

That was Cool Thing number two, on steroids, with a cherry on top and a partridge in a pear tree. Holy shit.

Akala, Brad, Daisy and I ran all over San Francisco putting up flyers that Bob and Stanley made for us. Stanley even called a bunch of radio and TV stations. And you know what? When it’s a benefit, you don’t have to pay for advertising!

We went to a printer shop to make a big-ass banner but crap they were insanely expensive for the huge ones. Akala said, “Would you donate a banner? We will thank you on live TV in front of thousands of people!” Now we really didn’t think we’d actually be on live TV nor have thousands of people, but the owner was convinced and we got our banner free.

Saturday came and oh my god. We all felt like rock stars. I dyed my hair green and bought a used jean jacket with rivets and cool patches. We had a killer stage to strut around on, scaffolding and lighting, a huge banner with Way Outback and our website printed on it for donations. And people came, and came, and came. Even Julie, in a living room recliner that the guys had carried and put right up front for her. Vendors came too, which was funny, because we had nothing to do with that. We had the boys run around and put jars and hats and anything we could find at all the vendor’s stations, for donations to Julie’s cancer research fund.

Julie couldn’t believe her eyes. None of us could. Brad and Daisy walked on stage and started playing a deep primal beat. I jumped onstage, strumming wildly, and Akala—she dove on the stage, did this crazy somersault thing that made the audience go crazy, and she did this incredible Aboriginal dance with a painted face. She was gorgeous and bright as the sun. Then she started playing her didgeridoo and the whole crowd hushed to a whisper, like they were all caught up in a trance. And then I started singing and we jammed and everyone erupted again.

People danced and between songs we’d talk about Julie, and people like her who needed hope. Stanley sat next to the stage watching the website donations. Man. The first fifteen minutes we already had a thousand dollars! It went up and up and by the end of the show we had seventeen thousand dollars.

Julie was in tears practically the whole show, and strangers were hugging her and praying for her and laying hands on her. Every religion under the sun was represented I think, each shining their version of God right into Julie’s heart. Maybe that’s what healed her. Maybe it was the guitar pick under her pillow. And along with all that prayer and mojo and love, was the oncologist that Dr. Mills found for us. And guess where he was located? San Diego.

The day after the show, Akala had to go back to Australia. She kissed Brad goodbye and then told him to go. When she was alone with me she said, “Brad is okay, but he’s too bossy for me. It’s you I’ll miss.” There I was at the airport, with my throat all tight again. Akala always did that to me. Anyway we hugged goodbye and she told me if I ever needed a home, to come to Australia.

And then me and Julie got on a bus to San Diego. Dr. Mills had explained our financial situation and the oncologist was surprised when we said we could pay seventeen thousand dollars. After all, it was for cancer research and he was the leading cancer research guy.

He had to cut her face, from her eye to her lip, but he very meticulously sewed her up, for the least amount of scarring. By the end he announced that he had got all of the cancer out.

I caught Julie looking at her stitches in the mirror. I gave her a hug and said, “Don’t worry, I have a scar too. It’s not so bad. I even named mine Erin.”

Julie laughed. “I’m not worried, I’m grateful. I’m going to carry this scar around like a diamond tiara. It saved me.” She turned to me and hugged me. “Actually, you saved me.”

“You saved me too Julie.”

She looked at me, her eyes all brimming with tears, and she said, “I found my mojo. It’s you.”

I laughed. “Akala said Mojo can’t be a person.”

Julie grinned. “Hmm. Is that so?” She studied her face again in the mirror. “Then I guess my mojo is my scar.”

I thought that was funny, because that’s what I’d told Akala about my scar, but Akala had said “No, Mojo is something you carry.” But Julie said she’d carry the scar around like a tiara, so I figured it counted, and Julie found her mojo that day. A scar that she decided to name “Cali.”

Julie and I got back to San Francisco and she kept trying to talk about the pizza parlor thing. She told me I shouldn’t call it the pizza parlor thing anymore, either. She said my mom and dad would want to be remembered. She said, “If I had died of cancer, I wouldn’t want you to call me ‘The grilled cheese sandwich thing.’”

Julie had a way of making horrible things sort of funny. Not even funny, just…okay to talk about.

She even said I should go back to my hometown in Oregon, that it would help me to heal.

It made me think of Zoe and I thought maybe it would be okay to give her a call. So I did.

I’d just turned sixteen, and you’d think I was all mature and stuff. But me and Zoe screamed like banchees at the sound of each other’s voices! I mean, I don’t think we said one comprehensible word for the first five minutes! And then I heard her dad in the background yelling at Zoe to be quiet, and her saying, “Dad, it’s Cali!”

Remember me saying he was an ass? Well I take it back. He got on the phone and he was just so nice and sweet and concerned and all. He also apologized to me for putting me in the foster system and he said he should have tried harder. That surprised the heck out of me. And Zoe was screaming “Dad, give me the phone! God!”

She sounded like a bratty teen-ager, it was funny! It sounded like… family. I ached all over like my skin was one big bruise. Zoe’s dad asked if I wanted to come visit. Or even stay. That maybe we could just get to know each other again. Zoe grabbed the phone with a “God, Dad! She’s my friend!”

She told me about her boyfriend and asked if I had one. I looked at Timmy and Bob and said, “I have two boyfriends, but one’s gay.”

Timmy threw a kitchen towel at me and Bob laughed his butt off. Then I told Zoe they were actually my brothers, sort of. She was all giggly and hyper and I thought, “Wow. That’s what a sixteen-year-old is supposed to be like.” It was weird because I wasn’t like that at all. Not anymore.

I took a bus to Oregon and did a bunch of school work on the long ride. Julie was back to home-schooling us.

When I got off the bus, there was Zoe, this beautiful woman of a girl, with bright blue eyes and light brown hair all short and bouncy. There was my mellow friend. We hugged and even cried a little. And she had her driver’s license! She reminded me of when we were twelve and I drove her all over, and now she was finally gonna drive me around and scare the hell out of me! She was so funny! And cool. Really honest to god cool.

We got ice cream, and I freaked out when we got near the… street. You know. The pizza parlor. Zoe held my hand and said, “Don’t worry, that place is gone. It’s a flower shop now.”

A flower shop. That made me feel better. That felt right. So we walked in the flower shop and I bought two roses. When my parents were cremated their ashes had been sprinkled in the Willamette River. I’d blocked out the memory for so long, but suddenly I remembered sitting on a park bench, crying, because I didn’t want to see the ashes go in the river.

Me and Zoe walked to the river and sat on that park bench with our ice creams. It really was a beautiful river, the water all raging and majestic, surrounded by dogwood trees with their new leaves and flowers budding out all over. We finished our ice cream and walked to the edge of the river and I gently set the roses down and watched them float away.

I said, “I love you Mom and Dad. I miss you so much. I’m sorry I forgot for a while. I’m back now. I’m okay, you don’t have to worry about me.”

Zoe put her arm around me and we just stood there and watched the roses swirl around and float down the river until they vanished around the bend.

When we got back to Zoe’s house, her dad sat me down all business-like. “So, have you thought about where you’d like to live? I understand you have several choices.”

I told him about Julie and the boys in San Francisco, and my uncle in Wales whom I didn’t even know. I even told him about Akala inviting me to Australia, though I didn’t know what her father the chief would have to say about that.

Zoe’s Dad said, “And us, of course. You seem to have managed okay. Any kilos of weed I should know about?”

Zoe punched her dad in the arm, but I just laughed. “No. Now I just write music.”

“And what about school?”

I opened my backpack. “I’m being home-schooled. My curriculum is kind of messed up, and I missed a lot of school, but I’m on a sort of catch-up program.”

He nodded, and browsed through a math book.

“I like math.” I don’t know why, but it’s true.

I stayed with them for a whole year. I even went to public school which was weird and sometimes uncomfortable. There were rich kids there who had so much stuff and thought that made them cool. I felt sorry for them. They’d probably never feel the thrill of living truly on their own, hand to mouth. I mean, yes being broke sucked but it was also very freeing.

I hung out with Zoe of course, it was like I never left. We watched old movies and went for long walks. She went out with her boyfriend a lot but that was cool. I liked alone time to write music. Being back in my hometown brought a different level to my music. I guess if I had a word it would be my music matured. I felt safe and comfortable. And restless, if I had to be totally honest.

By the next Spring I was really restless. Zoe held out my birthday cake.

“You’re seventeen. Make a wish.”

I loved Zoe with all my heart. Her family was great, and had been unbelievably kind and generous. But I wished… to go. I didn’t know where. I just felt like I didn’t quite fit in the town any more. I thought about Julie and San Francisco. I thought about Erin and Thailand. It sounded so exotic and exciting, but not quite right.

Later that night I talked to Zoe about it. Zoe was amazing, I could tell her anything, she had a heart of gold. She’d heard all the stories about Julie and Akala, even Mr. Shen.

I said, “Zoe, do you remember me telling you about Erin, from my childhood?”

“The one you rode horses with? Sure.”

“Yeah. She asked me to go to Thailand. But that was three years ago.”

“She doesn’t live in Thailand anymore.”

I stared at her like—huh? I asked, “How would you know?”

She shocked the hell out of me by saying, “When we were looking for you, Dad said he saw your missing person report, and a letter inviting you to Erin’s house in Thailand.”

I felt all choked up again. “You were looking for me?”

Zoe hit me with her pillow. “Of course we were! We were worried sick!”

There was that guilt again. I felt horrible. “I’m so sorry, Zoe. I don’t know why it surprises me when people say that. I feel so stupid and selfish.”

She gave me a hug. “Not stupid, not selfish. Grieving. I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost my…”

I answered for her. “Parents. I know. Thanks, Zoe. You’ve been such an awesome friend.”

“I know.” She laughed softly.

I laughed too. I felt much better after that.

She smiled. “So you want to go somewhere else now? What about Australia? You have two friends there now.”

“Two?”

“Yeah. That’s where Erin moved to. My dad called them to see if you were with them. He has their address and everything.”

Holy crap. It turns out Erin’s family had this great big sheep farm, about thirty kilometers from Akala’s house! Fate is a funny thing, for sure.

I made two expensive calls. One to Erin, and we screamed even louder than me and Zoe did, if that’s possible! Erin said after school she rode horses and herded sheep and it was the most freeing thing in the world. She said I was still welcome to come, and I’d actually get paid a little for working on the farm. I was sold. I was already packing in my mind.

Call number two. Akala. Oh my god it was awesome to hear her voice! She said, “Girl, we went viral! Our show in San Francisco? We are on the radio now in Australia! You get your ass over here, we need to do some shows!”

Okay. I pulled my guitar pick out of my pocket and held it up to my face and said, “Damn, you are some serious Mojo!”

And here I am, back at the beginning of the story again, standing at Botany Bay in Sydney Australia, with purple hair and a guitar named Zoe over my shoulder. I’m Cali, I’m seventeen, and I think I’m finally home.

What Comes After

hands (2)Miranda laughed, delighted with the butterflies. She’d never seen so many. The branches of the tree undulated in iridescent blue and violet. She waved her little hand near the lowest branch and a dozen butterflies sprang up, circling her head. She raised her arms and spun around slowly, dancing with them in her pink cotton dress. She breathed the fragrant air, tasting of pollens and earth and grass and nectar. This is what happiness looks like, smells like, tastes like.

A perfect moment. Clarity. Pure joy.

She imprinted the memory—the scent, the rustling sound of the leaves, the sun on her hair and the gentle breeze. A flood of love filled her soul. She bathed in it, in that moment, twirling with butterflies.

They flew back to the tree. It was time to go. But she would carry the memory with her, until the end, through the darkest of times.

A man in black read from his bible, and Miranda looked down at her chained hands and feet, the IV in her arm, the doctor with a sad duty to the law, her orange garment. She closed her eyes and imagined a pink cotton dress and whispered, “I’m ready.” She rested her head back against the pillow, and butterflies took her home.

WHAT GOES UP…

stilettos1Greg opened the car door. “Get out.”

Kiki stepped out with a head full of excuses, but he drove away before she could speak.

She watched the Mercedes disappear over a hill. No one had ever dumped her before. That had always been her job.

An icy wind blew her pink hair in her eyes. Great. I just got my hair done. She reached in her back pocket for her phone—the one that she’d left in the Mercedes. Along with her jacket. “Crap!” She stomped her feet and her green leather stilettos sank into slushy mud. She stepped back onto the asphalt, cursing the new scratches on her spiky metal heels.

She scanned the horizon and saw nothing but thick forest. Greg had said they were going to his cabin in the woods, with “No neighbors, boutiques or spas for a hundred miles.”

She hugged her bare arms for warmth, annoyed. Hurry up already, somebody. Damsel in distress here.

She figured she’d flag down the next car that came by. But… who to call next? She inventoried her Kiki worshippers, and came up with a dozen love sick boys with big houses and credit cards. Whatever. As long as they have heating, ‘cause its freaking cold!

A fox popped his head out of the brush, sniffing.

Kiki screamed, “Seriously? Wild animals too? Shoo!”

He inspected her face, then took a cautious step towards her green shoes with the shiny heels.

Burning mad, Kiki yelled, “You want my shoe? Stupid little creature! I’ll give you my shoe!” She pulled off a shoe and hurled it hard at the animal, who scampered into the forest.

“And… now my foot’s freezing.” She hopped towards her shoe at the edge of the forest, but sank into the slush. “Damn it!”

The fox stole back through the brush just long enough to nab the shoe and vanish into a thicket.

Kiki cursed and scowled, hopping on one heel.

A flake of snow settled on her bare shoulder. “Are you kidding? I’m wearing a halter top, for god’s sake!” She flicked it off and shouted to the sky at the top of her lungs, “Somebody get their sorry ass over here and rescue me!”

The sky responded with a dump of stinging snow.

Kiki’s blood boiled. “Oh no you don’t!” She pulled off her other shoe and flung it straight up at the sky through the blinding white.

 

Officer Lee shivered and shined a flashlight on the pink haired lady in the snow. “Cause of death?”

The coroner knelt over her. “Looks like the perpetrator used a dull thin object, maybe the width of a pencil, which penetrated the left eye and continued on into the brain. Wound approximately five inches deep. Have you found the weapon?”

Officer Lee shook his head. “No sir. But we have a suspect in custody. Her boyfriend, Greg Barnes. He called us from his cabin a few miles up the road. He said they were fighting in the car so he dropped her off here an hour ago, alive and well.”

“And barefoot—in the snow? Nice guy.”

“Greg claims she was wearing shoes when he left.”

“So we need to find her shoes and the murder weapon.”

“So far we’ve found neither.”

The coroner saw a whirl of fur and jumped up, startled. “What was that?”

Officer Lee chuckled. “Scared of a little fox? I think he likes the smell of your feet!”

Unfazed, the fox scampered back to his hole under the briar to chew on his green prizes. He liked the feel of the leather on his sharp teeth, and licked a bloody heel clean.

Evolution of an Innocent

Empty messy unmade bed with white bed linen and crumpled sheets, close up view in front of a bright window

Another contest, this time any subject, 1500 word count. Here’s what spontaneously combusted out of me:

Eleven pm. Deidre slipped out of bed. She picked up her stockings from the floor and washed them in the bathroom sink. They weren’t really dirty—she had no sweat glands or pores—but she liked the ritual. It made her feel human. She rinsed them and hung them on her shower bar. Twenty minutes before, she’d had company in that shower. A beautiful man, as perfect as if he’d been manufactured at the android plant like herself. His hair black and silky to the touch, his skin smooth. He had a smoldering smile. His pheromones were real enough. There was something about the smell of human males that gave her pleasure.

She lifted her arm and took a pointless sniff. Androids were still scentless, though there had been debates lately on whether or not to add a pleasant non-allergenic odor to them.

Deidre slid on a silk robe and walked back to bed. She smiled at the curious sight. John had a pillow over his face. Humans had the most peculiar sleeping habits.

She pulled the pillow away. “John?”

He didn’t stir.

She touched his cold face, concerned. “John?” She concentrated on sound. She heard the whooshing of a train on the metro rails twenty floors below. That was all. No heartbeat, no breathing, except her own.

She placed her fingers against his neck to feel for a pulse. “John?” she repeated, even though her logic program suggested it was pointless. He was obviously dead—the black haired man named John.

She sat beside him on the bed, greatly concerned. A dead man in an android’s apartment would have repercussions. And why was there a pillow on his face? Had he died of asphyxiation? There would be inquiries and she would surely be taken apart and examined. She did not like that thought at all.

“Logic chip, set to 100%.” Deidre felt her focus sharpen. She went over the facts.

John came to my door this evening at 9:13 pm. He appeared to be in peak physical condition. He visited my bedroom and I provided him with romantic services. He showed no signs of distress. He seemed content and healthy all evening.

Deidre said aloud, “Play memory record: March 12, 2050, 10:15 pm.”

Deidre’s memory of that time appeared on a holographic screen. She leaned forward, listening and watching.

John smiled, his head nestled into a pillow. “You are quite beautiful, Deidre.”

Deidre heard herself respond, “Thank you. So are you, John.”

She laid her head on his chest.

Deidre listened carefully to the recording. John’s heart rate was a steady 63 beats per minute. No tell-tale sign of a heart murmur, irregular breathing or any other anomaly. He didn’t appear to be in any pain.

“Memory record: advance 25 minutes.”

The projection showed a 10:40 pm time stamp, and John in the shower, washing his hair and laughing.

“Memory record: advance 15 minutes.”

The projection showed a 10:55 time stamp. John lay next to her in bed, smiling at her. He said, “I enjoy your company Deidre. I’d like for us to be friends.”

“I’d like that, too.” She turned out the lights and the screen went dark. John chatted about his favorite music, called Jazz.

Time stamp: 11:01 pm. And they were still chatting in bed.


But I was washing stockings at 11:01 pm.

Deidre’s eyes widened. Androids were programed to show an expression of surprise when they came upon a puzzling equation. But Deidre felt genuinely surprised. She realized there was an anomaly in her memory records. “Current time and date stamp on my mark. Mark.”

“11:43 pm and six seconds, March 13, 2050.”

March 13th? I’m missing a day.
“Memory record: Last recording before missing data.”

In the dark she could hear them both breathing as if asleep. Time stamp: 12:00 am. The screen blipped off.

Deidre became acutely aware that she was in trouble. A missing day of memories meant it was very likely that she herself had caused John’s demise. Every subroutine in her neuro-circuitry told her to call the authorities and turn herself in. She imagined herself being pulled apart. They would start with her head, and they would undoubtedly keep her awake so they could ask her questions. They would shut down her motor functions so that she would lie there with no control, no ability to run, push them away, fight…

She noticed her heart racing. Androids did have a cardiovascular system which was programmed for rapid heartbeat given certain stimuli. Fear of death was not one of them. An android with a fear of death could potentially be dangerous to humans.

“I am malfunctioning.”

I am frightened.

She felt a hot drop of liquid on her cheek. At first she thought she had been injured and was leaking fluid. She stepped over to the mirror and saw tears. She was not programmed for tears. She had no tear ducts. She leaned close to the mirror and pulled down her lower eyelids. And she saw them. A little hole in each inside corner of her lower lids, that hadn’t been there before. Tear ducts.

Her pulmonary system abruptly processed excess air into oxygen.

I am hyperventilating. How is this possible? What is happening to me?

She studied her reflection, her contorted expression of panic.

“Self-diagnostic on my mark. Mark.”

A hologram appeared showing her vital signs.

Aside from the elevated heart rate and respiratory imbalance, she was running at peak efficiency. “Close diagnostic.”

She returned to John and examined his body. There was nothing in his mouth, no wounds on his body, nothing broken. No froth or spittle to indicate poison. The only conclusion she could come up with was that she had smothered him with a pillow.

And, in a strange act of self indulgence that was certainly not part of her program, she pulled his lower lids down and examined his tear ducts. They looked just like hers.

Am I human then?

In that fleeting moment, she almost believed she was. But humans didn’t have holographic diagnostic screens, nor projectors built into their eyes. What had happened in that lost day? Had she killed someone? Had she… evolved? The two questions combined like that made her realize something horrible. Unspeakable.

Unspeakable? I am an android. I am thinking like a human.

The unspeakable thought was that, in killing, she could not have evolved, but devolved into something that was not meant to be.

I am a monster.

Something had happened to her, physically. Something that could not be explained with logic. A gift? No. A curse. She was a bad android. Worse, she was a bad…person. She thought again about turning herself in, about lying on a table, unable to move as they poked and prodded. What if they never turned her off, but left her on that table in pieces? Or what if they turned her off and she stayed sentient? Able to think, unable to communicate?

The torturous thought caused a madness in her that she simply couldn’t bear. She placed the pillow back over John’s face and whispered, “Deidre program, off.”

Nothing happened.

“Diagnostics, erase Deidre program.”

Nothing happened.

Her face grew hot with tears. She felt her face tighten with sorrow. Her voice quavered. “Terminate Deidre android.”

Still no change.

She walked out to her balcony and closed the door behind her. She looked over the ledge. The railway was directly beneath her, twenty floors down. If she jumped, and aimed her cranium for the tracks, there would be no chance of her program surviving that. The trains came every two minutes. Her timing had to be just right. She calculated gravity and distance. “Time stamp, on my mark. Mark.”

“11:58 and 3 seconds.”

She stepped to the ledge.

Billy Johansen unlocked Deidre’s door and burst into the apartment. “We are so late, they wake up at midnight. Hurry.” He trotted into the bedroom.

Sam followed in his white lab coat, beaming. “If the John series passed the test, we’re rich. Do you think he fooled Deidre? Do you think she believed he was human?”

“Only one way to find out.” Billy reached into John’s mouth and pulled a tiny silver chip out of a back molar. “I got the data.”

Sam sniffed the air. “I wonder if Deidre noticed the new scent on the John unit.” He pointed, “Why was that pillow on his face?”

Billy chuckled. “Because that’s how I sleep, and I programmed him.”

“You’re a strange guy.” Sam searched the apartment. “I’m curious if Deidre noticed her upgrades. I’m especially proud of the tear ducts. And the emotion enhancement. Uh… Billy? Deidre’s gone.”

Billy frowned. “She’s not in the apartment?”

Sam shook his head, worried. “No.”

“You set her waking timer for midnight, right?”

Sammy shrugged. “Yeah. Well, for 24 hours.” His eyes widened. “Daylight savings time. I forgot.”

“So she’s already awake. Since eleven pm.”

“But where did she go?” asked Sam, raising his voice over the sound of the train.

A New Year’s Blessing

At the end of every year I grow introspective and read through my journal from the past year. I’ve had bad years and good years. I lost my mother in May, but I would still say I’ve had an excellent year. Perhaps it was my mom’s gift to me, this year. I have learned so much, perhaps the most important lesson being, there is no expiration date on dreams.

As a child, my mom taught me that it was okay to follow my heart and my artist’s path. I never got rich, but I have a treasure trove of “Diamonds.” The technical word is “Intellectual Property,” meaning I wrote a bunch of books, songs, albums, poems… you get the picture. But I like “Diamonds” better. They mean something, these unpublished tunes and stories. They mean “I did it.” Not “I tried and failed.” I have an audience that matters. Me. I can sleep at night knowing I forged ahead and made my dreams come true.

I was responsible—I have always worked as a performer, and have made a decent living. I raised four kids on a musician’s paycheck and they were always housed, clothed and fed. They grew into wonderful, productive adults. And most importantly, they grew up kind. That makes me very proud.

My mom’s disease, Alzheimer’s, taught me the importance of balance. Unconditional love and care-taking doesn’t mean losing one’s self, if means rearranging boundaries and schedules that work for everyone. It means being selfless one moment and selfish another, so that everyone stays cared for and healthy and loved. I wrote more poignantly this past year than I had in ages, because my mother’s struggles opened my heart wider than I thought possible. I loved my mom deeper than I thought I was capable. I learned her songs from an era long gone, I learned how to make her smile and I lived to do just that. It brought me deep joy. I had to snatch at moments to write in my journal, but the passages came from a new level of my soul. I had to write music sporadically, but they were my most honest work.

Ages ago, on my 29th birthday I remember crying, thinking “It’s over! I’ll never get a record deal now that I’m over the hill!”

If I could go back in time and talk to the old (young) me, I’d have a hard time keeping a straight face. But I would be nice and simply say, “Just wait. You will never believe the adventure that’s just around the corner. You will travel the world, your mind will open, and you will know a new level of love. You will truly become an artist. Your metamorphosis will enlighten your children and help them find self-dignity and the right kind of love—-a balanced love.”

The 29 year old me would certainly ask, “But will I make it? As an artist, I mean. Will I find success?”
And I would smile enigmatically and say… “Yes.”
That is the gift my mom left me with—that I truly believe I have achieved success. I am an artist. I embrace that artist and nurture her because she deserves nurturing. I have learned to draw boundaries and make time for creation. I have learned the importance of silence, and the importance of noise. The world needs both. I need both. The introvert in me has learned to make time for life. For it is in life’s interruptions, pain, and boisterous bombastic chaos, that stories and songs unfold.
And the people-pleaser in me has learned to protect the introvert and allow her a quiet corner to put dreams to paper.

I am an artist. And I shall be until I die. And that makes me feel like the luckiest woman on earth.

I Found My Mayfly, What’s Yours?

As any writer knows, the creative process can be a peculiar thing, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, to those watching from the outside. Speaking for myself, I have my frumpy pilled camel color sweater that’s kept me just the right amount of cozy, through many a book writing endeavor. I would have been lost without it.

As I get older my process has shifted. I find it’s no longer just about the cozy. It’s more about the crowbar prying me away from the television or the “to-do list” or kids in need or the husband that I swear, uses me for the carpool lane when he takes me on a business trip. Gone are the glory days of writing for an entire summer under a tree, on one of those old fashioned wooden swings, where my biggest problem was, “Time to charge my laptop. Guess I’ll just have to write inside my charming rented cabin in the woods.” Ah, sweet memories, when my books pretty much wrote themselves.

Now I’m more like a dog spinning around three times before sitting down. There’s so much to do, I’m whirling and twirling and running until I plunk down, exhausted. I cannot write after having “plunked.” Even a dog would agree. When a dog spins around three times, is it instinct? I think not. The dog has simply found its process for a really great nap. “If I spin around, I’ll get a little woozy and tired, plus I’ll shoo away any bugs and snakes that I’d rather not sleep on. I’ve cleared all the worry away and I’m feeling a little loopy now so I’m ready for sleep.” See? Even animals need a process. Writers need a creative process. It takes a bit of experimenting sometimes to find it. A dog’s goal may be to have a nice snooze. Mine is to find the time, place and most importantly, the mindset to write.

I get tired, and I mean really zonked. Life is busy and distractions bombard me like confetti at a parade. I think about the dog spinning around and around until its dog universe aligns perfectly. It’s canine Zen. Then, and only then, is the dog content to rest.

I have experimented a thousand ways, up, down and sideways, to find my perfect creative process—the steps that I can take to ensure a positive writing experience where the world is my oyster and imagination spills onto the pages. Oh, that delicious writing frenzy, where my hands are barely keeping up with my mind—what a rush! If I could bottle that feeling and sell it, I could pay off the national deficit and bring world peace in one fell swoop.
Alas, more often than not, I’m busy with errands and the dirty dishes are screaming at me. I’m wearing yesterday’s socks but if I skip the laundry I have an hour to write something…anything.

Pressure doesn’t mix with creativity. I’d love to be a Hemingway or a J.K. Rowling where I can actually write for a living, undisturbed, and hire a maid to boot. I could say to everyone, “I’m going to work now, see you in eight hours or so,” and walk outside onto that swing set under the tree, and no one would tell me to go back to school or consider a career in real estate or wonder if I had a screw loose.

The reality is, I’m not Steven King or Milton or Shakespeare, so I have to be a mayfly. A mayfly is an insect with the unfortunate distinction of having the shortest lifespan of the entire animal kingdom—anywhere from a half hour to twenty-four hours. Mayflies do not eat, they live only to create. Literally. They reproduce and that’s it. And they do so in a teensy weensy window of time. That’s how I feel. I am forced sometimes, under great pressure, to create in a nano-second. It’s either that, or give up writing.
Mayflies are born with one thing on their minds. They don’t come out of their egg and say, “First I’ll balance my checkbook, then grocery shop, mop the floor, go to work and…oh yeah, see if I can squeeze in a date with that hot little morsel fluttering her wings at me.” Nope. It’s the hot chick or nothing. I bet they don’t even care about dirty socks.

And so, I need to prioritize. Catch myself at my most undistracted, my freshest, my most alert, my most positive. And I’ve found it. I’ve found my mayfly. My maximum creativity. It takes work to get hatched out of an egg. That little mayfly comes out pumped up and raring to go! Exercise. That’s the key. So first thing in the morning, I wrestle my blankets until I’ve found the corner of the sheet, and emerge, fresh and alive—a brand new day with brand new opportunities.
I force myself to put on, not my cozy fluffy robe that has a homing beacon for the couch. Instead, I put on my exercise clothes that say, “Energize, Mr. Scott!”

I pour my coffee and a glass of water—coffee for my pleasure, water for my health—and get on my exercise bike. Then, and only then, do I get to pick my favorite show and watch it. I have to be disciplined and never watch my favs unless I’m on the bike. Now I associate the pleasure of a kick-ass chick flick with exercise. I’ve tricked myself into being… healthy! Sneaky me.
Just like the mayfly, emerging with energy to do only one thing, I get off that bike, pumped up and glistening, grab my laptop and step outside to my patio. If I listen to the rustling leaves and the birds singing, I can transport myself to that swing in the woods, and… I write.

The phone rings, invariably. But this is my time. Like the creative span of the mayfly, I can indeed live a lifetime on paper in this precious moment or two. I feel not shame, but pride, when I send a quick text message to my phone friends, “Can I call you in a couple hours? I just sat down to write.” I am validated. My creative lifespan for the day has been honored.

When I finish—when my little window of existence as a writer has been spent for the day—I am left with a few paragraphs in my journal, or the beginning of a novel, or a little story about dogs spinning and insects reproducing, which to the normal human may seem curious at best, but just may make sense to a few other mayflies like me.

Songs For Mum

As any artist can attest to, there are bound to be dry spells. This can be very disheartening. I find that even when I feel foggy and blah, if I just push through it and put my fingers on a piano or a laptop, my heart is rekindled and something is born; a song, a story, or a fresh “harebrained scheme.” So here I am, pushing through.

There’s a nip in the air and a rustle in the leaves. It’s time for a cozy sweater, a steaming cup of coffee, and writing songs and stories about home and hearth. My home and hearth are different this fall—I no longer have my mother’s sparkling eyes, a happy sigh and a clap of her hands, her “Pinch me, I can’t believe it’s you!” every time I’d come into view.

My mom had Alzheimer’s, but I was truly blessed to have her in my life, throughout it all. She sparkled until the end. Her optimism, even in the midst of a ravaging disease, still leaves me humbled. When her memory faded and then left her completely, she still loved me. The love wasn’t taken. And that was enough. That was so much. There were times when she would look at me with kind, warm eyes, trying to place me. I would kiss her soft velvety cheek and say, “It’s your little girl Rosalyn!” and rock her in my arms. She always hugged me back. I would say, with a fake English accent, “Me Mum…”
And she’d answer with an exaggerated accent, “Me dough-tah!”
Love transcends. It was okay if she didn’t remember my name. The little “Mum and Dough-tah” dialogue was an old memory, and somehow stayed with her.

The last day before she was hospitalized, we celebrated my Dad’s birthday at a park. The sun glistened upon the lake, the sky was a vibrant blue and the emerald grass seemed to glow. Everyone was there—her children, grandchildren, and her beloved husband who sat by her side holding her hand. Throughout the afternoon she watched with delight as her grandchildren blew wand bubbles for her and played. We brought her favorite music; old songs from her childhood. Music is the magic formula for Alzheimer’s, for those who don’t know; it is the last memory to fade. Mom remembered music till the end. She could barely talk, but she could sing.

Music was always a part of Mom. My earliest memories are of Mom washing the dishes and singing. Walking on the beach and singing. Driving and singing. Singing to us, singing to no one, but always, always singing, with her soft gentle English accent and her sweet pretty voice. No wonder I became a musician.

And here she was at a park all these years later, still singing, or nodding her head to the music, or smiling at a familiar tune, perhaps triggering a flash of an old memory. It was, by all accounts, a perfect day. The most alert we’d seen Mom in a long time.

Strangely, fifteen minutes after we left the park, she was rushed to the hospital, and then brought home with hospice care. Her last words were to her youngest daughter Cathy, her precious baby who traveled from Washington to be by her side. Mom was unresponsive, as Cathy said with a broken heart over and over, “You are my beautiful Momma.”

And then, Mom’s eyes opened one last time. Clear eyed and clear minded for a fleeting moment, Mom answered, “You are my beautiful.”

And then she was quiet and still. It was our turn, our loving duty, to sing to her.
We played Joan Baez’ “Diamonds and Rust.” Cathy had to leave the room to cry—that was Mom’s and Cathy’s favorite.

We played “Over the Sea to Skye” and I sang along, as Mom would have done. I remember as a young girl, Mom pushing me on our swing set, singing that song to me. I remember the sunny day, the contentment in my heart, being with my mom like that. I remember Mom saying it was written for “Bonnie Prince Charles” of old, and I visualized “The lad who’s born to be king” sailing in a great ship with sails unfurled, exhilarated.

My daughter Shannon sang songs from movies she used to watch with her dear grandma.

And, in case mom’s spirit had already left her unresponsive body, we played “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,” so she could dance to it like she used to. It’s strange how you can laugh and grieve at the same time. It is a very cathartic thing to do.

When Mom passed, we held each other and cried. I remember saying, through my tears, “I know she had Alzheimer’s. But it was enough. It was enough for me.” There was a remnant of Mom till the end. In her smile, in her sparkle. In her music. She…was my music.

A month before Mom died, she started fidgeting with her hands. It is a natural progression of the disease. I bought her a little stuffed bear, and I’d place it in her hands so she’d have something to fidget with. Dad asked once, “What’s the name of the bear?”
I didn’t have a name, so Dad said, “How about Comfy?”
We laughed, and Comfy Bear was christened.

After Mom’s funeral we all gathered at my sister Charlotte’s house. She brought out some knickknacks and costume jewelry of Mom’s. Strangely, it was the medical alert bracelet that caught my eye. I lost the old mom years ago. But the “Loopy Mom…” the one I could hold in my arms and rock, the one that said, “Pinch me, is it really you?” just because I walked to the kitchen and back…oh how I miss her.

I took that medical alert bracelet and placed it around Comfy Bear’s neck. It sits right by my bedside, and I ache every time I look at it. It is a good ache.

Now when I look up at the sky, I see mom in the birds, I feel mom in the wind. I feel her love. Perhaps, after a long hard road, she is at last free to sail “Over the Sea to Skye.”