Free is my Favorite Price

A hat tip to some incredibly effective pizza marketing. 

As we continue riding out this quarantine- me, from the epicenter of the pandemic in Queens, and you, most likely somewhere safer but no less boring- I want to share a light story about how a seriously mediocre pizza chain managed to get my business twice in a single week.

For context, I am not ordering very much delivery these days.  There isn’t a single reason for that, but a few complementary reasons: it places the delivery driver, and to a lesser extent me, at risk of infection; it costs money, at a time when money is tighter than usual; and delivery food is quite unhealthy*, which doesn’t pair well with the more sedentary mores of quarantine.

So our story begins last Thursday.  I was at my desk, on my work and personal email.  Like many people, my inbox is my work flow these days, so it’s Always Open, even if I’m doing something else.  A promotional email came through, one of those that eluded my various filters and unsubscribes.

It was from Dominoes.

They were emailing to remind me that I had accrued enough loyalty points for a free pizza.  Now, I’m not a huge fan of Dominoes, as their pizza is both unremarkable, and remarkably expensive.  Still, every four months or so, I forget that I’m “meh” on Dominoes and place an order.  Usually, it’s the thought of those lava cakes that gets me.  Then I eat their pizza, feel mildly unwell, and resolve not to do that again, a resolution I keep for approximately four months.

However, “free” is my favorite price, so after an ad-hoc meeting of the household executive committee, roasted veggies and beef stew were placed on the back burner (literally, and then put into tupperware for the weekend) and a pizza order was commenced.

With pizza, not unlike with sushi, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach.  The first pizza was free.  The other three items in my order were not.  The food lasted for two days.

Within thirty minutes after the delivery, another ping in my inbox: it was Dominoes, thanking me for ordering, saying that they had missed me, and giving me a special gift: a coupon for a free pizza, only good for seven days.

I muttered an expletive aloud as soon as I saw it.  My stomach was full of cheese, my mouth full of salt, and my mind full of a resolve that I would let that coupon go unused.

I really almost made it.

Then, today, the last day of the offer, I weighed the potential benefit of a free pizza against the more uncertain outcome of cooking frozen burger patties, and the free pizza won out.  Another order was placed.

While I have been writing this, the pizza arrived, accompanied by several other less-free menu items.  My fingers are leaving melted chocolate on my keyboard from the lava cakes.  This is one of those rare liminal moments of joy, between the first taste of sugary, fatty food and the inevitable carb crash to come.  It is a happy time, a wholesome time.

It won’t last for much longer, so I’ll enjoy it while I can.

So well done, Dominoes.  See you again in four months or so.

-AG

*”But Andrew,” I can hear you thinking, “there are lots of great options for healthy delivery!”  Yeah, but I don’t order from those.  Neither do you: don’t lie.

Published in: on April 30, 2020 at 5:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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From the Belly of the Beast

My neighborhood is right in the middle of the NYC outbreak; here’s how we are coping. 

With Jackson Heights, Queens being featured so prominently in national media stories about the pandemic, I want to share what life has been like for me over the past month.  

Kelsey and I live in a two-bedroom apartment about a ten minute walk from the Junction Boulevard 7 train stop in Jackson Heights, right on the border with Corona.  Junction Boulevard is our main thoroughfare, and contains most of the stores where we ordinarily do our shopping.  

For the past month, we have been social distancing champions.  Most days, we don’t leave the apartment at all. I know many people leave to take brief walks, but the folks in our densely-populated neighborhood don’t seem to understand social distancing, and the few times we have been outside, we have had to “walk defensively” to create space between us and other humans.  For that reason, we are trying as much as possible to stay inside. 

This would be much easier if grocery delivery was still a thing, but it really isn’t.  Amazon Fresh lets us build an order, but won’t permit us to schedule a delivery. Same for Fresh Direct and Instacart.  For dry goods, I was able to make an Amazon Pantry purchase, but it took almost a month to be delivered. Oddly, alcohol delivery services are still running quickly and efficiently.  I can’t get a gallon of milk, but I can get pinot noir from multiple vendors, usually within two hours.  

I have been very fortunate to be able to work remotely, logging on to my work computer from home.  Work has been quite slow, as the courts are closed to all but the most urgent matters. My firm is taking a serious financial hit from the pandemic, and my salary has been temporarily decreased, though I have been promised I will get the deferred portion back when things stabilize.  I value job security very highly, so the disruption has been causing me some stress.  

On weekdays, I wake up a few minutes before 9, and log on to my computer, ready for the day.  I usually shower and change clothes mid-day. When I have work to do, the hours pass quickly. More frequently, things drag, and I alternate responding to work emails, throwing darts, reading, and browsing the internet.  COVID-19 news is everywhere, it is hard to escape.  

I have not been able to write as much as I would like.  There is something stifling about being cooped up all day.  I have, however, had a chance to improve my guitar-playing and my darts game.  I painted two acrylic canvases, despite my utter lack of artistic ability. I am reading steadily, which has been a challenge, since my ordinary routine is to read while I am commuting, a part of my life that is gone, and that I do not miss. 

A few days ago, I had to make a grocery trip, because we were out of everything.  The nearest grocery store is right across the street. They are metering people at the entrance, and only allowing a limited number in at one time.  I waited about forty minutes in a socially-distanced queue to enter, but then shopping went relatively quickly. Essentials are back in stock, and the lack of people in the store made it easy to maintain a safe distance.  Even for that brief excursion, I donned gloves and a face mask. We aren’t taking any chances. 

In the evenings, my routine has been to participate in video calls with people.  I have played virtual darts with someone else who has a board, and watched movies through an add-on app called Netflix Party, which syncs the playback and allows for chat.  Zoom has been a wonderful platform for remote socializing, and I hosted a seder for Passover with friends and family. I even managed to play a virtual talent show, singing and playing guitar.  

Fin, my 18 year old cat, is getting more attention and enrichment than he has had in years.  He seems happy about it, though I am certain this has disrupted his 16-hours-per-day sleep schedule.  

Every day at 7pm, we lean out the window to hoot, holler, and cheer for our first responders.  Unlike other parts of the city, not many people here participate, but a few do. It is nice to have camaraderie with strangers.  

I don’t know how much longer this pandemic will last, or how long it will be until we can resume our normal lives.  My best guess is that things will start opening up mid-May, but I intend to listen to public health guidance and do what I need to do in order to stay healthy.  My family had a COVID scare, which fortunately abated without harm. Some of my friends have lost people to the illness. It is a scary time.  

When this is over, I hope we will make some changes to the way we structure our lives.  The fact that so many of us can do our jobs remotely should cause us to question the need to spend hours each day commuting.  I have become even more committed to fighting for national health care, after seeing the debacle wrought by private health care companies that must prioritize profitability over preparedness.  

If we can emerge stronger, that will be a silver lining from this time of crisis.  I hope we get there soon. 

-AG

Published in: on April 14, 2020 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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What Will Come After?

Some initial thoughts on what we are learning from COVID-19

As New York enters the second week of our surreal pandemic dystopia, I want to take a few minutes to think about what will happen when the crisis is over.

In the early days, there was a sense among my colleagues and friends that this would cause a major disruption for a few weeks, and then everything would return more-or-less to normal.  I no longer think either part of that is accurate.  This will not be over for months, and it seems increasingly likely that we will lift our stay-home orders only until a new wave comes, and then rinse, repeat*.

I also do not think things will- or should- return to the way they were before the pandemic.  This crisis, and our response to it, have laid bare some weaknesses and inefficiencies that we should address as we look to rebuild our economic and social lives.  These are just observational, and my views on them might change as time goes by, but I want to share them now because they’re on my mind.

The first, as alluded to in my previous post, relates to working remotely.  I spend over two hours each work day commuting to the office.  Last week, I was more productive than in any week this calendar year.  I think that a broad swath of industries should be looking into why they require in-person attendance at a physical office, when the work can be done just as efficiently from home.  While client meetings and collaboration with colleagues is made easier in a shared physical space, I do not see the need for that to be the everyday expectation.  I intend to speak with my employers about arranging a regular work-from-home schedule, to reduce the amount of time wasted in transit.

Another truth that has been laid bare is the role of essential employees.  While many industries are shut down, and many jobs are being performed from home, some service industries simply cannot.  Health care providers, particularly nurses and doctors, are being rightfully honored for their sacrifices and dedication.  During times like these, they literally save lives through their efforts.

At the same time, we need to recognize the tremendous sacrifices being made by our grocery store workers, our delivery personnel, our restaurant cooks, and other essential workers who have been long-derided as “low skilled.”  By showing up to work in public places during a pandemic, they are exposing themselves and their families to a major, life-threatening virus.

I think the time has come for those who fight against giving them a $15 minimum wage to sit down and shut up.

The extraordinary changes being made to health care by our government highlight major failings in our system, failings that have always been present and are only now getting attention due to the severity of the crisis.  My health is directly affected by my neighbor’s health.  If they can’t get tested or treated, that puts me at risk.  Health care is a communal problem, not an individual one.  Universal, single-payer health care needs to happen, now.

Crises also test leaders, and there has been a major contrast between two of our leaders: President Trump and Governor Cuomo.  Full disclosure: I did not previously support either one of these guys, but the contrast between how they are handling COVID-19 couldn’t be more stark.

The president initially called this a hoax, and promised that we would be down to zero cases in no time.  He blamed the media for making a big deal out of it, and refused to accept testing kits from the WHO, saying that we would simply make our own “beautiful” tests.  By the time he started to take it seriously, the virus was already spreading beyond containment.  He continues to say things that just aren’t true: every American who wants a test can get it (nope), a Navy hospital ship will be arriving in New York harbor by next week (three to four weeks, minimum), and his handling of the situation has been perfect (not by any objective standard).

Governor Cuomo has been consistently saying hard truths, explaining the steps he is taking and his reasons for doing so, and focusing on facts and logistics.  I couldn’t believe it when he ruled out a shelter-in-place order for NYC, but after hearing his reasoning, it made sense to me.  He told us how many hospital beds we have, how many we need, and what he’s doing about it.  He has been candid about the challenges he is facing, including competing with other states for supplies since the federal government is impotent.

He told us that the buck stops with him, and he is responsible for upsetting people with the hard decisions he is making.  That is what leadership looks like, and when the dust settles after all this, I will be re-evaluating my political opposition to him.

I’ll end with a few observations on my home confinement.  I have been outside once in the last four days, a brief walk to a local wine shop to pick up a bottle or three and to chat with the gloved, masked owners.  Spring has come, finally, not that any of us can really appreciate it.

Over the past few days, I learned to use Zoom, and have enjoyed video conferencing with friends and loved ones.  It has been hard to keep conversations going, because the pandemic is all that is on anyone’s mind.  I did a brave thing, and posted a video of myself singing and playing guitar on social media, which I counted as a big achievement.

I’m throwing a lot of darts, and am so glad I thought to put up a board just a few weeks ago.  Fin, my 18 year old cat, seems to resent the frequent interruptions to his stringent sleep schedule, though he is appreciating the extra attention and treats.

Of course, I want this to end as soon as possible, but I am mentally getting settled in for at least a month of living and working from these few rooms of my home.

I hope you are all doing well, staying safe, and keeping in touch with your loved ones.

-AG

*I am unabashedly self-satisfied at finding a hand-washing metaphor to employ there.

Published in: on March 22, 2020 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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Numbering the Folks

Recounting my brief term as a federal employee. 

On my way to work this morning, I saw an advertisement for this year’s census; they’re up-staffing for the decennial production.  It immediately called to mind one of my very first jobs, twenty years ago this spring, working on the 2000 census.  

I was in high school, and I saw an ad, not that dissimilar to the one I saw today.  I think they even had a website back then, too. The pay was amazing- I lived in Kentucky, so our wages were probably much lower than those of people in the bigger states.  These were federal wages: I would be making nearly twice my pay at whichever fast food establishment employed me at the time. 

I filled out an application, sent it in, and got an interview.  When they confirmed that I was a reasonably personable kid they hired me.  It was part-time, after school and on weekends. I started in late spring. 

My job was a “non response follow-up representative,” or some such nonsense.  What I did was: you know those forms you get in the mail, the really official ones that come every ten years?  If you don’t, wait a few months. Anyway, you were supposed to fill it out and send it in, and if you didn’t, someone like me knocked on your door and filled it out for you, by asking about a dozen questions.  

That was for most cases: one in every however-many households got a longer form.  They did this for surveying purposes. A few of my follow-ups were on those forms, and they could take awhile, like fifteen or twenty minutes.  

I went through training.  They very slowly explained to literate adults how to fill out a painfully simple form.  I was, at least technically, one of those adults. They told us that if we encountered resistance, we should very calmly and patiently explain that responding to the census is federal law, and they had to comply.  

Surely eager to show myself an “a” student among my fellow federal wage-earners, I asked what we should do if they threaten to call the police.  The trainer, who was also my supervisor, said that we should tell them to go ahead, and that the police will tell them they have to answer the census questions. 

I was assigned a route not too far from my high school, off Richmond Road in Lexington.  One of my follow-up visits was to the school’s drama teacher, who had recently directed me in a musical.  We laughed at each other as he filled out his form. The job was pleasant enough; most people were cooperative, if a bit wary.  Nearly everyone was polite, even if they were inclined to refuse.  

After about three weeks on the job, I had a short form follow-up at a little suburban house in the neighborhood.  The woman who answered the door was simply not having it. I politely insisted, and she started airing conspiracy theories about the government.  I told her I didn’t know about any of that- I was a political science nut and knew it was garbage, but wasn’t going down that road with her- but that my job was to get her to answer these dozen questions, and then I would be on my way.  

She threatened to call the police, except saying it that way makes it sound angry.  She wasn’t angry. She informed me, quite calmly, that if I didn’t leave her doorstep, she would have no choice but to call the police.  

I told her, with equal calm and resignation, that I would wait on the porch until they arrived, and that they would tell her to answer my questions.  

She tested the theory.  

I learned a few very interesting things that afternoon, and in the days and weeks that followed.  I learned that people do not, in fact, have to answer census questions. They can answer or ignore you as they please.  I also learned that police officers, as a rule, do not appreciate having the law or their jobs explained to them by eighteen year old political science nuts, particularly if said eighteen year old political science nut happens to be wrong.  

Another lesson: don’t trust everything you learn in training.  Managers are fallible too, and mine had trained me wrong.  

The final lesson, and it was a doozy: being a federal wage earner is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  

I was fired that day, kind of.  So was my boss. It happened in dramatic fashion.  I waited around with the policeman and the homeowner, and then my boss showed up in her car.  I had given the officer her number. We had scarcely begun apprising her of the situation when another car pulled up, and a stranger got out: it was my supervisor’s supervisor.  

After all the facts came to light, it was resolved that I was to go home, and not report to work again until they told me to.  Same for my boss, who to her great credit, fessed up to having trained me to let them call the police. The homeowner was free to go back to her life unmolested by the US Census.  

While I was at first dejected- it was one of my first jobs and I had just lost it for following directions- things quickly turned around.  The next week, I got my paycheck. My full paycheck. And the one after that. And then the next. The federal government, perhaps since they had not actually fired me, but just told me to go home, continued to pay me for a further five months, after only three weeks of actual work. 

In the twenty ensuing years, I have never had an employer pay me not to come to work, not counting vacation or sick days.  It’s a great gig. If you’re looking for an opportunity and see one of those little advertisements, I’d highly recommend it.  If I were looking for work, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. Except I’m probably on a list somewhere, exiled from the bureaucratic corps because of Lisa’s shitty job training.  

-AG

Published in: on January 23, 2020 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wishing a Merry Christmas

On my evolution vis-a-vis the holidays. 

I have mixed feelings about the holiday season.

Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, I was part of a Jewish community that- while not as small as most people assume- was tiny compared to the seemingly endless cadres of miscellaneous Christian congregations.  Lexington contains hundreds of churches; there are three in a row on one of the main streets of my childhood, Tates Creek.

By comparison, there is one synagogue, and one temple.  Even the small Jewish community was divided, seemingly evenly, between the conservative Jews and the reform Jews.  My family was a part of the former, and we attended Ohavay Zion Synagogue, near my parents’ home.

During my early educational years, I attended a private Montessori school.  While I have overwhelmingly positive impressions of the quality of the education I received there, one downside of a private school was that they were not bothered by pesky separation of church and state issues, and as the holidays approached, Christmas celebrations abounded.

My clearest memory of those holidays at Community Montessori School is the singing.  All the students would sit in a big circle (it was more of a rectangle, actually, but we called it a circle) and sing Christmas carols.  I learned from my parents which ones were kosher- Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, etc.- and which crossed the line, like Silent Night.  My parents seemingly had a ratings system, disqualifying certain tunes based on overt references to Jesus or Mary.

The three kings got a pass, probably because of my mom’s fascination with Amal and the Night Visitors.

As a sop to the Jewish students- in my class, that just meant me- we would always include a single Hanukkah song, selected for this purpose on the singular qualification that it was the only song the gentiles knew: the dreidel song.  As my classmates sang that song, I was aware that everyone was looking at me: this was my moment.  I was being explicitly included.

It backfired.  Not only did I feel ostracized by the whole holiday song exercise, I grew to despise the dreidel song, and to resent that it was the only nod towards my culture that made it into the sacred circle of holiday singing.  I developed an irrational anger towards that innocuous tune, one that I later transferred to a song much more worthy of my ire, but one that did not exist during my early childhood: Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.

The holidays- heck, the whole month of December- was really hard for the only Jewish kid in the class.  Classmates talked about their Christmas plans, the gifts they were expecting, the holiday parties.  Some tried to evangelize at me.  One kid gave me a tin full of homemade cookies, which came with an invitation to his church.  My parents exchanged a look and warned me to keep him at a distance, though they let me keep the cookies.

Hanukkah became a bigger deal in our household than it is for most Jews, probably as a reaction to Christmas.  It became the holiday of big gifts, of big celebrations, of decorations.  I only learned many years later that it’s a relatively minor holiday, and that the bonanza celebrations are a purely American, strictly competitive phenomenon.

In short, my experience of the holiday season was defined by my role as a religious outsider.  It was a cogent reminder that I was not like these other kids, who regardless of race, class, or neighborhood, could all come together around the concept of Christmas.

As a foreseeable reaction to this experience, I used to hate Christmas.  I fought tooth-and-nail against a girlfriend who wanted us to acquire a small Christmas tree for our apartment.  I opted out of Christmas parties, and kept uncharacteristically quiet when confronted by holiday cheer.

In recent years, I have adjusted my perspective, in part through the realization that Christmas is, at its core, not a Christian holiday.  Its historical roots notwithstanding- it was basically imported wholesale from paganism- the way we celebrate the holiday season has precious little to do with religion.  It is a holiday of commercialism (our popular Christmas image of Santa Clause originated in the 19th century and was popularized by Coca-Cola), or less cynically, it is a holiday of American camaraderie.

It is a chance to take time away from our professions, to celebrate with our peers and with our families.  It is a time for the three universal elements of wintertime celebrations: light, green, and plenty.

My conversion, for lack of a better term, from holiday cynic to celebrant started on the margins and moved inward.  I like egg nog.  I love days off work.  An excuse to call my Christian relatives is a nice occurrence, and sharing family moments with my closest friends and partners is rewarding.  I have been welcomed into families during the holiday, and have been treated to abundant good food, plentiful strong drinks, and the occasional brightly-wrapped gift.

In retrospect, I see that my feelings of exclusion had less to do with the external factors of my Christian classmates and teachers, and more to do with my own decision to remain apart from those celebrations.  The Christians tried, they really did.  Heck, they even sang that dreidel song for me.  I made a decision to hold myself apart from the celebratory mood, perhaps as a prophylactic against any attempts to convert me.

This holiday season, as I prepare to embark on a series of holiday parties and celebrations, I feel like a celebrant, not a cynic.  I can see and appreciate the efforts of others to make me feel like a part of the holiday, and I am doing my best to add to the celebration and be a creator of the warmth and plenty.  I’m making my grandma’s cheesecake recipe for one party; the host is putting out a menorah and gelt as part of the decor.

I am heartened to move beyond old childhood prejudices and make the holiday season my own.  We have this incredible power to redefine things that bother us, and reconcile with painful experiences from our past.  I am trying to do that, with regards to the holiday season, in the service of my overall happiness.

Except with regards to that Adam Sandler song: may it be blotted from our collective history.

-AG

 

Published in: on December 12, 2019 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Death Camp

Recounting my experience at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

On Thursday, September 19th, 2019, I visited the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp outside Krakow, Poland.  The experience defied my expectations, and has been sitting in my head like an onion, waiting for me to pull back each layer and examine its flavors. I think that I am ready to begin. 

My identity and history shaped my experience of Auschwitz, as I’m sure they do for all of the millions of visitors.  The first and most important facet is that I am a descendant of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the United States in 1912.  Had they stayed, they would have likely been victims of the holocaust. I would, in all likelihood, never have been born. 

Beyond that, I have had an academic fascination with World War II since as long as I can remember.  I know great volumes of information about the rise of the Nazis, the progress of the war, the decisions that led to the holocaust, and the impact on the many victims.  My appetite for the history of that time is insatiable, and I am always reading and learning more.  

When I realized, earlier this year, that my travels would bring me within visiting distance of Auschwitz, I resolved to go.  I believe that we have a duty to go there and witness the most infamous of the death camps, to see what remains of the most horrible atrocities of modern history.  

I thought that if I turned off my phone and brought my notebook, I would be able to sit and reflect, to be present, and to let the raw experiences of that presence inform my writing.  I was confident that when the time came, I would know what thoughts I needed to record.  

In fact, the visit had the opposite effect.  The few notes I took down were too raw, too abstract, too out of place and time.  The import of having seen Auschwitz has stifled my expression, such that even now, weeks later, sitting in an air-conditioned office with limitless time to compose, I find myself at a loss for words.  

So, I’ll start with something basic, an aspect of the experience that I was not expecting, and that relates to the way the Polish government has set up Auschwitz as a historical site.  All visitors are assigned to a tour guide in their particular language, a guide who works with the facility, and all tours are guided; there is no opportunity to wander, to be by oneself, to sit and reflect.  

The guides, who are well-versed in the camps’ history, lead each group through the carefully curated confines of what was once Auschwitz I, the original camp, and through the wasteland of former structures known as Auschwitz II, or Birkenau.  Throughout, they present a running narrative of facts and stories about the camp, and they keep a brisk pace, as interest in visiting Auschwitz runs quite high: our guide told us that last year, they had over two million visitors.  

Auschwitz I was much smaller than I expected.  Its buildings are intact, and it housed the prisoners who worked in the factories.  It contained the site of the infamous Mengele experiments, the death wall where prisoners were executed, and the original “Kanada,” a building that housed the belongings stolen from the newly-arrived.  Two or three of the buildings have been converted into what is essentially a museum space, with photographs, artifacts, and informational displays.  

The most moving of these exhibitions, at least for me, was the large collection of hair, shoes, and luggage.  The hair, which was removed from each prisoner upon arrival, filled a space larger than I could have imagined.  Some was still braided. It was discovered in large boxes and sacks by the liberators, a tell-tale relic of the great swaths of humanity who passed through and perished there.  

In between the buildings of Auschwitz I was a guard hut, which was used during the tortuous roll calls that took place twice each day.  I wanted to sit on the curb, to be by myself, to imagine what it must have been like for those desperate people, at the mercy of the guards and sick with exhaustion and hunger.  I wanted to try to bring all those stories I have heard for years, and put them in their physical place, to feel how they resonated in my mind.  

But we were on a schedule, and the tour moved quickly on. 

Just outside the walls, a single gallows stands near what was once the home of the camp commander, Rudolph Hoss.  After the war, he was hanged on that site. Next to it, there had been a gas chamber and crematorium; thought it had been destroyed prior to liberation, it was reconstructed, and we were given an opportunity to walk through the macabre facsimile.  

From there, our tour suspended, and we were told to meet at Birkenau, several miles away, where we reconvened with the same group, and the same guide, for the second half of the tour.  Cafes outside Birkenau offered pizza, hot dogs, and coffee. There was a gift shop, facetiously styled as a book store, peddling postcards, literature, magnets, bags, and other souvenirs.  

While Auschwitz was small and full of stories, Birkenau was massive and full of unfathomable numbers.  The barracks that once housed hundreds of thousands of people have been almost entirely dismantled; their raw materials furnishing nearby residents with what they needed in order to rebuild after the war.  The main surviving feature is a train track that runs directly into the camp, between the barracks, and stopping just a hundred yards short of the twin gas chambers.  

Our guide pointed out the place at the tracks where the selection took place.  For most of the war, the selections took place outside the camp, at what was known as the Jewish platform; it no longer exists.  This last, later platform was primarily used for Hungarian Jews, who were brought here near the end of the war. Popular media gives the impression that only the weak, sick, very young, or very old were sent directly to the gas chamber, but that is incorrect: of these later arrivals, 80% were sent directly to their deaths, and only 20% were sent to be used as slave labor.  

The gas chambers, which were destroyed but whose ruins still remain, flank either side of the extreme edge of the train track, and the camp.  They were once combined facilities, both designed to kill, and to cremate.  

Imagine the experience of stepping off those train cars, and seeing large plumes of smoke on either side.  By then, it was late in the war, and information about the extermination camps had already spread within the Jewish population of occupied Europe.  After an excruciating journey in cattle cars without food or water, prisoners would be forced to line up, abused by armed guards, and made to run past a doctor, who would with a wave of the arm determine whether they would live or die.  Most died. 

The extreme edge of the camp, between the two fossilized gas chambers, houses a memorial, in which words of commemoration are written in many languages.  It is large but simple. It does not, nor can it, do justice to the atrocities it seeks to memorialize. 

The final stop on the tour was a barracks, one of the first constructed and one of the only buildings still standing.  I saw the small spaces in which bodies were overcrowded for sleep. It is hard to imagine that human beings lived there for years, on starvation rations and subjected to hard labor, abuse, and disease.  It is a wonder any of them survived to liberation.  

As the tour ended, our guide- a non-Jewish Pole- said something important.  She said that while it is tempting to only think of the victims, we have a duty to think of the perpetrators: they were not aliens, they were people, and if they were capable of doing these things, so, too, are we.  That is why, she added, it is important that people come to this place, and see what happened here.  

Elsewhere on my travels, I learned the extent of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe before the war.  Jewish cities, town, and villages dotted Polish and Ukrainian maps by the thousands. Wooden synagogues sprung up all over the country.  In Warsaw, the Jewish population topped out at 40% of the city’s inhabitants.  

The systematic persecution, the ghettos, and the forced deportations thinned that population out, and concentrated it, cutting it off from the rest of the populace.  Had the Nazis stopped there, the Jewish population would have been severely reduced and disrupted over the 5-6 years of Nazi control.  

Instead, their decision to conduct mass extermination wiped out all but a small fraction of the Jews living in Eastern Europe before the war.  Auschwitz/Birkenau was the crown jewel in that effort. More than any other place, Auschwitz exemplifies the genocide of the Nazis, and the complicicy of the Poles.  After seeing the camp, I cannot believe any accounts from the locals that they did not know what was happening there; the scale was too large, the surrounding villages too close.  I believe they turned a blind eye, motivated by self-preservation.  

In Warsaw, before the war, the Jewish community was thriving.  They wrote music, published Yiddish newspapers, and had a burgeoning culture that reminds me of America’s own roaring 20s.  The destruction wrought by the Nazis ended that community, and it has never recovered.  

The major takeaway I feel is anger.  Anger at the people who did it, and those who allowed it to happen.  The excuses of the camp guards- who were just following orders- ring hollow.  There is a great wrong that took place at Auschwitz, and it has never been rectified.  I’m not sure that it ever can be.  

I still believe that everyone who can, should visit Auschwitz once in their life.  I think it is important to pay witness, and to be moved beyond articulation. I certainly have been. 

-AG

 

 

Published in: on October 1, 2019 at 9:34 am  Comments (3)  
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The Frog

For pride month, River challenged me to re-write a fairy tale to incorporate LGBTQ et al. themes. This story is the result.  

“What on earth is that racket?” said Queen Marianna, with equal parts scorn and brown gravy dripping from her mouth.  As a globule of the latter fell onto her plate, she self-consciously dabbed at her face with a napkin. 

Voices were talking over one another in the hallway, the sound growing gradually louder. 

“I don’t know,” King Grisham said, frowning, “but this is our dinner-time, and they can wait until we’re through.  Jessop?” This last word he addressed to the servant who stood at the ready.  

“Yes, sire.” 

“Go see what all that fuss is about.  And Luna, finish your plate, so you can get started on the dishes.” 

Princess Luna sighed mightily, her forearms on the table, head hunched over the last few bites of her food.  

“I don’t WANT to do the dishes, father.  Why don’t we have a maid to do them instead?  We used to have a maid…” 

The king and queen exchanged a meaningful look. 

“Luna, dear, we talked about this,” said the queen.  “We are tightening our belts this season, and everyone has to pitch in.”

“And you promised you would do the dishes tonight.” the king said, with finality.  

With a mighty crash, the wooden doors flung open, and Jessop returned, panting. 

“Sire, it’s a meteor shower!  The sky is full of shooting stars!”

Luna jumped up from her chair. “Father! Can I go see it?!”

The king furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. 

“You need to do the dishes first. When you’re through, then you can go outside and watch.”

“But, sire, we don’t know how long-“ Jessop started. 

A dangerous, direct look from the king stopped him cold.

“A promise made is a promise kept, Luna. Some falling space rocks don’t change that,” said the king. 

“It’s just not….it’s not fair!” said Luna, stomping off to the kitchen.  She slammed the door behind her as she left, causing both king and queen to stiffen and wince. 

“You were a little harsh, dear,” said Marianna.

“Perhaps,” said King Grisham, “but she needs to learn responsibility.  She only got out of her chores yesterday by promising to do them today.  We can’t let her become spoiled.” 

“But she’s only a child,” Marianna said, gently. 

The king sighed.  “If only that were so!  She’s fifteen. Far too old for these make believe games.  Most young women her age are learning to tend to the household, choosing dresses, learning to dance.  I worry about Luna.” 

“She’s just a bit of a tomboy.  There’s no harm in that.” 

King Grisham chuckled.  “A tomboy? Yesterday, she was pretending to be a knight saving a maiden in distress.  I think she’s just confused.” 

“She’ll grow out of it,” said the queen.  “I certainly did.” She gave the king a flirtatious smile.  

“You did all right for yourself, I suppose,” the king said.  

“Well, right now, I am going to see about this meteor shower.  Would you like to join me?” 

“I have some things to attend to, my dearest,” said King Grisham.  “Enjoy the show.”

Luna sat astride an impossibly high tree branch, her legs dangling, her concentration focused on a small patch of dirt just below her.  She wore simple shorts; her legs and feet were bare. Muttering aloud, she slowly cocked her hand behind her head, and then swung it forward, propelling a smooth rock at high velocity.  It impacted the dirt precisely on target, a plume of dusty fallout rising.  

“Right between the eyes!  The ogre staggers backwards.  His eyes get wide. And then…he falls!” 

She looked around.  Nobody was in sight.  To her left, she saw the path back towards the castle, the ground knotted with bark-covered tree roots.  To her right, the river shallows, which began just a few feet from the base of the tree. The water was quiet; the only sound was the hum of insects, and the few distant voices of those still outside after the now-abated meteor shower.  

“All at once, a huge roar, and then Sir Luna sees…the dragon!”  She bared her teeth, pushing air and voice through them to simulate the malevolent growl of the great beast.  

Luna dropped her voice to a deep tenor.  “You’ll never save the maiden! Guards!” 

She reached into her pouch and drew two more stones, which she swiftly threw, one to each side of the original impact.  

“What is this magic?  The spears bounce right off!” 

Deep tenor again.  “Hahaha, you fool! I am protected with a deep magic.  You cannot defeat me or my servants. Surrender, and I will give you a swift death.” 

“Never!”  Luna reached back into the pouch and drew a golden orb.  “Behold! I have my own, more powerful magic!”  

She thrust the orb forward and back, forward and back, aiming each thrust in the direction of her failed missiles.  

“Pachoo!  The dark guards are fallen!  And you’re next.”  

She raised the orb over her head, imagining the terrified dragon’s look.  

“Wait, Sir Luna, don’t hurt me!  I’ll return the maiden to safety.” 

“And what of your hoard?  Will you give back everything you stole from the village?” 

She snarled her voice.  “Never! You will never take my gold!” 

“You asked for it.”  She pulled the orb back dramatically.  As she did, a moth alit onto her elbow, giving Luna such a fright that she spasmed slightly, the orb slipping from her grasp.  With horror, she watched as it fell, leaves exploding off of their branches as it passed. It hit a low-hanging branch, and Luna watched helplessly as it rolled down the right side of the tree, into the river.  

For a moment, she sat in stunned silence, and then bounded down the tree, letting the twigs and bark abrade her legs and face.  When she reached the ground, she ran to the water’s edge, and peered down into the darkness, seeing nothing.  

“Oh…..shit!” she exclaimed, emphasizing each harsh letter of the curse.  

“What did you lose?” said a small, tinny voice.  Luna looked around quickly, but saw no one.  

“Hello?” she said.  

“I said, what did you lose?” 

“Where are you?  Come where I can see you!” 

“Don’t be frightened.”  The voice was very close now.  Luna felt fear rising from her lower back, through her chest, and coming to rest in her collarbone.  “Turn around. I’m sitting on the lowest branch.”

Luna turned, but nobody was sitting on the bough.  She saw only twisted bark, a line of tree ants, and a small frog, that seemed to be looking directly at her. 

“Don’t be frightened,” the frog said.  

Luna gasped, taking a big step back and nearly falling into the water. She regained her footing, mouth agape. 

“How are you- are you talking?!” 

“I am,” said the frog. 

“But that’s impossible!” 

The frog took a small hop forward on the branch, and Luna flinched.  The frog’s voice was enthusiastic. “Dragons are impossible. Magical stones that can slay demons are impossible.  Now what are talking frogs, next to those things?” 

Luna shook her head rapidly from side to side, trying to clear her head.  “You…were listening to me?” 

The frog nodded.  “The whole time.” 

“I can’t believe this!  First, I miss the meteor shower.  Then, I lose my golden orb. Now, a…FROG… is talking to me, and snooping on me when I think I’m alone.  This is too much.”  

She dropped to the ground and started to cry. 

The frog hopped off the branch and came down next to her.  “Maybe I can help you. What if I go and get your orb back?” 

Luna sniffed loudly.  “You can’t. It fell in the river.” 

“Ah, but I can.  You said it’s gold, right?” 

Luna nodded. 

“If it’s gold, then it sank right to the bottom.  It’s not too deep here. I could get it for you.” 

Through teary eyes, Luna looked at the frog.  “You’d do that for me?” 

The corner of the frog’s mouth turned up.  “For a price.” 

“I don’t have any money,” said Luna. 

“I don’t want money.  I want you to break my curse.” 

“Your…curse?” 

“Yes.” 

“What’s the curse?”  

“Well,” the frog pressed his mouth together broadly.  “I can’t tell you that. It’s part of the curse.” 

The princess sat up, wrapping her hands around her knees.  “Well, then, how am I supposed to break it?” 

The frog audibly sighed.  “I can’t tell you that either.  But if you let me stay with you, just for a little while, I think you’ll figure it out.” 

Luna scrunched her forehead and thought for a moment.  “If I say yes, you’ll get me back my golden orb?” 

“I will!” said the Frog. 

“Okay, then.” 

“You promise?” 

“I promise,” said Luna. 

At once, the frog hopped to the water’s edge and dived in, disappearing under the black water.  Luna sat, watching for any sign of its return.  

She waited. 

And waited. 

And waited some more.  At last, despondent that the talking frog would never return, she stood up, brushed the leaves and dirt off her clothing, and started back for the castle.  

She had gone just a few steps when she heard a splash, followed by a very faint, high-pitched panting.  

“You found it!” said Luna, rushing towards the golden ball.  She grabbed the orb, kissed it, and started back for the castle. 

“Hey, wait!” the frog gasped.  “You…you promised to help!” 

But Luna was already gone, running and skipping her way back home.  

It was the galloping of leather-shoed feet on the stone floor, rather than the thunderous banging of the doors that immediately followed it, that woke King Grisham.  

“Sire!  Sire! You must come!  The guards, sire! They have caught something fantastical.  Sire, a talking frog!” the guard spoke so quickly and nervously he stammered. 

“Wait, slow down.  A talking frog?” the King said, drawing out the last word as though it was foreign and unwelcome.  

The guard nodded enthusiastically.  “Yes, sire!” 

“And it has been captured?” 

“Yes, sire.” 

King Grisham cocked his head to the side slowly.  “In that case, why did you wake me up at this unspeakable pre-dawn hour?” 

The guard’s enthusiasm transformed, first into fright, and then into defiance. 

“Sire, there’s more.  The frog…it’s talking like a person, like it knows things, sire.  It says it knows your daughter.” 

“My daughter?” said the King.  “What did it say about my daughter?” 

“Sire, I’d sooner not say, sire.  I think it’s better you hear it from him.  Sire.”

King Grisham elevated his chin.  “Thank you for letting me know your preference.  Now, tell me precisely what the frog said about Princess Luna.” 

The guard looked confused, and then at his feet.  “It said she made a promise, sire, and that she’s broken it and run away.” 

The King considered a moment, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth.  “Okay. Have her woken and brought down. Have the frog waiting for us in the throne room.  I will be down presently.” 

As the door closed behind the departing guard, King Grisham turned around to see his wife, her body wrapped up in a large, fluffy robe, standing attentively by the bed.  

“It’s a good thing Luna wasn’t here to hear you call it the throne room,” said Queen Marianna.  “You just know she would make some comment about there being no throne, the servant would giggle, and you would be forced to discipline the servant for the insult.” 

“They’re guards, not servants,” said King Grisham, rubbing his temples.  “We don’t have servants for the same reason we sold the throne.”  

“Money, yes, always money.  I thought you were going to ask the wealthier lords for a more substantial…tribute.” 

“I have,” said the King.  “Duke Leonid has been begging off a meeting for weeks.  I think he knows the shape of the conversation. Duke Broadstone and Lady Elena plead poverty, and Sir Roget gave something, but not enough to make a real difference.” 

“I’m sure something will come through.  It always has before,” said the Queen, smiling brightly. 

“I do hope you’re right,” said the King, pulling on the same shirt he had worn the day before.  “I guess I had better go see to this talking frog. I’ll be up shortly, dear.” 

“Are you kidding?  A talking frog? I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said the Queen.  

King Grisham considered protesting, then thought better of it.  Now dressed, he marched out of the bedroom and towards the throne room, Queen Marianne following close behind.  

If the King was expecting to see just the frog, his guards, and his daughter, he was mistaken.  A talking frog created a stir, and not one easily contained. It was just as well the throne had been sold: it would not fit in the room this evening, so full it was of the curious residents, most dressed in their sleepwear.  

“Where is this frog?” said the King. 

The crowd parted, and a guard gestured towards a small bird cage. 

“‘E stopped talking, sire.  Before, ‘e was, but then it got to be crowded and ‘e just stopped.  I tried shaking the cage and poking at ‘im, but ‘e’s not so much as made a ribbit, sire.” 

The King grimmaced at the reference to shaking and poking, but nodded as he gestured the guard away with a wave of his hand.  

The crowd was silent, kept back a small distance by the guards.  King Grisham bent down and peered into the cage. 

“So, you can talk, then?” 

The frog met his eyes intelligently, and moved its head  slowly up and down. 

The king returned the slow nod.  “Show me,” he said, softly. 

“Yes, your majesty,” the frog articulated precisely.

An involuntary shudder passed over the king.  He stood to his full height, and turned around. 

“Guards, send these people home.  This is under control, and we will still be here to discuss tomorrow.”  

The chamber resonated with the sounds of footfalls, muttering, and the clanking of metal on stone as the crowd migrated towards the exit, and then dissipated.  At last, the large wooden doors thudded shut, leaving in the throne room only the King, the Queen, and the caged frog. 

“Tell me what has happened,” the King said to the frog.  “Why can you speak, and what is this business with my daughter?”

The frog hopped forward and rose on its hind legs, resting its front legs on the bars of the bird cage, so as to address the king bipedally.  

“Your majesty,” it said, its voice proper, “I am afflicted by a curse.  I met the princess by the river, and she promised to help me break the curse if I did her a service.  I did the service, but then she ran away into the castle.”

The king nodded.  “What is the curse, then, and what do you need in order to break it?” 

“I can’t say, your majesty.  That’s a part of it, I’m afraid.”

“Hmm…” said the King.  “Did you used to be human, then?” 

The frog looked pained.  “I cannot speak about the nature of the curse, your majesty.” 

Queen Marianna came up from behind.  “Did you used to be unable to speak?” she said. 

“No, I have always been able to speak.” 

“A human, then,” she said to the King, and stepped back, as though satisfied.  

At that moment, the door pushed open and Luna entered, looking sleepy but trepidatious.  

“Luna, do you know this frog?” said the King. 

She started to shake her head in denial, but caught a stern look from her mother.  “Yes, I mean, I ran into him last night.” 

“It says that you promised to help, and then ran away.” 

“That’s not true!” Luna yelled.  “I never made a promise.” 

“It says that he did a favor for you, and you promised to help in exchange.  Did that happen?” said the King.  

“No!  We didn’t have a conversation.  I was down by the water, minding my own business, and this frog started talking to me.  I thought it was crazy, and I ran away.” 

“That’s a lie!” said the frog.  

Queen Marianne gasped.  The King turned to the frog, his face hardened. 

“You would accuse the princess of lying?” he said.  “You had better be able to back that claim up, or you will be punished for saying it.” 

“She had a golden ball, that she was playing with in a tree,” said the frog.  “She dropped it into the water, and I dove down to get it. That’s the only reason she agreed to help me.” 

Queen Marianne turned to her daughter.  “How do you explain that?” she said. 

“It’s not true,” said Luna.  “I didn’t even have my gold orb with me. It was in my room.” 

“In that case, how would the frog know you have one?” said King Grisham. 

“I, uh-” Princess Luna looked from the King to the Queen to the frog.  

“Did you lie?” said the king. 

“Yes,” Luna whispered, looking at the floor.  

“Return to your room and go to sleep.  We will discuss this in the morning.” 

Luna scurried out of the room. 

“As for you,” the King said to the frog, “I apologize for my daughter’s conduct.  We will give you a room here, of course, and a guard to keep the curious at bay.”

“May I be let out of the cage, your majesty?” said the frog. 

“Of course,” said the King.  “But please, stay with us. I will endeavor to help my daughter keep her promise to you.”

The frog bowed.  “Thank you, your majesty.” 

“What sort of curse turns one into a frog?” the King said.  It was mid-morning, and he and Marianna had finally given up on going back to sleep.  They were making a slow rise of things, gradually assuming their daytime dress in between yawns and moments of repose.  

“Two kinds, that I know of,” said the Queen.  “It could be witchcraft, it could be a hex. I don’t think a haunting, that wouldn’t persist within our castle.” 

“Remind me the difference?” 

“Witchcraft is done on purpose, by a witch.  A hex is tied to an object or a place. If our guest encountered somewhere or something it was not supposed to encounter, it could have been cursed that way.” 

“It knows it can’t speak of it: that probably means a witch, since it must have been told,” said the King. 

“Not necessarily,” the Queen said.  “It may have figured it out when it tried to talk about it, and found that it could not.” 

The king nodded.  “I suppose that’s true.  How many witches do we have in our lands?” 

“Capable of this type of curse?  Oh, five maybe? But who is to say it happened near here?  It could have been anyone.” 

“Still, it is worth the inquiry.  Can you arrange it?” 

“Of course,” said Queen Marianne.  “There is one more thing to consider,” she added.   

“Oh?” 

“A talking frog is quite a rare thing,” said the Queen.  “Sometimes, rare things can be sold for quite…high returns.” 

“Are you suggesting selling the frog?” said King Grisham. 

“Oh, not at all,” she said, “what you do with the frog is your affair.  I just thought it prudent to consider that, among your options, you could conceivably find a person willing to take the frog off of your hands for a very considerable amount of money.  Enough, perhaps, to keep us afloat for many months to come.” 

“Our situation is not as desperate as all that,” said the King. 

“It is,” Queen Marianna said.  “Just today, the guards gave their notice.  If they are not paid within a fortnight, they shall leave.  The cook will be right behind them. We must consider all our options”  

The king was silent a long moment.  “It won’t do to compromise our values,” he said.  “Luna promised the frog assistance. We promised it hospitality.  To turn around and sell it, and to one likely to exploit it for its farcical value, is wrong.” 

“Your values may lead to our household’s collapse,” said Marianna, urgently.  

The King had no response, and was gladdened when a sharp knock at the door interrupted the conversation.  It was Jessop. 

“Sire,” said Jessop, “Duke Leonid has come. He sends his apologies for his delayed message, and asks if you have time to see him now.” 

King Grisham smiled and turned to his wife.  “See? Things will turn around: We already feel them turning.”  He turned back to Jessop. “Tell him we shall be down shortly, and see him into the den.” 

Jessop nodded and set off.  

“I do hope my suggestion did not give offense,” said Queen Marianna.  

“We shall not speak of it again.  Now, we must go and see to our financial health!” said the King. 

Duke Leonid was still standing when the King entered his den, and the monarch approached him warmly.  

“Duke!  You’ve come at last,” said the King. 

“Yes, about that, I am so sorry for the delay.  I meant to respond, but time got away from me, and…well, I’m sorry, sire.” 

King Grisham smiled indulgently.  “We are sure you came as soon as you could, Duke.”

“The truth, your majesty,” said the Duke, shifting his weight uneasily, “is that I have been distracted this past week.  My son is missing.”

“Was he kidnapped?” the king said, his eyes large. 

“I…don’t think so.  The truth is, sire, he…may have run away.” 

“Tell us what happened.  Perhaps we can help.” 

“Well sire,” said the duke, “Alex is a…special boy.  Always very shy, and lately, very troubled. I fear I left him far too much in the care of his mother, as a young child.  Lately, he has been despondent, and I learned he had been seeking out the services of a witch.” 

King Grisham started.  “A witch? What could a son of yours, a son who wants for nothing, need of a witch?” 

The duke could not maintain eye contact as he responded.  “I think he had some…rather unusual ideas. About magic, naturally, and special powers.  I forbade him from going to the witch, of course, but he sneaked out despite my instructions, and has been gone ever since.” 

“Could he have come to some harm from the witch?”   

“Anything is possible, your majesty,” said the duke.  “The truth is, I have come to ask your assistance.” 

“Well, the witches in this region will receive no safe haven from us,” said the king.  “Tell me where we can find this witch, and we will take care of the problem.” 

“I fear it has gone beyond that, sire,” the duke said.  “I have had her hut watched for several days, and there is no sign of Alex.  I fear he may have found what he was looking for, and absconded.” 

“What type of magic was he seeking?” the king said. 

“Transformation, your majesty,” said the duke, looking once more around the room, at the ceiling, the floor, in the direction of everything but the king.  

“What type of transformation?” 

“I’m not sure, your highness.  He just…wanted a change, really.  Said he was unhappy in his own skin, or something like that.” 

The king furrowed his brow.  “We wonder if our new guest might have some information that could help you.” 

“New guest?”

“Yes,” said the king.  “Surely you’ve heard about our talking frog.  It’s the talk of the castle.” 

“I did hear some strange rumors on my way to see you, sire, but a talking frog?  I must confess, that’s a new one to me.” 

The king stroked his beard slowly.  “Do you suppose there is any chance the frog is your son?”

“My son?  A frog?”

“You said he was looking for transformation magic.  Perhaps something went awry.” 

The duke considered this a moment.  “I suppose it could be so. Have you spoken to this frog?  What does it say happened?” 

“It can’t precisely say,” said the king, “It claims that the curse prevents it from explaining.” 

“May I see this frog, sire?” the duke said. 

“It’s dining with the princess this morning.  Perhaps we could find a place to observe it unnoticed.  That might give us a clue as to its origins.” 

“Thank you, your majesty,” said the duke, bowing low. 

Luna sat at a small table in her room, poking her spoon at a soft boiled egg in front of her, tapping just hard enough to fleck off the small pieces of shell, which were gathering on the table. 

“I don’t know how you expect me to help you, when you can’t even tell me what’s wrong,” she said. 

Across from her, sitting on the edge of the table, was the frog.  

“Believe me, princess, if I could tell you, I would.”

Luna clapped her spoon onto the table loudly.  “It’s not fair! You got me in trouble, and now I have to help you, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing!  If my father wasn’t so stubborn, he’d just thank you for getting back my ball and send you on your way.” 

“To live out my days with the curse, then?” said the frog, its voice expressionless. 

“Well, no, I mean, maybe to find someone who knows how to help you.  Another witch, maybe?” 

“You are the only one in these lands who can cure me, princess.” 

“But I don’t know HOW!” said Luna, throwing her spoon in anger.  It careened off the table just inches from the frog, hit the wall behind it, and clattered to the floor.  The frog started. “…I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s my father. He’s…he just thinks he knows what’s best for me.  This whole thing with promises, and honor, and duty. It’s not easy having a king as your father.” 

The frog took a deep breath, the panic fading from its eyes.  “No, I suppose it wouldn’t be. My father is also a…strong-willed man.”

“Not like mine!” said Luna.  “He’s obsessed with acting properly and setting a good example.  He doesn’t want me climbing trees or playing outside. He says I should wear dresses and greet people politely, and speak softly.  And he’s always giving me lectures about when I’m married and when I’m a queen or a lady.”

“My father was the same way,” said the frog, “always wanting me to be more manly, more grown up.” 

“You were a man, once, then?” Luna said. 

“I…” the frog tried to speak, but its small green lips only quavered.  “I suppose I can’t say.” 

“You can talk around it, though!” said Luna, her voice rising.  “You may not be able to tell me about the curse, but if you tell me about yourself, maybe I can figure it out!” 

“We can try that, I guess,” said the frog.  

“So, your father, he wanted you to be more grown up, right?” 

“Yes.  He’s an important man, and I’m supposed to take his place one day.  So he has all these ideas of how I need to act and who I need to be, and it’s just…overwhelming.” 

“It sounds like he and my father would get along,” said Luna.  “My father always makes me change clothes and stand around being quiet while the adults talk.  He says I’m supposed to be seen and not heard. And he keeps telling me to stop acting like a boy.” 

“And what do you do?” said the frog. 

“I usually do what I want,” said Luna.  “I’m in trouble pretty much all the time.  Because I don’t want to be some lord’s wife. I don’t even like boys.   I want to be an adventurer! Or a knight! I want to save maidens in distress and fight off monsters!  I want to be a hero!” 

“Maybe we can trade,” said the frog.  “My father would love it if I tried to act like a knight.  He would say that knighthood is a manly profession. But I don’t like those things.  So I don’t do them.” 

Luna narrowed her eyes.  “Did your father put the curse on you?”

“No!” said the frog, quickly, its lips slamming shut the instant the syllable was uttered.  

“Then who did?” Luna insisted. 

The frog opened its mouth to speak, but no sound came forth.  It closed its mouth again, and shook its head sadly. 

“…worth a try,” said Luna. 

They sat in silence for a long minute, Luna poking a finger at her egg, and the frog pursing its small lips.  

With a silent gesture of his hand, King Grisham led the duke away from their place of concealment.  They moved slowly and quietly until they emerged into a vestibule separated by several walls from the princess’ chamber.  

“That was hard to hear,” said Duke Leonid.  “That is most certainly Alex. I am ashamed to say I recognize those sentiments, very well.”

“You hear how my daughter speaks of me,” said the king.  “It won’t do to have her spreading such stories. She is willful, incorrigible, and has no care in the world for her duties as a member of our royal family.” 

“My son appears unable to tell us the nature of the curse,” said the duke.  “Your majesty, we must confront the witch. She is the only one who can put an end to this.” 

The king stroked his chin and took two deep, slow breaths.  “I have no love for the witches of this kingdom, as you well know, Leonid.  But before we breach the peace, perhaps we should give this time to play out.”

The duke frowned mightily.  “Sire, every moment my son spends in that disgusting form, he risks being killed, injured, or seized by some unscrupulous rogue.  We cannot risk this continuing even a single day.” 

King Grisham walked across the vestibule and sat, gesturing for the duke to follow him.  

“Leonid, we must be very candid with you.  We may be making some changes to this household in the coming weeks.  Our financial situation is…regrettable. This may be the last fortnight in which we have the service of our full complement of guards.  We do not want to start a fight with a witch that we cannot finish.”  

The duke gave a half smile.  “So that’s why you have been seeking a meeting, sire.”

“You are the richest landowner in the lands, Leonid.  And you have always been loyal. Of course I would come to you for assistance.”

“What if I offer to pay for the guards, for as long as you need them to confront and defeat this witch?” said the duke. 

Grisham shook his head.  “Then we would be in the same situation we were in before your son was cursed.  The kingdom would be in financial distress. Remember, we intended to speak with you about this before the nasty business with your son.” 

The two men sat frowning, Leonid shifting uncomfortably in his seat.  Then, a small smile came over his face, which grew into mirth, and erupted into a full grin.  

“I  have an idea, your majesty, that might solve several problems at once, for both of us.” 

“I’m listening,” said the king. 

“Open!  In the name of his majesty!” yelled the guard, pounding on the wooden door of the hut.  

Behind him, King Grisham and Duke Leonid stood on either side of Luna, who held in her arms a small wicker basket bearing the frog.  Flanking them, a dozen guards, in full martial gear.  

“Go away!” came a sharp voice from within.  

“You will open this door, or we shall break it down!” said the guard. 

A cackling laughter.  “Feel free to try. My protective spells on this hut will never yield to your brutishness.” 

The guard turned his head and looked at the king, shrugging. 

“This is the king.  You will open this door at once,” said Grisham. 

“Go away!” 

“Those are some beautiful herbs you have in the garden,” said Luna.  The king, duke, and guards all turned their heads towards her. “If you don’t open, I suppose we will just have to try to find our own remedy.  Perhaps uprooting these herbs and taking them back to the castle would be a good start.” 

“Not my herbs!” said the witch.  There was a thumping and clanging and creaking from behind the door, which then swung open.  The witch emerged. She was dressed in an elegant gray dress that covered her from neck to heel.  Her hair was wild, her face a mix of anger and fear.  

“What is your name?” said the king. 

“Esmerelda.  Why have you disturbed me?  If this is about the meteor shower…that was just a spell gone wrong.  It won’t happen again.” 

“Why have you cursed my son?” said Duke Leonid.  

The witch looked confused, her eyes darting from the duke to the king, to the guards, and then to Luna.  Finally, she spied the basket, and began to laugh. 

“You mean Alex?  I didn’t curse Alex, I tried to help!   And some thanks I get!” 

“If this is not a curse, why can’t Alex speak of it?” said the king. 

The witch frowned, sending a mole on her cheek several inches towards her pointy chin.  “I agreed to help, but we both knew you-” she pointed at the duke “-would not approve. So I made Alex promise not to tell a soul about the spell.  And a promise made to a witch is binding on one’s lips.” 

“What was the spell?” the duke demanded. 

“To transform.  Alex wanted to transform into a new body,” said Esmerelda. 

“Into a frog?” said Luna.  “Why would anyone want to be turned into a frog?” 

“Well…it wasn’t into a frog, precisely.  It was more a general transformation, and I don’t believe either of us was expecting it to turn out quite that way.” 

“Well, change him back!” said the duke.  

“It’s not quite that simple,” said the witch.  “Restorative spells only work under certain, er, conditions, and when Alex first became a frog I was really in no position to- hey!” she looked at Luna.  “You wouldn’t happen to be the princess, would you?”

“Yes,” said the king.  “This is my daughter.” 

“Oh, in that case, it’s simple.  You must kiss the frog. That will restore Alex’ true form, and wipe away the transformation.” 

Luna’s eyes grew wide.  “I…I can’t.” 

“Why not?” said the king. 

“Because of a promise.  I promised myself that I would never kiss a boy, no matter how much you wanted me to.  Because I’m not going to marry some duke or lord, father. I’ve told you a hundred times.” 

The others just stared at Luna, stunned. 

“In any case,” she continued, “you’ve always told me I can’t break a promise, and I promised that I wouldn’t do it.” 

“But Alex isn’t a boy; he’s a frog,” the duke pointed out. 

“He’s really a boy, though,” said the king, sighing.  “Luna is right; a promise made must be a promise kept.” 

“You promised to help me!” said the duke.  “And I promised you that Alex would marry Luna.  What about your promise to me?” 

“You did WHAT?!” yelled Luna.  

The king pursed his lips.  “It’s for the best, Luna. You need a man to help settle you down.  And Alex needs a wife. And our kingdom needs the resources of the dowry Duke Leonid has promised to provide.  This is your duty, Luna.” 

“No.  No way!” said Luna.  “I already promised I wouldn’t kiss a boy.  And I’m definitely not going to marry one.” 

“You’re being childish,” said the king.  

“It appears we are at a stalemate,” said the duke. 

“Can I say something?” said a tiny voice from within the basket.  It was the frog. “Esmerelda, will you release me from my promise not to talk about the help you gave me?” 

The witch looked puzzled.  “Yes, I release you.” 

The frog hopped onto Luna’s shoulder and leaned in towards her face.  

“No!  I’m not going to kiss you, no matter what you say.” 

“Shh,” said the frog, softly.  “I’m just going to whisper something in your ear.” 

For the better part of two minutes, the frog spoke directly into Luna’s ear.  Her face turned inquisitive, then disbelieving. She whispered a few words back, and the frog resumed.  Then, a smile broke out over Luna’s face. 

“Okay!”  she said, grinning wide.  She cupped both her hands, and the frog hopped into them.  Lifting them to her face, she put a great kiss upon its face.  

Smoke began to rise around the frog, and winds from some unseen source caused the smoke to swirl.  Luna stepped back; the frog was gone, enveloped in the dark gray vapors. After several seconds, the smoke cleared, revealing Alex.  

Her dark hair shone like flax, hanging below her shoulders.  A blue summer dress hung from her shoulders, lacing about her torso and hanging loose just above the knees.  

“What new mischief is this?” the duke demanded, addressing the witch.  “You said this would restore Alex, not turn him into some…girl!” 

The witch’s mouth was open, and her eyes did not move from regarding Alex.  Then, slowly, she closed her mouth and began to chuckle, starting with a few shakes and escalating in pitch and frequency until it became a proper, witchly cackle.  

“So THAT was our mistake, Alex,” said the witch.  “We never should have used a transformation spell.  There was probably a frog going about its business in my garden nearby.  Poor creature, at least it will have a tale to tell the other frogs in the pond.”  She resumed laughing. 

“What is the meaning of this?” said the king.  “What are you talking about?” 

The witch, now doubled over, took several seconds to regain enough composure to respond. 

“We should have used a restorative spell to start with!  Alex wasn’t looking to be transformed: she was looking to be restored to her true form!” 

“What do you mean ‘she?’” said the duke.  “This is my son we’re talking about!” 

“I was never your son, father,” said Alex, her voice soft and sweet.  “I’ve always been this person…I just didn’t look like it.”

“Well, the marriage is certainly off,” said the king.  

“No, father, you promised,” said Luna, without taking her eyes off Alex.   

“But…you must marry a man, Luna.  A woman will never do.” 

“I don’t want to marry a man.”

“Well, I forbid it.” 

“You can’t, father: you made a promise to the duke.”  

The king looked to Duke Leonid for assistance, but the duke, still transfixed on Alex, was in no position to give it.  Nobody spoke for several seconds. 

“Luna, you did say you always wanted to rescue a maiden in distress, didn’t you?” said Alex. 

Luna laughed in response. 

“May I have another kiss, then?  Who knows what that will do.” 

Before the sentence was even complete, Luna closed the small distance between them and kissed Alex passionately, then stepped back.  

“It didn’t do anything,” said Luna. 

“It made me happy, though,” said Alex, and they both laughed.  

“Alex, is this…really who you are?” said the duke, quietly.  

“Yes, father, it’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for a long time.  I just didn’t have the words, I guess.” 

The duke stood motionless for the better part of a minute, then inhaled sharply and squared his shoulders. 

“In that case, you have my blessing.  I promised the king your hand, and a promise made is a promise kept.” 

“This is madness,” said King Grisham.  “What will your mother say, Luna?” 

“She will say that you are the king, and her duty is to obey your wishes,” said Luna.  

The king and the duke regarded their respective daughters, who were now holding hands and smiling at each other wordlessly.  The fathers turned to look at one another. The king looked uncertain. The duke shrugged at him. The king shrugged back, and they both broke into small smiles. 

“So be it,” said the king.  “We don’t understand this magic, but we understand duty, and we understand keeping one’s promises.  And a promise made is a promise kept.”  

The king and duke nodded at each other; Luna and Alex embraced; the witch smiled and quietly retreated into her hut; the guards smiled at one another, anxious to end their duties and talk about the strange magic they had just witnessed.  

We won’t here tell of the challenges and joys and sorrows that ensued for Luna, for Alex, or for the king.  We won’t describe the hundreds and thousands of conversations and debates and discussions that followed in the wake of this unprecedented marriage.  Rather, we will take the full sum of the happiness and sadness that each of them underwent; we will hold them up, weigh them carefully, and pronounce our verdict, as storytellers immemorial have, on the resolution of our tale: 

They all lived happily ever after. 

 

  

 

  

 

 

 

Published in: on June 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Afternoon Eddies

Some short fiction, a palate cleanser from this year’s NaNo.  

Pine needles, so many pine needles, poking and sticking and filling the air with a seductive calm musk of forest, of danger, of plants grown legion. Jack winced, using one arm to clear the branch in front of him, the other idly brushing away the needles that probed his pants and the tough skin underneath.

This path was familiar, though overgrown now; in the halcyon days of his youth, his almost daily wild trek through this stretch of forest kept all but the heartiest vegetation at bay.  In the half century since, the nettles and the pines and the small weeds that now constellated the ground had fortified the reclaimed territory, had set barbs and thick branches to stave off intruders.  Jack returned here as to a scene of forgotten glory, each labored step through the brush an achievement, a small mote of progress in his reconnaissance of his boyhood haunt.

A needle jabbed through the knuckle at the base of his thumb, breaching the skin and finding purchase in the soft tissue between bone and ligature.  Jack gasped, feeling the thick pine and pollen dust racing into his nostrils and settling in his chest.

-why have i come here?-

A wind announced its arrival, rustling the tops of the trees before enveloping Jack.  Leaves and dirt rose in its wake, tickling his ankles, the cold, sweet air startling him and breaking the pace of his progress.

It was getting late, the afternoon sun angled too low to counter the chill breeze.  Shadows long and eldritch danced as their progenitor flora swayed to the wind. Jack knew he should go back, to find his aunt; if he came in before sunset, she was apt to bedevil him with a wet kiss on the cheek, and reward him with a cookie.  She used maple syrup in the cookies; they squished under the smallest pressure of his jaw and melted into molasses behind his teeth. Jack could taste them now, could feel the warm, familiar smell rise into his nose from the back of his mouth. Aunt Millie’s cookies.  Aunt Silly, he had called her.

But no, Aunt Silly- Aunt Millie- had died, years ago.  That house had been sold, and with it, any claim Jack and his clan held on the vaguely titled plot of forest.  So why was he here?

The wind intensified.  The pitch of the rustling trees deepened as the tallest trees bowed lower, acknowledging the passage of air and weather.  Clouds poured above, a celestial river of white that gave way to dark gray. Jack felt like an earthbound raft traversing river rapids, hoping the sky above stayed white and fluffy, mentally steering his patch of ground away from the dark, treacherous sprinkling of storm clouds overhead.  

All at once, Jack was wet.  He hadn’t felt the rain fall, but he could hear it, a susurration above and all around him.  It seemed to be everywhere, a thousand points of barbed water dinging and careening off everything in the forest.  He couldn’t see the rain falling, though, and looked around for some visual confirmation of the storm.

The forest aroma intensified, pine and decaying leafs misting around him.  It was a pleasant smell, though somehow sad, even wistful. It was the smell of yesteryear, of careless youth, of seasons changing and passing, rolling forward, always forward, into the next.

Jack put a hand to his hair: it was soaked.  The loud but invisible rain had drenched him.  Above, few white fluffs remained, the sky now overrun with menacing dark leviathans that filtered out the diminishing light of the fast-setting sun.  

At once, brilliant white forks appeared overhead, and three distinct claps shook Jack’s ears and caused him to start.  He closed his eyes, feeling drops of warm water fall from their lids, glancing off his legs. When he opened them, the storm was gone- the sky was clear, it was mid-day, the sun surging warm waves over his wet body.  A bird chirruped somewhere above him. The ground was dry.

-what on earth?-

Three claps, louder than the first, stirred something deep in his breast.  He closed his eyes again, and this time they opened slowly. Jack was prone on his back, his face and hair dripping wet.  Sunlight and shadows swapped places on the ceiling above him as the blackout curtains rustled in the breeze from the window.  Jack felt a pillow under his head, touched his brow. It was damp. Dropping both elbows beside him, he lifted his body a few strained inches, feeling the wet sheets pull away and turn instantly cold as he relaxed back down onto them.  

His hand went to his leg: no pine needles.  No bird sounds. No forest scents, only the antiseptic smell of the humidifier, and the sour, vinegar odor of his own sweat.  Three sudden claps caused him to jump- they were knocks on his door. With considerable effort, Jack sat up, swinging his legs to the floor, feeling the pins and needles ebb and vanish as the blood started to flow.

Jack stood using a hand against the wall for balance as the other swept the curtain aside.  Below, standing just outside his door, were two men in suits. One had brown wavy hair; the other was starting to bald.  Jack knew why they were here. He had long expected them, dreaded them. They were from the army, come to deliver sad and solemn news.  Jack had a premonition about this, knew they would come. He knew what they would say, and how he would react. It was as though he had rehearsed this very moment a dozen times in his mind.  

Jack slowly walked to his closet, pulling out a long robe to cover his sweat-through night clothes.  He closed the closet door and stopped, disconcerted. This was wrong; he wasn’t wearing a robe. It was a white shirt, with a blazer and a loosened tie, as though he had just come home from work, was still making the transition into casual clothing.  The officer had even remarked on his tie, some inane compliment. And- more darkly- it was this tie he would invoke in his passing consideration of suicide, a momentary thought of hanging himself from the ceiling fan. He would never do that- would never even give the thought a proper name- but he remembered the tie, of that he was certain.  

Jack opened the closet again.  There was a white shirt, slightly wrinkled, but serviceable.  He quickly pulled it over his arms, buttoning from the top down, aged fingers made deft by decades of muscle memory.  The tie, though, if only he could remember the correct tie! Jack worried for a moment that his visitors would give up, would leave before he was ready.  

“I’m coming!” he yelled, voice unsteady, in the direction of the window.

Perhaps the tie wasn’t important.  At least, the type of tie. It just had to be a tie, any tie worthy of remarking on.  Jack found one of black and white gingham and pulled it loosely around his neck, knotting it without tightening.  It was perfect.

As he left the bedroom, Jack ticked through all the details of this encounter.  He would open the door, and the younger of the two men would call him sir, would confirm his name.  Then the older man would say that Michael had died, that he was honorable, and use other nice adjectives that Jack would scarcely hear and soon forget.  A rare and frightening tightness would grip his chest, and, searching for any acceptable words to speak, Jack would invite them inside. Karen would make ask who was there from the kitchen, and Jack would tell her to bring waters, that they had two guests.  

Karen would bring the water and a small plate of cookies, still oblivious to the nature of the visit.  She would blanch when she saw them sitting on the sofa, all starched uniform blue with explosions of medals on the breast.  She would shake, spilling one of the waters, they would call her ma’am, she would start to sob before they could say anything else.  

Jack paused on the staircase.

-i should put a hand towel in the den, to clean up the water.-

He turned at the bottom of the stairs, away from the door and towards the inside of the home.  This was wrong. Karen wasn’t here, she had died, not so very long ago. There would be no spilled water, no spilled tears.  Michael had a gravestone in a large cemetery in Virginia; Jack had visited there, had laid flowers on the grave. It was all wrong, it was out of place on the timeline.  Jack was angry as he reached the door and flung it open.

“You’re too late!” he said, pointing an accusing finger at the visitors.  

The two men stiffened up.  Their army uniforms were wrong, too.  They looked like businessmen, in neat white shirts and black suits.  They scarcely even looked like men; Jack would be surprised if they were a day over twenty one.  Their only medals were shiny name tags that Jack had to squint to read. He glanced back and forth between the baby-faced visitors and the incongruous word Elder on the badges.

“Um, good afternoon, sir,” said the taller of the two.  “How are you today?”

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.  The visitors glanced at one another.

“My name is Elder Brown, and this is Elder Lee.  It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“I’m Jack,” he said, definitively, extending a proud hand.  Elder Brown took the hand and shook, then passed it to Elder Lee, who did the same.  

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about faith?  We are taking a survey in this neighborhood, and asking some questions about God and our place in the world.  Do you ever think about those things?”

Jack considered it.  He did think about God, all the time, but those were private thoughts, and some part of him knew that his musings were not safe for public airing.  

“Oh, from time to time,” he demurred.

“That’s wonderful!” Elder Brown said, as both visitors broke into wide grins.  “Would you mind if we step inside?”

Jack glanced over his shoulder.  Inside, that’s where they want to come.  To his place, his sanctuary. Of course, he has visitors all the time.  The den is usually immaculate, not one item out of place. In the middle distance, he saw the sofa, covered in balled-up newspaper and dirty clothing.  The coffee table, spackled with used dishes, would need tidying before guests could be admitted. Karen would have his head if he didn’t clean up before having company.  

“My, uh, place isn’t very tidy, I’m afraid,” said Jack.

“Oh, we don’t mind!” Elder Lee cut in.  “The truth is, we’ve been walking for several hours, and it would be good just to get off our feet for a few minutes.”

Unable to think of a counterargument, Jack stood aside, gesturing admission, and the elders crossed his threshold, waiting patiently for him just inside the door.  

“You can, uh, sit over there.  I’ll make space,” Jack pointed towards the sofa, and staggered in its direction.

“We can help with that, if you like,” said Elder Brown.  “Here, let me fetch those dishes for you. Do you want them in the kitchen?”

It was moving too fast for Jack.  The young men- boys, really- flitted to and fro in a whirlwind of activity.  Dishes and refuse were swept up in their wake, re-deposited out of sight. It was over in an instant, and the room looked almost tidy.  

“Would you like a glass of water?” Jack said.  The elders were seated on the sofa now, their eddies of motion evidently spent.  

“Yes, please!” said Elder Lee, with boyish enthusiasm.  

With a nod, Jack retreated to the kitchen, where he searched the cupboards for clean glasses.  He needed to pour the water carefully, and bring it to the den without spilling. He mentally checked through the constituent parts of the task, determined to be more careful this time.  

-why are they here?-

It must be another volley from his daughter.  They were here to convince him to move into a new place, to give up his home.  The nerve of these people, to barge in here and tell him he couldn’t live alone!  They talked over his meek objections. When he spilled the water- just a careless tangling of his feet!- they made much of it, wielding it as proof positive that he needed to leave.  The destination was hazy, but Jack could see through them. They wanted him in a home, not in his home, but a home for people at the end of their days, who couldn’t be trusted to live unsupervised.  It was a second childhood, he remembered thinking, and he was not going softly.

Jack filled each cup only halfway.  This time, he would not spill it, would measure each step slowly, deliberately.  They would see that he can still function, can still do the mundane tasks of life that silently delineate between those worthy of independence, and those whose vitality is spent.  He would show them!

Both cups in hand, Jack began his perilous trek, shuffling his feet just an inch off the floor, finding a stable rhythm.  In twenty strides, he reached the coffee table, and began to lower the cups, feeling the strain in his back as he hunched towards the landing pad.  Elder Brown reached out and intercepted the lander before touchdown, passing one to Elder Lee and snatching the other for himself.

“Thank you,” Elder Lee said.  Jack stood, half-hunched, frozen, slow to realize that his mission had been an unmitigated success.  He smiled and nodded, easing himself upright and rounding the table to the easy chair, into which he sunk majestically.  

“Do you ever think about what comes after?” Elder Brown said, sipping his water.  

Right to the point, then, Jack smirked.  It is time to do battle.

“I think that I stay here.”

The elders exchanged glances.  “I mean, what comes after you leave here?  What comes next?”

“There is no next!” Jack raised his voice.  “I stay here until I die! And I’m not going anywhere else.  I make do just fine on my own.”

Elder Brown looked at Elder Lee again, who shrugged.  An awkward moment passed.

“After we die, I mean,” said Elder Brown.  “Where do we go then?”

Jack thought about this.  Perhaps he had misjudged the situation.  Come to think of it, these boys didn’t look like they came from a nursing home.  Religious folk, then. Come to spread the gospel. Only they were so young. Maybe he should put them in touch with Pastor Abrams, he liked talking about theology.  His sermons always went long, Jack remembered counting the minutes while his stomach rumbled its lunchtime protest.

“I don’t know about that,” Jack said.  “Maybe you’d like to talk to Pastor Abrams, I could introduce you.  He loves talking about heaven and hell. In fact, at his funeral his wife told this story about him getting out of a speeding ticket by telling the officers that he would need to give an extra tithe to make up for the violation of the law.”

Once again, the elders exchanged looks, this time with concern.  

“So, he has passed on?” said Elder Lee.  

Jack stopped, considering.  Yes, that sounded right, he had been at Pastor Abrams’ funeral.  He wouldn’t be available to talk shop with these young people.

“I suppose so,” Jack conceded.

“You live here alone?” Elder Brown ventured.

“I do,” Jack said proudly.  “I have a girl who comes by each week to take care of a few things, since I move more slowly these days.”

The words spilled out of his head before he could catch them.  He had a girl? Who was that? It sounded right, but he couldn’t place her.  Natalia? Tatiana? Something that sounded Russian. When had she last been here?  When was she expected? Jack could never keep it straight. He was seized by worry, that these young people would see his confusion and do something to upset his safety and routine.  

“That’s nice,” said Elder Brown, smiling his acceptance.  “Elder Lee and I are helping people, too, by spreading the good news about Jesus Christ.  Do you believe in Jesus?”

“I do,” said Jack, relieved.

“Wonderful!” Elder Lee clapped his hands.  “Our church believes in spreading Jesus’ teachings, and showing people how faith can transform their lives.  Would you like to join us in a small prayer? Since this is your home, maybe you can say something appropriate, or we can, if you prefer.”

Jack mentally braced against the onslaught of words.  They wanted him to pray? Praying for Jack was not a performative act, it was a silent reflection that belonged in a church.  

“You can go ahead,” Jack said, suspiciously.  

The Elders bowed their heads.  “Our father, who art in Heaven…”

Jack knew this one, tuned out the familiar words, his eyes closed.  He remembered the lilt of the prayer, hearing it echo through the chapel at Karen’s funeral, the sad timbre of the pastor, using the benediction to plead with their maker to treat Karen’s soul with kindness and mercy.  The realization that, when this day of ritual was complete, he would be alone, left by himself for the first time in decades. Imagining waking up in bed, with Karen not there. Tears flooded his eyes and leaked down the deep crevices of his cheeks.  

“Are you okay, Jack?” one of the boys said.  Jack opened his eyes, feeling a rush of water escaping down his face.  

“Yes, uh, I just need a moment.  Excuse me, please.”

Jack stood with considerable effort, and moved towards the staircase.  “I just need to fetch something,” he muttered, using his arms on the railing to propel him upward, towards his bedroom.  Below, the boys sat with their water, watching him with intense interest.

Jack reached the bedroom, and sat on his bed, taking a tissue from the nightstand to his wet face.  He could smell his own sweat on the pillow case beside him. That smell reminded him of deep sleep, of the surreal experience of waking, of the warm embrace of the blankets.  Unthinking, he lifted his legs and tucked them under, feeling the weight and pressure of the comforter on his body. He blew his nose, and then set his head down on the pillow, staring blankly at the ceiling.  

Time must be passing, Jack thought, and there was something he still needed to do today.  It was something to do with Michael, and with Karen, or maybe Pastor Abrams. He searched the ceiling for answers, but the dancing shadows and reflected sunlight held no answers.  The room grew dimmer as his lids half-closed. His body sank into the mattress inch by inch, the soft foam taking his torso into a slow embrace.

A creak on the stairs.  “Are you okay, Jack?”

It was a young voice- one of the boys, the elders.  So they were still here. Jack ran through a checklist of actions needed to see them off properly.  It seemed daunting.

“I’m in bed,” he called down.  “You can see yourself out.”

“Do you need anything?  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, just a bit tired.  Thank you for the prayer,” Jack said.  Out of his peripheral vision, he saw the face of one of the boys- which one, he could not tell, the name tag concealed by the door frame and too far off to read in any event.  Jack shut his eyes, performing sleep, hoping the youngster would leave him be.

After a moment, he heard a renewed creaking on the banister, and muffled voices from below, followed by the sound of the front door opening and closing again.  

Jack was still dressed in the white shirt and loose tie, but the bed was a comfort, and there would be no harm in taking a nap.  He allowed himself to sink deeper, to begin to drift, his thoughts swirling back to the taste of molasses, his cheek wet with the unwanted kisses of his Aunt Silly.  

-AG

Published in: on December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Raw and Unfiltered

This Halloween, I’m going to try something very scary.  

For the past four years, I have somewhat religiously participated in a month-long event called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  The idea is a simple, the task daunting: write a complete novel, 50,000 words or more, from start to finish in the month of November.

In years past, I have used this like a tool, rather than the launching point for an actual literary project.  NaNo is a chance to sharpen my writing through sheer volume.  Once, I took a minor character from a novel I was working on, and fleshed out his backstory.  Another time, I wrote a series of stories about barely-veiled people I know, and my imagined interactions and adventures with them.

Last year, I wrote a fiction that I am working on turning into an actual novel, though the current iteration bears little resemblance to the piece I completed on November 30, 2017.

For this year’s NaNo, which starts in a few days, I want to try something terrifying: I am going to share my writing as it happens, in this space.  I want to do this for a couple of reasons:

First, as my regular readers surely know, I have an output issue.  Note, I did not say an output problem.  I take what I refer to as the Mr. Ed approach to blogging: I never speak unless I have something to say.  I do not write just for the hell of it- any time a piece appears in this space, it is because I felt that my words should be heard.

While I stand by that minimalist approach, I also recognize that my public writing will improve with practice, and as the months-long gaps in this record reveal, I could use more of that.

Another reason I want to post my raw NaNo output is to get over my fear of imperfection.  Most of my blog posts are painstakingly edited to remove typos, improve word choice, and make things more concise.  I don’t mind admitting, I’m scared to death of having my raw writing out there for scrutiny and judgment, which is exactly why I should give it a try.

So, for those of you who subscribe, safe in the assurance that I will only darken your inbox infrequently, this might be a good opportunity to reevaluate your choices.  I’ll go back to my signature Mr. Ed approach in December, but until then, expect daily posts.

I simply ask that you reserve any criticism, and keep in mind that what I will share is rough and unedited.  Chapters may post out of order- NaNo is a beast, and I have to find word count where and how I can.

I am also planning to incorporate a weird rule while I write, which will affect every chapter: if you spot it, let me know.  I kind of hope you don’t.

To help set the tone, I have written this in one sitting, and will post without re-reading.  Hoo boy.  🙂

Thank you for your patience, and see you on the other side.

-AG

 

 

Published in: on October 29, 2018 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cross Purposes

A challenging routine, its abrupt end, and a pledge to do better next time. 

Last month, my nearly two-year streak of solving the NY Times crossword puzzle came to an accidental end.  It really wasn’t my fault.

Here’s what happened: the crossword comes out each day at 10pm, or 6pm on weekends (daylight savings time wreaks havoc on this schedule, so let’s leave it at that).  Credit is given for completing the puzzle before midnight the next day.

On my way to a Saturday evening event, I realized that I hadn’t yet done the crossword, so I opened it, and Kelsey and I got it done over the course of twenty-or-so minutes.

Unfortunately, neither of us realized that the puzzle we were doing was the Sunday puzzle- which should have been obvious, as it’s a larger puzzle grid.  The Saturday puzzle was not complete, as I would learn the following day, when I looked for the Sunday puzzle and was informed that it was complete, the first installment of my new streak.

In many ways, the crossword puzzle is a perfect hobby for me.  As someone blessed with mild OCD, I thrive on daily tasks.  Each day’s puzzle is a new challenge, growing progressively more difficult from Monday through Saturday, and easing up with a large, enjoyable grid on Sundays.

The puzzle’s test of trivia, wordplay, and pattern recognition also appeals to me.  My brain, notorious for forgetting names of people I have just met, excels at remembering inane trivia several decades removed from practical relevance.

I am also blessed to have Kelsey as my solving buddy.  Not only does she have a knowledge base that covers many of my blind spots, she greets puzzle puns with the most satisfying groans of anyone I know.  Between the two of us, we can usually crack the grid at a good clip.

Those times when the answers just aren’t coming- I remember one frustrating puzzle where every CLUE was an anagram, and until you figured that out, you were lost- we are both shameless about asking friends, colleagues, or friendly-looking strangers.  You would be amazed how many people can identify, for instance, ballroom dancer Castle (IRENE), Nixon’s “In the _____,” (ARENA), or a relative of Calliope (ERATO).

Over time, as the streak grew longer and longer, it became of corresponding greater importance to me that it continue.  On days where I would be out of cell reception, I made sure to complete the puzzle when I had signal.  During my trips back to Lexington, I would impress my parents and sibs into service to get the puzzle done over coffee.  My day didn’t feel complete- didn’t feel right- until the puzzle was done.

That said, it was perhaps surprising that the loss of the streak came not with anger or devastation, but with mild sadness, and a resolution to start a new, even longer streak.  I’ve realized that, while the streak had a motivational impact that scratched my OCD itch, it is really the process I enjoy: the puzzles themselves.

So, after going back and finishing that regrettably-missed Saturday grid (the functionality of the app is truly amazing), I immediately resumed puzzle solving as my daily task.  The streak is now back in double-digits, and given time, I’m sure it will grow back to something more substantial.

People tell me that crossword puzzles are good for the brain, and may help keep our minds sharp as we age.  I don’t know about all that.  To me, they’re really more about assuming challenges, and doing everything necessary to overcome them.  The moment the grid is complete, and the app plays the little “success” jingle, feels like enough of a wholesome reward to keep me consistently coming back.

Published in: on September 5, 2018 at 12:12 pm  Leave a Comment