Carolyn at Nuggets of Gold kindly provided me with a story prompt: Candy Corn, French Vanilla Coffee and a rainstorm.
 

Cornfield with candy corn decorations.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

A chilly October rain clattered against the windows when Irene woke up. She had been dreaming about work, hurrying to finish a project while evil giant corn stalks sprouted from an overturned bowl of candy corn in the break room. At first she thought she’d overslept; but no, it was Saturday, and she didn’t have to go anywhere! Even if the rain turned to snow, she would be nice and cozy here at home with the heat on. She could stay in bed all morning if she wanted.

But then she remembered the new romance novel she’d been wanting to read. This would be a perfect morning to curl up on the couch with her Kindle and a cup of French Vanilla coffee. Quiet and peaceful, with no distractions. Just what she needed after a hectic week. She imagined she could smell the coffee already.

As soon as she opened the bedroom door, the coffee smell got stronger. Not French Vanilla, though it seemed familiar. And what was all that noise coming from the living room? She turned the corner and found her husband Rick sprawled on the couch in his shorts, watching mixed martial arts.

Every inch of the coffee table was totally covered with donuts, crumbs, candy bar wrappers, the morning newspaper, and a cup of that weirdly familiar coffee. The aroma left her thinking of Halloween parties, and something else—what was it that she had been dreaming about earlier? On the TV, some big tattooed guy was choking his opponent into unconsciousness on a bloody mat while the crowd cheered.

“Yeah! Awesome guillotine choke!” Rick grinned cheerfully and scratched his unshaven chin as the referee stopped the match. He moved over to make space on the couch. “Irene, you’re going to love this coffee! The supermarket was out of your favorite French Vanilla when I got the groceries yesterday, so I bought the latest seasonal K-cup variety instead—Candy Corn flavor!”

The rain and wind rattled the windowpanes even more, as if it might indeed be about to change over to snow, or at least freezing rain.

“Actually, I don’t feel much like drinking coffee today. I’m just going back to bed.” Irene pulled her robe more tightly around herself; she had been standing near the window where it was drafty. “And this afternoon, I plan to clean out all the junk that’s been piling up in the spare room. After that I’m going to paint the walls and buy some new furniture so that I can use it as a sitting area. A couch with a nice floral pattern would be just the thing, wouldn’t you say?”

Rick scratched his chin again, looking quite baffled. “Okay,” he mumbled after a while, turning his attention back to the TV as the next fight started.

This story’s prompt, contributed by Noelle Vignola, is from the poem Emerald Spider Between Rose Thorns by Dean Young: “Imagine, not even or really ever tasting a peach until well over 50, not once…”
 

Peach on a leafy, sunlit tree.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Young people in Texas are supposed to be adventurous, so I wasn’t at all surprised when my brother Davey grew up to be an oil worker. I never had a clue what got into him three years ago, though, when he moved to Alaska to work in the oilfields of the Arctic Circle. He had plenty to say about the beauty of the midnight sun, the aurora borealis, and the caribou herds thundering across the tundra; but as for me, well, I wouldn’t take all that in trade for one perfect peach from Gran’s backyard tree.

Davey got married last year. He met his bride Rosa, an Alaskan Native who grew up in a small village, when she started working for the oil company as an industrial nurse. Just before the Fourth of July, he brought Rosa and her mom Celeste here to Amarillo for a week’s visit. Both mother and daughter smiled a lot and were short and plump; they had lovely smooth complexions and big, dark, alert eyes. Celeste hadn’t ever traveled outside Alaska before. When I gave her a fresh-picked peach, she closed her eyes in delight after the first bite, with the juice running down her chin unnoticed.

The week went by all too fast. After we took our visitors (and how strange to think of Davey as a visitor!) to the airport for the return flight, Gran shook her head in pity as we started walking back across the parking lot. Her steel-gray curls drooped in the waves of heat rising from the asphalt.

“Just imagine, Lori Beth—imagine, not even or really ever tasting a peach until well over 50, not once. Oh, I suppose they must have grocery stores in Alaska, but really,” and Gran waved a hand dismissively, making clear that she wouldn’t count rock-hard peaches in grocery stores as real fruit or anything close to it.

I was just about to agree with her, and then I started thinking about when I’d first come here. Davey and I were born in San Diego. The first time we ever saw snow was when Mom brought us to Amarillo for what she said was a Christmas visit, just as a ferocious winter storm blew in off the prairie. We gleefully ran around building snowmen and snow castles, never thinking about why Mom crammed the old Ford’s trunk full of all our clothes if we were only staying for Christmas. Every time one of us asked when we’d go home, Gran just said, “Well, bless your heart, child,” and sent us out to play. We had no idea what was going on until some kids at our new school explained what a divorce was.

“I never saw snow till I was five,” I said, watching a plane’s takeoff as it circled around to the west, its long curved trail streaking into the setting sun.

Davey had told me that Rosa and Celeste’s ancestral language had dozens of words for different kinds of snow. Heavy and wet, powdery and light, a soft fresh snowfall on bare ground, old snow half-melted and then refrozen smooth as glass—when I thought about it, I saw how there could be so many words. But living in Texas, I’d never had occasion to think about it before.

Following my gaze toward the departing jet, Gran shook her head again. This was a different motion—a quick, impatient tossing of her curls as if to shoo away unwanted thoughts, like a mare plagued by flies.

“Well,” Gran finally said,” bless your heart.”

This is the final story in a series of three. Click here to read the first.
 

One tiny dot at a time, the daylilies are taking shape on the sun-splashed canvas, their yellow and orange trumpets vivid against the green-shadowed background. Serra can almost imagine herself in the long-ago tranquility of Monet’s garden—that is, if she ignores the skyscrapers on all sides, the rumbling traffic, the chattering pedestrians, and the buzzing of an edger as one of the park’s groundskeepers comes nearer.

After she finishes the painting, she’ll walk back to the tiny apartment she has reluctantly called home since her divorce three years ago. Serra never cared much for city life, but it’s not as if she has much of a choice now. After losing her middle-management job in the recession, she ended up stuck in long-term unemployment hell, and that was when her husband left her. No kids, thankfully. By now she has given up her car, her jewelry, and her collection of antique jewelry boxes, while trying to convince herself (without much success) that a minimalist lifestyle suits her better anyway.

Last week she’d had a particularly awful interview for an office assistant job that was far below her qualifications. The hiring manager, an older man with deep creases around his mouth that gave the look of a perpetual smile, hadn’t even gone through the usual checklist of questions before stopping mid-sentence to ask her, not unkindly, “Do you really want this job?”

Taken by surprise, Serra had been about to stammer a response when the manager had told her, even more gently, “You should have said yes already.”

Now as she’s standing at her easel, the hot sun on her face reminds her of the shame she had felt, stumbling out to the bus stop with her briefcase full of useless resumes. Of course she didn’t really want that crummy job, but the rent wasn’t going to pay itself, was it? She tries to focus her attention back on the painting, but there’s no hope for this latest effort at mindfulness: Monet’s imagined garden is long gone.

The nearby edger whines like an overgrown mosquito, loud and annoying. Serra turns her head to locate the sound, flipping a long braid back over her shoulder as she does so. She’d prefer to get her hair done in almost any other style, having been raised by a single mom named Rainbow who grew up on a commune and always had braids hanging down to her jeans pockets; but going to the salon every few weeks is another luxury Serra has given up.

A spot of white in her peripheral vision resolves into a man’s shirt. Serra realizes in annoyance that some guy she doesn’t know has been standing behind her, quietly watching her paint. He looks harmless enough in a business suit, and he’s kind of cute, with dark curly hair and a Latin complexion. She has no intention of letting some random guy waste her time, though. They always vanish when they find out how long she has been without a job, and she certainly doesn’t need any more of that.

She’s about to scowl and tell the guy to shove off; but then she notices the young woman with the edger, cheerfully waving hello to her. Before Serra knows it she’s smiling in response, feeling mysteriously lighter, as if she just put down something much weightier than the paintbrush she’d been holding. Two robins sitting in a purple plum tree chirp smugly, like they were in on the secret all along.

The man standing behind her smiles, too, a flash of bright white in a smooth bronze face. In a pleasant baritone, he introduces himself as Ricardo and says he’s the second-shift manager at the coffee shop across the street. This morning he’s been meeting with bankers about a loan to finance buying out the shop’s owner, who recently decided to change careers.

Serra knows he doesn’t mean to put her on the defensive. It’s just the usual conversation of people who have a place in the world—a category that doesn’t include her anymore. She feels the familiar tension creeping back into her jaw and shoulders as she gives her name. What else is there to say? But this time, something feels different; the stress doesn’t quite take hold. There is still a bit of a smile on her lips, a touch of the moment’s lightness.

“Serra is a nickname, it’s short for Serendipity,” she finds herself explaining, without the usual self-consciousness about having a silly hippie name. Ricardo compliments her on its uniqueness—he’s being sincere, as far as she can tell. When he follows up by asking if she is a professional artist, she figures that’s got to be nothing but flattery. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to let this conversation bother her; so she goes ahead and tells Ricardo that she paints as a hobby and doesn’t have a job at present.

She expects he’ll make himself scarce quickly enough after hearing that. Instead, he asks what sort of work she does. Then, much to her surprise, she finds herself telling him the whole miserable story, which she generally never mentions at all. She has kept it bottled up all these years because the last thing she wants is anyone’s pity. Once it starts spilling out, though, Serra just can’t manage to put the lid back on.

Ricardo listens calmly. After a while he asks, “Have you ever waited tables? One of the servers at the coffee shop just quit.”

“Yes, when I was in college,” Serra says. She thinks back to those days, not all that long ago, when life was still an adventure full of shiny new possibilities. Somewhere along the way—she still doesn’t quite know how it happened—life turned into a restricted-access highway fenced in all around by plans and expectations, with ever-narrowing lanes and traffic moving so fast there was no way to slow down.

She never had time for painting after she got so busy. As much as she told herself she’d find a few hours on the weekend, there was always something else to do. The notion of spending a gorgeous summer day at the park, contemplating a bed of daylilies and slowly bringing them to life by way of tiny dots in the pointillist style, wouldn’t even have crossed her mind.

Maybe it was not her choice to travel the side roads and the detours, but Serra realizes she has learned something from them. As with the dots on her canvas, every moment of experience has its place in the picture. She finds to her surprise, when she tells Ricardo she’d be interested in the job at the coffee shop, this time she really means it.

May 15, 2015 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

This is the second story in a series of three. Click here to read the first.
 

It’s always so pretty in the park when the sun is shining straight down at midday. Julie has been working for the park district as an assistant groundskeeper since she finished high school, and she loves it. Even though the park is in the middle of the city and there are tall buildings all around, Julie can hear birds singing and see the green grass and trees, just like when she lived on the farm with Aunt Kathie and Uncle Hank.

She has a mom and dad, too, but they live in another city far away. Aunt Kathie once told her it was because taking care of a sick baby had been too scary for them. Julie had to have heart surgery when she was very little because she has Down syndrome. That’s also why she needed extra help in school.

“It was never that they didn’t love you, bless their hearts,” Aunt Kathie had said, as her long, callused fingers busily snapped the green beans for supper. “Sometimes people have a hard time dealing with their fears.”

The park’s concrete walkways sparkle as the sun blazes down from a cloudless sky. Julie’s edger hums along, trimming back the grass. She imagines that maybe the grass is afraid it will get hurt, like when she was a little girl and cried about getting her hair cut. Bits of grass are scattered all along the concrete behind her, breaking up its flat white sameness.

“All safe,” she chants softly to the grass, her voice blending with the edger’s low vibration. Somewhere off to her left, there’s a car horn blaring. “All good, all safe.”

Julie knows she’s talking to herself as much as to the grass. Moving to the city and learning how to live in an apartment had been scary. Uncle Hank had told her she would be safe and there was no need to worry. Uncle Hank is a reverend, and he preaches at the old wooden church down the road from the farm. This year he’s been talking a lot about Providence, gratitude, blessings, and things working out for the best. Julie likes that word, Providence—it has such a pretty sound to it.

She also likes the word “reverend,” and once she looked it up in the dictionary, finding that it was part of a set of related words. Revere, reverential, reverence. Sometimes words can be fun. Math, well, not so much; but Aunt Kathie helps with the shopping and bills.

“Rev-er-ence,” Julie chants even more softly, feeling that she is now in perfect tune with the hum of the edger. She’s getting close to the end of the walkway, where orange and yellow daylilies spread out along the side of the park. A woman has set up an easel beside them and is dabbing with a small brush at her canvas, filling it with bright dots of color.

Just beyond the daylilies there’s a sidewalk and street with people busily going by. Most of them aren’t looking this way—they’re watching the traffic or talking on their mobile phones. Only the artist painting the lilies seems like she’s fully here. A pigeon grabs a crumb and hops out of the way of the edger.

Two robins are chattering to one another in the grass. As Julie comes closer they take flight, landing on a low branch of an ornamental plum tree. The thick purplish leaves almost glow in the brilliant sunlight. Looking up farther, above the trees, the sky rises into a clear blue vault full of sparkling treasures—wide open for anyone to reach, and so beautiful.

The artist turns her head, tossing a long dark braid back over her shoulder. For a moment the two women’s eyes meet, and Julie waves a hand before she even thinks about what she’s doing. Overflowing with joy, she imagines that it’s radiating from her in all directions, like the sunlight.

“Reverence,” she says one last time, in a whisper so low that she can barely hear her own voice. She feels certain it’s a blessing from Providence that she has shared.
 

Click here to continue to the third and final story in the series.

April 29, 2015 · 6 comments · Categories: Stories

The city park with its neatly maintained flowerbeds and ornamental trees always looks like a small square of dark chocolate in the morning, when it’s shadowed by hulking office buildings. Lily can’t complain, or at least she feels that she shouldn’t; for many years she has made good money from her first-floor coffee shop, across the street from the park.

By now the morning rush is just about over. A few cars go by, their daytime running lights soft and glittering like fireflies in the shadows. But mostly everyone is at work now, settling into their cubicles for another day of ringing phones and clacking keyboards. Global commerce is an impatient master.

Lily always thought she’d had it easier with the coffee shop, where she could be her own boss. She hadn’t seriously questioned that assumption, nor had she realized how much stress had crept into every part of her existence, until last year when she got the breast cancer diagnosis. That had left her even busier than usual, of course, what with all the medical appointments and making sure she could keep the shop properly staffed when she wasn’t there. But all those weeks of lying on a hard table getting radiation treatments every day had given her plenty of time to reflect on things.

She smiles at a regular customer who just came in. Gunther is retired, like most of her midmorning clientele, and he walks here every day from the senior citizens’ apartment building a few blocks to the north. Sometimes he plays chess or checkers in the park, if the weather is good and he can find someone interested in a game. He has kindly blue eyes behind his trifocals and a short white fringe encircling his mostly bald head.

“So, Lily,” he says, in a voice that’s still gravelly from decades of smoking, though he gave up the habit a few years ago after a heart attack. “I heard you’re selling the coffee shop and going to work for a cruise line.”

“It’s true,” she answers, bracing herself for a Love Boat joke and wondering who blabbed. She still hasn’t said anything to her parents or brothers about her plans, even though she now has a definite start date on a South Pacific cruise ship next month. She comes from a practical Midwestern family descended from Eastern European shopkeepers. No doubt the first thing they’ll do is get on the phone to everyone they know, gossiping about how she has totally lost her marbles.

Much to her surprise, Gunther promptly declares, “Good for you!” His big white head bobs emphatically as he settles into his usual booth with the red-checked tabletop; Lily favors retro décor. As always, he puts the brown carrying case for his chess/checkers set beside him on the bench seat, just like the briefcase he carried to work for so many years.

“I always wanted to be a cowboy,” he confides, lowering his voice as if he’s afraid to say it out loud, even now. “But that was just a foolish thought—everyone would have said so. Instead I did the sensible thing, got my degree and became an accountant, putting aside enough savings for a comfortable retirement. Now my wife is dead, my kids all moved away long ago, I sold the big house in the suburbs because I couldn’t stand the emptiness, and what use is the money I saved? I should’ve followed my heart and trusted that the Lord would provide, just like for the birds and flowers. Isn’t that how it goes?”

He blinks earnestly up at Lily through his glinting lenses as the young waitress Samantha, blonde hair pulled back in a waist-length ponytail, brings his usual coffee and blueberry muffin to the table.

“Yes, ‘consider the lilies.'” She smiles again, wryly this time. “I haven’t been much good at that myself, for all that my name is Lily. But at least I feel that I’m heading in the right direction now.”

After picking at his breakfast a little, Gunther speaks again, this time not looking up. “If I were younger I’d move out West and start a new career just like you, but it’s too late even to think about that.”

“Not necessarily.” Lily can’t imagine what’s gotten into her to start giving advice like this. Usually she is all friendly chatter, just a lot of meaningless words, nothing that could ever upset a customer or make her sound pushy. She had more than enough of busybodies when she was growing up, and she vowed long ago that she would never become one herself.

But maybe that also had been doubt and fear keeping her silent, in a different way.

When Gunther looks up again, Lily goes on talking, her words feeling solid and right even though she’d had no idea what she was going to say. “Ranchers need accountants just like anybody else running a business, don’t they? You could keep the books part-time on a ranch, learn the business, and then maybe buy your own ranch after a few years.”

Across the street, the park comes to life in vibrant colors as the sun finally rises above the office buildings. On clear days like this, Lily always has felt drawn to the brilliant sunshine like a moth; and now she imagines that she’s seeing the tropical ports and ocean vistas of her longtime dreams. She knows, even before looking back, that Gunther has followed her gaze. When she glances at him again, she sees in his blue eyes the wide-open skies of the West’s mountain ranges.
 

This is the first story in a series of three. Click here to read the second.

The high school football field’s bleachers bustled with activity as late-arriving spectators found seats after the opening kickoff. Down on the field, the players lined up… [This is Part 18. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

A fire crackled cheerily on a wide brick hearth, sparks rising and popping as a log settled farther down into the pile. Snowy hills and bare, icy branches gleamed in the moonlight… [This is Part 17. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

A dream filled with whining mosquitoes gave way to the equally unwanted buzz of the alarm clock as Aurora, still more than half asleep, smacked the off button. Something plastic clattered to the cold hardwood floor in the dark—she’d bumped Darrell’s photo off the dresser again. She switched on a light, blinking as her eyes adjusted. Darrell smiled up at her from a cheap frame in a dusty corner, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners and sandy-blond hair falling to his shoulders.

She would have plenty of time for dusting after work, alone in the apartment as usual. The photo was about all she saw of Darrell most days, since he’d taken a truck-driving course last year—not long after their marriage—and gotten a job as a long-haul trucker. He was always talking about how much he loved the job: driving the big rigs, seeing the country, being part of life’s adventures rather than just watching life go by.

Aurora could understand that feeling. After all, they had met while working at a McDonald’s just off the interstate. Last month, she had been promoted to first shift manager. The job was mostly okay, but some days she felt like it would be great to jump in a truck and never look back. Darrell had ambitious plans, saving up to buy his own truck—he had in mind that Aurora would learn to drive it and they’d be an owner-operator team.

But for now, all she drove was a beat-up old Chevy sedan, which at present was sitting in the parking lot covered with about three inches of snow—as she discovered when she looked out the bedroom window. The forecast hadn’t predicted snow overnight, and Aurora hadn’t thought to set her alarm clock earlier. Now she’d have to hurry to work, especially since she was responsible for unlocking the restaurant to let in the morning crew.

She dressed quickly and went outside, putting on thick gloves to keep her hands warm while she brushed snow off the car. A bitterly cold wind blew from the north, and the predawn sky was still pitch black. A city truck had just gone by, plowing up the snow into big dirty heaps. Aurora drove the few blocks to the highway and got on the ramp. There wasn’t much traffic yet this morning. She passed a semi, noting a Bible verse on its trailer. 1 Corinthians 16:14, it proclaimed: Let All Your Work Be Done with Love.

Well, that certainly hadn’t been the first thought in her mind, after waking up in the dark on a morning like this. And there was a slowpoke ahead in the exit lane, crawling down the ramp she needed to take. Some people had no idea how to drive in the snow. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as the usual list of complaints ran through her head: dreary, dull, dismal, dark, depressing winter. The sun wouldn’t rise for a long time yet. It was no wonder ancient people had made up myths about it, telling stories around the fire on the long, dark nights.

In the story from which she got her name, a chariot pulled the sun across the sky. Every morning as dawn approached, the celestial gates had to be opened to allow the chariot to pass. That was the goddess Aurora’s task. The myths had seemed silly, learning them in school; but at least they had enough simple, realistic details that it wasn’t hard to imagine being in the stories. Even goddesses had to wake up before dawn and trudge off to work.

She pictured her mythical namesake on a chilly Mediterranean morning, wrapped tightly in a wool cloak as she made her way along a windy mountain trail. From somewhere far below came the sounds of the sea. The moon had just set, and she had only the stars to light her path. She took a deep breath that tasted of pine and of the snow on the high peaks.

In the east, a pale glow brightened—the sun! Excitement rose within her as well, and she started running, the path coming clearer at each step. Her sandals slapped against the stony earth, in harmony with the hoofbeats echoing through the sky as the chariot approached. There they were before her, the golden celestial gates, shining in perfect glory! She lifted the bar, letting the gates swing wide as the chariot thundered through, feeling the thrill of its passage as it rumbled by…

The only rumbling as Aurora parked the Chevy outside the McDonald’s came from a semi on the interstate carrying cold rolled steel. The imagined hoofbeats still echoed in her mind, all the same, and the unexpected joy lingered. It wouldn’t be long—one of these days, she and Darrell would have their own truck, driving out of the east like the chariot of the sun. For now, though, her place in the world could be a meaningful one, right here where she was. Opening the gates.

Aurora found herself smiling as she unlocked the door of the restaurant, doing her work with love.

Woods had been sitting in the dining hall for a few minutes, mostly just looking at his hot oatmeal rather than eating it, when Mastroianni walked in from the galley… [This is Part 16. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

A large brown suitcase stood next to the open door of the dormitory room, bulging with things that hadn’t been on the original list… [This is Part 15. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]