The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia

The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia

Observe the detail on the bumper of an eleven-year-old Subaru Outback: “Proud Parent of a Terrific Kid,” two of the corners peeled back slightly, one of them torn. Bumper stickers don’t come off easily, and whoever tried to remove this one gave up rather than leave a papery mess for all to see.

The man wore a lightweight brown coat over a maroon sweater. He rubbed his hands together and then stuffed them into his coat pockets. He didn’t hurry but didn’t dally either.

The girl was already out of the car and halfway across the parking lot. She wore a dark coat and a purple scarf and a whimsical knit cap with matching gloves. Underneath the coat she wore a sweater and two T-shirts, and leggings under her jeans. She wore canvas sneakers, which was a poor choice for this weather, but she had on two pairs of socks. She walked quickly with her head down and her arms across her waist, not looking back to make sure he was following.

Just inside the door, though, she stopped and turned to watch him come. Bundled under yards of cotton and yarn she was an echo of the obedient child she had been not long ago.

“I have to use the bathroom,” she said quietly when he entered, and walked away without waiting for acknowledgment.

“Should I get you the usual?” he asked her, and in reply she shrugged her shoulders.

There was only register open, and the customers in front were to a one very indecisive about their orders. The man studiously read the menu while waiting his turn. From time to time he checked to see if she was coming back. If he was annoyed by the slow service he didn’t let on.

Continue reading “The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia”

Me and the sea

Me and the sea

For years I believed that I loved the beach because everybody I knew loved the beach and insisted that I did, too. They longed for it and sang its praises and daydreamed about escaping to the beach, and not just in the cruel dead months of winter. Like Basho longing for Kyoto even in Kyoto, my family and friends would lie on the sand and do nothing except celebrate their being on the beach.

Some waxed poetically: all life begins in the sea, be it the primordial waters of our newborn planet, or the smaller sea of our mothers’ wombs.

Others more prosaically celebrated not being work.

Still others took pleasure in showing off their bodies, or observing others who showed off their bodies, or both.

Too young to appreciate poetry, have a job, or experience the thrill of public near-nudity, I simply agreed, and insisted that I loved the beach and hoped that nobody would press me further on reasons why.

Reasons not to love the beach were obvious: sand. Sand in my shoes, sand in  my hair, sand in my body somehow, sand all over the potato chips.

And salt. In my eyes, in my mouth, and eventually enough would work its way into my skin to make my nipples hurt.

And the sun. Burned skin, a lot of squinting, fighting for shade or else gallantly giving it up.

And the sea. Relentless, punishing the shore and those along it, concealing threats like sharp rocks, angry crabs, and deadly currents.

And in later years, when we moved far and the beach became accessible only for a weekend a year, I listened as everyone around me lamented their fate and long for the shore, but I stayed silent, content to be dry and cool. In time I was on my own to plan my vacations, and I finally began to admit to those around me that the sea simply didn’t pull me the way it did others. Although everyone was shocked, it was a relief to be able to admit that.

But that wasn’t the whole story.

I do love the sea.

When I was nine years old we lived on the twenty-first floor in a building whose lobby opened directly onto a clear strand of Atlantic beach. I had a bedroom but I preferred to sleep on the couch because I could leave the door to the balcony open and hear the waves down below. The salt and sound engaged all my senses, and my body, though I lay still on my side, struggled happily to find equilibrium amidst the shifting of the currents, reacting to the phantom memory of the water.

Those nights are among the most precious of my memories.

This past weekend we went to the beach for a wedding and rented a little cottage just a block from the shore. The days were consumed with wedding activities, and when we weren’t doing those there was obligatory socializing with relatives who had come from far away, and meeting people who were now, however tenuously, new relatives.

And I spent most of the time waiting for the moment when I could escape and walk the block to the beach by myself, and walk along the strand, quiet and alone.

At last the wedding was over, and the bride and groom went away, and the relatives old and new soon followed. My parents plopped down and admitted they were too tired and happy to do anything but sit, and so I excused myself and took the short walk in time to watch the sun slip off the glassy sky and disappear to the other side of the earth.

I walked along lazily until it was dark, trying to live in this moment and that other moment from years ago, even on the beach longing for the beach.

Because I do, after all, love the beach.

Joe Meets God, Buys a Futon

Joe Meets God, Buys a Futon

{note: I couldn’t figure out how to make screenplay format work on this blog, but since this is a first draft anyway, I thought I’d go ahead and just improvise.}



[A knock on the door, and GOD answers it. He is surprisingly young. Knocking on the door is JOE, 20ish.]

Hi, I’m here about the futon?

Oh, sure come in. Like I said in the ad, it’s nothing special, but it’s pretty good for the price.

[A studio apartment, typical bachelor pad: overstocked liquor cabinet, understocked refrigerator.]

Why are you getting rid of it?

I don’t know. It was just like taking up space. Can I get you something to drink? Water, wine? Have some wine. I’ll get you a glass.

[He goes into the kitchen and runs the tap. He comes back with a glass of water and hands it to Joe, who is testing out the futon.]

(taking a sip)
Thanks, that’s some good wine.

Oh wait, I forgot.

[He takes the glass back, passes His hand over it, and it turns into red wine. He hands it back to Joe, who is stunned.]

My God, what’d you just do?

[God shrugs.]

You prefer white?

[He waves His hand and the wine turns white. Joe is shocked.]

Continue reading “Joe Meets God, Buys a Futon”

The Snakes and History

The Snakes and History

During the height of the Mayan era a group of people who called themselves Snakes briefly overran the cities of the Yucatan and formed a powerful imperial state. Where they came from has been lost to history. How they built their empire, and how they lost it, is almost as much guessing as it is scholarship. Until the 1960s, actually, the fact that they had ever existed was mostly unknown.

When the Snakes fell, their rivals did their best to erase them from memory, and nearly succeeded. But today we can find what little remains of their monuments scattered throughout the Yucatan, identified by their imperial symbol, a stylized snake with an eerie grin. Archaeologists have pieced together a sketchy timeline for their rule, and shown how their society was organized.

Their cities, judging from the remnants that have survived, were amazing, and what we have learned of their history suggests that this may have been one of the most dazzling places on earth in the seventh century.

I imagine a young man growing up in the Snake capital, learning to walk along those streets, running his hands over stone buildings that, as far as he knew, had always been there, and would always be there. The myriad daily encounters that make up the bulk of life: cooking, shopping, meeting with friends, going to work. Love, children. Various worries that kept him up at night, the life-consuming tragedies that scarred him but left no imprint on the greater world.

I look at the towers of my own city, the ribbons of pavement that grid the ground beneath me, the long-term projects that take up all my time and energy, and the forgettable tasks and thoughts, innumerable as the stars. I understand that of the billions of us who walk the earth, very few are ever remembered beyond their own lifetimes. We are like grains of sand, not valuable in and of ourselves but in aggregate a wonder to behold. I personally will be forgotten but my time, my civilization, my world that I know will echo through the centuries.

I’m sure the Snake people felt the same way. How would it feel if by some accident one of them should step through time and find himself in his city today, overgrown with jungle and picked over with scholars? Would he point to places in a desperate effort to show that this field was where his children played, that this low wall had once been a house, that the people inside it were kind and generous and deserved to be remembered? Would he simply go mad? Or would he just stand there, unable to comprehend that his world that was all that there was could vanish so completely?



Angeline Carter flipped through the stack of mail on her desk. It was almost always junk, but odd and amusing things popped up regularly enough to make it worth her time. She sorted quickly, deciding what was worth opening and what was trash almost without conscious thought, sometimes judging little more than the feel on the paper on her fingertips. She spent a bit more time on the pieces she thought were worth a second look, but most of those ended up in the trash, too. The only keepers today were an invitation to a restaurant opening at the marina, and a flyer for the City Opera, reminding her that she wouldn’t be taking advantage of her subscription this season, either.

In her haste Angeline almost missed the package that had been delivered as well, a plain box not much bigger than a coffee mug. She didn’t see it until she had sat down, and when she picked it up she was surprised that it had been delivered at all. Some determined or very bored mail clerk had inexplicably decided to not just return it to sender. Perhaps the long jumble of letters on the label had caught his eye. Maybe somebody in the mail room was Polish and upon seeing the name “Grace Szczepaniak” decided that he had a sacred duty to deliver the mail. Although it wasn’t any kind of secret, very few people her outside of HR or the Legal department knew who Grace Szczepaniak was, and almost nobody who knew Grace would ever think to find her here.

Angeline used a letter opener to cut the wrapping tape and open the box. Inside it was mostly bubble wrap, which she unspooled to reveal a small figurine of a ballerina. The figure itself was cheap ceramic, perhaps even just plaster, unglazed and mostly unpainted except for the faded pink tutu. The ballerina balanced on one foot, which connected her to the wooden base and the hidden mechanics inside. There was a slot on the side for a small key which, when turned, would make it play a tinny ten-second snippet of The Nutcracker, and slowly spin the little ballerina. The key was missing, but Angeline found that if she turned the ballerina herself the gears still moved, and the song still played, albeit at the wrong speed.

She checked the box. There was no return address but the postmark showed it was mailed from Sweetwater, and Angeline felt a tremble crawl through her hands. She put the figurine down and stood. It was an odd intrusion into her day, and although the tremble went away already she didn’t want to sit down. Her office, her home-away-from-home for nearly seven years now, felt alien and unwelcoming to her, and the need to get out was impossible to ignore.

Which was madness, after all. And infuriating. She had gone through this already, and over the past few weeks settled whatever it was that needed to be settled–which wasn’t much, she found. It was both ridiculous and unfair that this little figurine should insist otherwise.

And yet there it was. The slot for the missing key was a quiet accusation, and the muted song that wouldn’t play right tried stubbornly to remind her of Crystal and, inevitably, Grace.

Continue reading “Sweetwater”

Step into my office

img_8201But not really. I prefer to work alone.

I’ve traded out my coffee shop in Kazakhstan for this lofted workspace in Uganda. Typically I’m surrounded by snacks and beverages, but I thought I’d clean it up for the photo.

Anyway, here’s where the magic (as it were) happens. Currently the magic is me trying to figure out what to write next, and resisting the urge to go for a walk. You know how it goes.