Category Archives: My Very Short Stories

Tommy Vee

7:00 am. The name “Tommy Vee” pops up on my text message:

“Hey, Gloria! Are you going to the High School Reunion, too? I just bought my plane tickets!”

“Tommy! How wonderful to hear from you! I didn’t even know we were having one! When and where is it?”

“On October 14th right there, back on Staten Island.”

“OMG! How I’d love to go! Funny thing happened, though; by then, I’ll be in the middle of chemo and radiation.”

“Can you talk for a few minutes?”

“Absolutely!”

The phone rings and my mind seizes on this sweet little 5 year old blond boy, thin as a rail, an animated live wire who talked a blue streak. A real Mr. Personality, he was as charismatic as a 5 year old could possibly have the right to be.

My first conscious memory of Tommy is the two of us walking in a double line together with our first grade class alongside Our Lady Queen of Peace Church. Because we were partners that day, we had to hold hands, which I thought was kind of cool since I’ve always liked holding hands with cute guys, even back then.

Across the street, I saw the funeral parlor that would be, years later, the place where I’d get my last desperate look at my parents’ faces.

I pointed to Hanley’s Funeral Home and said, “They have dead people there, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, setting me up for a joke. “People are dying to get in there!”

I laughed, thinking he was probably the cleverest person I knew. “Did someone tell you that or did you make that up yourself?”

“No, I just dug it up!”

I’m not sure, but I think it was the first time I’d ever heard a pun. I thought he was brilliant!

The Grown-Up Tommy says, “So, Gloria! What’s going on?”

I tell him about climbing the mountains of China, getting short of breath, thinking I was having a heart attack, feeling sick the whole trip, coming back to the US, going to the emergency room, discovering pulmonary embolisms, and oh, yeah, by the way, there’s a mass on your left lung, and it’s malignant and you’ve got lung cancer, adenocarcinoma stage 3b, crossed the mediastinum. Huh! Never even knew I had a mediastinum to cross!

He tells me about his own battle with cancer and how it finally left him alone after wreaking so much devastation upon him. He negotiated a truce with cancer and all the good parts of his life are still his, and how every day he enjoys everything around him. He is a man of great faith and exudes this confidence that everything will be OK. I believe he knows what he’s talking about. And, of course, I’m inspired.

“I hope we keep in touch, Gloria. I’d like to help you get through this.”

I recount to him my memory of the two of us walking along the street and how he had made me laugh, and how I loved that he was holding my hand.

“And isn’t it so sweet, Tommy, that after all these years, you reach out to me…and you’re still holding my hand.”

Photo Credit: http://www.pinterest.com

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Filed under Inspirational, My Very Short Stories, Uncategorized

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 8: The Advice Lady

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Stepping back in time, Morgana trips the bell on the time-worn, wood-framed glass door of the old newspaper office where she’s been working part-time for years. Maddie, the ancient, slow-moving, toad-like receptionist who has manned the front desk for the last 40 years, greets her with a warm croak.

The Pregonero has been a mainstay in this little corner, and somehow has resisted the piranha-like nips of the real estate developers to eventually gobble up anything funky and replace it with an antiseptic, dark-glassed, mall-like structure with no history, no smells other than a “new building odor” (fumes venting from a toxic mix of organic and semi-organic volatile compounds used in building construction), and a huge price tag.

The Pregonero is one of those surprisingly extant, non-digital, analog paper venues for legal notices of real estate transactions, liens, construction permits, lawsuits, and notifications of weary exes disavowing responsibility for and affiliation with discarded spouses. Along with a spate of coupons sponsored by local businesses, there is also community news of deaths, divorces, weddings, and engagements. Then, slightly more interesting are the travel journals with photos, school fund-raisers, community clothing drives for earthquake victims on the other side of the globe, art gallery openings and their featured artists, tattooed roller-skating teens reviving the roller derby, middle-school hula hoop competitions, church bake sales, garage sales, and raffles to fund homeless shelters, bronze sculptures being stolen from community parks, the police blotter, and the buy-sell-swap page. Somewhere around the last few pages of The Pregonero, just before the onset of an existential crisis, the reader will come across something akin to a large, grainy photograph of a spunky, delighted winner of the Sexiest Grandmother Contest, beaming her best neon-white, bleached smile, and think, “She looks pretty good for 70,” or “Glad I’m not that old,” or “Seventy isn’t old,” or “Who gives a flying flip?,” depending upon the reader’s particular demographic and the intensity of his/her ennui.

But the real attraction of The Pregonero is the distraction provided by a few random space fillers that evolved into regular columns, not that anyone really goes out of their way to read them—they are just simply there. Stacks of The Pregonero can be found all over the city in the vestibules or waiting rooms of the DMV, medical and dental offices, Jiffy Lubes and banks, diners and restaurants, churches and schools, clothing stores and pharmacies, supermarkets and convenience stores, gas stations and fast food joints, and the list goes on.

Originally hired as a “Girl Friday,” Morgana has somehow become one of the highlights of the Pregonero. Not a great writer, and a self-proclaimed even-worse poet, she never dreamed that she would become the default Dear Abby of the local penny saver.

She started out as an assistant to the Pregonero’s Copy Editor, who proved to be a non-discerning, good-time Charlie, three-martini-lunch kind of boss—and his name really was “Charlie.” He was a good guy, and because she was quite fond of him, she covered for him as much as she could.

She’d come in some afternoons and find Charlie sprawled out on his office couch, too snockered to move much, but pretty good at remembering (kind of) what he needed to do.

And believe it or not, the thing that always kept her in the game, in addition to her flexible work schedule, was his kindness—drunk or not, he was always happy to see her. He treated her like she was his right arm—and in his fatherly way, his little girl. Every time she’d come into work, there would be at least a couple of candies on the desk for her. Stumbling back from his drunken luncheons, he’d often carry the dessert he was too drunk to eat, all neatly packed up in bakery papers and snuggled into a to-go box. She came to expect these sweet offerings, always labeled with a slapped-on post it note from the office, bearing the scrawled message: “To My Dearest Morgana—As Ever, Your Charlie.”

The louder Charlie snored his way through his high-octane stupor, the more uneasy she would become at the idea of colliding head-on with their weekly deadline. Sometimes she could rouse him and get him back on track, but some days, it was clear that Charley would be down for the count for the rest of the afternoon. At that point, sheer panic would unleash her into a proof-reading frenzy, sometimes changing content when necessary, and making all kinds of editorial decisions that really should have been made by Charlie—or, at the very least, by someone who was half-way competent, someone who wasn’t sprawled out on the office couch, someone who didn’t have to do a great job, just someone, anyone, to do any kind of a job, and right now, goddammit. That someone turned out to be her.

The harder she worked at covering for Charlie, the more proficient she became in the layout of the graphics, illustrations, and text. Since Necessity is the Mother of Invention, it wasn’t all that surprising that the Mother of Invention gave birth to The Advice Lady. That Advice Lady turned out to be her.

Her column was never meant to be an art form; it was merely the logical response to a lack of text and the resulting menace of undistributable white space. Your average person cannot be expected to “know from” white space, but in newspaper production, it’s a big deal. Just enough white space is aesthetically pleasing, but too much white space makes the paper look really unprofessional, as if the Copy Editor were sprawled out on the couch, three sheets to the wind. She regarded her hastily written words as emergency ballast to fill the bowels of a listing ship threatening to capsize.

Just like her cooking, she’d rummaged around and scare up quite a bit of material that could be cajoled into something that would fit into the category of “that’s the ticket!”

In the case of The Advice Lady, it wasn’t all that hard to come up with something that everyone could identify with: a heart break, a heart ache, an embarrassing moment, a life hack, a silly poem, a quick recipe to feed a flash mob, a good use for six cans of blue paint, yellowing bolt ends of antique fabric, widowed socks, wine corks, and old credit cards. Sometimes, there were real letters to be answered, and sometimes, she’d just make them up.

Morgana’s resourcefulness delighted those whose restless, scanning eyes alighted for a moment on some little tidbit of quirky fun.

Today, her work is easy. She only needs to fill about 1,000 words worth of space. First, she eats the nice little square of tiramisu after removing the post-it note. Then, she leaves Charlie snoring away on his couch. She unlocks the little mail box at the front of the building and fishes through its contents for anything marked for The Advice Lady. There are always a few surprises, such as a greasy paper plate from the pizza place next door that someone folded and then jimmied through the slot, a flyer from a nearby church, with a giant “Fuck Off” (written with an eyebrow pencil?) on the back of it, and a few cigarette butts and beer bottle caps. She distributes the mail to the appropriate addressees, puts the cigarette butts in the trash, and recycles the church flyer, the greasy paper plate, and the bottle caps.

Back at her desk, she opens a letter from a lady named Patsy Scroggitch, who writes,

Dear Advice Lady,

My best friend’s life is a train wreck. She makes the worst decisions, and it’s so clear that her troubles are her own doing. She gets really angry if I suggest a reasonable solution to one of her never-ending problems. It seems like she just wants someone to agree with her that she’s got rotten luck. God forbid that any of this should be her fault! What would you do with such a friend?

Sign me,
Frustrated in Friendship

Dear Frustrated,

Will Rogers once said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

Great advice because this is exactly what we pay therapists to do. Ever notice how therapists operate? You don’t even have to go to one yourself to figure it out—just think of any therapist you’ve ever seen in a movie. They let their patients talk and talk until they reveal the real problem. It’s like a broken tooth underneath the gum line. Eventually, it works its way out. When you give advice to someone, you are actually preventing them from solving their problem because they will defend their position, no matter how indefensible it may be.

That’s why you will probably never hear a therapist say, “Well, I think you should….” That’s what well-meaning friends do! Therapists ask questions that the patient (given enough time, introspection, honesty, patience, and/or equanimity) could have asked themselves, all of which begin with the word, “so,” such as, “So, where did your kids get the idea that you would continue to cover their bad debts?” or “So, what does this other woman have that you don’t?” or “So, who taught your grandchildren that it’s OK to jump on the couch?” or “So, just how did you expect your sister to react when you told that her husband was cheating on her?”

I understand your frustration, but just remember how hard it is to take advice. And no one likes a know-it-all! Plus, advice is often seen as judgement, and nobody likes to be judged.

But here’s my advice, since you asked for it: If this person really is your best friend, then give her the sympathy she’s looking for and bite your tongue when tempted to give her advice. Feel free to ask her questions, which will encourage her to provide her own answers; then let her draw her own conclusions from her own answers. This may be the most helpful thing for her—and your friendship—in the long run.

If her “always a victim” attitude begins to wear on you, spend more time with other friends who are less-emotionally fragile.

So, good luck, and thank you for checking in with me!

Advisedly yours,
The Advice Lady

P.S. I hope you enjoy the poem I wrote addressing this very problem:

Thus Spoke The Advice Lady: Advice for All and None

Unsolicited and friendly,
Well-intentioned advice
Can sometimes pan out
Exponentially nice.

But on the odd
Occasion or two,
The advice you’ve given,
Truly, you’ll rue.

That enchanted drive
Down the country lane?
Made your friends fix a flat
In the pouring rain.

And that scenic shortcut
Through the verdant woods?
Made them swear off forever
Of all of your shoulds.

La Salade Niçoise
With crispy romaine?
Left them poisoned and retching
With a raging Ptomaine.

And that spray you touted
For the stain on their shirt?
Spread that very small stain
Into a large ring of dirt!

The fridge repair guy
You endorsed, you confess,
Didn’t do as you’d promised,
And left your friend in a mess.

So now I don’t say
There’s a dentist I like.
And I don’t tell old people
To ride a bike.

Nor to take their sore knees
On a challenging hike.
Nor encourage miffed workers
To go out on strike.

I won’t even tell Dutch Boys
To plug a hole in the dike.

Who wants our two cents?
There are too few among us.
All too often our advice
Is as welcomed as fungus.

So for now I’ll just listen
To all litanies of woes
With patience and sympathy
And see how that goes.

My advice to myself
Is to not give advice–
With one mouth and two ears,
Speak once, listen twice!

But just in case you request my opinion,
You must forgive me should I steer you wrong;
And remember that it was you who invited me
To stick my nose where it did not belong.

Morgana feels a sense of satisfaction, knowing that she’s done a pretty good job as she shuts her computer down for the day.

She opens the door to Charlie’s office where he’s snoring so loudly that she half-expects the windows to rattle. She shakes his shoulder just a bit and almost sings his name, so as not to jar him awake. He stirs but not enough to wake up. She can tell that he’s got another hour or so before he’s firing on all pistons again.

Now that the sun’s moved on to a different part of the building, there’s a slight chill to the room. She grabs the old, ratty, yellow, white and brown crocheted afghan from the top of his coat closet, and she pulls it over him and tucks it in around him, even over his shoes. She hovers over him and gives him a warm hug and whispers, “OK, Charlie. Sleep tight and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Maddie’s already left for the day. Except for Charlie, Morgana is the last one out of the office. She turns off the lights, and pushes in the automatic lock on the inside of the door on her way out.

She crosses the busy street so she can walk along the lake on her way home. She passes the familiar, frazzle-haired, tiny homeless woman who sits on the same bench every day, smoking cigarettes that she manages to bum from passersby.

“Hello, I’m Sister Jane, your sister-in-Christ. Would you happen to have an extra 75 cents?”

Morgana digs into her pocket, finds two quarters, and gives them to Sister Jane, who takes the quarters and scowls at the paltry amount. Morgana makes a mental note to ignore Sister Jane in the future, turns to resume her walk, and narrowly misses getting mowed down by a heavily-tattooed skateboarder wearing a spiked dog collar.

Somewhat shaken, she hears herself talking gently to the dog-collared, heavily-tattooed skateboarder who is lying on a couch lodged into some dark corner of her mind:

“So, what do you think the difference is between how you think people will react to your appearance and how you want them to react to your appearance?”

The skateboarder screws up his metal-studded face in disgust and says, “Fuck off, you old bag!”

Morgana takes a deep breath, laughs, and, watching for skateboarders, continues on her way.

To Be Continued in Chapter 9: The Initialization

Photo Credit: pinterest.com

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Filed under My Very Short Stories, Proto-Novella, Short Story Series

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 7: Waiting for Rain

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The robot continues smoking his cigarette, not missing a single drag, even as Morgana emerges from behind a closed door. She is naked and cold, and, considering the circumstances, understandably confused.

“Can I ask you a question, please?” she inquires in a plaintive squeak.

“I…don’t…know…Sir!” replies the smoking robot in a metallic monotone. “Can…you?”

“Well, I guess I can! I’m looking for Rain. Do you know where I can find her? She’s new here.”

As Morgana begins to feel a little more at ease with the smoking robot, she is suddenly aware of her bare feet, numbed by the frigid, gritty floor. In a mere nanosecond, the cold wends its way into her spine as if it had been wicked up through the soles of her feet. She begins to shiver. She can only imagine what all her jiggly pooches of bare flesh must look like, but she doesn’t think the robot can see anything beyond the tip of his cigarette, if even that much.

“Let…me…check…for…you…Sir,” he drones, while he lights another cigarette and sticks it into a hole at the top of his head. The hole chokes and sputters as the lit cigarette is ejected in a sudden belch of blue smoke amidst the cacophonous accompaniment of electronic thwonks and boings. The cigarette rolls to an unceremonious stop onto the counter between them and is now burning a smoldering, black hole into the counter’s dingy grey surface.

“Well…there…is…your…answer…Sir!” replies the robot in his curt electronic voice.

“What does that mean?” demands Morgana, forgetting all about her Rubenesque jigglescape.

“It…means…what…it…means…Sir!”

The robot picks up the ejected cigarette and smokes it along with his other cigarette, which is now so short it is burning his hand. Unperturbed, he fumbles with his left hand, searching for more cigarettes, as the thwonking and boinging crescendo to a deafening din.

Morgana wakes up in a cold sweat.

In the still, grey light of dawn, she remembers her three-day wait until the Initialization, and is filled with a sense of dread and excitement. The two emotions cancel each other out, which is good because she’s got other things to deal with.

Grateful that her feet and legs are still toasty warm, she plods from her bedroom down the hallway, digging her toes into the still-new, soft, shaggy Berber carpeting. Now that was one good investment, she thinks, which is exactly what comes to mind each time her bare feet make contact with it.

Without looking in the mirror, she already knows that she looks like a chubby lumberjack in her shapeless, plaid, flannel nightgown, which is why she avoids the mirror on the way to Jack’s room to check on him. He’s still sleeping, his breathing steady and rhythmic. Her heart just aches for him. She wonders what he must be thinking, what he must be feeling, or rather if he can think or feel at all. She tiptoes out of the room, closing the door silently behind her.

The hot shower feels good as it washes away both her tears and the coldness that had seeped into her consciousness from the smoking robot dream.

She looks through all the clothes in her closet, finding nothing that would make her look more attractive. She finally settles on a pair of freshly-laundered, though still stained, magenta sweat pants with a bell-shaped pink pullover sweater that’s long and wide enough to cover the lumpy terrain between her waist and the lower part of her upper thigh bulge. Hmmm…it doesn’t look that bad! The snarky killjoy inside her head, always quick to disabuse her of any comforting illusions she may be entertaining, assures her that it does look that bad. Not that it’s a big deal or anything, but she thinks her daughter, a very cutting-edge and fashion-savvy young woman, secretly pities her poor mother’s total lack of taste.

How Morgana managed to raise such a fashion-conscious daughter is totally beyond her, but in a way it makes sense since Gerri was always hyper-aware of colors, textures, patterns, lines, and balance. And true to her aesthetic sensibilities, she is a successful buyer for a cautiously-expanding chain of upscale clothing boutiques for “the discriminating woman,” called “Glamorphous” with a retro shoe subsidiary called “Shoetiquity.”

Puttering around the kitchen, Morgana peers out the window and sees dark storm clouds gathering. She is seized by a sudden sense of joy, hoping that rain is coming their way to pry loose the dead fingers of drought strangling their parched, desperate state. She remembers that “Rain” is the name she chose for her other self and that in three days, she will experience life as that other person, the one she was always meant to be. Oh, how she wishes she could share this with Gerri!

The doorbell rings. She dries her hands on the red checkered dishtowel and walks briskly to the door.

“Gerri! How’s my baby girl?” She throws her arms around her red-haired daughter, who is always cheered by her mother’s effusive show of affection.

“Hi, Ma! If you let me go for a second, I can give you these great bagels I just bought.” She wriggles free, and puts the bag on the table.

“Now it’s my turn!” she says as she turns around and gives Morgana a huge bear hug. She looks into her mother’s eyes welling with tears. The coffee maker wheezes and gurgles in the background. The warm, roasted aroma of the coffee fills the kitchen with the promise of a cozy chat tucked into a pocket of stopped time.

“How’s Pop-Poo doing?”

“The same, but Rocky seems to think there’s more hope than the doctors are letting on. I sure hope he’s right! Well, no matter! I think Daddy would love to see you, whatever the case may be!”

Gerri scrambles down the hallway into her father’s room, and Morgana hears her greet her father. Like all people who believe that even the most absurd hope is better than no hope at all, Gerri assumes that her Dad is awake because his eyes are open, but Morgana already knows that he is staring into that same, distant dimension that never admits present company. She listens to the one-sided conversation, gaily prattled by the always-sweet Gerri.

“Pop-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo!!!” she says in her silliest voice.

The two had begun this silly ritual when Gerri was just a baby. She would sit on his lap and call him “Pop-Poo,” and he would laugh and tap the tip of her cute little nose for each syllable she uttered. Then she would laugh and try to tap him on the nose and just as she would almost tap his nose, he’d snap his head back and catch her little baby finger with his lips. Each time, she would squeal and laugh with utter surprise and delight. Gerri was always the love of his life. She never stopped calling him “Pop-Poo.”

Five minutes later, Gerri saunters back into the kitchen and slides into her favorite chair at the side of the window as Morgana is putting their toasted bagels on green glass plates on the table.

“So, Ma, I have some good news about Mitzi, but unfortunately, it’s nothing that can help you locate Jerinda.”

Morgana looks up from pouring the coffee. “Really?”

“Yeah, I finally got ahold of her boyfriend, Atif, who told me that they broke up a couple of weeks ago—nothing awful, thank goodness! It’s just that their educational plans were driving them in different directions.”

“Oh, that’s too bad—Jerinda really liked him. Sorry to interrupt! Go on…”

“So, anyway, Atif told me that in order to complete her master’s degree in less time, she made a commitment to do a six-month independent study project in some remote place in the Central African Republic—ever hear of that?”

“No, I can’t say I have, but Africa’s never really been on my radar anyway. What do you know about it?”

“Not much, except that I looked it up and found out that it’s one of the least-developed nations in the whole world. It got its independence from France in 1960, and since then, things have gone from bad to worse. There are child soldiers, militias throwing young men to the crocodiles, burning down villages, you name it.”

“Oh my God, that’s awful!”

“Well, luckily, she’s far away from that kind of danger. She’s in a place called…wait!” She pulls her cellphone out of her back pocket, types with her thumb, and says, “…the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve, which is a rain forest reserve frequented by hard-core adventure seekers, of which, as you can probably imagine, there aren’t many. She is with a team of researchers who track gorillas, who live at an extremely isolated base camp called ‘Bai Hokou.’ There’s no mail service, no phone service, no internet, no nothing. So…that’s where she is!”

“Mitzi has always had a knack for doing everything the hard way, hasn’t she? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it dangerous to track gorillas?”

“Well, yeah! Not everyone has the gorilla-whispering skills of Dian Fossey.”

Morgana picks up her bagel and pauses, momentarily scanning her memory. “Come to think of it, I do remember Jerinda saying that Mitzi was getting antsy in the graduate program, because it was too theoretical and that Mitzi really wanted something more ‘hands-on.’ But I wonder why Mitzi didn’t tell Jerinda where she was going.”

“Atif told me that she had shared the information with her mother, but she didn’t know exactly when she would leave, only that when she did leave, she wouldn’t have time to do much besides pack and get herself to the airport. The American Embassy there knows where she is, but other than that, there’s no contact possible.”

“So there’s no way that Mitzi knows what happened to Jerinda, right?”

“Right! I totally doubt that she knew or suspected anything about it. She never would have gone, knowing that her mother was at death’s door. And listen to this: Atif told me that Mitzi left two weeks ago, Monday before last! Does that ring a bell?”

“Huh! That’s the same day Jerinda was attacked!”

“Yep!” Gerri stirs some sugar into her coffee and puts a dab of cream cheese on her bagel. “I’m thinking that, at the very least, she must have texted her mother a quick message or sent an e-mail on her way to the airport. Who knows? But given the fact that the two talk to each other a few times a week, it’s more likely that Mitzi called Jerinda to tell her the exciting news.”

“It’s curious that she didn’t mention Mitzi’s last-minute trip to Africa to me!”

“Probably because she didn’t know about it yet! Mitzi might have spoken with Jerinda at just about the same time she was walking alone around the lake, during that fifteen-minutes from the moment you left her to go to the dentist until a few minutes before her ‘accident.’ What do you think?”

Morgana takes a deep breath and exhales. “I think you’re right about the sequence of events. I’m so glad to know, or at least think I know, that Mitzi hasn’t just vanished off the face of the earth! I was starting to worry that something had happened to her. Did you contact the American Embassy?”

“No, because I wanted to talk to you first about that. What do you think Jerinda would want you to do?”

She would want me to be logical and practical. Since Mitzi can’t do anything to help Jerinda anyway, she might as well stay where she is and complete her project. Mitzi would be a nervous wreck if she were to find out and, as a mother myself, the last thing I would want to do would be to torment my children with a problem that has no solution.”

“I was thinking the same thing. I just hope Mitzi doesn’t hold this against us one day.”

“I hope not either, but look at it this way—we don’t know much, ourselves—do we? If and when we should find out more, then we might try to contact her through the Embassy, which is iffy at best, if what you told me about the place is true.”

“Oh, it’s true, alright!” Gerri reaches for some more cream cheese, and looks up suddenly. “Look, Ma! It’s raining! At last!”

Morgana stares into the rain, reflecting on her first California drought when she and Jack had first moved here. It didn’t rain and it didn’t rain. Morgana was feeling more desperate as each passing month evaporated, leaving the dust to swirl itself into madness. She felt as if the world were dying. One night, she was roused from a deep sleep by the tantalizing sound of a steady, driving rain, that beautiful, triumphant, wet applause of billions of big, fat, heavy drops of water slapping the ground. Overwhelmed by relief and gratitude, she opened her eyes, only to realize that she was listening to the neighbor’s shower through her open window.

“By the way, Gerri—Who the hell is Dian Fossey?”

To Be Continued in Chapter 8: The Advice Lady

Photo Credit: “Cyberman Smoke Break”
“This is from the filming of Revenge of the Cybermen, December 1974. The actor here might be a guy named Melville Jones. Or it could be any number of other stunt performers. Revenge of the Cybermen mostly sucks, but it does have this classic Tom Baker moment.” (www.reddit.com/r/OldSchoolCool/comments)

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Filed under Magical Realism, My Very Short Stories, Proto-Novella, Science Fiction, Short Story Series

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 6: Mélange à Trois

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For many “liberated” women, the kitchen is a four-walled metaphor for oppression, but not so for Morgana. Nothing makes her happier than being in the kitchen, creating a “Mélange à Trois,” which is her very own term for an improvised “dish” containing any three (or more) ingredients that somehow work together. When they don’t, which isn’t that often, it’s still OK—there’s always some sauce, condiment, or attitude that can be concocted to coax a culinary misfit into palatability.

Morgana’s big problem in life is not that she doesn’t have what she wants, but that she’s generally happy with what she has. Whereas most people would wring their hands in the absence of the one component essential to the success of their present endeavor, Morgana would jerry-rig the underpinnings of potential despair into a reasonable facsimile of the missing item, and, voilà! Problem solved! Well, kind of—her ability to survive and thrive with less, and improvise or ignore the rest, is a strength that so many people lack, but she has it in spades; so much so, to her detriment, that it prevents her from demanding and getting more from life. While she never thought of herself as a passive person, she was surprised by how passive she’d become over the years, particularly in her relationship with Jack. That certainly was not the way she was brought up.

Morgana grew up in a slightly-seedy, but charming, area of Brooklyn, just a couple blocks from Prospect Park. Ever since she could remember, she considered the Park her very own backyard. It was one of the things that always made Morgana feel rich. Morgana’s father, Lester, was a very decent plumber and a clever handyman who worked for Willie, an elderly Jewish man who had survived the Holocaust. Willie owned many crumbling apartment buildings all over the neighborhood, including the also-crumbling, five-storied apartment building in which they lived. Morgana’s mother, Myrtle (who, in so many ways, bore a striking resemblance to Tugboat Annie) ran Willie’s Laundromat, which occupied the ground floor storefront of their building, right there on the Avenue.

Morgana and her sisters were not exactly latchkey kids, since their mother was always just eight flights down and right around the corner in the Laundromat. It was there in their mostly-motherless kitchen that she learned to love cooking. Her mother used to brag that her kids were so NOT fussy that they would eat shit—as long as it was fried on both sides. Held fast to the dented, round-shoulder, dull-white Frigidaire by a neat border of masking tape, a handmade cardboard sign reinforced the kitchen creed: “Eat it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Or do without.” Her mother had made that sign after reading the poem in the “Hints from Heloise” column in one of the dog-eared, disheveled newspapers that the customers would leave forgotten on the aluminum-legged, orange plastic chairs dotted with cigarette burns in Willie’s Laundromat. Maybe that’s how Morgana also began to love poetry and household hints.

They generally ate poor people food, which was so very good, and made all the more delicious by the talking, laughing and camaraderie of her sisters as they invented their own recipes and culinary guidelines: sugar and butter sandwiches made from Wonder Bread and Blue Bonnet Margarine; there was also canned meat like Spam, Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Hormel Chili, and Chef Boyardee everything and anything. Meal preparation was always so much fun and really easy: just round up just about anything left over or languishing in the fridge. If there’s mold or anything on it that doesn’t look or smell too good, just cut or scrape it off, and if you want to get really fancy, just go ahead and run it under the faucet for a few seconds, but not too much, especially if there’s gravy or something good on it. Then chop it all up kind of small and then mix it all up with a can of Chef Boyardee anything with about a teaspoon of salt. If the “casserole” is too dry and tasteless, you’ll wind up with something her mother would have called “asshole cement,” so in order to avoid that, be sure to add ketchup. Oh, but what to do if (as often would be the case) there’s hardly any ketchup left? If there’s time and money, just run down to Mr. Ling’s Corner Grocery and BUY some! Well, there might be time but usually not money, so just put some water in the bottle and shake it up—good and hard if the ketchup is kind of dried up—but don’t uncap it near your face or the bottle will “fah-schitz” a ketchup bomb into your eyes” (as her eldest sister, Jewel, used to say), “that’ll sting like a bitch” (as her mother used to say). It seemed that Morgana and each of her sisters would have to learn that painful lesson the hard way!

As she retrieves a can of black beans from the pantry, she remembers how Jack always used to make fun of her proclivity for cooking with canned food. He once made up a new verse for a Christmas song, which became a family classic: “Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays, so no matter how far away you ro-o-o-oam…If you like to eat food from cans in a million ways, for the holidays you can’t beat home-sweet-home!” How she loved it when Jack was funny—even when she was the object of his humor, just as long as it wasn’t too cruel.

She chops up two big sweet potatoes, four carrots, two inches of fresh ginger, two jalapenos, and four cloves of garlic (and the only thing she peels is the garlic) and simmers it all in a few very healthy squirts each of soy sauce, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar for five minutes or so. Then she stirs in three good glops of creamy peanut butter, and brings it back to a simmer. In the meantime, she opens up the can of black beans, drains and rinses them and dumps them on top of the whole mixture. Then, just for good measure, she packs in as much raw, chopped kale as she can fit into the pan, covers it, and turns the burner off, letting the simmering mixture warm the beans and coddle the kale. This was a dish she had created on the spur of the moment years before for a Kwanzaa potluck celebration at the church. Everyone had loved it, and it had thenceforth become known as “Morgana’s Kwanzaa Surprise.” She also would internationalize it up a bit by serving it with different bread options, so if one were to serve it with bagels, it would become Morgana’s Jewish Kwanzaa Surprise; with spring roll wrappers, it would become Morgana’s Asian Kwanzaa Surprise; with tortillas, it would become Morgana’s Mexican Kwanzaa Surprise; etc.

The word “surprise” often found its way into the names she would give to her invented dishes. When people would ask her what the “surprise” was, she would tell them the surprise was that people would (1) eat it, (2) like it, and (3) go back for more. She had a few standard criteria for her cooking. She didn’t like to use the oven unless she was using it for several dishes at the same time because she considered it an inefficient use of energy. She also didn’t like to overcook vegetables because she thought the best way to eat them was just at the point where they could no longer be deemed raw. Meals had to take less than a half hour to put together and they had to taste good. There also had to be enough because surely, someone, if not everyone, would go back for seconds, and also because, you never knew when there might be an extra person or two showing up unannounced for dinner. Her family had gotten used to random people at the dinner table. Whoever was around when it was dinnertime, was always welcomed and made a fuss over, whether it was a neighbor, one of the kids’ friends, door-to-door religious zealots, or magazine salespersons.

She sets the table for two, both chairs facing the kitchen window, then heads to the living room, flops down on the couch to watch the news while waiting for Rocky, and promptly falls asleep.

“Hey, Morgana!”

She snorts herself awake as Rocky calls her name. She shuts off the babbling news reporter and leads Rocky into the kitchen.

“How’d it go, Rocky?”

“I know what the doctors are saying at this point, but I’ve got great plans for Jack. I can see his color getting just a bit better every day. Sometimes I can feel just a little resistance from his muscles, a little bit of tone that I didn’t know was there. I still think this is not a permanent condition.”

“Do you really, Rocky? Or are you just saying that to keep me hopeful?”

Before he can answer, Morgana sets a heaping plate of something green, orange and steaming that is decorated around the edges by artistically cut-up corn tortillas.

“Dig in!” she says, and without further ado, he does.

“Wow! This is great! What is it?”

“This is what we’d call ‘Morgana’s Mexican Kwaanza Surprise.’ It’s one of my favorite dishes—it’s got carrots, sweet potatoes, black beans, and kale!” she replies as she herself digs in with gusto.

Rocky pauses to answer her previous question. “I really think Jack’s got more of a chance than the doctors are saying, and as far as the hopeful part of it goes, it can only help.”

They both notice the red-orange haze of the deepening sunset at the same time and share a moment of quite reflection.

“I guess you’re the poster child for hope, right?” she says, without a bit of rancor in her voice.

“Absolutely! Even though being born in the wrong body isn’t exactly like having a stroke, I’m well acquainted with hopelessness. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do and I couldn’t be who I was. I was paralyzed by the fear of losing the respect of everyone who had ever loved me. I was so depressed, but I managed to hide even that from everyone around me. Hiding the real me was the one thing I was really good at. The one saving grace was that it’s more acceptable for a girl to be a tomboy than it is for a guy to be feminine.”

“When did you realize you were really a boy?”

“I guess when I realized that I hated being a girl! It started before I can remember, and it was gradual. Whenever I would get a doll as a present, the first thing I would do would be to rip the head off. My parents thought I was some kind of psychopath. I hated little pink sweaters, and wearing ribbons and bows in my hair, and anything with cute little buttons. The worst was Easter dresses and little Mary Jane shoes!”

“So clothes were an issue right off the bat?”

“Yeah, pretty much so. And then it was the hair. In second grade, I had long, curly black hair, that my mother used to love to brush. I loved it, too, because it made me feel so pampered, but then she would make all kinds of cutesy pony tails and pigtails out of it, and that would set me off on a rampage. The morning we were supposed to have our school pictures taken, I found my mother’s big shears that she used for sewing, and I went into the bathroom, stood in front of the full-length mirror on the back of the door, and cut off all my hair.”

“Whoa! What did your mother do?”

“My mother is a kind person—she drives me nuts, but thank God, she’s kind. Any other mother would have screamed and smacked the kid from here to kingdom come, but my poor mother just stood there and cried her eyes out. I felt so bad that I went over to her and hugged her and told her to look at how much better I looked. She couldn’t see it, maybe because she was still crying. I ran into my bedroom, peeled off the little pink dress that my Mom had put me in that morning, and I put on my little, brown corduroy pants that I fished out of the clothes hamper, which were still dirty from my playing outside in them the day before. I managed to pair them with one of the more boyish pullover shirts I had. Then I took my homework, my notebook, my vocabulary and math workbooks, and my pencils and erasers out of my pink backpack, and crammed it all into a smallish black bag with twine handles from a men’s department store that I found with our stock of other paper bags in the kitchen, and announced to my mother than we’d have to leave soon because I didn’t want to be late for the school pictures.”

“So how did everyone else in your family react to that?”

“They already knew I was a tomboy, so other than the hair incident, no one seemed very concerned, but school was the tricky part.”

Morgana knew from experience how cruel children can be. “How bad was it?”

“The boys made fun of me and called me ‘Girly Man,’ which I didn’t mind that much. Even though some girls agreed with them, most of the girls told me I looked cute, and after that, a few of the girls actually followed my lead. So at that young age, I felt a little bit like a trend setter. After a while, everyone just kind of got used to who I was. I was still considered to be a girl, and that was OK. In high school, things got a little more difficult, but I did have to kick a few asses here and there. I held it all together for what seemed like forever, and then, five years ago, I began looking into transitioning, and here I am. Never did I think I could feel so at home in my own skin. So, see? There’s always hope!”

“So, what about people who have no hope? Then what?”

“There’s always faith and charity.”

“How does that work?” Morgana gives Rocky seconds without asking if he wants any. She also fills up her own plate again.

“Well, Morgana,” says Rocky with his mouth full, “you have to make it up as you go along, don’t you? Maybe you have to have faith that somehow, everything, or mostly everything, will be OK, and then you have to be charitable enough to let yourself believe it.”

She took another bite of “Morgana’s Mexican Kwanzaa Surprise,” and savored the different flavors.

“Yes,” she said, “Just like my ‘Mélange à Trois,’ isn’t it?”

Music Credit: UB40 – Many Rivers To Cross

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eLuFWu_SHQ)

Photo Credit: http://www.tenement.org

To be Continued in Chapter 7: Waiting for Rain

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 5: The Adaptation

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“Only one warning, Morgana: Stay as still as possible. Even with your eyes closed, you will see a blinding profusion of brightly colored lights for a few seconds. It will be painless but momentarily overwhelming—a little like being on a rollercoaster. This will happen twice.”

Dr. Valenzuela positions a flexible, robotic arm ending in a conical device at the top of Morgana’s head. Morgana can hear little, “squitchy” sounds as the robotic arm rolls the conical device over and around her skull as one might move a mouse on a mousepad, ferreting out just the right coordinates.

By the time Morgana mumbles, “OK,” her attention has been snagged away from Dr. Valenzuela, already tangled tightly around the sound of the tail end of “warning,” which reverberates through the dark, echoing hollows of her mind. “Warning, ning, ning, ning, ning, ning….Warning, ning, ning, ning, ning, ning…,” and now, each “ning” is accompanied by an individual flash of a strobe light.

“Warning: This is a high-speed roller coaster.”

“Oh, SHIT! I HATE rollercoasters! I’ve got to get out of here!” gasped Morgana in a thin, wobbly voice. Her older sister, Gwen, reached out and grabbed her arm to steady her.

She’d been laughing and motor mouthing with Gwen during their half-hour wait in line. At last, it was their turn, and then, and only then, did she finally read the sign, the last of many she’d somehow managed to ignore until this very moment. Instantly, she felt faint, weak, and dangerously nauseous while her bowels seemed to fill with ice water.

From behind the two sisters, an outraged reprimand shot through the frozen moment.

“What??? You’ve come all the way to Disney World and you’re NOT going on Space Mountain???” An observant, smart-assed, 10-year-old kid shamed the then-18-year-old Morgana onto the ride that she was, just that very moment, hell-bent on bailing out of.

The crowd tittered because, of course, who, in their right mind, would wait for half an hour on a line to go on a roller coaster and NOT KNOW IT WAS A FECKING ROLLER COASTER?

Too sick to respond or even to feel embarrassed, she practically crawled onto the ride, abandoning herself to her fate. As the rocket car ratcheted its way up into the inky darkness of the steep incline of the ride’s lift hill, Morgana acquiesced to the default decision to “just go with it.” Don’t resist. Don’t tighten your stomach muscles. Don’t hyperventilate. Take a deep breath. Don’t cry. There’s nothing like the paralysis of fear laced with shame to subjugate your persnickety ego into a Zen-like state of acceptance.

And…the payoff was huge. She’d been hauled, in an almost-lifeless state, to the very top of the lift hill. A searing strobe light assailed her eyes and scorched her soul. She could almost perceive the presence of God; instead, that not-quite-realized sublime moment was subducted by a violent and precipitous, almost free-fall plunge. Tortured by loops and twists and taunted by random flashes of scouring lights, the frenetic motion did its level best to wrest her spirit from its mortal tether. The best part was that not only did she survive, but she had experienced a full-blown out-of-body experience, thanks to a big-mouthed 10-year old and a little bit of public shaming. In triumph, she made her way out of the rocket car on rubbery knees, babbling somewhat incoherently to her sister about how glad she was that she hadn’t backed out after all!

“What do you have to say for yourself, Morgana?” asks Dr. Valenzuela, as breezily as one can, given the nature of this bizarre procedure.

“So far, so good!,” Morgana mumbles, somewhat stunned, lying face-down on an examination table with a cut-out for her face as she stares at a picture of a dolphin, strategically placed on the floor below, with a caption that reads, “Everyone smiles in the same language.”

Morgana feels slightly embarrassed when she sees that she has drooled onto the dolphin’s smiling face below. With any luck, she thinks, it will occur to no one to look at the dolphin picture until way after the drool dries.

Dr. Valenzuela gently rubs Morgana’s back. “The worst is already behind you. The BCI (Brain-Computer Interface) nano chip is now safely embedded in your cerebral cortex and the flexible polymer fiber neural implant has already been threaded into the three parts of your brain stem.”

“Really? I didn’t feel a thing!” At this point, she is only aware of the strange table, the dolphin with the drool-drizzled smile, and the smell of alcohol–rubbing alcohol, of course, and thankfully NOT that Boney Stalker Scotch sewer-swill variety.

“That’s because the MRI apparatus we use for this procedure also has a function to temporarily disable the perception of pressure and pain.”

Morgana meditates, if that’s what you could call it, on disabling the perception of pressure and pain. The meditation lulls her into a sound sleep. As she snores peacefully, Dr. Valenzuela ejects the insertion needles from their little carousel at the tip of the conical device, catches them in the palm of her surgical-gloved hand, peels off both gloves, deftly stuffing one inside the other, and tosses them into the hazardous waste receptacle. With well-practiced efficiency, she tap-types a command onto her nearby laptop, which instructs the robotic arm to “squitch” itself back into a recessed wall panel just a couple feet from the top of Morgana’s head.

Dr. Valenzuela rouses Morgana from her meditation on the dolphin’s smiling face and helps her to her feet.

Morgana is slightly confused. “What about the Initialization process?”

“Oh, that doesn’t happen until we actually have your tenem printed out. Remember, the printing takes up to three days, and now that you’ve undergone the Adaptation, we can begin the printing.”

“So that’s it? All I have to do now is wait three days?”

“Yes, Morgana! That’s it! I’m so excited for you!”

Just about fully awake, Morgana takes a few careful steps. Dr. Valenzuela escorts her out of the pink lab, through the hallway and back into the reception area where Calliope is seated at her desk. This time, Morgana barely notices the whooshing doors.

Dr. Valenzuela gives Morgana a farewell hug and a sweet smile. “Just to play safe, don’t take a shower or wash your hair until tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, take good care of yourself, read up on Switzerland, and we’ll see you back here in three days, OK? Call us and we’ll arrange a pick up!”

Calliope takes over, leading Morgana towards the drone pad on the other side of the wall from the reception area. “Well, you’ve had a full day! And no worse for the wear!”

“Thank you so much, Calliope. Oh, and thanks for those blueberry scones! Guess I’ll see you soon!” Morgana walks through the whooshed exit where she steps up into the waiting drone. As soon as the little armchair secures her in its automatic embrace, the pilotless drone spirits her away. After the short, other-worldly ride, the silent, sky-camouflaged drone lands gently on the roof of her apartment building, completely unobserved once again.

Back in her apartment with the door locked behind her, she heads to the room where Jack lies in his hospital bed. He’s awake, sort of; his eyes are open and he’s staring at the ceiling.

“Hi, Jack! How are you doing this afternoon?” She kisses him on the cheek, and he looks at her, but doesn’t respond—not that she expects him to.

She lays her head on his chest and listens to his heart beating—a good, strong, steady thump. Dare she hope that all will be well, despite everything she knows?

“It’s a nice day out! Let’s get some fresh air in here.” She opens up the window and breathes in deeply, hoping to displace the staleness that feels like a third person in the room. She looks out the window, telling herself to start seeing the world with new eyes. She notices how pretty everything looks in the afternoon light—the streets, the trees, the houses, the buildings, the rooftops, the clouds and the sky. She adjusts the blinds so that the afternoon sun doesn’t shine directly into his eyes.

“There!” she says, looking to Jack for his non-existent approval. Not much difference between then and now, she thinks. His approval was always in such short supply. She feels silly for having thought that she ever needed it in the first place. A recent memory of Jack’s face, just before the stroke, flashes across her mind. Was that an admiring glance and was it really meant for her? She had been putting on lipstick, standing in front of the hall mirror. He came up behind her and looked into the mirror at her face—for just an instant. Yes, come to think of it—had she thought about it, had she been receptive to him, had she met his eyes with hers for just a fraction of a second more. Hmmm…maybe she’ll have to roll that one over in her mind again, she thinks, as she tries to ignore an aching pang of regret.

She grabs a comb off the dresser and runs it through his thick, salt-and-pepper but mostly black hair, raking it in different directions and then smoothing it neatly to the side. Ever since the hospital “off-loaded” Jack back into her custody here at home, she’s been cutting his hair herself. At first, she wasn’t very good at it, but she got progressively better by watching youtube videos. Jack, bon vivant that he was, had a standing appointment with a fancy-schmancy stylist for fifty bucks a pop every two weeks. He insisted that he had to look professional in his job as a claims evaluator for Betna, a company that insured commercial and residential property along with motor vehicles and water craft of all kinds.

Stepping back, she exaggerates an appraising look for his benefit. “NOW you look extremely handsome again! Oh! It’s almost 4:00, and you know what that means!!! Rocky’s coming!” Jack’s eyes seem to twinkle. Morgana makes a mental note.

Rocky is not only a home health caregiver, but is also a nurse and a wonderful physical therapist. With the proper encouragement, he talks non-stop about sports. When Morgana was making arrangements with the home health care agency for Jack, she specified that whomever the agency sent had to be a sports enthusiast. Whether or not Jack could understand him or follow what he was talking about, it was clear that Jack loved Rocky. If anyone could bring Jack back from the brink, Morgana thought, it would be Rocky, with his expansive, generous nature.

She believed that wasn’t very likely, though, since Jack’s massive stroke was not merely a massive stroke. He had slipped into a coma that lasted a whole month—and that was the good news. No one wanted to break the bad news to Morgana, but there it was: “Locked-in Syndrome,” a neurological disorder characterized by complete and permanent paralysis. Jack’s condition had attracted a lot of attention—the medical university’s professors, doctors, interns and medical students came to see him every day during his hospital stay. Even at home, there seemed to be a steady stream of professionals who came to monitor and record his progress, or more specifically, his lack thereof. Morgana had to sign all kinds of papers to allow his case to be studied, to permit the administration of new and promising (“experimental”) drugs and therapies, and to release this information for eventual publication.

Rocky’s been coming every day for the last two months or so. Each time, he stays for two hours. He’s so perceptive. He can tell if Jack is in pain, which amazes Morgana, since she can’t seem to read him very much at all.

Funny how life has a way of putting us on different paths that cross each other, and how our needs make us dependent on strangers who quickly become a part of our lives. Rocky is one of those people who can take something awful and recalibrate it to something a little more manageable. Maybe there’s an upside to misfortune—maybe the gloom of disappointment makes the little glimmers of joy, happiness, hope, possibility, love, and all the things that propel the human spirit onward, all the more recognizable.

Just yesterday, she had been in the room watching Rocky massage and move Jack’s limbs, when she realized that she knew him from somewhere, but she just couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Well, actually, you DO know me! I don’t often tell my patients about this, but I’m a transgendered man now. You knew me as Roxanne—remember? From five years ago!”

Morgana broke into a laugh of complete surprise, recognition and wonder, and gushed, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this! Good for you! And Rocky? You look fantastic!” Then she looked at Jack, searching his face for some kind of clue, and back at Rocky. “I wonder if Jack realizes this!”

“I don’t know—I’ve never mentioned it to him.” He continued to bend and knead Jack’s arms, and addressing Jack now, said in a soft voice, “What do ya think, Pal? Remember me when I was that fast-talking, wise-cracking tough girl who talked sports and kicked ass?”

Jack’s eyes continued to twinkle. It was so hard to figure out if Jack was lucid or not. So far, the tests hadn’t shown much one way or the other.

Rocky—then Roxanne—had been Jack’s physical therapist five years ago, when Jack (under the influence of his good friend, that bastard, Boney Stalker Scotch) had fallen down the stairs, breaking his knee, shin, and ankle. Morgana, self-admittedly naïve by nature, thought that the fall would have convinced Jack to stop drinking, but it didn’t. He and Boney continued their love affair. It had been a long, miserable recovery, made much more complicated by Boney, and made a lot more bearable by Roxanne, who worked at a rehab clinic close by.

The doorbell rings. “I’ll bet that’s Rocky,” she announces as she leaves the room to go answer the door.

Morgana hugs Rocky. “Rocky! Other than Jack, you’re the handsomest guy I’ve seen all day long!” Rocky laughs and hugs her back.

Although she tries to be upbeat for everyone’s sake, Morgana’s heart is somewhat heavier than usual this afternoon. She feels conflicted about her arrangement with The Our Little Secret Travel Agency, especially because, as of today, it’s officially too late to back out. She is beginning to realize how much Rocky’s presence is a comfort to her, not only because he is helping Jack, but because she can relate to how Rocky must have struggled to make the transition to being the person he really is.

Morgana walks ahead of Rocky, leading him into Jack’s room and says, “Rocky’s here, Jack!”

Rocky struts into the room with a big, toothy smile. “Ready to get pummeled, Big Guy?” Jack’s eyes sparkle and seem to acknowledge Rocky’s exuberant entrance.

“Well, Rocky, after you finish getting Jack ready for spring training, feel free to join me for supper, if you’ve got the time. As usual, it’s nothing fancy—just throwing a few leftovers together—you know, another one of my infamous ‘melanges.’”

“Ha! ‘Infamous’ and ‘melange’ are two of my favorite things! Thanks, Morgana! It’s a date!”

“I’ll leave you two guys to it!” says Morgana, gently closing the door behind her.

Photo Credit: “Breezy,” by Suzanne Cummings (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sleecphotos/4802848928/in/gallery-whatsmostimportant-72157625115729236/)

To Be Continued in Chapter 6: Melange a Trois

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 2: The Design Room

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Luckily, the Design Room is not far from the pink laboratory, so Morgana only has to shuffle 15 or 20 tentative steps to get there.

Calliope escorts Morgana through another whooshed door opening in the wall. Morgana is still woozy from the sedative. They both sit down on the same side of the console where Calliope manipulates a small touch screen which is projected onto the wall in front of them.

This time, an unexpected “whoosh,” which is actually starting to sound almost normal to Morgana, ushers in a handsome young man with an engaging smile who sets a gleaming, vintage silver tea service for two between them.

“Excuse me, Ladies! I have some jasmine tea and blueberry scones for you!”

“Morgana, meet Armando—he’s our new intern, and he’ll be with us for the next six months.” Morgana takes his hand and mumbles an awkward, “Hi ya.” Embarrassed, she reflects that she never, ever says “Hi ya.” Where did that come from?

“Well, I’ll leave you to it—Enjoy the tea. Nice to meet you, Morgana.”

Morgana manages a more confident, “Thank you for the tea, Armando—and good luck to you!” She presses her back into the soft chair and inhales the intoxicating fragrance of the steaming tea.

In between delicate bites of a blueberry scone, Calliope begins with, “Alright, then, Morgana! It is here, in the Design Room that we plot out what you’d like to look like. The new body we create for you will be referred to as your ‘Tenum.’ That’s an acronym from the phrase, ‘The New Me.’ Your Tenum will be more you than you’ve ever been before. It will fit you like a glove and will be the ‘you’ that you were always meant to be. The contours of your face, your complexion, and your basic bone structure and musculature will guide our creation but within those confines, there is a lot of room for variation, and here’s where the magic happens: You get to make some very important decisions, so here are our options.”

Morgana’s hands are wrapped around the hot cup of tea. The warmth delights her, as does this delicious news that she, a person who has spent so many years
feeling powerless, can help create her new self. That deserves another blueberry scone!

On the screen, there are computer-generated face and body composites. There are faces with dimples, low or high hairlines, widows’ peaks, cleft chins, long, aquiline, upturned, pointed or snub noses, high or low cheekbones, prominent or moderate chins, sharp or softened jaws, deep set eyes, thick or thin eyebrows, full lips, thin lips, rose petal lips, all shapes and sizes of ears. Then there’s teeth—long, short, straight, spaced. A slight overbite can be kind of cute, but maybe not. Hmmm…So many decisions! What kind of hair? Long, short, thick, thin, curly, straight, wavy, frizzy, out-of-control, restrained, blond, red, chestnut brown, ebony black. Any styles you’re partial to? Oh, and then there’s the body! Breasts—what size, shape, amount of bounce, pert and perky? Waist? How small? Hips? How large? Derriere—round or flat? Ample or not enough to jiggle? And what about the thighs? Legs in general? Thin, thick, muscular, shapely, soft, sinewy with bony ankles?

“Well, for me, the choice is simple! Right off the bat, let’s go with thin ankles and thick hair! That’s the exact opposite of what I’ve always had! I’ve always hated the mousy-brown, fine hair that runs in my family. I used to imagine myself with thick, rich, long, dark brown hair, until I realized that hair dye, shampoo or conditioner could only do so much—But is that a real choice for me, even though I’m 47 and have mostly grey hair now?”

“Oh, yes! We can take 15 years off your chronological age, so you will be a beautiful young woman of 32, which is really the perfect age for any kind of hair.”

“At 32, I wasn’t all that gorgeous, but, I looked a lot better than I do now,” she says sheepishly, eyeing Calliope’s flawless face.

Calliope pats her hand reassuringly. “Well, don’t you worry about it because all that will be behind you in just a short while.”

“Speaking of ‘behind me,’ the new me must have slim hips, and a nice, tight derriere! Since I’ve always been flat-chested, I don’t think I’d like big breasts—smallish breasts would be just fine, but I’d love to have some cleavage—not a lot, just a little!”

“That can all be arranged,” smiles Calliope as she swipes different body parts onto a grid-like armature that rotates on the screen to reveal all the contours in 3D.

An exquisite, lithesome body begins to take shape, so sleek and sexy that it takes Morgana’s breath away. For the face, she chooses large, limpid, green eyes set wide apart, veiled by thick eyelashes. The eyebrows are so beautiful—almost aerodynamically shaped. The nose is not some cute, little pixie thing, though—it’s a little less than prominent, and on the long side, but it’s the perfect nose to offset those thick, pouty lips. The mouth is wide—good for smiling, she figures. And good for talking, too! She’d kept her mouth shut for so long, maybe now she’d find her voice, and maybe she’d discover that it would be as sensual as those lips!

Calliope tells Morgana to pick out a hat as she is presented with a serendipitous array of all kinds of outlandishly cute hats that she would never, ever consider wearing. Morgana chooses a very loud, black and white striped sun hat with a wide brim, something you’d see a Vargas Girl sporting on an old pin-up calendar hanging in a 1950s gas station. After a couple of clicks, Calliope announces, “And now…the new you!”

The rotating armature disappears and in its place is a rather intense brunette beauty with large, hypnotic eyes regarding them with a lazy, somewhat piqued interest. Her red, painted mouth is just barely open as if to entertain an incipient orgasm. Her skin glows with a limited palette ranging from dusty rose to toasted peach, backlit by a high-wattage celestial gold. Almost as an afterthought, there are a good four inches of cleavage lurking in the shaded area of the photo where her left shoulder intercepts the sun.

Morgana presses her finger tips to her closed eyes, hoping to stanch the tears that sting her eyelids, but only succeeds in rubbing some greasy cookie crumbs into the hot tears that spill over her cheeks.

“I’m sorry!” She blubbers. “I don’t know what’s come over me…it’s all so overwhelming. I’m feeling so many emotions right now that I’ve just never felt before.”

Calliope turns towards her, takes her hands and holds them tightly between her own.

“I know what a challenge this is for you. All our clients have very similar reactions. It’s totally normal and actually quite healthy. The decision you have made to commit to the Adaptation is huge. This is a life-changing event, and not one to be taken lightly.

Calliope lets go of Morgana’s hands and rummages through the console’s desk drawers until she finds a tissue. She hands it to Morgana and smiles.

“OK, Morgana, there’s a left-over scone on that plate, and since we’re not taking any hostages today, you and I have to finish it off! What do you say?” If there’s anything that can get Morgana to stop crying, it’s a blueberry scone! She happily agrees and they laugh as the scone disappears between the two of them.

Behind them, a door whooshes, and another beautiful person (of whom, around here, anyway, there seems to be no lack), Dr. Hosanna Valenzuela, strides towards them. Her face and head are almost Betty Boopish. Her thick, black, shiny hair is short and clings to her head in a cap of wavy curls that caress her face. Her big, jet black eyes sparkle mischievously as her pretty lips scrunch up to repress a silly smile.

“Call-i-o-pe!” she sings in a pleasant, airy, girlish voice. “I’ve come to steal our new client away from you!”

“And, hello, Morgana, I’m Dr. Valenzuela. I feel as though I already know you—I am the person who has reviewed your psychological profile and I will be working with you to get you started with the Adaptation.”

Momentarily dazzled by Dr. Valenzuela, Morgana manages a vacant smile as she wonders if Dr. Valenzuela can feel the greasy crumbs from their soft handshake.

“Nice to meet you, Doctor,” and she adds, “If you had only come two minutes earlier, we would have had a nice scone for you, instead of a crumby, greasy handshake.”

“I lose out on more scones that way,” jokes Dr. Valenzuela. “If I were to arrive on time and talk less, I’d weigh twenty pounds more than I do.”

Not that Dr. Valenzuela can avoid it, but Calliope points to the projected image in front of them. “So Dr. V, what do you think of “the new Morgana?”

Dr. Valenzuela is clearly hamming it up to put Morgana at ease as she does a little double-take, wide-eyed wowing. “What a work of art!” she exclaims, carefully adding that the same is true of the old Morgana. Inwardly, Morgana chuckles at the absurdity of telling aging, dowdy, frumpy fat people that they are beautiful works of art. On the other hand, what is Dr. V supposed to do? Plus, it’s a whole lot better than being publicly—or even privately—humiliated. Even if it can be a bit patronizing, political correctness at least errs on the side of being kind.

“But,” wraps up Dr. Valenzuela, “This is the conversation we’ll have in my office. So if you and Calliope have finished up here in the Design Room, you and I can adjourn to my office.”

Calliope says, “I’d say we covered everything! Wouldn’t you, Morgana?”

Dr. Valenzuela’s office is a cozy little hobbit hole of a refuge. It is so out of character with the rest of “The Our Little Secret Travel Agency,” that it’s hard to believe that they haven’t left the premises—low, rounded ceilings and round openings to different rooms coming off the small office, low, yellowish soft lighting coming from little wall lamps with tiny shades made from old fashioned, Laura Ashley prints and end tables covered with pretty Provence motif fabrics–very cozy, very safe, very comforting.

They settle down comfortably into the soft, overstuffed, low sofas and armchairs, ready to talk.

“So, Dr. Valenzuela. I’m just curious as to why I wasn’t interviewed before the Design Room.”

Dr. Valenzuela, picking up on that little edge of challenge in Morgana’s question, proceeds gingerly. “That’s an easy question to answer. We wanted to see how you would react to the new you—your Tenum. The fact that you recovered quickly is a good sign. It shows that you will easily adapt to your “rediscovered” youth and beauty. If a client has a problem at this point, and there are some who do, the client will be given the option of breaking the contract with only a $1,000 penalty. By the way, should you have any doubts, you will have the same option right up until we actually begin the Adaptation.”

“No,” says Morgana, “No matter what, I want to do this. I cried before because I didn’t think I would ever experience what it’s like to be young again. And to be so beautiful! I really don’t know what I’m looking for. Maybe it’s just to rekindle a sense of hope that I’ve lost all these years. I’ve never been a very vain person, but my reaction makes me wonder.”

Dr. Valenzuela, trying to reframe her earlier comments, says, “Before, I told you that the old Morgana is also beautiful, but, I know that you’ll have none of that, because, of course, here you are, “escaping” to another body. Someone who can accept that they are still beautiful probably wouldn’t be doing such a thing.”

Morgana fidgets and concurs, “I’ve never felt beautiful. In fact, most of the time, I feel downright ugly. When I was fairly young, I gave up on being pretty. My goal was just to look normal, less ugly than I felt. I had two older sisters, each ‘just as pretty as a picture,’ as my mother would say.”

“Well, Morgana, even the most gorgeous women share our sense of unattractiveness. I, personally, have always envied women who project a complete lack of self-consciousness about their looks. But here’s what I’m getting at: having read your background, I believe that the experience of perceiving yourself as beautiful will exceed your expectations in so many ways. You will be able to see yourself in a whole new light.”

“I guess that’s also a bit of what made me cry. I know I’m putting the cart before the horse, but I was also grieving in advance for what it will be like during my 31 visits to know that each visit will be one less occasion that I am able to hang onto this new me. I’ll just be getting accustomed to being attractive, and then I’d have to give it all up, and I’ll be right back where I started.”

“Well, Morgana, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. The new Morgana will teach you how to be more confident and how to be who you truly are. Each person is different, of course, and so much depends on the individual, but there is every reason to believe that during and after your experience being the new Morgana, the old Morgana will find herself renewed and invigorated, but at the end of the experience, you will find that your negative emotions can be severed from your self-perception, replaced by a new confidence that will transcend the physical realities and limitations of time of nature.”
Morgana considers this new insight and feels more at ease.

“You know, Dr. Valenzuela, there’s something I didn’t divulge in the paperwork. My husband is at home, just about comatose. He had a stroke two months ago, and it’s not looking very good. I feel so guilty about spending this money on something so frivolous and self-indulgent. On the other hand, I really need an escape, some kind of distraction, even if that distraction is me. Aside from feeling behind the eight ball, I’ve never thought about myself very much. This might not be a good time to start, but it’s probably as good a time as any.”

“Oh, Morgana! I’m so sorry to hear about your poor husband. This must be so hard on you!”

“Believe it or not, it was harder before he had the stroke. My life had become so unhappy with him. But I still feel an awful lot of loyalty towards him, but to be honest, I don’t love him anymore. I feel trapped, and am still trying to figure out what needs to be done. So far, all anyone tells me is just to wait and to be patient. I’m so sick of that! This “indulgence” is perfect because my “visits” will take place when he’s sleeping and when I’m sleeping. I don’t leave the house, he won’t be alone, and whatever happens during my “visits,” will be “our little secret.”

Dr. Valenzuela smiles and nods her head in an empathetic, well-practiced gesture of active listening. “So tell me, Morgana—Is there anyone in your circle of family and friends who knows about your venture with The Our Little Secret Travel Agency?”

“Only my best friend, Jerinda.” It is at this juncture that Morgana breaks down into an almost convulsive fit of breathless sobbing which lasts almost five minutes. She avails herself of a big box of tissues on the coffee table in front of her, blows her nose several times, wipes her face, and sighs in utter exhaustion. Her face is splotchy and her eyes are glassy.

“We need to talk about Jerinda,” suggests Dr. Valenzuela. “Are you up to that right now?”

To be continued in Chapter 3: Jerinda

Photo Credit: Charissa du Plessis in “The Perfect 10” by Kass Dea for Gaschette Magazine, June 2013

Music Credit: Gotye – Easy Way Out – Official Video (youtube.com)

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Filed under Magical Realism, My Very Short Stories, Proto-Novella, Science Fiction, Short Story Series

The Soup Mat

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We were sitting around the coffee table, all of us trying to ignore that my father-in-law was dying. We talked about the economy, the weather, travel conditions, our children, and the latest news from the doctor, edited to put a rosy spin on his downward trend. My father-in-law grinned more in the last year than I had ever seen him do in all the many years I’d known him. As time started closing in on Ken, the wider his grin became, as if forced good cheer could stave off death’s stealthy approach.

I pulled a blue crochet hook out of my bag, and announced that I could make yarn from an old T-shirt and then crochet it into something useful, like a potholder. Ken got up and came back with a “Save Our Slopes” T-shirt, commemorating one of the countless runs in which he’d participated during his long retirement from a very successful career as an engineer and a businessman.

Ken had always been healthier than anyone his age had a right to be—he’d become a vegetarian during his 50s and then a “vegangelist” in his 70s. He had always planned to live until 100, but the rest of us considered 100 to be a conservative estimate. He travelled all over the world to hike and run in exotic and far-flung wonderlands, scaling mountains, and riding rafts over white water sluicing through slot canyons. He had started a Sierra Club chapter in his mountain town in North Carolina and hiked with college kids, avoiding old people whenever possible. He had very reluctantly moved into assisted living when he realized that his heart failure could be managed but never cured.

The shirt looked so new that I didn’t want to cut it up, but Ken insisted it was OK. Everyone watched as I cut a straight line from armhole to armhole. Then I folded the lower piece and cut through several thicknesses. At that moment, I realized that I was doing it all wrong, and sheepishly confessed that I may have just ruined the shirt.

Ken began to whimper and it dawned on me that his faith had been rewarded with disappointment. Here I was, just like his doctors, making a vague promise to take something precious that he can’t really use anymore, cut it up into something that’s falling apart and then weave it into something different—not necessarily better, but somewhat usable. Any way you slice it, though, the result is a net loss.

I would have cried, too, but my sister-in-law, Ann, did a quick web search for me and we located the instructions on how to make yarn from a T-shirt. With a few rescue snips and some fancy re-folding, I was able to resume making good on my promise. Vindicated, I crocheted in peace as the conversation looped its way through biographies and scientific breakthroughs.

We all sighed with relief as I put the finishing touches on this homespun, overgrown potholder. Ken was more than pleasantly surprised to see the tight pattern of knots. He ran his fingers over the sturdy, springy weave, and he seemed almost tickled that his once treasured T-shirt had morphed into an unexpectedly delightful piece of homely fabric art.

Ken thanked me and decreed that henceforth, this nubby rectangle would serve as a mat for his soup bowl at noon each day.

On our way out of the building that evening, Ann and I rehashed the experience of the almost-ruined T-shirt and the almost-miraculous jury-rigged solution. It was our little victory. She said, “Maybe you’ll write a story about this.” I said I would, but life, and then death, got in the way. Ken missed his 90th birthday by five days.

This is our first Christmas without Ken. His absence will always be glaring. But the relief that his anguish and fear have ended is a comfort, as are the happy memories of his life so very well-lived. Ken’s death has woven us all together just a little more tightly than before.

Ann tells me, “I’ve got something for you!” She presents me with the soup mat, lightly spattered with drops of dried soup. I am more than pleasantly surprised to see the tight pattern of knots. I run my fingers over the sturdy, springy weave, and I am tickled that this unexpectedly delightful piece of homely fabric art has found its way back to me.

We both smile, remembering the afternoon of our little victory. Once again, Ann reminds me, “Maybe you’ll write a story about this.”

Photo Credit: Gloria Talcove-Woodward, “The Soup Mat,” The Talcove Fiction Faction.

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Filed under Inspirational, My Very Short Stories