The Secret of the Coffin

For too many people, a coffin holds a secret.

The death of a loved one is born in many ways. Some exhibit tears. Some are silently stoic. Some jabber to hide the pain.

Cancer was killing Daddy. I knew cancer was killing Daddy. I knew cancer was killing Daddy and it wouldn’t be long coming.

I didn’t believe it. Not a word.

Momma told me about his decision to forego treatment because it would give him six, maybe, more months of living. Yes, the living would’ve been life, but what is life while a machine is pulsing radiation into your brain and while chemicals turn you into a withered shell of your former self, like when a spider liquefies its victim’s insides for its meal?

At the hospital, Daddy explained his reasoning. My tears told him I understood. And I cried no more.

Not even when the family watched him take his last breath.

The spider had sucked me dry of emotion and replaced it with The Secret of the Coffin. Then again, there’s another possible consideration.

When the funeral home personnel said we could come see him, we did.

Why I saw him in his coffin, its Secret liquefied my insides.

My Daddy was dead, dead, dead, dead, and nothing would change that.

The ocean of me flowed, salty and hateful and draining me of my last vestiges of denial.

MY DADDY WAS DEAD, DEAD, DEAD, DEAD, AND NOTHING WOULD CHANGE THAT.

That was/is the saddest day of my life. Many know what I mean.

When a boy has a great Daddy, one who shared those sacred boyhood passions, like fishing to name one, it means more than any fish.

I can still see him in my mind’s eye. I can smell the sweet and savory aroma of pipe tobacco. I can see the slight opening of his two top-center teeth, what I called in a short story I wrote about him, “his gap-toothed grin.” I can feel his arms around me when he understood the importance of telling his grown son he loved him. I can feel his confidence when he was my best man during my second marriage; one which is now in its twenty-fifth year.

No matter how much I know it’s wrong to allow it, regrets sometimes nibble around the edge of my heart, like ants on the core of an apple turning brown in the summer sun. As time passes, I can’t decide if those minuscule bites hurt more or less.

This year I aged a year past his age when he died. Another ant to nibble.

Despite how it might sound, the ants and spiders are losing.

Daddy died the year he was my best man. The last thing he told me about my marriage was to “just love one another.”

Simple words from a man who must’ve had hidden complications; I can’t help but feel he, like most parents, are panes of glass when we glance but mirrors when we look.

One ant leaves, another takes its place, but since I understand them, they leave more often than they arrive.

Just love one another.

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Memories: A Memorial Day Story

I close my fingers around his small, warm hand, and we move closer. When he was born screaming, and I along with him, I promised myself I’d bring him here one day.

That day has come.

I have tissues in my pocketbook. I’ll need them, though he won’t. He’s still too young to understand, but he knows things are not as they should be. From his first birthday, with a single candle on his cupcake that I blew out as his eyes questioned mine, I think he knew. Those deep blue eyes continued to ask, with stares at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays, when two-parent families arrived.

His grandparents are here too, and they run their fingers along the monument’s chiseled edge, speaking in low tones. She pulls her own Kleenex from a worn purse. He turns away. His head drops and his shoulders shake.

That day was horrible, like a nightmare but real. Dressed in black, I sat in front of his flag-draped casket. Hot tears streamed down my face as my heart pounded at the thought of living without him. Of my son living without a father. My heart threatened to burst from my chest and some selfish part of me wished it would.

But only for a moment because of what was left behind, as true a blessing as I’ve ever known.

Now we’re here. We hold hands and I have to explain, but I pause as he points at the leaves on the old oak.

“The wind is talking, Momma. Could that be him? You said he might tell me … tell me things if I listen?”

I nod and smile and squeeze his hand. “You never know, sweetheart, it could be.” He releases my hand and steps to the tree, touches the course gray bark with tentative fingertips and looks up again. He steps closer, wraps his arms as far around the tree as they will go, and closes his eyes.

“Momma showed me your picture, but I wish you were here.”

He walks back to me. “Can we talk to him now?”

I can’t answer. I hold the third tissue to my eyes. Should have brought the box.

“Give me a minute, sweetheart, okay?”

He takes my free hand, tugs it to his cheek. “Okay, Momma.”

God, how hard this is. How hard the first years were. I’m—we’re better, and I’m grateful, but what I wouldn’t give to not be doing this, not because of how it makes me feel, but because of the reason we must.

Before coming here, I’d promised my reflection in the bathroom mirror I wouldn’t cry. I swipe at my eyes, the tears just enough to keep my cheeks damp, and shove the tattered knot into my pocket.

“Okay, Momma’s ready.”

We step forward and I put down the quilt. Its threadbare patchwork is full of memories, one of which is the night my son was conceived. With him standing in front of me, I kneel and hold out my hand.

“Give me your hand.” He puts his hand in mine, and I place it on the first letter carved into the cool stone. “What’s this letter?”

Those eyes … they’re his dad’s. My cheeks grow damp again, nearly to sobbing, and I swallow. Fighting. Screaming inside to stay strong, but the tears sting as alcohol on an old and open wound, one exactly five-and-a-half-years-old.

“S, Momma, it’s an S.”

“That’s right.” I move his finger. “And this one?”

He traces the letter. “G?”

“Right again. One more.”

He touches this one on his own. “T, and that’s a period.” His faint, blonde eyebrows rise. “What does it mean?”

“Your daddy was a Marine, and that means he was a Sergeant.”

“Like my toy soldiers? I named one Sergeant Smith.”

Nothing like that at all, I don’t say. “You’re right.”

He drops his head. “My soldiers never get hurt … not really.”

“No, and I wish your daddy never got hurt either. He would be so proud of the big boy you’ve become and how you’re taking care of me.”

He leans against me and pulls my hands around him. Though he’s not a baby any more, his hair is baby-soft, and it smells of the shampoo I used last night during his bath, when he played and splashed and when we laughed. His ears are pink, chilly against my face from the morning November breeze.

We stay there silently, until he glances back at me.

“Can I tell him something?”

I nod, and his single fingertip touches the white marble where my head had lain, where my tears had fallen, and finally, where I had kissed goodbye.

“I love you, Daddy.”

 

A few writing tips, thoughts, conjectures I have learned along the way.

You’ve no doubt heard variations, and some will be present, but if not, here you go.

A writer without imagination is like a musician without rhythm; it’s doubtful anyone will enjoy either.

MC needs to show someone a vital phone pic? Break the phone. Needs to get somewhere? Break his car. Don’t make goals easy.

Don’t tell your readers he smelled the coffee. Instead: With rich coffee aroma, steam rose in lazy swirls from the dark brew.

An important part of writing is in the details. Yes, your character may taste, touch, hear, see, and smell, but does the reader?

You know you’re writer if you love editing. Well, you might not be a sane writer. Polish that passion–make it pop.

Dialogue: Never boring. Constantly use tension, whether anger, humor, fear, or sexual. Unexpected is great too.

I love it when an unintended character pops into a scene, taking the plot in a different–better–direction than I’d intended.

Friends ask how I write. My answer? By knowing my character’s perspectives; their hearts, souls, & struggles.

Recently made three women cry. It’s okay…actually, it’s great. They were reading one of my short stories.

Let characters interrupt. Hey, did you see– Yeah, it’s– Don’t interrupt me when– When what? Arrgghhh! (You get the idea)

Clarity

I visited you today.

Wind moaned through the oaks while leaves blew through the markers. Clouds scuttled in the sky like oversized gray-toned crabs. The grass the men planted didn’t cover the red earth and I knelt to pick up a quartz stone at the foot of your plot.

No stone for you. Soon, I’m sure.

We grew up in the 60’s. Hide and seek and homemade ice cream. What a combination as families gathered to sit on the cinder-block wall that brought together my house and your grandparents’ house. We licked spoons. Vanilla. Banana. Strawberry. Chocolate. Laughed. Listened to stories with nostalgia’s comforting ring. Then we’d run away. Find somewhere to wait while the next kid searched.

Your life was like that. You couldn’t find yourself through the black curtain of addiction.

Sorry. I left out what came before that, which is more of what made us friends.

Hide and seek gave way to placing pennies on the railroad track to be picked up and admired after being squashed flat and shiny. The hikes through the woods led to fishing at the lake that led to bicycles downtown that led to dirt bikes on narrow paths.

Didn’t you break your collarbone that one time?

I do recall my bicycle spill at your house. Who’d have thought two boards placed on a red wagon on its side would spread when the front wheel hit them at speed? Or that a bike and a boy could flip so many times before landing? Or, for the most part, that dirt tastes like dirt? How nothing—except the bike—got broken I’ll never know. You took me in so your mom could check me out. If I didn’t thank you then …

We talked about all that. We tried to stay strong. Did you see?

As we neared our late teenage years I regret how we grew apart, though I doubt it would have made a difference. You were searching. I wish you had found it somewhere else.

I stopped by your parents’ house the day before. Thought if I were going to cry I’d do it then and get it out. I couldn’t because your dear sister held onto me for maybe five minutes. Said they had been talking about our boyhood escapades. She loved you. Loves you. We all do/did. Wanted so much more for you.

I think it likely she left the miniature cross at your site.

The next day they asked me to walk in with them. Said I was family. To simply say I was touched beyond compare does not compare.

I sat with them on the front row. Listened to the minister. The sadness hung over it all.

Regret.

Again, wishes for more than fifty-four years of life for you.

Once more I’m getting ahead of myself.

In line I waited. For my turn to say words that couldn’t convey the weight of grief upon hearts. That weight fell fully when I hugged your dad.

Later, outside, we stood around your casket. It was cold. The coats were many. The smiles of remembrance.

———————

The quartz rock sits on a book where I can see it. It’s stained red. So many wanted your life clean and perfect. Life’s not like that, is it? You came and you lived and you did the best you could. You got to see your grandson. I think I got enough of a look at him to see that your red hair crowns him. Your daughter looks like you. I’d never met her.

When I see your family we hug. When that happens I’m hurt and comforted. The grief clings, the want for more, the want for your happiness.

I like to think that’s the case now. How do Heavenly drums sound? Are the sticks pure gold or ethereal wonders of rhythm? Do you get to play with your rock idols who went before you? It’s a cool consideration, anyway.

The quartz is ice warm in my hand. Within its many imperfections is fleeting clarity. Glassy and glowing when held to lamplight.

Possibly, that’s how we all are. We wished clarity for you but addiction clouded it over. Clouds. Wind. Sun and rain. We fare the best we can. We love, create, tear asunder. Do it all over again and hope.

See you soon.

I Have to Believe

When the grenade exploded, he never knew what hit him. The blast lifted him off his feet, hot shrapnel ripped his young body, and he fell. The snowy ground received him, wrapped him in a blanket of quiet, and except for the sound of blood gurgling in his own throat, the woods were silent.

Time stopped, a snowflake hung in mid-air, and at that very moment he wanted nothing more than to take it in his palm and watch it melt away, its soul transforming with death.

He blinked once, twice, and she called to him, I have to believe I’ll see you again, I have to believe I’ll see you again, I have to believe …

I Love You, Daddy.

An attempt, with fiction that is surely fact-based, to honor the men and women, including the parents and children left behind, who war touches. And who we most assuredly owe a sincere debt of gratitude.

The small hand is warm in mine, and the fingers tighten as we walk closer. When he was born screaming, and I along with him for more reasons than were obvious, I promised myself I’d bring him here one day.

And that day has come.

I have tissues in my pocketbook. I’ll need them though he won’t as he’s still too young to understand. But he knows things are not as they should be. From his first birthday, with a single candle on his cupcake that I blew out as his eyes questioned mine, I think he knew. And those deep blue eyes continued to ask, with stares at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other family holidays.

His grandparents are here too, and they run their fingers along the chiseled edge of eternity. They glance at each other and she pulls her own Kleenex from a worn purse, veteran as it was of that time.

That day … it was horrible … like a nightmare but real. An old cliché I’m sure, but what better way to describe it? Is it necessary to tell about the hot tears that streamed down my face? Is it necessary to tell how my heart pounded, how I thought it would burst from my chest, how I wished it would?

But only for a moment, because of what was left behind, which was a blessing.

Now we’re here, now we hold hands, and now I have to explain. But I pause because he is pointing at the leaves on the old oak.

“The wind, Momma … it’s talking. Could that be him? You said he might tell me … tell me things if I listen?”

I nod and smile and squeeze his hand. “You never know, sweetheart, it could be.” Letting go of my hand and stepping to the tree, he touches the coarse gray bark with tentative fingertips, looking up again. Then he steps closer and wraps his arms as far around the tree as they will go, and closes his eyes.

“Momma showed me your picture, but I wish you were here.”

He walks back to me. “Can we talk to him now?”

I couldn’t answer. I hold the third tissue to my eyes. Should have brought the box.

“Give me a minute, sweetheart. Okay?”

He takes my free hand and holds it to his cheek. “Okay, Momma.”

God, how hard this is. How hard the first years were. I’m—we’re better, and I’m grateful. We have people we can count on, and that has helped. But what I wouldn’t give to not be doing this, not because of how it makes me feel, but because of the reason we must.

I swipe at my eyes one last time, I hope, and shove the tattered knot into my pocket.

“Okay, Momma’s ready.”

Or am I?

We step forward and I put down the quilt, which is full of memories, one of which is the night my son was conceived. With him standing in front of me, I kneel and hold out my hand.

“Give me your hand.” He puts his hand in mine and I place it on the first letter carved into the cool stone. “What’s this letter?”

Those eyes … they’re his dad’s. I want to cry again and I fight the urge, but the tears sting as alcohol on an old and open wound, one never fully healed, one exactly five-and-a-half-years-old.

“S, Momma, it’s an S.”

“That’s right. Can you tell me what the other two are?”

He traces each letter. “That’s a G … that’s a T … and that’s a period.” He looks at me, asking if he’s right with nothing more than his inquisitive glance, faint blonde eyebrows rising.

“Right again. Your daddy would be so proud of you. Of the big boy you’ve become and how you’re taking care of me.”

He leans against me, taking my hands, pulling them together, wanting me—with his familiar gesture—to hold him. And I do.

Though he’s not a baby any longer, his hair is baby-soft, and it smells of the shampoo I used last night during his bath—when he played and splashed—and when we laughed. His ears are pink, chilly against my face from the morning November breeze, which is crisp with winter’s coming.

We stay there silently. Until he glances back at me.

“Can I tell him something?”

I nod and his fingertip touches the white marble, where my head had lain, where my tears had fallen, and finally, where I had kissed goodbye.

“I love you, Daddy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warm, Wet, Sand. A short story.

The sea oats brushed against her bare shoulder, tanned, lithe, and she stepped out onto the beach, the sand hot against the soles of her feet. She dropped her sandals and slid them on and looked at him.

“You’re going to need your shoes soon.”

He walked faster. “I’ll be okay.”

“I warned you.”

The sun was a singular point of magnified warmth in the sky. Waves of heat rose from the long stretches of sand on either side of them as they hurried to the water.

He stopped and sat on the cooler, holding his feet above the sand.

“I told you you’d need your shoes.”

He stared up at her. Her sunglasses reflected his expression and her floppy hat shaded her face. “What can I say,” he said. “You were right.”

“Aren’t I always?”

“No one is always right.”

“But I’ve got a good record, you’d agree.”

He got up from the cooler, ready to make a run for it. “Yes. I’ll admit that. Let’s go.”

He took about five more steps, stopped again and got on the cooler and fanned his feet, their soles almost as red as the steamed crab they ate last night.

“Geez,” he said. “I should have worn my shoes.”

She smiled down at him from under the hat. “Where have I heard that before?”

He glanced up, a half-smile at the corners of his mouth. “You know how much I love you, don’t you?”

She shook her head. “Yes, but I’m not giving up my sandals.”

“You won’t even consider it? Not for just a few steps until I can get my feet in the water?”

“You like my feet,” she said. “Do you want to see them looking like yours?”

He thought for a moment. “You’re right. When we go to dinner later, I’d like to see you wearing those sexy high heels you bought this morning without your feet looking like they had been microwaved.”

“I thought you’d see it my way.”

He got up and started off again, faster this time, his multicolored swim shorts swishing about his legs, but he soon stopped and jumped back onto the cooler. He considered putting his feet inside but didn’t care to dirty their ice.

“You could wrap your feet in the towels,” she said.

“I don’t want to get them dirty. We’re going to lie on them in a few minutes.”

“Okay. It was just a suggestion, Mr. lobster feet.”

He glanced up at her and smiled.

She felt sorry for him, but she wasn’t about to give up her shoes.

A few moments later, they were off again, running toward the waves, each with a hand on a cooler handle and each hopping on one sandal a piece.

Isn’t love grand, whether standing, sitting, or running together toward the warm, wet sand?

Testing the Waters. Conclusion.

Part 1.

Sonya walked along the edge of the marsh and reached for his hand. Standing there looking out over the glassy water, he felt her cool fingertips touch his and enclosed them.

“So, you really love me?” he asked.

“You should know better than to doubt me. My kisses never lie.”

Alex turned to test her words.

“I believe you, but you do know if I thought otherwise you’d go straight into the swamp.”

He hadn’t cracked a smile, and she wondered if he were joking or not, but she decided he had to be. I know him better than that, she thought. She raised on tiptoe to reassure him.

Their lips parted, and he stared over her shoulder at the still black water.

“Dear, Sonya.”

Part 2.

“Dear, Sonya.”

The name sounded and felt foreign now. “Sonya,” he said. “Who were you.”

She had been gone two weeks. There was no hint, no note, and no one knew where she was. The police had dragged the swamp where she was last seen. He had been there himself hysterically pounding the mud, made from his tears, with his fists.

Yes, she had loved him. Her kisses hadn’t lied.

Closing his eyes, he thought back to that day, that day never left him, but she had.

“They’ll never find you,” he said, speaking to his self-imposed darkness.

He looked out the window; fireflies were in the yard. They scattered among the fog and grass like hanging diamonds.

“Will they find you?”

“Do I care?”

Part 3.

He cared.

A month later one of her shoes was found by a trapper. The police brought it to Alex and he recognized it immediately.

“What about the other one,” he asked. “She would hate to lose a shoe.”

The officer watched his eyes.

“So, you think she’s still alive?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” said Alex, staring straight at the officer, daring him to see anything that was or wasn’t there.

The officer tilted his cap back, rubbed his forehead, and walked off shaking his head. But before he got into his car, he turned and said, “Well, how about you call us if she shows up. You think you can do that?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” said Alex, still staring hard.

Why should I, he thought.

Part 4.

Alex received the first of three phone calls a week later. A hissing, dissonant, sexless, voice, said, “I know where she is,” and nothing more.

An icy hand gripped his neck and scratched down his backbone.

He asked the phone, dial tone harassing, “Could it be her?”
“How could it be?” he said to the wall.
“But she’s alive, isn’t she?”
“Or is she?”

He didn’t remember much of that day—or that night. He did recall waking at three to a woman’s scream—in a nightmare—or so he thought.
That morning he found the sheets soaked and tried to recall what had happened, and then remembered.
He asked his damp pillow, “What day is it? Is it then—or now?”

It stared back..

Conclusion.

The phone rang. He slapped it from the stand. A voice came.

“Alex?”

He fell to his knees and clutched the handset.

“Yes?”

“It’s Sonya.”

“Where are you? I–they– thought you were …”

“Missing?”

“Or even dead,” he said, “that I might have killed you. They even found your shoe.”

“It was a test,” she said.

“What?”

“I’m very wealthy and I must be careful who I fall in love with. The real test is if you forgive me. There’s a check in the mail. Come to Key West and be with me while I finish my book. I’m an author. As you see, some of us can be quite quirky.”

He smiled and put down the pen, manuscript at hand.

125 Word Short Story. Part 4. No Answer.

Alex received the first of three phone calls a week later. A hissing, dissonant, sexless, voice, said, “I know where she is,” and nothing more.

An icy hand gripped his neck and scratched down his backbone.

He asked the phone, dial tone harassing, “Could it be her?”
“How could it be?” he said to the wall.
“But she’s alive, isn’t she?”
“Or is she?”

He didn’t remember much of that day—or that night. He did recall waking at three to a woman’s scream—in a nightmare—or so he thought.
That morning he found the sheets soaked and tried to recall what had happened, and then remembered.
He asked his damp pillow, “What day is it? Is it then—or now?”

It stared back..

125 Word Short Story. Part 3. He Cared.

He cared.

A month later one of her shoes was found by a trapper. The police brought it to Alex and he recognized it immediately.

“What about the other one,” he asked. “She would hate to lose a shoe.”

The officer watched his eyes.

“So, you think she’s still alive?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” said Alex, staring straight at the officer, daring him to see anything that was or wasn’t there.

The officer tilted his cap back, rubbed his forehead, and walked off shaking his head. But before he got into his car, he turned and said, “Well, how about you call us if she shows up. You think you can do that?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” said Alex, still staring hard.

Why should I, he thought.