By Shelley Maasch

I finally gave up. It was Kyle’s death that did it. Kyle, the twenty year old killed in a car accident on his way to work one Wednesday morning about 5 miles from his home. Something like that stuns you. Your mind flips through a series of possible items he did wrong that caused the accident because you cannot believe a random act is possible. Not in a small town, in the country, where there aren’t very many other drivers.

He crossed into the other lane, the driver that hit him said, so the driver instinctively swerved into Kyle’s lane. But then Kyle snapped to and turned back into his own lane, only to be hit.

You wonder, what are the odds that there would be another car coming at the exact time Kyle’s car drifted?

He’d been driving for four years. It wasn’t youth. And it was in the morning, so it wasn’t like he was out drinking somewhere and then got in his car.

It just happened. That’s all. No one was at fault. No one knows why Kyle’s car crossed the line.

I’d been struggling with the impermanence of things, up till that day. Things like there will never be children living in my house again. Or, how you’re going along running every day with your dogs and suddenly one morning they’re just too old. Over night. Or how a group you used to belong to dissipates and your friends move on.

Most things you can see coming and it makes you sad to watch them happen and you can’t do anything about it.

A sudden tragedy shifts your thinking. And you begin to realize there isn’t anything you can do about it.

I went to the funeral. It was on a Monday, in a town 2 hours away. Brooke, my niece, asked everyone to wear bright colors because that’s what Kyle wore. She’d been dating him for four years when he died. There were people in orange and purple, his favorites, lined up outside the small funeral parlor. I found my brother sitting with my mother on the bench out front. I reached down and hugged her, then him. He couldn’t talk, my brother who was usually boisterous and somewhat obnoxious. We went inside to sign the book and I found my father sitting in a soft winged chair in the back. He looked smaller. His arms were beginning to shrink into an old man’s. Even his shirt looked a little big.

I turned to face the front. There was no body, thank goodness there was no body lying in a padded box up front, a youth face in a new suit with hands folded across his chest. Kyle was part Sioux Indian, just a small part. But he’d wanted to be cremated, which was just fine with me.

I searched the room for my brother’s third wife. She was nowhere to be seen, not her or her three children. All his girls, all six of them were there and his second wife was there, Brooke’s mom. She was standing next to her fiancé, the same fiancé for the past three years, the one she had another child with.

I was there with my second mate, Puck. We weren’t married yet but we would be. Someday soon.

The service started. The minister started talking into a scratchy tin microphone, then gave up and used his own voice. The same stuff you’d expect. I wanted some Indian thing, like chanting or dancing or feathers, but my other niece said Kyle was only 1/6th Sioux, so his family didn’t know any Sioux things.

You sit there and they play those songs, the ones that twist you up inside and make you feel like a wet rag full of emotions and tears and you want keening brought back into funerals so you can let it out. And you keep your thoughts from the mother, the poor mother, the poor poor mother that has to bury her son, the son who’s little boy pictures of Christmas and holding his new born sister and fishing are hung all around the room, the prom pictures, the high school graduation pictures. Yeah, those. And tears push up into your head so hard it aches and your eyes bulge out keeping them in.

I sat as still as I could, hoping it would end soon. Then the minister invited anyone who wanted to say a few words about Kyle’s life was free to do so. I closed my eyes, good lord, there’s no way you can get through that and just how long would it take anyway? But the few that did, told funny stories, stories to make us laugh.

Afterwards, we were all given balloons filled with helium on our way outside. I stood in the crowd, holding a yellow balloon against the clear blue sky, thinking about how my parents, still married to each other for 50 years, how the permanence of their marriage will soon end and then what? The last permanent thing in my life will be gone.

And then I watched as Brooke came out, carrying a purple balloon, walked out into the middle of our crowd. I know what’s coming for her, I know it isn’t going to be pretty, when all this is said and done and she reaches for the phone to call Kyle or its Saturday night and he’s not coming to pick her up.

She stands there in her light blue dress, raising her hand upward. I lift mine high. We all let them go, blue, red, yellow, purple, green bulbs rise into the empty sky. Not straight up, but to the east and upward. We stand watching till they become smaller. It felt better.

I kept an eye on my balloon and wished things could stay the same, but there’s nothing you can do about change. Except go through it. And as the colors became smaller and higher, I began to accept the endings and beginnings, life and death, transitions and the cycles as all part of life. They’re all tied together.

© Copyright Shelley Maasch, All Rights Reserved


My Mother Swore

By Shelley Maasch

My mother said the F word.

This was in the 70s, before the ERA vote.

She rarely swore, but when she did, it was usually a few curt S word and that was it. It was never in a sentence, but alone. Silence before she said it and silence after, unless it was to issue an order.
Like “Maggie, go get the saw,” or “Bring me the step stool.” Those too were short and staccato and always when she was in the middle of doing something that wasn’t working out.

Right now, she was kneeling on the counter over the kitchen sink in her cut off shorts and halter top, pushing a light fixture through a small opening in the soffit. It wasn’t going in. That’s when she said the F word.

I eyes popped open. I was ten years old. My mother was 30. My father was somewhere out in the field dragging the cultivator down rows of beans digging out the weeds, which means the rainy season was over and we were in the long stretch of sunny summer days.

She pulls the fixture out, twists it and pushes it back in. It stops a full inch short.

“Maggie, bring me the hammer. I want to see what’s inside this hole,” she said.

“Don’t you think you should wait for Dad?” I said.

She points to the tool laying on the counter. “That one,” she said. I look at it. “Hurry up now. I want to get this done.”

I reluctantly hand her the hammer. It becomes an extension of her arm and she rapidly pounds against the hole, only it’s plaster and pieces drop down her top.

“Shit.” She brushes the crumbs away and pushes her face up to the hole.

“Flashlight,” her hand reaches out while her face keeps staring into the dark hole. I turn it on and hand it to her.

She points the light upward and then reaches into the hole.

“Here,” she said. “Climb up here and hold the light. I need both hands.”

I climb up next to her, only I have to stand and scrunch over because I’m too short to kneel and too tall to stand. I hold the light still, like I’ve been taught.

She takes the claw end of the hammer and I hear the high pitched groan of old nails pulling out of wood. She drops them one by one into the sink, then pulls out a small board.

I’m hesitant. “Are you sure that board doesn’t need to be in there?” I said.

“It was in the way,” she said.

“Maybe we should ask Dad,” I said. This doesn’t stop her.

She pushes the fixture into the hole. It goes all the way in, only there’s a gap, a big gap in the hole. She moves it to one side, then the other, but the gap remains. A pause, a long pause expands around her as she stares at the new problem. I don’t say a word.

“Hand me the nails,” she said. One by one, she taps the fixture in place, till it stays up on its own. Then she sits back.

“Ok, climb down,” she said. “I need to cut a board.” She measures the space between the cupboards and heads out into the shed. The whine of a hand saw drifts in through an open window. It’s going to be a while, so I return to the living room to watch Gilligan’s Island.

My mother returns. I stay where I’m at. She goes in and out a few more times, then I hear pounding again. Soon it’s silent. She starts to clean up the mess of crumbs and tools. I go back in to look.

There’s a piece of paneling, the thin kind of the 60s that my mother prefers, covering the hole. It looks a little odd. Right now, I like paneling, but soon, when I get my own house, I will hate it.

My mother flips the light on and off. “Just be careful when you use this switch,” she said. “It’s loose.”
It looks a little sloppy, but she doesn’t care. It’s done.

©copyright by Shelley Maasch, All Rights Reserved

Disappearing Fireplaces

By Shelley Maasch

Someone removed the fireplaces. I kid you not, they’re both gone. Who’d do such a thing? And how did they do it? I mean, they weren’t exactly huge or anything, but they were brick and cement and limestone, inside the house. One on the main floor, one in the basement. Gone. Must have created quite the dust storm.

It was my house, twenty years ago. I’m the one who put in that patio door and refinished the kitchen cabinets. That countertop was my choice. I felt privileged to get it. The house is the same, really. Even the deck with the cool basket weave pattern is still there.

Oh, someone came along and put in new closet doors and finished the bedroom downstairs. But the egress window, we dug that out by hand.

It shocks me, I mean freaks me out someone would get rid of the fireplaces. Who’s the moron that did that? I want to ask the real estate agent. Nobody does that. Nobody in their right mind.

The house looks so much like it did 20 years ago, when we left it. By us, I mean, my ex and me. My first husband. We bought it together, our first house. A sad shape it was in, really, with all that old stain on the wood and horrible yellow linoleum floor and fridge so filthy you didn’t want to put food in it. We stripped and stained and sawed and hammered that house into something sweet. Four bloody years in that house till we called it quits on the relationship and parted ways.

It disturbs me someone could violate that house, strip it of its integrity.

I pull out the old albums, the ones with the pictures of the first day we moved in. I never look at them because my ex’s face is intermixed in those holidays and birthday parties and days of me with long hair. Look, there’s Jake, my first spaniel dog, all shaved and pretty, sitting on the floor next to me with one leg over mine while I’m opening my Christmas present. The furniture looks mismatched and a bit tacky. And further pictures show where I moved things around in the living room, trying to make it like a magazine picture. Or the picture where I’m sewing at the dining room table, the day I saw the deer stop in the back yard through the patio doors we put in.

I turn back to the new pictures on line, the ones the realtor put up. It looks familiar, memories flood my mind. But those fireplaces missing, it’s like someone took an eraser and dragged it across my forehead, soiling it with their incompetence.

How could they do that?

I start flipping through my photo albums at a faster pace. Seems like there should be more photos, you know? The album doesn’t match my memories. So I dig out another book. I’m scanning photos of that brief marriage with all its hopeful holidays and family gatherings and the family dog and I don’t know what to do about them. They are there. They existed. But that time is gone and the husband moved on and I started another family and those pictures are all there too.

Another family with me in it, but the characters have changed. Another house that was stripped and sawed and hammered into something else. The dog is different. The walls familiar like the first house, but different. My favorite things in this new house too. Different furniture, but still mismatched. The similarities are there.

And that family, it disappeared too.

Two houses, two families. Disappeared. Gone. Moved into the past. Neither exists anymore. Not even the dogs.

I close the albums and put them away.

They leave me unsettled. Like the missing fireplaces. Robbed, violated.

Time has separated me from those days. And others have come in between my memories and today. Like, where are my exes? Who are they with now? Do they think about those days we had together and do they miss them?

The thought of starting a new family and failing depresses me.

I don’t want a third album. I can’t stand the thought of time and strangers moving in and tearing out the fireplaces, doing things that don’t make sense, after we move out.

I don’t know what to put in its place.

Maybe everything. Maybe nothing. Maybe this is my life, one in constant motion.

© Copyright by Shelley Maasch, All Rights Reserved

The Girl, the Boyfriend and her Lover by Shelley Maasch

My lover snaps the sheet above me and lets it float back down toward the bed. I wait as the air slows its drop then it gently sinks against my skin, first my breasts, then my knees and belly, till it all shrink wraps around me.
I laugh.
“You like that,” he says.
I nod yes.
He does it again and stands smiling at me as I wait for the cotton coolness to settle around me.
“You’re like a child,” he said.
“A part of me is, I suppose,” I said.
He pinches my big toe and walks around the bed in only blue jeans, the top sliding down on his hips and I can see a V-shaped muscle line below his belly button. I curl my legs around the sheet and sit up on the bed as he grabs his guitar and sits on the chair in the corner. His fingers strum silently across the cords. He says a few words I can’t hear, then his face becomes removed as he slips inside his mind to listen to music only he hears. The music is distant, flirting just out of reach, and he patiently hums and strokes to bring it forward.
My lover becomes a portal for me to enter this world. My belly tingles in anticipation of becoming a part of it. I want it as badly as he wants the song to materialize. I am finally within reach.
My feet slide to the floor and I stand up, the sheet a toga around my naked body. I turn to look out the window and freeze. A rush of humility and pain flood my chest.
“Busted,” the word escapes my lips.
My lover pauses, coming back to this world a bit.
“He saw me,” I said and nodded out the window. Across the street is the old storefront where my real boyfriend Tony lives. He sits with a chair pulled up to the window and a strange woman next to him. They watch me, like dogs intensely watching their master out in the yard, a sense of injustice that they are behind the window.
My lover comes to stand behind me.
“Not too close,” I said, although it was pointless. “I don’t want him to see you.”
The storefront is outdated and belongs to my boyfriend’s grandfather. The look and decor is from the 1950s. So is the furniture handed down to him. It seems dry, predictable, immobile. The only things new in there are a few personal belongings that identify Tony from his family, like the Sax he’s always fiddling with between working in the family business.
Betrayal has stiffened his face. The woman leans into him and whispers in his ear; Tony doesn’t move. She sits back and I see a faint smirk tile the corner of her lips.
“I’ve been sold out,” I said. “She told him. And now she’s right there to soften his fall. Bitch.”
My lover’s breath touches my neck.
“You were leaving him anyway,” he said.
“Not necessarily,” I said.
“You’re not meant to stay in that world,” he said.
“I don’t know.” I start pulling on my clothes. “I didn’t want him to find out this way.” I pull on my shirt and button it down the middle. My lover goes back to his chair and picks up the guitar. I look around the room. It’s a pit stop for him, bags never fully unpacked, ready to move to the next place wherever that may be. I shove stuff into my bag.
“I should go talk to him,” I said. “I feel like I did the worst thing to my best friend. I shouldn’t have kept a secret.”
My lover doesn’t say anything. I can tell, by the way he’s off again, that he’ll disappoint me, that he doesn’t have the stability that Tony had. I feel abandoned.
I walk to the window and look again. This time the window is bare and I can see the place has been cleared out. He’s left now with that woman, waited long enough for me to see him.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“So its over then,” my lover said.
“I should go apologize,” I said. “I shouldn’t have waited. My god, what have I done?”
I swing my bag over my shoulder and walk out the door. My lover follows me to the car as I open the trunk and throw my things in. From here I can see Tony has not just left the building but has left the area with his things.
I feel relief I don’t have to face him just yet, but it is quickly replaced with a layer of sadness over the pain and shame.
My lover grabs my upper arm. “Come with me,” he said. “I know this place where people make music and poetry and art all the time. We can make a niche for ourselves.”
I look into my lover’s beautiful face. I like the idea. But I don’t know him, and I do know eventually he’ll move to another lover. It wasn’t him, really, that seduced me. It was the freedom. Freedom from the secure traditional life Tony offered me of predictable days. I waver and look from Tony’s house to my lover’s, separated by the street.
I smile and touch his face. “I think I’ll just stay where I am for now.” His face falls and I realize that he just didn’t want to be alone. It wasn’t me he wanted.
I get into my car and fire up the engine. My lover stands in his bare feet for a minute, then turns back into his house.
I drive straight down the middle of the road, the one that runs between Tony’s house and my lover’s. I don’t know where I’m going.

(c) Copyright Shelley Maasch, All Rights Reserved

Discovering Francine

I don’t know what I was doing, living in that old duplex. I shouldn’t be here, not at my age. But there I was, living in the type of place you get for your first home once you move out on your own. Like Dash, the young woman who was living here, now, with me.
I don’t know her. I don’t know where she came from. And I could tell she was wet behind the ears.
Because when thunder cracked and the rain pounded the roof and soon after, water streamed out of the ceiling, between us, she stared at it with a sick look on her face.
I’ve been here long enough to know the landlord isn’t going to get his butt out here and fix it anytime soon.
“I’ll get a pot,” Dash said. And she headed into the kitchen.
“Going to need more than I pot,” I said. She doesn’t answer me, but that’s nothing new. We need a five gallon bucket and the most likely place the landlord would have one lying around would be in the basement.
Dash was not going to go down there.
No one goes down there.
It’s up to me to go down there.
It’s an old house. The steps are wood, the paint long worn off in the middle. There’s a window in the door at the top of the stairs, but the sky is dark and it makes the basement look black. I flip on the switch. Florescent lights buzz and I can see my way down into the gray blocks and cement. I walk slowly down, holding onto the railing, descending into the dark, dank world.
This is where discarded things go. Like that old oak table in the corner used as a work bench, all scraped and full of divots and splashes of paint. Small tools lay scattered across the top. A mop rests against the wall, but no bucket. Dash has come to stand at the top and is looking down to where I stand. I head toward a bunch of boxes and old furniture near the furnace.
I poke around, brushing my fingers across dust and cobwebs. Basement must; the air is heavy and cold and uncomfortable to inhale. I bend down to look under the old kitchen chairs stacked on top of each other. Water splashes behind me and I turn to see the rain coming through the floor from the living room. I turn back to my search and then something strange catches my eye.
Three busts of women, from the neck up, sit in a triangle on the floor, below and beyond the chairs. All face the same direction with their profiles turned toward me, chins tilted up, eyes closed. The one closest to me has been painted gold, an Egyptian hat angled back so my eyes follow the slant down to the hair, then forehead, nose, chin and neck. A queen’s head, I think. It should be in a museum. The one next to it radiates beauty but is not stately. And the one in the back is blurry but still beautiful. They rest on their necks on the concrete floor, without stands.
As I stare, three chins drop in unison and the faces turn toward me. Their eyes open and stare back. Their mouths began to speak. One word.
“Help. Help. Help.” It is not a desperate plea.
I stand up.
They were stone before.
I don’t know what they want.
I feel strangely quiet as I stand listening to them repeating the same word, over and over, out of sinc.
Thunder cracks overhead and the light goes off. I hear a door open and close and Dash leaves the stairs to go to the front door.
I race back upstairs. The lights are on again.
“Thank god you’re here!” she said to Calvin. Calvin is the other person that moved in when she did. They sleep in the same room, the big room, of which she stripped the wallpaper and painted a pale yellow. I like Calvin. He’s sensitive and most times he stops to listen when I’m talking or singing.
Dash points to the water filling the pot. “I’ve emptied it twice already”, she said. She’s upset and fights back tears but I can tell she’s about to lose it.
Calvin is patient as he listens and puts an arm around her.
“I’ll go get a bucket. There has to be one in the basement,” he said.
I’ve been quiet, letting them have their private moment until now.
“I did look,” I said. “But there’s something else down there you should see.” I say this but Calvin is already heading down the stairs and I follow him.
He starts looking all around, seeing if he can find a bucket.
“You’ve got to see this,” I said. “You’re an artist, you’ll appreciate it.” I motion to where the busts are, behind the chairs, but he’s still looking around where the mop is. I wait until he walks toward me and looks around the chairs.
“See!” I said. Then I stop. The busts are gone. All three. The cement where they sat is swirly and ripped, but no sign of the busts. Like they’d bent their heads and dipped under water.
I stare at the empty spot. “I think they’re under the cement.”
Calvin finally notices and bends down to run his hand over the surface.
“That cement doesn’t look right,” he said.
He stands up and stares a bit longer then notices a bucket in the corner.
“I found one,” he calls, loud enough for Dash to hear.
He grabs the bucket and heads upstairs.
I remain staring a bit longer. I reach out to touch the cement, then pull back. It’s soft enough to put my hand through. I back away, keeping a safe distance.
Upstairs I hear Calvin and Dash talking again. She’s telling him a coffee cup got knocked off the table and hairbrush turned up in the kitchen. The radio on while she was watching TV. She’s careful not to mention my name, but we all know she’s talking about me.
I look down and see a puddle forming under my feet. It looks like blood in the dim light and my legs begin to shake as the puddle gets bigger. I can’t feel my feet. I sit down, light headed, dropping my head until my cheek rests against the floor. Mannequin arms push out of the cement where the heads were and I move my saddle shoes away from them. It’s hard to move. This time I know they want to pull me down there with them. The hands begin to move slowly, gracefully, in unison, like prairie grass in the breeze. I start to relax and close my eyes. I’m too tired now. It feels so good to sleep.
My eyes snap open. I suck in my breath, sit up and turn around. I don’t know how long I laid there; it must have been a long time because I see Calvin standing there, bent over the hole in the floor, a sledgehammer at his side. He is brushing the dirt away with one hand, then quickly pulls back.
I look down into the hole and see a fragmented plastic bag that tore open from the hammer. I see clothes, stiff and torn, embedded with dirt and disintegrating.
He moves more dirt. A ring appears, my ring, the one my grandmother gave me, peaking out of the dirt. Calvin and I reach for it at the same time and we pick it up.
A thin bone slides off it.
My mouth drops open and I turn to speak to Calvin, but can’t. My breath exhales and it ripple against his shirt. He drops the ring like he touched a hot muffler. It clangs on the cement, bouncing and rolling, then spinning like a dying top, wobbling on it’s side till it stops under the chairs.
Calvin jumps up and races up the stairs.
I stare at the ring.
It’s on my finger and it’s on the floor.
That’s my skirt in the dirt, same as I’m wearing.
I don’t understand.
I wait for Calvin to come back.
Then I feel like something is missing only I don’t know what it is. I head up to my room and open the closets and drawers and dump out my purse. Nothing. I push my hands under the mattress and move the bed across the floor. It isn’t there, what I’m looking for. I sit back on my heels and look around. The room looks strange. A panic starts to grow in my chest.
I stand up. I need to find Calvin.
I start wandering through the kitchen and living room, looking for him. Strange voices come up from the basement along with Calvin’s. I join them.
There are two policemen standing around the hole in the floor.
The big one who is older and in charge rubs the back of his neck then turns toward Calvin.
“How long ago did you say you bought this house?” he asked.
“Four months ago,” Calvin said.
The younger one is a woman and she’s poking around in the dirt. “I think there’s more than one down here.” The big one stops rubbing his neck. “You know who you bought it from?”
Calvin shrugs. “Some old guy had it for years, lived in one side and rented the other out.”
“Any chance you remember the name?”
Dash is sitting on the steps. “Cleary was the last name,” she said.
I suddenly remember. “Clarence Cleary” pops out of my mouth. The lazy landlord, always watching us girls from behind the kitchen curtain. The name spreads through my mind like poison and I want to wash it away.
“Young woman disappeared. Lived in your duplex with two other girls,” the older one said. “Looks like we might have found her.”
“Are you thinking of the old Grant case?” the woman cop said.
Grant? That’s my name.
The older one nods. “Francine Grant.” My name swells in my ears.
“Wait a minute!” I said. “I’m standing right here. See? See?” I start waving my arms. I knock a wrench off the bench and it clangs to the floor.
It’s all quiet as everyone turns to stare at the wrench. They look at each other then back at the hole.
And then I remember. Mr. Cleary standing at the kitchen door, asking if I’d help him for a second.
I’m all sick with remembering. My eyes are wide with panic. I sit down in one of the chairs away from the others, bending forward till my chest is on my knees.
I stay that way till everyone leaves.
Except Calvin. He comes up to where I’m sitting.
He speaks softly, so I’m the only one who hears. “It’s time to go.”
It could be him he means or me. I’m not sure. I don’t wait to find out.

Copyrighted All Rights Reserved Shelley Maasch

What I Didn’t See That Morning

Well, yes, I did see the truck’s flashing lights at the end of the 394 ramp on my way to work. I might have even seen a shirt flapping in the wind on the Penn Avenue Bridge, but there’s always a homeless person there, so if I did, I didn’t pay attention. The truck looked like a utility truck from where I saw it, like something was broken and getting fixed. Usually I take 394 to work, but that morning traffic was stalled, so I went in the back way. I didn’t even try; if I had, I would have seen the police cars blocking the entrance ramps. But I didn’t.
I parked less than 100 feet from that truck, in the same parking lot, the same row, the same direction like always. I don’t see it, though, because it was behind me. So was the bridge. I walked next to a hundred stopped cars on the freeway, but I couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see me because the sound wall separated us. Even if they could, they wouldn’t have looked in my direction. Their eyes were glued to the fence above them. If I’d stopped at the top of the steps to the entrance door and turned around before entering the building, I would have seen what they saw. But I didn’t. That’s not my routine.

It’s the second anniversary of my start date at this job. I carry in a pan of warm brownies, fresh out of the oven and I put them in Mr. Fussypants’ old office. Mr. Fussypants was canned a few months ago after 35 years on the job. Came in that morning to work and left the same day with a box of his personal stuff. The office smells of warm moist brownies and caramel. Who can resist them? No one. And no one does, except Evil Sister Meano and the Prom Queen who don’t like me. But everyone else appreciates it. Big smiles in my direction and many thanks. They all came in hoards when I made the announcement, around every corner. It made me feel good.
And there were comments, about the drive in.
“This is perfect, after being on the road for 2.1 hours.”
“Worse commute I’ve ever had, worse than winter.”
“I hear they closed off 394 and no one is getting through.”
We are an office of CPAs and accountants. We like our numbers neat and precise and balanced.
Even me. I have my routine. Place my cell phone near my computer, start my computer, go to the lunch room and get a cup of coffee, log in, read email, look at my work list, move files around before starting.
Brownie in hand, we were all back at our desks in minutes, back to staring at our screens and calculating numbers and things. Same office, same sounds, key boards clicking, chairs creaking, an occasional person walking by.
Then someone yelled out.
“A Jumper! There’s a jumper on the bridge!” It’s a female’s voice. She’s at the same door I entered.
We get out of our cubicles and stand around her.
It’s a hot August morning and everything is frozen before us. It’s a man. He looks like a giant bird smashed against a car grill, except in this case, it’s a fence. His arms are out and fingers tightly woven through the cyclone fence, legs pressed back, the balls of his feet over the ledge. Policemen surround him, some close, some back. Below, all cars wait. Only the blue and red lights flicker across the bridge.
We stand at the window, mesmerized.
No one says a word.
I’m freaked out just seeing him suspended in air. My own fingers feel like they’re slipping and my body rocks forward just thinking about being out there. Why would he put himself in that position? I wonder if once he got out there and saw all those moving cars he got scared stiff and now can’t move. You can tell he’s been out there a long time because you can’t stop freeway traffic that fast.
A thought pops into my head. “You don’t think that’s” I pause and whisper “Mr Fussy pants?” People look at me with blank faces, then back out the window. We lean forward to get a better look, but he’s too far away to tell and we lean back again.
And then the jumper’s hat falls off and he makes a quick grab for it. We inhale sharply and put our hands out, waiting for his feet to slip next. An officer races closer. The jumper’s hand immediately returns to the fence. All this happens in less than two seconds.
We exhale.
Then I see it. An electric shock jolts through my body. My eyes bulge in recognition. My face turns red. My ex-lover. I’d recognize that pumpkin head and receding hairline anywhere. He’s swearing, I can tell by the way he snaps his head forward on each word.
He found out where I work and he’s been on that bridge since 6 am, waiting for me to appear. By now, his arms should be getting tired, but he’s holding on. He won’t quit until I come out, till he knows I’ve seen just how desperate he is.
He turns his head in my direction. I step back from the window. No one knows who it is and I don’t want them to know I’m connected to the jumper. I go back to my cubicle and pretend to work. My body is shaking. I’m sick to my stomach. I feel embarrassed and cornered, forced to do something I don’t want to do.
The others return to their desks till the window is empty. Office sounds pick up. Click, shuffle, phones ringing. I force myself to pay attention to the numbers before me. It takes me three tries to get one number correct.
Time inches forward. I feel the battle raging between us. Who will cave, who will win?
Every once in a while a person will walk past the window and announce he’s still there.
It takes another hour before we hear differently.
“They got him! They pulled him off!” a voice floats from the windows. And that is all. Nothing more. I don’t stand up to look.

Next day, I look for his name in the paper. Nothing. Only a blurb about a Police Incident over 394 on a Thursday morning in August.
No one will know his name. He will never know I saw him.
If I run into him later, by accident, I won’t mention it. Neither will he, because he hates to lose to me. He’ll now see it as a stupid embarrassing act.
Because I never turned around on the step, I never turned to look in his direction. I’m safe. He can’t possibly know I knew, and turned away.

(c)Copyright Shelley Maasch, All rights reserve.

The gods, Six Women and a Wedding

The gods pinged me again. They had no sense of decency, coming in right there on the outside steps of the Rotunda just before my son walked me down the aisle at his wedding. I turned and saw the reflection of us standing there in the glass door. I saw us clearly. I saw us from where the gods saw us from way out there somewhere. That’s me, in the long elegant black dress, hair all done up around my head, one hand holding my son’s arm and the other dangling a black shawl, like a child holds a blanket. We look alike. Both tall, both slim. Then the ping. It suddenly seemed strange that the cells of this 6’2” man spun off and popped out of my body and ended up standing next to me as a full grown man, irreversibly tied to me, no matter what.

They’ve been after me all my life, those gods. I don’t know what I did, but it must have been something big. They are determined I must go through life backwards. Maybe they thought I had it too easy. Maybe they thought I had too much life, that I saw too much good in the world. Or maybe they just thought I was shallow and needed to learn a lesson or two.

But I’m here, at this wedding and I’m smiling while this man, this man the gods forced through my body at 18 and out into the world, before either of us were ready, is saying his vows today. In spite of the gods watching us.
And I see his hands, the pigment gone white, in irregular lines, that look like drawings of continents against the darker skin. And now the nails, warping at the base. His tux is a little too big now, with the weight loss, the tiny incision holes over the kidneys hidden. But he looks fine. He is fine, still.

Even the grand matriarch on the bride’s side, the grandmother, caught me in the bathroom and said “We just love Calvin and are glad to have him come into the family.”

I said, “He’s only on loan.” She didn’t know what I meant with those words.

And they look fine, he and his radiant bride, later at the head table, smiling and laughing, so beautiful, so full of promise, so ready to do the marriage and children scene, all the way till. . . . I can’t say the word.

He found the right one. I feel a mother’s love toward that.
I said my speech. “You want so much for your children, you want things to go right, to be easier for them. And with these two, I think they are they lucky ones who have it all.” Or something like that. Tears well up in my voice and I stop. People clap for me and I sit down. I should be feeling wildly ecstatic right now, that they married their best friend and it’s going to be a good marriage, but that just makes it worse. Bastard gods! I’m mad and getting more mad by the minute.

I mean, what were the gods thinking? They dropped that boy on me before I even had a chance to get out there in the world. They stole that from me, my youth, my choices. But I got over it. And now, when I’m getting older, they’ve come to steal him back before I’m gone? I mean what the hell? What’s the point? For god’s sake, can someone please tell me what.they.were.thinking?

I must have been mouthing some pretty good swear words, in the middle of this beautiful reception because soon Mae, tall Mae with black braids and feathers at the end trailing down her back, came up to me and grabbed my arm.

“Come on Maggie,” she said and pulled me toward the door. I quietly let her lead me. As we passed tables, Janice stood up and joined us. Then Linda, and Maria and Sookie. We stepped out of the glass room, into the darkness and headed down to the amphitheater in the small lake.

All six of us, in our beautiful dresses and high-heeled shoes, wine glasses in our hands, crossed the bridge and stepped onto the circle of grass where hours before the vows were spoken. We lined up in a row. Six beautiful women, aged 36 to 56, strong women. Each of us had been pinged by the gods, as a mother or sister or wife, all of us angry at the gods at one time or other. We stood facing the lake under clouds tinged pink from the huge lights coming out of the glass building behind us.

Our heels sunk deep into the earth.

Then we gathered a strong breathe, and howled. We howled, again and again, more and more, at the top of our lungs, the sound skimming across the lake, shaking up into the trees. Six she wolves, snarling and snapping back. And as we sunk deeper into the earth, howls of women past rose up through our feet, filling our bodes and shaking our chests, their voices joining ours in our throats. And with one final voice, we pinged those gods back with a howl from every woman past, present and future.

Then we were quiet.

We waited as our howl released into the sky and out of sight and the lake became just a lake and the trees just trees.

Mae looked at me. She was talking to me without words, but I could hear her say “you all right now Maggie.”
I drop my head into one accepting nod, our cue to pulled our heels out of ground and make our way back to the glass building.

(c) Copyright Shelley Maasch, All Rights Reserved