Mary Beth Writes

I wrote this story nearly 20 years ago. Our second kid was getting ready to go to college, our youngest was in middle school. I needed to find a job - and trying to find a satisfying one when you still don’t know, at the tender age of 50-whatever, what it is you want to do … that is a tricky time for many women. For many adults.

I was volunteering with the Fair Trade organization MayaWorks. I wrote about it in my weekly newspaper column, one thing led to another and within a year we had sold a great deal of merchandise in volunteer run sales in our area. (I made some of my best friends in Racine doing that.) The organization invited me to be on their board.

Several times I went to board meetings in Guatemala where I learned a lot about empowering women in developing nations. I also got to hang out with awesome North American women. And I discovered a store in Antigua where indigenous weavings and crafts are sold. I bought a lot of hand-painted wooden figures. I brought these guys home, set them on our mantelpiece, glanced at them often.

Like I say, so much of my life felt up in the air. While all this was going on, I also I sometimes made bread to sell accompanied by a story.

Writing stories is a good way to add to the bees already living in your head.

All the kids were out of the house one day. I collapsed on our sofa, looked at this zebra and these guys and asked them - How do I do this out?

The zebra responded with two remarks. First he said, “Get a grip, Mary Beth. I’m Guatemalan. There are no zebras in Guatemala. I’m a striped donkey.”

Then he said, from his mind to mine, "It couldn't hurt to review your situation." Which I took to mean to not be afraid to try unexpected endeavors. I might fail. I might not. Just keep moving.

And that is where this story came from.

...

"It couldn't hurt to review your situation."

Once upon an odd time there were three friends by the names of Wally, Diego, and Miles.

Well, actually, Miles was a donkey. He only has one thing to say in this story -- but, as you will soon see, his murky, muttery pronouncement is the thing that tumbles everything else to life. (Sometimes folks really don't have to do much to be a central character. It's almost not fair considering how hard everyone else works.)

Wally had a service station a few miles down a dusty road outside a dusty town. Wally was a second-tier entrepreneur. Wally had imagined back when he took on his business 20 years before that being an independent businessman would make people admire and perhaps envy him. That never quite happened.

Such things happen to careers.

Wally was also a bachelor in his 40's. Oh, he'd been steadily dallying along with Laura May for nearly 16 years now which sort of chagrined and surprised even him. It was a long time, he knew deep in his nervous self, to keep a girl's heart without putting a ring on her finger.

Sometimes he wished he'd have just married her back when they were both young and less knowing of how disappointing life could be.

Now she was pushing middle-age herself, was plumpish and often remarkably brassy towards him. But, somehow, Wally simply could not convince himself to marry a woman so, well, seasoned, so soft, so comfortable about herself, so un-bedazzled by him.

Diego worked for Wally at the service station. Diego had married the love of his life, Marina Marlene, back when they were young and as attractive as either of them were ever going to get. Since then, both had weathered into tall strips of belt leather with smiles as glitzy as rodeo buckles.

Diego and Marlena had raised marvelous and imaginative twins who had started college in California last fall.

Well, it was the Saturday morning before Easter. The day was hot, sunny, and already dust was lufting from one side of the county to the other. Diego had finished changing the oil on a beige Cadillac, had found some loose gaskets in a gold 1994 Buick, and had rewired the turn signals of a camouflage-rusted 1981 Saab.

Wally almost always closed the station about noon on a Saturday.

It was about noon.

Wally got up from where he had been thickly and unenthusiastically working on his quarterly IRS statement. He went out back of the station and untied Miles from beneath the exhausted pear tree where he'd picketed him at dawn.

Miles was a deeply dun and rather smelly donkey whom Wally had received as belated payment for work on a 1964 pickup. He'd been a bit surprised to arrive at work that morning, several years ago, to this largish brown animal eating picker weeds out front of the station.

When Wally had walked over the animal that first morning, Miles had lifted his limpid brown eyes, blinked his long eyelashes, then curled up his lips and bared his teeth in an expression clearly meant to be a smile. Also, Mile’s tall ears were meltingly warm. The emotional fit between Wally and Miles was ardent from the get-go.

Wally rolled his shoulders, trying to get the IRS kinks out of them.

Miles sighed heavily, turned his mellifluent eyes upon his friend, and brayed quietly.

It seemed, to Wally, that Miles said something.

"What?"

Milles shuddered, coughed, and shook his donkey lips.

"It couldn't hurt to review your situation."

Wally stared. He was so fond of Miles, but he'd never actually heard the donkey speak before. Hearing English uttered by an animal was the kind of thing that happened to people who saw Jesus in a tortilla, not to entrepreneurs, even second-tier ones.

Miles shook his head mournfully. He knew, as all beasts do, that it is too much work to warn humans. They hardly ever listen and even when they do, they don't know how to heed clear advice.

Wally stood, flummoxed.

"What situation?"

Miles just shook his head sadly some more. Too difficult to get into, really. And his lips simply were not right for extended conversations.

Wally turned to walk back into the station while Miles followed him. Sometimes Miles liked to go inside the station for a while as a break from all the sunshine. He loved listening to the radio, especially Billy Joel.

"Diego?"

Diego turned towards Wally.

"Yup."

"Miles just told me it couldn't hurt to review my situation."

Diego, married and the father of two, was conditioned to say "Uh-huh."

"Uh-huh."

"I don't know what to do."

Diego pulled at his ear.

"Well, Marlena always says that when you need to do something, and you don't know what to do, do the first thing that comes into your mind. She says this is how a lot of women keep up with their laundry."

Wally was almost as flummoxed by that as he was by Miles' message.

Diego washed a layer or two of grease from his hands in the station bathroom, leaving the door open so they could speak if they needed to. Miles ambled over to rest his heavy head on Diego's shoulder. Miles really liked Diego. Many did.

Wally hesitated.

"Well, all I can think to do is go for a walk. Would you like to come with me?"

"Sure. Mar-Mar's spending all afternoon cooking anyway for when the family comes over tomorrow after church. I got some time."

Miles, of course, clopped along between Wally and Diego as they all made their slow way along the dusty road. Sometimes he'd rest his head on one or other of the men's shoulders. Sometimes they'd throw an arm over his back. There wasn't much to say, so the three of them didn't say it.

About two miles later, Wally turned to Diego.

"How bad is marriage, anyway?"

Diego scratched his stubble. He and Marlena had gone out the night before to a fish fry and dance at St. Stalwart John's. He'd shaved after work, put on a clean shirt and jeans, and the evening had worked out well. (There were advantages to living in a house where there are no kids left actually living in the house). Consequently, there hadn't been much time to shave when he crawled out of bed with a small souvenir headache this morning.

"Has its up and downs."

They walked another mile. Diego wondered what Mar-Mar was going to say when he came home several hours late from nothing and nowhere. Sometimes she really had quite a sassy mouth on her. He could imagine this might be one of those times.

The thing was, the topography around them was a little unfamiliar because when they'd ambled out of the service station, they hadn't turned towards town, but away from it. Oh, both men had lived on this locality of earth all their lives, but as habits go, turning down a dusty road that goes nowhere is a lot less habit forming than going home.

It was interesting gazing upon unfamiliar scrub trees, picker-plants, hunks of land, and crows on fence posts. Though it was getting on towards the middle of the afternoon and none of the three of them knew even one efficient way of getting back to their ordinary lives from where they were.

They came upon an empty intersection. The road they were upon kept going straight but now there was another, if possible, even dustier road, ambling off to the left.

Wally looked at it, glanced back at Diego.

"Whaddya think?"

Diego squinted down it a bit. "I think that's possibly the direction of town. I say we try it a bit. If it don't make sense soon, we may have to backtrack ourselves."

Miles snorted.

They turned left.

Wally rested his hot arm along Milles' hotter haunch. Diego pulled his straw hat down further to keep out more of the beating sun.

"Well, now, don't that look pleasant?"

Cutting completely along the far-off horizon was an unbroken line of dark green.

Diego spit out the crumpled piece of grass he'd been chewing.

"Must be the river. I figured 'twas over here somewhere."

Wally nodded.

Miles quickened his step. (He was thirsty and at that moment, floating into his mind, came the memory of the lovely, crunchy taste of the large dog biscuits Laura May kept for him in the back seat of her car. Miles loved Laura May.)

Diego pushed the brim of his hat back up.

"Well, Holy Comolly. Look at that, will you. It's town, right over there on the other side of the river. Did you know this old road was here where you see town from?"

Wally was as surprised as Diego.

"Not a bit. How did this happen that we could live here all this time and not know this old lane?"

"I dunno but look at that. If you squint just right, isn't that Laura May's pink house?"

Wally stretched his neck to see and as his eyes lit on the distant box of rosy pink, the thought of Laura May melted through him like raspberry sherbet on a hot day. He hadn't called her up for a date in days, and suddenly, that seemed like the dumbest thing he'd done for years, not calling her up way more than he did.

"Yup, that's it."

"It's gonna be some challenge getting over there."

Wally stopped at the thought. They'd have to push through the wild and tangly thickets that grew along the river, then wade or even swim the river.

He shuddered. It was, as he remembered from his boyhood when he actually played along its banks, a nasty ole river.

His forehead wrinkled.

"When I was a boy, there was that kid what drowned in the river."

Diego nodded. "Yup, that Albert kid. Joey, wasn't it? Joey Albert. I remember my mother said I couldn't go down to the river after that. She was so upset that I hardly ever did."

Wally tried to chuckle. "I wished we hadn't gone on this walk after all."

Diego slapped his hat off and then back on his sweaty head.

"The river might be slowish. There wasn't so much snow up in the mountains, they said. It probably won't be too much work to get over and I sure don't want to go back. Chesus, we do that, we won't be home till after dark and that won't go too good for me, if you catch my drift."

Wally nodded.

They were close now. The afternoon sun was hot on their necks and the wind across the earth was dry. The hidden river reverberated in their ears like the low thrummy murmur of a crowd who did not particularly like a speaker.

Wally eyed the tamarisk and willow that cut the river away from the dry world.

"How we gonna get through that?"

Diego picked at his ear.

"Just push on through, I guess. Maybe Miles will be of some help."

The donkey moseyed closer to munch a few scrappy leaves and needles.

The men pushed in. Their arms and faces started stinging right away from the sharp piney needles, twiglets and thorns.

Miles followed them.

The river reverberated louder.

Then Wally saw it. Wide, fast, brown as thin cocoa.

He watched Diego grab off his worn sneakers and socks, tie the laces together, sling them over this shoulder.

He glanced down at his own feet. He'd bought cowboy boots at a secondhand rodeo regalia shop some years ago and had worn them ever since. It wasn't the potential loss of money that really bothered him, it was, as he told people who brought terrible old cars to him, the thrift of not replacing something you could scrape along with. He didn't want to lose his old boots.

He grabbed onto some wavering limbs of willow as he pulled off the boots, one by one, tucked his miserable socks in them, and shoved the boots under an arm.

He and Diego grinned nervously at each other's ugly, bony feet. Not something they'd ever shared before, not in decades of working side by side.

Wally grimaced at some empty Styrofoam cups and caved-in plastic bottles floating past. He wondered what other garbage lurked beneath the scummy surface of the fast and ugly river.

He stepped in. The water was cold, the bottom slimy with runny clay that slunk up between his toes. The sensation, he noted to himself, was that of a soaked paste of rotten vegetables and mystery manure. His lips went tight shut at the thought.

Diego was a few feet behind him. Miles had pushed out in front, was now mildly slurping the brown water as he moseyed along.

Wally took another step, and another, and another.

The water began to lose its frigid gelid feel. Now it was just cool. Almost pleasant against the sweaty heat of the relentless sun.

When Wally took step after step, the river deepened, but in a sensible way. His jeans were wet, but that made sense, too, as long as one didn't work under the assumption that the point of clothes was to keep them dry. He'd forgotten what he knew as a kid, that sometimes you have to forget what you think clothes should feel like.

The current was strong, but he wasn't, Wally realized with a start, a kid anymore. He was an adult man. He could stand up in a swift current.

They were close to halfway across when Wally's imagination began to tinker on the idea of a drop-off. This was a wide river coming around a long bend. Just because a lot of it was shallow enough to wade was not guarantee the whole shebang would be that accommodating.

He fixed his eyes on the back end of Miles and suddenly started worrying what his donkey would do if he lost his footing. He thought of how flustered Miles got sometimes, if, say, a rabbit zipped under him. The donkey was generally as calm as a blue sky in Kansas, but he had his moments. Wally worried. Visualized grabbing the animal's head harness to kind of hold it up.

Good thing.

Some knife of current had, right there, sliced off the touchable bottom of the river. With a terrific splash, Miles started honking, braying, kicking and flailing. His body sloped into the water as wavelets crashed around his tossing cement block of a head.

Diego crashed past. "Wally, you keep ahold of him on that side, and I'll try to catch him over here. Whoa, Boy."

Diego dove through the drop-off, came up around the donkey and grabbed his harness.

Both men swam as hard as they could, crooning to the screaming animal, pulling and tugging against the current as they washed downstream, kicking like crazy while trying to not be kicked by Miles.

They churned and fought through the wide, wide swath of bottomless river for what seemed an eternity until, pure heaven, a bit of bottom reassembled beneath their feet.

Miles regained his footing. He stopped yanking and began to shake his massive head. Wally watched rainbows like shooting stars flicker in the air around the donkey's massive, shuddering body.

Diego let out a rebel yell of joy. "We done it. Wow, that was something!"

Wally joined in with his own haroo. They grinned at each other over the donkey's back as they splashed forward to the new edge of the river.

Wally looked down at his utterly soaked everything.

"We lost our shoes."

Diego grinned.

"Seems so."

It was easier scrambling out of the river than it had been going in. They pushed through the scrappy willows, and then fell with great relief onto the hot, scrabbly slopes.

That's when Wally began to laugh. Diego joined in. Both men held their bellies against the stunning ridiculosity of the unexpectable day.

Soon Diego pulled himself to his bare feet and hied off.

"See you on Monday, Wally. Have a good Easter."

"You, too. Tell Marlena I’ll put an extra couple bucks in your next paycheck to replace everything you just purely ruined."

Diego grinned. "That will be purely appreciated."

Wally watched Diego amble off, a skinny and good-natured guy listing and bobbing towards the backside of town.

It had never dawned on Wally much before that he was a man with a best friend. That was the kind of thing a fellow should probably take into account, somehow, along the way.

He cracked a smile as he wiped at some tracings of blood on his arms, carved in from thicket thorns. It smeared away pretty easily. Would probably be mostly gone in a couple days, he figured.

Then Wally turned to let himself look at the place he knew he wanted to look. Laura May's house. Just up the hard-bitten hill, shaded by a cottonwood that grew behind her little yard.

As he picked his barefooted way towards the back of her place, he began to hear her faintly singing some familiar tune. She must be out in her flower patch. He never knew what she did out there so much, though, in this desert place, her small garden was a place of color and sweet smells.

Wally strained his ears. Laura May was humming either "Christ Our Lord Is Risen Today," or "Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail, Hopping Down the Bunny Trails." Surprising how close the tunes were to each other. Well, either would suit.

"Miles, you ready to visit?"
Miles said nary a thing. He'd had one thing to say, said it, and the story had happened.

When Laura May answered the leafy green door of her rosy pink house a few moments later, Wally, just about wet to death, kissed her as if his life situation was just beginning.

 

 

 

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What a delight! Patricia
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Thunder and Courage

After I write a story, I like to let it sit and steep. This story has been in the 'story cellar' for two years. I woke up this morning thinking about it, so I think it's time to put it here.

I'm surprised by how much courage  some people have when they think they don't have much at all.  This is my take on that thought.

PS: if you like this story, forward it to others you know who might like it. Thanks. 

...

Thunder and Courage

Where Love Died...

(This is a fictional short story I wrote in 2001.  The photo is from Kathryn Rouse. Thanks.) 

           We'd been driving for hours. The unending trees of upper Michigan were a dark corridor around us, the sky above was unpolished silver. I was weary and my neck ached.

            "Mom?"

            I glanced at my son, just waking from a monotony-induced nap.

            "Yeah?"

            "Where are we?" He lifted his shoulders, easing the kinks from the awkward way he'd slept. "Are we close yet?"

Lucy's Light

 The kitchen was, as children's picture books and women's magazines love to (cloyingly and deceptively) describe, "abustle with holiday cheer." Mrs. Willard had just pulled the Thanksgiving turkey from the oven to where it now rested in Norman Rockwellian splendor on the counter. Her daughter Caroline was flinging butter pats into hot, defeated potatoes being pummeled by the Kitchen-Aid.

Mrs. Willard's oldest daughter, Lucy, was tucking brown ‘n serve rolls into the turkey-themed-napkin that lined a turkey-shaped basket.

Field of Dogs

This was written in that bend of the year between Thanksgiving and full winter, when so often there is a feeling of anxiety. We are marooned again in too-short days. We are prone to becoming stranded in long nights among our old and unsettling memories.

This story started on a November evening. And although this is fiction, in my opinion it wouldn't have to be.

A Small Owl

My first Joyce Andrews story is Outside on a Very Cold Night.

This is my second Joyce Andrews story. Joyce is around seventy years old and lives by herself in an old farmhouse that is twenty minutes from the expressway between Milwaukee and Madison. She divorced her first husband decades ago; then raised good kids who have their own lives now. In her 40’s she married John, a wonderful man who died several years later.

She’s smart and brave and has lived a complicated life.

She isn’t done yet.

Outside on a Very Cold Night

I wrote this in 2016 and shared it with some friends. I know it's not Christmas Eve yet, but it is the beginning of the season where most of us will wonder what lies beneath and behind the things we do.  This is my salute to people who pay attention. 

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