Mary Beth Writes

Vivian woke up drowning. She came to the surface of dark and murmuring dreams with her arms grabbing through tangled sheets; her lungs straining towards breath.

Then, as every day, she remembered to open her eyes. A slant of light stabbed through the curtains into the dim green of her bedroom. She pulled up to sit on the edge of the bed, gathering the quilt around herself, pressing her hand to her wild heart.

Something, she knew, was wrong. Something, she knew, would have to give soon. She visited the familiar panic; was this what it felt like for her mother when her mother died? She toppled to her side, pulling her legs up into her chest while her eyes stayed wide open. Panic shivered through her.

Let it go, she told herself, sternly. Let the panic go again. It’s morning now.

She fought through irrationality to the obligations of one more day. She left the panic in her bed as she firmly pushed herself through a shower and breakfast, into office clothes and on her way out the door.

When Jeff first left her for the young Cassandra who was now his wife; when that had happened Vivian managed the split with grace, wit, and aplomb. Fiftyish husband with thinning hair, a pudge around his waist, a doctorate in engineering and a six-figure income at the university? Sure, he was still something of a catch and catch him the fair Cassie did. Vivian made her friends laugh at all the things “Cassie would learn”.

When the split had happened, Vivian allowed herself to finally acknowledge all the times in their marriage when Jeff was “not present” in the family. When; she knew but didn’t ask; when he had too many night meetings and random Saturdays at conferences that didn’t exist. Vivian had checked to make sure the proof matched her suspicions. And then, being Vivian, the “ask no questions” daughter of her “ask no questions” mom; then Vivian had soldiered on. Raise the kids. Drive them to their lessons, sports, and college interviews. Manage the work at the office. Buy the groceries, host the holidays. Stick with book club, weed the perennials. Take pets to the vet. Sooner or later Jeff always “returned home.” She knew he was back when sex took a half hour instead of 14 minutes. Things an old wife will know.

When he left her the last time, for Cassandra, his attention was gone for more than a year. When he finally told Vivian that he was leaving, she didn’t argue or cry. She looked at him and simply said, “I’m going to the store. I need milk for breakfast.” Then she went to the bank where she moved all the money from their name to her name and then she called an attorney. She was fine with settling the property and bank accounts fairly, later, but she didn’t wait around for Jeff to do or not do the right thing. She was still so proud of that. How she took good care of herself through the situation.

She didn’t love being a divorced woman. She didn’t love being no longer young, slender, or engagingly energetic. She was grateful to live modestly in a condo townhouse in a small city, but she knew her life was bland and quiet, over busy with obligation, empty of warmth. She was proud of how well she had managed but she wondered what would ever come her way again.

Then these damnable nightmares started. They erupted a few months after her mom passed away in the nursing home in the night. The staff had found Myra sideways in the bed, her hands clutched over her heart, her eyes big and staring at something that frightened her. Vivian probably shouldn’t have pressed to know these details, but it seemed the least she could do since she was not there to hold her hand, to murmur her lovingly into the light. It all sat so wrong in her.

Vivian thought she had managed that, too. She didn’t cry or fuss through that week. Then Jeff had turned up to the funeral, and the kids had come home for a few days and then went back to their lives elsewhere, and it felt, since then, as if everyone had died. She would wake not being able to breathe.

But, of course, she would get up and put one foot in front of the other. This was what her mother had taught her when she was little and she had all those stomachaches, and then asthma, and then dysmenorrhea when she became a teenager. Her mom taught her to get up in the morning, to do the next thing.

That had worked all these years. Until now.  Until these nightmares. She didn’t get enough sleep and so she was tired. She startled too easily.  During book club one of the newer members had been sarcastic because she didn’t have the book completely read. The others smoothed over the moment, because they knew it wasn’t like her. But now she was furious at that woman, and that was not like her either. She didn’t hold anger at people she barely knew. She didn’t hold grudges.

She was driving on Main Street to work when she saw them; two gray bulldogs standing in the middle of the street.  Traffic was slow in town; still, cars were slowing down to swerve around the marooned dogs.

Vivian’s heart pounded so hard she felt it against her rib cage. She pulled to the right, stopped the car, climbed out while glancing up and down the street. There was traffic. Not constant, but cars were coming and going.

“Here poochies! Here lil doggies. Come on, I’ll help you.”

The dogs looked up at her, their tongues lolling to the sides of their flat faces.

She felt the cool morning wind against her face. She heard the too-close swoosh of cars driving in the other lanes. She heard birds chittering in the trees; the labored breathing of the two lost dogs.

She tried to coax them with more baby talk. The dogs didn’t move.

“Not rocket scientists, are you, guys…?” The dogs panted.

“Okay, let’s see if we can do this better.”

Vivian patted their heads. They didn’t flinch.

She gently jammed her hands under their collars. They didn’t growl. She pulled, gently. They didn’t mind, but they didn’t move. She pulled harder as the car closest to her stopped to give her some room and time to rescue these not-bright canines.

She pulled, hard, and they walked with her. She pulled harder and got them up the curb onto the parkway. Waiting cars took off again. She was now bent over, hands stuck in the collars of two dumb dogs that were as lost this morning as she was.

“Well, guys, what do we do now?”

They panted. 

“Kind of like velvet-covered cement blocks, aren’t you?”

They panted some more.

She pulled them slowly to the front door of the closest house and then reached up to push the doorbell. The static of a TV went off.  In a longer space of time than she expected, the door opened to a very tall, very old man. As old as her mom, she thought.

“Um, Sir? I was just on my way to work when I saw these dogs in the middle of the street.  Do you by any chance know them?”

The man lifted his hand to scratch his head.

“I do. I don’t know the people, but I know what house I see them in the yard of, when I go for walks. I’ll go to that house and see if those people are there.”

He was gone a long time.

Vivian sat on the top step of his little stoop. Her thin polyester slacks were no match against the cold cement and she shivered. The dogs were warm where her hands were under their collars. They pulled a little, as if they wanted to go somewhere, but when she’d stand up, they’d just aim for the street again.

Finally a huge, silver SUV pulled up. An irritated woman climbed out and aimed towards the dogs.

“You stupid bitches. You pushed open the gate again, didn’t you…?”

Vivian was surprised at the pure, unapologetic meanness in the woman’s voice.

“These are your dogs, Ma’am?”

The woman glanced at her.

“Not really. They belong to my idiot daughter, but she moved out and left them with me. They’re so stupid.”

Vivian felt unfamiliar anger blooming red behind her eyes. “They’re dogs, Ma’am. They don’t have to be smart. Some dogs are, but it’s not required.”

The woman snorted, as if she had said something childish and stupid.

Heat twisted inside Vivian. She wasn’t cold any more. “This isn’t the first time they escaped?”

The women angrily popped the back latch of her SUV and commanded the dogs to hop in. The dogs were too short, too unused to the car to know what to do. The woman jerked on the collar of one of them.  The dog didn’t budge.

“The gate to my yard is bent. When they push on it, it makes enough room for them to squeeze through. I tried putting a board in front of it, but now they just knock that down.”

Vivian bit out. “They are probably looking for your daughter.”

The woman snorted again. “Fat lot of good that’s going to do them. She has a new boyfriend; she’ll be gone for months. Meantime, I’ve got these expensive stupid farters.”

Vivian stood, slowly, all the way up. She felt the curious presence of the old man who was standing behind her. Through her tiredness and anger and nightmares, or maybe because of them, fury twisted through her.

“Okay then, Ma’am. That’s enough. Leave them alone. I’m taking them before they wander again and end up killed because you can’t find it in yourself to care for them properly.”

The woman started to protest, raising her hand, as if she would yank or hit at something. “You can’t take them, they’re purebred…”

Vivian stepped closer, leaned in, and bit off her words. “I am taking them. I am sick and tired of careless bullies.  Maybe these dogs fart and maybe they aren’t too smart, but they are damn well smart enough to leave a place they aren’t wanted.”

And with that she hissed. Vivian actually hissed at the astounded woman.

“Hey, you can’t take my dogs!”

“Just watch me.” She jammed her hands under their collars again and this time they trotted beside her to her car. She opened the back door, which meant it was easy for them to step from the curb’s edge into the back seat. She reached over the front seat, grabbed her wallet, and pulled all the twenties she had from it, which weren’t many.

“Here. I’m buying them. What are their names?”

The woman sputtered as she grabbed the money. “Beyoncé and Taylor.”

Just figured.

“OK girls, we’ll get you your own names before the day is over.”

The old man looked at Vivian, looked at the woman who was backing towards her SUV. He pulled out his wallet and handed her a wad of what looked like singles. “I know where you live. If I ever see dogs in your yard again I’m calling the Humane Society.”

The woman jumped in her car and sped off.

Vivian looked at the man, looked at the dogs panting while sitting on the back seat of her car. Already she saw slobber marks.

He chuckled. “Now you know where I live. I’m hoping you stop by sometime and visit me with your new girls there.  My name is Ben.”

“Vivian. I’ll be back Saturday morning. We can walk them together.” She dug through her purse. “Here’s my work business card. You can call me there if this isn’t okay.”

Vivian called in sick, took the dogs to the vet, bought them chewable toys and washable beds. She bought bags and cans of cheap and expensive food, though she learned right away that what they adored best was scrambled eggs and toast. She named them Violet and Buttercup; because they were sweet and simple.

That very night, her nightmares eased. She still had them sometimes, but they were less intense. She’d wake, whimpering, frightened, and there, on the mattress next to her, were two smelly velvet faces breathing dog breath on her, their eyes sad and shining and filled with love.

Vivian didn’t know why rescuing two not very bright dogs from a bully took her around the edge. Something happened in her when she defended the deepest, truest, most vulnerable creatures she’d ever met. Violet and Buttercup were the first lovers of her life who would never leave nor betray her.  At fifty-eight, she laughed hard and began to find her power. Ben said that the best years of his life were his 60’s and early 70’s and she should catch herself a boyfriend. She laughed and said they were hard to come upon. Ben said to watch the middle of the street for woebegone, true-hearted strays; you never know how that might work out.



Loved it
Leonard's picture

You can trust a dog that knows how to trust an older girl.

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U is for Umbrella


Note to readers: I gravitate to writing in first person. This is fiction as much as any writer can say they invented what they know.

A-Z A Fine Romance .....


Len and I are about to take a trip that’s been in the works since January - you know I will post about it when we get back. Meantime, here’s a story I wrote long ago that I still like and think about a lot. I probably should post this at Valentine’s Day but, hey, we’re at the letter Q.


The Wisconsin Writers Association hosts a short story contest each year. This morning I submitted a story I wrote over the past few months. If and/or when it doesn't win (I'm not optimistic but I have hope. Thanks, Carly.) I will get around to posting it here.  

Meantime, this is the story i wrote for the WWA contest last year. It didn't win anything but reading it again just now for the first time in nearly a year, the beginning made me laugh. 

Maybe you will like it, too.  




Harriet Amaryllis


Harriet Amaryllis met John Blake in her twenties when she volunteered for a medical study; she did those kinds of things back then to make extra money. John, who was the intake guy at the clinic, looked at her name, looked up at her and said her name was the most beautiful name he had ever heard in his life.

She was so nonplussed that she stammered that her brothers called her Hairy.

John said, “Would you like me to clobber them out for you? I did a year in Vietnam. I have skills.”

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

The Pilgrimage of Wally, Diego, and Miles

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.

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