Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween Blooms

             It was an old cemetery. No one was ever there. The place sat forgotten on a tiny knob of a hill behind the Goodyear Tire store and Bob’s Big Boy. Lydia and Gary dared each other to leapfrog over the few headstones still standing. Some of the graves had sunk into the ground, the dirt appearing soft and disturbed over them. On a few of the older plots, the cousins found shiny handles and pieces of carved wood.

             They took one last look at each other before the jump. “Coffin maker, coffin taker, rise from the ground and let your spirit fly unbound,” they chanted, leaping across the grave on the last word. Their high-pitched laughter rode the wave of fear that one of them might land too short with a foot sinking into the soft, decayed earth. They had sworn to try to save each other, even if it meant that they, too, would be sucked into the bowels of the graveyard. There were a few close calls, but they survived.

            “Look! ” Gary pointed to a grave a few rows over. In the graying afternoon, and amidst the ruin around them, a dash of color stood out. They walked over to examine the bouquet of plastic flowers.  “They’re pretty.”
            Lydia lifted the bouquet from the shelter of the tombstone. “Yeah, real pretty.” The arrangement included flowers of all colors. A gold ribbon wound through it, giving it a valuable appearance. She looked around her. Dusty weeds sprouted on most of the graves. Further in, near a leafless tree, she saw another spot of color. “Over there!”
            A little dirty, the second bouquet was no less glorious. They squinted and scanned the cemetery, running from one end to the other when they spotted the flowers. One of the ribbons said In Remembrance, but that was okay. They ended up with four bouquets to take home to their mothers.
            On the walk home, they scavenged in the industrial dumpsters near the rail yard, but didn’t find anything interesting. “At least we got the flowers,” Gary said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Lydia looked away. His nose produced rivers of yellow snot. Year round.
            Lydia picked up her bouquets.  “It’s getting dark, we should head home.”  An Indian summer lingered well into October in Santa Fe, where it usually snowed for Halloween. Prospective ghouls, witches, vampires and werewolves knew they would not have to wear parkas over their costumes that night.  “I’m going as a gypsy.  Mama said I could wear make-up and earrings.” She looked at Gary to see if he was impressed.
            He hunched his bird-thin shoulders. “I have to use last year’s.” Gary was eight, and pale, and blond, and all the kids picked on him. Except for Lydia. Even she couldn’t resist sometimes. Today wasn’t one of those days.
            “Maybe we could make you look like a pirate,” she said.
            Gary lowered his head to the bouquets cradled in his arms as if he were sniffing them. “If Mama says it’s okay.”
            Their mothers, who were sisters, sat at the kitchen table smoking and drinking coffee. Lydia and Gary held the bouquets behind their backs, looked at each other, and then presented the plastic flowers.
            Lydia’s mom worked in a bar and had people skills. She handled the flowers gingerly, but smiled. Gary’s mother had conducted seances until the parish priest warned her not to. She turned red in the face and swept the bouquets off her lap as if they were on fire. She grabbed Gary’s thin arm, and shook him. “Where did you get these?” He turned frightened eyes to his cousin.
            “Lydia?” Her mother tried to look stern, forcing the corners of her mouth down in that way she did when she didn’t want to laugh.
            Gary’s mother squeezed his arm harder. Lydia could see her fingernails digging in. “You got these from the cemetery, didn’t you?”
            “Let them explain, Frances,” Lydia’s mom said. She and her sister stared into each other’s eyes. Frances loosened her grip on her son.
            “I thought you’d like them,” Lydia said. “They’re pretty.”
            “They’re from graves,” Frances said. “For dead people.”
            “Nobody was using them,” Lydia said. Her mother’s lips twitched again.
            “It’s a sin to steal from the dead,” Frances said. “They’ll come for them. They’ll pull your feet at night ”
            Gary and Lydia looked at each other, horrified. They hadn’t thought about this. The dead weren’t real. It was just pretend, all the stuff about the dead.
            “The dead,” Francis repeated, staring off into space, “the dead want what’s theirs.” She took a deep breath. “Take them back.”
            Lydia looked at her mom, who stared at her sister, deciding. “Take them back, honey. Run as fast as you can.” She reached for another cigarette.
            “It’s the thought that counts,” Lydia heard her mother say as the cousins ran out of the room.

            Lydia and Gary ran the eight blocks to the cemetery in growing darkness. They searched for the right graves, frightened and out of breath. Puffs of mist from their exhalations hovered like tiny ghosts in front of them.
            “Which graves?” Lydia asked, panicked. Gary’s teeth chattered, and his nose ran unheeded.
            In the far corner, near where they’d found the second bouquet, a man stepped away from the tree. One minute he wasn’t there, and then he was. Lydia and Gary had never seen another person at the cemetery. He wore a hat, and a long, flowing coat, and stared down at a crooked tombstone. He turned and glared in their direction. Then, he moved towards them, slow at first, and then taking giant steps. The cousins stood frozen. The man raised both arms in a pleading gesture, his hands opening and closing like pincers.
            Lydia flung her flowers at him. “Here!  Take them.” She ran in the opposite direction. Gary followed with his bouquets still tightly clutched to his chest. They ran hard, the chill night air burning their throats. Lydia looked over her shoulder a few times, but it was already dark. Somewhere along the way Gary had dropped his flowers.
            Their mothers said no more about the dead people’s flowers, and the cousins dressed for Halloween with shaking fingers. Trick-or-treating in their own neighborhood never yielded much, so Lydia’s mom took off work, and drove them across town to the new housing development.
            Built to house a new generation moving into Santa Fe, these homes had real sidewalks, attached garages, doorbells, and front yards bereft of broken glass. Flocks of neighborhood children scurried from door-to-door, while their parents, usually fathers, chatted at the curb. Lydia’s mom sat and smoked in the car. She’d roll forward as they worked the street, her progress occasionally blocked by the cars of other commuting trick-or-treaters.
            They returned to the car to exchange pillowcases brimming with candy for empty ones.  “That’s quite a haul.  Don’t you think you’ve got enough?” her mom asked the children’s retreating backs as they ran off to collect more treats.
            Halloween was not only great for all the free candy, but for the glimpse it gave of the inside of other people’s homes, of how they lived their lives. The people who answered the doors were young, and bursting with laughter. Sometimes they wore masks and costumes, and made ghoulish sounds to frighten trick-or-treaters. In one, several women sat on the laps of their boyfriends. At the next house, a man and a woman came to the door.
            “You don’t have a mask so you don’t get any candy,” the woman said to Lydia.
            “Of course, she can have candy,” the man said, and tried to grab the bowl from the woman. “See, her face is painted.”
            “No!”  The woman stamped her foot.  “You’re supposed to have a real costume. Not some cheap make-up ” They struggled with the bowl, and it spilled to the ground.
            “Look what you’ve done!”  The woman strode off, while the man scooped the candy up.
            Lydia's face burned beneath her Halloween makeup, but she held her head high, and grabbed Gary by the elbow, dragging him away.  “Let’s go!” 
            “Here,” the man said. He held handfuls of candy. Gary tried to return, but Lydia held onto him. “I’m sorry,” the man called after them.
            Lydia stomped down the pristine sidewalk. She marched forward, with Gary still in tow, neither looking to her left nor to her right. They passed several houses and reached the end of the block. These homes were still under construction, but one had its lights on. 
            She stopped and took a deep breath. “Last one?”  Gary shrugged.
            A tall man in a long coat opened the door. A hat shadowed his face. His hands dangled loosely at his sides. No light shone behind him, and no bowl brimming with candy was visible.
            “Trick-or-treat,” Gary chanted in his tinny voice, his eyes focused on his open bag.
            “Give you something good to eat?” the man said, his voice icky sweet. He smiled, revealing a mouthful of jagged, yellow teeth. He pointed at their bags with long, dirty fingernails. “But you have so much, already.”
            He leaned to his right inside his house. “An object of beauty, perhaps?” He held two plastic roses in his hand, and dropped one into Gary’s bag. Only then did her cousin look up. The man held the other rose out to Lydia, and recited, “A waxen rose upon the grave will not wither or decay.”
            He laughed, exhaling the damp smell of grave dirt into the children’s faces. His laughter hammered at their backs when the cousins ran down the sidewalk.
            “What is that man screaming about?” Lydia’s Mom asked as they tumbled into the car.
            “Go, Mom. Please go!”
            Lydia’s mom pulled away from the curb. “It sounded like he was saying the dead want something. Pretty spooky house, huh?”
            Lydia and Gary leaned into each other, holding hands, and said nothing. They could still hear the man’s laughter echoing inside the car. The sound of it followed them home, and seeped into their dreams along with his screams: the dead want what’s theirs.

This story has been reprinted several times in anthologies such as After Dark.
Happy Halloween!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Memories of Armando

Not Armando, but you get the idea


     My dog and I occasionally walk past The Coffee Bean. There’s usually a group of five or six older men laughing and talking together at a table outside.  One afternoon, when Joey was around two-years-old I tied him to a meter where I could see him when I went inside for a double Cappuccino.
     The line was long and he started barking when I didn’t immediately return. I saw one of the older men holding a paper cup of water for Joey to drink, then petting him. That’s how I met Armando, 85, who asked if he could hold him by the leash at the table with the other guys.
     “Sure, just hold him tight. He’ll pull if another dog shows up.”

     “I know dogs,” he said.

      Joey loved all the attention lavished on him and wagged his tail every time he saw his pal, Armando.
         Armando had moved to the U.S. from Brazil when he was fifteen. His family lived in Brooklyn and one-by-one they traveled west to Los Angeles. He continued to work as a plumber in Brooklyn and finally made the leap to L.A. sixty years ago. He met his wife here. They had three children, all of whom had children and who now live in the valley.

         “My wife died twenty years ago,” he said.

         “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Do you see your kids and grandkids?”

         “Yeah, they were fun when they were little but now they’re always looking down at their phones.”

         I smirked and shrugged my shoulders.

         “Can you take off your sunglasses?” he asked.

         “Sure, but then I won’t be able to see you. They’re prescription.”

         It was his turn to shrug his shoulders; only he did it with joy. “My vision is still 20/20.”

         His eyes were blue and his skin was mostly unwrinkled. He was tall and not bowed around the shoulders like many older people. He walked every day and always wore sandals and shorts. Deeply 
tanned, Armando had ingratiating good looks and appeared much younger than eighty-five. He also seemed very self-sufficient.

         Joey and I ran into him often over the years, and when we walked by The Coffee Bean I waved at the group. My path varied each day so catching sight of them was not a guarantee.  
         Months passed, it seemed, during which I didn’t see Armando or his group. They weren’t gathering anymore. Someone probably died, I thought. Maybe it was Armando. Maybe they all had died.

         Today I tied Joey to the meter and had just ordered my double Cappuccino when I noticed a man adding sugar to his coffee.

         “Armando! I've been thinking about you. Where’ve you been?” He was a bit thinner but still unbowed, tanned and his blue eyes sparkled.

         “I went to a casino with my wife,” he said. Although it was obvious he didn’t recognize me, he gave me a big smile. I pushed my sunglasses to the top of my head.

         “Your wife?” He’d been a widower for over two decades.

         “Yeah, she likes to gamble, but I don’t. The casino gave me a free cash credit of 10 bucks and I won $28, but I forgot my winnings at the table.” He laughed.

         “Did you get married again, Armando?”

         He looked momentarily puzzled but kept talking. “My wife had been playing for five hours straight when I decided I’d had enough of waiting around. So I went to the spa, got a massage, sat in the sauna. It was great!”

         “You did a role reversal,” I said. His expression indicated he didn’t understand what I meant. “The woman is usually the one who goes to the spa.”

         “Oh, okay. We had a great time,” he said, and then apropos of nothing added, “A lot of Asians were there. They’re really addicted to gambling.”

         “Uh-huh,” I said, and looked over my shoulder at my dog tied to his usual meter. He was nine now and sat patiently waiting for me. “Remember Joey?”

         “Oh, yeah,” he said and walked off, going outside and sitting at a table by himself.

         When Joey saw Armando exit, he stood and whipped his tail back and forth with enthusiasm. Armando didn’t acknowledge him. Joey’s wagging slowed, and he sat again, staring at his friend with a worry crease between his eyes.

         At his table, Armando smiled and nodded at no one in particular. I hoped he was thinking of his long ago visit to the casino and that in his memory he and his wife were winning big.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Joy: Pecan Pies and The Blond Skateboarder

Crazy week last week. Husband's had hand surgery the day before Thanksgiving. Dented my truck. Back aching. Lot full at Costco, Marina del Rey. Determined to get at least one of their giant pecan pies to dull my stress, I parked at a meter across the street and walked to the store. 

Bought two pecan pies. Thanksgiving would be great this year even if I was in charge. The sun slanted in from the west and a beach scented breeze caressed my arms at the crosswalk. A beautiful blond girl stood there, maybe 19, holding her skateboard under her arm. Her legs were long and strong, and she smiled toward the sun.

"Did you press the button," I asked.

"Yes," she said, smiling. "I got two pecan pies today, too."

"How did you find parking?"

"We couldn't so I skateboarded back and got them. Plus, a turkey."

I stared at her in amazement. A cool breeze wafted into my open mouth as I replayed the vision she’d just given me of me after I first moved to L.A., skating from the Santa Monica Pier to the Venice Pier or bicycling to my T.A. job in a Marina del Rey school.

I swallowed hard, and said, "I wish I'd been here with a camera to record you."

She laughed. The light changed in our favor and we crossed. "The turkey wasn't big," she said. "Happy Thanksgiving."

Sunday, July 01, 2018

How not to pitch your book at a book festival

            There were years when I attended the Los Angeles Festival of Books with the eager anticipation of an avid reader who likes nothing better than to stroll outdoors and wander into open-air bookstores. Readings by my favorite authors were also an attraction. I didn’t do much people watching.

            This year I dressed in period costume–a Hispana in 1840’s Santa Fe–and walked onto the USC campus armed with a pen to sign my first novel: The Sandoval Sisters.

            The response to my book was good and my venture a successful one, even though I’m a rube when it comes to marketing. This was a learning experience for me.  Predictably, there were a few missteps:

            At one signing in which I participated, several authors sat at tables with the covers of their books blown up on posters and prominently displayed alongside our books and bookmarks. Families, students, seniors, bookmark hoarders and lone crazy people streamed by our table. The families, students and seniors were self-evident. The crazies were harder to identify. Later on the latter.

            One author yelled out at a passerby, “Sir, sir, would you like a bookmark?” The man smiled cooperatively, came over, and she proceeded to pitch him. This author sold more books than anyone else at that venue. She also varied her pitch.  She explained that there was something for everyone in her book: mother, father, student, heavily medicated or in need of a diagnosis.  She had an uncanny ability to determine a potential reader’s area of interest and pitch her book in that direction. She made it sound easy.

            I didn’t feel comfortable yelling out to passersby, but fortunately at another signing, I was the only author present.  My poster of the book cover featuring the beautiful Sandoval sisters attracted plenty of people. My smiling face and period Southwestern garb–including holster–might have helped.

            Women bought my books­–the young and not so young–and I am most grateful to each of them. They asked good questions about the historical period and wanted to know what struggles the sisters had to deal with.  Many of them had never been to New Mexico and had only read period fiction featuring England or France.

            Men were not too interested in my story, even when I talked about the Texas Rangers. Most of them were mansplainers. The Urban Dictionary defines mansplain as, “To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening.”

            One gentleman in a suit and a bowtie asked for a two-sentence elevator pitch. After I gave it to him he replied that the book had the makings of a movie and asked what actresses I had in mind to play the Sandoval sisters. When I mentioned Salma Hayek he got angry and told me she was over the hill.  She has a production company and is reading the book.  He told me not to sell myself short, that Salma Hayek never did anything until she married some rich guy and that I should get a Jewish lawyer to represent me. Then he pounded his fist on my book and told me he could hire a drunk hack to pound out a similar book over a weekend.

            “I’m done here,” I said, and told him he probably needed to get to Church. That stopped his crazy motor for a second. “Church?” he yelled.  I gestured at his suit and bowtie. “Okay, well then the funeral you were going to.” He glared at me and stomped off.

         Later, an athletic-looking middle-aged woman with a masculine haircut, who might have been a women's PE teacher, was particularly enthused over a fictional account of a cross-dressing woman of the old west.  She wanted to buy the book on the cowboy/girl, but the only book for sale was The Sandoval Sisters, one of whom dressed like a man in 1840’s Santa Fe.  She married an older man with whom she had a happy marriage, but when widowed fell in love with her childhood best friend, Monique. This aspect of Pilar is not even a subplot, but part of the spectrum that has always colored not only the west, but Santa Fe. I thought this woman might be interested in this tidbit, but the bowtied gentlemen had knocked the wind out of my sails, and I failed to speak up.

            By the time another woman, also rather jockish, appeared interested in The Sandoval Sisters, I’d had time to pull myself together. She loved the historical detail on the U.S. Mexican War, and the empowered Sandoval sisters dealing with the influx of American soldiers into Santa Fe. She took the details of the arranged marriages for Alma and Pilar in stride, and had no trouble with Pilar wearing men’s clothes for her work with horses.

But when I mentioned her relationship with Monique­­, she snapped her shoulders back and looked disturbed verging on panicked.  She quickly fled.  I obviously need more practice in assessing reader preferences.

            The parents of a ninth grader came by and studied my book. Part of her homework assignment was to interview an author. I learned that history, any history, was not part of her curriculum, so we talked about Manifest Destiny and what that meant in conquering the West, and New Mexico, in particular. She asked good questions and enthused over the book saying she wanted to read it.

            Her parents stood on either side of her. I quoted a recent review in which a reader advised all parents to have their daughters “whether 15 or 65” read The Sandoval Sisters. I should have stopped there . . . or made a safe return to Manifest Destiny. Instead, I said to her parents, “There’s a bit of sex in the book.” Even that wasn’t so bad, but then I felt compelled to add, “But the good thing is that the sisters really enjoyed it.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Creepy Come Ons

Channeling my youth. Awakened thinking of this one:

My bff in hs, Claudette, invited me to visit her older sister who was living in Questa, NM. Her sister had one kid and was expecting another. We took a bus out to Questa which is in the sticks and beautiful country. A small town, lots of mountain scenery.

Her sister's husband was in the armed forces, I don't remember which one, and he'd been wounded. There was something about a plate in his head, but I didn't pay too much attention cause I'd just gotten my license before we left and Claudette's sister owned a '66 Mustang.

Wow, was she insane to let me take that car out on the open road or what? I drove the mountain roads with the pedal to the floor and with both of us squealing as only almost sixteen-year-olds can do. I wheeled around switchbacks skirting the edge until Claudette begged me to stop. Deer and bunnies spread the word to stay off the road.

The husband hadn't been home for a few days. On the bus ride to Questa Claudette shared tidbits she'd picked up about him; he drank and had psychological problems, what we'd term post traumatic stress disorder nowadays, but again adult stuff - not all that interesting.

The house was small and Claudette snored, so I slept on the couch. One night the husband was home. He took us out for burgers, but was mostly quiet during dinner.  In the middle of the night he crept into the living room where I slept. Literally folks, the man was on his hands and knees. I'm a light sleeper, and I'm also near-sighted, but the blurred vision of his stealth crawl is vivid in memory.

He crawled over to the couch and started touching me on top of the blanket, kind of petting me like I was a cat or something. I was totally freaked and pretended to be asleep. He reeked of liquor and mumbled some b.s. I could barely understand telling me I was beautiful and that he wouldn't hurt me. My heart beat so hard it filled my ears and drowned out all other sound.

I've always wondered if my heartsound woke up Claudette's sister. She tiptoed into the living room, but stepped on a squeaky floorboard as she rounded the corner. Busted! He immediately laid down on the floor like he was passed out. She went over to him whispering, and he acted like he didn't know how he got there and that he'd fainted. I was still pretending to be asleep.

I could barely look at them the next day and remember nothing more about our stay there.

Shite like that was always happening to me. For a long time I thought I must have some sort of electromagnetic draw for all the adult creeps in the world.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

People Are Strange

My thoughts are on strangers: a Venetian beauty with the stunned expression Venus should have had when she emerged naked and fully grown from the clamshell; the everyday strangers in one's own family; and my favorite song about being strange.

The Birth of Venus, Botticelli, 1482

My mother enjoyed talking to odd strangers (The Tattoo Lady, Mother and Me) because she could be wacky with them; this embarrassed me to the extreme since I was cultivating a shadow presence. In my inbred and criminal-laden school district, I learned to keep my eyes straight ahead and not speak lest I be accused of giving someone the wrong look of the day. Survival is it's own reward, as is blogging about childhood tortures. Besides, now I’m more like Mom.

In Venice, I stood in a long line for gelato in the Piazza San Marco, and kept my eyes on the server, a young woman whose beauty was dulled by a stunned expression, as if the repeated impact of nothing happening had made her deaf, blind and mute. I wanted to see her smile; an open-mouth laugh would have been a special Venetian treat.

The line moved forward and one tourist after another, and not just Americans, approached her and pointed at the flavor they wanted, sometimes grunting at the same time. I looked behind me; the line stretched into the middle of St. Mark’s Square. Turning back to my creamy gelato lovely it seemed as if her Botticelli eyes barely registered her surroundings.

It was my turn. I smiled and asked her in the Italian that I'd just learned while in the queue to pronounce cioccolata for me. We laughed at my attempts and her smile was enough to make me her slave. I thanked her for serving me, but I’d only taken a few steps away when I glanced back for one last look at a real Botticelli babe. Her robotic expression had returned.

Every encounter is a chance for interaction. Not everyone is open to it, but sharing a laugh with a stranger creates a connection with the world that makes me feel significant, almost like I’ve performed magic, kind of the opposite of Morrison's song.

People are strange when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly when you're alone
People seem wicked when you're unwanted Streets are uneven when you're down
When you're strange, faces come out of the rain When you're strange, no one remembers your name
When you're strange when you're strange when you're str-ange

Jim Morrison
The Doors

Saturday, April 14, 2018


 Is it really possible to forgive and forget?

The Tree of Forgiveness
Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1885

Greek legends tell how Phyllis, queen of Thrace, fell in love with Demophoön, king of Melos, who visits her court en route for Athens after the Trojan War, where he had hidden inside the legendary Trojan Horse. He left the court, but when he failed to keep his promise to return within a month, she committed suicide, whereupon Athena, taking pity on her, turned her into an almond tree. Eventually, Demophoön returned to Thrace and, discovering what had happened, embraced the tree, which immediately burst into blossom.

Between you, me, and the almond tree, in the painting above, Demophoön looks as if he doesn't expect to be forgiven.

Memory is very important to me, but I've learned not to hold grudges. Grudges are all about keeping your pain, fear and anger alive. By doing this, you allow the grudge to control you. Your memory is not just a recollection, it's a reenactment. It initializes all your emotions just as if it were happening again, a recording in constant rotation shooting you back in time. In reality there is no time jump, but you are stuck in time.

Forgiving means that the memory no longer has the power to control you, to make you suffer in quite the same way. The blade of memory may make you wince, but you no longer bleed so profusely. You've taken the pain and anger and sorrow into you, but you've released the vilest portion of it, the part that made you feel less than, lowly, vulnerable.

©s. obriant

A lot of bad people did bad things around me and to me and to people I loved when I was a kid, so how did I manage to survive, much less forgive? Forgiveness wasn't this huge benediction bestowed on the evildoers in my life. It was the sure knowledge that I wasn't like those people and didn't want to be like them. This gave me hope.

Lack of forgiveness, grudges, and revenge arise from a lack of hope, a core belief that nothing changes. Change is my mantra.

I never forget, but I have discovered the capacity to forgive by letting go of my fear. Fear makes me sad and my childhood was overlain with fear and sadness which in my teens I camouflaged with anger. Fiery anger can be tinged with righteous purity, masking any true knowledge.

My camouflage worked so well that it took me years to realize that I was still letting fear rule me. Drat! I still had to deal with those memories and how stuck I was in the past. Writing helped me ferret out many of those emotions, examine them in detail, endow my characters with all the depth and nuance of being simultaneously good and bad.

This happened when I had a solid sense of who I am, and knew that the essential Sandra would persevere. The joy I feel in the world starts inside of me and radiates out.

I'm not a Pollyanna, a foolishly optimistic nutcase. I have felt both despair and hope. The memories of both states are not just in my brain. The feelings they generated are buried deep within the muscle tissue, sinews, veins and capillaries of my body. I can activate them. I know where they live.