Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Cottage by Salty Brook

A Short Story
by CJ Heck
The dusty lane was very narrow. Little snippets of grass peeked through here and there between the deep ruts where I walked. I didn't really care where the lane was going. I had already decided to follow wherever it took me. So, the lane and I continued along together, snaking through the lofty fragrant pines until it eventually narrowed and hugged a little brook that gurgled and sang such lovely songs. 

Lost in my thoughts, the dewy morning was only a memory by the time I noticed how the sun now warmed my shoulders from high above the trees. As I rounded a small turn, the lane suddenly widened into a clearing. There I saw a small wooden hand-lettered sign tacked to a post just above a black metal mailbox which read: The Cottage by Salty Brook. A little further down, the lane stopped altogether, dead-ending in front of a small cottage nestled in among even more stately pines. 

The cabin looked tired, like a trusted old friend basking in the sun of his golden years. It had certainly seen better days, however, it also had an unmistakable "cared for" look. The weathered boards were now a faded grey and the curtains at the windows were yellowed and worn. On the wide front porch, two small boys sat playing and I slowed my walk to return their friendly waves. 

The yard was square and wide, spreading all the way to the woods on either side and then around and behind the little house. The grass was sparse, but what was there was well taken care of.  There were toys casually strewn about the yard, and two red bicycles were parked as if patiently waiting for their young riders to return. 

I almost missed the little girl as my eyes first swept the yard. She was sitting under a gnarled and ancient apple tree, with a homemade rag doll in her lap, humming softly to herself. A fragile child, she had the biggest blue eyes and her delicate face was framed in beautiful golden ringlets. She looked to be about five. 

When she spotted me standing there, she put down her doll and ran over to me. At first she seemed shy, peeking up at me with those big blue eyes, and toeing the ground with a sandaled shoe. Then suddenly, she spoke in a rapid succession of questions and statements, which were all strung together, almost as one long one. She asked, how did I get there, where I was going, and where have I been. Then she told me all about her family and finally, she asked me what my name was. I couldn't help but laugh. This adorable little waif had immediately stolen my heart with her gentle innocence. 

I don’t know how long we sat there talking in the shade of that gnarly apple tree sitting cross-legged, indian-style, on the grass. After a while, I simply noticed that our large and small shadows had gradually lengthened at our sides. One by one, I answered all of her questions. I told her my name and, in turn, she shared hers and the names of six siblings. She told me they didn’t go to the school in town. Their mama taught them at home. Then she told me all about their trips into town, again stringing all of her words together just like the pearls on a necklace. 

“The other kids in town all laugh and point at us. They say we’re shabby and poor, but mama says it’s okay. She says we should treat others the same as we would like them to treat us, and she says those kids just don’t know any better, so we shouldn't blame them. When I asked Papa if we were poor, he said no, we weren’t poor. He told me we're very rich in the things that really matter. We just don’t have a whole lot of money.” 

Her mom and dad then came to the patched screen door on the wide front porch. “It’s time for supper,” her mother called. With a wave to me, my little friend got up and headed toward the front steps. One by one the others all came, and as they stepped through the doorway, each child gave their mama a kiss as they passed by her. 

The mother called out and asked if I would like to come in and join them for supper, “There’s always room for more,” and when I entered the clean and tidy cabin, I saw that she had already set a place for me at the long wooden table. 

The moon was peeking through the clouds and all of the shadows by the gurgling brook were gone when I finally left the Cottage by Salty Brook. There was a new coolness to the pine-scented air, but I wrapped their love around me like a cloak and wore it home. 

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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Fall of Life

Life is what we make it ... 

A Short Story
by CJ Heck 

Anna was signing a birthday card for her oldest daughter at the kitchen table and enjoying a late morning cup of coffee. 

The card was lovely with a beautiful verse. She had spent a lot of time in the card store yesterday, crying over the sad ones, laughing at the silly ones, until she finally found the right one, the card that captured her sentiments exactly. 

This was truly the perfect card, all about motherly love, and the pride she felt in the woman and mother Chelsea had become. Then something suddenly occurred to her -- Chelsea was turning thirty-eight.

Then a thought caught Anna by surprise, like a sucker-punch -- not that Chelsea would be thirty-eight. No. It was more than that. Anna was exactly twenty years older than her daughter, which meant that Anna would be fifty-eight this year. 

I'm now in the fall of my life, Anna thought … how the hell did I get here so quickly? Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was young and crouched at life's starting gate, waiting for the race to begin, with all of my plans and my hopes and dreams stretched out before me? 

Wasn't it just yesterday that we were awaiting the arrival of our first-born, Chelsea? Anna's thoughts turned melancholy and they reached back, just for a while.

As a child, she remembered looking up at her grandparents and feeling such awe. These were her daddy's parents. Back then, she had thought they must be as old as the trees. Their hair was snow white and they always came with bottles of pills, which they lined up in a long row on the kitchen counter top.  

Being so old, she had thought, they were probably very wise, too, so she always listened closely to what Grampa shared. He told her stories about what it was like when he was a little boy and there were more horses on the streets than there were cars. He said they didn't have TV's back then. 

They read books and played games at the kitchen table when it rained, and when it was sunny, they played fun outside games, or climbed trees, or went swimming in the pond. She remembered the wonderful way grampa explained things so she could almost see everything he was describing, just through his words.

Yes, Anna thought, they were old, but I adored them and I saw them through eyes full of love. I loved hearing all the stories about when they were young. I remember going for ice cream cones at the dairy store with them, and hearing grandma hum while she baked pies -- and grampa puffing on his curved pipe that smelled so pungent and good. 

Then another sobering thought hit Anna. I am now older than these wonderful grandparents were when they passed away.  Oh, how I miss them, and suddenly she realized something. She wanted to be just like them.

Time moves so quickly. No, not in our youth. Then, time only gently pushes us forward towards the finish line and we hardly notice time at all. Then, slowly at first, then faster, life grows full and gets busy and things change. Where time used to stop us in our tracks, we suddenly learn just how fast it really goes -- like the thirty-eighth birthday of a child.  

Here in the fall of my life, time has simply caught me off guard. I have a few regrets, Anna thought. There are things I wish I hadn’t done, things I should have done, and things I wish I had done differently. But there are the many wonderful things that I’m happy to have done and glad that I had the chance to do.

Anna took another sip of her coffee, which had turned ice cold in her cup. I don’t know how long my fall will last, and I certainly have no promises that I will ever see winter, but I do know I've enjoyed a full life ... and damn it, it’s not over yet! 

I’m going to treat every day from now on with renewed appreciation. There are things I still want to accomplish, dreams that can still come true and children and grandchildren to hug and tell my stories to, and I'm fortunate to have a wonderful husband in my life to share it all with.

Anna remembered something her mother used to say, "Life is a gift, baby girl. How we live it is our gift to ourselves." Now that saying makes perfect sense, she thought, with a silent thank you to her mother. 

She decided to pour another cup of coffee, call her daughter, and then start opening more of her gift ... 

(from the book, "Bits and Pieces")

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Return

A Short Story
by CJ Heck

It had been years since Gillian had been down to the Keys. She had made a fateful decision twenty years ago, right here in the Keys. It was a decision that would change her life forever. But, until now, she had been unable to gather the courage to face the Keys again, or the mystical time she had spent here. With a sigh of regret, she thought, and I also didn't have the courage to face him again. 

Not so, the memories. Those she always carried with her, treasured and fiercely guarded, and she would hold onto them forever. The decision she had made those many years ago turned out to be the wrong one -- it had only taken her a few hours to see that, but by then, it was already too late. Coming here, she knew this day would be even more difficult to face, but now it was time. 

It really was beautiful here. There was so much about the Keys she had missed. Gillian was surprised and yet glad that the weathered building still stood; however, the once brightly painted facade was now only a faded patchwork of condemned signs and crumbling plaster. Its boarded windows were long past feeling the warmth of the sun. She felt such a clash of emotions, finally standing here after all of these years and remembering. Only by steeling her heart with a deep breath, was she able to climb the steps to the wide veranda, open the door and step inside. 

The once magnificent foyer brought another flood of memories and her breath caught in her throat, surprising Gillian. She could almost hear the soft music coming from the ballroom to the right, where they had danced until three in the morning. The now rickety stairs that flowed up from either side of the foyer were higher than she remembered. Now the trip up was almost as difficult as the trip back, in time. 

In ruins thick with dust, and thicker still with memories, she felt her past and present collide. Gillian sat down hard on the top step and allowed her tears their freedom. The pain and sorrow flowed for what might have been, and she watched as each cleansing tear dropped on the aged and dirty floorboards. It had been right to return. Here, in this place, she could allow herself to remember and grieve and the healing could finally begin. 

Gillian's memories enveloped her, one right after another. Barefoot and holding hands, their dreams had been exciting and brand new. They had walked down these same steps and then across the street to the water’s edge. She remembered looking down at their clasped hands. She couldn’t tell where her fingers stopped and Michael's began and how wonderful that felt. With their pants rolled up mid-calf, they had flirted with the waves and gathered baby sand dollars and stored them in their shoes. Gillian smiled, thinking about how he wrote her name in the sand with his big toe and they had laughed until they cried -- and how the vivid colors of the sunset had blended the blue-green water right into the sky as they watched, cuddled up together on the wooden glider on the beach. When the sun had finally set, they packed up their things, gathered their sand dollar shoes and left the beach. 

We were so happy, Gillian thought. We talked about him, and me, and we whispered of us. And after making love, we would lay basking in the afterglow with my head resting in the cradle of his shoulder. Her heart ached as she thought about that last night together. She realized that she had never felt such joy and sweet abandon before, or since. 

They never spoke of anything that might get in the way or, if something did, how they would push it aside -- actually, to be fair, they never gave a thought to an end at all. They had even assumed her abusive marriage was finally over. After all, she had left Theo for Michael. She had called and told him so. Dear, dear Michael, so kind and good, an honest man who knew how to treat a lady, always with love and respect -- abuse wasn't even a word that Michael knew. A gentle caring lover, Michael had known how to both give, and receive love. What they had was tender and beautiful and how she had loved him! 

Then it happened. Theo played his trump card. Weeks after she had left him, he arrived unannounced on Michael's front porch when they returned from the Keys. He reminded her they were married and he wanted her back. Of course, he had appealed directly to her highly-developed sense of right and wrong -- he had been a master at pouring on guilt for even the smallest infraction. In his words, Gillian had been adulterous and Theo would be magnanimous. He would forgive her. He promised things would be different and he told her she owed him another chance. And, against everything her heart was screaming, she had made her decision. 

With a sigh, Gillian realized it had been right to return to the Keys. It was time now to face the past. How she wished she had called and told Michael she had made a mistake, but there are some things that once done, can never be undone, and now it was truly too late. Michael had begged her to stay, and he told her Theo would never change. She had hurt Michael beyond words -- she had hurt them both -- and there wasn't a day that went by that she didn't regret her decision. 

Getting through the funeral today would be the most difficult and painful experience of her life -- but she had to be here. After all, it was her Michael. Sadly, she thought, some days are diamonds, some days are dust, and some days, well, some days can never be anything but both ... and Michael, I never go barefoot without thinking of you. 

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Valentine for an Old Love

Flash Fiction
by CJ Heck

Katie blew the dust off the old size six shoebox that was tied with an ivory ribbon. She had carefully tucked the shoebox in a camel-back steamer trunk in the attic and there it had been resting for years -- until today, the same as every Valentine's Day, for the last fifty years. Inside the box was one of her most cherished possessions, a valentine that was never sent.

The love it represented flourished a long time ago, nearly a lifetime now, Katie thought, but it was still as fresh in her mind today as the scent of the roses he brought her every Wednesday, just because Wednesday was the day that they first met.

A deep sigh escaped her as she allowed herself this special time to remember. They had been so very much in love -- so many miles and years now were between them. The youthful he and she had long since moved on, each taking a different path through life, but so many times Katie felt regret for what might have been, had she only been free. It was like the words of a song she had once heard, it was sad to belong to someone else when the right one came along.

The pain of loss was still fresh in her heart and she knew it always would be. I’ll always love you, she thought. I’ll always care. A love like that is almost never found at all. You're forever here in my heart and one more time I wonder ... what might have been, had I put a stamp on this Valentine and dropped it into the box.

Katie brushed away a tear. Then she kissed the valentine and sent out the familiar wish from her heart to his: “For what we had, I wish you love.” Then, replacing the valentine in its size six cardboard home, she retied the ivory ribbon and tucked it carefully back into the steamer trunk to rest for another year.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Short-Short Story: Mr. Beggar Man

Mr. Beggar Man

by CJ Heck

Mr. Beggar Man, you were such a gentle soul.  

Each day, you were dressed exactly the same -- a stained red plaid shirt, brown felt hat speckled with bird poop, and saggy-baggy pants that stopped just above two heelless shoes with holes that were see-through to feet with no socks.

So many mornings I walked by your corner, sometimes
putting money in your cup, if only to borrow one of your smiles when I had none left of my own. 

Somehow, I always knew that the smile you gave me would be the one that found those I had only misplaced for a while.

Countless times we shared a lunch together, as you did with so many others.  Sometimes, brought you hot soup and coffee from the deli across the street.  Other times, you shared half of my tuna sandwich from home.  

You, in return, shared your wooden pallet to sit on, but never once a conversation. And all the while, you never missed a beat as you continued to pass out your glorious smile to everyone who glanced your way as they hurried by.

I've often wondered, what happened in your life to make you take up residence on that corner -- only to die cold and alone?  

I'm saddened to know the smiles you apportioned to countless others were your only living legacy.

I wish I could somehow tell you, you are missed by many, even the shopkeepers who so often shooed you away.  I hope you knew what your smile meant to me ... and I regret I never even knew your name.

[from the book, "Bits and Pieces of a Writer's Soul"]

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"A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write." ~CJ Heck

Monday, May 16, 2011

Men and Boys

A Short-Short Story
by CJ Heck

The moments are rare, but when the mower is silent and the hammer and nails have joined the drill and other tools in the garage,  my eyes can get hell bent on persuading the rest of me that they don't see a man enjoying his later years, but the child the man once was.  It's a brief insight, mind you, but when I'm allowed to see,  it's a treasured glimpse into a life that I wasn't privy to share.  

Today, out on the front lawn, I saw a young boy, a precocious child of perhaps six.  His hair was tousled, and he was both barefoot and shirtless, tying rags to the tail of a kite.  Then, he was running with the wind, a huge grin plastered across his face, with delight oozing from every pore.  Then just as quickly, the vision was gone again and I was left staring in awe at an aging giant, a grown man, who was at home in his own skin, and merely flying a kite with a happy grandson. 

I love how these seemingly magic moments seem to get flash-frozen and locked away by an efficient mind to suspend like fruit in a gelatin salad.  There, they wait patiently until I have the need and the time to revisit them, as I so often do.  I find it astonishing how easily my senses can pick the lock and, once freed, how quickly those same moments are breathed back to life -- at least for a little while.   Once they are, sometimes I cry, sometimes I smile, sometimes, I only sigh, but it's okay.  Memories seek their validation and I must give them that.  Only then can they diminish to a size where I can put them back inside and go on with life.

Today, once more, I was reminded that
 there really is no difference between a man and a boy, only the price of his toys ... and for me, a new memory was flash-frozen, locked away and waiting.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Short Story: "A Penny for His Thoughts"

Mocha Java Swirl Espresso

by CJ Heck

Libby sat scowling into her medium extra sugar, extra cream, Mocha Java Swirl Espresso.

The small round table wobbled with an audible racket as she shifted the hot paper cup from her left hand to her right, and then back again.

Oh, what I wouldn't give for a folded piece of cardboard to shove under that stupid table leg for stability -- and some blessed silence! She thought to herself, her attitude nearly as steaming as the coffee was.

Libby had to admit, she had never been any good at reading Richard's silences. She tried to remember how long it had been since she and Richard had talked to each other about anything, other than when the dry cleaning should be picked up, or whether the trash cans had been put out by the curb on Tuesday mornings. 

She sighed. Sometimes, what's not said says way more than what is.  She almost didn’t want to know what was behind the silence.

There was a time when she would have just asked, "Hun, what's wrong? Is there something we need to talk about?" But not anymore. The silence had gone on too long now. Besides, there were times when she did politely ask, "Something bothering you, Richard?"

But he always answered the same way, "Nothing, Elizabeth.  Nothing at all."

Maybe she should just leave well-enough alone. Truth was, she was afraid to ask him the exact words, "What is wrong?" now. They weren't married, only living together, and had been for five years. Whatever was wrong would probably hurt and not be something she wanted to hear. Then again, she thought, maybe it's something I need to hear.

Libby's imagination was turning somersaults as she tried to imagine how the conversation might go:

First, I would smile and ask, "Richard? How about a penny for your thoughts?"

He would then say, "Elizabeth? Let's not play games. Would you like to tell me where you're going with this?"

Then, I would say, "Well, you walk around in silence these days, Richard. You never talk to me anymore. Tell me what's going on in your mind ... and in your life, while you're at it."

Then Richard would get haughty. "Elizabeth, you're being ridiculous. Let's stop all of this foolishness, shall we?  You must have things to do.  What time is dinner?"

Then, naturally, I would try again, "Talk to me, Richard ... you know, a penny for your thoughts. Would five or six cents get me the truth and maybe spare my feelings? Richard, come on, play along. How about two nickels then, that's ten cents? Would that sweeten the pot? Or maybe three dimes for two or three honest thoughts -- tell me what you are thinking right now, this very minute."

Of course, Richard doesn't like it when I use sarcasm, so he would probably get angry at this point, Libby thought. "Oh for God's sake, Elizabeth, stop it! I don't know what's gotten into you today! That is enough!  You don't want to push me! You may not like what I'll say. Do not push me with this game of yours, Elizabeth."

If that is truly what he would say, I still wouldn't be able to stop myself, "Okay, Richard, two quarters then. I DO want to know. Will that buy me your thoughts? Wait, I’ll even up it to a dollar for one clear, loving thought. That’s all I want … it’s all I need, but it has to be the truth, Richard. I need to know the truth. What is going on in that head of yours? Do you still love me, Richard?"

Libby slammed back to reality when the hot, medium, extra sugar, extra cream, Mocha Java Swirl Espresso suddenly belched all over her hands, the wobbly, noisy table, her lap, and the floor. She hadn't even realized she was doing it, but during the brief interlude into her imagination, she had squeezed her paper cup hard out of rage and pent up frustration.

As Libby helped the waitress clean up the mess, she couldn't help thinking, "I would never tell him this now, but he could have had me and everything I own forever if, just once, he had talked to me, lovingly talked to me ...

(from the book, "Bits and Pieces from a Writer's Soul", by CJ Heck)

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"A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write." ~CJ Heck

Monday, May 9, 2011

When It's Over

A Short Story

by CJ Heck

Sydney was stunned, as she swiped at an errant tear with her tissue. She had just left the courthouse and was walking down the twelve stone steps to the street to hail a cab. She always heard divorce brought mixed feelings, but she never figured that her feeling of choice would be sadness -- God knows, the marriage had been dying for years. Still, the sadness puzzled her. She had always thought her own main emotion would be one of elation, once the judge signed the decree that stated she was finally free.

As she got in the taxi, Sydney gave the driver her new address and shut the door. It's all so odd, she thought. You meet someone, you fall in love, and with all of the best intentions, you believe it will last forever. Over time, things happen. You never even see it coming. You both get busy, tired, and things just seem to get in the way. The world and everything in it pushes and pulls and then, with no warning at all, it eventually plants itself right in between you. Without ever realizing that it's happening, at some point along the way you both change and suddenly it's over. You're merely shadows of who you were, and avoiding each other because of who you've become -- two total strangers sharing the same house.

You don't really know how you know it's over, but you do, she thought. For her, it came slowly, the awareness. With the certainty and final resignation of a child learning there's no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, she just knew.

The breakfast table, once a venue for long dreamy stares and coffee-flavored kisses, had awkwardly become a wordless stage for reading the paper and eating breakfast. One morning she suddenly realized that the ticking clock on the wall and the crackling of the sports pages were the only sounds left between them.

Wiping a fresh tear away with the back of her hand, Sydney recalled the smell of his shirt when she used to bury her face there. She could remember the touch of his hands on her body, as if they had a life of their own. With a sigh, she realized that both had silently slipped to a place wherever memories go to gather dust. There, they'll lie dead and forgotten among all the shards of boredom and what used to be.

How she would miss the nights, and the love they had shared -- at least for awhile. Sydney remembered all too well their perfect fit, how his body and hers breathed and moved as one. I don't know, she thought, maybe it was those nights and the way they used to be that finally gave the knowing life, but she just knew. And, in the knowing, she finally realized -- it was over.

Like the ocean tides on her favorite beach, love had slowly receded with all of the other yesterdays and she wished she could trade all of her tomorrows to have it back, but at least now she finally understood why she was sad. She grieved for the death of love. It truly was over.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mother's Day 2011

With Mother's Day almost here, I was thinking about Mama this morning. It's hard to believe she's been gone for twenty years -- there's an oil painting of her done by my great-grandfather and it's hanging on the wall at the bottom of my stairs. I can see it from my couch in the living room, and I often talk to her. Today, I was remembering.

Mother's Day at our house was always special.  It was something we kids looked forward to all year long. Mama (and Daddy) got breakfast in bed. It was concocted by all six of us together, using our age-appropriate contributions and skills, sometimes with a mess, but always with love and appreciation for what Mama meant to us all.

This year, I feel especially proud with Mother's Day almost here. Robert's mother was one of my mother's best friends way, way back, and she's very special to me -- it's almost like having Mama here again.  I'm going to talk with Robert about an idea I have.  This year, maybe we could make her breakfast in bed ...

In memory of Joanne Parrish:  I love you, Mama

Breakfast in Bed
by CJ Heck

Wake up, Mom and Daddy.
We’ve got a BIG surprise.
Me and Sissy made you breakfast.
Please, open up your eyes.

Here’s the paper from the porch,
just in case you want to read.
Please wake up and put your glasses on
so you guys can see.

There’s cereal with milk on it
and toast with butter, too ...
Sissy scraped the black stuff off.
We made this ALL for you.

We didn’t make the coffee,
but, Mommy, that’s okay
‘cause me and Sissy found some
in the pot from yesterday.

Our eggs look kind of funny,
not like the ones you make.
Ours are way too slickery.
They keep sliding off the plate.

We’re sorry there’s no muffin,
but there weren’t any more.
Well... the one that WAS left over
got smushed on the kitchen floor.

There used to be a donut,
it was right there on the plate.
Me and Sissy got real hungry,
but it’s the ONLY thing we ate.

When it comes to making breakfast,
there's a lot of work to do,
but we made it just to show you
Mom and Daddy, we love you.

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