Just sharing a short story that was recently passed over in a writing contest. Writing is cathartic for me. I hope you don’t mind me sharing my rejections with you.
A short story by Kim Cline 2018
“I wanted you to know,” Rowan tentatively confided in me. I patiently wait for my brother to gather his thoughts even though my head is splitting and I am feeling fidgety. Rowan continued, “When I got the call that dad had been found and I needed to come identify his body, I went back over some of the papers that he had sent me last year when he was in and out of the state hospital. You remember Dad had appointed me Executor of his Will— I mean, out of the blue! None of us guys have heard from or seen him in what…20 years? And why he picked me instead of Kevin, I don’t know. It just seemed so random, but he had some very specific requests concerning you and the rest of the family.”
We’re a family now? My curiosity is piqued, so I shut off my thoughts and nod vigorously to give my brother the full attention that the conversation warrants. Rowan is taking his time as usual and he looks tired as usual: dark circles under his baby blue eyes, a crease or two in his forehead, and a nervous tapping of his shoe under the café table because he is drinking too much coffee. Perhaps our hesitation to freely confer over the passing of our dad is due to the realization that we are de facto adults —all parental influence is removed and we keenly sense that we are abandoned siblings, forced to huddle together and whisper our plans to survive in this cruel world.
My thoughts are digressing with this weather. It is rainy, dreary cold, and I am feeling anti-social on this particular day; yet Rowan and I always blend. I didn’t know what ok would be like. The cupcakes are lush, but the painted, glittered, pink ponies on the walls are doing nothing to elevate my terrible mood. Even spotting the graffiti piece on the side of the train, which is blasting past the café window, cannot appease my dark introspection. The train is on the other side of the street, but it might as well be running over the top of my head. It will not stop here. The town is not worth stopping for. Someone had complained once about the danger of trains, dogs, kids, and cars, all moving around the town at the same time, so it slowed slightly. Pebbles are scattering and pinging against nearby cars, while occasional sparks spray from the wheels, as this rocketous, head-pounder passes.
Sitting in this piggy pink room with black candelabras dotting the tables seems out of place for us. “Who puts black candelabras on a tiny, pink, round table?” Rowan looks up, “Sis, you can put out whatever you want. Most places prefer to put out flowers, but even those can be misconstrued.” Everything is glaring so much that my eyes ache. I swallow two aspirins with hot coffee and notice the spinning pink napkins on the table, which somehow reminds me that I had seen a squashed frog on the floor by the register when we first came in. When you have done all and seen all, ok is not perfect; it is just OK.
So the business of how to bury a phantom father is before us. My brother warms his hands clasping his “to-go” coffee cup. The sides of the cup are painted with glittered ponies jump-hopping in a circle around a little, white bunny sitting blissfully in their midst. My head is still throbbing and I look away from the moving horses. Are they really moving or is that just the headache talking? I blurt out a little too loudly, “Is it eternally Easter here? Dear feather!” Obviously the aspirin is not working yet. Rowan laughs for the first time since we have gotten back together. “Sis, I bring my daughter here for afternoon tea. She loves this place and it is the only coffee and tea place that I could think of that had cupcakes, as per your order over the phone last night.” I piped up. “Oh! Yeah. Thanks for listening to me about the cupcakes. However, there are other coffee places that have a subdued ambience- less pink -but I know you don’t normally drink coffee so this makes sense.”
We muse briefly in a lighter moment of silence until my curiosity prompts the question, “What are some of dad’s requests for me?” Rowan looks at me with his eyes still sparkling from laughter while small pieces of glitter cling to the sides of his face where his fingers accidently rubbed the “art” off his cup. He rubs his face again, “Dad wanted you to have his magic trunk. I know that probably seems like a weird request since he has not done a magic show in over 20 years, but his wish was in the paperwork and I wanted to honor that—for you, not for him.” I breathe deeply and direct my thoughts into the dark, cooling liquid in my cup.
I remember that magic trunk being the topic of many conversations between my brothers and sisters. Mom never mentioned the trunk, but she never stopped us from discussing it or wondering if dad would ever make something out of his life in pursuit of his magic ambitions. It was a huge steamer trunk with odds and ends of magic related items that turned into flowers, sparked, quacked, blew out confetti, or were used to saw someone in half. When he was home, which was rare, the trunk was dragged into the house and placed in his office where it was covered with a dark tarp. We were sternly warned to keep out of his office and to leave his trunk alone. Of course, being the curious kids that we were, we would sneak into the office and take turns rummaging through the trunk, spewing the contents all over the room. We squealed and fought over who would get to hold all the magic cards first. Dad’s top hat would be brought out of its protective bag and stuffed with all the “magic” scarves. We tapped and waved his black, magic wand incessantly, each claiming that the others didn’t know how to do magic the right way. Verbal incantations were fervently and reverently spoken over that hat by squirmy, snotty-nosed, giggling kids who never magically produced a rabbit, bird, or even a flower. We practiced for hours while Dad slept and recovered from his long trips to Vegas, Tahoe, or occasionally Atlantic City. He was good for a while with his magic shows on-the-fly. Beach boardwalks, sunset pier gatherings, graduations, birthday parties, and client mixers were his mainstay with the occasional opener for a variety act. He had the cape, hat, cane and all the goods—he just didn’t have the temperament to stay the course with his marriage or family, so consequently he took all his magic toys and left the rest of us behind. Mom managed well as a school teacher and later as an administrator. As we got older, we worked and paid for our own stuff, including college, rent, and cars. We all did ok, just not perfect.
“Where is that trunk?” I ask. Rowan slowly shakes his head and crunches his mouth up at the corner. “I don’t know for sure but Aunt Clara sent me a postcard recently saying that she had some of dad’s things and just wanted to let me know. I guess she figured he didn’t have much more time, ya know, uhm..he was pretty sick for a while.”
My gaze rolls over to the window to watch large drops of rain pelting the glass, and sliding repetitively downward, joining a community puddle gallantly pouring itself over the edge of the sill. The street gutters are filled and flowing with a torrent of water, spinning leaves, to-go cups, plastic wrappers, and other swirling debris. The gutters all lead to large, open-mouth storm drains which, on dry days, become the hotspot for vicarious sniffing by dogs walking with anxious owners. It was pouring at the moment, so there are no dogs out walking their owners today. The storm drains eventually dump the floody mush into sewers, which, in turn, dump out to the river beyond the train tracks. While watching the rain, I muse upon a poem that I wrote a couple of weeks ago; feeling stuck in the emotion and rhythm of one particular line, “…looking for the connection.” This line is so real to me. It seems ridiculously easy for some people to connect with others, and I find myself observing and envying those people who can walk up to a stranger and make them feel like they are best friends. I must lack that chemical. Maybe I am just a coffee person. I easily connect with coffee beans, and cats, and headaches.
“So, how do we handle dad?” The gray atmosphere beyond the room has us both mesmerized. One of us asked the question, but neither of us answers. There is a mood that has taken hold, sedating our senses — not solidly giving us a reason to wonder if we have fallen asleep mid-conversation, but hindering the mental interactions just enough to bring us to the level of a light stupor. I wonder if I am drifting over into a parallel universe, or experiencing some type of phantasmagoria, as “this” happens. It is the type of mood that I imagine surrounded classical artists of old. It is very possible that Leonardo da Vinci had an effect on people, similar to the rain, whereby he lulled his models into a trance-like stupor. This anesthesiological effect would allow him to paint them for hours on end, without any model complaining, or even suspecting that they were sitting on a terrible, wooden stool that caused their legs to fall asleep. They didn’t feel or think anything while the master painter was mixing colors, wiping stain on his art smock, and taking the occasional break to eat dried venison and fruit. That’s how all the famous smiles were captured on canvas. The models were in a catatonic state. Catatonic is a good word.
Glancing toward the door I notice a man entering the room. He preoccupies himself with his umbrella, coat, and top hat. An uneasy chill has come over me as the man, with his head down, shuffles awkwardly towards our table. He seems very familiar to me and I wonder if Rowan notices him. There are moments when you instinctively know that you should do something—do anything to divert or pre-empt a negative situation about to manifest in your midst. There is scientific evidence that humans can develop “gut” instincts which may help them with big life decisions, such as getting married, or getting away from someone dangerous. My gut was telling me that this person coming toward me was very odd. As I sit trying to figure out how to handle this instinct gripping my gut, the man stops directly in front of me— no way! NO! It is Dad.
My head is pounding again. What? No! This is not right. Crazy, crazy, crazy! I don’t want to scream. I’m just going to close my eyes and sit perfectly still– this will pass. I know this scenario isn’t right and I will not speak my thoughts. It’s not good to be viewed as a crazy person when you are around kids in a public space. With my eyes still closed, I hear Dad’s voice clearly as the day he told me and my siblings goodbye for the last time. It was exactly as I had remembered it as a little girl. I’m trembling as I sit at the pink, metal table with the black candelabra, and try my best to ignore my deceased dad standing in front of me. He seems indifferent over my pretense at napping and begins to explain how he wants me to enjoy my life—that I am too regimented and that’s why I have so many headaches. He also explains that he wants me to take the magic trunk and explore the world of illusion. Apparently, I have the “gift” of magic and it is time to cultivate it. Nope. Nope. This is ludicrous. I shake my head and try very hard to open my eyes to get a glimpse of him, which I did, and wow —he is so bright. He is completely engulfed by the whitest, angelic, radiant light, replete with whorls and eddies of smoky fog. These are some rambunctious, dramatic special effects going on. I have never seen angel lights before, but it is exactly what I have imagined. I close my eyes again and sit, almost dozing for a short moment until I heard Rowan talking with him. Quickly, I snap both eyes open and jet back into reality. I don’t see Dad anymore but there is Rowan, acting normal and shaking hands– talking with the owner, who had just come into work and spotted him at the table. No, it wasn’t Dad! So glad I didn’t scream. What was in those aspirins?
Maybe the slight nap helped because my head was starting to feel better, yet I couldn’t stop yawning or drinking coffee. I’m sure that I will be hyper the rest of the night from all the caffeine and the brief, immortal vision which just kicked my cardio into another planetary sphere. The owner headed to the back of the kitchen via the swinging, double doors, and my brother picked up his phone to check the time. I still didn’t trust my emotions, so I sit quietly, zombie-like. “The rain seems to be letting up and I have to leave to pick up my daughter from school in a little bit. Do you want to come with me? We can catch up some more and maybe figure out how we’re going to arrange the funeral and collect Dad’s belongings.” Feeling connected, I sip the last cold drops from my cup and get up to move toward the door. Looking out the large windows, I notice the sun’s rays piercing through the disbanding clouds as they push their way into our stretch of the city. An intense shaft of light hits the window pane closest to me, and for the briefest moment I see a reflection of Dad smiling at us. I’m really not sure how to process this. If this is Dad–you’re really starting to freak me out with these magic tricks. Momentarily nonplussed, I flash a smile and a peace sign at the window pane, and pat my brother on the back as we exit the pink cafe. My head is finally clear. Thank God for aspirin and coffee. The sunlight and the sound of water pouring into the storm drains soothes my soul.