Good Prompt from Long Ago

Two years ago there was a thing here on WordPress that was called the “Weekly Prompt” which were often quite sophisticated writing projects. I just re-read one of the stories I wrote for one of them (two years ago today) and I liked it a lot. I’m sharing it 🙂

Weekly Writing Challenge: Three Ways to Go Gonzo: You’re in a street-side café in San Diego, California. The couple seated at the next table is breaking up.

“If you’re going to ‘Go Gonzo’ like your dumb blogging site instructs, you have to find some novel you like and type it over a gazillion times until you find your own style. God forbid it’s War and Peace.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “If I type someone elses’ novel over and over, I’m going to be really good at writing that novel.”
“I agree. It doesn’t. Still, I don’t think Capote would’ve called Hunter Thompson a typist.”
“He was definitely a writer, though he did have a typewriter.” I thought I was funny, but Peter didn’t.
“People make a lot of noise about his drug use, don’t they?”
“So dumb. It was the times. Remember your frantic phone searches back in the day for ‘Vitamin Q’?”
“You’re one to talk, Mr. Amyl Nitrate.”
“Oh yeah.” I laughed at the memory of us in a cavernous black-walled disco passing around a bottle of RUSH. “Oh and the movies!”
“Yeah, I think a lot of young people know Hunter Thompson through Johnny Depp and maybe some English teacher.”
“That’s a laugh, isn’t it? English teachers?”
“Fuck you.” We were, both of us, English teachers.
“Hey, there’s an Edith Wharton novel in progress. Look at those two.” The couple beside us was clearly in the throes of a late morning break up.
“Oh man, I’d never go back to that, would you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Not a chance in hell.” Peter shuddered. Our young love had had enough drama for twenty people.
“Yeah, and they’re always saying, ‘You’d like to be young again, wouldn’t you?’”
“A lot of people would. You sure as hell would prefer walking without a cane, but…”
“Shhh. This is good.”

“If I have to explain it, you’ll never understand it.”
“Right. Yeah, I get that. If I understood you and all your deep and meaningful ideas and your precious fucking soul, we wouldn’t be breaking up right now, right? This is all because I don’t understand you. Look, I fucking understand you. I fucking understand that this is only scene one in this stupid ass drama you’re always staging. Once a month, at least. I could schedule it. Well, you know what?”
“I do understand you, and you’re just NOT all that interesting. Hot, yes. Interesting? No.”

Brakes squealed. Glass shattered against a light post. A woman screamed. The white-noise of predictable urban traffic came literally to a screeching halt. Only one car was in motion and it was the one that should not have been. A white Nissan.

“Did you see that?”
“Can’t you pay attention to me for once?”
“I think that guy’s been killed.” Mark dug around in his back pocket and pulled out a Bic pen. He spread his left hand, palm flat, scribbled for a second or two, then wrote.
“What are you doing?”

Peter was already running to the corner. I called 911. “Yeah. A cyclist. Hit. No. The driver left. Backed away from the light post he hit and took off down 6th. No I don’t know if it was a he. It could’ve been a she. We need an ambulance here, sweet-cheeks. Not some PC gender awareness interrogation. White Nissan. I didn’t get the plate number. Vanity plates, but no, I didn’t see it completely. There’s a heart.”

Passersby formed a circle around the body, each person hoping that what they saw on the street between head and helmet was not brains, but it was brains. Peter returned to our table, clearly shaken. “My god,” he said. “Is it so difficult to look out your car window and see a cyclist about to make a LEGAL turn? Did you get the plate number?” I shook my head.
“Vanity plates. A heart. That’s all I saw.”

Sirens screamed all around. The ambulance finally arrived. EMTs pushed the circle of protectors away from the body and lifted it onto a stretcher. Some of the spectators were so shaken they had to be helped back to the sidewalk, safe from the random horror show of life. The ambulance pulled away, no sirens, no lights. Death was no one’s emergency. Fire fighters attached a hose to the hydrant and blasted the brains down the storm drain below the painted a blue dolphin and the words “We live downstream.”

“That’s what you don’t understand,” Mark said, sighing, looking at his hand. “Any minute, any day, any time that could be me or you with our brains splattered on 6th and University, circled by strangers, and some old fag calling 911.”
“It’s not nice to call people fags, Mark.”
“OK look, honey. I was making a point. That guy’s dead. He got up this morning, god knows what happened between here and then — maybe he had a fight with his girlfriend, too, or given the neighborhood…”
“There you go again, gay-bashing.”
“I’m NOT fucking gay-bashing. Why do you keep changing the subject? Wait, I get it. You can’t handle the truth. That’s it.” Mark — the young man — turned around to us and said, “You guys are gay, right? You’re a couple, right?”
“Yes,” said Peter. “Going on — what? Thirty-five years.”
“There, Jessica. They are fags.”
“That’s right, sweetie,” I called out over Peter’s now bald head. “We’re fags.” I looked at Peter. God he’d been a beautiful young man, this great love of my life.

When the police came by asking questions, the young man — Mark — showed his hand. “This is the license plate.”
“Seriously? Do Me <3?”
“What was the make and model of the car?”
“Nissan. Sentra. Maybe two years old. White.”
“Anything else you remember?”
As the police talked to her boyfriend, the events seemed to finally register in Jessica’s self-absorbed little brain and she began to cry. Mark reached for her hand, leaned forward and whispered in her ear. They stood and prepared to go.
“Sorry for bashing on you guys,” said Mark. “She can be hard to talk to sometimes.” He shook our hands.

“No worries,” said Peter.

pants1As they walked away I wondered how this smart young guy could take that girl seriously. She was wearing sweatpants with the word “Juicy” silk-screened in glitter across her ass. Peter and I sat together for a few more hours then decided it was time to go to Whole Foods. Peter helped me up from my chair.
“C’mon, cowboy,” he said.

Water…a Miracle

Writing Challenge Ice, Water, Steam For this week’s writing challenge, take on the theme of H2O. What does it mean to be the same thing, in different forms?

Water is a miraculous compound, but I doubt it indulges in self-reflection. Like all things in nature, it simply IS. At this moment, crystalline bits of it are drifting very slowly past my window. Behind them is a dormant alder tree with its pine-cone like seed pods. On the ground is more water, crunchy, cold, broken, melted and recrystallized.

Identity — for water and for the self — exists in response to conditions in the external world. In the last 30 years the “idea” of an “external” world has been pushed aside in favor of subjectivism, the “personal” vision of reality. What this implies is that there is NOTHING but the self. As a result of the prevailing idea in the world in which I reached maturity, I worried a lot about who I am. It wasn’t until 1998 when I “met” Goethe, and read Italian Journey, that I understood that the varied iterations of our sacred fucking selves are — like water — defined by the conditions of our being. We ARE in relation to the world, the universe, each other. Our intrinsic nature is what it is, but not as unique and unexpected as we may like to believe. At the same time, it’s impossible for us — or anything in nature — to behave in opposition to our nature.

I am a creative person and, measurably, intelligent. Not my fault. An accident or result of genetics. I am also short. I have a droopy left eye-lid. My mom said, “All Kennedys have that. Look at JFK.” Well, this past summer I saw a photo of my paternal great-grandmother (not a Kennedy, a Mackay) and low and behold, there was my left eye looking out of her face, once more illustrating the fact that the truth might not be what we think it is. It’s not a Kennedy trait at all…

The way others perceive me is often quite different from who I really am. Over and over I’ve found myself standing up for my being; yes, I’m creative, but I’m not messy or disorganized or irresponsible. I am neat, organized and I meet (met 😉 ) deadlines. After a while I learned that much of who we are to other people is not us at all; it’s a projection of THEM. My intelligence doesn’t mean anything other than that and it has limits. I don’t feel — as some people do — that I need to prove anything to anyone. I’d rather get to know people than intimidate them, but there are a lot of smart people in this world who really like the game of intellectual domination.

So, if a person keeps their eyes open they can see themselves in life’s moments, especially in new and unfamiliar ones, they will learn a lot about the substance they are. This past week I spent with very good friends and found myself in a couple of situations that were not “usual” for me. One was returning to an environment I escaped when my mom died, proximity to a very intelligent and competitively facetious woman whose notion of conversation was to “win.” I felt myself backing into a corner where once, long ago, in order to “protect” myself, I would have played. I don’t play that any more. I don’t want to do that, be that. Later, I had the chance to change the rules to rules I feel are more valid than “winning.” I was able to offer a sincere compliment on something I was sure this woman both cared about and was insecure about. I watched her melt, turn human and relax, seeing there was no need to “win,” she was liberated. I know myself well enough NOW that I can choose the “iteration” of self that will act in a given situation — but choice is limited by who I am, fundamentally. That would be integrity which is part of every natural thing.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about this beautifully in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” As a Jesuit, his perception of nature’s law is the word God. His point is that nothing in nature can act in opposition to itself and that is inexpressibly lovely.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844 – 1889

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:            
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;    
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,    
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.    
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


Sometimes we have friends who see us as we are. I have several such friends (aren’t they the true friends?) One of them recently told me how he sees me. “…you are an artist, a mountain woman, an athlete, a friend.” Really that’s a perfect summary of who I hope I am, the person I want to be.

Lynda Barry, Genius

lynda-barryI usually look forward to the Weekly Challenge, but today’s left me cold since I DON’T make lists. Then Marilyn Armstrong commented about whether one could tell a story with a list and I started to think about how one could — and I thought of this brilliant cartoon from the 80s. Definitely lists. Certainly a story.

Listless at Espresso Roma

Writing Challenge Countdown ‘Tis the season for suspense-building lists.

Sorry. I don’t make lists at all. Ever. I don’t see the point. If there are things I have to do, I think the best thing is to get started, not fuss around with a list. But there are a couple of lists in this story.


Ann sat looking at her coffee through the side of her glass. The barista — barist-O — took great care with Ann’s caffe Latte, and it really was beautiful to see the layers of coffee and foam. “Pretty, isn’t it?” Trevor said from behind the espresso machine.


“A lot of people don’t even notice that about a latte. They just order a ‘latte’ thinking it’s cool or something to get a latte, but I think you…”

“Yeah. I suppose I’m just ordering a latte for the sake of being cool, too, but the difference is I AM cool. This doesn’t add to my coolness. It illustrates it.”

Ann’s friend, Leo, arrived, and she went with him to the counter to order his coffee; she was going to treat him. It was some special day or another, who knows what at this point, as after time these special days all run together in a list of small commemorations. Trish, the barista, was switching aprons with Trevor whose shift was done. Leo’s crush on Trish was as big as Brazil, and when he saw her he turned uncool and jittery.

“Hey,” he said, like a sixth grader might to his first or second crush.

“Hey,” she answered in a flat voice, rolling her eyes. Then she saw Ann. “Hey,” she said, like a sixth grader might to her first or second crush.

Leo blushed, thinking the warmly inflected “Hey” was directed at him.

“Not you. Her.” Trish pointed her well tattooed and ringed finger at Ann. “She’s the hottee.”

“What can I say, Leo? You got it or you don’t.” Ann laughed, trying to diffuse the awkwardness of the moment.

“I didn’t know you were…” Leo stopped, staring at Trish.

“Well, now you do so you can quit foaming at the mouth whenever you come in here. What would you like?” Trish leaned forward on the counter. Ann jumped back.

“I don’t know any more. I don’t think I want anything.” Leo was crushed, still, he stared at the list of offerings written in colored chalk on the blackboard on the wall above Trish’ head. “I’ll have a Coke and baked brie.”

“Okie-dokie. That’ll be $6.50.”

“Don’t I get the employee discount any more?” Leo asked, feeling that insult and been laid upon insult already and he did work here. The discount, at least, should still be good.

“My bad,” said Trish. “We’re never on the same shift. I forgot. When are you working next?”

“Tomorrow. I’m opening.”

“Hangover city.” Trish accurately described the coffee house on Saturday mornings


Ann paid for Leo’s lunch, both forgetting why.

“Do you want something to eat?” Trish turned to Ann. “It’s on me.”

Ann shook her head. Nothing in this life was simple.

“So would you go out with me?” asked Trish, clearly nervous.

“Wow. Like, here’s the deal. I’m twice your age — at least — and straight.”

“I like older women.”

“Yeah, but, I don’t, you know. No. It’s just not my thing.”

“Have you tried it?” A line was building up behind them at about the same rate as Ann’s embarrassment.

Ann nodded. “It’s not you, Trish. Like I said. I just like men.” She turned to Leo and said, “C’mon. Let’s sit down. There’s a bunch of people behind us.”

“I can’t believe it,” said Leo, once they were seated. “She’s a…”

“Shhh. I don’t want to talk about it. Why doesn’t anything normal ever happen to me?”

“I don’t know,” said Leo. “Seems that was pretty normal for you. Bitch.”

They Found ME

Writing Challenge Digging for Roots In this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge, tell us about what makes you, you.

I cannot imagine anything more “Twilight Zone” than writing a novel set 800+ years ago and discovering you had written accurately about your own family of whom you had known nothing.


While writing Martin of Gfenn, I became fascinated by one of the characters, the Commander. In 2005 I set out to write a prequel that would tell the story of the Commander’s life before he came to Gfenn.

Anyone who’s written a novel knows that characters have lives of their own and at certain point, a writer must allow the characters to tell their own stories. I had no idea where that would lead me when I set out to write this book. I finished a draft in 2005 and put it aside; other (rather dire) circumstances had captured my life and I had to attend to them. In 2010, when I returned to this novel, I was a different person and a different writer.

In what was going to be the “prequel” to Martin of Gfenn, the Commander was going to be the oldest son of a minor noble, a simple knight, who bred horses and lived…where? I decided he would live in Aargau. I put his castle on a hill (small castle, more fort than castle) and using some interesting information about a ruined castle near Solothurn, I built my character’s childhood home.

I gave him a brother named Hugo, a father named Ulrich, a mother named Anna and a fiancée named many different things I can’t now remember, but her name became Gretchen. The protagonist was named Rudolf.

He and his brother happily went to the Crusades — Rudolf to save his soul and Hugo to have an adventure. At a certain point in my writing, their father’s name, Ulrich, no longer seemed “right” so I changed it to Heinrich (bear with me; I know you feel like you’re in a bad dream with this half-assed plot summary and a Tolstoyan list of changing names coming at you). The family became: Father — Heinrich. Mother — Anna. Sons — Rudolf and Hugo. Fiancée— Gretchen.

Meanwhile, Martin of Gfenn came out. I sent copies to four newspapers around Zürich. Three interviewed me and published reviews of the novel. Martin of Gfenn became a big seller in a small part of Switzerland, and I got a email from a Swiss fan asking if I had Swiss ancestry. I believed I did, but I had no proof. I had looked, to no avail (I looked because my grandmother’s cooking was exactly the same as a few “typical Swiss” dishes I’d eaten in Switzerland), so I gave it another shot and I found…

The earliest known of my grandmother’s progenitors came from the Albis region between Zürich and Aargau. Some of them lived in what is now Aargau; some in Zürich. They were a large family of relatively minor knights in the service of the rising Hapsburg family. My grandmother’s — and my — progenitors names were….

Heinrich, married to Anna, with children Rudolf and Conrad. Heinrich’s BROTHER was named Hugo. Rudolf married a girl named Margaretha which is normally shortened to Gretchen. They lived in a castle on a hill looking over the Reuss and the village of Affoltern am Albis in Canton Zürich. There were visible ruins of the castle until the early 20th century; now there is just this wall (see photo). It was a197a3727-01f3-42aa-a472-131462fe9125 small castle, mostly a fort, and, apparently, judging from the supports and old records, it had had a large tower.

Of Heinrich and  Anna’s two sons, one, Rudolf, lived a very long life (well into his 80s) and the other, Conrad, was lost to time. In my novel, Rudolf survives a significant and bloody battle, while his brother is killed.Once I found all this, I changed the name of  my character, Hugo to Conrad. That was one of two important changes I made to adapt my “creations” to historical fact. The other?

The original ending of the novel really didn’t work, but it seemed to me to fit and to be effective and sufficiently mysterious. It left the door open to possibilities. A big fan of French film, I prefer equivocal endings to those that are neat and tidy, but having learned that the REAL Rudolf lived into old age, I felt a responsibility to him to extend his story, to give him one more chance to fight and win over his demons. The “real” Rudolf had also had children (and so I’m here 🙂 ). I loved “my” Rudolf and I didn’t want to shortchange him of his future. As I thought about it, it seemed more and more that equivocal or even sad endings can be as big a cop out as happy ones.

Though it is impossible, it seems that my ancestor was pushing me as a writer to do something new. I will not say what, as you might want to read the book someday! There are two chapters posted on Rudolf’s blog.

I also Lunkhofen Coat of Armsremembered how, in 1994, on my first trip to Europe, I had been taken into some old hall in Zürich and told to look at all the coats of arms up around the wall. I remember not caring one bit. The Twilight Zone aspect is that the coat of arms of my own family is on that wall. Heinrich’s older brothers (Heinrich was the youngest of three) became very powerful. In Aargau there are towns that bear their name. Over time, “my” side of the family changed its name. That name was Anglicized in the 18th century when some of the members emigrated to America. The last person in my family with that name was a woman. Her daughter was my grandmother’s grandmother. All of my grandmother’s female ancestors (and most of the male) were Swiss (Amish!). That explained her cooking.

Pi and Pie

Writing Challenge Pie Food evokes all the senses: the scent of pastry baking, the sound of a fork clinking on a plate… This week, make our mouths water with stories about pie.

When my dad was busy, and I was hanging out with him, he would sometimes say, “Honey, here. Go divide π.” I thought he was seriously interested in the answer, and I did the best I could, though, sadly, I never got the same answer twice, adding dimensions of irrationality to an already irrational number.

As for pie, my grandmother made apple pie from the apples growing on her trees; cherry as well, though most often she “put up” the cherries and used them in pies later. She made gooseberry pie from the gooseberries growing behind my aunt’s incinerator. Many WordPress readers won’t know what that is. We used to burn paper trash in our backyards. It caused air pollution, so the practice was banned. Good thing, too, because we have infinite space in landfills…


My grandmother made pie from scratch and from memory and from Crisco and flour. I am sure in the old days she made the crust from lard rendered from their own pigs.


One day I came in from playing outside in the pasture. I had a milkweed pod in my hand. I asked my grandma for a glass so I could pour the milk from the milkweed stem into the glass and drink it. She laughed. Wiped her hands on her apron. Took the milkweed out of my hand. Threw it in the trash. Told me to wash up because I was going to help her. She lifted me on a chair, put a handful of pie crust dough in front of me and set me to work making the sugar pie. For those who might not be familiar with this wonderful thing, it’s remnants of pie dough rolled out flat. On one side you sprinkle sugar and cinnamon, then you fold it over so it looks like a taco shell or an omelet. You can sprinkle more sugar and cinnamon on top if you want. It goes into the oven with the pie.

In her day, the little house above had green asbestos shingles and a front porch that ran the width of the house. There were turned pillars to hold up the roof. Her sons-in-law kept up the place for “Mom” and had even been the ones to add the indoor toilet in the old-time bathroom. Everything about those days has achieved the golden-rose glow of time.

My grandmother made the best pie I’ve ever eaten. I know I have never tasted anything like it since. Still, it is hard to know so many years later if it was the pie or whether it was the light coming into her Montana kitchen window and dancing from her eyes, my grandmother’s particular magic.

Night, Hawks and Doves

 1Siege Ends! Corregidor Falls to the Japanese!

American and Philippine Forces Surrender



“Where is he?”

“There. Third from the right. The worst is that I don’t know how he is.”

America was shocked at the newspaper photos. The siege had brought the American Army, under General Wainright, to its knees.

“Well, if the Japs have him, that’s…” said the man sitting beside her.

She gasped. “Don’t, Dad. Don’t talk about it. I know about it, but hearing it… No, please, don’t talk about it. Oh God, my little brother!” Absently, she looked at her hand as tears streamed down her cheeks. She had vowed not to cry in public, but how public was this deserted diner, anyway? Who would see? This crippled soda jerk, her dad, some guy she didn’t know?

“The Japs’ll stick to the Geneva convention,” said the one-legged soda jerk.

“When have they? Hirohito thinks treaties proscribing behavior in war are stupid. He has a point. A humane war? Wouldn’t it just last longer?” said the man sitting alone in the shadows on the other side of the curved counter.

“Fond of Hitler, are you, Joe?” asked the older man.

“Calm down, buddy, calm down,” said the soda-jerk. “We don’t fight the war in here.”

“You should be out there, pal. What are you, 20? 21? You seem able-bodied,” the old man pressed the point. “In my time, I’d be handing you a white feather.”

“I’m a Quaker.”

“Oh that’s convenient, when everyone’s brother, dad, lover, husband is out there fighting and dying and you’re in here drinking a green river, being a Quaker.” The woman’s hand shook in rage as she lifted her cigarette to her red lips.

“Lady, that goes for you, too. Just ’cause you’re a dame don’t exempt you. I’m sorry to hear about your brother, but… Until you been there yourself, you can’t, well, anyway, no war in here.” He grabbed a coffee pot and filled the woman’s cup. “Getting mad at him ain’t gonna’ do nothin’ for your brother.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry about your brother. I know you’re scared. I know what it’s like out there. I just got back from four months driving an ambulance. But for the Grace of God I’d be there now but…” He stopped. He’d resolved not to talk about it.

“You were there?” demanded the older man.

“Not the Pacific, no. London. The Blitz.” If he closed his eyes, he could still hear the screaming of women and children caught unaware in the early days, running feet on the streets of London, the downward screams of German bombs, the explosions, the falling walls. He saw his friends — fellow Quakers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York — running with stretchers, looking for wounded, surviving, people. Lifting them up and running again for an ambulance, for shelter, for a hospital.

The woman’s father looked over just as the headlights of a passing cab illuminated the Quaker’s face. It was then he noticed the left side resembled melted wax, that his left ear was gone. “Oh my boy,” he said, a sob catching in his throat. “Forgive me,” not knowing for sure whether he spoke to the Quaker or to his own son, now interred at Malaybalay.



“You teach English, eh?”

“I teached it.” Lilian smiled. “I gave up. Just three months ago, as it happens.”

“Good. I could never date an English teacher. They’re always at you about your grammar.”

“Pretty much ONLY when you’re in their class and they’re paid to do that. The goal is to help students write and think more clearly so other people can understand them should they ever wish to you know? Communicate something?”

“I’ll tell you about English teachers. They’re punctilious anal superficial hyper-critical sadists, if you want my opinion. They get off on throwing red ink around and hurting peoples’ feelings.”

“I didn’t want your opinion. But thanks. Glad I retired so we can be on this date. So, where we going?”

“I thought we’d go over to the laundromat and watch the clock.”

“I already did that on a date, back in high school. Boyfriend – Tony – had no money. I don’t know why we did that, parked his old Ford in front of the laundromat. He said it was so we could be together, which, I admit, was sweet, but it was so cold and the laundromat wasn’t even open. It had this phosphorous-green kind of light inside coming from the green neon circling the clock. I dunno if you’ve ever seen one like that.”

“Where was that?”

“Colorado Springs. It was winter, too. I was home for Christmas break.”

“I guess you didn’t go out with him long.”

“I married him.”

“Are you going to marry me?”

“Doubtful, very doubtful. In fact, I don’t see much point in your wasting the gas to drive over to the laundromat. Just let me out here, OK?”


“Yeah. I’ll call a cab.”

“Baby, c’mon. Let’s try to work this out. Sure we will have had our differences…”

“Wow, now you’re hitting me with arcane conditional verb tenses? On a first — and only — date?”

“We might have had our differences.”

“We just met!”

“I know I will have felt regret over this for a long time. Can’t we start over?”

She felt dizzy. She felt as if she’d been in a long-term dysfunctional relationship with Ralph for years. She could almost remember their breaking up and making up and starting again, repeatedly — even for the sake of the children! A whole lifetime of strange little arguments.

“We haven’t even started, Ralph. Like I just said. I just met you.” Lilian sighed. “I knew internet dating wasn’t a good idea. I wish I hadn’t let Lana push me into it. I know she had her reasons and they had NOTHING to do with my happiness.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I think I’m talking to myself, Ralph. Look, please stop the car and let me out. This isn’t the way I want to spend my evening. I’d rather walk all the way home in the rain than do this. It’s not for me. I’m too old.”

“Don’t be silly. Age is just a number.”

“No it isn’t. Age is a lot of things. It’s experiences and a knowledge. It’s finally ‘getting it’ you know? Answers to questions about who you are?”

“I think you just need to get laid.”

“Let me out.”

Ralph pulled over to the side of the road. Lilian collected her purse and wrapped herself in the brightly colored blue and lavender shawl that drew attention away from her wide hips (liability) to her shining blue eyes (asset) and got out of the car.

“Can I call you?”


“We could go out again.”

Lilian closed the door and stepped up on the curb. Not much traffic here. She couldn’t expect a taxi to come zooming by looking to pick up a late evening fare. She fished around in her purse for her cell phone and then realized she’d taken it out to call a cab while she was still in Ralph’s car. “Shit,” she thought. “Wait, there’s a pay phone.” She hurried down the street where she found only the dangling remnant of a long-lost communication device. “All the quarters in the world won’t help me now,” she thought. “Oh well.”

She walked along the sodden street. The rain had stopped and reflections of the streetlights made glimmering images on the sidewalk. The  damp, fallen leaves were fragrant when she stepped on them. “I’d have missed this. Life is certainly surprising. I’d have missed this.” The moon was breaking through the dissipating rain clouds and the night took on a magical quality, like a story in a kid’s book.

A car came up behind her, slowed, passed by. Something flew onto the sidewalk in front of her. She reached down and picked it up. It was her cell phone, wrapped in a note. “I can’t believe you didn’t recognize me, even when I invited you to go to the laundromat and watch the clock. I thought for sure you’d know then. I know it’s been more than forty years, but I thought there might be a little something familiar. Still love you, Tony.”

Yeah, but She SAID…

Writing Challenge The Unreliable Narrator This week, consider the unreliable narrator — a classic storytelling device — in your own work, no matter your genre.


Lying. My favorite fictional “unreliable” narrator is actually completely reliable in a way. He’s the speaker in Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart.” He insists that he is sane but all his actions illustrate the opposite. Still, he never denies any of his actions; he explains them in detail along with his motives. But his motives and actions are the motives and actions of a mad man. “Why will you say that I am mad?” he demands of the police.

If the police were allowed to speak, or the testimony given in court against the murderer were written by Poe, we might have read, “Because you’ve done a crazy thing for a crazy reason. Just because you accurately relate the facts in this matter doesn’t mean you’re not insane. You are definitely insane.”

Facts speak for themselves if we allow ourselves to “hear” what they have to say, but we are often “unreliable” witnesses to the facts of our own lives. Just as the speaker in “The Tell Tale Heart” we can assemble all the facts and derive a fallacious conclusion; it depends what we want to see.

For most of my life I have been surrounded by unreliable narrators, narrators whose actions contradicted their verbal claims. I’ve also been guilty of allowing wishful thinking to cloud my perceptions of reality; I have not asked enough questions or refrained from making decisions before I should have. I had excellent and life-long training in the embracing of illusion. The most sophisticated of all the unreliable narrators in my life was my mom.

My mom was an alcoholic. I didn’t know it even though the evidence was in plain sight. What blinded me? Her words, her stated beliefs, her accusations, her created reality in which I was given a role to play. From this role I derived part of my identity. I believed her when she told me that she didn’t drink, “Just because I have a bourbon and water doesn’t mean you get to look at me like someone from the WCTU (Womens Christian Temperance Union),” she would say. Since I didn’t look at her that way (in the first place) I then became very careful NOT to notice her actual behavior or internalize her obvious hypocrisy. During our church going years (all of them when I was growing up) as good Baptists we vowed every Sunday to “abstain from the sale and use of alcoholic beverages.” I KNEW that chances were good we’d all go home and mom would have a beer before lunch, but I didn’t notice it.

I was not the only one in the family who did not know. Her closest sisters did not know. It was not until a scan of my mother’s brain toward the end of her life, revealing physical brain changes and scars from a lifetime of alcohol abuse, that we knew. When her doctor explained this to me over the phone, I felt in my heart and mind the same feeling I’d felt standing on the edge of the ocean while the water pulled the sand out from below my feet. I had nothing to stand on.

Why didn’t I know? I lived with her for years. I visited her frequently after I moved out. I’d been there when she’d turned into a monster if I arrived home at 4:40 instead of 4:30 (at which point we started cooking supper which had to be on the table at 5:30). I’d been yelled and and manipulated after 9 pm when I didn’t want to stay up and watch Johnny Carson. I was yelled at first thing in the morning by a person I later knew was “Jonesing” for a drink. In the evening, when she fixed what I always believed to have been her first bourbon and water for the day, I always felt I could relax into a predictable few hours. Two drinks, supper, television and, if I was very lucky, bed with no drama.

It wasn’t that no one told me. When I was eleven and my mom was screaming at me after supper, my dad took me away in the car and talked to me about how there are “…some people get happy when they drink, MAK. Some people get mean. I’m afraid your mom gets mean. You have to stay out of her way when she’s drinking…” I didn’t understand it. Later on, when I was in my forties, and one of my aunts (a nurse who was married to a long-time alcoholic, then, finally, in recovery) said, “How is your mom when you get up in the morning, Martha Ann? Is she mean to you?” I didn’t get it. My aunt was trying to tell me my mom woke up with a hangover every day and my being there, visiting, kept her from getting that first (morning!) drink. I didn’t guess it when one afternoon my mom was driving and nearly ran off the road into a streetlight.

There is no one in our lives more “reliable” than our mom, right? And so, in spite of reality and concrete evidence and the testimony of reliable witnesses (my dad, my aunt Madelyn), I did not know my mom was a drunk. The lovely irony here is that my mom was always afraid I’d be fooled and hurt because of my gullible and trusting nature. “Don’t believe what people tell you, honey,” she said, often. “You need to be a little skeptical. People lie.” If I believed her when she said that, what would have happened to our relationship?

My Darlings Won’t Die