Winsome

Winsome.
That’s how she described the Western North Carolina Mountains. How she spoke of them as the train rolled up the tracks laboring against the increase in elevation. I didn’t know what the word meant. She often used words I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter much to me. I liked the pleasure she took in saying them. The way there was almost a spark in the air in front of her lips as they came out of her mouth.

Murky.
That’s the way she described the French Broad River as we rode by it in our carriage. This word I knew and I agreed with her as we watched the water flow by. The spring rains had made the water fast and cold. The driver told us the river was an old one, and I took him at his word. It felt old that day. It is possible it felt that way because I felt old. Sometimes it is difficult to disentangle descriptions of such things.

Charming.
That’s how she described the building when we arrived. I could understand why she said this. It was the best we could afford. The elements that made up the word charming were present in the building. I said nothing, not wanting to darken the mood or any positive thoughts she had. There are times when your thoughts run counter to a loved one’s and the best course of action is silence. Charming was not my word for it. Not my word at all.

Palliative.
That’s the word he used when we sat in the leather chairs of his office. We heard the familiar sound of coughing in the distance. Neither one of us had heard the word before, but we both understood what it meant. His eyes and posture said what it meant. It was a promise and apology of sorts combined as one word. We had known this was the case without knowing the word, but all had to be explained. All always had to be explained. Words used as braces and props, pinned, not stitched, to an unnamed thing.

Rhododendron.
That’s what they called the flowers that surrounded the hills behind the sanitarium and bloomed in the early summer. We knew them from other places, but not like these. They were vibrant and strong and had no qualms about the fickle weather of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We held hands and looked at them saying little most nights. Words were scarce by then.

Riverside.
That’s the name of the place I buried her. It was late fall and leaves around me were bright and brilliant. In those days, the cemetery did brisk business and I was not the only mourner. I don’t know if it was easier on me or harder, knowing it had been coming for so long. I only have the words to describe what I encountered along the way. I try to speak them with a spark like her. Not yet, though. Not yet.

Gene G. McLaughlin 2017

Stories All the Way Down

There is an idea called binary opposition that comes out of structuralism.  I don’t know that anybody studies structuralism anymore, but in 2016 after 10 years of social media it seems relevant.  Social media is narrative building on a global scale that has never been seen before.  Humans build narratives constantly and on Facebook or Twitter we can build them together 24×7.  Binary Opposition says that two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set off against one another.  It is what we see on social media every day in the arguments that go on and on and on.  Every post and argument extends the narrative which sadly is extremely boring and disheartening to most of us.  If one side doesn’t have enough people to tell their side of the narrative it can be easily accounted for and efforts can be ramped up by bots.  An equal measured binary response.  In the digital age there are no lulls in the narrative or no intermissions. At this point I don’t think we are defining what each side of the narrative stands for.  The structure of the narrative is more important than the content.  The structure defines the elements of the narrative itself based on the corridors of human cognition that we can’t even see.  We can’t seem to stop the narrative. The momentum is too great. Maybe someone can tell me how this ends or gets reset?  I am not sure we know.  This is new territory.  Maybe I’m telling myself a narrative and none of this true at all? Maybe, but I don’t think so.  I don’t think it’s turtles all the way down, for humans I think it’s stories all the way down.  Personally I am going to do what I always do when I am clueless about the world or depressed.  Pull out some old world narratives and read them for a few years.  Books.  At least most of those narratives have beginnings middles and ends.

A Positive Attitude

The train passes a massive amount of blue lights lining both sides of South Boulevard.  I stare out at the cop cars as a large group of people are lined up outside an apartment complex with their hands in the air.  They fade in the distance as the train speeds on.  I look down at my phone.  The train slows up and stops at the Archdale station.  People exit and board.  As the train begins to move I look out the window again.  There is someone looking into my eyes.  It is a man running next to the train with a colorful soccer jersey on.  His face is heavily tattooed.  He looks at me with a slight smile as he keeps pace with the train.  After a bit he can no longer keep up.  He winks at me, makes a big smile and gives me a thumbs up. I look back and see two policeman running after him in pursuit.

“You know that guy?” a young woman asks who is sitting facing me on the train.

“No, don’t know him,” I reply.

“Well I sure like his positive attitude,” she says nodding seriously.  “World needs more positivity.”

Gene G. McLaughlin 2016

Ogallala

Her arms are bound, but she will not be kept here against her will. She did not come west all those years ago to die in some God forsaken cabin raped and killed by some monster in the woods. The winters were too hard and days too long for that. She looks at the shotgun and tries to decide how to have it mounted when he comes back in the door. She will shoot backwards looking in the lone mirror in the cabin if she has to. She will have one shot and damn it she will make it count. Her husband and son will not come back from Cheyenne and find her missing and not know what happened. She will live.

Mittens or 800 Words On Kindness

When I was a child we had a young couple as neighbors. They lived by us in the duplex on the other side facing away from us. It was essentially a mirror image of the apartment we had and they lived there with their son who was my age.

One winter morning there was heavy coating of snow on the ground. The sun was not yet out, but when I opened the door and looked out I saw it had stopped snowing. It was actually sort of warm outside as it often is after a good snow. I believe it was a Saturday and I sat on the couch and turned it on watching some random morning program. Soon after my mother and father got up and my father immediately made me turn off the TV and do something productive. My mother went to my sister Erin’s bedroom to wake her up. My sister was not there. Unfortunately my sister’s wandering was something that happened on occasion. My father never really slept soundly because of it and I don’t doubt that it didn’t help his health much. He had the look of shame of his face like I have failed her yet again.  My mother acted quickly putting on her coat, because there was little time to waste and failures could be dwelt upon later.  Luckily the trail was clear in the fresh snow.

It didn’t go on for long. It went straight to our neighbor’s door. It was flung open and my sister was sitting at their carport eating a bag of grapes. She had her pajamas on with her winter hat and coat. She looked up at my mother with a slight smile on her face as if to say, these grapes sure are good in the middle of winter. The grapes where half gone and my mother looked around to make sure nothing had been disturbed. She took Erin and the grapes outside and gently closed the door. My mom actually went through the trouble of smoothing the snow over to erase our tracks as much as possible. We then retreated in the house and Erin finished eating her grapes and we started our morning as normally as possible, but in our house that was never very normal. My mother told my sister about not going anywhere without her or my father and my sister ignored her as usual determined to walk where her feet took her.  My sister’s particular brand of autism didn’t give her the gift of speech or writing, but it never slowed the pace of her feet.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door and our female neighbor stood at the door.

“Hi Mary Lou, enjoying the snow?” she asked. She was a tiny blonde woman with a surprisingly loud voice.

“Oh yes isn’t it lovely!” my mother said.

“Do you think the children will be playing in the snow later?”

“I am sure there is a good chance!”

“Yes it’s a fine day for it. Well,” she said pulling small bright green mittens out of her pocket. “Please give these mittens to Erin. They look like they would be just the type she would like and it is cold today and I am certain if she went out she would like them. We came across them and our son doesn’t care for them due to the color.”

“Why thank you! I am sure Erin will love them!” my mother said smiling and the exchange was over.

“Great,” said my neighbor smiling.  She then left without a further word.  Some stories of personal history are about what you have learned over time even if it is years later. I try to determine what values I have learned from what people and how I determine what I find admirable in others.  My neighbor never had the goal of teaching me anything that day, but I learned a simple lesson. Truth at any cost is often a foolish thing and sometimes grace and respect toward another person costs you nothing at all or maybe just a bag of grapes.  Many people in the world would have complained about my sister even though they gain nothing by it and the cost to us was great in both pride and fear. You might not want to think so, but I have seen my fellow humans swarm around the ill and the weak wanting to get their chance to hurt someone. She didn’t and I learned a simple fact. The things that are not said and ignored are often as important as what is said and noticed. The path to your own dignity can often come through letting someone else keep his or hers.

Gene G. McLaughlin 2014

Christmas Games with Grandpa

One Christmas I tried to teach my grandfather Dungeons and Dragons, I think I was probably 11.

‘What type of deck you use for it?’ he asked.

‘Deck?

‘Like 52 or 48 cards?’ he said.

‘Oh there are no cards,’ I said.  ‘Just dice.’

‘Wowser, I like dice,’ he said.  ‘I have had some great runs at craps over the years.  Show me how to play.’

I got out my manual and showed him the dice.

‘What kind of dice are those,’ he said.

‘They have 20 sides,’ I replied.

He laughed heartily.  ‘I never heard of such a thing as that!’

‘We have to buy supplies before we play the game and go on the adventure,’ I said.

‘Ohh what kind of supplies?’ he asked.

I listed some of the things from the manual that adventures could buy to supply themselves with like swords and shields and jerky.

‘Oh I don’t need most of that stuff and jerky, well I don’t have teeth so I can’t have that,’ he said.

‘There are more options,’ I replied and gave him more options. ‘You gotta pick something to bring with you on the adventure.’ I got to rice pudding.

‘Rice pudding!’ he said.  ‘That is a great idea!’

‘Mary Lou,’ he yelled at my mother.  ‘Gene says to bring out the rice pudding for the adventure.’

‘I don’t have any rice pudding,’ she said.

‘Gene says there is rice pudding,’ he said.

‘It is 1 gold to buy the rice pudding,’ I said.  ‘It is imaginary rice pudding.’

‘This is a terrible game. Why tell a man there is rice pudding when there is no rice pudding.  That is just cruel.  Is this the type of cruel games that people play now a days?  I don’t want to play this game at all.’

‘Why don’t you show him how to play poker dad,’ my mother said.

‘I don’t know about this rice pudding situation.  Are you sure there is not rice pudding?’ he said.

‘Sorry dad, there is none,’ she replied.

‘I am sorry grandpa.  I thought you knew it was imaginary.’

‘Well don’t do cruel things like that anymore Gene.  Telling a man there is rice pudding when there is none is awful.

‘Show him poker dad, take your mind off rice pudding,’ my mother said.

‘Well ok I guess,’ he replied.

He got out his cards and showed me the rules of poker.  We played a couple hands and at one point I peaked at his cards.

‘If there were a real game, you would get shot in the face, you don’t cheat at poker,’ he said.

‘I am sorry Grandpa,’ I said.

‘Oh dear dad,’ my mother said.

‘If you cheat at poker there is a good chance that you will get shot in the face, that is not imaginary like rice pudding,’ he said.

‘In truth he is right Gene, when cheating at poker there is a good chance you might get shot in the face,’ my mother said seriously.

‘I am done with games today,’ my grandfather said. ‘Mary Lou can you take me downtown so I can play my numbers.’

‘Ok,’ my mother replied.  ‘Give me a minute.’

‘Maybe find some rice pudding too.’

My mother sighed.

I don’t know if Grandpa ever found that rice pudding, but I have never cheated at poker.

365 Playlists

Every day she used to go running.  It was never his thing, but she loved it and said it centered her.  He hadn’t paid much attention to the routine.  It all took place before he got out of bed each morning.  Each night she would head to bed and put her things out for her morning run.  Her shoes.  Her socks.  Her running shorts and the other clothes of the ensemble.  A hair tie.  Her earbuds.  Next to it she would sit her phone and charge it.  When he would go to bed he would see them sitting on the flat top of the chest before sleep.  It was difficult for him to sleep in the bed now.  He would try sometimes, but the emptiness of it when he entered the room was often too much.  The quiet of the room sounded like loss to him.  There was no sound of her breath and no rustle under the sheets as he got into bed.  Just quiet.

In the months after she died he had noticed the things she did and he never knew she did.  Cleaning spots of the toilet he didn’t know existed.  Buying spices he knew nothing of, but missed every time he made tomato sauce.  Paying bills that would come to services that were her domain.  As time went by the things that were missed became less.  He would check her email and get things in the mail occasionally, but eventually it was quiet.  It bothered him to have those things dwindle to an extent, but he knew that the ripples of her actions were fading from the world.  This was the way of things.  She would not be forgotten, but her movement was no more.  The kinetic of it was over.

One day he checked her email and received a notification that the credit card used for her Spotify subscription was expiring.  He had no idea what Spotify was, but he followed the link in the email.  A music subscription service.  He downloaded the application to look it at it and signed in under the password she always used for anything of this type.

He looked at the service.  Music of all types available to stream or download.  The profile was tied into her Facebook account and her sunny photo was there on display.  He smiled and felt the familiar taste of sadness and joy at seeing her alive with a digital glow.  It wasn’t something he had faced with the death of his father.  He had no digital version of his own to remain out there.  She was a women of the modern age though.

He clicked around a bit and noticed the section for playlists.  He clicked.  There were 365 playlists.  One for each day of the year and her morning runs.  He had a thought that seemed to be both corny and necessary.

The next day he got up early and listened to the playlist for that day and attempted to run.  He didn’t make it far, but he walked a bit.  The next day he did the same thing. It became a routine for him.  When he listened to the playlists he tried to read meaning into them or trace them back to things he knew.  He created narratives around some days and some days just seemed seasonal.  He had no idea of if Journey in April on the playlist mean what he attributed to it.  His mind drifted over thoughts of her and what she had done during these times and what had caused these songs on the playlist.  It entertained and intrigued his mind.

Eventually one day he sat outside bench outside his home after his run.  He was drenched with sweat and his mind was ruminating on what the playlist he listened to meant.  He was thirsty and arose and walked into his house and and into the kitchen.  He opened the cabinet for a clean glass and filled it with water.  He opened up the drawer he kept his keys in and went to put them in.  He noticed a small piece of paper sticking out of the back and picked it up.  It was an old picture of him and her.  He looked at it and memories of her came flooding back.  He realized he hadn’t thought about her in months.  Not really.  He had been creating someone else in his mind through these playlists all this time.  The playlists were a codex, a mystery, but most importantly not a person.  They were collections of songs.  That was all.  What he had been doing was a daydream to entertain.  Nothing more nothing less.  The person who he loved and shared his bed and life with was gone. He was building a MP3 version of her.  He decided he would keep up the running, but create his own playlist tomorrow.  He had the real her once.  Nothing else would do.

Gene G. McLaughlin 2013

Last Of The Line

West Scranton 1989

She awoke and walked down to the kitchen.  He was not sitting drinking coffee.  He’s gone.  She walked to the phone and dialed the numbers slowly. 9-1-1

‘911 how can I direct your call?’

‘Ambulance, my brother is dead. He didn’t come down from his room and make coffee.’

‘Can you check on him?  Could he still be sleeping?’

‘I can’t see him that way.  He is dead.  He has made coffee at the same time for 40 years.  Please send an ambulance.’

‘Ok ma’am.’

She must have told the woman the address.  The ambulance appeared shortly after.  She watched as the EMT’s worked to bring him down.

There were discussions and words exchanged meaning something.

They left. She was alone.

She lit a cigarette.  She was the last of her line now.  No children for her. Her brothers had some.  He was always sort of a child to her even though he was older.  A little slow and addled.  Now he was gone.  She made a martini.

All those boys that died in North Africa.  I cut them.  I saved some.  I saved none.  I didn’t save myself.  My husband.  My parents.  My brothers.  My sisters.  All faded.  All gone.

She inhaled and sipped the gin.

We won.  Buicks and tv’s.  Houses in subdivisions.  This is the house I was born in.  I’ll die here like he did today.  They will find me days later I guess.  I’ve seen alot of boys die in the war.  I’ll just join them I guess.

She called the VFW and told them he died and wouldn’t be down today.  He went every day at noon to drink until sundown.

Some would say a waste of life I guess.  What do you tell them when their old.  That they don’t deserve a drink.  I deserve a drink.  Right up until the end.

She drank and talked to the funeral home at some point during the day to confirm the plans.  She drank until sundown.

The night.  Alone in this house for the first time ever.  I guess I outlasted them all. Maybe I don’t wake up tomorrow.  It wouldn’t be so bad I guess.

Gene G. McLaughlin 2013