jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: November, 2016

Broken Soul: a brief fiction

For Krista, the neon sign outside the Broken Soul had always been a source of comfort – like curling up under a fleece comforter on a chilly Saturday afternoon.  Tonight hadn’t seemed any different than the third Saturday of every month had been for the last twelve, maybe fourteen months. Except for the sign.

 

When Krista pulled into the parking lot she was eager to meet a group of friends who had come to call themselves the Misfit Toys.  Paul’s F150, a battered remnant of what had once been some lawyer’s idea of a pickup truck was parked near the front door, indicating, as always, he had arrived early.  Its leather seats were now littered with specs of gray ash from Paul’s Kool Filter Kings, it mats irretrievably stained in a kind of Rorschachian way, evidence of Paul’s ineptitude at driving, smoking, and slurping from endless cups of cream and sugar laden cups of coffee.  Krista smiled, finding assurance in Paul’s predictability and his haphazard treatment of material things.

 

She scanned the lot and saw David and Melanie’s silver Honda Odyssey.  They had been together almost ten years, if you didn’t count the times Melanie had stormed off and spent a week or two with her mother.  David wasn’t perfect, but neither was Melanie.  He worked hard.  He played hard – sometimes a little too hard.   But he had never been unfaithful to Melanie.  He wouldn’t talk about it, not even to Melanie, but something had happened in Iraq – or was it Afghanistan? – something dreadful.  Most of the time David was happy and congenial – at ease in his own skin.  But Melanie said there were times when he would withdraw, when he wouldn’t talk for days, and no amount of her begging or badgering him was going to help.  So she would just leave.

 

It wasn’t until she had almost reached the door that Krista realized something wasn’t right.  She looked up at the sign above the parking lot and realized two of it’s lights had blinked off.  Broken So.  Well, that’s weird.  The two unlit letters unnerved her.  But the sound of music and laughter emerging from the bar washed away her discomfort as quickly as it had arisen.

 

They were all there.  Not just Paul and David and Melanie, but Jill and Taylor.  Even Greg, the oldest of the “toys,” was there.  A financial advisor with a client list that made him the envy of his peers, had missed their last outing.  Greg’s mother had been ill and he had spent most of the last month making bargains with God to give her a bit more time.  But God wasn’t making deals, at least not with Greg.  He had told David, who told Melanie, who told Krista, that when his mother took her final breath, Greg was beside her. He had been weeping, overwhelmed by grief, guilt, and relief.  After a few beers, Greg had confided to David that he hoped his relief was for his mother – not for himself.

 

They had all risen to embrace Krista as if she were the prodigal child returning home.  Such greetings weren’t meant for just her.  It was just what they did.  Krista had often wondered how she had found herself in the company of such a remarkable group of people.  Paul worked for the city.  Melanie taught yoga.  Krista worked at the bank.  She had never been quite sure what Taylor did.

 

But regardless of how they had come together, this eclectic group, she knew no one really cared about how the others paid their bills.  Nor did they care about her past.  What she had done.  Each of them had a story.  Some of it good.  Some of it not so good.  But for one night each month, stories didn’t matter.  They would sit and laugh and drink and talk about things large and small, offering one another friendship and knowing looks of acceptance.  She looked forward to it all month long.

 

Tonight, they had talked about everything from betrayal to philosophy to the poor state of Texas football.  They had downed pints of beer, feasted on hot wings and pork tacos and they had left full in both body and spirit.  But on the way to her car, Krista felt a deep longing, an ache, working its way up from her belly and into her heart.

 

Maybe it was the music – that last song – that made her cry.  But that would have been strange. It was her favorite song by her favorite band, in her favorite dive bar, with her favorite people.  Maybe she was tired and had just had too much to drink.  As she sat in her car, she tried to decide whether her tears were shed in pain or joy.

 

Krista chided herself for being foolish.  Crying wasn’t her thing.  She had told herself that so many times before – that she had shed enough tears.  She had told herself that tears were a sign of weakness and that she was strong.  She found a crumpled napkin from her purse and wiped damp cheeks.  Sitting there in the silence and neon glow, Krista realized her friends had all pulled out of the lot and headed home.  She decided she needed air, so she snatched open the door and stepped into chilly January night.  Watching her breath appear and disappear, she saw frost gathering on the rooftops of the few cars left in the lot.

 

Looking up, Krista saw the sign again.

 

Broken So

 

She stared at it.  Broken So.

 

When she saw the sign this time, the comfort it had always given her returned.  She had never given any thought to the name of the joint, figuring it was just a vague reference to some of the music played there.  But whether the owner had realized it or not, the place had become a safe place for her and her friends.  A temple for broken souls – for those who were broken so.

 

Her tears were replaced with a warm smile of compassion for the misfit toys – her fellow congregants – and gratitude for what they shared. Krista wondered if everyone would think she was crazy if she told them about the sign – about this holy moment.  She wasn’t sure about that.  She would have to think about it.   But she was already looking forward to next month.

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Four A.M

Sometimes,

When I wake up,

really, really,

really early,

like this morning,

at four a.m.,

covered in delicate amber hues of neon,

I wonder.

 

Why am I awake?

 

When there’s just no good reason,

no, regret,

no mind racing,

nothing to achieve,

no cares before me,

free of beleaguering thoughts

of things to do,

or words misunderstood,

no debts to pay,

the stabbing, burning, throbbing,

aching pains

of mid-life and foolish joy

aren’t reminding me to

act my age

and I’m lying warm in my bed,

I wonder.

 

Why am I awake?

 

Everything is still,

and quiet,

except for the hum,

that familiar friend,

the gentle white noise of

the furnace offering itself up

as my companion once more,

or maybe I hear

some creak

or rattle

drifting,

the sound of ice

dropping

into the bucket,

imagined voices,

joists groaning their complaints

against winter’s first frost,

I wonder.

 

Why am I awake?

 

Sometimes,

When I wake up

really,

really,

really early,

like this morning,

at four a.m.,

when I rise from the bed

and wrap myself in a womb

of gray fleece

and yank on my favorite pair of jeans,

staggering to the kitchen,

offering my entreaties

the gods of caffeine

and ritual

and hearing the reassuring whir of

self-indulgence

rising from the pot,

inhaling the aroma of freshly ground

French Roast

rising from the alter,

and taking my first sips

from a porcelain chalice,

I wonder.

 

Why am I awake?

 

And I smile,

full of joy

and

gratitude,

for being awake.

Ghost Story: A Brief Fiction

He was trembling.  Overcome by cold, hunger, and despair. He wove in and out of the crowded sidewalk, wandering without destination.  Just keep going.

 

Toby couldn’t recall the last time he had known comfort—what it was like to be clean, to be warm, or to hear an encouraging word, to feel the comfort of human touch.  If he had not grown accustomed to his plight, he might have wondered whether the ache in his belly was worse than the one in his heart.

 

Last night’s rain had released the familiar smell of the city.  The scent of petroleum mixed with the billowing exhaust from the kitchens of restaurants, both fine and cheap, mingling with the warm dampness of refuse laden dumpsters—a cocktail of urban alchemy.

 

For a hopeful moment, Toby’s eyes met those of a man chasing his dreams and thought perhaps the man would offer a smile.  Or better yet, something from his pocket.  Not this time. 

 

Don’t they see me?  Maybe, I’m a ghost. He had wondered that so many times.  But asking the questions just reminded him of how very alone he was.  So he did what he always did.  He walked.

 

Toby remembered a place, around the corner, where a moment of unexpected grace had once given him hope.  The woman had offered him part of her sandwich.  Thoughts of the thick slab of bologna protruding from two pieces of soggy white bread made his mouth water.  Maybe the woman will be there today. He didn’t let the memory or the hopeful anticipation grow too strong.  It would only make his disappointment worse if the woman wasn’t there.  Or if she didn’t make the same offer.  Still, his pace quickened.

 

The fat man wrapped in a raincoat that had he had long since outgrown lumbered towards Toby like a rudderless ship in high seas.  The man was slurping coffee with one hand, tapping his phone in the other, and kept attempting to make course corrections without really looking at the path ahead.  Toby couldn’t decide whether to bob left or weave right to avoid him.  He feared being crushed by the lumbering gray ship of a man and made a last minute dart to avoid collision.  The fat man never took note of Toby and trudged past him, still slurping and tapping.

 

By the time Toby turned the corner the crowds were abating.  Most of the people had entered their temples of achievement and set about doing whatever important thing it was that needed doing.  Later, they would evacuate their shrines and retrace their morning routes back to wherever it was they spent their nights.  Toby’s pace quickened as he passed the last pedestrian between him and the bench where he had the encounter with the woman and her bologna sandwich.  Almost there.

 

There she is.  The woman was sitting on the bench peering at the black and white print of a wrinkled newspaper.  He thought he saw her chewing.  Good sign. 

 

As he drew nearer, Toby slowed his pace.  Better not to seem too eager—or too aggressive.  He walked deliberately toward the woman, sensing she had seen him out of the corner of her eye.  She was dressed the same as she had been the last time Toby had seen her.  Square-toed black shoes. Worn heels. Denim pants soiled on ample thighs that doubled as napkins.  A black long-sleeved tee shirt bearing the image of a smiling man with flowing dreadlocks.  If Toby could have read, he would have seen the shirt’s admonition that “everything gonna be alright.” But what caught Toby’s attention was the brown paper bag sitting beside the woman.

 

When the old woman finally felt Toby’s longing stare, she gave him little notice.  But then she  gave him a second look. On the third look, she recognized him.

 

“You again,” she finally said.  “You look hungry.”

 

Very.

 

“Suppose you think I’ll give you another piece of my sandwich,” she said, glancing at the paper bag

 

Toby just stared back at her.

 

The woman placed the paper bag on her lap and reached inside.  Toby’s heart pounded as she sorted through the treasures he imagined it held.  He gave a quick lick of lips feeling rumbling of anticipation within his belly.  With a surgeon’s precision, she gently removed the wax paper wrapping and presented her offering to him.  Suppressing a tremor of excitement, Toby waited.

 

“Here you go,” she said. 

 

With each bite Toby’s hunger took control.  He was ravenous, swallowing barely chewed mouthfuls almost as quickly as he took them.

 

“Better slow down with that,” said the smiling woman.  “You’ll choke.”

 

But Toby was deaf with satisfaction, unable to heed her caution.  In seconds, the sandwich was gone.  He licked his mouth with abandon, savoring the taste of the last greasy delight of his feast.

 

“Better?” asked the woman.

 

Ecstatic from her simple act of kindness, Toby wagged his tail relentlessly.  The woman beckoned him to come closer, but old fears are hard things and Toby kept his distance.

 

“It’s okay.  I won’t hurt you.”

 

He let himself close the distance, drawing a little nearer.  The woman moved slowly.  She knew the terror of a lonely existence, what it was like to trust and be deceived.  The woman held out her hand, letting Toby satisfy himself with a sniff or two.  When he came close enough, she gently stroked the matted fur beneath his neck.

 

Heaven. 

 

Toby reveled in her touch for a moment, but then the fear rushed back.  He withdrew in the confusion of gratitude and anxiety.  For a moment, he hoped the woman would offer him another morsel from the bag. She saw him gazing at it, transfixed like Narcissus staring at his reflection.

 

“Sorry.  It was my last one.”

 

The tone of her voice was clear.  There would be no more gifts today.  But for just a moment, everything was right in Toby’s  world.  Someone had seen him.  Touched him.  Toby gave the woman a final glance of gratitude and turned to continue his journey. He needed to find a place to rest.  Maybe a quiet place to nap while the people were all inside their temples.

 

I’m not a ghost. 

There Came a Guest

There came a guest

knocking on my door,

one rap, two, three—

then four.

 

Some friend

or stranger, wondered I,

or perhaps some family

stopping by?

 

 

Warily rising, I walked

to greet

wondering whom at my door

I’d soon meet.

 

“I’m hungry, please,

give me some bread”

was all the red-faced

stranger said;

 

“There’s nothing here,” said I,

for you to eat,”

As he hung his head

in quiet defeat;

 

“Please, let me in,

I am so cold”

his temper rising,

voice growing bold.

 

“There is no warmth,

within this place,

our beds are full,

sir, we have no space,”

 

“But see these wounds,

they must bound,”

demanded he,

this barking hound;

 

“Sir, I’ve no ointment,” said I,

“nor soothing oils,

no salves to treat

thy festered boils,”

 

 

“I beg thee, let me enter,

for some brief rest

I’m all alone,” he begged,

“to find some comfort at thy breast;”

 

 

“Go.  Away.  Be gone

far from my sight,

I’ve no worries

for thy plight.”

 

“But I’ve brought a gift.

See this fine stone?

this gem to polish,

‘tis yours alone;”

 

“I need not thy offering,

I’ve so little care,

now take from here,

what vain gift you bear;”

 

 

“You’re right,” said he,

“a better time, some other day

shall I return,

when I might stay.”

 

So closed I the door,

and locked it tight,

and bid Anger

a cold and fruitless night.

From the Opening Chapter of Long Trail Home: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Matthew felt the tension between fear and rage within him.   The other boys had gathered around him, barking their taunts like hyenas approaching wounded prey.  Harrison Taft, a privileged fifteen-year-old boy with broad shoulders and a festering soul stepped into the circle. Emboldened by the chants of his friends, he walked steadily toward Matthew.  Fighting the urge to flee, Matthew encouraged himself. Don’t be afraid.

 

“You don’t belong here,” said Harrison coldly.  “You’ve only been here a few months and it’s clear you don’t fit in.  You should leave.”

 

Under the blue sky of Virginia Fall, Matthew offered a silent prayer for the intervention of a teacher, for anyone, even God, to come to his aid.  He knew his petition was fruitless.  By the time anyone realized his plight, it would be too late.  The fight would be over and he would be left to nurse his wounds in the black and blue and crimson of bruises and bloodshed of shame.  Just don’t cry.  Don’t let them see you cry.

 

“Leave me alone,” said Matthew, hoping the the hyenas didn’t hear the trembling in his voice.

 

Harrison jabbed his pale sausage of a finger into Matthew’s chest.  As if lancing a boil, the fetid humor of desperation rose in Matthew, causing his face to flush. Hit him first. 

 

“I said, you don’t belong here.   Why don’t you just go back to where you came from?”

 

“Just hit him, Harrison.  Knock him down,” barked one of the pack.

 

Something deep within Matthew, he wasn’t sure what, told him the time had arrived.  He drove his knee hard and deep into Harrison’s groin, hoping to strike a disabling blow.  Matthew watched Harrison double, seeing the searing pain in his adversary’s face.  He tried to back away from his opponent, but Harrison, who outweighed Matthew by at least twenty pounds, fell forward, driving Matthew to his back.

 

Pressing his heels and elbows into the ground, Matthew scrambled back a foot or so before Harrison’s full weight fell upon him.  Feeling the scrape of rocks and roots upon his back and elbows, Matthew was an animal trying to release himself from a trap .  For a moment, he was free. But Harrison was quicker than a boy of his size should be and lurched forward enough to wrap his hand around Matthew’s ankle.  Harrison slowly drew Matthew backward, pinning him beneath his girth. 

 

Matthew couldn’t breathe.  He felt the blows land on his face and neck like thick chunks of hail from a sudden thunderstorm.  Then Matthew heard the vague sound of imminent rescue.  Malachi Landreau?

 

“Enough!” said the man.

 

Whatever hope Matthew might have held for consolation, for vindication, or even protection from future onslaughts of abuse evaporated with the Landreau’s words.

 

“Get up,” ordered the teacher.

 

Through swollen eyes and disbelief, Matthew gazed at Landreau, the man who littered his lectures on military history with the tales of his own bloody battles.

 

“Boy, I think you’ve caused more than your share of trouble since you got here.  I’ll not have any more fighting.  Clean yourself up and go to class.  Don’t let me have to tell you again or you’ll have to face the consequences with me.  You’re weak.  Undisciplined.”

 

Landreau turned to the other boys and concluded his intervention with a cold, “Go to class.”  The teacher then pivoted with martial precision , leaving Matthew to wipe away the dirt and blood now crusting beneath his nose.  His humiliation was complete.  At least I didn’t cry.

Dancing Lessons

I get so confused

about these maddening steps,

trying to keep time with the unforgiving rhythm,

not look down at my wandering,

disobedient feet.

 

I feel the heat on my neck,

everyone staring,

gliding through the maze of the crowd,

their energy,

their skill,

radiating from the polished floor,

shoulders back,

heads up.

Always smiling.

 

Why is this so difficult?

These dancing lessons are hard.

I wonder if this is the wrong music.

Or maybe this just isn’t my dance.