Heart

From The Hot Girl – Part One

For the sixth time Deanna watched her father pull another card from a vase of flowers, put it in a stack with others just like it, toss the flowers into a rolling trash can and dump the vase in the sink before he set it on a nurse’s cart.

“Daddy, why are you keeping the cards?”

Doc Collings turned toward her from the other side of what had been her Gramma Cora’s hospital bed. “So your mother can send them ‘thank you’ notes.”

“Mom hates cut flowers. What’s she going to say, ‘thanks so much for sending dying flowers to my dying mother’?” She didn’t see him wince.

“Flowers are okay at our house. Twice a year.”

“I know. Valentine’s and your anniversary. But you buy mom plants.”

“Sometimes what your mother says is okay, and what she really thinks is okay, are entirely different. She has tolerance for flowers on days where flowers are the norm. And tolerance for your brother or you giving her flowers or something fattening is different from her fully accepting it as okay across the board. Like with me. I don’t gamble with your mom. If I know where the strike zone is I don’t get fancy and try to throw curve balls.” He held his hand out perfectly flat. “I go straight down the middle. Plants in pots are in the strike zone every time.”

Doc Collings’ sports analogies always worked with his super jock son, but now he was in a situation where he always felt lost. Alone, with his daughter. Who, since she’d outgrown her Sting-Ray bike and Barbies, lived on an intellectual diet of poetry, art books, Medieval versions of fables and fairy tales, and top forty radio. And until his mother-in-law’s failing health had sent her to live with them a couple of years ago, there hadn’t been anyone in their house who “got” the post grade school version of Deanna except their black lab, Hayden.

“DeeDee, your grandmother knew you cared.” He tossed another handful of flowers, spun a guest chair around and sat in front of her. “She had all the pictures you copied out of the art books for her. All of your notes and poems and Polaroids were taped to the wall. She was so sick the last week or so she didn’t open anything.”

“I looked for this card forever.” She stared at the unopened envelope in her lap, a thumb and finger holding it on each side. “If she’d just opened it…Maybe…”

“There was no magic in that card that would have saved her.” He ran his hand through his hair, left it at the back of his head. “I know how it hurts when you lose someone you love. In ways you can’t explain to anyone. My parents are gone, my brother died in the war…If you live long enough you lose people…And unfortunately there’s nothing anyone can say or do to make it easier. I wish I could, but…” He reached out, put his hand on top of hers, took the card and gave it a long look before he handed it back. “Deanna, when things like this happen? The old saying about how ‘it’s the thought that counts’ is true. She knew how you felt, card or no card. Believe me.”

“It’s okay, Daddy. She told me before. About her heart and everything.” She glanced around at the stripped bed, dying flowers, empty vases and back to her lost father. “And how if I gave myself time I’d realize the heart that doctors understand isn’t the most important one I have.”

 

Thoughts and commentary on this one are requested, here or via email

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Groupies – I Just Love Your Wife Version

“Thank you so much for coming! I just love your wife. Did she tell you what happened last week?”

Let’s see. Someone came back from China, and the girl from Boston Ballet was soooo beautiful and soooo nice, and the place was packed with girls back from their summer intensives and professionals from all over the world home to see family at the end of summer, and…Yes. I always go back to ballet class with Nana Ballet when she comes home. None of those feel like the right answer. “Duh, no…” doesn’t work in public when asked by a woman who was a New York City Ballet Ford Foundation scholar at 12 and loves your wife.

“I’m not sure. I heard a lot about the ballet studio last week.”

“Let me tell you, she is such an inspiration. She didn’t mention it, did she? Well, there was a large group of very talented young dancers, and some of the younger ones who adore her all filled the big studio on Saturday. And one of them overheard your wife say she needed to check on your grand daughter in the studio next door. You wouldn’t believe it. They were all talking. ‘NO! Like Oh my God. We don’t have to stop taking ballet just because we have a job, or get married or go to med school or get old? We can like still dance when we’re grandmothers? Oh. My. God’. One minute she was another adult taking her regular class crowded in the studio with them, telling them all how lovely they were, and whoops, there’s a grandmother in their ballet class? I think that’s wonderful, don’t you? All those talented young women realizing that dance can be forever. We just love her.”

Nana Ballet strapped the granddaughter into her eighteen-point space capsule car seat, climbed in the front seat, closed the car door and adjusted the air conditiong vents. Off of me and into the back seat like there’s not air blowing back there already. I turn one back my way and get the look.

“I hear Nana Ballet is an inspiration.”

“Seriously? Please. Those girls stand in center, no barre, stick their legs straight up in the air and say things like ‘I can’t believe how stiff I get when I don’t take class’. Ms. K has dancers at ABT, Miami, Seattle, Houston. Denmark. Everywhere. When I saw them all in there on Saturday morning I should have turned around and come home. I shouldn’t have been in a leo in the same building with girls that young and talented.”

No? Shouldn’t let strangers that come up to your knees and hug you get hugged back, either? Not likely…

All you need to do is show up, be real, and kind and able to appreciate your own limitations and the beauty of other people’s gifts, and the magic that needs to happen will take care of itself.

White Lies and Dirty Laundry

Another cutting room floor editing casualty from The Hot Girl that I liked enough to rescue from the trash.

Roosevelt Junior High, October 20th, 1971

Deanna clung to her open locker door with her right hand, leaned her head on the shelf inside. She couldn’t go to home room. She didn’t want to talk, or smile or lead cheerleading practice or read the afternoon announcements or do anything at all. Just for a day she didn’t want to be who she was. All she wanted was to be alone, and maybe have just one real friend she could tell about Gramma Cora. Goddammit. Was that too much to ask, really?

“Morning, Jackson.” Coach Stephens raised his chin at the growth-spurt skinny eighth grade boy in his doorway. “Some geniuses clogged the shitter next door in the band room.” He tossed the blue nylon bag full of his laundry at the kid like it was a medicine ball. “I’ll get you out through the girl’s side. Grab a hall pass in case you meet a stranger on that side of the building.”

Jackson tore off several pre-signed hall passes from the pad, even though anyone that would stop him on blue bag days knew better. He hefted the laundry bag on his shoulder and followed Stephens to the center of the basketball court, the invisible wall between the only non-coed homerooms at Roosevelt Junior High.

Stephens chirped his whistle. “Heads up, skirts down, legs crossed, ladies. Man on business, comin’ through.”

Jackson knew he’d turned red, shielded his head with the bag and sent his eyes to the floor for his trek through the minefield of girl’s gym homeroom. Damn. They sat on the floor cross legged, or laid on their backs with an ankle on their knee, skirts dropped to almost there. He heard them all shuffling positions, heard the giggles, the “is that Santa Claus” and “what’s with the bag” and “uh-oh, panty check” comments that followed him across the basketball court until he was out the double doors, up five steps and in the hall headed toward daylight.

He raised his eyes, and opposite where the janitor had half the hall blocked there was a locker open, but all he could see were sweat socks and girl’s saddle oxfords. Cheerleader gear. And Mr. Han, the asshole French teacher and hall pass Nazi, was coming down the hall from the other direction, on a collision course with him and the cheerleader at her open locker. Shit.

Bonjour, Mr. Han.”

“Always halfway clever, Monsieur Jackson. You and the bag say it’s Wednesday. Who do we have at their locker who should be in home room?”

Jackson stepped sideways into the narrow space between the cheerleader’s open locker door and Mr. Han, swung his laundry bag around and knocked the unseen girl back inside her open locker. He was chest to chest and almost eye to eye with Han in zero personal space for all three of them. He lifted a hall pass out of his back pocket with his thumb and finger, held it under the bag and waited until he felt her grab it.

“She was with me, Mr. Han. There’s shit, uh, sewage all on the floor by the band room on our side and Coach sent her to escort me out the girl’s side. So I wouldn’t do anything stupid or talk to anybody. And, um, anyway, she needed a book, that’s why he sent her with me. And she ran ahead of me. To get her book.”

Han reached around Jackson, checked the crumpled pink paper the girl pushed past the blue bag.

“Don’t you have somewhere you’re supposed to be, Mr. Jackson?”

“Yes sir.” Jackson stepped off in a hurry, just under the ‘don’t run in the hall’ rule, didn’t look back. Han followed him with his eyes until Jackson and the blue bag were around the corner.

“Miss Collings, are you feeling alright?”

“Yes. My grandmother’s funeral was yesterday. I just didn’t want to talk to everyone…anyone. That’s why I, um, ran to my locker. I’ll be okay. Really.”

“I understand. There’s never a good time for a funeral. Or Jackson.” He flicked the pink pass in his hand with his middle finger, handed it back. “Tell Stephens even he needs to put names on his hall passes. Why he’d send you out with that kid and the bag is beyond me.”

“Well, there is some really gross stinky poop and stuff on the floor on their side and Jackson can get in trouble. I mean pretty easy, and kind of a lot. And I did need my book.”

“As usual, Miss Collings, everything you have said is true.” He pushed her locker door closed. “Home room young lady. Now.”

“Yes sir.” She glanced at the hall pass on her way, smoothed it out and put it in the history book she wouldn’t need for four hours. Jackson, the guy with the big blue bag, had spare hall passes? And covered her? Cool.

Leftovers

She cringed when everything disappeared for a second while we passed the truck. The windshield wipers brought the wet freeway back into shiny night time soft-focus and she opened her eyes.

“At least we don’t have to think about dinner when we get home. That’s the nice thing about Chipotle leftovers.” The only nice thing about Chipotle leftovers is that, like red beans and rice, it’s better on day two and she was trying to distract herself from the rain and the freeway and my driving by talking. And distracting me. “We have cheese, too. Leftover from Thanksgiving, but it’s probably still good.”

“Is it possible for Velveeta to go bad? I mean it’s yellow candle wax.”

“It was kind of stiff. You need to get over a lane sometime.”

“Thank you. I’m trapped till the white Caddy gets off my ass. Our daughter liked it. She nuked it until it screamed and put it all over her broccoli.”

“She did? I didn’t notice. Well, I like it better when it has Rotel or something in it. We should have done that.”

“Yeah. Velveeta on its own is pretty disgusting. It’s too thick unless you cut it with something. Probably why we don’t ever buy it.”

“Maybe. There might be another reason.” She was smiling now, a twinkle in her eye, the exit in sight.

“Yeah, maybe?”

“Yeah.” She put her hand on my arm. “Maybe we don’t buy it because all we need around the house is another excuse for you to cut the cheese.”

Skin Deep

The Nutcracker – Dress Rehearsal 2016

“You looked great up there.”

“For someone more than twice as old as the principals from New York City Ballet.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I did. We’ve been married ten years longer than they’ve been alive.”

“So, it’s good that you looked great up there on the same stage with them.”

“Mmm. I’m not so sure how great I looked.”

“I have pictures.”

“You weren’t supposed to take pictures.”

“No flash. How long have I been doing this?”

“We just had that discussion.” She flipped the visor down, opened the mirror. “Anyway, my costume is a blue velvet corset I’m cinched into. And I have my extra nylon hair.” She put the ringlets in a large zip lock, stuffed them in the dance bag then dumped fifteen bobby pins that would stay in the cup holder on her side of the console until the next trip to the free vacuums at the car wash. Or we bought drive-thru coffee in her car. Or she ran out of bobby pins.

“You still looked great.”

“The secret is old lady ballerina make up.” She peeled off one eyelash that would have made Dolly Parton envious, blinked in the mirror.

“I didn’t know they made that.”

“Oh, they make it, alright.” The other eyelash came off, got stuck to a small piece of white cardboard with the first one, wrapped in wax paper, dropped in a make up bag. She blinked again. Her own lipstick had come out and she did that thing women do with lipstick and a car vanity mirror.

“What’s in it that makes it so special?”

“Spackling.”  She rubbed her lips together, checked the mirror, smiled. “And formaldehyde.”

The Nutcracker

Go see The Nutcracker, wherever you are, whoever is doing it. It’s good for you. Trust me, I’ve seen it more than a couple of times and it hasn’t killed me. Yet.

Throw Some Flowers

“I got a new costume this year! It’s blue and lavender, not that old green thing that just made me disappear. And there’s a girl, she’s one of my teacher’s old students, she’s a mom with me this year, she was a principle at Houston ballet until guess what? She broke her sesamoid, too, like me. Then she went to college while it healed and she works at some corporation now and has a four-year old and doesn’t have time for ballet or anything…” I see the look that is doing child age and career math equals time line to return to ballet class. “But after this and Ms. Kathy, she’ll be back. It’s like a habit you can’t quit or something, almost. You can quit for a while, but then it just runs over you again. And she was a principle, a real professional, so she can’t stop. And this guy? He was there last year, he said he was so glad to be back because this is the best time of the whole year. And he’s right. Last year I said I probably shouldn’t do it anymore, but now I’m glad I am. I don’t know why I got picked again.”

Please. Maybe because put you on stage in a costume, some $20 curls and too much red lipstick and you light up like a freaking Christmas tree. And that’s the real story of The Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker party scene is where, in regional productions anyway, lucky retired and adult ballet dancers get to put on costumes and make all of the rest of the year’s classes worthwhile. The hired dance-slingers from ABT or NYCB come to dance the dreams of a little girl named Clara alongside the best of the young dancers the area has to offer, some of their retired peers, maybe even an ex-childhood teacher. And a pretty grandmother who gets to wear a blue and lavender costume, not the old green one.

The remarkable thing about The Nutcracker is that it does with music and dance what we, as a global society, often cannot. It transcends religion and geography and tells a story full of cross cultural fantasy and spectacle and fear and joy and when it’s over everyone throws or delivers flowers to the stage where it happened. How cool is that?

Here’s the deal. The Nutcracker is supposed to be about Clara, a little girl who dreams her dreams of faraway magical lands that she shares with a brave, handsome prince. But what makes the music come to life, what makes the principle dancers from the best ballet companies in the world look so spectacular, what makes people cheer year after year is that the stage where it happens is packed with ageless little girls’ dreams, not just Clara’s. Dreams so big and real they fill up a theater with their hope and that inexplicable magic of belief in something bigger than reality.

So if it’s your neighbor’s kid or your kid or grand kid or your wife, or even if no one you know is in The Nutcracker playing in your part of the world this year, go see it. Talk to a stranger in the lobby, toast the season. Take some flowers with you and give them to a dancer who might be famous, might have been famous, might have been hurt, might even be a grandmother. This season, no matter what you believe, make yourself part of something bigger and better and more magical than what the nightly news would lead you to believe is our world.

Nuts

She waved her hand in a wide but unobtrusive arc, more wrist than arm. “Every time I see these things I think about John’s nuts.”

Here we go. “Yeah? What things?”

“All these big green egg things. They remind me of John’s nuts, that’s all.”

Big green egg shaped things and John somebody’s nuts.

“He’s dead, now.” She let that hang a moment. “He was at work one day, all chirpy, saying he was okay, and he was gone the next day. It was all kind of sad.”

Okay, maybe this John guy had big green nuts and that’s what killed him. Big green nuts would do that, kill a guy if he didn’t get them checked out. If I woke up with big green nuts I would sure as hell beat it to the Doc’s.

“We all ate his nuts for like three months.”

Hold on. “You all ate John’s nuts?”

“So did we, you and I. You remember, from the Christmas party a few years ago? Taller, kind of poinky. Gray hair. He was gay and a really nice man. We saw him that time at the store and I introduced you?”

“Oh yeah, right. Him. You worked with him for a while?” The only person I remembered from the Christmas parties was a black dude trumpet player who taught music and was fun, and a sparkly older lady whose daddy had been a senator or governor or something from Louisiana. She held the patent on the old school Southern Belle thing and was sharper than a barber’s razor. Otherwise, like most work Christmas parties, there was never a lack of shortish or tallish, poinky-ish, gray haired, maybe gay people around.

“Yes. He’s dead now.”

“You said that.” Okay. Deep breath. “He didn’t die of giant green egg shaped nuts, did he?”

“No…” She was off somewhere remembering poinky gray gay John, missing his presence at work. Hopefully not his nuts. “It was cancer. They told him he had five or six years after his first round with it, and like clockwork, in four and a half years it was back with a vengeance. He was gone in six months. Anyway, he gave us all a big bag of his roasted nuts for Christmas that year and we ate them for a couple of months.”

“He didn’t like give us chunks of his big green egg shaped nuts that he roasted, right?”

“No. Listen, and don’t be goofy. He roasted his own nuts in one of these green egg griller-roaster things. And gave them to us in a big bag with a ribbon around the top. When I see all these green egg things it reminds me of him and his nuts. Like when I see those beat up cooking pots, you know, the big ones? I think of my grandpa’s boiled peanuts.”

“Boiled what?”

“Peanuts. Big ol’ green egg things and big ol’ beat up cook pots making me think about John’s and grampa’s nuts. I guess I’m weird, huh?”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Oh, you. Stop it. Talk about weird, Mister Weird-o. Did you get those screw-on nipple things you wanted so we can leave?”

nipples