Murmuration

 

blackbirds

The flock wheeled and dipped, guided by some unseen signal. Muriel watched the black cloud of birds insert themselves into the towering lodge-pole pine. Settling on branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree, they talked softly among themselves. She imagined the conversations.

“Where are we heading?”

“No idea. I’m just following everyone else.”

“Who’s leading?”

“Who knows?”

And yet for all the anarchy of their system, it worked beautifully. Muriel wished her own life system worked as well. Her children had departed in much noisier fashion than the birds, one by one flying off to college, their own apartments, their significant others. They came home for holidays and the odd visit, circling the house and flying off again before she could acclimate to their presence. Her empty house was quiet. Sometimes she didn’t speak all day.

Muriel read the articles about empty nest syndrome. She noted the advice to join a group, take a class, exercise, get out more. Deeply shy, she couldn’t imagine herself doing any of it. Aside from her weekly trips to the library to renew her stash of novels and the necessary forays to the grocery store, Muriel kept to herself.  Every surface in her house gleamed, every weed in her garden was plucked, but there was still so much time.

Outside, the blackbirds murmured, discussing flight plans, no doubt. Inside, Muriel looked at the dull November landscape and said aloud, “Why don’t I fly away? I’ve got the money and the time. No one would miss me. Why don’t I just go – somewhere?” For a few minutes she sat wondering where she’d go, theoretically speaking, if she went. Tropics? Europe? Asia? Impulsively, she picked up her cell phone and searched for travel agents.

~*~

The heat nailed her when she stepped off the plane. She felt her careful hairdo go flat instantly. The water in the bay cast a ferocious light that was painful to her eyes. Sweat popped out on her upper lip.

What have I gotten myself into? I hate to sweat!

But she was here now and there was nothing to do but make the best of it. She dragged her suitcase to the row of taxis and climbed into the first one.

The cottage she’d rented proved to be just as pretty as the pictures, though rather more rural than she’d thought. She liked the wonderful view of the water and the short walk to the beach. She liked the little green salamanders that zipped about on the patio.

She liked less the pack of dun-colored dogs that milled around in the space between her cottage and the beach. They had ribs like corduroy and curved tails that whipped the air above their backs. Clearly, they were strays wanted by no one. Muriel had to admit she felt a certain kinship. When one of the dogs, a little yellow female, worked up the courage to approach her as she sat on the patio, she shared the last bite of her sandwich with it. The dog’s tail went into hyper-drive and she smiled – no other word for it – up into Muriel’s face. Muriel bought a bag of dog food in the local bodega.

The dogs became her pack then. Every day they waited on the patio, sniffing at the sliding glass door until she emerged. They were always hungry, but waited politely while she filled the assorted coffee cans and flower pots with food and water. Surprisingly, they never snarled or fought for position over the food. After they ate, they approached her one by one for a scratch behind the ears, a long stroke down a washboard back. Then, replete with unaccustomed food and affection, they stretched out on their sides and slept. She named them; she knew she shouldn’t, but she did.

Every day Muriel walked along the beach with the dogs in sunlight that now seemed like a benediction. When she got hot, she waded into the surf. Her pale skin turned red, then golden. Her mousy brown hair developed blond streaks.  She felt better than she had in years,

She met the same beachcombers most days and they’d pause to chat. Her shyness seemed to fly away on the ocean breezes. Maybe she’d forgotten to pack it. There was one man, Andre’, whom she came to think of as a friend. She talked to him about the worry that pressed on her mind. What would become of the dogs when she went home?

“Do you have to go home?” he asked.

“Well, of course…” she began, but stopped short, silenced by the thought of gray, empty days.

“Here you have sunshine, friends,” Andre’ said with a shrug.

A cloud of ebony wings – starlings, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds – swept the sky, their soft cacophony falling to earth.

Andre’ sighed with pleasure, tipping his head back. “Ah, a murmuration of blackbirds.”

Muriel listened to what they said.

“Do you think she’ll stay?”

“I think she might. I think she very well might.”

 

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Gas Man

gas meter

Even burglars grow older. Take Casco. He was still as skinny as he’d been at eighteen –  almost, anyway – but at forty-nine he’d definitely slowed down. He’d never admit that robbing a place took him much longer than it used to and carried an uncomfortable amount of risk get-away-wise. However, it was the only trade he knew. He told himself he had to rely more on brains now than speed. But brains had never been his long suit.

That’s why, when he had the brilliant idea of knocking off the pawn shop in a way that had never been done before, at least not to his knowledge, he got excited. It would require careful planning. His father always said Casco couldn’t plan a one-car funeral. Well, he’d show him.

He started by gathering intelligence from his neighbor, Jack, who worked for the gas company. “So Jack, you know a lot about heating systems, being in the gas business and all, right? How big would you say a commercial building’s heat ducts are?”

Jack looked at him like he was nuts. “Depends.”

“On what?”

“Hell, I don’t know. How big the building is, what kind of heating system it has, stuff like that. It’s not really my line, I read gas meters.”

Intelligence gathering wasn’t much help, so he decided to rely on his gut instinct. That hadn’t proved totally reliable in the past. There’d been a couple of little prison stints. But this time it would be different; he’d really think things through.

He didn’t mention his plans to Louisa. She worried about him when he was out on a job. So when she served up his favorite meal of red beans and rice the day of his intended foray into crime, he had to eat his usual heaping plateful washed down with a few beers so she wouldn’t suspect anything.

With what he considered a stroke of genius, he’d snagged a set of Jack’s work clothes from the backyard clothesline. The gray shirt had Municipal Natural Gas stitched on the pocket. The pants were too big, but he tucked them into his boots and cinched his belt. In that uniform he was just another invisible worker bee going about his job.

The pawn shop was located on the ground floor of a grungy two-story office building long past its glory days. There was no security of any kind when Casco slipped into the lobby late in the day. Walking around looking official gave him a chance to scope out the place. He found a cramped supply closet where he waited until everyone was gone. When there was no more noise and the security lights were the only ones left burning, he carefully stood and stretched.

Fortunately, there was a step ladder in the closet; he’d forgotten that in his planning. He set it up, ascended carefully, and removed the ceiling tile. There it was, the air duct that snaked its way throughout the building. It wasn’t as big as he’d hoped, but he was a wiry guy. Casco stood on the top step of the dangerously tippy ladder, cut an opening in the duct and squirmed his way in. He inched along in the direction of the pawn shop.

“Dang, it’s dark as the inside of a billy goat,” he muttered to himself. He had a flashlight, but it was in his back pocket and his arms were pinned at his sides. He wished he’d gotten one of those headlight thingies, but too late now. He continued to worm his way toward his goal.

Surely the duct wasn’t getting narrower? His belt kept catching on ceiling vents and then he’d have to perform a kind of shimmy to get it loose. Finally, he judged he was over the pawn shop. He peered down through another vent. Yes! The cash register was directly beneath him, glowing in the yellow night-light like a treasure chest. All he had to do now was…was…get down there somehow. But how? He was stretched full-length in the duct with no space to move his arms. The ceiling vent was maybe twelve inches square and the only way down was head-first.

Casco paused to have a little think. It was warm and his belly was full of beans and beer. His eyelids fluttered, then closed. He slept.

“Do you smell something?”

The voice jolted Casco awake. He must have been asleep for hours because daylight seeped through the vent. The pawn shop was open for business. A need to pee made itself urgently known. And not only that, his gut rumbled ominously. “Red beans coming through,” it warned. He clenched every muscle in his body.

“Yes, I definitely smell something.”

“Well, it wasn’t me. Check the bathroom, maybe the toilet backed up.”

“Nope, everything’s okay, no back up. You know, guilty people always say ‘it wasn’t me.’”

“Yeah, and guilty people always act innocent and blame someone else. There’s just the two of us here so it had to be either you or me, and it wasn’t me.”

“Dang it, I’m tellin’ you – .”

“Wait a minute. Did you hear that?”

Bickering stopped while both heads cocked to listen. There was no mistaking the sound.

“It’s coming from up there.”

When Casco saw the upturned faces he knew he’d be spending more time as a guest of the state. Maybe he’d use this stretch in the joint to learn another trade. Even burglars grow older.

 

 

 

Ice on the Moon

moon

“Look here,” he said, rattling the newspaper in her face. “It says here there’s almost certainly ice water on the surface of the moon.”

The look she gave him as she pushed the paper away was equally icy, but he didn’t notice.

“Says here that scientists are analyzing old data, information they collected in 2008, and – blah, blah, blah – bouncing infrared light into caverns and – well, it’s pretty scientific, whatever they’re doing. They can’t tell how deep the ice is because it’s in these dark craters, so it could be the tip of an ice berg or as thin as a layer of frost.”

This information was met with a thin layer of frosty silence. Again, he didn’t notice. Couldn’t he just take a breath once in a while, she wondered, glance her way, see her? With a sigh, she heaved herself to her feet and walked heavily to the kitchen. He kept on reading the evening paper aloud.

“Hey, know what else?” he called.

She couldn’t hear him over the running water and clashing pots and pans, and he had to know she couldn’t hear him, but he kept right on talking. She’d long ago stopped calling back, “What?” It didn’t matter. Talking was what mattered. Monologue was what mattered.

His words woke her in the morning, dogged her days, trailed her into sleep. She believed she knew what it was to be an oyster with a hard grain of irritation growing and growing. Only she wasn’t forming a pearl.

Earlier in their marriage she’d tried to participate, make it a dialogue, but she finally realized he wasn’t interested in what she had to say. So she built a carapace of hardening layers of silence.

Some women, she knew, longed for their husbands to talk. “Just say something,” they’d beg, “carry one end of a conversation.” Not her. She longed for her husband to shut up. If he wasn’t reading the newspaper to her, he was giving a running commentary on the television show she was trying to watch. Or reading unconnected paragraphs aloud from his current library book. Or looking out the window, relaying neighborhood activities. She never got the whole story about anything.

Parts of what he was saying drifted in from the living room: “…Twelve dead and they think it’s from…Social media says that first-born girls are more likely to…two-headed calf born in…The Gerbers got a new car, it’s a big red….”

Chatter no different than usual, but today with an inward thump she reached the end of her endurance. No more. The thought of silence, blessed silence, made the long bones in her body vibrate with anticipation.

She got the suitcase from its place of hiding behind the coats in the hall closet. It had been packed for years. From time to time, she’d update the clothing, replace the toothpaste. In an inside pocket was an envelope containing a stack of one-hundred dollar bills. She’d never been sure she’d actually do it, but she’d felt better just having an escape plan. Now she was ready.

Tearing a page from her shopping list pad, she wrote a line, then quietly picked up her car keys. He was still talking as she slipped out the door. She’d be long gone by the time he came into the kitchen to see what was delaying his dinner, and then he’d find the note on the table, pinned down by the salt shaker.

“You know that ice on the moon? It’s the tip of an iceberg.”

 

 

 

Lulu

bossy girl

“You can’t have that, Robbie, give it to me right now.”

With her lips pushed out and arms folded across her skinny middle, she was a six-year-old bulldozer. Lulu’s voice carried authority that could not be ignored. At least, not by Robbie.

Obediently, he put the new sand pail and shovel down and stood back while Lulu took possession and began digging. He watched with wistful eyes, but he knew better than to grab the shovel back. Or even to ask for a turn. This was Lulu, after all.

~*~

“I’ve changed my mind,” Lulu said. She didn’t raise her voice. She was stating a fact, not arguing. “Not going after all.”

Robbie nodded, but it was important to him so he dared to press her ever so carefully. “It’s just that it’s too late to ask anyone else; the prom is tomorrow night, and you did say you’d be my date.”

“Nope,” Lulu said with a shrug. And that was that. He’d already paid for his tux rental, but skipped the prom.

~*~

“I need a ride to the frat party,” Lulu said, “and then you can hang out somewhere nearby and wait until I call you to pick me up. If I do call; I might meet someone.”

“But I’ve got a mid-term tomorrow. I planned to study and then get to bed early so I’d be rested. My GPA is going to rise or fall on this test.”

“Bring your books and study in the car.”

“It’s pretty cold to be…” Robbie began. But Lulu had stopped listening.

Resigned, he packed up his books and picked up his car keys.

~*~

“I’m going to marry him no matter what you say,” Lulu said.

“Wait; please listen to me. He’s not a good person. He brags about getting women drunk and assaulting them. He’s got a terrible temper. You’re making a mistake.”

“You’re just jealous.”

~*~

“Come get me, Robbie,” Lulu wailed on the phone. “He gave me a black eye and a cracked rib. I’ve got to get out of here.”

“Oh, Lulu, I tried to tell you…”

“Just come.”

Of course, he did.

~*~

“I do,” said Lulu and “I do” echoed Robbie. They turned to face the congregation and be introduced as husband and wife. Robbie’s face was incandescent with happiness; Lulu looked mildly interested.

Their youth was behind them; Lulu had been through two marriages already. Not Robbie, though. He’d waited – well, not exactly waited because he’d had no hope of ever marrying Lulu. There simply hadn’t been anyone else who interested him. He suspected that Lulu was marrying him now because she needed a safe harbor for old age. If that’s what she needed, he’d gladly supply it.

~*~

Life together was eventful, that’s how Robbie described it to himself. He’d had a lifetime of training in letting Lulu have her own way and he continued to do so. It wasn’t wise to annoy her, knowing that any day she could say, “Enough,” and it would be over. His family and friends thought he was a spineless schmuck. They didn’t understand what it meant to be with Lulu at last.

~*~

“Robbie, can you hear me?”

Since she was shouting directly into his ear, yes, he could. He made a huge effort to open his eyes, to nod.

“You can go on now. I’ll be all right,” Lulu said. “You’ve got plenty of life insurance.”

“I won’t go until you say it,” he said, so weak he could hardly form the words. Part of him marveled that he had the courage to defy her, even now when it wouldn’t matter much longer.

“Say what?”

“You know.”

“Oh, Robbie, you idiot. Do you have to hear the words?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, then. I love you.”

He smiled. He’d known it all along. His last breath was a gentle “aaah” of satisfaction.

 

Scheherazade

 

cabin in woods

 

Marilyn heard the hiss as the air left the tire. Oh, great. Here she was on the road to nowhere, her cell phone had no bars, and now she had a flat tire. Coming to a stop, she peered out into the darkness. The only thing that could possibly make this trip any better would be running out of gas, she thought, remembering that she’d passed the last opportunity to fill up a long time ago. As if on cue, the engine coughed and died. She turned the key again and again, but no reassuring thrum responded. Darn it, how could she have been so stupid!

She’d been on the way to a writers’ conference to receive an award for the latest book in her best-selling Fluffy Bunny series. It was ironic, everyone agreed, that she was so good at writing children’s books when she had no kids of her own. Beside her on the seat was a box of autographed copies of Fluffy Bunny Finds a Friend. 

It had obviously been a mistake to assume her GPS was her friend. Listening to the crisp British voice she called Queen Liz, she’d obeyed directions to turn onto this road even though it looked spooky and deserted. Now she was stranded. Okay, she’d just have to walk. She reached for the handle as the door was yanked open.

Marilyn felt herself propelled forcefully from the car. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. As she’d always feared, she wasn’t able to produce a peep in a crisis, let alone a full-throated movie scream. Struggling against the iron grip on her arm did no good at all. Eyes straining, she tried to see her assailant, but it was too dark to make out anything but a shadowy figure in a hoodie.

“Let me go,” she managed to squeak. “Who are you? Let go of me.”

The hand on her arm tightened. She was half-carried, half-dragged into the bushes that lined the road. He’s going to kill me, she thought, and nobody will ever know what happened to me because no one knows I’m here.

But they kept going. As they scrambled through the woods a faint light appeared, too dim to be powered by electricity. It was coming from the window of a cabin. Maybe somebody would hear her if she yelled.

“Help!” She managed a good, strong shout.

The figure beside her snorted a laugh. He dragged her to the door of the cabin, opened it and threw her inside. She lay stunned on the floor, seeing her captor at last by the light of a single, guttering candle.

Why, he was a kid – big, strong and obviously dangerous, but something in his eyes told her a child lived within. He covered his mouth with his hand and looked away.  Like the dog that catches a car, he didn’t seem to know what to do with her now that he had her.

Marilyn sensed what happened next was up to her. Fighting back the fear that made her legs feel like noodles, she got to her feet slowly and sat on the only chair in the room. Her captor hunkered down with his back against the door, eliminating any hope of her making a run for it.

She tried a shaky smile that felt like a grimace. “What’s your name?”

He shook his head.

“I have a son about your age,” she lied. “Do you have a mom?”

He shook his head again.

She took in their surroundings: dirt floor and log walls, straight wooden chair on which she sat, rickety table, and a pile of filthy blankets in the corner. She saw a life of isolation, a life of aching loneliness. Hunger came off him in waves, but she had a hunch it wasn’t for food. Here was a person starved for human contact.

Then, like Scheherazade, she began to save her own life. She sat up straight, smiled genuinely at the little boy she knew was there, and spoke in her own mother’s voice.

“My name is Marilyn. I’m going to tell you a story.”

Star Man

 

star man

When it was too hot to sleep, they’d climb through the window of their upstairs apartment and lie on the roof to catch whatever breeze was stirring. There in the desert the night was spangled with stars so close it felt like gravity might pull them down to the Earth. Zeke talked about how humans and stars shared the same crucial elements of life: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.

“They’ve proved it, babe,” he said. “Scientists took a huge sampling of stars and cataloged the very same elements that we have – in different proportions, of course. It’s nice to think we’re all made of stardust.”

Ellen laughed and agreed. They were young and in love. She thought she’d found heaven right there on Earth.

Life happened, of course. The early days of just the two of them gave way to children, mortgages, careers, and worries about aging parents. They left the desert and moved to the city to be available when those parents needed them. Ellen got a job, the kids were in school and sports, and life became a blur of activity.  Zeke found silver strands in his black hair, which he called star streaks.

He laughed about it. “Getting old,” he said. It was true he’d slowed down.

When his weight loss became a concern, he finally gave in to her insistence that he see a doctor.  She returned home from work that day to find him sitting quietly in the backyard. He wasn’t cutting grass or edging or weeding. He was just sitting. It was so uncharacteristic that she felt a thrill of alarm.

“What’s up? What’d the doctor say?” She tried to sound casual as she dropped onto the grass at his feet.

“Oh, babe,” he said, and there was such a world of sadness in his voice that she knew. She knew right then the stars were falling out of their sky.

It took a year. It was a gradual, graceful fading. The children did their best to help, but most of the time it was just the two of them, like in those long ago desert days.

“The word awesome is so overused,” Ellen said after the funeral. “Any old thing is awesome these days. But you know what’s really awesome? Sharing that last journey with the person you love.”

The first year was hard. The first birthday without him, the first Thanksgiving, Christmas. Christmas was the worst. The months rolled on, seasons came and went, children continued to grow, and there were still the everyday chores of living – laundry, meals, errands.  After a while, it got easier. She laughed again, she got hungry, tired, bored.  As if nothing had changed.

Finally, when the last child left home, when his parents and her parents passed on, Ellen moved back to the desert. She bought a one-level condo, made friends, did volunteer work. Life was different, but it was good.

On a night when she couldn’t sleep, she sat outside on her tiny patio, leaned her head back and looked up. The stars went on forever, still flinging out their splendor, still  composed of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.

“Hi, babe,” she said.

 

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls

graveyard

When the bell rang beside his ear he jerked straight up from his slumber against the tombstone. Maybe it was the wind? God, let it be the wind! His eyes flew to the cord that emerged from a copper tube in the freshly-turned earth. The cord was moving. He’d have to dig. He’d promised.

When Edwin’s mother finally died, his sorrow was tempered by a big dollop of relief. Mrs. Benjamin had had a lengthy last illness, a horror story of diminished mobility, dementia and bedsores. How she could continue to live in such a state was a puzzle, but live she did until she and everyone longed for the end. Although she seldom seemed to know who or where she was, one thought remained in her addled brain: fear of being buried alive. She’d discussed it with Edwin many times. As she drew her last breath, she locked eyes with him and whispered, “Promise.”

Edwin knew her fear wasn’t totally irrational. The pronouncement of death was an inexact science in the year of our Lord, 1816. When there was no response to the usual diagnostic tools –  a pinprick, a mirror held under the nose, an ear pressed to the chest – burial took place as soon as possible. Mistakes were rare, but they happened.

The well-off and especially fearful had escape coffins made to give themselves a fighting chance if revival happened underground. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick designed a coffin with a window, an air tube and a lock, with the key to repose in a special pocket of his shroud. Other coffins, like Mrs. Benjamin’s, were built with cords that rang a bell on the surface. That was the signal for someone topside to start digging.

Edwin had promised to keep watch above his mother’s grave for forty-eight hours so he’d be right there with his spade if needed. Now he stared at the gently swinging little bell, his body drenched in terror-sweat. Dig up his poor mother who had been needing to die for at least ten years? Not dig her up and let her die a second time alone and in panic? There was no good solution. Flinging off his cape, Edwin stuck the spade in the soft ground and began excavating. He dug to the gentle tinkling of the bell.

The spade hit the top of the coffin with a metallic clunk. Jumping down into the hole, he  pried open the lid, clamping his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. Inside his mother lay in peaceful repose, as dead as she could possibly be. Then what or who rang the bell?

Reemerging above ground, Edwin scanned the area around the grave carefully. His peripheral vision caught a dark figure darting behind the tombstone. Raising his lantern high, he peered around the marker. Two glowing yellow eyes caught the light.  A paw snaked out and flicked the bell, sending a ripple along the cord.

Ting-a-ling. Meow.

Edwin took that black cat home with him. He named it Dead Ringer.