Find a Character Anywhere

This one surprised even me:

The temp on my patio hit 98 degrees; heat index is much higher.  With the weedy grass in the front yard two feet high, I felt compelled to mow, but I got a little trick that I call the Wet Arab.  I don a long sleeve shirt, a pair of long pajama bottoms and dunk myself in the pool.  Then I top off this soppy outfit with Panama hat.  I suppose, I look quite ridiculous.  Who cares?

A neighbor stopped me from my work to discuss a dying tree–more on her property than mine.  While her SUV idled and the chit-chat revved, I was at first chilled in my wet clothes and then began to dry out.  By the end of the conversation I was sweating.  As you may guess, the talk when pass the initial topic of tree.

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Weird Willy

The omens are bad.  Two years ago, a storm blew a baby mockingbird from its tree.  I saved him from my vicious (kidding) Chihuahuas, but I could not put him back in his nest; I dare not climb the spindly branches that his parents chose to build on.  Instead, I placed him in a thick set of Indian Hawthorns and his mother fed him from there.

Weird Willy survived this early trauma, but he was never quite right.  Socially challenged, I’d say, and I don’t think he ever lured a mate.  He went around disrupting other couples and never understood the concept: two’s company, three’s a crowd.  He was amusing though.

Now, I’m afraid he’s been a victim of Mr. Hawk.  First my best friend and now Weird Willy is gone.   

Call me superstitious if you want, but I’m going to be very, very careful for awhile.  Bad luck comes like a train wreck, one car slamming into another.

 

Express Pass

 

January 1996 – July 2011

Handsome, humble and housetrained.  A good guard dog, good eater, good listener and good kisser.  A trustworthy walking companion:  no leash required.  A diligent sentry, until he handed over yard patrol to another able soldier.  For nearly fifteen years, he diligently upheld the ideals of noble dogism.  Salute.

In return I loved, pampered and indulged him.  He never knew a flea, tick or illness, except old age.  Never suffered the bite of a wintry night, the end of a chain or fell out of favor with his pack.

Easter Bunny Goes Out of Business

“I’m late. I’m late,” said Mr. Bunniwunie.

“Indeed, you are,” said Uncle Sam.  “Hand over the pot of gold, for I owe wagons of such tender to places that lay east by east of east of here.”

“A bunny has neither rainbow, nor pots of precious stones.”

“Then I’ll have that pillbox hat and that green felt jacket, which keeps your worthless hide warm.”

“What, pray thee, will become of me?” asked old bunny, handing over all he owned.   

“Pray not,” said Uncle, as he collapsed the hat and slipped in a pocket.  “We separate such things from the reckoning.”  Of the vest, he shredded the fuzzy material and cast it to the wind.

“How did these vestments aid the cause?” asked Mr. Bunniwunie.

“As a citizen of the glen, you may ask,” said Uncle.  “But I shall never tell.  Of this, I will say only one thing: I have deprived you of your trappings as an example, least all bunnies delay to pay.”

“How shall I go forth, naked as I am?”

“Perhaps, you need welfare now,” spoke Uncle with a wink.  “How many offspring have thee?”

“Oh, many,” said Bunniwunie.  “My wife, Alice, and I have a collection of decorated eggs stashed about the shire.  Dyed in pastels of pink, blue and yellow.  Quite extraordinary this year if I say so myself.”

“Eggs, you say.” Uncle pondered.  “Un-hatched eggs are asset of considerable worth.  Are you being evasive?”

“Nay,” the bunny said.  “My business is known about the village.  Every child can vouch for me.  I am familiar to the media, especially this time of the year.”

“Then I shall offer an extension,” Uncle said.  “Sell your eggs and give Uncle a quarter to begin, a third for labor and a half upon the end.”

“Robbery,” protested Mr. Bunniwunie.

“Ssssh, call it not,” said Uncle, bending down low.  He whispered into one of Bunniwunie’s giant ears.  “Hatch your eggs, claim them as dependents, and I shall owe you.”

“Is it better to proliferate, than to toil and propagate my gifts of joy upon the world?”

“Indeed,” said Uncle.  “The Royal Accountant has proclaimed that a trillion taxpayers are required to settle our debt with eastern concerns.”

“But a trillion bunnies upon the glen will burden our resources, strip all things green and leave us hungry in the winter that shall surely come to pass.”

“Tsk, tsk, Mr. Bunniwunie,” said Uncle.  “We must solve one problem at a time.”

The End

Suing a Deity

Suing a Deity

by

C.M. Marcum

The courtroom hummed.  A hundred private and hushed conversations overlapped, as people adjusted their belongings, staked out their seats and prematurely opined on the outcome of my case.  A few snatches of gossip stung my ears, as the whisperers suggested that I didn’t stand a chance, yet none seemed to doubt the validity of my claims.  Voices swelled and ebbed at regular intervals; enthusiasm crested over decorum, and then snapped off abruptly when the audience recognized their own inappropriate volume.

On my side—the Plaintiff’s side—the low whir of chatter came from women.  Half of them flapped their jaws, while the other half leaned forward to get a better look at me.

On the Defendant’s side, men crammed the pews, while simultaneously doing their best not to touch each other.  Predominately baritone, their voices suggested anger mixed with a more fundamental bias.  One man grunted loud enough for everyone to hear:  What’s sup with that bee-ich, anyway?

The A-wipe was talking about me, of course.  I could understand his point of view.  I’m seriously, outrageously over matched.  I’m just an average girl, a plain Jane really.  I did have a lot of gall bringing a lawsuit against a goddess, and now that the trial was actually in motion, I wanted nothing more than to run away and hide.  Foolish, foolish me.  Why did I ever listen to Paul Kernosfkie?

Paul, my pro-bono lawyer and ex-boyfriend, cupped his hand over my sweaty fist and cooed something in a soothing tone.  I didn’t catch the words, but at this point I didn’t want to be coddled; I wanted to flee the county, change my name and vanish from public view.

My gaze drifted over to the Defendant’s table.  F. Lee Bailey, freshly arisen from the grave by the goddess just for this occasion, turned and awarded me with a slow and empathetic grin.  Confidence oozed from his pores, along with an unpleasant stench.  Bailey paused long enough to give my lawyer a smirk too, although there was nothing sympathetic in his face when he glanced at Paul.  It was a Zombie look, a stare that said:  I would like to eat your brains. Paul’s hand jerked away from mine, as he turned his back on the elder and slightly moldy jurist.

Aphrodite sat beside her undead lawyer.  She glowed.  Her aura radiated over the table and cast a semi-circle of light behind her.  The men captured by the cradle of luminous light in the pews behind her, sat in rigid silence, too stupefied to speak or look at anything, except the back of their idol’s head—and a beautiful head it was.  Gold ringlets tumbled over her back.  Her hair seemed to flutter and dance in a breeze that did not exist inside the stuffy courtroom.  I suppose, she’d conjured some mystical air circulation to keep the rotting corpse of Bailey from offending her delicate nostrils, and I suppose it would have been imprudent of me to ask her to include the entire courtroom in that breath of fresh air.  I folded my hands, one atop the other, and stared openly and enviously at her, confident that I was not the first woman to do so.

Aphrodite had donned a traditional toga for her courtroom appearance.  Stylish and yet simple.  Her irises—bigger than a mere mortals and a dark translucent violet—were locked on the judge’s high-backed chair.  I had the idea that it was not unusual for her to stare at a seat of power.  Covet it, even.  I was thinking of Zeus’s throne, of course, not the judge’s seat.  Her chest rose in long, relaxed breaths that drew the eyes to those marvelous and bra-less boobs.  I suppose, F. Lee Bailey, being a dead man, had a certain immunity from her presence.  He exhibited none of the trance-like state that her nearest fans were demonstrating.

The Bailiff called the court to order, breaking my train of thought.  It had begun.  As Paul said, history would be made today.  Never before, in all the centuries of law, had a human brought suit against a deity.  Papers would be filed and kept in secure locations, books would be written and newspapers would be sold.  Already my name flew across the internet and betting parlors were giving me long odds.  Paul would become famous and I would…I would be lucky if I didn’t become the butt-end of every late night comedian’s joke.

The judge took his seat and nodded at the Bailiff.

“Jane Smith verses Aphrodite the Goddess of Love,” the Bailiff said, and he did a pretty good job, too, except when his voice soften on the word love and his knees seemed to buckle a bit.  The Bailiff, a skinny squirrel of a man with thick glasses, glanced at the Defendant, sighed and scurried back to his position beside the judge.

It seemed a short and blunt beginning.  I expected more, but I suppose a civil lawsuit, does not carry all the pomp and rigor of the law that we become accustom to in the movies.

***

“The Plaintiff’s lawyer will make his opening statement,” the judge said.  The judge, a wise and elderly man, kept his eyes averted from the Defendant’s table.  Bless him.  He was trying to be impartial.

“Your Honor,” Paul said, rising from his seat, “my client is suing Aphrodite for pain, suffering and damages.” Paul walked across the room and handed the judge a fat envelope.  “I’d like to enter into evidence several impromptu and nude photographs of my client.  I want the judge and the jury to note that even though my client, Miss Smith, has reached the age of thirty-eight, she still has an above average figure; and, therefore, should be quite appealing to the opposite sex.”

The judged opened the envelope and slid the pictures out.  He sorted through a dozen square 9 x 5’s.  My first instinct was to rush the dais and rip the photos from the judge’s hands.  Paul had never discussed the, incidental, fact that he was going to share nude snap-shots of me with the court.  Where and when did Paul take these pictures anyway, I asked myself. My humiliation was complete, or so I thought.  I gave in to it.  What else was there to do?  I couldn’t just scream, ‘Stop.  Stop, now.  I withdraw the suit.’ Or could I?

There were more photographs; but, apparently, the judge had seen enough.  The Bailiff leaned over the judge’s black robe and took a freebie peek.  Sensing his guardian squirrel, the judge relented and handed the pics to the Bailiff.  The magistrate rested his big head in the cup of his right hand and nodded in the general direction of the seated jury.

I thought my eyes were going to pop free of my head, as I watched the Bailiff sashay across the floor.  Once the photos passed to the jury, I couldn’t look in their direction anymore.  Worse of all, I hadn’t even seen the ‘evidence’ myself, so I had no idea what the pictures looked like. My mind fluttered over the…well, what can I call it?  The one-night stand that Paul and I had shared.  A ratty motel room with flowered wallpaper in the background—that’s what I remembered best—which says a lot about our little tryst.

“Don’t be shy, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” Paul said.  “Have a good look.  Miss Smith is a perfectly acceptable female form.  I want you to know, with one-hundred percent assurance, that there is nothing out of the ordinary or abnormal hidden beneath her clothes.  And consider this:  after thirty-eight long, long years my client has never been loved.  No, not once.  Love has been denied to Jane.  Time and time again.”  He pointed at me.  “And there is nothing wrong with her face, either.  She’s tried different hair styles and multiple colors, but nothing works for her.”

Pumped with enthusiasm, Paul stomped back to the table and gathered up a sheaf of papers.  I took the opportunity to beg him with my eyes, but he only winked at me.

“I also have several affidavits from many well known dating services and internet corporations, who all state that they have been unable to find a male companion willing to propose to the lonely Miss Smith.”  Paul fluttered the papers in the air and took a deep breath, ready to forge ahead.  “I will also produce several witnesses who will testify that Miss Smith has a pleasant if somewhat sedate personality.”

Paul walked back to the judge.  At this point, my lawyer let his shoulders slump and he turned his hands out, in a gesture of being at a loss for words, which had never been true of Paul for as long as I had known him.  He made a show of regrouping himself.

“In summation, your Honor,” Paul said, “A reasonable person can conclude only one reason for this lack of romance and lack of companionship in my client’s life.”  He turned and pointed a shaky finger at Aphrodite.  “The goddess has ordained that poor Miss Smith shall never be loved.”

The goddess gazed at Paul, as if seeing him for the first time, and he seemed to shrink inside his power-blue suit.  Even his tie sagged, but he bravely held his ground.  Paul wanted, above all things, to be a famous lawyer; or, failing that an infamous one.

“We mortals may ask ourselves why the goddess has done this,” Paul said.  “But why is not the question that this jury faces.  The defendant’s guilt is obvious, to any reasonable person, and my client has suffered and will continue to suffer.  Maybe she will never know love.   Unless the goddess relents, Miss Smith may die as a bitter old maid.”

I began to cry.  I suppose my tears could have been mistaken for perfect timing, but I didn’t plan it.  Paul had always been good at making me cry.  The six women in the jury box brought hankies to their faces.  Sympathy.  Oh, how I hated sympathy.

“The Plaintiff rests,” Paul said and finally sat down.  He actually had the unmitigated nerve to smile at me.  I squeezed my hands together, praying that my degradation was over.

***

“The Defense will give its opening statement,” the judge said and my belly threatened to erupt.

F. Lee Bailey begged the court’s pardon and requested to remain seated—owing to the fact that one of his legs had rotted off.  Indeed, his right leg was tucked discreetly under his seat like a forgotten umbrella.  The judge nodded.

“Your Honor,” Bailey said and his voice boomed across the room. The jury swayed back from this vocal pounding.  He may have lost certain body parts, but death had not weakened his vocal cords.  “This is a frivolous lawsuit.  Nothing can be proven.  Can we divine all the reasons that men find Miss Smith unattractive?  No amount of naked photographs can tell us about all the missed cues in her romantic endeavors or replace lost telephone numbers or negative rumors that might abound.”  His voice softened and the tempo slowed.  “Perhaps her pheromones emit an aroma that men find debilitating.  Perhaps her well is dry.  Perhaps she does not shave her legs at regular intervals.  Or, perhaps, Miss Smith is just terrible unlucky.  Bless her heart.”

Bailey slammed his hand down on the table.  Two fingers on his right hand rolled away.  The courtroom tittered.  Bailey picked up his errant fingers and slipped them in his pocket.  He smiled to let everyone know that he was a good-sport and not offended by their laughter.

“I would like your Honor and the court to consider the future of the Law.  My client is a deity.  Of what use is a civil law suit, a point of tort or even a criminal judgment?”  Bailey said and continued with hardly an in-take of breath. Do dead men breathe, I wondered.  “Aphrodite owns everything; and, yet nothing on paper.  The plaintiff can gain nothing in monetary fines against my client.  Or, perhaps, Miss Smith expects Aphrodite to take a job as a waitress to pay off her court penalties, should such be awarded, injudiciously, to the Plaintiff?”

The courtroom tittered, again.  It was hard to imagine Aphrodite in a polyester uniform, a wad of gum in her mouth and a miniature pad in her hand.

“What jail could hold my client?” Bailey asked, “And even if this was a capital murder case, what punishment could the court demand?  Aphrodite is an immortal?”  He raised his finger toward the sky.

Bailey shook his head.  Completely ignoring the jury box now, Bailey held his eyes on the judge.

“Your Honor,” Bailey said.  “My client’s guilt is not the question here.  The court’s ability to exact a negative ruling is the question.  The very future and order of the Law, as written by man, is in danger of being over ruled by Zeus, himself.  Will we risk that for the sake of one lonely; and, perhaps, very unlucky girl?”

***

The judge pulled back from his desk and let the idea roil around like slushy water in his brain.  His ruminations lasted about 30 seconds.

“I judge this to be a frivolous lawsuit.  Case dismissed.”  The judge slammed his gravel down.

***

And me?  Well, I’m just glad that it’s over and wondering if I have enough money in my bank account for a ticket to Aruba.

Author’s Note:  Originally  published in Emerald Dragon, August 2010 and listed on Facebook by admin.

The Antique Shop

With his chin nearly touching his chest, Bob stood in the dark cubbyhole, sorting through the tools: a dull hatchet, several hammerheads with no wooden grips, of course, an assortment of wrenches, two warped saws and several broken screwdrivers seemed to be the best of the bunch.  A hand-painted sign on the side of the box read, ‘CHEAP’ but any price was too much.  Nothing sharp and everything oxidized to the point of breakage with very little torque; Bob thought, the sign should read, ‘TRASH.’

Still he looked, carefully flipping the contents with a gloved hand; after all, the local hospital had run out of tetanus shots years and years ago.  Even the pine box that housed the antiques had water stains on it.  He tilted his head back and noted the gray ripples on the ceiling.  The whole store showed a general lack of care.  The owners were probably some left-wing malcontents.

“Damn waste,” he said, speaking to no one in particular, except the swirling dust motes.  Still he kept sorting; half hoping that he’d find some forgotten treasure and one-hundred percent certain that there wasn’t anything else in the shop of any interest to him.  His wife, on the other hand, was always mesmerized by anything from the 21st century.

“Bob,” his wife called.  “What are you doing?”

“I’m just looking at these tools,” he said, tossing a hammerhead back into the rotting crate.

His wife sighed with relief.  “Good,” she said.  “For a moment, I thought you were peeing.”

He pivoted away from the closet, sweeping the sawdust on the floor into dirty, brown drifts that piled up against his boots and frowned at her. Sometimes Martha acted like he didn’t have any civilization about him.

Martha stood on the far side of the store in the Electrical Department.  Something had cocked her interest; he could tell.  She had that sparkle in her eyes and she was bent over some gizmo, rubbing it, checking the price tag and talking to herself.

He moseyed across the floor and stood beside his wife.

“Oh, Bob,” she said, “do you remember these things?”

He did not, but he wasn’t going to admit it.  He lifted the tag and pause for a moment, struggling with the word.  “Sure,” he said.  “It’s a vac-u-ma. And the owners want five whole dollars for it.”  He blew out a breath of air that sounded a lot like, ‘pifft.’

“It’s a vacuum, dear,” she corrected.  “And the tag says that it’s in good working order.”

“Well, obviously they don’t use a vacuum around this place or a stiff broom for that matter.”

“When I was a child, Momma would let me vacuum the entire house,” she said.  Her hand glided over the rubber hose, which had seen better days.  Dry rot, he thought. Rubber just did not hold-up over the years. No doubt, she intended to plug the holes with his precious resin, as if that would work.

He grunted, noncommittally.

“A vacuum sucks up the dust and dirt, like nobody’s business,” she said.  “It made everything so neat and tidy, back in the good ole days.  Vacuums kill fleas too, you know.”

Clearly, his woman was infatuated with the electrical doodad, and that meant it was time to insert some practicality into her dream world.  He stooped down and lifted the butt of the oval canister, as if checking for its sex organs.

“Aha,” he said.  “It says right here:  12.0 AMP.  That’s point-one-two kilowatt hours of electricity.  Outrageous!  Do you think I’m made of money, woman?”

“Oh, but I wouldn’t use it everyday,” Martha said.  “Just once a week.”

“Still too much,” he said.  “You’ll drain the batteries, and you know what happens when the batteries are completely drained.  No, Martha.  It’s not the five dollars for the machine; it’s the cost of running it.”

“Oh, Bob.”

“Next thing you know, you’ll be wanting to pour some toxic cleanser down the toilet to make it all shiny white.”

“I’d never,” she said, hushing him.  “I’m a good citizen.  I’d never pollute the water table.”

People were beginning to stare, but he smiled as Martha moved away from the barmy machine.

Endless

A Word Changes

 

‘Endless, endless, endless.’  I whisper the two syllables over and over, seeking a cozy acquaintance, a sense of the old definition: hope, promise and another chance.  But the word has died, fluttered away to spectral memory.  Echoes remain.

The clock ticks, the yellow pan glows, and the wind pushes winter’s refuse.  Everything is as it was.  Today is yesterday, but it is not.  There is a counting of finality, a tolling of payment due and the veil lifts, oh, so slowly.  Endless lops its suffix.

I feel it, I sense it and I deny it.  Perhaps, I opine, it is personal; my blade of life spinning low.  But I do not feel the draft of a little fan. Somewhere, far away, the grease dries, a belt cracks and Endless runs down.

There is nothing to validate these thoughts.  Yet, neither my fear nor my denial will change the hollow clanking in need of urgent repair.

A Good Plan

On Monday the snow fell in blades of endless white, but still the old woman came, bearing tasty morsels of summer past.  Rich, mysterious and magical bouquets followed her, as the brothers watched from a hidden perch.  So anxious were the observers, had they been big enough and brave enough, they would have robbed her before journey’s end.  Yet there was more to fear than the wobbling gait of this ancient human.

Head bent and tucked inside her shawl, she never saw the hawk, and a might avian vision of prowess he was.  Golden eyes, rusty back, speckled chest and slightly bored but ever confident, he pruned an itchy spot just beneath his wing with a sharp nib.  His tail, as long as his body, fanned out toward the rising sun and turn the king’s feathers to gold.  The quartet of bachelors, admiring his armory, cooed over his long talons, piercing the rotten fence.

“I’m so hungry,” Petey said.

“I too am starved,” Repete said.

“I haven’t sluiced a worm since November,” Echo peeped.

Quiver could not bring himself to speak or sing.  He summoned the strength to shutter, salting the ground with more snow, for he held the most undesirable position on the limb.

“If we dive, all together, toward the treasure, we might shoo the hawk away,” Petey said.

“Unlikely,” Repeat said.

“If we go, one at a time, the hawk will take one and leave the rest of us to eat the repast.  That’s pretty colorful odds.” Echo prophesied.

With that omen, or, perchance, the over alluring sight of food, Quiver, alit from the safety of the bush, sailed through the biting sleet and rushed the stash.  No more useless tweets for him; his belly drove him forward, and each of the bachelors flew the gauntlet, no less ravenous than his kin.

On Tuesday the old woman dawdled, but she came nonetheless with her bucket.  From a pocket she withdrew a few crusty crumbs and littered the ground with bread, an offering of redemption for her tardiness, perhaps.  The burnt flour wicker-up the snow, but the seeds remained warm and brown inside the artificial shell with its beaten brass roof.

As if summoned, the hawk returned too.

“I’m so hungry,” Petey said.

“I too am starved,” Repete said.

“The same ploy as before?” Quiver asked, for yesterday’s plan seemed just as good as it had the day before.  And once again their tiny hearts mustered courage to solo beyond the crypt of evergreen.

On Wednesday the hawk consulted his mate, “Another scrumptious wren, my dear?”

“The wind blows from the north,” Ladyhawk said.  “Snuggle with me a bit.”

Ever faithful, the old hag brought her bucket.  After she chocked the feeder, she paused, as if something were amiss, but could find nothing at fault.

“I’m so hungry,” Petey said.

“I wish the old crow would hurry up and dash back to her nest,” his brother murmured, without fluttering a wing, least he conjure the enemy.  Always a good politician, Quiver added, “On this day we may stuff ourselves in peace, and there shall be more for each.”

“Perhaps not,” said a cardinal, zooming above their heads.  “For I have waited three days to fill my gullet, and I shall not be denied.”

The end.

Tourette’s Writing

Winter Roses

A posy of tea roses, saved from the frost, looks out the window.  Warm and red, with booties planted in a tepid brew, the flowers weep for sun and roots of lasting scent.  Most of the holidays have passed.  Halloween, what fun.  Christmas, at last, is over.  New Years remains, but what of this man-made number?  It is but mid-season and meaningless to life.

Outside the last bastion of Fall, a drowsy Bartlett reflects upon the glass.  Muted yellow and nearly naked, tiny snowflakes sit in the cup of leaves, growing heavy, wet, stiff.  Every year the bole bends a spite more, wary of the promised Spring.

A morning sky fills with clouds, perpetually stuck at Eight.  The silence cracked by gliding birds, needing refuge in the evergreens.  Always this testing of strength and will.  Man says the color of Death is black, but hear this:  Under the hours of Moon, the End dons skirts of crystal and sings this dirge.  Who shall survive; who shall not?  Who is worthy?  Which of them that are, if any, shall go forward?

Were the hot sands, warm currents and sweet embrace only a dream I dreamt?  The season of sleep and waiting, cold and bitter, has just begun.  May time awaken the napping world.  May this hardship pass.  May I be counted when Sol resurrects the seeds, when Summer crisps the fields again.  For I am.  The rill of life, warm and red, is with me, and I am with it still.

Author’s Note:  I call it Tourette’s Writing—Forgive me for misusing the term, but sometimes I have inexplicable bouts of prose,  compulsive bursts of emotion.  Most of the time these afflictions happen when I’m suppose to working on a re-write.  All writers are given to a little mood writing from time to time.  Few of them share it, including me.  Usually I just stuff these pieces in the big left-hand drawer of my desk, but this time I thought:  What the hey.  Maybe I’ll just add a new category to the old blog.  It would make it easier to locate them when I need a little ambiance here and there….CM.

A New Painting

Have we got any Twilight Zone freaks in the house?  I’m talking about the old black’n white episodes.  Why don’t they make shows like that any more?  My favorite had to be the episode about the girl who dreamt the world was spinning closer to the sun, only to wake up from a fever and realized the world was spinning farther away from the sun, or the episode about the homesick Nazi, who went back to visit a concentration camp, only to be trounced by ghosts.  I might add that everything happened inside his head—no blood and guts in sight.  But then it takes a talent writer to frighten you without a bucket of guts.

Most of Rod Serling’s stories  fall somewhere between fantasy and horror—nightmare stuff, with only thin treads of logic.  No matter, they were still great.  I always had the idea that his stories were about things that should happen, not things that could happen.  Not a very popular genre these days, sad to say.

Not that I’m comparing myself to Mr. Serling, but here’s a piece that I wrote that’s reminiscent of that style:

A New Painting

By

C. M. Marcum

Sunlight peeking through the window slats, as dust motes danced a slow parade from shadows to strips of early morning beams.  A promising day for some but not for her, it would be her last day of freedom.  The old woman held Charlie’s picture against her heart. Once her heart had beat like a sewing machine—strong, steady and unappreciated.  Now she could feel it skip and flutter.  It skipped with sadness; it flutter with despair.

“Come now, old gal,” she said.  “Pull it together.”  These were the last moments to save herself.  She waited, watching the clock with almost as much dread as a condemned man counting his last steps.  One deep breath and then another to calm herself, to think clearly.

How ironic was it to live her entire life, to be born, to grow, to learn, to work, to fight and win only to be reduced to the whims of some else’s directive?  How wasteful had it been to beat down the briary path for kith and kin only to have them dig a pit and throw her in?  How unfair.  How terribly unfair.  Sabotaged, waylaid and friendless at the end of the long, long road, that’s how it was.  Had she prognosticated the end, she would have painted an entirely different picture.  She borne her children, nursed them through infancy and illness, only to have them grow the claws of deception that would shred her golden years.  Why did her evil prodigy begrudge her the last few steps in life?

What was her son said to her on the phone?  Oh, yes, she remembered, nothing wrong with her memory.  ‘Now, Mother, you know this is the best way.  You’re not taking care of yourself.  You don’t eat well.  Your health is declining.  You can’t keep up with the bills.’ And this was his reasoning, his pretense to pilfer the vaults while she still lived.

Of course, her health was declining.  Everyday wore upon her.  Worry rattled her, and she’d eat what she pleased.  What did it matter?  She was old.  Was she to die in the pitch of health?

Was she eccentric?  Yes.  But wasn’t a bit of oddity the prize of attaining adulthood and independence?  Hadn’t she fought the good fight to indulge in her own beliefs, moods and idiosyncrasies?

No.  These thoughts would take her nowhere.  She was taking everything personally, and Charlie, her dear husband, had taught her to be more logical than that.  It wasn’t about her; it was about the money.  She should have given the money to SPCA years ago.  If she had, her children would have faded away into a sweet memory.  How much better that would have been?  Much, indeed much!  Loneliness was perhaps not the worst fate to ravage the old.  Greed made a relentless enemy out of the most cherished.

“Incompetent, my granny’s ass,” her words slithered out, neither whispered nor shouted.  A cigarette dangled from her fingertips, smoke drifting over the silver framed picture clutched in her hands.  The smell of menthol quickly filled the room.  She hadn’t smoked in over eight years.  She had given up tobacco so that she could live longer—so that she could live long enough to see her children, her precious children, turn against her.

She sighed, kissed the glass and blew smoke over it.  Charlie wouldn’t mind; he enjoyed a good cigar, now and then.  Once, after a particularly delightful romp on their marital sheets, he’d lit a fat cigar that smelt of cherries, inhaled deeply, and amused her with an old Cherokee ghost story from his childhood.  In the story a young lad lit a ceremonial pipe and through the swirling smoke he sought the advice of his dead grandfather.  According to Charlie, his ancestors loved a good smoking, loved it so much they would sometimes offer assistance to the living.  She had laughed at Charlie, those many years ago, but now…  Now, she wished she could believe as he did.

She missed Charlie, ached for him really, even after all these years.  How many years, now?  Fifteen?  So long, too long.  Poor Charlie, tragically and violently killed in an automobile accident, while teaching his young son how to drive.

“Charlie, Charlie.  Help me now, Charlie,” she said.  He would know what to do.  Charlie wouldn’t let his children push him around. Charlie knew how to look out for numero uno.   If Charlie was still alive, he would fix them.  Fix them good.  Charlie knew how to handle adversaries.  Charlie never wanted children, but she had insisted.  Yes, Charlie had been wise.

She studied the picture, looking for an answer in his eyes.  His foot rested on the bleached bones of a skiff and the wind pulled his long white hair back, revealing a dark and handsome face.  ‘Indy Man,’ that’s what she had called him.  Brooding, dark, mysterious.  When she had taken the photograph, she had been kneeling in front of him, between him and the sea.  Now it was as if he was still looking down on her, casting those hazel eyes over her again, judging her, smirking at her.  Charlie wouldn’t hesitate—not if he had to choose between himself and them, not if his kids had grown into enemies.  She needed his mojo, now.  Just a little bit of his magic would do.

“Charlie, if you ever loved me help me now,” she said.

Her children wanted to put her away, lock her up, exile her to an island of strangers.  They wanted to confine her to a nursing home—oh, a first rate joint to be sure—but just like the jailbirds sang, ‘A joint is a joint.’

They wanted to forget about her.  Oh, but they wouldn’t forget about her bank account, would they?  Millions of dollars and a big estate waited to be plundered with one frail old lady in their way.  Just one judge’s signature away and she would be in an old folk’s home, while her children bought new houses and cars and boats and diamond watches and anything else that titillated them.  Her son was busy about the dirty deed right now, completing it with lawyers and legalese.  When he got back to the house, all that would remain would be physically transporting his old Ma to the Home of the Forgotten.

She placed her husband’s picture back on the mantle.  “Look at your children, Charlie.  See the greed in their hearts.  Witness what they are doing.”

Above the mantel and Charlie’s picture, hung a sweeping landscape of the Atlantic Ocean and the beach in front of her house.  The ocean thundered against a grey shore.  To the left, a white cottage with the door flung wide waited for the family to return.  Two children, blonde and lithe, played in the sand with red buckets.  In the far right corner, her signature crawled over the gritty sand.

How things had changed.  She remembered standing in the sand with her skirt flipping around her legs.  How young and strong and very much in control, she had been.  The boss of all she surveyed; Charlie never wanted to wear-the-pants.  He’d had more important things to do, and he simply accepted whatever she desired.

She laid her hand, wrinkled and streaked with blue veins, on the wooden frame.  She hated the painting now, after years of adoring it, she hated it.  She wanted to jerk it down and burn it, but she only sighed and tossed her butt into the fireplace.  Everything changes, even a mother’s love for her children.  After Charlie died, she lost control of the little brats.  Eventually Carl’s blonde curls had fallen out, and Susan’s cheek bones had pillowed with fat.  Always they came with their hands stuck out, and she filled their palms with alms, but she didn’t even recognize them anymore.  Her gaze flitted back and forth between the small photograph of Charlie and the large landscape.  Had it always been that way?  Small, stingy pieces for her dear, dear husband and gross exaggerations for the children?

She looked back at her husband’s picture and gasped.  He was looking up.  He was looking up at the painting.  But that was wrong.  She had taken the picture herself; she had looked at it for years, and she knew—absolutely knew—that he had been looking down.

“What are you trying to tell me, Charlie?”  Her gaze darted between the photo and painting.

Her hand gripped the corner of the painting and pulled.  The portrait slipped from its anchor, teetered for a moment and then tumbled to the floor.  Odd bits of bric-a-brac fell with it.  From upstairs an agitated voice drifted down to her.  Susan, her daughter, toiled away up the staircase, packing some necessities for old Ma’s one-way ride to No Place.

“Mother, what was that noise?  Did you break something?”  The voice exasperated and scolding thundered down the stairwell.  Impertinent cow!

The old woman closed her eyes and lit another cigarette.  What if she did break everything in the house?  It was her stuff to break.  But she didn’t say that, instead she said, “Just a glass, dear.  Don’t worry.  I’ll clean it up.”

“Well, be more careful,” Susan yelled.  “Carl will be here any minute, and I don’t want any last minute messes to clean up.”

The old woman sat the painting down on the sofa and took a seat next to it.  She looked back at the photograph of her husband.  He was looking down again, but this time a little more to the right, almost directly at her.

Her fingers edged to the little girl playing in the sand.  She touched the chest, rubbing it, as if to seek a beating heart.  Over the blue bathing suite, her fingers felt the tiniest of cracks.  Beneath her nail a lip of paint and a sudden jolt of hope surged through her chest.  She peeled it up, until the blond girl disappeared, except for two arms and two legs.  Upstairs a horrendous scream startled the old woman.  The scream reverberated around the house and beneath her fingers came a smaller, fainter echo.

She scratched another chip and pulled until the arms and legs of the blond girl disappeared too.  The screaming stopped.  She moved to the foot of the stairs, dragging the old frame behind her.  Resting a shaking hand upon the newel, she place one foot on the bottom step, but she had no intention of going up the stairs.

“Sus-an?” Her voice cracked and she called again.  “Susan.”  But there was no answer. At the top of the stairs, a whirl of dust motes.

Outside a car turned in the driveway, tires displacing gravel.  Carl.  Her breath caught in her throat, as she grasped the painting between her hands.  The door opened and her son stood there, looking slightly bent—oddly twisted—in a way that no normal human being could or should fold their spine.  In the painting Carl fluttered, half adhered to the canvas and half freed from the fabric.

“Mother?” he called.  His voice filled with impatience. When had his voice changed, she wondered.  When he was little and he called for her, his voice had been filled with uncertainty—a timid and nervous boy, who jumped at lightening and wept in the dark.  So unlike his father.  Her fingers wiggled under the oil, sliding effortless over its slick consistency.  Carl rippled.  He staggered in the hallway and grabbed the same newel that she had held in her hands only moments ago.  Was the wooden post still warm with her touch?  Could he feel it?

“Are you feeling ill?” she asked.

“Mother,” he wheezed, slightly out of breath and confused.  She sighed.  There it was.  She remembered it clearly now.  That needy sound, that irritating whine.  Had she ever liked that effeminate squeak?  Why had she ever listened to it?   Why had she hurried to his side to comfort and aide him?  Why had she succored the enemy?  Her husband had foretold Carl’s coming deceit.  Of course, she’d only laughed, not believing.  Had she been a bad wife?  Had she really shucked her true love for motherhood?  Craziness.  Absurdity.

She pulled harder and the image of the little boy with the bouncing yellow curls separated from the canvas in one fluid movement.  Baby Carl folded.  The heat of her hand melted the paint.  Carl, real Carl, darkened to a blob.  In the living room there was a pop and the smell of sulfur, as if someone had struck a match.

And suddenly she couldn’t remember ever having had any children.  Couldn’t remember why she was holding a damaged canvas.  Couldn’t remember spilling paint at the front door, but there it was.  A little turpentine would clean it right up.

Tomorrow she would gather her paints and brushes.  She would fill in the hole.  Perhaps she would paint herself on the beach.  Yes, that would be good.  She would paint Carl, too.  She would paint him slightly older, but just as wise and mysterious as he had always been.