Mr. Brangle’s Proposition

“Remember,” Mr. Brangle said as he walked over to the door to the hallway and propped it open. “Test tomorrow.”

A chorus of groans greeted the students in the hallway as Mr. Brangle’s class filed out through the door.

Except Sheila who was standing at Mr. Brangle’s desk, waiting to get her make-up assignments from him. He always created new assignments for students who were out so he could be “assured” that they “did their own work.”

“Well, Miss Jenson,” Mr. Brangle smiled pleasantly at her as he perched on the edge of his desk and picked up a piece of paper. “Here are your make-up assignments.”

Sheila stretched out a hand. “Thanks,” she said, looking at the paper. “There’s nothing on it.” She looked suspiciously at Mr. Brangle, still smiling. The smile didn’t seem so pleasant, and Sheila was remembering some of the wilder rumors she had heard.

“Have a seat, Miss Jenson,” Mr. Brangle waved her to a front row desk. “You’ve missed quite a bit of school. Is everything okay at home?”

“Uh, of course,” Sheila’s face crinkled in surprise as she watched Mr. Brangle perch.

“Your folks have taken on a lot, I hear – bringing in three foster kids with such severe  . . .  shall we say . . . impairments.”

Mr. Brangle paused and looked at Shelia curiously. “It must be hard for you – less time with your mom and your dad. They’re so busy with the other three kids now.”

“It won’t be for forever,” Sheila shrugged. “What about my assignments?” She tapped the empty page.

“Ah, those,” Mr. Brangle slid one of the desks closer to where Sheila sat, and slid into the seat. “I thought you might want some extra help catching up. Maybe a quiet place to work on catching up. Must be hard with so much noise in the home now.”

“Exactly what are you saying, Mr. Brangle?” Sheila sat back and folded her arms across her chest, uncomfortably aware of the direction Mr. Brangle’s eyes seemed to keep falling.

“Why, I thought I was pretty clear, Miss Jenson,” he tilted his head to one side, a look of speculation in his eyes. Sheila could see him mentally totting up pros and cons of getting really specific.

“I’ll spell it out for you.” He paused and leaned slightly forward, lowering his voice. “Most young girls need a little extra guidance, a bit of help, from an older man during this time in their lives. Things change so fast, you know . . . parents can be so hard to talk to . . . I’m offering to help — if you like.”

Sheila watched the tip of his tongue flick out between his teeth complete a rapid circuit around his thin lips and shuddered internally before drawing a deep breath.  Inspiration struck.

She leaned forward in her desk, gesturing Mr. Brangle even closer. With their noses a mere inch away from each other, Sheila murmured, “Fabulous idea . . . but I want four years of college — all paid for by you.”

She paused and added, Oh – and a car in my name but paid for by you – and the maintenance and insurance . . . and . . . I think a clothing budget of . . . oh, let’s say $200/month.” Sheila leaned back in her chair and tilted her head. “Also a trip to Europe – because it would be so educational to travel . . .”

“What?” Mr. Brangle sputtered, mouth open in shock.

Sheila stood up from the desk, crumpled the blank paper into a tight ball and tossed it into the wastebasket next to Mr. Brangle’s desk, heading toward the door.

“You know what I mean,” she put her hand on the door, “but let me spell it out for you. There ain’t nothin’ for free, Mr. Brangle. After all, this is Economics class.”

Sheila let the door shut with a bang behind her and walked off down the empty hall.

Part of her was laughing at the look of surprise on the man’s face, and part of her was trembling at her audacity. What if the man had agreed?

Shifting Perspectives

“You always said you hoped I didn’t get to choose your nursing home,”  The old man heard Benita’s voice from what seemed far away to his ears, the sound echoing along dimly lit tunnels.  His eyes could see Benita leaning near to him, so he assumed his hearing aid battery had gone dead again. The wheelchair bumped up a rickety ramp and stopped with dreaded finality in front of a door.

“I always said your fear of me choosing your nursing home was the only acknowledgement I’d get from you that perhaps you treated me most unfairly for many, many years, Pappa.”

The old man wondered if the girl was going to hold on to her resentment until he died. No, he decided, probably until she died. So, life wasn’t perfect. Perhaps he had been a little hard on her from time to time, but kids needed character building or they grew up to be nothings. If he had mollycoddled her, she would not have stretched and grown or learned how to deal with a harsh and unjust world.

He could feel a subtle tickling along the corner of his mouth and knew he was drooling again. He just couldn’t seem to summon the strength to wipe the spit away. He caught a whiff of Benita’s vanilla scented perfume as she leaned over him to push the doorbell. There was a pounding in his chest as her words continued to hammer at him with measured relentlessness.

“For every time you told me I was no good, that I was a failure, that I was fat, and ugly or stupid . . . for all the times I cried in despair at ever being able to please you . . . for all the times you mocked me . . . well, let’s just say that this – new home – is still too good for you.”

The door swung open and the old man gagged involuntarily at the smell wafting from the house. No! he screamed internally, but remained impassive. He would not give his daughter the pleasure of seeing his fear and revulsion.

“Mrs. Charpentier,” he heard Benita saying, “such a pleasure to meet you. My father is so looking forward to being here. He only has one small bag of belongings.”

With a slight grunt, the old man realized that Benita was truly going to abandon him as she let the duffle bag land in his lap. Benita was leaning close to his face, locking her eyes on his as she smiled sweetly and said, “I do hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”

The old man blinked and looked away.

It’s All In How You Write the Note

Dear Jane,
I would like to take you out to the square dance this weekend.
Dear Bob,
I don’t own cowboy boots and I don’t know how to dance.
Dear Jane,
While I wouldn’t advise going barefoot, I think sneakers will work.
The dance starts at 7.
Dinner first?
Dear Bob,
I don’t have sneakers, either.
I am fasting for Lent.
Baptists don’t dance.
Take Sally, instead.
Yours Truly,
Dear Jane,
Your continued refusal is breaking my heart.
Although I like Sally, she is not a girl I wish to dance with.
Please reconsider.
With pathetic longing,
Dear Bob,
Your pathetic longing does not interest me in the least.
What part of “No” do I need to explain?
With curiosity (NOT!)
Dear Sally,
Jane is worried that you might be lonely and thinks you would enjoy square dancing.
Would you like to go with me this weekend?
Dear Bob,
Jane is a goofball and so are you.
I only swing dance and I am already going with Bill.
I suggest you keep trying Jane.
Flowers? Chocolates?
Let me know how it goes!
Dear Jane,
I thought you were my friend!
And then you sic Bob on me.
See if I go to the movies with you ever again!
With resentment,
Dear Sally,
I needed to get Bob off my back because Bill and I are going dancing this weekend.
Let’s catch a movie another night.
I’ll buy the popcorn!
Your friend,
Dear Jane,
You are clearly NOT my friend or you would know that Bill and I already had a date to go dancing this weekend. What else are you doing behind my back, you two-faced, lying . . .
With sobs,
Dear Bob,
These girls are driving me crazy.
Let’s go get a beer and catch the game.
Dear Bill,
Excellent! See you at 7 at the Down and Out Brewery.
Your bro,

To Break Oneself Again . . .

Taylor watched his mom and dad come toward him with trepidation. They had made it explicitly clear that if he hurt himself skateboarding again, he would pay for the medical expenses. His dad he figured he could work around to his point of view, but his mom was a dead-wringer for what she called “follow through” and “logical consequences.”

It really wasn’t his fault. The park was not kept up to standard and the edge of his board had caught on the ragged lip of the incline when he tried to jump.

“Hey,” he called weakly, torn between relief and anxiety.

He searched his mom’s face for any indication of anger and decided that if she was angry, she was hiding it well. She sighed as she sat down beside him and observed, “You’re bleeding. Did the  . . . “

“No, mom,” he hastily interjected. “The bone is not poking through.”

Taylor had had enough broken bones to know, and then he gasped as his mom gently cupped his hand under hers and raised it closer to look. Her face remained still, as she searched his, giving no indication of what she was thinking or feeling.

“Stop!” he said. “That hurts.”

“I imagine it does,” she responded. “Can you walk to the car?”

“Well, duh,” Taylor carefully stood up, grimacing as pain shot up his arm. His dad hovered, finally turning to walk beside Taylor as they carefully picked their way across the wet lawn.

“Which hospital?” his dad inquired mildly.

This was going to be bad, Taylor groaned inwardly. Usually, he could count on some sort of reaction from his parents, but so far they were staying more collected than he could ever recall.

“Let’s just go see my regular doctor,” Taylor suggested. “It’ll cost less,” he continued, hoping that his thinking ahead to cost would score at least one or two points with his parents.

“They aren’t open on Saturdays, I don’t think,” his mom replied, sliding he van door open and carefully latching the seat belt around Taylor. He gasped when his hand was slightly jostled, and she climbed in next to him.

“Call and find out,” he said.

His mom shrugged and dialed the number on her cell phone. After a pause, she said, “Nope,” and leaned forward to his dad. “Let’s just go to the closest one.”

“All right,” his dad agreed and started backed out of the parking spot.

As far as Taylor could tell on the drive over, his dad was deliberately hitting every bump he could and taking corners sharply. Taylor opened his mouth to complain and hastily shut it again when he caught the expression on his dad’s face.

“Slow down, dear,” Taylor’s mom said sharply. “You’re not an ambulance and every bump and corner is causing pain.”

Taylor’s dad grunted, and tapped on the brakes.

Taylor felt tears spring to his eyes. His dad was really upset. Taylor couldn’t imagine why else the man would drive so chaotically when his son was hurt.

“I hope the hospital is back on the preferred provider list,” he heard his mom remark to his dad. “The last time Taylor broke something, it cost several thousand after the insurance paid their portion. Don’t worry, Taylor,” she added. Taylor hoped he heard a note of kindness in her voice  . . . and then slumped in defeat as she went on, “Your dad and I will allow you to make payments to us until the bill is paid off.”

His dad harrumphed up front. “Seems logical to me.”

“A perfectly natural consequence,” Taylor’s mom added, “especially when Taylor was clearly told unwise decisions about his activities resulting in hospital visits would mean he paid.”

Taylor could feel a sinking sensation inside. His parents meant it, and with his dad agreeing with his mom, he could foresee months and years of slowly repaying a hospital and doctor bill that looked insurmountable before the costs had already rolled in. He wasn’t sure if he imagined it or not, but he thought he could hear a chuckle in his parents conversation.

They were happy about this! “Hey!” he said, indignantly. “Don’t make fun of me!”

“We’re not, dear,” his mother replied. “We’re just rejoicing that you can learn a valuable lesson at such relatively low cost. Your accident could have been much worse since you were not wearing any safety gear.”

Taylor gaped at her. She was happy, he realized. But why, he couldn’t understand.

You’ll understand someday when you have your own children,” she smiled sweetly at him, and rummaged in her purse for the insurance card.

All that Glitters

You know how it is – you see that glittering object in the distance, filled with promise and hope, and you reach out a hand and take it. If I had known that the outcome would be so perilous, I would never have reached out my hand, let alone allowed the spasmodic clenching of my fist around its’ hidden dangers.

Hindsight is 20/20, I have heard.

It’s like this. On a late spring evening, I sat on my front porch with a beer dripping beside me and a Marlboro steadily burning down to the filter in my left hand. The indoor kitty lay curled up beside the screen door, with just a twitch of his tail every now and then proving he was more than a stuffed animal. A couple of fat and happy bumble bees lit on the roses drinking in the sun, and trying to waddle off into a lazy flight after drinking their fill of nectar. Down the road, I could hear the stuttering of a tired lawn mower and the shrieks of kids playing tag in the street.

I took a drag on my cigarette, chased by a swallow of beer gone lukewarm from sitting too long in the sun. Something felt empty to me, incomplete . . .  I couldn’t figure out what and mentally reviewed my life as it stood, right there in the moment. The house was reasonably cleaned, the bills were paid, and the salad was made for dinner. I had clothes. I had friends. I had pretty much all I wanted and certainly everything I needed. Life was good! What more could I want? Really?

These are the dangerous questions in life. And probably best left unanswered. Sadly, I decided to follow that line of questioning right into a result that most anyone would have seen coming a mile down the road. Except me. Foresight is not my strong suit.

I shifted a little on the porch to allow the sun to hit both my legs, and rolled my left foot in and then out. At thirty, I still had shapely calves and thighs, and I wasn’t afraid to bare them. They were a bit pale from the lack of sun all winter, but they didn’t have flab. My arms were firm, no underarm flab swinging, and my fawn-colored hair trailed over my shoulders holding up the spaghetti straps of my camisole.

I supposed I was missing the excitement factor in my life. Since leaving the big city and coming to this two-horse town, I had been a perfect model of restraint. I never missed a day of work, I kept my house and yard impeccably tidy, and I even visited the town’s library once a week. Given that the only bar was populated by grizzled farmers, there was not much else left to do. At first it was enough, I was so tired from the life I had left behind. But my energy had returned, and I was starting to feel the encroachment of weedy boredom.

A heavy-throated rumbling of a Harley sputtering its way into life echoed down the neighborhood street and I grimaced to myself. The single other person in this town who could offer any excitement, and he was living with his “old lady” as he called her. Although, and I perked up an ear, perhaps not for much longer. The sounds of her angry voice floated on the warm breeze, and ended with a decided thud of a slamming door.

Resolve crystallized, and I slipped on my flip-flops and tossed the cigarette into the empty coffee can I kept as an ashtray. Tossing my hair back, I wandered up the block. Sure enough, the Harley man revved the engine and set off down the block. I raised a hand as he motored past . . . and he stopped. Setting his boot clad feet firmly on the pavement, he sat back and looked me over, a slow smile emerging from under his mustache.  With a slight jerk of his head, he beckoned to the mini-pad of a seat behind him and reaching down pulled out the pegs.

I grinned and slid onto the back of his bike, snugging in against his leather clad back and wrapping my arms around his trim waist. He had thick, glossy black hair streaming down his back that smelled of a curious mixture of Old Spice and motor oil.

Perfect, I thought, hanging on as he took off.

A little excitement – just what I need.

Tribulation Trio

     To Chase or Not to Chase
     Coco twitched impatiently. She had been crouched beneath the rose bush for what seemed the longest time, eyes intently focused on the bird feeder across the yard. She could feel the pressure mounting, calling her back to the well-hidden nest of squirming new-born kittens. But, the rumble in her belly kept her glued to her post.
     A slight flutter in the periphery of her vision alerted her. The time was fast approaching. She hoped she would be able to spring across the lawn with the grace and speed she had known before her belly swelled. The changes that came with being a mother perplexed her from time to time, and she was still struggling to find her balance and stamina. She wasn’t sure it would actually return to what she had known, in which case she hoped to find just enough in reserve to ensure a good meal for her and consequently, a reasonable flow of milk for the babies.
     The sparrow fluttered anxiously above the feeder before gently lighting on the raised lip. With a happy cheep, sunshine burnishing the browns and grays into a brighter mixture the sparrow began to peck at the variety of seeds, tossing the less interesting seeds to the side.
     Coco carefully kept the sparrow in her side vision, not looking too fixedly at the sparrow. Eyes could be felt – a wise huntress deflected the weight of attention by keeping the prey slightly out of focus. She cautiously moved forward, paw by stealthy pay, and paused. The sparrow had fluttered slightly up in the air, and then settled back down, but this time into the bird bath below the feeder.
     “Silly humans,” Coco thought. The squirrels loved that bird bath. It made their pillaging of the bird feeder much easier. And sighed as the objects of her thoughts came darting around the corner, playing catch-as-catch can, leaping onto the bird bath and feeder startling the sparrow high into the air. The sparrow landed on an electric line strung far above and scolded the squirrels vigorously.
     Coco eased down flat into the grass and contemplated her chanced of catching a squirrel. She was so hungry and the human had not set out food in the last two days. Faintly, the breeze brought the soft sound of a kitten mewling and with a sigh, Coco headed back towards the crying baby. The chase would wait until another time. But, the wait could not be too much longer. With a leap and a snap, Coco caught a fly and swallowed it wriggling. She had babies to tend to.
The Cookie Quest
     Timmy needed that cookie. And his mother had told him no, not until after lunch. She then added insult to injury by taking the cookie jar and placing it on top of the fridge before walking out of the kitchen and going downstairs to iron and fold laundry.
     Timmy glared at his mother’s retreating back, and then scowled at the Mickey Mouse cookie jar gazing benignly down at him from the top of the fridge. If he didn’t get the cookies, his best friend in the world would never come play in the front yard with him again. Timmy had promised. And in his isolated home, Jem was the only playmate for miles around.
     He and Jem were building a fort under the low-hanging limbs of the old fir tree out by the dirt road. Timmy had never built a fort before. But, Jem had built one with his papa, and had smuggled a saw, hammer and few rusty nails scrounged from the garage. Timmy was supposed to bring the cookies. Jem was waiting – but he wouldn’t wait for long.
     For long was part of the problem. Jem’s family was moving at the end of summer to a far away place and Timmy would never see his friend again. Timmy and Jem wanted to build a hideaway for Jem, so when that day came, Jem could hide and his family would go without him. Then it would be up to Timmy to smuggle food out to his friend – if Timmy couldn’t manage to smuggle a few cookies, Jem wouldn’t be able to stay in the fort they were building.
     Decision firmed. Timmy tip-toed across the kitchen floor and down the hall. He listened intently at the top of the stairs and heard his mother singing at the top of her lungs to Patsy Cline while she ironed and folded.
     “Good,” he thought. “She won’t be able to hear me.”
     Carefully, Timmy moved a chair over to the counter next to the fridge and climbed up, precariously balancing on the edge of the counter to reach the cookie jar. He would not disappoint his friend. He would being Jem the cookies.
A Daughter’s Revenge
    “You always said you hoped I didn’t get to choose your nursing home,” Benita whispered sweetly in her father’s ear, as she pushed the wheelchair up the rickety ramp leading to the private – and affordable – group home.
     “I always said your fear of me choosing your nursing home was the only acknowledgement I’d get from you that perhaps you treated me most unfairly for many, many years, Pappa.”
     There was a thin line of spittle trickling its lonely way down from the corner of the old man’s mouth, which drooped ever so slightly at the corner. His eyes were very alert and darting suspiciously around the porch, as Benita leaned over him to push the doorbell.
     “For every time you told me I was no good, that I was a failure, that I was fat, and ugly or stupid . . . for all the times I cried in despair at ever being able to please you . . . for all the times you mocked me . . . well, let’s just say that this – new home – is still too good for you.”
     Benita fixed a broad smile on her face as the door swung open and a powerful whiff of stale urine and the lonely sound of scrambled voices greeted them.
     “Mrs. Charpentier,” Benita said, “such a pleasure to meet you. My father is so looking forward to being here. He only has one small bag of belongings.” Benita gestured to the duffle bag on her father’s lap.
     Benita leaned down and looked her father directly in his eyes, her eyes glacial and glinting with years of repressed anger and hurt. “I do hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”

From Behind the Couch

     Sylvie enjoyed quiet. No, she needed quiet. A lot of it. It wasn’t that she was anti-social, she just had a lot of things to think about, and thinking was best done on the sly, as far as she was concerned.
     She took long walks and dreamed about the world being a better place, with happy mama’s and papa’s and smiling round faces of children gazing adoringly up at their personal deities.
     She climbed tall trees and pretended to be a bird testing the wind, balancing on swaying branches, her arms spread wide.
     She perched in the loft above the living room, and sketched the raucous parties her parents frequently held, with swirling throngs of fancy adults clutching fragile stemmed wine glasses, their trilling conversations breaking over the strains of Paganini or Mozart wafting up to the ceiling, gathering like storm clouds.
     On rare quiet evenings when it was just she and her parents, she crept away from the table, unnoticed and unmourned, to curl up like a cat behind the couch purring over a favorite book while her parents’ silverware clinked in time to their speculations about various friends and colleagues.
     No, Sylvie enjoyed her alone-ness. She knew no other way of being in the world that fit her like a close-knit glove, and was happiest when watching and wondering and waiting.
     To some, it was perhaps an idyllic existence – one that didn’t involve parental commands and expectations and requirements.
     But Sylvie made sure it stayed that way. Her grades were close enough to perfect as to cause no wrinkling of eyebrows and cross-examinations as to what roadblocks barred her from achieving those grades. Her room was always perfectly tidy, as was she. She made sure to attract no undue attention, and in this way, ensured that her bubble of solitude was preserved.
     At school, it was more difficult, with persistent teachers assigning her to work groups and fellow students trying to gossip and pry and tell secrets about each other.
     But, Sylvie had learned early on how to gently swim in the currents of classroom, hallway and cafeteria etiquette without too much threat to her rainbow colored bubble of protection.
     She answered when called on with clear and respectful responses, she smiled and shrugged when asked her opinion, turning the question neatly back onto the questioner and listening with what appeared to be great attentiveness to what the other person had to say.
     She carried her lunch to school, and thereby avoided the long cafeteria line, disappearing instead into the school library and completing assignments as she nibbled on vegetables and cheese sticks.
     And then one sodden November day, while the rain drizzled down the library windows outside, and Sylvie strained in the dim light to make out the fine print in a footnote, she jumped slightly at the sound of a bag thumping down on the floor.
     A slender boy, with a mop of dandelion shag for hair and soft brown eyes peering through his round framed glasses, collapsed with a sigh into the hard wooden chair. He stared solemnly across his table, across the divide of dully-colored tiled floor, and right across book strewn Sylvie’s table to meet her startled eyes.
     “Hi,” he said quietly. “My name is Nick. I’m new here, and that cafeteria is too noisy.”
     He rummaged through his book bag and brought out a sandwich and Oreo cookies, along with a heavy advanced math book and paper.
     “Never went to a school before where they let you eat in the library.”
     Sylvie blinked twice. “Sylvie,” she offered cautiously, and looked back down at her open history book.
     Hopefully, he would be quiet. Sylvie was half-studying, half-dreaming of Elizabeth I as a young girl, navigating the eddies and pools of shifting loyalties and treachery, fighting to survive a precarious existence.
     “I haven’t seen you in any of my classes, yet,” Nick said around a mouthful of sandwich. “What do you have after lunch? I have biology and then economics.”
     Sylvie looked back up, eyebrows coming down to a “V” over her eyes, perplexed that he continued trying to talk to her.
     “I’m studying for a history quiz next class,” she responded shortly.
     “Great!” Nick said. “Let me just finish this last problem and I’ll ask you questions from the chapter. That always helps me when I am studying for a test.”
     Nick scrawled a bit more on his paper and shoved it and the remnants of his lunch into his bag, and pushed his chair back from the table.
     “No, that’s okay,” Sylvie said hastily, realizing he actually meant to do exactly what he said.
     “I think I’m done studying. I have to get to class.” With a sense of almost-panic, Sylvie hastily stood up and gathered her books and lunch bag and scurried from the room, feeling a bit twitchy, rather like the mouse she had caught her cat Zumba playing with last year.
     Once out of the library, she heaved out a great sigh leaning against the wall to gather in some strength, and then slowly straightened. History class was fifteen minutes away, but perhaps if she walked slowly, she would get there just as the door opened and could slide into her favorite corner seat.
     “Hey!” Sylvie froze in dismay as Nick stood by her, beaming ear-to-ear. “How about I walk with you? You can tell me where my next class is and where the gym and lav and all that is . . . I could use the help, and you look like you could use a friend.”
     Nick swung his backpack onto his left shoulder and handed her his class schedule, neatly gathering her books into his right arm.
     “Lead the way,” he gestured with his head down the hall.
     “Didn’t they assign you a buddy for your first day here?” Sylvie asked.
     That was what usually happened. A student from the student body government, or from one of the geek clubs, usually was assigned to shepherd a new student to and from classes, and orient the new kid to all the things they “ought” to know about the school – and with any luck, at least a few of the things students usually wanted to know, that administration would not share. Where the smoker’s hole was, if you were so inclined. What the best afterschool clubs were, the best sports coach, who threw the best parties . . .
     “They tried,” Nick confessed. “I didn’t like the guy. He was . . . well, demeaning to a lot of students and teachers . . . and I prefer to make up my own mind. But I have since been late to all my classes, because nothing in this school makes sense and I don’t have a map . . . please, please help me?”
     Nick grinned engagingly at her. “Hey,” he said, suddenly serious. “I can tell you are used to being alone – you probably like being alone – and frankly, so do I. But, wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend who gets that? I had a friend back in Nevada who understood. I was sorry to leave there – I’ll probably never see him again. Let’s be friends.”
     Sylvie thought for a moment or two. “Maybe,” she said. “Let me show you where your classes are, and then if you want to study together – quietly – in the library during lunch, I guess I can give that a try.”
     “Fair enough,” Nick said, beaming.
     “Lead the way, Sylvie. Looking forward to being your friend.”