The Hills Still Like White Elephants

The American stepped off the train and into the warm Spanish afternoon sun. One of the Guardia Civilia stood at attention beside the door of the station. The policeman eyed each of the passengers, measuring them for trouble. The American had other business on his mind than any trouble he might make for Franco and his Fascists.

The station looked run down, paint peeling off its walls. Walking into the bar, he ordered Anis del Toro. When it came, he threw back his head and downed the liqueur with one try. The cold, licorice taste went down fast and filled him with a momentary contentment. It was time to get on with what he had come to do, he reminded himself.

Grabbing a taxi nearby, he asked the driver to take him to the inn where he had booked lodging. Once settled in and after a good meal, he walked back to the station, and then on into the arid landscape behind the building.

The afternoon was now evening and shadows were everywhere, then it was night. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and prodded the hills in the distance, hills that did indeed appear to be elephants. It was too late to know if they were white or some other color. He dropped his knapsack and sat down on a large boulder.

The hills drew his eyes toward them. He found himself peering further and further into the past. It had been one long stretch of time, thirty years of it since the girl. It had been thirty years since the girl spent that afternoon with him in the train station. Thirty years since she had said those hills in the distance reminded her of white elephants. Thirty years since he had convinced her to have an abortion and she died of an infection from the abortion, her head on his lap in a compartment on a train to Paris. It had been thirty years of regret. Each day since, he had relived every moment of that afternoon, detail by detail, one moment after another whittling away at any kind of life he had tried to live.

They met in the Prado. She was a nineteen-year-old English student, sketching Velázquez’s painting, “Las Meninas”, and he, a twenty-five-year-old architect from Chicago, come to Spain to study the architecture. The previous six weeks he studied and sketched the Alhambra, the heart and soul of Moorish Spain. On his way back to Paris, he stopped in Madrid for a few days to get to know that part of Spain better.

While strolling through the galleries, he came up behind her, her long black hair falling from her beret to her waist. She was deep in her work with pencil and sketchbook. He sat down on a wooden bench, unable to take his eyes off that girl. Hours must have passed, but they seemed like only minutes. He took out his own sketchbook and drew the lines of her image, though he knew that there was no way he could put what he felt onto paper.

The girl stood up, straightened her skirt, then turned toward the American. Her smile filled an open face.

“You like Velazquez’?” she asked from across the room.

He walked over to her. “I do. Very much.”

Her eyes looked back at the painting. “How can anyone deny that is perfection? Every artist before and since should bow in his presence.”

“Even Rembrandt?”

“Even Rembrandt,” she said.

He suffered a momentary loss for words. Then she put out her hand. “My name is Lina. I come from Bristol.”

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” He had never believed in it until that afternoon.

“Well, yes. And no,” she answered.

He got up his courage and asked, “Would you like to get a drink?”

“I am thirsty. And hungry too.”

“Good,” he said. “I found a place around the corner that serves a good paella.”

For the next six weeks, they began each day and ended each night together. The days she spent in the Prado, sketching the paintings she loved so much, losing herself in the paintings before her.

Some days he wandered the city, taking in the sights and the sounds. Others he strolled through the halls and sketched the contours of the museum. Mostly he sat and watched the girl, never tiring of this girl he had fallen in love with.

Then one night over drinks and cocido madrileño, she said, “I’m pregnant.” They were hesitant words, and they were words that dropped like a bomb into his lap.

He choked down his food, then drank some water.

“I haven’t had my period.” she said nervously, afraid of his next words.

“It’s okay. I love you, and no matter what, we’ll work this thing out.”

Later he suggested an abortion. It came with the moment of doubt that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a father, that doubt he later regretted. But it seemed the only way to get back to the way it had been those first days in Madrid.

Before they left Madrid, they decided to stop at a little town in the Valley of the Ebro. She wanted to see the hills and the dry valley, measure its colors and its light with her eyes. It was summer and she was working on a painting. “It has good light,” she said of the valley.

A friend told him of the fishing there and the catfish and the wild carp. While she was painting, it would give him some time to be alone so that he could figure things out. There was no better way to be alone than going fishing.

On the train to the valley, they did not talk. In the valley, they talked and their talk was filled with dread. Back on the train, they did not talk again. They knew what they had to do. In Barcelona, they found an abortionist.

In the room, not the cleanest of rooms, he almost backed out of what was about to occur. But he didn’t. As she lay helpless on the bed, he held her hand. He poured all the love he could summon into that small hand of hers. After thirty years, he still felt the grip of her strong fingers grasping his hand. He still heard the screams as the abortionist pulled the baby out of her. When it was done, she looked up at him. Her face was radiant, her eyes shining her love on him.

He knew he had made a mistake. He should have insisted that she have the baby. On the train to Paris, her head became hot. She trembled from the chills running through her small body. Then she was dead, her spirit lifted out of that fragile body he loved so much.

He came back to the present and turned his eyes from the hills. He reached into the knapsack he had with him and pulled out a revolver. Sitting on the rock, he thought about what he had to do. It was the only way for him to find any peace. It would be such a relief.

He reached into the knapsack again and pulled out a box of shells. He took out six and popped one into each of the chambers on the cylinder. Then he tested the gun, aiming and firing one shot at the hills. He placed the warm muzzle against his head, then he stuck it into his mouth. Yes, that was the right way to do this. He pulled the hammer back, cocked the gun and waited. What he was waiting for, he was not sure. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour, and still he waited.

From the hills in the distance he heard a “Don’t”.

“Why not?” he said to the hills.

“Please don’t, Matthew,” the hills said.

He thought about the words for several minutes, mulling them over in his mind. He pulled the barrel out of his mouth. “I can’t go on like this,” he said to the hills.

“But you have to. You just have to.”

“Oh, my God.” He slid off the rock and onto the dirt. He cried for a good long time. He took the gun once again and pushed the barrel into his mouth, then cocked it.

Another “Please” came from the hills,. Then they went silent.

It was the final plea that did it. He dropped the revolver in the dirt, then dejectedly headed back to the town.

The next afternoon he caught the train to Madrid. From his compartment, he watched the hills like white elephants recede into the distance. It was on to the Prado and “Las Meninas”. After that, he didn’t know. He just didn’t know.

Romeo and Juliet II: A Sequel

Four hundred years in the making, and now at a blog near you. “Romeo and Juliet II: A Sequel.”

Verona, Italy. September 19, 1507. A fine autumn day at Casa Capulet.

Mrs. Capulet, her hair gray from worry and sadness, rinsed the final plate from the feast the night before. It was hard to get good help, so she did much of the housework herself. Besides the work kept her mind off her dear Juliet. Stubborn girl, just like her father, and that stubbornness had cost her life. Beatrice Capulet swiped away the tears forming in her eyes.

There was a tapping on the back door. She went over and opened it. There stood Juliet in a bright Italian green bodice and red skirt. Mrs. C’s face went white.

“Mama, it’s me,” Juliet said and hugged her mother.

“Mama mia.” Mrs. C was stunned. She took her daughter’s hand to make sure she wasn’t a ghost. “I thought you were dead.” Then she moved away from her daughter and looked her up and down.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?” Juliet frowned, afraid her mother was going to reject her.

“I’m not so sure.” Beatrice dropped into one of the kitchen chairs, trying to recover from the shock.

Juliet went over and sat down beside her mother, then reassured her. “Romeo and I faked our deaths to get Papa and Mr. Montague off our trail. There’s a lot you can do with some fake blood, a bit of make-up, and sleeping pills. Friar Lawrence is a very good apothecary. Had you scared, didn’t I?’

“You sure did,” she said, looking over at her daughter. Then she eyed her daughter again.”You’re not one of them undead, are you?”

Juliet laughed. “Of course not.”

“We’ve been getting reports that they’re moving into the neighbor. Them and their coffins. Can you imagine?”

“Well, I’m not undead. I’m as alive as you are.”

Mrs. C gave a sigh of relief. “Your father is going to be furious. But he’ll get over it. You’re home, and alive, and that’s all that matters. Just where have you been these last six months?”

“Mom, I have some good news and some bad news.”

“Okay.” Beatrice was still trying to get a grip on reality. It was hard to believe that her daughter was alive. She had looked so…so dead in the casket.

“Romeo and I are married now.” Juliet showed her mother the ring. It was a good two-and-a-half carats.

Beatrice looked at the diamond. “At least, he gave you a ring you can be proud of.”

“And there’s more good news. I’m pregnant.”

“You’re not,” Mrs. C exclaimed.

“Am too. Feel the baby.” Juliet took her mother’s hand and placed it on her stomach.

“”You sure don’t look like you’re pregnant. I thought you’d put on some weight but you haven’t. Did I just feel a kick? How many months are you?”

“Three.”

“If that don’t beat all.” Beatrice’s face went into one big smile. She was going to be a grandmama.

“We’re calling her Muffin.”

“Muffin?” Mrs. C frowned.

“Yep, Muffin.”

“No grand baby of mine is going to be called Muffin.”

”That’s what we’ve decided.”

“You run off and marry that riff-raff of a Romeo. He doesn’t have a job. He knocks you up, and now you’re going to name my grandchild Muffin. I don’t think so.” Beatrice dropped her daughter’s hand and stood up.

“Oh, Mama,” Juliet gave her that million dollar smile of hers. It was the one that wouldn’t allow her mother to turn her daughter down for anything.

“I never could figure out what you saw in that Romeo anyway.”

“I fell in love with him when I saw those marvelous legs of his. There he stood across from me on the dance floor. His short trousers and leg stockings sent me to the moon. Only Papa has better looking legs than Romeo.”

“‘Tis true. Your father does have a fine set of gams.”

Beatrice needed a drink. She went to the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of red wine and poured herself a large glass. She downed the wine in one gulp, then she poured herself another glass.

“And I knew it was true love when I called from the balcony, ‘Romeo, Romeo, whereforth art thou, Romeo?'”

“You didn’t say that?” Mrs. C was incredulous. Such fancy, smancy language. ‘Whereforth’ indeed. She hadn’t heard that kind of language since she was a teenager some twenty years before.

“I did. What else would a girl say when she’s standing on a balcony, hoping her Romeo is waiting for her. Next to the garbage dumpster too.”

“Good point. Even if he is trash, he knows he’s trash. That’s better than some of them Montagues. Always putting on the Ritz.”

“You know what he said?”

“I couldn’t guess in a hundred years. What?”

“He didn’t mess around. He told me straightaway and in such plain language too. ‘I’m down here,’ he said. None of that flowery mumbo jumbo Paris is always throwing at me.”

“But, Paris, would have been a better match for you. He’s got a job and his father is loaded. Really loaded.” Beatrice had so hoped for a good marriage for her daughter and not to some trailer trash Montague.

“I’m no Helen and Verona’s no Troy. But Romeo is my Achilles heel. And he really loves me. Romeo even called me a saint. Can you imagine?”

Mrs. C knew her daughter very well. One thing was for sure. Her daughter was no virgin when she met Romeo. “I can’t. A saint you ain’t.”

“Then he called me a church. Well, not a church, but a shrine. Do I look like a shrine?”

“You do glow. That’s because you’re pregnant. When I was pregnant with you, I glowed in the dark.”

“And I called him gentle. We were like Edward and Bella. Only he is no vampire and he doesn’t sparkle.”

“So where is your husband now?” Mrs. C sat back down. ” Taking off and leaving my little girl on her own. I can tell you one thing. Your father is going to use those handsome legs of his to catch that boy. And when he does, there’s going to be hell to pay. Abandoning my precious little Juliet when she is in the family way.”

“That’s the bad news, Mom. He didn’t abandon me. Romeo was drafted.”

“Drafted?”

“We were on our way to hide out in Rome. The Pisans caught us and drafted him. They wanted him for their Pisa Party. Something about pushing the Leaning Tower up straight. So here I am. I need a place to stay until Romeo can come for me.”

“We’ll just have to get your daddy to buy Romeo’s release. That’s the least we can do for the father of my grandchild.”

Juliet smiled. It was true. Her glow was such a glow that her mother knew her daughter would glow in the dark too.

“Muffin, huh?”

“Yes,” Juliet said. “There’s nothing like a Muffin popping out of the oven.”

Mother of the World

Today being Mother’s Day and I’d like to celebrate it with this story.

It was over. The long night of his mother’s illness. The days upon days upon days of her suffering. She was gone. Only what was left of her empty shell of a body lay under the covers on the bed. All her life she kept her faith. Her last moments were no different. She whispered the word “Jesus”, then she gave up her ghost. Finally she was free of the weight of worry and pain and hard work she carried for her fifty-five years.

Soon his three younger brothers and one younger sister would be there to relieve him of his watch, and they would say their goodbyes. Soon the doctor would come to pronounce her dead and sign the death certificate. Soon the coffin maker would come. He would make her body up best he could and box it up and ready it for the cold, hard ground. Soon that tiny body of hers would be covered with the same earth that was to be found under her fingernails.

For the next little while, he was alone with the woman he called Mother for his thirty-eight years. He sat down on the side of the bed and lifted her very small hand. It was not quite cold yet. He started to make an effort to warm it up with his hands, then stopped. It was no use to try.

Nothing could bring back the warmth of those hands she used to cook and knead dough and mend and chop cotton with. Those hands that ran her fingers through his hair ever so gently. Those hands that folded into prayer thousands of times. Those hands that threw holy water onto her teenage boys to get them out of bed and ready for school, calling on the Name of Jesus to cast out any demons that they might have taken up with.

He felt the callouses embedded in that hand thin and gnarly. He laid the hand gently down by her side, then his hand slowly cupped her hairless skull, bald from the chemo that failed to check the cancer surging through her body. He pushed back what he could imagine was once her hair. The hair she’d taken pride in, hair once black and beautiful, its long tresses folded and pinned into a bun with a set of combs, an heirloom passed on to her from her Cherokee mother. The cancer stole that pride of her hair and left her bald.

His gaze lingered over her face, a face that always carried a smile when she saw one of her kids. The mouth never speaking an unkind word for anyone. And now would never speak comfort to him again with her mellifluous voice. He looked at the veins sticking out from her neck, then the body covered with the sheet and the quilt she’d made in the last two years of her life, that tiny body containing a great heart for all she met along her way through life.

Memories of her flooded through his mind, and they were memories of this woman who called none a stranger. They were memories of the times she sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a listening ear for a neighbor and the burdens the neighbor  carried. Of the times she bartered with her children and negotiated their arguments, so they didn’t end up in knock-down-drag-outs. The nights she sang him to sleep with a lullaby when all he wanted to do was chatter and romp and take on the world with his five-year old bravado. The times she poured castor oil down his throat and rubbed his chest with vapor rub, telling him that there was no sickness they could not heal.

It was hard work to make a good man out of a boy, much less four boys and a girl, doing the raising all by her lonesome the way she did. It was a work that never let up but went on from sunrise to sunset day in and day out and all night too, and she did it with nary a complaint. Rather she applied her love liberally but she never hesitated with the discipline. It was amazing what some holy water and a switch could do to get a kid to tow the line. When all was said and done, there was a hug for her kids and her grandkids, when they were in need of a hug. And they knew that those hugs came from a love that reached deep down all the way to her toes and back again.

Then his mind turned to the men in her life. The tenant-farmer Pa, that Joseph of a man who took care of his two young’uns just like that long-ago man took care of the infant Jesus and his Mama. This man, whom she adored, was a blacksmith and a good provider and everything a Pa should be. But her three husbands, they were no darn good. They weren’t worth the dirt she walked on. Hank, the laziest man in the state; Jock, twenty years her senior who had thrown his anger at her in dozens of ways; Tor, the man who had stolen her savings and left her in such poverty she was forced to beg her children for help.

Tears welled up into his eyes and he buried his face in her body. He cried his grief, all his grief into this dead woman’s body, the body of the woman he called Mother.

He swiped away the tears and stood up and walked over to the window. Outside the sun dropped out of the sky and over the edge of the horizon. Streaks of purple, blue, orange, yellow and red colored the sky. Soon the sky turned blue and it was night. A breeze touched his cheek and it felt like a kiss. Then the woman’s soul slipped through the window to join what once was and what is, the then and the now and the forever. She was now a part of everything and everything was a part of her. He looked up at the stars and thought that he had never seen anything so beautiful before. And maybe he never would again.

Relationships

As a writer, I think about how characters talk. One of the things that determine how characters talk is their job. So here is how a character would speak about their relationship with a significant other if they were:

  1. A meteorologist, “Cloudy with a chance of rain.”
  2. Lawyer, “Am I under oath?”
  3. .Doctor, “We’ll need to run some tests.”
  4. Cop, “I’ll have to take the Fifth.”
  5. Economist, “You can’t buy your way out of a recession.”
  6. Soldier, “It’s a no man’s land out there.”
  7. Politician, “Frankly…next question.”
  8. Mystery writer, “I’m not sure where we put the dead body.”
  9. Librarian, “Shhhh.”
  10. Minister, “I’ll have to pray on that one.”
  11. Psychiatrist, “It has a Freudian slip with a twist of Jungian synchronicity.”
  12. Explorer, “It’s been Terra Incognito all the way.”
  13. Superman, “Lois, will you please be careful with that kryptonite.”

What profession would you say your relationship with your significant other reflects?

 

Head Over Heels

This one is for Valentine’s Day and all the true believers in love and romance.

When I was in college, I had the Experience, or should I say the Experience had me. She was twenty-two and I was nineteen. She was studying for her masters in anthropology but her real major was adventure.

I was at a party some of my friends had given. She shimmered in, a warm glow flowing into the room. As she made her way toward me, it was as if a moon beam was falling toward a lake. I knew how the lake must feel, waiting in anticipation. Suddenly there she was, telling me her name. It was Hemingway. It wasn’t that her father liked the writer. Her mother just liked the name.

I was head over the precipice, my heels unable to hold me to the ground. We talked for a bit. Then we left, her magic leading me onward the way that Tinkerbell must’ve led Peter to Never Never that first time when he longed to stay a boy forever. We went out that door and stood in the middle of the street kissing for a half hour under the full moon. Right there and then I understood why that Prince went in search of Cinderella though he had only her one shoe by which to find her. How could he have not?

Over the next twenty days my life was filled with life. We were inseparable. We went sailing, canoeing, kayaking and surfing. She even got me to parachute out of a plane. But the scariest time was when she took me hang-gliding. During the day we did a new something-or-other that she had always wanted to do. At night we made love, sometimes wild and passionate, other times tender. It was as if heaven had somehow come down to earth and surrounded us with all its wonder.

Then she was gone. I woke up in the bed in my apartment early on the day after Valentine’s. I turned over toward her to kiss her a good day, a smile on my face. I was the luckiest man on earth. But, instead of her dark brown hair with even darker brown eyes, I saw a note.

Thank you, Trent, for all the wonder. It has been a grand adventure these past weeks. I love you but this can’t go on. I can’t take anymore of this happiness. When I met you that night, it was to be the last night of my life. It was only an accident that I came there. A friend had called me up at the last minute and asked me to come. I was about to end my life when I walked through that door and saw you, the most beautiful face I had ever seen. There was so much magic in it. I could never have imagined how beautiful life could be. But now I know and I thank you for what you gave me. Hem.

I searched for her but never saw her again. After a year of dead-ends I finally gave up. It was then that I realized that Happily Ever Afters don’t exist. But fairy tales do.