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.”

What’s a Dot To Do?

A Fable

Once upon a time there was a Dot. Let’s call him Fred. Everywhere Fred went, he met squares, circles, lines, ovals and all sorts of shapes. In all his far-flung travels to the nooks and crannies of the four corners of the world, he came across hundreds of shapes. No other dots.

He came to appreciate all those other shapes as he traveled about. Oh sure, circles would roll right over things. It was just their way. But every shape had a useful purpose. For instance: What would a baseball field be without a diamond? What would prevent accidents on a one-way street if not for the arrow pointing the right way? What would a plate be without a circle? Nada. Nowhere. A big, fat zero, which is a circle, by the way.

From time to time, Fred’s neighbor, Mrs. Arrow, gave a party. She invited all her arrow relatives. Invitations also went out to the ovals and the circles, and the lines always received an invite. The lines liked to roar. There was no better place to roar than at a party. Every shape in the neighborhood was invited. Everybody but Fred.

He was always the left-out kid. Over the years, he came to feel his dotness was a curse. Especially when he overheard one oval yell at another, “Go dot yourself.”

His dotness became such a burden of loneliness he often thought about ending it all. Perhaps stretch himself from one end of the neighborhood to the other until he pulled himself apart into a thousand smidgens. The image gave him the shivers. He decided that was a bad idea.

One night he had a very bad case of the lonelies. Only a walk would do him any good. He passed a dance hall he had passed dozens of times before. Usually he didn’t go inside, knowing that it was full of disappointment. On this particular night there was a difference in the air. He wasn’t sure what it was. Maybe the music, maybe the bright lights streaming out from the hall.

He put on his best smile and walked inside. The hall was packed, the music jumping. A couple of rhumbi rhumba-ed their rhum-busses off. A few quadrangles partnered for some quadrilaterals. A group of squares square-danced. The circles rolled in their sweet babies’ arms. Even the arrows were doing the pointy-ointy. Each shape danced to the same music, but heard a different drummer from the other shapes.

There were some solo acts around the floor. None wanted to dance with Fred. He asked. They said, “You’re not my shape.” One nasty oval put it bluntly, “Why don’t you just shape up or ship out, bud?”

Disappointed as usual, Fred returned to the empty streets of Shape City, began the slow slog of a walk home. He made up his mind for the five-hundred-and-eighty-eighth time that never ever would he let his hopes soar off to some pie-in-the-skyski that turned out to be mud. There was no dancing partner for him and there never would be. No other dot in the world and that was that.

He was so lonely that not even the night masked his agony. He came to a bridge, looked out at the water. He contemplated jumping into the water but he knew he wouldn’t drown. He would just float away into the night. Gazing at the full moon, mooning him, he clinched his hand into a fist, shook it at the sky and cried, “Please, Mr. Moon, please.” He fell to the street and sobbed, “Have some compassion on this little dot you see here.”

“Are you a dot?” a soft voice above him asked. Hesitantly it continued, “I’m a dot too.”

Fred stared at the cold, hard cement, afraid to look up, fearing that it was a voice from his imagination, an imagination that had fooled him many times before.

“Please,” the female voice said. “I’ve been searching–”

Fred dared not hope.

“–for so long,” the voice continued. “Years and years.”

It couldn’t be, could it? Fred asked himself. He slowly turned his head upward toward the voice. “You’re not a circle?” he asked timidly. “You’re a dot?”

“Yes.”

It had to be a trick. He was sure that there was no other shape like him in this god-awful, dot-free world. There wasn’t. There just wasn’t another dot. But there she was, standing above him.

A dot. The most beautiful shape he had ever seen.

“All my life,” she said, “I have never met–”

“–another dot,” he said. She was a dot. She was a dot. Fred’s heart danced for joy. “Me neither.”

The two dots embraced, each desperate for the touch of another dot. For the first time in their lives, they were not alone. After minutes, maybe longer, they released their embrace.

“I’m Fred.”

“I’m Ginger,” the words tumbled out of her. “I saw you at the dance. But I was afraid. Thought I was dreaming. I have seen so many dots who turned out to be nothing more than small circles.”

“I didn’t see you.”

“I was in the shadows. I’ve been laughed at so many times that I always stand in the shadows.”

They sat down on the side of the street and talked. How square the squares were. How the circles sang out of key. And, my god, the ovals. What were they about? The two laughed at the same jokes. Like “how many circles does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, because light bulbs don’t believe in circles.” It was the same with so many things. Music and poetry, movies and food. They even had the same impressions of their travels, realizing they had often missed each other by minutes at so many of the places they had been.

He reached over, took her hand, felt her warmth. Under that full, round, yellow moon of a night, they danced for the first time the first of many polka dots. Suddenly the moon was a dot. The stars were dots. The trees were sprinkled with dots. The water below shimmered with dots. It was a night of dots, and nothing but dots.

Fred and Ginger knew that they would never be alone again.

“I’m not coming home”

“I’m not coming home,” Denise speaks into her cell, then smiles at Sarah across the table.

She listens for several minutes. Then she says, “No, I’m not coming home.”

A minute later, “But.”

Then, “No, absolutely not. I don’t care what you say. I’m not coming home.”

After more listening, Denise continues, “Look, understand, you’re just going to have to do this without me. I’m not coming home.”

Again she listens, then interrupts, “But, Mom…Mom.”

Sarah shakes her head, thinking, “Been there, done that many times over.”

Gritting her teeth, her voice revealing her frustration, Denise says, “Mom, I told you. I am not coming home.”

In frustration she ends the call, stuffs the cell into her pocket, turns to her friend, and says, “Well, I guess that’s settled. I’m going home.”

Afternoon Tea

“Tom and I … we broke up,” Frieda said.

“You didn’t?” Denise squeezed her friend’s hand to comfort her.

The two women, both in their early thirties, sat at a table in the Ponce de Leon, a small natural foods cafe. The girl behind the counter had her ipod turned down low, playing Oasis’ “Live Forever”.

“It’s so damned frustrating. Tom seemed to think he’s going to go on forever.”

“I know how it can be. Jeff and I have been together five years, and not once has he had a checkup.”

“It started over the CoQ10.” Another sip of green tea made Frieda feel better. “I told him it would add twenty years to his life.”

“All Jeff says is that he doesn’t want to live forever.” Denise slowly drank a little more of her tea. She loved the taste of the peppermint.

“He wanted to know if it was made from some CoQ10 animal they squeezed for the juice.” Frieda said. “Imagine that.”

“He didn’t?” Denise laughed.

“It took some work. A bit of bribery, you know,” Frieda winked suggestively to Denise, “and he came around. But it was the fish oil that did it.”

The music changed to Joan Baez singing Dylan’s “Forever Young”.

“Fish oil?”

“Heart disease runs in his family. But he insisted he wasn’t about to drink any fish juice.”

“Fish oil comes in pills too.”

“He definitely wasn’t taking ‘horse pills’. His exact words. We had a blowout, then it was over.”

“Over fish oil?” Denise was surprised at the other woman’s courage. After all, Tom and Frieda had been a couple for almost five years. That was a lot to invest in one fellow without any return.

Frieda drained her cup, then said, “I’m not about to stay with a guy that won’t take care of himself.”

“I guess I love Jeff way too much to put that kind of ultimatum on him.”

“Pretty soon you’ll be having unhealthy kids. Unhealthy because you’re with an unhealthy guy. How can you put yourself through that?”

“I can’t see myself without him.” Then Denise offered to get two more cups of tea.

When she returned to the table, she passed a cup over to her friend. Kenny G’s “Theme from “Dying Young” played from the ipod.

“I miss him,” Frieda said, “but there’s no going back.”

“Why not? You don’t think he doesn’t miss you as much as you miss him?”

Frieda nodded toward her cell phone. “No. He won’t even take my calls.”

“My God, I’m sorry.” Denise reached over and hugged her.

“It’s okay,” Frieda said, holding in her grief. Then a long pause. “Maybe, just maybe.”

“Maybe what?” Denise eased back into her chair.

“Naw … it was just a thought.” The warm smell of the tea wafted up to Frieda’s face and eased her sadness. A smile came to her face. “Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant,” she sang. Then she laughed, harder than she had laughed in quite some time.