Monday, July 23, 2012
Writing is a solitary career. Hours in front of the computer broken by snacks and bursts of exercise. Sleep comes when the words become jumbled and clog the exit from the brain. That’s when sleep comes, three or four hours of it.
The hours of the night are broken into segments of tossing bedcovers, checking e-mail, and massaging a scene in the dark with new ideas that I scribble on a pad by my beside. I’m not alone, because the stories waken me, begging to be told. I have no resistance during the night and even less when the sun rises, usually an hour or two after me.
I become agitated if responsibilities pull me from penning a murder scene or the setting of a beautiful stretch along a quiet road. Only Sportster can weave himself between me and the keyboard with the grace of a swan gliding across a blue-green pond. I welcome him, burying my nose in his soft fur and inhale his scent. He shrugs me off and walks away only to pass by me again, purring with a contentment that thrills me, knowing he’s happy in my care.
Monday, July 16, 2012
GOING HOME WITH A CAT AND A GHOST
BY JUDY HOWARD
Alone inside the comforting confines of my motorhome, I watched as the world scrolled past my windshield. The dawn illuminated the eastern horizon and I felt as if I sat in a darkened theater watching in anticipation as the credits rolled across the screen, the title yet to be announced. The motor home hummed its soft but steady song of power and strength while my play list of country music two-stepped down the road skipping over asphalt cracks and doe si doeing through the California traffic. As I drove, I settled into the rocking motion of travel while the wheels of my mind spun in reverse, two thousand miles, back forty years to a night I couldn’t remember but changed my life forever.
On that Saturday night in January 1965, I hadn’t turned seventeen. My youth’s short life stretched behind me. My life’s path had been smooth and the future bright for a girl of my age, but I still had the shallowness of a sixteen year old, unaware of the thorns hidden along the way, destined to wound my future.
The last vestiges of Christmas had been unwrapped and taken to the trash along with the tinseled tree. I felt let down at this time of the year. Advertising promised a hoopla of the holidays that never came close to my experience. I hadn’t been swept away on a romantic sleigh ride or snuggled with a sweetheart in my grandmother’s afghan, sipping cocoa by the firelight. What I wanted was never under the tree and, though I tried to become fired up about the magic and wonderment, when the New Year arrived, people returned to their everyday lives. They went back to work, trying to make a living, treating each other with the same mundane attitude as they had during the rest of the year. At sixteen I questioned the point of it all.
I spent most Saturday nights at the skating rink with my friends talking of clothes and boys. It was there I nursed my hopeful heart with promises of a chance encounter with Brad, the boy of my dreams – the boy who confused me with looks of desire but, like a skittish thoroughbred, shied away when I returned a look of my own. It was at that skating rink, a colorful, musical world of its own, on that Saturday night, my future became poisioned, tainting my innocence and changing my life.
The huge building spread low in a gravel parking lot filled with teenager’s hot rods that today are considered vintage. With the holidays forgotten and the Midwest’s bitter winter settling in, I crunched across the frosty parking lot after Dad dropped me off. Bundled in my new Christmas coat and snow boots I hurried through the cold to the rink’s entrance. When I opened the door, I felt like Alice in Wonderland, the outside world forgotten, overcome by the roller rink’s atmosphere. Inside, loud, live organ music reverberated against the walls causing the building to tremble while the rotating mirrored sphere, hanging from the ceiling, reflected and sprinkled dots like colorful snow. The confetti lights swirled in the air, racing around the polished hardwood rink, keeping pace with the skaters.
The music, along with the clicking of wooden wheels across the floor, muted the teen voices that exchanged gossip and popped gum while they bent over benches, tying shoelaces. I paused after entering, allowing my eyes and ears to adjust to the dimness and the din. I spotted my friends Jackie and Carrie standing by the benches that circled the rink. As I approached them I noticed Brad across the room, standing apart from the crowd. I watched his expression morph into gentleness when he saw me. I secretly fantasized about him in the privacy of my bedroom when the lights were out and the world was asleep.
A Clorox white t-shirt showed off Brad’s farmer’s tan and his faded jeans slung low and snug on his hips. He combed his blonde hair with a practiced sweep into a ducktail. Long side burns framed clean-shaven, baby-soft cheeks and blue eyes that caused the girls to swoon now penetrated my heart as he gazed my way. He hung back in the shadows, always the bystander, cool and aloof from the social foo foo that went on among his peers. Girls continually approached him shuffling, swooning, and hanging on his arm but he stood unaffected as if he were a proud stallion switching his tail at annoying flies. At times I noticed him leave with girls of questionable reputation but I always felt they were toys he quickly tired of. I never saw him with the same one twice.
He was my heartthrob and had probably parted with his buddies earlier who, full of rutting energy and bravado, had gone on to the bar to further inflate their male egos. Brad was “too cool” to skate, but came to the rink because he knew I could be found giggling and gossiping with friends as we verbally journaled every moment of our teenage week. I enjoyed watching Brad’s controlled, tight expression go warm and soft when my eyes met his. I shyly, averted my gaze just as he did the same, and focused on my friends, Jackie and Carrie.
Jackie was my best friend. I envied her stylish clothes and would have traded my house-dressed mom and flannel shirted dad for her cool, sophisticated parents. Carrie was my next best friend and the opposite of Jackie. Her outfits were stylish too, but shorter and tighter. Carrie balanced out our “threesome,” as we called ourselves. Carrie looked up to me as I looked up to Jackie, while Jackie remained solid, grounding our circle of friendship.
I approached, raising my voice over the rumble of skaters passing by.
“Hi you all.”
“What’s up?” Standing up on her skates Jackie whirled around to face me, her wool pleated skirt remained hugging her hips but her eyes looked mischievously past me. I followed her gaze which settled on Brad in the distance. She knew of my bad crush on Brad.
“Nothing much.” Acting nonchalant, I turned my back, trying to dismiss her teasing grin and removing my coat, sat down on the bench she’d vacated.
“We’ll catch up with ya later, Judy. Come on Carrie.” Anxious to get out on the floor, hand in hand the two hunched down and pushed off from the railing. After removing my boots and loafers I proceeded to lace up my skates.
Would you like to skate?” I jumped as I turned to the voice and away from my friends who had already disappeared into the moving crowd. It wasn’t Brad, he never asked me to skate. Only when I manipulated the timing for our paths to cross did I receive more than the gaze from his bedroom eyes. So if the planets were aligned and dating Gods were in a good mood my world blossomed with feelings I called love when he invited out to his car where we sat in the back seat of his ’57 Chevy talking until the rink closed. But that night the timing was off because I watched him go outside with his friend Bob.
“Sure. Okay,” I answered. It was a guy I hadn’t met before. He seemed nice enough. I didn’t know his name but I had seen him around. I finished lacing up my skates and we made our way onto the floor. He took my hand and we moved to the rhythm of the music as we glided around the arena. We didn’t say anything, but his look was intense as he watched me skate and it baffled me how he avoided clashing with the other skaters. After several songs I thanked him, released my hand, sweaty from his grip. cringing and wiping my palm on my jeans, I caught up with Jackie and Carrie. After skating a few more songs with them, I opted to sit out. From the side lines I watched couples and singles move to the music, laughing, talking, holding hands and swirling. Everyone seemed to belong. I felt distant as if standing on a hill looking down on the scene.
“Hi.” It was the new guy again. Only his mouth moved in a smile. I realized I hadn’t asked his name. I still didn’t ask. His light green eyes burned like lasers when he looked at me and I turned away from his piercing gaze. His dark brown hair was cut like my father’s, too short on the sides and back. His jeans hung loose hiding muscular thighs that pressed up against me when he sat down. A blue flannel shirt covered a black turtleneck sweater that seemed to hinder his thick neck from turning.
“You look awfully nice tonight. That’s a nice sweater. Is it new?” But he looked through the sweater and I sensed his interest in what I wore under it. “Can I get you a Coke?”
He skated away but returned in minutes with a Coke in each hand.
“Here you go.” I reached for the cold drink in his left hand, but he shoved the one in his right into my extended hand. I took a gulp as he sat down, again crowding next to me. “I’ve noticed you the past couple of weekends and always wanted to ask you to skate. You are a good skater.”
I didn’t respond. Twenty minutes passed as we watched the skaters in silence.
The new guy hadn’t spoken but I felt his body weight shifting, unable to sit still, as if anticipating something. I turned to face him when he tapped my shoulder. “I’m going out to my car and have a cigarette. You wanna come?”
Brad popped into my head, but I quickly pushed his image aside after I glanced across the room to see him surrounded by several girls from Lanphier High. Brad watched as his buddy, Bob lit a red head’s cigarette. I imagined they too would be going out to their cars with the girls.
“Sure.” The fresh winter air would be welcome after working up a sweat on the rink, and anyway, I felt a little lightheaded. We put on our street shoes and coats and stepped out into the crisp January air. The coldness slapped my flushed face as someone grasped my arm, both impacts becoming my last clear memory of that night. -
Feeling wobbly I staggered as the grip on my arm led me to a glossy black car with dark tinted windows. The car’s image remains embedded in my mind’s shadows to this day. Several boys stood around smoking and drinking. Darkness engulfed me while they joked and talked loudly; their tinny voices resonated in my head. I tried to make sense of the scene through blurred vision as the boys punched one another in angry gestures.
Someone must have opened the door and pulled the front seat forward to allow access to the backseat. “Go ahead, climb in.” the words drifted into space and disappeared, replaced by a thick spicy scent that made me queasy. The figure held my Coke as I climbed in and then handing it back; followed me, and sat solidly beside me. “Drink up.”I heard chants, and cheers, disconnected, as if from a pep rally far away. The taunts and lewd remarks twisted into lyrics to a song blaring on the car’s radio. The blurred, shadowy ghost-figure next to me laughed like a colorful clown in a house of horror. The rest of the evening played out like a bad horror movie. Lips sought mine as crude hands probed under my blouse. A hooded shroud covered my consciousness. I floated in and out to a rhythm much like the skaters inside.
“I’m your bad boy. You like bad boys don’t you bitch?” The words, in contrast to the fuzziness around me, rang like a trumpet sounding a sharp alarm. A lurid song I never heard before, but still hear, filled my head. Dull, off-key notes wrapped in cotton absorbed my brain’s drowning demands to flee.
His hands moved to my jean’s zipper and soon my body was forced to a rhythm that could not be stopped. It was over as fast as it had begun. He climbed off before I was aware he’d been on top of me. Moving back to the corner of the seat and lifting his hips he zipped up his jeans. His voice pierced my stupor.“Let’s go back inside and get another Coke. Tuck in your blouse. Fix your hair.”
Stunned and weak, I stumbled from the car’s dark interior as ordered, straightening, tucking, and zipping. When I entered the building, Jackie came skating up.
“What have you been up to?”
I glanced around. The dark figure had vanished. Hadn’t there been someone with me? I was confused, disoriented. My head spun and I thought I was going to be sick.
Jackie looked on as I shuffled over to the bench and sat down. “I don’t feel so good,” I explained. Thoughts and memories disappeared into a black hole before I could make sense of them. At the same moment Carrie swept up, braking suddenly, her short pleated skirt flared with her movement. “Did you talk to her, Jackie?”
Numbly I looked up. “About what?”
Carrie wore the shortest style and the reddest lipstick. I made a conscious effort to focus on the bright color of her lips. In the past I thought she seemed to overdo everything. Her father abused her mother, and I am sure her as well, although she never breathed a word of it. She played the role of the obedient daughter but she was anxious to get married and leave home. I would never call her boy-crazy to her face … that was my analysis. But now I had to force myself to concentrate on her words because my head wanted to swirl with the skaters on the rink.
Carrie stomped her foot like a child asking for candy “About that new guy. He goes to Lanphier with Brad’s buddy, Bob. I want to meet him.”
“I don’t even know what the new guy looks like.”
“But Brad and Bob are friends. Bob must know the guy if they both go to Lanphier.” Carrie whined.
“I don’t know Brad well enough to ask him that.” I felt my face flush from embarrassment and my stomach was roiled.
Jackie chimed in as she reached over to finger the small gold locket I always wore. “You know Brad has a thing for you. And you do for him too. You haven’t taken that locket off since he gave it to you at the fair.”
“Come on Jackie.” Carrie interrupted pushing Jackie’s hand away... She always rescued me from Jackie’s teasing. “We’ll catch up with you later Judy.”
Before leaving, Jackie examined me with concern. “Are you okay?”
“Yes I’ll be fine. You go ahead. I just want to sit here for a while.”
“Okay. I’ll come back and check on you in a bit.” Jackie skated off hand in hand with Carrie.
Yeah, okay. Later.” They both swirled off onto the floor, melting into the multi-colored crowd”
I don’t know how long I’d sat there when I felt Brad by my side.
“Hey, how’re you doing?” Then when he looked into my unfocused eyes, his lip drew into a thin line and his brow creased in concern.
I couldn’t keep up my façade any longer. “I don’t feel so good.” I leaned over into a ball holding my stomach.
“Come on. Let’s go outside. You’ll feel better with some fresh air.” He supported me as I stumbled out to his car. “Get in.” Cold and feeling green, I did as I was told.
‘I’m going to be sick.” He crouched down beside me and held my head as I leaned out into the parking lot and heaved.
Brad smoothed my hair back from my eyes and touched my chin, tilting my head up. I tried to focus on his eyes. “Have you been drinking?” he asked.
“No, I just had a Coke but it tasted salty.” I didn’t understand why Brad’s expression turned to ice.
“Where’d you get the Coke?”
“At the snack bar I think. I don’t know. I mean I don’t remember. Maybe I went outside. Yeah, I think I did. There were some guys outside. I think I got it from them. ”
“Who were the guys?”
“I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW!” My thoughts swirled like smoke in the wind as I tried to grasp their meaning. A feeling of dread prickled the back of my neck as flashes from the backseat penetrated my senses. I shivered as the shadowy scene revealed patches of horror. “Oh my God!” I lurched forward again. My body convulsed in dry heaves, this time from the realization of what had happened rather than from the drug in my Coke.
“Oh my God!” Suddenly aware of soreness and a throbbing I couldn’t ignore. I hunched over into a painful ball. Brad grabbed me, pulled me close and rocked me in his arms. I buried my face in his sheepskin lined coat.
My youthful path stretching sixteen years behind me and reaching so perfectly and beautifully into the future was now alive with ghostly shapes, but as Brad held me, the sinister images diminished. I inhaled cool air replacing the hot fear within me. Brad said nothing. His body coiled taut to contain a murderous anger I sensed welling in him.
“Come on. You’ve got to get it together. I’m going to get you some coffee. You wait here. And lock the door when I get out. I’ll be right back. Then we’ll talk.”
Teens laughing and talking broke the silence in the parking lot as they made their way from their cars and disappeared into the skating rink. I watched as Brad approached and I jumped when climbed in and slammed the door. “How are you doing? Better?’
“What am I going to do?” I tasted my salty tears. How could I remember nothing and yet know such humiliation, shame and aching agony? My unconscious knew what my consciousness only guessed.
He leaned over took my hands, curved them around the coffee cup and then wrapped his hands around mine. “Take a sip. You’ll feel better.”
His eyes looked into mine and I felt an unfounded ray of hope. I began to feel safe.
“Tell me what happened. Who were you with?”
“I don’t know what happened! I remember talking to Jackie and Carrie. I got a Coke after I skated for a while. I think I went outside for some air. I remember feeling sick. But maybe I didn’t go outside, maybe I just sat there. I DON’T REMEMBER!”I was gasping as I felt tears sting my whisker- burned face.
“I’m sorry, Judy.” I felt the surging energy of rage in his taut muscles as he once again struggled to bind up his emotions. With a calmness I knew he didn’t feel, he said, “You’re going to get yourself together and call your dad to come pick you up. I’ll check with you Monday.” His words conveyed confidence and control. I sat up straight and inhaled deeply. With the back of my hand I wiped away my tears and fumbled in my purse for my hairbrush. Maybe everything was going to be fine.
“All right,” I said. My fingers reached up to stroke the delicate gold locket I cherished as if it were an amulet. I had not taken it off since the day Brad gave it to me. It was gone.
Nothing was ever going to be fine again.
Where would you go if the road were clear? …Not cluttered and full of holes? …How would you go if you could steer? …If you had hold of the wheel? …And why would you venture at all? Or ask instead, why not?
I dream of last year’s summer days.
Of the grandeur of the Zion when I hiked the path at daybreak before the heat wove its way deep into the canyons, and I heard the icy water rush past me on its own journey.
Of the rich emptiness of the Wyoming pastures where surely only the best survive, and I heard Cheyenne history blowing in the winds.
I dream of f friends and starry nights, presidents and monuments. I dream of Buffalo and bears and geysers and meteors.
And I would go again…if the road were clear.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
When I arrived home, here was my sign.