Published Christmas, 2013 in Meg Sefton’s Florida Flash: A Prompt-Based Christmas Anthology.
“Becoming Real” by Elizabeth Westmark
Jill drove around the parking lot of Joe Patti’s Seafood for ten minutes before she found a narrow space on a ribbon of smashed grass out by Main Street. Seemed like half the town was there. It was mid-afternoon on a hot, sultry Christmas Eve in Pensacola.
She edged sideways through the motley crowd and took a number from an off-duty deputy sheriff. Number 99 was 28 numbers away, so she backed up against a freezer case and surveyed the boisterous throng.
Cream of society types who looked like they had just left their grand homes in East Hill mixed with poor folks from the Westside, bright-eyed Asian children held close by their parents, beach rats with tattooed fat hanging out everywhere, and old people who looked they were already half-embalmed leaned on their walkers and pointed bony fingers to choose ingredients for a holiday gumbo.
You couldn’t stand there without smelling the people, especially the pickled ones whose pores oozed wheaty hops. Fat women paired with ectomorphic men so stretched out and thin they were strangely attractive until you were hit with a full frontal of missing teeth and dead eyes.
“Ninety-nine? Ninety-nine? Jill nearly missed hearing her number. She squished and squiggled her way to the counter, ordered shrimp and cocktail crab claws from a rough-looking woman with a Russian accent wearing a Santa’s Elf hat, then took her basket to the cash register, paid, and left.
Ben would be home soon, and there would be a crowd for dinner. She had met his son and daughter once, but not their spouses. How old was the little grandson? Three?
She left her first husband because he steadfastly refused to even consider starting a family. And now she was about to marry a man with grown kids and a shiny new vasectomy
Jill could feel her small car sway in the wind when she reached the mid-point of the Three-Mile Bridge. The sky didn’t fall all at once. It became uniformly gray and she could see red and green lights on houses across the sound. The rain started with a few giant splats on her windshield. One more bridge to go.
Sailboats strung with lights in Little Sabine Harbor danced in the gunmetal waves. Jill drove slowly past their house, then picked up speed as she headed into the teeth of the storm on State Highway 399 toward Navarre.
White sand blew across the narrow two-lane road. Jill knew she should turn around, but some wild call urged her forward. Up ahead she saw a beach access parking area and pulled in, turned off the engine, found her rain poncho and opened the door. She steadied herself and walked from boardwalk to beach.
The storm came ashore in huge, undulating waves. Jill didn’t know if she was dying or being born. There was nothing meek or mild about this Christmas.
She lived for a decade in an antiseptic marriage in a bed that barely looked slept in; so pristine she could scream, like living in a whisper.
When she met Ben, she was a dehydrated sponge and he her bucket of water. He wrapped and unwrapped her; wanted her with him every moment to talk to and love in his exuberant way. With Ben, she was juicy, louche. But he came with a caravan: adult children, a grandchild, aging mother and aunt, and of all things an ex-wife who blew hot and cold.
The storm roared. Hard slantwise raindrops pelted her face, mixing with her tears and inchoate cries. She could barely stand. It felt like the end of the world. Thunder and lightning drove her back to the car. She sat, breathing hard, wriggled out of the soaked plastic poncho and started the car.
Sweet piano music filled the small space. Jill cocked her head. A woman’s mellifluous voice spoke and the music faded. “Once there was a velveteen rabbit and in the beginning he was really splendid. . .” Meryl Streep. My God. When the Skin Horse explained to the Velveteen Rabbit how beings become real, Jill leaned in. Her skin prickled. “It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or who have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.”
And when the Velveteen Rabbit said how at first he found sleeping with The Boy “rather uncomfortable,” because The Boy “hugged him very tight,” Jill felt something loosening in her chest. She thought how she chose her first husband because he barely hugged her at all, and Ben because she realized she would die if she didn’t finally let someone in all the way.
Jill looked at her watch. She jumped as though awakened from a sleep. Ben! The kids. The old ladies and the ex-wife and the little boy. What would they think?
She pulled out of the parking space and turned eagerly toward home. The front had passed over the island, and she saw a hint of sunset gold on the water.
She pulled in to their driveway and raced up the steps. Halfway up, the front door opened and a little boy spilled out.“She’s here!” he shouted. He grabbed her around the knees when she reached the landing and she kneeled down to pick him up. His little heart beat so fast against her own. He looked at her in that big-eyed way of children. “I’m Cody,” he said, pointing a finger at his chest. “And you’re my Jill.” He touched her breastbone with his small finger. Jill fell her heart stop. Reconfigure itself to this new reality.
“You’re home!” It was Ben, wrapping them both up in his long arms. “Come in here, girl, before you freeze.” Sure enough, the weather had turned.
Elizabeth Westmark’s essays have appeared in the Boiler Journal, Brevity, Prick of the Spindle, Girls with Insurance, Road Trip Journal, The Binnacle Ultra-Short 2009, Camroc Press Review, and Dead Mule, among others. She writes from her home in a Longleaf pine preserve near Pensacola, Florida, where she is working on her first novel.
Compression statement, published in Matter Press, 2013:
“The idea is to apply enough pressure until there is a compression fracture, and all the truth of that time flows, like spinal fluid.” — Elizabeth Westmark
First publication March 23, 2013 by The Boiler: a journal of new literature.
I learned a secret yesterday. I learned how to throw a KA-BAR knife
straight down and get it to stick in the ground.
The secret? You don’t throw it; you release it. The dark
steel impels itself smoothly downward. Some ancient heavy metal
genetic navigation system guides the two-edged blade into the
belly of the deer hoof and turkey foot softened earth.
I stare at it, mesmerized, unaccountably pleased that I have learned this
boy trick. I pick it up again and smoothly slit the seam of a fifty-pound bag
of dry corn. Hard, golden kernels spill noisily into the barrel feeder.
My husband, Buck, hoists another bag from the tailgate of
the black pickup truck. He perches it on the edge of the rusting
green barrel. The barrel wants to twist on the braided metal cable
that holds it suspended just low enough for us to fill. It holds four
bags; 200 pounds of corn.
One time, after cutting a bag open and steadying it on the
metal rim of the barrel, I forget the secret I have learned, and throw
the KA-BAR toward the ground, putting a little force and spin on
it. It bounces off the ground and lies there; flat, exposed. I am
disgusted with myself. It takes a certain abdication of ego to just
let the knife fall.
When the barrel is full, Buck secures the square sheet metal
lid with a frayed bungee cord. He sets the timer and tests it. I take
several steps back to stand on the perimeter. The battery fires up
and a shower of corn slings from a small propeller attached to a
hole in the bottom of the barrel. A penumbra of ochre dust hangs in
I move in close again to take hold of the barrel to keep it
from twisting while Buck winches it back to the top of the feeder
tripod. Soon, it is too high for me to touch and I move backward
quickly to get myself into a zone of safety in case the rusty barrel
breaks open, the winch fails, or the tripod collapses.
I get into the cab of the truck, hang my legs over the side
and smack the lug soles of my boots together to shake off any
residual dirt, then power down my window and hang my head out
like a dog for the short ride back to the house. I turn at the feel of
my husband’s hand giving my thigh an “atta-boy” pat.
He gives me a proud thumbs-up. “I’ve never seen a city
woman who could throw a knife like that.”
Elizabeth Westmark‘s essays have appeared in Brevity, Prick of the Spindle, Girls with Insurance, The Binnacle Ultra-Short 2009, Camroc Press Review, and Dead Mule, among others. She writes from her home in a Longleaf pine preserve near Pensacola, Florida, where she is working on her first novel. It’s a coming of age story, wrapped in a romance, inside a secret, dipped in danger & deep-fried by a Cat 5 Hurricane.
Published in the November 10, 2010 issue of JUNK a literary fix.
by Elizabeth Westmark
I’ve reached that stage of life where my sins of omission far outweigh my sins of commission.
The old preacher who befriended you in that tiny town where you were living led us to the small frame house by the railroad tracks.
The dilapidated wooden swing on the porch whispered of better times. We slowly followed the reverend to the front door. He jiggled the key and twisted the loose knob, pushing on the humidity-swollen door until it opened.
Collectively taking a deep breath, we stepped over the threshold.
Oh, dear God, so this is how you were living.
The nearly overpowering smell of cigarettes and old beer mingled with garbage and mildew. A black futon along one wall bolstered with two dirty pillows told me this is where you slept. The view from there would have been just right for watching the hundred or so discount videotapes stacked on a shelf around the TV in the corner.
Where, how, could we begin? My puny bag of cleaning supplies seemed pitiful for the task. Not to mention the emotional tsunami threatening to engulf us. Your Dad had barely moved a muscle from the moment we entered. We looked at one another for a long moment. The pastor’s kindly small talk sounded tinny and far away.
I emptied the overflowing ashtray on the scarred coffee table in front of the futon, and then moved on to the kitchen.
A drain board beside the sink was piled high with clean plastic food containers. I recognized them. We always sent you home with a cooler full of the meatloaf that you loved and other home-cooked foods for your freezer.
The tears that had started in my eyes froze when I turned to see the far wall. Empty cardboard beer twelve-packs were flattened and neatly stacked at angles, from floor to ceiling, like demented wallpaper. I slowly opened each of the kitchen cabinets. Carefully arranged empty beer cans filled each shelf.
I had to get out of there fast, Max, and so I retreated to the bedroom. Morning sun came through the front window and illuminated your perfectly made bed. It looked so crisp, with a designer sheet set and comforter that I was sure your Mom must have sent. The labels were still attached. I could see from your construction industry continuing education exam workbooks on the desk, and partially completed applications for the local junior college nearby that this was the place you would come to work when you could manage to hope.
We couldn’t stay much longer, Max. I hope you understand.
Your pickup truck is still in our yard, parked out by the old red storage building. Several folks have called, wanting to buy it. We don’t return their calls.
Maybe we failed you; maybe not. But know this: the light is still in our window for you, as it always was.
Published June 16, 2010 in Girls With Insurance (sadly, in 2014 listed as defunct)
The Signature Woman
Cosmopolitan Magazine taught me that every woman of taste and sophistication has a signature fragrance, a signature color, a signature lipstick, a signature signature if she can pull it off, and – the penultimate je ne sais quoi – a signature piece of jewelry.
Forty years ago, I was a socially hungry teenager in a strict, repressive home. I secretly read Cosmopolitan magazine, scared to death my mother would find me with it. I lived the life of a shy, studious bookworm, but, oh, how I longed to be a Cosmo girl.
Gracie not only had a signature brooch, but a signature style of wearing it. The brooch itself was a reptile of some sort, a caiman or an iguana. I was never sure. She always wore it pinned to the back of her suit jacket, resting just so on her left scapula.
Her regular pew at the old Episcopal Church downtown was third row from the front, left center, beside her plaid-clad husband, Morris. Gracie’s flat brown hair was styled in a modified pixie cut, and with her diminutive features, she resembled a well-tailored mouse. I stared at her tiny, sharp nose whenever I would catch her profile during the reading of the Word.
Gracie had flair. Her signature brooch caught on with some of the other elderly Episcopalian women in the congregation. I noticed with amusement when some new enamel or bejeweled reptile found a home on yet another boucle jacket, gradually forming a zigzag line behind Gracie’s pew. It was more than a fashion statement; rather, an idiosyncratic language whose symbols I did not understand.
I observed this menagerie for several years with curiosity, but had never met Gracie. Not, that is, until my husband, Harry, accidentally signed us up to participate in the parish supper club.
On the way home from church that day, Harry said, “I think I may have gotten us involved in something.”
“Oh? What is it?” The Catholics and Baptists had just let out, too, and I was people watching; only halfway listening.
“Well, you left me for a minute to talk to someone,” he began, “and old Patsy Littleton made a bee line for me. She started talking so fast in that high-pitched voice of hers; I couldn’t understand all of what she was saying. I could tell she wanted me to do something, and I guess my head was nodding in the right direction. Before I knew what was happening, she said, ‘Wonderful! We’re so glad you and Robyn are joining the group! I’ll E-mail Robyn an updated list!’ She handed me this paper and rushed off.” He ruefully pulled a folded up sheet of paper from his suit pocket and proffered it in my direction.
I unfolded it. “Parish Supper Club Group Spring List” was the heading.
“Oh, my,” I murmured and then sighed. “Well, it’s too late, now. We’re in.”
Looking over the list, I realized we didn’t know a soul on it. There were three other couples besides us: Jane and Bob, Sandy and Tim, and Gracie and Morris. Gracie and Morris! Huh. I got a little more interested, knowing I would finally meet a lady who knew something about creating a signature, a true Cosmo woman.
Some of the parish dinner groups met at various restaurants, but ours was organized to have a supper gathering at each couple’s home. The host was to provide a main course, with hors d’oeuvres, salad and dessert assigned to others within the group. The first dinner of the season was originally supposed to be hosted by Sandy and Tim, but when another member of the group, Bob, fell off his new Harley Davidson motorcycle and broke a leg, it was rescheduled from Sandy and Tim’s 3-story beach house to Gracie and Morris’s elevator-equipped Bay front condominium.
Sandy wanted to be helpful to Gracie, so she coordinated with the rest of us on who would bring the appetizer, salad and dessert.
It was a lovely June evening when we converged onto the parking lot of the high-rise building and rode up the elevator together, juggling containers of salad, cheese, crackers and pie, trying not to jostle Bob as he balanced on a pair of crutches.
We found the right door and pressed the chiming doorbell. Gracie looked a little startled when she opened the door, and stood there for a beat or two, as if deciding whether to let us in. Sandy spoke up, “Hi, Gracie. We’re all here!”
With that, Gracie lit right up with a big smile and waved us in through the foyer. There were greetings and introductions as Sandy, Jane and I made our way to the kitchen, sweeping Gracie along with us. Along the way, I noticed the table was set for seven.
“Where’s Morris?” Jane asked.
“Oh,” Gracie waggled a hand and made a shrugging movement with her shoulders. “Morris. Uh, Morris had to go, you know, to the jail ministry retreat. It’s tonight. He was here earlier. He set the table and fixed up the bar. I don’t really know what he was doing. But he had to go. He’s gone.”
By this time, all the women were in Gracie’s small condo kitchen. The square, free-standing island workspace had been turned into a bar with an odd mishmash of partial bottles of vodka, gin, and a yellowish, vile looking container labeled “dandelion wine.”
Sandy cocked her head like a bird hearing a secret whistle. Jane and I had also begun to realize something was amiss. There were no cooking smells in the kitchen. “Gracie?” Jane began. “Do you think it’s time to put your roast in the oven?”
Gracie looked totally blank. She gestured to the cold oven. “Well, here’s the oven.”
It was too much for Jane, who fled the kitchen. Sandy and I, at least a head taller than the diminutive Gracie, exchanged a meaningful look.
One of the other couples had brought a large jug of white wine. Now seemed like the time to pour some, which I proceeded to do. “Gracie! How about a glass of wine?”
“Oh, yes. I would like that,” she said.
“Great. Would you excuse Sandy and me for just a minute? We’ll be right back.”
“Okay,” Gracie nodded, sipping from her glass.
“Oh God,” Sandy began, once we were out of ear shot. “Oh God, oh God, oh God. There’s no dinner. I called her yesterday to remind her. She said she was going to the store for a roast. Oh God.”
“Sandy,” I said, but she kept muttering and had begun wringing her hands. “Sandy!” I took hold of her hands. “Get a grip. Something is obviously going on with Gracie. Her husband must have known we were coming, but Gracie has no memory of it. Harry and I will go to that little market just down the road and come back with some of their roasted chickens and potato salad. Meanwhile, keep the wine flowing.”
Sandy’s eyes assumed a wide, fixed look and her pupils quivered. After a moment, Sandy’s training as a registered nurse took over, and she began to move as if on automatic pilot to play hostess, pour wine and act like nothing was wrong.
I called Harry over from where the men were standing in the living room, poor dears oblivious to the crisis. “Harry. We need to go to the store.”
“Now?” Harry looked at me as incredulously.
“Yes, sweetie. Right now.” Taking him firmly by the elbow, and pushing toward the door, he looked at me sharply, saw the expression on my face, and then stopped resisting.
I explained the situation in the elevator, and on the way to the store. Harry’s kindly face looked distressed. “Robyn?” He asked. “How could this have happened? Does Gracie have Alzheimer’s?”
Harry and I stood close together in the light of the parking lot before going into the store. “I don’t know, Harry,” I answered, “but based on what we’ve seen tonight, I’m afraid she may. Morris has to know. Why on earth would he have left her to face our supper club group all alone?”
Harry gripped my shoulder, looking fierce. “I’d like the answer to that, myself. What kind of a guy would do that?”
I sighed and shook my head. “Well, sweet baby, I’ll see what I can find out about the situation on Monday and talk to the Rector confidentially. Let’s get the food now and hurry on back.”
Harry filled one basket with hot lemon pepper roasted chickens, while I filled another with potato salad. I pulled a half gallon of jug wine from a cooler to augment the bar, and then we checked out and headed back to the condo.
By the time we returned, the group was already fairly well lubricated. Word of the dinnerless dinner party had quietly spread, and so everyone except for Gracie had a touch of anxiety and wine-produced giddiness.
Harry and I quickly deposited our purchases in the kitchen, poured a drink and joined the others in the quirky living room for some crackers and cheese, where Gracie introduced us to her tiny Chihuahua, Augustine. She and her dog looked remarkably alike.
Jane slipped into the kitchen to toss her salad and summoned us all to the table. One of the men held Gracie’s chair and we all stood until she was seated. We held hands as Bob said the blessing. Gracie beamed like the guest of honor, and the moment was suddenly sweet.
There was nothing wrong with Gracie’s long term memory. She talked through the lettuce, the chicken and potato salad, and the pie. She told us about working as a WAVE during World War II as a member of an elite group of women who served as navigation instructors for the male pilots.
“Sometimes late at night when we were off duty, we girls would go swimming in the officers’ pool,” Gracie confided, “and sometimes, we wouldn’t wear our suits. No one seemed to mind!”
Harry asked her how long she and Morris had been married. Gracie spoke rather loudly, “Sixty three years!” The number seemed to astonish her. She stopped talking and looked down at her plate for a long moment, turning a spoon over and over in one hand. Then she solemnly fixed Harry with watery, blue eyes, and said, very slowly, “Sixty three years. That’s a long, long time.”
Gracie’s diminutive dog lay quietly in her lap throughout dinner. We were almost finished with dessert, when Gracie spoke to Augustine in a stage whisper. “Maybe if they would leave, you could take a nap.”
Almost as one, we popped up from the table, did our best to quickly clear the table, load the dishwasher and clear away any residual debris.
Gracie walked us to the elevator. Bob was at the back, leaning on his crutches. Jane was nearest to the elevator control panel. Several times, Jane pushed the button to take us to the lobby. Each time, just as the doors began to close, Gracie would wave again, sticking her hand inside the elevator car just far enough to cause the doors to reopen. After about the third time this happened, we began to get a little giggly, and then Gracie leaned into the elevator car, looked sternly at Jane and said, “Dear, if you will push the button, the elevator doors will close and you may leave.”
From the back, Bob muttered, “Oh, help me, Lord.”
Thank goodness, that time the doors fully closed. We descended quickly to the lobby floor, and then spilled from the elevator into the parking lot on a wave of nervous laughter. We stood in a circle, near our cars, and laughed hard until the tide threatened to turn to tears. Finally, we solemnly bid each other goodnight, eyes wide from seeing too much.
I saw Gracie one final time, at communion, but the signature brooch was missing from her jacket. She sat unmoving on the worn, wooden pew. Morris, the husband who had abandoned Gracie at the dinner party, sat beside her that morning, a vision in flamboyant plaid, matching petechial blooms on each cheek.
The missing brooch troubled me. I feared she had finally, irretrievably come unpinned. Seeing this, something shifted hard in my own tectonic plates, and I could feel my soul slipping from its comfortable moorings.
When I go to communion these days, I continue to see reptiles perched on stooped shoulders, but I no longer see Gracie there. I can barely stand to go myself. When I do, I kneel at the rail and partake bleakly.
“The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” The eager salivary glands of youth have deserted me. The dry wafer sticks to my tongue.
“The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” I guide the novice chalice bearer’s hand to bring the goblet surely to my mouth for a thirsty woman’s gulp of sacramental wine.
In the end, Gracie, the signature woman, could no longer even remember her own name. That just breaks my heart. And it scares the living Hell out of me.
Published November 18, 2009 in the journal Girls With Insurance.
Walking Into the Ocean with a Gun
Hal examines the grey slacks, cashmere blazer, shirt, and tie arranged on the bed, underwear and socks folded beside them, polished shoes set squarely on the floor.
He props the letter to his sister against a small brass lamp on his writing desk.
He wraps the body of his elderly cat in the paisley silk dressing gown Bryan left behind.. He buries her in a newly dug spot of loamy soil underneath a blooming camellia. “Receive this sheep of your own fold, a sinner of your own redeeming,” he murmurs.
Sighing deeply, Hal stands. “Well, then, that’s that,” he said, and drives to the beach.
Published March, 2009 in Prick of the Spindle.
nonfiction By Elizabeth Westmark
The Field Monitor.
I spot a woman in bikini bottoms through the open carport. An oversized t-shirt almost covers loose rolls of belly fat oozing over the sides of the small fabric. Her dark brown hair is done up in large curlers, and a cigarette wiggles from a corner of her mouth as she calls out to us. “Come on back!” she says, blowing smoke onto her freshly laundered clothes as she hangs them on the backyard line. “I’ll be done in a minute.”
Checking the mail box to be sure we are at the right address, Buck and I pull into the narrow concrete driveway. The house is one of those 1950s south Florida style cinderblock boxes, differentiated from its neighbors only by color, awning style, or a pink flamingo stuck in the thick Bermuda grass.
“Oh, boy,” I mutter. “We’ve got ourselves another goody.” Buck sighs, then chuckles. “Well, let’s go meet Gloria,” he says.
We stand around getting acquainted for a few minutes while she unselfconsciously finishes hanging her laundry. Raised a prim and proper repressed Protestant, I would have kept my undies in the basket, covered them with a towel, then rewashed and hung them to dry later, in privacy. But Gloria was working on her tan, washing her lingerie, and curling her hair, all at the same time; getting ready for a night on the town at the Belle Glade Elks Club. A couple of strangers coming through were not about to throw her off stride.
“Come on in and meet my girls!” Gloria said, breezing past us through the back screen door, the galley kitchen and into her living room. On the sofa sit two of the ugliest Pomeranians I have ever seen, beady black eyes bugged out, drool matting the corners of their mouths, speaking to each other in sharp, guttural yips. There is no other place to sit, so we stand making small talk. Buck and I furtively exchange looks, both of us doing the mental calculus involved in figuring out: “Do we really want to leave our machines here?”
Gloria tells us about her boyfriend, a Seminole Indian fellow. The relationship sounds pretty stormy. He travels a lot, so she hangs out with her buddies at the Elks Club. Something in the way she talks, so much, so fast, makes me think she is trying to make herself and us feel more comfortable. It is clear we are from a different neck of the woods. But my divining rod is wiggling like a dowser’s stick. An unspoken signal passes between Buck and me. We make a deal with Gloria, and spend the afternoon setting up machines and going over procedures.
I write Gloria a check for the first month’s service and hand it to her. Before I can dodge or feint, she launches herself at me in a full body hug, a cloud of nicotine, cocoa butter, hair spray, and Tabu perfume reaching me a millisecond before she does. Buck gets it next. Gloria is now officially a Field Monitor for Aladdin Communications.
To seal the deal, she invites us down the hall of her home to a small bedroom which she has converted into a cocktail lounge replica, complete with bean bag chairs, a stereo with big speakers, lava lights and a bamboo bar, stools and all. The wall in back of the bar have floor to ceiling shelves crammed with liquor miniatures. We are stunned.
Gloria slaps the bar top. “What’ll it be?” Saying no is for sure not an option here, and we didn’t want to, anyway. We drink a couple of miniatures with Gloria, then hit the road to start the 600 mile drive back home to Pensacola.
In 1984, Buck and I were newly married and living on Pensacola Beach. By 1986, we had moved to a house in the north part of the county, on a nice chunk of land with a fish pond. Buck was public affairsdirector for a major corporation, but on weekends, holidays, and every night, he worked with me on our little business, Aladdin Communications. Aladdin was a television news clipping service. We monitored all of the local television news broadcasts in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Georgia until the happy day came when we sold the company to some nice fellas from New York City.
Our clients were corporations, politicians and advertising agencies who wanted to have transcript and film of anything said about them or their interests on local television stations. Aladdin was a low-tech search engine for local TV news at a time when the Internet was in its infancy and search engines were primitive. Our clients provided us with search parameters. We looked at every single local television newscast from videotape, took notes on the contents, and provided our clients with a half-inch or three-quarter-inch tape containing their clips, along with a printed log detailing the broadcast date, station, reporter’s name, length of the clip and names of any on-camera speakers.
We ran Aladdin from our home. Each day, a gaggle of employees showed up to “watch TV” all day from a series of work stations set up in a downstairs room. Our garage became the editing room.
My “office” was a desk in the kitchen. I started each day long before light, brewing coffee while I searched tapes from the previous night’s local broadcast and answering phone calls from clients who knew my early-bird habits and were hot to get us on the case of some story they needed to document. By the time we sold Aladdin, that house in the country had six phone lines and an incoming 800 number.
It was the mid-1980s. Streaming video did not exist. Recording news broadcasts had to happen the old-fashioned way, using clunky, heavy videocassette recorders. They were placed in various locations to capture a maximum number of local stations with a minimum number of field monitors.
Prattville, Alabama, for example, could receive all of the Mobile stations as well as all of the Birmingham stations. Naples, Florida could receive Tampa and St. Petersburg, as well as Ft. Myers. Buck says I have a gift for finding eccentric people who were willing to let us put as many as six VCRs into their home, where they would videotape news broadcasts, and then ship tapes back to us in Pensacola every day – all in exchange for us paying any costs, plus their cable bill and a small fee.
Gloria worked for us for more than a year with no incident, but I know something has shifted in her carefully constructed balance when she calls me in the wee hours one morning. She is distraught, convinced that our VCRs are emitting a toxic substance into the air and causing her to break out in hives. We talk for quite awhile, mostly about boyfriends past and present. I listen carefully, encouraging her to talk, thinking I might dissuade her from this nutty notion. But when she tells me she has “taken a cutting” from one of the machines to a lab for analysis, well…let’s just say Buck and I are on the road the next day, headed for Belle Glade to pick up what is left of our machines.
Belle Glade is a town with little to recommend it except for the television cable system, which picks up all of the Miami and West Palm Beach stations. Belle Glade grows more than fifty percent of the sugar cane grown in the United States. It’s located on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, and is in the same county, but a universe away from the super rich City of Palm Beach. For a time it led the nation with the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates, and had one of the country’s highest rates of violent crime. It’s also known as “ Muck City.” That fecund black soil is so loaded with pesticides and pathogens that “muck poisoning” rash is a common ailment.
Gloria is happy to see us (more hugs) and relieved for us to take the evil machines away. As we are leaving, she says, “Wait a minute, I have some snacks for you.” She goes into her small kitchen and emerges with a take-along feast of plastic containers loaded with cold cuts, potato salad, cheese cut into little cubes, French bread, crackers, olives, grapes, and a paper sack full of miniature bottles of scotch, vodka, bourbon, Grand Marnier and Amaretto.
We drive away from the little tract house in silence. The back seat is loaded with the largesse from Gloria’s pantry. Neither of us knows how to explain the lumps in our throats.
Later, we sit on the bed of our Holiday Inn room and make a supper buffet of Gloria’s gifts. Mellow from the miniatures, we hum “Gloria,” an old tune the late Laura Branigan took to the top of the charts.
“And you really don’t remember, was it something that he said?
Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?”
Whoo, boy, Gloria. I have voices in my head, too. Some of them are my best friends.
From the January 29, 2009 issue of Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog:
Elizabeth Westmark discusses her essay “Tenderness,” found in the latest issue of Brevity:
On Writing and Breath:
I played the piano in college to earn money, accompanying future opera singers by the hour in closet-like wooden studios at the University of Florida’s music school. My favorite was Oonaugh, a young contralto from Scotland. She told me once that she always requested me as her accompanist because I “breathed with her.” She said that most of the other pianists played the music precisely, but didn’t allow for her to creatively deviate from the score or even seem to care that she was there. They were being paid to play the accompaniment. Period.
Unbelievably, that was almost forty years ago. These days, my husband and I live in a hundred-acre wood in the panhandle of Florida that we are restoring back into the longleaf pine forest it used to be.
One of my best sources for stories is a good friend named Harold. He told me once that I am the “onliest fancy woman” that has ever been nice to him. In Harold’s vernacular, “fancy” means educated. It’s close kin to “citified,” but is friendlier and has special connotations that Harold applies only to women. “Nice” means he knows he is welcome in my kitchen any morning of the week to pull up a stool, drink strong coffee and share a story or two.
Everybody’s got a story, whether they are in the country, the city or somewhere in-between. Finding the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary is like the squirt of juice from a cherry hidden in the middle of a chocolate.
Writing “Tenderness” was like that. When I heard Ronnie Thomley talking about living at the end of the power line with his little girls and rescuing the orphaned baby doe, I recognized another unsung storyteller, and sidled up so I could listen hard.
I tried to accompany the music of his words. I tried to breathe with him.
Published in Brevity, a journal of concise literary nonfiction, Issue 29 in January, 2009
By Elizabeth Westmark
Ronnie Thomley banged on our door early one morning. He runs heavy machinery for Willie Thrift, the pond man.
He showed up at our place in the pine woods of panhandle Florida driving a compact air-conditioned tractor equipped with a front-loaded rotary cutter. Ronnie’s boss had sent him over to clear out some of the thick yaupon and gall berry bushes around the house to give our longleaf pines a fighting chance.
Ronnie’s longish hair stuck out from beneath the ubiquitous cap of the workingman, his dirty blonde mustache shot through with gray. A potent mix of tobacco, diesel fuel and yesterday’s work clothes entered the house fast as a stray cat when I opened the door. He politely turned down the offer of coffee. Ronnie was here to work.
Ronnie ran that Cat for five hours. He tried his best to lift the blades when he saw a pine seedling, and saved any good hardwoods, too. Around 11:30, he stopped the giant machine for a smoke and was walking and talking with my husband, Buck, when I came around.
Ronnie was telling a story about how he and his family used to live in a small cement block house at the end of the power line. Their home was a perennial target for vicious lightning strikes.
“That lightning would make the whole house buzz and the light bulbs flicker. It would crackle all about. I would grab my two little girls and tell them to go, right now, and get under the bed. We would all just shake.”
The conversation turned to deer. Ronnie lives even further out in the country than we do. About thirteen years ago, he was driving on a back road. Some guys were stopped where one of them had hit a doe with his pick-up truck. He stopped and went over to the scene. The doe was killed in the accident. As the men were standing around talking, Ronnie heard a weak bleating sound.
“I went to look, and there was this tiny, baby deer, with the cord still attached. I felt so sorry for it; I didn’t know what to do.”
He took the baby in his arms and brought it home. There, he raised the doe, feeding her with a bottle. He made a bed for her in a box on the floor beside his own bed.
The doe still stays in a fenced area by Ronnie’s house. Each year in late January, he opens the gate. The doe goes out for a week or so, and then comes back in to his shelter. Each year, she gives birth to twins. She wears a bell so that other humans who might see her will realize she is not wild.
“Most wild deer,” he explained, “they don’t live to be no older than twelve. I’m hoping she’ll make it to sixteen.”
Ronnie feeds the old doe slices of sweet potato by hand every day.
Elizabeth Westmark‘s essays have appeared in The Emerald Coast Review XIV, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, and the anthology Digital Dish: Five Seasons of the Freshest Recipes and Writing from Food Blogs Around the World. The former businesswoman blogs regularly on her website. She lives at her home, the Sanctuary at Longleaf Preserve, with her husband and chocolate lab.
photo by Kristin Fouquet
Revised from original published in Emeral Coast Review XIV
Originally published 2008 in Kathy Rhodes’ Muscadine Lines A Southern Journal
The Pond Builder’s Son
It was a hot Saturday morning in July when Mr. Willie Thrift pulled into the driveway and parked his pickup truck in the shade of the big oak tree out front. I was working in the red storage building, double doors propped open to try and capture a breeze, when I saw our chocolate Labrador retriever, Maggie, racing around, jumping up for a look into the passenger side of the truck. A child wearing a cap peered out. Ah. That explained Maggie’s manic dance of joy.
The small boy under that red baseball cap opened the door, got down from the truck, and stood quietly by the cab, petting Maggie, patiently waiting while Willie talked on his radio phone. It was impossible to see the boy’s face at first, so adept was he at keeping the bill ducked.
I walked over to the truck and said good morning to them. Willie introduced the boy. “This is my son, Walt. Say hello to Miss Beth.”
The cap tilted upward for a quick moment as Walt said “Hello,” but it quickly tilted down again.
My husband, Buck, came out and the four of us walked to the recently cleared area of ground southwest of our home expansion site. Willie sent his son back to the truck for an auger. “Yes, sir,” said Walt, and headed back to the truck to fetch the tool. The long wooden handle with its metal scoop was longer than the boy. He half carried, half dragged the tool to his father.
Willie pushed the auger into the ground, pulling up a sample of soil to see if it was heavy enough to hold water. Then, in a serious, business-like gesture, he handed the auger to the young boy. Walt dropped to his hands and knees, turning the auger in the hole with some effort. He brought it up, shook his head, bumped the sandy soil out onto the ground, and went back for another bite, then another, until the auger handle was level with the ground. “Too sandy, Daddy,” he said. “We’ve got to look for another place.”
Buck and I exchanged glances, impressed and moved by the father-son relationship we were witnessing, and also with the poise and natural grace of this seven-year-old boy.
The four of us ambled along, following a downward slope toward the fire line and a wet area in the land contour we call a head.
As Willie and Buck walked and talked, Walt wandered off a few yards, exploring. Within minutes, he had discovered a large gopher tortoise den. As I came over to see what he was looking at, the red cap tilted way up and Walt began to speak, an enthusiasm and love for the woods and the creatures of the woods overcoming any residual shyness.
Walt and I spent the next hour walking a parallel course with Buck and Willie, talking about trees and the interesting ways in which they grow. “Look at that one,” he said. “It started out as two trees, then twisted all together, then separated again, and then later twisted together again. See?” We stood in companionable silence, admiring nature’s mystery and wonder.
As we walked, Walt always had one eye on the ground, sometimes reaching down and touching it with the flat of his hand, feeling for moisture, sometimes sticking his finger or a stick into the ground to see what was just beneath the surface.
He told me there are a lot of gopher tortoises on his family’s farm, along with many deer, wild turkeys and even some wild hogs. They keep a little orphan goat within their circle of care. He knows where wild things make their homes, how to read tracks and interpret the meaning of broken twigs. He can’t identify all berries yet, and asked me about a tall bush with plump blue-black berries on it. “Are those blueberries?” he asked me. “They look like blueberries, but it’s a little bit late. . .” I ventured. “Well, only one way to find out.” I took one and popped it into my mouth. Bitter! I spat it out and, looking at Walt, said “S’cuse me! Oh, man, I don’t think I poisoned myself, but I sure do want to go and brush my teeth!”
That red cap came up; Walt looked me full in the face, and bestowed upon me the most dazzling smile. In that moment, we became friends.
Rejoining Willie and Buck, we all agreed on the spot for our pond. It will take advantage of the natural contours, low places and water flows, and will meander in a wavy long shape more than a round or oval one.
“C’mon, buddy, it’s time to go,” Willie said as Walt and I were deep in discussion about beetles and their carapaces. I stopped off at the house to get him a root beer in a bottle with a cup of ice for the road. When I handed him an old fashioned opener to pop the top, that red cap came up again, and he reached for the opener with a quiet eagerness. I held the bottle while he figured out how the opener worked, and then applied it to the bottle, the cap prying up with a satisfying “whoosh.”
I spoke to Willie as he was about to get in the truck. “Walt is welcome to come back anytime,” I said.
“Oh, he’ll be back.” Willie smiled a slow smile that looked a lot like Walt’s. “Where there’s pond building going on, that boy has got to be there. We’ll see you again, soon.”
Elizabeth Westmark lives near Pensacola, Florida. Four of her stories were published in the book Digital Dish: Five Seasons of the Freshest Recipes and Writing From Food Blogs Around the World. She is currently working on a book of essays from The Sanctuary at Longleaf Preserve.
© Elizabeth Westmark