The beast without

Just around the stand of firs, behind the spring-blooming shrub, stood a beast. This particular beast was eight feet tall, a thousand pounds and made of iron. Its legs were straight and strong, but its obvious lack of flexibility called for extra struts. The thing would have a hard time getting up if it fell over. It was a hungry beast, judging by the hole in its stomach; or maybe that was a perforated ulcer. The hole in its head suggested the intelligence of a bottle opener. It was frustrated, no doubt, by its stubby little arms.

Audrey had taken this loop of the trail on a whim. Urban trails around Portland encouraged whim-taking with bonuses such as this. Audrey studied the beast from her perch on a log. She clutched a journal and her seven-year pen, which had been a birthday gift last October. (She calculated that at her rate of use the ink would last another six weeks.)

Pam Wells/The Pullets

Half the journal was filled with dense, choppy handwriting. She flipped past it to a clean, blue-lined sheet. She couldn’t remember the description that had only moments ago rushed through her brain, so she sketched what it looked like and finally wrote:  Iron man. Really tall. Clunky, lunky, metal guy. No more words came out. She stared at the page.

She closed the journal.

She opened again to page one.

She looked up when the words bled from the first drops of rain.

• • • • •

Audrey shook out her anorak and hung it by the door.

“Hey, hon,” Carl said. “I was about ready to send the dog after you.”

“We don’t have a dog.”

“I was gonna get one and train him to your scent, and then send him after you.” He popped the bottlecap off the cold beer in his hand as Audrey ripped out the last journal page she’d written on.

“Next time, use this,” she said. “It really stinks.” She crumpled the page and threw it in the sink, which Carl retrieved and read.

“Iron man? Did he look like Robert Downey?”

“No.”

“Clunky lunky metal guy. Huh.” He watched Audrey bang her head on the counter. “It’s not that bad. Sounds like something I’d write,” he said, eliciting a groan. “Why do you care?”

She looked up at him. “What?”

“Why do you care? What’s so important about this?”

“I don’t know—because suddenly there it was. Something to write about.”

“Maybe not.”

“You sound like Joe.”

“And you think that’s a coincidence? I’m just saying, maybe you should write something else.”

“Like what?”

“Like your novel. The thing you’ve been working on for ninety-nine years. You buy all these notebooks and fill ‘em with new ideas for new chapters and you haven’t even come up with a title. Am I right?” He opened the journal to the splattered first page.

“Carl—”

“Happened so fast,” he read aloud. “Birth. My birth. My birth, mother says, was like getting caught in a steel bear trap. One minute she was seventeen with a cigarette in one hand and a boy in the other. Next minute she was a mom. Happened so fast.”

He snapped the journal shut. “Like that,” he said.

©2010 Pam Wells

Love Audrey

Audrey took off her bike helmet and sat on the red vinyl bench. The young Chinese hostess disappeared to the back of the restaurant.

Dear Dad,

Things are growing in the yard like you wouldn’t believe. I took a different approach to weed control this year… by eating them. Even if we make dandelion pesto on a regular basis, I don’t think we’ll be able to keep up.

A waiter set down a large tray of Chinese greens and rice on a nearby table.

Guess I’m trying to control a few other things, too. I finally got Carl to go in for his colonoscopy, and we decided to name Joe as Evan’s guardian in our wills. Okay, I decided, and Carl agreed. Was I ever this bossy as a little kid? Don’t answer that. I’m hoping this won’t be a problem with Jeannie. I can’t even remember the last time she saw the boys. She’s probably teaching the Belgians how to make chocolate by now… sorry.

At another table, a big sister was instructing her sibling on the proper use of chopsticks, the two of them merrily dropping rice on the floor.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

Evan still runs nearly every day, though from the looks of his shoes he’s heading into the woods. He likes having Joe around, if only because Joe does so much of the yardwork. They’ve developed this sort of brother-talk. Pretty funny. Actually I think it’s been good for Carl, too. I’m not sure he would’ve driven out to Forest Grove to buy my anniversary painting if Joe hadn’t gone with him. I feel like Joe is reconnecting with the family. With any luck, Todd will come home, too.

The cashier added a handful of fortune cookies to Audrey’s take-out order.

I’m taking the night off cooking tonight. Invited Felder over for Chinese food because he eats alone so much of the time. Guess I should go pick it up. Clouds are breaking up… maybe I’ll ride my bike.

The large white bag strapped to her bike rack, Audrey rode through the post office drive-thru. She made sure the envelope didn’t stick in the slot.

Love,

Audrey

Dancing with the tiller

It was a perfect day to work outside.

Gardening had gotten under Audrey’s skin this year. And when gardening gets under your skin, it gets under your nails and in your shoes and in your nose. The scent of wisteria and warm compost demand company. When the rain retreats and the thermometer advances, there is no keeping the gardener out of the garden, or at least out of the general vicinity.

Photo by Pam Wells ©2010

Audrey labored at her laptop on the patio table.

“What’re you working on?” Joe asked, and sat down with his coffee.

“A garden piece,” she said. “Funnily enough.”

“Funnily, huh? You’re not laughing.”

“Well, who am I to complain? Sunshine, fresh air, everything glooming—”

“Glooming?”

“Blooming, blooming. I’m waiting for words to bloom on the page.”

“Not happening, huh?”

Audrey glowered at her blank document. “So what are you up to? Gonna work on your script?”

“No, I’m tilling.”

“Today?”

“It was either that or move out.”

“Oh, when did you start taking me literally? I meant it’s the perfect time to prepare the soil. Then it needs to rest before you can plant it. Have you taken its temperature?”

“No—what?”

Joe clearly was not engaged in garden logic, but he refilled his mug and followed his mom to the back yard. She had staked out an ambitious garden plot, about twelve by twenty feet. Several bags of manure were piled off to the side. She inserted an instant-read thermometer two inches into the soil. Her expression said she was satisfied with the reading.

“Ninety-eight point six?” Joe asked.

Audrey smirked at him as she grabbed a shovel and dug up a small chunk of earth. She closed her fingers over it, then opened her hand. The moist clod broke apart with an extra squeeze. “Felder says you can destroy the soil structure if you till it too wet,” she said.

“You should make something out of it. A bowl.”

“That’s a big pile of manure.”

“Mom.”

“Steer manure,” she said, nodding toward the bags. “I should’ve bought compost, too. I think we’re supposed to do it all at once. Felder says you shouldn’t till too often or you can pulverize the soil.”

“I never knew there were so many ways to wreck dirt.”

“Yeah…” Audrey’s expression gradually changed from student to skeptic. “It does sound kind of silly,” she said. “You know what? Maybe we should try the tiller and make sure it runs. I don’t think Felder’s used it for a while.”

Joe drained his mug, then told Audrey he needed a quick break. He headed to the house as she inspected the old tiller. This was no motorized trowel; this was a serious garden machine. The four-cycle, eight-horse engine perched up front like Yoda. Handles were offset so the operator didn’t have to walk over the fresh-tilled earth. Audrey checked the gas reservoir: full. No easy-start button here, just the jerky old pull cord.

• • • • •

It was a perfect day to work outside. Joe hummed away at his laptop on the patio table. Out back, a serious gardening machine rumbaed across the new garden, its partner hippity-hopping along behind. Felder coached from the sidelines.

©2010 Pam Wells

Indoor plumbing

April 5, 2010

Audrey watched the freeway traffic from the clinic’s third floor window. The mid-day flow of vehicles was quick and unimpeded despite the rain. Every few seconds she would pick out a particular car or truck as it entered her range of vision and watch it continue north on the 205, take the interchange west on the 84, or exit onto the street below. A pickup truck was exiting now, loaded with two blue portable toilets.

“What could you possibly find funny out there?” Carl asked.

“Potty humor,” Audrey said, and sat with him in the waiting area, which was full of light and light of people. The gastoenterology clinic took up the whole third floor of the medical building.

Carl had completed his colonoscopy prep at home without incident—without unexpected incident—and only minor discomfort. Audrey could’ve dropped him off here and come back later, but she had chosen to stay.

“Carl Pullet?” The nurse scanned the potential owners of the name until Carl stood up. He gave Audrey a last thumb’s up before the door closed behind him.

Audrey moved to a chair by the wall. She unloaded her jacket and tote bag on the next chair and set her coffee on the end table. Laptop open. Ready. All set to resume editing the beast. Ready and set… Carl was probably changing into his hospital gown now. If he was nervous he’d done a good job hiding it.

Ten minutes passed. The blank screen held no trace of the gibberish she had deleted. Maybe the beast didn’t want to be rewritten here. That was fine; she could research an idea for a new online magazine piece using the clinic’s free wi-fi… Carl was probably on the gurney now, wheeling down the hall… everything would be fine… Debra wasn’t fine… Debra had waited too long…

Audrey had to write something. Anything. She gazed out the window, hummed quietly along and let her fingers fly.

Indoor Plumbing
by Audrey Pullet

It’s a Monday and it’s raining and it’s very hard to concentrate,
and I’m thinking of some things I didn’t always appreciate,
things like driving on the freeway in an old imported SUV,
and the over-fifty screening called a colonoscopy.

Indoor plumbing, guess it’s nothing you can sing about,
but indoor plumbing isn’t something you can live without.
Don’t take a chance, baby, take a test and you will see—
how’s your indoor plumbing? Honey, get your colonoscopy.

Well, I’m talking to the doctor and he’s telling me you’re okay,
but you’re still a little groggy from the screening you had today.
So I’ll take you home and park you on the sofa to watch TV,
and tomorrow you’ll be glad you had your colonoscopy.

Indoor plumbing, guess it’s nothing you can sing about,
but indoor plumbing isn’t something you can live without.
Don’t take a chance, baby, take a test and you will see—
how’s your indoor plumbing? Honey, get your colonoscopy.
Honey, get your colonoscopy, baby, get your colonoscopy.

©2010 Pam Wells

Out like a limo

March 31, 2010

Joe leaned up against his headboard. He sipped a beer and typed on his laptop:

Yo Todd,

Great talking to you on dad’s birthday. You’ve really got that military look down. Not sure I could pull it off, not that buzz-do on top o’ yo head. Mom tried to use the old clippers on dad today before they went to a funeral. LOL.

Marble grave markers studded the grassy slope. Audrey held the hood of her raincoat snug around her chin as she and Joe walked slowly uphill. Umbrellas moved in step ahead of them.

Perchance you’re wondering why I came back here. You should’ve seen the look on mom’s face when I rolled in the driveway. It was worth it just for that. I don’t know, bro. I guess I needed a little home time, and my bus is almost DOA. The vehicle situation around here is pretty bad in general. Dad’s truck got keyed a couple of days before I got here, and Evan is making noises about driving. Going to be insane.

A black limousine stopped at the top of the hill next to the mausoleum. The family—surely the family, somber in every detail—got out. One was a teenage boy, about Evan’s age. Audrey and Joe nodded to them as they reached the gathering area.

News flash—Evan has a girlfriend. She’s seriously cute but very short. Kidding—she’s in a wheelchair. She was in some kind of accident when she was little. He’s all nervous about bringing her home to meet the folks, but if he doesn’t do it soon, I’m pretty sure somebody’s going to do it for him. Somebody might have to send them a singing telegram.

The mourners finished the second verse of  “Amazing Grace” using the words in the printed program. As a few of them shared thoughts and memories of Debra, Audrey looked more troubled than sad. She whispered to Joe, “Either I didn’t know her or they didn’t,” and she raised her hand to speak.

I don’t know, dude. It’s good being home, but it’s tense too. They’ve got me cooking and doing a lot of gardening around here, which is cool I guess, but dad’s into blaming me for things like running out of coffee and beer, and I have to pay rent. Like, what? But I’ve got plenty of time to write, and mom is pretty cool about helping me with that—have you read her movie reviews? They’re online, dude. She’s all over dad’s case to get a colonoscopy now, which he should’ve done ten years ago, because this friend of hers just died of colon cancer.

The clouds had broken by the time Audrey and Joe drove away in the truck. They had decided to skip the reception.

Of course he’s all over her case because she hasn’t produced his birthday present. Yesterday he said he thought she was just yanking his chain because all she gave him was a shirt. Now she’s threatening to cancel whatever awesome thing is on backorder, and I’ll bet she hasn’t said two words to him all day.

Audrey and Joe stood in the kitchen, hugging tightly.

I do not want to be here when they get back. See ya, dude. Time’s a-wastin’.

Joe hit ‘Send.’

©2010 Pam Wells

Writing in dark cafés

March 23, 2010

Since Joe’s return, the house felt fuller, the kitchen warmed to new aromatics and old comforts, and seeds of conversations grew word by word. These were the good things. Audrey wasn’t ready to complain about the rest, but every so often she ran away from home.

Photo by Pam Wells ©2010

She’d discovered a coffee house near the local college. It was so dark inside, dark as espresso, that she had to stop and let her eyes adjust. She ordered Earl Grey tea (being afternoon) and a savory bagel, and sat at a square table by an electrical outlet. As she plugged in her laptop, a man nearby answered his phone. Audrey was surprised at his low, resonant voice—an actor’s voice, a broadcaster’s voice. He spoke of meetings but was dressed to clean out his basement. A radio man?

She opened a document of long-simmering notes on her novel. The beast lurked in the background of everything she did now, and an outline for the new draft was taking shape. A couple of young women—students? no, a little older; one with long auburn hair, the other brunette wearing a newsboy cap—sat down at the adjacent table. They jabbered on about cute hair, workday injustices and disloyal ex-friends. Audrey didn’t miss the emotional judgment days of youth.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate here, do you?” a man said behind her.

“You fool,” another man answered. “What’re you doing interrupting somebody you don’t know?”

“I will when he’s doing what you’re doing,” the first man said.

Audrey looked up. What was this? Two men, two grown-up men, arguing in a café? What was happening? She glanced at them: a trim, silver-haired man stood over a nerdy guy with a computer on his lap. Was he looking at porn? In a coffee house? Nobody would do that… would they? Audrey exchanged looks with the young women, who looked equally uncomfortable.

His game called on account of decency, the nerdy man left. The older man talked quietly to the woman behind the counter. Audrey tried to focus again on her work, but the young women were wading now into the abyss of romantic relationships. One described her knotted affair. The other worried about her upcoming marriage. Did they think she couldn’t hear, or was she supposed to hear? Revelation in the presence of strangers… in coffeespace, in cyberspace… maybe it was more exciting. Somewhere in all this was a story.

• • • • •

The scent of cumin met Audrey as she opened the door. Joe was assembling vegetable burritos and had corralled Evan into making the salad. She sat down with Carl in front of the college basketball playoffs.

“What’d you do today?” he asked.

“I took the beast out for coffee.”

©2010 Pam Wells

Sand change

February 22, 2010

Photo by Pam Wells ©2010

False spring or true, the weather had summoned Audrey to the coast. Carl had felt a similar call to the golf course, so she went alone.

The little house in Cannon Beach had been Carl’s inheritance and Audrey’s gift. They didn’t come often enough for her liking, and they would be renting it out for much of the summer to help with taxes and upkeep. There was a lot of that. Carl managed leaks and creaks when he was there; Audrey took care of the small yard and would touch up the white trim which, unprotected, would buckle in the salt air.

An even two hours from home, Audrey swung off Highway 101 toward Hemlock Street. A few turns more, and here was the cottage, a carton of weathered gray shingles on the edge of the ocean. She pulled into the gravel parking area.

“She unlocked the front door and went inside,” Audrey said aloud. She’d adopted this little ritual of announcing herself to the house. It wasn’t to alert furniture to stop moving or creatures to stop talking; Audrey’s imagination knew its limits. Her smile broadened as she looked out the great window at the ocean.

“It’s me,” she said. The waves rumbled.

The plan for the next three days circled around walking and writing. She set her notebooks on the table. She’d brought some short pieces to work on and she’d brought the beast. If any place was better suited to working on the new draft of her novel, she didn’t know about it. First she had to walk.

The beach was calm. She had plenty of company here—this weather drew out the most unlikely folk—which made no difference to her toes. The tide was going out, leaving a wide, wet expanse of sand. She walked south toward the massive rock called Haystack. There were seldom many shells, but today Audrey was noticing a lot of broken sand dollars. These were, what, half dollars? Forty-two cents? A quarter?

She returned to the house with a few sandy specimens and set them on the handrail. She brushed off her feet and walked inside, leaving the door open. Again, “It’s me,” she said.

“Me, too,” came back to her.

Audrey spun around. A young man stood in the kitchen with a glass of orange juice.

“Hi, Mom.”

Audrey had to breathe before she could talk.

“Joe,” she said, and shook loose from her spot to move toward him. They hugged as the wind fanned through her notebook pages. “It’s you.”

©2010 Pam Wells