Sunday, April 22, 2018

Searching for Manna, Part 4

Part 1

Ruth zipped her coat, pulled up her hood and stepped back into the cold. She walked to the edge of the woods and yelled twice. There was no answer. For all of the light outside the Fletcher house, the woods were surprisingly dark. She needed a flashlight.

"Do you have a flashlight in here anywhere?" Ruth asked her mom as she opened the car door. Her mom looked up from the piece of yarn she had unravelled from her glove.


Ruth looked at the Fletcher's "Greatest Christmas Spectacle Ever." The light was still on in the dining room. She crossed the road and walked along the edge of the yard around to the side of the house. Instead of theme bushes, it was surrounded by words spelled in white lights. To the left of the one that said "Feliz Navidad" there was a sidewalk that was gradually vanishing under new snow. Ruth stepped over the red ribbon. The music grew louder as she got closer to the house and then faded once she was behind the speakers. For a moment, she wanted to slip behind one of the giant firs and pretend she was 007.

The bell surprised her. She expected it to play a tune like "Jingle Bells" or "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." It didn't. No one answered, so she rang it again. A middle-aged man, in at­shirt and worn brown corduroys and no shoes or socks came to the door. She could tell from the pictures that it was Mr. Fletcher. He had a beer in his hand and was smoking a cigar.


"I 'm so sorry to bother you this late on Christmas. We've lost someone. Do you have a flashlight?"

Ruth expected concern or sympathy or at least curiosity. Instead, he said, "Just a minute," and left her standing in the entryway. In the room straight ahead and a little to the left, Ruth saw that he was in the middle of a game of poker. Two men and a woman sat at the table. The woman was chewing on a piece of pizza, holding it in her left hand, mulling over the cards in her right hand. Looking beyond the people at the poker table, Ruth saw a grey-haired woman sleeping on the couch.

Mr. Fletcher came back with a MagLite, a flare and some matches. He handed her the flashlight first.

"I don't know if the batteries are any good," he said. "If not, try this." He handed her the flare. "Just leave them in the mail box when you're done."

He smiled. It was a genuine smile. Ruth turned to go. The people at the poker table wished her a Merry Christmas. She walked back through the yard and past the car. Her mom got out.

"You coming with me?"

Ruth's mom didn't answer. She followed her to the woods. Ruth turned on the MagLite. The light was dim but usable. Besides her sixth grade camp-out, she could not remember ever being in the woods at night.

The beam from the flashlight bounced off the trees, sections of it disappearing completely into the darkness of the woods. The trees went much deeper than they appeared to from the road. The two women waded in. They walked slowly and carefully, each step sounding vaguely like two styrofoam coolers rubbing together. Ruth swept the woods with the narrow beam of light. From within the trees, the Fletcher's was no brighter than a few lighters held up by enthusiastic fans before a rock concert.

They went into the woods a few feet and then moved laterally. "Dad," she called into the trees. It occurred to Ruth that he would be a lot easier to find in day light. She supposed they couldn't wait that long. She yelled again. Something moved a few feet further in. They stopped and then moved cautiously forward. Ruth's dad was burrowed in the snow under a fir tree twenty feet into the woods. His lips were still pink. Ruth knew he hadn't been there too long. He reminded her of the baby Jesus sleeping in the manger. A baby some said would change the world. A baby sleeping under the stars, resting on his mother's breast not yet aware of what it is to hurt, to fear, to distrust--one who didn't realize that at any moment his mother's arms could spread open and take flight, allowing him to go tumbling to the ground.

The End

Friday, April 20, 2018

Searching For Manna, Part 3

Part 1

Ruth crossed the street toward the house. It was "The Greatest Christmas Spectacle Ever," a place owned and run by Bob Fletcher. He and his wife had been accumulating Christmas decorations for years. The lights on the house blinked intermittently. Across the sky, above their heads, a plastic Santa in a plastic sleigh pulled by plastic reindeer moved back and forth on a cable strung from the roof of the house to a utility pole across the street. When it moved forward, the light was on, giving Santa a jolly-red glow. When it reached the utility pole and began to move backward to the roof, the light went off.

Ruth stopped with her shins touching the rope of red bows tied to candy canes that kept people from walking across the Fletcher's yard. Maybe they didn't want footprints mucking up the snow. The yard was divided into sections and cluttered with plastic statues and mechanical dolls. There was a fake pond with fake skaters who spun and moved in figure eights and sang "Winter Wonderland." There were polar bears, and four different manger scenes, one of which had three wise men that actually walked and pointed at the Star of Bethlehem overhead. Each of the trees and bushes had a different theme. One was wrapped in white lights with yellow bows and had a sign hanging from it which read, pray for Peace." Another was covered with big primary colored light bulbs and had all of the Disney characters hanging from it. Mickey was Santa, and Goofy was an elf.

Ruth thought it must cost hundreds of dollars in electricity alone to make this place run. She wondered if the light made it hard for them to sleep. Maybe they had black shades to pull over the windows and keep the light out. Ruth looked at one of the windows. Instead of seeing black shades, she saw directly into their dining room. It was gold colored. They must have just finished dessert, she thought. It occurred to her that the music must be bothersome too.

She thought about the endless tangles in the hundreds of feet of cord that powered this spectacle, imagining trying to find the one burnt bulb that kept the peace tree from lighting and cut the electricity off from two of the manger scenes. Ruth wondered what the yard looked like when the sun was out and there wasn't any snow. She could picture the orange heavy-duty extension cords that bound the trees and wove through the grass like poisonous snakes. Perhaps the whole thing became a giant electrical field when it rained or snowed. That's the real reason for the red­ ribbon, Ruth thought.

Next to the parking lot, across the road from the Fletcher house was what looked like a little shrine. Ruth walked to it. There were hundreds of pictures taped to it, pictures of people-­singles, couples, families--all of them standing with their arms across Mr. Fletcher's shoulder. Ruth had left her camera at home. It just as well, she thought, it's late. She tried to imagine their picture on the wall--Ruth and her mom with their arms around Mr. Fletcher's shoulder, and her dad standing behind, all of them grinning like the people in the other pictures.

On the ledge inside the stand, there was a painted coffee can with a sign that read, "Please donate to make the Fletcher's display an annual tradition." Ruth wondered how many coffee cans full of money it took to cover the electrical bill. Next to the can was a register for all of the guests who had visited "The Greatest Christmas spectacle Ever." There were names from as near as Letts and Madison and as far as Ohio, Illinois, and even California and Maine. It occurred to Ruth that this place was a beacon that drew people out of the dark, if only for a moment.

She turned back toward the car. Her mom was standing next to it smoking a cigarette. She didn't see her dad.

"What do you think?" Ruth's mom asked.

"It's something."

"It sure is." Her mom looked up toward the giant star which flashed over the house and exhaled a stream of smoke which concealed itself in the whiteness of her breath.

Ruth and her mother didn't make eye contact. They both wondered how long he would take. They'd been there for nearly thirty minutes. The wind began to bite them through the layers of clothing they were wearing. Ruth got into the car, turned the ignition, and flipped the heat to high. They sat in the front seat, waiting for it to warm up. Ruth began to consider the possibilities. He probably got lost on the way back from the port-a-let or forgot where they parked. Or maybe he slipped and hit his head and was bleeding to death somewhere in the woods. The idea intrigued her. Maybe he was dead. A part of her hoped that it was true. She wanted to leave. She was tired of waiting.

"Do you think he's coming back? It's been almost an hour."

"I don't know."

Ruth couldn't tell if her mom was scared, sad, or relieved. "I guess I should go look for him, huh?"

"I'll go with you." Ruth's mom said pulling her white glove back onto her hands and buttoning the one button on her dress coat.

"No, you're not dressed for it."

Part 4

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Searching for Manna, Part 2

Searching for Manna, Part 1 is here.

The snow rushed before them, through the headlights, at the windshield and on over the top of the car. Ruth gasped like she was taking her final breath before trying to swim the length of the pool without coming up for air. Her mom turned up the heater. Warmth burst from the vent. The windshield clouded and then cleared. She pushed her way back into the upholstery. They drove for five more minutes and then ten, making their way deeper and deeper in to a darkness they didn't want to be in but couldn't turn away from.

They drove through Napolean. The buildings were dark, and the streetlights reflected dimly off of the crumbling buildings and the cheap Christmas decorations--red and white candy canes, green Christmas trees, gold stars of David, all of which whipped in the wind looking a lot like giant pipe cleaners. The sign in front of The First Bank of Napolean displayed the vital information 27°, 10:52 pm.

Ruth's dad began to snore in the back seat. It occurred to her that he should have been driving. He knew these roads better than anyone. They were the roads of his youth, of winding rides on rickety school buses to every one stop sign town in southern Indiana. These were the roads where he had learned first to drive and then to fly. She hadn't been this way since she was a girl.

Three miles outside of Napolean, they encountered their first oncoming car. It seemed like a good sign. It can't be too much further, now she thought.

Her mother asked meaningless questions. So, what were Jeff's plans for Christmas? Do you still have that green blazer we bought on sale last fall? How come you never wear it? They were the same questions she always asked. Sylvie couldn't let her focus be drawn from the road.

Another set of headlights appeared faintly in the distance. Ruth could tell that the oncoming vehicle was moving fast. She braced herself. For a moment, she could no longer see the lines on the road. The truck barreled past, and she felt the passenger-side tires rumble on the edge of the pavement. She imagined their car springing from the road, climbing and somersaulting into the crisp black sky, eventually landing softly, upside down in the snow-layered fields. There would be no pain or discomfort, only rest, absence of motion. The car slid back across the center line and toward the driver side ditch. She regained control without using the brake.

They drove on in silence. Above the trees, in the distance, the two women began to sense a pulsating light.

“That must be it,” Ruth said.

Soon, they were part of the dome of light which flickered and flashed against the falling snow. Ruth felt herself becoming part of it. She could picture it--the little 4 door sedan sliding along this road where the cornfields start to give way to the glacial hills of the terminal moraine--as if they were preserved by the dome of light like in one of those paperweights with falling snow that settles and can be shaken again, at once peaceful and chaotic.

When they got there they found a makeshift parking lot on the side of the road opposite the house. There was just enough shoulder for two or three cars to pull off of the road at one time. She eased the car into the first available space. The odometer read thirty-two miles.

Her father woke up, climbed out of the back seat, and walked into the woods without saying a word. She was used to this. There were many nights while she was growing up that he didn't come home at all. Her mother would make excuses. Your father had to work late out of town, so he's staying in a hotel, she would say, or the roads are slick, we both thought it was better if he didn't come home until morning. It took Ruth a long time to see through the lies.

"Too much beer?" said Ruth, getting out of the car.

"I don't know," her mom replied, never facing her, walking toward the house.

As long as she could remember, Ruth's mom never betrayed him.

Part three is here.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Searching for Manna, Part 1

I used to write fiction. In fact, I started this blog way back when as a way to keep writing in hopes that I might one day write fiction again. This story is one I wrote long, long ago. It was published in a student magazine when I was an undergrad but otherwise hasn't seen the light of day. This is part 1 of what I think will be four parts. Let me know what you think!

Searching for Manna

     On Christmas night, on the way home from Aunt Martha's, they decided to go. It was then that they realized how much they needed to see it. They were afraid if they waited one more day, they would miss the chance altogether. Ruth was driving. The car heater put out enough warm air to make her think she was wrapped in a cocoon--wrapped together with her parents, two dirty casserole dishes which sat at her mother's feet as patriotic survivors of one more baked ham and twice-baked potato meal, and a huge round tin with caramel, cheese, and sour cream and onion flavored popcorn, Grandpa's annual expression of love and good will. Outside, it was snowing. It had been for several days.
     Ruth navigated the pathways of slushed roads, lined with grey snow and headed south through town toward the countryside. She could feel their car being pulled from the stark incandescent streetlights into the gentle glow of the stars and moon that rolled with the hills for miles.
     Tiny towns appeared as dots along Highway 42. Ruth tightly gripped the steering wheel and pulled herself closer to it. Whenever she moved the wheel, it lightly brushed her breasts. The wind cut across the long-since plowed frozen fields, picking up bitter speed with each invisible row of corn that it passed over. The dark parallel lines on the roads shifted and changed without design as the snow blew relentlessly across them. She aimed for the middle, crossing the double yellow line and then back over again, focused on keeping the car out of the ditch on either side. There were no other cars on the road.
     Ruth's dad was the first to speak. "This is ridiculous," he said, when they were already several miles out of town. "You're going to get us killed."
     Even in the front seat, she could feel the warm bourbon on his breath. "Shut up, Dad," she said glancing over her shoulder. "We asked you what you thought ten minutes ago, and you didn't say anything."
     The sight of him leaning in the corner of the back seat, turned to his side, with his head resting on his hand, reminded her of the time several years before when he broke his rib at the hotel the last day of their vacation. At first, he had refused to go to the hospital and instead, resigned himself to lying in agony in the back of their woody Oldsmobile wagon. Her father, as they learned later at a hospital in the heart of southern Georgia, had no internal bleeding but a broken twelfth rib, the tip of which hung on to the rest of his rib cage like a loose hinge and threatened to break off at any moment and start a careless journey through the rest of his abdominal region. The injury resulted from a late-night fall either in the bathroom or on the patio. He couldn't remember which.
   That was the summer when she was eight, and it was the only time she remembered the family seating arrangement being altered. It always went by age. Dad drove. Mom co-piloted. The older two siblings were in the middle seat, and Ruth and Fran were in back, lying amid the suitcases, coolers, and discarded magazines. Ruth was the youngest, so she always sat in the back.
   This time, their father was back there, and she felt sorry for him. The suitcases could be isolating. She turned in her seat and sat facing him on her knees, reading parts of Ramona the Pest, and, when she saw tears in his eyes, offering him her stuffed goat. No one else in the car spoke. When he couldn't take the pain any longer, they stopped at the tiny hospital in Georgia. In that cramped and humid waiting room, sitting between her two older sisters, Ruth learned about drunkenness, and, she learned about her father. It was the first and last time that she heard anyone make a link between the two.

Part 2 is here.

Also, when I post two days in a row, I know I run the risk of readers missing the earlier post, so here's a link to it. Check yesterday's post out if you haven't seen it already!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Strangest Anniversary Post You'll Ever Read (Actually, I Have No Way of Proving That)

Eighteen years ago on this day, when Ren and I married in a small country church in rural Indiana, I am not sure we could have imagined the path we've taken to now. I mean, sure, he had to leave the hospital for the wedding, and our first stop once he and his entourage arrived from Japan was at the orthopedic shoulder surgeon, but I honestly just thought our marriage was being front loaded with challenges. Our tax day wedding anniversary serves as an ongoing reminder that I may have miscalculated.

The original "plan" was to get married in March on a Saturday closest to the date of our first date back in 1997. But, then Ren had a motorcycle accident on his way to work and pulverized the humeral head (the ball part of the ball and socket joint) of his right shoulder. He spent from late November until our new wedding date in mid-April undergoing and recovering from shoulder surgeries. The shoulder specialist we saw in Indiana days before our wedding confirmed that Ren would need a third surgery after our honeymoon. So, we got married, we went to Hawaii for a couple of weeks, and then returned to Japan, where I immediately found myself parenting a surly teenager who was no happier about the situation than I was.

The surgery happened in a hospital two hours from home. To get there, I had to drive my newly acquired tin can (kei car) along unfamiliar highways and through windy back roads. Once there, I navigated the unfamiliar hospital's system of surgery and recovery. Much like I have done for surgeries since, I did this all alone. Looking back on it, I'm amazed by my 28 year-old self's sheer determination.

If you've been reading this blog, you know that this was far from the last of our challenges (as I'd so naively assumed in the early days of our marriage). An international move with a teenager in year two would've stretched most marriages. But, it turns out that was nothing. Because, then we had emergency c-section baby #1 followed 10 months later by Ren's retinal detachment and surgery. And, as we were trying to figure out how to parent a very non-compliant baby turned toddler, we found ourselves pregnant with baby #2, another c-section that arrived just 2 weeks before we sold our house and 6 weeks before we packed up our bags and moved to Tokyo. Moving back and forth to Japan with two small children is hard. Doing it as a poor graduate student who is trying to write a dissertation while also figuring out how to feed the family is even harder. Add to that a baby with allergies and an undiagnosed 3 year-old, and I start to run out of words to describe it.

We moved back to the states in mid-2009 and Sky was diagnosed in late 2010. Five months later, Stow was born. Fives days after that Pink was hospitalized for asthma for the first time, and a few days later, me for a bad gall bladder. For the first two years of his life--during the same period that Ren was starting to require spine surgeries--Stow went from 90th percentile to failure-to-thrive twice. He got MRSA and C-diff and was in and out of doctors' offices pretty much non-stop. For our anniversary in 2013, Stow had a colonoscopy, cystoscopy, and endoscopy. He was 22 months old. He didn't roll over until 11 1/2 months. He didn't crawl until after he was 1. Meaningful speech didn't start until well into his third year. By then, he was on his way to an autism diagnosis (and Ren had already had three spine surgeries and would go on to have three more surgeries and some other stuff).

It's weird to spend an anniversary post talking about all the things that have gone wrong. When I spell it out this way, it can start to seem a bit like we're cursed. So, when I tell the story (if I tell it), I try to focus on our resilience, on the ways in which we have maintained our senses of humor, the way we have stayed together through it all. All of these things are true, but, this anniversary, 18 years after the first scary surgery and 9 months after the last one, I no longer imagine, like I did back in 2000, that somehow we are just going through a rough patch and that soon everything will be fine. We will most likely never be the kind of fine I expected when we got married.

But, I've learned a lot as a result. I've learned how strong we are. I've learned how weak we are. I've learned that sometimes you have to fight to stay together even when you don't want to anymore. Most of all, though, I've learned how important it is to not go through all of this alone. So, thank you to those of you who have supported us virtually through this blog and to those of you who have supported us in our real life. Here's to another 18 years!