Downpour

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Rain falls for the first time in months. Dry, cracked sand turns into mud, sidewalks transform into mirrors of slick water, and thirsty trees drink until their roots swell. It’s too late for the brown grass and wilting weeds. They gave up the fight long ago. Did they really belong, anyway?

The cacti are the only ones complaining. Drowning is all to easy when roots run deep and there’s no way to move.  Days like this are all about holding on for dear life and praying for the sun.

None of the stones cared. Their lives continue much as they had before, only now they are wet. A new temporary color gives them something new to talk about and maybe a few friends will follow the stream and land in a new place.  The pebbles always love the ride, while old boulders grip the ground with all their might. There’s no way in hell they’re moving.

Gray clouds weep and weep until they run out of tears. Sorrow for what, no one knows. Perhaps it’s the ever-changing scene from above. All they see are bunch of ants building colonies and destroying the land.  So, they send downpour to flood them out and clear their mess.

Blue skies return, shining light on the wounds. The air is clear, but the ants return.

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c.b.w. 2014

Grocery Shopping In London

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Every evening at about six-thirty, I walked through the doors of  the local food store on Muswell Hill Broadway.  During my extended stay in London,  it was my evening ritual to pick up something for dinner and a snack for the next day. While I fell into the groove of a London grocery store rather quickly, the first few days were an interesting experience of learning the norms of a different culture.

Back home, grocery shopping is usually a once a week thing, but I realized very quickly that weekly shopping in London does not work.  First, like many Londoners, I relied on walking and public transportation to get around town, which makes carrying a week’s worth of groceries next to impossible. Second, the house where I was staying had a teeny tiny refrigerator that I had to share with another roommate and the homeowners. It was about the size of a mini bar, so I had no choice but to adopt the London lifestyle of daily market trips.

There were two grocery stores in the Muswell Hill area: Marks and Spencer’s and Sainsbury’s. I went with M&S mainly because it had a large array of fresh produce and a healthier variety of food products. And it was cleaner.

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My “local” grocery store on Muswell Hill Broadway
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

My budget constraints left me with about £10 a day for food, which  included my daily Cafe Mocha, (£2.90).  Breakfast and lunch were a snap –  a bagel smothered with Nutella in the morning and a fresh apple in the afternoon. Those two meals together cost me about £10 a week.

Dinner, however, was a bit trickier.  All I had to cook food was a microwave and a toaster, which was actually more restrictive than the budget! Thankfully, Marks and Spencer carries a wide array of frozen prepared meals that are reasonably priced and somewhat healthy (few preservatives or artificial ingredients). If I could get to the store before 6:00 p.m. I picked up a freshly made sandwich or salad. They were just as inexpensive as frozen dinners, but they were in short supply! Just ten minutes past six meant an empty shelf.

I think I tried just about every variety of the single-serve frozen dinner. The store brand chicken casserole, bangers and mash, and shepherd’s pie were my favorites, though I’d stay away from anything Italian (the noodles never cooked right). For £2.29 – £3.29, I got a pretty decent meal with enough left over to get a little dessert.

The candy rack is usually where I found that dessert. Candy bars are typically Cadbury or Mars, but in varieties that were totally foreign to me, (see The Junk Food Tourist for a complete rundown on my candy adventure).  Depending on the brand or size, they go for about 55p or £1.00.

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nom-nom-nom . . . The Double Decker is my favorite!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Shopping in the store is about the same as it is in the U.S. It’s crowded, people don’t always move, and it has that urban food smell that dominates all grocery stores. However, things get interesting when it’s time to wait in line and pay. British people take waiting in line (or queuing up) pretty seriously. There is no whining, line cutting, or standing too close to one another, nor is there tolerance for obnoxious conversations on a mobile phone. If any of these unspoken rules are broken, the British are not shy about voicing their disdain.

What I found most fascinating was the courtesy of placing the conveyor belt divider for the person standing behind you. Whether I was carrying one item or five, the person in front of me never failed to  place the divider. It didn’t take me long to adopt the policy both in London and back home. A little kindness goes a long way.

The cashiers sit instead of stand as they scan purchases. They sit on ergonomic stools that actually looked really comfortable!  People either bagged their own groceries or the cashier took on bagging duties once money changed hands. Bags are not free, but rather optional and for a fee, (5p). It didn’t take long for me to wise up and bring my own bag in order to avoid being charged extra.

After a while, I got to know the cashiers and I no longer got lost trying to find the snack aisle. I knew the left door always got a little stuck when it slid open and there was always a huge puddle in front of the exit after it rained.  I’ll bet if I went back today I could still find the Nutella and the best frozen bangers and mash a girl could ever want. This little store, along with so many other things became part of what I call my “new familiars.”

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Just curious:

As this series progresses, I’ll being using this section to ask questions to clear up my own curiosities. However, please feel free to leave your own questions and comments below.

Are small refrigerators common in London homes?

What’s the story behind having to pay for a bag?

How would locals describe food prices – high or reasonable?

Londoners, what did I get wrong?

– – –

c.b.w. 2013

Blueberry Hunt

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This story was submitted to the Write it Your Way Competition in July, (for the theme of “summer”), but unfortunately it did not make the final cut.  Rather than view it as a failure, I’m choosing instead to see it as another step I’ve taken towards my 2012 writing goals.  I like how his story turned out, so I thought I’d share it with my readers as you have all given me so much encouragement and support.  Thanks for always reading and I hope you enjoy my little snapshot of summer in Northern Wisconsin.

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Blueberry Hunt

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I grab my blue metal cup and race outside. The gravel crunches beneath my feat and I can hear Addie isn’t far behind.

“I’m going to get more than you!” she calls.

“No you won’t. You’ll eat all of them on the way back.”

“So what! I’ll still pick the most.”

“If they’re not in the cup, they don’t count.”

“Fine!”

We disappear into the trees. Oak, maple, and pine surround us on all sides, green leaves rustle overhead. The forest is so thick the sun barely punches through to the ground. Whippoorwills call in the distance and chipmunks scurry as our clunky steps rattle the thick blanket of leaves from last fall.

“They gotta be around here somewhere,” Addie says.

“I hope the bears didn’t get them, first.”

We scan the ground for smooth oval-shaped leaves and a speck of blue. I look around the base of stones and large trees. Berries like to hide in cool, damp places. My mouth waters at the thought of eating summer’s first blueberry!

Horse flies buzz in circles and I see Addie waving her hands around her head. Those things drive her crazy and I hope she doesn’t go running back inside. What’s the fun of a blueberry-picking contest if I’m the only one playing?

“I hate flies!” she yells.

“Just put your hood on and hold your breathe for a few seconds so they can’t smell ya!” I holler back.

I start to get excited when I see juneberries hanging from a small tree. If a bear had come through, he wouldn’t have left a single edible thing behind. That means there must be blueberries, too!

I pick a few juneberries just for the heck of it, but then decide there’s something much more fun to do with them. Addie isn’t too far away, so I take aim and throw them at her.

“Hey!”

“What?  I saw a fly on your shoulder and I tried to hit it.”

“You better run!”

She comes tearing towards me armed with acorns and I take off. Small tree branches hit us as we run and ferns wrap around our legs. We’re laughing so hard we can hardly breathe, but we keep running wild and free.

The ground goes from flat to a steep hill and we come to a stop. Addie drops the acorns and sucker punches me in the arm.

“Ow!” It doesn’t really hurt and I know I deserve it, but little sisters aren’t allowed to win.

She sticks her tongue out at me and I laugh. We plop down on the ground to catch our breath. Who cares if we get a little mud on our jeans! I can tell by the way the trees have thinned out that we’ve ended up in a spot near the lake. Sure enough, I can see blue water peeking through baby popple and pine trees. Last year, this was a great spot for blueberries!

Both of us get up and bolt to an area thick with ferns. I lift the feathery leaves, hoping to find blueberry goodness. Small patches of bushes dot the ground and the leaves are the right shape!

“I see green ones!” Addie squeals.

“Me, too!”

Where there are pale green berries, there are ripe blueberries waiting to be picked! As I move leaves and tiny branches, I spot green, green, green and then a little shade of blue!

“C’mon!  This way.” I motion to Addie to follow me a little further down the hill. Sticks snap under her feet as she heads my way.

My eyes stay glued to the ground. I see the red berries I know are poisonous, little white flowers, the leaves that make me itchy, and then . . . BLUE!

My fingers lightly pinch the plump blueberry and I snap it off the bush. “I got one!”

My sister dashes over and squeals, “It’s huge!”

“I know!” My blueberry makes a very satisfying ping as it hits the bottom of my metal cup.

“You’re not going to eat it?” Addie asks.

“No!  Not until I have a few more.”

Pretty soon both of our cups are pinging back and forth as we find more and more blueberries. The further we explore, the faster we fill our cups.

When the berries start rolling over the rim, I decide I can eat one or two and still win the game. I grab the biggest one and pop it into my mouth. Juicy and plump, sweet and sour, it’s like we’re out here to pick candy!

Addie is on her knees, still picking berries. I run over to her to see what she’s got and I’m not surprised to see her cup is only half full. A blob of blueberry juice stains the corner of her mouth and I know she’s eaten most of her haul.

“You dork,” I laugh.

“They’re so good,” she says.

I don’t need to rub in the fact that I beat her fair and square, so I join her on the ground and pick berries to fill her cup. Every third berry or so, I catch her sneaking another one into her mouth.

With our cups overflowing, we hold the berries in with our hands and take off towards the house. Grandma put a big bowl on the back stairs so we’d have a place to dump our cups. Empty cups in hand, we go back to the sweet spot and pick more berries. We scour the ground from the lakeshore all the way to the neighbor’s house.

Many trips later, Grandma’s bowl is full of beautiful blueberries. My sister giggles as she swipes a handful and stuffs them into her mouth.

“You’re going to get sick!”

“Worth it,” she says, while still chewing.

“Ewww! Your teeth are purple.”

“Really?  Cool!”

The next day, Grandma sets up the kitchen with freshly cleaned mason jars, a large stew pot, wooden spoons, and our bowl of blueberries. We picked so many, the only thing to do is make jam! She gives me the job of rinsing the blueberries, while Addie is in charge of telling us when the “magic mixture” starts to boil.

Grandma and I pick out the shriveled and green berries that somehow got into the bowl until only the best berries remain. We eat a few along the way and laugh every time my sister doesn’t notice.

“The bubbles are here!” Addie announces.

Grandma hands the bowl to Addie and I so we can pour it into the pot. Just as we put the lid in place, a knock sounds at the door. We keep watch over the bubbling blueberries, while Grandma goes to see who it is.

“Hi, Terry. What brings you by?” Grandma asks.

“I was just out berry picking and thought I’d stop and say hello.”

“Well, I’m glad you did. How goes the picking?”

“You know, I can’t seem to find a single berry.”

– – –

c.b.w. 2012

The Expanding Pear

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I submitted this story to the Your Story competition in Writer’s Digest, but it didn’t make the final cut.  Instead of sulking, I’ve decided to celebrate my first submission of the year by sharing it with my readers. Meanwhile, I’m already working on two more pieces to submit in other competitions.

This piece was entered into contest #42, which gave the prompt of starting a story with the phrase “I’ve got to get out of these clothes . . . fast.”

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“I’ve got to get out of these clothes . . . fast,” I mutter.

My muffin top looks like the baker spooned too much dough into the paper cup.  A year ago this size would have fit just fine, but now it threatens to give me a blood clot. As if that isn’t depressing enough, I’m in this predicament because my favorite jeans split right up the rear seam when I bent over to pick up the cat last night.

The fluorescent lights of the dressing room drains my skin of all color and makes me think I should have worn at least a little make-up.  The jeans I’ve stuffed myself into bunch up under my hips and the back pockets refuse to lay flat or straight. Nothing ever fits right.  Half the time I don’t know why I even try.  Clothes are made for women too afraid to eat or fans of masochism.

I can hardly look at myself in the mirror, yet I stare and wonder why my curves are so ugly.  I bubble out like a pear with my bulging gut, back fat, and wide thighs.  Great.  I look like a fruit I don’t like to eat.  That’s right, skinny on top and global on the bottom.  And I just keep getting more juicy and plump! Of course, my sister looks like a runway model with her beanpole frame and bright blue eyes.  Where was the magic gene fairy when I was born?

The too tight jeans dig into my thighs and as I try to shimmy out of them. The waistband just won’t stretch another inch. Honestly, why does all the fat settle just above the knee?  Giving up on the pants, I try to wiggle out of the shirt, but the shoulder seams clamp down the moment I move my arms.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

Oh, no!  Was that the sleeve?

Now stuck with jeans wrapped around my legs and my arms cinched in a shirt that will not come off, my confidence deflates as though it’s just sprung a leak. Too bad my balloon butt can’t do the same thing. Tears burn my eyes and I slowly sink into the bench.

Why can’t I be beautiful?

A sick feeling of disappointment churns in my stomach.  It doesn’t matter what I do. I’ll never be a Size 2 or the blonde who flaunts it because she has the right to feel pretty.  So, why not give me extra fries with that large chocolate shake, please.

A little tap sounds on the dressing room door.

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

I wipe my tears and suck in a deep breath. No.

“Yes, I’m fine.”

– – –

c.b.w. 2012

The Story Behind Solitary Confinement

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The votes have been cast in To Know or Not to Know and the win goes to full disclosure of the ailment afflicting the character and the inspiration behind Solitary Confinement. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read something a little different and vote in both polls regarding this piece.

To catch up or reread the short story discussed below, please visit this link:

Solitary Confinement

If you don’t want to know everything about what inspired this story, stop reading after this point!

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It’s often said that every piece of fiction has a grain of truth nestled somewhere deep within the story and characters.  In the case of Solitary Confinement, I took something I knew rather well and turned it into a metaphor that explores the strength of the human spirit when pushed to extremes.

For a number of years, I struggled with the pain of migraine headaches. It always bothers me when someone arbitrarily uses the word “migraine” to describe a really bad headache.  Migraines are an entirely different kind of pain that effects every part of the body.  In my case, the pain was debilitating and quite terrifying.  The descriptions of pain that I used in the story, (i.e. ants armed with lightening rods, the ice pick, the sledgehammer, a thousand baseball bats, muscle seizures, etc.) all came from my migraine journal that I kept for my doctor.  These descriptions gave me the starting point I needed to expand the emotional sense of what its like to experience overwhelming pain.

The emotional element of this story is based solely on the premise of feeling helpless.  This is where fiction comes in as a way to exaggerate the loss of control that comes from being unable to stop the pain.  I put the character on a hardwood floor to remove any possibility of comfort and to emphasize the paralysis created by the migraine.  It was important to establish this right from the start, especially for readers who have never experienced an affliction of this magnitude.

The scattered pills just out of reach are a mechanism to show desperation.  On a personal level, this has a lot of meaning to me because it reflects my own experience of never finding a magic fix to stop the migraines.  By putting them out of her reach, my intention was to create an illusion of help that doesn’t exist.

Hallucinations are one of the more frightening elements of severe migraines.  The more intense the pain, the more pronounced they become.  The references to shadows that aren’t there and voices whispering are also derived from my journal.  Extreme pain does funny things to your senses and messes with your perception of reality. To showcase the fear this creates, I opted to elevate this phenomenon by creating a less obvious hallucination that even the reader believes is real.

The main character makes several internal cries for a nameless man:

He said I could call . . .

I need him. I need help.

Her desperation for his presence escalates as the pain intensifies.  I purposely increased her internal dialogue to show her ever-increasing helplessness and give the impression that this man exists.  In truth, he is not real. The man she calls for represents a cry for help that can’t be heard. Physical pain may be paralyzing her, but she is also trapped by emotional turmoil and anxiety brought on by fear.  She is entirely alone in this situation, which creates a strong need for someone to help her.  In effect, she needs him to be real in order to cope with the pain.  This concept is furthered by the character’s belief that she’s done something wrong and the pain is her punishment.  His forgiveness would make the pain stop, but just like the pills he remains out of reach.

I never fully reveal this hallucination in the story because I want the reader to see him the way she does.  In this sense, the reader falls into the same view of reality that she experiences.

Overall, the character’s heightened level of pain is meant to reflect a state of helplessness when something is out of our control.  No matter how much we hope, need, or crave, there are moments when those things are irrelevant.  To that end, the only thing we have left is the ability to hold on with all our strength.

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Call it writer’s curiosity, but what was your interpretation of the story?

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c.b. 2012