wearing a mask to publix

Buck never forgets a thing. He rummaged around in “the old red building,” our name for the metal storage shed he bought more than thirty years ago to store tools, gas cans, old paint cans, and “stuff.” You know. “Stuff.”

Anyway. He emerged from the red building with a sealed package containing an old n25 face mask, the type he used to (sometimes) wear while running the the ancient Case 60-hp tractor. The type of mask made famous by their short supply for medical workers in the Covid-19 crisis.

We had already decided that when we made a supply run to Publix, I would be the one to go in, for several reasons:

  1. I’m 13 years younger.
  2. I’m female.
  3. My blood type is O-positive.
  4. My immune system isn’t compromised. Buck’s radiation and chemo in 2014 saved him from Mantle-cell lymphoma, but left his white blood cells not quite up to par.

He drops the mask onto my desk. “You can wear this.”

“Well, I can, I guess.”

“Wear this.”

We exchange a long look. I sigh. Before he can go into the “there’s only one of you and I can’t live without you so you have to take care of yourself” speech, I cave.

“Okay. I’ll wear it.”

“And I’ll drive you.”

Before I protest, I realize he may have a little cabin fever and could use a little field trip, too. “Great,” I say. “Thanks.”

“Besides,” he adds. “The dog wants to go. We’ll take the van.”

So he makes a sandwich, I cut up an apple and some cheese, put a Dentastix (her lunch treat) for Lou Lou Belle in a plastic zip bag, and we head out for the 5-mile drive to the grocery store.

All the way to the store, munching on cheese and apple, I think of reasons why it’s silly to wear the mask. How stupid it will look. How ridiculous I will feel. How it will mess up my hair and make-up. How I don’t want anybody to think I bought an n95 mask on Amazon and have deprived a medical worker of needed protection.

But under the watchful eyes of Buck and Lou Lou Belle, I struggle into the mask, bitching and complaining all the way. “It’s hot. Ow, it pulled my hair. It’s too tight.” They are unmoved. “Okay, I’ll be back in a half hour.”

I learn that the meat department guy and seafood department lady recognize me even with the mask. “I’m smiling under this thing,” I say.

“You should draw a smile on the outside,” the meat department guy says, laughing. Neither of them is wearing a mask. In fact, I only saw one employee wearing one, and that was a guy in produce. Have they all been tested? Could I learn to love the mask?

A clerk, one I’ve been seeing for decades, nearly begged me to let her take my cart out to the van. She knows I always do my own. “I really need to get out of here for a few minutes,” she says.

I advise her that a friendly chocolate Lab (is there any other kind?) will pop her head out when I open the back van doors, and that’s exactly what happens. “Can I pet her?”

“Sure,” I say.

Note to self: “Wipe Lou down with sanitizer.”

And write in my notebook one thousand times: “I am not a germaphobe. I am not a germaphobe. I am not a germaphobe. I am not a germaphobe. I am not . . . .

eye of the storm – chapter one

for the record

Chapter One 

Biloxi, Mississippi 

Rory Mathis was a Swiss Army knife, a whirligig of moving parts and an inveterate thrower of dice. He corkscrewed into the hard crust of the world and scooped out the earth’s warm heart. A blunt instrument, he was coarse by temperament, silky smooth by devious intent. It cost him to put a lid on it. Rory raged in the night, then filed his teeth, cleaned his nails and folded himself up into a well-tailored pocket square for the corporate board room. 

Rory liked to get away from his Aunt Mary Alice and her loyal spies at Berringer Software at the home office in Asheville, North Carolina and go to Biloxi as often as he could. He liked to hop a big bird and fly to Vegas, too, but Biloxi was best. He was a big fish in a small pond there, and they treated him like some minor potentate. Or at least they had until Boots Manero started getting on his case for overdue markers. So far, Boots had only rattled privately. The staff still had orders to comp him on everything, even the big suite. He needed to wrap up this Berringer mess to be sure the joy ride continued. 

Anytime Rory got the urge, it took him less than an hour to call the Beau Rivage, throw a bag into his big black 2008 Lincoln Town Car, and head for the coast. Lincoln stopped making Town Cars in 2008 and so he pampered and petted his and planned to keep it forever. He stored a brand new 2008 clone of this one with zero mileage in an air-conditioned garage. He figured the two of them would last the duration. 

It was just breaking dawn when he left Waynesville. He cruised nearly straight south, a nine-hour slide from the Smoky Mountains down through the urban core of Atlanta, the sprawl of Montgomery and Mobile, to Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

He liked having time alone on a long drive to figure out his next move in the game he called “shark chess.” The goal: remove any and all remaining obstacles that might keep him from owning every single share of Berringer Software. 

He arrived at 3:30 and was pleased to see that the twenty-nine story Beau Rivage was looking impeccable as ever. He slowed to take in the huge bubbling fountain surrounded by gorgeous gardens designed with trimmed boxwoods, cone-shaped evergreens and thousands of hot pink pansies. A state-of-the-art computerized slideshow marquee assured him that he had indeed arrived at one of the major temples of the Good Life. 

He didn’t care that just across the street there was a closed, rusting out gas station, the roof over the pumps hanging at a crazy angle, a souvenir courtesy of Hurricane Ivan nearly twenty years ago. Or that next to it was a derelict apartment building, windblown trash collecting along one wall, the windows boarded up and a crooked for sale sign out front. 

Literature for the Beau Rivage Casino and Hotel boasted that it was where the “spirit and excitement of the French Riviera blend with the traditional elegance and comfort of the American South.” 

My ass, Rory thought as he pulled in under the wide portico. 

“Good afternoon, Mr. Mathis.” 

Rory got out of his car holding a slim attaché case.  “Do you have an envelope for me?” 

“Yes sir.” 

He took the envelope from the kid, gave him ten dollars and stepped toward the entrance. “Park it and bring my bags up right away.” 

“Yes sir, Mr. Mathis.” 

Rory approached the lobby threshold. Enormous glass doors silently slid open as he approached. He felt a whoosh of refrigerated, nicotine-scented air. Off to the right, he saw a growing throng of people standing stoically at a bank of check-in counters. 

He chuckled, glad to have the key to a penthouse suite in the envelope in his hand. The waiting crowd looked like a bunch of refugees from Central Casting. Rory had seen some version of them all before: a group of pudgy, middle-aged nurses checking in for a convention and some guys in polo shirts he immediately typecast as “golfers.” One fellow wore a bright tropical shirt, straw hat, and clenched an unlit cigar in his mouth. His nose was red, bulbous, his eyes bleary. And there were elderly folks, lots of them, grimly leaning on walkers and listing heavily to one side as they lurched slowly forward. 

He never went into the faux opulent shops, but derived a certain satisfaction from the subliminal messaging they delivered. The glitz of Bally, DKNY, The Jewel Box and Tommy Bahama sibilantly whispered, “This can all be yours. Step right up, my friends, step right up.” 

Guests were invited to patronize a gourmet coffee shop where any adult could amend their morning coffee with a shot or two, or three, of whiskey. The bonhomie streamed out like molasses, laid on thick with a feel-good trowel. 

The hotel elevators seamlessly linked the shops and the beating, smoking heart that drew him in: the casino itself. Before going up to his room, Rory passed through a gauntlet of purple-jacketed security officers who expertly checked him out, and nodded him into the casino. The dark lighting and edgy mood was an intravenous drug straight into his bloodstream. 

Rory took a lung-filling breath. He inhaled heady aromas of whiskey, cigarette smoke and sweat, emitting the distinctive pheromones of fear, excitement, and desperation. He was at home in the cavernous chamber filled with electronic slot machines, a twenty-first century version of the old one-armed bandit. Women and men sat trance-like, a thick stack of dollar bills in one hand, cigarette or glass of booze in the other, grimly punching buttons. Their fluorescent casino pallor labeled them as regulars. 

The constant weird noise was standard background in casinos everywhere. It was famed at the top by piped-in oldies soft rock, and underpinned by bubbling up layers of electronic game sounds. Rory cut figure eights through the slots and game tables, picking up on the loser smell. Feels like I’m on the set of a Star Trek the Next Generation set, one where The Borg have gotten people into pods for assimilation. 

Everywhere he looked, someone was looking back. The observers were equipped with headsets, wireless microphones and at least two cell phone/radio devices hooked onto belts and nestled in the small of their back. Are we having fun yet? 

The hive-like humming sound and the overabundance of glassy-eyed, road-kill faded blondes and old people dragging portable oxygen tanks around eventually made Rory claustrophobic, eager for the cool, quiet, intense atmosphere of the private, high-stakes glass-in room set into the walls at a higher level than the electronic pit. 

It was early, though, and the games and players he was interested in wouldn’t be gathering until later in the evening. Besides, he had some work to do first. 

Rory left the casino and took an elevator to his penthouse suite to plan his next move. He walked to the first phone in the opulent suite and dialed room service. 

“Yes, Mr. Mathis?” The server’s unctuous tone was gratifying. 

“My usual.” 

“Yes sir. On its way. Will there be anything else this evening?” 

“No. That’s it.” 

“Yes sir.” 

Rory closed the heavy drapes that opened onto a magnificent view of the Gulf of Mexico and sat back in a black leather club chair in the dark room to think about his strategy and wait for room service. 

Shark chess is a three-dimensional game. As sharks go, Rory was mid-size. His man, Bo Perlis, was small, but fast and lethal. Boots Manero, enforcer for the mob, was a Great White. Missteps were costly. 

He ticked items off one by one on the four fingers of his left hand. One: Uncle Troy’s out of the picture. Two: Aunt Mary Alice is almost in my pocket and has one foot on a banana peel, the old bitch. Three: My pathetic niece, Claire. She’s on the edge and about to topple over. Four: her daughter, Grace. That one could be trouble, but Perlis is on it. 

how will we know?

Packing up the novel draft that I’ve decided to abandon, I found draft copy for a Prologue I had once considered. It was one of the darlings that got killed off early, but I never stopped loving it anyway.

A major event in the book concept was a category-five hurricane hitting the Gulf coast of Florida. The prologue was a warning about the calm eye and how it can lull you.

In the post-Covid-19 world, how will we know when it’s safe to gather at weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, sports events, the theater, and extended family suppers again? How will this pandemic change us?

For the record, here’s the prologue (written and discarded) for Eye of the Storm:

Anyone who has ever lived through a major hurricane knows about the eye of the storm. The eye is beautiful, alluring and extremely dangerous. If you don’t understand where you are, the eye will fool you. You will think the preternatural calm signals that the storm is over, that you are safe.

And then, with no time to escape, a wall of wind and water from the back side of the storm will rise up like hell and death itself. You will run, swim, cling to a roof top, scream and go made for a time. If you survive the roar, the wave, the snakes in the water, the smell of decay, and the fear of your own death, a morning will come when you will imagine a dove on your shoulder bearing an olive branch in his mouth.

That dove is your life handed back to you, your fresh start.

elizabeth j. westmark

when the writing a novel dream is dead – long live the dream

Today’s riddle: when is giving up on writing the best way to start writing?

Answer: when what you’re giving up on is what was holding you back; when it had become the excuse for not writing. As in: I don’t have time (or, ahem, inspiration or, ahem, discipline) to revise the 40,000 word partial manuscript for my novel-in-progress, so I just won’t write anything at all.

Something about a staring a pandemic in the face that makes a person have a “come to Jesus” meeting with herself.

To wit: I’m so uninterested in my youthful characters anymore that I can barely remember their names.

To wit: I don’t have any kids and have never observed the specie up-close. Sure, I have a couple of step-kids in their late fifties, but the youngest was 19 when I came on their scene. The grand-kids are off somewhere now in their own parallel universes, as much a mystery to me as I suspect their Granddad and I are to them. Won’t we ever just stay on the porch with the puppies and act our ages? And where the heck are those damn rocking chairs anyway?

That’s it. I’m packing up ye olde novel-not-so-much-in-progress. Nothing so dramatic or passionate as burning it. Whistling while I work.

The art journals I started for some of the main characters are something else entirely. They stay. Some very cool stuff there which I intend to use and have fun with.

So, what’s next? Writing whatever I please, that’s what! Free writing. I like the sound of it.

dreams deferred

“Patsy” and “Doc” will have to wait. Luckily, I wrote down enough of the dreams when I first staggered out of bed yesterday morning to fix the memory in place. Buck and I spent most of yesterday preparing for and briefing some of our local officials on our property rights issue coming before the planning board February 4th. Today is for reading the fine print on some ancient scrolls (old meeting transcripts) and a luncheon of the Pensacola High School class of 1955, Buck’s graduating class and a group of folks I have come to love. I’m always the “babe” in the room because of my relative youth (only 68), but they seem to like me okay anyway. We meet at a little local Italian restaurant called Franco’s. They make a mean minestrone soup. Hang in there, Patsy and Doc. I’ll tell your story soon.

dream journal

At last. It happened last night the way it used to, way back when I was writing every day. I dreamed words, sentences, amazing images — a world. I’ve been sleeping too shallowly recently to dream at all. I’m still reeling. Still in the dream. Dreams, really. There were three, but I was only able to stagger out of bed and write and notes for two. The other, the first, is dim, fading. I doubt I can recover it. Of the two I remember, the first is “Patsy;” the second is “Doc.” I’ll post them later.

By the way, I attribute the restarting of dreams with the restarting of a daily writing practice. The words were so dry at first, like unused paint in a long-neglected tube. But they are beginning to feel a little more fluid, beginning to come from a deeper place. And now, dreams. A good and encouraging sign.

color of tears

“Don’t touch me!” She sounded angry.

Caroline looked up, surprised to hear any conversation at all from the couple on the sofa, much less this. But all she saw was the same thing she had seen for the last hour. A middle-aged, long-married couple sitting a few inches from each other, both hunched over their smart phones, thumbs furiously working the keys.

The man’s dad, Caroline’s husband, looked at her, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. She could tell he found it both annoying and amusing that his son had flown across the county to see him, yet spent the precious sliver of time thus.

Caroline learned later they were continuing an argument begun who knows when. Hours? Days? Weeks? Decades? Turns out they were sitting right beside each other, texting all the while. Her angry outburst was almost certainly unintentional, but it spoke volumes.

They agreed to break for lunch on the patio. Poolside. A sweet breeze swayed the tops of tall old pines ringing the back yard. But their phones, weapon of choice, remained near their itchy fingers.

Caroline tried to steer the conversation, akin to herding sullen cats, to something fun, some topic at least lighter than a brick. Going anywhere interesting? Thought about where you want to live after retirement? How are the kids? (Always a danger warning zone, but she was desperate.) Ah, this one: tell me about your color scheme for the new house you just bought.

Caroline knew, though. The walls were the color of tears.

in a courtyard

Image result for the hotel provincial new orleans

Robin checked out of her room at the Hotel Provincial early to drive back home to Pensacola. It was an easy three and a half hours with no commitments waiting, but she was more than ready to go. She and Harry had been coming to this quirky, elegant small New Orleans hotel just at the edge of the French Quarter for romantic getaways for decades. Their last visit, however, had been a surprise treat for their granddaughter’s senior high school spring break.

The room had an old-fashioned wing chair just like the one Robin sat in one year when Harry took her picture before they happily drifted over to the now-defunct, over the top restaurant Stella. It was her favorite photograph of herself, a prized memory. Somehow the slinky black dress and animal print scarf just worked with her cropped black hair and the chunky tumbler of single-malt scotch in her right hand, eyes bright with love for the photographer.

Robin slung the strap of her overnight bag over one shoulder, car keys in hand, opened the door, then turned to look at the room one more time, wanting to burn every detail of it into her memory. She didn’t expect to return here again.

Coffee and cinnamon smells wafting into the parking lot from the hotel kitchen slowed her determined trudge to the car. “What’s another few minutes?” she thought. “Nobody’s waiting for me at home.” God, it hurt to say that. She and Harry had talked about cremation, but when the time came, she just couldn’t do it and went the full memorial service at the old church Episcopal church downtown where they had been arms-length members forever. She sighed and went into the small lobby area where a continental breakfast was laid out on a starched white tablecloth. This was a quickie for travelers ready to hit the road, so while there were beignets and cinnamon rolls on a round silver tray, local bean purveyor Community Coffee’s paper cups were stacked beside the coffee maker, ready to go.

Robin filled her cup with the pungent black chicory-laced brew, wrapped a cinnamon roll in a paper napkin and went to the desk to check out. “Why don’t y’all take a few minutes and enjoy the courtyard before you hit the road? Mama always told me eatin’ and drivin’ ain’t good for the digestion.” The smiling clerk spread her fingers toward the open door leading to the courtyard, nodding her head in encouragement.

It seemed rude to turn down such a nice invitation. “What’s another ten minutes?” Robin found a table and sat, eyes angled down at the table, sighing. She felt so tired. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for a minute.

Robin’s eyes popped open. Did someone shake her? Had she fallen asleep? Was someone staring at her?

“No, cher, ain’t nobody starin’ at you.” Robin looked around. The voice was a deep baritone. But the courtyard was empty. She looked around for the first time, taking in the frilly pink bougainvilleas, lush banana plants and elephant ears, and the stone face of a lion.

The lion. He was definitely looking at her, a slightly grumpy gaze on his marble face. Water streamed in an arc from his mouth to a blue-green pool. For the first time, she noticed bougainvillea petals floating in the pool and couldn’t help but think how they were beautiful on the tree and beautiful floating, fallen, in the water.

Robin suddenly felt hungry, really hungry, for the first time since Harry died three months earlier. She ate half the cinnamon roll in one huge gulp and washed it down with the now lukewarm coffee. Its bitter taste mingled with the too sweet of the iced bun into perfection in her mouth.

Robin still felt someone’s eyes on her. “It’s just me, darlin’, we’re all friends here.” The voice was silky, neither young nor old, male or female. It sounded happy, though. She turned and saw a cherub. Was it made of wood? It looked warm and shiny, like carved and shellacked butterscotch.

“Huh,” Robin murmured. The drive home didn’t feel so urgent after all. She returned to the lobby for another cinnamon roll and some hot coffee, sat back down between the lion and the cherub, took out her notebook and pen and began to write.

ashes

Write about ashes.

Buck and I have attended the funerals of too many people we loved: both of our parents, his adult son (my stepson, the gray sheep), beloved aunts and uncles, and too many friends to count, not to mention the joy of loving and heartbreak of losing our Labrador retriever companions over the past forty years.

Ashes are what’s left when everything else is gone. And even they blow off into the wind, float for awhile on the sea, or are buried in the garden. Buck’s first wife’s sister scattered her husband’s ashes under azalea bushes in their front yard. Her next husband reportedly admired the robustly blooming hedge.

I never smoked, so ashtrays don’t enter my thoughts when I consider ashes. Bonfires, either. No. It’s all about death and how very little is left. What a small pile we make.

Ash Wednesday services in my Episcopalian tradition admonish congregants to remember that we are mortal, that our lives are short. As the ashes are smeared onto my forehead, the priest intones, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Ash Wednesday liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer is satisfyingly grim. My favorite Ash Wednesday service was at the grand old church downtown during a crashing thunder and lightning storm, a perfect prop for the event.

Old-style funerals like I grew up with, viewing the body, “he’s in a happier place,” all that, are sufficiently macabre that both Buck and I eschew attending unless we absolutely must. And the new fashions which feature a large multimedia production complete with music are equally repulsive. Cremation is our stop-gap plan, although we both prefer to simply live forever.

I think when I I die I would be grateful if some kind soul would place me to be left undisturbed in a blooming pitcher plant flat like the one we have on our hundred acre wood at Longleaf and let me be a perpetual meal for the carnivorous flowers, to bloom and bloom again.