Happy Groundhog Day! I couldn't sleep last night. I woke up at 2am Ready to defend the world against coronavirus Feeling responsible for everyone, A heavy burden to bear in the dark For someone as powerless as me. Last week I woke up one day before 6am And opened up my email in bed-- Like I shouldn't. I swear the front page headlines Appearing in my daily news email Were the same as the day before. I thought I must be caught in a Groundhog Day scenario. Time has moved forward since then To today, which is Groundhog Day, Thankfully.
All of me is clinging toward an ending-- The return of things I love: Travel, family visits, theater crowds, Standing close talking with someone new, Wondering can we be friends? Zooming for convenience instead of by mandate. Grocery shopping on a Tuesday afternoon just because. Meals inside a noisy restaurant Where dinner voices echo off the walls, "There's too much salt in this." I'd say late night bar crowds, But I'll probably have aged out of all that By time this is over. Hopping on a rower after someone else During a relay race at the gym. Taking off from the starting line with a Thousand other runners corralled in groups A, B, C, D, E. Leading big tours at the cemetery. Performing improv in front of a crowd. Hugging an old friend tight. I will, however, miss the masks.
100,000 Projected to Die I can't get over this feeling-- Surpassing 400,000 US COVID deaths. 500,000 projected by the end of February, The month that follows the one we're in now. 100,000 more people who might die Who haven't yet. A forecasted wave of tragedy Ready to befall us.
I fell away from writing my weekly Corona poems. It happened around the time that Trump was diagnosed with COVID and continued through both election cycles, the presidential in November and our special election here in Georgia in January. I’ve been beating myself up a bit for falling out of the routine because I wanted to use the poems as a way to document this time period. But what’s done is done, and as much as I wish the pandemic was already over, it’s not. So I’m starting up again with the aim of posting weekly on Tuesdays.
This week I’m sharing original flash fiction (ideally 500 words or less, this one’s longer) inspired by some of my favorite sad Christmas songs. Here’s one based on I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.
Jacob’s knees ached from being pressed so long to the wooden kneeler. He prayed his Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s aloud, no priest on the other side of the grating of the confessional booth to hear him. He kept mixing up the wording, and then even worse, forgetting what number he was on, so he’d have to start over. Outside the church, the sun was setting, sinking the cold Christmas Day into night. There was no power in the church so the confessional grew dimmer until everything faded into shadow.
He’d been assigned this penance long ago by Fr. Ruiz, twenty Our Father’s and thirty Hail Mary’s for calling his mom a ho. He hadn’t even known what the word meant then—just that it seemed to capture how angry he was at her for giving him a used Atari for Christmas when he’d asked for a Nintendo.
Like the other boys in his class, he hadn’t taken Reconciliation seriously, eavesdropping on the confessor stationed in the box on the other side of Fr. Ruiz, a girl who’d punched her sister, rather than completing his own sentence. But time was running out to find his way back into God’s good graces in this locale. St. Paul’s was due to be demolished the day after New Year’s.
His penance complete, Jacob emerged from the confessional booth into the dark church. There were no prayer candles to light, he’d checked when he snuck in, so he switched on his phone flashlight and aimed it at the sanctuary where a giant crucifix had once hung and where he’d served as an altar boy, watching from behind the scenes as Fr. Ruiz turned bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
Along with the crucifix, the church had been stripped of its statuary, baptismal font, polished pews, padded kneelers, altar, old pipe organ, and steeple bells—everything of value sold off to keep the diocese out of debt. Even the stained glass windows were gone with wooden boards sealed over the gaps left by their absence. Aside from the ceiling and walls, the only thing that remained was the scent of incense, accumulated over a hundred years of burning.
Jacob approached the five marble steps that separated the sanctuary from the main part of the church. It was on those steps nearly forty years ago he’d performed in a Christmas pageant his mom had directed. He thought he’d be a shoo-in for Joseph, but she assigned him a roll as one of the three kings. When he’d complained, she told him he wasn’t the Joseph type—like the three kings, he’d always be roaming.
She was right about that. He’d been on the other side of the country in California when the church had closed three years ago. It’d sat vacant since then except for the occasional funeral, his mom’s this past October being one of them. When she’d fallen sick, the demolition of the church had already been announced, and it seemed to Jacob his mom had hastened her own demise, refusing certain therapeutics, with the hope that her funeral mass could be performed at St. Paul’s.
On the steps, Jacob stared out at the dark chamber where the congregation had once gathered. The year he’d played a king, the one who brings the myrrh, his last line had been a cue for the choir to erupt in Angels We Have Heard On High and for the church bells to be rung.
Surely today our Savior is born, he shouted, trying the line again now.
His words echoed off the empty walls but only silence followed.
This week I’m sharing original flash fiction (500 words or less) inspired by some of my favorite sad Christmas songs. Here’s one based on Frosty the Snowman.
She knew what kinds of things the other kids in her class would say if they saw her running in her yard like this.
Amelia, you’re gonna cause an earthquake.
Whales can’t run!
Don’t fall. You’ll break the ground open, and end up in China.
Little shits, each and every one of them, although Amelia didn’t describe them this way—that’s what her mother called them. Amelia thought of her classmates as bullies or popular people or sheep who went along with whatever everyone else was doing. One or two would make fun of her, and the rest would bah in agreement.
Now, thanks to Christmas break, she was done with those dumb idiots for two whole weeks, and it was just going to be her and Gary, who she’d brought into existence the weekend before by mounding him up from freshly fallen snow. She’d made him as round as she was, packing on more and more snow, despite the fact that the moisture soaked her knit gloves right away and her hands were numb within minutes.
Her backyard edged a small wood where she’d found the sticks she needed for Gary’s arms. His necktie she’d swiped from her father’s dresser along with an old pair of heavily rimmed black glasses. She’d found the supplies to make his face in the kitchen—walnuts in their shell for his eyes; a carrot for his nose, the baby kind; and red licorice for his lips, which made him look a like a clown but she took him seriously.
See, when she made Gary, she’d only been trying to distract herself from her parents’ fight about where they were going to spend Christmas, but then, once she’d created him, it became clear to her: she and Gary were meant to be the lead anchors of the Local Action 7 News. And any self-consciousness Amelia might have felt as a twelve year old playing pretend, she discarded in the privacy of her own backyard, the pine trees their only audience.
Together they covered a wide range of stories—sports, the weather, local and national politics, the feel good stories of the holiday season, and even an international crisis or two. They bantered. They said, back to you, and closed every show with that’s the way it is. Sure, they bickered off air, but together they were a great news team.
That day’s broadcast was due to start in twenty minutes and there was a developing story about a mall Santa that Amelia wanted to talk over with Gary, hence her run to the backyard, but as she neared him, the sun shining down on her, she discovered to her horror that Gary was headless—his glasses and necktie crumpled together on the ground in front of his melting torso—his edible facial features in a Picassian disarray. The show would be cancelled.
Amelia plucked a walnut from Gary’s remains and hurled it into the woods. Sometimes the way it was sure sucked.
This week I’m sharing original flash fiction (500 words or less) inspired by some of my favorite sad Christmas songs. Here’s one based on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (the original Judy Garland version).
All I’m saying is you could be more jolly, Mother. That’s all.
Mrs. Hubert Huddleston heard her daughter’s chastisement, but as with much of what Bess said, she let the words roll by her like tumbleweeds in the vast expanse of West Texas where she’d been raised. It was her husband, dead now five years, who’d brought her and the children to this valley in California in hopes of paid work or fecund soil. Though he’d found little of either at first, he’d managed to make a better life for the family before he passed.
Bess kept her attention on the silver tinsel, draping a piece over the branch of the balsam tree just so. She would set each strand by hand like this, a practice she’d learned from her mother, who now sat rocking by the wood stove, the familiar squeak-squeak-squeak of the chair more rhythmic than the holiday ballads playing over the radio.
Her mother was prone to fretting. For years, she’d fretted over the tinsel, admonishing Bess for sloppy workmanship, eventually withholding the box from her. These days, though, her frets were defined by the frequency with which she received Hank’s letters, often at first during his training, still somewhat regularly while he was stationed in England, and rarely since he’d stormed the beaches of Normandy in June. No word since November.
The lights strung on the balsam tree, half thumb sized bulbs of blue, green, yellow, and red, burned hot. Bess worked carefully to avoid scorching her wrist. Like her mother, Bess’s moods were often dictated by letters.
She’d received one that morning from Robert. In it, he’d told her of the Christmas present he’d be bringing home to her—a wooden clock with a bird inside that cooed the hour. He said he intended to hang it in their house after she became his wife.
Surely there was cause for joy in that vision Bess had thought when she’d shared the news, but her mother had remained stone faced and inquired after whether Robert had said anything of Hank. To which, Bess repeated yet again that they’d been apart since boot camp, and to which, her mother, as usual, replied that the army had done a disservice separating two such fond friends as Robert and Hank.
When it was time to put the angel on top of the tree, Bess sought out a chair from the kitchen, pulling it in as close as she could to the side of the tree without knocking off the thin metallic ornaments that would shatter if they fell. The tree’s branches were wide, and the top tall, so Bess had to stand on her tip toes, extending her arm fully in attempt to reach the angel’s skirts over the head of the tree.
Mind you don’t fall, her mother said.
And Bess wouldn’t have, if not for the knock at the door that sounded then.
Over the next week, I’m going to be sharing original flash fiction (500 words or less) inspired by some of my favorite sad Christmas songs. Here’s the first based on Last Christmas by Wham!
There are two truths applicable at any snow filled chalet gathering. What goes up must come down—that’s the basic law of skiing—and the last two people left awake at a cocaine party are going to sleep together.
Robert and Janet had experienced the former on the slopes that morning—he, a black diamond aficionado, and she, a sensible enough downhill skier to know which passes she could handle. But this same sensibility had been discarded when she found herself in the latter situation—the rest of the party passed out upstairs or retreated to their rooms for holiday trysts—her left alone with Robert on the bear skin rug in front of the dwindling fire.
He poured her another glass of gummy red wine and swiped a small box from the stack of presents heaped on either side of the tree. The name Cindy or Lee or Frasier was on the tag, but Robert discarded it with deft fingers, blood pumping through his veins like the Polar Express.
Merry Christmas, he said.
You didn’t know me before yesterday, she said.
I had a premonition my life would change this weekend, he said. I knew I’d meet someone special.
The star patterned gold wrapping came off without tearing—the thick paper creased in perfect straight lines and tight angles—signs of the wrapper’s care, likely a professional stationed in one of those basement booths at the department store.
She let the paper fall to the floor, no one recycled back then, and opened the velvet box revealing the glittering brooch, a simple bouquet of a sunflower and a daisy—flowers she associated with girlhood but made womanlike rendered in white sapphires. Her breath caught at the words on the note tucked inside.
I love you.
How long had she been waiting to hear those words and now they were being fumbled on to her by a stranger. A Robert. A man she’d met only yesterday,
You knew you would love me, she asked.
He answered with a kiss, arms encircled bodies, and they tugged back and forth until finally he eased her on to the bear skin rug, fur warm from the fire. And then she felt taken care of, and then he felt like the conductor on a wintry night train bound through long tunnels blasted from pure granite.
Afterward, he grabbed a knit blanket from the leather sectional and covered them up so they could slumber there on the rug, resting until they were awakened by the lover of Cindy or Frasier or Lee who demanded to know why his present had been opened.
I’m terribly sorry, Robert said to Janet.
She looked at him stricken, you said I was someone special.
Tooth Decay I apologize for the lack of poetry But my heart has been caught by, Between my teeth waiting--waiting to Chomp down on this election cycle. I can feel the pounding resonating Through my molars--pounding sensitive gums. I haven't been to the dentist Since this whole thing started, Six month check up supposed to be in May. How many cavities have gone unfilled? And do these tooth tolls matter to the electorate? How about the other ones? I guess we'll find out soon.
The Litter of Our Time The thing about running is There are always things You need to dodge On the sidewalk. Like sometimes it's dead squirrels That have been hit in the road, And I worry when I pass by them I'll step where their blood's dried And carry disease with me to my next destinations. Well, the thing is now When I'm running--the things I find myself dodging most are Various types of PPE-- Masks and gloves discarded on the roadway. I'm not sure how they're left behind.
Home for Christmas? You take it for granted, You shouldn't have taken it for granted That you can always go see your mother And have her hug you And give you a kiss on the lips Like she likes to do. You take it for granted, You shouldn't have taken it for granted That the Fall ushers in time with family. Your annual trip to Gatlinburg, Then Thanksgiving and Christmas. Two eight hour rides to Cincinnati To stay with the aunts And then two eight hour rides back. What'll it be like to put up Those Christmas decorations You've been keeping in a box for years Because you're never in Atlanta for Christmas? Good thing you have two trees Since you're used to so many Filling up the aunts' house. The best one is the tiny one in the guest bedroom Whose twinkled colored lights you fall asleep to. Are you surprised? For years, dread has crept into Your holiday season Because you knew life would someday change That you wouldn't always be a kid. That time is flowing not fixed. Not frozen. You haven't lost much. You might lose more. You're afraid of the risk. Afraid you might compound the problem. This year's season of joy Is a time for sacrifice! And safety! Right?! Right?!
For the first six months of the pandemic, I tried not to think much about what would happen around the holidays. but I’ve started to think about it more over the last couple of weeks, and it’s making me sad.