Venus

She was the only Venus in our neighborhood, in our school, in our town, probably. She was the only Venus I ever knew or will know. She moved in the summer before third grade and by September we were best friends. She got a barbie dream house that year for her birthday so we usually played at her house. Plus her parents were never around.

Venus’ father worked in DC but kept a home office in the fourth bedroom of their house, which had an identical layout to my own. I only saw his office once or twice because the door was always closed when he was in there and locked when he wasn’t. His desk was sprawling and tidy and had one of those clear plastic mats underneath a rolling leather chair. He had a separate phone line and sometimes called downstairs to find out when dinner would be ready.

Venus’ house was heavy in floral and wicker rattan and her living room carpet always had fresh vacuum tracks. They had a microwave and Venus knew how to use it years before my parents thought about buying one. Her little brother, Tommy, was peaches and cream blond like her. He talked with a lisp and was really into Superman. Tommy was either underfoot or holed up in his room with the door closed like his dad. We let Tommy watch Friday the 13th III with us, but he was scared of the bikers (of all things!) and threatened to call their mother at work until we plied him with a bag of Doritos, which he generously shared.

Venus usurped the position of my previous best friend, a fourth grader named Sarah. Sometimes we all played together, though it rarely ended well. When we played Olivia Newton John, Venus got to be Olivia and Sarah got to be Newton because she was also blond, which meant I had to be John. Even though John was the manager, I usually stomped home halfway through. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, my mom explained in her sympathetically exasperated voice.

One time I rode my bike past Sarah’s house and she hung out her bedroom window wearing a long blond wig with bangs. She called out to me with an unusual accent, something like Hey there darlin’. I dismounted my bike and stared up at her in confusion. She explained she was Sarah’s twin cousin visiting from Alabama and had I seen Sarah lately. She didn’t know where she’d got to.

Later that week, I was playing in Venus’ barbie dream house when she plied me with a series of unusually specific questions about Sarah. Did I like her? Did I think she was pretty or smart or mean? When a dull thud sounded from Venus’ closet and she herself didn’t react, I stopped rearranging the plastic bottles in her tiny side-by-side refrigerator and walked over to slide her closet door open. I climbed on top of a suspicious lump in the far corner and heard a muffled Get off!  I pulled the blanket down to find Sarah’s static-cling hair and sweaty, reddened face. It was the closest I’ve ever come to the villain reveal at the end of every Scooby Doo.

Venus and I fought on our own sometimes. There was the great book bag fight of 1982. It started as soon as we got off the bus – over what, I simply cannot remember (isn’t that always the way with book bag fights?).  I do remember how the bus driver lingered at the stop sign long enough that I was sure she was calling the police from her CB. Venus and I both had strawberry shortcake tote bags, but maybe hers had too much weight because she never landed it above my shoulders. The reason I know I won is Venus turned around and ran home just when I was getting warmed up. Her mother came by to tell my mother I beat Venus up with a book bag. My poor mother.  Do you know how satisfying and terrible it feels to land a good slap across someone’s face with a strawberry shortcake book bag?

There was another, non-physical, battle over ownership of a cardboard condominium we both built in Venus’ basement. This is when I learned possession is 9/10s of the law. The law doesn’t care if you hauled most of the boxes through your backyard and across the ravine and then up the big hill by the weeping willow, where you would normally stop to yank a branch and slice it through the air to make that swoosh sound but couldn’t because your arms were full of boxes.

I can tell you Venus’ father wouldn’t have taken my side when I marched over to ring the bell one evening too close to dinnertime and demand my boxes back, even if I hadn’t gotten flustered and said “Can Venus eat?” when he answered the door instead of “Can Venus play?” or whatever my big, brave plan was. At a trim 6’4” with steel gray hair and Nordic good looks, he towered over and unnerved me. He talked to me not like a kid but the pathetic little person I knew myself to be.

“Can she eat?” he said in his booming CEO voice.

“I meant can she come out and play,” I squeaked to his rumbling shudders of laughter.

“No,” he finally managed. “She’s eating dinner.” He slammed the door in my face.

Weeks later – long after Venus and I made up about the cardboard condominium, which was carefully deconstructed and probably recycled – we decided to give her Siamese cat a bath in a kiddie pool. I think Venus was the one who suggested it, but I guess no one wants custody of a bad idea. The cat had a dog name – Lady or Lucky, something like that – and they never had it fixed so for months out of the year it moaned around the house like a half-murdered ghoul.  I went along with her plan to give the cat a bath because it was a hot, boring day and the cat trusted me enough that I could walk over and pick it up. Together, Venus and I hoisted the cat through the air and into the tepid water for maybe half a split second, long enough to turn its beautiful sable coat brackish brown and set off a wave of tortured shrieks.

Venus’ father lit out the front door faster than a cat hightailing it out of a kiddie pool, his round face red and lips snarling curses I’d never heard before.  I stood wide-eyed and frozen until he sent me home, past the weeping willow and across jagged rocks, all without taking a breath.

The last time I saw Venus’ father, his shirt was caked with dried blood and his face that same reddened blur of anger. His normally neat family room was swirling with a slumber party of 10 lively twelve-year old girls. We were celebrating Venus’ birthday and he’d just come back from the emergency room. He’d totaled his Porsche in the early morning hours. There had been another woman, not Venus’ mother, in the car with him. Venus’ mother came in first through a door leading from the garage and, without thinking, I walked over and clicked the lock. It was one of those push-button locks like we had on all the doorknobs at home, which we were never allowed to lock.

I pretended not to hear his knocking, which would have been hard to hear at first over the din of 12-year old girls. Soon no one could ignore the pounding and Venus sprung from the couch to turn the knob and let her father in. Brown blood splattered his otherwise fresh looking oxford shirt, open at the collar. Who locked that door? he demanded. I knew enough to look around the room at the other girls and not at my own feet.

What if I could go back in time to tell kid me that I would one day marry a man not unlike Venus’ father? A tall man with appetites, a demand for order, and commanding voice known to stop underpaid customer service workers in their tracks. What if I told her Venus’ father would be dead from cirrhosis before his first grand child was born, but that no two people are alike, that we are all ordained with the power of choice. We are not even the same people our whole lives. I could tell her big men no longer scare me and I now hold cats with something close to reverence, often sleeping in uncomfortable positions so as to not disturb the one nestled between my legs.

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The Day the Circus Died

In February my husband and I took the kids to the circus. Maybe it’s more honest to say I took myself to the circus and let the family tag along because I’m pretty sure I was the most excited to be there. I grew weepy when they dimmed the arena lights and started the countdown because I knew this was going to be my last circus. Pretty soon it’s going to be everybody’s last circus because Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey is breaking down the tent for the last time later this month.

It left me a little maudlin, this idea of broken tradition and unemployed acrobats and tigers, so I wrote a short story about a future where the circus lives on and Jersey Devil Press ran it in their May edition, dedicated to “the allure of possibilities.”

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Click the image above to read the story

If you missed the last circus in your town, don’t despair because you can watch the very last one – ever – live online on May 21…go here for details.

The Urn

Dear Sylvester Westerlutz,

I hope I have the right person. Your last name is a bit unusual and I found you on google. I’m trying to locate the owner of an urn I stumbled upon while fly fishing in Saddlebag Creek this week. The trout are real specimens this spring…I can’t remember them this big and feisty before. But anyway I noticed something shiny near the edge of the creek and dug out what appears to be an urn with your last name on it. And so I’m wondering if maybe you lost an urn?

Yours truly,
Frank Everhart


Dear Frank

Thank you for your letter. I’m glad to hear fishing is going well this spring. You are correct that it is my urn, though incorrect that I “lost” it. I don’t know how it wound up in Saddlebag Creek as my wife and I last saw it pretty far upstream at Sawbill Creek and that was five winters ago. First we’d meant to sprinkle the ashes in the creek, but I only brought a swiss army tool that proved useless. (Urns are very hard to open.) Then we tried to bury the urn, but the ground was pretty frozen and we hadn’t brought a shovel. I guess we weren’t thinking too clearly. Finally, in a fit of what I now recognize to be temper, I chucked my mother’s urn in the creek. It made a satisfying splash I can still hear in my head. I’m sorry you found her and have to deal with her now. She always was a difficult person. She never could just let things be.

Best,
Sylvester Westerlutz


Dear Sylvester,

I see, or at least I think I do. My own mother is still alive but I don’t think I’ll share this story with her. Or maybe I will. In any event, what shall I do with your mother? Would you like her back?

Frank


Frank,

Throwing Mom in Sawbill Creek was one of the most liberating moments of my life. Prior to that, we’d tried burying her in the backyard next to the birdbath but then the window blind flapped up in the middle of the night and scared the living daylights out of my wife. She insisted it was Mom’s way of telling us she wasn’t happy with her placement, so we moved her over by the hemlock and then it died within the year. It was such a beautiful tree too, such a shame. Then we dug her up and polished the urn and put her on the mantel and that winter the woodstove caught fire and we lost pretty much everything. You might not be able to tell, but even the urn got pretty scorched. We had finally settled with the insurance company and closed on a new place to live when we took the urn down to Sawbill. It was meant to be a final act of closure and honestly, I hadn’t thought of that moment in years. I am not at all sure what to tell you do with Mom. I wonder if you might be able to put her back. I am sorry you have to deal with this.

Sylvester


Dear Sylvester,

I decided to do what you suggested and return your mother to Saddlebag Creek. I brought along my fishing gear and did notice the trout weren’t biting quite like they were last time, though that was probably just coincidence. I dug a pocket in the mud and rocks and sunk your mother’s urn in real good. I don’t think she’ll be going anywhere. The sky had been gray but right at that moment the sun poked through and I thought that was a good sign. It started raining on the way home and I did get a flat tire, but no worries, I had a spare and anyway, it had been awhile since I’d had the practice. I should get cleaned up because it’s Purse Night at bingo and Mother doesn’t like to be kept waiting. I wish you and the wife all the best.

Yours truly,

Frank Everhart

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The bed.

I haven’t slept in the bed since her mother died in it. She knew I knew, but when other people came to visit, she made it up with fresh sheets and I reminisced how gentle and at the same time firm the mattress was and also how at the moment her mother died, tears poured from both eyes. The bed promoted a deep, restful release.

For years, we slept on it at the beach and swept phantom grains of sand from the sheets with our toes, which later throbbed from smacking the baseboard in pitch black. The headboard was soft grey with rounded carvings like the bad luck tiki Bobby found at a construction site in Hawaii. It had sliding doors and secret compartments perfect for imprisoning action figures and Danielle Steele paperbacks. It weighed more than a tiki and only slightly less than an elephant. One night the bed was carefully disassembled, driven 90 blocks, lugged up a flight of stairs and left in a sharp stucco hallway in a silent argument over who should have it. This is how my family fights.

George did all the heavy lifting, grunting with greasy sweat across his barrel chest and pregnant-swollen belly and still in those terrible tan trousers and brown belt, his attempt to dress up even though it was too hot for a shirt. When we got off the elevator after it was all over, he hung back and dropped into a lunge, stretched out both arms and declared I AM STRONG AS AN OX. The elevator doors started to close and bounced back in the way they always do in that perpetually surprised oh are you still here? My brother and I turned our heads to snicker.

One day I will have to disassemble the bed and ask someone (shirtless or not) to help me lug it to the curb for Purple Hearts. I’ll probably sleep on it one last time and wonder if I’ll dream or find relief from these ghosts.

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