Slate and Style The Magazine of the national Federation of the Blind Writers' Division
Editor, Shelley J. Alongi
Alternate email: Queenofbells@outlook.com
Table of Contents Editor's Musings, by Shelley J. Alongi Page 2
Notes from the president, by Myrna Badgerow Page 2
The Tao of the Three Little Pigs, by H. Dair Brown Page 3
The Fairy Choice, by Shawn Jacobson Page 6
Silver Cloud Dancer, by Lynda Lambert Page 12
Let It Snow, by Kerry Elizabeth Thompson Page 13
If I Were a Button Hole, by Jackie Williams Page 22
The Days Are Evil, by Robert Gardner Page 23
Submission Guidelines For Slate and Style Page 29
Join the NFB Writers’ Division Page 31
Note: the beginning of a story/article/poem can be accessed by searching for ***.
by Shelley J. Alongi
as I put the winter issue of Slate and Style together, the Christmas play list is jingling happily on my iPhone. Outside, the crisp night descends upon bare tree branches and piles of fallen leaves littering the dry, lifeless grass. The scent of cinnamon, apple and vanilla drifts with subtlety through the cool, crisp air of the inside dwelling. My assistant editor, Pearl, the black and white cat, lies on the table beside me watching my fingers and probably wishing I would give her food. She helps me put together the variety of stories and poems collected for the magazine.
Winter is trying to descend upon north Texas. It made a decent showing last night evident in the fact that the water in the outside cat bowl froze solid. The outside cats did not freeze. Sunny, the orange and white nine month old cat waited on the metal steps this morning for his daily visit into the house I will soon be vacating to start my adventure as a roommate. While working on writing projects and music for two church jobs I will look for a house to rent and then to buy.
December has been all about packing boxes and decorating and keeping the world from crashing in upon me. So far, so good! In the middle of all these neatly organized boxes and hungry, healthy cats I have been reading through the contest winners and new submissions on a variety of subjects: faeries, the contemplations of an aging man, the ethereal flight of silver clouds, a nostalgic trip through a life as seen from the perspective of a button hole. We begin with some helpful thoughts on how to respond to not always positive criticism to your work, take a pause for some reflections and to play with some dragons, and end with the aging contemplations.
While you write out Christmas or other holiday cards, watch the lights on your tree, or just enjoy a quiet evening, enjoy this rich offering from creative minds. Enjoy and keep dreaming!
Notes from the President
by Myrna Duprè Badgerow
Welcome to our 2017 Winter Issue of Slate & Style!
First of all, I would like to welcome our newest board member, Barbara Hammel, and to thank her for accepting the position. She will be a wonderful asset as we move forward.
The 2018 Writing Contest will be soon upon us. I am very pleased to say that we are finalizing the dates and needed information for the contest. Look for the announcement of dates, fees, guidelines, and other information in the coming weeks.
In closing, I must again thank the members of the board and the members of the division for their support as I continue on this new journey as president of the Writers' Division.
The tao of the Three Little pigs: Don't let an inner critic huff, puff, and blow your work Down
By H. Dair Brown
(From the edditor: reprinted from The Writer Magazine, October 10, 2017. To receive more articles like this by email, sign up at writermag.com.) I've always been a huge fan of the story, “The Three Little Pigs”. I'm hardly alone in this, of course. If you were to ask the average person to tell you a story especially a children's story he or she is probably going to think of “The Three Little Pigs” first. And there is a reason for that. It has all the key pieces of a good story, which is why it's so easy to remember. It has a poor, sympathetic pig, and a smart, hardworking pig who is stuck looking out for foolish siblings. It has a clear, but complex, villain -- Yes, the wolf is trying to eat our protagonist, but wolves gotta eat, too, am I right?
Tell me you've never used some version of "not by the hair of my chinny chin chin" or "I'll huff and puff and I'll blow your house down" in a joke in your life.
A steady rise in tension: Down go houses one and two!
Will the third house hold? Will our pig(s) survive? The little brick house survives the wolf's assault.
a satisfying conclusion: Our pig(s) living happily ever after, safe at last.
you know, talking animals. Always fun. Because it's such a solid story, there are so many versions of it out there.
A quick search of your favorite bookseller will yield a myriad of traditional versions for you to choose from. You can read the exact same story that has been popular since at least at mid-19th century again and again with your choice of tone. Do you want an ominous version? A whimsical version? A heart-warming version? They're all out there to choose from, and nearly every approach in between. In addition, there are a host of newer takes on the story, which employ at least one small twist, if not a completely fresh angle. Most choose to swap out the pigs and the wolf for new characters. Pigs become ninja pigs or fish or aliens or gators or tamales or even little wolves. The wolf becomes a shark or a robot or a big-bottomed boar or a big bad pig. In a particularly funny version by Jon Scieszka, you're given the wolf's side of the story. (A must read.) And, that's writing in a nutshell. This story has been done a thousand times.
Everyone's heard it. Everyone knows roughly how it's going to end. And yet there's plenty of room for new takes on "The Three Little Pigs." If "The Three Little Pigs" can be made fresh and appealing over and over again, how much more room is there for the boilerplate story in your genre to be retold anew thanks to your vision, your voice. Our "tale has even more to teach us about writing, however. For this lesson, we must go into the story itself.
I have someone in my life who is often highly critical of me and tends to belittle me in small and big ways. Unfortunately, I can't just walk away from this person. Also? They mean well. They really do. No two-dimensional villains here. Trying to figure out how exactly to live with this person in my life while simultaneously forging my own path and generally enjoying my life has been a struggle.
Recently, I was thinking about an impending visit with this person. Experience told me that it was likely to be an uncomfortable visit, especially given the current political climate. As writers are prone to do, I had a flash of an imagined moment. In this scene in my mind, this person was antagonizing and criticizing me in increasingly confrontational ways. Ordinarily, this would lead me to either engage and fight back (especially in my younger years) or to defuse and appease and avoid for peace's sake since my kids have arrived). But in this imagined moment, I saw myself calmly listening to this person's bluster, and when I tired of it, I simply said, "You can huff and puff all you want, but you're not going to blow this house down.”
I realized that all the work that I had been putting into nurturing my own vision of what I want my life to be like, what I want to be like, was finally paying off in ways I hadn’t realized. Perhaps I was living in emotional houses made of straw or sticks in my younger days. Or maybe I wasn't. Maybe I was always building my brick house, and I didn't know it. It just took a while to stack the bricks and finish the roof.
In the past, I believed that all those coping strategies I've tried over the years had been unproductive and futile, "epic fails" as my kids would say. But maybe what I didn't know is that all those efforts were bricks. And without realizing it, I had been using them to build myself a solid little home for my spirit. I'd created a metaphorical place where I was both comfortable and safe to pursue my own dreams and happiness. All while that big bad wolf was huffing and puffing and taking little nibbles. And here's the thing: Your inner critic is just like this person in my life.
The truth is, while that inner critic is often quite nasty and wolf-like, it's just doing its thing, doing what it believes it was put here to do (like, say, a wolf just grabbing some dinner). What makes it infinitely worse, though, is that your inner critic thinks it's just looking out for you. It believes it has your best interests at heart. But you must not listen to it. And, unfortunately, try as you may, you will never be able to oust this inner critic from your story. It has a permanent residency in your creative life, like it or not. This is one big bad wolf that will never run off into the sunset with a sore bottom or be boiled up in a pot. But you, by getting up every day (or every other weekend or for one glorious blitz for two weeks in the summer, whenever your writing happens for you) and nurturing your creativity, by putting words down on the page, you are stacking another brick. You build a little more of your tiny sanctuary. Inside that sturdy little cottage (or cabin or loft or midcentury minimalist mansion on a hill overlooking the ocean), you can create all you want, safe from that big bad wolf, the inner critic. And in this safe place, you can stand inside and say, "You can huff and puff all you want. You’re not going to blow this little house down.” Because you will know that inside this space, built with your efforts in the face of constant opposition, your whole self is free to do your work. Counterintuitively, you will work to offer a piece of yourself to the world, like a gift. And as Emerson tells us: "Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself."
The rest of us need you to live happily ever after, bringing forth the words that only you can give the world. Because no matter how many times we've read similar stories, yours is new. Yours is the one we've been waiting for.
The Faerie Choice by Shawn Jacobson
(From the editor: Shawn Jacobson was born in Ames Iowa in 1959. He was born totally blind, but had several eye operations and is now partially sighted—magnifying glass blind. He attended school at the Iowa School for the blind before graduating from Marshalltown High School. Shawn went on to attend Iowa State University where he received a BA in Political Science and an MS in Statistics. Shawn has worked for the Federal Government as a statistician for more than 30 years. He has worked on the Consumer Price Index and the Occupational Safety and Health surveys and now works for The Department of Housing and Urban Development. Shawn mostly writes science fiction, though he dabbles in poetry, non-fiction, and book reviews. Shawn has had material published in Slate and Style, Magnets and Ladders, Breath and Shadow, Future Reflections, and Bewildering Stories. He lives in Olney, MD with his wife Cheryl, son Stephen, and an ever increasing pack of dogs. His daughter Zebe lives on her own in Baltimore.) Once back in the day, one of our professors theorized that faeries led cattle to higher ground before thunderstorms so they wouldn’t drown. Rather than keeping this idea to himself, as good sense would suggest to anyone sane, he wrote a letter to the editor of the largest newspaper in the state.
Well, you can guess what happened. Everyone from the alumni association to the campus Bible study got up in arms about it. Some alumni said the letter was an embarrassment to the university. Some people thought it was evidence of the decline of rational thought, a sign of degeneration and imminent doom. Still others said it just proved that these academic types lived in a world of their own and needed their heads aired out, preferably by a psychoanalyst.
The whole thing climaxed when a regent’s meeting, originally called to discuss dorm fees, was hijacked by the various intellectual combatants. The result was a shouting match where the usual people said the usual things about academic freedom, scientific inquiry, and public good. At least, that’s what my older brother, who claimed to be there, said.
Eventually, the whole affair was eclipsed by the next scandal. I believe it had something to do with steroids. It was decided by sophisticated folk that having a genuine nutty professor around added some character to the university making it more than just another cow college. In a rational world, this would have been the end of the matter. Yet, with the funky persistence of fish odor, the letter lived on taking its place in urban legend.
It should have surprised no one that mad Merrill would have gravitated to the letter. Don’t get me wrong, the man was a certifiable genius. Had he not been certifiable in other ways, he might have been teaching at someplace like MIT, someplace important. You could not call him crazy, you don’t use that word for a genius. Instead, folk in the know used words like “eccentric”, “unorthodox”, and “maverick”, to describe his work. It surprised me not at all that he had developed a way to test the theory at the heart of old Dr. Griffin’s letter by seeking out the realm of faery. What surprised me was that I became part of the quest for this knowledge.
For that I have Tim to thank.
“Hay Joe,” he said, “you’re into fantasy and all that stuff. Why don’t you come to Dr. Merrill’s office with me and here about his new experiment; I promise you’ll be blown away.”
I’d talked to Tim about my graduate work in the English department. The point of my thesis was that space aliens were the faerie folk of the technological age. The work was too good, and too fun, to be true. Best of all, I could read authors like Gaimen, Bradburry, and Swanwick and tell my mom that it was for my school work. I had no idea that my work would get me out here, literally in the field, to play with a bunch of other crazies as a truly terrifying storm moved above us.
“Hello,” a voice boomed breaking my reverie. “What you guys doing?”
“Science,” replied Dr. Merrill, “very important research.”
“Same here,” replied the voice, “we’re storm hunting. We heard that there was a big one just north of Boone, a twister, maybe half a mile wide. We’re checking it out. We should get some great data and some awesome photos; real front-page stuff.”
“Good luck,” replied Dr. Merrill as the storm chasers drove off.
“No one left but us fools,” commented Dr. Jones, the campus skeptic.
“So,” replied Dr. Merrill, “are you including yourself in our illustrious company?”
“Hey,” the skeptic replied, “I got to see this. I might even write an article about it in my newsletter. I’ve just finished a piece about Baptists who think that God will protect their church from lightning, so they don’t need lightning rods; I might be able to put together a special issue. I could call it ‘Wackies VS Wild Weather’.”
“He’s such a good writer” chimed in Amanda, his assistant. “His peace on Dr. Goode the psychic and the radio in his ear was a classic.”
“I’m sure it was” replied Tim as he scurried about hooking up Dr. Merrill’s various arcane machines doing marvels with tape, clamps, pliers and other tools that would have made Merlin green with envy. “If it ever comes out in Braille, I’ll have to read it.”
Tim made the last connection putting together a mess that would have fit into Dr. Frankenstein’s yard sale. The main piece in all of this was the electron flipper, a gismo that looked like an oversized grill with connections to a lot of other stuff, a generator, a range finder, and a bunch of other contraptions that I didn’t understand.
Dr. Merrill had explained it to Tim and me the previous week. Dr. Merrill had explained that spinning an electron once got you an upside-down electron. You had to spin it again to get it pointing in its original direction. He theorized that there was an alternate reality where the electron was right side up after one spin. This, he theorized, was where Dr. Griffin’s faeries might live.
I pulled myself back to the moment and fired up the computer. “You’re a magician out there,” I said to Tim as I invoked a wizard to connect the computer to the range finder.
“It’s engineering,” he replied, “the best damned magic in the world.” He sat down and asked in a shaky voice “could you hand me a drink? I’ve always been willing to do anything for someone who will give a blind guy a chance; however, with the weather report from the storm chasers, I wish we had picked a less impressive storm.” Tim seemed worried that I wouldn’t be the only one blown away by Dr. Merrill’s experiment; after all, this was cyclone country.
As I invoked the powers in the computer to align the system, Dr. Merrill and his assistant Beth discussed all manner of cutting-edge stuff that I didn’t understand. Where the physics left off and the occult began I couldn’t tell, so I contemplated Clarke’s law, that any sufficiently advanced, or weird, science is indistinguishable from magic.
“The system’s ready for testing,” I said finishing with the computer wizards.
“We’re ready here,” Dr. Merrill said as I pointed the field projector, a contraption that looked like a cannon, capped by a magnifying glass, at an empty stretch of field.
“Testing it now,” I replied as I clicked the start icon. A droning sound, like a hive of disturbed hornets, arose and something that wasn’t light began to gather at the target. Suddenly, a patch of strangeness appeared about thirty feet in front of the projector. The black thunderheads that had been wallowing across the sky looked even darker viewed through the, whatever it was, than they had before.
“We’re drilling right into the astral plane!” cried Dr. Merrill with profoundly mad joy.
“Looks empty to me,” Dr. Jones replied, “it looks like the faeries are staying in where it’s dry.”
Suddenly a bolt of lightning lit up the sky on the other side of the darkness. The new territory seemed to act as a prism breaking the light into a fearful spectrum that also expressed the darker colors of the rainbow, a sight more awfully wondrous than beautiful.
“You can turn that off now,” Dr. Jones said with a voice trembling with awe, or perhaps with fear.
I played around with direction and field width to make sure I know how the controls worked. Then, to Dr. Jones relief, I clicked the connection to the field generator off.
“Be on the lookout for strange behavior from the cows,” admonished Dr. Merrill as Tim went back to checking the connections and I made sure everything worked. The sky continued to darken. Clouds with great black distended bellies full of rain crowded a sky that felt ten months pregnant with a storm; I was sure that the water would break at any minute.
Ironically, it was Tim who noticed something happening. “Hay folks!” he exclaimed, “the cattle sure sound upset.”
“OK, turn it on!” yelled the physicist. I hastily fumbled with the keys to get maximum width and tried judging how far it was to the milling herd. I hit start and gasped.
The droning began once more and the preternatural dark was back, but this time it wasn’t empty; beings, faeries I suppose, flitted about the cattle using prods, or were they wands, to get the attention of the beasts and to move them towards a low hill in the middle distance; it seemed to be working.
As for the, well call them faeries for want of a better word, they were small, I’d say between six inches and a foot tall with iridescent wings; they shimmered against the bizarre darkness. The ones herding the cows seemed dressed like cowboys as envisioned by Disney; the one supervising, the faerie queen I called her for it was definitely a she, was not dressed at all as if clothes would not dare trespass upon the golden beauty of her body.
“The next time you run this,” Professor Jones quipped striving to stifle the reverence in his voice “you should get a grant from Playboy to study nymphs.”
“I don’t think this is going in any skeptic’s magazine,” muttered Tim.
I continued to scan the scene, the weird cattle drive, the rationalist learning how strange reality could be, the academic discussion between Dr. Merrill and Beth, and the high weirdness before us.
The faerie queen then turned; it seemed she was looking directly at me saying “I at least thought you had enough sense to come in out of the rain.”
Suddenly, thunder blasted through the gravid air with a sound like the world being sundered and torrential rain slammed down from the sky. We were instantly soaked.
People have asked me what happened after the rain started, and I walked into faerie. My parents want to know just what made me serious about my work, making more of an impression than years of parental admonishment. The scientists who were there want to know if I was as intimate with the faerie queen as it appeared, and reporters wanted just to know as much as they could.
My experience in faerie is hard to comprehend and harder still to describe. For one thing, when I reached the other side, the darkness gave way to light and the realm I left fell into shadow. Also, the faerie folk suddenly were of human size while my erstwhile companions suddenly became small and faerie beautiful.
So, what do I remember? I remember walking, under some volition other than mine, into the darkness. I remember being told and shown many things. I remember the embrace of gossamer wings and the feeling of indescribable affection. I remember the actinic fireball that was shot into the sky by the electron flipper’s death agony, and being cast back into reality when mad Merrill’s contraptions burned in the conflagration that brought the authorities out to break up our little field experiment. However, I have never been able to give justice to just what happened.
Tim was the first person to hear a coherent version of the tale along with the fair folk’s message. This might have had something to do with being drunk, perhaps that breaks down some of the berries, or maybe that the time had come for the message from faerie to be made clear, I really don’t know.
“You’re not going to let them tell us how to live?” Tim asked. “Please say you won’t.”
“I don’t think I can make that decision for everyone,” I said. “I think we all have a say. This may, or may not, be good, but it’s how it is.”
“I’m not going to let them control me!” said Tim raising his voice. “You may think it’s OK to have the faeries run things for us, but I can’t stand the idea. I’ve been in the Braille school for thirteen years having people decide everything for me, like I couldn’t think for myself, and, let me tell you, that was God’s plenty. I’m not going back, not willingly, not without a fight, not if I can help it at all.”
He turned toward where he heard the bartender who was talking to folk halfway down the bar.
“Another beer for me and my friend,” he said in a too-loud voice.
“You really don’t think you have much to worry about,” I said trying to calm him down, “that people are just going to relinquish control to the fair folk? No one I know would choose such a thing.”
The bartender interrupted taking our order doubtfully, as if he were thinking of cutting us off; I couldn’t say I blamed him.
“I wish I were that certain,” continued Tim echoing some of my own secret fears, “but I see so many people who are so busy and talk about how they wish they could get some rest, cast their cares on someone else, get out from under all the responsibilities they have as if there weren’t people in the world who would die for their busy life. Maybe they would think that the faeries would solve all their problems. Thinking for your self is a lot harder than just being a sheep and if you don’t know what that’s like you might think it’s not half bad to live that way.”
“Then,” Tim continued, “there are people who would gladly sacrifice their freedom to make sure that other people were protected from themselves. They’d just be happy to have faeries run things for everyone’s good, or the public good, or, I can’t talk about it anymore, it just makes me sick.”
“Damn,” I said “I’d not thought of that. You might be right.”
And so, I embark on a new quest, one even more vital than any search for a new plane of reality, a quest to save us from ourselves and the fair folk alike. To do this, I must spread the word and the warning from those in the other side of reality. For the fair folk love us in their own way, humans and beasts alike. They realize that the beasts must be led and protected, that they cannot think for themselves. But humans are supposed to be smarter, to know what we are doing. They have always assumed our intelligence, but how we have behaved has caused them to doubt their presumption of our wisdom; so they wonder if we are not more like the beasts than they have thought. And so, my quest, which I share with you, is to prove that we can live wisely, that we have more good sense than the beasts.
And so, I pass along to you what the fair folk have told me. “Be careful in what you do and let wisdom guide your way. And most of all, don’t be stupid.”
Silver Cloud Dancer
by Lynda Lambert
(From the editor: This poem took second place in the 2017 writing contest. Lynda Lambert is a frequent contributor to Slate and style. She also publishes in other magazines.) Silver clouds swirl and thin in circles
Inflated silence above her golden head. She
Levitates above the floor, reaches for
Variable visions of mesmerizing cloud-pillows.
Eternally drifiting in uncertain lifecycles
Round and square. Touch the floating orb.
Cloud dancer stretches her slender hands
Longevity is unpredicatable, uncertain
Out-of-the-box survivor fluctuates
Determined by chemistry and chaos.
Dance your memories in silver clouds
Air and pure helium lift in rhythm
Noone can calculate your journeys Choriography of individual flights
Every Friday morning new clouds arive
Repeat the process of new expectations
Some silver clouds last for the week. Some less.
Let It Snow
by Kerry Elizabeth Thompson
(From the editor: this story takes place on the afternoon and evening of the same day as “Deck the Halls,” which earned Honorable Mention in the 2009 National Federation of the Blind Writers Division Fiction Contest. Allen helped Felicity put up the tree in an episode of the Dragon Christmas saga which has not appeared in this magazine.) After the excitement of decorating the tree, I stole some alone time in the shower. Refreshed and, as I imagined, ready for whatever else the day might have in store, I started downstairs Wearing jeans, a turtleneck sweater and fuzzy, pink slippers, damp hair wrapped in a towel. A few fluffy snowflakes drifted by the window as I passed.
I paused on the stairs at the sound of voices from the living room, heart sinking. Who were the dragons talking to so animatedly? Maybe I should go back and use the hair dryer and put on shoes.
But, as the old saying has it, he who hesitates is lost. Just as I turned and raised my foot to step up, Vincent's cheerful voice called from behind me, "She's right here!"
Turning again I hissed, "Vincent, who are you talking to?"
Looking over the banister, towel turban and fuzzy slippers forgotten, I smiled.
"Sorry for not calling first,” he said, advancing towards the foot of the stairs. “I was out, and decided on the spur of the moment to stop by and see how you were getting on with the tree.”
“Don’t you have a car phone?” Winsome asked from atop the newel post.
Allen shook his head.
“’Fraid not. My sister keeps telling me I need one…”
"That's OK," I said, and remembered to walk down the stairs. AT the bottom, I held out my hand awkwardly. Allen wasn't exactly handsome, but he looked like what he was, pleasant, intelligent and kind. And, there was something comforting about his presence that had nothing to do with his 6' 4" height. I was, as my mother would say, quite taken with him. But you can’t show that sort of thing! So, naturally, I ended up being awkward as a schoolgirl.
But Allen seemed to find nothing amiss in my appearance or behavior. Shaking hands he said, "The dragons have been showing me the tree. I'm surprised you got it done already. That's a big tree."
I managed to Turn my giggle into a cough as I steered him towards the living room.
“Er, yes, it is a big tree," I said, "as you and Steve certainly know. I’m not sure we thanked you properly last night for putting it up."
He shrugged, seating himself in the chair I gestured to.
"My pleasure. It looks great," he continued. "I hear you had a spot of bother, as the Brits would say, with the tinsel garlands." He sprang to his feet, crossing to lean over me.
"Felicity, are you all right?"
Lying back against the couch and laughing helplessly, I gave a feeble wave of my fingers.
"One of you get, er, your mother a glass of water," he said sternly. "And the other better tell me about that garland."
Vincent brought the water and watched me sip at it, fluttering over my head in agitation.
Winsome gave the sideways squirm that was the dragon equivalent of a shrug.
"We told you, Allen,” he said. We wound it around the tree, but we didn't do it right, so Mama asked us to take it down again. That's all. I don't know why she's laughing so hard."
I recovered sufficiently to say, "What Winsome says is true. But, goodness me, I wish I'd had a video camera." I took another drink of water. "I'll try to tell you about it another time.”
Allen looked from me to the hovering dragons and back. He gave me a thumbs up before returning to his chair. He settled back comfortably, stretching out his long legs in front of the fireplace.
Something caught the corner of my eye. I looked towards the window to see larger snowflakes, falling in a much more businesslike way than before. Turning back to my guest, my gaze went past him to the fireplace and I said at exactly the same moment as Winsome, "Why don't we build a fire!"
"That sounds like a good idea," Allen said gravely, but his eyes twinkled.
Vincent squealed and wriggled in excitement.
"A fire? C’mon, Winsome. Let's go get the wood!"
They flew off.
Allan made to rise.
"Can they manage?"
I finished my water and set down the glass.
"Oh, yes. They're not large, but they're strong and determined. The firewood's stacked in the garage. They can get it.”
I coughed apologetically.
“Actually, would you mind laying and lighting the fire? I don’t like to encourage their incendiary tendencies.”
He gave me that warm smile that made me feel as though nothing could go seriously wrong ever again.
He busied himself with kindling and crumpled newspaper. He inspected the logs the dragons brought him, pronounced them sound, and finished his preparations.
Standing up to reach for the matches on the mantel shelf, he caught sight of the window’s reflection in the mirror over the fireplace and gave a start. But he said only, "The snow's very pretty, isn't it? Today's a good day for a fire." And he crouched down again to light it.
When it was going well, I suggested he move his car into the garage.
"Thanks. I'd appreciate that," he said.
"Sorry not to have thought of it sooner," I replied and called to the dragons. "Bring Allen's things and take the broom and dustpan brush so you can help him clean the snow off his car, please."
"Sure," they said and Vincent flew off towards the kitchen while Winsome brought Allen his ski jacket and stocking cap.
I too stood up.
"If you gentlemen will excuse me," I said, "While you're doing that, I need to go upstairs for a few moments. Allen, the dragon's can take you out through the garage." I wound Vincent's muffler around his neck and watched, smiling, as he and Winsome shepherded our guest out.
Upstairs, I kicked out of slippers and into loafers on the way through my bedroom to the bathroom. Unwinding the turban, I toweled and brush my hair vigorously and then pulled it into a ponytail. I scowled at my reflection. Despite being able to play the piano, change a tire or a sparkplug and knit, I'd never been able to do anything with my hair beyond stick a headband in it or pull it into a pony tail. Neither style was particularly flattering.
Not that you have anything to flatter, I thought morosely.
Sighing, I switched off the light.
I arrived downstairs in time to hear Vincent proposing cocoa.
“That would be very nice,” Allen said. “Do you need me to help?”
“Oh, no. You’re company, and company doesn’t have to help,” Vincent replied indignantly.
“Except with Christmas trees and fires,” Winsome put in.
Vincent glared at him.
“C’mon,” he huffed, and they flew into the kitchen.
“They’re adorable,” Allen said, looking after them with a smile.
“They are. Can’t imagine what I did without them.” I hesitated. “Even though you’re company and company doesn’t have to help, would you help me choose Christmas records?”
Following me to the den, he made a beeline for the record shelves. He flipped expertly through the LPs, humming to himself.
A few moments later, he stepped back, cradling several record albums, as Vincent’s voice floated in.
“Mama! Come quick. We’ve got an emu Jen see!”
“Coming sweetheart,” I called back.
“Sounds like the end of the world,” he commented as we headed back to the living room.
“It always does. It never has been yet, but I live in perpetual expectation of the final trumpet.”
I left him to wrestle with the stereo and hurried to the kitchen. Since nothing and nobody was on fire, I relaxed somewhat.
“So, what’s the problem, guys?”
“We’re all out of Ready Whip,” the dragons chorused. They looked like Christmas had been canceled.
“Not to worry,” I assured them. “We have just the thing.”
Opening an upper cabinet, I produced a bag of mini marshmallows.
“These will be perfect for our cocoa.”
They crowded close to look, eyes gleaming with curiosity and doubt.
“Marshmallows,” I said firmly. “You’ll love ‘em. “
Fortunately, they did.
The afternoon slipped by contentedly, toasting marshmallows, singing along with the stereo, and playing Chinese checkers. It seemed to me, watching him, that Allen belonged as though he were filling a space left just for him in our lives. After a couple of hours, he even offered to put up the Christmas tree lights and the tinsel garlands. If that experience didn’t put him off me and my dragons, nothing would. But he seemed to enjoy himself as much as we did.
Just before five o’clock Winsome said, “It’s almost suppertime.”
“Well, in that case, I ought to be going,” Allen said reluctantly.
But the dragons weren’t going to let him leave as easily as that.
“Can’t you stay for supper?”
“Please stay for supper, Allen. We’re having veggie burgers.”
“And Boston cream pie!”
Although Allen explained that he had to go home even though he liked veggie burgers and Boston cream pie Winsome pulled back a curtain and called, “ Besides, it’s still snowing. Come see.”
The light of the street lamp showed perhaps six inches of fresh snow, over which the falling flakes danced in the wind, swirling and gusting in a mesmerizing ballet, producing the sort of conditions the Weather Service advises against driving in.
Allen didn’t seem at all put out.
“That’s some snowstorm,” he observed. “Looks like I won’t be going anywhere for a while, doesn’t it?”
I caught the twinkle in his eye as the dragons eagerly agreed.
“It’s a good thing I live alone,” he continued. “If I had a pet, a kitty, say—“
“Or a parakeet?” Vincent asked. He had seen one in the pet shop, and ever since I’d been fighting the inevitable.
“Or a parakeet,” Allen nodded, “I’d have to get home somehow to take care of it, feed it and such. But, luckily, there’s no hungry critter at home waiting for supper.”
Vincent said earnestly, “That’s a very good thing!”
“So, you’ll stay?” Winsome asked.
Allen raised his hands in surrender.
“I’ll stay, I’ll stay. Until your mama throws me out anyhow.”
He smiled at me. I returned the smile rather foolishly.
“She wouldn’t do that!” Winsome exclaimed.
“Not in a snowstorm,” Vincent agreed. “Mama’s a very nice person!”
“Vincent!” I interposed in embarrassment.
“She certainly is,” Allen said warmly.
“I have an idea,” he added, beckoning the dragons close and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial murmur. “How’s about we get supper and let Mama rest?”
This suggestion proving popular, over my halfhearted objections I found myself alone in the living room. It all seemed so comfortable and right; the stormy evening, the roaring fire, the lit Christmas tree, the appetizing aromas from the kitchen, Allen laughing with the dragons as though he’d known them all their lives. Eventually, of course, the snow would stop, and he’d had to leave. For now, though, I was thoroughly content.
When they called me, I paused on the threshold, surveying their handiwork. In the center of the table stood two red candles in holly candleholders. The paper napkins had been rolled and placed in matching holly napkin rings. The table was perfectly set for four. An unexpected lump rose in my throat.
“Looks lovely, guys,” I said, moving to my place.
The tranquility didn’t last long, the cause of controversy being, of all things, a veggie burger.
Rather than cutting up and pouring dressing on his lettuce and tomato, Allen laid them on his burger before topping it with the upper bun and taking a bite. The dragons’ eyes became big and luminous with surprise.
“Lettuce and tomato?”
“On a veggie burger?”
I continued eating calmly, but Allen choked. When he recovered he said, “Sure. Why not?”
“You don’t put lettuce and tomato on veggie burgers,” Winsome declared.
“I do,” Allen said, and gamely took another bite. The dragons spluttered, but couldn’t think of anything else to say. When he had swallowed and taken a deliberate drink of milk, Allen said, “It’s like pizza.”
“Huh?” Winsome dropped a fry into his Russian dressing and Vincent paused in mid-bite of burger. .. “What’s like pizza?
“Well, different people like different toppings on their pizza. Some like pepperoni, some green pepper and onion, or sausage and mushroom, or plain cheese. Are you with me?”
They nodded. I nodded too since Vincent glanced at me to be sure I was paying attention. “Burgers are much the same,” Allen went on. Some people put ketchup on them, some put mayonnaise.”
“Mayonnaise? On a burger?”
Allen continued as if he hadn’t heard.
“Some like a slice of onion, or a slice of tomato. I’m a tomato man, myself, and sometimes I add lettuce too. It’s very good.”
I laughed. Seemed I did that a lot around Allen.
Though the dragons still looked dubious, they ate thoughtfully, giving no signs of frazzling their fries or boiling their milk. I counted it a successful meal.
When everyone belonged to the Clean Plate Club and the dishes had been cleared away, we decided to have our pie in the living room.
“You two go take care of the music,” I said. “Allen and I can handle the pie.” The dragons flew off, discussing CDs.
I set the pie on the counter before saying diffidently, “You’re good with them, very patient.”
He held out a plate to receive a slice of pie.
“I’m crazy about them.”
He set the plate on the tray.
“They’re crazy about you, too,” I assured him cutting another slice with a shaking hand.
“Their Mama isn’t chopped liver either,” he observed. The corners of his mouth twitched.
I put down the pie server.
“Thanks. You’re not bad yourself, I returned, trying for flippancy. It was no use. Might as well make a fool of myself and get it over with.
“I, er, I enjoy being with you,” I said hesitantly.
“I’m glad to hear that,” he said, smiling his wonderful smile. I enjoy being with you too.”
Incredulously, I felt him draw me to him, felt my arms slip about his neck.
“I don’t usually kiss on the first date,” he murmured, “but I’ll make an exception for you.”
My mind stuttered and stopped. He was going to kiss me. This sweet, wonderful man was going to kiss me.
Then Winsome called, “What’s taking you so long, Mama?”
Allen laughed softly, pressing his cheek to mine.
“I guess that’s how it is when there are kids around,” he said, “or dragons.”
He squeezed me.
“Rain check?” he asked.
“Rain check,” I replied faintly.
“Next time I come over, I’ll bring some mistletoe,” he said.
If I Were a Button Hole
by Jackie Williams
(From the editor: this poem took third place in the 2017 Writers' Division contest.) If I were a button hole, I might choose
to travel down your flannel hunting shirt.
I would be with you, holding you close
as you hiked through the woods;
to be that small one at the top
of your dress shirt, so you needed help
to get it closed, your tie done right;
to be the ones that your cufflinks pushed through
to show my loving gift to you
something you would never buy yourself;
to be the fancy embroidered ones down my satin long-sleeved blouse
you loved to unbutton without a fumble;
to be the fortified one on my jeans that told me
whether I had gained or lost an inch around
my aging waistline. Oh, those tight black jeans.
(From the editor: The Days are Evil took second place in the 2017 NFB Writers' contest. Robert is a retired mechanical engineer. He has held several NFB positions including chapter president and Illinois state board member. He currently lives with his wife in Illinois.) Ephesians 5:16
Make the most of your time, for the days are evil
“Do you need another brandy?” Lillian asked him, not looking up from her book.
“It’s metaxa,” Harold said.
Never raising her head, Lillian turned a page. “Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Well, sort of,” Harold mumbled. He glanced at his wife across the table, the two of them sitting at an outdoor café in as much shade as they were able to find. Lillian, he thought dully, was as gray-haired, as jowly and double-chinned as himself. She hunched there, head down, studying several reference texts along with a collection of guidebooks. In the heat of midday, Harold wiped the sweat off his forehead, thinking the two of them sat there like a couple of toads. Then, unable to stop himself, he let his gaze slide to the four young women who had just settled down several tables away.
“Can you order me another iced tea?” Lillian asked him, flipping a page.
“You want the peach-flavored?”
“Parakalo?” he threw out at a waiter scurrying by. The so-called cafe was nothing more than a handful of tables set alongside the ancient, narrow twisting street there at the base of the Acropolis. Like all the other alley-like streets in the district, this one had been blocked off to automobile traffic, allowing it now to be filled with a constant crush of humanity visiting the shops, the tavernas, and the cafes. The waiter paused and Harold used English to order the iced tea, adding another metaxa with ice for himself.
“I find the history of the Elgin Marbles in this guidebook to be simplistic -- and even misleading,” his wife said.
“Yeah?” Harold replied without any real interest. He knew the story. Well, somewhat anyway. He continued to surreptitiously eye the four girls.
“Listen to this,” Lillian said. “‘Seeing the neglect and decay on the priceless sculptures of the Parthenon,’” she read, “’Lord Elgin negotiated with the local authorities in 1801 to have the treasures removed to the safety of the British Museum.’”
Harold only half-listened. The four young women, all in their late teens or early twenties, were probably Americans also, he thought, catching bits of their conversation. The girls chirped, smiling and giggling, their eyes bright, their hair glossy. Harold returned his gaze to his wife across the table, but his eyes soon swerved back to the young women. He sighed, mopping the sweat again off his forehead, even more aware now of his baldness, his paunch, the glasses that had slid down his nose.
Lillian, her head still down in her guidebook, gave out a huffing sound. “That hardly describes what really happened to the Marbles,” she said. “Elgin bribed the Turks in power, then hired an Italian to saw the sculptures off the friezes and pediments.” She snorted. “And Elgin didn’t give them to the British Museum, he sold them to the British Museum.”
Harold shifted his gaze back to his wife. He sipped at the remains of his metaxa, the odd-flavored, almost-brandy liquor. “The guy stole them, fair and square,” he said with a small grin.
“If you’re trying to be humorous,” Lillian said acidly, “you’re really just being sophomoric.” She slapped aside another page. “Like so many British of his time,” she went on, “Elgin was a scoundrel, raping and pillaging the weak of the world. One of those ‘saving the treasures of antiquity by taking them back to Mother England.’”
“Other Europeans did the same thing,” Harold murmured. “Americans, too.”
Lillian snorted again. “Yes, and they called themselves aristocrats. But they were all nothing more than a bunch of thieves and rapists.”
The waiter returned with their drinks. “Ah,” the man said with a thick accent, eyeing the guidebooks, “you are enjoying the Plaka here, yes?”
“Yeah,” Harold said, reaching for his new metaxa. With disappointment he counted three tiny ice cubes in his drink. God, he thought, they were so energy conscious here. Even ice cubes were practically rationed.
“You are Americans, yes?” the waiter asked.
“Yeah,” Harold said.
The waiter, fortyish and potbellied, smiled. “I lived in Detroit for five years. Damn right.”
“Is that so?”
Harold took a sip of his new drink, feeling awkward in what was turning out to be a conversation with the man.
The waiter continued to stand there, peering at the guidebooks. “You are going to the Acropolis, yes? The Parthenon, yes?”
“Yeah,” Harold said with resignation.
Lillian kept her head down, ignoring the both of them.
“Do you need directions?” the waiter asked. “I was once those who guided the English tourists on the Acropolis. Damn right.”
“We should be okay,” Harold said. “We’ve been here before.”
The waiter switched his attention to Lillian. “I brought a glass for madam. For the tea. Would you like me to pour?”
“Yes, of course,” she said distractedly, never looking up.
Harold watched the waiter open the tea, it in an aluminum pop-top can, just like a can of beer or soda back in the States. The iced tea came flavored in either lemon or peach, and he and Lillian had become fond of it here. Although the brand sounded familiar, they’d never seen iced tea packaged like that at home.
As the waiter left Harold let his eyes return to the four girls. Well-groomed, trim and fit and totally at ease, the young women chattered and laughed amongst themselves, all dressed for the heat in shorts or miniskirts and brief tops. They gave the appearance of being well-off, girls with country club backgrounds. Like girls from Radcliffe or Brown or some other Ivy League college. One of them glanced his way, her gaze going through him as though he were invisible. They were like birds, he thought. Beautiful birds, sleek and colorful.
“I don’t understand,” Lillian said, still stuck on the story of the Elgin Marbles, “how the British today can justify keeping the sculptures.”
Harold brought himself back to his own table, but said nothing.
“I don’t understand,” his wife went on, “why they resist returning them to their rightful owners.”
“God, it’s hot,” Harold finally said, wiping his forehead again.
“Maybe it’s that brandy you’re drinking,” Lillian said, her tone sniping.
“It’s metaxa,” he mumbled.
With a huff Lillian looked back down at her books. “We can only come here during summer breaks. You know that. You shouldn’t be surprised if it’s hot.”
Harold pushed his glasses back up his nose and took another sip of his drink. He glanced at the girls at the other table, but in a mental flash he was back on that summer vacation in northern Minnesota. There he stood on the boat dock of the fishing resort, slim and trim and muscled in his swimming suit. What was he? Sixteen? Seventeen? And there on the dock, sitting on beach towels in swimming suits also, were the teenage sisters: Judy with auburn hair, and her blonde younger sister, Roxanne.
The day had turned windy, eliminating the possibility of fishing, the lake chopping into whitecaps outside the bay where the resort nestled , the breeze stirring the long hair of the two girls. In his mind Harold saw himself there in the past as if he were a different person, which in reality he was. Besides the gorgeous girls, there had been the lake, seeming to go on forever, the islands within it countless. He loved it all: the water, the endless trees of pine, the rockiness -- and the coolness of a July in Minnesota near the Canadian border.
He came back to now, sighing. Back then, he thought, he wasn’t pear-shaped and hot and sweaty. Back then he wasn’t invisible. God, he thought, sipping at his drink. Forty years ago. Actually, more like forty-five years now.
One of the girls at the other table pulled out a cell phone. She talked into it, laughing and smiling. Harold imagined with a touch of bitterness her conversing with a young man, a college-age jerk of a kid. A boy only, but tall and straight and youthfully vibrant. And he wondered how an American girl was able to talk to anyone on a cell phone here. Was that something that could be done easily now? And how were these young things able to travel about in a foreign country, apparently unconstrained and independent? Like birds, he thought. Beautiful, beautiful birds.
Lillian said, “This time I particularly want to study the Propylaea.”
“Hmm?” Harold said absently, looking at her.
“I want to study the Propylaea, Harold,” she repeated, her tone patronizing. “The entrance gate to the Acropolis. The structure at the top of the steps as you ascend the Acropolis.” She wrote in a notebook. “You remember, don’t you, Harold?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I just forgot the name.”
“Watkins has written a treatise proposing changes were made to the Propylaea during the Roman era. I have serious doubts about that. Not unless some structural repairs or structural improvements were needed.”
“Yeah, sure,” Harold said.
She looked up. “The Romans were engineers, you know, not artists or sculptors.”
She returned to her notebook. “I need to do some preliminary surveys.”
“We’re going to go there now?”
“Yes, Harold. That’s what we discussed this morning.”
He said nothing.
“If I want a full professorship, Harold, I need to publish. You know that.”
He didn’t reply, concentrating on the young ladies getting up to leave. He saw shapely behinds in shorts, legs long and tanned in miniskirts. Tops with no sleeves, revealing firm, brown arms. For a moment his eyes locked with those of one of the young women. Then her gaze skittered away, just as she and the rest of the girls did, their joyfulness disappearing into the throng down the narrow, timeless street. Harold heard their musical, tinkling laughter fade into the background hubbub of a zillion conversations.
“Are you about ready to go?” Lillian asked him, gathering together her books.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he muttered, looking after the girls. He turned to the quarter-inch left of his latest metaxa. “I’m just about done here.”
“Then we should get going.”
Inside, Harold groaned. The plan was to continue working their way through the Plaka, through more crowded, narrow streets across the northern base of the Acropolis, through the area of the old Agora, around to the west side of the Acropolis where the steps led upward. Then there would be the grueling climb up those steps to the top. Up steps thousands of years old, worn and fractured, uneven, irregular, and unsure. He used his handkerchief to mop his brow once more.
“Harold, are you okay?” Lillian asked, looking up.
“Then let’s go.”
“Okay,” he mumbled. He threw back his head and finished his drink, then pushed himself up onto his feet with a grunt. God Almighty, he moaned inwardly, hiking up his trousers and pushing his glasses back up his nose. He felt so fat and clumsy and sweaty, and he was already tired.
For a fraction of a second, he let himself escape back to that Minnesota boat dock, there he young and cool and strong, he gazing down at the beautiful Judy with the auburn hair, she sitting on her towel in her yellow Catalina swimsuit. As he stood there peering down at her, he registered the amazing amount of white, teenage bosom revealed over the top of her suit. Now in the heat of the Plaka, Harold thought with grudging acceptance that that was gone also, that along with a lot of other things. He picked up the backpack with all of Lillian’s books and started the inevitable ordeal in front of him.
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