Free Range Stories

“We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospection.”   
                                                                                                     Anais Nin

Stories written in Guided Autobiography class 

Restaurant by Georgina Holmes 
It was England; 1947.  The war was over and all those who had been overseas were now back where they belonged, which I supposed included us.  We were a family of strangers.  My brother came back to England from India when he was eleven.  He was now twelve. I had known him for one year.  Father, whom I had never known, returned as an angry and unhappy man. 

He had hoped to die with his boots on.  Now he was obliged to join the group that he most despised; civilians.  He had recently married a woman whom neither my brother nor I had ever met.  She had a daughter, a very precious daughter, the same age as myself; sixteen years old but from such a different mold.  Our dysfunctional family now lived together in a three-bedroom apartment in Central London.

My brother was allocated a room half way down the stairs.  It had been used as a broom closet.  Very little was clear other than the lack of communication, the lack of understanding, even the lack of genuine good will.  I remember when my father was told by his new wife to take my brother and I to lunch, as she and her daughter would not be home.

I thought hopefully, “Oh, perhaps we might visit this new place with the wonderful smells called The Brasserie!”  I mentioned this hesitantly because I was mostly terrified of father’s reactions.  My remark was met with, “Don’t be so disgusting.  What are you thinking?”  I was duly cowed.  I remained puzzled and silent and considered that maybe he thought I said, “Brassiere”.  In a numbed state of mind, we waited to see where we would go.

To our surprise, he called a taxi.  Why, I wondered?  Our neighborhood was littered with restaurants?  We got in and set off.  In about 20 minutes, we arrived and were stunned to find ourselves at the Savoy Hotel?  Father strode purposefully forward with us following timidly behind.  The doorman bowed as we entered into the grandest and most glittering hall we’d ever seen; with high ceilings and at least six huge chandeliers.  Still trying to fathom father’s mind, we noticed a grillroom on the side and a coffee bar.  Maybe.. but no?  We were escorted to the main dining room!  

On entering, we were swept away to a far table by waiters in white uniforms floating silently around like a flock of doves from table to table, leaving three to hover behind our chairs.  They pressed a menu in our hands and deferentially handed a list of drinks to father.  I was so confused, so benumbed, that I could not even read the menu.  Father had that effect on me.  He seemed to paralyze my brain. After a long silence, I heard him tell the waiter, “We’ll have two baked beans on toast and one martini.”

Where did he come up with this; certainly not the menu?  We ate in silence, struggling to swallow our baked beans.  Did he think we were still six years old?  Peggy, his wife, commented later that he must have had a flashback to nursery tea with his Nanny.  While we ate, father sipped his martini and contemplated the menu.  I considered that as soon as he delivered us back to the flat, that he would be off to his beloved Army and Navy Club to have a splendid lunch with yet another martini.

Although my thinking process was challenged, I felt I knew exactly what he was thinking.  He considered that he had done his fatherly duty and so with a clear conscience and a sigh of relief, he could go back to those who knew him best; certainly not his family!  He would be comfortable surrounded by his own well-trained wait staff; so anxious to fulfill his every need.

Voice by Holly Bertram

It's Saturday morning. I'm sitting at the dining room table; the flame of the gas wall heater next to me is making familiar purring sounds. It’s warm and cozy here. I'm using the clustering method and I have so many ideas written down. I feel somewhat proud.

I'm reminded of my voice. I'm ten. I'm belting out "Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" while lying on the backseat of my parents yellow 1958 hardtop Thunderbird. My brother is driving; mom's in the front seat. We're driving to Lakewood, Ohio from Pompano Beach, Florida, mostly on two lane US highways. It's a very long trip.

Jeff only has his permit but Mom lets him drive. Once he stops too suddenly and I land on the floor. I sing the verses "Roll out those lazy, hazy days of summer, over and over again the whole trip, except for an occasional nap or when my voice becomes hoarse. I'm an annoying ten year old according to my brother. But, boy can I sing.

My 4 year old Granddaughter, Ryn, loves to sing. No one can stop her from singing; just like her grandma as a young girl. Once she's buckled in her car seat, she'll ask for one of her favorite CD's to be played. She sings along with feeling and enthusiasm. She knows the words of Frozen, Let it Go, Jonah and Whale songs. My daughter sent me a video of Ryn singing Adele's Hello. I love listening to her powerful little voice.

I started driving a school bus this year; a short one, an EC bus. EC means exceptional children. I like saying that instead of handicap bus. The afternoon route of my first day, the adult rider/helper said, “You're going to love the last stop”. I thought for a second and said, “You mean, I won't like it?" He said with a little laugh, "Right". He didn't tell me why.

It's the very last stop and I have to back down a narrow, steep one lane road, passing two front yards to get to where I stop, all the while missing two mailboxes and a ditch on either side. Did I sign up for this? I remember when I took the school bus driving course 30 years ago. I was taught you never back up more than a few yards. When the bus is in reverse a backup alarm makes a continuous beeping, a strobe light and caution lights are blinking so you can't miss seeing the bus. 

I have the bus ready to back up. I'm stressed.  I've never backed up this far.  I know this isn't safe or appropriate. The driver before me put the bus in neutral and would coast.  That sounded totally crazy to me.  Using my side mirrors for guidance, my rider gives me assistance.  I back up very slowly until the bus door lines up with the driveway.  I'm relieved.  the boy exits and I drive away.

When we return to school, I'm anxious to make a change to this situation.  I speak to the principal.  He understands.  My principal said he'd contact the bus garage in the morning; changes can't be made without their approval.  My voice was heard.  Turns out it was an unofficial stop.  I only had to back up two more afternoons while the parents made other arrangements.

FOREST by Nancy Keswani                                                            Delaware is a desert. At least that’s how my mom describes it to family back in Ohio. A drought has killed the grass, or at least discouraged it into camouflaging medium brown with blonde highlights disappearing into the gritty ground. Our bare feet find it both smooth and prickly, matted as it is, but with surprising talon-like tendrils. It’s hot, too. Not burning like blacktop a person can fry eggs on, but an anxious, disorienting warmth, since grass is supposed to be cool.

The tract of mind-numbing homes we’ve moved into, standalone row houses, were sold without landscape save for forlorn builder’s trees, one per lot. They are short and shadeless, leaves a mottle of green centers and brown edges crinkling in on themselves like campfire marshmallows.

A different summer, long after the rain returns, I spy a spiraling maple seed, a single propeller nose-diving downward, hoping its plant DNA will prevail. I dig a hole in the now green grass to reveal nourishing nearly black soil, a perfect pot for the future tree I’ve already begun thinking of as mine. I place a praying mantis on its boughs who lays eggs that hatch into miniature mantises, making me a grandma. By the time we leave the tract, my much-loved tree dwarfs the development.

Most of the girls are Girl Scouts, stockpiling badges we badger our mothers to guide. Renee Knox’s mom is a seamstress, giving her daughter an advantage on the sewing badge we all think unfair. Scouting’s siren, though, is camping. The first year I go, I see my first forest. The smell of pine needles so subtle compared to the cleanser mom uses on the kitchen floor. Shade from the swelter and respite from the rain that pings on the cabin’s metal roof. A lake, surrounded by trees, a colored cotillion of reds, oranges, and yellows to float on the water come fall. Hidden creatures shuffling like blind mice in the brush, calling one another under the moon. Living food, bursting berries and rock-like nuts harvested with stones beside blackened weenies covered with catsup.

“It’s like having our own private park!” exclaims dad, describing our new home in Connecticut. Three and a half acres dotted with dogwoods all to ourselves. A pond foaming with frogs, translucent pouches where their necks should be, singing bellows we can hear from our bedrooms at night. Catfish cruising the depths for food, turned into food by our neighbor’s ancient father who catches them and cooks them for a family feast. Nesting ducks leading hatchling parades to their first swim, we cheering from the water’s edge as their tiny yellow feet take wing.

 Once, I trek the woody terrain in search of the nest site. Butchered by brambles, peering into patches of overgrown underbrush, I never find it. Instead, the pond’s fountainhead, a putrid puddle of sticks and rotting leaves, is revealed, leaving me feeling like a voyeur seeing something not meant to be seen. Dirty from the discovery, I retrace my shallow steps, affording the forest the dignity of privacy.

In winter, ice encases the trees, frozen limbs stinging eyes like summer sparklers. When the wind blows, branches shatter to twigs and carom across white topsoil two feet thick. My sister and I sled through the forest with panicky passenger chickens, beaks wide, unhappily along for the ride.

I have another life in the forest years later. The fragrance of Autumn Olive fills the backyard. Coyotes bay, tempting neighborhood dogs to betray their masters and join  a more primitive pack. My husband marks his territory, unseen, around the perimeter. We mate under the stars and sleep in a small tent.

Alone now, I am back in a tract. But if I have to live, I’d like to die living in a forest.

The Stranger in the Backyard by Diane Rhoades 
Paul and I ride our bikes past a man sitting crossed legged on the grass.   He is barefoot and draped in a white cloth.  He sits on what would have been the front lawn of an elegant ruin of a house that burned down years ago.  The concrete stairs are all that remain.  They look like a small stage.   The dark skinned man sits there reading in the shade.

Getting off our bikes like aging cowboys, Paul says, “Did you see that man sitting on the steps?”  “Just beautiful; like human art”, I say.  We head inside Umi's to eat sushi and drink Sapporo beer.   Paul points out that the shiny grooved Sapporo beer can is exhibited in the Guggenheim as art.  I don’t get it. 

We chat with the sushi chef, who is from Burma. His smile engages his whole face. We invite him to play table tennis with us on Tuesday nights but he works most every night.  I wonder where his joy comes from. It is almost dark as we get back on our bikes and head home.  I see the white cloth of our dark skinned stranger in the fading light.  The cloth covers him as he sleeps on the grass.  Paul and I pull over without a word, get off our bikes, and quietly lean them against a tree.

I whisper to Paul,  “I think he is asleep.”  Paul says, “If the police see him, they won’t let him spend the night here.” "We should wake him."  Each sentence is almost a question.   Paul gently touches the man’s shoulder and he calmly opens his eyes.  I wonder where his calm comes from.

His face is elegant and timeless; I have no idea how old he might be.  He searches our faces and says something in another language; maybe African.  We tell him that he should not sleep here.  We mimic authority telling him to go away.  We invite him to come with us.  Paul and I, without even talking it over, just know to do this.  It feels somewhat risky to me; but if feels right. 

The man has been listening closely but doesn’t say anything.  Paul and I don’t know how much he understands so we say the same thing again, only slower.  He says something but we don’t understand.  We start again.  We tell him our names.   Paul and I make it clear that we want him to come with us.  We suggest a plan in sign language.  The stranger smiles so we think he agrees to it. 

I race my bike home to get our car while Paul stays with the man.  I tell Casey, my daughter, what we are up to, and quickly drive back.  The men are sitting together, in what looks like silence.   I pull up and they get it.

We drive the mile home with few words.  I feel like we have an astronaut in the car, or Gandhi.  I have the feeling of a Holy Experiment.  I invite the man, in what I imagine is fluent sign language, to shower, have some food or tea.  He smiles wide, shakes his head no, and stands there; poised and attentive.  I go inside and get him a mason jar of water.  The stranger, wrapped in white cloth and probably nothing else, heads toward the tent that Paul has just finished setting up.  I give him the water and we say our versions of “Goodnight”.  

 “Mom, are you crazy!” Casey is in the kitchen waiting for us as we come in.  She’s been watching us from the window.  I vouch for her safety and dramatically lock the back door.  It’s late.  Casey and I go upstairs and look out my bedroom window.  He is not inside the tent.  He is right outside the tent on the tarp with his white covering.  

I am moved by grace, mystery, and the man curled up in the moonlight.  There is a peace about this man’s presence.  Sheltering him in our backyard feels like we are sheltering Jesus.  Just before sunrise I wake, get out of bed, and look out the window.  He is gone.

 The Boy on the Bike  
The truck pulls out from the STOP sign.  The young boy on the bike zips through the intersection.  They collide.  The impact is “soft” but enough to knock the boy off the bike.   He scrambles to his feet, gets on his bike, and rides off.  The driver just sits in the cab of his truck.  He makes no attempt to get out, to call after the boy; make sure he is OK.  He pauses a moment and drives off.  I memorize his license plate. 

If the boy had been white…if the pick up truck and the boy and the bike and the man had this unfortunate impact on each other in a prosperous neighborhood and not on 7th Ave, I wonder how this would have played out?  Would the child have scrambled back onto his bike and ridden away as if he had done something wrong?  Would he have allowed himself a moment to recover - anticipated that the man who hit him would want to make sure that he was OK?  It feels like a crime now; not an accident.   I walk to my car dazed; the only witness.

The Woman in the White Caddy  
She is movie star beautiful.  Stopped at a light, I look across and am taken with her unusual beauty.  Her thick jet black hair is pulled back revealing a widow’s peak.  Her sculpted cheek bones are etched in flawless white skin.  Her red lipstick is dramatic. She could be a country western singer.  Maybe she is married to a Texan oilman.  She turns, rolls down the window and spits a wad of chewing tobacco onto the street.  Wow.  I didn’t see that coming.

Throwing Things
I wander around in the heat of a packed Belle Cher Wall St. when I see the cage.  A man in a Speedo is sitting on a metal tractor seat inside the cage above a giant tank of water taunting people to pay $1 for three shots at dunking him. In a heartbeat, I am on that line with my dollar bill.  I watch kids throw their balls; looking like they are going to dislocate their arms in their enthusiasm.  A couple shares their three opportunities to dunk the man.  Nothing.

He revs up his rant.  “Come on!  What’s wrong with you?  Put on your glasses and shoot!  I’m hot.”  I am next.   I throw the first ball and ace it.  He is in the water.  Cheers!  Back on the seat, dripping wet and threatening me to do it again, I hit it dead on and he is in the water.  I feel like a contestant in So You Think You Can Throw.  “No way you will get me under again!  Come on.  Let’s see you cave!”  I throw my last ball.  Bull’s eye!  He is laughing.  I feel like I won that skinny, wet man.  I look up and see Jim Stowell in the crowd; smiling at me.  I have a witness.