Author Archives: sammozart

Fry ‘Em and They Get Tighter

After taking a season off to republish some of my earlier works, I am returning to post a series of excerpts from my upcoming book, Funny Farm Stories. Here’s the next:

I hadn’t been working at the farm market long when this guy came in, real friendly and nearly toothless. We got a lot of them coming into the stand off-season; they rose up out of the woods. Truthfully—that’s where they lived. We grew the best onion I’ve ever tasted, the Florida Sweet onion. The farm hands pull them out of the ground, wash them, peel off the outer, brown layers, trim the tips of the green tops to resemble a fan and that’s how we sell them. So, this guy comes in, picks out a couple of onions and brings them to the counter to purchase, raving to the other cashier, a Miami native, and me about how good they are. “They’re really good when you fry ‘em and get tighter,” I heard him say. We all laughed and agreed and he left.

“What did he mean, fry them and get tighter?” I asked my co-cashier. “What was he saying?” Being a Florida native, she would understand the accent.

“He said they’re really good when you get some potatoes and fry them together,” she translated.

“Oh, fry ’em with some ‘taters,” I said.

During February the weather was pretty much like that in Southern California, dry, low humidity and moderate temperatures. I liked this. Then March came. The bright sun glared so off the sand and pebble parking lot in front of the stand that I could barely keep my eyes open even when wearing sunglasses. The temperature shot up into the high eighties and so did the humidity.

“Does it get any hotter than this?” I asked my Miami coworker.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “a lot hotter.” Naturally, I could not imagine.

I thought she was kidding—until June. The heat and humidity swarmed around me, encased me, while the sun relentlessly poured molten yellow rays everywhere.

Yet, in the peak of July, at noon, I’d see senior citizens out taking their daily walk. “How do they do it?” I wondered.

–Samantha Mozart
for Carolina Gringo

Strawberry Table

Even though we offered a choice of selecting berries individually by the pound from the berry bar in the center of the store or already packaged, priced by the pint or quart, customers would sort through the berries in the baskets, rearranging them within a basket and among the baskets, women especially, looking like they were at a rummage sale for socks. Then they’d bring this quart towering with berries to the register. It reminded me of when I was a little girl and read this fairy tale about “The Village of Cream Puffs,” the place where Wing Tip the Spick lived a little girl with eyes “so blue, such a clear light shining blue, they are the same as cornflowers with blue raindrops shining and dancing on the silver leaves after a sun shower.” (From Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg.)

The story was illustrated with a picture of a little girl wearing two pronounced beauty marks, freckles, on her creamy white face with the strawberry red lips, and holding onto a tether of floating mountains of cream puffs capped with strawberries and whipped cream, stretching from here to the horizon. The Village of Cream Puffs is so light it must be tethered to a spool so when the wind is done blowing the people of the village come together and wind up the spool to bring the village back where it was before. Wing Tip the Spick’s freckles that her mother has placed on her chin look like two little burnt cream puffs kept in the oven too long, so that when she peers into the looking glass to brush her hair, she will be reminded of where she came from and won’t stay away too long.

Sometimes if the customer’s berry mountain was too tall for a plastic bag to scale and he or she had gotten the berries from the basket display on my checkout counter when I’d stepped away for a moment, I’d say, “Oh, look at this. Somebody sure filled these baskets unequally. Let me just take a few of these and put them in this half-full basket here,” and I’d grab a small handful out of the customer’s basket and replace them in the other basket. The customer never said anything.

–Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart

Strawberry Planting

After taking a season off to republish some of my earlier works, I am returning to post a series of excerpts from my upcoming book, Funny Farm Stories. Here’s the next:

STRAWBERRY PLANTING

A customer walked up to my counter one day. “Tell me,” she said, resting her elbow in a quart of strawberries…

I pointed out that she was going to get stains. She removed her elbow and continued her question. I pictured the next customer arriving and saying to her companion, “Oh, these berries on the top are all flat. If they’re flat on top, imagine what they’re like on the bottom.” So when the lady with the elbow left, I examined the berries and picked out the flat ones.

We grew the berries on the farm, in the field right next to the produce stand where I worked. Because in Florida you can’t leave the berry plants in the ground year round, each spring we’d plow them under and in the fall replant. Each October Brad bought 33,000 strawberry plants and it took 12 Mexican guys a day and a half to plant them.

All the produce on the farm was grown in raised beds. So, before the strawberry plants were put into the ground, the Mexican foreman had to come along with the tractor trailing a big fork/tong-like attachment that looked like two long, cupped, many-fingered opposing hands which scooped the earth into mounds. Then he and a co-worker or two would put a roll of plastic on a spindle on the back of the tractor and lay the plastic over the mound. Afterwards, one of the co-workers would roll this huge iron spoked wheel, three or four feet in diameter, having spikes protruding regularly at right angles from its circumference over the plastic, punching holes in it. It looked like a Catherine wheel,

As soon as the holes were punched, the plants were set into the ground. After that, my two Mexican co-workers assembled and laid the sprinkler pipes. The foreman then hooked up the tractor to the well pump, started the engine to power the pump to bring the water from the well and sprinkle the strawberry plants from early morning till sunset for two to three weeks until the roots had grown and taken hold. By mid-December, we’d have strawberries. The berry production cycled in and out throughout the winter season, until April. My two, sometimes three, Mexican co-workers picked the berries for the farm stand or the customers themselves picked them from the field.

Although the farm was much larger, my boss farmed only 13 acres. He is a citrus expert, as I’ve said, and he owns and maintains a grove. He squeezed more work out of fewer workers than anyone for whom I’ve ever been employed. I suppose it’s like marching gladly to the gallows, for the workers produced willingly because he was funny and kind and rewarded us in other ways. We had one cashier, me, and in the busy season, two, to handle hundreds of customers a day. We worked nine to ten hours a day, and when working alone, without even a lunch break. We could eat lunch, but had to eat it in between or while waiting on customers. Two guys, and in the busy season, three, prepared the field, planted and cared for the crops, harvested the fruits and vegetables, washed them and stocked and displayed them in the stand.

In the evenings, just after I closed the stand, I’d see the foreman at the end of his twelve hour day out on the tractor spraying the strawberries and tomatoes and bell peppers and he’d look so tired, gray; I was afraid he’d fall off the tractor. I told Brad. He never fell off the tractor, though, and he sprayed the field from dusk into darkness without using the tractor lights.

For months we lived the farm. We had time for little else. Often we were exhausted. But we were outdoors: we had fresh air, lots of exercise, and fresh fruits and vegetables to pick from the field, free, including baskets and baskets of fresh, round, firm, succulent strawberries. As my real name is Carol, sometimes my two Mexican co-workers called me Carolina. I made up the Gringo part, being not so far from the truth. I also made up recipes from the fresh produce I picked from the field. Since I had neither time nor energy to spend at the stove when I got home from the farm, I kept my recipes simple and quick. I have included some for you at the end of my little book.

Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart

CXXXVI. Snow Comes Softly

Monday, February 11, 2019 —Yesterday came cold and blustery. Flurries of  shoppers arrived at the store where I work, and I felt good to be out among the people and greet them. Children, their animation electrified, anticipated the coming storm. It … Read more »

The Gift of the Magi

By
O. Henry

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pierglass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

O. Henry, 1905
pen name for William Sidney Porter
(1862-1910)

The rights to this story are in the public domain in the United States. For other countries, check the relevant copyright laws.

 

CXXXV. Memories, As They Lay Their Long Shadows Before Me

I remember driving on blustery, gray November days with my mother, Emma, the hour and a half across New Jersey from Delaware to see Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary was Emma’s mother’s sister, my great aunt. She had a little farm in Absecon Heights, just across Absecon Bay from Atlantic City. Walking a half mile down the dirt roads through the reedy marshes, to stand on the little wooden dock at water’s edge, a mixed aroma of clams, salt and sulfur permeating our senses, and looking due east across the water, we could see the skyline and lights of Brigantine, on the barrier island above Absecon Inlet, north of Atlantic City. As a child, Emma spent all her summers with Aunt Mary, coming down from West Philadelphia.

Aunt Mary kept cats. She needed good mousers. Emma used to dress them up in doll clothes. I pictured those sweet cats in their colorful dresses, and wondered at their docility. I’m allergic to cats, although we did raise some when my daughter, Kellie, was growing up. Unlike cats, I seem not a good mouser. True, I lay in wait, ready to pounce on nouns, verbs, images, phrases to combine and devour in whole stories, but rarely can I devote the time these days. Instead, I must fill my hours at my day job where I pursue merchandise in a retail store. Ah, but today I have off. Happily, I’ve carved a slice from time to tell you some stories I remember.

Driving across New Jersey those gray November days, we were on our way to Thanksgiving dinner. Aunt Mary made the best stuffing, moist and sagey. Even though Emma, my brother and I have the recipe, we have never been able to duplicate Aunt Mary’s; and, no matter where we go or whose we eat, never have we tasted any as good. Aunt Mary always got a live turkey for Thanksgiving. We’d visit her earlier in the season, see the turkey in the pen, and then eat it on Thanksgiving. Aunt Mary raised chickens, too. In the spring, she’d have a new little pen of fuzzy, yellow baby chicks. When they grew up, they laid brown eggs. The rooster’s crowing woke us at dawn. My brother stuck his finger through the chicken wire surrounding the chicken yard. When the chicken pecked his finger, it hurt, and everybody said, “We told you.” He never did that again. Occasionally, Aunt Mary would go out into the yard, grab a chicken, break off its neck and we’d eat the chicken for dinner. I remember her standing at the sink in the back kitchen of her bungalow boiling the chicken and plucking the feathers. Once, Emma got chased by a chicken with its head cut off. She ran up the steps to the back door and the chicken came right up after her.

Aunt Mary had a framed poem hanging on her bedroom wall opposite her brass bed–Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”:

Sunset and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea

I would lie in her bed and read it, wheezing, nearly unable to breathe from asthma from the cats, when I stayed with Aunt Mary for an occasional week during the summers.

In November 1974, Kellie, my dog, Kolia, a friend and I drove from Wilmington, Delaware, to a suburb of Towson, Maryland, near Baltimore, in search of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is my favorite author and kindred spirit. We set out on a typical November day–chilly; gray; misting rain; a counterpane of wet, golden leaves spread over the damp ground. I was on my way to find the house at La Paix, the estate of architect Bayard Turnbull, where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their daughter Scottie had stayed briefly, a quiet place where Scott could write and Zelda receive treatment at nearby prominent psychiatric institutions. I had embarked on a journey to touch Scott’s spirit. We did find a big, empty pillared pale-yellow, stucco house there, but it wasn’t the La Paix house where Scott had stayed. That house had been torn down, I learned later. Maybe I did encounter Scott’s spirit; the place certainly evoked the sense of something. The serenity there, the aroma of the fallen leaves underfoot, the mist in our faces, everything listening as the wind whispered stories through the trees: soft, tranquil, compelling me to write.

There’s a song, it’s called “Give,” by a group called Dishwalla. “I want to remain a child with you forever,” the words go, “and hear, as you lay before me, you tease me and tell me to stay. What would you give? What would you give?”

Memories, as they lay their long shadows before me, tease me and tell me to stay.

As a writer, I must capture thoughts and feelings, fleeting as twigs fallen into layers of wet golden leaves on old brick sidewalks before the wind stirs them into unsettled interludes.

Fitzgerald rendered much guidance on writing and I gobbled up every bit, filling reams with lines copied from his notebooks and memorizing them. He fed me well.

He found it difficult, as I do, to discipline himself to sit in a room and focus on writing; we believe the world is going by without us.

My favorite living writer, Orhan Pamuk, says he becomes irritable when he is deprived of his daily writing time in his room. I do, too. As I age I find it easier to focus on my writing; indeed I crave my time to write. Like an actor who stays in character while making a movie, when I’m away from my writing room, thoughts of what I would write eddy in the corners of my mind, leaves of many colors. It becomes difficult for me to focus fully on anything else until I can sweep those leaves onto the page before they blow away.

On a windy Sunday, I stood outside with Jetta, our 11-year-old teacup poodle, when she and Emma were still alive. Jetta could no longer stand much of the time nor walk straight. Her equilibrium was off and she was weak. She’d fall over and lie on her side. If she could get up again without my lifting her, I’d praise her: “Oh! See? You rolled over!” This I do because when she was healthy and I would command her to roll over, she’d stand there and look at me as if to say, “Why? That’s a silly trick; pointless, don’t you think? I mean, really, think about it. It’s like when you tell me I have to wait for the turkey until you cook it and then when it’s cooked you say I have to wait until it cools. Why bother to cook it? Just eat it. That’s far more efficient.” But, now, when she fell over and just had to lie there, she accepted it. She’d just lie there and I’d reach down and pick her up and try to stand her on her rubbery legs.

Life involves allowing oneself to release control, to accept and to enter the void. “What would you give? I want to remain a child with you forever.” There is not nothing; there is something: see what happens when you come out the other side. “Tell me to stay.”

When Jetta and I stood outside that windy Sunday, our wind chimes and the neighbors’ all up and down the block, all different sizes, from the tiniest to the longest tubes, were ringing wildly, an unharmonious tone poem. The sound was mystical, evoking the quality of a hundred Russian church bells.

It is impossible not to be uplifted into the vibrational frequency of those Russian bells. Bells, you know, have a huge void in the center. The tone of the ringing of the wind chimes lifted me into a kind of acceptance: What ancient mystical stories and truths is the wind telling us through those bells? Recalled for me the sounds of Russian church bells, I have to say that they are the sounds of my soul. I therefore feel compelled to quote from Jane Fonda’s book, Prime Time, “Sooner or later we will come to the edge of all that we cannot control and find life, waiting there for us,” at the door. Fonda continues, “The psychologist Marion Woodman says that with ‘vulnerability lives the humility that allows flesh to soften into the sounds of the soul.’”

“The Wind Whispered Stories Through the Trees,”
Samantha Mozart, November 22, 2011
Revisited and Revised November 4, 2018

 

LXXIV. The Blue Deer

Listen to The Blue Deer soundtrack in my playlist, “The Dream” in the right sidebar. Scroll down the list to “Glass – Symphony No. 7 (A Toltec Symphony).”

June 1, 2012  — I climbed the narrow winding wooden staircase into the cupola of my blog, gripping the graying white painted walls as I went. In the small box of a place at the top I walked over to one of the rows of windows lining each side. A cobweb from a yellowing gauze curtain stuck on my forearm. I pulled a tissue from my pocket and brushed it away with other webs lacing the corners of the sill. A tiny black spider suddenly homeless scampered across the sill, over a little ramp, like a mini motorcycle jump, where the paint had chipped and down into a seam in the faded white beadboard wall. I cracked open a window. The curtain lifted on the breeze like a bird of prey from its nest. The sweet smell of meadow grass wafted to my senses, and from somewhere in the coming night a faint music played.

I stood and looked out. In the almost twilight, I surveyed the vast realm of my experiences, and thought of the path I would pursue now.

The refracted light of the setting sun colored the sky orange and before it, across the tall-grass meadow, I saw the mist rising off the broad stream. Down near the stream a bed of irises grew wild – pale purple, deep purple with white centers – they were the most striking –, pink, white, yellow, many colors. Nearby, a lone man with long, dark, reedy hair sat on the bank playing his flute.

Contemplating near and far, my gaze trailed off to the far side of the stream into the distant woods, and as the light faded I began to dream, to drift on a reverie. And then out of nowhere it winged to nest in my senses, music I had never heard: with purity and grace it came – an aria – Chi il bel sogno di Doretta, the beautiful dream of Doretta, Puccini: La Rondine (The Swallow). The aria lifted me into a spiritual space, the heart of where I stay for now.

Just there in the half-light, I felt a draft. I smelled nutmeg. Something brushed against me. I shivered.

“Ah, the music of the night,” a subtle, deep, monotone spoke. A low talker. The Phantom of My Blog. He stood beside me. He laid a deep purple iris on the sill. He smelled of nutmeg. He always smelled of nutmeg. “You shiver. Maybe you need a sweater.”

The aria ended. We stood in silence. The man continued to play his flute. We floated on the evening.

My mind drifted back to last summer. I thought of my little family that I took care of: Every morning getting Emma up and dressed; helping her step down the sixteen stairs with their narrow treads and her iron grip on the balusters; getting her to the table to eat the breakfast she once prepared for herself – orange juice, oatmeal or Cheerios with bananas, strawberries and/or blueberries in skim milk. I thought of the times I’d prepare lunch for myself and run it up the back stairs to my studio, racing Jetta who would run up the front stairs because the back stairs were too steep for her, and we’d see who got to my studio first so she could have her treat. Then Jetta got sick and I had her put to sleep. Two months later, Keats, my Valentine’s cat, showed up, coming tender on the night that cold, snowy, blustery midnight, February 9. He was a sweet, smart cat, as Jetta was a sweet, smart dog. I fed Keats a sumptuous meal Thursday evening, April 26, then let him out, saying, “Now, you be back by ten thirty.” I never saw him again. Clearly he had people somewhere – he came wearing a sage green collar and with impeccable manners. Maybe they came and found him and took him home. Then Emma got tired, so very tired. “I don’t know how I got here,” she said in her agitated state in January. “How do I get out of here?” I could see it coming. So did our Hospice team. Their attention shifted away from her and to me.

Just then an osprey circled the field and flew straight at the phantom and me, like we were in the control tower and it was coming in for a landing. The black mask across its eyes looked like the painted bands that wrap around the windshield and windows of a commercial jetliner.

“The Lone Raptor,” said the phantom, “on his wings of tarnished silver.”

The osprey came close to the window, nodded, veered off to its left and was gone.

I remembered Emma as she was, before dementia tarnished her mind. Now, five, six, seven weeks after Emma’s passing I have found myself thinking, “Hmm, here I am all by myself, no little dog, no Keats cat, no mother to care for, a house that suddenly got really big: Besides my writing, what do I do now? What is my spiritual path? My spiritual advisors tell me to continue my caregiving. How do I do that? What do I do?”

All the old thoughts stacked up on the roof of my mind like factory chimneys.

Emma loved flowers. She would have loved the flowers in our garden this year. They were exceptionally lush – yellow daffodils, deep pink tulips and pure white, fragrant yellow roses, and pale purple irises that grew as dense as trees in a forest. I looked down at the windowsill. “So, you were out picking flowers?” I said to the phantom. “That’s a beautiful iris.”

“I picked it for you,” he said. “Iris is the goddess of the rainbow, thus implying that her presence is a sign of hope, and the wind-footed messenger of the gods to humankind, according to Greek mythology. She flies upon the wind and moves like a blast of bright air.”

“Like an orb,” I mused.

I was surprised that he had thought to pick me an iris. More likely, as had been his wont I suspected he would nudge me over the sill and out the open window. I was touched by his kindness.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then, “Blue, dear,” said the phantom.

“What?”

“A blue deer. Look.” He pointed.

In the meadow, over near the woods, in a shaft of soft light, stood a blue deer, nosing the ground, foraging for food at twilight.

The wind picked up, then. The stream flowed fast on the wind with little white caps like water in a channel. The man had gone from the bank. The music continued to play, slow, meditative, but lush: now strings joined the flute – violins and deep cellos, and satiny brass, and reeds – clarinets and saxophones –, and double reeds – English horns and bassoons –, then an accompanying chorus of voices. Haunting. Where was the man with the dark reedy hair?

“He’s gone,” said the phantom, although I had not asked aloud. “The music of the spheres,” he said. “It emanates from the deer.

“The Blue Deer reminds us that we must be stewards of our environment. The Blue Deer is a dream vision, it is a dream of finding one’s spiritual path and of healing not only oneself but also the world and environment from pollution.”

“I am deeply honored by his visit,” said I.

The phantom spoke: “I vacuumed your blog for you, organized it, hung a new header and cleaned up the clutter while you were outside ruminating on the precise color of tulips, learning that the term tulip evolves from the Persian word for turban, and contemplating the greater meaning of all that.

“You tend towards understanding the realms of wisdom and healing through nature,” he continued.

“The seeds of a summer garden,” I said, “the tender green stalks upon which the caterpillar crawls before it metamorphoses into a butterfly. I’m trying to plant these seeds now.”

“Maybe you’re harvesting them,” said the phantom.

“I seek guidance,” I said, “and thus arrive the flute player, the iris, the osprey and The Blue Deer – stewards. Caregivers are stewards; stewards are caregivers.”

“You forget me,” he said. “Am I not your steward?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I can but imagine.”

Dusk embraced us now. The Blue Deer lifted its head, sniffed the air, and then walked off into the woods. I pulled the window shut, picked up my purple and white iris and we headed down the winding staircase, I behind the phantom. In case I stumbled I hoped he would catch me. If I went first I feared he would push me. I didn’t want to flatten my iris.

When we reached the foot of the stairs, I thanked him again. We parted there. I lifted the iris to my nose. The stem had a nutmeggy smell, like his hand.

“What is your name?” I called after him.

“Moriarty,” he called back.

—Samantha Mozart

Acknowledgements: I must thank my spiritual teachers and spirit guides, and the following creative souls for inspiring the vision of this piece: My extraordinary new group of women writer caregiver friends; T.J. Banks, award-winning author, “Sketch People: Stories Along the Way” and more (find her on Amazon or click on the links on either sidebar here); Philip Glass, composer – Symphony No. 7, “A Toltec Symphony”: 3. “The Blue Deer”; and “Passages”; Coyote Oldman, their album titled “Floating on Evening”, Charmayne McGee, author, “So Sings the Blue Deer”; http://mythagora.com/ for the story of the Goddess Iris; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and, of course, Gaston Leroux for his “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. And, oh, Puccini; how could any woman forget Giacomo Puccini?

 

 

 

 

Sprinkling Strawberries

Here in SoFlo we were still in the post Civil War Reconstruction era, embodied in the young woman who strolled into the store one day as if she had just stepped out of a scene from Gone with the Wind. She came up to me and said, with her syrupy Southern drawl, “Can you tell me, d’y’all sprinkle your strawberries with something…?”

Before leaping to say “Try dry mustard,” I realized, largely due to my long association with Brad, a third generation Floridian, that she was speaking Southern for pesticide.

“Wash ’em well,” I said.

Even though we offered a choice of selecting berries individually by the pound from the berry bar in the center of the store or already packaged, priced by the pint or quart, customers would sort through the berries in the baskets, rearranging them within a basket and among the baskets, women especially, looking like they were at a rummage sale for socks. Then they’d bring this quart towering with berries to the register. It reminded me of when I was a little girl and read this fairy tale about “The Village of Cream Puffs,” the place where Wing Tip, the Spick lived, a little girl with eyes “so blue, such a clear light shining blue, they are the same as cornflowers with blue raindrops shining and dancing on the silver leaves after a sun shower.” (From Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg.)

The story was illustrated with a picture of a little girl wearing two pronounced beauty marks, freckles, on her creamy white face with the strawberry red lips, and holding onto a tether of floating mountains of cream puffs capped with strawberries and whipped cream, stretching from here to the horizon. The Village of Cream Puffs is so light it must be tethered to a spool so when the wind is done blowing the people of the village come together and wind up the spool to bring the village back where it was before. Wing Tip, the Spick’s freckles that her mother has placed on her chin look like two little burnt cream puffs kept in the oven too long, so that when she peers into the looking glass to brush her hair, she will be reminded of where she came from and won’t stay away too long.

Sometimes if the customer’s berry mountain was too tall for a plastic bag to scale and he or she had gotten the berries from the basket display on my checkout counter when I’d stepped away for a moment, I’d say, “Oh, look at this. Somebody sure filled these baskets unequally. Let me just take a few of these and put them in this half-full basket here,” and I’d grab a small handful out of the customer’s basket and replace them in the other basket. The customer never said anything.

–Samantha Mozart
for Carolina Gringo

Highpockets

Let me tell you about Highpockets. One unbearably hot and humid summer, when my regular farm market was closed, I still needed a job, so I worked at a farm stand up the way. This one was surrounded by marshy fields of high weeds. I was in the outdoor stand with the chikee roof, that sat down in a hollow off the road, alone. It was off-season and all the snowbirds had flown north.

This man used to come in all the time. And every time, he’d complain about the prices. Then, a day later, he’d come back and want to return what he’d bought, usually a melon, uncut, saying it was rotten. Then he started coming into the other farm market, the one where I worked every winter. He’d buy vegetables, fruit, and, yes, the usual melon. Consistently, he’d come back the next day or the day after and want to return the melon saying it was rotten.

My boss, Brad, got tired of it and, after the way this man, of medium build, wore his pants, the waistband hiked up to his ears, started calling him Highpockets. I knew our produce was high quality and had been picked fresh, right there, off the farm. I remembered nearly every item that went out of that store, when it went out, what it looked like when it went out and who took it out. Yet, often people would come back with a carton of strawberries declaring, “Just look at these! They’re all mushy and rotten.” I know how long fresh strawberries hold up, and how to keep them fresh. These invariably looked like they’d been riding around in a car trunk since the night before, in baking sun and humidity, secured in a sweaty plastic bag, with a bag of supermarket canned goods stashed on top.

Brad, always the Southern gentleman, inclined to the thought that the customer is always right, finally had had enough of Highpockets. One day Highpockets brought back one too many melons. Brad said, “Get out! Get out! Get out now and stay out!” Incredulous, Highpockets decreed he would tell some lawyer or something. I feared that one day he’d show up, but he never came back.

–Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart

Gringo Stories: Introduction

A customer in the farm stand where I worked held a pineapple, bottom up, to his ear and told me, “If it beeps, it’s ripe.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote in Cross Creek Cookery, “Food imaginatively and lovingly prepared, and eaten in good company, warms the being with something more than the mere intake of calories.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings packed up her sophisticated northern city life in 1928 and moved down to Florida to write. She drew stories from the people she met there in Cross Creek, a community out in “Big Scrub.” That’s where she wrote The Yearling, published in 1938.

In 1994 I needed a break from living in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, and I wanted to write, so I closed my catering business and drove to Southwest Florida for a winter’s working vacation. My daughter, 27, stood on the curb, waving goodbye. I drove off into the sunrise. “I’ll be back in a few months,” I said.

“You’re not gonna like that humidity,” my L.A. friends told me. I didn’t. Living on the Gulf coast in July felt like locking myself in a bathroom submerged in a tub full of steaming hot water. I stayed with my mother, who had a villa there. I got a job cashiering at a farm stand on 30 acres of strawberries, corn, tomatoes, lettuces, herbs, peppers, eggplant, squashes and melons. I loved the job, so I stayed much longer than I had foreseen – seven years, in fact.

My job had barely sprouted when the older, 60-something, string bean of a woman I cashiered with, a graying former model who’d grown up on a Michigan farm, declared to my boss, a tall, witty 40-something guy with strawberry blond hair who could imitate the geezers and snowbirds with perfect ripeness, “Hey, Brad, we’ve got ourselves a real city slicker here.”

I am called Carolina Gringo in Florida. I am a city slicker, right down to my shiny, black boots. So when I left the city and went to work on the farm, for a boss a good decade younger than I, I knew little about pulling fresh vegetables right out of the field, why the skin of Florida oranges is completely stuck to the pulp while that of California oranges peels right off (the former are juicier, therefore nearly impossible to peel), and I had yet to have a close encounter with a living, breathing watermelon of the Hindenburg variety.

Tree frogs on my toothbrush, snakes slithering among the potato display, hissing lizard fights, large, black mosquitoes that spring back when you slap them, Southerners who never do anything yet get everything done, all of these were new to my variety of cultivation in the cultures of Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, I adapted quickly to the porta john, brushed up on my Spanish so I could converse with my Mexican co-workers—did he really say he ate his horse for lunch?—and learned all about citrus and that if you whack an unshucked ear of corn against a table all the worms fly off.

–Samantha Mozart for Carolina Gringo

 

CXXXIV. Snow Comes Softly II

Sunday, December 10, 2017 —Yesterday came cold and blustery. Flurries of Christmas shoppers arrived at the store where I work, and I felt good to be out among the people and greet them. Children, their animation electrified, anticipated Santa Claus’s coming to town.

It began to snow. The purity of the white is centering. Snow falling is quiet, peaceful. I think I will decorate for Christmas this year simply with only a few greens and bows and candlelight. It will be a quiet observance, the halls of my home dressed in a raiment of soft, warm light.

It is Sunday. The bell in the little Episcopal church across the street rang this morning, as it does every Sunday. It is a real bell, in the steeple, that somebody rings. This little historic church recalls all the chapels in all the English villages, meadows and dales that I see in all the British dramas I watch. They don’t ring the bell long in this Episcopal church – eight times for the eight o’clock service and ten for the ten o’clock service.

One Sunday morning, I was walking in front of the Methodist church down the street when suddenly the bell tolled. I rose several feet off the sidewalk and I suspect not lifted on angel wings. In fact, I exclaimed, “Holy [expletive].” This is a real bell, too, and apparently a good sized one; it is loud, and it goes on ringing for eons. It’s a big church and the congregation continues arriving for ages.

Snowflakes alight briefly in flurries or waltz in endless patterns bending, swirling, reaching and touching everything all the dull gray day and into the deep blue night, well beyond three o’clock in the morning.

Prose arabesques from the pens of writers ornament the characteristics and romance of snowflakes. Each snowflake is uniquely shaped. The flakes fall softly, individually, in pairs and in gatherings. Yet they all come from the same source and are composed of the same matter. Snowflakes have a mission: they fall out of the clouds and they land on black slick streets, red-brick sidewalks, brown winter grass, mounds of dried leaves blown into corners of flower beds and on the bare dogwood branches outside my window. Sometimes the snowflakes melt on contact, sometimes they pile up. And then everything turns white. Watching them fall, we become quiet, meditative, nostalgic, always a little awestruck. We watch snow fall with anticipation: snowfall shatters our routines, like a snowball walloped against the surface of a frozen pond, makes us turn to something new, view life with a fresh perspective. Sometimes each snowflake makes a light ticking sound as it touches down. The birds get quiet when it snows. I watch the squirrels and the birds and I can predict the weather. The squirrels bustle gathering nuts in advance of the coming cold. Birds flock and chatter and then get quiet. Birds have different songs for different types of weather and different times of day. They have their cheery morning song, their spring song for temperatures mounting on soft southern breezes; they have their evensong.

Mothers bring their young children outside to witness the first snowfall of the season. I observe one child extend her arm to watch the snow accumulate in her pink mittened palm.

I like driving in a car when it is snowing. I love being in the magic of the snow flying at me, the cypress and cedars and oaks lining the road, their branches laden with snow, the padding of the car tires on the snow, the few other cars on the road all traveling slowly as in a dream, and the tire tracks of an unseen car gone before me.

Snow fulfills its own purpose. Snow comes softly; it piles on tree limbs, bushes, holly berries and cars. Snow comes softly, like a gentle soul, filling in the footprints on our paths. It stays for a while, and then it is gone.

—Samantha Mozart

Everglades City … or, The Idiot Who Wore Shorts

EVERGLADES CITY, FLA., Sept. 11, 2017 — Yesterday, Hurricane Irma, a category four tempest, stormed into Everglades City, devastating and flooding the residents’ homes, roads, lands and adjacent, exposed Chokoloskee Island. To inhabit this place, vulnerable to the capricious winds of change — of nature and government — you must be of a sturdy breed, like the salt marsh mosquitoes that densely populate the area. Nevertheless, once you visit Everglades City, it makes you want to come back. The place lingers in the bowers of my mind like the presence of a ghost of a lover. So, I repost here the account of my impressions during my 1998 visit.

The Everglades Rod and Gun Club on the Barron River, Everglades City. Photo, Bonnie Glover

NAPLES, FLA., June 11, 1998 – Ten miles southeast of the Gulf of Mexico and the heart of Naples, Florida, I passed the last strip mall and golf course and crossed through the last busy intersection where the highway narrowed to two lanes and I plunged alone into the Everglades. The fierce June sun seared like the eye of a panther set on the flank of a deer. The rainy season hadn’t begun. I drove my little, unairconditioned Hyundai east across the Tamiami Trail, through the oppressive heat and humidity, palmetto palms and cypress trees, and the zzizzing of a zillion insects. The dense brush and trees thickened, grew taller and closer to the edge of the road, the zzizzing intensified. I wiped the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand and took another tepid swig from my bottle of water.

Thirty miles in, nearly halfway to Miami, I turned south on Highway 29 towards Everglades City. Zzizzing insects made the only sound. The eight miles of mangroves pressing in on both sides of the shoulderless two-lane county road finally surrendered to the river banks offering a sparse catch of houses on stilts, occasional net-casting fishermen, a Circle K and a café; and at the head, a New England-style town circle embracing a small green. Anchoring the circumference, commanding broad, green lawns from beneath the cool shadows of ancient live oaks, palmetto palms and cypress, stood an abandoned jail, the jagged, broken windowpanes gaping hopelessly; a functioning 1880s white, pillared courthouse; and the 1864 Rod & Gun Club, a restaurant–an Old-Florida style building, polished brown wood inside, white shingled outside, a series of broad steps up the front to the deep veranda complementing three sides and screened on the back overlooking the river, where you can dock your boat and come in and eat. This is Everglades City. The town natives, perhaps sixth-generation locals, all 800 of them, like things the way they are. That’s the way things have always been. They’re not fixin’ for Yankees to jump in and rock their boat. Sure, the boat leaks, but they plug it. In 1947 the establishment of Everglades National Park there banned commercial fishing from local waters. The sudden uncongenial climate snapped the anchor chain of their subsistence. Townsfolk tell that after that many of the locals went away to “college” for a few years. It’s where they were sent when they got caught ferrying “square grouper” imported from South America to drop points in the Gulf. Their unprecipitated flurry of fine new homes and fancy cars shot up a flare to the Feds. It’s rumored that some of the locals have money buried somewhere there, and that when the statute of limitations expires, they’ll dig it up and spend it.

This is Everglades City, founded more than a century ago as a fishing village and established as a city in the 1920s when the railroad came, bringing in tourist fishermen and taking out fish to sell on the commercial market. Barron Collier, a New York millionaire, arrived in 1923 and bought up the land. He bought the Rod & Gun Club, too. There he hosted foreign dignitaries and U.S. presidents. The newly arrived traveled a lot between Tampa and Miami and they soon realized they needed more than a couple of sand ruts upon which to drive. So, federal funds in tow, they set up their supply depot at Everglades City and, beating their way through the jungle with machetes, shovels and fly swatters, set to work building a road connecting the two cities. When the federal government ran into a snag, Collier offered to finish the road in return for the new county being named after him. He made Everglades City the Collier County seat. The new road, the Tamiami Trail, opened to great fanfare in 1928.

Everglades City is Ernest Hemingway’s Florida. It is Key West and the Keys fifty years ago. Hurricane Donna struck in 1960, ripping out the torso of Everglades City, older than Naples and too weak financially to rebuild. Everybody conceded that Naples, just up the Gulf, also begun as a fishing village, was the more important trade location at which to build. Coursing the same trail of blood, in 1993 Hurricane Andrew rose from the sea, and brandishing a weapon like some spiteful Spartan warrior rising out of the Gulf of Corinth in the Peloponnesian wars, raged across the southern peninsula of Florida, shredding the land, devouring the crops. Everglades City lay a skeletal carcass lashed to the Gulf of Mexico. Now they don’t grow anything there. Except …

My arrival at Everglades City unfortunately coincided with the hatching of the season’s first clutches of salt marsh mosquito eggs. As I climbed out of my car tens of thousands of mosquitoes attacked me – big sturdy, black mosquitoes, the kind that when you swat them don’t stay flat, they spring back. I swore the conflict in the former Yugoslavia had escalated, spreading to Transylvania and I had entered the midst of an insect warfare unleashed by none other than Count Dracula, found frozen after all these years, moved to the Everglades and thawed out. Blood suckers are why people living in the Everglades wear long pants and long sleeves even when it’s 98 degrees and 98 percent humidity. Clouds of mosquitoes mounted to near thunderhead status and swarmed outside screen doors, waiting to storm in with me as I entered stores and homes. Inside they’d swarm all over my arms and legs and especially my neck, following me all around boring into me with their extra-wide-gauge stingers holes big enough to build tunnels. Everywhere, people had placed mosquito coils and incense sticks in desperate attempts to deter the blood-sucking monsters.

I had driven down there to see about a job as the reporter for the local, weekly newspaper. The newspaper was one among a string of weeklies, put out by a publisher in Naples. I left my car at the Circle K and rode around all day with Jillian, the current reporter, in her air-conditioned Nissan SUV. The mosquitoes swarmed into her car with me. They didn’t bother her. In fact, I was more or less introduced as The-Idiot-Who-Wore-Shorts-on-Her-First-Trip-Ever to Everglades City. “She’s new. The mosquitoes love her.” I was merely on an exploratory mission to see if I’d take to the job, not the first day of my job. I didn’t get paid for this. But the mosquitoes took to me, and they feasted.

Jillian bought me lunch at the Rod & Gun Club. She said, “Let’s eat outside on the porch overlooking the river.” I said “Okay,” but quickly changed my mind when the giant, black marauders ambushed me the instant I stepped onto the screened porch. We chose to eat in the dining room where the mosquitoes weren’t quite so dense.

We entered a deep umber vastness of polished, rich paneling, boards and beams outfitting walls, floor and ceiling. The floor of the huge old room heaved and rolled, like a deck exposed to years of hot sun and floods and hurricanes. Bronzed arms of ceiling fans suspended above us silently slipped through the air, and even though the floor-to-ceiling glass doors forming the back wall overlooking the river were closed, the dining room was remarkably cool and I had drawn my iced tea to a low ebb before I realized there was no air conditioning. The great place sat up high, had high ceilings, as to raise a toast to tropical breezes. The doors to the spacious kitchen were open and no one was in there, nothing was cooking, reminding me of stately homes turned restaurants I had visited in Mexico: we’d hang out for an hour and a half when five waiters wearing wide grins in dark faces would appear at our table bearing a fantastical feast.

After lunch we stood at the huge hotel-type desk in the entrance hall where Jillian paid our bill. The owner took the cash depositing it into what must have been Barron Collier’s original cash register. On one side of the entrance hall a polished wood staircase beckoned as it gracefully arced to a closed door at the top. A draft grazed the back of my neck as it passed along the hall traversing from one screen door to the other at the opposite end. Something got dredged up. Just there at the desk a feeling of déjà vu washed over me. I was trying to remember something, but it slithered darkly out of reach. A scene from the movie Key Largo: I am waiting for the hurricane to blow in, the river to roil and the palm trees to bend and reach straight out, when we hustle to board up the row of glass doors, run up the sensually-curved staircase and down the hall and enter a back room to find Bacall poised on the edge of a bed, and Bogey, a short man casting a long shadow as he stands over her. Jillian said nobody she knew had ever been up there, that she thought the owner’s mother lived up there. I wondered. The feeling gripped me. I couldn’t shake it. I half saw Ernest Hemingway, once a guest there, rise from his fishing boat out of the dark river, saunter across the veranda and right past us to the bar, not knowing he’d been at sea more than a morning, the screen door banging shut as the wind wheeled and shot at his back.

We left the way we came, through the hallway, faded photographs casting sidelong glances at yellowed news clippings hanging about the walls, whispering stories of earlier days. We stepped outside the screen door and across the porch into a sun shower as we descended the broad front steps and crossed the wide lawn to the car.

We distributed newspapers and that evening went to the city council meeting in the old court house, where I nearly dozed off. The mosquitoes kept me awake. The council room was closed and air conditioned, yet was full of the dreaded creatures. “We set ’em free and now we can’t round ’em up and get ’em back,” said a town official, a white-haired man in his 50s who looked easily persuaded to bend an elbow, who looked more like the persuader, and who allegedly yanked out the asbestos from the old jail building, which he bought and was now trying to sell, and threw the asbestos into the river. Jillian was investigating him.

I got home about 10:30, driving through mosquitoes so thick in the Everglades I couldn’t tell whether it was raining or just bugs. I got home in the nick of time, because I could barely see out the windshield. The next morning I found the front of my car completely plastered in black with mosquitoes. I took it to the car wash.

The publisher called me and offered me a weekly wage to render even a mosquito searching empty pockets at the grocery checkout. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or what. His low valuation of my writing talent left me standing on bare sand at a new moon ebb tide. I said I’d think about it. I still am.

Jillian wanted out of the reporter job. She had bigger fish to fry. On my plate stood indefatigable mosquitoes, late nights and long drives, and low pay. On the side steamed a stew of small town politics and a river seasoned with asbestos served up in a smoking cannabis blind of good old boys. I sensed my journalism jaunt could cast a long shadow onto future tables, mainly my own. I liked a white cloth.

I’d sure like to stumble into Ernest at the bar, though. I’d pull up a stool next to him. Was he privy to what the walls whisper, what went on upstairs? A coupla drinks and he might tell.

Everglades City remains lurking in my veins; on my mind and in my senses: the old buildings that smell faintly of mildew and orange blossoms; the cast of the place, those scents mingling with the heat and humidity and mosquitoes, the soft air, the gentle breezes, linger with me, hauntingly, like a sweet refrain shared with a long-ago lover. From over my shoulder its shadow looms before me still.

The End . . .

–Samantha Mozart


 

Jane Austen Readings for Readers Theater

By Carol Child

“You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” This is probably the most famous of all the lines Jane Austen wrote. It’s from her novel Pride and Prejudice, the scene where Darcy proposes to Elizabeth. “Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression,” writes Jane Austen. “She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent.  This he considered sufficient encouragement; and the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed.”

Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817. To commemorate the bicentennial of the author’s death, I wrote a Jane Austen Readings script and it was performed on the stage of the historic Smyrna Opera House in Smyrna, Delaware, on the afternoon of June 3, 2017. Naturally, I included this scene — disappointingly, minus the appearance of Colin Firth in the role. Nonetheless, the audience, who came to luncheon, warmly received the performance and I have published the script.

My Jane Austen Readings for Readers Theater is available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle ebook format. You can click on the links below to look inside. Meanwhile, here is a delightful one-act play written by a young Jane Austen, that I did NOT include in my script, because I didn’t know about it then. It’s titled The Mystery.

Act the First, Scene the 2d

A Parlour in Humbug’s House.

Mrs Humbug and Fanny, discovered at work.

MRS HUM. You understand me, my Love?
FANNY. Perfectly ma’m. Pray continue your narration.
MRS. HUM. Alas! it is nearly concluded, for I have nothing more to say on the Subject.
FANNY. Ah! here’s Daphne.

(Enter Daphne)

DAPHNE. My dear Mrs Humbug how d’ye do? Oh! Fanny ’tis all over.
FANNY: Is it indeed!
MRS. HUM. I’m very sorry to hear it.
FANNY. Then ‘twas to no purpose that I….
DAPHNE. None upon Earth.
MRS. HUM. And what is to become of? …
DAPHNE. Oh! that’s all settled.

(whispers Mrs. Humbug)

FANNY. And how is it determined?
DAPHNE. I’ll tell you.

(whispers Fanny)

MRS HUM. And is he to? …
DAPHNE. I’ll tell you all I know of the matter.

(whispers Mrs Humbug and Fanny)

FANNY. Well! now I know everything about it, I’ll go away.
MRS HUM. AND DAPHNE. And so will I.

(Exeunt)

For more, please visit my Amazon author’s page: http://amazon.com/author/carolchild

In paperback:

 

And in Kindle ebook format:

^^^

A Memory, a short story by Silvia Villalobos

Tonight, I sit for long spells in a wakeful hush while sudden memories encroach upon my world, and lines stretch across the pages of my journal. Sleep abandons me. My eyes are open to a time and place from long ago. I ride my breath in and out as if it were the swells of a sea. Although my body grows calm from sitting still, I rock slightly with the pulse of my heart.

I drift away on a memory.

~~~

A thirteen-year-old girl is sitting cross-legged in a tent no larger than a closet, reading. The tent is on a beach along the Black Sea coast, a place so quiet she could hear the pulse of the earth, the moaning of the sea. Not her ideal getaway, but Mom insisted this was what the family needed. A long vacation to the sea, in a tent. Camping. All summer long, Mom said, so bring lots of books. Sure, the young girl loves reading, but why travel three hours by train and spend a whole summer in a tent on a secluded beach with her books?

Nature is fuel for the soul, Mom said. We’re separated from it by walls of concrete and steel, too busy for family bonding time. This vacation will make up for that.

Now, here they are in Navodari Beach, an untouched plot of coastline off the beaten path. A stretch of Romanian seashore devoid of much human intervention, accessible via a narrow, partially unpaved road. One of the quietest places on earth, no doubt. Navodari is the campers’ beach north of Mamaia — the seaside resort where four-star hotels line the boardwalk.

They don’t leave the campgrounds, and depend on what they brought along and the bare necessities within the camp. There is daily walking on the beach, swimming, fishing. Storytelling by the campfire. When not playing, or helping with chores, the kids read.

Camping all summer takes adjusting, but the sea has ways of calming the mind and working things out. The endless stretch of fine sand that sparkles under the sun adds to a sense of increased vitality. Energy. The very presence of the blue immensity under the sky helps ward off feelings of seclusion and boredom. Nature calms the mind. The sea becomes the story.

At night, with the help of her flashlight, the young girl reads about the sea as intersection of culture, the dramatic role it played in world history, all the way back to the Great Flood. A wonderful creation of nature still in the process of change.

Since the Black Sea is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Bosporus, Sea of Marmara, and the Mediterranean, she feels connected to the whole of the world. A comforting thought, this human-water bond along the world’s shorelines. Explains our tendency to travel to the water’s edge, our obsession with water — listening to waves lap against the shore, swimming or fishing, writing, and creating memories along its edge.

More kids arrive in Navodari with their parents and tents. Some traveled here from landlocked countries like Poland. They study each other in the manner kids from different countries and backgrounds do; realizing they’re not that different. Soon, the shyness melts away. They strike up tentative friendships. The young girl teaches her new friends Romanian words, and learns how to say sea and wind — among other things — in their language. When all else fails, they alternate between improvised sign language and broken English.

What starts as sensory and stimulation withdrawal turns into a heightened awareness of the elements. They listen to sounds the wind picks up from afar — broken sounds, but easily heard. To the lapping of the waves, the sea whispering its own language or that of creatures inhabiting its depths. Sitting on the beach for hours, they try to decide if the whistling sounds came from dolphins or some other fish. They laugh so much.

Before falling asleep, the young girl tucks away memories in safe corners of her mind. One day in the future, they’ll flash before her eyes like wonderful, old movies.

~~~

Drifting back, I close my journal and lie awake in the still night, holding on to the mental images a little longer. Soon, the day’s toil prevails. My ears fill with the pulse of crickets and cicadas proclaiming their desires. Breath and the clouds ride the same wind. Sleep lulls me away, but not before I see a young girl, in a tent, on a far-away beach, listening to the waves of the sea as she falls asleep.

***

It all started in a sixteenth-century library in Romania, during one frigid winter. In East Europe, libraries are the perfect shelters from the cold and the world.

Silvia Villalobos, a native of Romania who lives immersed in the laid-back vibe of Southern California, is a writer of mystery novels and short fiction. Her stories have appeared in The Riding Light Review and Solstice Publishing, among other publications. Her novel Stranger or Friend (Solstice Publishing) was named best mystery 2015 by P & E Readers’ Poll. When not writing, she can be found blogging at Silvia Writes.

^^^

Jane Austen

Jane Austen died 200 years ago, in 1817, on July 18. She was 41.

Jane Austen lived and wrote during the Regency era; she was not a Victorian, as some suppose. The Regency era was brief. It began in 1811 when the emerging madness of Britain’s King George III deemed him unfit to rule – though American Patriots had declared him unfit years earlier – and his son George IV became Prince Regent. The Regency era ended in 1820 when George III died and George IV acceded to the throne. Some stretch the era to include the reigns of George III, George IV and his brother William IV, extending from 1795 until 1837 when Victoria, granddaughter of George III, became queen.

While all this was going on, Jane Austen was writing. She wrote, most often by a window for the light, on four-by-seven inch paper, on her writing box. Inside the box she kept her paper, inkwell and quills.

She edited her work by sentence first, blotting and crossing out, and then went back and edited the piece as a whole. She did not trouble herself with perfecting grammar or punctuation, these later corrected by her editor, yet she was an experimental and innovative writer, employing a sharp wit in writing dialogue and conversation. She wrote with delightful economy and precise narration. Jane Austen is considered one of the greatest English novelists. Her genius in attention to form has been compared to that of James Joyce. Her form can be related to that of rubato in music whereby the tempo retards and then accelerates and catches up within a defined few measures, without losing the overall pace. By these means, she guided her reader through the story with clarity.

Jane Austen loved music. “Without music,” she wrote in Emma, “life would be a blank to me.” She played piano and practiced daily before breakfast so as not to interrupt her family’s daily routines. Among her extensive sheet music collection, her favorites were songs that told a story. Accordingly, she features pianos and singing in her stories, and many of her characters are musicians.

In her lifetime, 1775-1817, Jane Austen completed six novels, among her other writings, two of which, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published posthumously. Initially, she published all of her works anonymously. In the 1817 publication of these last two novels, her brother Henry wrote a eulogy identifying Jane Austen as the author.

Jane Austen lived her life in the shadow of war, from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. The relationship between war and society permeates all her novels but Emma. Here is a bit of gossip about amusing goings on paralleling Jane Austen’s lifetime: In 1812, she was writing Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, she published her first four novels during the War of 1812, and in three of those stories “they could talk of nothing but officers” in their red coats (Pride and Prejudice). Her brothers Francis and Charles were home from sea that year. In 1815, the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo, two years before Jane Austen died. Ludwig von Beethoven was composing in his middle period then. Franz Schubert had written many lieder (songs) and published his first, Erlafsee – as a free insert in an art and nature lovers almanac –, and in the summer of 1817 composed his first six piano sonatas, all published after his death in 1828. In the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were up on Lake Geneva visiting Lord Byron. Mind you, Lord Byron had by now quit his 1812 affair with the future Queen Victoria’s Lord Melbourne’s wife, Lady Caroline Lamb. The summer proved wet and dreary and Byron proposed they each write a ghost story. It is where Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. The following May, 1817, Mary Shelley finished writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The novel was published on January 1, 1818. Jane Austen wrote her novel Northanger Abbey as a parody of the Gothic novels popular in her time, three in particular: The Monk: A Romance, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796; and two by Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest, 1791, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794. These books remain in print today. Ann Radcliffe is considered the founder of the Gothic literature genre. A movie, The Monk, was released in 2013, based on Matthew Lewis’s Gothic thriller. During the years 1794-1799, Jane Austen was drafting her novels, Lady Susan; Elinor and Marianne, an early version of Sense and Sensibility, written in epistolary form; First Impressions, the original version of Pride and Prejudice; and Northanger Abbey. She was at work on Sanditon in 1817 when she died.

While Jane Austen was in the country writing her early works, Thomas Jefferson was at Monticello cooking. He specified, in a recipe surviving in his own hand, an ingredient for his macaroni as “2 wine glasses of milk.” English ladies in Jefferson’s day wouldn’t eat macaroni for lunch. Until the Regency era, English ladies did not eat lunch. They ate a light fare of bread and cheese and maybe a salad. Salads did not contain tomatoes, because back then the English did not eat tomatoes raw. Salads commonly contained cucumbers and nasturtium flowers, lettuces, often fowl, such as pigeon, as well as anchovies and eggs. Luncheon was introduced during the Regency era, but for ladies only, and then usually with friends. At our Jane Austen Readings and Luncheon at the Smyrna Opera House, we chose not to serve pigeon – mainly because the Opera House Guild volunteers declined to go out and shoot them – but certainly we serve croissants, because, well, why not indulge…? The English didn’t eat croissants in those days yet groused upon their return from France about the bland English breads and rolls. The English consumed a lot of butter. It is said that croissants originated in Turkey and Austria and Marie Antoinette brought them to France when she married Louis XVI. It may be, then, that Marie Antoinette was misquoted about the cake, but rather she proclaimed, “Let them eat croissants!” We imagine that given a choice, Jane Austen would have preferred eating a croissant to a bland roll.

Jane Austen Published Novels

  • Sense and Sensibility (1811)
  • Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  • Mansfield Park (1814)
  • Emma (1815)
  • Northanger Abbey (1818, posthumous)
  • Persuasion (1818, posthumous)

–By Carol Child