Friday, July 13, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: "All You Are Is All You Are"

The fine folks at Flash Fiction Friday have gifted personkind with many things, not least of which is a flash fiction challenge, this week involving hidden treasures, whether blessings or curses. This story is called "All You Are Is All You Are".

Andrea Price was right on time. They usually were. Some were treasure hunters, others history nuts or real estate speculators, and still others eager, fresh faced grad students, but whoever it was, she demanded they call ahead and set up an appointment. Cornelia Knight knew it made her seem eccentric and uptight, an old biddy holding fast to the old days, but it was her house, her rules.

The Knights had built this house, old Titus Andronicus Knight building it shortly before the war of 1812, on the side of a hill about 30 miles south of where the battle of Manassas would break out a half century later. It had been finished and refinished, admitted to the modern age with better plumbing and electrical systems, and later with cable TV and WiFi, but it was still, fundamentally, the same house that had been put together by hand when America was more a new idea than a globe straddling colossus.

Cornelia heard the door of Price's rental car shut, and the mild, soft crunching sound as she walked towards the front door. Cornelia stood up slowly, feeling all of her years in her knees and hips, arranging the folds of her cotton dress across her thighs. The doorbell rang, and she walked across the room, opening the solid, dark front door. The girl was there, dirty blonde hair pulled back into a ragged ponytail, tight denim shorts, black basketball sneakers and an oversized white shirt.

"Mrs. Knight? I'm Andrea Price. We talked on the phone yesterday?" Her voice was even and serious. Cornelia tried to imagine the girl being playful, but she had difficulty. Something in her manner implied emotionless competence. Andrea Price would be an excellent coworker, but she wouldn't give a flirt the least satisfaction.

"Of course, dear. Come right in and have a seat." Andrea walked in, looking briefly at the living room wall, where Cordelia had left up her late husband's decorations, things like a captured Confederate sword, framed duty rosters and Confederate money, and several oil paintings of Titus. Cornelia watched Andrea gaze at the history, holding a three ring binder under one arm. Cornelia could see the younger woman looking at each item in turn, carefully examining them, like a good scientist, noticing everything without comment.

"Would you like some tea, dear? I've just put the kettle on. Or we can go right downstairs and see it, if you're in a hurry."

The younger woman took a moment to answer, as if she was lost in thought. "Tea? Tea would be fine. I have something to show you, actually."

"You do? Fascinating. Well, come into the kitchen, sweetheart, and we can sit and chat." This was nothing new. Occasionally, some bright university person would rush up here, full of vigor and sure that this old lady had no idea what she was sleeping on top of. Cornelia was able to set them straight. Every adult Knight was able to recite the family lore by heart.


Andrea sat down, looking at the flowers at the center of the table. "My mother always said," Cornelia said, pouring hot water into two cups with tea bags in them, "no matter how bad things get, you can always afford fresh flowers. I buy new ones once a week." Cornelia brought the cups to the table, then brought cream and a bowl with some cut lemon wedges and set them down.

"Have you heard the story of this house already, dear?" Family lore went that Titus Knight II, the son of the builder of the house, with his own son's birth due any day, decided he could no longer countenance treating some humans differently from others, and started hiding slaves on their way North, joining up with the Underground Railroad. The story went that the neighbors didn't appreciate Titus' stance, and he had to use his musket more than once to dissuade those who disagreed. They continued doing it until a Confederate cavalry unit learned of the house's role, and threatened to burn it down if they continued. Titus I, standing tall at nearly 70, told the commander to his face that they would order his family around over his dead body, and the commander drew his sword and obliged him. After that, and since the hiding place was no longer secret, the basement and the tunnel fell into disrepair.

"Oh yes, ma'am," Andrea said quickly. "I was here two years ago with Professor Landstone." Cornelia remembered him, a very sharp dresser with an upper class British accent that she adored listening to.

"So what do you have to tell me?"

Andrea opened the binder and began turning pages. "Well, ma'am, there was a find. An estate sale in Taos, New Mexico, and there was this chest filled with papers. Fortunately, the guy who bought it was an amateur historian, so he called the right people and the papers got protected and catalogued properly. Scans of them are all posted on the web."

"What was on the papers, hun?," Cornelia said, sipping her tea carefully.

"Well, ma'am," Andrea said, swallowing and tucking some stray hair behind her ear. "The papers were all from the CSA archives. Second copies of a lot of things we already had, but also journals and diary pages and ledgers that we hadn't seen. One of them involved a unit that was around these hills around the time your ancestor, Titus, was killed."

"The story is it was the Second Virginia. But we never knew."

"Well, we're pretty sure now, ma'am," Andrea said. "There were letters, and diaries, and a lot of things we thought were true we can now pretty much prove. And one thing we had no idea about. Titus' son, your...great grandfather?"

"Two greats. Great great grandfather in law."

"Yes, well....Titus sold out the Railroad. To the Confederates."

"Sold out? What do you mean?" Cornelia's voice sounded tight.

"He was in debt to a couple of members of the unit. They had been playing poker in the front room here, and Titus II lost, and lost big. So he told the unit about the Underground Railroad, in order to get his debts forgiven, and they caught the next couple of groups that came through. Then the Railroad stopped using it."

"And his father?"

"That's unclear," the younger woman said. "It may have been just an unfortunate side effect."

Cornelia drew in a deep breath. "How do you know?"

"A letter from the unit commander telling the story. A second letter telling the same story from another member of the unit. And a ledger entry involving the commander being rewarded with 5 silver dollars for cutting off that branch of the Railroad."

"So you're sure."

"As sure as we can be about events that happened 150 years ago," Andrea said. She sipped her tea. "I'm sorry to have to be the one that tells you."

"Not as sorry as I am. How old are you, dear?," Cordelia asked.

"24," Andrea said.

"You're not married?"

"No," Andrea said.

"No kids?"


"Brothers? Sisters?"

"Only child," Andrea said.

"I'm turning 72 next month, dear. 72 years. Three times longer than you. Members of my husband's family have lived here since the Madison Administration. I have four kids, 14 grandkids, and a great grandchild due to be born this fall. You have no idea what it is like to have a lineage. To have a bloodline that is yours. It's all you are, really. And I won't have it tarnished. I will not allow the Knights to believe they come from dishonorable men. I forbid you to publish this."

"Ma'am, with all due respect. It's history."

Cornelia looked at the younger woman hard. "I forbid it. If word of this appears anywhere, you will hear from my attorney."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Knight. But you can't do that."

"Get out," Cornelia said coldly, and the younger woman did, folding up her notebook and making her way to the front door alone. Cornelia kept staring into the space where Andrea used to be, wishing she had never come, watching the girl's tea cool, and trying to erase 72 years of lies.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Scriptic Prompt Exchange: "To Live Is To Die"

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Tara Roberts gave me this prompt: ' In memory of Nora Ephron: “I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I'll know how it turned out.” How would the last page of your life story read?. ' I gave Grace O'Malley this prompt:' ​"The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it." -F.Scott Fitzgerald ']

{Author's Note: I really wasn't sure how I wanted to take this on. I've stopped really writing about myself, mostly because I am frightfully boring. (The caveat being, of course, as Bono reminds us, "every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief.") So I warn audiences far and near that what follows is fiction. Nonsense. Hooey and applesauce. A tale told by a fool, signifying nothing.}

I always snicker inwardly when one of the staff lean over me. "Patterson Rehab and Living Center" is sewn in archaic script above the left breast of the shirts the staff wear, and I am neither capable of being rehabbed, nor of doing very much living. It was a nothing joke, a throwaway line, but my wife would have chuckled, probably shaking her head as she looked down, if she had heard it.  I probably told her thousands of jokes over the years- remembered gags from standups, stupid "three x walk into a bar" stories, puns and double entendres. We could always make each other laugh.

She's gone now. Three and a half years ago, Christmas Eve night. How's that for a joke? Wrap the presents, go outside for a final, frigid cigarette before bed, and slip and fall on the ice, never to wake up again. She would appreciate the irony of that- a death worthy of the master of satire, Kurt Vonnegut himself. Try to kill yourself with cigarettes for decades, and expire because of a slip and fall.

I wandered around for a while after that, dumbfounded. I always told her I would survive if she wasn't around, and I did. But I was awfully bad at it. Without adult supervision, men fall into patterns, usually static, stupid ones. Or I did, at least. I ate too much, stopped exercising, stopped caring. 6 months after that I collapsed in a heap getting the mail at the end of the driveway. They told me that a UPS man called 911, and I've been in the hands of the medical industrial complex ever since.

Fortunately, they still talk to me. I guess it's a medical ethics thing- they continue to explain the procedures, where I'm going, what they're about to do. I can't move a muscle- a phrase that never meant more to me until the last 12 months or so. I can't blink, or smile, or twitch an arm or a leg. Not a thing. Absolutely no communication with anyone. They've done CAT scans, MRIs, all sorts of tests, and apparently they see so much brain activity they don't dare shut me off. But I'm fed through tubes, I evacuate through tubes, everything is done for me by an endless stream of  women. Tall ones, short ones, round ones, flat ones, white, brown, and black ones. My wife would have laughed at that. "Finally, your dream scenario," she'd say. "Being waited on hand and foot by young women. Literally."

I've given up worrying or getting angry. Even if I allowed myself emotions like that, how would I display them? I spent the entire first month, in between bouts of sleep, raging at my confinement, willing a finger or a toe or an eyelash to move, flicker, something. Let me speak, let me communicate, let me live, for heaven's sake. Let me ask if the Dodgers won, tell me Steven Strasburg's win total, something. But eventually calm fell over me. Resignation, really. Whatever kind of stroke this was, it had severed my motor control as surely as a puppet slumps when you cut its strings.

I was awakened by the familiar sounds of an aide coming in to check on me. I knew from my years in the industry that one of the things they tried to do was check in on each person every 8 hours- touch them, talk to them, take their vital signs. It was a way to prove that everyone was being watched, and it was, ideally, a way to make sure you caught problems before they blossomed into major issues. But it was the sort of practice I felt sure that, big companies being what they are, if they didn't have to do it, they wouldn't.

I knew it was dark out. Since I couldn't turn my head and I couldn't eat, time didn't have much concrete meaning any more. I just knew I was aware of it being light, and then, later, I was aware of it being dark. I could tell from the way the shadows played across the industrial lights that were my constant companion. The aide's face swam into my vision, a red haired girl I hadn't seen before that I could remember.

"Hello, there. How are, tonight? I'm sorry. I'm new here. I don't know why they make us do this, because I don't even know if you can hear me or anything. Or if you can understand me. Maybe it's like house plants, maybe talking to people makes them healthier? I don't know."

I felt my field of vision shift. I knew logically she was tilting me to one side so she could check for bed sores or other skin issues. "I shouldn't say that. You're not a plant. I'm sorry." I couldnt feel what she was doing. "But at least you're a good listener. That's more than I can say for most men I know." My vision changed again, back to the typical view of the overhead light again. Her hands came up to my face. She had manicured nails, but short ones. I figured her work pretty much demanded that.

"You look like my ex. Older, but you have the same kind of face." She had blooms of red on her cheeks, which were otherwise porcelain white. Her eyes were bright blue. I could see thick red hair pulled back tight. When she bent low, I could see tan bra straps and a tiny gold cross. "I wish you could talk, at least. I really need someone to talk to. Everyone here is like 50. Nobody understands what it's like."

My field of vision shifted again, and I realized she was tilting me the other way. "You're practically the only guy here. Most people here are women, and nobody even close to my age." She paused. I could hear her swallow. "I guess I can tell you, right? It's not like you can tell anybody. He wants to get back together. My ex. We fight all the time, and sometimes...well, we fight a lot. It gets bad."

My vision shifted, and I was looking at the ceiling again. She was looking at me, her hands near my wrist. Pulse, I assumed. She was quiet. She had a womanly body, the kind of woman who usually gains weight after giving birth. Thick hips and thighs, busty, well built. Weighty. Fertile. Solid. I looked at the cross around her neck, and I ached to touch her, to feel the warmth of her hands, to watch her blush when I complimented her. She stopped, moved closer to my head, and thus, out of view.

"But who else am I going to get?," she continued. "I'm not pretty, I'm not rich, I'm not anything. I'm not going to find a man any better than him. And he will get better. I think, once he calms down, he'll be fine. When I finish school and stuff, he won't be so mad all the time. And, well, it's not just the two of us anymore. Or, it won't be. So I've got to take him back, now. I know he'll find a job soon. And then another year I'll be done with school. Maybe a year and a half. I'll probably have to take some time off. It will work out. It's got to."

She came back into my field of view. I could see what she meant now- the swelling that made her top tight across the middle was more than just beer and nachos. "Well, anyhow, on to the next room. Thanks for, um, listening, I guess. Bye!" She faded from view, walking out and around the corner, and I heard her voice, high and chipper and cheerful, echoing from the room next to mine. I looked at the ceiling, the same bank of lights, yearning to cry out, begging her to come back, urging my arm to move. But I made no sound, and I didn't move, and my brain chewed on itself as the room got darker and the Earth, unaware, turned beneath us all.

{Author's Note Addendum: I did very little research and/or thinking about exactly what sort of stroke might cause a disability like this. I'm pretty sure I got it wrong. Apologies to sticklers for detail.}