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Lost in Romania, Personal Essay

Are great Blog Posts a matter of taste?

January 18, 2017
Eddie

Yay. I’ve just finished writing. Ready to click Publish when I pause just long enough to ask myself, “Is this any good?”

I have, as many of us do, an Inner Editor that should be responsible for this kind of thing, but lately he’s been yelling at me to write faster. Write every day. Write at least a 1000 words. Just write…Right? Continue Reading…

Personal Essay, Short Stories

Canyoneering is for crazy People

July 29, 2016

This post is a break from the narrative of our journey along the Appalachian Trail. I know, I know, the blog is already about 900 miles behind, but I hope this post provides some context for those that follow.

More importantly, I’ve recently celebrated my 100th day on the Trail. I wanted to say that the mosquito that bit me today was the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of the mosquito that was born the day I started my hike, but Google tells me that the females (who apparently live 6-8 weeks) are the blood suckers, while the short-lived but far more amiable males prefer to live off flower power. While it’s tempting to digress about the philosophical and physiological implications of mosquito lifespans and behaviors, I really just want to point out that 100 days is a long time.

100 days also marks one of my longest Funk-free intervals since 2010. No debilitating agoraphobia or depression, and (mostly) manageable anxiety. For me, that’s huge. Even bigger than the inflamed mosquito mementos on my legs.

I know I’m still crazy, and that’s ok. However, my underlying intention for undertaking this journey – hiking to a better version of myself – has become more than a tagline. It’s an achievable goal that is within reach. I still have a long way to go, both in terms of miles, and in terms of spiritual and mental healing. But I’m on the right path.

I hope you’ll indulge me this aside as I share a piece of my not-distant-enough past. It’s dark, and not very flattering. However, as I reflect back on these dark days from a position of confidence and peace, supported by a growing community of family and friends, I am overwhelmed by the potential for growth and healing that we all share.

Next post we’ll pick up the narrative again. I’m really looking forward to sharing the section of the trail I hiked with my brother in Christ, John. I’m thinking about calling it the Adventures of Sketch and Stretch…

image

Canyoneering is for Crazy People

 

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” I’m pretty sure that when William Hickson popularized this proverb back in the 1800’s, he was primarily teaching the value of perseverance. But there is also a subtle message of hope in this short sentence: if you keep trying, you will eventually succeed.

There was a time, in my not-distant-enough past, that hope was elusive and success seemed like an impossibility. I was miserable. The thing I was hoping to succeed at was suicide. And I was horrible at it.
I tried a drug overdose (I have a miraculously resilient liver and kidneys); cutting my throat and wrists (I now have several embarrassing scars, a smile that leans to the left, and some nerve damage); and shooting myself (I chickened out). I even gave dehydration and exposure a try (there are some breathtaking views in the arid foothills north of San Antonio, Texas- but if you’re planning a 3-day walk-about, I would recommend sun screen and plenty of water). Apparently, suicide by more conventional means wasn’t going to work for me. My failure to complete a successful suicide was almost as depressing as the depression that prompted me to try in the first place. I was ready for something drastic.

Looking for a drastic alternative was probably the only reason I let myself get talked into something called “canyoneering.” The email invitation I received had pictures of climbers dangling from smooth cliffs, and dark caves, and guys shimmying across ropes. It also contained a lot of warnings: DANGEROUS was in all-caps.
This sounded drastic enough to get me off the couch. I dredged up the motivation to take my first shower in days and agreed to meet with the trip organizer over lunch.

The trip organizer, Michael, was an accountant by day and epic trip coordinator by night. He was also part of a men’s group at Concordia Lutheran Church that I had been loosely affiliated with before I relocated to The Abyss. Nearly all of the guys in this group were busy with successful careers and families, but none of us were extremists by nature. Michael was the exception. Normally soft-spoken and unusually precise with his words, I watched this unassuming man come alive as our conversation shifted from the how-have-you-been’s and sorry-to-hear-about-that’s to the upcoming adventure. He began to glow to charisma and confidence. Even though I was tangled up in self-loathing and despair, his dramatic transformation forced a left-leaning smile out of me.
And Michael never asked me the question. He never asked, “what are you so depressed about?” As I saw it, there were really only two ways to answer the question: 1.) I had either done (or neglected to do) something horrible, in which case I deserved to be punished, or something tragic and beyond my control ruined any chance of a meaningful life. In either of these cases, wouldn’t a good friend be obligated to help put me out of my misery? And 2.) I could try to explain the mental implosion I was enduring. Most people can understand mental EXplosions… unleashing destructive energy through violence or bad decisions. How could I explain something that stole all of my energy, built up silently inside me, and destroyed my ability to think logically, concentrate or feel anything other than an overwhelming and undefinable sense of doom? Then finally, when I couldn’t endure it anymore, latching onto the sweet promise of escape through death?

Fortunately, we didn’t go down that path. Instead, he focused me on the trip ahead. I nibbled on a slider (registering without surprise that it was my first meal in two days) as Michael tried to convince me that some fresh air and testosterone-fueled adventure would snap me out of my funk. He jittered with anticipation as he promised chances to rappel across bottomless sink-holes, scale cliffs of “slick-rock,” and conclude with a blind dive into Lake Powell. All, he said, under the supervision of guides trained to ensure our safety.
An idea took root over the course of our conversation and grew. There would be plenty of opportunities to engineer an “accident.” I paid selfishly little attention to the impact my “accident” would have on the group. Instead, I was lost to the promise of relief that would come from finally taking a fatal plunge.

After indulging in a solitary and cheerless (but expensive) last hurrah at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, I joined the rest of the group to caravan up to our houseboat on Lake Powell. We met our guides: three wiry, nimble, good-hearted guys that seemed to be everywhere, making sure everyone was safe and following instructions. My nemeses.
By the second day (after we had all demonstrated proficiency with our safety gear and followed all instructions), our guides began to relax. There were exhilarating moments, and beautiful vistas. We started to form bonds that were stronger than the ropes connecting us.

Despite all this, I was still desperate to have an “accident.”

It looked like my moment arrived as I waited for John (a tall and lanky engineer with a contagious barking laugh) to spider-walk across a gaping sink-hole. One of his hands lost purchase on the slick sides of the sink-hole and before we knew it, he was dangling from the safety rope.
He was welcomed to the other side with shoulder-slaps and jokes about the implications of tall guys with weak hands quickly enough, but I saw that if I didn’t fully secure the safety rope to my harness, I would be free to fall as far as the sink-hole would let me.

My hands were sweaty and shaking. John was still commanding most of the attention. I shimmied out, face-down over the hole, extending my arms and legs to maintain contact as I approached the widest point. I didn’t see bottom, just an endless supply of black. My weak arms and legs trembled as I tried to work up the courage to let go. Just do it. The black beneath me began to expand, blocking everything else out, until it was just me struggling with a desire to let go and an instinct to hold on.
The instinct to hold on grew stronger as my limbs fatigued. A series of “maybes” began to play out in my mind: maybe I could do meaningful work again; maybe I could love (and be loved by) a good woman again; maybe my life was worth living. At the time, these “maybes” were only fragments of images, but it was clearly Hope forcing its way into my consciousness. For the first time in years, I decided I wanted to live. Really give life another try. But I was stuck. I barely had the strength to hold on, much less continue to spider-walk to the other side. The safety rope was tangled uselessly around my rescue-eight. I couldn’t hold on long enough for the guides to scurry out to me.
Now that I wanted to live, I was going to die. I tell myself in hindsight that I couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, let myself be killed by something as pitiful as irony. No way. My body released its reserves of adrenaline and I forced myself to inch closer to the other side. With each movement I reaffirmed my commitment to live again. The blackness was still there beneath me. I still felt an urge to yield to it, but this urge retreated to a more distant, nearly nostalgic position.
The sides of the sink-hole drew closer as I advanced, allowing me to bend my limbs and get a little more leverage. I was going to make it. I crammed years’ worth of thoughts and internal dialog into the time it took me to reach the safety of the other side, even though the whole event was over in a few moments.

I can’t remember much after reaching the safety of the other side and joining the rest of the group. Did anyone notice how close I came to going “gentle into that good night” (as Dylan Thomas writes)? Were there celebratory shoulder-slaps for me too, signifying that I had earned the right to be one of the guys? I can’t remember.

I do remember that we concluded the day’s canyoneering with a dive into Lake Powell. We rappelled individually down one of the cliff faces that borders the lake to dive from a narrow ledge about 5-meters over the water. Then we swam back to our houseboat for cold beers and a chance to polish our stories of heroism for the folks back home.
When it was my turn on the ledge, I stared out over the water. It was calm and dark and huge. There was some similarity between the welcoming appeal of the water and the black pit I had met earlier, but mostly I was hot and the water was going to be a refreshing way to cool off. I also fought the same instinct to keep holding on. Don’t do it. Don’t risk a crazy leap into the unknown. I jumped.

 

P.S. A sincere thanks to John and Michael, not only for reviewing this, but more importantly, for showing the kind of brotherly love and support that helped me to hold on when I wanted to let go… and to let go when I needed to drop the garbage I was holding on to.

A merry band of brothers basking in the glory of another successful adventure

A merry band of brothers basking in the glory of another successful adventure

Lost in Romania, Personal Essay

What is an (Almost) Unsalvageable life?

March 17, 2016
What is an Almost Unsalvageable life

I rarely drink in public anymore. To be fair, I don’t do much of anything around large groups of people. I don’t drink in public because I prefer to do my drinking in places where crowd control won’t be an issue, but also because I seem to get cornered by strangers that need to unload a secret or issue they’ve been struggling with. As they tell me about losing their job, accidentally running over their dog with the car, and/or cheating on their husband, my nervous visual search for an emergency exit must look like everyone else’s empathy and attentive listening.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t care. Sometimes, we make such shameful messes that bar-stool confessions to strangers seems like a reasonable first step on the road to redemption. I get that. I really do. I’m quickly draining the dregs of my Jack and Coke to scurry to the exit because I can’t do anything meaningful to help, aside from listening. I wish I were still the guy that had life all figured out and could share its secrets. I wish I had a spray-bottle of life’s “stain-remover” that we could use to clean up messes. But I don’t.

 

For this reason (and several others), this post is particularly difficult for me to craft. I’m about to be the guy that unloads a pile of issues that I’ve been struggling with. There will be some surprises. However, you deserve to know what you’re getting into. So, I’m sorry in advance. The next round is on me…

 

I turned my otherwise idyllic life into a big pile of steaming mess in 2010.

 

A 13-year marriage ended in divorce. My ex-wife assumed sole custody of our adopted daughter. I medically retired from an 18-year military career as an Air Force surgeon/scientist. There was nearly complete alienation from friends and family. Not much sleep.

 

I was depressed. Very depressed.

 

I wasn’t much good at committing suicide (fortunately), but good enough to earn three ICU stays after each attempt. Persistent efforts from psychiatrists, psychologists and pastors to counsel me back from the precipice fell on deaf ears. Cocktails of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and even antipsychotics didn’t have much effect (aside from drastic swings in my sleep patterns and weight). Twelve sessions of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) left me with a profound distrust of uncapped batteries and electrical outlets. And depression.

 

I lived in limbo for two years. Unable to commit suicide, but too miserable to live.

 

Between periods of profound malaise, I experimented with life-threatening adventures in the hopes that fate would finish what I couldn’t. I tried parachuting, canyoneering, and even eating Taco Bell regularly. It was delicious fun, but I kept surviving. In fact, it was during some of these outdoor adventures that I made a surprising discovery. I enjoyed being outside. In nature. I could think more clearly. And, thank you sweet baby Jesus, I could get a full nights sleep again.

 

I eventually found that it wasn’t the thrill-seeking behavior that provided a reprieve from my crippling depressive symptoms; it was the directed movement surrounded by living things. I didn’t need a helmet (or Mylanta) any longer to regain the necessary focus and motivation to start putting my life back together.

 

Hiking is now my medication of choice. And I’m not the only one. It’s a thing now – it’s called Ecotherapy. It seems to be working for me: I’ve been able to venture out of my dad’s storage room (AKA “the cave”) long enough to travel most of Europe; I’ve convinced an amazingly patient woman that I’m stable enough to marry; and I haven’t had a severe depressive episode in three years.

 

My life is still a big pile of steaming mess, but its getting better. I think I’m ready to take on the challenge of a long distance hike, to feel like I have a purpose again, and to connect with people in a meaningful way…

 

Thank you very much for sticking it out with me (and I don’t blame you if you had the urge to run for the exit). I guess this means you’re either incredibly patient, it’s a slow news week, or (hopefully) you’re my kind of people.

Short Stories

Escape from Bucharest

March 15, 2016

The 10-hour train ride away from Bucharest was either a trip back in time, or a view beyond the apocalypse. Angry faded graffiti covered the overpasses and returning train cars. Decimated factories groaned through glass-fanged window panes. These gave way to abandoned vehicles, piles of rubble and trash. Finally, finally, vegetation and even trees claimed more of the view. Solitary single-story homes were brightly painted and surrounded by overgrown gardens. Sunflower fields kept a uniform watch on the progress of the sun. Then there were honest-to-God peasants. And they walked in front of sway-backed horses that pulled rickety carts loaded with firewood or hay.

I sipped on my Coke, imagining the reception I would receive if I stood surrounded by a group of these peasants, bringing them into the 21st century with gifts of iPhones and tractors. Usually I saw grateful gap-toothed grins and baskets full of fresh vegetables held by trembling children, but the fantasy ended with a trio of hunched crones spitting hate-filled curses at me.

 

When the train arrived in Arad, an orderly cue of taxis waiting to carry passengers to their final destination and clusters of eight-story cement apartment buildings killed my illusions about Transylvania. I’m not saying that I expected a mythical land populated by vampires and gypsies with magical powers, but I was hoping for a few weeks of freedom from scurrying around in a big city.

 

I had convinced myself (and eventually my wife Monica) that I needed to spend a few weeks alone in the countryside. Monica and I squinted at the thumbnail pic of a cozy looking villa located deep in Transylvania (home-cooked meal included daily) and I booked it. Fresh air, fresh food and friendly people transported straight from the Shire that thought my American accent and atrocious Romanian was adorable. It was just the sort of comfortable adventure I needed to appreciate Romania again. And ideally, I would finally make some progress converting a writing hobby into something more meaningful.

Beyond the train station, crowds of people rushed ant-like in and out of the same shops found in Bucharest. I began to suspect that I might have benefitted from a bit more planning when a man approached me.

 

“Are you Gabriel Burkhardt?” he asked in English.

 

“I am. And you must be Dragos Alexandrescu.” The owner himself offered to give me a ride when I booked the villa, which I took as a reassuring omen of better things to come.

 

“Bine! Come. Please, let me take your baggage. We have many kilometers to reach our villa.” The man was short and spherical, with a full head of iron-grey hair and a craggy face. He flicked his wrist towards the back passenger window and an old woman got out. He made no effort to help with my luggage or to introduce me to the old woman.

The old woman fussed in a language I vaguely recognized as Romanian while two dogs tried to sneak past her. She managed to keep them pinned in the car before closing the door. Her red-knuckled hand touched mine as she reached for my suitcase handle. It felt as dry and callused as a piece of driftwood.

 

“No. It’s no trouble. These bags are heavy,” I said, but she was already hefting my suitcases into the trunk with ease.

 

The drive out of Arad wasn’t as dramatic as the train out of Bucharest, but the demarcation between city and countryside was very distinct. Eight-story buildings became three-story buildings, ground floors were still cluttered with shops and restaurants, and intersections transitioned from stately round-abouts with fountains or austere statuary to parallel streets with traffic lights.

Then, a gas station on a landscaped elevation dominated by a squat RomCom marquis dared us with its smiling blue and yellow logo to proceed at our own risk. There was nothing but undeveloped field on either side of the two-lane road beyond it. Dragos didn’t slow his monologue about local sights and history, or his little red Dacia, as he swerved up to a fuel pump.

 

“You should get what you want now. There are not so many choices near Villa Alexandrescu. But that is what you need for your writing yes? No city distractions and busy people? Yes?” He pushed his paunch in with a hand to clear the steering wheel and got out with a grunt.

 

The old woman sat scrunched and silent between two dogs, one a German Sheppard puppy with huge twitching ears and the other a grey-snouted Border Collie. If they moved, she snapped in rapid and unintelligible Romanian. I couldn’t remember how to ask her if she wanted my seat in Romanian aside from saying “you want” while gesturing at the passenger seat I was in. She scowled at me, but didn’t respond. I realized then that asking her if she wanted while gesturing animatedly at my lap could be interpreted in more than one way.

 

I couldn’t make my exit any more awkward, so I just got out of the car and headed in to stock up on junk food. The food selection was impressive for a gas station, and Monica would have cringed to see the pile of comfort foods I scored: Pringles, Snickers, Coke, Haagen-Dazs. Anything I recognized as a product also available in the states. I also grabbed two Davidoff cigars and a bottle of Jack Daniels (maybe there would be something to celebrate).

 

“Villa Alexandrescu is 25 kilometers from here. Here is nothing except unused Gypsy land,” Dragos said once we were back on the road.

 

I felt an uneasy vibe coming from the back seat. It may have been the dogs panting on the back of my neck, but just in case, I asked Dragos to tell his mother that I didn’t mean to offend her when I offered her my seat. He flipped his wrist up in annoyance and said she wasn’t his mother, that she was his girlfriend’s mother, and that she was where she belonged.

I asked him how long he owned Villa Alexandrescu. There was quite a bit of hand waving as he explained that there was some legal dispute over the ownership of some of his property, and that he could only raise fowl, but once the courts settled the case, there would be sheep too.

 

“Villa Alexandrescu is also a working farm?” I asked. The scenery passing my window was so rugged, I had a hard time imagining anyone bending this land to his will.

 

“It is certain!” he said. “There are fresh tomatoes and cucumbers even now, and fruit trees and chicken and geese. This is a surprise for you, but these are American Geese! You know them yes?”

 

I wondered again if my expectations for a quiet countryside bed and breakfast were unrealistic, but I kept an open mind. An adventure was part of what I needed anyway.

 

I started to spot deserted buildings that were being reclaimed by trees and shrubbery when he turned off the pavement onto a packed dirt road. I was surprised to see these cement shells so far from civilization and wondered what purpose they had served.

In answer to my silent question, a child rode an oversized bicycle out of a doorless opening in a building surrounded by vegetation. I wouldn’t have noticed him if it weren’t for his bright clothes. There were more bright clothes draped from a line between two trees.

 

“People actually live in these buildings?” I asked.

 

“It is certain! The Funar family lives here since my grandfather. It is not so good as it was. There is no money for repairs.” He looked at me quickly then returned his attention to the narrow dirt road. He slowed to let a trail of chickens cross. “Do not worry. They will not trouble you. They do not like the dogs.” I didn’t know if he was talking about the Funar family or the chickens.

 

Then he stopped for no reason. There was a scrunched line of sentinel pines to my right that I couldn’t see behind. What looked like a huge cinderblock, split in half and separated by a stone path, blocked my view to the left. We had to be close and I hoped that he wasn’t trying to give me a tour of the local ruins before checking in at Villa Alexandrescu.

Before I could phrase a polite deferral on the unscheduled tour, the old woman and dogs got out of the car. She went straight for my bags. No fucking way. Dragos performed another exit maneuver and said, “Come! Let me show you Villa Alexandrescu. I must return to the city soon. My girlfriend makes dinner.”

The dogs had already scouted the path, both marking the same spot before disappearing between the buildings. I heard chickens clucking excitedly and a rooster crowed. No fucking way.

 

“This, this is the same villa that I reserved? From the website?” I asked.

 

“It is certain! A peaceful, secluded, rustic getaway. And home-cooked meal included daily!” he quoted from the website.

 

I was standing outside the car, too stunned to stop the old woman as she struggled to get my luggage up the path between the buildings. I held on to the car door and pulled my cell phone out. “There is no service here.”

 

“Come! Let me show you.” He bent slowly at the waist while making a wide scooping motion with his arm. I followed, if for no other reason than to get my suitcases back from the old woman before she scavenged them.

The density of chicken shit on the path increased as I walked between the buildings, making it impossible to avoid. The structure on the right had two waist-high openings pocked with glass shards. Debris covered dirt floors. He noticed me trying to look deeper into the darkened recesses. “That was the store rooms for winter. We don’t use that now,” he said without slowing. There was a faint but pungent smell of rotting meat.

Just get your bags back and make him take you back to Arad. And hope that there isn’t a gang waiting to mug me. 

 

            I didn’t try to hide the horror on my face as I turned the corner. A flock of chickens scampered over bare dirt. The Collie herded them while the German Sheppard puppy chased behind, learning the ropes. No sign of the old woman.

Dragos was demonstrating the hand-crank for the well, then pushing aside a mildewed curtain to show me the outdoor shower and warning me to tell the old woman if I wanted a shower so she could heat the water. Neither of us acknowledged the miasma surrounding an isolated hut in the middle of chicken territory. It announced its own purpose with nauseating clarity. The sight and smell made everything else a little less repulsive by comparison, but not much. He identified the clumps of vegetables struggling to survive as he marched past each wire wrapped boundary.

 

“Stop!” I said. “This is not what I was expecting. Just, give me my luggage back and take me back to the city so I can find a hotel room.”

 

“I don’t have time to drive you to find a hotel room this night.” Dragos was unperturbed. “Come. Your room is ready. Let me show you. You can write and eat and enjoy the countryside. I will come back. Take you to the train so you can return to Bucharest.”

 

He pointed one of his square fingers at a counter beside the door leading inside, telling me to leave my snacks there in the “kitchen.” I still hadn’t seen the old woman, or more importantly, my bags.

Inside was a windowless square space. No one was waiting to mug me. And there was my luggage, unopened and next to an oversized couch covered with a pile of sheep-skin blankets. A little fire was going in a stone fireplace. Dragos began opening the doors to a very cool secretary desk and told me I was welcome to use any of the books in the “library.” An ancient grandfather clock stood guard in a corner nearest the door. Its tarnished brass pendulum dangled motionless and time was frozen at 5:37. There was a brown smoke ring on the walls about a foot from the ceiling, like a scum-line in an old bathtub- which would have been a nice addition to Villa Alexandrescu.

Dragos ushered me back outside. A campfire was flickering and crackling playfully beyond the geese pen (“See American Geese just for you!”). Dragos pointed out the servant’s quarters. It was a shack in the process of becoming one with a plum tree. Instead of a door, a brightly colored blanket hung over the opening. “Go there if you need anything. She will get it for you,” he said. Mashed plums littered the ground but I didn’t see an obvious path to the shack.

 

The old woman was already cooking dinner in a cauldron suspended over the campfire. She had changed into a sky-blue smock and moved with a silent efficiency that surprised me. Dragos still didn’t acknowledge her, instead he directed me to a handmade table with four mismatched chairs that was sheltered by an enormous tree with weird green fruit.

I was still watching her scurrying around the campfire, entranced by the dancing flames, when Dragos hurled one of the green fruits at the ground. Fascinated, I gawked as he recovered a walnut shell from the pulverized remains of the green fruit. He crushed the shell between his hands. Then he plucked another from the tree and tossed it to me. “You can eat whatever fruits you find,” he said as I struggled to get at the meat inside my prize. “Stay. Relax. Write. I will be back tomorrow, the day after at latest. If you don’t like it, I will take you to the train. You will return to your wife, your life, to Bucharest.”

I imagined returning to Monica, head bowed as I listened to her propose more reasonable solutions to my difficulty adjusting to life in Romania. Not an option. I can handle this.

 

Dragos stayed just long enough to pour two glasses of homemade wine and toast my success before turning me over to the old woman. Soon I had a belly full of fish soup, which was delicious despite the occasional stab from elusive bones, and a head spinning from too much wine. The old woman nodded at my Multumesc! Aceasta este delicios, but wouldn’t speak or join me.

 

My prayer that the rooster would stop its relentless nagging the next morning was the first wholly desperate and sincere prayer I can remember since I’d stopped wearing pajamas with footies. I eventually crawled out from under a pillowy pile of sheepskins to face the day. No sign of the old woman or the dogs.

I tried to write. Nothing came to mind. I looked through the tattered books on the upper shelf of the secretary desk, recognizing Romanian translations of Dickens and Tolstoy. I felt like all stories were really the same. Somebody was born, lived, and by some means, died. That was pretty much it. I stared at the dead grandfather clock, willing it to start moving again. It didn’t.

 

Tictoctictoc

Dance for merriment’s sake

Tic-toc tic-toc

Rest my weary heart proclaims

Tic…toc

And Beat no more

 

Some indeterminate time later, I left a handwritten copy of this six-line tribute (the sum-total of my day’s efforts) in the dusty base of the clock and ventured outside again.

 

The pens were open, which allowed the chickens and ducks and geese to congregate freely. Lots of pleasant clucking, honking and productive scavenging. The old woman had also returned. She sat at the table drinking wine from a cocktail glass and just watched me as I sat down opposite her. The dogs waited attentively in the near distance, aware but not intruding.

Now that we were both sitting, facing each other, and not moving, I noticed her skin. It was the brown of old mushrooms and hung loosely over forearms that were bigger (and probably stronger) than mine. Her face had no particular expression, though the deep and interwoven grooves had a certain pattern that seemed like it wanted to mean something. I was sure I could see laugh lines around her squinting eyes.

 

“You’ve got this smile,” I said in English, knowing she couldn’t understand me, but feeling the need to hear my voice after a day of silence. “Its like you’ve got your own private little joke. How do you do that? You’re in your 60’s, working for nothing, and living,” I swept my arms around, trying not to focus on the outhouse, “like this.”

 

“That’s the trouble with you people in the cities,” she responded in accented English.

 

“You speak English?” I felt betrayed.

 

She didn’t answer my question directly. Instead she said, “You are too busy going someplace better to notice good things, good people.”

 

“I notice,” I said. I felt like I was being scolded for some reason and I wasn’t going to give her the high ground by asking her why she didn’t tell me she could speak English earlier.

I poured myself a glass of wine and drank it in one pouty swallow. “When Dragos comes, I’ll have him take me to town to pick up some wine that won’t make us go blind. And maybe some better apples.” I took a mealy apple wedge from the bowl in front of her and pitched it towards the approaching flock of geese.

 

“Why search for fruit to buy when you can pick it from trees growing right at your feet?” She sounded irritated, exasperated. Then she made a point of stuffing one of the better-looking wedges into her mouth.

 

“You don’t want me here, do you?”

 

She managed a smile, despite a full mouth. Took her time chewing. Once she finished she said, “Go back to your life. Eat your own fruit. Leave me to mine. Yes?”

Flash Fiction

The Rainbow Man

March 15, 2016

The most inspiring art jumps from canvases thick with new beginnings. That’s what I tell myself as I survey a flat littered with evidence of my failures. Each unrealized attempt to convey the contents of my mind is entombed within clumpy coats of nearly concealing paint. I see specks of orange and blue peeking through splashed on layers of suppressive gray and white to see where they betrayed their creator. Good God! The unventilated poisons wafting from these abominations are finally addling my brain.

In my eagerness to escape, I hardly take time to don a cravat. White gloves cover any speckled pigment remaining on poorly washed hands, and my unkempt hair is confined within a top hat. Cane and coat complete my costume: no need to advertise my distress.

 

Parisian spring taunts the senses en route to the Louvre. It is nauseating. Beauty is available for purchase along the bustling Champs Elysees; however, one must endure the odor and clamor generated by the relentless stream of prancing horses and their carriages. Irrepressible life flits tree-to-tree along avenues of the Jardin des Tuileries. Love lounges within easy reach of couples that litter its lawns. Bah!

A silent vender spreads a slimy coat of strawberry jam over a crepe with a flourish, but the whole spectacle has become so repugnant I throw it away in disgust without taking a bite.

 

I do not find asylum within the shrine to my mentors. Some still labor on rickety scaffolds to complete another masterpiece before they die. I cannot suppress a suspicion that these geniuses, waving their wands in flawless arcs, are naive to the bitterness of the blemish.

Their towering creations, each scarcely contained within gilded frames, fail to revitalize me. While I aspire to have my own work displayed on these hallowed walls, I must accept that it is providence rather than merit that has delivered the patronage necessary to afford a presentable costume.

My habit, duty, is to dispense a bit of wisdom to the amiable students floundering behind easels on my way out, but today I fear they will breach my facade. Fortunately, most have clustered around an unfamiliar man offering to paint portraits for a single franc. I, like the students and more than a few passers-by, am inexplicably drawn to him.

Hunched on a three-legged stool, he smears red and blue in haphazard dollops with each forefinger, green and yellow with dabs from middle fingers, and blends with rainbowed palms. Pulsating plumes from his gnarled pipe keeps time for his rasping fingertips.

Pausing, Painting, Pausing.

 

He delivers a completed canvas. The recipient’s fingers float adoringly above oily crests and troughs. Formerly flawed strokes form the perfectly raised foundation of a portrait that would otherwise be impossible to create. This saint of the stain takes no notice of the transcendence in his beneficiary as deft hands move a new canvas into place, but a careless observer might mistake the practiced shift of his pipe as a smile.