Saturday, November 21, 2009

My New Best Friend

It was a very dark night and the moon was hidden, but I found the cool of the outdoor bench to be a soothing relief from steamy indoor laundry work. I had grown up in the country, so my eyes were quite used to seeing in very low light. Chores on farms (as you know) are done before dawn.

It was not unusual to take my break alone. The other ladies sometimes joined me, but this time their shifts kept them busy. Sometimes also they skipped their midnight meals, but I needed the energy boost, so there I sat enjoying the late picnic and admiring the stars.

An odd fellow with a limping gait sat down beside me. In the dim light his extremely pale features made his face sort of glow, and his empty eyes stared gloomily ahead into space.

I ignored him and proceeded with my snack. The steaming smell of soup from my insulated food container wafted into the air. My silent companion sat bolt upright, a puzzled expression visiting his face.

"What..." he began. His voice was deep and mysterious.

"Go on," I said. "I won't bite you."

Again an odd look crossed his face, and he choked slightly like there was something stuck in his throat.

"What..." his voice whispered hoarsely, " in that bottle?"

"Oh, it's just my soup. It's my breaktime, and I must finish my late evening snack before returning to work in that hot old laundry room."

"What kind?" he persisted. A faint breeze picked up the ends of his long, lightweight coat and made it flutter.

"Chicken and roasted garlic," I said. "Want some?"

He looked like he was going to be sick.

"No," he said.

I ate in silence for a while, and studied my neighbor curiously between bites. He had deep red lips and dark outlines around his eyes like he was wearing eyeliner. Maybe he's into goth culture, I thought. It was not my business to judge, however, so I continued to sit and eat.

Continued, that is, until I accidentally spilled it. Spilled it right on his leg. I was so embarrassed! I apologized all over myself and began to soak it up with napkins. The man seemed to be beyond anger, though, and bit his lip in delirious pain.

"It's not that hot, is it?" I said. I handed him some napkins. "Be a man," I continued. "Don't be such a baby."

The strange person dried up the mess, adjusted his position, and sighed deeply. He wrapped his black cloak around him and rested his chin upon his hand. I noticed he was still biting his lip, however. I noticed also that his teeth seemed a bit long and sharp.

"You know, they can do something about that overbite," I said. He looked at me curiously.

"I don't mean to make personal remarks," I continued, "and you might feel just fine about how your teeth look, but I used to have the same problem and braces helped considerably."

He smiled saucily without answer.

"Here, let me get you the number of my orthodontist," I said, rummaging through my purse. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him watching the back of my neck, but I was already beginning to get used to his oddness, so I didn't pay it much heed.

"Shucks, so much junk in this purse," I muttered. "Here, hold this for me." I handed him some makeup compacts, my empty keychains, and the crucifix necklace I carried with me at all times. (It had been a gift from a very dear friend.)

The man rose straight up off the bench with a yelp as though his posterior had discovered a very large thumbtack. I was afraid he wasn't going to return my belongings, so I gave up the search and threw my stuff back in the bag.

"Sorry," I said. "I must have left it at home."

"That's all right," he said stiffly.

"So much at stake when one leaves for work in such a hurry," I said.

The man again became rather alarmed.

"What did you say?" he said.

I shrugged. "I said I had to hurry to get to work, and I may have dropped my phone book out of my..."

"No, the other part. What was that about stakes?"

"No, I don't like steaks at all. They're too tough and tasteless. I much prefer chicken or fish. I still think you should try some of this soup. It's great stuff!"

I pulled a very strong flashlight from my pocket and began making sure that my effects were in order. My companion squinted in the bright light and seemed to become very annoyed.

"Well, I think I've got everything. My break's almost over. It was nice meeting you."

He nodded sullenly and remained on the bench, staring off into space.

"It's so nice to meet new people," I added as I arose to leave. "I hope we meet again. Let me tell you though, those laundry rooms can suck you dry. Leaves you void of energy. I don't know how I do it sometimes."

A rustling of leaves answered me. Somehow he had left in the blink of an eye.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Furballs

The first time I found a furball I was not the least surprised, although I should have been. The morning paper hit my door at approximately 6 a.m., and I was there to answer it.

It was pink, about the size of a softball, and covered with thick fur.

"Some kids lost their toy," I muttered to myself. I kicked it off the doorstep.

It whimpered.

"Oh, great," I said. "What have I done now?"

I picked it up cautiously and turned it over. It had two yellow eyes that blinked at me sadly, and a small, flat, toothless mouth. The creature appeared to be breathing through two tiny holes in the place where one might expect ears, and it didn't appear to have any sort of feet. I rather liked it, and wondered where it had come from.

While I wondered, a tremendous rustling of leaves in the maple tree overhead suggested that I step aside, and another one plunked down into the grass. It was light brown with white spots, and its eyes were bright green.

"Two of them!" I said, scooping it up.


Every few minutes I looked up from my newspaper to see what these creatures were up to. I had left them on the floor mat near the door, and I had given them each a sweet roll which they were devouring eagerly.

"City pound? I have two furballs... What? No, they're not cats. No, not dogs, either. They're round and look like a tennis ball... Hello? Hello?"

I began to ponder what to do with them.

"Where'd they go?" I said out loud to myself.

Though they seemed to have no feet, both things were crawling up the wall in a snail-like fashion.

It occurred to me they might be some new exotic pet that escaped from a pet store, so I boxed them up in a dog carrier and took them in the front door of the nearest shop and marched right up to the service desk.

"Here for grooming services?" asked a softspoken, pleasant young man.

"No," I said. "I've found these creatures outside my house, and..."

"Wild animals or tame? You're not supposed to keep them if they're wild. If they're tame and you don't own them, the pound..."

"I've already called the pound, and they won't listen to me," I interrupted.

I opened the cage and dumped the contents on the desk: three furballs! The new one was a sleek black with bright blue eyes that glowed cheerily.

"Eek!" yelled the clerk while making tracks for the nearest exit. I sighed, packed them back up, and left the store with a shrug.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Ugly Convention

The highway passed beneath the car no faster than it ever had, and I grew impatient. Tim, half asleep, sat beside me. He was supposed to be helping, but I knew I'd be doing most of the work.

"We're almost there," I said, hoping to wake him up a little and maybe inspire him to get his camera ready.

"Mmph," he said. Tim always said "mmph". It must have meant something on the planet he came from, I chuckled silently to myself.

Two merry guards talked briskly at the gate and asked to see my pass. One frowned at the other and said something in his ear.

"Mr. Gruffy said I had permission to do a story on this place," I explained, hoping they would remember and not bar me from entering.

"Gruffy, the owner of the Daily Satellite," Tim put in. They looked him over carefully and nodded to one another in approval. The gates swung wide, and I drove on through.

"Wonder why they were questioning me. Thought we had this all set up."

"Easy," croaked Tim. "You're not ugly enough."

I had decided not to wear makeup, and instead of fixing my hair I had just tied it in a lazy ponytail. I had dressed in my oldest clothes for the occasion, but I guessed that it hadn't done enough good.

Tents and campers lined up for many aisles. Everyone was out milling around, talking and laughing, playing games, eating refreshments, and watching me park with critical eyes. I strode right up to one man who seemed particularly good at lawn bowling and opened my notebook.

"What's is it you like best about this convention?" I asked. "I'm Laney Brown from the Daily Satellite," I added with a smile.

The man frowned a bit. "I liked it just fine until you showed up," he said. I turned and walked away to find another person to interview. A senior citizen was walking her dog, so I pulled a treat biscuit from the pocket of my coat (an old trick I had learned for getting dog owners to talk), and introduced myself. Tim followed, camera in hand, typical lazy attitude afoot.

"Hello, I'm Laney Brown..." I began.

The woman picked up her dog, went into her camper, and slammed the door shut.

I went for a walk and looked around. Everyone here was definitely in the lowest 2% of the population as regarded external looks, but none of them seemed to care too much about it. They were a community of ugliness, but at the same time many of them seemed to be hard working, clean, friendly, and intelligent. Farmers with holes in their gloves waved at Tim as we went by. Broad shouldered, sensible women were chatting about sewing and cooking. Dog owners were petting their dogs and comparing notes on breeding and nutrition. Everyone had something to do, and no one saw his or her life as useless. I put all this in my notebook as I walked. Then I thought of something.

"Tim, these people seem to like you better than me. It must be your friendly appearance."

"You're not fooling me, Laney. I know why they like me better," he said with a pout.

"No one's going to talk to me," I insisted, "so maybe you can get them to talk. Especially if I take the camera and hide behind it so they can't see my face. See?" I held up the camera as a mask and smiled.

"Yeah," said Tim, swallowing the last of his coffee and stowing the cup in his shoulder bag. "Okay, what do you want me to ask them?"

"Here's the list of questions Mr. Gruffy gave me." I handed over my list and notebook.

We got several fine interviews that day, and I witnessed a depth of humanity that I personally will not forget. It seemed that when society had thrown them out, they took each other in. When no one met their need for comfort and friendship, they were there for each other instead. The rejects in turn rejected those who rejected them. The doors that got slammed in my face made me wonder how many had been slammed in theirs. Inner beauty and wisdom were prized by those who couldn't win the game of good looks. I envied them, although I knew that I didn't particularly want to change places. They had something automatically given to them that the rest of us had to work harder for: that something escaped my attempts to name it, so I just wrote it up as a "unique and mysterious quality."

My article won an award. I named Tim as co-author for the first time ever. Lazy or not, I couldn't have gotten it done without him.

"Where are we going now?" said Tim as we climbed into my car.

"To cover a beauty pageant," I replied.