Friday, February 26, 2010

#friday flash - Ms. Liwaller

She sat stone-faced on the porch, cigarette dangling from her dry lips like a 3 day old fly in a spider web. Her gaze was both present and absent dependent on which angle you viewed her from. The neighborhood kids clambered down the sidewalk giggling and fooling around until like magic, postures raised, lips pursed, and suddenly stoic young children walked obediently by her stretch of sidewalk casting only quick sideways glances at the woman as if to make sure she hadn’t slipped into the shadows to try to lure them to a gingerbread house.

She was both gratified and annoyed that she was regarded in such a way. Years of being present while manipulative little brats with a sense of entitlement worked over their parents had spoiled her of the finer points of children - spoiled her like potato salad in the noon day sun. But she did appreciate the attentive well-behaved ones, and had a vague memory of the freedom of childhood. That memory of the sparkle in the eyes of a child who hasn’t learned the cold monetary nature of modern day humans, it screamed of hope where nobody was sure there was any. The caterpillar ash from her cigarette gobbled ever vigilantly toward her lips. She felt her eyes slowly blink and reached for her coffee.

Most of the neighbors speculated at the summer barbeques that Ms. Liwaller was basically catatonic. Others disagreed and told tales about “that one day in July,” or “late one September night” when they had seen her spring to life, to woo a young caller, or creep into a neighbors cellar and sneak out with gardening equipment and a hatchet. She was a neighborhood icon of sorts. Truthfully, she found it all rather amusing, that no matter how withdrawn she may have become, she stood only to gain more attention and curious glances.

At 11:16, like clockwork, the mailman passed in front of her porch, tipped his hat kindly, and set her mail down in front of her. He could never be sure, but he thought if he caught her eye just as he passed in front of her, the corner of her lips would raise just slightly… in something resembling a lighthearted smirk. But as quick as he’d think he caught sight of it, it had gone, and he never knew if the sheepish grin he’d find himself displaying was the answer to a fleeting connection, or a completely wasted gesture, like waving to a set of stairs. He did find his days caught just a touch of a curious uplifting breeze when he thought he caught glimpse of that smirk.

It’s hard to speculate how long the mailman had been laying her mail at her fingertips. It had to be upwards of 12 years he’d been on that route. She remembered the first day he had passed by. She had just produced a camel from a half empty pack and was methodically turning it in her fingers. It was obvious by his hesitant movements that his nerves were standing at attention as he approached her porch. He tripped over his words just a bit as he started to greet her. “Hh, Hi Ma’am. I’m Thomas and I’ll be the uh, new mail carrier on your route. Your um, neighbors, they uh, mentioned you prefer not to conversate much. So, if it’s uh, alright by you Ma’am, I’ll just lay your mail here, and if you would like some other arrangement, you can, uh, feel free to let me or the postal service know.” He had tipped his hat gingerly, and slowly spread the mail in front her fingertips before continuing on his route. For the first time in a seemingly immeasurable span, she had to fight hard not to burst into laughter.

It’s amazing how people choose to fill in the gaps. Truth be told, she was a quiet person, but had never refused to talk to anyone. It would be to everyone’s collective surprise to find that, in her younger years, she used to teach and work on a lecture circuit. After decades in academia, she had discovered that the ears tend to be much better pupils then the other senses, so she chose to let them carry most of the daily activity. But since she’d moved to 18 tall grass lane, the suburbanites had yet to ask her a direct question. It’s amazing how a person can be defined to a village by nothing further than speculation. The adults would watch her like a strange non-native flightless bird. It was them, however, that did all the squawking. She was a creature of habit, they had that much right. Every morning at 9:45 she would shuffle to her porch with her morning coffee and cigarette, and she would sit quietly and observe, smoke trailing off to the clouds, in a kind of meditative clean your slate sort of way. She would wait for the mail to arrive, and then head inside to continue her routine. From that daily snippet, she had become a thing of lore. The crazy cat lady minus the feline companions… The lady that hides the bodies in the cellar next to the 24 year old marmalade… The lady that the children assume will take them hostage and torture them with nostalgic 1920’s music before poisoning the tea she will force them to drink.

After a few weeks in the neighborhood she had thought perhaps she should clear up misconceptions, perhaps educate the people about the dangers of gossip and assumptions. But it was not her that was defined by their ignorance. She had become a character in the story of unique individual authors… and as she thought about this, she found it to be satisfying. Something to make their minds turn, to grasp at their suspicion, to prod their creativity, she imagined there were worse things to be.

As the mailman headed to the next house, she glanced down at the stack of mail. She found herself staring into her own eyes. The university paper was advertising her guest lecture that evening. She’d figured she’d better get the day started. She slipped through the front door, back into herself, and laughed, thinking maybe she’d just invite that mailman in one day.


Marisa Birns said...

Almost didn't read this piece because I was mesmerized by staring at your zen fish garden. Addictive, really.

Did like this very much. Here she is defined by neighbors who prefer the fiction they make up about her, rather than the fact of who she is.

And she's no crazy cat lady without the cats!

Nice description throughout.

Wonderful surprise at end.

Anton Gully said...

Fantastic and a very clever idea.

Cathy Olliffe said...

Wow Brooke, so glad to see you back in the writing saddle. I was frankly amazed at the quality of this writing. I knew you were good, of course, but I was impressed at this effort. I almost never say this (in fact I think this is the first time) but I really do believe this character is interesting enough to be novel length.
Something to think about.
Well, well, done.

brookelyn said...

Marisa - glad you enjoyed the fishies AND the story :). i bet that's what's happening... those little scaley jerks are running off with all my readers! well, i can't blame um, they're mesmerizing lil buggers.

Anton - thank you!

Cathy - oh wow! that's some high praise! thank you! i tend to struggle with flash because i'm naturally inclined to sink into a story like quicksand, and trying to write my way back out in 1000 words is quite a struggle! still trying to work out my "just give um a peek" methods. so glad you enjoyed it! i will keep this character in mind if i decide to make an attempt at a full length... i had fun writing her.

CJ Hodges MacFarlane said...

Wow, Brooke - I enjoyed this tremendously. Seems cozy and familiar somehow, and your phrasing runs smooth as butter. I KNEW you'd be good at this once given a moment of peace to let it flow. Excellent!

Man Island said...

ohh I'm new here, but you come highly recommended. Great Story ... and I agree, we need more.

Michelle said...

This is great - really neat writing. Very enjoyable

stina8753 said...

I had a smile on my face from beginning to end. I hope there's more somewhere to this character!

Laura Eno said...

It's funny how people just fill in the blanks when you don't say much. Great story!