Monday, July 23, 2012

A Sign to Share

Runaway Bay, Jamaica
July 2012


And 'Speedkills'? Is that a classification of food hit by cars? Like the Jamaican version of 'roadkill'?

And dude, they really do drive fast over there. Like, for real. We were there for a week and many times, manymany times, I silently called on the Lord.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Chapter 4 - Red Sky in the Morning

Mom and I remained in that windowless room with its bad art and cheap furniture. As Taxol seeped into her blood stream, I etched each drop into my memory. One of them would lead the fight against the cancer now holding her body hostage.

At her first treatment, I had thought, How easy this is. Mom just sits here and waits until the bag empties so that she can go home. But half an hour in, goose bumps had swarmed across her arms. She began to shiver, then shake. Before I could even call, Synthia had rushed in the room with an extra blanket, socks, and a sweater from the lost-and-found.

“It was like brain freeze,” Mom told me later. “But with my entire body.”

It was a paralyzing cold, she said. Achy and warm at the edges.

I didn’t like seeing her tortured. I didn’t like seeing her cry. I was helpless, though, and couldn’t prevent either. So, I sat next to her, alert, in my chair, waiting for her to get better, waiting to witness the exact moment of her recovery.

I reached for Mom’s purse in search of a stick of gum. She chewed several sticks of Double-Mint to combat nausea and dry mouth. The pack of gum hid among lipsticks, medicine vials, and makeup. An old, crumpled photograph—the kind with the white frame and time-stamp—hid in a smaller pocket.

I gasped. Muttered, “Wow...” A five-year old girl was sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the hood of a black Thunderbird. She wore green and orange plaid pants and an orange T-shirt. Her two ponytails had been tied with orange cotton yarn. A grinning black man stood next to her. His conk shone in the sunshine.

My heart pounded so fast and hard, I grasped the chair’s arm to steady myself from fainting. “Wow...” I glanced over at Mom. She was still asleep. A good thing.

This picture was twenty-five years old. I had never seen it, even though the images were familiar: my father, his T-Bird, and me.


On the Sunday that picture had been taken, Mom had been watching Wild, Wild West in the living room. She never missed an episode: Robert Conrad made her swoon. I had settled next to her with a Ramona book and read as she muttered, “Get him, Jim.”

Ten minutes into the show, I placed my head to her lap and stared at the pictures on the walls. A black and white of my naked mother holding a naked, newborn me. A picture of me (three years old, maybe) in a bathing suit, reclining on a lawn chair. A magnolia is tucked behind my left ear. A coloring book sits on my lap. Another picture of Mom, Dad, and me. We wore white dress-up clothes as we stood on the beach.

These pictures proved that we—the Paul Smith family—had existed. Can’t capture myth on film, no matter what I think at times. No matter what Mom thinks now.

I had fallen asleep.

The smell of English Leather made my nose twitch and I opened my eyes. Dad sat next to Mom on the couch. His hands were lost in her hair. He nibbled at her earlobe. Mom held the side of his face with her eyes closed. She was smiling—a different smile from the one she gave me.

I narrowed my eyes and stared at Dad, unsure if he was real or if he was a dream. I didn’t speak in fear of waking myself up, even after he separated from Mom and said, “Hey, Shorty.”

“Daddy?” I sat up and rubbed my cheek. “Are you back?”

“Yep.” He had grabbed me, hugged me tight. Beneath his cologne, he smelled of Ivory soap. He had taken a shower before returning home. The peppermint Certs he sucked couldn’t hide the Scotch on his breath. Never did. He always smelled of Scotch and soap on the days he returned from photo assignments.

He pinched my arm. “How you doin’, Shorty?”

“Fine.” I stared at his shoes. I could see my face in the black patent leather. He hadn’t had those shoes before. “Did you bring me something?”

“Yep.” He nodded to the coffee table.

A wooden Russian doll sat on top of T.V. Guide.

“If you open her up,” he said, “you’ll find another doll. And then, if you open that doll, there’s another doll.”

I looked at him, my mouth open in awe. “Dy-no-mite!” I snatched the doll from its place and pulled it apart. Sure enough, another doll hid there. “Dy-no-mite!” My father always brought back cool souvenirs from each place he visited.

Dad smiled. His teeth were large and white, like slats on a fence. “I got another surprise.” He stood and his leather jacket creaked. His beginner’s beer belly bulged against his slacks’ waistband. He ate and drank well on these trips around the globe, those trips without Mom and me. “Come on Neve. Shorty.”

Mom pulled me from his arms. “Where are we going?”

He said, “Outside. And bring the camera.”

“Paul.” She looked at him with suspicion, as though she had never slept with him or borne him a child. “Where’s your camera? Where’s your equipment?”

“Why you bein’ like this?” He frowned. “Stop being silly and come on, now. See what I got us.”

I said, “Yeah. Stop being a worrywart. Let’s go see.”

Mom sighed. She shuffled across the living room to the kitchen drawer that housed extension cords, a broken hammer, and a Kodak camera. “We’re out of flashbulbs.” She tossed a blue flashcube stained with black powder into the wastebasket.

Dad called from the porch, “You don’t need no flash. It’s still light out.”

Mom slipped her feet into a pair of clogs. I reached under the couch and found my princess shoes, the ones with fake rubies and emeralds, and a barely-there heel, then followed my parents outside.

A black 1967 Thunderbird was parked in our driveway. Its belly hung so low to the ground, you couldn’t roll a marble under it. The car glistened like onyx even in the late moments of full sunlight.

Mom gasped, then muttered, “Jinkies.”

“Ain’t it bad?” Dad rushed over and ran his hand across the car’s top. “This son-of-a-gun is solid, ain’t it? Come on. Get closer.”

I clomped over and peered inside the car. Its leather seats and dashboard were as black and shiny as the outside. Like the interior had been greased down with Crisco. A green pine tree cutout hung from the rearview mirror.

Mom held her stomach, as though she had been sucker-punched. “How... where... where did you get the money?”

“Relax, Neve. Shoot. It’s what I work for.” Dad smiled at me. His face reminded me of the dark man’s face on the Cream of Wheat box. “Like it, Cat?”

“It’s dy-no-mite!” I said, avoiding Mom’s eyes. Yes, I betrayed her, but it was a bad-azz car.
Dad reached beneath my arms and picked me up. He swung me high into the air, then sat me on the hood. He pulled out a packet of Bottle Caps from his coat pocket and offered it to me. “Sweets for my sweets.” He smiled, so I smiled.

That day, the clear sky was the color of Windex. The Santa Anas had blown the smog and the cumulus clouds to the Pacific Ocean and all the way to China. I tore open the bag of candy and ate a cap in my favorite flavor: pink. The sugar slowly melted in my mouth, between the spaces of my teeth, until it became syrup. It was a perfect day.

Dad turned to his wife. “Take a picture of me and my two babies.”

And Mom obeyed, though not pleased.

Dad took the camera and snapped a few more pictures of the car, fascinated and still reeling from the fact that this steely mass of American badazzness was his, all his. And with nothing to hold (except a grudge), Mom stuck her hands in her jean pockets.


I stuck the picture back in Mom’s purse. Why she hadn’t shared it with me, I don’t know. It wasn’t like I didn’t know about my father. Maybe she thought I knew enough, and so we didn’t have to talk about him ever again.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Little Good News...

I can now announce my very-good, very-exciting news!

From Publishers Marketplace:

July 18, 2012
Rachel Howzell Hall's A GIRL IS LIKE A SHADOW, in which a LAPD homicide detective must learn the truth about the apparent suicide of a teenage girl which may be related to her own sister's disappearance more than twenty years ago, to Kristin Sevick at Forge, in a two-book deal, by Jill Marsal at the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

I'm THRILLED and can't wait to share GIRL with you soon!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Chapter 3 - Red Sky in the Morning

The door that led to the examination room opened. A black nurse with long, silver hair said, “Genevieve Barrett?”

“Want me to come with you?” I asked.

Mom rose from her seat. “Not yet. I’ll have the nurse come for you after I get settled.” She kissed my cheek, then offered a crooked smile. “See you later, alligator.” She disappeared behind the closed door.

Moments later, another woman took her seat. She looked to be my age. A strip of gauze peeked from beneath her blouse. A Star of David pendant dangled from a chain around her neck. I wanted to ask her: Are you okay now? Are you scared? Why are you here alone?

The woman considered me with sea-colored eyes. And with that look, I imagined that she and I stood at the beginning of a Lifetime Television moment. She would be the best friend that I never had. We would hold hands as we walked along the beach. We would drink lavender lemonade and remain friends until her illness claimed her life. It would be just like those friendships in the movies. One of the heroines is sick. The other heroine is Jewish.

I smiled and nodded at her. It didn’t matter that I was black and she was not. She would be my Bette Midler. I would be her Gentile.

My Lifetime T.V. friend wore a tangerine and lemon-colored Hermes scarf over her head. Mom had that same scarf. I purchased it at Saks (definitely not a knock-off) after her third round of chemotherapy. She had tired of strangers’ stares and with friends who ridiculed women with short hair (ugly, mannish, lesbian, they believed). These friends gasped once they remembered that Genevieve the Beautiful had prettier hair than they. And now, she sat across from then, almost bald.

Her friends would apologize and promise to be more careful in the future.

“Oh, Neve,” Mom’s best friend Erlynda would say. “You know we’re not talking about you. Stop being so sensitive.”

“They were always sorry,” Mom had said to me. “But they were always forgetting.”

The moment passed with a smile from the young, Jewish woman seated beside me. She shifted her gaze back to the book in her lap. She didn’t look at me again. And when the nurse called her name—Jenna Goldenfeld—she sprang up and walked past me without a word.


I don’t know how much time had passed when someone touched my wrist. “Are you okay?”

“What?” I snapped.

A man with gray eyes jumped, snatched back his hand. His skin flushed until it turned cranberry. He was a Husband, and he was holding a sheet of pink tissue. “I asked if you were all right.”

I glanced around the room: the other husbands were staring at me. “I’m fine,” I said.
Water had spilled onto the back of my hand, then slipped underneath my palm. I touched my face: my fingers came away wet, slick with tears. When had I started crying?

He offered me the tissue.

I plucked the sheet from his fingers. “Thank you.”

He nodded, then ran his hand over his thick, graying hair. “No problem.” He yawned. Laugh lines crinkled at the corner of his eyes. “Wanna get some fresh air?”

“No. I really shouldn’t leave.”

He grunted, then returned to his Road and Track. After turning a page, he closed the magazine and tossed it on the coffee table. “Was that your mother?”

I nodded.

“When was she diagnosed?”

Annoyed, I squinted at him. “Excuse me?”

He smiled “None of my business, right?” He picked stray lint from the sleeve of his cable-knit sweater. “My wife’s forty. The doctor thought she was too young to get breast cancer.” He shrugged. “This is her first chemo session, and I’m scared out of my mind. Probably not as scared as Lizzy, though. That’s my wife.”

“My mother’s forty-eight,” I whispered. “She thought a spider bit her.”

But the skin around the ‘bite’ had dimpled like an orange peel. She hadn’t suspected that anything serious had happened, even after calamine lotion failed to heal it.

“She had no clue,” I said. “And she didn’t want to go to the hospital.”

“Cuz you know what happens when you go to a doctor,” Mom had told me.

The rash clears up or your throat’s no longer sore, or those strange palpitations in your chest stop as soon as the doctor walks in the room. He sees nothing with his handy-dandy penlight, and looks at you as though you’re an idiot. You apologize profusely and tell him that it was there, but he sighs, tells you to take a Benadryl and get some rest. So, you leave, horrified and confused, out of ten dollars for your co-pay and out of five dollars for the box of antihistamine that you already had at home.

The man laughed. “Can’t argue with that. You and your mother really close?”

I said, “Umm... We’re close.”

He blushed. Stared at me as though I had called Mom a bad word.

Then, I realized my faux pas. ‘Umm...’ meant ‘no, not really’, which suggested tension.

Umm...’ meant that I had to think about it, then lie. My ambivalence flew in the face of those mother-daughter relationships portrayed in Massengill and laxative commercials. We definitely didn’t ask each other about freshness. And she had a best friend that wasn’t her daughter.

It wasn’t my fault that my mother chose to keep some distance between us. We all have our areas of improvement. My area is interpersonal relationships with men. Mom’s is interpersonal relationship with me.

Ashamed, I told the man, “We are close. Very close.”

The guy held up his hand to stop me. “Well, at least you’re here.” He grabbed Road and Track from the coffee table. Flipped through it without another word.

His reaction meant that I had said enough, and now, he didn’t want to have polite conversation with me.

I wanted to pop him in his face and tear up his magazine. Instead, I pulled my cell-phone from my purse. The display showed that my boss Zeena had left two voice-mail messages.

I left the waiting room and retreated to the far-end of the hallway. Strange: the further I went, the calmer I became. I punched in the numbers to Zeena’s direct line. After several rings, she picked up. “Yeah?”

“It’s me,” I said. “I’m at the hospital.”

“Are you coming in today?”

“Probably not,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

“Mike developed your pictures from the party last night. You need to look at them before tomorrow morning.”

“Can he e-mail the contact sheet to the house?”

Zeena sighed. “Catherine, I’m trying to be understanding, but this is important.”

“I realize that.” I rubbed my eyes. My contact lenses had dried despite the weather. “Do they look good?”

“They look great,” Zeena said. “But I begged them to let you do this feature for the magazine, so you can’t fuck up on this.”

Although life had stopped for me, the Sunday Times magazine continued its coverage of Los Angeles galas, Los Angeles gardens, and Los Angeles restaurants. Last night, I had temporarily joined society to photograph a high-profile fundraiser organized by a Hollywood wife dedicated to the fight against... against... I can’t remember.

I had taken artsy-fartsy portraits of Hollywood Wife for the cover, then wandered the Beverly Hilton’s grand ballroom, clutching my Nikon, in spiky Jimmy Choo’s and a pantsuit that needed dry-cleaning.

All around me, important people shared their thoughts on the fight against... I don’t know, the mortality rate within the Yeti population. I snapped candids of power agents with tumblers of Scotch in hand, of vacant actresses nibbling crudités, of scions of rich families slapping each other on the backs. They all said the same things since they were all aware that their deep thoughts and Botoxed mugs would appear in the Sunday’s magazine.
Life had been tidied up on nights like this, and the players that mucked up the paper’s front pages with their corporate raids, messy divorces, and shoplifting convictions, hid their evil ways and imperfections beneath layers of Richard Tyler and Estee Lauder for the glossy rag found among coupons and sales papers. They remembered to look fabulous as they poked at rubbery breasts of mushroom-stuffed chicken. Some tried to act humble as I hoisted the camera to my face.

“I look a mess,” they’d say.

“You look great!” I’d say.

I laughed when they laughed. Soothed their egos when they complained of zits. Ignored the very-married mega moguls that eyed my boobs and brushed and bumped my backside as I bent to find more film or another lens in my bag. All in a day’s work.

“Well?” Zeena asked.

“I gotta go,” I said. “My mother’s probably looking for me. Have Mike e-mail everything to my home computer, and I’ll call you tonight. Swear.”

The nurse with long, silver hair had returned to the waiting room. She crooked her finger, motioning me to come with her. Synthia, the nurse, had helped Mom during her previous treatments. She always wore a small button on her scrubs top. It was a picture of her children Kelvin and Tomika. They had been killed in a drive-by last year.

I followed Synthia past the nurses’ station and down the bright, narrow corridors. “How’s she doing?”

“Better than last time,” the nurse said. “Still getting used to that I.V.”

Each small room we passed had been occupied. I recognized three women from the waiting room. Some listened to opera or classical music. One woman listened to her husband read. They all lay in beds with tubes snaking from their arms to plastic bags on poles.

Today was Mom’s third chemotherapy treatment and the last two times with that needle had left her arm bruised and tender. She had cried all through that visit, and I stood there, patting her shoulder, whispering, “It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.” But I could turn my head and only wonder how it felt to be poked over and over again with a thick needle.
Synthia and I reached Mom’s room. Gold light escaped through the cracked door, but it wasn’t from sunlight. There were no windows in these rooms. The theme music for All My Children had just ended, and an ad for Pine-Sol now followed. I took a breath, thought a quick prayer – Lord, please help me say the right thing – and pushed open the door.

“Hey, Mom,” I said, my voice an octave higher.

Mom lay in bed, hooked up to her bag. A small television sat on a credenza in front of her. Motel art of seascapes, lighthouses, and poppy fields hung on the walls for synthetic cheer. The furniture was Montgomery Ward circa 1976, the Great Faux Oak movement.

Synthia checked the machine and Mom’s heart. “Let me know if you need something,” she said, then left the room.

I sat in the armchair next to Mom’s bed. “Is it better today?”

“Yeah,” she said, a bit dazed.

“Want some juice?”

“No, I’m fine.” Mom’s eyes remained on the television temporarily visiting Pine Valley, a town where no one really died. Erica was in trouble again. Brooke had married again.
Adam... or was it Stewart... argued with his long-lost daughter. Again.

“Didn’t this happen three seasons ago?” I asked.

“You hate the stories, huh?” Mom asked.

I slouched in my chair. “They’re okay.”

“You don’t have to come here,” she said.

“I know.”

I didn’t read on these trips. I couldn’t watch television, either. I even refused to nap. Entertaining myself as my mother suffered seemed selfish to me. Sitting and waiting was the least I could do. And someone had to shoo away the vultures and shout that she wouldn’t die today.

“Chemo drives me crazy,” Mom said. One Life to Live titles had faded on screen. “I can either watch these rich people live ridiculous lives or watch this stuff drip from this stupid I.V. into my stupid vein.”

She turned to me. Dark circles hugged the bottoms of her eyes. “I can taste this stuff,” she whispered. “Even when I’m not hooked up, I can taste it. It’s... it’s... it tastes like pennies.” She closed her eyes, then opened them. “I’d understand if you didn’t want to come anymore. You have a life.” She closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed.

I drew close to her.

She was asleep.

What if she didn't wake up?

I told myself to stop thinking such dramatic thoughts. Stupid soap operas.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Chapter 2 - Red Sky in the Morning

Two Months Ago...

At Mom's final appointment at Mercy Medical Center, kids were playing tag in the check-in area. Stepping in front of the automatic sliding doors. Open. Close. Open. Close.

She wanted to shake those little bastards as they threw wads of wet toilet paper at the surveillance cameras bolted to the walls. Meanwhile, their parents read, napped or chatted with a neighbor about something other than their demon spawn now tagging obscenities near the public phones.

Up in front, a medical assistant—the woman was an Amazon—was shouting at a woman with sores on her skin. And the woman was shouting back that she wasn’t gon’ pay no g.d. ten dollars for no g.d. co-pay. Kept asking to speak to the g.d. manager.

Fifteen minutes later, Mom approached the same registration clerk, now scowling, baggy-eyed and pissed off.


Mom slid her health card and driver’s license towards the woman. To make her happy, Mom clutched a ten-dollar bill in her hand, ready-Freddy.

The clerk typed something into the computer. “What you here for?”

Mom leaned forward and said, in her best inside voice, “I found a lump—”


Mom said, a little louder, “I found a lump in my breast and I’d—”

The woman sighed, turned away from her, then scribbled something onto a form. “It’s after five o’clock. Urgent care hours.”

“This is urgent,” Mom said. “It’s been there over a month—”

“Make an appointment to see a regular doctor cuz these are urgent care hours. Like for emergencies.”

“But isn’t that what the emergency room is—?”

“It’s gon’ take too long for you to see a doctor tonight cuz...” She returned Mom’s cards and craned her neck. “Next!”

“I don’t mind waiting,” Mom said.

The clerk had glared at my mother. “It’s gon’ take a long time cuz it’s busy tonight.”

The woman looked big and angry enough to jump from behind the counter and beat Mom up. Still: “I’ll wait,” my mother said with a shrug.

The receptionist squinted at her, probably wondering if she was for real, if Mom just wanted to create more drama in her already fucked-up world.

I’ll wait,” Mom repeated, more firm than before.

The clerk’s look said, It’s just a lump, bitch, but the woman sucked her teeth, snatched back Mom's cards, completed the forms, and told my mother to sit down.

Men swore at women. Women swore at children. Children kicked the seats of strangers who were in too much pain to say anything. Everyone else glared at the T.V. or at the dirty carpet, or at Mom since she could be called before them even though she didn’t look sick.

It was too much. Too much. The noise, the kids, the colors... Everything was too... alive.

After a two-hour wait in the congested waiting room, Mom stepped over patients who were forced to sit on the floor, and followed the nurse to an examination room. Twenty minutes passed while she sat on the exam table in a paper gown.

Eventually, Dr. Hennigan found her, a man who looked like he had just graduated from high school. Like he hadn’t seen a breast in real life, especially a black one. But they went through the routine: ears, eyes, blood pressure.

“Wanna lay back?” he asked.

At his request, Mom lifted her right arm and placed her hand behind her head.

His fingers circled her right breast, then kneaded her armpit. “Now the other.”

She switched arms and stared at the ceiling.

He circled her left breast, then grunted. He looked away as he continued to examine her. “Is this the lump you’re talking about?” He took Mom’s hand and led her fingers towards the mass.

She said, “Yes.”

“Do you check your breasts every month?”


He grunted again and kneaded more, then reached for his clipboard.

“Should I be worried?” Mom asked.

“I wouldn’t be. Young women have lumpy breasts, especially around their menstrual cycles.” He motioned for Mom to sit up. “Mind if I get another doctor to examine you? For a second opinion?”

She shook her head.

He left the room and closed the door behind him.

Minutes later, the door swung open. An old woman with frizzy, white hair stood in the doorway clutching a ream of forms in her hands.

“Yes?” Mom said to the woman, alarmed.

The old woman, obviously, was not the doctor.

“Where’s the nurse’s station?” the crone asked.

Mom clutched her gown. “Umm...”

“I’m lost.” The woman blinked hard and looked at her battered sneakers.

“This isn’t the nurse’s station,” Mom said. “It’s down that way.” She pointed westward, toward the flu season poster on the wall.

But the old woman had already shuffled in the wrong direction. She didn’t close the door.

Dr. Hennigan returned with a gray-haired white man. “Genevieve, this is Dr. Stanley.”

“I’m Dr. Stanley,” the gray-haired man repeated. “Could you lay down for me?”

Again, Mom placed her left hand beneath her head.

Dr. Stanley touched her left breast with cold, blunt fingers. “Ah.”

“You feel it?” Dr. Hennigan asked him.

“I feel it.” Dr. Stanley peered at Mom. “Are you pregnant?”

“No,” she said.

He muttered to Dr. Hennigan, “She isn’t pregnant.” Then he asked Mom, “Are you sure?”


He turned to Dr. Hennigan. “She says she’s sure.” He lifted his thick eyebrows, unsure if Mom was lying about the status of her womb. He scratched his trimmed Vandyke, then closed her robe. “It’s inflammation.” He stepped away from her and turned to write on his clipboard. “Yes. Inflammation. She can sit up now.”

Mom didn’t wait for Dr. Stanley to tell her to sit up since she was in the room and could hear him just fine. “What kind of inflammation?” she asked. “How does that happen? How—?”

The older doctor turned to Dr. Hennigan. “Some women experience breast inflammation before their periods.” He leaned against the counter with his arms folded as though they were chatting about the Dodgers or traffic on the 405. “Nothing for her to get worked up about. Hormones create milk-producing cells, since that’s what breasts are for. Then, this fluid is stored for pregnancy. Breasts swell and become more sensitive. Simple.”

Mom nodded. “Excuse me, but it’s been this way for—”

“It’s completely harmless,” Dr. Hennigan reassured my mother.

“But I’ll prescribe Prednisone," Dr. Stanley told the younger doctor, "since it’s bothering her." He began to scribble again. “It’ll help relieve some of the swelling and pain.”

Mom said, “What’s preg—?”

“An anti-inflammatory,” Dr. Stanley said to the air and light fixtures. “Once a day with food.” The gray-haired physician handed Dr. Hennigan a prescription and my mother’s registration slip. “It’s just fibrocystic disease. Like I said: nothing to be worried about. Almost every woman has something like it. We’ll just watch and see what the medicine does.” He placed his liver-spotted hand on the doorknob. “If nothing changes, she can come back in and we’ll look at it again.” His foot was out the door.

“Or,” Dr. Hennigan said to Mom, following the old man out of the room, “you can schedule an appointment at the women’s clinic upstairs.”

“Anything else?” Dr. Stanley asked the young doctor, his body on the other side of the threshold.

Dr. Hennigan turned to my mother.

Mom wanted to know: how did it happen? How could she keep it from happening again? What the fuck was pregni... prezi... whatever it was? She wanted to scream and say that she didn’t understand and that someone should write this down.

But then, a nurse was tugging at Dr. Stanley’s arm.

“Are we finished here?” Dr. Stanley asked Dr. Hennigan. “Does she have any questions?”

So, with a numb mouth and thick tongue, Mom mumbled, “No. I don’t have any questions.”

And the two doctors left my mother on that padded table, left her there with fibrocystic disease and a prescription for a drug that she couldn’t even pronounce.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Chapter 1 - Red Sky in the Morning

On the day I turned thirty years old, it rained. It was an oily, April rain that slipped like silk against the skin. This kind of rain made cars and semis and SUVs collide and made news helicopters hover above the highway in search of a story. The radio traffic report said that four cars and a truck bound for the Long Beach Harbor had piled one upon the other earlier this morning. One person had been killed. That forced me to grip the steering wheel tight. Forced me stop tailgating the station wagon ahead of me.

My mother, in the passenger seat, had whispered, “Those poor people,” as we crept up another clogged freeway that had only suffered from a fender-bender.

We entered the Women’s Health Clinic ten minutes late for her appointment. Relaxed, I leaned against the check-in counter, thankful for many things: a safe arrival, decent medical insurance, and a peaceful waiting room with nice art, soft light, and clean chairs.

My mother told the receptionist, “I have a ten o’clock appointment.”

The receptionist, a Mexican woman with pitted skin, consulted a scheduling book. “Genevieve Barrett?”

Mom nodded. “Sorry I’m a little late.”

The woman shrugged—she didn’t care. “How are you today?” She reached for registration forms in a hanging file folder inside her desk.

Mom said, “Same ol’, same ol’.”

Not true. Mom had cried in the car for several minutes after I had parked. Clutched her purse to her chest and said between sobs, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired of coming here.”

“I know,” I had said.

“I’m so sick of needles and that I.V. I’m sick of hurting and... and...”

“I know, Mom, but—”

“No one understands,” Mom had snapped. “Why is this happening to me? What did I do?”
She didn’t want an answer, especially from me. She already knew that God rained on the good and the bad. He gives. He takes. And that’s that. Ask Job.

“We’re late,” I had said. “We should go in and get it over with. Sitting here is just gonna prolong it.”

She had nodded, then wiped her nose with a tissue. “I didn’t mean to snap. I’m just...”

She sighed and sunk low in her seat. That burst of energy had cost her.

“I know,” I had said.

“I’m better now.” She had dabbed the corners of her puffy eyes with tissue, then opened the car door. “I’m much better now.”

But then she had trailed behind me in the parking lot, an inmate on her way to the electric chair.

And now, here we stood.

The receptionist slipped the tip of her tongue into the gap between her two front teeth. “Ten dollars, please.”

I handed the woman two five-dollar bills.

“Such a nice place,” Mom said, more to herself than to me. “Not like Mercy. That place will make you worse before making you better.”

She said this every time we came here. She was right, of course. This hospital was comfortable. No chaos. No violence. No police hovering over handcuffed men in the corridors. No talk show announcer shouting from a staticky television, ‘Big breasted babes go bra-less on today’s Ricki Lake,’ cuz there was no T.V.

Instead, the theme from Phantom of the Opera whispered on hidden speakers. The tranquility made the rapid beating of my heart slow to its regular pace. I even hummed a few bars.

Since Mom’s job didn’t offer premium medical insurance, she could only afford that scary HMO where the shot, the stabbed, and the infected congregated for mediocre medical treatment and were then sent home still bleeding, crazy, and contagious; where rude nurses barked at patients, and doctors feared those teeming masses and their suffering.

“It was awful there,” Mom whispered. “I’m so glad I listened to you.”

“It shouldn’t be too long,” the receptionist said.

Mom and I found two seats together.

Three other couples were waiting to see their doctors. Marrieds, I assume. The men held their wives’ hands. Their wives flipped through People or Us. They were white. Affluent, perhaps, if you measured wealth by fine-grained leather, titanium diving watches and yellow diamond solitaires.

I took Mom’s hand and squeezed it. “You’ll be fine.”

She smiled, then tugged at the worn handle of the Gucci purse that I had bought her years ago. She took that bag everywhere: church, Target, chemotherapy. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a knock-off. But maybe she didn’t have the heart to tell me that she knew that it was.

Sharing a Short with You (Yes, You!)

You know me.

I like novels - reading them, writing them, buying them.

Sometimes, though, sometimes there are stories that don't need 70,000 words.

Like my new short story, Red Sky in the Morning.

I'd like to share this short with you, one chapter at a time.

Is that cool?

What is about first
, you ask. Then, I'll say, 'yes, that's cool.'

Well, how's this?

On her 30th birthday, Catherine (Cat) drives her mother Genevieve to chemotherapy. Since Cat is her mother’s caretaker, the two are always together; but the departure of Cat’s father
Paul twenty-four years ago has strained their relationship. With the onset of her mother’s illness, Cat wonders about this distance. That evening, she combs through her mother’s old mementos to remember the year her father left.

Red Sky in the Morning offers a glimpse into the lives of two women with secrets and regrets. It asks, what is a good mother? What is a good daughter? Catherine had always hoped that life would correct itself with a father, a healthy mother, and a Cosby-family relationship with both parents. Instead, she realizes that real life and real relationships are never that easy to navigate.

We cool now?

Hope so. Stay tuned for the first chapter later today.