Short Takes:


The Thrill of Words
by Celia Miles

     Thrills surprise in all kinds of disguises—beyond the quiver accompanying first love and the shiver attending roller coaster dives. They can come as a realization of the power of love, of danger, or of words. The movie Picnic with William Holden and The Ballad of the Sad Café are forever linked in my mind as cause and effect. In Picnic we see the teenager (a term hardly used in the 1950s) who becomes infatuated with an older man passing though a small, conservative Midwest town. She is reading Carson McCullers’ Ballad, a book banned or disapproved of by her community, obviously a book that might tempt a young woman, subvert her expectations, damage her morally, or harm her psyche. It ranked right up there with drinking and smoking.

     I’d read Little Women before I was ten, read the Brontes long before I understood the passions running deeper than the words revealed, read Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles never realizing that she “ruined” until the baby came. In high school classes, we were led through some Shakespeare, understanding the plot superficially, caring not a whit for Lady Macbeth’s anguish or Julius Caesar’s betrayal. Thus, not knowing what I didn’t know, I couldn’t comprehend the evil that must be inherent in The Ballad of the Sad Café, the immorality that offended parents and librarians. I tucked the title away in my memory.

      When I got to college—church-related—I made a beeline for the library and lo, the book was on the shelves. Soon, without a single demurring word or disapproving frown from the staff, it was in my hand and in my dorm room.

      What did I expect? Torrid sex scenes a few notches above those confessions in my mother’s True Romance and True Love magazines? I really don’t know because I couldn’t quite imagine what would get a book banned other than sex of an illicit, forbidden nature. And what exactly was that?

      The Ballad of the Sad Café may have been the first book I had sufficient maturity to read, though how that maturity occurred between high school and college is a mystery to me. Its characters, weird, eccentric, irrational, southern, were like real people, not literary types conveying allegorical or metaphorical significance, not pilgrims, either Chaucer’s on the road to Canterbury or Bunyan’s on the road to a state of grace. Though I didn’t know a tall cross-eyed, whisky-making female store owner or a dwarf, or even, close at hand, a convict, I recognized these people. Now I can say they resonated with me; then I didn’t know that word. The thrill of discovering “my kind of writing” stayed with me through the decades. I realized that if these characters could people the pages of books, I’d be spending a lot of time at the library. And I’d be looking at my own small town differently, seeing for the first time living, breathing characters who could step right into McCullers’ pages—or onto mine.


Fake Thrills and Real
by Marty Carlock

The problem is, nothing much thrills me anymore. I get a story accepted in a quarterly—that brings a smile. My grown son speaks at his old school’s commencement and is hilarious—that’s an upper. A cool front moves into New England while I’m sitting on the deck and can watch the air turn the leaves upside down and make the branches dance—sweet.

      But the kind of heart-tumbling thrill I used to get—I can scarcely remember what I used to get that thrill from. From glimpsing somebody I was secretly in love with, that’s a given. From giving birth, that’s the ultimate one; it’s been a long time since I did that. Maybe the time I had a glider ride, which was so thrilling I threw up.

      The most recent heart-stopper I can remember was a phony one, an amusement-park ride called, innocuously, the Water Slide. I detest amusement parks, but I had taken my ten-year-old granddaughter, who said this was her favorite ride. I’ve seen everything, I thought, it can’t be too bad. I let her talk me into it. When our boat came to the lip of a waterfall with a 90-degree drop in front of us, I admit I screamed.

      I don’t think fake thrills like that count. But here’s one I’m counting:

      That same granddaughter is a sophomore in college now. She likes to go out to dinner with my husband and me and discuss crucial subjects, like herself and her future. Sometimes she seems a little diffident and we try to buck her up.

      It has to be said my spouse is one of those perfectionists who finds it hard to compliment anyone. A really good dinner gets, "That was better than usual." This particular night, over sushi, he said to our collegian, "Something you should remember, Anne, is that as you go through life you won’t find many people smarter than..."

      I expected him to say, "...smarter than you are" A little something to boost her through tough times in the classroom. Instead he said, "smarter than your grandmother." My heart flipped and I stared in shock at both of them.

      Now that was a thrill.


My Night with John Updike
by Lynne Davis

      It's not what you're thinking. It's not at all what you're thinking.

      It started with a flyer in the mail room. On cream-colored paper, a man with a teacup. John Updike. He was coming to our rural Midwestern university.

      You could hear the whispers in the hall. "John Updike? The John Updike? Why is he coming here?"

      I fell in love with him when I was in college, when I read one of his stories in The New Yorker, "The Music School." His phrasing was lyrical, precise, so delicately balanced—like a Mozart piano concerto.

      Later I worked as a copy editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company in Boston. I was the proofreader on a book called Enchantment, by Linda Grace Hoyer. When they told me she was John Updike's mother, I was star-struck and probably spent too long checking to make sure I'd caught all the typos.

      In a creative writing class I took a few months after the birth of my child, our assignment was to imitate the style of an author we loved. I chose a piece by Updike, "Wife Wooing." Sensuous and lyrical, it spoke poetically about the juxtaposition of male and female bodies in a marriage bed, and ended with the sentence, "Oh."

      I changed the theme from married love to mother love. Updike's prose gave me a way to express my feelings about the intense physical connection of my body and my baby's, and our emotional bonding.

      When I saw the poster in the mail room at the university, I knew I would be there.

      He spoke to a large crowd in the Student Center. Handsome and refined, he read poems, a story, and an excerpt from his most recent novel. Then he took questions. I usually didn’t raise my hand in a room full of academics, but this time I had to. "Would you mind talking about your writing routine?" I asked. Shivers went through me when he heard my words, and he replied precisely to them.

      "Would I mind? No. It's a little boring, though." He proceeded to recite, as I'm sure he had done thousands of times, how he wrote from 9 am to 1 pm, in the maid's quarters of his big old house. He wrote by hand, he said, and then revised on the computer.

      After his lecture, there was a book-signing. When I reached the table, I told him that I had been the proofreader for his mother's book.

      "Enchantment," he said, looking up. To find a Boston publishing person in the middle of Moo country must have been perplexing to him, and perhaps—dared I hope?—-even a little enchanting.

      I didn't sleep at all that night.


A Rare Spice
by Constance Garcia-Barrio

      The magazine seemed my lone lunch companion. Little did I know.

      The adzuki bean stew, between skimmed articles, steeled me to visit yet another psychiatric hospital. In the decade since my son became ill, he has hauled the words, "Anything can happen," into my life festooned with razor blades.

      There was that time at a national monument, at rush hour, when it took six cops to subdue him. There’ve been court appearances, jail.

      This time, he’d lived in a nearby car through autumn, then through a blizzard.

      "It beats the shelters, mom."

      I’d feared finding him frozen to death. I’d talked him into the hospital I would soon visit. The years have tossed me a bouquet of autoimmune illnesses. I’ve fought to keep him and me alive. Hence the hearty stew in a vegetarian restaurant, another handhold on life.

      I rose, shrugged into my coat, and took my tray to the little station. Recyclables here, waste there. I was turning to leave when the man stood and spoke, blue eyes a-dance.

      "I sat here so I could watch you," he said. "You’re beautiful." He extended a hand toward me, across race, across rejection. "I’m a painter. I’d love to paint you. A portrait in a morning." He pulled out a chair. "Please, just a moment."

      I was intrigued, doubtful. The place was full of witnesses, but still I hesitated.

      "Ask me something, dear, anything."

      "How old are you?"

      "Sixty-eight," he said.

      "I’m sixty-three. Do you always pick up women here?"

      "If I can get away with it." Humor, honesty.

      "This is crazy."

      "Do you like normal, dear?"

      I sat down. With the years, my eyes see faces in soft focus. It blunts the edge of judgment. This man’s face brimmed mischief, light. We talked a moment, but I’ve learned not to keep social workers waiting. When I stood, he gave me his card.

      "Please call me."

      The hospital visit went well. My son shuffled on frostbitten feet, but good winter housing seemed assured.

      At home I celebrated his safety and my moment of fun with a scented bath. Out of the tub, steaming and rosy brown, I looked in the mirror. Not too bad, though the thighs need work. I hugged myself, closed my eyes. Something nuzzled my neck. My eyes flew open, yet I barely glimpsed the bright, mischievous face before it was gone. But I had hours to ponder the guises that angels choose.


Shashlik and More
by Natalie Safir

      In midsummer heat, hoping to cool down by sticking my head under the kitchen faucet, I was hit by a surprise spurt of hot water. For a few seconds, I was unable to distinguish it from the cold I was expecting. Like the bite of hot water or the sting of cold, thrills are intense reactions, a searing blend of fear and excitement, sometimes hard to separate. One evening in Moscow in 1971, during a professional tour of urban building techniques in the former Soviet Union, my young husband and I joined two friends for an "unauthorized" escapade, a getaway from the bland food at our gargantuan hotel and the iron clutches of our formidable InTourist guide, Tanya. From their guidebook, Bob and Rachel had selected a small Georgian restaurant in another district for celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary. We set out to find the place, soon aware that we were being followed through cobblestone streets by a man in an overcoat carrying an attache case—subtle as a forties melodrama. It was the magical time of the midnight sun, mid June, when pale yellow light spread its eerie radiance. The restaurant was down a few stone steps much like Chicago speakeasys I’d seen in gangster movies. My memory leaps past the delectable shashlik and flowing wine to the main event. Three musicians were playing lively gypsy music during dessert and my husband and I got up to dance. I was tall, dark haired, and black-eyed like many Georgian women. That evening I wore a long flowered skirt and delighted in my husband’s considerable skill at dancing.

      Unexpectedly, a forceful tap on his shoulder caused him to look around at a large Cossack about twice his age in a red bandanna, bearing a glistening knife in his sash. More startling was the half-inch indentation in his mid-forehead the shape of a bullet cartridge. My husband stepped aside as the man approached me.

      The Russian’s eyes flashed with pleasure as his compelling hands circled my waist and he whirled me around the floor. My husband and friends only stared nervously, none of them foolish enough to challenge this situation. I felt claimed, thrilled by the manliness of the Russian’s energy and frightened by his power. I loved it as much as I was scared to death. How long would this continue? Would I be released at music’s end? What if he threw me over his shoulder—he had the size and girth to do so—and headed for the door? Who would stop him? Images of all kinds flashed through me as the breathtaking dance continued. Terror and excitement spun together as one.

      But the music did stop and he pulled back promptly, executing a somewhat clumsy bow before his return to the back shadows, leaving me relieved and also terribly bereft. I remember nothing else, nothing of our foursome furtively walking back to the hotel, except the golden veils of light tinting and setting aglow the Moscow streets.


Unearthing Treasures
By Linda Gartz

      What thrilled me at ten—the ecstatic terror of peering straight down from a roller coaster poised at its zenith, hurtling toward earth, jolting around tight curves—now makes my neck hurt just thinking about it. At seventeen, the first hands under my bra excited dizzying heat. At thirty-six, my first son’s arrival, and over the years, his every milestone triggered a frisson of joy.

      My thrills are voyeuristic now, as I uncover secrets that have laid buried for the past 100 years. After my mother’s death, family letters, diaries, and artifacts, tucked into the corners and cobwebs of my parents’ attic for decades, came to light.

      I’ve transformed myself into a modern-day archaeologist, unearthing treasures, and each discovery electrifies my imagination. My dad’s young life unspools like an old film from the pages of his 1931-1933 diaries. I see him singing in the church choir, engaged in youthful drama, enamored with his first love, "a mirage of enchantment," on prom night.

      My mother’s 1941-42 diary exposes her amorous indecision between Burt or my Dad, Fred. A few months into 1942, she loses all equivocation: "It came to me like a bolt out of the blue! Fred is the only one for me!" I thrill to love’s brash certainty and the ecstasy of her twenty-five-year-old heart: "These are the happiest days of my life."

      I dig deeper. A trove of more than 200 letters, 1943-1945, between my Uncle Frank, his family, and friends. I’m thrilled to finally hear the "voice" of my dad’s playful, sweet, and adored younger brother, whom I never met. I’m astonished to discover the loving, prayerful side of a grandmother I experienced as cool and distant. In the letters, she’s desperate for her youngest son’s safety as trains to be an Army Air Corps navigator and ships to Italy for bombing missions.

      I share the family’s thrill after Frank makes it safely through the war and scores a great job in Italy. But I know what’s to come, and weep to read my grandmother’s words of raw grief and shock when Frank dies of polio a few months later in a Naples hospital.

      The box I leave untouched is filled with letters written in an unreadable ancient German script. I’m sure I’ll never crack the code—until fate brings me a Rosetta Stone. On a visit to my grandparents’ home towns in Romania, I meet Uli, a historian studying the ethnic Germans from Romania who emigrated to America. "Did your grandparents keep any letters?" he asks. A tremor stirs my heart.

      "Scores." And, yes! He will help me decipher them!

      When I return home, I take a closer look. I can make out some signatures. Many letters are between my grandparents, written after Josef’s departure for America, December, 1910, and before Lisi’s arrival in October 1911. The letters are filled with endearments and bright with optimism. I see my grandparents anew: young and in love. What a thrill!


by Carol Walkner

      The November sky is bright translucent blue. The brisk air has that fresh, never polluted, country smell that comes in the autumn. The days are shorter, the air is cooling off and the garden is filled with reeds, yellow and orange mums instead of tomatoes, herbs and the fragile warm weather pink and purple flowers. The trees are going from the cool lime and emerald green of the sizzling summer to a hot riot of gold, yellow, orange, and red of fall. Mother Nature has her autumn palate and her 12-inch paint roller, and she is on the move.

      My son and I are on the move. As we drive along the flat but winding road in the New Jersey pine barrens, my heart is pounding, my mouth is dry and I am wishing I was anywhere else but here in this car.

      "You’re not nervous, are you mom?’

      "Oh, of course not!" I croak my reply. What do I have to be afraid of? Death by stupidity? A gazillion broken bones? No worries, things could be worse. I could get run over by a garbage truck. The result would probably be the same, and I certainly wouldn’t be having as much fun.

      As we arrive at our destination, my son jumps out of the car to greet his friends, and I am trying to come up with a reason to go back home immediately—would they believe a sudden case of leprosy? My heart has started to pound so hard it might burst from my sweater, smash itself to the ground and . . . "excuse me, is there a doctor or nurse around who could take my blood pressure and pronounce me unfit for this activity?"

      I watch the training film, get suited up and paired off with my instructor, and away we go. OMG! I am really doing this. I am 60 years old and I am still doing crazy, hair-brained things, but I am the coolest mom on the planet right now. Maybe the most stupid but certainly the coolest!

      I am 13, 500 feet in the air, looking down on Mother Earth from miles away. My heart has quit pounding. It has stopped altogether as we jump out of a perfectly good airplane into this fluffy cloud bank. I am a hawk, an eagle . . . no, I am a bowling ball, falling to earth at 2000 feet per second, the wind is screaming in my ears, I am getting an automatic face lift, frozen in a grimace, from the G forces against me, my hair is being ripped from my head and . . . I pull the ripcord and am yanked skyward and then drift with the chirping birds through the transparent clouds, magically floating on air . . . I really am flying! I AM FLYING! My son takes my photo as I make a perfect landing, smiling, all in one piece.

      When does the next plane take off!?


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