Winner's Circle | Fiction

Passing By, from the Moments series, multiple images placed side by side (polyptychs) in each frame
(using layering techniques in photoshop) to capture the passing of mere moments between each shot, by Cindy Waszak Geary

Home Front

The explosions were terribly loud. Over banging and the furious pock pock pock of machine guns, she strained to make out Carrie’s voice. Was it better to stay away from the windows or to get near them? She held the phone this way and that, trying for a signal. She moved to the other side of the piano.

“What?” she said. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

“Earl,” she shouted into the other room. “Take it easy. I’m on the phone.”

She heard Selina’s name, something about Selina

—A whoosh, a whining, and then a blast jolted the air—

“believe her luck . . . Paris . . . summer.” Paris—how magical it would be to go, Carrie often said, even for a week. Selina had once said to Carrie, but why don’t you go together, yes, just you two, if the husbands are so busy. Selina knew somebody—she could get us a good airfare, and she knew a little place we could rent in Paris for a reasonable price.

—A sudden rumble rocked the walls, the phone flew out of her hand—

She looked around for it—it had fallen into the piano strings. Bending over to pick it up, she once again marveled at the black sheen of the wood, the buoyant curve of the piano’s body. Carrie had sent her a photo of the Champs-Elysées, also a picture of people sitting, with their coffee and croissants, at little tables outside a café. All dressed so stylishly. Her own clothes were so old, so lacking in style at all, they probably wouldn’t even let her into France, let alone allow her to appear there in public. They would pull her aside at the airport: Pardon, madame, c’est dommage, you do not have the proper attire, the éclat, there may be a fine. People passing by would avert their eyes.

Earl was spending more and more time on his mission in what he called the theater of operations. Wasn’t it supposed to be kind of a part-time thing? But he probably volunteered for extra duty. Things were going well, he said. A couple of weeks in, he had leaned against the door of the kitchen, gritty and sweaty in his camouflage. He said, “My aim is getting better and better, Boom Boom!”

He calls her Boom Boom because her breasts are so big. She blushed and liked it at first, but after a while it started to be too much. “Hey, Boom Boom! Here comes Boom Boom in the Room Room Va Va Voom! Watch out, man, it’s Boom Boom—weapons grade!” As long as it was just between them, it was OK. But then he forgot and said, right in front of everybody at the cookout, “Whatcha want on your hotdog, Boom Boom?” and everybody laughed, while she turned red hot with shock. Almost everybody laughed; Lindsey didn’t. Lindsey, who pressed books on her about how women should be free, only shot her a look of scorn, disbelief, pity. That look crushed something in her heart.

She put it to her ear. Carrie was still talking, though a barrage of gunfire again obscured her voice.“Selina’s husband . . . summer in France . . . anniversary gift . . .  countryside . . .  kids . . . grandkids . . . party at the villa . . . picture it,” Carrie said, “. . . big table in the garden . . . French wine.”

—A roaring erupted into the room, Earl’s voice shouting something she couldn’t make out—

She shifted her position again, turning her head away from the sounds. Yes, she agreed, Selina was certainly lucky.

From the start she had been against Earl’s joining the special remote forces. It would mean a huge invasion of their privacy, it would be noisy, it probably violated the town’s zoning regulations. And wasn’t it dangerous? The recruiter explained that there was some danger: it wasn’t just a game, a safe remote drone manipulation activity. It was real combat from a remote location, which is why the family room had to be retrofitted. And there was a channel, a timed window of opportunity, that allowed for reciprocal action, a window controlled by the mission specialist. There was danger, but with skill it could be managed. That was part of the challenge. That was also why in an early engagement a shell or something ripped a leg off the dining room table. Earl still hadn’t fixed it, just stuck a three-drawer file cabinet where the leg should have been. “You’re a veteran, like me,” he told the injured table, patting the chipped edge.

What was in it for her, she had wondered. A lost room and a lot of noise. She had not objected when Earl bought the motorcycle and the huge TV or even the second motorcycle. This time she was determined not to give in. It was repulsive to her in every way. She wanted no part of it.

But, the recruiter said, the spouse had to be on board. In order for the mission to be a success the support of the wife was vital. She didn’t say so to the recruiter, but she wasn’t really in favor of the war we were fighting in a faraway country, even though the government assured citizens that it was essential to the safety of the homeland. The recruiter emphasized what a great contribution Earl and she would be making to national security, what a great fit this was for someone like Earl who was retired and in fine shooting shape. And, he noted, of course this would come with a signing bonus in addition to regular pay. After the recruiter left, Earl, in a fit of uncharacteristic insight, told her that he wanted her to get something out of their joining the mission—he would be willing to use the signing bonus to buy her a piano.

The piano came just before Earl went away for training. Her first day alone she approached it cautiously, almost afraid to make a sound. Then she remembered that there was no one in the house to be bothered by her playing. She got out her old piano books and started from the beginning, playing very softly. As she played through the early lessons, her touch became more confident, the sound stronger. She had never lived alone before. It was strange at first how quiet it was. Nobody was watching loud sports programs on TV, nobody yelling “Boom Boom” or asking what’s for dinner. No socks and underwear on the bedroom floor, no stubble in the bathroom sink. Soon her own rhythms established themselves: she got up when she was ready, she ate what she wanted. She didn’t turn on the TV; when it wasn’t sounding through the house the rooms seemed larger, lighter. Every day she got up and went to the piano. Nobody could hear her mistakes. Nobody would be irritated by her playing the same piece, or piece of a piece, over and over.

After the training Earl assumed his post in the unit’s mission. He was part of a team of remote specialists who could communicate with each other and coordinate their action under the commander. Behind the reinforced door the noise was dulled, and she was able to practice and still hear what she was playing. It wasn’t as peaceful as when Earl was away, but it was tolerable. He was occupied for most of the time, and she spent those hours plunking keys. Then, a few days ago, some kind of missile had blown a hole through the door, and as yet no one had come to repair it. She thought Earl should wait until they fixed it to resume fighting, but he said he couldn’t let his team down.

Through this current bombardment she was only able to hear some of what Carrie was saying. Something about Arlene. “Arlene . . . leaving.” Was she going to Paris, too? Goddamn. Holding a hand to her free ear, she heard “Not Arlene . . . husband.” Arlene’s husband going to Paris? “No . . . leaving Arlene.” What? Howard was leaving Arlene? But what about their forty-some years together, the four children, the grandchildren? “. . . fell in love . . . new life.” This was staggering news, almost too hard to believe. The steady Howard who could always be relied on to mow the lawn, who was first on the block to shovel the snow, who went to all the teacher meetings and the kids’ ball games, who took Arlene to Lake Geneva on their anniversary and sent flowers to her office on Valentine’s Day?

Was Carrie sure she’d heard right? But Carrie insisted, “. . . didn’t see it coming . . . never . . . suspected Howard.” Who was it?  Arlene either didn’t know or didn’t want to say.

——something somewhere smashed, and the room tilted—

She grabbed the piano and hung on until the room came right again. She was going to have to talk to Earl about this—the mission was creeping into other parts of the house.

Howard was such a regular guy. And he seemed happy enough, the way we all are. Arlene will probably move into a condo, she thought, have her own rooms, do whatever she wants with her time. Some people have all the luck. Why couldn’t Earl fall in love with somebody and leave?

—A crash with glass splintering and heavy thuds, the lights dimmed—

Now Arlene is on her own “. . . stunned. Frankly,” Carrie said, “. . . wasted on Arlene. You or I . . . handle it better . . . travel . . . shops . . . theater . . .” Carrie’s voice sparkled as she spread the bright images around.

What did Arlene ever do to bring it on? How was her own life different? She was not more or less hard-working, deserving, assertive, did not have more courage, was not a finer or shabbier cook, was not a better or worse mother or a more or less attentive daughter-in-law. She banged her hand on the keyboard, the discord just audible over the tumult from the other room. She hit the B and then the F keys back and forth over and over until she could hear them.

The mistake must have started when she and Earl first got together. What was the ultimate cause, the original sin? She tried to think back to those days and what she could have done differently. Carrie was talking, “. . . work on Ron . . . Caribbean cruise . . . start with . . . Selina and Paris . . . great idea . . . their anniversary . . . he’ll say Paris . . . you kidding . . . costs . . . act disappointed . . . cheapskate . . . not even a Caribbean cruise . . .  Then he’ll . . . just a cruise . . . we could swing . . . Good strategy, . . . you think?”

“Yes,” she responded, “go for it.”

She leaned against the piano. Carrie knew how to deal with Ron; she was sure to get her Caribbean cruise. They had all been in school together. Some people know how to get what they want. Some people get things without even trying. Her hand went out, her finger struck the lowest key, again, again, again. Some people have all the luck.

A detonation ripped through the air. She thought she heard Earl yell as shock waves reverberated through the room. The standing lamp tipped over and shattered. The room plunged  into darkness. The piano shuddered and slid down at a crazy angle as one of its legs collapsed. Or was it one of her legs? She cowered against the piano’s leaning underside until the convulsions died. Slowly she crawled out from under the piano and tested her leg. She could stand on it, so probably not broken. She took a wobbly step, then another. The sounds from the other room had died down. She limped around the debris strewn across the floor and made it to the door.

Warily she looked across the dining room, past the paraplegic table, to the theater of operations.

“Earl?” she said into the doorway. Her voice shook.

Smoke swirled through the other room, tendrils curling her way. She heard a soft hissing from across the threshold. Then it faded.

“Earl? Hey! Earl!” she called. But there was only silence.

Sixty-Something and Flying Solo: A Retiree Sorts It Out in Iowa
by Marian Mathews Clark
  Sixty-Something and Flying Solo: A Retiree Sorts It Out in Iowa is an edgy, humorous memoir with serious ponderings. An Oregon transplant with no kids and no significant other, the author is someone about whom readers could say, “I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes, but if she can make it, I can, too.” Pieces such as 'What Not to Say at a Funeral' and 'Dusting and Other Insanities' provide a backdrop for monthly accounts of her fall into retirement’s abyss where she clings to her to-do lists while she alters her diet, her wardrobe and her vow to become more domestic. When she resurfaces a year later, she’s surprised at the landscape and what has saved her. Marian Mathews Clark grew up among loggers in Mist, Oregon (pop 50), then caught the Union Pacific to Iowa to attend Graceland College. In the ensuing years, she capped perfume bottles on Coty’s assembly line in New York, was stranded on Loveland Pass during a blizzard, ironed costumes for Polynesian dancers at the Calgary Stampede, tried to shear a sheep in Australia, earned an MFA in Fiction from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and with co-writer Patricia Stevens was a finalist at O’jai’s Film Festival for their feature script Timber. Bart Yates, author of The Distance Between Us, said of her memoir, “Clark is a sly writer; she lured me in with…broken garbage disposals and mysteriously disappearing walls; only later did I realize she was…writing about mortality, loss, joy, and love. Great stuff.” 2015 edition available from Amazon, Culicidae Press, and from your local independent bookseller.

Bios

Cindy Waszak Geary’s work travel inspired her serious interest in photography. Since retirement, she devotes even more time to this practice. Her solo show, Landscapes of Ancestral Migration, was sponsored by the Durham Arts Council in 2022. She lives, writes, hikes, practices yoga, and is a farm volunteer in Chapel Hill NC.
Born in a refugee camp in England, Jane Zakrzewski grew up in an ethnic working-class neighborhood in Chicago. She started writing when she was a girl and has continued while being married, raising children, and caring for parents. Her rich life experience reverberates in her fiction. In addition to short stories, she writes novels and short, free-ranging snippets.

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