Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Call Back

He called her from the roof top. “Better reception,” he said.

“Sit down, “ she said.

“I am sitting,” he said.

The energy in his voice made her nervous.

“It’s only a two-story building,” he said, but his intonation gave him away. Some people exaggerate a small point, make it more, lean into drama, hyperbole, but Paul diminished the details, made light of everything, turned an oak into a troubling acorn, a boulder into a pebble. So if he said two stories, it was at least three with a walk-out basement.

“I’m going to hang up now so you don’t fall.”

“Talking to me won’t make me fall,” he said, “and hanging up . . . “

She didn’t hear the end because she had hung up, but she imagined the completed sentence: hanging up won’t save me.

No, but it might save her. She couldn’t be on the phone to her child as he slid down a crumbling roof to his death. If it happened, it happened. She’d hear about it later.

But she couldn’t shake the image of him on the peak of that roof four or five stories up. The building grew every time she thought about it. She could visualize him clearly: his skinny backside right on the peak, a leg on either side, knees bent, an elbow on a knee, holding the phone, the free hand running through his hair the way he did when he was excited or happy. By now his hair was standing straight up, that thick hair oiled by his hand, burnt in the sun. He didn’t wear hats or sun block, and he burned so easily.

She’d never once let him out of the house without a slathering of Johnson’s Baby Protect. And now he was sitting on some rooftop opening his cells to skin cancer in another twenty years, if the fall from the roof six stories up didn’t kill him first.

Well there’s a thought she didn’t need. She couldn’t call him back. His phone was on vibrate. The call would startle him, get him off balance.

But he’d always been an agile boy, a climber, at the top of every jungle gym, at the crown of every tree. A gentle vibration wouldn’t unseat her boy. He was steadier than that. Actually he was quite steady for a reckless, thrill-seeking thirty-year-old. He just needed reminders. Which was still her job. With her voice in his ear, he would take care, would look where he placed his hands and feet before he put any weight on them.

He’d always needed that word, just a word, from her, and then he was safe.

She called him.

“Good job, Mom.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know.” That was their agreement—that she wait at least 30 minutes before calling him back.

“Let’s try for an hour next time.”

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gull Man

The gull hovered overhead waiting while the man tore a crust off the bread and tossed it in the air. The bird swooped, caught it, dipped its wing in thanks or so the man supposed, and disappeared over the wall.

It came back as he knew it would, waiting just long enough for him to tear another chunk off and toss it up—the swoop—the catch—the dip and then over the wall. His heart soared with the bird.

Every day the same thing until the slice of bread was gone. The bird knew when it was the last scrap and didn’t return until the next day. The others called him gull man, but he didn’t care, wondered if the other gulls called his gull, man bird or convict bird.

The main flock of gulls hovered high over the yard. Only his came down for the bread—once it was cake—the warden’s birthday, or maybe it was presidents’ day and they had cake for lunch. The man saved both the cake and the bread for the bird. Gave it the bread first, piece by piece, held up the cake to show there was more so the bird would come back—and it did—until the cake was a trail of crumbs. It fell apart across the yard and over the wall.

Gull man stood in the same spot at the same time every day and the gull came.

He started including things from his cell—a torn page from a magazine, a snip from a t-shirt, pieces of himself to be flown over the wall. The bird took it all—the bread, the paper, the squares of cloth gull man tore until a whole shirt was gone, over the wall.

He emptied his cell, bit by bit, most of his clothes flown to the other side, the blank pages of a journal, the plastic tube of a pen, all of it somewhere on the other side.

The bird swooped closer, looked stronger, as the man added weight to the cargo—a dime wrapped in a square of paper—money for the outside.

The bird was there every afternoon, ready for the day’s load, not caring that the squares of bread were smaller and the bits of paper or fabric larger, day after day, week after week, month after month.

Then the bird appeared at night, every night, in his dream, landing on his shoulder, curling its feet into his sweat shirt, plunging its beak into the ruff of cloth at his neck and lifting him up, up, up over the wall and away. Soon, he said, soon, that day was coming. When the cell was empty, he’d be next.

©2011 Kathleen Coskran

Thursday, August 11, 2011


The chair was her friend, and the hot water bottle her baby. The comforts of old age, she said. Bring me my baby, she said.

That look crossed his face every time she said it, but he brought the thing to her, lay it her lap, and turned away before she clutched it to her bony frame. My baby.

She romanticized everything. Always had. Was her biggest problem. She never saw things straight on, couldn’t or didn’t face reality.

She was old. More senior than most senior citizens, a term he abhorred along with elders, the elderly, even old folks was some sort of bromide. Why did they—we—have to be called anything? He didn’t believe in naming every goddamned thing that existed, personifying the whole world as if everything lived. My baby! My eyetooth!

Bah, humbug, he said.

Well, that made her laugh, always did. You’re no Scrooge, she said, as much as you want to be. The baby—the hot water bottle—was wrapped in the afghan and snuggled against her abdomen—her pain was real. The rubber mouth of the thing stuck out, and she had her thin arms wrapped around the bottle—the baby—itself.

They’d had babies, real babies, five of them, one died—her fault, she’d said, but she was wrong about that too. How could it be anybody’s fault but God’s? He preferred not to think about that one—Elizabeth. They never should have named her. He knew it the minute he saw the look on the doctor’s face, heard stillborn from his lips. Shouldn’t name a dead thing or grieve for it—her.

But she had named Elizabeth, told the children, cried and prayed. It’s over, he had said. She patted his hand and said she knew, but wasn’t she beautiful?

But the others. Even he knew they were as beautiful as she said, beautiful babies, nothing like the inanimate rubber thing she held to her bosom now. And where were those babies? Gone to their own lives. Voices on the phone, pictures on a screen. Which was right. Is how the world works. He knew that.

Don’t see him crying, do you, or pretending? He lived his life awake, in the real world, without foolishness.

He looked over. She was watching him, clutching the baby, and smiling because she was happy.

God in heaven, look at her, the beauty he married. Now that was real.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Where There's Smoke

The smoke poured out of the house, long grey plumes at the back of the house, clouds of black at the front. Not flames, just smoke, billowing smoke, hay stacks of smoke, curling fingers of smoke, smoke snaking around the eaves, smoke blanketing the roof, smoke climbing the walls and escaping through every orifice, every uncaulked crack, every flaw, every where.

Smoke. Smoke, not flames, not yet. Not what she expected from her house afire, house ablaze, house collapsing in a conflagration. But, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so she knew the flames were coming, would appear eventually to add color and drama to what was already a worrisome sight, smoke spewing from every opening in the house, a prelude to the final drama, the ultimate destruction, the leveling of everything that was hers. She’d be left with the clothes on her back.

She was quite interested in how readily the clichés came to her. It was comforting. The clothes on her back, where there’s smoke—that kind of thing. She’d spent her life excising platitudes, big red marks on every bromide, quizzical exclamation points in the margins of student papers. But now, in the most dramatic moment of her well-organized, thoughtful life, all she could come up with was a string of predictable metaphors sprinkled with truisms.

Two things happened simultaneously. Just as she was mentally preparing a writing assignment for her third hour class, something either about destruction and loss or high drama and the effects of adrenalin, just as she was forming the assignment: close your eyes and imagine . . ., the first beautiful orange flame licked the shingles of her house, folding them neatly like envelopes, sealing them as they were consumed, and she felt a hand on her shoulder, heard somebody call her ma’am and move her like a mannequin to a place called Safety.

It was a fireman, a ruddy, sturdy, handsome fireman. How predictable. He had the full outfit, helmet, boots, yellow suit with black buckle, even an axe in his left hand and a mustache on his kindly face. Ma’am, he said, as he steered her to Safety, the place he knew that she’d always been most comfortable.

She resisted—as an experiment—to see what he would do, how he would raise the ante, up the stakes. “Ma’am, I have to insist.” Yes, he was trained to be polite, probably one of her students. Did he recognize her? Not yet. If she resisted even more, perhaps he’d scoop her up and carry her to Safety, a damsel in distress, just like in the movies, her very own cliché.

Yes! She held back just enough, until she was hoisted like a rag doll, tossed over his shoulder, and carried off into the sunset.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Friday, August 5, 2011


She had to be ready by ten o’clock, teeth brushed, hair combed, completely dressed. She didn’t know why Brian had emphasized completely when he’d called. Did he think she’d come out one shoe on, one shoe off or with only her blouse, no skirt, no socks, no shoes at all?

She had to admit it was tempting. Everything or anything she did these days seemed to irritate him. He clearly thought she was sliding into senility. Even the patient way he said Moth-er with two distinct syllables. Whatever happened to the familiar, one syllable Mom? The way he said Moth-er showed the extreme patience required of him to pronounce the word.

She would be ready and with every item of clothing on her body. Still the thought lingered. She needed to do something, something assertive, to show who was the parent, who was the child.

She dressed slowly, carefully, thinking. She paused in the bathroom long enough to really look at herself in the mirror. Yes, she could see she was old.

She looked at all the jars and tubes, filled with substances she never used anymore—or samples that came when she spent at least $20 at a cosmetic counter. When had she last done that?

She opened a jar and rubbed the faint pink contents on her face. It was cool, refreshing, and had the faint aroma of lemon pudding. She pulled the cap off a stick—a brownish blue—must be eye shadow or liner. She laughed when she stroked her eyelids with the tip. It was like being brushed by a butterfly’s wing and sprinkled with angel dust.

She had trouble unscrewing the small gold cylinder, but when it finally gave, she was delighted. Rouge! Well, she knew they didn’t call it rouge anymore. Blush, as in blushing bride. Oh, she had been beautiful that day.

She looked around for a brush, a soft blush brush, couldn’t find anything. She thought of sacrificing her toothbrush to the task—it was a soft bristle, but still too damp. She used her fingers, lightly, and rubbed soft circles of blush on her high cheekbones—still her best feature.

She opened every jar, tube, wand, compact and put whatever was in it somewhere on her face. The bouquet of smells was delicious and, towards the end, she didn’t even look at herself in the mirror. It took too long to scrutinize every addition and she did have to be ready by ten.


She shot out of the bathroom, snapped on the silver coral bracelet, the big butterfly necklace, and the black silk scarf Rudy had brought her from China so long ago, and was just slipping into her shoes when she heard Brian letting himself in.

She had asked him to knock first, but he always used his key, assuming she couldn’t make it to the door in a timely manner. Well, she was ready for him, this time really ready. She stepped into the living room just as he was closing the door. “Good morning, Brian.”


The pronunciation was much improved, two quick syllables, but it was the look on his face that gave her the most pleasure—the protruding eyes, flared nostrils, gaping mouth, and the splotchy red spreading across his neck.

She looked terrific—there was no other word for it—surprisingly terrific. Ready at last.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran