Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Coffee Shop

She had a headache. That must be it. The sun hurt. She had a headache, and all she wanted was black coffee. She put the laptop on sleep, memorized the exact position of everything on her table, picked up the mocha, and hurried to the bathroom. Occupied. Shit.

The bearded guy who always sat at the table across from the woman’s restroom nodded at her sympathetically.

“I don’t have to go,” she said and then wished she’d ripped her tongue out instead. Her head pounded. Why did he sit there every day? Pervert.

She glanced at her table. Nothing had moved. Laptop lid ajar, her red coat neatly hung on the back of the chair, mittens on the table, purse on the floor. Well, she should go get the purse—her life was in that bag.

The bathroom door opened, and the skinny woman slid out, the woman Miriam called Twiggy, all bone and skin, thin hair plastered to her skeletal head, clearly an anorexic. Miriam stepped around her, closed the door, locked it, poured the mocha down the toilet, flushed it, ran water in the sink so it sounded as if she were washing her hands, opened the door, stepped out. 30 seconds. The bearded guy caught her eye as she emerged and seemed to be saying, nicely done.

What was nicely done? Peeing quickly? She checked her table again. Everything was still there. She went to the refill station and pumped French Roast into her cup. The acid smell hit her with the second pump. It was too strong. She couldn’t repeat her pouring-coffee-down-the-toilet routine again, so she switched to free trade decaf, filled the cup the rest of the way and was just sitting down when she realized what a mistake the decaf was. She had a headache. She needed caffeine, 100 % caffeinated brew. French Roast was better than half decaf. She couldn’t think; it was the headache.

She slumped back in her chair, looked at her sleeping screen—at least it was black—looked at the other regulars, refugees from the chaos at home, people who used Java Joint for their office, all of them bent over tiny screens, nobody talking, not even the young couple, both of them improbably blond and fit. Everybody feeding their twin addictions, caffeine and the screen. That made her relax about the decaf. The bearded guy saw her pump it, probably thought better of her for not mainlining caffeine, even if he didn’t know she’d just poured a four-dollar mocha down the toilet.

She shifted just enough so she could see if he saw her.

Well! Yes! The man had no subtlety. He had turned his chair so he faced her directly from the other side of the room, and whenever he looked up which, luckily, he was not doing now, he would see her. And if they looked up at the same time, their eyes would meet, they would both smile as if slightly embarrassed and more than slightly interested.

After a few minutes he’d get up, come over, apologize for interrupting her, say he’d noticed her, they were here at the same time every day, and he wondered, well—what would he wonder? He wondered if she’d like lunch, if she’d like to go for a quick walk, if she’d like to go back to his place, if she’d like to read the novel he was writing. God, not that. Probably some sci-fi hairless alien sort of thing. She definitely did not want to read his novel.

But what if he wanted to read hers?

Well, that’s another matter, isn’t it? An intelligent, like-minded reader would be a boon. He’d have to understand how very first draft it was. But, yes, that was an idea she would entertain. Definitely.

She drank a long swallow of coffee. Delicious. Just right. Felt better already. She couldn’t really tell it was only half strength. She cradled the cup with two hands as if her fingers were cold, rested her bottom lip on the cup, sipped, and raised her eyes to look across the room. The bearded man—she hoped his name was John—such a good, clean name—caught her eye, smiled just as she knew he would, and stood up.

The Beginning.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Monday, December 12, 2011

Boy on a Curb

The boy was sitting alone on the curb in front of his house. He didn’t look particularly alone on that Minneapolis street with all the bungalows lined up neatly behind him, the grass mowed, the hedges trimmed, the gardens weeded. Not as symmetrical as that last sentence makes it sound, but neat nonetheless, tamed, civilized.

He sat there—alone—unaware of the comfort of his block, ignorant of the men who cleared the land, sawed the lumber, fired the bricks, roofed the houses on days too hot to breathe. He hadn’t been there then and didn’t care now. He just sat on the curb in front of his own house with the rough cement hard on his skin, and his bare feet shuffled under the leaves in the gutter.

And, no, he wasn’t bored. We always assume that fifteen-year-old kids who sit without moving, with that blank look on their faces, are bored. He wasn’t bored. He wasn’t sad. He was frozen, stunned, dazed. He couldn’t move. For the first time in his life all he wanted to do was to be still, very, very still.

He’d known her all his life. Janey. As plain as they come, but a little while ago when she grabbed his hand, he had a weird feeling, really weird. Now he was almost afraid of her, close to mad at her. She touched his hand, he grabbed hers, they looked at each other a second too long, and then he stuck out his tongue. “Bleah!” he said.

Bleah!” she said and moved closer.

They laughed and did it again and again and again.

And now the boy is sitting on the curb, not moving. Bleah? he thinks.

Yes, she’d said, Yes.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Eyes Have it

The first time he saw Brittany, he didn’t know her name. He knew she was beautiful—obviously—and had golden eyes like a spaniel, round dog eyes that followed him from across the room, beckoned him so obviously that he got up and walked over.


She lowered her lashless eyes when she said hello, and he took a step back. He had treated too many girls who pulled out their lashes. He didn’t want one of his old patients sliding into his real life. “I’m Brittany,” she said and extended her hand.

He took it—slender, smooth, cool, no feel of cutting scars or other mutilation. The arms were clean, the shoulders smooth, the dip towards the breasts perfect, but those lashless eyes. He almost said, “Brittany like the spaniel?” but recovered in time to ask if she were British.

No, Irish.

What sort of Irishman names his daughter Brittany? He told her his name, asked how she knew their host—work—what did she do—model.

Without eyelashes? but he didn’t say it. Her voice was melodious, and she sounded amused as if his every word and gesture were laden with wit and innuendo. He kept waiting for her to say, You don’t remember me, do you, doctor? You don’t remember what you said to my mother. You don’t remember calling me obsessive-compulsive, anxious, depressed—you don't remember trotting out your so-called clinical terms—but she didn’t. She watched him with those spaniel eyes, watched his every twitch and swallow, until he was forced to ask for her number, and she gave it.

©2011 Kathleen Coskran


Jack was lost. He had followed a toad across the yard and into the little patch of woods behind the house. It was a large toad, as big as his dad’s fist, which is what scared him at first—how much the old, knobby toad looked like the fist, splotched, lumpy, clenched, rising out of the dirt, after him.

He nudged it with his bare foot when he first saw it and noticed immediately that it was soft and had eyes—so not a fist, but an ordinary toad with stubby arms and splayed toes. He nudged it again, and the toad hopped across the grass, calling to him in a plaintive, bleating voice. Come, come, it said and hopped again. He almost lost sight of it in the leaves, but the rustle of its movements helped him find it, and after a few more hops, Jack learned to see the toad in the mulch of twigs and pine straw on the forest floor—for now they had left the yard and were in the woods. The toad bleated only one more time, but it was enough to lead him on.

Most boys would try to catch the toad, torment it with a stick, throw it against a tree, perhaps take it home as a trophy, but not Jack. In spite of being a curious boy, he had learned not to touch what was not his; he had learned to keep his hands off everything; he had learned not to speak unless spoken to. He knew it was wrong to touch the toad with his foot—but he had kept his hands off—and he was very, very gentle.

“I won’t touch it again,” he said out loud and continued to follow the toad that hopped deeper into the woods. Nobody had ever told him not to follow a toad. He had been told never to leave the yard, but he didn’t notice when he crossed that boundary, and then it was too late. Even a very good boy can make a mistake when there is a toad involved.

And now the toad was tired, and Jack was lost. He rested on a log that sagged to the ground when he sat down; the toad hopped close to his foot and sank down too, all hopped out. The toad’s body inflated and then deflated as it tried to catch its breath. Jack couldn’t take his eyes off it—he’d never realized that even a toad could be tired of running.

He picked it up then, put it on his knee, and kept one hand gently over its back so it wouldn’t slip or hop off and began to talk to the toad that looked like his father’s fist. “We went too far,” he whispered, “so we can’t go back now.”

The toad closed its eyes to show it understood and fell asleep. Jack used his free hand to push his hair back from his sweaty face, reminded himself to breathe, and tried to think about what they should do next. He knew they were really lost, but he was happy, not scared, happy and hungry at the same time. After a while he carefully moved the toad to a soft place in the dirt, placed his cap over it to keep it warm, lay down beside it, and went to sleep.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Monday, November 21, 2011


She was late which was not her style. Five minutes late. But those five minutes unsettled her, meant she couldn’t dash into the ladies’ room to check her lipstick, her hair, make sure her mascara was on her lashes, not her cheek. She was the sort of person who was comforted by quick appearance checks. If she looked good, everything would go well.

You feel better when your makeup is fresh and your hair done. Her mother’s mantra and the one bit of advice she chose to accept and would pass on to her own daughter if she ever had time to have children. She winced when she saw that cartoon of the woman moaning, Oh, I forgot to have children. Forgot to fall in love, forgot to have sex, forgot to have babies, forgot to buy a house in the suburbs.

Well, she did buy a house, a condo, downtown, great location, good address. And men did come up. She hadn’t really forgotten to have sex, but always with protection.

She was well protected, this woman who strode in and took her seat at the head of the table, not really late at all because nothing could happen until she arrived. She spread a few sheets in front of her, smiled, nodded at the men closest to her.

“Shall we begin?” she said. She took in the perfect posture, the raised heads, the attentive looks, the susurration of papers up and down the table, the eyes turned to her, the anticipation, the readiness.

She was right on time.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Monday, November 7, 2011

My Turn

She's a talker. She can talk your ears off, glaze your eyes over, and dry out your throat. Time was, I didn’t know how she did it, or what she found to say.

She could answer the questions she asked before you got your mouth open; she laughed and talked at the same time, cried and talked too, tears running over her fat cheeks, little spurting waterfalls, while she told some sad story, usually about Rupert, or, if not about Rupert, her first husband, her beau, the love of her life, the first love of her life—I was the second—it if wasn’t about Rupert, he showed up somewhere toward the end, and the trickle of tears gushed in climax.

Then, last week, she stopped. I didn’t notice at first, not until I brought the paper in and looked at the front page. Earthquake in Oklahoma. I was shocked. Rosemary hadn’t said a word about an earthquake in Oklahoma—Japan, yes, but that was some time ago. Not Oklahoma. She would have given me all the details before it ever appeared in the morning paper. That’s when I noticed how quiet the house was. Maybe she’d run to the store for something, but she would have told me she was going—where, why, for how long.

I panicked. I raced through the house, as fast as a man my age can move, flung open the doors to every room and finally discovered her standing on the deck watching the robins who’d nested under the eave of the garage. She loved those robins, had narrated every detail of their lives to date: the building of the nest, the mating—she hadn’t actually witnessed these particular birds doing it, but she had explained in graphic detail how it was accomplished, then the egg laying, and now the baby birds.

She was standing on the deck, silent, in her nightgown, watching birds.


Her body trembled when I spoke, so I knew she heard me, although I wondered if she knew it was I—she heard the sound of my voice so seldom.

“Rosemary? Sweetheart?”

The tremor again. I stepped out on the deck and put my arm around her. “Watching the birds?”

A shiver ran through her again, but still she kept silent. It was as if she were paralyzed or her motor had run down. There was a ruffle of activity in the nest, both adult birds jockeying for position.

In the minute it took them to get comfortable, Rosemary and I stood transfixed and silent. It was the first time I didn’t know what she was thinking. It made me think about marriage—theirs and ours—how things go along the same for years, everybody playing their part, mama bird and papa bird—and if you don’t push against each other, to make your space together, you end up alone. One of you doing all the talking, trying to fill up the space, the other doing all the hearing, letting the words float past without catching a one, without reflection, without giving back, both of you lonely.

I took a breath. It was my turn.

“Rosemary, did I ever tell you about the time I found a bird with a broken wing? I must have been 7 or 8 and we were living on Fairview Drive, 200 North Fairview, telephone number Fairview 8-3535. Isn’t it remarkable how, years later, you can remember something as insignificant as your childhood phone number? Must be lodged in a certain part of the brain for recording trivial details that were important once, recent brain research probably can pinpoint the exact location of Fairview 8-3535 in my brain. Incredible! Well, anyway, this bird’s wing . . . “

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Just Sufficient

Did you get what you want? Was that the question? Or what you deserved? She was sure that wasn't it. Or what you needed? Was it sufficient, your life? That question always drew her in. Was it sufficient? Or just sufficient? Quite sufficient? Barely sufficient? The gradations of a life. Her life.

The thoughts surprised her. They were alive, these questions, visible like roadside signs flashing behind her temporal lobe. She’d like to tell somebody, like to talk about it, hear others’ opinions, weigh the possibilities, argue about the distinction, the very fine distinction between sufficient and just sufficient, the power and thrust of a single word: just. The ambiguity. Which was the higher ranking: sufficient or just sufficient? Which was preferable? If sufficient was indeed higher, perhaps just sufficient was preferable; just sufficient spoke to a life in balance.

Yes. If just sufficient were in everybody’s column, then the world would be in balance and the power of just’s twin meanings, justice and proximity, would be achieved. So just sufficient must be both the highest ranking and the preferred. She got what she needed and what she deserved, if deserved was even on the list. Surely nobody deserved more than what was just sufficient.

She blinked. Maybe Ed would glance over, see the blink. She thought she blinked. She’d heard them say she had no signs of consciousness but, my god, even Steven Hawking could blink. She blinked again, but had no way of knowing if anybody saw. She knew when somebody was near her. She felt the heat of the body and the murmur of the hushed voice and saw the person too, as a cloudy shape, ghostly or angelic depending on who it was. Nobody hovered now.

She had a flash of anger, that sharp clenching impatience, and she could almost hear her own voice, too sharp, saying, “Damn it, I’m talking to you. Look at me.”

And Nell would turn slowly towards her, miming disdain and distaste, eyes raised, a barely sufficient attempt to look at her. But that was years ago. Not now. Nell was the angelic cloud, the soothing voice, the just sufficient presence. Ed was too kinetic, in and out, in and out, he couldn’t sit in the room for more than a minute. Ed, the stoic. She needed to tell him to go. That was the blink. It was sufficient.

God, she’d like to talk to somebody, anybody, to let them know she was there, and she knew where she was going. There was only one direction. It was up. Had to be up. It had begun with the stroke, this lightness, this floating, this movement up.

She smiled and blinked and chortled. Ed had always complained that her laugh was a chortle, an unattractive chortle, not feminine at all. She chortled again and didn’t care that no one knew. Anybody could see the blink or the light in her eyes if they’d just look.

Nell would see it, if not now, then later, and then they would all know what she knew. There was a heaven, and she was on her way, going up and up and up.

It would be just sufficient.

2011 Kathleen Coskran

Friday, October 21, 2011


The woman sits at her desk with her hands on the keyboard.

The woman sits at her desk in her cubicle with her hands on the keyboard.

The woman sits at her desk in her cubicle with her hands on the keyboard and begins to type.

Data entry.

Her job is data entry.

Entry into what? Did a door open somewhere? She doesn’t see a door.

She just sits at her desk, hands on her keyboard, in her cubicle and does data entry.

Data. Pieces of information. Bits or are they bytes?

Bytes of information—data—that have nothing to do with the woman who sits at a desk in a cubicle with her hands on a keyboard.

Any woman. Anywhere. Could be a man, but usually not.



What if she, or the unlikely he, sees the entry, the portal, sees it open and follows the data, the names and the numbers, the rows and the columns. What if she leans a bit too close as she types at her keyboard at her desk there in her cubicle, leans too far, sees the entry, the gaping entry and follows it.

Goes in and lines herself up in a row—say the 3rd row—and a column—perhaps the 5th column—so when the woman or unlikely man in the next cubicle at her desk with her hands on the key board begins data entry, the screen shows something new in the 3rd row, 5th column. She might not notice it at first, with her hands on the keyboard and eyes on the rows and columns to be entered, but when, not if, but when, her attention flickers, she does see something—5th column, 3rd row—error message, and she leans in to get a better look and sees the woman from the next cubicle stretch her hand out. She’ll take that offered hand, grab on, and enter herself, 3rd row, 6th column, and then there will be two errors in row 3.

The woman in the next cubicle sits at her desk with her hands on the keyboard, entering data automatically, without thought—no thinking required until she sees the flicker—3rd row, columns 5 and 6—error message. She leans in . . .

The portal widens. She goes.

We can all do it, lean in, grab a hand, and enter.


Stretch out your hand.

Let’s go.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Friday, October 14, 2011


The earrings were the only thing she wanted from her mother’s meager estate and now she had lost one. They were a wedding present from her father to her mother, tiny, perfect pearls set in gold and glued to an earring clip. She wore the earrings almost daily when she was a child. They were the central ornament in her dress-up fantasies, a gift from the king, she would proclaim in an exaggerated accent nobody could place. Her mother didn’t wear them, and her father never commented on the fact that his bride had turned his wedding gift into a toy. Maybe he didn’t care or notice.

Or, more likely, he wasn’t many weeks into the marriage before he realized that the pearl, round, smooth, white and pure, was not the most appropriate gift for a buxom, wide-mouthed redhead named Ruby.

Rubies would have been too obvious, he told her later, long after Ruby was gone, and it was just the two of them. “The earrings are yours,” he said. “Perfect for you.”

They hurt, the way clip-on earrings do. She could have converted them to studs, but she liked the pinch to her earlobe and the eventual throb which had her removing one and then the other, rubbing her lobe. It reminded her of Ruby, the beauty and the pain.

“Ruby was a package,” her father said. “You got it all.” He paused and looked at her, abashed and embarrassed. “I wanted it all.”

“Masochist,” she said.

“No,” he said. “I got you too. The best part.”

How like him to give pearls to the one woman who not only would never wear them, but would resent them as an overt attempt to define her. Ruby must have loved him briefly—who wouldn’t love that sweet man?—but she bored quickly and was gone before Garnett turned ten.

Garnett checked the pocket of her coat, her jacket, every compartment of her purse. She’d probably taken it off midway through dinner, when the sharp stab was too much, held it in her hand, thinking she’d snap it back on and then didn’t.

Just like her mother—who said she would do something and then didn’t. I’ll pick you up on Saturday. We’ll go to the zoo or the movies or Grant Park and feed the ducks. Garnet would wait, in her clean clothes, hair brushed, ready when the call came, running late, can’t make it, Sweetheart, next time, next time. The pain was a quick sharp stab of disappointment and expectation. If it bothered her father, he never said anything and always had an extra hour to take a kite to the vacant lot or to walk down to the creek and catch tadpoles. Nothing her mother would ever suggest.

He was the pearl, polished by irritation perhaps, but smooth and beautiful. She didn’t need two of everything. She had the one that mattered.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Friday, October 7, 2011


She was in the tree, high up, invisible from the ground. A female Tarzan. Tarzana she called herself. Not Jane. She did not respect Jane.

She didn’t know the word subservient and wouldn’t have thought of weak, but that was what she didn’t like about Jane. Plus the one-syllable name was too ordinary. Something out of a boring book. All anybody named Jane could really expect out of life was a dog named Spot.

But Tarzana lived with the apes and the leopards. Tarzana hung around with monkeys and hurled coconuts at unsuspecting passers-by. She knew it was a game, a fantasy, but if you’re going to pretend, think big. Her alternate identity, the one on the ground, was queen of England, the only country wise enough to have a queen. She didn’t much like the dowdy look of the present monarch, but that didn't stop her from taking on the role. However Tarzana was her preferred identity, her best game. Tarzana was strong, feral, in touch with monkeys, and above it all.

She was lounging along her favorite branch when she heard the rustle of somebody coming along the path. She shifted just enough to watch them approach—a man and a girl. He had his arm around the girl who was laughing. There was something wrong with the laugh. It was put on, a fake. A trill with no laughter in it. The pair stopped just under her tree.

His voice was too low and throaty to catch his words, but the girl's voice was high pitched and very clear. I have to go. No. No. I said, No. Really no.

The tree trembled when he pushed the girl against the trunk. She said no again, and then the words were muffled as if he’d thrown a blanket over her head.

Tarzana parted the branches to get a better view. His mouth was over the girl’s, and the girl was beating on his back with her little fists, fists like Jane’s. The tree shook. No, no!

Tarzana raised her throat to the heavens and sent out her danger call, a high-pitched shriek that carried down the trunk and through the jungle behind her suburban park. She swung down a branch, raised her throat again to the staccato screech of danger, then swung another branch lower, shaking the canopy. The whole tree shook with her fury.

“Jesus Christ!” the man yelled and pushed the girl against the tree, then ran. Tarzana gave her two-pitch yell again as he crashed through the jungle.

The trembling stopped. The tree quieted. Tarzana let herself down slowly. She didn’t want to scare Jane who she could see was sitting on the ground at the base of the tree sniffling into her two hands.

She landed on all fours in front of the girl.


The girl didn’t understand.

“Your name? Jane?”

The girl wiped her eyes and looked at Tarzana. “My name is Janet,” she said.

Close enough.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Sunday, September 25, 2011


The bracelet wasn’t gold. It didn’t matter that much to her, but it was a symbol, wasn’t it? A metaphor. It’s not as if she’d had a green stripe on her wrist for the past year. It was a good fake.

Just like Trent. Or Rent. Or Kent. Real name probably Cent spelled with a C. Then you’d have to say Sent. Which is what she’d done. Sent him away—without the bracelet.

It was a pretty thing that never looked quite right on her thick wrist. She wasn’t heavy, but strong. That’s what her mother said, “You’re a strong woman.” So that fine, feminine bracelet looked out of place on her.

But she’d been flattered by the gift, by the thought that something so lovely, so delicate belonged on her body, and she’d blushed when he clasped it around her wrist, had cried when he kissed her hand, her cheek, her lips. It’s beautiful, she said. Thank you.

Her heart swelled even now to think of that lovely, tender moment. At least now she knew what lovely and tender felt like. It didn’t have to mean foolish, fool, stupid girl, what were you thinking? Those were her first thoughts when she handed it to the jeweler to be repaired, and he had said, “It’s not gold, you know.”

She hadn’t known, hadn’t known quite a lot. Charlatan—fraud—imposter—and a blush and tears again so she had to turn away from the jeweler. He was bent over his task, not looking at her, which gave her the moment she needed, a moment of grace, time to replace fool with tender. What might she see when she put on the bracelet now? What would she see for the rest of her life?

She chose lovely.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Option 7

It was only a button, a button separated from its garment, lying in the palm of his hand, eyeing her, accusing her, the flat black pallor of the button reflecting his attitude, not his face, but his attitude. His face was impassive as always, smoothly handsome, sharp nose, ice blue eyes, lips too full for a man of his age, a bit of grey perfectly streaked above his ears.

Her mother mistrusted handsome men. “Don’t go out with a man prettier than you, “ she would say and then laugh because she had done just that, gone out with handsome men. “My Hollywood years,” she said and then let it drop that she had kissed Cary Grant, or was it Clark Gable? CG. Those were the initials. All Marcia could remember, but her mother hadn’t married them, just kissed and told.

Marcia had married her own CG, Charles Goodwin. It was a strong name, a handsome face, slight charm, but . . .

There’s always a but . . . a button this time, off his suit coat no doubt, middle button, her fault, held steady in the palm of his hand. She considered her options.

Option 1: Duck her head in silent apology, sew the button on quickly, hand him the jacket, the briefcase, get him out the door. Over. Done with. Problem solved.

Option 2: Wait for him to speak, to explain why he is standing before her in his starched shirt, black tie, creased slacks, holding a button in the palm of his hand at 7:08 in the morning, 12 minutes before they both should be on the train.

Option 3: Pretend she doesn’t see him or the button, finish buttoning her own suit, apply mascara, blush, lipstick, step around him if he is still there, and make the 7:20 train.

Option 4: Same as 3, but tell him where the sewing basket is.

Option 5: Say what in the hell do you expect me to do with that fucking button? and then proceed to option 3.

Option 6: Same as 5, but without the f- word.

She quickly reviewed options 2 through 6—option 1 was never seriously considered—wondered what a mediator would suggest, something with an “I” statement, no doubt, as in I don’t have time to sew on your button. No, that’s too close to accepting responsibility for doing it.

I keep the sewing basket . . .No. We keep the sewing basket in the closet in the family room.

Or they sew on buttons at the cleaners.

The mediated sentences are helpful without accepting responsibility, but so dissatisfying when CG is still standing there with the accusatory black button in his hand.

Wait. He’s about to speak.

“Is this yours? I found it under the bed.”

Option 7: Remember that the obvious, early solutions may be based on incomplete information or false assumptions.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Cheryl accented her dreamy look by draping herself in diaphanous materials—pink and green silks just short of transparent, chiffon blouses that billowed, long, swishing skirts that trailed behind her, sleeves that covered her hands so she appeared to be clothed in a cloud. The effect could be startling, her very appearance a proclamation—Titania is here, the fairy queen has arrived, angels will follow soon.

Her hair, as you have probably guessed, was a cloud of blond curls around her pale face. Her eyes were the color of emeralds. You expected a breathy, throaty whisper when she spoke, but when she did open her mouth you realized there was a real person under all the fluff. Her voice rasped. The hard consonants hit the ear as if she were speaking German or Dutch and focused your attention on the perfectly round face peering through whatever silk or chiffon concoction she had dreamed up that morning.

You could call us childhood friends—we were neighbors—but it was hard to like her. I wore consignment shop jeans, my brothers’ sweatshirts, and kept my hair long, straight, and in my face. In Junior High Cheryl still showed up in dresses with a train that she draped over one arm or gossamer outfits that rose and fell with every mincing step. The day she told me how much she liked my shirt, I snorted. There she stood in her ethereal baby blue glory saying she liked my hand-me-down Vikings sweatshirt. “You can have it,” I said.

Her eyes glistened, and she covered her face with that narrow hand. “I can’t,” she said and floated across the yard, up her own steps and into her house, the only gingerbread Victorian on the block.

There was something so false about her filmy fluff, but I know now that I envied her and hated the way the boys on my block, including my brothers, looked when she was around. Cheryl would always be seen; nobody would know I was alive.

So, as expected, I slipped into high school unnoticed, one of many nondescript, good-student girls in sweatshirts, but Cheryl was an item from the beginning.

I saw her coming down the stairs one day that first week, pink with pleasure at the attention. A line of senior boys at the top of the stairs were singing to her, then cracking up, Freshman fairy, come fly with me, Freshman fairy. Center stage. Just where she wanted to be, I thought. No senior boy would know I existed if I walked over him during passing time.

Have you ever been stuck? Really stuck in your own skin? You know what other people think of you, know how they see you, know it’s not right, but don’t know how to change. Can’t move off of square one because square two is nowhere in sight, and for Cheryl, square one was sweet, rosy, and comfortable. She was our image of cool in kindergarten, of beauty in grammar school, of eccentric in middle school.

I’ve been stuck too every since she jumped—or flew. I should have said something, should have given her my sweatshirt, helped her out of her ridiculous costumes, but how do you help somebody you’ve resented your whole life?

My brother Davy saw her come out of her third hour class and float—his word—into a group of guys. Oh, it’s the fairy princess. Fly to me fairy. Where are your wings?

She didn’t look at them directly, but she dropped something on the floor with each taunt—her binder, a pencil, the math book—and quickened her pace. Her tormentors kicked her things down the hall. Other kids at their lockers stopped to watch.

Fairy, fairy, fucking flying fairy. A steady stream.

She’d shed her books and back pack by the time she reached the stairwell and climbed up on the ledge—floated up, Davy said—and spread her skinny arms. You could see the outline of her narrow body, more girl than woman.

From behind somebody said, Fly, fairy, fly! and she flew.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

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