Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Kiss

It was a tiny cup, with a curved ear for a handle and a bit of gold etched around the rim. A floral cup. A lady’s cup. A cup that needed a saucer for support. For completion, he said. He loved her pink and green cup and brought her tea in it every morning, the cup tinkling on the saucer as he set it at the bedside table. They both knew she couldn’t drink the tea, but the narrow plume of heat spreading mint and lemon in the room comforted them. He’d sit on the side of the bed, just for a moment. Drink it while it’s hot, he said, then kissed her on the lips and left.

As soon as he was out the door, she ran her trembling fingers along her dry, scaly lips, lips nobody would want, and hope he who noticed everything hadn’t noticed that.

©2011 Kathleen Coskran

Monday, May 16, 2011

Steady Boy

Steady, boy, steady. The old man put his hand on his grandson’s shoulder as he reeled in the fish. It was his first fish and the man felt panic and hurry pulse through the boy. Steady, he said again.

I’m okay, the boy said. He handled the reel well, letting the bail pull in the line evenly. The old man saw that the line moved smoothly through the water and admired the boy for not jerking back on the rod and losing the fish or catapulting it into the boat. It’s what he had done with his first fish. He’d wrenched the line so suddenly that he crashed against his father and nearly knocked them both out of the boat. They watched the fish rise in the air, spit out the hook and slap back into the water, a long, shimmering Northern pike. Biggest pike I ever saw and my idiot boy lost it, his father said every time he told the story. Trophy fish and Stupid here threw it away.

The old man brought his attention back to his grandson. A big walleye was now visible six feet out, coming closer as the boy reeled him in. The man picked up the net. Steady, he said.

The boy nodded and in a moment the fish was alongside the boat. The man dipped the net in the water and brought it up. A nice one, he said and laid the fish in the net in the bottom of the boat. It was a beautiful walleye, nearly two feet long, with gold and green scales that flashed in the early morning light. The white belly trembled and the big, hazel eye stared back. Its dorsal fin caught in the net for a moment, then the long body was suddenly free and flopping across the bottom of the boat.

The man put a hand to steady the fish and lifted it from the gills. It was hooked just inside the lip. He started to take the hook out, but the boy stopped him. My fish, he said and slipped his hand under his grandfather’s to take it. I’ll do it.

The boy was a quiet one, a listener and watcher, and the old man knew he’d heard his father—the old man’s son—say nobody could fish in this family unless they baited their own goddamn hook and strung up their own gd fish. Made people laugh and, as the boy’s father pointed out, kept women off the lake. That morning he’d bet the boy his week’s allowance that he’d get skunked. Need muscle to pull in a big one, he’d said, and I’m not paying for any goddamn perch.

The boy braced the heavy fish against his body and slipped out the hook.

The old man offered the stringer. You want to do this? He was already planning how he’d pull up to the dock and send the boy on ahead with the fish while he tied off the boat. The boy would hold up his great walleye to show his father—his first fish, a big one, a real keeper. His mother would take a picture of the two of them, the boy with his father, the father holding up one end of the stringer as if he’d caught it himself. The old man was happy.

The boy looked at the stringer, shook his head. No thanks, he said. He held the walleye out from his body, then leaned over the side of the boat, and lowered it into the water. A brief flash of gold, and it was gone.

But your father? the old man said

Tell him we were skunked.

©2011 Kathleen Coskran


He turns on the television when he gets up in the morning, turns it on before brushing his teeth, before drinking the coffee she hands him, before peering at his cloudy reflection in the bathroom mirror, before deciding if today is a shave-the-stubble day. The automatic flick of the remote coincides almost exactly with his foot hitting the floor.

She hates the TV, hates the continual drone of other people’s voices suffocating her. The talking, talking, talking burrows so deeply into her brain that she can’t find her own thoughts. It’s an addiction, she says without thinking.

He hits her. A surprise. He seldom slaps her that hard. Almost never, but because she’d called him an addict—which she hadn’t—but he says her saying it's an addiction is the same thing, and he hits her three times as he chants I’m no addict.

Say it.

You’re no addict. Three more times. Hard.

Get it?

She nods.

One last time.

She read somewhere that each person is in charge of their own destiny—what they do, what they say, what they accomplish. Choose your battles, the article said and this one is lost only when he’s home. She can be in charge when he’s out.

She turns the TV off as soon as he leaves, switches it back on when she hears his car pull up.

It works for three days.

The fourth night he happens to touch the top of the TV when he walks in. It’s cold. Don’t mess with what you don’t understand. Seven blows.

Now she hits the mute when he leaves the house and hits it again when she hears him coming back. The TV is hot. She wins.

©2011 Kathleen Coskran

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How To

He left the lawnmower in the middle of the sidewalk so she’d have to walk around it when she got home. An obvious message to let her know he had finally cut the grass.

Most of it. There was a mound of unkempt lawn right in front of the picture window, grass so long it had gone to seed. The ragged mess that had started the whole thing.

You going to mow the lawn anytime soon?

He called it her opening salvo.

She thought it a carefully considered, kindly worded, but direct question, a kind of consciousness raising opportunity, she said. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed that small fowl were able to conceal themselves in their front lawn, and that for all she knew a warren of rabbits were raising their young there. She mentioned those possibilities quite late in the conversation.

He had called it a fight. We’re always fighting over the most trivial things.

Looking like the only crack house on the street is not trivial, she had said.

He had asked if she wanted him to show her how to operate the lawn mower. That was his word, operate.

She offered to brief him on the operation of the vacuum cleaner, the dishwasher, the clothes washer, the drier, and the iron.

He wasn’t interested.

Neither was she.

And now this. The half-mown lawn, the mower on the sidewalk, his opening salvo for the evening exchange. The only satisfactory explanation would be a heart attack while operating the lawn mower, but his quivering body was nowhere in sight. She shoved the mower off to the side and a pamphlet fell to the ground. OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS FOR YOUR NEW LAWNMOWER.

Shit, she said and stormed into the house.

The kitchen radio was on—something from Mozart—a flute concerto—and he was whistling—he did have a fine ear and a clear whistle. She’d give him that. It was the first thing she’d liked about him and now, perhaps, the only thing.

As she marched through the dining room to the kitchen, she focused on her first words, something about the only operating instructions she needed was for his lobotomy.

He was ironing.

Three shirts, two of them his, one hers, hung behind him, and he was working on her pink Oxford cloth. The music on the radio stopped, and his whistle shifted to match the throb of the dishwasher that was just beginning the rinse cycle. He hadn’t heard her come in.

Words and letters scrabbled in her head, searching for something clever, a grand gesture, a smart remark. How’s the iron working? she said finally.

Oh, hi, he said. It’s great.

And a few minutes later, when he heard the lawn mower rev up, he started whistling again.

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Still Kicking

Gran wasn't dead, but she was dying. Everybody agreed. It could come at any minute. We should be ready.

Claire’s job was to make the picture boards, out of Gran’s sight or she would rise from her deathbed to oversee the selection of photos. Opinion about everything. Controlling. That was Gran, they said. They put the boxes on the ping-pong table in the basement and told Claire to arrange the pictures on the two foam boards.

Which is what she was doing.

Gran was a toddler in the earliest picture, held up between her two older sisters, the prettiest of the trio. Then a little older, the three sisters in a row, wearing identical dresses and dark hats. There was only one picture of Gran alone and she had written on the back: Me, 12 years old, California.

Me. 12 years old, Claire said to herself. Me. 12 years old. Minnesota. She took the picture into the bathroom and stared at the picture, then stared at herself in the mirror, back and forth, the picture, herself, the picture, herself. Two 12-year-old girls, same oval face, big eyes, full lips. Claire felt an immediate pull towards the girl in the picture.

The boxes waited on the ping-pong table. There was Gran with her sisters at 14, still the prettiest at 16, graduating from high school at 17, playing tennis, getting married. Now Grandpa replaced the sisters in every picture. It was all there, in two boxes, the life of Gran, the girl at 12, getting older and older until now she lay upstairs rasping for breath.

Claire went back to the bathroom and held her head at the same angle as the girl in the picture, parted her lips in a faint smile. She imagined a picture of herself. Snap. Me at 12. She imagined a second box on the table with me at 16, me at 18, me graduating from high school. College? Gran didn’t go to college, but Clare would. What would her life in a box be? How many boxes? Gran had only two.

Claire slid the picture in her pocket and went upstairs.

Finished already, Claire?

“I want to see Gran,” she said.

Gran was turned towards the window when Claire entered. She took her grandmother’s hand in her own and noted how long and bony the fingers were, how creased the back of the hand, how ridged the nails were.

“I saw you,” she said.

Gran slowly turned towards her.

“I saw you when you were like me,” Claire said. “12 years old.” She pulled the picture out of her pocket and pressed it against her chest, under her chin so Gran could see both girls.

“Ah,” Gran said. “That picture.”


Gran closed her eyes, let out a shattered breath, opened her eyes. “I remember,” she said.

“You remember her. That girl. You at 12?”

Gran blinked her eyes. Of course she remembered.

Claire thought of the two boxes of pictures on the pingpong table, Gran’s whole life in a box. Was that it? Was there more? Was that all? “How did it turn out?” she said.

Claire heard the labored breath and knew Gran was storing up oxygen before she spoke again.

“My life?”


Another wait, then, “Well, I don’t know, do I?”

“But they say . . .”

A fire flashed across Gran’s face, and she squeezed Claire’s hand as if to sit up. “I’m not dead yet,” she rasped and smiled. “It’s not over,” she said and sank back on the pillow. “But so far, it’s turning out fine.” Pause. Wait. Soft rattle of air in her lungs. “I’m still kicking.”

Claire looked at Me at 12, then at Gran, and back at the picture. She put her hand on her own long hair. ”That girl in the picture would be happy she was you,” Claire said. “She would love you.”

Gran’s lips parted, more air in. “She’d like you too.” By the way she held her head, Claire knew she had more to say as soon as she got her breath again. “You and she would have been great friends.”

“But we are great friends,” Claire said. “Aren’t we?”

“Yes, Sweetheart, we are and . . .”

Claire waited for her to take in another gulp of oxygen.

“We all die you know?”

Claire nodded.

“But…” Pause. Breathe. “Now, at this minute, I’m like you. I’m . . .”

“Still kicking,” Claire said. “We’re alive and still kicking.”

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran