The presents are all given out; the returns are back in the stores; the roast beef is eaten, and the cranberry sauce at the back of the refrigerator has been discovered and poured down the disposal. The renovation of Tom’s photography studio is well underway— we’ve chosen flooring, colors, furniture, rugs, placement of outlets, sample wedding photos for the walls. The workmen have ripped out walls, torn up carpet and strung Cat6 (whatever that is) all over the place. Now it is time to get back to writing—to get creative again, to get to work.
Getting back into a project after many days/weeks is intimidating. I have to reread and rethink—but it is also invigorating. I know from experience that I will see my characters in new ways and they may lead me in new directions. Those are the times when, if you let them, the characters write the story. The very first short story I ever wrote, as an adult, was like that. I had left my career behind me—the result of many factors—and was in the midst of a messy civil suit after having been forcefully assaulted by a co-worker. I had started my own advertising company and was more than busy enough serving clients and seeking out new ones. I had no intention of writing a story, but I woke up one night with the opening words to the story in my head.
Setting everything else aside, I sat at my computer and typed out the story of an incident in my childhood—an incident I hadn’t thought about in 35 years. It wasn’t on my mind—not my conscious mind, at least—and it had nothing to do with anything that was going on in my life at the time. But it insisted on being written. Until I was midway into it, I didn’t even know what it was going to be about. The words formed on the page, before they formed in my brain. Honestly, it happens that way sometimes—not often, but on rare and lovely occasions.
The short story, called “Ramar and the Pink Clouds,” is not technically my best work, and it has never been published. But, it is one of my personal favorites—and it won Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Annual Fiction Contest. Scroll down to read it—I hope you enjoy it.
Peace and Love,
RAMAR AND THE PINK CLOUDS
I leap from my bed, Ramar of the Jungle plunging down a ravine. You know Ramar. He’s the white doctor who lives in Africa and goes around in a bush jacket and pith helmet curing epidemics and saving native tribes. He is on TV every afternoon and I love Ramar. In some episodes there are evil white men after ivory or diamonds, but they usually fall to the dangers of the jungle, especially quicksand. In fact, someone almost always ends up in quicksand on Ramar.
“Daddy, Angel won’t tie her shoes,” my sister yells. I can tie my shoes, I just don’t want to. I imagine my feet are made of glue. Not rubber cement or the thick white paste that Mrs. Dawson dishes out of a huge jar that-looks-like-a-mayonnaise-jar-only-bigger. More like the golden liquid that coats the insides of its glass bottle—and barely squeezes through a slit in the orange rubber stopper, when you smoosh it against the paper.
“Come on Angel, let’s go.” My father pulls the loops of my shoelaces tight and we pile into our Dodge station wagon, sea green with a white top. I’m wearing my red plaid with the big collar and the white cotton gloves that I wear to dancing school. After all this is a special occasion.
We are going to visit my mother who is having a nervous breakdown at Westport Sanitarium. No visitors before two weeks, but I got two letters from her, which were both censored, meaning someone read them to make sure she didn’t say anything crazy. My mother is not crazy, but she is tired and needs a rest. She wrote that all the rooms were padded and there were little green men with antennae running around the halls, but she was only kidding.
Westport Sanitarium is a very fancy place, my father tells us. And very expensive, which just proves how much he loves her to send her to the best. We drive between pillars in a long stone wall, which my father says is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. You can tell because the rocks have each been selected to fit together and there is no cement holding them. The sanitarium looks more like a mansion than a hospital. There are no bars on the windows.
Inside we walk down a hallway to a large airy room with sofas and chairs and some card tables set up. It looks like our club on bridge day. There are people sitting around and my mother is in here. Some of the people have on bathrobes, but she is wearing white pedal pushers with red and blue flowers and a blouse with a round collar. I slip off the gloves and tuck them in my pocketbook.
“Look at you both, you are so pretty!” After we hug her, I sit next to her holding her hand and looking around the room for someone famous. A lot of famous people live in Westport, and nervous breakdowns are very fashionable right now, my mother says. The room smells musty like modeling clay. I imagine our hands are made of clay which has been molded together into one big hand, and baked to make it permanent.
She asks if we would like to take a walk outside. “Can we? Will they let you?” “Oh yes.” She reminds us that she is here voluntarily. The sun makes me tired as we walk across the lawn. Still, I keep my eyes peeled for quicksand.
Later we go up to her room. There are two crayon pictures that I sent her propped up on her nightstand. On one I drew dozens of the little green men that she wrote about. Everybody laughs when they see it, she says.
I notice the other bed. “Where’s Mrs. Benchley?” I ask. Mrs. Benchley is my mother’s roommate. In her letters my mother said she was very nice and liked to paint trees. She was there for depression and had nightmares and screamed at night. My mother hesitates. “She had shock treatments yesterday and hasn’t come back yet.” Shock treatments. Don’t touch the socket, you might get a shock. They attach wires to your head. Don’t touch the light switch when your hands are wet, you might get electrocuted. Then they shoot electricity into your brain to change your personality and stop you from wanting to scream. Don’t go out in a storm, you might be struck by lightning and burn up. My mother won’t have to have shock treatments. They can’t make her, and she says if she’s scared, she’s going to scream if she wants to and no one is going to stop her.
The windows have blocks of wood nailed to them so they only open three inches.
The next two weeks are like a dentist appointment. You know it has to end, so you can stand it. I go to the neighbor’s after school and I’m very polite. No thank you, you can have the last cookie. My mother gets cookies from Hans Greiner’s, Linzer tarts with raspberry jam and powdered sugar that gets all over my face. The neighbors have popcorn one day, which I’m not allowed to eat at home in case I choke. I savor the salty kernals. Suck salty grease from my fingers.
My father makes us take a bath together. Morgan says she is too old to take baths with me, but she gets in the tub. The water is scalding hot. My mother always makes it shallow so we don’t drown, but this is nice and deep and, once we get used to it, it’s a lot more fun. I put in all my bath toys, which makes my sister mad. Daddy hollers through the door to remember to wash. One night he cooks French toast and bacon for dinner. Morgan is mad that we’re having breakfast for dinner, and I act mad too, but I really think it’s a treat. Most of the time, Daddy sits in his red leather chair and reads.
She is coming home tomorrow. After Daddy tucks us in, I lie awake, thinking about Ramar of the Jungle. I know I am too young, but I intend to marry him. This poses problems, I think, but I believe old Ramar will wait for me. Love will win out.
When Mommy tucks us in, she holds my hands while I say my prayers. Then I sing a song. Usually it’s a little thanksgiving song I learned in Sunday school, but on special occasions I sing a lullaby. Every night I ask her, “Which song should I sing?” Usually, on ordinary days she says “For Home and Food,” but every once in a while she surprises me and says “Let’s sing Hush My Babe.”
“But it’s not a holiday,” I remind her.
“What, you never heard of the High Festival of Elves?”
Suddenly I am in the jungle with Ramar. We have pet monkeys and lions that eat out of our hands. Ramar rushes out to save the ancient tombs. But the evil hunter is after me. He chases me through the jungle, into the brush that hides the quicksand. Huge mud fingers rise up to grab me and suck me in. No problem. I know all the ways to escape: don’t fight it, grab onto a stick, hook a tree branch with a rope. Nothing works, but Ramar will come. I’m sinking fast now. The quicksand is up to my chin, my mouth, my nose. Ramar, where are you? Ramar!
I wake up and realize it’s just a nightmare. I think about screaming but remember the shock treatments and decide not to. I look over at Morgan but she’s asleep. We have twin beds from Ethan Allen, solid maple, four posters with acorns on top. I imagine my bed is a magic ship that keeps me safe as long as I don’t touch the water. Giant waves are tossing the ship from side to side. Still I can make it to the stern by crawling along the deck on my stomach. Stretching over the end, I can just reach my side of the twin dresser. The top drawers are our junk drawers and we can keep anything we want in there. I slide mine open and rummage around in the dark. I find a brass case that looks like a lipstick tube, but when you take off the top and swivel the base, there’s a brush inside for putting on powder. One hundred percent camel hair. I rub the brush across my cheeks. It’s soft but it doesn’t tickle.
My eyes are used to the dark and I check the white ceiling for spiders. Three of the bedroom walls are painted pale yellow but the fourth has brown wallpaper with little yellow roses all over it. There’s a window with cafe curtains in the same pattern. Morgan has the window on her side but I have the wallpaper. I pick my nose and wipe it on the center of one of the roses. You can’t even see it unless you know it’s there.
“Hey Morgan.” Stage whisper. “Are you awake?”
“No, what do you want?”
“Can I get in bed with you?”
“No, your feet are dirty, go back to sleep.”
“Morgan, listen please.”
“ Mommy tried to kill herself.”
“I know, now shut up.”
“But I heard them. I was awake.”
She sits up. “What happened?”
Crying now. “They were fighting like they always do, then he chased her down the hall and she locked herself in the bathroom and took pills, a whole bottle.”
She comes over to my bed and puts her arms around me.
“I didn’t know what to do. What should I have done?” I say.
“I don’t know. Nothing.”
“She said no one cared if she lived or died, but I care.”
“She was just saying that Angel.”
“But I didn’t tell her. I didn’t do anything. I just let them put her in the ambulance and take her away.”
She climbs into bed next to me and stays there until I fall asleep.
My mother is coming home in the morning, but we have to go to school anyway. When the bell finally rings, I take the shortcut home without waiting for the other kids, cutting across the playground and behind Russo’s newstand where we get tootsie pops and orange creamscicles. Today I zip right by, fly up the hill and around the corner. I can see our house now, way at the end. Yellow ranch, two car garage and a big picture window. She’ll be happy to see me. Past the Borchs, the Knapps and the Bensons. There are the Staffordshire dogs in the window, where they sit on the maple drop-leaf table. I run across the grass and up the walk, but when I get there, the door is locked. I ring the bell and pound the brass knocker over and over, but she doesn’t answer. She’s not around back or at the neighbor’s either. I don’t know where else to look, so I sit on the porch steps. I listen to my heart and count the beats. Finally, I spot her walking up the street, a bag of groceries in her arms.
“Where were you? Why weren’t you here?” She had walked all the way to school especially to meet me, but I took a different route, missed her.
“Don’t you know I don’t go that way anymore?” I want to turn back time, come home the regular way, enjoy the surprise. “Go back,” I cry, “go back.” Clenching my fists, I cry until I can’t stop sobbing, while she holds me tight.
“I’m sorry, so sorry.” She holds up my hands, curled into tight balls.
“Look, your knuckles are like shiny pearls.” We both laugh, but even I know it’s not funny.
After that, when I get home from school she is always there. She pours me a glass of milk and has cookies on the table. Mallomars that you have to peel the chocolate off of with your tongue, then suck out all the marshmallow and save the chocolate coated cookie part for last. Or sugar wafers, delicate layers to split apart and scrape your teeth across to get the icing. And Greiner’s Linzer tarts. Then she sits sideways in my father’s red leather chair with her legs dangling over the arm and me on the floor beside her, while I show her my papers. I hardly ever have time to watch Ramar anymore, though I still think about him. I’ll go back to him someday, I think. One day I ask her if she’s still tired.
“No, I’m floating on a pink cloud now,” she tells me. “As long as I have my pink cloud I’m fine.”
So I make her tiny pillows of cloth scraps, stapled together over cotton and colored pink with a crayon. I thread a needle and run it through each puff so it hangs in the air. She is delighted with her pink clouds and they become our secret. I tell her I will make pink clouds for her, whenever she needs them, forever.
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