Blog

A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story

A Stranger’s Hands – Part Three

Read Parts One & Two here.

Part Three – On Her Way

At 6 o’clock, Cora stepped out her front door in an emerald green, scoop neck sweater, people-2557423_1280with gray, skinny-fit pants and black ankle boots. She’d pinned back the front sections of her dark blonde hair and let the rest cover her shoulders. The evening was comfortable, no need for a coat yet despite October being days away.

Cora typically worked until three or four p.m. at Second Street Coffee, but today she’d wrapped up her most pressing tasks by one o’clock. Gil left at noon, to her relief. She’d felt indecisive over how to act or what to say whenever he passed her booth or she noticed him looking in her direction from the front counter. Cora had to shoo away the apprehension that their rapport (one of the only truly comfortable pieces of her daily life) might be altered by this evening. Now she pointed her feet back in the direction of Second Street Coffee, still telling herself not to worry.

She glanced at the time on her phone. She would be at least fifteen minutes early if she walked straight there. That was too many minutes to spend quieting her nerves while she waited to discover Gil’s plans for the evening. Keen for a delay, her eyes landed on a white chapel halfway between her house and the coffeeshop. It had a painted sign beside the sidewalk.

Prayer Chapel – Open to the Public Daily

No denomination or association was listed. The sign, as well as a new door and the bright white paint on the chapel’s exterior, had appeared several months ago. Cora stood outside the quaint structure now, contemplating how long it’d been since she and God had a frank conversation. Two years and nineteen days, she calculated quickly. The day after Theo’s funeral.

Oh, there were prayers since then. Many of them, in fact. She’d found herself unearthing the memorized traditional prayers of childhood catechism class. Most days those rote prayers were the only things preventing radio silence between her and God. Cora poured her soul into the ancient words and offered them to God as all she had to offer.

Maybe that could change today. Maybe she could find her own words again, the way she used to do at any given moment of the day, when her heart had anything to discuss with God.

With quivering fingers, Cora gripped the bronze door handle. The weighty door creaked as it opened upon a small, softly lit vestibule. Next, she pushed open an interior door and stepped into the chapel itself. It was modestly pretty and intensely peaceful. A main aisle divided the two sets of six rows of high-back, wooden pews. Each pew had space for only two people. Cora was a little surprised to find anyone else inside the chapel. An elderly woman with a crown of white curls sat in the last row, an open Bible resting on her knees.

Cora walked with gentle steps to the front row, trying not to disturb the perfect quiet of the intimate space. She sat down on the hard seat and absorbed the details of the sanctuary in front of her.

A cross made of thick beams hung on the front wall. Under it stood an altar of white marble. A white runner cloth covered the top of the altar and hung over each end. On the front face of the stone table was carved a verse from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Cora read the verse in a whisper, closed her eyes and waited for words to come, for thoughts to form. It took most of a minute before her mind was anything but blank.

“I’m not angry with you.” Cora whispered. “I don’t blame you and I don’t think I ever did. So, I don’t know why it’s been so difficult to speak with you. I miss speaking with you.”

Squeezing her already closed eyes tighter against the threat of tears, she added, “I miss speaking to him, too.”

Theo’s face flashed through Cora’s mind, with the small smile he had for her each time he came upon her mid-conversation with God.

“I think it’s time to get back to talking with you. I’m going to need to talk things through if…”

If what? She didn’t know how to name what had changed today so she settled back into silence, opening her eyes to stare at the marble inscription. Be still. Be still and know. An easy peace filled her chest and spread like a warm blush on her skin. Cora savored it, thanked God for it, and took it with her when she rose from the pew.

And then her phone rang. Its jaunty tune bounced off every surface, shattering the silence and causing the lady in the back row to jump in her seat.

“Oh my goodness, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Cora continued to apologize even as she reached the vestibule. She already knew from her phone’s display that it was her sister Tessa but she waited to answer until she was outside.

“Hello.”

“Hey, Cora. Thought I’d check in. Are you all settled on the couch with your dinner and a movie?”

Her sister knew Cora’s routines better than anyone. Cora was tempted to lie and answer in the affirmative. She could wait to tell Tessa about this evening until she knew what this evening turned out to be.

“Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here. Sorry, Tessa. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m well enough. About to meet a few friends at the movie theater.”

“I’m not on my couch.”

“What?”

“I’m not at home.” Cora waited for a response. When none came, she took a breath and pushed the words out. “I think I’m going on a date.”

Silence.

“Tessa?”

“Cora.”

“Tessa.”

“I might be crying a little.”

Cora laughed. “I don’t know if it’s a date. It might not be, and I’m not sure if I want it to be.”

“I don’t care if it is, or it isn’t,” her sister responded. “You’re choosing to let yourself enjoy time with someone. That’s all I ever wanted, Cora, all the times I forced you to spend the evening out with me. I wanted you to permit yourself to enjoy things again. Enjoy people again.”

“Now I’m crying a little,” Cora said.

“Well, don’t,” Tessa ordered. “Smile. Go have a wonderful evening doing whatever you will be doing with whomever is waiting for you, and then call me because I will want to know every detail.”

“I love you, Tessa.”

“Love you, too. Now, go, and call me later.”

They said goodbye and Cora hastened on her way, smiling. She was still smiling when she stopped on the sidewalk across the street from Second Street Coffee. Gil waited outside, two coffees in his hands and a smile on his face.

Dignity, Faith, Family, Friendship, Intentionality, Jesus, Marriage, Motherhood, Personal Reflection, Worthy

Enough

Several days ago, I shared a photo on Facebook. Not a personal photo. Just a photo of some words that, on that morning especially, were relatable for me. It crossed my mind that it was likely relatable for others too, so I shared the photo and moved on.

Reactions and comments are still trickling in on that post, and it hasn’t yet left my mind. The text in the photo said this: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.”

I was already feeling this before my workday started on Monday. Although my son loves school and both of he and my daughter enjoy their babysitter, there is inevitably at least one day each week when one of them clings to me a little extra in the morning and expresses their wish that I could stay home from work with them that day. Also inevitably, that is among the hardest moments of my week. Monday morning happened to include that moment with my daughter.

I’m blessed with a good job. It is enjoyable, interesting work in a healthy environment with a solid team of people. I’m grateful for it and challenged by it daily. No matter what though, I am a mother. I am always first responsible to my family and then to everything else. So I work extremely hard to balance it all (again, a statement that so many of you can relate to, undoubtedly). Workdays, meetings, projects, schooldays, doctor appointments, drop-offs and pick-ups, mealtime and playtime and bedtime and everything in between. Balance is a constant goal.

On Monday afternoon, I had a brief meeting with my supervisor. A generous, flexible woman who knows the life of a working mother, I’ve been thankful for her understanding in this balancing act. Among other topics covered in this meeting though, she shared that someone in our office had voiced complaints about my comings and goings. This anonymous individual was bothered by what they felt were too many times I had to adapt my schedule to those school and sitter drop-offs and doctor appointments and sick kids and so on. While I was in no way reprimanded or told to stop adapting my schedule to those needs, I still can’t dismiss the disappointment that this is what someone thinks of the work I put in at my job. Whomever it is doesn’t necessarily know about the number of days in which I work through lunch, or the nine, ten, or eleven hours I put in when I’m working from home while simultaneously caring for my children. They don’t necessarily know why I arrived at 8:10 instead of 8:00, or why I had to work remotely from my home unexpectedly. They see what they see and form their opinion.

I’m going to be fully honest here. I want to look that person straight in the eye, possibly grabbing them by the collar, and say this: “I am doing the best I can do.” I want to inform them that I already know it will never be enough. Their input is not needed for me to know this.

enough-logo-1428923325

The current trend in women’s self-help/self-esteem culture is summed up in one phrase:

I am enough.

It crops up in articles, books, and social media posts with head-spinning frequency. I’d even wager that the image I used above was designed to serve that message. Those words are the mantra of many tired, over-extended, trying-to-meet-all-expectations women, and they are a lie.

I am not enough. You are not enough.

If we ever want to stop striving until we break, we must admit this. If we want to quit the worldwide, olympic-level competition for Instagram-worthy perfection on the surface while we are unraveling when no one is looking, we must admit this.

I am not enough.

If I were enough for my children, they would not need their beloved father or their dear grandparents and extended family. If I were enough, I would not need my husband’s partnership and love. If I were enough, I would not need my teammates and managers at the office. If I were enough, I would not need my church community, my writing community, my health and fitness community, my neighbors, or even those most precious friends who know the real me. Above all, if I were enough, I would not need my Lord.

I am not enough.

Certainly, I can understand the intentions behind the popular message of being enough. It is answering the emptiness countless men and women carry inside of them. It is speaking to the ways we punish ourselves for not living up to our or others’ expectations. It is reminding us that our worth has been forgotten. I do understand. But believing you are enough doesn’t admit your inherent need for others. Believing you are enough doesn’t admit your need for the Divine.

I am not enough.

I cannot do it all. I literally cannot. I only have one body, one mind. I only have 24 hours in my day. I am only capable of being in one place at a time. Unlike God, I cannot be all things to all people. Admitting this is not a detriment to my self-esteem. It is an enlightened self-awareness. It fosters a great amount of freedom, clipping the binding ties of strife and disappointment.

I am not enough. I am a member of a marriage, of a family, of a friendship, a community, a church, a team for that very reason. While I will always work to be my best, I will not misguidedly carry the weight of striving to be enough. I am not enough and I am happier for knowing it.

A to Z, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Writing Prompt

A to Z Flash Fiction: Emote

E: Emote

I was in people-watching mode tonight but with little reward. Let others stare at their televisions and phones. There was nothing more fascinating than real life.

The restaurant was more than half-empty. Being a Tuesday evening, this was no surprise. The place was known for its steaks, lobsters, and oysters. Few folks knew the chef also made the finest potato and ham chowder in the city. It was an overlooked selection on the flashy menu.

At a table for two but with one place setting, under the west-facing bay window, I sat sipping the hot chowder and watching the sunset between the downtown brick city-691957_640.jpgbuildings. Day departed on the rosy orange coattails of the sun. I turned my head when the front door opened, allowing in two seconds of street noise. A couple stepped inside, all nervous glances and tight smiles. Uncertainty hovered over them like a hummingbird over a flower.

“Oh, do sit where I can see you,” I whispered over the spoon at my lips.

It was a first date, without a doubt. First dates made for wonderful people-watching. I always rooted for the evening to be a success. To witness that moment when the sparks ignite, when the nerves loosen and the smiles become real – it is a special privilege to see. But they can’t all be successes. The reward in watching then is the curiosity of how each party will handle the disappointment. I have witnessed grace and gentleness, cool indifference, outright rudeness, and desperate attempts to turn it around.

My eyes followed the couple to their table for two, against a wall beneath softly glowing sconces. They were young. Most people seemed young at this point in my life, but this couple had surely seen fewer than twenty-five years.

The girl wore a black wrap-dress and ballet flats. Her brown hair, a shade or two darker than mine was before it turned white, was flawlessly straightened and reached her shoulder blades. She’d accessorized with a simple silver necklace and matching bracelet. Her companion was clean cut, all-American good looks in a blue oxford and gray slacks. He pulled the chair out for his date before seating himself. I smiled my approval.

Their position gave me a clear view of the girl’s face. The boy’s back was to me but I knew there was value in the body language I’d discern nonetheless.

Except it was over before it’d begun. I saw it on the girl’s face.

The young man’s movements, leanings, and gestures grew more relaxed by the second. His forearms were on the table, his back and head tilted toward her whenever she spoke. He answered with lifts of his hands and plentiful words.

But I saw no change in her. No ushering out of the initial nervousness. No softening of the stiff shoulders. Her back leaned away from him, as if fastened to the back of her chair. Her slender hands remained clutched together in her lap, never lifting and never opening. I willed her to emote and engage, to allow her guarded expression to crack.

“You have already made up your mind, haven’t you, dear?” I shook my head and looked away.

Normally, I would continue my observations, curious to know how the tragedy would unfold. Instead, sadness washed over me and I had no wish to see more. I pitied the boy and, perhaps more so, the girl too. My waiter visited my table and I requested the check.

“Dessert?” he asked. “Or a cocktail to finish?”

“Next time, maybe,” I said. My gaze fell on the couple once more. “I’ve had quite enough for tonight, but next time may be better.”

“Certainly, ma’am.”

As I paid my bill, I handed the water an extra twenty.

“Put it toward their meal,” I instructed, indicating the couple across the room. “And tell that young man those words. Tell him that next time may be better.”

*****
Let’s get back to basics, my friends. Specifically, the alphabet. I’ll be writing a series of flash fiction pieces off of one word prompts, from A to Z. Enjoy! And if a word comes to mind for any upcoming letter, please make your suggestion and I’ll consider it for a prompt.

Family, Personal Reflection, The Hidden Legacy

Biscuits and Kitchen Visits

In Chapter 28 of The Hidden Legacy, Laurel sits at the table in her great-grandmother Annie’s kitchen with a pile of recipe cards in front of her. She searches for one particular, beloved recipe, her great-grandmother’s chicken and biscuits. There are only a few tidbits of my life that found their way into my novel, and this is one of them.

The collection of index cards filled with handwritten ingredients, measurements, and instructions. The flowing, elegant cursive of older generations. Edges bent and stained by splattered sauces and chocolate-stained fingertips. Husbands, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandchildren all fed. A treasure of memories resides in my recipe box.

I’ve been missing my grandmothers. Something about autumn and the approach of the holiday season turns my heart to them each year. Tonight, I cooked for my family those chicken and biscuits, and had my grandmothers there in the kitchen with me for a lovely visit. All that was missing were the cups of tea.

20181102_192825.jpg

Uncategorized

New Angles and Hairdos

This morning I didn’t feel like spending any time on my hair. There were other things needing my attention. Plus, each time I brushed it, I noticed more gray strands and I really didn’t want to think about that. So, I put my hair up and moved on. Then my daughter came downstairs. She spotted me and immediately declared that she wanted her hair to look like mine.

IMG_20180919_090525_720.jpgIt was a simple enough request, but the contrast between what she saw and what I saw was striking. What I held in low esteem was the same thing she aspired to gain.

Yes, it was merely a hairstyle in this case, but the same reality crops up in all sorts of scenarios, between all sorts of people. That part of ourselves we would give anything to change, how often is that precisely what others wish they could possess? I think it happens more often than we could possibly realize.

Maybe instead of trying to eliminate or replace what is naturally a part of you, you could choose to enhance that part. Polish it up. Use it to serve others, as well as yourself. Ponder why it was part of God’s design of you in the first place. And if someone expresses a wish that they could be like you in this regard, don’t dismiss their aspiration. Dismiss your gut instinct to talk them out of it. Then, consider how that part of you might be a blessing and a strength if you could just find a new angle from which to view it.

Like the angle of a sleepy-eyed daughter looking up at her mother, with love and nothing else shaping her view.

20180919_090724.jpg

 

Personal Reflection, The Hidden Legacy, Writing

All the Feels, As They Say

While I’m not one for trendy phrases and words, the topic at hand qualifies as one to give me “all the feels,” as the cool kids say.

I’m sitting in my car in the office parking lot, feeling the need to write. Write anything. Everything. Scratch the itch. It dawned on me that aside from social media posts, I have not written a single thing since The Hidden Legacy was released. I haven’t even written about the novel being released! Shameful, and causing me a fair amount of restless energy.

Perhaps I ought to to state that more clearly: my novel is now available! Puts a smile on my face and warm fuzzies in my heart every single time I say it. Each time someone informs me they bought the book, or sends a photo of their copy, or tells me they’ve begun reading it, it all feels a bit like make-believe. I’m uncertain how long that feeling will last, but I expect (and hope) it will be a while.

The Hidden Legacy has waited the better part of ten years to see the light of day. When someone asks, “how does it feel?” regarding the novel being finally published, it is impossible to pick a single emotion for my reply.

IMG_20180916_130316.jpg

I am thrilled. The joy runs deep. It rises up and courses through me each and every time I talk with someone about the book.

I am humbled. All the congratulations and kudos for accomplishing this, for following a dream through to completion, are difficult to accept graciously. I’m learning though.

I am curious. Visibility on Amazon isn’t the only reason I frequently encourage people to write a review on Amazon. I am genuinely curious to know what each reader thinks, feels, and gains from reading The Hidden Legacy.

I am intimidated. This status of Author is something I’ve been chasing for years. The notion that I belong in that category though still feels absurd. How do I find my place among the authors who are writing full time, with multiple books, hundreds of reviews, dozens of interviews and book signings, and thousands of online followers? I don’t know the answer to that one yet.

I am proud. This thing that I have done, writing and publishing my first novel, is no small feat. I won’t pretend that it is. I cried when I held my copy in my hands for the first time. This story and its characters are deeply precious to me and I am proud to present them to the world.

A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story

A Stranger’s Hands – Part Two

Read Part One here.people-2557423_1280

A Stranger’s Hands

By Carrie Sue Barnes

Part Two – Breathing Again

“Today is my anniversary too,” Cora shoved the words out before Gil could move away.

Gil sat down, as if he knew this was not a minor remark on a coincidence of the date. He waited.

Cora met his eyes and waited too. She waited to sort out the jumble of words tying her tongue and filling her mouth. She examined him, distracting herself momentarily.

His eyes were the color of dark chocolate. His hair was only a shade lighter. Seated this way, with the table in between, it was slightly less obvious that Gil stood a full eight inches taller than Cora’s five-foot-six-inch height.

Before she’d untied her tongue, she saw him glance at her bare left hand and his brows drop into a low V.

“I didn’t think you were…”

“Married?” Cora finished for him.

She lifted her left hand off the table, turning it palm up, then back again. She then slid from her right hand’s ring finger the slim, diamond encrusted band she’d worn there for exactly two years. Her wedding band. The gems glinted in the sunlight when Cora set the ring on the table.

“I’m a widow.” Over two years, and her voice still trembled when she said it. “Today would have been our eighth anniversary.”

“What was his name?”

Cora smiled. Gil hadn’t said, “I’m sorry,” or “oh, how awful,” like every person before him. Questions about her husband, especially questions other than about his death, didn’t typically come up until much later in the conversation, if at all.

“Theo. His name was Theo.”

“Did he like coffee as much as you do?”

With a laugh, Cora shook her head, “He drank one cup every morning but no more than that. He was always trying to convince me to drink more water and less coffee.”

“How did the two of you meet?”

“My uncle’s retirement party. Theo worked at the same company as my uncle.”

“What line of work?”

“He was an engineer. He designed motors on robotic medical equipment.”

“Can I ask one more question?”

The conversation felt like an instructional in breathing freely. Cora needed it to continue until her lungs were full.

“You can even ask two.”

Gil raised an eyebrow. “Two. Well, I’ll need to choose another good one.”

She took a sip of her drink. Glanced out the window at a passing dogwalker. Returned her eyes to Gil’s pensive gaze.

“What were your favorite things to do together?”

“We both loved movies. Our dates usually included a movie. We volunteered at our church for service projects whenever we could. He loved fishing. I loved the peace and quiet of sitting at the lake with a book, so I usually went with him.”

Cora felt a calm smile stretch across her face. Simple, ordinary memories came in slideshow flashes.

“We had a tradition for Saturday mornings. It started almost immediately after we were married. We both worked hard through the week. Sometimes one or both of us worked into the evening. Saturdays became sacred for us, especially Saturday mornings.

“Neither of us slept late. We were too programmed to be up early during the week. I’m sure you know what I mean.”

Gil nodded.

“We had a routine for Saturday mornings. One of us picked a movie to watch. The other was in charge of cooking breakfast. We’d alternate each week. Well, we were supposed to alternate. Theo often volunteered to cook so I could stay in bed longer. He could always tell when I was especially worn out or stressed after the work week.

“Anyway, it was the same each Saturday. Eggs, over-hard for me and scrambled for him, English muffins, whatever fruit we had on hand, and coffee. We’d stay in our pajamas all morning, sitting on the old love seat in our bedroom, eating our breakfast and watching favorite movies we’d seen a hundred times before. It was perfect.”

And there it was. The first time Cora had spoken of Theo without tears, or discomfort, or the words being entirely focused on the end of his life. Something had unlocked inside of her that she hadn’t realized was locked. She fell into a stunned silence.

She could feel Gil’s eyes on her. Even without looking back at him, Cora recognized the same sensation she’d felt earlier. She liked his eyes on her and his attentiveness to her, the same way she liked the idea of the stranger’s hands at the gym.

But do I like that I like this? Cora’s pink lips settled into a frown. It seemed a silly, adolescent point of analysis, and at the same time, it seemed the most pivotal point.

“Ok, last question,” Gil said, his fingertips drumming the tabletop.

“Last question.”

His brow furrowed and his features took on the solemn expression of a quiz show host setting up the final round.

“Ready?”

Cora fought back laughter, trying to match his demeanor. “I’m ready.”

“When’s the last time you went out and enjoyed yourself?”

The words came easily.

“Two years and thirty-three days ago.”

“Do tell.”

“Theo and I attended an ethnic food festival downtown. We walked and sat and ate for the entire afternoon. The weather was flawless. The food was delicious. The musicians set up throughout the festival were superb. We’d made no plans ahead of time to go to the festival. That morning, Theo spotted a flyer for it on the community bulletin board at the grocery store. He came home and asked if I would be his date for the day. It was something we did frequently while we were dating, spontaneously picking a nearby festival or fair or outdoor concert to attend. It’d been a while though. A long while. And it was a perfect day together.”

“It does sound perfect,” Gil said.

Cora smiled at him. A grateful smile, filled as she was with gladness at having recollected that day.

“Two years and thirty-three days,” Gil repeated.

“Yes.”

“That’s a long time.”

“Maybe.”

“How long was it before…,” Gil’s voice trailed off but he held her gaze.

“Theo died one week later.”

Still he didn’t ask about the how of Theo’s death. She wanted to tell him though. Her eyes dropped to her hands folded on the table.

“He was driving home from work. We used to carpool, but a few weeks earlier I’d launched my independent consultant business and began working from home. The driver in front of Theo crossed the center line and almost struck an oncoming vehicle. Instead of only correcting his direction, that driver panicked and slammed on his brakes. Theo had no time to slow down, nor did the drivers behind him. It was a domino effect and Theo’s car was pinned, crushed really, between the first vehicle and the one behind him. The firemen and paramedics were able to extract him and get him to the ambulance but he died on the way to the hospital. Blunt force trauma and internal hemorrhaging. That was the official cause of death.”

Cora had spoken quickly. Her chest rose and fell with the need for air. A multiple-vehicle accident, that was her usual answer when someone asked how her husband died. But Gil hadn’t asked. Cora had told him because she wanted to tell him. She wanted him to know what she’d been through, not for the sake of pity but for the sake of being known. The shock, the pain, the snail’s-pace recovery. They shaped who she’d become in the last couple years.

As she caught her breath now, she chanced a look at Gil.

“I wish you never experienced that, Cora.”

The compassionate words came quietly and brought tears to Cora’s eyes for the first time in the conversation.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Gil cleared his throat. “It’s understandable, perhaps, that the festival over two years ago was the last time you went out.”

His return to the original question scattered the tension hanging in the air between them.

“No,” Cora said with half a smile, “you asked how long it’d been since I went out and enjoyed myself. I’ve been out several times in the last two years. My sister has made sure of that when she comes to visit me every few months. It’s the enjoying myself part that continues to elude me.”

“Ah, I see.” Gil tapped his chin, contemplating her remark. “That is helpful information.”

“How so?”

He hadn’t yet suggested that they go somewhere together. Would he? The entire exchange had already been so unexpected that she didn’t dare assume to know where it might lead. Cora scrambled to know her own mind. If he did make such a suggestion, did she want to say yes? She tried to imagine doing so but was stopped short by Gil’s reply.

“It’s helpful because now I know what we should do tonight. Meet me back here at 6:30 this evening. Dress, um, smart casual?” He cocked his head in an increasingly familiar way. “Is that a thing?”

“Sure,” Cora nodded to put him at ease.

“Yes? 6:30?”

She replied immediately, with the first answer that came forth before she could think too hard on it, “Yes.”