Your New Challenge….

Give me a story that uses these five things: Beans, Doris Day, alligator, pillow, verb tenses.

—I keep fingering the three magic beans hiding in the pocket of my corduroys. A very old man wearing an alligator on his golf shirt gave five of these magic beans to my daughter. They are brown with strange white markings, very shiny. She gave me three and put two under her pillow. I know they’re magic because that old man has been dead a long time, and my daughter has a good imagination. I will plant one bean behind the big maple out back next to the tree with the newly-reddened leaves, and come spring I’ll climb the tall bean stalk up to the clouds where I will have a lovely, first person omniscient point of view.

Yes, it’s a mighty good view from up here. I choose to examine the moment when my youngest sister picked out a postcard just for me: odd straw hats on five Spanish women all smiling like Doris Day. My sister, the lovely Helene, was visiting the Alhambra in Spain, but at the postcard stand the funny hats appealed to her far more than pictures of the Moorish palace. I can see her giggling at the post card rack. I lie on my cloud studying her as she shops—so happy, so full of the life she was soon to lose. She cannot see me since I have slipped sideways past all requisite verbs into simultaneous past, future, and present tenses, all perfect.

Of course, magic comes at a price, and I know this. I end up having to sacrifice both my eyes for my moment of loving relief. It’s worth it, even though the granter of wishes reminds me that in the future I could have conjured up other views of dead family members if only I had kept my eyes. After all I have two beans left. I choose not to believe him, trickster that he is. I have resigned myself to memories. The good news is that my two living sisters will help me while I adjust to this new blindness. I’ll tell them about the magic beans, and they will scold me for my bargain, but the tone of their voices say that they are wondering whether I just might part with those last two beans.

I’m aware that Mother Nature extracts a high price when one crosses her rules. She gladly posits fictional places to send me like the Dreaded Fires of Hell and just as happily decides to remove my eyes instead, to punish me for thinking I was clever enough to transgress so freely. So send me to Hell for wishing to see my dead sister, I jeer at her. It’s another place Helene and I might meet up for a while. I heard Mother Nature cackle when I took the trickster up on a bad bargain out of love. Love is not her forte. She’s into harder equations.

But I am a mother too, so I must remember to have a quiet talk with my daughter tomorrow about those beans she still has under her pillow.

20 responses to “Your New Challenge….

  1. The pillow was still warm and smelled of her scent, “Chanel No. 5” I believe. Once again she leaves me lying here alone, wishing she would stay. I pull on my pajamas and walk to the window. I look at the rain bouncing off the window pane, the street light giving off a golden glow, and her, I watch her walking to her car, a light yellow 1950 Dodge Wayfarer convertible. She pauses at the door and glances up at my window, a faint smile on her lips. The car starts and I can hear the radio playing Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera.” How appropriate, “Whatever will be will be.” I stand at that window until her tail lights disappear over the next San Fransisco hill.

    I walk into the kitchen and notice she left her alligator overnight bag here. That’s a start, I thought, maybe next time she, and not just her bag, will stay overnight. I place the bag on the blue and yellow Mexican tile, and open the bag. I touch the soft silk I find in there, it feels so much like her. I notice a brown paper bag, I smiled thinking of her drinking her Irish Whiskey out of a paper bag. Inside I find nothing but a bag of pinto beans. That was funny because she couldn’t cook, nor could she boil water, how would she cook this beans. Besides, with what beans does to her, I’d rather she’d leave them on the shelf. I put the sack back into the bag just as I found it and placed the bag back where she left it.

    The phone rings, I know it is her at the pay phone three blocks away. “I’m tired of this “Pajama Game” and “Pillow Talk”, we may have to issue a “Storm Warning” but when it’s “April in Paris”, I want to have “Tea for Two” “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon,” because “It’s a Great Feeling” when I’m with you.”

    I hang up the phone and unlock the door for her, I guess there will be a light yellow 1950 Dodge Wayfarer convertible sitting outside my flat from now on. Maybe one day we’ll have to trade it for a station wagon. But for now I have to go warm up her pillow.

    • I thought maybe she’d lost him with those beans. I, however, loved this all, especially the light yellow 1950 Dodge Wayfarer convertible. I want one!

      • I have a maroon Wayfarer convertible. I was looking for parts on-line when I saw that Doris Day had one, couldn’t resist adding that Doris Day fact into the story along with a play on her movie titles.

    • Hi, Walk.

      Like minds lead to Doris Day and Que Sera, sera!

      Reading your story is a vivid sensory experience. Love all the sounds, scents, and feelings.

  2. être, to be

    présent: je suis = I am
    compound past: j’ai été = i was

    So many verb tenses! My head is a jumble of roots, endings, and other assorted pieces of verbs. Sacré bleu! I sure don’t remember conjugating verbs in English class, but then again, my days in English class were many years and even more pairs of latex gloves ago.

    imperfect: j’étais = i was
    pluperfect: j’avais été = i had been

    And how in the world is a verb perfect, imperfect, or more than perfect? My nursing courses talked about perfect health and the imperfect expansion of lungs but never mentioned the possibility of a perfect or imperfect verb.

    future: je serai = i will be
    conditional: je serais = i would be
    past conditional: j’aurais été = i would have been

    Medical terminology is basically a foreign language, and you got that, they tell me. So French should be a breeze, they assure me. Not so sure I agree with them. At least not tonight.

    subjunctive: il fat que je sois = it is necessary that i be

    Subjunctive?!? The subjunctive is a mysterious creature. Does English even have the subjunctive? My instructor, Mme. Boncoeur, says verbs have moods and that the subjunctive is a mood more than it is a tense. According to Madame, the subjunctive is all about dreams, wishes, and uncertainty. I am uncertain about my French, yes, and how is this for my mood: frustrated? I wish I were more proficient in French.

    Maybe success would be mine if i were to give the old bean a break. It’ s dinner time anyway. Let me see… any inspiringly French food in the kitchen? Nothing in the pantry unless your count French’s mustard. The only bread is pumpernickel–best not to mix the Germans and the French. Now here’s a good start: the Pouilly-Fuissé Rob gave me when I enrolled in this class. Glad I put it in the refrigerator. If a little Pouilly-Fuissé can’t put those verbs in a good mood, then nothing can. The crisp white wine will, at the very least, loosen me up a little. On Rob’s list of “Dr. Monroe’s Truisms,” is the observation that French comes easier after one or two glasses of wine. Beyond that, you’re sunk. Law of diminishing returns and all.

    Oh, and I forgot about the Camembert Betty sent home with me after the bon voyage party last week. So nice of the practice to honor Rob and me with such a festive send-off. We leave in a couple of weeks. So many things to do between now and then–not the least of which is pass this French test. Pretty serious class for continuing ed. Must be Mme. Boncoeur. The French take their language seriously.

    Hmmm… here are a few grapes to go with the cheese. This meal is coming together now. Oh, and one last thing. Good, yes, I do still have a Quiche Lorraine in the freezer. It will complete my pseudo-French meal. Maybe I will watch a little TV. After all, I have to do something while the quiche heats, and I am saving those conjugations for later.

    Wow, look at those gaping jaws. Is that a giant alligator walking down the street! And is that Chicago of all places? Holy cow, the alligator is bigger than a car! What is this? Oh, I always forget; which button on the remote opens the cable guide? Okay, there we go. Alligator (1980), directed by Lewis Teague. Of course, it’s an obscure-to-me thriller movie. You can always count on SyFy for aliens, Godzilla, and important cities in danger. Big surprise. What’s this? Turner Classics has an old Hitchcock movie. Is that Doris Day singing “Que sera, sera!”? Must be The Man Who Knew Too Much. Yes, it is. This amateur linguist is here to tell you, Doris, “Que sera, sera” is supposed to be Spanish, not French, but it’s not really Spanish either. You and Jimmy ought to be more wary of French strangers on buses between Casablanca and Marrakech. If you had known your verb tenses better, you might have been able to avoid assassination intrigues.

    What is that singe smell? Is my quiche burning? Ouf! Just in time! The crust is a little dark, but the quiche is saved. Camembert, Quiche Lorraine, and Pouilly-Fuissé: Please work some magic for me. I will finish with Doris and Jimmy but will focus on studying after dinner. Yes, I will. If all goes to plan, by the time my head hits the pillow tonight, and I will be able to speak all the French I need while volunteering with Médecins Sans Frontières in Haïti.

  3. Oops, typos.

    — Should be “Subjunctive: il faut que je sois.”
    — All the “i” should be “I” in the conjugations.

  4. This is actually part of a memoir I’ve been writing off and on – more off than on. I re-worked it a little to add the verb tenses, alligator and beans.

    “Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be,” I pumped the swing as hard as I could and sang at the top of my lungs. I wanted more than anything to be able to push the swing over the top of the frame, making a full circle. It was my dream. I was close to level with the top brace and I knew it. I belted out my current favorite Doris Day song to quell my fears. My hands gripped the chains so tightly that my nails dug into my palms.

    “The future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera.”

    “You’re gonna get in trouble,” my sister Linda hollered. “You’ll make yourself have an asthma attack and Gramma will really be mad.”

    Six years my senior, my sister always seemed to feel responsible for me unless I’d just broken something of hers, in which case she conveniently forgot all about my asthma while she pummeled me.

    “Can I have the eyes for my collection?” I asked slowing the swing enough so I could jump off and land close to the picnic table where she was working.

    “Sure,” she said, popping the eyes out of the already severed catfish head.

    “I’ll go get my box,” I said, already running toward the house.

    “WALK!” I heard her shout as the screened door slammed behind me.

    “What’s for dinner?” I asked my grandmother as I passed by the kitchen.

    “Catfish and beans.”

    I tried to stifle the gagging sound that rose from my throat. The older kids, that is, Linda and my cousins Bill, Frank and Berta, had been out fishing all afternoon on the river. They’d apparently caught enough for supper, much to my dismay. I hated picking out all those bones. It hardly seemed worth it. But Gramma had a pretty tight budget to feed the six of us, so she took whatever help Mother Nature was willing to provide, whether it was vegetables from the garden we helped plant and tend, or fish from the muddy river out back. Her creativity made for some interesting if not exactly tasty meals.

    I climbed the ladder stairs to the attic of the cottage. The air smelled of cooked dust. I knocked one of Linda’s books off the orange crate that served as a night stand between our cots. A neatly folded page of notebook paper with the heading ‘verb tenses’ fell to the floor. I kicked it underneath her cot, pushed aside my stuffed alligator and located the small cardboard box that held my collection of fish eyes. I headed for the staircase. Grampa died before he ever got around to putting in a proper staircase so the only way to the attic where we girls slept was via the open runged ladder. I was way too short to reach the railing, so I turned around and crouched down, carefully placing my feet on the first rung, gripping the raw edge of the board floor as my bare foot felt for the second step.

    “Where are you keeping those, anyway?” My sister glanced skeptically toward the box as I approached the table.

    “Well, after the lid came off the last batch and they got squished all over the sheets, Gramma said I couldn’t keep them under my pillow anymore.”

    • “cooked dust” –bingo. fish eyes under the pillow–eeiuuwww! true story?

      • Barbara Burris

        Yes, everything but the beans, stuffed alligator and verb tenses. Every summer, my parents took my sister and me to stay at the cottage with Gramma and three of my five cousins. We were right on the river. I was asthmatic and did not swim. We had no telephone and no car. Had a milkman for the essentials like eggs, butter, milk, but otherwise, we walked to town (about 1-1/2 miles each way, usually barefoot – hence my hatred of shoes) to get our groceries and mail. We played outside from dawn to dusk. Never got a tv until the last year, I think. Usually we played board games or occasionally listened to shows like Amos ‘n Andy on the radio in the evenings. Gramma handled everything from fish hooks embedded into various body parts (even on the dog) to my asthma, rounds of stomach flu and scaring off boys chasing my cute barely teen-aged cousin, Berta.

        Not sure why I chose fish eyes to collect, but probably was going through one of those phases where I really liked hearing everyone say eeiuuwww! Gramma ignored it (for the most part) and eventually I moved on.

    • Hi, Barabra.

      “Cooked dust” is what really jumped out for me, too. Evocative.

      Irrationally squeamish about eyes, I could not afford to think about the fate of the fish “peepers” too much : ).

      • Barbara Burris

        I’m sorry about the eyeball thing, Lassie. Nowadays I’d feel just as squeemish but back then we were running around like little wild children capturing frogs and turtles and minnows and not getting too bent out of shape when we got up in the morning to find the raccoons had feasted on our temporary pets in the night. Still can’t remember how long this phase lasted. Certainly the shelf-life of eyeballs can’t be very long. Daddy always wanted a boy, so maybe I was trying to be one. Who knows?

  5. Ann, I have a question I’d like to ask you. What is your opinion about entering writing contests? There are SO many out there and all have ‘reading fees’, so it gets expensive to do this often and without some serious evaluation regarding the odds of winning. I tried it for a time and after spending more than I felt comfortable, swore off them. Do you believe it is worth the money/effort to keep entering these contests or is it better to just keep sending material to places that don’t require me to pay them to read my stuff before they consider publishing it?

  6. I’d keep your money unless the contest offers you two things: 1) someone will give you written scores and feedback on your writing to show you how you performed, 2) promise of publication in a magazine or venue you’ve heard of if you win. I do not have a lot of experience with contests. I did enter the Pikes Peak Writers Conference contest twice. They asked for the first chapter of a novel. There was a fee to enter, but I did get careful review and written feedback from several qualified judges which, as you know by now, is hard to get! I did win the first time ($100), but my query letters to editors and agents who attended the conference went unanswered, so I never felt it did me much good. In seeking publication, I would quote the I Ching: perseverance furthers. Good luck to you.

    • I’m not surprised you won but sorry the editors and agents ignored your queries. The advertisements I receive (mostly from anthologies and magazines I know of) are so tempting. But as you mentioned, they offered nothing in the way of feedback so I never knew where I stood – if I even came close or if they took one glance and filed it in the round file. I’ve had better luck (and more response) from magazine editors. So with your wise input, I’ll continue on the path I’ve been following. Thanks again, Ann.

  7. Did you ever have one of those days? Today was mine. Well, I suppose you could say that it started with one of those nights. I woke up about three in the morning, my pillow drenched with sweat and for the life of me I could not figure out what I had been dreaming about. From that point on things began to go downhill. I slept through my 6:15 radio alarm, finally came to about 7:00 and leapt from bed to shower on instinct. Two seconds later I was fully awake; the landlord had obviously not managed to fix the water heater as he had promised since the shower spewed pure glacier water.
    And it continued. My last pair of nylons ran from toe to hip as I pulled them on so I grabbed my go-to black pants from the top of the laundry basket and pulled on the longest sweater I owned to cover the mayonnaise stain on the front.
    By the time I finally left the house, I had to sprint to make my train at the Skytrain station. I would have made it too except for the five minutes I wasted yanking at the left heel of my new alligator boots to pull it free from the sidewalk vent. At least the heel is still somewhat attached.
    I mentally wiped the slate clean for a fresh start on the 20 minute ride to work. On the walk from the station to work I even let the seductive scent of java lure me into The Ethical Bean for my daily fix without a second glance at my wristwatch.
    Just when I thought things were going smoothly my boss stuck her head in the door of my office and with all the effervescence of Doris Day announced she required my presence in a meeting with Sam, the latest ‘flavour of the month’ author go over verb tenses in his current offering.
    Not to make judgements about someone I had never met but was not looking forward to listening to some guy argue for an hour on each precious page. I strode in the doorway of the meeting room with the anticipation of a mental beating and my boss introduced me to Sam. I saw the look of shock in his eyes that must have mirrored my own. We shook hands, and somehow neither one of us wanted to let go. Did you every have one of those days? Today was mine.

  8. The Ethical Bean! Your boss is Doris Day! Hating to meet endless with one of those narcissist authors! I got kick out of this one, SG.

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