Stories

Late On A Chilly Fall Day

by Missy Koshute, Age 13, Grade 7

It is late on a chilly fall day, and winter is on its way.

Dusk is falling, and inside every window a light is lit, warm and yellow compared to the cold gray twilight outside.

Most of the leaves have fallen off of the trees, leaving them naked and bare. The world is totally quiet except for the faraway hum of traffic in the distance. There is a biting chill in the air that nips at your toes, turns your cheeks pink and rosy, and causes your spine to shiver.

Everyone is shut in their houses for the night, doing homework, eating dinner, watching TV, and just relaxing at home. The long summer nights are but a memory; its six o’clock and already dark!

As you stand outside, a neighbor’s car pulls into their driveway and cheerful voices fill the air, reminding you that soon you will be gathering with your relatives for the holidays. Images of hot, tender turkey and warm, steaming gravy crowd your thoughts and cause your mouth to water.

A passing car snaps you out of your fantasy. It is now completely dark and you turn to go into the house, shivering, out of the cold night air.

It is late on a chilly fall day, and winter is on its way.

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The Runners’ Daughter

by Bruce Midkiff

Sarah wasn’t certain she even wanted to go to the party. She no longer had the yen for attention she used to have: attention from those who admired her running skills, and attention from those who envied her skill as a runner. There was a distinct difference between admiration and envy. At this point in her life, the eve of her 76th birthday, all the attention she really wanted was unattainable. Her parents, the most important part of her life, were now both gone so memories would have to suffice. For most of her life, their love and attention had been her anchor, her base, her starting line, and her goal. They had made every effort to train her in the basic running skills and with their guidance she’d honed her running skills to even higher levels. For decades now she had consistently outrun all other runners.

In the early years she’d run with her parents and they passed all their knowledge on to her. She’d learned to think on her feet, to do the unexpected, to be aggressive enough, but not too, and how to deceive even the most intelligent of the competition. Many times during her lengthy career she’d been a hundred miles from where anybody thought she’d be.

At age sixteen, on her birthday, she’d taken her first solo run. She remembered it clearly, for two reasons. She remembered her parents pride in her completing that solo run successfully, and their pleasure at her own joy as she saw her first car, a gift from them, a bright yellow VW convertible. She knew her parents must have invested a great deal of time and money into its resurrection. Those “bugs” had not come from the factory with a rag top and a modified Porsche engine. She still had that car, at the moment under some tarps in the barn.

Thinking about these past events, back to the beginning of her running career, she decided she would attend the party. She would, after the obligatory acceptance of birthday wishes, announce her retirement after sixty active years, from running. She would do one last run that day, then at the party relate some of her most precious memories of her parents lives and times. The love of running her parents had instilled in her made for memorable runs she’d taken part in, with them and on her own. These tales would be shared with her cousins and their children, all that remained of her family. Some of the stories they already knew but not all. Well, now they would hear them. They must hear them. They had all been trained for the running. She regretted at times that she’d never had a daughter to train to take her place. It was a bit late now.

The night of the party she arrived fashionably late, dressed in her running cloths. She nodded, smiled, shook hands, and admired babies, all the while wondering who among this group would rise to take her place. She wandered through the crowd, musing and meandering, preparing for her farewell speech. She thought about the fact that a party this large was essentially illegal. The government contended that large groups such as this could be plotting against them. She thought about the many activities and objects the government had taken control of, allegedly for the benefit of the people.

She began her tales with the stories of her parents and moved quickly right into her own adventures. She finally came around to the vocation of running in general and connecting their trade with the famous “rumrunners” of the 1930’s. She emphasized the necessity for skilled runners; to haul the goods to the people that needed them. The items they carried were essential to the citizenry even if the government foolishly declared such items to be illegal contraband. Sometimes their restrictions made some sort of sense, but mostly not. She smiled as she unrolled a dust covered length of fabric from a long narrow object. She related how the government had outlawed this very object because it was constructed of wood, straw, and steel wire and was politically declared a total misuse of protected natural resources. The uproar that resulted created another market for the runners, just like the old time rumrunners, profiting from the governments folly. She drew from the wrappings the first item she’d run, evading revenuers, marshals, and sheriffs through the woods and back roads in her yellow bug.

She held, high over her head, a never used, sixty-year-old broom.

She awoke suddenly, in the still of the night, realizing she’d forgotten to retire.

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Excerpt from Grave Robber by Maria Farina

Grave Robber is the first book in The Gypsy Chronicles series. (www.gypsy-chronicles.com)

All was peaceful in the quiet Borough of Sewickley, Pa., until someone decided to go ahead and raise the dead. Now, there’s chaos! Have the demons of the Hollow broken the Treaty or are the humans dabbling in black magic? One thing is for sure…the only person who can bridge the gap between human and demon is the local Gypsy. It’s Trudi MacKenzie to the rescue and not a moment too soon…

Chapter 3 (scroll down to read Chapters 1 and 2 )

I continued to deep breathe, while Linda hesitantly dragged her chair back ‘til she was sitting next to the table once again. The two of us sat across from each other staring at nothing in particular. Linda’s eyes bobbed between me and watching her hands quiver in her lap. I was still gazing at the cards, unable to break their control. On purpose, my hands were positioned as far away from the cards as my body would allow. Neither one of us were truly seeing what our eyes held or knowing exactly what to say. We were hypnotized; frozen by what just happened.

I felt sick. My stomach was nauseas and every inch of my body was perspiring. Thank the Universe, I had worn a sleeveless tank top and lots of perfume. All four of my limbs ached; a residual from the violent shaking of the energy through the cards. My body tingled all over. I swear I could feel each molecule from the tips of my hair to the tips of my toes moving within me.

The candle flames resumed their comfortable height and an uneasy calm took over the office. You could hear a pin drop in the room; make that a sand in the hourglass. Time seemed to creep so slowly that I swear I could hear each sand fall through the narrow opening to its brethren on the other side.

Excruciating.

I knew that sooner or later, one of us would have to talk. I was pushing for later, but deep down, I also knew that it was my place to say something first; something comforting. After all, Linda had just come in for a simple Tarot reading.

I’m guessing the last thing she wanted was for this fun little exercise to become complicated. No doubt she came to me for nothing more than a weather forecast or the number of kids her and Jack would have or whether her choice of fuchsia for the bridesmaids’ dresses was the right choice or would the colour of the dress make one of the girls look washed out. You know, easy, simple questions.

Hell. She never bargained for this. My mood was rapidly beginning to resemble the rain outside; gloomy. It’s never a good thing to leave the client unhappy, let alone fear for her perspective husband’s life. I want a do-over.

Unfortunately, that’s impossible. When the cards speak, they speak. That’s what makes doing the Tarot a fine art. The ability to read the messages that the Universe sends through the cards takes years of study and practice, not to mention a mastery of interpretation. It’s a craft that my ancestors and I have embraced for hundreds of years, and it has never let us down or steered us wrong. This couldn’t be a mistake, no matter how much I’d like it to be. A big part of being a devout Gypsy is trusting not only your instincts, but the tools that are used to speak clearly for the Universe. Besides, I couldn’t be wrong. I’m really good at what I do.

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[From here down is from Summer 2010 Issue...]

Grave Robber A novel by Maria Farina

Chapter 2 (Read Chap. 1 below)

“Ok, Linda, are you ready?” I asked. She nodded yes and we began.

“Alright, take a deep breath and close your eyes,” I said. “Focus on the deck of cards in your mind and relax.”

I cheated and stole a look at Linda to make sure her eyes were shut. Just as I suspected, Linda was very good at following directions. I don’t know if she was still nervous or if she was just an A student, because her eyes were squinting so tight, she was giving me a headache.

I took another long, deep breath and let it out slowly, to the count of three. I could hear Linda following my lead. Good. I repeated the action. The room became still; our breaths filling the air with gentle gusts.

Slowly, I placed my hands on the cards. The energy from them made my fingers tingle. The sensation was exhilarating and I could feel the vibrations move through my body. Linda gasped. She must have felt something in the room, an electricity in the air. I was no stranger to the gasp, I’d heard it before with other clients. We were ready to move on.

“Linda. I’d like you to move your hands over the deck of cards. When the moment feels right, pick up as many cards as you want and place them to the left side of the deck.”

“How will I know?” she asked.

“It’s hard to explain,” I replied. “Trust me, you just will.”

She hesitated, but after a few moments, it felt right and she picked up the cards and placed them where I had said. I continued my instructions and she followed them to the letter. After my procedure was complete, I began to place the cards in their order.

There are many, possibly thousands of configurations or spreads one can use to read the Tarot. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. It really comes down to what feels the best to the reader or which placement of the cards offers the reader the most accurate reading.

The spread I use most often and have seen others use most of the time, is the Thoth Spread. It’s very basic and gives an overall reading of the client. There are other spreads that are more specific, such as the Celtic Cross and the Clarification Spread, but that’s only if there is a need. For what Linda requires today, the Thoth should be fine.

The cards are set up into different “houses.”  The position of the cards when they are turned over correspond to a particular house like, health or work or so on. Depending on which card is in the house, I can interpret how things are going, in a general sense, for the next six months or so.

We moved quickly through the work house and the health house. Everything looked fine there. Nothing special to be worried about, although someone, perhaps her father, should try to push the plate of food away a little more often. He could have diabetes in his future.

All things considered, so far, so good. Wait a minute. The love house. There was something awry in the love house. Tea and runes, it’s always the love house. I don’t think I’ve ever done a reading when someone walked away without trouble in their love house. Sometimes it’s bad and I have to tell the client that perhaps that special someone, really isn’t. Sometimes it’s not so bad and I have to tell the client to not worry, that once he or she’s gone, the door will open to someone else.

Sometimes, it’s just bad and nothing I say will make things better.

Linda’s love house had a dark mist over it. Really. I could see it. A fog was forming over the card making it difficult to read. I blinked my eyes and strained my neck to see through the grey shadow.

I looked up at Linda. Darn. She had that anticipatory look in her eyes that everyone gets when they want to know about their love life. It was borderline needy and it was one that I have seen all too often. Big, sad, puppy dog eyes. Double darn.

“Is there something wrong?” A pained wince came over her face. She scrunched up her eyes forming slits and barred more clenched teeth than I wanted to see.

“Ah, no,” I said. Great. I’m really bad at lying. “Ok, well. It’s strange, but there’s some change happening in your lovelife….”

“Oh, of course,” Linda sighed, “I’m getting married this Saturday night. That must be it. You know the jitters of tying the knot.”  Relieved, she was almost giddy.

She looked so excited, so young and in love that I didn’t have the heart to crush hers.

“So, who’s the lucky guy?” I asked and kept my eyes on the mist-covered card.

“Oh, it’s Jack Conley.” Linda almost melted on my table at the mere mention of his name. I repeated his name over the card and just as I suspected, the mist began to clear. The card underneath came into view. I’ve never wanted to not see a certain card in my life. But there it was …the Ten of Swords. It’s the card of death for a relationship…

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That Reminds Me, I Hate Portmanteaus

Mary Beth Eastman

Earlier this month, my folks came to pick up my wee sons, ages three and five, and bring them back to Nana and Grandpa’s house for a week of fun and grandparent-y indulgence. A WHOLE WEEK. I know, right?

Meanwhile, my husband, Iain, had the very smart idea that we should take advantage of this freedom and mobility to take a little vacation, an early anniversary celebration/eight-years-late mini honeymoon, a pre-baby last hurrah. A mini-moon, if you like. That Iain is a very smart man.

So, economic times being what they are, we decided to stay in Pittsburgh, a mere 40-minute drive away. This happened to be the weekend that Rivers Casino unveiled their new table games, so our nightlife was decided for us, and we found an amazing 50% off deal at the Station Square Sheraton right on the river, or one of the rivers, anyway. (I can never keep them straight. One river I could manage, but three? This transplant throws up her hands in defeat.)

I hate the phrase “staycation.” I don’t know why; maybe because it just smacks of marketing, and travel bureaus, and barf barf barf. So when the check-in clerk saw we hailed from Beaver (“Cool! I’m from Hopewell!”) and asked us what in the world brought us to the big city for just a night, I choked on the portmanteau “staycation” and made myself say  “a little vacation in town!” instead. She gave us our keys anyway.

We started our 24 hours of fun at the casino. It was our first time inside one. Holy shit, you guys, that place is intense. That must be what it’s like to go to Chuck E. Cheese when you’re five, except at the casino, there’s no Dad to give you tokens. You pull fives out of your wallet and watch them go down the drain instead.

Seriously, though. The noise, the plinking, plonging, dinging din, all that cigarette smoke, and rows and rows and rows and ROWS of slot machines. People staring, pushing buttons, drinking their free Pepsi. The mind boggles. The jaw slackens.

We were like two little lost sheep, completely out of place.

So to buy time before making fools of ourselves, we bought an overpriced brunch. We chose The Grandview, solely on the basis of a great eatery review by Munch in the Post-Gazette. As we finished our meal with some weird but tasty miniature desserts, we planned our angle of attack, and then returned to the floor to try our hand(s) at the machines first. All told, we fed $100 into video poker and video blackjack machines, and we won back $105. Success! We decided to break for dinner, head back to the hotel and let our ears stop ringing. We were pleasantly surprised by the view …

And unpleasantly surprised by the, ah, odor of a previous guest. (I now know to always pack a travel scented candle in case of stinky emergency.)

So we abandoned our room and sought dinner at Houlihan’s in Station Square, because it was close and we could walk. The last time we had dinner by ourselves at a restaurant was probably a Taco Bell combo meal a year previously, so we made good and sure to drag it out.

Thus sated, we decided to give the casino one more shot, so we could try one of the much-buzzed-about table games and maybe turn our $5 winnings into a number with some zeros on it. Instead, we turned it into a number with a minus sign in front of it. So we lost our five bucks, and the hundred we had won back, and decided that — though the blackjack table was too awesome for words (with the exception of the showoff guy who started peeling through his wad of hundred dollar bills) we had better quit while we were, if not ahead, at least not more than $5 behind.

Back we came to our hotel, with a quick stop in the hotel gift shop for a deck of cards. We pulled the remaining change out of our wallets, ante’d up, and played each other in blackjack cross-legged on the bed until it was time to eat one last time. It wasn’t a casino, but it was still fun, with the added bonus of not robbing any offspring of any college funds.

A few drinks at the hotel bar and a night’s sleep on some of the best pillows I have ever wrapped my huge, lumbering pregnant body around, and our vacation in town (NOT A STAYCATION) drew to a close, with both of us in great moods and frankly only missing the children a tiny little bit.

Previously published on the blog “Supafine,” by Mary Beth Eastman, which you can find at supamb.com/supafine. Mary Beth is a writer and designer in Beaver, by way of Baltimore, by way of Toledo, Ohio. Forgive her her Yinzer trespasses, as she forgives you your adorable accents.

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Black Dog

Nathan Peluso

As the night became dark and the dark became goofy monkey dark and even Uma the big fluffy dog walked into walls and disappeared behind construction materials whilst doing the simplest of exercises. Even my voice could not guide her. Even my smell could not set her on the path to the door. That kind of dark. Black shadow cloud dark. Mega-mongo black like night, even darker. Pigment removed. And black like the black of an eye that has a hollow infinity aspect, so deep that beyond the beyonds cannot be imagined even by a liar, or story-teller. So within the context of this black dark, as Uma’s fluffy white-ness existed only as a memory, I stood with the vision of my color-body, infused only in membrance too, in the middle of my living room. Not alive, not living, incapable of releasing myself from the color-void morass of which I had melded. Black to black, I called to Uma, “Stop bashing against my leg, please. Look up, my diggy-doggy!”

And it was then, at this precise moment where communication was reduced to one mode, the voice, and then even that voice became eaten and disappeared, too powerful, too monolithic, too all-consuming and consumed was the black. “But I can smell you!” I translated the dog. “No. I know that you cannot, not through this de-habilitating darkness,” I thought. She could not fool me, her moppy white dreadlocks lost amongst the invisible boards and plastic clad couches and I dreaded only now the shape of what used to be the toilet, as I remembered it dusty and ill-conceived upon a cardboard platform upon a purple-red rug upon what was only fathomed in a long-lost dream-ago to be wooden planks 120-years old. I knew her dreadlocks and non-direction to be my only threat, the toilet the greatest of all potential ills and disaster.

The room, in the darkness, expanded and contracted and I felt swallowed by a boa constrictor con negro, in that kind of claustrophobia, and released into the furthest and most unconstrained vagaries of space time. An amoeba, a man in a coffin, a worm crawling through eight-foot mud, a butterfly floating to Mexico, all free, all lost, all unbound, all dread and crushed in the vice of my own color situation. Oh color? Oh darkness? Oh light? What light?

I knew only Uma, that was all, that this ever bounding, ever-bumbling creature of lightning love was lost too, with me, in grave futility amongst the previous and blinded utility of screwdrivers and dustmasks. Lost, with senses depleted, memory fused and transplanted it’s fragmentary lexicon of materiality upon our supposed present – Oh Room & Various Angles! Oh Hammer & Nail and their critical convergence! – during the times remembered as of day and light.

Through this we waded. And we knew only the potentiate of their imagined sound and thus placement whence doggy-rumpled. Even in infirmary, even in doubt I was, or despair, I almost envisaged some semblance of countenance, and direction. From the old world, until precisely now, this room and these essential tools had become my everything – Black and gold, not just black, silver reflecting off of shiny steel and utilized in a world of meaning, in a place similary ambiance. Oh luminosity? And again they formed a framework, and a home…

Just then, before I could properly respond, as the hypothetical dreads of the dusty dog brushed soft and I almost mini-reacted, the back knee-joint bent and forward I lunged!.. plunging!…, for none other than the random white non-seeable porcelain god. “Oh…!” was the word that could not form. As the wind shhwished and the downward plunged, the corner cold and brutally hard kissed my forehead’s corner. This wasn’t good. What was white, crushing white. What now was only black. What would happen? As time stopped. What would happen? Would I black out?

And I did.

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But Enough About Me

Joline Pinto Atkins

(It’s been a year. Time to stop talking about myself.)

At the time of this writing, (June 15th), it has been exactly one year since my family moved into our new house in Beaver. And while we still hold Chicago in our hearts, my family now calls Beaver home.

One year ago today, also found us with several gift certificates in hand, (generously provided by our new church congregation) which we quickly used at all the scrumdiddlyumptious places on Third Street. There was pizza at Mario’s, kolaches at Café Kolache, and nut claws from Kretchmar’s.

We ate our way through that first week.

Our family then waited patiently for Yama to open its doors. Once open, we indulged. So often did I find myself there that for a while I was known simply as “Chicago girl” by one of the waitresses.

Mario’s closed for a bit while its new, larger location up the street put on its finishing touches and we again found ourselves waiting patiently for it to reopen in its glorious new digs. And now, here we are in a holding pattern once more as we wait for the new tapas restaurant to officially invite us over.

I have shown a lot of patience this year. And eaten a lot of food.

So after eating my way to a 15lb heavier frame throughout my first year in Beaver, I am more than pleased to share about the most recent arrival to Third Street.

Pilates on 3rd.

Tonya O’Brien has always had a passion for the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of people and Pilates on 3rd is an extension of that desire.

As with many I’ve met during my first year as a Beaver resident, Tonya returned to raise her family in what she describes as an “idyllic storybook town” after college and a stint living in Atlanta. Now, she is bringing that unique small town quality to the health industry with her brand new fitness studio which  includes dynamic classes such as Zumba, Pilates (both mat and reformer), yoga, body ballet, cardio, children’s classes, and even belly dancing.

It is the environment that is most important to O’Brien who has spent 7 years in the fitness industry and also serves as the Director of Marketing for MRS Physical Therapy in Bridgewater.

“I wanted a business where someone could walk through the front door and not worry about insecurities,” says O’Brien, who recognizes the pressure that people, and particularly women, face due to their portrayal in the media.

In order to create a welcoming space, Tonya commits to getting to know her clients by name and story. By creating that relationship, (which can be lost in a larger gym atmosphere), class attendees are more encouraged to return and continue the habit of coming back after that initial class.

Simply, at Pilates on 3rd one can expect to be accepted, included, and feel comfortable in one’s own skin.

I did.

Having never taken a Zumba class, I ventured in one Saturday morning to have my try at the popular Latin-inspired cardio craze. As someone who is a regular exerciser, I was comfortably challenged in the one-hour class and enjoyed working out in what I can only describe as . . . a community.

Yes, this pastors’ wife was shakin’ some kind of booty that morning and from what I could tell from the other ladies in the class, everyone was having a grand time.

Pilates on 3rd is a fabulous addition to our main drag here in Beaver – especially for those of us who like to eat. And aren’t ashamed to write about it.

Pilates on 3rd is located 486 Third Street in Beaver. Class schedules and registration information can be found on their website at http://www.pilateson3rd.com or by calling (724) 709-8614.

Joline Pinto Atkins is no longer the new girl in town. Her take on life, (humorous, and as is the case in life, sometimes not so humorous – although she’ll attempt to find a laugh in any situation) can be found at thecuppajo.blogspot.com. Joline can also be found blogging her musings about entering the “soccer mom” stage of her life every Thursday at PittsburghMom.com.

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[from Spring 2010 issue of The Bridge]

Grave Robber A novel by Maria Farina

All was peaceful in the quiet Borough of Sewickley, PA, until someone decided to go ahead and raise the dead. Now, there’s chaos! Have the demons of the Hollow broken the Treaty or are the humans dabbling in black magic? One thing is for sure…the only person who can bridge the gap between human and demon is the local Gypsy. It’s Trudi MacKenzie to the rescue and not a moment too soon.

(Excerpt from Grave Robber, by Maria Farina, the first book in her series, The Gypsy Chronicles. Visit her website at www.gypsy-chronicles.com)

Chapter 1

5:05.  I hate to be late. It seems no matter how hard I try, I’m always late for something. It’s a character flaw, I know, but what can I say? Things come up.

Tonight, what’s “come up,” is finding my keys. The key search has become an Olympic event for me, because it seems every time I turn around, I’m searching for them. In fact, this happens so often that you’d think by now I would have devised a fool-proof plan to find my keys even if they were wrapped in plastic under a concrete block, but no. After all these years, my keys continue to elude me. Sure, I have a special place right at the front door where I could put my keys as soon as I get home. I just never put them there.

Normally, I would just chuckle at my stupidity and call it a night, but tonight, I can’t. I’m meeting a new client. Given that those have been few and far between lately, I am determined not to make her wait too long. Our meeting place is the local coffee shop, The Velvet Bean. It’s about a 10 minute walk from my house. I should’ve taken the SUV since it’s been raining for the last half hour, but that would involve finding a whole new set of keys and I’m just not up for that.

As I make my way down the street, avoiding puddles when I can, I’m getting more and more angry with myself. I’m almost at the Bean, but I’m just not quick enough. I’m very late, now. I can only hope my client has a sense of humour. If it wasn’t raining so much, I just might give myself a swift boot in the butt for my tardiness right here in the middle of town, but I went to so much trouble in getting this far, kicking was simply out of the question. Besides, why kick a girl when she’s down?

I picked up the pace.

Besides, the rain is doing most of the kicking for me anyhow. There’s nothing better than a late summer rain to cool things down and wash away the humidity, but only if you’re inside cozying up with a good book and a glass of mint iced tea. Trust me; racewalking in a downpour is no picnic.

I will say it was a smart move to wear a skirt tonight of all nights. If I had worn pants they would be drenched by now. Tonight I chose my favourite brown peasant skirt that just barely skims the bottom of my knees. I love wearing it. It has an interesting white block pattern that screams cowboy meets Egyptian. For simplicity’s sake, I paired the skirt with a white ribbed tank top and donned a chunky brown leather rope belt. My outfit is both flattering and comfortable, just like I like it. And, as it turns out, it’s good for running in too; which is an added bonus. I look like the poster girl for a GAP commercial.

Bouncing on my hip is my biggest and most essential accessory, my brown leather book bag. I carry this instead of a purse. It holds all of my girly essentials like lipstick, a mirror, my wallet and my gypsy essentials, like candles, an assortment of aromatherapy oils and my tarot deck. I would never leave home without it.

I bolted through the door of the Velvet Bean just in time to hear Sonja say, “Oh Trudi, she’s always late. Don’t worry.”

Great…

Sonja Martin, a red-haired, blue-eyed smartass, is the owner and main clerk at The Velvet Bean, a truly hip and happenin’ coffee bar on the northwest side of Pittsburgh. The coffee is the best in town, or at least this side of the Monongahela.  It’s rich, smooth and luscious; hence the title, The Velvet Bean.

Sonja buys only the best beans. She imports them from Columbia, Costa Rica and my personal favourite, Chile. To me, a good cup of Chilean dark roast is darn near orgasmic.

The coffee at the Bean is extra special, but even more than that, it’s the vibe of the Velvet Bean that brings in the people. It’s a big, open space with candles scattered everywhere giving the over-sized, poofy, brown leather couches a soft glow. Between the couches and chairs, ornate Mediterranean pillows lay stacked for extra comfort. Small coffee tables hold The City Paper, a book or magazine and the mugs of liquid goodness. The wall colours are muted in soft, celery green, mustard yellow, eggplant purple and coffee with cream beige. They add to the relaxed nature of the room and pictures of landscapes and musicians fill in all the remaining areas.

Four huge windows make up the wall that faces the street and they are adorned with gigantic, deep green velvet drapes that are pulled back and secured with knotted gold sashes. A big fireplace takes up most of the wall that is on the right as you enter and the long coffee bar with its any high stools is directly opposite. Aromas of hazelnut coffee and freshly baked cinnamon rolls always fill the air.

Sonja prides herself on making her own concoctions, not only with her inventive coffee drinks, but also in the baked goods she acquires. She has the local bakery, The Crusty Muffin, on a retainer, but only if they make her orders the way apricot scone in the Velvet Bean. Tilly, the baker, sometimes grumbles about the extra work, but Sonja’s recipes are a hit and all the extra orders help to keep Tilly’s mouth shut.

In keeping with Sonja’s Irish heritage, she’s hung a gold four leaf clover over the door along with a sign that reads. “Enter at your own risk.” She contends that if you’re not careful, you could easily find yourself lost in this pleasing atmosphere and forget to leave. Trust me, it’s been known to happen once or twice.

Many Pittsburghers take the risk on a daily basis and soon the Bean will be packed with hipsters again tonight filling up on mocha, latte, cinnamon swirls or some other Sonja brew. A jazz quartet or aspiring songwriter with a guitar will entertain and a collective, relaxing sigh will fill the entire space. The Velvet Bean does that to people.

I shook out my umbrella before closing the door, then placed it in a rack inside.

“Sorry, I’m late, “I said as I made my way to the coffee bar. “The rain was really something.”

Sonja smirked as she walked out from behind the bar to the main room to redd up a table or two. I made sure I jabbed her in the ribs as we passed each other. A direct hit. She grabbed for her side and made a small squealy sound as she went by.

“You must be Linda,” I reached out my hand to a lovely sorority-type girl. You know the type. Her blonde hair fell just above her shoulders, controlled with just the right amount of hairspray and she sat with a dancer’s grace on the bar stool, tall with an invisible string pulling up through her torso aligning herself with the ceiling. One look at her and you knew – she would never be late for anything.

You could just tell.

“Hi…and you must be Trudi,” she smiled, “I’m really happy to meet you. I’ve never been to…ah…someone…um…to one of these things. You know, people talk about these kind of things all the time, but I never thought that I would go to something like…you know…someone like you…you know, at a thing like this.”

She paused and I waited for her to pull the foot out of her mouth.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just really excited,” she added.

No kidding. She was definitely the excitable type. Her hands expressed every word, swinging up and down and side to side, almost hitting me with one of her “trying to find the word” gestures. You know.

It was the sweat forming on her upper lip that betrayed her excitement for what I would call nervousness. But, hey, one woman’s nervous is another woman’s excitement, I guess. Who was I to judge? Besides, this wasn’t the first time someone perspired in my presence.

“Oh,” I shook her hand and then promptly wiped the excess sweat on my beautiful skirt, “well, I’m glad you’re excited.” I really was. “Come on. Let’s go back into my office and see what we see.”

Her reply was a giggle, which sounded a bit like a short laugh with a tinge of unease thrown in. After she cleared her throat and took an audible breath, she followed me to the back of the Velvet Bean.

Behind another one of those gigantic, deep green velvet curtains at the end of the coffee bar is my office. It’s situated off to the right side, just past the fireplace, like a happy appendage to the main room. Sonja rents out the space to me at a very reasonable cost. It’s because of her generosity that I overlook her occasional snide remark. Sometimes, when the mood hits me, I come up with a witty comeback to her sarcastic little quips. I’ve been known to zing her from time to time. I can be quite the rapscallion when I want to be. But mostly, I just jab her with an opportune elbow. It works every time and brings me great joy when I connect my elbow to her hip.

I ushered Linda into my office and offered her a seat. My office is one quarter the size of The Velvet Bean. It’s decorated the same as the Bean, with an emphasis on comfort. The wood is dark and heavy. The pictures that hang on the walls are of faraway lands showing green, lush fields, the kind of landscapes you would expect to find in Ireland. You know, the Ireland from that movie, “Highlander.” Or was that Scotland? Anyway, somewhere really green, covered in the drapery of a fog that’s just settled in; a place where you might find a leprechaun hiding behind a tree.

There isn’t much furniture in my office. Besides the large wooden table, there are three brown leather chairs. Two that sit on the client side of the table and one that is for me. It’s behind my chair on a large wooden hutch with drawers underneath that I keep my supplies. On the shelves reside books of faraway places, reference material and the occasional book of poems.

Candles dot the space just like in the Bean and are used instead of overhead lights. They’re more pleasing to the senses and less harsh on my eyes. I’ve placed tokens, in specific spaces scattered throughout the office to ward off any negative energies creeping in on the back of a Velvet Bean patron and I do mean, literally, on the back of a patron. That’s a common way for spirits to arrive in or depart from an area. They simply hitchhike on the back of a being and take a trip.

The tokens around my office put up an invisible wall to their journey. I may not be able to keep the wayward souls from coming into the Bean, but I sure as hell can block their passage into my office. And just to make sure, mirrors of all sizes dot the walls and bookshelf to keep any delinquent spirit confused.

Directly opposite the draped door on the wall hangs a special gift from my Grandmother. It’s a multi-coloured amulet to protect against the evil eye and it’s breathtaking. She made it by crocheting mirrors into place and then braiding tassels, buttons, see beads and brass balls around them. The intricacy is astonishing and I challenge any creepy crawly to try anything against it.

Every day, I light incense to cleanse the office air, that way the coffee smell is kept in the Bean and my clients have a clear head. My desk is devoid of any non-useful item. It’s where the readings take place and so, I keep all of my containers and picture frames and papers either in the drawers of the desk or on a shelf behind me within the antique wooden library unit. The only things that grace my desk are my candles, incense and tarot cards. All in all, it’s a great office. It’s my sanctuary and I love it.

“This is beautiful. Just how I imagined a gypsy’s office to look like,” Linda said as her eyes roamed my office space. “It’s you…you don’t look like what I would expect a gypsy to look like.” She eyed me up and down and asked, “are you really a gypsy?”

Hrrumpf.

“Yeah, through and through,” I said with a bit of an edge to my voice.

“What am I supposed to look like?” I was never a big fan of the stereotype.

“Wait, lemme guess. I should be old, with big bangly earrings, a thousand bracelets around my wrists and possibly my ankles and an oversized scarf around my head….oh, and for good measure, I probably should be pick-pocketing you right now.”

I regretted the sound of my words immediately after I said them, but tea and runes, a gypsy gets tired of hearing all the old clichés all the time. It’s true, I do embrace a large part of my heritage, but I try really hard not to fall into the conceived notion of what my people look like or how we’re supposed to behave. There’s nothing worse than prejudice and I won’t stand for it.

But after all that self-righteousness, I looked over at Linda and wanted to eat my words. Her face was pale and shocked. I guess she had never been talked to like that. She held her hand over her mouth. I shouldn’t have been so harsh to her. She didn’t look like she would hurt a fly if she could help it. Hesitantly, I held out my hand to offer her a seat. The meeting had started off so shaky, I could only pray that she wouldn’t turn on her heel and abruptly leave.

Linda lowered her head and shifted her feet as if making a decision, fight or flight. After a slight pause, she said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I’ve just never met a real gypsy before. They say you’re the real deal…that you can read my future. I really need to know.”

“I am and I can. Please, have a seat and let’s talk about you,” I said.

She did have a point. I don’t look like what a “typical” gypsy would look like. I’m tall and thin. My mom says too thin. I wear contemporary clothes with an eye for the classics. I don’t wear much make-up and the only bangly jewelry I do wear is the occasional stack of bracelets on my wrist. But who could blame me for that? It was alal the rage five minutes ago. The only thing that could remotely scream “gypsy” about me is my hair. It’s long, think and jet black. I can’t help it. It’s genetic.

Linda made herself comfortable in my humungous brown leather chair and adjusted the wine-coloured pillows. Most of my clients get a little nervous when they first come to see me, so I made sure that their chair is extra large and cozy with big pillows. Once they sink into the chair, they immediately relax. Relaxation is key for a good reading. It allows the mind to open and communicate freely with the Tarot cards.

The Tarot is my medium of choice. Sure, I can read runes and tea leaves with the best of them, but Tarot is my favourite. It gives a more complete look at my client’s life. It’s like a puzzle that needs decoding and I know all the pieces and where they fit. I have a lot of issues with being a gypsy, but helping people with their direction in life is a fringe benefit I do enjoy.

One by one, I lit the candles in the room, all seven of them, until there was a faint glow bouncing off the walls. Next I went to the curtain at the office entrance and pulled the cord, letting the velvet drape fall to the wall with a dramatic swoosh. For the next hour, the Velvet Bean would be far away.

Privacy is crucial to a good session. People open up so much more when it’s just them and me. And just like a doctor, or more like a psychologist, our time together is personal and confidential. I could see Linda settle into the chair and felt my own shoulders start to relax.

I carry my Tarot cards with me wherever I go. I just feel safer having them with me, like a security blanket. Have Tarot, will travel. My cards have their own leather carrying pouch. They fit neatly inside and are wrapped in a silk scarf.

It’s the way my grandmother carried hers and I have her to thank for teaching me the Tarot. We spent many evenings together when my mother left to join the Elder Clan after my father disappeared. It was a difficult time, but grandma eased the pain. She was my teacher and my best friend. Boy, do I miss her.

I pulled the cards out of their pouch and laid them in the middle of the desk, still wrapped I the silk scarf. I then held my hands over the deck, closed my eyes and said a silent prayer. The prayer isn’t fancy. There aren’t specific words I say. In fact, at each reading I say different words; whatever hits me at the time.

The reason I this is twofold. I use that time of silent prayer to focus my energy into the cards and ask the Universe for guidance. It’s a good way to begin; a clean slate. Plus, the moments I take to go through this ritual, cause the client and myself to slow down and open up for the reading. To jump right into our session before I’m ready might result in a less than accurate reading, because I might miss something that otherwise, with proper preparation, I would see.

When I’m ready I open my eyes and take a deep breath. Usually my client is entranced by this point, wondering what I’ll do next. It’s at this point that I try to give them their money’s worth. I slowly unwrap the cards from the silk, unfolding each of the corners and laying them down in a diamond surrounding the deck. I then lift the deck up with my left hand and swoosh the silk away with my right, giving it a good flap in the air. Then I place the scarf around my neck and tie it loosely. The flapping is purely for dramatics. I admit it.

One more ritual to go. Behind me, sitting like time itself on the shelf of the library unit is my clock. I use an old timepiece, called an hourglass. You know, “like sands through the hourglass, so are the…” Well, you get the idea. The gypsy way of life has been around for hundreds of years, so has the hourglass, seven hundred to be exact. I think it adds a historical reminder to what I do, so I found one at a local flea market and use it for every session. It keeps accurate time and never needs batteries. What could be easier?

With a turn of the hourglass, we’re ready to go. There would be no turning back now. In one hour, Linda will be skipping out of here, happy as a lark or she’ll regret the day she ever walked into The Velvet Bean.

(Look for the Summer 2010 issue of The Bridge for Chapter 2.)

______

spring roll

Mary Beth Eastman

If Mother Nature were a real lady, I’d have reported her to Child Services ages ago.

I mean, come on. Do you remember this winter? Or have you blocked it, as I fully intend to do just as soon as I hit save on this essay? Feet after feet of snow. Temperatures so cold a polar bear would need a cardigan. Skies like a … you know, grey, depressing smothering thing. I feel like somebody barricaded me in a meat locker for six months.

And the cabin fever! No, not cabin fever — cabin malaria. Nay, cabin mononucleosis. It was horrible. Debilitating. And see, I have two children, ages two and five, and the illness caused them to behave like caged lab chimps in a chilling post-apocalyptic movie where the caged lab chimps escape and smear unmentionable ingredients on the walls. They invented — and played ad nauseum, natch — two games: the first was called Bum Puncher, and the second was called Run In Circles And Scream As Loud As You Can. Every bit as decorous as you may imagine. That both my sofa and my eardrums are still largely intact I count as a freak miracle.

Compounding these difficulties was the fact of my first trimester of pregnancy. Have you or a loved one ever been 0-3 months pregnant? Yes? Advance to the next paragraph. For those of you unfamiliar with the symptoms, allow me to illustrate. Imagine you have the flu. Then imagine someone slips you a mickey. Despite your aches, you fall asleep standing up, sitting down, in the shower. And then, upon your awakening, this unnamed person waves a moldering filet of fish under your nose and sprays Eau D’Dumpster in each nostril. Bum Puncher begins to look like an enjoyable alternative.

But, as you know if you are reading this, winter finally ended and spring cautiously poked its head around the doorjamb. The first day the sun came out, I tiptoed tentatively across the hardened shell of snow. It held my weight. I immediately bounded (as gracefully as a gazelle who has eaten a large cetacean) around the yard, screaming giddily, resembling that shaggy haired man who escaped the Chateau D’If and washed up on the beach. Just bonkers with the freedom and all that delicious Vitamin D.

I have since ventured outside with naught more than a light jacket for outerwear (what liberty!) and even, in my delirious joy, planted two shrubberies, the crumbling dirt feeling every bit as rich and luxurious as if it were made of devil’s food cake. I may even have giggled. Not gonna lie.

My plans henceforth involve being outside every minute that it’s not raining. I have many square yards of garden beds yet to mess about in, and Run Around Screaming As Loud As You Can is almost as sweet as raising a maypole, when viewed through the lens of the second trimester and a distance of at least 40 feet.

I hope your springs (and summers) lift your cold shriveled spirits as much as mine has mine. Laissez le printemps roulez!

Mary Beth Eastman is a mother, writer, DIY freak and horrible (but enthusiastic) gardener. If you see a woman strolling the streets of Beaver with two tots in a red wagon and what looks like a beach ball stuffed under her shirt, wave hello. Follow her quotidian meanderings at http://www.supamb.com/supafine.

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Magic’s a Piece of Cake

Hugh Harper  (http://hughsmuse.blogspot.com)

Fred Marcuso stood before a large bathroom mirror. The sink in front of him was clean and dry, with the exception of a sparkling green bowtie. He picked it up and gingerly flipped it through his fingers, then placed it around his neck.

“You look gawd awful!”

Fred Marcuso glanced back at Marni, his wife of eighteen years. She struggled to cover herself with a skin tight black skirt. He smiled. She had finally returned to him and embraced his inequities.

“It’s our daughter’s sweet sixteen birthday party and you – you want to do magic?”

It is our last sweet sixteenth.

Fred pulled a single long-stemmed rose from beneath his green cumber bunt and presented it to her. He pursed his lips together.

“What will the guests say? Look at the stupid leprechaun? What’ll he pull from his bottom now?”

Marni disregarded his gift and nonchalantly stepped on it. Fred Marcuso smiled.

I have been practicing.

“Emily does not care about magic. It’s her birthday and –” Emily Marcuso looked on and laughed, partly in hysterics and another in embarrassment at her father.

“Come along Emily. Guests should be arriving at anytime. Let’s leave David bloody Copperfield.”

“Can we lock ‘im in the room?”

Fred Marcuso sadly stood alone. His eyes suddenly drooped. A melancholy that was veiled behind the silly smile lay revealed. In front of the mirror again, he began performing – pulling from the sleeve of his right arm, a multicolored cord. The faster he pulled the longer it seemed to become. At his feet, there formed a perfect coil of rope, the length of which was impossible to tell.

An easy trick.

One of the five-thousand sunny faced pink and white balloons – a pink one – caught Fred Marcuso’s eye as it wafted skyward. Loosed from the crowd. He spent money he did not have and time he had too much of, for this day. Emily would hopefully not forget it.

Fred Marcuso’s posh little neighborhood looked empty. Foreclosures. People lived beyond their means. They, including the Marcuso’s, waited for banks to retrieve their properties like old trees await the axe.

Fred Marcuso stepped out of the bathroom and straightened his jacket. Guest began arriving. Their house filled with hormonal teenagers. Spin the bottle. Truth or dare. He reminisced about his pock-marked teens. So very lonely.
An older motorcar drove into the neighborhood and parked. Fred watched as the woman, Linda Smythe pulled the visor down and checked her smile. She played sincerity like a well-worn violin.

Sigh.

“You invited Jenny Smythe? Why?”

“I felt sorry for her.”

Sorry? I cannot imagine.

The Smythe family did not need to live in a posh neighborhood. The Smythe family did not need a fancy motorcar. Mrs. Smythe never lusted over Lewis Smythe’s boss. Jenny Smythe respected her father, and Lewis Smythe loved his family.
Marni approached the motorcar. She wiggled over to Lewis and kissed him on the cheek, then hugged Linda and Jenny.
Fred Marcuso watched. A violin smile accompanied his bright green tuxedo.

Fred Marcuso, magician, had everyone sit as he began his performance. The kids – eager for spin the bottle – rolled their eyes. Suddenly, out of his brilliant-green top hat, he pulled an enormous rabbit, and then some clanging, and then – “Flowers for Emily!”

Fred Marcuso’s act was nothing short of amazing. He performed a supernatural feat of levitation, and proceeded to eat a sword which he later produced from his bottom without ripping his trousers.

“Now, if my lovely Marni would please come to the stage and lie on this magic table.”

Marni Marcuso reclined on the table, and Fred lofted a bright green blanket over her. He performed a magic incantation, and then dropped a napkin over the blade of his sword, where it became two separate pieces – proving it to be quite sharp indeed.

“Oh.”

Fred Marcuso took a drink from a small metal flask taken from inside of his jacket pocket. He whispered into Marni’s ear, and proceeded to drive the blade through her and the table, as though it were a piece of birthday cake. Marni, oblivious to it all, continued to display her permanently wretched smile –and would forever more.

Fred Marcuso, father and magician, stepped through the separated torsos and bowed.

“A split personality!”

A nervous laughter and applause ensued.

With a broad, satisfied smile, Fred Marcuso dropped dead.

______

Encounter with a Street Tree

Nathan Peluso

Excuse me, I said, would you like a tree?

He looked at me, arms crossed, his body relatively gray with a scowl and thick glasses and shadowed squinting skeptical if not delusory eyes.  You know what I mean, a real cynic… negative, hiding, deceitful, skulking, sulking, sulky and emanating a vibe that made my soul cringe and nearly whimper.

I gotta take this guy’s shit, I thought.

I said, I’m with a local tree organization and I can get you free trees, if you’d like, making sure he heard the word free.  My swooping hand opened to the wide empty sidewalk.

He hated me, standing in the doorway as if somehow guarding his ugly beastly vile dustpit junkpile of a paint-peeling, crumbling old cigar factory.  He gazed at me as if I had just killed his dog, or told him he’s a @!#$@, or asked him if I could burn down his house.

Your neighbors, they…

I don’t care, he said, I don’t want any trees, in fact I hate trees, he said.

And I knew then he hated the messenger as well.  What a worthless piece of garbage I was, carrying around a manila folder with papers to sign, wearing a somewhat reprehensible REI jacket and brown corduroy jeans, and clean boots.  I’m your neighbor, I said, I just…

If it was up to me, he said, I’d pave the whole city over.  A concrete jungle, a parking lot, a…

And as he went on, I felt all sense of optimism drain and I felt weak and disheartened and the sense of a promising future left my being.  My reasonably shaggy but kempt hair, my somewhat scraggly but groomed beard, my sense of values… Make this place green… Trees!  I thought.  Trees and why not trees.  Oxygen, shade, I wanted to tell him about how they select the trees carefully now, about how they won’t harm the sidewalk, about how they’ll increase his property value.

They’re good for your property value, I said.  Barely getting the ‘ue’ in property value off my tongue when he said:  This society has it’s priorities all f**ed up, he said.  Why don’t they do something about the vandalism, they’re painting up everything, there’s graffiti everywhere.

I looked around.  Ok, there was a sign of some kids faded paint job, as old and messy but no more than this terrible man’s building under which I stood.  In reprieve of our wonderful discussion, I stared at the squiggly non-descript art on the old paint peeling and crumbling garage door across the pothole filled street.

Why don’t they fix the garage, I thought.  Maybe that’s what the kids are trying to tell us.  Your garage looks like shit.  Your building looks like shit.  I couldn’t imagine this paint making it any worse.  I didn’t say.

I agree, that’s a problem.  You know, I said, getting back to the subject:  they say trees make for a safer communities.

With a polished ease, ready as if he had anticipated me:  They’re good for hiding behind, he shot back.  That’s what they’re good for.  He stood, impatient and disgruntled at my continued presence.  I had already begun to fade slightly away towards the corner, and my humble green abode.

To each his own, I said, smiling, and somewhat meant it.  But I couldn’t agree with him.  Never.  I don’t care how many trees had ruined how many sidewalks of mine.  I would choose trees anyday.  He would never understand.  Could he, this man?

I don’t mean to be rude, he said, but I’ve got to think about some stuff, someone’s coming down for a meeting, I gotta go.

Ok.  Great.  Well, what’s your name I asked, immediately not sure why.

Larry, he said.

I’m Glen, I said.

I did a classic, friendly fade maneuver, waving and turning and leaving in one fell swoop, maintaining eye contact so that he hadn’t the opportunity to think me dismissive or resentful.  I ambled down the block and turned the corner and felt sick.

What a $%@#.  What the #%#$.  Wasn’t it just yesterday that I had asked my other neighbor and she had slammed the door in my face.  Or the other neighbor who said, ‘NO TREES!”  Or how about the teenage kid who answered the door, head low who said: what do you want?

And I said, well, I noticed someone in your house likes landscaping, and, well, I can get you a free tree from this organization I’m working with. If you’d like..

Yeah, he said bitterly, that was the old man, but we kicked him out.  I hate trees.  Then he said, hold on, as if to give me a second chance.  He turned towards the dark and musty innards of the windowless house and yelled, Ma! You want trees?

There was no pondering, there was no evidence of Ma’s physical presence, there was just a disillusioned urban kid yelling to his phantom Ma and the voice of his ma from the depths of her odd existence yelling back, NO!

He turned to me and said: No man, no trees.

I thought:  No trees, no man.

Later man, I said.  Later, he said.

God, what a wreck is humanity!  Plant a tree, plant a life, I pondered.  Maybe I can make these people happy, I thought.  Maybe I can at least make my house worth more, I economically reckoned.   Maybe it will be nice, shady, green, provide some privacy in my narrow back yard.  If a bird would just someday sit there, and a squirrel someday climb, and the sun someday alight those twinkling leaves in the cool spring summer or fall’s wind.  Or in the winter, the barren branches give me cause for poetry and reflection on what was, on what could be, and the cycle of life.

Oh trees!  Oh trees!  Oh people!  Oh, oh, oh…

I just somehow kinda believed, or at least wanted to, as I stood and stared at the empty sidewalk, took a deep breath of what could be oxygen, felt the omnipresent gray of what we, people, had  built, everywhere.  And then I stepped inside my wooden house, the door shutting behind me.

My sylvan dream, yes my sylvan dream, left on the outside.

______

New Girl in Town:  9 Months and Counting

Joline Pinto Atkins

It was the early ’90′s when a guy came up to me at Bally Total Fitness, tapped me on the shoulder, mentioned he loved my show, and then upon my turning around, quickly apologized for mistaking my identity.

At the time, I had long black curly hair with a big rounded poof in the front.  Like I said, it was the ‘90’s.  Admit it.  You had hair also.

He wasn’t mistaking me for Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  No, that happened with a different guy. And not at Bally’s.

This time I was wearing red workout tights. That I remember.

Had I actually been the actress he thought me to be, I would have indeed been wearing red. On the Starship Enterprise. I would not, however, been seen working out at a Bally’s in Deerfield, IL.

Unless, maybe, Marina Sirtis did happen to hit Bally’s from time to time.  After all, she had to stay trim in order to fit into her regulation Starfleet uniform.

All that to say, I do have some inner-geek in me when it comes to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and even spent a Halloween dressed as Commander Deanna Troi. Communicator and all. There are pictures. Somewhere.

So, I know all about the Borg. Forced assimilation and all that sort of jazz.

I revisited Chicago this past weekend. It took only seconds after exiting the plane upon arrival and entering the gate at O’Hare to realize that this was not home.

It didn’t look like home. It didn’t feel like home. It. Was. Not. Home.

I have assimilated.

We are Beaver.

I had a tremendous time. Fabulous. Loved seeing all the folks I could in roughly 24 hours. I reveled in watching a performance of a former student. I enjoyed much needed catch-up’s on conversations with old friends. I was introduced, and re-introduced to new babies. I hit up my favorite second-hand shop, drank coffee with those I hold dear, ate a great hot dog, and slept in a king-sized bed. Alone.

And that’s just it.

I loved it all, and yet there was a deep-seated feeling of loneliness and wanting to be home.

And Chicago just didn’t cut it as “home” any longer.

I don’t feel any remorse over that revelation, but rather, gladness. For I have taken to this new town so very quickly and easily. I have a neighborhood the likes of which I have never experienced, and new friends with whom I’ve connected surprisingly quickly. My new church community is my new church community. We live here now. Now.

Everyone should try it.  Living in the NOW.

What of Chicago? Sweet home Chicago will always hold some of the best memories from 18 years of my life.

And yet, as a wise, wise, woman once recalled after a bump on the head,

“There’s no place like home.”

I’m a Beaver babe.  Resistance is futile.

Joline Pinto Atkins is the new girl in town. Her take on life, (humorous, and as is the case in life, sometimes not so humorous – although she’ll attempt to find a laugh in any situation) can be found at http://www.thecuppajo.blogspot.com. Joline is also a contributor to the Family Life channel at http://www.blissfullydomestic.com.

______

[WINTER 2010]

A reflection of Old Economy Village…and my childhood.

I don’t think we ever stop missing what has already gone.
It could be time…people…or even just a feeling.
A feeling of magic and innocence.
Of needing and being needed.
Of days before stress and heartache were to take true form.
In the moment, joy can be blurred…but in hindsight it is eternally beautiful.
The past is never gone.  It’s not even past.
Our memories allow the long hot days to live on and on.
The smell of summer…the feel of my childhood…

The idea of drifting alone in a crowd down a haunted cobblestone sidewalk.
Lined with lanky greens that smelled of lavender; the damp sand holding onto pebbled mortar for dear life.
This path had been walked before and I could almost hear the echo of leather soles and skirts dragging.
The sound of children laughing as they chased after a rolling wooden hoop- trying to prevent it from wobbling and falling to the ground.
The old brick wood burning stove called with its smoky sensuality.
I distinctly recall picking up the aged wooden baker’s peel and placing the dough I braided, just like my hair, in the back away from all the others.
I remember watching the hot coals burn and toast to a golden brown hue.
The ashes becoming one with the bread and I unconsciously feeling a connection to my great grandma Morelli.

Later I ran my fingers through a mess of sheep’s wool that was riddled with dirt and straw.
It always made me wonder what that little lamb was doing just before the sheers approached.
I can still feel the texture of the wool as it spun between my two fingers.
It always found a way to become the yarn it was meant to be and would later be woven into fabric.
The moist grey air of the rainy morning felt light and fresh…it set me free.
The pressed flowers and thistle;
The tours of old homes and gardens with bees.
The smell of their wax being rolled into a candle and mint leaves becoming sugared candy drops.
The scratching sound of the quill as it worked across my handmade marble paper;
The ink running thin and dipping it back in the reservoir again.

I don’t think we ever stop missing the things that touched our lives.
The history that was once someone else’s and is now becoming our own.

-Stephanie Higgins

_____

When Hughie met Kristi
by Hugh Harper

“You know, I have a theory that hieroglyphics are just an ancient comic strip about a character named Sphinxy.” Harry Burns as played by Billy Crystal in When Harry met Sally (1989).

My wife and I have a yearly tradition. Every year, on December 31st, we take a half-drunk pilgrimage to our sofa and plop down to watch the movie “When Harry met Sally”. A silly custom perhaps, and we have both seen it so frequently that we usually fall fast asleep in each other’s arms – well normally she nestles her head gently into my shoulder.

Seems a bit redundant…

Not so much so as say waking up every morning at the exact same time, listening to Snap, Crackle and Pop – every morning, drinking your triple-shot, no foam, Kefir latte – every morning, driving the same route, seeing the same people day in and day out, witnessing the same crappy immobilizing headlines – everyday, wishing you had another one those ridiculously, long-named specialty coffee drinks that makes you feel like someone, when everyone in the same office is drinking the same damn thing, despite the fact that the apathetic barista has suggested that he would rather use that drink as an enema instead of a beverage…

We do not need to go out anymore. I have sewn my wild oats… I have a whole damn field of these fiber-rich experiences that should be harvested and burned. Japan. New York, Korea, West Virginia, California…

Everywhere that I have gone has been at some stupid point or other a personal conquest to philander, pillage and loot…

I am not proud.

My wife and I sit to watch this because we reflect on our past, and look to a future and we do it together. And the story, if you have never seen it is simple as Sally states it as they listen to “Auld Lang Syne” – “It’s about old friends”

I’ll take it a step further, and add experiences.

Life, folks, is not about getting from point A to point B, it is about the whole trip – those interruptions, sudden and unexpected… wonderful. Very cliche – very true.

And I guess that is what I have learned this year, as it slowly trails off into oblivion. It’s not about politics; I don’t care what monarchy is ruling the country. I am not paying any mind to the environment; I can probably be a better steward. Life is not about getting famous or rich, because those are such fleeting notions.
It is about interruptions and relationships. Our lives grow richer with them. Not from sitting passively on our enlarging backsides watching over-priced flat screened talking tools, dishing out affactual, opinionated news pitches.

You – make the news.

Our lives are short. I have been to parties. I have seen fireworks. And I have been inebriated.

As my wife puts our daughter to sleep for the evening, I have sat with her and watched this one silly movie every year, allowing us to reflect our lives, and what we can expect to be surprised about next year. We rest.

You should too.

Do us all a favor? Turn off the robot Dick Clark and Ryan Seamist. Put down the remote, walk over to some special and love them. Tell them that they are the first thing you want to see when you wake up and the last thing you want to see when you close your eyes.

God Bless you all!

For more, visit:   http://hughsmuse.blogspot.com

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Only One
by Nathan Peluso

In the railway station at Khandua, Maharastra, sitting on a step awaiting my train, two wide-eyed ducks waddle up grinning an enthusiastic awe at me.  Them, brown ducks; me, white.  “Your name?” bemusingly demands the one.  “Duck,” I say.  They glance a deep smile at one another, kind of like a joke and mutual appreciation.  They like this!  “Where?” this same duck asks.  I know what he means, but play dumb.

They glance confoundedly at one another… “What city?”  then, “Place?”  later, “From?” and finally… Acknowledgement, and response, “The Pond” I say flatly, hiding any sense of pride both in tone and in my eyes.  Still… “Oh, the Pond!” the speaker and better one in Ducklish says, then repeats to the other in Hindi-duck then again to me, “Just one?”

Ah, the famous question!  I remember once, not many days earlier at Ajanta Caves, when a brown duck, a school teacher made a special trip away from his group (alone no doubt) up to the stone steps and wall to where I sat.  “Just one?” he asked, his index finger pointing both at me and aiming towards the heavens, a quite disturbed expression consuming his face.  This was one seriously concerned duck.

Waddling & finger waving bit over, an earnest and curious scowl stood firm upon his perplexed beak, and he asked as a psychiatrist might his patient, actually with a true air of concern, “How does it feel to be only one [duck]?”

In slight shock at this unabashedly brave and premeditated encounter, my minute duck-brain devoid of any witty retort, I simply smiled comprehendingly with a sense of instilled wisdom and said, “Good, it’s fine!”  In raw disbelief and certain exasperation, this teacher duck heroically denounced this potential notion with a firm dark squint, his dusty webbed-feet shifting in the sands.  With the age-old, Buddha-filled, Ajanta Caves our coincidental backdrop, he doubted me (for how can it truly be “good”?  Has all his life been a lie?).  Only one.

So out of desperation he grasped for anything that might sidetrack his contorted thoughts for even a moment, and he rambled off a final question before backing away, resigned, “Dollars, how much?” translating to “What is your salary at the Pond?”… I gave him the easy route by not making him ask again.  I shouldn’t have!  Because if anything, I hate this question as it is demeaning to the asker and unfair to the asked and the answer is mostly misinterpreted, not accounting for standards of living or exchange rates.  And it has no relevance to my singular status & his original question.  So, after one mistake in Malaysia, I answer no more, but instead say, “I don’t know, because I work in contracts and it’s always different, quack, quack, blah, blah, blah, quack, quack (why even this much??) and they usually go away after this, and he did.  He waddled away to join the young school ducks as leader, a dumb (or duck)-founded one no doubt.

Back to present… The same to these new ducks in the train station.  But young ducks are more sinister, or at least tricky, because they always come in groups or at least in pairs and make jokes when they don’t understand, sometimes at the expense of me – really just an innocent bystander –  minding my way and own good fortune.  Always the same though.  I really might as well save us both the trouble and just answer:
“Duck”
“The Pond”
“Only one”
“Yes really, just me, only one”

When I told the female Danish duck of the man’s question at Ajanta (“Only one?”), she quacked:  “Aren’t we all?” (rhetorically, for you English majors out there).  Now that’s the witty answer I should have had, the perfect answer, so true, and ta boot, it puts the onus back on the asker, be it the schoolteacher or the duck, both or whomever, and makes him think.  “Why yes,” as he might ponder inwardly, somewhere deep behind his bushy, dark, duck moustache… “I am also just one duck.  And even though my school children waddle around in a pack all day and basically just act like a herd, still, each of us and them is also only one duck.”

But of course this becomes problematic because after some thought, even the most dense amongst us will logically lead to the next question, an existentially philosophical one (for you philosophers out there), and eventually these new ducks in the train station did too:  “Your purpose?” they innocently ask.

… Innocent my waggling tail!  If this is not the boldest question of them all, then I am not a duck!  It is one of the broad questions, the youthful ponderances from which all future and adult life springs, the “Why am I here?” leading naturally to “Is there a God (or 900,000 gods, like here in India)” and so on.  Either said by the renowned German explorer Humboldt or just used in reference to him to prove a point in “The Art of Travel,” the broad question must underlie the smaller or more specific ones.  For instance, if one is to say, “Hmm, it is interesting to me that ducks can fly like a missile, over land hill and river!” then one must first ask themselves why they are asking the question to begin with!,… in this case, per se – because they are concerned with ducks, and they are concerned with ducks because they are studying animals and nature and patterns, and so on…  And ultimately this, because of a simple childhood question, “What is a duck?” or even more broadly, “What is life and nature and man’s role as juxtaposed with duck’s role?”  Humbolt, an expert in just about everything, was interested in scientific exploration and categorization, like typical Age of Enlightenment, European-scientist style, observing new species of this, comparing with new species of that, killing both and putting them in a jar to be useful in a museum, feeling proud.  So he would kill the duck and say, “Z kilograms, fat duck” and stuff it.

In “The Art of Travel,” this very same purposeful explorer was also juxtaposed, in this case to a nonchalant, guidebook-toting, modern cynic on a business trip to Madrid, completely disenchanted with guidebook travel and its seemingly already established knowledge of things such as dates and histories and styles of this and buildings or places like that.  It seemed for him, that within the scope and context of the book, there was nothing else to learn, to explore, to be interested in that was new.  And he felt the knowledge limiting.  He thought, “Ok, so this town was built by King Philip to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s coming of age during the 18th century, thus constructed by vainglorious Egyptian slaves to tune of French rococo-revival style grandeur, filled with Basilica upon Basilica in stark resemblance, of course, to a phallus, or fallacy, all to presuppose Philip’s posthumous regard for Elizabeth’s successor, not to mention Spain’s relationship to England, nor Portugal for that matter.”

This 20th century street-guide traveler wanted more, he wanted to be affected, but also, he wanted to affect.  What new could he take and what new could he give.  Finally, this text went on to arouse the good-old spirit of Nietzsche and his insistence upon inward psychological growth and fulfillment as being supreme, not just something useful for scientific or commercial reason and “purpose”.

So I pondered this “inwardly”, no doubt, as these brown ducks proposed for me (still a white duck) to answer this question of preposterous profundity… “Your purpose?”

And so I thought, “Hmmm, my purpose as a white duck in a brown country?”  My purpose as a “white duck in general?”  My purpose as a “single” duck in a land of herds or just a single duck in general?  My reason for being so far from home?  My purpose,… my purpose?

And then, with a sort of hopeful glee, I wished that they had instead asked, “How is your porpoise?”

And to the question, I would have duefully responded, “Fine, just fine!”

… Instead, I told them of the great migration, the whole East/West thing, going around and around, stopping here and there, and yes, just a tourist.  Actually, to be honest, I just said, “Tourist,” or elaboratedly, “I’m a tourist.”  And they were somewhat disappointed in this answer… these ducks… as am I.

I think, I hope, that I am something more… that we all are.

_____

New Girl in Town: 6 Month Check-Up
by Joline Pinto Atkins

“Mom, I can not believe I’ve only lived in Beaver for 5 years.”

“5 months. You’ve lived in Beaver for 5 months.”

“Oh. Right. 5 months. Funny.”

Last month as we rounded the seasons into winter, I realized through a slip of the tongue just how comfortable I’ve become in Mayberry. And while the old saying, “you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl” most certainly rings true in my case, the shock of going from city to small town has been softened by the entrance of sushi on Third. Yama, you had me at hello.

In only 6 months, this transplant has definitely made the most of all Beaver has to offer, and has also been intentional about marching herself and her children down to the Warhol, the Children’s Museum, the Science Center, Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Art, and Mellon Arena. Running a 10K and Half-Marathon also added to my Pittsburgh education, and I can now proudly say that I’ve run all over the city.

Although, driving to Cranberry still freaks me out and gives me vertigo.

Still, I’ve embraced this place.

You can argue that I’m in the honeymoon stage, and so of course everything looks new and crisp, and is perfectly packaged with a beautiful shiny bow on top. But, as we, both seasoned resident and newbie, blaze our steady course full steam ahead into 2010, let me ask you something:

Have you embraced this place?

Or, if you’re not from Beaver, have you embraced the particular place that you call home?

See, I know life can get dreary and stale. Day in and day out looks the same. The schedule never changes. So, how about in 2010 we all make a resolution to kick the daily doldrums to the pavement by trying something completely different, as I have for 6 months now.

No, no, no, no, no, and again, no, I’m not talking about those resolutions that we all love to make and hate. You know the culprits, the losing weight one, or its evil twin, the eating healthy one.

I’m talking about actually trying something you’ve never tried before.

I began taking tennis lessons this year. At 40. Please. Do you know how humbling that is?  Me, the professional multi-tasker. In the past, I’ve been known to nurse a baby, carry on a phone conversation, and type an email, while straight-ironing my hair. With a cup of coffee in hand. And don’t think I did all of that without lipstick.

And yet during those first few weeks of tennis lessons, the invisible hole in my racquet whipped me into humility. It can be mighty uncomfortable to attempt an activity that you don’t pick up so gracefully on the first try. And how about the added pressure of playing the next court over from a fantastic tennis player, who has not only had to dodge my rogue balls, but also works at the library where I ALWAYS have overdue books and fines!

My husband is taking yoga here in town and up until the week when he brought a male friend to class, he has been the sole guy. Sure, that was awkward for him, until the night he returned home from class, all yogi-bravado-like, entered the living room, and then proceeded to balance his entire frame upon the ring finger of his left hand.

If we can do it. So can you.

How about a book club?  A new sport?  Make the decision and the plan to visit the museums that Pittsburgh has to offer. Re-visit church. Volunteer. See a play or musical (gasp). Put together a team of five and join mine in relaying the Pittsburgh Marathon in May. Gather some friends and visit a new restaurant every month that features food from a different culture.

Go ahead, try some sushi. It won’t bite.

Just try something new.

Something radically different.

Maybe even a little scary.

Perhaps doing so will change the way you view your home.

Scratch that.

Our home.

Happy 2010.

Joline Pinto Atkins is the new girl in town. Her take on life, (humorous, and as is the case in life, sometimes not so humorous – although she’ll attempt to find a laugh in any situation) can be found at www.thecuppajo.blogspot.com. Joline is also a contributor to the Family Life channel at www.blissfullydomestic.com.

_____

Snowscape on the Allegheny
by Eileen Colianni

What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?—William Henry Davies

One of my favorite winter rituals is to walk to my glass doors at dawn to discover if the riverscape has been transformed by a middle-of-the-night snowfall.

When that occurs, as it has this morning, my green-and-brown view becomes a black-and-white still life, a starkly beautiful one.  Enough milky light is leaking through the clouds so I can see that the snow has worked its magic on the scarred hillside across the Allegheny, transforming it into a smooth white canvas. Painted along its bottom edge is a row of black trees, their leafless branches lifting this way and that, like dancers holding a pose.

Some, with fewer branches reaching skyward, remind me supplicants appealing to the heavens. The sky they’re stretching towards is, on this morning, the color of crushed ice. A fading, almost full moon, is just barely glimmering as it moves behind a passing cloud.

The Allegheny looks like a silvery black mirror.  It seems totally still and yet snow-covered islands of ice are floating slowly towards the Point. A pure white gull streaks past, heading south for warmer climes perhaps.

Still-falling snow, the fluffy variety, is piling high upon the picnic table, like a cozy comforter.  The grass beneath is covered now by a white blanket, unmarked, except for a few tracks of paw prints, here and there.

As I stand staring, a chubby grey bunny hops across on my porch, seeming to peer within as he goes by.  If I am still long enough, I’ll also see “my” squirrel who lingers longer, bold in his quest to unearth one of the goodies he’s buried in my flower pots this summer. Though flowerless now, they still hold the soil which hides his treasures.

And then, looking up, I see a sight I’ve never before witnessed during 13 years of riverfront living:  a man in a wet suit is paddling an olive green kayak, dodging the ice floes, and seemingly oblivious to the arctic air.  I reach for my binoculars to peer at his face.  Is he grimacing or smiling, I wonder.  But he’s vanished before I’m ready to scope him out.

On mornings like this one, when I soak up so much beauty, so much life, I leave the riverscape reluctantly yet grateful for such a nurturing way to open my day.  And since it’s still early into the New Year, I decide upon a resolution:  In 2010, I will practice more fully what I’ve preached so often to counseling clients. I will be a vigilant gatekeeper of the 60,000 thoughts which experts report  rush into our minds daily.

I resolve to hold up a STOP sign to negative ones and a green light to uplifting, encouraging ones.  I will, this year, strive daily to live by St. Paul’s counsel in his letter to the Philippians:  “Whatever is good, and true, and beautiful, think on these things.”  (Phil: 4:8)

Eileen Colianni is a writer and retreat facilitator living along the Allegheny in Oakmont. (ecolianni@msn.com)

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