Guest Post

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Part II of "Dancing With Daddy"

cj Sez: Thanks for coming back for the conclusion of my short story, "Dancing With Daddy."

DADDY IMMIGRATED TO THE UNITED STATES from Sweden as a grown man. When I was three, he left Texas, tenant farming, and us to work "Up North." He planned to earn enough money to send for us. First, he worked in the shipyards in Portland, Oregon, then in an auto factory in Detroit. During the four years we were separated, I forgot what he looked like. What turned out to be worse, I forgot what he sounded like.

   When we got off the train in Detroit, Mama hugged and kissed Daddy and then introduced us girls. He didn't need to be reminded of his son's name--his namesake. He spoke to me first, and held out his arms. I started to cry and held tight to Mama's hand.

   My young ears had learned to understand a Texas drawl with a slight Swedish accent--my mother and her family are also Swedish. Daddy's thicker accent had taken on a completely foreign Yankee twang. I didn't understand him. None of us did, except Mama, and his frustration was intense.  For weeks, Mama spoke to him in Swedish and then told us in English what he'd said. It was almost Christmas before I could understand him quickly enough to keep him from yelling for Mama whenever he tried to say anything to me.

   A few days after Thanksgiving, Daddy was included in a layoff. We were eating breakfast, getting ready for school, when Mama sat down next to me--something she'd never done. My heart fell into my stomach, and I couldn't take another bite of cocoa and toast. I had a feeling something awful was coming.

   "There won't be much Christmas this year," she said slowly

   "I'm being good, Mama," Eric said.

   "Yes, you are, but Daddy lost his job for a little while. It's so the auto company won't have to give him holiday pay. They'll hire him back after New Year's, but right now, it'll take all our money to buy groceries, pay the rent, and keep coal in the furnace."

   "That's okay," I said through my tears. "We'll have a big one next year."

   I didn't know it at the time, but back then, Detroit had an old newsboy organization called The Goodfellows. Daddy swallowed his pride and put our names on their "Needy Kids" list.  Goodfellows gave Eric a toy car. Phyllis, Sonja, and I got dolls, each one different. It was the only doll I ever got for Christmas. Because the gift hadn't come from my parents, I almost felt disloyal when I held her in my arms. I still remember her silky, blonde hair and ruffled, blue dress, and how perfect she looked.

   On Christmas morning, I woke to the sound of music I remembered hearing when I was little. Daddy was in the kitchen, listening to a radio station that played Swedish music. I slipped out of bed and peeked around the door. He began to sing in Swedish while he stirred a pot of oatmeal, then he twirled and danced a schottische around the kitchen. I was overflowing with happiness at the familiar sounds and sights. Watching Daddy dancing alone made me giggle out loud.

   "God Jul, litet dotter," he said and swept me up in his thick arms.

   "Merry Christmas, Daddy!" I responded happily.

   I held tight to his neck and laughed while he sang, as we spun around the kitchen floor. I smelled his spicy aftershave and rested my cheek against the coarseness of a beard he could never completely shave off.

   It no longer mattered that the snow wasn't white, that the day was cold and gray, or even that the beautiful doll was a gift from strangers. It was Christmas morning, and I was dancing with the Daddy I remembered.
The End

As my father would have said:  Gott Nytt År till er alla . . .

Happy New Year to you-all guys. I pray that 2015 will bring you health, happiness, and success




Friday, December 26, 2014

Hope your Christmas was the merriest ever

From My House to Yours . . . I hope your Christmas was Merry and Bright, your stockings filled with wonderful things, and your home warm with love of family and friends.

Hope you've stayed with Lyrical Pens for Mahala's publishing of Tracy's wonderful story. I loved Tracy's writing. She was always able to capture my attention with the wonderful emotion she wrote into her characters.

Now, I've waited just about too long to finish telling you my short story, "Dancing With Daddy," so I'm going to do a re-start. Part I today and Part II on Sunday. The story was published by Adams Media in CHRISTMAS THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES, an anthology of non-fiction stories published in 2008, edited by Helen Szymanski. The story was published under my maiden name: Marilyn Olsein. Here we go . . .

LIVING IN A SMALL TOWN in Texas during World War II was tough, especially at Christmas. My father, disqualified from the Armed Forces because of his age, was working in an auto factory in Michigan, trying to earn more money than farming paid.

   When I remember my childhood, the phrase "dirt poor" comes to mind, but we--Mama, my brother, my two sisters, and me--always managed a wonderful Christmas. Mama's family came to our house for dinner, and Mama made pans of Swedish cardamom rolls, the sweet smell filling the whole house. Grampa would bring in a couple of chickens for Mama to roast and fry, and we'd have cornbread dressing, white and sweet potatoes, corn, and green beans that Gramma had canned. We ate, laughed, sang, and carried on all day and into the night.

   Not long after that hateful war ended, Mama sat us down on the screened porch and told us we'd spend our next Christmas in Michigan. We were moving to Detroit to be with Daddy.

   I was terrified. We all were--even Mama, I think. Detroit was at least a hundred thousand times bigger than Melvin, Texas.

   "Mama, doesn't it snow up there . . . a lot?" Phyllis asked. At twelve, she was the oldest.

   I was born in Texas, and at the age of seven, I could remember seeing snow only once--the Christmas the Army gave all my uncles holiday leave. Uncle Steve, Mama's youngest brother and my favorite, chased me down a slippery road and washed my face with a handful of cold, melting flakes.

   "It's not like snow in Texas," I said. "Detroit snow is black."

   "Don't tell fibs, Marilyn," Mama scolded. "Snow is white, wherever it falls."

   "Maybe it's white when it first comes down in Detroit, but Daddy's letter said coal smoke from the factories makes it black," I insisted. I imagined Detroit as a city without color, all black, gray, and white.

   "You'll find out soon enough," Mama said. "We'll be in Detroit for the first snowfall." She saw my face cloud up. "And crying won't change things."

   I didn't want to spend Christmas in a cold, dirty city with a stranger, for that's what Daddy had become to me.
/ / / /

Please come back for Part II on Sunday . . . I've already scheduled it to run. 

You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I'll try to do the same.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What You Need Most: Finale

Following is the final installment of Tracy Hurley's Christmas story, "What You Need Most", which was published in Christmas is a Season! 2009. 
I hope you have enjoyed reading about Marshall, a recent widower, and how his wife influenced his first Christmas without her. Tracy was a very special person in the lives of many people, and it has been a pleasure to honor her this way.

What You Need Most
by Tracy Hurley
On the way home, Marshall pulled into the strip mall near his house to exchange the black boots for more practical Timberlands. He had a lot of yard work to do if he was going to sell the house. The mall was busy, so he had to park several stores down from the shoe store. Before he got of the car, he pulled out the Honey-Do list again and scratched off the last item. He crumpled it up and tossed it in the console, then grabbed the boots.

When he stepped onto the sidewalk, he activated a set of automatic doors. When they slid open, his heart clenched. He'd parked right in front of Pet Station. The last time he'd shopped there, he'd bought Buster's red rubber ball. He tucked his head and hurried up the sidewalk.

Behind him, he heard, "Santa! Santa, wait!"

Marshall remembered he was still dressed in the baggy red pants, holly covered suspenders, white shirt, and candy cane striped vest. He should have changed. He picked up his pace, sure he'd lose control if some nutcase asked to sit on his lap.

Too late. The nutcase tugged on his shirtsleeve. Marshall whirled, his fist clenched, ready to pummel the guy.

"Santa?" The young man wore a green Pet Station polo shirt. "I'm sorry, but when I saw you walk by, I had to ask you."

"Listen, buddy. I can't promise you'll get that tricycle you want. Or anything else."

The man laughed. "No, nothing like that. I'm Jason, the pet store manager. Were in a pickle, and you could really help us out." He steered Marshall back toward the pet store entrance. The door slid open again revealing the worst looking Santa that Marshall had ever seen. Painfully thin and no older than twenty, his cheap Santa costume hung lifelessly from bony shoulders. His cotton-ball beard drooped below his own dark stubble.

"Darryl stepped in when the real Santa cancelled," Jason said. "He's a great kid, but we're doing our Pet Pictures with Santa. It starts in twenty minutes, and the animal shelter people are already here for their annual adoption drive."

He glanced around, and his voice became a pleading whisper. "Kids come to this."

A tow-headed boy, holding a turtle stopped and stared at the awful. A puzzled line deepened between his hazel eyes.

"I'll do it," Marshall said. I will keep the magic alive.

"Great! I'll show you where you can finish dressing. You've saved our event, Mr. . . ."

"Santa Marshall."

"Name your price, Santa Marshall," Jason said, racing toward a woman holding a camera.

Most of the animals were well behaved. Marshall still got smacked, pinched, spit-up on, sneezed on, and peed on. And he was pretty sure that cranky bulldog thought he was "a bid old doo-doo head," but he was okay with that. Marshall smiled through dozens of photos with cats and dogs. He mugged with parakeets, turtles, ferrets, guinea pigs, a snake, and a goldfish in a plastic baggie. He beamed when a kid brought four boxers, one kissing his cheek, just as the flash went off. He was still smiling when he climbed into his car and headed for home. For payment, he'd picked out a puppy for adoption, a mutt with eyes the color of caramel.

After a quick turkey and stuffing sandwich, he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. He had some packing to do. He took Elaine's gardening Crocs out of his closet and set them in the Goodwill box. Shannon had left. By the time the news came on, the box was full. That's a start, he thought. Maybe more tomorrow. There was no rush.

When he folded his clean Santa pants over a hanger, ready for next weekend, a piece of paper fluttered form one of the pockets onto his bed. He had to hold it at arms' length to read the loopy writing.

Dearest Marshall, I know this gift isn't the one you most desired, but I knew it would be the one you needed most. All my love forever, Elaine.

Marshall kissed the paper lightly and slipped it into his shirt pocket.


A Very Merry Christmas to all of you. Thank you for being loyal followers and making our year bright.  Mahala


Friday, December 19, 2014

What You Need Most: Installment 4

Sorry to keep you in suspense. Here is more of Tracy's lovely story, a story that reminds us how hard it can sometimes be to bring joy into the Christmas Holidays.

What You Need Most
by Tracy Hurley

When Marshall got home from class that afternoon, he was met by the delicious and unaccustomed aroma of dinner cooking. Sarah, his youngest, had drawn the "Thanksgiving with Dad" straw.

"You didn't have to cook," he said, tousling his grandson's white-blond hair. "I was going to take you out."

Both boys chimed, "McDonalds! McDonalds!"

Sarah rolled her eyes. "Clearly, it's been awhile since you've dined out with four- and six-year old wigglybutts."

"Wiggly butts?" Preston asked, wiggling in his chair.

Jayden, thumb stuck firmly in his mouth, wiggled his bottom too.

"You're all wigglybutts," Marshall said, winking at the boys. "And when is Daddy Wigglybutts going to arrive?"

The boys giggled, but Sarah frowned. "He called. He can't get away. Something about a difficult client. He's going to the office on Friday."

"Then don't bother cooking Thanksgiving dinner," Marshall said, taking a slice of meatloaf. "While everyone else is dining at home, the Wigglybutt family will have the whole restaurant to ourselves."

"Da-ad," Sarah moaned. "The turkey's already defrosting, and I have pies in the oven. Besides I like to cook, and you'll have lots of leftovers after we're gone."

Marshall had taken a bite of mashed potatoes when Preston said, "Where's Buster, Grampa? I wanna play with him."

Marshall choked, but managed to sputter, "Sorry," through a coughing spasm. He pushed away from the table and headed for the kitchen, his eyes tearing up and still hacking into his napkin. He stood at the sink and sipped water while he caught his breath.

Although she spoke softly, he heard Sarah say, "Remember, I told you that Buster is up in heaven playing ball with Gramma. Talking about both of them makes Grampa sad, so let's not say anything else."

"Why does it make him sad?" Preston asked.

Because Grampa misses them."

"Can we come to live with Grampa? He wouldn't be sad then."

"No, but Daddy would be sad if we left him alone."

"Maybe Grampa can come live with us."

"Preston," Sarah said, "that's not a bad idea."

Marshall set his glass in the sink. He could sell the house and move closer to Sarah and the kids. He tapped the dog tags he'd hung from the hook that used to hold Elaine's spider plant. They spun, glistening in the fading November twilight. He' had spread Buster's ashes in Elaine's flowerbed just beyond the window. How could he leave Buster? How could he leave Elaine?

Fortunately, no one mentioned him moving again. Sarah cooked up a Thanksgiving dinner that would have made Elaine proud. While the kids were napping, Marshall took a cup of coffee and a slice of pecan pie out back. The barely-used, zero gravity chairs were put up for the winter. He sank into his old aluminum chair.

When he'd finished the pie, he pulled the Honey-Do list from his pocket and penciled out the next-to-the-last item, re-web chair. After his shift at the mall, he could cross out the last item on the list - Santa School.
On Sunday morning Marshall took Sarah and the kids to the airport before heading to the Remington Plaza Mall. He changed in the employee lounge and waited until Santa Carlos finished his shift. Marshall's stomach fluttered as he walked through Santa Land, a large expanse of fake snow with robotic, toy-making elves and animated snowmen singing Christmas songs. He sat in the large gold throne and pasted a smile on his face.

By the time the giant Santa Land clock struck his shifts end at 12:55, Santa Marshall had been smacked, pinched, puked on, sneezed at, peed on, and told he was "a big old doo-doo head." His head pounded and his cheeks hurt from forced smiling. Santa Ralph had told them seventy-five percent of children under the age of ten were terrified of Santa. By Marshall's reckoning, it was closer to ninety-eight. And those over ten didn't believe in Santa anymore, so they came for the fun of trying to make him break character. A couple almost succeeded.

When Santa Marshall finally trudged back to the employee lounge, he found Santa Ralph by the employee refrigerator eating from a Tupperware container. He took a big forkful and asked, "How did it go?"

Marshall sighed. "It wasn't what I expected." He pulled off the heavy black boots.

"It never is."

"Christmas isn't what it used to be. If the kids weren't asking for Xboxes or iPhones, they wanted hang gliders and ATV's and jet skis. What happened to baseball gloves and bicycles and pogo sticks?" Marshall slipped on his boat shoes.
"Mall duty is the toughest. In this economy, you're lucky the kids weren't asking for jobs for their daddies, winter boots for their sister or brother, or a sack of groceries. Playing a mall Santa isn't for everyone. My advice: find yourself a nice department store gig. Maybe a holiday parade. Office parties - now those are fun!"

"Thanks for the tip." Marshall was too tired to change into his street clothes, so he gathered up his coat and hat and headed for the door.

"Don't forget your diploma." Santa Ralph handed him a red and green certificate. "I have to go cover Santa Brad's shift."

Join me next Monday for the unexpected conclusion of "What You Need Most".   Mahala

Sunday, December 14, 2014

News and congratulations

cj Sez:  News > Mahala is down with a bug and couldn’t post the final installment of Tracy’s story last Friday. She tells me that she hopes to be up and at ‘em by next Friday. Maybe you could put in a good word when you're saying your prayers tonight.

I plan to post the end of my short Christmas story following the conclusion of Tracy’s. In the meantime . . .

Congratulations! > Dr. R. B. O’Gorman’s medical thriller FATAL RHYTHM has made The List!  Dr. O’s debut novel is in Suspense Magazine's “Best of 2014” issue this month

Suspense Magazine says: 

“The authors have been notified about making our Best of 2014 List. We have told them they can announce it.

If you want the issue for free, just email We will also post all the winners on the blog site."

The magazine also said they will announce "who will get the “Crimson Scribe Award” for best book of 2014. That and James Lee Burke, Peter James, Stuart Neville and Preston & Child, all with exclusive interviews in the magazine. Holy Cow did we pack this one full!!

cj Sez: Check out the good news at . . .


Okay folks, that’s all for today.  You-all guys keep on keeping on and I’ll try to do the same.




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What You Need Most Part 3: Tracy Hurley

Today Marshall is off on another new journey as told by Tracy Hurley in December of 2009. Enjoy.

After serving his favorite dinner - lasagna and garlic bread - Sophie brought out a cake aglow with dozens of candles.

"Careful. You'll set the house on fire," he warned. He'd told her not to make a fuss - he was too old for such nonsense - but he had to laugh when she serenaded him with Happy Birthday.  What she lacked in pitch, she made up for in sheer volume. Buster huddled under the table between Marshall's legs until she was done.

They carried their cake into the living room. Sophie sipped wine while her father nursed a bourbon and water. Buster sprawled so close to the fire that Marshall worried his fur might get singed, but he figured the heat must feel good to the dog's aching joints.

"So are you really going to Santa School?"

Marshall polished off his drink. "I'm considering it." The cancellation deadline had slipped by a week earlier.

"So, do I get to see you in that outfit?"

"In what?"

"The Santa suit. Come on, model it for me." The reflection of the fire danced in her hazel eyes that looked so much like Elaine's.

"Sure," he said, "but promise you won't laugh."

He climbed the stairs  slowly. He didn't know when he'd decided to go through with this Santa School thing. But Elaine was right. He was becoming a hermit. He rarely left the house except to go to the store or to take buster to the vet. He missed being around people. Throughout their marriage, Elaine was the one who'd nurtured friendships and networked, as they called it these days. He'd simply been happy to tag along with her. Once she was gone, some of their friends called with invitations, but Marshall wasn't ready then. After he'd said "no" enough times, the invites dried up.

He sat on the bed and pulled out the worn Honey-Do list and a pencil stub from the pocket of his flannel shirt. He added, "Santa School" in his own cramped writing to the bottom.

After he donned the red pants, white ruffled shirt, red and white striped vest, and red coat, he checked himself in the mirror. Not too bad, he thought, twisting right and left like Elaine used to do. He'd better watch the French fries and ice cream, though, or he wouldn't need any stuffing. He tried out a quiet, "Ho! Ho! Ho!" and patted the sides of his belly. Something bulged in the coat pocket. He pulled out wire spectacles, a set of red suspenders, and a pair of white gloves - all the extras he needed to complete the outfit.

"Are you okay, Daddy?"

"Yes, honey." He slipped on the spectacles and said, "I'm coming."

When Marshall entered the living room still struggling with the tight gloves, Sophie leapt off the couch. "Daddy, you look great!"

Buster barked and tried to push himself up. After a few false starts, he got to his feet and staggered over to sniff Marshall.

"It's only me. Guess the old eyes are going, eh, Buster?"

"And his legs, too. Poor baby." Sophie scratched his ears, and he licked her hand.

"He still thinks he's a puppy. We both do."  Marshall helped the dog back onto his bed. When he straightened, Sophie was studying him. "You've got a head start on the beard too," she said.

"I keep forgetting to buy shaving cream."

Elaine had always taken care of those things. Truth was, shaving seemed unnecessary now.

Sophie caressed the white scruff on her father's face. "All  you need now is a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer."

"And a pair of boots." Marshall pulled up his pant legs and displayed a pair of hole-riddled socks.

"And new socks," Sophie added. "I should have gotten you some for your birthday."

He hadn't bought socks for himself since he got married. "Yup, there's nothing a man looks forward to more on his birthday than new socks."

The morning after Sophie left, Marshall discovered his top dresser drawer crammed full of new t-shirts, socks, and briefs. While he was deciding which color Fruit of the Loom he wanted to wear, he heard a low moan from the living room. Marshall raced down the stairs to find Buster laying half in and half out of his bed. He lifted his grizzled muzzle off the carpet and moved one paw as if trying to get up, then slumped back down.

Oh, no. No. Marshall lifted Buster to his feet, but the dog crumpled as soon as Marshall tried to let go. Marshall gently laid him back on the bed. He bundled Buster in an afghan he'd pulled from the couch and carried him to the car, all the while cooing into his floppy ear, "It's going to be all right." It had to be all right. Buster lay across the back seat, panting shallowly, as Marshall raced to the vet's office.

An hour later, Marshall walked out, carrying only a leash and dog collar. He sat in his car for a long time, unable to drive.

Santa School was out of the question now. He had no interest in going there - or anywhere else for that matter. What was the point?

Marshall stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. So, what was he doing here at the Econo Lodge? He scratched his chin. The last time he'd grown a beard, it was as black as his boots. Now his whiskers were almost completely white with only a few streaks of gray matching what was left of his hair. The beard looked Santa-like, but the dark circles under his eyes gave him away. He turned on the tap and splashed cold water on his face, dried it with a thin paper towel, and headed for Conference Room B.

Marshall expected the class to be made up of old fogies like him, and there were a few, including a couple of older women. He was surprised, however, that most of the people sitting in folding chairs around the stuffy room were young or middle-aged.

He was more surprised when one of the old fogies stood up and introduced himself as their instructor, Ralph Salisbury. "Tonight's meeting is an opportunity for us to get to know each other. I spend most of the year in Reno performing in a ventriloquism act, but starting tomorrow, I will be Santa Ralph. My number one rule is that once you put on The Suit, you never break character. Ever. Kids can sniff out a fake a mile away, and once that magical illusion is broken, there's no fixing it."

He paused to scan the room. "How many of you remember the moment you realized that Santa isn't real?"

Marshall raised his hand. So did most of the others.

"And how many of you wished almost immediately that you could go back to believing?"

Everybody's hands shot into the air.

"Ralph Salisbury nodded his head. "What's done can't be undone. It's up to you to keep the magic alive."
The next morning they arrived at the Econo Lodge to find Santa Ralph in full costume standing at the front of the room. For the entire day and the next two weekends, he showed them how to become the world's most beloved character. Santa.

Ralph taught them everything from using their diaphragms to produce the deepest "Ho! Ho! Ho's," to obtaining liability insurance. They learned all the reindeer names (it's Donder not Donner), Santa's favorite cookies (whatever the child likes), balancing a child on your lap (use your whole arm to cradle them), and how the magical sleigh works (they were sworn to secrecy).

Before Marshall knew it, it was the last day of class before the practicum, and Santa Ralph sat on the edge of a table and reviewed the guidelines for Mall Santa behavior.

"No drinking or drugs before shifts. Come clean and tidy - trim those nose hairs and buff those boots. And for Santa's sake, brush your teeth and stay away from the garlic. Accepting gratuities is not allowed. Show up on time. Stay in character. No grousing to the Santa's helpers or mall staff. Oh, and I gotta say this one nowadays. For your own protection, keep your hands visible at all times. Most important of all, never promise the kids that they will get what they ask for. Now repeat the Santa Pledge with me."

They all said in unison, "I will keep the magic alive!"

"You have your schedules," said Santa Ralph. "See you this weekend."

For his first official Santa shift, Marshall pulled Sunday at eleven o'clock. 

Join us Friday for installment 4 of this lovely story on Friday the 12th.  Mahala


Friday, December 5, 2014

What You Need Most Part 2: Tracy Hurley

 Scroll to archive below and click on December to find Part I of the story, "What You Need Most."

What You Need Most
Tracy Hurley

"Dad, I understand you want to hang onto Mom's jewelry," Shannon said. "Maybe even some of her personal things like her apron. But this is, well, just silly." His eldest daughter stood in the bathroom doorway and held up her mother's toothbrush.

"You're right, dear," he said, lifting Elaine's old gardening Crocs out of the waste can and placing them inside his closet.

Shannon dropped the toothbrush into the kitchen trash bag looped over her wrist. The toothbrush fell to the bottom, barely causing a ripple.

"Well, there. We've finally made some progress." Shannon peered into the nearly empty bag, but when she looked up into his face, she dropped the bag and wrapped her arms around him. "I know this is hard, Dad. It's hard for me, too. But it's been five months."

"Five months, one week, and three days." He backed out of Shannon's hug and forced a smile.

Marshall wondered if she had been designated by her two sisters for this duty because she lived the closest, or because she was the least sentimental.

Downstairs, a high-pitched whine grew louder and more insistent.

"What's wrong with Buster?" Shannon asked.

"Arthritis. He can't manage the stairs anymore. I got him that orthopedic bed in the living room, but he doesn't like being left alone." Marshall shrugged.

Neither did he.

Shannon nodded. "How about we start small and just tackle Mom's dresser for now?" she said a little too brightly. "We can make two piles. You choose what to keep and what goes to Goodwill. Okay?"

""Okay," Marshall said, though it didn't feel okay at all.

A half hour later, they'd sorted through three drawers in the highboy. Marshall was surprised to see that the Goodwill pile towered over the to-keep pile. Maybe he was beginning to heal.

"Two more to go." Shannon pulled open the next-to-the-bottom drawer. It was crammed full of Christmas presents decorated in brightly colored papers and ribbons, each with an envelope taped beneath the bow. She slammed the drawer shut and glanced at her father. "Sorry, Dad." When she eased the drawer open again, they both peered inside.

Marshall's mouth went dry. "Your mother always bought extra Christmas presents."

"I don't think these are extras. They've got cards on them with names on the cards. She must have sat wrapping these all the while knowing..." Shannon's voice squeaked. Marshall hugged her and she buried her face against his chest. He rubbed her back until the hiccupping sobs stopped.

Shannon disengaged herself. She swiped her cheeks, then handed him the large package on top.

All day Marshall had mustered a tight command on his emotions, tamping them down whenever they bubbled up too close to the surface. But one glimpse at his name written in Elaine's familiar loopy handwriting, and a raw ache flooded through him.

"I have to go check on Buster," he croaked and stumbled down to the garage. As he squeezed the large box under his arm, the silver wrapping paper blurred until it looked like he was carrying a ball of light.

Marshall set the package down on his workbench and blinked hard until his vision cleared. Behind him, Buster's toenails clicked across the kitchen tile and through the open door into the garage.

"It'll be okay, buddy." Marshall slid a thick finger under the cellophane tape, and the envelope slid loose. On the cover of the card stood a snowman and snowwoman in matching scarves sharing a milkshake under a starry sky. His hands shook as he took out a folded sheet of paper. He unfolded it, struck again by the familiar handwriting.

My Darling Marshall,

The next time I go to the hospital, I know I will be leaving for the last time. Please don't grieve too hard. I've had a wonderful life with you and the girls. While it saddens me to think I won't see our grandchildren grow up, I know you will tell them how much I loved them.

If I'm not home for Christmas, I suspect it will have long passed before you - or more likely Shannon - find these gifts.

Once I'm gone, I worry that you will cocoon yourself in this house with no one for company except Buster.

The words blurred, so he set the letter down and ripped the silver paper off the box. He removed the top of the box and pushed aside a layer of green tissue paper, revealing a manila file folder on top of something bulky, woolen, and bright red. Elaine knew he never wore red - with his round beer gut he'd feel like an over-ripe tomato. He exhaled, an uneasy disappointment settling over him. He realized he'd been hoping Elaine had left him some magical gift that would ease the pain and loneliness. Instead, she'd given him red pajamas.
He pulled a glossy brochure from the folder. On the front, a man dressed as Santa Claus smiled. He sat on a gold throne and a little girl, her head haloed with ringlets, perched on his lap. SANTA SCHOOL was written in bold letters across the top, followed by: "Santa Claus is coming to town, and that Jolly Old Elf could be you!"

What in the world? Marshall shook out the woolly bundle, and it unfolded into a big red coat cuffed with white fur and matching pants. A stocking cap fell to the floor. Buster sniffed the holly sprig on the fuzzy brim. Marshall picked it up by the pom-pom and tossed it back in the box before pulling out another paper from the folder. He squinted at the small type, a prepaid registration receipt and course syllabus.

"Putting the Ho! into Ho! Ho! Ho!" he read aloud. Then he turned to Buster, "Why would she think I'd want this?"

Buster nuzzled his hand in reply, and Marshall scanned further down the page. The course started in November, ending with a practical final exam during Thanksgiving weekend at the Remington Plaza Mall. Two weeks before the anniversary of Elaine's....

He slammed everything back into the box and mentally noted the deadline for a full refund. October first. 


When Sophie found them, Marshall was raking leaves in the backyard while Buster lay on the grass, bathing in the late morning sun. She carried two mugs, steam swirling around her gloved hands.

"Coffee, black," she said and handed one of the mugs to her father.

Marshall leaned the rake against the trunk of a maple tree. "There's a nip in the air."

Sophie sipped from her mug. "Dad, can I help you sort Mom's stuff while I'm here?"

"Naw. I'm getting to it. Besides, you're a worse packrat than I am."

Sophie laughed. "Come on, birthday boy. I've got a surprise for you." She took his hand and led him to the driveway. Buster padded behind. With a push of a button and a squeal of metal, the garage door rose revealing two patio chairs in the empty car bay next to his Ford Explorer. Buster trotted over and sniffed them.

"So what are these?" Marshall asked.

Sophie beamed. "Shannon, Sarah, and I chipped in together."

"Thanks." Marshall said, putting his arm around Sophie.

No webbing, he noticed. A single sheet of canvas-like material was tied to an aluminum frame that was bent into a sitting position. "Are they rockers?"

"They're zero-gravity chairs." Sophie nudged him. "Try one."

"I don't have anything against a little gravity. Keeps you grounded," Marshall said. "Does it recline?" He plopped down in the seat, then gasped as his feet swung out from under him, and he fell backwards. Buster started barking frantically as the chair swung to and fro.

"Sorry, Daddy!" Sophie grabbed his arms, slowing the swaying chair until it came to a stop. "I forgot to set the lock."

Marshall lay panting, still reclined with his feet higher than his head, the chair rocking slightly. He startled when something warm and wet squished in his ear. "I'm okay, Buster." The dog lay down next to him but continued a low growl at the chair.

Sophie dropped into the other chair, and it oscillated gently until she too rested in a semi-reclined position. "See, it automatically finds the perfect position based on your body frame. Good for your back and your heart. It helps relieve tension."

Marshall laughed and patted is chest. "I'm going to need it. He couldn't shake the feeling that the chair was about to pitch him on his head.

Sophie smiled at him. "You'll get used to it. Now you can get rid of that ratty old one."

"But I just put new webbing on it. It's like new."

"I can take the chairs back - "

"No. Like you said. It'll just take a little getting use to." He couldn't tell her that sitting in the zero-gravity chair gave him the same sense of imbalance that he'd felt after Elaine died.

I hope you are enjoying reading Tracy's special story.  Next section will be posted next Tuesday, December 9.    Mahala

Order Christmas Is A Season! 2009 edited by Linda Busby-Parker on Amazon.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Remembering Tracy: What You Need the Most

Taking a note from cj, my thoughts turn to Christmas. Since our fellow blogger, Tracy Hurley, moved to Heaven on December 1, 2010, memories of her abound this time of year. The consummate editor who taught many writers how to look deep inside their work and bring forth the kernels of emotion and truth, Tracy never used harsh words to critique our work. She guided and taught us how to be more articulate writers, producing stronger scenes and characters. It amazes me how often her name crosses my lips four years later as I teach and talk at workshops. It amazes me how often I hear her name cross other writers' lips as they talk about critiquing and revising their work to meet Tracy's standards. It amazes me the huge number of people she touched with her humor and kindness. Tracy, you are very much alive in our hearts and memories!

Following in cj's footsteps, I decided to share a Christmas short story that Tracy wrote and had published in Christmas Is a Season! 2009.  I open with her comments about why she wrote the story, because it tells so much about who our friend was.

"Every day for two weeks this past April, I sat in a lawn chair in the backyard with our dog, Riley. [ he was a very rambunctious boxer.] He'd been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and wanted to spend his last good days lying under his favorite tree. I spent many bittersweet hours enjoying his company and journaling while he watched the squirrels., listened to the mocking birds, and snuffled the various scents wafting on the spring breezes. The seed of "What You Need Most" was planted then as I contemplated facing the coming seasons and holidays without him."

What You Need Most
Tracy Hurley
For Riley
Marshall lowered himself onto the lawn chair, gripping the aluminum arms until he was sure the frayed seat would hold. Replacing the worn webbing had been on his Honey-Do list for months. He'd intended to get it done over the winter, but, as with everything else, he thought he'd have more time.
The chair settled into place, stable for now. Buster, who'd been fervently sniffing underneath the barbeque grill limped over to Marshall and lay down across his feet. He dropped his red rubber ball  between his front paws and panted contentedly.

When buster looked up at him, his caramel-colored eyes dulled by a milky sheen, Marshall rubbed his head. "When did we get so old, eh, buddy?"

A squirrel dashed past them and skittered up the trunk of the old sugar maple by the tool shed. Buster woofed once, but didn't stir. Last year he would have scampered gleefully after the trespasser, who now teetered on a low branch, chattering at them.

While Marshall wasn't paying attention, the buds on the maple tree had burst into leaf clusters. He remembered he'd had to wipe off a thick, yellow coat of pollen from the small cedar patio table before setting down his glass of Sprite. Spring had snuck up on him. The paper white crocuses in Elaine's flowerbed had come and gone, the bright yellow daffodils too. Already the heads of the late-blooming tulips drooped, red petals littering the flower bed. He'd planted the bulbs last fall while Elaine was getting treatments, savoring the look of surprise that would cross her face when her favorite flowers emerged. He sighed. He was old enough to know that things rarely turned out the way you expected them to.

The old chair lurched sideways. Marshall grabbed the arms and planted his feet, ready to abandon ship if the last of the webbing gave way. But the chair only listed to the left, sinking into the rain-softened sod he'd laid when he wasn't at the hospital. Buster picked up his ball and cocked his head at Marshall, now with a little surge of energy, ready to play.

"Sorry, buddy. False alarm." Marshall bent and scratched buster's back, and his stubbed tail wagged furiously.

Buster's tail would have been a menace had the breeder not docked it before Elaine picked him from a litter of seven puppies. Elaine had refused to clip his ears, thought, saying it was cruel. Besides, she'd told him the long floppy lobes were more expressive. Marshall hadn't cared either way. Twelve years later, he couldn't imagine Buster any other way. Elaine had dubbed him Otto's Maximilian of Ulrich on the AKC forms, but after Marshall kept referring to him as Buster, as in "Stop chewing my shoes, buster," or "listen, buster, if you pee on my pant leg one more time...," the name stuck.

A soft breeze scented by cut grass, loamy earth, and sweet lilacs ruffled Marshall's thinning hair. A leaf blower droned in the distance. He should lime the grass, clean the rain utters, sharpen the lawnmower blades. Instead, he pulled a crumpled piece of paper from the pocket of his flannel shirt and unfolded it. As long as items remained unchecked on Elaine's last Honey-Do list, Marshall could pretend he still had time to take her on a cruise to Alaska, remodel the attic bedroom into a craft room, or go dancing at that fancy hotel at the beach. The should-dos were easy to ignore; it was the should-have-dones that kept him awake at night.

"Come on, Buster." He pushed himself out of the chair. "We shouldn't keep Shannon waiting."

To be continued on Friday, December 5, 2014   Mahala

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Okay, time for Christmas stuff

cj Sez: Now that I'm fully stuffed with Thanksgiving dinner, it's time to find my Christmas spirit ... not that it's been lost. It's just been in storage. In boxes. In the closets. In the garage. But Saturday, I retrieved the outside lights and hung them up then set the timer for an automatic shut-off six hours after they go on (at dusk). I like to have my outside Christmas lights operating for at least a month if I'm going to go to the up-and-down-the-ladder effort to get them up. Happy to tell you, I couldn't wait until tomorrow to have them come on. Ergo, tonight, my eaves are glittering with color! Yay. Now, I'm in the mood to shop, shop, shop. Scary thought.

Rather than try to create some incentive for all you writers to sit down and write over the holiday season -- especially for those who've just gone through NaNoWriMo (hope you met your goal), I think I'll serialize one of my favorite Christmas short stories. I picked this piece in honor of the memory of my friend, Tracy Hurley, who helped me get the story ready for submission. Thanks, Tracy. I miss you.

"Dancing with Daddy" was published by Adams Media in 2008 in their anthology CHRISTMAS THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES, edited by Helen Szymanski. I wrote this memory under my maiden name, Marilyn Olsein. Here is this week's excerpt of "Dancing with Daddy":

    Living in a small town in Texas during World War II was tough, especially at Christmas. My father, disqualified from the Armed Forces because of his age, was working in an auto factory in Michigan, trying to earn more money than farming paid.
     When I remember my childhood, the phrase "dirt poor" comes to mind, but we--Mama, my brother, my two sisters, and me--always managed a wonderful Christmas. Mama's family came to our house for dinner, and Mama made pans of Swedish cardamom rolls, the sweet smell filling the whole house. Grampa would bring in a couple of chickens for Mama to roast and fry, and we'd have cornbread dressing, white and sweet potatoes, corn, and green beans that Gramma had canned. We ate, laughed, sang, and carried on all day and into the night.
     Not long after that hateful war ended, Mama sat us down on the screened porch and told us we'd spend our next Christmas in Michigan. We were moving to Detroit to be with Daddy.
     I was terrified. We all were--even Mama, I think. Detroit was at least a hundred thousand times bigger than Melvin, Texas.
     "Mama, doesn't it snow up there . . . a lot?" Phyllis asked. At twelve, she was the oldest.
     I was born in Texas, and at the age of seven, I could remember seeing snow only once--the Christmas the Army gave all my uncles holiday leave. Uncle Steve, Mama's youngest brother and my favorite, chased me down a slippery road and washed my face with a handful of cold, melting flakes.
     "It's not like snow in Texas," I said. "Detroit snow is black."
     "Don't tell fibs, Marilyn," Mama scolded. "Snow is white wherever it falls."
     "Maybe it's white when it first comes down in Detroit, but Daddy's letter said coal smoke from the factories makes it black," I insisted. I imagined Detroit as a city without color, all black, gray, and white.
     "You'll find out soon enough," Mama said. "We'll be in Detroit for the first snowfall." She saw my face cloud up. "And crying won't change things."
     I didn't want to spend Christmas in a cold, dirty city with a stranger, for that's what Daddy had become to me.

I think the idea for the anthology was a wonderful one and a lot of older writers responded with their favorite, and wonderfully written, childhood memories. I do believe, however, it'd also be a marvelous exercise for young writers whose memories haven't been clouded by the years between then and now. Do you have a young writer in your family? Bet you'd be surprised at what their favorite memory is.

That's all for this post. I'll finish the story next time. You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I'll try to do the same.


PS: The 'toon is from Facebook.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Charles McInnis, Writer and Friend

Last Saturday, my friend, Kat Kennedy, and I drove over the bay to join other writers, friends, and family members of Charles McInnis at the Fairhope Library. We all gathered to honor our friend and remember. There was a lot of laughter as people shared some of the antics of Charles as he grew into adulthood and some of the fond memories of recent experiences. Charles was one of those people we all strive to be - generous with time and ideas, gifted with the written word, blessed with a dry sense of humor that sent people into guffaws, creative and curious. Kat shares her memories of Charles from her recent post on Tea Cakes and Whiskey, her website.  http/  It is a lovely tribute to a quiet, yet powerful, man. Charles, you will be missed. 

Sometimes we are lucky enough to have people come into our lives who make us better. My friend Charles McInnis was such a person. My favorite question from Charles was "What if?" 
Charles was always encouraging and helpful to everyone he met. He had a way of making you feel like you were the most talented person in the room, but we all knew that he was. His talents went far beyond writing, teaching and photography. He had that talent so few of us have -- the talent to bring out the best in others. To point out possibilities. To believe in ourselves. To ask, What if?
I first meet Charles at a writer's editing group. We hit it off immediately. We discovered that we had grown up a stone's throw away from each other, in the same east Alabama county. I had taught at Horseshoe Bend, the setting for one of his stories. That was always common ground for us. I knew where Frog Eye, Alabama was located. He knew my childhood doctor in Eufaula, Alabama. It seems that every time we got together, we would find out something new we had in common.
 I had brought a little short story to the group for feedback. Within an hour of getting home, Charles emailed me with one of his "what ifs?" Throughout the rest of that year we would bounce ideas off one another, meeting when we could to discuss writing and writers. He always made time to give me feedback on my work. We both were similar in what we found funny, and I loved reading and commenting on whatever he was writing.
Charles was a wealth of information. He was a retired physics teacher. He could talk about the subject on a level that even a retired Literature teacher could understand. (This is no easy feat!) We talked about our travels. He was always eager to hear about where I'd been and offer suggestions of where to go when I went to New York. 
Even when an illness kept me at home for much of last year, and I didn't see him as often as I would have liked, he would send along a web address or an article for me to read.
One of the last emails we exchanged was a list of unusual Alabama towns. I told him that was working on an article about unusual Alabama town names, and he immediately started sending suggestions: Screamer (a town we both knew well), Frog Eye, Smuteye, Bug Tussle, Scratch Ankle, Buzzard Roost, Half Chance. He could have said that's interesting, I'll have to read it. But that wasn't Charles. He took the time to look up towns and send them to me. He was one to always go the extra mile. 
I will miss our chats and collaborations. He was a driving force behind my first book. In fact, he did the cover for me. (Without being asked.) He just did it. That was Charles. He contacted me when it was published to say he had bought a copy. I had one for him, but he felt strongly about supporting indie authors, so he had already bought one. That was Charles. We were working on a project, and he had made a mock-up of a magazine cover which read: Tea Cakes and Whiskey, a new story of dysfunction, by Kat Kennedy. I said, "Now, I have to write this story." I was setting up my website at the time and asked him if I could use Tea Cakes and Whiskey for its title. I didn't want to steal such a wonderful idea. And of course, he said, "It's yours. It fits you." That was Charles.
When I attended the memorial for Charles on Saturday, I felt blessed to be among the people he called friends. I think he would have liked the tribute. It was simple and beautiful and moving. As we shared our stories about Charles and his impact on us and the community, I was reminded of how very generous and giving he was to everyone.
I was looking through some old emails and edits from Charles and ran across something he wrote in answer to the question: How do you find time to write?
I think the most valuable thing to do in fiction is to give the characters important things to do. Writing becomes easy then, and the characters perform. You must write in order to see what your characters are going to say and do. It is difficult to write about characters doing mundane things. Finding time to write when characters have clear objectives is easy.
Certainly, Charles didn't write about mundane things. His stories are funny and creative. I think his words on 'making time' fit perfectly with how he lived his life. He made time. Time to help, to create, to travel, to learn, to teach, to care for others. He told me one day when we were planning a group picnic, "I'll bring my never-used kayak. There are no stories for a never-used kayak."
I hope we all learn from Charles the truth of that simple phrase. Use your kayak! Live your life! Make a difference in any way you can! Charles made a difference.
I am eternally grateful for his encouragement and guidance. So I ask the question, "What if?" What if we all lived life to the fullest as Charles did? What if we gave our time and knowledge to others without expecting anything in return? What if we use our kayak? 
Happy kayaking, my friend.