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New Short Fiction “Tintypes” published at Ohio Edit

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http://historical.ha.com/common/view_item.php?Sale_No=6047&Lot_No=47333

I have a new short story called Tintypes published at Ohio Edit.

I am very excited and hope you enjoy reading it!

http://ohioedit.com/2013/06/26/tintypes-short-fiction-by-brianne-kohl/

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In A Farming Country

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Clouds were spun like sugar at a carnival, pure white puffs set against a brilliant blue sky. In those days, all the mysteries of the universe were quiet, a whisper lost in the wind. Grainy stalks of corn reached up from the loamy soil. A gravel driveway, shrouded by forest that lasted a mile in a farming country, was full of anxious monsters. Monsters that were sprouted from vines on trees and sagging shadows. Monsters that were always hushed when I walked to the school bus, granting me passage. I needed them to be kind. But, how I wished one of my cousins would fall prey.

barnGrass grew waist high in a field left fallow to tend itself back into usefulness. Our Summer was – and is, still – marked by hay season and the grinding of tractor gears. The big red barn sat nestled against a hill, sheltering the animals like a long-suffering mother waiting each night for her children to come home. Step by step, hoof to hoof, they’d come in a long line, cows walking nose to tail.  I would fall asleep each night listening to the nicker of the horses, the mewling cows, the pule of the crickets. The whole farm chorused.

Pastures led to fences, led to forests that surrounded our home and sheltered us in a strongbox of our own making. How arrogant one can become when barbed wire and Buckeyes stand hale against the world.

My Father, the strongest man I ever met, sat tiredly beside the yellow Formica dinner table with the metal rings along the edge. With a resigned smile for a daughter begging to play; wrestling in the living room with chocolate ice cream rimmed around my lips. Or, with a tear and strangled voice, “Baby, Grandma is dead.” Again, I am sitting on the yellow padded kitchen chair, pulling at the cracked vinyl and blanched foam.

My Mother, a mausoleum to her own sainted mother, soothed tears brought about by the vulgarity of being the youngest of three, always chasing the others and never quite catching up. She taught me how to knit, simple stockinette stitches, the night I accidentally killed my white kitten, Snowball. I cried as I wove, tears soaking the yarn at my finger tips. She ran a hand over the crown of my head, knitting her fingers through my hair until the tears stopped.barn3

Autumn passed make-shift memories of leaf piles and down filled jackets into my mind. The smell of leaves burning still carries visions of smoke drifting through an electric night sky. Countless times we gathered around the fire like pagan worshipers thankful for the hunt, for the close of the harvest. Nothing could have been more benign that those moments, entranced by the dancing flame, we celebrated the simplicity of our life.

Clearing the drive of snow in the first dawn of winter brought forts compacted like huge snowballs. Our throats full of laughter, I would bump against my brother as we cleared new paths, our cheeks bright red against freckled pale skin. He thought he was Superman in his crystal cave. I thought he was stupid. When the gauntlet was thrown and war battled between the snowmen we’d become, the first ball of ice was usually mine.

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My sister found a beagle our last winter on the farm, stranded along a country road. Its ribs stuck cruel against skin thinned by starvation. She brought it home and begged for its life and sure enough, it ended up in a straw filled dog box behind the house. She had no way of knowing that with its belly full of loving dinner scraps,  it would growl and bite in her direction. My father named her Bitch but we christened her Lady.

When Spring found its way back to us and winter was swept from our front porch, confusion hollowed out the house. Piece by piece, our furniture, our things, were stuck like livestock on a truck and moved far away. In the empty rooms, our laughter would echo of times past but eventually, the orange shag carpet of the living room absorbed the noise and left the house eery in its silence. But, these memories of my first home smile at me as new puffy white clouds grow daily and I will wear that grin forever.

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Hay Season

Note: All photograph credits belong to Katherine Wallick, my awesome sister. 

Earth and Water

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“I didn’t ask for much,” he said in a voice of crushed rock. “I never asked for too much.”

“You say that, man. You say that all the time, Ed. Problem is, ain’t no one left to care,” Detective Waters replied.

Ed smiled over at the detective, a drowsy close-mouthed tightening of pink chapped lips. He couldn’t stop himself from licking them every time the cold wind blew through the trees. Detective Waters kept both eyes on Ed, his right hand seemed to be resting comfortably on the service revolver holstered at his hip.

“Yeah, well, maybe I could make you care.” He tipped his head back, took a deep, slow breath. He felt a chuckle, barely more than a bubble of trapped air in his barrel chest.

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“I wasn’t askin’ for earth and water, man,” he continued, his eyes blinked once, slow, as if he was awakening from a long lazy dream. He shifted to lean against the tree at his back, his orange jumpsuit a glaring contrast to the muted browns and greens of the shadowy forest. His fingers flexed as he tried to draw the blood back into his cuffed hands. It felt like pins and needles against his skin. “That’s what the Persians used to say: Earth and water,” Ed’s voice was a whisper against the steady shhnnk of the shovels, the grunts of the men digging. “Absolute submission.”

 

“What the hell are you talking about? We didn’t bring you here to listen to your garbage.” The detective took two steps away from him and drew in a deep, weary breath. Ed lifted his manacled hands to scratch his cheek. His fingernail scraped over the stubble and left an angry red mark against his pale skin.

“This life has a way of making a man want to go back to the earth,” Ed said, as he watched the men digging around him. Watched as they turned that black earth. When the first white bone popped up from the dirt, he looked away. When things are buried, they should stay buried, he thought. When something goes to the ground, it becomes sacred. “Problem with you men is you got no respect for the work a man dedicates his life to.”

 

Being Your Daughter

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Being Your Daughter Means…

I can spot when someone is cheating at cards

because of the countless ways your eyes would shift to my hand

how bold your lies are in Gin Rummy and no where else.

You will always quietly kick my tires or check my oil when I’m not looking

Because, even though I am fully capable,

My safety is a reflex that you cannot ignore.

Being You Daughter means…

I can come to you with any sadness

And like the sun burning away the early morning fog

You can make my day seem so much clearer.

We can share a simple meal, a cup of tea, a quiet moment

And neither one us needs to utter a word

To hold an entire conversation.

Being You Daughter means…

No matter how old I am, what I am doing, or where I am going

All I have to do is look pathetic enough and call you “Daddy”

and immediately soften your anger.

My entire life is measured in your footsteps

Those that walked before me, clearing the way

So that I could appreciate the forest without ever feeling lost.

Being You Daughter means…

Every memory, every bruised knee, every burst of laughter

is colored by the way you made me feel about myself

and the whole world around me.

I can still feel you holding my whole body upside down,

letting me walk on the ceiling, squealing with laughter and trust

Because you have never let me fall.

Happy Father’s Day, You old card cheater!  

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The Problem With Introspection

The problem with introspection is that it has no end.

– Philip K. Dick

In 2003, I was accepted into the Southampton – Long Island University Master of Fine Arts program. Based on my fiction portfolio, I was offered a small scholarship of $1000 a semester. I’d attended the 2002 Southampton’s Writer’s Conference and fell in love with the program. A writer’s life was for me, it seemed.

But, I turned it down. I didn’t attend any MFA program. Instead, I shacked up with my boyfriend of five years, moved from our hometown in Ohio to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and got a job at Borders Books as a Cafe Supervisor. We didn’t know anyone in North Carolina. We had no prospects. All we had was the belief that it would work out – we never even considered that it wouldn’t.

When we first arrived in North Carolina, Michael and I did a weird thing. We printed up copies of our resumes, put on our nice traveling sales-people dress clothes and starting walking around business parks. We passed out our resumes to over 80 places. It took us over three days to run out of resumes. The very last place was a little office in Cary. We didn’t know what they did. We didn’t care. Michael was in I.T. and I was marketing myself as an administrative expert with strong communication experience (which, was a total crock. In college, I’d been a writing intern at the American Red Cross and I was desperately trying to parlay that into something useful.)

A man answered the door and led us inside. It was after 5pm and he was, apparently, the only person left in the office. He looked over our resumes, asked us if we were a package deal. We both answered emphatically in the negative. Turns out this particular office was a technical writing firm. They were always looking for writers but I didn’t really have the necessary experience. They’d been toying around with the idea of adding an I.T. person, however. He took our resumes and sent us on our way.

Time passed and nothing seemed to come of it. We’d worked through a lot of dead leads like that. Michael got a job at Home Depot. I bounced around different Borders book stores in the area – my nagging sense of ambition never let me rest too long. In retail, if you want to succeed and you aren’t too busy getting stoned by the dumpster, you can rise up through the ranks pretty quickly. I did. And, then, Michael got a call from that little office in Cary. He was hired on as their I.T. person. We were thrilled – the people were great to him and it was our first sign of success.

By the time 2004 rolled around, I was a manager (still in training) at the Waldenbooks at Crabtree Valley Mall. But, at Christmas time, they told us our store was closing. It was my first indication that the entire company was about to quietly collapse. Michael had been offered a new position in the I.T. department in local government and was leaving the technical writing firm. We’d become friends with the director and she did something that really rarely happens: she gave me a shot.

I don’t think I really deserved it back then. I was a fiction writer and not the least bit technically minded. I was brought on as a Junior Technical Writer. I felt successful for the first time. Michael and I bought a house. We got married. I was promoted to Senior Technical Writer. I started to deserve the shot she’d given me.

Michael and I bought some land way out in the boonies. We saved up our money and finally built our dream house. I was promoted to Project Manager at the technical writing firm.

When you are a writer, it nags at you. You can’t really give it up for long. I toyed with it – writing things but never sharing them. I’d do NaNoWriMo in November and then throw the novel away. When I was younger, it was my whole identity and I’d turned my back on it. Getting back into it is like getting back into running after an injury – it clanks and hurts. It is awkward and hard. In the beginning, there are more bad days than good days. It can be discouraging.

I become friends with another writer, Molly Schoeman, who is the epitome of kindness and support. She encouraged me to keep going.

I started taking continuing education writing classes at Central Carolina Community College. I was lucky to be grouped with a really amazing teacher and a group of fellow writers that took the craft really seriously. There is a real pressure to show up and not suck when you are surrounded by people that are truly good at what you want to do. It is said that if you want to get better at something, surround yourself with people that are better than you. If you have enough ambition, it can work. I’m still working that out.

I’ve started submitting stories to literary journals and I am just now beginning to see some success. I decided to take it seriously. No more shrugging and blowing it off. When people ask me what I do, I’m going to say I’m a writer, because I am. No more qualifying it with “technical” because that’s a cop out. If I don’t take it seriously, why should you?

I think about that MFA program and wonder what would have happened if I’d accepted my spot. I might not be married to Michael. I might not live in my pretty house in the woods. I might be even further in debt with student loans than I am now. I might be a barista at a coffee shop, somewhere. Or, a bookseller at another book store. I might have found success because I’d taken the craft seriously at a younger age. I don’t know, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I don’t regret it. When you are a writer – or a singer, a painter, a woodworker – you don’t have a choice. You’ll do it in secret or you’ll do it on the weekends. You’ll tie your whole self up in it. You’ll shy away from it because even the idea of failure will hurt too much to try. But, hopefully and eventually, you’ll start to take it seriously again.

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Book Review: Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

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Written in prolepsis, this novella tells the story of Kelly Kelleher, a young woman who meets a US Senator at a friend’s Fourth of July party. Only known as “The Senator,” a thinly veiled version of Ted Kennedy, Kelly finds herself in his car on the way to a romantic interlude. Kelly is an analogue for Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman at the heart of the Chappaquiddick Scandal (See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/incident-on-chappaquiddick-island). A car accident thrusts the potential lovers into a swamp, into the titular black water. The Senator breaks free. Kelly is left trapped in the car as the water rises.

The first time I read this book, I was in eleventh grade. It was on our required reading list. Forgive my momentary melodrama but this book changed my life. I am so thankful for my eleventh grade English teacher for assigning this book. I’ve probably read it 15 times since then (to be fair, that was a long time ago).

I have always been a reader. I read all the normal kid stuff and a lot of inappropriate adult stuff at a young age. It was something I shared with my mother and sister. We passed books around the house and even though we are now far apart, we still tend to do it. Reading Black Water made me realize, perhaps for the very first time, that fiction was a serious art form. It has the power to illuminate swampy marshes. Truth becomes invention.

The themes in the novella are profound:

  • A younger woman trusting an older, charismatic man
  • Violation of that trust
  • The heart of American politics
  • The process of death
  • The operation of femininity
  • The inner workings of a scandal

All told in 154 pages.

When I am in need of inspiration, I’ll find myself grabbing a copy of Black Water and opening it at random. It was, in fact, the basis for my short story, Boys of the Way Back. Some chapters are only a paragraph long – I’ll read it like I would read a poem. Lots or repetition and syntax. Lush imagery. All read between the lines.

I’ve recommended this book to a lot of people and its been pretty polarizing: they either absolutely love it or absolutely hate it. I will always fall in with the former.

Fiction’s Victim

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In high school, I was on the school newspaper. I was a writer, and later an editor, of The Camel Tracks at Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyoming. We later changed the name to The Humphrey Herald, and as far as I know, its still called that to this day. I was a hard hitting journalist – publishing such awe inspiring pieces as Valentine’s Day: The Darker Meaning and The Great Simpson Debate Continues. Oh, 1995, I miss you in a lot of weird ways.

I’ve always loved writing fiction. In ninth grade, I spent an entire year in math class writing a romance novel in a black and white composition book. It was pretty slutty for a ninth grade girl afraid of boys. It was full of supernatural elements, damsel-in-distress-like situations, an impossibly sexy overbearing man and the one woman that could change him. Every month, I would go to the book store and buy those monthly Harlequin serial romances. I would devour them. It really sort of messed me up on a very basic fundamental level. My husband would agree.

I wrote a story in my tenth grade English class called ‘Cancer of the Soul’. I was very proud of this piece – so proud that I pushed for it to be published in my journalism class, despite the fact that it was:

  1. fiction
  2. completely inappropriate.

Here is the basic breakdown of the story: Narrator, told in the first person, is sexually abused by her father. Narrator is terrified, believes nothing could be worse than the nightly visits of her deviant father. Until that one fateful night when her father bypasses her door and moves down the hall. To her little sister’s bedroom. EPIC REVEAL! So heartbreaking! And poignant!

Good stuff, right? A little dark for a tenth grade English class, maybe. A little dark for a school newspaper. But, I was good. I was ready. It was published. We spent the requisite time developing the layouts of the pages on our old Macintosh desktops in Journalism class – white space was a real problem back then. We sent it off to the printers. It came back and was distributed to the student body. Not one single person ever said anything to me about my story. In hindsight, I see that we neglected to tell the reader that it was fiction. I certainly hope that was obvious. My father probably hoped that, as well.

I brought an issue home and gave it to my parents, completely oblivious to how it might make them feel. My father is a quiet Midwestern Guy – spends a lot of time in his garage. I remember him calling me out to that garage to talk after he read my story. I didn’t recognize that he was confused. I didn’t see that he could be hurt.

Let me clarify: my father is wonderful. He was a little scary when I was younger – in that way that all great fathers are. He was good and kind and always thought the best of us. Even when we didn’t deserve it. So, for him to read this story must have come as a real shock. Also, I don’t have a little sister. (My mom does have a brand new puppy that she treats like a child, but that is the closest I’ve gotten.)

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As he worked at his bench in the garage, he asked me about my story.

“Where did you come up with that?” he asked me, never once looking up at me.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “What do you think?”

“Things are ok with you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I responded. Why wasn’t he telling me how great he thought my story was?

“Ok, go help your Mom with dishes.”

Case closed.

It happens in quiet ways – writers start to pull from real life experiences and oftentimes, our loved ones are the victims. And, sometimes, fiction is just fiction. It gets messy though. People get hurt. But, as a writer, no one in your life is safe. I didn’t learn that until I was older, when I could look back and see what my writing could do to my loved ones. Its a lesson I still violate to this day. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I will probably never stop doing it. I don’t know how else to do this.

People read fiction and they want to read into it – if I write a story about a woman killing her husband, I’m dissatisfied with my marriage. If I write a story about an alcoholic, I have a drinking problem. Not true. Look for the smaller moments. The quiet moments. That’s where I am.  You might be there, too.

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Notes:

  1. How innapropriate was the comic beneath my story!? I had nothing to do with that one!
  2. The picture of Bailey, my mother’s favored daughter-dog, was taken by my mother: Nancy J. Downing

An Ode to Kent State’s Original Bad Ass: Olaf Prufer

I wrote this several years ago after hearing about the death of a beloved professor of mine in 2008. I think everyone must have a favorite teacher in their life – it doesn’t matter what age they come along. I’ve been fortunate to have several in my life but the most colorful was Dr. Olaf Prufer. He was a little mean, a lot scary and simply  brilliant. I don’t think I appreciated his influence half as much as I should have at the time. 

This isn’t fiction but it definitely illustrates a profound influence on me and the fiction I write. 

Even before his death in 2008, Dr. Olaf Prufer was a legend at Kent State. Certainly, anyone lucky enough to have taken one of his anthro courses has at least one “Prufer Story” to tell to the freshman coming in. “He screamed at me in class!” “He was a nazi!” “He has a cat named fuckknuckles!” And yes, all of those things were true. Sort of – his father was one of Hitler’s ambassadors when Prufer was young – he himself was not a nazi. I had twelve classes with Dr. Prufer while at Kent State and I have no shortage of Prufer stories. I am saddened to hear of his passing because I know that every Prufer Story is now a thing of history – just one more anecdote detailing a larger legend that will be passed around Lowry Hall. 

He hated Intro classes and freshman, as a principle. He delighted in scaring them. While most other Intro to Anthropology or Archaeology profs would walk that fine line between evolution and creationism, Dr. Prufer busted over the line and told everyone standing on the wrong side of it to fuck off. His vocabulary was huge but he delighted in using the harshest of the four letter variety, especially amongst those that were easily intimidated. 

He had a thick white beard and a deeply crinkled face – the kind you only get after a long hard road in open sun. He was short in stature and bent heavily at the shoulders, as if gravity had an especially hard impact on his person. He always wore the same 70’s style blue running shoes with Velcro and his pants bagged low on his frame. 

As with a lot of KSU Anthro senior level courses, we never had a text book or worksheets. We had Dr. Prufer, sitting up front, telling us his stories. He always had an index card in hand when he entered the classroom but there were usually only three or four undecipherable words written. From that, he could talk for hours (and oftentimes, he did just that). I learned more from him about archaeology than I did from any other professor. Because he had not only dug in the dirt, this man KNEW all the dirt – he knew all the sordid back stories you never hear about academics: Margaret Mead, Hallam Movius, Owen Lovejoy, and many others. 

In our “Native Peoples of North America” class, he told us early on that we would have no research paper, no huge tests, no traditional homework – we only had to show up every single day and listen to his stories. When it came time for the mid-term, he told us “don’t worry – it will be a puff test.” On the day – my very last test before leaving for Christmas break – he waltzed in, dropped a 20 page essay test on our laps, grinned and said, “Merry Christmas, you little fuckers.” And then he merrily waltzed back out again. It took me almost three and a half hours to finish that test and I cursed him the entire time. But I had shown up every single day. I had listened to his stories. I got an A on that test. 

In our “Culture Conflict” class, I had to write a 30 page research paper on the conflict in the Falklands and present it to the entire class. I was extremely nervous and I think he sensed it. Before I began, he pulled me aside, and gave me a piece of hard candy. He patted me on the back and told me to “stop pissing around”. He had such a deep Bavarian accent. When another student began arguing with me over my thesis, Dr. Prufer sat back and watched with a huge grin on his face. The only time he’d interrupt was to tell us to, “stick to the facts.” I left that class pissed off and red faced but I was exhilarated. I had learned in a way that wasn’t taught elsewhere. Culture conflict, indeed. 

He once kidnapped me on an elevator while I was doing some field work for him – undergrads were allowed to help out every so often and our task that day was to sort through human bones that had been in storage so that they could be reclaimed and given back for burial. As I was taking a break from the morgue (where grad students had JUST dissected a gorilla earlier in the day), he led me into a dark back room and began showing me schematics of a mass grave site.It was the Libben site, in Ottawa County, Ohio – his last great professional offering. I sat with him for two hours as he explained the site to me. During that conversation, he wasn’t crass or harsh. He didn’t curse at me. He seemed vulnerable to me then – a teacher that desperately wanted to teach his student. I desperately wanted to learn. 

During the May Day riots that Kent State has become known for (protesting? No. Drinking? In 2000, yes.) he told us about the first and biggest riot to occur at Kent State. How students had been killed on May 4, 1970. How the place was in chaos and property was being destroyed. How the campus was crawling with police and national guardsmen. And how Dr. Prufer had an illegal hand gun in his brief case that day and smuggled it off campus with some of his grad students. It was always about the unofficial back story with Dr. Prufer. 

I was lucky to have him as a teacher. We were all lucky – all of us with our Prufer stories. He will be missed.

 

Note: 

  1. The Ohio Archaeological Council’s Obit of Dr. Prufer: http://goo.gl/hH6VzImage

Wickerwork

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We sit on the patio, the table drenched in white linen. I press the pads of my fingers into the cushion of my chair and I sit up straight. The furniture is wicker, but not old creaky wicker like at my Grandmother’s house, broken and bleached gray in the sun. This is new, all natural wickerwork. The sun is setting, casting a rosy hue against the clear water of Meredith’s infinity pool. Her staff quietly slips around us to light the tiki torches.

I’ve had two glasses of Krug Grand Cuvee with fresh raspberries at the bottom of my glass. Each time I take a drink, I try to grab one with my tongue. But, the berries slip from my lips and teeth, dancing on bubbles just out of my reach. My laughter is too harsh, too loud, like broken crystal against the stamped concrete beneath my feet. Sabine rests a hand on my arm, a quiet warning.

“You have no class,” Meredith says to me and I feel myself sinking – drowning in all that white linen and champagne. Blood is in the water and the sharks crowd near. Sabine is watching me, chin tilted up high, eyes shifted to mine. The table stretches out like a piece of the salt water taffy we used to buy in the summers in Cedar Point. All the women stop talking and wait.

My first thought? My first inappropriate thought? “I want.” It is a line of barbed wire that my bark has grown around. This thought, this need cannot be separated from my pulpy flesh. To cut the barbs away would kill me at this point. I want. I want more than I have. I was born with the wanting.

I want more than some little shitty farmhouse in West Virginia. More than Chapter 7 whispers spread out in some suburban nightmare. More than tiny faces covered in grape jelly, lips smacking for messy kisses.

My second thought? “How does she know?” How does Meredith know how to hone the point of her spear so finely? How does she know to shoot at my heel?

I look at Meredith who stares back at me with a defiance born on fine Egyptian cotton. I’m smart, I think. I’m beautiful in ways that other girls in Beckley were not. My slyness, my clever brain, pretty pond water green eyes – these are the very definition of me. I believe it, I believe it, I do. I’ve had to.

And, what defines Meredith? Her fake tits? Her new nose? Or, maybe its those bulges beneath her silver Dior gown suggesting all that liposuction to come. I’ve been places where sequins and sparkly eye shadows don’t recommend elegance, they proffer dark stages and horny truckers parked right off Interstate 77.

Sabine, too, is waiting for my response. Her eyes, like the stilted lilt of her voice, are very Dutch. Those eyes are a clear lake on a summer day. Inviting, but you can still drown here. Enter at your own Risk. No lifeguard on duty. She has sponsored me here, amongst these fine ladies. My reflection is in her waters.  Her husband, my husband, brothers born of Hermes ties. I belong here, I belong here, I do. I will. I swear it.

“What is class?” Sabine says as she sets her champagne flute down. “In one so beautiful? In one so young?”

Meredith throws her head back and laughs. Her hair, a sly mink sliding down over her shoulders. She nods at Sabine. “It’s everything, darling.”

Notes:

  1. Graphic taken from “Evolution of Maori clothing, by Te Rangi Hiroa” found in the Journal of the Polynesian Society http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_33_1924/Volume_33,_No._129/Evolution_of_Maori_clothing,_by_Te_Rangi_Hiroa,_p_25-47/p1#
  2. This story is what happens when you watch too much Real Housewives because it’s readily available on http://www.hulu.com.