Categories
Creativity Storytelling

Sleeping on Arch Street

A  100-WORD STORY

I slept on a cot near my grandmother’s bed in a room that smelled like eucalyptus. The aluminum frame squeaked when I moved, despite my small size and efforts to keep quiet. My grandfather slept in the adjoining room, his presence as unnerving as the Jesus portrait on the wall. The story goes he woke her once with a pitcher of water, threw it on the bed so she’d make his breakfast. I wonder if the train whistle ever disturbed him, pulled him down the tracks to the steel mill, back to the stacks and hot slag where he belonged.

 

 

 


©2022, Jen Payne.

Categories
Creativity

Girl, Cat, Fish

Some days, I feel like the girl in the tub with the fish in the comedy show hitting so close to home but so far out in left field that eating popcorn while I watch doesn’t seem nearly as awful as eating chicken wings during an episode of Criminal Minds. Me and my dying cat curled up on the floor, my hand stroking her tail — and only her tail because otherwise she thinks I’m about to stick another pill down her throat and she’ll run to hide from me. It’s a terrible thing when a part of your heart runs and hides from you, but I don’t blame her. She likes me best now in the mornings, too tired and stiff for any chase. Instead we curl up, like the girl and the fish in the tub, floating there in the early morning hours as if nothing will ever change.

©2022, Jen Payne. Scene from Hulu’s Life & Beth.

Categories
Creativity Storytelling

The Fabric of Our Lives

A  100-WORD STORY

My first family was soft and warm, and covered me with enough love and affection to keep my heart hopeful for decades. My second family was threadbare, though, worn down so much that it hardly covered the dysfunction anymore, left me sick and unable to breathe. My third family fell apart at the seams. My fourth has been a patchwork of cotton and corduroy — thin in places, strong in others, woven together over time and enough to pull up to my chin, close my eyes and remember the little girl skipping, blanket always in tow, her Mom and Dad laughing.

 


©2022, Jen Payne.

Categories
Creativity Storytelling

Storykeeper

A  100-WORD STORY

I save their stories like scraps of stolen poetry. I know, for example, that she was conceived at the 1965 World’s Fair and that hidden above his left ear is a question-mark shaped scar. I remember the name of the child they lost, what she called the family dog, and that he wakes from nightmares as if in a back-alley brawl. Thief, collector, storykeeper — how easily I can tell the stories of couples in love and couples lost; about the pillow talk of lovers, the half-life of trauma, and the white-haired widow forever chasing a dog by the shore.

 


©2022, Jen Payne.

Categories
Creativity Storytelling

Sudden Death

A  100-WORD STORY

In sports, sudden death is a tiebreaker — two teams of equal measure play until one scores. In my family, sudden death was a torpedo in the East China Sea and a kamikaze’s final score. It was a flu pandemic in 1957 that meant game over for my 19-year-old aunt…and my grandmother, who never quite recovered her self. Sudden death was an 18-wheeler on a mountainous interstate in southwest Virginia — a certain game changer for my father, and for me who wakes more often than not with an adrenaline rush of grab the ball and run before it’s too late.

 


©2022, Jen Payne. Note: this showed up in exactly 100 words, first take, no editing.

Categories
Creativity Storytelling

Truth Bears Out

A  100-WORD STORY

It was Valentine’s Day, but we’d already broken up. I ended it days earlier because he never listened to me — not about extravagant gifts, not when I asked him to drive with both hands on the wheel, not when I said I was allergic to dogs. He also didn’t pay attention when I told him not to deliver the postscript Valentine’s gift furtively left at my door. It, a $75 teddy bear, was dressed in what he assumed was my regular working-from-home attire: suit, skirt, briefcase.

But removed of her conformity? I say: who couldn’t love a bear named Naked Betty?

 


©2022, Jen Payne.

Categories
Books Memoir

Everyone Needs a Guide

Dale and me at the launch of my first book, Look Up!, in 2014.


The first time I met Dale Carlson was in 1996 over coffee at the Hidden Kitchen in Guilford, Connecticut. She was the first person to call Words by Jen from the first yellow page ad I ever purchased.

And while we would both tell you that we were not really sure we really liked each other that day — and many days after that as well — we would go on to make almost 30 books together under the name of Bick Publishing House.

Ask me today what inspired me to write books and how I came to start my own publishing company, and I will tell you about the 25+ years that Dale and I worked together: the long hours of editing around her kitchen table, selecting art and cover designs, developing a house style, and promoting her books. All of the things I do for my clients’ books and my own books now, I learned from Dale.

But she wasn’t just a client. Dale was my long-time mentor and spiritual guide who helped me understand my family dysfunction and my mother’s mental illness, who taught me about meditation and the many faces of god. She showed by example that you can create a life on your own eccentric terms, and how it is to move around in the world in the body of writer.

Often, our approaches to life were vastly different — how we saw the world and how we coped as different as our backgrounds and ages. But in so many ways, we were kindred spirits who could complete each others sentences and easily nod in agreement more often than we expected.

We talked just recently about our work together and our long, enduring affection for one another. “It is so lovely,” she said, “to know how entwined we are! Love you, dear one.”

I love you, too, Dale.

Dale passed away on January 23, 2022. You can read more about her life here, or from her many books that are still available online.






Categories
Creativity Storytelling

Rest Stop, Mile Marker 173

A  100-WORD STORY

The Garden State Parkway Rest Stop was half-way to my grandmother’s. We’d pull off the exit and shuffle into the rose-colored stalls of the Ladies Room.

Inside, near the pink-vinyl couch, a pull-knob vending machine sold hairnets, bobby pins, and rainhats neatly folded into pastel plastic boxes.

The Rest Stop burned down in ’91, years after we’d stop traveling as a family. But in my mind, it’s all still there — the soft golden light and tiled floors, the vending machine, my sister sleeping, Dad singing I Got You Babe to Mom in the front seat, his hand on her knee.

 


©2022, Jen Payne.

Categories
Creativity

Donut Girl

A  100-WORD STORY

For sure there is a story to tell, of late-night clichés and coffee-stained romances there behind the counter of the midnight doughnut shop. She had written them in situ, on journal pages stained with raspberry-pink jelly: the dashing pirate, the rookie cop, the old war vet with a “crack in his cookie jar.” No doubt she learned more there than in any class at the university — or any day since. But could she find them again? Stir them up, let them proof and rise into something more than naïve schoolgirl impressions of the world and her life not yet begun?


©2015/2022, Jen Payne. If you like this story, stay tuned. We’ve got some exciting news coming!

Categories
Creativity

Forest Fellow

A 100-WORD STORY

I saw an elf bent over, studying the bark of a tree just up the path. “What are you looking at?” I asked, feeling curiouser and curiouser. “Mushrooms,” he told me, “these.” Then he bowed and plucked a bouquet from the log at my feet. Edible, he explained with a smile, so I asked “What are you making?” and he replied “Oyster mushrooms with a sherry cream sauce.” Mouths watering, we talked a bit about wild woods and food fare before we parted ways. Darn, I keep thinking, I forgot to drop my shoe. How will he ever find me?


©2014, Jen Payne.

Categories
Creativity Memoir Storytelling

Christmas Wonder

A 100-Word Story

Much to the alarm of a grandmother, I picked up the baby and ran, leaving the Christmas celebrations in our wake.

Gathering festive crinolines around her tiny feet for warmth, we dashed out to the front yard, and I pointed up to the sharp winter sky. “Look, Little Miss, it’s the Christmas star!” And she laughed and giggled and leaned into me — a shared  delight.

“Remember,” I said, “That’s the star the wise men followed.”

Who’s to say, of course, if it was just a plane as I was admonished. The spirit whispered love and hope and sweet small wonders.

Photo ©NASA/Bill Dunford

Categories
Creativity Storytelling

An Odd Courting

A 100-WORD STORY

I assure you, I did nothing to encourage him. I was simply kneeling trailside, counting petals on a flower — he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.

Then I heard him approach, footstepping through memories of trees scattered across the forest floor.

In his camouflage, I recognized fear and wonder, the wild and unpredictable nature of things, the magic of connection.

There was no amorous announcement to my ear, but a sound, a something sound I could not believe.

So as not to dash his hopes, I left quietly, wondering: do spiders really sing?


© Jen Payne, April 2014, From EVIDENCE OF FLOSSING: WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND. Image: Princess Sotoori and Spider from the Series Zuihitsu (Essays) by Ogata Gekko, 1887.Click here to listen to the singing I heard: “Listen to The Creepy Sounds Spiders Make When They Want Sex.”

Categories
Creativity

Kismet

A 100-WORD STORY

In Austin, she bought a rock star coat — black velvet with embroidered-flower sleeves and a faux-fur, mid-calf hem. In the dressing room, she laughed — it was a perfect fit.

“I’d never wear it,” she told the saleswoman. “Back home, we’re all L.L. Bean and Talbots.”

She bought it anyway, hung it by the door — her alter-ego, set in wait.

Then she met her new neighbors, Zach and Joe, walking their two chihuahuas.

“This is Amy and this is Pacho,” Zack said, “they have a cabaret act.”

When they invited her to their house-warming party, she knew exactly what to wear.


©2021/2008, Jen Payne. Previously published online at Six Sentences.

Categories
Creativity

Missing Iguana

A 100-WORD STORY

It was an all-points bulletin: MISSING IGUANA! Jake likes to roam, be on the lookout. Don’t chase!

I was a little busy when I first saw the news; parking my car outside the hotel was proving more difficult than it should and the sun was in my eyes. Maybe that’s why I had a hard timing believing them when I saw the iguana on the hotel lawn, sitting atop a purple octopus.

I didn’t think to ask how the octopus was managing out-of-water, I was actually deep in thought, wondering: what inspires an iguana to roam in the first place?


© Jen Payne, April 2019

Categories
Creativity

Discarded

A 100-WORD STORY

She wonders if he remembers the night he found that cat. Left to fend for itself in the winter woods, it died by the trail — as if it waited for someone to return. Collar with its name, no address or phone. Alone.

He carried it to the vet, along with his warped sense of humor. “Were you attached to it?” she mocked. “Yes, and then I abandoned it,” he replied — each of them poking fun at intimate confessions they’d shared. Achilles heels, laid bare.

Ironic, how easily they laughed at the inevitable.

In his absence now, she remembers…poor discarded “Love.”


©2008/2021, Jen Payne. IMAGE: Winter Forest, Konstantin Yuon

Categories
Creativity

Canal Street Epiphany

A 100-WORD STORY

MaryAnne and I were shopping on Canal Street in New York City. My polite “No thank you” replies to the onslaught of “Tiffany! Tiffany! You buy?” catcalls clearly indicated my novicity.

Thirteen blocks of brand-name idolatry was her pilgrimage, but I didn’t see any religious icons in the dimly lit backroom we entered solemnly.

Behind faux red velvet curtains, a thousand ordinary pocketbooks lined the walls; two Asian women exchanged furtive glances and slipped our twenties into small black pouches.

Later, in the car, I looked at my purchase ambivalently. “Is that a Coach bag?” MaryAnne gasped. “OH MY GOD!”


©2011, Jen Payne.

Categories
Creativity

Sometimes Hearts Need Time to Catch Up

A 100-WORD STORY

I think, maybe, it’s our hearts I keep meeting in my dreams. Not as often now as before, but still, they’re curled under a winter’s weight of blankets, not daring to move. Reading by the fire with coffee before the sun rises. Walking through the woods on familiar paths, old stories kicked around like leaves. Sitting on lawn chairs in the back yard before the big storm changed everything. It’s always he who reaches out for her hand, calls for her attention. And she who closes her eyes and breathes it all in — just one more time before I wake.

©2021, Jen Payne.

Categories
Creativity

Oxymorons

A 100-WORD STORY

The born-again Christian man wore head-to-toe camouflage — a fabric used to disguise one’s appearance and to blend in with the surroundings. In nature, organisms use camouflage to sneak up on prey, to mask their identity and intentions. But his were clear. A warrior of god, proclaiming he is the way and the truth and the life. Praise God, he announces for all to see — while discussing guns and ammo with a friend in the post office lobby. They laugh, she thanks him for his advice, drives off in a car with a pro-life bumper sticker. Goes to stock up. Pray.

©2021, Jen Payne.

Categories
Creativity

Star-crossed

A 100-WORD STORY

I suppose I was a force to be reckoned with, even then at 19, when we stood in his driveway and I explained how my world was just bigger than his, drawing circles in the air like the orbits of planets. But he loved me then, loved how we could talk for hours when only the stars were listening, loved that I loved him back in those sweet moments we traveled around each other. In the end he was the only one with courage enough to ask me to marry … and I wonder what if maybe every blue moon.

©2021, Jen Payne. IMAGE: 1892 Solar System, Orbits of Planets.

Categories
Creativity Storytelling

Memory Vended

A 100-WORD STORY

Downstairs, along a neon-lit hall of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, there’s an Art-o-Mat. From it, for $5, you can purchase small, original works of art. But I confess, my fascination with Art-o-Mats is more about their past lives than their brilliant creativity. You see, their artwork resides in old cigarette vending machines, and with each purchase I am transported to the Route One Dairy Queen, 1984. That very first pack of cigarettes. The sound of quarters dropping, the brazen pull of the lever, the musical-mechanical delivery of Marlboros on the offering plate below. The light. The smoke. Magic.

For more about Art-o-Mats and where to find one near you, visit www.artomat.org.

Categories
Creativity Storytelling

Silly is as Silly Does

A 100-WORD STORY

I met a man in the woods. He was going for a walk with his frogs…two Sonoran Desert toads, actually, along the green trail on a rainy afternoon. He had them in a cat backback, facing forwards so they could see as they went past the pond and around to where the stream crosses the trail. “What if he lets them out,” I ruminated. “They would die, it’s too cold.” “But is it? Gloabal warming.” “What if he’s conditioned them? Got them used to colder weather.” “This is silly.” “More silly than a guy on a hike with pet toads?”

Categories
Storytelling Writing

Hindsight is 2020

A 100-WORD STORY

In my version of the 2020 apocalypse, I lit incense and whispered fervent prayers to Saint Anthony and Ganesh. I started meditating. He bought a gun safe. It’s as definite in his living space now as the altar to Buddha is in mine. This should not come as a surprise. I have loved on the cusp of the yin and yang all my life, and it has been no different with him these past seven years. Of the first gift I gave him, he wondered: Speartip? Pestle? Arrowhead? “It’s a heart shape rock,” I swooned, our end-time a forgone conclusion.

Categories
Family Memoir Writing

Life Lessons from Dad

Study hard, be smart.

Weigh the pros and cons of your decisions.

Stand on your own two feet.

Hard work is a key to success.

Dream big.

Love what you love with passion.

When you fall off a horse, get right back on.

Laugh a lot and often…

and you’ll come out on the other side just fine.

That’s my dad and me, college graduation 1988. Today would have been his 78th birthday. Life is fleeting — perhaps that is the biggest lesson of all.
Categories
Memoir Poetry Writing

Identity Theft

I look
in the mirror
and see nothing.
Pieces of familiar fall away.
Sticks poke at what’s left.

Start from scratch
or use a box mix?
Put square peg
in square hole…
that’s never been my style.

I take a walk
to get answers.
Insert A into B, get C.
But all I see is ocean.
Vast and unresolved.

IT doesn’t seem
to need answers.
In. Out. Back. Forth.
Up. Down. [Repeat.]
I take my cue and leave.

It’s OK. Really.
I was bored with me anyway.
If you please,
may I see something
in a polygon?

Poem ©2008, Jen Payne. Image: Girl in front of mirror, Pablo Picasso

If you like this poem, you’ll LOVE the Divine Intervention issue of MANFEST (zine)

Categories
Family Memoir Writing

The View From Here: August 31

The View From Here: August 31

The view from here today is this: a shelf in my office. A still life snapshot: longtime friend Winne the Pooh, introduced to me by my Dad when I was a baby; my UMass diploma; the when-in-Paris photo with my friend DeLinda; a Wonder Woman mug; and the very last photo I have of my Dad.

He died less than two weeks later, August 31…twenty-five years ago today.

I always think: I’m glad I asked him to take off his sunglasses that day, because you can see his eyes in this photo. How they connect up with his smile, mirror his laugh.

I always think — if I look hard enough — I’ll see an angel hovering above our heads, hidden in the shadows, waiting.

I remember that day: a cousin’s wedding, the whole family together for the first time in 20 years, his laugh while he played on the floor with his great-nephew, the feeling of not wanting to leave, of wanting just a few more minutes with him.

Now it’s a photo that says more than I can ever tell you. And it sits on a shelf, next to the love he introduced, next to the education he encouraged and the travel he inspired. On a shelf, and on shoulders strong enough to carry all of that forward.

And more: me, Wondering through this life without and yet so very much WITH him. Every day.

©2020, Jen Payne
Categories
Memoir Poetry Writing

Memoir

In the pieces of memory
and scraps of conversations
transcribed in situ
I will tell you about
the headless groom
and the dead dog,
about the failure of Saint Raphael
and the irony of the phrase
“you could get hit by a bus.”
I’ll tell you the 15,000 words that broke me
and the ones that almost put me back together
until I realized my heart was better
cracked wide-open like that anyhow.
Now all I need to do is type

Happy Ending.

on the last page
and hope it will suffice.

Poem ©2017, Jen Payne. Image: Woman writing, Edouard Manet.
Categories
Memoir Poetry Writing

The Afghan

For Dorothy Reitbauer

“This,” my friend says, “is lovely.”
Lovely is never a word
I use to describe the ugly afghan
crocheted by my grandmother
and dragged out of storage
when guests sleep on the sofa.

It is avocado green and orange,
milk chocolate brown,
and amber gold,
like the gold my parents
painted the kitchen
of our new house back then.

“She picked each color herself,”
my friend explains,
as she carefully runs her fingers
up and over the zigzag pattern
with awe and affection,
though she never
met my grandmother.

It is the color palette
of my seventies family,
when Mom and Dad
were almost-happy still,
my sister played with Barbie
by the sliding glass window,
and my bangs were
appropriately feathered
away from my face.

“She thought about
you and your family
with each stitch.”

I could see her then,
sitting in her green recliner,
counting stitches like
the beads on her Rosary.
Love Boat on the Sylvania,
drinking instant iced tea
while a cigarette smokes
from the ashtray.

It was after her husband died,
and she traveled with her dog Coco,
bringing Shoo Fly Pie and
Moravian Sugar Cake from
Pennsylvania to our house
in Connecticut.

That Christmas,
she crocheted ponchos for us, too,
and took me to Hawaii
to see my Grandfather’s name
carved in marble at the
Pearl Harbor Memorial,
watch as she traced his name
with her fingers, slowly.

The same deft hands
that crafted this blanket
raised a son and daughter
independently in the fifties;
folded in prayer
for neighbors and friends;
prepared feasts
with love
for grandchildren.

“So much thought went into this,”
my friend continues,
as we carefully fold the afghan
and place it on top
of the antique hope chest
in the corner.

“Each stitch, each row,
holds love and memories.”

 

©2009, Jen Payne. Written for my grandmother, Dorothy Reitbauer. Seen here in 1943/44.

Categories
Creative Nonfiction Living Memoir Quotes Spirituality

Flexible Flyer

This week, I learned that Nicholas Koutroumanis, an old friend of my family, died recently. I thought I would share this piece I wrote about him 8 years ago.

 


 

Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you.…All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.

– – – – –

We call him Pappous, or Nicholas.

He and my mother became fast friends five years ago while neighbors at the their senior-living apartment complex. They went for walks, grocery shopped, and sat in doctors’ waiting rooms together. They listened to each other’s stories — her two daughters, growing up in Pennsylvania, the divorce; his life in Greece, the war injuries, his son.

He is old enough to be her father, really, but they seem to find comfort in such differences. Her patience with him seems endless, and his with her. He speaks broken English and Greek, she nods her head; she talks forever, and he nods his. He picks a piece of lint off her sweater and she waves him away; she kisses his cheek and he waves back.

The first Easter he spent with my family, he sang hymns in Greek — his voice so pure and beautiful you would cry at the sound.

Nicholas has been a frequent companion with my mother for holidays and birthdays and family celebrations over the years. He always brings pears, or grocery store pies, and tells stories about wild turkeys, God…and spirits. On my nephew’s first birthday this summer, he sat on a folding chair in the shade wearing a Hawaiian lei watching his little “Cowboy” enjoy the festivities.

– – – – –

And then you will be ready to begin the most difficult, the most powerful, the most fun of all. You will be ready to begin to fly up and know the meaning of kindness and of love.

– – – – –

My friend MaryAnne and I saw Nicholas today. He has a nice room at Yale, overlooking the hospital’s parking garage. Outside of a little high-blood pressure, he seems no worse for the wear of his 88-years, except…

“You’ll have to forgive me” he says for the fifth time in 20 minutes, “This is my first time getting old.”

For six weeks, Nicholas has been in this holding pattern — somewhere between his old life and his next one at a yet-to-be-determined nursing home. But he makes do. There are photos of his families taped to the window — his son and granddaughter, my sister and her son. A Greek newspaper is half-read and folded across the arm of a chair next to his favorite hat and familiar tan jacket. He makes easy, flirty conversation with the nurse who arrives to take his blood pressure. He tells old jokes and hugs us each with full and firm resolve.

A dry-erase board in front of the bed reminds him that TODAY is Friday, NOVEMBER 23. It includes the names of his doctor, the nurse. The blue magic marker notes that he is INDEPENDENT, but he is as much aware of the confines of this new life as we are.

“What are you going to do?” he shrugs his shoulders. “This is the day you have.”

In one moment, he is tangled in loops of conversation — “So, how are you?” he asks four, five, six times. And the next, he is as lucid as the day he fixed me up on a blind date, and sat as chaperone over tea and pear slices.

As we drink coffee from paper cups in the hospital cafeteria, he moves effortlessly from 40 years passed to last week to 10 years ago. My mother is his wife is his daughter is my sister is me. The details are off, the timeline is skewed, but the meaning of what he wants to share is clear.

“I woke up at 4 a.m.,” he says, “because there was a bright light. When I opened my eyes, I saw Stella. My wife. She was so bright. I told her how much I miss her.”

Stella passed away three years ago.
He is trying not to cry.

“I told her ‘I miss you Stella, come here’ but she would not come. I asked if she is in heaven and she said no. No.”

It is not heaven, he tells us, just a different side of the atmosphere.

“Here,” he says, holding his heart, “is heavy because we are here,” he points downward. “But there, on the other side of the atmosphere, everything is light.”

– – – – –

Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself.

– – – – –

In and out of the conversation, I am reminded of the pages in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I read for the first time earlier in the day.

Nicholas, my elder and my Pappous, teaching me as wise Chiang taught Jonathan.

The trick… was for Jonathan to stop seeing himself as trapped inside a limited body.…The trick was to know that his true nature lived, as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time.

Nicholas seems to move that way now — effortlessly across space and time. If he is bothered by his current situation he doesn’t let it show too much, and then forgets soon after. Besides, what are you going to do? This is the day you have.

 

©2012, Jen Payne. Quotes from Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.