The Outsider

The bird swooped down and landed at Laura’s feet.

She watched it, as it cautiously hopped toward the seeds that laid scattered about. Pecking furiously, the bird worked quickly to open the sunflower seeds, and greedily ate the contents inside.

Laura laughed to herself as she watched. Sometimes she wondered what it was like to be a bird. It seemed that they always managed to find their way, no matter what. Perhaps there were always people like herself, who would make it a point to occassionally feed them.

Life hadn’t been the kindest. Laura beared the scars to prove it. Her jeans, ripped at the knees, where peppered in paint, sewn-on patches, and an oddly placed zipper. Each embellishment was a memory and a testament to her life.

Laura had lived off the kindness of strangers for many a year. The day she sprang from her abusive alcoholic father’s house, the open road was her home from then on. It had been two years since her dog London had passed, and she had yet to pick up another travel companion.

She kept his collar around one of the straps of her backpack, worn from hopping trains, and hitchiking on highways. Occasionally she would find herself lovingly stroking London’s collar, when she found herself missing him.

Laura remembered one night sleeping huddled under a bridge. Luckily, London was by her side, and barked when some creep tried to steal her shoes in the night. She never slept well. Vigilance was her only security, in a merciless world hellbent on catching her in a careless moment.

Eventually, a few other birds gathered around, to enjoy the little feast that Laura had provided. Scrounging around her bag, she pulled out a soda that she lifted from a nearby drugstore. Popping off the cap with her lighter, she let the cap hit the ground unceremoniously. She tilted her head back, as the cool drink hit the back of her throat.

She let out a loud belch, followed with a laugh, and stretched out her arms. Life was hard, but she was free. The birds were almost done eating their meal, as Laura gathered her things. She was headed to see the river, one last time before she had to catch a train. The road was calling again.

 

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The Lake

Terri looked out on to the wide expanse of bright blue water.

She was shocked that this was only one of the Great Lakes. It had to be an ocean, but in the back of her mind, reality set in that she was land-locked.

She made her way down the path, so she get closer to the craggy rocks that cradled the water at its edge. The waves ebbed and flowed, while occasionally jumping up to lick at the rocks. A splash of water would leave behind droplets and small pools of water, which would eventually make their return to their source.

The air reeked of dead fish, but there was no salt to it. This was indeed a lake, despite its immense size. Terri carefully ambled over the rocks, as she didn’t want to slip out of her shoes. She chided herself silently for not wearing boots.

Terri looked around the rocks, to see if she could find anything of interest. Glass bottles poked their necks out between cracks, amid used condoms and torn wrappers, broken doll arms, and the occasional muddied newspaper. A rat scampered quickly past, in an effort not to be seen or caught.

Eventually, Terri spied the perfect rock for her to take a seat. The top surface was flat enough, with only a slight dip on one side. She took her place atop the rock, crossed her legs, and began to stare more deeply at the water.

Occasionally a sailboat or two would make an appearance, where it seemed the edges of the water were touching the sky. A lighthouse way off to the distance began to emerge. The sounds of passing traffic veering down the nearby highway faded off into the distance. Terri closed her eyes, absorbing all that was around her.

Passing gulls swooped in and out, while calling out to each other. The sound of the waves gently crashing into each other, or pounding against the rocks made a soothing rhythm. The chatter of occasional passerby was hushed to a whisper. It was just Terri and the lake. A moment of rare serenity was gleaned.

 

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The Meet

Dinah took a deep breath. She fixed her eyes on a point at the pool, bent down toward her toes with arms outstretched, and dove. The water was brittle and icy, as her body broke through the surface of the pool. She soon shook off the shock of the frigid temperature, as she was focused on the goal. She wanted gold. She wanted to win.

Quickly she moved into her learned rhythm. Right stroke. Left stroke. Right stroke. Her arms worked mechanically, as if they were attached to someone else, or perhaps even something else. She cut through the water like a steel knife. Seamlessly and effortlessly, it seemed like her body moved across the pool.

The nearest competitor was just a few seconds ahead of her. Her arms and legs had yet to start burning. She could press ahead, knowing that anaerobic respiration had not yet tried to get the best of her. Just a little faster, she thought to herself. Right stroke. Left stroke. She was almost at the wall.

Then her finger tips touched the tile. Bells and cheers resounded through the room, ricocheting and echoing off the water and walls. She had arrived victorious. She managed to beat her competitor by a sheer few seconds.

As she emerged out of the pool, a towel was draped around her shoulders. She looked out to the stands. Her eyes pored over the excited crowd, and stopped short at the empty seat where they should have been sitting. The accident had cut their life short, just a few months before the final meet. She didn’t know if she had it in her, until now.

“This is for you.” She whispered quietly, while still maintaining a smile for the onlookers.

 

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Marta

Marta woke up to the sound of birds chirping outside her windows. Her view was obstructed by the clippings of newspapers that covered half the window, and a security gate to keep out unwanted intruders. She never had any visitors. Sometimes she thought to do away with the gate, but living in a city, reminded her that was a foolish thought.

Sometimes she would wonder the streets, until she would find refuge at a park bench. She would pull out some bread that she picked up at the local baker. Often, she would set aside just one sweet bread. It was a tribute for the little birds that would be her only company, surrounding her feet. It was a nice diversion, to quiet the deafening loneliness that never paid rent to live with her.

She would forget about how she came into that ramshackle apartment twenty years ago. She didn’t think about the persistent leaky sink, that was a longstanding amenity to the neighboring rats and roaches. All that mattered was those few moments of peace, which she found at the park. Slowly, Marta would dip her hand into a paper sack, pinch off a piece of bread, and throw it to the ground.

The birds would swoop down and land in front of the bench. Sometimes one would be brave enough to land on her shoulder, or eat directly from her hand. Marta liked to think of the birds as little saints, who would fly to heaven, and whisper her prayers to God. She greatly enjoyed the comfort from their songs, their kindness, and how they looked past her shortcomings.

Perhaps, if there was such a thing as reincarnation, she could be reborn as a bird and return the favor. Sometimes, a dark thought came to her, that the birds were simply taking advantage of her having food. Then again, life was about give and take. What was the loss, to simply share a crust of bread with another living soul?

The Laundromat

Vivian watched the swirling gray water slosh around the laundry machine. As the socks, shirts, and slacks slipped and slid over one another, bubbling suds began to cover the clothes from clear view. The laundromat was always a good place to get away from the apartment, depending what time she came. Sometimes, she imagined herself a sociologist or anthropologist deep undercover. She would mentally record the comings and goings of the local patrons, seeking to clean their dirty laundry while listening out for whatever gossip they could monger up.

She’d laugh to herself, as she watched women with pendulous bodies, overburdened with years of childbearing, heavy loads of dirty clothes in tow, waddle in like they were royalty. They only seemed to take notice of the other ladies, who bared similar appearance. Occasionally, Vivian would catch them huddled together on the block, smoking cigarettes, and making disapproving comments at passerby. They were the old hens of the roost and consequentially the unofficial neighborhood watch. They definitely let everyone know, who ruled the pecking order of the neighborhood, and that you were on notice.

There would be single men, either the college-age yuppie wannabe types, or SRO regulars. Both were often looking to score a number. Sometimes the single men were older, perhaps widowers, or had always been a bachelor. They didn’t seem to mind not separating the light and dark clothing, or tossing detergent, softener, and everything but the kitchen sink into the smallest washers available. This would happen often, if the attendant wasn’t looking.

The attendant on staff would grumble under their breath, mumbling curses as they hurriedly rushed to grab a mop. The need to clean up overburdened washer machines, spewing out soap suds everywhere, occurred a little too often. Kids would take the opportunity, to run and attempt to slip and slide in the wet soapy mess. Otherwise, they would be too busy whamming the buttons of arcade machines, that they never had enough quarters to play. Occasionally, candy and sticker machines would get stuck. This tragedy would create a sobbing child, who would be dragged away, with promises of a beating, or a treat to make up for the loss.

The laundromat was always a curious place. Brimming with life, the denizens of the block would shed their need to always out-do and out-polish one another in appearance. Of course, there would be those few exceptions, but they were often on the prowl for a new date, or side-piece. Vivian enjoyed the smells of the laundry softeners mixing together. The hum of swirling washers and dryers, made a unique rhythm, which complemented the flow of customers coming in and out of the laundromat.

At last, her laundry was done. She stopped peering her eyes over her glasses, keeping score of how many people dropped their soap powder, or how many times a quarter got stuck in a machine. She went to her dryer, and quickly pulled out the still burning hot clothes. They landed cleanly into the laundry basket, except for a few socks that got loose. Vivian focused on folding her clothes, making sure to tuck in the corners of sheets, and turn any shirts or pants outside-in.

After the last item was neatly stowed away, Vivian slung her laundry bag over her back and made her way out into the street.

Iris

Iris stared at the broken plate that had shattered into several pieces, now lying at her feet on the floor. It had all happened so quickly. She didn’t think that her hands were so soapy, or that she had been moving too quickly, for the accident to occur. Still, the plate had missed its mark. Instead of landing safely in the dish rack, it was now nothing more than a mess to be swept away.

She rinsed the suds still lingering off of her hands, and turned off the tap. Next, she walked solemnly over to the utility closet, to collect the dustpan and broom. As Iris swept the pieces into the dustpan, she mused over the loss of the plate. It was a collector’s item, or so she thought. She had never spent the time to research the brand and decorations on it. However, she was convinced that it had to be of some finer value, because she picked it up at a thrift store for a very good price.

Iris enjoyed watching TV programs like The Antique Roadshow, and often dreamed of hitting pay dirt for purchasing a rare sought after item. She fancied herself being featured on the show, showing off the now broken plate, which would have been valued at $500 or more. Iris thought of all the things she could have done, if she hadn’t made such a stupid mistake.

She could have flown to Paris or Milan. She could have opened up an antiques shop in a quaint small town. She could have written books or given talks about how to find rare antique gems among the clutter in a thrift store. Now, all these dreams were as jagged and broken, as the pieces of plate being swept up to go into the garbage bin.

It didn’t matter to Iris, that the plate was in fact, simply a copy of an antique plate. She never bothered to do the research. Yet, she enjoyed painfully musing over her fantasies that couldn’t be helped, and would never come to pass.

After the plate was laid to rest in the bin, Iris walked over to the stove to make some tea. She put the tea kettle over a moderate flame, and took a seat at the small end table to wait. “Some day…” Iris thought out loud, as her eyes flitted around the menagerie of kitsch items littering her kitchen.

Maybe Sunday

Autumn walked through the lonely city streets. Her mustard yellow boots protected her from the pools of water, as she trudged along through the rain. It had been raining for three days, with no end in sight. Tucked tightly under her left arm, her notebook was wrapped carefully in a plastic bag. She could not afford to lose her work. Autumn was a writer.

After making a left turn at Duffy and Lane, she finally arrived at her destination. Autumn enjoyed holing up at Maybe Sunday, a doughnut and coffee shop. It wasn’t a pretentious and expected place for a freelance writer, like those well known designer coffee shops. She was a down-to-earth low-key kinda lady. Plus, those stuffy coffee shops didn’t have a 2-for-1 special on doughnuts after 3pm. The cinnamon and bow-ties were her favorite choices.

“The usual, Autumn?” Andy asked with a smile.

“You bet.” Autumn smiled back, as she put a five-dollar bill in his hand, and plunked a golden dollar into the tip cup. She wasn’t well-off, but after spending years scraping by in the service industry of diners, coffee shops, and retail, she knew tips mattered. Plus, joints like this one had a je ne sais quoi about them, and were a treasure for story incubation. Maybe Sunday was one of the last gems in a city, that had been all too quickly overtaken by gentrification and chasing trends. Autumn vowed she would protest and chain herself to the doors, if the city ever sought to push her “office space” out of business.

Andy would chuckle, when Autumn would say these things. “Well Autumn, you and a few of these other customers still believe certain things are worth preserving.”

Andy was the son of the original owner of Maybe Sunday. His father had come to the city seeking a better life, after escaping the war. He wasn’t much good when it came to door-to-door sales, and didn’t want to handle work at the stockyards or factories. He choose to make doughnuts and brew coffee instead. Turned out, he had a natural knack for powdering fried dough and sourcing great beans. Business thrived, and after the old man died, Andy decided to keep a family tradition going.

“So what you writing about these days, Autumn?” Andy asked with a lighthearted curiosity. He was wiping down the counters with a damp rag, and moving the napkin dispensers and sweeteners around.

Autumn enjoyed watching Andy and the other staff work. Everyone at Maybe Sunday operated with such precision, that the coffee shop ran like a fine-tuned machine. No matter if business was slow, or the number of customers swelled and created a line out the door, everyone got ample attention and quality service.

“Well, I just picked up some work on the changing face of real estate in the area.” Autumn replied. “I’m also juggling some side assignments on pet ownership, and the struggles of dating for 20-somethings in the city.”

“Sounds interesting,” Andy responded. “Hope you put in a good word for us at Maybe Sunday, if you can. Maybe the city will one day make us a landmark. That would be something, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, that would be fantastic.” Autumn then paused before speaking up. “Well, as long as the prices don’t go up too much for one of your favorite customers?”

“You’ll always get something for loyalty.” Andy assured Autumn with a wink.

“And hopefully no terrible food trends or diet police come in, trying to make you offer fat-free or sugar-free doughnuts!” Autumn chuckled while clapping her hands in amusement. She imagined some emaciated health-critic storming through the doors of Maybe Sunday. Their face turned up in disgust, and with slits for eyes, they would vilify Andy and the offerings of Maybe Sunday with a pointed finger.

Andy went to the back to grab some more doughnuts to restock the front. Autumn went back to writing in her notebook. Customers would occasionally file in, shaking off the rain from their umbrellas and coats. Orders for coffee with two sugars – no cream, old-fashioned, jelly-filled, and eclairs were called and filled. Autumn decided to call it a day around 8:20 pm. It was ten minutes to last-call and closing time for Maybe Sunday.

“See you around Andy,” Autumn said, as she gathered up her belongings. She placed her notebook back into its plastic bag, despite the rain finally tapering off to just a drizzle.

“Have one for the road, wordsmith.” Andy replied, placing a paper bag filled with doughnut holes into Autumn’s hand.

“Thanks Andy, you’re the best!” Autumn shouted over her shoulder, as the door closed behind her. The bell in the corner jingled gently, announcing her departure. As she made her way across the street, she turned back to look at Maybe Sunday. The sign at the entrance was flipped to show ‘Closed’ and the lights had been turned out. Only the steady glow of the neon, with its persistent low hum, was the only light left.