Friday, September 25, 2015


You know when you're reading through FaceBook statuses and someone you only sort of a knew a long time ago has a long complicated status full of characters and overrun with amused comments and questions, including one that says -- "that sounds the the beginning of a short story!" -- and you think, huh, yeah, it does...

So that happened to me recently, and thanks to a little too much chocolate ice cream for breakfast,  I decided to go ahead and write a short story.  See "Candyland" below.  I incorporated parts of the original status and various comments from others as well.

If you need writing prompt, start scanning FaceBook.  Truth is stranger than fiction -- and can inspire fiction.



Two weeks ago, while at the liquor store a mile south of my house, I grabbed a bottle of wine and got in line to pay for it. The first things I noticed about the young woman in front of me was she was pretty, unusually animated and very chatty. As she was talking to the cashier, she kept moving her fingers in and out of the ends of her hair, twisting a curl of brunette hair around her forefinger and then letting it unspool. She quizzed the cashier about good local microbrews and volunteered how she used to live in Vegas so she didn’t understand the Minnesota liquor laws.

“Vegas was just one big cesspool of neon lights,” she said, “but I miss the sunshine. Minnesotans, maybe all the time in the snow, they are always so polite, but sometimes, it’s a little like Stepford, everyone silently nodding and smiling.”

The cashier, clearly Minnesotan, smiled, and handed her her change. But she didn’t leave, and went on talking as I stepped up and handed him my bottle of wine.

“Have you ever been to Las Vegas?” she asked. Still quiet, he nodded no. “It’s not just casinos and strippers.  I mean, those are there too, but there is something about the desert, when you get a little bit out of town.  I don’t mean the desert where the mafia buries people, but the kind of hiking desert in the spring, after one of those crazy rainstorms that come up from the south and dry up 30 seconds after the clouds pass, but that’s the day that everything blooms.  It’s amazing, when you see that, that this place that seems lifeless is really just hiding itself.”

The clerk handed me my change, and said to her, finally verbal, “Sounds nice.”

“Yeah, it is,” she said, and gave up trying to engage him then, heading for the door. 

She walked out in front of me and when we got outside, she turned to me and said without preamble, “Can you give me a ride to 65th and Humboldt?”  I noticed her eyes then, large and brown, oddly rounded like a cartoon character, but with clear whites, not bloodshot. The address was only about six blocks out of my way and totally residential, so I said, "sure."

We got in the car and she asked me, again playing with her hair, what I did for a living. I told her I worked in training for educational testing, and she launched into telling me she has experience in sales and training and asked if we're hiring.

“No, not right now,” I said, afraid she was going to ask me for a reference next.

“Look, let me give you my number, just in case something comes up. My name is Candy 
Cartwright,” she said, and listed off her number.  

By then, we were in front of her house, a small but tidy place with deep green shutters and a linden tree listing too far toward the house. I wrote her number down on the liquor store receipt, and then she added, "I'm also a massage therapist and I do massages privately so if you're looking for one, call me." She then got out of my car, waved and smiled as I drove off.

I was left with the question: Was she a) looking for a job; b) looking for a date; or, c) looking for a John? Or maybe the moral of this story was not to let strangers into my car. 

She was petite and harmless looking, with a fresh-faced no make-up look except a hint of lipstick, wearing a t-shirt and jeans that, I confess, I'd noticed she did fill out nicely. It’s not like she was 18 years old in lime-green spandex twirling a feather boa. She was probably in her early 30s, so maybe too young for my 47 year old self. Or maybe not. My sister endlessly told me I looked so young, despite the gray at my temples.  Those long Minnesota winters did keep the sun damage down. 

Honestly, something about Candy scared me a little bit, be she lonely gal, unemployed gal, friendly hooker -- whatever she was, she was so animated, so lively, direct but also confusing.   
Back in my own house, I put the white wine in the fridge to chill and pet Roscoe the dog until he ambled off again to nap by his year-round post by the fireplace. I put her phone number in the basket on the kitchen counter where I tossed the mail. 


A week later, as I finished both a glass of wine and paying the gas and electric bills (rates went up yet again), I came across the receipt with her number. I’d googled her name at work the day after our meeting, but come up with nothing on Candy Cartwright except information on a pro-wrestler with an impressive record and a devoted following. But nothing about my neighborhood Candy.

I wished she didn’t have a name that suggested either childhood board games or hospital-striped strip teasers. I mean, someone has to be named Candy, and Candace was a bit stuffy (I went by Ed, not my given of Edward) but Candy seemed to suggest the “happy ending” type of massage, rather than therapeutic.  Still.  Who plies her trade at a suburban liquor store?  Or is opportunity everything, so she just talked and played with her hair wherever she went? 

I turned the receipt over in my hands a few times, and then put it back in the bill basket. It would be silly to call.

But an hour and two more glasses of wine later, silly didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Sometimes, when one normally says "no," it's exciting to say "yes" and  see to where the door opens. 

The phone rang four times, and I was beginning to come to the unpleasant conclusion that I would either have to leave a message, or hang-up knowing that my number would be up on her caller ID, when I heard, “Hi!”  She sounded a little breathless.

“Hi, this is Ed. I gave you a ride back from the liquor store last week?”

“Ed! Hi! It’s nice to hear from you. So is DCR hiring now? I’m a sales whiz!”

“Oh, no, I was just calling to...” Crap. Why was I calling?  To find out if you’re a hooker?  If you’re single?  If I’m not quite as middle-aged looking or feeling as I thought? “That is, you mentioned that you’re a massage therapist?  Because I think I’ve done something to my,”  Hamstring?  That would make me sound like a runner -- but no, thighs were too personal. Foot?  No, that made me sound decrepit. “…my shoulder.  I was cleaning the gutters, and I think I pulled something. And I thought of you.”  Thought of you? Could I take that back? Too late.

“Great!  Well, I should tell you - I’m not exactly licensed.  But I have good hands, really.”

“Oh, umm” Holy crap, she was a hooker. “Umm.”

“I’m not licensed in Minnesota, I should say, not yet.  I was in Vegas.  If you’re not licensed in Vegas, people think you’re a call girl.  It got annoying. I mean, seriously, go find a showgirl. They’d do anybody.”

“Oh, umm.”  Thank god for telephones, I thought, because in person, she would have seen the flood 
of blood that rushed up into my face, making my ears tingle. “Umm, no, it’s just my shoulder.”

“You don’t want to see a doctor?”

“No, it’s just something that flares up from time to time…it will unknot itself again, I just get sick of it sometimes.” This was true. Too many hours hunched over the computer left my right shoulder and up into my neck tightened up so badly that I sometimes felt like Quasimoto. 

“A massage can fix that right up, and you’ll feel great! Since I’m not licensed in MN, I can give you deal.  You just, you know, can’t sue me.  Ok?”

“OK.” We agreed to a fee and set up a time two days later.  She did her informal massages out of her house, and so I would return to the same place just six blocks away.  She suddenly seemed awkwardly close. 

On the day of my appointment, my entire back had nary a knot to be found, and I felt intimately aware of my healthy shoulders, and considered canceling.  But it wasn’t a date.  I wasn’t a John. She wasn’t applying for a job.  It was a massage, and massages were supposed to be good for your health in all sorts of ways. Why not?  I hadn’t had a woman’s hands on my back in six months, not since I’d told Miriam that no, I didn’t believe in UFOs, and that I wished she’d stop talking about them, that I wished, in fact, that she would just go. It was the least smooth break-up in my illustrious and increasingly infrequent romantic life, and I later felt bad about it, but seriously, what adult woman believes in UFOs spiriting people away?  I mean, those people not on anti-psychotics? And she called me “hon” all the time.  Not honey, but “hon.” It grated on me.

Of late, I’d spent too much time thinking about Schopenhauer’s comment that “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”

At 6:57pm, I found myself back in front of Candy’s house.  The linden tree was still listing into the gutters, probably providing a nice highway for the ants into the house. Before I was a homeowner, I never noticed these things. I hated that sometimes. 

I rang the bell, and heard her rustling behind the door with her quick step. The door swung open, and she greeting me warmly, like an old friend, with a quick hug that threw me, this expanse of heat pressed up momentarily against me, and just as fast removed. She was wearing an orange tank top and floaty gray yoga pants, and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, more evidence that this was not a date nor was she a hooker. 

She ushered me into the living room, a small space with wood floors, squishy formless sofas and an extra-large purple velour bean bag in one corner. In another corner next to the bookshelves, there was what looked a like a small altar with a photo, flower and small statue. Incense, a vaguely floral scent under some kind of sage, dry, arid, lingered in the air. 

“Great, right on time! You seem like the punctual type. So have a seat here for a minute. Do you want a glass of water?”

“No, thanks, I’m fine.” I perched on the edge of the couch, and folded my hands together in front of me. With clarity, I realized this was a terrible, terrible idea.  

She blinked at me twice, and then started to laugh. “You’re nervous! You haven’t had a massage before, have you?”

“Not a professional one, no,” I confessed. 

“Well, informal, given my licensing issues, but yeah, ok.” She reached around for her pony tail, flicking its end through her fingers once before letting if fly back again.

“So the deal is, my table is set up in the dining room.  I’ll leave the room while you undress, and then you slide under the sheet, so you have some privacy.  I mostly do Swedish massage, so pretty gentle, but I may lean into that bad shoulder a bit more.”

She continued on, quizzing me on any injuries or sensitivities, and then led me through a swinging door into the dining room.  A chandelier overhead had been chained closer to the ceiling, and was dimmed so that only a mellow glow fell over the massage table, and glinted off the glass of a china-filled breakfront in the corner. Thick blinds covered the windows.

“I figured I never used the dining room anyway, and I don’t have a table here anyway, so it became my massage room almost immediately.” 

After instructing me to position myself face down under the sheet, she left the room. 

I stood for a minute, looking at my reflection it the glass breakfront, considering the oddity of 
walking into a strange home and stripping down 5 minutes later. I shrugged, and felt, finally, my shoulder twinge, justified at last. I began to undress. Peeling off my t-shirt, I thought of the cashier at the liquor store, and wondered if he got massages here too. My sister was always telling me, live a little, leave yourself open to the world, explore new experiences, be vulnerable. I made good money at DCR, so why not blow a bit on a little weird, awkward luxury?  Might as well benefit from all that rampant capitalism.

Moments after I had settled myself into the massage table under the sheet, enjoying the mild scent of lavender in the cotton, I heard her knock on the door. “Ready?”

“Sure.” I heard the door swing open to admit her.  Looking over my shoulder, I noted she was still wearing the tank top, but now also small bike shorts of a strange murky green. She really did have a great butt.  No denying that, and not what I wanted to ponder in that particular circumstance. With the orange top and sheen of green, she seems like some kind of tropical bird, brightly colored, reflecting the little light in the dim room. 

“So your job here is to just relax, Ed.  Feel free to talk or not talk, and definitely tell me if anything hurts or is uncomfortable. I’ll ask you questions if I’m not sure on anything, but mostly, I’ll just listen to your body and let my hands do the rest.”

She lifted the sheet covering my feet, and began rubbing some kind of almond-scented oil into them.  

Her hands were remarkably strong, and all that lively energy that usually sparked out through chatter seemed to travel through her hands into my feet and ankles.  Time drifted and her hands moved.  I became aware of my breathing and how it synchronized with hers. Somewhere outside, a dog barked at car driving up the street.  A car door slammed. My feet melted away from my body.

When the front door opened with a jangle of keys, I came back to myself as Candy’s hands sprang away from my feet.

“Shit,” she said. “Sorry, Ed, it’s my roommate.  Just give me one minute.  I’ll be right back.” She pulled the sheet back over my legs. 

The person who came through the door had a heavy step, clomping into the living room.  “Candy?” he called. “Damn, I wish you’d stop burning that incense in here. It smells like a goddamn brothel.”

Candy slid through the swinging dining room door back to the living room, pausing in front of it, I realized, to make sure her form blocked any view into the room as the door swung closed again. 

And I had the revelation that I didn’t much feel like having a massage anymore.  I rolled off the table, and located my boxers and jeans, pulling them on quicker than I’d previously thought possible. Screw vulnerability. 

In the living room, I heard Candy talking. “Thor, hon, I didn’t expect you home quite so early tonight.  Slow at the bar?”

“Scheduling screw up. Larsen had already gotten there, and I figured, hell, time to go home.”

Candy dropped her voice, but since I’d now moved closer to the door as I was tucking in my shirt, could hear her say to the looming presence of Thor visible through the crack in the door, “Look, don’t be mad, Thor, but I have a client here right now.  And I sort of need to finish up. So like an hour?”

Thor said nothing for what seemed like a long moment. “You have a naked guy here in my house?”

Whispering emphatically, she said, “No, no, it’s a woman. Keep your voice down. She’s very nice. I met her through Marla. You know Marla and all her church people.”

I moved away from the door then, sat quickly in the wooden chair in the corner to lace up my shoes, trying to figure a way out of being part of what could blossom into an unpleasant domestic matter. “Look, I’m going upstairs,” Thor said. “You finish up, but, Jesus, Candy, we’ve talked about this.  I don’t like having you rub all these people running around the house. Get Marla’s friend out the door fast, and then let’s get some dinner. I wanted a night home with you.”

Candy said, “I wouldn’t have scheduled her today if I’d known, hon. Thanks.”

I heard the perfunctory smack of their lips, and then Thor’s clomping feet going upstairs. 
Candy came swinging back through the door, looked from the table to me now dressed and sitting in the corner. 

“Oh,” she said.  “You heard?”

“I heard. I think maybe I should go, Candy.”  She looked at me mournfully, the animation drained from her, and said, “Yes, I suppose so.”

By unspoken accord, she held open the door for me, and then rushed to the front door, unlocking it as quietly as possible.  I turned to look at her as I exited, her face impassive, and heard Thor from upstairs saying, “Candy?  Marla just texted saying she wants to know who you mean?” His voice started moving closer coming down the stairs, “She said she hasn’t referred anyone to you, Candy.”

I started running down the front walk then, my oily feet sliding around in my socks and the night air full of the warmth of blooming garden smells.  I fumbled with my keys getting the car door unlocked, and looked to see Thor on the front steps, filling the frame with his height and breadth. He came bolting down the walk. I opened the car door, clear then that I could peel away in time, and looked up to see Candy silhouetted in the doorway. 

And with that, I closed the door again without getting in. I watched Thor’s progress toward me and heard the high pitch of Candy’s voice as she yelled at Thor, “Hon! Hon! He’s a nice man! Get back here, you big jerk!”  But Thor wasn’t listening to Candy.  To my right, the porch lights went on at the house next door.  Candy stepped off the front stairs, following Thor’s route toward me.  Thor, young, blond, the god of thunder carried his storm toward me as I waited by my dusty Corolla. 

I had never felt more alive. 

Every good story starts with a bad decision.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Summer Holiday

Although I was not intending it to be the case, Artful Mistakes (and I) ended up taking the summer off.  Creative work was still going on, albeit in my usual sporadic way, but I didn't have much to say about it.  After feeling bad about my neglect of this blog and accompanying implied shoddy work ethic, I've now opted for a broader view. A fallow period in any project can be wise in that it provides the opportunity for context, reflection and course corrections.

Artful Mistakes: A Short History

Artful Mistakes started as a place for me, a relatively private person, to be more public in my wranglings with art. I also hoped to start conversations and perhaps collaborations with other arty-inclined friends.

I started this blog in the very tail end of 2009, a few months after my brother's death. In retrospect, his death was the first several events punctuating a tough era of my life, one from which only fairly recently would I say I've emerged.

While my stated initial intent was to write about art in its many forms (writing, painting, photography, music, the creative process, etc.), what I also ended up writing about was absence, loss, grief, and difficult relationships, be they with the living, the dead, fictional characters or thorny art projects.  In writing about all of those, I necessarily wrote about healing and finding peace, the way out of dark places.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and died in 2013.  A man I knew killed himself in 2013. Another friend of mine's mother, Betty, an enormously kind woman who among other brave moves taught me how to drive, passed away in 2013 also.  Other family members had concerning, complicated health issues. I moved multiple times - DC, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Florida - disrupting local support networks, and pursued romantic relationships that were stressful and ill-fated. It was no wonder I was having trouble moving out of grief.

One marvelous aspect of art is that it provides an indirect way into touchy topics.  My mother, for instance, became a consistent reader of my blog, and in that somewhat circuitous way, I think we began to know each other in a different way, not just as mother and child but also as readers, armchair philosophers, and lovers of beauty also put upon by griefs that preceded and followed my brother death.  Also, because this blog is public, any commentary was much less fraught or pointed than any email or phone call -- it was just what I was thinking about, and Mom could connect with it or not; it wasn't a barometer of our own personal relationship.

Of course, I suspected some pieces Mom would like more than others, just as I knew other family readers would like some more than others too. Some of those opinions were based on artistic merit, but often, it was also personal opinion and style -- and sometimes I was surprised by who liked what. Unexpectedly, friends would find something on a post to which they connected, and sometimes strangers, or near strangers.

One offshoot of this blog is that I was often uncomfortably aware that people could, if they liked to read, know a great deal more about me than I did about them.  Although I wish my writing more often had larger scope, I am largely a confessional writer. And, of course, some folks whom I wished would riveted by all things about me (me me me me me) did not commit each post to memory, much to my dismay.

Particularly during my mother's illness and for some time after her death, I struggled with, yeah, the meaning of life.  It became abundantly clear that time was short.  My brother's death showed that death could come out of nowhere, sudden, harsh, final.  My mother's illness pointed out that not only is it short, but that quality of life is of consideration too.  My friend's suicide made that even more clear as I floundered in and out of my own depressions, hoping to avoid coming to the same solution he decided upon.

I used art to communicate what sometimes I could not articulate, or could barely piece together. One of my first paintings - dreadful and not at all true to life, but one very large canvas - was of my mother and brother together.  And in working on that, I saw an insight into nuances of their relationship that I likely could not ever have seen had I not spent so much time staring at a photo of them and wondering about particular expressions and all the time that came before that moment, and the short time that would come after it and how to translate that onto canvas.  The literal struggle of understanding the angles of people's faces explored the more complex struggle of trying to understand the internal world of people I loved.

I would give a great deal to sit and talk to my mother again, or just sit and hold her hand. I would give almost anything to have been able to magically take away her cancer and give her a longer life. Instead, I only see her in dreams, usually with my brother in attendance.

So what I am saying in again, a somewhat circuitous way, is that art is one thing that kept me afloat during a sometimes isolated and tumultuous time.  I didn't know that's what Artful Mistakes was about for a while, although I realized I wrote about the dead too often for it to be a Fun, Lighthearted blog, and that my writing is (as this post is as well) often too personal for some folks. Probably, I have lost some work opportunities because of this blog, but possibly, I have also been given some opportunities because of this blog as well.  Certainly the warmth and conversations it had generated have more than made up for the discomforts of exposure and vulnerability.

Artful Mistakes: Looking Ahead

And now here I am back to life, and a fallow period (perhaps) coming to a close, grief managed as much as any losses ever are.  My address is constant, my friends and family solid, and one ancient cat still purrs next to me.  Many things still need to be figured out -- it's life, you don't just arrive one day, the decisions big and little keep on -- but I know I am more solid at the core.

acrylic on canvas
What that means for my creative life, and how it will manifest in this blog, I'm not sure.  My current painting in progress is Ophelia from Hamlet.  In some ways, I'll always be drawn to darker subjects. But before her, there was Tree of Life.  My hope is that my art will be more about exploration and curiosity, more external, less internal, and more connected.

When I was researching post-traumatic stress disorder for a former client, I had opportunity to learn another term: post-traumatic growth. After the bad times can sometimes come a leap forward.  And I am hoping that leap is next for me after this fallow period, that the ground is restored and ready for new growth.

Like everyone, I have regrets - things I wish I had done, thing I wish I hadn't.  But I'm resolving to to look forward more than backwards, to look toward those adventures yet to be had, love and laughter and all the other greeting-card sentiments that are, as those cards proclaim, the moments that make our lives quirky, creative and wondrous.