Creative Non-Fiction

This Old Thing?


They’re called fox tails. Of course, they aren’t foxes at all. They’re minks lined up nose to tail, their little glass eyes making them look like escapees from the taxidermist’s shop. Back in the day, sophisticated ladies wore them around their necks. Back in my day, I wore them, too. But mainly for fun, and because in the ’70’s, we wore all kinds of things.

When these fox tails were new, they belonged to Grandma John. That’s your great-grandma on your dad’s side. She was gone before you were born.

Her real name was Sarah, but the family called her Grandma John. You see, John Winkler, her second husband, was the only grandpa your dad and his sisters had ever known, and they called him Grandpa John, so I guess her being tagged as Grandma John just naturally followed.

I met her on my visit to meet my prospective in-laws. My first look at western Kansas was in the middle of a blizzard, and I slept my first night with the strangers who plucked your dad and me from the storm, although they were, technically, relatives of relatives. It was the next afternoon before we were able to tunnel through the snowdrifts to Grandma John’s home.

You would have liked her ranch-style house. The front room was spacious, and it was completely 1950’s. The couch was square and firm, the drapes at the big picture window were made of bark cloth, and the carpet was that hard, knobby wool that discouraged stocking feet. The room looked like it had seen lots of ladies’ club meetings and bridge games.

However, the kitchen wasn’t 1950’s. It was timeless. In the center was a work table with a marble top, and the walls were lined with white built-in cabinets, the uppers fronted with glass, behind which were all the beautiful crockery, china, and home-canned goods Grandma John employed to serve the meals which helped you forgive her astringent personality.

She made no fuss over me when we were introduced. Now that I know more about the chemistry and politics of the family, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even cause a ripple in her puddle. But I didn’t feel unwelcome. Maybe I was too exhausted from the blizzard, maybe I was too young and full of myself to notice when I was being snubbed, or maybe she was just being herself, and I felt comfortable with that. Whatever the reason, I covered up with a hand-crocheted granny-square afghan and fell asleep on that hard couch while she cooked dinner for the family who were arriving later.

How did I get her fox tails? Well, years later, she gave them to me out of her closet one Christmas, as an after-thought, when she realized she had given faux-fur coats to your Aunt Dixie and Aunt Ramona, and she had gifted me with a length of yard goods from her remnant box.

I think I got the better deal.


Flash Fiction

A Giraffe Under a Full Moon


I once asked Henry if he ever felt itchy all over, and he looked at me like I might have bed bugs.

“Well, no, I don’t think I ever have felt like that,” he answered in that measured way of talking that he has. As if he must be careful to prevent a bomb from going off because of vibrations.

“Well, I do–quite frequently,” I informed him. “I’m itchy right now. I need to get out of here. This town–these people are making me itch.”

“Perhaps you just need to use more moisturizer,” suggested Henry. Henry is sometimes infuriatingly literal.

“It’s not that kind of itch, you ignorant twit! Gallons of lotion, even the extreme, lanolin-enriched, Shea butter, aloe-infused kind couldn’t help this itch. It’s a “let’s ditch school”– “get out of Dodge”– “If I have to hear one more word she has to say, I’ll explode” kind of itch.”

“Well, I think if you’d just take a deep breath and maybe count to ten, things would look different to you,” offered Henry with his eyes imploring me to be normal.

“Oh, Henry, do you never long for a change?”

“Sure. I like variety. I try to shake things up a little. I vary my diet, and sometimes I take a different route home. You know, just for interest’s sake.”

“Well, I need more than eating beans instead of peas. I want to see lava burning down the side of a volcano. I want to come face to face with a giraffe on the African savannah under a full moon. I want my night dreams to be as uneventful as my life is now, and my daydreams to be overwhelmed with the thunder of real-life adventures.”

Henry looked at me a long time, as if he were getting used to bed bugs, took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and said, “Take off your shoes and get in the car.”
Cheese Doodles and Other Misunderstandings–Made with real cheese that gives a melt-in-your-mouth flavor you can’t resist.

Creative Non-Fiction

New Mercies Every Morning

For the past month, Jen and I have been walking together in the mornings with our dogs. I say we walk together, but my daughter walks much faster than I do, and so I am constantly trailing behind, much to the frustration of Duckie, my Chihuahua/terrier mix. Duckie would much rather be up ahead with Hank and Penny, but I make her accompany me on the first half of the walk, and then I trade dogs with Jen on the way back. I hand over Duckie, and Jen gives Hank’s leash to me. He is the the old guy and is usually content to match his stride to mine for the end of our walk.

Most mornings around 7:30, we drive about ten minutes to the south end of Vallecito Lake and walk across the dam, which is restricted to pedestrian traffic. We are usually the only ones there, and that makes it seem such an extravagance to have all this grandeur to ourselves.  Sometimes we meet a jogger, another walker or two, or we might see a fisherman on the water, but not this morning. This morning, it is just for us. The grand scale of lake, sky, and mountains is laid out before us offering beauty to feed our souls.

The mountains surrounding the lake are a patchwork of still-green and already-golden aspens, dark evergreens, scrub oak that come in a selection of burgundy, orange, and brown, and the black trunks of burned trees that stand like exclamation points reminding us of the forest fire fifteen years ago.

This fall has been different than we are used to. Mostly, our falls are sunny and warm with undertones of cool, crisp air. This year, fall has been cloudy, cool, and rainy without being soggy. The high peaks are dusted with snow. This morning, the air is soft against my skin and tastes sweet as I see how deeply I can breathe it in.

The clouds hang low, threatening to release the rain they carry heavy in their grey bellies. It is cool this autumn morning, and I have started out wearing layers. Colorado is all about layers because of how quickly the weather can change. I have on a short sleeved t-shirt, a hoody, and a nylon windbreaker which is my insurance against rain. I also wear a fleece beanie as protection from the wind which hits my ears as I walk east across the dam. The beanie is the first thing I shed on my way back. I have generated heat by walking, and the wind is behind me while walking in this direction. I remove my windbreaker and tie it around my waist.

There are new sensations that meet me this morning as I make my way across the dam. The weathervane, atop the shed that houses the dam’s machinery and controls, announces the wind with syllables of metal squeaking against metal. The spot at the beginning of the path, which for two weeks has smelled like skunk, no longer does. I notice a red buoy in the water and the small whirlpool it marks, where the water rushes down through itself and then pours out of the lake. I can hear the water boiling down the length of the flume on its way to irrigation ditches, rivers, other lakes, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

I pray as I walk. I pray for a friend’s healing, a family member making a hard decision, my husband’s strength, that my children would have joy, and for my grandchildren to develop discernment. And I pray that this walk will begin to slim my thighs.

Morning by morning.



Birdie's Eye View

My Summer Vacation

As a child, Birdie had always hated for summer to end and for school to start. She grieved the loss of unscheduled time. In summer, she savored the days stretching out before her with no real obligations except for roller skating, swimming, and lolling about on a pallet on the kitchen floor, reading endless library books, eating green grapes, and enjoying the breezes that the large Hobart window-fan sucked up from the cool recesses of the basement.

Birdie made good grades, she had friends, and the teachers seemed to like her, so why she didn’t enjoy school was something of a puzzle. Looking back on it, Birdie suspects what nettled her was the enforced interruption of the time she would have rather spent daydreaming.

Certainly, school authorities frowned on daydreaming. It was not part of the curriculum and played havoc with their sense of structure and the molding of young minds. Miss Florence, Birdie’s first grade teacher, had dealt harshly with Birdie’s propensity for daydreaming. Birdie, with much sobbing, spent an inordinate amount of time standing out in the hall “until you can pay attention to your work!”  The threat to keep Birdie after school was also one of Miss Florence’s tools to combat Birdie’s tendency to float on her daydreams when she should have been focusing on her assignments.

Perhaps Miss Florence prevailed, as Birdie did finally begin applying her attention to the tasks at hand rather than running off into an imaginary world during the time spent at her school desk. Still, all through her school career, Birdie regarded it as a poor way to use the days she had been allotted on this earth.

In particular, Birdie remembers that perennial, onerous assignment: My Summer Vacation. If she had to write that paper now, she would let daydreaming rule, and it would go something like this:

What I Did This Summer
by Birdie

This summer many things happened. I grew lots of beautiful flowers. Surprisingly, there were no weeds at all in my garden, and the deer did not eat any of the blossoms.

While working in my garden, I got a beautiful tan, and the amazing thing is that the sun did not cause me to have lines, wrinkles, or dry skin, but it did cause me to lose weight. I am now a size 6.

This summer, I also cleaned out all my closets and drawers. I organized everything, and in the process,  found my birth certificate. How lovely to learn that I am really only 39.

And that’s what I did this summer.


CheeseDoodles and Other Misunderstandings

Handyman’s Dream


The first time I saw it, there was a small placard in the window that said, “FREE”. The property where it was parked had been vacant for months. So, when a large sign appeared naming Allan Ridgeway as the person who had abandoned the van, it definitely seemed there was someone who was offended by the van, by the trespass, and, perhaps, by Allan himself.

I think where Allan Ridgeway went wrong was in his marketing. If he’d approached it differently, the van might have been snapped up even before the parking spot’s owner would’ve had the time to find his magic marker.

Allan should have offered it at a price. Most folks figure if something’s free, it’s worth just that. And he should have called it a quirky, rustic tiny-house. Allan, what were you thinking? Now you’ve been labeled as the guy who dumps his trash in someone else’s back yard.

This morning, as I drove past, the van was gone. It’s a mystery. Did Allan Ridgeway have an attack of conscience? Did a mafia hit-man cut off the van’s carburetor and lay it, along with all the greasy gore, on Allan’s bed while he was sleeping? Or is someone, somewhere, setting up housekeeping in a rustic and quirky tiny-house?

CheeseDoodles and Other Misunderstandings

Happy ________ day!

The other day, as I was driving through town, an SUV pulled in front of me that had a grimy back window. Someone had scrawled in the dust one word. VAGINA.

I remember when it was thought clever to scribble WASH ME on a dirty car, but why would someone inscribe vagina on the back window of a car?

I think some terms should be known but not spoken. Or in this case, advertised. I’m pretty sure that if I had a dollar for every time I’ve said vagina out loud, I would have less than a dollar.

Vagina isn’t a dirty word. It’s just a kind of private word. Not something to come up in ordinary conversation unless you’re a doctor. It’s even kind of clinical. Not at all nasty or kinky. Definitely an odd choice for dust graffiti.

I know that people are always trying to drum up interest in whatever cause they believe in. They run races, volunteer for dunk-tanks, ask for Facebook likes, spend time in pretend jail. They use all kinds of social media to point a big arrow at the band wagon they want you to jump on. Maybe someone had used the old school  social media of a dirty window. So, I thought, “Maybe it’s Vagina Awareness Day. Not that I’ll celebrate.”

Once I got home, I looked on, and nothing was listed for vagina. There was National Nude Day, National Tape Measure Day, and National Static Electricity Day, among many others. Imagine the greeting card for that:


In my research, I actually found something on the calendar I can get behind. I’ve decided to let my car’s rear window get good and dirty, and on September 19, I’ll write, “Arrgh!” In honor of “Talk Like a Pirate Day”.


Creative Non-Fiction

The Snowstorm

The snow has been falling for three days, and the trees are heavy with white as the snow inches up hour by hour. Sometimes, the flakes, tiny and hard to see, rush to meet the ground. At other times they are big and thick, and float lazily down. Falling snow has the same hypnotic effect as a flowing stream or a blazing fire, and it’s hard for me to look away.

The storm reduces the landscape to white, grey, and black. The sky is a pearl, thick with snow not yet fallen or perhaps, already on its way down. Wind currents cause the snow to swirl as it reaches for the ground.

My world has gotten smaller as the snow diminishes my visibility, and I am left with the room where I sit, the window by my chair, and the bush just outside the window where the chickadees wait for their turn at the feeder.

The pine siskins quarrel with one another as they eat bird seed on my window ledge. Huddled against the cold, they look through the window pane, reminding me of urchins in a Dickens novel.

My thoroughly-housed cat crouches in nervous and impotent anticipation. The siskins are single-minded in their devotion to eating until the cat, unable to contain herself any longer, springs toward them, hitting the glass. The birds fly away in a frenzy of flapping wings, winnowing the chaff from the seeds. The embarrassed cat applies herself to grooming, and after a moment, the birds settle in again, looking like black letters on a white page.

When a storm like this is in full sway, it seems that the snow is all that has ever existed. It is impossible for me to imagine the sky as clear, blue, and limitless. This low, opaque sky is my only reality.

Perhaps, tomorrow, the storm will have passed, and the sun will be out again enforcing the colors of blue and green, giving a sparkling clarity to the white, and causing the fir trees to dump their loads. I will put on my parka and boots, grab my snow shovel, and blaze a trail to the mailbox. I will gaze, with eyes made tearful by the brilliance, at the snow-covered peaks on the northern horizon.

But, for now, I welcome the imposed solitude the storm brings as it draws its gauzy curtains of falling snow around me.


Creative Non-Fiction

Oh, That I Might Be Delivered From the Bands of Anguish. That The Cords of Suffering Would Be Severed.

My first bra was lying on the bed when I came in after school that day in the spring of my seventh-grade year. Seventh-grade may seem late for a girl’s first bra, but it was right on schedule for the stick-girl that was me.

The bra was small and white and stiff, and later that evening, I found out it was also scratchy. I should have laundered it before wearing, to remove the industrial-strength sizing that was integrated into the fibers of the bra, but my family didn’t own an automatic washer or dryer, and there was no time to wash by hand and line dry this deceitful scrap of cotton and elastic.

There was no time because I was scheduled to help serve a special dinner being held for the teachers at the school cafeteria that evening.  I and the rest of my seventh-grade class would be hunched over steam tables, operating commercial high-temperature automatic dishwashers, dodging bits of uneaten food, and trying not to touch all the things we would have to handle that evening. All in a room with no air-conditioning.

In my ignorance, I assumed that it was time to begin wearing a bra full-time. Right then. If I had known then what I know now about the comfort-factor of any bra, I would have entered into this new phase of my life much more cautiously. I would have started out more slowly. I would have put it in my dresser drawer and looked at it briefly two to three times a week for–say, a month or two. Then I would have begun wearing it for short spans of time–like a break-in period. Perhaps five or ten minutes here and there. Once I was familiar with the hooking and the strapping and the chafing and the binding and the riding up that the bra presented, I would have visualized myself wearing the bra someplace besides my bedroom. Like an athlete that imagines the race over and over before she faces the real thing, I would have readied myself for wearing the bra in real life.

But I didn’t know, and so I did none of this preparation. I strapped on this unknown, unexplored undergarment around my uninitiated body and set off for the dinner.

My breasts, at this age, were not readily noticeable to anyone but me, so the wrinkles in my shirt caused by the unfilled cups of the bra stood out like huge blots on my chest. Furthermore, since we had been instructed to wear white button-up shirts for this affair, every strap and band of the bra not only showed through the shirt, but seemed to be magnified. I was sure the first thing everyone would think when they looked at me was, “Good grief, Stick Girl is wearing a bra.”

However, my embarrassment fell quickly to second place in my consciousness because anytime your body is intruded upon by something from the outside that is new and uncomfortable, like contact lenses, thong underwear, or your first bra, it’s all you can feel. It’s all you can think about–most probably the way a convict feels with his first set of shackles. There could have been an earthquake, and as I was extricating myself from the rubble, I would have been pulling at that bra to ease its binding effect.

Added to that, was the heat and humidity that a commercial kitchen generates. The bra was getting closer and closer to my skin, and I was beginning to feel all the discomfort that the combination of stiff fabric, binding elastic, heat, high humidity, and awkwardness can deliver.

Every time I asked- “Would you like gravy on your mashed potatoes?”, every time I scraped or rinsed a dirty tray, every time I felt perspiration trickle down my chest, my thoughts cried out, “Take this thing off!” I was miserable. I needed relief. I was desperate to escape the torture that had assailed my body and was tormenting my mind.

There have been times since then when I haven’t equated relief with taking off my bra, although those times are foggy in my memory-perhaps due to a circulatory problem caused by the bra itself. But recently, well, my body has once again recognized its enemy and persuades me, whenever possible, to take it off and toss it.

Flash Fiction

High Desert Homestead


It was a start. Four walls, a door, windows that looked out onto sunshine. A cellar to keep vegetables in. Blue sky above us and the golds, browns, and tans of a November without snow.

Then the warm autumn breeze changed its face to a cold winter wind, and my bright expectations faded to thoughts that staggered between survival and escape. As December came and relentlessly turned into January and then February, I knew that the wind wanted me gone. It didn’t care if I left while I was still alive and able to say goodbye, or if I lay down in the bed and died while burrowing in the blankets, trying to hide from its abuse.

The wind leaked into the house and bit with its cold teeth, sneaking up the back of my neck, and puddling at my feet making my toes ache. It howled and moaned, delivering my mind into dark corners with no hope of spring or warmth or light or human voice.

I began thinking of it as my trouble. Like a chronic disease that cannot be cured–that keeps fierce vigil at night and greets in the morning with hateful vigor.

By paulajwray

This piece of flash fiction won 2nd place in the Trifecta Writing Challenge on 5/17/12