Sighs Matters

The sigh floated up through the tunnel, a dark wisp twisting and turning through the winding dirt until at last it reached the surface. It hung there briefly, a small, dark cloud, before dissipating into a thousand droplets of despair.

Far below the ground, the woodchuck lay on her back on the dirt floor of her burrow. It had been a bad week. Actually, it had been a bad three and a half years, but somehow everything seemed compounded in the last few days. She was tired of being sad, sick of watching the news and even more terrified of not watching it. She knew it made sense to back off a bit and take her ignorance into hibernation, but if she didn’t stay informed, how could she call herself a citizen? She sighed again, and watched the exhaled breath float above her head, already starting to surf the current of breeze that occasionally circulated through the tunnel.

“Philomena, it’s going to be okay,” a soothing voice whispered next to her ear. The woodchuck startled at the sound of her cousin’s voice, sitting up quickly and banging her head on the ceiling.

“Shirley, how did you get in here?!” she shrieked, rubbing the rising bump. “And how did you know I was worried?”  

“Phil, I know you so well that I always can tell when you’re upset. Also, there was a toxic cloud of black vapor that looked like a dementor just imploded hanging above the entrance of your burrow. No one does despair quite as visually as you do.”

“Shirley, I heard there was going to be a coop! It must be the chickens — you know they get very protective about where they lay their eggs.”

“Phil, it’s a coup, which is not exactly the same thing, and it’s a fowl thought but the chickens are not involved. It’s about claiming the election is rigged, but nothing is going to happen if we all vote. There are more of us and we just have to get organized and make sure everyone knows what to do. Here, I brought you something.”

Shirley thrust a paper into the woodchuck’s paw. It was a list of names of animals from various parts of the forest. “It’s part of a letter writing campaign. We’re sending hand-written messages to try to convince all of our relatives to vote.”

The woodchuck considered the list before her. Damn, she had a lot of cousins. “I can’t write to all of these groundhogs!” she exclaimed. “I don’t have an opposable thumb!”

“You don’t have to write to all of them,” Shirley replied. “Just take the top five on the list and start with those. Doing something will give you a sense of control, and maybe that cyclone of sighs hovering over your burrow will finally dissolve.”

After Shirley had crawled up the tunnel toward home, the woodchuck sat and thought for a long time. Could this possibly make a difference? It really didn’t seem like it could. This was a waste of time, because who would listen to a simple woodchuck? What a dumb idea.

She noticed something sitting on her dresser. It was a delicate, white lace collar. She touched the fragile piece, and then slowly tied it around her neck. She inhaled deeply, but her exhale this time was not a sigh, but a deep, cleansing breath. She picked up her pencil and began to write.

You may not get a letter from the woodchuck, but you could write to some other groundhogs —or voters! Go to https://votefwd.org/bigsend and check out The Big Send!

The Fascist and the Furious

The woodchuck was sleeping heavily, her beanbag body a mound of relaxed fur, when she suddenly snorted and sat up. She had been tense when the pandemic started and had decided to try yoga to find some inner peace. At the end of the video, she closed her eyes for shavasana. This was always her favorite yoga position, the one where you lay on the floor of your burrow and don’t move. Unfortunately, she had shavasana-ed a little too hard and accidentally gone into hibernation. She glanced at her iPhone and realized she had been asleep for five months.

“It’s August?!” she screeched. “How is that possible? Didn’t this thing start in March?” Assuming there must be some kind of mistake, she crawled up the tunnel and cautiously poked her head out. Hoping for the chartreuse vibrancy of newly leafed out trees and the floating perfume of cherry blossoms, she instead found parched, yellow grass and dead cicadas, the signs of the end of a long, hot summer. A red leaf floated down, landed briefly on her head and then swirled away, caught in the updraft as an adult rabbit rushed by. The woodchuck watched it in astonishment.

“Hey, when were you born?” she shouted. The meadow should be full of baby bunnies, not hares who rudely ignored you. It suddenly occurred to her what this fully-grown rabbit meant. She had missed mating season.

She fell back into the deep burrow, finally landing with a thump in the TV lounge. She felt unsettled and restless – a whole chunk of her life had passed by while she had been doing yoga (sleeping) and watching Netflix (sleeping). She paced across the dirt floor and thought maybe a little television would distract her. Groundhog Day was on.

She threw the remote at the screen. She HATED Groundhog Day. It was on every streaming channel at all hours of the night. Who was programming this crap? Everything about this movie irritated her, although she did like the part where the groundhog drives.

She decided she needed to put her disapproval in a strongly worded letter. There was nothing more effective than voicing your opinion in a well-written complaint, especially if you had beautiful penmanship, which she did.

A few hours later, she had envelopes addressed to the heads of Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus. She didn’t really have a subscription to the last one, but she was on a roll and felt like everyone would be interested in her thoughts on this subject. (She had actually watched Hamilton on Disney, but that had been using a borrowed password from her cousin Shirley. She hoped this letter would not cause her cousin to change the password.)

The woodchuck crawled back up to the surface and cautiously started across the field to a nearby mailbox. She stopped in confusion when she got to the spot where she usually mailed her Christmas cards. There was nothing but an empty space and four mangled bolts in the sidewalk. That was strange, but she knew there was another one a few blocks away. She serpentined between parked cars, watching carefully for scooters.

She was relieved to see that the mailbox was still there, and as she got closer, realized that there was something spray painted on the front of it. In white letters, someone had stenciled This Machine Kills Fascists.

The woodchuck had no idea what a fascist was, but she had heard this expression before. Her cousin Woody used to sing this all the time. She had always thought Woody was a dumb name for a woodchuck (would you name a horse horsie?), but the Guthrie side of the family had always been kind of odd.

She noticed there was a leg missing from the mailbox and heard a scraping sound. There was a weasel gnawing at another leg, his razor-sharp teeth causing sparks to fly like a blow torch. If he got through this leg, the whole mailbox was going over.

The woodchuck knew it was up to her to save the mailbox and preserve her cousin’s legacy. As quietly as a rodent with 80 percent body fat can move, she snuck up behind the weasel and bit him hard on the ass. The weasel howled and leapt in the air, smacking his head into the undercarriage of the mailbox. Yellow cartoon stars circled his noggin.

“Why did you do that?!” screamed the weasel, collapsing onto the sidewalk. “You made me break a tooth!”

“Because my cousin says the only way to fight fascism is with this mailbox! Now get out of here, and tell your friend the Fox we won’t put up with this anymore!”

The weasel picked up his broken fang and slunk away. There was going to be hell to pay back at the office — he’d only managed to gnaw down one mailbox so far. Those metal legs were a lot harder than he had thought they would be.

The woodchuck mailed her letters and dashed back to her burrow. She felt a sense of accomplishment as though she was part of something bigger than she was, although she had no idea what that might be. She was also really bummed that she had missed mating season.

(This fable was inspired by a real mailbox with the words of Woody Guthrie stenciled on it. You know what you have to do. Get those ballots in early! And buy stamps!)

Heinz Sight

(A brief pause in The Ripple Effect—
it’s been an intense few weeks)

Last summer, on what started as a lovely stroll along the lakefront, a friend of mine who was born and raised in Chicago scoffed at me when I attempted to declare my citizenship of the city. “This has been my kind of town for over forty years!” I protested. “Doesn’t count,” she declared. “You didn’t grow up here, so that makes you a poseur.” We waved goodbye and headed off in different directions, with me hoping that she might get swept off the shore by an errant wave. How long do you have to live in a place before you can claim it as your own? I wondered as I walked away. True, there had been a stint in the suburbs that many Chicago natives would consider disqualifying, even though I had lived in a variety of city neighborhoods both before and after that jaunt away from the lake. People here are such sticklers —just the fact that I put ketchup on my hot dog is enough to get me kicked out of my zip code.

I felt a bit rebellious as I wandered among the patches of native plants and wildflowers that flourished in the great garden next to Millennial Park and thought about how much I loved  Chicago. This memory is pre-pandemic, so my defiance was not of the rules announced by our mayor—she had shut down the lakefront after hordes of people descended upon it the first warm day of spring. It was my own need to push back against the perception that I hadn’t earned the right to claim the city as my own. I may be an outcast because of my condiment choice, but my memories are powerful and the connection I felt was one I refused to deny.

The prairie looked like a Monet, all pastels and smudged edges, fitting since some of the originals hang in the Art Institute across the street. When the garden was first installed, the iron girders that enclosed it were black against the sky, an ugly framework that mirrored the railroad tracks that had been filled in to accommodate the park. The hedges within them were mostly twigs with a few pops of green, but posted signs assured us that one day the bushes would obscure the iron lattice. Next to the garden was the great lawn that was open to the sky and stars, and concerts were held there that filled the soft air with music that fed your soul as you lounged on quilts and fed yourself fried chicken.

Even when we lived in the suburbs, my family always came back to the lakefront when the weather warmed up. I remember one perfect summer evening when we parked in the underground garage and then climbed the ramp leading up to the grassy sitting area. My six-year-old son had been allowed to bring a large bucket of Legos as his distraction of choice, provided he carry it himself from the car. Joyful at the prospect of a picnic and possibly ice cream, he swung the bucket in a circle over his head. Alas, centrifugal force had taken the night off, and we watched in horror as a thunderous storm of primary colors rained down on our heads, red and yellow and blue plastic bricks bouncing maniacally in every direction, sliding down the ramp toward the very bowels of the parking garage and through God knows whatever may have been on that cement floor. Remember life before Covid19 germs? We scooped up the Legos with our bare hands and threw them back in the bucket, and my son played with them for the rest of the evening. I told myself it would strengthen his immune system.

My children grew up on these lawns, watching fireworks and concerts from huge blankets covered with friends and food and decks of Uno cards. Seeing those hedges fill in as the years went by was like having a piney growth chart to measure their march toward adulthood. Now the greenery obscures the framework, with the parental support barely peeking through.

The Chicago that is immortalized in print by writers like Carl Sandburg or Studs Terkel has a palette that is primarily dark – lots of gritty browns and steely grays and bloody stockyards, with blue collar workers and blatant racism against black families. But it also has a lake with hues as varied as the Caribbean, aquas and indigos that seem impossible in a body of water with a mud bottom and a booming population of zebra mussels. The city is full of contrasts and inconsistencies across the full color spectrum, and its reflection through a prism would be a rainbow of people and problems.

I recognize the flaws of the city, even as I claim it as my own. We all have issues that are embarrassing, I thought, as I held the hot dog in my left hand and firmly squirted a wavy line of the forbidden red nectar. It mixed with the bright yellow mustard and a relish so green that it glowed in the dark.

The Ripple Effect (Day 37)

I try to avoid stereotypes whenever possible. Lacking in originality, they are annoying because they demonstrate a certain laziness on the part of the writer. They exist because they function as a type of code, a way to explain something without going into great detail that someone might not want to read. This is handy because we are all so pressed for time lately.

Social media is full of these labels right now; with so many people documenting their confinements, it’s hard not to sort folks into tidy boxes. Other people’s vacations have always looked better online, and that is also true of pandemic posts. Here is the competent mom homeschooling her children; that one is the hilarious sports nut who is narrating his dog’s race to finish dinner first. Further down the feed you will find various posts documenting dinner, exercise and wine consumption. We have all been divided into categories by this digital Sorting Hat, and more of us are landing in Hufflepuff than we would have liked.

Apparently, I am a cliché as well, as is evidenced by those memory prompts that show up at the beginning of my Facebook feed. Judging by that data alone, I am a single woman with cats. This is a trope so judgmental that it has been the basis for countless loser sitcom characters and even a Broadway musical. The stereotype immediately calls forth a lonely older woman, often crazy, who walks upon cat-pee soaked carpets surrounded by dozens of felines who are just waiting for her to croak so they can eat her face.

While there may be the tiniest modicum of truth in that description (mine probably will eat my face), I am here to defend the reputation of my fellow online feline lovers. We may be alone but we are not lonely. We have many remarkable qualities and talents; it’s simply that those don’t photograph as well as our cats.

Do not pity or mock us, for we who are going solo with our pets have developed  remarkable symbiotic relationships. We can share the stockpiled cans of tuna we have been hoarding since the pandemic began. When the heat is turned down to conserve electricity, our fingers will not freeze as we type, for there is often a furry body fully draped across the keyboard, its hind leg twitching as we feel around under the haunch to find the shift key. We do not envy the families with small children, planning activities for learning and exhausting the day’s curriculum by 9:30am as their young students prove why those Teacher Appreciation Day gifts from the past were so important. Our companions fight to participate in naptime, a skill that we have all gotten remarkably good at during this confinement.

My cats and I enjoy Binge Watching, as it provides quality lap time while I lay motionless on the couch, the only sign of activity a quick flick of the remote when the television asks me Do you want to continue watching Netflicks? The first week or so in confinement, I watched all seven seasons of Mad Men. That is 91 episodes, or 68.25 hours. I was sorry when it was over.

“You know what your aunt used to say?
If you’re lonely, get a cat.
They live 13 years,
then you get another one,

and another one after that.
Then you’re done.”

Now more than ever, it’s important not to reduce people to the flat portrayals that we see online. We all have more depth and dimension than is visible on a monitor. We are not our Instagram profiles. We are not Kardashians.

Someday, maybe soon, maybe later, we will stumble out toward the fresh air and rediscover the depths of intellect and emotion that is hidden inside those stereotypes that box us in online. And when that time is finally here and we are bathed in the light, my first thought will probably be Damn, I have a lot of cat hair on me.

The Ripple Effect (Day 13)

People.

I shouldn’t have to be writing this. You know better. But common sense seems to be about as scarce as N95 masks right now, so I’m going to say this one more time:

STOP SPITTING ON THE SIDEWALK!!!!

Yeah, I went all caps there. It seemed necessary. You may not think this is a big problem, but at least three times in the past week, as I have timidly ventured out of my house, gloved and wrapped in scarves like I was in the Witness Protection Program, attempting to gulp some air that has not been recirculated through the cat hair filter that is my apartment, I have seen runners nonchalantly hock a big loogie of snot from their nasal passages and whip it out of their mouths like they were Leo teaching Kate how to do it off the side of the Titanic.

I apologize for that sentence.

Taking a walk is one of the few pleasures we can indulge in during these germy days, and the thought of stepping in the excess body fluids of anyone who isn’t man enough to tuck a tissue in their running shorts is more than I can handle right now. As it is, the walks themselves may soon be deemed illegal if we don’t watch out.

Here in Chicago, we had a rare spring day full of sunshine and 60-degree temperatures, so we did what any sane person who has been trapped inside for days would do: we went to the lakefront. All of us. At the same time. This was admittedly not very smart, as it is hard to stay six feet apart when there are people walking together arm in arm like they are playing an infectious game of Red Rover. We got a firm, well-deserved scolding from our Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was very, very mad, and she shut down all the public paths and pretty places to walk or bike along the lakefront, making the entire class suffer because some fools thought playing basketball counted as social distancing as long as you committed fewer than three personal fouls.

I can understand why the shutdown was necessary, but I feel like this was an honest mistake on the population’s part. We are all still figuring out how to do this, and we were told we could go outside. The mayor didn’t specifically say, “Not all at the same time, dummies,” so perhaps the city needs to be clearer in its messaging. “You’re all going to die if you do that again,” might be a good slogan to address that.

The ironic thing about shutting down the public parks and lakefront is that when Daniel Burnham was mapping out his Great Plan for Chicago in the early 1900s or Frederick Law Olmsted was painting with nature as he designed Central Park and many of the other great public spaces across the country, they understood that fabulous green areas were essential to keeping the teeming masses from being stuck in their cramped tenements full of disease. A bracing walk was an excellent way to avoid cholera, as long as you didn’t drink the water.

As the weather warms up, I hope that we will all get used to the restrictions and become a little more cautious. Perhaps we could have specific time periods that we would be allowed to visit the parks, like the senior hours at the grocery stores. I am putting in a personal request for 10am – 11:00am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, although I could make do with 30 minutes. I know we all have to make sacrifices.

I assign 2:45am-4:00am to the runners who spit. You know who you are.

 

Next time on The Ripple Effect:
Social Distancing with Cats: An Oxymoron

The Ripple Effect (Day 7)

Well, that went fast! Here we are, already at Week Seven, so that must mean it’s almost over. We’ve learned many things in our confinement and . . .

Um. Ok, slight miscalculation. Apparently it’s DAY Seven. That seems impossible, because my carefully calculated stash of baked goods that was supposed to last for a month is almost gone. It is possible raccoons have gotten into the house again. Oh, good . . . company!

Everyone is trying to find new ways to be positive and to keep their spirits up during this very stressful time, so today the emphasis will be on Silver Linings. Let’s think about the good things that have come out of this quarantine, as opposed to the fact that many of us are out of work or home with too many snacks (and if you’re home with small children, may I suggest something that worked for me as a hands-on-mom: Benadryl!*)

Positive things:

Make your bed in the morning when you get up! Shake out those sheets and make four nice tight, military corners so all the wrinkles are smoothed out. Then do a quick once over with some duct tape to remove most of the visible pet hair on the duvet, and voila!, your bed is ready for your nap! (never take a nap on an unmade bed—always sleep on top of the spread with a cozy afghan or pashmina you have laying around for just such an occasion. Napping under the covers signals to your body that it is okay to stay under there for eight to ten hours, and a nap should never be longer than four.)

Take a walk! One of the best things about this quarantine is that we can actually go outside and commune with nature and other beings who try not to cringe when we get a little too close. But we can still smile and wave and compliment each other’s dog outerwear. Here in Chicago, it’s still pretty cold, so the pets are really getting good usage out of their winter outfits. Most look adorable, but I have to wonder: do dogs really want to wear hoods? Discuss.

While on the subject of walking, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. When I come upon others out for a flaneur under the age of thirty, they are either on their phones or will not make eye contact. This seems odd to me, as most people who are in quarantine are on their devices nonstop while inside their homes. I would think maybe looking up every once in awhile and getting some sun on your face or establishing human contact might be a good thing, but what do I know? I still use voice mail.

Yesterday on my walk, I took some extra books with me to distribute to the Little Libraries scattered around my neighborhood. These are the free-standing boxes where people can take or leave a book for anyone who might want something new to read. I was mostly interested in getting rid of my copy of Stephen King’s The Stand, because that is definitely not something I want in my house right now. Today I read that people are going a step beyond that and filling the boxes with non-perishables and canned goods for anyone who might need them, and now I feel bad that I crammed them full of books so there won’t be any room for macaroni and cheese. Sometimes it’s hard to be a mensch.

Creativity! I’m sure by now everyone has heard that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was in quarantine during the plague, and boy, talk about putting pressure on all the writers and artists out there! Interestingly, one of the books I found in the Little Library was a copy of this classic, no doubt cast aside by some blocked blogger who can barely put a sentence together right now. Calm down. It’s okay to endlessly watch West Side Story and Ten Things I Hate About You right now. Those are based on Shakespeare, and that certainly counts.

By the way, to anyone who does manage to write anything significant during this confinement, the new genre will be called Apoca-Lit. You heard it here first, so let’s make this new word go viral!

Oh, God, I didn’t mean viral! I meant spread it around in the vernacular – no, DON’T SPREAD IT AROUND! Don’t even think about sharing it! Ack! Stay inside! Don’t go to a beach! Run!

I hope these positive thoughts have helped.

 

*I am adding a disclaimer that seems unnecessary but you never know: of course you shouldn’t give your children Benadryl to help them take a nap! Who would do that?! Not me!

The Ripple Effect

Day One: The calls are coming from inside the house.
So is everything else.

We are heading into unknown territory, with a future that could leap in any direction like a cat who suddenly spots a cucumber behind him. With so much uncertainty in every part of life right now, here is a gentle reminder that we are all in this together.
The way you react will affect other people – please don’t be a dick about this.

One of the more interesting terms to come out of this crisis is shedding the virus.  The definition is “the expulsion and release of virus progeny following successful reproduction during a host-cell infection,” which sounds an awful lot like the plot of Alien to me. So if you want to avoid having this thing bust out of your chest cavity like poor John Hurt, stay in your house. (Note to readers: Do not watch this scene on YouTube. It’s worse than you remember.)*

I prefer to think of the whole concept of viral shedding more like the way a snake sheds its skin. It does not grow as the reptile does; it has limited capacity to expand. Therefore, when the snake has outgrown it, it simply sloughs it off and starts over again. We need to be more like our friends the snakes —there are so many ways we can grow if we take this time to slow down, read, study, create, and maybe rewatch The West Wing so we can remember what a real president acts like. Then we can shed our old ways and rebuild a society that benefits everyone —or we could descend into chaos. Your choice.

Of course, the snake also has a jaw that can unhinge enough to swallow prey that it is the size of a large honeybaked ham, so be careful about all that emergency junk food you stocked up on or you may grow right out of your pants.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, from all the snakes that left Ireland and went on to better things!

 

The Blind Woodchuck has socially distanced herself from all the other woodland animals and plans to sleep until this thing is over.

The Ripple Effect will post random thoughts throughout this isolation period, because what else am I gonna do?

*You watched it, didn’t you? I told you not to watch it!

Wake the chuck up!

The woodchuck slept deeply, the only sound in her snug burrow a faint minor chord that occasionally whistled through her nose. It got stuffy in there without a humidifier.

The phone alarm started clanging, and she moaned and reached blindly in the darkness to locate it. It lit up and she winced as her pupils dilated, hitting the snooze button that would allow her just one more day of rest. She hated having to get up for work in the middle of winter. Who had decided that February 2 was going to be Groundhog’s Day? They celebrated Lincoln’s birthday on a Monday because it was more convenient for federal workers— why couldn’t she do the shadow thing in May when everyone was pleased to be outside?

Now she had to pee. Resigned that there was no going back to sleep, she rolled over in the dirt and slowly pushed her bulk into a sitting position. Boy, she needed to work on her core this spring. Something pink floated down the burrow hole from the surface, and she grabbed at it before it hit the ground. Maybe it was a party invitation!

She squinted at the words that seemed very dim, and then realized she still had her sunglasses on. Although her vision had returned to normal after the unfortunate eclipse incident, she still liked to wear them because she felt smarter with her dark specs perched on her nose. One of her cousins had said she looked like “a rodent Annie Sullivan,” and she knew that one day she would live up to that reputation if she could just find a young woodchuck to teach how to fold its napkin.

She squinted at the invitation, hoping that she would have time before the party for the core work to kick in. She didn’t see a date or a suggested dress code, but the word Termination was scrawled across the front. This was confusing; perhaps it had something to do with those damn insects that chewed up all the good wood in the forest before she had a chance to chuck it?

Her cousin Shirley poked her upside-down head into the burrow. “Oh, Phil, I’m so sorry about your job – I just heard!”

“What did you heard?” the woodchuck said in confusion.

“You’ve been fired! The winters have gotten so mild that the town of Punxsutawney decided that they don’t need to do the countdown to spring anymore, so you have been made redundant.”

“Well, I wish they had told me that before I got up from hibernation,” complained the woodchuck.

“That’s your reaction? Aren’t you upset because climate change has removed your one source of income and possibly changed your whole way of life?

“Oh, really Shirley, aren’t you over reacting? None of this is my problem. This isn’t going to affect me – I’ll just get to sleep in!”

“Phil, have you not been paying attention to anything? The weasels have been rolling back environmental protections – pretty soon the groundwater will be contaminated, and your burrow is going to fill up with toxic sludge. I heard they are going to start caging chickens, and the weasels will have the keys to the henhouse! This entire month has been full of tribunals trying to get the Fox out of the big tree, and the turtle and other weasels just let him do whatever he wants. Our woods are headed in a very bad direction if we let them keep making decisions that only profit themselves. I can’t believe you don’t think this is your problem – it’s the problem of every animal in the forest!”

“Shirley, I just want to close my eyes for another month or so. Then I’ll make some phone calls or something.”

“That’s not enough, Phil. We need to be outraged! We should be marching through the trees, demanding change, trying to save this forest for the next generation of woodland creatures. I’m so disappointed in you. And your mother would be, too.”

The woodchuck watched silently as her outraged cousin scrambled up and out of the burrow and left her alone in the dark. Slowly she put her sunglasses back on, which were a lot like blinders. She was so tired. She would just take a little nap. Surely there were different animals who could worry about this, including Shirley. Others would stop the Fox and the weasels. This really wasn’t her problem.

She went back to sleep.

Darlene & Lucinda Try to Leave France

Darlene glanced nervously around as she heard the elevator slowly grinding its way down from the third floor. She knew exactly what her job was — she was supposed to retrieve the one gigantic suitcase that fit in the tiny lift, and then send the empty car back up to Lucinda, who was waiting up there with the rest of the luggage. !No problemo! as the French would say. (Actually, that might be what Spanish people would say. She really had no idea. She did not speak French. Or Spanish.)

Her anxiety stemmed from the fact that the elevator opened into a small room, and the glass door to that room opened up into the courtyard where she was now standing. She had run down the stairs to get to the descending luggage and exited into the courtyard from a different door that had slammed shut behind her. As she heard it click shut, she realized she had no way to get back into the building, having deposited her rental keys in the small silver bowl that was embossed with rabbits. But she was certain that if Lucinda needed her to do something else, she would come down to get her. Well, pretty sure. Lucinda did not like the stairs.

She pushed the button to unlock the door into the elevator room, and through the glass she could see the lift standing open with the solitary piece of purple luggage inside. What a beast it was; it took up almost the entire car. She really had overpacked. She pulled the handle on the outer door but nothing happened. The button lock had been a bit sticky all week, and now she remembered that the door had not opened for them yesterday, either. Her eyes widened as she watched the elevator doors slowly close, and the car began to ascend to the third floor, still completely full of luggage.

Lucinda stood in the hallway outside the adorable apartment where they had spent the last week. Paris had been amazing, but today was supposed to be kind of hot and she was ready for some air conditioning and iced tea. The elevator opened and she started to push her suitcase into the car, but stopped in confusion as she realized that there was no room. The huge purple bag was still in there. This was not correct. What part of this did Darlene not understand? Exasperated, she pushed the button again and watched the doors close as it began its repeat journey.

A tiny trickle of terror ran down Darlene’s temple as she pushed the sticky button again and again, but the stubborn door would not budge. Horrified, she watched through the glass as the elevator doors opened with the purple bag still intact, unmoveable. There was a very long pause, and then the doors slowly slid shut and began, once again, to ascend. She considered pounding on the exterior door for someone to let her in, but it was early on the third morning of a four day holiday weekend and Paris was still sleeping. Also, there had been a bit of an altercation with someone from the building the day before. An angry Asian man had muttered at them in French, and then said in English “How did you get the code?” This was baffling because it was a button that unlocked the door, not a code, and left both of them wondering if they had been mistaken for spies. The next day a sign had appeared on the glass door to the elevator. It was hand-printed in French and neither of them had any idea what it said, but they both had a feeling it was directed at them. There were a lot of exclamation points used.

Darlene stood in the courtyard, sweating, unsure what to do. The Uber to the airport was already waiting for them, and she was pretty sure Lucinda was going to be ticked off about her not doing her part with the luggage, even though it was totally not Darlene’s fault. She wished that she had a way to communicate with her, when it suddenly it occurred to her that she was holding a phone in her hand. Darlene was halfway through an apologetic text when the elevator doors opened again; but instead of the big purple suitcase sitting frozen in time and space, it was Lucinda who was inside. She had analyzed the situation from her position on the third floor and had realized the door was probably stuck. Either that, or all that cheese had made Darlene really stupid.

She pushed open the glass door into the courtyard as Darlene rushed inside, apologizing and trying to explain what had happened. Lucinda waved her hand in dismissal and said she had figured it out, then got back in the elevator and went up to start the loading process again. Darlene was relieved that she was finally inside the correct cubicle, because she had been envisioning Lucinda coming out the other door and having it slam shut with both of them outside the building and all of their luggage in a pile on the third floor.

The elevator slid open, and Darlene wheeled out the purple beast and happily pushed the button to send the lift back to Lucinda, this time completely empty and eager for some suitcases that were not this shade of aubergine. She squeezed around the bag in the tiny room and reached for the doorknob to exit into the courtyard. As she turned the handle, it came off in her hand.

Hysterical laughter inappropriately burbled up inside her as she stood there, trapped with the huge suitcase, knowing that at any moment, the lift would silently open with another large bag inside (this one orange) that she would have to watch helplessly rise again to the third floor where Lucinda waited with the last of the carry-ons to be loaded. Darlene looked through the glass prison she was now entombed in and realized that she had left her phone on top of her purse in the courtyard. She suddenly had to pee really badly.

She heard the rumble of the elevator descending and knew it was just a matter of seconds before it was going to get really crowded in there. Holding her breath, she carefully re-inserted the doorknob shaft back into the proper hole. She turned the handle very slowly, and as the elevator doors opened behind her, she heard the magic click as the lock disengaged and the tiny room released her. She shoved Barney the Purple Dinosaur into the space to hold open the door and managed to turn around just in time to get her arm inside the elevator as it was closing. She forced the door open and dragged the orange suitcase out into the cubicle, then triumphantly punched the button to send the lift back up for its final destination of the morning. The next time those doors opened, she would be standing nonchalantly in the courtyard with both suitcases and looking at her watch to see if there might be time to get a chocolate croissant before they headed to the airport.

Lucinda would be so proud of her.

 

The Blind Woodchuck has locked herself in her burrow and will not come out until she has finished The Muller Report. Please enjoy this short fiction from her friend Darlene (who may or may not be The Blind Woodchuck.) She knows this is very confusing, but at least half of it hasn’t been redacted.

GET OUT THE VOLE!

As the morning light filtered into the tunnel, the blind woodchuck moaned and sat up. Torn candy wrappers littered the dirt around her like fallen leaves, and the crunchy sound they made when she rolled over them gave the burrow a festive autumn feel. Something was poking her left haunch, and she batted at it until she realized it was a melted Snickers bar that was stuck in her fur. Barely able to reach over her swollen belly, she licked at the hairy chocolate lump until it completely dissolved in her mouth. What a delightful way to take a bath, she thought.

Getting up the day after a foggy Halloween was always difficult. She had found that bad visibility was a friend to the rodents who scavenged for a living, as it tripped up little trick-or-treaters who scattered their candy as they fell. She knew she should save some of her stash for the long winter ahead, but common sense did not always prevail when a mound of Mounds bars presented themselves to her. There was another pile of things she had collected from broken treat bags, and she sorted through the non-edibles in case she had missed something. She spit out a spider that appeared to have been petrified, wondering how old that thing was. There was a long skinny wooden stick with a rubbery end and a sharp point that could be useful as weapon, so she set that aside. There was also a piece of paper that had a lot of writing on it, but it was wet and smudged. The only part she could make out said, “GET OUT THE VOLE!” in large letters.

The woodchuck was alarmed. She had heard rumours of some kind of caravan of these mice that was coming from another field, and she worried that they were almost here. Although the woodchuck and the vole were both rodents, she felt no camaraderie with the smaller animals. She disliked it when they came to her field uninvited, even though she knew they were trying to escape predators. They were voracious consumers of her favorite nuts, and she often worried that there wouldn’t be enough daffodil bulbs left to help her double her weight for hibernation. It did not occur to her that the calories she had consumed last night would put her well past her goal.

There had also been chatter that the voles and the moles had been working together, which was an odd thing since they traditionally had little in common. The moles liked to hang out in gangs, so if in fact they were all coming to her field, the confrontation was going to be at West Side Story levels. She picked up the sharpened pencil and hummed a few bars of “Tonight.”

“Phil? Are you up?!” Her cousin’s head poked upside down inside the burrow. “Phil!”

“You know I hate to be called that,” she hissed. Her cousin scampered down the tunnel and looked disapprovingly at the piles of wrappers. “What a mess. Your mother would be heartbroken to see what a hoarder you’ve become.”

“I’m not a hoarder! This is all from last night. Shirley, did you see this flyer? The voles are coming! They’re the ones that carry the hantavirus. Or maybe it’s the plague? One of those diseases that’s really bad, I can’t remember! What are we going to do?!”

“First of all, Phil, you’re going to calm down. This stuff about the caravan is nonsense. It’s not herds of mice – it’s a group of our species who need some help. The weasels are attacking them and their food supplies are running low, yet you’re acting like they are invading our field.”

“But the fox said . .  .”

“Stop listening to that Ichabod Crane wannabe with the pumpkin head! You’re getting all worked up over nothing.”

“Look at this warning flyer I found.” The woodchuck thrust the paper with the smudgy words “GET OUT THE VOLE” at her cousin. “Read what they said!”

“Philomena, take off those stupid sunglasses. You’re in a dark burrow and you’re not blind anymore! It doesn’t say GET OUT THE VOLE, you idiot. Look at it again.”

The not-really-blind woodchuck removed her sunglasses and took a long look at the headline. In large black letters it said GET OUT THE VOTE!

“Oh. It’s not . . . vole.”

“Look, Phil, I know the eclipse messed you up, but you can see again and you have to start questioning things. Those glasses are like blinders. You simply can’t believe everything the Fox tells you. He does not have your best interests at heart; or any of us other animals, either. So let’s go do what the flyer says. Are you ready?

“Yes, I’m ready. Let’s go! Um, Shirley?

“What now, Phil?”

“You have a Snickers bar stuck to your butt.”

 

Unfortunately, woodchucks are not allowed to vote. But you are! Do it for all the marsupials who have no say at the ballot box.