Albino Prunes  |  Charles P. Ries

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             He returned home, as he often had over the past year, tired. He felt as if he were walking underwater and envisioned Lloyd Bridges in an episode of Sea Hunt, sludging his way forward beneath the surface of a murky lagoon or, more apropos, a swamp. Dropping into his favorite chair, he sighed, laid back, and thought about it all. He pondered the age-old question about ‘round pegs fitting into square holes.’ Is this it? Is this all the fuck there is? Sweet Jesus, I must have taken one really wrong turn, Mike Fawler reflected behind two burning eyeballs, as he pressed his Scotch on the rocks against his overheated forehead.
             His wife, Helen, arrived thirty minutes later. She bounded up the short flight of steps that led to their front door, burst into the living room, and said, “How’s my man? How’s my ever-loving-man Mike?” She cupped his two wan cheeks between her hands and gave him a kiss on the lips and atop of his slightly balding head, then marched off to the kitchen to begin dinner, chattering all the way. Helen was an optimist. She loved people—a dog would have been blessed to be her pet.
             How does she do it? How does she stand going from one sad case to the next? Dealing with hopelessness and its progeny and then, bouncing back home to me? Mike wondered. He felt embarrassed that she loved him—she deserved better. She ought to be wearing a mink coat, instead of the dyed rabbit fur trying to impersonate a mink that I bought her. Helen Fawler was a caseworker for the Cleveland Department of Social Services Children’s Court. The roughest, most depressing—and perhaps holiest—of career paths one could choose as a social worker. God, I could never manage misery. Numbers are bad enough. But people—forget it.
             The Scotch always made him feel better. It helped him see the version of himself that he liked. He often lamented the fact that its calming, clarifying effects couldn’t last all week without the need for refills, hangovers, and aspirin. “Maybe drug abusers have it all right? Maybe I ought to give it a try—drug abuse?” Mike said, loud enough for Helen to hear him.
             “Sure, you bet, Mike. Responsible Mike. Give-his-last-buck-to-a-bum Mike. Mike, the half-full saint. You’d never make it past your first full bottle. Remember, you gotta drink all day to stay drunk. You’d get bored, puke, and then be sick for the rest of the week, muttering, Why did you let me do this to myself? What was I thinking? Why didn’t you stop me?” Helen said from the kitchen.
             “Well, I could try. Forty-five years old, and I’m already sinking in career self-pity. I hate accounting. I didn’t think I’d come to hate my job so soon. I didn’t think this would happen for another ten years. What was I thinking? Accounting—a job that would last a lifetime. I can’t do another tax return or audit. I’ll die if I do. I don’t care what they pay me.”
             He could hear Helen cutting, clanking, and stirring in the kitchen, while he sat glued in his chair. He loved it. When he fell into it, it seemed to embrace him. Not itshe. She knew him and gave him quick affirmative comfort. She was predictable, constant, and eager for his return. He wondered if he had known the chair in a past life. Sure as shit feels like it, he thought.
             Mike’s mind was more interesting than Mike’s life, most days. It considered a wide and varied number of impossible scenarios, like the origin of his chair. Maybe she scorned me and now needs to patch things up? In the quiet of his mind, he explored the world and considered all the options. While his life was tight fitting, his mind could be a spacious place. He liked the room he found in his head.
             “Try a yoga class. How about the Self-Expression Through the Written Word seminar at the technical college? Come on, Mike, you know you’re not going to kill yourself, and you can’t become a drunk—so do something. Just do something. And stop thinking that chair has magic powers for Christ’s sake! I can hear your wheels grinding away all the way in here,” Helen called, as she put the lasagna in the oven.
             Helen is the ultimate. She’s with the wrong man. I’m limiting her potential—it’s obvious, he thought. But what man deserves any woman? It’s one of the unfathomable mysteries of the universe, why women love men. No one wonders why men chase after women. But women chasing men? Come on—get real.
             Mike had few flaws, other than self-loathing. He showed up; he did his job and did it well. He suffered the inanities of office politics in silence, his opinion was respected, and he wasn’t bad looking. Medium build, great smile, and growing a respectable middle-age belly. He was as kind as the day was long. Car broken down at the side of the road—Mike would stop. Little old lady carrying two twenty-pound shopping bags down the street—he’d offer her a ride home. Mike had that power of being there for others, but not always for himself.
             “Don Miller thinks I need a shock to my system. He thinks I should take one of those extreme vacations. Canoe down the Nile. Parachute into the heart of Pygmy country. Visit a leper colony, something out of the ordinary. He says I’ve lost perspective. Maybe I’ve forgotten how good I have it? Happens all the time at middle age. Clock is ticking down, and suddenly, a guy wakes up in the dead of night panicked because he hasn’t mushed a team of sled dogs to the North Pole,” Mike reflected out loud between sips of his second Scotch.
             “Well, good for Don. He had an original idea. I didn’t think accountants were allowed to do that.”
             “Hey, watch what you say. There’s a human sitting in her.”
             “Here. Sitting over here,” Mike said, shifting uncomfortably. Wondering about his shifting state of mind.
             “Right. Well, Don might have something. How about this one, Channeling Your Own Inner Shamanic Energy?” Helen read from the weekend Bargain Guide. “It’s being taught by a former managing partner of Arthur Anderson. I guess after they cooked the books at Enron, he decided to try something more ethereal than accounting.”
             Helen finished making dinner, set the table, and invited Mike to join her in the dining room. She was a zestful multitasker. She could make dinner, put a class schedule together, plan a party, and prepare a shopping list all at the same time. No doubt about it: women built the world, and then, men moved in and took credit for it.
             “Here it is: ‘Dr. Bruce Miller will help you discover the power of your inner shaman.’ Think you got one of those, Mike? A mischievous little inner shaman? Or did your mother smother that, too, along with your dream of becoming a high school English teacher? ‘Discover how to create the success you’ve only dreamed of, astral-project yourself into the seat of power or a brand new Jaguar, heal the sick, and ward off evil spirits.’ Just what you need. Get out of the spreadsheets and into the cosmic. Wait until you walk into the office on Monday morning and start a ritual-chanting group. That ought to make Don think twice about suggesting people get outside of their comfort zones.”

♥ ♥ ♥

             When dinner was over, Mike reflected on what Helen had told him. He soaked along with the lasagna pan for a long time. Leaving his hands in the dishwater gave his thoughts flotation. He wanted to feel alive and in life again. He wanted to sustain the tranquil joy he found while sleeping next to Helen or sitting in her leather arms, drinking his Scotch.
             When he finally came to bed, Helen noted, “Mike, you’ve been soaking your hands in the dishwater again, haven’t you? They look all shriveled up like those albino prunes we ate in Turkey last summer. You’ve got to stop doing that. Can’t you find other ways to comfort yourself? Why don’t you get a blanket to carry around the house, or just suck on your thumb when you’re feeling blue? Just look at those hands! Come here, and let me put some lotion on those poor wizened babies.”
             Indeed, Mike’s hands were a metaphor for his state of mind, both a bit prune-like. Helen’s comments made him remember those zestful cleansing prunes and delightful white-plum brandy they’d had last summer on their trip to Turkey. Legend had it that a wandering mystic visited a village they’d toured and sat beneath one of its many plum trees. There, he taught holy, and often-unknowable, truths to a small group of townspeople. The next year, when the tree bore fruit, it did not have your garden-variety purple color, but rather, it was white. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the villagers capitalized on the miracle and sold the beatific fruit in all its many guises and at high tourist prices—albino plums, albino prunes, albino plum brandy, wine, jams, and chutneys. They even dried them rock hard and strung them onto necklaces that promised the wearer longevity, fertility, and virility.
             “Who’d have guessed your mother’s insistence on you being her ‘little commander of the kitchen’ would have scarred you for life?”
             “Let it go, Helen. No need to go there. My mother was a good woman. Just a bit overbearing. The prunes were good. Your analogy wasn’t. I’m glad I became an accountant and not a high school English teacher.”
             Helen crawled in bed next to Mike and reminded him, as she often did, that he was the man of her dreams. She told him she’d follow him into the great-uncharted wilderness. “Mike, think about that class. He is an ex-corporate type. Maybe he suffered an identity crisis like you before the aliens abducted him. I’m sure he won’t mind you bringing your apple-scented dish soap and your favorite soaking pan with you,” she said, as she kissed him goodnight.
             Mike lay next to his wonderful Helen. He thought late into the night. He was a serious man and believed in being able to figure things out. It’s just a problem. Just another set of numbers needing to be wrestled with and made to submit to his will. Maybe Don’s right. Maybe I need a shock to my system. I’m missing something. Maybe I’m sitting right on it, but I just can’t see it.

♥ ♥ ♥

             “Good evening, everyone! I hope you’ve brought your inner Shaman with you. I’m Dr. Bruce Miller. But you can call me Bruce.”
             Dr. Bruce was dressed in a tribal grass skirt from New Zealand and wore an elaborate necklace of shark teeth. He sported a few of those now-popular tribal tattoos on his arms and chest. A spry man in his mid-fifties, he pumped the air and paced the room, as he talked and gently touched each of the twelve truth seekers on their shoulders or heads. Mike didn’t know it, but Dr. Bruce was secretly infusing him with shamanic energy. Mike also didn’t know that shamanic energy is everywhere and in everything.
             “It’s great to be at the Cleveland Holiday Inn tonight. Thank you for sacrificing your Saturday evening to be with me. You may have noticed on the drive in that there is a full moon out tonight. It’s called the Hindu Moon, and many believe it’s the holiest full moon of the year and a great time to explore, to release the energies we each have bottled up within us. We’re going to spend the next four hours discovering our inner power animal and learning how to let that animal lead us to our full potential. Each of you has been called to be here tonight. There is an old saying that ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’ Well, folks, Dr. Bruce has landed in Cleveland, Ohio!”
             He raised his arms, grabbed some maracas, and danced around the room, spinning and shaking the rattles. Mike didn’t realize it, but Dr. Bruce was cleansing the room of evil trolls, goblins, and other distracting beings who live in the unseen and whose job it is to make us all crazy, depressed, distressed, and otherwise feeling other than ourselves.
             Mike quickly surmised that most of the students were big fans of Dr. Bruce and weren’t going to need a lot of loosening up to free the inner spirits they carried within them. They had come dressed in comfortable clothes, and each had brought with him a facsimile of his power animal. Some had it hanging around their necks, while others wore some aspect of their animals—hawk feathers, wolf tails, snakeskin shoes, ostrich leather purses, mink hats, or deerskin moccasins. Mike hadn’t considered this would be a business-casual affair and had come dressed pretty much the way he’d dressed for work or church. Blue suit, black shoes, white shirt, and a tie in the shade of red—number-crunching, praise-the-Lord wear.
             “What’s your name?” Dr. Bruce asked.
             “Welcome, Mike. Glad you could join us. Looks like this is your first meeting. If you want to remove your coat and kick off your shoes, you are most welcome to do so.” Dr. Bruce gazed long and deeply into Mike’s eyes and continued the non-invasive psychic repair on the most challenged member of the Saturday night class. Dr. Bruce then turned to the class and said, “Okay, let’s get going. Everyone down on the floor, and close your eyes. Let’s see if we can tap into some inner power. Let’s see if your animal guide is with you tonight.”
             Lying stiffly amidst a writhing river of seekers, Mike was quickly engulfed by a symphony of animal sounds as future Shaman and Sha-women tapped quickly and deeply into their inner animals. The room was a zoo of freed snakes, wolves, eagles, giraffes and apes—leaping, flying, and slithering about the small conference room at the Holiday Inn. Mike waited for a spirit to fill him, as well, but was having trouble concentrating. Maybe he was trying too hard, as he gazed up at the ceiling. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for something or some animal to happen.
             Finally, from his prone position on the floor, Mike raised his hand and immediately saw Dr. Bruce materialize above him, waving an eagle’s feather and sprinkling holy water in an all-out effort to bring more positive vibrational energies into the room and into Mike.
             “How’s it coming?” the doctor asked. “Any tingles yet?”
             “Nothing. Stone cold, Dr. Bruce. My inner animal and I haven’t played in a while. I was wondering though, is it possible for a person’s power animal to be a leather chair?”
             “Hmmm. Well, that’s a bit unusual. What’s the chair telling you, Mike? How is the chair manifesting its energy within you?”
             “It’s a woman’s voice. Very nice sounding. Quite sexy. Like Kathleen Turner’s. We’ve talked before, but I usually try to shut her out.”
             “Ah—so you shut her out. Interesting. Well, Mike, we don’t shut things out tonight. We let them in. Just let her in. It’s good. It’s all good,” Dr. Bruce said, as he floated his eagle feather over the stiff, concentrating, and horizontal body of Mike.
             “Right. Well, I think she’s my favorite easy chair at home. It’s an odd sort of thing, isn’t it? I mean, thinking that a chair could talk to a person? Well, anyway, she’s telling me to relax and to let people sit on me. What do you suppose she means?”
             “And you’re sure it’s not a horse or a donkey, maybe an elephant, you’re hearing? You’re quite sure it’s your easy chair?”
             “Yes, I’m quite sure it’s her. The chair. She’s calling to me. Maybe she’s been holding my inner animal hostage in my inner mind and won’t free it until I give her her due. Think?”
             “Well, Mike, the spirit world is a weird place. You just have to go with it. Can you verbalize the sound of your chair? Can you show me how it feels to be a chair?”
             Under the protecting encouragement and expert hands of Dr. Bruce, Mike rose slowly to his knees and raised his arms out and into an L position. He gave voice to the whisperings of his inner mind and invited the other newly arrived soul animals to come sit on him. One agreeable monkey curled up for a few minutes in his lap, followed by a cat and a snake. Mike imitated his totem’s wise and embracing nature—hugging each participant and encouraging each with advice that he whispered softly into their ears.
             Mike had come to class that evening with no expectations. He had never sought his elusive inner animal before. He just needed a little encouragement to let his chair begin to speak through him. He quickly turned himself over to the wisdom of the chair. He felt like he had struck upon a core truth within him. Granted this truth was still a bit murky, but Dr. Bruce encouraged everyone to let his or her resplendent or murky inner spirit soar with the possibilities.
             Mike enjoyed and applauded each of the animals joining him in self-discovery. He was with people who welcomed the oddest of inner friends. But more than that, he felt liberated. He enjoyed crawling into the creative, chattering part of his mind and spending some time there. It was like standing naked in a dark room. No one can see you, but you’re still quite naked. So here he was. A freshly minted shamanic animal among a tribe of comrades who thought nothing of being peculiar.
             “Excellent! Congratulations! What wonderful courageous people you are,” Dr. Bruce said, as he shook his shaker or floated his feather over the heads of his pupils, while they slowly returned from the animal kingdom and resumed life as usual.

♥ ♥ ♥

             As Mike drove home that evening and slowly became his old self again, he felt delightfully at peace. His mind felt more spacious than usual, and, while he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the experience, he was certain it felt pleasant.
             “How’re you feeling, sweet Mike?” Helen greeted him, as he walked into the living room where she was watching television.
             “Brand new, baby. Why don’t you come over here and sit in my lap. I’ll tell you all about it,” he replied. And as the chair embraced him, and Helen curled up on him, he felt like the happiest of holistic Oreo cookies about to roll over an uncharted landscape toward a world of new possibilities.

♥ End ♥

Charles P. Ries has had narrative poems, short stories, interviews, and poetry reviews appear in over two hundred print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and is the author of six books of poetry. He was awarded the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association “Jade Ring” Award for humorous poetry and is the former poetry editor of Word Riot and ESC!. This story is an excerpt from Charles’ book, The Fathers We Find, a somewhat-fictionalized memoir of his growing up on a mink farm in Southeastern Wisconsin. His work is archived in the Charles P. Ries Collection at Marquette University.
             Charles has begun work on a second novel, A Life by Invitation, which will follow his rise as a mystic in North Africa and his subsequent floundering while living in Los Angeles, all of which has convinced him of the time-honored wisdom: “Wherever you go, there you are,” and, “This isn’t Kansas, Dorothy.” Charles is also a founding member of the Lake Shore Surf Club, the oldest freshwater surfing club on the Great Lakes. This story first appeared in Cezanne’s Carrot and was previously nominated for a Pushcart Prize. [Author photo by and © Amy Reed of J’adore La Vie Photography; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

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