Short Takes: First Thing in the Morning


Below are eight short pieces on the topic “First Thing in the Morning.” The editors selected them for this section because they are representative of the submissions we received, and we liked them a lot. Over a hundred readers sent us pieces on this subject, a great response to our call. The quality of the work was excellent—many pieces were creative, touching, funny, or beautifully written. If we could publish more here, we would. Thanks to all the writers for sharing their work with us.


First

First thing in the morning I know to keep my eyes closed, my head still on the pillow, and finish the dream. I know to hold the images or words, though they make no sense right then and maybe won’t later when I write them down. My other mind urges, “Get up! There’s work to do!” but I stay put, take time, pay attention. I review or re-view what I can of the dream until the pictures meld with thoughts, and I pray my thanks for this day to a broad-minded-God-who-takes-no-pronoun. I roll onto my back if I am not already on it, setting the intention to be of help, and place one palm above each ear. My hands get warm, warmer, hot as they move from one Reiki position to the next—jaw, throat, heart, navel, hip—sending love and well-being to my aunt, who is ninety and ill, or to my starving-artist-big-city daughter, or to all beings who suffer.

I turn onto my side, hearing “Get up! There’s work to do!” but I spoon around the cat and think of those years of abrupt mornings, my first deceased husband jerking awake, angry every day, dressed in suit and tie before I had his coffee ready, and my second deceased husband, his brown eyes looking now into mine through memory though I cannot feel his embrace or hear his whisper, “You’re beautiful in the morning,” at which we would laugh, and then he’d make coffee and bring mine upstairs, the cup fragrant and warm in my hands. The old cat stirs against my lap, and I hear a loud thud when he jumps to the carpet—impossible to be graceful with such a belly pad—and I can already smell the Starbuck’s Sumatra I will brew, how rich, how hot in my tall, narrow mug. I stretch my limbs, do a little routine, the bed easy on my spine, and end with the happy baby pose from long-ago-yoga: legs and arms up, fingers tugging my toes, yessss that stretch in the hamstrings, vertebrae opening to the day, today, the first day of the month—which means a biphosphonate pill for my bones waits by the water glass.

Only now do I open my eyes to the light. I have work to do.


A Good Wife

First thing in the morning I am going to the police. You are to blame in a way. You gave me the advice on how to be a good wife. I listened to you because you were my mother and I was young. Very young. You told me on my wedding day at the church that the secret to a happy marriage was to be whatever your husband wants you to be. OK, I said. I listened to you.

On our honeymoon my new husband asked me to play a game. Pretend to be Lolita, he said. OK, I said. Show me. He did. He soon asked me to play the game again. Be my accountant, he said. OK, I said. We would go to the bank and he would explain things. One day he asked me to be his buddy and go bowling with him. OK, I said. I didn’t mind the game. Sometimes it was very interesting, like when he asked me to go to Vegas and pretend to be his mistress, not his wife. OK, I said.

After a while, though, he wanted to play the game every day. OK, I said. I was a good wife. Thursdays were not too bad. It was my grocery shopping day, and he always asked me to be his cooking teacher. OK, I would say. Friday was my day to pick the movie and restaurant. But Saturday was an “anything goes” day. OK, I always said. It was exhausting. I needed Sunday to be quiet so I could recover. I just kept out of his way every Sunday. Until today.

Today was not a good Sunday. I couldn’t keep out of his way. He asked me who I was going to be today. I thought about it. I told him I was going to be myself today. He got really mad and began yelling. Then I got mad. So I shot him.


Tingly Feet

I sit up slowly and ease myself out of bed. As soon as I stand up, I feel it again: the tingling in my feet. It’s like pinpricks. Walking gingerly to the bathroom, I do a mental run-through of my body. A little light-headed. Headache, as usual. A bit of queasiness, but not a really upset stomach. Some achy bones. Weakness in the knees. Some numbness in my fingers. And those tingly, prickly feet. I slowly pull on my comfy blue sweat pants and sweatshirt. It’s very important to get dressed everyday, even if it’s only sweats. I kneel down and rub my hand over the rug and floor to scoop up strands of white hair, then draw myself up holding on to the bureau. I pick up my soft pink cotton stocking cap, pull it over my head, and go downstairs, holding the railing and putting each foot down carefully.

Mick is at the table with his coffee and morning newspaper. He looks up with concern and tenderness. “Morning, hon.” “Morning.” He always says that he can feel what my morning is like by listening to the way I come down the stairs. Since he has already eaten, I cook oatmeal for one and add a few raisins, a pinch of brown sugar, and some skim milk. It’s warm and comforting, though still without much taste. At least it’s not bitter. After eating I head up the stairs again, brush my teeth, and sit in the rocking chair where the morning sun streams in through the window. I floss and clean my teeth with a toothpick, then look through the magnifying side of my hand mirror to examine my skin and face. I count to see how many eyelashes are left, then get up to rinse my mouth with the green medicinal-flavored stuff the doctor prescribed.

Once more down the stairs, and I settle myself onto the living room couch. My sister will be calling soon to check on me, as she does everyday. Three more rounds of chemo to go.


The Face in the Mirror

First thing in the morning I shuffle around, testing my knees for reliability. After breakfast I gird my loins to get to the parking lot and my car, past my neighbor, Macha, whose name in Russian means bitter or stubborn.

Community is supposed to be a plus for healthy aging, but does it still work if you want to strangle one of the members? Last month our second-floor hallway suddenly featured a poster, thick black words stuttering like machinegun fire across the white page. You lousy thief, it began. This was Macha’s response to an apple disappearing from a hallway chair, where she’d left it. Next Macha called in the law; the sheriff had to listen to her outrage about her downstairs neighbor. Her two televisions run 24/7 at a volume only the seriously deaf could endure, and the man had had the offensiveness to speak to her about it.

The weekend that I moved into Drooling Meadows (my pet name for our retirement village), a meditation class was beginning and a new acquaintance talked me into trying it. The teacher turned out to be a bear-like homeboy from New Jersey. His easygoing nature kept me practicing the mental focus that is the heart of meditation. I relied upon it to be a counteragent to the final exodus of my brain cells.

Recently I complained to the teacher that I couldn’t practice loving kindness to an evil witch of a neighbor. I asked for some kind of Tibetan chant to chase away demons, but the exercise he gave me turned out to be called “mirror wisdom.” I hate this, I said to myself, preparing to meditate in front of my bedroom mirror. I had my eyes closed as I followed my breath in and out. “What do you hate?” a voice seemed to ask from the hanging glass. In alarm I closed my eyes more tightly.

I wanted to blame Macha for making me so upset, but my lifetime’s collection of complaints ranged in a line before me like trial witnesses. I was a special kind of hoarder, piling up people’s unjustness. Suddenly I could see that my neighbor’s frenzied defensiveness was her own way of dealing with hurt. I dreaded to open my eyes lest I see Macha’s face in the mirror.

Is a mirror merely emptiness? Can it also be a window? A community of lights appeared, circling slowly in the deep, dark blue of outer space. By the time they moved off together toward an unknown horizon, I could no longer tell whose suffering it was that I was feeling, mine or another’s. Is this compassion? Or should I just smile as I feel it rain down?


Mornings Are Mine

For 70 years I’ve slipped out of the bedroom early in the morning with my finger in the door as a cushion to keep clicks or bangs from waking someone—my sister, my roommates, my husband. I’ve raced the robins to claim early morning as my own.

As a young girl, I walked through crusted snow as sunrise turned it to rose-pink sparkles. I milked our old cow, warming my hands on the teats, leaning my head against her warm flank, sharing the beauty of a winter morning with her. In college I often tiptoed downstairs at 4 a.m. to be alone and study in the dorm lounge while three roommates slept on, as did the rest of the school. That peaceful place in time belonged to me.

Tranquility in early morning still evokes the joy of being a young mother, feeling the soft warmth of a newborn—that moment between mother and child at the first feeding of the day. Later I cherished my own few moments of calm and silence with a cup of coffee before setting out breakfast for four children and heading downtown to my own work and its strident demands and noisy responsibilities.

In morning’s silence, I recall sounds—early mornings in Chile as the sun rose over the Atacama Desert and the same ragged little newspaper boy passed down our street, calling with his special intonation, “El Dí­a”; in England, hearing the clink of glass milk bottles delivered to our front door; in Monterrey, Mexico, the sound of noisy buses grinding down the streets, picking up those other early risers whose work began at 6 a.m.

Nighttime never has this special quality of serenity—there’s always chatter, fatigue, TV, chores for whatever distinctive stage of life I traverse at the moment—but the morning is mine.


The Breakfast Drill

When I was growing up, early mornings at our house resembled war zones. Mama was The General, wielding her giant spoon like a weapon, her uniform an apron over her short print housecoat. My big brother and I were the lowly foot soldiers under attack. While he quickly got promoted because he managed to eat his breakfast, I positively could not stomach the spoonfuls of gooey mess that Mama aimed at me.

Mama was a firm believer in eating, and she especially concentrated her energies on skinny 12-year-old me. After all, I was so thin that I wore two petticoats under my straight skirts to fill them out. My Mom was motherless from age five, so her efforts were no doubt shaped by her own impoverished childhood experience. Nothing, therefore, was more important to her than to ensure that I ate a huge, hot breakfast before leaving for school.

Without fail, each morning we repeated the Breakfast Drill. As a result, all I can now stomach in the morning is a cup of coffee and a diet muffin. “See, Ma, now I need to diet!” In those days, however, I had to force down a huge, steaming bowl of lumpy farina or oatmeal followed by a gelatinous soft-cooked egg. Even the lukewarm Ovaltine had thick, choking pieces floating in it. If I wouldn’t eat on my own, my mother would follow me around with the spoon and feed me until every bit of food was gone. Only then could I leave the house, nauseated but nourished.

My poor brother. Although he quickly ate his breakfast, he had to wait to walk me to school. Both of us were late every morning. That’s when he and I became so close. Although we were rushed, he’d calm me down, carry my books, and distract me with silly jokes. Once he even surprised me with a present, a gadget ring that gave off little electric shocks. I was thrilled.

Both my mom and my brother have been gone now for many years. These days, as a mother and a grandmother myself, I understand that each spoonful that Mama forced me to swallow was a measure of her total love and devotion. I savor the memory of those precious years when I was lucky enough to walk to school with my protective and caring brother. Of course I always feel the absence of my loved ones—but each and every morning, first thing, I think of them the most.


The Georgia Peaches

Exactly when the LeDane twins became the Pearl Mestas of Paradise Falls was not remembered. They were just thirteen when they moved from Savannah, but now nothing happened without the Georgia Peaches.

After their eightieth birthday, the new preacher thought they should retire from organizing everything, but Leanne LeDane remained firmly in charge. Miss Lea, as she was lovingly called, would ask her Stalwarts to cook for the soup and salad supper, or the Reliables, a more select few, to churn the ice cream or bring the barbeque. Once at the event, she’d sit off to the side with lady-like propriety while everyone was drawn to her as if she were holding court.

Louella remained at the periphery of her sister’s limelight, quietly making acerbic quips to keep Lea humble. If people bothered to meet Lou, just plain Lou, thank you kindly, she appeared the polar opposite of her sister, even though they were identical twins. Only a discerning soul saw that Lou was not merely drawn along in Lee’s magnetic wake but was an equal, if silent, partner.

A fashion plate of a bygone era, Miss Lea was partial to soft colors, accompaniments to her rosy cheeks, dove grey hair, and sky blue eyes. Barely five feet tall in her elegant heels and slightly plump, she conveyed a sense of softness inconsistent with directing anything. Hardly anyone listened when Lou commented, “A peach is soft on the outside, but you can break a tooth on the pit if you bite down too deep.”

Lou made no apologies to fashion. Thin and awkward in loud colors randomly thrown together, she looked like an unmade bed. Her steely grey hair was cut in what charitably might be called bohemian style. Despite her place in her sister’s shadow, her striking yet odd appearance begged for attention—but those noticing concluded she did not merit any, a foolish miscalculation.

Of course, as spinsters, the Georgia Peaches had never been picked. Certainly Leanne had been the belle of all her debutante balls, but Louella never had callers. That Lou was single surprised no one, but that Miss Lea had never wed could not be fathomed. This lapse in male judgment was the accepted wisdom until Pastor Ellis announced in church one Sunday that Lou was getting married first thing in the morning! Everyone was invited.

The shock lasted until the service was over, then the tongues began to wag. Miss Lea silenced critics with gracious invitations to help with the reception. Lou’s retorts, “At eighty there’s no time to wait,” and “Don’t bring presents, he’s getting me,” gave no clues to who “he” was.

The next morning everyone came. They “oohed” at Ms. Lea’s pink chiffon, “ah ha-ed” at Lou’s fuchsia suit, and gasped when Mayor Barnes, Paradise Falls’ most eligible widower, walked in, grasped Lou’s hand, and said, “Yessiree, a ripe peach is worth waiting for!”


Stay, Muse

When I awaken in the morning, I am sleepy, dreamy, and loose. My muse is a type of morning lover, awakening my sensuous appetite and appreciation of life. Her pastel robes float through the air. Wow, look at that sunrise. I linger in those first morning hugs with my children, tousled hair and sleep breath. I sit and stare at the flowers I treated myself to yesterday, run my toes through the thick dog hair at my feet. This is my time to write a new story, capture a revealing dream, compose a poem. My muse is with me, our souls intertwined. My critic sleeps in, exhausted from all the chattering the day before, trying to keep me in line.

First thing in the morning, I pledge to have Muse stay longer today. But always too soon, she takes leave. I am to blame. I must drive my son to the bus, putter around the house picking up my daughter’s shoes and in her room the dirty plates, dog out, cat fed, events performed by routine with no creativity required. Phone rings, hurry or I’ll be late to work again. Critic is now fully awake and dressed in his pin-striped suit, ready with his clipboard, checklist, and bossy advice.

Despite my vow, my muse departs every morning. Only a wispy trail of longing remains. Often it happens as I drive to work, even though I wrap my leg around her as the radio plays classical music, seeing the notes spring into color and dancing forms. Critic is chuckling in the back seat, knowing he will win the better part of the day again. I arrive at work and Muse heads for cover. She won’t return again until slumber. I promise to try to keep her with me longer tomorrow.


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