The End

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

I was sure this was it. I’d been expecting it and here it was. Finally. It had to come in-spite of all the global warming deniers and those right-wing nuts who can’t see the inherent damage fracking will do, plus the war mongers who want to spend and spend and spend building up a surplus of war machines and train innocent young people to sacrifice themselves as soldiers in some unauthorized invasion of a third world country.

At last reality and sanity have been pushed over the edge of the survival cliff. I knew it would happen. This had to be the end. I mean, really, how much more could the natural world take? The fragile ecology is being murdered, stripped bare, decimated by the ugly plundering of big companies. Is it any wonder the world is imploding in on itself?

I wanted to scream: I TOLD YOU SO. At least that was my thought the split second the sky went black. It was 9:03 a.m. and hot. Over 100 degrees yesterday and was headed there today. Until it got dark. Then the temperature went mild. Like it does after a summer rain storm in the New Mexico mountains.

The dark only lasted about a minute or so, which I suppose meant that if you were in a windowless room or in a corridor in the center of an office building, you wouldn’t even know the sun was gone. You couldn’t miss the next bit, though.

It was a like a lightning bolt that lit up the entire atmosphere in bright gold. It was too bright to look at. It glowed from everywhere. As if the light came from inside the room to meet the light outside. And the noise was like a trumpet sound that would hit the guys in the seats in the nosebleed section at the same time and with the same impact as the guys in the front row seats. Everyone heard every word. It was a sound that would wake the dead.

It was loud, but it was also a whisper that seeped down into my ears and jagged at my heart.

“Holy, Holy, Holy.”

I didn’t know who or what was holy. Wasn’t that like some religious thing that people in big old mausoleums of dead religions were always saying?  Maybe I was having a stroke. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die and I was remembering things I’d done and said that I hadn’t thought of in years. I was seeing dead people, like Grandpa Joe and Aunt Lizzy and my buddy, Larry, who crashed off the pier when we were in tenth grade.

The sky was full of these flying men. They looked beautiful, like the statues of Greek Gods, and they were all saying the same thing,

“Bow down before the King of Kings.”

How could this be? Was the world really coming to an end because of some religious hype? All that stuff that my grandparents and that weird old guy down on the corner tried to tell me?

How could anyone really believe in a vindictive supreme being who liked giving kids cancer? Or who stood by and watched while Tsunamis destroyed entire countries?

I would not give in to this delusion, this hype, this fear mongering.

Why wouldn’t the flashes of my life stop? I was still breathing, so I wasn’t dead. I stood still in the middle of the room. A room that I like dark with heavy drapes. This light, this bright gold was everywhere. I couldn’t see shadows under the trees outside or under the carport next door. Just bright gold everywhere.

The noise of those voices and a rushing sound like thousands of bird wings kept on. My ears hurt and my heart felt pressure like it was trying to leave my body. A heart attack. That’s what this was.

I wiped the sweat out of my eyes. The sky was getting crowded. I swear I could see something like people of all sizes in long robes floating up from the ground.

I blinked. I was nine years old again and sitting next to Grandma in church. The guy down front was saying, “the dead in Christ shall rise first.”

It was like a door opened and truth came rushing out. For the first time in my life, I got it. God was real. He was pure and couldn’t look at selfishness or murder or anger or all the ways we try to hurt ourselves and others. He gave up his own son, Jesus, to handle all the mean, evil stuff in the world. All the things people had done, like mass murderers and despots who killed their own people, and babies slaughtered while still in the womb, I finally understood. God gave me a choice and I decided to be my own god. Most people I knew had decided to be their own god. The whole world was living with the end result.

What was this new feeling? Love? Flashes of blue light swirled around me. It was a pulsing thing that rubbed against my ears and made the hair on my arms stand up. If I’d had any hair left on my head, it would have stood up. My scalp vibrated.

What was the voice saying now? “I never knew you.” Just like that, the pulsing, swirling power around me floated away, as if I had a personal shield that kept the light and the love from moving through me. My heart lurched again and I knew the awful truth. I lived in the black, dark, selfish part of life and I had missed the light. I wouldn’t know the love. I had been dead to truth. Truth was dead to me.

The gold everywhere was being swallowed up by black waves of pain that lived in heavy dark clouds with a smell like a burning garbage pit. Black, ugly monsters flew through the air towards me.

“No!” I jerked and flung my arms up to fight against the black creatures. The thud when I hit the floor and the pain in my hip woke me. The night stand was on its side next to me and the digital clock was on the floor. I picked up the clock. 6:57 a.m.

Oh, my God. What a nightmare. I rubbed my sore hip and dragged myself off the floor. I shook my head, but it wouldn’t clear.

Jake. I tolerated him at work because he was good at the job. I hated the joy and love he always seemed to have. I never let him get any further when he’d offer to pray for me. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe there was still time for me to get it right. Jake. Jake would know if God would still give me a chance. I moved to the heavy drapes and opened them to let in the morning light.

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Age trumps…

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Spring.
84°F today.
Some places still
sleep in their winter.
It’s only March.

Spring, on my
dark, warm street.
It’s only 8:30 p.m.
Enough time later for
night’s cool
crocodile breath.

Sprinkler heads won’t
pop-up.
I pull, urging water
pressure on.
Finish the job.

Eureka!
Wet hands and feet.

I don’t shiver.
The day’s warm breath
that warmed the house.
means an easy task.

Nearly 80° inside.
Cooler out now.

“Close the door.”
She says.
She wears
pants, socks, shoes,
blouse, undershirt,
sweater, heavy lap blanket
over her legs,
light blanket around her
shoulders.

“I’m cold.”
She says.

She’s 86.
Age trumps 80°F.

Fly, Soul, Fly

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Stacked up newspapers
wait to be devoured.

Mother doesn’t do computers.
She’s old school.
She reaches to touch paper;
devour crosswords,
comics, recipes, an
historic article, anything
fauna or flora.

I take the pages up
one by one,
turn my fingers black.

Images flash, letters scramble,
words jolt. Stories full.
Big desire,
small attainment;
huge graft born of petty theft.
My eyes cross.

He suffers. She kills;
a dog is maimed,
orators promise,
a bird goes extinct,
blood flows,
a nation crumbles,
an infant cries,
an Oscar is won.
A child is sold in slavery.
Solutions hollow out.

Can I still breathe?
I’d swallow
if it would just go down.

His or her
way is as good as mine,
so they say.
Live and let live.
Yeah, dude.
Coalesce, co-exist.
It’s all the same.
We all die, right?

Mist in my eyes
bathes the trying of
life’s whirly cesspool.
I can’t read any more of this.

Just what has all this
inky pontification
to do with rescue,
relief,
regard,
reality?

On its own,
I see no freedom;
no fleeing the downward
pull of self
in this avalanche of
worlds and words.

Yet, still we drown in
the futility of trying.

Is there not some point?
Is there not a higher need?
Fly soul, fly.

image: google images

image source: google images

Is there not a bigger resource,
Is there not a healer
greater than life?
Fly, soul, fly.

Is there not a bigger help
than this spinning ball’s
undertow?
Fly, soul, fly.

I think I see a glimmer of
a grand design in
care for the
stray,
damaged,
irreparable.
Yes, there it is.

Fly, soul, fly.
Back to the start,
back to when it was beautiful;
back to the beginner,
back to the one who started it
all.

Hey, I hear you, skeptic.
You’re right, those who
seek a higher power
should be mocked;
unless that power can
eradicate
transform
transfigure
illuminate.
You with me?

Fly, soul, fly.
I admit I’m helpless;
any help must come to me;
from the eternal.

Fly, soul, fly.
I cry; I yearn.
Wash my soul, I plead.
Clean the black off my fingers;
dry the mist of my eyes;
open them to the beauty
of him who loves purely,
of him who can more than
repair
reclaim
rehabilitate;
of him who transforms.

Fly, soul, fly
To him who with a puff
of air
gave life.

To him who with a wave
of a hand divided seas
from land.

To him who spoke
and the world was born.

To him who put the survival
will
in each spirit
then set that
will
in a body.

Fly, soul, fly.
To him who loves us.

To him who grieved so at man’s
selfish choice,
he threw himself into the world’s
mad crush to show the way out.
Fly, soul, fly.

Hello, God.
I read the need for you
in the news today;
there in the pain,
there in the trying.

Who can go this alone?
I can’t.
Change me;
walk beside me.
Be my guide.
Make a difference.
It’s not real life without you.

I breathe deep.
I can make
it through this stack
of papers.
If you’re here With me.

You wash the black
off my fingers.

You wash the black
off the world.

Fly, soul, fly.

Write

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Plumb the depths
dig into the gritty nitty
else  i l q1 r b H  and
all aaaa—zzzz—2222
fall hollow?

Reach no heights;
pale to  f a d e , the flesh
unknown.
So they say.

Dig it up, serve in red
bites, chunks drip,
for drool’s only run where
pain lives.  Apparently.

Risk.  Fly off the rock.
The greater the heaven
the greater the soar,
the greater the fall,
the greater the splat.
Splat.
Splat.

Ah, splat into wisdom’s eye shine
or splat into vapid’s barren desert?

Turn the letter-word-phrase to
a golden, light, even crust on all
sides.  Perfection?

Beauty’s in the eye of
the beholder, I’ve heard.
Still, word’s truths live
tho’ understanding varies.

Does this depth skim
some other’s surface?
Miss their depth?
Is this as
deep as I get?

Perhaps it takes a dig
beyond their deep
to get me.

Birdhouse – by Julienne Johnson

image source:google images

image source:google images

You can’t pick a metaphor with a roller skate key
so I kept my secrets there
hidden under a hammock
where Butchie and I were trying hard to balance
younger then, peaches that still had fuzz — holding tight
the woven grey canvas swinging from the green metal frame
pushed to the farthest edge of our mowed square
far as we can go — you know the rules:
one half-acre of green limit
crab grass, sassy as ever
Kentucky Blue, and dandelions —
yellow crayolas rub ’em under my chin
see if I’m tellin’ the truth —
see — no yellow, told ya so!

swinging but trying not to
so our dinners wouldn’t spill
leaning toward the center of each other
to fill up that empty space we felt there;
I loved being close to Butchie
he was my picnic table
like he hid under
last time he ran away
almost got to Ohio

trembling together that day
still in dirty swimsuits — wet
kids play under sprinklers – sizzling hot heavy Michigan days
but now it had cooled down
little bodies wearing goose bumps
balancing plates on laps
burned green peas and hard hamburgers
a slice of white Silvercup bread on top of tears
trying not to fall into the empty wheelbarrow we watched
out in a field of catsup
that we were afraid to ask for
we kept our eyes on a robin dancing on the wooden handle
while hundreds of Black-eyed Susans
like me — looked for a four-leaf clover
but it was so hard to see through the blur
eat your God-damned dinner or the belt
no pants — again
Dad wore his weapon
had a way with keeping his word

I see the Birdhouse.
Butchie made it with his new jigsaw
a Christmas present
he was only six
so proud of that Birdhouse
he could hardly wait for Dad to come home
Dad left on Mondays and came back on Fridays
eight years of peace in the middle
Hammer! I see the hammer too
rusty with a worn oak handle
blue shingles — orange somewhere

Butchie loved to build things
and I loved Butchie
My Father smashed the whole thing
all on one Friday night
an ugly pumpkin!
only 15 minutes home
I wanted to hold Butchie so he could hold me
Lifesavers from the same package that stick together
but we had separate bedrooms
walls — grey between us — walls
and no crying
wasn’t allowed on the new yellow bedspread
or anywhere else in their house
a night stand stained with maple pushed against the bed skirt
it was hard to see through the plaid — hear them coming
so much dust under the bed

but back to the hammock…
Butchie and I weren’t very hungry for peas and cotton
even the lilacs blooming in the corner knew
we hated our Father
our mother was dying, trying – again
on a rainbow she longed to ride out
red yellow blue — all in one swift swallow
faster than you can crush a ripe wild strawberry
the red must have stopped her… same as before

“Who are you? Please help me. I want my Daddy.”

“It’s me Mommy. Don’t be afraid, I’ll take care of you.”
but where’s Butchie, the lilacs, the four-leaf clovers?

older now, fuzz free, face down, Rolex up on a Persian carpet
his own kids in Jordan Airs — stepping over him
a bridge between two chairs
smashed
cheers — to the Birdhouse.

Julienne Johnson
http://www.julienneART@me.com

Art heart…

The heart lunges, it hungers, it leaps.  I’ve seen it try and pour itself out in saving others or giving to others in a beauty that is unrecognized by the fearful, the hurt, the hungry.  They lash out against the heart’s beauty.  They misunderstand.

I get the beauty, but of course, I compare.  Me to her.  Me to him.  Aren’t I silly for doing that?  What’s to compare?  Their uniqueness shrivels my plainness?  Or does my beauty shine a hue that differs from their rainbows?

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Take the strutting peacock, for instance.  That’s just the male.  The female, the one he’s strutting for is plain and mousey by comparison.  Which begs the question, if you follow, does the male with his bright feathers, tips in bright, bold eyes, think he is beautiful?  Or does he strut because he is ugly until chosen?

Perhaps it’s far simpler.  His DNA is programmed for bright hues and strutting and her DNA is programmed for simple, plain, protective style that melds into the ground cover, hiding there to protect the young, making the nest look enticing to the fabulous, plumed, brilliant, stunning MALE.  And so they choose and so they mate and so the breed continues.

They did what they were born to do.  They follow instinct and fulfill their destiny.  I get tripped up in the search for my destiny versus some other person’s destiny – hers or his; my potential versus hers or his; the choices, the options are myriad.  Too many to comprehend and embrace.  Perhaps that is why I get nothing done and accomplish squat.  Which way to go?  Which dream to follow?  Which heart to embrace?

I ponder and try to reach beyond the sameness of this morning.  Nothing new there; it’s the common challenge as the everyday breathes on all sides.

I call to Mother and she comes to my desk, slowly, her balance steadied by her footed cane.  Sun shines its morning glow through the eastern window with a glisten on the gray streaks in her dark hair.

“I can’t stand here looking at pictures,” she leans on the cane, “I have to get some breakfast.”

“I know,” I rise from my folding chair and help her get seated.  “Just this one; you’ll love it,” I maneuver the laptop so that Mother can see.

My nephew’s wife posts pictures of their two girls, toddlers, on her facebook page.  In this picture, the littlest one grins, every inch of her body covered in happiness, her big blue eyes saucers of joy.  Her older sister looks shyly at the camera, her smile demure, her big blue eyes tentative.  They’re both dressed in ruffled, polka-dot cotton shirts and tot sized blue jeans.

“So beautiful.  I want to squeeze both of them,” Mother reaches up and adjusts the angle of her glasses for a better view.  “They need to come see us again.”

We look at several pictures until Mother pushes herself upright and with careful moves of her cane, returns to the kitchen.  There’s a slight lift to her movement.  She drank in the beauty of two new little lives, health’s glow on their skin, bright eyes, fluffy hair and pint-sized outfits.  She doesn’t feel any better than she did before; it’s the beauty that has lifted her.  She’ll get her breakfast a little easier now.

So shall I compare my beauty to theirs?  To some artist?  Shall I stifle the creativity that I didn’t know was there because it looks different from all others?  I find myself picking at our differences.  I see the lack in my creative well.  I feel drab and useless.  I am ineffectual.  I am not an artist.

It’s no good stopping at that sore spot.  The lack is too painful.  I push on.  I seek the truth.  I dig until I find it.  Or it finds me.  God programmed their DNA.  God programmed my DNA.  I’m not the artist she is or he is.  I am my own artist.  I will take my cue from Mother.  Absorb the beauty, let it escape the synapses of my gray matter to run down my arms and spill out through my fingers.  I will create.

The do…

image source:picsbox

image source:picsbox

I wonder if we choose
cadillac shine with fingers to the keys and
synapsis firing
or do the pistons lift and fall to the unseen?

Fingers filled and colored bright        glued           stationary
where they   float   push    pull
GRASP             reach   tug      despair
d

r

o

w

n.

How they soar to the music and bleed into the camera,
emerge, wholly frac  tured.

I try to wrap my head around that beauty, that strange
drama of pain, fulfillment, Joy.  Driven determination.

They leech into my sleep.
Dreams skate across the wrinkled blanket and
fall into the abyss of sweet and fearful.

“Like a sparrow in his flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
a curse that is causeless does not alight.”

Proverbial sight pierces dark.  Not proverbial until birthed,
right?  I mean, the proverb started somewhere, get it?

Begin the beguine, trip the light fantastic
right down to the drive, the sit, the start, the do, the do, the do.

Was that really so hard?  The barrier releases and the flood
bursts
OR trickles, trickles, trickles,
rains, splatters, downpours, floods;

OUT they spit, the letters, the a, the c, the qu, the z
after one, two, three   Squat.

So, if outside, implore;
if inside, explore
else denying dry DIE crackle and Never have life.

fly high…and sing your song…

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

We lost another one this week.  That makes two in the last eight days.  First, Bob, then Charmaine.  Elderly, frail friends of Mother’s.

People she knew for nearly forty years from church.  People, who were hardy, still working with busy productive lives when she and Daddy first met them.  People, whose lives morphed and changed into retirement, followed by the death of spouses and the total rearrangement of how they lived; people, who once self-reliant, at the end, relied upon others.

Mother hasn’t been feeling well, so I told her the news carefully.  She seemed to take it in stride as part of the everyday markers of her elderly life.  After all, Daddy’s gone too, and he was her mainstay.

Charmaine and Jim retired and moved back to the mid-West to be near their kids.  Maybe ten years ago?  Then Jim got sick and died and Charmaine’s daughter was around to do the caring.  Now Charmaine’s gone.

Bob nursed his ailing wife while he worked full time and then she died.  Mother says he was never the same after those exhausting years.  Is that why Alzheimer’s took over his capable brain?  In the end his daughters had lie to him to get him to leave the house so that they could get him care.  Bob’s gone now, too.

A flurry of birds in the backyard catches my eye as sparrows dart, flutter, and settle on the grass and the green is painted into a polka dot green blanket with hopping browns and grays.  Today’s sunshine reveals a glitter in the multi-layered hues of their feathers.

Squawk!  A blackbird clutched to a swaying high wire interrupts and the sparrows take chirping flight up into the bare oak branches.  Low to the ground, along the fence perimeter, there’s black fur that moves stealthily.  Feral cat.  Could be that squawk was a warning, right?

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

So, those ended elderly lives?  Makes one think; ponder; if you get my drift.  The shortness of their lives doesn’t hold a candle to the song bird, the Cedar Waxwing, trilling on the bare Apricot branches.  Those dudes only live two or three years.  That’s short, my friend.  Or it is when compared to Mother’s eighty-plus-year-old friends that just sang their last, breathed their last.  Well, you get the point.

But, does it seem short to the Cedar Waxwing, or does it seem normal?  They’re born, they’re fed, they learn to eat and to find their own food and water; their instinct keeps them moving ahead, they make music, they make baby birds, they feed them and push them from the nest.  They make more music.  They die.

It’s all perspective.  The light we’re seeing from the stars, by the time it gets to us, those stars have died.  The music of Chopin or Pachelbel, it’s ours because they lived and created, but they’re done now too.  Even so, they left something behind.  So do the stars, so do the Cedar Waxwings.  Their beauty and their songs are captured and saved on YouTube on in some documentary for us to enjoy.

Here’s what keeps crawling around the edges of my mind, “Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Aren’t you worth more than they?”  That was Matthew, a Jesus follower, noting down his observations of the cycle of the birds in the skies above him over 2,000 years ago in Palestine.

Matthew’s been gone a long time, but he caught the truth and left a record of it for us.  It’s life.  The value of life.  The preciousness of life.  Your life.  My life.  The bird’s life.  Ok, I’ll admit it, as much as I don’t like feral cats, the feral cat’s life, as well.  Life.  We see it replicated from one bird to another; one cat to another, one human to another, but it’s a gift.  Matthew said it was a God given gift.  It is.

image: google images

image source: google images

I see that.  I feel it inside.  I’m aware life is a gift and not something I can make or bring into being.  Nor can I control how long life lasts.  Oh, I suppose I could throw in the towel to my life’s fight and find some way to end it.  The problem is that’s only the life that exists in this earthly world; the one we can see and touch.  But, it’s not the soul.  There’s no ending to the soul.  The soul comes from God and he controls its destiny.  I need to remember to hold it in an open hand, because I can’t control it.  Just like I can’t keep that Cedar Waxwing living on forever nor can I predict how long before Mother loses life.  Her life and soul came from God and back to God she will go.  I will go.  You will go.  Take comfort.  God loves you and the soul he gave you.  Meanwhile, fly high and sing your song.

Wind.Rain.Wild

image source:bing images

image source:bing images

The rushing, bustling, whistling sound in the back corner of the house draws me to the half-window of the back door.  The backyard is soggy.  Two streets over, a lone palm tree, at least twenty feet above rooftops and oak and sycamore and elder trees, sways back and forth, five feet east then five feet west.  East and west, it sways.  Near the top of its long bare trunk, the fronds of its grass skirt are whipped up and down and around in a frenzy dance of wind and rain.

image source:parktography

image source:parktography

On the white wall of the garage, the scarlet blooms and green leaves of the bougainvillea normally stretch wide and high, but this dim morning they droop, weighted by the pelting rain; fat drops gliding the hills and valleys of each bloom and leaf, dropping staccato onto the ground below.

At the side of the garage, that spurt of growth from a seed dropped there by some bird or carried there in the dung of the possum or the feral cats has grown tall.  It seemed like a weed at first; its roots unreachable amid stuff stacked behind the garbage cans, so over the months I whacked away at the sideways shoots until today, what I see out in the storm is a burgundy maple, taller than the garage roof.  It sways just like the nurtured and wanted trees in the yard.

Water has washed the paving stone path from the porch to the garage.  The birdbath is full, its surface dappled with rain drops.  Even the squat, sturdy grapefruit tree, leaves fat and steady, fruit ponderous is swaying.  I see no one.  No person, cat, dog or bird.  They’ve all gone to dry ground somewhere.

image source:bing images

image source:bing images

It’s not unusual to hear predictions of rain that never materialize for us.  It’s not unusual for a breeze to change the sky from clear to muddled clouds, while all remains dry.  It’s not unusual for rain in the hills or along the coast to miss us.  It’s not unusual for those same storms to mean mudslides and damage in other places.  Even so, I’m grateful this little valley that is normally spared wild weather has not been passed by this time.  This wind, this pelting rain, they are rare for us.  Exquisite.

The earth, the grass, the plants, the flowers, the trees; they drink, they are washed.  Dry turns to plump and nourished.  Yellowed winter grass drinks deeply, its tint turning even as I watch.

The wind and the rain and the wild storm remind me of a truth.  Each season returns in its appointed time.  The maker of the wind and the rain began it all and so it continues.  I take comfort and rest.  I smile at the wind and the rain and the wild storm.

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

I fill my lungs with washed air.  I drink in the power of the storm.  I open the dry spots of wariness at Mother’s health and find them moistened and soothed.  I feel the deep well of an unknown future start to fill.  I hear the dry crackle stress of hard choices ease into possibility’s supple cloth.  I open my hands and hard tensions untangle.  I watch the hope of a creative spark take nourishment.  I feel the expansion of my spirit.  I embrace the bubbles of joy.  I stretch with energy and settle into hope.  I turn from the window and continue on, cocooned by the rushing, bustling, whistling of the storm.

Method

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

Everybody has a method, right?  Like, there’s scientific method and method acting and teachers and doctors have their methods.  Even businesses have their methods.  Well, I can tell you, Granny had her method and her “grandchildren” either learned it or we were gone.

“It’s quite simple, Vanessa,” Granny had a way of making her point clear, especially when she wasn’t looking directly at you.  Her voice cut like steel and ice, “you know what to do and you will do it.”

“She’s not ready, Granny,” I stood behind the younger girl, tying the bow in her hair, “why not let me or Bryan do it?”

“Nonsense,” Granny sorted through the paperwork on her desk, “Vanessa is thirteen.”  Her hand stopped mid-air as she looked over at us.  “At her age, Maggie, you were nearly as good as me,” she turned back to her desk, “We leave in fifteen minutes.  See that you’re ready.”

She was right.  I was good.  I could move through the crowd and people didn’t even know their watch or their wallet or their necklace was missing.  Bryan liked car keys and room keys.  He would wander in and out of the concert or meeting room or lecture hall, a happy grin on his fifteen year old cherubic face and always had a good haul by the time we got back to the house.

“How do you manage to get the right key back to the right person,” I asked?  We headed downstairs to leave for the afternoon lecture to rich patrons on the plight of suffering third-world urchins.

“Dunno.  My brain just remembers,” Bryan looked honest and trustworthy.  No one ever suspected.

Bryan and I had been at this for about five years and we knew the drill.  Granny handed us school books.  We spent our mornings studying.  Granny tested us and accepted nothing but high grades.  Then we practiced our trade.  Granny expected us to excel.  We earned our keep.  Fail at our studies or at our trade meant being locked in our rooms with only bread and water until we got it right.

I looked back up the stairs at Vanessa, who lagged behind, “Come on, it will be ok.”  If my method worked, it would be ok.

***

I had to be quick.  Vanessa looked like Alice down the rabbit hole.  She was pale and stiff as a board.  She’d gone for a wallet and fumbled it.  The old guy turned and saw his wallet on the floor at his feet.  If she caved and tears fell, she’d confess and it would all be over.

I scooped up the wallet, held it out to him and put my arm around Vanessa.

“This must be yours, sir,” I batted my eyes and did my sweetest, friendliest smile, “Vanessa is such a talented artist.  She’s always dreaming and not watching where she’s going.”

He took the wallet, a mixture of doubt and relief on his face.

***

“Fine,” Granny closed the safe and pressed the lever that moved the section of bookcase back in place, concealing the hidden safe.  She came across the Aubusson rug toward us, diamonds at her neck and ears glittering above her white ermine stole.

“I’ll give you more time to work with Vanessa,” she moved up the walnut circular staircase.

I squeezed Vanessa’s arm and smiled at her.

“But know this,” Granny turned at the top of the stairs to look at us, her eyes scathing, “I don’t need worthless orphans who can’t do their job.”

***

We couldn’t only work Granny’s rich society functions.  It brought in good hauls but it’d be too suspicious to just hit them, so Bryan and I worked the crowds at Grand Central, along Wall Street and the subways most afternoons.  We dressed for these gigs in jeans and t-shirts and could move in and out of the bustling corporate types and do pretty well, although not that many people carried cash these days.  Didn’t matter much.  Granny had contacts to move the iPhones and iPads, whatever we picked up.

It was my idea to set Vanessa up with an easel for her ink drawings.  She’d sit on a wall or bench, an art box at her feet and earn a few dollars while she drew.  Granny wasn’t thrilled, but at least Vanessa was worth something.  I knew Granny was cutting me some slack because I’d worked hard and earned her respect.  Even so, Vanessa’s failure to pick-pocket wouldn’t be tolerated much longer.  If all went well with my method, it wouldn’t matter.

I had my eye on a girl about Vanessa’s age that I’d seen several times.  She looked pretty rough.  Dirty clothes, hair not washed much, but her face was clean, she had a great smile and she moved liked lightning.  I started bringing an extra sandwich.  Granny penny-pinched on our food and we weren’t to spend any of our haul.  Bryan would grab a sandwich off a stall once in a while, but most of the vendors dished up what people wanted and it would cause too much attention to steal from them.

“Got an extra sandwich,” I moved up behind the dirty street girl just as she started to brush against a guy wearing a Rolex, “wanna take a break?”

***

It took several weeks of finding her daily and being friendly until she was comfortable.  Jasmine was her street name.  The way she said it, I was pretty sure she’d chosen it herself.

It didn’t take much to convince Bryan we could use another fast hand.  He liked the idea of keeping Granny happy and off our backs.  A happy Granny meant more perks for us.  We’d done well enough last year that Granny took a vacation in the Bahamas, where we picked-up another haul but also got to swim and deep-sea dive.

“How’d you like three squares, new clothes, a hot bath and your own room?”  I took a bite of sandwich and watched Jasmine’s face.

***

It was a risk bringing Jasmine back to the house.  I had to promise her part of my next day’s haul if it didn’t work out after she showed her haul to Granny.  But if Granny liked her, she’d trade sleeping on the street and the few bucks she was getting at pawn shops for a comfortable life.

I could tell Granny was impressed with Jasmine’s haul.  It was about the same as mine for the afternoon and more than Bryan’s.  Granny and Jasmine sized each other up.  Granny had her walk around the room while she asked her questions, mostly I think, to hear how Jasmine talked.  Without taking her eyes off Jasmine, Granny said,

“It will be up to you, Maggie, to see she is ready for the opera at the end of the month.”

I grinned at Jasmine.  “You’re in,” I whispered as we left Granny’s library and headed upstairs to show Jasmine her room.

I worked hard with Jasmine.  Mornings, how to talk and what to say in the ritzy crowd; making sure she knew how to get clean, do her hair and choose appropriate clothing; plus, intense tutoring in the school books, all the while telling her about the trips, the perks, the pay-off for doing it all well.  She was sharp and caught on fast.

Afternoons and the 5-7 pm rush hour, we were back on the streets.  Jasmine moved even faster and was less noticeable now that she was clean and had fresh clothes.  She flashed that big smile and people didn’t suspect a thing.  Granny’s wariness began to fade, though her eagle eye missed nothing.

We made it through the opera night without a hitch and an even bigger haul with Jasmine along.  Granny was pleased.  Her eye began to linger on Vanessa.  I knew what she was thinking.  She’d have to spend money on art training to get Vanessa’s skill to bring in a good return.  Was Vanessa’s talent worth the years, the effort and the money it would take?  If she decided no, then Vanessa would disappear.  I’d seen two other girls disappear over the years.  I never knew what happened to them.

It was time to put the next part of my method into action.

We hit the streets about 8 a.m. that Saturday.  Jasmine and Bryan moved off into the crowd.  Vanessa was about to set up on a bench when I took her arm and hurried her down the street.  A four block walk and we were at Penn Station.  I lifted a wallet off a woman and dug out enough cash to buy two tickets to Philadelphia.

“Where are we going?”  Vanessa asked as we found seats.  She hugged her art box to her chest and looked shaky.  The only times we left the City, we were in Granny’s limo.

“Do you trust me?”  I looked into her eyes.  She nodded.  I opened my book bag and showed her my wad of cash.  Her eyes got round as saucers.

“Granny is not going to like this,” she said.

“I’ve been putting a few dollars away every day for a long time.”  I closed the book bag and wrapped my arms around it, just like any other student on the train.  “Granny’s not the only one who has hiding places.”

“You were four and I was eight when they separated us and sent us to different children’s homes,” I reached for her hand.  “It took me over a year to find you using Granny’s contacts.  I’m not going to lose you now.”

She looked puzzled.

“You’re my sister, Iris,” my voice went gruff over the frog in my throat, “and no one is going to keep us apart again.”

“Iris.  No one’s called me by my middle name since my Mama died.”  She stared at me.  “I had a sister.  Mags.”

“You have a sister, Iris.  I’m Mags.  Maggie.”

Her eyes got round again and, as I knew they would, tears came.  We reached for each other and held on tight.