Regular Life

Regular Life

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on. – Robert Frost

Bernie (Part One)

She woke to the sun shining through her room window. “Well, Bernie,” she muttered to herself, “you lived to see another day.”

She sat up and straightened her arms above her head to stretch. Her shoulders popped. Her eyes still fuzzy, she could just make out her water bottle, a plastic gallon milk jug. It sat on an upside-down blue plastic milk crate bearing faded white letters spelling out “Coleman Dairy.” She grabbed the jug and twisted off the blue lid, then pressed it against her chapped lips and tilted it up.

Nothing.

Holding the jug at arm’s length so she could focus, Bernie saw a thick layer of ice on the water’s surface. It was a sign that her humble surroundings had again surrendered to nature’s hasty march into winter. She shook the jug to break the ice and took a long, refreshing draw. Pain shot through a lower left molar. She tilted her head to the right to re-direct the cold water as she continued drinking.

When only broken ice remained, she set the jug back down on her impromptu bedside table. Two more of the containers sat empty in a corner.

“Time to go get refills,” she mumbled.

Despite the sun’s warming light, her sore arms shivered. All night she had curled up to fight the cold; her thin blanket, riddled with holes, had carried her through October fine, but November’s chill proved too much. That night, she knew, she would have to use her coat as cover, unless she could find a blanket before then. Her self-inflating, insulated sleeping pad made sleeping on bare ground acceptable for most of the year, but soon she would need more layers underneath, too.

A gap glowed orange between two gray wall boards. Dust twinkled in the resulting shaft of light. Bernie stood slowly, hyperextended her knees, then relaxed them for a joint-loosening pop. With just a few steps she crossed the dirt floor to a blue Maxwell House coffee can, peeled back its plastic lid and plunged a hand inside. Her thin fingers, their once carefully manicured nails now worn to nubs, pulled out a gob of rust-colored, muddy clay. Bernie kneaded the stiffened muck until it was spreadable, and then packed it into the gap between the boards. The repair finished, she flicked the excess clay into the can and replaced the lid.

She looked at her fingers. “Damn.” They were dirty now, and she had no water to rinse them before eating breakfast. “Well, girl, you’ve eaten worse with dirtier hands.”

A bread loaf container sat next to her bedside table. Bernie popped the blue lid off the end and poured out an assortment of individually wrapped snack cakes and crackers. She rifled through them, muttering, “Granola, granola. Come on.” Unsuccessful, she settled on a Mrs. Freshley’s bear claw two months beyond its expiration date. The cellophane gave way easily to her strong fingers, and though a little tough, the first bite was sweet. She set aside a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie and snapped the lid back on the container.

Unsure what day it was, she consulted her calendar. November’s picture was titled, “Hemmed-In Hollow.” From a high cliff wall clung icicles as tall as oak trees and, where they clung to the rock, as wide as cars. The text above the calendar grid called it, “The site of the tallest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies.” Hoarfrost coated leafless branches of trees below. On the top left corner, along the bluffline, a bible verse overlaid the picture. “By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. — Job 37:10.” Bernie carefully ripped off the verse and wadded it up.

She pushed the wrapper farther down the bear claw and took a large bite. The empty calories satisfied her hungry stomach, but she hoped the calendar would reveal something much better in store for that night.

Tuesday was the last square crossed out, and she smiled when she saw her own neatly-written text spelling out “Trout Day” inside Wednesday’s square.

Her itinerary was turning out to be rather simple, in number of tasks if not in difficulty. Every day included the usual quest for money and food. She had all that down pat. Her special missions were get a better blanket, refill her water jugs, and enjoy Trout Day.

And avoid Glenda.

She dressed quickly and stepped over to a full-length mirror hanging on the wall. With renewed disbelief Bernie’s deep brown eyes took in her two-dimensional clone. Tangled strands of brunette hair reached her shoulders. Thick, nearly black eyebrows, once meticulously groomed, thinned only slightly as they curved down to meet each other. High cheekbones sat atop shallow cheeks. Dark gray semicircles spread out below her eyes. She knew she was still pretty, but couldn’t imagine anybody finding her attractive.

The one thing that remained constant through good times and bad? The pencil lead dot from seventh grade that still shone through below her left temple. Analise Thompson, who had tried to stab her, was a successful neurosurgeon now.

Bernie wore a cardinal red, long-sleeve t-shirt encouraging, “Go Panthers!” in white across her chest. A recent acquisition from the Cleburne County Cares program, it still appeared brand new. Her jeans, considerably older than that, were almost threadbare in the knees. A few inches too long, they overlapped her Reebok shoes (also from CCC) and rested on the dirt behind her heels, frayed white threads trailing each step.

She flipped over her bedside table and placed four empty milk jugs inside, then set the crate in her only brand new possession — a shiny Red Flyer wagon. She grabbed the black tongue’s handle and walked over to the door. Sliding open the lock, she stopped and drew in a deep breath, held it for few seconds, then noisily exhaled. It hung as fog before disappearing almost instantly.

Her old coat, a black synthetic blend, hung on a nail beside the door. She lifted it, thrusted her right arm into its sleeve, and winced as she worked her left arm into place and fastened the large plastic buttons up the front. The night’s stiffness lingered.

“Oh, almost forgot,” she said. She walked over and picked up the Oatmeal Cream Pie she had set aside after breakfast, then opened her coat and tucked it into the liner pocket.

Back at the door, she took another deep breath. “How close are they now?” she wondered, and pushed the door open. Its rusty spring stretched to allow her to pass, then yanked the door shut behind her.

Bernie’s eyes squinted against the bright sun and took in the small dirt field spread out before her. A bulldozer marked “Got a Lot, Inc.” pushed down one of the few remaining trees about 50 yards away. As it fell, the blackjack oak’s roots pulled up a dry, crumbling cake of beige soil, leaving behind a crater deep enough to hide in standing up.

A new sign stood between her and the bulldozer. It read, “Future site of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.”

“Must have put that in this morning,” Bernie muttered.

She turned back and gave her shack a forlorn look. Steeling herself against crying, she shook off the thought and ambled toward Searcy Street, a two-lane road that on this side of town was lined with low-rent duplexes and nearly forgotten homes. Her wagon bounced dutifully behind her.

10 Responses to Bernie (Part One)

  1. Great start Mark…. I wonder where this one will go!

    Have a great weekend bud… ps, check out my blog as there’s something special for you there.. *chuckling*

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  2. Dave – For once, I have an idea where it’s going. In fact, I have the first six installments already “in the can” (but always subject to my revision-happy eye!)

    Thanks for that Star Wars toys that look like other celebrities link over on your blog! The few I had time to look at right now were pretty good (I’m in an airport). I left a comment over there, too.

    Have a great weekend.

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  3. Exellent job setting the scene. I was a bit confused for a while though, trying to figure out if this was a presnt day homeless person or a survivor in a desolate future worlds. It didn’t detract from the story, but it was interesting how different the scene felt depending on which interpretation I was assuming at the time.

    Have a safe flight, my friend.

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  4. Very nicely set up. And also good to hear that you have more instalments in the can already. I assumed the whole time that it was a present day type setting. There’s obviously a story to Bernie’s downfall from at least relative luxury, and a certain resignation to her current state. I look forward to see where this one goes. Have fun heading home!

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  5. Moksha – I think you were supposed to wonder about that, if I wrote it right. So, mission accomplished!

    Simon – Your assumption was right, and yes, at least one major reason already has been written.

    Bernie was born of an idea I had at age 15. I saw a shack on a vacant lot in my hometown and wondered… what if someone had to live in that? So, I pulled a chair up to my mother’s typewriter and wrote a one-page story about Bernie. Beginning, middle, end.

    Now, I’ve decided to flesh it out into something more substantial. Bernie’s been waiting a long time.

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  6. Hey….you know how you are “adapting” your hobbie? You will appreciate my new post tonight. You just never know when creativity hits…even if it is painful!

    :) Have a good weekend!

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  7. So, do you plan to truck this over to your story blog, or shall it unfold here in all it’s nascent glory? This Regular Life of yours may not sit so well with Bernie’s. Her life may have become regular to her, but not, I wot, to the vast majority of us, who will come to learn of her in short order.

    (I’m halfway through a bottle of port this evening, err… morning now, and just on my way to bed, so you’ll of course forgive my forward method of questioning.)

    Since Bernie’s been waiting so long to be fleshed out, I look forward to bearing witness to her rebirth, of sorts.

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  8. Mark, this is awesome. I hung on every word.

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  9. Anna – Very nice job of adapting your hobby to your situation. Ha!

    Simon – Yes, I will move this tale to my story blog. My normal process (in the last few stories, anyway) is to post the initial chapter here and then move it.

    It’s been a while since my last fictional foray.

    One Wink – Thanks! This one isn’t sci-fi like the last one, so you’ll probably enjoy it more.

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  10. Good opening Markus. Glenda appears to be the foe based on what you’ve written so far, and I can’t wait to hear how she’s responsible for her fall from grace.

    You’ve painted a really good picture, and I already have a visual and impressions of the surroundings, her living quarters, her attitude, and her. Great job.

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