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The Vortex

In only the second blog post, I am unloading both barrels by sharing a short story. No easing in and taking it one step at a time. I entered this story in a short story contest. It didn’t win, but it’s the first story I ever sent out in the world. It’s rather fitting, then, that it’s the first story I share here.

*****

Zelda, my Yorkshire terrier, stood on my chest and matter-of-factly said, “If you expect me to hold your hair back while you puke up all that good Crown Royal, you’re delusional.” I knew then that I could never drink that much whiskey again. The screaming throb in my head, the one making me pray for sweet, merciful death, convinced me this talking dog was only an hallucination. I shoved her off me and threw the covers back.

Several minutes later, I returned to bed with a completely empty stomach and minty-fresh breath. I turned my back on Zelda, pulled the top sheet over my head, and concentrated on willing my brain not to ooze out my ears.

The fresh-washed smell of the new flannel sheets could not, I realized, block the other reeking stench that insulted my nostrils. What in Hell was that? I thought maybe I had sprayed on too much perfume before Girls Night Out. Zelda shook her collar, though, and I definitely recognized notes of at least two different cheap perfumes—something with a strong vanilla base, and some other concoction heavy in roses.

Holy Hell, was that English Leather too??? Gagging at the rude reminder of a particular high school boyfriend, I sat abruptly. The room spun wildly. Never mind. I settled back into bed and cuddled my pillow.

Zelda ignored my attempt to disregard her. She simply stomped across my head, nosed her way under the covers, and sat so close to my face her front toenails grazed my lips. She was the other reeking stench. I wrinkled my nose and groaned, trying to turn away, but Zelda only laughed.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, “If I can’t get away from me, neither can you.”  She delicately sniffed a paw and sneezed. “Why, exactly, did you and your friends do this to me? What did I ever do to you?”

“You smell like a French whorehouse,” I said, groaning and pushing her away from me. Zelda grabbed the edge of the plaid sheet in her teeth and walked toward the foot of the bed, grumbling under her breath. “And from what your friend Anna says, I suspect she might actually know what that’s all about!” she said. “She. Is. A. SLUT!”

That sound? That talking I heard? More hallucinations. No way could my dog talk to me. Aunt Lorraine spent the rest of her life locked up in a mental hospital after she claimed her cocker spaniel told her to vote for McGovern. I refused to spend my life crafting bead-covered tissue cozies.

Before she could say anything else—check that—before I had any further hallucinations that my dog actually carried on a conversation with me, I rolled out of bed and pulled on the swimsuit draped across the lampshade. The one piece, not the two piece that I had hidden in the back of my closet under a pile of clothes. In my mind, the only thing worse than drunk texting an ex-boyfriend was voluntarily donning a bikini, especially in the same condition. I had done both in the recent past and worked diligently not to repeat those same mistakes.

I grabbed an orange from the bowl on the kitchen cabinet and threw a towel over my shoulder. “Come on, Zel. Let’s go outside,” I said, laying a hand on the back door. A swim would solve my problems. Well, the immediate problem of the morning’s headache, that is. Laps in the pool may be good exercise for the body, but I knew it to be superior rest for the mind when done correctly.

She slipped through the pet door, though, before I could push open the door. Ooh, note to self: find a way to lock that door. “Me first, me first!” Zelda yelled as she rushed past.

Zelda showed no interest in begging a wedge of my orange, almost unheard of for her, and ran headlong into the pool. She dove off the side in a tiny, furry belly flop and promptly disappeared under water. Had I not seen her proficiency in swimming so often before, she would have convinced me I had just witnessed a canine suicide. Instead, I settled into my favorite Adirondack chair, jabbed a thumb into the orange’s navel, and commenced peeling it.

The fragrant juices of my first orange wedge sluiced down my throat as Zelda’s head finally broke the water’s surface for her first, gasping breath. “Is it gone? Is that godforsaken stench gone? Is it?” She sniffed around, dogpaddling to tread water where she could eyeball me. Before I could answer, she snorted and said, “Damn. Still there. You’re gonna pay for this.” She disappeared beneath the waters once again.

I laughed so hard a piece of orange flew down my windpipe, and I choked. Though still more than a little unnerved at such vivid hallucinations, I had to admit that at least they seemed eerily faithful to the attitude I had always associated with my little Zelda. Maybe just such a diversion would serve me better than therapy had so far.

Popping the last two orange wedges into my mouth, I slurped the juice off my fingers and skittered off the deck to join Zelda in the pool. She surfaced at the deep end as I stepped gingerly onto the top step in the shallow end. “Mind if I join you?” I asked.

“Suit yourself,” she said before she doggy-paddled away.

I stepped in and slid into a leisurely freestyle stroke. Lap after lap passed, and my muscles warmed. The tightness across my shoulders faded, and my legs limbered. Since high school, swimming had been my primary—okay, who am I kidding—my only form of serious exercise. Team sports never renewed me as much as solitary laps in a pool, pushing, pushing until I could barely move and my lungs burned with the effort.

Wind danced in the chime on the porch, and it sang a melody as I paused for the first time in nearly twenty minutes. Hanging on to the ledge under the diving board, I shook the water out of my ears.

Clickity-click-click. Zelda’s toenails scratched across the pebbly deck, and her collar jingled as she shook herself one last time and jumped onto a chaise lounge. My dog? She’s a sun worshipper. Loves to bake herself like a gecko on a hot rock.

Before I could start another set of laps, I heard an almighty sneeze from across the fence, and my neighbor readjusted himself in his deck chair. An odd, half metallic click followed a grunt. And then another. And another. Ugh. Credits to navy beans that a peek over the fence would reveal Lester clipping his thick, diseased toenails.

Zelda gave a loud woof, shook her collar, and tucked her feet up under her body. I couldn’t blame her. That man gave me the heebie-jeebies.

“Having a good swim over there?” Lester called out.

Damn.

“Great, thanks,” I said. I reached for my towel, planning to slip out of the pool and into the house. Besides his wife, Cynthia, I knew of no one in the neighborhood that wanted to talk to him.

“Heard you and your friends over there last night. Not that I’m judging. Just saying.” He cut another toenail.

I threw up a little in my mouth. “Sorry about that.” I hopped onto the pool deck and wrapped the towel around my body.

Zelda vaulted off the chaise lounge and disappeared into the flowerbed by the fence. “Zel, get back over here,” I hissed. She ignored me. Surprise, surprise. A terrier with a mind of her own.

“You know, I got something over here that’ll maybe help you,” Lester said.

I rolled my eyes and padded over to retrieve my dog from the overgrown flowerbed. What would he know of my problems? “I appreciate the thought, but—”

“Got a vortex in back of my storage shed,” he said, as though I hadn’t even spoken. “The wife was skeptical at first, too, but I can go in there and the solution to all my problems just comes flying right at me. You should try it.” He shifted in his chair again and commenced hacking at the toenails on his other foot. “Won’t charge for it neither,” he said. “Wouldn’t be right.”

Seeing the toenail chunks fly in odd directions, I hesitated to open my mouth to reply. After last night, the very last thing I needed was a mouth shot of his thick toenails. Instead, I merely said, “Hmm.” Where had Zelda gotten off to?

A problem-solving vortex? Maybe I needed to give up the sauce and try a toke of whatever he was smoking. Scratch that. Hallucinating that my dog is conversing with me was quite enough, on second thought. Remember Aunt Lorraine and McGovern. Remember Aunt Lorraine and McGovern.

“Just gotta know how to open it. That’s all,” he said.

Spying Zelda from the corner of my eye, I reached down behind the mess of overgrown geraniums, marigolds, and lantana and scooped her up. When I saw my mud-covered dog presiding over two uprooted flowers and a hole too big for her own good, I held her at arm’s reach and sighed. “Dog, you’re in for a bath. Right now.”

Zelda’s head whipped around. “Wasn’t my idea. The wacko’s border collie said I ought to come see the vortex for myself.”

“You’re still trying to punish me for the perfumes. Don’t try to deny it.”

She shook loose a few clumps of dirt as I walked with her through the kitchen. “Oops,” she said without feeling.

I kicked the bathroom door closed and dumped Zelda in the tub. “This time, I’m following the shampoo’s directions: lather, rinse, REPEAT!” I turned on the tub’s faucet and flopped down on the toilet seat. “It’s not like I have time for this right now.” Tears sprung to my eyes. “I’ve got enough on my plate right now, damn it.”

“That’s just what I was thinking about, though Allie. Don’t get me wrong. That old boy’s loony as a bird—” Zelda stopped and moaned when the pulsating water massaged her shoulders. “He’s loony, all right, but maybe this vortex is something to check out. Boyo said those people would be in lots worse shape if it wasn’t for…ooh, just a little to the left, please.”

Mad as I was with her for making such a mess, I knew how much she loved the water massage. Besides, some of the mud had caked and wouldn’t come out without the extra work.

“Who is Boyo?” I asked, massaging a generous dollop of baby shampoo into a frothy lather on Zelda’s face and back.

“Their inbred idiot border collie. He says things sometimes get real bad around there. Just when he thinks he’s gonna have to start figuring out how to yodel by himself, the woman practically throws the old guy out the back door and says she and the dog won’t let him back till he’s been ‘to vortex town’.”

Picking at the mud clumps between the pads on the last of Zelda’s feet, I had to laugh. In such a short time, I had gone from shock and surprise that my dog could talk to me to carrying on a conversation with her. Really, which thought should frighten me more?

“You ought to take him up on the offer. We both know you’re not so hot at solving your own problems. Otherwise, you would have never ended up—”

“Get this through your tiny skull,” I said as I shut off the water. “I am not walking into that man’s back yard, I am not yodeling—by myself or around others—and I am most certainly not committing either of these acts of lunacy with the intention of activating a problem-solving vortex behind a storage shed!” I wrapped Zelda in a green, terry bath towel like she was the wiggling filling for a spinach leaf burrito.

After my own quick shower, I combed and dried Zelda’s hair. “I don’t want to talk about this any more,” I said. “Frankly, something must be wrong with me if I think my dog is speaking plain English to me!”

“You’re the miserable one,” Zelda said. “The stench of the French whorehouse was just the last straw for me. Honestly, when you came home with those—”

“I’m going to lunch with my friends. When I come home, I’ll give the cat some ‘nip. He’s always good for some laughs when he’s high on the ‘nip.” The previous day, Felix, my Siamese cat, had presented me with two squirrels, a field mouse, and a crow’s head artfully arranged on a single wing. If it was a thank you for his accommodations, I owed him some acknowledgement.

“Watch out for the discount margaritas at the Tex-Mex restaurant,” Zelda said as I locked the door of her crate behind her.

“Be a good girl,” I said, anxious for some real conversation with real people, some serious advice on how to rescue my life from the rancid, stinking, steaming pile it had become.

Two hours later, I returned to find Felix, deep in orgasmic pleasure, rolling in the biggest mountain of catnip I’ve ever seen. “Mee-reawr?” he said.

“Zelda?!”

Tracing her way back through a sea of fresh mud prints across the kitchen floor, she ran right past me and pounced on poor Felix. How could Zelda have? Surely Felix didn’t? I sighed and rubbed my fingers through my hair.

“Either of you believe confession is good for the soul?” I asked the roiling pile of fur. No answer came forth.

Eyeing the pet door, I said, “Can’t afford a new door. Maybe I can find a board big enough and block them in.” The one bright spot in this mess? Felix still sounded like a cat. I wasn’t so far around the bend that two different species spoke to me. Hallelujah!

After a second bath in one day, Zelda still seemed interested in following me around the house. Felix, deprived of his catnip mountain, retreated to his favorite spot in the top of the closet to sleep off his hangover.

Zelda hadn’t spoken since before lunch. I had almost convinced myself that perhaps some of Felix’s catnip had found its way into my pillow the night before. Almost. And then, I opened the dishwasher to look for a bowl.

“You really ought to try the vortex. You’re a mess,” she said, apropos of nothing.

The bowl slipped from my fingers and clattered onto the countertop. Damn. Still not hallucinating about that, then. Zelda talked up the vortex while I ate half a pint of chocolate, chocolate chunk ice cream. She nattered on about it during several games of computer solitaire, and she wouldn’t shut up about the damned vortex while I sat on the couch and caught up on work.

After an ultimatum that may or may not have involved having her hair braided into swirling rows and a picture of said coif posted on the Internet, Zelda finally shut up about the vortex. Our evening passed quietly. She snuggled with me while I ate the other half of the pint of ice cream and dragged the tissue box to me when the television remote insisted on stopping on Beaches.

I lay in bed that night counting gazelles. Sheep had always been too pedestrian. After I reached five hundred thirty-eight, a lion pounced and killed number seventy-six in a most gruesome encounter. I gave up and padded into the bathroom to take a sleeping pill.

As I reached into the medicine cabinet, a collar jingled, and Zelda walked in. Still half asleep, she wobbled on her little feet and bumped into the door. Somehow, I understood she wanted to make sure I only took one pill. I downed the pill and scooped her up. “Come on, little one,” I said.

Sliding under the sheet, I curled up, pulling my knees up near my chest and tucking my arms into what little space remained. Great huge tears sprang to my eyes, and they fell, again and again, until an unattractively large wet spot pooled under my face.

Zelda curled up on the pillow above my head, snuffled my hair, and fell asleep.

Morning finally broke, but by that point, I thought “living a life of quiet desperation” simply meant you were too damned lazy to change. When I woke up, my eyes still puffy from crying myself to sleep the night before, I realized wanting to change could only take me so far.

I reached for a tissue, wiped my eyes, and blew my nose.

Zelda sauntered in from the living room and said, “You know, Felix just got back from talking to that inbred dog next door. Evidently, the crazy man’s wife is sick.” She jumped up on the bed. “He deserves some more time with the ‘nip for having to talk to that dog. That’s for sure.” She flopped down next to my leg and propped her head on my foot. “You know, maybe you would feel better if you did something for someone else.”

“Even if it means I actually have to talk to that crazy man?”

She sneezed a fine mist on my foot. “Even if,” she said.

Hours later, and after having extracted promises from Zelda and Felix that they would (please, sweet baby Moses in a basket, I’m begging) stay in the house, I stood on the neighbor’s front porch ringing their bell with one hand and holding a casserole in the other.

A casserole? I can’t believe I baked a casserole! The result of a recipe card from deep in my mother’s old files, the main ingredients lay hidden beneath the cubes of semi-melted processed American cheese product that dotted its surface.

Lester opened the door, greeting me with a smile inhabiting every inch of his face. “Howdy, neighbor! Come right in,” he said, graciously waving me in. A completely involuntary smile sprung on my own face, so infectious was his. Maybe Zelda had hit on something after all. “To what do we owe the honor?” he asked.

“I, um, heard that your wife was feeling ill. I thought I’d bring a casserole,” I said. Remembering my Aunt Lorraine and her cocker spaniel, I refrained from telling him that my dog said that my cat said that his dog said his wife was ill. Wild mustangs preceding a wagon train of exotic chocolates could not have drug that admission from me.

Lester took the casserole and led me into the living room. He sniffed the dish loudly and commented about how tasty it looked, but the room’s decorations commanded my attention. I’d never seen so much Swiss chalet kitsch since, well, ever. Too bad I saw no Swiss chocolate.

“So thoughtful of you,” Cynthia said from her perch on the couch. She lay wrapped in blankets despite the summer heat outside and the still air in the house.

Lester ushered me to a chair at one end of the couch, and he settled into his recliner at the other end. We made small talk, and I almost made my exit unscathed, but Cynthia pulled an arm from under her quilt and pointed at Lester. “Baby,” she said, her voice barely a rasp, “show her the vortex.”

Damn. “I really have to get going,” I said.

Cynthia sat up, and Lester sprang from his recliner. “No!” they said.

Lester stood, cleared his throat with great ceremony, and yodeled. He yodeled. Of all the things I might have expected from this giant, lumberjack of a man, a yodel straight out of the Alps never entered my mind. After a few bars, Cynthia joined in, her voice clear and surprisingly strong.

I smiled politely, unable to think of anything else to do or say. Finally, mercifully, they stopped.

“That’s all it takes,” Lester said. “Can you yodel?”

Laughing, I answered in the negative. “Closest I ever came was watching the marionette scene in The Sound of Music. Sorry.”

“Well, we’re gonna have to teach you. It’s the only way to open the vortex out back, see. If you’re gonna use it, you gotta yodel for it yourself.”

I stood and backed toward the door. “I’m sorry. There must have been some misunderstanding. I have no interest in your vortex. If you’ll excuse me, now, I really must—”

Lester took me by the arm and commenced yodeling again. He led me to their back yard, and Cynthia followed. Maybe if I humored the man and walked outside, he’d finally leave me alone about this. After all, this whole mission was about doing for others, right?

The yard looked no different from the occasional glimpses I’d had over the fence through the years. And there, in the far corner of the overgrown weed patch, stood a rusted hulk of a storage shed, its door hanging at a precarious angle.

“Go on, take a look,” Lester called from the porch, and I realized I had waded through the weeds while he remained behind, holding Cynthia’s hand.

“Just yodel,” she said and then began modeling for me.

To make them happy, but more in the vain hope of making them shut up and STOP YODELING, I inspected the spot behind the storage shed. What I found surprised me. I saw no swirling vortex but a spot devoid of any of the weeds that infested the rest of the yard. No weeds but only the most lush, beautiful St. Augustine grass I had ever beheld. I fought a sudden urge to shed my sandals and run my bare feet through its wide, inviting blades.

As a testament to the potential for yodeling to cause an earworm, I found myself yodeling, almost under my breath as I looked around. “Dodle odle oh odle dee odle ay odle dodle odle ay odle dee oh day.”

The back wall of the shed wobbled and shifted. Vertigo struck suddenly, and I reached out for the first solid object I could lay hands on: the fence. My depth perception clearly shot by now, though, I stumbled as it faded from my grasp. The world tumbled around me, and as I fell, I heard Zelda cheer, “I told you it would work!” and then scream, “The Matterhorn won’t be far enough away for you to run to if she doesn’t make it back!”

Once fully engulfed in the vortex, I saw nothing recognizable but could still hear Zelda, calling encouragement to me. “The border collie swears by it!”

Compulsion drove me to bring to mind each of my troubles and heartbreaks, everything that weighed on my mind and held me back from the happiness that felt always just beyond my grasp. As each surfaced, bubbling up as though from a hidden spring, a blinding flash of lights erupted and enveloped me. Just as quickly as the thought entered my mind, a solution appeared on its heels. Solutions simplistic or complex, artful or messy, were laid bare over each painful issue.

As a test to the vortex’s limits, I brought to mind, as I had done with my problems, a desire to know the lottery numbers for that night’s drawing. Instead of a string of numbers, I heard from somewhere in the ether, “I only offer solutions to problems you can fix.” With that, the vortex vomited me back into the neighbor’s yard.

Zelda, complete with muddy paws, jumped back from her sentry point to escape being squished. Lester and Cynthia, with Boyo between them, stood beaming at the corner of the shed.

“It worked, didn’t it? You got your solutions, didn’t you?” Lester said.

I could only smile and nod as I scooped Zelda into my arms.

“Best sit there for a minute. Coming out can give your legs the wobbles,” Lester said, hopping and skipping around me. He wrapped an arm around Cynthia’s shoulder and squeezed.

Zelda licked my face, covering it with kisses. A happy reunion all around.

After a rest that included a cup of jasmine tea Cynthia insisted on bringing me “for fortification,” she said, I thanked them and found my way, Zelda snoozing on my shoulder, home.

Much as she may enjoy the massage of the adjustable showerhead, Zelda later discovered the pleasures of a bubble bath.

“No swirling braids, then?” she asked as she laid her head on my pillow later that night.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “No braids,” I said. As we drifted to sleep, I told Zelda all about my trip through the vortex. Just when I got to the part about the light explosion, though, a steady snore next to me caught my attention. She had been asleep the whole time. C’est la vie! My unburdened heart knew she had the right idea, though, and I snuggled against her as peaceful sleep overtook me.

Why now? Why me? Why not?

Okay, it’s just time. Goodness knows I’ve been writing for long enough. I have finally gotten serious about getting published (more about that in future posts — I’m not spilling all the beans on the first go-round). Reading the blogs of other readers and saying, “I should really be doing this too” has gotten really old really quickly.

So, if you’re still reading, you’re likely wondering what you could expect to see in later posts when you come back. I will publish fiction I’m working on and bits I have already written. I will share and review books I’ve read. After all, who doesn’t love to read, right? Since I am a technical editor, I will discuss issues related to technical communication. I will endeavor to firmly resist introspective navel gazing, but I reserve the right to share tidbits I find that strike me as interesting.

Writing and editing, while often solitary activities, also put us in a wonderful and eclectic community. Now, in the words of the immortal Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”