Twice a month for several years, a group of eight Minnesota women have gotten together to share their writing. In late March, for the first time, they moved to a virtual Hangout session.
One of the writers, Janet Houck, was distracted by the COVID-19 crisis and struggled to focus on the longer piece she has been working on. So she turned to prompt cards developed by local writer Terry Faust. The Write Now!TM deck offers five cards that tend to have quirky prompts and are designed to help shake off writer’s block and offer a collective exercise.
The prompts are for an item, a place, a character, an event, and a motivation.
According to writing circle member Lisa Burke, who brought this story idea to our attention, Houck used the prompts to weave “the most wonderful story about a gentle man and his spiritual practice during social distancing, with an ending that made me weep.”
Houck took more than the suggested 30 minutes to create her story, which ended up at just over 3,000 words. “I think I was lucky. The cards I drew at random spoke to me.”
The cue cards she drew:
Character: Dudley Cheeses, Spiritual Advisor
Place: Tubeworms ‘R’ Us pet store
Item: Fully Sanitized Camp Stool
Event: The catapult event on National Adopt a Kitten Day
Motivation: Left his heart in San Francisco and wants it back
Here is the story she created from those cues.
It was the ninety-fourth day of the “lockdown,” as Dudley Cheeses had taken to calling the “shelter-in-place” order handed down from Delaware’s governor. Delaware was a sturdy state, a dignified sub-piece of the whole of the United States of America. Although she was a diminutive place, apt to be forgotten in trivia games — unless the players happened to live in the tri-state junction where Delaware touched her sisters New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Delaware wasn’t prone to panic, or jumping on the band-wagon without careful examination of the facts. And in this case, the facts were compelling and she had become an early adaptor of precautions to prevent the spread of the potentially deadly virus that was causing this global pandemic.
These were, indeed, the strangest times Dudley could remember in the span of 62 years. HIV-AIDS had been devastating too, and many people had died before medications were developed. There had been, of course, polio myelitis — younger people might not even be aware of that one and the toll it took. But there was something especially ominous about a scourge that could be spread by a sneeze, a cough, the touching of a surface. So Dudley had fully complied with precautions. His hands were raw with months of vigorous hand-washing, but it was good news that the worst of the public’s panic about food and paper products had died down. One could find rolls of toilet paper on the shelves once more. What on earth were the hoarders going to do with all of that toilet paper and hand sanitizer once the all-clear was called, he wondered.
As he had lived by himself for years, and was fond of his time alone, Dudley’s day-to-day routines were not so terribly affected by the precautions and limitations set in place, and for that he was thankful. He was thankful, too, for the structure and routine of tending daily to his small charges.
For over 20 years, he had been the proud solo proprietor of the Lewisville Tubeworms ‘R’ Us pet store. Other stores in the franchise had come and gone, but Dudley’s shop survived — a fact that he attributed to his enthusiasm for tubeworms, the unsung heroes of the pet world. They were clean, compact, quiet, and long-lived. You did not have to walk them, they ate very little, were inexpensive to maintain, and they could be induced into hibernation if one was going on an extended vacation. Despite his reticent nature, Dudley could not say enough about their virtues to anyone who would listen.
Vigorously rooting about in the deep pocket of his worn field coat, he heard the jingle of the keys before he fished them out and opened the heavy metal and glass door of Tubeworms ‘R’ Us. The rest of the shops in the aged strip mall: The Smiling Buddha restaurant, the shoe repair, dry cleaner, bakery, and even the hardware store had been shuttered for months.
Dudley’s shop wasn’t open to the public, but he kept his daily routine of feeding his worms, and met with pre-scheduled potential adopters on the sidewalk outside while maintaining proper “social distancing.”
“Good morning, my little friends!” he called out cheerfully. One had to use the proper tone and put out positive energy. Tube-worms were sensitive, empathic animals, and easily affected by tension or negativity. Dudley was careful to keep the shop radio tuned to only the classical or new-age music stations at all times so as not to shock the delicate creatures with discordant notes, raunchy lyrics or the general negativity of the news. Dudley peered into each of the three rows of aquariums lining the storefront, clucking and murmuring softly, checking the health of the worms as he made his way to the back.
When he first opened the store, he had set up his small altar and meditation spot in the corner deemed best for that purpose by Feng Shui principles. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, he lowered himself down to the lotus position on the plump, plum-colored meditation cushion, and with palms together made a slight, respectful bow to the altar. He lit the candle in its brass holder, as well as the charred tip of the incense stick — one of a cluster nestled bouquet-like in a small lacquered bowl next to a diminutive statue of Lord Krishna. There were no scheduled adoptions today, so his meditation practice could go on uninterrupted.
Years of practice hadn’t conquered his monkey-mind —the tendency for the brain to jump to thoughts rather than the desired nothingness of being in the present moment.
“Thinking,” he reminded himself. “Worrying.”
As thoughts glided in and out of his mind like unwanted guests, he named each one and let them go, bringing his breath back to the “now” — breathing in the darkness and pain, the fear of the world, and breathing out light and calm, peace, and love. Throughout this terrible ordeal he had remained calm and grounded, qualities essential for tubeworm husbandry, his own well-being, and his work as a spiritual advisor.
“OOOOOMMMM…..” the deep tone of the vibration of the universe resonated in his chest before returning back through the O of Dudley’s lips. His eyes were closed behind silver-rimmed granny specs, in the deep calm and earnestness of his gentle, round face.
When the soft tone of his Zen bell alarm chimed, he bowed deeply to the altar and extinguished the candle. Dudley rose, smoothing the deep blue of his batik yoga pants.
The mood had been set, the energy dispersed. It was time to feed the tubeworms.
Dudley parked his old bike in the small stand-alone garage in the alley behind his modest home. Another thing he would add to his gratitude journal: a working bicycle and a body able to ride. It was perfect transportation for the four-mile ride to and from Tubeworms “R” Us. It was safer, too, being alone and out in the fresh air. He enjoyed the exercise.
During his daily ride over the past few months he had noticed the air was cleaner with the marked decrease in auto traffic. Early on, citizens hoping to do something positive, and needing to be out-of-doors, had taken to the street edges and sidewalks picking up the trash and detritus that accumulated there. He had noted, too, that those with the tendency to throw their refuse on the ground seemed to be less inclined to offend again, now that the clean-up was complete.
Some positive things were happening, despite the crisis.
People who were out of work were being provided meals and given unemployment, small businesses as well as the restaurants and bars were having their bills and rent and debts forgiven so that they’d be able to open once again when the danger had passed and human life returned to its new normal. Thank the stars above that the populace had, quite literally, stormed the White House (it should have been with pitch forks and touches – like an old Frankenstein movie, Dudley thought) and physically removed the offensive and disingenuous pustule who had infested it for years before, cleaning the bad apples out of Congress and the Senate,s too. The world had breathed a collective sigh of relief after that short-lived and bloodless revolution and Dudley sighed deeply now in memory of that happy day.
“Hello, dear ones!,” he called back to his house worms, Bernadette and Alonzo, as he entered his office by way of the bathroom after scrubbing his hands while singing a favorite Grateful Dead tune to time the cleansing and switched on the desk lamp. He’d go back and feed his worm friends later. Their container was in the living room in the Feng Shui family area by a large rubber plant and singing bowl. It was best to keep them out of the office, especially in times like these, he thought, as he fired up the old Mac. All of his appointments with his spiritual advisees were on the computer now. He was thankful (another entry for the gratitude journal) for the technology that allowed for this. Despite the changes in the government, they didn’t appear to out of the woods with this thing yet. The people were anxious, fearful, heart-broken from being away from friends and loved ones for so long and were simply bone tired of the whole darned thing! Dudley’s client calendar had never been fuller. Ten-thirty on the dot, and in a few computer key strokes he found himself gazing gently at the troubled face of his first client of the day on the screen.
At one o’clock, Dudley rolled back his desk chair and did some healthy stretches. He walked mindfully to the living room and again greeted Bernadette and Alonzo before slowly rubbing the fat cylinder of wood along the edge of the brass bowl releasing its voice. He never tired of that all-encompassing thrum, that went on for minutes or the deep calming vibration he felt in the bones of his head and deep in his chest, in his very heart – he was sure of it. After a few seconds of silence he opened the wormarium and sprinkled in chow from a small, colorful canister that provided his little friends perfect nutrition. He’d reheat the left-overs from last-night’s dinner for his lunch and toss a few alfalfa sprouts on top of it, he thought, walking toward the kitchen. On impulse he checked his cell phone which he’d purposefully silenced during his worm-care and spiritual advising time. A message popped up: “Duds, man, call me!”- it was Dudley’s best friend, Jimbo. After popping his left-overs in pot to warm on the stove, he dialed up his buddy.
“Hey, Jimbo, how’s it going?”
“Duds, did you hear the news?!” came his friend’s excited voice. “I was thinkin’ you wouldn’t ’cause I know you’re unplugged in the mornings, but man the shut-down is over!! It’s over! Wow, man, I just can’t believe it – it’s so awesome…. And the best thing is the events are starting to post and this coming Saturday they’re going to have the National Adopt a Kitten event down in Blinny Park. Can you believe it?! Let’s do it, man! Let’s go to the park!”
“Oh, Jimbo! Oh, that is such excellent news! Let’s do it. What a great celebration this is going to be! You know they always do it up right. I’ll bet that rock star cat whisperer, Jackson Galaxy will be there and that kitten specialist lady. I’m there, man! I’ll meet you at your place and we can walk over together, or maybe we should skip over instead. I’m so happy! How incredible to be able to be out and about again! To be with the people!
“Cool, Duds.! Be here at quarter to ten on Sunday. I’ve got to go run over to my mom’s house now and give her a big hug – it’s been so long! Man, I’m just bawling here, I’m just weeping! I’m so damn happy! I’ll see you man!”
Dudley, his vision clouded with tears, bellowed a gigantic “Whoooo-hoooo!” He jumped up and down again and again filling his diminutive kitchen with his cries of ecstatic bliss until a sharp sizzling from the stove brought him back to earth. His lunch! Quickly he turned off the burner and wiped his glasses with the edge of his shirt before bounding out the door and running as fast and hard as he could around the block three times straight, his little gray ponytail bouncing and flying behind him, whooping and waving to his neighbors. “It’s over!, he shouted “It’s over!”
Dudley was up and ready early on Saturday. He’d Tai Chied and yoga’ed, and biked to Worms ‘R’ Us to feed the tubeworms. Back home he showered with his favorite locally-made patchouli soap, filled his water bottle water (and one for Jimbo, who was prone to forget), and packed snacks for both, as well as his sunglass, sunscreen, his hat and his fully-sanitized camp stool. It was going to be an incredible day, he could feel it in his bones!
Jimbo was waiting in his front yard when Dudley arrived. They tossed their things aside and enveloped one another in a big, long bear hug. Both men stood back teary-eyed grasping one another’s forearms.
“Man, I have missed you so much! I just love that face of yours! I missed that face!”
“You too, man! Oh my god, it is SO good to see you – so good! I love your face too! I just do!”
They sniffed and wiped their noses and glasses on pocket bandanas before gathering up their daypacks and stools and heading off to the park.
The two friends could hear the park before they saw it. Blinny Park was teaming with people. Bright banners flew in the breeze. A happy cacophony of voices arose from behind the tall spruces that lined the open iron entrance. Everyone was just grinning from ear to ear, giving one another high fives and spontaneous embraces and even singing and dancing in unfettered joy. The two men went to every available National Adopt a Kitten event and checked out each and every vender display. To further get in the spirit of things they bought and donned headbands sporting cat ears – Jimbo wore yellow and Dudley purple. Yellow suited Jimbo’s sunny aura, Dudley thought smiling at his burley bearded buddy. They carried their stools and packs down to the edge of the big roped-off soccer field and settled in with their snacks fortified with some fragrant falafels they purchased at a food stand. They were there early and got a good spot.
The big mechanism had been rolled into place and the carnival striped tent pitched behind it. The audience gathered settling onto their blankets, stools, and lawn chairs and watched the Stray Cats cover band play and strut for half a dozen tunes. The murmur of happy conversation quieted in anticipation as the time arrived for the main event to begin. Finally, the master of ceremonies stepped out of the tent and onto the field. Of course it was Jackson Galaxy and he was sporting silver, fluffy, furry feline ears on top of his gleaming shaved pate. He greeted everyone and thanked all the sponsors of the event as well as the health-care and grocery-store workers and all of the folks behind the scenes who had put endless time and energy into keeping the populace as healthy, well-fed, cared for, and spiritually centered as possible during the ordeal that had finally, finally ended. The crowd leapt to their feet, cheering and clapping for a good three minutes before settling back on the grass.
Jackson, the muscles of his tattooed arms, rippling as he pulled back the monstrous rubber band and hooking it into place, turned, with the help of the Stray Cat cover band and a great amount of effort, the huge catapult, aiming it at the crowd. A young tutu-ed and cat-eared girl bounded out of the tent and handed what looked like an extra large orange beach ball up admiringly to her hero. Jackson held the bright orb above his head, turning it slowly so all eyes could see. The ball had a small windshield and behind the safety glass one could see the tiny helmeted head of a small, furry being. “As you know”, Jackson said into the mike held to his lips by another young fan, “the upmost care and the latest science goes into the design of our kitten distribution containers. No cats or humans will be harmed during this event!”
“Are you ready?!” The crowd shouted their response in excited affirmation.
“Try it again, ARE YOU READY??!!”
“YES! WE! ARE!!!” they bellowed as Jackson grinning fixed the orange ball into the device. The crowd cheered and rose to its feet as the orb took flight. Dudley stood, too, raising his hands up high and taking a deep, cleansing breath as he closed his eyes. Pow!, the orb flew right into his waiting palms with a force that was both powerful and remarkably soft at the same time. In a dazed surprise he lowed the ball and peered inside. Two little startled green eyes met his gaze and a pink slip of a mouth opened in a meow, silent to the outside of the vessel. The little tutued girl skipped down from the stage to join them. Dudley placed the ball on the ground and with a quick twist of a large key, the sprite opened the lid of the little space ship. Dudley reached in, unclipping the safety belts as Jimbo removed the miniature helmet. Dudley lifted the kitten in the air briefly as the crowd cheered approval before cradling the little ball of charcoal fluff to his chest and kissing her tiny head while Jimbo beamed at his side.
In the next few weeks Eleanor Rocket Cheeses, affectionately know as Roxie, settled in nicely in her new home. She enjoyed the sunny windowsills, fancy scratching post, luxurious bed, tasty cat food and treats, a myriad of toys, and homegrown catnip (provided by their good friend, Jimbo). And Dudley, although he maintained a strong allegiance to his tubeworms both in his private and professional lives, had to admit that it was nice to have this little talkative furry and interactive housemate. He was happy.
His new happiness got him thinking about the joy of life, its inescapable brevity and how he might share more of all this – of this gift – this beautiful gift of life he’d been given. He pulled out a paper bundle held together with a red rubber band from a cubby in his secretary desk and carried it out the back door. Dudley settled in a chaise on the patio enveloped by the buzzing of summer and the late afternoon sun. He read each letter twice, some three times, sipping iced herbal tea and talking to the universe. Later that evening at the secretary, he filled out an envelope addressed to San Francisco. “Dear Wendalena,” he penned on a smooth piece of blue paper. “I left my heart in Francisco. I’d like it back, please. Would you, could you deliver it in person?”