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Albino Prunes

He returned home, as he often had over the past year, tired. He felt as if he were walking underwater and envisioned Lloyd Bridges in an episode of Sea Hunt, sludging his way forward beneath the surface of a murky lagoon or, more apropos, a swamp. Dropping into his favorite chair, he sighed, laid back, and thought about it all. He pondered the age-old question about "round pegs fitting into square holes." Is this it? Is this all the fuck there is? Sweet Jesus, I must have taken one really wrong turn, Mike Fawler reflected behind two burning eyeballs as he pressed his scotch on the rocks against his forehead.

Helen arrived thirty minutes later. She bounded up the short flight of steps that led to their front door, burst into the living room, and said, "How's my man? How's my ever-loving man, Mike?" She cupped his two wan cheeks between her hands and gave him a kiss on the lips and atop his slightly balding head, and then marched off to the kitchen to begin dinner, chattering all the way. Helen was an optimist. She loved people—a dog would have been blessed to be her pet.

How does she do it? Mike wondered. How does she stand going from one sad case to the next? Dealing with hopelessness and their progeny, and then bouncing back home to me? He felt embarrassed that she loved him—she deserved better. She ought to be wearing a mink coat instead of the dyed rabbit fur I bought her. Helen Fawler was a caseworker for the Cleveland Department of Social Services Children's Court. God, I could never manage misery. Numbers are bad enough. But people—forget it.

The scotch always made him feel better. It helped him to see the version of himself he liked. He often lamented the fact that its calming, clarifying effects couldn't last all week without the need for refills, hangovers, and aspirin. "Maybe drug abusers have it all right. Maybe I ought to give it a try—drug abuse." Mike spoke loud enough for Helen to hear him.

"Sure, you bet, Mike," Helen said from the kitchen. "Responsible Mike. Give-his-last-buck-to-a-bum Mike. You'd never make it past your first full bottle. Remember, you gotta drink all day to stay drunk. You'd get bored, puke, and then be sick for the rest of week muttering, 'Why did you let me do this to myself? What was I thinking? Why didn't you stop me?'"

"Well, I could try. Forty-five years old and I'm already sinking in career self-pity. I hate accounting. I didn't think this would happen for another ten years. What was I thinking? Accounting—a job that would last a lifetime? I can't do another tax return or audit. I'll die if I do."

He could hear Helen cutting, clanking, and stirring in the kitchen while he sat glued in his chair. He loved this chair. When he fell into it, it seemed to embrace him. She knew him and gave him quick, affirmative comfort. She was predictable, constant, and eager for his return. He wondered if he had known the chair in a past life. Sure as shit feels like it, he thought.

Mike's mind was more interesting than Mike's life most days. It considered a wide and varied number of impossible scenarios, like the origin of his chair. Maybe she scorned me and now needs to patch things up? In the quiet of his mind, he explored the world and considered all the options. While his life was tight-fitting, his mind could be a spacious place. He liked the room he found in his mind.

"Try a yoga class," Helen called as she put the lasagna in the oven. "How about the Self-Expression through the Written Word seminar at the technical college? Come on, Mike, you know you're not going to kill yourself and you can't become a drunk—so do something. Just do something. And stop thinking that chair has magic powers for Christ sake! I can hear your wheels grinding away all the way in here."

Helen is the ultimate, he thought. She's with the wrong man. I'm limiting her potential—it's obvious. But what man deserves any woman? It's one of the unfathomable mysteries of the universe—why women love men. No one wonders why men chase after women. But women chasing men? Come on—get real.

Mike had few flaws other then self-loathing. He showed up, he did his job and did it well. He suffered the inanities of office politics in silence, his opinion was respected, and he wasn't bad looking. Medium build, great smile, and growing a respectable middle-age belly. He was as kind as the day was long. Car broken down at the side of the road—Mike would stop. Little old lady carrying two twenty-pound shopping bags down the street, he'd offer her a ride home. Mike had that power of being there for others, but not always for himself.

"Don Miller thinks I need a shock to my system," Mike reflected out loud between sips of his second scotch. "He thinks I should take one of those extreme vacations. Canoe down the Nile. Parachute into the heart of pigmy country. Visit a leper colony, something out of the ordinary. He says I've lost perspective. Maybe I've forgotten how good I have it? Happens all the time at middle age. Clock is ticking down, and suddenly a guy wakes up in the dead of night panicked because he hasn't mushed a team of sled dogs to the North Pole."

"Well good for Don. He had an original idea. I didn't think accountants were allowed to do that."

"Hey, watch what you say. There's a human sitting in her."

"Her?"

"I meant here. Sitting over here," Mike said, shifting uncomfortably. Wondering about his shifting state of mind.

"Right. Well he might have something. How about this one, Channeling Your Own Inner Shamanic Energy," Helen read from the weekend Bargain Guide. "It's being taught by a former managing partner of Arthur Anderson. I guess after they cooked the books at Enron, he decided to try something more ethereal than accounting."

Helen finished making dinner, set the table, and invited Mike to join her in the dining room. "Here it is: 'Dr. Bruce Miller will help you discover the power of your inner shaman.' Think you got one of those, Mike? A mischievous little inner shaman? Or did your mother smother that, too, along with your dream of becoming a high school English teacher? 'Discover how to create the success you've only dreamed of, astro-project yourself into the seat of power or a brand new Jaguar, heal the sick and ward off evil spirits.' Just what you need. Get out of the spreadsheets and into the cosmic. Wait until you walk into the office on Monday morning and start a ritual-chanting group. That ought to make Don think twice about suggesting that people get outside their comfort zone."

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When dinner was over, Mike reflected on what Helen had told him. He soaked along with the lasagna pan. He found that leaving his hands in the dishwater gave his thoughts flotation. He wanted to feel alive and in life again. He wanted to sustain the tranquil joy he found while sleeping next to Helen or sitting in her leather arms, drinking his scotch.

When he came to bed, Helen noted, "Mike, you've been soaking your hands in the dishwater again, haven't you? They look all shriveled up like those albino prunes we ate in Turkey last summer. You've got to stop doing that. Can't you find other ways to comfort yourself? Why don't you get a blanket to carry around the house or just suck on your thumb when you're feeling blue? Just look at those poor wizened babies."

Indeed, Mike's hands were a metaphor for his state of mind, which was feeling a bit prune-like. Helen's comments made him remember those zestful, cleansing prunes and the delightful white plum brandy they'd had last summer on their trip to Turkey. Legend had it that a wandering mystic visited a village they'd toured and sat beneath one of its many plum trees. There he taught holy and often unknowable truths to a small group of townspeople. The next year when the tree bore fruit, it did not have your garden-variety purple color, but rather it was white. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the villagers capitalized on the miracle and sold the beatific fruit in all its many guises and at high tourist prices—albino plums, albino prunes, albino plum brandy, wine, jams, and chutneys. They even dried them rock-hard and strung them onto necklaces that promised the wearer longevity, fertility, and virility.

"Who'd have guessed your mother's insistence on you being her 'little commander of the kitchen' would have scarred you for life."

"Let it go, Helen. No need to go there. My mother was a good woman. Just a bit overbearing. The prunes were good. Your analogy wasn't. I'm glad I became an accountant and not a high school English teacher."

Helen crawled in bed next to Mike and reminded him, as she often did, that he was the man of her dreams. She told him she'd follow him into the great-uncharted wilderness. "Mike, think about that class. He's an ex-corporate type. Maybe he suffered an identity crisis like you before the aliens abducted him. I'm sure he won't mind you bringing your apple-scented dish soap and your favorite soaking pan with you." She kissed him good night.

Mike lay awake long after Helen fell asleep, trying to figure things out. It's just a problem. Just another set of numbers needing to be wrestled with and made to submit to his will. Maybe Don's right. Maybe I need a shock to my system. I'm missing something. Maybe I'm sitting right on it, but I just can't see it.

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"Good evening everyone! I hope you've brought your inner shaman with you. I'm Dr. Bruce Miller. But you can call me Bruce."

Dr. Bruce was dressed in a tribal grass skirt from New Zealand and wore an elaborate necklace of sharks' teeth. He sported a few of those now-popular tribal tattoos on his arms and chest. A spry man in his mid-fifties, he pumped the air and paced the room as he talked and gently touched each of the twelve truth seekers on their shoulder or head. "It's great to be at the Cleveland Holiday Inn tonight. Thank you for sacrificing your Saturday evening to be with me. You may have noticed on the drive in that there is a full moon out tonight. It's called the Hindu Moon. Many believe it's the holiest full moon of the year and a great time to explore and release the energies we each have bottled up within us. We're going to spend the next four hours discovering our inner power animal and learn how to let that animal lead us to our full potential. Each of you has been called to be here tonight. There is an old saying that 'when the student is ready, the teacher will appear'. Well folks, Dr. Bruce has landed in Cleveland, Ohio!" He raised his arms, grabbed some maracas, and danced around the room, spinning and shaking the rattles.

Mike quickly surmised that most of the students were big fans of Dr. Bruce and weren't going to need a lot of loosening up to free the inner spirits they carried within them. They had come dressed in comfortable clothes, and each had brought with them a facsimile of their power animal. Some had it hanging around their neck, while others wore some aspect of their animal—hawk feathers, wolf tails, snakeskin shoes, ostrich-leather purses, mink hats, or deerskin moccasins. Mike hadn't considered that this would be a business casual affair, and he'd come dressed pretty much the way he dressed for work or church. Blue suit, black shoes, white shirt, and a tie in a shade of red-number-crunching, praise-the-Lord wear.

"What's your name?" Dr. Bruce asked.

"Mike."

"Welcome, Mike. Glad you could join us. Looks like this is your first meeting. If you want to remove your coat and kick off your shoes, you are most welcome to do so." Dr. Bruce gazed long and deeply into Mike's eyes.

He then turned to the class and said, "Okay, let's get going. Everyone down on the floor and close your eyes. Let's see if we can tap into some inner power. Let's see if your animal guide is with you tonight."

Lying stiffly amidst a writhing river of seekers, Mike was quickly engulfed by a symphony of animal sounds, as future sha-men and sha-women tapped quickly and deeply into their inner animals. The room was a zoo of freed snakes, wolves, eagles, giraffes, and apes—leaping, flying, and slithering about the small conference room at the Holiday Inn.

Mike waited for a spirit to fill him as well, but was having trouble concentrating. He gazed up at the ceiling. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for something or some animal to happen.

Finally, from his prone position on the floor, Mike raised his hand and immediately saw Dr. Bruce materialize above him, waving an eagle's feather and sprinkling holy water. "How's it coming? Any tingles yet?"

"Nothing. Stone cold, Dr. Bruce. My inner animal and I haven't played in a while. I was wondering though, is it possible for a person's power animal to be a leather chair?"

"Hmmm. Well that's a bit unusual. What's the chair telling you, Mike? How is the chair manifesting its energy within you?"

"It's a woman's voice. Very nice-sounding. Quite sexy. Like Kathleen Turner's. We've talked before, but I usually try to shut her out."

"Ah—so you shut her out. Interesting. Well, Mike, we don't shut things out tonight. We let them in. Just let her in. It's good. It's all good." Dr. Bruce floated his eagle feather over the stiff, concentrating, and horizontal body of Mike.

"Right. Well, I think she's my favorite easy chair at home. It's an odd sort of thing, isn't it? I mean, thinking that a chair could talk to a person? Well, anyway she's telling me to relax and let people sit on me. What do you suppose she means?"

"And you're sure it's not a horse or a donkey, maybe an elephant you're hearing? You're quite sure it's your easy chair?"

"Yes, I'm quite sure it's her. The chair. She's calling to me. Maybe she's been holding my inner animal hostage in my inner mind and won't free it until I give her her due. Think?"

"Well, Mike, the spirit world is a weird place. You just have to go with it. Can you verbalize the sound of your chair? Can you show me how it feels to be a chair?"

Under the protecting encouragement and expert hands of Dr. Bruce, Mike rose slowly to his knees and raised his arms out and into an "L" position. He gave voice to the whisperings of his inner mind and invited the other newly arrived soul animals to come sit on him. One agreeable monkey curled up for a few minutes in his lap, followed by a cat and a snake. Mike imitated his totem's wise and embracing nature—hugging each participant and encouraging them with advice he whispered softly into their ear.

Mike had come with no expectations; he had never sought his elusive inner animal before, but quickly turned himself over to the wisdom of the chair. He had struck upon a core truth; granted this truth was still a bit murky, but Dr. Bruce encouraged everyone to let their resplendent or murky inner spirits soar with the possibilities.

Mike enjoyed and applauded each of the animals joining him in self-discovery. He was with people who welcomed the oddest of inner friends. But more then that, he felt liberated. He enjoyed crawling into the creative, chattering part of his mind and spending time there. It was like standing naked in a dark room: No one can see you, but you're still quite naked.

"Excellent! Congratulations! What wonderful courageous people you are," Dr. Bruce said, shaking his shaker and floating his feather over the head of each of his pupils as they slowly returned from the animal kingdom and resumed life as usual.

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As Mike drove home that evening and slowly became his old self again, he felt at peace; his mind was more spacious than usual, and while he wasn't quite sure what to make of the experience, he was certain it felt pleasant.

"How're you feeling, sweet Mike?" Helen greeted him as he walked into the living room where she was watching television.

"Brand new, baby. Why don't you come over here and sit in my lap. I'll tell you all about it."

And as the chair embraced him and Helen curled up on him, he felt like the happiest of holistic Oreo cookies about to roll over an uncharted landscape toward a world of new possibilities.

"Albino Prunes" was first published in the 2004 Issue of ESC! Magazine.

Copyright 2006 by Charles P. Ries

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Charles P. RiesCharles writes:
I had just completed three years of work on The Fathers We Find and wanted to write a few short stories before starting my next book. I sat down after work one day and the first few sentences just came out. I followed them to the end. I loved the odd tributaries this story took me down. I tried to experiment with structure and give myself permission to write what came. I am nearly finished with my second book, Seeker, and I look forward to again taking a vacation in short stories. Like poetry, they are such a forgiving and relatively stress-free form to play with. "Albino Prunes" was awarded an honorable mention for adult short fiction in the 2006 Wisconsin Regional Writers Association Jade Ring Contest.

Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews, and poetry reviews have appeared in more than 150 print and electronic publications. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing, and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of The Fathers We Find, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry—the most recent one, The Last Time, released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for (Word Riot), and a contributing editor to both Andwerve and Pass Port Journal. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You can find additional samples of his work by going to: www.literati.net/Ries. He just completed a podcast interview with Michael Porter, editor of ESC!, which can be downloaded at http://coffeehousetogo.blogspot.com/2006/08/coffee-house-to-go-across-mic-august.html.

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