A Group Story to Keep from Going Nuts

If you’re like me, you’re starting to understand why pets try to run out of the house every time the door opens. (I wish I could take credit for that. It’s a meme going around Facebook.) In other words, I’m going stir crazy. Even this introvert is starting to miss community interaction, so recently I posted the following on my blog’s Facebook group:

Write a story with me! Everyone contribute a few sentences at a time. Please keep it relatively PG, and expand and read all comments before contributing. If it works out, I’ll post it on my blog.

I contributed the first sentence and chimed in to keep the story on track here and there, but special thanks to Chuck Christison, Cris LeCompte, Jennifer Dropkin, and Florita Robinson for contributing. This was fun! I may have to do it again!

Without further ado, here’s the story we came up with:

Serenity’s Tenement

In spite of the quarantine, Serenity was able to entertain herself by eavesdropping on her neighbors from the balcony of her crowded tenement.

And then a sound came to her that she had never heard during her daily, and now hourly observation, of the sights and sounds of her very small corner of the place she called home.

This particular conversation seemed to be rather one-sided until a response came in a guttural voice that sounded like the dog replying.

Could it be Mrs. Polliver’s poodle from across the way? Surely not.

Or maybe it was Mr. Pratt, that old guy who always smelled of cheap booze and cigarettes. They say he used to be a Negro league baseball player of some import. He even knew Jackie Robinson when he was a kid.

He did have a guttural voice, there’s no denying it. But he was a man of few words, once you got past all the Jackie Robinson stories.

Serenity didn’t think it was him though. He is only happy when his small social security check comes in and he can stock up at the bodega. Otherwise he doesn’t say much as he is slumped on the front stoop. It’s god awful hot and humid and people in these parts don’t have any cool air.

People were getting restless from the heat and the fact that they couldn’t leave their homes. Arguments were breaking out throughout the building. But this particular conversation didn’t sound like an argument. It sounded much more sinister.

It was the funniest thing to watch Ms. Shuller and Ms. Lopez argue while leaning out their windows. Serenity was not sure what it was about, but all that “red in the face” , hand waving and yelling must have been about something. She was really afraid they were going to fall out of their 3rd floor windows and splatt on that concrete.

Serenity wished those old biddies would shut up, so she could hear the machinations going on below.

She loved that word “machinations”. She heard it on TV, Jeopardy, she thought. Always lot of big words on that show. There is that sound again. It didn’t sound natural.

It sounded like a cross between a bagpipe and Mr. Tolliver’s typical after dinner belch, but sound tended to echo in this alley in unpredictable ways.

But then Serenity heard Ms. Lopez say to Ms. Shuller, “You shouldn’t have taken that package off of his stoop after he went back in to get more cigarettes.”

Ms. Shuller replied, “Nonsense. He’ll never miss it! Let’s see what’s inside!” Intrigued, Serenity peeked over her balcony railing. Could the package be where the strange sound was coming from?

The package was wrapped in brown paper with a ton of tape. Covered with a colorful mass of different size stamps all in symbols I didn’t recognize. Sure wasn’t English.

Ms. Shuller noticed some holes punched into the side of the package.

As Ms Shuller peered closely at the holes, she realized she heard a scratching sound from within the package. What could it possibly be?

And then the stench hit her.

It smelled like a combination of curdled milk and rotting asparagus. “Ugh!” Ms. Shuller screamed, and she tossed the package as far away from her as she possibly could. It landed squarely on Serenity’s balcony.

And then it moved.

I’ll repeat that in case you didn’t hear it the first time. It. Moved.

Suddenly the quarantine felt like the least of Serenity’s worries.

So Serenity thinks to herself? “Self? How bad could it be?” Summoning her inner explorer, she took out her trusty well-worn pocketknife, a gift from her grandmother, and started in.

But then she had second thoughts.

Serenity shrieked and jumped to the corner of her balcony. Now what?! She did not dare open the package. There is a 2 meter social distance, remember?!

So she grabbed a broom, and holding the knife in front of her for protection, she flipped the package over her railing. It landed squarely on the lap of Mr. Pratt, who had been passed out on the front stoop. He said…

“What did you get from Borneo?” He slipped into a chatty high pitched language as he rattled off the price paid, where it came from, and a story of being marooned with pretty local girls during that Typhoon in ‘46. He was just getting furloughed from the merchant marines and he was flush with Yankee dollars.

“Beats me,” Serenity shouted down. “It’s your package. Ms. Shuller stole it off you when you went in for cigarettes.”

“Did not!” Ms. Shuller shouted.

As his cloudy eyes focused, a sense of knowing came over him. He straightened up with an air of long lost tenderness. “Oh , Suni my dear?” His gnarled hands traced the exterior of the box gingerly that were splashed with his tears. “How could you ?”

Suni had been a surprise when Mr Pratt returned to Borneo eighteen years after his visit in ’46. It was quite something to discover he’d been a father without knowing all those years.

He had loved her instantly like any father would have. Alas, he could not obtain the visa to stick around. As a parting gift, he had gone to the local market and gotten her a Spectacled Flowerpecker. She had loved that bird and named it Phinnius, after her father.

When Mr. Pratt finally managed to cut the tape on one corner, he could see a single black eye looking back at him, Staring right into his psyche.

“Oh, Suni,” he said. “How could you?” Because gazing up at him was the very bird he’d given his daughter so long ago. In the package were its favorite foods, milk and asparagus, both long since spoiled. The creature was ravenous.

Then Mr. Pratt took a closer look and realized that it wasn’t his namesake, Phinneas the Spectacled Flowerpecker, after all. It was a Magpie Robin, and it needed a veterinarian who would not tell the authorities that it had made it from Borneo to the States without detection. And it needed some insects to eat. Whatever that stinky mush was in the bottom of the box, it wasn’t asparagus or milk….

Mr. Pratt was relieved that it wasn’t Phinneas after all, as he couldn’t imagine what he could have done to Suni to make her reject that gift. Then he noticed that there was a card inside a plastic bag at the bottom of the box. He had to wipe the stinky mush away to get to it, but he’d done worse in his time. He carefully opened the card. It said…

“Dear Dad, I know that you blame yourself for being absent in my life but I wanted you to know I forgive you. You did the best with what you had”. I hope this gift makes it to you and ……”

…and the rest of the sentence was blurred out by the stinky mush that had gotten through the plastic! Mr. Pratt whipped out his cell phone and called Suni in Borneo. “Suni,” he said,…

But Serenity couldn’t understand the rest as it was in another language.

While the words in the note were trashed, his eyes were drawn to the picture. The childish drawing of a stick figure tall man and a smaller stick figure child with a heart and a sun

And as the cheap booze-addled brain began to clear, he recognized that picture as being similar to the ones that Suni used to draw with worn crayons and scrap paper to leave in his lunchbox before he went to work. Many days of toil were broken by her sweet pictures. The emotions came flooding back as tears filled his eyes and poured down his weather worn cheeks.

“I love you, Suni,” he said. “Stay safe during this quarantine. Wash your hands.” His tears flowed as he hung up the phone.

Seeing this, Serenity wanted to hug the old derelict, but in these times of quarantine and social distance, she knew she couldn’t do so. So instead, she lowered a bag of birdseed down on a string. “For your new friend,” She said.

She then stuck her tongue out at Ms. Shuller, the package thief. Ms. Shuller went inside and slammed the window shut. But everyone knew she wouldn’t sulk for long. It was too hot to sit inside.

Mr. Pratt took the seeds and poured them into his cupped hand as the Magpie Robin began to peck at the seeds. After several minutes of frantic feeding it stopped. The bird looked up at Mr. Pratt and made eye contact. At the very moment he felt as if he had been transported to Suni’s side. He felt that wave of contentment flood over him and he closed his eyes to take it all in as it washed over him.

Even in this time of social distancing, there are ways to reach out.

Serenity looked at all the people on the various balconies and realized that each one had a story. And somehow that brought her comfort. We are each unique, and yet we are all in this together. As the bird began to sing, she felt as though she might survive this quarantine with her sanity intact after all.

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