On Paddles, Smoke and Mirrors / Always Waiting

On Paddles, Smoke, and Mirrors

You left, early, for work. A usual day. Circular alarm

clock struck six as your thumb pressed sleep. Ten 

minutes later you were awake, and I was ready. Always.

Paddle upstream, downstream. No matter the weather.

Hot shower, scented soap. Lavender and rose. 

Smiles etched of steam on the bathroom 

mirror. Freshly laundered khakis and a crisp blue 

button down. Striped socks woven of electric

red, deep purple, neon orange, and lime green stripes. 

Scuffed loafers, faded brown, tied in symmetric bows.

Ready. Or Not.

Your coffee was hot. Steamy. The mug slipped 

and fell. Asymmetrical glass shards and scalding liquid 

spread. You cussed, then quickly cleaned the mess.

Sopped up stray liquid with your personal handkerchief.

Embroidered of love and hand-stitched lettering. The first

personal item of the morning, I was also the last 

possession you touched, before leaving. 

A quick brush, your hand held my wide

tortoise stem and my bristles smoothed

your tufts. Wild, wayward hairs – easily

contained. You smiled and whistled as you

and I fixed your locks in the mirror.

My 250 bristles taut and busy, happiest 

in your hands. I remember the day

you claimed me. From a dusty shelf at the far 

back corner of a deep discount box store. Five

thousand square feet of life on lockdown.

I was lonely. You came in late, also alone. Near 

closing time but before the bells tolled. As your hand 

wrapped around me I felt warm. You removed 

my chains of plastic wrap and twisted wires.

Four, three, two. Time to go.

Short on time, you placed me on the side table, 

by the front door. Not my usual resting spot. I felt 

out of sorts. Eager for your return. I missed the song 

of the birds outside the window of my usual place.

I’d watch the plants that lined the living room 

windowsill. A row of obedient soldiers. Evergreens.

Goldy, too. Rover sniffed, then returned 

to his solitary pad. I waited patiently, but ultimately

idle thoughts turned to worry.

Six, Seven, Eight. Way past time for your return.

Goldy gave up before Rover. The plants soon after.

Milk, bread – gone, too. I watched the clock. Twenty

Four full rotations before the key turned in the lock.

A stranger. Smelled of smoke and sadness. Her nose 

sniffed and inhaled, then cussed. No matter. Goldy 

and Rover gave up, then in, long gone. Tired of waiting.

She collected the mail that had gathered in a pool

on the other side of the front door mail slot. Her 

fingers graced me, but for a second. Slid me three inches

over, to make room for the stacks of mail.

Cleaned out the fridge, then gathered some items. I watched.

Three white T’s. Some underwear. I prayed, silently, to join 

the collection, but no. Paddles of my kind are not permitted 

in your new home. Temporary digs, with a dulled sense 

of fashion and a heightened sense of confusion.

Her piles were bare. Stark whites 

and tattletale grays. Three pairs 

of socks. Only those maintained 

subtle signs of life. She spoke to herself 

and cried as she worked. Something about

an accident. You ran. Unpaid fines. Old 

violations. Fresh fears, Strings of words 

with little meaning, only further puzzlement.

Five, four, three… She left. 

I wait.

Always Waiting

Q1: What am I?

  • A birthday gift from a wife of twenty years
  • A retirement gift after 30 years of teaching
  • An impulse purchase after a run to the corner drugstore for fish food

Q2: Who is she?

  • Mother
  • Daughter
  • Girlfriend
  • Wife
  • Neighbor

Q3: What is Goldy?

  • Flower
  • Fish
  • Bird
  • Ghost

Q4: What is Rover?

  • Pug
  • Dachshund
  • Poodle
  • Parrot

Q5: What types of plants lined the sill?

  • Emerald
  • Spruce
  • Moonglow
  • Potted

Q6: What was the most common type of mail?

  • Bills
  • Birthday cards
  • Get well soon cards
  • Solicitations

Q7: The answering machine held upwards of 60 unanswered messages before the tape ran out. 

Who called? 

  • Doctors
  • Neighbors
  • Children
  • Library, Missing Girl was available
  • Library, Double Agent was overdue

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania. She is a Best of the Net nominee, with stories, poems, and essays published in a wide variety of literary and scholarly journals. She is the author of Invisible Ink (Toho Pub), On Daily Puzzles: (Un)locking Invisibility and On Crossroads and Fill in the Blank Puzzles (forthcoming, Moonstone Press), and Blindfolds, Bruises, and Breakups (forthcoming Atmosphere Press).