Like Kissing A Calf

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Good Mourning Press published a fiction anthology called “Unconventional Love”.  All the stories take place at a convention of some sort. My story is entitled “Like Kissing a Calf“.

You can read it here:

Like Kissing a Calf

“Didn’t I talk to you at last year’s event?” asked the red-headed woman standing by the display of shiny metal cream separators.

Elroy shook his head. “First time here,” he said.

“How’s that?” asked the woman, grinning.

She was about Elroy’s age, maybe thirty-five, with muscular arms and a soft pudgy face. Probably a farm wife, thought Elroy. She was wearing a blue and white striped apron. He assumed she was supplementing the family income hawking separators.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look a bit old to be just starting out in the dairy business,” said the woman with a soft smile.

Elroy mumbled something about switching jobs. His natural reserve kept him from doing much except nodding dumbly at the woman, whose apron slogan was “ Dorian Cream Separators, We Always Come Out On Top.”

She didn’t stop smiling. Her ID tag said Marjorie Hobbs. Elroy couldn’t take his eyes off her red hair which hung down her back in a thick plait.

Elroy wished he could think of something to say. Although he was good-looking and nicely built, shyness had plagued him his whole life. Plus he occasionally stuttered. It had started soon after he lost his mother, around the age of eight.

“But you’ve got yourself a herd, eh?” the woman named Marjorie Hobbs asked.

Elroy hesitated. “Uh…ye…ye..yes, yes I do,” he said.

Marjorie waited for him to continue, but when he didn’t, she threw out another question.

“So whaddya raise? Holsteins, like everybody else in Canada?” she asked, still smiling.

“No,” said Elroy. “Mos…mos…mostly Dutch Belteds.”

“No kiddin’. I love those gals. They’re beautiful,” said Marjorie. “How big a herd?”

“Fifty head,” he answered. “I’m just learning, really.”

He would have liked to elaborate, but he couldn’t get his words out without splintering his syllables.

“Well, maybe I’ll run into you again later, Mr. Dutch Belted,” said Marjorie, with another smile.

Her front bottom teeth were badly chipped, but she didn’t seem self-conscious about her grin. Her face was smooth and symmetric and somehow pleasing.

“Uh huh,” said Elroy.

He slunk off feeling foolishly tongue-tied. He had no idea that coming to a Dairy Farmer’s Convention would require so much socializing. He found it somewhat exhausting.

First, there had been the bearded men from up north, all of them raising Guernseys, who had invited Elroy to join them for breakfast at the motel. They were staying in two rooms adjacent to his. He declined, having already been awake for hours and driven out to LaChance’s on Route 207 to get some fried eggs and toast before the motel restaurant was open.

And then, later that morning, he was buttonholed by two students who were standing by the Ag School display. They were interviewing dairy farmers as part of their course work.

“Could I just ask you a few questions?” said one of the girls, who had long brown hair and a short denim skirt.

“O..o..okay,” said Elroy.

“What are some of the current challenges you’re facing as a dairy farmer?”

Elroy felt his palms growing moist. He opened his mouth to try to explain his own story. How he really wasn’t a dairy farmer. Not yet. He had just taken over his deceased uncle’s farm, down near Stanstead, on the Vermont border. At the same time, he continued working as an installer of oil and gas furnaces, that was his job. The same job his father had done.

But he liked cows. Always had. He loved they way they looked at him, passively, without judging. But he couldn’t get any words out.

The young college girl made him uncomfortable. The way she flipped her long hair, for instance.

He found himself staring at the girl’s thighs peeking out from under the denim skirt.

The girl smirked and flipped her hair again.

“Well, let’s try this one. What do you think farmers can do to increase milk consumption across Canada?”

Elroy shifted his weight from one foot to another.

“I…I…I have no idea,” Elroy finally answered.

He was so flustered that he turned the wrong way and ended up walking back through the same aisle with all the booths he had already seen.

He wondered how it was possible to take it all in. Just looking at the displays was overwhelming. And the workshops….“Setting Up Your Dairy for the Future”, “Sire Selection Made Easy”, “Manure Recycling For a Better Tomorrow”. There was so much to learn.

As a boy, whenever he visited his uncle, he had pitched in with the evening milking, checking the long black pulse tubes, attaching the claws to the udders, listening to the thumping of the pump. He would feel part of the earth in a way he never did when he was around his classmates or helping his dad tinker with an oil furnace.

The cows were his best friends. All knowing, peaceful, soulful, with their deep eyes taking him in and accepting him. His shyness. His stutter. Accepting everything, just as it was.

He hungered for that.

But running an entire dairy operation, as a business. Maybe that was beyond him.

He wasn’t even sure he could endure the bustle of the Dairy Convention much longer. But since he’d paid a hefty registration fee, he told himself to stick it out until closing.

In the afternoon, he trudged along the aisles in the large convention hall, his eyes narrowed as if he wanted to blot out the lights.

He gingerly collected pamphlets on everything from brucellosis to robotic milkers. Although he naturally avoided making eye contact, other people spoke to him constantly. A few salesmen even slapped his back in their zeal to talk about ways of preventing mastitis, or improving silage storage. Elroy had to retreat several times to the men’s room, to center himself, before returning to face the crowds, the noise, and the never-ending flood of information.

Just as he was exiting a presentation on feed conversion, he ran into Marjorie again, still wearing her Dorian Cream Separator apron.

“Hey, it’s you. The newbie,” said Marjorie, pulling off her apron and stuffing it into her shoulder bag. “Mr. Dutch Belted.”

“Uh…” said Elroy, “Uh…yes.”

“Finding your way around?” asked Marjorie. “Or do you need a guide? My next shift doesn’t start until four.”

She was standing very close to Elroy and her skin gave off a sweet, soapy smell, like fresh laundry and grass clippings. As he breathed in her fragrance, Elroy suddenly remembered his own mother, right before she died, hanging out his school shirts on the clothesline in the backyard. He remembered the fresh perfume of the clothes and way the sunlight patterned the lawn and his mother’s arms tight around him when she finished the chore.

Everything will be all right, his mother had said, from here on in.

“Let’s go see the champions, Mr. Dutch” suggested Marjorie. “That’s the best part of this place.”

Without waiting for Elroy to agree or disagree, she practically dragged him along and started walking towards the area reserved for the animals.

Elroy, too, had been saving the cows for last.

The animal hall felt like a sanctuary, quiet and still. People spoke almost reverently. The carnival atmosphere of the convention seemed far away and the air had a familiar milky odor.

Elroy could feel himself relaxing. Even Marjorie grew quiet. All they could hear was the swish-swish of the circulating fans, and an occasional soft gulping sound as a cow devoured a tidy pile of feed.

“Oh,” said Marjorie, “This is what makes me happy.”

Elroy and Marjorie stopped in front of each placid creature and looked into their deep, bovine eyes. The cows lowered their eyelids almost coquettishly.

The cows all had a sign above their stall, with their name and their milk production. Some cows had plastic stars next to their names for exceeding 9400 liters per year.

“Hello, Blue Babe,” Marjorie said to a particularly clean and curvy Jersey.

“Isn’t she a beauty?” asked Marjorie.

Elroy nodded and reached out to scratch the cow’s ears, then he ran his hand down her soft, solid neck.

Margaret leaned into the stall at the same time and brushed her bare arm against Elroy’s.

Elroy looked at the cow and then back at Marjorie, and suddenly he felt very warm. Little dabs of sweat formed along his hairline. His groin felt heavy. He took off his cap, and wiped his head with a handkerchief.

Marjorie continued to caress Blue Babe. When the cow opened her mouth, Marjorie extended her hand and let the animal lick her fingers with its rough tongue. Elroy did the same.

“I’d rather be in a cow barn than anywhere on earth,” said Marjorie.

“Me too,” said Elroy.

Elroy wasn’t sure what was happening to him, except he felt as if a sense of well-being was lapping at his feet, like a wave.

“Let’s go check out some of the others over there!” said Marjorie, enthusiastically.

“Ye…ye..yes…,” answered Elroy, following her across the floor.

As a young adolescent, while other boys were huddling over magazines featuring siliconed models with air-brushed bellies, Elroy breathed in the simple, natural sensuality of his uncle’s herd. He’d massage the shaved teats, as soft and spongy as pie dough. Occasionally, he’d help with the calving, marveling at the wet pinkness of new life.

He felt more comfortable with his uncle’s herd than with his school mates, especially the girls.

In high school, an older girl named Berdina pursued him. She said he was cute, even if “he couldn’t talk right.”

She boldly asked him to go to the movies, offering to pick him up in her father’s truck. When she arrived, the radio was blaring. He was grateful that she sang along with the songs because he wouldn’t have known what to say. After the movie, Berdina tried to kiss him, pinning the younger boy against the door of the truck with her hefty chest.

“Use your tongue, like this,” said Berdina, whose mouth tasted spicy and sharp like Doritos, with a faint aftertaste of beer.

“I….I…thin..think it’s late. You’d better bring me home,” said Elroy, after accepting a few more slippery attacks on his gums.

His first thought was that he would rather kiss a calf. Their breath smelled better than Berdina’s. Like buttermilk. Comforting and familiar.

Since then, as a young man, he’d slept a few times with prostitutes when he went up to Montreal for furnace installations. He’d meet them in bars, grateful that neither kissing nor conversation was expected. The putes were just as happy to make their money in silence. Elroy accepted the experience for what it was, but he sometimes gagged at the fermented, grainy smell of their bodies, as if they bathed in Scotch.

Now, standing in the demonstration barn with Marjorie, he suddenly wondered what it would be like to kiss this sweet-smelling woman whom he had just met.

They were standing in front of a Milking Shorthorn, one of the rarer breeds on display.

“She’s got a pretty good bag on her, don’t you think?” asked Marjorie, casually, with no hesitation.

Elroy looked at the cow whose udders hung wide and full, like the full, soft, leathery saddle of a motorcycle.

“Yes,” he said.

He felt comfortable walking from stall to stall with this stranger, together admiring the robust body of each cow….staring at the secret, sensual folds of female skin which human beings normally only share with each other during moments of intimacy. Now and then one of the cows would gracefully lift her tail and ease her waste to the ground, or piss like a fire hose onto the hay.

“I’d love to have my own herd,” said Marjorie. “I’ve got this boring, boring job as a salesperson. It’s killing me. My parents sold our dairy fifteen years ago,”

“I’m so sorry,” said Elroy.

“Well, it’s because of my being alone. No husband. No siblings. I guess they thought I couldn’t handle the business. But I could have done it.”

“Do you think so?” asked Elroy. “I don’t mean to doubt you. It’s just….”

He stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly realizing that he had managed to speak more than ten words without stuttering.

“Go on,” said Marjorie. “You’re not going to offend me.

“Well, dairy farming seems to be a big job….for anyone… man or woman. I’m beginning to doubt that I’m up for it.”

Again he marveled at his words. They were coming out whole, not chopped into syllables.“But maybe you know things that I don’t,” he added politely.

He looked at Marjorie again.

“I bet I know lots of things that you don’t,” said Marjorie, with a tease in her voice.

Elroy gulped.

“I meant….about running a dairy,” explained Elroy.

Marjorie laughed. “I knew what you meant.”

She suddenly pulled her apron out of her bag.

“Listen, I have to go back to work soon. But I’ll give you my cell number. Call me. We’ll talk cows, plain and simple,” she said.

“Okay,” said Elroy. “I will.”

Marjorie wrote out her number on the back of a pamphlet concerning neonatal calf diseases which Elroy had picked up at one of the stands.

“There,” she said, handing the pamphlet back to him.

But neither one of them made a move to leave the barn. They stood there, with their hands growing damp and restless at their sides, and the cows stirring softly in their stanchions, while back in the Convention Hall, hundreds of dairy farmers continued talking about all sorts of things that didn’t really matter.

Check out “Unconventional Love”

Books

(Listed by most recently released)

Unconventional Love

Book cover for the convention-themed romance anthology 'Unconventional Love'An unconventional convention of stories: seven romantic tales of fandom, geekery, and dairy.

Unconventional Love is a collection of short stories that take place at the world’s greatest conventions attended by cosplayers, YouTube stars, bug enthusiasts, and more.

Whatever race, gender, or sexuality, everyone is welcome at the con!

Featuring stories by Gabriella Brand, Adam Clark, K Orion Fray, Charles Land, Tahni J. Nikitins, Frances Pauli, Lyn Thorne-Alder, and D.H. Tuck.

Published March 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0692671450 / ISBN-10: 0692671455

Anoles, anyone? The Beauty Underfoot….

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The Christian Science Monitor published my essay entitled “The Beauty Underfoot“.  Check it out here: https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2016/0217/The-beauty-underfoot

or read it here:

The Beauty Underfoot

The first day on the island of Saint John, when I open the sliding door to the deck, a dull brown anole skitters towards me and I jump. I know these little lizards are harmless, but I shudder nonetheless. I shake my flip-flops and hope he’ll go away. He doesn’t. My city feet stiffen as I feel the tickle of tiny reptilian toes on mine.

“Shoo!” I say, but by the time the word is out of my mouth, the creature…no bigger than a mouse – has noiselessly jumped to the belted trunk of a nearby coconut palm, where it hangs upside down, motionless, like a door knocker. Is it my imagination or is
his skin growing darker? He morphs from pewter to black in a matter of seconds. I feel as if I am watching tea steeping in a glass pot.

I hurry back inside the rental apartment, remembering to latch the sliding door.

The next day I go to drape wet towels over the railing and the anole reappears. He seems curious, perhaps tempted by the terry-cloth scaffolding of the beach towels. I watch as he climbs up the edge of the laundry, stopping to let the Caribbean sun warm his skin. Perhaps we’re not so different, he and I. Hadn’t I spent the afternoon in a similar way, hiking up and down the Reef Bay Trail, resting against the ancient rocks, soaking up warmth as if I could store sunshine in my bones until spring?

By the fifth day, when the lizard appears, I say, “Oh, it’s you, again!”

I stay slouched in the deck chair, a novel spine-split across my knees, as the anole scampers underneath. He lingers, checking out my chipped pedicure with his tongue. I look down and try to study his face, but he quickly drops his eyelid like a shutter. Then he’s gone. I see him leap into the flower box.

I stare at him,waiting for his next move. Suddenly his neck puffs up and stretches out until it is almost the size of his head, all the while turning a shocking shade of scarlet, like a neon turkey waddle. I reach for my cellphone and do a quick search. I learn about the display of the dewlap. According to Google, a male anole exposes his dewlap when he’s marking his territory, flirting like a fool, or exhibiting a major sign of stress. Sometimes all three conditions occur at once.

I try to look away so I don’t stress him further. Suddenly he leaps vertically onto the stucco wall behind my head. It turns out that anoles also have adhesive lamellae on their footpads. No wonder they can stick to any surface and defy gravity.

I put on my sunglasses, pick up my novel and start to read. The anole commutes frenetically back and forth from the wall to the palm tree. We give each other space, like strangers on a train, each of us stealing a glance now and then as discretely as possible.His back, I notice, is ridged and translucent, as beautiful as a paper fan. His tummy pulses as he breathes.

In time, long before I give up the key to the Saint John apartment and return to the slush and squirrels back in Connecticut, I’ll begin to hold the whole arc of animal ancestry in my hand, the haunches and the slinky back, the scurry of adaptation. I’ll see God’s light in the tiniest of bodies, my world will grow wider by a few inches and a tail.

Later, friends will ask me if I enjoyed my time in the Virgin Islands, and I’ll nod and say how lucky I was to have a change of scenery in the depths of winter. They’ll think sunsets and white sand, postcard beauty at its best. But I’ll be thinking of another sort of loveliness, always underfoot.

Continue reading Anoles, anyone? The Beauty Underfoot….

Meeting the Potato Farmer on the Road to Publication….

I've always thought it would be cool to be published in every single Anglophone and Francophone country. I'm about a fourth of the way there! 

In January 2016 my piece "Meeting the Potato Farmer on the Road to Publication" was the winner of the New Zealand "My Writing Journey" competition.
You can check out the piece here: http://www.writerscollegeblog.co.za/meeting-the-potato-farmer-on-the-road-to-publication/   

 Or Read it Below:4644483698_8963688103_b

MEETING THE POTATO FARMER ON THE ROAD TO PUBLICATION



I’m a little embarrassed to admit that meeting a potato farmer helped me become a writer. But it’s true. My literary career only began to blossom after Mr. Russet Man came into my life.

Of course, it would be much more exciting to say that I met a famous novelist or a publisher at a swanky New York book fair. That they took one look at the short story I was carrying around like a cocktail napkin….and boom…I was launched.

But that’s not what happened.

It took a simple potato farmer to show me the way. A man who understood, intuitively, that stories have to be rooted in the soil of our souls, or else they’re just weeds.

I’d always been a writer, of sorts. As a child, my poems and stories about parakeets or flying saucers were often showcased in the school literary magazine. However, I kept my deeper writing well hidden from public view. Every night, I filled the pages of a little faux-leather diary and locked it with a tiny key.

At university, a professor spouted the tired dictum: “Write what you know.” But I didn’t dare. I lacked the courage to publicly expose my disappointments or my fears or my crazy parents. I churned out a few short stories about young girls in Edwardian England, or star-crossed lovers on a Chinese junk, but these pieces lacked authenticity, and I knew it.

In time, I married a perfectly nice man. A brilliant scientist with a doctorate from Yale. But I didn’t share my personal writing with him. I suspect he was interested in hard data and statistics, not my flash fiction. Besides, I wasn’t writing much anymore. I had become a foreign language teacher, a mother, eventually an academy head. I churned out report cards and grocery lists and school budgets.

You’ve probably already guessed about the perfectly nice divorce. After that, I stayed deliciously single, punctuated by several suitors and a few rejections. Not the editorial kind, since I still didn’t have the guts to submit any work!

But here’s where we come to the potato farmer.

Mr. Russet Man was not my type, as they say.

His rural roots stuck out like a pair of dungarees on the subway. I’m a city girl. I live at the end of the train line to Manhattan. He was mellow and relaxed. I’m wound up tight. He wore the wrong shirt and read the wrong books.

But….

Of course you can see what’s coming. The farmer is actually the prince who sweeps me off my stilettos. Or some variation on that theme.

Within days of meeting Mr. Russet Man, I learned of his unabashed affection for Maine’s Aroostook County where his family had grown acres and acres of potatoes. Russets, of course. He, himself, had left the farm because he suffered from excruciating migraine headaches and couldn’t stay out in the fields. But the farm never left him.

With no self-consciousness, he talked about the importance of place in his life. Not just the barn and the farmhouse, but the New England town where he grew up, and the graveyards where his Yankee ancestors were buried. He drew oral portraits of Heddy, the hired girl, and Mr K., who served simultaneously as postmaster, dog warden, and police chief in their little community.

I found his rustic ramblings quite charming. As if I were listening to Tom Sawyer or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. A different age. A different innocence.

But then he turned to me and inquired,

“So what’s your story?”

And at that moment, I realized that for many years I had been skirting around that very question.

Mr. Russet Man’s saga was as linear as a 19th century novel. The locus remained constant. Who grew up on the farm, who left, who came back, who left again.

My own background couldn’t have been more different. My family had never belonged anywhere.

“But tell me about it,” he asked. “I want to hear. People’s stories are fascinating.”

The potato farmer’s desire to learn about my past turned out to be a major catalyst for my writing.

I found that he was an extraordinary listener. And best of all, he asked questions without passing judgment.

“But tell me again why you think your uncle  was mute for fifteen years?” he’d inquire.

He didn’t offer any psycho-babble or academic theories. If I was uncomfortable or vague, he would let the “field lie fallow”.

With his gentle encouragement, I looked inward and began to discern the recurring themes of my upbringing. Displacement. Loss. Death. The Old World and the New.

Little by little, I began to cultivate my personal story, nourish it, and harvest it. I found it liberating to fictionalize my experiences in short stories, to strain them through a sieve or to magnify them tenfold.

“You should submit these stories,” said Mr Russet Man, one day. “They’re ripe. Ready to be read by others.”

My first published and paid-for writing was a piece inspired by family roots in Europe. Since then, a whole cast of characters and situations have appeared on my laptop screen, mutating before my eyes, rising up from my gut and entering the land of make-believe.

I have a long way to go on the writing journey. More questions to answer. More rows to hoe. Maybe there’s a novel lurking in my future. But I don’t think I would have even started on this path at all if I hadn’t met and married my quiet, caring potato farmer who became an unlikely muse.


Photo credit: Flickr.com: Skånska Matupplevelser

“Meeting the Potato Farmer on the Way to Publication ” was the MY WRITING JOURNEY winner in January 2016.

Continue reading Meeting the Potato Farmer on the Road to Publication….

I could kiss this editor!

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Mike Keenan, writing in “What Travel Writers Say” mentioned my story “Shortcut” which appears in the travel anthology,Chance Encounters, published by GoTravel Press. I just stumbled across his critique today. I think compliments are like cookies, not necessary, but such sweet fuel for the writer!

Mike wrote:

“For me, Gabriella Brand’s wonderful piece “The Shortcut-Japan”, concerning an American woman….trekking around the island of Shikoku, following the 1200 km pilgrimage trail known as the 88 Temples, was worth the price of admission. Brand meets a husband and wife who help her in her quest, the husband suggesting to her, “Travel is a way to exercise the body and feed the soul, no?” Continue reading I could kiss this editor!

Gratitude on the Great Wall of China….another new travel piece….


In December 2015, We Said Go Travel sponsored a "Gratitude" travel writing contest. The challenge was to answer the question "Where do you feel gratitude?"

My piece entitled "The Great Wall, too far to shout" was one of the winners. It was based on a true story with names and certain details changed to protect identities.

Read it below............or Check it out here:http://wesaidgotravel.com/contests/the-great-wall-too-far-to-shout/




Continue reading Gratitude on the Great Wall of China….another new travel piece….

Washington, D.C. District Lines Volume III

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The celebrated bookstore Politics and Prose in Washington,D.C. periodically publishes a collection entitled "District Lines" featuring writing about life in the Nation's capital.

My piece called Flight Pattern: Zackary appears in the January 2016 edition.

You can read it here:

Flight Pattern: Zackary

All during recess, while the other kids perfected

their drop kicks or chased each other through the

climber, the quiet boy simply sat on a swing and

watched the sky, waiting for the stirring and

suck of air as another jet, inbound for Reagan,

glided over the school playground.

Sometimes a teacher said, “Why aren’t you

running around?” or “Get some exercise, Zack.”

So the boy would get off the swing and wander

across the grass, but he’d never stop looking up.

The planes were part of his day. Like the turtle

in the science room. Like the kind lady who

directed the carpool line.

He read the airline names aloud to himself. Then

he followed with his head, as the jets, one by

one, swallowed the space above MacArthur

Boulevard, and eased down the

Potomac like geese heading south.

He sometimes traveled with his family,

wedged next to the window, his ears cottony-

thick, his mouth dry as a pretzel, going off to

grandma’s or holiday, itchy with anticipation.

But being inside and seat-belted, it wasn’t the

same. He couldn’t take in the whole bird, the

grace of its beak, the determination of its roar.

Here, out on the playground, he liked to imagine

the jets as pterodactyls, wider than a soccer

field, larger than third grade itself.

He wished that the creatures could dip down

and let him ride on their silver backs,

bronco style, his tee-shirt flapping, his hair

blowing and turbulent, his face visibly brave.

He envisioned the city below him like

a puzzle on a table, the toy cars crossing

the Key Bridge, his classmates and teachers

rooted to the ground, not even knowing he was

gone.