It was startling every time to how responsive the wet clay was to the minute amount of pressure from her fingers. It was the same every time for Karen when she got to her wheel; inspiration, then shock, and then a long trance of fascination as her hands worked, letting her mind watch without fully participating. Her thumb would curve the top until vases had the same pouting lips of a rich man’s daughter, or her nails would carve gently as the structure spun, finding design in the lump. Her palms, dripping orange and white and brown, reigned over the size and stance of her ornaments, pulling form from nothing, playing God and pretending not to notice how simple it was.
She was praised and paid well for the success those hands created, and her mother’s shelves were filled with the failures. Mrs. Mullen called the rows, that used to be the home of her fine china, the “museum of progress,” seeing a beauty in the pieces as only an artist’s mother can.
Karen could feel the calm reaching over her and, not for the first time, fantasized a Patrick-Swayze moment, wishing she had someone to annoy and comfort her with one little “ditto.” But then she passed into the world of only wet and molding, finding in it the closest thing she had to peace since she had returned home. One thought stayed with her though, no matter how deep the spinning clay drew her in. No matter how many equality laws were made, no matter how she had tried to prove herself, male vets were heroes, wearing their battle wounds like shining medals. Yet she was just a one legged girl, covered in drying clay.
“I don’t see how shoe shopping is inappropriate.”
Karen was regretting leaving the solitude of her workstation in the basement. A snack from the fridge was not worth restarting this argument from the morning.
She sighed, knowing that she should squelch the rising anger. Her mother meant well, right?
“Because you cannot buy just one shoe. They do not sell shoes in singles.”
“That’s why we need to get you one of those fancy thingys.”
“Yes, a prosthetic. Didn’t they give you one?”
“They gave me one.”
“Why don’t you where it? Where is it? I don’t see why you can’t just put it under a pair of jeans, or we could paint it. Oh! We could paint it like one of your Monet-style vases, make it all flower-power!”
“Navy vets cannot be ‘flower-power’. It would have to be more ‘sea-weed-wonder’, but I appreciate the idea.”
“Look,” Julie Mullen pulled down a clay bowl filled with tea bags and set a pot of water to boil, “your arms are eventually going to hurt so much from those damn crutches that you’ll change your mind. When they do, we’ll go shoe shopping.”
A sound half scoff, half laugh, fell out of Karen, as it was the only answer to her mother. The woman had been doing everything she could to make her only child feel normal. Karen knew it couldn’t be easy to always appear so okay with the world as her mom did. Mrs. Mullen had lost her son to the war, and now her daughter was finally home yet wasn’t whole. She would have no daughter in law, and now the chance of a son-in-law was dwindling with everyday Karen hid in their basement at her workbench or in the back yard staring at the kiln.
“Okay, fine. When I get tired of looking homeless, we’ll go shoe shopping. But for now, I’m perfectly happy hopping around the house.”
Julie rolled her eyes, “I think the doctor said something about how that’s not good for you.”
“You were not listening to the doctor, you were trying to flirt with his cute intern.”
“She was adorable, and I have a sex drive,” Julie smirked as she picked through the cloth bags of leaves, occasionally smelling one before replacing it in the bowl.
“Like you didn’t know that. How would I have created two children? Hate to tell you, but the stork story is not true.”
“And I’m being a good girl, we’re getting dinner first.”
Karen stopped picking at the linoleum counter and looked up at her mother, mouth open wide, “You have a date?”
Julie giggled, “Of course! Only took watching your father get girls’ for eleven years to learn how to be smooth enough to score!”
“Well, the first one was a week ago, and we getting together again this weekend. We’re playin’ strip poker!”
Karen rolled her eyes as her mother began to cackle. She spoke congratulations and then dismissed herself, lying about a mug waiting in the kiln.
Yes, she wanted her mother in the dating world and finding someone to cuddle with. She had really liked the last few ladies that had filtered through her mother’s letters and emails, subtly reminding Karen that life went on back home as normal. But none of those women had quite been enough for Julie, the cougar of the King Fort, Washington. “Close, but no cigar!” her mother had written after each of her affairs had been kindly shown the door.
Karen had wondered if Dan, once two years older than her and now gone forever, had known about their mother’s love life post-divorce. The siblings had always been able to discuss everything, but not once did Dan bring up that he knew his mother had developed much more lively encounters in the dating world.
“Or discovered them, I suppose,” Karen mumbled to the wooden table that held all of her paints and broken pieces, waiting to be remolded into something useful. Her eyes found the picture of her brother hanging on the wall. It was him at his college graduation, a year before his death. The cords around his neck were numerous and though his smile was small, his eyes sparkled with pride at something to the right of the frame. Karen had been standing there, but she had cut the picture in two when he died. She still didn’t know why she had done such a silly thing, but it had felt right at the time. Those eyes were still shining though, and she wanted to ask him how scary it was to suddenly be the head of the house at nine years old. She had done so once before, but she’d felt even then he was leaving something out.
“I wasn’t the head though, Kar,” he said, rubbing the stem to his wine glass, “it wasn’t like Mom crumbled. In fact, she more of acted like it had freed her, ya know? The world hadn’t gaped open, it had just shifted a bit. Why are you thinking of that right now?”
It had been right before his deployment. They had been sitting around the house having an after dinner glass while their mother was off at “yoga class.” It was only after Dan’s death that their mother began to be open with Karen that yoga class was really meeting a short lady named Beatrice for a few drinks, and that yoga classes didn’t even really happen that late at night anyway.
Karen looked back at the picture. She decided Dan must have known. Perhaps Julie had just kept it quiet to her son because she felt he was handling enough, and perhaps his mother’s dating life would be one too many details to deal with before he shipped out to another country where there was gunfire and lots of worries.
She was startled out of her thoughts by a large squawking behind her, and after a short moment of panic, regained her balance and wheeled to rip a new one in the intruder.
Karen found herself staring into the dark eyes of Elixir, their pregnant Maine Coon.
“Can’t you make a normal cat sound?!” She yelled, one hand on the table and the other on her hip, attempting to give the cat the same stern look Julie had given when one of her children had done something cute but disobedient.
But Elixir just purred, wrapping herself around the one good leg until Karen picked her up and placed her on the table.
“Well,” Karen sighed, letting the feline rub fuzzy ears against her hand, “at least someone in this household is getting laid.”
“Mrrow,” came the answer.
“Hush. You can’t even talk right. House of broken toys, this one.” Karen smiled at her own joke. The cat had been the only one to live of their last pet’s litter, and was more capable of a croak than a meow, but as a teenager, Karen had demanded that the cat was simply trying to speak real human words. So the cat was kept, and her food bowl was placed where Mr. Mullen’s seat had once stood at the end of the table.
The next few days passed just as the last had, and Karen felt it was quite soon that she was watching her mother pick out earrings to go with the beige top that showed off her freckled shoulders.
“We might come back here later.”
Karen was lying on her stomach across her mother’s comforter, smoothing the wrinkles of one of the pillows, “For the strip poker?”
“Ha, no! That we’ll be doing at her apartment,” Julie made a point to turn and wink at her daughter before returning to her jewelry box, “For drinks, of course. I do not feel like being the lady hauling all the ingredients of a bloody mary around, so if she’s up for it we’ll just come over here afterwards.”
“That’s fine, I’ll stay out of y’all’s hair.”
“No!” Julie spun quickly, almost letting go of the pearl studs between her fingers, “you haven’t been able to get out of my hair for the past twenty-seven years, why would you start now?”
“I don’t wanna be part of your date!”
“You’ll be a part of it if I tell you that you are.”
Karen started slipping off the bed, “One day I’m going to do something like turn into a grown up and leave. Then what will you do?”
“You can’t get far like that, dear,” Julie called as her daughter left the room, “If you want to abandon your mother, you’ll have to get another leg!”
“Sweet Jesus…” Karen scooted down the stairs on her butt as she had as a child.
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain!” Came from the master bedroom.
“It was a prayer that my mother had a lovely date and leaves me out of it!”
That night the country music blared through the basement walls, almost loud enough to hide the sound of feet clambering down the stairs. Karen tried to ignore the people now staring at her work, quietly wondering why they were down there at all.
“And who is this adorable little fella?”
Being in the military, Karen had learned to assess a situation before she reacted to it. She briefly thought that she had been out of that mode too long, because she simply could not gather why the voice was male and why on earth he was calling her “little fella.”
So when she looked up to see the tall man next to a short blond woman and her own mother. The man was holding her cat instead of looking at the woman covered in clay.
“Um, it’s a girl. She’s pregnant.”
The three people laughed, as if sharing a little joke. Karen ignored this as well.
The man crossed over, extending a well-worn hand, “I’m Shaun, Lisa’s brother,” he said, as if that were an explanation to him still holding the cat.
“And I’m Lisa!” The small woman called, and she seemed to float over to Karen rather than walk.
“I’m all covered in wet clay,” Karen shrugged, not taking the extended palms.
“I get covered in worse every day!” Shaun laughed again, and Karen saw that up close he was rather handsome with his tan skin and hazel eyes. He took her hand firmly, and laughed at the squish sound the clay made between their skin.
“I’m Karen, Julie’s daughter,” Karen said as she stood to turn off the music, realizing only after she spoke how obvious this was. When she turned around from the stereo, she realized her missing limb was now very apparent and moved to hide slightly behind her stool. But neither of the newcomers were staring. Instead, they were inspecting all of her tools and half-finished projects.
“These are beautiful!” The small woman sang, and Karen saw that the siblings had matching color tones. She imagined their family photos were spectacular.
“Aren’t they?” Julie finally joined them and began a tour of the basement studio as if Karen had allowed it. Instead of protesting, she watched how Elixir seemed perfectly happy in this man’s arms. Ever since the thing had gotten pregnant, Elixer had been wary of strangers, but Karen swore she could hear the purr across the room.
“These are amazing! How do you manage to do such a thing? I’d just have a bunch of clay mole hills!” Shaun’s voice seemed to be mostly a laugh, and Karen was sucked in by the compliment and the free smile across his face.
“Thank you, they’re real easy if you’d like to watch.” She surprised herself, realizing she had never offered someone such an opportunity before.
“I’d love that! How’s it start?”
Before Karen could settle back onto her stool, Julie appeared by her side, “He’s a vet too, ya know!”
“Pardon?” Karen asked more to Shaun then her mother.
Shaun shift his feet a bit, the first sign that he didn’t spend his whole day every day in that very basement, “Oh Juls, don’t say it like that- I could never do what y’all do,” He finished to Karen.
“What do you mean, what branch were you?”
“I um,” He finally set the feline down, and Elixir immediately began circling his legs, “I’m her kinda vet,” he gestured to his feet, ”rather than your kinda vet…”
Karen stared at him for a long moment, hearing the laughter choking her mother and the other woman. A heat rose in her neck and the light feeling that had been growing took a sudden nosedive. Shaun saw the change in her face and his mouth went very straight and grave.
“I didn’t mean-“
“No, it’s fine. I get it- the words sound the same. It’s funny because I’m a broken soldier and you nip the balls off stray dogs. Ha. So funny. Who are you and what the hell are you doing in my basement telling me a word-joke?!” She pulled on the table beside her to stabilize and began to escape, but the fury had made her forget her physical state, and when she tried to take another step, was reminded she actually could not as the concrete floor came closer and closer. She reached out for anything, but was obstructed from the table by a large body attempting to catch her. She found herself on the ground, hurting, pinned under a large warm object.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-“
“Pity a cripple.”
“I wasn’t pitying a cripple, I meant I was sorry to fall on you…”
“Karen! Baby, are you okay?” Her mother was by her side, searching every inch of her daughter for scratches or bruises.
“I’m fine, really. Get off. I can get up fine.”
Julie knew when to let her daughter be, so she stepped away and gestured for her two guests to do the same. Karen took a hold of a table leg and in one grunting motion, pulled herself back onto her foot.
The four adults stared at each other for a moment in silence, unaware what the next words to say should be.
Karen glanced beside her where Elixir had made it to the table top and was trying to nuzzle the anger out of her human companion.
“Mrrowl indeed, miss.” Shaun spoke, watching Karen’s face closely.
“Why don’t we go mix those drinks, Jul?” Lisa demanded, rather than suggested.
Julie hesitated, but followed with one last look at her daughter. Karen was making her way back to her stool, knowing there was not enough clay in the world to make this night go away. As she wet the stone again, she realized Shaun was still there.
“Have you ever seen Ghost?” His voice held a nervous note that had been missing earlier, but he did not retreat.
“Do not touch me.” But even through the racing pulse brought on by her anger, Karen secretly wondered if he was just commenting or offering.
“I wasn’t going to, not yet.” Shaun pulled a chair out from the table and, placing his elbows on his knees, leaned in closely to watch fingers work against colorful mud as he scratched Elixir’s chin, “but I’ve always been intrigued by artists. And eventually you’ll have to let me prove that I’m a little more graceful than that over there.”
Karen did not look up from the form beneath her palms. She was a broken piece of pottery. People didn’t like the usually like unusual. They didn’t like the awkward or tense moments that can come with the unusual. People did not hang around to talk to broken things after the jagged edges became so visible. Broken things are scary, unpredictable. And yet, there he sat.
Malleable (adjective): 1. Able to be hammered or pressed permanently out of shape without breaking or cracking. 2. Pliable.
PHEW it has been a while since I have TG’d so hard that IF. The past week(s) have been filled with several different developments (some good, some bad) in my life, and I’m so thankful that I’m not dealing with any of them on my own. All of these developments are asking for change or growth from me, though. And I have to say, I’m kinda excited about it. I know it won’t be easy, and I know that you’ll probably hear some complaints, but it’s like playing a sport- it’s no fun unless the competition is worthy!
But all that change and growth about to be demanded of me and those around me had me thinking… how much aware change are we capable of? We change over time whether we like it or not, because of situations and nature and influence. However, asking for change of yourself with purpose is an entirely different beast. This is the beast now in front of us, and for the first time, I don’t think being a wall of thunder and steel is going to serve me. I think it’s time to be the clay. It’s time to move and shape into new forms while stay whole. It’s time to move from material to art. And sometimes back again to take on a new, better, stronger form with advance structure, again and again and again.
It’s reshaping time. Karen shapes clay every day and had thought herself fully cooked. And when dry clay meets a hard surface? Shatters and shards. But wet clay just PLOPS, fine and dandy and still ready to go. She had only a millisecond between the basement floor and Shaun’s arms to decide if she was cooked or malleable. Sometimes that’s all the time we have!
Here’s to our new shapes, our reforming! Here’s to the artwork you’ll become.
VIPS (Very Important Post Script): I do not know what it is like to be a disabled vet, and I am so thankful for the people in our world that do, as they have made a sacrifice for strangers that many would have a hard time doing even for those they love. So this story is pure fiction dedicated to those still in the midst of healing.