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Saltines for Isobel.

Each cracker was carefully inspected before she gingerly placed the corner into her mouth and bit down with enough force to snap it off, but softly enough to not make a sound. After each bite she would lick the salt off of her parched lips. It had been too long since she had known what a real meal felt like in her stomach. The fifth cracker was the last, and Isobel carefully wrapped the remaining morsels back into their crinkling plastic sleeve, tied off with the wide, flat, bright red twist tie. She hated saltines. She always had, but her desperate dislike and taken a life of its own since she'd come face to face with the real possibility of starvation. She was hungry, but she was young enough to still possess the will power she needed to survive. Five crackers is all she would allow herself at each meal, accompanied only by a bottle of water. It was of course tap water in the bottle, but she couldn't afford a glass to drink from so she had "repurposed" someone else's trash by cleaning it thoroughly. Some days she was even lucky enough to have chess to the freezer at work and she would enjoy somewhat chilled water when the hunger pranks were the worst. Desperate for both the Monet required for food and for a way to occupy her time instead of thinking about food, Isabel found herself volunteering for the thirteen and fourteen hour shifts at the call center amid wild corruption, stressful work material, sexual harassment and bizarre slander. About the time she didn't think she could take it anymore, something would shift. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always different. Life was beginning to get the better of isobel but she refused to let it beat her completely. She thought to herself that life was very m cig like those saltine crackers: she might not have been happy with what she had to eat, but at least there was something to eat.

Uphill Perception

It's a bizarre sight, seeing a ball roll up hill. Yes, optical illusion desist that cause people to thing the ground slopes in one direction when it actually doesn't. This wasn't one of those places. This was the driveway at work. The ground slanted downward. Water ran down that driveway slope. I'd seen it a dozen times before. I'd walked up that hill. I'd dropped a pen once and couldn't catch it fast enough to stop it from rolling into the street. So how in the world was I suddenly witnessing a ball rolling UP that hill with only a slight breeze to accompany it? My mind wandered as I wondered what I was witnessing. Finally the ball stopped propelling upward and westward. It tilted slightly and I watched as the cottonwood leaf fell, lifeless, at the top of that driveway.

Things are so rarely ever what we first perceive them to be, I admitted to myself. A hill might always be a hill, but a ball may not always be a ball.

Borscht for Addis Ababa

Your birthday is tomorrow, my friend. Will you be celebrating? How would you celebrate your birthday in the middle of the dessert? If you're currently held captive will you even know its your birthday? Will the days blend together and vanish into the past as though they never existed - except in the sense that a prolonged nightmare exists? How old will you be tomorrow, I find myself wondering? Not that it's an important thing for me to know, especially since it makes no significant difference to either of our lives. I'd still wonder how (and where) you are. I'd still care about your mission; about you... I'd still wonder what your parents were like, how your life was shaped by your move away from Ukraine, if you've heard about the hurricanes destroying Texas and Florida lately, or if you'll return to California safely. You disappeared months ago now. Are you alive?

In honor of your birthday tomorrow I'll be feasting on some of my most favorite Russian foods. My borscht turned out quite good last night. For dinner tomorrow night I'll make Chicken Chakobile, a dish my friend Marco originally from Georgia often made for me. He'd lived for a while in Prague and Kiev, so I'm sure there are some Czech and Ukraine influence in the recipe.

Marco was quite astounding.... he was the owner of a restaurant in San Diego I may have previously mentioned. He always had a passion for cooking. In fact, one of his first jobs was in a restaurant in Georgia, but he had ambitions of leaving. He went to school and studied hard, then earned himself a job in Aerospace in California. He lived in LA for a while, working for (I think) Boeing. Eventually he started his own restaurant in Burbank once he retired from Aerospace (where, I believe, he worked on a few special projects for NASA at one point). The restaurant did well but the rent prices were extortionate and he was sick of the gang violence during the Rodney King riots. Finally when his kids were grown and his wife had passed away, he moved to San Diego and started another restaurant.

Fast forward the calendars a few years and a little redheaded gal stumbles in to his restaurant one day after having previously been taken for Russian food in San Diego on a date, and failing to find that same restaurant. I had simply googled "Russian food in San Diego" and did what I could to find the cute little place I'd been to before. When I ended up in Kafe Sobaka that day, I knew it wasn't the place I'd previously eaten at - or at least I didn't think it was. I decided to stay and eat anyway, since I was on an airline overnight and didn't have transportation to wander the city. I figured I would just try to find it the next time I was in the area, and actually continued that search while I sat waiting for my food to arrive.

The time I'd been to San Diego on the date I was terribly nervous. I remember thinking about that as I ordered my food in Kafe Sobaka. I wondered where Dave had taken me that day and tried to remember what he had ordered, since he hadn't let me order anything or even look at the menu. He spoke fluent Russian (he'd lived there as a performer in orphanages for a few years) and he wanted to show off. His attempts to show off actually very much put me in a state of unease. I ate what came out to the table and I knew it was good, but I didn't know what any of it was. Finally the waitress came over to ask what I would like to order. I asked what her favorite items were on the menu and ordered whatever she told me she liked.

An elderly, frail looking gentleman in a wheelchair came out to the dining room then. At first I thought he might be a customer, but he looked so frail and beaten that I wondered if perhaps he wasn't a homeless person coming in from the streets to enjoy the air conditioning. Before this man wheeled himself inside I had been the only person in the dining room. Some of the tables were too close together for him to get all the way into the dining room though, and seeing his struggle, I jumped to move a chair and push a table slightly so that he would have more room. He smiled and his teeth were like a picket fence. His aged eyes sparkled with delight.

"My, aren't you pretty," he beamed at me. "Thank you." His accent was obvious, though where it might have actually come from much less than obvious. Still it was unusual and he was friendly. I smiled back and returned to my seat in order to wait for my food. He wheeled himself right up to my table and began to chat with me like we were old friends. I asked if he would like something to drink (I was poor and couldn't afford to spend a lot on a stranger, but certainly didn't mind offering him something cool to drink on such a hot day). He smiled again and politely declined. Then he reached over to a shelf nearby and picked up a wooden puzzle game I recognized as being something from the late 1920's or early 1930's likely European. He pulled it close and beamed at me continuously as he set it on the table before me. "Have you ever seen one of these? Do you think you could win the game?"

"Perhaps," I answered and lifted the puzzle box to try for him. A couple of marbles rolled around the box and the object was to avoid letting the marbles fall through the holes into the lower portion of the puzzle box. If they fell, they would need to be placed back into the maze and the game would begin again. We chatted politely as I tried over and over, giggling each time I would have to restart. He ate it up. We talked about the puzzle game at first, but that changed to history eventually, which happened to be something we were both fairly well versed in. He'd experienced it, I'd been fascinated by it. Finally my food came out and Marco grew excited.

"The borscht! You should try that with the sour cream. I think you'd like it. It's very good and very hearty. But that chicken, that's one of my favorite dishes. That and the chicken Shashlik, but that's only available certain days." Obviously he knew something about the food at this particular restaurant. He lifted his hand from the wheel of his chair and held the warped and twisted, bony fingers out toward me to shake my hand. Rheumatoid arthritis had set in several years previously. I gingerly but firmly took his hand to introduce myself. "What is your name, my dear?" He had a way of looking straight through a soul.

"Amanda. And you are?"

"I'm just a bum," he chuckled gleefully. "A bum named Marco." The server came out and asked him something in what I could only assume was Russian before he responded with a good-natured "Da." He turned his attention back to me and bowed his head slightly. "I'll excuse myself now so you can enjoy your meal. My head chef needs some help in the kitchen." He began to wheel himself backward a few turns. "I own this dump." And like that, he was gone. I didn't see him again until I'd finished eating my dinner and was so full I could barely move when Marco came back out, followed closely by the waitress who was carrying something that looked sweet and delicious.

"You must try my 8 layer honey cake before you go," he insisted, not already knowing my penchant for sweets. "I'm thinking of putting it on the menu but I need an honest opinion first."

Of course I ate the entire piece of cake and cooed over the texture and taste. It was remarkable. It was a perfect representation of Marco himself - delicate, but strong, inherently sweet, and left me with a good taste in my mouth, wanting more of the same.

Marco has been a friend of mine ever since. He's seen my life take on many changes and he (until recently) met and had to 'approve of' just about every man I dated from the day I met him. I miss Marco. I miss his borscht, his chakobile, his shashlik, his honey cake and his smile. But most of all I miss his wit, his charm, his personality and his stories. Marco is a remarkable human being. I know he won't be around much longer and that breaks my heart. Marco remains in my contact list on my phone as "Marco the Bum," just as he instructed I do before I left that night.

I wish I could somehow cook a birthday dinner for you, my missing friend. I guess in a way I am; I'm just eating it alone.