Layers

When Danae was sixteen, she made a pact with Derek.

“We will NEVER,” said Derek, “be like them.”

“No bloody way!” agreed Danae fervently. She was at the peak of her Anglophile phase.

“Don’t they look hot?” Derek asked, and he wasn’t talking about how keenly attractive they were.  They wheeled around to sit outward on the wooden bench, the picnic table nudging their backs uncomfortably. They watched their fathers clumsily playing kickball with the younger kids.  Both men wore full coats of shiny armor, suits which, as far as Derek and Danae knew, they never removed.  They clanked and stumbled, and the children ran between them, laughing.

The two men were good-humored, though.  They bore the weight of their armor with tolerant affability.

“Metal-pated,” muttered Danae, contemptuously. Her father reached up to lift his visor and shout something at the kids, who grinned good-naturedly and then ignored him.

“They’re embarrassing, is what they are,” said Derek.

“You should be ashamed,” said a voice behind them, and Derek and Danae both jumped.  It was Danae’s mother, bringing a Tupperware container of cupcakes, sleekly frosted in chocolate fudge, to the table. Danae looked longingly at them, then rearranged her expression to one of repentance.

“Sorry, Mom,” she said.

Her mother folded her arms and stared at the girl for a moment.

“You know,” she said, “he wears that armor for YOU.”

Danae ducked her head.  But as soon as her mother turned to head back to the kitchen, she snaked out a hand and grabbed two cupcakes.  She slid one to Derek, and they unpeeled them in silence, then both took big bites.

“Hidebound,” muttered Danae, swallowing, watching her mother make her awkward way back to the kitchen.  The older woman’s body was completely encased in thick, glossy leather.  She wore shorts and a tank top over the hide, but honestly, she was so well-covered she had no need, really, to wear any clothes at all.

***************
Danae was going to paint. She was gifted; everyone said so.  Her teachers all exhorted her to go on; her art teacher had already finagled two scholarships.  In a year and a half, she’d be going to the university center; she would honor her art and she would live a life of truth and integrity.

Derek was going to write. He would be a journalist, the kind who traveled the world and told its most important stories–even when those stories were found in humble huts in out-of-the-way places.  He’d bring the truth home to people, maybe help ordinary people get a little more free.

They were young and passionate and determined never to wear the armor, never to grow the hide.  Derek’s older brother Phillip, who was not even twenty-one, already had a full breastplate.  He had a girlfriend and a job at the factory; his life was all but set.

“Man, how can you stand it?” Derek had asked him.

“It’s heavy,” Phillip said, “but it’s actually kind of cool. And I love Sandy.  We’re gonna be happy, bro.”

Derek had shuddered, shaking his head, walking away.

Now he looked at Danae, and his eyes were warm and hopeful.

WE are going to London,” he said.

“London,” she sighed, and she ignored the warmth of Derek’s look. She knew how Derek felt, but her feelings for him only extended to deep friendship. Still, they were the kind of lifelong friends who could escape together. She imagined a garret, the smell of oil paints, Derek running in with a magazine, brandishing his first printed article. She’d sell her paintings on the sidewalk until her gift was fully discovered.

Their lives would be so real.

***************
Danae went away to college where, as predicted, she was a star. She kept up with her general education subjects, passing with B’s and C’s, but she spent every free moment in the studio.  She drew and she painted, she sculpted, she threw pots, and she took photos. She sewed fabric collages. She explored art in as many facets as she could discover, but she confirmed her first yearning had been true: she was a painter.

At night, she sometimes walked the quad, unable to be contained, dreaming of travel, of England, of a rich and funky life in London, until one day a professor said the word, “Paris” to her. Said it and nodded sagely.

“Paris,” he said.  “You must go.”

He was an odd, half-plated person, this professor; his art was straight-edged, clangorous, and disturbing. Rumor had it he supported a moody, demanding wife and a disabled child, and he made his art in the nooks and crannies, bearing down on his responsibilities.  Some days he wore more armor than others; occasionally he was almost free.

Danae respected him; she was intrigued by his artwork, which jangled and provoked her.

“Paris,” she said.  She wrote that to Derek.  She began to study French.

She painted her way through a blazing two years, and when she woke up enough to go home, she couldn’t wait to see Derek. He’d graduated from the community college with a degree in marketing.

“Not English?” she asked him on the phone, unsettled.

He’d sighed, a whispery sound that curled out of her mobile. “You can’t get a job with an English degree,” he said.

They planned to meet at Donovan’s; Derek said he looked forward to introducing her to the girl, Nan, he’d begun dating the year before. Danae felt happy for him, and a little sad for Nan, who’d be so lonely when Derek left for their trip across the pond.

But when Danae ran into Donovan’s to meet them, she was shocked. Nan, who was sweet and friendly, whose fly-away blonde hair floated away from her high cheekbones, looked about six months pregnant. She wore a full set of leather leggings, and she rested a hand proudly on her belly.  And Danae could feel, when Derek reached over to give her a beery hug, the growing metal breastplate beneath his shirt.

********
So she traveled to France alone, studying there for the last half of her junior year and all of her senior.  And it was exactly like she’d imagined: the freedom, the hours that reeled and blended, night to day, day to night, infused with painting.  There were long bouts of making art, and there were crazy, tension-releasing parties. She made friends; she dated men. She learned the language, well and true. But mostly, she painted.  Her technique grew; her confidence surged.  She sold her paintings on the sidewalk.

One patron called her work “ferocious,” and Danae laughed triumphantly.

********

One month before she was due to come home from Paris, she met Dan: American, older, (Dan was 28), and a widower. A man of mystery and chiseled good looks, he was a father to two beautiful little girls.  He had metal, yes, but it was sleek and lithe, and she liked the way it felt against her bare skin.

He loved her painting. He loved to walk. They took long walks in the rain, in Paris, and they talked of great and splendid things, and she knew, Danae did, that she had met her soul mate. In May, she flew home with Dan, home to where those beautiful girls waited at Dan’s parents’. And she fell in love with them, too.

She decided to add a year of school and get a teaching degree, just in case her art didn’t support her.

She visited her old professor, the one who’d urged her to go to France, and she spilled out her story.

“A teacher?” he said, and he looked at her with all the expression ironed away from his face.  It was a full-metal day for him; Danae thought he seemed tired and discouraged.

“A teacher,” she agreed proudly.  “I think I can inspire kids to open wide to imagination.”

When she woke up the next day, she discovered the leather, would around her right ankle like a spat. She ran into the bathroom to see if it would wash off, but it didn’t.

Well, she thought. Just this little bit won’t be so bad.

**********
And then she plunged, and the years passed. She found there was a term limit on soulmates; the day came when she couldn’t bear for Dan to touch her.

***********
“But it HURTS,” said Danae; Dan, affronted, huffed. And he picked up two bags and said he’d be back for the rest.

At the door, he turned and issued his parting shot. “It doesn’t hurt Michelle!” he yelled. “Michelle LIKES it! I guess her leather’s just a little thicker than yours!”

And then he was gone, off to his girlfriend, who had a very tidy little home and a burnished suit of leather, and who treated Dan, Danae was sure, with solicitude and adoration.

And here she was, leather-suited and alone.

**************

Dan’s daughters had dismissed her as soon as they hit the teenaged years. Oh, they still came around to wheedle money from their father–and a large part of that came from Danae’s teaching paycheck–but they were totally uninterested in any kind of family relationship.

But by then, Danae and Dan’s own daughter, Kelsie, was in school and showing herself to be a proficient little artist. The first time a teacher commented on Kelsie’s talent, talked about the need to nurture it, Danae was stunned by the force of the jealousy that hit her.  I’m the artist! she wanted to cry. I’m the one who needs nurturing!

And then, suddenly, she wondered what HER parents had given up to make life possible for her.

That night her leather had itched unbearably. And Dan, again, was late getting home.

************
Danae padded through the house–the leather had formed on the bottom of her feet the day she gritted her teeth and said, Well SURE; she’d be happy to take Dan’s mother grocery shopping every week. The supercilious old lady had loved Dan’s first wife. She looked down her nose at Danae, pointing imperiously in the supermarket and expecting Danae to jump and fetch. Danae did–she always did what needed to be done–but her leather began, more and more, to make her itch unbearably.

A little bit more leather had spread on her chest the day the old lady died and Danae didn’t even pretend to grieve.

Now she explored the empty house, where not a soul required her presence, and she savored the moments of quiet. Retirement could be quiet, she realized, and solitary without Dan’s clangor. And maybe—retirement could also be filled with potential.

Kelsie’s art hung on every wall. She was skilled at drawing and painting, but collage was what drew her, and she produced murky, tantalizing works.  Images floated almost to the surface of her pieces, like words in a Magic Eight Ball, just beyond clarity.  You had to reach, you had to stretch, to get Kelsie’s work. It was neither comfortable nor easy.

And Danae urged Kelsie not to be comfortable or easy, either.  There are places, she told her daughter, where people live, free of the leather, unencumbered by the armor—where they live free lives of truth and beauty.

Do I believe that? she asked herself.  She took a book to her favorite chair, but she spent the afternoon staring out the window and pondering.

************

Her painting things were in the clean, dry basement, stored in big Rubbermaid bins.  She pulled them out, and she sorted through.  Many of the paints were hard and dry, but a surprising number had survived the whirlwind years, waiting to be used.

She dumped the unusable.  She looked up her favorite supplier online, gladdened to see they were thriving. She placed a hefty order.

In the interim, she set up a workspace in the basement.  And one afternoon, she took her remaining paints and a small canvas to the cemetery where her parents were interred. She sat for a long time, connecting, apologizing, realizing.  Then she started a small painting. She took it home and stayed up all that night to finish it.

It was spare and upsetting. You could see anguished faces in the clouds behind the polished granite stone.

She liked it.

She called it ‘Sacrifice.’

Kelsie called, concerned about her parents’ split, but careful not to take sides, not to alienate either parent. Danae reassured her. I’m fine, she said. In fact, I’m painting.

Dan called and Danae let the calls go to voice mail, then she deleted them, unheard.  Dan could manage his own guilt without her intervention.

She gave up her volunteer work. She stopped attending her ladies’ group.

She painted.

Some nights she went to the all-night supermarket and shopped for anything that caught her fancy. She might nuke herself a Stouffer’s TV dinner. She might get caught in the riotous color of the produce section and spend the night peeling, paring, and chopping beautiful vegetables—inhaling their reds and golds and creamy whites and glossy greens as she gloried in their fresh and pungent smells. She made soups and stews and ate big bowls whenever she was hungry.

She looked up her old professor on line, and she found that he had died. The unhappy wife, the unfortunate son, still survived.

She named her first finished work for him: she called it, “Caught.” She thought it was good, but she didn’t wait to find out.  She put it aside. She went on to the next.

One night she realized, suddenly, she needed to re-trace her steps.  At 4 AM, she got online and booked a flight to Paris. One way. No plans: she would figure out where to stay and what to do when she got there.

Later, when it was full daylight, she called Kelsie and told her she’d be leaving the following week, and she could feel her daughter struggling, figuring out how to respond.

Finally, Kelsie opted for joy.  I’m clearing my decks, Mama, she said. I’m going to come and join you.

Danae’s heart leapt. She realized, putting the phone down, that she was exhausted. It was 9 AM, but she’d been painting all night, painting right up to the point of calling her daughter. She put the phone on vibrate and she crawled into her tangled bedsheets.

When she awoke, Danae found that she’d shed a single leather spat. It lay limply on her sheets, a sign of things to come.

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Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

*******************

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

********************

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

********************

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

****************

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

A Wheel That Never Squeaks

She ran the Center for Teaching and Learning at her small midwestern college, and that year, for whatever reason, she began getting all kinds of student-based questions and concerns.

What do I do when a student who is a single parent has to miss class because of sick kid issues?  Do I treat her the same as a residential student?

I have a student with transgender issues and I don’t know how to support him.

My autistic student is struggling with the social issues involved in being in class.

And there were more–questions that came via emails, drop-in visitor questions, words floated around committee tables–a theme of ‘Help me; things are changing; I don’t know how to deal with this new and unique situation.’

So she and her assistant, Mindi, designed a whole new series of one-hour workshops.  They pulled together student panels for the first thirty minutes.  A group of single parents, say, might talk about their struggles; the assembled faculty would listen and ask questions.  During the second half hour, appropriate college personnel would talk about what they could offer in terms of help.

The message was always the same: We want to help our students succeed.  We are not going to dumb it down for anyone, but we do want to work with unique situations.

The session on helping students with high functioning autism featured videotaped interviews, so the students wouldn’t have to deal with the stress of face to face questions in an intimidating room full of faculty.

She and Mindi offered the sessions every two weeks, and the series proved to be popular and helpful.

One day, Lilly, who was an advisor and the military veterans officer on campus, came to see her.

“Can you do a session on working with returning veterans in the classroom?” Lilly asked.

She looked at her young colleague, perplexed.  “You know,” she said, “in all the comments, complaints, and discussions, never once has anyone brought up the issue of student veterans.”

“I know,” said Lilly.  “That’s because they won’t complain.  They’ll vote with their feet.”

Lilly arranged for her to meet with three of the students vets, three young men, all of whom had served in Afghanistan.  Joe was the oldest, sturdy, short-haired, and intense. He came to the meeting in an Oxford shirt and tie; he talked about how grateful he was that the government still made college possible for returning veterans. He mentioned that he was on a timed mission; he had two kids at home.  His wife was a nurse, and she’d been carrying the breadwinner burden alone for too long.  Joe was anxious to get his degree and start teaching.

She’d seen Avery, probably mid-twenties, on campus quite often.  Tall, bearded, and usually smiling, he worked in the mail room several hours a week. They’d talked about the weather, the annoying construction on the college’s main roadways, and the high cost of textbooks.  She hadn’t realized Avery was a returning vet.

Derek looked like he was about 16; she was shocked to learn he’d been in the military six years.  He was a thin young man who ducked his head when he talked; he wore a long pony tail and had piercings in nose and ear.

Lesson number one, she thought to herself.  Lose the stereotype of what I think a returning veteran looks like.

Joe, Avery, and Derek sat across the table from her, thanked her politely for the invitation to talk, and folded their hands in front of them.  Lilly prompted them to share some of their thoughts and experiences, and, calling her ma’am and never interrupting each other, they did.

With all due respect, they said, they were on campus to learn, and things that interfered with that troubled them greatly.

Some classes couldn’t start on time because so many people were late.

Some students wasted class time complaining about the assignments, or about the busy pressures of their lives that kept them from completing the assignments.

Some students never came to class, and then, when they finally did show up, they expected their classmates to fill in all their blanks.

And it really bothered them, they said, when students were rude and disrespectful to instructors.  “Why do they put up with that?” asked Avery. “That is just not right.”

He talked about a class that began, every time, with a student berating the female instructor.  She stood, nodding and smiling, until the tirade ended; then, without response or remonstrance, she began the class.

“Did you talk to the instructor?” she asked.

“No,” said Avery.  “I didn’t want to disrespect her further.”

Discussion over, the young men stood up, shook her hand, thanked her for the upcoming opportunity to present a session for faculty, sidled around the table, and left quietly.

When the door closed behind them, she looked at Lilly.

“Wow,” she said.

Lilly nodded. “A couple of things,” she said.  “Did you notice they all sat facing the door?  Returning veterans find it very hard to sit with their backs to a door–it goes against all their training. And Avery wound up dropping that class.  He couldn’t stand listening to the tirades; he didn’t like the disrespect.”

*****

They set up the returning veterans panel for the following Thursday during common time; the room was full.  Lilly introduced Joe, Avery, and Derek, and they talked about their experiences on campus.  They told the faculty they were there for a purpose, and they–the vets–were counting on the faculty to help them achieve their goals.

The young men were serious, polite, and determined.  They talked a little bit about how their experiences had changed them, about their discomfort sitting with their backs to the entry.  They were alarmed by loud noises.  Derek told a funny story about how he’d reacted when a trolley of tables had fallen in the hallway outside his classroom; he went into full military reaction, he said, commanding his classmates to get under their desks while he went outside to investigate.  The instructor had been startled, but after class, they talked it through; then, they understood each other better.

There was a question and answer period. She grimaced when Dillman, notable for his lack of social finesse, stood up and asked, “So, man.  What was it like over there?”

The young men paused and looked at each other, and then Joe answered on all their behalves.  “It was hot,” he said.  “Really, really hot.”  They went on to the next question, quickly.

At the end of the student session, a literature professor stood up and thanked them–thanked them for their service, thanked them for their time.  She wished, she said, that every one of her classes was filled with returning vets–with students who were sober and serious and cared so much about their learning. It seemed a signal for applause; the group stood up to take a break; they swarmed the students, shaking their hands, patting backs, before heading to the restrooms or the Keurig.

She stepped outside into the quiet hallway; Lilly was placing her handouts and papers on the table, ready to guide the rest of the session.  The three student veterans huddled down the hallway, sixty feet away.  They were talking intensely; finally Derek nodded.  He looked over, gave a little wave, and started toward her.

The other two pulled book-bags up over their shoulders, looked around, and walked away.  She had the distinct impression that Derek had drawn the short straw.

She smiled as he approached, but his face was knotted in concern.  “Can you tell her,” he said, without preamble, “that that’s NOT what she wants?”

“I’m sorry?” she asked, confused.

“That instructor,” he said, “the one who said she wished she had a whole room full of us, that every class was full of returning veterans? Can you tell her that she doesn’t want that?”

“I…” she said, and she looked at him a little helplessly.

“Think,” Derek said gently.  “Think how we learned to be the way we are.  Isn’t it better to have a bunch of clueless kids who’ve never been to war?”

She opened her mouth, but once again, words escaped her.  She raised one hand to do something–gesture, touch his arm, maybe try to wipe something sticky and indelible away.

He smiled and ducked his head.  “Thank you, ma’am,” he said.  “This was a wonderful opportunity.”

Derek hefted his book-bag over his shoulder, looked behind him, then walked away.  She watched him for a moment, then went to help Lilly pass her handouts to instructors.

*****

Posted in response to the Daily Post’s prompt, I Pledge Allegiance:

<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/i-pledge-allegiance/”>I Pledge Allegiance</a>

My Life Without Pirates

My uncle John D looks a little like Johnnie Depp, and, because I was very into pirates when I was first nine, which was about 18 months ago, I thought he was fascinating.  Well, you know what nine year olds can be like with their fascinations.

I am ten now, almost eleven, and I like to think I have developed some perspective.

[I didn’t tell you my name, which is Warren. I’m not allowed to give my last name out on the Internet. I may have things to add that are not really related to what I am writing about, and in those cases, I will put those things in brackets and use italics.  So, if you want, you can skip the italics and my writing will still all make sense.]

After my parents’ last big fight, when my mother said she was going to take me to be tested and my father replied I was not–I repeat NOT–f*@cking nuts (and then, after my mother left, he told me it was my fault for being–I repeat BEING–f*@king nuts) [I have read that using symbols is an acceptable way of representing words that are mostly considered vulgar], my father said he couldn’t deal with me, and so he took me to my Grandmother Peg’s house.  I do not like being away from home but Grandmother Peg’s house is the next best thing to home. It smells right and it feels right.

And back then, as I told you, I was fascinated by pirates and so by my uncle John D.

John D was 25 at that time. He worked in a factory called American Products.  They produce hard plastic covers for a variety of products.  John D was on the custodial staff. He had a wine-colored 2005 Taurus that had some rust spots and made unusual noises.  John D called it a ‘beater’, although a ‘beaten‘ would have been more appropriate, because the term intends to convey that the car has been beaten down.

John D is my father’s half brother and my Grandmother Peg’s youngest child, so he is also my uncle.  But I have never called him ‘Uncle’, just John D.

John D has black hair that falls in his eyes, which are dark like Johnnie Depp’s.  He had, at that time, a girlfriend named Gretchen. She liked to put her hand on John D’s pants right where his penis is. [My mother has advised me to refer to penises as ‘John Robinsons’ but I cannot understand the value in that; it seems very foolish to me to give personal names to body parts. I don’t, for instance, have personal names for my fingers or legs. Also I realize that it is not polite or pleasant to talk about penises, but my English teacher says, “Revealing the details means revealing the person,” and I think this detail reveals quite a bit about Gretchen.]  I think that the reason Gretchen liked to do that,–which seems very disgusting to me, frankly– was that when she did, she told John D there was “the promise of more and better things, later”, and then he tended to agree to anything she suggested.

Which was how we came to take the pirate trip.

I had been showing John D my pirate books. I had a very good collection at that time; since then, I have traded them in at HalfPrice Books, although for less money back than I would have hoped.  I am currently engaged in collecting a variety of video games–all in the RPG genre.

Grandmother Peg, who, although she is past the legal age for retirement, still works as a realtor, asked John D to care for me while she showed a house.

John D was seeing Gretchen that day; they had some shopping to do, and he agreed to take me along.

We picked Gretchen up at the house where she lives with her mother. Her parents divorced when Gretchen was four, which could explain some of the many issues she seems to be troubled with. [My psychiatrist, who is a nice and smart person although he looks very much like Dr. Robotnik from the Sonic saga, agrees that this is a very strong possibility.]  I could see, because she made an angry face when she saw me in the back seat, that she was not pleased with my presence. But John D explained that I had been temporarily abandoned by both of my parents and that Grandmother Peg was showing a home, and that I was very much interested in pirates.

And Gretchen suggested that it would be fun to take a pirate trip and grab some booty. That made John D laugh and say HE’D like to grab some booty, too, and I have since learned the term ‘booty’ has a dual meaning. Gretchen said the pirate trip would be a game.

The point of the game was this.  John D and Gretchen would go into a store and spot an item of ‘treasure.’  I would then be sent in the store with a map they had drawn me.  It was my task to appropriate the item, hide it on my person, and bring it to John D and Gretchen.  If anyone asked me if I needed help, or what I was doing, I was to say I was looking for something my mother wanted me to buy.  If they continued to watch me, I was to say I could not find the item and then I should leave the store without carrying anything out.

John D says I am not a noticeable kid.  I am tall for my age and thin and I have very light blond hair [which is like my father’s hair, although my facial features more closely resemble my mother’s side of the family’s] which is cut in a buzz cut. [So called, by the way, because the clippers make a buzzing noise during the styling.]  I wear plain T-shirts and khaki shorts in the summer, and socks that just come to the surface of the ankle rims of my sneakers. John D told me I was very presentable and that no one would look twice at a kid like me and that even if I did get caught the fact that I was disabled would get me off the hook.  I was not sure what that ‘disabled’ meant–I told him my father said I was NOT  f*@king nuts, and he and Gretchen laughed a great deal.

At any rate, no one noticed or spoke to me.  I am usually very nervous about going into a strange place, but this adventure was couched in terms of a game, I didn’t have to stay long or make conversation, and I trusted John D very much.  In the first store, called TJ Maxx, I retrieved a box of turtle candies normally priced at $10.99.  For that task, I just picked up the box and calmly walked out the door.  I took it to Gretchen and she opened it and began eating as I went on to Task#2.

In the next store, called Kohl’s, I had to do a little more complicated task.  I had to take a pink t-shirt with a silk-screened butterfly on the front. The map showed me how to find it–although I have to say, John D’s spelling was not good.  I found the display but discovered there were many shirts on the same table.  I needed to find the pink one with the butterfly, size medium.  When I did, I had to roll it up and slide it into my shorts, making sure that the waistband secured it from falling out the leg.  In this way I was able to successfully take the T-shirt from the store. The price tag suggested that this T-shirt cost $23.99.

My third task–and by then, I was hoping, the final one; this did not seem like fun to me any longer, and there did not seem to be any reward for achieving my goals; John D and Gretchen were kissing and ignoring me–was to take a bag of Verona coffee from Starbucks.  It had to be the large size–$15.99, retail–and it should be in bean form, not ground.

There were more people in Starbucks than in the other stores.  I saw the exact product on a display shelf.  Standing next to it was a tall, heavy woman with short brown hair.  She appeared to be waiting for her order to be ready.  There were several people sitting in chairs like you would find in your living room.  They were reading books or newspapers or tapping on keyboards.

I walked over to where the lady stood, excused myself and picked up the coffee.  She looked at me–I would describe her expression like this: ‘The heavyset woman had a curious look on her face.’  When the counter person spoke to her, she turned away, and I then left the store with the coffee.

To my surprise, the lady left the store too.  She called to me.  She called, “Little boy!” which I found very annoying, and so I ran to John D’s car, and got in, and he ‘gunned it’ and we drove away.  Gretchen thought this was very funny.

John D called my grandmother on her cell phone  and discovered she had returned home, so he took me there.  I believe he and Gretchen were in need of some alone time to fulfill the ‘more and better’ promise. They dropped me off and drove away, and I went in to talk with Grandmother Peg.

My mother says that Grandmother Peg is ‘discerning’ [My mother also says she does not know how Grandmother Peg got saddled with two low-life, dumb-ass sons like my father and John D.  This is the kind of remark, I have learned, that I should not share with Grandmother Peg, my father, or my uncle John D.  My therapist and I are working on me developing the skill of ‘discretion.’] At any rate, Grandmother Peg knew right away that something was troubling me, and when she asked me about the afternoon, I told her about the pirate game.

During my telling, she asked me some questions, and then she got very quiet and thoughtful. She then said something like this:

“Warren, I am very angry about the pirate game, but I am not angry at you.  I am angry with your uncle John D and with that ignorant tramp he runs around with.  In fact, I don’t remember ever being quite so pissed off in my entire life.”

“Then she said, ‘You’ll pardon my French, Warren,'” and explained, when I asked, that ‘French’ was a euphemism for cussing.  She made a couple of phone calls and then we went out for dinner at the Longhorn Steakhouse, which is my favorite place to eat out.  I like that the booths are almost private so nobody is watching me eat. I always order the same thing:  New York strip steak, medium well. Baked potato with extra butter.  Macaroni and cheese on a separate plate.

After dinner we went to see a movie, The Guardians of the Galaxy.  It was fairly late by the time we arrived back at her house, and Grandmother Peg’s friend, Big Dan, was waiting for us on the porch. Big Dan is a State Trooper and often he comes to visit in his ‘civilian’ clothes, but this time, he was in his uniform.  He invited me to fist-bump with him, and I did.  Grandmother Peg explained that he was there to have a little chat with John D.  Big Dan said he was in no hurry, and he would be happy to wait for John D, however long it took him to get home.

I took my bath [I no longer take baths. I have decided that showers are much more sanitary, but last year I only took baths.]  Then I put on a clean T-shirt and clean underwear and went to bed in ‘my’ room, which is the front room upstairs.  It is also the craft room and the guest room, but Grandmother Peg says, whenever I visit, the room is mine. I was very tired, so I fell asleep pretty quickly.  I woke up once, when I heard Big Dan say, “Get in the car, son. We’re taking a ride.”

I heard John D answer, but I couldn’t make out the words. Big Dan said, “Whiz [another euphemism, for ‘urinate’] in the bushes then; you have two minutes. We’re going for a ride to have a little talk.”

I heard the car pull out and I wondered about it, but I fell back to sleep very quickly.

When I woke up, my mother was there.  Grandmother Peg made us French toast. [‘French’ toast has nothing to do with cussing.] We all talked. My mother explained that she had been consulting both a doctor and a lawyer. The doctor was referring me to a clinic at a big teaching hospital for testing.  The lawyer was insuring that my mother would be able to be my custodial parent without interference from my father.

She told me very clearly what would happen and what I could expect, and what things would be different–including big things, like where we would live.  When she was done, Grandmother Peg got up and went upstairs. Shortly after that, John D came down in his baggy sleeping clothes.  HIs eyes were red and his head was down.

“Warren,” he said. “Buddy.  What we did yesterday–the pirate game–that was messed up, man.  We should not have made you play that game.  Stealing is bad, dude.  I was a jerk.”

I thought about what he had said, and then I thanked him for clarifying the situation, and he shook hands very seriously. Grandmother Peg was crying, and I think maybe John D was about to cry, too.

Not my mother, though. She was just plain mad, and it was probably a good thing John D hurried out of her reach.

So this is what happened then.  My mother and I went to live in an apartment in the city near the clinic.  My mother got a new job at the university hospital, and I had a comprehensive series of tests.  My mother was correct that I would have a diagnosis.  I am on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.  My therapist explained to me that often other diagnoses are connected to being on the spectrum. In my case, I have clear obsessive compulsive tendencies and I also suffer from episodes of depression.  I now take medication every day. I believe that the medication makes it easier for me to cope; for instance, I have currently not had a ‘melt-down’ in three weeks.

I also go to support groups at the university and have some special things at school–like I don’t have to eat in the crowded cafeteria and I can take my tests in a quiet room just off the Guidance Office.  I like my teacher. I even like some of the kids, and I have actual friends whom I met at the groups at the university.

I am starting to understand some of the things that make me different–like I still like toys other people say they’ve grown out of, but my vocabulary is like that [my teacher says] of an educated forty year old man. “Pedantic speech” my psychiatrist calls it, but that is okay with me. A pedant is a teacher, and I think that is what I want to be–but at the college level, not in grade school or high school where you have to deal with kids acting like idiots. I don’t know yet what I’ll teach, but it might be something to do with video game design.

My mother and I also learned that I need and crave routine, and so we are very careful to stick to a schedule every week.  When the schedule has to change, we talk about it and plan for it.

I like the way we live now.

Several months ago, my father started writing to me.  He said he missed me, and he was very sorry for all the things that had gone wrong.  Now he comes to visit once a month on the final Friday night. He stays in a hotel, and we go out to Longhorn Steakhouse for dinner.  Sometimes Mom comes, too.  Then on Saturday, he comes over to play video games before he leaves. He doesn’t swear at me or Mom, and I actually really enjoy his visits.

I asked my mother if she would marry him again, and she said time would tell.  She said life is pretty good the way it is right now, and we need some pretty strong proof that dad has really changed. That was a relief, to be honest. I was afraid we would go back to the way things were before–back when I thought pirates were really cool.

Shortly after we moved to the city, Mom and I got library cards, and I borrowed a book about real life pirates. We read it together,and I discovered that pirates were not, really, exciting or glamorous. They were dirty and dishonest and violent and cruel. The day I finished the book, I packed my entire collection of pirate materials into two boxes. That weekend, I took everything to HalfPrice books, where they gave me $13.50,–which, as I have said, was a little disappointing.

I thought of the pirate game and I thought of the pirates I had read about, and I said to my mother, “I could never, in reality, be a pirate.”

She hugged me (sideways, which isn’t so bad) and said, “You’re right, Warren. You just don’t have it in you.” Then she added, “Thank God.”

I am not sure I believe in God [although I did not tell my mother that, as it would be upsetting: my therapist says, “Triumph of discretion!”], but I am definitely thankful.  Life is much better now that pirates aren’t a part of it.

The Bell That Tolls Thrice in the Deep Dark of Night

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This Hallowe’en, may all your spirits be benign, and if any of the other sort threaten, may your phone ring thrice…

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Newly 18, newly graduated from high school, getting ready to take the great step into college–even though I’d be walking to the little private college where my dad worked, a college less than two miles from my parents’ home–I thought it was time to take some leaps in thought.  I was a timid soul: I knew this about myself, and I did not like it.

It was a summer for confronting fears, I thought, and one of my deepest fears was of that eerie spirit realm.  Catholic school bred until my junior year of high school–I’d had a tiny, successful rebellion then–, I had always avoided any hints of the supernatural.  Messing with that was a mortal sin, and it could only lead to trouble.

Tampering with that kind of power, the nuns assured us, was a way to give the Evil One traction in your life.

The thought of ghosts terrified me.

If someone pulled out a ouija board, I left the party.

But I had begun to see all this fearfulness as childish and reactionary, and so I set myself a reading list that included books like The Other and The Exorcist.  I went to see The Other in its film form with friends who teased me about my discomfort.  Just a story!  Just a story! they said.

I flat out refused to watch The Exorcist when it came to town–no head-spinning possessions for me.  I slept with my lamp on.  And I wondered–why do my friends–Dana, Deirdre Dawn,–get such enjoyment out of the creepy stuff?  Why aren’t they scared? Was something skewed about me?

Was I just, beneath a calm and sort of matronly exterior, a weak-kneed, whiny baby?

That summer, I dated Vincent, who was in my graduating class.  His best friend Joe had been my long-term steady; that was an ugly, spread out break-up, involving two or three definitive endings, then disastrous attempts at reconciliation which led to even greater angst,–the drama sucking up much of the joy of senior year.  Vincent had a similar up and down relationship with my bestie Deirdre Dawn; one or the other of them was always chasing a wandering eye.

Vincent worked during the school year as a DJ at a local radio station which gave him a sort of celebrity.  He had a beautiful bang of red-brown hair, shiny and straight, that he flipped out of his vision with a shake of his head.  He was well-read, kind, and funny.

At our friend Sal’s graduation party we were talking,—one further talk in a long, long series of talks, as we had helped and supported each other through rough relationships with our good, good friends,—we were talking, and we looked at each other, and it was like the curtain opened for us both at the same time.  That summer, we were an exclusive, devoted item.  I was working two jobs–a factory job at a vegetable cannery and a clerk’s job at a deli–and Vincent was a counselor at a residential summer camp.

Whatever time off we had, we spent together. And that became part of my summer’s learning curve.

Vincent’s family were practicing spiritualists, and we went, a time or two, to spiritualist gatherings at a sleepy, picturesque town a scant twenty miles from my home; it was an old gated village on a pretty little lake with gingerbread houses where mediums hung their shingles: invitations to get a reading, to connect with those on the other side.  I had friends who swore to the accuracy and veracity of many of those mediums’ reports; I, of course, had always been too terrified to explore.

So I was surprised by the calm and the reverence of the meetings we attended; his religion, Vincent explained, was not all that different from mine–it just had that added level of spirit communion. Was that different, really, than a belief in saints? Was some kind of intermediary necessary?

I pondered, skepticism and fear roiling.

We sat at a stump meeting where congregants stood as they were called by the spirit to deliver messages.  Touching was not allowed, we’d been told; Vincent and I hid our interlaced fingers between our chairs.

And then a medium stood up and said, “Someone is touching; my message is being blocked.”

We jumped and UN-laced our fingers, trying to look casual, trying to be cool.  A woman on one side of us grinned and winked (a romantic!); an old gent next to Vincent frowned disapprovingly. A grump, clearly.

The medium went on to deliver a message to a woman on a folding chair three rows ahead of us.

“I see a gray-haired man, holding a chicken,” he said.

“Poppy!” said the woman, and she began to cry softly.

“He says,” the medium, an average looking man in a golf shirt and stiffly creased jeans, said, “that you can rest easy.  It’s going to be all right.”

The woman slumped as if she was exhausted, as if all the air had been let out of her.  “THANK YOU,” she said.  “I know exactly what he means, and I’ve been so worried.”

She was convinced that her Poppy was reaching out to her, and I was not far off.  How could the medium have known about the gray-haired man with the chicken?  How could he have been so specific?  I began, reluctantly, to give the whole spirit world thing some credence.

But that didn’t make me any less terrified.

Vincent’s fellow Y camp counselors that summer were an interesting bunch of young people, patient, creative guys (“WHY camp in the woods??” was their unofficial moaning maxim) who lived too far away to get home when an occasional Saturday night off opened up.  On those weekends, Vincent would call and I would find some of our friends–Deirdre Dawn (in the light of our relationship, she and Vincent had reverted to warm friendly mode), Dana, maybe Terri, if she was ever free–willing and kind enough to brave a blind date.  It was fun, and the blind dates often turned into friendships and repeat outings.

And so, one cloudy Friday night late in July, a group of us went to an annual festival-fair called Brothweigh Gala Days up in the hills.  We ate fried dough, sipped beer (the drinking age, back then, was 18, so we were technically legal if not actually practiced), rode the Ferris wheel, played games of chance and skill with little good result, laughed and talked and people-watched. There was an interesting crowd, farm folks, some academics from the college, families with kids that whined and wheedled, and then regular people, we thought, like us.

Vincent was driving; when we piled into his van sometime after midnight, we were having such a good time, no one wanted to go home.

So we went to my house.  My parents always said they’d rather have me bring a crowd of people home than wonder where I was in the wee small hours.  We tumbled into my family room; I went upstairs to the other side of the house and poked my head in my parents’ bedroom to alert them.  My mother sleepily muttered about frozen pizzas. I went downstairs and turned the oven on, broke out beverages, perked some coffee. My dog, Bowtie, had woofed a few times, definitively, when we first came in, then curled up in her bed in the corner.  She was out, snoring, in moments.

We sat on the early American furniture–maple-framed, with tan upholstery, stitched with horse and buggy scenes; my older brother Jack, who was away at college, (Jack would probably would have been diagnosed with a touch of ADHD had he been a child today; he was both edgy and overly concentrated) carefully unpicked the stitching as he lay and watched TV.  To my mother’s great chagrin, whole sections of the scenic pattern had disappeared.  The furniture was fashionable but awkward; we threw the cushions on the floor, sprawled, watched the end of a movie, ate the pizza, talked.

When the movie wrapped up, we girls decided to play a silly game Dana’s mother had showed us once.  It was a riff on hypnotism; Dana prepped by holding a china plate over a candle.  The bottom got sooty; she’d let it cool, then hand it to an unsuspecting ‘victim.’  She held a matching, unsoiled china plate, and she would ask the victim to do everything she did, just as she did it. Gamely, that nice person would agree, just slightly tantalized by the thought that he or she might actually go into some sort of hypnotic trance.

They’d sit, eyes locked, left hands holding the plates, right hands resting beneath.  Dana would caress the bottom of her plate and intone, “Umm gaballa gonda way.”

“Umm gaballa gonda way,” the victim would parrot, straight faced, and then Dana would take her free hand and trace lines on her cheeks and forehead.  The victim would mimic her tracings…but theirs would leave sooty patterns.  We’d go on for as long as the market would bear, and then, laughing goofily, take the poor unhypnotized soul to the mirror in the lav, where wet wipes and “Sorry!!!” awaited.

Giddy, grade school-y stuff; Vincent’s friend Rob had cheerfully been victim.  When he came back, fresh-faced, from the bathroom, in the newly quiet of the night–TV off, everyone kind of settling into a pleasant, half-sleepy haze,the nattering snores of the dog a background singsong–Vincent said he’d like to try something.  Lay down, he directed Rob, and Rob stretched out on his back on the nubby beige-flecked nylon carpet. Vincent talked him into a serious mood; he was going to try, Vincent was, to connect to spirits who wanted to speak to Rob.

Rob grew very still; then he said his grandpa had died that spring.  There was a little catch in his voice.

Vincent nodded.  “Let’s just reach out,” he said.

It was the deep quiet of the night, way past the shrill of the crickets; we were tired, the beer buzz long faded.  We had lit a couple of candles; their light bounced and flickered on the paneled family room walls. I felt, suddenly, cold tendrils of fear.

Vincent must have felt my flinching; he looked up at me reassuringly.

“It’s safe, it’s all safe,” he said.  “I’ll draw us a circle of protection.”

I shivered.

Everyone was hushed; Rob lay very still.  And Vincent raised his right hand and scribed a large oval, large enough to surround and encompass Rob’s entire body.

“If there is any reason,” Vincent intoned –BowTie, in her sleep, began softly to growl–“any danger in continuing, spirits, please advise me. Stop me now.”

My sleeping dog jumped up, barking.

In the still, aging neighborhood, where no babies lived, an infant’s piercing wail screamed out and was silenced.

And my phone began to ring.  I was frozen.

It rang once.

It rang twice. I found my feet and dashed to the kitchen to get it before it woke the family.

The phone rang a third time.

“Hello?” I breathed into the receiver.

But there was no one there, just the buzzing of the dial tone.

We were all on our feet; the party was over.  Even Vincent looked shaken.  People scrambled for jackets and purses.

Vincent grabbed me by the forearms.  “Are you OK?” he asked.

I turned on the lights and blew out the candles, and I looked at him steadily.  “I guess you’d better get everyone home,” I said, trying to be strong and worldly, but my voice quavered.

He hugged me.  “It’s okay,” he whispered.  “The protection kept them out.  This is a very safe place.”

Why didn’t that feel better?  I took the dog upstairs with me, snuggled her in my bed, and tried to read as I waited for the sun to rise.

The next morning, as was part of the household rules, I got my butt out of bed despite a very limited sleep, and showered and dressed in time to make noon Mass.  Even if it had not been part of parental policy, I think I would have run to church anyway, trying to escape the whispers of spirits who call on the phone in the dark of the night.

I prayed…oh, how I prayed. I prayed to be forgiven for tampering with portals best left untouched, for inviting things into my home that had no place or reason to be there. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…

I emerged from the dim church, where candles reassured instead of inspiring flickering dread, to find Dana waiting for me.  She was sheepish.

“That phone call?” she said.  “That was my mother.  She rang three times to let us know it was 3 AM.”

Oh, we laughed at ourselves.  How gullible we were!  What a bunch of maroons! And we walked home together, laughing, trying on relief.  We passed the word among our friends–just Dana’s mom!  What a hoot!

It was only later, as the day began to gray into night that I thought, Was that timing coincidental? But what woke up the dog?  And where was that baby?

The summer faded. Vincent and I went on innocuous, light-hearted dates, had parties at the beach with our friends, crashed into each other, laughing, in bumper cars at the county fair. In August, he went off to college.  We wrote for a while, but, pulled in other directions, the thread loosed.  The summer became a hazy, warm memory.

But I never did answer those questions, never came to a comfortable resolve about the waking dog and the mysterious crying baby.

And you know what?  I still won’t touch a ouija board.