Feeding Emily

Her crinkly slip scratched, and the elastic on the puffy sleeves of her dress cut into the soft skin of her upper arms. Emily closed her eyes and folded her hands together and offered it up as a sacrifice.

All around her, on this Easter Sunday, dressed up families were smiling, all shiny and clean and pretty. Emily’s dress wasn’t new; it was last year’s ‘good’ hand-me-down from Ellen. And her family never went to Mass all together, not even on big holy days. Somewhere else in this crowded church, her brother Andy was squirming in his pew, probably close to the door so he could dart out before Father Hamson, who wanted Andy to sign up to be an altar boy, could catch him by the collar. If indeed Andy was actually there, and hadn’t ripped open his collection envelope (sometimes Emily found the pieces scattered as she walked home) and kept the quarter.

Andy said ten was too old to start as an altar boy, and he said Father Hamson’s breath smelled like a dead fish, and he said if he wanted to find God, he’d look outside in the woods God made and not in some stupid, smelly church. So sometimes he skipped, Emily was pretty sure. She was afraid for his mortal soul, of course; Sister Angela had explained what happened to children who died with mortal sins on their souls, and skipping Mass was certainly a mortal sin. But she was more afraid of what would happen at home if she told. Andy would exact some kind of retribution, but worse, their mother would beat him, maybe with the broomstick like she’d done once when she caught him mixing wine with the grape juice.

Emily had hid in the back closet that time, on top of the empty burlap potato sacks and behind the winter coats, and covered her ears. Later Andy saw her there and laughed at her.

“What are YOU worried about?” he said. And added jauntily, “She can’t hurt me. But this is a doozy of a bruise. Wait till I show Donnie.”

Donnie was a wild boy, Andy’s best friend. He went to public school, and the nuns said parochial school kids should only make friends among their own classmates. But Andy was bold and fast and he didn’t care.

He’d make up a story about falling out of a tree or ramming into something with his bike, and then he’d pick up his shirt and show Donnie the bruise on his back, and Donnie would say, “Wicked!”

Emily had seen this happen before.

Her sister Ellen and brother Frank got up and went to 8 am Mass. They both preferred dragging their butts out of bed to waiting for High Mass to be over to eat their Easter goodies. The family rule was that no one could touch their Easter baskets until they’d gone to communion, and the 10 o’clock Mass was a High one, so it went on and on. Ellen had an alarm clock, so she got herself up and dressed and pounded on Frank’s door but never waited for him.

When Emily was ten, she could get working papers and pick strawberries and grapes when they were in season, and she’d save the money she earned for an alarm clock. But until then, no one thought to wake her.

Her brother Joey was only four, and he didn’t have to go to Mass yet; his mortal soul wasn’t old enough to be in danger. Her mother got up early and went to 7 a.m. Mass, and her father usually worked on Sundays. When your work supports a family, Mom always said, you get special dispensation from going to church.

**********

The Gospel was so long on Easter, and Father Hamson droned on and on, and Emily knew she should try to listen. But she was thinking about her Easter basket and the one, solid, chocolate Easter bunny that waited for her. It was about as big as her hand. They got the same thing each year: that bunny, some foil wrapped eggs, a marshmallow peep and some jelly beans that rolled through the plastic grass and onto the bottom of the basket. Emily didn’t like the peep or the jelly beans—she always put them in the dish on the dining room table, and someone else grabbed them pretty fast, but she loved the chocolate.

Her friends got the most amazing things in their baskets. Once, Nancy C had gotten a hollow chocolate bunny two feet high. Even though it was hollow, the chocolate was really thick, and she brought chunks of it to school to share. Emily thanked her so much, but Nancy C waved it away.

“I’m not that crazy about chocolate, anyway,” she said airily. Which confirmed Emily’s opinion that Nancy C was just not right.

Her friends Abby and Mary Sue McCloskey, who were Irish twins and in the same grade, got solid white chocolate bunnies and little chocolates shaped like animals. They shared, too, and Emily especially liked the little chocolate ducks that, if you turned them a certain way, suddenly became bunnies instead. What was once a bill became bunny ears: a little bit of Easter magic.

And there wasn’t, she thought, too much magic about Easter. She didn’t remember ever believing that there was an actual Easter bunny. It was too obvious that her parents pulled the baskets out of the attic every year, and the chocolates often had price tags on them from the Nu-Way store where her mother shopped. But the having of chocolate all to yourself was a treat, for sure, and Joey did believe, so she kept her mouth shut.

**********

When Mass was finally over, she slipped out the side door, so she didn’t have to shake Father Hamson’s hand; he terrified her, and besides, there was a big clump of people surrounding him. She ran home; their big old house was on the same road, not all that far from the church. When she got there, she ran upstairs and hung up the scratchy dress (maybe this would be the last time she ever had to wear it!), and put on her play clothes, a soft striped t-shirt and an old pair of dungarees. The jeans had been Andy’s, and they were a little too long, but they were just right across the belly. Because, as her brothers often reminded her, she was fat. Emily folded up the cuffs as neatly as she could and ran downstairs in her sock feet.

Her Easter basket was sitting on the dining room table, and the chocolate bunny was gone. Disbelieving, she checked all over the table, under the basket, and under the table, even on the end tables, the chair seats, the shelves. Her bunny was nowhere to be found.

“Mom!” she yelled, and her mother snapped “What???” from the kitchen. Emily pushed through the swinging door. She felt drawn with loss.

“My chocolate bunny’s gone.”

There was a silence. Her mother turned from where she was peeling potatoes; her hair was all crazy and she had on an old housedress. Frank, who had been out working on his bike, turned from the sink, lifted a glass of water to his lips, and smirked. Ellen had the long phone cord wrapped around her wrist, and she rolled her eyes and took the phone into the back hall.

It could have been either of them, Emily thought. It could have been Joey, who had recently taken to climbing on a chair and helping himself to things on the table. (But if it was Joey, there would be wrappers to be found. Joey wouldn’t think to hide the evidence.) She was bereft and shaking and angry. “Mom,” she said, imploring.

“What?” snapped her mother. “You shouldn’t have left your basket on the table. That means everyone can help themselves. You know that.”

Emily stared at her. It had always been the rule that they left their baskets on the table so Monkey, the dog, didn’t eat their chocolate. It never meant someone could just take your bunny.

Mom tsk-ed at her. “If you got your lard butt out of bed and went to early Mass you could have eaten that bunny by now.” She swung back to the potatoes, her back an unassailable divide.

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

Emily took all her foil eggs up to her room, even though they weren’t allowed. No food in rooms was a big rule, but Emily thought bitterly that rules seemed to change without warning. Her room was tiny, maybe a maid’s room once when rich people lived in this house, and she squeezed in between the bed and the closet door and sat on the floor. She peeled the foil from the eggs—there were seven, but there might have been more: maybe someone stole those, too. She lined them up on her blue-jeaned legs, and slowly, carefully, ate them one by one.

There was no use in crying, she knew that: often she got whacked just for crying. (Her mother would say, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” which was terrifying, and also made no sense. And of course then she couldn’t stop. Better just not to start.) But she also knew that she had been wronged: it WAS a big deal, taking that bunny. It was something she waited for all year. It was something she loved. Stealing the bunny was mean.

But if you whined and carried on, things did not get any better. You had to act like the martyrs: strong and brave, even if you were jelly inside. Emily knew the martyrs had horrible ends, but at least they went with dignity and were remembered forever because of it.

She wouldn’t become a saint over the loss of a chocolate bunny—even an eight-year-old knew THAT—but she could do the strong thing and rise above it. She would be cheerful and kind, and she would not give her mother a reason to say, “You’d better wipe that puss off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you.”

Somewhere in her, she felt being strong would be noble, and somewhere else, in a deeper, more devious spot, she also knew that it would drive someone crazy.

Her doorknob rattled and she bunched together the foil from the eggs and slid the little ball into her pocket.

“I hear you lost your chocolate bunny,” Andy said, and he wasn’t being friendly.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Emily said, practicing. She smiled at him. “I don’t really care that much.”

He stared at her or a moment.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “Of course, you do.”

**********

Dad was home in time for dinner, which was ham and mashed potatoes, canned peas, and a chocolate layer cake for dessert. Emily didn’t really like mashed potatoes with no gravy, but she took a spoonful and made a ditch for the butter, which melted and made a gravy-like pool. She ate them without complaint, along with a spoon of the pasty peas. The ham had baked a long time; it was hard to cut with her knife and fork and finally, she just picked up her slice and chewed on it. But it was salty and good.

Mom cut everyone pieces of cake and Dad sat back and relaxed. He didn’t eat the cake, but he had a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette, and he looked around at all the kids and said, “So? Eat all the candy yet?”

There was a babble of replies, and then Mom looked pointedly at her. Emily made herself smile.

Mine’s all gone!” she said, and she scooped up a big piece of chocolate cake. She loved it with white frosting. Mom narrowed her eyes suspiciously, waiting for a follow-up, and Frank and Ellen swiveled their heads to stare at her. Andy snorted, Joey babbled, and Emily took another bite of cake.

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

That night she dreamt that she had an invisible friend who walked with her for hours in the woods out behind the backyard. Just before she had to go in, the friend said to her, “We’ll feed you.” Emily wasn’t sure why that made her feel so good, but she had that hazy happy feeling when she woke up, the kind of feeling when you don’t want your dream to end.

They had the whole week off, and she went to the library by herself, because eight was old enough to have your own card. She got four books, three biographies and one story to read with Joey. When she didn’t have chores, she read. She liked to read in the scratchy red chair in the living room, but sometimes her mother would say, “Get outside!” and Emily would take her book and go sit behind the old garage in a spot she’d made. There was a broken chair and an old sheet stuck between a short tree and the back garage wall; she’d wrap the sheet around her if it was windy or cold, and usually no one bothered her for hours.

She read about George Washington Carver one day and thought she probably wouldn’t be a farmer. She read about Jane Addams and Hull House, and she thought maybe she would like to work at a mission in a big city and teach poor people to read and cook and shop for groceries. She read about Helen Keller and plugged her ears and closed her eyes and tried to figure out how a deaf and blind person could learn to talk.

On Thursday morning, when she woke up, there was a Hershey bar next to the lamp on her nightstand. She hid it in her underwear drawer and tried to figure out who left it there. But nobody said anything, and she couldn’t see any clues on their faces. She broke off a row each day and ate it before she took her bath and brushed her teeth; it was a little secret waiting for her at the end of each day, a reward for being strong and good. It was gone by the time she started school again on Monday.

On Wednesday, Andy’s teacher, Mrs. McLean, saw her in the hall after school and asked her to come to the fifth-grade classroom. She said she didn’t have any fifth graders who were interested in washing the boards and clapping the erasers, and she wondered if Emily would do it. Emily lit up; she had looked forward to the day she’d be old enough to do these chores. Mrs. McLean showed her how to wash the board, and she went with her to the side door by the playground and put a wedge in the door so Emily could get back in after the erasers were clean.

When she came back, Mrs. McLean inspected the erasers very seriously and smiled. “Good job,” she said. She was a short teacher, and fat, and she looked jolly. “Especially for your first time. I knew you’d be a good worker.”

Mrs. McLean went to her big old wooden desk and pulled open a drawer. She winked at Emily. “Now, I’m not going to pay you every time you do this, but I just happened to have this left over from the Easter party, and I thought you might like it.” Mrs. McLean’s husband ran a pharmacy that sold candy, and her class always got the best and biggest treats.

It was a solid white chocolate lamb, a big one. Emily’s eyes got wide; she couldn’t believe it. It was way too big to eat at once, so she and Mrs. McLean decided she could work on it each day after the boards were clean; she’d leave it wrapped up in cellophane in a bag in the teacher’s desk.

On the way home, Emily, skipping, stopped as a thought occurred to her. Had Andy told Mrs. McLean about her rabbit? That would mean he felt bad about it, and it would also mean Mrs. McLean felt sorry for her.

But then she realized she was EARNING that chocolate, doing work no fifth grader would do, and so she started skipping again.

A few weeks later, after the white chocolate lamb disappeared, the lady at the library checked out her books and commented on what an interested reader Emily was. She told her that the rule was only four books at a time, but that they were going to change the rule for Emily: she could take six.

“But don’t tell your friends,” the lady laughed, and then she invited Emily back to the room where librarians take their breaks, a room like a kitchen. She poured Emily a glass of milk and gave her three chocolate chip cookies. “I baked those for my grandson,” the lady said, “but he got braces and isn’t supposed to have many sweet things.”

Emily bit into the cookie; it was crispy and chewy and loaded with chocolate chips—chocolate chips in every bite! Her mother’s cookies were soft and plump and usually one cookie only had two or three chocolate morsels. She ate all three cookies, trying not to wolf them down, to be polite. And then she thanked the lady so much and took home six books.

She savored every treat. It seemed that something special would happen, and that would give her a little happy boost for days or a week, and just as the glow wore off, something else would take its place. The man at the five and dime stopped her one day and asked if she liked chocolate covered peanuts, which she did of course. He gave her a little white bag full; they were all that was left, he said, and he wanted to clean the bin. Another time she found a dollar on the sidewalk; she asked her teacher what to do with it, and the teacher said it wasn’t enough money to report and she could keep it. She bought candy at the drugstore and took it home to share.

At first she wondered if someone felt sorry for her because of the missing Easter bunny, if someone in her family had told a teacher or someone else, who went around to all their friends and said, “Here’s something very sad which happened to this little girl.” And she started watching, a little breathless, for the good things to happen. Eventually, something always did.

And surprising things kept happening even after her family moved in fourth grade, to a smaller house that was closer to her dad’s work, and she went to a different school, where nobody could possibly know about the missing bunny when she was eight. She remembered what the invisible friend had told her in that dream,–“We’ll feed you!”– and gradually she came to accept this: that life can be very, very hard, but that sometimes good things can happen, especially if you don’t whine, and if you are brave and strong.

Quite a Character, That Harry

I told Harry not to bother me when I was reading.

********

I  first encountered him at Starbucks. I was with my friend Lori, whom I hadn’t seen in months. We had so much to talk about: friends we’d loved and jobs we hadn’t and how to bake a ham. Seriously, our pressing topics ranged from the life-changing to the family-feeding, dancing over the tops of a dozen other issues in-between.

We tucked ourselves into a corner table in the back, and we bent appreciatively over our steaming brews. Lori had a fragrant vanilla latte; I had my trusty decaf Americano. And we talked. We had just moved into a discussion of her youngest daughter’s exciting summer program (Jorie has a scholarship to space camp) when we became aware of a little man, pacing the length of the coffee shop.

A short fellow, his sweep of reddish hair, peckled with gray, swirled back off his forehead– the way guys used to do it in Brylcreem days. His pale, lashless blue eyes look oversized and uncomfortably close behind thick, thick lenses. His chin receded, but his belly did not, and his tight, short-sleeved plaid shirt did nothing to disguise that fact. His pants—well, he went in big for the Ed Grimley look, that little guy did. He was sort of pixie-ish, and I would have thought, “Endearing,” if he hadn’t looked so angry.

His face was pinched and tomato-red, and he hugged a fancy leather portfolio, papers jutting out at every angle, tight to his chest. He’d stalk up and glare at us and then disappear. We’d lapse back into conversation only to feel the heat of laser-eye glare and look up to see him again.

“Oh, Lord,” whispered Lori, when he’d gone for the fourth time. “Do you remember him?”

Did he look familiar?  Maybe?

Nope. Nothing clicked.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think so.”

“He is a character. He was my advisee at Central State when you taught there,” she said. “He always registered late, and he always wanted to get into your writing class, and it was always full.”

“Well,” I said, dubiously. “I guess that’s flattering. Right?”

“He used to yell at me,” said Lori. “‘Find me a spot!’ he’d say. He’d kind of jump up and down. His hair would flop up and down, like in one big shellacked chunk. He always reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin. Once I had to tell him to calm down or I’d call Security.”

She sipped her latte and narrowed her eyes at his retreating back. “Harry Critt,” she said. “That’s his name. I was really glad when I became a director and didn’t have to deal with him one-on-one anymore.”

He was heading back toward us when the barista called, “Harry! Your frap is ready!”

Harry swiveled abruptly and almost ran to the counter.

We decided that was a good time to make our exit; we slipped quietly out the back door, leaving Harry to his pacing.

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

Right around when that happened, I was whining to Mark about not having time to read. Reading, I had thought, would be my retirement default mode. And recently, I had accumulated a wonderful stack of bought and borrowed books. I had Hidden Figures; we had just watched the film and I couldn’t wait to get more background on the story of those women.

And I wondered at the depiction of John Glenn in the film; Glenn grew up,–he and Annie both, actually,–maybe twenty miles from here. So I had a copy of his memoir. Somehow I’d missed one of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles back in the day, so when I saw a copy of The Moon By Night on a sale table, I had to pick it up. And I had a copy of Ready Player One, too; it’s a Great American Read book, after all.

And then I read an interview with a woman who lived near Toledo; it was on a reading blog and the woman said she’d become a confirmed reader because of Nancy Drew, and I thought, “Wait. Wasn’t Nancy Drew’s author from Toledo?” So I ordered a copy of Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak; that was the story of the women who, as Carolyn Keene, wrote Nancy Drew, and yes, Mildred Wirt was from Toledo. And the book was fascinating; it read like a compelling novel, and I never had enough time to sit down and just read for an hour.

And of course, I had some nice, light, mystery series volumes to cleanse the reading palette.

But there was always something to write or clean or paint or do; there were rides to be given and cookies to be baked and floors to be mopped and weeds to be pulled. I’d try to read, but unfinished chores pinched and pulled me.

“I thought,” I wailed to Mark, “that when I retired I’d get more reading done!”

And he said, “Well, just take a break and read in the afternoon.”

But I couldn’t, I told him; I couldn’t relax into reading when there was work to be done. The dishes screamed at me; the weeds sang a taunting song; James sighed heavily from in front of his computer, wishing he had a ride to somewhere.

“I can’t stand it,” I said. “I can’t concentrate with all that NOISE.”

“Then go someplace ELSE and read,” said Mark.

I thought that was brilliant.

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

The first time, I went to Panera. I ordered a decaf and a cinnamon scone. It was 2:00 in the afternoon and not very busy, and I found a little two-person table in the quiet back. I put my purse and my jacket on the other chair to discourage anyone who might feel sorry for my solitariness and decide to sit.

And I opened Girl Sleuth and took a big slug of decaf, and I relaxed into the chair, and I began to read.

I was lost in the tale of Edward the genius and Harriet his daughter and Mildred the Iowa girl with gumption when a noisy, throat-clearing rattle jounced me out of that wonderful other world. I looked and there was Harry Critt.

“Pardon me,” he said, with a cocky little half-smile.

I looked at him for a long pause.

“Yes?” I said icily. “As you see, I am reading.”

“You teach writing,” said Harry.

“I DID teach writing. Once. I am retired now, and I barely remember a thing about it.”

“She never got me into your class,” said Harry darkly. “But now you’re retired and you have time.”

He lowered the leather portfolio, broke into a full-on grin, and made to sit down.

I kicked my foot up onto the chair, next to my purse and jacket.

“Don’t sit,” I said bluntly. “I am READING.”

“But that’s what I want you to do!” And Harry smiled. “You can read my work. I have here,” and he flourished the leather portfolio; three papers fluttered out, landing on the table beside me and the floor, “my journal. Wait just a minute.”

Harry scrambled around and got his errant papers; he shoved them back into the portfolio.

“Now today,” he said, “as we don’t really know each other very well yet, I thought The War Years would be a very good starting point. That will tell you a lot about me. And I’d like your advice on the action scenes. I don’t,” he said, and he ducked his head shyly, “know if I made myself seem a little too heroic. Although of course, I stuck completely to the facts.”

“Harry,” I said, “I’m going to be very direct, because I have great respect for writers. I WANT TO READ MY BOOK. I need you to leave me alone.”

He looked at me incredulously.

“The history society might be very interested in hearing about your war years,” I suggested. “And there’s a writers’ group in town that you could join. They read each other’s work and give exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for.”

“But I don’t want to work with them,” said Harry. “I want to work with YOU. And I am not leaving until you read at least a page of my stuff.”

I stood up and gathered my things.

“I AM leaving, though, Harry,” I said firmly. “I wish you enjoyment in your writing, but I am not going to read it. Not now, and not another day. Try the writers’ group, Harry.”

His mouth dropped open, and I left him like that. Just as I got to the exit, he warbled, “But you taught a class in personal journaling!”

Goodbye, Harry, I thought, and, mood broken, I went home and made some broth and mopped the kitchen floor.

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

The next day, I was on the stationary bike at the gym, when who should come around the corner of the track but Harry. He had long baggy shorts on, and a sweat-stained gray T-shirt, and a stretchy white terrycloth band wrapped around his forehead.

And he clutched his portfolio, papers streaming.

My son James was on the bicycle next to me.

“That’s the guy,” I hissed loudly.

Jim ceased pedaling and glared at Harry.

Harry stopped. Blood rushed to his face. His eyes bulged. He spun around on one sneakered foot and hurried away.

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

That night Mark and I had a date night dinner at a little roadhouse-y kind of a restaurant. Mark went off to the men’s room, and I went and got the table. I had just nabbed the chair by the window when I saw Harry charge through the entrance and bear down upon me. He waved the portfolio triumphantly.

He almost slammed into Mark, who said, “Watch it, buddy.”

Harry stopped, snorting. And when Mark sat down across from me, Harry actually stamped his shiny black shoe. I could see what Lori meant; he DID look kind of Rumple-y. But he spun himself around and left.

“Is THAT the guy?” asked Mark, and I allowed that it was.

“He looks a little off-balance,” Mark said. “If this doesn’t stop, I think we need to report it.”

I nodded grimly. Then we opened our menus; we forgot all about Harry and had a lovely time.

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

The next day was one of those perfect summer days—75 and cloudless blue skies, and the air was light and fresh, with not one hint of humidity. I spent the morning at the computer and finished up a whole lot of work, and then I grabbed the vacuum and cleaned floors and danced through the house decluttering surfaces. I mowed the backyard, and then Mark came home for lunch.

We ate salads on the patio, and he said, “You know what you ought to do? Take your book and go over to the Garden. You’re always saying you want to do that. You could sit by the pond and read in peace.”

The Garden! Acres of land, carved out of the middle of neighborhoods and alleyways; it had the pond and a waterfall and a rustic Japanese tea house. It had trails and benches; it felt removed, but one was never more than a quick shout away from connection.

“That, my friend,” I said to Mark, “is a wonderful idea.”

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

By 1:30, breezes riffled my hair as I sat on a comfy wooden bench and lost myself in a light summer story about a  Midwestern librarian who also solved mysteries. The water shooshed softly, and, through the buffer of trees and bushes, I could hear the gentle thrum of car tires on neighborhood streets.  But mentally I was sitting in a cool quiet library, where Hattie, the librarian, was conversing with the director of the local history society. Some papers were missing, important ones; the historian thought maybe they’d wound up at the library, somehow.

And then I heard the stomping little footsteps. God help me, there was Harry.

“Finally,” he breathed, as he marched up the path, veering off in front of my bench. “Today you ARE going to read The War Years, and we’ll have no more nonsense!”

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.

“Harry,” I said. “This is outrageous. Have you been following me?”

His face went from white to purple in a blink.

“Outrageous?” he spluttered. “What’s outrageous is a writing teacher who won’t teach writing. You don’t need to read THIS—” and he reached out, snatched my book, and threw it onto the grass behind him, “—when you can read THIS!”  He thrust the portfolio under my nose.

“I was READING, Harry!” I shouted, and hot anger swelled up in me. I stood up to push him away and grab my book, and the ground seemed to shift.

At first I thought it was just Harry, bouncing up and down; he was jumping and screaming and telling me that it was time to do as he said. I hit 9-1 with my thumb, and then I realized it wasn’t Harry making the ground move.

It was my book. It had righted itself so it was standing, open, behind agitated Harry, and it was growing. Quickly. It was as high as Harry’s knees, and still he yelled, and it was up to his shoulders, and he screamed at me to take his portfolio, and then it was towering over him.

I reached out a hand, and I think Harry thought I was finally going to take his damned journal. He stopped bouncing and settled, and his expression calmed. He took the portfolio in both hands and began to bestow it on me.

“Harry,” I said calmly. “Harry. If you don’t go away right now, I going to slap you inside of this book and call the cops.”

“No,” he said, and foamy spittle flew from his lips. “No. You are reading The War Years, and then we’re going to talk about it.” Then some kind of addled recognition dawned, and his face froze. “Book?” he croaked.

I swear the looming book told me what to do. I grabbed a cover in each hand and I swung them inwards, trapping Harry inside. There was a snapping, clicking feeling as the pages aligned and the covers pressed them tight together. Harry’s voice, muffled, screeched just briefly, and there was a momentary bulge in the book. And then there was silence.

The bulge smoothed out, and the book fell over on its side, and smoothly, seamlessly, it returned to its proper size.

I picked it up.

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

I walked home, glazed with shock, and I tried to figure out what to do. I paged through the book; the pages were pristine. There was not a spot of blood or sweat. Harry was just gone.

I tried to tell Mark about it later, but he gave me that look. I put the book aside; I stacked twelve heavy books on top of it, and I started reading Ready Player One instead.

But it bothered me; it bothered me and it would not let me go.  Finally, I called someone I really felt would listen and advise, a teacher from my grad school days, Professor Ramming. I used to visit the Prof in his book-lined office. He would often be standing precariously on his wheeled desk chair, taking down a book or sliding one back into place, and his other-where eyes would tell me he was inhabiting whatever place he was just then reading about.

The Prof was a deeply literate man who knew the power of books; my gut said he could help me.

Professor Ramming listened to my story, and he sighed a wheezy sigh.

“I’ve heard of this,” he said. “Do you still have the book?”

I admitted I did.

“Get it,” he said. When I returned, he told me to open to where I’d left off.

And, oh, my gawd: there was Harry. Harry stole the papers from the history society: he stole them, and he claimed them as his own War Years journal! I skimmed through the pages. There was a chase scene in the library stacks where the thief was ignominiously tackled by the svelte but fit librarian. On page 192, the local authorities came and took Harry away. He was howling about his story of The War Years as they dragged him to the cruiser.

I read my old teacher the part about his exit, and then we both stopped talking for a bit.

Finally, “Professor Ramming,” I asked, “did I just dream this?”

Again with the wheezy sigh.

“No,” he said, slowly. “Harry escaped from his narrative. It happens. It happens when someone gets so involved in a book that the characters become real to them. They see their chance to slip into the real world, to take on flesh and bone, and to exist where blood pulses and food has taste and the warm summer breezes excite their papery skins. But something is always missing for them, and they always wind up revealing themselves.

“For Harry, it was a need to have his journal  validated. He was probably delusional in the book, and he carried those delusions into our world with him. You,” said Professor Ramming, “were lucky to be reading the right book at the right time, my dear. You could send him back.”

We talked a little bit, then, about old friends and classmates of mine who’d gone on to do wonderful things, and we wished each other well, and then awkwardly, as if we hadn’t just discussed something outrageous and wild and pretty much unbelievable, we said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch.

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

I put the book in the pile to go to Half Price Books, and I resolved never to read that author again. Harry could pop up in a later episode, and, if he’d managed to escape once, he might just be able to do it again.

That week I discovered a quiet corner of the patio where I could read undistracted, and I built an hour of reading time into most every day.

Mark and I never discussed Harry again. I think he was relieved when I stopped insisting the annoying little man with the war journal was really a denizen of a book. But I marveled in my musing times at the power authors wield, creating people and places and events so real and so true and so vibrant that, for some of us, they jump off the pages; they jump into the real world, and, God help us, they live.

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

And it dawned on me one night, as I turned the memory over in my mind, shook the dust away and tried to find a place to store it on a shelf in the Memory Room in that bony cavern—it occurred to me that Lori was right.

Harry really HAD been a character.

 

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.

Things Break

That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
–Leonard Cohen, Anthem

***********

Sometimes, things break.

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

It is her favorite mug, the one with the cherries on it–a thick piece of crockery, sturdy and cheerful.  It came from a local potter who’s recently closed up shop, so there’s that little ping of irreplaceability: This is a piece we will never see made again. It keeps her coffee wonderfully warm.  It is the perfect curved shape to cup with both hands, to spread warmth from palms to soul on days when warming’s needed.

And then she drops it one morning, watches in awful slo-mo as it spirals toward the sink. A big chip flies off the base.  The handle detaches with a sharp, painful crack.

She picks it up.  Oh, this is silly, she thinks, as tears spurt,–silly to mourn for a mug!

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

The bicycle, thick-tired, unglamorous, sits covered with cobwebs and forgotten in the old garage–a building never, in her tenure here, used to shelter a car.  One day she thinks about bicycling, jogged by a scene in a movie.  Thinks, I could clean up the bike and screw a new basket onto the handlebars, and I could pedal for odd groceries, and to meetings.  Just for fun.

She grabs a pair of gardening gloves and the keys to the garage, and she goes and drags the bike from where it cowers in a far back corner.  She brings it out into the light.

And, oh, it looks sad.  The paint has flaked and the rust encroaches and the seat is flopping, barely hanging on, like a child’s desperately loose tooth.  She crouches down and tries to spin the pedals and she sees that the gears are obstinately, willfully, rusted in place.

Broken, she thinks, and she remembers riding, her son (now almost thirty) in the child seat on the back, both of them laughing at the wind whipping their hair.  She remembers riding that bike to work down the brick streets of a little college town–she can still feel the thrumming of thick rubber on bumpy brick.

She has left it for so long, and now she wonders if it can be fixed.

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

It is such a stupid lie.  He stares at her, defiant, insistent, and she stops, frozen, unable to respond.  The silence is his undoing.  Had she spoken, had she argued, he could have drummed up righteous indignation, defensive protection, but her lack of words pries off the veneer.  He begins to cry, and the truth comes out, bitter and ugly.

He reaches for her, repentant, but she gathers the frothy cloak of her silence around her, and she turns and walks away.

Can we ever get past this? she wonders.

And then she thinks: Do I want to?

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

Probably nothing, says the doctor, but let’s just check to be sure.  He uses the word biopsy.

Broken, she thinks. Is this broken? Her hand moves inexorably toward that bland and painless lump.

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

Things break.

Sometimes, they can be mended.

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

She sits at the table with the mug and the pieces, and she rolls the mug gently in her hands.  Maybe, she thinks–maybe, she can do this.  She uncaps the glue–oh, it’s pungent!–and she dots the contacts of the handles, presses them to the raw breaks, to where they split from the mug.  She holds it, patient, eyes far away, thinking of a recipe she saw in a magazine, of new curtains for the little bathroom, while she waits for the glue to seep and spread, to send tendrils back and forth in the porous interior of the pottery.  Tendrils to rebuild this well-loved mug.

She sits for five minutes, holding the pieces tightly together, and when they seem to have become one again, she repeats the process with the shard from the base.

***************
Danny from the bike store comes out to the parking lot to help her.  He wrestles the bike from her roomy trunk, sets it on the ground, puts the kickstand down, and steps back. He is silent for a moment.

“I’ve seen worse,” he says, “and this was a good bike to start with.  Worth fixing, if we can do it.”

He pulls a little tablet from his pocket and hunkers down.  His fingers, rimmed in black from all his intimacy with the greasy parts of bicycles, touch the rusty gears.  They trace the brake lines, caress the wheels, ride up to the handlebars as he stands and shifts. He stops for a moment, just looking, and she has the sense he is seeing the finished product in his mind’s capable eye.

Finally he turns.  “It can be done,” he says.  He scrawls a figure on a sheet of his little notepad, rips it off, hands it to her.  “Take me the better part of a month, but I think she’ll be good for another twenty years.”

She puts the piece of paper in her wallet and shakes his hand.  She agrees that this will be worth the wait.

*****************
She meets him in the therapist’s office, and they sit down warily side by side.  He is staying across town; she has surprised herself by enjoying the solitude, the freedom to shape her day.  Some nights she eats a bowl of cereal in front of her computer for dinner.  Others, she cooks up a wonderful stir-fry with vegetables that would appall him. The house is clean and there are long stretches where the anger and betrayal recede, and sometimes she thinks, I am a capable, single, woman.

But there are other times, to her chagrin, when she wonders if he’s all right.  If he’s managing.  She knows his weak spots and his doubts and his need for company.

He is subdued and pale and seemingly eager for the therapy to bring them close again, and so they begin, cautiously, gingerly, looking to see if what’s been badly rent can be slowly, carefully mended.

*****************
The doctor’s face swims into focus.  She is groggy, still punch-drunk, but his words come through the haze.

Looks like we got it all.

Words appear like a banner in her waking brain: Let the healing begin.

Sometimes,–with care and skill, with the investment of resources and a big dose of mindfulness,–sometimes, things can be fixed.

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

Sometimes things break.

They break, and they can’t be restored to their original state.

But they can be put  to new use.

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

She pours steaming coffee into the mended cherry mug.  But when she slides her fingers through the handle, she feels an ominous slipping. Sure enough, with a wiggle and a twist, the handle comes clean from the mug.

She sighs and pours the coffee into her second best mug, puts the cherry mug sadly into the sink.

But later, home from work, she realizes just how much she loves looking at those bright and brazen cherries, loves the shiny shape of the mug and its cheerful, upbeat colors.  She washes it out and dries it carefully.  She takes it to her desk and gathers up wandering pens and pencils, and she ceremoniously morphs her favorite mug into her favorite pencil holder, a pleasant thing that she’ll still use every day.

*******************
It was a cheap bike in the first place; the price for repairs that Danny quotes is far beyond what she paid for it.  She can, he points out, buy a really good bicycle for less than that cost.

So she bundles the old bike back into the trunk and she drives home.  She pulls it out, sets it up on the black-topped driveway, and she ponders.  She fills a bucket with hot soapy water; she scrubs the old friend down and lets it dry.

The next day she spray-paints it white, uniformly white, from tires to handlebars to basket.

That weekend, she parks it in the front yard, maneuvering it to a completely upright status with sunken blocks concealed on either side of the tires.  She lines the big old baskets–one on the handlebars, two on either side of the back tire, with moss, and she fills the moss with rich, loamy dirt.  She plants the brightest petunias she can find and adds some trailing ivy that waves down the sides of the baskets and sways in the breeze. When the winds lifts, she thinks, it almost looks like the bike is in motion. 

It is cheerful and pugnacious, and she can shop now for a new bike that will serve well her augustly seasoned status.

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

Therapy has helped them to be civil, to understand what each of them needs.  But it has not brought them back together.

She revels in her independence, and she thinks now of a condo, a place with no yard work but with enough room to entertain and a kitchen that will allow her to explore her increasingly adventurous cuisine.

He admits that he doesn’t miss her in THAT way, that his interest in his pretty young colleague grows exponentially.

They still have the ability to hurt each other, even while they lose the means to make each other happy.  They work with the therapist; she helps them come safely through those woods.

Because, of course, there is Tess, who is only twelve, and who dearly loves them both. Needs them both; needs them to be civil and caring and moving forward, and moving without bitterness.

It is cautious and awkward at first, but they are both committed to the quest, united in this, if in nothing else.  It requires constant work; it requires mindful vigilance, but they come through.  Where once there was a marriage, a warm friendship begins to grow.

She sees Tess, who has been tense and worried, begin, at last, to relax.

*********************
There are ways to bypass what must be removed, the doctor tells her.  He sits down next to her, shows her a glossy diagram.  They’ll just remove this, re-route that, take a little of this from there to repair what’s missing here…and voila--she will be disease-free and fully functional.

She stares for just a moment at the chart in his clean, clean hands, stares just long enough for him to clear his throat uneasily.

And then she begins to laugh.

He looks at her, warily, and she explains.  She’s a great believer in re-purposing, she tells him.  She just never thought she’d be applying the concept to her innards.

***********************
Sometimes, things break.

And sometimes, they can be mended; sometimes they can be re-imagined.

Other times, nothing helps.

*************************
The mug shatters on the concrete patio, explodes into tiny needling shards too small to do anything but pierce and harm. She sweeps them up and throws them away.

*************************
The rust seeps through the paint, the tires are bent; the bike leans precariously.  Even as a planter, it is untenable.  She puts it out on Big Trash Day; the boisterous sanitation guys throw it into the masher, and she can hear, from where she sits with her writing and her morning coffee, the grinding as her dear old bike is mangled and eaten.

*************************
He has made fervent promises; he does not want, he vows, to lose what they have built together.  She even–where was her head???–sleeps with him again.  The next day–the next DAY: what is wrong with him??–she discovers that he has cleaned out her savings and maxed out her credit card, and her friend Bessie sees him canoodling cozily with his new young thing at the coffee shop.

She is bereft and impoverished in more ways than just financially.  She needs the chance to rebuild.  Resolutely, she dials the lawyer’s number that Bessie found for her. There is no fixing here: a clean break is called for.

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

The doctor sits with her in the quiet after their talk.  They have walked a long road together–she has walked it with hair and without, walked it seemingly plump and healthy, and walked it clearly gaunt and exhausted.  He has taken her midnight calls and talked with her through other patients’ appointments; he has been honest and caring and innovative. Together they have tried everything they could find to make her healthy.

And today, he has admitted that they have come to the end of all that doing. They have walked together to the limit of the options.  They are standing at the end of the road, standing together at the lip of the abyss.

But only he will turn and walk back down that road. He grips her hand, as the firm friend that he’s become.

She thinks:  I am going to die.

She thinks: No more treatment.  I will be able to taste my coffee again.  I will be able to sit in the sun.

That is one of the things she has missed the most–sitting in her tiny backyard garden, watching the squirrels fight, enjoying an occasional hummingbird visit.  Her friend Roger has built her an amazing bower with roses and daisies and cone-flowers and trailing ivy; he fills it in each year, sweet man that he is, with splashy annuals and fragrant herbs.  It is her favorite spot in the entire world.

And now, soon, as the medications leave her weary body, she can sit out there again.  Take her books, take her colored pencils.  Take the healing naps she has longed for so much.  Just sit in the sun and prepare.

The end of fixing, she thinks, will lead her back to light.

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

Things break.

Things break and sometimes, with long and careful work, they can be mended.

And if they can’t be mended, sometimes they can be re-purposed, becoming something vibrantly new.

And sometimes, broken things are just that: broken.  Broken beyond repair, beyond use, and the decision has to be made to let them go.

Their leaving opens a space, and in that space, there may be growth, there may be silence.

There may be, for a miraculous little slice of time, the chance for bright clear light to shine.

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

Sometimes, things break.

Loolie’s Latest Monkey Business

 Monkey 1

The Oldest Friend She Never Knew

 

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.

Take the Pepper; Come Back for the Salt

 

 Evelyn sat behind the counter and watched as people passed by, never turning to look her way or stopping to explore the wonderful, quirky, lovely things she had in her little store. She had taken a great leap to open the little gift shop, a leap of faith–faith in the Almighty, in her own ability, and in her nephew Barney’s assurances.

“Aunt Evy,” he’d said, “you have taste and a discerning eye.  People will pay for that.”

This store, with its little stash of glowing inventory, had taken all of her savings.  She had left her job in the doctor’s office, and they quickly replaced her.  If this didn’t work, she would truly be in trouble.

“Wait,” Barney assured her. “Ride it out.  It takes a little time.”

But Evelyn didn’t think she had much time before the bottom crashed away, and she couldn’t sustain things any longer.  She needed a miracle–just a little miracle would be nice.  She needed shoppers–four or five a day would be fine, especially if they each spent thirty dollars.  She sighed and went back to get her dusting cloth.  At least she would, for sure, have the most immaculate shop in town.

************
Jorie was wiry and dark and unremarkable, not pretty, not ugly, not smart, not dumb.  I am completely UN-special, she thought. I’m so un-special that I’m invisible sometimes.

It was a complicated time at her house.  Her oldest sister, Mills, was pregnant–19 and pregnant, and hadn’t there been some screaming about that? Mills was the pretty one, all golden hair and blue eyes, and she was smart too.  She was in college studying to be a teacher, except that now she’d take some time off to have her baby.

She had married Danny and they were living at Jorie’s house, but just until the first of the year, and there was tight-lipped, silent disapproval seeping from her mother’s pores.

Mills acted unconcerned.  “Don’t you worry, Mother!” she’d snapped.  “I’ll finish my degree.  The college has a daycare.  I’m not going to be derailed.”

She said it like an accusation, like a taunt, to her mother, who had only had one semester of college before it became apparent Mills was on her way.  But, Jorie thought, her parents loved each other; they would have gotten married anyway.

And it was her mother’s choice, wasn’t it, to keep on having kids? Four years after Mills, there was Freddy, who was a sophomore now and had just discovered what he called the Wonderful World of Alcohol.  He stayed out late; he came home drunk; there was more screaming.

Jorie–Marjorie, really, but no one called her that, just like no one called Mills ‘Mildred’–came along four years after Freddy, and there was a bigger gap–almost six years–between her and Patrick, the baby. Patrick and Freddy had blue eyes and blond hair, too–Freddy’s kind of a dull and dirty blonde that he shaved close to his head.  Patrick had a nimbus of curls.

Between Mill’s pregnancy and Freddy’s partying and Patrick’s excessive cuteness, Jorie felt like there was only a narrow space for her.  She would be, she advised herself, smart to squeeze into the space available, shut up, and crouch beneath the radar.

Which she did, pretty well, but it got lonely sometimes.  Sometimes she wished her mother would just talk to her–just for 15 minutes a day or so.

She’d asked yesterday if she could help with the holiday baking, and her mother about snapped her head off.  “Just let me DO this, Marjorie!” she’d said.  “If you want to be helpful, go clean your room.”

That wasn’t right of Mom to say, because Jorie always kept her room neat, and she vacuumed it weekly.  She enjoyed dusting and rearranging her pictures and statues.  She made her bed, every day. She cleaned and straightened Patrick’s room, too.  She picked up the magazines in the living room, and she loaded the dishwasher.  She was learning to do her laundry and loved the feel and the smell of an iron in her hand, crisply pressing cotton cloth.

She DID help.  Mills and Freddy mocked her, mercilessly; Patrick accepted that Jorie was there to pick up after him.  Her mother kicked her out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t fair.

Her dad got home late, usually, at 6:30 or 7:00, always one to pick up overtime at the plant; by then Jorie would be in a chair with a book, and Dad would come in and just for a minute rest his hand on her head and smile down as she smiled up.  They were the dark ones in this fair-haired family. But Dad was handsome–distinguished, even, with his snapping eyes and high cheekbones and glossy mop of hair.

Jorie was just…unremarkable.

*********

After school on Wednesday, Mom was taking Mills to her OB/Gyn appointment, so Jorie had to walk over to pick up Patrick at his kindergarten class, which was in a separate school about a half mile from hers.  And he would be whiny and not want to walk home, so Jorie, who had three dollars saved, would take him through the little downtown, and they would stop at the coffee shop and share a coke.  That way, he’d shut up and not drag behind, bitterly resenting the lack of ride.

Patrick was out playing with two friends when Jorie got there; he left them reluctantly and opened his rosebud mouth to protest the walk home.  Jorie cut him off with a promise of the coffee shop.  Patrick clamped his little mouth shut, considered, and accepted the placation with a shrug.  He dragged his book bag behind him, and Jorie remonstrated; they wandered, bickering, into the little downtown area, until Jorie lifted her head, looked in a window and saw wonders.

It was a new little store; she’d never seen it before.  In the window was a display of music boxes and kaleidoscopes. Oh, Jorie loved kaleidoscopes.  Inside, she could see beautiful frothy clothes on a rack and little statues and doodads arranged enticingly on counters.

“Patrick,” she said.  “Patrick! Let’s go in here.”

************
Evelyn was dusting when the bell jangled, and hope surged and then faded.  It was children; she’d have to watch them.  She hurried behind the counter and kept a sharp eye.  They were whispering by the salt and pepper shaker display.

There was a great deal of low discussion, and then the little boy came over, a pepper shaker cupped in his chubby little hands. He looked up at her, enormous blue eyes shining, and he raised the little shaker toward her. It was a clever little owl.

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “could I buy the pepper today and come back for the salt next week? ‘Cause I only have three dollars?”

His hair was a molten golden aura encircling his head.  He looks, thought Evy, like an angel, and her heart leapt. It seemed to her, suddenly, like a sign or a test, and of course she would let the little one take the pepper and come back for the salt.  She solemnly took his money, and handed him a clipboard. He printed his name carefully on the sheet of paper attached and handed it, equally solemnly, back to her.

“I won’t let anyone else buy the salt owl,” she promised.

“My mother loves owls,” he said, almost reverently, and he left, herded by another, bigger child. Blinded by all that blue and gold, Evy didn’t take much notice of the bigger one.

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

That week, Jorie turned into an odd job whirligig.  She shined Dad’s shoes; she walked to the store for Mills.  She vacuumed Danny’s car and she folded laundry.  She earned a quarter here and fifty cents there.

She told Mills about the little store and Mills went down and did some Christmas shopping.  Mills saw a necklace she liked and she hinted broadly to Danny, who went down with his mother and bought the necklace.  His mom got a few little things, too.  Jorie told the kids at school about the store and some of them went in to get gifts for their moms, or to buy one of the homemade suckers in a pail by the counter.

By Thursday, she had the money they needed. Patrick had a play date, so Jorie went into the store alone.

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

Evy looked up at the thin, dark child standing in front of the counter.  “You want what?” she asked.

“The owl,” said Jorie, “the salt owl.  For my mother. She loves owls.”

“Sorry,” said Evy, sharply. “Not for sale.”

Barney looked up at her hard tone, folded up his paper and stood.  He smiled over the counter at Jorie, who had frozen in shock.

“But I was HERE,” said Jorie. “I was here with my brother, Patrick.  He wrote down his name and you gave him the pepper and said we could come back for the salt.” Jorie’s eyes glazed over, and Evy realized: this was the darker, bigger child.

“Oh, darling,” she said.  “I am sorry.  I didn’t see you that day.”

“I’m know,” Jorie whispered, apologetic. “I’m not especially stand out-ish.”

“Oh, darling,” whispered Evy again, and she shook her head clear of its cobwebs. “I’m going to get you a special box and a gift card. You wait right here.”

She went into the cluttered little back room and sorted through boxes, and she could hear  Barney’s rumble and the child answering him, stumbling a little at first and then being drawn into the conversation.  Their voices rose and fell. Evy found the box and a little Christmas gift tag with a beribboned owl smiling up from it, and she took them out to Jorie.

She took the shaker down from its shelf and nestled it in tissue.

“See how I did that?” she asked, and Jorie nodded.  “Well,” said Evy, “here’s another piece of tissue for the pepper.  And if you need help, you just bring it back.”

Jorie’s face was shining now, and Evy saw how her dark eyes snapped, and, with that blush creeping up under her skin, how pretty she would be.  “Oh,” she said impulsively to the girl, “oh, with that complexion and those eyes,–you’re going to be so lovely.”

Jorie’s eyes opened in shock and she hugged the bag Evy gave her tight to her chest.  At the door she remembered her manners and turned to thank them and say goodbye.

“Come in any time you’re bored,” said Barney, “and you can help me grade papers.” Barney taught second grade and was always co-opting help with the endless math sheets.

When Jorie left, he turned to Evy. “She’s been sending you business,” he said.
**************
Jorie didn’t expect much that year, but it turned out to be a really nice Christmas.  Her Dad and Danny decided they would do all the cooking and cleanup and they spent the whole day, Christmas Eve, simmering up spaghetti sauce and making meatballs.  Mom disappeared upstairs to do her wrapping, and Mills, after she threw up twice in the morning, ran around humming and grinning.  Freddy didn’t go out with his friends at all, and he went to midnight Mass with Dad and Jorie.  Mom stayed home with Patrick, who couldn’t sit still that long or that late.

The next morning there was a ton of presents.  Danny and Mills got her a necklace with a real diamond, and Dad got her books.  Her mother got her a cookbook and her own cooking things–wooden spoons and pans and a little electric beater, and she said they would make cream puffs the day after Christmas.

Freddy got tons of clothes and Patrick tore and jumped and threw wrapping and got his new toys out right away, right in the middle of the wrapping paper mess.

There was a very dewy moment when Mills pulled the paper off a big package and discovered Grandma’s christening gown.  All four of them had been baptized in it; years before, Mom had been baptized in it.  Now Mills and Danny’s baby could be too. Mills gulped out a thank you and hugged Mom for a long time, and even Dad had snail tracks on his cheeks.

*********
When Mom opened the pretty  box, she stared down at the little owls, and her hands stopped, fingers splayed, frozen, for a minute, in the air.
 
 
“They’re beautiful,” she said, a little gruff. Patrick jumped up and down on a pile of gift wrap, grinning. “Let’s,” Mom said to Jorie, “go fill them up.”
 
 
“Don’t we have to wash them?” asked Jorie, shocked.
 
 
“I can’t wait that long to use them,” Mom said. In the kitchen, she added, “I know who did all the work to get these, Missy.”
 

 *********

She saw me, Jorie thought.

**********
On the 27th, Evy made a little clearance display of Christmas doo-dads; they were gone within the day.

“I’ll actually have to come in early to dust,” she said to Barney, who’d arrived to take her out to dinner. “I didn’t have time today.”  She thought about Jorie and Patrick, and how the day they’d come in had been the last frozen day; after that, the ice thawed and things started flowing.

She put her hand on Barney’s camel-hair-coated arm and she laughed. “I thought the angel was Patrick, with those curls and those eyes, but it was Jorie all along.  I’ll look closer next time.”

“Not,” she added after a pause, “that Patrick isn’t a sweet little guy.”

It had been a nice Christmas, Evy thought, and she had a small but steady stream of customers coming back.  And she was having dinner with her favorite nephew, at the Chinese place they both loved.  She gotten what she’d asked for: just a little miracle.

********

Just a little miracle, and it had been quite enough.
*********
My blogging friend Jodi posted a wonderful, real-life photo of a little Christmas angel just recently—our thoughts were on that same kind of Christmas innocence! 

Put Her In A Pumpkin Shell

(A Loolie tale)

 Bottle of boos

Pinterest image from Teresasews (available on Etsy)

Witness to the Razing

The sky is screensaver perfect, and the trees are just beginning to blush out of their summer greens–paintbox golds and oranges and scarlets tinge the trees that line the roadways.  Dell is heading north to see her young friend Peter who is dying of AIDs.

Peter is a rascally, impassioned, deep-feeling, determined young man–young in Dell’s terms anyway, at 37. He has been HIV positive since he was very young, and he has had full-blown AIDs for at least 15 years…long enough that they all decided it was a chronic disease and not a deadly one.

Ah, life and its little tricks. Now the clock is loudly ticking.

Dell has a disposable pan of still warm brownies in the backseat and a plastic jug of lemonade, two things she knows will tempt Peter. And, since he is a long, attenuated bag of bones, she feels eating anything will be hopeful.  A little energy, a little bulk.  Has to help.

Right?

She has a mini scrapbook of clippings she has saved for him, articles about things he cares about–drama programs for disenfranchised youth; meals for street people; how libraries are supporting people with disabilities.  Before Peter got so sick he had to stop working, he and Dell butted heads at the Linnville Library, where Dell ran programming and Peter volunteered.  Dell did a great deal on a tiny, grant-funded budget; Peter wanted her to do a great deal more.

He dragged her into the realm of dreaming; she kept him grounded.  Along the way, Peter’s family being loudly absent, Dell had–together with fifteen or so other motherly people of a certain age–unofficially adopted the boy.

And then Dell had moved seventy miles away with her family–new opportunity for Martin, better services for Jack: a no-brainer.  But there were strong cords attaching her, still, to Linnville, and Peter was one of those cords.  She wrote every week, and he often wrote back, or he texted jokes, or emailed photos of things happening at the library where he had, for a year or so, filled her old position. And once a month she tried to get back for a visit, but her old friends recommended she try a little harder and a little more often this Fall.  This Fall, Peter’s medical options had run out.

********
There is no expressway to Linnville, and Dell enjoys the curving country roadways. They dip into Amish country, and she must, often, slow down to safely pass big buggies led by horses with hooves so sturdy they remind her of Clydesdales.  On the country roads, too, it’s good to be mindful–Amish valley or no–that the chickens are generally free-range.  The deer are, too.

She crests the hill toward her turn-off and brakes in dismay; the route she usually takes, an orange sign announces, is closed due to construction, and the detour will take her around and through a little industrial city and then on ten extra miles of  country roads.  She will be late.

She messages Peter and plunges on.

Traffic, at least, is not too bad, and she settles in to the unfamiliar route, enjoying the rural sights.  There is a paddock with fat sheep guarded by vigilant llamas.  Around a broad, sweeping curve, there is an enclosed meadow with goats–tiny goats standing on little structures and peering at the woods beyond, at each other.  At her as she passes by.

The goats remind her of a photo she has of Peter, from a library outing.  Not a country boy at all, but the teens cajoled him, anyway, into visiting a farm after they’d had a discussion about local food. The farm had goats, and one of the girls–Tabby, who was plump and insecure and worshiped Peter–insisted he come and pet them with her.

“Oh, no WAY,” said Peter, but Tabby was inexorable, and finally he stepped gingerly through the gate, his shiny loafers squinching in the warm muck of a post-rain goat yard.

And he fell in love.  The little goats gamboled around him, came up to investigate him, clustered around Tabby, to her vast delight.  Peter capitulated completely to the charm of the goats, and Dell has a photo of him from that day.  As stick-like as Ichabod Crane, he is bent with one hand extended, his improbably brassy blond hair falling over his forehead.  Little goats jump all around him, all except for one that has stopped, facing Peter, staring straight into his eyes. Peter’s grin is joyous, boyish, and surprised.

“The Goat Whisperer,”  Dell dubbed him, and Peter scoffed it off, but he was secretly pleased, she could tell, to have crossed a barrier into a land he’d never thought to inhabit.

She drives around Burton, the little industrial city with its gray towers and billboards for bank loans and the benefits of breastfeeding.

After a long stretch of country, she hits another little town and recognizes it as Crete, famous for its family-owned chocolate factory.  She passes the factory heading into town, rolling down the window to enjoy the rich scent of warm chocolate.

In the town itself, she stops at the one light–red, of course–and looks over at a beautiful little white church.  It is polished and welcoming and, she thinks, getting a repair job.  The yard is full of construction equipment, and a crew seems to be just assembling. The windows are empty, gaping holes, and Dell thinks they must be putting in new.  She imagines beautiful stained glass, black-leaded, fitting snugly into those apertures.

The pretty little church, somehow, warms her heart.  She finishes the trip to Linnville with some kind of undefined hope bubbling.

********

But it is not a good day; Peter feels terrible.  He can’t eat the brownies, although he says, a little snarkily, that he is sure the visiting nurses will help him out there.  He drinks a little lemonade.  They talk about the elephant in the room.  Peter tells Dell he is deeply, intrinsically weary, and not at all afraid.  He asks her to read a poem at his memorial, and she does not even try to pretend it’s not looming.

Peter lays down but can’t settle, so she reads to him from his current book, a  Wallace Berry, and by the time she is done with a chapter, he is snoring lightly, and the nurse has arrived, eyes lighting at the tray of brownies.  Dell gathers up her purse and keys and phone, asks questions the nurse can’t really answer, and heads home.

**********

Clouds clutter the sky now–not screensaver clouds, but ominous ones, and most of the animals on the roadside have gone in to shelter.  It’s a grimmer ride; she turns on NPR and listens to war talk, talk of pain and devastation, and she forces herself not to shut the radio off.

And then she pulls into Crete, where, again, she hits the the red-light, and she is shocked.

The pristine church is gone, flattened: a pile of wooden rubble.

She makes it to the chocolate factory parking lot before she has to pull over. It is thirty minutes before she is fit, again, to drive.

**********

Peter dies that Sunday, at 9:30 in the morning, with three good friends–one of them his beloved minister–at his side. None of his family made the trip.

They lay him out at the church, and the family finally does show up; they’re staggered by the lines of people waiting to say goodbye.  Regret begins to seep through their anger and their guilt.  It is a rough and ragged viewing.

The memorial service, in that conservative small town, has very little room of any kind left, standing or otherwise. Peter is eulogized by a wide and wacky range of people, from Tabby to Sister Camille from the Catholic church to the bank president. Some homeless folks talk about his presence at the library, and a few urban friends from his younger years tell tear-stained stories.  Roy, the minister, is eloquently angry at the useless disease that stole away an essential life.  Dell reads her poem without crying.

They all file once more past the open casket.  When it is Dell’s turn, she slides the picture of Peter, grinning joyously at the little goat, into a space between his chest and his arm, pats his cold hand, and goes downstairs to help pour coffee.