Monthly Archives: November 2014

Rare Beauty

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IMG_7489She stared at the plant, mesmerized. There must be 50 buds on the Christmas cactus, waiting to open. There they sit, one on each branch near another, the promise of beauty so close, within reach. Just once a year and for a very short time, her mother’s old Christmas cactus blooms into glory, all red stars bursting the spectacular. And then they’re gone; the cactus shut down and dormant for another eleven-and-half-months.

Christmas, itself, had been like that when she was a kid: magical, not replicated any other time of year. And it was condensed, too – just a week or two – so people were happy, not tired and cranky and overwhelmed by two months of Christmas songs. Now it seemed like just one of the seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Christmas.

Brigadoon! – she suddenly remembered. Yes, the name of the play was Brigadoon, the tale of a Scottish town that appears but once a century. A century!! She had watched the film version as a child and had been both fascinated and afraid… frightened by something so rare as a town that shows up every 100 years. But when she had seen it at the local playhouse years later, she hadn’t been afraid at all. She had lived some life by then and knew when you come across something so singular, so beautiful as Brigadoon or a once-a-year Christmas cactus or love – especially love – you have to grab it.

Life seems to clip along like those clydesdales on the Christmas beer commercial, she thought; ever faster, speeding by like pictures in a kaleidoscope – there’s a snapshot of your high school graduation, the dog you owned when you were five, your mother in her hospital bed. How did that all go by so fast? So very fast.

Lately she had let some things go; it was time and they were just too hard to hold onto. Others – her connection to your best friend, her commitment to play her guitar every week – she held onto tightly because she knew she was still living a life, even if she was older, even if she may never see her mother again or that first true love.

And she knew there was remarkable newness to her old life – babies in the family, scrubby trees that you get to watch grow to sturdy oaks, puppies that lick your face raw – and that her own life was unique and rare and fragile. If she was lucky enough to be around again next Christmas, she knew without a doubt that the cactus would open again – right on time – in a burst of glory and promise, reminding her that everything old can be new again, too. Even love.

Sammy and Alex

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cowboySammy and Alex were nine years old the summer they discovered Sammy’s father had killed a man.

It was early June and the spring’s delicate blooms were beginning to lose their battle with the heat. Soon the heartier lilies and black-eyed susans would take over, basking in the warm, summer sun, brightening the foot paths and flower boxes. School was finished for the year and kids ran laughing through the neighborhood, high on their freedom, excited for summer.

Sammy and Alex’s neighborhood was still pretty rural back then. Most of the homes sat on large cut-outs of property, some with yards big enough that you could actually play a baseball game in the back, if you could corral enough players, that is. These lots weren’t ‘lawns,’ per se, but rather large plots of dirt in which a combination of wild flowers, crabgrass and weeds grew. One family down the road even had an old gray chicken shack huddling in their back yard. If you were unlucky enough to live next door to them, you were doomed to hear their rooster crow its morning wake-up call every single sunrise.

In the neighborhood, the cars were old and the road remained unpaved; it was just a narrow, gravel path, really. The aged trees were thick and tall and there was an army of lovely willows scattered about. Many of the willows grew near the road and their branches hung low over the ditches that ran up and down it. Sammy loved the willow trees – he felt like Tarzan as he swung on their branches – but he hated those ditches.

The ditch in front of his house was shallow, mucky and green. Baby frogs and crawfish skittered and crawled in the channel’s stagnant water, jumping away whenever a shadow passed. In just a few weeks, though, that would all change. The small town had finally dug up enough money to upgrade the sewer system and bury the ditches once and for all. When Sammy heard this bit of news, he almost jumped for joy; he knew his days of accidently slipping into that disgusting water were numbered. You see, it was that summer when Alex decided the two boys would try to jump the ditch every day. Alex was the one who made it across unscathed – every time. Sammy, in his worn tennis shoes and a full two inches shorter than Alex, made it most of the time but when he miscalculated and landed – splat – in that awful water, he was horrified. The muck that clung to his backside was smelly and thick and it made Sammy gag. He could hear Alex cackling each time he had to run back to his house to clean off. That laughter followed him all the way into the bathroom until the whoosh of the shower’s water finally drowned it out.

The day the haulers from the city arrived with truckloads of sewer pipes intent on burying those despicable ditches, Sammy was happy, indeed. He and Alex watched as the workmen laid the huge, concrete tubes on the grass down the entire street, nose to rear. The digging and installing would come next but for a few weeks those pipes lay there, running down the edge of the road like a giant, immovable snake. Sammy heard his Pop complain one day that all the grass underneath them would die but Sammy thought that was a funny thing to say. Their lawn was full of weeds and crabgrass and if those pipes found any actual grass to kill, it would be a miracle.

After the men in the haulers unloaded the sewer pipes and left the neighborhood, Sammy and Alex ran out to explore. For once Sammy was glad to be smaller than Alex. He could almost stand up inside the giant concrete tubes while Alex had to crouch way down. The two boys crawled in the pipes, winding through three or four of them. When they’d come upon two that weren’t placed exactly nose to rear, they’d pop up between then giggling, hoping to scare the bejesus out of the other kids in the neighborhood.

Almost better than scooting inside of the pipes was playing on top of them; running and jumping from one to the next, rolling down the sides into the tall, green grass. It was as though a giant toy truck had delivered a load of oversized Legos for their own, personal fun.

And then one morning a few weeks after first dropping off the pipes, the workmen returned. They were to begin digging that day, intent on laying the sewer system underground and completing the job by week’s end.

“Dammit,” Alex said and Sammy looked around quickly. He wasn’t allowed to swear and was worried that someone would overhear. Alex just sneered. Sammy knew that Alex could get away with almost anything. His Dad wasn’t around much and his Mom was a meek woman who, according to Alex’s older brother, ‘liked to drink.’ She didn’t seem to be able to handle Alex and his three siblings very well and they ran wild through the house and the neighborhood, his family’s bad reputation growing as each brother got older.

Even so, Sammy sometimes wished he was part of Alex’s family. It seemed so free and easy at his house. Alex could do anything. He never had a bedtime. He didn’t have to take his shoes off at the front door. He could eat potato chips and peanuts for dinner. But then Sammy would pull his chair up to his own dinner table and begin eating his Ma’s buttermilk fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, and he knew that nothing was better for dinner than that, not even potato chips and peanuts. And he would feel bad for Alex for a while without fully understanding why.

It was a cloudy day when the workmen came back to finish the job. Sammy and Alex sat in the tall grass to watch them unload their diggers and shovels. It wasn’t every day that they could witness a real-live construction project from their own front yard. It was almost like a TV show!

Sammy sat crossed legged observing, concentrating and watching every move the men made. Alex leaned back on his elbows, a stalk of grass with a flared tip dangling from the corner of his mouth.

“This sucks,” Alex said and Sammy looked around again. He didn’t know if ‘sucks’ was a swear word or not but he figured it probably was.

“Yeah,” Sammy replied when he was sure no adults were around.

It was sad to think that their concrete playground would soon be buried but then Sammy remembered it meant no more brackish ditches to fall into and he smiled to himself, careful not to let Alex see. Before much digging could happen that day, however, the full summer sky opened up with a clap and rain began to barrel down in sheets. Sammy could hear the downpour thump against the workers’ trucks and he thought, surely, rain that hard would have to leave dents. The boys ran to Sammy’s front porch and watched as the workmen broke for cover in their vehicles.

“Ha!” Alex cackled. “Even God doesn’t want the pipes buried.”

Sammy looked at Alex curiously. Even though Alex’s Dad wasn’t around much and his Mom was ‘a drunk’ (again, according to Sammy’s older brother), Alex seemed to really believe in God. Sammy knew that Alex and his brothers attended church most every Sunday and he didn’t understand it. If his Ma and Pop didn’t force him, he would never go to church and voluntarily sit through the ancient priest’s boring sermon. Alex’s belief in God was something Sammy would ponder much more as an adult – he thought it was probably one of the reasons Alex was able to cope with so much as a kid – but now at the age of nine, he just thought Alex was crazy.

When the storm didn’t abate after an hour, the trucks pulled away, the men fidgety and unwilling to sit in their cabs any longer. The boys let out shouts of “Hurray!” as the men left, happy for the reprieve, or in Sammy’s case, at least happy they could run through the pipes one last time. Soon, though, the dreariness of the day began to dampen their chipper moods. It was too rainy to play or explore or find adventures outside but still they lingered on Sammy’s front porch in a kind of limbo. When you’re nine years old and it’s summertime, being stuck in the house is the absolute worst kind of day.

Finally, though, bored and itching to find something to do, they headed inside. The boys usually hung out at Sammy’s house even though Alex lived right next door. There was always something good to eat at Sammy’s and his Ma was home most of the time. Sammy’s Ma corralled the boys as they entered.

“Honey, you boys go over to Alex’s for a while. I’m heading out to visit Cousin Maxine,” she said as she picked up her car keys.

Sammy looked at his Ma to make sure she meant it and she added a curt nod. He knew that she didn’t especially like him hanging out at Alex’s house but also knew that Alex’s Mom or one of his older brothers were usually home, and if there ever was a true emergency, they could handle calling 911.

The boys ran through the rain and the wet grass to Alex’s house, shaking off like dogs as they closed the back door. The house was quiet and dark.

“Mom?” Alex called out. “Mom?”

Alex walked from room to room searching for his Mom and his brothers. When he came up empty he turned to Sammy with a wide grin.

“Hey, my Mom’s not here, either!!” Sammy frowned.

“We should run back over to my house to catch my Ma,” he said.

“Come on!” Alex countered. “We have the house all to ourselves here!”

But Sammy insisted and Alex, who almost always got his way relented, mostly because he was hungry and hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday’s lunch of cold tomato soup. They ran back through the tall grass and rain to Sammy’s house, slipping and sliding on the wet floor as they stuttered inside. They could tell right away that Sammy’s Ma was already gone. He looked at Alex nervously.

“Now what?” Sammy asked.

Alex smiled. He had that glint in his eyes that Sammy knew meant trouble. Over the years Sammy would see this look many, many more times but even so, he would follow Alex on whatever misadventure he had conjured up that day. It wasn’t until teenage Alex started to really mess up and get into breaking-the-law-kind-of-trouble that Sammy’s Ma put an end to them hanging out together.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Alex cried. “We can take care of ourselves until your Ma comes back. Come on! Let’s explore!”

Sammy cringed but, as always, followed behind Alex.

Alex had always been fascinated with Sammy’s old farm house; there seemed to be small nooks and crannies everywhere. Sammy’s bedroom even had this funny crawl space which they sometimes made into an indoor cave. Alex’s house was more modern with nothing of great interest save the empty concrete basement where the boys used to ride their tricycles years ago.

The two boys headed down the long hall of the white house, Alex barging ahead greedily while Sammy lagged behind, hoping something else would distract Alex from snooping. When they reached the door to the master bedroom, Alex stopped suddenly and Sammy crashed right into him.

“Hey!” Sammy said rubbing his nose.

“Your Pop is at work, right?” Alex asked, suddenly timid at the thought of Sammy’s Pop. For some reason Alex had always been afraid of Sammy’s Pop, perhaps because he was actually around unlike his own Dad.

“Yeah,” Sammy responded scrunching his nose up and down. “He’s at work.”

Alex turned the knob and stepped through the threshold. True to form the master bedroom was spotless. The family’s prize quilt lay flat on the bed, army-straight. On the dresser were a series of small perfume bottles, lined up like soldiers. Next to them were a tortoise-shell hairbrush and a small jewelry box closed tight.

A second knotty-pine dresser was pushed against the wall and matching nightstands sat on either side of the bed. Sammy had seen all of this before, of course, but hadn’t truly been in his parents’ bedroom often – his Pop discouraged it.

The boys rummaged around for a while, searching under the bed and opening the dresser drawers until Alex pulled out one of Mrs. Lang’s white bras and waved it around.

“Quit it!” Sammy yelled.

Alex smirked but put the garment back and closed the drawer. He moved over to closet.

“What do we have here?” Alex asked and swung open the door.

The closet was bigger than you might expect for such a small room and it was packed with clothes. There were shoe boxes stacked on the top shelf and a large metal case sat next to them. Sammy had seen his mother with this case before and he knew it held their important documents: marriage certificate, birth certificates, taxes, receipts; boring adult stuff.

“We should get out of here. I don’t know when my Ma will be home,” Sammy whined as he backed out of the closet.

But Alex didn’t hear him. He was buried between Mrs. Lang’s oversized dresses and Mr. Lang’s dark work uniforms, leaning further in.

“Wow!” Alex exclaimed. “Sammy, come in here.”

“What?” Sammy answered nervously.

“There’s a hidden passageway at the back of the closet. It’s kind of small but I’m going to scoot through and see what’s on the other side.”

And before Sammy could utter one objection, Alex’s legs were gone.

“Alex?” Sammy whispered.

He wasn’t sure why he had whispered other than he was worried that perhaps Alex had disappeared forever. Just the other day Sammy was reading his Outer Space comic book and Captain Adams had vanished into a worm hole, gone.

Alex’s head popped back through the clothes and Sammy staggered back in surprise.

“You gotta see this,” Alex said and disappeared into the jungle of parental clothes.

Sammy hesitated but curiosity got the better of him and he followed Alex through the clothes and then through the small opening at the back of his parents’ closet. Alex was standing up on the other side and when Sammy got to his feet he could tell they were in another closet, but instead of clothes this one held banker boxes full of files. Alex slowly turned the knob and cracked open the door.

“Wow!” he said. Sometimes that’s the only word a nine-year-old boy needs. “What is this?” he asked Sammy who was peering over his shoulder.

“Oh, shit!” Sammy said and both boys dissolved in laughter for a moment, the curse so unexpected from Sammy’s mouth.

“It’s my Pop’s den,” Sammy answered when he regained his composure. “We’re not allowed in here. He says it’s his private space. He locks it whether he’s in there or not.”

“Jackpot!” Alex exclaimed and began to move into the room.

Just then they heard the den’s door begin to rattle and the boys dodged back into the closet, head first. Alex quietly closed the closet door behind him.

“I thought your Dad was at work!” he hissed.

“He was!” Sammy whined.

Sammy felt sick with worry. He knew he’d be in trouble for a number of reasons – being home alone even though it wasn’t his fault; exploring his parents’ bedroom and going through their drawers; and worse of all, discovering the secret hatch to the even more secret den.

“Shhhh….” Alex said. “I hear voices.”

It was true. Sammy could clearly hear his Pop enter the den followed by another man with a voice that was deep and gravely and sounded vaguely familiar. He wanted to hightail it out of there but was afraid they would make too much noise. The two boys remained in the closet, unmoving, breathing shallowly.

“Goddammit Frank,” the unknown man said.

“Hold on,” Sammy’s Pop answered and he could hear him close the den’s door and turn the lock.

“I thought no one was home,” the man said irritably.

“No one is home,” Sammy’s Pop answered, “but better safe than sorry.”

The men moved around the room and it sounded as though one of them settled into a chair. The other one was pacing, agitated.

“Calm down,” they heard Sammy’s Pop say.

“Calm down?? What the hell, Frank?? I asked you to scare the shit out of that asshole, not kill him!!”

Sammy’s jaw dropped and Alex turned to him wide-eyed and pale. It was the one and only time in his life that Sammy saw Alex look less than cocky and confident and that scared him even more.

“It’s not going to cost you more,” Sammy’s father said, “so don’t worry.”

“You think I’m worried about that??” the man answered incredulously and the sound of his pacing increased.

“I don’t know what you’re worried about, Tom,” Sammy’s Pop answered. “I’m the one who killed the guy.”

Sammy’s Pop laughed then and Sammy’s knees buckled. He would have fallen but Alex grabbed his elbow at the last second. Alex pointed to the hatch and mouthed, “We have to get out of here.”

The boys slowly and quietly backed out of the den’s closet through the hidden hatch and into the bedroom closet. They inched out of the closet – praying that a squeak would not escape the hinges of the door– and crept out of the room. Soon they were speed-walking down the hall, through the kitchen and out the back door of Sammy’s house. They had forgotten all about the rain and the ditches and the giant tubes down the road. Instead, as by mutual yet unspoken agreement, they ran directly to the crooked old shed in Sammy’s backyard and threw themselves inside.

++++

They were drenched and out of breath and Sammy thought he was going to throw up.

“Man, oh man, oh man,” Alex kept repeating. He was excited and agitated but he didn’t look afraid. Sammy was afraid. His whole world had titled on its axis and was slipping off into space, never to be found again.

“Your Pop killed a guy!” Alex stage-whispered.

“Shut up!” Sammy said.

The shed was small and hot. The lawn mower sat to the side, silenced for now but it looked menacing to Sammy, ready to eat anything in its way. Along the walls Sammy’s father had fashioned boards with hooks for his tools, and the shears and clippers and ax threatened to fall from the prongs and cut them to pieces.

Sammy’s head was spinning. What had his Pop said? ‘I’m the one who killed him.’ He shuddered. How could his Pop be a murderer? Was this the same man who came home from work each night whistling and calling out, ‘What’s for dinner?’ Was this the same man that showed Sammy how to throw a baseball, who mowed the lawn every Saturday afternoon, who brought his Ma daisies every so often? It didn’t compute.

Sammy looked over at Alex who was waiting for him to say something.

“Holy crap,” Sammy sputtered.

“I know!” Alex said. “And I thought my family was messed up.”

The boys were silent for a while, mulling over the turn of events on their rainy summer day.

“We should figure out how it happened!” Alex, again.

“Are you crazy?” Sammy asked.

“No, really! It’s like a murder mystery and we could be the detectives and gather clues. We should go back into the closet right now and try to hear what they’re saying!”

Sammy shook his head crazily back and forth.

“No way! If my Pop catches us, he’ll kill us!”

The boys looked at each for a moment at Sammy’s turn of phrase and burst into laughter. It was gallows humor but it felt good. The tension eased a bit after that.

“You know, it’s kinda cool,” Alex said. “Your Pop’s a badass.”

“Yeah,” Sammy agreed because he wanted to be cool like Alex. “We should head over to your house, now. My Ma will be back soon and she’ll go to your house looking for me.”

The rain had stopped by then and the sun was peeking out from behind some clouds, struggling to establish its dominance. Humidity hung heavily in the air. The roar of the sewer trucks rumbled in the distant on their way back to the neighborhood, but neither Sammy nor Alex cared any longer. There were more important things at hand.

++++

“Sammy,” he heard his mother call later that day, “come on home, now. Dinner.”

Sammy and Alex had spent most of the afternoon inside at Alex’s house, huddled together in his room. Even though the rain clouds had completely dissipated and the sun was bright, there were things to do.

A pad of paper sat on the floor in front of the boys with notes in Alex’s scraggily hand writing. They were trying to come up with all the reasons Sammy’s Pop would kill a man: revenge, maybe for running him off the road (Pop’s car did have a crunched-in back bumper); stealing money from Pop (it never seemed like Sammy’s family had any money); killing Pop’s own Pop (although Sammy had been told his grandfather died of a heart attack, but now who knows?). When they remembered that the reason Sammy’s Pop had killed a man was because Tom Grundy had asked him too, they changed tactics. Sammy ripped off a new sheet of paper and Alex began scribbling down the names of potential victims. This was substantially harder as they didn’t know many adults but they noted a few: Pop’s boss at work, Aunt Maxine’s husband, Cousin Manny.

Across the street they could hear the trucks start to power up, the jaws of the diggers grinding into the earth. After a while when they couldn’t think of any additional victims, the two boys wandered back outside to watch the workmen absently, their minds still clouded by the discovery of murder most foul.

Soon Sammy heard his Ma call him for dinner. He felt his heart pound and his stomach roll at the thought of facing his Pop.

Sammy trudged back towards his house, his head down. In the warm yellow kitchen Sammy pulled out his chair and sat down heavily. There was meatloaf and baked potatoes and canned green beans on the table. His Ma had made a salad with fruit cocktail and cool whip and for a moment he felt happy.

“What’s new with Maxine?” Sammy’s Pop asked his Ma between bites.

“Oh, you know Maxine,” she answered. “She’s such a gossip. She said there’s a rumor going around that John Jackson is missing.”

“You don’t say,” his Pop replied.

Sammy stopped mid-swallow. Who was John Jackson and why was he missing? Could he have been murdered? Could John Jackson be the victim his Pop and the other man had been talking about? Suddenly the meatloaf felt very dry in his throat and Sammy started to cough.

“Drink some milk,” his Pop said and then turned back to his Ma. “I think that John Jackson may have messed with the wrong fella. You know how hot-headed he was.”

Was? Sammy thought and his stomach flipped and dropped. The table was silent for a moment, the three of them contemplating just hot-headed John Jackson was, and Sammy wondering if his Pop did something about it.

“Sammy,” his father said and Sammy almost fell out of his chair. “What did you do today?”

“Nothing!” he responded much too quickly.

“Whoa, son. Quiet down. I was just asking how you spent your day now that you’re outta school.”

Sammy stared at his father. Did his Pop know that he’d been in the empty house with Alex? Did he know that they’d found the hidden passageway? Could his Pop see the guilt written all over his face?

“I was at Alex’s all day,” Sammy responded then stuffed a forkful of potatoes in his mouth, the lie and the potatoes catching in his throat. Just then the cuckoo clock in the living room chimed on the hour and Sammy swallowed his potatoes in a rush, which started him coughing again.

“Honey, are you getting sick?” his Ma asked, worry etched on her brow.

Sammy shook his head but then immediately regretted it. If he had said he was sick, he could have been excused from the table. He could have rushed to his room and been far away from his Pop, from the confusion of the day.

“I had an interesting day at the office,” his Pop offered.

“Oh?” his Ma.

“I had a meeting with Tom Grundy. You remember him?”

“Sure,” she answered.

“He was here last summer for the Fourth of July barbeque, right? Didn’t Tom work with that missing man – John Jackson?”

“Yes, he did,” Sammy’s Pop answered grimly. “They didn’t get along too well. Tom always said John Jackson was an asshole.”

“Frank!” his mother said and pointed to Sammy.

“Sorry. A-hole.”

But Sammy wasn’t shocked by the curse nor did he snicker when he heard it spew from his Pop’s mouth. He was thinking about Tom Grundy who he now remembered, too. At the barbeque last summer Tom Grundy had asked Sammy if he played baseball and who his favorite player was. He remembered that deep, bass voice of Tom Grundy’s, almost like a foghorn in the night. Tom Grundy was the voice he had heard in the den with his father that day; the same Tom Grundy that worked with the missing man, John Jackson who, apparently, he didn’t like.

“Anyway,” his Pop continued. “Tom had asked me to complete a project for him recently and he was surprised how thoroughly it had been done. At first he wasn’t happy that I had gone beyond what he asked but then I convinced him it was best my way.”

“Wonderful,” Sammy’s Ma said. “I’m sure your way was the right way.”

“No it wasn’t!” Sammy shrieked and both his parents swiveled their heads his way in shock.

“I mean,” Sammy continued, “why didn’t you just do what he asked in the first place?”

“Sammy?” his mother asked, cocking her head to the side.

“What’s the matter, son? Don’t you think your old man can make better decisions than Tom Grundy?” his Pop asked.

Sammy stared at his Pop, the man he loved most in the whole world; the man with the kind eyes and half-grin. No, he thought. It couldn’t be true. His Pop just could NOT have killed a man. He was too good, too normal. But his Pop had admitted that he met with Tom Grundy today, and it sounded like their project had been to make sure that John Jackson disappeared for good.

“May I be excused?” Sammy asked. “I guess I don’t feel so good after all.”

“Of course,” his Ma said. “Go lay down and I’ll check on you later.”

Sammy bolted from the table and raced to his bedroom shutting the door behind him. He crossed to the open window and peered out hoping Alex was outside or looking out his own bedroom window towards him.

“Alex?” he whispered hoping against hope. “Alex?”

But there was no answer. He was on his own.

++++

It was his Pop who checked on him later that night.

“How ya feeling, son?” he asked.

Sammy had been dozing on his bed and was surprised to find that it was completely dark even though this early in the summer the sun didn’t set until almost ten. He must have been lying on his bed, still in his shorts and t-shirt, for more than three hours. He felt sloggy and off.

“Ok,” Sammy finally answered his tongue thick from sleep.

Sammy’s Pop sat down on the edge of his bed and looked towards the window that faced Alex’s house.

“You know, sometimes your old man has to do things he doesn’t like. Being a grownup is hard.”

He glanced back at Sammy and Sammy nodded; he didn’t know what else to do.

His Pop’s eyes moved again to the window. The moonlight was very bright and it reflected in patches off his Pop’s face like the moon, shadows of both light and dark. The baseball wallpaper his Ma had plastered on his walls looked sinister in the murkiness. The cartoon bats resembled weapons, ready to kill a man with one fell swoop. Sammy closed his eyes tight and wished the day had never happened.

His Pop continued.

“Sometimes I have to do what I think is right for the family. I’m responsible for taking care of you and your Ma and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But once in a while I may have to do things that are hard and not very enjoyable. Today was one of those days.”

Sammy nodded again and prayed to himself, ‘Please don’t tell me you killed a man. Please don’t tell me!’

“You’re a good kid, Sammy. Your Ma and I have tried to raise you right and instill in you a sense of right and wrong, to respect others, and to never lie. My job as your Pop is to make sure you learn those lessons. Do you understand that?”

“I guess,” Sammy mumbled.

“Good because today when Tom Grundy came over, I asked him to help me teach you a lesson about privacy.”

Sammy looked up, confused.

“Son, I didn’t kill a man,” his Pop said. “I knew you and Alex were in the closet listening. You were spying on me and I needed to let you know that you should never invade someone’s privacy like that. It isn’t right. When I figured out you were in the den, I knew I had to teach you a lesson about snooping so Tom and I made up a story about a murder.”

“But what about that missing man – John Jackson?” Sammy asked, unsure.

“Now, don’t be mad at your Ma. She didn’t want to go along with it but I asked her say a few made-up things at dinner about this John Jackson character. He isn’t even a real person. I gave you a chance first, though,” he continued. “I asked you what you were doing and where you were today and you said you were at Alex’s the whole day, which wasn’t true. I’m sorry to trick you this way, son, but sometimes I worry that Alex is a bad influence on you. Now tell the truth, Sammy. Would you have gone into our bedroom and through the closet to the den if Alex hadn’t suggested it?”

Sammy quickly shook his head no.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so. Now I feel sorry for Alex. His Ma’s pretty unhappy and his Pop doesn’t seem to be home much so he’s got it rough. And in some ways I think Alex is good for you. You need to take some risks in life. You need to not be afraid of everything. And I think Alex helps you in that way. But today you two boys crossed the line and then you lied about it.”

Sammy looked at his Pop and the darkness of the day fell away. The baseball bats on the wallpaper were just tools of a game. His Pop was just his Pop, the same man he always knew, the one with the half-grin.

“I’m sorry,” Sammy said.

His Pop looked at him tenderly and ruffled his hair and Sammy jumped into his arms. Even if he was almost ten years old, sometimes he still needed a quick hug from his Pop, especially when he had just righted the world on its axis again.

“Wait ‘til I tell Alex,” Sammy said and his Pop smiled.

Hungry

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orangesJordan peeled the orange slowly, savoring its fresh, citrusy smell. She was in the stacks of the library, her books and papers spread over the desk like peanut butter on toast. She had made sure to arrive at the graduate library early enough to secure one of the small study rooms lined up in a row on the third floor. There were only eight of the pantry-size rooms so she was lucky to find one empty, even this early. The quiet within one was complete and Jordan’s mind automatically shifted into scholar mode whenever she sat at the desk. She usually stayed for hours, churning through the work. But for some reason, today was different.

Jordan had set her alarm for 7:00 a.m. and had trudged the mile from her rental through the campus and past the dorms and the fraternities that morning. It was Sunday and all around was quiet and still. She could smell the bread and bagels baking at the Donut Hole, the only hub of real activity so early on a weekend. Most undergrads were sleeping off their night of partying or just sleeping in, period. The others Jordan saw walking on campus that morning were likely graduate students like her, and their party days and undergrad classes were years ago. It was serious business – getting a PhD. The competition was high and the courses tough and the idea of college as fun was all over. Graduate school was a job; a brutal, exhausting, do-or-die job.

She walked up the steps of library and waved at an acquaintance from her gross anatomy lab but didn’t stop to chat. She had much to do to be ready for the exam the next day. Still, once Jordan unloaded her bag and sat down at the desk in the small study rom, she couldn’t focus. After 15 minutes of shuffling and moving her books and notes and pens around, she began to peel the orange, its heady smell enveloping her completely.

And then she thought of him.

Jordan had met Charlie before but years ago and nothing special had clicked between them. Perhaps she had been in a relationship at the time, or he had been hanging with the guys. This time, however, as she and Meg walked down the cool sand towards the bonfire last night, she spotted him immediately. He was at a nearby table whipping together what turned out be an amazing crab dish. She watched him slice and fry and throw spices and vegetables and things she didn’t recognize into a big black pot. His hands moved so quickly; it was like a musician coaxing the sweetest song he could from an instrument. After just a few moments, Jordan was completely enthralled and continued to watch Charlie as he finished up the prep of the food and then placed the pot on the grate over the fire. He finished it off with a spritz of orange.

Jordan shouldn’t have even gone to the beach last night, but Meg had insisted, telling her that her head would explode if she studied anymore. Besides, Meg said, Jordan was getting too skinny and there would be a guy who was in culinary school at the bonfire who was cooking for the gang. Normally she could brush Meg off like a crumb on her lapel but her defenses were down and before she knew it she’d said yes.

It was late September and while the sun was out over the water, the breeze was chilly that night. Jordan had brought a bulky sweater but soon her shoes and sweater were tossed to the side and she was diving in the sand for the volleyball and drinking ginger beer on the sidelines. She had forgotten how good it felt to relax, to laugh, to be among friends. Her life over the last year had been all about school but now, in the midst of beach and the smell of good food, she realized how starved she had been for life.

Charlie was playing on her side during the volleyball game and she swore she could feel his warmth next to her. But that was silly, wasn’t it? Still, she felt his nearness and he smelled delicious, like the spices he cooked with. Was it bay leaves? Rosemary? Corriander?

Later sitting next to him on one of the three picnic tables the gang had pushed together, she felt happy and light. She was noshing on the crab and saffron rice and jambalaya Charlie had whipped up and thought she had never tasted anything so wonderful. The flavors were both subtle and dramatic; specific tastes were highlighted at first and then others came to the forefront as you chewed and swallowed the food. It was orgasmic.

Jordan laughed and drank and ate way too much at the bonfire. She hadn’t felt that full in a year; not since she and Meg had celebrated the end of their first year classes and threw together a Mexican feast to die for.

Jordan shook her head slightly, trying to release herself from the memory of last night. She plopped a slice of orange in her mouth and bit down releasing the sweet juice. It was time to think about anatomy, she knew, and Jordan opened her notebook and stared at her notes for a few minutes watching the words move around the page like a blender combining separate ingredients into a meaningful something. She knew it was kind of hopeless, though – she was still so full of him, of his food, of his magic – but her mind told her to keep studying. There’s no way she could blow off an entire Sunday just to see him again; to head to the concert downtown where he’d be; to relish in the street food of Octoberfest… brats, pretzels, beer. To relish in him. Her stomach growled and her chest tightened as she thought of him.

Jordan chewed on another slice of orange. There was a light knock on the door and it startled her. Her head was swimming and for a fleeting moment she thought with certainty that Charlie was at the door. But of course that would be crazy. She only told him she was studying today, not studying at the grad library on floor three behind the stacks in the small, private cubes.

She opened the door to the study room. A campus policeman stood on the other side, glaring down at her.

“There’s no eating in the library,” he said.

“Oh,” she said, embarrassed, “sorry.” Jordan pushed the orange into her bag.

“You have to leave, now” the cop told her.

“What?” she asked incredulously. “I didn’t steal a book or anything if that’s what you think.”

“No, that’s not it. Listen, we don’t really care about eating in the library but when we get a complaint, we have to reinforce it. And an orange? Really?” he raised his eyebrows at me. “An orange is probably the worst thing to eat in a library. The fragrance is everywhere. One of the students complained saying it was too distracting.”

Of course, Jordan thought. The smell was distracting, it was vibrant and fresh and so very, very appealing. And suddenly she found herself famished, again. She packed up her belongings and walked with the campus cop to the door and out of the library and headed directly to the concert downtown and Charlie.