Category Archives: Life

Do You Believe?

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SantaChristmas 1972. I was eleven and found myself struggling with the most important existential debate ever. Kids at school were starting to say Santa wasn’t real, but my neighbor, Alice, spouted back that she “knew there had to be a Santa because my parents could never afford all those gifts.”

I kind of agreed with that rationale; the expense of Christmas did seem beyond my parents’ means, but I still wondered. My brain was developing further and logic and reason were quickly overtaking childhood wonder. It was pretty confusing, and unlike past Christmases where I’d be on a festive high for a month, I felt agitated that entire holiday season. When Christmas Eve arrived, I was bereft. I had come to the conclusion it was true. Santa could not possibly be real.

It didn’t feel like Christmas to me that December 24th. Without Santa as part of it, my eleven-year-old self felt let down, sad. I stared at the Christmas tree lights, squinting my eyes, turning the small, white lights into unfocused stars. I clutched at a few gifts under the tree from my parents and jiggled them about but quickly put them back, uninterested. I picked at the food my mother had made: meatballs, sliced ham, fudge…but even the decorated cookies didn’t appeal to me. No one seemed to notice, though, the difference in this Christmas; the difference in me.

Well, almost no one.

As and my brother, Ray and his wife were getting ready to leave later that night – the two of them slipping on their winter coats in the tiny entryway – my brother glanced down at me and stopped, one arm in the coat sleeve, one arm out.

“Mary,” he said. “Have you ever looked out of Mom and Dad’s bedroom window on Christmas Eve?”

“No,” I scoffed, “what for?”

“Follow me,” he said as he ditched his coat on the floor and ambled down the narrow hall to their room. I followed reluctantly, shoulders down, melancholy and sad.

When I reached the bedroom door, my brother was already standing at the back window, clutching the curtain with his hand, pushing it back for a better view. He was back-lit from the bright moon and for some reason I paused there for a moment to stare at him. He looked different to me. Since getting married the previous May he seemed to have become larger. He had grown more into a man – stronger, more substantial – and looked less and less like the boy who had lived in the house with me just months before. I missed him living at home. With him gone, it was as if I were an only child.

He turned his head to me.

“Come here,” he said, pointing out the window. “Do you see that?”

I walked over and followed the direction of his finger. In the distance and the dark, I could see a small, red light.

“That’s Rudolph,” my brother whispered conspiratorially. “He looks awfully close. He’ll be bringing Santa here soon!”

I looked closely at Ray to see if he was kidding or making fun of me, but his face was serious. He even looked a bit awe-struck as he stared at the red light.

Wow, I thought. He believes and he is way older than me – an adult! It must be true, I trembled. Santa must be real.

I stared out the window a while longer with my brother as the red light twinkled in the distance. He didn’t put his arm around me or hold my hand but I could feel the closeness of him next to me. And although I couldn’t define it at the time, I could feel the warmth and love between us as we stood there that Christmas Eve.

Suddenly a thought broke the magic – Holy crap! That reindeer nose is pretty close…we better get to bed so Santa can come!

I quickly shooed my brother out the front door. I told my sisters, who were home from college, to go to bed soon, please, and I raced to my room and jumped under the covers. I drifted to sleep that Christmas Eve excited and happy. Santa was real. He would come to our house yet again.

And of course, he did.

Months later in the middle of the following summer, not really wondering about Christmas or Santa in the 80 degree heat, I thought about that red light for some reason.

My best friend, Alice, and I were lying in the long grass next to the house, gazing at the stars, trying to top each other by spotting the most unusual star animal in the sky. Right beyond the unicorn low in the sky I could make out the faint glow of a small, red light.

“Alice, what is that?” I pointed and she turned her head.

“I think that’s the water tower.”

“No, the red light,” I pointed again impatiently.

“It’s the water tower! It has a red light on the top to warn planes,” she explained.

I had turned twelve that May and suddenly had gone from a child to an adolescent. I had started to have crushes on boys. I had discovered Elton John. I had my first period. Discovering that the red light was a water tower beacon instead of Rudolph actually didn’t disappoint me. It made perfect sense.

I stared at the light, remembering my doubt the previous Christmas, remembering looking at that light in my parents’ bedroom window with my brother. I felt a swell of love for him for he gave me back Santa for one last year. I would never feel that special Christmas childhood magic again but that was ok.

I had my brother to believe in.

 

 

 

Time to Go

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clock 2The day was too warm for such sadness, and the sun was much too bright. She wasn’t sure if she was even there, in that life, during those moments – it all felt so abstract. She had heard the priest speak of her brother at the funeral and had watched as the parade of friends and colleagues shuffled to the podium and said funny and kind words. But it was so unexpected and he was so young that she really hadn’t heard much of anything since he died.

They were in a town car driving from the church, and while there were others in the car with her, she felt entirely alone, adrift in confusion and disbelief. Oh she knew they were on their way to the cemetery where, apparently, other long-gone relatives were buried near each other, family she had never even met. But she wondered how could they possibly leave her brother there among strangers… buried under the dark earth where the light would never reach him again?

Her eyes fixated on the bumper of the hearse in front of them and she stared and stared, losing awareness, trying desperately to tease out what was happening. It had to be a dream, she thought, – it had to be because that was the only way her brother could be dead at the age of 37 – in a bad dream.

Her eyes grew weary and she lifted them to the sky – maybe she’d find an answer there, she wondered, but the sky was so blue it hurt her eyes and she felt angry. It had no right to be such a beautiful day. It was still April and it shouldn’t be so warm, so sunny, so… normal.

Their mournful funeral procession moved ever so slowly through the heart of her small hometown. She clasped her hands and rubbed them together back and forth, back and forth. The car felt stuffy and overheated and for a moment she thought she might retch but, no – it was even too nice of a day for that. She hated the blue sky, the bright sun… even the comfortable seat she sat in. She hated it all.

They were coming to the turn to the main road that would take them to the cemetery. The cars in the procession slowed as they approached the stop sign, and that’s when they appeared – ten police officers dressed in full uniform lining the road around the corner. As the hearse began its turn, the officers raised their hands to the heads, saluting the fallen officer, their friend, a man who had a life and a family and a future… and then didn’t. The funeral had been private but her brother’s fellow officers had found a way to show their respect, their grief, their unity. Her heart caught in her throat at the poignancy of it all and she let out a small gasp.

It was true then; her brother was dead.

He had been shot while on duty, and while he didn’t die immediately, his head wound meant that he would never recover. After an agonizing ten hours he was finally gone. And even though she had seen it with her own eyes, she hadn’t really believed it. Not until she came upon the ten solemn police officers standing straight and true at the corner of Center and Pine, saluting the passing hearse, had the awful truth stuck.

As they pulled into the cemetery the horror and sadness hit her anew and the tears began to streak down her cheeks softly like rain. How could it be?

The mourners exited the cars, a somber and grief-stricken group of people she loved. She looked at her young niece. The full April sun touch her hair, the colors swirling in the light: a kaleidoscope of brown and gold and copper. The effect was so beautiful it was almost impossible to believe anything bad had happened to that twelve-year-old girl, but she could see the grief, the terror, the uncertainly etched on her young face and it broke her heart all over again. She walked to the girl and grabbed her hand.

The priest stood by the open grave, the coffin nearby and said more priestly words but she wasn’t listening. She was thinking of her brother and how her life would be completely different, now. It was hard to know how to go on, how to live a life without him in it.

The priest finished the final commendation and farewell and for a moment they all stood in silence, trapped in their own personal grief.

Suddenly a sound in the quiet: “Beep, beep, beep…”

Her nephew’s watch timer was chiming, set for some previously but no longer important reason.

The boy smiled a sad smile and reached to his wristwatch and turned the timer off. We all  looked at each other, then – my brother’s grief-stricken family – and suddenly we knew: the alarm was one last message from my brother:

“Time to go.”

 

 

Salty’s

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saltThere was this old bar out at the State Park near the water that came off Lake Huron. The place tried hard for the resort-bar look – it was, after all, very near one of Michigan’s Great Lakes – but no matter how many sailboat paintings and glass chimes or colored lights were hung, it really couldn’t achieve the effect. Even so the place did have its own charms. The exterior was sided with old boards from grounded ships, the wood weathered and gray. The plank floorboards inside squeaked in all the right places. The bartender was, dare I say, salty? And those glass chimes and colored lights hanging from the ceiling? Well, they were actually quite beautiful especially when the overhead fan made them sing. My 10-year-old nephew, Matt, was particularly fascinated by the colors they cast against the walls that day we walked into Salty’s Bar.

+++

Strangely enough, I had never heard of Salty’s Bar which was odd in itself because if you lived in Bay City for any length of time, you were well aware that there was a bar on nearly every corner: Smitty’s or Bud’s or, the most obvious one of all – The Corner Bar.

I had grown up in Bay City but still – I had no recollection of Salty’s. I thought it had escaped my attention simply because it was located across the bridge. You see, Bay City is bisected by the Saginaw River and, just like the proverbial train tracks, you were either from one side of the river or the other. Our side was, well – home – and the other side was known as the South End. As a child the entirety of Bay City was beyond my grasp – it seemed huge and endless – and the South End was the other side of the world to me. Returning to my home town to visit as an adult, however, rewrote my perspective; my bedroom was much smaller than I remembered, the high school was really only blocks away (no wonder my parents said I didn’t need a car!), and the South End was merely a five minute drive.

My sister, Linda and I, had returned to Bay City that weekend to visit family, and we were out and about that Saturday with our nephew, Matt. I didn’t spy Salty’s at first; I was focused on the sign that pointed to Bay City State Park.

“Is the State Park really just down that road?” I asked my sister and she nodded, yes, smiled, and took the turn.

I was surprised.

I couldn’t believe how close my childhood home had been to an actual beach/State Park. As a kid I vaguely remember my mother driving past the beach on the way to my favorite place, Funland.  With my best friend, Alice, in tow we would ride the Ferris wheel and circle in the Merry-go-round. There was a pastel-colored confectionary store (Taffy! Fudge!) and a silver diner that served the best Coney Island hot dogs around. To us, it was heaven.

Funland was always the destination when we drove to the State Park; we never visited the beach. I knew that my older siblings went to the beach often when they were young, but by the time I came around, the water was no longer clean enough for swimming. Even as teenagers my friends and I didn’t hang out there – it just seemed too far away and besides, we had a place of our own on our side of the bridge known as The Hill.

The Hill was a small mountain of grass where you could park, climb a short distance up the hill and settle in to drink. My friends and I were there many nights, especially in the spring of my senior year. We would sit under the stars and pass a bottle of Asti Spumate back and forth telling each other we’d be friends forever. That’s how everyone feels when you are but 17 years old. My memories of The Hill were all coated with dramatic melancholy and over-the-top sentimentality that I now no longer felt it deserved.

+++

When Linda pulled over at the beach I could see remnants of past campfires and empty beer bottles scattered about. It looked like teenagers from the other side of the river did use the State Park beach as their hangout, now. Linda, Matt and I stood on the dirty beach and stared at the water for a few minutes in silence. I was still surprised by how very close the beach was to my parents’ house.

When we got back into the car, Linda headed through the park and out the opposite way and that’s when we spotted Salty’s Bar.

“Matt,” Linda said as she eyed the place. “Are you hungry?”

I smirked and she smiled back at me because she knew what I would say: ‘when did the two of us ever need a reason to go to a bar?’ …but then again, we did have a ten-year-old with us. Before I could put too much thought into it, though, Matt piped up from the backseat.

“Sure!”

+++

The three of us sat in that bar for an hour or more that afternoon. It was peaceful inside and mostly empty, and the bartender brought over endless refills of Coke to Matt’s delight. Matt happily ate his French fries and Linda and I savored our cold beers near the windows in the front. There was a prettiness to the place as those sea glass chimes chirped in the breeze and the sun’s pale yellow strokes splintered through the windows.

It was, I remember well, a sweet moment in time.

“We should get going,” I said eventually and the three of us headed through the door and back home to our parents’ house. The minute we pulled in the driveway, Matt’s younger sister, Tracie, marched her eight-year-old self out of our parents’ house, arms crossed. Tracie looked at us with such indignation that Linda and I shrugged our shoulders at each other. We had no idea what could be wrong with such a sweet eight-year-old.

Just then our brother – Matt and Tracie’s father – came out of the old brick house with a grin.

“Her turn,” he said.

Off we went.

Three Blind Dates

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431173_3122783035962_823986167_nBack in my mid-30’s I went through this period that I like to refer to as, well – HELL. It was a time when all my helpful friends were trying to find the perfect man for me. As I think back now I realize that the people who set me up on these blind dates were really more acquaintances than friends. My real friends knew me well enough to have seen the disasters awaiting me with each one.

Blind date #1: The Meat- eater

One day a co-worker pulled a picture of her cousin from her wallet and told me how wonderful he was. This fabulous man owned a farm with horses, was the outdoorsy-type, and baked his own bread. It was incredible that he had not met the right woman, yet. He looked very handsome in the photo – dark, wavy hair, pretty green eyes so when she asked if I’d like to be fixed up with him, I shrugged my shoulders and told her “why not?”

He called me the next day and asked if I would meet him for dinner. I said yes. He chose one of those places with a name like Outriggers or Trendsetters out off the highway near one of the small towns past Ann Arbor. I had never been to that particular establishment but I knew its reputation: dank, hillbilly, drunk, pickup place.

Well, I thought, maybe it’s got a different vibe at dinner time.

When I arrived at Outriggers or SweetDreams or whatever the hell the place was called I saw that my Jeep was but one of only three cars in the parking lot. Apparently they didn’t do big business at dinner but at least it would be quiet, I thought, trying to stay positive. I walked from my car and pulled open the oversized, two-foot thick door to the restaurant and was immediately blinded by the heavy darkness. I had to squint my eyes for a full minute just to get my bearings. The stench of beer and sweat hung heavily in the air and I lost my appetite.

Once my eyes adjusted I spotted my date – he was at one of the three tables with customers, the only man alone. I made my way to the table but he remained seated, smiling. He pointed to the other chair.

“Take a load off,” he said.

Uh-oh.

I noticed that he wasn’t nearly as good looking as in his picture, but then I told myself not to be shallow; people are always way more attractive after you get to know and like them. But it didn’t take me long to know that wasn’t gonna happen. I didn’t like him much.

“I don’t know how you live in Ann Arbor,” he told me immediately, dissing the place that held my heart. “It’s so suffocating there. I need a place to breathe.”

And before I could answer he stood up and said he had to “take a leak.”

When he stood up from the table I noticed that he very short, probably 5 foot 2 at the max – midget territory for 5 foot 7 me, another unfortunate surprise.

I looked around at my surroundings, the dank, dark restaurant attached to the cavernous night club. The waitress made her way over to me.

“Can I get you a drink, hon?” she asked. “You look like a white zinfandel girl.”

“Oh no, please. Just water.”

She furrowed her brow at me and left, annoyed that she hadn’t been able to peg me as the drinker of shitty wine. My date had still not returned after what I deemed the appropriate amount of time for leak-taking. Was he actually ditching me, I wondered both hopeful and indignant, but alas, I soon saw him making his way back towards me, his size 4 cowboy boots kicking into step. When he returned (did he see my look of disappointment that he had come back? was that a smirk on his face because he knew he had been caught being short?), I could smell the heavy smoke on him. He had been outside smoking a cigarette for ten minutes, apparently.

The rest of that night he proceeded to chain-smoke his way through our date, leaving every eight minutes precisely, and I laughed to myself at his earlier comment about ‘needing space to breathe.’  At this rate I wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to breathe at all and I knew the chance of my seeing him at the Cancer Center, where I worked, was much greater than on a second date.

In between smoke breaks we managed to order food and when our meals arrived, he dug in heartily – as heartily as a 5 foot 2 Keebler Elf could, that is. He had ordered a steak with all the trimmings – the most expensive item on the menu for $8.95 – and by God he was going to make that steak his bitch.

I wolfed down my iceberg salad as fast as possible, still hoping for a quick exit, thinking maybe I’d get out of there in time to watch Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. But he took his time, savoring each bite of that bloody, rare steak. When he was finished, he pushed the plate away and on it sat the sad remains of his meal: the red blood pooled in the middle of the plate where the steak had been, the forlorn potato, broccoli and rice left behind, untouched.  That plate with its neglected vegetables and bloody red heart haunts me still.

When he rose for his post-raw meat cigarette break, I thanked him for dinner and hurried out, rushing to exit before he could say anything. But I needn’t worry.

His short legs couldn’t catch up with me, anyway.

Blind date #2: The Quote-Unquote Film Guy

Apparently I didn’t learn my lesson because I somehow let myself be convinced by yet another co-worker to go on a blind date. She had a friend who was into “films” and I had to admit, he sounded promising – an artsy-type guy, interested in cinematography, maybe a creative individual who could put pieces together into a form that spoke to others.

This time I met my date at one of my favorite downtown restaurants in Ann Arbor, a good start since I knew we were at least on the same page about one thing. He was gentlemanly and met me at the door and escorted me to our table – a nice, sunny one in the front window where you could watch the eclectic mix of Ann Arborites wander by. He ordered a nice bottle of Malbec and I admired the way he spoke to the waiter. I put a lot of importance on how nicely one treats service people, and he had scored a point with me there. Two if you count the restaurant and the wine.

I began to relax, certain that this date held some promise. I asked him about himself and he told me he had lived in Ann Arbor for quite a while and loved the town – another win!

“What part of town do you live in?” I asked

“I’m on West Huron, just a couple of blocks from downtown. Do you know that large Victorian with the big sunflower patch in the side yard?” he asked.

I nodded no.

“Well, that’s where I live. Me and nine others, that is. We call it Conrad’s Commune because he’s the one who founded it back in 1966.”

I smiled; surely he was kidding.

He wasn’t.

Now, I realize that some think Ann Arbor was and still is the hippie-central of Michigan but come on! This was 1989. I was pretty sure that by then communes had suffered some majorly bad press especially after it came to light that Charles Manson ran one for his pretty murderers-to-be back in the ‘60’s. I’m pretty certain that took the bloom right off from that rose.

Apparently unable to recognize my look of absolute shock (“We share everything,” he added – gross), he continued talking. He told me he loved books (oh? I perked up for a minute), and he loved reading, “especially Nietzsche, Homer and Tolstoy,” he said and I tried not to roll my eyes.

Nietzsche, Homer, Tolstoy?. ..you know – the guys that wrote the books that everyone absolutely hates in college. What a liar. NO ONE likes reading those books, not even Nietzsche, Homer or Tolstoy.

“I hate fiction,” he added and I nodded dully. Not only was he a hippie 20 years too late but he was an arrogant one at that.

Oh, and the part about him being into “films”? Turns out he was 39 years old and worked as the projectionist for a local movie theater.

“Free popcorn,” he smiled.

Blind date #3: The Hottie

Ok, while technically not a blind date since I set myself up on this one, I still went into it knowing absolutely nothing about the guy. Nothing except that he was hot.

Extremely hot.

I met The Hottie while I was trying to sublet my small apartment on the Old Westside.  He called for an appointment and when he showed up at my door, I was smitten. Yeah, he was that good looking. But I could tell that he liked me, too and we bantered and flirted back-and-forth for a while. After I signed the lease over to him, we made plans to meet the following night for a drink.

Dressed up in my finest, I met The Hottie at the Full Moon and he asked the host for a nice, quiet table in the back. It was martini night and we laughed over the ridiculous concoctions they had come up with – cucumber, anyone?  And miracle of all miracles it turns out The Hottie was more than just good- looking. He was well-read, funny, a tri-athlete and the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Bingo!

We had such a good time that I told myself I had broken my blind date curse.

As he walked me to my car I wondered if he would kiss me. With his amazing full lips he looked like he’d be an excellent kisser.

We stopped at my Jeep and he reached for one of my hands. He told me how funny I was and pretty, and so smart and my head started swimming with possibilities.

“But I have to tell you,” he continued, “you’re just too old for me.”

Say WHAT?

He said he knew when we made plans to meet for drinks that I was much older than the ‘girls’ he usually dated but he thought he’d go along, anyway. But, hell, he could see the beginnings of crow’s feet by my eyes and just knew it wouldn’t work for him.

I looked at him carefully. The man had just turned 40 a few days ago (something he had told me earlier) and his crow’s feet were more prominent than mine.

“I’m 35,” I said, baffled.

“Yes,” he answered, nodding his head as though I had a fatal disease.

He kissed me on the top of the head (like I imagined he did with his grandmother) and walked away. I stared after him in utter shock and then started to laugh.

He had no idea what he was missing.

Life at Panera

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Life at Panera

Coffee shop kindness

by Mary Rexer-Bluhm

posted 5/22/2014

I’m sitting at my usual table by the window at the Panera on Washtenaw, sipping tea and revising my manuscript. There is a homeless man in a chair in the corner, his belongings stuffed in a ratty duffle bag next to him. One of the workers approaches him, and I brace myself for an eviction.

Instead, I hear this conversation:

Worker: “Isaac? What time do you need to catch your bus?”

Isaac, mumbling: “I have to be at the church by eleven o’clock.”

Worker: “So, I’ll come and remind you at 10:30, then?”

Isaac: “Yes, thank you.”

The worker returns to the counter where the cookies and muffins are stacked under glass. To her colleague she says, “I’ll set my phone for 10:30. That way both of us can remember, OK?” and the other woman nods yes.

On another day a commotion outside the front window catches my eye. A woman is frantic, screaming for her son, clutching at her head. Customers leave their tables and coffee and run to her, asking what’s wrong. But she can’t hear them. She is in her private world of terror–a parent’s worst nightmare: someone has taken her son, she is sure. She screams his name over and over, “George! George!” A man runs down the street calling for the boy; others scramble back into Panera, wide-eyed, searching for the missing child. The woman can no longer stand, and other women, strangers, hold her up, comforting her as best they can. Suddenly one of the regulars from Panera, the one who ran down the sidewalk, comes back into view. He yells to the distraught mother, “He’s in GameStop!” She folds to her knees as her child runs to her, unsure what is wrong. When you’re five, sometimes you just want to play a video game.

On an early spring morning, Panera is mostly empty, the breakfast crowd now on their way to work. I tap on my computer at my table by the window, typing word after word

…continued below…


on paper, hoping a story will flow. Just after 9 a.m. the church ladies begin assembling, one by one, like soft lavender flowers winding their way into a bouquet. The ninety-year-old in charge commandeers three round tables and begins moving chairs together. I know better than to ask if she needs help. Soon more women arrive and drift to the tables, their canes and plastic purses slung over the back of their chairs. I assume their conversations will be of God or, perhaps, the ailments of the elderly. Instead the bits that drift to me are of Obama and Russia and the U-M basketball team. The manager comes over to their table with a tray of muffins and pastries. “We made too many,” he says, and shakes his head. Every morning that the church ladies are there, they make too many.

Days later Isaac, the homeless man, is back. He is standing in front of Panera, unsure what to do. It’s clear he doesn’t have money for a cup of coffee, and his integrity prevents him from simply walking into the place for warmth. He is not aggressive enough to beg, and I watch as he stands against the building, out of the way, eyes downcast.

Soon a man, perhaps a graduate student (judging from his neatly trimmed beard and black glasses), approaches Isaac. A conversation between them begins just three feet from me, but we are divided by a pane of glass, so I hear nothing. Isaac nods slowly, barely making eye contact, then follows the man into Panera. The man orders a bagel and coffee and softly tells Isaac to order whatever he wants. When they pick up their food, the man briefly and almost invisibly pats Isaac on the shoulder before he walks out. Isaac sits in his regular chair near the front, his ancient duffle at his feet, and begins to eat his lunch.    (end of article)

[Originally published in May, 2014.]


On May 22, 2014, Jordan wrote:

I love this. I’ve witnessed these acts of community in Ann Arbor of the years and it is one of my favorite things about living here. It’s nice to here that it even extends to someplace as ordinary as Panera.


On May 22, 2014, Celena wrote:

What a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing


On May 22, 2014, Just Me wrote:

What a wonderfully warm story. It’s words like these that give me faith in humans. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and words.

Ladies in the park…

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1795572_10203280227113893_6054806672403012823_n

I walk my black lab down to the The Ponds, our small neighborhood park on the south side of town near Morgan and York. I am hurrying on my way, intent on fitting in some exercise for my dog in the few minutes I have for lunch. Ceasar is pulling me towards his mid-day heaven, the place where he chases and jumps and catches the Frisbee with ease. He carries the doggie disk in his mouth, prancing ever faster towards his destination, never ever getting there fast enough.

As we approach the park I glance at the two elderly ladies sitting on the bench and they look up at us as we walk past, speaking quickly in Chinese, their heads tilted near each other. I hope they won’t be upset when I let Ceasar off his leash. I know it’s against the local leash law but running for the Frisbee for ten minutes at lunch is the only time Ceasar gets his exercise. And like any good, self-respecting lab, all he wants to do is play.

I walk to the edge of the grass and unhook the dog from the leash. Behind me I hear the Chinese ladies again, murmuring, louder now, from a breeze to the wind.

“Crap,” I think. “One of them is going yell at me any minute.”

Quickly I decide to get in a few good throws for the dog before the reckoning happens. I whip the Frisbee forward and Ceasar darts after it, no longer just an everyday lab but now a beacon in space, zipping at the speed of time. He is good at this – it’s his thing – and in these moments he looks so fluid and smooth, like Lake Michigan on a calm day. When Ceasar poises to jump, the humming from the women behind me pitches up an octave. And when, in midair, he finally clutches the disk between his teeth, the ladies in the park start to clap, delighted by his performance, happy for the entertainment. I turn around surprised and laugh, delighted by them. I make a mental note to myself to stop expecting the worse.

We continue in that manner for the next ten minutes, the dog running for the Frisbee, the ladies humming their anticipatory song and then the hardy clapping for a job well done whether Ceasar makes the catch or not. It is a warm and sunny day and the four of us are thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

As we start home, Ceasar panting happily, his face drawn back into a doggie-smile, I turn and wave at our two-person audience. The two ladies in the park wave back excitedly, chattering in a language I can’t understand, smiling and happy.  Before we’re out of earshot I hear one of the ladies in the park call out in broken English,

“Good dog!”