Nice Work Mr. S

pumpkinJust how tall can you be to still qualify for trick-or-treating, I wondered as I stared at myself in the full-length mirror. It wasn’t strictly an age thing, I had decided. I mean, there wasn’t some Halloween guideline that stated you could no longer trick-or-treat once you were a teenager. I knew that if you could pass for 11 or maybe even 12, you were still in the ballpark. But it was the height thing that got in the way. Once you were above five feet tall, the adults started looking at you with cynicism in their eyes.

I was lucky. At 13 I was still shy of five feet tall and appeared much younger than my years. My best friends were Paige and Kimber and they lived in the lithe and model-tall world of the blessed:  blonde and blue eyed teenagers. Next to them I was nearly invisible. But this one night – this Halloween night – that would play to my advantage. I was sure that if I dressed in the stupid princess costume I had found at Kmart, I’d be able to pull off some successful candy gathering. I know it sounds stupid for a 13-year-old to want to trick-or-treat, but it’s not like any of us would turn down a free Snickers bar.

Kimber and Paige didn’t dress up but I was resplendent in my full-fledged princess costume. Paige had even put sparkles on my face. The three of us looped around the neighborhood for a while, hunting and gathering. We saw only a few of our other friends, mostly boys from our class trying to scare the younger kids. Most every kid out that night was much younger than we and it made our chances of procuring candy much dimmer. Many of the adults pulled up short when they saw three teenagers at their door but a couple of time Kimber said, “Come on, Sis. I’ll buy you a bunch of candy for your 11th birthday,” and before we could leave the porch, the home owner would be overcome with guilt and tell Kimber and Paige how wonderful they were for giving up their night for their kid ‘sister’ and then ply us with chocolate bars and peanut butter cups. We would try not to giggle as we scooted to the next house.

Towards the end of the night we stopped at our neighbor’s house, Mr. Sossa. His porch light had been left on but there was no one home – a hand-written sign told us so.  On the white wicker chair perched on the porch was an empty basket with some ripped candy bar wrappers and a note that declared Please Take One. I laughed out loud at that. No self-respecting trick-or-treater was ever going to take just one if there wasn’t a guardian watching the candy. I would guess that the second or third kid that came upon the candy stash had swooped up the entire contents. But then it occurred to me – what if Mr. Sossa was pulling a fast one? What if he hadn’t put out any candy at all? What if he was sitting in the back of the house, avoiding the hassle and expense of Halloween and everyone who came across the empty basket thought he was some nice dude who left candy even when he wouldn’t be home?

“Nice work, Mr. S,” I whispered under my breath.

“I’m getting tired,” Paige whined. She was always the most wispy of the two blondes and I felt overly protective of her.

“I think we can head home,” I answered as I looked inside my plastic pumpkin. I was thrilled to see it was nearly full of chocolate bars and caramels, sweets that would carry me until the Christmas season when the holiday candy would, again, be free and easy.

The three of us plowed into my house and we dumped our stash together on the floor of the family room. Of course my haul was the largest but we had agreed to pool our wealth and we went about sorting through the candy and bargaining over Milk Duds and Skittles like little girls. I saw my mother beam at us from the kitchen and then a sad smile settled on her face. I think she knew before we did that this was probably our last Halloween trick-or-treating.

A Soccer Game

She twirled and twirled in the middle of the field, her pink soccer leggings pistoning in a circle like pretty flower petals in the wind.

“Kara, watch the ball,” her mother called kindly from the sidelines.

Her Rec and Ed team – the Cheetas! – was gathered at Firefox Park on the far northside of Ann Arbor for their weekly game. A group of stalwart parents lined the playing field with camping chairs and blankets. Coaches from both sides prowled up and down the sidelines, encouraging their players – the cohort of six-year-old girls who somehow made a team.

Kara thought that playing defense in soccer was pretty boring, especially since the spectacular Amber, a miniature fireball, was on her team. Amber kept the play down in the opponent’s goal area, kicking and moving like a kid twice her age. She would always be the soccerbest player on her sports teams, it was clear. And Amber had fun. But back in the doldrums of defense, Kara was bored and restless.

Off to the west she could hear an airplane sputter in the sky and she craned her neck to see. The two-seater clipped through the air leaving behind it a curly cue of a tail in smoky white. The sky was wide and open, so blue it was as though every shade of blue had combined into this one, vibrant color. It reminded Kara of her crayon box: sky blue, navy blue, teal blue…

“Kara, watch the ball,” the coach called as the girls started to run towards Kara’s end of the field. She drew her eyes to the action, sad to end her inventory of blues, disappointed she could no longer watch the path of the airplane.

Kara turned and hobbled down the field with the pack of long-haired girls, awash in yellow jerseys and those of the enemies, pink.  Pink jerseys would have been so cool, Kara thought. Pink and purple were her favorite colors, unlike that of her baby sister, Mary, who loved orange and red – such a weird choice for a four-year-old. Oh wait, Kara thought, Mary now preferred blue because that’s the color of the dress Anna wore in Frozen. Not Elsa – the character everyone loved who also wore blue; Mary loved Anna.

Mary – she was such a weirdo, Kara smirked to herself.

Feet kicked by Kara in a blur, the children following the instructions of the coach to “get the ball.”  There was an entire garden of girls in the patch by the ball, moving and swaying in unison as though a breeze was fluttering through their stems and blossoms.

Soon the action ran the other way and Kara was glad. She plopped down on the cool, green grass cross- legged and examined the intricacies of the blades of grass, the white-dotted clover, the strange weed that curved around itself. An ant crawled over a fallen leaf and she watched it make its way through the valleys and mountains of the purple maple leaf. Kara knew there was a miniature world down here, underfoot. The adults didn’t know that. They had no idea all the wonder they missed: the blues in the sky, the greens in the grass, the cool ground and the warm sun, the sound of the plane, the whoosh of the soccer ball.

Kara knew that the grownups at the soccer game were concentrating solely on this weird game where a bunch of girls kick the ball one way and a bunch of other girls kicked the ball the other way; a weird game in which you absolutely could NOT use your hands; a game where the best part of the entire thing was running through the tunnel that the parents formed with their outstretched arms overhead… and then the snacks.

‘I never want to grow up,’ Kara thought to herself. I never want to be the tunnel. I want to run through the tunnel. Always

“Kara, watch the ball,” again her mother, urging her to stand up in the field and concentrate on the game.

She waved over at the clump of adults where her mother, father and grandmother stood. They were so silly, those adults, worrying about which way you kicked a ball or whether it scooted past another girl into a net or not.

Didn’t they know that the game didn’t matter?

Kara watched the ball zip past her and smiled. She twirled around once and was off.


The Fire

photoIs it the fire? The ocean? The sky? Sarah wondered.

Which one can you stare at the longest, adrift in a world not your own, where your body doesn’t exist and thoughts of anything but the rhythm of that one thing – the fire, the ocean, the sky – are long lost? Those are the times when your brain thinks of nothing at all. Maybe you are just there, being. Maybe you feel the connection between the earth and the trees and the wind and yourself. Maybe it’s akin to true meditation. But staring at the fire or the ocean or the sky can also bring back every thought in the world, every misstep, every regret, every wince and wish and worry you’ve ever had. And then that feeling of connection really peaks – you feel the electricity, the fear, the fire of pain, the ocean of loss, the sky blue and empty.  And that’s when you are lost, no longer even curious to answer the why of where you find yourself, the why of what happened. You are just – there: a stone, a twig, a feather from a bird. Nothing living, nothing vital, no force left within – just there….the meaning of it all – of any of it – completely lost.

Sarah sat on the lawn chair drawn near the flickering flame of the small fire pit in her back yard and thought of nothing at all. She lived alone, that backyard attached to a once-charming bungalow near the outskirts of town. It needed painting – that bungalow. She had spectacularly stopped living her life a while back and all areas of such had suffered including the upkeep and maintenance of her house.

She used to love her backyard, the small deck jutting out into the wide expanse of golden green grass. In the summer her yard was always sunny and bright, overpopulated with orange poppies and yellow sunflowers, their faces open and wide to the sun. Oh, how she used to tend those flowers, cutting back the weeds, deadheading each one so that their blooms turned over and over throughout the season, the happy colors never lost during the summer. She had spent countless hours in that backyard painting the fence and planting grass seed in that stubborn corner patch that never wanted to grow. She had built the brick fire pit by herself and once had loved to sit out back with a friend, glass of white wine in hand, the chirps of the crickets and scattering of small animals the only noise in the air.

That seemed like a hundred years ago.

Now as Sarah stared at the fire in the brick pit in her backyard, she was truly alone. Next to her on the ground was the bottle of wine she had opened earlier, warm and half gone. Her pretty flowers had faded as the fall took hold and now a scattering of dead leaves covered the flower beds and golden green grass. The fire in front of her was barely keeping her warm, but she didn’t care. She felt nothing, not even awareness of how hot or cold she was.

Sarah sat on the lawn chair and fed the fire and drank the ocean of wine directly from the bottle and thought of nothing at all. A small breeze flickered through her hair and a thought passed: there would be a storm tonight, the sky would open up and wash itself down upon them. But then nothing more came to mind. That was where she lived right now, in this place of being, where she survived day-to-day with her mind shutoff to thoughts of life.

It was a miracle that her brain knew what to do… how it told her physical self to continue breathing and to sit or stand on command and yet knew to take shelter immediately after those mundane and necessary thoughts. Her brain new it was most important of all to keep safe her tender mind until it could handle even one inkling of what had happened; to even remember for one short second that he was gone, no longer in this world and no matter what she or anyone else did, that that would never change. That horrible thought is there, the knowledge, the beginning of the journey through the reality, the sadness, the depth of grief – it is all there in front of her to trundle through. For what other choice is there?

But that was not for today. Sarah sat in her lawn chair and put another log on the fire and stared at nothing at all until her wine was done and it was time for bed.

Ned ‘The Arm’ Armour

BB“You’re crazy!” Vera said as she poured the dark and bitter coffee into his mug.

“I’m just telling you what I heard,” Ned replied, glancing up at her. Vera was always full of piss and vinegar but she was also the best waitress he’d ever known. In the 30 years he’d been eating his breakfast at the Donut Hole, he’d never seen her spill even a drop of coffee.

“Well, I heard that when it rains over in Onondaga that money drops from the sky but you don’t see me racing over there on stormy days,” she retorted and arched one eyebrow at him. She moved the coffee pot around the table, filling the other cups with pure, black coffee. No decaf for this table and heaven forbid the thought of serving these men tea.

Ned puffed up his chest as the other regulars around the table looked to him. It wasn’t unusual that he found himself the center of attention. He had lived in Bakersville his entire life – the same as the other 65-year olds around the table – but unlike them, he had a made a permanent mark on the town that still counted to this day. As a sophomore in high school, Ned had brought their football team a state championship, leading the way as the star quarterback. He did the same his junior and senior years. That football field – just down the road a bit – held all of his glory moments. He was so popular back then that when he was a senior, the school administrators had designated a section in the stands to him: The Ned ‘The Arm’ Armour Bleachers. It was where his parents and sisters and girlfriend proudly sat each and every game.

In Bakersville he had never lost that status and it was made even more permanent when, after graduation, he was one of the few locals to leave for college down-state. When he returned to Bakersville four years later, he ended up teaching at that very same high school. He was promoted to principal when Art Opie retired back in 1991. At the school he had been known as Principal (The) Arm until he, himself, had retired three years ago at the age of 62.

For some reason he had never married although had been close one time way back in his thirties. But he was fine with his life-long bachelorhood. He got to do whatever he wanted.

Finally he shot back at Vera, “Brady Willright saw the monster himself!”

“Oh, peshaw,” Vera remarked and Ned frowned. She had the most annoying knack of using ancient slang phrases or words; ones you hadn’t heard in years unless you regularly watched old Rock Hudson movies.

“I think I saw it, too,” Jes Sampson piped up from the lunch bar and all the heads turned towards him. He was younger than the men at Ned’s table and was not retired which meant, according to the unspoken diner rule,  no sitting at the regulars’ table. Every morning, though, Jes made sure to secure t the stool nearest to their table.

He swiveled on his stool and faced the men.

“You’re all crazy,” Vera declared before Jes could say any more and Ned watched as she walked back to the lunch counter, her apron tightly wrapped around her middle, the bow tied directly above her rear.

Jes Sampson ignored her and continued.

“I was down at the docks off Big Bear fishing the other night. I had a real hankering for some fresh walleye. Anyhoo, I had been sitting there at the dock for, say, 15 minutes when I heard a loud splash. ‘Hooray!’ I think ‘cause I figured I just caught a good size one but when I tugged on my reel there was nothin’ there. Then I heard the splash again and I looked up and saw it!”

Jes paused for a moment either for dramatic effect or because he had forgotten his train of thought. It was a toss-up either way. Jes Sampson wasn’t the smartest tool in the Bakersville shed.

Ned cleared his throat which started Jes’s engine again.

“The thing was sitting on top of the water for a few seconds and it was big! Way bigger than any fish I seen. I think the bastard even had wings but by then it was gettin’ dark and I couldn’t see all that good. It ducked under the water and disappeared before I could get a good look at the face but it spooked me pretty bad. After that I packed up and got outta there.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment.

“I ended up having hash that night,” Jes added as though that made sense.

Ned nodded his head. He wasn’t all that happy to get the confirmation on the beast in the lake. He thought the stories were fun to talk about but hadn’t wanted it to be real, whatever it was.

The men at the table began chattering but Ned was distracted. He glanced over at the large deer head strapped to the wall behind the cash register. In the diner, the dead buck was known as Zeke and he had been hanging there as long as Ned could remember. Ned always thought that Zeke’s eyes looked so sad; it was the poor animal’s lot in life to be stuffed and displayed for eternity in a diner 200 miles north of the next biggest city. It didn’t seem fair. He thought Zeke probably had deserved better. Even now Ned could tell he had been a regal and beautiful animal, but Ned knew no one else thought of Zeke this way. They were all hunters in Bakersville; it was a way of life in the north. The opening day of deer hunting season was even declared a school holiday each year. The hardy folk of Bakersville hunted and trapped and fished and, in general, were the usual outdoorsmen and women you’d expect to inhabit the small, northern towns. But even though Ned had been born and raised in Bakersville, he had never felt as comfortable as the others with the creatures of the woods or water.

He could hear Vera’s cackling laugh back in the kitchen, hurrying up the cook so she could get the food out to her customers. How could it be that a 60-year-old, 5-foot-nothing waitress could be afraid of nothing at all, not even some Loch Ness-like monster in a lake just a mile away, he wondered? That damn woman was fearless. Once a feral fox bolted crazily into to the diner and he had seen Vera shoo it out with just a ratty broom. He had also witnessed Vera stand up to a roving motorcycle gang who had stopped into the diner one lunch and almost refused to pay. Vera had even pick chunks of glass out of Ned’s own face last summer when a local trouble-maker had thrown a rock through the diner’s front window. That day he feared that she was even going to grab the sewing kit behind the counter and stitch up his wounds on the spot but instead she had grabbed a baseball bat and ran out the diner and down the street, chasing the kid, cursing the entire way.

Of course she wouldn’t be afraid of some beast in a lake, he thought. She knew it wasn’t real and even if it was, so what? Ned was sure that the creature would be more afraid of Vera than she of it. She was a force to be reckoned with.

The good old boys had moved on in their conversation. They were making bets on the Friday night football game wondering if the quick-footed running back would make 100 yards again this week. Jes Sampson was turned back to the counter, scooping up the eggs on his plate. A section of his egg white sat quivering on the edge on the fork and after a few seconds it fell helplessly to the plate, a lone snowflake from the cloud.

And then, out of the blue: “Mister?”

Ned looked down to see a small girl with pigtails standing next to him. Was it the Jensen girl who lived down the street, he wondered? He looked around and saw her mother, Patsy Jensen paying the check and nodded to himself.

“Don’t you know there’s no such thing as monsters?” the child said. “Everyone knows that. You’re crazy!”

Ned rocked back for a moment, surprised. The little girl turned and ran back to her mother but not before waving to Vera who quickly handed her a dollar. The waitress smiled a sneaky grin and her eyes flashed at Ned before she headed back into the kitchen laughing to herself.

Damn, he thought; that woman is fearless. He wasn’t sure why it was today that he was so focused on Vera; after all she had waited on him for 25 years. Perhaps it was all the crazy talk about a ghost-monster inhabiting an inland lake in the northern woods of Michigan. Or maybe it was his surprise when, earlier, he had noticed Vera standing near Zeke the deer, staring at her order pad, aimlessly stroking the animal’s chin. Or it could be his shock at her sheer moxie at paying a child a dollar to chide him in public. Whatever it was he suddenly felt the proverbial light bulb go off above his head and he knew: it was about time he asked that annoying, salty, fearless woman out on a date.

And with that Ned rose from his chair and headed to the lunch counter, a silly grin spreading across and creasing The Arm’s face.


The Man on the Boulevard

1004737_10200953476626585_903810582_nThe old man leans against the wide oak tree for a moment, the palm-size leaves shading him from the sun. It’s barely 70 degrees but already he is overheated, sweating from his brow, the moisture dampening his tattered Chevy hat.

“Getting old is not for wussies,” he chuckles to no one although as he speaks, two nearby squirrels tilt their heads, weighing the potential danger from a man who talks to himself. At the sound of a car rounding the corner, the squirrels flee. The old man hears the beep of a horn and waves blindly towards the car. He assumes it is one of his neighbors, the people who are used to seeing him on the piece of land, but he really has no idea who it was. His eyes surely aren’t what they used to be.

He’s been tending this piece of land situated between the two lanes of the boulevard for almost 20 years…no actually, 19 years, 4 months and a day. He can pinpoint it precisely because his work had begun a month after his wife had died.

Her death hadn’t been a surprise, per se. She had fought a vicious battle with cancer for many months, young and still ripe at 55 when first diagnosed and then old and mostly spoiled when it took her at 56. He still found it hard to believe how quickly that blasted disease had taken hold of his sweet wife. It made his head spin.

In the last moments of her life, he had held her now boney hand – almost cold to the touch – and told her he loved her how much he loved her: to the depths of the ocean and back. And he did. His love for her was so great that he had a hard time even understanding it.

Through the years when he described his wife to others – generous, warm, funny, beautiful – he could never find the exact right words, the appropriate way to define the real woman who was his wife. You had to meet her, he knew. You had to be in her sphere to understand. He was still smitten with her every day they were together.

Oh, it hadn’t all been a storybook romance; real life made sure of that. There had been the usual struggles and pain and loss, but still, he knew it had been an epic love story, if for only a short while. They had discovered each other in middle-life and in doing so he had found her water to his earth, his sky to her vista.

Her death left him rudderless; the loss an abyss; the blackness constant; his soul silent. He didn’t remember the first month. He was sure many people had helped him through the days, cooking for him, reminding him to bathe and to sleep but he had no recollection of it whatsoever. One moment he was sitting on the couch staring blanking at the TV and the next instance he was in his bed, his face wet with tears, the comforter pulled tight to his chin.

This ghost of an existence continued for a while until one day he heard her voice,

“Ok, time to do something productive.”

That had always been her thing – keeping busy, being productive, using your time left here on earth wisely. His wife was a whirling dervish. She had volunteered at the local homeless shelter on the weekends, baked her famous sourdough bread for her friends and family, worked diligently at her job in the law offices downtown. Anytime she found herself depressed from the weather or the state of the world or even because she was having a bad hair day she would get herself out of the house and do something.

So when the old man who wasn’t old back then heard his beloved’s familiar voice, he slipped on his shoes and grabbed his new Chevy hat. It had been exactly 30 days since she had died. He had lost function for an entire month and knew that amount of wasted time would have driven her crazy.

He stepped out of his house and began wandering down the lane as though he had somewhere to be. The tulips were poking up from the earth and he was surprised. When he had cocooned himself in the house on the day his wife died, it had still been winter and now, somehow, in just a month’s time the world itself had changed.

He walked for a while thinking of nothing much at all. The birds were chirping and singing and he was keenly aware he had noticed them; that he seemed to be part of life, again. He crossed the street, stopping in the grassy area of the boulevard. As he waited for a car to pass his eyes fell on the clump of weeds at his feet and he bent down absently and pulled them from the earth.

A half hour later he was still at it.

A few neighbors wandered over to say hello, glad to see him out and about after the recent death of his wife. He nodded as they talked but continued his work, pulling chicory and dandelions and crabgrass abundant and throughout the grass. Tanna Riley brought over a cup of coffee and he took a break for a moment savoring the robust smell and deep, dark taste. He hadn’t tasted anything for a month and he felt the first real pangs of hunger deep within.

Finally after a few hours as the sun shifted in the sky he realized with surprise how much he had weeded; it was almost bare from his enthusiasm. Tomorrow he’d go to Lowes and buy some grass seed, he thought….and maybe one of those tall tree trimmers to cut down those dead branches in the wide oak tree.

Time to Go

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.”



The Butterfly

The Monarch butterfly circled slowly over Ava’s head, its orange and black stripes swirling crazily together as it flew. Didn’t I just read something that said the population of the Monarch was dwindling, she wondered. Had she, possibly, even seen it in the same newspaper where she had come across the birth announcement for his child?

She was sitting on the stairs of her old back porch, face to the sun, trying desperately to get warm. It seemed that for the last few months Ava had been chilled, never quite able to find the warmth of the summer. And now here it was September already and soon the temperature would change. Today, though, it was a balmy 75 and although the fall wasn’t quite ready to show itself, there were hints in the air: the cooler nights, the majestically vibrant colored leaves popping up in the trees, the sun a bit lower in the sky.

sunBut no matter. Summer or fall, Ava just couldn’t get warm. It was probably her heart, she thought. It was so cold, almost frozen. It chilled her to the very bone.

“Come on,” her best friend Jackie would say. “You have to let it go.”

Some days she would shake her head sadly at Jackie – how could she know what it was like to lose your entire future? Other times she would nod her head, yes – Yes, get over it, she would tell herself. And then once, last weekend, she had actually shouted at Jackie.

“Shut up! Shut up!” Ava wailed and ran from the room.

She knew her emotions had gotten the better of her but still, she was horrified at herself, horrified at how she had treated Jackie; Jackie, her best friend, who had been there for her during every raw moment.

As Ava sat in the fall sun she suddenly felt embarrassed that she still hadn’t called Jackie to apologize, yet. Her own reaction, her fury had taken too much out of her. Her energy tank was low. She hadn’t even had the will to do much at all since her outburst and thought it a miracle that she had actually rousted herself the last two days to go to work.

Today, though, Ava had cut out early, her head too fuzzy and her unsettled stomach bundled up upon itself. When she returned home she had headed directly outside instead of to her usual sad-place, the overstuffed chair in the corner. Maybe being outside, Ava thought, could improve her mood. Lord knows that shutting herself up in her small house for the last few months hadn’t helped at all.

Zack had left.

He hadn’t died, he hadn’t cheated. But he had become a father and it changed him more than he ever expected.

Ava and Zack had been friends in college and when they found themselves located in the same city a few years after graduation, their feelings for each other had changed. Ava finally noticed how incredibly smart Zack was, how good he was at his job as City Planner. He had lost his baby fat and had morphed into an amazing athlete. How had she missed all that in college, she wondered?

“Oh, I always wanted to be with you,” Zack told her one day when they first started dating, “but you were hung up on that loser, what was his name?”

“Carl?” she answered. He nodded yes.

Damn that Carl, Ava thought. She could have been with Zack all this time since senior year of college if Carl hadn’t put her mind and better instincts in a vice. She could have been with Zack and he would have never met Veronica and Veronica would have never discovered she was pregnant with his child two months after they broke up.

Ava shifted on the hard stair and sighed. She had been over this so many times – the unfairness of it all, the feeling of loss – and even she was getting tired of the circular thinking. Since the breakup, she hadn’t been herself over these last few months, even further back if she admitted it … really back to when Zack found out he was going to be a father. He told Ava that he didn’t love Veronica and nothing would change between them, but how could he know that? She knew Zack was a man of character and would love and be there for his child; that wasn’t the issue. It was how she could tell he was ever so slightly pulling away from her as the pregnancy progressed.

When Veronica entered her third trimester Ava could see the excitement in Zack’s eyes. She didn’t blame him, she was happy for him. But what did it mean for her?

“Selfish, selfish…” she muttered to herself, thinking back on it all.

When Veronica went into premature labor at 34 weeks, everyone held their breath. There were some scary times at first but then, miraculously, the little boy, whom they named Vince, started to thrive and the light returned to Zack’s eyes.

Ava had actually seen very little of Zack during that scary month when Vince was struggling but he came to her one day after Vince had gotten better and she knew right then that he was going to leave her.

“The thing is, I told Veronica that I’d move in with her to help take care of the baby. I want to give it a try. I love Vince so much it hurts,” he told her and what could she say?

And that was the last time she saw Zack, all the way back in June when the summer was the newest star of the four seasons. And now it was September, on the precipice of fall, an entirely different lifetime, it seemed.

Ava was tired of hurting. She was tired of wishing. It was time, she knew.

The Monarch swooped back through her vision and landed briefly in a nearby bush and she stared at the insect, the orange and black stripes still for the moment. The butterfly was beautiful; incredibly beautiful. She didn’t know how far the Monarch’s population had fallen, but she was glad they were back.

Suddenly Ava felt antsy, as though sitting there was no longer an option. She looked up to the sun again and was surprised when she felt a tinge of warmth on her face.

“Ok, then,” she said out loud to no one. “I think I’ll go for a run.”


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.



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.

My One

silver heart“Are you coming?” Lily called from the car.

Sylvie stood in the middle of the green grass of her front yard, unmoving. What was she doing? She had been settled in her life for a while, now – ten years. Her days as a college student at Colorado State were well behind her. She was finally established in her career, owned her own house, lived a life that was good.

And then he had called.

Even after all this time, she knew his voice the minute he spoke her name. And that laugh? Well, that was what she had noticed first all those years ago.


“Who is that?” Sylvie whispered to her college roommate, Amber. It was their senior year and they were at a house party on Gilmore near campus, standing outside near the old oak tree out front. The music was turned up high and blasted from the speakers propped in the open windows. Soon Sylvie knew the cops would come and tell them to take the party inside. It was nearing midnight.

She grabbed Amber’s arm to get her attention and asked again.

“That guy,” Sylvie pointed across the yard. “Who is it? The one in the Rolling Stones t-shirt?”

Amber looked to where Sylvie was pointing. There was a small gang of college boys wrapped around the plastic tub that held the keg of beer. Christ, Amber thought; it was as though they were protecting the Hope diamond, itself. The boys – surely not men yet judging by their behavior – all looked the same to her in their Colorado State sweatshirts and ratty jeans. Men were so standard, Amber thought, so simple. Why Sylvie didn’t prefer the complexities of woman she didn’t know. But to each his own.

“That’s Jack,” Amber answered. “He used to be a student here but I think he graduated last year. He’s a pretty good guy – fun. I think he played in a band or something. I kinda remember seeing him on stage at Flippers last year but I was mostly toasted and was hitting on this hot chick.”

Sylvie nodded as Amber spoke but kept her eyes on Jack. There was something about him that she couldn’t put her finger on…something familiar, but not necessarily in a ‘we’ve-met-before’ kind of way. She started to feel a sense of exhilaration building within her the longer she stared at him and then – boom – fear; paralyzing fear. She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. How is it that a complete stranger garnered such a strong reaction from her, she wondered. When she looked at him again, there it was:  an almost irresistible pull to go to him. She didn’t believe in love at first sight and yet she couldn’t look away.

The boy known as Jack laughed again, throaty and full, and Sylvie poured her beer on the ground. Amber was still talking about the hot chick she had tried to pick up but Sylvie wasn’t paying attention. She hadn’t heard a word Amber had said once she changed the subject away from Jack.

Sylvie steeled herself, took a deep breath and marched over to the keg.

“I’m empty,” she mumbled and soon one of boys turned the tap and the beer flowed into her red plastic cup. She kept her head down as it poured, almost overwhelmed with shyness, something completely foreign to her. She had always possessed an abundance of confidence and could easily talk to anyone. She spoke up in class. She was a singer and had been on stage in front of a hundred or so people, before. But now as she stood by the keg of beer, she found herself in a bubble, numb and silent. She knew the boy with the laugh was right next to her. She could feel his warmth.

It was then that she noticed he was wearing sandals. Sandals, for god-sake! It was mid-October and she was barely warm enough in her sweatshirt, and here this boy – the one she couldn’t even speak to – was wearing silly summer footwear. She started to giggle.

“What’s so funny?” Jack asked.

Sylvie snapped her head up with a smile to answer, but when she met his eyes, the bottom drained out. “Oh, no…” she thought, her heart pounding loudly, her mind whirling into a dervish.

She didn’t believe in love at first sight, no way! She didn’t believe in soulmates. It was all romanticized muck-ruck that belonged in the movies. And yet, just looking at him made her feel weightless and light, and – did she actually feel giddy? It didn’t make any sense to her and she definitely didn’t want to feel this way about another boy. Her plan was and always had been to marry her high school sweetheart, Trent. And even though they had attended different colleges, they had remained together and true through the last four years. After graduation they were to be wed back in their hometown and settle down into a house next to Trent’s parents. It was set. It had always been set.

“Hey!” Jack said again lightly. “You! Pretty girl! What’s so funny?” and then he stopped and looked closely at her. “Hey, I remember you. We had a Botany class together last year.”

No way, she thought. She would have remembered him – his blue eyes that traveled to her soul, his laugh that reached her core. But then she felt relieved. Relieved that she had met him before, even for a second, because that mean this couldn’t be love at first sight. Her rule-following, sensible self had been thrown completely off kilter imaging she could succumb to something so ridiculous as love at first sight, but now… well.. at least it wasn’t that.

But what was it? A passage from a Shakespeare play that Sylvie was made to read by her high school English teacher fluttered into her mind. She didn’t even know she had memory of it; it had meant utterly nothing to her at the time.

But there it was.

Hear my soul speak: the very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly to your service.

She looked back into Jack’s eyes and – there! He felt it too, and a kind of wonder spread across his face, beautiful like the sun.

Sylvie rushed away from the keg and the gang of boys and Jack to the backyard where it was dark and still. She sat heavily at the picnic table and burst into tears. She was so afraid. Terrified.

She heard him padding softly through the grass and soon he was next to her, sitting at the picnic table. As naturally as they had been together forever he picked up her hand and placed it to his mouth. He kissed her palm gently, his lips as soft as a ballad.

“I don’t even know your name,” Jack said. “I can’t believe it, but I don’t and yet here you are. My one.”

Sylvie shook her head, the sadness almost overwhelming.

“Sylvie. My name is Sylvie,” she said and he smiled.

“But why did I find you now?” she sobbed, surprised and also not surprised at such a question to a stranger. “It’s too late. My life is all planned.”

“Oh, Sylvie,” he whispered, holding her hand like a jewel.

Sylvie knew even within her young, inexperienced 22 year-old brain that having your life completely planned sounded ridiculous, but that’s how it was done in her family, in her home town. And she had to admit that it was what made her feel comfortable and safe. She wasn’t a risk-taker. She wasn’t fearless. But she was a great protector of her own heart. And at 22, she didn’t have the nerve or strength to change any of that now. Besides, what sounded even more ridiculous than having your life planned out before you was think you were in love with someone you had really just met.

“I don’t even know you,” Sylvie mumured.

“And I don’t even know you,” Jack answered. “But I do; we do know each other. And you know that.”

She knew she couldn’t stay any longer. She could not let herself look into his eyes again, the place where she tumbled over and over into joy, grace, lightness. She was too afraid.

Sylvie stood up to leave.

“Sylvie,” Jack said still holding her hand. “We’ll see each other again in this lifetime. I know we will. And when we do, it will be amazing. We have an an epic love story to live together.  And I promise you that you will never be afraid again.”

He gave her a crooked smile and she pulled her hand from his and rushed away; away from his words, the unknowns, and yes, the possibilities.

She hadn’t seen him since.


And now it was another mid-October and she was 32.

How he found her after ten years she didn’t know, but when her phone rang last night just before 9 and he said her name, she knew it it was him.

Oh, she had  wed her high school boyfriend after college just as she had planned but not surprisingly, just a few years into the marriage, things had crumbled. Neither she nor Trent were really full human beings then, and as they matured into the people they would become, they knew that being together for life was not in the cards. It had been devastating as all divorces are but, perhaps, not as painful as she had thought. Her ex-husband had stayed behind in their home town and Sylvie decided to take a job in San Francisco. The day her parents drove her to the airport, her mother kissed her goodbye and said, “I know your life hasn’t gone as planned but maybe that’s a good thing. We can’t know how many truly amazing things that might be out there for us, right?”

Her mother had surprised her because she assumed her parents lived a stable life with no real drama – one that had been planned and accomplished down to the letter. But her mother gave her a wink as she walked away and Sylvie smiled.

She ended up loving her new job and San Francisco, in general. She found friends and expanded her world and discovered that even though she hadn’t planned it this way, her life was enjoyable nonetheless. She had never remarried and would have told you that she hadn’t thought of Jack in years, but after hearing his voice on her phone last night, she knew she had.

He had been with her the entire time since that one night years ago.


“Sylvie,” he had said when she answered the phone that night.

It was a statement, just like that. Her name from his voice.

Her brain immediately began to flip through her life; constructing a very quick a roadblock to stop him from spinning her down an unknown path. She was to give a big presentation at work the following day – something that could result in a long-desired promotion. Dinner that night would be at Imu’s with her current boyfriend to celebrate. She was hosting a co-worker’s baby shower the following weekend; her mother expected her to visit soon. Her house needed work – it always did. There was the plumbing appointment to be made, the dry cleaning to be picked up. Her best friend would be by in the morning to take her to breakfast before her presentation. It was a life set in a motion, and a pretty good one, at that.

“Sylvie,” he said again. “I – um. I’ll be in San Francisco tomorrow morning. I have a four-hour layover before I head back to Italy.”

Italy! Had he been in Italy this whole time?

“Will you meet me?” he asked, and when she didn’t answer, he called her name. “Sylvie?”

“I’m here. I don’t know what to say, Jack. I can’t tomorrow. I have to work and I have this presentation and then in the afternoon I am leading a training session…” she began to babble, nervous, afraid.  No! she told herself. Don’t feel excited. Stop it. Now.

She found her voice.

“I don’t even know you, Jack.  And you don’t even know me.”

“Ah,” he responded, “but you know that’s not true. We’ve known each other forever.”

“I have to go,” she whispered into the phone.

“Sylvie, wait,” he said hurriedly. “I’m going to text you information about my flight and an e-ticket to Italy. Having a ticket is the only way to get into the airport to see me during the layover.”

“But you don’t need to purchase a ticket to Italy for me to get into the airport,” she said.  “You should have purchased one to LA or something cheaper.”

“Sylvie. I’m hoping to convince you to come with me during the layover,” he said. “To Italy.”

Her stomach flipped over and she almost dropped the phone.

“I can’t just pick up and leave, Jack. I have to go,” she said and quickly hung up. A few moments later her phone beeped with a text.

The ticket.


“Let’s go,” her friend Lily called to her out the window of her Durango the next morning. Sylvie had stopped in the middle of her front yard on her way to Lily’s car. The portfolio in her hand seemed bulky and heavy, weighing her right side down crookedly. The sun was low in the sky but there was a promise in the breeze. She focused her gaze on the grass and thought absently, “I need to rake up these leaves.”

After Jack’s call Sylvie had made it through the night and through her usual morning routines in a fog, willing herself each minute not to think about Jack. Just continue on. It would be too hard to change everything mid-stream; to let go of her fear of the unknown and try for – what had he called it so long ago? An epic love story. No, it would never work.

But now, moments from getting into the car to drive with her friend to breakfast, she froze. She suddenly thought of her mother, telling her that day when she first flew to San Francisco that there must be a million amazing things out there in the universe for her to try. Sylvie looked down at the cell phone she held in her hand and turned it over and over as though it held the answers to the world.

Wait, she thought. Maybe it did.

Sylvie walked towards Lily’s SUV and stopped at the driver’s side window.

“I can’t go today,” she said. “I forgot. I’m actually going to Italy.”

A Healing Place


“Hit it!” he yelled and the boat roared into action, skipping and weaving down the dark blue lake. The man struggled to pull himself upright but after a few moments, he flopped back into the water, head first. The rumble of the boat’s engine shifted down as it circled around the skier for another try.

At the next dock down, the black and brown retriever – a “dog pound special” as his owner called him – lapped at the waves set in motion by the boat. His master pointed furiously at the ball bobbing in the water a few feet out.

“Buster! Buster!” he cried. “You’re gonna lose your ball…”

It was early that morning, only 8:00 a.m. or so but warm, the temperature already inching towards 70. The sun was but two clicks up from the horizon but the lake already glimmered and reeled, the water cross-hatched with beams of light and dark. A bird darted near the dog’s ball, dive-bombing close to check for fish. Disappointed, it turned on its wing away, swirling through the early morning sky.

It was perfect, she thought, but then it always has been.

The woman was at the family cabin, the one her grandfather had built so long ago. He had chopped down each tree and then sanded and cut and hammered until the log cabin was pushed up from the earth as though it had always been part of the land. A large stone fireplace stood in the center of the place and each time the woman saw it anew, she was struck with wonder. It astounded her that her own grandfather, an assembly-line worker at the Chevy plant, had built the beautiful fireplace, stone-by-stone, with his own hands. He wasn’t a mason, he wasn’t a brick-layer, but he had figured out how to do it, anyway. Back then it seemed that everyone knew how to do most everything. There wasn’t a Home Depot you could call.

The cabin was simple, beautiful, and peaceful. It was set deep in the pine trees that scooped around Arbor Lake. Just beyond the cabin were twelve wooden steps that took you down to the weathered dock and the clear, cool water.

She had come to this cabin for 35 years, first as an infant with her mother and siblings, then through the years with one brother or the other, a sister-in-law, a niece, a new dog. Her father had died before she was born and she only knew him as a staunch man wearing a suit coat in a silver picture frame on the shelf at home. She had asked her mother about him many times over the years but since he had never been in her life, she didn’t really miss him. To her, it had always been her mother, her two brothers and her.

As an adult she continued to accompany her mother to the cabin at least twice a year. The boys had drifted off as boys do but she was still close to her mother – very close – and their relationship had deepened as they both grew older. She looked forward to traveling with her the 150 miles up the rural highway to the cabin in the woods. The two of them would spend their time outside on the dock reading Barbara Kingsolver and John Grisham. Later in the afternoon they might flit around the lake in the old wooden canoe that her mother had picked up at an estate sale. At night they would gather fallen branches and dried wood and make a fire in the pit on their small beach and stare into the flames, mesmerized.

Each year as life became more complicated as it so often does, the cabin remained a simple haven for the woman. An oasis. She began to think of it as her very own fountain of youth. Well, maybe not youth but definitely strength. It was where she came with her mother to gather and center herself after heartbreak from a broken romance, the loss of a job, the death of her beloved dog, even the suicide of her best friend.

The cabin always seemed to heal her.

She wondered if it could possibly work this time.

The woman sat on the dock alone this year, her feet draped in the water, kicking back and forth, back and forth. Across the lake a couple was pushing off from a creaky dock, settling into an old paddle boat. She could see their legs begin to pump furiously. The water cast off behind them curled into a vigorous stream.

“Slow down,” the wife laughed but the husband continued pistoning his legs in their own rhythm, focused solely on the duty at hand. Before the day was out his nose would be sunburned and his eyes sleepy but he will be glad that he accompanied his wife on the lake instead of sitting on the beach reading the latest Sports Illustrated.

The woman could feel the fresh water move over her toes, licking the soles of her feet. The sun was bright and it warmed her shoulders and slowly some part of the tension and anxiety she had felt over the past three weeks eased. She could feel herself fall into a trance-like state. Sometimes she thought she could stare at the lake for eternity, its ripples and waves breaking the still and silent glass surface. It was as though her mind no longer needed to think, to feel, to hurt. The lake did that for her.

After a while the couple in the paddle boat made their way down the lake and she could no longer hear their laughter. The power boat was silent, its frustrated skier giving up for the day. Buster-the-dog lay on the sand at the dock down one sunning himself, the wet ball at his feet. It was quiet for the moment, but soon, she knew, children would be out splashing in the water and the boats would speed by and in the midst of Arbor Lake, it would be just another day.

Life shouldered on, fairly or unfairly, she knew. The lake remained. The pine trees grew taller. The cabin sat where it had sat for the past 80 years. But her mother was gone, now, slowly fading away in her sleep three weeks ago.

“A good death,” they had called it.

The woman squeezed her eyes shut and the tears began softly drifting down her cheeks.

Her mother was dead and she didn’t know what to do. Who do you become, she wondered, when the ones who give you life are no longer alive, themselves? Are you now in charge of the world?

She looked back out onto the lake, wishing her mother was sitting next to her regaling her with some funny story from her seniors’ book club. Her mother had always made her laugh; she had always made her feel safe; she had always made her feel that all was right with the world.

The woman could feel her mother close now that she was at the cabin; the place where they had spent so much time together. But even so, the longer she sat on the dock thinking about her mother, the clearer it became that it really hadn’t been the cabin at all that had been her safe haven; it had been her mother. Of course it had.

The breeze blew through the tall pines behind her ruffling her hair and tossing it in her face. The wind caught the water and the wave ran over and out from her toes. She watched as it made its stalwart journey across the lake to the docks on the other side.

She loved the cabin in the woods, the dock by the lake, the silly canoe; probably even more so, now. It didn’t feel empty or lonely. The entire place was filled with her mother and for the first time in weeks the woman smiled.

She could hear her mother’s voice, warm, comforting, and very near.

“It’s going to be alright, honey,” she said. “You’re going to be alright.”